Saturday, April 28, 2012

Review: Taschen's 'Horror Cinema'

This year marks the 32nd anniversary of Taschen, one of the finest producers of lavish photography books in a sadly gasping publishing world. Horror cinema, of course, is deathless. The recent republication of Taschen’s tribute to that genre is a testament to both Horror’s determination to continue creeping us out and Taschen’s resolve to continue rolling out high quality photo books. Jonathan Penner and Steven Jay Schneider’s text is an intelligent enough primer on the sundry slashers, cannibals, giants, zombies, spooks, devils, and vampires that have populated some 100 years of scary movies. Nothing we old diehards haven’t studied before, but amusing and insightful enough to warrant review, and the opening passage is as beautiful and lucid an explanation of the difference between terror and horror as you’ll ever read.

Of course, that commentary is peas and carrots next to the big, bloody steaks that are the photographs comprising the bulk of Horror Cinema. Generally speaking, photo collections of this sort should be judged on the obscurity of the pictures contained. Horror Cinema doesn’t disappoint on this count, offering some of the most luridly detailed looks at Leatherface, The Alien Queen, and The Grand High Witch available. More importantly, it sports some valuable production sketches from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Phantom of the Opera, King Kong, and Alien and a gullet-stuffing glut of behind-the-scenes stills. Horror Cinema is worth the (very reasonable) cover price for these peeks at the makings of Freaks, The Birds, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Island of Lost Souls, Eyes without a Face, The Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein, Gremlins, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jaws, and way too many others to mention.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Monsterology: Mutants

In this new feature on Psychobabble, we’ll be taking a look at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.

You’re an animal. So’s your mom and your dad and your sister and all your friends. We humans like to think of ourselves as far removed from the animals we eat, shoo, experiment on, and patronize as pets. But though we may have opposable thumbs and cell phones, we are basically shaved apes with unwieldy brains. As Charles Darwin pointed out 150-odd years ago, we’re also mutants. We are the result of sudden biological jolts in unexpected directions, which is why most of us no longer live in trees or employ butt sniffing when choosing a mate (did prehistoric people actually do this? I like to think so). Despite war, genocide, environmental destruction, racism, sexism, homophobia, extreme narcissism, reality television, and Rick Santorum, we turned out pretty well. But a little tweak in the wrong direction and we could have been murderous men-fish with big webbed claws or underground-dwelling mole ladies. Terrifying to consider, eh? Perhaps that’s why mutants have been such reliable monsters since the dawn of Horror fiction.

H.G. Wells was one of the first artists to address such mutations, which he did in The Time Machine (1895). The writer sent his protagonist back to 802,701 A.D. where he meets two alternate early versions of his own species. Wells chiefly used the lazy Eloi and the brutish Morlocks as metaphors for the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, respectively, but he may not have conceived of these particular creatures had Darwin not made us aware of the strange side roads we walked on our journey toward humanity. The following year, Wells gave us a more explicit glimpse at our bestial past, but he did so without the trappings of revisionist history. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, the title doc is the maddest of modern scientists, conducting enforced evolution in a lab his hairy charges fear as the House of Pain. Wells intended his novel as a denunciation of one of “evolved” man’s great crimes, vivisection, yet it also functions as a raging criticism of the arrogance, cruelty, and whimsy of an evolution-crazed God. Moreau sees himself as The Creator, a noble entity who would erase the savagery of nature and replace it with the refinement of civilized humans. In actuality, he is an egomaniacal puppeteer and torturer, and like the God of Biblical fiction, his creations are ultimately destructive. Was Wells telling us we would have been better left grazing in the fields? Perhaps, and perhaps he wasn’t too far off the mark.

H.G. Wells later described The Island of Dr. Moreau as “rather painful” and “an exercise in youthful blasphemy,” yet it solidified a Horror archetype that had yet to take a shape of its own but may have always existed. What are werewolves and vampires if not mutants of sorts? Could they be supernatural suggestions of what might have been had humans evolved from wolves or bats instead of apes?

