Going cold turkey can be a very dangerous thing. You could suffer nausea, intense body aches, debilitating cramps, diarrhea… you name it! Now that Psychobabble’s year-long 366 Days at the Drive-In series has ended, I fear for your well being, dear reader, and to ease you into the come down—and through the coming Halloween season—Psychobabble will present a new daily feature starting tomorrow. No, you will not once again be required to watch an entire feature film every day. That would just be cruel. Instead you will merely be required to view a single episode of a classic TV show by pain of torture. And since you’ll be doing this in Halloween season, each episode will be themed accordingly with no shortage of vampires, cobwebs, werewolves, witches, tricks, treats, freaks, and geeks. Expect to expect only the scariest selections from the finest supernatural anthologies, the most spookily hilarious sitcom episodes, the most vile of the most excellent sci-fi and horror series, and quite a few cartoons. So warm up that boob tube and strap yourself to your electric chair, because tomorrow begins the terror and foul horror of Psychobabble’s 31 TV Shows for 31 Days of Halloween Season!
Also stay tuned for new episodes of such Psychobabble classics as Monsterology and 20 Things You May Not Have Known About... and other tricks, treats, and smelly feets.
Friday, September 30, 2016
The Movie: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
What Is It?: Space Jesus comes to Earth and warns that if we don’t quit the warring we’re going to get a serious, intergalactic spanking. Screenwriter Edmund H. North and director Robert Wise fashion the most intelligent and one of the most restrained science-fiction movies of the fifties, and Bernard Herrmann’s theremin-heavy score delivers classic sci-fi sounds. The open-ended ending is also refreshing. What will become of the Earth? Are we doomed? Or will we curb our war-like ways. Klaatu barrada nikto, daddy-o!
Why Today?: The Day the Earth Stood Still may chronicle the end of times for us earthlings. Today marks the end of times for 366 Days at the Drive-In. See you in Valhalla, folks.
Thursday, September 29, 2016
If 2016 has taught us something that we should have all learned fifty years ago, it’s that The Monkees are great. Not just “Boy, don’t you have fond memories of hearing ‘Daydream Believer’ at the prom?” great, but seriously great. This year they’ve finally received the treatment they deserved since they became a “real” recording band when they made Headquarters. The Monkees’ reunion album Good Times has received almost uniformly glowing reviews. Their TV series has received a deluxe blu-ray treatment usually reserved for critical darlings like Star Trek and Twin Peaks. There has also been an uptick in Monkees scholarship. This past summer, Rosanne Welch published an intelligent analysis of the Monkees TV show called Why The Monkees Matter. A few months later, Peter Mills is publishing a similarly in-depth study of the group’s only feature film called The Monkees, Head, and the 60s.
Following a general run down of how the series came to be, the backgrounds of the four stars of the show, their producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, the series, and the music, Mills settles in on his central purpose. He offers a scene-by-scene analysis of Head’s audio-visual chop suey. The analysis is non-academic and fairly general, and there may not be too many revelations for those who already get that the film skewers The Monkee’s pre-fab image and shows how locked into it they were. A lot of page space is devoted to descriptions of scenes without much analysis at all, which can be especially frustrating when it is followed by a big conclusion such as “the juxtapositons in this closing sequence are in some ways irresponsible and morally duplicitous” without any explanation for what provoked that conclusion.
Mills keeps that from ever really becoming truly exasperating because The Monkees, Head, and the 60s is so packed with trivia, quotes and insights from the men who made the film, background information on its making, and fascinating comparisons between what was in the script and what ended up on the screen (according to the script, Davy was originally supposed to sing “Magnolia Simms” instead of “Daddy’s Song”!). As was the case with Welch’s book, the evidence used to support the analysis is more stimulating than the analysis itself. That’s fine by me since I’m more interested in learning about The Monkees than learning about how someone interprets their work. Mills still manages to get us to care about whom is telling this story by relating his own personal experiences as a Monkeemaniac throughout the book. This is actually an important element in The Monkees story, since the band’s long road to legitimacy has also been our long road to legitimacy, and in hearing Mill’s personal anecdotes about being a fan, we are also reminded of our own experiences loving a band that it seems the world is only just beginning to admit that it loves too.
