Friday, October 31, 2014

I Was a Late-Generation Monster Kid

My room would be fuzzed with that vague purple that comes right before the sunrise. I’d be exhausted, because it was 6 AM and little kids need their rest, and because I’d been toiling away in school all week long, probably learning to print or gluing elbow macaroni to paper plates or whatever else it is you do in school when you’re five or six. I don’t remember how old I was exactly, because I can’t find any information about when “Groovie Goolies” aired at 6:30 AM (or was it 6:00 AM?) on Saturday Mornings in the late-seventies/early eighties, but man, do I remember that sickly feeling of trying to fight myself awake every Saturday morning so I could creep downstairs to the still-dark den to take in those cornball Burbank-by-way-of-Transylvania jokes and groove along to those bubble gum pop songs as sugary as the Frankenberry cereal I’d scarf after the closing credits.

“Groovie Goolies” aired a paltry sixteen episodes ten years before I expended way too much effort to watch it on Saturday Mornings. Unlike some other campy relics of its era—“Batman” and “The Monkees” come to mind—it doesnt hold up quite as well for adults watchers, but for a little kid who looked forward to Halloween with the same rabidness he looked forward to Christmas presents (imagine if there were Halloween presents!) “Groovie Goolies” was a cartoon right up my alley, essential viewing for Monster Kids of my generation.

The real Monster Kids preceded me by about fifteen years. They watched horror hosts like Zacherley or Vampira yucking it up behind Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man or The Mummy’s Hand on packages like “Shock!” and “Chiller Theatre”. They shoved aside their fifth-grade math books to read Famous Monsters of Filmland and spent more time putting together Aurora models than doing their homework. They couldn’t tell you who the nineteenth president of the United States was, but they sure knew who Dwight Frye, Lionel Atwill, and Evelyn Ankers were. These children of the late fifties/early sixties didn’t refer to themselves as Monster Kids. That term would not be coined until a cat named David Colton posted an essay with that title on his AOL bulletin board folder in 1995. However, it has since been embraced by that generation as a fine and pithy description of their childhood obsessions with graveyards, full moons, and Jack Pierce makeup jobs.

No one has named my generation of monster freaks. We didn’t have a “Shock! Theatre” to glue us together and the freshness was off Famous Monsters by 1979. That magazine did embrace the pop-culture touchstone that surrounded us and penetrated us and bound our galaxy together, but as much great fun as Star Wars was and as many monsters as were in its menagerie (including a genuine Wolf Man!), it was hardly horror. With the more graphic fare served up during my generation—Friday the 13th and An American Werewolf in London and so on—horror and monsters weren’t really aimed at kids anymore, at least not ones with a smidgeon of parental guidance (it was always the seediest, most jaded, most experienced kids on the playground who’d seen Prom Night or Happy Birthday to Me). But we did have monsters, and the very same ones that palled around with the original Monster Kids. With reruns of “Groovie Goolies”, “Scooby Doo”, and “The Munsters” still kicking around local TV stations, we had facsimiles of Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein on hand even if the Universal movies that made them famous didn’t really air all that often. What did air quite regularly on WPIX-TV’s Sunday Morning Movie was their reunion in the über-kid-friendly Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which was the first place I saw Lugosi, Chaney, and Strange don their iconic capes, fur, and hobnail boots.

We could also play with the creeps, thanks to Remco, which made Kenner Star Wars-size versions of Dracula, The Wolf Man, the Frankenstein Monster, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Mummy, as well as a cool if flimsy haunted carrying case with cardboard Mummy sarcophagus, creature cage, and lab slab, which literally swiveled on a plastic drinking straw. Remco also produced 9-inch versions of the creatures, though I fell off with collecting them when I decided the glowing-faced Wolf Man was a touch too freaky for my way overly sensitive six-year-old self.

I was also enamored with Colorforms’ “Dracula’s Castle” after finding one moldering in the basement of my cousins’ house. The play set brought together two of my favorite things: Universal monsters and cardboard doors that open to reveal something or other underneath. As a twelve-year old too big for toys but still young enough for games, I got the "Doorways to Horror" VHS game for Christmas. The thing was literally unplayable, though I used to enjoy just popping it into the VCR to watch its clips of public domain movies like Night of the Living Dead, Nightmare Castle, Nosferatu, and Little Shop of Horrors.

So we had our bits and pieces of monsternalia, but the era was hardly a heyday for classic monsters. Frank Langella had recently appeared on stage and screen as Dracula, but he was too much of a heart throb. The underlying appeal of the old monsters was that they were grotesques, rejected by society, far more relatable than idols like Langella among underdog kids. Our Wolf Man was David “I’m a Pepper” Naughton in An American Werewolf in London, a film I’d come to know as the greatest of all werewolf movies in my adult years, but one that was totally forbidden because of its gore, infamous porno-theater scene, and zombie Nazis when I was a little kid (again, my schoolmates who’d started smoking at age five filled me in on the details). And where was the king of the monsters? According to imdb, the only feature with “Frankenstein” in the title produced during my early monster years was a TV movie starring David Warner as the Monster from 1984. Not exactly an enduring classic, though the fact that Carrie Fisher played Elizabeth certainly would have been of interest to a ten-year old boy Star Wars freak. The closest thing my generation had to an enduring big-screen Frankie was Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein…and his head wasn’t even flat!

