Thursday, July 28, 2011

Review: 'The Beast with Five Fingers'

Spoilers ahead…

American horror spent the ‘40s running on fumes. In the wake of The Wolf Man and the 1935 departure of monster-champion and production-chief Carl Laemmle, Jr., Universal Pictures put less stock in its horror films, churning out a succession of increasingly half-hearted sequels. The films by the genre’s new golden boy, producer Val Lewton of RKO, were atmospheric and cerebral but shied away from the paranormal. The supernatural spook pictures emerging elsewhere were either tempered with humor (Paramount’s The Uninvited) or sheer lethargy (MGM’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). All of these problems are grasped in the disembodied paw of Warner Bros.’ The Beast with Five Fingers. Had it been produced in the previous decade, this adaptation of W.F. Harvey’s short story might have been a first-rate chiller. It certainly has a lot going for it: stylish direction from Robert Florey (Murders in the Rue Morgue), a script by Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man), a lush score by Max Steiner (King Kong), and meaty lead parts for Peter Lorre and J. Carrol Naish (doing an Italian caricature worthy of Chef Boyardee).

The glitch is that The Beast with Five Fingers isn’t quite sure if it’s man or beast. After a long, long lead up to the death of a crusty pianist (Victor Francen), his personal secretary Hilary (Lorre) starts seeing the dead man’s disembodied hand scurrying all over the place and people start getting choked. Although the hour preceding the hand’s appearance receives able support from fine performances by Francen, the ever-clammy Lorre, Robert Alda (Alan’s dad) as a wisenheimer musician, and Naish as a cop, it drags badly. Those who came to the picture for horror will note a decided reluctance to leap into those waters, possibly because the genre was such a pariah at the time. When the hand finally crawls out of a box like Thing, the terrific visual effects (which recall The Invisible Man) render the previous, humdrum 60 minutes irrelevant and the fun begins.

But even now it’s difficult to suss where the filmmakers were aiming. The hand’s exploits are played dead-seriously, yet the sight of it tapping out a Bach partita on a grand piano is pretty silly. The ultimate cop-out arrives when we learn that the five-fingered beasty was nothing more than a psychotic hallucination of Hilary, who’d been committing the killings he attributed to the pianist’s nefarious mitt. As if tasked with helping us decide whether we should laugh, shriek, or shrug, Naish turns to the camera and drops a few creaky one-liners in his “that’s a spicy meat-a-ball!” accent. So it’s a comedy after all? Were the filmmakers shoehorning in jokes at the last minute to deflate the potentially heart attack-inducing horrors we just witnessed? Or were they working overtime to avoid having their picture filed in the career-killing horror drawer? Shrug. One thing is for sure: it’s a good thing the Brits were on the verge of taking horror seriously. Otherwise the genre may not have survived beyond the ‘40s.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Review: ‘33 1/3: Some Girls'

One of the marvelous things about Continuum’s 33 1/3 series is that it allows writers a wide range of approaches to discussing classic albums. Without any set format, the books range from neatly organized (Andy Miller’s The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society and Bryan Waterman’s Marquee Moon opt for tight chronologies followed by track-by-track analyses) to creatively messy (Marc Woodworth’s book on Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand mimics that album’s random abandon with pleasing results). Some of the series’ writers would be better served by tighter parameters. John Dougan primarily used his The Who Sell Out as a study of pirate radio, failing to give The Who’s greatest album the attention it deserves. Cyrus R.K. Patell is another writer who could have used some editorial guidance. While Woodworth’s Bee Thousand was purposefully sloppy, Patell’s look at The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls gives the impression he wasn’t sure how to fill 150 pages.

This book is all over the place. The writer begins with a personal anecdote about a high school teacher without tying it into the album’s story satisfactorily. He then wastes time going over familiar territory: Andrew Oldham’s grooming of The Rolling Stones as the anti-Beatles. I think Patell’s intention is to establish how every move The Stones made was a reaction to existing factors in the pop world, which he explains via a discussion of literary historian Hans Robert Jauss’s “horizon of expectations” theory, but it’s overly labored for such a short book. All of that wordiness does little to illuminate why Some Girls is exceptional, which is contentious in itself. The album was a good return to form after the water-treading Black and Blue, but it doesn’t measure up to the band’s work from the ‘60s through Exile on Main Street. This book seems as though it was written by a writer who did not realize his subject lacks substance until after starting his assignment. So he filled it out with unnecessary autobiographical tangents, pretentious literary theories, and way, way too many passages pulled from other sources. Patell recycles so much of Life that Keith Richards should receive royalties for this book. What does a reprint of Patell’s own blog review of the Shine a Light concert film have to do with an analysis of Some Girls? I understand how Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” may be relevant to a discussion of “When the Whip Comes Down” (both songs are about rubes and their eye-opening experiences in NYC), but do we really need to know how Campbell came to record the song and how it moved up the pop charts? More filler.

