Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Psychobabble’s 100 Favorite Monsters!

Welcome, foolish mortals, to Psychobabble’s House of 100 Monsters. Creak up the steps and over the threshold. Within this vile abode you will encounter not 98, not 99, but one hundred of the most terrifying, horrifying, unpleasantifying creatures who have ever haunted the page, the screen, and the breakfast table. They are my personal favorite freaks, ranked from terriblest to really terriblest. No Halloween is complete without a visit to a spook house, and my house of horrors is as spooky as it gets. So I formally invite you to freak out to Psychobabble’s 100 Favorite Monsters. Step right this way…

100. Tar Man

First, allow me to guide you down into the basement where a certain deceased individual has recently been resurrected by a certain military-grade toxic gas. Don’t ask me who he was in life, but in death this standout star of Return of the Living Dead is like an E.C. Comics zombie in the oozing flesh and he wants one thing only... brains!

99. Black Frost

Sidestep the Tar Man and take a break by our deep freeze. Oops. Bad idea, because inside is a terrifying thingy that blasts incapacitating frosty air from its jockstrap. This is how Black Frost brought down The Mighty Boosh, and it traumatized many viewers of their surreal British comedy by baring its unsettlingly white teeth before breaking into a hideous dance of death. He’s one icy bastard.

98. Clayface

Wait a minute… that chap wasn’t Black Frost at all! His face has morphed back into its natural state—that of one Matt Hagen, better known as Batman’s hulking, shape-shifting nemesis Clayface, one of the nastiest and most genuinely monstrous monsters to ever menace Gotham City!

97. Wampa

Back in the deep freeze is another terrible creature, a towering snow beast with white, shaggy fur and clawed paws the size of trashcan lids. Is it the Yeti? Nah. They wouldn’t know what the hell a Yeti is up on the distant planet of Hoth. That’s where the Wampa whomps Luke Skywalker’s face off in the shocking attack that kicks The Empire Strikes Back into gear.

96. Pumpkinhead

Monday, October 23, 2017

5 Superior Adaptations of Horror Lit

Adapting literature for the cinema is always tricky, and this can be especially true when dealing with stories intended to raise shivers. What is terrifyingly evocative on the page can flop like a sack of wet leaves when realized with a dude in a zip-up monster suit on screen. Acts unimaginably awful when described cease to play on the imagination when depicted with a rubber knife and karo-syrup blood. Some of horror’s greatest literary works, such as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, It, and I Am Legend, have never received ideal screen adaptations. Some page-to-screen trips have been more lateral with stories such as Frankenstein and Dracula offering very different yet equally essential elements when turned into movies or ones such as The Haunting of Hill House and Rosemary’s Baby being faithful enough to be genuine cases of “six of one/half dozen of another.” On occasion, a film goes above and beyond, reinventing the story upon which it is based in ways that make the original text virtually irrelevant. Here are five of those superior horrors.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Review: 'The Old Dark House' Blu-ray

Frankenstein is an undisputed masterpiece of Gothic horror with one of the great on screen performances from Boris Karloff as what is probably the most iconic depiction of a classic monster ever seared into celluloid. James Whale never made a more famous film—and not many other filmmakers have either—yet Frankenstein still doesn’t feel like his definitive work because it is almost completely lacking in a key Whale element: droll humor. He did not start stirring this essential ingredient into his horror movies until his next one: a nutso adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s novel Benighted called The Old Dark House.

The Old Dark House is a classic old dark house set up: on a stormy night, a rag-tag group of strangers seek shelter at a creepy manse full of ooky kooky weirdos. Plot-wise, there is very little else to The Old Dark House, but Benn W. Levy’s script gives a remarkable cast featuring Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas, Eva Moore, and the divine Ernest Thesiger oodles of delicious things to say. As a leering butler without the ability to speak, Karloff does not get to roll Levy’s words over his tongue as the rest of the gang does, but he still makes his presence felt in an unhinged and unsettling performance. And the cool thing about The Old Dark House that distinguishes it from Whale’s other horror-comedies—The Invisible Man, and his real defining piece, Bride of Frankenstein—is that it still hold up as true-blue horror, blending in some genuinely chilling moments among the clowning.

