Monday, October 22, 2018

Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors: #10


Halloween season simply isn’t Halloween season without a regular dose of golden age Universal horror (1923-1963). Every day this October, I’ll be giving you a steady IV drip of it by counting down Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors!

#10. The Mummy (1932- dir. Karl Freund)

It’s a tried and true Hollywood formula: you score big once; you attempt to carbon copy that success. It doesn’t always work, but it did when Universal practically remade Dracula as The Mummy. Once again you have a long-in-the-tooth monster crossing an ocean to ensnare a specific women in its thrall while contending with Edward Van Sloan and David “Mr. Personality” Manners. The Mummy isn’t very original, but it does make certain stylistic improvements over Dracula with its sumptuous sets, elaborate monster make up, less static staging, and heightened air of romance. Karloff makes the most of a monster without much pep, and between his naturally mesmerizing gaze and some well-positioned pin lights, he’s also the center of some of the creepiest shots in a golden age Universal monster movie. Zita Johann and the flashback-pool sequence are similarly mesmerizing.

Review: 'Scum and Villainy: Case Files on the Galaxy’s Most Notorious'


While the war between the Empire and the Rebels is the foundation of the Star Wars universe, it is also a place ripe with crime. Those criminals can be the genuinely vile likes of Jabba the Hutt or shades-of-grey rogues such as Han Solo. Pablo Hidalgo’s new book Scum and Villainy: Case Files on the Galaxy’s Most Notorious is a sort of mock dossier on the underworld types scurrying on the outskirts of Star Wars’ main story. 

A book of this type can be a lot of fun (check out Mark Frost’s mock dossiers on the Twin Peaks universe), and few properties are more fun than Star Wars, but Hidalgo has a tendency to take it way, way too seriously. Scum and Villainy should have been a light-hearted, frivolous romp not unlike the recent Solo movie that likely inspired its focus on Star Wars’ crime world. Instead it reads like a particularly dry history textbook of a made-up world. Reading a Star Wars book should never feel like work. Reading this one does.

Scum and Villainy also highlights how diffuse the Star Wars universe has become. While some of the enemies of law and order in question will be familiar to all —both enemies of the villainous imperial state such as Princess Leia and genuine crooks and creeps like Jabba, Solo, and the beloved bounty hunters from The Empire Strikes Back—most are apparently pulled from cartoons, novels, comics, or whatever else is now considered canon. I had no idea who most of these characters were, which would not be an issue if their stories were told in an engaging, entertaining fashion. Since they weren’t, I didn’t really care who they are or what they do. Consequently, Scum and Villainy seems like a book aimed at the most hardcore and humorless of Star Wars fans. At least the abundant painted art and slick slipcover add some panache to a book that should have been more worthy of its cool design.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors: #11


Halloween season simply isn’t Halloween season without a regular dose of golden age Universal horror (1923-1963). Every day this October, I’ll be giving you a steady IV drip of it by counting down Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors!

#11. The Old Dark House (1932- dir. James Whale)

James Whale played it straight with Frankenstein and delivered a solidly scary movie. But it wasn’t very Jimmy. Now that he’d established himself as a horror master, he could work his personality into his pictures more assuredly, and he first did so with The Old Dark House, which strikes a brilliant balance between Whale’s creepy imagery (Karloff’s grunting butler, twisted Saul lurking about and setting fires, Rebecca’s disturbingly distorted reflections) and his delicious humor. Those images, that humor, and a fab cast turn clich├ęs so hoary that the title of this film became a genre unto itself into something deliriously fresh, funny, and freaky.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Review: 'The Beatles' 50th Anniversary Vinyl Box


Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the album that solidified The Beatles artistically, gaining them respectability from adults who’d never before given pop music an ounce of consideration. That was fine for the state of pop music, but it was hard on the band as they began to splinter while making the record. With Lennon losing much of his artistic drive in a haze of acid and domestic boredom, McCartney took the band’s reigns, became a bit bossy, and resentments started to rise.

As the oft-told story goes, during the making of The Beatles’ follow up, each member of the group started running his own sessions more like mini-solo projects than a group effort. Yet the new album sounds like a much more communal effort than Sgt. Pepper’s. Both Lennon and McCartney get near-equal opportunities to show off their latest compositions, and though Harrison would have liked to get more songs on the vinyl, his four tracks would be the most he’d ever place on a Beatles LP (naturally, that is mostly due to the fact that the new record was a double). Even Ringo gets a song on. Furthermore, raw tracks such as “Helter Skelter”, “Yer Blues”, and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” sound like they were actually recorded by a basic, working Rock & Roll band, and you could not say that about anything on Pepper’s. They even gave their new album a title that implied the return of a unified front: The Beatles. Of course no one ever calls “The White Album” that.

