Thursday, October 31, 2013

Diary of the Dead 2013: Week 5

I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews at the end of every week in October. I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

October 25

The Invisible Ray (1936- dir. Lambert Hillyer) ***½

In one of the last gasps of the first wave of Universal horror, the studio’s two biggest legends—Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff (or KARLOFF, as he’s credited here)—are scientists who form an uneasy alliance after Karloff captures a ray from the Andromeda nebula that leads him to a pre-historic meteor in Africa. The partnership gets a bit complicated when that meteor turns Karloff into a psycho King Midas in Reverse. The Invisible Ray is almost like a two-decades-early bridge between the Gothic horrors of the thirties and the atom-age paranoia of the fifties with lightning storm-soaked castles sharing the screen with radiation-derived monsterism. Needless to say, the African-native scenes are an uncomfortable watch today, but the variety in setting and action keeps the pace moving and the planetarium-esque outer space effects are magical. Also needless to say, you really can’t go wrong with a Karloff/Lugosi pairing (it’s always interesting to see the more sinister Bela play the good guy) even if The Invisible Ray can’t touch the dastardly duo’s greatest collaborations in The Black Cat, The Raven, and Son of Frankenstein.

I Sell the Dead (2008- dir. Glenn McQuaid) ****

Corpse-snatching comedy transforms into vampire-comedy into Martian-comedy into zombie-comedy without ever shifting from completely likable. Condemned grave robber Dominic Monaghan makes his final confession about his nocturnal transgressions to Father Ron Perlman. New director Glenn McQuaid draws on Amicus movies (his film is almost like a portmanteau with the same characters in each episode) and horror comics (there are some neat illustration effects) to invoke a colorful, lively, and funny film of his own distinct style. Monaghan and Larry Fessenden (who also co-produced) as his mentor in ghoulish crime are a charismatically grimy team, while the creatures they unearth and Phantasm’s Angus Scrimm as a nasty blackmailer supply some sincere creepiness. A groovy debut .

October 28

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988- dir. Wes Craven) ***

I wonder what Wade Davis thought when Wes Craven took his real-life account of Haitian zombification rituals and turned it into a horror movie with snake-vomiting corpses, supernatural punch-ups, and scrotum torture. Its see-sawing between the realistic and the outlandish does make The Serpent and the Rainbow an uneven movie even if it’s nicely shot and Bill Pullman is pretty good as Davis’s stand-in. Some of the horror works (the walking corpse in a bride’s veil; the torture and living burial) and some doesn’t (the soup zombie). While most of this stuff can be chalked up to tetrodotoxin-induced hallucinations, the goofy climactic showdown between jaguar-spirit-infused Pullman and a rival voodoo dude plunges the film fully into the fantastical. The Serpent and the Rainbow is most interesting as one of the last feature films to deal with the original Caribbean zombie variety before Romero’s living dead swarms took over the world for better or worse. Perhaps the political incorrectness of exoticizing other cultures is the reason the voodoo zombie is basically extinct, but after seeing one too many zombie-Nazi, zombie-girlfriend, or zombie-canary movies, you may start longing for a little dose of tetrodotoxin yourself.

The Old Dark House (1963- dir. William Castle) **½

William Castle did a wonderful job with The House on Haunted Hill, so the idea of him remaking the original “old dark house” movie was not a bad one, especially as it was a joint venture with Hammer Studios, the best remakers of Universal horror properties. Too bad this movie is so mediocre. James Whale’s movie was wonderful because it evenly balanced genuinely funny comedy with genuinely scary scares. Castle interprets The Old Dark House as a straight-up comedy with Robert Dillon’s script resembling The Cat and the Canary more than Whale’s picture. Tom Poston is forced to do quintuple duty by standing in for the entire array of stranded visitors whose interplay brought so much humor and warmth to the 1932 movie. Though Poston is likable, he can’t really carry a movie on his own. The Femm family does little to pick up the slack because the acting just isn’t wild enough. Plus, Castle’s charm depended on a deft balance of schlock and cinematographic artistry. Shot in color, The Old Dark House lacks the style and grace of House on Haunted Hill or Mr. Sardonicus, so the only thing left is the schlock, which isn’t even really schlocky enough to be interesting. Some of the jokes are mildly amusing, and the Noah’s Ark angle is novel, but Castle’s The Old Dark House just isn’t dark enough.

October 29

The Blood Beast Terror (1968- dir. Vernon Sewell) ***½

Peter Cushing is investigating a series of bloody deaths. The only witness is a raving fellow who claims he saw a winged creature hovering over one of the bodies. An etymologist may have more insight into what’s really going on. Despite the blood, hyperbolically bloody awful title, a pretty insane resolution, and Cushing’s well-known dislike of the movie, The Blood Beast Terror plays more like reserved mystery than grisly exploitation. If anything The Blood Beast Terror could have used a healthier dollop of schlock, because it’s a bit too low-key. At least it doesn’t take itself seriously. The self-parodying stage play sequence is neat, and several minor roles are very amusingly acted.

