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Why We Need Horror Movies (AKA: WTF, LA?)

So yesterday we talked about zombie movies and what makes them tick, and I learned something new about our readers: you people love the walking dead! I was expecting a few people to pipe up and argue that horror movies are disgusting and unnecessary; after all, isn't there enough pain and suffering in the world as it is? All ya gotta do is open up the newspaper, and there's your horror story! Which would've given me the opportunity to provide the counter-argument to that, which is: I think that's exactly why we need them.

Let me explain by providing a recent example from my local newspaper, the LA Times. For those of you who haven't heard (I'm not sure how far news like this travels), we've had a strange and bloody couple of weeks here in angel city:

Sunday, Feb 24: Two People Stabbed While Watching Horror Movie
This is probably my worst nightmare; I often think of how vulnerable we are in movie theaters, sitting essentially alone in the dark surrounded by strangers. (Heck, Lincoln died that way, and John Dillinger was shot and killed by police coming out of a Chicago theater where he was watching a gangster flick.) Here's the scoop:

Half an hour into "The Signal," a man seated in a back row stabbed a lone moviegoer in front of him, police said. As the victim fled, a witness told police, the man walked toward the screen and stabbed a second man. The victims apparently did not know each other or the suspect, "leading us to believe this is just a completely random assault," Basham said. At the time, there were only two moviegoers in the theater in addition to the stabber and victims, police said.

Here's the creepiest part: "After the suspect fled, Basham said, the movie resumed: It is a slasher film about a mysterious electronic signal [broadcast through TVs and radios] that compels people to kill."

Wednesday, Feb. 27: A man shoots repeatedly into a crowd
There are still plenty of gang-related shootings in South L.A., but this one most certainly stood out from the pack:

Five children and three adults were shot Wednesday afternoon by a gunman who opened fire at a busy South Los Angeles bus stop minutes after classes were dismissed at a nearby school. In a scene of chaos that authorities were still trying to piece together, witnesses described a gunman who seemingly appeared from nowhere and began spraying the crowd indiscriminately. As bystanders dived to the ground, some adults swept up children from the path of gunfire.

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As if that weren't enough ...

The article about the bus stop shooting concludes with this:

"Wednesday's violence comes after a month of high-profile shootings that began Feb. 7 when SWAT Officer Randal Simmons was killed during a siege with a San Fernando Valley man who had killed his family members. Less than a week later in Oxnard, a 15-year-old boy was shot by a classmate. In Northeast Los Angeles on Feb. 21, Avenues gang members got into a shootout with police that left two dead and paralyzed a large swath of the city for much of the day. Two days later a Yorba Linda man killed his wife and three children before turning the gun on himself. Monday night, a Baldwin Park man allegedly killed his mother and two neighbors."

What I'm getting at is this.
dahmermug.jpgApparently, I live in a city gone insane, where murderous patricidal rampages and indiscriminate killings are becoming the norm. We read about this stuff in the newspaper, and after a moment of oh, that's horrible, we turn to the comics page. It's not because we're insensitive; it's because we have no way to process or really grapple with the information we're presented with -- it just seems, in a word, evil, and beyond our comprehension, so we stop trying to comprehend it. It reminds me of the bafflement captured by Tommy Lee Jones' opening monologue in No Country for Old Men:

"The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job -- not to be glorious. But I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. You can say it's my job to fight it but I don't know what it is anymore. More than that, I don't want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard."

If sometimes life seems like a horror movie, it's one that's playing in the next house, in the next town -- you know it's going on somewhere, but statistically speaking, unless you're a gangbanger or a cop or something, you'll never be tangled up with it in any real way. So how do you deal with that creeping feeling that the world is turning evil? How do you prepare for what seems to be coming? Exorcise it? I think we tell ourselves made-up stories about evil. Ones in which we can identify with the protagonist, who's fending off hordes of zombies or staking the vampire or appeasing the ghost; our best horror movies are stories about evil that has no explanation.

jason.jpgWhen horror movies try and make sense of the motivations of the demons or serial killers who are menacing the regular folk, they get all mucked up, because we don't want to know; because the stories in the newspaper about the guy who murders his family or sprays a bus stop with his 9mm or stabs strangers in a darkened theater all seem, at their root, to be stories about evil, perpetrated by souls so twisted as to be unrecognizable. So the perpetrators in our horror movies are usually perversions of the human form: their flesh is rotted; they wear freaky masks; they are translucent and move about in an unnatural way. Because that child killer I read about can't be human -- not human the same way I am -- so our horror movie villains are not-quite-human, as well.

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images

Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
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Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
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To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
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During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
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David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

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