Saturday, April 28, 2012

Review: Taschen's 'Horror Cinema'

This year marks the 32nd anniversary of Taschen, one of the finest producers of lavish photography books in a sadly gasping publishing world. Horror cinema, of course, is deathless. The recent republication of Taschen’s tribute to that genre is a testament to both Horror’s determination to continue creeping us out and Taschen’s resolve to continue rolling out high quality photo books. Jonathan Penner and Steven Jay Schneider’s text is an intelligent enough primer on the sundry slashers, cannibals, giants, zombies, spooks, devils, and vampires that have populated some 100 years of scary movies. Nothing we old diehards haven’t studied before, but amusing and insightful enough to warrant review, and the opening passage is as beautiful and lucid an explanation of the difference between terror and horror as you’ll ever read.

Of course, that commentary is peas and carrots next to the big, bloody steaks that are the photographs comprising the bulk of Horror Cinema. Generally speaking, photo collections of this sort should be judged on the obscurity of the pictures contained. Horror Cinema doesn’t disappoint on this count, offering some of the most luridly detailed looks at Leatherface, The Alien Queen, and The Grand High Witch available. More importantly, it sports some valuable production sketches from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Phantom of the Opera, King Kong, and Alien and a gullet-stuffing glut of behind-the-scenes stills. Horror Cinema is worth the (very reasonable) cover price for these peeks at the makings of Freaks, The Birds, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Island of Lost Souls, Eyes without a Face, The Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein, Gremlins, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jaws, and way too many others to mention.

Get Horror Cinema from here:

Monday, April 23, 2012

Monsterology: Mutants

In this new feature on Psychobabble, we’ll be taking a look at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.

You’re an animal. So’s your mom and your dad and your sister and all your friends. We humans like to think of ourselves as far removed from the animals we eat, shoo, experiment on, and patronize as pets. But though we may have opposable thumbs and cell phones, we are basically shaved apes with unwieldy brains. As Charles Darwin pointed out 150-odd years ago, we’re also mutants. We are the result of sudden biological jolts in unexpected directions, which is why most of us no longer live in trees or employ butt sniffing when choosing a mate (did prehistoric people actually do this? I like to think so). Despite war, genocide, environmental destruction, racism, sexism, homophobia, extreme narcissism, reality television, and Rick Santorum, we turned out pretty well. But a little tweak in the wrong direction and we could have been murderous men-fish with big webbed claws or underground-dwelling mole ladies. Terrifying to consider, eh? Perhaps that’s why mutants have been such reliable monsters since the dawn of Horror fiction.

H.G. Wells was one of the first artists to address such mutations, which he did in The Time Machine (1895). The writer sent his protagonist back to 802,701 A.D. where he meets two alternate early versions of his own species. Wells chiefly used the lazy Eloi and the brutish Morlocks as metaphors for the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, respectively, but he may not have conceived of these particular creatures had Darwin not made us aware of the strange side roads we walked on our journey toward humanity. The following year, Wells gave us a more explicit glimpse at our bestial past, but he did so without the trappings of revisionist history. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, the title doc is the maddest of modern scientists, conducting enforced evolution in a lab his hairy charges fear as the House of Pain. Wells intended his novel as a denunciation of one of “evolved” man’s great crimes, vivisection, yet it also functions as a raging criticism of the arrogance, cruelty, and whimsy of an evolution-crazed God. Moreau sees himself as The Creator, a noble entity who would erase the savagery of nature and replace it with the refinement of civilized humans. In actuality, he is an egomaniacal puppeteer and torturer, and like the God of Biblical fiction, his creations are ultimately destructive. Was Wells telling us we would have been better left grazing in the fields? Perhaps, and perhaps he wasn’t too far off the mark.

H.G. Wells later described The Island of Dr. Moreau as “rather painful” and “an exercise in youthful blasphemy,” yet it solidified a Horror archetype that had yet to take a shape of its own but may have always existed. What are werewolves and vampires if not mutants of sorts? Could they be supernatural suggestions of what might have been had humans evolved from wolves or bats instead of apes?

