Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Monsterology: Babies

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

Last September, my wife, Elise, and I received the terrifying news. We were told that in nine months, a creature would be bursting out of Elise’s body to menace us for the next eighteen years… perhaps more if it decides not to go away to college. How could this be? Elise hadn’t been exposed to any alien eggs. She hadn’t been visited by Satan after taking a dose of drugged chocolate mousse. At least I don’t think she had. We don’t spend every minute of the day together, you know.

As many, many years of devouring horror movies has taught me, Elise’s pregnancy could have happened any number of ways. After all, a lot of monstrous babies have crawled across the screen. Yet the monster baby is a relatively recent phenomenon. While monstrous children peaked in the early sixties amidst “juvenile delinquency” hysteria with items such as Village of the Damned and the “It’s a Good Life” episode of “The Twilight Zone,” it was not until 1968 that Roman Polanski explicitly monsterized the first stage of life. I say “explicitly” because one could argue that the monster baby was delivered during the haunted summer of 1816 when Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein. Though we are privy to the Monster’s sketchily described birth in the book, he spends most of it in a state of rebellious and ornery adolescence, pissed off at his inattentive doctor daddy. And we certainly never witness him as a bald little diaper-wearing thing.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Ten Terrifying and Terrific Title Sequences

Setting the mood has a lot to do with what makes a great horror movie great. The viewer may have to be eased into the unsettling atmosphere as if it’s a chilly bath or thrown in to the terror as if it’s an inferno (because when you see a burning building, you should always push someone into it). Sometimes it’s cagiest to sucker punch viewers with a sequence out of tone with the rest of the film or let them know up front that guffaws are in store with a light-hearted approach. Or in at least one of the following cases, you may need to put some extra effort into your opening titles sequence because the rest of your movie sucks.

1. Frankenstein (1931)

Dracula was the first great sound horror film, but though its use of the “Scene 10 Moderato from Swan Lake is so memorable that the piece has been used as horror shorthand in films such as The Mummy and Black Swan, the music plays out over the Batman insignia, which isn’t too scary. Universal did a better job of getting a title sequence right with its follow up to Tod Browning’s film. After Edward Van Sloan gives his equally corny and creepy opening monologue, Bernhard Kaun’s brassy score shudders forth. On screen we see a clawed monster, most dissimilar to Karloff’s flathead, reaching from the darkness. This cuts to a leering portrait of, presumably, the title doctor, who once again looks nothing like the actor who will play him in the film that follows. Around Dr. Frankenstein’s head, disembodied eyes swirl, both foreshadowing the sundry body parts that will constitute the monster and mirroring the many eyes of the audience watching him from the darkened theater. The monster’s credit is equally memorable, as he is named only with a large question mark, recalling his similar crediting in the first stage production of Frankenstein 108 years earlier.

2. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Seventeen years after Frankenstein, Universal gave in to playing its main monster for laughs. For a picture such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, an opening as eerie as the 1931 one wouldn’t do at all. So Universal reached into its sack of associates and pulled out Walter Lantz, who’d produced the “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” series for the studio from 1928 to 1938. Lantz is best known for cracking up audiences with his creation, Woody Woodpecker, and the style of those classic cartoons is instantly recognizable in the credits sequence of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which begins with the monster raising skeletal Bud and Lou from their coffins before introducing the menagerie of monsters in iconic silhouettes. I could watch an entire movie of this credits sequence.

3. Psycho (1960)

Saul Bass is the only title designer who has become a household name, and not just because of that “Seinfeld” episode in which Kramer thinks Salman Rushdie has been hiding out at his gym under the pseudonym Sal Bass (“He just replaced one fish with another, Jerry!”). Bass’s poster designs for films such as The Shining, Vertigo, and Anatomy of a Murder are as unforgettable as the credits sequence he masterminded for Psycho. Abetted by Bernard Hermann’s jittery score, Bass indicates all the violence and disjointed psychology to follow by slashing the screen with straight lines from every direction and cracking up the title and credits. It’s incredibly simple and incredibly effective.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Brace Yourself for 'The Return of the Creature'

In 1954, the Universal Monster age briefly gasped back to life through its scaly gills with the successful release of Creature from the Black Lagoon. The following year, director Jack Arnold was back to strike again while the iron continued glowing bright red with Revenge of the Creature. In 1956, the Gill Man would take his final stroll in the melancholic Creature Walks Among Us, but as it turns out, this was not exactly the third creature feature. In the interim between parts 1 and 2, members of Arnold’s crew and some of the folks from Marineland Studios, the aquatic animal park that was the setting of Revenge (now known as Marineland), created a comedic Gill Man short to screen at the Revenge of the Creature wrap party.

