Sunday, April 28, 2013

Keep Firing Until You Hit Something -- Anything! :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Robert Culp and Walter Hill's Hickey & Boggs (1972).

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“Nobody came.”
“Nobody cares.”
“It’s still not about anything.”
“Yeah, I know, you told me.”
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Paid $500 to resolve a seemingly simple missing persons case, two been there, done that, and screw the lousy t-shirt detectives sober up long enough to get to work on the mean and dirty streets of Los Angeles to try and flush her out. But when every lead turns up a dead body instead of a clue to the missing woman's whereabouts, our detectives quickly unravel -- and become some unwilling ingredients of -- a conspiracy involving her, their client, and about 400,000 missing dollars from a mob-backed bank robbery in Pittsburgh five years prior that left several guards and all the robbers dead, save one, and his girlfriend, who disappeared with the money -- until now... 

Born in Long Beach, California, soon to be a legendary producer (the Alien franchise), director (Hard Times, 48hrs.) and screenwriter (The Drowning Pool, The Warriors), Walter Hill tried his luck at being a cartoonist, a journalist, a roughneck, and a construction worker before breaking into the industry as an assistant director on a couple of Steve McQueen thrillers, The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt. Wanting to move up the chain of command and into the director's chair, Hill was told the easiest way to accomplish this was to write and direct his own material. And being a huge fan of manly men doing manly things, Hill, a self-proclaimed western and film noir nut, coaxed the script for Hickey & Boggs out of his typewriter; a lament for the dying breed of private detective it features that, honestly, deconstructs -- no, demolishes these hard-boiled archetypes, laying it out bare and naked and ugly without the usual romanticizing and macho-posturing: 

A former cop, Hickey (Cosby) is trying and failing to reconcile with his estranged wife and daughter. Boggs is a fractured but functional alcoholic, who is currently stalking his ex-wife through the seedy joints she strips at. These men are schlubs; damaged and beaten down and barely functional, doing just enough to barely scrape by. This isn't about right and wrong or seeing justice served. This is about getting the phone bill paid with enough left over for an occasional blowjob.(Paving the way, I think, for Elliot Gould's Philip Marlowe in Altman's The Long Goodbye, Jack Nicholson's Gittes in Chinatown, and James Garner's Jim Rockford for the small screen.) Cosby and Culp are great, and have great chemistry together. I think Culp is one of the most under-appreciated actors to come out of the 1960's, and the range Cosby shows here makes one wish he had tried more dramatic roles. (Or stuck with the likes of Mother, Jugs and Speed instead of Leonard Part 6.) And, holy crap, what a supporting cast, with Robert Mandan and Michael Moriarty as the mobsters, and Jack Colvin, Vincent Gardenia and James Woods as the cops who constantly bust their balls. Another character in this fantastic neo-noir we cannot discount is the city of Los Angeles itself. And even though the smog occluded sunshine evaporates the usual shadows and nullifies the neon rain, everything is still just as dingy, dirty and bent when you get right down to it. 

Now, the mystery Hill plugs these guys into in this setting has the layered conspiracy of a bourbon-addled Raymond Chandler whodunit, the brutality and maledicted criminal malfeasance of Jim Thompson, and the violent buffoonery and comical snark of Donald Westlake as our protagonists become pawns in a deadly game of chess between "the bitch" who is trying to launder the hot money and the mob who wants it back no matter how many people wind up in the morgue. And to make things even more complicated, as the bodies pile up around them, the cops are ready to punch their ticket, too, by removing them from the board altogether by pulling their licenses. 

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"I very purposely -- more and more so every time I do a script -- give characters no back story. The way you find out about these characters is by watching what they do, the way they react to stress, the way they react to situations and confrontations. In that way, character is revealed through drama rather than being explained through dialogue." 
-- Walter Hill xxxx
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Also serving as the film's director, Robert Culp showed the same sensibilities. And together with noted cinematographer Bill Butler (-- who would go on to shoot JAWS for Spielberg next), let the camera's eye linger, each frame a story unto itself, really, if a person wanted to take the time and freeze frame their way through the whole picture, to tell the audience all they needed to know about the players involved:

