Friday, February 25, 2011

78 Vibrations Per Minute: Beach Boys Vinyl Single Set Coming...

While the >SMiLE CD Al Jardine teased in a recent interview remains in limbo, Beach Boys fans can anticipate a legit release to coincide with this coming Record Store Day. On April 16, Capitol Records will be issuing a 78 RPM double-single set of two key SMiLE tracks. Disc one features an early take of "Good Vibrations" on Side A and an alternate take of "Heroes and Villains" on the flip. Disc two contains the standard, Smiley Smile versions of these twin surf-psych classics. Nothing unreleased here, but a neat item for collectors and a possible indication that a companion CD set will, indeed, hit the shops this summer. Keep your fingers crossed and your boards waxed...

Thanks to The Second Disc and The Examiner for this news item.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

And the Oscar Goes to… Anything but Horror! : A Brief History of Terror Cinema and the Academy

Only a liar would deny that Oscar night is the cinematic celebration of the year, a time when millions tune in to revel in movies, the artists who make them, and the celebrities who star in them. Only a fool would believe that Oscar consistently rewards the best of the best. While not nearly as absurd as The Grammys or Emmys, The Oscars has a long-standing tradition of applauding professionally crafted, uninspired films that usually don’t take many artistic chances. There’s an odd middlebrow elitism to the Academy Awards. Terrible performances will warrant statuettes because the actors in question were “brave” enough to portray people with disabilities (Rain Man winner Dustin Hoffman, Scent of a Woman winner Al “Hoo-Ha!” Pacino, Forrest Gump winner Tom Hanks). Terrible movies will warrant them for dealing with such serious topics as suicide (Ordinary People), racism (Driving Miss Daisy, Crash), and disasters (Titanic), albeit in totally superficial and patronizing manners. Meanwhile, a certain genre is generally shunned because it is not what the punter who cried when Tom Cruise said “You complete me” considers to be “Art” with a big, dumb, capital “A”. Obviously, the genre I’m talking about is one of the focuses of this site: horror.

(Mild spoilers in the following paragraph…)

Despite a long history that has produced a parade of classics that all but the most blinkered critics agree are great films—from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Bride of Frankenstein, Psycho to Rosemary’s Baby, Jaws to An American Werewolf in London—horror gets little respect come Academy Awards night. That’s not to say that Oscar has never tossed the creeping skeleton a bone. In fact, this year is one of just eight since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences started handing out its little naked men in 1928 that a horror film has received multiple nominations in non-technical categories. Darren Aronofsky’s daring, messy, mad, and ultimately brilliant Black Swan is up for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress (as well as best cinematography and film editing) awards. In a more just world, Black Swan would sweep (and Mila Kunis wouldn’t have been robbed of a Best Supporting Actress nomination). The film was a rare explosion of imagination in a mostly unremarkable year, and a terrific opportunity to watch a filmmaker take crazy chances, perhaps not always succeeding. I’m still wondering if Portman’s transformation into an actual swan was completely necessary, but I was still impressed that Aronofsky had the guts to toss such a bizarre idea into his film’s climax and risk losing an audience that he’d already asked to go along with some pretty eccentric twists and turns.

Excuse me, officer, I’d like to report a robbery.
It is that riskiness, that audacity, that commitment to an obtuse vision that guarantees Black Swan isn’t going to score a single award this Sunday night. It certainly won’t win the Best Picture or Directorial awards. It’s too “weird.” No, you can count on the Best Picture award going to The King’s Speech, which I have not seen but have it on good authority is perfectly competent and perfectly ordinary, or Facebook: The Movie!, which is almost vengefully unremarkable aside from being browner than a clogged toilet. Why this dreary tale of litigious assholes has received so much drooling praise is utterly beyond me.

Whatever the outcome Sunday night, it is nice to see Oscar give a little due credit to a really well made horror film, as it is not the academy’s inclination to do so. Over the past 82 years, only eight non-technical awards have been presented to actors, actresses, screenwriters, directors, and films trafficking in scares and monsters. Promisingly, the first horror film to receive a nomination won, but tellingly, it won with a catch. Just a few years into Oscar history, Fredric March grabbed the Best Actor award for his astonishing double-duty work in Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1932. This is pretty impressive considering the disdain and outrage that greeted most horror films to date, including the perennials Dracula and Frankenstein. The catch was that March had to share his award with Wallace Beery, who also won for playing a “washed-up boxer” cliché in King Vidor’s The Champ.

Wallace Beery as a washed-up boxer in ‘The Champ’.
Also nominated that year were Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath for adapting Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella and pulling off the significant feat of improving greatly on the source material, which nursed its central metaphor at the expense of fully fleshed characters, relationships, and incidents. A tremendous achievement, their screenplay for Jekyll and Hyde lost to Edwin J. Burke’s for Bad Girl. Don’t worry; I’ve never heard of it either.

‘Bad Girl’ sez: "What am I?"

The mysterious Bad Girl also scored an award for director Frank Borzage in a category that didn’t even acknowledge that Mamoulian’s work on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was groundbreaking on nearly every level, from his use of first person point-of-view shots to establish empathy with the doctor, to his still stunning on-camera transformation trick shots.

During the ‘40s, a couple of nominations were tossed to actors in horroresque roles—Walter Huston for playing Lucifer in The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) and Angela Landsbury for playing a barmaid in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) —but neither resulted in a win. Nor did The Bad Seed, the second horror film to receive multiple nominations. Nancy Kelly and Patty McCormack may have gone home empty handed, but both could rest assured that neither Anastasia (featuring Best Actress winner Ingrid Bergman) nor Written on the Wind (with Best Supporting Actress Dorothy Malone) would ever inspire rabid cult followings or drag-queen homages.

Four years later came the third horror film to receive multiple nominations, and most will agree that the recipient is a cinematic milestone. Alfred Hitchcock was up for Best Director and Janet Leigh was up for Best Supporting Actress for their work on Psycho. Both lost, and as is well known, Hitchcock never won a directing Oscar despite being arguably cinema’s greatest director. At least the award went to a deserving Billy Wilder for The Apartment that year.

Despite its lack of acclaim from the Academy, Psycho played a major part in improving horror/critic relations, and made room for more artistic achievements in the genre. During the ‘60s, human-monster Roman Polanski proved to be one of the most innovative and artful horror filmmakers, creating a tour de force of sexual paranoia with Repulsion in 1965, then doing the same for maternal fears three years later with Rosemary’s Baby, the film that fully made good on the promises mapped out by Psycho. Exceptional direction, acting, and writing convene in a truly great film distinguished by both oppressive terror and deliciously perverse humor largely by way of Ruth Gordon as officious neighbor and fun-loving Satanist, Minnie Castevet. Gordon wrangled the Oscar for her tremendous performance as a woman who never stops being lovable, even after she orchestrates a demonic rape. Polanski, however, failed to win the Best Adapted Screenplay award for which he was nominated and failing to garner a nomination for his directing.

The demon infant of Rosemary’s Baby blossomed into the demonically possessed adolescent that would crack through Oscar’s anti-horror façade more assuredly than any previous contender. The Exorcist only won a single award (a Best Adapted Screenplay statuette for William Peter Blatty), but its level of nominations was unprecedented for a horror film, particularly a full-blooded horror film that doesn’t straddle any lines as stuff like The Bad Seed, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (which scored acting nominations for Bette Davis and Victor Buono in 1962), and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (featuring 1964 Best Supporting Actress nominee Agnes Moorehead) do. The Exorcist was also up for Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn), Supporting Actress (Linda Blair), Supporting Actor (Jason Miller), and Best Picture; a first for a horror film.

Whether or not there is some connection between the Exorcist phenomenon and the relatively plentiful horror nominations that followed almost immediately (a Best Picture nod for Jaws in 1975; Best Actress and Supporting Actress nods for Carrie’s Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, respectively, in ’76), that flame burned out quickly. Aside from a Best Actress nomination honoring Sigourney Weaver’s performance in Aliens (1986), horror was relegated to the back of Oscar’s bus for fourteen years. Then in 1990, Kathy Bates became the first actress to win an Oscar for a horror performance when she scored one for playing psychotic Annie Wilkes in Misery. Horror was back on the Oscar map and about to make its greatest splash in the Academy’s fetid pool.

