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Friday, October 25, 2013

Carnival of Souls: A Cult Classic Reviewed

Carnival of Souls (1962), directed by Herk Harvey

As the classic horror movies of the Universal Monster era evolved throughout the 1930's into the 1950's, creatures remained the at the top of the genre.  That decade saw such gems as The Blob, Tarantula!, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Giant Claw, Attack of the Giant Leeches (a personal favorite!), and William Castle's The Tingler.  Rarely did horror not include a monster or an alien that was out to get you.

However, in the 1960's, even as creatures continued to menace theaters, horror fans began to see a new type of movie.  Darker themes lit up the big screen.  Man became a terror all his own.  Thanks to Alfred Hitchcock and a little known author from Wisconsin (Robert Bloch, a friend of H.P. Lovecraft), audiences all over the United States discovered that we need not fear giant ants or alien parasites when a man like Norman Bates is lurking behind a shower curtain in the 1960 classic Psycho.  Horror directors began to delve into the creepier aspects of what scares us.  Around this time period, Herk Harvey, a director of educational films from Kansas had an idea for a thriller-horror movie while on vacation in Utah.

For only $33,000, he filmed his movie, Carnival of Souls, using a professional actress (Candace Hilligoss) while filling in most of the cast with local talent, including himself.  In just three weeks, he completed his film.  As a "B" movie, it did poorly, and Herk Harvey never made another feature film.  Most of his crew came from the company he worked for making educational films.  The music score was done by Gene Moore, a co-worker who is also credited with such great films as How to Run a Filling Station and Embryology of the Chick.  (And no, those titles aren't humorous.  The films were actually about running a filling station and embryology...whatever that is.)  Actress Candace Hilligoss only made a few more films.  Carnival of Souls might never have been remembered had it not been seen again.  But as often happened, as cable television sought out more and more old movies to show late at night, Carnival of Souls was resurrected in the 1980's, and over time has become a respected film of 1960's horror.

So let's get to the movie.

Filmed in black and white, with Gene Moore's hypnotic organ score that saturates the film, Carnival of Souls begins with an accident during a drag race between a car full of young men and a car full of young ladies.  One of the young ladies, Mary (Hilligoss) miraculously crawls out of the river three hours after the car she is in runs off a bridge.  Stunned, she staggers home and continues on with her plans to take a new job as a church organist in Utah.

Candace Hilligoss in Carnival of Souls
Traveling to her new home, Mary passes an abandoned bath resort/carnival on the shore of the Great Salt Lake.  She begins to see apparitions as she is driving.  Basically, she is not feeling well, and greatly disturbed.  Taking a room in a boarding house, she discovers that her neighbor across the hall is John Linden, a creep who spends his days on the make.  Actor Sidney Berger, who later became an acting instructor, plays John Linden, and does so with a delightful job of being creepy and distasteful.  His performance helps to cement the disturbing atmosphere of this bizarre movie.

The real terror, however, comes from the apparition that begins to stalk Mary.  A white-faced ghostly image of a middle-aged man wearing a suit.  No, he wasn't a radio-active creature, not an alien with eyes on the end of two long stalks.  Just a man, whose intense stare is too much for the unbalanced Mary.  At first she does her best to keep away from this silent watcher.  But finally she can no longer stand not knowing who he is and what he wants.  Unable to get any help from a local doctor, she begins to see more ghouls around her.

The Ghoul (Herk Harvey)
Finally, she is drawn to visit the abandoned carnival.  And there, she will eventually find the answers she is seeking.  Harvey makes use of the abandoned location with well-crafted scenes that are bizarre, ghoulish, and surreal.  I was expecting something over the top, but was happy to find that Harvey keeps the whole movie understated, with just the right amount of creepiness and dreamlike atmosphere.

Hilligoss is cast well as the doe-eyed blonde who stumbles around in this dreamy fantasy.  She never looks like the typical stupid young girl that so many horror movies offer up.  Instead, though she can't seem to figure out what is going on, she retains her dignity even as she is slowly overcome by the ghouls that haunt her.

