It’s a reasonable argument that all the great screen Mawnsters of film history — your Draculas, your Wolf-and-Cat People, your King Kongs and your Creations of Dr. Frankenstein — are not simply “misunderstood,” but destroyed for the very reasons that make them beautiful.
For most of them, especially in the days when Mawnsters didn’t so much kill people as just look at them out of the movie screen with their hands or paws raised in a vaguely defensive pose, their only real crime was in Daring to be Daring — for rejecting the bland, and for being (much) more interesting than anyone else in the movie. If there’s one thing that angry villagers can’t stand, it’s people who have the temerity to reject the villager’s life of quiet desperation and instead color outside the lines, with all their innate individuality and talents on display for the world to see… the ones who choose Live Large in a world of pygmies.
Because God Forbid anyone should be Different. God forbid anyone should reject the Status Quo, and live a bright, burning life as a Magnificent Mawnsteh! Quick, John-Boy, light the torches! We have one of those pesky individuals to burn.
That began to change in the early-to-mid 1940’s, when Hitler and WWII had finally impressed upon audiences that the real monsters were not the ones who just needed a haircut or who happened to have bolts plunged into their necks, but were instead people just like themselves. In the movies of the ‘40s that I’ve been watching this Halloween season, the monsters (they don’t deserve to be called “Mawnstehs”) are altogether commonplace.
Queen of Spades, a British thriller from 1949 starring Anton Walbrook and Dame Edith Evans in her first screen role, does have a supernatural element… but it’s less in the way of a horror movie and more a cautionary tale with some chilling bits. Nonetheless, the chilling bits are genuinely chilling, as Walbrook frightens an old lady to death in his attempt to wrest from her the secrets of gambling with cards. Later, her spirit comes to call on him in his lonely garrett — bearing a gift that we all know he shouldn’t ought to take. This being the era of human monsters (that is, common people who give in to their lowest, darkest instincts), he of course ignores common sense and charges blindly and happily to his doom. It’s all done with shadows and candles and snow and dark passageways. To twist the old joke, when you look up the word “atmospheric” in the dictionary, Queen of Spades is the definition.
In at least two of the classic chillers that Boris Karloff did with Val Lewton, there is nary a Conventional Monster in sight. Isle of The Dead presents us at first with a standard “quarantine” drama in which a group of people are stranded together in a place from which the only escape may be death. Death Himself is present from the opening frames of the film, and dogs the characters (there are no heroes) throughout. Karloff not only lends it gravitas, but leads us on; his character resides in the dark of human experience. But the real monster in Isle of The Dead is simply these: Superstition and Ignorance. It’s because of these that something horrible, something not at all supernatural, happens to a character that we had previously dismissed as insignificant: and from there on the final ten minutes of the picture become a Shakespearian drama of Fate playing out in the most horrible of ways. Isle of The Dead teases and sets us up for its entire first hour, and just when you’re starting to nod off it delivers a single shock of the first magnitude, after which all you can do is watch helplessly.
Bedlam is even more terrifying: because it’s real, and because it could still happen today. Karloff plays the apothecary general of a notorious London madhouse, whose cruelty towards the inmates is only exceeded by his greed, and the obsequious subservience he displays to his Tory patrons. Since the story is all about a moral and philosophical awakening, we begin with Anna Lee in a decidedly anti-heroine role, as the protege (more than somewhat arrogant herself) of a fat Tory lout. But when she objects to the treatment of the asylum’s inmates (and, more specifically, when she clouts Karloff across the face with a riding crop, a sin for which you know very well that she will not be forgiven) — you guessed it, Karloff pulls a few strings, and his rich patrons see to it that she is herself committed into the asylum — and into Karloff’s waiting hands.
This is the single scariest thing about the picture: you know that this happened all the time, and you know that it still happens all the time. Stand up for what’s right, make a nuisance of yourself to the wrong Rich People, and see how fast you’re put away in a dark place where no one will ever hear from you again.