The Movie: The Wrong Man (1956)
What Is It?: Although it explores the director’s pet topic to the point that its title basically translates to Generic Alfred Hitchcock Movie, The Wrong Man is one of Hitch’s more unusual films because it is based on a true story and manages more sympathy for its characters than his usual brilliant exercises in style do. Really, there are no more heartbreaking people in the Hitchcock cannon than Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), a bass player wrongfully accused of being a “hold up man” (I can’t help but find that designation hilarious and wonder if there is a less awkward term for someone who holds places up), and his wife Rose (Vera Miles), who loses her grip on reality while going through the ordeal of her husband’s incarceration and trial. Wrenching stuff.
Why Today?: On this day in 1909, the real Manny Balestrero is born.
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Roy Orbison was one of the few truly great artists to make an impact between Rock & Roll’s first wave and the British Invasion. That doesn’t mean he didn’t make worthwhile records before and after that brief window of roughly five years. In the fifties he wrote hyper swingers like “Ooby Dooby” and “Claudette”, a hit for The Everly Brothers, while with Sun Records before maturing into the more dramatic, near-operatic style that made him pop’s King of Tears. After having the final big hit of his key phase, “Pretty Woman”, which married the hard rhythms of his earliest records with the more melodic and complex riffing of the burgeoning Mersey sound, Orbison never stopped making records, and enjoyed a major resurgence in the late eighties when he joined Jeff Lynne’s stable as a Traveling Wilbury and solo artist.
Sony Legacy’s new collection, The Ultimate Roy Orbison, boasts of being the first compilation to incorporate tracks from all of the artist’s phases, though this isn’t true since Legacy’s four-disc Soul of Rock and Roll box set from 2008 had already done that. The big difference here, besides the fact that Ultimate distills Orbison’s career down to a single disc of 26-tracks, is that it jumbles the chronology. I generally prefer this approach to boring old chronological order, though the eras represented on this set are so vastly separated that it makes for a bit of a jarring listen when, say, the rockabilly “Ooby Dooby” gets sandwiched between the peak-era gut punch “It’s Over” and the Lynne-era “Heartbreak Radio”. With all due irony, it points out how the slick eighties stuff now sounds a bit dated while the fifties and sixties tracks remain as fresh and timeless as ever.
Still, unlike a lot of classic artists who attempted comebacks in the eighties, Roy Orbison never embarrassed himself. “You Got It” may not be as indescribably essential as “Dream Baby” or “Crying”, it’s still a damn good song, and this collection does do a fine job of highlighting the man’s consistent quality control. Plus, even though The Ultimate Collection covers an expansive period, the only missing track that really hurts is the luxurious non-hit “Shahdaroba”. Of course, Roy Orbison would not deserve to be called The King of Tears if he didn’t make us feel a little pain.
The Movie: Strange Brew (1983)
What Is It?: Bob and Doug McKenzie— the dim, beer-swilling, Canuck alter-egos of Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis—stumble off of SCTV and onto the big screen in a story based on—no joke—Hamlet. If that source isn’t high-brow enough for you, Bergman’s favorite actor, Max Von Sydow, plays the villainous brewmeister of Elsinore Beer. Honestly, I have not seen Strange Brew in years, so I can’t vouch for whether or not it holds up, but I can say that when I first saw it as a kid, it made me laugh so hard that I puked cherry Pop-Tarts © all over the den carpet. True story.
Why Today?: Today is National Drink Beer Day. Take off, hoser.
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
The Movie: Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
What Is It?: Writer Cameron Crowe and director Amy Heckerling survey a landscape of shitty teen comedies and burn those flicks to the ground with one funnier, sexier, and more truthful than any previous movie about high school. Sean Penn is the ultimate burn out! Phoebe Cates is the ultimate dream girl! Judge Reinhold is the ultimate senior schlub! Robert Romanus is the ultimate douche bag! But it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Stacy Hamilton who casts a spell of realism over all these caricatures… well, maybe not Penn’s Spicoli. That dude just wants to jam with the Stones.
