Monday, October 1, 2012

31 Days of Halloween: Horror (Toy) Business

Welcome, guys and ghouls, to my annual coverage of the very best month of the year – Halloweentober! Or something. You can probably get the idea from the title – I will be spending the entire month of October covering spooky stuff, talking to spooky people, and celebrating spooky things.

I don’t know how I have never done this before, but while I was sitting down to write my review of NECA’s new Lost Tribe Predator I got all sidetracked during the intro. This happens sometimes. I sit down to write a few paragraphs about the toy or the character or the company or whatever and I realize I have enough to say to fill up a whole post. For this one, I realized that not only would it be a whole post, but it would be a great way to kick off “31 Days of Halloween”.
This isn’t any kind of all-inclusive history of horror toys. This pretty much starts with the McFarlane revolution of the mid-90’s and continues up to today. I could produce another whole post just about the 80’s if I wanted to (and might someday). This is just the stuff that was in my head today; sparked by thinking about NECA and how they have changed over the years.

As we all know and have heard reiterated time and again (and will hear until the end of time), McFarlane Toys quite literally revolutionized the action figure industry. I’m not sure a single company has ever had quite the same impact on the Boys’ Toy Aisle and certainly not a small, independent company. McFarlane Toys entered the market and released action figures the likes of which had never been seen before. The detail of the sculpts and quality of the paint applications was amazing.

And then McFarlane pursued horror movie licenses and created a whole new market of toys.
Now, making toys based on horror movies wasn’t actually anything new. Kenner made a xenomorph back in 1979 before they were called xenomorphs. Matchbox released some truly gruesome Freddy Krueger toys in the eighties. I have the Mego-style one that transformed from a regular dude into the scourge of Elm Street.

But McFarlane brought new, more realistic and horrifying toys to the aisles. Lifelike sculpts of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Leatherface; not to mention movie monsters like Pumpkinhead and the creatures from John carpenter’s The Thing – still some of McFarlane Toys’ most horrifying creations. All of these were released as part of the Movie Maniacs line, which made me a completist for one of the few times in my life. For the first few series, anyway.

I believe ToyFare magazine – oh, how I miss it – was where I saw the first line of Movie Maniacs. The aforementioned Freddy, Jason, and Leatherface were fairly heavy hitters to be rolling out all at once. McFarlane was definitely making a statement with that first series. They wanted to make sure everybody understood that they were the source for horror toys. And we all did.

The Movie Masters line eventually covered a larger number of licensed characters from separate companies than any toy line previously had or has since (I actually do not know if this is true, but it sounds right). Friday the 13th, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Scream, The Thing, Pumpkinhead, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, Psycho, Army of Darkness, Halloween, Species, The Crow, Bride of Chucky, Jaws, Escape From LA, Edward Scissorhands, Candyman, RoboCop, Aliens, Predator, Darkness Falls, Legend, The Blair Witch Project, Terminator, Wishmaster, and King Kong.

You might notice a couple of odd entries there. Not necessarily “classics”. That’s because McFarlane also jumped on some current releases to nab licenses they perceived might have value. The quality of these movies might be debatable, but I bet you’d be hard-pressed to find a horror fan that didn’t get suckered into buying a figure of the Tooth Fairy from Darkness Falls. Eventually this practice led to entire lines of figures devoted to new film franchises, as well as lines of original horror figures. 
The most notable of these is probably Clive Barker’s Tortured Souls. But we’ll get to that.
So the popularity of Movie Maniacs spawned (HA! See what I did there?) a plethora of new lines. The success of these six-inch scale toys led to a redesign of the previously released “Todd McFarlane’s Monsters” playsets. Originally released in 1997 prior to the first wave of Movie Maniacs, these sets were Todd McFarlane-designed versions of the classic Universal Monsters characters – Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf Man. A second series would bring the hunchback of Notre Dame, the Gill Man, and the Phantom of the Opera. They were a smaller scale of figure in order to facilitate the inclusion of multiple props, figures, and a set piece and seemed to be released to cash in on the success of the licensed Universal Monsters figures from Sideshow Toys (at a time when they were still producing mass-market collectibles). Nothing wrong with that. After all, the Sideshow Universal Monsters likely wouldn’t have happened if McFarlane’s Spawn figures hadn’t changed the market first.

We’ll get back to McFarlane. Right now I want to talk about that line from Sideshow. Because this post is a total, formless mess and why change now?
Sideshow produced beautifully sculpted, decently articulated action figures of almost every significant Universal Monster – Frankenstein’s Monster, the Gill Man, the Wolf Man, the Bride, the Mummy, and many more. Initially their Universal Monsters offerings started with these seven inch action figures, but expanded into one sixth scale figures, super-deformed minifigures, and other types of merchandising. 

