The woman behind the monster: ‘Lady From The Black Lagoon’

344445_poster_lI’ve written often before about my undying love for Creature From The Black Lagoon. It’s one of the best Universal monster movies of all time, a fantastic creepy love story with a fairy tale’s elegance and one of the most unforgettable monsters of all time. As a fanboy, I thought I knew almost all there was to know about it. 

Mallory O’Meara’s fascinating new biography “The Lady From The Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters And The Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick” dredges the swamps of the past, unearthing the story of a forgotten pioneer for women in film in a witty, bittersweet and fierce look at Hollywood’s golden age. 

Milicent Patrick (1915-1998) was never quite a Hollywood superstar. She was a talented artist and designer, a model and a minor actress in a slew of b-movies. But she had a keen creative eye and before her career was derailed by depressingly familiar sexism, she worked for Walt Disney as one of very few women in animation (including on the classic “Fantasia”) and later on, she designed creatures for movies like “This Island Earth.” 

a15d5c39bb5d653cb6b184f45682ccbeBut her biggest claim to glory today is that she designed the epic look of the Creature From The Black Lagoon. The Creature is, I’d argue, the second-best monster design of all time (sorry, but Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster has to take the top crown). It’s alien, yet human; terrifying, yet captivating. 

Unfortunately, the elegant, humble Patrick rarely got the credit she deserved for the work – a nasty piece of work named Bud Westmore who ran makeup for Universal Studios took all the credit, and later fired her entirely when Patrick actually started to get some acclaim for her designs (and ample publicity for what, at the time, was a novelty of an attractive young woman working in horror movies). That same sad story of a poor excuse for a man destroying a talented woman’s livelihood can be found a thousand times in Hollywood history. 

“Lagoon” is an often angry book – O’Meara’s conversational, amiably digressive style makes it very clear how personally she takes the tale of Patrick’s rise and fall. Women are often treated worst of all in traditionally male-dominated industries. You don’t have to look further than outraged fanboy reactions to “Captain Marvel” or “The Last Jedi” to see how cancerous the worst of fossilised blokes can be. Patrick went on to have a pretty decent life post-Hollywood, but you still wonder what could’ve been. I love the classic Hollywood films, but you just can’t ignore that they were a very male-dominated, non-diverse world, and think about how many Milicent Patricks were out there.  

01chapmanMonster.popIn “Lagoon,” O’Meara also shows the hard work that goes into the biography of a somewhat obscure person, hunting down leads and tracing dusty steps in the past. The story is as much about her and her experiences as a young woman in Hollywood as it is about Milicent Patrick. Some of the anecdotes O’Meara tells of her own treatment are truly dismaying, especially because they are all too common. The real monsters are still out there in Hollywood, hiding in broad daylight.

“Lady From the Black Lagoon” is well worth reading for any fan of classic film, and O’Meara deserves applause for shining a spotlight on the many unremembered women who played a part – and deserved to play a bigger one – in crafting the films and creatures that haunt our dreams. 

Give me animation: The Disney remakes nobody ever really asked for

fullwidth.21a338c9So the first autumn cold of the season hit the household, and I spent most of a day prone on the couch undertaking a surefire cure for the blues: Cartoons. 

I mainlined a bunch of old Disney classics I hadn’t seen in years in between sips of lemon tea, like “Pinocchio” and “Dumbo” and “Beauty and the Beast.” And for the first time in ages I saw them through childlike (and decongestant-addled) eyes, as the remarkable works of art they are. Thousands and thousands of hours of labour went into their creation. Watching the lush colours and textures of “Pinocchio” unfold, it’s hard to imagine that this was only a decade removed from the black-and-white doodles of “Steamboat Willie.”

Disney is this kind of insanely massive corporate monolith these days, and that sometimes obscures the creative legacy of the company. Sure, they patented Corporate Cuteness (TM) and there is often a bland, monocultural sameness to much of their work. Yet at their best, the classics mainline the universal themes of the fairy tales they’re often based on to hit some primal notes. 

c03a6b0aa4c0296c0e21828cb06b7326I’d forgotten how bloody DARK “Dumbo” and “Pinocchio” are. There’s runaway children sold into slavery, a mother placed in chains, cruelty from the cartooniest of funny animals. (And we won’t even talk about “Bambi.”) 

