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Hello, everyone, and welcome to the new! I’ve been working on my Reel to Reel movie studies for about a year and a half now, and I decided it was time for the project to have its own home on the web.

If you’re new here, allow me to explain. Reel to Reel is an ongoing movie project. I love movies, friends, and I love stories in general, and over the years I’ve become deeply interested in the themes and tropes that make up all stories. All storytellers, I believe, draw from a common well, a sort of universal pool of ideas, fears, hopes and desires that come together to create fiction. Each storyteller has his own personal pool of course, made from his own experiences, culture, and dreams, but ultimately, everyone who wants to tell a story is influenced by those stories he or she has been exposed to in the past, whether they intend it or not.

With each Reel to Reel movie study, I create a course of films that fit into a specific genre or theme, then one at a time I watch them and write my thoughts on them here for you. It’s not exactly a review, although I do tell you what I like and don’t like about each film. More than that, though, I look at where the ideas in the story came from — recurring threads that different filmmakers pick up on and twist in their own ways, recurring character types, morality plays, and other things that we’ve all seen a thousand times when watching movies… there’s nothing here you haven’t noticed yourself. I’m just trying to put it all into words and maybe think a little bit about where it all comes from and why. After each study is complete, I take some time to do some rewriting, polishing, and expansion (by adding a few more movies), finally releasing the entire study as an eBook.

As of this writing, on Christmas Day 2012, I’ve finished three studies and released the first as a book, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen (a study of horror movies). I’m planning to import all of the previous articles from my personal blog at and re-present them right here, so keep your eye on the category list and tag cloud to see what’s currently available. Then, in 2013, I’ll release the eBook of Reel to Reel 2: Lunatics and Laughter (a study of horror/comedy films) and Reel to Reel 3: The Christmas Special, and I’ll start to work on Reel to Reel 4, the theme of which I have not yet chosen. Keep in mind though, friends, that I’ve got a full-time job and other obligations as well, so I’m not promising any specific schedule at this point.

What I do promise is to not let this page go dead in-between movie studies. Even when I’m not immersed in a theme, I watch a lot of movies. So check here periodically for other pieces — reviews and other geek punditry about new movies, old movies, upcoming movies or movie news that I feel like sharing thoughts about.

Thanks for reading, friends… and welcome aboard.


The Christmas Special Day 24: Shrek the Halls (2007)

shrek-the-hallsDirector: Gary Trousdale

Writers: Gary Trousdale, Sean Bishop, Theresa Cullen, Bill Riling

Cast: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Cody Cameron, Susan Fitzer, Christopher Knights,  Gary Trousdale, Conrad Vernon, Aron Warner, Marissa Jaret Winokur

Plot: With only 159 days left until Christmas, Donkey (Eddie Murphy) begins pestering his friend Shrek (Mike Myers) to begin the preparations. Over the next few months, Donkey gets more and more insistent and Shrek more and more resistant, until it’s finally December 23 and he realizes for the first time his wife, Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), and their triplets are looking forward to their first Christmas as a family. Not wanting to let her down, Shrek sets out for town to figure out how to “make a Christmas.” He winds up with a copy of a self-help book, Christmas For Village Idiots, that promises to help him one step at a time make the holiday Fiona deserves.

The next day, Christmas Eve, Fiona wakes up to find Shrek decorating their house for Christmas. Although she’s happily surprised, Donkey shows up to drop off a Christmas card and criticizes the decorating job. Fiona and the babies pitch in, and by dark Shrek is ready to sit down and tell his kids the Christmas story, but he’s interrupted when Donkey bursts in along with all of their friends. Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) entertains the kids while the others race around putting up more and more decorations, ruin supper and – in the case of the Gingerbread Man (Conrad Vernon) – make a pass at the angel-shaped Christmas Cookies. Although Shrek tries to hide from the chaos, Fiona lures him back, but things just get worse. He tries to get himself back into the spirit by telling his kids his Christmas story, but Donkey again steals the spotlight with an insane poem about a Christmas parade. Puss in Boots gets into the act with his tale of “Santa Claws,” and the Gingerbread Man jumps in with a story that’s really more appropriate for Halloween. A fight ensues and Shrek, while trying to hide his book, accidentally starts a chaotic chain reaction that ruins the party and sets both himself and the Christmas tree on fire. Boiling with rage, he throws Donkey and the rest out of his house. Fiona is upset that he threw out their friends, and sets out to find them while Shrek complains about how they ruined “his” Christmas. He catches up to them and tries a halfhearted apology, finally admitting that ogres don’t celebrate Christmas, and he has no idea what he’s doing. Everyone apologizes to each other and the odd little family returns to Shrek’s home to settle in for the night. Before lights out, Shrek tries once more to tell his Christmas story: a tale of a Santa Claus making his visit to an ogre home. As he finishes, they hear laughter in the air and rush outside to see Santa Claus flying across the moon.