Such “what ifs?” gave us some of our most memorable monsters when Horror mutated from the printed page to the screen in the twentieth century. What if there was a direct missing link between us and that fish that crawled from the sea some 360 million years ago? Perhaps there might still be one of these creatures doing the backstroke in a black lagoon in the Amazon, mooning over a woman with whom he may have had a shot had he been fortunate enough to follow the same evolutionary path as the rest of us. As scientifically unlikely as it is, that fish/man missing link became one of Horror’s iconic monsters and a belated last hoorah for the golden age of Universal horror.
A true testament to natural selection, the Gill Man has withstood time better than the big-eyed mutants of the charmingly campy The Mole People, Universal’s less successful attempt to justify weird creatures with dicey science. Quite unlike evolutionary science, the “Hollow Earth Theory” had been roundly dismissed a century and a half before Virgil Vogel’s movie premiered in 1956. That didn’t stop phony-boloney scientist Frank C. Baxter from lecturing about mutant mole men running amok in the Earth’s core during the uproarious prologue:

Silly? Yes. But apparently not unworthy fodder for serious horror, as we learned almost fifty years later when Neil Marshall explored both the evolutionary undercurrent of vampires and the speculative hooey of mutant monsters dwelling under the Earth in the genuinely terrifying The Descent. Of course, the film’s claustrophobia-inducing scenes of spelunking are so scary that the mutant bat people are somewhat less overwhelming when they finally show up halfway through the picture.

In the interim, Horror and science fiction pondered strange mutations time and time again. In 1984, cult favorite C.H.U.D. took another dive below ground to visit with mole people of a different sort: urban homeless people mutated into monstrous cannibals by toxic waste. The classic 1963 novel and 1968 film The Planet of the Apes wondered what might result if apes continued evolving while retaining their signature ape flourishes while humans were relegated to lower-beast status. The three film adaptations of The Island of Dr. Moreau work as a devolutionary timeline, descending from the great (1933) to the good (1977) to the abysmal (1996) over time. Dagon, Stuart Gordon’s underrated 2001 adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, melds weird mutations and weirder religion with its Gill Man-esque creatures who worship a freaky fish god. Evolution and religion merge at last. The mutant continues to stalk our nightmares.

So before you go to bed tonight, thank your god—if you’re inclined to believe in such things—that you managed to make it to 2012 without gills or fangs or the need to take residence deep in the Earth. Better yet, toss The Creature from the Black Lagoon into the DVD player and thank Jack Arnold, H.G. Wells, Neil Marshall, and the rest for finding the riveting Horror in the strange-but-true science of evolution.

Essential Mutant Viewing:
Island of Lost Souls (1933)
The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Revenge of the Creature (1955)
The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
The Mole People (1956)
The Time Machine (1960)
The Planet of the Apes (1968)
The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977)
C.H.U.D. (1984)
Dagon (2001)
The Descent (2005)

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Great Albums

Hey, Psychobabblers, just a quick note that I added a new and long over-due entry in the "Categories and Features" sidebar. The Great Albums will lead you directly to all of this site's "Greatest Albums of [insert year]" lists. So far 1965, '66, '70, '71, '72, '76, '79, '80, and '81 are in the can. Stay tuned for Psychobabble's three-part series on "The Greatest Albums of 1967" coming later this Spring. Lists covering 1977 and 1982 (and possibly '87 and '92) will follow later in the year.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Farewell, Levon Helm

In the autumn of 2009, I went to the Apollo Theater for a taping of Elvis Costello’s “Spectacle”. The guest line-up was probably the best ever to appear on his short-lived chat show. I’d seen Elvis live several times before, but had yet to see Nick Lowe, Richard Thompson, or Allen Toussaint. I was excited to see each of these artists, but not nearly as keyed up as I was to see one of my very favorite singers, Levon Helm. Unfortunately, Helm was having throat troubles that night and could barely speak, let alone sing. Yet, he was still in great humor, and sat behind his drum kit to do his talking through his slack-tuned skins, as he so often did on those amazing old Band records. Elvis would ask him a question, and Levon would change up his beat to indicate a “yes” or “no” response. It was a cute joke, but also a beautiful metaphor for the guy. The Band was a group of five great artists and uncommonly distinct individuals, but Levon’s voice always rose above everyone else’s whether he was singing or speaking through his unmistakably loose, funky drumming.