Carnival of Souls is available on Amazon Instant Video.  Use the link below to check it out.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Those 70's Horror Movie Stars

Boris Karloff, Frankenstein (1931)
Back in the day, actors like Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff became huge celebrities as they helped to create a class of films that became known as Horror.  They were (and still are today!) household names.  But as horror movies evolved, and involved more, uh, odd behavior, morphing from Gothic classical material to shamelessly campy and graphic horror, the top roles in horror movies seemed to go to unknown actors who remained as such.  Vincent Price might be an exception to this rule.  And even Bela, Boris and Vincent were never really accepted as mainstream actors.  Horror was their shtick and to horror they shtuck.

Today, it is mostly the same.  Horror films are made with few known actors in their casts.  You might see an actor or actress whose career has tanked take a role in a horror movie because they can't get any other work.  But you rarely see an A-lister seek after a horror role.

But something funny happened in the 1960's that led to a rash of top Hollywood stars who dove head first into the horror genre.  Maybe it was the success of such films as Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) that allowed horror films to drag themselves into respectability behind the casting of such mega-stars as Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland.  Also, as the 70's dawned, there was a great revival of spiritual interest in the United States.  Unlike the spiritualism kick of the 1920's, this new interest did not just see the spiritual plane as something benign, where old relatives sat around wishing to speak with their great-nieces and great-nephews.  Just as the churches were experiencing a rise in popularity of the charismatic movement, secular society was becoming more intrigued by the spiritual battles between God and Satan.  This turn of attention was noted in Hollywood, and some very big stars were suddenly willing to lend their name and image to some rather strong horror...uh, shall we say offerings?

Oliver Reed, Burnt Offerings (1976)
And since we've used the word, I'll start with Burnt Offerings, a film from 1976.  This is a very good haunted house film, and it starred Oliver Reed, who was just beginning to reach his stride in what would become a very big career.  He was no stranger to horror, having played a local thug in The Shuttered Room, the 1967 adaptation of Lovecraft's short story The Dunwich Horror.  And though Reed was not yet the iconic celebrity he would become, Burnt Offerings also attracted such stars as Burgess Meredith and Bette Davis.

What I liked about this movie was the slow tension as Reed's character slowly, and ever so slightly, begins to change as a husband and father.  It never fully degrades like the father character in The Shining, but this more subtle change is unnerving coming from a man of Reed's brute frame.  He always had that smoldering undertone that made us believe that acting or not, you wouldn't want to turn your back on this guy for long.  And in this film, he uses it to great effect.

Gregory Peck, The Omen (1976)
Not the usual image we have of Atticus Finch.
Next on my informal list is The Omen (1976), which of course starred that stony-faced megastar Gregory Peck.  His appearance in this movie definitely gave credibility to the idea that any actor could consider appearing in a horror movie.  After all, he was arguably as big a star as Bette Davis.  And while she had an image as a bit of a feisty woman who never wanted to follow the rules, Peck had impeccable credentials as an all around good guy.   And Lee Remick had already been cast opposite some very big names.  She was already becoming a star.  As for the movie itself, I can't endorse it.  I tried to watch it, and it was so silly, I gave up early on it.  It just seemed so corny.

As mentioned in an earlier post, the 1979 Dracula starred none other than Laurence Olivier, often considered Britain's greatest Shakespearean actor.  In this film he plays Van Helsing, the Dutch doctor who is summoned to help puzzle out the malady that is afflicting the anemic Lucy.  What I like about Olivier's performance is his near perfect accent that truly mimics the syntax of Stoker's Van Helsing character.  He also manages to portray Van Helsing just as the character is written.  He is at times cute, odd, mysterious, bold, and even frail.  Olivier exhibits all of these mannerisms in a way that makes sense and is in no way forced.  I will point out that this is no stretch for Olivier to take on this role, since the source material is part of the classic canon.  However, he was also willing to join in on the bloody fun of Marathon Man in 1976, where he maniacally tortures Dustin Hoffman with a dentist's drill.  Obviously he did not seem to worry that such movies might hurt his respectable image.