The monolith Disney of 2019 is bashing out product on many fronts, some great (Marvel hasn’t put a foot wrong), some less. The frenetic urge to remake their animated classics with technically gorgeous, ultimately heartless CGI “live action” versions is pretty depressing. 

As pop culture continues to eat itself, Disney is avidly mining everything from “Beauty and the Beast” to “The Lion King” and “Mulan” for slick retellings that for all their pizazz never really live up to the simpler hand-drawn lines and colours of their inspirations. I’ve watched a few of these “remakes” and they vanish in the mind like mist, yet images from the original cartoons are un-eraseable. 

aladdin-genieI watched the upcoming “Lion King” trailer and I just felt bored. I don’t hate these remakes, but they seem pointless, just more grist for Scrooge McDuck’s vaults. They’re stretched out (1941 “Dumbo” 64 minutes; 2019 “Dumbo” 112) and excessive elaborations of the gorgeous simple lines of the originals. What’s cute becomes creepy rendered in vivid CGI — blue Will Smith in the also upcoming “Aladdin” remake is something I never really needed to see, and it’s kind of freaking me out. 

The real creativity was seen in the labouring of men and women working in the ‘30s and ‘40s on perfecting an amazing new art form of animation. Their work hasn’t dated in nearly 80 years. 

hqdefaultThere’s nothing I’ve seen yet in a CGI cartoon remake that approaches the stunning surrealism of the original “Pink Elephants on parade” sequence of “Dumbo” or the explosion of colour and passion of “Fantasia.” There have been lots of great original CGI cartoons from Pixar and the like of course, but Disney’s flood of redundant remakes is like a gift nobody really asked for.

Give me an original cartoon every time; it’s the cure for what ails me. 

In defence of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

1308227299001_5810993950001_5810990937001-vsReal talk: I liked Bohemian Rhapsody quite a lot. 

Is is the Best Picture of 2018? Hardly – I’d pick BlackKklansman or possibly The Favourite over it any day.

But in this era where there’s often no shades of grey in debate, Rhapsody sure has come under an awful lot of fire by the critical class – who are probably spitting bullets that it won four Academy Awards (more than any other movie this year) and has grossed US$214 million, becoming the biggest biopic of all time. 

“Rhapsody” isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s a rousing entertainment that superbly speaks to the American Dream, circa 2019 – which is, simply, getting famous. Every other person wants to be a star, whether it’s on Instagram or YouTube, and Freddie Mercury’s story hits a chord with them. Farrokh Bulsara, a native of Zanzibar, reinvented himself as a star. 

I remember Freddie Mercury’s death, in 1991, which seems a million years ago now. I’d never have thought we’d still be talking about him quite so much in 2019, but when he died, there was an outpouring of Queen tributes and the songs were inescapable (thank you, Wayne’s World). Mercury’s AIDS-related death at just 45 is a key reason for the ongoing posthumous fame – there’s few more inescapable storylines that run through the annals of rock history than dying young. 

queenQueen are a band critics loved to hate. “Lyrically, Queen’s songs manage to be pretentious and irrelevant,” The New York Times wrote in 1978. Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh actually called them “the first truly fascist rock band,” which, wow, is not a piece of criticism that’s aged well. 

I wouldn’t call Queen my favourite band by any means, but I appreciate a lot of their work, their raucous anthems and their sprawling eclecticism. Queen didn’t take themselves that seriously – an awful lot of their songs sound like band in-jokes – but they hit on one of the key qualities for rock’n’roll success, the marriage of the sublime and the absurd. There’s few songs more ridiculous than “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but dammit if Mercury’s aching solo verses don’t get me every time. 

Bohemian Rhapsody, penned by Kiwi screenwriter Anthony McCarten, has come under fire for historically fudging the facts. No, Mercury didn’t tell the band he had AIDS before Live Aid. No, the band didn’t break up before that concert. But I’d argue that the biopic as a genre has never been about 100% historical accuracy – look at Amadeus, another Oscar-winning musical which portrayed Mozart and Salieri as mortal enemies, which they weren’t in real life. The biopic tells a story, using history, but it isn’t history. 