Such “what ifs?” gave us some of our most memorable monsters when Horror mutated from the printed page to the screen in the twentieth century. What if there was a direct missing link between us and that fish that crawled from the sea some 360 million years ago? Perhaps there might still be one of these creatures doing the backstroke in a black lagoon in the Amazon, mooning over a woman with whom he may have had a shot had he been fortunate enough to follow the same evolutionary path as the rest of us. As scientifically unlikely as it is, that fish/man missing link became one of Horror’s iconic monsters and a belated last hoorah for the golden age of Universal horror.
A true testament to natural selection, the Gill Man has withstood time better than the big-eyed mutants of the charmingly campy The Mole People, Universal’s less successful attempt to justify weird creatures with dicey science. Quite unlike evolutionary science, the “Hollow Earth Theory” had been roundly dismissed a century and a half before Virgil Vogel’s movie premiered in 1956. That didn’t stop phony-boloney scientist Frank C. Baxter from lecturing about mutant mole men running amok in the Earth’s core during the uproarious prologue:

Silly? Yes. But apparently not unworthy fodder for serious horror, as we learned almost fifty years later when Neil Marshall explored both the evolutionary undercurrent of vampires and the speculative hooey of mutant monsters dwelling under the Earth in the genuinely terrifying The Descent. Of course, the film’s claustrophobia-inducing scenes of spelunking are so scary that the mutant bat people are somewhat less overwhelming when they finally show up halfway through the picture.

In the interim, Horror and science fiction pondered strange mutations time and time again. In 1984, cult favorite C.H.U.D. took another dive below ground to visit with mole people of a different sort: urban homeless people mutated into monstrous cannibals by toxic waste. The classic 1963 novel and 1968 film The Planet of the Apes wondered what might result if apes continued evolving while retaining their signature ape flourishes while humans were relegated to lower-beast status. The three film adaptations of The Island of Dr. Moreau work as a devolutionary timeline, descending from the great (1933) to the good (1977) to the abysmal (1996) over time. Dagon, Stuart Gordon’s underrated 2001 adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, melds weird mutations and weirder religion with its Gill Man-esque creatures who worship a freaky fish god. Evolution and religion merge at last. The mutant continues to stalk our nightmares.

So before you go to bed tonight, thank your god—if you’re inclined to believe in such things—that you managed to make it to 2012 without gills or fangs or the need to take residence deep in the Earth. Better yet, toss The Creature from the Black Lagoon into the DVD player and thank Jack Arnold, H.G. Wells, Neil Marshall, and the rest for finding the riveting Horror in the strange-but-true science of evolution.

Essential Mutant Viewing:
Island of Lost Souls (1933)
The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Revenge of the Creature (1955)
The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
The Mole People (1956)
The Time Machine (1960)
The Planet of the Apes (1968)
The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977)
C.H.U.D. (1984)
Dagon (2001)
The Descent (2005)

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Great Albums

Hey, Psychobabblers, just a quick note that I added a new and long over-due entry in the "Categories and Features" sidebar. The Great Albums will lead you directly to all of this site's "Greatest Albums of [insert year]" lists. So far 1965, '66, '70, '71, '72, '76, '79, '80, and '81 are in the can. Stay tuned for Psychobabble's three-part series on "The Greatest Albums of 1967" coming later this Spring. Lists covering 1977 and 1982 (and possibly '87 and '92) will follow later in the year.

Release Date and Pre-Order Info for Pete Townshend's Long-Awaited Autobiography!

