Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Monsterology: Babies

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, we’ve been looking at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.

Last September, my wife, Elise, and I received the terrifying news. We were told that in nine months, a creature would be bursting out of Elise’s body to menace us for the next eighteen years… perhaps more if it decides not to go away to college. How could this be? Elise hadn’t been exposed to any alien eggs. She hadn’t been visited by Satan after taking a dose of drugged chocolate mousse. At least I don’t think she had. We don’t spend every minute of the day together, you know.

As many, many years of devouring horror movies has taught me, Elise’s pregnancy could have happened any number of ways. After all, a lot of monstrous babies have crawled across the screen. Yet the monster baby is a relatively recent phenomenon. While monstrous children peaked in the early sixties amidst “juvenile delinquency” hysteria with items such as Village of the Damned and the “It’s a Good Life” episode of “The Twilight Zone,” it was not until 1968 that Roman Polanski explicitly monsterized the first stage of life. I say “explicitly” because one could argue that the monster baby was delivered during the haunted summer of 1816 when Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein. Though we are privy to the Monster’s sketchily described birth in the book, he spends most of it in a state of rebellious and ornery adolescence, pissed off at his inattentive doctor daddy. And we certainly never witness him as a bald little diaper-wearing thing.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Ten Terrifying and Terrific Title Sequences

Setting the mood has a lot to do with what makes a great horror movie great. The viewer may have to be eased into the unsettling atmosphere as if it’s a chilly bath or thrown in to the terror as if it’s an inferno (because when you see a burning building, you should always push someone into it). Sometimes it’s cagiest to sucker punch viewers with a sequence out of tone with the rest of the film or let them know up front that guffaws are in store with a light-hearted approach. Or in at least one of the following cases, you may need to put some extra effort into your opening titles sequence because the rest of your movie sucks.

1. Frankenstein (1931)

Dracula was the first great sound horror film, but though its use of the “Scene 10 Moderato from Swan Lake is so memorable that the piece has been used as horror shorthand in films such as The Mummy and Black Swan, the music plays out over the Batman insignia, which isn’t too scary. Universal did a better job of getting a title sequence right with its follow up to Tod Browning’s film. After Edward Van Sloan gives his equally corny and creepy opening monologue, Bernhard Kaun’s brassy score shudders forth. On screen we see a clawed monster, most dissimilar to Karloff’s flathead, reaching from the darkness. This cuts to a leering portrait of, presumably, the title doctor, who once again looks nothing like the actor who will play him in the film that follows. Around Dr. Frankenstein’s head, disembodied eyes swirl, both foreshadowing the sundry body parts that will constitute the monster and mirroring the many eyes of the audience watching him from the darkened theater. The monster’s credit is equally memorable, as he is named only with a large question mark, recalling his similar crediting in the first stage production of Frankenstein 108 years earlier.

2. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Seventeen years after Frankenstein, Universal gave in to playing its main monster for laughs. For a picture such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, an opening as eerie as the 1931 one wouldn’t do at all. So Universal reached into its sack of associates and pulled out Walter Lantz, who’d produced the “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” series for the studio from 1928 to 1938. Lantz is best known for cracking up audiences with his creation, Woody Woodpecker, and the style of those classic cartoons is instantly recognizable in the credits sequence of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which begins with the monster raising skeletal Bud and Lou from their coffins before introducing the menagerie of monsters in iconic silhouettes. I could watch an entire movie of this credits sequence.
3. Psycho (1960)

Saul Bass is the only title designer who has become a household name, and not just because of that “Seinfeld” episode in which Kramer thinks Salman Rushdie has been hiding out at his gym under the pseudonym Sal Bass (“He just replaced one fish with another, Jerry!”). Bass’s poster designs for films such as The Shining, Vertigo, and Anatomy of a Murder are as unforgettable as the credits sequence he masterminded for Psycho. Abetted by Bernard Hermann’s jittery score, Bass indicates all the violence and disjointed psychology to follow by slashing the screen with straight lines from every direction and cracking up the title and credits. It’s incredibly simple and incredibly effective.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Brace Yourself for 'The Return of the Creature'

In 1954, the Universal Monster age briefly gasped back to life through its scaly gills with the successful release of Creature from the Black Lagoon. The following year, director Jack Arnold was back to strike again while the iron continued glowing bright red with Revenge of the Creature. In 1956, the Gill Man would take his final stroll in the melancholic Creature Walks Among Us, but as it turns out, this was not exactly the third creature feature. In the interim between parts 1 and 2, members of Arnold’s crew and some of the folks from Marineland Studios, the aquatic animal park that was the setting of Revenge (now known as Marineland), created a comedic Gill Man short to screen at the Revenge of the Creature wrap party.

