Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween

Arriving less than a month after that initially exciting, ultimately drudging return to the classroom, the season sweeps in early October. Crisp days flush out late summer oppressiveness. The sun’s early descent swathes all in gold glow. Then, gradually throughout the month, peaked eyes leer out from closed windows, glowering and glimmering with candlelight in the evening. Beistle cutouts of orange, green, yellow, and black decorate doors, giving early indication of the houses worth visiting come the 31st. Jack-o-lanterns. Witches. Black cats. Cartoonishly rendered haunted houses and skulls with rats peering from empty eyes. Nature gets in on the festivities by strewing dead leaf confetti. As the day nears, kids and spirited adults debate costume choices. Some start their planning considerably earlier. Nearer still come the trips to costume shops or the rummages through junk piles to construct homemade disguises. Traditionalists duck under white sheets to howl and rattle chains or grease-up with green paint to play vampires and witches. And as that one day on which prowling little wolves take the streets approaches, they take the airwaves too when kids cartoons invade primetime TV: “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”, Halloween Is Grinch Night”, “Bugs Bunny’s Howl-o-ween Special”.


Then the 31st, when store clerks shed their smocks and students shun their school clothes to take on new personas for the day. In the aurous afternoon or at twilight, small strange creatures creep down sidewalks and across lawns, rapping on doors, demanding sweets, exploring neighborhood nooks never intruded any other day of the year. They build appetites that can only be sated with tiny bags of candy corn, miniature Snickers bars, Pixy Stix, rolls of Smarties, Dum Dums, and candy cigarettes. When little legs grow too weary, when loot sacks and plastic pumpkins fill to capacity, when the welcoming lights in homes extinguish, the time comes to return home. But a month-long diet of ghosts and monsters populates young imaginations. They second guess. And though they’ve passed that tree on countless slogs to school or jaunts to friends’ homes, doesn’t its gnarled limbs resemble talons tonight? And doesn’t the wind rustling its remaining foliage sound more like malignant whispers? And doesn’t the darkness seem that much darker when parents are home, going about their mundane business as they would any other night, while they’re children are out roaming, masquerading as evil things? Could a child’s costume fool real goblins into drifting up from the netherworld, believing their kind really has inherited the Earth? Hurry back to your homes, where you can comb through your sugary stash in safety, and recall the thrill of when the night spirited away your reason. That fanciful, frightening, fantastic sensation only comes on Halloween.

Frightening Halloween may be. It may be a day fixated on monsters and devils and evil. But is there a more innocent day of the year? On what other day do parents trust their children to venture out alone to literally take candy from strangers? On what other day do adults place so much trust in each other to treat each other’s kids safely and respectfully? During the ‘70s and ‘80s, reports of razor blades concealed in apples and candy spiked with angel dust went beyond the usual Halloween frights. These suburban myths made parents take a more active role in Halloween activities, accompanying older kids on their Trick-or-Treats and inspecting their candy like amateur Homeland Security grunts. But isn’t the kind of trust that comes with Trick-or-Treating valuable? Does paranoia have to taint the more fanciful fears that are Halloween’s sustenance just as it now contaminates our airports and subways tunnels? Shouldn’t kids learn to feel comfortable in their own communities? Because beyond its creatures, Halloween is different from all other days of the year, different from all other holidays, because it is about community. Most of us spend Thanksgiving and Christmas and Hanukah inside our homes with friends and relatives or in the homes of those familiars. Halloween is the only holiday on which adults send their children outside to discover unfamiliars, knock on their doors, and interact in one of the more intimate ways by asking them for food. There’s no exchange of money, no expectations on the part of the giver. For a lot of people, Halloween is the one day of the year they are actually charitable. Unlike the 4th of July or Thanksgiving, it has no nationalistic component. Unlike Hanukah or Christmas or Kwanzaa it has no enduring religious one. Halloween is for everyone.

Halloween also differs from other holidays because of the way it grows up with us. We may give and get different kinds of gifts as we get older, and hopefully we no longer believe those gifts come from Santa Claus when we’re adults, but Christmas doesn’t change significantly through life’s stages. Halloween does. It is Trick-or-Treating when we’re young, light mischief making when we’re too old for candy begging, parties when we’re old enough to host them. Those who choose to have children discover that Halloween changes again as they see the holiday through the eyes of their kids, reliving their own Trick-or-Treating adventures, the satisfaction of a bag bulging with colorful empty calories, the delightfully irrational fears: all the things their kids will remember fondly when they’re old enough, and possibly pass along to their own kids.

But let’s not forget the single best thing about Halloween: it’s a holiday completely devoted to monsters! Wrap your skull around that as if its fresh news. America has a national holiday that revolves around monsters and ghosts. What a gift to horror movie fans like us! Western fans don’t get All Cowboy’s Day. There’s no Laughmas for comedy geeks. Sci-fi junkies are deprived of Robot Hashanah. But we often-maligned horror fans are allowed a holiday on which our gruesome obsessions become the nation’s. What a weird, wonderful day Halloween is. Have a great one.


Friday, October 28, 2011

Review: The Criterion Edition of ‘Island of Lost Souls’

Ask a classic monster fanatic what the most unjustly unavailable movie is and that nut would likely respond, “Island of Lost Souls.” Why Erle C. Kenton’s brilliant 1932 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau has been out of print for so long has never been satisfactorily answered. Fortunately, that question is no longer relevant since Criterion has now given this overdue movie its due. We can finally revel in Charles Laughton’s dastardly portrayal of sadistic vivisectionist/mad scientist Moreau and Bela Lugosi’s desperate Sayer of the Law (“Are we not men?!?”) and Kathleen Burke’s sexy, tragic Lota the Panther Woman and Kenton’s enthralling atmosphere and pre-code edginess on DVD and Blu-ray any time we please.

Criterion’s transfer is a composite of several sources of varying quality. The restoration is not immediately striking because the film is front-loaded with the rougher bits. The daylight scenes that dominate the beginning of the film are gauzy, giving the false impression of weak images. The actors almost seem to glow. Once the picture moves into the shadowy, higher-contrast nighttime scenes that dominate it, the restoration looks very, very good. The composite also includes passages of dialogue censored since the film’s original release. They most likely include Moreau’s “Do you know what it means to feel like God?” which closely resembles a similarly censored line from Whale’s Frankenstein.

We get an audio commentary from the charming horror historian Gregory Mank and four very different video commentaries. The most traditional is a scholarly analysis by David Skal, our best monster movie documentarian and author of the absolutely essential Monster Show. He discusses Wells’s novel and the film’s themes and sources, the most-revelatory suggestion being that Laughton may have based his Moreau on Oscar Wilde. I’m not convinced of his claim that the film reflects co-screenwriter Philip Wylie’s misogyny, though. Both female characters are sympathetic and both are responsible for rescuing the men. Only villainous Moreau expresses any contempt for women. Compared to something like King Kong, Lost Souls is practically progressive.

Next up is a fun roundtable with John Landis, Rick Baker, and Bob Burns, who geek out about the performances, makeup, and atmosphere. Burns also gets off the best comment on the DVD when Landis asks him why he likes Kenton’s schlocky House of Frankenstein. Burns responds, “It has Frankenstein and the Wolf Man.” Hear, hear.

We also get a talk with director Richard Stanley, who was let go from the disastrous 1996 adaptation starring Marlon Brando and completed by John Frankenheimer. Stanley goes in depth about Wells but is fairly dismissive of all the film versions and could have provided more information about his ousting from his own project.

The oddest extra in the bunch is a discussion with Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale of Devo, who talk about the film’s influence on their image, philosophy, and songs (“Are we not men? We are Devo”). The talk leads them on some fascinating tangents about Ohio horror host Ghoulardi, who’s show introduced the guys to the movie, and the infamous Kent State protest/cop-shooting-spree that inspired Neil Young’s “Ohio”. Also included is a valuable Devo short film from 1976, which is basically an edit of music videos for “Secret Agent Man” and “Jocko Homo” that doesn’t quite look like the union of German Expressionism and McDonald’s commercials the guys intended it to be.

Get the Criterion edition of Island of Lost Souls on DVD and Blu-ray at Amazon.com.