Why Today?: On this day in 1979, Congress adds the U.S. Dept. of Education to the executive Branch.
Monday, September 26, 2016
The Movie: And Now for Something Completely Different (1971)
What Is It?: Considered an inessential Monty Python movie because it merely glossed up TV sketches for U.S. movie audiences, the first Monty Python movie is still a superb best-of compilation and the higher production values often benefit the comedy. “The Restaurant Sketch” murders its small-screen equivalent!
Why Today?: Today is Lumberjack Day.
Much luck and love, Terry Jones!
Much luck and love, Terry Jones!
Sunday, September 25, 2016
The Movie: The Vault of Horror (1972)
What Is It?: Amicus’s second portmanteau to mine classic E.C. Comics for big-screen fodder isn’t quite as consistent as Tales from the Crypt, and the vampire makeup (a handful of joke-shop fangs) in “Midnight Mess” is laughable, but this is still a quality collection of spook stories. Best of the bunch is “Drawn and Quartered”, one of E.C.’s best stories and one of the best portmanteau episodes in the history of portmanteaus.
Why Today?: Today is Comic Book Day.
Saturday, September 24, 2016
That magic is finally back in full frenzy. The 16-disc Rolling Stones in Mono box debuts the complete sixties-catalogue in mono on CD, and for the first time since these albums were released five decades ago, vinyl (the vinyl box includes a coupon for digital downloads of the full set). Although the new LPs and CDs were remastered using the same Direct Stream Digital process as ABKCO’s excellent stereo SACDs released in 2002, they now sound warmer, while alternative soundscapes are apparent on the LPs that have long only been available in stereo. Between the Buttons abounds with differences: the extended ending of “Yesterday’s Papers”, Keith’s more up-front grunge guitar in a chest-thumping mix of “Connection”, and the weirder echo effects and unique theremin squeals in “Please Go Home”. On Flowers, Mick’s improvisations are wilder through the fade of “Ride on, Baby”. The majority of fans who always found Their Satanic Majesties Request to be a cluttered mess will probably dig the fact that details in tracks such as “Citadel” and “The Lantern” are less pronounced in mono. Satanic is the point where I really start to prefer the stereo mixes, and I miss the prominent Mellotron sax in the former and Keith’s absurdly loud lead guitar in the latter…but then again, my opinions on this particular album are not very conventional (in his liner notes, David Fricke even goes so far as to say that Satanic “is no one’s favorite Stones album of the 1960s”… beg to differ with you, Frickey Boy!). With the exception of “Sympathy for the Devil”, Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed were never even given dedicated mono mixes; they appear as fold downs in this set. However, when it comes to early R&B monsters like 12x5 and Rolling Stones Now!, and even more progressive pre-Satanic items such as Between the Buttons and Aftermath, the UK edition of which had been desecrated with a particularly anemic stereo mix, there’s less room for debate. It’s mono all the way even when some of the earlier discs are fold downs of their stereo incarnations.
My only knock against The Rolling Stones in Mono is the packaging. The images on the record sleeves are poor digital reproductions, completely lacking the detail and texture of the originals. All references to Decca and London have been scrubbed from them, and in a stranger move, all times have been eliminated from the inauthentically re-keyed text on the back covers. There’s no lenticular photo on Satanic Majesties, nor does it contain that groovy inner sleeve adorned with pink clouds (Let It Bleed is the only album that has a printed inner sleeve). For some reason, Satanic’s front and back cover images are also blown up to bizarre dimensions. The skinny, softcover booklet has the flimsy feel of an oversized CD booklet. Fortunately, the same cannot be said of the heavy, super-quiet vinyl, and ultimately, the sounds are where it’s at with The Rolling Stones in Mono, and these sounds will make you run like a cat in a thunderstorm, howl at yer ma in the drivin’ rain, and achieve complete satisfaction.(This is a slightly edited version of this review that takes the reader's comments below into consideration.)