Boggs' silent encounter with a prostitute and the montage of hotdogs, mustard, and a phone book is nothing short of brilliant. Silent, or ambient noises only, with minimal dialogue. Amazing. And, yes, there are many scenes in this film that seem to linger too long but wind up being terribly important later on. The best example of this is a scene where the most brain-damaged thug takes great pleasure in dismembering and fondling a child's doll. This may seem morbidly comical when encountered, or even stupid, but later, when these same thugs send a message to our detectives, who catch Hickey's wife (Cash) in the wrong place at the wrong time, all we see is a bloodied pair of fettered legs and that's all we need to know the who and the how, which, I think, does more damage to the viewer via our own imagination than watching the act itself. And this punch to the kidneys is intensified by a follow up scene where Hickey is shredded by his mother-in-law (a brief cameo by Isabel Sanford) in the presence of his daughter that is just devastating.

This very same deliberate and nuanced visual approach to character definition is also used narratively by Culp as we watch Hickey and Boggs unravel this conspiracy. We're never really told anything -- I don't think Mary Jane (Moreno) has any lines of dialogue, at all, as she sets all of this into motion; but if you pay attention the puzzle pieces are easy enough to keep track of and start falling into place. But each step forward winds up finding our heroes taking two steps back, as Mary Jane always seems to stay several moves ahead of them, especially when the bullets start flying.

One of Culp's first breaks as an actor was playing a Texas Ranger in the TV series, Trackdown, where he first met Steve McQueen when the show spun off the series, Wanted: Dead or Alive. And it was for the small screen where Culp first moved behind the camera, writing and directing episodes of The Rifleman and The Westerner for another friend, Sam Peckinpah. A trained firearms expert, it was Culp who showed the likes of McQueen and Chuck Connors on how to properly handle their firearms. (And I believe it was through these mutual revolving circles of friends that he met up with Hill for this feature.) And one of things I absolutely love about Hickey & Boggs is the potshots it takes at the .44 Magnum, so recently celebrated as Dirty Harry's weapon of choice for urban renewal, de-myth-ifying the gun as being too cumbersome and a total a pain and the ass to fire and reload, let alone toting the damned thing around. Both our protagonists are armed with one, and neither can hit anything with them. Another hard-boiled dick illusion shattered, am I right?  

And as Hickey & Boggs progresses, not only does the shit hit the fan, but the resultant splatter is then doused in kerosene and set on fire. Nice. Soon stripped of everything but each other, our battered and bruised heroes rally just long enough to take that long walk off a short pier for the bloody denouement. 

Even though it seems to finally be getting its much deserved due these days, audiences weren't ready for Hickey & Boggs back in 1972. Too cynical, too bleak, too downbeat, too depraved, I'm not really sure if pre-Watergate audiences weren't necessarily not ready for it or just didn't get what they were expecting, especially those coming for an I Spy reunion only to watch their heroes fail so spectacularly on almost every front (-- even the final shootout turns on a lucky shot.) It died at the box-office and critics pasted both Culp and Hill, calling the film a confusing mess of contradictions. How a film that unfolds this slowly and deliberately can be called confusing is a puzzlement. Perhaps it was too slow people couldn't see the forest for the trees? That's me shrugging right now...

Culp would never direct again, which is too bad, because he really had something special going on here; a style I would love to have seen nurtured through several more films. Hill recovered almost immediately, penning the screenplay for The Getaway the very same year, which eventually paved the way for his directorial debut with Hard Times two years later. And even though he basically used the same deliberate approach, audiences and critics ate it all up, triggering a decade run of success for Hill where everything he touched seemed to turn into box-office gold. So maybe audience just weren't ready for Hickey & Boggs after all back then. Now? You have no excuse at all for not seeing it and I encourage all of you to watch it as soon as possible. 

Okay, folks, this post is just part of a trio of reviews put together by a motley triumvirate of Blogs, originating over at Checkpoint: Telstar, focusing on the film career of Walter Hill. 

Micro-Brewed Reviews: Hickey & Boggs 

Please check 'em out, won't you? Thank you. 

