Sunday, October 30, 2011


Happy Halloween Eve!

Your Humble Narrator got to spend a jolly hour-&-a-half Saturday evening talking scary movies on KTAR's Jay Lawrence Show, along with Phoenix Film Critics Society President David Ramsey. Among the callers, The Exorcist won the poll as scariest movie ever by about a half-dozen votes.

In honor of the day, let's do a bonus monster: The time has come, I think, to officially acknowledge one of the very greatest of all time...

Halloween Bonus Monster-of-the-Week: ...Boris Karloff’s incarnation of The Frankenstein Monster…

Karloff played the role just three times, in Universal’s original 1931 version, which The Kid & I watched the other day, & in the first two sequels, The Bride of Frankenstein—the only one in which he speaks as the character—& Son of Frankenstein (decades later he donned the makeup again, for an episode of the TV series Route 66). But his poignant, entirely sympathetic performances set a standard for acting in horror movies that has rarely been equaled, & probably never surpassed.

Not that Karloff's was the only worthy interpretation of the character. At 11:45 a.m. (MST) tomorrow is another fine Frankie: Christopher Lee in The Curse of Frankenstein. Lee’s makeup...

...more closely resembles the description of the character in Shelley’s novel, although, like Karloff, he doesn’t speak at all, much less spout high Miltonic rhetoric, like the book’s Monster.

Here, by the way, is a superb portrait of Lee's Monster, drawn as a teenager by Ed Naha, the veteran writer of & on horror:

Friday, October 28, 2011


Shakespeare is my favorite writer. I’m a Shakespeare buff. My experience of his work is, in a small way, as an actor & a director, & in a bigger way as a reader & an audience member. I’m not a Shakespearean scholar, in any literary or historical sense. The difference between me & most of those who question Shakespeare “The Stratford Man” as the true author of the plays attributed to him is that I know it.

Opening today is Anonymous, Roland Emmerich’s film dramatizing the notion, around since at least the 1920s, that Shakespeare was a front, & that his plays were actually written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. I wasn’t able to get to the screening earlier this week, & anyway I wouldn’t want to clutter up a movie review with a pedantic & partisan rant on this premise. So I thought I’d put the rant here, & review the movie fairly, as a movie, whenever I can get to it.

Though he seems to have been the “candidate” most in vogue for the last few years, Oxford seems like a particularly improbable alternative, even if you somehow doubt that Shakespeare could truly have written those plays. For one thing, Oxford was actually mentioned in contemporary writings, like the Palladis Tamia of Francis Meres, that also mention Shakespeare as a different person. No matter, say the “Oxfordians.” Oxford must have written Shakespeare’s works since he was, after all, an aristocrat, & good-looking & troubled, & because details of his own dramatic life can be made to line up with characters & situations in Shakespeare’s plays.

The idea is that Oxford must have had to hide the fact that he was a playwright because this would somehow have been an improper occupation for an aristocrat. This despite the fact that he was known to be a playwright—his own comedies, now lost, were reportedly good—& that this doesn’t seem to have been a secret, let alone a scandal. This despite the fact that Oxford died in 1604, roughly a decade before new Shakespeare plays stopped appearing. The Oxfordians have explanations for all this & for the rest of the comparative mountain of other evidence that associates the “Stratford” Shakespeare with the plays attributed to him.

I’ve spent a lot of time (way too much, actually) over the last few years reading articles & websites pro & con about this silly controversy, & I genuinely think it’s bullshit. & even though it doesn’t really matter—whoever wrote those plays, they’re magnificent—it still annoys me, because I think it arises, in part, from a peculiar self-loathing class snobbery.

It also partly stems from a misunderstanding of the history of the period, which leads people to believe that Shakespeare couldn’t have picked up enough knowledge to write about court matters, foreign countries, etc., the way he did. This is not unlike thinking that somebody else must have written Stephen King’s books, because after all a bumpkin from rural Maine could never have picked up a vocabulary like that, & could never have understood enough about, say, virology to have written The Stand.

Many still think of the Renaissance as a period in Merrie Olde England full of Lords & Ladies & Wenches & Squires & Peasants, & nothing very much in between. In truth, even a perfunctory reading of social history about the period shows that this whole system (never as quaint as it’s depicted anyway) was already long in decline. The really dynamic social force in Renaissance Europe was the Middle Class—and therein, I think, lies the heart of the matter.