Universal lost the right to release The Old Dark House after the Priestley estate resold the story to Columbia so it could remake Benighted in 1963 (and though I love director William Castle to death, it’s a lousy film), but this may actually be a good thing since Universal now only seems interested in its golden age horrors featuring the Big-Six monsters. If Universal still had dibs on The Old Dark House, we may never have gotten a Blu-ray release, which we now have thanks to the Cohen Film Collection. This 4K restoration looks miraculous compared to Kino’s 1999 DVD. The picture is clean and boasts beautiful contrast. The grain can get a bit intense, but these moments are few and hardly disrupt what is overall a fabulously clean presentation for a film of this age. Even the opening reel, which is only a dupe since the original was too decayed to use, looks pretty great. However, the soundtrack is somewhat tinny and noisy in patches, and the noise gets particularly hairy in the penultimate reel.

Most of the extras—feature commentaries with Gloria Stuart and James Curtis (who wrote the essential James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters) and an interview with Curtis Harrington, who knew Whale and hunted down the original negative of the film—were ported over from the Kino DVD (only an image gallery was lost in translation). Cohen only adds a booklet interview with Harrington and a 15-minute video interview with Boris’s daughter Sara Karloff, who discusses her dad’s career, difficulty in the makeup chair, and unique voice and body language. However, a lack of abundant new bonuses are of little consequence considering how much one of the great old films now looks like a great new film.

Monday, October 16, 2017

"You're Like Me": The Strange Links Between 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' and 'Blue Velvet'

David Lynch has created some of the scariest moments on film. The infamous scene behind Winkie’s Diner has been rated cinema’s scariest scene more than once. Twin Peaks has been named television’s scariest show. Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, INLAND EMPIRE, and of all things, The Elephant Man have been categorized as horror movies through the years. However, Lynch has never really been a horror film director. Rather he works horror into his work in the same way that he works in comedy and melodrama, and because he does not really make films we expect to hit the beats of specific genres, those moments of humor, naked emotion, and terror always hit harder than they would in genre pictures because they are so unexpected.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Review: 'Summer of Fear' Blu-ray

Following The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes —two super low-budget horror flicks that are now regarded as genre classics— Wes Craven brought his schlock-shock vision to the small screen with a movie based on Lois Duncan’s 1976 novel Summer of Fear. The film stars Linda Blair as Rachel, a teenage girl skeptical of her cousin Julia (Lee Purcell), who has come to stay with Rachel’s family after Julia’s parents croak in a mysterious car accident. As it turns out, Julia’s got some evil juju running through her, and she makes it her mission to cause trouble for Rachel and her kin.

When I first saw Summer of Fear (which I knew as Stranger in Our House, the title by which it originally aired) at the age of five or six, it terrified me. Terr-i-fied me.  Its insidious “I’m the only one who realizes the monster is a monster” premise, hellish climax, and queasy slow-mo closing credits gave me years of nightmares. No exaggeration. Rewatching Summer of Fear nearly forty years later, I no longer find it particularly scary, but it is great fun as a time capsule of super-seventies fright wigs (perms for everyone!) and polyester wardrobe and quite effective as simple horror premise. Blair is very good as the initially petulant, increasingly harried, ultimately heroic teen, and she and Lee Purcell have terrific antagonistic chemistry. It’s also interesting to see Wes Craven tone down his trademark nastiness for a subtler approach to horror. 

