Friday, January 20, 2017

Ignoring the Ignoramus...

I have watched one presidential inauguration in my life, and that was Obama's in 2008. It doesn't matter who I voted for in previous elections nor their outcome, public ceremonies and rituals doused in tradition generally fill me with a combination of ennui and coldness. I don't care whether we agree or not on his record, or how you feel about him as a person, I was onboard with Obama in a way that I hadn't been in years and I genuinely felt that for the first time in my reachable memory that mankind was finally figuring a way out of the dark ages.

So, the fact that I will not be watching one second – nor even a multitude of seconds – of the inauguration today is unremarkable in itself. I don't normally watch or even care about these rituals. I understand they seem to be important to show all Americans "the peaceful transition of power" and the strength of our Constitutional grounds and all that. I know they are happening and I don't need to bear witness to the event in a live aspect.

The only thing that I will do today to mark the inauguration in my mind is to watch Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. You can take that however you would like, but partly it's because watching Idiocracy again at this particular moment is a little bit too on the nose for me. With Dr. Strangelove, what appeared like a worst case scenario once upon a time may now at least look a little bit like blessed relief.

And remember the immortal words of President Merkin Muffley: "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Monster's on the Loose!!! Non-Chaney, Pt. 3: Were-Rik? There... There Rik!

[This is the third part of a trilogy in my The Monster's on the Loose!!! series concerning my fascination with wolves and werewolves in my youth, none of it due directly to the influence of the Universal Monsters series and its Wolf Man character as portrayed by Lon Chaney, Jr. (He had already entered my life in comedy form through Topps Creature Feature trading cards, but we are discussing scares and not laughs here, not intentional laughs anyway). To read the first two parts of the series, visit either Non-Chaney, Pt. 1: Who's Afraid of the Big Bad... Something? or Non-Chaney, Pt. 2: Werewolves Along the Wall.]

The universe of my youth was rife with werewolves in flicks, books, comics, and television. Even with a mere four channels at my disposal, television continued to prove to be my main source of lycanthropic thrills. I have already recounted some of the early cartoon meetings with those of the furry set, but there were even more characters such as the hippie-styled Weirdo Wolfie on Filmation's The Groovie Ghoulies, Ruby-Spear's titular werewolf Fangface, Buck Kartalian as Bruce W. Wolf on the live-action Saturday morning show Monster Squad (with a pre-Love Boat Fred Grandy), and Howler, the youthful offspring of the Wolfman who fight crime with the Drak Pack.

While young, if there was any show or movie on that had the slightest whiff of monster mayhem, I was there. And I did have a sharp eye for werewolf antics. I was lucky enough (if that is how you wish to see it; I certainly do) to run into such titles on television as The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1973), Moon of the Wolf (a 1972 ABC Movie of the Week with David Janssen), Deathmoon (a CBS-TV movie in 1978 with a werewolf loose in Hawaii), and The Legend of the Werewolf (1975, with Peter Cushing). And while not really a werewolf title, the ABC television series, Lucan, was about a orphaned boy raised by wolves who grows up and then roams about seeking out the mystery of his birth parents. Over in the funny books, Marvel Comics had a regular series called Werewolf by Night, of which I only got to read a few issues, but Marvel also had a character called the Man-Wolf, who was the monstrous alter-ego of J. Jonah Jameson's astronaut son, John. The Man-Wolf headlined Creatures on the Loose for the last few issues, and was featured in a pretty cool double-issue story in Marvel Premiere as well, but was most prominent in my life for battling Spider-Man on several occasions.

So, far before I truly ever got to see Lon Chaney, Jr. play his most famous character, I was not hurting for source material to fuel my werewolf fears, nightmares, and obsession. This obsession caused me to write one of my stupid songs as a kid – alongside such classics as I'm an Elf and The Anaconda – that I titled The Monster's on the Loose!!! You might notice that the title of the song matches the title of this ongoing series of posts about my monster obsession stemming directly from my youth. And get this, it had a chorus that went – the soft-skulled amongst you may wish to brace for impact – "The monster's on the loooooooo-oooo-ooo-oose! The monster's on the loooooooo-oooo-ooo-oose! The monster's on the loooooooo-oooo-ooo-oose! The monster's on the loooooooo-oooo-ooo-oose!" You get the idea. There were actual lyrics for a pair of verses, of course, but the main point was so that you could practically howl while singing along with the chorus.

But there were three prime titles that influenced my fears the most in those early days: two movies and one episode of a quite famous but short-lived television series.

Kolchak: the Night Stalker: Werewolf (1974)

Dan Curtis' Kolchak: the Night Stalker TV series should never be underestimated as to its influence on me as a growing horror fan of a certain age. From my first time seeing an episode, where the intrepid reporter Carl Kolchak battles a swamp creature in the sewers, I was hooked. When The X-Files came along, my attraction to it from the start was from the residual effect of having seen the few Kolchak episodes over and over and over again, and having long wished I had another such series that could fill the void. To find out that X-Files creator Cris Carter had drawn his own inspiration directly from his love for The Night Stalker (to the point of eventually hiring star Darren McGavin to play a Kolchak-type character in seclusion late in the series) did not surprise me.

For the werewolf episode of the series, Carl ends up taking over at the last minute for his editor Tony's long-anticipated working vacation aboard a luxury liner promoting a singles cruise. Naturally, something weird is happening onboard. After a series of gruesome deaths, Kolchak gets caught up in not just trying to stop the creature (played by a sleazily perfect Eric Braeden) but also doing battle with the captain (good ol' Henry Jones) and crew who are trying to downplay the murders and keep the press from getting the information. And, of course, even though he gets a terrific confederate in this adventure – Nita Talbot as movie-mad Paula Griffin is a riot – Carl is the only one who ultimately believes that Braeden is an actual werewolf. Or at least the only one willing to go on record saying that is what he encountered (which is the basic thrust of the series).

Like most episodes of the show, it is alternately funny (apropos of its subject matter, the show has a consistently dark sense of humor) and silly (many of the filming effects are pretty dated). The attack scenes are mostly of the creature throwing people overboard (it seems to be his M.O.), or tossing multiple crewmen about in group fashion, but as a kid, the POV attacks and the quick flashes of the werewolf's intense strength and fury still gave me the willies. I saw this episode numerous times as a kid (like all of the show's mere lot of twenty, along with two introductory television movies that drew massive ratings). While my estimation of the series might be a good deal higher than most and heavily dosed with nostalgia, my more practiced eye still thinks the Kolchak series as a whole holds up not just as being pretty haunting today, but also as solid entertainment, its chief attribute being Darrin McGavin, arguably one of the more underrated actors of his day.

