Wednesday, June 29, 2011

13 Spine-Tingling Horror Scores

Strings that scream and synthesizers that growl, menacing orchestral music and spooky jazz, from the funereal to the phantasmagoric, the cacophonous to the melodious, great scores are often essential ingredients in great horror movies. In honor of the 100th birthday of one of the cinema’s greatest composers— Bernard Herrmann— Psychobabble surveys 13 of horror’s greatest scores.

1. White Zombie by Abe Meyer (1932)

Sound horror was still a new thing in the early ‘30s, and the genre’s first films were short on non-diegetic music. Universal’s Dracula and The Mummy both settled for brief passages from Swan Lake over their opening credits sequences. Bernhard Kaun provided the overture to the otherwise music-devoid Frankenstein. Over on Poverty Row, Abe Meyer of the Meyer Synchronizing Service put together a feature-length, newly recorded score for the Bela Lugosi vehicle White Zombie. Meyer chose a superb selection of compositions by Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, Modest Mussorgsky, Hugo Risenfeld, and Leo Kempenski. Particularly memorable are the excerpt from Gaston Borch’s Incidental Symphonies that swoops through the gloom while Lugosi casts a voodoo spell over Madge Bellamy and Guy Bevier Williams’s percussive “Chant”, which opens the film. Aside from Bevier Williams’s piece and a jota by Xavier Cugat, White Zombie does not feature original music, but its use of background music, orchestral and otherwise, broke new ground for sound horror.

2. King Kong by Max Steiner (1933)

King Kong was one of the most lavish productions to pummel the early sound era. There was no skimping on its special effects, sets, or globe-spanning scope. RKO had pumped so much money into Kong that studio president B.B. Kahane schemed to cut corners in post-production by asking Max Steiner to create a composite soundtrack of existing music. Producer/director Merian C. Cooper hadn’t copped out on any aspect of Kong so far, and he wasn’t going to start with anything as important as its score. Unable to convince Kahane to compromise, he paid the $50,000 cost himself, and Steiner created one of cinema’s most magical, memorable scores. The composer enhanced onscreen action with pieces that worked as both music and sound effects: booming brass blasts along with each blow from Kong’s mighty fists. The harp laced piece that sets the tone for the crew’s foggy journey toward Skull Island— and the entire picture when it unfolds during the “overture”—is groundbreaking in its eerie subtlety.

3. Bride of Frankenstein by Franz Waxman (1935)

For its sequel to the smash success Frankenstein, Universal sprang for a lush score to accompany its most lush monster movie. Director James Whale recruited Franz Waxman after meeting him at a Christmas party and explaining how much he liked the composer’s work in Fritz Lang’s Liliom. Waxman outdid himself, creating the instantly recognizable leitmotifs that electrify the picture. For Karloff’s Monster, Waxman wrote a raspy, four-note brass grunt. Ernest Thesiger’s charmingly nefarious Dr. Pretorius is introduced by shuddering strings, while his drunken escapades in a crypt are accompanied by a loopy rattle inspired by Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre. Elsa Lanchester’s Bride is signified by a swooning ellipsis that serves as her shorthand whether she’s on screen or merely discussed by other characters. Elsewhere Waxman discharges what Scott MacQueen describes as a “charming period-style minuet” that devolves into an ominous fugue when Shelley and Byron recount the story of Frankenstein, a clangor of church bells when we first see The Bride in her wedding gown, and an orchestra rush that heightens the already apocalyptic destruction of Frankenstein’s laboratory to utter hysteria.

4. The Night of the Hunter by Walter Schumann (1955)

Monday, June 27, 2011

'The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer' to be Reprinted

Probably the best paperback ever put out to cash in on a popular TV show, Jennifer Lynch's The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer is about to get a long overdue reprint by Simon & Schuster this December 6. The reprint will be available electronically and as a tangible object that people who actually like books will enjoy. It will include an all-new foreword by "Twin Peaks" creators David Lynch and Mark Frost. Meanwhile Lynch fansite is stirring up rumors about an audio version read by Laura Palmer herself, Sheryl Lee.

Here's what I had to say about The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer in Psychobabble's Twin Peaks A-Z:

Laura Palmer’s diary is a key prop in the very first episode of “Twin Peaks”, but fans did not realize at this point that the prom queen was harboring a second diary… a secret one. The secret diary of Laura Palmer would not factor into the program until the second season when Donna Hayward finds it lying around recluse Harold Smith’s home/green house/tomb. By the time Donna got around to perusing the secret diary, many fans had already read it cover to cover. That’s because a few weeks before that episode aired, David Lynch’s daughter Jennifer published The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, a superb account of Laura’s life and descent rendered in heartbreaking detail. That Jennifer Lynch was a mere 22-year old when she wrote the book may account for its startling authenticity; the book reads like the actual diary of an actual young woman, albeit a young woman with a certain literary flair. Anyone hoping to learn who killed Laura Palmer may have been frustrated by the book, but those who ever wondered about what happened to her horse or whether or not she and Josie Packard got in on will find it most enlightening. Ultimately, the book will probably most appeal to less nitpicky fans since it veers from the series in a few notable instances (the book describes a slumber party attended by Laura, Donna, and Maddy Ferguson, although Maddy and Donna apparently meet for the first time in the series; diary entries in the series do not appear in Jennifer Lynch’s book). Still The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer makes for a harrowing, impossible-to-put-down, and genuinely sad read. All tie-in merchandise should be so damn fine.