Maybe the core of the whole authorship controversy, in all its forms, is something I’ve never seen anyone write about: a desire not to let the middle class have Shakespeare. Many people love & admire Shakespeare’s work, but just can’t bring themselves to like Shakespeare. The man who emerges from the existing record is too dull, too disappointingly conservative in his social and political beliefs, too interested in money, too litigious, & just generally too...well, middle class to be responsible for such glories.

If Shakespeare had been born to poverty but worked his way up to reknown, like Bunyan or Dickens, I don’t think it would bug people as much as the idea of a middle class guy from a small town whose Dad was a glovemaker & local politician turning into the greatest writer in English. So you get stuff about how scanty the information about Shakespeare is, but nobody points out how it’s still far less scanty than that of any other playwrights of the time except Ben Jonson & Oxford himself.

You get the line about how there’s no evidence that Shakespeare attended the Grammar School in Stratford, but they don’t point out that no records at all survive for any students there during that time, but that the children of public officials could attend for free, & Shakespeare’s father served as both an alderman & “bailiff” (mayor) in Stratford-on-Avon. Also, the grammar school in Stratford offered a Latin education that would probably have exceeded in rigor that of the average Classical Studies Major at a contemporary American college, & was steeped in the sort of Latin writers (Plutarch, Plautus, Seneca, etc.) that are the clearest influences on Shakespeare’s earlier work.

You get the nonsense about how Shakespeare couldn’t have learned French & Italian when, apart from the fact that knowledge of Latin makes both of those languages less daunting, the same publisher who printed the first editions of Shakespeare’s long poems Venus and Adonis & The Rape of Lucrece, a guy named Richard Field, specialized in publishing language manuals, especially for French & Italian (knowledge of these languages in Shakespeare’s time was as commercially valuable for a Brit as knowledge of Japanese is for a modern American). Field was also a Stratford guy of about Shakespeare’s age, & lived a few houses from him in Stratford-on-Avon as a kid; records show their fathers knew each other, & it’s believed that he & Shakespeare were friends. In other words, there are all sorts of connections between Shakespeare the Stratford “bumpkin” & Shakespeare the writer.

But above all, “anti-Stradtfordians” are never able to give a satisfactory answer to one simple question: why only Shakespeare? If you insist that detailed evidence about Shakespeare’s life is lacking, you may be right, but if that leads you to conclude that he therefore probably didn’t write the stuff that’s attributed to him, then why not apply the same standard to all the other playwrights, Christopher Marlowe very much included, about whom even less (often much less) is known. The obvious answer—and indeed, on some of the websites they flatly admit this—is that the other playwrights aren’t so dull and provinicial.

It’s true, too—Shakespeare’s politics are ass-kissingly in favor of the aristocracy & the status quo. Playwrights at the time, including some of Shakespeare’s pals, tended to be brawlers & radicals & horndogs—Marlowe died in a barfight, Thomas Kyd was jailed & tortured for “atheism and immorality” (&, ignominiously, informed on Marlowe to get out), Jonson & John Marston both got busted for their play Isle of Dogs, Jonson killed two men in duels in his life.

Shakespeare isn’t known to have done any of that sort of thing, though his wife was about three months pregnant when he married her, & there are a few gossipy stories about his womanizing. He was a careful businessman & very willing to participate in lawsuits, & he also was always careful not to piss off the powerful, all of which has made him utterly unsuitable for glamorous literary status now.

Absurdity certainly doesn't mean, of course, that Anonymous might not be a highly enjoyable movie, as was the willfully ridiculous trifle Shakespeare In Love a few years ago. That film also hinged on the gag that The Bard must have turned from his own torrid affairs, picked up his pen, & scribbled them into Romeo & Juliet & Twelfth Night. The difference is that Shakespeare In Love treated this idea as a goofy, borderline-campy romantic fiction, while Anonymous, at least in its marketing, treats the idea as an Oliver Stone-style expose.

Shakespeare’s works are so astoundingly good that it’s understandable, in a sense, that one might find it improbable & mysterious that anyone could have written them. But trying to turn the author from a social-climbing Stratfordian into a financially frustrated blueblood does nothing to solve that mystery.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Your Humble Narrator had the honor to be a classmate, back at dear old Harbor Creek High, of a pleasant fellow named Robin Swope. Though he was an unusual & interesting guy even back then, nothing would have prepared me for the course his life took: he became a Christian minister & missionary, & also a paranormal investigator.

