The True ABCs of Death: X is for Xerox

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Suggested Audio Candy:

 

[1] Shirley Bassey “History Repeating”

[2] Anthrax “Madhouse”

[3] Alice Cooper “He’s Back (The Man Behind The Mask)”

[4] James Brown “Turn Me Loose, I’m Dr. Feel Good”

[5] Jimmy Buffet “Cheeseburger in Paradise”

[6] Amen “Down Human”

 

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Xerox
verb: copy by the Xerox process.

 

The thing about a great idea is that, while it may be exclusive, sooner or later it’s going to be copied. My case in point is this: when I was in school, I started up my own betting shop. History lectures were deathly dull and anything I could do to dumb the pain was a bonus so I devised myself a cunning plan. Our tutor was almost as old as the people we were supposed to be learning about and so enthused himself by Florence Nightingale and the Industrial Revolution that he didn’t have a clue what was playing out at the back of his class while he blathered on. Every period I would take bets on an imaginary horse race that only I knew the result to. I would reenact the steeple chase once all bets were in and the winner would win…well nothing actually. I was twelve remember and not a mercenary. But it sure as shit beat curriculum.

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To my astonishment, it proved something of a hit and History lectures were fun again. Of course, it wasn’t long before word got around and suddenly my dick with ears status was replaced by local celebrity status. However, unbeknownst to me, some heathen poached my idea and started up their own betting shop down the way at Geography. There’s nothing wrong with a little healthy opposition right? Wrong. This infidel upped the stakes by taking real cash bets and the first I knew about it was when I asked for people’s bets one day and they told me to go screw myself. That’s right, I had been bamboozled and my status soon dropped back to being a dick with ears, just like before. Naturally I felt sabotaged and remember calling this rogue every expletive under the sun that my vocabulary consisted of at twelve-years-old – burk, pleb, mong and flid. Personal feelings aside, I really should have felt flattered by his shrewd imitation. You see, I will always be the innovator and he couldn’t take that away from me. Not that it was much consolation as my once thriving betting shop closed its doors for the final time.

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For this exercise I have decided to take a look at any horror films that have been xeroxed over the years. I won’t be focusing on the innovators as, chances are, they will have featured in the True ABCs of Death sequence many times already. Thus our primary concern will be those who have used their existing template to make their own headlines. This can include sequels, remakes and blatant knock-offs, and I shall keep the parameters wide in the interest of covering as much ground as possible. Some will be successful ventures, others decidedly less so but all will have attempted to milk the fiscal teats as a result of former headline makers. To begin with, let’s start with the blatant xeroxes and there seems no better place to start than one of the most influential films of the sixties. I’m talking of the late, great Alfred Hitchcock and his seminal thriller Psycho. Based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name, Hitchcock’s film went on to massive commercial success and many regard it as the true originator of both the giallo and slasher genres. However, we’re not here to talk about those today.

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The year is 1998. The millennium is looming and, after the critical triumph of Good Will Hunting the year previous, even Gus Van Sant’s daily bowel movements are applauded. So how does he continue this rich vein of form? He tackles Psycho of course. However, instead of attempting to reinvent the wheel, he opts for what is essentially a shot-for-shot remake and considers that job done. All the original pawns are in place but the names have changed. This means rounding some of the most distinguished actors in the industry under the roof of the long since dormant Bates Motel and getting that shower running. With a cast that comprises Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Viggo Mortensen, Anne Heche, Robert Forster and Philip Baker Hall, he likely suspects he is on a winner. He isn’t.

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Now I have a lot of respect for Vince Vaughn and crowd-pleasing comedy aside, he has proven himself a credible actor on numerous occasions. That said, stepping into the loafers of Norman Bates is perhaps a little too ambitious even for him. Anthony Perkins made the role so much his own in 1960 that, when Richard Franklin revisited the motel in 1983, there was only one man on earth up to the task. Indeed, he reprised his role a third time three years later and, this time, assumed director duties also. While not in the same league as Franklin’s effort, he was just as charismatic as always and, when he sadly passed in 1992, it seemed only right that Norman Bates died with him. Damn right Vaughn had some large shoes to fill. To his credit, he tried his darndest and the blame cannot be placed squarely on his shoulders. But a lot had changed in almost forty years and somebody forgot to tell van Sant.

