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Laika CEO & ParaNorman Producer Travis Knight Talks the Rebirth of Modern Stop-Motion Animation and More

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In 2009 Laika established itself as one of the premier up-and-coming animation studios by releasing the sublimely dark fairy tale Coraline, based on the classic Neil Gaiman story of the same name. This weekend Laika is set to unveil its latest stop-motion animated project, ParaNorman.

The 3D ParaNorman (review here) follows an 11-year-old boy named Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), who can see ghosts and must use that power to save his small town from a 300-year-old curse that unleashes a tribe of zombies on the unsuspecting townsfolk.

Laika CEO & ParaNorman Producer Travis Knight Talks the Rebirth of Modern Stop-Motion Animation and MoreDuring a recent press day for the film, Dread Central had the opportunity to speak with Laika CEO and ParaNorman producer/animator Travis Knight (pictured right) about developing the project with directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell, the look and feel of the project, and why stop-motion animation will always endure even with all of the technological advances in filmmaking throughout the years.

Check out the highlights of our roundtable interview with Knight below, and look for more on ParaNorman later this week!

Question: How was your experience working on ParaNorman?

Travis Knight: It’s been a long ride. We started developing the film when we were partway through Coraline. Chris Butler approached me with this idea he had. The simplest version of that idea was that he wanted to do a zombie film for kids. I was instantly intrigued. I was the kind of kid that grew up on a steady pop culture diet of George Romero zombie films and Ray Harryhausen creature features, and the idea that we could bring these creatures to life in this medium I thought was really exciting.

But that’s not enough to sustain a movie so we started to dig into what that means. And it really was a very special story that I thought needed to be told, about this kid who was kind of a misfit, an outcast on the fringes of his society because of who he was. Who had something extraordinary that he could contribute that would bring his community together.

I thought Norman’s story had an analogous connection to all of us – the people who do this, the artists that are bringing this story to life – that in a lot of ways his story was our story. All of us, pretty much, were weird kids growing up. We were kids who were picked on, or were strange, or were on the fringes of our groups. But all of us had really unusual or really special gifts that, when we could contribute them to the world, it was actually something that enriched the lives of those around us.

I thought it was a really beautiful story that we could tell in a very fun way.

Question: You founded Laika, which does primarily stop-motion animation. With the industry mainly focusing on CGI, how did you come to the decision to do stop-motion?

Travis Knight: We wanted to move the art of animation forward by looking backward, by looking to stop-motion and to the roots of where so much of this stuff began. It’s basically one of the first visual effects developed for cinema, it’s basically been around since the dawn of film. Taking this creaking, 100-year-old art form into the new era, that’s something I wanted to do. We could do that by incorporating technology and CG and whatever tool made the most sense to reinvigorate this old art form.

In the late 80s and early 90s, with the ascending of CG, a lot of people thought that was it for stop-motion, that it was dead. Steven Spielberg was going to do Jurassic Park with stop-motion dinosaurs, but when he saw tests from ILM, where they did the digital dinosaurs, CG dinosaurs, that’s when he switched over. We all thought that was pretty much the end.

Phil Tippett is the guy Spielberg hired to do that job, the stop-motion for Jurassic Park. There’s a famous exchange that they had where Spielberg said, “You’ve just been fired” and Tippet said, “No, I’ve just become extinct.” And that actually made it into the movie. But it also is kind of the feeling that we all felt – that the whole world was going to this new digital platform, that stop-motion was being left behind.

But there is something kind of magical about it. There is something beautiful about it. It has a distinct magic, warmth and a charm and a beauty that’s unlike anything else. It’s not to discount other forms of filmmaking. It’s just to say that in a digital world, the idea of making something with your hands it something very special. To see on the screen the artist’s hands at work, it’s a beautiful thing. You can see that, you can feel that. It’s not a visual retranslation of a binary code or a computer. It’s an actual artist who’s brought this thing to life; I think there’s something very beautiful about that. And still, it’s a very effective way to tell a story.

Question: As an animator and head of an animation company, what are the technical changes between Coraline and ParaNorman? What has set those two films apart?

