Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review: 'The Very Witching Time of Night: Dark Alleys of Classic Horror Cinema'

I’m ashamed to say I’d never read any of Gregory Mank’s books until The Very Witching Time of Night: Dark Alleys of Classic Horror Cinema. This is a major oversight since he’s regarded as one of our top horror historians, but also because I’ve always really enjoyed Mank’s charming presence in David Skal’s documentaries on The Mummy, Frankenstein, and Bride of Frankenstein. Apparently, Mank’s previous books were quite focused, tackling Frankenstein, women’s roles in thirties horror movies, Karloff and Lugosi’s collaborations, and Dwight Frye, so The Very Witching Time may be an odd starting point. Aside from the general horror theme (which is even tenuous in a chapter or two), the book is unfocused by definition, each chapter taking on a different dark corner of horror history that didn’t quite fit into any of his previous books. There’s a chapter devoted to Helen Chandler, Mina of Browning’s Dracula whose personal life was more miserable than anything she suffered in her most famous role; one on Paramount’s infamously lurid Murders in the Zoo, and an interview with the son of that film’s star, Lionel Atwill; exhaustive production diaries on the very unlike Cat People and Curse of the Cat People; histories of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and the far-more horrific Hitler’s Madman, a historical horror show about Nazi monster Reinhard Heydrich starring genre-staple John Carradine; and so on.

What unites this variety of nightmares is Mank’s attention to detail, his often-lyrical writing, and the common issues many of these disparate films faced. Censorship was a plague. Scandal dogged a number of the stars (both Atwill and Cat People’s Simone Simon suffered career damage when reports they’d hosted orgies surfaced), making The Very Witching Time occasionally read like a less-overheated Hollywood Babylon. In two of its wilder recollections, the set of Murders in the Zoo turns into a devastating and depressing real-life wildlife battle royal and John Barrymore’s drunk son personally exhumes his father’s fluid-leaking corpse 38 years after it was put in the ground.

There is a lot of dishing in The Very Witching Time of Night, but it is always relevant to the histories and hardly the book’s sole fascination. Some of the chapters are short on revelations (the interview with Atwills son and the piece on Boris Karloff's time at Warner Bros., for example), but Horror fans will find the parallels between the lovely and intimate Curse of the Cat People and producer Val Lewton’s life and the inclusion of the Monster’s deleted dialogue from Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man riveting stuff. They may also pray he expands his delightful chapter on "Shock! Theatre" with its huge transcript chunks into an entire book. If nothing else The Very Witching Time of Night has finally lit a spark under me to read more Mank.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Psychobabble’s 90 Favorite Songs of the Sixties!

Well, Psychobabblers, today is a banner day for Psychobabble as I cross the threshold of 900 fun-filled posts (amazing to think that the quadruple digits are not that far away!). To mark this milestone, I’m knocking a zero off that 900 to present my personal 90 favorite songs of my favorite musical decade, the sixties. Read carefully now, kiddies: these choices are personal and this is not in anyway intended as some sort of definitive “these are the best songs of the sixties” list. No one person can select such a list. The personal nature will really become apparent in the top twenty, which is seriously dominated by my all-time favorite band, a 17-headed beast I like to call The Beatlestoneskinkswho.

So here it is from my keyboard to your eyes and ears… my 900th post... 

90. “All Our Yesterdays” by Small Faces

And now, for your delight, we begin with a good-time song with an exhilarating introductory shout, a wild knees up from the darlings of Whapping Warf launderette that comes in just under two minutes. Think of “All Our Yesterdays” as an hors d'oeuvre for all the psych/garage/soul mania to follow.

89. “Reflections” by The Supremes

Here’s a hit that bridges the soul and psych gap with pulsing genius. Motown gets with the times for a lysergic peak through the window of lost time. Diana Ross breaks her cool with a touch of desperation on the ever-escalating bridge and James Jamerson pumps out one of the all-time bass lines of all-time.

