Tuesday, August 15, 2017

'The Old Dark House' Coming to Blu-Ray This Halloween Season


The Old Dark House is one of Universal's best and most underrated horror films of the 1930s. It's the movie on which director James Whale really started exploring the humor that would blossom in his twin masterworks The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, and features a killer cast that includes Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, and Melvyn Douglas. 

This October 24, Cohen Media Groups will give this underrated picture its due with the first Blu-ray presentation of The Old Dark House. No word on the bonus features yet, but a 4K restoration of this ooky, kooky classic is reason to start celebrating now. Have a potato!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Review: Deluxe Edition of Chris Bell's 'I Am the Cosmos'


In the mid-seventies, Chris Bell was messing with hard drugs and Jesus and exploring his own music apart from Big Star. Like Third/Sister Lovers, Bell’s new music was troubled, sometimes preachy, sometimes a sheer mess, and almost always lovely. Although he was working with Geoff Emerick, who’d engineered so many of Bell’s beloved Beatles records, the production rarely reflected the Fabs’ polish—“Get Away” being a particularly defiant mass of echo-chamber noise. However, the melodies were consistently enchanting even as the songs were as eclectic as the jumbled production approach. Bell whipped up some bleary psychedelia (“I Am the Cosmos”), spare intimacy (“You and Your Sister”), crashing Rock & Roll (“I Got Kinda Lost”), and burbling bluesy funk (“Fight at the Table”). Bell’s recordings amounted to the finest marriage of Rock and religion since George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, another chunk of poppy testifying that even an old atheist like me can love.

Sadly, Bell only got the chance to release a mere single from his clutch of recordings before he died in a late-1978 car crash. The rest would not release until Rykodisc’s 1992 collection I Am the Cosmos. Seventeen years later, Rhino expanded that 15-track disc to a 27-track deluxe edition with tracks by Bell’s pre-Big Star groups Icewater and Rock City and numerous alternate versions and mixes of his solo material. Now Omnivore Recordings is expanding it further (though losing the Icewater and Rock City tracks, which Omnivore recently reissued on a comp called Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star) with a double-disc edition of I Am the Cosmos. The new additions include more alternate mixes, which often strip away most of the electric instrumentation to reveal simpler, cleaner renditions, and a couple of good instrumentals. These extras are nice but not as essential as the missing Icewater and Rock City tracks. Nevertheless, the core album remains an ecstatic listen in any format.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Review: 'The Comic Book History of Comics'


The history of comics told in comic format is such a simple concept that it seems deceptively obvious, yet there’s little that’s simple about that history and little that’s obvious about The Comic Book History of Comics. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this book (which collects a previously published six-issue comic series) is how much stuff writer Fred Van Lente crams into its 150 pages, tracing the history of storytelling through pictures all the way back to prehistoric cave paintings through the first political cartoons to “The Yellow Kid” to cinematic animation to the superhero era to the congressional inquiry on the effects of comics on juvenile delinquency to the pop-art sixties and finally ending with the underground comics of the seventies. Within this story is genuine drama as Max Fleischer and Walt Disney vie for the crown of animation king and the clash between Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

Van Lente’s storytelling has a definite perspective, and one that may rankle comics freaks as he sneers at some of the medium’s more revered figures (Stan Lee; William Gaines) while taking an unfashionably even view of the man who may be its easiest-target villain, noting the numerous accomplishments of Fredric Wertham that have nothing to do with that guy’s dopey crusade against comic books. Most welcome is the isolated profiles of a number of women in the comics industry, since women are generally shut out of this story’s primary arch for the usual patriarchal reasons.

Ryan Dunlavey’s artwork is sometimes a bit too cutesy for my tastes, but I liked his outlandish tendency to fuse creators with creations, as when he imagines Disney as a mutant man-faced Mickey Mouse, and there are some clever visual references and in jokes. The cutesiness also gets downright subversive when Dunlavey depicts beheadings, lynchings, and Adam West and Frank Gorshin yucking it up at an orgy.