Travis Knight: At the core of what stop-motion is, it hasn’t changed in 100 years. You still have an animator with a puppet, an armature inside it, on a set with lights and a camera and you’re taking a frame at a time. That stuff doesn’t change. What changes is the stuff on the fringes of it. I thought, at the time, Coraline really did represent a seismic shift for what we did within the medium. It had been kind of creaky and hadn’t evolved too much so we decided to bring technology into the mix, to embrace the author of our demise effectively. That just opened up a whole new world for us. We could actually take this tool and do really interesting things with it in this old art form.

We used this digital 3D printing technology on Coraline, but we had never done it before and we were just figuring out how to do it. We build a lot on that for ParaNorman; we took it beyond where we could have on Coraline. We integrated color 3D printing, which infuses the faces that we make in the printer with color and texture. Those used to be painted by hand so there was only so far you could take the designs. Now we can pretty much do anything.

And because of the materials we’re using, the skin on the puppets really does absorb the light in a more naturalistic way. There’s a scene where Norman is standing in front of the setting sun and you can actually see that his ears glow. And that’s because the materials we’re using feel and look much more like skin. And that too, them coming up with whatever materials make the most sense. His hair is made out of goat hair because that had the exact qualities that we were looking for. The trees are made out of cardboard, shredded paper and chicken wire. You find whatever materials make the most sense, that’s kind of the old school idea. But bringing technology into it, we use whatever tool makes the most sense. And if something we want to do doesn’t exist, we have to invent it, which we’ve done for each film.

And by continuing build on that and to grow and continuing to expand what we can do, we just become that much more ambitious. Coraline was a fairly small film in terms of its scope; ParaNorman is much, much bigger. We tackle things which you’re just not supposed to be able to do in stop-motion. But we didn’t want that to get in the way of us telling the most effective story.

So by continuing to do that, we’re just getting better at it. It just means that our ambition for what we want to do just continues to grow.

Question: A lot of times with animation studios, each project kind of looks similar to the one before it. I feel like Coraline and ParaNorman are both very stand-alone projects, independent of each other. There’s not a whole lot that feels very similar about them in terms of the visuals. Can you talk a little bit about the aesthetics of this movie? Was it conscientious that you didn’t want to bring the world of Coraline and just throw these characters into that, too?

Travis Knight: Absolutely. We don’t want a house style. We don’t want to repeat ourselves visually or thematically. Coraline very much looks like a Henry Selick film. He’s the artist behind it; he’s the driving creative force behind it. But ParaNorman is a different kind of a film. Coraline was a dark, modern fairy tale; and ParaNorman is kind of a quirky, coming of age adventure. It demanded its own aesthetic, its own look.

We really wanted to try to find something unique, a really interesting and unique way to bring this story to life. So we found a character designer straight out of school, who hadn’t really done anything. But she had this really weird, idiosyncratic way of looking at the world. That was kind of the root of where everything came from. She had this strange kind of nervous, line quality to her illustrations. And everything was kind of askew but really well observed. That ended up informing our environmental design, and it just kind of builds on that. You find the one thing for the story, and the one thing in this case came from out character design.

Question: Can you talk a little bit about the tone? You mentioned the word “quirky,” and that’s a word I’d probably use, too. But it’s a little bit daring, a little bit subversive; more so than you’d see in a bigger studio’s film where it doesn’t play it as safe. Chris (Butler) used The Goonies a lot as a reference point, and that’s a movie that I don’t think we could make now. Can you talk a little bit about maintaining that tonal quality?

Travis Knight: We’re big fans of, and heavily influenced by, the classic Disney fairy tales from the 40’s and 50’s, things like Snow White and Pinocchio. Those fairy tales that really did have a terrific and perfect balance of darkness and light, of intensity and warmth. But those are not the films that Disney makes anymore, nor are they the films that any family filmmaker makes, for the most part.