Diary of the Dead 2011: Week 4

I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews every Friday in October (this year I’ll only be discussing movies I haven’t reviewed elsewhere on this site). I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.



October 21st

The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972- dir. Charles B. Pierce) **½

The Legend of Boggy Creek arrived amidst a weird wave of Big Foot Fever. A few years earlier, two jokers named Patterson and Gimlin made news with grainy film of one of their buddies in a monkey suit. A few years later, the Six Million Dollar Man duked it out with Sasquatch. Fonzi jumped over him in water-skis. Boggy isn’t much more convincing than any of those things, but the documentary conceit was certainly novel at the time. It also justifies the amateur acting and “In Search Of”-quality narration. Stretching the gimmick to 87 minutes is a bit unnecessary. A reasonable person can only watch so much footage of NRA cardholders assholing around in a swamp. I admire director Pierce’s restraint in not giving us a good look at the monster. The country muzak songs are delightfully wretched.

Blood and Roses: U.S. Edit (1960- dir. Roger Vadim) ***½

Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s pre-Dracula novel Carmilla was adapted a bunch of times, most famously as The Vampire Lovers. Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses was the first one to leave the book’s essential lesbian romance intact. That theme was gutted from the U.S. edit, which is

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Psychobabble’s 120 Essential Horror Movies: The Complete List & Bonus Features!



Just when you thought the terror has ended in so many, many horror movies--Bam!--there’s one last-minute scare to ensure you leave the theater extra shaken. The same can be said of Psychobabble’s 120 Essential Horror Movies List! Now that this seven-month project has ended, here are some final tidbits to shake you up just a little more, dear reader.

First I present the complete list in its complete entirety all in one complete list! When compiling the list I realized it was too unwieldy to rank according to my personal preferences (and figured that might be taking its personal nature a few steps too far). So I decided on a straight, chronological organization. This complete list is a touch more personal, as I bolded my personal favorite film in each decade. The blue, underlined headings are links to the original decade-by-decade lists with full commentaries.

The ‘20s
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
2. The Golem (1920)
3. The Phantom Carriage (1921)
4. Nosferatu (1922)
5. Häxan (1922)
6. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
7. Faust (1926)

The ‘30s
8. Dracula (1931)
9. Svengali (1931)
10. Frankenstein (1931)
11. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Psychobabble’s 150 Essential Horror Movies Part 9: The 2000s

In this feature, Psychobabble creeps through more than 90 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 150 most monstrous works, decade by decade.

129. Shadow of the Vampire (2000- dir. E. Elias Merhige)

Like a bloodsucker after that first mouthful of vein juice in the evening, horror entered the ‘90s reinvigorated and ready to break some rules. The genre’s first great flick of the decade accomplished the seemingly impossible by taking a newfangled approach to the hoariest of movie monsters. With satisfying appropriateness, screenwriter Stephen Katz twirls the clock all the way back to the first true horror film to posit the question: “What if Max Schreck was not just the star of Nosferatu, but actually was nosferatu?” Director E. Elias Merhige is off and running from there with a witty, stylish period horror movie boasting an inspired cast of weirdos. John Malkovich is director F.W. Murnau, who must keep his movie rolling while contending with the morphine addiction of his lead actress, Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack), and the far graver habits of his vampiric star. As Schreck, Willem Dafoe is brilliant: menacing, sad, repulsive, and very, very funny. His lackadaisical night creature is a hilarious foil to frantic Murnau. After the grainy, avant garde experiment Begotten, Merhige was as unlikely a choice to helm a mainstream film as David Lynch was when Mel Brooks chose him to make The Elephant Man after Eraserhead. But like Lynch, Merhige adapts his style with consummate artistry and professionalism. His art crew’s recreations of the original Nosferatu sets captured in shadowy full color and scratchy black and white are as glorious to behold as the sparks that flicker between Dafoe and Malkovich.

130. The Others (2001- dir. Alejandro Amenábar)

The mass of horror films that populated the genre’s 2000s revival sought to recapture the visceral thrills of Dawn of the Dead or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Others is just as referential as 28 Days Later or Saw, but its source would not be sucked quite so dry throughout the decade. Alejandro Amenábar’s ghost story stirs the cerebral chills of The Innocents, and the parallels are not quite as subtle as the product. We have Nicole Kidman channeling Deborah Kerr’s unease as the mother of a precocious girl (Alakina Mann) and her weird little brother (James Bentley). With the arrival of an outsider (Fionnula Flanagan) comes a rush of terrible secrets revealed in an old dark house setting. A more recent influence must have been The Sixth Sense, as The Others builds to a twist delivered with the punch of “The Twilight Zone” instead of the ambiguity of The Turn of the Screw. Yet like Henry James’s novel and Jack Clayton’s film, concealing secrets is such a motivator throughout the entire film that the climactic twist never feels gimmicky. Amenábar keeps everyone half hidden in inky chiaroscuro. Kidman’s Grace Stewart spends the film locking doors and shutting curtains, lest a ray of sunlight fall on her wan children. She instructs the new housekeeper that her “children sometimes have strange ideas, but you mustn’t pay any attention,” which is as much a comment on the ghosts the children believe haunt their house as the themes of child abuse that are far more unsettling. 


131. Bubba Ho-Tep (2002- dir. Don Coscarelli)

Like Shadow of the Vampire, Don Coscarelli’s adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s Bubba Ho-Tep reimagines history, but with even madder results. Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy are alive, though not particularly well, in a Texas nursing home having faked their deaths all those years ago. Or are they simply a pair of delusional old men, who also attribute the natural deaths of their elderly neighbors to a soul-sucking, redneck mummy haunting the premises? Bruce Campbell as the King (who claims he switched places with an Elvis impersonator who met his maker while sitting on the porcelain throne in ’77) and Ossie Davis as J.F.K. (who claims he had himself dyed black to hide his identity after Oswald’s assassination “attempt”!) are so convincing in their respective roles that matters of truth and fiction soon fade to the background. Funny without being cynical or smug, the ultra-campy premise is played surprisingly straight, allowing the moments of suspense and the endearing bond between Presley and Kennedy to ring true. The title mummy is memorable, but Bubba Ho-Tep is more of a supernatural character study than a monster movie.

132. May (2002- dir. Lucky McKee)

Review: ‘The Unknown Peter Cushing’

The Unknown Peter Cushing is a pile of research in search of a book. Frustrated by the failure of other biographies to discuss Cushing’s grandfather’s stage career, author Michael G. McGlasson performed a pretty impressive archival dig to illuminate this aspect of the Hammer-Horror star’s ancestry. McGlasson understands that fans of Cushing’s monster movies are the most likely to check out his book, so he gives us some interesting tidbits about how Grandfather Henry rubbed elbows with Bram Stoker and played Wagner in Faust. When the author switches focus from Henry Cushing to Peter half-way through his book, he seems to do the very thing he criticizes about other Cushing books in his pompous introductory chapter by regurgitating available information. Indeed that introduction leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth as the author checks off other books by name, dismissing them as “scant,” “heavy with redundancies,” and “ponderous.” It’s never a good idea to begin your book by criticizing the work of others, especially when yours is as ponderously written as the scant, 85-page Unknown Peter Cushing. Cushing completists who will not be satisfied until they explore absolutely every crevice of the actor’s history will probably want to add McGlasson’s book to their collection. Everyone else would probably do better to check out one of the books he dismisses in his introduction, or better yet, Cushing’s own An Autobiography and Past Forgetting, which McGlasson quotes heavily in his totally non-redundant book.

Get The Unknown Peter Cushing at Amazon.com here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review: ‘Karloff as The Invisible Man’

A swarm of potential Karloff vehicles materialized in the vapor trails behind Frankenstein. Universal jolted many into existence: The Old Dark House and The Mummy and The Black Cat. Several were stillborn, including films that would eventually be realized with different actors in their lead roles. Too bad for Boris, but The Wolf Man would make a star of Lon Chaney, Jr., and The Invisible Man would do the same for Claude Rains, even though the actor’s face is only non-invisible (or visible, if you prefer) for mere seconds before the credits roll. Of course, Frankenstein made Boris Karloff a star, and such scant screen-time hardly befitted a creature of his stature. Director James Whale saw his latest horror project (and his latest project to delay his career-long obsession, The Road Back) run through a number of variations before he deemed it suitable for filming. By that point, Karloff was off the project because studio execs Carl and Junior Laemmle had failed to give him the salary increase he deserved.

