Monday, October 22, 2018

Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors: #10

Halloween season simply isn’t Halloween season without a regular dose of golden age Universal horror (1923-1963). Every day this October, I’ll be giving you a steady IV drip of it by counting down Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors!

#10. The Mummy (1932- dir. Karl Freund)

It’s a tried and true Hollywood formula: you score big once; you attempt to carbon copy that success. It doesn’t always work, but it did when Universal practically remade Dracula as The Mummy. Once again you have a long-in-the-tooth monster crossing an ocean to ensnare a specific women in its thrall while contending with Edward Van Sloan and David “Mr. Personality” Manners. The Mummy isn’t very original, but it does make certain stylistic improvements over Dracula with its sumptuous sets, elaborate monster make up, less static staging, and heightened air of romance. Karloff makes the most of a monster without much pep, and between his naturally mesmerizing gaze and some well-positioned pin lights, he’s also the center of some of the creepiest shots in a golden age Universal monster movie. Zita Johann and the flashback-pool sequence are similarly mesmerizing.

Review: 'Scum and Villainy: Case Files on the Galaxy’s Most Notorious'

While the war between the Empire and the Rebels is the foundation of the Star Wars universe, it is also a place ripe with crime. Those criminals can be the genuinely vile likes of Jabba the Hutt or shades-of-grey rogues such as Han Solo. Pablo Hidalgo’s new book Scum and Villainy: Case Files on the Galaxy’s Most Notorious is a sort of mock dossier on the underworld types scurrying on the outskirts of Star Wars’ main story. 

A book of this type can be a lot of fun (check out Mark Frost’s mock dossiers on the Twin Peaks universe), and few properties are more fun than Star Wars, but Hidalgo has a tendency to take it way, way too seriously. Scum and Villainy should have been a light-hearted, frivolous romp not unlike the recent Solo movie that likely inspired its focus on Star Wars’ crime world. Instead it reads like a particularly dry history textbook of a made-up world. Reading a Star Wars book should never feel like work. Reading this one does.

Scum and Villainy also highlights how diffuse the Star Wars universe has become. While some of the enemies of law and order in question will be familiar to all —both enemies of the villainous imperial state such as Princess Leia and genuine crooks and creeps like Jabba, Solo, and the beloved bounty hunters from The Empire Strikes Back—most are apparently pulled from cartoons, novels, comics, or whatever else is now considered canon. I had no idea who most of these characters were, which would not be an issue if their stories were told in an engaging, entertaining fashion. Since they weren’t, I didn’t really care who they are or what they do. Consequently, Scum and Villainy seems like a book aimed at the most hardcore and humorless of Star Wars fans. At least the abundant painted art and slick slipcover add some panache to a book that should have been more worthy of its cool design.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors: #11

Halloween season simply isn’t Halloween season without a regular dose of golden age Universal horror (1923-1963). Every day this October, I’ll be giving you a steady IV drip of it by counting down Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors!

#11. The Old Dark House (1932- dir. James Whale)

James Whale played it straight with Frankenstein and delivered a solidly scary movie. But it wasn’t very Jimmy. Now that he’d established himself as a horror master, he could work his personality into his pictures more assuredly, and he first did so with The Old Dark House, which strikes a brilliant balance between Whale’s creepy imagery (Karloff’s grunting butler, twisted Saul lurking about and setting fires, Rebecca’s disturbingly distorted reflections) and his delicious humor. Those images, that humor, and a fab cast turn clich├ęs so hoary that the title of this film became a genre unto itself into something deliriously fresh, funny, and freaky.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Review: 'The Beatles' 50th Anniversary Vinyl Box

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the album that solidified The Beatles artistically, gaining them respectability from adults who’d never before given pop music an ounce of consideration. That was fine for the state of pop music, but it was hard on the band as they began to splinter while making the record. With Lennon losing much of his artistic drive in a haze of acid and domestic boredom, McCartney took the band’s reigns, became a bit bossy, and resentments started to rise.

As the oft-told story goes, during the making of The Beatles’ follow up, each member of the group started running his own sessions more like mini-solo projects than a group effort. Yet the new album sounds like a much more communal effort than Sgt. Pepper’s. Both Lennon and McCartney get near-equal opportunities to show off their latest compositions, and though Harrison would have liked to get more songs on the vinyl, his four tracks would be the most he’d ever place on a Beatles LP (naturally, that is mostly due to the fact that the new record was a double). Even Ringo gets a song on. Furthermore, raw tracks such as “Helter Skelter”, “Yer Blues”, and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” sound like they were actually recorded by a basic, working Rock & Roll band, and you could not say that about anything on Pepper’s. They even gave their new album a title that implied the return of a unified front: The Beatles. Of course no one ever calls “The White Album” that.