So yes, he’s (Chris Butler) right and you’re right. Those movies that we were inspired by in the 80s that we all grew up loving, things like Goonies and Ghostbusters and Gremlins and those great Amblin movies, I really think you’d be hard pressed to find a way to make those these days. You just don’t do it. And it’s a shame because I think those are the most powerful kinds of films, those things that have that balance. To have that sort of dynamic range in a film I think is the most power kind of emotional experience you can go through in a cinema. You can’t have a really light moment without a dark moment to offset it. That gives those light moments kind of a euphoria that you’re not going to get otherwise.

We wanted to make sure that we didn’t flinch from those things. To really get to the emotional core of it, the story demanded we go to an intense place or a dark place, even though it was a little scary for us. It’s like, “Is this really something we should be doing? It’s a little out there.” But it felt right for the story; it felt like something that we should do. That would be the most effective way to communicate what we were trying to do. We didn’t shy away from it, we embraced it. That’s what this story is, that’s the story we want to tell, so that’s what we did.

But yeah, I think it’s not without risk, with full acknowledgement that these films are not generally made anymore. But these are the films that we love to make, and these are the films that we think will have the greatest emotional resonance with the audience.

Question: Can you talk a little more about the materials you used? Can you give us an example for Norman, what kind of materials did you use?

Travis Knight: Underneath his body he has a steel armature, like a little metal skeleton, which allows you to position his body and it’ll hold in place so you can pose him. These puppets take a lot of abuse over time. You put them in all kinds of whacky positions. So those things need to be really strong but flexible and refined enough so you can get subtlety out of them.

He’s covered in a silicone skin. He’s got real handmade and hand-sewn clothing, designed by a costume designer that makes these tiny little clothes, which is tricky because you have to get the kind of fabrics that hold up on the big screen. He wears denim jeans, but you couldn’t use denim jeans because the thread would give the scale away, the thread would be huge on his little body.

So you have to go and find really fine materials that you screen and paint to kind of look like denim. His hair is goat hair and it’s got little bits of pros-aide. And other characters, like Courtney, have kind of like Barbie hair, synthetic hair. But it also has little bits of raffia and paper within it to give it kind of a graphic quality. You really just find whatever material makes the most sense to get the design thing that you’re going for. It’s finding things that exist in the world and inventing your own things.

Question: You had to do the graveyard scene where they’re (the zombies) coming out, correct?

Travis Knight: Yeah.

Question: You had to animate all those little pieces of dirt and hands and all that other stuff; you said your hands ended up being pin cushions. How did you keep track of all of that? Besides computer software, was there a track sheet?

Travis Knight: No, you keep all that stuff in your head. I think people can understand that it’s a physically demanding thing, standing on concrete for hours on end, contorting your body in all kinds of weird positions and cutting your fingers and everything else. People understand that’s a physically difficult thing to do. But probably more than that it’s really mentally taxing and demanding. Because you have to focus on tiny bits of detail for hours and hours on end, it’s intense focus. When you have dozens and dozens of little tiny pieces of dirt that have to fly through the air in a choreographed way, at any given time you could bump it with your pinkie and they all fall over and you have to start again.

You keep track of it with the software programs that we have, where you look frame by frame where everything is going. But you have to keep it all in your head so typically what you do is come up with a routine. ”Okay, I move this first. I work my way around kind of counter-clockwise.” You kind of keep a little mathematical diagram in your head and just continue to do that over and over again until you get the performance. But it is painful, it is horrible. But if you do it right it’s also pretty beautiful.

Our films are really of a combination of all different forms of animation. There’s 2D animation in them, there’s CG animation and stop-motion. So, while our predilection is that they’re heavy on stop-motion, I think the combination of things can make for interesting films in any of those variations. So there could be a point where it goes the other way, where it’s more of a CG film with less of a stop-motion influence, or even a 2D film. With all those three things in play, that’s the way that we make our films. It’s just a matter of what is the proportion of those different ingredients.

Question: What’s your next project?

Travis Knight: More to come! We’ll probably announce that before the end of the year.

ParaNorman is directed by Sam Fell (The Tale of Despereaux, Flushed Away) and Chris Butler (Coraline, The Corpse Bride) from Butler’s original screenplay.