October 30

Son of Dracula (1943- dir. Robert Siodmak) ***

Perhaps we should call the final day of Diary of the Dead 2013 “Spawn of Dracula Day” or something, because our second movie features Van Helsing’s offspring and our first stars Lon Chaney, Jr., as the Son of Dracula. The Man of Four or Five Faces plays Count Alucard, and if you have a pen and paper, you can figure out his true identity pretty quickly. You might have more trouble if you simply look at and listen to the guy, because there’s nothing terribly Dracula-ish about Chaney’s San Clemente accent or his awkward posture in the cape. Lon had the honor of basically playing all four of Universal’s major monsters, but his turn as the vampire wasn’t much of a feather in his cap. Yet the miscast lead role isn’t that big of an issue since there’s so little of him in Son of Dracula. I get a kick out of how much Robert Siodmak abuses his bat privileges; it’s as if the director realized that the vampire was much more convincing as a flapping piece of rubber than he was as Lon Chaney, Jr. Nevertheless, I love Chaney’s entrance in which he shoots us-the-viewers a knowing glance over his shoulder. Siodmak also realizes the movie with good special effects and nourish style, and the swampy setting is very cool, as is the shot of Chaney wheeling through it. Louise Allbritton is eerie as a Goth groupie turned vampire and Robert Paige is totally nuts as her trigger-happy fiancé, but Evelyn Ankers is just as underused as Chaney. At least Bela Lugosi didn’t have to worry that the younger upstart might depose him as the greatest of all Draculas.

Dracula A.D. 1972 (Duh- dir. Alan Gibson) ***½

It all ends in 1972, but first a romp to 1872 where Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing slays Christopher Lee’s Dracula in a Hammer movie for the trillionth time. We then zip ahead a century to when the world has transformed into a more superfly environment of hippie bands and outta sight young people like Caroline Munro, Marsha Hunt, and Van Helsing’s great great great great granddaughter Stephanie Beacham. There are also not-so young people like Lorrimer Van Helsing, Beacham’s granddad, also played by Cushing. Wait a minute! I have a better name for today’s line up! “Alucard Day,” because the hamtastic Christopher Neame plays another vampire who thinks he’s super clever by spelling the infamous count’s name in reverse! Not having Christopher Lee wander around in 1972 looking freaked out by costumes and customs weirder than his own is a major missed opportunity, but the new development that taking a shower kills vampires is utterly brilliant. Is Dracula A.D. 1972 effective horror? A respectable entry in the Hammer Horror canon? A dignified day’s work for the esteemed Cushing and Lee? No way, Jose. Is it retro-delic fun and a dy-no-mite way to end this year’s Diary of the Dead? Correctamundo!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Being Smart on Halloween: A Monster Movie Guide

If you’re too old for trick-or-treating or too clever to actually throw your Halloween party on Halloween (so rarely it falls on a weekend night, and who wants to get blitzed on Tuesday and have to drag themselves to work Wednesday morning?) you might spend October 31st doing what I do: cramming as many horror movies into 24 hours as you can. But what to choose? What to choose? One wrong selection and— Ka-POW!—the entire atmosphere of this most atmospheric of holidays shoots right down the crapper, leaving you holding your head in anguish and weeping, “Why, oh why did I ever put Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood into the DVD player?” That would be pretty stupid. So here’s some Halloween-movie-selecting advice that will make you smart.

Obviously, a film set on or around Halloween is the perfect choice, though these are shockingly rare. Halloween and its sundry sequels and remakes are at the front of the pack. Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, with its children’s Halloween party gone awry, is a wonderful seasonal mood piece, as is the “Sleepy Hollow” episode of Disney’s marvelous Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. More recent examples are Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses, a rummage through dusty Halloween decorations stored in an attic reeking with dankness, and Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat, a picture I didn’t care for but one that has some truly rabid proponents who adore its nostalgic ambience. Something Wicked This Way Comes begins just a week before Halloween in a golden October in which “1,000 pumpkins lie waiting to be cut,” and movies don’t come richer in autumnal atmosphere than Jack Clayton’s. The neo-cult classic May finds the title character collecting some bloody booty during a psychotic trick-or-treat excursion. As the kids of The Blair Witch Project prepare for their own excursion into the woods, we see Halloween decorations in shop windows, so that one passes muster too.

There are exceptions to this seemingly obvious rule. Movies with Halloween scenes aren’t always ideal holiday fare. Classics they may be, but I wouldn’t want to spend the night of spooks watching, To Kill a Mockingbird, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, or Meet Me in St. Louis, though a chorus of “Clang, clang, clang went the trolley” has been known to terrify.

Certain movies are pretty safe to categorize as honorary Halloweeners. We know that a man may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright, but for all we know The Wolf Man takes place in late September, November, or shudder to think, early December. Nevertheless, it’s a good choice, so try not to get too hung up on when exactly Larry Talbot’s life goes to pot.

Films that immediately break the seasonal spell are those that glaringly take place in the wrong season or environment: desert horrors such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Near Dark, seaside ones such as The Birds, or snowy ones such as The Thing. And perish the thought of watching one that takes place on a completely different holiday! That means no Gremlins (Christmas), Jaws (4th of July), or April Fool’s Day (April Fool’s Day). If you lived in the New York area during the late seventies/early eighties, you may also find that King Kong has too many Thanksgiving associations to enjoy it on October 31st. With its island and metropolitan settings, it’s not very Halloweeny anyway.

You get an F for effort, King Kong.

Creature from the Black Lagoon is a bit of a grey area. On the one hand, no environment recalls Halloween less than the Amazon (except maybe space, which means no Alien!). On the other hand, as the studio’s ad campaign once insisted, “Universal IS Halloween.” Considering the place its iconic monsters hold in Halloween costumes, decorations, and holiday movie marathons, exceptions can be made for Black Lagoon and the snowy Invisible Man. Go ahead and enjoy them with a clear conscience on October 31st. That being said, more ideal selections would be Dracula, The Mummy, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, or The Wolf Man. But you already knew about that last one.

