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Sunday, June 30, 2024

Complete Head Transplantation - a Pop-Culture Odyssey of Mad Science


Mad science takes many forms, both in real-life and in fiction. The classic mad scientist is typified by Dr. Frankenstein, in particular the version of the character from Universal Studios' 1931 Frankenstein - so much so that the name has become archetypal in its application. In the 1931 movie, and notably absent from the 1818 novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, there is a well-known plot point about a stolen brain being implanted into the creature on Frankenstein's slab. This plays heavily into how things go awry for the young doctor, and from the horror of the monster's ensuing rampage through several sequels and adaptations comes many imitators. The brain transplantation trope occurs frequently, with many variations, over the decades in horror and science fiction stories, as does reanimation of the dead. Our focus for today, however, is that most niche of mad science properties- the complete transplantation of a human head.

The concept of full head transplantation precedes the fictional examples, even occurring prior to the aforementioned Frankenstein. In 1908, Dr. Charles Claude Guthrie successfully grafted the head of a dog onto the neck of another dog. Such an experiment was repeated in 1950s Russia by Dr. Vladimir Demikhov, and further such surgeries were attempted by Robert J. White on monkeys. Video can be found of Demikhov's experiments on YouTube, but as a word of warning they are not for the faint of heart. Getting too deeply into the specific implications of historical head transplantation is a bit grim for our purposes here, and it is perhaps enough to note that the over-the-top movie trope has some basis in fact. Modern respectable doctors scoff at the ethical and practical impediments inherent in such operations, while as recently as 2015 announced plans for attempts at human head transplantation made the news. It is worth bearing in mind that life-saving advances in medical procedure were the goal with many of these experiments, and have led to organ transplantation techniques which are commonplace now. Derided by the press and by "anti-vivisectionists", largely due to specious reporting that Guthrie had grafted the head of a cat onto a dog, he perhaps never received credit that was due to him. His 1908 success in creating a two-headed dog was in partnership with Dr. Alexis Carrel, with the goal of furthering our understanding of connecting arteries, nerves and tissue. Carrel would go on to receive a Nobel Prize, and author a book called L'Homme, cet inconnu (Man, the Unknown). There is much more to say regarding Carrel's association with supernatural beliefs, with eugenics, and the complicated history and ethics of medical experiments; but such is beyond the scope of this essay, and would only constitute dawdling on the shores of our proverbial Ithaca instead of charting the waters of our pop-culture Odyssey.

As a bonus mad science tidbit- Dr. Carrel is noted here for keeping a chicken heart alive in isolation. This inspired a horror story on the popular radio program Lights Out!

The experiments of Demikhov in particular likely inspired the late 1950s trend of head transplantation movies, but a much earlier such piece of fiction was published in Russia in 1925. Professor Dowell's Head, written by Alexander Belyaev, contains several plot elements that we will explore in movies such as The Head (1957). Not published in English until 1980, it's unclear whether it influenced American filmmakers prior to its translation. Described as a Kafkaesque version of Frankenstein, the plot involves a nefarious Dr. Kern removing the head of the titular character and secretly keeping it alive in order to force scientific knowledge from him. He goes on to transplant the head of one woman in place of another. Whether the story influenced the films in this post is unknown, and one wonders if Dr. Demikhov had read it in his native language. It did however inspire an adaptation for Japanese television in 1979, a Russian movie version called Professor Dowell's Testament in 1984, and a Chinese movie called The Head in the House in 1989.

