Friday, September 28, 2012

Review: 'Mick Jagger' by Philip Norman

Philip Norman’s biography The Stones first appeared way, way back in 1984. Nearly thirty years later, it’s still one of the better examinations of the definitive Rock & Roll band, but it’s one that requires a good deal of support from other sources. Victor Bockris’s Keith Richards—and to a degree, the guitarist’s own factually questionable Life—are essential in gaining insight into Keef’s unique modus operandi. Bill Wyman’s Stone Alone is an important glimpse into the lot of an eternal sideman in Rock & Roll’s biggest circus, as well as a handy document of facts, figures, and errr, sexual conquests. Elliott’s Complete Recording Sessions and Karnbach and Bernson’s It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll are important references about the band’s work, even though the two books’ details often clash. Meanwhile, you’ll find no better history of Mick and Keith’s 1967 bust than Simon Wells’s Butterfly on a Wheel.

Maybe someday we’ll really get a complete, accurate, all-inclusive book about The Rolling Stones (assuming such a tome wouldn’t be so massive that perusing it would guarantee hernia). Until then, we’ll just have to keep piecing their story together from multiple sources. Decades after he published The Stones, Philip Norman has now provided another important piece in the band’s biographical jigsaw puzzle. Mick Jagger is a 600-page study of that most high-profile yet oddly private Stone.

As Norman delights in reminding us, Mick’s autobiography is among the most sought-after items in the publishing world. However, the singer’s own declared abhorrence of “rummag[ing] through [his] past” means that slot in the puzzle will forever remain empty. Norman’s book suggests that Mick’s reluctance does not merely hinge on the fact that such rummaging would have to touch on the least savory chapters in an infamous life: his ongoing, generation-spanning womanizing; his need to question the paternity of some of the kids he sired, no matter how big their lips may be; his stinginess. Granddaddy Lucifer would probably be just as embarrassed by the details that contradict the nasty image he’s been cultivating for fifty years: his stealth philanthropy and his insecurity and his tendency to take nearly as much abuse from the women in his life as he is known to dole out.

Mick Jagger naturally covers a lot of the same territory as The Stones, so it is not an ideal supplement for the less obsessed fan who has already read the earlier book. Norman makes some errors (Paul McCartney starred in The Rutles? Bill Wyman didn’t receive credit for “In Another Land” on the first edition of Satanic Majesties? My copy of the record says otherwise) that may call into question the credibility of his grander assertions. Some of his writing quirks get tiresome real fast, such as his insistence on spelling Jagger’s lyrics phonetically (“Ah was bawn in a crawss-fire hurr’cayne…”), his overly labored analogy between manager Andrew Oldham/Jagger and Svengali/Trilby, and his incessant, tasteless references to the “Mars Bar” myth. The little space Norman devotes to Mick’s music is often tainted by baffling misinterpretation (“Satisfaction” is about masturbation and menstruation? The phrase “get off of my cloud” means “look but don’t touch”? Funny, I always thought it meant “fuck off”) or harping criticism (I could have done without the constant declarations of how awful he thinks Satanic Majesties is).

Mick Jagger has its issues, but there’s enough information on its pages to fascinate fans, and perhaps, even force the Jagger-adverse to rethink him a bit: his kindness to Keith’s son Marlon, his charitable work alongside Bianca in Nicaragua, his tendency to get slapped around more often than Pete Campbell from “Mad Men”. Jagger isn’t all good, but he ain’t all bad either: in his own words, he’s “very complicated.” While the Stones-devoted keep chasing the definitive story of their favorite band, another piece of the puzzle falls into place.

Get Mick Jagger at here:

The Continuing Down Counts the Counting...

Thursday, September 27, 2012

'Charlie Is My Darling' Super Deluxe Info Revealed

A month ago, Psychobabble announced the impending and long overdue release of The Rolling Stones' 1965 tour film Charlie Is My Darling. On November 6, the film will be available in several versions, including a five-disc super deluxe edition. Well, we finally have details on those discs beyond the DVD and Blu-ray. According to, the remaining super-deluxe discs will include the debut of the film's official soundtrack and a live show from '65 on CD and vinyl.