McCarten’s screenplay does what it can with Mercury’s complicated sexuality – Mary Austin was indeed the ‘love of his life,’ but Mercury was also gay. He also was extremely private and didn’t reveal his AIDS diagnosis until the day before he died, so the movie’s sometimes cagey take on his private life echoes Mercury’s own.

I wouldn’t argue that Bohemian Rhapsody is fundamentally flawed because it stretches facts, like most other biopics have. There’s a divide in watching it between the head and the heart. My head saw some pretty darned clunky lines and a lot of Rock Movie 101 cliches, but my gut was swayed by Queen’s absurdly catchy songs, Rami Malek’s outstanding performance and that go-for-broke Live Aid show climax which is every fame-chaser’s dream of acceptance. 

PRY8WA-920x584It’s a very simple story of a band that came from nothing and made it big, which has its DNA all over every single reality TV show millions watch every single week. Rhapsody works for many because it speaks to the weirdos and the oddballs, to that dream of getting famous. Everybody wants to be something. It’s no wonder it’s a global hit. 

Look at me, who they once called the gay “Paki” boy with funny teeth, with thousands screaming my name.

Look at me. Aren’t I beautiful? Don’t you want to be me? 

RIP Julie Adams, the Creature’s one true love

DyiRW9YV4AArB-y.jpg-largeJulie Adams wasn’t a household name, but she was legendary in her own way as one of the last surviving “scream queens” of the classic Universal Monster movies of the 1930s-1950s. Adams died at 92 this weekend, and horror geeks like me are mourning her today. 

She had a lengthy and impressive career, but it was as the damsel in distress in 1954’s “Creature From The Black Lagoon” that Adams swam through our dreams. 

She was probably one of the very first celebrities I ever got a crush on, when I saw “Creature” on TV sometime in the early ‘80s. On the page, Adams’ part is nothing too special – the standard “scientist’s girlfriend” seen in a hundred other movies of the era, who has a monster fall in love with her. Yet there’s something so iconic about Adams in the film, with her white swimsuit and wide-eyed charm. 

The scene where she swims idyllically in the lagoon while underneath, the misshapen Creature stalks and pines over her, is the blueprint for a thousand other sequences like it (you wouldn’t have the famous opening of Spielberg’s “Jaws” without this scene).

“Creature” itself will always be in my top 10 movies – elegant, simple and yet pulsing with unexplained mysteries and thanks to Adams’ unforgettable performance, a primal sensuality. Sixty-five years on, it still simmers and entertains.

I can take or leave the Oscars a lot of years, but when Guillermo Del Toro’s superb, dreamy “The Shape of Water” won Best Picture and Best Director last year, I cheered. More than anything Del Toro’s masterpiece is a loving homage to the mystery and magic of classic horror movies, “Creature” in particular, and I couldn’t help but feel it was almost as if the Gill-Man himself was getting a belated honour from the Academy. Del Toro himself wrote yesterday, “I mourn Julie Adams passing.  It hurts in a place deep in me, where monsters swim.”

Creature

The only remaining star of note from “Creature” left is none other than the Gill-Man himself, Ricou Browning, 88, who played the monster in the swimming scenes. When he’s gone, the final curtain will draw at last on the Universal Classic Monster series. But they’ll continue to haunt the dreams of movie-loving fans forever. 

Year in Review: My top 10 pop-culture moments of 2018

I’ve always dug the year-in-review lists, but I’m kind of an old dude now, and I couldn’t tell you 10 albums that came out in 2018 that I dug and I’m usually about 6 months behind on the streaming thing everyone is talking about.

So instead, here’s 10 moments in pop culture that made my year – whether it’s something new to everyone, or something old and glorious I discovered for myself this year. Because frankly, there’s a heck of a lot of great things in the past that are often way more interesting than whatever is flitting through the world this week. 

InfinityWar5a4bb0e7cdea1.0Superheroic golden age: Every once in a while I think how 13-year-old me would’ve reeled at the idea of a new big-budget superhero movie or TV show every few months. I pretty much dug them all in various ways and all the comic book moments they brought to life — Avengers: Infinity War somehow magically capturing Jim Starlin’s complicated villain Thanos without him seeming absurd; Black Panther’s Shakespearean grandeur, as the king returns to take his crown; the gleefully over-the-top Aquaman, with a pitch-perfect Black Manta/Aquaman battle that had me grinning like a loon; the fantastic third season of Daredevil bringing Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk’s battle to a climax; Ant-Man and the Wasp turning San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf into a size-changing playground. (And I’m still waiting for Into The Spider-Verse to open in New Zealand!)