Oscar sweeps are rare. Oscar sweeps by horror films are less common than two-headed calves. However, both happened in 1991 when Silence of the Lambs trounced the competitors, raking in the statuettes with greedy talons. Congratulations, Best Actress Jodie Foster! Congrats to you, too, Best Actor Anthony Hopkins! Way to go, Best Adapted Screenplay writer Ted Tally, and we can’t forget you, Jonathan Demme! You’re the first director to win an Oscar for a horror film, and the horror film for which you won was the first to be named Best Picture!

Oscar Loves Crazy

Creeps and ghouls rejoice, but don’t get too comfortable. Despite a strong start, the ‘90s proved to be an unremarkable decade for horror, overly dominated by mediocre “The Crazy ______” movies (as in: “The Crazy Roommate,” “The Crazy Tenant,” “The Crazy Nanny,” etc.). That also meant Oscar wasn’t going to be knocking on horror’s door again anytime soon. Still, it is not utterly meaningless that Martin Landau was able to nab a well-deserved 1994 Best Supporting Actor award for his miraculous transformation into horror star Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood and Sir Ian McKellen got a nomination for playing legendary horror filmmaker James Whale in the 1998 film Gods and Monsters. Though both actors surely did extraordinary work in both films, one might also view these awards and nominations as belated posthumous tributes to the men portrayed.

If one is still looking for some sort of pattern regarding the Oscars’ uncomfortable relationship with horror at this point, one is probably jerking off into the breeze. Like a derelict dad deciding its time to come home and visit the kids for a spell, horror strolled back onto the Oscar stage in 1999 with The Sixth Sense, another multi-nominated film, yet also the least potent horror film to make its way onto the Academy’s docket yet. A predictable script and way too much pseudo-creepy whispering notwithstanding, The Sixth Sense managed nominations for its director (“emperor’s new clothes” exemplar M. Night Shyamalan), screenplay (Shyamalan again), Supporting Actress (Toni Collette), Supporting Actor (Haley Joel Osment), editor (Andrew Mondshein), and itself (that means it was nominated for Best Picture). It won nothing.


Then the ‘00s, another fairly fallow period for horror as far as the Academy was concerned. It only lowered itself to bestow non-technical nominations on three horrors during the decade: the first for Willem Dafoe, so marvelous as Max Shreck in the ingenious collision of fact and fiction Shadow of the Vampire (2000); the second for Guillermo Del Toro’s sumptuous and profound grim fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), nominated for Best Screenplay and Best Foreign Film; the third for Johnny Depp, very good in Tim Burton’s terrific, gruesome musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).

And now the pendulum shutters back into horror’s Gothic manse once more. Last year Oscar finally acknowledged that horror was worthy of one of its cheesy little tribute montages. That a pair of stars from the juvenile Twilight movies were chosen to introduce the montage, and that the tribute spends so much time humping the legs of celebrities like tabloid-fave Jennifer Aniston rather than presenting a comprehensive, rich overview of the genre, reveals that horror still hasn’t crawled out of Oscar’s fruit cellar of shame.

If Black Swan does win anything this Sunday, it will be joining a most exclusive society of horrific Oscar winners: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Rosemary’s Baby, Misery, and Silence of the Lambs. Feel free to wish it luck, but don’t hold your breath, lest you end up like one of the wan corpses that litter so many films deemed unworthy of the Academy’s chintzy statuette.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Review: ‘The Ghoul’ (1933)

Just two years after scoring a pair of monster smashes with Dracula and Frankenstein, Universal Pictures was already experiencing hard times. The studio all but ceased functioning throughout the first months of 1933, laying off employees and putting contracts on hold (though the studio would get itself together in time to release the summer-season hit Invisible Man). Despite the overseas situation, Gaumont Studios was making Britain’s first significant bid to capitalize on America’s horror fad. The result is a false start; it would take England 25 years to fully establish a unique horror vision and set the genre’s standard for the subsequent decade. Nevertheless, The Ghoul is a good movie, though one that might have been terrific with better orchestrated acting and crisper editing.

Director T. Hayes Hunter follows the Universal format pretty faithfully, using several of the studio’s stars on loan, fashioning a fairly memorable creature in the speechless Frankenstein Monster tradition, appropriating the Egyptian iconography of the previous year’s Mummy, and indulging wholeheartedly in the kind of German-Expressionist shadow play that distinguished all of Universal’s horror efforts to date. Professor Morlant (Boris Karloff) is a dying Egyptologist who insists on being entombed with a rare jewel, the “Eternal Light”. He vows to his servant Laing (Karloff’s recent Old Dark House co-star Ernest Thesiger) that he will return from the dead if anyone swipes the jewel from his dead paw. Naturally, someone does, otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie.

The premise is pretty decent, refurbishing bits of Universal’s past hits, as well as paying homage to classic ghost stories such as “The Golden Arm”. The talky, lumpy script by Frank King, who also wrote the novel and co-wrote the play on which this film was based, is no great shakes. The long stretch between Karloff’s entombment and his inevitable return is bloated with a lot of gabbing from grating characters. A product of the silent era, Hunter apparently had trouble adapting his style to sound film. The actors all bellow their lines as if they’re playing to the balcony.

The director’s way with a camera, however, is beyond reproach; his work is more inventive, fluid, and purposefully gloomy than that of Browning in Dracula or Whale in Frankenstein. His use of dancing shadows and bold framing is remarkable. His experiments with darkness are audacious, even if they’re not always completely successful: some images are so black it’s impossible to figure out what’s happening on screen.

There are also some nice, signature touches scattered throughout that puff life into even the saggiest passages, such as Harold Huth preparing himself an absinthe cocktail, the way the bursting of roasting chestnuts creates a bit of tension in an otherwise innocuous scene, and an effectively gruesome self-mutilation late in the picture. Karloff is underused, but Thesiger does an admirable job of picking up the slack with his typical impudence and wholly unconvincing Scottish brogue. It’s always fun to see him working with Karloff regardless of the quantity or quality of their screen time together. The Ghoul also deserves props for being one of the few films with the guts to explore the S&M possibilities of coffee making.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Watch The Kinks 1972 "In Concert" BBC Doc

Being third hand doesn’t make the news bad, kids. Yesterday, Prefix posted a video that was picked up by The Portland Mercury that I’m now re-regurgitating here on Psychobabble because it’s The Kinks and we all love The Kinks. This BBC program that documents The Kinks’ 1972 gig at the Rainbow Theater in support of Muswell Hillbillies should whet all appetites as we wait for all those other Kinks film projects supposedly in the works, such as Bob Goldthwaite’s School Boys in Disgrace musical and Julien Temple’s Ray Davies doc. You haven't lived 'til you've watched Ray sing "Waterloo Sunset" while wearing a giant bow tie.

Link to the doc on You Tube here:

The Music:
"Till the End of the Day"
"Waterloo Sunset"
"Top of the Pops" (a fabulous montage set to the studio version!)
"The Money-Go-Round" (studio version)
"Sunny Afternoon"
"Virgin Soldiers Theme" (studio version)
"She Wore a Hat Like Princess Marina"
"Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues"
"You Really Got Me"

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Richard Matheson On Screen: 10 Essential Works

Throughout 20th century horror’s Pre-K era (i.e.: pre-King), Richard Matheson dominated. Matheson is a tough, clean writer who has composed some of our most unforgettable works of terror and imagination. Without the ornateness of plot and/or language that distinguished his major horror peers—Poe and Lovecraft, Bradbury and King—Matheson writes tales with the punchy immediacy of campfire ghost stories. A scant phrase can instantly conjure one of the many indelible images he created: a man shrinks toward oblivion, a gremlin terrorizes a man from the wing of a plane, a murderous fetish doll stalks a woman through her apartment, a monstrous big-rig hunts a motorist, the last man on Earth fights to survive a plague of vampires.

Matheson’s lean, pointed stories were absolutely ripe for adaptation. His short stories resulted in several of the most beloved episodes of “Twilight Zone”, although oddly enough, there has never been a truly great version of what may be his definitive work, the apocalyptic vampire novel I Am Legend. Be that as it may, there are still plenty of wonderful examples of Matheson on-screen. Here are ten essentials.