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Granted, folk weren’t quite as uptight by 1998 so the infamous shower scene benefitted from being able to reveal a little more than was previously possible. However, that aside, it was perhaps a little too respectful and brought precious little new to the table. By the time the credits rolled 104 minutes later, it all felt way too familiar and, by modern standards, Bloch’s original fiction doesn’t fare up quite so well. Much was lost in translation and the impact soundly neutered. As a result, van Sant’s Psycho was both a commercial and critical flop and turkey status loomed. While I’m not about to defend his film and still consider it as a misguided project, it ain’t all that bad. How could it be when it is essentially a xerox of one of the finest suspense thrillers of the nineteenth century. That said, if I want to watch Bates in color, I’ll offer my time to the far superior Psycho II and retrieve my kicks from there instead.

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Another example of blatant xeroxing is John Moore’s similarly unwarranted 2006 reboot of The Omen. Richard Donner’s 1976 original still holds up remarkably well to this day so, with the inevitable thirtieth anniversary looming large, Moore would have been wise to focus on bringing something new to the table. With the options available through such a rich and fascinating theme, he could have sent this to the stars and back. Regrettably, while not quite the step-by-step xerox of van Sant’s Psycho, it spent most of its time paying respect and not nearly enough leaving its own footprint. To be fair to the Irish director, it made a veritable mint at the box-office to the tune of almost $120m and the critics were not so unanimous in their scathing. However, for me, it was pretty much The Omen by numbers and even Mia Farrow’s wild-eyed turn as the tyrannical Mrs. Baylock couldn’t banish the vague feeling of squandered opportunity.

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Of course, there is a flip-side to the coin also. When Rupert Wainwright took on the unenviable task of updating John Carpenter’s 1980 ghost story The Fog, I was left cursing his decision not to hone in on what made the original so effective and deliver an end product almost devoid of tension. Cooper Layne’s screenplay remained faithful enough to its source but gone were any characters worth rooting for and also much of the presence of that ominous creeping mist. Indeed, it may as well have been a fart cloud for all the fear it provoked and Blake’s crew appeared little more than an unruly mob in need of directions. Even Carpenter and original co-writer Debra Hill on production duties couldn’t save it from being culpable of the very worst crime imaginable – blandness. While not as godawful as some will have you believe, it is painfully average and that is just as heinous in my book. Where are Tom Atkins and Adrienne Barbeau when you need them most?

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A brief mention for some other flatlining reboots that emerged in the dreaded thirty year anniversary deluge. Nelson McCormick must’ve thought he was onto a winner when providing Paul Lynch’s 1980 slasher Prom Night with a fresh lick of emulsion as it didn’t have a great deal to live up to. Lynch’s film was a decent enough effort but, in no way, spectacular and certainly not a stretch to improve upon. Regrettably, McCormick committed the cardinal sin of targeting a PG-13 demographic and the results were both lackluster and predictable.

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Meanwhile, Simon West fared little better when tackling Fred Walton’s suspenseful 1979 thriller When a Stranger Calls in 2006. Again the original wasn’t exactly untouchable but what it did have going for it was an excruciatingly tense opening fifteen minutes and one that heavily influenced the likes of Wes Craven’s Scream going forward. West’s film was little more than standard teen fodder and for all of Camilla Belle’s best histrionics, she was no Carol Kane.

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Slasher remakes were particularly rife in the latter part of the noughties and it seemed a foregone conclusion that someone would take on the daddy at some point. Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday The 13th may not have been quite the innovator it claimed but it did effectively kickstart the American movement by getting in first. Marcus Nispel’s 2009 reboot arrived closer to forty years after the act and primary signs were more than positive as the irrepressible Jason Voorhees cut pretty much an entire summer school down to size before we had even got comfortable in our seats. Sadly, it wasn’t to last and this formidable opening flurry gave way to a formulaic affair that somewhat fumbled the machete with the all-important kills. There were a couple of doozies but it ended up little more than a tick-box exercise as each sorry lamb stepped up to be slaughtered in particularly uninventive ways.

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Nispel admittedly tried something fresh by revealing Voorhees to be something of a seasoned survivalist but his underground dwelling added little to the dish and it all felt a tad uninspired, truth be known. Let’s not get it twisted, up against the likes of The Fog, Prom Night and When a Stranger Calls, it suddenly resembles a masterpiece. However, Voorhees was never just an also-ran. He was the momma’s boy who set the pace and therefore deserving of way better than the bog-standard stalk and slash number he was provided. Ironically, for a franchise satisfied to tread water for so many years, Nispel’s film is just another so-so sequel. May I suggest next time somebody give Joseph Zito a holler as he has Tom Savini on speed-dial and, the last time they paired up, we were gifted the superior Friday The 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter. More of the same would have done just fine. I’ll be returning to Camp Crystal Lake before we close with another bugbear but, right now, it feels like high time we raise the mood some.