You can pre-order all incarnations of Charlie Is My Darling from here:

Now the track listings:

Original Soundtrack

1) Play With Fire - The Aranbee Pop Symphony Orchestra
2) Heart Of Stone - The Rolling Stones
3) Who Do You Like In The Group? - Peter Whitehead and Fans
4) The Last Time (Live) - The Rolling Stones
5) Time Is On My Side (Live) - The Rolling Stones
6) I´m Alright (Live) - The Rolling Stones
7) The Next House We´ll Turn The Screaming Down - Andrew Loog Oldham and Priest
8) Theme For A Rolling Stone - The Andrew Oldham Orchestra
9) Nice Tea - The Rolling Stones and Andrew Loog Oldham
10) Maybe It´s Because I´m A Londoner - ALO Productions
11) Play With Fire - The Rolling Stones
12) Tell Me - Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Andrew Oldham
13) Heart Of Stone - The Andrew Oldham Orchestra
14) Are You Going To The Show Tonight? - Peter Whitehead and Fans
15) Everybody Needs Somebody To Love (Live) - The Rolling Stones
16) Pain In My Heart (Live) - The Rolling Stones
17) Blue Turns To Grey - The Andrew Oldham Orchestra
18) Subconsciously Supernatural - Mick Jagger and Andrew Oldham
19) (I Can´t Get No) Satisfaction - The Andrew Oldham Orchestra
20) The Moon In June - Mick Jagger
21) (I Can´t Get No) Satisfaction (Live) - The Rolling Stones
22) Going Home - The Rolling Stones

Live In England 1965 – Track Listing/CD

1) Show Intro
2) Everybody Needs Somebody To Love
3) Pain In My Heart
4) Down The Road Apiece
5) Time Is On My Side
6) I'm Alright
7) Off The Hook
8) Charlie's Intro to Little Red Rooster
9) Little Red Rooster
10) Route 66
11) I'm Moving On
12) The Last Time
13) Everybody Needs Somebody To Love (Finale)

Live In England 1965 – Track Listing/10” Vinyl

Side 1
1) We Want The Stones
2) Everybody Needs Somebody To Love
3) Pain In My Heart
4) Down The Road Apiece
5) Time Is On My Side
6) I'm Alright
7) Off The Hook

Side 2
8) Charlie's Intro to Little Red Rooster
9) Little Red Rooster
10) Route 66
11) I'm Moving On
12) The Last Time
13) Everybody Needs Somebody To Love (Finale)

Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Is On the Way...

A huge, sixteen L.P. box set of every Beatles album, plus the Past Masters, sets, is due for November 13. They have been newly remastered to suit the 180-gram vinyl presentation, and Kevin Howlett has contributed text to a 252-page hardcover book that details each record and the remastering process. The set is now available to pre-order on here:

The Downing Continues to Count...

Thursday, September 20, 2012

You Can Pre-Order The Rolling Stones' 'Grrr!" Now, or...

... use the $234.31 you'd need to purchase this four-disc collection of just 80 songs and buy every single Stones album and get everything they've ever recorded. I'm certain you can find them all for less than $58 per-disc, which is what the Super Deluxe edition of this upcoming compilation is going for on right now. Yeesh!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Review: 'Horror Films of the 1980s'

John Kenneth Muir took an ambitious chomp out of horror history with Horror Films of the 1980s. His 2007 book surveys more than 325 films released during the Reagan/Bush years, tying almost every one into the broader context of that scary, conservative era. Overall, Muir’s reviews are intelligent, well written, and historically astute, which makes it hard to take him to task for some of his opinions. This guy is very forgiving and very, very fast and loose with his four star ratings, which may please horror devotees who get annoyed with critics who crap on their favorite films. For the most part, he does make strong arguments for his opinions. While I would never rank Night of the Comet as a better movie than An American Werewolf in London, Muir analyzes both films clearly enough that I understand why he does.