Halloween is a distinctly western holiday, so at the risk of coming off xenophobic (I swear I’m not! Some of my best friends are xenos!), Asian horror films may not exactly hit that sweet spot. Still, North American Halloween influences have become pretty internationally pervasive over the years, so if you still feel compelled to spend your holiday with Godzilla or that cute little girl from Ringu, that is your prerogative. I also encourage you to indulge in movies centered on such seasonal tropes as haunted houses (recommended: Robert Wise’s The Haunting), black cats (recommended: Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat), witches (recommended: John Llewellyn Moxey’s The City of the Dead), pumpkins (recommended: Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead), and candy corn (recommended: TK).

Oh yeah. That's the stuff.

Just remember that as kooky and crazy as Halloween is, there are rules to enjoying it. Stay safe. Always wear reflective clothing. Check your candy for razor blades and light artillery. And no matter what you do, follow every guideline I’ve delineated above. Doing so just may save your life.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Farewell, Lou Reed

Sad news to report today as one of Rock's genuine pioneers has died at the age of 71. It would take at least two decades for the fruits of his influence to fully sprout, but Lou Reed pioneered so much when The Velvet Underground screeched waves of black noise across the Technicolor psychedelic late-sixties years. Someone may have eventually taken the initiative to invent punk, Goth, alternative, indie, and noise rock had Lou Reed and his band not helped do it first, but we'll never need to speculate about that since they most certainly did. In an age of legends, giants, and gods, The Velvet Underground are still something that not everyone might agree The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, and even Dylan and Hendrix still are: cool. And with his anti-hippie cropped hair, black duds, icy talk-sing style, and shocking tales of junkies, hookers, dealers, and death merchants, Lou Reed embodied that cool more than any of his band mates. He'd go on to a solo career that may never have quite lived up to the greatness of his work with the Velvets but was very often tough, challenging, and beyond the scope of popular tastes. And when he was done crushing your skull with Metal Machine Music, he'd put it back together again with songs like "Perfect Day" or "Vicious" or "Sweet Jane" that reveal the craftsman always lurking behind the outré hipster's shades. 

We're still waiting to find out the specific cause of death, but Reed had a liver transplant last May and was reportedly "dying" at the time. So long, Lou Reed. You made the world a darker and cooler place.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Review: 'Oh Yes We Can Love: A History of Glam Rock'

With its defiantly mindless philosophy and 365s-days-of-Halloween style, glam rock was designed to glitter brightly and burn out quickly. That’s just what it did in its early seventies salad days, arriving to annihilate the denim non-style of late-sixties hippies and send up the pompous seriousness of the leading heavy rock and prog groups. In all, glam held sway over teens (mostly British ones) for little more than three years. As Bowie discovered conservative suits and Brian Eno’s icy textures, Marc Bolan got chubby, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show parodied a parody, the death knell knelled.

So how could something so ephemeral be deserving of its own multi-disc box set? Short answer: everything gets its own multi-disc box set these days— there’s probably one devoted to you. Equally short answer: Mark Wood and Daryl Easlea, the dynamic duo who compiled Oh Yes We Can Love: A History of Glam Rock, are kind of brilliant. Instead of merely quadruple-loading the predictable Bowie, T. Rex, Slade, Sweet, KISS, and Suzi Quatro hits, they’ve elasticized the genre so that it stretches as far back as 1931 and as far forward as 2010. This way we really do get a sense of the history of glam: what inspired it and what has transpired since 1974. So now glam entails pre-WWII comic crooner Noël Coward, Belgian chanson master Jacques Brel, blues giant Howlin’ Wolf, pioneer American rockers Chuck Berry and Little Richard, pioneer British ones The Kinks, proggers Curved Air, toothy bubblegum purveyors The Osmonds, punks The Ramones, proto-goths Bauhaus, new wavers Human League, hair metalists Hanoi Rocks, dream poppers Saint Etienne, schlock rocker Marilyn Manson, electro whizzes Goldfrapp, and even the theme to an ITV kiddie show (and it’s great!).

This eclecticism follows a definite logic. Although Oh Yes We Can Love is an international affair, glam—with its extreme camp sensibility—is a distinctly British genre, so it is appropriate that the first melody we hear is Noël Coward’s appropriation of “Rule Britannia” and a jolly message of Imperialism. We then cross the pond to the American source of the sound with Chuck Berry’s guitar boogie, Little Richard’s flamboyant howling, and Vince Taylor, the inspiration for Ziggy Stardust. Anthony Newley’s “Bee Bom” presages nonsense classics such as “Ma Coo Ca Choo” and “Bish Bash Bash.” Then we go global to spend time with Brel and the Burundi drummers, who so influenced Adam Ant, before zooming into glam’s peak period for all those cuts from T. Rex, Slade, Sweet, and the like.

What this box set lacks is primary source David Bowie material. Despite being the most globally recognizable face of glam, Bowie only gets a single track: the not-very-glammy “London Bye Ta-Ta” (considering it’s an outtake from his early period on Deram, rights issues may account for the choice of song). Nevertheless, the thin white ghost haunts Oh Yes We Can Love all the way through, with songs he covered (Brel’s “Amsterdam”), covers of his classics (Dana Gillespie’s “Andy Warhol,” Lulu’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” Bauhaus’ “Ziggy Stardust”), songs on which he guest starred (the Lulu cover) or produced (the Gillespie cover), songs by his biggest influences (the Newley track), and songs by his closest collaborators (Mick Ronson’s “Growing Up and I’m Fine,” The Stooges’ “1969”), so we never feel as though King Glam has been turned away at the door.

