Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Review: The EC Archives: ‘The Haunt of Fear Vol. 1’ and ‘The Vault of Horror Vol. 2’

Russ Cochran was just another young reader with a zeal for gooey reanimated corpses when E.C. started publishing its controversial, influential, sublime series of horror comics in the early ‘50s. He has since attained a fan’s ultimate dream by becoming directly involved with his favorite comics, republishing Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear since 1971. These included reprints of individual comics and hardback, black and white anthologies. In the late ‘00s, Cochran masterminded his splashiest revamps yet. Gemstone Publishing’s “E.C. Archives” series featured six original comics chronologically contained in recolored, annotated, hardback collections. Some fans took issue with the digital recoloring jobs, but purism be damned, these collections looked fantastic and were clearly made with the love and attention-to-detail of a long, longtime fan.

Then in 2008, with several new volumes in the series announced, The E.C. Archives came to as unceremonious a halt as the original comics did when the officious senate shut them down sixty years ago. Rumors began floating that Gemstone was having financial troubles, and Cochran’s fine series was left in limbo for three years. Well, it’s time to breath a relieved sigh of “Good lord! Choke!” because The EC Archives have finally resumed on GC Press, a boutique imprint Cochran cofounded with fellow super-fan Grant Geissman, author of such titles as Collectibly MAD: The MAD and EC Collectibles Guide and Foul Play! The Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s EC Comics!

Lovers of the series will be delighted to see that Gemstone quality has carried over to GC. The Haunt of Fear Volume 1 and The Vault of Horror Volume 2 are full of more wonderful supplemental essays by Geissman and Bob Stewart, who wrote a series of insightful issue-by-issue essays for Vault. Cochran and Geissman snagged two more prestigious personalities to contribute forwards: John Landis (Vault) and Robert Englund (Haunt). Of course, the stars of these volumes are the comics. Purists may be further riled to see that the images are more vivid and nuanced with highlights and shading than the Gemstone versions, but why squawk when there’s so much here to adore? Graham Ingels’s ghastly ghouls and gore oozing off the pages. Jack Davis’s cheeky, bulge-eyed characters capturing the more humorous side of the E.C. ethos. Witness the evolution of The Haunt of Fear, which began in somewhat slapdash fashion, recycling tales from both The Crypt and The Vault and lacking the essential wise-cracking horror host, to the introduction of our old pal The Old Witch at the end of the second issue, to her owning her GhouLunatic role in the fourth one. Terrifically terrifying tales include such creeping classics as “Horror Beneath the Streets” (starring none other than E.C.'s own William Gains and Al Feldstein!), “The Wall” (not-so-loosely based on Poe’s “The Black Cat”), "The Monster in the Ice" (a postmodern sequel to Frankenstein), “The Reluctant Vampire (which became one of the best episodes of the HBO’s Crypt series, with Malcolm McDowell in the title role), and the demented debut of the “widdle kid” stories starring homicidal tots. So wait no longer, boils and ghouls, and get your claws on these essential new E.C. Archives collections. Gasp!

Monday, March 19, 2012

20 Things You May Not Have Known About 'Eraserhead'!

I thought I heard a stranger. We've got 20 things you may not have known about the greatest cult movie ever made tonight. Strangest damn things. They're man made. Little damn things. Smaller than my fist. But they're new! Hi, I'm Psychobabble. Oh, printing's your business? Psychobabbling’s mine. For 35 years now we've watched David Lynch’s surrealist masterpiece change from a marginalized movie only fit for the midnight crowd to the celebrated hellhole it is now! I wrote every damn trivial tidbit on this list of 20 Things You May Not Have Known About Eraserhead. People think that trivial tidbits grow on lists. But they sure as hell don't! Look at my knees! Look at my knees!

1. In 1970 David Lynch wrote a screenplay called Gardenback in which the marriage of Henry and Mary is disrupted by adulterous impulses represented by an insectoid monster growing in Henry’s head. These themes of adultery and a ruinous monster born in the head, as well as a couple named Henry and Mary, would soon be reborn in his Eraserhead script.