88. “Alone Again, Or” by Love

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review: 'Playground: Growing Up in the New York Underground'

Armed with just a trio of cheap-ass cameras (a Polaroid, a Brownie, a 110 Instamatic), Paul Zone was fully equipped to chronicle his fellow revelers in sleazy late-seventies NYC. Zone’s main gig was lead singer of The Fast, a band well covered in his new book Playground: Growing Up in the New York Underground, though not quite as legendary as a lot of the people he snapped. Along with the usual scene suspects (The Ramones, New York Dolls, Blondie, Suicide, Patti Smith, a very long-haired Lenny Kaye, Suicide, Tom Verlaine, etc.) there are some of the hugest rock stars of the day. Zone’s lo-fi approach to photography makes Ray Davies, Iggy, KISS, Alice Cooper, and Marc Bolan seem as gutter-bound as Wayne County. Not surprisingly, Debbie Harry’s natural luminosity makes all her pictures seem much more professional than the rest.

With Chris Stein, Harry also provided a short foreword for Playground, but the big text comes from Zone, himself, who tells his own story with all-appropriate rawness intact. There’s child abuse, drugs, serious health scares, and death, as well as love, generosity, and sex Tupperware parties. It gives a valuable glimpse of the guy behind the camera, though his pictures have so much personality that you can almost get his biographical gist without reading it. And most impressive of all, I’ve never seen a single one of these shots before.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review: Twilight Time's 'Violent Saturday' Blu-ray

Richard Fleischer shot some audacious twists at the traditional noir with Violent Saturday. The first thing you’ll notice is how sunny and colorful his imagery and expansive his use of ultra widescreen vistas are. Scenes that may have taken place in a shadowy factory or seedy pool hall in another picture go down in broad desert landscapes and bucolic golf courses in Violent Saturday. Even more striking is the film’s structure. Fleischer spends the first hour of this ninety-minute film shaking his jigsaw puzzle pieces out onto the carpet. We meet a man (Victor Mature) whose son (great child actor Billy Chapin the same year he starred in The Night of the Hunter) is ashamed of him for failing to become a war hero. There’s a trio of hoods (Stephen McNally, forties monster-movie staple J. Carrol Naish, and king of the charismatic tough guys, Lee Marvin) plotting some sort of caper. A drunk (Richard Egan) is at odds with his wife (Margaret Hayes). A nebbish peeping tom (Tommy Noonan) peeps on a comely nurse (Virginia Leith, unforgettable as the verbose disembodied head in The Brain That Would Not Die) and has a run-in with an acerbic shoplifter (Sylvia Sydney, who’d become Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin’s caseworker in Beetlejuice three decades later). Ernest Borgnine is an Amish patriarch.

Not until the final half hour do we find out how all these puzzle pieces fit together. That’s when Violent Saturday lives up to its title, and quite shockingly so. Those of us who’ve seen a noir or two can certainly figure out where certain characters are headed, but others take surprising turns, and while taking violent actions may make heroes of some, others have no choice but to wrestle with the moral implications of what they’ve done. A heavily melodramatic tone adds extra flavor to an already complex genre picture, making Violent Saturday play out like The Killing if Douglas Sirk had directed it instead of Stanley Kubrick.

Twilight Time presents Violent Saturday in all its vivid, widescreen grandeur. The blu-ray looks fabulous without any significant blemishes. An isolated score and new booklet essay and commentary, both by Twilight Time’s house historian Julie Kirgo, supplement the disc. Get it at here.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Review: 'The Beatles Encyclopedia'

A Beatles encyclopedia seems like the logical conclusion of the gazillions of books devoted to all things Fab floating around out there. Actually, it has been tried several times before, but since the only one I’ve read is probably the first one, Goldie Friede’s The Beatles A to Z from 1980, I can’t really attest to whether or not Kenneth Womack’s two-volume The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four measures up to the mass of Beatles encyclopedias. I can say it is one of the more massive collections of Beatles info, coming in at about 1,100 pages with all the essentials in order: the songs and albums and close associates and much relating to the solo years (though only the most popular solo songs get their own entries). While anyone who wants to get cute by looking up Sir Frankie Crisp, Alpha Omega, or The Rutles will reach dead ends (though the latter two topics do get their mentions in other entries), Womack earns his encyclopedic stripes by creating some exhaustive entries (the one on “A Day in the Life” is seven pages long; the one on the aborted Get Back project is nineteen!) and supporting the obvious information with details he dug deep to obtain. A little quoted Lennon quote in the Abbey Road entry supplies the very heartening notion that he still had some enthusiasm for writing songs with Paul McCartney in 1969. There’s also an abundance of trivial morsels like The Beatles considered making their own Sgt.Pepper's TV movie in 1967, McCartney considered “Norwegian Wood” to be a comedy number (huh?), and Allen Klein wanted to include solo songs on the 1967-1970 compilation. However, some of Womacks information needs to be taken with a grain of salt since he has a tendency to frame unconfirmed details, such as the possibility that McCartney did not play bass on “She Said, She Said” or that his “fuzz bass” on “Think for Yourself” might have actually been his Epiphone six-string guitar, as solid facts.