There are a few other issues here. The sound is a bit thin, so we don’t quite get that big-bottomed boom that was glam’s sonic calling card. There are some missed opportunities in the song selection: a better Chuck Berry choice than “Around and Around” would have been “Little Queenie,” both because Bolan quotes it on the fade of “Get It On” and because of the camp implications of the name “Queenie.” As is the case with any multi-artist collection, not every track is wonderful. The Osmonds’ “Crazy Horses” is an important example of how glam’s decadence even trickled down to the most sanitized mainstream group, but it’s still a terrible song. There are also stinkers by Nazareth, Dead or Alive, Judas Priest, Marilyn Manson, and others. One thing we can all be thankful for is the paucity of eighties hair metal (Hanoi Rocks are the one glaring group of offenders). I won’t deny hair metal’s importance on the glam timeline, but no one needs to actually listen to that shit.

Wood and Easlea’s mindfulness of listenability is what ultimately makes Oh Yes We Can Love a great box set. After their cleverness has lost its novelty, when we’re not even in the mood too slather on the silver lipstick and glue-on glitter, we still have five discs crammed with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Howlin’ Wolf, David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, The Kinks, T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, Roxy Music, The New York Dolls, Elton John, Patti Smith, Generation X, Blondie, The Ramones, Magazine, The Fall, Morrissey, Pulp, Goldfrapp, and a lot of other artists who make Oh Yes We Can Love a great collection of Rock & Roll regardless of genre.

Now I’d love for this box set to inspire others of its sort. How about a punk one that starts with Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else” then moves to “Dirty Water” and “96 Tears” before hitting stride with The MC5 and Stooges? Or maybe a goth one that kicks off with Bach or Brecht before glooming on with “Paint It Black” or “A Whiter Shade of Pale”? The possibilities are bountiful.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Diary of the Dead 2013: Week 4

I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews at the end of every week in October. I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

October 18

Phantom of the Opera (1943- dir. Arthur Lubin) **½

With the original era of Universal horror having its last hurrah with 1941’s The Wolf Man, the studio started dipping back into old properties in earnest throughout the forties. This usually manifested in sequels uniting the Wolf Man, Dracula, and the Frankenstein Monster in various configurations, but there were also a couple of Full-on remakes in order. The first was Charles Laughton’s reinterpretation of Chaney in 1939’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. The second found another formidable actor attempting to fill the Man of a Thousand Faces’ boots. No doubt Claude Rains is a superb actor and one of Universal’s most unforgettable horror stars, but the version of Phantom of the Opera in which he starred is utterly forgettable. Because of the U.S.’s recent entry into World War II, the studio got cold feet and decided to tone down too many of the elements that made the original so chilling, most notably doing a half-assed job on the Phantom makeup for fear of reminding viewers of those who’d been disfigured in the war. It gives the key unmasking sequence the impact of a soggy washcloth. The rest of the movie is pretty lame too, with an abundance of corny musical numbers that go on and on, soppy romance, and fatigued comic relief where the horror should be. Rains is very sympathetic but not at all menacing as the Phantom with none of the delicious mania he supplied in The Invisible Man. While the decision to shoot in color made commercial sense—and the film certainly looks sumptuous— it also made this Phantom the odd-man out from Universal’s greatest monster pictures. Tellingly, the other second-wave monster pictures would return to black and white. This is less essential than even the monster rallies, which are at least terrific fun.

Nocturna: Granddaughter of Dracula (1979- dir. Harry Hurwitz) *½

Nearly every detail of this soft-core disco vampire comedy seems consciously designed to make it rank as one of the worst movies ever made. The awful script. The cheesy, gratuitous nudity. The absolutely horrid acting. The rhythmically-challenged dancing. The sad appearances of John Carradine as the count and Yvonne De Carlo as his old flame. Brother Theodore’s hammy mugging as a werewolf/Renfield type character who longs for the title vamp. She is really the one who brings the terrible Nocturna: Granddaughter of Dracula to unprecedented heights of terribility. Crazy-eyed, perpetually grinning Nai Bonet must have taken a page from the Bela Lugosi book of acting by learning her lines phonetically, because there isn’t a trace of expression in anything she says. This would be prime stuff for at-home Mystery Science Theatre sessions if it wasn’t so boring. That half star is for some pretty good numbers by a disco group called Moment of Truth.

October 21

Blackenstein (1973- dir. William A. Levey) **

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Monsterology: Animals

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

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Review: The Criterion Collection's 'The Uninvited' Blu-ray

One of Hollywood’s first real ghost stories (i.e.: one in which the ghost turns out to be an actual ghost and not some shyster pulling a caper) has inexplicably never been available on DVD. The precise reason for this oversight is hard to determine, though I’ve read rumors that a lack of interest in lesser-known classic films is to blame. This theory is a bit tough to swallow since so many classic and not-so-classic old movies have made it to DVD and because The Uninvited is often spoken of in the same breath as The Innocents, The Haunting, and cinema’s other great spook shows. Deservedly so, because Lewis Allen’s adaptation of Dorothy Macardle’s novel Uneasy Freehold has so much going for it: pleasing interplay between stars Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey as siblings who buy a haunted house; a charmingly naive performance from newcomer Gail Russell as the granddaughter of the house’s former owner and Milland’s love interest; a neat blend of romance, humor, and chills; and a really scary ghost that critic Farran Smith Nehma suggests may have inspired the spirits that swoop out of the Ark at the climax of Indiana Jones’s first adventure.

Fortunately, The Criterion Collection has rendered the often-asked question “Why isn’t The Uninvited on DVD?” obsolete with an all-new digital restoration available on DVD and Blu-ray. As is common in films of the forties, the image is soft, particularly in blemish-concealing close-ups, but it’s also clean with no serious flecks or scratches. This isn’t the kind of sharp-detail picture that will knock your socks off, but the film certainly looks good, especially in the shadowy nighttime scenes that showcase deeper blacks.

