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Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror - THE RAVEN (1935)

I enjoy seeing clichés before they became clichés. The Raven is a classic take on the Mad Doctor with a house full of secret rooms and elaborate torture devices, and to the modern viewer a lot of it may seem old hat, but personally I find it great fun to see early versions of what would go on to become classic motifs. We've got Edgar Allan Poe's swinging pendulum, a room where the walls close in and the actually rather unusual entire bedroom on an elevator platform. The film claims to be inspired by Poe's poem The Raven but the connection to that poem seems tenuous at best. The poem is quoted, (though I found it surprising that nary a "Nevermore" is heard) the sharpened descending pendulum is an obvious Poe reference and Bela Lugosi's Dr. Richard Vollin is a rather obsessed Poe aficionado, but truthfully the Poe references seem like an excuse to justify the film's title. I suppose there's a bit of Poe's characters in Dr. Vollin; it's easy to imagine him sealing an enemy behind a brick wall, but the film is far more a product of its own era than Poe's.

I've read that Lugosi was known for throwing himself wholeheartedly into his characters and Vollin is a prime example of that. Here's a man whose ego must be stroked before he saves a woman's life; he then develops an unhealthy obsession with her then attempts to destroy her and her loved ones when he can't have her. Though he may nibble at the scenery a bit, he's a delight to watch; Lugosi plays Vollin as charming one minute, maniacal the next and arrogant throughout. Boris Karloff may have received top billing, but Lugosi is clearly the star in this outing.

Which is not to take anything away from Karloff's performance. Karloff's Edmond Bateman is an understated counterpart to Lugosi's character. Almost a scaled down version of Frankenstein's monster, Bateman, despite his violent history is the character who evokes our sympathy providing the tragic element that is so often a part of the Universal canon. Even though he is made up to look as if half of his face is paralyzed for most of the film, this face, far less obscured that the Creature, gives us a more raw look at the emotions that made us feel for his brutal but sad character in the Frankenstein films.

A few words about the supporting cast: Jean and Jerry, the young lovers and Jean's father as played by Irene Ware, Lester Matthews and Samuel S. Hinds respectively are rather generic. But there's a third tier of characters played by Spencer Charters, Inez Courtney, Ian Wolfe and Maidel Turner who come in to provide some laughter to this black comedy as extra invitees to Dr. Vollin's party. (Presumably he wanted an audience for his grand guignol.) They provide a nice comedic touch and even one or two gags that might have worked just as easily in an Abbott and Costello film.

Rounding out this week's bill:

The Night Watchman, the 1938 Merrie Melodies cartoon and directorial debut of Chuck Jones

The Our Gang short Railroadin' (1929)

Next week's film:

Night Key starring Boris Karloff, Warren Hull, Jean Rogers and Alan Baxter

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Goodbye, My Sarah Jane

I feel like I've stolen my title from at least a half dozen other sources, including my friend Kathleen, bu t to be honest I'd completely forgotten David Tennant's line from the "School Reunion" episo de that reintroduced Elisabeth Sladen's Sarah Jane Smith into the world of Doctor Who. Before that I just had the phrase "Goodbye, Sarah Jane" in my head which was leading my brain into futile attempts to rewrite a certain Elton John song (which really doesn't need a third rewrite). Couple that with the fact that I was saying to myself "I've lost my Sarah Jane" and I realized I had to let originality be damned. It doesn't matter if everyone else is using it as their lead line, it's the most appropriate line for my piece as well. After all, the very first Doctor Who story I ever saw was "The Hand of Fear" so if Tom Baker is My Doctor, then truly Sarah Jane is My Companion. Though I went on to enjoy the adventures of Leela and Romana, Sarah Jane, who was also a part of my introduction to Daleks and Cybermen, remained an important part of my fondness for the Doctor Who mythos.

I suppose the new series is a bit to blame for the tears that flowed yesterday, and I don't mean that poetically, I mean my tears. I'm sure I still would have been saddened to lose her, it's just that Doctor Who had sort of slid into a corner of my mind reserved for fond memories. I still had a bit of nostalgia for the TARDIS and Daleks and the like, but they belonged more to my past than my present. Then the new series started and as I developed a fondness for Christopher Eccleston's Doctor my enthusiasm for the world of Time Lords was not only reawakened, it reached levels it never had before.