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If you want to know how to do a slasher remake right then I would suggest paying a visit to Patrick Lussier’s 2009 upcycling of George Mihalka’s glorious My Bloody Valentine as it barely put a foot wrong in my estimations. Forget the tacky 3D gimmick although, having ducked Harry Warden’s airborne pick-axe in a packed auditorium, I can attest to it adding extra relish to an already flavorsome dish. However, while there’s no doubt that this aided Lussier’s film in garnering a masterful $100m theatrical return, it works just as well in two dimensions, thanks to a simple factor – he knew what Mihalka’s original was and he knew what it wasn’t. It wasn’t high art and neither was it respectful of boundaries. On the other hand, it was suspenseful, bloody as all hell, and enthusiastic to entertain its audience at all costs. Lussier had been taking notes and revelled in delivering a ravishing rollercoaster of ruthlessly ravaged rabble reminiscent of the most rewarding big dippers.

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A Gruehead’s wet dream, My Bloody Valentine 3D offered up all manner of grisly dispatches and fresh cavities and didn’t stop at the bloodletting either. A commendably courageous Betsy Rue spent a full five minutes fleeing from the business end of the murderous miner’s pick-axe and did so without a stitch of clothing or furry foliage to conceal her comely camel toe. Back in the eighties, slasher simply wouldn’t be slasher without a smidgen of benign T&A and Lussier obliged…and then some. Moreover, the icing on this particularly tempting trifle was a certain love doctor of whom any yesteryear enthusiasts should be only too aware. If I were to say the name Ray Cameron, would that ring a bell? Okay, then how about the one and only Dr. Dan Challis? Still stumped? Tsk tsk. Tom Atkins dagnabbit! That’s right, Lussier called the ‘tache himself out of retirement and, for that, will forever have my vote. Let us all bow our heads and worship the ‘tache once more for old time’s sake.

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God bless you Tom Atkins. And, while I’m at it, bless Lussier and his buddy Todd Farmer for having the sense not to let sleeping dogs lie for any longer than absolutely necessary. I’m feeling decidedly chipper again after smelling that heady mix of man cologne and Bourbon once again. Thus, while we’re on something of a roll, it’s time to honor a handful of other modern rehashes that got it bang on the money. I shall do so chronologically and, by my estimations, that makes our first stop the mall. Shopping trolleys at the ready Grueheads as it’s time for a slither of retail therapy courtesy of Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of The Dead second spree.

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Let’s be honest, George A. Romero’s 1978 zombie template was never in any danger of being trumped and Snyder knew that better than anybody. Thus, he retained the location and feel of the original, but told his own exclusive tale and did so on his own exclusive terms. Nitpickers may wish to point out the lack of social commentary, while Romero purists will no doubt wave their fists at the lack of shuffling as the undead here were far more fleet of foot than was customary. However, if I had wished to pit nits, then I would have become a fully licensed head louse nurse and, right now, I’m the one holding the Crimson Quill so I invite you to dance to my merry tune. Respectful enough to not be deemed cantankerous, Synder’s film provided us with many reasons to be cheerful, none more so than the provision of the priceless and pin-point accurate C.J. as we prepared to proceed to checkout. Nitrous-charged, humorous and constantly engaging, Dawn of The Dead hit the target pretty much dead center.

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Franck Khalfoun was similarly accurate in 2012 when he approached William Lustig’s notorious 1980 exploitation flick Maniac with the same fervor. Initial concerns about the casting of titular nutbag of Frank Zito soon subsided after fresh-faced Elijah Wood stepped up and embraced the sleaze willingly. Granted, his features may have not have been quite weathered enough to please the purists but, against all odds, the boy did rather good. Where Khalfoun triumphed was that, despite adhering to the original template, he adopted a far more modern approach to visual narrative, making this essentially a 89 minute long version of The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up music video and every bit as mesmerizing. Some may find the result a little too disorienting, others may take it to task for the manner in which its female victims are portrayed as mostly slutty and asking for it, I just lapped it up like a famished feline. Gloriously gruesome scalping, a ballsy turn from Wood, slick direction from Khalfoun – job’s very much a good ‘un.