Pre-order The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer at here.

'The Phantom Carriage' to Get the Criterion Treatment

Criterion is prepping one of the great silent horror films for its first official release on Region 1 DVD and Blu-ray on September 27 (just in time for Halloween season!). The Phantom Carriage, Victor Sjöström’s 1921 tale tailing The Grim Reaper as he collects fresh souls on New Year’s Eve, will include the following features:

• New digital transfer, restored in collaboration with the Archival Film Collections of the Swedish Film Institute
• Two scores, one by acclaimed Swedish composer Matti Bye and the other by the experimental duo KTL
• Audio commentary featuring film historian Casper Tybjerg
• Interview with Ingmar Bergman excerpted from the 1981 documentary Victor Sjöström: A Portrait, by Gösta Werner
• The Bergman Connection, an original visual essay by film historian and Bergman scholar Peter Cowie on The Phantom Carriage’s influence on Bergman
• Archival footage from 1919 of the construction of Räsunda Studios, where The Phantom Carriage was filmed
• New and improved English subtitle translation
• PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by screenwriter and filmmaker Paul Mayersberg

Here’s what I had to say about The Phantom Carriage in Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies::

Germany did not have a monopoly on great horror in the genre’s earliest days. In stark contrast to its expressionistic peers, Sweden’s The Phantom Carriage introduces a more naturalistic horror film. Divorced from the grotesque surrealism of Caligari and the fantasy environments of The Golem, The Phantom Carriage packs its chills more subtlety. Aside from double exposure shots to achieve the ghosts’ semi-transparent appearances, special effects are in short order. Nightmarish imagery is not. A spectral grim reaper stalks the desolate Swedish countryside in search of a new soul to replace him as driver of the titular conveyance on New Year’s Eve. In one unforgettable shot, he retrieves a body from the bottom of the sea as eerie underwater vegetation sways in the foreground. More electrifying is a TB-infected drunkard axing through a door to get at his terrified wife and kids in a scene that must have made an impression on Stanley Kubrick. Ingmar Bergman certainly acknowledged the film’s effect on his Seventh Seal, and even cast director Victor Sjöström in the lead role of Wild Strawberries. Though Bergman would make a more philosophically profound film with The Seventh Seal (the main thrust of The Phantom Carriage is "alcohol bad; Jesus good"), Sjöström made a far spookier one.

Get The Phantom Carriage on DVD or Blu-ray at

Friday, June 24, 2011

'I'm Not There' Screenwriter at Work on Brian Wilson Biopic

Brian Wilson hit all the beats found in the outlines of so many rock biopics: he had the abusive father, scored the big hits, did the hard drugs, spiraled down, enjoyed a triumphant comeback. But an artist as unique as the head Beach Boy deserves better than all those predictable biographies about Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Ritchie Valens, The Runaways, and so many others. There has already been a lazy T.V. movie-of-the-week about The Beach Boys, so it's time for Brian Wilson's story to be told with the creativity and imagination of his own avant-pop masterpieces.

The good news is that very movie may be in the works. Screenwriter Oren Moverman, who penned the flawed but fascinatingly fractured Dylan-biopic I'm Not There, is at work on Wilson's story. Producer Bill Pohlad-- who recently brought us Terence Malick's flawed but fascinatingly fractured Tree of Life-- told The L.A. Times he has "no interest in making a biopic" and that the film will focus on important points in Wilson's life without attempting to tell his complete story. Sounds promising.

Review: The Left Banke Collection

The Left Banke was the greatest American band of the ‘60s to only manage one major (and one minor) hit. Much of that greatness rests on the shoulders of those two top-twenty singles, and “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina” haven’t lost an iota of their abilities to jerk tears and yank heartstrings. Yet this assortment of New York anglophiles created much more exquisitely arranged, plaintively crooned baroque pop, as evidenced by their two albums. Released in 1967, Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina was hardly the sum of its two title hits. Aside from a country number sung in weedy strains by writer, keyboardist, and resident boy-genius Michael Brown, each track on the record is a testament to the group’s beauty. Brown’s lovely songs and gorgeous arrangements— harpsichord and classical strings blended with traditional rock instruments (mostly played by session musicians)— are completed with the tearful tones of singer Steve Martin, who cranks up the pain even when rocking out on stuff like “She May Call You Up Tonight”, “Evening Gown”, and “I Haven’t Got the Nerve”.

