Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Nigerian Candy, Plus a Brief Discussion of Fast Versus Slow Zombies

     Like the Santos candy I talked about in the post on Ghanaian candy (see April 13, 2016 post), the Nigerian candy I got is multipurpose.  It's kind of a combination of a cough drop/sore throat soother medicine and a sweet treat.  In fact, the Facebook profile for it goes even further; it claims that Tom Tom candies also freshen one's breath.  Could one product actually do all these things, be the Leonardo Da Vinci of candies?!
     Tom Tom comes in three varieties--regular menthol, honey/lemon, and strawberry.  They're all manufactured by Cadbury Nigeria, out of Lagos.  Cadbury, of course, is a giant English confection maker, which distributes world wide.  And yes, once again, this candy was purchased at the wonderful Union Market area in our nation's capital (thanks Keith).
     The kind I was able to find was the regular menthol one.  It's a dark brown lozenge, with white stripes.  As advertised it has a strong menthol taste.  It reminded me of the Santos candies I referenced already, very much like a cough drop/sore throat soother.  However, it was better.  I didn't love it, but it was alright.  I was recovering from a minor cold when I had some, and maybe that helped.  I didn't test this, but maybe it did improve my breath, too.  I was amused to see that the Tom Tom has capsicum in it.  This is derived from the chili pepper family of plants.  Most capsicum also has capsaicin in it, which is the chemical that gives hot peppers their burn (see June 6, 2015 post for more on food spiciness).  As I mentioned, the Tom Toms weren't incredibly spicy--they didn't make me tear up or have to run for some water to quench the burn, but still, kind of a weird ingredient for a candy.  So, to sum up, the Tom Toms were okay--I wouldn't buy this kind again, but I might consider trying the other flavors.

     Also wanted to get into the fast versus slow zombie debate.  I first began to hear about this about ten to twelve years ago, after "28 Days Later" and the "Dawn of the Dead" remake were released (in 2002 and 2004, respectively).  Now, to be fair, I enjoyed both of these films.  (Although the enemies in "28 Days Later" weren't technically zombies, since they were still alive, but they were certainly zombie-ish at least.)  But, I definitely lean towards the slower zombie.
     I'm quite the aficionado of the living dead in films, so I've seen quite a few.  As far as I can tell, the first movie with fast zombies was 1985's "The Return of the Living Dead" (which is great--satiric, certainly, yet also frightening at times).  Although, funnily enough, if you go back and watch the Granddaddy of the modern zombie, 1968's "Night of the Living Dead," you'll notice that the actual first zombie seen (played by Bill Hinzman), moves fairly quickly, too.  Maybe not running, but noticeably faster than most of his cohorts in that movie, and the rest of the series.   I guess they decided to slow them down after that initial scene.
     The idea of the dead coming back and walking around is admittedly absurd.  But, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief, just as I am willing to "believe" in werewolves, vampires, ghosts, demons, etc. for the duration of a movie.  But, that said, a reanimated corpse moving slowly rather than quickly seems to make more sense.  Decay would surely result in ligaments, tendons, and muscles being less efficient.  So how does a rotting body run like an Olympic sprinter?  Also, my other point is less practical, and physical.  In slow living dead movies, one individual zombie usually isn't that dangerous, unless it's in a confined space, its potential victim(s) are unarmed, or weak, etc.  The real threat is the (usually) overwhelming number of zombies.  And that every living person is a potential future zombie themselves, sometimes in an instant.  I think slower zombies lead to a slower sense of inescapable dread.  You can barricade yourself in a secure building, but they're still out there, waiting for you.  Waiting for your food and water supplies to be exhausted.  Waiting for the living to attack themselves for various (usually foolish) reasons.  Having the horde also be fast seems a little like cheating.