Those seven inch figures are some of the nicest I own. They were pricey at the time – around ten bucks each(!) – but were definitely among the higher-end items you could find at regular retail. Each figure had around twelve points of articulation and came with a sculpted base and accessories. They were amazing representations of the characters and were available in both color and black and white versions. I bought the color ones because I like my toys to be colored. I feel like I should have a lengthier, more aesthetically sound explanation, but that’s it. For an odd counterpoint, I bought the black and white Sin City figures (and wish I had gone with color).
I have most of the seven inch figures, a few of the one sixth scales, and the first two series of minifigures – standard ones and a line of skateboarders. I did not buy the third series of wrestlers for reasons I honestly don’t understand and can’t recall. I mean, really? Out of all the toys I could have skipped, I skip wrestling monsters? What the fuck? If you’re wondering why in the world anybody would have made small, unarticulated figures of the Universal Monsters in wrestling gear just remember that this was the late 90’s and everybody – even people who do not admit it now – was watching pro wrestling thanks to the unprecedented boom in business caused by the Monday Night War between WCW and WWF. Honestly I’m more confused by the skaters.

Eventually – as happens with any licensed toy line without ongoing media support – Sideshow ran out of compelling, big name monsters and had to put out lame-o fifth-string characters from movies like The Mole People and Look Out! The Creature’s In A Dress This Time! The final series sat at retail, warming pegs until they just disintegrated because Toys R Us doesn’t put stuff on clearance. Okay, well – they do now. But they sure didn’t then. I would’ve bought that Gill Man in his sassy summer frock.

So that was Sideshow’s retail run.
Meanwhile, McFarlane cranked out a whole crazy mess of toys. The upsized Monsters line encompassed serial killers, Alice In Wonderland, Christmas, and many other twisted interpretations of classic themes and stories. There was a sports line that was, quite frankly, legendary; but I don’t give a shit about that. What I do give a shit about is what is probably the most deranged toy line ever to be produced: Clive Barker’s Tortured Souls.
I have been a fan of horror all my life and these things made me uncomfortable.

Based upon a series of brief character sketches and connected backstories, these gruesome figures depicted humans that had undergone or were undergoing the most revolting forms of torture you’ve ever seen. They were pretty clearly just Cenobites under a different name. The accompanying biographies – which you can still find on McFarlaneToys.com – reflected elements from both “The Hellbound Heart” and Weaveworld. The figures were articulated in the McFarlane style of having several fairly pointless joints.

Which makes this a good place to pause and discuss something.

That sort of articulation really bugs the shit out of me. The kind where there is a joint, but sue to the sculpt of the figure or the positioning of the parts or the interaction of accessories there is no discernible reason why you would ever utilize it. Those are almost exclusively the kind of joints McFarlane uses and it’s a very crafty trick. For a very long time I had a resistance to buying unarticulated figures. Still do, as a matter of fact. But you look at those McFarlane figures and you see the cuts where the joints are and you think, “Oh – that is articulated. I will buy it now.” Then you get it home and open it and are like, “What the fuck,” because the way the skin or shirt is sculpted make the arm look terrible in any position other than raised. Or the legs are posed spread wide so if you use the hip joints Jason looks like he’s trying to walk on a bunch of bowling pins. The articulation is there, but it’s useless. McFarlane and other companies have used this little trick and only now is NECA working on rectifying it. Slowly but surely they are incorporating more and more functional and visually pleasing joints into their products. But we’ll get to that. Now we’ve got to get back to the last thing I said we’d get to.

So the Tortured Souls figures had amazing sculpts but very little in the way of meaningful articulation. If we’re all being hones there this was fine because, let’s face it, this guy wasn’t exactly going to be flying an X-Wing or driving the A-Team van:
While McFarlane Toys were busy cranking out violent, sado-masochistic beauties like this:
Other companies were creeping up on their turf.

Mezco had entered the market a few years earlier with their Silent Screamers. These were based off of early silent films, pretty much the only properties left what with Sideshow’s procuring of the Universal license and McFarlane making everything else. I’m actually wondering now if those films might have even been public domain. 
 