Thoughts: My thoughts about Dreamworks Pictures Shrek franchise are fairly simple: I thought the first one was entertaining. As for the rest, my grandma always said if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. But even the worst franchise can sometimes turn out a charming Christmas story, so when Shrek the Halls made its network TV debut, I gave it a chance, and I rather liked it.

In truth, it suffers from many of the problems that plague Dreamworks Animation in general – too many topical jokes and current songs that hurt the special’s ability to become a real timeless classic. There’s a reason Rankin and Bass didn’t throw the Beatles into their specials… well, they also probably couldn’t afford them, but you see my point. In truth, this and oversaturation is one of the reasons Dreamworks will never quite reach the heights of a Pixar or Disney Animation Studio – they’re so focused on making a franchise that’s current and modern and now that the next generation of children will find themselves tuning out to the constant reminders of the world their parents grew up in. To put it another way, my two-year-old niece loves every Toy Story movie (and, in fact, everything Pixar has produced). I find it really hard to believe that she’ll latch on to Shrek or Kung-Fu Panda in the same way, even once she gets a little older and enters into the sphere of the intended demographic. They also rush out sequels, cranking out cookie-cutter cartoons that rarely, if ever, match the original, rather than allowing the story to dictate the future of the characters. Finally, there’s an emphasis on gross-out humor (such as the Gingerbread Man throwing up a chocolate kiss and the Donkey eating it) that shuts out older viewers… something else Pixar doesn’t feel the need to succumb to.

But don’t get the impression that I didn’t like this cartoon – I did. The animation itself is top-notch, and a lot of the characters and design are very imaginative… the giant Waffle Santa Claus, for instance. Puss in Boots is a great character, especially if you’re a cat owner and recognize how easily he slips from the persona of the suave Latin lover into a typical feline, which leaves him embarrassed.

Like any good Christmas special, the true test comes in when the hero learns his lesson at the end. Shrek has an interesting character arc here – he goes from being a complete Scrooge to suddenly wanting desperately to create a good Christmas for his family. From there he bumbles, he misunderstands the meaning of Christmas, he learns it, and then gets it all right. This time around, rather than giving a religious message or a message about the virtue in giving and sacrifice (all of which are well and good, by the way), the message is one of family. You may fight and struggle and drive each other crazy, but there’s a reason you stick around people besides blood. It’s a nice message about love and the truth about what a real family is, and it’s one even the children will no doubt be able to grasp.

Throughout most of the 90s and early 2000s, there was a dearth of new televised Christmas specials, which is why this particular Reel to Reel project has been so heavily weighted with films from the 60s through the 80s. (In a way, it’s the exact opposite of the problem I had with Lunatics and Laughter.) But in recent years, Dreamworks and Disney both have stepped up and started to change that. Have a wonderful Christmas Eve, my friends, and come back tomorrow for the finale of The Christmas Special with my favorite TV Christmas Special to premiere since I was a child.

The Christmas Special: An Introduction

Once again, my friends, the Christmas season is underway, and that means it’s time to immerse ourselves in the sort of cheerful yuletide content that we all love. There are Christmas books, Christmas movies, Christmas music, Christmas food (oh… oh dear Heaven the Christmas food…) but there’s one entertainment medium that, as far as I’m concerned, Christmas dominates like no other.

The television Christmas special.

Let’s think about it here. Think for a moment about what a TV special is – a short film made for the small screen. It’s not long enough to block out the two hours for a legitimate TV movie. It’s not necessarily part of a regular TV series, although it may be a spin-off, reunion show, or a backdoor pilot for one. Sometimes the characters are familiar, sometimes they’re one-off visitors, sometimes they’re telling a timeless story and sometimes they’re giving us something new.

And I don’t know about you guys, but the vast majority of the great television specials that linger in my mind are Christmas specials

Oh sure, there are a few Halloween greats, the odd Thanksgiving or Valentine’s Day yarn, but let’s be honest here. During those golden days when the word “SPECIAL” would spin out at us from our TV screens to announce the next thirty to sixty minutes of CBS would not be our regular programming, we were hoping to see Rudolph, or Frosty, or Charlie Brown putting up his sad little Christmas tree.

So this year, I’m giving my month of December to a discussion of 25 of the most memorable Christmas specials, at least as far as I’m concerned. Interestingly, this project has proven to have the opposite problem of this Halloween’s comedy/horror project, in which I simply couldn’t find very many old movies to discuss. This time around, the closer we get to the present day, the harder it is to find a truly great special. I managed to scrape up a few, but we’re still going to spend most of the month without getting past the 80s. I also tried to restrict myself to just one special per franchise, although there are countless Muppet, Sesame Street and Peanuts films I could have gone with. And I also refused to go with any of the endless reiterations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, not because I don’t like them, but because there are so damn many of them I rather think it would be fun to do a Reel to Reel project someday looking exclusively at those films.

So come back tomorrow and we’re going to begin, appropriately enough, with the first great special from the good people at Rankin/Bass productions. We’re traveling back to 1964 to spend some time with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Lunatics and Laughter: An Introduction

The time is almost here, friends. Like I did last year, I’ve assembled a slate of movies, I’ve begun watching them, and I’ve been composing my thoughts about significant films in a single field. But where last year I looked at pure horror films, this year I’m spending the rest of the month with horror’s goofy cousin, the horror/comedy.

