Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Review: 'TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen '

About four years ago I wrote a piece about the mostly unacknowledged history of horror as a television genre and how it has never really managed to get “a claw-hold on the small screen the way it has in cinema houses, while dumb sitcoms, cop shows, and doctor shows continue to proliferate.” Horror has rarely been acknowledged as a thriving or even a legitimate television genre, yet monsters and murders have made their mark in TV, not just in overt genre programs such as “The Munsters” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” but in ones that straddle the lines such as “CSI” and “The Mighty Boosh.”  As cable stations concerned with quality and open to experimentation continue to expand the possibilities of what is permissible on television, horror has found a more comfortable home on pay channels such as HBO and AMC. If nothing else, after sixty years of The Quatermass Experiment, “The Twilight Zone,” “Dark Shadows,” “The X-Files,” and “The Walking Dead,” TV horror has made a deep enough impact that it warrants a study much deeper than the 2,700-or-so words I gave it back in 2009. Lorna Jowett and Stacey Abbott have done precisely that with their new book TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen.

The multitudinous programs the writers cover in just 225 pages really draws attention to how overdue this study is. Because of that past failure to acknowledge horror TV, Jowett and Abbott had many, many stones to fling over. They trek to all corners of the topic to discuss how horror has infiltrated non-genre programs, how the televised version differs from its cinematic cousin, how the “mainstreaming” of horror has changed what we are able to see on our TVs, how children have always been more open to the genre than programmers often realize, how horror programs function as metaphors for the entire genre, and how the television set, itself, has functioned as a thing of horror. The discussion is academic but always readable and accessible, though I am now convinced that academic writers get paid based on how many times they use the word “liminal.” A word non-academic writers love to use to make themselves sound academic is “seminal,” and I’ve always promised myself I’d never use it here on Psychobabble. I’m going to break that vow—just this once—because “seminal” is exactly what TV Horror is. It is the first thorough discussion of that creature in the closet, that thing the academics refused to acknowledge until now. Let there be many more intelligent studies of horror TV such as this one and many, many more horrifying programs to study in the decades to come.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Rolling Stones 'Crossfire Hurricane' DVD to Finally Be Released in the US Soon

It's been two and half months since the The Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane was released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK without a hitch. The US release, however, was delayed indefinitely. Well, it seems we're finally getting closer to pinning down a US release date, as a representative of Eagle Rock Entertainment told me we Yanks can expect Crossfire Hurricane this May and an official press release will follow shortly. As soon as it does, I'll share the exact date here on Psychobabble.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Monsterology: The Devil (666th post!)

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, we’ve been looking at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.

Please allow me to introduce myself...

Dracula? The Wolf Man? Freddy Kruger? The Mummy? They’re a bunch of petty criminals. Even a whole army of drooling, shuffling zombies just don’t measure up. This cat isn’t capable of evil; he is evil. He is the very embodiment of the thing without which there would be no monster movies, no nasty ghost stories, no Frankenberry, and no Bible, which is where the Devil made his debut in Christian culture. Depending on your interpretation of that story, he may not have starred in as many scenes as is often thought. Was the snake that tempted Eve to eat the apple supposed to be the Devil? Or was he just one of those talking snakes that live in apple trees? One thing is for sure: the result of his temptation was way direr than anything Jason Voorhees ever did. That guy just killed some horny teenagers. The snake turned paradise on Earth into Earth on Earth, a craphole congested with war, pestilence, the NRA, and iPhones. Of course, we shouldn’t absolve Eve of all blame, because as the Bible teaches us, women are very bad. 
Some have also interpreted the character of Lucifer as the Devil. An angel or man, depending on your interpretation of the King James edition, Lucifer got too big for his britches and aspired to raise his “throne above the stars of God.” God hates that kind of shit, and he kicked Lucifer, the “morning star,” out of heaven to become the concierge of Hell.

The Devil has also been identified as the guy who tempted Jesus during his forty-day fast with the sweet ability to make bread out of rocks, free himself from a pinnacle, and gain control of all the kingdoms in the world. That last one doesn’t sound like much of a prize. What kind of idiot would want all that responsibility? The Devil may also be the dragon of Revelations, a big snake with sheep horns who will rise out of the sea to help get the apocalypse started. The dragon is not named Lucifer or Satan. In fact, the Bible plays coy about who this giant sheep-dragon is, only cluing us in that his name corresponds with the number 666. 
The Bible is one of those books that everyone thinks they’ve read but haven’t. Kind of like Moby Dick. So the assumptions about who the Devil is in that book have taken precedence over the fact that many editions of The Bible are reluctant to finger him. Consequently, it’s basically assumed that all the bad shit that goes down in that book of wall-to-wall bad shit is the Devil’s doing. It’s all tremendously hard to swallow, of course, but what a villain! Naturally, the Devil has found his way into many, many other works of fiction, and the depiction of him, and sometimes her, is even more varied than it is in the Bible.

The most popular portrayal of Old Scratch is the most endearing. The baddest guy in the universe is regularly portrayed as a fellow in red pajamas with horns and a pointy tail. According to Jim Steinmeyer in his upcoming book Who Was Dracula? (more about that here on Psychobabble soon), the red Devil can be traced to actor Henry Irving’s portrayal of Mephistopheles in a lavish production of Faust at the Lyceum Theater in 1885. Before then he usually wore black. The horns and tail stem from the devil’s association with sheep and goats and other horrid beasties found in petting zoos. This is the tongue-wagging Devil of Häxan and the one on vintage jars of Red Hots candy and in episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and “The Simpsons.” He is the Devil it’s OK to dress up as on Halloween.