We still live in a world where people can be spirited away for no good reason… where people can have their property and even their children taken away from them; where they can be murdered by the police just for having the wrong skin color, or for standing on their rights. Here indeed are the monsters that are more terrifying than any werewolf, any vampire, any Frankenstein’s creature: here are the brainless Angry Villagers who have been empowered by the wealthy to enforce the Status Quo. Reject the principles of enslavement, color outside the lines… and watch how fast they light the torches.
I had a dream about the old house last week. My mother and her brother (my Uncle John) drove me out there in the dead of night, and I broke in through the back way. It turned out that I had left things there, and I needed to collect them and save them. There were things from my mother’s collection that the auctioneers had somehow passed over, and that I hadn’t had the time to take. I went through the whole house in the dark, grabbing up loads of my mother’s past and mine as well. I made trip after trip out to the car, filling up the back seat. My mother and Uncle John just sat in the car beside each other while I worked. I didn’t like the way that they looked at me.
Before he moved out West, shortly after the funeral gathering for my brother-in-law that I did not attend, my father passed on the news that the new owners of the family house out in Albion were going to tear it down.
He said that the big barn was already gone. This is the main reason why I could not bring myself to attend my sister’s husband’s service: their house is just a quarter mile or so and around a corner from the Old House, and I can’t bear to ever go out to Albion again, not for anyone, not for any reason. It’s done, it’s done. It’s done.
But still the news made me so sad, just made me shake my head. Sure, the old place needed work, but it was basically sound; and more than that it was a grand rambling house with so much potential, so much that could have been revived. It needed a new roof, mainly… replacing this with the original cedar shakes would have been unimaginably expensive, but a metal roof could have been put on the place quite economically, and I’m no longer as opposed to metal roofs as I used to be. For one thing, the snow slides off!
Once that was done, there were a handful of interior walls that needed repair, but I see this done all the time on the plethora of home remodeling shows that are all over TV these days. Take the opportunity while you’re doing it to re-insulate with modern materials, it could have been the grandest house once again.
But they waited too long. The roof needed to be done ASAP, and in the four years that they’ve owned the place they did nothing. And when, in a strange mood, I looked at the most recent satellite pictures of the house from above, I saw that the roof had fallen in over the bedroom right next to mine… there it was, a big, gaping hole in the roof.
I feel now more than ever that somehow, some way, my mother was the glue holding the old place together. As soon as she died, so did the house begin to die. I wrote about all this four years ago here on the blog, so I won’t rehash it here.
The house needed the new owners to be saviors. Instead, they spent all their efforts cutting down every single tree and bush around the place so that it looked like it was sitting in the middle of the Sahara. And now it’s too late for them. For it. For the place.
All of this has been on my mind lately, not because I’m unhappy in my current place (which is the opposite of true: every single day I thank my lucky stars for my current home, and especially for the way it has embraced all of the past history that I brought to it; I am so very lucky) but because I do believe that houses have spirits; and the news that my Dad gave me felt like another Death Knell in the family. The Old House was my home for more than thirty-five years. Now it’s going — perhaps it has already gone as I type this.
The Google Earth pictures were bad enough: looking at them I felt the way people in wars must feel when their homes get bombed into rubble. I didn’t dwell on them long. I know that I could never go back out there again. It’s why I couldn’t go to my brother-in-law’s service.
And yet there is a perverse part of me that is a little bit glad that no one will ever live in that house again. We were the last. It served us well, just exactly as long as it needed to.
I have to confess, my Halloween viewing has been pretty danged dreary so far this year; and it’s been full of reversals. Well, a guy can change his mind, right? I started with a few Universal programmers from the ‘forties, of which the ones I liked best were the ones I remembered liking the least. It just goes to show, I suppose, that low expectations can go a long way. I particularly enjoyed a B horror/comedy called Horror Island, with Dick Foran starring and Leo Carillo in a colorful role as an ex-pirate. Carillo was one of those steady supporting players who was really, really good at doing what he was good at: providing the color, much of the charm, and the comedy relief. The picture is a complete toss off intended as filler for a double bill… not even remotely scary and only a little bit funny, but I did find it enjoyable this time, strangely.