So the late seventies/early eighties was not an era rich in classic monsters. I did not know a single other kid who owned those Remco monster toys, which seemingly went out of production as soon as they went into it. But we did exist. I have since met other folks of my generation who looked forward to WOR-TV’s Thanksgiving King Kong marathon all year, who idolized Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff as much as Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford, who woke up extra early every October 31st as if it was December 25th. We were a small minority, perhaps, but we were the Monster Kids of the late seventies and early eighties. And speaking as someone whose first gifts to his own son were little plush Frankenstein Monster and Bride of Frankenstein dolls, I can say I’m at least doing my part to ensure there will be more generations of Monster Kids to come. Considering that at seventeen months the little guy already does a sinister laugh  at the very mention of the name Dracula”, things are looking pretty good for the future.

Happy Halloween to all my fellow Monster Kids… whenever you were born.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Diary of the Dead 2014

Every year I log my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews at the end of every week in October in a fiendish feature I call Diary of the Dead. This year I altered the scheme slightly for a single, season-ending post.

I wrote it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

Oct. 1

Rodan (1956- dir. Ishirō Honda) **

One of the most iconic giant Japanese monsters first appeared in a pretty boring movie. Miners discover a baby pterodactyl that looks and moves like a kite. It terrorizes Japan without a smidgen of the moodiness of its forefather, Gojira. Amazing that Ishirō Honda followed that masterpiece with such a lazy picture. Rodan would only become fun when paired with Gojira, as we shall soon see.

We Are What We Are (2013- dir. Jim Mickie) ***

I haven’t seen the Mexican film upon which this cannibal family flick was based, so I can’t make any unfavorable comparisons. Taken on its own merits, the American We Are What We Are is refreshingly atmospheric. It’s also deliberately paced, which I usually like, but this one’s a little too deliberate, bordering on tedious. It’s also a bit empty aside from its fairly subtle critique of the patriarchy. On the plus side, it has Michael Parks, which is worth at least half a star.

Oct. 3

Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964- Ishirō Honda) ***½

This is more like it. Since Honda didn’t seem interested in/capable of recapturing the grimness of Gojira he took his kaiju franchise to its logical camp conclusion. Rodan is back and less turgid in mood if not motion. So is Gojira and giant bug Mothra. The old rampaging monsters experience a change of heart when faced with three-headed dragon Ghidorah. They actually have a conversation about whether or not they should assist humanity by offing the new menace! Plus there are those wacky fairy twins, who appear on a crazy TV talk show. Perhaps not great fun, but certainly good fun.

Oct. 4

Monday, October 27, 2014

Track by Track: 'Spook Along with Zacherley'

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.

Like most American families, mine spent Christmas with the usual choir of vinyl carolers: Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole, and since my dad loved Rock & Roll as much as I do, Phil Spector’s stable of stars. Most American homes, however, had no annual carols for my favorite holiday. Mine did though. As soon as my mom had affixed the final cardboard jack-o-lantern to the living room windows, I was begging my dad to take his yearly trip down to the basement and brush the cobwebs off an old record called Spook Along with Zacherley.

This was the late seventies, so I only knew Zacherley from this record and what my dad told me about him. I wouldn’t quite call my dad an original monster kid (as far as I know, he never touched an issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland or an Aurora model kit), but he did have a lot of affection for Dracula and The Wolf Man and King Kong. He was an original viewer of “Shock! Theatre”, the show on which a stage actor named John Zacherle donned a dusty frock coat and frosty makeup to host a package of classic monster movies, crack wise about the undead, and occasionally appear superimposed in the movies to “personally interact” with Dracula and the Wolf Man.

John Zacherle started his career as the most famous male horror host of his era (Vampira and Elvira remain the biggest household names for obvious reasons) in his hometown of Philadelphia. There he hosted “Shock! Theatre” on WCAU-TV in the guise of Roland. Appearing as a guest on “American Bandstand” in 1958, Dick Clark supposedly dubbed him “The Cool Ghoul”. A gaggle of teenagers seemed quick to agree, and his massive appeal with kids who liked watching vampires suck as much as they dug hearing Little Richard screech led him to cut his own record under his own name for Cameo Parkway Records. With rocking backing from the label’s house band The Applejacks— not to be confused with the British group that later had a minor hit with Lennon and McCartney’s “Like Dreamers Do”— “Dinner with Drac” by John Zacherle “The Cool Ghoul” became a surprise national hit. Like all overnight pop sensations, an LP was not far in the future.