A voice as distinctive as Karloff’s dulcet lisp would have made the actor as recognizable as an invisible man as a visible one, but early drafts of the film would have given viewers far more glimpses of his equally iconic face than the completed film starring Rains. In the latest essential volume in his essential “Alternate History for Classic Film Monsters” series, Philip J. Riley collects all that remains of the discarded swipes at The Invisible Man. After his brief overview of the film’s history, Riley hands over the reins to R.C. Sherriff, who would ultimately compose the script James Whale filmed in 1933. In an extended excerpt from Sherriff’s 1968 autobiography, No Leading Lady, the screenwriter spends much time wringing his hands over the faithfulness of his accepted script. Apparently, Universal expected its screenwriters to use their source material as the merest seeds that might sprout almost completely original ideas (it is unclear whether this was Sherriff’s interpretation of the studio’s desires or if the Laemmeles specifically demanded originality). Indeed, his plot is the most similar to the one in H.G. Wells’s novella, though the author took issue with Sherriff’s decision to have the invisibility formula turn Dr. Griffin into a madman.

One can only guess how violently Wells would have reacted to James Whale and novelist Gouveneur Morris’s treatment, which recasts the Invisible Man as a sort of evil faith-healer, who lives in seclusion because of his horribly scarred face like the Phantom of the Opera and fears crucifixes like Dracula. Or Richard Shayer’s distasteful unfinished treatment/script, which would have set Karloff off on a rape-spree through Manhattan. John Huston’s treatment is the eeriest, but Sherriff clearly made the right decision by adapting Wells faithfully while working in the humorousness of the Shayer draft. And Sherriff quite sells himself short in his autobiography by suggesting he did little more than reformat Wells’s novella as a screenplay. He enriched that tale by inventing the madness-inducing drug Monocane, introducing the love interest that would somewhat humanize the otherwise deplorable Griffin, and nudging in the humor that surely appealed to cheeky Whale and helped make his film a classic. Because the unfilmed treatments all end abruptly, Riley includes the complete first draft of Sherriff’s shooting script, which is most notable for missing some of the film’s funniest flourishes.

Get Karloff as The Invisible Man on Amazon.com here.

Review: The Criterion Edition of 'The Phantom Carriage'

On the night of New Year’s Eve, Death roams the Swedish countryside, searching for the souls of the recently deceased. The final person to die before the stroke of midnight will take the reaper’s place for the following 365 days. Each day, legend has it, feels like 100 years. Tough gig.

At its most audacious, Victor Sjöström’s adaptation of Selma Lagerlöf’s novel The Soul Shall Bear Witness! is a chilling spook story with revolutionary special effects. The director’s remarkable multi-exposure shots depict Death as a transparent spirit while also placing solid objects in the foreground to achieve a sort of three-plane effect. According to the various historians who contributed commentaries to Criterion’s new edition of The Phantom Carriage, Sjöström sometimes passed the film through his camera as many as four times to create these shots. The film is certainly technically dazzling, but it is a character study at heart. Death’s encounter with the drunkard David Holm (Sjöström) sets up a harrowing venture through his life, poring over Holm’s cruelty, his violence, his outright wickedness. At one point he brags about being a consumptive who purposely coughs in people’s faces because he doesn’t believe anyone should be “better off” than him! Despite being the film’s protagonist, Holm is portrayed as nearly irrevocably awful. Yet Sjöström humanizes the character through the loving, patient women that believe he isn’t beyond redemption: his wife Anna (Hilda Teresia Borgström) and a Salvation Army holy roller named Edit (Astrid Holm).

Criterion is renowned for its masterfully restored films, and The Phantom Carriage certainly lives up to that reputation. Although small portions of the film are in rougher shape than others, the majority of this 90-year-old (!) film is pristine. Seeing such aged images look so fresh is nearly as uncanny as the movie, itself. Criterion adorns its disc with a new “visual essay” on Sjöström’s relationship with and influence on Ingmar Bergman, who supposedly saw The Phantom Carriage some 100 times and cast Sjöström as the lead in Wild Strawberries. A 1981 interview with Bergman digs further into this theme, while Casper Tybjerg’s feature commentary and Paul Mayersberg’s booklet essay manage to expand their analyses beyond Bergman.

These are all fine features, but the most striking boon of Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray is Matti Bye’s score. Composed for and recorded at a screening of the film in March 1998, Bye’s score enhances the film intricately. A passage that plays over Holms and his soused cohorts’ discussion of Death’s New Year’s Eve activities features a woozy trombone suggesting the characters’ drunkenness over haunting harp arpeggios that tickle out the eeriness of the tale being told. Scraping strings denote the hideous creaking of the carriage’s wheels. An orchestral crescendo pushes the penultimate scene into almost unbearable intensity. Bye’s score would remain a superb piece of music even if divorced from Sjöström’s creepy images. A second score by experimental duo KTL can only suffer in comparison. Its synthesized drones are atmospheric, but they quickly grow tedious and fail to enhance the film’s non-horrific moments, its pathos and rarer flourishes of humor. Only Bye’s eclectically arranged and toned score does justice to Sjöström’s equally varied film.

Get The Phantom Carriage at Amazon.com on DVD and Blu-ray.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Reader’s Poll Result: Psychobabble’s 120th Most Essential Horror Movie…

400th post!



The people have spoken and they’ve spoken in overwhelming favor of…

120. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943- dir. Roy William Neill)

In Universal’s finest opening since the prologue of Bride of Frankenstein, a pair of grave robbers tip toe through a leaf-swept graveyard beneath the full moon. They creep into a crypt and crack open one of the sarcophagi inside. Removing the stalks of wolfsbane is a bad idea. A clawed hand reaches from the sarcophagus. A graverobber drops his lantern and ignites a blaze. Once-dead Larry Talbot is back, and no one is unhappier about that than Larry Talbot. Tormented by the knowledge his unwilling killing spree has resumed, the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.) begins his search for the one, true death that will lead him to the journals of the man who has already discovered life and death’s most awful secrets. Since Dr. Frankenstein is dead (the real kind of dead, not the temporary kind Universal’s other ghouls enjoy), Talbot must call on the talents of budding mad doc Mannering (Patric Knowles) to help him commit suicide. This could make way for a meaningful dialogue on the right to die. Instead, we get the inevitable meeting between the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster. When we last left the Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein, he was blind and motored by the brain of Bela Lugosi’s evil Ygor. In Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Lugosi finally plays the role he was offered in 1931 but reportedly turned down because he felt unspeaking roles were beneath him. Sadly, his Monster would be rendered speechless in post-production because, as screenwriter Curt Siodmak was quoted in Philip J. Riley’s book on this movie, Lugosi’s voice “sounded so Hungarian funny that they had to cut it out!” And since his blindness is never mentioned in Meets, anyone who missed Ghost will have no idea why the Monster lumbers around with his arms extended as if feeling around for unseen obstacles. Despite that bungle, Lugosi’s floundering was adopted by Universal’s next Monster, Glenn Strange, and instantly became Frankenstein-shorthand for future generations of charades players. Lugosi was also in poor health during the production, so a stuntman obviously fills the flattop in several shots. Such clumsiness isn’t easy to ignore. Neither are the intricate sets or Roy William Neill’s mobile camerawork. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man also boasts Universal’s smoothest use of lap-dissolve transformations and its final appearances by Dwight Frye and Maria Ouspenskaya. The film’s greatest legacy is the strain of similar monster meetings it birthed. The direct-sequel Wolf Man vs. Dracula, which also continued Son of Dracula, didn’t survive beyond Bernard Schubert’s script. Columbia’s The Return of the Vampire, which starred Lugosi as a non-Drac vampire leading his werewolf assistant through the London Blitz, filled that gap fairly well. King Kong vs. Godzilla, Freddy vs. Jason, Alien vs. Predator, and all the other monster tête-à-têtes owe a debt to Siodmak and Neill. As for the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster, they’d return in House of Frankenstein with the unintentional comic undertones Abbott and Costello would make wholly intentional before the decade’s end. Ironically, neither the Wolf Man nor Abbott and Costello would ever actually meet Frankenstein!