Michael Brown departed after ’67, leaving the band in the hands of Martin, Tom Finn, and George Cameron. Although The Left Banke Too didn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor, the guys did a pretty amazing job of approximating Brown’s melancholy pop. “Dark Is the Bark” and “My Friend Today”, both featuring vocals by a young Steven Tyler, are as fine as anything on the first album. The album’s ace-in-the-hole, and arguably the best thing The Left Banke ever recorded, is “Desiree”, a one-off reunion with Brown that sets the band’s trademark angst against a symphony of vertigo-inducing riffs.

The Left Banke’s two albums have been out of print since their original vinyl runs. Their music only made it to CD on There’s Gonna Be a Storm, which jostled the track line-ups of those albums while adding several rather good singles. With that anthology out of print for many years, The Left Banke’s wonderful body of work was in desperate need of reissue. Sundazed has stepped in nicely by issuing Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina and The Left Banke Too on CD for the first time ever, complete with gatefold, mini-L.P. jackets, and fresh liner notes. The music sounds warmer and punchier than it did on There’s Gonna Be a Storm. Certain elements leap out of the mix more than they did on that anthology, such as the strings on “Pretty Ballerina”. Both of The Left Banke's albums are essential for ‘60s pop aficionados, as well as fans of mopey later day groups like The Smiths and Belle and Sebastian.

Get Walk Away Renée/Pretty Ballerina and The Left Banke Too at

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Lou Reed to Squawk "The Raven" at The Strand Bookstore in NYC

Retro Rock and Retro Horror will collide in ways likely to be wonderful and bizarre Monday, June 27, at the sprawling Strand book store in Manhattan. Lou Reed will be reading lyrics based on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" and then engaging the audience in a question and answer session. If Reed's interview history is any indication, the Q&A will probably be scarier than Poe's macabre verse.

Reed released a song cycle based on "The Raven" in 2003 and his lyrics are now being collected in a book with artwork by New Yorker cartoonist Lorenzo Mattotti. Tickets for the event are $35 and can be purchased here. That's quite a bargain for the opportunity to have Lou Reed glare at you for long stretches before calling you a fucking asshole. Woo hoo!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Throwing Muses Anthology Coming in September...

With more than 25 years of history, 8 incredible L.P.'s, and a nice handful of singles and E.P.'s behind them, Throwing Muses are long overdue for anthologizing. Queen Muse Kristin Hersh has just announced that her band's longtime label 4AD has a double-disc anthology in the works for this coming September. The collection will consist of one disc of Muses favorites and one of obscure b-sides "including the original Lonely is an Eyesore version of 'Fish' and the long-lost 'Hillbilly'." The set will include a chunky, 24 page hardcover booklet" and "a comprehensive (and moving) 3,000+ word essay on the life of the band" penned by Hersh. The muses also have a few live dates and a double-album of brand new material in the works. Yay!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Skip Off School to See The Damned... in the U.S.!

In celebration of their 35th anniversary, The Damned are coming to America for a rare series of shows this autumn. The boys don't get to the states very often, so I implore my fellow yanks to leap at your chance to see Britain's greatest punk band and a still-stunning live act. I already have my NYC ticket. Neat, neat, neat!

More details at Official

Here are the stateside dates:


20th - US - Cambridge, MA, Middle East
22nd - US - New York,NY, Irving Plaza
23rd - US - Washington DC, Black Cat
25th - US - Chicago,IL, Metro/Smart Bar
27th - US - Seattle, WA, Showbox at The Market
29th - US - San Francisco, CA, Slims
30th - US - Los Angeles, CA, House Of Blues
31st - US - Anaheim, CA, House Of Blues


1st - US - San Diego, CA, House Of Blues

An A and B from Ray Davies's First Night at The London Meltdown Festival

Ray Davies's staged his London Meltdown at Royal Festival Hall this past weekend, and we have a couple of videos of him performing the A and B sides one of The Kinks' hugest singles and their last big U.S. hit of the '60s. Many thanks to the folks who captured these clips and posted them on You Tube.

Hopefully someone will post a few clips from his performance of Village Green Preservation Society from the final night of the festival. Stay tuned...

Side A

Side B

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Golden Circle: Looking Back at the “Twin Peaks” Finale

*Warning: This must be where Spoilers go to die…

So little time passed between that golden era when Laura Palmer’s blue face smirked out of every magazine cover in America to the barely-on-the-radar “Twin Peaks” finale that first aired twenty years ago today. The story has been told countless times: ABC forced Mark Frost and David Lynch to reveal Laura’s killer earlier than they intended (i.e.: never), the viewers who so demanded that revelation tuned out as soon as it dropped early in the second season, ABC rescheduled and preempted the show so many times that real fans could barely keep track of when and whether or not it was on TV. Following an extended break after Josie Packard was left trapped in a wooden pull knob in the Great Northern Hotel, ABC allowed “Twin Peaks” to return briefly enough to finish out its second season while manacled in the ratings dungeon. ABC was so over “Twin Peaks” that the network crammed its final episodes into a two-hour “movie of the week” format just so it didn’t have to deal with the show another day. Some who worked on it, including David Lynch, claimed they weren’t sure whether or not “Twin Peaks” would be renewed for a third season, but it’s unlikely anyone involved was really that naïve. When Mark Frost directed the first-season finale, he purposely loaded the episode with so many cliffhangers that the network would have to renew it. The scheme was a clever one, but not realistic from a business stance. No network pours money into a program that isn’t pulling in viewers. “Twin Peaks” ended its first season as a hit, which guaranteed its renewal more surely than the notion that anyone at ABC cared to find out if Shelley Johnson and Catherine Martell survived the mill fire, if Ben Horne discovered his daughter was the masked prostitute at One Eyed Jacks, and who shot Agent Cooper.

