Thursday, August 25, 2011

SANGSTER THE MEMORIES

A fond RIP to British screenwriter & occasional director Jimmy Sangster, departed at 83.


Though he reportedly had no special enthusiasm for the genre himself, Sangster was one of the principal architects of the horror revolution at Hammer Studios in the ‘50s & ‘60s, writing The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) & Horror of Dracula (1958), the original Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing incarnations of those respective icons. His handful of directorial credits includes Lust for a Vampire (1971) & the underrated, amusingly nasty Horror of Frankenstein (1970).

But…

Monster-of-the-Week: …instead of any of these, let's give this week’s nod to his lesser-known terror the Rakshasa, a ghoul borrowed from Hindu lore, in “Horror in the Heights,” a Sangster-penned installment of the ‘70s TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker (quite probably that silly but fun show’s best episode). Seen here in his true form…


…the Rakshasa appeared to his victims in the shape of a person they trusted—to monster-hunter Carl Kolchak, it was as the sweet little old lady who worked in his office…

Monday, August 22, 2011

WARRIN' JEFFS

Per this story forwarded to me by my pal Dewey (who also suggested the superb headline), there are three, count 'em three, Jeff Buckely movies in the works. My Buckley-fanatic pal Dave might regard this as too few...

RIP to filmmaker Gualtiero Jacopetti, famous/notorious for 1962's Mondo Cane & similar now-quaint shock-documentaries—& also the popularizer of the term "mondo" (for, vaguely, "extreme," or "exotic") in Englishpassed on in Rome at 91.

Friday, August 19, 2011

ARE YOU READY FOR THE THING CALLED WRONG?

Disclosure up front: Barry Graham & I have been close friends for many years, since we both worked at the Phoenix New Times in the late ‘90s. We’ve collaborated on a couple of projects, edited each other’s freelance pieces for different newspapers, gone to scores if not hundreds of movies together, & talked on the phone with the stamina of teenage girls, if not always with an equal level of maturity.

Still, with as much objectivity as I can muster—& much as it pains me to feed the mad Scottish bastard’s ego—I must grant that Graham is probably the best writer of prose I’ve ever known well, & that some of the very best of said prose can be found in his novel The Wrong Thing, newly out from Switchblade.


Barry recites from & signs the tome Saturday at The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, starting at 5 p.m.


Graham’s idea with The Wrong Thing was to put a human face on an archetypical figure, in this case the classic southwestern boogeyman: a murderous Mexican-American drug dealer known simply as The Kid. The Kid’s career is traced from his neglected childhood in a New Mexico barrio, through a string of gruesome murders & other crimes.

On the surface The Kid is likable & unassuming, even sweet—he loves his girlfriend & his cat, & reading & cooking. But whenever he’s confronted with any petty authority or crossed in the slightest way, he lapses into brutality with an almost slapstick haplessness, stumbling into homicide the way Jerry Lewis might stumble into a tray of desserts.

I don’t mean by this to suggest, by the way, that The Wrong Thing is black comedy. It’s horrific & sad, & Graham’s earnest tone insists that we take in the momentousness, both physical & moral, of every gory outrage. What keeps it from being depressing is the speed & exhilaration & straightforward beauty of the writing. Graham’s style—precise without fussiness, simple & conversational without forced chattiness—turns this tale from a case study into a tight, compact tragedy.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

NEW YORK STATE OF MIND

Out this week on DVD is...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...The Colossus of New York, a 1958 yarn in which the brain of genius Ross Martin is salvaged after his accidental death & placed in this hulking yet deco-elegant robot giant...



...which has been thoughtfully equipped with death rays that he can shoot from his eyes. I've always had some affection for this cornball black-&-white robodrama, with its piano score by Van Cleave. Check out the trailer here.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

ROYALE WATCHING

Sunday afternoon Your Humble Narrator & The Kid betook ourselves to The Royale, the Midnite Movie Mamacita’s nouveau-grindhouse in downtown Mesa, for a screening of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory benefitting Kids Need to Read. Not for the first time, I was struck by how really messed-up, on many different levels, that movie is, in spite (& at times because of) Gene Wilder’s classic turn as Wonka.

But it was a lot of fun anyway, & I swelled with pride to see my two contributions to The Royale’s d├ęcor. First, this poster for the 1955 Republic serial Panther Girl of the Kongo, starring sexy Phyllis Coates:


Seeing this so prominently displayed in the lobby delighted me, because it was a legacy from my dear late pal & mentor Bill Rocz, who passed on in 1996. Valley folk will remember Bill as the movie critic at Channel 5 & host of that station’s Family Classics & Hollywood Greats. I had enjoyed the Panther Girl in my home office for years, but there was no place she fit in our current house, & she had been in storage for more than five years. I can think of few places that Bill would more wish to see her than her new home.