Of course King Kong is still the monster of all monsters; still a great picture with hardly a frame of wasted footage, and a picture that in no way needed to be remade by anyone… much less turned into the ponderous, overbearing sap-fest that is Peter Jackson’s version. But Mystery of The Wax Museum, made that same year and starring Kong’s leading lady, Fay Wray? I had fond memories of this… only to fall asleep on it last night. It’s good bits are still very, very good indeed (and the final revelation of the villain remains the best and most effective unveiling of any criminal mastermind, bar none, as Fay pounds Lionel Atwill’s face in self-defense) … but the good bits are so far between: after an arresting opening the thing descends into a very ordinary procedural headed by a very uninteresting Gal Reporter. Fay isn’t introduced until almost halfway through, and then the director doesn’t know how to photograph her to best advantage. Atwill is marvelous when we see him, but we don’t see enough of him. When this was remade as House of Wax nearly three decades later, the procedural was dumped and the filmmakers wisely did not fall into the trap that Mystery does of revealing the monster’s face early and often. I can’t say House of Wax is a better movie but — in all but that one single scene, that one single shot of Atwill’s face cracking and breaking under Miss Wray’s blows — it is smarter.
Probably the biggest reversal of all was the movie version of Todd MacFarlaine’s comic series Spawn. The first time I saw this a couple of years ago, I thought it was harmless, goofy fun, with lots of well-designed demons filling the screen and lots of action.
What the hell was I thinking? Was I drunk? Ehhhh, could be. This is one of the worst funnybook movies I’ve ever seen, and I have seen some stinkers! Poor John Leguzamo mugs underneath literally piles of make-up; meanwhile, Martin Sheen gives hands-down the worst performance of his career (actually embarrassing to watch), Nicol Williamson phones it in and collects his check, and the hero never ever seems to put the mask on to cover his ugly face. Mix it up with an old, old revenge motivation, a really cringingly painful script and direction from poverty row… and I feel asleep on this load of crap, too.
Honestly, for this and other reasons, this Halloween viewing season has been mostly disappointing. Who in hell is the damn programming director? Oh, wait… that would be me.
I thought that I had my annual Halloween playlist carved in stone a couple of weeks ago… but instead I have been tinkering with it to no end. I like the songs to have variety and to contrast with each other in both tone and style, and I like the transitions to be as seamless as possible, and the list this year just wasn’t gelling for me. I have been distracted most all of the year, and the last month has been especially, ehm, “diverting.”
But at last, with a little more work just this morning, I think I have the coffin lid nailed down on this puppy. At last — at last — I am able to present my annual Halloween playlist for 2014.
This year I’m going to make you an offer. Some folks have wondered where to find these cuts, and you know, the thing is you find them everywhere and I’ve been kicking around a fairly long while now. A handful of my closest friends will get copies of this list on CD, but I obviously can’t include every Bela, Boris and Morticia on the distribution list. However — if you want to send me a blank CD and a self-addressed return envelope with sufficient return postage already affixed, I’ll be happy to burn you a copy of this year’s list. Include three CDs if you want the lists for all three years that I’ve been doing this. Click on the “Contact the Duckmeister” link in the sidebar and shoot me an email if you’re interested.
And without further ado, let’s draw back the moth-eaten curtain on this year’s sampling of music for the only worthwhile Holiday Season!
1) Emilie Autumn is a recent discovery for me… but instead of her music, I open the playlist with an evokative spoken-word piece of hers called “Words From The Asylum.” It makes for an arresting opening… the more so because this girl really is crazy (I mean that in the Nicest Possible Way… she’s one of My People) and the piece is only slightly fictional.
2) So far, I haven’t been able to resist using a cut from The Birthday Massacre somewhere on the list. They add a purple bite. This year’s entry is “Falling Down,” from their album Walking With Strangers.
3) Heaven help me, I actually love a group called Adrian H and The Wounds. I’ve got both of their albums. Adrian himself has a voice like sandpaper and the group takes advantage of it. “Murder In the Forest” from their self-titled second album is one of their absolute best: a clunky, noisy, broken-down truck of a song.
