Monday, October 20, 2014

Psychobabble’s Ten Most Terrifying Tales from the Crypt Comics!

 Heh, heh… good evening, Kiddies! I see it’s time for me to give you another spine-tingling post here on Psychobabble, and today’s chiller is no less than ten of the most horrid hunks of horror to appear in Entertaining Comics’ Tales from the Crypt magazine! And when I say Tales from the Crypt, I mean Tales from the Crypt, and not The Haunt of Fear or The Vault of Horror, because…well… I haven’t read all of those comics yet! So while favorites like “…And All Through the House…” and “A Grim Fairy Tale!” may be missing from this list, I’m sure you’ll agree the following stories earn the terrible title… Psychobabble’s Ten Most Terrifying Tales from the Crypt Comics!

1. The Living Corpse (Tales from the Crypt #18; artist: Wally Wood)

Its first tale to really nail both story and art reared its hideous head in just the second issue of Tales from the Crypt (never mind the kooky numbering system…issue 18 is really issue 2). Despite its unimaginative title, “The Living Corpse” establishes a strong mystery (why do these damn corpses keep coming to life and sprinting from the local morgue?) and resolves it with a clever series of twists. Though “The Living Corpse” isn’t a supernatural tale in the end, Wally Wood’s hallucinatory depictions of the morgue attendant’s fears are as nightmarish as anything in any zombie story.

2. Reflection of Death! (Tales from the Crypt #23; artist: Al Feldstein)

E.C.’s crypt keepers loved to pull the gimmick of placing you in the story with second-person narration. This gimmick was never used to more purposeful effect than in “Reflection of Death!”, in which you walk away from a car crash only to have everyone who sees you completely freak out? Why? Well, let’s just say that the Return of the Living Dead makeup crew must have drawn a lot of inspiration from Al Feldstein’s artwork when creating the Tar Man. Plus, the title panel monster mash illustration is fab!

3. Drawn and Quartered! (Tales from the Crypt #26; artist: Jack Davis)

A dose of voodoo causes everything that happens to an artist’s paintings to happen to the things his paintings depict. A horrible and classically ironic revenge plot ensues as the artist works overtime painting everyone who’s ever wronged him. What may be the cleverest of all E.C. horror stories is matched with Jack Davis’s signature goopy artwork.

4. The Ventriloquist’s Dummy! (Tales from the Crypt #28; artist: Graham Ingles)

Although the evil dummy trope has been done to death by now, it had only really been tackled once in the British portmanteau film Dead of Night before “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy!” Maybe that’s why this story so avoids the clichés of this type of story. Instead of the usual “dummy become outlet for ventriloquist’s madness” tale, we get a crazy conjoined twin one. The classic “Tales from the Crypt” episode this comic inspired diluted the horror with comedy. The comic is all horrific, and “Ghastly” Graham Ingles’s art makes good on his nickname.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Can't Wait Until 2016 for More "Twin Peaks"? Well, There's This...

"Twin Peaks" Freaks have a long wait until David Lynch and Mark Frost bring back their series for a nine-episode, "see you in 25 years" revival on Showtime in 2016. But they are not cruel men. They know a year and half or so is a long wait, so Mr. Frost will toss us a bone next year with The Secret Lives of Twin Peaks. Frost's novel, to be published by Macmillan's Flatiron Books, will get us all caught up on what's been happening in that dreamy town between 1990 and 2015. 

This will not be Frost's literary foray. He has written a number of novels that reflect his fascination with murder, mystery, and the occult, including The List of Seven, The Six Messiahs, and the on-going young readers trilogy The Paladin Prophecy. "Twin Peaks" is no stranger to the page either, inspiring three excellent tie-in books by Frost's brother Scott (The Autobiography of Special Agent Cooper), Lynch's daughter Jennifer (The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer), and David, Mark, and Richard Saul Wurman (Welcome to Twin Peaks: Access Guide to the Town). Hopefully, The Secret Lives of Twin Peaks will continue that tradition of "Twin Peaks" literary excellence and whet our appetites for the televised event of the twenty-first century. See in one year...