Still, the “Twin Peaks” team tried that scheme again with the episode that would be the series’ last. Audrey Horne, Pete Martell, and Andrew Packard blow up in a bank explosion, their fates unknown. Nadine Hurley recovers from delusions that she’s a high school girl, leaving her relationship with teen Mike, and her husband’s with Norma Jennings, in uncertain shambles. Doc Hayward may or may not have murdered Ben Horne. And, most shattering of all, Agent Cooper is left under the influence of the demonic Killer BOB. That’s quite a lot of unfinished business, but the show’s abysmal ratings meant none of it would be resolved.

Writer Bob Engels has spoken quite a bit about where “Twin Peaks” might have headed in its phantom third season. He told the Twin Peaks Archive that it might have shifted “away from the high school setting, so after the resolution of the Cooper-BOB-possession plot point, they would have cut to something like ‘Ten Years Later’, and then shown us a Twin Peaks where Cooper had quit the FBI and had become the town pharmacist, Sheriff Truman had become a recluse, etc.” He also mentioned the possibility of bringing “Sheryl Lee back yet again, this time as a redhead, and having her character killed by BOB again.” No one else involved in the show has corroborated any of this.

The fact remains that there was no way ABC was going to bring back “Twin Peaks”, and that David Lynch had yet to begin toying with the idea of a feature-length sequel (or prequel, as it would turn out). One can reasonably surmise that everyone involved knew “Episode 29” would be the series’ last even before it was finished being scripted. So how does it hold up as such? Most of its cliffhangers discussed above end on an unsatisfying note—assuming one views the show as a soap opera in which no one is ever really dead. “Twin Peaks” had played that game before when Coop survived getting plugged three times and Catherine Martell finally emerged weeks after everyone believed she’d perished in the mill fire. The bizarre nature of Josie’s “demise” suggests she might have returned too. But most of the folks who were supposed to be dead stayed that way: Laura and Leland Palmer, Maddy Ferguson, Harold Smith, all three Renault Brothers, Blackie and her sister, etc. The fates of Audrey, Pete, Andrew, and Ben may very well have been tied up in the finale. It would certainly be farfetched to have everyone survive that bank explosion. Ben’s “death” is more ambiguous, but it certainly looks as though he is breathing his final breath and shuddering into oblivion after clunking his head on the Hayward’s fireplace.

This leaves us with the finale’s biggest shocker: Cooper left in the Red Room while his BOB-“possessed” (for lack of a better word) doppelgänger is free to roam Twin Peaks, and presumably, cause a lot of mischief. But think way back to Episode 2, which ends with Cooper’s famous dream in which we first glimpse BOB, the Red Room, and the rest of the phantasmagoria with which the show is associated. In this dream, Cooper is twenty-five years older. And what does Laura (or the spirit who resembles Laura) tell the agent during his disorienting trek through the Red Room in the series’ finale?
"I’ll see you in twenty five years."
While these two details do not clue us in to everything that transpires during that twenty-five years, they do give us a degree of closure on Cooper’s fate. In Twin Peaks, there is only the thinnest veil separating the dream world from the waking one. The bizarre characters that populate Cooper’s dream in Episode 2 eventually appear in the waking world. Messages he receives in his dreams relate to events yet to pass in the real world. Dreams are not mere nocturnal fancies; they relate tangibly and directly to waking life. The old Cooper we see in his dream really is Cooper, just as the Little Man from Another Place and the “dream Laura” really give him real clues about her murder that will manifest in the real world: Leland reveals that he is his daughter’s murderer (or the vessel that housed her actual murderer) when he repeats the Little Man’s strange statement, “That gum you like is going to come back in style”; the Little Man refers to the cousin who would be BOB’s next victim even before Cooper is aware that Maddy Ferguson exists.

