Sunday, June 30, 2013

Weekly Mondo Round-Up: Who the F*$k is Madison?!? Edition

I had a dream last night that was fairly incredible. Well the first half was typical, scary yet kind of boring brain vomit, but the second half involved visiting Henry Miller's watery grave/tribute. (Truth-Henry Miller is not buried in a woodsy lake in the Pacific Northwest.) Said site had an attached gift shop/convenience store that had a separate area for arts and crafts (!) As the tour guide was showing me this section and picking up some of the stone work that a lot of people used to make jewelry, I look up and making this incredible plexiglass/amber piece was Joey Ramone (awesome). Joey pointed out that he was decidedly not making any jewelery but just enjoyed creating little bits of art for the texture. After creating some watercolor paintings on my own, I went into their stock room for something and ran into Bruce Springsteen. Upon meeting the man, the first thing out of my mouth was, “Oh my god, you once met Lester Bangs? What was he like?” After that, I woke up but the chances of me actually saying that to “the boss” in real life are fairly good. (Unlike the odds of me actually meeting Springsteen.) 

                                                          Originally found on Cretin Family.

Speaking of Lester, I've been thinking of the man a lot lately. Granted, that is not entirely unusual since I have been a huge fan for years. Bangs is the type of writer that constantly makes me evaluate my own work. He was able to bring both a hyper-real intelligence, no bullshit quality to his work and yet, never losing any of his warmth or verve. The latter is something a lot of folks don't seem to touch upon with Lester but for someone to write the way he did, they have to truly care. The world of critical writing can be littered with some A-1 wankery, which usually stems from some white-bread type who is stroking his/her own ego. We all have ego but when it comes to creating anything, the work itself should always and eternally be number one and I think with Lester, it was always was. It's a huge crime that he is no longer in this realm. And a total aside, while Lester is by and large known as a music writer, his write-up of Ray Dennis Steckler's "Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies" is hilarious and worth looking up.) 

In a music frame of mind, I would be remiss not to mention the passing of Alan Myers, one of the pioneers who got scalped and drummer for Devo for over ten years. Part of the “classic era,” Myers was unlike any other drummer. He provided the spine for some of Devo's greatest songs. This year has already been rough, after losing Harry Reems, Andy Copp (miss you), Nagisa Oshima, Jess Franco, Ebert, Annette Funicello, Richard Matheson and too many to mention. I hate doing these things to be honest. It always feels like too many people have gone and trying to write the perfect thing to honor a whole lifetime of work feels impossible. It kind of is impossible but to quote a friend of mine, these things are always harder for the living. The best thing anyone can do is to kick extra ass for those who can't.

This past Thursday, I was interviewed once again on my friend Frank Cotolo's internet radio show, The Cotolo Chronicles, discussing zombies. It's funny, since I have been feeling burned out on the subject for quite awhile. But when Frank invited me, I took it as a challenge and ended up getting some different perspectives on the whole thing during my research. There's more to it than just brain eating Romero-styled revenants and Haitian voodoo. Anyways, it was fun and available to listen for anyone who missed the live show. 

Last but certainly not least, please check out my latest for Dangerous Minds. Riding the lost-sexploitation film train from “Sexcula,” this time I explore Vinegar Syndrome's superb release, “The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis.” Their work on restoring and releasing this trio of films, including “The Ecstasies of Women,” “Linda & Abilene” and “Black Love,” is nothing short of stunning. As a huge H.G. Lewis fan and a film preservationist at heart, it feels great to have these previously lost films not only available, but also released with a lot of love and attention. 

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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Human Monsters: A look into George Romero’s Martin

In honor of one of my favorite actor's birthday, the inimitable John Amplas, I am re-posting an article I wrote about George Romero's best film, MARTIN. Originally published in issue #22 of Screem magazine, it was a real joy getting to share it with the man himself a couple of years ago. (With much thanks to my friend & fellow film writer Greg Goodsell for encouraging me to do so!) Anyways, enjoy!


Some people believe that monsters are born, not made-that there are those who are literally a “bad seed” that grows up to be a rapist, dictator, or murderer. Of course, if life was that black and white, then there would be no need for the horror genre. The reasons we’re attracted to horror are multifaceted, but the basic reason is that it is a safe way for us to explore our fears and the darker side of human nature. When it comes down to it, monsters are most certainly made, not born. Mary Shelley knew that when she wrote Frankenstein and George Romero knew that when he made his underrated masterpiece, Martin.