Unlike now when we're actually getting to see new episodes on the very same day they're broadcast in the United Kingdom, when the show returned there was a sizable delay between their initial broadcast and their American debut. (No, I did not go the illegal download route.) My eagerness between episodes often led me to the internet, but spoilers often lie in wait on the internet. (We only get Eccleston for one series?) But sometimes those spoilers gave me something to anticipate as my enjoyment of the new show and my nostalgia for the old one began to collide. Daleks! Next week there's an episode with a Dalek! What? Next series there's an episode called "The Rise of the Cybermen"! But what's this? Before the Cybermen, something even bigger: Elisabeth Sladen returns as Sarah Jane Smith!

I think for many of the long term fans this was a major moment. Daleks, Cybermen and even our beloved TARDIS, when you get down to it, are merely props and costumes. (No disrespect to voice actor Nicholas Briggs or the operators.) But here was the flesh and blood return of possibly the most popular companion the Doctor ever had. A humbling experience for the show's star, yet long time fan David Tennant who said, "That was a particular thrill for me having grown up watching Elisabeth Sladen, to suddenly be in a read-through with her calling me the Doctor." As, then showrunner, Russel T. Davies put it "Sarah Jane was.. the biggest step in... saying this is the same program as the old series."

And it was a great episode. One of those stories where the monsters, while themselves engaging, take a back seat to the human drama. A story where in meeting a past companion, the current one gets a glimpse at her possible future. And if it had stopped there, I'm sure we, as fans would have been satisfied. Who would have thought in 2004 that not only would we shortly see the return of Elisabeth Sladen in a new episode of Doctor Who, but it would lead to her own successful series featuring the character we'd loved so much in the seventies.

I found myself very happy for Elisabeth Sladen. It's not easy for any actress to maintain a career as they get older and such triumphant comebacks are quite rare. Amidst the popularity of The Sarah Jane Adventures she returned for what would be her final major appearance on Doctor Who and I remember being thrilled for her as "The Stolen Earth" began and for the first time in her nearly forty year history with the show, her name was in the opening titles. And I was proud to see in the last reader's poll of Doctor Who Magazine that she still was being voted the Favorite Companion. My Companion. Still number one.

And all of this probably contributed to why I found myself crying yesterday afternoon. I received my first notice by cellphone on Twitter from Neil Gaiman. It seemed uncertain. Another from Doctor Who Magazine that seemed far too certain, but still I was in denial. This had to be wrong. But by the time I was seated at my computer and Googling her name it became undeniable. And it's only been five years. Five years seems like such a short time to bring this success story to an end. Five years since she was brought full front into our consciousness again and then she was snatched away with little or no warning. Of course for her that lack of warning was probably a blessing; she got to depart on her own terms without a surge of publicity surrounding her. I'm told they didn't even know she was ill on the set of her show.

I kind of got lost in cyberspace yesterday as I sat there watching the outpouring of love for this woman across sites like Twitter and Facebook. Among all the fans, the likes of Tom Baker, Colin Baker, Russell T. Davies, Steven Moffat, John Barrowman, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Noel Clarke, Nicola Bryant, Murray Gold and Stephen Fry weighed in with their own reactions. Friends' reactions began to trickle through. Then I was reminded of another Sarah Jane line: "You know, you act like such a lonely man, but look at you! You've got the biggest family on Earth!" Liz, I doubt you were lonely, but judging from what I saw yesterday, that's quite a family you've got there.

One last note to the writers and producers of Doctor Who, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures: I understand a handful of episodes were shot for a fifth series of The Sarah Jane Adventures. By all means, broadcast them, and let it end there. Don't write an episode or a line for any of the shows referring to the passing away of Sarah Jane Smith. Just let her go on having adventures with Luke, Clyde, Rani, Maria, Mr. Smith and K-9 even if we don't get to see them. Liz may be gone, but let Sarah Jane live on. Noel Clarke put it quite well yesterday on Twitter: "#SARAHJANESMITHLIVES because Elisabeth Sladen made her Great. -Liz, you were awesome and will be missed. (no more to be said tonight) NC".

