Monday, October 31, 2011


Arriving less than a month after that initially exciting, ultimately drudging return to the classroom, the season sweeps in early October. Crisp days flush out late summer oppressiveness. The sun’s early descent swathes all in gold glow. Then, gradually throughout the month, peaked eyes leer out from closed windows, glowering and glimmering with candlelight in the evening. Beistle cutouts of orange, green, yellow, and black decorate doors, giving early indication of the houses worth visiting come the 31st. Jack-o-lanterns. Witches. Black cats. Cartoonishly rendered haunted houses and skulls with rats peering from empty eyes. Nature gets in on the festivities by strewing dead leaf confetti. As the day nears, kids and spirited adults debate costume choices. Some start their planning considerably earlier. Nearer still come the trips to costume shops or the rummages through junk piles to construct homemade disguises. Traditionalists duck under white sheets to howl and rattle chains or grease-up with green paint to play vampires and witches. And as that one day on which prowling little wolves take the streets approaches, they take the airwaves too when kids cartoons invade primetime TV: “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”, Halloween Is Grinch Night”, “Bugs Bunny’s Howl-o-ween Special”.

Then the 31st, when store clerks shed their smocks and students shun their school clothes to take on new personas for the day. In the aurous afternoon or at twilight, small strange creatures creep down sidewalks and across lawns, rapping on doors, demanding sweets, exploring neighborhood nooks never intruded any other day of the year. They build appetites that can only be sated with tiny bags of candy corn, miniature Snickers bars, Pixy Stix, rolls of Smarties, Dum Dums, and candy cigarettes. When little legs grow too weary, when loot sacks and plastic pumpkins fill to capacity, when the welcoming lights in homes extinguish, the time comes to return home. But a month-long diet of ghosts and monsters populates young imaginations. They second guess. And though they’ve passed that tree on countless slogs to school or jaunts to friends’ homes, doesn’t its gnarled limbs resemble talons tonight? And doesn’t the wind rustling its remaining foliage sound more like malignant whispers? And doesn’t the darkness seem that much darker when parents are home, going about their mundane business as they would any other night, while they’re children are out roaming, masquerading as evil things? Could a child’s costume fool real goblins into drifting up from the netherworld, believing their kind really has inherited the Earth? Hurry back to your homes, where you can comb through your sugary stash in safety, and recall the thrill of when the night spirited away your reason. That fanciful, frightening, fantastic sensation only comes on Halloween.

Frightening Halloween may be. It may be a day fixated on monsters and devils and evil. But is there a more innocent day of the year? On what other day do parents trust their children to venture out alone to literally take candy from strangers? On what other day do adults place so much trust in each other to treat each other’s kids safely and respectfully? During the ‘70s and ‘80s, reports of razor blades concealed in apples and candy spiked with angel dust went beyond the usual Halloween frights. These suburban myths made parents take a more active role in Halloween activities, accompanying older kids on their Trick-or-Treats and inspecting their candy like amateur Homeland Security grunts. But isn’t the kind of trust that comes with Trick-or-Treating valuable? Does paranoia have to taint the more fanciful fears that are Halloween’s sustenance just as it now contaminates our airports and subways tunnels? Shouldn’t kids learn to feel comfortable in their own communities? Because beyond its creatures, Halloween is different from all other days of the year, different from all other holidays, because it is about community. Most of us spend Thanksgiving and Christmas and Hanukah inside our homes with friends and relatives or in the homes of those familiars. Halloween is the only holiday on which adults send their children outside to discover unfamiliars, knock on their doors, and interact in one of the more intimate ways by asking them for food. There’s no exchange of money, no expectations on the part of the giver. For a lot of people, Halloween is the one day of the year they are actually charitable. Unlike the 4th of July or Thanksgiving, it has no nationalistic component. Unlike Hanukah or Christmas or Kwanzaa it has no enduring religious one. Halloween is for everyone.

Halloween also differs from other holidays because of the way it grows up with us. We may give and get different kinds of gifts as we get older, and hopefully we no longer believe those gifts come from Santa Claus when we’re adults, but Christmas doesn’t change significantly through life’s stages. Halloween does. It is Trick-or-Treating when we’re young, light mischief making when we’re too old for candy begging, parties when we’re old enough to host them. Those who choose to have children discover that Halloween changes again as they see the holiday through the eyes of their kids, reliving their own Trick-or-Treating adventures, the satisfaction of a bag bulging with colorful empty calories, the delightfully irrational fears: all the things their kids will remember fondly when they’re old enough, and possibly pass along to their own kids.