2. An unfilmed scene in Lynch’s poetic Eraserhead script involved main character Henry Spencer receiving chunks of flesh and bone in the mail, which fuse into a toothy mouth. This sequence was reworked into a sequence in which Henry receives a small worm in his mailbox. The worm grows into a large-mouthed but toothless creature in his cabinet.

3. According to Greg Olson’s Beautiful Dark, Eraserhead was originally supposed to end with the baby growing so large that it swallows Henry, the final image being “Henry’s feet disappearing into the creature’s gaping mouth.”

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Review: 'Tales from Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made?'

Moviemaking is a tough job, not least of all because so many long-labored projects never even go into production. A screenplay can just as easily linger for decades before being made as it can get batted around, second-guessed, and (often needlessly) revised for the same number of years without ever even moving beyond the page. This painful, protracted process is known as “development hell,” and David Hughes explores more than a dozen such afflicted screenplays in his new book Tales from Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made? As the writer of more than ten unproduced scripts, Hughes knows the pain of development hell well, but it apparently hasn’t made him so bitter that he was unable to tell these tales with lively humor and entertaining briskness.

Despite the book’s title, not all of these movies were “never made,” nor do they all sound like they had the potential for greatness. Hughes deals with a succession of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and comic book flicks with varying fates. Some died on the vine, such as an ill-conceived remake of Fantastic Voyage and a Sylvester Stallone vehicle called Isobar described as “Alien on a train.” Some were actually produced to great success, such as Lord of the Rings and Batman Begins. Some were made, but probably would have been best left in development hell, such as the laughable Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Tim Burton’s awful Planet of the Apes remake.

No matter what came of each film he discusses, Hughes treats each with the same impeccable attention to detail, tracking the projects over their unfortunate speed bumps and through their various permutations, providing provocative synopses of key script and treatment drafts. Several went through some pretty interesting incarnations along the way. Lord of the Rings passed through Forrest J. Ackerman’s hands before landing with The Beatles, who allegedly would have starred as Frodo (Paul), Gollum (John), Gandalf (George), and Sam (Ringo) (I suppose that means Victor Spinetti was a shoe-in for Aragorn). Batman Begins could have been a straight adaptation of Frank Miller’s nitty-gritty Batman: Year One directed by Darren Aronofsky or a dark superhero rally called Batman vs. Superman.

Hughes devotes his final chapter to his own unproduced projects, though I have a feeling the world is no worse for lacking T.J. Hooker: The Movie or Stigmata: The TV Series. Having written such a fun, well-researched book about his chosen business, he may want to consider quitting his day job.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The McCartneys' 'Ram' to Get Deluxe Treatment This Spring

Paul McCartney's solo career gets a bad rap, but those of us who realize it wasn't all "My Love" and "Ebony and Ivory" will be excited to learn that his and Linda's excellent 1971 disc Ram will be the next to get the deluxe treatment as part of the Paul McCartney Archive Collection. The series has already winged out deluxe editions of McCartney, McCartney II, and Band on the Run. Ram is scheduled for spring 2012, though a specific release date and tracklisting have yet to emerge.

However, Hear Music has firm details on a preview single of its reissue of the Ram-era single "Another Day"/"Oh Woman, Oh Why", which is on the way for Record Store Day on Saturday, April 21.

In the meantime, here's what I had to say about Ram in Psychobabble’s Eleven Greatest Albums of 1971:

Someone had to take the fall for The Beatles’ breakup. The most sniveling journalists pitched their poison pens at Yoko and Linda. The rest blamed Paul. He was the first to quit and the first to release a solo record. When that record proved to be a sketchy miscalculation (didn’t he realize how the first ex-Beatle album would be scrutinized?), critics shredded it. Giddy from finally having a reason to knock a Beatle down, they greeted his second record with equal viciousness. McCartney was hurt, and justifiably so. Hearing Ram decades removed from the national-tragedy level hysteria surrounding The Beatles’ dissolution, it’s hard to see what the critics hated and impossible to miss the craftsmanship. So what if a good deal of the lyrics make no attempt at profundity? Since when was that Paulie’s objective? The tunes are his most effervescent since “The White Album”. The recording is a perfect union of Abbey Road-style invention and Let It Be-style grit. Both of those albums would have benefitted from such balance. And how could anyone dip into such a diverse dish without finding something that suits his or her fancy? McCartney is the consummate chameleon throughout, paying homage to Brian Wilson (“Back Seat of My Car”) and Buddy Holly (“Eat at Home”), playing the down-home farm boy (“Heart of the Country”) and the moonshine-mad bootlegger (“Monkberry Moon Delight”), and giving us the best Beatles song since the band’s breakup (“Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”). Those who criticized Ram as a cheerful exercise in style over substance chose to ignore the lacerating spite in “Dear Boy”, “3 Legs”, and the flame-throwing “Too Many People”. John Lennon didn’t. He regarded those tracks as sucker punches from his former partner (he had a point regarding “Too Many People”), and responded with the really mean “How Do You Sleep?” on Imagine. No one seemed to mind that Lennon’s record was guilty of a lot of the criticisms lumped on Ram: saccharine production and puerile lyricism (though Lennon got a pass because of his stabs at political observation and self-examination). 40 years on, one of those albums still sounds 100% fresh, and it isn’t the one on which a rich man tells us to “imagine no possessions.”

Thanks to The Second Disc for this scoop.

Review: 'Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and the Modern Horror Film'

Our ideas about and understanding of filmmaking changed drastically when Roger Leenhardt and AndrĂ© Bazin of Revue du CinĂ©ma introduced their “auteur theory” to the cinematic lexicon in the mid-1940s. Leenhardt and Bazin passed the ownership of film, once considered a collaborative effort or a producer’s medium, to directors with singular visions. Such directors, the critics argued, are the true authors of their films because they control scripts that reflect their own social, political, and artistic ideologies. With their distinctive camerawork, lighting, and control of their actors, they single-handedly crafted their films as assuredly as painters manage canvasses and sculptors manipulate stone. Although the auteur theory has its flaws— some proponents overlook the integral contributions of writers, cinematographers, producers, and the rest—it has helped establish a canon of indisputably great directors whose work can very reasonably bear analysis as the product of a single, or at least principal, creator: Francois Truffaut (the theory’s first high-profile champion), Orson Welles, Jacques Tati, Jean Cocteau, Federico Fellini, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, etc. Grand artists creating grand works of art. But are conventional concepts of artistic value integral to auteurism?

In his new book Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and the Modern Horror Film, Kendall R. Phillips argues that Leenhardt and Bazin’s theory should extend to three filmmakers often shoved to the back of cinema’s closet because they primarily work in the dreaded horror genre. Phillips establishes broad thematic threads as evidence of their auteurism: George Romero’s fixation on the body, Wes Craven’s fascination with the split between nocturnal Gothic horror and diurnal reality, and John Carpenter’s obsession with the American frontier.

Phillips’s thesis regarding Carpenter is strongest. He smartly stops just short of designating the director as a maker of Westerns, but provides a sharp view of the way rugged individualists stumbling into dire situations in cagey variations on the American frontier recur in much of his work. But horror is so deeply linked with the body and Gothic traditions that either theme could just as easily be applied to the films of Whale, Raimi, Browning, Cronenberg, Polanski, and many other genre filmmakers as Phillips applies them to Romero and Craven. The writer also avoids his three filmmakers’ aesthetic sensibilities for the most part. A director’s stamp is not merely measured by recurring themes, but also by distinctive artistry. Perhaps Phillips recognized that a number of the films he discusses are artistically negligible and deeper discussions of aesthetics might damage his central argument.

Despite its somewhat incomplete argument—and I’m certainly not suggesting that these filmmakers aren’t auteurs— Dark Directions is a compelling and intelligent look at Romero, Craven, and Carpenter’s politics and the finer themes linking select clutches of their movies (each chapter deals with threads traveling through three or fours specific films). This means the book does make a strong case for the intellectual mechanisms grinding behind horror’s surface murder, gore, and mayhem. As such, it may provoke more intelligent considerations of a genre that often doesn’t get its due. For that alone, Dark Directions would be a very worthwhile book.