That same year, CBS bought up WCAU and John Zacherle fled to fry bigger fish in NYC. When he landed at ABC-TV, he was not allowed to use the Roland character he created at his old station. Big whoop. After all, Roland didn’t have a hit song…John Zacherle did. So he adopted his real name (with an extra “y” mistakenly added by ABC) and continued terrorizing TV as Zacherley on “Shock! Theatre” (and briefly “Zacherley at Large”) in 1959.

In October Zacherley jumped ghost ships once again to WOR-TV. Although the station’s production values were chintzier than those of WCAU or WABC, his popularity continued to soar. Naturally, a run for the presidency was not far behind, nor was that long-awaited LP finally released in the summer of ’60 not on mom-and-pop Cameo but on Elektra Records, then a successful label specializing in folk. Burying Mitch Miller, the record was titled Spook Along with Zacherley, and spilled over with lurid odes to monstrous parent/teacher associations, outrageous orangutans, Frank, Drac, and Zach’s own bid to snatch votes from Nixon and JFK.

Co-producing was Stan Rhodes, who’d co-written the standard “A Sunday Kind of Love” (covered by everyone from Etta James to Jan and Dean), and Gerald Alters, who’d later take an infinitely less cool position as Barry Manilow’s arranger. Lee Pockriss, most famous for composing “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”, “My Little Corner of the World”, and “Johnny Angel”, supplied the songs. These writers, arrangers, and producers offered most of the necessary elements: MOR schmaltz and teen novelty appeal. Zacherley delivered the essential horrificness and the lowest bass this side of Will “Dub” Jones.

The results are not a great album, but they are a great snapshot of that nether-period between the original Rock & Roller’s reign of the late fifties and the coming British Invasion, an age of novelty records, when late-night horror movies had to fill the delinquency gap Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis left vacant and well-scrubbed chumps like Frankie Avalon and Fabian couldn’t hope to fill. So dim the lights, my little ghoulies. Snuggle up to your spider baby and set the picture on Black & White. It’s time to sing along with the Cool Ghoul…

Spook Along with Zacherley by Zacherley

Originally released Summer of 1960

Produced by Stan Rhodes and Gerald Alters

All songs by Lee Pockriss

Track 1: Coolest Little Monster

Friday, October 24, 2014

Review: 'The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy'

The Creature from the Black Lagoon was made long enough ago that it is considered the final chapter of Universal’s monster movie golden age (by some folks, at least), but recently enough that most of its principal players were still alive for the Monster Kid age that continues to this day and hopefully will last well into the future. So unlike Dracula or Frankenstein, The Creature from the Black Lagoon spawned a wealth of documentation about its making, as did its sequels Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us.

One of the highest-profile Monster Kids, Tom Weaver, conducted a heap of his own research to put together the lagoon-clogging The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy. His (and a clutch of guest contributors') gargantuan heap of cast-and-crew interviews, archive diving, and close attention to the films, themselves, makes this the definitive Gill Man document by an astoundingly long shot. Everything you’ve ever wondered about our beloved man-fish and his three movies—and probably a shitload of things that never even crossed your mind—are covered between its nearly 400 over-sized, hardbound, photo-splattered pages. Do you want to know the warts-and-all backgrounds of everyone involved in these films, including lecherous director Jack Arnold, beastly leading man John Agar, and Gill Man portrayer/right-wing nut job Tom Hennesy? They’re in here. Do you want to know who allegedly played the creature along with everyone officially identified? That’s here too. The weird promo campaign suggestions; the failed early story drafts; the daily production mishaps and triumphs; critical analyses; the long-teased but never produced remakes to which such names as John Landis, Peter Jackson, and Robert Rodriguez have been attached; and a really long introduction by Lagoon star Julie Adams are all here too. The only thing I thought was a bit underserved in The Creature Chronicles is the 3-D process, but in all honesty, I didn’t actually care that much about it. It’s just that this book is so exhaustive that when one of the films’ significant aspects isn’t explored from every possible angle, it sticks out a bit.

Weaver makes all the minutia readable with his smirking prose, and all of the films were produced under weird enough circumstances by wild enough crews that the whole damn thing will hold your attention regardless of your interest in Revenge and Walks (and if you’re not interested in them, shame on you). Really, this is both a book about particular movies and about the filmmaking process in general, so cinema professors may want to think about assigning The Creature Chronicles after boring their students with the usual Bordwell and Thompson textbooks.