But let’s not forget the single best thing about Halloween: it’s a holiday completely devoted to monsters! Wrap your skull around that as if its fresh news. America has a national holiday that revolves around monsters and ghosts. What a gift to horror movie fans like us! Western fans don’t get All Cowboy’s Day. There’s no Laughmas for comedy geeks. Sci-fi junkies are deprived of Robot Hashanah. But we often-maligned horror fans are allowed a holiday on which our gruesome obsessions become the nation’s. What a weird, wonderful day Halloween is. Have a great one.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Review: The Criterion Edition of ‘Island of Lost Souls’

Ask a classic monster fanatic what the most unjustly unavailable movie is and that nut would likely respond, “Island of Lost Souls.” Why Erle C. Kenton’s brilliant 1932 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau has been out of print for so long has never been satisfactorily answered. Fortunately, that question is no longer relevant since Criterion has now given this overdue movie its due. We can finally revel in Charles Laughton’s dastardly portrayal of sadistic vivisectionist/mad scientist Moreau and Bela Lugosi’s desperate Sayer of the Law (“Are we not men?!?”) and Kathleen Burke’s sexy, tragic Lota the Panther Woman and Kenton’s enthralling atmosphere and pre-code edginess on DVD and Blu-ray any time we please.

Criterion’s transfer is a composite of several sources of varying quality. The restoration is not immediately striking because the film is front-loaded with the rougher bits. The daylight scenes that dominate the beginning of the film are gauzy, giving the false impression of weak images. The actors almost seem to glow. Once the picture moves into the shadowy, higher-contrast nighttime scenes that dominate it, the restoration looks very, very good. The composite also includes passages of dialogue censored since the film’s original release. They most likely include Moreau’s “Do you know what it means to feel like God?” which closely resembles a similarly censored line from Whale’s Frankenstein.

We get an audio commentary from the charming horror historian Gregory Mank and four very different video commentaries. The most traditional is a scholarly analysis by David Skal, our best monster movie documentarian and author of the absolutely essential Monster Show. He discusses Wells’s novel and the film’s themes and sources, the most-revelatory suggestion being that Laughton may have based his Moreau on Oscar Wilde. I’m not convinced of his claim that the film reflects co-screenwriter Philip Wylie’s misogyny, though. Both female characters are sympathetic and both are responsible for rescuing the men. Only villainous Moreau expresses any contempt for women. Compared to something like King Kong, Lost Souls is practically progressive.

Next up is a fun roundtable with John Landis, Rick Baker, and Bob Burns, who geek out about the performances, makeup, and atmosphere. Burns also gets off the best comment on the DVD when Landis asks him why he likes Kenton’s schlocky House of Frankenstein. Burns responds, “It has Frankenstein and the Wolf Man.” Hear, hear.

We also get a talk with director Richard Stanley, who was let go from the disastrous 1996 adaptation starring Marlon Brando and completed by John Frankenheimer. Stanley goes in depth about Wells but is fairly dismissive of all the film versions and could have provided more information about his ousting from his own project.

The oddest extra in the bunch is a discussion with Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale of Devo, who talk about the film’s influence on their image, philosophy, and songs (“Are we not men? We are Devo”). The talk leads them on some fascinating tangents about Ohio horror host Ghoulardi, who’s show introduced the guys to the movie, and the infamous Kent State protest/cop-shooting-spree that inspired Neil Young’s “Ohio”. Also included is a valuable Devo short film from 1976, which is basically an edit of music videos for “Secret Agent Man” and “Jocko Homo” that doesn’t quite look like the union of German Expressionism and McDonald’s commercials the guys intended it to be.