As alluded to earlier, the Golden Age (as it were) of our incredibly niche focus today was in the late fifties. Beginning with a British film called The Man Without a Body in 1957, we are treated to a tale of an unscrupulous wealthy businessman who realizes he is dying from a brain tumor. His only chance for survival is to visit the lab of Dr. Phil Merrit, and possibly receive a brain transplant. Here we see a flaw already in the plot that never seems to be addressed- should Brussard the oil baron's brain be replaced how could it still be said to be him? The literally mind-bending proposal leads one to wonder where the Self is, what constitutes the person. The characters in the movie seem unperturbed by this foundational error. At any rate, Brussard visits Madame Tussod's Wax Museum and learns of the prophet Nostradamus. He decides that only the brain of the great prognosticator is worthy of his skull, and arranges to have the actual head of Nostradamus brought to Merrit's lab to be reanimated. Though the plot of the story hinges more on the (nonsensical) transplantation of a brain, more than a full head, it's included here for the amount of time the reanimated Nostramus's noggin spends on a plate, reanimated against his will. Merrit's lab is an impressive set for the time, with an array of isolated organs hooked up to machines, a lone monkey head kept alive by equipment, and a single living eye suspended in the background.

The pace of the movie is fairly slow, and the flaws in the story could have been more entertaining had they been more flamboyant in their presentation. For instance, Brussard is an old man dying of brain cancer, but still manages to bully the two young doctors and even murder a few people. There doesn't seem to be any reason for the doctor and his assistant to put up with him at all, and it's eventually the Head of Nostradamus that does him in by giving him bad financial advice.

A much more fun and very stylized head transplantation movie came from West Germany in 1959, and released in 1961 in the United States as The Head. (The original German title was Die Nackte und der Satan, or The Naked and Satan. At the risk of spoiling things the American title much more accurately describes the film.) Much like in Professor Dowell's Head, we have an interloping devious young scientist who keeps the head of another doctor alive. This doctor, named Dr. Abel, dies of a heart attack and in being kept conscious in a serum transfusion set-up as a disembodied head is forced by the sadistic Dr. Ood to bear witness to further transplantations. 

 Notably, the film features a dog's head being kept alive through this transfusion process, echoing the real life examples mentioned earlier. One hopes that Ood cleaned the equipment properly before attaching poor Dr. Abel's head to the same device. The sexuality of the original title arrives in the plot as Ood attempts to find a suitable body to transplant the head of his hunchbacked female assistant to- and leads him to find an unwitting donor in the form of a stripper he murders. He sets up his assistant's headless body to look like an accidental death on the railroad tracks. The Head is more horrific and menacing, and more stylized than The Man Without a Body. It is 1950s sci-fi schlock, but it has a certain charm and, for what it's worth, less plot holes than the aforementioned film. It also holds a lot of similarities to our next film, the first American entry- the iconic and well-known The Brain That Wouldn't Die. Finished in 1959, it wasn't released until 1962. Errors in the copyright notices led to it falling into public domain, which might explain why it is the only movie we're discussing today that got the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. (The MST3k episode for The Brain That Wouldn't Die is notable as the first episode with Mike Nelson on the Satellite of Love in place of Joel.)

The mad doctor in this one, Dr. Bill Cortner, is an unlikeable upstart from his first scene where he badgers his father for not "playing the game" correctly. By this he means that ethics around experimentation in medicine only hinder the advancement of the science, and that he should be free to tinker as he wishes. He's almost too realistic as a sociopathic rich kid who only gets away with his behavior because of his tenured father. He never seems to emote in any way other than irritation, and is singularly focused on his new methods of grafting, transplanting, and growing flesh. His failures are evident with his lab assistant, for whom he has transplanted a hand which withered due to rejection- and also by the hulking monster in the closet, which he inadvertently created. Despite his many flaws, he has a fiancee named Jan who is eager to spend time with him.

He brings her along to his secret lab, and manages to crash their convertible on the way. Jan is decapitated, and, thinking quickly (unencumbered by human emotion) Cortner retrieves her head. Back at his country estate, and with the help of his disabled assistant, he stabilizes Jan's head and keeps it alive with the by-now-familiar transfusion process. The laboratory set in this film is perhaps the best of the bunch; Virginia Leith as Jan is magnetic as a disembodied head. Naturally, she isn't happy about this state of affairs, and pleads with Cortner to let her die. Never one to listen to reason or be bothered by moral quandary, Bill instead sets out to find a new body- and much like in The Head, he seeks out a dancer for his needed material. The Brain That Wouldn't Die hits the right notes of absurdity to be thoroughly entertaining as a B-Movie. The monster in the closet is a great bonus element that helps to achieve the ramped-up unreality of the film, and if that wasn't enough Jan's ability to telepathically communicate with it- which eventually secures her delivery from life in the pan- makes it a classic of the genre. Incidentally, our real-life Dr. Carrel promoted the idea of telepathy in his time as well...

