Pop Culture Gadabout
Friday, November 03, 2006
      ( 11/03/2006 03:56:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"IT'S A LEGAL DEFENSE FOR HOMICIDE – THE WIND!" – Caught the opening entry of this season's Masters of Horror: Tobe Hooper's filming of Richard Christian Matheson's elaborate modernization of the Ambrose Bierce classic, "The Damned Thing." I was pretty harsh on Hooper's first season offering (also done in collaboration with Matheson), but this 'un was much closer to the mark. The story of a cursed Texas town that is revisited by a malevolent force which drives the townspeople into a murderous/suicidal frenzy, Hooper's entry shows he hasn't entirely forgotten how to build suspense and not incidentally wallop the viewer with a shocking moment or two. A few bobbled bits – a scene where the story's doofus deputy (Brendan Fletcher) rushes into a church confessional in the midst of all the chaos stands out – but the central piece surrounding town sheriff Sean Patrick Flanery (who as a boy survived an earlier visitation) is strong.

Flanery's Sheriff Reddle, traumatized by the memory of his father being eviscerated by an invisible creature, is the story glue here – and he's quite fine as the hard-drinking paranoid who dreads the doom he knows is about to return to his town. There's a moment near the end that plays off Night of the Living Dead quite effectively: Reddle, visited by a group of panicky townspeople desperate to be protected from their neighbors and friends, sends them in the basement where he then proceeds to lock them in. His wife and son are upstairs, and we know that any one of them could suddenly turn violent without any warning. A flash of doubt/guilt goes across Reddle's face as he listens to his neighbors in the basement. He moves to the door to unlock it, begins to do so, then backs away, leaving them trapped beneath the house. A classic case of Damned-If-You-Do-Or-Don't: one of the central tenets of modern horror . . .
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      ( 11/03/2006 08:19:00 AM ) Bill S.  

MUST BE THE MIGRAINES – Is it me or is C.S.I. coming across really pissed-off and crotchety this season?
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Thursday, November 02, 2006
      ( 11/02/2006 02:40:00 PM ) Bill S.  

DAG – Proving that he'll watch nearly anything in the pursuit of the occasional comic nugget, Aaron Neathery sits through all 28 of the Blondie Columbia features and writes to tell about it. The Blondie flicks were, like the Bowery Boys features, fare that often showed up in low-traffic timeslots on local teevee stations during my wasted youth. Remember catching a few back in the day, but I can't say they were especially memorable but for the presence of Penny Singleton, already cemented in my Boomer brain as the voice of Jane Jetson. Still, Aaron's piqued my curiosity about the series' big musical entry, Blondie Goes Latin, wherein, "The Bumsteads sing . . . dance . . . and make the wild waves wilder . . ." Yeah, when I think Latin Passion, I think Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead . . .
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Wednesday, November 01, 2006
      ( 11/01/2006 03:33:00 PM ) Bill S.  

HEADY STUFF – Had a strange disconnected feeling watching last night's Boston Legal: most specifically related to its resolution of the ongoing Michael J. Fox plotline. Playing a billionaire dying from lung cancer, Fox's Daniel Post had disappeared after several guest shots earlier in the season – only to have his lady lawyer spouse Denise (Julie Bowen) learn last night that he died during a risky lung transplant. One of the subplots to BL's Halloween ep, then, involved Denise's attempts at tracking down her late husband's body – which had been chopped up and shipped all over the country by organ thieves – ultimately winding up in a New England Haunted House where Danny Boy's head had been put on display as part of the horrors. Far fetched? Decidedly – and the moment where Bowen and co-star Candace Bergen discover the head, shrieking in each other's faces like they were trying out for the sequel to 1941, totally sunk it.

And, yet, considering the flap that has flown around Fox's recent political appearances in favor of stem cell research, that part of me which regularly has difficulty differentiating reality and really dumb television kept blurring together. One of the plot points surrounding Daniel's character has been his willingness to try anything – no matter how ethically dubious – to fight his cancer. Bergen's sniping brings this point home at one point, noting the irony of a man who was willing to buy another man's lung ultimately being scavenged by organ thieves. "Good thing they didn't show the character's actual severed head," I thought, imagining it showing up on any number of poli-websites today as a cautionary warning on what happens when you Push the Bounds of Medical Science Too Far . . .
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      ( 11/01/2006 10:53:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"JUST LOOK UP . . . AT A SKY OF POSSIBILITIES . . ." – It doesn't take long for Tom Dare's grim plight to reveal itself: after a few small symptoms (a moment of stiffness as he attempts to play keyboards at a House of Blues concert, a certain grayness on one of his fingernails), it quickly becomes apparent that Thomas is inexplicably turning to stone. It's a malady he apparently inherited from his father, and it's seemingly incurable. All that he (and we) can do is watch as the poor guy transforms into a statue.