Diary of the Dead 2011: Week 4

I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews every Friday in October (this year I’ll only be discussing movies I haven’t reviewed elsewhere on this site). I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

October 21st

The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972- dir. Charles B. Pierce) **½

The Legend of Boggy Creek arrived amidst a weird wave of Big Foot Fever. A few years earlier, two jokers named Patterson and Gimlin made news with grainy film of one of their buddies in a monkey suit. A few years later, the Six Million Dollar Man duked it out with Sasquatch. Fonzi jumped over him in water-skis. Boggy isn’t much more convincing than any of those things, but the documentary conceit was certainly novel at the time. It also justifies the amateur acting and “In Search Of”-quality narration. Stretching the gimmick to 87 minutes is a bit unnecessary. A reasonable person can only watch so much footage of NRA cardholders assholing around in a swamp. I admire director Pierce’s restraint in not giving us a good look at the monster. The country muzak songs are delightfully wretched.

Blood and Roses: U.S. Edit (1960- dir. Roger Vadim) ***½

Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s pre-Dracula novel Carmilla was adapted a bunch of times, most famously as The Vampire Lovers. Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses was the first one to leave the book’s essential lesbian romance intact. That theme was gutted from the U.S. edit, which is

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Psychobabble’s 200 Essential Horror Movies Part 9: The 2000s

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)

153. Shadow of the Vampire (2000- dir. E. Elias Merhige)

Review: ‘The Unknown Peter Cushing’

The Unknown Peter Cushing is a pile of research in search of a book. Frustrated by the failure of other biographies to discuss Cushing’s grandfather’s stage career, author Michael G. McGlasson performed a pretty impressive archival dig to illuminate this aspect of the Hammer-Horror star’s ancestry. McGlasson understands that fans of Cushing’s monster movies are the most likely to check out his book, so he gives us some interesting tidbits about how Grandfather Henry rubbed elbows with Bram Stoker and played Wagner in Faust. When the author switches focus from Henry Cushing to Peter half-way through his book, he seems to do the very thing he criticizes about other Cushing books in his pompous introductory chapter by regurgitating available information. Indeed that introduction leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth as the author checks off other books by name, dismissing them as “scant,” “heavy with redundancies,” and “ponderous.” It’s never a good idea to begin your book by criticizing the work of others, especially when yours is as ponderously written as the scant, 85-page Unknown Peter Cushing. Cushing completists who will not be satisfied until they explore absolutely every crevice of the actor’s history will probably want to add McGlasson’s book to their collection. Everyone else would probably do better to check out one of the books he dismisses in his introduction, or better yet, Cushing’s own An Autobiography and Past Forgetting, which McGlasson quotes heavily in his totally non-redundant book.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review: ‘Karloff as The Invisible Man’

A swarm of potential Karloff vehicles materialized in the vapor trails behind Frankenstein. Universal jolted many into existence: The Old Dark House and The Mummy and The Black Cat. Several were stillborn, including films that would eventually be realized with different actors in their lead roles. Too bad for Boris, but The Wolf Man would make a star of Lon Chaney, Jr., and The Invisible Man would do the same for Claude Rains, even though the actor’s face is only non-invisible (or visible, if you prefer) for mere seconds before the credits roll. Of course, Frankenstein made Boris Karloff a star, and such scant screen-time hardly befitted a creature of his stature. Director James Whale saw his latest horror project (and his latest project to delay his career-long obsession, The Road Back) run through a number of variations before he deemed it suitable for filming. By that point, Karloff was off the project because studio execs Carl and Junior Laemmle had failed to give him the salary increase he deserved.

A voice as distinctive as Karloff’s dulcet lisp would have made the actor as recognizable as an invisible man as a visible one, but early drafts of the film would have given viewers far more glimpses of his equally iconic face than the completed film starring Rains. In the latest essential volume in his essential “Alternate History for Classic Film Monsters” series, Philip J. Riley collects all that remains of the discarded swipes at The Invisible Man. After his brief overview of the film’s history, Riley hands over the reins to R.C. Sherriff, who would ultimately compose the script James Whale filmed in 1933. In an extended excerpt from Sherriff’s 1968 autobiography, No Leading Lady, the screenwriter spends much time wringing his hands over the faithfulness of his accepted script. Apparently, Universal expected its screenwriters to use their source material as the merest seeds that might sprout almost completely original ideas (it is unclear whether this was Sherriff’s interpretation of the studio’s desires or if the Laemmeles specifically demanded originality). Indeed, his plot is the most similar to the one in H.G. Wells’s novella, though the author took issue with Sherriff’s decision to have the invisibility formula turn Dr. Griffin into a madman.

