Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review: 'It’s Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Movie Posters from the Kirk Hammett Collection'

In an age when lazily staged poses and perfunctorily photo-shopped images are regularly used to promote major motion pictures, it is halting to revisit the art once used to sell movies regarded as junk for the matinee crowd. Even films as chintzy as The Angry Red Planet and The Crawling Eye were hawked with striking graphics and paintings. Artworks for more prestigious pictures, such as Lionel Reiss’s bold art deco piece advertising The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and an uncredited work for The Invisible Man so haunting and striking and innately nightmarish that text was barely deemed necessary, are—no exaggeration— museum quality.

Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett has long recognized the artfulness, power, and fun of classic horror and sci-fi movie posters, amassing an impressive collection being exhibited in a show called It’s Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Movie Posters from the Kirk Hammett Collection at the Peabody Essex Museum in (appropriately enough) Salem, Massachusetts, and in a tie-in book of the same name.

The book combines oddities such as the aforementioned Caligari poster, Roland Coudon’s funeral procession tableaux for Frankenstein, and a Karoly Grosz Mummy poster that spotlights the film’s human cast members with a lot of more common promos for pictures such as Dracula’s Daughter, Barbarella, Mystery of the Wax Museum, and Island of Lost Souls. Hammett favors pre-sixties posters, though there is a scattering of later day ones for movies such as Alien, Rosemary’s Baby, Blacula, and of course, It’s Alive. It’s an impressive collection, though I cannot really comment on the posters’ representation in this book since I only received an extremely lo-res pdf for review purposes.

It’s Alive! also features a few interesting essays on the history and craft of horror promo posters, the fear reaction as explained through neuroscience and psychology, and Hammett’s own relationship with horror films and their adverts. Hammett is only quoted in that latter essay, so he generally allows his artworks to assume the starring role in this book. However, a shot of him grinning like a kid surrounded by his collection of other creepy toys, records, magazines, comics, models, and props really makes me wish this book had expanded its scope more beyond often familiar poster artwork to encompass the complete Kirk Hammett Horror Collection.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Farewell, George Romero

Without him, zombies would still be toiling on sugar plantations instead of swarming urban areas. George A. Romero reinvented the zombie in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead even though the "Z" world is never even whispered in its taut 96 minutes. Romero followed up on his pioneering big-screen-E.C. comic with such sequels as Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, solidifying his legacy as King of the Zombies, but his achievements hardly end with droves of flesh-eating undead. Romero also made vampires human and sympathetic with Martin, horror comics move and breathe with Creepshow, and killer monkeys campy fun with Monkey Shines. He was also the producer of the classic small-screen anthology series Tales from the Darkside and a charming, politically-sharp presence in such documentaries as Midnight Movies. Having died of lung cancer at the age of 77, George Romero's charming personality will be missed but his nerve-wracking film work--much like his favorite monsters-- won't stay dead.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Review: 'Blue Suede Shoes: The Culture of Elvis'

With a title and cover focusing on objects and a publisher specializing in photo books, Glitterati’s Blue Suede Shoes: The Culture of Elvis seems like it should be an eye-bursting collection of images of Elvis’s glitziest and gaudiest costumes and knick-knacks. There is some of that stuff with shots of Graceland’s outrageous interior and the King’s capes and jumpsuits, but the real purpose of this book is to share anecdotes from and images of people who knew Elvis both intimately and fleetingly.

A good deal of the stories are pretty superficial and tend to accentuate the positive. We get that Elvis was very generous, very down-to-earth despite the spangles and wall of TVs, and had a quirky penchant for roller-skating and practical jokes.  Only a scattering of anecdotes reveal more about the man beneath the pompadour, but these can be pretty revealing indeed. Ex-girlfriend Anita Wood remembers how Elvis’s mother’s casket had to be covered in glass “so Elvis wouldn’t be touching her all the time” and discussed his mother’s corpse in baby talk (“look at her little footies”), giving us a glimpse of a creepy side most other commentators avoid. Elvis’s personal stylist Larry Gellar tells an equally intimate though more touching tale about Elvis’s thirst for someone with whom to discuss his spirituality, his complex feelings over his twin brother’s death at birth, and his impoverished beginnings. This phase of Elvis’s life is also documented with stark images of his boyhood home. The decision to include the infamous Dr. Nick, who kept Elvis’s medicine cabinet a bit too well stocked and contributes an innocuous anecdote, might not have been the most well-considered one. Neither was the decision to end the book with a story that ends with Elvis apparently making some sort of racist joke.