     But, that said, as I mentioned, I still have enjoyed several fast zombie films.  But I think the slower version is more realistic, and ultimately a little more disturbing and effective.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--German Soft Drinks

     Right off the bat I should admit that I'm not positive about the true home of the soda I'll be discussing in this post (Burg).  The bottle states, "Made in Germany," and "burg," of course, is a German word which informally means "town" or "city."  (Formally it means a medieval fortress or walled city, I just learned.)  However, the company that makes it, IMI International, appears to be based in England.  I wasn't able to learn whether IMI bought out a German soft drink company, or if it's purely English, and just has a subsidiary plant in Germany.  Also, to add to the fun, Burg is distributed by a Canadian company, Agt Clic, out of Montreal.  Additionally, on the bottle there is Arabic script (to go along with the French and English).  As I noted in my posts about Lebanese soft drinks (see August 15, 2015 post) and the one about Danish health beverages (see March 23, 2016 post), non-alcoholic malt beverages tend to be popular in predominantly Muslim countries, since consumption of alcohol isn't permitted.  So I'm guessing the Arabic script is because people who read this writing are one of Burg's main target audiences.  But, as I said, I'm not 100% sure about Burg's real home, and if any readers can provide me info about this I'd appreciate it.  But Burg sodas seem to be truly an international product.
     Burg is evidently different from other typical non-alcoholic malt beverages.  One website noted that unlike these, the manufacturing process is different.  It's not brewed, with the alcohol later removed in various ways.  No alcohol is even made in their process.
     Burg comes in multiple flavors.  There's Burg Classic, and then apple, lemon/mint, peach, strawberry, and even an energy drink variant.  I was able to score the first three kinds.  They came from the Union Market in D.C. once more.  (Almost, but not quite out of these, and thanks again to Keith.)  As I often do, I'll use the U.S. scholastic grading method, of "A" for excellent, "B" for good, "C" for average, "D" for unsatisfactory but barely passing, and "F" for failing, with pluses and minuses as necessary.

Burg Classic:  D-.  Weird, flat, unpleasant taste.  Like a regular non-alcoholic beer, or most light beers (Zing!)

Burg apple flavor:  C-.  Okay, but not awesome.  Tastes like apples, but a little weak.

Burg lemon/mint flavor:  B+. Much better than the others.  You can pick up the lemon and the mint flavors.  These combine pretty well.  And the overall taste is strong enough.

     So, as you can see, I wasn't that impressed with the Burgs overall.  One was terrible, one was "meh" (as the expression goes),  and one was good.  I might try some of the other flavors if/when I get the chance, and I would buy the lemon/mint one again.  They were at least reasonably priced--about $1 for each 11 ounce (330 ml.) bottle.
     I was intrigued by the "classic" name of the original Burg flavor.  I was sort of hoping it was like the New Coke debacle in 1985, when Coke changed their formula, and called it "New Coke," and then restored the original formula under the "Classic Coke" name after American consumers basically lost their minds.  (Even though, interestingly enough, significant amounts of these same consumers preferred New Coke to Coke Classic in blind taste tests leading up, and even after, the soda's release.)  But, alas, I don't think there was any drama or semi-rioting in Burg's case.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Underrated Horror Films--"Pumpkinhead"

     Because of its rather absurd, memorable name, I'm guessing many horror fans have heard of the movie "Pumpkinhead."  But, I'm guessing not as many have actually sat down and watched it.  It's kind of been the situation since its creation, in 1988.  "Pumpkinhead" was released in theaters in late 1988 (and also in early 1989), but it was extremely limited.  Most of its viewers saw it on television, or on video.  The movie clearly fits into the cult film category.
     To give a brief, spoiler-free recap, "Pumpkinhead" is set in an unnamed, back country place.  A single parent named Ed Harley runs a small grocery, while he raises his young son, Billy.  Three young couples--Joel and Kim, Tracey and Chris, and Maggie and Steve, have rented a local cabin for a vacation.  Steve and Joel are also motorcycle enthusiasts.  However, an accident happens, and a tragic event occurs.  Remembering an event from his childhood, Ed Harley visits one of his neighbors, the Wallaces, for help and information.  One of the Wallace kids, Bunt, agrees to lead Ed to a local witch, Haggis.  She helps summon an avenging monster, Pumpkinhead.  As the bodies start to pile up, Ed has second thoughts, and want to stop Pumpkinhead.  But is it even possible to stop the huge, murderous demon?