Orson Welles lives: Who woulda thought we’d see a “new” Welles film 30+ years after his death? I loved The Other Side of the Wind, which was sprawling, chaotic and fragmented like much of Welles’ final work. By its very nature incomplete, it still evoked a dying world of Hollywood legends and graced us with a few more of Welles’ picture-perfect screen compositions. 

Lady Bird: Technically this came out in 2017, but this smart, witty and surprising comedy about a girl’s coming of age in Sacramento is one of the best films I’ve seen in years, with Greta Gerwig building on the promise she’d shown with Frances Ha and other movies. 

robin williams biography main-min“Robin” by Dave Itzkoff: Robin Williams was a remarkable talent who battled addiction and tragedy much of his life. Schlock like Patch Adams made us forget how amazing he could be; this definitive biography brings him back to life and reminds us of what we lost. 

Immortal Hulk: The Hulk is Marvel’s endlessly protean creation, who’s been reconfigured and reimagined dozens of times over the years. This current take by Al Ewing is a moody horror epic that’s creepily unforgettable and shows the Hulk can still surprise after over 50 years. 

John Coltrane: Yep, the man’s been dead for 51 years, but like the best of artists, his work is still capable of endless surprises. I watched the terrific documentary Chasing Trane this year and have been diving into many of Coltrane’s squawkier, chaotic later albums like the superb Sun Ship. It’s not music for every mood, but when it works, peak Coltrane is like watching the sky split open and unfold itself. 

“Leonardo Da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson: A biography that truly reveals an entire world, with fascinating focus on how exactly Da Vinci created his masterpieces, and the world he lived in. Made me want to zip off to Europe to see the works in person. 

Ron-Stallworth-and-Patrice-in-BlacKkKlansmanBlack entertainment: They’ve all got ‘black’ in the name and they all provided strong, uplifting portrayals of the African-American experience – Black Panther, which broke a zillion box office records along the way; Black Lightning, which took a lesser-known DC superhero and gave us one of the realest portrayals of a strong black family on TV in ages; BlacKkKlansman, which was Spike Lee’s strongest movie in years, as feisty, creative and witty as “Do The Right Thing.”  

Let’s go to a gig: I saw some great concerts this year, from Grace Jones’ imperial grandeur at Auckland City Limits to what might’ve been legendary Bob Dylan’s final concert in New Zealand (and the best show I’ve seen from him yet) to cool and somewhat retro gigs by Peter Murphy of Bauhaus, Billy Bragg and the Breeders. Great times all. 

Universal horror: The best thrills are often the old ones. As I battled a variety of health and personal setbacks this year, somehow I got the most comfort from flickering black and white images of horror and mystery. I’ve always loved the old Universal horror movies of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and rarely a week went by where I didn’t resurrect Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney for a bit of spooky pleasure. The immortal ones never really die, you know. 

Year In Review: 3 disappointments of 2018

I love a good year-in-review post, and here’s the first of two looking at the highs and lows in the year in pop-culture for me.

I’ll start with the negative, with a look at three pop-culture moments of 2018 that let me down. Let the bummers begin!

doctor-who-s11_entertainment-weekly-3_new-episodic_wide-28f404cb12e08e88cb071a2b942bd5d23107103e-s800-c85Doctor Who: First off, I love the idea of a female Doctor. I think Jodie Whittaker was an excellent casting choice and did a fine job this season. But she was let down by trite and sloppy writing and a general lack of invention and passion in a pretty disappointing first season. I actually would’ve liked to have seen more done with the ramifications of the Doctor’s first reincarnation as a woman after 12 men and 1000 or so years, but the show barely dealt with it. The show stepped too far away from acknowledging the Doctor’s vast lifespan and history, and too often the Doctor came off as an uncertain novice. I was getting sick of the Daleks, too, but few of this year’s antagonists were memorable and the self-contained episodes often lacked real drama. Three companions is far too many, and the stories generally were bland sci-fi 101. The best of the episodes were ones like the Rosa Parks episode or the Indian partition story which felt like they had something to say. The worst were generic “monster of the week” tales like “Arachnids in the UK” with a completely unsubtle Trump stand-in. With the usual keyboard warrior suspects ranting and raving how a woman Doctor might give everybody cooties, I was hoping the show would shut them up with an utterly amazing year, instead of one that was just sort of OK. Let’s hope the next season brings back some of the mystery, invention and drama the best of the David Tennant years had. 

