Thursday, October 30, 2014

Culture Shock 10.30.14: '30s horror possessed of timeless glamour

Zita Johann, left, and Boris Karloff in 1932's "The Mummy."
One typically doesn't think of horror films as glamorous. Quite the opposite.

Glamour is enchantment. It appeals to our dreams and desires. It's something we want to escape to. Glamour is Louis Vuitton's "L’Invitation Au Voyage" ads, featuring model Arizona Muse, who in one ad dashes through the Louvre in Paris and hops aboard a hot air balloon, and in a subsequent ad lands her balloon in Venice just in time for an elegant fancy dress ball hosted by a regal David Bowie.

Horror is anti-glamour. It's something we seek to escape from, whether it's something as subtle as a prickling sensation of foreboding or something as blatant as a machete-swinging maniac.

When horror becomes glamorous, it ceases to be horror. The "Twilight" films are soap opera fantasies that happen to involve vampires and werewolves. They're someone's wish fulfillment.

The exceptions to the rule are the horror films of the early 1930s, especially those produced by Universal Pictures. And it is the paradoxical glamour of the these early, archetypal horror films that helps explain why they are so enduring, long after they lost their ability to startle jaded audiences.

As some of the first horror pictures of the sound era, "Dracula," "Frankenstein" and "The Mummy" set a benchmark other filmmakers have rarely approached. In terms of cultural impact, only Britain's Hammer Films comes close to equaling what Universal and its early imitators accomplished 80 years ago. And Hammer went about it in an altogether different way, emphasizing shocks and "Kensington Gore" over mood and atmosphere. When film historians speak of "Hammer glamour," they refer to the studio's curvaceous leading ladies, with their pin-up looks and plunging necklines, rather than to the films themselves. It's an altogether different type of glamour.

What makes the horror films of the 1930s different is just that: They're of the 1930s.

In her paradigm-setting 2013 book "The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion," Bloomberg View columnist and former Reason magazine editor Virginia Postrel zeroes in on the '30s as the decade of glamour.

Postrel writes that the films of the '30s created a visual shorthand for glamour that extends across the decades to the present day. They introduced Middle America to "the high-contrast surfaces and streamlined forms of American art deco, the satin gowns and dramatically lit portraits of screen goddesses, the distant shots of the New York skyline, the sleek nightclubs and penthouse apartments, the languorous cigarette smoke."

Universal's horror films transport Dracula and Frankenstein's monster, creatures of Victorian times and earlier, to what was then the present day, or a vague facsimile. Unmoored from their history, they become intruders in a chrome-plated world that evokes an imagined and desired future.

Bela Lugosi, left, and Helen Chandler in 1931's "Dracula."
The title credits of Tod Browning's "Dracula" (1931) play over a stylized bat symbol that's all art deco curves and none of the sharp, Gothic angles you'd expect. The contemporary setting liberates the women from their Victorian layers and corsets, allowing them to float freely inside elegant gowns that barely cling to their shoulders. Even Bela Lugosi's Dracula manages to blend in with style, looking equally at ease in a top hat and tails as he does in a cape. Only his accent gives him away.

In Karl Freund's "The Mummy" (1932), modern Cairo blends old and new into a glamorously exotic locale, where the city's 20th century lights pinprick the skyline beneath the pyramids. And absorbing the view from her balcony is Zita Johann's Helen, named for antiquity's most beautiful woman yet wearing a modern dress and smoking a cigarette. Like all 1930s glamour, Helen is modern yet timeless.

The real menace of the early Universal monsters is the threat they bring to the glamorous world to which we'd like to escape. That is what makes them so compelling to this day.

But the 1930s didn't last, and neither did horror's glamour. "The Wolf Man" (1941), with its doomed, aristocratic hero taking the blue collar form of Lon Chaney Jr., was the beginning of the end.

Abbott and Costello lay just ahead.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Culture Shock 10.23.14: 'The Great Pumpkin' is a test of faith

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" may be the first and most celebrated "Peanuts" TV special, but "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is the best by almost any standard.

The animation is smoother, the writing and acting are more assured, and the entire production seems more fully formed, which it is, given that CBS wasn't entirely sold on "A Charlie Brown Christmas" until after it aired and the ratings came in. In particular, CBS wasn't sold on using children as voice actors or the jazz score by West Coast pianist Vince Guaraldi and his trio. But the special's ratings triumph led the network to go all in on two "Peanuts" specials the following year: the seldom-aired "Charlie Brown's All-Stars" and "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown."

"The Great Pumpkin" has more than snazzier production values going for it. It better captures the melancholy spirit of the comic strip. Of all the "Charlie Brown" specials in the world, it's the Charlie Browniest.