 Yet there is the occasional disconnect between his star ratings and his analyses. His four-star write-up of Fatal Attraction briefly prefaces the film as “brilliant” before launching into an extended finger-wagging session aimed at its “shameful” and “despicable” agenda. We get no sense of what is allegedly “brilliant” about this movie aside from its ability to manipulate the audience, which may make for a brilliant con man but not necessarily a brilliant film. Perhaps Muir based his star ratings on his uncritical enjoyment of the films while saving his more impartial insights for the reviews. It’s a little confusing though.

There are some strange entry choices too— this is certainly the first time I’ve ever seen the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple studied as a horror film—but when you’ve read enough about horror, you come to realize how subjective its definition can be. Like any critical collection, Horror Films of the 1980s is ultimately subjective despite instances like the Fatal Attraction entry discussed above, but Muir balances that nicely by including other perspectives of these films. Each entry is introduced with a selection of period review excerpts and new ones written by his fellow critics and horror fanatics. The juxtapositions can be really fascinating, as when an assortment of terrible and glowing reviews lead into the entry on The Shining. Today it’s easy to forget that this classic—and its creator, Stanley Kubrick—were not always universally revered. It’s also easy to forget that Reagan— that pioneer of contemporary extreme conservatism— swelled the federal government, the number of American’s living in poverty, and the national debt, as Muir reminds us. Often, Horror Films of the 1980s is just as valuable as a history lesson as it is an appraisal of horror movies, and it’s praiseworthy for that reason too. In fact, it might be a good book to buy for kids who can’t stomach cracking that social studies text.

Published by McFarland & Company, Horror Films of the 1980s is currently available in its original hardcover edition, which you can pick up at here:

If you find soft-covers more manageable, you can pre-order the upcoming republication here:

Friday, September 14, 2012

Track by Track: 'Something Else by The Kinks'

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, I’ve been taking a close look at albums of the classic, underrated, and flawed variety, and assessing them Track by Track.

Welcome to Daviesland, a kurious little nook of England where The Kinks secreted themselves some two years after being unofficially banned from touring the United States. Since that unfortunate event, in which Ray socked an insult-spewing musician’s union representative, the boys enjoyed a steady string of top ten hits in their homeland, but only managed to sneak into the U.S. top twenty twice with “A Well Respected Man” and “Sunny Afternoon”. Unable to promote themselves properly in the world’s biggest Rock & Roll market, and apparently satisfied with all they’d achieved thus far, The Kinks resigned themselves to more modest, domestic ambitions. The U.S.-friendly heavy riffing of their early smashes blared one final bang in late 1965 with “Till the End of the Day”, which flitted in and out of the Billboard top 50 in the wink of an eye. Afterward, Ray Davies, Dave Davies, Pete Quaife, and Mick Avory seemingly set out to become the most English of all English bands. The first unfiltered evidence of The Kinks’ new modus operandi arrived in early 1966. “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” is a boisterous knees up, name-checking swinging London’s sartorial Mecca Carnaby Street without any concern for whether or not Yank listeners would get the reference or cotton to the record’s musical hall camp. Not surprisingly, it barely peaked into the U.S. top forty. The similar “Sunny Afternoon” did, but the failure of such a perfectly formed pearl to get closer to Billboard’s top spot indicated that America’s affair with The Kinks might be over for good.

Of course, it wasn’t, but some four years would pass before The Kinks reclaimed their former stateside glory with the hard rocking “Lola”. In the interim, their music became more modest, quieter, and very, very English. By retreating from the world outside of their U.K. microcosm from 1966 through 1970, they developed a personal voice quite unlike any of their peers and created the most splendid music of their career. 1966’s Face to Face was The Kinks’ first great album, almost every track distinctly conceived and realized with intricate details. Even as it bounced from old-fashioned Rock & Roll to music hall to light psychedelia to acoustic raga rock, the album remained cohesive because of The Kinks’ perceptive and distinctive musicianship and Ray Davies’s keen lyrical focus on a cast of tragicomic characters so lifelike their fingerprints can be felt between every vinyl groove.
Yet certain compromises tug at Face to Face’s leash, restraining it from the masterpiece status it so rabidly craves. Pye Records was not on board with Ray’s concept of joining each track with sound effects, which would have made the L.P. a truly innovative item some eight months shy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Several newly recorded numbers were nixed in favor of “You’re Looking Fine” and “I’ll Remember”, a couple of leftovers from earlier sessions that sound distractingly out of date in the company of “Fancy”, “Rainy Day in June”, and “Sunny Afternoon”.