On the cusp of its fortieth anniversary, Summer of Fear comes to Blu-ray via Dopplegänger Releasing. The film looks its age with a fair share of scratches, specs, and blotches. The picture is generally soft and grainy, but it is still very watchable. Interior scenes tend to be  dark and low on detail, but exterior daytime scenes look good and the overall clarity seems to improve about halfway through the movie. Extras include a commentary by Wes Craven’s, which has been ported over from Artisan’s 2003 DVD, a short image gallery, and a neat new 13-minute on screen interview with Linda Blair, who discusses the film’s casting, her rapport with that cast, Wes Craven’s directing style, a disturbing stunt involving a horse that clearly made an impression on animal rights activist Blair.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Review: Joe Jackson's 'Summer in the City: Live in New York'

In August 1999, Joe Jackson performed at tiny Joe’s Pub in NYC, his voice and piano accompanied only by Gary Burke’s drums and Graham Maby’s bass. Considering the lack of guitar and the fact that the show took place amidst Jackson’s retreat from pop, one might assume the performance had some sort of jazz trio pretentions. But with Burke’s hard hitting and Maby’s trademark vicious attack, the set was pure Rock & Roll. It also formed the basis of a CD called Summer in the City: Live in New York released in 2000.

With Jackson looking back on his rocker days, it was appropriate that his original selections not only relied exclusively on the seventies and eighties, but that they also included oldies by The Beatles, Yardbirds, Steely Dan, and as the CD’s title reveals, The Lovin’ Spoonful (though there are nods to jazz in his covers of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” and The Ramsey Lewsi Trio version of “The In Crowd”). Refreshingly, the covers and the punkish early cut “One More Time” retain all their thrust in this stripped down setting. This is in no small way due to the awesome Maby. With his 5-string bass, he supplies all the strings any Rock band could need as he adds some (in Joe’s words) “very deep bass” to “Fools in Love” and whips off a thrilling solo on “Another World”. All hail Graham.

Because it was recorded in the dedicatedly digital age, Summer in the City: Live in New York may seem an odd choice for the audiophile label Intervention Records (who’d previously reissued Jackson’s Look Sharp!, I’m the Man, and Night and Day), which normally goes to length to use a completely analog process in its reissues.* But even with only “high quality files” from the original DATs available, this double-vinyl release sounds superb with Maby and Burke rattling the floorboards and Jackson’s voice soaring over them with remarkable clarity on quiet 180-gram vinyl.

*Update: Shane Buettner of Intervention Records had the following to say about the process of mastering Summer in the City: Live in New York:

I definitely specialize in 100% analog mastering, because so few labels do that. However, my ethos is to be truest to the master source. For this project there was analog tape, but as the master source was native digital, the digital sounded best and that’s what I used. In this case it’s important to note the HUGE impact of going from the 16-bits of the CD to the 24-bit source files we used. 24-bits is 256 times the resolution of 16-bits! In addition, the original CD had several dB of dynamic compression whereas we didn’t employ any.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Review: 'The Twilight Zone Encyclopedia'

The Twilight Zone ran for 156 episodes written by 40-something different writers and featuring way more actors and actresses than I’m willing to count. You can literally fill an encyclopedia with this stuff, and that’s just what Steven Jay Rubin literally did with The Twilight Zone Encyclopedia.

Running for 424 packed pages, Rubin’s book discusses every episode, every writer, every director, every major theme (aliens, children, time travel, etc.), every significant location or item (Sunnyvale Rest home from “Kick the Can”, Talky Tina from “Living Doll”, etc.), and nearly every actor and actress who appeared in the series’ original run (understandably, people like Phil Arnold, who played “Man” in “Mr. Dingle, the Strong” and Jimmy Baird, who played “Boy” in “The Changing of the Guard” are a bit too much for our valiant author). And the original run is Rubin’s main concern, which he makes very clear in his book’s introduction, although he still manages to slip in a good deal of information about, for example, Twilight Zone: The Movie in his entry on “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”.

