Friday, October 30, 2015

COUNTDOWN TO HALLOWEEN (Days 30-31): Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee

I love Bela Lugosi’s charming, aristocratic and seductive portrayal of Count Dracula in the Universal Studios picture.  Those films were fitting for their time and there was more a sense of old world lust lingering over that version of the lord of vampires.  The danger there is not terribly palpable, oh we know it’s there, we know death follows closely after, but it doesn’t seem like doom.

However, when Christopher Lee’s Count prowls the sets of the Hammer adaptations of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA it’s all about pain and terror and eternal damnation.  Lee’s looming figure towered over everyone else in the picture, a silent danger in every scene—a shark in bloody waters.  No one was safe and the seduction was only a means to an end.

And that is closer to Stoker’s vision of Dracula.  He’s as much an animal as a man and more a tool of the devil than anything else.  And Lee’s Dracula projected pain and longing and hatred—a man doomed to forever need and want and to never have, spreading death and destruction wherever he went.  There is a soul in his Dracula, but it’s as Stoker meant him to be—tortured.

And Lee, himself, may have been drawing on his own feelings about the role.  He didn’t care much for it.  He refused the lines given to him by Hammer’s writers in the first film—instead he projected the sentiment and it lead to an atmospheric and powerful performance.  One he did what he could with during his every film as the bloodsucker.

Here, Sir Christopher Lee reads DRACULA…

“We do, all of us, depend on the elements that have been there since the dawn of time, and without which we could not exist,” Christopher Lee mused while talking about the enduring power of The Wicker Man.  “There is a touch of paganism in us all…”

Christopher Lee’s last role was narrating animator Raul Garcia’s anthology  EXTRAORDINARY TALES’ adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” which hit some art house theaters on October 23rd.  Here’s a sample of Lee’s voice over the animation:

“People sometimes come up to me,” he once said, “and they say, ‘I’ve seen all your films, Mr. Lee,’ and I say, ‘Oh no you haven’t.”

Here, Lee reads THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1960):

Some really nice words about the fallen good Sir...

In lieu of a witchy song tonight,
I invite you to enjoy Christopher Lee
Reading Tim Burton’s Original Poem for
The Nightmare Before Christmas,
with nice animation…

Thursday, October 29, 2015

COUNTDOWN TO HALLOWEEN (Day 29): Because You're Mine

Certainly the most famous song involving witchcraft is Screamin' Jay Hawkins’ 1956 “I Put a Spell on You”.  And it just so happens to be one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 songs that shaped Rock and Roll.  And Rolling Sone listed it at 313 on it’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

It just works perfectly as an unrequited love song or at the very least a love-gone-wrong kind of tune.  But Jay originally wrote it as a ballad about a girlfriend who had dumped him.  The studio liked the song but didn’t think the ballad would sell.

At some point in the process, the producer brought in ribs and chicken and alcohol for everybody and got the band drunk before recording the spookier classic.  Hawkins has said he didn't even remember doing it.

Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed added Hawkins to his “Rock and Roll Review” and suggested a gimmick to go with the “demented” nature of the song.  Hawkins wore a cape and went on stage by rising from a casket with smoke and fog all around, playing up the witch doctor angle.  It was a hit and one of the first ever shock rock performances—a precursor to acts like Alice Cooper, Kiss, Screaming Lord Such, George Clinton, Warren Zevon, Black Sabbath and on up to acts as new as Lady Gaga.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins - I Put a Spell on You

Here is an alternate take from the Okeh session…

Creedence Clearwater Revival pretty faithfully cover it.

The Boys Next Door punk it up a bit.

Annie Lennox tries to make it bigger.

Jeff Beck & Joss Stone sauce it up.

Marilyn Manson glam slams it.

Joe Cocker takes it back to being the song of a broken-hearted lover.

Nina Simone jazzes it up.

Hell, including some of these, here’s a compilation of 12 versions of the song…

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins on The Merv Griffin Show in 1966
(You can see him nearly burst out laughing, and out of character, after a gunpowder gimmick blows up.)

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins Live

This here is a documentary on the life of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins that was completed after his death in the year 2000.  It’s called…


Ladies and Gents,
The Witchdoctor of Broken Hearts.
The Godfather of Shock Rock.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

COUNTDOWN TO HALLOWEEN (Day 28): Domesticated Sorceress

Essentially, it’s a romantic comedy about a mixed marriage.  And the rules of the show are as simple as the conflict between a woman of power and a husband who cannot deal with that power.  Add to that the anger of a bride’s mother seeing her daughter marry beneath her and you’ve got the perfect brew for a successful situation comedy.