With klassic Kinky irony, the band’s waning international popularity occurred just as their unique influence took hold of their more popular peers. The Beatles scored their first hit of 1967 with the “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” single, two tracks that make specific references to English locales. The Rolling Stones, Britain’s greatest proponents of American blues and Rock & Roll, dipped into music hall on Between the Buttons and scored their fourth number one hit in the U.S. with “Ruby Tuesday”, an airy pastoral fit for Face to Face. Kinky anglophilia was so rampant in these days that a studio creation called The New Vaudeville Band managed a massive, Grammy-winning hit in late ’66 with the gimmicky “Winchester Cathedral”. Yet the band that inspired the whole wave couldn’t cash in. Not that The Kinks really tried to.

When futuristic psychedelia started to dominate the pop scene in 1967, The Kinks immersed themselves deeper in a world that pined for the past, where depressive housewives, unemployed newlyweds, conservative cricketers, window-gazing loners, and dead clowns fail to assimilate into the libertine Swinging London scene… much like Ray Davies, who’d recently found himself domesticated with a new wife and daughter. Something Else by The Kinks is the least psychedelic, least ’67-sounding album released by a major group between Sgt. Pepper’s and John Wesley Harding, Bob Dylan’s late ’67, back-to-the-roots game-changer. Yet the album could not have been made during any other time because it is a reaction to 1967, an uncomfortable shrug against the radical changes happening in the pop world.

Something Else was The Kinks’ first album to fail to come within a hair of the U.K. top twenty and to miss the U.S. top 150 altogether; the band’s first significant international commercial letdown. Creatively, it was The Kinks’ greatest triumph to date. Ray’s ousting of Shel Talmy (who received co-producer credits on the original album for contractual reasons) resulted in a clarity that serves his delicate creations far better than that American producer’s booming wall-of-noise. Ray’s personal frustrations drive him to compose his most perceptive and consistent material to date—not a single piece of past-due filler in the batch. Meanwhile, dark horse Dave prances to center stage with rookie compositions that flaunt a master’s touch. The lightness of the material prevents drummer Mick and (particularly) bassist Pete from making many audacious contributions, but this is no longer an audacious Kinks. This is not the power-chording Kinks of yore. This is a new age for the band, and what they may have been losing in power and popularity, they gained in grace, insight, and beauty, mapping a wondrous world where the corner of the Kinkdom is forever England.
Something Else by The Kinks
Originally released November 15, 1967
Produced by Ray Davies

Track 1: David Watts (Ray Davies)

We begin with one of the strange little tales so integral to Kinks lore. It is August 20, 1966. The Kinks convene at the Rutland County Agricultural Showground where they are greeted by a disappointing crowd of 2,000 amidst scary, scary rumors of a showdown between Mods and Rockers. The confrontation never goes down, lobbing egg in the faces of the 60 cops dispatched to maintain control. After the show, The Kinks retire to the country manor of middle-aged concert promoter David Watts. After tiring of smooching the small band of policemen frolicking at his soirĂ©e, Watts quickly develops designs on the loveliest Kink. Despite his omnivorous sexual appetites, Dave Davies feels a bit put off by the elder fellow’s overzealous lechery. As the pink champagne and hash continue to flow, Dave becomes aware of a nefarious plot: brother Ray has apparently promised his younger sibling to Watts in exchange for his lush manor. Dave politely agrees to “think it over” and excuses himself. The groundwork for a truly Kinky klassic is laid.

