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by Sam Juliano

We are looking at Election Day square in the face and a final end to months of voting madness, political banter and fake scandals, the last of which manifested itself in Vladimir Putin’s declaration today that there was absolutely no wrong doing in the matter of Hunter Biden and the Ukraine.  Looks like Rudy Giuliani is himself headed for criminal scrutiny now, as well he should be.  Polls continue to show Joe Biden and Kamala Harris sitting pretty but complacency is simply not allowed in this still precarious election equation.  Trump pollsters like Rassmussen though continue to try and muddy the picture with false data, just today suggesting Trump is up by one point nationally which the majority of pollster shave Biden up by 8 or 9 at least.  In the midst of all the election hoopla is Halloween, which falls on this coming Saturday.  Trick or treating will have some restrictions in place for the first time in everyone’s lives.

Jamie Uhler’s monumental HorrorFest 2020 continues in full force with stupendous capsule reviews of five horror films that many have still not yet negotiated.  This past week Jim Clark penned another sensational essay in his ongoing Ingmar Bergman series on the early-career Brink of Life, and J.D. Lafrance wrote up a splendid piece on Clive Barker’s 1995 Lord of Illusions. 

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by Sam Juliano

Everyone is well on the domestic front, but the virus numbers all over are again surging.  Our illustrious leader is none too concerned as he criss-crosses the country staging rallies where social distancing and mask-wearing is practically non existent.  November 3rd is just two weeks away and so many of us are following every poll, every new report, every new development and all matters even marginally connected to this election of a lifetime.  Another four years of Donald Trump is unconscionable and I’ve been doing my part daily online, physically putting up lawn signs in my area and making sure voters get their ballots in the mail or in drop off boxes.  Wonders in the Dark is urging everyone to do what they can to insure a blue wave and to elect Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and all Democratic Senators and House candidates.  The importance and urgency of this election can’t be overstated and nothing should be taken for granted.  Favorable polls are real nice but we know from the past about being lulled into complacency.

Jamie Uhler’s fantastic HorrorFest 2020 movies forward with a fabulous capsule review on 1988’s The Nest and also a unique schedule of a Horror Theme night he shared with friends this past week:

The Nest (T. H. Winkless… 1988) 

Getting evil corporate dollars pumped into the rural outer stretches of the fictitious northeastern small island town of North Port local businessman and town mayor Elias thinks it’s the necessary bedfellow he must accept to eventually renovate the land for high priced condos. His small island has hit hard times, but it’s picturesque, so once INTEC is finished with their experiments on the areas insects, he figures their cash infusion will save the population flight and attract vibrant East Coast people looking for a cheap alternative to the Martha’s Village and the Hamptons of the world. But INTEC has let things get out of control, these bugs are now multiplying and changing rapidly with each generation, now sporting a dangerous ability to strike with murderous wrath when their Queen summons. The only solution to control a larger outbreak to mainland is fumigating the entire island and killing everything on it—including the humans who were never evacuated—so it’s a race against time by the town’s lanky Sheriff, his old love (the mayor’s daughter who’s returned to patch long past heartbreaks), and the hilariously eccentric exterminator (who is the link between Bill Murray in Caddyshack and John Goodman in Arachnophobia) to kill the Queen and signal the planes via the lighthouse to not drop their poisonous cloud all over the island.  
The initial reel or two in this one is a tad strained, sure, building character elements would traditionally benefit most flicks, but effects laden romps like this don’t really need arcs and emotional heft, but you don’t mind that much. It breezes by quickly enough, and there is an undercurrent of what’s building out in the woods and the fields, that thankfully fully unleashes in the last 35 minutes and change. That’s where this film lives wholly, both as a funny, cheese spectacle and in the minds of its cult of fans decades on. I totally get it, cockroaches that can take over an organism, using it as a cocoon like sack and quickly morphing into a beastly hybrid of the host is pretty entertaining. One scene we get a feline insect beast, another the geriatric old Mayor who eventually gets rocked with a few shotgun pumps, amounting to some pretty delirious laughs. With enough beer and pizza and the right friends on hand, this would play tremendously alongside something like the gonzo brilliant Slugs, both dollar bin approximations of 1950’s sci-fi shockers. Like the ’80’s The Blob remake, they’re fun, but you could make about 5 of each of those for the cost of one Blob. It was worth it. 
Also I would like to share something out that I’ve been working on. I’m having some friends over for a Horror night on Friday, so I thought it’d be really fun to program a night of festivities in the style of the old movie palaces, i.e. a cartoon, a short, and then a feature. My idea though, was to get them to all work around a theme in relation to each other. I’m doing the one on the top, but I came up with many, many ideas that would work and depending on what you see here you might want to try one or several this season (especially since all the cartoons can be seen on dailymotion, vimeo or YouTube and all the Tales From the Crypts are also on YouTube for free). I’ve also paired several with music, but that’s getting aggressively insular. Have fun!