Criterion includes several supplements, the most substantial being a 26-minute “visual essay” by Michael Almereyda, the director of such features as Twister and Nadja and a really great episode of “Deadwood.” The essay is interesting yet odd because it isn’t really about the film but the careers and troubled personal lives of Milland and Russell with a strange detour about “real life” spiritualists. There are also two radio plays of The Uninvited, both starring Milland, and in the accompanying booklet, an essay about the film by Smith Nehma and an interview film historian Tom Weaver conducted with Lewis Allen in 1997.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Review: 'It Came from 1957: A Critical Guide to the Year’s Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films'

1957 was a flood year for fantasy, horror, and sci-fi pictures with an eerily coincidental 57 of them being released in the U.S. from the German supernatural thriller Unnatural: The Fruit of Evil in February to Howard Hawks’s classic The Thing from Another World in December. A number of factors are responsible for this particular phenomenon, most notably the drive-in explosion and the multiple A-Bomb test explosions leading up to ’57. Rob Craig’s extensive introduction to his critical movie guide It Came from 1957 lays out all these reasons with no historical detail spared. Craig supplies a much, much, much deeper history of atomic weapons and power than you’re ever going to read in another movie book. It may be excessive for a book of this type, but it is fascinating and a hell of a lot scarier and insidious than anything I’ve ever seen in any horror movie, which Craig heightens with his hot-blooded tone. He’s as serious about his politics as he is about his sci-fi movies.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Five Still Scary Scenes from Universal Horror Movies

For audiences not yet accustomed to the weird, the macabre, and the grotesque, Universal’s horror cycle sparked its share of terror and even outrage in its time (the delightful Bride of Frankenstein was a particular lightning rod for the more censorious movie markets). Contemporary audiences may find it nearly impossible to view these movies in their original horrific spirit. Whether desensitized by the luridly graphic horrors of The Exorcist or Friday the 13th or unmoved by anything but the most subtle, imagination-stoking terrors of The Haunting or The Blair Witch Project, modern moviegoers associate Dracula or the Frankenstein Monster too readily with cartoons, Halloween decorations, and breakfast cereals to find Lugosi or Karloff remotely scary.

This is not necessarily tragic since these films offer so much beyond chills that they remain highly entertaining, artistic, and even poignant (these days, the Frankenstein Monster’s accidental murder of a little girl is more sad than scary). But has their potential for terror been totally drained? Those who believe themselves to be completely inoculated to Karloff’s ability to frighten may be surprised by at least one sequence in Frankenstein or another in The Mummy. Those who grew up listening to Count von Count’s Lugosi impersonation on “Sesame Street” may be prepared to do nothing but giggle during Dracula, but maybe there are scares to be found in the movie that have nothing to do with Lugosi’s performance. For your consideration, I offer five scenes from Universal horror movies that may still have the power to make the tiny hairs on your neck stand at attention.

1. The Phantom Unmasked

We begin with what must still stand as the most truly terrifying scene in any Universal horror picture, and one that may not have lost a drop of its potency over the past eighty-eight years. Erik the Phantom sits at his organ, churning out hypnotic music. Christine stands behind him, fascinated, terrified by the artist beneath the opera mask. We see the internal debate on her face: should she remove the mask? Shouldn’t she? We-the-audience know that whatever Erik is concealing can’t be good. The suspense is brutal. Finally, she makes her move. That face! That gape-eyed, noseless, skull-like face! The look of surprise, almost triumph on Erik’s face makes it all the more shocking. But that’s not all there is to this iconic scene. The Phantom leaps off his stool, turns to Christine, points his finger accusingly, stalks toward the camera, breaks the fourth wall—he is stalking toward us! No matter how many times you’ve seen Lon Chaney in his Phantom make-up, seeing this scene is like seeing it for the first time every time. That unbearable build up to the unmasking. That terrible, terrible face. Chaney’s crazed reaction and his punishing pursuit of both Christine and the audience. All this adds up to complete and timeless terror.

2. Renfield Revealed

As sinister as Dracula’s nocturnal activities may be, he is still essentially a very well dressed, good looking gentlemen who happens to spend a lot of time in a coffin or flapping around as a rubber prop bat. But he is not the only menace in Tod Browning’s Dracula. What of the count’s lackey, the wannabe vampire Renfield? Dwight Frye mainly plays Renfield comically, but there are other sides to the old fly-eater too. He displays a conscience when trying to protect Miss Mina from his boss. He is more often terrified than he is terrifying. But he is terrifying, particularly when discovered in the hull of the Vesta. Once again, the scene is a suspense/reveal structure. The men who discover the ghost ship hear muffled laughter coming from below. “What’s that?” one asks. “Why, it’s coming from the hatchway!” another responds. “Don’t look in there!” we shout. But they do, and staring up at them and us is Renfield, his eyes and grin almost glowing from the darkness, his caught-in-the-throat cackle unlike anything we’ve ever heard. Chilling.

3. Enter the Monster

Of all the Universal Monsters, the most endearing is the childlike Frankenstein Monster. Yet he receives the most frightening entrance of them all. Henry Frankenstein discusses his bizarre experiments with mentor Dr. Waldman when suddenly we hear the shuffling of heavy feet. The men turn their heads toward the door. “Here he comes,” Frankenstein says. Suspense. He dims the light. Atmosphere. The door opens. A figure backs into the room for apparently no other reason than to prolong the excruciating wait. He begins to turn around. What a relief! It’s just that old square head we’ve seen so many times. It’s Herman Munster. It’s Frankie from “The Groovie Goolies.” No big deal. But then—then—director James Whale pushes in for a series of disquieting jump cuts, throwing us right into the Monster’s face, his cheeks looking more sunken, his eyes rolling up more grotesquely in his skull than we’ve ever seen in any sitcom or cartoon. It’s the same technique Hitchcock used when he forced us to look at Dan Fawcett’s eyeless corpse in The Birds, and it’s nearly as disturbing in Frankenstein.

