Monday, October 24, 2016

Monsterology: Monster Houses

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, we’ve been looking at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.

Welcome home! You’ve had a tough day digging ditches in some inhospitable mound of dirt or hacking away at a keyboard in an even less homey office cubicle. What you need now is to hang up your boots and settle into your lazy boy. Your home is your castle, your one bit of security and privacy in an increasingly insecure and inprivate world. It is so inprivate that we have to make up new words like “inprivate” to indicate how inprivate it is.

But wouldn’t it be a stone drag if you were settling in to relax in your sanctuary and the walls started bulging unnaturally or bleeding even more unnaturally? Wouldn’t it simply ruin your night if that thing you haven’t even finished paying the mortgage on yet sucked your precious little daughter into the electrical system or made you want to pick up an axe and chop up your precious little son?

Monsters come in all shapes, sizes, and smells, but one thing that unites the mass of them from werewolves to robots is that they somehow resemble organic beings. One of the few exceptions is the monstrous house. The fact that it has no arms or legs or teeth makes the monster house highly unusual and really very wrong (though not completely beyond anthropomorphization, as we shall see). The fact that a house is such a mundane thing, a thing intended to protect and comfort, makes it highly insidious, especially when it turns against the children who dwell in it, as it so often does.

First of all, we must distinguish the monster house from the haunted house. In a haunted house, the monster is some form of ghost. It may make the windows rattle or the chairs fall over, but that ghost is the central threat, not the place it chooses to haunt. That would be like blaming Dracula’s castle for the vampire’s poor behavior, which would be unfair to a perfectly fine castle. The nasty things a ghost does can be accomplished by any breathing, visible asshole. Ghosts or other such entities may be responsible for making a monster house monstrous, but a true monster house takes on a life of its own; it is the threat.

The first truly enduring monster house remains the definitive one. Published in 1839, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” largely passed over specifics to dwell on off putting descriptions of the title building. The unnamed narrator approaches the house, and it instantly casts its spell on him, bashing him with waves of depression and unease. He has not even interacted with its weird inhabitants before getting a very strong sense that the House of Usher is a bad place. He even emphasizes its inherent monstrousness by trying to describe it in anthropomorphic terms, noting its “vacant and eye-like windows.”

Is it the house that has seemingly poisoned Roderick and Madeline Usher, both of whom suffer from odd maladies such as Roderick’s intense aversion to sound and his sister’s general malaise and tendency to lapse into catatonic states? Is it responsible for the subtextual moral decay of the siblings, whose relationship may not be entirely platonic? As the narrator drifts through the foreboding house, it reacts violently to the presence of one who might uncover its strange and dirty secrets. It begins cracking in disapproval. When the ultimate abomination comes to light—Roderick’s premature burial of catatonic Madeline—the house has a total nervous breakdown. As the short story’s title spoils, the House of Usher falls—quite literally. The building collapses, claiming the poisoned siblings as its victims while the narrator manages to escape the domestic tomb. In a perversion of home security, the house would rather self-destruct than allow its familys ugly secrets come to life, even if that means wiping out the family in the process.

31 TV Shows for 31 Days of Halloween Season: Day 24

Series: Night Gallery

Episode: “Green Fingers/The Funeral/The Tune in Dan’s Cafe”, in which Cameron Mitchell is a sleazy industrialist who wants to build a factory on the property of gardening-enthusiast Elsa Lanchester. Mitchell would have probably backed off if he’d known just how effective the sweet, old lady’s green fingers are. “Green Fingers” soars with a macabre script by Rod Serling (based on R.C. Cook’s short story), creepy direction by John “Saturday Night Fever” Badham, the star of the greatest monster movie ever made, and an awesome tribute in Siouxsie and the Banshee’s “Green Fingers” (song not included in this episode). Our next painting is a morsel of fun silliness from Richard Matheson in which a vampire plans the funeral he never got a chance to have. The mourners look like the cast of The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t. Yay! The portrait at the end of our museum of miscreants depicts Susan Oliver and Pernell Roberts as a couple incessantly blabbing about their flailing marriage in a bar while the same crappy country song plays over and over on the juke box. Apparently, it was the song that was playing when another doomed couple was swept up in violence at the joint years ago. Despite some groovy psychedelic solarization effects and an elegantly filmed shoot out, this last tale is a whole lot of nothing. The other two are essential Halloween season viewing.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

31 TV Shows for 31 Days of Halloween Season: Day 23

Series: The Groovie Goolies

Episode: “Population Party”, in which The Groovie Goolies do the same things they do in every episode of The Groovie Goolies: crack corny jokes, spout catchphrases (“I needed that!”; “A-wa-roo-roo-roo!”), violate innumerable copyrights held by Laugh-In, look rad, and sing catchy bubblegum pop songs. This episode basically stands out because the songs “1-2-3” and “Population Party” are two of the series' catchiest.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

31 TV Shows for 31 Days of Halloween Season: Day 22

Series: Twilight Zone (1980s revival)

Episode: “The Shadow Man/The Uncle Devil Show/Opening Day”, in which the nerdy kid from “Charles in Charge” finds a bodyguard in a silhouetted boogie man that lives under his bed and ends up abusing that newfound power. The nightmare-stoking nocturnal appearances of the Shadow Man are what make Joe Dante’s segment unforgettable. The other segments—one a silly yet pretty unsettling short about a Satanic Captain Kangeroo and the other a role reversal tale in which Jeffrey Jones is the victim of a murder plot hatched by his wife and her lover (directed by John Millius, who wrote Quint’s U.S.S. Indianapolis monologue in Jaws!)—are pretty good, too.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Review: 'I Am Brian Wilson'

The big problem with pop-artist autobiographies is that pop artists are much better at stringing together phrases like “ooooh baby” and “yeah, yeah, yeah” than composing compelling prose. A few songwriters have been versatile enough to produce really well written autobiographies (Ray Davies, Pete Townshend, Kristin Hersh, Stuart David, etc.), but most should probably stick with the “oooh babies.”