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Screen capture from 1972’s “Night Stalker”.

by Sam Juliano

We had a very close call this week.  Lucille had a low grade fever, diarrhea and nausea on Sunday, so I rushed her up to Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck to be checked for COVID.  We waited almost three hours but she ended up negative thank God.  It was still best for her to stay home from a family wedding last night (one I attended alone) as she was still a bit under the weather from another slight viral condition.  The election continues to wind down and I am quite upbeat at the probably outcome.  Unlike 2016, this year is showing positive numbers with very few people still out there that haven’t made up their minds.  This past week J.D. Lafrance posted a splendid review of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice.  Jamie Uhler has continue to pen more entries in his spectacular 2020 Halloween Horror Fest, with four fantastic capsules up there today.  Finally the Night Gallery FB countdown has concluded with my #1 posting of “Camera Obscura”.  R.I.P Yankee legend Whitey Ford and also baseball great Joe Morgan. Wishing all continued safety!

Forbidden World (A. Holzman… 1982) 
A Sci-Fi Horror film produced by Roger Corman in hopes of cashing in on the Alien tidal wave (or, more apt, ‘cash in again’ on Alien as Galaxy of Terror had been a success, and better film, the previous year [this one even borrows sets from it]) this hatches from a mutant creation of human female and spider like cocoon embryo and slithers around like a burgundy liver. It grows over the film and unleashes a wrath on a Keystone Kops like crew who have otherwise been more preoccupied with fucking and peeping on each other (how the organism gets loose is an insane bit of incomprehensible carelessness). The last remaining members eventually kill it by getting it to eat a large, bulbous cancerous tumor that a scientist on the crew had been slowly dying of. In other hands with a better script this works OK, but as it stands, pass.   

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Screen capture from 1990’s “Robot Jox” reviewed by Jamie Uhler as part of Halloween Horror Fest 2010

 

by Sam Juliano

The pandemic is again gathering fearful momentum as America prepares for the most important Presidential election in modern history. The President’s COVID diagnosis has shocked many, though most see reckless decision-making as paving the way for it to happen.   Both topics of course have dominated all means of coverage and attention as some are trying hard to usher in the autumnal season and Halloween.  Here at Wonders in the Dark October 31st is bring honored with our stupendous annual Halloween Horror Fest courtesy of it resident founder Jamie Uhler.  This week we have two fabulous capsules to add to the series.  This past week Jim Clark continued his seminal Ingmar Bergman series with a masterful essay on 1976’s Face to Face.  I also have added my latest entries in my nearly-completed Top 27 Night Gallery FB countdown, with only the #1 choice still to come.  Wishing everyone to stay safe!

Robot Jox (S. Gordon… 1990) 

The tale of gladiatorial bouts where men represent country company state teams while manning large (roughly) 6 story robots with the technology to match the movements of the pilots inside them. If this wasn’t enough, the twist comes in the outcome as we’re in a hellscape more or less, so the loser gets stomped to death or just parishes in explosion, approximating the fighters to futuristic gladiators, the representatives for global multinationals that fight for territories rich in resources. Early, a match between a Russian (or a generic facsimile of the Soviet bloc) and American cowboy one has Alaska’s oil and forests as the price, but it goes tits up and hundreds of lowly spectators are killed. In the aftermath the American hero retires (as this is his last contractually obligated 10th fight) and the plot spirals out of control. You could guess where it’s going when his sudden, budding love interest, a female human created in a lab as the perfect robot jock, is set to replace him against the Russian in the rematch, since the spectator murderous bout ended in a draw. Yeah, he comes back to fight and be the reluctant hero. 