Hickey & Boggs (1972) Film Guarantors :: United Artists / P: Fouad Said / AP: Joel Reisner / D: Robert Culp / W: Walter Hill / C: Bill Butler / E: David Berlatsky / M: Ted Ashford / S: Bill Cosby, Robert Culp, Carmencristina Moreno, Louis Moreno, Rosalind Cash, Robert Mandan, Michael Moriarty, Jack Colvin, Vincent Gardenia, James Woods

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Sights and Sounds :: April Ghouls Monster Rama :: Day 2 :: Welcome to the Drive-In! Slashers on the Left, Zombies to the Right!

Everyone, meet the gang. The gang, meet everyone.

As we geared up, Sean introduced us to two new victims to our collective head of knuckle -- make that three new victims, Dave, Hilary, and an adorable three-legged pup named Bandit, who were truly hardcore by camping out at the Riverside itself for the two day festival. (Don't know about the rest of you, but April has been blatantly frigid in my neck of the woods and the hills of western Pennsylvania proved no different.) And after a few logistical snags were cleared up (Tim, did you ever find that missing chair?), we broke bread ... well, cookies and cake, hit the snack bar and the Creepy Classics booth, where I picked up the William Castle box set dirt cheap, and then eventually migrated back to our area and settled in for the national anthem (-- which I did not accidentally belch out the opening chorus for this year. Win!) And as the sun went down, and the stars fought against an overcast sky, showtime finally descended up on us...

Before June of 1980, summer camps probably brought to mind some fun in the sun, perhaps an inconvenient tumble in a patch of poison oak, or maybe stealing your first kiss behind the canteen before gathering and singing songs around the campfire. But after June 1980, thanks to the efforts of producer / director Sean S. Cunningham, a rousing chorus of "Kum-Bah-Yah" rapidly degenerated into a brutally quick rendition of "Kum-Bah-Yaaaaarrrrgghhhh!" when a lethally sharp gardening implement was shoved into your spleen, leaving you to gargle on your own juices for that last refrain.

Combining some old fashioned hucksterism, a little Agatha Christie, and a big old twitching dose of Mario Bava's Nerve of Death, people tend to forget that Friday the 13th was, at its heart, a genuine murder mystery. Sure, the mystery of who is knocking off the counselors at Camp Crystal Lake takes a back seat to the grisly nature of the murders themselves but we don't know who the killer is until the very end -- and aside from a brief, but very effective cameo, Jason Vorhees doesn't even appear in it. 

Cunningham also landed grue-F/X guru Tom Savini and it was his skills and kills that gave the film its legs and truly launched the franchise. Yeah, Paramount picked the film up after losing out on the rights on another slasher, Prom Night, and has always been embarrassed by this monster it created -- but that didn't stop them from rushing out four sequels in as many years after the initial release to cash in as the franchise quickly went off the rails and got really, really stoopid, really, really quick -- and this is coming from an unabashed fan. 

Tim puts on a production of Agatha Christie's 10 Little Kittens.

Okay, so, the campground bloodbath of Friday the 13th was based on the New Jersey urban legend of Cropsy, who, as the tale goes, was a camp handyman who fell victim to a disfiguring prank involving an open flame and some kerosene (-- what could possibly go wrong, there, am I right?), who then spent the rest of his life haunting and hunting campers for a little payback. And while Cunningham's film is only tangently related, the Weinstein brothers' The Burning is the full Cropsy Monte plus the added bonus of seeing Jason Alexander and Fisher Stevens' bare asses. 

The bloody and naked-boob'd rock on which Miramax was built, The Burning was an early slasher cash-in that benefits from the rules of such things not being set in bedrock just yet, meaning the victims actually react both proactively and like their heads are still attached once it's been established a mad-killer is running amok -- but only after a tragic encounter with an abandoned canoe. 

Again, Savini provided the grue, which helps overcompensate for the worst final girl in Stalk-n-Slash history -- some weasly little schmuck of pervert, who shows all the earmarks of being a serial sexual predator in waiting, groomed, perhaps, to take the killer's place in the sequel. Nice. Fortunately, then, even though The Burning was good enough to warrant a sequel, we never got one. And if nothing else, the film provided a running gag about the fate of those missing canoes for the rest of the rest of the Monster Rama. 

Speaking of the Monster Rama, one of the greatest things about this venue is how during the intervals between films, the audience is treated to a ton of genre-specific trailers on top of the vintage snack bar adverts.