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Meanwhile, Fede Alvarez also came up trumps when paying another visit to everyone’s favorite cabin in the woods for his 2013 Evil Dead remake. This was a particularly thankless task, considering its predecessor was made on a shoestring and he had a hefty $17m at his disposal. Sam Raimi’s 1981 original more than got by on its low-rent charm and crude claymation and, indeed, these were its unique selling points (outside of a certain Ashley J. Williams of course). However, with both Raimi himself and his famed front man Bruce Campbell on production duties, things were looking decidedly rosy. This is where a little perspective is called for as any attempt to measure the two against each other will invariably lead in dismay. There may be no Ash (until the end credits have finished rolling), but the Deadites are in fine form and, in Lou Taylor Pucci’s thoroughly beset Eric, we have ourselves a Scotty. Moreover, the blood doesn’t so much gush as tsunami. This, my friends, is precisely how you do it.

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Back to Romero’s undead momentarily as the formerly bankable Steve Miner came something of a cropper in 2008 when taking a leaf out of Snyder’s book and giving Day of The Dead a modern-day makeover. Now here is where I differ from the masses as, despite it pissing on convention from a great height and being pretty damn amateurish, there’s still some fun in tearing the rancid meat from its rotting carcass. Ving Rhames inexplicably returns to the fray after his earlier shopping excursion and brings along one-time American sweetheart Mena Suvari for good measure. Bub is back too although Howard Sherman would likely be turning in his top soil after watching his alter-ego shat upon. Even more disrespectful is Miner’s decision to provide Romero’s shufflers with even more upgrades.

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This time round, running sneakers are superfluous to requirements, as the zombies here can scale walls and defy gravity as they scuttle like festering whippets from A to B. Then there are their dining habits as all that putrid meat clearly doesn’t agree with their sensitive stomach lining, resulting in pretty severe cases of acid reflux. Indeed, more comes up then goes down and poor Rhames and Suvari look far less than comfortable in the midst of all this malnourished madness. That said, and after administering that sizable pinch of salt, there’s still fun to be had. Granted, much of it is at the film’s expense but, strip away the disgust at Miner flat-out ignoring his brief, and you have yourself 86 minutes of mildly lovable lunacy, albeit slapdash. Bear in mind that the original Day of The Dead is my personal darling of Romero’s long-running legacy as, if anyone has a right to feel aggrieved, then you’re looking right at him. But I’m also rather into my guilty pleasures and this happens to be one such terrible treat.

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It’s easy to forget that, while the noughties provided us with a smorgasbord of regurgitated eighties remakes, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, Chuck Russell’s The Blob and John Carpenter’s The Thing were retreads themselves. All three reinvented fifties B-movies and arguably trumped their originators to boot. My focus here is the lattermost as, while Christian Nyby’s 1951 creature feature The Thing from Another World has aged remarkably well, nothing could have prepared us for Carpenter’s 1982 reenactment. Masterful in the über-extreme, more tense than a bout of mid-coitus leg cramps, and as blood drenched as a menstruating sperm whale, this stands alongside Philip Kaufman’s stunning 1978 interpretation of Don Siegel’s Invasion of The Body Snatchers as one of the greatest sci-fi/horror movies since the planets first collided. I won’t harp on too much about Rob Bottin’s magnificent practical creations or the heart stopping blood test scene, just paying some dues and setting up our next subject.

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When it was announced that the reasonably inexperienced Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. was set to commence shooting a prequel of The Thing, there was a mixture of joy and trepidation. Films like Carpenter’s masterpiece are often best left where they lay, especially when they simply mature with age and there were a number of dynamics that needed not to be tampered with for it to stand a snowcone’s chance in Dubai of not slipping on precarious ice. All things considered, it was nowhere near the travesty it could so easily have been and the implementation of dental check-ups in place of blood work was something of a masterstroke. However, it did fall down in some fairly key areas. Firstly, it introduced not one but two ladies to the mix and, without wishing to sound like a chauvinist, the male-female ratio proved a massive distraction from the “men in a bad situation” premise of Carpenter’s vision.

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It was also around thirty minutes too short as the bloated cast of Norwegians barely had time to utter “hyggelig å møte deg” before being torn asunder by tentacles of terror. By attempting to enhance the scale, it surrendered a little of its insular feel. Granted, the $38m budget was put to good use with sprawling ice-laden vistas as far as the eye could see, but all it really needed was a laboratory, cafeteria and some kennels to please me. Last, but no means least, Heijningen Jr. doubled back on his word to keep things practical and a number of scenes were compromised by some fairly bog standard and wholly unnecessary CGI work. That said, the assimilation scene was fantastically grotesque and it tied in to the original astonishingly well, never more so than during the closing shots. Bottom line is that The Thing was a 7/10 movie through and through and, while never destined to achieve perfection, a little more spit and a dash less polish could have delivered it to the brink.