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

Hammer's more historical attempt at the genre, The Curse of the Werewolf, directed by Terence Fisher in 1961, was a revelation to me. I was already a big Oliver Reed fan thanks to seeing Richard Lester's Musketeer films and Carol Reed's Oliver! quite young. My mother had told me that Reed had played a werewolf at one point, and staying up past midnight one Saturday to watch the local World's Most Terrible Movies program on our ABC affiliate, KIMO, I was granted my first opportunity to see him play the role. By then, I had already been introduced to the Hammer Studios style (my first such film was Frankenstein Created Woman), and was fascinated by the fact that the Hammer films were both classier than most of the other horror films I was encountering to that point, but also far more gruesome, sadistic, and bloody. Curse goes for an epic feel from the start, trapping its tale of lycanthropy in a Spanish fairy tale setting. The werewolf plotline almost gets swallowed up for a large portion of the film, but gradually builds to a terrific climax, the thrills becoming larger and larger on the way.

As a kid (and even now), I wished that there was a bit more of the monster in this film – you really have to wait for the payoff – but when it comes, it's a doozy. Reed looks fantastic as the creature, with a torn, billowing flouncy shirt as he climbs up and about the roofs and bell tower of the village. Shots of Reed in his werewolf guise are seen quite often in monster and horror books, and that is with very good reason. The film was the first to show a werewolf character in full color, and the added touch of being able to show bright red blood smeared on his face and dripping from his fangs is fabulously rendered. It is astounding to me that Hammer never did a follow-up to this film, when they seemed to have no problem expanding their Frankenstein and Dracula series well beyond reasonable limits. In a perfect world, there would at least be five or six Hammer werewolf flicks to choose from; sad to say, there really is just this one, but they did a magnificent job with it.

The real Big Bad: My imagination...

While I had seen the Kolchak werewolf episode already, I had not quite run into that first viewing of The Curse of the Werewolf just yet. The Reed version of the werewolf was just around the corner, as were the rest. But I was still wolf-haunted. To be sure, after the image of Maurice Sands' Les Lupins entered my brain as a grade schooler, my every walk home from the bus stop through the mid-to-late afternoon of Alaskan winter dusk became a genuine task in terror for me. While I was fine walking along the far end of the street on which our house was built, with a couple of houses and a trailer along one side while nothing but dark woods lurked along the other, the fear would grow over me as I made my way towards our neighbors' house. The Wachsmuths' house was built close to the road's edge, with a simple driveway area in which to part cars, and while it was surrounded by trees like every home in the area, it's nearness to the street meant that approaching the house was never foreboding and sometimes stopping there even served as a temporary refuge when I couldn't quite work up the gall to get to my own door (which happened on occasion).

Directly across the street was the Woods' house, and while we were friends with Mr. Wood's kids, it had become harder and harder to go over there to play after his wife had committed suicide a few years earlier. It was probably one of the first times in my life where I became expressly attuned to human tragedy, and certainly the moment where the act of suicide, which I barely even understand when used in a movie or TV show, became a reality to me. The Woods and the Wachsmuths were our nearest neighbors; everyone else lived a couple of acres away or more, always with forest, other roads or both between us, and the hilly terrain was not always conducive to plotting out quick getaways to a safe space when monsters were on the rise in one's backyard... or mind.

From the moment that I took that first step off our street and onto our driveway – usually a dirt road covered with rocky gravel, but taking on an occasional more precarious texture when snow and ice came along due to the season – my nerves would seize up at the same time that the goosebumps sprang into full industry along my arms. My eyes would dart back and forth to the trees on both sides of the long, sloping driveway that sunk down into our property. To say the trees lined the driveway would be a misnomer, since that would imply they were planted in some form of designed precision; rather, the driveway was cut naturally into the woods that were already there, and so the word "surrounded" is far more of an appropriate term. For surrounded I was, tree after tree with who knows what lurking behind them, awaiting a taste of my supreme deliciousness.

Each forward step would bring a slight crunch of snow, which would cause me to stop and listen hard, because anyone knows that a werewolf is crafty enough to only move closer to its prey when the intended victim is making too much noise to hear anything else. When I say "anyone knows," I mean, "Because I made that up myself when I was a kid". But that is exactly what would happen. My journey down my driveway each afternoon after school that winter (and the next) would begin with a series of small steps and hesitations, listening for anything that might move in the woods around me. One would think, despite the darkness, that I could easily see most of the ground was just snow because the birches and other deciduous trees and plants had lost their leaves already. But since when does logic rule the life of a sixth grader? The spruce trees, which were still fully covered in needles and therefore vast green curtains of terror, hid unimaginable horrors behind them, and were the chief cause of my distress. After moving perhaps five or six feet down the driveway in this manner, I would finally get up just enough nerve to shoot forward, running as fast as I could the rest of the way down the driveway, through our parking area, up the grass along the edge of our yard, and under the stairs where we kept the key to the house hidden for my use.

In my head, I was running a thousand miles an hour each time, but I always new that if an actual werewolf wanted to get me, there was no way for me to stop him. Because I knew that simply running fast was not one of the werewolf rules. I had no silver bullets, let alone a gun, and knew that I was pretty defenseless. My previous fear of dealing with the Big Bad Wolf, which you might recall was centered around the lower driveway and stairs on our property, was frightening enough but he could be dealt with by cartoon pigs by simple trickery. I was pretty tricky myself, so I knew that if it came down to it, I could handle him; I just wished to avoid the situation altogether. But werewolves were different. They were usually supernaturally based, and had to be dealt with using arcane magicks and herbs and very specific elements.