Neatest of all, Womack states in his preface that his book will be useful to high school researchers. So today’s high school kids are studying The Beatles? Shit, I wish I were a high school kid today! We eighties school kids had to study logarithms and laissez-faire economics. What a drag.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Review: Twilight Time's 'Radio Days' Blu-ray

Woody Allen was having a strong streak in the mid-eighties, putting out a film a year, alternating archetypal classics like Hannah and Her Sisters with more modest, relatively lighthearted, and very nostalgic movies like The Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days. Woody Allen being Woody Allen, we are talking about relatively lighthearted here. Domestic abuse plays an integral role in the overall enchanting Purple Rose. Similarly Radio Days slips out a few jokes about child beating and links “Mairzey Doats” with a cleaver-wielding maniac, but such stray moments aside, this is one of Allen’s sweetest, kindest films, full of lovably flawed characters whose desires range from the childishly basic—say, scoring a Masked Avenger decoder ring—to the stratospheric—say, graduating from cigarette girl to radio star. In all cases, it is radio that binds the ensemble of characters together, though Hollywood cinema of the past seems to hold equal sway over proceedings that have the same cartoonish tinge as the similarly forties-nostalgic A Christmas Story (another delightful eighties picture in which a secret decoder ring holds sway over a boy’s imagination).

An endlessly pleasing movie, Radio Days gains as much appeal from Allen’s gauzy direction and cuttingly hilarious writing (“You don’t like it, take the gas pipe!”) as it does from a spectacular cast led by tiny Seth Green as Allen’s pre-teen stand in Joe and Mia Farrow at her comedic best as the squeaky cigarette girl. Support swells from Julie Kavner and Michael Tucker as Joe’s parents, and the likes of Wallace Shawn, Larry David, Danny Aiello, Jeff Daniels, Mercedes Ruehl, Tony Roberts, Diane Keaton, Kenneth Welsh, William H. Macy, and Kenneth Mars in small but memorable roles. As is often the case in Allen’s movies, it is Diane Wiest who steals the show as Joe’s perpetually swooning aunt.

Radio Days comes to blu-ray from Twilight Time, which takes titles that might not come to hi-def if left in the hands of the companies that own them and releases them in limited runs of 3,000. Like its Fox Searchlight DVD counterpart from 2001, Twilight Time’s new blu-ray is pretty bare bones, which is standard for Allen’s movies on home video unfortunately. Twilight Time adds its requisite booklet essay and isolated music track, but the real draw is the hi-def upgrade that does not smear out the grain so integral to the film’s olden days aesthetic.

Get Radio Days on blu-ray exclusively at here.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Review: 'David Lynch: The Factory Photographs'

It seems as though David Lynch has only recently made clear his adoration of abandoned factories, but those who’ve been watching his work from the very start will recognize this has been a long simmering fascination for the artist. Both Henry Spencer in Eraserhead and John Merrick in The Elephant Man live in factory wastelands of black and white. In Dune, the vile Baron Harkonnen resides in a factory world of pipes, ducts, and gangrenous walls. Shortly after making The Elephant Man, Lynch began taking still photos of his favorite environment and continued to through the decades, snapping their looming smoke-stacked exteriors and rusting, shadowed interiors in Poland, Germany, England, and the U.S. Many of the most evocative are collected in Prestel Publishing’s new book David Lynch: The Factory Photographs. This may sound like a willfully nichey novelty, but Lynch has a way of taking the most mundane concept and working his dark alchemy on it, chilling you deeply with ordinary objects like windows, pipes, fans, ducts, bricks, and lighting fixtures. The Factory Photographs is as purely a Lynchian work as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, or his photos of ants crawling on clay heads. And it is not just an assortment of pictures on a single subject; it is a total exploration of that subject’s place in Lynchland. There’s an extensive essay on Lynch’s use of factories across the multitudinous media he has explored, a compendium of Lynch quotes on factories, and reproductions of his factory-inspired paintings and a short interview with the artist himself about this pet topic. Like all of Lynch’s work, The Factory Photographs is something to get lost in, a place to dream.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Farewell, Tommy Ramone

 Sad news from the punk world. Last Friday, Tommy Erdélyi, better known as Tommy Ramone, died in hospice after a bout with bile duct cancer. Tommy was not supposed to be a member of America's greatest punk group, but the band's manager was drafted behind the drum kit when they recorded their landmark debut LP. Amazing to think Tommy was not always intended to beat the beat for the band considering how incredibly he maintained their super-charged tempos. That cat had stamina
Tommy also co-produced the group's first four--and all-time best-- albums, drumming on the first three before Marky Ramone replaced him.