The most interesting chapter is the one titled “Aftermath”, which covers the controversies Some Girls stirred, The Stones' “Saturday Night Live” performance in support of the album, and reactions to the band in their middle-aged years. But the book goes off the rails again when Patell gets into an extended, irrelevant discussion of the Steel Wheels tour. Is the point to show how commercially minded Jagger had become in the ensuing ten years after The Stones made their reaction to punk? Because punk gestures aside, he was pretty commercially minded in ’78 too. Whatever. This is not the worst book about The Stones out there, but with so many superior choices, it’s not really essential. Kind of like Some Girls.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Review: ‘33 1/3: Marquee Moon'

The late-‘70s punk movement gestated for a long time— some may say it began way back in 1963 when The Stones’ recorded Lennon and McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man” as a hyperkinetic rave barely crossing the 90-second mark. Punk slipped through some unexpected variations on its way to becoming one of Rock’s most dogmatic splinters in 1977, when even the wrinkliest journalists knew the formula: two chords, two minutes, some spiky-haired scuzzo from London or NYC screeching about anarchy. Television did not fit that bill at all, yet they sat among the handful of bands that could really be credited with launching punk. They broke in CBGB for Patti Smith, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, and all the other bands that would establish the former home of country, blue grass, and blues as ground zero for New York Punk. Tom Verlaine’s snotty yowl wasn’t radically different from Johnny Rotten’s or Stiv Bators’s, but neither The Sex Pistols nor The Dead Boys would have ever played a ten-minute anthem streaked with ecstatic runs of psychedelic guitar, nor would they have composed lyrics as evocative and poetic as Verlaine’s.

Television could be transcendent on stage, but harnessing that fluid magic on vinyl was tricky. After a false start recording demos with Brian Eno, who one might think would be a perfect match with Television’s atmospheric sensibility, they tried again with Andy Johns, best known for his work with Led Zeppelin and The Stones. The collaboration was surprisingly right (at least once Johns stopped miking Billy Ficca’s drumkit to sound like John Bonham's). Ambitious and beautiful, Marquee Moon is a rare jewel. Television crumbled nearly as soon as their debut was released, managing one other record, the so-so Adventure, before going on hiatus for nearly 15 years.

Bryan Waterman accomplishes quite a lot in chronicling Television’s bumpy path toward making Marquee Moon in his new book for the “33 1/3” series. His book serves as a well-researched biography of the band’s earliest days, which means it tells the portion of Television’s story that will most interest fans. Waterman maintains focus on the music, so anyone looking for anecdotes about Richard Lloyd’s days as a prostitute or other tabloid tales should stick with their copies of Please Kill Me. Yet we still get a rich portrait of the band because so much of their history is relevant to how Marquee Moon was created: the friendship between Verlaine and bassist Richard Hell and their bitter break, Verlaine’s relationship with Patti Smith, new bassist Fred Smith’s defecting from Blondie, the history of CBGB and the New York punk and poetry scenes. Waterman details the album’s recording before providing individual analyses of its tracks, doing his best in the face of Verlaine’s tendency toward the cryptic. Compact yet comprehensive, Bryan Waterman’s Marquee Moon crams a lot of interesting information and insights onto its 211 tiny pages.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Psychobabble’s 200 Essential Horror Movies Part 5: The 1960s

In this feature, Psychobabble creeps through 100 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 200 most monstrous works, decade by decade.