"A Charlie Brown Christmas," which first aired in 1965, is "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz at his most hopeful. Linus gives a soliloquy on the true meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown gives a ragged little Christmas tree a chance, and at the end even Lucy gives Charlie Brown a break, admitting he did pick a good tree after all. Everyone sings carols, and the special fades out with a happy ending — a merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. God bless us, every one.

Premiering Oct. 26, 1966, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is Schulz at his most cynical. The Christmas special reaffirms his faith, but the Halloween special tears it back down. It isn't just happenstance that Linus, for once, ends up with his hopes dashed.

Charlie Brown is the receptacle of all of Schulz's insecurities, but Linus is his philosophical mouthpiece. "It's the Great Pumpkin" shows Schulz is keenly aware Linus can, at times, be more than a little overbearing.

Linus, who proselytized for Christmas a year earlier, is a prophet for the Great Pumpkin, who according to official doctrine, rises each year from the most sincere pumpkin patch and flies through the air with toys for all the good little children. Linus has little regard for the Great Pumpkin's more high-profile rival, "that fellow with the red suit and white beard who goes, 'Ho, ho, ho!' " He leaves Charlie Brown to sigh about how they are separated by "denominational differences."

Halloween becomes a test of faith for both Linus and Charlie Brown.

Linus, naturally, never sees the Great Pumpkin. But rather than question the object of his faith, he blames a momentary lapse. Even a little slip, he says, can cause the Great Pumpkin to pass you by.

The Great Pumpkin is a jealous squash, and he leaves Linus literally out in the cold.

Charlie Brown fares even worse. He first puts his faith in Lucy (and a signed document) when he goes to kick the football she so temptingly holds for him. And once again, Charlie Brown is done in, this time not just by his faith in humanity, but by a legal technicality: the document wasn't notarized.

Yet the worst is to come. Charlie Brown goes trick-or-treating Halloween night and ends up with nothing but a bag of rocks. It's probably the funniest joke in all the "Peanuts" specials, yet it's also the most mean-spirited. We thought it was just his fellow kids who gave Charlie Brown a hard time, but no. Apparently the whole town hates him.

Audiences, however, still love the blockhead, and they love to see him miserable. ABC's Oct. 15 broadcast of "It's the Great Pumpkin" scored 6.3 million viewers and a 2.1 rating among adults 18-49, according to Entertainment Weekly, topping most of the other network shows that aired that night.

In all the gloom and doom of "The Great Pumpkin," one ray of hope cuts the darkness. Schulz eases up just long enough for Lucy to go outside in the early morning and bring her shivering brother to bed.

Sisterly love doesn't conquer all, but if even Lucy has a heart, maybe there is hope for the rest of us.

Subsequent "Peanuts" specials don't go as dark, and by 1973's "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving," Schulz is doing happy endings again. Staring into the abyss once a year is enough.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Culture Shock 10.16.14: Cosplay isn't a sign of stagnation

Thinkstock photo
I've never been one for cosplay. Putting together a good costume takes a lot of time and money, to say nothing of sewing skills I'm sadly lacking, as my high school home economics teacher would attest.

The most dressed up I ever get for comic book or sci-fi conventions is a T-shirt emblazoned with some obscure pop-culture reference. But I've always envied people who have the time, patience and know-how to pull off a really great costume. Little did I suspect they were an indicator of economic stagnation and poor job prospects. Who'd a thunk it? So, imagine my surprise when I read an article at The Week headlined "Why the rise of cosplay is a bad sign for the U.S. economy."

The author, James Pethokoukis, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, makes a bold and, it seems to me, wrongheaded claim. It goes like this: More and more Americans, especially millennials, are into cosplay, short for "costume play." And this is because dressing up as fantasy characters is an escape from dead-end jobs and economic malaise.

But maybe I should let Pethokoukis speak for himself: "When you're disillusioned with the reality of your early adult life, dressing up like Doctor Who starts looking better and better."

Pethokoukis argues by way of analogy, noting that Japan has lots of young cosplayers, lots of underemployed young people and an economy that's been no better than anemic for the past 20 years. This, I gather, adds up to something, but I have no idea what.

Despite the nagging feeling there must be something more to what Pethokoukis is saying, if there is I can't find it. Taken as is, Pethokoukis' argument is so wrong I barely know where to begin, but I'll start with dollars and cents.

Cosplaying isn't for the poor of spirit or bank account. It costs a lot of money to make a good costume. Some cosplayers spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on their wardrobes. Some wear multiple costumes during the course of a weekend convention. Some even call upon the services of professional makeup artists. And none of that accounts for travel and hotel costs. Attending a sci-fi or comic convention isn't cheap, whether you're in costume or not.