According to this interpretation, “Twin Peaks” itself is a “golden circle,” just like the ring the Giant takes from Cooper, or MIKE and BOB’s “golden circle” of appetite and satisfaction. Cooper essentially begins the show in the Red Room, so it is inevitable he will end up there. Time is cyclical in the Twin Peaks world. But the situation is not so simple as to conclude that the Agent Cooper left waiting in the Red Room for twenty-five years is the “real” Coop and the one we see leering at his reflection in the Great Northern bathroom while cackling “How’s Annie?” is nothing more than an evil replica created by BOB. They are both Cooper. Like all of us, the heroic special agent is capable of good and bad. Remember, this seeming paragon of good had an affair with his former partner’s wife. Cooper’s two poles have split à la Jekyll and Hyde. As his new love, Annie Blackburn, will later explain, “The good Dale is in the Lodge, and he can’t leave.” Annie speaks these truths to Laura in what may be a dream, reinforcing the realness of dreams in the Twin Peaks world. That she speaks them in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which takes place before Laura dies, reinforces the looping nature of time in that world.

So the “Twin Peaks” finale does give us some idea of Agent Cooper’s future (as well as his past): his good self remains in the Red Room for twenty-five years, while his evil, BOB-possessed self continues to hunt in the outside world. That period could conclude with the Good Dale reemerging from the Red Room to defeat his evil twin. That, of course, we’ll never know. But as it stands, Episode 29 works fairly well as a series finale since it finally shows us how Cooper ended up languishing in the Red Room for twenty-five years: a mystery presented very early in the series, whether we viewers realized its importance or not.

Cooper has some trouble with his favorite beverage in the "Twin Peaks" finale.

We are also left with what may be network television’s most experimental and disturbing hour. Following a diffuse period in which characters and situations were becoming increasingly silly and meandering, David Lynch finally returned to set “Twin Peaks” back on track with reinvigorating confidence. The power of those early episodes leading up to the revelation of Laura’s killer is back. Episode 29 unravels with the slow queasiness of a nightmare (a Lynch trademark) as we see beloved characters dispatched mercilessly. Then there’s Cooper’s walk through the Red Room, which stands alongside his first dream of The Red Room (Episode 2) and the death of Maddy Ferguson (Episode 14) as one of the series’ most mesmerizing sequences. To a backdrop of sawing string bass, characters emerge from behind curtains and furniture to posit puzzles and threaten Cooper. Long lost Laura, Maddy, and Leland are back in various states of good and evil. Little Jimmy Scott materializes to croon a haunting torch song about the sycamores standing guard around the entrance to The Black Lodge, then disappears. Cooper comes face to face with Caroline Earle, the lost love about whom we’ve heard so much. She transforms into his new love, Annie, then into her own wicked husband, Windom. But as soon as we catch sight of Cooper’s own cataract-eyed doppelgänger lurching into the strobe light, we can already guess how all this will turn out. His pursuit of the Good Dale is terrifying. The resolution of that pursuit in the Great Northern bathroom is punishing, heartbreaking. Painful as it is to see our friend Cooper making a mockery of the good person we’d come to love throughout the previous 28 episodes (and pilot), there is comfort for viewers open-minded enough to experience the unfairly maligned Fire Walk With Me. We see the Good Dale once again, gabbing to his little tape recorder, chatting with his curmudgeonly buddy Albert Rosenfield, investigating, drinking coffee, being the old Cooper we all adore. In the end, we see him during his twenty-five year stint in the Red Room, as angelic as ever, guiding the Good Laura to a better world where she will finally be at peace. A happy ending for Coop, Laura, and “Twin Peaks”, because as Lynch informed us in his first film, he believes that “in heaven everything is fine.”

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Review: 'Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster'

Boris Karloff would have hated Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster. The man who became a legend by portraying the Frankenstein Monster and the Mummy beneath pounds of movie makeup loathed nothing more than having his private life revealed. The two instances in Stephen Jacobs’s 500-page-plus biography in which Karloff allows his politesse to drop is when being ambushed on TV’s “This Is Your Life” and prodded by a tactless interviewer. Karloff’s intense privacy is all the more interesting and endearing considering the lack of skeletons in his closet. Nearly everyone of the countless colleagues and friends Jacobs quotes have nothing but effusive praise for the screen’s greatest villain. “A true gentleman” and “sweet” are repeated with such regularity that readers of the more common muck-raking biography might wonder why Jacobs even bothered chronicling Karloff’s life. His legions of fans will recognize that life was so rich and fascinating because it was so far removed from the creatures he played. Tremendously generous with his time, loyal, caring, and dignified, Karloff lived up to all the wonderful things people said about him. That innate kindness really shone through creeps like the Frankenstein Monster and the Mummy, making them deeply sympathetic and infinitely more complex than their heroic human costars.

Jacobs sets out to make More Than a Monster the definitive Karloff biography by including absolutely every scrap of information on the actor he could locate. Fans will be amazed by what he has uncovered, particularly the numerous correspondences with his brothers reproduced throughout the book. Sometimes the writer doesn’t know when to curtail himself. Pages and pages of reviews of plays and minor films in which Karloff appeared may cause some readers to start skimming. However, they will likely find the detailed chapters on the makings of his Frankenstein movies and Targets riveting. Such exhaustiveness— the riveting and the not-quite-as riveting—makes More Than a Monster an invaluable resource for all Karloff completists and future biographers. Too bad for them that this may be definitive enough to serve as the final word on this subject.