4. The Mummy’s Stare

The face of another well-familiar monster turns unexpectedly chilling in The Mummy, and it’s not even the monster in full-on monster mode! Karloff only appears in his famed wrappings in the brief opening scene of the movie. He spends the rest of it looking like a really wrinkly yet still fully human fellow named Ardath Bey. Perhaps it is that very thing that lulls us into believing that there will be no terrors in The Mummy and what so shocks us when there is one. Again surprise plays a key role in the shot’s effectiveness. Ardath Bey and Dr. Muller discuss the cursed scroll of Toth in medium shot in a fairly well lit room. Suddenly the perspective changes to a tight close-up of Ardath Bey’s face. The lighting has also inexplicably changed so that all is shrouded in shadow except for his eyes, which glow unnaturally, staring right into our own peepers. The effect is a simple one—director Karl Freund simply lowered the room lights and shined a couple of small spotlights directly into Karloff’s eyes. The results are as unsettling as they are unexpected.

5. Femm’s Fanaticism

Surprise has been an important element in many of these scary scenes, but it may be most effective in The Old Dark House because James Whale’s film is keener to tickle your funny bone than make your skin crawl. This deliriously fun horror/comedy suddenly shifts to the terrifying when Rebecca Femm, the religious fanatic who lives in the title house, starts ranting about her sister’s agonizing demise and the similarly “sinful” women who’ve occupied her bedroom. As the rant intensifies, Whale shows us Rebecca reflected in various objects, her face distorting more and more with each stomach-churning jump cut. If anyone ever tells you that those good old Universal horror movies are nothing but good old fun, a look at this —or any of the other five scenes on this list —just might scare that person straight.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Review: 'Beatles vs. Stones'

While the “Beatles vs. Stones?” debate has been raging since these generals of the British Invasion stomped onto the battlefield fifty years ago, scrutiny of it has re-intensified recently with the 2010 publication of Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot’s The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones and numerous essays in 2013’s Rolling Stones: Sociological Perspectives. John McMillian’s new book Beatles vs. Stones would appear to keep the war stoked, yet it actually could bring it to an end once and for all. The author looks at all the things that made The Beatles The Beatles and the Stones the Stones—their politics, their public images and private lives, their business practices, their influences—and more often than not concludes that they really weren’t that different. Sure The Rolling Stones (or more accurately, manager Andrew Loog Oldham) cultivated a surly, outlaw image, but none of them engaged in as much cruel and antisocial behavior as John Lennon. Lennon bucked at Brian Epstein’s insistence that The Beatles wear uniforms, but only the Stones successfully fought to dress as they pleased after a brief stint in matching attire. So outwardly, we got a clean-cut Beatles and a scruffy Stones, but inwardly, their attitudes were quite similar. The same held true of their stances on politics, which on both accounts were largely apolitical. The Rolling Stones may have shouted that “the time is right for violent revolution” and The Beatles may have sheepishly declared “but when you talk about destruction don’t you know that you can count me out,” but neither band was particularly willing to get involved in enacting change and both were pretty muddled and inarticulate when answering questions about their personal worldviews. Ultimately, both The Beatles and Stones were rich guys who enjoyed making and spending money.

The most essential point in the debate is the music, because as much as The Rolling Stones followed The Beatles lead throughout the sixties—and appropriately, McMillian keeps his focus on the decade when both groups were active—they rarely sounded alike. However, the author refrains from really putting this element of the debate on the table, which is fine because we can gather that he wouldn’t really have anything fresh or provocative to say about it. While never getting too into the music, McMillian makes it clear that he holds the same opinions as pretty much every other commentator: The Beatles consistently had a leg up on the Stones until the Stones entered their golden period from 1968 through 1972. DeRogatis and Kot got much deeper into the music and their opinions about it were much more unique, but their book is so littered with factual errors and unsupported assertions that it can’t be regarded as the final statement on that aspect of the debate. Because it mostly skirts the music, John McMillian’s Beatles vs. Stones may not be the final word on the rivalry either. Nevertheless it does a very good job of putting the two bands ideologies and images into perspective. Call it a draw.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Diary of the Dead 2013: Week 3

I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews at the end of every week in October. I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

October 11

Seed of Chucky (2004- dir. Don Mancini) ***

…after taking two steps forward with Bride of Chucky we take two steps back on the third and final day of our Chucky-a-thon. In Seed of Chucky, Jennifer Tilly plays herself as the star of a new movie based on the real-life exploits of Chucky and Tiffany. Billy Boyd joins the family as the voice of Glen/Glenda, the dolls’ Pinocchio-esque (and rather incontinent) child. The problem is the movie is too mean to Tilly, who goes along with all the gags at her expense gamely enough that maybe we shouldn’t feel too sorry for her, but it still isn’t much fun to watch. There’s also a little too much truth in advertising. This isn’t just called Seed of Chucky because of Glen/Glenda; there is a lot of doll sperm in this movie from the bad CGI opening credits sequence to Chucky whacking off to an issue of Fangoria to a truly unpleasant scene in which Tiffany artificially inseminates Tilly. This must be the lazy influence of the gross-out comedies that There’s Something About Mary spawned, or perhaps it’s writer/director Don Mancini’s attempt to make a John Waters movie, since Waters is on board as a relentless paparazzo. I have no beef with a sperm joke as long as it’s funny, but Tilly getting sexually assaulted most definitely is not. I preferred Glen/Glenda, who brings a little heart to the series. He’s a good character that saves Seed of Chucky from being as blah as Child’s Play 2, and Mancini pulls a funny running gag from the dolls’ “Made in Japan” stamps and there’s a good Shining joke toward the end, so Seed of Chucky isn’t a total wash.

