Swapping drama for fun

I don’t know about you, but over the past year I feel I’ve had enough drama to last me a lifetime. At this start of a new year, I feel the need for more fun in my life.

Here in Ontario we’re back in Emergency Measures and have just been tasked with staying home again except for essential outings (groceries, etc.), so opportunities for fun are restricted, but “fun” is a mindset anyway.

Your idea of fun may not be the same as mine – my hubby and I have the most fun on our travels when things go wrong, for example, while our friends think we’re nuts and refuse to travel with us ;D

One of my favourite ways to engage in a little planned fun while stuck indoors is escapism through movies, and pairing those movies with a themed meal creates a great atmosphere. Planning these ‘dinner & a movie’ nights gives you something to look forward to.

Your choice of movie to escape into is very personal. I’ve read several articles analyzing why horror movies have been so popular since the start of the pandemic. They’re not my cup of tea, though – I like feel-good and adventure movies at the moment.

The other night I stumbled across a great old movie called North to Alaska (1960) – a ribald, colourful adventure comedy starring John Wayne, Stewart Granger, Fabian and Capucine. My mom and I used to love watching this movie together when I was a teenager, and I still enjoy it.

Plot synopsis: Wayne, Granger and Fabian are three men who’ve gone to Alaska for the Gold Rush and made a rich strike. Claim-jumping is rampant, though, so Granger asks Wayne to go to Seattle to buy some better equipment while he and his younger brother mind the camp, and to also pick up Granger’s long-time French fiancée Jenny to bring her to Alaska so they can finally get married. When Wayne finds Jenny, however, she’s given up on waiting and married someone. Drowning his sorrows on behalf of his friend at a Seattle brothel that evening, Wayne meets Capucine, a lovely and feisty French prostitute named Michelle, and offers her a lot of money to come with him to Alaska to replace Jenny. On the long boat ride to Nome a budding romance develops, although neither will admit it to themselves, and things get even crazier when Capucine joins the men out at their mine. If you’ve never seen it, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out what happens after that!

There’s a fun scene where Wayne takes Capucine to the annual Logger’s Picnic in Seattle before they head to Alaska, and they have a picnic meal with spit-roasted pork and sides that made me instantly want to make my own version. I bought some pulled pork at a local deli, and made my own sides: gluten-free cornbread (using the excellent mix from Bob’s Red Mill), homemade coleslaw, buttered corn and Green Giant buttered Brussels sprouts (which weren’t a picnic feature in the early 1900s, but I just like them). It’s not a meal I typically make, so it was as much fun to put together as it was delicious to consume, and for a little while we were virtually transported to the fresh air of the West Coast at the turn of the previous century, eating simple but great food.

For me there was an added layer of nostalgia, as my dad was a medic at a logging camp when we lived in Northern Ontario while my brother and I were kids – eating our meal, I could almost smell the tall pine trees, wood chips and forest soil.

There are all kinds of movies you could do this evening of escapism with. You could make an Egyptian-themed meal to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark – get takeout if you have a good local Middle Eastern restaurant and at the same time support them during these challenging economic times, or buy some hummus, baba ghanoush and pita bread at the grocery store, and make some quick kofta for an easy meal, or a salad with black olives and fresh orange slices, followed by store-bought date and nut confections. These are exactly the sorts of foods my hubby and I ate when we were in Egypt, so it’s a really authentic meal that instantly smells and tastes of that part of the world. It will also work with Death on the Nile (1978) with the addition of a cup of tea, or with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with its references to the Crusaders and medieval Middle Eastern locales like Alexandretta, not to mention the great final scenes at Petra in Jordan.

If you haven’t had Italian for a while, make some spaghetti and meatballs with tomato sauce from scratch to eat while watching a movie like Moonstruck. There’s something special about homemade tomato sauce, and it’s easy: sauté chopped onions and green peppers in a big pot until soft and a little browned, add some minced garlic, and when the aroma of the garlic begins to rise throw in a can or two of chopped tomatoes (depending on how much you want to make), add crushed chili flakes, and salt and pepper to taste, and let simmer for a while with the lid mostly on (tomato sauce spatters a lot). You can also add some fresh or dried herbs like basil and oregano. Let the sauce cook until the aroma permeates your kitchen and the sauce is thick enough to cling to the spaghetti. You can either make your own meatballs or buy some good ones and bake them in the oven until browned and cooked through, then add them to the sauce and ladle over a nice plate of pasta. Make some garlic bread and a green salad, pour a little red wine, and enjoy!