In more legitimately terrifying versions of this Devil, the horns become more antelope or bull-like, he grows to giant proportions, and his muscles get bigger than Glenn Danzig’s. This is the title terror of Night of the Demon, the massive Satan of Fantasia, and the Lord of Darkness of Legend. Scarier still are the devils who bridge the human and the bizarre, the hooded, hairless creatures of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Mel Gibson’s belligerent, torture-porn odyssey, The Passion of the Christ, in which the devil and its devil baby take in the floor show that is Jesus getting the bloody shit beaten out of him for eighteen hours.

In this form, how tempting can the Devil be? How can you concentrate enough to decide whether or not to sell your soul when you’re busy crapping your pants? The more insidious Devil is the one who takes on pleasing, or at least non-monstrous, shapes. These more human Devils tends to take such stock shapes as the unthreatening elderly gentlemen of All That Money Can Buy and the “Printer’s Devil” episode of “The Twilight Zone,” or more in keeping with The Bible’s very healthy view of female sexuality, the temptresses of Bedazzled 1967 and 2000. Movies such as The Witches of Eastwick, Angel Heart, and The Devil’s Advocate have given the big-marquee names Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino opportunities to chew scenery as the biggest evil of them all.

Most unlikely of all is the Devil as he appears in The Exorcist, both because he controls the body of a nice little girl and because his urbane, seductive persona has devolved to straight-up crassness. This devil pukes, pulls faces, belches, and unleashes a string of expletives and toilet insults that Andrew “Dice” Clay might agree push the limits of good taste. This is a Devil smacking of desperation, one that may have read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, in which the author admitted, “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud.”

In truth, The Exorcist manages to terrify, horrify, and gross us out, though it is at its most terrifying when The Devil is off screen, when we hear bumps in the attic or weird tape recordings of his backwards legion of babblers. When he steps into frame to make Regan MacNeil puke and stab herself in the crotch with a crucifix and spin her head and tell a priest that his “mother sucks cocks in Hell,” the Devil has been reduced to a less fearful creation, a purveyor of gross-out shtick. In this most famous and often-believed terrifying of Devil movies, he merely menaces one mother and daughter, their friends, and a couple of Van Helsing-wannabe priests. In a modern world with greater concerns than fictions such as him, the Devil has become just another movie monster.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Review: 'The Horror Show Guide: The Ultimate Frightfest of Movies'

All right, Mike Mayo, you got me. Based on your rave review in The Horror Show Guide (and I’ll admit, the presence of Naomi Watts), I watched 45 minutes of Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering. That must be the horror guide version of a Rick Roll. I should have known better. Mayo’s taste can be a bit questionable. While he gives the thumbs up to garbage such as The Lawnmower Man, Hollow Man, and the aforementioned Corn movie, he’s pretty dismissive of many of the best movies in his book, among them Bride of Frankenstein, Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Haunting, and Eraserhead. His problem with most of these movies? They’re “dated.” Woo-ee! Does Mike Mayo love that word! There’s barely a review of a film made before 1960 in The Horror Show Guide that escapes it. Gee, a movie from the ’30s is dated? What insight! Well, I can say the same about 1992’s Lawnmower Man, but there is a big difference between its dated early-CGI effects and the “dated” effects in, say, James Whale’s The Invisible Man: Claude Rains’ disappearance remains incredibly charming and impressive, while the sub-ColecoVision frogs and sex robots in Lawnmower Man look like shit. Mayo’s not having any of that, though. The effects in The Invisible Man are “dated.” The humor in Bride of Frankenstein is “dated.” The acting in The Haunting “has aged poorly” (nice variation!).

Still, I can’t completely write off The Horror Show Guide. Mayo has seen a lot of horror movies (though not all of these are horror movies. Whatever their tenuous connections to the genre, Dolores Claiborne, Fellini Satyricon, Ed Wood, and others don’t belong in this book. I was kind of tickled that he included Passion of the Christ, though). Like any good horror guide, his book should be read with a pen and paper in hand to jot down intriguing and unfamiliar titles for future viewing. Just be sure to take his assessments with a big grain of salt, or you may get suckered into seeing something like Children of the Corn IV, or worse, steered away from something like The Haunting.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Review: 'The Music Leaves Stains: The Complete Story of The Misfits'

This Music Leaves Stains: The Complete Story of The Misfits is a real-life This Is Spinal Tap and author James Greene, Jr., is the Jersey horror punks' very own Marty DiBergi. With a straight face (and a tendency toward clunky wording) Greene tells the tale of a group that started as the eighties' best punk band and ended up bizarre self parodies. Glenn Danzig comes off as an inflexible, homophobic dick not above telling his biggest fan "I SHOULD FUCKING KILL YOU RIGHT NOW!" (those are Glenn's caps, by the way). Bassist Jerry Only is even zanier, fronting a Christian Viking metal band called Kryst the Conqueror as "Mocavius Kryst" and transforming the reformed Misfits into pro-wrestlers. His band mates were so dismayed by his obsession with pro-wrestling that they considered replacing Only with Vampiro... a pro-wrestler. Greene doesn't really play this absurd story for laughs, but it's so funny he doesn't really need to. This Music Leaves Stains is respectful, informative, and thorough (despite its wee 120-page length) enough not to alienate hardcore Misfits fans as humorless as Danzig, but pretty much anyone will get a kick out of it. 

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