—And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973- dir. Roy Ward Baker) ***

The big gimmick of the delightfully titled —And Now the Screaming Starts! is that there’s no gimmick at all. Amicus, the studio best known for its portmanteaus, delivers a straightforward feature. Stephanie Beacham moves into her new husband’s old manor. The ghosts there would prefer she left. This starts as an old-fashioned old dark house movie with an eyeless ghost that emerges from paintings of Herbert Lom and a severed hand that keeps crawling around and grabbing people. Then it takes an unexpected turn from the cheesily generic to the rapey and serious. It’s OK stuff that gets a boost from Roy Ward Baker’s ever-fine direction and a geek-pleasing cast that includes Beacham, Lom, Peter Cushing, and Patrick Magee, although all but Beacham are underused.

October 13

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter (2012- dir. Timur Bekmambetov) *½

Is it possible for a movie to not only be about vampires but actually be a vampire? I vote “yes,” because while watching Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, I felt like my brain was being sucked out of my head with the passing of every frame. I guess that would make it more of a zombie than a vampire, but let’s not get too nitpicky about a movie with such a complete disdain for history. A campy premise can be played without camp, as Don Coscarelli did so brilliantly with Bubba Ho-Tep, but it shouldn’t be played with a complete absence of self-awareness and humor… at least not with so much bad CGI. Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is played so straight it ends up falling on its own stake. Indeed, the dumbest part of this symphony of dumb action and dumber editing is that it thinks it has something profound to say about human rights. You mean slavery is bad and slavers are like vampires? Keep filling my brain with knowledge! The best thing about watching Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is that my wife will now stop pressuring me to watch Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.

October 14

King Kong (1976- dir. John Guilermin) ****

It’s been a good three decades since I’ve seen Dino De Laurentiis’s infamous production of King Kong. As a kid, I didn’t think it was that bad. As an adult, this opinion holds true. I liked the updates, which both make it less demanding of comparison to the (obviously) superior original and made it very relevant to a 1970s audience with its recasting of Carl Denham as a greedy oil man (is there any other kind?), Jack Driscoll as an environmentally-conscious paleontologist, and Ann Darrow as a spaced-out Hollywood starlet whose life is saved by Deep Throat only so she can be abducted by a giant gorilla. While Rick Baker in a gorilla suit is no substitute for Willis O’Brien’s marvelous special effects, the animatronic mask is much more articulate than the usual ludicrous gorilla costume. Plus it’s satisfyingly self-conscious of its shortcomings (Jack: “Who the hell do you think went through there? Some guy in an ape suit?”). Thank Lorenzo Semple, Jr., for the persistent wit; he was also the screenwriter behind many episodes of “Batman,” the wittiest TV show of the sixties.  The cast is very good too with Jeff Bridges, Chuck Grodin, and Jessica Lange keeping you from shrieking “Bring on the goddamned monkey, already!” for the first 50 minutes of the movie. I really liked it. Sue me.

Diary of a Madman (1963- dir. Reginald Le Borg) ***

Vincent Price holds down the fort in this adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s story “Le Horla.” A condemned man is under the influence of a murderous entity called the Horla. When he suddenly dies in the presence of Price, our star becomes the new host. Because it’s a period spook story from a literary source starring Vincent Price, it’s hard not to compare it to Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe pictures of the same period. The relatively style-less, chintzy, and talky Diary of a Madman suffers in that comparison, but Price puts his customary all into the role of the tortured magistrate and Nancy Kovack is very watchable as a gold-digging yet conflicted model. There’s also a pretty neat animated effect in which Price’s sculpture transforms from a smiley Nancy to a frowny Nancy. That statue is also involved in the movie’s one truly effective scare.

October 15

Paranormal Activity 4 (2012- dir. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman) **

Poor Katie Featherston. She’s a good actress. Must she be forever doomed to skulk around in sequel after sequel after sequel of the Paranormal Activity series? As was the case in part 3, Katie is actually a minor player. The main characters are a bunch of kids, and since this latest installment is set in the present instead of the halcyon days of 2006, there’s no need to explain why everything is being filmed even before the weird stuff starts happening, because kids (and most adults) today just live their lives through their cell phone viewfinders. Progress! The Paranormal Activity movies, however, have not progressed. Shadows dash in the background. Doors move. Stairs thump. Chandeliers sway. People sleep. The most significant addition is the reliance on fake-out scares, which occur at a truly absurd rate. What started as a really, really scary little movie has become just another formulaic horror franchise. And there’s no end in sight! Paranormal Activity 5 is in the works for 2014! At least we all get a break this year.

October 16

The Hands of Orlac (1924- dir. Robert Wiene) ***

Five years after making The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the first feature horror film and the paragon of German Expressionism, Robert Wiene adapted Maurice Renard’s perennial terror tale about Paul Orlac, a pianist who loses his hands in a train crash and receives a transplant from a deceased murderer whose extremities have not lost their yen for killing. While the subject matter is wackier than that of Caligari, the visual style is much less phantasmagoric. Wiene only really lets his imagination loose during Orlac’s dream of his hands’ former owner, and even that sequence does not approach the nightmarish distortions of Caligari. Comparison to Karl Freund’s frothing 1935 remake Mad Love also makes Orlac seem tame. On its own merits, The Hands of Orlac is a good shadow-submerged creeper and Conrad Veidt does his usual wonderfully weird work as Orlac. However, the nearly two-hour version of this originally ninety-minute film is unnecessarily drawn out and the ending is disappointing.