One can only guess how violently Wells would have reacted to James Whale and novelist Gouveneur Morris’s treatment, which recasts the Invisible Man as a sort of evil faith-healer, who lives in seclusion because of his horribly scarred face like the Phantom of the Opera and fears crucifixes like Dracula. Or Richard Shayer’s distasteful unfinished treatment/script, which would have set Karloff off on a rape-spree through Manhattan. John Huston’s treatment is the eeriest, but Sherriff clearly made the right decision by adapting Wells faithfully while working in the humorousness of the Shayer draft. And Sherriff quite sells himself short in his autobiography by suggesting he did little more than reformat Wells’s novella as a screenplay. He enriched that tale by inventing the madness-inducing drug Monocane, introducing the love interest that would somewhat humanize the otherwise deplorable Griffin, and nudging in the humor that surely appealed to cheeky Whale and helped make his film a classic. Because the unfilmed treatments all end abruptly, Riley includes the complete first draft of Sherriff’s shooting script, which is most notable for missing some of the film’s funniest flourishes.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Diary of the Dead 2011: Week 3

I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews every Friday in October (this year I’ll only be discussing movies I haven’t reviewed elsewhere on this site). I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

October 14th

Frankenstein Unbound (1990- dir. Roger Corman) **

Roger Corman hadn’t directed a movie in nineteen years when he made Frankenstein Unbound. Why he decided to make his comeback with this insane hooey is anyone’s guess. John Hurt is a scientist in the year 2031. He creates a WMD that somehow produces a Hun on horseback who zaps him and his Knight Rider car back to 1817. There he meets the similarly disaster-prone scientist Dr. Frankenstein (Raul Julia). For some reason, Percy (Michael Hutchence!) and Mary Shelley (Bridget Fonda) coexist with her literary creations. Corman holds up Frankenstein and his monster as forerunners of all the bad, bad science that would wreak destruction in the future. An interesting idea, and Hurt and Julia are great actors, but the package is just so damn silly. Corman plays it totally straight, so Frankenstein Unbound never achieves the campiness that is its true calling.

October 15th

The Evil Dead (1983- dir. Sam Raimi) ***

Once you’ve seen its brilliant sequel/remake, The Evil Dead is tough to view as anything but a rough demo. Sam Raimi intended his first feature to be serious horror, but the cheesy script and acting prod it toward camp. By fully embracing that inclination, he made Evil Dead 2 one of the funniest and most energetic horror/comedies. Its predecessor

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review: The Criterion Edition of ‘Kuroneko’ (1968)

From out of the wind-rustled bamboo grove surrounding a small cottage creeps a samurai horde. They storm the cottage, rape the mother (Nobuko Otowa) and daughter-in-law (Kiwako Taichi) who live there, and burn the women alive. A black cat surveys the wreckage, crying. When it licks the women’s charred bodies, a demon spirit grants them renewed life in exchange for a vow of vengeance. The women are happy to oblige, as they must now drink the blood of all samurai who cross their vampiric path.

Director Kaneto Shindō (Onibaba) takes this seemingly simple premise into astoundingly complex territory with Kuroneko (Black Cat). Strategically placed peaks in the sound mix illustrate the animal brutality of both the samurai and their spectral victims. Subtle trick shots transform nature into a predatory entity stalking the samurai who fall into the specters’ trap. Sudden tempo shifts transform their feline attacks into shocking moments of horror. The rapes are so intrinsically horrific that Shindō doesn’t have to do much more than capture them and the leering faces of the onlookers. Most provocatively, his script does not spare these wronged women the dehumanizing effects of waging war. When they reunite with their abducted son and husband (Kichiemon Nakamura), they learn he has been decorated as a samurai during his absence and is now destined to be their next blood donor.