And when I finally got inside my house, what was it that I would do? Would I hit my homework like a good boy (and like I was supposed to do)? Would I do my few chores, because I was the oldest and given some responsibility, and which was why I was allowed to come home early instead of staying at the babysitter's house a couple of streets away with my brothers? Or would I pray to Jesus to protect me from the werewolves that were surely after me? Most of the time, none of the three. Sometimes some homework would get done, and sometimes some chores would, but most of the time, I would turn on the local CBS-TV affiliate, KTVA, and watch whatever chunk of that afternoon's matinee monster movie was left. In the summers, I got to watch the entire movie, but in the winter, I would just tune in and see what movie it was and catch the second half of the film. This was fine, because that was usually where most of the good monster action was anyway – the second half – or where all the big monster reveals were if the film depending on them.

I don't remember the name of the program or if it even had a title. This is strange because the films it showed were never to be forgotten by me. The program aired classic (or non-classic, depending on your viewpoint) horror and science-fiction movies – mixed with the occasional Sherlock Holmes mystery or film noir adventure – and of the monster flicks, they were chiefly from Universal, AIP, and Toho. As a result, this is where I got my basic education on the films from those studios. It's where I finally got to see those Dracula, Frankenstein, Mummy, Wolf Man and Creature from the Black Lagoon films I was reading about in the then-waning days of the original run of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. I also was able to catch the bulk of the original Showa period of Godzilla and other kaiju films from Toho. Other favorites which I would first see on this program were The MansterThe Monster that Challenged the WorldFiend Without a Face, It Came from Outer Space, I Married a Monster from Outer SpaceThe Black ScorpionThe Deadly MantisSon of KongThe Green SlimeThis Island Earth, and most importantly, The Thing from Another World. And yeah, this is where The War of the Gargantuas became such a glorious, ridiculous obsession for me.

However, mostly due to timing of when I started watching this afternoon monster matinee show, Universal's acclaimed House of Horrors, filled to the rafters with its famous monsters, would not show up on the program for me until later in my viewings. The Wolf Man, as a film and not just mere pictures in books or on trading cards, would not come fully into my life for another year or so, nor would other films in which the Chaney Wolf Man character appears, like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, or Universal's own preceding film in the subgenre, 1935's The Werewolf of London. But there was one film that aired on this matinee program that, with very furry fingers of its own, touched a quite specific nerve with me. And stuck with me for years...

The Werewolf (1956)

Fred F. Sears' The Werewolf nearly did me in as a kid. Seen today, it's a pretty enjoyable, quick little thriller (only 75 minutes, like many similar films), almost as much science fiction as it is horror, but I didn't care about such distinctions back in those days. I also didn't know that Mr. Sears directed, in the same year as The Werewolf, what would be one of my favorite science fiction films, Earth vs. Flying Saucers (though that was mainly due to Ray Harryhausen's still immensely appealing and famous special effects sequences). He also directed another film that would become of my "so bad, it's good" faves to this day, The Giant Claw, a ridiculous giant bird flick that features effects that serve as the complete opposite to Harryhausen's sublime animation in his other, better sci-fi film.

But The Werewolf doesn't rely on flying saucer or giant monster effects; the monster is human-sized in this film, and it isn't necessarily the title creature. It is a detail I would not realize until the second time I encountered the film, but while there is indeed a werewolf at loose in this film and by almost any definition he could be described as a monster, the true evil in this film is via the hands of a pair of mad scientists attempting to track down their creation, as well as the majority of townspeople who go over the top in their attempts to shoot down and kill what is, for the most part, a very sick and unarmed man in this film. It might seem too easy to you that I would take the position of declaiming a large group of humans in the film as "the real monsters" – especially since it is how I tend to view most of the unthinking proportion of the human race – but the film itself makes this distinction in having a smaller group of good guys trying to find and help the poor man to safety.

My first viewing (and therefore, earliest memory) of the film was near the halfway point of its running time, since I turned on the television mid-afternoon after having just battled my werewolf fears to find myself face to face with one of those same creatures on our now (in hindsight, given the current standards) ridiculously tiny television screen. I was seeing a transformation scene that made my blood run cold for not just the remainder of the winter, but for quite a time afterward.

A nervous and clearly brain-addled man, Duncan Marsh (played by Steven Ritch) stands inside a cave confronted by another man, a mad scientist dressed as a hunter, bearing a rifle. In the woods outside, a posse led by the local sheriff (Don Megowan) is trying to track Marsh down, seemingly for a series of local deaths, both human and animal. Marsh doesn't understand what he has done, and begs the other man to tell him why his pursuers wish to kill him if he hasn't done anything to them. Suddenly, as his anxiousness and fear grows, Marsh starts to hyperventilate, and then his deep breathing noises turn into a series of growls. He transforms before the eyes of the scientist, in what was to me one of the most frightening things I had seen on television at that point in my young life.

The effect is not particularly smooth or well-done (Universal did it a bit better), but his face gradually becomes hairier. Where this werewolf has it all over Chaney, Jr. and others, perhaps harkening back to Mamoulian's version of Dr. Jekyll, is the look of pure bestial terror and then confidence in Marsh's eyes as he changes, and then the sickening way he drools out of his mouth and over his chin as he advances on his would-be attacker. Marsh is far more frightening to me mid-transformation than when he is fully transformed, for when he staggers out of the cave, his attacker fleeing, his once tight, shorter wolf hair is much shaggier and fairly ridiculous looking. Honestly though, just about anyone dressed as even the simplest, even silliest, version of a werewolf could have sent me running for shelter back in those days. I was eleven years old, living in the woods, and frightened to death of werewolves and Bigfoot. A plastic Ben Cooper Halloween mask could have done the trick on me.

Aside from the mostly effective makeup, there were several elements of The Werewolf that clearly forced the film to stick in my cranium as much as it did. The first was the fact that most of the action in The Werewolf takes place in the light of day. There is no full moon affecting Marsh's behavior. He can change into his wolf form by merely being angered or scared. Most importantly, there is no silver bullet to cure his condition; a regular bullet will do. It is an important note to make, though I doubt that I took notice at the age of eleven, but there was nothing supernatural at all about this version of the werewolf. His condition was brought upon him, like the monsters of many a film from the 1950s, from exposure to radiation; in this case, after Marsh showed signs of amnesia after waking up from a car accident, two scientists gave him a dose of irradiated blood from a wolf. Why wolf's blood? Well, they had it on hand, having one of the creature's caged for study. And did I mention that the main scientist is just a bit mad in nature, being not just thoroughly committed to his study, but also absolutely intent on saving his own hide by murdering Marsh before the authorities can catch the poor man.