Martin is that rare film where each star in the sky aligned around 1977 and everyone involved brought their A-game. Intelligent, emotional, and haunting, there has never been a movie like Martin. The movie centers around a young man named Martin (John Amplas), whose boyish appearance may or may not mask an age-old vampire. Whether or not his vampirism is supernatural or an aspect of a deeper pathology is really not the main point, though it is one I will get to here in a bit. The real disease is the familial sins that Martin is ultimately the martyr for, along with all of his victims. While it is a vastly different film, Martin’s theme of the innocent paying for family dysfunction brings to mind is Walerian Borowczyk’s La Bete (1975), where the main family’s son literally dies from his ancestor’s cursed deeds. The innocent always pays for the guilty’s sins.

Horror cinema up to that point had not seen anything quite the likes of Martin. The closest heir is would have to be Hitchcock’s groundbreaking film, Psycho (1960). Both feature boyish leads who are powerless to their darker urges, often fueled by psycho-sexual impulses and unhealthy rearing. Norman Bates kills due to his potentially incestuous upbringing from his mother and Martin kills because he was raised to think he carries the family “curse” of vampirism. Norman and Martin are two characters that are captivating and at times, even sympathetic, putting the audience in the uncomfortable position of having to identify with a killer.

Both films also feature some amazing and emotionally impactive musical scores. The Bernard Herrmann score for Psycho is now legendary, but the Donald Rubinstein soundtrack for Martin is just as good. The sign of a perfect film score is when you cannot envision the film without it and this is most definitely the case with these two films.

Martin was even supposed to be entirely in black & white in its original 3-hour form. (Sadly that print has become lost to the ether.) Certainly, neither film would be half as powerful without possessing actors as innately talented and physically striking as Anthony Perkins and John Amplas.

But what Psycho hinted at, Martin bravely delves right in and simmers. Vampire or no, Martin is our protagonist and is an amazingly complex, sympathetic, and ultimately sad character. We’re never really told about his parentage, but he ends up with his batty and uber-cantankerous uncle Tata Cuda, played to the hilt by the memorable Lincoln Maazel. Cuda is immediately accusing Martin of being a “nosferatu” and reacting extremely hostile to him, to the extent of rigging up a crude alarm on Martin’s bedroom door to keep tabs on his comings and goings. He even hires a priest to perform an old school Catholic exorcism on the boy, which will hit too close to home for anyone who has to grow up with religious fundamentalism.

Part of Romero’s genius is how he approaches Martin’s “vampirism.” While there has been a debate for years over whether or not Martin is a true supernatural vampire or a victim of mental illness, most of the signs point to the latter. Romero himself said as much in the featurette on the Lion’s Gate DVD, Making Martin: A Recounting. A good chunk of the confusion is fueled by the black & white flashbacks/visions that Martin has, especially when stalking his victims. If anything, these scenes serve a dual purpose.

The first purpose being to put us into the head space of Martin and how he is romanticizing his life and his deeds. He is never shown to be truly cruel and is often surprisingly gentle with his prey (Well, as gentle as one can be when murdering and drinking blood). The real world is ugly and full of people that are often rude and ignorant. Being placed in the industrial and rotting landscape of urban Pennsylvania doesn’t help matters. One could say that he is flashing back to his past life. But more than likely, it’s a coping mechanism for the intense unhappiness in his life. Even when religious folks and angry villagers are terrorizing him, it all plays out like a classic, 1930’s horror film.

All of this ties into the second purpose of the flashbacks. They are a brilliant device to play on what the viewer is expecting with a “vampire” film, all the while giving them the hard reality that the closest, proven thing we have to the creatures of the night have more in common with someone like Ted Bundy than they do with Dr. Alucard. After all, vampires are the mythical world’s serial killers.

Heavily dysfunctional families usually have patterns of unhealthy behavior that can cycle back a couple of generations. So it’s no surprise that a lot of real life killers had extremely unhealthy upbringings. Martin was brought up with the notion that he was this bloodthirsty supernatural killer while never being treated like an actual human being.
On the flip side, his cousin Christina (Christine Forrest), one of the very few people who are actually kind to Martin, grew up in the same family and turned out healthy. Which is very true to life. Plenty of us grow up with dysfunction and yet manage to turn out to be fine. Yet, if someone is especially sensitive, naturally prone to mental instability, and abused enough, you’ll get your vampire. Just don’t necessarily expect him or her to be some romantic, poet shirt-wearing hipster.

