Monster Kid Online Magazine #5

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The Black Forest
Image Comics Graphic Novel
by Tod Livingston, Robert Tinnell and Neil Vokes

Named after a region of Germany that is dubbed as such because of its plethora of tall, dense spruce trees, The Black Forest is a Monster Kid-friendly graphic novel that takes place prior to America entering World War I. The Germans, emboldened by a mad scientist who worships at the altar of Dr. Frankenstein, are working on a weapon of monstrous proportions that may give them a decided edge in the bloody conflict. Called "Project Prometheus," the plan is to create a master race (or should that be monster race?) of super soldiers created Frankenstein-style from body parts of the dead, wounded, and otherwise defenseless.

Though the U.S. has yet to submit her troops to The Great War, a boyish, bravado-filled American soldier named Jack Shannon, serving under the flag of France, joins elder Englander Archibald Caldwell, a master illusionist, escape artist, mystic, and occultist. Their mission is to infiltrate the Black Forest, unravel the mysteries surrounding The Castle of Black Shadows, and find out just what the heck those nasty Germans are up to. The teaming of the bold, brash Shannon and the cool, collected Caldwell is a good one. Shannon, along with a sympathetically portrayed Frankenstein monster, gives the story its heart and soul, while Caldwell lends an air of old world sophistication to the perilous proceedings. Caldwell also provides a direct rivalry with the mad scientist (they love the same girl).

Like Universal’s House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and the recent Van Helsing, The Black Forest is a morbid mishmash of menacing and maniacal monsters. Naturally (or should that be unnaturally?), Frankenstein is the star of the show, but writers Todd Livingston and Robert Tinnell do an excellent job of infusing werewolves, vampires (including Nosferatu), gypsies, and other staples of the genre into the story without creating a sense of chaos, confusion, or contrivance. The easy-to-follow plot moves at a steady clip; the good guys (especially the likable Shannon) are truly worth rooting for; and the glorious black and white artwork is at once energetic, exciting, and mysterious, lending a certain urgency to the many thrills, chills, and spills. Neil Vokes’ drawings, scary as they are, may be a bit too cartoonish or impressionistic for some tastes, but not everyone can (or aspires to) draw like horror icon Bernie Wrightson.

As with entertainments of old, The Black Forest views war, adventuring, and heroism in a decidedly romantic light (or should that be romantic dark?). It’s predictable in parts but never boring, and, most importantly, it’s loads of fun. Curling up in your favorite chair to read The Black Forest on a stormy Saturday night is the next best thing to watching an old Universal horror film. In fact, given the war theme, it would make a nice double feature with The Invisible Agent. One hundred pages of story and art plus a sextet of monster pinups (including an awesome illustration by Monster Kid’s own Kerry Gammill) for only 10 bucks cements the deal: You must buy this book!


Brett Weiss




Warner Home Video DVD


The latest vintage horror classic to be released on DVD is the controversial Tod Browning production FREAKS. It remains one of the most shocking films ever made because of its subject matter and the use of genuine sideshow freaks as characters. The fact that it was made at all, especially by a major Hollywood studio like MGM is utterly amazing. Even today the familiar images of Johnny Eck (the half boy), Prince Randian (the human torso), Schlitze (the pinhead) and others are rather disturbing. When you think of how 1932 audiences must have reacted to having such actual physical anomalies presented as popular entertainment among the film monstrosities of the time, it's easy to see why the film was eventually disowned by MGM and banned in many locations. But it's that very "What were they thinking?" quality that makes the film such a fascinating piece of Hollywood history.

Producer/director Tod Browning, an ex-carney himself who seemed to be fascinated with humanity's darker side, is best remembered for his collaborations with silent screen great Lon Chaney. Chaney excelled in portraying grotesque but human characters and the star and director made a natural team. Their most shocking film together was THE UNKNOWN in which Chaney played a seemingly armless circus performer who tragically has his arms surgically removed to win the girl who then decides she does like men with arms after all. After Chaney's untimely death in 1930, Browning must have felt the only way he could top the shocks of his previous movies was to forget make-up and movie tricks and go for the real thing. Somehow it didn't occur to him that the same audiences that were able to appreciate the artistry Chaney utilized to bring his deformed and crippled characters to life on film might be repelled by the images of actual living freaks flashing across their neighborhood movie screens..