Get Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster at here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Psychobabble’s 120 Essential Horror Movies Addendum: ‘Faust’

In this feature on Psychobabble, I’ve been creeping through 90 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 120 most monstrous works, decade by decade.

As the list evolves, I’ll be including a retroactive addition or two to installments past. Here’s one.

7. Faust (1926- dir. F.W. Murnau)

Murnau used the hoary parable of Dr. Faust selling his soul to Old Scratch as a leaping off point for some of his most striking images. Forget the proselytizing and focus on puppet demons galloping through the cosmos on horseback, a demonic contract flaming into existence without pen ever touching parchment, and a Godzilla-sized Satan looming over the village he is about to plague with the plague. Even some of the religious imagery, such as a radiant archangel with giant wings, is mighty enough to impress secular viewers. But it is the visions of evil and horror that ignite this film, and considering how completely Murnau jettisoned Stoker’s Christian symbolism from Nosferatu, one can reasonably suspect that Murnau made Faust with phantasmagoria higher on his agenda than piety. At the same time, this version of Faust is more explicitly religious than the German folk myth and Goethe’s play on which it was based. The director’s intentions may be debatable, but his results are not. Faust has not had the cultural impact of Nosferatu or The Last Laugh or Sunrise, but it may be Murnau’s masterpiece. And don’t be fooled by the numerous critics who’ve taken issue with Emil Janning’s broad performance as evil Mephisto; the actor’s non-stop leering and scenery munching are nearly as fun to watch as Murnau’s ever inventive imagery.

Tune in next week for Psychobabble’s 120 Essential Horror Movies Part 4: The 1950s!

Review: Simon Pegg's 'Nerd Do Well'

Simon Pegg is the role model horror, sci-fi, and comedy geeks always craved. Less contemptuous of his fans than Bruce Campbell, Pegg is the ultimate geek hero because he is completely grateful for and humbled by his success with such stellar work as “Spaced”, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz. That humbleness pervades his memoir Nerd Do Well, although I’m not really sure why this is categorized as a memoir rather than an autobiography. I’ve always made the distinction that autobiographies are by famous people and memoirs are by unknown people who’ve been hooked on crack, abused in some way, or most commonly, both. Pegg is famous enough, and aside from a good deal of ganja puffing, there isn’t anything in the way of drug abuse in this book. Aside from his parents’ divorce, several teen heartbreaks, and one genuinely tragic event involving a boyhood friend, he seems to have lived a pretty happy, pretty charmed life.

Pegg often writes that he doesn’t really know why such a jolly story needs to be told. He’d rather be doing other things, like making up a cheeky sci-fi scenario starring his superhuman alter-ego and robot butler buddy that could easily have made a neat novel in itself, or delivering a thoughtful multi-chapter essay about his favorite movie, Star Wars. Pegg’s autobiographical vignettes aren’t always as interesting as his tangents, but his flawless writing and sincere amiability make every page enjoyable reading. Pegg knows a straight life-story narrative is no way to convey the geekiness that made him a cult hero. By showing us what he likes to do and talk about, what cracks him up, and what inspires him, he creates a complete, personal, and specific self-portrait. And like his best work on TV and film, it is breezy, often touching, and frequently hilarious fun. Pegg’s accounts of befriending his own heroes—George Romero, Gillian Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, John Landis, Rob Morrow—are delivered with geeky awe rather than name-dropping smarm. He is just as jazzed about meeting these people as anyone reading his book would be to meet him. Simon (I hope he doesn’t mind my assumption we’re on a first-name basis) never lets us forget he is one of us.

Get Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy’s Journey to Becoming a Big Kid by Simon Pegg at here.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Pete Townshend Announces Deluxe 'Quadrophenia' and Autobiography Update!

Yesterday Pete Townshend announced plans to release a deluxe edition of The Who's 1973 double album Quadrophenia before the end of the year. The set will include a remastered version of the original mix, a possible revised version of Jon Astley's 1996 mix, and selected tracks presented in surround sound mixes. Pete also promises some of the wonderful demos he created for the album, which will include songs that didn't make the final cut. New liner notes from the composer will round out what will likely be the last word on The Who's greatest rock opera (You heard me, Tommy!).

Hop over to The Second Disc to read Townshend's complete statement on this upcoming release.

In other Townshend news, the most recent issue of Rolling Stone reveals a 2012 publication date for his long awaited autobiography.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Charlie Watts's Ten Greatest Beats

Keith Richards may have recently spent nearly 550 pages grumbling about the prancing vocalist to his right, but only one Stone was terse enough to tell Mick Jagger “Don’t ever call me ‘your drummer’ again. You’re my fucking singer!” before giving him a face full of knuckles. That’s the kind of forthright might one should expect from Charlie Watts. He is equally brusque on drums, never overplaying or needlessly upstaging his cohorts, but like that famous punch, he isn’t above letting you know who’s really pulling Jagger’s strings every once in a while. The Charlie Watts Beat is as instantly recognizable as Ringo’s wash of hi-hat or Keith Moon’s thunderous chaos: never a hi-hat and snare played in unison, always a little behind the beat. Funky, loose but driving, the perfect compliment to Mick’s mercurial yowling and Keith’s sparse shades of strumming. Charlie Watts is The Rolling Stones’ “Man Behind the Curtain,” but in honor of his 70th birthday, we’re gonna yank that curtain down, shine a light on him, and groove to his ten greatest beats.

