Horror Lowbrow Art: Ghoulish Gary Pullin

Surely you remember that bit in “Conan the Barbarian” where the famous question “WHAT IS BEST IN LIFE” is posited to the muscle-bound Cimmerian, right?  And then Conan intones “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women”–there’s a little corner of your brain that can call that to mind, of course.

Well, this image by illustrator Gary Pullin comes close to representing an alternate answer to the “what is best in life” quandary that comes a little closer to my own point of view:
Death racing drag cars, badass skulls, and Vincent Price as Roderick Usher.
I feel that Price’s Roderick Usher is a WAY under-appreciated style icon.  That hair, that smoking jacket, that pained expression–it’s ALL GOOD.  There’s something so New Romantic about that representation of the character.  More spooky folks need to be taking a page from THIS dude’s style book, let me just tell you.

Naked Massacre [1976]

Late at night on July 14, 1966, Richard Speck broke into the Chicago home where nine student nurses were sleeping and murdered eight of these women.  The crime horrified the world and left many questions in its wake.  How did one man, whose previous criminal record of breaking and entering didn’t suggest a capacity for mass murder, subdue a large group of individuals and methodically execute them?  Furthermore–why had he chosen to do this?  The influence of Speck’s crime was a clear influence on the spate of stalk-and-slash films that would follow over the ensuing decades.

In at least two cases, filmmakers opted to tackle the Speck murders directly–in 1967’s “Violated Angels”  (by Japanese exploitation director Koji Wakamatsu) and in the 1976 film “Naked Massacre,” which I recently watched after a comment by Samuel Wilson of the exploitastic Mondo 70 piqued my interest.  As one might expect from a film with a title like “Naked Massacre,” this is one nasty bit of business, with a grimmer-than-grim outlook on the kind of evil men perpetrate on their fellow human beings.  This film goes past being simply  misogynistic and winds up as a study in misanthropy.  Following a majority of the details of the Speck case (even including a riff on the tattoo that led to Speck’s eventual identification and arrest), this film ratchets up the societal anxiety by making its killer an American Vietnam veteran living in a “Troubles”-era Belfast.  There’s nothing fun nor lighthearted in this movie–its oppressive atmosphere is akin to that of lurid grindhouse revenge flicks like “I Spit on Your Grave,” but to those familiar with the Speck case, it will come as no surprise to learn that there’s no Girl Power coda on this story.  In fact, the film forces the viewer to dwell inside the psyche of its murderous main character and at times there are even twitches of sympathy for this deeply damaged man.  

"Naked Massacre" Film Still
The film is aggressively un-beautiful, wallowing in its mid-Seventies setting and unflinchingly depicting crime, poverty, and senseless violence pretty much from frame one, going so far as to bookend the film with news reports on other horrible acts being committed around the globe.  There is a focus on urban decay and human misery represented by everything from the soldiers in the street to the elderly prostitute that the murderer encounters in the first of many uncomfortable-to-watch sequences.  Structurally, the film has an almost stage-play quality, since more than half the film’s run time takes place inside the nurses’ house, and there’s a clear Three Act structure consisting of the scenes outside the house, inside the house on the night of the murder, and the coda/resolution (such as it is).  

"Naked Massacre" Film Still
One of the oft-repeated questions about the Speck case is “how could such a thing happen?”  With nine women inside the house, someone should have fought back, cried out, or dared to save the rest.  The psychological spectre of female submissiveness hangs heavy, and as in the other grim Speck-inspired film “Violated Angels”, a variety of reactions are portrayed on the part of the women, from bravery to outright madness.  The killer’s interactions with the women are nuanced–his deep-seated mistrust and even hatred of women is clear, and it’s difficult to watch as each of the nurses sets off the killer’s homicidal urges, leading to her death.