As all great antiwar films are, Kuroneko is harsh and profoundly tragic. It is also an eerie horror film and a dazzling showcase of cinematic magic tricks. Criterion augments this already rich film with an hour-long interview with Shindō from 1998 in which the director talks about his body of work, though oddly not Kuroneko. In another extra, film critic Tadao Sato rights that oversight with an insightful discussion of the film, focusing on its roots in kabuki theater and Shindō’s anti-samurai stance. Criterion presents the beautifully restored picture in its original ultra-wide 2:35:1 aspect ratio.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Seventeen Scary Songs

Any hack can dash off some lyrics about purple people eaters and monster mashes, but it takes a real ghoul to create music that is scary in and of itself. The following songs are not just about scary subjects—they are scary. Tracks to shiver your spine and keep you up at nights. Tracks to clear out the obnoxious stragglers at your Halloween party. These seventeen scary songs will scare them right out of the room… scarily!

1. “Blue Moon” by Elvis Presley (1955)

From its very beginning, Rock & Roll shared a kinship with horror. Perhaps it was their mutual trashiness. Perhaps it was their alleged “corrupting” influence on the young. Perhaps it was just because they are both so much damn fun. Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, and of course, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins were just a few of the early rockers who shouted about ghosts and demons and sundry beasties. But the first one to actually capture the sensation these creatures stir is Elvis Presley. And he did it with Rodgers’ and Hart’s non-supernaturally romantic standard “Blue Moon”. Clip-clopping percussion echo out a rhythm like the hooves towing a phantom carriage. The King begins crooning the lyric with trademark beauty. Then something strange comes over him. Has he been possessed? Is Elvis’s ghost making an appearance 22 years too early? Has the blue moon transformed him into a fried banana sandwich-devouring werewolf? Whatever the cause may be, he starts howling in a chilling falsetto that has little to do with the lovesick lyric and the effect is quite frightening. For the first time, Rock & Roll was scary, and not in the way parents feared.

2. “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” by The Beach Boys (1966)

Legend has it that a major factor in Brian Wilson’s abandonment of SMiLE was “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”. A movement in The Beach Boys’ bizarre project was to be devoted to the four elements. Wilson crafted incredible musical mood pieces to convey the essences of earth, wind, water, and fire. “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” is the fire piece, and though the opening flourish of slide whistles and organ sounds like it should accompany the

Monday, October 17, 2011

Psychobabble's 10 Most Petrifying Portmanteau Episodes

portmanteau (noun \pȯrt-ˈman tō\)
1. a large suitcase for traveling
2. a word formed by blending two or more other words
3. a horror movie anthologizing two or more distinct episodes into one horrifically zany, often inconsistent, sometimes spectacular whole, all bolted together with a wraparound story usually resolving with a ghastly ironic twist.

1. “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” from Dead of Night (1945- dir. Alberto Cavalcanti)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Diary of the Dead 2011: Week 2

I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews every Friday in October (this year I’ll only be discussing movies I haven’t reviewed elsewhere on this site). I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

October 7st

Alice (1988- dir. Jan Švankmajer) ****

Alice begins with the title tot intoning, “Now you will watch a film made for children… perhaps.” Yeah, perhaps you want to stay up all night consoling your hysterical child who’d just been traumatized by Jan Švankmajer’s stop-motion animal skeletons and taxidermied carcasses. Perhaps not. No filmmaker has ever really been able to capture the quizzical humor of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Švankmajer doesn’t really try. His Alice is more of a minimalistic nightmare. The repetitious scraps of dialogue mock Carroll’s copious wordplay. The googly-eyed, chisel-toothed White Rabbit splits open and bleeds torrents of sawdust blood. The sets are dank and derelict. The film reeks of mildew and formaldehyde. This is not horror in the sense that anyone gets hunted by a monster or hacked up by a mad man, but Alice may do nastier things to your psyche than any of those kinds of movies. Patience is required, though.

October 10th

Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968- dir. Vernon Sewell) ***½

This nonsense loosely based on Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch House” is an excuse for naïve images of sex, drugs, and ritual sacrifice. Boris Karloff was winding down and wheelchair bound when he made Curse of the Crimson Altar (aka: The Crimson Cult), but he remained consummately committed. Throwaway lines like “All the best things in life are short lived” take on unintentional

Thursday, October 13, 2011

See 'House on Haunted Hill' with Emergo at Jersey City's Landmark Loews!