Get The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy on here:

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review: Nelson Riddle's 'Batman: Exclusive Original Television Soundtrack Album'

Can't wait until November 11 for the landmark home video release of the classic "Batman" TV series? Well, Bat Fan, you can whet your Bat-ppetite further with Mercury/UMe's reissue of the show's Exclusive Original Television Soundtrack Album. Originally released by 20th Century Fox records in 1966, the year the series debuted, this record was both of its time and seemingly ahead of it, much like the series it advertised. Nelson Riddle's mix of lounge jazz, light Rock & Roll, and surf was very sixties soundtracky, while the presentation was much more forward thinking. The way the record folds dialogue from the series in with the music sounds like sampling twenty years ahead of schedule, especially the litany of Burt Ward's "Holy-This!" and "Holy-That!" littered through "Holy-Hole-in-the-Doughnut -or- (Robin, You've Done It Again)". There's also guest gabbing from Special Guest Villains Anne Baxter (as Zelda), Frank Gorshin (as The Riddler), Burgess Meredith (as The Penguin), and George Sanders (as Mr. Freeze).

That major baddies like The Joker and Cat Woman are absent is probably down to the fact that the Batman: Exclusive Original Television Soundtrack Album was released so early in the show's run, before viewers had a chance to really identify their favorite villains (Julie Newmar wouldn't regularly appear as Cat Woman until season two). This also means that a couple of favorite themes are absent, such as the Batgirl theme and the awesomely fuzzed-out variation on the main theme that played during fight scene's in the series' final season. Also, one should be warned that the "Batman Theme" on this album is not composer Neal Hefti's recording that kicked off the show but a remake by Riddle that works in a surprise lounge-jazz interlude. But, hey, that's how the album came out five decades ago. The re-release is available on both CD and vinyl, which is what I received to review. If you really want to recreate that Bat feeling of '66, the vinyl is the only way to go.

Get the Batman: Exclusive Original Television Soundtrack Album on vinyl or CD on here:

Monday, October 20, 2014

Psychobabble’s Ten Most Terrifying Tales from the Crypt Comics!

 Heh, heh… good evening, Kiddies! I see it’s time for me to give you another spine-tingling post here on Psychobabble, and today’s chiller is no less than ten of the most horrid hunks of horror to appear in Entertaining Comics’ Tales from the Crypt magazine! And when I say Tales from the Crypt, I mean Tales from the Crypt, and not The Haunt of Fear or The Vault of Horror, because…well… I haven’t read all of those comics yet! So while favorites like “…And All Through the House…” and “A Grim Fairy Tale!” may be missing from this list, I’m sure you’ll agree the following stories earn the terrible title… Psychobabble’s Ten Most Terrifying Tales from the Crypt Comics!

1. The Living Corpse (Tales from the Crypt #18; artist: Wally Wood)

Its first tale to really nail both story and art reared its hideous head in just the second issue of Tales from the Crypt (never mind the kooky numbering system…issue 18 is really issue 2). Despite its unimaginative title, “The Living Corpse” establishes a strong mystery (why do these damn corpses keep coming to life and sprinting from the local morgue?) and resolves it with a clever series of twists. Though “The Living Corpse” isn’t a supernatural tale in the end, Wally Wood’s hallucinatory depictions of the morgue attendant’s fears are as nightmarish as anything in any zombie story.

2. Reflection of Death! (Tales from the Crypt #23; artist: Al Feldstein)

E.C.’s crypt keepers loved to pull the gimmick of placing you in the story with second-person narration. This gimmick was never used to more purposeful effect than in “Reflection of Death!”, in which you walk away from a car crash only to have everyone who sees you completely freak out? Why? Well, let’s just say that the Return of the Living Dead makeup crew must have drawn a lot of inspiration from Al Feldstein’s artwork when creating the Tar Man. Plus, the title panel monster mash illustration is fab!

3. Drawn and Quartered! (Tales from the Crypt #26; artist: Jack Davis)

A dose of voodoo causes everything that happens to an artist’s paintings to happen to the things his paintings depict. A horrible and classically ironic revenge plot ensues as the artist works overtime painting everyone who’s ever wronged him. What may be the cleverest of all E.C. horror stories is matched with Jack Davis’s signature goopy artwork.

4. The Ventriloquist’s Dummy! (Tales from the Crypt #28; artist: Graham Ingles)

Although the evil dummy trope has been done to death by now, it had only really been tackled once in the British portmanteau film Dead of Night before “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy!” Maybe that’s why this story so avoids the clichés of this type of story. Instead of the usual “dummy become outlet for ventriloquist’s madness” tale, we get a crazy conjoined twin one. The classic “Tales from the Crypt” episode this comic inspired diluted the horror with comedy. The comic is all horrific, and “Ghastly” Graham Ingles’s art makes good on his nickname.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Can't Wait Until 2016 for More "Twin Peaks"? Well, There's This...

"Twin Peaks" Freaks have a long wait until David Lynch and Mark Frost bring back their series for a nine-episode, "see you in 25 years" revival on Showtime in 2016. But they are not cruel men. They know a year and half or so is a long wait, so Mr. Frost will toss us a bone next year with The Secret Lives of Twin Peaks. Frost's novel, to be published by Macmillan's Flatiron Books, will get us all caught up on what's been happening in that dreamy town between 1990 and 2015. 

