The Hangman by Paul Julian and Les Goldman

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After mentioning Paul Julian in the previous post I went looking for examples of his work. The production design and background paintings that Julian created for the animated adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart (1953) are perennially celebrated, especially around Halloween, but director Ted Parmalee tends to receive all the credit. The Tell-Tale Heart was a production for UPA but Julian had a long career in animation, especially for Warner Bros., and his voice (if not his name) are universally familiar from the sounds the Road Runner makes in the Wile. E Coyote cartoons. Until this week if I’d thought about this at all I would have assumed that the “hmeep-hmeep” sound (as Julian described it) was created by Mel Blanc, not one of the cartoon’s background artists.

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The Hangman (1964) is an 11-minute animation that, like The Tell-Tale Heart, is a long way from Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Herschel Bernardi reads a poem by Maurice Ogden that describes a hangman who arrives in a small town and begins executing the citizens one after the other. No-one is spared, even those who support the actions of the hangman when his first victims are Jewish, Black, an unspecified “alien” and a man who openly questions the executions. The poem was written during the McCarthy era but is the kind of moral fable whose sentiments can be applied to any time, even if the design makes the context a specifically American one. Paul Julian painted the backgrounds and co-directed with Les Goldman, while Julian’s wife, Margaret, provided the minimal animation. The jazzy score—which doesn’t really suit the theme—was the work of Serge Hovey. Julian’s townscapes start out as Edward Hopper-like scenes of tall houses, old storefronts and wide roads striped with sunset shadows. In the second half of the film a Surrealist quality takes over. The gallows pole slowly consumes the town as well as its people, dismantling the buildings in order to grow into a towering edifice. The characterisations and the scene transitions make it plain how much of The Tell-Tale Heart was Julian’s work, while the film as a whole reminds me of one of Ray Bradbury’s morality tales. Watch it here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Tell-Tale Heart from UPA

Universal Horror

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A couple of Halloweens ago I worked my way through a blu-ray box of the horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1930s and 40s. It was a fun and instructive experience: fun because I’d not watched many of the films properly for a long time; instructive for reaffirming my dislike of Tod Browning’s Dracula, a film so inert and lacking in cinematic drama it may as well be a series of still pictures. Browning’s film is further diminished when you have the opportunity to watch James Whale’s Frankenstein films immediately after it. The collection also allowed me to compare the BFI release of Universal’s silent version of The Phantom of the Opera, where Lon Chaney is an unforgettable Phantom, with the 1943 remake, a film I didn’t recall having seen before. The only positive things about the remake are the always worthwhile Claude Rains, even if he is wasted in the Phantom role, and seeing the massive Paris Opera House set from the silent version being reused.

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The differences between the Universal adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein are noted in Kevin Brownlow’s 90-minute documentary which is an extra on the Frankenstein disc. Brownlow’s film, which was originally made for TV in 1998, charts the evolution of Universal’s horror films from their roots in silent cinema and German Expressionism up to the 1940s when the cycle deteriorated into sequelitis and self-mockery via Abbott and Costello. “Universal” here may be taken as referring to all of Hollywood’s early horror films. Rather than waste time on the studio’s increasingly inferior sequels, rival productions from other studios are briefly discussed: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Paramount), The Island of Lost Souls (Paramount), King Kong (RKO), and Mystery of the Wax Museum (Warner Brothers). In doing this Universal Horror follows the template that Brownlow established with fellow film historian David Gill in 1980 when they produced Hollywood for Thames TV, a 13-part series about the birth of American cinema which I rate as the best documentary series about film ever made. (Gill died in 1997 so Universal Horror is dedicated to his memory.) Hollywood interviewed as many people as possible connected with the production of the first silent films, following the format of the landmark The World at War (1973) series which related the events of the Second World War in 26 hour-long episodes. The World at War was narrated by Laurence Olivier; for Hollywood Brownlow & Gill had James Mason, not only an equivalent voice of authority but also a man with a great enthusiasm for silent cinema. Subsequent Brownlow & Gill documentaries had Lindsay Anderson as narrator, another silents enthusiast with a similar gravitas in his narrative delivery. The narrator of Universal Horror, Kenneth Branagh, isn’t bad as such but whatever his qualities as an actor, his voice alone is a poor match for these heavyweights. He does at least seem to have controlled the sporadic squeaks which mar his delivery in an earlier Brownlow & Gill series, Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1995).