For Gordon this lacks his usual exhilarating panache, the fights—all models and practical effects on sound stages—move and look hokey, and his no name cast (Jeffrey combs has just a small cameo) is mostly dull. Plus, while the concept is ripe for satire, it’s really dry, desperately calling for the razor edge of, say, Starship Troopers. Sure, Transformers begat Robot Jox, and Robot Jox certainly gave us del Toro’s Pacific Rim, but while this film has a small cult, I won’t ever be one of them. Pass, or watch Pacific Rim again, which, for what it is, is a masterful work (or, if you want obscure Gordon, do Space Truckers or Castle Freak or hell, his masterpiece From Beyond). I don’t blame Gordon, del Toro had 20 times the budget to muck about with.  (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

As we inch closer to October the 2020 Presidential Election is in full swing, and as a fervent supporter of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party I have reason to be optimistic.  Polls and movement are showing great promise for the Presidency and control of the U.S. Senate.  None of us of course are happy about the Supreme Court situation, but winning the executive and legislative branches will easily overcome that unfortunate situation.  Whether you are voting by mail or at the polls in your state, vote BIDEN HARRIS !!

J. D. Lafrance wrote an excellent review on David Fincher’s Seven this past week at Wonders in the Dark.  Next week I will post the remainder of my FB Night Gallery reviews, but we have Jamie Uhler’s masterful additions below of his banner Holloween HorrorFest 2020:

Spontaneous Combustion (T. Hooper… 1990) 
The Haunted Palace (R. Corman… 1963)
Last night I loaded up the flash drive for a night alone with the teevee with two more obscure works from a pair of American Horror masters. The first, an outlandish vehicle for Tobe Hopper’s continued descent into the ridiculous (he broke out with Texas Chainsaw Massacre like a bullet from a gun, but nonetheless made film after film thoroughly dulling that initial masterpieces’ blast) dubbed Spontaneous Combustion. Sure, it was quite ridiculous, but, it was also really interesting in parts and highly original in others, the sort of low rent trash that bad filmmakers just can’t muster. No, only a failed (maybe) master could do something like this, the tale of the world’s first (literal) nuclear family who, once ‘safe’ birth an offspring that decades later finds himself the continued scientific experiment that had killed his very parents in the first place (shortly after his birth, in, you guessed it, ‘spontaneous combustion’). He (the great, great Brad Dourif, one of America’s low art treasures for 5 decades or so) soon discovers the sinister plot and the pyrotechnics bloom. When all is said and done it’s a wonderful romp, a chuckle inducing quasi-super hero origin story for the modern age*. The second, Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace, an eery, atmospheric tale dubbed (in the trailer and all promotional materials) as another in his masterful run of eight Edgar Allan Poe adaptations is, nevertheless, an H.P. Lovecraft film (literally perhaps the first one for film—certainly the first good to great one) in a similar vein. It’s cheap, but given his usual lush period color cinematography for all his genre works and evocative atmospherics and high-pitched (often) Vincent Price lead performances, works tremendously. Here, Price is two characters at once, a demonic worshipper of the dark arts in 1700’s New England and a peaceful offspring 110 years later returning to claim the family real estate castle (because, you know, the 1700’s heathen is torched at the stake). Since the town had killed his great, great grandfather—a fact he had no prior knowledge of—that once he inhabits the huge palace they suspect something afoot when he begins to fall under the swirling satanic forces. When coupled with the number of evil-doers that have stayed along waiting for offspring to return in the castle, it spells disaster for all involved…

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by Sam Juliano

America lost an irreplaceable cultural icon this past week and the timing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing at age 87 from cancer after a long illness spells trouble ahead for us Democrats and Biden supporters who are witnessing a Republican power play to fill her seat.  I admired her deeply and when I heard she passed I was like so many others, in tears.  I fondly recall reviewing the picture book on her in my Caldecott series back in 2017.