“David Watts” is a wonderful rocker in and of itself, but its back-story adds a delicious layer of irony. Ray’s song is not a tale of intergenerational homosexuality but an envious ode to the school golden boy, the one who excels at such stereotypically hetero pursuits as fighting, football, and attracting the girls. Ray cannot resist dropping a few hints as to the nature of the real David, smirking “he is so gay and fancy-free” and mentioning that “all the girls in the neighborhood... can’t succeed” in snaring our hero. Because he doesn’t swing that way? Don’t be silly! He’s simply too “pure” and “noble” to succumb to pleasures of the flesh.

As is so often the case with Ray Davies’s character studies, the subject of the story is not quite as fascinating as the storyteller. The singer imbues his narrator with such palpable envy (“When I lie on my pillow at night, I dream I can fight like David Watts”), such drooling desire for his schoolmate’s status. The infectious “fa fa fa fa” chorus is an inarticulate cry of frustration, yet oddly polite enough to suit the song’s sheen of reserve when it enters in unison with the bouncy piano lick. As Ray’s envy swells throughout the song, the performance intensifies. Pete Quaife’s octave-hopping bassline seems more neurotic. Mick Avory bashes his kit more manically. The track reaches its peak, everyone but Quaife drops out in exhaustion, Ray howls out from the emptiness: “Wish I could be like! Wish I could be like! Wish I could be like!” Mick counts the group back in with a massive “2, 3, 4!” thump on his toms. Everyone explodes around Ray, who can only wail about his unfulfilled wish through the fade.

Track 2: Death of a Clown (Ray and Dave Davies)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Review: 'Produced by George Martin'

A good documentary not only tells its subject’s tale but also reflects that subject’s nature. Charming, homey, witty, and pastorally English, Produced by George Martin is impeccably toned. Francis Hanly’s 2011 BBC doc about the fellow who masterminded almost everything The Beatles ever recorded is like a leisurely flip through the Martin family album or afternoon tea with friends such as Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and Michael Palin. Martin and his associates chat about a career that can only be described as spectacular in casual, borderline elegiac fashion. The effect is completely intimate, though moments are undeniably splashy, because after all these years, odd vintage footage is still being uncovered. How can that be possible when dealing with such an over-analyzed period? Yet, there it is, funny footage of The Beatles frolicking with their Madame Tussauds wax figures way back in 1964. Even more exciting is a scene capturing Cilla Black recording her mighty version of “Anyone Without a Heart” with Burt Bacharach conducting.

But let’s not stray too far off our subject, no matter how humble he may be. Even in the shadow of an entity as massive as The Beatles, George Martin remains the focus throughout the film, and he discusses his work, his innovations, his family, his hearing loss, and his dwindling years with grace and humor. He wanted to be “Rachmaninoff II” but had to settle for being the most famous and revered record producer on Earth. Not a bad backup gig.

Get Produced by George Martin at here:

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Cult Club: ‘The Baby’ (1973)

In this feature, Psychobabble looks at classic cult items beyond Horror and Rock & Roll.
According to John Waters, the only sexual peccadillo that disturbs the man who made a 300-pound transvestite eat dog shit is the adult baby. Apparently, there are folks who get off on donning giant Pampers, tossing tantrums in over-sized cribs, and dribbling Pablum down their stubbly chins. To each his or her own, says I.

Call me sheltered, but my only exposure to adult babies was in Waters’s most recent film, 2004’s A Dirty Shame (2004? Get cracking on a follow up, Johnny!). Perhaps that’s why I expected The Baby to be super campy, Waters-style. It isn’t, and its straight-faced delivery makes a really twisted film that much crazier.

Our adult baby is named, rather unimaginatively, Baby, and he’s played by David Mooney (with the vocal talents of an actual rug rat). Mooney was a good-looking man in his early twenties when he made this film. That he doesn’t look like Officer Alvin— the big-boned, elderly adult baby Alan J. Wendl played in A Dirty Shame— is an early tip-off that The Baby isn’t mining laughs.