Sol Saks, inspired by both “I Married a Witch” and “Bell, Book and Candle”, wrote only the pilot of the show and had nothing more to do with it after that.  Production began on the pilot on November 22, 1963, coinciding with the assassination of President Kennedy.  The show was a hit out of the gate, finishing season one as the number two show in the U.S.  The only show with better ratings was BONANZA.

As the seasons went by and the series went on, the network demanded more farcical supernatural elements be added.  And the cast changed more than most shows due to two untimely deaths (Alice Pierce who played Gladys Kravitz and Marion Lorne who portrayed Aunt Clara) and Dick York, the first Darren, had to quit due to health reasons (he had severely injured his back shooting a film).  

But what truly kept audiences coming back for more was Elizabeth Montgomery’s down to Earth, woman next door Samantha Stephens.  A woman sacrificing much for the man she loves, a daughter who fights against old tradition while trying to be respectful of her parents and a mother trying to give her family the best of both worlds.

Sure, that’s all in-between the snarky puns,  jokes, and witchy sfx but it’s in there.  And all the while, she played it as funny as could be—willing to go as far as need be for the laugh.  Witches had been brought to the mainstream before, but never had one been so embraced.

Here are a few interviews with Elizabeth one during and one after the show's run and the last reel is simply many, if not all, of the sight and sound gags that were the result of the use of "magic" on the show...

And now here's early rockabilly great Kip Tyler with...
"She's My Witch"

Monday, October 26, 2015

COUNTDOWN TO HALLOWEEN (Day 27): Which 10 Witch Films?

Continuing our post from the other night, this one of some of the Top “Witch” Films…

I wanted to go into further depth on the subject of witches and their portrayal in film by not necessarily exploring a “Best of” list as I think it’ll be more interesting to talk about ten films that have an innovative or unique look at the subject.  Ten films that brought some new perspective will be hard enough to manage, as there are so damn many films with witchery all over them!  But I’ll try, damnit, I’ll try!

Now earlier this month I’ve already discussed HAXAN, the classic silent docudrama exploring the history of witches throughout the ages, so I won’t be bringing it up here other than to say that you should see it if you haven’t.  And I’ve already mentioned how SUSPIRIA is highly regarded among the list makers here on the web, so no need to bring it up in this discussion.  And lastly, I’ll avoid THE WIZARD OF OZ as I did quite the in-depth post about the Wicked Witch of the West and how she has iconically shaped the look of witches since.

Now that we’re past all of the prelims, here we have it… 


Just as she is about to be burned at the stake, Salem witch Jennifer (Veronica Lake) curses the family of her accuser, dooming all the men of future generations to marry the wrong women. Freed from her prison over 200 years later, Jennifer decides to make the most recent descendant of her accuser (Fredric March) even more miserable by using a love potion on him that makes him fall in love with her, a plan that has unexpected results.

Beyond being an average romantic comedy, the witch turned love interest idea would go on to be a theme picked up by the movie BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE and the hit television series BEWITCHED.  In effect, it took the witch and put her in the heart of the family and thus more acceptable to the masses. 

aka BURN, WITCH, BURN (1962)
Based upon Fritz Lieber’s novel CONJURE WIFE and adapted by Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson who were fans and wanted to work on it together, the two were paid $5,000 each by American International and they brought in George Baxt to work on the script.
Peter Cushing was originally meant to star, but left to make Captain Clegg instead.  Janet Blair came onboard and eventually Peter Wyngarde was cast as the college professor husband.
The film centers on the wife of a Psychology professor who lectures on belief systems and superstitions.  She is superstitious and regularly uses witchcraft to help her husband’s career and livelihood.  He is a firm rationalist and is disturbed to learn of her irrational beliefs and forces her to destroy all of her magical charms.  And that’s when all hell descends upon them.

Where this film is special is in it’s subtlety in that it depicts the use of charms or the supernatural in everyday situations and actively opposes it with the rationalist view.  It is a method that leaves the viewer in wonder, questioning if the cause of events are natural or unnatural.  And that unanswered feeling leaves the viewers suspense to grow as the climax of the picture approaches.

Father Grandier’s (Oliver Reed) views on sex and worship influence a passionate group of nuns, including the sexually addicted Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave).  When Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) discovers he must get rid of Grandier to have enough power to rule France, he declares Grandier a satanist using witchcraft to corrupt the nuns and leads a witch hunt against him.

Ken Russell’s controversial film gained harsh reactions due to it’s disturbing violent, sexual and religious subject matter.  It was dubbed X-Rated in both the UK and the U.S. and was banned in several countries and heavily edited in others.  Never released in it’s original, uncut form, it is largely unavailable.

Edward Woodward plays Sgt. Howie arrives on the tiny Scottish island of Summerisle to look into a report of a missing young girl named Rowan Morrison.  A conservative Christian, Howie is disturbed by the behavior of the islanders as they pay tribute to pagan gods and generally act like heathens (and all that that implies).  He finds his investigation thwarted at every turn and as the mystery of the isle deepens, not only do things look grim for the girl, but for himself.