Synopsis:
A small town comes under siege by zombies. Who can it call? Only misunderstood local boy Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is able to speak with the dead. In addition to the zombies, he’ll have to take on ghosts, witches, and worst of all, moronic grown-ups to save his town from a centuries-old curse. But this young ghoul whisperer may find his paranormal activities pushed to their otherworldly limits.

The voice cast includes Academy Award nominee Casey Affleck (The Killer Inside Me), Tempestt Bledsoe (“The Cosby Show”), Jeff Garlin (Toy Story 3), John Goodman (Red State, Matinee, Monsters, Inc.), Bernard Hill (Titanic), Academy Award nominee Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air), Leslie Mann (Rio), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Fright Night 3D, How to Train Your Dragon), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In), Tony and Emmy Award winner Elaine Stritch (“30 Rock”), Tucker Albrizzi (Good Luck Charlie), Alex Borstein (“Family Guy”), and Jodelle Ferland (Case 39, Silent Hill, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse).

Laika CEO & ParaNorman Producer Travis Knight Talks the Rebirth of Modern Stop-Motion Animation and More

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Thanksgiving Flesh Feast: A Cannibal Holocaust Retrospective

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“Why ban films? If you don’t want to go watch something, don’t go. Don’t spend your money to watch it. To me it’s against your civil liberties. Censorship is against your human rights. It just takes a critic to exaggerate and say the film is over the top, it’s gruesome and full of terrible violence.” Words from legendary cinematographer Roberto Forges Davanzati on the special edition Blu-Ray of Cannibal Holocaust.

As you celebrate this holiday of stuffing your face full of delicious gooey goodies and cooked meats, let us look back at a feast for the ages that was buried in lawsuits, censorship, exploitation and even jail time for its creator. Cannibal Holocaust, one of the most infamous video nasties of all time, is not only one of the most gruesome and horrifying collection of images put to celluloid but also, in its own way, one of the most beautiful. Often times it’s notoriety as a horrid exploitation film overshadows the artistry that crafted it and the true message behind it.

First off, let’s look at the fact that this is truly the first found footage film. Its narrative is about four young documentarians who set out into the Amazon into an area dubbed “The Green Inferno” to find and document several primitive tribes of cannibals. While this narrative is the backbone of the movie opening up the film, this footage is not shown until the latter half. Professor Harold Munroe is assigned by the television studio that employed the documentarians to go into the Green Inferno himself to see if he can unravel the mystery of the youth’s disappearance or obtain the footage they filmed. Today we have found footage movies left and right but it’s rare we get a movie within a movie in this style.

Davanzati has talked about his different shooting styles for the time on the Blu-Ray for the film. Munroe’s section of the film was shot on 35MM film while the “found footage” shot by the documentarians is shot on 16MM film, giving a much grainier and dirty look to their footage. Not only that, but since the four youths within the film at all times had two 16MM cameras operating, Davanzati would often film the two camera men within the film and then switch around showing the point of view of each camera man within the found footage, which he states helped edit the movie as they shot it. The artistic decision to have two narratives wrap around each other like this are perfect antithesis to each other as Munroe’s footage shows a completely opposite depiction of the cannibals compared to the documentarian’s footage. This style informed a generation and still does, but has never been stylistically approached the same way.

Some may argue that regardless of the artistic vision and groundbreaking filmmaking style of both Davanzati and director Ruggero Deodato that it doesn’t matter, because what good is beautiful footage of despicable trash? How dare they film something so atrocious? Actor Robert Kerman can maybe answer that in a quote from an interview on the Cannibal Holocaust Blu-Ray. “What’s the difference between Cannibal Holocaust and Schindler’s List? Or the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan?” The world is full of horrible atrocious things and sometimes we don’t like to acknowledge them. To simply not acknowledge them would seem an injustice to the victims. In this case, what may offend might be the same reason audiences were offended about the Universal Monsters: the fact that perhaps we are the villains. Perhaps those victimized within Cannibal Holocaust are the titular cannibals.