(For the purposes of this article, I steered away from Matheson's adaptations of other writers' work, but his scripts for Poe's Fall of the House of Usher and Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out are pretty essential viewing, too)

1. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

In an era ruled by largely disposable B-grade sci-fi, Richard Matheson crafted something genuinely profound. Meditative and moving, yet still delivering all the dazzling special effects and action the matinee crowd craved, The Incredible Shrinking Man holds up magnificently. The great sci-fi filmmaker Jack Arnold fashioned an environment more harrowing than the Amazonian jungle in his own Creature from the Black Lagoon: a domestic world full of brontosaurus-sized housecats and spiders and typhoon-strength plumbing leaks. Such set pieces are what most people remember about The Incredible Shrinking Man, but it is Matheson’s closing monologue on the position of humankind in the universe that is the film’s most transcendent moment and the one that elevates this film to masterpiece.

2. “Nick of Time” episode of “Twilight Zone” (1960)

With his ability to tell a forceful tale within an economic timeframe and his penchant for a ninth-inning twist, Richard Matheson was an ideal writer for “Twilight Zone”. He may prove to be the show’s greatest scribe, perhaps even besting creator Rod Serling, whose tendency to get too purple in the pen bloats some of his scripts. Matheson’s shows never feel overly talky, even in an episode such as “Nick of Time”, which is essentially thirty minutes of a couple talking in a diner. Matheson’s naturalistic dialogue particularly compliments this episode, a rare “Zone” that doesn’t traffic in the supernatural. Still, the looming presence of a demon-headed box that disposes paper napkins and vague fortunes is as chilling an image as you’re likely to encounter in the Twilight Zone.

3. “The Invaders” episode of “Twilight Zone” (1961)

Matheson takes his disdain for floridity to extreme levels in “The Invaders”. Silent aside from Serling’s narration and a few concluding lines that deliver the startling climax, “The Invaders” is a powerful one-woman show for Agnes Moorehead. It’s easy to dismiss a script lacking dialogue, but think of how difficult it is to drive a 30-minute story with nothing but physical action occurring in a single space and a minimum of characters. In spite of the episode’s rightful reputation for being truly innovative television, the writer was never a fan, hating the “roly-poly” invaders, which he likened to Peter Rabbit, and finding the pace too slow. According to Matheson, his original “script had twice as much incident as they used in the final version” [The Twilight Zone Companion].

4. “Little Girl Lost” episode of “Twilight Zone” (1962)

Matheson uses complex physics as the basis for a primal terror tale aimed directly at the hearts of all parents. A young girl slips through a “Riemannian cut”, a sort of wormhole, into another dimension. Her ghostly voice shutters throughout her home as her parents search frantically. Matheson’s short story “Little Girl Lost” was based on an actual experience in which the writer’s daughter tumbled from her bed and was trapped out of sight against a wall. As he did with so many of his “Twilight Zone” adaptations, Matheson wrote the script himself, and it is another effectively simple piece, never allowing scientific specifics to overwhelm the story’s essential humanity. Note the deep influence it had on Poltergeist two decades later.

5. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode of “Twilight Zone” (1963)

Without question “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is Matheson’s finest 30 minutes in the Twilight Zone and one of the series’ very best episodes. William Shatner’s terrifying encounter with a gremlin still packs all the power it housed when it first aired nearly 50 years ago. Certainly Matheson’s ingenious story deserves much of the credit, although Shatner’s sweaty performance is equally pungent. The writer agreed, declaring the actor’s work “marvelous,” although he was less enamored with the creature, which he thought looked a bit too much like “a panda bear.” When this story was remade by George Miller for the 1982 film Twilight Zone: The Movie, the gremlin was given a leaner, more demonic look. This is another excellent adaptation, with John Lithgow ratcheting up the tension with an even crazier performance than Shatner’s. The sequence is certainly the highlight of that very hit-and-miss film.

6. “Night Call” episode of “Twilight Zone” (1964)

Matheson’s second to last “Twilight Zone” is also arguably the second to last great installment of the series (in my opinion, the final one is “The Masks”, since “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” technically isn’t a true “Twilight Zone”). It’s amazing to think he wrote the short story “Long Distance Call” in 1953 since it is so elemental it seems like the kind of tale that has existed since campfires first burned. Well, at least since campfires first burned after the invention of the telephone. Gladys Cooper plays an elderly woman receiving mysterious calls from a familiar yet desiccated voice. Matheson’s original story, which concludes with the being behind the voice telling the woman that he’ll “be right over,” has the horrific flavor of an E.C. comic. The ending of his “Twilight Zone” script (renamed “Night Call”, because there had already been a “Zone” titled “Long Distance Call”) is more melancholic, imbuing the show with that wrenching flavor of cruel fate that had been a “Twilight Zone” staple since “Time Enough at Last” aired in season one. Matheson’s script isn’t his only contribution to this episode’s greatness; he also recommended that it be directed by Jacques Tourneur, the master of chiaroscuro suspense who directed such horror masterpieces as Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie.

7. Duel (1971)

Duel might be worthy of mention here if its sole distinction was its status as Steven Spielberg’s first feature-length film. This isn’t the case. Duel might be the most memorable made-for-TV horror movie of the ‘70s because of its unwavering tension. Spielberg’s direction is already sure-handed (he’d only been in the trenches working for TV series such as “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “Night Gallery” for a couple of years at this point). Matheson’s script, based on his short story, is a masterpiece of minimalism: a behemoth gasoline tanker stalks a salesman during a business trip through the California desert. As the film progresses, the murderous intentions of the unseen truck driver grow alarming clear, and the salesman must draw on long dormant survival skills. Duel is a primordial horror story, a prehistoric predatory hunt set in the modern world: the truck as mammoth, the modern man as his own cave-dwelling ancestor. The salesman is a hero in the true Matheson traditional: a normal person thrust into highly abnormal circumstances, forced to fight for his life in the throes of sweaty-palm panic. Dennis Weaver, whom Spielberg hired because of his work in Orson Welles’s noir classic Touch of Evil, is superbly delirious in the role.

8. The Legend of Hell House (1973)

In 1953, a squad of mentalists was slaughtered while investigating the haunted mansion known as Hell House, the former home of a fellow who allegedly dabbled in “drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies.” Twenty years later, a deathbed-bound millionaire commissions another group to convene at Hell House to prove the existence of an afterlife. Adapted from his own novel, Matheson wrote a script a lot less schlocky than its title might suggest. The film owes much to that greatest of haunted house pictures, The Haunting, both in its premise and the way director John Hough’s active, disorienting camerawork makes Hell House into a character with as much personality as any of the mentalists. The house is a meaner entity than the one in The Haunting, at times physically attacking its inhabitants. There are a few dopey moments—a goofy cat attack will probably make modern audiences giggle and the ending is disappointingly trivial—but The Legend of Hell House neutralizes most criticisms by brandishing an ace ensemble cast, Hough’s clever camerawork, and Matheson’s trademark wit.

9. “Amelia” episode of Trilogy of Terror (1975)

Originally airing as an “ABC Movie of the Week”, Dan Curtis’s Trilogy of Terror has survived as a pop-culture touchstone for some 35 years for one reason: “Amelia”. Following two forgettable tales, “Julie” and “Millicent and Therese” (both based on Matheson stories but not scripted by him), this portmanteau gets down to business with the writer’s adaptation of his superb story, “Prey”. Karen Black contending with an unstoppable, knife-wielding Zuni fetish doll is intense enough, but the piece’s concluding image is what makes it traumatizing. “Amelia” is an amazing, white-knuckled confluence of frill-free writing, relentless pacing, magnetic acting, and in the case of the doll, some pretty spectacular prop design. If Matheson had issues with the execution of “The Invaders”, another story that finds a woman fighting for her life against tiny terrors in a confined environment, he surely had no complaints about “Amelia”.

10. “The Doll” episode of “Amazing Stories” (1986)

“The Doll” draws together numerous threads of Matheson’s career in surprising, and ultimately wonderful, ways. A story about a man who becomes smitten with a doll, the script was originally set for production during the final season of the original “Twilight Zone”. During a period in which the imagination and creativity of television’s most imaginative and creative program was drying up, “The Doll” would have been a great boon. However, producer William Froug decided to pass on the script even though it had been purchased and filming dates had been scheduled already. The details regarding the non-production of “The Doll” on “Twilight Zone” are sketchy. One possible reason is its slight similarity to the fourth season episode “Miniature”, which had been the subject of a plagiarism lawsuit. Matheson, however, places the blame on Froug, whom he says, “never cared for my writing” [June 1982 issue of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine]. Twenty-two years later, the writer’s old Duel collaborator, Steven Spielberg, was reviving the Zone’s anthology format for a new sci-fi series titled “Amazing Stories”. Invited to contribute, Matheson suggested “The Doll”. Fortunately, the producers were able to buy back the script and produce one of the most memorable episodes of “Amazing Stories”. The show was a real feather in the series’ cap, earning three Emmys, including an actor award for “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” star John Lithgow, who dials down his trademark mania to embody doll-owner John Walters with stark tenderness. A most fortuitous revival of one of Richard Matheson’s finest scripts.