The Return of the Creature was a 21 minute, 8mm film starring Patsy Beery (aka Patricia Powers), who played the unforgettable, uncredited role of “Girl in Convertible” in Revenge of the Creature. On his website, Patsy’s brother Jere, who played the uncredited part of a photographer in Revenge, had this to say about his sister's picture: “(Patsy’s husband) Clayton (Powers) worked at Marineland and made many friends with the movie crew who were there to film the Black Lagoon sequel. After the production crew left town, Clayton and Patsy produced a (sic) amateur home movie satire of the Revenge of the Creature… One particular memorable scene in this no-budget production was when the ‘Creature’ is revived and kept alive in a apartment bath tub while being fed martinis to keep him sedated.”

A still of Patsy Beery with a makeshift Gill Man from The Return of the Creature.

Although Jere Beery goes on to say that members of the Revenge crew received copies of The Return of the Creature, it has generally been considered a lost film for the past 58 years. Film historian Tom Weaver performed his own search to find out if this was true. Weaver’s creature quest brought him to an associate of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the founder of Marine Studios, which led him to the filmmaker behind Return, who then sent Weaver a DVD duplicate of the film.

This is not the end of the story, because on Friday, July 19, The Return of the Creature will finally go public at the Monster Bash convention in Pittsburgh. Tom Weaver, who attested that the movie is laugh-out-loud funny, will be on hand to introduce the film.

In other Creature news, Bloody Disgusting.com reported yesterday that Gammi Illustrations has released some spectacular, unpublished, color-corrected photos from the set of Black Lagoon originally shot for Life magazine in 1953. Check them out in all their full-color glory here.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Review: 'A Life in Film: Peter Cushing'

Like the greatest star of the first golden age of sound Horror, Boris Karloff, the greatest star of the genre’s second golden age, Peter Cushing, was so appealing because the rotten characters he played were partly informed by the charming, gentle man he actually was. So as awful as, say, Dr. Frankenstein or Grand Moff Tarkin—a veritable Space Hitler—were, they remained oddly sympathetic, or at least, magnetically watchable.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Catching Up with the "Twin Peaks" Retrospective at USC

As you may recall, the USC School of Cinematic Arts in L.A. has been hosting a series of panel discussions with "Twin Peaks" cast and crew members since February, and I reposted complete video for the first two panels here on Psychobabble (Week 1 and Week 2) way back then. After that I got busy and completely bungled the project. Many apologies and much garmonbozia. Now I'm trying to get caught up with watching and relaying the four discussions that have gone down since my last post on this series. These are long sessions broken down into a lot of clips, so I'm just going to post links to YouTube where you can access all the relevant videos for each session. As always, the videos are a bit rough, but according to the poster, Humberto Dellamorte, there will eventually be "official" videos for these panel discussions. Until then, a million thanks to Humberto for posting these to YouTube.

Week 3 (2/17/2013)

Robert Bauer (Johnny Horne), Carel Struycken (The Giant), Lenny Von Dohlen (Harold Smith), supervising producer Gregg Fienberg, production designer Richard Hoover, publicist/Mark Frost's assistant Paula K. Shimatsu-U, and ABC programming executive Philip D. Segal.

There are some interesting insights about ABC's attitude toward "TP" in this one, as well as a great story about how David Lynch bought time for the Laura Palmer arc by discombobulating ABC execs with a story about eating blowfish.

Week 4 (3/3/2012)

Piper Laurie (Catherine Martell), Al Strobel (Philip Gerard/MIKE), editor Mary Sweeney, editor Paul Trejo, cinematographer Frank Byers, director Tim Hunter, prop master Jeffrey Moore, and property assistant Rich Robinson.

Piper Laurie tells tales of Tojimura.

Week 5 (3/10/2013)

Catherine E. Coulson (The Log Lady), Michael Horse (Deputy Hawk), Peggy Lipton (Norma Jennings), writer Harley Peyton, director Lesli Linka Glatter, music editor Lori Eschler Frystak, and costume designer Sara Markowitz.

Some ear-opening information about the extent (or limits) of Angelo Badalamenti's role in scoring the show.

Week 6 (3/24/2013)

Mary Jo Deschanel (Eileen Hayward), Kimmy Robertson (Lucy Moran), Wendy Robie (Nadine Hurley), Kenneth Welsh (Windom Earle), Robyn Lively (Lana Budding Milford), director Caleb Deschanel, and editor Jonathan Shaw.

I have no idea what to highlight here, because the whole session is pure gold, so maybe I'll just mention that Kimmy Roberston likes oxygen and props open a door. 