Anyway, the first series of Silent Screamers featured characters from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. These were stylized, fantastic figures and likely still the best things Mezco has produced. Like the seven inch Sideshow figures, these were available in two color styles. Like the figures themselves, these selections were a bit more stylized than the Sideshow offerings – you could purchase them in muted but colorful versions, or in sepia-toned variations. I bought them more out of a fondness for the figures than any real affection for the films. I hadn’t even seen Caligari at that point. I’m not gonna lie – I have a tough time with silent films. I’ve watched Nosferatu a few times and Caligari just a couple and it’s the sort of thing I might do once a decade. Maybe less now that I can’t utilize certain chemical enhancers anymore.

Speaking of chemical enhancers, I think you would probably have to be on them to appreciate most of the products Mezco has produced since then. They are very good at creating stylized or super-deformed toys, but I cannot stand their attempts at realistic sculpting. The years that they held the licenses for the big franchises were dark ones for me.
Also creeping up on McFarlane’s bidness was SOTA Toys, or State Of the Art Toys. The first releases I remember from them were their Cult Classics figures. These came in huge packaging and featured a six inch scale figure with some accessories and a large diorama base (I believe these were extra-expensive; maybe fifteen bucks apiece). They were only very slightly articulated, but the one that I knew I would absolutely die if I did not own IMMEDIATELY was Darkman.

Side Note: I have just realized I am passionate enough about Darkman to produce a whole post about it. You'd think that would have been immediately apparent, what with the guy's mug tattooed on the back of my leg:
So stay tuned.

He’s a great figure and the only one I bought from SOTA’s Cult Classics line, though I still wouldn’t mind having a Dog Soldiers werewolf. I also purchased a couple of their Tomb Raider movie figures and those are fantastic – some of the best figures I have owned.

And finally we come back around to NECA. I think the first product from them that caught my eye was their Hellraiser line.
The Hellraiser movies hold a special place in my heart, which is probably sort of a creepy thing to say. But the first one is one of the scariest movies I have ever seen. It still creeps me out to this day and I don’t have a problem telling you I won’t watch it alone in a darkened room. Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth is pretty stupid, but it was the first R-Rated movie I saw when I came of age and also had what at the time seemed like a killer soundtrack:
See?

So when I saw figures of the Cenobites – some of the most amazingly-designed horror icons ever – in Media Play I flipped out because that store was so rad and I knew that one day it would no longer exist. Just kidding – I flipped out because I had been wanting figures of Cenobites for as long as I could remember. There were these vinyl models of Pinhead and I think Butterball in the early 90’s. They came in a few pieces that you had to assemble, paint, and sometimes even trim down or cut out. While I love putting things together, I am kind of a perfectionist and need whatever I am doing to look absolutely correct. If I know my skills aren’t up to it I usually don’t bother. Also, those things were around $75 dollars in 1991 (or thereabouts), which is something like $800 in today money.

So I bought the first two series of Hellraiser figures and then stalled out on Series 3. I bought a couple of those, but the build-a-thing wasn’t cool enough to justify me buying some of the lame-o Cenobites from the later movies. The build-a-things from the first two series were the puzzle box and the hideous torture statue from the third movie, both of which are must-haves.
NECA went on to pick up other licenses here and there to the point where today they control the action figure (and in some cases master) licenses for many of the best horror/genre properties – A Nightmare On Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Alien, Predator, RoboCop, Gremlins, Evil Dead, and more. Not to mention all of their video game licenses, such as Resident Evil and… all of those other ones. I don’t play many video games.

The market today is close to being as great as it was back in the late 90’s. We have the aforementioned products from NECA, The Walking Dead TV and comic figures from McFarlane Toys, and new figures of Universal Monsters (that are mind-bogglingly similar to the Sideshow releases), The Munsters, and Mad Monster Party from Diamond Select Toys.

 There’s also the return of fun, gimmicky stuff like Creepy Crawlers and Doctor Dreadful. 
There are even horror toys aimed at the ladies in the form of Living Dead Dolls and Monster High. I won’t mention the Bratz Monster High rip-offs because I am a toy snob and those are clearly shallow, inferior attempts.

(pause while I go re-read this thing to make sure I got around to my original point)
I’m sure I left out or overlooked not only hundreds of items but entire lines of the best toys ever, so please feel free to tell me what a dum-dum I am in the comments.

Over the month of October I’ll be taking a look at some of these toys, as well as movies and other stuff that are at least tangentially Halloween-related. I’m having to stick the last batch of Matty releases in here because they came so fucking late. But I think I can get away with it because the Snake Men are pretty creepy and Dragon Blaster Skeletor and Black Mask both have skulls for heads.

But wait! That’s not all!