The Return of the Creature was a 21 minute, 8mm film starring Patsy Beery (aka Patricia Powers), who played the unforgettable, uncredited role of “Girl in Convertible” in Revenge of the Creature. On his website, Patsy’s brother Jere, who played the uncredited part of a photographer in Revenge, had this to say about his sister's picture: “(Patsy’s husband) Clayton (Powers) worked at Marineland and made many friends with the movie crew who were there to film the Black Lagoon sequel. After the production crew left town, Clayton and Patsy produced a (sic) amateur home movie satire of the Revenge of the Creature… One particular memorable scene in this no-budget production was when the ‘Creature’ is revived and kept alive in a apartment bath tub while being fed martinis to keep him sedated.”

A still of Patsy Beery with a makeshift Gill Man from The Return of the Creature.

Although Jere Beery goes on to say that members of the Revenge crew received copies of The Return of the Creature, it has generally been considered a lost film for the past 58 years. Film historian Tom Weaver performed his own search to find out if this was true. Weaver’s creature quest brought him to an associate of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the founder of Marine Studios, which led him to the filmmaker behind Return, who then sent Weaver a DVD duplicate of the film.

This is not the end of the story, because on Friday, July 19, The Return of the Creature will finally go public at the Monster Bash convention in Pittsburgh. Tom Weaver, who attested that the movie is laugh-out-loud funny, will be on hand to introduce the film.

In other Creature news, Bloody Disgusting.com reported yesterday that Gammi Illustrations has released some spectacular, unpublished, color-corrected photos from the set of Black Lagoon originally shot for Life magazine in 1953. Check them out in all their full-color glory here.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Brian Wilson Autobiography Coming in 2015

Today, Da Capo Press announced it will be publishing the autobiography of Beach Boys guiding light Brian Wilson in Autumn 2015. Back in 1991, Wouldn't It Be Nice: My Own Story was published under Wilson's name as an alleged autobiography, though it has often been dismissed as the work of his shady therapist Eugene Landy. Brother Carl and mother Audrey testified before a judge that Brian hadn't even read the manuscript before it was published!

Perhaps Brian's new autobiography will shed some light on the veracity of his old one. This time he'll be getting some assistance from journalist Jason Fine (Rolling Stone; Men's Journal), and according to a press release on Brian Wilson.com, he "will describe, for the first time, the epic highs and lows of his life—from his tumultuous relationship with his father, the loss of his mother and brothers, his fears about live performance, and the struggles he faced to lead the Beach Boys away from surf music into experimental terrain to his remarkable personal and professional comeback from drug addiction and mental illness with the support of his second wife, Melinda. He will share a new level of emotional honesty never before expressed in earlier books about him."

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

U.S. Release Date and Pre-Order Info for The Rolling Stones' 'Crossfire Hurricane'

After some delay, we now have an official release date for the Stones' doc Crossfire Hurricane on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital video. We yanks can watch Mick and the kids cavorting this coming May 21. 

This release from Eagle Rock Entertainment will include "previously unreleased concert footage -  'Live in Germany ‘65', NME Poll Winners concert footage from 1964 and 1965, a new interview with director Brett Morgen, 'The Sound and Music of Crossfire Hurricane', footage from The Arthur Haynes Show (1964), and the theatrical trailer." 

Pre-order from Amazon.com now here:

Review: 'A Life in Film: Peter Cushing'

Like the greatest star of the first golden age of sound Horror, Boris Karloff, the greatest star of the genre’s second golden age, Peter Cushing, was so appealing because the rotten characters he played were partly informed by the charming, gentle man he actually was. So as awful as, say, Dr. Frankenstein or Grand Moff Tarkin—a veritable Space Hitler—were, they remained oddly sympathetic, or at least, magnetically watchable.

In his book A Life in Film: Peter Cushing, David Miller coaxes these two poles together, simultaneously studying the rotten roles (and the non-rotten ones… let’s not forget his iconic turns as Van Helsing, Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Who, etc.) while keeping us updated on what was happening in Cushing’s life during his various jobs. If we come away with one thing from A Life in Film, it’s that Peter Cushing worked a lot. That Miller is able to give such attention to so much of the actor’s work in under 200 pages makes his book all the more impressive. Miller gives equal treatment to Cushing’s work on stage, television, and film, even summarizing and assessing his guest roles on TV shows such as “The Avengers” and “Hammer House of Horror.” Special attention goes to the actor’s most iconic films—Nineteen Eighty Four, Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, Hound of the Baskervilles, Star Wars, etc.—but his most minor, and occasionally regrettable, roles never feel shortchanged.