Note: Technically, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man isn’t Psychobabble’s 120th most essential horror movie. Chronologically, it’s number 26.

Tune in October 26th for the final installment of this series.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Listen to Orson Welles's 'Dracula' on Psychobabble

On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles's Mercury Theater staged a pre-Halloween production of H.G. Well's War of the World. The production was apparently so authentic that a good number of people mistook the drama for a genuine news broadcast. The madness that ensued guaranteed the episode a slot in radio history. When the The Mercury Theater's series debuted a few months earlier on July 11, no one mistook Welles's version of Bram Stoker's Dracula for a bulletin about actual vampire infestations, so it never achieved the infamy of the later program. However, Welles and his players did an equally fine job of capturing a classic of supernatural literature.


Stoker's epistolary format lends itself well to the "immediacy of the first-person singular." Agnes Moorehead is in fey form as Mina. George Coulouris does a better job of embodying Jonathan Harker than most of his cinematic counterparts. Welles takes the parts of the Count and Dr. Seward, but his greatest moment is his wonderfully overwrought farewell that concludes the broadcast. Bernard Herrmann provides the atmospheric score. Listen to the The Mercury Theater's Dracula in five parts below:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5


Many thanks to the original poster of these videos.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Diary of the Dead 2011: Week 3

I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews every Friday in October (this year I’ll only be discussing movies I haven’t reviewed elsewhere on this site). I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.



October 14th

Frankenstein Unbound (1990- dir. Roger Corman) **

Roger Corman hadn’t directed a movie in nineteen years when he made Frankenstein Unbound. Why he decided to make his comeback with this insane hooey is anyone’s guess. John Hurt is a scientist in the year 2031. He creates a WMD that somehow produces a Hun on horseback who zaps him and his Knight Rider car back to 1817. There he meets the similarly disaster-prone scientist Dr. Frankenstein (Raul Julia). For some reason, Percy (Michael Hutchence!) and Mary Shelley (Bridget Fonda) coexist with her literary creations. Corman holds up Frankenstein and his monster as forerunners of all the bad, bad science that would wreak destruction in the future. An interesting idea, and Hurt and Julia are great actors, but the package is just so damn silly. Corman plays it totally straight, so Frankenstein Unbound never achieves the campiness that is its true calling.

October 15th

The Evil Dead (1983- dir. Sam Raimi) ***

Once you’ve seen its brilliant sequel/remake, The Evil Dead is tough to view as anything but a rough demo. Sam Raimi intended his first feature to be serious horror, but the cheesy script and acting prod it toward camp. By fully embracing that inclination, he made Evil Dead 2 one of the funniest and most energetic horror/comedies. Its predecessor

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review: The Criterion Edition of ‘Kuroneko’ (1968)

From out of the wind-rustled bamboo grove surrounding a small cottage creeps a samurai horde. They storm the cottage, rape the mother (Nobuko Otowa) and daughter-in-law (Kiwako Taichi) who live there, and burn the women alive. A black cat surveys the wreckage, crying. When it licks the women’s charred bodies, a demon spirit grants them renewed life in exchange for a vow of vengeance. The women are happy to oblige, as they must now drink the blood of all samurai who cross their vampiric path.

Director Kaneto Shindō (Onibaba) takes this seemingly simple premise into astoundingly complex territory with Kuroneko (Black Cat). Strategically placed peaks in the sound mix illustrate the animal brutality of both the samurai and their spectral victims. Subtle trick shots transform nature into a predatory entity stalking the samurai who fall into the specters’ trap. Sudden tempo shifts transform their feline attacks into shocking moments of horror. The rapes are so intrinsically horrific that Shindō doesn’t have to do much more than capture them and the leering faces of the onlookers. Most provocatively, his script does not spare these wronged women the dehumanizing effects of waging war. When they reunite with their abducted son and husband (Kichiemon Nakamura), they learn he has been decorated as a samurai during his absence and is now destined to be their next blood donor.

As all great antiwar films are, Kuroneko is harsh and profoundly tragic. It is also an eerie horror film and a dazzling showcase of cinematic magic tricks. Criterion augments this already rich film with an hour-long interview with Shindō from 1998 in which the director talks about his body of work, though oddly not Kuroneko. In another extra, film critic Tadao Sato rights that oversight with an insightful discussion of the film, focusing on its roots in kabuki theater and Shindō’s anti-samurai stance. Criterion presents the beautifully restored picture in its original ultra-wide 2:35:1 aspect ratio.

Get Kuroneko at Amazon.com on DVD or Blu-ray.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Seventeen Scary Songs


Any hack can dash off some lyrics about purple people eaters and monster mashes, but it takes a real ghoul to create music that is scary in and of itself. The following songs are not just about scary subjects—they are scary. Tracks to shiver your spine and keep you up at nights. Tracks to clear out the obnoxious stragglers at your Halloween party. These seventeen scary songs will scare them right out of the room… scarily!



1. “Blue Moon” by Elvis Presley (1955)

From its very beginning, Rock & Roll shared a kinship with horror. Perhaps it was their mutual trashiness. Perhaps it was their alleged “corrupting” influence on the young. Perhaps it was just because they are both so much damn fun. Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, and of course, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins were just a few of the early rockers who shouted about ghosts and demons and sundry beasties. But the first one to actually capture the sensation these creatures stir is Elvis Presley. And he did it with Rodgers’ and Hart’s non-supernaturally romantic standard “Blue Moon”. Clip-clopping percussion echo out a rhythm like the hooves towing a phantom carriage. The King begins crooning the lyric with trademark beauty. Then something strange comes over him. Has he been possessed? Is Elvis’s ghost making an appearance 22 years too early? Has the blue moon transformed him into a fried banana sandwich-devouring werewolf? Whatever the cause may be, he starts howling in a chilling falsetto that has little to do with the lovesick lyric and the effect is quite frightening. For the first time, Rock & Roll was scary, and not in the way parents feared.



2. “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” by The Beach Boys (1966)

Legend has it that a major factor in Brian Wilson’s abandonment of SMiLE was “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”. A movement in The Beach Boys’ bizarre project was to be devoted to the four elements. Wilson crafted incredible musical mood pieces to convey the essences of earth, wind, water, and fire. “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” is the fire piece, and though the opening flourish of slide whistles and organ sounds like it should accompany the

Monday, October 17, 2011

Psychobabble's 10 Most Petrifying Portmanteau Episodes


portmanteau (noun \pȯrt-ˈman tō\)
1. a large suitcase for traveling
2. a word formed by blending two or more other words
3. a horror movie anthologizing two or more distinct episodes into one horrifically zany, often inconsistent, sometimes spectacular whole, all bolted together with a wraparound story usually resolving with a ghastly ironic twist.



1. “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” from Dead of Night (1945- dir. Alberto Cavalcanti)

The first horror portmanteau is often ranked among the best, yet Dead of Night is as inconsistent as most of the anthologies that would follow. This issue is compounded by the fact that four different directors contributed episodes. Although Dead of Night was probably more of a producer’s film than a director’s, there’s no denying that Charles Crichton’s overlong and tiresomely unfunny “Golfing Story” sits uneasily alongside the film’s serious horrors. Robert Hamer’s “The Haunted Mirror” is a pretty good story, but the image in the mirror is too mundane to create an effectively terrifying atmosphere. Basil Dearden’s “Hearse Driver” is a good adaptation of a classic ghost story (which would also influence the “Twenty-Two” episode of “The Twilight Zone”), but it’s too short to register. The best episodes of this British portmanteau belong to Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti. “Christmas Party” is predictable but beautifully staged and shot. Even better is “Ventriloquist’s Dummy”, in which Michael Redgrave comes unhinged when he thinks his dummy is… steel yourself… alive! This theme would become a veritable sub-genre in itself, creeping up in E.C. Comics, “The Twilight Zone”, Magic, and elsewhere. These other variations often trumped the one in Dead of Night (Serling’s “The Dummy” is probably the best), but Dead of Night did it before them. Redgrave’s crazed expression while speaking in Hugo’s squeaky voice at the piece’s climax remains unnerving.