While there is no central witch, the leader of the pagan movement on the island played by Christopher Lee serves as the conduit for all of the practices that wind up destroying the protagonist.  And the fact that the Sergeant ends up in the situation he finds himself in at the finale, well, lets just say it’s a direct turnaround to what conservative Christianity did to those who didn’t care to break bread with Jesus’ pappy.

Three women (Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer) who have each lost the men in their lives are mired in self-pity, that is until new stranger in town Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson) shows up and begins courting each of the three.  Eventually he tells them that they’re witches, and in town, the three become social outcasts as rumors spread.  And, as the three spend time exploring their abilities at his mansion, and enjoying their newfound vitality, they worry about this stranger’s intentions.
So this fine comedy about three women reclaiming their womanhood, their independence and their power also happens to feature one of the all-time great scene-stealers doing just that.  Jack Nicholson’s performance as the devil is a must-see spectacle.

This fine coming of age tale of a young witch who leaves her home for a year to go out on her own and earn a living and train as a witch comes from anime legend Hayao Miyazaki.  He adapted it from a 1985 novel of the same name by Eiko Kadono.  With her talking black cat, Jiji, Kiki flies on her broomstick delivering goods from the bakery to pay her rent.  It isn’t long before trouble rears it’s ugly head and it is something Kiki must learn to deal with and overcome.  Like all Japanese anime, the pacing, for me, is a bit wonky, but this one really does overcome that and translates well for all audiences.

Based on the book of the same name by Roald Dahl, The Witches is about a young American boy named Look Eveshim who stumbles on a convention of all of England’s witches while staying at a resort with his grandmother Helga.  The witches are masquerading as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.  In attendance is also the Grand High Witch—leader of the witches of the entire world—portrayed superbly by Anjelica Huston—who plans to turn all children into mice so that they can be more effectively and quickly eaten.  And, of course, the story turns there, being that it is a kid’s fantasy.  It was the last film Jim Henson personally worked on before his death (both Dahl and Henson died that year).
Though it performed poorly at the box office it is critically acclaimed for it’s creative story, twisted special effects and, certainly, Anjelica Huston’s wicked performance.  My guess is that parents thought it looked too scary to bring their kids to it—perhaps it’s more a treat for the kid inside of us adults.

THE CRAFT (1996)
Robin Tunney is Sarah, a Los Angeles teen who transfers to a new school and finds her gift of telekinesis appeals to her new friends, a clique of three wannabe witches.  In an effort to further fit in, she joins their group as the fourth member.  Like Sarah, the other three have troubled backgrounds and they are Bonnie (Neve Campbell), Rochelle (Rachel True) and the truly wicked Nancy (Fairuza Balk).  The new power they gain leads to dangerous consequences and it isn’t long before the girl’s thirst for more power gets out of hand.

Yes, Virginia, young, beautiful witches in catholic schoolgirl uniforms can sell movie tickets.  As an aside, I’m flabbergasted that there wasn’t a sequel for this film due to it’s success and the open finale.  Of course, that’s probably a blessing as it didn’t water down this film.  Besides, there other were loads of wannabes and copycats to come.

This one is a straight up horror picture with a simple plot.  Take three film students, put them in the woods to make a documentary about the local boogieman legend of the Blair Witch and let the hijinks ensue.  After interviewing people in the small town nearby, and learning clues, rumors and actual facts about the murders, the three lose their way in the woods and begin to loose their minds.  Sleep deprivation, unending noises and disturbing relics they find also add to the disorientation they suffer.  
While I enjoyed the picture, I didn’t love it.  It works as a document better than as a horror film, so it definitely succeeded in part.  And besides, this is the granddaddy of all those found footage films that came since.  It’s enormous success and the low risk cost associated with it created an immeasurable number of pretenders.

Christine Brown has a great job at a Los Angeles Bank and a loving boyfriend, but her life becomes hellish when, in an effort to impress her boss, she refuses an old woman’s request for a home loan extension.  The crone quickly puts a curse on Christine, threatening her very soul with eternal damnation.  What follows is Christine’s journey to save herself from the deathly witches revenge.
Sam Raimi’s return to horror as a director went smoothly as his style and humor shine through.  It was a story that he had co-written a decade earlier.  It's rare that a PG-13 can make an impact upon me, but Raimi pulled it off with sick, creepy scares and some pitch black comedy.

It is a fairy tale, at it’s heart, much like something out of The Grimm Brothers as it teaches a moral lesson while entertaining.

And now on to the music portion of the night.  Here's one of my favorite short-lived bands of the '90s, BELLY, which is to say Tanya Donelly and friends.
This song feels more like the sketch of a song (as a good few of their efforts from their debut album "Star" do), it's called simply...