50 years on, The Beatles, “The White Album”, or whatever you want to call it probably stands as the band’s most enthralling effort with the certain exception of Revolver. For the album’s anniversary, Giles Martin has subjected it to a new stereo mix. By 1968, mono was basically yesterday’s news and sufficient thought was given to the stereo mix of The Beatles, so a new remix isn’t as necessary as it had been for Sgt. Pepper’s (or as it still is for Revolver). Nevertheless, the original mix wasn’t perfect, with weird imbalances hobbling tracks such as “Savoy Truffle”. The balance of the new mix is more consistent. However, Giles gets a bit cuter with his special touches this time. He pumps up the piano and bass levels on “Dear Prudence” (though bringing up the wordless backing vocals is a magical flourish), warps the rubber-band strings of “Wild Honey Pie” to a nearly unlistenable degree, and overdoes those weird squeaks on “Helter Skelter”, even allowing them to trod on Ringos howl about his blistered fingers. The new mix is best when it generally follows the old mix, which it does for the majority of the tracks (and incidentally, the animal affects on “Blackbird” and “Piggies” are the same as those in the original stereo mix as opposed to the alternate ones used in the mono). 

More importantly, the album is supplemented with bonus material for several different anniversary reissues. The biggest is a sprawling 6-CD/1-Blu-ray/1 hardback book set that includes Giles Martin’s remix, the mono mix, a 5.1 mix, a disc of demos, and three discs of sessions. In keeping with Psychobabble’s move in a more appropriately retro vinyl direction, I’ll be focusing this review on the 4-LP edition of The Beatles. This box set features two double-LPs: the Giles Martin mix (complete with the original album’s poster and four photo portraits …though no individual numbering on the sleeve this time), and the “Esher Demos”, so named because John, Paul, and George cut them in Esher, Surrey. The audio of these demos is pro-quality even though the performances tend to be rough. Despite his perfectionist rep, McCartney seems particularly unprepared, often singing dummy lyrics where real ones will later go, revealing the demo stage as more of a songwriting than pre-recording process. Surprisingly, Lennon seems to take it more seriously, and his guitar/voice demos are occasionally fattened with percussion and additional singers (“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” features its full sing-along chorus with Ringo as prominent on the demo as he is on the final version). A relatively polished, delightfully swinging demo of “Revolution” hints that its composer realized how special the song was and how deserving of respectful treatment it was.

To clarify, describing these demos as rough is not a knock. It is the nature of demos and what makes them so fascinating. We hear George try out “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” way too fast and with alternate lyrics that he smartly replaced. We hear bits of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” creep up in an early run through of “I’m So Tired”. We hear McCartney try out a cod Jamaican accent he wisely dispensed of when cutting the proper version of “Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da”. We hear Lennon providing a monologue on the inspiration of “Dear Prudence” as he vamps the song’s exquisite riff. We also hear a number of songs that did not make the “White Album” cut, many of which would end up on Abbey Road and the guys’ solo albums, and one—George’s supremely tuneful “Sour Milk Sea”—that ended up on a single by Apple label-mate Jackie Lomax.  In essence, “The Esher Demos” is a very valuable document of The Beatles at work. It would have been nice if a disc with the best of the “sessions” from the CD set were also included with the vinyl. Nevertheless, it is positive that at least some of the oddities are featured on vinyl rather than just CD this time, which is a trend that I hope continues with the deluxe Beatles sets that will no doubt continue trotting down Abbey Road in the years to come.

Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors: #12


Halloween season simply isn’t Halloween season without a regular dose of golden age Universal horror (1923-1963). Every day this October, I’ll be giving you a steady IV drip of it by counting down Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors!