2. “The Black Cat” from Tales of Terror (1962- dir. Roger Corman)

Having hacked out a niche for himself as the premier Poe adapter with House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Premature Burial, Roger Corman knocked off three more tales of mystery and imagination in Tales of Terror. Well, four, considering that “The Black Cat” fuses the story of that name with “The Cask of Amontillado”. Peter Lorre’s soused stumbling as Montresor Herringbone sets the tone for Corman’s decidedly comedic reading of Poe’s chilling stories. Vincent Price’s scenery-sucking prissiness as Fortunato Luchresi is a delightful counterpoint. Like their characters, Lorre and Price spend the piece trying to one up each other. But instead of proving who is the more sensitive oenophile, the actors vie for the status of biggest ham in the galaxy. Lorre doesn’t stand a chance, but watching him go nose-to-nose with Price is part of the fun. So is a nightmare sequence in which Price and Joyce Jameson play keep-away with Lorre’s head. Corman’s camerawork will give you the bed spins. He’d yuck it up with Edgar again, loosely adapting “The Raven” the following year, but “The Black Cat” sets the bar too high for that bird to clear.

3. “The Drop of Water” from Black Sabbath (1963- dir. Mario Bava)

A master of high-contrast back and white nightmares, Mario Bava also made extraordinary use of vivid colors, as he did in his 1963 portmanteau Black Sabbath (Tre volti della paura, which translates as The Three Faces of Fear). Visually striking, Black Sabbath also gets a good deal of mileage out of Boris Karloff’s roles as narrator and vampiric star of “The Wurdalak”. That lengthy episode is the centerpiece of Black Sabbath, but the one that most terrifies viewers is “The Drop of Water”. It’s a classic tale of greed begetting vengeance from beyond the grave as a Nurse decides to swipe the gaudy ring of a recently deceased medium. Bava builds tension with the title dripping faucet and delivers the heart-stopping goods when the dead woman springs to life to terrorize the thief with her horrible, horrible rictus. The grinning corpse looks like the rubber dummy it is, yet that face is so awful and the suspense that precedes its appearance is so intense that all phoniness is forgiven.

4. “The Woman in the Snow” from Kwaidan (1964- dir. Masaki Kobayashi)

Kwaidan means “ghost story,” and Masaki Kobayashi delivers some artful ones in his 1964 portmanteau. “In a Cup of Tea” manages to make the reflection of a phantom face in a teacup deeply unsettling (was David Lynch influenced when he pulled the same trick with a coffee mug in the final episode of “Twin Peaks”?). Even better is “The Woman in the Snow”. A man lost in a storm crosses a spirit who kills his traveling partner with her icy breath. She allows him to live on the condition that he never, ever speaks of their encounter. Toru Takemitsu’s invasive score heightens the terror of the traveler’s meeting with the beautiful yet corpse-like spirit, but the most powerful moment arrives when the traveler inevitably betrays his promise. In an instant, the life he built in the ten years following that fateful night implodes. Tragic and scary, “The Woman in the Snow” is a chilling reminder that sometimes it’s best to keep your big, fat mouth shut.

5. “And All Through the House” from Tales from the Crypt (1972- dir. Freddie Francis)

Coming from the greatest purveyors of horror portmanteaus, Amicus Productions’ Tales from the Crypt is the most consistently strong creep show on this list. Even the weaker episodes (“Poetic Justice”, in which some jerks drive Peter Cushing to suicide, and “Blind Alleys”, in which the cruel director of a home for the blind receives his ironic comeuppance) are redeemed by good performances and disturbing situations. The quality of Crypt has much to do with its fine cast and Freddie Francis’s stylish direction, but boffo source material is the film’s true ace in the hole. E.C.’s horror comic line is a rich treasury of punchy, satisfyingly twisty tales perfect for adaptation into brief episodes. The best of these is one in which Joan Collins bashes her husband with a fireplace poker on Christmas Eve only to find herself on the other end of murder when a Santa-suited psycho starts stalking her. She’s then taxed with hiding her hubbie’s corpse while sidestepping that satanic St. Nick. It’s a tense and terrifying ten minutes twitching with nice touches, such as the husband’s blood-splattered newspaper denoting his death. A potent opener to the very best horror portmanteau from the most prolific portmanteau production company.

6. “Drawn and Quartered” from The Vault of Horror (1973- dir. Roy Ward Baker)

This follow up to Tales from the Crypt takes its title from another E.C. comic even though its episodes were all culled from Crypt and the non-supernatural Shock SuspenStories. Though not as unswerving as its predecessor, The Vault of Horror still delivers its share of shock and suspense. The gruesome finale finds Tom Baker as a bitter artist holed up in Haiti who strikes a nefarious deal with a witch doctor. The artist’s canvasses now possess the power to maim and kill. He puts this to use immediately, painting portraits of the various critics who’d disparaged his work in the past, then poking out the images’ eyes, tearing off their hands, and giving them magic-marker bullet holes. Naturally, all this carnage ends with the kill-crazy artist getting what’s coming to him in horrific fashion. Imaginative, nasty, and lacking a single virtuous character, “Drawn and Quartered” captures the true E.C. spirit.

7. “Amelia” from Trilogy of Terror (1975- dir. Dan Curtis)

It’s likely no one would remember this made-for-T.V. showcase for the acting talents of Karen Black and the short stories of Richard Matheson had the scribe not scripted the final episode. Black plays Amelia, a woman simply delighted with her purchase of an ugly little Zuni fetish doll. “He Who Kills” comes complete with a tiny scroll explaining how he is imbued with the actual spirit of an actual tribal hunter. The little guy is activated when he loses his gold chain. Then the hunt is on. All memories of the mediocre episodes “Julie” and “Millicent and Therese” disappear as He Who Kills attempts to do just that in Amelia’s apartment. This adaptation of Matheson’s story “Prey” would be memorable if only for the taught hunt, but a terrifying twist ending packs a wallop that causes “Amelia” to cross into the realm of classic.

8. “They’re Creeping Up on You” from Creepshow (1982- dir. George Romero)

There wasn’t a horror comic called Creepshow, but George Romero’s portmanteau pays more loving tribute to Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror than either of the movies of those names. He uses colored lights and animated transitions and frames to give the film the look of a comic book. The two-dimensional characters and morality plays are equally E.C.-esque. Take Upton Pratt (E.G. Marshall), a loathsome corporate cockroach with a mad case of mysophobia (fear of germs). His hermetic penthouse becomes a hellhole of poetic justice when actual roaches swarm from every pipe in the place. By the end, Pratt’s pristine, white apartment is black with creepy crawlers. Then, suddenly, they’re gone. Where did they go? The answer is one of the most repellant instances of ironic punishment in horror history.

9. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" from Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983- dir. George Miller)

The idea of updating episodes of Rod Serling’s T.V. classic for the big screen was not necessarily a bad one, but there’s no denying that Twilight Zone: The Movie is a half-baked anthology. The varying visions of its four directors rendered the content inconsistent. A tragedy on the set of John Landis’s “Time Out” (already troubled because of a heavy-handed original script lacking the charm and finesse of Serling’s heavy-handed scripts) cast a pall over the entire project. Passing out of a period of back-to-back-to-back great films, Steven Spielberg succumbed to schmatlz once and for all with his adaptation of “Kick the Can”. Joe Dante’s “It’s a Good Life” is better, daringly diverging from the original’s story and supplying some fantastically cartoonish visuals and plenty of neat “TZ” in-jokes, but the ending is muddled. George Miller’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is the most faithful of the bunch, although its tone is drastically revised. Richard Donner’s original was a slow build to a frenzied climax. Miller’s begins in Crazy Land and remains there for the duration of the piece. John Lithgow’s sweat-drenched performance as flight-o-phobic John Valentine matches Miller’s chaotic pace. Despite the consistently heightened tone, there’s still a pay off when Lithgow sweeps his curtain aside to reveal the needle-toothed gremlin. Its a far more frightening creation that the original’s, which looks like a teddy bear with the face of the doctor from “Eye of the Beholder”.