Earlier this month I reported that William Castle's House on Haunted Hill will be screening at The Landmark Loews in Jersey City, NJ, on Friday, October 28th (8:00PM). In my post I wrote that it would be great if the theater showed the film with Castle's grand gimmick Emergo, not expecting that would be the case. Much to my shock, the theater's official site has announced that the film will, indeed, be shown with Emergo! Not sure how often this happens, but it certainly doesn't happen too often in my own neighborhood! William Castle's grandson will also be in attendance to host a Q&A and raffle off a copy of the new House On Haunted Hill: A William Castle Annotated Screamplay. See you there!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Twilight Zone A - Z

“The Twilight Zone” was often directed with great artistry, but like most fine television series, it was a writer’s show. Struggling in a medium still regarded as lowbrow, head writer Rod Serling did much to bring credibility to T.V. writing. In the brief teasers he’d film to set up the following week’s show, Serling often gave featured credit to the writer. His very appearance in these pieces and his famed introductions at the head of most episodes highlighted the starring roles writers played in “The Twilight Zone”. Serling chose some of the very best sci-fi and fantasy authors to assist him in realizing his series.

From the series’ very beginning, Richard Matheson was among the most prolific “Twilight Zone” contributors. His involvement was a true coup considering the impressive bibliography he’d been building since the start of the ‘50s: the tremendously influential apocalyptic horror novel I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man, the short stories “Death Ship”, “Little Girl Lost”, “Long Distance Call” and “Steel”, all of which he’d adapt for “The Twilight Zone”. Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was a rare moment of greatness in the series’ uneven final season. Charles Beaumont would do the same for his short classics such as “The Man Who Made Himself” (adapted as “In His Image”), “Perchance to Dream”, “The Howling Man”, and “The Devil, You Say?” (adapted as “Printer’s Devil”), while also contributing such first-rate original scripts as “Long Live Walter Jameson” and “Miniature”. Having also devised the story that would become “Living Doll”, Beaumont was responsible for some of the series’ most frightening pieces. George Clayton Johnson’s scripts and stories were fewer, but the humanity of “A Penny for Your Thoughts”, “Nothing in the Dark”, “Kick the Can”, “The Prime Mover”, and “A Game of Pool” has earned him a place among the most memorable authors who’ve passed through “The Twilight Zone”.

Serling’s work with one of his favorite genre writers didn’t go quite as smoothly as his collaborations with Matheson, Beaumont, and Johnson. He admired Ray Bradbury enough to pay tribute to the author with sly references in “Walking Distance”, “A Stop at Willoughby”, and “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up”, but the men’s working relationship was troubled. Serling wanted Bradbury to contribute scripts from the show’s conception. Bradbury was excited by that prospect. Once the series went into production, Bradbury began accusing Serling of plagiarism in private, citing “Walking Distance” among those he found a bit too Bradbury-esque. Serling later rejected Bradbury’s elaborate first script, “Here There Be Tygers”, for budgetary reasons. “A Miracle of Rare Device” met a similar fate. In the end, only the author’s “I Sing the Body Electric” made it to “The Twilight Zone”, only achieving that after two years of revisions and polite criticisms from Serling. Bradbury’s tale of a robotic grandmother was sweet enough, but failed to capture the heart or awe of the series’ classics. The writer’s stay in the Zone ended there.

Serling and his gang also adapted several stories by outside writers that achieved their greatest renown as locations in “The Twilight Zone”: Lynn Venable’s “Time Enough at Last”, Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life”, Damon Knight’s “To Serve Man”. Ironically, Serling’s love of prose and talent for screenwriting never translated to success as a writer of short stories or novels outside the television universe he created.

Much of the “Twilight Zone” magic radiates from the deep sense of nostalgia in so many of Rod Serling’s scripts. Rarely was this feeling more palpable than in the series’ fifth episode. In “Walking Distance”, a harried ad man steps through a time portal and returns to his childhood hometown where band concerts are still a summertime staple and the neighborhood carousel still spins. The fictional town of Homewood in “Walking Distance” is a thinly veiled stand-in for Serling’s own hometown of Binghamton. No doubt the hectic schedule of running and writing “The Twilight Zone” left him longing for the laziness of that burg in Broome County, New York. Further inspiration struck when he noticed how similar the back lot at MGM was to his boyhood stomping ground. The carousel is a particularly telling touch as Broome County’s signature landmarks are its six antique merry-go-rounds.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Review: ‘Alien Vault: The Definitive Making of the Film’

Like the film it chronicles, Alien Vault is initially striking because of its elegant design. This hardcover volume comes housed in a glossy protective case. Slip out the book and scan pages and pages of full-color on-set photos, film stills, and production and concept designs by H.R. Giger, Ron Cobb, Heavy Metal artist Moebius, and director Ridley Scott. Scattered throughout those pages are vellum envelopes containing pull-out storyboards, paintings, poster art, and blueprints for the Nostromo. Why couldn’t these images just sit on the pages with the rest of the arresting pictures? Same reason the Alien has to have an external ribcage and a phallic cranium: pure design.