Eleven Doctors. Only one Sarah Jane.

A Study in Classic Horror- THE WOLF MAN (1941)

(originally published on Saturday, April 16, 2011)

Most articles I've read on The Wolf Man begin with:

Even a man who is pure in heart,

And says his prayers by night

May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms

And the autumn moon is bright.

And why not? It's a nice mood-setting piece quoted three times within about ten minutes early in the film, each time with derision, while we, the audience, know that it foreshadows darker events to come. But there's another line that's spoken three times (with some slight variations)by an old gypsy woman over the course of the film:

"The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Your suffering is over... my son. Now you will find peace."

The first quote encapsulates the plot of the film while the second embodies the heart. The film that screenwriter Curt Siodmak originally envisioned was more of a psychological thriller than a monster film and some of those elements seem to have survived. The truly moving scenes in the film are the ones of Lon Chaney Jr's Larry Talbot grappling desperately with the knowledge that he may somehow be responsible for the grisly murders that have coincided with his return to his hometown. Just as the gypsy suggests, the violence is inescapable and can only be ended by the film's tragic resolution.

The Wolf Man is not without its flaws. Why is this small English town populated by so many American accents? Why is Bela's werewolf a quadruped while Larry's is a biped? And just how the heck does Larry's hat stay on when that car is moving so fast? And the romance between Chaney and Evelyn Ankers seems a bit forced (possibly because they did not get along off screen), but that's forgivable; it helps move the plot in the direction it need to be in, and it's not quite as inexplicable as obligatory male / female pairings (a subject I'm sure to bring up again) in horror and sci-fi films that were to come. But like many of the old classics it endures in spite of those flaws. One characteristic I find charming of the old Universal horror canon, that some modern viewers might see as a flaw are the settings that don't really belong to any one time or place: towns that look like something out of Eastern Europe in the mid 19th Century, but might be visited by automobiles and the pretty young shopkeeper's daughter can don the latest Hollywood fashion. The Wolf Man is a prime example of this.

Worth noting are the fairy tale elements woven into this version of werewolf mythology: the idea that the werewolf would be marked with a pentagram and would also see the pentagram in the palms of its victims. (Maybe the solution is to learn to not look at people's hands.)

But it's also worth noting what's not in the film there are so many trappings we've naturally come to expect from our werewolf stories that we begin to assume that they'll be there. For a start there is absolutely no mention of the full moon, in fact the only line connecting moonlight with the transformation is from the poem mentioned above; what actually triggers it remains a mystery. Maybe not a requirement, but while I find the use of growling canine noises effective, a howl or two would be nice. But what surprises me the most is the iconic transformation scene designed by makeup artist Jack Pierce is not in the original film. It's usually the feet we're looking at that gradually become covered in hair and claws. There is one facial transformation, but it from wolf back to human in the film's tragic ending. The more famous transformation comes in Larry Talbot's next appearance in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man which we'll get to later.

There are a lot of good performances here, but I think my favorites are the gypsy mother and son played by Maria Ouspenskaya and Bela Lugosi. Bela gets very little screen time, but he makes every moment count. (but then I must confess I've always been a bit partial to Lugosi.)

And by the way, kudos to Lon Chaney Jr. on being the only man who could claim to have played his monster in all of his film appearances. Dracula and Frankenstein's monsters were taken on by many actors in the Universal films and even the Gill Man was played by at least two men in each film, but the Wolf Man was always Chaney.

A sidenote: since I've got so many dvds filled with classic cartoons and I recently bought the Little Rascals box set, I decided to give each screening the full on Saturday matinee treatment. (All I'm missing are coming attractions and a newsreel.) So, my viewing of The Wolf Man was accompanied by Speedy Gonzales in Tortilla Flaps (1958) and the Our Gang comedy Small Talk (1929).

Thank you for joining me, children of the night.