George C. Scott, The Changeling (1980)
George C. Scott, a bigger-than-life star, took on the haunted house theme in the 1980 film The Changeling.  (Yes, 1980 is still the 70's for all you nit-pickers out there.)  And for me, this is one of the better modern haunted house stories.  Also drawing in Golden Age of Hollywood film star Melvyn Douglas (the man who made Garbo laugh in 1939's Ninotchka), a personal favorite of mine, this movie is saturated with atmosphere and will make you wary of old, high-backed wheelchairs.  At this point, Scott was definitely a major player in Hollywood, having been nominated for an Academy Award four times (and winning best actor for his signature role in Patton).  This was not his only outing in the horror genre, later playing the mystic Native American Indian in Firestarter and even joining the cast of The Exorcist III.

Of course, some horror fans out there would suggest that the biggest film for this genre in the 70's was The Exorcist, which certainly drew its share of Hollywood talent.  Max von Sydow was already an accomplished actor in 1973, as were Ellen Burstyn and the irascible Lee J. Cobb.  However, I'll concede they do not fit the profile of my A-listers whose impressive notoriety aided Horror as it matured into a respected film category.  But a little known fact about this movie should be highlighted here: the original actress offered the lead role by director William Friedkin was none other than Hollywood's most respected lady of the silver screen, Audrey Hepburn.  And she was actually willing to accept the role.  Unfortunately for Friedkin, she was something of a recluse by this time, and would only take the role if the filming could be done in Rome.  The studio said no, and Anne Bancroft eventually accepted the role, only to be forced to back out due to a pregnancy.  I often wonder just how Hepburn's casting might have changed this movie, and how it might have changed her already legendary career.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman, Fred Astaire,
and Melvyn Douglas, Ghost Story (1981)
This is not a complete listing of movies that fit this profile, but it gives you an idea of how the genre was changing.  By the 1980's, we would see more of the same.  Ghost Story, in 1981, starred no less than four classic actors: Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and John Houseman.  (And I shouldn't leave out Patricia Neal, a great lady from the Silver Age of Hollywood best known for her roles in Breakfast at Tiffany's and The Day the Earth Stood Still.)  Silence of the Lambs boasted stars Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins.  Hopkins, of course, ended up winning the Best Actor Oscar for his horror role.

Will we see such casting again?  I'm sure it will happen.  Perhaps Sean Connery could be lured from retirement to star in a ghost or haunted house story.  Maybe Tom Hanks could be tempted into something more diabolic than his light-weight Dan Brown religious thrillers.  After all, Robert De Niro did play Frankenstein's monster in Kenneth Branagh's 1994 version of Frankenstein, though very few people saw it.

Sadly, much of the horror genre has been hijacked by the recent obsession with torture-porn, and this has drained a great deal of credibility from what these classic actors and actresses helped to create.  Will there come a time when the A-listers decide to take back what their predecessors built up?  Only time will tell.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Dracula, the Bram Stoker novel: A View from a First-Time Reader

Dracula, by Bram Stoker.

As much as I enjoy Bram Stoker's short stories, (The Squaw is one of my favorites) I was sort of dreading this book.  First of all, I've seen so many different adaptations of the book I felt sure that none of this would be fresh to me, and it might possibly bore me simply from my familiarity with the story.  Add to that my aversion to the epistolary form of writing: segments of journals, transcriptions of audible journals as recorded on wax cylinders, newspaper clippings, letters.  I can only imagine what Stoker's story would look like today--blog entry, e-mail, telephone answering machine message, text, faxes.  Yikes.  So basically, I embarked on a book I had little hope of enjoying.  Why?  

I was never a fan of Dracula.  But like all kids, I was intrigued by his mystique.  One day, as a young lad (and I have no idea how old I was when this happened), I came across a movie version of Dracula on a Saturday afternoon.  (More than likely it was Creature Feature.  Anyone remember that?)  So I caught one of those  versions wonderfully desaturated right about the time the Count was running from one side of his stone castle to another, cape swinging with him, as he advanced upon Van Helsing, until finally Van Helsing yanks down the curtains as daylight creeps in and using crossed candlesticks forces Dracula into the sunshine where it hits him like a death-ray and turns him to dust, leaving only a few hairballs that sort of float off in the morning breeze.  This, I discovered later in life, was the 1958 Dracula.  It seemed sort of cool, but I didn't become a fan.  He was, after all, evil, and that didn't appeal to me.