Review: 'Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction'


So you just took a nice leisurely ride in the front seat of a shopping cart and successfully fooled your mom into buying you a box of teeth-rotting Fruit Brute. Things have been going pretty well during this supermarket outing. But then, just as you’re about to leave, you catch sight of a young girl’s face absolutely bulging with terror as she peers through a tiny die-cut window. What could be destroying this child’s nerves? As your mom rummages in her handbag for a ten-cents-off Palmolive coupon, you pull the cover open and are assaulted by the terrifying image of that girl in the arms of some sort of skeleton-faced demon.

These days, the scariest thing you’re likely to see at the checkout counter is the latest issue of The Enquirer. In the seventies and eighties, genuinely frightening artwork was splattered across the covers of cheap paperbacks by the likes of Peter Saxon, V.C. Andrews, and other “literary” conglomerates. In the wake of the success of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Others, the (super)market was flooded with tales that promised to be more terrifying, more traumatizing, more soul shattering than these three acknowledged classics. While works such as Satan’s Love Child and Crabs: The Human Sacrifice weren’t necessarily scarier than what Ira Levin and William Peter Blatty unleashed, they managed to up the level of outrageousness. Ehren M. Ehly’s The Obelisk stars a “were-Egyptian” who hangs severed dicks off a Central Park landmark and eats orangutans. The hero of James Herbert’s Rats takes care of the swarming rodents by punching them to death between rounds of playing “football with a severed head.” The title characters of John Christopher’s The Little People are Nazi leprechauns with a yen for S&M.

The sheer absurdity of these tales is not lost on Grady Hendrix, who has composed a loving tribute in Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction. The great value of this book is that Hendrix has done all the hard work for us. His summaries of these monstrosities are hilarious…and probably a lot more fun than actually reading things like Dogkill, The Face That Must Die, and tales that sound as though they were written by ultra-conservatives during spring break from the fourth grade.

Paperbacks from Hell also doesn’t skimp on the other essential element of these books: their wild cover art. The book overflows with full-cover images of giants worms slithering around Big Ben, monster bunnies, skeletons galore, and yes, whip-wielding Nazi leprechauns. In the case of some of these covers, such as Jim Thiesen’s truly scary monster-bride sculpture for the cover of The Gilgul, they achieve a real artfulness. So does Hendrix’s prose, which will have you rolling in the checkout aisle.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Psychobabble's Ten Greatest Albums of 1997!


Whatever claws underground rock seemed to have in the mainstream since the beginning of the nineties were effectively dislodged by 1997. That year saw Gavin Rossdale turn Nirvana into a toothless advert for high cheek bones, Elton John and Sean Combs score the year’s two biggest hits by recycling a couple of old hits for smarmy eulogies, No Doubt get play on 120 Minutes with the Miami Sound Machine-sound-alike “Don’t Speak”, and the rise of Hanson and The Spice Girls. Despite the tide of shit overwhelming pop music, 1997 also produced some of the best albums of the decade, including one that defined the second-half of the nineties as dramatically as Nevermind defined its first half. Here’s that disc and nine others that defiantly bucked the mindlessness that defined 1997. 


10. Dig Me Out by Sleater-Kinney
Sleater Kinney’s third album continues the double-six string/double-voice attack of Call the Doctor with the new addition of Janet Weiss’s crisp drumming. The sour and sweet counterpoint between Corin Tucker’s anguished bleat and Carrie Brownstein’s controlled speak-singing continues to be the most exciting musical element, reaching a toe-tingling peak on the gotta-sing-along “Little Babies”. With its sneering satire of the traditional female role in the patriarchy, it is also the only song that clearly makes good on Dig Me Out’s reputation for having a pointed feminist pov, but perhaps the mighty attack of the band’s three women does that regardless of what they’re signing about. Without doubt there was a fair share of women who decided to band together and elbow their way into the male-dominated rock world after hearing Dig Me Out. Nevertheless, its songs mainly mine more archetypal pop themes of romantic relationships healthy and otherwise and the recuperative powers of playing and hearing great Rock & Roll. With its wild, liberating guitars and voices, Dig Me Out has its own recuperative powers. Plus that Kink Kontroversy homage on the cover is the most. 
9. Eight Arms to Hold You by Veruca Salt
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