Next week's film is:

The Raven (1935) starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff

A Study in Classic Horror - an Invitation

(originally published on Monday, February 28, 2011)

Last year I read Michael Mallory's book UNIVERSAL STUDIO MONSTERS: A LEGACY OF HORROR and I kind of got inspired. Already somewhat familiar with the major Universal monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Wolf Man, etc.) I found I wanted to explore further the studio that more or less put horror movies on the map. So, I made a list of the films that most interested me from their synopses in the book and included the well-known classics and set about collecting them. Earlier this month, I completed the collection, so I'm preparing to begin. I thought I'd watch one film a week (unless life interferes), and keep a diary about them here in my notes. I thought it also might be fun to invite my friends to participate. I'll announce each film ahead of time, and anyone who wants to is invited to watch it as well, and comment and discuss it when I write the following entry on it. (or merely discuss, if it's a film you feel you're already familiar with, and don't have the time to watch it again.)

Here's a list of the films, all of which are available on DVD; I know some of them are going to be debatable as to whether they're considered a horror or monster film, but they are still generally considered to be part of the Universal Horror canon. Some of you will feel there are omissions, (King Kong may be owned by Universal now, but it was originally produced by RKO, and my initial focus is on the original Universal productions.) but I'd like to at least start off with my initial list. If a bunch of us have fun with this, we can certainly continue with some more suggestions.

  • The Dracula films

Dracula (1931)

Dracula (Spanish version) (1931)

Dracula's Daughter (1936)

Son of Dracula (1943)

House of Dracula (1945)

  • The Frankenstein films

Frankenstein (1931)

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

House of Frankenstein (1944)

  • The Wolf Man films

The Wolf Man (1943)

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) (as already mentioned above)

  • The Mummy films

The Mummy (1932)

The Mummy's Hand (1940)

The Mummy's Tomb (1942)

The Mummy's Ghost (1944)

The Mummy's Curse (1944)

  • The Invisible Man films

The Invisible Man (1933)

The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

The Invisible Woman (1940)

Invisible Agent (1942)

The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944)

  • The Creature From the Black Lagoon films

The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)

Revenge of the Creature (1955)

The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)

  • The Inner Sanctum Mysteries

Calling Dr. Death (1943)

Weird Woman (1944)

Dead Man's Eyes (1944)

The Frozen Ghost (1945)

Strange Confession (1945)

Pillow of Death (1945)

  • The Abbott and Costello monster films

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer Boris Karloff (1949)

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)

Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)

  • Additional films

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

The Old Dark House (1932)

The Black Cat (1934)

The Raven (1935)

Werewolf of London (1935)

The Invisible Ray (1936)

Night Key (1937)

Tower of London (1939)

Black Friday (1940)

The Black Cat (1941)

Man Made Monster (1941)

Horror Island (1941)

Night Monster (1942)

Captive Wild Woman (1943)

The Climax (1944)

She-Wolf of London (1946)

The Strange Door (1951)

The Black Castle (1952)

I'm going to start the weekend of April 15. (I want to get some prior commitments out of the way, and hey, a horror movie's a good way to deal with the end of tax season, right?)

I thought some people might like to join me for the ride whether it's just for part of the voyage or from start to finish.

I'm going to be a bit random in the selection of the films; the first will be:

The Wolf Man (1943) starring Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Ralph Bellamy and Bela Lugosi

John Gets on His Anti-Smoking Soapbox (Don't worry; I don't do it often.)

(originally posted on Saturday, September 18, 2010

I don't like to spend a lot of time preaching at people, but I really hope someone somewhere can learn something from what has happened to my stepfather. When Carl first went into the hospital at the beginning of this summer, he was telling me that he'd actually given up smoking earlier this year (although it wasn't the first time he'd "quit"), but it seems it was too little, too late. With cancerous tumors throughout his body, Carl is giving a prime example of what a lifetime of smoking can do to you. (and I'd like to emphasize he was only in his early 60s, he might have had many good years ahead of him.)

If anyone I care about, or if the loved one of someone I care about, or even if someone I'll never know can learn something from Carl's mistakes, then it will not have been the tragic waste it appears to be on the surface.

If you're a smoker I know, this is me having my say; if you know a smoker, feel free to use Carl's story as a warning for them.

I'll get down from my soapbox now.