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

No Tricks! Just Ten Treat Performances in Classic Horror Movies!

A good horror movie can be a grueling experience. All of that hacking, cracking, and killing can really wear you down if there isn’t some relief. Fortunately smart filmmakers know this to be true and tuck moments of levity, and even sheer delight, into their films to give us viewers a well-earned break. Often this pleasure may come directly from a single character played by a most singular actor or actress. I think of these as “treat” performances. These performances deliver waves of delight amidst the horror, whether the character is a beacon of sweetness in a sea of bitterness or is simply a lot of fun to watch despite being really, really evil.

Still not sure what I mean? Well, then kick off your hobnail boots and peruse the following Ten Treat Performances in Classic Horror Movies!

(spoilers ahead)

1. Dwight Frye as Renfield in Dracula (1931)

Although there are few more iconic monster movies than Dracula, it often gets slammed for being slow-moving and talky, more drawing-room mystery than blood-curdling horror. The first twenty minutes of Tod Browning’s film are generally absolved from these charges because watching Bela Lugosi menace Dwight Frye in the sumptuously Gothic Transylvanian setting is unadulterated joy and what a lot of critics want the whole film to be. After the wacky duo jump on a ship to London, Dracula becomes less sinister and more formulaic. Nevertheless, it continues to be terrific—no matter what those blowhard critics say—because every second spent in the presence of Dwight Frye is a treat. Don’t get me wrong. I adore my time with Drac too. Seeing Bela portray Dracula is a lot like getting to Santa Claus in the flesh, being that Bela is such an icon of Halloween and Santa is such an icon of that other major national holiday. But it is Dwight who truly delights. The craziest character in the film is the one to whom we can most relate as he exudes all the desire, hatred, regret, pity, humor, and terror his mostly wooden cast-mates lack.

2. Bela Lugosi as Ygor in Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Monkees Meet the Monsters

Demonic deals. Cursed, severed animal parts. Reanimated corpses. Unholy séances. Unwanted brain transplants. These things have long plagued humankind. Four particular young men were unlucky enough to have to deal with all of them. Mike, Micky, Davy, and Peter may have been too busy singing to put anybody down (well, unless we’re talking about Don Kirshner, Bob Rafelson, LBJ, each other…aww hell, The Monkees loved putting people down). That didn’t stop an assortment of creeps, spooks, and kooks from putting them down.
In keeping with its postmodern take on entertainment, “The Monkees” often spoofed well-worn genres: spy pictures (“The Spy Who Came in From the Cool”, “Monkee Chow Mein”, “The Card Carrying Red Shoes”), heist pictures (“Monkees in a Ghost Town”, “The Picture Frame”), gangster pictures (“Monkees à la Carte”, “Alias Micky Dolenz”), sports pictures (“Monkees in the Ring”), beach movies (“Monkees at the Movies”), motorcycle movies (“The Wild Monkees”), pirate movies (“Hitting the High Seas”), westerns (“It’s a Nice Place to Visit”, “Monkees in Texas”), sci-fi (“The Monkees Watch Their Feet”, “Mijacogeo”), even documentaries (“Monkees on Tour”, ”Monkees in Paris”). However, “The Monkees” trampled no genre as regularly as horror.