Getting into the many landscapes of magnificent Africa, one of my favourite escapes is available on Prime Video: Sherlock Holmes: Incident at Victoria Falls. It features the great Christopher Lee as a senior Holmes asked by the king to undertake one final task in southern Africa, with Patrick Macnee as the indefatigable Dr. Watson and a host of other famous characters from the time period, including Claude Akins as a jolly Teddy Roosevelt. The movie is set on location, so for about 3.5 hours you’ll be transported to the sun-drenched scenery of the gorgeous African wild and of Victoria Falls. This is the movie that inspired me to include the Falls on our first African safari (they were even more stunning in person).

Magnificent, stunning Victoria Falls at peak water flow

It’s a two-parter and will pleasurably take up an entire afternoon or evening. Safari food is quite eclectic – we’ve had everything from chicken stew to fresh potato salad to chocolate cake with a red wine sauce – but if you want to make something exotic but easy, BBC Good Food has a great recipe for Bobotie, a classic South African dish. Serve with a green salad, and make a banana dessert to finish it off (bananas grow readily in Africa and are common on safari as they keep well). You can drink tea or coffee, or Rooibos tea if you really want to be authentic.

So take a break from all the drama in the news and make a virtual escape to somewhere more fun, whether it’s an engrossing board game, a hobby you haven’t tried for a while (I love Paint-by-Numbers, even though I also paint freehand), or dinner and a comedy/adventure movie. (If you prefer horror, you can find all kinds of Halloween-themed food to make that would suit such a movie perfectly.)

Next week I’ll take you on a little virtual trip as I fill in the remainder of the trip to Peru and Bolivia, journeying through the Altiplano, the plateau that sits high in the Andes, and a brief glimpse of La Paz, the highest capital city in the world.

Until then, have a little fun in whatever way makes you smile.

Dark and Dangerous

Our neighbour remarked the other day, smiling, as he watched my hubby and I string eyeball lights along the roofline of our front portico and hang a moaning ghoul on one corner, “There’s another sure sign of fall – the two of you putting up Halloween decorations!”

Just two days until all of us pretend-ghosts and other creatures of the night (or whatever your favourite alter-ego might be) get to have a little fun. There’s been a lot of debate about whether Halloween should be celebrated this year, and I’m firmly on the side of Absolutely! There are so many ways that it can be done safely, and this year in particular I think we need to celebrate whatever we can to bring a little lightness into our lives.

We’ll be out front handing out treat bags with ‘mad-scientist’ tongs while fog creeps out from our bushes and a Bluetooth speaker spins out my favourite Halloween playlist in the background.

I’ve been bingeing on old sci-fi movies all week, but on Halloween night it’s time for something special – something like the best remake I’ve ever seen, the 2011 version of an old cult favourite, Fright Night.

If you’re not familiar with either, the 1985 original told the story of a teenager, Charlie Brewster, who notices that a mysterious gentleman has moved into the old Victorian house next door. Eventually he becomes convinced that his new neighbour Jerry, played deliciously by Chris Sarandon, is a vampire. Unable to convince anyone else of that, and terrified for his life, Charlie enlists the reluctant help of an aging horror movie actor and late-night host named Peter Vincent (played by the superb Roddy McDowell) whose persona was that of a vampire hunter. A young Amanda Bearse (Marcy in Married…with Children) played Charlie’s pretty girlfriend, who catches the dangerous eye of Jerry as well. With quirky charm and a credible plot of a likeable teenager faced with evil who can’t get anyone to believe him, plus the dark and sexy Jerry, some gore and mounting suspense, and an atmospheric music soundtrack, the movie became a cult hit that showed up regularly on television around Halloween.  

Fright Night (2011) did an amazing job of updating the plot to modern-day Las Vegas, where Charlie and his mom, played by the fabulous Toni Collette, live in a remote suburb in which half the residents have night jobs on the Strip and no one really pays any attention to the new neighbour who never appears during the day. Charlie, trying to be cool for his girlfriend, one of the class hotties, brushes off the vampire ravings of his geeky former friend Ed until he begins to notice all the classmates who’ve started disappearing, including Ed one day. This time Colin Farrell is a sexy but very sinister Jerry the vampire, and Dr. Who no.10 himself, David Tennant, is delightfully outrageous as Peter Vincent, a dissipated and blasé Las Vegas illusionist. A hip and edgy soundtrack, clever plotting that upends quite a few horror clichés, a fair bit of humour and some truly frightening scenes make this a much better movie than the 6.3 rating posted on IMDB. Chris Sarandon even makes a surprise appearance, but you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled – I didn’t spot him the first time around.