Although Miller is more concerned with Cushing’s work than his biography, we still get a clear and satisfying portrait of the man behind the ghouls: his friendship with Christopher Lee (who comes off more playful here than usual) and his fatherly mentoring of the often put-upon actresses who appeared in his films, his proto-geek boy obsession with toy soldiers, his utter devotion to his wife Helen and the horrid funk he fell into after her death. Miller also slips in some interesting trivia about the projects that never came to fruition and the roles he never played; I hadn’t known that George Lucas originally had him in mind for another part in Star Wars. The main strength of A Life in Film is the way the author balances Cushing’s work and life, and I became so invested in the man that discussions of his performances I’d never seen were just as riveting as the studies of those I had. Peter’s depression over Helen, which cast a perpetual cloud over the final 22 years of his life, makes A Life in Film somewhat melancholy reading, but it only further humanizes one of the screen’s most utterly human monsters.

A Life in Film: Peter Cushing was originally published in 2000 by Reynolds & Hearn as The Peter Cushing Companion. I’m not sure what changes David Miller has made to this republishing by Titan Books, but it’s a really handsome hardcover edition loaded with rare photos, two full-color spreads, and elaborate end papers. A Life in Film is available as of today, and you can order it here on Amazon.com:

Monday, April 15, 2013

Shout for Your Local Shop on Record Store Day

This Saturday is Record Store Day, the day we Internet-addicted consumers are supposed to shun Amazon.com and actually leave our dungeons to visit actual brick-and-mortar record stores and actually browse the shelves and hand actual cash to actual human beings. Even though I’m as guilty as anyone else of taking advantage of the convenience and savings that come with online shopping, I still think it’s a little sad that we need to set aside a single day a year to patronize real record stores. The experience offers something that can never be duplicated online: the musty smells of the used bins, the creepy focus that comes with examining every last disc in the stacks, the gasp-out-loud thrill of making an incredible discovery among all those gouged copies of Air Supply’s Greatest Hits.

To be honest, I don’t usually go shopping on Record Store Day because pretty much every other weekend is Record Store Day for me. That’s because I have an amazing store right in my neighborhood, and more often than not, I find myself having to fight the urge to visit it to keep myself from going totally broke. Even though I spend most of my time perusing the massive rows of $2 LPs at Iris Records in Jersey City, those two dollars can really add up.

I‘ve made some really awesome finds at Iris. In the budget section I’ve nabbed Introducing the Beau Brummels, The Cyrkle’s Red Rubber Ball, Stevie Wonder’s triple-LP anthology Looking Back, Stiffs Live (in truth, cooler as an artifact than music), and a pristine copy of the 2001: A Space Odyssey Soundtrack. The $2 section has also yielded choice records by The Byrds, Mott the Hoople, Elvis Presley, Paul Revere and the Raiders, XTC, The Beach Boys, Kate Bush, The Dave Clark Five, The Cars, Madness, Simon & Garfunkel, too many others to mention. I’ve also become a little obsessed with 45s lately, and from Iris’s wealth of $1 singles I’ve found a seemingly unplayed copy of The Who’s “5:15” with its original Polydor sleeve, The Police’s “Secret Journey” (I didn’t even realize it was released as a single!), McCartney’s rare protest-single “Give Ireland Back to the Irish,” and a bunch of eighties picture sleeves and Monkees hits. On occasion I’ve splurged for $5 copies of Mad About the Wrong Boy, the one album The Attractions recorded without Elvis Costello, and New Rock Champions, a super-cool pre-punk/punk comp from Italy featuring Elvis, The Ramones, The Damned, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, The Flamin’ Groovies, Iggy Pop, and a bunch of other champions. I also scored Nazz Nazz on red vinyl, and more recently, a shiny copy of The Rolling Stones No. 2 for a very reasonable twenty bucks.

But I’m prattling on a bit here. I’d love to hear about your favorite record stores, the ones you plan to visit this Saturday or the ones you visit every Saturday. What are your favorite shops and what were some of your most fabulous finds at them? Chime in in the comments sections below…

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

New Book Coming from Ray Davies This October (Includes Pre-order Info)

Make a note in your Autumn Almanac: this October 1, Sterling Publishing will be issuing an all-new book from one of pop's most insightful and quintessentially English scribes. Americana will relay Ray Davies's remembrances about the US, the reasons he loves and doesn't love the country. According to Sterling, it will be "a very personal road trip through his life and storied career as a rock star, and reveals what music, fame, and America really mean to him" and that "Some of the most fascinating characters in recent pop culture make appearances, from the famous to the perhaps even-more-interesting behind-the-scenes players." 

