Sunday, September 5, 2010

This Was the Month That Wasn't

So as I’ve mentioned, my day job has been sufficiently busy of late that I haven’t had much time for the blog. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had time to, like, enjoy stuff. Every evening, I’ve come home and plopped exhaustedly down in front of some form of entertainment before trudging off to bed. Not all of it’s worth a post, but I figured, now that things are finally starting to slow down again, it might be fun to give an overview of what went on around the Dork 40 in the month of August. Mostly, it was…

Movies! Nothing better for a tired brain than flickering images on the teevee screen. Of course, being tired also means I didn’t go for anything of great quality. B-Movies have been the entertainment of choice around the Dork Forty of late, and I‘ve come across some real gems. To whit:

Danger: Diabolik! Brilliant bit of late-60s spy-camp goofiness from Mario freaking Bava! Diabolik is the king of all master thieves, and was the star of a fabulously popular Italian comic. The film is all about sex and money and freedom and gorgeous cinematography. Glorious.

Planet of the Vampires! Diabolik put me on a Bava kick, so I also checked out his equally-gorgeous-but-less-glorious sci-fi horror flick. There aren’t any vampires, FYI, but if you’re up for a low-budget Italian version of Star Trek, where the uniforms look like something an S&M biker gang might wear… This is the movie for you!

Black Sunday! My Bava fascination continued with his homage to the Universal horror classics. Karen Black plays two roles, one of which is perhaps the most hysterically unrepentant, and most justly-persecuted, witch in movie history. Just fantastic old-school horror that should be far more iconic than it is. For whatever reason, I’d never watched much Bava before this last month, but I am now officially a massive fan.

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul! Moving on from Bava, I dipped a toe into the lake of Brazilian horror icon Coffin Joe. This is the first Coffin Joe movie, and in it he plays the most evilest monster of all: an atheist! Well, okay. He’s also a sociopathic asshole. But not believing in God is why he’s like that! It’s really a sort of insane cautionary tale, a worst-case scenario of what might happen without God’s laws to guide human behavior. Before the movie’s done, Joe has raped and murdered and done all kinds of evil shit. But the scenes that stick out the most to me are the ones where he commits the sin of eating meat on a Friday! There’s a scene where he’s sitting in the window, eating meat, and laughing at a Catholic funeral procession going by in the street below. And he ain’t just eating a hamburger, either. He’s straight-up got a leg of lamb in his fist, ripping hunks off and roaring at the silly superstitions of his fellow man. And later, he goes to the local bar (still with the same leg of lamb) and forces one of the men there to eat some, too, or face a beating! Other than some nice spook-show acting, and one genuinely powerful scene where Joe rails arrogantly at God, it’s not good. But it’s oh-so entertaining.

Carry On Screaming! A British horror-comedy from the 60s. The humor here is of the Are You Being Served variety: lots of silly jokes and misunderstandings, with a constant undertone of naughtiness. The plot concerns a brother-and-sister team of ghouls who kidnap young women to turn into amazingly life-like mannequins that they sell to snooty London boutiques. Funny for all the wrong reasons, but worth a look if you like this sort of thing.

Moon of the Wolf! If Tennessee Williams had written a made-for-TV werewolf movie, it probably would have turned out something like this. It’s a Southern class drama wrapped around a murder mystery wrapped around a horror film. The mystery of the werewolf’s identity is pretty decent; though I called it immediately, they made me doubt myself once or twice along the way, and I can respect that. The script is better than it really needs to be all the way around, in fact, and that‘s what makes it even remotely watchable. Or maybe I was just tired…

Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein! Jess Franco’s homage to Universal horror is in many ways a total clusterfuck. The plot is wafer-thin, parts of it don’t make sense, the monster make-up is laughable, there’s only partial resolution, and the film’s real antagonists never actually confront each other. But it’s intriguingly-filmed, with very expressive lighting, nice use of sound effects, and some fairly inventive camera work. It’s also done almost completely without dialogue. Other than a few pieces of necessary exposition, the characters do not speak. Some of them moan and scream a lot, and there is a burlesque-style musical number, but that’s not really talking. I’d bet there’s less than ten minutes of dialogue in the entire film. Which admittedly makes it more confusing than it should have been, but also adds to the creepiness, turning the whole ridiculous thing into some kind of horror tone-poem. All that’s completely overshadowed, however, by the actor playing Dracula. I burst out laughing pretty much every time he comes on screen, and that’s not the sort of reaction you want.

