Once again, it’s nearly the end of another New Zealand Music Month, where all kiwis get up and dance to kiwi music all the month long.
People who were born here and those who came to live here from far away will all tell you that the music of New Zealand – from rough garage punk to delicate singer-songwriters to rich Māori waiata – feels special, somehow. We’re a small country, and yet, we make a mark on the global music scene. We’re the bottom of the world, so maybe we try harder.
Up in the hills of California, I didn’t grow up listening to a lot of the more obscure New Zealand music, and part of the fun of living here is constantly discovering fantastic songs that never made a splash in America, spanning gritty alternative rock to South Auckland soul.
I dug making a playlist of 30 or so of my favourite New Zealand songs last year, and figured I’d give it another go this year picking out work by another bunch of great local musicians – celebrating everyone from Flying Nun legends like the Chills to rich young talents like Vera Ellen and Kane Strang or classic old-school psych-pop nuggets from The Fourmyula and Larry’s Rebels.
I love a song list that can encompass both the elegantly formal craft of Don McGlashan and the chaotic anarchy of the late Darcy Clay, so get ready for a wild ride through NZ sound. It really just scratches the surface of the talent, weirdness and beauty to be found in Aotearoa music. Here’s my playlist More Noisyland Music: NZ Music Month 2023 which you can hear over on Spotify:
Everyone knows that Boris Karloff played Frankenstein’s monster. Most horror fans remember the late, great Christopher Lee, as well. Benedict Cumberbatch has played the creature. Heck, even Oscar winner Robert DeNiro has played the monster.
But did you know about the New Zealand wrestler who once played Baron Frankenstein’s horrific creation?
Ernie “Kiwi” Kingston’s turn as the monster in 1964’s The Evil Of Frankensteinby Hammer Films earned him a small but notable place in horror history, but the wrestler’s acting turn is shrouded in obscurity, nearly 60 years on. It was pretty much the only film he performed in.
The Hammer Frankenstein cycle of movies from 1957-1974 still hold up well as a colourful Gothic series of chilling tales about man’s desire to play God, led by the inimitable Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein. Unlike the earlier Universal Frankenstein films, the focus on these was squarely on the evil doctor himself and his mad obsessions as he creates monster after monster in his quest to unlock the secrets of life and death.
Evil of Frankenstein was the third of six films Cushing starred in, and a kind of weird outlier – the story didn’t seem connected to the two previous movies, and it’s the only one of the series not directed by Hammer maestro Terence Fisher.
A professional wrestler, 6 foot, 5 inch “Kiwi” Kingston, as he was credited, played a hulking, grotesque version of the monster, freed from frozen ice and abused by a rogue hypnotist (as you do).
“As a person to work with, quite timid, gentle, quite reserved,” costar Katy Wild, who played a mute girl that befriended the monster, in a documentary on the Evil of Frankenstein blu-ray.
Unfortunately for Kingston, his turn as the monster is hampered by what is probably the worst makeup in any major Frankenstein movie I’ve seen. Inspired by Karloff’s iconic look, it’s a sloppy, blocky mask that looks a bit like a grocery bag soaked in papier-mâché. The too-huge brow and lack of mobility prevents much in the way of facial expression. You can just barely see Kingston’s eyes poking out from under all the goop.
It’s a shame because it’s possible less oppressive makeup might have given Kingston more to work with other than lurching around a lot … although he wasn’t exactly a trained actor.
“Kiwi Kingston was actually cast for his hulking frame and not his acting ability,” the documentary on the movie notes.
While he was indeed a Kiwi, he seems to have spent most of his life overseas.
A Christchurch history page says he was “born in 1914, to Ernest John Kingston and Edith Emily (nee) Hammond. As an amateur boxer in New Zealand Ernie had been runner-up in the heavyweight division at the N.Z. champs in 1938. He was also a top rugby player and general all round sportsman.”
He made a name for himself in NZ sport, as seen in a very fit photo from 1940 in the national archives. Like a lot of kiwis, Kingston went on a big OE (overseas experience) but in his case, it sounds like he never really returned. A wrestling blog from 2005 tells a little of his background:
“… Towards the end of the 30’s, a big strong rugby player, boxer, and wrestler, did some service in the air force and ended up in Britain. He was a (wrestler) Anton Koolman pupil in Wellington in the late 30’s, and it is sad that he was almost unknown in his own country. I refer to big Ernie Kingston, who ended up a huge name in Britain and all over Europe. He became known as ‘Kiwi’ Kingston, a big rough diamond from Banks Peninsula.”
He loved horses – “he had a pony field where he collected ponies that had been discarded and looked after them until they died,” his Evil co-star Caron Gardner remembered.