This past week Jim Clark reviewed The Touch in his masterful winding-down Ingmar Bergman series here at Wonders in the Dark.  Jamie Uhler’s epic Halloween Horror Fest 2020 continues with some seriously fascinating entries (below).  I am holding back my Night Gallery additions until next week.  Best wishes to all.  Stay safe!

Color Out of Space (R. Stanley… 2019) 

The Curse (D. Keith… 1987)

The Midnight Meat Train (R. Kitamura… 2008)

Horror, as a celluloid enterprise, grew almost wholly out of its literary origins; the greatest and most influential films in the genre for the first several decades had all previously found birth via the printed word. Shelley, Stoker and Poe unmistakably formulated much of what we see when we think of Horror, even as the genre grew out from their tales into wholly new and foreign ones. It’s a somewhat remarkable point to consider, given that only Bram Stoker even saw a day in the 20th century (12 years to be precise), i.e. the modern age that saw the birth of projected, flickering images. But nevertheless I think we take it for granted that where Horror has come from is a medium that seeks to burrow and twist language, hoping a reader can conjure the creativity of their mind to imagine ghastly ghouls, creaky floorboards, spider-web filled castles or unimaginable bloodshed (in a photographic medium like film this becomes even more ironic). H.P. Lovecraft would then be somewhat unique, he the great link from the past masters into the Horror of the cinematic age, penning most of his classic works after World War I had completed its untold misery. Like Poe, he was also a writer in the age of periodicals, so most of his Horror was birthed in short stories published in magazines or newspapers that the everyman could afford and collect, imbuing his (still sophisticated) work with more Pulpy leaning elements of fantasy and demons, all mixed together with new advances in the natural sciences to create quite the scary cocktail.

The work that he regularly listed as his favorite, ‘The Colour Out of Space’, is perfectly illustrative of his unique brilliance. A 1927 story about a mysterious meteorite that lands on the Gardner farm near their well that they use as their water source. The meteorite is unexplainable, alluding scientific analysis as it slowly recedes into the soil over a number of days. In the coming months, everything that has been near the absorbed soil, or drank from the well (this is much of their crops, all of their animals and every member of the family) changes; the plants and vegetation grow large, often in a wild array of kaleidoscopic colors, but is nevertheless sickly inedible. The animals—and this includes the humans—slowly turn into brittle grey forms and wither away to painfully horrific deaths (similarly after their colorful plumage, the plants recede, turn grey and brittle, and break off into ash). The auteurist trick is Lovecraft’s after the fact first-person perspective of a surveyor that comes to the Arkham area years later, only able to locate one person willing to recount the ghastly ordeal that had taken place there. As Horror, it’s tremendous; it’s all exposition and recounting, nothing happening in real time, thus, theoretically, nothing happening to keep the reader on the edge of his seat. Still, it manages to be a gripping read by exacting a strangeness and often dense maze of poetic, ever-twisting prose. As was Lovecraft’s trademark by this point: it reads calmly, like the dispassionate reading of a will, or police report to a grisly murder. For cinema to tackle such a story, changes would have to be made, minor plot points wholly embellished or invented from thin air to concoct the action so it appears in the present. But how do you explain a story working so hard to be mysterious? 

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by Sam Juliano
     As we are halfway through September we are inching closer to Halloween and Election Day as if the past few months haven’t been constantly reminding us of the latter.  This past week Jim Clark published another banner essay in his long-running Ingmar Bergman series on The Touch and J.D. Lafrance a stupendous review of Christopher Nolan’s new film Tenet.  We are still and will be for quite some time experiencing the fear and uncertainty of COVID-19 which stateside still remains the major story every minute of the day.  Wishing all our friends and readers continued safety.  As part of Jamie Uhler’s HalloweenFest 2020 I offer up his capsules from a few weeks ago in his introduction, which were not posted before the actual longer reviews.  I have followed his extraordinary report with my latest Night Gallery reviews in my winding-down FB countdown:
Jamie:   But in regards to film watching, some of my favorite genres have been attacked to keep it loose and fun, many of which I don’t regularly do as I’ve picked the bones of their canons clean long ago. Obviously, it’s been really fun getting back to these joys. For Horror, I’ve done 10 already, and I’m considering many of these watches then to be for this season, so I’ll note them here with a really brief description should any of you want to watch them.