The Royale has also offered shelter to The Great Shuggahoo, a big wooden Tiki that hung over my desk for years, but who was also out of place—according to The Wife—in the current Moorhead Hacienda. Shuggahoo (named after an alien ruler in some head comic I read decades ago) has an important gig at The Royale—guarding the commode:


He looks pretty sullen about the detail, wouldn’t you say?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

OF GLEE THEY SING

All I know first-hand about Glee! the TV series, other than that it’s wildly popular, is what I’ve gleaned from the parts I’ve seen of two or three episodes. I liked what I saw, more or less—the eclecticism of the musical choices & the goofy overproduction of the numbers, the sweet exuberance of the young performers, the good values didactically delivered, and the even-toned comic villainy of Jane Lynch as a bracing counterbalance to the show’s self-conscious virtuousness.


But I’m sure that there’s plenty I didn’t “get” about Glee! The 3D Concert Movie, opening today. Directed by Kevin Tancharoen, this documentary chronicles a New Jersey stop on last summer’s concert tour by the show’s cast, remaining nominally in character while they perform dorky-but-rousing versions of pop favorites, scavenged from sources ranging from Britney Spears to the Beatles to Streisand, and performed in idiosyncratic arrangements.

Most of the performers seem like they’re trying a little too hard, in the Star Search/Up With People mode, but that has its own charm, within limits; it’s as if they’re auditioning for the right to go on living. One of them, Lea Michele, takes this to another level: She’s such a merciless crowd-pleaser that you may feel like somebody’s picked her up by the ankles and is swinging her at you like a club.


That said, I enjoyed a lot of these numbers. My favorite, I think, was Pink’s “Raise Your Glass,” bellowed by a group of young pretty-boys in traditional glee-club jackets. The incongruity between the costumes & the lyrics was strong showmanship.


Between songs, Tancharoen cuts to talking-head interviews with giddy Glee! fans outside the venue, naming their favorite character, or asserting what an unstoppable universal force for good the show is. There are also a few extended documentary sequences about fans struggling with “being different,” like a midget cheerleader in Yuba City, California, a girl with Asperger Syndrome, a gay teenage boy who was outed to the classmate on whom he had a crush. This stuff is interesting, at times harrowing—any of these strands could probably make a full-length documentary by itself.

Like most concert movies—Jonathan Demme’s great Stop Making Sense is one of the very few exceptions—Glee! The 3D Concert Movie seemed a little too long to me, & it’s a bit self-congratulatory, too. But I can’t deny that a good chunk of it made me smile & tap my foot. The 3D, by the way, is a gratuitous drag as usual—the only really amusing effects are some computer-animated fruit smoothies spilling at us during the closing credits, to the tune of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”

TEEN WOLF ONE

The school year is cranking back up, so everybody steer clear of…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this guy, who sprouts hair & fangs when the school bell rings—the “I” in 1957’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf:

It should be said that, while this drive-in fave is hokey in the extreme, young Michael Landon’s performance is genuinely poignant at times.

You can watch the MST3K version here.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

THE APES OF WRATH

After seeing Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I spent the weekend geeking out with my Apes DVD collection. Here’s a quick guide to the original Apes movies, available both separately and as a boxed set:


Planet of the Apes (1968)—This adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet is a classic of austere, moody sci-fi satire. Charlton Heston is at his spitting-mad best as an astronaut who’s crash-landed on a planet where apes talk and humans don’t. His indignant fury at being manhandled by the simian set seems perfectly sincere. His costars Maurice Evans, Kim Hunter & Roddy McDowall actually manage to give expressive performances through the then-state-of-the-art makeup of John Chambers.


Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)—The first sequel—a clash between the warlike apes & a race of grotesque, telepathic, nuclear-bomb-worshipping mutants living under the ruins of NYC, with the humans caught in between—is perhaps the creepiest & harshest of the series, but it’s also imaginative & grimly funny. I‘ve always had a perverse fondness for this weird, downbeat movie, maybe because it was my first Apes experience, or maybe because I had the Gold Key tie-in comic-book version. A pity I read it to tatters back then; it now goes for hundreds of dollars on eBay.


It came with your very own “Ape Protest Poster”:



Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971)—Chimpanzees Roddy McDowall & Kim Hunter use Heston’s spaceship to go back in time to America of the early ‘70s. They’re celebrated at first, but Hunter finds she’s pregnant, fear of an ape planet sets in among the humans, & tragic trouble ensues. A highlight of this one is Ricardo Montalban, oozing courtliness as a gallant circus owner.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)—By the 1990s, apes are a slave class in America, until the articulate young chimp Caesar (McDowall yet again) rises to lead the revolution. This wild piece of agitprop is the chapter which most closely corresponds to the new film.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)—The final sequel of the original series—though short-lived live-action & cartoon TV shows would follow—shows how the human-simian rift was averted. It ends with humans & apes living in harmony, like in a cross-species Benetton ad.