Big news: Pete Townshend has been teasing his autobiography for about a decade at this point. As perhaps Rock's best writer of both music and prose, the prospect has been exciting even if the reality seemed less and less likely with each passing year. Well, Townshend's autobiography, Who I Am, finally has a release date: October 8, 2012. Still not convinced this is actually happening? Perhaps the fact that you can now pre-order it will ease your skepticism:

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Farewell, Levon Helm

In the autumn of 2009, I went to the Apollo Theater for a taping of Elvis Costello’s “Spectacle”. The guest line-up was probably the best ever to appear on his short-lived chat show. I’d seen Elvis live several times before, but had yet to see Nick Lowe, Richard Thompson, or Allen Toussaint. I was excited to see each of these artists, but not nearly as keyed up as I was to see one of my very favorite singers, Levon Helm. Unfortunately, Helm was having throat troubles that night and could barely speak, let alone sing. Yet, he was still in great humor, and sat behind his drum kit to do his talking through his slack-tuned skins, as he so often did on those amazing old Band records. Elvis would ask him a question, and Levon would change up his beat to indicate a “yes” or “no” response. It was a cute joke, but also a beautiful metaphor for the guy. The Band was a group of five great artists and uncommonly distinct individuals, but Levon’s voice always rose above everyone else’s whether he was singing or speaking through his unmistakably loose, funky drumming.

Very sadly, that voice fell silent today. Levon Helm died of throat cancer at the age of 71. Of course, as long as we still have his records, that voice will never really be silent.

Here are some of my favorite examples of the humor, heartbreak, and humanity of Levon Helm’s voice and equally expressive drumming:

Review: The 'Yellow Submarine' Storybook

Flip that old copy of Curious George into the bin and send your kid off with some bedtime reading of a groovier sort. As part of a new Yellow Submarine reissue campaign, Candlewick Press is republishing Charlie Gardner’s fab storybook that boils the psychedelic cartoon feature down to Goodnight Moon length, while tossing some fun new Beatle-tune puns into the mix. Fiona Andreanelli’s design cleverly combines painterly backdrops pulled directly from the film with freshly rendered and very vivid images of our Pepperland-rescuing heroes John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Jeremy, as well as delectable villains such as the Chief Blue Meanie, the Snapping Turtle Turks, and the Suckophant (yes, the vacuum monster has an official name). A great way to turn your baby into a Beatle freak before she or he has even stopped wetting the bed. And don’t forget to play an appropriate soundtrack while reading…

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Psychobabble’s 20 Greatest Singles of 1962!

At last! Following a couple of dry years for Rock & Roll, many interesting new developments were afoot. Breakthrough records by The Beach Boys and Phil Spector joined great new discs by old favorites like Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison. A young troubadour named Bob was having his first go at Rock & Roll. And some odd rumbling began in merry-old England when a London band topped the U.S. charts for the first time and a quartet of shaggy weirdos from Liverpool released their first hit on their home shore. Here are Psychobabble’s picks for the twenty greatest singles released during that revolutionary year, 1962!

20. “Puddin’ N’ Tain” by The Alley Cats

Phil Spector’s early production of the doo-wop nonsense “Puddin’ N’ Tain” lacks the drama of his great girl-group work, but right from the opening moments, this is clearly a leap forward from earlier records in the same vein. Echo shrouds a popping percussion ensemble soon joined by dancing-finger piano. Over it all, The Alley Cats lose it, repeating the title mantra, leaping into hysterical falsetto. But the Spectorian bells that twinkle out on the bridge leave no question as to who brought the magic to this record.

19. “Love Me Do” / “P.S. I Love You” by The Beatles

The decision to introduce The Beatles to the world with the halting folk ditty “Love Me Do” was a strange one considering they had better original material, and that includes the single’s flipside, “P.S. I Love You” (early evidence of McCartney’s brilliance with the pop-standard form). Certainly this isn’t one of The Beatles’ best, yet it’s historical significance lies somewhere between Darwin’s fish crawling out of the ocean and man setting foot on the moon.