To Browning's credit, from the very first view of them frolicking in the woods, the movie attempts to garner sympathy and understanding for its unusual cast. Most of their scenes are played very matter-of-factly as glimpses of everyday life backstage of the sideshow. We meet the armless girl eating dinner with her feet. The human torso casually lights his own cigarette while listening to the acrobat boast about his act, The human skeleton gives out cigars after his wife, the bearded lady, has a baby, etc. We soon realize that the real ugliness is found in the film's more physically perfect specimens, Cleopatra the trapeze artist and Hercules the strong man. After discovering that Hans the midget (Harry Earles) is secretly wealthy, the two plot to do away with him and steal his fortune. However, their contempt for the sideshow attractions soon surfaces and offends the "code of the freaks" which leads to the movie's famous and harrowing climax.

FREAKS is one of those movies that was hard to find in decent shape for many years. Having been sold to exploitation filmmaker Dwain Esper after its initial release, it had a convoluted distribution history eventually being rediscovered as a cult movie in the 1960s because of its obscure, outsider and counterculture nature. Eventually MGM reclaimed the now-valuable movie and dug into its vaults to restored it for home video release using excellent 35mm materials except for the epilogue which came from a different source. This new disc appears to use the same transfer as previous video editions but on DVD the quality of the picture can really come through.

The disc features a very informative commentary by film historian David J. Skal and a documentary that examines the real lives and careers of the movie's strange stars and the production history of the film. How to end the movie on a positive and sympathetic note was apparently a problem and the disc features an extra section examining the alternative versions of the final scene and the epilogue that were written or filmed, which included the original hair-raising (and voice raising) fate of Hercules.

One fringe benefit of the DVD edition of FREAKS is the availability of closed captions. Several of the lead actors including Harry and Daisy Earles, Henry Victor and Olga Baclanova, have thick foreign accents making some of their dialogue hard to understand. German born Harry Earles is especially unintelligible at times. I found by leaving the English subtitles on I was fully understanding some of the scenes for the first time.

FREAKS is a one-of-kind movie and remains a thought provoking experience. Is it a plea for understanding and acceptance of human beings who were born different, or is it mere exploitation? It is still able to arouse conflicting feelings of sympathy and revulsion in most people. Like a freak itself, this movie is about as different from the normal Hollywood product of the 1930s as any you're likely to find. If you're a fan of the film you'll be very pleased with the presentation on this disc. If you've never seen FREAKS, do it now and become one of us. Gooble Gobble!


Count Gamula




The Moon-Rays
The Ghouls Go West

Spook Along with The Moon-Rays!

The latest release by The Moon-Rays is a self-contained spook show on a little plastic disc, deftly moving from one musical style to another, at times evocative and haunting, at other times celebrating horror fan culture with monster kid exuberance and plenty of reverb. A musical mixture of martinis and monsters, this compact disc is the distilled essence of cool.

Who are The Moon-Rays? There is nothing else quite like them on the music scene today. Almost impossible to describe, let's just say The Moon-Rays are the world's only surf-rock-jazz-blues combo with a musical affection for monster movies, pop culture TV, horror hosts and some outer space and spy exotica. And as disjointed as the diverse musical styles sound, The Moon-Rays make it work -- spectacularly so on their latest release THE GHOULS GO WEST.

Located in the Chicago area, The Moon-Rays specifically are Harry Reinhart (guitars, percussion); Greg Griffiths (piano, keyboards, percussion); Scott Mensching (drums, percussion, vibraphone, theremin and vocals on Thrillville); Tony DiMichele (bass); Terry Bernett (sax); and Paul Miller (trumpet, fluglehorn). One of the hardest things to achieve as recording artists is to create something exciting while remaining tasteful. And here, the musicianship is first rate, the instrumentation keeps things interesting and the arrangements are clever. Musically, The Moon-Rays speak the language of cool. Fluently.

Let's take a look at each exciting track.

Fear -- (3:36) Harry Lubin

The first piece is an otherworldly reworking of Lubin's theme from ONE STEP BEYOND, a Twilight Zone-like show from the early 1960s. The special appeal of the show was the gimmick that the stories were purportedly true. Like the memory of a loved one lost to eternity, the first few measures of the melody sound like they are emanating from a haunted victrola -- or from the deepest, black and white reaches of the human soul. The first several measures are purposely tinny sounding with clicks and pops thrown in for authenticity. The theme is suddenly reborn in living color with lush, layered guitars. Then atonal textures purr, cry and wail like lost souls. Finally, a full orchestration of the melody is allowed to bring the piece to a close. This is one spooky bit of exotica.