Re-watching these movies, what’s odd is how much fun we found them as kids, despite their curmudgeonly misanthropy. They were about the persistence of war, oppression, bigotry, fanaticism, clannishness, anti-intellectualism & murderous paranoia, & most of them ended tragically. Even the optimism of the closing chapter was wistful & wary; their critique of humanity was irksomely hard to refute.


What made them lovable, I think, is that their cynical pessimism, though darkly comic, was never gleeful—their outrage at human folly was heartfelt. These movies may have seen a peaceful, decent future as a long shot, but they didn’t mock it as an ideal.

Friday, August 5, 2011

APE-OCALYPSE NOW

Of the many geeky enthusiasms of my boyhood, that for the Planet of the Apes movies was second in intensity only to Star Trek. So despite the disappointment I, like many fans, felt over Tim Burton’s 2001 version of POTA, I was still childishly excited about the new film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which opens today. This time, I wasn’t disappointed.


Burton really wasn’t the man for Planet of the Apes. His handsomely-produced version was poorly-scripted & lacking in suspense, but its flatness ran deeper than that—put bluntly, Burton was just too nice, his vision too free of the anger & reactionary bitterness that powered the original Apes movies. His POTA was all shapeless whimsy.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes isn’t a sequel to Burton’s film; it’s basically a re-thinking of the fourth film, 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, in which we’re shown how the simian set overthrows Homo Sapiens as the dominant sentient primate. As in Conquest, the script of Rise, credited to director Rupert Wyatt & Amanda Silver, depicts the political awakening of a chimpanzee named Caesar, here a lab animal with a brain modified by a drug intended to cure Alzheimer’s disease.

After the pharmaceutical corporation causes the death of his mother, Caesar is surreptitiously raised in the comfortable suburban San Francisco home of the scientist (James Franco) heading the project, who soon sees that he’s got a superchimp on his hands. But misfortune strikes, & Caesar ends up in hellhole primate shelter, run by a jerk (Brian Cox) with an ape-hating, sadistic son (Tom Felton). It’s here that Caesar becomes a sort of Chimp Guevara, uniting his fellow apes (except for gibbons; they don’t seem to be included) against the lousy human bastards.

As with the old films, & for that matter with King Kong, the subtext of white racial paranoia in all this is so feverish that it can barely be called subtextual. But the ugliness implicit in it is offset by a generous side: On another, lightly subversive level, the Apes movies are underdog stories—or under-ape stories, if you prefer—& every kid I know always rooted for the apes to prevail. In Rise, Wyatt stages a fine, rousing finale, a showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge between the liberated superapes & the California Highway Patrol that’s highly satisfying.

If this synopsis makes you giggle, be assured the movie will too (though it’s too full of cruelty to animals for most younger kids). Wyatt doesn’t take the material any more seriously than is necessary to avoid overt camp, & the film is full of in-jokes & bleak comedy, including a running gag involving the scientist’s hapless next-door neighbor that’s really nasty. James Franco’s charisma continues to elude me, but that’s OK here, & his glumness is compensated for by John Lithgow, touching as his dementia-afflicted father, & even more so by Andy Serkis, who “plays” Caesar behind the CGI. The bright-eyed, calmly incredulous, oh-no-they-didn’t anger that registers on this Everychimp’s face is deeply funny.


Rise doesn’t quite offer anything indelibly magical, like the first appearance of the apes in the original film, or Charlton Heston’s discovery of Lady Liberty. It’s too blunt & straightforward to be a fantasy classic; it crosses its I’s & dots its T’s too thoroughly. That, I suppose, is the downside of not having a Tim Burton-ish sensibility behind the camera. But it’s worth it in this case—the film is silly, but it works. It works the way, say, a good political cartoon works, making you laugh & cringe at the same time.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

MUTANT BUTTON

RIP to NFL great & Police Academy star Bubba Smith, passed on at 66, of whom Ogden Nash wrote: “When hearing tales of Bubba Smith/You wonder, is he man or myth?

Opening tomorrow is Rise of the Planet of the Apes, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s acknowledge this guy…


…one of the implacable “Fellowship of the Holy Fallout,” nuclear-bomb-worshipping mutants with terrifying telepathic abilities who dwell in the ruins of New York City in 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes, maybe of the creepiest of the original sequels.

Monday, August 1, 2011

GERVASE DUAN

RIP to the splendid character actor G.D. Spradlin, departed at 90.


Of his plentiful movie & television work, he’s probably best remembered for his roles in two Coppola classics: Godfather, Part II, in which he played the dripping-with-corruption Nevada senator, & Apocalypse Now, where he played the officer who sends Martin Sheen up the river.