About a decade would pass before our two final entries arrived. Often confused with each other, the trend in the early 70s tended toward two heads on one body. This mirrors our real-life examples of Guthrie and Demikhov, but can also happen naturally. It's not uncommon for reptiles to have more than one head; examples are often found of turtles or snakes with such a condition to live healthy lives with such a condition. In mammals, it usually leads to a very brief life- but there are exceptions. A cat named Frankenlouie (or Frank and Louie) lived a full fifteen years in Massachusetts, with the "janus face" condition of diprosopus. While one could argue this is really more a case of two faces, and not two heads, it was reported that each seemed to behave independently.

In human beings, conjoined twins can sometimes appear as a two-headed person, as is the case with reality TV twins Abby and Brittany Hensel. A very rare type of undeveloped conjoined twin known as craniopagus parasiticus involves twins attached at the head, for whom only one has developed a body. Each head having its own brain, which requires quite a bit of work from the heart pumping fluids, usually leads to death in these cases. One of the heads needs to be removed for survival to be possible, and the risks of such surgery on an infant increase the mortality rate. It is perhaps worthwhile to consider this as we venture into the seventies for our double feature of double-headed transplant movies.

As previously mentioned, these two movies often get confused- and for good reason. Both were released within a year of each other (and both from American International Pictures), and have similar titles. The major difference between the two movies is that one is really pretty entertaining and well-made, and the other is The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant. The latter features our most subdued mad scientist yet, played by a young Bruce Dern, who claims he was never paid for the role. To be fair, he did little to earn it. His wife, played by "Marylin Munster #2" Pat Price, is frustrated at the amount of time Dern's Dr. Girard spends in his lab with his many two-headed animals. The menagerie in his lab is a highlight, and gains the movie a few points for effort. That and the interesting casting choices, including also Casey Kasem, are bright points in a movie with terrible cinematography, editing, and sound design. The opening theme is laughably Bacharach-esque, and the rest of the score is unmastered psychedelic noise. The titular transplant comes as a result of an escaped, incredibly violent mental patient who kills Girard's caretaker and maims himself- leaving the hulking giant of the caretaker's grown but brain-damaged son an orphan. Saving the lunatic, Girard grafts his head to the giant Danny's bulk which for some reason doesn't go well.

In contrast, 1972's The Thing With Two Heads is full of action, dynamic performances from its lead actors Ray Milland and Rosey Grier, and a soundtrack that is funky as hell. Like The Brain That Wouldn't Die, it leans into the absurdity and faithfully executes it as a serious movie. Instead of having a monster or telepathy involved, it instead brings in the flavor of Blaxploitation cinema- with the head of a racist old surgeon grafted to the body of a black death row convict in a desperate bid to save his life. Milland, as the bigoted Dr. Kirshner, had previously appeared in the excellent The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, while Rosey Grier as an innocent man who goes from the frying pan of death row to the fire of an extra head has an incredibly interesting life and career. He was an athlete, actor, former bodyguard for Robert F. Kennedy (responsible for wrestling the gun away from Sirhan Sirhan after the assassination), and a promoter of hobbies not normally associated with men. 

Grier's character, Jack, agrees to be a test subject for a thirty-day period in a medical experiment that will ultimately kill him- but, as he sees it, it will buy him time to be pardoned as a wrongfully convicted murderer. He isn't told that the experiment involved the grafting of Milland's head onto his shoulder, with the eventual plan of removing his own. Milland simultaneously is unaware that his new body would be that of an African American, and is similarly displeased. The bulk of the movie is the chase scene in the middle, as Jack escapes and kidnaps the one black doctor who Kirshner unwittingly hired for the getaway. Riding around on a dirtbike with the police in hot pursuit, an impressive 14 cruisers are destroyed, bringing the chase action to near Blues Brothers heights of destruction. It might be the best movie of the bunch, or at least equal to The Brain That Wouldn't Die. In an admittedly bad genre of bad movie, it stands heads and shoulder above the rest.