On Friday, sticking with the slasher theme, we got the trailers for Friday the 13th parts I through VI, Happy Birthday to Me, The Prowler, Silent Scream, My Bloody Valentine, New Year's Evil and many others before switching gears from relentless killing machines to relentless killing AND eating machines... 

Back in 1968 Image Ten Productions, a motley band of weekend filmmakers, cobbled together the no-budget classic of all time -- not to mention one of the greatest horror films ever made, that came to be known as Night of the Living Dead. Soon after, however, the company splintered apart but an amicable agreement was reached on the copyright to their seminal film: director George Romero was allowed to the use the word “Dead” in future films, while scriptwriter John Russo laid claim to the phrase “Living Dead.” And while Romero would go on to write and direct the classic sequel Dawn of the Dead, followed by the not quite as classic, Day of the Dead, around the same time, Russo had hammered out a sequel of his own, titled Return of the Living Dead. But the financing to actually film it always eluded him and, eventually, Russo gave up and sold his share of the copyright, which changed hands several times before falling into scriptwriter Dan O’Bannon’s lap. 

And knowing full well he couldn’t compete with Romero’s films, O’Bannon -- best known for scripting Alien, junked Russo’s script; a direct sequel that seemed content to just rehash its source material; and so Return of the Living Dead went through a massive overhaul and became one of the most hysterical black comedies that still managed to give you the heebie-jeebies as the zombie chants of "Brains" filthfully and furiously entered the pop-culture lexicon. That, and one of the greatest Oh, shit endings to ever end and ending. 


A killer soundtrack, gruesomely outstanding F/X, and Linnea Quigley's magnificent breasts have long been trumpeted (and freeze-framed) as this film's main attractions but I think the majority of the credit for the film's shelf-life belongs to a set of other boobs played by Clu Gulager, James Karen and Don Calfa. 

Return of the Living Dead came out the same year as George Romero's Day of the Dead, our last feature of the evening, and, speaking frankly, the former has aged much better than the latter. Now, coming into this Dusk til Dawn rampage of a movie-thon, we all knew full well that the weather would probably be far less than ideal. The forecast for the evening called for lows in the 30s with a slight chance of rain and or sleet. Luckily, nothing ever fell from the sky but the temperature actually bottomed out at 24 degrees by the time the third feature ended and another round of adverts went up.

Now, I know it's a drive-in, meaning your seat is in your car but our group tends to treat these Super Ramas and Monster Ramas as a tailgate party, meaning lawn chairs and blankets and movies in whatever elements we're dealt. And, being prepared, I had brought several layers of clothing, jackets, hats, gloves and blankets, which I had been adding, layer by layer, with the conclusion of each film (-- and who knew those foil-wrapped cheeseburgers from the snack bar would make such great hand-warmers). But now I was out of stuff to add and, having foolhardily ignored several overtures of hopping in the car to warm up for a bit, watched as frost formed on my friend's shoes as the cold really started to sink in on this damp and dreary (weather-wise) night. 

Thus and so, with the clock tolling almost 3am, most of our group decided to forgo the last film, call it a night, and head back to the Roadhouse to warm up. Myself, I was torn. After all, I had driven 1100 miles for this thing and didn't really feel right leaving it undone. After packing up and jumping in the car, I talked Mike into at least sticking it out through the trailers, which was soooo worth it. (Dead and Buried and The Grim Reaper. Hell yeah!) And then, we stuck through the fantastic opening, pre-credit sequence for Day of the Dead that, alas, the rest of the film just can't sustain. Anyways, here's the trailer:

Video courtesy of Coldheart9009.

And here's a really good review by fellow attendee Scott Ashlin, whose opinion of the film I echo and endorse, making the decision to abandon it for the warming confines of the motel a helluva lot easier than it probably should have been. Yeah, after sitting in the cold for that long, the car's heater was a welcome respite but was already making me really sleepy. And so, we left Dr. Logan, Captain Rhodes, Bub and the rest to fend for themselves and trundled up to the motel, where, once inside, my bladder finally defrosted and I realized I hadn't gone to the toitee all night. The resultant flight to the bathroom I'll leave to your imagination. 