But again, the main photographic focus is the faces of all the people who share their stories, and Thom Gilbert shoots this cast of characters in intense close ups. Because these people are in the later stages of their lives, and Gilbert makes no attempt to airbrush away the lines and white hairs (though Kim Novak, who contributes the foreword, is represented by a Vertigo-era head shot), his photos seem to tell their own tales of long-lived lives. The almost exaggerated smiles on a lot of these faces imply they’ve been happy ones, perhaps partially because they’d been touched by Elvis. Yet because Gilbert is more concerned with faces that do not belong to Elvis than memorabilia, I’m not sure how appealing the photographic aspect of this book will be to fans. Appreciators of bold portraiture may be the real audience for Blue Suede Shoes: The Culture of Elvis.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Review: 'The Monster Movies of Universal Studios'

When I was a Monster Kid, there was nothing I liked to check out from the school library better than books about classic horror movies. They gave you the basic rundown of what made flicks like Dracula and The Wolf Man so boss and delivered plenty of B&W photos to back it up. Today, works such as Gary D. Rhodes’s Tod Browning’s Dracula and David J. Skal’s The Monster Show take a more scholarly and/or critical look at the classics. The Monster Movies of Universal Studios falls somewhere between the kids and film criticism library shelves.

Author James L. Neibaur zips though the 29 movies he covers too swiftly for the book to qualify as scholarship, and his writing is simple enough for any Monster Kid to grasp (Neibaur is an Encyclopedia Britannica contributor, and his affectless writing would not be out of place in an encyclopedia), but he does make room in each roughly 5-to-10 page chapter to get into a bit of plot synopsis, a bit of criticism, and a bit of background history. For those of us who’ve consumed what’s already out there, chapters on well-examined films such as Dracula and The Wolf Man are redundant, but ones on items such as The Invisible Woman and The Mummy’s Tomb are fresher—if not exactly revelatory— and more likely to stimulate Neibaur’s critical side. That latter observation is not a sly criticism of Neibaur, since the Monster Kid in me appreciates his unabashed love of Dracula, a delightful film too often run down in contemporary criticism, and since analysis is not the author’s primary goal.

Neibaur limits his discussions to films that deal with the big six monsters of Universal (or Universale, as he repeatedly spells it for some reason) —Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and The Creature—which means that both Chaney and Rains’s Phantoms and Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde get left out of the chat, as do non-Monster horrors such as The Black Cat and The Old Dark House. So The Monster Movies of Universal Studios isn’t exactly the definitive book on the topic, but I bet some modern-day Monster Kids might still enjoy checking it out of their own school libraries.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Review: The Beach Boys' '1967—Sunshine Tomorrow'

1967 was a tough year for The Beach Boys. While their chief rivals The Beatles were dropping jaws with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Brian Wilson terminated his struggle to create SMiLE, an ambitious project that would have made Pepper’s sound like Please Please Me. Despite an invitation to perform at the taste-making Monterey Pop Festival, The Beach Boys pulled out, supposedly out of fear that they would look pathetically unhip sharing a stage with the likes of Hendrix, The Who, and Jefferson Airplane. Unable to follow up on the smash commercial and artistic success of “Good Vibrations” in 1966, our boys from Hawthorne seemed to be in a pretty grim way in ’67.

They didn’t give up though, and if The Beach Boys could not (or would not) keep up with pop’s rapid progress, they would at least keep working. In the waning months of this ignominious year, they managed to release two albums. While Smiley Smile was a pale shadow of the grand SMiLE, sounding more like the demos that might have proceeded that project than the ultimate result of it, it was at least weird enough to sound fairly contemporary. And along with the two monumental singles that anchor Smiley Smile —“Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains”—it has some pretty little sketches, such as the psychedelic doo-wop of “With Me Tonight” and the heavenly Hawaiian sojourn “Little Pad”.

The Beach Boys final album of ’67 was much stronger, eschewing weird psych trends for an earthy soul sound exemplified by the divine minor-hit “Darlin’”, the funky title track, and an unexpected yet terrific cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her”. Interestingly, though, the production continued to be as thin and underdeveloped as that of Smiley Smile despite the density soul demands. The thinness was particularly odd considering that Wild Honey was only mixed in mono.

