Sunday, September 25, 2022

An Early All Hallows' Eve Extravaganza - Halloween Horror Nights 31

I'm celebrating Halloween a little earlier than usual this year, due to a few weeks of planned travel. Still, in true Shangrila Towers tradition, we're going to feature the best the spooky season has to offer. Today's post is about this year's iteration of Universal Studios Florida's annual "Halloween Horror Nights" event...

Much like Christmas, the commercial powers-that-be have pushed Halloween earlier and earlier. That's why it wasn't terribly surprising to see HHN starting on frickin' Labor Day weekend this year. Knowing that my buddies like to go on opening night, I grabbed a $130 "Rush of Fear" pass and joined them.  Here are my impressions of each of the houses, in no particular order:

The Weeknd: After Hours Nightmare - This was an unabashedly weird collaboration. While The Weeknd's music videos certainly have their fair share of surreal and disturbing images, you don't associate him with horror the same way you do with, say, Alice Cooper. That said, the house was creative, featuring twisted versions of cuts from the titular hit album (which you are almost guaranteed to hear in its entirety in the queue, thanks to the usually lengthy wait times).

Halloween - HHN has done a Halloween house before, of course, but going back to the well was mandatory due to the upcoming release of Halloween Ends (I half expect the park to hawk Peacock streaming memberships in the gift shop). This one follows the plot of the original movie beat for beat, and stays true to the silent nature of Michael Myers/The Shape. It's well-crafted, but there aren't too many surprises.

The Horrors of Blumhouse - This house combines scenes from two recent movies - Freaky and The Black Phone. It's a strange mix, since the former is a horror/comedy and the latter is more of a thriller/coming-of-age story than a horror flick. If you've seen the films, the scenes are fairly recognizable, but neither setting has the strong sense of place necessary for a great HHN house (compare this to The Shining, one of my all-time favorites).

Universal Monsters: Legends Collide - Despite the abject failure of the "Dark Universe," the Universal Classic Monsters are still some of the most iconic fiends in film history, so they always get a house at HHN. This year's installment is about a clash between Dracula, Wolfman, and the Mummy (who has home court advantage due to the house being set in an ancient Egyptian pyramid). It's not a bad idea, and it makes for a pretty enjoyable time.

Spirits of the Coven - A coven of witches beguiles and murders customers at a speakeasy in the Roaring Twenties. I recognized a bunch of props from past 1920s-era houses, and the theming wasn't the strongest, so this house was just okay.

Bugs: Eaten Alive - In the home of the future, pests are exterminated automatically by science - until something goes terribly wrong. For persons with a specific phobia, this will be the scariest house, as it features a metric truckload of fake plastic insects, but I thought they underused the '50s theme.

Fiesta de Chupacabras - I've noticed a concerted effort to include Day of the Dead theming at HHN in recent years, which makes a ton of sense. This is probably the best attempt to date, with bona fide animatronic chupacabras and lots of Spanish language menace ("Necessitamos tu sangre!").

Hellblock Horror - Easily the weakest house this year, with a muddled theme that my friends and I couldn't really understand. A bunch of monsters (or is it aliens?) attack a prison (or did they mutate from human prisoners?), and massacre the guards.

Dead Man’s Pier: Winter’s Wake - This was the best house - you traipse through a mostly-deserted New England fishing town haunted by ghostly sailors (not pirates). The house does a great job of making you feel like you are going indoors and outdoors, and it is one of the few HHN houses ever to evoke feelings of melancholy.

Descendants of Destruction - Set in the post-apocalypse, this house takes you from an abandoned subway down to the depths of the Earth, where mutants reign. It's pulled off all right, but is probably strongest in the opening scenes, with impressively realistic derelict subway cars setting the stage.

Super Secret Extra Bonus Tip: The "Golden Hour" - On off-peak nights, in the last hour or so of HHN (from 1 am to 2 am), you are sometimes able to walk through a house alone, without the usual conga line of people in front and behind you. The scareactors will all focus on you, allowing you to truly experience the house as it was conceived and designed.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Guns: The Rich Man's .357 Lever Action - Winchester Model 1892 review

By far the most popular post here on Shangrila Towers is my review of the Rossi 92, a .357 Magnum levergun I bought a decade ago (and have since sold).  The review, titled "The Poor Man's .357 Lever-Action," was pretty frank about the pros and cons of the humble Rossi, which was all I could afford fresh out of law school.

As you might expect, after years of lawyering, I have a bit more disposable income than I did back then, which leads us to today's featured gun - a beautiful Winchester Model 1892 Short Rifle chambered in .357 Magnum:

Fit and Finish

Yes, it's made in Miroku, Japan, but what the new Winchesters lack in authenticity they make up for in modern engineering and good old-fashioned Japanese craftsmanship.  The Winchester's gloss blued finish and walnut stock are noticeably nicer than my old Rossi, though in practical terms I'd bet both guns are about as durable as each other.