Evil of Frankenstein was just about it in terms of movie stardom for Kingston, who only appeared in a tiny role in another Hammer film, Hysteria. He did apparently later wrestle under the stage name “The Great Karloff” which is a kind of awesome tip of the hat to his Franken-forefather, though.
Ernie Kingston died in 1992, and there’s not much out there on the internet about his life in later years I could find.
But there’s only a handful of people out there who can say they played Frankenstein’s monster in a major Hollywood movie over a century or so of films. Kiwi Kingston’s turn as the monster long before Peter Jackson helped put New Zealand horror movies on the global map is a small but fascinating little piece of film history. Not bad for a lad from the bottom of the world.
They’ve been doing this since the 1970s, and they’re totally old dudes now, but there’s not a lot of music I’m more excited for in 2023 than a new album by Sparks.
Sparks have led a beautifully eclectic career for more than 50 years now, straddling the line between pop, rock and art and becoming popular, but never quite that popular.
Brothers Ron and Russell Mael (Russell sings with an operatic energy, Ron writes the music, mostly) are Californian natives who only really made it big when they went to Europe, and who somehow have kept a career rolling along as the entire music industry has changed several times over in their lifetimes.
I mean, who else makes a great music video I actually care about watching in 2023? There’s something joyfully enigmatic about their video for “The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte” starring Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett, the first single from the album of the same name coming out later in May. It’s an insinuating earworm, but it’s also weirdly sad and funny, making catchy music out of the modern world’s murky, jittery uncertainty. And Cate’s got moves:
In my journalism career, I’ve read a zillion bad press releases from bad bands that started off with some variation of saying “Our sound can’t really be described” or “Our music defies classification, man.” For Sparks, that description is actually true.
Their song titles alone are often perfectly formed little comic vignettes – “Nothing Is As Good As They Say It Is,” “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me),” “What The Hell Is It This Time?”, “Lighten Up, Morrissey,” “Dancing Is Dangerous” or this gem — “I Can’t Believe That You Would Fall For All The Crap In This Song.” And don’t get me started on their album covers, which frequently are works of genius.
Their peculiar stage presence in the 1970s and ’80s was just oddball enough to seem rather subversive – Russell the long-haired, swinging frontman, Ron the leering, somewhat sinister keyboard presence, with that “Hitler mustache” that gave the whole band a macabre air. Who were they trying to be, anyway?
Their earliest work, 1971’s Sparks album, had a bit of a hippie-pop hangover going on with funkily falsetto singles like “Wonder Girl.” But they refined their sound fully with the dazzling Kimono My House in 1973 and bombastic single “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us.” It’s almost like a Queen song reimagined by aliens who had never actually been to Earth:
Queen, of course, were bombastic too, but in a milder, more crowd-pleasing way. Sparks were defiantly weird, and put the onus on you to go along with them rather than just sit back and be entertained. An unexpected hit, “This Town” led to a series of goofily smart pop tunes all through the ‘70s and ‘80s. At one point, they wrote a song simply about the joys of eating pineapple.
With 1979’s synth-pop electronic collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, No. 1 In Heaven, it feels like they invented the new wave of the 1980s – turning repetitive beats and surging futuristic chords into something almost ecstatic, strange and wonderful.
Periodically, they’d go away and return as an entirely different band, but they never really left, even if their work was more of a cult pleasure than mega-seller. Circa 2000 their work took a more orchestral, elaborate turn on albums like Lil’ Beethoven and Hippopotamus, with a renewed focus on the power of repetition with such mantra-like tracks as “My Baby’s Taking Me Home.”
Yet while the later songs have an older, wiser perspective than some of their earlier work, they’re still shot through with that very Sparks sense of humour. They’ve even written one of the weirdest movie musicals in recent years, the incredibly bizarre story of a murdering comedian and his magical puppet baby (!!!), Annette. I loved it, but it’s about as far from the mainstream as you can get.
Sparks contain the qualities of most of the musicians I admire the most, from the Beatles to Bowie – a determination to always move forward and not keep repeating themselves. Their 26th studio album sounds almost nothing like their first more than 50 years ago, and yet at the same time it’s unmistakably the work of the same vision.
The excellent documentary by Edgar Wright, The Sparks Brothers, which I’ve written about before, has played a big part in the autumnal appreciation for Sparks and is a terrific tour through their idiosyncratic career for beginners.
Witty and weird, Sparks are a band that for 50 years has been boldly nothing but themselves, never chasing fads nor fashion, but sometimes creating it. In a world where everybody seems obsessed with fame and going viral, there’s something comforting in a cult hit favourite band that’s never been anything but themselves.
There are many reasons to miss the late, great Roger Ebert, but one of my favourite things he ever did was introduce me to the idea of “a shot at a time” movie watching session. He’d do this at festivals and universities, pausing films they watched repeatedly to discuss certain images and points, learning whole new ways to consider the art of film: “Perhaps it sounds grueling, but in fact it can be exciting and almost hypnotic.”