Robin writes a blog called The Paranormal Pastor, contributes to publications like Fate magazine, & is the author of such works as An Exorcist’s Field Guide. He recently sent me an early Halloween gift: a copy of his latest tome, Eerie Erie: Tales of the Unexplained from Northwest Pennsylvania (The History Press, $14.99), a fun review of uncanny folklore from my beloved gloomy hometown of Erie & its gloomy environs.

The book covers subjects ranging from UFOs over Presque Isle to “Phantom Panthers” in Summit Township & Edinboro to Bigfoot sightings in Wintergreen Gorge, from Gudgeonville Bridge & Axe Murder Hollow to sightings of the ghosts of Perry’s sailors from Misery Bay, to…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree, the Lake Erie Storm Hag…

…our own Great Lakes version of a perennial sailors legend, sometimes known as Jennie Greenteeth. Fetchingly equipped with green skin, green fangs & cat-like yellow eyes, the Storm Hag is fond of preying upon sailors when their vessels are caught in bad weather. According to Swope, she’s also a gifted singer who, just before she attacks, likes to serenade her victims thusly:

Come into the water, love,
Dance beneath the waves,
Where dwell the bones of sailor lads
Inside my saffron caves.

Friday, October 21, 2011


In the middle of Texas Killing Fields, two detectives are examining the body of a murdered young woman, lying half-submerged in the water of the title marshland. Detective Heigh (Jeffery Dean Morgan) observes a fingerprint on her neck, & at the same moment it starts to rain. In a panic, he & his friend Detective Stall (Jessica Chastain) struggle to preserve this crucial clue while pulling the wet, unwieldy corpse onto the bank.

It’s a harrowing, heartbreaking scene, maybe the best in this grim & atmospheric police drama, loosely based on true events & directed by Ami Canaan Mann. It reflects the overall experience of Texas Killing Fields: You get a glimpse of the forces behind the horror, & then the hostile, unpredictable environment shifts, & you’re lost again.

It’s rare for an American crime movie to treat a dead body as something other than a prop, a font of exposition, but the bodies of young women that keep turning up in this small, grungy Gulf Coast Texas city, or dumped in the marshlands adjacent, have a physicality, a wretched weight. The investigators aren’t depicted, in the manner of so many movies of this sort, as casual & business-as-usual around the victims; they’re anxious &, though they speak softly, palpably angry.

The angriest is Detective Souder (Sam Worthington), Heigh’s partner & Stall’s ex-husband. His anger leads him to stupid, counterproductive outbursts of violence, but it also paralyzes him. Heigh wants to explore the link between their victim & a string of others that have been found in the “Killing Fields” nearby, while Souder wants nothing to do with cases outside his jurisdiction, especially on his ex-wife’s turf.

He’s pretty sure that his & Heigh’s case is linked to a sordid prostitution ring in town anyway. Heigh, a haunted ex-NYC cop & a devout Catholic—he murmurs the Hail Mary over a victim—suspects that there’s a bigger picture. Both of them are terrified for Little Anne (Chloe Moretz), daughter of a miserable local hooker (a shockingly haggard-looking Sheryl Lee, of Twin Peaks). Poor Anne seems appallingly tailor-made to join the gallery of victims.

Director Mann (the daughter, as she is probably weary of reviewers noting, of Michael Mann) nails the settings—the town is a muggy, dirty shithole that’s no place to live, let alone die, while the marsh, with its twisted, leafless trees, would have an unearthly beauty if it weren’t so charged with threat. She shows a strong touch with the actors here, too. Worthington, Chastain & especially Morgan are so low-key that it’s almost disorienting at first; they aren’t working from the standard cop-show-acting playbook, even when Donald F. Ferrarone’s dialogue seems to call for it. But their controlled intensity accumulates force.

Mann & Ferrarone are less successful with the police-procedural side of the material; at times I found myself confused, & not in the good way. But there’s an emotional maturity to Mann’s work here which even some of her father’s films can’t claim—an awareness of the reality of human suffering that can without too much pushing be called authentically tragic.