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 © 2020 by James Clark

We live in a time when there are many who bid to confound the orthodox. Great gobs of rebels roam the town, threatening to install jurisdictions putting an end to the easy days for what is left of a mainstream. Our entertainments, for instance, smack of concussion. All these game-changers never doubt that their look and ways are destined to happily rule.

There is the possibility, however, that all of that critique will slip back to the defaults of religion and science (and their minions of humanism). It’s one thing to feel that something very important is not in play. It’s quite another thing, it seems to me, to define and embrace what that elusive phenomenon is.

One remarkable effort in that area is the output of the films of Ingmar Bergman (1919-2007). The latter’s career was not without renown and homage. But looking for responses, in such a direction as we’ve mentioned, have not found cogent takers amidst film enthusiasts.

    There was a quite unique showdown, as to this silence—within the trilogy of three extremely violent films, namely, Hour of the Wolf (1968), Shame (1968) and The Passion of Anna (1969)—which embedded itself on the heels of the production of Shame and the overtaking of The Passion of Anna, namely, The Rite (1969), with its remarkable emphasis upon deploying the motions of hands and fingers to open the elements which have been imprisoned for so many centuries. The Rite was a prototype, and yet a rich study of the vagaries of depending upon exotic and flawed rebels. A subsequent film, having more completely delivered the imperative of taking upon one’s self to find the riches of sensibility, namely, The Touch (1971), our film today, runs a gamut for all to see, while being doubly ignored within its drama and being known to the world as the worst film Bergman ever created. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Labor Day 2020 and still we have COVID-19 with us, in some regions in a very big way.  Fairview schools are opening on Tuesday, September 8th (tomorrow) but only with teachers.  Students will remain home until further notice as districts statewide and nationwide are taking precautions.  We are also in Election Day mania and I have found myself too often embroiled with online political rows.  Though we only have eight weeks left this will surely be the longest eight weeks one can imagine.  Wishing everyone the best moving forward.  Jamie Uhler has joyously announced his annual Halloween Horror Fest and we have four of his stupendous capsule reviews posted on this MMD.  So thrilled to have this staple back again for the fifth or sixth year running!  I am followed the capsules with a few more of my recent Night Gallery segment reviews on FB.

Phase IV (S. Bass… 1974) 

The first viewing of the season was a rewatch, but the first complete one for this film, as all the previous ones had been scattershot, incomplete, or in parts, rendering Saul Bass’ only film, 1974’s Phase IV to near incomprehension. Seen in whole in one sitting, it becomes something of a highly curious, nearly great film. His graphic design background served him well for a whole slew of now iconic title sequences (mostly for Hitchcock, but he did a beaut for Scorsese too) and assistant director work (all those really cool split screens and intense croppings in the start of Frankenheimer’s interesting failure Grand Prix from 1966), but for just one film, he got to call all the shots. His background solves the first, and main, problem of the script: how to tell a monster movie where killer ants take over before the widespread advent of enhanced realistic computer effects. He has wildlife photographer Ken Middleham grab a telephoto super zoom lens and shoot all the ant sequences in horrifying close up, rendering them full screen and out of scale, adding a surreal, ominous quality as they slowly outsmart and take over the scientific compound run by our two scientist protagonists. One gets bitten and goes slowly crazy, seeing their only chance of survival in killing the queen all the others are working in service of, while the other attempts to understand their clearly brooding and growing super intelligence. The film ends mysteriously and abruptly, without the reveal of what the next step in the evolution—Phase V—would be. It only adds to the chic, ’70’s quality of it all and while the wild, arty montage was shot for this purpose it was ditched by the financiers before release. It’s quite shameful—I was able to watch it on youtube (it’s also been finally included on recent Apple 4K releases), and I must say, it adds a nightmarish cacophony of hellish blood red imagery and droning synth operatic score, showing humans living as ants under their rule in pyramid like colonies. With it, it’d be one of the era’s great cult treasures, but it’s more or less that now, but here’s to hoping most revisit it and see the correct ending. What a way to start!