In an age where movies are just another distraction, it can be hard to focus on them. You’re tweeting, Googling and hunting for memes on your phone while you watch with one eye on your laptop. (I’m as guilty of anyone at doing this sometimes.)
Some films deserve more. Take Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 pop-art masterpiece about an arrogant, disillusioned swinging London fashion photographer (David Hemmings) who accidentally discovers a murder. Enigmatic, beautiful and mesmerising, it’s one of my top 20 films of all time, and I got to see it on the big screen the other night for the first time in years, where Antonioni’s astounding control and vision really dazzles.
One of the key scenes of the movie comes near the climax, where the photographer stumbles onto a rock concert filled with zombie-like youth, staring placidly at the thrashing band (the Yardbirds with a pre-Led Zep Jimmy Page). At one point, guitarist Jeff Beck smashes his instrument and throws it into the crowd, who suddenly erupt from their passive trance into a frenzy.
It’s a short scene, but it’s always stunned me – Antonioni combines a disaffected view of youth with a kind of controlled horror. Why are these teens here? What set them off? Who is the watcher and who is the audience? Blow-Up blows me away every time I revisit it, because it’s a movie that demands you question it, that you linger on the imagery, that you don’t just haphazardly file it away in your headspace with all the other distractions of the day. It’s still not for everyone. As Ebert, bless his memory, said, “Movies that require you to figure things out for yourself always leave a lot of frustrated customers behind.”
The club encounter in Blow-Up is just about a perfect scene to me, and every frame, with these unforgettable faces and colours, is worth considering. Here’s One Scene, 10 Perfect Shots from Blow-Up:
Bowie left us today, at the age of 15 and a few months.
She was the oldest cat I’ve ever had, and like all cats, a combination of neurosis and neediness and cuteness and ferociousness. She was an unloved, scarred stray when I picked her out and in the end, I like to think she felt loved, however cats feel it.
I got her in November 2008 as a birthday present for myself and she was already 8-9 months old when we got her, a thin tortoiseshell with a distinctive bent ear. The animal shelter called her “Twist” after that, but after a few days we decided to call her “Bowie.” She had had a rough time before we got her – the bent ear had been mangled by something, and there was a nasty v-shaped scar on her back caused by something or someone that was still sensitive when touched for years. I liked the idea of giving her something better.
We got her the same week Barack Obama was elected President; she died the same week King Charles III will be crowned.
For a long time, she was a skittish little thing, who didn’t trust humans and was never quite a “lap cat.” We got her when my son was 4 years old and in pre-school; she died with him now 19, a second-year university student, and he loved her very much. He’s known her his entire life.
Bowie had a pensive, cautious expression on her face most of the time; unlike the open amiability of our younger cat Oscar, she was hard to read. But as the years passed, she mellowed out, slept on our son’s bed up until two days before she died. Her favourite spots were warm ones – perhaps they eased the pain on her back scar, but she’d lie in the sun for hours until her fur nearly boiled, and would doze off so close to our fireplace in winter we seriously worried she’d combust a few times.
In her final year or two, she started to lose her vision, which was hard. She became skinnier, got confused a lot and fought with Oscar a lot more. Things declined fast on Monday night, and by Wednesday morning we knew she was ready to go.
We held her at the end, my son and I at the vet. She was barely conscious by then, but I hope and believe she wasn’t in a lot of pain. She was simply done.
I’ve had many cats over the years but for various reasons Bowie was the first we were there with until the very end. I stroked her familiar black and gold and white fur like I had thousands of times the last 15 years and she went quietly, without a fuss, and that was all.
I used to see this guy occasionally when I returned to visit America from New Zealand, and every single time he saw me, he’d unleash a stream of lame dad jokes about hobbits and orcs.
…Because that’s all some Americans know when they think of New Zealand, you see, is Peter Jackson’s admittedly excellent Lord of the Rings movies (and the rather less excellent Hobbit follow-ups).
New Zealand movies are so much more than that, of course, from Oscar-winning director Jane Campion or the askew comedy of Taika Waititi to the awesome talents of Bruno Lawrence, Karl Urban and Sam Neill to some brilliant Māori filmmaking. The now-New Zealand-based James Cameron films his gazillion-dollar Avatar movies here and Wēta Digital’s special effects are all over screens from Marvel superheroes to Cocaine Bear.
But also, New Zealanders are really good at scaring the crap out of you.
A pre-hobbit Peter Jackson made some of the first NZ horror movies to gain notice worldwide with the splatter-horror/comedy low-fi genius of Bad Taste, Brain Deadand Meet The Feebles. Many other great NZ horror movies have followed ever since, including Black Sheep, Deathgasm and Housebound.