13OctfilmThe First Man: I really wanted to like this Neil Armstrong biopic starring Ryan Gosling, but I walked out massively disappointed by its turgid tone, seasick-inducing attempts to realistically replicate the experience of space flying, and disappointed by Gosling’s stone-faced portrayal of a man who admittedly was kind of boring. It had its moments – Claire Foy does a lot with the token doting wife role, and in the moments when Armstrong actually lands on the moon the claustrophobic aura of the movie actually lifts into something actually resembling poetry. But I think I’d rather watch more soaring, less interior space pics like “The Right Stuff” or “Apollo 13” again rather than sit through “The First Man” twice. 

ellisonDeath, devourer of all: This year was pretty rough on my cultural heroes. I know, a lot of them were in their 80s and 90s, but it still sucks. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, creators of millions of comic-book dreams. Harlan Ellison, writer with a voice like lightning and a creator who shaped my worldview more than most. Philip Roth, the last of a generation of great American writers like Updike and Vonnegut. Mark E. Smith, tattered, debauched voice of the clattering UK band The Fall. Legendary voice Aretha Franklin. Endlessly curious mind Anthony Bourdain. “Frasier’s” grand, underrated John Mahoney. The Lois Lane of my childhood dreams, Margot Kidder. Way too many others. Time is cruel, ain’t it?

Up next: Get positive, with my top ten pop-culture moments of 2018!

What’s probably my last time in a video store

VARIOUSI visited what’s probably just about the last surviving video store in Auckland the other day. It won’t be there for long, as it’s shutting its doors December 31 and was having a massive clearing-house sale.

The internet and digital media have knocked around book stores and music stores relentlessly, but some are still hanging in there. But the humble video store has been systematically annihilated in the last decade or so. I’ve lost track of how many ‘closing down’ video stores I’ve seen in Auckland in the relatively short time since Netflix finally launched streaming in New Zealand in March 2015. We were a few years behind the US, but the doom came calling here. 

Hey, I get it. I stream, too, but there’s an awful, awful lot of film history you can only find on home video. Also, I own it, and don’t have to suffer the whims of some corporation that decides to drop titles from their catalog at random. 

lsThe groovy Videon in Mount Eden, Auckland was never my regular video store – I lived too far away from it – but it was a part of my family’s lives, and it was the kind of classic, curated and smart video store that film nuts loved – carefully organised by directors, countries and detailed sub-sections, with an extensive selection that blows away anything on streaming when it comes to film history. 

I scooped up rare treasures like Tod Browning’s creepy classic 1932 “Freaks,” rare Robert Altman movies from the 1970s, and more, and I thought once again about how while streaming has its up side, its big down side is that movies from before 1990 or so barely exist. Little NZ doesn’t even have the smaller niche streaming services that the US does, so for us it’s Netflix and a few other competitors, and that’s it. 

I worked at a video store part-time in California almost 20 years ago now, in that brief era when they felt like the centre of the entertainment universe. DVDs were barely a thing yet and battered VHS tapes ruled the land. This store even had a back room full of obsolete Beta tapes. Even now any time I see movies of that time like “Blade,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Pleasantville” and “Ronin” I can picture their cardboard boxes lining a shelf, the greasy plastic cases holding the tapes piled up high at the rental return counter each morning. 

kimsVideo stores, while they lasted, provided a sense of community that staring at your laptop while scrolling through likes on your phone really doesn’t. Going out to ‘rent a video’ meant interacting a bit more than pushing a button. Sure, they could often be understocked or over-corporate or full of trash and porn, but still, the very best of the video stores, when they flickered through their brief life span, were a wonder. 

I kind of feel like this weekend’s big DVD clearance sale might well be the last video store I ever go into in my lifetime. I filled my arms with zombie horror and ‘40s melodrama and Orson Welles and Werner Herzog and bid one last farewell to an era.

Roll credits.