One of the things that makes Martin such a frightening killer is the intelligence and agility he displays while going after his victims. The garage scene is especially hard to forget. There is nothing scarier than a smart killer and he is definitely no exception. Alternately, it does make his situation all the more sad, because if he had been nurtured by a sane family, who knows what potential may have been reached.

Finding any horror film, now or then, that is intelligent enough to incorporate the shades of gray instead of the typical black/white moral pantheon, can be a rare thing. But this film would not be half as powerful without the lynchpin performance of John Amplas. He is to this film what Kinski was to Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). Romero could not have found a more perfect actor than Amplas, who is able to convey a myriad of emotions with his face alone.

Physically, he is Martin. At times he looks amazingly boyish, complete with awkward gait and downcast eyes. Yet he is able to simultaneously project a world-weariness that lends itself well to someone who either thinks he is a vampire or actually is a vampire. His combination of striking looks and subtle emoting results in making Martin one of the best roles in film. In a just world, guys like Amplas, Romero, Rubinstein, and Tom Savini, who did the effects along with playing Christina’s mook boyfriend, would be winning Oscars left and right. Which is just further proof of the country club mentality that is Hollywood.

It should also be noted that this is a good-looking film, courtesy of cinematographer Michael Gornick. The framing, the choice of camera angles, all of it is tight and plays up everything that needs to be played up. Tension is created during the stalk and kill scenes, though some of the most haunting scenes are the ones of Martin walking around the city at night. The sense of loneliness is damn near tangible, making the movie all the more effective and powerful.

Martin is one of the greatest horror films ever made. Not because of the blood, but because it shows the damage that can be done when one’s family, biology, and mental state fails them. This movie is a masterpiece of nuance, emotion, and the deep fissures in the human condition.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Weekly Mondo Round-Up: Lessons From the Living

Happy Solstice and Summertime Blues everyone. I've always had a like/hate thing with hot weather. I prefer it to cold, but still find it to be on the steamy side of assy. That said, there is a certain atmosphere, a certain weird gravitas to Summer days that I do enjoy. In other words, it's great for creativity and bad for the ole electric bill. The humidity will thrill you as much as it will clobber you. 

 This week has been long, but not bad. I finished the first part of my contribution to the upcoming William Castle blog-a-thon and am about to dip again into the waters of formerly-lost-films, as well as underrated dramas. Like the Magic 8 Ball says, more will be revealed. 

Music wise, I've been revisiting my Lee Hazlewood kick, with “Sand,” “Jackson” and “Some Velvet Morning” becoming the biggest repeat offenders. There's such a lush weariness to Lee's voice and music that gets me every time I listen. There are some artists that you have to be in a specific mood to listen to and then there are those like Hazlewood, that just hit the sweet spot every single time. 

Last night, the hubby and I went to a growing outdoors art event, which was fun. There were fabulous crepes to be had and there was one artist in particular, Robert Shinn, whose work really stood out. He had this one piece, involving an old nutcracker, that I became intensely smitten with. Naturally, it was way the heck out of my budget, but worth it if you've got it. While we were looking around and entered a small gallery, I was quickly annoyed by one of those classic, pretentious art conversations. You know, the talkers in question have a little glass of white wine (rarely red, for some reason, which is fine since that leaves more for me!) and a white-bred/upper-middle class sense of self-importance. I hate this kind of thing so much, especially since I think there is way you can have an intelligent and even fun conversation about art without it devolving into yuppie-styled wankery. Being an artist does not make you a better person than anyone, only being an honest, aware and a conscious person does. 

On a happier note, the crepe was truly sterling.

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Friday, June 14, 2013

Weekly Mondo Round-Up: Plan 9 From Las Vegas Edition

This has been one of the weeks where wanderlust has been striking me big time. (Note about myself, this happens every other week!) With the heat starting to creep up as the air grows denser, hitting the open road and going out West has never felt more appealing. Driving on the oil-stained highway, throwing on Department of Crooks' criminally underrated “Plan Nine from Las Vegas” and feeling the scorch of burned gas station just sounds so perfect. The reality of such an excursion is not possible right now, but at least I have “Plan 9” and endless cups of strong Joe.