After its 1930s golden era, the horror movie was somewhat dormant for the next two decades, censorship pushing it into self-parody in the forties and atomic-fears largely replacing it with invading Martian and giant bug movies in the fifties. In the sixties, strictures became less strict. The European horrors of Hammer Studios made real red (well, painty red) blood permissible in monster movies. In America, Roger Corman infused Edgar Allan Poe tales with the Hammer aesthetic (which The Monkees would one day spoof in their feature film Head, co-written by Corman collaborator Jack Nicholson). The success of those films followed viewings of the classic thirties horrors on late-night TV packages like “Shock!” and “Chiller!” Following them were supernatural new series ranging from the straight up scary (“The Twilight Zone”) to the tongue-in-fanged-cheek (“The Addams Family”, “The Munsters”). Before long shows of all genres, such as “Route 66” (“Lizards Leg and Owlets Wing”), “Gilligan's Island” (“Up at Bat”, “And Then There Were None”), “Batman” (“Marsha, Queen of Diamonds/Marshas Scheme of Diamonds”), and “Star Trek” (“Cats Paw”), were getting in on the haunting fun.
Count Gilligan in "Up at Bat".
As the sixties slithered on, horror exploded around the globe. Suddenly France, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and everyone else were exporting their own vampires, ghouls, and maniacs. No one loved these movies more than the kids who spent the mass of their free time devouring the latest pop records when they weren
t watching werewolves devour victims. TV producers were as quick to pick up on the pop/horror connection as Bobby Boris Pickett and Sheb Wooley, and soon The Addams Family were pushing their monstrous butler into a career as a rocker in the  “Lurch, the Teenage Idol” episode and The Munsters were hosting an impromptu performance of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by L.A.’s  The Standells in the “Far Out Munsters” episode (both episodes aired within two months of each other). On the flip side, a new Saturday morning cartoon starring the originators of that particular song regularly pitted the most popular pop band in the world against a menagerie of monsters.
Many of the same kids who tuned in to watch The Beatles battle vampires, witches, and ghosts on Saturday mornings also planted themselves in front of their TV’s every Monday night at 7:30 PM (6:30 Central) to rock along with The Monkees’ anarchic antics. And so the producers naturally had The Monkees interacting with all manner of ghouls. With its crazy fantasy sequences, third-wall shattering, and cartoon escapades, “The Monkees” already had one pointy Beatle boot planted outside of reality. From there it was just a short hop to the totally fantastical terrain of ghosts and monsters. The boys wasted not a second taking their first trip there. Getting the most worn-out of all clichés out of the way in the second episode that aired, The Monkees gather at an allegedly haunted house to collect an eccentric millionaire’s legacy. “Monkee See, Monkee Die” is a take off on The Cat and the Canary complete with grim thunderstorms, hairy monster claws that reach out from nowhere, and a weird séance… though the most disturbing (and hilarious) bit is a writer who constantly assaults a horrified girl by asking her if she’s read any of his flop books (“Dining out in Greenland?” “No!” “Philadelphia: Where to Find It?” “No!”). Like The Cat and the Canary—or a Scooby Doo adventure— we learn that the creeps menacing The Monkees are none other than the millionaire’s relatives vying to get his inheritance. More in keeping with the far-out “Monkees”, we then find out that there really is a ghost in the old house…one whose quoting of Jacob Marley reveals he’s just as much of a postmodernist as Mike, Micky, Davy, and Peter.

Now that they’d tussled with a ghost (or at least been told to keep the spirit of Christmas by one), The Monkees were ready to meet a monster. Despite a potentially horrific title and the presence of Lon Chaney, Jr., (who draws more allusions to his role in Of Mice and Men than his one in The Wolf Man), “Monkees in a Ghost Town” was not that episode. Rather, it was episode 18, “I Was a Teenage Monster”, in which The Monkees first faced a mad scientist with designs on implanting their musical abilities into a cut-rate Frankenstein Monster (perhaps not coincidentally, the previous year this very same premise was used in the second episode of The Beatles Saturday morning cartoon). The Chaney appearance was a wasted opportunity to nudge the ribs of Monster Kids. “Teenage Monster” made up for that by bringing in some faces that should have been familiar to kids who liked scary stuff. Mad Dr. Mendoza was none other than the great John Hoyt, who’d previously played a lovable mad creator in Attack of the Puppet People and shocked us all as (spoiler alert) the many-armed Martian in “The Twilight Zone’s” “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” Monster Richard Kiel was another “Twilight Zone” alumnus in the more legitimately terrifying role of the Kanamit in “To Serve Man” (Bryan Foulher, who played hunchback assistant Groot, was another “Zone” traveler, though in the decidedly benign “Walking Distance”).