As dramatized by Joe Casey & Charlie Adlard in the new graphic novel, Rock Bottom (AiT/Planet Lar), Dare's tale is a dark one that at first put me in mind of Stephen King's Thinner. In both horror tales, a flawed common guy is suddenly forced to deal with an accelerating physical change that'll ultimately destroy him. But where King's diminishing protagonist spent most of his book denying his personal responsibilities, Dave is more honest with himself. An unfaithful husband, unwilling would-be father, he nonetheless manages to acquit himself with a surprise act of heroism that Ben Grim would recognize. (When we see an "artist's rendition" of our hero after his story hits the news, it even resembles Jack Kirby's earliest version of The Thing.) It's not enough to stave off the inevitable, but it does make him a national legend.

Casey's script is clear and straightforward, both pitiless in its acknowledgment of Dare's considerable failings and empathetic to his dilemma. The story's central irony – that the closer our hero gets to becoming a petrified statue, the more he discovers his humanity (in this, Dare's transmutation could be a stand-in for any number of debilitating diseases) – is an obvious one, but Casey resists the urge to belabor it. In this, he's abetted by Adlard's black-and-white art, which is surprisingly subdued in contrast to Adlard's heavily darkened inkwork for a previous collaboration with Casey, the Eisner-indebted Codeflesh.

Using fine pen lines with minimal shading, Adlard's panels all look as if they were lit by hospital fluorescents. For the first few pages of story, I have to admit the approach made my eyes slide across the page without taking much in. But once I got into it, Adlard's visual control of his characters held me. There are a lot of scenes of our hero sitting around either waiting to receive or receiving his worsening medical prognosis: Adlard keeps 'em interesting throughout. (A comparable moment set in an abortion clinic waiting room is especially fine.) As his work in the ongoing zombie survivalist series, The Walking Dead, shows, Adlard is fully capable of crafting good full-blown horror action scenes. Here, he proves himself even better at visualizing quiet horror, reflecting it through the distress of those around Thomas as they watch their friend or former lover ossify.

Really really fine storytelling, in sum, that'll linger long past many more flashy efforts. Even if it doesn't (unlike Casey's popcorn-y werewolves-in-space AiT GN, Full Moon Fever) attract the attention of the Hollywood optioners . . .
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Tuesday, October 31, 2006
      ( 10/31/2006 07:34:00 AM ) Bill S.  

PISSED & OBNOXIOUS – Any opportunity to watch Robbie Coltrane as Fitz, the thoroughly reprobate forensic psychologist, is worth taking, so I was pleased to see a new Cracker telemovie airing on BBC America last night, the first in – gads, has it been that long? – ten years. (Our hero, it appears, has been living in Australia for the last seven years.) Coltrane's Eddie Fitzgerald remains his compulsively watchable train wreck of a self, though the script, which attempts to update the traumatized returning Vietnam vet story to modern times, could've been a trace more subtle. (Scriptwriter Jimmy McGovern, also responsible for the movie Priest, clearly has a flare for the provocative.) The basic idea behind "A New Terror" – that a veteran of the never-ending conflicts in Northern Ireland (Anthony Flanagan) would be driven to murder through a combination of his own traumatic memories and a resentment toward the round-the-clock shift in news focus to 9-11 and Iraq – is a strong one. But the movie gave us a few too many sequences of nattering newsreel footage blending into our killer's flashbacks. (Okay, we got the point!) Still, Coltrane's such a treat as the badgering, probing Fitz (a major influence on Kyra Sedgwick's Brenda Johnson) that I hope it doesn't take another decade before we see him in the role again . . .
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      ( 10/31/2006 05:13:00 AM ) Bill S.  

HALLOWEEN TOONS – Missed posting a video yesterday, so here are two for Halloween. First up, one of the greatest musical 'toons ever: Cab Calloway (as a ghostly walrus or somp'n) singing "Minnie the Moocher" to Betty Boop:

Then, a Fleischer cartoon that totally freaked me out as a kid (and was put to good use in Joe Dante's Twilight Zone – The Movie segment), "Bimbo's Initiation":

Happy Samhain!
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Monday, October 30, 2006
      ( 10/30/2006 10:01:00 AM ) Bill S.  

B+ NEWS – Looks like recently ousted Village Voice pazz & jop critic Robert Christgau has landed at Salon (yeah, you've gotta click thru an ad) with a piece on the New York Gypsy Festival. Per Christgau's home page, he's also contracted to be a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and a music critic for NPR's "All Things Considered." No clear word yet on whether the indispensible "Consumer Guide" has found a new roost, however . . .
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Sunday, October 29, 2006
      ( 10/29/2006 12:08:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"THERE'S ONE BORN EVERY MINUTE, THAT WE KNOW!" – For today's creepy video, let's head to the Big Top for Cali pop-punkers the Dickies & the "Killer Klowns from Outer Space":

NOTE: For a Gadabout glance at the movie from whence this song came, click here.
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      ( 10/29/2006 07:54:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"MIGHT AS WELL HAVE STAYED IN BROOKLYN!" – Though typically thought of as a sequel to Universal's 1932 The Mummy (it's included as one of the five films in The Legacy Collection's two-disc Mummy DVD set), the 1940 The Mummy's Hand is really the start of its own separate four-flick series. Where the original Karl Freund-directed Mummy was a moody and evocative piece with more than a trace of Sax Rohmer-esque exotica (star Boris Karloff had just finished playing Rohmer's Fu Manchu), Hand is a more straightforward adventure yarn with a few fright scenes inserted. When I first saw this movie around the age of eight, the sight of Tom Tyler's stiff-legged mummy shambling through the woods still managed to scare the bejeebers out of me – but, as with Universal's House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula programmers, what began as genuinely creepy, reasonably adult fright fare had quickly devolved into matinee formula. With Drac and Frank, at least, you got some decent sequels (Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula's Daughter) before the descent into B-Pic predictability.