Blues for Vampira -- (3:49) Mensching

Like Maila Nurmi herself, this cut is uncompromising in its presentation. If Vampira did a striptease, this is the music she would have used. Slow, retro and rock-steady, a repeated piano note and restrained percussion drive the rhythm along as a flirtatious bass-line swaggers along like Vampira's hips. Silky smooth, a vibraphone kicks in the melody with all the colors of the night. The opening bars somewhat echo the first few strains of "I Was a Teenage Brain Surgeon" from the old Spike Jones album IN STEREO: A SPOOKTACULAR IN SCREAMING SOUND, with the first few descending notes of the vibraphone mimicking Thurl Ravenscroft's vocal. But the resemblance ends there as the track moves into the dark, cobweb-festooned recesses of Vampira's attic. Almost unnoticeable, a quavering note on the high end suggests a feeling of unease throughout the piece as a theremin provides the eerie punctuation. (There's a touch of Angelo Badalamenti lurking here and elsewhere on this album.) Pacing itself, the piece builds upon the tension of the rhythm until Harry Reinhart's guitar rips open the night with a blistering, bluesy solo. Somewhat Gary Moore-like, the solo is breathy and hot--almost as if the licks were caressing each curve of Vampira's wasp-waisted figure like the mist that swirled about her as she strode through the set at the opening of her show. If you know anything about Maila Nurmi's career as the "mistress of the horror kid," you'll find this piece hauntingly evocative of it. It is haunting, sensuous and sad--but ultimately triumphant.

There have been countless spook-oriented instrumentals since the beginning of the rock era. Most of them have been run-of-the-mill with haunted house effects and horror-theme fills and cliches. Much rarer are those pieces that are evocative of the uncanny within the composition itself. I have perhaps a thousand horror-themed tracks in my collection; I think Blues for Vampira just may be the best piece of instrumental spookery ever recorded.

The Ghouls Go West -- 3:05) Griffiths

What a fun piece. If Vic Mizzy got hold of the theme from THE MUNSTERS and played it sideways, it would sound sort of like this. A trippy harpsichord lays down a quirky tune as a theremin answers with its own counter-melody before both instruments join together for the finale. Just imagine THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN meets THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST and you've got it.

The Grim Creeper -- 5:09 Reinhart

Dark and ominous, there's murder in the air. A guitar pick is dragged downward over the wound strings of a guitar, evoking the feeling of life seeping from a victim. He probably had it coming. If neon light filtering through venetian blinds onto a body on the floor in a pool of blood next to a duchess with nice gams and a revolver in her hand had a theme, this would be it. The bass line walks down a wet cobblestone alley as guitars and an organ shadow each other for the duration. Good guys, bad guys, there's no distinction. In this piece everybody is guilty of first-degree musicianship.

Dragula Go-Go -- 3:06 Mensching

Here's a little retro rocker for all you throttle jockeys. Hey, it's about time Grandpa's custom coffin rail got a song of its own. After all, it was Grandpa who won back the family Koach in a grudge match after Herman goofed it again. You get neat-o surf guitar work backed by some bold brass as spies in porkpie hats provide the rhythm groove. You can hear the guitar riff in the background pump like pistons as sax and guitar trade solos. Frenetic bongos from weirdsville and kids (Garett and Ally Menshing) yellin' "GO! GRANDPA, GO!" complete the effect.

Thrillville -- 3:31 Mensching

Like, dig this swinging ode to San Fransisco Bay area scene-makers Will "The Thrill" Viharo and his wife Monica, the Tiki Goddess. The Thrill and his Goddess have a floating stage show combining Rat Pack chic, b-movies and burlesque. And this little number seems just right for them. Man, I'm talkin' 99 44/100ths percent pure hipster heaven, dad. A cool coffee-shop bass (Adam Kraus) thumps along as brushes dance on the snare, while a lonely muted horn plays along, occasionally popping off the "Will the Thrill!" motif. Bongos keep things Jake as Scott Mensching spews the word pudding about the Beatnik King, his Tiki Goddess and Thrillville, where monsters and spies drink side-by-side. Canary Patti Miller provides some smokey background vocals. This is solid, Jackson. You can't parody a genre successfully without having mastered it and these cats know what is and isn't. This cut will leave you wiggin' for more.