1. “Get Off Of My Cloud” (1965)

With “Get Off Of My Cloud”, Charlie Watts essentially does for the drums what Keith Richards did for the guitar on The Stones’ previous single, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”: he creates his instrument’s most instantly recognizable lick. The big difference is that iconic guitar riffs had been a Rock & Roll staple since Ike Turner choked out the boogie-woogie on “Rocket 88”. How many iconic drum beats had there been? “Peggy Sue” perhaps? “Bo Diddley” maybe? But even on those songs the drums served as backdrop for Holly and Diddley’s manic strumming. Right from the start of “Get Off Of My Cloud” we know who’s ruling the record. That purposeful thunder of semi-open hi-hat invaded by a lightning-bolt snare fill is to Rock & Roll drumming what “Once upon a time” is to storytelling.

2. “Paint It Black” (1966)

“Paint It Black” is a glorious testament to The Stones’ ensemble power. Everyone is delivering stellar work: Keith’s snaky guitar riff later echoed by Brian’s zingy sitar, Mick’s crimped inflections, Bill’s bass swoops that propel the track through its concluding dervish dance. But it is Charlie’s tom-tom pounding that inspired Melody Maker to swoon that he “creates a galloping beat suggesting high-speed elephants.” The powerful thumping Charlie muscles through the majority of the song is only topped by the simple yet shattering fill he discharges after the quiet mid-song break. A curt volley between toms and snare and the track is immediately thrust back into frenzied violence. Transcendent.

3. “My Obsession” (1967)

The potency of simplicity. As he did on “Get Off Of My Cloud”—and as he would do often throughout Between the Buttons—Charlie provides a track’s chief instrumental hook on “My Obsession”. Bass-snare-bass-snare-snare. When the sound evaporates at the end of each verse, the drummer ushers the band back in with a return to his ponderous solo like a nightmare that refuses to end. Only by killing it mid-beat is Charlie able to halt his obsession.

4. “Please Go Home” (1967)

Another Between the Buttons track gets its oomph from the man behind the kit. While Keith’s absurdly overdriven guitar doesn’t slack, it is Charlie’s “shave-and-a-haircut” jive that launches “Please Go Home” into the stratosphere. Punctuated only by the occasional gong-like cymbal crash, the beat never relents or alters, and the listener’s heart never stops racing until that final wave of guitar shudders into the shadows.

5. “Complicated” (1967)

Charlie gets even funkier on “Complicated”. Once again, he provides the hook, a hypnotic cha-cha-cha that expands into an unbreakable roll by the end of the track. There’s something very cheeky about his shifts into a Ringo Starr-like wash on the verses.

6. “2000 Man” (1967)

Here’s where words fail me. I’m not a drummer, so I can’t really explain what Charlie is doing in this song. I’m guessing most drummers couldn’t either. As Keith picks out a fairly conventionally rhythmic folk melody on his acoustic, Charlie trips the beat into disorienting psychedelia (or is it prog rock?) with his syncopations, keeping the beat moving with his hippity-hoppity bass drum but landing the snare where you’d least expect it. On first listen, his beat sounds completely out of place and distracting. After the third or fourth listen, you couldn’t imagine “2000 Man” without it. And just in case you’re concerned that Charlie has succumbed to some sort of massive psychedelic head trauma, he lays down his familiar funk on the mid-section to remind us he is still well capable of kicking out a basic beat.

7. “Sympathy for the Devil” (1968)

Mick and Keith did not provide Charlie with a lot of material requiring Latin rhythms, so hearing him samba as naturally as Tito Puente on “Sympathy for the Devil” is kind of shocking. He gets the intricate rhythm jingling from the opening seconds. When Rocky Dijon on congas and Bill Wyman on cabasa join in, the voodoo ritual is in full effect. Add in Mick’s screams and Keith’s tortured guitar shrieks and jittery bass, and you have one of the most rhythmically exhilarating Rock & Roll tracks ever cut.

8. “Honky Tonk Women” (1969)

No Latin flourishes here. No tricky syncopations or signature hooks. “Honky Tonk Women” is where Charlie lays down the archetypal Charlie beat, and this list would be incomplete without such an example. A few insouciant clicks from Jimmy Miller’s cowbell then Charlie thuds in slightly behind the beat, as is his way. He then propels the tempo without pushing it, barely altering the beat throughout the track’s three minutes. Notice how consistent the drums remain even as the brass, guitars, and bass approach euphoria on the instrumental break. Then when all instruments and voices cut loose on the grand finale, swooping and diving around each other like asteroids, Charlie trips up his beat a bit for emphasis, but doesn’t hit harder, doesn’t really go out of his way to up the intensity because he doesn’t need to. “Honky Tonk Women” is a sublime example of the drummer’s taste and his ability to lead the show from the back row. And you can dance to it.