Pethokoukis knows this and even refers to the "big bucks" cosplayers invest in their costumes.

Now maybe he assumes they all live with and sponge off their parents to supplement whatever money they make from their menial jobs. Regardless, it takes a wealthy society to be able to afford such pastimes. Cosplay isn't a sign of economic trouble, but a reminder of how rich we are, even after the Great Recession. But the problems with his argument don't end there.

It's hard to calculate how many cosplayers there are in the U.S., but we can at least get an idea of attendance at the conventions cosplayers frequent. Attendance at one of the largest, San Diego's Comic-Con International, has been growing for years, since well before the Great Recession. The fastest growth was from 2001 to 2005, when attendance doubled and reached 100,000 for the first time. Since the recession, attendance has hovered between 125,000 and just over 130,000.

That doesn't look like a post-recession flight from reality to me. It looks more like a trend line flatting out. But enough foreplay. Time to get to the crux of Pethokoukis' article, such as it is.

Though unstated, Pethokoukis makes a common but unwarranted assumption: that there is something special about cosplay. But the fact is, people escape mundane reality in lots of ways, and dressing up like fantasy characters is just one of them, albeit the one that's most easily ridiculed.

What if we applied the same illogic to jock pastimes that Pethokoukis applies to geek pastimes? Maybe we should be looking at the increasing popularity of fantasy football and baseball? Maybe the real indicators of a lousy economy are guys who turn their dens into shrines to their favorite college or pro football teams? Yes, these are expensive hobbies, too, but why let that stop us?

If Pethokoukis' argument describes reality, then cosplaying millennials aren't the only ones trying to escape it. Fortunately, they aren't the ones I think have taken a flight from reality.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Culture Shock 10.09.14: It's the end of Saturday morning as we knew it

Print advertisement for NBC's 1983 Saturday morning cartoon lineup. It was the
debut season for "Mr. T" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks," while "Thundarr the
Barbarian" moved to NBC from ABC, where it had aired the previous two seasons.
For as long as I can remember, "children's advocates" have hated children's television.

They always said the same thing: Children's television was too violent, too dumb and too commercial. And because kids watched "too much" of it, it was, by implication, too entertaining.

Not anymore. Mark your calendar, for this is a date that shall live in infamy: Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014, was the first Saturday since the 1960s when there were no Saturday morning cartoons on broadcast network television. For those of us who were kids during the Golden Age of Saturday morning cartoons, in the 1970s and '80s, it's Saturday mourning in America.

At last, the self-appointed children's advocates have slain their dragon.

In place of the animated cartoons that Generation X and the millennials grew up with are a bunch of live-action "educational and informational" programs. They're designated by the little "E/I" logo on the screen, which means the broadcaster is counting every second of them toward its government-mandated quota of E/I programming. It doesn't matter if anyone watches; it just matters that it's there and that it's "quality," as defined by the children's advocates.

Kids, meanwhile, have responded just as you'd expect. Those who can have flocked to cable TV and the children's section of Netflix, both of which operate blessedly free of the dictates of the Federal Communications Commission, for the most part. For now, anyway.

How did this happen? How did children wake up in a world with no Saturday morning cartoons?

It started 24 years ago when Congress passed the Children's Television Act of 1990. The act was the culmination of 20 years of agitation by activist groups such as Action for Children's Television, founded by Peggy Charren, who became the go-to talking head whenever the national news media needed someone to pontificate about kiddie TV, because why would you ever ask a kid?

The Children's Television Act limited advertising during both cable and broadcast children's programming and mandated that broadcasters devote a set amount of airtime each week to E/I shows.

The act's first victims were the cartoons that aired after school each weekday. The ad restrictions made them less profitable, which was the kiss of death in the highly competitive broadcast syndication market. Stations quickly dropped cartoons and added more talk shows and TV judges. Indirectly, we have the CTA to blame for Judge Judy and her ilk.

The CTA's full impact didn't hit Saturday mornings until later, as the FCC "clarified" the act and spelled out exactly what "educational and informational" meant, always tightening the screws.

NBC was the first to fall. The proud peacock that once had aired "The Smurfs" and "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends" farmed out its Saturday morning airtime to corporate sibling NatGeo.

Print advertisement for CBS's 1982 Saturday morning cartoon lineup.
CBS and ABC were next, followed by Fox. When the end came, only The CW was still airing cartoons, all of them Japanese imports. It was a painful, lingering death. Saturdays deserved better.