Friday, March 9, 2012

10 Revolutions Per-Paul Revere and the Raiders

Forget their goofy stage antics and goofier American Revolution costumes. Paul Revere and the Raiders were one of the great pop groups of pop’s greatest era. They always balanced their bubblegummy gimmicks with a Stones-tough attitude and were never anything less than self-aware when it came to their silliest tendencies. As front Raider Mark Lindsay turns 70 today, let’s take a listen to ten testaments to the revolutionary greatness of Paul Revere and the Raiders.

1. “Steppin Out” (1965)

Even Jagger wasn’t grunting with the delightful arrogance Mark Lindsay displays on “Steppin’ Out” in 1965. From his slack drawl to his malicious giggles to his psycho screams, Lindsay shows how to shout some mean blues rock right through the garage door.

2. “Hungry” (1966)

Heavy and rabidly driven, “Hungry” is Paul Revere and the Raiders at their most unwholesome. Has any other group ever made better use of fuzz bass?

3. “Good Thing” (1966)

The Raiders prove The Stones aren’t the only band they can mimic with the gorgeously harmonized “Good good good good Vibrations Thing”. Dig Woody Allen biting his lip to suppress his hatred of Rock & Roll while introducing “Paul Revere’s Raiders”.

4. “Undecided Man” (1966)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Brief Tribute to William Gaines

One hairy paw holds a severed head aloft, its lips dripping thick strands of drool. The other clutches an axe caked with black muck. The body lies on the floor, a short skirt hiked up to provide a teasing glimpse of slender legs.

Senator Kefauver: Do you think that is in good taste?

Mr. Gaines: Yes, sir; I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little farther so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.
William Gaines was a smart guy, so it’s tough to believe he actually did think this infamous Crime SuspenStories cover was “in good taste.” It’s lurid comingling of sex and violence is as “tasteful” as your average ‘80s slasher flick. And since when has anyone expected horror to be in good taste? Was the Frankenstein Monster’s drowning of a little girl in good taste? Was Mr. Hyde’s serial rape of a woman in good taste? But how else was he supposed to respond, standing before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency accusing him and other comic book mongers of corrupting kids with such images?

Nearly ’60 years down the road, the fact that comic books of any sort were deemed a serious enough threat to warrant a congressional investigation is just as absurd as Gaines’s insistence his comics were tasteful. They weren’t. Even dicey horror films like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde didn’t dare to unveil the graphic grotesqueries of Crime SuspenStories, Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear, with their axe-murdering Santa Clauses, cannibalistic deli owners, and homicidal baseball teams. But considering there were no tales of actual “juvenile delinquents” gutting their classmates and using their entrails as a makeshift baseball diamond, the effects of these stories were relatively negligible. So Gaines rightfully believed it was his duty to stand before the senate to defend his wares. No other comic owner had the guts to stand beside him, leaving Gaines as the face of the horror comics "problem." E.C. comics were out of business by 1955, just months after he testified before the senate, unable to recover from the media backlash that painted him as a corrupt, craven creep who preyed on youth to fill his coffers.
Of course, William Gaines bounced back almost immediately when he switched from gore to guffaws and made a fortune with MAD magazine. Horror comics never made as dramatic a comeback, but the influence of Gaines’ work may have had the most profound effect on horror since 18th century Gothic scribes Shelley, Stevenson, and Stoker. George Romero, John Carpenter, Joe Dante, and R.L. Stine are just a few of the horror purveyors who grew up on E.C. Horror Comics, and its influence is instantly recognizable in these filmmakers and writers’ work, not just in the gore, but the social conscience, wry satire, and demented playfulness. The Crypt Keeper’s macabre punning is the clearest precedent for the horror hosts— Zacherley, Vampira, Ghoulardi—integral in helping the genre make a comeback in the ‘60s after a poor showing in the prim and prudish ‘50s, the same decade that saw E.C. Comics flicker out nearly as soon as it caught fire.

Those who were influenced and effected by E.C. Comics never forgot Gaines’s contributions to the horror genre even as they were overshadowed by MAD for decades until Tales from the Crypt came back in vogue in 1989 when HBO’s long-running series debuted.

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