To commemorate its fiftieth anniversary, Wild Honey has received its first stereo mix, and this new presentation is the centerpiece of a double-disc set called 1967—Sunshine Tomorrow. While mono has always been the ideal Beach Boys format, the new stereo mix of Wild Honey actually sounds fuller than the mono original, pumping bass sounds to richer levels without allowing them to distort or overwhelm. Clarity is incredible, and details such as the warm backing vocals on “Wild Honey” and previously buried horn lines on “Aren’t You Glad” and “Darlin’” flower out of the mix. This new mix might even turn a really good Beach Boys album into a great one.

Since Smiley Smile has always been available in stereo, it is not as spotlighted as the album that followed it on Sunshine Tomorrow, though session highlights of both albums are included. Smiley Smile is represented by such items as a whistling version of “Vegetables” extended by a minute, a gorgeous tag recorded for “Wind Chimes”, and a more forceful alternate snatch of “With Me Tonight”. However, Wild Honey remains the focus of this set, and its outtakes and session highlights are more revelatory. There’s a cool outtake previously issued on the Hawthorne, CA CD called “Lonely Days”, an alternate version of “I Was Made to Love Her” with a wild a capella coda, and sessions that spotlight such odd elements as the Theremin in “Wild Honey” and what sounds like the mutant offspring of a tack piano and a ukulele on “Aren’t You Glad”. A Wild Honey-era demo of “Surf’s Up” that finds Brian performing his masterwork alone on piano in his home was previously issued at the end of the first disc of The SMiLE Sessions but it includes an extra minute and a half of talk and false starts leading into the performance here. A nice thing all these sessions reveal is that despite the crushing blow of seeing SMiLE aborted and the dropping popularity of his band, Brian Wilson had not yet checked out in late 1967. In fact, he still sounds very much in charge and creatively juiced as he runs the Smiley Smile and Wild Honey sessions.

Although The Beach Boys passed on Monterey, they continued their roadwork in 1967, and the stage aspect of their career is also very well represented on 1967—Sunshine Tomorrow. The unreleased live album Lei’d in Hawaii leads the way with its first official release (though “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Barbara Ann”, a couple of songs associated with that scrapped project, are absent), and the quality is excellent. Rehearsals from these shows basically amount to clean, studio versions of “With a Little Help from my Friends”, The Box Tops’ “The Letter”, and Wayne Fontana’s “Game of Love”, all rendered in the sparse, organ-centric Smiley Smile style. The sound quality of four songs recorded in Honolulu is less impressive though it is historically significant since it marks Brian’s brief return to the stage.

Smiley Smile and Wild Honey may not be as timeless as Pet Sounds, but they are both tremendously interesting albums with a fair share of great tracks between them, and it’s very cool to see these oft-ignored albums get the attention they receive on 1967—Sunshine Tomorrow. Hopefully Friends, the album that really found The Beach Boys returning to form, will get similar treatment on its 50th Anniversary next year.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Review: Vinyl Reissue of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack'

John Williams has a reputation for creating unforgettable, rousing, and well, bombastic tunes, such as the themes to Star Wars, Superman, and E.T. However, he did not become Hollywood’s biggest soundtrack composer with bombast alone. Williams could also conjure pieces of elliptical beauty, such as the haunting five-note theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the rippling “End Credits” music from E.T. that recalls Saint-SaĆ«ns’s “Aquarium”.

The Raiders of the Lost Ark soundtrack recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra features some of Williams’s most famous big numbers, such as its adventure-drenched “Raiders March” and “The Desert Chase”, but subtler themes such as “In the Jungle” and “The Map Room”, as well as more mischievous ones such as “The Basket Game”, are what make it compelling listening even without images of Harrison Ford being dragged behind a truck. “The Miracle of the Ark”, which swells from the ghostly “Map Room” theme to a Bernard Hermann-esque nightmare of slashing notes, ranks with E.T.’s “End Credits” and “The Asteroid Field” from The Empire Strikes Back as one of Williams’s greatest artistic statements.

Concord Music is now reissuing the Raiders of the Lost Ark Original Motion Picture Soundtrack on a 180 gram vinyl double disc. This is the expanded edition released on CD in 2008 as opposed to the skimpy, 9-track single-LP from 1981 (though “The Desert Chase” appears in an edit one-minute shorter than that of the original release). Patricia Sullivan’s remaster is apparently the same digital one heard on the CD, but this new vinyl release still has the kind of clarity, depth, and detail you’d want from a soundtrack intended to rumble your theater seat during a whip-cracking matinee.
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