10. “Quitters, Inc.” from Cat’s Eye (1985- dir. Lewis Teague)

Although dated in some aspects, Cat’s Eye is one of the best portmanteaus, because like Tales from the Crypt, its resources are A-list. Lewis Teague brings to life two short stories from Stephen King’s Night Shift and one original tale by the master, who also scripted the film. All three episodes are witty and well acted and likely to satisfy anyone’s yen for mid-‘80s nostalgia. Without a doubt, the king of King’s script is “Quitters, Inc.”, a black, black comedy in which James Woods takes extreme measures to stop smoking. Alan King is at his sleazy best as the gangster-like mastermind behind the title clinic, which uses threats of mutilation, rape, and electrocution to help clients kick their nasty habits. It’s a delightfully mean-spirited piece with Woods convincingly conveying the visceral anguish of the tobacco withdrawal that impels him to put himself and his loved ones in mortal danger. You’ll never hear “96 Tears” the same way again.

Best Wraparound

Dead of Night (1945 dir. Basil Dearden)

A weak wraparound doesn’t necessarily sink a great portmanteau. Tales from the Crypt, with its all-too predictable confrontation with the Crypt Keeper, and Cat’s Eye, with its cat running around, prove that. Conversely, an overall weak portmanteau can feature a fab wraparound, as Twilight Zone: The Movie and Dead of Night certainly prove. In fact, with these two particular films, it is their wraparounds that viewers seem to remember with the most fearsome fondness. “You wanna see something really scary?” is enough to send shivers up the spines of those who saw Twilight Zone at an impressionable age. No matter what age you are, the Dead of Night wraparound is petrifying. Basil Dearden, who also directed the brief “Hearse Driver”, handles Walter Craig’s (Mervyn Johns) encounter at a house party in the English countryside. Craig listens patiently as each guest tells his or her scary stories, experiencing uncanny chills through it all. He has good reason to feel uneasy, as all of those horror tales reprise in a concerted attack on him at the film’s climax. Craig moves from scene to scene as if trapped in some nightmarish labyrinth until coming face to face with Hugo the Dummy in the film’s most traumatizing flourish. A last minute twist finishes the film in a fog of dread. Next episode, please!

Friday, October 14, 2011

'Godzilla' and Criterion Join Forces to Stomp on 2012

Before becoming the big green buffoon who faced off against giant moths and somehow sired a goofy mini-monster, Godzilla was a genuinely menacing H-bomb metaphor. Ishiro Honda's 1954 film portrayed the monster in grim terms, an adult alternative to the kid-friendly sequels most folks think of when they think of Godzilla. Criterion will soon be giving Honda and Godzilla the respect they deserve with lavish DVD and Blu-Ray releases on January 24, 2012. Here are the specs from Criterion.com:

*New high-definition digital restoration (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition)
*Audio commentary by David Kalat (A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series)
*New high-definition digital restoration of Godzilla, King of the Monsters, Terry Morse’s 1956 reworking of the original, starring Raymond Burr
*Audio commentary for Godzilla, King of the Monsters by Kalat
*New interviews with actor Akira Takarada (Hideto Ogata), Godzilla performer Haruo Nakajima, and effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai
*Interview with legendary Godzilla score composer Akira Ifukube
*Featurette detailing Godzilla’s photographic effects
*New interview with Japanese-film critic Tadao Sato
*The Unluckiest Dragon, an illustrated audio essay featuring historian Greg Pflugfelder describing the tragic fate of the fishing vessel Daigo fukuryu maru, a real-life event that inspired Godzilla
*Theatrical trailers
*New and improved English subtitle translation
*A booklet featuring an essay by critic J. Hoberman

Diary of the Dead 2011: Week 2

I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews every Friday in October (this year I’ll only be discussing movies I haven’t reviewed elsewhere on this site). I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.



October 7st

Alice (1988- dir. Jan Švankmajer) ****

Alice begins with the title tot intoning, “Now you will watch a film made for children… perhaps.” Yeah, perhaps you want to stay up all night consoling your hysterical child who’d just been traumatized by Jan Švankmajer’s stop-motion animal skeletons and taxidermied carcasses. Perhaps not. No filmmaker has ever really been able to capture the quizzical humor of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Švankmajer doesn’t really try. His Alice is more of a minimalistic nightmare. The repetitious scraps of dialogue mock Carroll’s copious wordplay. The googly-eyed, chisel-toothed White Rabbit splits open and bleeds torrents of sawdust blood. The sets are dank and derelict. The film reeks of mildew and formaldehyde. This is not horror in the sense that anyone gets hunted by a monster or hacked up by a mad man, but Alice may do nastier things to your psyche than any of those kinds of movies. Patience is required, though.

October 10th

Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968- dir. Vernon Sewell) ***½

This nonsense loosely based on Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch House” is an excuse for naïve images of sex, drugs, and ritual sacrifice. Boris Karloff was winding down and wheelchair bound when he made Curse of the Crimson Altar (aka: The Crimson Cult), but he remained consummately committed. Throwaway lines like “All the best things in life are short lived” take on unintentional

Thursday, October 13, 2011

See 'House on Haunted Hill' with Emergo at Jersey City's Landmark Loews!

Earlier this month I reported that William Castle's House on Haunted Hill will be screening at The Landmark Loews in Jersey City, NJ, on Friday, October 28th (8:00PM). In my post I wrote that it would be great if the theater showed the film with Castle's grand gimmick Emergo, not expecting that would be the case. Much to my shock, the theater's official site has announced that the film will, indeed, be shown with Emergo! Not sure how often this happens, but it certainly doesn't happen too often in my own neighborhood! William Castle's grandson will also be in attendance to host a Q&A and raffle off a copy of the new House On Haunted Hill: A William Castle Annotated Screamplay. See you there!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Twilight Zone A - Z





“The Twilight Zone” was often directed with great artistry, but like most fine television series, it was a writer’s show. Struggling in a medium still regarded as lowbrow, head writer Rod Serling did much to bring credibility to T.V. writing. In the brief teasers he’d film to set up the following week’s show, Serling often gave featured credit to the writer. His very appearance in these pieces and his famed introductions at the head of most episodes highlighted the starring roles writers played in “The Twilight Zone”. Serling chose some of the very best sci-fi and fantasy authors to assist him in realizing his series.

From the series’ very beginning, Richard Matheson was among the most prolific “Twilight Zone” contributors. His involvement was a true coup considering the impressive bibliography he’d been building since the start of the ‘50s: the tremendously influential apocalyptic horror novel I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man, the short stories “Death Ship”, “Little Girl Lost”, “Long Distance Call” and “Steel”, all of which he’d adapt for “The Twilight Zone”. Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was a rare moment of greatness in the series’ uneven final season. Charles Beaumont would do the same for his short classics such as “The Man Who Made Himself” (adapted as “In His Image”), “Perchance to Dream”, “The Howling Man”, and “The Devil, You Say?” (adapted as “Printer’s Devil”), while also contributing such first-rate original scripts as “Long Live Walter Jameson” and “Miniature”. Having also devised the story that would become “Living Doll”, Beaumont was responsible for some of the series’ most frightening pieces. George Clayton Johnson’s scripts and stories were fewer, but the humanity of “A Penny for Your Thoughts”, “Nothing in the Dark”, “Kick the Can”, “The Prime Mover”, and “A Game of Pool” has earned him a place among the most memorable authors who’ve passed through “The Twilight Zone”.

Serling’s work with one of his favorite genre writers didn’t go quite as smoothly as his collaborations with Matheson, Beaumont, and Johnson. He admired Ray Bradbury enough to pay tribute to the author with sly references in “Walking Distance”, “A Stop at Willoughby”, and “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up”, but the men’s working relationship was troubled. Serling wanted Bradbury to contribute scripts from the show’s conception. Bradbury was excited by that prospect. Once the series went into production, Bradbury began accusing Serling of plagiarism in private, citing “Walking Distance” among those he found a bit too Bradbury-esque. Serling later rejected Bradbury’s elaborate first script, “Here There Be Tygers”, for budgetary reasons. “A Miracle of Rare Device” met a similar fate. In the end, only the author’s “I Sing the Body Electric” made it to “The Twilight Zone”, only achieving that after two years of revisions and polite criticisms from Serling. Bradbury’s tale of a robotic grandmother was sweet enough, but failed to capture the heart or awe of the series’ classics. The writer’s stay in the Zone ended there.