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Universal Horror and Cinema Europe both fall short when compared to Hollywood by being made too late. By the 1990s most of the men connected with the early years of European cinema had died, and so had many of the actors who made the Universal films. It’s left to a handful of survivors, most of whom are women, to remember the days of their youth: Nina Foch (The Return of the Vampire), Gloria Stuart (The Invisible Man), Fay Wray (who must have spent most of her later years repeating stories about King Kong but here also discusses her role in Mystery of the Wax Museum), Lupita Tovar (the Spanish-language Dracula), Turhan Bey (The Mummy’s Tomb), Rose Hobart (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), and Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man). Additional commentary is provided by the daughters of significant figures: Sara Karloff, Carla Laemmle (who has a cameo in Dracula) and Arianne Ulmer whose father, Edgar G. Ulmer, directed The Black Cat for Universal, a much better film than the 1943 Phantom of the Opera, and one which should have been in the box set instead. Lastly, there’s some outsider commentary by Ray Bradbury (who also appeared in Brownlow’s next documentary, Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces), Gavin Lambert, James Karen, Forrest J. Ackerman, Curtis Harrington, James Curtis (author of James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters), and David J. Skal (author of Hollywood Gothic, The Monster Show, etc). Given the breadth of the subject—two decades of film history—this should have been a series like Cinema Europe, but horror on the page or on the screen remains the most abject of the genres, continually marginalised, complained about, ignored, censored, banned. Ninety minutes of documentary time is often as good as it gets, especially with Kevin Brownlow producing.

Universal Horror at the time of writing is available for viewing at the Internet Archive, waiting for Universal’s legal goons to put a stake through its heart. Someone has also uploaded the whole of Brownlow & Gill’s Hollywood series which is gratifying to see. The latter is scattered around YouTube in varying quality so it’s good to have a range of options. It’s essential viewing wherever you see it.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Illustrating Dracula
Illustrating Frankenstein
Psychotronic Video
Dracula and I by Christopher Lee
Nightmare: The Birth of Horror
Rex Ingram’s The Magician
The Mask of Fu Manchu

Weekend links 531

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Cover art by Ian Miller, 1979.

• Ray Bradbury was born 100 years ago today. Emily Temple expresses surprise that Truman Capote encouraged the publication of a Bradbury short story at Mademoiselle in 1946. I’m more surprised that Bradbury was paid $400 for his work; no wonder he was so eager to write for the non-genre magazines. Elsewhere: Ray Bradbury—The Illustrated Man: the BBC’s Omnibus arts strand profiled Bradbury in 1980 with enthusiastic assistance (narrating/reading/performing) from the man himself; Ray Bradbury book and magazine covers at Flickr.

Anna Smith asks whether Linda Fiorentino was the greatest femme fatale ever in The Last Seduction (1994). A substantial claim, especially for a neo-noir playing so self-consciously with the theme, but it’s a very good film, and one I’d like to see again.

• “Bad as a work of art, and morally bad…” Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita being reviewed by Kingsley Amis, a writer who preferred the peerless prose and stainless morals of Ian Fleming. Dan Sheehan looks at other contemporary reactions to Nabokov’s novel.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Mary Ellen Bute Day, and (how could I avoid it?) ClicketyClack presents…Brothers Quay Day.

• More from The Art of the Occult: S. Elizabeth offers a glimpse of the contents of her forthcoming book.

• Make the letter bigger: John Boardley on the development of the illuminated capital.

• In 1987 Anne Billson talked to Nicolas Roeg about his latest film, Castaway.

• Five controversial arthouse features from Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono.

• It’s that group again: Joe Banks on the strange world of Hawkwind.

C82: Works of Nicholas Rougeux.