It comes out, especially, in her handling of Moretz, as Little Anne. She strikes me as one of the least smarmily sexualized adolescent girls I can think of in many a movie. Through the other characters, & through her alert, sympathetic, unleering camera, Mann treats Little Anne not as a white trash Lolita but as an imperiled & precious child.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


RIP to a hero of Your Humble Narrator’s, the great radio dramatist & triumphalist liberal patriot Norman Corwin, passed on way too young at 101.
Though I’ve loved old-school radio drama ever since I heard War of the Worlds as a kid, it was seeing a live performance of Corwin’s classic airwave comedy My Client Curley, starring my dear late pal Tim Reader, that really got me jazzed about trying my hand at the medium. A few years later, my pal Julie, who directed that show & later worked on several of my Sun Sounds productions, kindly gave me a copy of Norman Corwin’s Letters. I was both humbled & exhilarated at the craft & polish that Corwin put into the prose of his private correspondence.

Corwin’s best-known work may be On a Note of Triumph, his word-concerto broadcast on V-E Day in 1945. Here’s a passage from the Prayer section which I wish we’d all make a daily devotion (it was later included, by the way, in a standard prayerbook for American Reform Judiasm):

Lord God of test-tube and blueprint
Who jointed molecules of dust and shook them till their name was Adam,
Who taught worms and stars how they could live together
Appear now among the parliaments of conquerors and give instruction to their schemes:
Measure out new liberties so none shall suffer for his father's color or the credo of his choice:
Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend:
Sit at the treaty table and convoy the hopes of the little peoples through expected straits,
And press into the final seal a sign that peace will come for longer than posterities can see ahead,
That man unto his fellow man shall be a friend forever.

Can I get an Amen for Brother Norman?

Check out this terrific review of Pat Buchanan’s latest jaw-droppers…

I wasn’t able to get to it before it opened last weekend, so...

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s acknowledge the title character of the new version of The Thing, now in theatres.

My review:

All it means, really, is “object,” yet somewhere along the line in American pop culture the word “thing” came to mean something scary, a monster, a freak. Maybe it says something about humans that it’s what’s undefined, not consigned to a pigeonhole, which raises our collective gooseflesh.

Despite short stories like Bierce’s “The Damned Thing” & Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep,” & despite the disturbing ‘40s-era radio play “The Thing on the Fourble Board,” the usage was probably truly popularized by the 1951 sci-fi classic The Thing From Another World, with James Arness, who passed on this June, in the title role. Based on John W. Campbell’s 1938 pulp tale Who Goes There?, the film was remade by director John Carpenter, simply as The Thing, in 1983.

The Thing in question in the 1951 version is a vampiric humanoid vegetable from outer space, discovered frozen in the ice near a U.S. military/scientific outpost in the Arctic. Accidentally thawed out, he wreaks deadly havoc until he’s outdone by American ingenuity & cooperation.

Carpenter’s remake sticks closer to Campbell’s novella. Discovered in Antarctica this time, The Thing is the ultimate chameleon, an amorphous mass that can assume the shape of a human host. But whenever its cover is blown, it suddenly unravels into a squealing, twisted, tentacled horror out of Hieronymus Bosch, & starts tearing everybody in the vicinity apart.

The film, with Kurt Russell leading a pack of top-notch character actors, is also pretty gripping. If there’s one, you know, thing that the movie world didn’t especially need right this minute, it was probably one more version of The Thing.

But we’ve got one, directed by the impressively-named Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr. Despite the identical title, it’s not actually a remake, but rather a “prequel” to Carpenter’s film, set in Antarctica in 1982, among the Norwegian researchers who make the initial discovery, & soon aren’t sure who’s human & who’s a Thing. The cast is full of manly types, but the resourceful heroine is a young American paleontologist, well-played by the incredibly adorable Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

This Thing takes an ill-advised excursion away from the outpost near the end which strains its convincing feel a bit, but up until then it’s a fairly tense, austere little thriller, with a soundtrack full of the unnerving pulses & thrums that used to make up Carpenter’s minimalist electronic scores. Some pretty shocking special effects are deployed, too, but van Heijningen derives most of the film’s atmosphere from his teasing out of the suspense & paranoia. He rather deftly keeps you wondering who the monsters are.

But while this Thing is a passable piece of work, I can’t find any pressing reason why needs to exist. The original is a fascinating study in Hawksian attitudes toward American collective strength against a generic common enemy. Carpenter’s The Thing has a more cynical, individualistic, spaghetti-western ethos, & a correspondingly thicker sense of paranoia.