The Movie: The Dark Crystal (1982)
What Is It?: Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s puppet fantasy looks like the tchotchke shelf of a head shop brought to life. The gelfling heroes are bland, but the monsters, music, and atmosphere are magical.
Why Today?: On this day in 1936, Jim Henson is born.
Friday, September 23, 2016
The Movie: Phantom of the Opera (1925)
What Is It?: The first true American horror film that looks like a full-blown, Hollywood production, trumpeting a cast of thousands and exquisite costumes and sets, particularly the Phantom’s underground labyrinth. As familiar as stills of Lon Chaney's face as Erik the Phantom are, the uninitiated may be surprised by how truly scary that puss is when moving on the screen. Here the Universal era and the golden age of horror begins.
Why Today?: On this day in 1909, the serialized publication of Gaston Leroux’s novel begins in Le Gaulois.
Thursday, September 22, 2016
The Movie: The Wolf Man (1941)
What Is It?: Writer Curt Siodmak, director George Waggner, and makeup wizard Jack Pierce reinvent the werewolf. Much of what we now associate with lycanthropes—their aversion to silver, their association with the pentagram, their kinship with gypsies—leaped from Siodmak’s imagination. He also composed an ace nursery rhyme repeated infinitely throughout The Wolf Man and its sequels (“Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night / may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright”). The film’s other great innovation is the introduction of Lon Chaney, Jr., as the next successor in his father’s monster-movie-star legacy.
Why Today?: Today is the first day of autumn.
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
The Movie: Carrie (1976)
What Is It?: Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Carrie is one of the best Stephen King (and De Palma) films because the story is focused with a relatable, emotionally resonant lead character. King and De Palma’s often-painful look at adolescence, and its disturbing, misfit wish-fulfillment finale, are offset by humor that while occasionally too silly for its own good (the sped-up tuxedo-modeling sequence), gives the film the flavor of an E.C. Comic.
Why Today?: On this day in 1947, Stephen King is born.
Tuesday, September 20, 2016
The Movie: Stepford Wives (1975)
What Is It?: Despite being the creation of men, The Stepford Wives treads where no horror film had before and few have since: feminism. Katherine Ross is a young wife and mother with ambitions of becoming a photographer who “messed a little with women’s lib” while living in New York City. Now she and the family have moved to the pre-fab community of Stepford, Connecticut, where she is surrounded by submissive wives and husbands who gather to collude in the mysterious Stepford Men’s Association. Finding a likeminded ally in neighbor Paula Prentiss, Ross scratches through Stepford’s veneer and is horrified by what she discovers. Although its title wives have entered the vernacular as shorthand for subservient women, The Stepford Wives does not receive the attention it deserves as one of the sharpest films of its day.
Why Today?: Today is Wife Appreciation Day—think of today’s movie as a lesson in what not to do today.
Monday, September 19, 2016
Star Wars so saturated late twentieth-century culture that it’s kind of amazing to realize that only four movies were released between 1977 and 1999. Fortunately, there were plenty of other Star Wars items to fill the vast gaps between movies: toys and games and comics and novels and cartoons and blatant rip-off movies and theme park rides and tape dispensers. Originally published in 2010 and updated two years later, Star Wars Year by Year: A Visual History managed to plug relevant events into nearly every month of every year from George Lucas’s conception of Star Wars in 1973 to the present when that property had assuredly recaptured entertainment following the prequels, The Clone Wars, and a new rash of toys, comics, games, and presumably, tape dispensers.
Aside from being a visual candy store of Star Wars-related images that include abundant merchandise, movie outtakes, posters, behind-the-scenes shots, and costumes (the full-page shots of Klaatu and Admiral Ackbar’s masks make me wonder how a full book of Star Wars masks hasn’t been published yet), Year by Year also served as an effective general pop culture timeline of the period it covers since so many pop cultural items can be traced back to Star Wars, and a reminder that the movies have always been just one component of Lucas’s fantasyland. As kids, we watched the movies once or twice or three times in theaters, but it was all that other stuff that really wrapped our childhoods in Star Wars.