Fahrenheit 451 (1982) by Hawkwind | Something Wicked This Way Comes (1996) by Barry Adamson | The Martian Chronicles (2007) by Dimension X

Weekend links 523

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One of Ian Miller‘s drawings from the illustrated edition of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, 1979.

• “I always said we were kind of an electronic punk band, really. We were never New Romantics, I don’t like it when we get lumped in with that.” Dave Ball of Soft Cell and The Grid talking to Duncan Seaman about his autobiography, Electronic Boy: My Life In and Out of Soft Cell. I’ll now be waiting impatiently for the unreleased Robert Fripp/Grid album to appear.

• “[Patricia] Highsmith’s writing—often eviscerating, always uncomfortable—has never been more relevant,” says Sarah Hilary.

• Ron Peck’s debut feature, Nighthawks (1978), is “a nuanced look at gay life in London,” says Melissa Anderson.

And then there are those figures who seem to flit around the edges of movements without ever being fully involved in any of them, who pursue their own eccentric paths no matter what is going on around them. These are the writers who make up the secret history of literature, the hidden history that’s not easily reduced to movements or trends, and who always waver on the verge of invisibility until you stumble by accident onto one of their books and realize how good they actually are, and wonder, Why wasn’t I told to read this before? But of course you already know the answer: You were not told because it doesn’t fit smoothly into the story those in authority made up about what literature is—it disrupts, it can’t be reduced to the literary equivalent of a meme.

That’s the kind of writer Pierre Klossowski (1905–2001) is. He is not a joiner. He has his own particular and often peculiar concerns, and pursues them. He does not particularly welcome you in. The content of his writing, too, has the feel of a gnostic text, as if you are reading something that, if only you were properly initiated, you would understand in a different way. In that sense his work has an esoteric or occult quality to it—and likewise in the sense that it returns again and again to the intersection of religion and pornography, the sacred and the profane.

Brian Evenson on The Suspended Vocation by Pierre Klossowski

• Chad Van Gaalen creates a psychedelic animation for Seductive Fantasy by the Sun Ra Arkestra.

• More sneak peeks from the forthcoming The Art Of The Occult by S. Elizabeth.

• More Robert Fripp: Richard Metzger on Fripp’s sui generis solo album, Exposure.

Pamela Hutchinson on the pleasures of David Lynch’s YouTube channel.

• Mix of the week: a second Jon Hassell tribute mix by Dave Maier.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Ferdinand presents…Dark Entries Day.

15 fascinating art documentaries to watch now.

Soft Power by Patten.

• RIP Milton Glaser.

hauntología

Aquarium (1992) by The Grid (with Robert Fripp) | Soft Power (2005) by Ladytron | The Martian Chronicles (2007) by Dimension X

Weekend links 487

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Art by Joe Mugnaini (1955).

• Mixes of the week: The Ivy-Strangled Path Vol. XIX by David Colohan, and The Ephemeral Man’s Teapot 2—Atmosphere insomniac by The Ephemeral Man.

• Patrick Clarke talks to Morton Subotnick and Lillevan about Subotnick’s pioneering synthesizer composition, Silver Apples Of The Moon (1967).

• A second volume of London’s Lost Rivers, a walker’s guide by Tom Bolton with photography by SF Said, is published by Strange Attractor next month.

“That country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain.”

Ray Bradbury quoted by Sam Weller in an examination of Bradbury’s dark tales and autumnal horror stories

Lumberjacks In Heat is 11 minutes of music from Mechanical Fantasy Box by Patrick Cowley, the latest Cowley collection from Dark Entries.

They Poured Out Their Light Until Only Darkness Remained: new eldritch vibrations from The Wyrding Module.

• Carmen Villain on the magic of Jon Hassell’s Aka / Darbari / Java: Magic Realism.

• An Evil Medium: Elizabeth Horkley on the films of Kenneth Anger.

• Cosmic gardens and boulder boulevards by Charles Jencks.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Murray Melvin Day.

Richard Dawson‘s favourite music.

• RIP John Giorno.

My Girlfriend Is A Witch (1968) by October Country | The October Man (1982) by Bill Nelson | Late October (1984) by Harold Budd