Still, Hand can be quick fun (clocking in at something like 64 minutes) on an October Saturday morning. Set in Egypt (later entries in the series quickly relocated the action to America), the story centers around the mummy Kharis, buried alive near the tomb of his forbidden love Princess Ananka, and the evil High Priest of Karnak (the ever smarmy George Zucco) sworn to protect both Kharis and Ananka's tombs from the intrusion of non-believers. Unlike Karloff's Im-Ho-Tep (also buried alive for his forbidden love – those early Egyptians were really a buncha stick-in-the-muds), Kharis is mute throughout the picture, his tongue having been torn out so that no one would hear his screams from the tomb. Considering that the monster is being played this time by an actor better know for B-westerns, it was probably a wise decision to keep him quiet. You really don't want your mummy evoking the Old West every time he speaks.

Zucco's high priest has his work cut out for him, though, thanx to the efforts of archeologist Steve Banning (Dick Foran, also the star of many an oater) and tagalong "Babe" Jenson (durable comic buddy actor Wallace Ford), who are on the trail of Princess Ananka’s tomb. Funded by professional magician Solvani (Cecil Kellaway) and his comely daughter Marta (Peggy Moran), the duo quickly make their way to the Hill of the Seven Jackals and discover Kharis' digs. Naturally, high priest Andoheb sets the mummy after 'em.

Hand was the first in the series to introduce the idea of tanna, the miraculous extinct leaves that keep Kharis alive and give him motion. Three leaves, we're told, are enough to jump-start his vitals; nine are sufficient to get the creature up and movin' (though not enough to give him full use of his limbs since he continues to walk 'round with a limp and only has one good arm); more will turn the mummy into a "soulless demon" of unmatched power. One of the biggest differences between forties era flicks like this and more moderne movie fare can be seen in this simple plot detail. In Hand, the movie ends when our plucky protagonists stop Kharis from ingesting too many tanna leaves – phew, the viewer thinks, that peril was averted! Nowadays, the audience is conditioned to expect a big CGI-enhanced blow-out – and would be cranky and disappointed if it didn't get to see Soulless Demon Kharis.

Still, if you can handle the big build-up without the spoon-fed pay-off, The Mummy's Hand has its own clunky charms. Ford is dependably fun playing the comic relief from Brooklyn, even if we never learn quite what it is that he brings to the partnership. Late in the flick, he shares a moment with Peggy Moran's Marta just before our hero Steve is about to leap into peril. "Kinda like to have him around, do ya?" he sez to the girl. "Me, too." But before we can dwell too long on this homoerotic subtext, the mummy shows up to kidnap Marta. More build-up without any pay-off.

Tyler's mummy (the character would be taken up by Lon Chaney Jr. in the next three entries) is suitably ooky in his periodic close-ups – an effect enhanced by post-production blacking out of his eyes and lips – even if he doesn't have much personality. (If the eyes are the window to the soul, then Kharis is a pretty vacant house.) Zucco is his usual melodramatically slithery self. There's a moment early in the film where, meeting our heroes for the first time in his guise as a museum director, his eyes start darting everywhere like Robert Walker in Strangers on A Train, and you can't imagine how Foran's Steve – or anybody else in Cairo for that matter – could believe a single word out of the guy's mouth. Zucco made a career playing such over-the-top types, and though we see his stunt double tumbling down a mountain side of stairs in Hand's climax, his character would show up for at least two more Mummy pics. True to type (because High Priest = Horny Guy: one more instance of Evil Hollywood's unending vendetta against good old-fashioned religion), Zucco's Andoheb lusts after Marta, ultimately plotting to make her his eternal love by strapping her onto an altar and sharing a dose of tanna leaves with her. "Is that three leaves or nine?" the audience wonders. "Surely not more!" But Andoheb, the bastard, never tells us.

NOTE: Found this comic adaptation of the movie that originally appeared, if memory serves, in one of the Warren monster movie magazines. Some nice Joe Orlando art, even if it gets a few small plot details wrong (e.g., the murdered sentry in the movie is a skinny Egyptian named Ali, not the mustachioed Europian we see here.) "Hand" scripter and monster maven Russ Jones has a site reprinting a slew of these old monster comics, along with an X-rated "Cherry Poptart" tale and a smutty Neil Gaiman scripted fable . . .
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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