June 10, 2013 | by Dave Tompkins
Skeletons seem to be preternaturally deft swordsmen. This one is giving Sinbad all he can handle, at one point throwing its shield like a Frisbee. It’s a roadhouse move, executed with zing and grimace. Sinbad ducks and the shield crashes into the evil sorcerer’s lab, causing a model dinosaur to take a header off the top shelf.
This scene from 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was created by Ray Harryhausen, a special-effects pioneer who recently died, at the age of ninety-two. Only in this lost world could a model Sauropoda look faker than a skeleton wielding a scimitar. The realness was in the time and dedication that went into letting that shield fly, its rotation not unlike the UFO that Harryhausen drunkenly crashed into the Capitol two years earlier in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. While destroying national landmarks makes for a good time, stop-motion animation also demands archeological patience. A mere shoofly of a skeleton’s wrist can equal a full day’s work. For Harryhausen, a little boy’s “dinosaur phase” evolved into a lifetime of endless adjustments and clicks, a shot for every move and turn. One of his biggest challenges and triumphs was activating Medusa’s snake perm in Clash of the Titans (1981), not to mention the instant ossification induced by her stink-eye. Harryhausen would also embellish the legend: Medusa as a graceful archer with snake arrows was as myth-busting to me as a Kraken showing up in a movie without tentacles. Read More »
December 21, 2012 | by Dave Tompkins
What’s Christmas without some ancient demons embedded in the chimney? On the evening of December 25, 1972, BBC viewers celebrated the birth of Christ by being scared to death. They learned that their homes could be resonating with discarnate traumas absorbed over centuries, that the limestone walls have been listening, recording, and screaming—and that the ghost of Christmas past had been using their minds as its personal VCR. Scripted by Nigel Kneale, The Stone Tape is about a British electronics company who’s in a race to beat Japan to a super washing machine and a groundbreaking recording medium based on the “magnetic susceptibility” of certain minerals and their capacity to retain terrible memories. Holed up in a Victorian mansion, the team of bickering scientists working for Ryan Electronics would discover that haunting was a new form of playback. Merry Christmas.
Kneale had grown up on the Isle of Man, home to a mongoose named Gef who could prove his own existence in six different languages, including Russian and Arabic. Kneale’s imagination flourished in television, a medium with a reputation for killing souls. His teleplays seemed intent on trying to out-weird each other: a taxidermist gets stuffed by a pond of vengeful toads; a man is choked to death by his own bike wreckage; a porn cinema is haunted by dolphins. He also gave us titles like “Vegetable Village,” “Clog-Dance for a Dead Farce,” and “The Big Big Giggle.” One of my favorite Kneale shows involves a frumpy supermarket cashier who enlists the store mascot—a woodchuck called Briteway Billy—to wage telekinetic war against her tyrant boss, pummeling him to death with nonperishable canned goods. How many soup cans can a supermarket woodchuck ghost hurl?
November 5, 2012 | by Dave Tompkins
The Invisible Man, neat freak by design, was known to fuss over the grit beneath his fingernails. According to British horror historian Denis Gifford, dirt threatened transparency. In A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, Gifford sees “a pair of disembodied trousers skipping down the lane to ‘Here We Come Gathering Nuts in May.’” The hands are clean.
For Gifford, the devil was in the details, if not in all of us: “We who came to stare only see ourselves.” Or through ourselves. He notes the shabbiness of Mr. Hyde’s tailcoat, and the yak-hair transplants on the Wolfman’s face. Also important: “a sinister sofa,” controlled by an underground switchboard operated by a man in a wig. And Frankenstein’s homunculus, taken out by a falling crossbeam no fewer than four times in his film career.