The new film, conceived as a direct prologue to Carpenter’s, adds no new dimension, &—I hate to sound like a Luddite broken record on this topic, but—it loses some punch thanks to the CGI’s lack of solidity. There was a surreal poetry, a gravity, almost a horrific beauty, to Rob Bottin’s “practical” (mechanical & prosthetic) effects in the ’83 film that the computer-generated shocks in the new film, above-average though they are, can’t match.

The effects in Carpenter’s Thing could make you doubt the person sitting next to you. The effects in the new film make you doubt what you see on the screen. Rightly.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


RIP to Farrelli’s Cinema and Supper Club on Scottsdale Road, which has closed after a decade of providing dinner & a movie in a plush yet comfortable setting. I first went there shortly after it opened (shortly before 9/11), to see The Tailor of Panama & write an article about the place for the Tribune.

In the ensuing years, I racked up many good memories there. The Wife & I went dozens of times, including several Thanksgivings & New Years; we took my mother-in-law there during the last year of her life, when she could no longer see but could still thoroughly enjoy The Queen & Breach in all their talky glory. My pals Dave & Dewey & I saw For Your Consideration there; Barry Graham & I went for the Midnite Movie Mamacita’s presentation of the deranged Hausu, & I went for the Mamacita’s late show of Terror of Mechagodzilla. This past Easter, The Wife, The Kid & I saw Rango there, over a delicious brunch.

I liked Farrelli’s from the start, but I honestly didn’t think the place stood a chance. I was slightly surprised it lasted ten months. To survive ten years—these particular ten years, especially—is a real achievement.

RIP also to actress Patricia Breslin, from William Castle’s Homicidal & I Saw What You Did, passed on at 80.

Friday, October 14, 2011


Moviemakers who deal in extreme or sadistic violence have been known to defensively pooh-pooh the notion that their work might inspire real-life imitators. But Tom Six, Dutch writer-director of last year’s disgusting-but-compelling The Human Centipede (First Sequence), is afflicted with no such modesty. The main character of his “meta” follow-up, The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence), is an obsessed fan of the original who seeks not only to reproduce the atrocity depicted therein, but to expand upon it.

For the (perhaps fortunate) unitiated: The Human Centipede (First Sequence) was about a German surgeon (the unforgettable Dieter Laser) who for no particular reason other than to see if it could be accomplished, created a human “Siamese triplet,” with a gastric tract running mouth-to-anus-to-mouth-to-anus-to-mouth-to-anus, out of two young American women & a Japanese man he'd taken captive. The Doc met a bloody fate at the end, & it appeared that the three members of his pathetic creation were also doomed, so it was hard to grasp how a sequel would work.

Here’s how: The protagonist of The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence), opening today at The Royale in Mesa, is Martin (Laurence R. Harvey), a gnome-like attendant in a featureless & very poorly supervised London “car park” (parking garage). Martin lives in a shabby little flat with his horrible ratbag of a mother (Vivien Bridson), who blames her son for the imprisonment of his sexually abusive father. His other roommate is a large centipede in a terrarium, which his loathsome psychologist (Bill Hutchens) suggests may be a phallic symbol representing his rage over his father’s abuse.

Martin obsessively watches Human Centipede the first on his computer screen at work, & keeps a scrapbook devoted to the film. He even takes seriously the movie’s tongue-in-cheek hype line: “100% Medically Accurate.”

Indeed, Martin seems determined to put this claim to the test. He keeps abducting people, & secreting them, bound & gagged, on the floor of a rented warehouse. His victims include customers who are rude to him at the car park, among others—he even lures Ashlynn Yennie, one of the actresses from the first film, to London with the offer of an audition for Quentin Tarantino.

Martin’s plan is to construct his own, highly ambitious human centipede, this one consisting of twelve subjects. The second half of the film is excruciatingly devoted to his efforts to complete this gruesome task—without, of course, any surgical skills or training & with workshop tools instead of surgical instruments.

So, how to review this thing? It’s both so revolting—it’s much, much more graphically gory than the first film—& so ridiculous that I found much of it almost unwatchable, & might have shut it off if I wasn’t reviewing it. I can’t say I found it particularly enriching, or that I think the world would be a notably poorer place if it didn’t exist.