Zombie High (1987- dir. Ron Link) **½

An awesome cast (Virginia Madsen! Sherilyn Fenn! Paul Feig!) attends a high school academy where everyone listens to the worst generic pop songs in the world and their classmates get transformed into brain-dead conformists in the bio lab. What starts as tongue-in-cheek, retro-eighties fun turns turgid once that cast starts going under the knife and Madsen turns into Nancy Drew. Ultimately, Zombie High makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously, and what could have been a cool paranoid horror satire ends up being a bland paranoid horror movie. The true story of Aziz Ghazal—a guy who killed himself, his wife, and his daughter—is much more horrifying than anything in Zombie High, the movie he wrote and produced.

October 17

Attack of the Puppet People (1958- dir. Bert I. Gordon) ****

The cigar-sucking execs at AIP suss that if the kids will turn out for an Incredible Shrinking Man they will surely quadruple their numbers for a whole crowd of Incredible Shrinking Men and Women. John Hoyt commits himself delightfully to the role of Mr. Franz, a lonely doll maker who miniaturizes folks to add to his collection. Few villains are so endearing. Bert I. Gordon’s Attack of the Puppet People most certainly is not the profound classic that Jack Arnold’s film is, and the “dolls” in suspended animation are clearly two-dimensional photographs, so it doesn’t always wow on the special-effects front. Big deal! Attack of the Puppet People remains one of AIP’s most charming and poignant B-horrors. You’d have to be a super-sized ass wipe to not want to get shrunk down so you could dance to Rock & Roll on Mr. Franz’s desktop. What fun! Director Gordon was really into this kind of stuff. His other films included such size-shifting epics as The Amazing Colossal Man (which June Kenney and John Agar watch at a drive-in in Puppet People!), War of the Colossal Beast, Village of the Giants, and The Food of the Gods. His nickname “Mister B.I.G.” was not unearned.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Review: 'All The Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release'

Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon tell quite a few familiar stories but wrap them an irresistible package called All The Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release. This heavy-duty, 700-page collection is beautifully illustrated and nicely organized. Each Beatlesong is broken down by basic credits (chief songwriter, musicians, recording and mix dates, number of takes, technical team), genesis (what inspired each song and how it was written), production, and technical details with interesting trivial nuggets tucked in the sidebars.

As I feel compelled to remind you in every Beatles-book review on Psychobabble, there are a lot of Beatles books, and their chroniclers are running low on previously unprinted information. In their foreword, Margotin and Guesdon indicate they’ve uncovered new data that sheds new light on the creation of these songs. I must admit that I was already well familiar with the majority of details in All the Songs, so it will probably be of most use to either those who haven’t read very many Beatles book or those who’ve read almost all of them but simply cannot live without knowing every last trivial crumb. As someone who might fall in the latter category, there were enough of those crumbs to recapture my interest after reading about the Aeolian cadence of “Not a Second Time” or the meditating tiger hunter who inspired “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” for the zillionth time. New to me were such tidbits as David Gilmour’s ownership of Julian Lennon’s original “Lucy in the Sky” drawing, the influence of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” on Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android,” the fact that “Flying” was edited down from a nine-minute jam, and quite a few other bits and pieces I’ll allow you to discover yourself. None of these new-to-me details were exceptionally earth-quaking, but they were fun, and the whole lovely package—complete with a cool preface by Patti Smith— is such a gas to flip through that I can confidently recommend it regardless of your current Beatles education.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Review: 'The White Devil: The Werewolf in European Culture'

These days there’s just no shortage of novels, movies, and histories about our pale old buddy the vampire. His furry cousin the werewolf gets much less respect, though this creature has some 30,000 years of history under his belt. While most examinations of werewolves pivot on the fiction, the creature’s role in the real world is less discussed. Before Darwin made it clear that animals cannot transform back-and-forth between species, people believed werewolves could exist in the same way that many modern folks believe the Yeti or the Nessie are possibilities. This is the era and area of lycanthropy that most concerns The White Devil: The Werewolf in European Culture, Matthew Beresford’s new sweeping historical study of werewolves in all their guises. The author tracks the relationship between man and beast from the pagan wolf cults that aspired to be hunters as great as the wolf to the post-Christianity downgrading of werewolves to allies of Satan in the Middle Ages to the physical and mental disorders that may account for this pervasive belief. With just 235 pages to peddle his theories, Beresford crams in a tremendous amount of data. Who knew The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Satyricon referenced werewolves? Or that men were burned at the stake for being “werewolves” just as women were for being “witches”? Or that much folklore views the werewolf, witch, and vampire as interchangeable creatures? Or that a number of historical serial killers were believed to be werewolves?

Indeed, there is little in The White Devil that isn’t really interesting, which helps to make up for the author’s dry tone and tendency to force his fascinating tidbits into suiting his subject. His tales’ connections to lycanthropy are often pretty tenuous, as in his discussion of the child-killer Gilles de Rais. It’s a fascinating story, for sure, but it has very, very little to do with werewolves aside from some people thinking they heard wolves howling near his house or something. Some of his theories, such as the ideas that Renfield of Dracula and Grendel of Beowulf might have been werewolves, are weakly posited too. However, what The White Devil lacks in consistency it makes up for in scope. Beresford’s willingness to toss as many ingredients into his cauldron as he can is admirable even when they don’t generate any bubbles.

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