The setting, too, was instrumental in my fascination with the film. While so many monster flicks took place in far off places like jungles or Transylvanian villages or in big, thriving cities that I could only dream about visiting, The Werewolf was in a world recognizable to me. Shot in Big Bear, California, The Werewolf takes place in the mountains, with homes and buildings surrounded by forest, not necessarily the same types of trees that I had in my mountain area home in Eagle River, Alaska, but the mood was the same. Likewise, the opening shot in the film of a small town street lined with bars, restaurants, and pharmacies could have been a crawl through Anchorage's then grungy downtown area – namely 4th Avenue – of my memory. Additionally, some scenes rely on the werewolf's tracks being seen in the snow, which was also a new touch for me, and instantly reflected upon my own walks home from the bus stop, where the snow became a most willing participant in giving away my whereabouts to the creatures lurking about me in the trees.

While The Werewolf takes place in the 1950s, it it not a 1950s of sock hops and teenagers, fast cars and girl chasing. The men are hard drinking (the very first scene takes place in a bar and eventually ends up in an alleyway mugging), their basic clothes are not much different from the working class people of my Alaskan neighborhood not quite twenty years after the movie was lensed. At the very least, the men in the film looked like the photos of my relatives that I saw in family photo albums, where several deer would be tied across the front of an automobile while men and sometimes women stood stiff-armed and awkwardly for the picture. Most of our own neighbors were at least weekend outdoorsmen, if not consistent in that behavior. My own parents loved fishing, and my dad hunted occasionally, and so the gear that went with such a lifestyle was as apparent in our lives as it was in the people populating this film. And while seeing a car from the 1950s on the street today is an indescribable pleasure (for the most part, depending on condition), 1975 was not so far removed that I didn't see cars from that then slightly older decade pretty regularly both on the road and in surrounding neighborhoods. The world of The Werewolf, with some minor differences in behavior and dialogue, was close enough to my own forest and hill-filled town to add an extra layer of verisimilitude to its "B" movie plotline.

Something that would come to me on my second showing of the film that I rather missed in the first was the sympathy that the picture has for its lead character. The first time around, I pretty much just entered the story with the transformation that I described, and then the rest of the picture is Marsh being captured, the scientists breaking into the jail to do away with him, his escape from the jail, and then the pursuit and stopping of the werewolf. What I missed was the large amount of character work that goes into establishing Marsh, his wife and small boy who feared him dead, the local doctor, the evil scientists, and others. Marsh is completely sympathetic, and even some of his actions as the wolf are him fighting against this uncommon nature that has been thrust upon him. Certainly there is much about the picture that is patently ridiculous, but it is played so straightforward, and the drama is never allowed to be anything but true to its characterizations, that – perhaps apart from some of the werewolf shots (and this depends entirely upon the viewer's tolerance for such things), the film never truly comes off as campy.

Piling a viewing of The Werewolf on top of the book of werewolves with the picture of Les Lupins was nearly a deadly combination for me. If I was scared to walk home because of werewolves having just seen the Maurice Sand's picture, I was practically crapping my pants after seeing Duncan Marsh drool in the cave and then tear apart two evil scientists in a jail cell. (Luckily, I never actually crapped them.) Les Lupins, with its grouping of werewolves lounging about in sinister suggestion in front of that cemetery wall may have overtaken my imagination, but that scene suddenly had a companion: The Werewolf's full, cinematic close-up of a werewolf's face – however silly the makeup might seem today – and it took just that single look at half the film for me to springboard my fears to even greater heights.

If you are among those who think that growing up and getting past such irrational feelings is easy to do, keep in mind that I have been a lifelong pedestrian. I catch rides where I can, and take the bus as often as I am able, but walking about is usually my main means of transportation. Sure, it is by my own design, and I could be locked comfortably behind the wheel of a car in scary situations like the rest of you if I only changed my habits. So in most ways, it is my own fault that I have often found myself in some pretty dark, secluded places in my meanderings, in some fairly awful neighborhoods by accident, and sometimes in situations where I have gotten more of the night world than I really wanted to get. My life has actually been threatened a couple of times but I managed to get out of them. 

But even with that, finding myself all alone on a quiet road, at dusk, with the moon peeking through the trees along the sides of the road, is something that still triggers those childhood fears, albeit for a brief moment or so. It is in those moments where often a stray thought of Duncan Marsh from The Werewolf, snarling and drooling, desperate in action and quick of claw and fang, will enter my mind. However, as time has passed for me, most often those thoughts have receded from the primeval fear of the monster and drifted instead to identifying not just with the monster, but as the monster. Just another lost, lonely creature who must keep fighting, howling in rage, and running constantly to distance himself from an increasingly senseless and uncaring world.

Sure, such thinking is maudlin and counter-productive, and it's not like my life isn't filled with both love and long-standing friendship. Sometimes, though, I can't help it. One cannot always control one's emotions, and one cannot help but let irrational fears sneak in from time to time to subvert one's worldview. Such slips can affect any one of us, or even masses of us, as we have seen recently in how our country seems so split apart right now. For my part, almost without noticing it, I slowly grew past my ridiculous, early fears of such imaginary things as werewolves (though I have still maintain a healthy respect for Bigfoot, just in case he actually does exist). I have new fears now, some brought on by a prolonged and unwanted spell of unemployment (which is only in recent months starting to break down) and money concerns, and others brought on by political upheaval and uncertainty in the bonds of certain close relationships. I'm a grown-ass man, as one variation of a current popular catchphrase goes, and as such, I can't worry about werewolves anymore.

But, goddamnit, I am going to snarl and claw and fight like one when the time calls for it. Who says I never learned anything from all of these silly cartoons and movies?


Monday, October 31, 2016

The Monster's on the Loose!!! Non-Chaney, Pt. 2: Werewolves Along the Wall

Les Lupins by Maurice Sand
[click to enlarge]
Just a few short years ago, a visit from an old chum from back home found myself and my wife (then merely my longtime girlfriend) visiting the Pasadena Antique Mall at a mostly hoity-toity retail area in Southern California. Pasadena was not a very familiar area to us; in fact, it was my first time there, and so I tackled the fresh spot in my usual way: checking out any antique, record, comic book, or book stores I might happen to cross on my wanderings that afternoon.