     (SPOILERS AHEAD UNTIL NOTED)  In some ways, "Pumpkinhead" is a typical "slasher" horror movie.  The killer is cruel, strong, and resistant to normal weapons.  The victims are mostly partying teens/young adults.  The victims are dispatched because of misdeeds--the killer is motivated by revenge.  The violence and gore are plentiful, and the body count is fairly high.  However, there are also some significant differences.  The avenging killer wasn't wronged itself--it's killing for the wrongs inflicted on someone else.  Also, the killer, while roughly humanoid, is also monstrous--7.5 feet tall, vaguely insectoid/reptilian, with a tail and clawed "hands."  Furthermore, the teens actually did something wrong themselves, and are not the descendants or stand ins for say, a 20 year old crime.  While the teen couples presumably have sexual relationships, none of this is seen.  There are no gratuitous shower nude scenes, and there are no cliche, the-teenagers-start-having-sex-and-the-killer-sneaks-up-and-murders-them-both scenes.  Finally, while it is a separate creature, the killer does have a clear link with the person who called it up, Ed Harley.
     One of the obvious themes in "Pumpkinhead" is rich vs. poor.  The area where it takes place is obviously destitute.  Ed Harley and his son appear to be doing pretty good for their community, but even so they're still struggling, and are lower class.  Their neighbors, the Wallaces, are a half step above homelessness.  The entire, multi-generational clan lives in a shanty town, in shacks cobbled together from whatever materials are available.  Every Wallace is dressed in ragged, old, dirty clothes, and their last bath appears to have happened weeks ago.  The witch, Haggis, lives even further back in the woods, in a home near a swamp.  Her hovel is literally being overgrown by the surrounding trees and vines.  Most of the folks we see don't have electricity nor (presumably) indoor plumbing.  Contrast this with the visiting young people.  They're well scrubbed, have clean, new clothes, undamaged vehicles, and can afford luxuries like recreational motorcycles and vacations.  Even without the tragic death of Billy Harley there's palpable tension between the locals and the visitors.
     Along the same lines, there's rural vs. city.  Witness the characters' reactions to the traumatic events in the film.  Ed doesn't bring Billy to a hospital (he probably would have died before they got there, but still), doesn't even notify the local police/sheriff, and buries his son in the local cemetery without informing any authorities.  He doesn't notify the police, a lawyer, the courts, anything like that.  Instead, he decides to track down a witch who's even more rural than him, to use a supernatural monster for justice!  The vacationing kids try to involve the authorities, to no avail.  Joel disables probably the only phone in the area.  The survivors are forced to flee on foot, in remote countryside at night.  The local people are (mostly) completely unhelpful.  The city folk (or suburbanites?) are completely out of their element.  A few survive, but by relying mostly on their own wits and inner strength.
     The movie also touches on both personal and group responsibility.  Joel, clearly, is the bad apple in the vacationing group.  While his killing of Billy was accidental, his reaction is deplorable.  He flees, along with his protesting girlfriend Kim.  We learn that he previously hurt another person in another drunken vehicular accident, so he has a history.  Which didn't stop him from drinking and driving on the way to the grocery/cabin, and then operating a motorcycle under the influence.  Of the remaining four kids, Maggie (girlfriend of Steve) suffers some kind of mental breakdown upon viewing Billy's severe wounding.  So Chris and Tracey drive her to the cabin, to separate her from the accident and to contact help for her and Billy via the cabin's phone.  Steve does the right thing, too, and stays behind to tell Ed what happened, and to offer assistance (Ed doesn't listen to him, and is actively hostile, so this doesn't work out, but Steve did at least try).  At the cabin, Joel continues his villainous ways by disabling the phone, and then locking Tracey and Chris up in a closet (after a brief fight) to prevent them driving off and getting help.  So, to sum up, Joel is clearly responsible, and you could easily make the case that he deserves to die.  He admits his guilt, and seems to try to own up and fix the situation later, but by then it's far too late.  But the other five people are innocent, and therefore we sympathize with them as they're picked off one by one.  Ed doesn't know the whole story (and refused to listen, in fact, in his interaction with Steve), and, in his grief-stricken state probably wouldn't have cared even if he did.  It's only later that he realizes that what his choice to invoke Pumpkinhead was wrong.