Christopher Lee, in Count Dracula, a film by Jesus Franco, in which
he attempted to portray the Count as he was described by Bram
Stoker.  Something that Hollywood never seemed to get right.
I tried to read the book about twenty years ago, and maybe I was distracted, who knows, but I couldn't get into it.  I put it aside and just forgot about it.  I eventually saw the 1979 Dracula with Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing and Frank Langella in the title role.  Though this was one of the more egregious uses of the "sexy" Dracula, the Van Helsing portrayal is one of the more faithful to the book.  And speaking of the book, let's get back to it.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover how much I enjoyed this novel.  I became accustomed to the epistolary style, though I did not grow fond of it.  I kept wondering how it would read if someone just took the darn thing and rewrote it in third person.  In fact, I would suspect that after all these years someone has.  I may look it up one day.  But the story itself really caught me by surprise.

Laurence Olivier (left) as Van Helsing in Dracula (1979).  This was
one of the most faithful portrayals of the character as Stoker wrote
him that I have seen.
There is so much to be admired in this book that it would take too long to list all of the elements that fall under this category.  Some of the highlights would be Renfield's story, Van Helsing's characterization as set forth by his accent and poor syntax, the fact that Dracula could be listed as a missing person for most of the book (which just made him that much more potent--something to be avoided at all costs), and even the exhaustive travel details of the 1890's.

Having seen the gory, modern Dracula movies, and the more discreet movies of the early days of cinema, I had this idea that the novel, written just before the turn of the 20th Century, would be so sanitized as to be dull.  However, I was surprised at how graphic a few of the scenes were.  It must have been quite a shocker for readers at that time.  But as one reviewer noted, it is not a story that glorifies evil, as most of the modern day vampire books do.  Instead, it truly vilifies the vampire, making him something to loathe, and hate, and something that must be destroyed as a sacred duty to God.  In no way did I ever pick up the completely audacious, Hollywood notion that Dracula has this inner, impossible-for-women-to-ignore, sexual attraction.  What a bunch of rubbish.

Need I say spoiler alert, when so many know the story?

The men are solid characters, all noble and willing to stand up to the horror that assails Lucy and Mina.  And these two women are strong characters in themselves.  Mina especially, despite the idea that Dracula has infected her against his will, is not just a doormat female cast member.  She even gets a Winchester rifle in her hand by the end of the book.

Leslie Nielsen in Mel Brooks' 1995 Dracula: Dead and Loving It, not a
faithful adaptation.
Speaking of spoilers, let me address the adaptations just a little.  Though no movie out there seems to have used all of the original story, I was surprised at how much of Stoker's novel has been used in the various films.  So much of it has been sprinkled over the various Dracula movies.  Yes, most of the movies never come close to filming the entire book, but many of them are quite accurate in what they depict from the novel and there was little in the book that I did not recognize from the many films.  I was quite impressed.  Still, Stoker's style kept it fresh and I never felt like I was going over stale material.

Though this is a long novel, clocking in over ten hours of reading for my reading-speed, I did not think it ever really dragged on slowly, and I found all of it interesting.  But if you decide not to read it, allow me one more spoiler:  never, at any point, will you read/hear Dracula say "I vant to suck yoor bloood."  Okay.  Now you know.  You won't be disappointed.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity: A Movie that will Sweep You Off Your Feet

Gravity, Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Think back to when you were a kid.  Your parents told you that they were taking you to a movie.  This is way back, like when you were so young that you barely knew what a movie was.  And they told you they were going to take you to doesn't matter, any movie will do.  I'm talking about that point when you were so young, you went to the theater and sat in awe staring at the wonders of that giant screen--it looked bigger than a football field at this point in your life--and everything you saw then was a miracle.  Towering images burned their way into your young brain and, though you didn't know it then, they would stick there on the pulsating wall of your mind's eye for the next three or four decades.  Have you got the picture?  Do you remember this?  Do you realize that is the reason we continue to go to the movies, again and again, despite the fact that time and time again we are disappointed by the overall impression made by dozens and dozens of mediocre movies filmed simply to sell popcorn?

But we never give up.  We try again.  Just one more.  And the next one after that.