But in the last year or so, even more New Zealand-made horror has kind of taken over the world, with four well regarded scare-fests topping the box office or winning critical acclaim – M3GAN, Evil Dead Rise and Ti West’s XandPearl.
These films aren’t generally entirely made by New Zealand directors, actors and writers or explicitly even about New Zealand, but by simply being filmed down here and using a hefty amount of local cast, crew, and behind-the-scenes personnel, they’ve got a heavy kiwi sensibility packed into their DNA – a little alienation, a little finding horror in everyday objects, a little wry black humour.
Scary robot doll movie M3GAN is deeply silly but fun spin on the whole “evil technology fears” trope, and while its generic America suburbia and offices setting doesn’t scream New Zealand, big chunks of it were filmed here and NZ director Gerard Johnstone gives the material a nice, creepy edge and added in the viral dance scene that helped make the movie a surprise hit.
I haven’t seen the intensely gory brand new Evil Dead Rise as it looks a little too much for me, to be honest, but I love that a blood-soaked elevator scene prominent in the trailers was filmed near the mall I used to go to all the time. The whole Evil Dead franchise has many ties to New Zealand – producer Rob Tapert has been with Sam Raimi’s goopy undead franchise since the very beginning, co-created ‘90s kiwi TV sensation Xena: Warrior Princess and is married to its star Lucy Lawless, and the excellent Ash Vs. Evil Dead TV series was all filmed down here.
But the best of the lot of recent NZ-shot terror for me are the psychosexual horrors of Ti West’s X and its prequel Pearl, which after many delays is finally being shown in NZ cinemas. Both films were filmed at a spooky Whanganui farm, and feature many familiar NZ acting faces.
X is a proudly sleazy movie about a 1970s porn movie being filmed at a sinister farm that plunges into unexpected depths of emotion amidst its gore and sweat, while the prequel Pearl shifts back in time to tell the story of the elderly woman at the centre of X as a young, hopeful girl with dreams of escaping her stifling family farm. Both movies star Mia Goth, one of the most unique presences on screen in quite a while (without spoilers, she plays multiple roles across the two films).
I think Pearl is the first great movie I’ve seen to take on the COVID pandemic and all the uneasy, awkward feelings of fear and anxiety churned up by it. Set during the 1918 flu pandemic, it’s a world of recovering trauma where young Pearl (Goth) fears she’ll never fulfil her dreams. Much of Pearl was written while West and Goth were in quarantine here in New Zealand, and the script richly evokes how uncertain the world felt in those early pandemic days.
An awful lot of movies are shot in New Zealand these days – we’re a hip, cool place, we’re cheap, got a lot of great screen talent built up here, but really, enough with the hobbit jokes, already.
It’s OK if you want to start thinking of New Zealand as the place you go to get scared, too.
What is it? What a time to be alive. The country was riveted by the presidential campaign of Walter Mondale. The plucky cassette Walkman was in everyone’s home. We all woke up each day asking, “Where’s the beef?” And looming above it all, breakdancing fever burned through America like a raging inferno in those halcyon days of 1984, 39 years ago now. Not one, not two, but three movies dedicated to the dance sensation hit the big screens. First came Breakin’ in May, followed by competitor Beat Street in June, culminating in the December 1984 release of the Avengers: Endgame of poppin’ and lockin’, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.
Breakin’ and its sequels joined a long line of teen-oriented dance movies from Beach Blanket Bingo to Bring It On to Step Up, all frothy pop culture trend-chasing at its height. The first Breakin’ wraps up all its dance numbers around the story of rich white girl dancer Kelly (Lucinda Dickey) who becomes friends with a couple of streetwise breakdancers, Ozone (“Shabba-Doo” Quinones) and Turbo (“Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers). For the sequel, the producers at Cannon Films turned to the time-worn concept of “puttin’ on a show,” as a beloved youth centre is being threatened by a cartoonish evil yuppie developer and the only way to save it is… with dance! The awkward yet oddly unforgettable title of Breakin’ 2 ensured it would endure in film history. But as a movie… well…
Why I never saw it: Weirdly, I saw Breakin’ on the preferred medium, VHS tape, sometime during its original 1980s heyday, but about 30 seconds after it was released, Breakin’ 2 and its insane subtitle became a punchline. To see it would have been complicit in its very lameness. It got referred to in the title of a terrific documentary about the ‘80s delights of the parent film company, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. More disturbing, because we can’t have nice things in this life, somehow the word ‘boogaloo’ got hijacked by a bunch of racist idiots, too.