While it doesn't have the same kind of monster-in-a-closet that ...Brain That Wouldn't Die did, it does feature a two-headed gorilla which also escapes early on. The actor for the fine man-in-a-monkey-suit action is credited as Rick Baker, who also did uncredited special effects and make-up for the movie. He is best known for his revolutionary practical effects in An American Werewolf in London.

Thus ends our catalogue of movies explicitly about complete head transplantation, but the impact of the idea has spread throughout culture. We find "honorable mentions" of transplanted heads in other movies, such as Re-Animator (1985)- an adaptation of the Lovecraft tale features the undying, isolated head of David Gale as Dr. Hill. Even the Martians of Tim Burton's 1996 movie Mars Attacks! get in on the action by switching the heads and bodies of Sarah Jessica Parker's character and her chihuahua. 

The trope has also been lampooned in modern cartoons, such as The Simpsons did in their second Treehouse of Horror Halloween special. Mr. Burns attempts to create the perfect worker by putting Homer's brain inside a giant robot; this fails, and through a comedy of errors he is crushed to death and his head is grafted to Homer in order to save him.

A similar fate befalls Fry and Amy on the show Futurama, making for an awkward Valentine's Day. Futurama also has a running joke of current day celebrities existing in the future as heads suspended in jars, furthering the theme.

Venture Brothers
 committed to the bit, as it were, by introducing (to our eyes, anyway) the elderly supervillain characters of Red Mantle and Dragoon who end up as a two-headed entity thanks to the botched kidnapping by the character Phantom Limb. In a show with a bewildering cast of characters, all of whom seem bafflingly memorable, Red Mantle and Dragoon are hilarious in adjusted to their late-in-life circumstances sharing a body. Their bickering explores some of the finer points of two brains operating from one body, whether that involves what alcoholic beverages to drink and in what order or whether they should be considered as one or two council members in their Guild. "We are two heads on one body, and that has never, ever been hip!" complains Dragoon in their inaugural episode as a stitched together pair. Much later, they pay homage to The Thing With Two Heads in a Halloween episode, with Dragoon applying blackface to be Rosey Grier.

And there we end our quest, for now. It is hoped that the above movies have been explained adequately enough that the reader doesn't have to watch them- but it is the considered opinion of the author that perhaps you should. Head transplantation is a very uncomfortable subject, and its uncanny context within the confines of cinema make it particularly poignant as a mirror to the potential horrors of materialist science. For every medical advancement, much trial and error must occur- or must it? Where do we draw the lines in such experimentation, and what level of good excuses measures of evil? It is beyond the purview of this article to answer such questions, and posing them- as, circuitously enough, these movies do- will have to be enough for now. We must, all of us, put our heads together to forge a new future with as little collateral damage as possible. The future, like an unwanted sewn-on head, rests on our collective shoulders, and it's up to us what kind of movie we make. 

Monday, May 27, 2024

Liber "Weird AL" vel Legis


"Liber Weird AL vel Legis", I thought one day, out of the blue. Mashing up the name of a famous novelty songster and the title of a prominent book of Thelemic magic is typical of the sort of nonsense produced by the colliding synaptic relays in my mind, and sometimes they provide me a private chuckle or a profound insight. Sometimes I am able to turn them into a silly joke to share on Twitter, and sometimes they open the door to deeper meanings. Often, the inspired stupidity of such momentary flights of linguistic fancy falls away and is not shared with anyone. 

For some reason this absurdity came to mind again one morning while I was preparing to go to work. While I considered it, I thought perhaps I could provoke some esoteric truths to show themselves, to stop hiding behind a dumb joke in my head. I had all but decided to shrug it off, let it fall away, when I heard a familiar noise. The sound I heard was nearly identical to the little chittering meows my cat, Lucypurr, makes when she's watching birds in the window- but to my surprise I found that this time the noise was coming from a bird! I had heard of, and seen, catbirds before but never knew why they were so named. Similar to mockingbirds and other feathery mimics, they are able to imitate and reproduce sounds from other animals. With that, the bird flew off and a marble dropped, setting in motion the Rube Goldberg contraption in my brain that produces these Weird Writings...