The Alchemist Cookbook (J. Potrykus… 2016) 

What can I say, a single screening of Joel Potrykus’ indie-breakthrough Buzzard from a few years ago made a life long fan in me. It’s such a gloriously subversive comedy that I sat giggling at the sheer exactness of his critique of modern work life. As companies cut themselves more and more from the humans they employ their capital largely becomes a set of buzzards picking over the bones of whatever they can grab to survive. Of course, the brilliance is in the double entendre; any system that operates this way is itself a buzzard-like leech on society, itself lurching year to year cravingly trying to survive in the face of all common sense. Given the insane nature of how Potrykus renders his film, I eagerly await all his new features, pushing them on friends and strangers alike in ecstatic recommendation. Since Buzzard, I loved Relaxer, a Tarkovsky-like seance for the incel, gamer set, a nightmarish video-game playing marathon for existence, all set in an ever darkening, socially alienated world. But, again, because it’s rendered with the sharpness of a stand-up comic (itself the topic of his debut, Ape), you gleefully watch it flicker past your eyeballs. In between these two, he managed The Alchemist Cookbook, something of a spiritual Horror statement on the topic of depression. Surprisingly for me given my fandom of the earlier works, it largely forgoes humor, instead posing deep questions on what it is we’re watching here, the tale of a schizophrenic, Sean, who has taken to living isolated out in the woods, only occasionally being brought food and supplies from friend Cortez. Once Sean realizes he has only one pill left, and that Cortez has forgotten to bring more, his already tenuous mental state further erodes. Soon, he’s using his alchemy experiments to summon night demons and kill forest animals, but we’re left wondering if it’s all a lark from a (highly) unreliable narrator. A shifting time signature in the films plotting further complicates things as we’re left wondering if Cortez is Sean, them each representing physical embodiments of a mind split neatly in two. Once we learn that Cortez faces trouble back home and must live in the woods alongside Sean, the time loop exposition seems to close fully onto itself as Sean increasingly looks for ways out of his hellish, depressive mindset. Amazingly both the Horror and jet-black humor spill forth in the films last reel, again revealing Potrykus to be one of the most interesting modern American directors. It’s his most low-key film yet, but in some ways its opaque ideas offering the sense that this is a director with many, many more tricks up his sleeve.  

10 to Midnight (J. L. Thompson… 1983)

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by Sam Juliano

And now September.  The summer seemed to drag on indeterminably but we have reached the end of August and now are moving closer to the fall season.  Our hometown school system will be opening on September 8th but it will be virtual until further notice.  Teachers will attend to instruct students (who will stay home) on computers.  We are moving closer to the fourth quarter of what is probably the worst year of all out lives.  This past week J.D. Lafrance posted a terrific review of the classic Chinatown.

My Night Gallery countdown continues on Facebook:

Top 27 Rod Serling’s ‘Night Gallery’ segments (presented in reverse numerical order)
 
Segment Number 21 “The Devil is Not Mocked” (Season 2) 11:15
 
The most benevolent vampire in television history is undoubtedly Barnabus Collins, but the Count of a Balkan Castle during the Second World War, who performs his “patriotism” in a unique evil vs. evil scenario must surely rate a close second, the principal players of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” notwithstanding. The short Season 2 segment “The Devil is Not Mocked” is basically a flashback told by the elderly blood-sucking protagonist to his admiring grandson who in turn is proud that his family played a vital role in defeating the Third Reich. The black-humored spoofy segment, written and directed by Gene Kearney is aimed at enlisting viewers to the best side of vampirism, a surefire alternate to military might. Though the segment received strong reviews and is still considered to be a classic by many, a minority have inexplicably faulted it for not developing characters, though it only ran fifteen minutes. That criticism has always induced me to guffaw.

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