50 years on, The Beatles, “The White Album”, or whatever you want to call it probably stands as the band’s most enthralling effort with the certain exception of Revolver. For the album’s anniversary, Giles Martin has subjected it to a new stereo mix. By 1968, mono was basically yesterday’s news and sufficient thought was given to the stereo mix of The Beatles, so a new remix isn’t as necessary as it had been for Sgt. Pepper’s (or as it still is for Revolver). Nevertheless, the original mix wasn’t perfect, with weird imbalances hobbling tracks such as “Savoy Truffle”. The balance of the new mix is more consistent. However, Giles gets a bit cuter with his special touches this time. He pumps up the piano and bass levels on “Dear Prudence” (though bringing up the wordless backing vocals is a magical flourish), warps the rubber-band strings of “Wild Honey Pie” to a nearly unlistenable degree, and overdoes those weird squeaks on “Helter Skelter”, even allowing them to trod on Ringos howl about his blistered fingers. The new mix is best when it generally follows the old mix, which it does for the majority of the tracks (and incidentally, the animal affects on “Blackbird” and “Piggies” are the same as those in the original stereo mix as opposed to the alternate ones used in the mono). 

More importantly, the album is supplemented with bonus material for several different anniversary reissues. The biggest is a sprawling 6-CD/1-Blu-ray/1 hardback book set that includes Giles Martin’s remix, the mono mix, a 5.1 mix, a disc of demos, and three discs of sessions. In keeping with Psychobabble’s move in a more appropriately retro vinyl direction, I’ll be focusing this review on the 4-LP edition of The Beatles. This box set features two double-LPs: the Giles Martin mix (complete with the original album’s poster and four photo portraits …though no individual numbering on the sleeve this time), and the “Esher Demos”, so named because John, Paul, and George cut them in Esher, Surrey. The audio of these demos is pro-quality even though the performances tend to be rough. Despite his perfectionist rep, McCartney seems particularly unprepared, often singing dummy lyrics where real ones will later go, revealing the demo stage as more of a songwriting than pre-recording process. Surprisingly, Lennon seems to take it more seriously, and his guitar/voice demos are occasionally fattened with percussion and additional singers (“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” features its full sing-along chorus with Ringo as prominent on the demo as he is on the final version). A relatively polished, delightfully swinging demo of “Revolution” hints that its composer realized how special the song was and how deserving of respectful treatment it was.

To clarify, describing these demos as rough is not a knock. It is the nature of demos and what makes them so fascinating. We hear George try out “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” way too fast and with alternate lyrics that he smartly replaced. We hear bits of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” creep up in an early run through of “I’m So Tired”. We hear McCartney try out a cod Jamaican accent he wisely dispensed of when cutting the proper version of “Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da”. We hear Lennon providing a monologue on the inspiration of “Dear Prudence” as he vamps the song’s exquisite riff. We also hear a number of songs that did not make the “White Album” cut, many of which would end up on Abbey Road and the guys’ solo albums, and one—George’s supremely tuneful “Sour Milk Sea”—that ended up on a single by Apple label-mate Jackie Lomax.  In essence, “The Esher Demos” is a very valuable document of The Beatles at work. It would have been nice if a disc with the best of the “sessions” from the CD set were also included with the vinyl. Nevertheless, it is positive that at least some of the oddities are featured on vinyl rather than just CD this time, which is a trend that I hope continues with the deluxe Beatles sets that will no doubt continue trotting down Abbey Road in the years to come.

Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors: #12

Halloween season simply isn’t Halloween season without a regular dose of golden age Universal horror (1923-1963). Every day this October, I’ll be giving you a steady IV drip of it by counting down Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors!

#12. The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954- dir. Jack Arnold)

Just when Universal horror seemed dead in the water, this little gem from Jack Arnold came bubbling to the surface. The supposition that there might be some sort of missing link between fish and person is goofy, but that’s okay since it spawned the Gill Man, and he may be the most interesting looking of all Universal monsters. Good work, Millicent Patrick! The underwater sequences are lovely, though they do tend to go on and on. The film really works best above lagoon level when the Gill Man is shuffling across the deck of the Rita, Nestor Paiva is gnawing his cigar and refusing to take shit from irritating Richard Denning, and Julie Adams is being Julie Adams.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Diary of the Dead 2018: Week 3

I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews at the end of every week this October. I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

October 12

Straight Jacket (1964- dir. William Castle) ***

This is a minor William Castle shocker, but Joan Crawford makes her presence felt as a woman trying to put her life back together after a long stint in an asylum for offing her husband with a wire hanger an axe. The twist is so-so, but getting the chance to see Crawford ham it up in a Castle picture is enough. The picture loses half a point because Castle never actually appears on screen to charm us with a schlocky gimmick while sucking on a giant cigar.

October 13

It Follows (2014- dir. David Robert Mitchell) ****½

Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors: #13

Halloween season simply isn’t Halloween season without a regular dose of golden age Universal horror (1923-1963). Every day this October, I’ll be giving you a steady IV drip of it by counting down Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors!

#13. The Phantom of the Opera (1925- dir. Rupert Julan)

Lon Chaney’s definitive character is still really scary. What did those audiences in the earliest days of cinema think when they witnessed Chaney’s Phantom staring them down, marching forward with dreadful relentlessness, his finger pointing accusingly right at them? Probably something like, “Oh, rhatz. I do believe I’ve soiled my golf knickers.” There’s something a bit off about a silent movie about opera, but the big bonus is that we don’t have to listen to any opera. Plus, the Phantom’s sewer lair is super cool.

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