Does it measure up to its rep? Look – this is a ridiculous movie. With a title like that, how could it not be? But it’s kind of charming, too in a completely inane way. A gaudy, Hollywood snapshot of early hip-hop culture, it’s not quite as grounded in reality as the first Breakin’ (which was hardly a Bergman film by any means). Like most sequels it’s bigger, brasher and louder, immediately kicking off with a giant dance number where an entire multi-racial neighbourhood gyrates and dances down the streets, from construction workers to old ladies to traffic officers. Truly, Breakin’ 2 kind of defies words. It’s a movie one has to describe in YouTube clips:
It also features an utterly non-violent “breakdance battle” which might just be the greatest thing you’ll ever see:
And that’s not even getting into the stunning ’80s fashions, the compelling bro-mance between its two leading men, the scene where young Boogaloo Shrimp is healed by the very power of dance, the entirely random puppet scene. I can’t pretend it’s a good movie by any means. The actors are all stiff and weirdly aware of the camera. The late “Shabba Doo” is a strangely charismatic awkward presence, eyeballing the camera with Brando-esque intensity, while Lucinda Dickey – who starred in both Breakin’ and the utterly magical Ninja III: The Domination and then vanished from screens – has a perky charm of her own, even if you don’t buy the reality of her “character” for a second. But you watch a movie like Breakin’ 2 for the dance numbers, and they’re elaborate, campy and colourful nonsense, and yet somehow, I smiled at every one of them.
Worth seeing? Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo is cheese through and through, of course. How could it not be? And yet, while it may seem like damning with faint praise, it’s got a good heart. Far more diverse than many movies of the time, it gently teases its very chaste interracial romance and fundamentally has a message of inclusiveness and acceptance, which I dig. There’s a place for this kind of airy escapism in cinema. Sure, you can pop it on the screen of your choice and laugh at it the entire time, at the fashions, the dance moves, the glorious camp of it all, but you know – for all its corporate synergy fad-hopping origins and essentially clumsy filmmaking, it’s weirdly sincere.
Somehow, watching one of these goofy teen movies where all the world’s problems can just be solved with silly dancing is a bit life-affirming. To quote the deeply profound lyrics of the soundtrack song, “When I’m dancin’ / It seems like everything’s all right / Everything’s all right / I believe in the beat.” There are worse things to believe in.
Mummy monster movies have always fascinated me, even if there’s never been a truly great mummy movie like there have been for Frankenstein’s monster or Dracula. The very visual idea of a corpse wrapped in bandages touches on some kind of universal terror. They’re not zombies – they’re something kind of worse, caught forever in a sort of half-life. I dressed up as a mummy one year for Halloween wearing yellow pajamas that were draped in toilet paper. The paper unraveled after a few blocks, but I didn’t care. Mummies are cool, man.
Universal Pictures brought the first mummy movies to the cinema, not too many years after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb created a kind of Egypt-mania. But while Universal churned out five Mummy movies in the ’30s and ‘40s, they’ve never quite been regarded as classics like Bride of Frankenstein or The Invisible Man. Still, the first time I saw these movies years ago, there was something about them I liked.
As a “character,” the Mummy in the Universal movies is generally lacking, especially after the first Boris Karloff film. He’s mute, he shambles and lurches and somehow still manages to kill a lot of people despite only having one working arm and leg. But darn it, he just LOOKS great, with the iconic makeup by Frankenstein’s monster magician Jack Pierce, and there’s something I like about the idea of an ancient horror coming to life in modern America. While the Mummy is a somewhat blank canvas compared to flashier movie monsters, you can see a lot of his relentless stalking and silent menace in later killers like Halloween’s Michael Myers and Friday The 13th’s Jason Voorhees.
Most of the 1940s Mummy series is formulaic to a fault, and increasingly cheap, each one barely over an hour long. Yet I still enjoy them for what they are – pulpy monster stories that don’t demand too much of you, but you’ll be guaranteed to see some murderin’ mummy action and just enough moments to remind you of why the very idea of a mummy still creeps us out.
The Mummy (1932)
The one that started it all, but if you’ve never seen it, it’s very different than you might think. On a high from Frankenstein, Boris Karloff stars as Egyptian high priest Imhotep, the “mummy” of the title, but he only actually appears wrapped up in linen for one brief scene. For the rest of the movie, the revived Imhotep is an eccentric yet apparently ordinary man, working as an Egyptian historian. Imhotep’s secret is that he’s searching for the reincarnation of his lost love, and hatching a millennia-old plot of revenge and lust. The Mummy is far more of a kind of Gothic horror than a monster movie, a gorgeously filmed slow burn with Karloff delivering one of his best performances as the creepy stalker Imhotep. It’s more of a ghost story, really. There’s only that brief proper mummy scene but throughout the film makeup mastermind Pierce gives Karloff a withered, haunting look. The Mummy is not quite scary, but genuinely disturbing and bitterly sad, the story of an eternal lost love. Karloff’s haunting eyes tell a story better than even the best makeup could, really.