"Naked Massacre" Film Still
The film has its graphic moments, but its power rests not in the literal depiction of rape and murder, but in the way it shows the damage inflicted on people who are the products of a violent society.  Most of the murders take place off-screen, and while there is one sequence in which the murderer attempts to force two naked women to have sex, this scene is played for horror and not titillation.  The glimpses of innocence and affection in the nurses’ interactions with one another only serve to make the eventual extinguishing of their lives even more tragic.  The director’s decision to end the film with a slide-show of the dead nurses provides a stark finale that underscores the intent to horrify without arousing the audience.
"Naked Massacre" Film Still
“Naked Massacre” is a fascinating cultural artifact and seems to be unique in the career of its director.  French Canadian filmmaker Denis Heroux’s filmography seems to consist largely of exploitation flicks ranging from fluffy sex fantasies (“Valerie” and “The Awakening”) to “The Uncanny,”  which I can only assume is an AWESOME movie that prominently features DEATH BY CATS.  “Naked Massacre” is a downbeat film with its feet planted firmly in the world of the political, eschewing the escapist acting-out of other exploitation films in favor of a brutal realism that underscores its bleak themes.

Tenebrous Facts by Decree of Nerdliness

Much like H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha, my will is powerful and unbendable by mere mortals.  However, I like to think of myself as a benevolent ruler, and when an appropriately flattering request is made of me, I try my best to play nicely with others.  There is no way on this earth or any other that I’m going to be sharing twenty-five facts about myself, per the phrasing of the inexplicably popular meme that’s been making the social-networking rounds, but I certainly have time for six, especially when the request is made by interpal and Official Tenebrous Prison Guard Darius Whiteplume (he brings the nekkidity over on Dirty & Nerdy so it only seems fair to acquiesce to such a modest meme).

Here are the rules, half of which I am following, as indicated:
  1. Link to the person who tagged you [check!]
  2. Post the rules on your blog [check!]
  3. Write six random things about yourself [no check–nothing is random in the Empire]
  4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them [no check–I always feel like I am imposing, so I will graciously suggest that if you follow this meme you let me know so I can get a sick voyeuristic kick out of reading about your life]
  5. Let each person know they’ve been tagged and leave a comment on his or her blog [see above]
  6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up [check!]
And the requested facts:
  1. Sometimes, if I’m thinking about nothing at all, I will start thinking about a chimpanzee riding on a Segway.  Now you can think about it, too:
  2. I am a member of Phi Beta Kappa, which pretty much means you have to defer to my opinions as A RECOGNIZED SCHOLAR.  And yes, I have thought about attaching the key to a body piercing.
  3. I love taking photographs of street art, especially when monsters are involved.  Which leads me to wonder, do skeletons count as monsters?  I’m coming down on “yes,” due to early exposure to “Jason and the Argonauts” and “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.”  Here are a few of my pictures (Baron XIII included for scale):
  4. Baron XIII and Skeleton Graffiti
    The Baron with Skull Graffiti
    Elephant, Abe-Bama and Bigfoot Posters

  5. Illegitimate Sports are the only sports I care for.  Please to see: lumberjack competitions, the World’s Strongest Man, and Ninja Warrior.  I have never been to a live or televised sporting event ever in my entire life, although Women’s Beach Volleyball in the Olympics has some things to recommend it.
  6. I don’t play video games that are more complicated than Brick Breaker and Solitaire.  I figure if I’m going to learn complicated software, there better be a direct financial payoff for me.
  7. I’m pretty clueless when it comes to music and I rely on my friends to keep me in the loop.  That having been said, I know I’m late to the party, but I think I’m hopelessly in love with Amanda Palmer.

Behind Convent Walls [1978]

It is a TRUE FACT that I can’t turn down an invitation from the estimable Duke of DVD and the equally-estimable Vicar of VHS at Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies, so when they announced that they were preparing a tag-team review (not as dirty as it sounds, or exactly as dirty as it sounds, depending on what you read into that) of one of the finest entries into the nunsploitation subgenre and wanted me to lend my expertise to their discourse, the only answer I could offer was “But Of Course, Gentlemen.” Apparently this is a doozy of a review, so the boys have divided it up into three segments to be posted this week. Here are my thoughts on the film, and follow the link at the bottom of the page to be magically transported to a wonderland of filth.