A lot of contemporary kids are having very similar experiences, as Star Wars is arguably at its all-time saturation point with the latest cinematic trilogy and cartoon and merchandise, as well as the new addition of stand-alone movies. Since this latest Star Wars era has really only just begun, DK publishing may be jumping the blaster a bit by publishing an updated and expanded edition of Year by Year already, especially considering that Rogue One is a mere three months away. I guess there’s no ideal time to refurbish the book since Disney seems like it’s going to keep pumping out new entries for many, many years to come. The thirty new pages covering The Force Awakens, Rebels, and only very, very teasingly, Rogue One may not be enough to entice old fans to repurchase Year by Year, but new ones who don’t already have it should really enjoy this lovingly illustrated and designed, slip-cased volume.
The text reveals neat tidbits, such as story discrepancies between the Marvel comic and the novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and Jimmy Carter’s hosting of an Empire Strikes Back screening for China’s Vice Premier Geng Biao. My one knock is that like all officially sanctioned Star Wars books, it is too reverent. A healthy helping of cheeky humor would have made the reading more entertaining while still being very appropriate to a timeline peppered with such zany episodes as Carrie Fisher’s appearance on Saturday Night Live, Mark Hamill on The Muppet Show, the Ewoks movies, the MAD Magazine parodies, Hardware Wars, Under the Rainbow, Howard the Duck, Jar Jar Binks, and the holiday special. In fact, the one-page tribute to the special doesn’t even mention how loathed it is by critics, fans, and George Lucas, himself… a fact pretty essential to its place in Star Wars history and why it was so hard to see before the YouTube age. However, even dry writing cannot tamp down the fun of this visual history.
The Movie: Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
What Is It?: 45 years on from Beatlemania’s initial intensity, Magical Mystery Tour plays surprisingly well. It is, as the critics charged, indulgent, but that can be forgiven at a tight little 53 minutes well divided by six Beatle tunes. There’s no story to speak of, and the tour isn’t particularly magical or mysterious, but it’s hard to get bored, what with Victor Spinetti’s babbling sergeant, The Bonzo Dog Doodah Band’s uproarious performance of “Death Cab for Cutie”, John Lennon’s (disgustingly overcooked) spaghetti serving, Jessie Robins’s scene-stealing bickering with Nephew Ringo, and the precious opportunity to spend some time with the Fabs in their Sgt. Pepper’s-era psychedelic splendor.
Why Today?: On this day in 1967, The Beatles began filming the “I Am the Walrus” and “Blue Jay Way” sequences.
Sunday, September 18, 2016
The Movie: Serial Mom (1994)
What Is It?: John Waters does one of his “mainstream” movies, and it involves Kathleen Turner making obscene phone calls and executing everyone who commits a social faux pas, serial-killer obsessed Matthew Lillard whacking off to porn, small roles for former porn-star Traci Lord and former con Patty Hearst, and L7 as a band called Camel Toe that performs while emphasizing their…well, I think you can figure that out for yourself. Family fun for everyone who fell in love with Hairspray!
Why Today?: On this day in 1975, Patty Hearst is arrested.
Saturday, September 17, 2016
The Movie: Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988)
What Is It?: The plot is about as insubstantial as Elvira’s wardrobe, but she keeps the movie rolling with her constant stream of Mae West/Borscht Belt one-liners and director James Signorelli does a pretty good Tim-Burton-on-a-tight-budget routine. Sure, the movie stifles once it gets to its one-millionth boob joke and the stupid pseudo-apocalyptic battle at the end, but most of Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is really entertaining. The church cook-out-turned-orgy scene really gives Edie McClurg a chance to shine.
Why Today?: On this day in 1951, Cassandra Peterson is born.