Richard Matheson turns 85 today.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Psychobabble’s 80th Anniversary ‘Dracula’ Companion

When I was studying film in college, I took a class on horror movies (there’s nothing like watching The Exorcist at 9:30 in the morning with a roomful of groggy 21-year olds), and was taken aback to see that Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation of Dracula was not on the syllabus. All of the other major Universal classics were present and accounted for— Frankenstein, The Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man— but there wasn’t a caped Lugosi in sight. When my professor finally mentioned the film, I was surprised to hear that she was not only highly critical of the movie, but that it had gained a pretty poor reputation over the years for being stagy, slow, and static. I was even more shocked to learn that a great number of film historians think that Bela Lugosi’s performance as the title vampire was hokey and dated. Really? So much bad press for Dracula? The first serious (i.e.: non ‘Abbott and Costello meets…’) horror film I ever saw? Perhaps the most famous film in horror history?

When I next rewatched the movie for the first time in fifteen or so years (I was less obsessive about horror back then), I recognized what the critics had been griping about while rejecting outright that there was anything to gripe about. So it’s a bit stagy. So it’s a bit hokey. So Lugosi’s face is a tad over expressive. So what? Dracula was America’s first significant sound horror film, and by adapting and developing upon the tropes established in the silents—the looming shadows and vermin of Nosferatu, the silent monster of Caligari, the combination of sex and terror of Phantom of the OperaDracula established the monster movie for a new age of cinema, its stupendous success resulting in 1931 being the genre’s most monumental year. James Whale’s Frankenstein and Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde debuted that same year, and those three films gave us our three major monster archetypes: the vampire, the revivified/creation monster, and the transformation monster.

Horror’s class of ’31: Drac, Frank, and Hyde.
Historical significance is fab and all, but Dracula is also tremendously watchable despite what the naysayers say. Lugosi is magnetic and iconic. Dwight Frye as fly-munching Renfield is frightening, comic, and disarmingly tragic. The script encapsulates Stoker better than you think and more faithfully than many successive adaptations. The overall lack of music creates a quiet, consistent air of dread, while the excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake played over the opening credits sets that fey tone beautifully. So memorable are those few moments of music that the ballet’s “Scene 10: Moderato” immediately and far-reachingly became shorthand shorthand for Gothic horror, reappearing the following year during the credits of Karl Freund’s The Mummy and decades later at the climax of Darren Aronofsky’s modern horror masterwork of last year, Black Swan.

Dracula has certainly made its impact on me, even though I don’t rate it as my favorite horror movie (that would be Bride of Frankenstein), or even my favorite of ’31 (Jekyll). Still the Count is the most-mentioned monster on this site. Since I’ve spilled so much type on Dracula since starting Psychobabble in 2008, I’m not sure I have anything of great significance left to say about the film. So, to commemorate the classic’s 80th anniversary, which it celebrates today, I’ve compiled a companion collection of Dracula pieces published here over the past couple of years. Get ready to sink your fangs into Psychobabble’s 80th Anniversary ‘Dracula’ Companion!

The Lost World: John L. Balderston’s ‘Dracula’s Daughter’
Originally Published October 12, 2009

Developing a movie project is such a convoluted process that it’s amazing any films ever get made at all. There are the budgetary problems, and the casting difficulties, and the conflicts between directors and producers that have caused more than a few projects to be aborted before reaching term. In this on-going series I’ve dubbed “The Lost World”, I’ll be looking at some of these sweet abortions.

John L. Balderston’s Dracula’s Daughter

It all starts with Tod Browning’s Dracula, the film that kicked off the golden age of horror, inspired endless pretenders, and became Universal Pictures’ most massive money machine of 1931. Desperate for income during the Great Depression, Universal was hot to capitalize on Dracula’s success, and rapidly followed it with such iconic chillers as Frankenstein, Murders in the Rue Morgue, and The Old Dark House. Amidst Universal’s initial horror frenzy, producer David O. Selznick bought the rights to the excised opening chapter of Bram Stoker’s Dracula from Stoker’s widow Florence in 1933.
The chapter introduced Jonathan Harker and detailed his weird encounter with a female vampire he happens across while heading to Dracula’s castle. Stoker’s publisher clipped the sequence from Dracula for fear the novel was growing unwieldy, but it was published as a short story titled “Dracula’s Guest” two years after his death. Selznick, however, decided that Dracula’s Daughter was a snappier title for his film.

John L. Balderston

Selznick recruited John L. Balderston, who’d written the stage play on which the Dracula film was based (as well as the screenplays for Frankenstein and The Mummy) to compose a treatment. This was right before Hollywood really began enforcing the priggish Hays Code that drastically reduced the level of sex and violence permissible in American films, so Balderston packed his treatment with all manner of forbidden delights. With the title vampire left staked and dead (as opposed to “undead”) at the climax of Dracula, Balderston had to explore some of the second-tier characters for a premise. As related in David J. Skal’s indispensable book The Monster Show, Balderston decided to focus on Dracula’s trio of wan brides glimpsed so briefly and tantalizingly in Browning’s film. His treatment revives a most unsavory sequence from Stoker’s novel in which Dracula presents his brides with an infant as a sack lunch. The film was to have the Prince of Darkness’s daughter offering up the bagged baby, as she was left to rule over crumbling Castle Dracula while daddy was out of town. The brides gripe that they’d prefer some young men to feed on, and the daughter expresses her displeasure at their complaints by cracking an S&M whip at her stepmothers and warning that she is their “mistress” while Drac’s away.

Dracula’s peckish Brides

Balderston also intended to explicitly portray the daughter’s attacks as sensual seductions committed by a night creature that is “amorous of her victims.” She was to torture these fellows using the sundry “industrial-strengths whips, straps, and chains” she kept in her arsenal.

Unlike Browning’s Dracula, which started with a bang then gradually relaxed into a drawing-room mystery, Balderston intended his Dracula’s Daughter to build steadily toward a heart-jolting climax more in line with Stoker’s book. The film was to begin with Dr. Van Helsing setting off to Transylvania to do away with Dracula’s brides. Unbeknownst to the vampire hunter, the Daughter follows him to London. While there she snares a handsome aristocrat named Lord Edward Wadhurst in her thrall. Van Helsing and the aristocrat’s fiancée, Helen Swaything, chase the Daughter back to Transylvania, where they put her in her permanent grave. Incidentally, this treatment (as well as all subsequent versions of Dracula’s Daughter) has nothing in common with “Dracula’s Guest” aside from the presence of a female vampire.

Balderston’s Dracula’s Daughter was probably never going to get the green light simply based on its content: the sex, the gruesome violence, the torture, the baby eating. But it was legal matters that sunk the picture officially. According to Selznick’s agreement with Florence Stoker, no character or incident from any of her husband’s work aside from “Dracula’s Guest” was permitted to be included in the film. That means no Van Helsing, no Brides, and no baby in a bag. Selznick parted ways with Balderston and employed R.C. Sherriff, who’d contributed dialogue to The Old Dark House and written The Invisible Man, to rewrite the treatment. But when Universal Pictures sent the treatment to production-code führer Joe Breen, it was again rejected for its sex and violence, which Breen branded “dangerous,” and for Sherriff’s inclusion of Dracula in some flashback sequences.

Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) performs her dad’s last rites. 