This Winchester 1892 (well, at least the Short Rifle model) has a smooth, metal crescent buttplate. It looks great and mounts well, but if I'm being honest, it is not ideal for shooting, since it provides absolutely no cushion for recoil. Another issue is that the gun has a long length of pull - okay for a piece from the end of the 19th century, but out of step for the way people shoot rifles in 2022.

Sights and Trigger

The iron sights that come with the gun are great - a Marble’s gold bead in the front, and a semi buckhorn rear. They worked fine for informally ringing steel at an outdoor range:

The 92's trigger is good - a pretty standard single stage affair that breaks cleanly.  Aside from the trigger, the only other controls on the gun are the well-knurled hammer spur and the controversial/unnecessary modern tang safety. I know traditionalists don't like it, but it's unobtrusive, ambidextrous, and doesn't affect the functioning of the gun one whit if it's not engaged.

Range Report

While I've never used a lever action that ran perfectly 100% with all ammo, the Winchester 1892 fed a wide variety of ammunition well overall - certainly better than my old Rossi. One caveat - the gun (and all 92-style actions) is expressly designed for .357 Magnum, not .38 Special. Feeding .38s is tough on the action and can lead to jams if you don't cycle the gun gingerly.

I found the rifle to be quite accurate.  I managed decent 25 yard offhand groups at my local indoor range, and could have done a lot better if I had a benchrest and outdoor lighting.

Remington UMC 130 gr. FMJ .38 Special - note the circled "A" showing my point of aim. Again, .38s are not indicated for this gun, but I wanted to see if you could use them in a pinch:

Winchester .38 Special 130 gr. FMJ flat nose rounds

Remington .357 Magnum - as expected, the gun shoots better with .357s since the chamber is designed around them:


As Peter from Dawn of the Dead put it, "Ain't it a crime . . . The only person who could miss with this gun is the sucker with the bread to buy it." The Miroku-made Winchester 1892 is a spendy, hard to find, and somewhat archaic .357 Magnum lever action - but you certainly get workmanship and accuracy for your money. Whether that's worth it for your particular zombie apocalypse is in the eye of the beholder.

Tech: Apple iPhone SE (3rd generation) review - The New Old Phone

There was a time when Apple's iPhone was cutting-edge - a hot new tech product no one had ever seen before. Nowadays, iPhones are old hat, with talking points that are more pedestrian than pioneering. Case in point: iPhone 14 touts the "longest battery life ever," emergency SOS signals via satellite, and low light photo taking - not exactly killer features for an $800 phone.

So, when my old hand-me-down iPhone 7 finally kicked the bucket after five years of faithful service, I went out and bought what is essentially the exact same phone with a faster CPU - the third-gen iPhone SE:

Is it flashy? Nope. Is it a better choice than its Android counterpart, the Samsung Galaxy A? Debatable. But this is the cheapest phone you can buy from Apple, and its performance isn't too far off from the top-dog, just-released iPhone 14 models, at least for everyday use. If all you need from your smartphone is to make calls, take pictures, and navigate you to the nearest McDonald's, this is your jam.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Books: The Night Watchman


Louise Erdrich has made a career telling stories derived from her Native American heritage, and she tells a very personal one in The Night Watchman.  The book is inspired by the real-life experiences of Erdrich's grandfather in resisting the Indian termination policies of the 1950s. The author pairs that interesting political drama with slice-of-life vignettes about the families and foibles of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa.

The problem here is that those slices don't quite make up a cake.  Erdrich's style and characters are reminiscent of Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion, but without his flair for humor.  The result is a lukewarm mash of incidents that is only occasionally perked up by ruminations on the relationship of the indigenous peoples to the white man. It's an okay book overall, but not enough happens in the story for me to recommend it.

Thursday, September 01, 2022

Books: A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts


My friends and I are going to Titusville Saturday to watch the planned launch of the Artemis 1 moon mission, and I hope we'll have better luck than I have had in the past trying to catch a launch. To get in the mood, I've been reading Andrew Chaikin's lengthy history of the Apollo program, A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts.

The word "definitive" gets thrown around a lot in nonfiction book reviews, but A Man on the Moon really is the definitive account of Apollo. Chaikin managed to interview 23 of the 24 Apollo astronauts, many of whom are dead now, so this is the literal last word for many of them. The author goes into each man's background and motivations, weaving their stories into the overarching tragedy-and-redemption narrative that was the Apollo program (like many books on Apollo, Chaikin begins by memorializing the fallen astronauts of Apollo 1 - Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee).