Having said that, I must admit that this is by no means an artless piece of moviemaking. In some ways, it’s perhaps a more unified, less obviously padded-out piece of work than the original. Six achieves a despairing, Dante-esque horror at times, in the images of Martin’s writhing victims.

Harvey, too, is a potent presence as Martin. Unless I missed it, he never speaks a word in the film, but he has the unsettling stillness of a Beckett clown, & his face can erupt with homicidal rage or grief or glee. He’s one creepy little nudnik.

I wouldn’t blame any critic who didn’t care to split the hair that separates The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) from blackhearted torture-porn trash. But I will; I can’t quite dismiss the movie as that. I can acknowledge, at some level even admire, Six’s talent, & the transgressive vision that gave rise to this ghastly worm-that-turns fantasy.

But that doesn’t mean that I enjoyed it, or that, to anyone other than a hardcore-horror completist, I’d recommend it. Six got what he wanted out of me with this movie—he won. As with A Serbian Film a few months ago, at some point I gave up on these victims & just wanted the movie over. I just barely was able to, you know, leg this one out.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


On my honor, I don’t watch Dancing With the Stars. But a friend of mine who does told me about Ricki Lake & her partner dancing the tango to Bernard Herrmann’s great Psycho theme, & said that it was excellent. I watched it here, & he’s right, it is.

As we roll toward Halloween, yet again we turn to Turner Classic Movies to provide us with…

Monster-of-the-Week: …our weekly nightmare: This time it’s the title creepy-crawly of 1959’s The Tingler, a sort of big centipede-ish critter which, scientist Vincent Price discovers, attaches itself to the human backbone during moments of terror, on which emotion it feeds. Hence the tingling.

Directed by William Castle from a script by Robb White, the movie is perhaps best remembered for Castle’s notorious gimmick “Percepto”—theater seats electrically wired to produce a mild, tingler-like jolt in audience members. Unless you have a Taser & are masochistic, this effect is difficult to reproduce while watching the film now—it plays, by the way, at 9 p.m. (MST) on Monday, October 17. But even without it, The Tingler, though obviously preposterous, is bizarre & imaginative, probably my favorite of Castle’s films as director.

By the way, I recently became Facebook friends with Castle. Considering that he died in 1977, it’s enough to give you a you-know-what down your spine…

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


One of my great pleasures in visiting my beloved hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania—in the warmer months, that is—has to be partaking of the delicious Italian ice at Rita’s on Gore Road. So you can imagine my delight in learning that there are now two Rita’s locations here in the Valley, where we really need them: at 4730 E. Indian School in Phoenix, & at 83rd Avenue & Union Hills in Glendale.

RIP to the beautiful Diane Cilento, of Tom Jones, The Agony and the Ecstasy & The Wicker Man, among other films, departed at 78, & to the fine character actress Doris Belack, best known as the keen-minded, intrigued soap opera producer in Tootsie & as a tough judge on many episodes of Law & Order, passed on at 85.

RIP also, by the way, to the 2011 season of the Arizona Diamondbacks, regrettably ended last Friday after Game Five of a superb National League Division Series with the Milwaukee Brewers. Looking forward to next season, boys. For a change.

Friday, October 7, 2011


RIP to the reliable, high-testosterone character actor Charles Napier, departed at 75. The Platonic ideal of the term “lantern-jawed,” Napier appeared in Russ Meyer flicks & as scowling heavies on TV & in films like The Blues Brothers & Rambo, but got to show his versatility as a fixture in many Jonathan Demme movies, including Melvin and Howard, Something Wild, Married to the Mob, Philadelphia & perhaps most memorably as the Tennessee Corrections Officer that Hannibal Lecter gets the better of in Silence of the Lambs.

But I’ll always have a soft spot for Napier's guest shot on Star Trek, as Adam, the cheeriest of the space hippies in the notorious third-season episode “The Way to Eden”:

Listen to him singing “Yea Brother” (rather well) here.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Once again, the October schedule for Turner Classic Movies provides us with…

Monster-of-the-Week: …another classic selection: Lon Chaney, Jr. in his signature role of the hapless Larry Talbot…

…in 1941’s The Wolf Man, a man who is pure in heart & says his prayers by night, but still turns into a half-lupine maniac when the moon is full. There isn’t much good one can say about last year’s remake The Wolfman, with Benicio del Toro, but it did at least show, by comparison, the excellence of the original, which plays on Monday, October 10, at 6 p.m. (MST).