An oddly specific topic for Ray Davies, but considering that his X-Ray remains one of the most delightful and well-written Rock star memoirs, I look forward to checking out Americana, which you can pre-order from Amazon.com now here:

Monday, April 8, 2013

Catching Up with the "Twin Peaks" Retrospective at USC

As you may recall, the USC School of Cinematic Arts in L.A. has been hosting a series of panel discussions with "Twin Peaks" cast and crew members since February, and I reposted complete video for the first two panels here on Psychobabble (Week 1 and Week 2) way back then. After that I got busy and completely bungled the project. Many apologies and much garmonbozia. Now I'm trying to get caught up with watching and relaying the four discussions that have gone down since my last post on this series. These are long sessions broken down into a lot of clips, so I'm just going to post links to YouTube where you can access all the relevant videos for each session. As always, the videos are a bit rough, but according to the poster, Humberto Dellamorte, there will eventually be "official" videos for these panel discussions. Until then, a million thanks to Humberto for posting these to YouTube.

Week 3 (2/17/2013)

Robert Bauer (Johnny Horne), Carel Struycken (The Giant), Lenny Von Dohlen (Harold Smith), supervising producer Gregg Fienberg, production designer Richard Hoover, publicist/Mark Frost's assistant Paula K. Shimatsu-U, and ABC programming executive Philip D. Segal.

There are some interesting insights about ABC's attitude toward "TP" in this one, as well as a great story about how David Lynch bought time for the Laura Palmer arc by discombobulating ABC execs with a story about eating blowfish.

Week 4 (3/3/2012)

Piper Laurie (Catherine Martell), Al Strobel (Philip Gerard/MIKE), editor Mary Sweeney, editor Paul Trejo, cinematographer Frank Byers, director Tim Hunter, prop master Jeffrey Moore, and property assistant Rich Robinson.

Piper Laurie tells tales of Tojimura.

Week 5 (3/10/2013)

Catherine E. Coulson (The Log Lady), Michael Horse (Deputy Hawk), Peggy Lipton (Norma Jennings), writer Harley Peyton, director Lesli Linka Glatter, music editor Lori Eschler Frystak, and costume designer Sara Markowitz.

Some ear-opening information about the extent (or limits) of Angelo Badalamenti's role in scoring the show.

Week 6 (3/24/2013)

Mary Jo Deschanel (Eileen Hayward), Kimmy Robertson (Lucy Moran), Wendy Robie (Nadine Hurley), Kenneth Welsh (Windom Earle), Robyn Lively (Lana Budding Milford), director Caleb Deschanel, and editor Jonathan Shaw.

I have no idea what to highlight here, because the whole session is pure gold, so maybe I'll just mention that Kimmy Roberston likes oxygen and props open a door. 

On Sunday April 14th at 4PM, USC will be hosting the final panel devoted to the "Twin Peaks" series and once again admission is free to the public. Scheduled for the Q&A is an especially impressive line up: Kyle MacLachlan (Coop), Ian Buchanan (Dick Tremayne), David Patrick Kelly (Jerry Horne), and Julee Cruise (Julee Cruise). Get all the details at USC's official site here.

Finally, there will be a 35MM presentation of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me on May 5 at 6PM with a Q&A featuring James Marshall (James Hurley), Ray Wise (Leland Palmer), Phoebe Augustine (Ronette Polaski), Walter Olkewicz (Jacques Renault), writer Bob Engels, and David Lynch's daughter/writer of The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, Jennifer Lynch. Read more here.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Luke Skywalker Introduces The Beatles...well, the Cartoon Beatles

In the mid-eighties, I religiously watched re-runs of "The Beatles" cartoon on MTV every Saturday morning. Yes, it was corny, poorly animated, horribly voiced, terribly written, and pretty racist (there was always a steady flow of jabbering "Chinaman" stereotypes). It was also charming and fun in its crude way, and for teenaged me, it was a key spot to hear some of my future-favorite Beatlesongs for the first time ("And Your Bird Can Sing," "I'm Only Sleeping," "I'm Looking Through You," etc.).

During this MTV airing, two pop-cultural phenomena collided when Mark Hamill, the star of the biggest film series of all-time, hosted a crappy (charmingly crappy, to be clear) cartoon about the biggest Rock & Roll band of all-time. Hamill is apparently a big lifelong Beatles fan. He says that, as a kid, his ability to draw the cartoon Beatles got girls' attention (surely his dreamy blue eyes and blonde hair had nothing to do with it).