Very sadly, that voice fell silent today. Levon Helm died of throat cancer at the age of 71. Of course, as long as we still have his records, that voice will never really be silent.

Here are some of my favorite examples of the humor, heartbreak, and humanity of Levon Helm’s voice and equally expressive drumming:

Review: The 'Yellow Submarine' Storybook

Flip that old copy of Curious George into the bin and send your kid off with some bedtime reading of a groovier sort. As part of a new Yellow Submarine reissue campaign, Candlewick Press is republishing Charlie Gardner’s fab storybook that boils the psychedelic cartoon feature down to Goodnight Moon length, while tossing some fun new Beatle-tune puns into the mix. Fiona Andreanelli’s design cleverly combines painterly backdrops pulled directly from the film with freshly rendered and very vivid images of our Pepperland-rescuing heroes John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Jeremy, as well as delectable villains such as the Chief Blue Meanie, the Snapping Turtle Turks, and the Suckophant (yes, the vacuum monster has an official name). A great way to turn your baby into a Beatle freak before she or he has even stopped wetting the bed. And don’t forget to play an appropriate soundtrack while reading…

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Psychobabble’s 20 Greatest Singles of 1962!

At last! Following a couple of dry years for Rock & Roll, many interesting new developments were afoot. Breakthrough records by The Beach Boys and Phil Spector joined great new discs by old favorites like Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison. A young troubadour named Bob was having his first go at Rock & Roll. And some odd rumbling began in merry-old England when a London band topped the U.S. charts for the first time and a quartet of shaggy weirdos from Liverpool released their first hit on their home shore. Here are Psychobabble’s picks for the twenty greatest singles released during that revolutionary year, 1962!

20. “Puddin’ N’ Tain” by The Alley Cats

Phil Spector’s early production of the doo-wop nonsense “Puddin’ N’ Tain” lacks the drama of his great girl-group work, but right from the opening moments, this is clearly a leap forward from earlier records in the same vein. Echo shrouds a popping percussion ensemble soon joined by dancing-finger piano. Over it all, The Alley Cats lose it, repeating the title mantra, leaping into hysterical falsetto. But the Spectorian bells that twinkle out on the bridge leave no question as to who brought the magic to this record.

19. “Love Me Do” / “P.S. I Love You” by The Beatles

The decision to introduce The Beatles to the world with the halting folk ditty “Love Me Do” was a strange one considering they had better original material, and that includes the single’s flipside, “P.S. I Love You” (early evidence of McCartney’s brilliance with the pop-standard form). Certainly this isn’t one of The Beatles’ best, yet it’s historical significance lies somewhere between Darwin’s fish crawling out of the ocean and man setting foot on the moon.

18. “Telstar” by The Tornadoes

Joe Meek’s freaky production of The Tornadoes’ instrumental is not quite as monumental as “Love Me Do”, yet it is significant as the very first record by a British band to top the Billboard charts. More importantly, it is a transporting period piece buzzing with Meek’s signature special effects. Although the title was inspired by the first communication satellite launched into the atmosphere, the track is more reminiscent of the ambling of a wind-up robot.

17. “Sheila” by Tommy Roe

Buddy Holly’s death left a hiccup in the pop world that several singers tried to fill. Bobby Vee was the first, but the most convincing was Tommy Roe, who copped Holly’s delivery over a dead-on Jerry Allison beat on his debut single, “Sheila”. Roe went on to a surprisingly long career as a chirper of bubblegum smashes like “Sweet Pea”, “Hooray for Hazel”, and “Dizzy”, but none lived up to the Rock & Roll promise of the rolling Holly-homage “Sheila”.

16. “Hitch Hike” by Marvin Gaye

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Review: 'I Married a Witch' (1942)

Dodgy ideas are scattered like landmines throughout the introductory passage of René Clair’s 1942 comedy I Married a Witch. The film ignites in 1770 Salem where broom-rider Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and her pop (Cecil Kellaway) are about to be burned after getting ratted out by Puritan Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March in a bad wig). As the witch heads to the stake, she vows vengeance on Wooley and all his descendents, cursing them with eternal unhappiness. That means they’ll all get married to ruthlessly henpecking wives. We then see March in various Wooley guises throughout the centuries getting his balls handed to him by generations of harpies. Hardy-har.
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