Serling and his gang also adapted several stories by outside writers that achieved their greatest renown as locations in “The Twilight Zone”: Lynn Venable’s “Time Enough at Last”, Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life”, Damon Knight’s “To Serve Man”. Ironically, Serling’s love of prose and talent for screenwriting never translated to success as a writer of short stories or novels outside the television universe he created.



Much of the “Twilight Zone” magic radiates from the deep sense of nostalgia in so many of Rod Serling’s scripts. Rarely was this feeling more palpable than in the series’ fifth episode. In “Walking Distance”, a harried ad man steps through a time portal and returns to his childhood hometown where band concerts are still a summertime staple and the neighborhood carousel still spins. The fictional town of Homewood in “Walking Distance” is a thinly veiled stand-in for Serling’s own hometown of Binghamton. No doubt the hectic schedule of running and writing “The Twilight Zone” left him longing for the laziness of that burg in Broome County, New York. Further inspiration struck when he noticed how similar the back lot at MGM was to his boyhood stomping ground. The carousel is a particularly telling touch as Broome County’s signature landmarks are its six antique merry-go-rounds.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Review: ‘Alien Vault: The Definitive Making of the Film’

Like the film it chronicles, Alien Vault is initially striking because of its elegant design. This hardcover volume comes housed in a glossy protective case. Slip out the book and scan pages and pages of full-color on-set photos, film stills, and production and concept designs by H.R. Giger, Ron Cobb, Heavy Metal artist Moebius, and director Ridley Scott. Scattered throughout those pages are vellum envelopes containing pull-out storyboards, paintings, poster art, and blueprints for the Nostromo. Why couldn’t these images just sit on the pages with the rest of the arresting pictures? Same reason the Alien has to have an external ribcage and a phallic cranium: pure design.

With such adoring attention to aesthetics, Alien Vault could have easily been a style-over-substance specimen. As is the case with Alien, the content runs deeper than its striking surface. Empire-magazine editor Ian Nathan makes his love for Ridley Scott’s film felt early in his book, which holds true to its subheading: The Definitive Making of the Film. Nathan takes the reader from his own boyhood fascination with that decidedly adult alternative to Star Wars, back to its inception in the mind of Dan O’Bannon, through its production, and on to its aftermath. His text abounds in quotes from the numerous artists who helped birth Alien, particularly Scott, Giger, and Sigourney Weaver. We learn the extent of Joseph’s Conrad’s influence on the film and the depth producers Walter Hill and David Giler brought to O’Bannon’s original idea (which irritated the writer to no end). We learn about the alien life cycle and how The Who’s Roger Daltrey contributed to the look of the film.

Voyageur Press sometimes allows style to trump substance. Alien Vault: The Definitive Making of the Film is a triumph of text and design that suggests the publisher is getting the balance right. Hopefully, Nathan’s book is just the first in a series of similarly crafted books on important and visually rich films. Alien fanatics will certainly want to invest in the Vault if for no other reason than to see Giger’s grotesque early design for the creature he christened the “degenerate plucked turkey.”

Get Alien Vault at Amazon.com here.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Revenge of Some Classic Horror Novelizations

Horror historian Philip J. Riley recently announced the NightMare Series, a new reprint line of classic novelizations of classic Hammer and AIP flicks. First up will be Dean Owen’s 1960 book based on Brides of Dracula. The Revenge of Frankenstein follows. Nine other titles with new introductions are already in the works.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Review: 'Motown Gold from the Ed Sullivan Show'

After sitting through The 4 Complete Ed Sullivan Shows Starring The Beatles and 6 Ed Sullivan Shows Starring The Rolling Stones it’s kind of a relief to find that Motown Gold from the Ed Sullivan Show includes nothing but music. And I’m not talking about all the opera singers and polka bands and Bavarian folk choirs you’ll skip past on The Beatles and Stones DVDs. Motown Gold jams 37 performances by The Supremes, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Miracles, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Martha and the Vandellas onto its two discs. Historians may miss the cornball acts and vintage commercials teens had to endure while waiting for the pop. Everyone might take issue with the decision to jumble the chronology and fail to even provide dates for the performances. Those complaints are pretty lightweight in light of what is on these discs. The Four Tops sing “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” to a very cool galloping Samson and Delila-style orchestral backing. Smokey Robinson does an adorably stiff little dance to “Going to a Go-Go” and then leads the audience in an even more adorable chorus of “Ed Sullivan Show!” Ed breaks out some big sideburns to introduce Gladys Knight and the Pips, who all dress like Peter Pan for the occasion. The Temptations and some guest dancers perform a funky, elaborately choreographed routine. The Supremes make their final T.V. appearance with Diana Ross, who already looks miles away while lip-synching “Someday We’ll Be Together”. Eleven-year old Michael Jackson is just as seasoned beyond his years as the adult Michael would seem entombed in adolescence. A fascinating bonus feature finds Ed presenting Gladys Knight and the Pips at a Houston hospital where they unleash a scalding version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” while bedridden patients and stuffy doctors look on impassively. A fair share of the performances are totally live, but like every other pop act, the Motown artists were often forced to lip synch in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Such performances are less electrifying, but getting to watch anyone as beautiful as Marvin Gaye or The Supremes shoveling cow manure would still be a treat.

Get Motown Gold from the Ed Sullivan Show at Amazon.com here.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Diary of the Dead 2011: Week 1

Welcome to this year’s installment of Psychobabble’s Diary of the Dead. I’ll be logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews every Friday in October (this year I’ll only be discussing movies I haven’t reviewed elsewhere on this site). I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.



It begins again…

October 1st

Queen of Blood (1966- dir. Curtis Harrington) ***½

It is the year 1990, an age of mind-blowing technological advances, an age when astronauts can zoom off to Mars in rockets and commune with the sexy, blood-sucking troll doll they meet there. Queen of Blood gets a lot of juice from its cult-crazy cast: Basil “Sherlock Holmes” Rathbone, John “Enter the Dragon” Saxon, Forrest “Famous Monsters of Filmland” Ackerman, Dennis “Dennis Hopper” Hopper. It also looks amazing, with its vivid, primary palette and images straight out of a Weird Science comic book. The aesthetic is so strong and the cast is such a blast that the script’s mediocrity barely matters. Writer/director Curtis Harrington should have introduced his monster much earlier. Bava’s Planet of the Vampires remains the preferable alternative, but Queen of Blood is definitely worth a gander for sci-fi/horror junkies.

October 2nd

Tales That Witness Madness (1973- dir. Freddie Francis) ***½

This British portmanteau is an Amicus production in everything but name. You’d have to be mental not to recognize the similarities between this film’s mental institution wraparound and that of Roy Ward Baker’s Asylum, an actual Amicus film released the previous year. But Francis is the portmanteau master, and his film is a lot better. Despite the redundant wraparound, the episodes are uncommonly weird. A possessed photo forces a guy to time travel on an old timey bike. A tree-lady branches out into a jealous rage. Kim Novak unwittingly eats her own daughter at a voodoo luau. The special effects are laughable, but that’s part of the charm.

October 4th

Swamp Thing (1982- dir. Wes Craven) ***

Wes Craven’s goofy comic book adaptation was an afternoon HBO staple when I was a kid. It’s been decades since I’ve seen Swamp Thing, but since I haven’t really grown up during that time, I was still able to enjoy it on a certain level. Yes, it’s dumb. Yes, Adrienne Barbeau’s potentially interesting character is sacrificed to the creature’s need for a damsel to constantly rescue. Yes, the rubber suit he wears looks like a rubber suit. With all the cheesy monsters and explosions and gratuitous boobs you’d think a 12-year old made this movie. Of course, if those are your complaints about a movie called Swamp Thing, you probably shouldn’t be watching a movie called Swamp Thing. It isn’t boring and the creature has a definite Frankenstein-Monster charm.