Rating: Four and a half pyramids (out of five)
The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
The idea of movie “reboots” didn’t exist in 1940, really, but for all intents and purposes, Mummy’s Hand starts an entire new series of Mummy movies, introducing the ancient Kharis (Tom Tyler). The shuffling “mummy stereotype” that most of us first think of when we think of mummies begins here, in a gaudy B-movie that, while inferior to the arty drama of The Mummy, was actually lot more influential on the mummy image over the years. Thousands of years ago, Kharis attempted to bring his dead lover Princess Ananka back to life, but was caught by the temple priests and mummified alive for his crimes. Centuries later, a group of adventurers discover his tomb in Egypt and accidentally free him, and thus the murdery hijinks ensue. Much of the plot that animates the entire series starts here – an ancient order of cultish priests have guarded the mummy’s secrets for centuries and Kharis is kept alive by “tanna leaves” that rejuvenate him from his hibernation. Unfortunately the cool ideas at the heart of Mummy’s Hand are buried in sloppy execution, a slow plot, dated racial condescension towards the Egyptian people and far too much lame Abbott-and-Costello style comic relief with the highly annoying sidekick “Babe” (Wallace Ford). I rarely wanted a supporting character to be strangled by a mummy as much as I did “Babe.” While this one sets the template for the franchise, with an ever-returning Kharis wreaking vengeance in various ways, it’s a pretty dull monster movie, with sub-par Indiana Jones-style antics and no mummy action until well over halfway through. While Tyler’s reptilian Mummy is very creepy – with vivid blacked-out eyes, he’s a lot scarier than his successor Lon Chaney Jr would be – he gets very little screen time.
Rating: Three pyramids
The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)
Arguably, the best of the movies after the Karloff original, once you get past the pointlessly long 10-minute recap of the last movie at the beginning. For one thing, annoying Babe returns and is quickly killed off by the Mummy, who goes on a major revenge murder spree here. The story picks up 30 years after Mummy’s Hand, with the returned Mummy and his Egyptian sidekick (an excellent, feline Turhan Bey) now in America. They’re hanging out in a New England college town hunting down members of the expedition from Mummy’s Hand and wiping them out without mercy. I actually quite like them bringing the Mummy to America, where his old-world menace seems somehow more terrifying and disorienting. Having the Mummy stalk suburban streets is highly creepy. Nobody escapes the Mummy’s curse, these movies constantly remind us, and they actually live up to that claim by wiping out any survivors from previous movies quickly. It’s Lon Chaney Jr’s debut as the Mummy he would go on to play for three movies, but it’s hard to imagine a less thankless role for an actor. He’s mostly played as an unthinking weapon. Even Frankenstein’s monster could emote more, and Chaney reportedly hated the job (fun fact – the alcoholic Chaney reportedly gimmicked the mummy costume up so he could sip vodka all the day long). Despite its flaws, this feels like the platonic ideal of a Universal Mummy movie, and it’s got far more Mummy action than the first two in the series, and a spectacular fiery climax which is probably the best “boss battle” we get in these Mummy movies.
Rating: Four pyramids
The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)
By Mummy No. 4, Universal’s mummy-mania started to unravel a bit. The by-now mandatory “ancient Egyptian priest passes on his duties” features the priest who died at the beginning of The Mummy’s Tomb! The best and most interesting bit is the idea of Kharis’ doomed lover Princess Ananka being reincarnated into the modern day, an idea first introduced in the Karloff Mummy and later used in the Hammer and Brendan Fraser Mummy franchises. Ever since The Mummy’s Ghost resurrected (sorry) the idea, if you’re doing a mummy story, you’ll probably fit reincarnation in there somewhere. Unfortunately, that plot is introduced in a movie that feels almost like a step-by-step remake of Mummy’s Tomb, with Kharis once again murdering his way around New England. The cast are uniformly forgettable except for John Carradine (in a bit of unfortunate brown-face) as the latest sinister Egyptian cult handler for Kharis, but Lon Chaney gets to emote a little bit more in the stifling Mummy makeup than usual. Also, there’s a cute dog. What lifts Ghost from total mediocrity is the bleakest ending of the entire series, where for once, the monster basically wins. The Mummy movies are all pulpy silliness, but the final scene where the monster and his doomed reincarnated love sink into quicksand always haunted me a little. Unfortunately, dead never means dead when you’re a mummy and there was one more to go…
Rating: Three and a half pyramids
The Mummy’s Curse (1944)
Churned out less than six months after Ghost, which has to be some kind of record. The Mummy’s Curse immediately gets off on the wrong foot by picking up 25 years after the last movie with the Mummy still lost in a swamp, except for some inexplicable reason instead of New England the setting is now a hackneyed cajun Louisiana filled with cringeworthy Black stereotypes. (A character actually says, twice, “The devil’s on the loose and he’s dancing with the mummy!”) A kind of hacky laziness dominates Curse, which with the slippery flexible timelines of the series should logically be set sometime around the year 1995. In addition to Kharis coming back, the reincarnated Princess Ananka also gets to rise from the dead in this one as an amnesiac – the best scene in the movie is when she rises, eerily, from the swamps. It’s one way the otherwise rote Curse breaks a bit from the formula. The leading man here is so colourless he’s almost transparent, and the entire movie feels like a rerun – once again, we get a lengthy exposition scene and flashback by those pesky inept Egyptian priests and once again we hear about the magic of tanna leaves, and for the third movie in a row a priest betrays the Mummy because he gets the hots for a girl. Poor Lon Chaney doesn’t even get to appear unmasked as Kharis in the flashback scene, because as part of the general cheapness old Tom Tyler footage from Mummy’s Hand is used again. Universal’s Mummy series was never Shakespeare, but by instalment number five all the life had been squeezed out of the premise, which actually ended pretty definitively in Mummy’s Ghost. It’s amazing how this one-armed, one-legged slow Mummy managed to strangle quite so many people during his run, though.