Sadly, Tommy was the last original Ramone. Joey died of lymphoma in 2001, we lost Dee Dee to an overdose the following year, and Johnny died of prostate cancer in 2004.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Review: 'White Trash: Uncut'

Try as they did to puke forth the impression they didn’t give two shits about the sentimentality of pop past, the punks started documenting themselves almost from the very start. 1977 saw the release of Wolfgang Büld’s Punk in London, likely the first punk documentary. That same year photographer Christopher Makos published White Trash, a collection of stark, B&W images of such scene staples as Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, John Waters, Divine, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, and the New York Dolls, as well as key influences Warhol, Jagger, and Bowie. A collaborator of Warhol’s, Makos wasn’t necessarily looking to eulogize punk. He’d just snapped some photos of his friends in LA and NYC over a week in 1976. It just happened his friends would all become punk icons.

As originally published, White Trash was not purely Makos’s baby. Art director Fred Meyer had his way with the images, cropping them in angular, punk style. Glitterati’s new edition of White Trash affixes Uncut to the title because Makos’s photos are finally allowed to breathe full frame without Meyer’s crops. Yet we still get a very cropped series of images. Makos favored close ups, not just of faces (and he really forces you to appreciate the lush beauty of Hell’s lips), but of other body parts. A pair of tits here. A crotch bulge there. Patti Smith and Sylvan Sylvan’s dancing feet. Debbie Harrys thigh on the cover. The approach de-eroticizes the erotic, makes the normal odd. The photographer’s knack for catching people like Grace Jones, John Waters, and Divine at their most disarmingly casual normalizes the odd. That’s pretty punk.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Review: 'World Gone Wild: A Survivor’s Guide to Post-Apocalyptic Movies'

Under the shadow of the current environmental crisis, it can be tough to view apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios lightheartedly, but man, you just have to in order to keep your sanity. It’s why a movie like Dr. Strangelove was so cathartic for folks during the Cuban Missile Crisis era and why a movie like Edgar Wright’s End of the World is such a balm in our current precarious age. Most of the movies in David J. Moore’s new movie guide World Gone Wild: A Survivor’s Guide to Post-Apocalyptic Movies are not of the comedic variety, but he maintains a light enough approach throughout to stave off any serious anxiety while perusing the impressive 800 films he covers.

Moore invents his own ratings system to assess each movie: “The Bomb” (it’s great), “Safe Zone” (it’s good), “Gold for Some, Useless for Others” (which can really describe every movie ever made), “Go at Your Own Risk”, and “Toxic” (it sucks). Books of reviews are always tough to review because it’s a natural inclination to dismiss them if the author does not agree with your own opinions, and I often found myself at odds with Moore. You may find yourself at odds with him too since he’s often very critical of critically lauded movies (he has little time for Dr. Strangelove, Children of Men, and The Hunger Games, for example) and defensive of critically reviled ones (the 1998 version of Godzilla, Zardoz, and Battlefield Earth, for example). In the writer’s defense, he usually does a good job of explaining why he is for or against a movie, so I can at least understand his opinions even if I don’t agree with them. He does seem overly into watching stuff blow up, though.

As always, the main point of a book like this is to turn the curious onto movies he or she has never seen before, and I have not seen a huge chunk of them. Nevertheless, Moore does miss some obvious candidates (Fail Safe, Return of the Living Dead, and El Topo are a few of the more glaring omissions), while his extensive interviews with the filmmakers behind such obscurities as The Aftermath, Bleak Future, I Am Virgin will likely only be of interest to the hardest of hardcore apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic movie fans. The design of his book—hard cover, loaded with full-color photos—will appeal to everyone. It’s a handsome presentation for a book on films that tend toward the grainy, bleak, and barren.

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