Sunday, October 22, 2017

Friend of Psychobabble Publishes Hilariousy Horrifying Piece in NYT

Getting published in The New York Times is by all accounts impressive (excluding the accounts of Fox News consumers, who don't like actual news). Getting published with a hilarious humor piece that references such Psychobabble favorites as Frankenstein, The Birds, It, and our finest of holidays (not Flag Day) is doubly impressive. On a personal note, this becomes triply impressive when the writer of the piece is a wonderful personal friend of Psychobabble, Sarah Hutto. Read Sarah's sinisterly seasonal "Well, Actually Frankenstein Was the Name of the Doctor" here.

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.

However, there is one David Lynch film that really does mirror one particular horror classic: Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  That distinction is an important one since Blue Velvet has very little in common with Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella. It has more in common with John S. Robertson’s silent adaptation starring John Barrymore from 1920, which is the version that sees the introduction of significant female characters into the story. Jekyll is to marry Millicent Carew, a young representative of “respectable” society. Hyde takes up with Gina, an artist and dance hall girl who represents the seedier side.

These characters take on greater significance in Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath’s Oscar-nominated script for Mamoulian’s sound remake. The split in Frederic March’s Jekyll is made explicit even before he drinks the potion that draws out his monstrous id. He longs for a traditional (yet sexually active) relationship with Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart), the daughter of a respected brigadier general. He is also drawn to the sexually uninhibited dance-hall singer Ivy Pierson (Miriam Hopkins), whom he attends to after she is attacked by a brute. 
Hyde terrorizes Ivy.

Fans of Blue Velvet should start seeing the parallels coming into view already. Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont is our split Jekyll figure. Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), the daughter of a police detective, is Jeffrey’s opportunity for a traditional courtship: flirting across the table of a dinner; dancing at a make-out party. Nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens is our Ivy, drawing Jeffrey into the shadows of unfettered carnality (as portrayed by Isabella Rossellini, Dorothy even shares Hopkins’s shaky pitch).

However, Hyde is only embodied by MacLachlan in odd moments of weakness, as when Jeffrey spies on Dorothy undressing after sneaking into her apartment or strikes her after she commands him to during a bout of kinky sex. More often, Jeffrey’s id-self wears a totally different face a la Hyde. That face belongs to Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth, a monster who keeps Dorothy emotionally imprisoned in a constant state of agitated terror to extract physically abusive sex from her just as that other vile bully Hyde keeps Ivy trapped in a grotesque “love nest” for identical purposes. To make their shared-Jekyll/Hyde split explicit, Frank whispers to Jeffrey “You’re like me.” Like Jekyll, Jeffrey is a “good” person torn-apart by ugly behavior he believes he is incapable of controlling.

For fans of both films, the cables between Blue Velvet and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are too strong to miss; yet I would never imply that David Lynch wove them intentionally. While Lynch reportedly saw horror classics such as The Fly, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Thing from Another World during his youth, there is no evidence he’d ever seen Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which had been out of distribution since the release of the weak-tea remake in 1941 in any event. There’s no evidence Lynch saw that film either, though it does offer one more delicious connection to ponder: its Ivy was played by Ingrid Bergman— none other than Isabella Rossellini’s mother. 
Bergman and Rossellini: mother/daughter Ivy figures.
In 1999, interviewer Michael Sragow brought up the recurring Jekyll/Hyde theme in Lynch’s work to the director, but only specifically as it pertains to Alvin Straight in The Straight Story and Lynch didn’t let on that he has seen any version of Stevenson’s story. So it may be a bit extreme to label Blue Velvet a “remake” despite its numerous, tantalizing similarities to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but the two movies might still make for a fascinating double feature this Halloween season.

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 Dopplegรคnger 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! 
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