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Ten years ago today, the TV series Scrubs debuted on NBC. I’m not suggesting that there should be some National Day of Remembrance for this august anniversary, but I do want to take a moment to appreciate Scrubs. Its ubiquity in reruns may make it easy to take for granted, but it’s a great sitcom.

Indeed, I think there’s a solid case that Scrubs, which ran for nine seasons over two networks & so heavily in syndication that it seems almost unavoidable when channel-surfing, can take its place with the best sitcoms of all time. For all its obvious success, I’m not sure the show has ever quite gotten its due. It very deservedly won a Peabody Award, but it had only a handful of Emmy nominations, & only a couple of technical-category wins—the excellence of the show’s writing &, especially, its acting were largely ignored.

For the uninitiated: Scrubs, created by Bill Lawrence, followed the career & personal life of Dr. John “J.D.” Dorian (Zach Braff), a young intern at Sacred Heart Hospital, in an unnamed city. A gushy, overenthusiastic innocent, J.D. shares his struggles with his inseparable best friend & roommate Christopher Turk (Donald Faison), a surgical intern, with Elliot Reid (Sarah Chalke), a sweet but brittle fellow intern who becomes J.D.’s on-again/off-again romantic interest, & with veteran nurse Carla Espinosa (Judy Reyes), who in the course of the series marries Turk.

J.D., who narrates the episodes, is obsessively driven to achieve a father-son bond with his boss & role model, Dr. Perry Cox (the magnificent John C. McGinley). This sneering misanthrope has a penchant for spewing complex arias of sarcastic abuse on everyone, but especially on his adoring, & undaunted, young disciple, to whom he refers either by various female names, or simply as “Newbie.”

Among the show’s many secondary characters are the curmudgeonly Chief of Medicine Dr. Kelso (Ken Jenkins), the depressive hospital counsel Ted Buckland (Sam Lloyd), Cox’s mocking ex-wife Jordan (Christa Miller), & the hospital’s janitor, known simply as Janitor (Neil Flynn). He's given to bizarre non-sequitur verbal flights, & also makes it his mission to torment J.D.

It occurs to me that to someone who has never watched the show, the description above would likely make Scrubs sound like ordinary sitcom fare, a bit more ambitious than usual in terms of number of characters but otherwise almost boilerplate. The show’s originality isn’t in its format. The laughs arise from the depiction of J.D.’s fantasy life—again & again, he casts his eyes upward at an angle & we see one of his preposterous, often surreal daydreams, inventively staged. This was perhaps the first live-action series to attempt the speedy inserted-gag vignettes developed by animated shows like The Simpsons & The Family Guy.

But the program’s real distinction is its honesty about the inner life of the American male, particularly the movie-&-TV-fed all-American white boy embodied by J.D., & played so fearlessly by Braff. Speaking as a specimen of the same, I wish I could report that the narcissism & infantilism of J.D.’s megalomaniacal-yet-mawkish hero fantasies is exaggerated, but I can’t.

I’ve often wondered if this embarrassing candor isn’t the secret both of the show’s staying power with audiences & of its lack of critical acclaim. What Scrubs says to the audience is: you’re not cool. You may be a nice person, you may be a competent person, you may even cure the sick & comfort the afflicted. But for all that you walk around every day fantasizing about being cool, you aren’t. You’ll never be like your hero Dr. Cox—indeed, over the course of the seasons we gradually come to see that Cox himself is a self-loathing emotional wreck & a poseur.

Like many shows that feature single protagonists, Scrubs bogged down a little when it focused on J.D.’s love life—his interminable dithering over whether he really loved Elliot or whichever gorgeous guest star it was became tiresome at times. Other than that occasional minor annoyance, Scrubs was a near-perfect half-hour, year in and year out, delivering silly laughs & rich characterization, expertly balanced. Even its “Jump the Shark” ninth season, which moved the action to a medical school & introduced a new set of characters, was pretty good—it featured, among other merits, riotous & utterly overlooked work by Dave Franco (too-little-known brother of James).

Finally, while Scrubs was never pretentious, it also was quite capable—unlike, say, the equally brilliant & funny but somehow emotionally aloof 30 Rock—of startling moments of seriousness. Maybe because of the mortality inherent in the medical setting, it had a dramatic gravity underpinning the broad shtick.