These images were filtered through words I’d just discovered. Until last week, I had never actually read the most important book of my childhood. The text had gone unseen. My mother had given A Pictorial History of Horror Movies to my brothers as a Christmas gift in 1973. She still cheerily refers to it as “that book with the girl with the hatchet in her head.” I was forbidden to read it but was never told I couldn’t look at it. Read More »
September 17, 2012 | by Dave Tompkins
The half-mouse—the good half, the half equipped with a smell memory validated by neuroscience, the half mortally known as the half that never saw it coming—shot across the kitchen floor, headed due west with a decent but final glimpse of the front yard. The back half landed somewhere near the sink.
My brother had split the mouse in two with a nine-iron. According to witnesses at the scene, the creature’s separation was cartoonishly neat. I recall thinking this was a flawed method of pest control for someone with no short game to speak of. The linoleum gopher hump that rose from my grandparents’ kitchen floor—a distortion from water damage—did place the moment in a Goony Golf warp. But from my understanding, the murder was more reflex than act of cruelty. It wasn’t like my brother teed up and put the mouse through a window. (I imagine a similar instinct overtaking him the time he allegedly potato-slammed a palmetto bug on the kitchen counter, knocking it out of its exoskeleton, quivering.) He just grabbed the first thing within reach—a legendary chemistry teacher’s nine-iron—and let the mouse have it. Having once hurled a toaster oven at a cockroach, I can relate.
May 16, 2012 | by Dave Tompkins
I’m not sure who had the ball when George Clinton passed by in a golf cart. It could’ve been Mike D. It could’ve been Yauch. I just remember standing there astonished, watching George quietly scoot by in his Mothership mini, while my defensive assignment broke to the basket and scored. The Beastie Boys were playing some intrasquad hoops in a parking lot behind the Atlanta Amphitheater, a Lollapalooza stop during the summer of 1994. A portable basketball goal had been traveling with them, providing a transitional arc and some adrenaline for the stage. I don’t even remember who was on my team. I just know that I was playing with a bunch of guys once falsely accused of throwing pies at kids in wheelchairs.
Yauch evidently hadn’t given up his outside shot for Buddhism. Adam Horovitz dribbled with an Archibaldian low center of gravity, while Mike D crashed about with his Kurt Rambis hustle. Keyboard player/carpenter Money Mark spent much of the game in midair. I spent much of the game looking for my fadeaway. In my defense, I was firing into the sun on a freshly reconstructed knee, ligament grafted, no brace. If I had reinjured it that day, I would’ve told anyone with a working set of ears that I’d blown out my knee playing basketball with the Beastie Boys—that I was treeing out of my mind until George Clinton put a golf cart on me.
April 18, 2012 | by Dave Tompkins
In January 1940, a German double agent warned the FBI, “Watch out for the dots! Lots and lots of little dots.” During World War II, German Abwehr agents used microphotography to reduce classified military documents down to a dot, entrusting the period with sensitive intelligence such as tank specs and bomb sites, as well as meeting coordinates, a time and a place. Administered to the page by syringe, the dot traveled under the guise of punctuation and was then enlarged by its recipient—blown up in a world that would ultimately be reduced to rubble. The end of the line harbored secrets.
To an aerosol artist like Rammellzee, this would be the last stop on the A train in Far Rockaway, Queens, where he sprayed his first tag back in the late seventies. The letters—EG—stood for “Evolution Griller.” I once shared the dot’s steganographic past with this Queens-born rapper/letter engineer, a man once described as “micro” for his detailing of subway cars and history. Rammellzee had no time for punctuation, but all night for talking military engineering, tanks, dentistry, deep-sea bends, gangster ducks, and loaded symbols. Hunched over a beer inside the Battle Station, his Tribeca loft, he asked if I was with the Defense Department and grumbled, “Too much information in the room is not good policy.” Under his baleful watch, the only time a sentence called for a period was when declaring the end of an era. With Rammellzee, a single thought—often concerning the welfare of the alphabet—might span centuries: from Visigoth invasions to Panzer battalions to a subway tunnel beneath an African slave cemetery to a band from Buffalo called Robot Has Werewolf Hand. All between a burp and a nod, from a polymath who referred to himself as an equation.