18. “Telstar” by The Tornadoes

Joe Meek’s freaky production of The Tornadoes’ instrumental is not quite as monumental as “Love Me Do”, yet it is significant as the very first record by a British band to top the Billboard charts. More importantly, it is a transporting period piece buzzing with Meek’s signature special effects. Although the title was inspired by the first communication satellite launched into the atmosphere, the track is more reminiscent of the ambling of a wind-up robot.

17. “Sheila” by Tommy Roe

Buddy Holly’s death left a hiccup in the pop world that several singers tried to fill. Bobby Vee was the first, but the most convincing was Tommy Roe, who copped Holly’s delivery over a dead-on Jerry Allison beat on his debut single, “Sheila”. Roe went on to a surprisingly long career as a chirper of bubblegum smashes like “Sweet Pea”, “Hooray for Hazel”, and “Dizzy”, but none lived up to the Rock & Roll promise of the rolling Holly-homage “Sheila”.

16. “Hitch Hike” by Marvin Gaye

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tide Yourself Over with This Peter Cushing Interview

Hey kids... new posts may be sparse this week while I work on getting together some big features for the Spring. So here's a video interview with Peter Cushing from 1983 that's probably long enough to tide you over until the next post. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Review: 'Third Degree' by Nine Below Zero

In the late ‘70s, Nine Below Zero drummed up much local interest as one of London’s finest pub bands. They drew sweat like their punk peers while channeling the attitudinal blues of the early Stones and Yardbirds. Mark Feltham did things to his harp Jagger never dared. By their third album, they had transferred the wild energy they put into the Motown covers that made up their legendary stage sets (captured on their debut L.P., Live at the Marquee) to a serrated line-up of all-original material. It’s no hollow gesture that the band chose Swinging London-icon David Bailey to shoot the cover of Third Degree. The album finds Nine Below Zero tight, taut, modish. With only the thinnest 1982 sheen, the album stirs memories of circa-’65 Small Faces and Who. The tough, bluesy power pop contained inside never betrays the listener’s demand for a killer chorus. “Wipe Away Your Kiss” is an infectious homage to The Jam playing homage to The Beatles. “Why Can’t We Be What We Want to Be” slows the pace without letting up on the intensity. “Egg on My Face” is a vain attempt to temper the band’s fire by swapping acoustics for the usual electric attack. “Sugarbeat (And Rhythm Sweet)” is freaky soul spotlighting Brian Bethell’s wiry bass. And the pile driving lead-off track, “Eleven Plus Eleven”, would deserve classic-single status even if it hadn’t helped launch “The Young Ones”.

Out of print for some time, Third Degree has just received an overdue remaster and rerelease by BGO Records in the UK. Though they never had much impact in the U.S. beyond their sitcom debut, Nine Below Zero are well worthy of discovery by anyone who digs their ties as skinny as their drainpipe trousers, realizes Pete Townshend was always at his best when thrashing a Rickenbacker, and understands that Elvis Costello would have been a lot better off had he never met Langer and Winstanley.

Order Third Degree now on

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Review: 'I Married a Witch' (1942)

Dodgy ideas are scattered like landmines throughout the introductory passage of René Clair’s 1942 comedy I Married a Witch. The film ignites in 1770 Salem where broom-rider Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and her pop (Cecil Kellaway) are about to be burned after getting ratted out by Puritan Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March in a bad wig). As the witch heads to the stake, she vows vengeance on Wooley and all his descendents, cursing them with eternal unhappiness. That means they’ll all get married to ruthlessly henpecking wives. We then see March in various Wooley guises throughout the centuries getting his balls handed to him by generations of harpies. Hardy-har.