Rating: Two pyramids
Was this the final blessed peace of the grave for the mummy? Well, Kharis was done, but mummies would return again and again, next in the rather daft Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy in 1955, and then with Hammer’s quite good Christopher Lee-starring The Mummy in 1959 and many other mummies in the years since. You can’t keep a good dead man down.
I reckon if you’re living your best life, you never really outgrow the need for the occasional action figure.
Let’s be clear at the start – I’m talking ACTION figures, which in my mind generally need to be anywhere from 3 to 12 inches tall, with moveable arms and legs, some cool accessories and colourful artwork on the packaging. I basically consider those hideous Funko Pop things an abomination of cutesy rubber-stamped design that’s eating up the toy aisle like some mutant blob, glutting the market to the point they’re an environmental disaster. I’m an action figure man, darn it, not a gaudy statue figure man.
I was, of course, a part of the Star Wars generation, hoovering up those Kenner action figures from the moment I first got an allowance, buying random Rebel Commanders and Snowtroopers and Ewoks and having epic battles with them in trenches dug in the back yard. As I became a teenager, in a moment of utter insanity I sold most of my 40 or so vintage Star Wars figures at a family yard sale, hypnotised by the idea of getting money for my possessions without ever realising the possessions were kind of emotionally priceless treasures. I still miss my Rebel Commander with his limp little dangling scarf that looked like a piece of bacon.
I dabbled in other lines, even if Star Wars was my jam and I was kind of ageing out of some of the popular figure lines of the 80s. I really dug the DC Super Powers (and still have my Dr. Fate figure!) but didn’t care for the Marvel Secret Wars line with their dumb ‘secret shields’. I enjoyed the militaristic fantasy of G.I. Joe and the earliest Transformers toys (still wish I had that Soundwave, man) but was never into the cheap looking Masters of the Universe and too old for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Like most dudes, I grew older and action figures seemed uncool for a time; like most dudes, I got older still and became keen on recapturing my past by buying vintage action figures or ones that reminded me of them when I had a chance.
Decades on, there’s a tiny little dusty closet in the back of my brain that still idly dreams about the action figures I never had – the gold Cylon Commander from Battlestar: Galactica, the Clash of the Titansgiant Kraken; the Super Powers Hawkman; the Return of the JediSy Snootles and Rebo Band set I really wanted.
When my son was little, it was the perfect excuse for me to buy action figures more regularly – ones from Star Wars movies I never imagined would be released way back in the misty haze of the 1980s, ones from Marvel Universe movies I only dreamed about actually happening. (We still have a massive pile somewhere of Iron Man figures from Iron Man 2, when Hasbro released an insane flood of iron armor from Stealth Iron Man to Uber Driver Iron Man to Pizza Delivery Iron Man.)
Then my son got older too and into his own things, but I still pick up the occasional action figure that we both enjoy looking at, and I often pop my head into the toy aisle at the store pretending I’m buying a birthday present or something for some kid instead of just eyeballing what’s new.
You can easily go too far with these obsessions (or, as Elvis Costello put it, “in time you can turn these obsessions into careers”).
I’m not the guy with an entire room full of action figures in neat boxes. I’m an eclectic action figure collector, because I know a 50-something old man shouldn’t really be spending his mortgage money on dozens of action figures, so I’m a connoisseur. While I grew up on the smaller 3 3/4” figures, I do like the advances in action figure technology that have given us superbly elaborate and poseable 6” figures as a matter of course. I buy a few Marvel Legends figures with their excellent detail and obscure characters and a few of the Star Wars “black” series. I was obsessed with recreating the Empire Strikes Back bounty hunter scene and couldn’t find Zuckuss and 4-LOM for the longest of time, which is quite possibly the nerdiest sentence I’ve ever typed.