So Dracula’s Daughter just kept getting limper and limper. The exorcising of kinky sex and violence neutered the film as a truly shocking entity. The loss of the Dracula character devalued its appeal as a sequel to the original film, which hinged so much on the iconic presence of Bela Lugosi (although Van Helsing somehow remained). Hope was in the air when James Whale, horror’s single most original and extraordinary filmmaker, came on board to direct, but his plans to craft a lavish, big-budget picture were nixed by Universal, who were reluctant to dole out the dollars. They settled for a fairly humdrum screenplay by Garrett Fort, who’d worked on the script of the Dracula play, and hired Lambert Hillyer to direct. As released in 1936, Dracula’s Daughter is certainly not without its charms. Gloria Holden brings a spooky grace and possessed intensity to Countess Marya Zaleska, the title vampire. The scene in which she puts her father to rest during an al fresco funeral ritual is among the most atmospheric and unsettling in a Universal horror film. The overt S&M torture of Balderston’s treatment may be gone, but Countess’s seduction of a street girl is still pretty racy by 1930’s standards. Still it would be glorious for a contemporary filmmaker to resurrect the film blueprinted in Balderston’s nasty treatment. Until then, John L. Balderston’s Dracula’s Daughter will continue to be just another pile of bones languishing in the Lost World.

Psychobabble recommends the ‘Count Dracula’ miniseries
Originally Published October 27, 2009

Without question the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is this 1977 miniseries written by Gerald Savory and directed by Philip Saville for the BBC. As the title Count, French heartthrob Louis Jourdan obviously isn’t the repellent creature Stoker described, and Lucy’s suitors Arthur Holmwood and Quincey P. Morris have been distilled into a single character (wisely, on the part of Savory). Otherwise Count Dracula hits

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Holy Psycho Daises! Huge Yardbirds box on the way...

UK label Easy Action is prepping an immense, five-disc Yardbirds box for 2011 (the exact release date has yet to be announced). Glimpses 1963-1968 compiles a mass of live and radio performances from the great British blues band's all-too-brief career, as well as a plethora of interviews with the boys. Apparently, the majority of these tracks have never been released officially. And what are those tracks? Well, breathe deep and do your damnedest to digest this sprawling line-up, kittens!

Disc 1

1) Honey In Your Hips (Alternate Studio Take) (Keith Relf) (R.G. Jones Studios, Morden, Surrey)
2) Jim McCarty - Interview Segment 1
3) You Can't Judge A Book By Its Cover (Studio Demo) (Willie Dixon) ( R.G. Jones Studios, Morden, Surrey)
4) Eric Clapton - Interview Segment 1
5) Boom Boom (Live) (John Lee Hooker) (Fourth National Jazz & Blues Festival, Richmond)
6) I’m A Man (Live) (Ellas McDaniel) (Fourth National Jazz & Blues Festival, Richmond)
7) Little Queenie (Live) (Charles Edward Anderson Berry) (Fourth National Jazz & Blues Festival, Richmond)
8 ) Too Much Monkey Business (Live) (Charles Edward Anderson Berry) (Fourth National Jazz & Blues Festival, Richmond)
9) Respectable (Live) (O. Kelly Isley, Jr.; Ronald Isley; Rudolph Isley) (Fourth National Jazz & Blues Festival, Richmond)
10) Carol (Live) (Charles Edward Anderson Berry) (Fourth National Jazz & Blues Festival, Richmond)
11) Here ‘Tis (Live) (Ellas McDaniel) ( Fourth National Jazz & Blues Festival, Richmond)
12) All The Pretty Little Horses (Hushabye) (trad., arr. Keith Relf) (UK radio)
13) Spoonful (Willie Dixon) (UK radio)
14) Bottle Up And Go (James Pryor) (UK radio)
15) Keith Relf - Interview Segment 1
16) For Your Love (Live) (Graham Gouldman) (USA)
17) Heart Full Of Soul (Live) (Graham Gouldman) (USA)
18) The Train Kept A-Rollin' (Live) (Tiny Bradshaw; Sydney Nathan; Howie Kay) ("Poll Winners Concert," Empire Pool, Wembley)
19) Shapes Of Things (Live) (Paul Samwell-Smith; Keith Relf; Jim McCarty) ("Poll Winners Concert," Empire Pool, Wembley)
20) He's Always There (Alternate Version) (Chris Dreja; Jim McCarty; Jeff Beck; Keith Relf; Paul Samwell-Smith) ( Advision Sound Studios, London)
21) Turn Into Earth (Alternate Version) (Paul Samwell-Smith; Rosemary Simon) (Advision Sound Studios, London)
22) I Can't Make Your Way (Alternate Version) (Chris Dreja; Jim McCarty; Keith Relf; Paul Samwell-Smith) (IBC Studios, London)
23) Keith Relf - Interview Segment 2
24) Happenings Ten Years Time Ago (Yardbirds) (De Lane Lea Studios, London)
25) Psycho Daisies (Yardbirds) (De Lane Lea Studios, London)
26) Jim McCarty - Interview Segment 2
27) Stroll On (With Soundtrack Coda) (Keith Relf; Jeff Beck; Jimmy Page; Chris Dreja; Jim McCarty) (Sound Techniques Studios, Chelsea, London)
28) "Great Shakes" Radio Commercial (Marquee Studios, London)
29) Jim McCarty - Interview Segment 3
30) Think About It (Keith Relf; Jim McCarty; Jimmy Page) BBC radio)
31) White Summer (trad., arr. Jimmy Page) (BBC radio)
32) Dazed And Confused (Jake Holmes, arr. Yardbirds) ( BBC radio)
33) Chris Dreja - Interview Segment 1

The Yardbirds - Glimpses 1963 - 1968

Disc 2

1) Eric Clapton - Interview Segment 2
2) Someone To Love Me (Live; Re-Edit) (James Pryor) (Marquee, London)
3) Chris Dreja - Interview Segment 2
4) Steeled Blues (Keith Relf; Jeff Beck) (UK radio)
5) Louise (John Lee Hooker) (4 June 1965, UK radio)
6) I Wish You Would (Live) (William Arnold) (USA)
7) Jim McCarty - Interview Segment 4
8 ) Questa Volta (Live) (Satti; Dinamo; Mogol) ( "The 16th Festival Of Italian Songs," Italy)
9) Pafff…Bum (Live) (Gianfranco Reverberi; Sergio Bardotti; Paul Samwell-Smith) ("The 16th Festival Of Italian Songs," Italy)
10) Chris Dreja - Interview Segment 3
11) Shapes Of Things (Live) (Paul Samwell-Smith; Keith Relf; Jim McCarty) (Stadthalle, Offenbach, Germany )
12) Happenings Ten Years Time Ago (Live) (Yardbirds) (Stadthalle, Offenbach, Germany)
13) Over Under Sideways Down (Live) (Chris Dreja; Jim McCarty; Jeff Beck; Keith Relf; Paul Samwell-Smith) (Stadthalle, Offenbach, Germany )
14) I'm A Man (Live) (Ellas McDaniel) (Stadthalle, Offenbach, Germany)
15) Jimmy Page - Interview Segment 1
16) Chris Dreja - Interview Segment 4
17) Keith Relf - Interview Segment 3
18) Shapes Of Things (Live) (Paul Samwell-Smith; Keith Relf; Jim McCarty) (Stockholm, Sweden)
19) Heart Full Of Soul (Live) (Graham Gouldman) (Stockholm, Sweden)
20) You're A Better Man Than I (Live) (Mike Hugg; Brian Hugg) (,Stockholm, Sweden)
21) Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine) (Live) (Bob Dylan) ( Stockholm, Sweden)
22) Over Under Sideways Down (Live) (Chris Dreja; Jim McCarty; Jeff Beck; Keith Relf; Paul Samwell-Smith) (,Stockholm, Sweden)
23) Little Games (Live) (Phil Wainman; Harold Spiro) (Stockholm, Sweden)
24) My Baby (Live) (Mort Shuman; Jerry Ragovoy) (Stockholm, Sweden)
25) I'm A Man (Live) (Ellas McDaniel) (Stockholm, Sweden)
26) Chris Dreja - Interview Segment 5
27) The Train Kept A-Rollin' (Live) (Tiny Bradshaw; Sydney Nathan; Howie Kay) (France)
28) Dazed And Confused (Live; Unedited) (Jake Holmes; arr. Yardbirds) (France)
29) Goodnight Sweet Josephine (Live) (Tony Hazzard) (France)
30) Jim McCarty - Interview Segment 5
31) Glimpses (Sound Effects) (Keith Relf) (Field recordings from New York, NY and De Lane Lea Studios, London)