     The character of Haggis is an interesting one, too.  At a glance she seems like a person willing to do a nasty, but arguably necessary chore.  Ed seeks her out, pays her, goes out and retrieves Pumpkinhead's "fetal," inactive body, and then asks for vengeance.  She doesn't activate Pumpkinhead on her own, or find Ed and offer her services--he had a choice.  But it's not that simple.  She knows he's incredibly traumatized, and not thinking straight, but calls up Pumpkinhead anyway.  She also doesn't tell Ed that invoking Pumpkinhead results in that person being damned until after the ceremony is done.  Finally, she seems positively gleeful, laughing uproariously when Ed comes back and tries to call off Pumpkinhead after the first couple of murders.  True, he did pay her (and from the looks of her home, she probably can use the money), but her main motivation seems evil.  I get the feeling that she enjoys tempting normal people into damning themselves, and also the horrific violence she knows Pumpkinhead will wreak.  Also, for a woman of her age, going out and carrying around corpses and reburying them seems like a lot of work.  Maybe she gets some sort of kickback from Satan or the demons for every person that Pumpkinhead kills, or something.
     The duality of Pumpkinhead and Ed Harley is another major theme in the film.  Ed's blood (and his son's) literally helps Pumpkinhead "awaken" from his dormant state.  And clearly there's a link--there's no scene where Ed says the names of the kids he wants killed (he probably doesn't even know their names), or writes down where he thinks they're staying, or anything like that.  Pumpkinhead just knows, because Ed knows (what they look like, at least).  Then, whenever Pumpkinhead kills somebody, Ed has a weird type of seizure, in which he feels the victim's pain, and hears their screams.  Later we see that the two are physically linked, too, as injuries to Ed cause Pumpkinhead to exhibit an identical wound.  Ed starts to transform into Pumpkinhead as the story progresses.  First it's just his eyes temporarily, but at the end it's more evident.  He, and Tracey, realize that this is the only way to stop Pumpkinhead, as shooting Ed fatally deactivates the monster.  But, in the epilogue, we see Haggis reburying the Pumpkinhead "fetal" form in the pumpkin patch elevated grave, but now it's Ed's mutated body, evidenced by a necklace that Billy made for him previously.  Pumpkinhead can even be interpreted as a physical manifestation of Ed's id, similar to the monster in the 1956 classic, "Forbidden Planet."  Pumpkinhead's nature does lead to some questions.  If Ed hadn't had regrets, what would have happened?  Pumpkinhead would have almost certainly killed all the kids (and Bunt, for helping), but then would Ed have died anyway?  Is that the bitter joke about invoking Pumpkinhead, that the invoker dies right after their last victim is dispatched by their monster?  Or taking it to a ridiculous extreme, what if Ed had crashed his car and died right after invoking Pumpkinhead?  Presumably our large friend would have collapsed in Haggis's yard, and no revenge would have happened.
     Pumpkinhead is a little different from the typical slasher killer, too.  He (the monster doesn't show any sex organs, but it is apparently made from the bodies of men, so I'll use the masculine form) doesn't usually kill people right away.  Instead, victims are dragged off, then usually brought back to die more spectacular deaths, in front of future victims.  Pumpkinhead seems to enjoy his work, and loves an audience.  Victim Kim is even hauled up a tree, probably 40-50 feet in the air, so that Pumpkinhead can dramatically drop her on a boulder.  Bunt, and especially Chris, could easily have been dispatched right away.  But Pumpkinhead, ever the showman, carts them around until there's more people to watch.  (And he pays for his arrogance, as both guys survive.)  Also, Pumpkinhead appears to be a demon, or evil spirit of some sort, but his resistance to Good and holy objects seems stronger than most.  Bunt takes Chris and Tracey to the ruins of a burned down church, but Pumpkinhead has no problem walking through it.  He even grabs and breaks a cross while he's doing so.  He makes fun of Maggie's religious belief--before he kills her he carves a cross shape in her face.  He apparently is at least somewhat intelligent, as well.  At one point he lays a trap, by leaving a motorcycle out for the kids to find (and hope to use to get away), but surprise!  he's removed the drive chain so it doesn't run.  Which makes me wonder--did he disable the kid's two cars, too?  They don't really try, the survivors panic and flee on foot.  Was Pumpkinhead secretly disappointed that this ruined another mean joke?