Brian Wilson is an interesting exception. His persona is one of charming, and rather inarticulate, sincerity. He is a pop star with a true “voice” beyond his singing one, and though I do not expect or even want compelling prose from Brian Wilson, I still want to read his story as told by him because it is such a fascinating and intensely personal one.

I Am Brian Wilson fits the bill perfectly. Wilson wrote his book with the assistance of the versatile Ben Greenman, and its too-articulate and linear prologue chapter had me worrying that I’d be reading Greenman’s voice instead of that of the show’s star. With the first proper chapter, that articulateness evaporates and the linearity splits like an egg to allow Brian’s ping pong-ball mind to bounce out. One moment he is waxing nostalgic about the old children’s show Beany and Cecil, the next he is remembering the 1973 Holland sessions, the next he is leaping ahead 25 years to discuss his solo album Imagination. Greenman seems to play the role of stenographer rather than co-writer as Brian unleashes his flood of memories, opinions (favorite albums: Rubber Soul, A Christmas Gift for Your from Philles Records, and Tommy—great choices, Brian!), and creation stories. Serious fans will swoon when he discusses marvelous oddities such as “Busy Doin’ Nothin’”, “A Day in the Life of a Tree”, “Girl Don’t Tell Me”, and “In the Back of My Mind” with the same attention he affords “California Girls” and “God Only Knows”.  The utter lack of pretense in the prose captures that familiar slightly flat, slightly sad, often rhapsodic voice with true authenticity. A definitive passage has Brian describing how he once dressed up as a mummy to amuse a cousin in the hospital and clarifying that “I wasn’t really a mummy.” That absence of guile, that innocence, that subtle and perhaps unself-aware humor is what makes Brian Wilson’s complex music so uncomplicatedly beautiful and him so lovable.

Of course, I Am Brian Wilson would fail as the Brian Wilson story if it did not deal with the darker corners of his life, and Wilson wanders through these areas fearlessly. He basically leads the story with a run down of all of his troubles with drugs, family, isolation, weight gain, and chemical withdrawal, and discusses each more thoroughly and with trademark honesty as the tale continues. He goes into depth about the two most dreaded figures in his life—father Murray and Svengali “doctor” Eugene Landry—but does so without a trace of bitterness and a loving portion of balance, acknowledging that both of these men did Brian a little bit of good as well as a fair share of harm. He wastes almost no space on his clashes with Mike Love, though.

Bitterness, like articulateness, has no place in a Brian Wilson autobiography. Love, music, and an immensely sincere man’s true voice are what you should expect and what I Am Brian Wilson delivers.

31 TV Shows for 31 Days of Halloween Season: Day 21

Series: Alfred Hitchcock Presents

Episode: “Final Escape”, in which Season Hubley plays a convicted murder who plots a foolproof escape that involves hiding in a coffin and getting buried in the prison graveyard. Ha! Most of the shows featured in 31 TV Shows for 31 Days of Halloween Season have some sort of supernatural angle, but “Final Escape” may be the scariest of them all because of its realism. The final image will give you nightmares even if you see it coming. Hubley sure didn’t.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review: 'Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year'

There’s a bit of a Catch 22 to Mark Lewisohn’s ambition to tell The Beatles’ story more thoroughly and definitively than that oft-told story has ever been told before: the more time he devotes to writing that story thoroughly, the more time he is leaving other writers to swoop in and finish the job before him. So while Lewisohn toils away on his follow up to his first volume of The Beatles: All These Years, which will presumably cover 1966, writer Steve Turner has done the proverbial swooping with his new book Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year. Poor Mark Lewisohn. I simply cannot see how he can do a more thorough or definitive job of covering the most pivotal year in Beatles history than Turner has.

1966 was the year The Beatles’s outlook regarding music, drugs, religion, politics, art, facial hair, and their careers changed radically. It is the year they retired from live performing and made what is now generally regarded as their finest album. It is the year The Beatles were at the center of heated cultural clashes in Japan and the Philippines; Lennon enflamed controversy with his widely misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misquoted thoughts on Jesus; and met Yoko Ono. It’s also the year that John and Ringo ate pigeon pea soup before taking a four-hour tour of building developments in Tobago on January 20. That’s the level of detail that drives Beatles ’66, and while it may initially come off as a hint of some sort of “my research is the thoroughest!” ego trip, those tiny details regarding what The Beatles ate, wore, and even watched on TV on given days really gives these events a sense of time, place, and reality. The fact that The Beatles were so intellectually and artistically active in 1966—even though the band recorded their fewest songs that year and John spent a fair share of it sitting around his house—make the relatively mundane passages interesting.

Turner fattens out the most well-traveled tales with the most complete context he can provide. We learn the precise exchange around Ringo’s coining of “Tomorrow Never Knows”, the left-leaning inspiration behind the seemingly rightwing “Taxman”, and the drug that actually inspired “Got to Get You Into My Life”. Turner subjects “Tomorrow Never Knows” to an utterly fascinating comparison with The Psychedelic Experience, exposing exactly how Lennon adapted Timothy Leary’s book. He also does the seemingly impossible by exposing the vulnerability behind Paul McCartney’s unflappable fa├žade. All of this amounts to one of the most human portraits of The Beatles I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the best. Better get cracking before Steve laps you with Beatles ’67, Mark.
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