Little Green Men -- (3:18) Mensching

The Great Gazoo would get a kick out of this one. Inspired by a late-night viewing of INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN, this track in described by the (ample) liner notes as "Jimi Hendrix and Preston Epps get abducted by aliens and throw a bongo beach party on Mars." That pretty much sums it up! Space age squeaks and squawks punctuate sonic freeform guitar-work here. Little Green Men is like aural Googie architecture.

Dark Shadows-Exotique -- (4:34) Robert Cobert

On this adult reworking of the Dark Shadows theme, The Moon-Rays emphasize the gothic romance without diminishing much of its inherent creepiness. Still, it is more Angelique than Barnabas. The guitar notes are rich; this is a classic piece of supernatural exotica. Dig the faint birdcalls in the background. But especially listen for the echoes of Franz Waxman's BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN score as well; and does it ever work well within the Dark Shadows context.. This is pure monster kid genius. Like Blues for Vampira, it's also one very sexy number. Man, I love this piece.

El Toro Gano (4:59) Reinhart

Arriba! There's a little black humor on this track as the boys in the band stack the deck against the matador in this bold, brassy enchilada. (El Toro Gano translates as "The Bull Wins.") A tough rhythm track powers the groove underneath some crazy flamenco guitar. Spanish horns herald the bull's victory. Blood and sand indeed!

The Hanging Tree (3:50) Mensching

Listening to this I can't help but think of Grandpa Munster (in the episode "Herman's Happy Valley") pointing to a noose suspended from a gnarled, old oak in the middle of a ghost town, remarking "Oh! Here are the excellent entertainment and recreational facilities!" A desert wind heralds the opening bars of this brooding oater that conjures up tons of pasta. But just as you get used to the composition's dark vibe, it detours into bop-land. It's a gutsy move and it works. The keyboard shines over some tasty jazz comping on the guitar. Soon enough the track returns to its dramatic roots of a necktie party in progress.

La Valse Du Vampir (2:58) Griffiths

Synthetic strings intertwine with piano to evoke a midnight cotillion of the undead. On a disc of diverse tracks, this is the most different cut on the album. Classical, almost New age, the ominous undercurrent is unmistakable. But its ethereal quality provides a wonderful coda for the THE GHOULS GO WEST. Was this all a dream?

Packaging for the CD is first rate, with a ghoulish western motif on the cover depicting rotting cowboys on horseback. The artwork is by Elliott Mattice. The back cover shows everybody's favorite ghoul girl, Vampira, sipping a cocktail. (Special kudos to the group for getting permission to use Maila Nurmi's image.) The liner notes satisfy those who want to know more about the compositions. THE GHOULS GO WEST is a smashing accomplishment for The Moon-Rays. There isn't a dud on the disc nor a false note on any of the compositions. It is simply one of the best albums of spook music ever recorded. Whether taken on its own terms as monster music or accepted simply as good music, this disc belongs in the collection of the discriminating monster kid. You want this compact disc. And you can get it at along with earlier recordings by the group. The Moon-Rays are indeed America's spookiest hipsters. Tell 'em The Monster Kid sent ya.


Gary Prange

The Moon-Rays website




Drums of Fu Manchu
VCI Entertainment DVD

Sax Rohmer's Chinese super-villain Fu Manchu had already made the jump from the written page to the big screen in silent British serials of the 1920s, a Warner Oland series of the early 1930s, and MGM's extravagant MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932) with Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy. Republic Studios - already successful with a series of Dick Tracy and Lone Ranger chapterplays - thought Dr. Fu Manchu would make a successful series of serials, too, and in 1939 purchased the rights. DRUMS OF FU MANCHU (named after the most recently published Fu Manchu novel, although not utilizing its plot) began filming on Dec. 22, 1939; its 48-day shooting schedule was the longest for any Republic serial. It was directed by the Republic's crack cliffhanger team of William Witney and John English.

As with all chapterplays, the plot is simple: Fu Manchu seeks to unite all the tribes of Asia under his dictatorship. To do that, he seeks to claim the mantle of Genghis Khan, and to do THAT, he needs the sacred scepter, which is hidden in Khan's tomb, and to find the tomb, he needs to locate three ancient artifacts that point the way, and if you're thinking that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg grew up watching stuff like this, well, you're right.