You can spend an insane amount of money on action figures but I generally like to just buy on an occasional impulse; the most I’ve ever spent was $60 on a Marvel Legends Ghost Rider with flaming motorcycle figure that was just too damned cool to let some 10-year-old with sticky fingers at the Warehouse have it. I’m slowly collecting the great new Universal Monsters figures which are packed with accessories and detail; among my closet of regrets is that I never bought any of a brief 1980s line of Universal horror movie action figures by Remco so I’m determined to make up for lost time.
A couple of dozen action figures are gathered on shelves around my office, frozen forever in the act of fighting supervillains or waging rebellions. A set of nifty Tintin figurines; a Flaming Carrot action figure I’ve had for decades; a cheap lot of the excellent Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation line I got the boy for Christmas years ago.
I never dig trenches in the back yard with my action figures these days, but neither do I obsess over keeping them “mint on card.” I curate my little collection of plastic icons, probably as a way of reminding myself of the kid I once was, saving pennies for a Snowtrooper.
But also, I still just think they look kind of cool.
Wolverton did slapstick surreal humour and gritty, unsettling horror, as well as his oddball series of “heads” – staggeringly ugly, creepy little portraits that were like David Cronenberg nightmares. Some of them famously ended up on the covers of MAD and Plop.
Yet this strange, exotic draftsman was actually a pretty conventional person in real life, quite religious and married to his high school sweetheart. It’s almost as if he was exorcising some hidden inner demons with some of his most distorted work.
He was never “typical.” Even his earliest work like the Buck Rogers-esque Spacehawk felt like outsider art. On the surface they’re pretty standard 1940s spaceman adventures, but there’s a visceral weight to the drawings that makes them feel truly alien. A lot of golden age comics were hastily drawn, rough work, but Spacehawk still shines with its gruff leading man facing a never-ending horde of endlessly imaginative, goopy monsters.
Wolverton also spent years doing screwball slapstick comics, packed with groan-worthy puns and wordplay and rubbery hijinks. I recently picked up a old reprint of some of his Powerhouse Pepper stuff, which is fantastic fun. Powerhouse is a kind of kinder, gentler version of Popeye who fumbles his way through a world of bullies and hucksters with an oblivious charm. There’s lots of silly wordplay and a general looseness (I’d love to see more of this rare work reprinted!) but there’s also some of Wolverton’s trademark shock such as this great sequence below (don’t worry, I’m sure that guy was OK). He brings the rubbery antic energy of Tex Avery cartoons to the still comics page.
Horror comics were overflowing from the newsstands in the ‘50s but Wolverton’s works in the genre still have an in-your-face freaky quality that makes them stand out. On his covers for Weird Tales of the Future, boldly drawn monsters leap off the page with an intimate menace – if I was a kid reading these in 1953, I’d have had nightmares for years. The especially terrifying “Brain Bats of Venus” haunted entire generations of comic readers back then, I imagine.
Later in his career, Wolverton actually became an ordained minister, and he combined his religious life and his comics life in very idiosyncratic drawings from the Bible which took all the fire and brimstone apocalyptic imagery usually smoothed out of biblical comics and rolls with it for all it’s worth. His portraits of the Book of Revelation and the foretold biblical apocalypse have a terrifying immediacy.
And his famous “heads” portraits, which are just snarled, twisted and blackly humourous masses of fluid flesh – well, they’re still freaky today, the most deformed almost pornographic somehow, yet weirdly innocent, too. The heads were Wolverton “playing,” making flesh his medium. This mild, churchgoing man could haunt you with his dreams.
The key to a lot of Wolverton’s visual style is the thick weight of his lines, I think, bold outlines and vivid shadows, combined with a painstakingly intense amount of stippled or speckled details. There’s an almost woodcut quality to his finest work. It doesn’t feel sketched on a page so much as it seems to be forged, raw, from some hidden universe just beneath our own. Wolverton’s distinctive comics DNA is hard to duplicate, although you can see some of his influence in the work of ‘Rat Fink’ Ed Roth, Peter Bagge or John Kricfalusi’s Ren and Stimpy.
While comics boasted a lot of great artists in the classic era like Jack Kirby and Will Eisner and Steve Ditko, Basil Wolverton is the only one who seemed somehow haunted to me.
These things he drew were in him, rubbery and weird and sometimes holy and sometimes hellish, but he just had to get them out. Decades after his death, there’s still nobody quite like him in comics history.