Milking laughs out of the misogynistic murders of the Salem witch trials is a creaky foundation on which to build your chuckle fest, and the henpecking wives montage suggests I Married a Witch will follow through with a sexist agenda. Fortunately, the picture quickly switches its trajectory toward more lighthearted skies. Jennifer and her dad are resurrected as mobile plumes of smoke 270 years after their deaths. They seek out gubernatorial candidate Wallace Wooley (March again) to resume their jiggery pokery against the Wooley line. After taking voluptuous corporeal form, Jennifer schemes to make Wally squirm, first by nearly cooking him after luring him into a burning building (ah, poetic justice!), then foiling his wedding to a “shrew” (who isn’t really portrayed that shrewishly by Susan Hayward). Romantic comedy conventions dictate that Jennifer’s plans are ultimately turned inside out when she falls for Wooley, and the picture plays out with her battling her dad, who still wants revenge, and stoking her new hubby’s political campaign.

I Married a Witch is slim and a bit meandering. None of that is surprising considering the film was based on a novel (The Passionate Witch) its original author (Thorne Smith) failed to finish before he croaked (Norman H. Matson completed the job in 1941). The script, producer’s seat, and lead actor changed hands a number of times, too. Joel McCrea was originally slated to play the Wooley men, but declined when he discovered his former Sullivan’s Travels co-star, Veronica Lake, would be playing the witch. Lake was a notorious handful, and she didn’t endear herself to March either. She hid a 40-pound weight beneath her dress during a scene in which March had to carry her (which, assumedly, brought her up to an even 100 pounds). She played footsy with his crotch while he attempted to recite his lines. Consequently, Lake and March lack chemistry in the film, so the revelation that Jennifer has fallen in love with Wooley seems forced and unprecedented. As far as romantic comedies go, I Married a Witch isn’t terribly romantic.

Yet, at an easily digestible 77 minutes, I Married a Witch has quite a bit to recommend it. Cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff designs some beautiful shots. Anyone who has seen his work in Hitchcock’s Notorious knows the guy was an ace with light and shadow, and he exploits those skills marvelously in Witch. Clair also gets off a number of beautifully executed set pieces, such as the witches’ smokey resurrection during a lightning storm, an impromptu indoor hurricane Jennifer whips up at Wally’s wedding, and a flying taxi cab. Kellaway, who was a charming presence on a couple of “Twilight Zone” episodes, nearly steals the show with his funny, drunken capering. I say “nearly” because Veronica Lake owns this movie. She may not have been able to generate any sparks with March, but she does just fine generating them on her own. Hilarious and adorable, Lake not only brings the film to life when she’s actually on the screen, but she can make it pulse with nothing more than her disembodied voice. Her performance totally negates March’s charge that she was “a brainless little blonde sexpot, void of any acting ability,” and almost singlehandedly makes I Married a Witch must-viewing. You can view it right now for free on hulu here.

Suspense & Gallows Humor: A Pop-Art Tribute to Hitch in Santa Monica

Still no Friday the 13th plans? Well, I urge those in the Santa Monica area to visit Gallery 1988 for the opening of "Suspense & Gallows Humor", a pop-art tribute to the master of those types of things, Alfred Hitchcock. 100 artists have contributed work inspired by the man and his ample filmography. Among the artists is my good friend Joe Scarano, who crafted an appropriately deadpan tribute to Hitch’s underrated black comedy The Trouble with Harry.
"Suspense & Gallows Humor: A Tribute To The All-Time Greatest"
Friday, April 13th 7-10pm
Gallery 1988 – Venice
214 Pier Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90405

Monday, April 2, 2012

Watch Tons of Free Flicks from the Criterion Collection on Hulu Now!

The Criterion Collection has made a bunch of its movies available to watch free and instantly on Hulu. Yes, there are commercial interruptions, but I repeat--free and instant--so quit your belly aching!