     (END SPOILERS--SAFE FOR EVERYONE)  Oddly, this movie was based on a poem (also titled, "Pumpkinhead," by Ed Justin, which won the Steinbeck award for best poem in 1988).  Aside from maybe some Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, I can't think of too many other examples of this.  "Pumpkinhead" was the directing debut of Stan Winston, the special effects wizard responsible for the effects in "The Thing" (1982), "The Terminator" (1984), "Aliens" (1986), "Predator" (1987), "Jurassic Park" (1993), and "Avatar" (2009), among others.  Sadly, he's deceased.  Star Lance Henriksen (Ed Harley) has had a long career, especially in the sci-fi/horror genres.  Highlights include "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975). "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), "The Terminator" (1984), "Aliens" (1986), "Near Dark" (1987), and the "Millenium" TV series (1996-99).  Jeff East (Chris) is probably best known for playing the young Clark Kent in 1978's "Superman."  The head of the Wallace family, (Mr. Wallace) was played by Buck Flower, who had a long career.  Among his movies were roles in "Ilsa: She-Wolf of the S.S." (1975), "Escape From New York" (1981), "Back to the Future" (1985), and "They Live" (1988).  Lee de Broux portrayed Ed Harley's father in the prologue.  He's probably best known for "Chinatown" (1974), the TV series "Roots" (1977), "Norma Rae" (1979), and "Robocop" (1987).  Of the remaining actors, especially the young actors, most either had short careers, or had longer ones mostly in low budget horror movies or on television.  Billy's dog, (Gypsy) was played by Mushroom, who also was the lead character's pet in 1984's "Gremlins."  Aside from Henriksen, probably the most famous actor was the girl who played one of Wallace's daughters (and was credited as such, with no character name), Mayim Bialik.  She went on to play the titular role in the TV sitcom "Blossom," and is currently a co-star on "The Big Bang Theory."
     "Pumpkinhead" went on to have 3 sequels.  Although, the second one was direct-to-video, and the third and fourth ones were direct-to-cable-television,  Specifically, the SyFy Channel, home of many terrible sci-fi and horror movies, with the "best" being "so bad they're good" fare like "Sharknado."  I haven't seen any of the sequels, and their reviews aren't promising.  Although apparently YouTube has at least the second one, so I'll try to give it a look and report back.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Tarantulas!

     Obviously, writing about wacky edibles is the most common type of post on this blog.  I try hard to make sure that the foods/beverages I post about are exotic, disgusting, or hopefully, both.  But, since I post once a week, some are admittedly stronger than others.  I'm very excited about this one, though.  Aside from some folks in Cambodia, Thailand, and limited parts of Africa, Venezuela, and Australia, I'm fairly confident that most people have never chowed down on a tarantula, and would never do so if given the chance.  For good reason.  Along with public speaking, death, enclosed spaces, and snakes, a fear of spiders is incredibly common.  Sometimes to absurd degrees.  From my personal experience, I know a woman (Hi Heather), who's so afraid of them that she won't look at a photograph of a spider in a book.  The huge Shelob from the "The Lord of the Rings" books and movies made for a very effective monster.  There's something about our eight-legged friends that put off a great many people.