Rubin doesn’t make room for potential entries about such original series-related items as all the merchandise The Twilight Zone spawned or The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror” episodes that so wonderfully parody so many classic Zones, but we do get a lot that saves the book from being redundant in light of The Twilight Zone Companion, Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic, IMDB, and Wikipedia. There are quotes from new interviews with a slew of people involved with the original series, odd bits of trivia (example: Russ Meyer was a still photographer for the series! Nina Roman-Rhodes, who played the maid in “Miniature”, was one of the few people who reported seeing a second gunman at the site of JFK’s assassination!), and quite a few unusual photos (my favorite: Gary Crosby of “Come Wander with Me” monkeying with an electric bass). Ten pages of Rod Serling’s final interview is a cool addition too even though the creator barely mentions The Twilight Zone at all.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review: 'The Real Classy Compleat Bloom County 1980-1989'

Before the eighties, the funnies proved they could be smart (Doonesbury) or weird (try reading some classic Superman strips), but it was only during the decade of Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side that they really became both. And it all really started with Bloom County. Like Doonesbury, Bloom County had politics on its mind but its talking animals, geeky reference points, surrealism, and all-out anarchy made it a hell of a lot more fun than Garry Trudeau’s strip. Despite its mission to expose greed and hypocrisy in contemporary society, its refusal to accept war and bigotry as anything but shameful and horrific, and its sheer silliness, Bloom County also had a wistful tone that often made it poignant and utterly human even when the cast consisted of a neurotic penguin (or was Opus a puffin?), an ultra-conservative bunny, a bigoted groundhog, and a scraggly cat hooked on more shit than Keith Richards.

Reading Bloom County today, it is striking how well it holds up despite how topical it was. Actually, its topicality is one reason why it is still such a great read since it functions as a bit of a history lesson and a bigger bit of a nostalgia trip with its references to Pac-Man, Rubiks Cubes, “Where’s the Beef”, and other eighties touchstones. The surreal nature of history keeps some of this stuff relevant too. Who would have thought we’d still be concerned with the idiotic antics of a certain talentless, tactless, conscienceless real estate tycoon whom Breathed roasted back in the Bloom County days by placing his brain in the body of Bill the Cat?

IDW is now collecting the entirety of those days in a two-volume set you could flatten a cat with. The Bloom County-esque punchline of The Real Classy Compleat Bloom County 1980-1989 is that it isn’t especially classy at all. The soft covers are only mocked up to look like cracked lather, though they are housed in a heavy slipcase. While some IDW books load on the extra features, this set only features a one-page introduction by Breathed, who is still as fixated on our idiot president as he was before the idiot became president (and no, kids, we do not get a reissue of the Billy and the Boingers flexi-disc featuring those classic hits “U Stink but I U” and “I’m a Boinger”). That’s not a problem, though, since Bloom County was never particularly concerned with being classy. The most crucial word in the title is no joke: compleat. Well, considering the archaic spelling, maybe it’s a little bit of a joke. Ack! 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Monsterology: Clowns

Way-hey, kids! Are you ready to have some fun? Because I’m the fun fellow with the floppy feet who loooooves to have fun! I love all kinds of fun! Like luring you into the sewer to play with my collection of balloons! They float! They all float down here, kids, and when you’re down here with me, you’ll float too! Sounds like fun, don’t it? I may take your arm, but just consider that the price of admission to my fun, fun sewer circus! You’re not scared, are you? I’m just the friendly, funny fellow with the floppy shoes, and everyone knows that a clown is a kid’s best friend, right? Right?

Wrong! In fact, the creepy clown has become such a common horror figure that it’s hard to imagine there was a time when children laughed along with the likes of Clarabell, Bozo, and Ronald McDonald. These days it seems that the easiest way to get distribution for a cheap-o, direct-to-video (sorry…I mean “direct-to-streaming”) horror movie is to stick a leering, fanged clown in it. Stitches (2012), Sloppy the Psychotic (2012), Mockingbird (2014), All Hallow’s Eve (2013), and of course, Clown (2014) are just a few of these fun flicks.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Review: 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Ultimate Visual History'

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was special in the sci-fi pantheon for the way it invited viewers to contemplate the galaxy and consider that what was out there may actually be friendly. Steven Spielberg’s motivation for making the film was ultimately noble and humane (despite a lead character who abandons his family to go star hopping), but it would not have worked without startling visuals to make us believe there really is something out there worth contemplating. With inestimable assistance from people such as cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, concept artist George Jensen, art director Joe Alves, and special effects-Merlin Douglas Trumbull, Spielberg delivered those visuals spectacularly. So a visual history of Close Encounters seems a natural publication for the film’s fortieth anniversary, and the visuals in Michael Klastorian’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Ultimate Visual History deliver the goods in the form of stills, Jensen’s impressionistic paintings, behind-the-scenes snap shots, images of deleted and aborted scenes, and clearer looks at the Mothership and  aliens than we get in the film (though these photos reveal why the phony looking aliens had to be muted by creative lighting in the film).