This will not be Frost's literary foray. He has written a number of novels that reflect his fascination with murder, mystery, and the occult, including The List of Seven, The Six Messiahs, and the on-going young readers trilogy The Paladin Prophecy. "Twin Peaks" is no stranger to the page either, inspiring three excellent tie-in books by Frost's brother Scott (The Autobiography of Special Agent Cooper), Lynch's daughter Jennifer (The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer), and David, Mark, and Richard Saul Wurman (Welcome to Twin Peaks: Access Guide to the Town). Hopefully, The Secret Lives of Twin Peaks will continue that tradition of "Twin Peaks" literary excellence and whet our appetites for the televised event of the twenty-first century. See in one year...

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

No Tricks! Just Ten Treat Performances in Classic Horror Movies!

A good horror movie can be a grueling experience. All of that hacking, cracking, and killing can really wear you down if there isn’t some relief. Fortunately smart filmmakers know this to be true and tuck moments of levity, and even sheer delight, into their films to give us viewers a well-earned break. Often this pleasure may come directly from a single character played by a most singular actor or actress. I think of these as “treat” performances. These performances deliver waves of delight amidst the horror, whether the character is a beacon of sweetness in a sea of bitterness or is simply a lot of fun to watch despite being really, really evil.

Still not sure what I mean? Well, then kick off your hobnail boots and peruse the following Ten Treat Performances in Classic Horror Movies!

(spoilers ahead)

1. Dwight Frye as Renfield in Dracula (1931)

Although there are few more iconic monster movies than Dracula, it often gets slammed for being slow-moving and talky, more drawing-room mystery than blood-curdling horror. The first twenty minutes of Tod Browning’s film are generally absolved from these charges because watching Bela Lugosi menace Dwight Frye in the sumptuously Gothic Transylvanian setting is unadulterated joy and what a lot of critics want the whole film to be. After the wacky duo jump on a ship to London, Dracula becomes less sinister and more formulaic. Nevertheless, it continues to be terrific—no matter what those blowhard critics say—because every second spent in the presence of Dwight Frye is a treat. Don’t get me wrong. I adore my time with Drac too. Seeing Bela portray Dracula is a lot like getting to Santa Claus in the flesh, being that Bela is such an icon of Halloween and Santa is such an icon of that other major national holiday. But it is Dwight who truly delights. The craziest character in the film is the one to whom we can most relate as he exudes all the desire, hatred, regret, pity, humor, and terror his mostly wooden cast-mates lack.

2. Bela Lugosi as Ygor in Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Monkees Meet the Monsters

Demonic deals. Cursed, severed animal parts. Reanimated corpses. Unholy séances. Unwanted brain transplants. These things have long plagued humankind. Four particular young men were unlucky enough to have to deal with all of them. Mike, Micky, Davy, and Peter may have been too busy singing to put anybody down (well, unless we’re talking about Don Kirshner, Bob Rafelson, LBJ, each other…aww hell, The Monkees loved putting people down). That didn’t stop an assortment of creeps, spooks, and kooks from putting them down.
In keeping with its postmodern take on entertainment, “The Monkees” often spoofed well-worn genres: spy pictures (“The Spy Who Came in From the Cool”, “Monkee Chow Mein”, “The Card Carrying Red Shoes”), heist pictures (“Monkees in a Ghost Town”, “The Picture Frame”), gangster pictures (“Monkees à la Carte”, “Alias Micky Dolenz”), sports pictures (“Monkees in the Ring”), beach movies (“Monkees at the Movies”), motorcycle movies (“The Wild Monkees”), pirate movies (“Hitting the High Seas”), westerns (“It’s a Nice Place to Visit”, “Monkees in Texas”), sci-fi (“The Monkees Watch Their Feet”, “Mijacogeo”), even documentaries (“Monkees on Tour”, ”Monkees in Paris”). However, “The Monkees” trampled no genre as regularly as horror.