Walerian Borowczyk’s 1978 film, “Behind Convent Walls,” walks a tightrope between earthy farce and tragedy that might seem more at home on a Sixteenth Century stage than captured on film. Unlike other titles in the nunsploitation canon, Borowczyk’s take on the Women In God’s Prison theme is a bawdy romp that is free from the depictions of Satanism and torture that texture other similar flicks. This is still a scathing indictment of the Catholic Church, but Borowczyk’s approach is to strip out the dark fantasy elements and force the viewer to confront the potential tragedy that results from the suppression of natural human sexual impulses. This vision is in contrast to the densely symbolic and dream-like world of a director like Jean Rollin, or the compulsive camera-eye of a Jess Franco.

"Behind Convent Walls" Film Still

Borowczyk’s literality infuses every aspect of the film. The cinematography by Luciano Tovoli (veteran of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” and “Tenebre”) combines a hand-held camera with sensual soft-focus that creates haloes of light around the faces of the nuns. A restrained color palette provides a sense of visual unity—as the title suggests, the film takes place entirely in one nunnery, and the colors are almost entirely limited to white, black, red and a woody neutral. It’s a stunning film to look at that emphasizes the beauty of its main players—the experience of watching this film is like seeing a fabulously naughty image painted by Vermeer and then brought to life.

"Behind Convent Walls" Film Still

But back to those “natural human sexual impulses” that are the focus of this tale. This movie brims with sex and all natures of couplings are explored, sometimes in graphic detail. Softcore hetero and lesbian scenes abound, from furtive girl-on-girl breast-groping in a confessional (bonus points for the fourth-wall-busting “oh no we’re too shy” response of the ladies to the voyeuristic camera’s gaze) to a passionate outdoor deflowering to a rough-and-tumble quickie over a crate of chickens. A surprisingly explicit close-up scene of a nun masturbating with a homemade wooden dildo rounds out the “something for everyone” on-screen sex report. There’s an effort to make the sex in this film look real and erotic without verging onto the territory of plastickey pornography or a fetish fulfillment checklist. Elements like the hand-painted erotica that one nun uses to trade for forbidden food or the very sexual crush that another nun has developed on Jesus himself add a innocence and even sweetness to the proceedings.

"Behind Convent Walls" Film Still

This isn’t so much a work of the fantastique as it is one of magical realism. The story takes place in the real world, but there are inexplicable quirks throughout that one must accept rather than struggle to explain. It serves to reflect conditions and issues that exist in reality rather than to represent them directly.

In keeping with the bawdy nature of this film, I think it’s best if I get out from behind the lectern and turn this over to two gentlemen who can guide you through some of the weird and wonderful details of what goes on “Behind Convent Walls.” Duke and Vicar—have at!

Click here to read Part One of the Duke and the Vicar’s take on “Behind Convent Walls.” These dudes love the Meat Man (I am refraining from inserting any If You Know What I Mean content here–you’re welcome).

Click here to read Part Two of the Duke and the Vicar’s experiences “Behind Convent Walls.”

And the GRAND FINALE – Part Three of the Duke and the Vicar on “Behind Convent Walls” (wherein they lament the lack of Paul Naschy–yeah, I know, you lay a feast in front of these guys and all they want is beefy pectorals).

Kink and Madness in Weimar Berlin

Monocle Reflection

I’d like to think that we can all learn lessons from the generations that preceded us.  Sure, we’re in what looks to be pretty dire economic straits, but cheer up, friends!  This is far from unprecedented.  Let’s take a lesson from the Weimar Republic and start making some kinky lemonade out of all those sour citrusy fruits that are piling up on our collective doorstep.