Season one’s forays into the monstrous ended with that seven-foot tall hulk in the Beatle wig whacking a Gretsch and bellowing “Goo-rah!” When the show came back even wilder in its second season, the horror fantasies doubled. The weakest of these was the first. Despite the always fun presence of Ruth Buzzi, episode 43 showed the inspiration running low. “A Coffin Too Frequent” basically recycled the séance plot of “Monkee See, Monkee Die” right down to the non-supernatural rip-off scheme and the supernatural last-minute twist that isn’t nearly as scary as the severe part in Davy’s hair.

Much better are the three episodes that aired in succession from January 22 through February 5, 1968 (for some reason, NBC never coincided a horror episode with Halloween: “Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth” aired on October 31, 1966, and “Monkees Marooned” was the pick for October 30, 1967). The first of these was actually teased by Dr. Mendoza’s vacant-eyed “beautiful daughter” way back in “I Was a Teenage Monster”, though she got a lot of the details wrong. The vampire turns Micky, not Davy, into a werewolf (plus, “actress” Bonnie Dewberry was not asked to return despite saying she’d appear in the sequel. However, she once again amazes with her inabilities in “Monkees in Texas”, even ending up as the butt of some jokes because of her catatonia). 
Just as “I Was a Teenage Monster” drew inspiration from James Whale’s Frankenstein, “The Monstrous Monkee Mash” cribs the plot of its sequel Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. In that classic horror-comedy, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula schemes to place Lou Costello’s malleable brain into Glenn Strange’s Monster. In “The Monstrous Monkee Mash”, Ron Masak’s Count wants to use the brain of the equally simple Peter Tork (“Peter Tork” the character, not Peter Tork the real smart person, of course). Taking Dewberry’s spot as the cute woman of the week, Arlene Martel has a lot stronger chops and chomps as The Count’s niece Lorelei. She and her uncle one-up Lugosi by turning all The Monkees into famous monsters of filmland. Fuzzy-haired Micky becomes The Wolf Man. Uptight Mike gets wrapped up as The Mummy. Heartthrob Davy’s powers to mesmerize ladies are put to use when he becomes “Count Dracula reborn!” “The Monstrous Monkee Mash” is both a deliriously fun opportunity to see our boys merge with Universal’s greatest monsters and a crazy continuation of the loosening up of the show’s format that began with the landmark “The Monkees on the Wheel” on December 11. The laugh track has now vanished, as has Mike’s wool hat. More than ever The Monkees seem like they’re working without a script, or at least, not paying that much attention to it. The guys behind the cameras are goofier too, as seen in Micky’s multiple “scare take” outtakes left in the episode to disorienting effect. One reason for this unprecedented nuttiness is everyone was really starting to enjoy herbal supplements on set. Micky and Mike’s stoned attempt to get through a joke about saving the Texas Prairie Chicken ended up getting cut from “Monstrous Monkee Mash” and stitched to the end of “On the Wheel” (incidentally, though on topic, Micky can also be seen doing his Bela Lugosi impersonation in this episode).

The Monkees ‘ pot puffing overheats in episode 51, in which consummate character actor and scenery-chewer extraordinaire Hans Conried drops character to grumble “BLEEP, I hate these  kids” (I always enjoyed thinking that BLEEP masked a “Fuck,” but I guess it could have been “Goddamn” or something). All Monkees sport red eyes in “The Monkee’s Paw” (particularly Davy and Peter), and it has nothing to do with the cursed paw that robs Micky of his voice. Unlike the W.W. Jacobs horror tale that inspired this episode, there is no zombie, and “The Monkee’s Paw” isn’t as explicitly horrific as the other episodes mentioned. “The Devil and Peter Tork” is another story. As the title suggestions, it is an homage to Stephen Vincent Benét’s famous short story, The Devil and Daniel Webster. Instead of Daniel trading his soul to the biggest monster of all in exchange for a stretch of good luck, Peter simply wants to play the harp. “The Devil and Peter Tork” feels like a bit of a step backward after the wildness of “The Monstrous Monkee Mash” and “The Monkee’s Paw”. In fact, it is a literal step back. As you may have sussed from the returns of the laugh track, Mike’s hat, and Micky’s bad flat-ironed hairdo, “The Devil and Peter Tork” was filmed much earlier in the season. NBC claimed it held the episode back because of its use of the song “Salesman”, which references drug dealers. In truth, the network didn’t like Micky ribbing it over his censored attempts to say “Hell” on the air. Although “The Devil and Peter Tork” is traditional compared to “The Monstrous Monkee Mash” and “The Monkee’s Paw”, there is one sequence that really feels improvised, and it is the one that makes this the most poignant “Monkees” episode. Mike stumbles through his defense of Peter at the climactic trial scene by explaining that demonic Mr. Zero (the always excellent Monte Landis, an unofficial new cast member in season two) didn’t actually give Peter anything at all because Pete’s innate love of music was all he needed to play the harp. It sounds corny, and maybe it is, but Mike’s way of trying to find the right words to express his very simple statement smack with a realism rarely seen on “The Monkees”, especially when the guys were running from ghosts and vampires and Frankensteins. This time it took a monster to bring “The Monkees” down to earth, and it’s kind of beautiful.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Review: 'Star Wars Posters'