#12. The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954- dir. Jack Arnold)

Just when Universal horror seemed dead in the water, this little gem from Jack Arnold came bubbling to the surface. The supposition that there might be some sort of missing link between fish and person is goofy, but that’s okay since it spawned the Gill Man, and he may be the most interesting looking of all Universal monsters. Good work, Millicent Patrick! The underwater sequences are lovely, though they do tend to go on and on. The film really works best above lagoon level when the Gill Man is shuffling across the deck of the Rita, Nestor Paiva is gnawing his cigar and refusing to take shit from irritating Richard Denning, and Julie Adams is being Julie Adams.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Diary of the Dead 2018: Week 3



I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews at the end of every week this October. I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

October 12

Straight Jacket (1964- dir. William Castle) ***

This is a minor William Castle shocker, but Joan Crawford makes her presence felt as a woman trying to put her life back together after a long stint in an asylum for offing her husband with a wire hanger an axe. The twist is so-so, but getting the chance to see Crawford ham it up in a Castle picture is enough. The picture loses half a point because Castle never actually appears on screen to charm us with a schlocky gimmick while sucking on a giant cigar.

October 13

It Follows (2014- dir. David Robert Mitchell) ****½

Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors: #13


Halloween season simply isn’t Halloween season without a regular dose of golden age Universal horror (1923-1963). Every day this October, I’ll be giving you a steady IV drip of it by counting down Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors!

#13. The Phantom of the Opera (1925- dir. Rupert Julan)

Lon Chaney’s definitive character is still really scary. What did those audiences in the earliest days of cinema think when they witnessed Chaney’s Phantom staring them down, marching forward with dreadful relentlessness, his finger pointing accusingly right at them? Probably something like, “Oh, rhatz. I do believe I’ve soiled my golf knickers.” There’s something a bit off about a silent movie about opera, but the big bonus is that we don’t have to listen to any opera. Plus, the Phantom’s sewer lair is super cool.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Review: 'Retro Fan' Issue #2


Michael Eury’s new magazine Retro Fan has a very singular purpose: to hit the nostalgia sweet spot. With the arguable exception of Christmas, no holiday hits that spot like Halloween, so you can bet that Retro Fan’s autumnal issue will give you that deep bath in ghouls you crave at this time every year. Articles cover such gruesome yet wistful topics as horror hosts (including a brief interview with this issue’s cover-girl, Elvira), 1960s monster TV (specifically Bewitched, The Munsters, and The Addams Family), The Groovie Goolies, and those delightfully garish Ben Cooper costumes.

While these topics have all been discussed many times before, the Retro Fan writing staff always hits just the right note. The writers’ references to their own, very relatable, childhood experiences maximize the nostalgia value without upstaging the topics. The tone is friendly, but the articles are almost absurdly in depth. Did I previously know that Bob Clampett was preparing an animated feature with basically the same premise as The Munsters way back in the 1940s? Nope. Do I now ache for the existence of such a film? You bet your abbie-normal brain I do. Did I know that there were also plans for a sort of Muppet Babies-esque spin off of The Groovie Goolies in the 1980s? Hell, most ex-employees of Filmation didn’t even know that!

For those who do not have a predilection for monsters and the macabre, there are also articles about such non-Halloweeny topics as Sindy: the British Barbie (good to see a female writer being invited to the show this issue…hopefully there will be more in issue #3), a now defunct dinosaur theme park in San Diego, a fab collection of lunch boxes, and super hero View-Master reels. If I have any beef with this issue, it’s that I wish the lunch box photos were bigger and it would have been nice if the View-Master article were more seasonal, focusing on those wonderful adaptations of creepy classics such as Dracula and Frankenstein featuring creepy dolls. I loved those.

But the biggest disappointment is not Retro Fan’s fault at all. As soon as I glanced at an article about a pop culture museum in Baltimore, I was poised to buy a bus ticket to Charm City—then I read the sidebar explaining that the museum closed for business between the article’s writing and the magazine’s publication! It’s just another reminder of how quickly things change, how constantly the past replaces the present. At least we have Retro Fan to memorialize such lost things with humanity and love.

Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors: #14


Halloween season simply isn’t Halloween season without a regular dose of classic Universal horror (1923-1963). Every day this October, I’ll be giving you a steady IV drip of it by counting down Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors!

#14. Hold That Ghost (1941- dir. Albert S. Rogell)

Is this reeeally a ghost story? Yes, it is. Allow me to refer you to the moving-candlestick gag. How’s that thing moving? Wires? Hardly! Now that your doubts are quelled, let’s just focus on the tremendous fun abounding in Abbott & Costello’s admittedly tentative first outing in the realm of the supernatural. The boys inherit an old dark house from a gangster and hilarity ensues. Much of that hilarity rises not from the team of Bud and Lou but the team of Lou and Joan Davis. She’s spectacular in this picture. More sparks fly during her dance routine with Costello than all of Evelyn Ankers and Richard Carlson’s forced romantic scenes put together.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors: #15


Halloween season simply isn’t Halloween season without a regular dose of classic Universal horror (1923-1963). Every day this October, I’ll be giving you a steady IV drip of it by counting down Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors!