The Yardbirds - Glimpses 1963 - 1968

Disc 3

1) Keith Relf - Interview Segment 4
2) Jim McCarty - Interview Segment 6
3) Someone To Love Me (Live) (James Pryor) (Marquee, London)
4) Too Much Monkey Business (Live) (Charles Edward Anderson Berry) ( Marquee, London)
5) I Got Love If You Want It (Live) (James Moore) ( Marquee, London)
6) Smokestack Lightning (Live) (Chester Burnett) ( Marquee, London)
7) Good Morning Little Schoolgirl (Live) (H.G. Demarais) (Marquee, London)
8 ) Respectable (Live) (O. Kelly Isley, Jr.; Ronald Isley; Rudolph Isley) ( Marquee, London)
9) The Sky Is Crying (Live) (Elmore James; Clarence L. Lewis; Morgan C. Robinson) ( Marquee, London)
10) Jim McCarty - Interview Segment 7
11) I’m Not Talking (Mose Allison) (UK radio)
12) Keith Relf - Interview Segment 5
13) I’m A Man (Ellas McDaniel) (UK radio)
14) I Wish You Would (Live) (William Arnold) (Palais Des Sports, Paris, France)
15) Chris Dreja - Interview Segment 6
16) Jeff’s Boogie (Guitar Boogie) (Chris Dreja; Jim McCarty; Jeff Beck; Keith Relf; Paul Samwell-Smith) ( UK radio)
17) Keith Relf - Interview Segment 6
18) For Your Love (Live - Long Version) (Ellas McDaniel) (Fifth National Jazz & Blues Festival, Richmond Athletic Association Grounds, Richmond )
19) My Girl Sloopy (Live - Long Version) (B. Russell; W. Farrell) ( Fifth National Jazz & Blues Festival, Richmond Athletic Association Grounds, Richmond )
20) I’m A Man (Live) (Ellas McDaniel) ( Fifth National Jazz & Blues Festival, Richmond Athletic Association Grounds, Richmond)
21) Keith Relf - Interview Segment 7
22) I Wish You Would (William Arnold) (UK radio)
23) Love Me Like I Love You (Keith Relf) (UK radio)
24) Shapes Of Things (Live) (Paul Samwell-Smith; Keith Relf; Jim McCarty) (USA)
25) Jim McCarty - Interview Segment 8
26) You’re A Better Man Than I (Live) (Mike Hugg; Brian Hugg) ( England)
27) The Train Kept A-Rollin' (Live) (Tiny Bradshaw; Sydney Nathan; Howie Kay) (France)
28) Over Under Sideways Down (Live) (Chris Dreja; Jim McCarty; Jeff Beck; Keith Relf; Paul Samwell-Smith) (France)
29) Shapes Of Things (Live) (Paul Samwell-Smith; Keith Relf; Jim McCarty) (France)

The Yardbirds - Glimpses 1963 - 1968

Disc 4

1) Eric Clapton - Interview Segment 3
2) I Wish You Would (Live) (William Arnold) (UK )
3) I'm A Man I'm A Man (Live) (Ellas McDaniel) (Craw Daddy, Richmond, Surrey)
4) Keith Relf - Interview Segment 8
5) Louise (Live) (John Lee Hooker) (UK)
6) I'm Not Talking (Mose Allison) (UK radio)
7) I Wish You Would (Live Excerpt) (William Arnold) (Holland )
8 ) The Stumble (Freddie King; Sonny Thompson) (UK radio)
9) Paul Samwell-Smith - Interview Segment 1
10) You're A Better Man Than I (Live) (Mike Hugg; Brian Hugg) (England)
11) The Train Kept A-Rollin' (Live) (Tiny Bradshaw; Sydney Nathan; Howie Kay) (England)
12) Chris Dreja - Interview Segment 7
13) I'm A Man (Live) (Ellas McDaniel) (USA)
14) Heart Full Of Soul (Graham Gouldman) (UK Radio)
15) Keith Relf & Jeff Beck Interview Ravi Shankar
16) I’ve Been Trying (Curtis L. Mayfield) (UK radio)
17) Chris Dreja - Interview Segment 8
18) I'm A Man (Live) (Ellas McDaniel) (USA)
19) Shapes Of Things (Live) (Paul Samwell-Smith, Keith Relf, Jim McCarty) (La Locomotive Club, Paris, France)
20) Jimmy Page - Interview Segment 2
21) Jeff's Boogie (Chris Dreja; Jim McCarty; Jeff Beck; Keith Relf; Paul Samwell-Smith) (UK radio)
22) Jeff Beck - Interview Segment
23) Chris Dreja - Interview Segment 9
24) "The In Sound" (US Army Radio Program - Edit) (London and New York, NY)
25) Dazed And Confused (Live) (Jake Holmes, arr. Yardbirds) (England)
26) Paul Samwell-Smith - Interview Segment 2
27) WOR-FM Interview (New York, NY)

The Yardbirds - Glimpses 1963 - 1968

Disc 5

1) I Ain't Got You (Calvin Carter) (22 March 1965, BBC)
2) Keith Relf Interview/ For Your Love (Graham Gouldman) (22 March 1965, BBC)
3) I'm Not Talking (Mose Allison) (22 March 1965, BBC)

4) I Wish You Would (William Arnold) (1 June 1965, BBC)
5) Paul Samwell-Smith Interview/ Heart Full Of Soul (Graham Gouldman) (1 June 1965, BBC)

6) I Ain't Done Wrong (Keith Relf) (3 July 1965, BBC)

7) Too Much Monkey Business (Charles Edward Anderson Berry) (6 August 1965, BBC)
8) Love Me Like I Love You (Keith Relf) (6 August 1965, BBC)
9) I'm A Man (Ellas McDaniel) (6 August 1965, BBC)

10) Keith Relf Introduction/ Evil Hearted You (Graham Gouldman) (27 September 1965, BBC)
11) Paul Samwell-Smith Interview/ Still I'm Sad (Paul Samwell-Smith; Jim McCarty) (27 September 1965, BBC)
12) My Girl Sloopy (Full Version) (B. Russell; W. Farrell) (27 September 1965, BBC)

13) Smokestack Lightning (Full Version) (Chester Burnett) (16 November 1965, BBC)
14) Yardbirds Interview/ You're A Better Man Than I (Mike Hugg; Brian Hugg) (16 November 1965, BBC)
15) The Train Kept A-Rollin' (Tiny Bradshaw; Sydney Nathan; Howie Kay) (16 November 1965, BBC)

16) Shapes Of Things (Paul Samwell-Smith; Keith Relf; Jim McCarty) (28 February 1966, BBC)
17) Dust My Broom (Elmore James; Robert Leroy Johnson) (28 February 1966, BBC)

18) Baby, Scratch My Back/ Keith Relf Interview (James H. Moore) (6 May 1966, BBC)
19) Over Under Sideways Down (Chris Dreja; Jim McCarty; Jeff Beck; Keith Relf; Paul Samwell-Smith) (6 May 1966, BBC)
20) The Sun Is Shining (Full Version) (Elmore James) (6 May 1966, BBC)
21) Shapes Of Things (Paul Samwell-Smith; Keith Relf; Jim McCarty) (6 May 1966, BBC)

22) Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine) (Bob Dylan) (17 March 1967, BBC)
23) Little Games (Phil Wainman; Harold Spiro) (17 March 1967, BBC)
24) Drinking Muddy Water (Keith Relf; Jimmy Page; Jim McCarty; Chris Dreja) (17 March 1967, BBC)

25) Think About It (Keith Relf; Jim McCarty; Jimmy Page) (16 March 1968, BBC)
26) Jimmy Page Interview/ Goodnight Sweet Josephine (Tony Hazzard) (16 March 1968, BBC)
27) My Baby (Mort Shuman; Jerry Ragovoy) (16 March 1968, BBC)

Friday, February 11, 2011

"Twin Peaks" 20th Anniversary Art Preview

Last month Psychobabble reported on "In the Trees: TWIN PEAKS 20th Anniversary Art Exhibition", which premiers at Clifton’s Brookdale in Los Angeles tomorrow night. Today the show's official website posted a preview of the work that will be on display, and a great deal of it is truly fabulous. I particularly love Ryan Heshka's storybook-like "Wow Bob Wow/Coffee Coffee", Amy Casey's dizzying "a small logging town", Paul Chatem's brilliantly detailed "A Damn Good Cup of Coffee", Jessica Joslin's magnificent sculpture "Cooper", and of course, the series of prints by our favorite Eagle Scout, David Lynch. The pieces are currently on sale, but even if you don't have the bread to drop on this stuff, the preview is still completely worth a gander.