After its 1930s golden era, the horror movie was somewhat dormant for the next two decades, censorship pushing it into self-parody in the forties and atomic-fears largely replacing it with invading Martian and giant bug movies in the fifties. In the sixties, strictures became less strict. The European horrors of Hammer Studios made real red (well, painty-red) blood permissible in monster movies. In America, Roger Corman infused Edgar Allan Poe tales with the Hammer aesthetic (which The Monkees would one day spoof in their feature film Head, co-written by Corman collaborator Jack Nicholson). The success of those films followed viewings of the classic thirties horrors on late-night TV packages like “Shock!” and “Chiller!” Following them were supernatural new series ranging from the straight up scary (“The Twilight Zone”) to the tongue-in-fanged-cheek (“The Addams Family”, “The Munsters”). Before long shows of all genres, such as “Route 66” (“Lizards Leg and Owlets Wing”), “Gilligan's Island” (“Up at Bat”, “And Then There Were None”), “Batman” (“Marsha, Queen of Diamonds/Marshas Scheme of Diamonds”), and “Star Trek” (“Cats Paw”), were getting in on the haunting fun.
Count Gilligan in "Up at Bat".
As the sixties slithered on, horror exploded around the globe. Suddenly France, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and everyone else was exporting its own vampires, ghouls, and maniacs. No one loved these movies more than the kids who spent the mass of their free time devouring the latest pop records when they weren
t watching werewolves devour victims. TV producers were as quick to pick up on the pop/horror connection as Bobby Boris Pickett and Sheb Wooley were, and soon The Addams Family were pushing their monstrous butler into a career as a rocker in the  “Lurch, the Teenage Idol” episode and The Munsters were hosting an impromptu performance of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by L.A.’s  The Standells in the “Far Out Munsters” episode (coincidentally, both episodes aired within two months of each other). On the flip side, a new Saturday morning cartoon starring the originators of that particular song regularly pitted the most popular pop band in the world against a menagerie of monsters.

Many of the same kids who tuned in to watch The Beatles battle vampires, witches, and ghosts on Saturday mornings also planted themselves in front of their TV’s every Monday night at 7:30 PM (6:30 Central) to rock along with The Monkees’ anarchic antics. And so the producers naturally had The Monkees interacting with all manner of ghouls. With its crazy fantasy sequences, third-wall shattering, and cartoon escapades, “The Monkees” already had one pointy, Beatle boot planted outside of reality. From there it was just a short hop to the totally fantastical terrain of ghosts and monsters. 

The boys wasted not a second taking their first trip there. Getting the most worn-out of all clichés out of the way in the second episode that aired, The Monkees gather at an allegedly haunted house to collect an eccentric millionaire’s legacy. “Monkee See, Monkee Die” is a take off on The Cat and the Canary complete with grim thunderstorms, hairy monster claws reaching out from nowhere, and a weird séance… though the most disturbing bit is a writer who constantly assaults a horrified girl by asking her if she’s read any of his flop books (“Dining out in Greenland?” “No!” “Philadelphia: Where to Find It?” “No!”). Like The Cat and the Canary—or a Scooby Doo adventure— we learn that the creeps menacing The Monkees are none other than the millionaire’s relatives vying to get his inheritance. More in keeping with the far-out “Monkees”, we then find out that there really is a ghost in the old house…one whose quoting of Jacob Marley reveals he’s just as much of a postmodernist as Mike, Micky, Davy, and Peter.

Now that they’d tussled with a ghost (or at least been told to keep the spirit of Christmas by one), The Monkees were ready to meet a monster. Despite a potentially horrific title and the presence of Lon Chaney, Jr., (who draws more allusions to his role in Of Mice and Men than his one in The Wolf Man), “Monkees in a Ghost Town” was not that episode. Rather, it was episode 18, “I Was a Teenage Monster”, in which The Monkees first faced a mad scientist with designs on implanting their musical abilities into a cut-rate Frankenstein Monster (perhaps not coincidentally, the previous year this very same premise was used in the second episode of The Beatles Saturday morning cartoon). The Chaney appearance was a wasted opportunity to nudge the ribs of Monster Kids. “Teenage Monster” made up for that by bringing in some faces that should have been familiar to kids who liked scary stuff. Mad Dr. Mendoza was none other than the great John Hoyt, who’d previously played a lovable mad creator in Attack of the Puppet People and shocked us all as (spoiler alert) the many-armed Martian in “The Twilight Zone’s” “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” Monster Richard Kiel was another “Twilight Zone” alumnus in the more legitimately terrifying role of the Kanamit in “To Serve Man” (Bryan Foulher, who played hunchback assistant Groot, was another “Zone” traveler, though in the decidedly benign “Walking Distance”).

Season one’s forays into the monstrous ended with that seven-foot tall hulk in the Beatle wig whacking a Gretsch and bellowing “Goo-rah!” When the show came back even wilder in its second season, the horror fantasies doubled. The weakest of these was the first. Despite the always fun presence of Ruth Buzzi, episode 43 showed the inspiration running low. “A Coffin Too Frequent” basically recycled the séance plot of “Monkee See, Monkee Die” right down to the non-supernatural rip-off scheme and the supernatural last-minute twist that isn’t nearly as scary as the severe part in Davy’s hair.