Here are some direct links to the most Psychobabbley movies available in this groovy new deal, plus some bonus reviews that have appeared on this site in the past:

Carnival of Souls (1962)

Roger Corman and William Castle were clever enough to drape their cheapest movies with a shroud of daffy humor. Delightful as much of their work is, they didn’t necessarily need to be so self-conscious just because their budgets were next to nil. Case in point: Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls was made for around thirty grand— the majority of which was probably spent on film stock and white grease paint— and is the most effectively creepy B-movie of the early ‘60s. After walking away from a drag race accident, Mary the Church Organist starts seeing dead people. Decades before The Sixth Sense, audiences likely knew exactly where this plot was headed, as the inevitable twist had been done many times before in various ghost stories and installments of “The Twilight Zone”. Yet the predictability of Carnival of Souls doesn’t hurt it, nor does the Halloween-costume quality of the phantoms Mary encounters, because Harvey strikes such an eerie tone. The film swells with funereal dread abetted by Gene Moore’s appropriate pipe organ score. Candace Hilligoss is suitably soulless as Mary. As her lecherous hipster neighbor, John Linden provides some welcome period humor without defusing Harvey’s chilling stillness. Proving a low-budget horror picture could get away with being deathly serious, Carnival of Souls mesmerized a new crop of genre filmmakers, and its influence would be palpable in the debut film of young George Romero a few years later.

originally published in Psychobabble’s 120 Essential Horror Movies: The 1960s

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

Eyes Without a Face (1960)

Hammer may have upped the level of horror movie gore in the previous decade, but nothing the studio produced reached the graphic heights of Blood of the Beasts, Georges Franju’s 1949 documentary about a slaughterhouse outside Paris. Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage) does not repeat that short’s realism, but it does display the same icy, graphic violence in ways Hammer would never dare try. The film involves a doctor suffering terrible guilt after causing a car accident that monstrously scarred his daughter, Christiane. Convinced he can restore her beauty and prove his own godly powers as a physician, Docteur Génessier makes numerous attempts at the world’s first face transplant with skin from young women procured by his assistant, Edna. Franju executes this potentially schlocky plot with hardcore explicitness and mesmerizing poetry. The operation scenes still have the power to disturb, particularly since contemporary audiences would never expect such graphic material in a black and white, French film from 1960. Those sequences are potent, but it is Edith Scob’s ethereal portrayal of Christiane and Alida Valli’s Edna that are most impressive. Like the classic monsters, both are frightening and sympathetic, though not in equal measure. The climax of the film in which Christiane commits some unexpected acts of vengeance, as well as real heroism, is only topped by the haunting final image of her floating into a dark forest and an uncertain future with a white dove perched on her finger. The beautiful, horrible, and artistically rich Eyes Without a Face received notoriously shabby treatment in the U.S., where it was dubbed into English, given the idiotic title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, and run as a double-feature with a cheapie called The Manster. In the ensuing years it achieved cult classic status, but Eyes Without a Face deserves to be regarded on the same level as any of its contemporary art films by Fellini or Bergman. Regardless of its reputation, Eyes Without a Face got one of horror’s most fruitful decades—and one of its most spectacular years—off to a striking start.

originally published in Psychobabble’s 120 Essential Horror Movies: The 1960s

Hausu (1977)

After Toho, the studio responsible for all those terrifically cheesy Godzilla movies, approached Nobuhiko Obayashi about making Japan’s answer to Jaws, the filmmaker took a rather novel approach. He recalled seven of his school-age daughter’s worst fears and crammed them into a haunted house movie that plays like Suspiria reimagined by Sid and Marty Krofft. A severed head flies from a water well and bites a schoolgirl on her bottom. A piano consumes human flesh and disembodied fingers pound on its keys. A girl gets into a kung-fu brawl with firewood. A cat’s eyes glimmer with cartoon sparkles. And there isn’t a single shark in sight. Naturally, Toho was baffled by Hausu (House), as were critics, but the film became a huge hit in its homeland because kids instantly recognized its candied horrors and psychedelic flights of fancy as reflective of their own whimsical imaginations. As gruesome as this story of seven schoolgirls who meet varying fates in an old dark house can be, the delivery is more cartoonish than the average episode of “Scooby Doo”. Teeny-bop pop chirps cheerily on the soundtrack, and the actresses play their parts as though they may break out into The Partridge Family’s Greatest Hits at any moment. Those characters are just as transparently farcical as their adventures, each one named for the stock stereotype that dictates her every move: there’s Fantasy, Gorgeous, Kung Fu, Prof (as in “Professor”), Mac (as in “Stomach”…she’s always eating!), Melody (the musician), and Sweet. Collect them all! The scares are on the level of those in The Wizard of Oz, which means they will particularly disturb kids. The special effects are non-stop, ranging from primitive video manipulation to “How the Hell did they do that?” magic. Nonsensically whimsical as a toddler telling tales on the fly, House is a puzzling delight.