The Golem! I’d seen this 1920 silent movie classic before, but after being primed by the visual delights of Bava and Franco, I think I appreciated it even more. This is a flat-out beautiful movie, a prime example of German expressionist film-making. Each scene is framed like a portrait; costume, make-up, and set design all conspire to give the film a dizzying other-worldly feel, like a fairy tale come to life. Amazing to watch. Its influence over the early Universal horror films is unmistakable.

(An aside: my thanks to Penny Dreadful’s Shilling Shockers for all the films from Black Sunday to The Golem. I picked up season three of Penny’s horror movie show a while back, and watched it over the course of the last couple of weeks. I most likely wouldn’t have ever sought out many of those films otherwise, and I enjoyed them all. She’s a first-class horror host, with impeccable taste in B-grade cinema.)

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse! An astounding horror-crime film, made in 1933 by Fritz Lang, both as an eerie piece of pulp fiction and a commentary on the rise of the Nazis in his native Germany. The plot is fiendishly simple: Dr. Mabuse is a criminal mastermind who’s been confined to an insane asylum, locked in a trance-like state in which he feverishly produces a Manifesto of Crime, a book outlining a plan of crime and terror designed not just as a series of perfect crimes, but as a plan to overthrow the very rule of law itself. But with Mabuse safely locked away… Who’s carrying out his schemes?! Grandiose villains, cliffhanger threats, some genius use of sound and light, and one of the creepiest make-up jobs I’ve ever seen combine to make this film an absolute masterpiece of insane pulp cinema.

Horror Hospital! A bit of early-70s trash made by two soft-core porn producers who wanted to branch out from films containing “a number of naked ladies” (as they describe it in the commentary track) to something in the far more respectable genre of horror comedy. To this end, they hired a male soft-core porn star (who looks like Mick Jagger) as their lead, only included one naked lady, got a midget comedian to play a major role, and somehow roped Michael Gough into playing the villain. The result is a mess of a film, but with a certain undeniable charm. It’s like what might have happened if The Who’s Tommy had been conceived as an homage to Scooby Doo. And then been carried out by low-brow hacks.

But I didn’t just watch B-Movies in August. Oh, heavens no! I dove into some first-class B-Comics as well!

The Batman Annuals! DC recently released a hardcover collection of the four Batman Annuals put out in 1963-64. (That’s right; they released four “annuals” in a two-year period. Go figure.) These annuals collected the cream of the crop of the “sci-fi” years of Batman, from the mid-50s to the mid-60s, and you really do get a little bit of everything in this collection. I don’t think Batman fights any aliens in these stories, but you do get some weird mysteries and bizarre transformations, along with a nice representative smattering of stories featuring the original Batwoman and Batgirl, Bat-Mite, and Ace the Bat-Hound. Alongside the Grant-Morrison-chosen tales from the Black Casebook collection they put out last year, this may be all the Batman you need from this era when he spent a lot less time fighting the Joker and a lot more time doing things like waking up to discover that he’d become Rip Van Batman (my personal favorite idea, if not story, in this collection). These stories, perhaps rightly vilified by generations of Bat-Fans, are not great comics, and they eventually lead to Batman’s near-cancellation before the “New Look” Batman (that’s Batman with the yellow oval) stories took him back to his more grounded detective roots. But there are some great crazy ideas imbedded here, ideas that make these B-Grade stories a fun romp, if nothing else.

The Amazing Spider-Man Omnibus! This massive tome collects all the issues of Spider-Man done by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. I hesitate to call these classic comics “B-Grade;” they more or less created modern super hero comics, and Ditko did some marvelously evocative work on them, maybe the best of his career. But, you know… They pretty much embody everything that’s great about B entertainment. They’re quick and dirty fantasy stories, cranked out on an insane schedule and low budget, for the entertainment of a very unsophisticated audience. They get by on sheer imagination and striking visuals, and as happens on occasion, they rise above their limitations and become something great. Essentially, they’re glorious nonsense.

Which is as fine a description of my favorite B-Grade entertainments as I’m likely to come up with, so I’ll stop there. I’ll soon get in a long weekend to recharge my batteries, and have the mental energy to approach slightly more challenging stuff. There’s a rather terrifyingly scholarly look at Grant Morrison’s Batman in my near future, for instance, plus a Cormac McCarthy novel, the complete run of The Prisoner, and that copy of Terry Gilliam’s Tideland I’ve had sitting around for ages. I might even try to do an August funnybook round-up here soon. Some mighty fine comics came out in the last little bit, and I kinda wanna talk them up…

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