Entering what seemed like just any old antique store's book section to me, I discovered an overly well-kept if not crowded place. Its trappings appealed to me greatly, and all that needed to happen was a memorable purchase to seal my love for the location in my heart forever. About two minutes into the visit, it happened. After seeing a nice collection of antique Big Little Books on a shelf that nearly had my wallet saying, "Everything I have, please!", I took a sidelong glance at a table featuring various volumes being featured exclusively by the store. Most seemed to be autographed books or first editions, and while I am interested in such things on occasion (depending on the author, title, or genre), my purposes for visiting such stores are usually tied up in looking for more unusual fare, often on a mental list of particular titles that have longed escaped my grasp or with which I was formally familiar but have not seen in some time.

Sitting prominently (and still quite strangely to me) upon the table was a book by Montague Summers titled The Werewolf. The cover is doused in a blood red coloring, with black only at the fringes and dotting the figures, but it was what appeared in red that caught my eye, apart from the book itself. For anyone else, the sight of the cover would reveal the red silhouette of a series of wolf-like creatures standing on their hind-legs, but without any other reference on the cover, the design could have been a negative image of a sculpture or woodcut or some other art form. There is no real definition to the image to betray what it really is to the eye.

Unless one happened to have been looking for that exact image, and even perhaps some form of that author's writings on the subject (without remembering who the author even was or what the book was called), since one was a mere child.

Short of heading back to the third of three elementary schools of my youth to check with library records to see if they ever carried a copy of that exact book – and since forty years have passed, it is more likely that any such volumes have likely been purged from the shelves by crazy, Satan-fearing moms (hey, it's your religion that believes in such things, not me, so quit squatting over my fun) – I will never know if this is indeed the book that captured my attention way back in fifth grade or if Montague Summers was the author of record. [I am going to skip discussion of Summers himself for now, because it would take some time, and he was such a right weirdo that a brief paragraph or two would not do him justice.] But what I do know is that the real source of the cover image of The Werewolf, a drawing by the artist Maurice Sand titled Les Lupins, lies in full form as a frontispiece in this book in the same manner as it did in the book from my youth. Because, out of everything in that book that may have frightened me in the text or in the other illustrative plates scattered throughout the volume, nothing got to me more than Sand's Les Lupins.

The image is never truly gratuitous but it was stunning to me when I was young in its implication; implication that would run roughshod with my emotional state for quite a few years, especially when placed in conjunction with my home location. Les Lupins is a nighttime study of an unspecified region most likely in France, where a pack of werewolves, numbering ten or so with most standing on their hind legs, prop themselves up along a long wall as if in conspiratorial conversation underneath the moonlight on a mostly overcast evening. 

While the foliage shown in the picture is lush and overflowing in abundance, the layout and relative sparseness of the trees speaks more of the pastoral and nowhere forested. Indeed, the scene seems to either take place on the edge of an estate or some other such structural enclosure, perhaps even on the edge of a gated town. In the text of The Werewolf, however, in the section on France, Summers wrote, "In Normandy tradition tells of certain fantastic beings known as lupins or lubins. They pass the night chattering together and twattling in an unknown tongue. They take their stand by the walls of country cemeteries, and howl dismally at the moon."

I lived nowhere near a cemetery when I lived in Eagle River, Alaska (I don't even know if there was one in town before I moved, since Eagle River was, and still is, a part of the Anchorage municipality), so I had nothing to fear from werewolves at one of those. And we certainly lived nowhere near France as well, let alone Normandy. And we were deeply mired in forest, living at the base of a mountain as we were. So the scene as described visually and then married to Summers' tale brings my upbringing nowhere close to that of the image. Regardless, Les Lupins still sent a chill through me from the moment I first saw it, already at the beginning of a long, unpaid career as a fan of monster movies, but it would take a walk home after school one afternoon to solidify werewolves as my creature/demon of choice for the rest of the time that I lived in Eagle River.

Montague Summers, a right weirdo.
It was perhaps a problem of seasonal timing that led me to such a decision. It was winter when I began reading the book on werewolves featuring Les Lupins as a frontispiece in the library of my elementary school. I was in sixth grade, and was old enough to be allowed to go straight home with my own key after school. Of course, there is the requisite screwing around at the bus stop with your friends and other neighbor kids. It wasn't a long walk home from the stop, but it was one filled with distractions, in either summer or winter. Our neighborhood was more woods than house-filled, and there was always playing to do, sticks with which to sword fight, forts to build, snowballs to throw, and pranks to pull. But Alaskan winters get dark early; the deeper into winter, the darker. Currently now, on Halloween, the sun is to set in the Anchorage area around 5:55 p.m.; on December 21st, the date of the winter solstice, the time will be around 3:42 p.m. At that time of year and at that latitude, the sun is only seen for about five and a half hours, and for kids of school age, recess is the only real chance to get some sun during the school year. Otherwise, you were walking home after school in the pre-sunset. And if you dallied at all on your walk home and played around with your friends, by the time you got close to your house, you were even closer to the dark of night... or worse, deep into it.

I didn't need total darkness to practically crap my pants each time that I reached my driveway. I just needed something approaching the nearness of darkness. As I finished my walk home from the bus, after goofing around with my friends, the glow cast by the sun's going down towards the horizon as it passed through the widely spaced birch and spruce trees that lined the forest on either side of our long, sloping front driveway, reminded me immediately of the picture of Les Lupins. (As I stated in Part 1 of this article, we had a second, lower driveway at the back of our property that accessed our house more immediately, but you had to climb a set of stairs, where I was tormented by the Big Bad Wolf.) It wasn't that the scene of my driveway matched that of the picture. I never thought there were werewolves hiding behind each of the spruce trees. No, that was where Bigfoot hid. Your imagination does not need exactitude, just the merest implication that something could possibly come true in terrible, horrid ways. Most of all, once your mind connects the image that gave your imagination spark to something else in your life, it is over for you. Once I saw the trees, it would make me think of the picture with the werewolves reclining against the ivy-covered wall like drooling junkies anxious for a quick fix. Once I made the connection that my blood might be the very fix they required, I was lost.