Added September 20. 2010: I wanted to give people an idea of the timeframe, so you'd know how quickly this can grab a hold of you and claim you:

  • In early May, you would have never guessed that Carl was sick.
  • One week ago, he was still capable of holding a conversation.
  • Two days ago, he was barely coherent in what little moments of wakefulness he had.
  • Yesterday morning, it was all over

Cancer can really act fast.

Ten Years and Counting

(originally posted on Tuesday, June 17, 2008)

Ten years ago today I married a great lady and we're still goin' strong. We ate at a cool little restaurant, today in Mt. Dora, Florida called The Goblin Market. Ten years ago we were scarfing sushi at the late great Shiki of Winter Park. Miss that place. It ain't cheap, but if you're ever in Mt. Dora it's worth checking out. It certainly has character. Here's some pics:

The Puppini Sisters Rock!

(originally posted on Wednesday, February 18, 2009)

As a fan of many different kinds of music, last year I was on a quest for the perfect Andrews Sisters compilation. While on this quest I found a Puppini Sisters album displayed next to an Andrews Sisters album in an "if you like blank try blank" display at Borders. Seeing track titles like "It Don't Mean a Thing" and "Walk Like an Egyptian" side by side intrigued me, so I decided to give them a try, and on the drive home I became a fan before the first track finished. Within a day I ordered their other album from Amazon and felt rather pleased with this new discovery I'd made.

Well, last night, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing their live show, and I recommend to anyone: check their tour dates and go see them. Whether you're familiar with their music or not, I think it's impossible to not have a good time at a Puppini Sisters show.

As you may have guessed, they have a style similar to that of the Andrews Sisters, but they are far from a mere tribute band. Their repertoire consists of some standards from the 30s and 40s (many of which were performed by the Andrews themselves); covers of modern pop, rock and punk songs; and original material. Hearing songs like Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights', Blondie's "Heart of Glass" and Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" in swing style is like hearing them again for the first time.

But then, there's their live show: high energy, full of humor and just a joy to watch. Backed up by guitar, drums and a plucked bass violin, the girls are musicians in their own rights with Marcella on accordion, Stephanie on violin and Kate on melodica. (Kate also plays toy piano on their albums, but didn't have it at the show last night, maybe next time...) And it wasn't all swing either, each girl did solo numbers that distinguished themselves from the swing style and each other.

I had the unique privilege of sitting in an otherwise empty front row (a situation that still baffles me), so lucky John got picked pretty much every time one of the girls needed and audience member to sing to. At one moment during "I Will Survive" I was even treated to my own personal serenade by all three.

After the show, the girls did a signing session and they are just as bright and pleasant and funny up close as they are onstage. By this point, they were all calling me Mr. First Row and Kate anointed me with a kiss on both cheeks.

Now, of course, not everyone is going to get quite the same personalized experience I did, but let me assure you, it was clear that everyone in the house had a great time, and that includes the ones whose mutterings indicated they didn't know what they were in for when they came.

So, by all means, check out their tour dates at their website or their myspace page and go! And for God's sake, sit up front! (Unless you see me there, then give me some space.;) )

Rocky Muppet Picture Show

(Originally posted on Saturday, March 14, 2009)

Tonight, I had a great time at a rather unique viewing of The Muppet Movie. As part of their Jim Henson exhibit, the Orange County Regional History Center held "The Muppet Movie sing-a-long". The singing we expected, but the bag of props we were handed turned it into a Rocky Horror style audience participation screening. It was great to see this old favorite again in a room full of people who love the Muppets as much as we do. (and who knew who all those dead people were making cameos)

The event was hosted by Heather Henson, who seemed to have as much fun as everyone else in attendance. Thanks, Heather, and thank you OCRHC!

Update 4/4/09

Tonight the museum hosted a similar screening of Labyrinth, but this time Heather brought along Steve Whitmire and a very special guest next to whom all other meetings I've had with famous people pale in comparison. That's right, folks. Tonight, I met Kermit the Frog!

And we begin

Currently anything I find blogworthy is only read by Facebook users, so I decided to find a more public forum for my occasional ramblings. I'm going to start with a few reposts from my Facebook notes, but after that things will get a bit more timely.