However, what makes Klastorian’s book truly special is access. Spielberg, himself, not only opened his archive of materials for inclusion but also his memories, granting personal interviews and even penning the foreword. Stars Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, Cary Guffey, and Bob Balaban, as well as such off-screen magicians as Trumbull and Alves, are similarly generous with their recollections in new interviews conducted exclusively for this book. Of course, Close Encounters is a milestone movie, so it had already been documented pretty well and a lot of the stories they tell won’t be super revelatory to long-time fans, but finer details on the production probably will be, and in any event, it is nice to have the whole story collected in such an attractive package. The idea to stick detachable production notes, art, script pages, storyboards, and other memorabilia onto the pages with gummy glue wasn’t the best one, since these inserts are probably easily damaged and a bit disruptive to the book’s design if they aren’t detached, but as a whole, Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Ultimate Visual History is a gorgeous way to pay tribute to a sci-fi picture with ideas and images that still instill wonder after forty years.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Farewell, Tom Petty

He wasn't revolutionary like The Clash, innovative like Patti Smith, or ironic like Cheap Trick. Tom Petty just got by on writing rock solid songs and performing them with a rock solid band. His talent was such that albums such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Damn the Torpedoes, and Hard Promises didn't need to shake things up to still stand out among the great albums of the seventies and eighties. And he was always  so resolved in his refusal to follow trends that he ended up seeming oddly hip, as cool as any of the new wavers and as edgy as any of the punks. The timelessness of his music was certainly a factor in the length of his career, which left most of the new wavers and punks in the dated dust. Sadly, that career came to an end last night. Tom Petty has died of cardiac arrest at the mere age of 66. Rock & Roll will never be quite as cool again.

Baby’s First Exorcism: 10 Movies to Desensitize Your Kids to Monsters and Murder

Every new parent faces the same serious dilemma: When do I first show my child The Exorcist? Age 3? 4? 7? It’s a pickle, indeed, and the answer is a bit convoluted, because if you sit little Johnny or Suzie in front of Regan MacNeil’s pea soup vomiting and crucifix…errr… “play” too early, you might do serious damage to his or her psyche. Wait too long, and your child might spend the rest of her or his life watching the same damn Barney tape over and over, never conditioned to take in hardier fare.

No worries, Big Johnny or Suzie, because I am an experienced parent equipped to guide you down the perfect path toward ensuring your child will one day join you for marathons of horrifying, terrifying, disgustifying movies all Halloween Season long. The key is to systematically expose your child to the following 10 movies guaranteed to desensitize your kids to monsters, murders, and anything else your favorite horror flick may lob at them.

Step 1. Curse of the Cat People

We begin with a film that does not quite qualify as a horror movie despite being a sequel to Jacques Tourneur’s chilling masterwork Cat People. A sequel may seem like an odd starting point, but Robert Wise’s Curse of the Cat People really has very little to do with Tourneur’s picture about a woman with serious sexual hang ups who turns into a blood thirsty panther (or at least thinks she does) whenever she gets horny. Clearly, that movie would not be very appropriate to show to your three year old, but Curse of the Cat People has more in common with Alice in Wonderland. Oliver Reed and Alice Moore from the original film have an over-imaginative little daughter named Ann who finds a photo of her dad’s ex, the now deceased cat-woman Irena Dubrovna, and fantasizes her into existence as a ghostly playmate. Ann also makes friends with an old actress with a penchant for telling especially vivid tales of the Headless Horseman. Curse of the Cat People is ultimately a very charming, moving tale of growing up fit for any tot, but its ghost and scary stories will gives your kid the heads up that there are things more intense than Cars 3 out there.

Step 2. The Wizard of Oz

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