An aspect of occultism that often goes overlooked, especially among those with no practical experience in it, is how funny it is. This isn't lost at all on the atheists, materialists, and debunkers who see it all as kook science and hocus-pocus, the derisive "woo woo" of bygone eras holding humanity back from a "sane" view of reality. The intention here is not to align with the scoffers, but rather to balance the pop cultural view of grim wizards and dark sorcerers with a touch of humanity. Our modern occult world is populated with the spectres of magicians who came before, each of whom has their own personal mystique and mythology built up around them. There is no better example of this than "the Great Beast" Aleister Crowley, who courted controversy and seemed to enjoy being reviled during his lifetime. Following his death in the 1940s, his exploits have become the stuff of legend, to the point that anyone with only a passing interest in magic and mysticism would recognize the name. For those who are open to the Wyrd, but have no direct experiential knowledge of occult practice, Crowley can become inflated to grandiose proportions as a Master Magus calling down Angels and Demons; to the skeptic, he was simply a loony or a charlatan. Whatever one's personal preference within magic, though, those with any level of practical experience recognize that Crowley was first and foremost a man. He laughed, he joked. He ate food and hung out with friends, and enjoyed climbing mountains. It seems strange to even have to say these things, but it feels necessary- we often forget the mundane humanity of larger-than-life figures, and thus they become more like comic book characters with various storylines and continuities and canons. The static grim Crowley that exists as a peripheral phantom, particularly in the Fortean, conspiracy theory, and UFOlogy worlds persists. The phantom is really a person who is not only misunderstood, but not even engaged with by many on a level that could lead to understanding. That understanding begins with recognizing that he was just a dude.

Pictured: A Dude.

A dude though he was, he was insightful and, as already established, hugely influential. The notoriety or the infamy, depending where you stand, endures as his magical name "Perdurabo" would intimate. The particulars of his life have and will continue to be the subject of debate and speculation by those within and outside of occult practice. In many cases, it is perhaps best to just accept that he was a complicated person- and, when necessary, laugh at him.

Understanding Crowley, even to a minor extent, involves framing him within a larger context of modern occult beliefs and organizations. Virtually all groups use similar terminology and define them differently, so for our purposes here "Occult" will be the broad term for various magical systems. It's worth bearing in mind that "occult" simply means "hidden", and this will be a running theme. In my personal experience as a guy who knows some stuff about things, I've found that when approached with questions about any particular Occult figure by someone outside of any practice there is a tendency towards viewing that figure in isolation. It is extremely difficult to ever have an accurate idea about any specific occultist without squaring them against the time and place in which they lived, who they learned from, and where their ideas went after their physical existence reached an end. Thus we concern ourselves with the currents, threads, traditions, lineages- whatever term we wish to use- that wend themselves through the history of Occult thought. Along the way, we meet colorful and flamboyant characters who each have their own human foibles, biases, and motivations- but they all borrow from, react against, and even make fun of each other.

In this sense, it might be helpful to look at Occult literature as being not dissimilar to novelty music. Much as the rationalist might think of someone like Crowley as being nothing more than a mildly amusing historical nut, with nothing to offer the broader culture beyond that, novelty musicians such as "Weird Al" Yankovic are kicked to the margins of popular music. Although he has undergone something of a cultural reappraisal in recent years, for much of Yankovic's career he was acknowledged with an eye-roll by many fans of "real music". As a fan of his work, one could argue until they were blue in the face about his many talents without budging the opinion of a True Music Guy. Primarily known for his parodies, his albums usually contained at least as many original compositions. Sometimes these were pastiches of known bands or genres without being direct parodies of specific songs. Each album also contained a track made up of direct cover versions of popular tunes reimagined as accordion-driven polka. The humor driving the songs alongside the accordion was always more Mad Magazine than Mel Brooks, and certainly not everyone's comedic cup of tea. To the music snobs of the world, Yankovic may as well have been a children's entertainer like Raffi. Kid's stuff. Not real music.