For once, a modern-day director has finally managed to satisfy that longing.  There have been rare occasions when I feel I've nearly touched that sacred peak where entertainment is engulfed by the sheer awe and wonder of the world as seen through the eyes of a child.  Most of the time, in the midst of this yearning, I'm taken out of the moment by what is now too common in movies--a jarring political statement, a crass cheap-shot played for laughs, or a nod to the bitter, cynical world that we all discovered is awaiting us on the other side of youth.  Any one of these little devils wreaks havoc with our ability to sit back and just be engulfed in wonderment.

Alfonso Cuarón, Director of Gravity
Alfonso Cuarón has been able to tap into that child-like need for astonishment with the help of his son, Jonás Cuarón.  Together, they have written a story that is full of humanity, set in the cold vacuum of space.  That would have been enough, just to tell a story about the remarkable astronauts who orbit above us without much attention anymore.  But if they had, they would have ended up creating a film that we've seen before.  A little conflict between the astronauts, a longing for home, a moment of courage or desperation.  It would have been moving, a nice tribute to all of those who have ever strapped themselves to a rocket.  Once we left the dark confines of the theater, we would have returned to our normal lives without giving it much more thought.

With today's overabundance of CGI, as witnessed by the throngs of underwhelmed theater-goers who sat through monstrous action-epics like Man of Steel and White House Down this summer, it would have been easy for the Cuaróns to rely on the dazzle of CGI to carry the story.  Filmed in 3D, there would have been plenty of chances to startle the audience with the studio's whiz-bang, now-you-see-it-now-you-flinch usual bag of tricks.  Maybe use the over-used shaky-cam to ratchet up the nerves.  Today's filmmakers have a fairly limited supply of gimmicks and regularly overindulge in them.  

Cuarón does not.

I know what you're thinking.  You want me to get on with the review.  Forget the mystical ramblings and just write about the movie.  But that is nearly impossible, since this movie is too perfect to give much of it away.  For this same reason the trailer was astonishingly short.  If they put out a longer trailer than that first teaser trailer I never saw it, and I'm glad I didn't.  So don't get impatient.  And don't be disappointed.  I'm not going to tell you about the movie.  But I am telling you about it when I wax poetic.  But if you insist, I'll say what I can about the film without spoiling it.

Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone in Gravity
It is nice to see Sandra Bullock return to her roots, playing the damsel-in-distress as she did the first time she won our hearts as that wildcat bus-driver in Speed.  And just as she played off Keanu Reeves so well in that movie, always looking to him to save her, yet surprising us with her own inner strength, in Gravity she does much the same thing with George Clooney.  However, as her world shatters around her in the terror of zero gravity, something more than inner strength shines through.  She does not transform into a superhero who curses the gods and overpowers the fates.  Instead, as the terror rises around her, suffocating her in that black expanse above our world, Bullock allows us to see a very human, traumatized, yet trained astronaut fight off the inertia of her inevitable doom.

George Clooney, who I believe has been slowly ingesting little bits of Cary Grant Elixer, and increasing the dosage lately, turns in a fine performance as the one man you would want to depend on in a crisis.  He is believable, and has perfectly engineered chemistry with Bulluck.  As the film spun out of control, I was glad to have Clooney there as an anchor.  A nice touch for this casting includes the voice of Ed Harris at mission control.  It gives us a sense of continuity, since Harris was in the same role in the spectacular film Apollo 13.

But never mind all that.  Let's get back to Cuarón and his creation of something...amazing.  Never before, including the awe-inspiring 2001: A Space Odyssey, has a director been able to pack so much heavy atmosphere into the vacuum of space.  Usually, when I give in and watch a 3D movie, I'm distracted by the many different things going on across the screen.  But in Gravity, I was so sucked into this world-outside-a-world that I remained fixated on the movie from beginning to end.  My daughter, who attended the film with me, asked later if something was wrong.  I usually make comments throughout a film; this time I barely said a word.  It might have been because I didn't want to waste the oxygen in the theater.  After all, oxygen levels become terrifyingly critical.  Trust me.