Berlin Lesbian Bar
Sure, the currency was worth virtually nothing and a not-insignificant portion of the population resorted to prostitution and petty crime in order to make ends meet, and there’s that whole “looming specter of fascism” thing, but there’s a silver lining to all this.  Far-out cabaret performances and face-meltingly excellent fashion combined with a public thirst for kink and acting-out that seems to be pretty much without parallel.  As a would-be despot, these are cultural qualities I’d like to see us start to embrace.
Berlin "Boot Girls"
The Teutonic zeal for order was applied to the cult of esoteric sex, resulting in a bizarrely codified underworld-as-pop-culture zeitgeist.  When German efficiency is applied to sex-for-sale, the concept of the Boot Girl is born–these street dominatrices advertised their services through the color of their patent-leather boots.  I can imagine situations in which being ill-versed in that particular hanky code might result in embarrassment, to say nothing of the potential for grievous personal injury.
"Booted Love" Illustration by Paul Kamm
Let’s cut to the chase–if my world is going to hell in a handbasket, I want monocles, fancy footwear, spankings, endless nights of weird parties and tropical pets to compensate for my troubles, and I want them NOW.  Barring that, I’ll just hole up in my apartment and re-read Feral House’s superb pictorial histories, Mel Gordon’s “Voluptuous Panic” and Barbara Ulrich’s “Hot Girls of Weimar Berlin” and do my best to ignore the outside world.
Weimar Berlin Personality Ruth Roellig

Lowbrow Art Obsessions: D.W. Frydendall and Jeremy Cross

I’d say that Reason One I’m glad I have a decade between me and my fine art training is that I’ve finally learned to embrace my own taste without having to hide my love for the Lowbrow Art.  While my instructors were doing their hardest to cram me into a feminist pigeonhole (something that is not as sexy as it sounds), I was trying unsuccessfully to tell them that what REALLY interested me was Pop Art and Surrealism.  Imagine my surprise and elation to learn that there was, in fact, an art movement alternately known as Pop Surrealism–enter Lowbrow.  I’m not a scholar on the topic, but dammit–I know what I like, and I like chicks, monsters, weirdness, and bright colors.

And–really–is there a finer subject for an artist than a lanky, top-hatted ghoul?  Fuck the Pieta–THIS is the true embodiment of artistic skill.  The tattered rags, the sunken cheeks, the zombie stare–brings a tear to your eye from the sheer magnificence.  That, dear friends, is the art of D.W. Frydendall, and if you think THAT is cool, just check out this post-apocalyptic vision of madness:

Much as I love the clean-lined comix style of Mr. Frydendall, I reserve a special place in my heart for artists who work in traditional media, and I think I’ve fallen in love with the Greek Orthodox icon-inspired oil paintings of Jeremy Cross.  He’s developed a visual vocabulary here that’s subversive, funny, eerie, and beautiful.  Here are a few pieces from his “Botched Saints” series:

Enjoy a gallery of Jeremy Cross’ work at ArtSlant and visit his MySpace page for more information.
And, of course, if you’re like me and want to own a piece of art from one (or BOTH) of these artists, visit Hyaena Gallery and prepare to empty your pockets.

The Iconic Miss Pam Grier

Pam Grier promotional photo
When I was invited to participate in this week’s blogathon celebration of Pam Grier Week by Darius Whiteplume of Adventures in Nerdliness and Dirty & Nerdy and Mr. Canacorn of the hella-aptly-named Awesomeness for Awesome’s Sake, I leapt at the opportunity.  From the time I encountered Ms. Grier’s films as an adolescent girl, something about the women of action that she played spoke to me on a visceral level.  Did I want to be this tough-talking glamazon, or did I want to do her?  Age has taught me that the answer to this question is yes, but that’s not the point I’m here to make.  I’m dancing around the fact that, for me, talking about what makes Pam Grier so special is a damned daunting undertaking.  It’s important to do JUSTICE to someone so fabulous!
Pam Grier promotional photo