The Ballad of Tam Lin (1970- dir. Roddy McDowall) **½

“The Ballad of Tam Lin” is an old Scottish folk song that tells the tale of a young man caught in the thrall of an evil fairy queen. In Roddy McDowall’s sole directorial effort, the queen is a sort of a hippie den mother embodied by Ava Gardner. Stephanie Beecham is the outsider who upsets her control by falling in love with skinny, young Ian McShane. The queen then turns vengeful. McDowall’s tasteful restraint keeps the The Ballad of Tam Lin from generating heat until its final twenty minutes, which over compensate with psychedelic silliness. As a romance, it’s somewhat effective. As a horror movie, it is decidedly unhorrific. Pentangle handles the title ballad, but Fairport Convention’s rocking version is the definitive one.

October 5th

Requiem for a Vampire (1973- dir. Jean Rollin) *½

A pair of robbers dressed as circus clowns take refuge in a castle overrun with depraved vampires. The minimal use of dialogue is interesting, and the photography is quite beautiful. The nonstop images of rape and torture it captures are ugly. There’s a pretty suspenseful scene in which one of the robbers is accidentally buried alive, but that isn’t enough to make this boring trash worth watching.

October 6th

Invaders from Mars (1953- dir. William Cameron Menzies) ****

I watched Invaders from Mars on the recommendation of a regular Psychobabble commenter known as The Baron. I’m glad I did. The plot is basically a precursor to Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which the alien replicas are really, really mean and a little boy fills the Kevin McCarthy role. Invaders from Mars has its intense moments, but its artificiality makes it a lot less scary than Body Snatchers. The blatantly phony sets and richer-than-reality Cinecolor still make for delectable eye candy. An endless pseudo-science lesson sequence causes the center to sag, but the film manages to get back in orbit with a war-of-the-worlds finale masterminded by a mutant squid-man who lives in a snow globe. Raoul Kraushaar’s score, which appropriates bits of Holst’s The Planets, is phenomenal. Look out for a fleeting cameo by June Cleaver!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Hitchcock's 'Lodger' to Lodge in Charlottesville, NC

Patrons of the Paramount Theater of Charlottesville in North Carolina, prepare yourselves to be transported back to 1927. That year, Alfred Hitchcock presented his third film, in which a mysterious stranger takes up residence at a London rooming house amidst Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror. Based on Marie Belloc Lowndes’s 1913 novel, The Lodger is the film Hitch supposedly regarded as the true start of his career. The film will be screening at the Paramount on October 26th at 7:30 PM.

A mere screening not transporting enough for you? Well, what about the paltry 25 cents entrance charge? Or the live musical accompaniment by my close friend Matthew Marshall (who composed an all new score for this event) and the Reel Music Ensemble? Enjoy your time traveling. Just don’t fall into the Ripper’s clutches.

Visit the Paramount’s official site here.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Help Psychobabble Choose the 120th Most Essential Horror Movie!


Help! As you may know, Psychobabble has been running down a highly subjective list of 120 Essential Horror Movies since last April. Now that the end is in sight, a brick wall of epic proportions has suddenly shot up from the ground and stopped me dead in my tracks. You see, in my finite wisdom, I was only able to decide upon 119 movies!

So Psychobabble needs your help in deciding upon number 120! Leer over at the sidebar and take a gander at Psychobabble’s 120th Essential Horror Movie Poll and give me the assistance I so desperately need. Which one of these movies do you think deserves to join Jaws, Frankenstein, An American Werewolf in London, and the rest among this site’s canon of creeptacular classics?


Etc.
*You may notice that some of your personal favorites are missing from both the master list and the above selection of potential addendums. Although I fully support your zeal for Friday the 13th, Seven, and The Last House on the Left, I do not share it, which would make writing an argument in favor of their essentialness rather difficult for me. The movies on this poll are ones I personally believe to be worthy contenders. I just need your help in narrowing them down.

*Commenting “None of these are essential! You’re an asshole, Segretto! Friday the 13th Part XXIII: Jason Eats a Hoagy is better than all these movies combined!” is both hilarious and insightful, but it does nothing to solve the issue at hand. Let’s stay on topic here, folks!

*The Poll Closes on October 21st. I’ll post my commentary on the winner on October 24th. The final installment of Psychobabble’s 120 Essential Horror Movies goes up on the 26th.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Psychobabble’s 150 Essential Horror Movies Part 8: The 1990s

In this feature, Psychobabble creeps through more than 90 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 150 most monstrous works, decade by decade.

120. The Witches (1990- dir. Nicholas Roeg)

While the mass of horror films are aimed at adults, the perfect audiences for supernatural scare films are kids. Even those old enough to understand that vampires and werewolves don’t actually exist are still more susceptible to being sucked into such stories than older, more cynical people. Proving brave enough to endure such stuff makes kids feel more mature, which is why sitting through stuff like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th are such rites of passage. For those too young to watch naked teens get eviscerated by masked lunatics, there are several films specifically designed for kids that don’t patronize them by skimping on the scares. A lot of youngsters get their first taste of horror from pictures such as The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Some twenty years since its release, Nicholas Roeg’s The Witches still hasn’t developed the classic status of those films despite winning several awards and the overwhelming praise of critics upon its release. Perhaps this is because the film is just too damn scary, even though Roald Dahl criticized it for softening the ending of his book. Young people might find little to label “soft” in this movie. On holiday at a seaside hotel, orphaned Luke (Jasen Fisher) and his grandmother (Mai Zetterling) encounter a convention of witches plotting a holocaust against the children of England. Masquerading as “The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children,” the witches’ true faces are hideous, and Roeg captures them in nightmarish close-ups through distorted lenses. Most terrifying of all is Angelica Houston as the Grand High Witch, who transforms Luke into a mouse realized through the puppetry of Jim Henson (this was the great magician’s final film). Although his work in The Witches remains extremely bold and creative, Roeg keeps his avant garde tendencies at bay, so the film never gets too outré for its young viewers. Whether or not those viewers are daring enough to handle its frightening themes and images is another matter.

121. Misery (1990- dir. Rob Reiner)

Across the pond, horror was going through the changes that would severely affect its prominence in the new decade. In 1987, Adrian Lyne’s story of a married man who has an affair with an obsessive psychopath became the second biggest moneymaker of the year (just behind Three Men and a Baby), a critical favorite, and a multiple Academy Award nominee. The sensation Fatal Attraction stirred bled into the ‘90s when the dominant horror subgenre became “the crazy” movies: the crazy tenant (Pacific Heights), the crazy nanny (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle), the crazy teen admirer (The Crush), the crazy roommate (Single White Female), the crazy temp (The Temp), and so on and so on and so on. For the most part, these films were predictable, usually sexist, and, well, bad. The one major exception is Misery. Stephen King’s novel from the year Fatal Attraction debuted was ripe for adaptation in “the crazy” ‘90s. Crazy fan Annie Wilkes nurses the object of her crazy obsession, novelist Paul Sheldon, back to health after a car accident. Of course, she has no intention of allowing him to leave her home once he’s well enough. When Annie realizes Paul has killed off her favorite character in his latest book, she takes horrific measures to force him into revising its conclusion. On the page, Misery is depressing. Annie’s torture of Paul grows grinding quickly, and King’s strokes of humor don’t register well. Under the control of fine comedic director Rob Reiner, Misery becomes considerably less miserable. Although the film falls back on the tired arch of a “crazy bitch” fixating on a man, whom we’re supposed to cheer on when he finally beats her into submission, Annie is not the cardboard cutout most characters of her sort are. Funny, scary, and creative, Annie is nicely developed, and Kathy Bates is a lot of fun in the role. Other films of its ilk tend to lean hard on the dicey connections between sex and violence; the message so many crazy films impart: women may be able to control men sexually, but when it comes to cases, men still have the physical strength to beat them to death. Misery de-emphasizes eroticism (Annie does have a crush on Paul, but it isn’t too central to the plot) to focus on a power play that could have played out between two heterosexual men or women. As Paul, James Caan plays off Bates very well, his palpable misery lending gravity to the picture even when his co-star is at her silliest. Misery hits all the usual beats of “the crazy” movies, including the standard “Oh, good she’s finally dead… Ahhh! She’s not dead!” climax, but its lively direction and great performances elevate the movie well above its subgenre-mates.

122. The Silence of the Lambs (1991- dir. Jonathan Demme)
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