My every trip home down that driveway after that point became a battle between my instincts to run down an often slippery path to make it all the way to our front door in time to lock it fast behind me, and my more logical brain that struggled to convince itself that werewolves were mere fantasy figures and that I should just strut safely down the snowy path and forget all this nonsense. In the end – at least to the point where we moved from that house to another following my parents' divorce not long after – the werewolves won the battle. Any time that I was alone from that point forward while I lived there, I was in fear constantly, and it carried over into my trips down that driveway in the summer, even when I was on a bicycle. But it was always when I was on my own. If I had a friend with me, or one of my brothers, and especially adults, I was just fine. Most of my fears only overtook me when I was left on my own.

There was still another factor playing into my werewolf obsession at this point, that took my fear nearly over the top, and I will get to that in Part III of this piece. But I wanted to sum up regarding the antique shop and the Montague Summers book. The moment of seeing the book before me in the Pasadena Antique Mall was yet another in a long series of encounters where my response is the same as if I were the one who had originally ridden my horse across the path of the Bigfoot in the famous Patterson film. That is, a series of seconds constructed around a stony wall of pure silence, while my jaw and limbs go numb even as my heart starts racing uncontrollably.

Instinctually, I knew this had to be the book. Picking it up, I flipped immediately to the title page, where I was greeted by the image of Les Lupins. It was exactly where it needed to be. This had to be the book, though the volume I remembered was not quite as thick as this one, and I did not remember a blood red cover at all. One would have thought I would remember such a detail. But reading the text in some sections brought a great sense of familiarity, as Summers' overly academic and archaic writing style is somewhat hard to not just get past sometimes but also to forget. The book seemed to be, especially from the text on the cover, a compilation of shorter volumes on werewolves he had written, and was broken into six distinct sections, each pertaining to different locales and their lycanthropic legends, or the supposed "science" behind the myths, and finally an exceedingly brief addendum on Witch Ointments that isn't even written by Montague Summers, but by a Dr. H.J. Norman. Since Summers died in 1949, and this first edition of the collection was dated as March 1966, I suppose it is possible that I had encountered a smaller collection at that library in my youth.

The first edition was going to run me, after tax, close to forty bucks, but for me, it was a foregone conclusion. Why, after looking so long for such a book featuring that image, would I not buy it? Sure, I had to put back a couple of other books I had found first when I entered, including one of those Big Little Books that featured Tarzan, but it had to be done. If ever forty bucks was going to be spent on a book just so I could own a single image, this was it. I kid about that, because I know that it was more important to capture the essence of the volume within my own library, to make it part of the whole, and to strengthen the ties to my own memory, along with my imagination once more. 

Getting the book home, however, after I started to flip through the book, revealed some intriguing sidebars to my initial interest. The book contains a great many notes, most of them in a constant hand, including a signature at the front of the book in the same hand, ascribing ownership to someone named Angela Allaire. The name meant nothing to me, and most of the notes are of a generic nature, reminders to pay this bill or that bill, a torn in half receipt for the San Francisco Examiner used as a bookmark, calling this person and her mom on the phone, extensive notes on menorahs and looking up more information on Hanukkah, but nothing regarding the actual text of The Werewolf. (That's kind of how people operated in the pre-iPhone days when you needed to make a note of something... use it as a temporary bookmark, to be just as forgotten as other notes.)

The Wolf article, The Golden Gater, 11-11-1980.
But there was something that triggered a deeper look into Ms. Allaire for me. There was a newspaper clipping from San Francisco State's campus newspaper, The Golden Gater (now called the Golden Gate Xpress) dated November 11, 1980. The article is headlined "Tales of terror to be catalogued" and concerns SF State's then professor of English and creative writing, Leonard Wolf, who was planning to release a book called Whole Catalogue of Unearthly Terrors. I knew full well who Leonard Wolf was, of course. I have owned a copy of his huge volume, A Complete Book of Terror, for about thirty years, which has proven instrumental in my getting to know a great many classic horror authors. I have another book of his in my library as well, and he is rather well-known as being the father of feminist and political writer and journalist, Naomi Wolf. 

The article about Wolf was folded around a piece of paper from a small notepad, on which a poem in two verses is scrawled in red pen ink:

"On the twenty fourth of May
I saundered [sic] in and planned to stay.

Fate put me in the fabled chair
of sweet and georgious [sic] Ms. Allaire

I did my job and worked so hard
and thought of you in my back yard.
Squirting cold water all over you
and putting marangue [sic] in your kazoo."

x The Author

Um... what did I just find in this book? Who is "The Author"? Was this love correspondence between Allaire and Wolf? Who puts meringue in a kazoo (unless it is of a euphemistic nature, of course)?

This meant that I naturally took to the internet to find out if Ms. Allaire was anyone of note who may have been more publicly involved with Wolf at some time. I found nothing to that effect, but did locate mentions of an Angela Allaire who lived in Chico, CA, but had died in 2005 from complications from ALS. Finding an obituary for her on a Chico website, I found this information: "Angela moved to Chico in 1975 and worked in the Administration office at California State University Chico, graduating from the college in 1978. She went on to receive her Master's degree in film at San Francisco State, then taught one year of film history at SFSU. Angela wrote three feature-length films and sold a script, which became a respected, remarkable story. She also wrote many liner notes on the back of VHS tapes and DVDs. She was successful working with the American Film Institute as a script supervisor."

So, Ms. Allaire was at SF State at the same time Wolf was a professor of English there. It doesn't take too much in the way of imagination to summon up a scenario where the teacher, himself an expert on the field of horror literature, had perhaps recommended the Summers' book to one of his female students. In going through further notes contained in the book, Allaire mentions on one note "look at TV guide" after the word "tape," and on another line, the title Death Watch (there was a Bernard Tavernier sci-fi thriller that came out in 1980, if we are dating all of this to the year of the Wolf article, titled Death Watch). Another note ties directly into the film studies category, where she writes, "6) Write about similarities in 3 films" and goes on to notate possible areas of discussion. She also has a note about "invented genres: newspaper, gangster". A third note says "Sign up for projector 5-7," "Ask about Polansky [sic] (schedule)," and "see film class".

It becomes clear that this very likely may be the Angela Allaire in the obituary, with the revelation from the notes that she was involved in film studies at the time she was keeping notes in the book. A look on IMDb, however, reveals no credits for an Angela Allaire as a screenwriter, though I know full well there is a difference between the writing and selling of screenplays and actually having one made into a movie. The obit, though, is quite remarkably ambiguous as to titles, so it is doubtful anything was made, unless she went under a different name. However, if she had written anything of note, it would have likely appeared in the obituary.