With such adoring attention to aesthetics, Alien Vault could have easily been a style-over-substance specimen. As is the case with Alien, the content runs deeper than its striking surface. Empire-magazine editor Ian Nathan makes his love for Ridley Scott’s film felt early in his book, which holds true to its subheading: The Definitive Making of the Film. Nathan takes the reader from his own boyhood fascination with that decidedly adult alternative to Star Wars, back to its inception in the mind of Dan O’Bannon, through its production, and on to its aftermath. His text abounds in quotes from the numerous artists who helped birth Alien, particularly Scott, Giger, and Sigourney Weaver. We learn the extent of Joseph’s Conrad’s influence on the film and the depth producers Walter Hill and David Giler brought to O’Bannon’s original idea (which irritated the writer to no end). We learn about the alien life cycle and how The Who’s Roger Daltrey contributed to the look of the film.

Voyageur Press sometimes allows style to trump substance. Alien Vault: The Definitive Making of the Film is a triumph of text and design that suggests the publisher is getting the balance right. Hopefully, Nathan’s book is just the first in a series of similarly crafted books on important and visually rich films. Alien fanatics will certainly want to invest in the Vault if for no other reason than to see Giger’s grotesque early design for the creature he christened the “degenerate plucked turkey.”

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Revenge of Some Classic Horror Novelizations

Horror historian Philip J. Riley recently announced the NightMare Series, a new reprint line of classic novelizations of classic Hammer and AIP flicks. First up will be Dean Owen’s 1960 book based on Brides of Dracula. The Revenge of Frankenstein follows. Nine other titles with new introductions are already in the works.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Review: 'Motown Gold from the Ed Sullivan Show'

After sitting through The 4 Complete Ed Sullivan Shows Starring The Beatles and 6 Ed Sullivan Shows Starring The Rolling Stones it’s kind of a relief to find that Motown Gold from the Ed Sullivan Show includes nothing but music. And I’m not talking about all the opera singers and polka bands and Bavarian folk choirs you’ll skip past on The Beatles and Stones DVDs. Motown Gold jams 37 performances by The Supremes, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Miracles, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Martha and the Vandellas onto its two discs. Historians may miss the cornball acts and vintage commercials teens had to endure while waiting for the pop. Everyone might take issue with the decision to jumble the chronology and fail to even provide dates for the performances. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Diary of the Dead 2011: Week 1

Welcome to this year’s installment of Psychobabble’s Diary of the Dead. I’ll be logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews every Friday in October (this year I’ll only be discussing movies I haven’t reviewed elsewhere on this site). I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

It begins again…

October 1st

Queen of Blood (1966- dir. Curtis Harrington) ***½

It is the year 1990, an age of mind-blowing technological advances, an age when astronauts can zoom off to Mars in rockets and commune with the sexy, blood-sucking troll doll they meet there. Queen of Blood gets a lot of juice from its cult-crazy cast: Basil “Sherlock Holmes” Rathbone, John “Enter the Dragon” Saxon, Forrest “Famous Monsters of Filmland” Ackerman, Dennis “Dennis Hopper” Hopper. It also looks amazing, with its vivid, primary palette and images straight out of a Weird Science comic book. The aesthetic is so strong and the cast is such a blast that the script’s mediocrity barely matters. Writer/director Curtis Harrington should have introduced his monster much earlier. Bava’s Planet of the Vampires remains the preferable alternative, but Queen of Blood is definitely worth a gander for sci-fi/horror junkies.