"Weird Al" in many ways has become synonymous with novelty music, but of course he exists within a tradition of the genre along with folks like Stan Freberg and and Spike Jones. Barrett Hanson, better known as Dr. Demento, has had a long career as a historian and DJ of the niche category, and is responsible for promoting it to a wide audience. Listening to compilations from Dr. Demento of the novelty tunes that came before the 1980s gives one a broader context in which to consider "Weird Al", and also an appreciation for the role humor plays in capturing historical moments or in preserving culturally important works. How many of us are familiar with operas such as The Barber of Seville because of the Bugs Bunny cartoon that featured it? In a similar way, Yankovic has endured as a recording artist consistently longer than most of the "legitimate" musicians he's lampooned- and his catalogue of albums thus becomes a marker of what was popular at the time of each album's release.

Occultism and Novelty Music are not the same thing, but much in the way "Weird Al" exists largely on the fringes of popular music occult practitioners and writers occupy the margins of the broader culture. In both cases, there is a feedback loop between society at large and the periphery, which itself exists within a continuum of the same process. Some recording artists have viewed it as a badge of honor, or a rite of passage to have been parodied by Yankovic; and in the occult world there is a corollary, where magical ideas are reified and amplified in their legitimacy when borrowed or adapted by another magician. Without the broader context, some outside of the Occult might say that techniques or ideas were "stolen" when they see this in action. Likewise, the untrained eye might characterize themes within a current as being misappropriated or poorly adapted, when in fact they are being re-contextualized. Attempting to assess any modern occultist in isolation is like listening to a "Weird Al" parody without knowing the original song; you might still benefit from it, but in some cases the meaning and full value is diminished.

Societal pressures, and often threats, play a role in Occult literature. There is often also an interplay between the arts and magic, sometimes so much so that one is indistinguishable from the other. Occult themes infuse themselves in the art, poetry, and fiction of every era, hidden in plain sight. The weird dance between magical traditions and the societal structures in which they grow is difficult, if not impossible, to sort out without doing a heck of a lot of research. One can spend a lifetime, especially on one's own, seeking out answers- and that is, essentially, what one should expect to do if their pursuit of esoteric truths is genuine. Being well-rounded in investigating the people and ideas involved, it becomes easier to see why traditions formed in the way that they did as well as how intimately they are connected together. At certain points it was necessary to employ coded messages, cyphers, and occult blinds which often only became more ambiguous with the passage of time. Sometimes this is does as a safety precaution, to protect those involved; sometimes as a means of keeping magical knowledge out of the hands of those who would use it for destructive ends. Often enough, secret Occult truths remain secret simply by virtue of the fact that they require so much foundational knowledge that saying it plainly just sounds like absurdity. Occultism is insulated by the fact that many people treat it like a joke.

Magical beliefs are intrinsically tied up in the history of religions, arts, and sciences, but largely are obscured for fear that association with such beliefs discredits the person or product in question. Sir Isaac Newton is remembered for his scientific achievements, less so for his Occult interests- and that's not an oversight. We need our Newtons elevated above the riffraff of our Cagliostros and our Swedenborgs. Humor, when applied to music, can have the same effect. Frank Zappa always had weird and funny lyrics in his song, but when an edited version of his Don't Eat the Yellow Snow got played on Dr. Demento's show, it gained him new fans as well as the reputation of being a comedian more than a rock musician. Zappa, like the study of the Occult, has many facets to him and is really not for everybody. Hated by some, he is nonetheless a sort of cult figure in music history who occupies his own niche- and for the fans who get it, it can feel like being part of a secret fraternity; meeting other fans by happenstance, we know each other through certain arcane references and jokes. Being Occult-oriented is really no different. Evangelical Christians would have you believe it's all Satanic, and pop culture conjures Harry Potter, Doctor Strange, or Gandalf. But the truth is Occultists are largely seekers quietly seeking whether solitarily, with noses in books, or in small groups and online communities. The stigma is silly, but at the same time it seems built in- possibly as more of a feature than a bug. The Occult remains occulted, perhaps, because it works better that way- it requires those who seek to seek earnestly, just as the general weirdness of FZ filters out the kinds of people Zappa fans wouldn't want to hang with.