     Let's move to tarantulas in general.  First off, their name comes from the Southern Italian town of Taranto.  People often refer to any large, hairy spider as a tarantula, but clearly scientists are more discriminating.  Despite their large size (the biggest one, the Goliath or Bird Eating Spider can have a leg span of 11 inches (28 cm.)), tarantulas are surprisingly harmless.  Their bite, it's true, can be painful, but it's not deadly to humans.  Like with some other animal bites/stings, the only danger is an allergic reaction, not the venom itself.  (Although the bite from an African species can cause hallucinations, so there's that.)  New World tarantulas have another, nasty defense, though.  They have what's called urticating hairs.  These are sharp, sometimes barbed hairs which cause irritation upon contact.  Some species even are able to kick off or throw the hairs at an enemy.  But, as with the bite, while these hairs are painful and annoying, they're not deadly (although extreme care should be taken if they get into the eyes).  Tarantulas live throughout most of the world.  Essentially, if you want to avoid them, your only options are Canada, the Northern U.S., most of Europe, and the colder parts of Asia.  (Oh, and Antarctica, of course.)
     As I mentioned in my recent post about reindeer meat (June 15, 2016), I got my tarantula from by typing in "exotic meats" in the search bar.  The company was called Thailand Unique, out of the named country.  This was the same outfit (through ThinkGeek) that supplied my my various insect posts in 2014 (February 13, April 3, May 22, and June 29), about crickets, grasshoppers, ants, and giant waterbugs.  The species I received was a Thai zebra tarantula.  This species is native to its name country, Myanmar, and Cambodia.  The zebra tarantula (scientific name: Haplopelma albostriatum) gets its name from the white stripes on its body and running down its legs.  It's also known as the edible spider.  It's considered a somewhat shy spider, as it spends most of its time in its underground lair.  It will attack aggressively if provoked, however.  Since it's an Old World tarantula it doesn't have urticating hairs.  Fried up they're a street vendor food in Cambodia.
     The can that arrived was small, about 2.5 inches in diameter (6.5 cm.).  But, when I opened it up the spider inside seemed a bit larger than I expected.  (Photos taken by Andrew--thanks.)

(You probably can't make it out, but in the last photo I'm chewing on a tarantula leg.)
      I read that all the spider's parts were edible--the legs, the abdomen ("butt" end), and the cephalothorax (the main part of the body, encompassing the fused head, and where the legs connected), so I dutifully consumed every one.  Being in a hotel, I didn't have any way to cook/prepare it, so I just picked the parts up and ate them, some with condiments on them.  The experience was very disappointing.  The legs were dry, hollow, and fairly tasteless.  The abdomen and cephalothorax were more solid, and somewhat better than the legs, but still pretty bad.  Ketchup, mustard, and Taco Bell's "Hot" sauce all didn't improve the taste to any noticeable degree.  There was kind of an unpleasant aftertaste, too.  It's possible that this aftertaste was largely psychological, but it was still apparent.  Overall then, I didn't like tarantula at all.  It was also embarrassingly expensive, costing over $20 for my small can.  Now it's true that my specimen was dried, cooked, and canned.  I'm sure that fresh tarantula tastes better.  Witness the dramatic difference in flavor from canned tuna and fresh tuna sushi, for example.  However, it appears unlikely that I'll ever be in one of the rare places that serve fresh tarantula.  But if I am, I will give it another go, albeit reluctantly.
     To end this post on a morbid note (I do write horror, after all), I'd like to talk about one of the tarantula's biggest enemies, the tarantula wasp.  This wasp finds a tarantula, and then stings it.  (Incidentally the tarantula wasp's sting is rated the 2nd worst in the world, after South America's bullet ant, according the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.)  The sting paralyzes the tarantula, but doesn't kill it.  The wasp then lays an egg on/next to the stilled spider.  The larva that emerges promptly burrows into the tarantula, eating it from the inside.  To keep its food fresh, the larva avoids the tarantula's vital organs until it's ready to pupate and become an adult.  Can you imagine the horror?  And this would be made even more extreme if the tarantula can still feel pain, and is aware of what's going on (I couldn't discover if either of these is true).  Being consumed from the inside, slowly--that's got to be among the very worst ways to go.  If tarantulas in this situation can pray, I'm sure they're begging their spider deity(s) to let the wasp larva accidentally eat a vital organ, and have sweet death finally bring them relief.