The lack of actual notation in The Werewolf itself points to the book being not one for academic purposes but one of personal interest instead, or even a gift, possibly from Wolf himself if indeed he is "The Author". My guess is that the poem may have served the purposes of an inscription, and that the signing of "The Author" was to obscure any paper trail if an affair had occurred between her and the giver. But then the poem gets wrapped up by an article featuring Mr. Wolf, and then there is nothing left to do much make sordid connections where they may or may not be.

I guess one should always be careful where they leave their meringue.


[To be concluded in The Monster's on the Loose!!! Non-Chaney, Pt. 3: Were-Rik? There-Rik! in the near future.] 

Mr. Mixtape-ptlk, Track #12: The Vampire, Pt. 1 by T. Valentine (2012)

A good decade and a half ago, my pal Leif presented a gift to me – for either my birthday or Christmas, I can't remember which – which should serve as a lesson for all who find themselves stymied when it comes to figuring out what to get me for a present that will make me giddy with delight. Go weird. Go friggin' weird...

Leif gave me a CD by an act of whom I had never before heard. A fellow named T. Valentine, who appeared on the cover of the CD case with a telephone (old school, with a cord and everything) clenched in his hand while he crouched over the phone on his knees in what appeared to be great anguish. The title of the disc told the story of the photo (as far as I could ascertain at that moment of gift-giving, though I was correct): Hello, Lucille... Are You a Lesbian?

The title song was this T. Valentine person's strangely inspired response to Josie Cotton's 1981 hit Johnny, Are You Queer? It was a mangled mess of words, spoken in an utterly confounding voice (accent doesn't even come into play; Valentine is just... Valentine) supposedly about his ex-wife who left him just a few years before. The song is peppered with ranted lyrics (singing never even enters into it), such as "When I wanna make love, she got female trouble, or that other thing that women have e'ry mont'. She always wear pants, long pants; I never seen her in a dress, a skoit. When we go out, it like two mens out together. She wears her hair cut short, like mahn. She don' have any tits." Because he quite openly rails against lesbians and how much he hates them, the song might truly be considered risible if it weren't so laughable. It is clearly meant as a joke, if not a bad joke, that only comes to the fore because the writer/singer has a basic (and possibly stubbornly ingrained) misunderstanding of human dynamics.

Diving into the liner notes of the Norton Records-released CD finds they were written by noted music critic Nick Tosches, so you know it is meant to be taken equally as seriously as it is to inspire laughter. Such a feeling often comes when listening to what is considered to be "outsider music," where sometimes the individuals seem a tad (or even more so) brain-damaged and so you get a simultaneous feeling of exploration and exploitation, of laughing with the person at the same time you might be laughing at them.

But digging into Valentine's mostly self-released and promoted sides going back to the early '60s, finds a man barely conversant with any sense of music or rhythm, who pretty much shouts most of his lyrics in his odd patois and barely ever tries to sing at all. His earliest B-side, Little Lulu Frog, is absolutely fascinating because of this, built around a recurring belly laugh every couple of lines while strange frog sounds seem to back up the whole affair over a rollicking, danceable blues ramble. (I also really like the simple guitar riff on the song.) And I can't understand a word of it.

At the back end of the CD was a short, 48-second promo called The Vampire Radio Spot. It was exactly as described: a brief bit that aired on radio, probably between 1957 or 1959, promoting a three-part short play called The Vampire that T. Valentine had produced on stage in Chicago featuring himself as the titular vampire along with three female victims, before he had ever recorded Teen-Age Jump or any other singles.

Again, we have T. Valentine in full mush-mouthed mode, though he is a little easier to understand when he slows his voice down. "See the vampire... attack young women... kill them... suck their BLOOOOOOD!" If you have to give anything to Valentine, it is for sheer hustle and chutzpah, getting his own most likely shitty play produced in clubs in the late '50s, almost like a Chicago-side Ed D. Wood, Jr. Besides, the way he says his own lines is pretty much devoid of terror and sounds rather cute and pathetic instead.

Valentine's life is certainly intriguing, worthy of further discussion, and possibly even a feature length film study in the style of Ed Wood might prove to be rather interesting. But T. (the T. stands for Thurmon, but he prefers to be called Val) Valentine, born in Mississippi in 1932, is still with us and still shoutin' along to music. In 2012, he teams up with up and coming blues outfit, Daddy Long Legs, and produced a brand new album called... what else... The Vampire

Despite the self-referential title (and a fantastic cover image of Valentine wearing a Dracula cape), most of the songs are newer and seem to have no thematic connection to Valentine's old play. However, there is a track deep in the album with the same title as the album, and what can be discerned from listening to it is... um... um...

Well, see for yourself...

I thought about attempting to untangle the hedge of words and semi-words and arcane sounds and transcribe it for you, but I just don't have the time today. Or tomorrow. Or all of next year. I already have enough issues of my own. I don't need to make myself any crazier. I don't know if the words are straight from Val's play or not, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out that it is not that far removed from a normal Valentine performance: rambling, incoherent, and still pretty cool just in itself. As for the horror content, sure I added it to this mix because of its theme and title, but as in his radio spot, the unintentional comedy pretty much squashes anything scary about it, but that doesn't make it unworthy. He could be singing about a bar of soap, and it would still sound the same, but be completely fascinating to hear.

While Val will never become a real singer, Daddy Long Legs does seem to keep him focused and on track throughout the album, though it is still shot through with that certain touch of oddness that can only come from an artist as purely unfettered by actual talent as T. Valentine. The band itself choogles on admirably behind him, doing its job while clearly enjoying the moment for what it is. The song Cell Phone, while yet again having vocals that are nearly indecipherable by normal human ears and minds, almost has the feel of an old John Lee Hooker track when he teamed up with Canned Heat in the '70s. The full album is helped immeasurably by the band's steady presence behind Valentine, who is able to just keep being himself.

And really, that's all we need in this world.



And for those still sticking around, for a taste of Daddy Long Legs on their own, here is a live performance on TV where they rather kick some serious ass with Motorcycle Madness...

...and even better, a devastating, soul-shaking performance of their song Blood from a Stone, on the Drive Sessions...