#15. House of Frankenstein (1944- dir. Erle C. Kenton)

I don’t care if they’re schlocky—Universal’s monster rallies scratch a sweet spot that movies with just one creature never could. The Mummy? That guy’s totally lonesome. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man? Closer, but not quite there yet, guys. Erle C. Kenton’s House movies? Ahh, that’s the sweet relief I’ve been craving. One of the best and most monster-crammed rallies is House of Frankenstein. “FRANKENSTEIN'S MONSTER! WOLF MAN! DRACULA! HUNCHBACK! MAD DOCTOR!... All the Screen's Titans of Terror - Together in the Greatest of All SCREEN SENSATIONS!” went the ballyhoo. The cast is killer with Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man, Glenn Strange as the monster, John Carradine making his elegant debut as the count, and Karloff taking one last bow in a Frankenstein picture a the mad scientist. The one major flaw is the film’s split structure that prevents all of the monsters from ever sharing screen time together.  If you see any other flaws in this big heap of wonderful, I’m not sure if we can be friends anymore.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors: #16


Halloween season simply isn’t Halloween season without a regular dose of classic Universal horror (1923-1963). Every day this October, I’ll be giving you a steady IV drip of it by counting down Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors!

#16. Son of Frankenstein (1939- dir. Roland V. Lee)

Universal’s second Frankenstein sequel, and its final Frankenfilm with Karloff as the Monster, is too long by 30 minutes and that little kid is a menace, but boy oh boy, is Bela Lugosi ever a blast to watch as Ygor! Tired of the franchise and an increasingly limited role to play, Karloff seems to cede the film to Lugosi, who is only too happy to steal the show as the diabolical survivor of a botched hanging. Ygor uses the Monster as a pliable tool of revenge in a sheepskin vest. Lionel Atwill is also terrific as the police inspector with a chip on his shoulder and splinters in his arm.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Review: Vinyl Reissue of Urge Overkill's 'Saturation'


In the wake of the (fortunate) demise of hair metal, Kurt Cobain led a movement away from rock’s preening, hair-flipping poses toward a new age of sincerity and authenticity. Yet, Cobain was also a big fan of Urge Overkill, whose big riffs harkened back to the days of Boston and Bad Company and whose hair was simply grown for flipping. That’s probably because corporate rockers like Boston and Bad Company were really dumb, but Urge Overkill wielded wit like a hidden stiletto in James Bond’s boot heel.

With their 1993 breakthrough Saturation, U.O. made capital-R Rock cool again with their ironic songs about sexy Fidel Castro and soap operas, loungesplotation persona, and irresistible hooks. Yet it wasn’t all a big joke with Nash Kato, “Eddie” King Roeser, and Blackie Onassis. The bizarrely titled ballad “Bottle of Fur” homes in on the ache of lost love with absolute sincerity (despite Nash’s knowingly seventies use of the term “make it”). Roeser’s monstrous “Stalker” revives the guys’ Touch-and-Go era punk power. Blackie O’s “Drop Out” provides a fleeting glimpse of the former losers lurking under all that crushed velvet. All this made for one of the best albums of Rock’s best year since the sixties ended.

Saturation is now being reissued on vinyl by Porterhouse Records. Sadly, the thumping CD bonus track, “Operation Kissinger”, does not make the cut. Gladly, the sound is warm, the vinyl is blue, and the martinis are still chilled.

Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors: #17


Halloween season simply isn’t Halloween season without a regular dose of classic Universal horror (1923-1963). Every day this October, I’ll be giving you a steady IV drip of it by counting down Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors!

#17. The Mummy’s Hand (1940- dir. Christy Cabanne)

The neat thing about The Mummy’s Hand is that it may be Universal’s only monster movie in which the screenwriter wrote some actual people to go along with the monster. In fact, the heroes are much more fun than the monster, who has officially lapsed into the mindless shuffling and strangling with which the Mummy is now most associated. No matter when Dick Foran and Wallace Ford as archaeologists and Peggy Moran, and Cecil Kellaway as magicians are such a gas. It’s a pleasure watching characters who so genuinely like each other. I loathe the next Mummy sequel, The Mummy’s Tomb, because of the cruel way it reimagines this delightful cast.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Review: 'This American Blues' by Ford Madox Ford