Lynch's Print #5 (day)

More Stones Product to be Produced: 'CD Singles: 1971-2006' Box Set

You know how you've always thought your life isn't worth living without owning nine versions of "Anybody Seen My Baby"? Well, put down that straight razor, because Universal Music is prepping a big box set collecting all 45 of the 45s The Rolling Stones released between 1971 and 2006. The limited edition CD Singles 1971-2006 is heading the way of all you millionaire Stones fanatics this April 11th. The set actually looks nicely packaged, with replica single-sleeves and an accompanying hardcover book, but whether or not the set is worth the sizable £169.99 price tag depends on a.) how obsessive a Stones collector you are, b.) how sensitive you are to the group's quality drop-off after the mid-'70s, c.) how tolerant you are of tossing a CD in the player just to hear two songs, and d.) how many times you need to hear Biz Markie beatbox the names of the five boroughs.

The set boasts 80 tracks not yet available on CD, about half of which are various mixes and versions of "Harlem Shuffle" and the aforementioned "Anybody Seen My Baby"? Umm, yay?

Check out the full specs at the official Universal UK site.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

20 Things You May Not Have Known About Lon Chaney, Jr.

Born 105 years ago today, Lon Chaney, Jr., was the last of Universal Studios’ great monster stars, succeeding his frequent co-stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff and completing horror’s holy trinity when he first played Larry Talbot the Wolf Man in 1941. Along with the film for which he was most famous, Chaney acted in nearly 200 other film and television roles. That alone is the stuff of an eventful life. Here are twenty trivia tidbits that may give you an even greater appreciation for and understanding of one of monsterdom’s great icons. So sit back, sniff a sprig of wolfsbane, and dig 20 Things You May Not Have Known About Lon Chaney, Jr.!

1. On February 10, 1906, Creighton “Lon” Chaney was born to mother, Frances Cleveland Creighton Chaney, and father, Lon “Man of 1,000 Faces” Chaney, while his performing parents were on tour in Oklahoma City. Born prematurely, Junior was not breathing upon his entry into the world and the doctor declared him stillborn. His father rushed him out into the frigid environment, kicked through the surface of an iced-over lake, and plunged his infant son into the water. According to this tale—tall or not—the cold shock started the boy breathing.

2. Although Chaney was asked to test for the role of Quasimodo in the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Charles Laughton ultimately won it. However, Chaney would get the chance to appear on screen as the hunchback his father famously portrayed in the classic 1923 version of Victor Hugo’s novel decades later. In 1962, he donned a Quasimodo costume in the “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing” episode of the quirky TV show “Route 66”. Chaney co-starred with fellow horror legends Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff in the episode.

3. Ever since his tear-jerking turn as Lennie in the 1939 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Chaney always liked to have crying scenes in his films to flex his acting chops. He’d certainly have no shortage of these in his multiple appearances as Larry Talbot.

4. Just as his Of Mice and Men character dreamed of owning his own ranch, Chaney celebrated his Universal-era success by purchasing a ranch he named Lennie’s Ranch.

5. For his appearance as a caveman in One Million B.C. (1940), Lon Chaney, Jr., intended to dip into his dad’s old kit and apply his own makeup. Unfortunately, union rules would not allow an actor to do so, ending Chaney’s dream of becoming the next “Man of 1,000 Faces.”

6. Screenwriter Curt Siodmak didn’t originally intend Chaney’s character in The Wolf Man to be a Talbot, but Universal execs insisted on the alteration. So Siodmak changed the character named Larry Gill to Larry Talbot, a British expatriate educated in the U.S., which justified his American accent.

7. In his audio commentary on the Wolf Man DVD, film historian Tom Weaver points out an intriguing correlation between Larry Talbot and the man who played him: both had to wait until a family member died to capitalize on their prestigious family names. Talbot was not eligible to inherit his father’s estate until the death of his brother; Chaney did not enter into acting until the death of his father, who adamantly discouraged his son from showbiz and prodded him toward a more practical career: plumbing.

8. While enduring Jack Pierce’s application of the elaborate Wolf Man makeup was surely no picnic, Chaney found the makeup’s removal far more torturous. “What gets me,” he griped in Universal Horrors, “is after work, when I’m all hot and itchy and tired and I’ve got to sit in that chair for forty-five minutes while Pierce just about kills me ripping off the stuff he put on me in the morning.”

Jack Pierce tortures Chaney while making 'Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man'.
9. Wolf Man actress Evelyn Ankers once had her dressing room trashed by Chaney, with whom she co-starred some eight times, and his drinking buddy/sparring partner Broderick Crawford. Chaney thought that she’d stolen the room from him and Crawford. Despite her difficult relationship with Chaney, Ankers remarked, “When he wasn’t drinking, he was the sweetest. Sometimes he hid it [the drinking] so well, that one couldn't be sure. But, if a dress were destroyed or a hair-do by the Pierce crew, then he heard from the front office; for they were afraid production would be held up and that meant money lost.”

10. Chaney said that the dogs used to double as wolves in The Wolf Man were not up to the task, refusing to wrestle with him on camera. So the actor suggested using Moose, a former police dog in the possession of a security guard at Universal Studios. Moose got the job done, not only wrestling with Chaney convincingly, but breaking bones in his hand with its massive jaws. Ever respectful of anyone capable of giving him a good fight, Chaney fell in love with Moose and promptly bought the dog from the security guard.

11. Chaney was proudest of playing Lennie in Of Mice and Men and rarely brought himself to say anything positive about his many horror films, but he had a special affection for Larry Talbot, often referring to the role as his “baby.”

12. Lon Chaney, Jr., was the only Universal horror star to have exclusive dibs on the monster he originated, playing the Wolf Man in all five films in which the creature appeared. He was also the only star in Universal’s employ to play all of the studio’s major monsters. Along with the Wolf Man he played the Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Kharis in The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), and the vampire in Son of Dracula (1943).

13. During a late career interview with Castle of Frankenstein magazine, Chaney claimed he played both the werewolf and the Monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and that Bela Lugosi may have been contracted to play opposite him but was physically incapable of doing so. This, of course, was completely untrue.

14. While filming Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Monster-portrayer Glenn Strange broke his ankle and was unable to film a scene in which he tosses actress Lenore Aubert out of a window. Chaney filled in for him in the scene, effectively becoming the only Universal star to play more than one creature role in a single monster rally picture (not counting Lugosi’s quasi-dual role in The Ghost of Frankenstein in which the actor played Ygor and briefly voiced the monster following a brain transplant).

15. Near tragically, Chaney attempted suicide several weeks after completing Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. His wife claimed the attempt was sparked by the emotional exhaustion he suffered during his arduous transformation scenes, which reportedly required him to remain perfectly still for as long as ten hours at a time. His alcoholism may have been a more likely explanation for the attempt, though.

16. In 1952, Chaney appeared as the Monster in a live broadcast of Frankenstein on ABC’s “Tales of Tomorrow”. Sadly, the actor was so drunk he thought the performance being aired was a mere rehearsal. In one instance in which he was supposed to smash a chair to pieces, he just lifts it, looks around in confusion, and places it back down carefully and unscathed thinking he’d have to destroy the prop at a later time.

17. The wonderfully goofy theme song of the 1964 cult classic Spider Baby was sung by none other than Lon Chaney, Jr., who co-starred as Bruno the Chauffeur.

18. The final time Chaney portrayed a lycanthrope on film was not a Universal picture but in a Mexican flick titled Face of the Screaming Werewolf (1964) in which he played a mummified werewolf.

19. In 1969, Lon Chaney, Jr., began work on a family history to be titled A Century of Chaney’s. Although he didn’t get the chance to complete the book, his grandson Ron recently told Midnight that he is working on completing it as “a coffee table style book with short quotes and short stories on different characters. I've tried to enhance that by interviewing other people or taking excerpts from other interviews where people have talked about them directly. So, you can get a true sense of who they were by people that were with them, not just people that always write about them. Then, from my side would be what I've learned about my own family, the other side, the public side, and then the side that nobody knows about.”

20. Near the end of his life, Chaney appeared in unusually hoarse form on “The Tonight Show” and told Johnny Carson that his rasp was the result of performing his trademark Wolf Man growl for Halloween Trick-or-Treaters. In actuality, the culprit was the throat cancer that would contribute to his death at the age of 67 on July 12, 1973.