Fu Manchu has an army of zombies aiding him in his quest; they're called dacoits, and they have shaved heads, lobotomy scars on their foreheads, and fangs(!). He's also got an array of torture devices, each of which he gives charming names (e.g., a man-sized box full of starving rats is called the "Seven Gates to Paradise"). He's also got a beautiful daughter, Fah Lo Suee, whom I mention because she's as nasty as he is.

On Our Side, you'll find longtime Fu Manchu aggravator Sir Nayland Smith (he seems to have lost his first name, Denis, somewhere in the script) and Sir Nayland's pesky American sidekick, Allan Parker, a prettyboy who can hold his own when the fisticuffs start, for the most part.

Over the course of 15 chapters (and 4 1/2 hours) you know, you really get your money's worth when you buy a serial) Smith and Parker will find themselves in crashing airplanes and wrecked trains, tied to one of those swinging pendulum axes that screen sadists always seem to have in the basement, crushed by hundreds of falling stalactites in a cave, and even in the grip of a killer octopus.

I particularly loved chapter five ("The House of Terror"), which is for all intents and purposes a neat little 2-reel horror film. During a torrential thunderstorm that must've skyrocketed the serial's budget, Fu Manchu and his killer dacoits lurk about the grounds of a big, dark mansion wherein lies Sir Nayland, a crotchety old archeologist, one of Genghis Khan's three keys, and - death! Unusual for a chapterplay, this episode doesn't even end with a peril: just Fu Manchu gloating with an "I love it when a plan comes together!" look in his eyes.

Eventually, securing the three keys that he needs, Fu Manchu heads off to Branapuhr, and wherever the hell that is supposed to be, it's the same old locale that Republic used for its westerns and jungle pictures alike (and yes, the ubiquitous Republic woodie wagon is there). This was a crushing disappointment, as up to this point the serial was chugging along quite nicely. Unfortunately, after they reach this "remote outpost" the serial never quite regains its momentum, because as the action switches back and forth between various "exotic locales" there's no change in scenery whatsoever. It's like a kid with a camera filming the Battle of Gettysburg in his backyard and cutting away to the lost continent of Atlantis in his side yard. (In contrast, Universal's chapterplays are often lacking in other areas, but at least they had the sets to actually suggest foreign territories in such serials as ACE DRUMMOND and THE ADVENTURES OF SMILIN' JACK.)

Like most Republic 15-chapter serials, this one should've been cut down to 12 episodes. Most of the good stuff occurs in the first 10 chapters, and the final free-for-all is nothing special, although Fu Manchu's fate in chapter 15 is unique for a serial.

The cast is excellent, particularly Henry Brandon as Fu Manchu and William Royle as Sir Nayland Smith. Robert Kellard is Allan Parker, and although he can be rather annoying, he's at least as good as most Republic leading men. For some reason, possibly because they sometimes hired "actors" to resemble stuntmen and match stock footage (Kellard looks a lot like his action double, ace stuntman Dave Sharpe), Republic's male serial stars are frequently disappointing. The serial also features Universal horror alumni Dwight Frye in a small part. Several years after playing Fu Manchu, Brandon portrayed a modern cave man in Universal's THE LAND UNKNOWN.

Mention should be made of the actual titular "drums". It seems that Fu Manchu can cause a strange throbbing sound from some unknown source; like a rattlesnake, it occurs to terrorize his victims before he strikes, but it's also powerful enough to bring down the ceiling of a cave. It's never explained how or where it comes from, but it's a neat effect.

World War II prevented the planned sequel from being produced (it was bad form to have the Chinese as our enemies), so Republic regained some of their costs by cutting 200 minutes out of DRUMS OF FU MANCHU and re-releasing it as a feature in 1943. After that, rights reverted back to Rohmer and DRUMS OF FU MANCHU all but disappeared for decades. It's currently available on DVD from VCI Entertainment, but the 16mm source is rather lacking. Perhaps to make up for that, VCI gives us plenty of extras, including a colorful 12-page booklet on the history of Fu Manchu.

I place DRUMS OF FU MANCHU in the upper echelon of serials, but not in my top ten.


L. Gravy

Order DVD from VCI