Deodato opens the film with a reporter speaking about how far the world has come and how advanced we are as a civilization, that it is strange that indigenous tribes still exist in the jungles of the Green Inferno. All the while, during this news report on the savagery of those tribes, Deodato cleverly shows us the jungles of the modern world as the imagery put to this news cast foreshadows the film’s true intentions. It would be easy to assume the “Holocaust” in Cannibal Holocaust refers to the humans devoured by cannibals, when in reality, the holocaust is the devastation inflicted upon the cannibal tribes by the so-called “normal” humans. Deodato cleverly misleads the viewer showing off all-American kids as the documentarians. He quickly follows the opening with a scene of the Yacumo tribe devouring a human body as the Colombian soldiers gun them down and capture one of their tribe. It’s a brutal scene that depicts the Yacumo as monsters.

As Professor Munroe ventures into the Green Inferno with his Yacumo captive and guide, Chaco, it is discovered that the Yacumo tribe itself has had some hardship and pain. They are the more peaceful of the tribes who simply thrive and survive. Their Yacumo captive who was found devouring a human was doing so as part of a ceremonial practice to ward off evil spirits. Befriending the tribe, they venture deeper to find the two warring tribes that scare even the Yacumo: the Yanomamo (Tree People) and the Shamatari (Swamp People). While the Shamatari are depicted throughout as vile and dangerous, the Yamamomo befriend the professor and Chaco due to the pair aiding them against the former tribe.

Munroe and the Yanomamo friendship gives way to a very beautiful scene in the movie. Munroe disrobes himself completely and swims in the river naked with a group of Yanomamo women. There is nothing sexual about the scene, only curiosity and playful ignorant bliss. This sense of peace is elated by the score of Riz Ortolani, which permeates the entire film with melancholy melodies and themes of religious experiences. This scene in particular is boosted amazingly by his score.

Munroe’s journey is the audience’s point of view where we watch in horror and wonder at what these “cannibals” are capable of but, upon venturing further for ourselves with respect towards the tribes, we find perhaps there is more to these people than monstrosities. There are definitely horrible things the Yacumo and the Yamamomo commit, but our eyes are slightly opened as to why.

Enter the found footage aspect of the film, which is the core of Deodato’s message. The young documentarians headed by Alan are the true villains of the piece. While the indigenous peoples within idolize their gods and ways, this crew of documentarians only idolize the gods of entertainment and visceral mind rape. What’s worse is the discovery of the studio behind them condoning their efforts in order to get people to watch. The found footage approach descends into madness as Alan and his crew are responsible for the Yacumo’s problems that Munroe discovered when he arrived. We see them burning down the village and even having sex on the ashes of their homes in a horrifying shot that pans out to show the Yacumo watching in sorrow as they are huddled by the river for warmth. As the television executives watch this footage unfold it is stated, “The more you rape their senses, the happier they are.” It’s disgusting.

The footage goes on and gets progressively worse as Alan and his crew commit horrible acts of rape and violence that parallels the natives actions. But while the natives at least have a misguided sense of purpose, there is none for the documentarians. They set up a girl on a spike after they rape her just to have something visceral to film. “Watch it Alan, I’m shooting.” Alan has a smile on his face from the atrocity he’s committed, their excitement paralleled by Ortolani’s score. This scene plays on the typical thought of things we don’t understand being weird. As the filmmakers have no concept of what makes the Yanomamo tick or of their religious rites, they just create something ghastly. Because their audience will not understand it, they lump it in with their actual spiritual and cultural beliefs, making it all seem bereft of rhyme or reason, confusing audiences just to entertain.

“Keep rolling, we’re gonna get an Oscar for this!” The final act of found footage is more intense and more satisfying than any you can see. As one of the cameramen dies, they keep filming, that prize in their eyes with the camera lens as a separation from what’s before them. Their friend is no longer a person but a spectacle to be shot as he’s torn limb from limb and prepared to be eaten by the cannibals for their transgression. Who is worse, those that created the situation or those simply reacting to it? The Yanomamo stand triumphant over the interloper and, as stated in the beginning of the film, they eat him ceremonially in order to keep out the evil spirits of the white man. Each is taken down and each filmed. Debts paid in blood to the cannibals and
the white man’s gods of entertainment. The found footage has all been viewed as Munroe and the rest of the executives walk off, “I wonder who the real cannibals are?” 