Chip and Tony Kinman are the founding member of The Dils, whom you may recall from their poppy punk classic “Mr. Big” and their prominent role in the unforgettable Battle of the Bands sequence of Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke. Forty years later, the Kinmans have founded a new enterprise named after the British writer who penned The Good Soldier and established The English Review. Don’t expect literary aspirations from Ford Madox Ford the band, though (Chip: vocals and guitar; Tony: producing). On their debut LP, This American Blues, the lyrics are almost defiantly simplistic and repetitious, though frustrations with the music industry and the near extinction of Rock & Roll are clear as Chip turns lines such as “Look what they’ve done to my song, ma”, “There’s no rockin’ tonight”, and “images of my generation fade away” into mantras.

For the most part, the hard guitar arrangements, sharp hooks, and Chip Kinman’s anglophile vocals keep these songs soaring, though when things get too stripped down or lean too heavily on the title genre, as they do on the trite “Let’s Work Together” or the bluesy first half of  “If That’s How You Feel”, This American Blues can get a bit pedestrian. Fortunately, most of the songs are dense and fierce enough that everything clicks, whether Kinman sneers through the rip-snorting “I’m Haunted” and “Images of My Generation”, channels Oasis in the hazy “How Does Your Horn Sound Today”, or eulogizes all of the death surrounding Warhol’s Factory in the groovy “Immediate Nico”. This American Blues arrives from Porterhouse Records on blue vinyl.

Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors: #18


Halloween season simply isn’t Halloween season without a regular dose of classic Universal horror (1923-1963). Every day this October, I’ll be giving you a steady IV drip of it by counting down Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors!

#18. The Raven (1935- dir. Lew Landers)
Like Son of Frankenstein, The Raven gives Bela Lugosi the opportunity to upstage Boris Karloff, which must have given Lugosi no end of pleasure. He plays a sadist and Poe enthusiast with his very own pit and pendulum. The film has nothing to do with the title poem aside from a rather haunting dance performance inspired by “The Raven. ” So what? Karloff is low key as a criminal who attempts to skirt the law by getting plastic surgery. Note to Karloff and everyone else: do not hire Bela Lugosi to perform plastic surgery on you.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors: #19


Halloween season simply isn’t Halloween season without a regular dose of classic Universal horror (1923-1963). Every day this October, I’ll be giving you a steady IV drip of it by counting down Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors!

#19. Revenge of the Creature (1955- dir. Jack Arnold)

Forgive it for inspiring Jaws 3-D. Revenge of the Creature is actually a really neat monster movie. It refreshes the Gill Man by pulling him out of the Amazon and into a Sea World-style amusement park where he goes on the requisite rampage. Now that we know what we know about how sea parks are run, it is very satisfying seeing him fuck up Ocean Park Oceanarium. Score one for the dolphins!

Friday, October 12, 2018

Diary of the Dead 2018: Week 2


I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews at the end of every week this October. I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

October 5

Mill of the Stone Women (1960- dir. Giorgio Ferroni) ***½

A young doofus goes to work for an artist famous for creating a gruesome carousel of infamous women condemned to death. The doofus has a fling with the artist’s daughter despite the warning that she’ll drop dead if she becomes slightly upset. Needless to say, this relationship does not end well. Despite a plot so similar to a couple of other movies that if I gave you their titles you’d have this one’s plot figured out lickety-split and heaps of exposition subtle as Nikolai Volkoff’s scrotum in your soup, Mill of the Stone Women is pretty exceptional. The creepy-sculpture-crammed windmill is an ace horror movie setting, and though the characters all start off pretty blah, they all go absolutely bonkers by the fiery, freaky climax. Poe would have been envious.

The Boogeyman (1980- dir. Ulli Lommel) **½

Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors: #20


Halloween season simply isn’t Halloween season without a regular dose of classic Universal horror (1923-1963). Every day this October, I’ll be giving you a steady IV drip of it by counting down Psychobabble’s 31 Favorite Universal Horrors!

#20. Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932- dir. Robert Florey)

This delirious and rather perverse adaptation of Poe’s timeless terror tale is a great opportunity to watch Bela Lugosi rant and rave as an ape-wrangler with a perilous unibrow. His scheme to prove the theory of evolution by injecting gorilla blood into women is insane, and if you think about it, there are some pretty disturbing sexual implications there. Karl Freund milks the premise for all its horror value with his Gothic, expressionistic cinematography. And for once, the comic relief does not completely fall flat.

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