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Anyhoots, enough of remakes and sequels. I opened a can of worms two stanzas back with the whole same-sex protagonist debate and it is time to prove myself no ignoramus. Neil Marshall’s claustrophobic 2005 cavern creeper The Descent is on hand to bail me out as the same could be said in reverse. Girls only and not a swinging dick in sight, Marshall got this spot-on and his film was all the better for it. However, there is nothing xerox about that film and my focus is instead the almost obligatory 2009 sequel from Jon Harris. The Descent Part 2 achieved the nigh-on impossible feat of convincing the lucky not to be worm meal Sarah to dig deep once more and then went one better by suggesting that her double-crossing former playmate Juno had managed to survive beneath terra firma when severely wounded and fenced in by crawlers. Fuck logic, if that’s what it took to encourage a second spot of spelunking, then I was all in well before the flop, Marshall or no Marshall.

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Everything seemed to be in place. The caves were just as dank as I remembered them, crawlspaces just as tight, crawlers every bit as fiendish. However, something was different. Our fresh cohort felt little more than meal tickets, the creeping dread of before was largely diminished, and there was a conspicuous absence of direction, despite Harris giving his all for the cause. In no way was The Descent Part 2 an outright failure and, taken on its own merits, it supplied 94 minutes of close-quarters recreation that never outstayed its welcome. Alas, when the original visionary is subtracted from the equation, it is seldom ever quite the same as before and had to be content with being decent, which was one consonant shy of its goal if you ask me.

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Harris shouldn’t feel too despondent with his end result as others too have tried and failed when picking up the reins. Hostel Part III saw Scott Spiegel grasping the baton after Eli Roth decided against completing a trilogy. The first two films stand side-by-side with only that succulent Slovakian bath tub slaughter separating them and Spiegel had his work cut out from the offset. His most notable directorial contribution to horror cinema had come in 1989 with his wonderfully low-rent slasher Intruder and this ultimately proved a Hostel too far for him. Again, there was nothing particularly tragic about his entry other than the odd unimaginative kill which is something neither of its forerunners were ever culpable of. The chief problem was that, after the success of the first film, Roth cunningly turned his audience about-face, and this time it was simply business as usual in the chambers, albeit now in the back streets of Las Vegas. No Roth means no dice unfortunately and while Spiegel can’t be accused of bringing shame to the game, neither did he have any hope of presenting a royal flush.

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Time is marching on and I do believe I promised a return to Camp Crystal Lake so, in the interest of fair play, I’ve got my machete at the ready. Actually, spear is more fitting for this particular observation as the xerox in question came courtesy of a solitary signature kill. Forged signature more like as Friday The 13th Part 2 (ironically directed by Steve Miner although my beef is not with his end product) borrowed its human kebab scene from a certain Mario Bava and presented it as its own. The dual-spearing of Jeff and Sandra whilst engaging in horizontal pursuits was one of the film’s crowning moments and one of the film’s production team even went as far as being quoted on its ingenuity.

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However, a full decade earlier, human kebabs were also the rage in Italy as A Bay of Blood had long since proved. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery I guess so it’s hard cracking the whip with too much force. But viewed back-to-back (or front-to-front if you like), it’s a sneaky little tactic and not half as ingenious as watching paraplegic Mark attempt to navigate a downward staircase with rain-soaked wheels and a blade between his eyebrows.

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I do believe that is all she wrote. I could push on through to the wee hours but I’m all xeroxed out I’m afraid and my photocopier is almost out of deep red ink. I’m all for a dash of originality and it’s great when filmmakers move the goalposts as that is what keeps horror fresh after all these years. That said, familiarity ain’t all that bad, even if the overall quality drops a notch during reproduction more often than not. If I live another thirty years (and that would be some achievement given the disdain with which I treat my body) then I would be more than content to embark on a fair few more chainsaw massacres, carve a number of jack-o-lanterns, peek into some more alien oviums, and go skinny dipping in the lake at least one more time for shits and grins. That’s the most reassuring thing about the xerox, press that green button and you’re pretty much guaranteed of the end product. Copy that.

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2 Comments

    1. Thanks so much. Have already written Y & Z and had so much fun that I doubled back and started again from scratch. Too much Sesame Street as a kid. Saving up for my very own trash can…

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