True, there are very vile things depicted in this film. Rape, animal cruelty, extreme violence. It is definitely not for the squeamish. I, myself, cannot stand the animal violence as it shouldn’t be in the film and is lingered on for far too long. However, each scene of extremism beyond those shots serves a purpose in the film, juxtaposing the actions of the protagonists and antagonists, often times blurring the lines of those roles.

Watch this film with an open mind and a filmmaker’s thought process. You’ll see the amazing direction accompanied by brilliant and, at the time, never-before-seen cinematography. The score elevates the film with its beauty against the ugliness of the visuals. While the actions of many of the characters are disgusting, you have to admit the level of excellence each actor gives in their portrayal of these characters, especially the tribes.

We must not forget in these dark times not to judge the cultures of others before we truly understand them as people.

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I Already Have a Dog But Now I Want a Baby Dinosaur

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The first trailer for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the sequel to 2015’s Jurassic World, is rumored to be attached to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Since that film is going to be coming out in less than a month, it’s no surprise that the marketing campaign for the dino-filled trailer is already starting and today it kicks off with a six-second teaser that is as adorable as you can get!

In the teaser, Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady is petting a baby velociraptor, which coos and twitters in the cutest of fashions. Is there anything else going on? Nah. Does something else need to happen? Nope. The movie already has me sold.

Directed by J.A. Bayona (When a Monster Calls), Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom also stars Bryce Dallas Howard, B.D. Wong, and Toby Jones. However, the biggest and most important star of the film will be the return of Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcolm, who is, in my humble opinion, the best character in the franchise, besting even the T-rex that seemingly cannot die.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom will evolve into theaters on June 22, 2018.

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John Landis’ Rejected Pitch for American Werewolf 2 Was Brilliant

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If you’re anything like us then you consider writer-director John Landis’ horror-comedy An American Werewolf in London to be one of the best f*cking movies of all-time.

Horror (or comedy), or not.

But did you know that Landis was asked back in 1991 to make a sequel to his original classic? Neither did I. But he was, and his pitch for the sequel was amazing.

“I was asked to do a sequel by PolyGram in 1991,” Landis told Digital Spy. “I entertained the idea for a little bit and then came up with something that I liked and wrote a first draft of the script.

“The movie was about the girl that the boys talk about at the beginning of the movie, Debbie Klein. She gets a job in London as a literary agent and while she’s there, starts privately investigating the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Jack and David.

“The conceit was that during the time in the first film where Jenny goes to work and David is pacing around the apartment, he actually wrote Debbie Klein a letter. It was all to do with this big secret that David had never told Jack that he had a thing with her.

“She tracks down Dr. Hirsch, who tells her that Alex now lives in Paris because she was so traumatized by what happened. She went back to the Slaughtered Lamb and everyone is still there! I think the only changes were a portrait of Charles and Diana where the five-pointed star used to be and darts arcade game instead of a board.

“It’s then when she speaks to Sgt McManus, the cop from the first movie who didn’t die, that she finds out that Jenny is still in London. She calls her and leaves an answer phone message, which we then reveal is being listened to by the skeletal corpses of Jack and David, watching TV in Alex’s apartment!

“The big surprise at the end was that Alex was the werewolf. It was pretty wild. The script had everybody in it from the first movie – including all the dead people!”

But then Landis adds:

“I gave the script to Michael Kuhn and he loathed it! He absolutely hated it and was actually pretty insulting about it. Clearly, he would have hated the script for the first movie because, like that, it was funny and scary – and if anything, a little wackier.”

Is it just me or does this sound like a perfect sequel to An American Werewolf in London? Make sure to hit us up and let us know what you think below!

Synopsis:

David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), two American college students, are backpacking through Britain when a large wolf attacks them. David survives with a bite, but Jack is brutally killed. As David heals in the hospital, he’s plagued by violent nightmares of his mutilated friend, who warns David that he is becoming a werewolf. When David discovers the horrible truth, he contemplates committing suicide before the next full moon causes him to transform from man to murderous beast.

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