And unlike Officer Alvin, Baby doesn’t act like a baby because it gets his diaper going; his horrible, horrible mother and sisters have forced him into perpetual infancy through negative reinforcement. When Baby tries to walk, sadistic sis Alba (Susanne Zenor) zaps him with an electric cattle prod. Yet, Baby is sexualized by horny sis Germaine (Marianna Hill), who mounts him in his crib in a scene that may be more disturbing because it cuts away before we see any of the incestuous action. No, that’s not true. Showing it probably would have been more disturbing. The sisters’ horrible behavior is down to the horrible parenting of their horrible mother (retro T.V. regular Ruth Roman), who so resented Baby’s father leaving her that she decided to force their baby to remain a baby.

Enter Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer), one of several child-protection social workers dispatched to the Wadsworth home to yank Baby into long-overdue adolescence. Ann is determined to get the job done even though previous social workers didn’t have much luck with the kid. In fact, they all mysteriously disappeared just as they were on the verge of making progress with him. What could possibly be the explanation for their disappearances? What, I ask you? What?

Turns out, one of the reasons Ann is so adamant about the Baby case is that she is in her own state of arrested development since her husband was killed (or “hurt”, as she tells a jackass at Baby’s birthday orgy) in a car accident. Ann now lives with her mother-in-law (Beatrice Manley) and spends her nights watching old home movies of happy times with hubby and weeping, “It should have been me.” Perhaps helping Baby out of his seriously dysfunctional household will help her bounce back from despair.

For most of its 85 minutes, The Baby is really hard to assess. The premise is wack-a-doo ten fold. No doubt about it. But the rather excellent acting from the totally committed cast and the moody direction by seasoned T.V. director Ted Post (who helmed “Mr. Garrity and the Graves”, one of the best episodes in the sketchy final season of “The Twilight Zone”) kind of rule out the possibility that it’s a bad movie. Still, it’s hard to peg as a good movie, because the raw ingredients—a twenty-something man crawling around and cooing like a six-month old, the elder Wadsworths’ hard-to-swallow motivations, Ann’s increasingly strange behavior, a baby-sitter who gets a little too into Baby’s urge to breastfeed, Germaine’s massive hairdo —seem to sound the “bad movie” alarm. The Baby doesn’t divulge its true quality until its final reel, which reveals a completely unexpected twist that is— no exaggeration— brilliant. These final moments make sense of the particularly crazy turns the film had taken in the preceding scene.

Although Wikipedia classifies The Baby as a “Cult classic,” the first I ever heard of it was in the watch instantly section of Netflix. I’m not aware of there ever being midnight showings of the film in which attendees came dressed in their best onesies and shot breast milk at the screen whenever Baby feels peckish. But if there’s a film crying out for a cult—or at least renewed interest—it’s this obscurity. Just be sure to wear your burp cloth.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Career-Spanning Rolling Stones Box Set Coming Soon

Whoa, Stones! Sloooow down! We already have so much to look forward to, with multiple new books, the long-awaited release of Charlie Is My Darling, and the career documentary Crossfire Hurricane arriving before the end of 2012. And now, a new box set of music spanning the ABKCO and the Rolling Stone Records years? I don't have that much bread!

On November 12, 2012, in Europe and the 13th in the U.S., ABKCO and Universal Music Group will be unleashing GRRR! This will be the first collection to comprise recordings from all phases of the band's career since 2002's 40 Licks. The new set will include two new recordings, "Gloom and Doom" and "One Last Shot" (yeah, right!), and appear in a multitude of formats:

3-CD set
50 tracks in a digipak with a 24-page booklet

3-CD Deluxe Edition
50 tracks in a DVD-size box with 36-page hardback book and 5 postcards

4-CD Super Deluxe Edition Box Set

80 tracks plus Bonus CD, 7″ Vinyl, Hardback book, Poster, and 5 postcards in a presentation box

12” Vinyl Box Set
50 tracks on 5 Vinyl L.P.s in a casebound box

No track listings or Amazon pre-order info yet (though you can pre-order it from Rolling, but the official press release reveals that we can at least expect the following 29 songs:

"Come On"
"The Last Time"
"Get Off Of My Cloud"
"Paint It Black"
"Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?"
"Let's Spend the Night Together"
"Jumpin' Jack Flash"
"Street Fighting Man"
"Sympathy for the Devil"
"Honky Tonk Women"
"Gimme Shelter"
"You Can't Always Get What You Want"
"Brown Sugar"
"Tumbling Dice"
"Fool to Cry"
"Hot Stuff" (ugh!)
"Miss You"
"Emotional Rescue"
"Start Me Up"
"Undercover of the Night"
"Harlem Shuffle"
"Mixed Emotions"
"Love Is Strong"
"Anybody Seen My Baby" (double ugh!)
"Streets of Love"
"Gloom and Doom"
"One Last Shot"

Monsterology: The Assistant

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, we’ve been looking at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.
The mark of a truly imposing villain is the ability to bend the wills of others to do his or her bidding. Like some malevolent dictator or string-pulling cult leader, the arch-villain hovers in the shadows while some hunched minion carries out the grunt work. By nature, the assistant is never the most important stock horror character. He or she is often eliminated early in the story, sacrificed as symbol of a monster so evil that it is willing to decimate its own team. The assistant provides black-comic relief when any such bumbling might cast the main monster in a less than threatening light. Essential? Perhaps not. Quirky? When the assistant is at his, her, or its best, absolutely, resulting in some of the most memorable second-stringers in horror cinema.

Unlike so many horror movie archetypes, the assistant does not have a strong predecessor on the page. In Mary Shelley’s novel, Dr. Frankenstein worked solo. In both literary and film incarnations, Dr. Jekyll never hung a “For Hire” sign outside his lab. Our closest literary forerunner of the assistant is R.M. Renfield. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the zoophagous maniac is much more limited than he would be on screen. In a novel sprawling with characters, Renfield is a relatively minor one, only mentioned on twelve dates of its epistolary pages. As an inmate in Dr. Seward’s asylum, Renfield’s main plot function is to invite Count Dracula into the building so he can get his fangs on Mina (as film adaptations sometimes forget, Dracula can’t just go anywhere he pleases). Thematically, he mostly serves as a comic reflection of the dead-somber Count, eating the small lives of bugs and spiders while his master sups on more substantial fare. His naked escapes into the night parody Dracula’s less absurd nocturnal, erotically tinged escapades. Mina’s visit in Renfield’s cell inverts Dracula’s intrusions into her bedroom. Dracula enters Mina’s room to impose his evil on her, to possess her. When Mina enters Renfield’s, she has the opposite effect, seemingly making him saner, more coherent, a better person more concerned with her safety than worshipping his master. By imploring her to free herself from Dracula’s thrall, Renfield earns himself a fatal thrashing from the vampire.

Renfield underwent significant alterations in the first feature adaptation of Dracula. In F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, he has been renamed Knock in keeping with other such attempts to wriggle around Florence Stoker’s copyright claims. Instead of beginning the story as an asylum inmate, he is Thomas Hutter’s (our Jonathan Harker stand-in) boss, who deploys him to Count Orlok’s (Dracula’s) castle.
Garrett Fort put his own spin on this revised Renfield in his screenplay for Universal’s 1931 film, changing the character forever. Harker’s visit to Castle Dracula is handed over to Renfield completely, leaving our protagonist with a drastically reduced role and our secondary antagonist with a vastly expanded one. Played by David Manners, Harker is a bland, background figure in Tod Browning’s film. Dwight Frye’s Renfield commands the screen every time he appears. He exudes personality even before Dracula impels him toward madness (Stoker’s Renfield was already mad and institutionalized when the Count took him into his employ). Frye plays the sane Renfield with a magnetic blend of terror (how his eyes widen when he sees that rubber bat flapping over the carriage!) and amiability (his joyful declaration that the “very old wine” is “delicious!” is delightfully sincere when set against the Count’s weirdness). Considering how vacant most of the cast is, Renfield is the character we’d most like to know in Dracula. That also means he is the most tragic figure. Dracula’s treatment of Renfield is painful to watch, from his mesmerized madness to his murder.
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