originally published in Psychobabble’s 120 Essential Horror Movies: The 1970s

I Married a Witch (1942)

Haven't seen this one yet, but as soon as I do, you'll be the first to know!

Jigoku (1960)

Shintōhō was essentially the Japanese equivalent of Britain’s Hammer, grinding out bloody, low-budget exploitation with offbeat audacity. After a mere eleven years of moviemaking, the studio was in dire shape. In 1960, Nobuo Nakagawa made his final picture for Shintōhō. Jigoku delivers much of the shock for which the studio was known, but it does so in a completely unexpected package. The first half of the film follows Shirô Shimizu, a theology student with the worst luck in the world, beginning with his involvement in a tragic hit-and-run accident. The supernatural element of this opening movement is limited to a general air of uncanny unease and an encounter with a doppelgänger. In the second half, Shirô has his own fatal encounter, after which he is demoted to Hell where he is set loose in an environmental straight out of the right-hand panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights. Nakagawa unleashes his imagination to fashion the most disturbing portrait of Hell yet to be splattered across a cinema screen. There’s a field of needles, brutish blue demons baring truncheons, surreal decapitations, a screeching baby floating on a river of blood. Ferocious as all of this is, Nakagawa realizes his nightmare images with great artistry. The film’s jarring movement from relative normalcy to utter horror heightens its power to unnerve and presages the work of a filmmaker born less than a month after its release: Takashi Miike, who would grow up to make the similarly plotted and even more disturbing Audition twenty nine years later.

originally published in Psychobabble’s 120 Essential Horror Movies: The 1960s

Quadrophenia (1979)

Anyone who has seen Ken Russell’s complete travesty Tommy knows that turning a rock album into a movie is no easy task, especially when you’re dealing with a group as bombastic as The Who. The genius thing about Quadrophenia, a film version of one of The Who’s more bombastic albums, is that Franc Roddam completely tones down the bombast in favor of character development and capturing a very specific period in British culture when gangs of sharp-dressed, scooter-riding mods and leather-clad, motorcycle-riding rockers engaged in a bloody, riotous rivalry. Thankfully, Roddam didn’t try to turn this into an opera. The music from the Quadrophenia album (glorious as it is, but hardly sounding as though it hails from 1965) is only used as background, while actual period music from Booker T. & the MG’s, The Chiffons, and The Kingsmen spins out from D.J. booths and turntables. If you want complete historical accuracy, this isn’t the best place to start because the film is loaded with gaffs (a Who record from the mid ‘70s is shown sitting next to a phonograph; some of the rockers have hippie-style long hair; a cinema marquee shows that Heaven Can Wait is playing). These anachronisms only point to how relevant this film was when it was released. It’s as much a product of the punk era as it is an early ‘60’s period piece, showing how little things had changed. The grim, impoverished, violent England depicted in the film was no different from Thatcher’s England of 1979. So, it was hardly surprising that a mod-revival followed and that the film’s central character Jimmy became something of a punk icon. Phil Daniels is incredible in the role, playing Jimmy with an appropriately schizoid combination of romanticism, childishness, rage, and desperation—the four sides of the “quadrophenic” personality Pete Townshend describes on the album. The film itself is incredible as well: moving, exciting, sexy, funny, furious, and youthful—everything The Who were when they were at their best.

originally published in The 15 Greatest Rock & Roll Movies!

Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)
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