If you’re a fan of vampire movies and you have the time, you may want to watch them both – there are enough differences between the two that you won’t be bored. Turn out the lights, pour yourself some red wine, and enjoy Halloween!

“For ‘Fright Night’, we really want to convey the fun attitude of the movie and show the intensity of Colin Farrell as a predator. He’s not a brooding vampire – he’s dark and dangerous.” Stacey Snider

“God preserve my sanity”

“3 MAY. Bistriz. Left Munich at 8:35 P.M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning…”

So begins, innocuously, one of the most famous horror stories in history – Dracula, by Bram Stoker.

The cover of the first edition, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=545797

Stories about vampires had been around for a long time, but Stoker’s foray into the horror genre seemed to enrapture the Victorian psyche, perhaps tapping into the repressions of the era’s morality.

Victorians enjoyed a revival of gothic literature, and were also fascinated by mysticism. Spiritualism, brought  over from America around 1852 by an American medium, Mrs. Hayden,  who conducted séances in London for the fashionable, gave hope to people who’d likely lost a loved one by the age of 35, the average life expectancy at the time.

By the time Stoker wrote his story, the Potato Famine had resulted in over a million deaths, the 1848 cholera epidemic had killed 52,000, and the British had been fighting in the Crimean and Boer Wars. Small wonder that death was prevalent on Victorian minds.

Bram Stoker was born in Dublin in the middle of the Potato Famine, and apparently retained memories of the  mass deaths. He was himself bedridden throughout his early childhood from an unknown illness, from which he eventually recovered, but he wrote that during that time, “I was naturally thoughtful, and the leisure of long illness gave opportunity for many thoughts which were fruitful according to their kind in later years.”

Trinity College Library, Dublin

He became interested in the theatre while a student at Trinity College in Dublin, became a theatre critic and eventually managed the Lyceum Theatre in London for his friend Henry Irving. He travelled widely as a result, although he never actually visited the wilds of Transylvania, which he would delineate in atmospheric detail in his sensational novel.

“Beyond…rose mighty slopes of forest up to the lofty steeps of the Carpathians themselves. Right and left of us they towered…”

Stoker also began to write his own stories, and novels. He had met Ármin Vámbéry, a Slovak-Jewish writer and traveller who shared legends from the Carpathian mountains, inspiring Stoker to research in more detail, especially the folklore around vampires.

The concept of a creature who transcended death would have appealed to Victorians as much as Spiritualism. Stoker wasn’t the first Brit to write about vampires – John Polidori, Lord Byron’s physician who was at the rented house in Switzerland when Byron challenged the group to write a ghost story (inspiring Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, the other great horror story in history), came up with The Vampyre.

The Vampyre by John Polidori, Public Domain, British Library

Dracula wasn’t greatly successful when published in 1897, although reviewers and fellow authors – including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H. P. Lovecraft – liked it, and the book never made much revenue for Stoker. It wasn’t until Hollywood introduced vampires into popular culture, beginning in 1922 with the silent classic Nosferatu, that the public began to lap up the idea of blood-drinking immortals, and our fascination with the concept continues to this day.

Goth fans have been congregating in Whitby, England – a featured location in Stoker’s story – for 25 years for the well-known Whitby Goth Weekend in late October, and vampire enthusiasts can spend Halloween at parties in Transylvania, but now you can go to the source in Dublin. The city has embraced one of its most famous legacies with Bram Stoker’s Castle Dracula Experience, which, as a dedicated Halloween enthusiast, I hauled my hubby to straight off when we were in Ireland a couple of weeks ago!

My mother was actually born in Transylvania, in and around Cluj-Napoca, so you might say that I come by my interest in vampires naturally. Some day I’d love to do that Halloween-party thing on Halloween, but the opportunity to visit an attraction tied to Bram Stoker in Dublin was too good to pass up.