On Sunday April 14th at 4PM, USC will be hosting the final panel devoted to the "Twin Peaks" series and once again admission is free to the public. Scheduled for the Q&A is an especially impressive line up: Kyle MacLachlan (Coop), Ian Buchanan (Dick Tremayne), David Patrick Kelly (Jerry Horne), and Julee Cruise (Julee Cruise). Get all the details at USC's official site here.

Finally, there will be a 35MM presentation of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me on May 5 at 6PM with a Q&A featuring James Marshall (James Hurley), Ray Wise (Leland Palmer), Phoebe Augustine (Ronette Polaski), Walter Olkewicz (Jacques Renault), writer Bob Engels, and David Lynch's daughter/writer of The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, Jennifer Lynch. Read more here.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Review: Paul Revere and the Raiders' 'Evolution to Revolution: 5 Classic Albums'

In the late nineties Sundazed gave its typical loving treatment to the catalog of one of sixties pop’s most misunderstood bands. Because of their goofy persona and embarrassing Revolutionary War stage gear, Paul Revere and the Raiders are sometimes regarded as disposable. Sundazed’s reissues dispelled that belief with some really tough, surprisingly consistent Stonesy pop records presented with fine sound and some terrific bonus outtakes and singles. The group’s first couple of albums with producer Terry Melcher aren’t great, partly because they rely too heavily on covers that can’t top the originals and partly because of a misguided decision to democratize the vocal chores when the group really only had one great singer. And don’t let his little pony tail and bowl cut fool you: Mark Lindsay is one of the sixties’ most expressive white soul howlers. Although there was a bum track or two on the trio of classic LPs that followed (“Melody for an Unknown Girl” is the worst mushy recitation this side of The Monkees’ “The Day We Fall in Love”), Midnight Ride, The Spirit of ’67, and Revolution! are pretty much beyond reproach, still fresh, fun, and full of color 45 years down the trail.

Sadly, some of these classics went out of print in the ensuing years. A new copy of Sundazed’s Revolution!, the group’s most consistent album (though some might contend that Spirit is their best), is currently fetching—no joke—$211.99 on Amazon.com. Gladly, the Australian label Raven Records has just reissued the first five Melcher records as a budget double-disc set. The downside is that there wasn’t room for the bonus tracks, and some of them are really, really essential (the original “Louie, Go Home,” later covered by The Who, the hit “Ups and Downs,” “Try Some of Mine,” “(You’re a) Bad Girl,” “The Legend of Paul Revere”). Also, because of time constraints Midnight Ride is split between the two discs. The upside is that these five albums are available again, and for a much more reasonable price than $211.99. They also sound really good, which is not often the case for budget releases. Plus, listening to disc two, which puts most of Midnight Ride, The Spirit of ’67, and Revolution! back-to-back-to-back, really highlights what a fabulous band Paul Revere and the Raiders were in their peak years. Now maybe Raven can do a comp of those orphaned bonus tracks next, hint, hint

Monday, April 1, 2013

Review: 'Who Was Dracula?: Bram Stoker’s Trail of Blood'

The primary purpose of Jim Steinmeyer’s Who Was Dracula?: Bram Stoker’s Trail of Blood is to settle the source of fiction’s most sinister count. While agreeing that Voivoide and serial-impaler Vlad Dracula didn't inspire anything more than the vampire’s name, Steinmeyer focuses on four figures he believes impelled Bram Stoker to conjure his most enduring story: decadent writer Oscar Wilde, enthralling yet overbearing actor Henry Irving, passionate poet Walt Whitman, and misogynistic murderer Jack the Ripper.

Steinmeyer only manages to make a convincing case for Irving, who after Vlad, is most often cited as the inspiration for Dracula. The writer’s other arguments are pretty thin, especially when making straw-grasping notes about how, like Dracula, Whitman had a moustache (let’s not fixate on his great, big beard) or how the alleged Ripper, Francis Tumblety, may have attended a social club at which Stoker regularly held court. There’s a lot of “may have” in Who Was Dracula?

So Steinmeyer isn’t wholly successful in accomplishing his central goal, and Criticism 101 teaches us that this should be the main deciding factor in whether a work is good or bad. The thing is, Who Was Dracula? is pretty impossible to call bad. In fact, it’s pretty fantastic. Steinmeyer’s recreations of historical scenes are beautifully written and utterly transporting. Whether or not Walt Whitman or Oscar Wilde really had significant influences on Count Dracula, they are fascinating artists, and Stoker did, indeed, know them, apparently harboring a sexual attraction to the former and hypocritically shunning the latter amidst Wildes “indecency” trial. Steinmeyer recounts these relationships with the same vividness he brings to all aspects of his book, including his riveting study of the Ripper murders. As a portrait of a few years in the life of Bram Stoker, and a few years in London’s rich theater and art scene, Who Was Dracula? is grand. So what if the title question is never satisfactorily answered?
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