Mostly, though, I think it was just that little kid in me, staring in awe at the screen, as a vision filled with miracles, nuts and bolts, and the need to grab hold of anything captured my imagination for 90 minutes.  That little voice that said "finally, it's here, this is why we go to the movies."

Don't miss your chance to see this on the big screen, in 3D.  Just be sure you find something to hold onto.  But if you don't, it won't matter, because the father and son team of Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón will grab hold of you and never let go.  

Cities of the Dead: Double Vision

Cities of the Dead, Jason Phillip Reeser

For newer readers of Room With No View, I'd like to let them know about my most popular book, which is perfect for this time of year.  Cities of the Dead is a ghost story collection set in the cemeteries of New Orleans, Louisiana.  Tales of ghosts, pirates, thieves, and dead rock-and-rollers can be found in this eclectic congregation of mystical chronicles.

Back in 2006, my wife and I took a guided tour of Lafayette Cemetery Number One in the historic Garden District of New Orleans.  It was the first time I'd been to one of the many above ground cemeteries that are nestled into the various neighborhoods of the Crescent City.  Due to the fact that the city sits below sea level, burying the dead is not possible, since the dead seemingly refuse to stay buried.  Citizens of the early city discovered that the saturated ground always shoved the dead back to the surface.  The simple response was to bury the dead above ground in crypts.  As a result, the cemeteries look like...well, let's let Mark Twain describe it.  His view on it sums it up the best:

Lafayette Cemetery Number One
There is no architecture in New Orleans, except in the cemeteries. They bury their dead in vaults above ground. These vaults have a resemblance to houses--sometimes to temples; are built of marble, generally; are architecturally graceful and shapely; they face the walks and driveways of the cemetery; and when one moves through the midst of a thousand or so of them, and sees their white roofs and gables stretching into the distance on every hand, the phrase 'city of the dead' has all at once a meaning to him. Many of the cemeteries are beautiful and kept in perfect order...if those people down there would live as neatly while they were alive as they do after they are dead, they would find many advantages to it.

Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, 1880

During our 2006 tour, which was just one year after Hurricane Katrina devastated that venerable city, amid the rasping wail of power-saws and chattering hammer blows (evidence of New Orleans' second reconstruction phase), we followed our guide past sun-bleached sepulchers and vibrant green alleys of thick, recently mown grass.  As a writer, I was struck by the crowded nature of this necropolis.  I began to wonder just what it would be like for ghosts to live here.  We generally think of ghosts in lonely, empty places like an abandoned house or a distant moor.  But here, if a ghost were to haunt the earth, it would not be lonely.  It would, in fact, be heavily beset by other ghosts.  Many of the crypts are family crypts, and family members are stacked in on top of one another like chord-wood.  Imagine, I thought, what sort of complications would arise between them all?

At the 2012 Louisiana Book Festival--look for us again on Nov. 2, 2013
Before long, I had begun to write a few stories along this theme.  Over the next four or five years, I added more stories, until I'd completed thirteen of them.  It seemed an appropriate number on which to stop.  Since the book's publication, it has been well-received.  It is a mainstay on the tables of a handful of stores down in the French Quarter, and was a popular item during its release at the 2012 Louisiana Book Festival.

Several of the stories are available here at Room With No View.  Just click on the links below to read them.
The Wanting Dead  (originally printed in The Louisiana Review, Spring 2008)

And now for the Double Vision!  Beginning this month, Saint James Infirmary Books has made it possible for costumers who purchase the print version of COTD to receive a free eBook version along with it.  Even better, if you purchased a copy of this book through Amazon in the past, you can log in and receive your free eBook copy also.  We are offering the same free eBook copy from the Saint James Infirmary Books website.  If you purchased a print copy from us (and all of our copies can be signed if you request it) or you choose to purchase one from us now, we will send you a free eBook copy of the book.  So be sure to get a copy today if you don't already have one.

For more information on the book, check out our website here.

To order a signed copy, just click this link.