4) Arch Obler, the great Horror Impresario of Old-Time Radio, creator of Lights Out, is up next with a cut from his LP Drop Dead. It’s a remarkably efficient (and also very funny) example of gross-out horror called “I’m Hungry”… and I don’t know who the actor is, but he gives the best bang-on impression of Peter Lorre ever, bar none.
5) The Hi-De-Ho Man, Cab Calloway is back on the list this year with an early version of “The Saint James Infirmary Blues,” one of his signature songs and kind of an obvious choice, really…
6) How I managed to leave that crazy Screamin’ Jay Hawkins off of last year’s list is beyond me… but he’s back this year with “Frenzy,” — a song that I first heard when it was used in the X-Files episode, “Humbug.” It is Pure Crazy and wonderful.
7) I always try to include a classical piece and this year’s selection is more whimsical and evocative than scary: “Aquarium,” from Saint-Seans “Carnival of the Animals.”
8) From Sopor Aeternus and the Ensemble of Shadows I needed something short that also was representative of his/hers/its inherent gruesome weirdness. “The Dog Burial” certainly fits the bill.
9) Making her debut appearance (but not her last) on these playlists, Blues Diva Besse Smith serves up her “Graveyard Dream Blues,” from the two-record set, Any Woman's Blues, that I inherited from my buddy Bruce Canwell (he of the great Library of American Comics) when he made vinyl a thing of the past in his music collection.
10 and 11) Next up are two cuts from a long-defunct jazz ensemble known as The West Coast Workshop. They’re from The Wizard of Oz, an album from the late ‘60s that uses Harold Arlen tunes as a jumping off point for the most amazing modern jazz riffs. “The Dowser and the Thaumaturgist” is both eerie and wistful (two good qualities for All Hallow’s Eve), while “Ozwind” starts out almost painfully nostalgic before going full-out mystical and spooky. I’ve written about this album elsewhere on the blog. Great stuff!
12) After a one-year absence from the list, Bobby “Boris” Picket and the Crypt Kickers are back — not, as you might expect, with their hit “The Monster Mash,” but with an even funnier piece that led off side two of their only album, “Me and My Mummy.”
13) … which is the perfect lead-in to a selection from Tales of The Frightened, a spoken-word story of love from the other side, told by the genuine Boris Karloff!
14) The only problem I have with “Flood II” as a blood-pumping mood piece is that it runs six minutes, which is about two minutes too long. Still, it makes for a good contrast to the last few cuts. It’s by The Sisters of Mercy (who are all men) from their album Floodland.
15) Nox Arcana’s albums are all largely of a piece, and any one of them will do for the season. From their Poe-inspired album Shadows of the Raven, I selected “Melancholia.” The music certainly captures the spirit of the title, and I imagine Morticia Addams’s melancholic sister Ophelia sitting beside an old gramophone, cuddling her lilies, with this piece playing.
16) 2014 was the year I officially “discovered” the musical sub-sub-genre Gothabilly… here, from a group called The Spectres, I offer “Blooduckin’ Cowboy.” It’s from a Skull Records “sampler” album called Gothabilly Razin’ Hell.
17) Johnny Cash joins the list this year with a song I can’t listen to without tears: “Wayfaring Stranger.”
18) And again for a change of mood (because we need one after the seriousness of Cash’s cut) here’s the head-banging, pulse-pounding metal group Halestorm with a little number from their album The Strange Case Of… called “Love Bites — And So Do I.”
19) While your head is still pounding from that baby, you’ll appreciate the much more soulful Loreena McKinnett with her soft, melancholy, seasonal ballad “Samhain Night.”
20) Almost there: Just for fun, Inkubus Sukkubus is back with one of their more whimsical cuts, “Goblin Jig.”
21) And I wind it all up by going all serious on you again, as Folk legend Ola Belle Reed regales us with her unique Southern Gothic style in “My Epitaph.” Don’t bring me flowers after I’m dead!
And we’re out of here! I’m tired of typing and my head is ringing. See you in the graveyard!