Friday, September 16, 2016
For a long period of the blu-ray age, being a Region A Hammer Horror fan was very frustrating. The most vivid hunks of monstrous comfort food were sparse in the U.S. despite being abundant in a number of other regions. That began to change last year with Warner Brothers’ release of The Mummy, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Since then, other companies have started serving famished fans such titles as Twilight Time’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, Universal’s Hammer Horror 8-Film Collection, and Mill Creek’s double features of The Revenge of Frankenstein/The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll/Gorgon (blu-ray upgrades of DVD sets originally released in 2008).
Because all of these different companies have different business models, the presentations have been a mixed bag. Variations in picture quality can be pretty wild even among a single company’s releases. This is certainly true of Mill Creek’s new double features, which range from a pleasingly detailed and saturated presentation of Terence Fisher’s Gothic rainbow The Gorgon to the dim and dull, worn and torn presentation of his Revenge of Frankenstein. The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll fall somewhere in the middle. Curse easily beats Two Faces for grain and detail, but Two Faces is much cleaner and brighter than the intermittently scratchy, speckled Curse.
Still, we must keep the Mill Creek model in mind. The company produces no-frills discs on a serious budget, and these new sets have been available for as little as $8.99—just $4.50 per film. Compare that to Twilight Time’s $29.99 tag for Baskervilles, which reportedly does not boast an image much better than that of Mill Creek’s Gorgon. So while Mill Creek does not offer perfectly restored presentations of films that depend a lot on how they look, they are at least very affordable, and very watchable, making it a lot easier for Region A’ers to build our Hammer blu-ray collections than it was just one year ago.
As for the films, it is heartening that the best one in the bunch is also the one that looks the best. Owing almost nothing to Greek mythology, The Gorgon is really a riff on Universal’s Wolf Man with a person doomed to transform into a monster under the full moon, and Fisher’s colorful, leaf-swept visuals make this an enchanting experience. Plus The Gorgon is the only movie in the bunch to star Hammer’s two key faces, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if the rubber-snake makeup is crucial to the film’s schlocky charm or simply lame.
Its disc-mate, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, is the worst in the bunch, a gobbledygook variation on R.L. Stevenson’s deathless tale that leans too hard on an unsatisfying gimmick. The usual appearances are reversed with Dr. Jekyll being the ugly one and Hyde being the beauty. It’s a fine enough comment on the blandness of evil, but a drag as a monster movie. Give me Mamoulian’s definitive classic in hi-def before I turn into a monster!
On the other Double Feature, Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb is your usual business about tomb-desecrating capitalists getting their supernatural comeuppance from an ancient Egyptian curse. The minimal mummy time makes the majority of it play more like a thriller than a monster movie, but the final half hour is effectively gruesome and the jolly, satirical spirit makes the whole thing fun. Fred Clark is hilarious as a blowhard wannabe Carl Denham.
Revenge of Frankenstein is even better. Picking up right where The Curse of Frankenstein left off, Dr. Frankenstein eludes the guillotine to continue his mad experiments under the uproariously lazy pseudonym of “Dr. Stein.” Peter Cushing reclaims the role with an extra dose of camp that spreads to the rest of the cast quicker than the clap. Jimmy Sangster’s script swells with droll witticisms. Delicious.
The Movie: The Stepfather (1987)
What Is It?: Smack dab in the decade dominated by disposable slasher movies came a nut-with-a-knife flick that reached back to the psychologically complex films that inspired the genre. The Stepfather has far more in common with Psycho, Peeping Tom, and Repulsion, than Friday the 13th or Prom Night, and its quality has earned it a cult following that really deserves to be broader. Based on a true story, The Stepfather stars Terry O’Quinn as a deranged chameleon constantly on the look out for a new family to fulfill his perfect-Daddy fantasies. At its core, The Stepfather is a satire of conservative American ideals of the flag-waving, sweater-vest-and-pearls wearing nuclear family (the script was written during the Nixon era and filmed during Reagan’s reign), but it’s never jokey or goofy.
Why Today?: Today is Step Family Day.