Much better are the three episodes that aired in succession from January 22 through February 5, 1968 (for some reason, NBC never coincided a horror episode with Halloween: “Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth” aired on October 31, 1966, and “Monkees Marooned” was the pick for October 30, 1967. For what its worth, Micky does get to try out his werewolf impersonation in Gift Horse). The first of these was actually teased by Dr. Mendoza’s vacant-eyed “beautiful daughter” way back in “I Was a Teenage Monster”, though she got a lot of the details wrong. The vampire turns Micky, not Davy, into a werewolf (plus, “actress” Bonnie Dewberry was not asked to return despite saying she’d appear in the sequel. However, she once again amazes with her inabilities in “Monkees in Texas”, even ending up as the butt of some jokes because of her catatonia). 
Just as “I Was a Teenage Monster” drew inspiration from James Whale’s Frankenstein, “The Monstrous Monkee Mash” cribs the plot of its sequel Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. In that classic horror-comedy, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula schemes to place Lou Costello’s malleable brain into Glenn Strange’s Monster. In “The Monstrous Monkee Mash”, Ron Masak’s Count wants to use the brain of the equally simple Peter Tork (“Peter Tork” the character, not Peter Tork the real smart person, of course). Taking Dewberry’s spot as the cute woman of the week, Arlene Martel has a lot stronger chops and chomps as The Count’s niece Lorelei. She and her uncle one-up Lugosi by turning all The Monkees into famous monsters of filmland. Fuzzy-haired Micky becomes The Wolf Man. Uptight Mike gets wrapped up as The Mummy. Heartthrob Davy’s powers to mesmerize ladies are put to use when he becomes “Count Dracula reborn!” “The Monstrous Monkee Mash” is both a deliriously fun opportunity to see our boys merge with Universal’s greatest monsters and a crazy continuation of the loosening up of the show’s format that began with the landmark “The Monkees on the Wheel” on December 11. The laugh track has now vanished, as has Mike’s wool hat. More than ever The Monkees seem like they’re working without a script, or at least, not paying that much attention to it. The guys behind the cameras are goofier too, as seen in Micky’s multiple “scare take” outtakes left in the episode to disorienting effect. One reason for this unprecedented nuttiness is everyone was really starting to enjoy herbal supplements on set. Micky and Mike’s stoned attempt to get through a joke about saving the Texas Prairie Chicken ended up getting cut from “Monstrous Monkee Mash” and stitched to the end of “On the Wheel” (incidentally, though on topic, Micky can also be seen doing his Bela Lugosi impersonation in this episode).

The Monkees ‘ pot puffing overheats in episode 51, in which consummate character actor and scenery-chewer extraordinaire Hans Conried drops character to grumble “BLEEP, I hate these  kids” (I always enjoyed thinking that BLEEP masked a “Fuck,” but I guess it could have been “Goddamn” or something). All Monkees sport red eyes in “The Monkee’s Paw” (particularly Davy and Peter), and it has nothing to do with the cursed paw that robs Micky of his voice. Unlike the W.W. Jacobs horror tale that inspired this episode, there is no zombie, and “The Monkee’s Paw” isn’t as explicitly horrific as the other episodes mentioned. “The Devil and Peter Tork” is another story. As the title suggestions, it is an homage to Stephen Vincent Benét’s famous short story, The Devil and Daniel Webster. Instead of Daniel trading his soul to the biggest monster of all in exchange for a stretch of good luck, Peter simply wants to play the harp. “The Devil and Peter Tork” feels like a bit of a step backward after the wildness of “The Monstrous Monkee Mash” and “The Monkee’s Paw”. In fact, it is a literal step back. As you may have sussed from the returns of the laugh track, Mike’s hat, and Micky’s bad flat-ironed hairdo, “The Devil and Peter Tork” was filmed much earlier in the season. NBC claimed it held the episode back because of its use of the song “Salesman”, which references drug dealers. In truth, the network didn’t like Micky ribbing it over his censored attempts to say “Hell” on the air. Although “The Devil and Peter Tork” is traditional compared to “The Monstrous Monkee Mash” and “The Monkee’s Paw”, there is one sequence that really feels improvised, and it is the one that makes this the most poignant “Monkees” episode. Mike stumbles through his defense of Peter at the climactic trial scene by explaining that demonic Mr. Zero (the always excellent Monte Landis, an unofficial new cast member in season two) didn’t actually give Peter anything at all because Pete’s innate love of music was all he needed to play the harp. It sounds corny, and maybe it is, but Mike’s way of trying to find the right words to express his very simple statement smack with a realism rarely seen on “The Monkees”, especially when the guys were running from ghosts and vampires and Frankensteins. This time it took a monster to bring “The Monkees” down to earth, and it’s kind of beautiful.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Review: 'Star Wars Posters'

Cinema has given us some unforgettable still images to introduce its moving ones. Posters for Psycho, Jaws, Chinatown, Eraserhead, Alien, E.T., Ghostbusters, and Pulp Fiction are as memorable as the films they advertise. My personal favorite movie poster is the one Roger Kastel created for The Empire Strikes Back. Inspired by one of George Lucas's favorite posters, Howard Terning's painting for the 1967-rerelease of Gone with the Wind, Kastel's work depicts Han and Leia in a Scarlett/Rhett clutch, Luke front and center on his tauntaun, and the masked eyes of Darth Vader looming in the background. That the kiddie faves Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2 are shrunk and bunched to the side implies the relative adult-nature of Irvin Kershner's movie. The blue-palette perfectly reflects it's snow/sky/swamp aesthetic. Romantic, moody, a touch scary, and instantly evocative of my childhood, Kastel's is a piece of art that gets under my skin like no Mona Lisa or Waterlilies ever could... and I know I'm not alone on that matter.