If there’s an actress other than Pam Grier who better embodies the X Factor that elevates an attractive woman into a screen icon, I couldn’t name her.  My favorite films of hers are “Foxy Brown” and “Coffy,” both directed by the incredible American exploitation filmmaker Jack Hill*.  These roles balance a street-wise confidence with vulnerability and a desire to be loved and allow Grier to emote in a variety of extreme situations.  Her performances in these films range from high camp to heartbreaking with plentiful ass-kicking in between.  What Grier lacks as a nuanced thespian, she more than makes up for in charisma–her eyes can blaze with what feels like authentic passion, and her body language is larger than life whether attempting to seduce or threaten (or engage in some unspeakably alluring combination of the two).  The fact that her characters are strong women who are inspired into action by their own sense of moral rightness puts forth a powerful message.  Unlike the protagonists in many other revenge films, Foxy and Coffy are out to right what are actually societal wrongs, not personal ones.  They’re action heroes of the first degree, and I find myself rooting for them as they use their intelligence, strength and beauty to their advantage.

Pam Grier promotional photo
And what beauty!  My god–Pam Grier has one of the most exquisite profiles I have ever seen on a human female.  She’s distinguished and yet supremely feminine, with features that scream of plush sexuality.  I never had trouble believing that Pam Grier’s characters could sashay into a room and instantly capture the undivided attention of whoever her fortunate/unfortunate target might be.
Pam Grier promotional photo
I just want to throw myself at her feet and beg her to teach me her womanly wisdom (yes, also If You Know What I Mean, you friggin’ perverts).  In a perfect world, Pam Grier is my sensei and I am led through a series of grueling but ultimately rewarding tasks that leave me tougher, more beautiful and more capable than when I first came under her tutelage.  You know–the womanly equivalent of balancing on logs or fighting blindfolded from the old school Shaolin movies.
I love living in a world that has Pam Grier in it.  Wherever you are, I’m raising a toast to you, Ms. Grier, you fantastic force for female fierceness.
*I had the great honor of sharing an airport shuttle with Mr. Hill in Cleveland at Cinema Wasteland last year, a memory that I hold very dear indeed  since my yardstick of fame is calibrated quite differently from that of the rest of the world.

The Black Cobra Cycle

Some folks would place the “Black Cobra” movies in the Blaxploitation subgenre, but I beg to differ.  These movies are superb examples of a little something I’m going to go ahead and call Fredwilliamsonsploitation–a subgenre that highlights and magnifies the qualities intrinsic to actor Fred Williamson.  What makes Fred Williamson’s performances so special is that he is utterly convinced that he’s the coolest cat in the room at any given moment.  He’s an actor who has played his own idealized version of himself in virtually every film in which he’s appeared–he’s the best there is, the guy who comes through in the clutch, a cigar-smoking, judo-chopping, wise-cracking force for arrogant goodness.  It could be argued that his performances are one-dimensional, but when the dimension you’re working with is this much fun to watch, why go for breadth and depth?

"Black Cobra 2" Film Still
In the “Black Cobra” films, Williamson plays Robert Malone, a tough-talking cop who sorta-grudgingly accepts the tough cases assigned to him.  The first film finds him in New York City (or at least that’s what the stock footage interlaced into the film would suggest) while “Black Cobra” entries Two and Three give Malone a promotion to Lieutenant and a relocation to Chicago (once again implied by the stock footage), even though the meat of the plot takes place in the Philippines (gotta give props for them NOT trying to pass it off as Los Angeles, at least).
"Black Cobra" Film Still
The first “Black Cobra” follows the basic arc of Sylvester Stallone’s TOTALLY RIDICULOUS and therefore highly recommended action flick “Cobra,” only on a fraction of the budget.  In the Williamson vehicle, a fabulously Eurotrash biker gang terrorizing a rather two-story, arboreal version of New York City.  The scriptwriters clearly found the Stallone film to be insufficiently absurd, so this movie ratchets up the krazee elements to at least an eight–hell, I didn’t even miss the fact that the bikers are no longer in league with the Devil.  In one scene portraying a gang rampage, the thugs steal a windsurfer’s Jeep and use it to drive into him when he emerges from the surf.  This move is so unexpected and stupid, yet it’s alarmingly effective in the universe of this film!  