Apparently, the only remnant of Mark Hamill's 1987 "Beatles" cartoon hosting gig is the following one-minute video. Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Review: Paul Revere and the Raiders' 'Evolution to Revolution: 5 Classic Albums'

In the late nineties Sundazed gave its typical loving treatment to the catalog of one of sixties pop’s most misunderstood bands. Because of their goofy persona and embarrassing Revolutionary War stage gear, Paul Revere and the Raiders are sometimes regarded as disposable. Sundazed’s reissues dispelled that belief with some really tough, surprisingly consistent Stonesy pop records presented with fine sound and some terrific bonus outtakes and singles. The group’s first couple of albums with producer Terry Melcher aren’t great, partly because they rely too heavily on covers that can’t top the originals and partly because of a misguided decision to democratize the vocal chores when the group really only had one great singer. And don’t let his little pony tail and bowl cut fool you: Mark Lindsay is one of the sixties’ most expressive white soul howlers. Although there was a bum track or two on the trio of classic LPs that followed (“Melody for an Unknown Girl” is the worst mushy recitation this side of The Monkees’ “The Day We Fall in Love”), Midnight Ride, The Spirit of ’67, and Revolution! are pretty much beyond reproach, still fresh, fun, and full of color 45 years down the trail.

Sadly, some of these classics went out of print in the ensuing years. A new copy of Sundazed’s Revolution!, the group’s most consistent album (though some might contend that Spirit is their best), is currently fetching—no joke—$211.99 on Amazon.com. Gladly, the Australian label Raven Records has just reissued the first five Melcher records as a budget double-disc set. The downside is that there wasn’t room for the bonus tracks, and some of them are really, really essential (the original “Louie, Go Home,” later covered by The Who, the hit “Ups and Downs,” “Try Some of Mine,” “(You’re a) Bad Girl,” “The Legend of Paul Revere”). Also, because of time constraints Midnight Ride is split between the two discs. The upside is that these five albums are available again, and for a much more reasonable price than $211.99. They also sound really good, which is not often the case for budget releases. Plus, listening to disc two, which puts most of Midnight Ride, The Spirit of ’67, and Revolution! back-to-back-to-back, really highlights what a fabulous band Paul Revere and the Raiders were in their peak years. Now maybe Raven can do a comp of those orphaned bonus tracks next, hint, hint

Get Evolution to Revolution: 5 Classic Albums at Amazon.com here:

Monday, April 1, 2013

Review: 'Who Was Dracula?: Bram Stoker’s Trail of Blood'

The primary purpose of Jim Steinmeyer’s Who Was Dracula?: Bram Stoker’s Trail of Blood is to settle the source of fiction’s most sinister count. While agreeing that Voivoide and serial-impaler Vlad Dracula didn't inspire anything more than the vampire’s name, Steinmeyer focuses on four figures he believes impelled Bram Stoker to conjure his most enduring story: decadent writer Oscar Wilde, enthralling yet overbearing actor Henry Irving, passionate poet Walt Whitman, and misogynistic murderer Jack the Ripper.

Steinmeyer only manages to make a convincing case for Irving, who after Vlad, is most often cited as the inspiration for Dracula. The writer’s other arguments are pretty thin, especially when making straw-grasping notes about how, like Dracula, Whitman had a moustache (let’s not fixate on his great, big beard) or how the alleged Ripper, Francis Tumblety, may have attended a social club at which Stoker regularly held court. There’s a lot of “may have” in Who Was Dracula?

So Steinmeyer isn’t wholly successful in accomplishing his central goal, and Criticism 101 teaches us that this should be the main deciding factor in whether a work is good or bad. The thing is, Who Was Dracula? is pretty impossible to call bad. In fact, it’s pretty fantastic. Steinmeyer’s recreations of historical scenes are beautifully written and utterly transporting. Whether or not Walt Whitman or Oscar Wilde really had significant influences on Count Dracula, they are fascinating artists, and Stoker did, indeed, know them, apparently harboring a sexual attraction to the former and hypocritically shunning the latter amidst Wildes “indecency” trial. Steinmeyer recounts these relationships with the same vividness he brings to all aspects of his book, including his riveting study of the Ripper murders. As a portrait of a few years in the life of Bram Stoker, and a few years in London’s rich theater and art scene, Who Was Dracula? is grand. So what if the title question is never satisfactorily answered?
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