Many thanks to Psychobabble friends film historian Kenny Strong and silent-film composer Matt Marshall for assisting my research. Additional thanks to the great historians Tom Weaver and Gregory Mank, whose respective commentaries on the The Wolf Man and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein DVDs were absolutely indispensable.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Review: David Bowie’s ‘Station to Station [Special Edition]’

When David Bowie announced he was “finished with Rock & Roll” in the mid ‘70s, he was only half joking. In fact, he’d been deliberately moving away from the riffy electricity of his earlier career for several years, eulogizing the old guard and enjoying one final fling with the Spiders from Mars with the all-covers Pin Ups in 1973, then experimenting with blue-eyed soul on 1975’s Young Americans. Soon he’d hook up with Brian Eno and program a series of icy, ambient, and critically celebrated records to round out his defining decade.

But first: transition.

Not as Rock oriented as his previous records, nor as frigid as the ones that would immediately follow, Station to Station is a modest masterpiece. The record’s six songs are anthemic and epic without being overblown or overly reliant on instrumental flash. The album even makes room for a cover, and it’s a testament to Bowie’s taste and precise judgment that the version of Nina Simone’s “Wild Is the Wind” that closes Station to Station feels very much a part of the record’s sonic and emotional concept. And as cool as the Thin White Duke’s voice is throughout, this is an emotionally engaging record, achieving ultimate uplift in the vamps that climax the title track and “TVC 15”, striding the balance beam between melancholia and beautiful release on “Word on a Wing” and “Wild Is the Wind”, and putting a bit of jiggle in the legs on the restrained yet supernaturally funky “Golden Years” and “Stay”.

Last autumn, EMI put together a lovely 3-disc boxed edition of Bowie’s mid-decade milestone. The first disc contains the original album unadorned by bonus tracks, and it sounds absolutely magnificent, the depth of Dennis Davis’s drums being particularly present. The next two discs collect a live set in support of Station to Station recorded on March 23, 1976, at my old local arena, Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. The set is fascinating because all of the restraint that dignified the studio album is hip checked to make room for some fiery guitar wankery (particularly at the outset of set opener “Station to Station”), a more profoundly liberated performance from the singer, and even a drum solo in a wild version of “Panic in Detroit”. Thankfully, the compiler spared us by editing that 13-minute solo down to a far more listenable 60-seconds— although purists and the seven people who don’t believe interminable drum solos were the single most offensive Rock & Roll conceit of the ‘70s may be offended. The live set sounds terrific, too, although unless my ears are failing me, there seems to be a slight quality drop-off in the two tracks that open disc two. This lavish set also includes mini-LP replica sleeves, a nice selection of full-color postcards, and an informative booklet essay that may necessitate a magnifying glass. Maybe my eyes are going, too.

So two parting bits of advice: get the Station to Station [Special Edition] at here and don’t get old.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Review: The Criterion edition of 'The Night of the Hunter'

In 1955, actor Charles Laughton directed his first and final film and Robert Mitchum embodied one of the cinema’s most relentless, frightening, and oddly humorous bogeymen. Mitchum is Harry Powell, a psychotic Big Bad Wolf in preacher’s clothing on the hunt for a pair of children who know the location of a cache of cash (and how relevant is that theme of a predatory priest today, kids?).

Laughton’s nightmarish yet fanciful adaptation of Davis Grubb’s novel Night of the Hunter was such a peculiar duck that critics didn’t know what to make of it and audiences stayed away. History, of course, has been loving to this lovingly made film, and Criterion, the home of lovingly made DVDs, gave Night of the Hunter the luxury treatment last November. Previously only available in a no-frills, pan and scan edition, Criterion presents the film in its original 1.66.1 aspect ratio, digitally remastered from the 35 mm film elements. I actually found the standard DVD version of the film (also available in blu-ray) to be slightly grainy, yet getting to see it in wide screen and the multitude of extras more than neutralized that gripe.

The double-disc’s biggest boon is the 150-minute documentary titled Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter”, which is fascinating not only for making good on its title but for dispelling some of the myths that have been swirling about the film for decades. The footage, which Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester originally released from her personal archives to a less-than-respectful film school, shows the director coaxing rich performances from his cast, often acting the parts himself from off-camera. Legend has it that he so despised young Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce that he allowed Mitchum to direct the two kids. Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter” refutes this myth completely; we witness a very kind, very patient, and very complimentary Laughton, his work resulting in Chapin giving one of the great child-actor performances. Seeing Laughton work with Shelley Winters also suggests that his relationship with the actress may not have been as troubled as history— and some of the commentators on this DVD— suggest.

The documentary, mostly presenting the trove of footage straight with a minimum of narration from archivist Robert Gitt, also features alternate and deleted scenes from the film, most memorably Lillian Gish’s opening monologue read by Laughton, a scene with Emmett Lynn playing Uncle Birdie Steptoe instead of James Gleason, Bruce's unused vocal for the "There Was a Pretty Fly" song, and Chapin losing his head in a matte shot gone awry.

Hunter's' most mesmerizing sequence. 

More myths are debunked in Michael Sragow’s booklet essay “Downriver and Heavenward with James Agee”, which sets straight the screenwriter’s role in penning the film (it has long been suggested that Laughton wrote the film in lieu of an alcoholic Agee). Other supplements— including a feature commentary by second-unit director Terry Sanders, Gitt, and others; a useful 37 doc titled “The Making of Night of the Hunter; and assorted new and archival interviews— fill in all remaining gaps in the Night of the Hunter story. A clip of Shelley Winters and Peter Graves performing a scene absent from the film on “The Ed Sullivan Show” is historically fascinating for a plethora of reasons.

Criterion’s edition of Night of the Hunter is absolutely essential for anyone who has ever been intoxicated or terrified by this truly one-of-a-kind film. Get it at here.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Review: The Hollies' 'Bus Stop/Stop! Stop! Stop' remastered

During that transitional year of 1966 when the LP made it most prominent bid for pop dominance to date, an archetypal singles band such as The Hollies really had to scramble to compete with their more ambitious contemporaries. Growing pains are evident on their first long player of the year, Would You Believe, in which passé covers are randomly shuffled with some pretty good group compositions (credited to the pseudonymous “L. Ransford”). The Hollies’ showing in ’66 was further complicated in the U.S. when their U.S. label, Imperial, picked tracks off Would You Believe to form the basis of two hodgepodges. The first of these, which sports the almost willfully generic title Beat Group, has nothing on the second mostly because it includes the band’s first stateside top twenty hit and one of the decade’s greatest pop singles. Titled Bus Stop to capitalize on that success, the record trots out too many old nags that can’t touch the original renditions by Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry, and The Miracles, while committing the further crime of recycling a track that had already been included on Beat Group. Of course, by kicking off with “Bus Stop”, the album of the same name has something that Would You Believe and Beat Group don’t: one unimaginably indispensible track.

Considering the marginal artistic impact of The Hollies’ first LP of '66 and the shoddy treatment it received from Imperial, there was little reason to think their follow up would find the boys acclimating much better to the burgeoning album age. Think again. Released at the end of the year, For Certain Because is a remarkably confident collection of twelve group originals (and one of Psychobabble’s 19 Greatest Albums of 1966). Two excellent hit singles—the frantic, exotic “Stop! Stop! Stop!” and the tantalizingly mercurial “Pay You Back With Interest”—anchor the disc, but the rest of the material is nearly as fabulous, particularly “What’s Wrong With the Way I Live” and “Tell It to My Face”. Even more amazing is Imperial’s decision to only screw with the album’s jacket and title. And though there’s little non-commercial justification for calling the LP Stop! Stop! Stop!, that cover photo featuring Allan Clarke smoking a hookah and Graham Nash clutching a giant snifter of brandy is pretty groovy.

For the first time, BGO records in the UK is releasing Bus Stop and Stop! Stop! Stop! as a remastered twofer today. The spruced-up sound is clear and mighty, if a bit on the loud side. No bonus tracks, but it’s still nice to have all this music collected on a single disc, though you may find yourself skipping ahead to For Certain Because (sorry… Stop! Stop! Stop!) as soon as “Bus Stop” fades out.

Get Bus Stop/Stop! Stop! Stop on here.
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