"Black Cobra" Film Still
Detective Bob Malone is pretty much a hardcore dickhead to everyone in the movie except his cat Purvis.  He’s a grouchy misanthrope with a mean karate kick and an itchy trigger finger.  During one of the film’s climactic moments, Williamson channels Dirty Harry and ad libs a “do ya feel lucky, punk” speech that had me gawping at the sheer ballsiness of such a move.  Now THAT takes guts–it’s one thing to knock off a Stallone film, but entirely another matter to deliberately invoke that toughest of hard-boiled police icons.  THAT is how great Williamson feels he is!  The first “Black Cobra” is so chock full of WTF’ery that to outline every little nugget of silly glee would be to ruin the overall effect, but suffice to say the UNSTOPPABLE BIKER GANG grudgingly shares their abandoned-warehouse digs with hobos and while some extraordinarily rude manhandling of females takes place, it’s unclear to me that these guys understand exactly how the crime of rape is perpetrated.  This is actually in line with the weirdly chaste mood of the series–there’s a single bared boob and some swimsuits to be seen (and a man-bum, if you’re into that sort of thing), but otherwise this is pretty much sex-free.
"Black Cobra 3" Film Still
It’s got to be said that karate action is NOT Williamson’s forte–much as the stuntmen work within Williamson’s physical limitations, it’s clear that his kicks are limited in range and he’s not exactly endowed with cat-like reflexes.  However, the baddies keep on falling as Malone inelegantly flails his way through their ranks.  
"Black Cobra" Film Still
Fashion photographer Elys Trumbo (played by Eva Grimaldi, star of such uberklassee fare as “Ratman” and “Convent of Sinners”–you might not recognize her with all of her clothes on) is inexplicably drawn to Malone, even though he’s fond of admonishing her with such lines as:  “if you have to open your mouth, then do it just to shove in the food I made you.”  Yikes…  Malone is a thinker underneath that crusty exterior, and he’s all about spreading his wisdom around.  When the police chief rails against his daughter’s kidnapping, wishing he was twenty-five years younger, Malone sagely reminds him that he wouldn’t *have* a daughter were it twenty-five years ago.  File THAT under Totally Not Helping.  

“Black Cobra 2” finds Malone (a Chicago cop this time, a fact which is rammed into one’s frontal cortex by repeated mentions during the expository scenes) forcibly sent to the Philippines by his actually-kinda awesome police commissioner bosss part of an exchange program.  The commissioner is played by Edward Santana, who apparently never appeared in a film again after reprising his role as the shoutey and emphatic Captain Marton twice.  
Minutes after his plane lands, Malone falls prey to an ex-pat pickpocket who Malone decides to pursue, only to get pulled into a web of intrigue involving terrorists and hostages and general action film mayhem.  He’s awkwardly teamed up with police lieutenant Kevin McCall, played by TeeVee’s Spider-Man, Nicholas Hammond.  Yet more awkward is Malone’s love interest, a chanteuse who delivers one of the most cringe-worthy song performances this side of “Black Cobra 3” (more on THAT later).  She sings a rather extraordinary love song that she’s clearly learned phonetically: “Stay bubby stay… stay to the jug-ment day… come on of the ray… may my monay shy… we cross in the night like two rollin’ stones… stone roll outta sight…”  The more I listen to this song, the more I believe this might be the most profound thing I’ve ever heard–it’s positively surrealist in its layers of meaning.  The rest of the soundtrack involves the grotesque misuse of the cowbell right from the opening credits:

“Black Cobra 3: The Manila Connection” casts Malone as part of a team of CIA operatives trying to track down a cache of stolen American missiles.  Our hero is a lot more eager to travel abroad this time, with a redux of his still-awesome argument scene with Captain Marton, this time reversing the roles as Malone eagerly pleads his case to be sent to Manila.  
This movie is an amazing bit of fuckwittery right from scene one, in which a camo-clad spy breaks through an electrified fence using a needlessly baroque set of clip-on devices when a sturdy set of gloves would’ve provided even better insulation.  Malone’s shoot-em-up style of policework is met with more enthusiasm and encouragement in this film, and when he teams up with his war buddy’s son and a lady CIA agent, he’s pretty much given carte blanche to blow away as many terrorists as he feels like. The REAL star of “Black Cobra 3,” moreso even than Williamson’s ego or the dubious John Waters moustache on one of the CIA agents, is the incredible theme song, “The Power of Love,” which is crooned by an individual who belts this bitch out like a middle-manager accountant performing bourbon-soaked 1:00 AM karaoke.  Check out this YouTube clip if you don’t believe me:
The joy I derive from the “Black Cobra” movies is likely indicative of some soul-deep intellectual insufficiency on my part.  I’m not going to try to deny that.  I just don’t want to live in a world where loving Fred Williamson movies is wrong.

"The Song is You," Megan Abbott [2008]

I have a habit of buying novels blindly–lured in by an appealing cover, a tantalizing blurb or some other X-Factor that makes it an alluring bit of paper to spend several hours with.  There’s a level of commitment to the reading of a book that’s different from that of watching a movie, and in some ways a novel has to work harder to win my heart.  Hell, I spent *years* after college reading nothing but non-fiction because I was stuffed past satiation with other people’s taste in novels.

One of the things that got me back into the habit of reading novels was a recommendation from Baron XIII that I pick up some hard-boiled fiction.  As you might imagine, there’s not a lot of room in a liberal arts curriculum for the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson.  When I finally read Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” (after much dedication on the part of the recommending party, for which I thank him), I was hooked.  These elegantly-crafted stories of grey-shaded people living in a sinister universe are made of potent, habit-forming stuff!
I’ll admit that I have a similar prejudice towards hard-boiled novels that I have towards exploitation films–there’s a joy I derive from vintage stuff that I don’t tend to get out of present-day efforts, which all-too-frequently play out like half-baked homages to the works they’re trying to emulate.  I’m going through the trouble of all this set-up to explain how delighted I was to discover the incredibly satisfying book that is Megan Abbott’s 2008 novel “The Song Is You.”
Abbott crafts an intricate mystery story around the real-life disappearance of starlet Jean Spangler that becomes a “Hollywood Babylon”-worthy story of murder and deceit populated by psychologically complex characters.  Compelled by guilt over his possible involvement in Spangler’s vanishing, slick Hollywood studio agent Gil Hopkins begins to investigate what happened to the actress.  His inquiries lead him further into the dark side of fame, bringing him into contact with assorted seedy figures, blackmail, and organized crime.
When real-life personalities are placed into a fictional setting, there are ample opportunities for missteps stemming from the urge to compare the author’s portrayal of events to the historical record.  There’s the possibility to demolish the story’s credibility entirely with just one misplaced element, but Abbott’s vision is thorough and compelling, avoiding these pitfalls entirely.  Her choice to use relatively obscure true-life figures works in her favor, lending a texture of reality to her novel without begging for comparisons to what might have actually happened.
The story embraces its darkness, unflinchingly portraying the broken psyches of its players.  It was no easy task to create a sympathetic character out of Gil Hopkins, a shameless opportunist who has built his career out of covering up the sometimes-significant wrongdoings of his talent pool,  but the author manages to make him a compelling figure whose struggle with his own culpability is expertly drawn.
To me, the merit of a truly enjoyable book can be measured by my desire to spend more time in the world the author has created, and I’m extraordinarily eager to go back to Megan Abbott’s seedy, tragic Los Angeles.

The Dud Report: Not Dud But Dreaming…?