9. “Moonlight Mile” (1971)

Perhaps the most gorgeous song in The Stones’ catalogue is also one of the band’s most deceptively powerful ones. Gentle acoustic guitars and piano provide a velvet backdrop to Mick’s sensitive vocal. Charlie rolls in with what sounds like soft mallets, creating cinematic flourishes redolent of crashing waves. He never breaks into standard bass-snare interplay. Rather he washes and booms and tumbles his way through the track, providing its exhilarating might, driving Mick to wails that ring with greater sincerity than the mass of his vocals. “Moonlight Mile” suggests that Charlie may have missed his calling as a great movie director.

10. “Time Waits for No One” (1974)

Charlie’s rhythm on “Time Waits for No One” is just as visual as his work on “Moonlight Mile”, cracking a rim shot that instantly conjures images of a grand, looming clock even before Jagger begins decrying the stoic cruelty of time. When the guitars flood in, he releases all of his signatures: the lax beat, the cinematic rolls, the Latin off beats, the simple yet mighty tom fills. By the end of the track, he’s back to tick-tocking, leading this epic out toward infinity.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Psychobabble’s 200 Essential Horror Movies Part 4: The 1950s

In this feature, Psychobabble creeps through 100 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 200 most monstrous works, decade by decade.

(Updated in April 2020)

45. Invaders from Mars (1953- dir. William Cameron Menzies)

By the 1950s, Gothic horror had been all but stamped out in America. The increasingly schlocky films Universal was churning out, as well as “poverty row” studios such as Monogram and Republic, have a certain charm but don’t compare to their thirties predecessors. World War II had left most folks with enough real horror to last their lifetimes. The fifties began with a gasp (“Good lord!”) as E.C. Comics seemed ripe to pick up where cinema left off with its beloved horror titles Tales from the CryptThe Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear. Upping the level of gore and delicious bad taste of cinematic horror, these comics were squelched almost as soon as they were born during the absurdly alarmist hearings by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. However, science-fiction, especially that which pushed American (cough... anti-communist) values, was A-okay.

Invaders from Mars is basically a precursor to Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which the alien replicas are really, really nasty and a little boy fills the Kevin McCarthy role. After 13-year-old David Maclean (Jimmy Hunt) sights a U.F.O. during a late-night thunderstorm, his family and friends start acting funny. David suspects that mom and dad are no longer mom and dad, but only astronomer Dr. Blake (Helena Carter) takes his concerns seriously. Soon the expected intergalactic (cough, coughcommunist) plot comes to light.

William Cameron Menzies’ penultimate picture has its intense moments, but its artificiality prevents it from being very frightening (though period reviews indicate that 1950s audiences felt otherwise). Blatantly phony sets and richer-than-reality Cinecolor make for delectable eye candy, and with its young hero, Invaders from Mars plays as a sort of Body Snatchers for juvenile matinee crowds. An endless pseudo-science lesson sequence causes the film’s center to sag, but Invaders manages to get back in orbit with a war-of-the-worlds finale masterminded by a mutant squid-man living in a snow globe. Yahoo! Raoul Kraushaar’s score, which appropriates bits of Holst’s The Planets, is phenomenal. Look out for a fleeting cameo by June Cleaver!

46. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954- dir. Jack Arnold)

With mounting fears about nuclear war kidnapping imagination in the fifties, Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster started to seem as non-threatening as Abbott and Costello. This did not mean that the public had its fill of monsters; it just meant the new sci-fi monsters were of a different sort than the Universal creeps of old. Ants and spiders made monstrous by atomic energy were the latest purveyors of nightmares, though they hardly possessed the personalities or appeal of the humanoid monsters they replaced. However, Universal still had one more bipedal beast in its menagerie. 

Enter the Gill Man, not a product of the nuclear age, but an ancient evolutionary false start, a mutant missing link between fish and humans. Despite the creature’s scientific, rather than supernatural, origin, he’s as sympathetic and tragic as Im-Ho-Tep or Larry Talbot. He’s perfectly content swimming around in his lagoon, minding his own business, and being gruesome. Then a boatload of meddling scientists come along, flick their cigarette butts into his home, and scheme to drag him out of the Amazon and off to a lab in the States. Revisionist critics often read The Creature from the Black Lagoon as an ecological statement, although it’s pretty unlikely that Jack Arnold wanted to do anything but scare the dungarees off matinee audiences in glorious 3-D. Hans Salter’s score is grating, but the deadly Amazon, where everything is a “killer”, is a setting every bit as atmospheric as the Gothic castles in the Universal pictures of yore. The underwater photography is as gorgeous as Millicent Patrick’s creature design is dazzling.

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