But, before I say goodnight, I'll remind you all that we still have one more night of movies to recollect through and the weatherman promises a 30 degree spike in the temp. Hooray. And lastly, a final shout out to the guy parked next to us who had his headlights covered with pizza boxes because he didn't know how to shut them off. Been there, dude. Next time, push the light switch in like a plunger and you should be gold. G'night, all... 

Stay tuned, Boils and Ghouls, for our final 
report on the April Ghoul's Monster Rama.
(And what happened to those canoes again?)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Recommendations :: What I've Been Watching, and So Should You! Or Not...

The Crowded Sky (1960) is another fandamntastic soap-opera / airline disaster flick where once more Dana Andrews has to bring a crippled plane in for an emergency landing after a mid-air collision with a military jet. (Highlighted by one of the engine props shearing loose and chopping a hole in the fuselage, which sucked out the engineer who not only fell out but tumbled into another engine propeller. Thank you, jump cut.) Enough melodrama and sudsy subplots to choke a moose, to be sure, and guilty of blatant misuse of the cinematic thought-bubble, but that's the way I like my disaster movies. Highly recommend for those similarly afflicted with disasteritus. 

In The Hard Way (1943), Ida Lupino does NOT play Ginger Rogers' mother to Joan Leslie NOT playing Ginger Rogers in this tale of a driven (-- meaning scheming, back-stabbing and manipulative) elder sister who pushes her sibling out of their backwater life to the heights of wealth and stardom on the stage only to have it all come crashing down when t'woo wuv gets in the way. Lupino is great, as always -- the ultimate example of not evil just horribly, horribly misguided, and the film only cemented my Bro'-crush on Jack Carson even more. Recommendation? Easy or hard, go that way as soon as possible.

I love it when second bananas get the top of the bill and knock it outta the park. (Man, I want hair like Dan Duryea's.) Also, special shout out to Peter Lorre and Freddie Steel, who make a fantastic one-two punch as the villain and witless minion of our piece, The Black Angel (1946), where a wrong man is sent to the gas chamber for murder while his wife (June Vincent) and the alcoholic ex-husband (Duryea) of the victim effort to exonerate him. Now, these efforts of forming a lounge act are a tad bit convoluted on paper but it works. Trust me.

Though hamstrung a bit by the hypnotic hookum the villain uses to dupe our heroine into a murder frame-up, with the way director Otto Preminger paints her into a corner in Whirlpool (1949), I wasn't sure they were going to get the lovely Gene Tierney out of this airtight mess let alone how -- but I encourage you all to find out for yourselves just how they do. Props to Charles Bickford as the well-seasoned detective in charge and Jose Ferrer's despicable David Korvo belongs in the Film Noir Villain Hall of Fame.

Sorry to report that Dean Martin's last screen role as Mr. Ricco (1975) is kind of a mess. Mean-spirited and ultimately pointless, Martin plays an attorney who gets a militant off the hook for a murder over some tainted evidence only to have said militant seemingly go on a killing spree after the acquittal and release. This 'seemingly' angle drives the rest of the film as Ricco soon finds himself targeted by his client, too, who apparently did commit that murder (-- the tainted evidence was provided by a racist cop trying to grease the wheels of justice), which makes no sense, at all, summing up the movie quite nicely. *bleaurgh*

Van Heflin and Virginia Grey make this Nick and Nora Charles knock-off go down smooth (-- they even got Sammy Levene to play the befuddled inspector), amiably aided and abetted by a stellar supporting cast of 'that guy' and 'that gal' with Millard Mitchell as the welcomed comedy relief. That, and Grand Central Murder (1942) is a pretty good whodunit, too, if not a bit cock-eyed in the means and ways department. Probably won't hold up under repeated viewings but it's worth the initial spin. 

The only thing I DIDN'T like about The Alphabet Murders (1965) is that it failed to launch a franchise where Tony Randall and Robert Morley kept teaming up as Hercule Poirot and Inspector Hastings to solve even more crimes in the same, comical vein. Treasure this one, folks. 

Cry Havoc (1943) is a refreshing all-female take on the battle for Bataan and propaganda piece for Why We Fight (-- seriously the only male parts were either the wounded or the dying), where a group of civilians volunteer as impromptu nurses at a field hospital. As someone else pointed out, the film loses some points over the fact their appears to be a hair salon somewhere nearby as the hospital is pasted by Japanese planes and artillery for weeks on end, but the cast sells it all well enough. And in the biggest surprise, MGM actually trumping Paramount's So Proudly We Hail (1943) with such a Debbie-Downer ending gets all kinds of respect from me.