Or you can use one of the Amazon links below.  The Kindle edition is on the left, the print edition is on the right.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

2014 Calendars from Saint James Infirmary Books

From our Paris (Black and White) 2014 Calendar.
From our Paris 2014 wall calendar.
From our New Orleans' French Quarter 2014 calendar.
From our New Orleans Doors 2014 calendar

During the month of October, all of our calendars have a 30% discount.  Choose from our selection of New Orleans and Paris collections, and enter the code 2014CALENDAR at checkout.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

David Morrell's Unexpected View of Frank Sinatra: The Artist and His Music

I had set out to write a review of David Morrell's unique thriller Murder as a Fine Art (which I still intend to write) but as I was researching the author, I came across something unexpected: this thriller writer, the man who created John Rambo in his debut novel First Blood in 1972, which eventually greatly influenced the thriller genre of that era (and continues to do so today!), had stepped way out of his expected role and written a short biography that examined the music of Frank Sinatra.  I was intrigued.  I'm a huge Sinatra fan, and I did not hesitate to grab this eBook off the shelf.

For two hours, I did not put down my Kindle.  I read it straight through.  And why not?  Morrell essentially leads us through a written two-hour concert tribute to Frank Sinatra's career, while highlighting the songs and albums, and mixing in the singer's personal, tumultuous history as it affected his outlook, his voice, his success, and his failures. Sinatra had an unbelievably long and prolific career, yet Morrell manages to make sense of it all, weaving it into a narrative that left me with a mosaic image of Sinatra I've never had before.

Not one to rest on is laurels, David Morrell
leaves the thriller genre to give us an intimate
look at the musical career of Frank Sinatra.
(picture courtesy of
Instead of just writing about the popularity of the man, Morrell focuses more on the musical influences and choices made by the Chairman of the Board, covering many behind-the-scenes moments in the recording booths at Columbia, Capital, and Reprise Records. More importantly, he "gets" Sinatra. He understands that this man stood out with his attention to details like timing, diction, and lyrical passion. He explains the way Sinatra used to write out the lyrics by hand, over and over again, until he discovered the underlying meaning to the words, so he could sing those meanings back to the microphone and the audience. What Morrell really does here is explain to us why we like Sinatra. And as a big fan of Frank's, I'd say Morrell gets it right. If you love Sinatra, you've got to read this. If you are ambivalent about him, read this and you'll very likely come away with admiration for the man you never thought you'd have. If you hate him, this might just change your mind.

One of the many albums Morrell highlights of Sinatra's is In the Wee Small Hours (1955).  This has always been a favorite of mine, and the coverage it receives here is indicative of Morrell's insight into the man and his music.  If you are only familiar with Sinatra's big hits, and you want to hear one of his best concept albums (and as Morrell points out, Sinatra helped to develop the concept of the concept album) then click on that link at the bottom and download this album.  Sit back and be prepared to be won over by a sound experience you won't soon forget.

Morrell's study of Frank Sinatra does not shy away from letting us see the troubled side of this artist, but he never turns this piece into a gossip column. Instead, he shows how the alcoholism and the womanizing and the combativeness of this manic depressive combined to influence an industry that was just coming into its own in the middle of the last century. Was Sinatra a scoundrel at times? Yes. Was he sympathetic? Absolutely. In fact, both of those factors were a major reason for the public's interest in him. All of it came together to create an international icon that still influences pop-culture today. But Morrell does not dwell on these aspects of Sinatra's life. He keeps the story firmly on the music. And that's as it should be. Because Sinatra's music is a story worth reading. And David Morrell does Frank Sinatra's entire career justice in this short but exhaustive history of this brilliant, troubled artist and his remarkable music.

In addition to this piece on Frank Sinatra, Morrell also wrote one on Nelson Riddle, the arranger that became such an integral part of Sinatra's sound.  Riddle came to my attention with Sinatra first, but I began to see his footprint in many other areas of music, notably in the Ultra-Lounge CD series, as well as in such classic movies as Pal Joey and High Society and on television shows like Emergency! and even Newhart.  So I was aware of Riddle and had a high regard for his sound.  At the same time I bought Morrell's eBook on Sinatra, I grabbed his Nelson Riddle eBook as well: Nelson Riddle: The Man behind the Music, an essay (The David Morrell Cultural-Icon Series).  I haven't read it yet, but I look forward to it with eager anticipation.

And I still intend to write that review on Murder as a Fine Art.  Just not today.  Keep an eye out for it.