Phantom Troublemaker vs. 31 Days of Halloween

That’s right, brother! I’m back again to pass judgment on SyFy’s “31 Days of Halloween” TV schedule! Nowhere else on the internet will you find such a ridiculous pursuit!
Evil suggested this last year, and while I have no idea how well it went over because Blogger makes it too fucking hard for you people to comment; I enjoyed doing it. If you think about it, let me know how you like it over on Facebook. I’m always open to suggestions.
Starting with 11 AM today I will give you my thoughts and recommendations on every single day of programming SyFy has planned throughout the month of October, regardless of how informed I am on the content. 

Anyway, you know how I roll, so let’s get to it!

11:00 PM – 8:00 PM – Warehouse 13 - Despite Warehouse 13 not being overly Halloweeny, I’m pretty happy they’re running this marathon. I like the show a lot and have almost completely missed this last season. While the storylines do carry over from episode to episode and season to season, I would recommend you check this out if you haven’t. You really can jump in anywhere without knowing what’s going on.
Halloween score – 2
Quality score – 4
8:00 PM – 9:00 PM – Alphas – I don’t like this show at all, but apparently they’re doing something right because it’s in its second season. But I don’t consider this one good or Halloweeny.
Halloween score – 0
Quality score – 2
9:00 PM – 10:00 PM – Warehouse 13 – SyFy did this all month last year and it drove me nuts. Flip-flopping shows so I have to make two separate entries for the same show. But whatever. I like Warehouse 13 even though I have a lot of trouble not typing “Wherehouse 13” because I worked at Wherehouse Music for a couple of years and for some reason that spelling stuck with me. As a matter of fact, I’d bet you money if you went and looked at last year’s coverage I did that at least once and didn’t catch it.
Halloween score – 2
Quality score – 4
10:00 PM – 11:00 PM – Alphas – Blech. Skip it. On the one hand I hate that SyFy is killing my enthusiasm on Day One. On the other, at least they’re getting it out of the way. Or did a new season of this just start? Ugh. I think so.
Halloween score – 0
Quality score – 2
11:00 PM – 12:00 AM – Warehouse 13 – A repeat of the 9 PM episode.
Halloween score – 2
Quality score – 4
TUESDAY
12:00 AM – 1:00 AM – Alphas – A repeat of the 10 PM episode.
Halloween score – 0
Quality score – 2
1:00 AM – 3:00 AM – Fertile Ground - Despite Warehouse 13 not being overly Halloweeny, I’m pretty happy they’re running this marathon. I like the show a lot and have almost completely missed this last season. While the storylines do carry over from episode to episode and season to season, I would recommend you check this out if you haven’t. You really can jump in anywhere without knowing what’s going on.
Halloween score – 2
Quality score – 4
3:00 AM – 4:00 AM – Ghost Whisperer – I feel like I should describe this show as a guilty pleasure, but I don’t feel at all guilty for watching it. It’s good. Plus, Jennifer Love Hewitt is HAWT. And ghosts are definitely Halloweeny. Good call, SyFy.
Halloween score – 4
Quality score – 3
4:00 AM – 8:00 AM – Paid Programming – I denigrated the Paid Programming last year. I get up at 3:30 in the morning when I’m working days, so I always end up watching a few minutes of infomercials for Pos-T-Vac (featuring more gross old men than you’d ever believe) or the Total Gym (featuring Morgan Fairchild, who still looks super-hot, especially when she does that one exercise where her legs… never mind) before I leave and I hate them.
However.
I realized that these infomercials are probably what pay for fine quality programming such as Sharktopus, Camel Spiders, and MegaPlatypus Versus SuperEchidna. Therefore we should all appreciate them. I’m not saying you need to pick up the phone and order a penis pump, I’m just saying don’t hate on the revenue stream. And besides, if Morgan Fairchild doing those leg exercises isn’t enough to get you going, I can’t imagine sticking your pecker in a giant test tube is the answer.
Halloween score – 1 (one point for the creepy Pos-T-Vac guys)
Quality score – 5
8:00 AM – 11:00 AM – Monster Man – Holy crap this dude is the creepiest guy on television. Except for the Pos-T-Vac guys. But this show is pretty great and it’s genuinely interesting to see how the effects are done for big-budget Hollywood endeavors such as Two-Headed Shark. Seriously, though – I like this show and the creepy little dude it centers on is fascinating.
Halloween score – 4
Quality score – 3

Come back tomorrow for… something. I’m not sure yet. But I guarantee there will be more SyFy coverage because I’m getting ready to write it now!

-Phantom

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