October 2nd

Tales That Witness Madness (1973- dir. Freddie Francis) ***½

This British portmanteau is an Amicus production in everything but name. You’d have to be mental not to recognize the similarities between this film’s mental institution wraparound and that of Roy Ward Baker’s Asylum, an actual Amicus film released the previous year. But Francis is the portmanteau master, and his film is a lot better. Despite the redundant wraparound, the episodes are uncommonly weird. A possessed photo forces a guy to time travel on an old timey bike. A tree-lady branches out into a jealous rage. Kim Novak unwittingly eats her own daughter at a voodoo luau. The special effects are laughable, but that’s part of the charm.

October 4th

Swamp Thing (1982- dir. Wes Craven) ***

Wes Craven’s goofy comic book adaptation was an afternoon HBO staple when I was a kid. It’s been decades since I’ve seen Swamp Thing, but since I haven’t really grown up during that time, I was still able to enjoy it on a certain level. Yes, it’s dumb. Yes, Adrienne Barbeau’s potentially interesting character is sacrificed to the creature’s need for a damsel to constantly rescue. Yes, the rubber suit he wears looks like a rubber suit. With all the cheesy monsters and explosions and gratuitous boobs you’d think a 12-year old made this movie. Of course, if those are your complaints about a movie called Swamp Thing, you probably shouldn’t be watching a movie called Swamp Thing. It isn’t boring and the creature has a definite Frankenstein-Monster charm.

The Ballad of Tam Lin (1970- dir. Roddy McDowall) **½

“The Ballad of Tam Lin” is an old Scottish folk song that tells the tale of a young man caught in the thrall of an evil fairy queen. In Roddy McDowall’s sole directorial effort, the queen is a sort of a hippie den mother embodied by Ava Gardner. Stephanie Beecham is the outsider who upsets her control by falling in love with skinny, young Ian McShane. The queen then turns vengeful. McDowall’s tasteful restraint keeps the The Ballad of Tam Lin from generating heat until its final twenty minutes, which over compensate with psychedelic silliness. As a romance, it’s somewhat effective. As a horror movie, it is decidedly unhorrific. Pentangle handles the title ballad, but Fairport Convention’s rocking version is the definitive one.

October 5th

Requiem for a Vampire (1973- dir. Jean Rollin) *½

A pair of robbers dressed as circus clowns take refuge in a castle overrun with depraved vampires. The minimal use of dialogue is interesting, and the photography is quite beautiful. The nonstop images of rape and torture it captures are ugly. There’s a pretty suspenseful scene in which one of the robbers is accidentally buried alive, but that isn’t enough to make this boring trash worth watching.

October 6th

Invaders from Mars (1953- dir. William Cameron Menzies) ****

I watched Invaders from Mars on the recommendation of a regular Psychobabble commenter known as The Baron. I’m glad I did. The plot is basically a precursor to Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which the alien replicas are really, really mean and a little boy fills the Kevin McCarthy role. Invaders from Mars has its intense moments, but its artificiality makes it a lot less scary than Body Snatchers. The blatantly phony sets and richer-than-reality Cinecolor still make for delectable eye candy. An endless pseudo-science lesson sequence causes the center to sag, but the film manages to get back in orbit with a war-of-the-worlds finale masterminded by a mutant squid-man who lives in a snow globe. Raoul Kraushaar’s score, which appropriates bits of Holst’s The Planets, is phenomenal. Look out for a fleeting cameo by June Cleaver!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Psychobabble’s 200 Essential Horror Movies Part 8: The 1990s

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)

143. The Witches (1990- dir. Nicholas Roeg)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Landmark Loews in Jersey City Announces Halloween Schedule

The Landmark Loews in Jersey City is always a fine destination for pre-Halloween shivers, and this year the historic movie palace features a particularly strong line up for its holiday program. First up is William Castle's House on Haunted Hill (Friday, October 28 at 8PM), which is fab with or without Emergo... but it would be pretty spectacular if the theater was able to feature Castle's famed gimmick. Keep your fingers crossed. Next is the glorious Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein(Saturday, October 29 at 6PM), in which Dracula schemes to make the Monster more malleable by transplanting Lou's childlike brain into its flattop. Robert Wiene's surreal ground-breaker The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with live organ accompaniment follows (8:15 PM). All of these films made the cut of Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies, so they all come with the prestigious Psychobabble seal of approval.

The Landmark Loew's Jersey Theatre
54 Journal Square
Jersey City, NJ 07306
(201) 798-6055
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