You can book tickets online, and you should: the attraction is only available on a limited selection of dates, and seating is limited. As it happened, it was running the day that we arrived in Dublin – it was meant to be.

Attendees meet at a specified point, a fitness club in the Clontarf area, across the street from where Bram Stoker was born, and are then walked over to the ‘castle’. The show is an entertaining fusion of actors getting you into the spirit of things while leading you through recreated eerie medieval stone passageways, and a stage performance that’s essentially an illusionist show which interacts with the audience. I won’t spoil the story for you, in case you’re able to attend in person, but it was all very well done, and a really fun evening during Halloween season. There are numerous items of actual memorabilia from Stoker’s life, and if you purchase VIP tickets you get some swag as well; please note that there is no shop on the premises to just buy the swag separately.

Hallway of historical info and artifacts, Castle Dracula experience
Scene from the stage show, Castle Dracula experience
Yours truly, in Dracula’s throne

If you’ve never read the original Dracula book, I highly recommend it – it’s very well written and very atmospheric. You can buy it in stores or read it on Project Gutenberg.

Also watch the 1931 movie with Bela Lugosi – it would have been sensationally creepy at the time.

Movie posters, Castle Dracula Experience

Dracula has gone on to inspire countless vampire novels and movies, endless kids’ Halloween costumes, and some great music. It is a worthy inclusion in your Halloween entertainment.

“But my very feelings turned to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings…”

Getting your vintage creeps on

It’s Halloween season — my favourite time of year, and clearly for many, many other people as well, judging by the spooky-theme TV ads that are already making their appearance.

There’s something about the fall weather, with frosty mornings and sweater temperatures, leaves drifting to the ground, and the earthy smell of Nature getting ready to hibernate, that signals the approach of the day when the Celts thought that the veil between this world and the next was at its thinnest.

I have several annual fall rituals for this time: prowling Home Sense and Pier One for things to add to my rather large collection of Halloween decor, watching the new season of the Food Network’s Halloween Baking Challenge and watching the contestants have inordinate amounts of fun making stylish but warped baked goods, and checking out TCM’s lineup of vintage horror and sci-fi movies.

In the days before CGI, movie producers had to get really creative with special effects — sometimes brilliant for their limited resources (Forbidden Planet), sometimes incredibly cheesy (Plan 9 from Outer Space). Whatever the end result was, they are always entertaining, whether you’re laughing yourself silly over things like not-so-terrifying Mole People…

poster for The Mole People, 1956, By [1], https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3327404

or getting genuinely creeped out, as with the amazingly effective 1931 Dracula.

By Universal Studios – https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/DRACULA-1931-Bela-Lugosi-Edward-Van-Sloan-10×8-LOBBY-CARD/122917865865?hash=item1c9e79c989:g:x9wAAOSwogpaXksB, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67003766

While they may not seem remarkable by today’s standards, imagine what audiences at the time must have felt seeing these stories play out on a large screen in a darkened movie theatre, with effects they’d never seen before.

https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8913138

One of my personal favourites, a movie that scared me so much when I first saw it as a teenager that it took me years to watch it again, is a relatively obscure little piece called Curse of the Demon, also known as Night of the Demon, about a curse that gets passed to its unknowing victims through a seemingly innocent piece of paper. That’s all I’ll say about it. If you’ve never seen it, turn out the lights, light a couple of candles and watch it on TCM on October 10th.

Sci-fi movies allowed both movie makers and all of us to let our imaginations run wild about what life might be like on other planets, and what might happen if alien life came to us. Our ongoing fascination with UFOs was just featured in a great article in the Scientific American blog.

Forbidden Planet took a marvelous look at the remnants of an ancient civilization as far advanced above ours as its home planet was from ours, mixed in with a horror theme borrowed from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=871061

When construction workers in 1950s London uncover a mysterious artifact, Professor Quatermass and a couple of fellow researchers unearth the startling truth behind hauntings in the abandoned surrounding neighbourhood, where people decades before believed they saw the Devil. Things get increasingly more unnerving as the researchers and excavators try to figure out what’s going on, until they become in danger of losing their very minds. Five Million Years to Earth (called Quatermass and the Pit in England), is unfortunately not showing on TCM this season, but do keep an eye out for it some other time.

If you’ve never checked out some of the many creative vintage scary movies made in the earlier days of Hollywood, I think you’ll be in for a treat this Halloween. They were made with style and imagination.