(Updated in September 2021)

60. Eyes Without a Face (1960- dir. Georges Franju)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Review: The Next Wave of Kinks Deluxe Editions

The Kinks entered 1966 as a radically different band. Power-chord pile drivers such as “You Really Got Me”, “All Day and All of the Night”, and “Till the End of the Day” gave way to sensitivity and social observation. These ingredients had already seasoned the more sedate moments on their earlier records, but they became The Kinks’ raison d'être on Face to Face. The band could still whip up a froth on stuff like “Party Line” and “House in the Country”, but the heaviness had dissipated. So had trivial lyrics about hand holding and all that follows. Ray Davies’s literate tales of self-pitying layabouts, wayward teens, and vain bounders placed him in the same league as Britain’s top composers. In his own way, Davies nearly matched Dylan in terms of influence on his mid-‘60s peers. He was single-handedly responsible for spearheading the wave of music-hall nostalgia and unapologetic Britishness that made London swing in ’66 and ’67. It is impossible to imagine The Stones’ Between the Buttons, Donovan’s Mellow Yellow, and even Sgt. Pepper’s without The Kinks’ inspiration. Yet few beyond their fellow musicians and hip music critics were aware of the full breadth of The Kinks’ greatness during this period, because they were still generally regarded as a singles band. A Musician’s Union ban from the United States further damaged their commercial potential.

Still The Kinks soldiered on, crafting an L.P. that should have been their masterpiece. Arriving in late 1967, Something Else by The Kinks develops upon Face to Face to formulate a perfectly realized microcosm of English life populated by a particularly vivid cast of characters. Peculiarly, Ray chose to tell his stories not from the perspectives of these golden boys and girls, but from drab, envious bystanders. As such, “David Watts”, “Two Sisters”, “Lazy Old Sun”, and “Waterloo Sunset” are among his most humane and finely detailed character sketches. Meanwhile, brother Dave—the Sybilla to Ray’s Priscilla—was developing into a fine songwriter in his own right with the comparatively extroverted rockers “Funny Face” and “Love Me Till the Sun Shines” and the sublime Dylan-pastiche “Death of a Clown”.

Something Else should have been The Kinks’ masterpiece because no band should have it in them to make a record of greater beauty or depth. That did not stop them from conjuring The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society a year later, and a more perfect pop creation is impossible to imagine. So magnificently realized, the album made decline an inevitability, and though Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire is wonderful, it does feel like The Kinks’ had passed the rainbow’s peak. Recorded as the soundtrack to an uncompleted television film, Arthur drags slightly because of the extended jams cut to fill out dramatic sequences. Yet Ray’s compositions continue to astound—“Victoria”, “Shangri-La”, and “Yes Sir, No Sir” certainly rate among his finest—and the band sounds positively elated to be back in harder rocking territory.

Village Green received an extraordinary sonic upgrade and expansion way back in 2004, but the other records that komprised The Kinks’ most kreative period were only available in poorly mastered, hard-to-find editions. Sanctuary/UMC’s new kampaign to refurbish The Kinks’ back katalogue (OK, I’ll stop with the K’s …) has finally bestowed the definitive editions of Face to Face, Something Else, and Arthur on a patient public. Well, as definitive as we’re likely to get. The sound of these discs cannot be improved. Like the double-disc editions of The Kinks’ first three records released this past Spring, these latest releases are dense and detailed. Each album is presented in both mono and stereo mixes, which is slightly redundant on Face to Face since several tracks on the “stereo” album are actually in mono. These numbers are given all-new stereo remixes as bonus tracks, though a quick listen will reveal why they were left in mono in the first place. Something Else is the record on which The Kinks were well represented in stereo for the first time. The mixes are unusually well balanced and full-bodied for the era. The mono version is still worth hearing for its fascinating alternate details, particularly apparent in “Lazy Old Sun”. Arthur was recorded after the proliferation of stereo, and the mono mix sounds lacking in comparison.

The compilers did a good job of sweeping together a bundle of bonus non-L.P. sides, alternate mixes, BBC cuts, and oddities (collectors will be pleased to discover “Sand on My Shoes”, an early version of “Tin Soldier Man”, and an acoustic version of “David Watts”). Still, it isn’t nitpicky to note that several great, lost Kinks classics still have not received official release. The scuttlebutt is that Ray blocked the inclusion of “Pictures in the Sand” and “Till Death Us Do Part” from the deluxe edition of Village Green Preservation Society for some reason, so he may be blameworthy for their non-appearance on these latest discs, too. Those divine songs would have been preferable to the alternate mix of “Drivin’” and backing track of “Shangri-La” included on Arthur. So would orphans such as “There Is No Life Without Love” and “I’m Crying” from Dave’s abandoned solo record featuring The Kinks as his backing band. Oh well. There’s always hope that these tracks may find their ways onto a deluxe edition of Lola vs. Powerman and the Money-Go-Round sometime in the future. Keep your fingers krossed.

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