Buying movies in bulk is fraught with peril.  While there is a reassuring regularity in taking the thirty-first roll of Charmin out of the fifty-pack purchased at Costco, knowing that it will likely resemble roll seven as much as roll forty-eight, there are no such guarantees when dealing with public-domain box sets of films like Mill Creek’s “Chilling Classics 50 Movie Pack.”  To continue the analogy, some rolls might be plush and bountiful (“Lady Frankenstein”), others might be several sheets short and abrasive to one’s sensitive parts (anything directed by Bill Rebane).

Then again, trash-cinema pleasure is in the eye of the beholder, so it’s only fair for me to point out that my opinion isn’t the end-all and be-all.  Other bloggers before me have taken the time to craft proper reviews of these movies, so in the interests of saving you the thirteen-and-a-half hours of your life that you will never get back in watching these particular crummy movies, I’m linking you over to some other folks’ reviews to give you a better idea of what’s in store.

“Funeral Home” – Like “Psycho,” if the infamous shower scene was replaced by Mittens The Cat, who bears a striking resemblance to the mystery and wonder that is Spaghetti Cat.  Because I am all about respecting differences of opinion, Cinema de Merde d
“The House of the Dead” – I should never watch anthology films.  I never like them, although they 
frequently serve as good counterpoints to identify exactly what is good about episodes of the “Twilight Zone.”  Although I don’t remember the “Twilight Zone” episode about the businessman who gets trapped in an abandoned store and turned into a hobo as a result of being force-fed bottles of Ripple.  So–points for originality there.  And… why was the original title
Alien Zone?”  That’s just lying.  Although, this guy likes it, so–diff’rent strokes, right?
“The Cold” – I knew I was in trouble from the credits sequence superimposed over Super-8 footage of board games.  So stupid it might have been art, although the Russian Roulette sequence was not-uneffective.  This is why I must take a moment to shake my fist at director Bill Rebane for tossing me enough nuggets of weird to watch this damned thing through to the end.  Bleeding Skull’s review of this film captures a lot of my feelings on it–except much, much nicer.
“The Demons of Ludlow” – After my experience with “The Cold,” WHY DID I WATCH ANOTHER BILL REBANE MOVIE?  Oh wait, I know why–it was blurbed as being about a warlock-possessed piano.  I’m not going to tell you it has dummy-decapitation in it, which is awesome, because you have better uses for your ninety-ish minutes.  Oh damn–I just told you about the dummy-decapitation.  Sorry!  If you are craving more info, head over to the Horror Movie a Day review.  I couldn’t find a favorable view on this one–consider THAT your warning (it’s a BIG internet, people).
“Murder Mansion” – Most boring lesbian vampire movie *ever.*  My time is limited–deliver me boobs and blood or FAIL.  I know this was an edited print, but I can’t imagine that *extending* its screen time would’ve benefitted this old-dark-house cocktease of a film.  Hysteria Lives disagrees with me, giving this 3 out of 5 stars.

“Oasis of the Zombies” – CONFESSION: I sort of suck, because this one amused me.  I liked the performance of the skull-head-on-a-stick as well as the inexplicably existentialist ending.  Bonus points for some of the goofiest day-for-night shooting in history.  Now, riddle me this–why hasn’t anyone made an AWESOME Nazi zombie movie yet?  I want this to happen more than I have wanted anything yet today.  Something Awful wants their time back from this one, as well as the opportunity to inflict grievous bodily harm on director Jess Franco.
“Cathy’s Curse” – I’m sorry–what?  I was napping.  Must’ve been something that was on teevee…  Horror Movie A Day stayed awake and is much, much nicer than I am (again).

“The Devil Times Five” – Starring Leif Garret and an absurd retard-seduction scene.  I wanted this talky, static flick to be an amazing artifact of trash cinema but alas, ’twasn’t.  Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies finds plenty to delight in here, though (and they’re still way, WAY nicer than I am).
“Haunts” – Best combination of goat-milking and love scene footage I’ve seen yet.  Bonus points for the drunk performance by the actor portraying the drunk sheriff.  No bonus points for a twist ending I saw coming from a mile away.  Doomed Moviethon has a more favorable view of this film.