As you can tell from the title, this is an astronaut-focused account, so if you're looking for details on the political or technical history of the program and the hundreds of thousands of hardworking NASA folks who made Apollo possible, you may want to look at other books. However, if you want to hear about flying to the moon from the people who did it, this is the book to read.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

TV: Disney's One Saturday Morning

I'm old enough to remember when Disney was content to put their cartoons on broadcast television the old-fashioned way, with commercials and all. Most famous was Disney's 2-hour Saturday morning cartoon block, One Saturday Morning:

A lot of the shows were duds, of course, but some were as clever and well-animated as anything out there in the late '90s/early '00s. The big ones were Disney's Doug (famously poached from Nickelodeon), Recess, and Pepper Ann, which pitted imaginative school-aged children against the trials and tribulations of adolescence. Streaming is great and all, but there was something special about having an appointed time each week when a kid could grab a bowl of cereal, plop down in front of the TV, and just be entertained for awhile without worrying about math tests or school bullies.

Miscellany: Love Letter

I've been looking up travel friendly games for a fall road trip, and one title that keeps coming up is Love Letter, designed by Seiji Kanai. It's a light deduction card game for 2-4 players with a whole lot of random chance built in:

At the start of a turn, a player draws a card and decides whether to play that card, or the one already in their hand. The cards all have special abilities, like looking at other player's cards or eliminating players outright based on various conditions. The easiest way to victory is by being the last player standing, though you can also win simply by having the highest value card after all the cards are drawn.

Love Letter is impressive mainly because of how much strategy it mines from 16 cards, all of which have pluses and minuses. For example, the "Princess" is the highest value card for scoring purposes, but it's downright dangerous to its holder. The game is small enough to be carried in a pocket and perfect for travel. Of course, there are now a bajillion different versions of Love Letter, some of which introduce small tweaks to the rules, but I recommend trying the vanilla game first.

Saturday, August 06, 2022

Links: Blogroll updates

As time goes by, blogs come and go, sometimes quietly so.

I'm sad to say that Shamus Young, creator of the gamewriting blog Twenty Sided, passed away in June.  While I'm removing his blog from the blogroll, it's no reflection on the quality of the content there - years and years (and several books') worth of advice, much of it focused on the unique craft of video game writing.

I'm also taking off Hell in a Handbasket - this gun and self-defense blog has been dormant for a year now, but I always hoped James would start posting again. Regrettably, now the link is dead and the posts are all down.

I'm adding GAT Daily to the blogroll - it's a group blog with a mix of interesting posts and gun industry news.  While it looks like they sometimes post sponsored content without marking it as such (this post on the P365 Proforce, for example), on the whole it's a decent stop on your daily gun reads.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Food: Crumbl

When I was a kid, chain cookie options were limited to mall stores like Mrs. Fields and Great American Cookies. Their products were addictive, sure, but not terribly interesting. In other words, people craved the sugary hit of those bags of mini chocolate chip cookies, but it was pure comfort food...none of the flavors would ever surprise you.

In today's TikTok-saturated world, with outré food items all the rage (cf. Pink Sauce), baked goods have to be zanier to get attention from the public - enter Crumbl, a chain of cookie stores angling to be the 21st century Mrs. Fields:

Crumbl's gimmick is to bake expensive, large soft cookies on-site with flavors that rotate every week.
While chocolate chip is always on the menu, it's joined by concoctions like Mango Frozen Yogurt, Cornbread, and Pineapple Upside Down Cake.  These cookies taste pretty darn good but are absolutely terrible for you nutritionally (don't eat more than half a cookie unless you want to blow your diet). Still, unless you like your cookies crisp and crunchy, Crumbl is certainly worth a try.

TV: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Joss Whedon has had a catastrophic fall from grace, but back when I was in middle school, he gave us one of the first teen-oriented fantasy dramas, the blueprint for all the Charmeds and Supernaturals that came after. Once you heard that wolf howl and the organ notes from the opening bars of Nerf Herder's theme song, you knew it was on:

The show followed Buffy Summers, a seemingly normal California high-schooler. Of course, Buffy was actually the Slayer, imbued with the strength and skill to fight vampires and other evil creatures. Refreshingly, the show started with Buffy already having been the Slayer for awhile, sparing everyone the origin story and getting straight to the high school drama and vampire-hunting.

Buffy was truly appointment television for me, since one of my schoolteachers was also a fan. Every week, we'd discuss the newest installment, especially as the show turned into a soap opera in later seasons. That sort of ritual is rare with modern on-demand streaming (the whole series is on Amazon Prime and Hulu, by the way).

Now, to be frank, Buffy was a mixed bag. Sarah Michelle Gellar's performance still holds up, I think, but the cheesy effects, trite monster-of-the-week plots, and diminishing returns of the various "Big Bads" eventually robbed the series of its vitality.  Some ham-handed handling of hot-button issues didn't help, either (Whedon repeatedly uses the "Bury Your Gays" trope). By high school, I had tuned out of Buffy, but I do look back on it fondly.