I’ve loved the horror/comedy far longer than I loved straight horror movies. While I was a bit too nervous, as a child, to dig into the really dark stuff, I was eager to see the adventures of the Ghostbusters, the Teen Wolf movies, or virtually any movie or cartoon show that utilized any variation of the Universal Monsters. By my formative years in the 1980s, the more classic icons of horror had already lost much of their bite (excuse the pun) and had become icons of a “safe” scare. Dracula, the Wolfman, the Frankenstein monster were all creatures that children new instinctively were supposed to be scary, but instead of being actually frightened, we flocked to them as fun creatures. Whether Dracula was chasing Abbott and Costello or the Wolfman was being chased by Scooby Doo, part of us secretly was rooting for these beasts that gave chills to our parents and grandparents.

As I posited in the introduction to the first Reel to Reel project (then under its original title, Story Structure), I think most human fear is connected to the unknown or the unfamiliar. When movie audiences first saw the Universal monsters, back in those formative days of cinema, they were something brand-new, unearthly, and frightening. But after 80 years of people wearing masks sculpted like Boris Karloff, there’s no longer anything unfamiliar about the classic monsters. The horror icons of the 80s have begun to suffer from a similar problem — who’s left in western civilization that doesn’t recognize Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees? Familiarity has cost these creatures their ability to make us fear them.

When this happens, there are basically two approaches you can take. You can try to strip that familiarity away and make them fresh again (done mostly successfully by Rob Zombie in his Halloween remake, far less so in its sequel), which is brilliant if it works well. The other approach is to embrace that familiarity and turn the monster into a jester. This is surprisingly easy to do – both horror and comedy are predicated on a buildup and release of tension. The biggest change is that the storytellers must now release that tension with a punchline rather than a slashed throat.

So from now until Halloween, we’re going to take a look at one movie a day (hopefully, assuming nothing happens that makes me fall behind) that uses these classic elements of the scary movie and, instead, makes us laugh. Come back tomorrow for Day One of Reel to Reel: Lunatics and Laughter, in which we meet up with one of the greatest American icons of comedy, Bob Hope, as he deals with the darkness in the 1940 classic The Ghost Breakers.

And don’t forget, Reel to Reel: Mutants, Monsters and Madmen is now available as an eBook! You can pick it up for just $2.99! (for your Kindle or Kindle app) (for every other eBook reader)

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen: the eBook now available!

Reel to Reel - Monsters NO BLEEDLast year, you guys may remember that I spent the entire month of October watching and talking about assorted scary movies, chronologically tracing the evolution of horror films from the 1920s up until the present day. I really enjoyed that little project and I think a lot of you did too. And now, as Halloween approaches again, I’m ready to launch the next stage of that project, my new eBook Reel to Reel: Mutants, Monsters and Madmen.

This eBook collects the 35 essays I wrote last year, plus five brand-new ones written just for this collection. Over the course of this book, I look at how the things that scare us have grown and evolved over the last century, dishing on some of the greatest, most influential and most memorable scary movies ever made. This eBook, available now for a mere $2.99, is hopefully going to be the first in a series, in which I’ll tackle different cinematic topics the same way.

If you read the essays last year, check this one out and enjoy the new ones. If you haven’t read any of them, dive in now for the first time. And tell all of your horror movie-loving friends about it as well! After all, the reason I decided to write this book in the first place is because I wanted to read a book like this one, but I just couldn’t find one. The market is out there, friends. Help us find each other.

(And lest I forget, thanks to Heather Petit Keller for the cover design!)

You can get the book now in the following online stores: (for your Kindle or Kindle app) (for every other eBook reader)

And in case you’re wondering, the movies covered in this book include:

*The Golem (1920)
*Nosferatu (1922)
*The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
*Dracula (1931)
*Frankenstein (1931)
*The Mummy (1932)
*Freaks (1932)
*Cat People (1942)
*The Fly (1958)
*Peeping Tom (1960)
*Psycho (1960)
*Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Terror (1962-New in this edition!)
*Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
*The Haunting (1963)
*The Birds (1963-New in this edition!)
*Wait Until Dark (1967)
*Night of the Living Dead (1968)
*Last House on the Left (1972)
*The Exorcist (1973)
*The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
*Jaws (1975)
*Carrie (1976)
*Suspiria (1977)
*Halloween (1978)
*Alien (1979)
*The Shining (1980)
*Friday the 13th (1980)
*The Evil Dead (1981)
*Poltergeist (1982)
*The Thing (1982)
*A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
*Return of the Living Dead (1985)
*Hellraiser (1987-New to this edition!)
*Child’s Play (1988-New to this edition!)
*Misery (1990)
*Scream (1996)
*Ringu (1998)
*The Blair Witch Project (1999)
*Saw (2004)
*The Cabin in the Woods (2012-New to this edition!)