I figured it had been long enough since watching Woman Under the Influence for me to experience some full-frontal Cassavetes again. Thus and so, I watched Opening Night (1977), which, like Woman, is fascinating and brutal and frustrating, which ultimately makes it an exhausting experience to endure. (Now, when I say exhausting I mean that in a post-work-out, well worth it kind of tired.) But just like with Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the main thought swimming against the tide of everything I'd just witnessed was, man, I HATE being that drunk.

Even though I watched The Girl from Rio (1969) on a shitty pan-n-scan print under an alternate title (Future Women), which had the most atrocious audio track ever (-- it sounded like someone was power-drilling a stubborn, stripped-out screw through the whole damned movie), this piece of Jess Franco eye-candy and general nuttiness about a cult of Glamazons with a bent for world domination is just incredible. So incredible, I immediately molested my couch cushions for enough change to snag the Blue Underground DVD with every intention to watch it again in its full glory. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Sights and Sounds :: April Ghouls Monster-Rama :: Day 2 :: Instinct. Memory. Importance. That's Why We Came Here.

And so, day two of our adventure begins with a traditional trip to Vandergrift's Yakkity-Yak diner...

Where the staff is friendly, though quick with the barbs (sorry about that, Sean, I'm pretty sure they have a pill for that now...), and the artery-detonating food is to die for. (Especially those sloppy fries suspended in meat sauce.)

Thus, with stomachs satiated, we left Vandergrift and navigated our way into Monroeville for a trip to the mall...

Where, you all remember, George Romero shot this back in 1978:

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"What are they doing? Why do they come here?"
"Some kind of instinct. Memories of what they used to do."
"This was an important place in their lives."
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Alas, with all the extensive remodeling and the recent move by the JC Penney's to another location (-- though we did get to ride the store's escalator on a previous visit that has since been parted out and sold off as souvenirs), the only surviving and recognizable landmark in the mall is the Koi Pond and plastic garden:

Video courtesy of YoursTruly.

However, the main reason for this excursion was to hit the Monroeville Zombies Museum, which had been closed the last time we visited:

The museum was interactive, too, with several video stations set up, one covering the making of Dawn of the Dead the other Night of the Living Dead, which I sat down and watched for a bit to listen to Marilyn Eastman and Karl Hardman reminisce:

 Video courtesy of YoursTruly.

One of things that always amazes me and warms my heart is how even though he played one of the greatest cinematic assholes to ever grace the screen, in reality, from everything I've read and heard, Hardman was one of the sweetest guys on the planet ... Anyways, speaking of interactive, for some reason, and not that I'm complaining, the Zombie Museum also had a nine hole mini-golf course -- and so, as they say, when in Zombieville...

It should also be mentioned that two more of our usual crew, Scott and Jessica, met up with us here. And while Jessica stayed on the sidelines to watch the resultant carnage, Scott played the part of impartial observer as Tim (who, being the logistics king, brought his own putter), Sean, Mike and I stormed the course and made fools of ourselves. Long story short, Tim won, Mike and I tied for second, and Sean cheated to finish last because he wouldn't play his errant shots from where they landed well off the greens. (Also, a big shout of thanks to Jess for letting me use some of her photos for this document of the highly-addled-but-not-quite-dead.)

At some point, I believe it was around Hole 4, as I searched for my own errant tee-shot, someone pointed out the light fixtures were also salvaged as souvenirs from some earlier remodeling efforts:

After turning in our putters, we all adjoined to the food court to catch up for awhile. And after hitting a toy store liquidation sale, we split up to head back to the motel to regroup before heading to the Drive-In.

And as we all wave goodbye to the Monroeville Mall, I'm sad to report that after the very weekend we visited it was announced the Monroeville Zombie Museum would be closing again -- and it sounds like it's for good this time. Sad news, but, for once, our timing didn't suck and we actually got to see and experience it. As for the rest of our tale, stay tuned, Boils and Ghouls, as our recap of the April Ghouls Monster-Rama will continue in a later post.

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