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Mr. Mixtape-ptlk, Track #11: Cemetery Girls by Barnes & Barnes (1980)

OK, time to get creepy. I mean, really, really creepy. Unless you are the type who is actually into the sort of thing they are talking about in this song, and then I guess it wouldn't be creepy in the least bit to you. But for the vast majority of people, myself included, it's a pretty creepy subject, even when it is just part of a joke.

Though I am prone to say "good and creepy," because while the act of necrophilia described in the song Cemetery Girls is certainly not "good" by any measure, the song is by the infamous duo of Barnes & Barnes. So, for me, it's going to fall into the "good" category. Oh, but still yet into the "creepy" one as well.

I was originally planning to have another Barnes & Barnes track from later in their career as a selection on this mix, a medley of Wax Your Carrot/The Boogie Man and Dan, but then realized that I had used it on an earlier compilation. But I still wanted to get some B&B on the mix, so I switched to an equally strange track, but one that had any extra layer of sickness ladled over the top of it.

Before we go any further, if you have not heard the song already, I implore the strong-willed, open-minded, and musically adventurous among you to listen to Cemetery Girls first. If you decide to get out while the getting is good, that's fine, but I will think you are a wimp. And if you do wimp out, you will miss out on some very odd sampled references that take place during the song that at one point were clues to the quite famous identity of one half of the then-mysterious, masked band. Lyrics are just below... if you dare!!! Mwahahahaha!!!

Cemetery Girls
(Art and Artie Barnes)

"I love to dance with cemetery girls
The moon comes out the earth unfurls

No time to waste the hours fade
They come awake the dead parade

Fresh souls in the cornfield
Anthony put them there
And it's good, it's real good
[Anthony: You be dead!]

I love to kiss the cemetery girls
Their lips are hard, blank eyes like pearls

I call them up, they come to me
A zombie pomp pure ecstasy

Fresh souls in the cornfield
Anthony put them there
And it's good, it's real good

I love to sleep with cemetery girls
Their legs are cold, sweet dusty curls

Pale, pale breasts pressed to my cheek
When we make love, stiff muscles creak

Fresh souls in the cornfield
Anthony put them there
And it's good, it's real good

I love to love the cemetery girls
I love to love the cemetery girls
I love to love the cemetery girls
I wish they all could be cemetery girls... Yeah!"

See, that wasn't so hard wasn't it? Just a nice, normal "boy meets girl, who happens to be cold and dead, and so are all of her friends" kind of song. It's a sweeping, Ed Gein-style romance brought to life with spooky synth sounds that really do make it feel like you are taking a slow walk through a graveyard at night stalking your latest... conquest.

As with almost every single Barnes & Barnes song, the final word in the lyrics is "Yeah," which, depending on the particular song, is sometimes very obvious, sometimes not so. This time out, the "Yeah" comes as the tag after they briefly take a detour from their song's basic melody to cross over into Beach Boys territory to spoof the hook from the song California Girls.

But there is something else loose in this song besides the vivid description of laying down to make sweet love to female corpses. Floating about in each chorus is the voice of a very bossy little boy, saying things like "You're a bad man! You're a very bad man!" If you do not recognize the voice, the lyrics "Anthony put them there!" and "It's good, it's real good!" and further nods to fresh souls being out in the cornfield are direct references to an old episode of The Twilight Zone called It's A Good Life, for which show creator and host Rod Serling wrote the screenplay, based on a short story by Jerome Bixby. 

It's A Good Life is about six-year-old Anthony Fremont, who can read minds, bend wills, and pretty much create or do anything he wants with his absolutely god-like powers. When people do not think happy thoughts about Anthony, he can turn them into monstrous horrors and then wishes the result away "to the cornfield," which is shorthand for burying them away forever. And with the entire town of Peaksville utterly afraid of Anthony, thinking happy thoughts becomes a very hard thing to accomplish, but thinking how to stop Anthony is treasonous and very dangerous.

The episode is considered by many critics to be one of the best stories ever put on television, and is famous enough to have been remade when The Twilight Zone was adapted for the big screen in 1983. (The segment was directed by director Joe Dante, whose next project would be Gremlins.)

So, what is the connection of It's A Good Life to Cemetery Girls, besides someone wanting to sample a sound clip or two to add to an already creepy song? At the time of the song's release on their debut album Voobaha, Barnes & Barnes were completely (and purposely) unknown to the public. They had made their breakthrough in 1978 with the ultra-wacky song Fish Heads, which went huge after Dr. Demento started playing it and then Saturday Night Live played the video for the song two weeks back to back. Barnes & Barnes wear masks in the video, which, unbelievably, was directed by a pre-fame Bill Paxton, who also appears in the video, along with Dr. Demento. The pair are also masked on the cover of Voobaha, further obscuring their identities, but that doesn't mean they didn't playfully leave a trail of breadcrumbs.

Cemetery Girls has all of these added references to It's A Good Life for one solid reason: while Barnes & Barnes go by the names Art and Artie, even to this very day, when performing together, when they finally revealed themselves in the early 1980s, they turned out to be musician Robert Haimer and actor/musician Bill Mumy. Once upon a time, Bill Mumy was a child actor named Billy Mumy, who played the super-smart, boy inventor Will Robinson on the Lost in Space TV show. But years before that role, Mumy essayed the role of demonic little Anthony Fremont, the boy who sends people who don't think happy thoughts out to the cornfield in It's A Good Life on The Twilight Zone.

The idea of mashing up confusion about Mumy's identity with a song about necrophilia shouldn't work on paper. But, despite the crudeness and "sick" humor in the subject matter, in circling back to that "good and creepy" definition earlier, this song has such a haunting quality to it, that I cannot help but want to include in a Halloween mixtape. Besides, Barnes & Barnes were never known for their subtlety when it came to wishing to shock audiences. Some other tracks on their albums include Boogie Woogie Amputee, Kiss Me Where It Stinks, The Public Toilet, Feminine Parts, Sit On My Lap and Call Me Daddy, Pussy Whipped, Work the Meat, Party in My Pants, and Swallow My Love. Some of these songs actually do involve clever wordplay and twists, and some of them are about exactly what you think they are about. But nobody coming to a Barnes & Barnes song is expecting it to be a walk in the park. 

A walk through a cemetery at midnight, though... maybe. And if that walk maybe involves kissing a girl or two in the cemetery, so be it...