Dreams of pavement and open skies aside, I finished and posted a little article on Dangerous Minds about the formerly-lost, Canuxploitation film that combined flesh, fangs and very little filigree, entitled “Sexcula.” As a born and bred preservationist at heart, seeing anything that was originally written off as lost get found is a wonderful feeling. Plus, who doesn't love free loving vampires flashing the peace sign during coitus? It gives me some hope that a print of “Convention City” could still turn up. Dreaming is free.

The great thing, for me at least, about delving into titles like “Sexcula” is it gives me the chance to write and explore the types of cinema that a lot of film writers avoid like the plague. Which is really absurd. A lot of “serious” dramas that garner all sorts of awards are no less exploitative, in fact usually moreso, than most “skin flicks.” Manipulating audiences dramatically is too easy. Most people do not want to see sick children or their sad families, so both are easy elements to throw in. But to actually confront them with anything that truly takes them out of their comfort zone is both brilliant and extremely needed. The only kind of elitism I'll put up with usually involves one of two questions: a) Is the work good? b) Is it interesting?

Anything else usually borders on flat out snobbery and in some instances, cultural classism. Forget it. Who has time for that? 

Speaking of Department of Crooks, let me sing the joys of Marc Moreland. One of THE best guitarists you will ever hear and who will never get some cheesy cover or centerfold in any type of Guitar Monthly magazine. (Yet, if you're a metal guy that goes wheedly-wheedly-wee with your arpeggios, they will soil themselves to kingdom come.) For me the real sign of a genuinely great artist is their thumbprint and with everything that Moreland played on, you can instantly tell it is him. Blending such stellar influences like Ennio Morricone and Dick Dale into his own creative blender, there will never be another like the man. Best known for being in Wall of Voodoo, his side projects are also worth checking out, especially the aforementioned Department of Crooks and his final band, the Marc Moreland Mess.

And if all you know about Wall of Voodoo is “Mexican Radio,” then I beg you to please get your sweaty little mitts on a copy of “Seven Days in Sammystown.” The Andy Prieboy era of that band is brilliant and merits ample listening. 

Upcoming project wise, I'm about to work on a contribution for a special upcoming tribute to one of the greatest showmen in the history of film, as well as the usual one-two step review work. Stay tuned kittens.

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Friday, June 7, 2013

Weekly Mondo Round-Up: Dome of the Spheres Edition

Hello cats and kittens, welcome to a new feature for Mondo Heather. While I'm sure all of you love reading the same articles again for over a month, you deserve some fresh content on a more regular basis. So think of this as a weekly peek into the colorful and occasionally schizoid miasma that is both my life and brain. Sprinkle in some self-promotion for my non Mondo-writing and your ready to strap on your saddles shoes and go!

Something I like to do, especially whenever I'm working on any sizable projects, is throw on a film in the background and then some additional music. Basically, a multimedia melange a go-go. Last night, it was Fellini's classic 8 1/2 with my Ipod mix playing. (We're talking everything from Love & Rockets to The Residents here.) It was a great match and it lent itself well to getting art stuff done. The latter included a collage art book, fashioned from a formerly religiously-themed diary that I got for free back in my retail day job years. I started this back around 2004-5 and finally finished it earlier this week. Writing is always and forever my main love, but the visual arts are an eternal close second. It's tentatively titled “Dome of the Spheres,” inspired by the obscure and lyrically weird song of the same name. It has been one of those projects that I was not sure that I would ever actually finish, so it feels sweet to have the bloody thing done. Woo for productivity!

Speaking of which, the piece covering the “SoftRock” series, created by Actually Huizenga and her partner-in-crime Socrates Mitsios, is finished and live on DangerousMinds. I think Huizenga is one of the most interesting figures, not to mention ballsiest, in music and video out there right now. Most pop tartlets flirt with the whole sexy-girl thing, but Huizenga uses sexuality as a device to be both cheeky and explore some rather dark human territory. 

 One new kid on the film distribution block that is already knocking my socks off is the Vinegar Syndrome. They first came to my attention as the fine folks releasing “The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis,” which includes “Black Love” and “Linda & Abilene,” two films that I NEVER thought I would ever get lucky enough to see. Looking at their small but already growing library, they are one of those rare companies whose entire library is covet-worthy. I'm looking forward to writing about some of their titles in the near further, both here and abroad. Keep your peepers peeled. 

As a whole, this has been one weird week. Some of it stressful, other parts extremely wonderful. No matter what, art and life are what it's all about. 

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