Cinema has given us some unforgettable still images to introduce its moving ones. Posters for Psycho, Jaws, Chinatown, Eraserhead, Alien, E.T., Ghostbusters, and Pulp Fiction are as memorable as the films they advertise. My personal favorite movie poster is the one Roger Kastel created for The Empire Strikes Back. Inspired by one of George Lucas's favorite posters, Howard Terning's painting for the 1967-rerelease of Gone with the Wind, Kastel's work depicts Han and Leia in a Scarlett/Rhett clutch, Luke front and center on his tauntaun, and the masked eyes of Darth Vader looming in the background. That the kiddie faves Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2 are shrunk and bunched to the side implies the relative adult-nature of Irvin Kershner's movie. The blue-palette perfectly reflects it's snow/sky/swamp aesthetic. Romantic, moody, a touch scary, and instantly evocative of my childhood, Kastel's is a piece of art that gets under my skin like no Mona Lisa or Waterlilies ever could... and I know I'm not alone on that matter.

If you're with me, then you're going to want to grab Abrams Publishing's new book Star Wars Posters. For such a blah title, this is one thrilling book. Kastel's iconic poster is just one of many and varied pieces in the book. The variety of styles that represent these films dazzles: from Kastel's pulp romance to comic book to circus poster to impressionism. The size of the book allows these often intricate works their due space, and select details are blown up further over luxurious two-page spreads. 

There's also a healthy helping of preliminary sketches and concepts that didn't go beyond the board room. These are some of the most fascinating pieces in Star Wars Posters, particularly when they get the films' details wrong. A sketch John Solie did for the first movie portrays Chewbacca as a pipe-wielding gorilla. Several proposals for Empire posters show Princess Leia with her cinnamon-buns hairdo (and one even shows her in unseasonably scanty dress riding sidesaddle behind Luke on his tauntaun!). Ralph McQuarrie's early renderings are the most famous to not reflect the characters accurately, and a few of those are in here too, as are pieces presenting Empire's bounty hunters and Yoda in a fantastical Dagobah more vivid and alive than the film's swamp planet. These are two of the most stunning pieces in the book.

I'm sure you'll be happy to know that although Lucas "curated" this book, the focus remains with the three original movies. A restrained 15 pages of this 180-page book are wasted with the prequel trilogy. There are also pieces devoted to such intergalactic side roads as the 1978 "Star Wars in Concert" event, the Ewok TV movies, the "Clone Wars" and "Rebels" animated series, and various Star Wars video games. Much cooler are the oddball fan-made pieces that finish the book with Empire enlistment posters, ads for faux-pulp horror flicks called Revenge of the Sandpeople and Lair of the Rancor, a psychedelic Max Rebo concert poster, and Sandcrawler, Star Destoyer, and Millenium Falcon travel posters. These pieces are all done in the spirit of fun that is the key to the original trilogy and are as eclectic and expertly rendered as everything else collected in this superb art book.

Get Star Wars Posters on here:

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