The image of children getting out of bed at the crack of dawn to watch Saturday morning cartoons along with a sugary cereal chaser has become a cliché. But it's no less true. My generation looked ahead to Saturday mornings — filled with Superfriends and Snorks — as if each were a mini Christmas. The networks trumpeted their new Saturday morning lineups each fall with preview specials in prime time. It was a big freaking deal.

Sure, kids still have Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and the Disney channels, but Saturday morning's passing matters. Maybe those old cartoons weren't "educational" in the approved sense, but they were a springboard for our imaginations. More than that sugary cereal, those cartoons fueled us, not just for the rest of the day but for life.

"Scooby-Doo," for one, taught us real-life lessons. We learned not to worry about scary-looking ghosts, because the odds were those ghosts were just con men trying to pull a fast one.

With cartoons teaching lessons like that, it's no wonder Congress was so eager to replace them with FCC-approved boredom.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Culture Shock 10.02.14: Elvira buries herself in her 'Coffin Collection'

Trigger warning: Some of the puns and alliterations in this column are particularly pungent and may produce prolonged paralysis. The author regrets nothing.

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, on the sofa of her 2010-11 series.
This time every year, the historic Knott's Berry Farm theme park in Buena Park, California, undergoes a transformation, becoming Knott's Scary Farm. It's one of the nation's most storied haunted attractions.

Returning to Knott's Scary Farm's 1,800-seat Charles M. Schultz Theatre this year "by overwhelming demand," is that horror hostess with the mostess, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. It turns out you can't keep a good ghoul down. So, Elvira is dying on stage twice nightly in a Vegas-style variety show. That's about the only way nowadays you can catch her live — or even dead.

Elvira's alter ego, Cassandra Peterson, retired a while back from doing the convention circuit in character. And who can blame her? She's been donning her black, bouffant wig and pouring herself into that low-cut Morticia Addams dress for more than 30 years.

Who could have guessed Elvira would become a long-term gig or that the character, which Peterson created for local Los Angeles television, would go national, even international, like pancakes?

Elvira's original "Movie Macabre" show aired from 1981 to 1986 and featured Peterson's undead Valley girl persona hosting horrible horror flicks ranging from "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes" to "Night of the Zombies." From there, Elvira branched out into merchandising, comic books, two feature films (1988's "Elvira, Mistress of the Dark" and 2001's "Elvira's Haunted Hills") and a seasonal Coors Light ad campaign. You know you've hit the big time when you're shilling for the Silver Bullet.

More than almost any other horror host, Elvira has endured. But it was still a pleasant surprise when she returned to television for the 2010-11 season with a resurrected "Elvira's Movie Macabre."

Now all 26 episodes of Elvira's latest spell (including several never aired) are in one box set, "Elvira's Movie Macabre: The Coffin Collection," from Entertainment One.

At the height of her notoriety, Elvira became the
four-color hostess of DC Comics' "House of Mystery."
At a suggested retail price of $99.98, the 13-disc set isn't cheap, but the movies are. (If you're cheap, a few episodes are available at Elvira sticks with films that have fallen into the public domain. That used to happen when a production company went bankrupt and nobody renewed the copyright, or nobody bothered in the first place. Thus, Elvira serves up a bewitching buffet that includes classics such as "The Satanic Rites of Dracula" and "Night of the Living Dead," and not-so-classics such as "Attack of the Giant Leeches" and director William "One Shot" Beaudine's "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter." (Note: "Frankenstein's Daughter" is not to be confused with "Lady Frankenstein," which is also included in this set. #TheMoreYouKnow)

But don't think there's no star power here. The Coffin Collection conjures up a lot of name actors with bills to pay, including Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Joanna Lumley, Dean Stockwell, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Jack Nicholson and Joseph Cotton.

Still, let's not kid ourselves here. The real star attraction is Elvira, draped across her red velvet sofa and letting it all hang out. Well, not all. This is a show that ran in broadcast syndication. This isn't HBO's "Same Old Gnomes," or whatever. For that matter, some of the movies are censored, too, to meet broadcast standards. (I'll pause while we all laugh at the idea of broadcast TV having standards.)

Under normal circumstances, I don't approve of watching movies that have been chopped up for TV, but in this case some of the alterations, such as the fogged-out "naughty bits" in "Lady Frankenstein," are entertaining on their own merits. And so is Elvira.

With skills honed as part of LA's Groundlings comedy troupe, Peterson makes even the lamest jokes get up and walk. Sure, it's kind of a slow, shambling, zombie-like walk, but fast zombies are an abomination, and don't you forget it!

Inviting a horror host into your living room is like serving comfort food to your brain, and Elvira is the chocolate-covered cheesecake of horror hosts.