If you're with me, then you're going to want to grab Abrams Publishing's new book Star Wars Posters. For such a blah title, this is one thrilling book. Kastel's iconic poster is just one of many and varied pieces in the book. The variety of styles that represent these films dazzles: from Kastel's pulp romance to comic book to circus poster to impressionism. The size of the book allows these often intricate works their due space, and select details are blown up further over luxurious two-page spreads. 

There's also a healthy helping of preliminary sketches and concepts that didn't go beyond the board room. These are some of the most fascinating pieces in Star Wars Posters, particularly when they get the films' details wrong. A sketch John Solie did for the first movie portrays Chewbacca as a pipe-wielding gorilla. Several proposals for Empire posters show Princess Leia with her cinnamon-buns hairdo (and one even shows her in unseasonably scanty dress riding sidesaddle behind Luke on his tauntaun!). Ralph McQuarrie's early renderings are the most famous to not reflect the characters accurately, and a few of those are in here too, as are pieces presenting Empire's bounty hunters and Yoda in a fantastical Dagobah more vivid and alive than the film's swamp planet. These are two of the most stunning pieces in the book.

I'm sure you'll be happy to know that although Lucas "curated" this book, the focus remains with the three original movies. A restrained 15 pages of this 180-page book are wasted with the prequel trilogy. There are also pieces devoted to such intergalactic side roads as the 1978 "Star Wars in Concert" event, the Ewok TV movies, the "Clone Wars" and "Rebels" animated series, and various Star Wars video games. Much cooler are the oddball fan-made pieces that finish the book with Empire enlistment posters, ads for faux-pulp horror flicks called Revenge of the Sandpeople and Lair of the Rancor, a psychedelic Max Rebo concert poster, and Sandcrawler, Star Destoyer, and Millenium Falcon travel posters. These pieces are all done in the spirit of fun that is the key to the original trilogy and are as eclectic and expertly rendered as everything else collected in this superb art book.

Get Star Wars Posters on here:

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Review: 'The Beatles Through Headphones'

Only The Beatles could inspire a book like The Beatles Through Headphones, and not just because their name is right there in the title. They’re the only band that has been scrutinized at such a minute level over thousands of books, articles, and posts. Ted Montgomery’s book gets downright microscopic, noting hundreds of little squeaks, clicks, mumbled and shouted asides, gaffes, flaws, and guffaws that can only be detected by listening to their music (in stereo and in mono!) with strict attention through a good set of headphones.

The Beatles Through Headphones really earns its existence when Montgomery challenges common assumptions based on his close listens. He has convinced me that only Paul’s voice can be heard on “Eleanor Rigby”, that George is the sole singer of “You Like Me Too Much”, and Ringo the one voice of “Act Naturally” (all in multiple overdubs, of course). He is not always completely convincing, as when he matter-of-factly declares the fuzz bass on “Think for Yourself” “a regular bass played through a blown amp” when other theories are much more persistent (Paul’s playing his Epiphone Casino, not his bass; he’s running his Rickenbacker bass through a fuzz pedal) and there’s really no way to reach that conclusion from a mere headphone listen. More surprisingly, Montgomery misses some things that have been extensively detailed elsewhere, like the bits of feedback and instrumental drop outs on “I’m Looking Through You” and the fact that the mono mix of “Love You To” is noticeably longer than the stereo one. He says he cannot discern a bass in “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, apparently not realizing Lennon was playing a six-string bass with a more trebly tone than McCartney’s usual Hofner and Rickenbacker. And I’ve often read that Lennon mumbles something naughty on “Good Day Sunshine”, but have never encountered a writer willing to reveal just what he says. I was expecting Montgomery to be that writer, but he isn’t.

Montgomery ‘s swift, no-frills writing keeps the book moving (each album is allotted about six or seven pages), which is important because there occasionally isn’t much to say about these songs other than where the voices and instruments are placed in the stereo mixes. Smartly he augments his minutia with mostly astute critiques of their music, but a lot of those little details he points out can go in one eye and out the other when consuming the book cover to cover. So the best way to approach it is as a reference guide: read one of his brief entries; then listen to song it discusses. That way you’ll make the most of its unique purpose.

I’ve really been binging on The Beatles since the recent release of their Mono box set and have been planning on taking a bit of a break. Alas, The Beatles Through Headphones makes me want to listen to those albums all over again.

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