Zappa's lyrics were often derived from inside jokes between him and whoever was in the band at the time, which would develop organically in the tour bus. Occult symbols operate much like inside jokes, and it's helpful to consider that some authors of Occult texts may have been more playful than we give them credit for. 

Consider the 17th century novel Comte de Gabalis. The anonymous author, later revealed to be an abbott named Nicolas-Pierre-Henri de Montfoucan de Villars, recounts his meeting with the mysterious Count of Cabala. This meeting, or series of meetings, provides a setting in which the Count is able to explain the Occult secrets of the universe, promising to reveal all. (Spoiler alert: he doesn't.) Mostly he tries to convince the Abbé to marry an elemental. This text is largely considered to have been a satire of Occultism, a parody of esoteric texts of the time. It inspired poets and writers like Charles Baudelaire and Alexander Pope. Eliphas Levi and Madame Blavatsky, as well as Manly Palmer Hall "took it seriously", we are told; but isn't it just as possible that they were "in on the joke" and found value in it, regardless? On the other side of it, Pope seemed to consider the work to be a true understanding of ethereal spirits. Crowley recommends it in his Magick: In Theory and Practice, even "despite its mocking tone". The Sylphs (air elementals) mentioned in the book and borrowed by Pope in his The Rape of the Lock also get taken as historical fact by Desmond Leslie in his flying saucer writings in the 1950s. Whitley Strieber alludes to them as well in Communion. But the Sylphs, Undines, Salamanders, and Gnomes referenced within its pages are borrowed from the writings of Paracelsus, and are fairly faithful to them. Blavatsky, Levi, and Hall would all have recognized this, but the genre of satire being applied makes them seem foolish.

Anyone intending to learn magic, to seek esoteric truths and practice them must ever be careful about assumptions and taking assessments at face value. Follow footnotes, check bibliographies, and read, read, read. 

It is difficult to say at this late hour whether I have relayed anything of value to you today. Perhaps Liber "Weird AL" vel Legis" should have dropped out of my head, and that gray catbird has played me for a fool by convincing me otherwise. That really is the whole point though; society at large, now and throughout history, has treated Occultists as foolish, delusional weirdos at best and conniving mountebanks at worst. Religious extremists have seen them as devils among us, and poets as fodder for parable and verse. For my part, I have long ago accepted that I am a very silly person. My general goofiness provides a barrier, much like the unorthodox nature of Zappa's music, or the denseness of Blavatsky's writing, or more directly like the corniness of one of Yankovic's jokes- so that the right people receive the signals I put out there. That number seems to be shrinking, these days- so for anyone who read this far, thank you! I will reward you with a goofy thread of Occult and Humor quotes:

"I've wrenched DOG backwards to find GOD; now GOD barks!"
-Aleister Crowley, The Book of Lies

"Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read."
-Ascended Master Groucho Marx

"Oh, a wise guy! Woof! Woof! Woof!"
-Jerome 'Curly' Howard 





Sunday, April 28, 2024

Bad Movies For Bad People Vol. II


At the time of this writing, it has been two years since the death of my best friend Jeff Siegrist, aka the Marquis de Suave. A few months after his passing, I paid tribute to him in the form of a blog post to which this will act as a sequel. I had meant to follow that post up sooner, and revisiting it now it seems that it's well-past time to do just that. 

Without further ado:

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952, William Beaudine)

I remember Jeff being very excited to receive this one on bluray, and even more excited to show it to me when I dropped by one night. As the title indicates, Bela Lugosi is front and center as the diabolical Dr. Zabor- a mad scientist hiding himself away on a remote jungle island so he can perform experiments in turning men into apes. Crashing into his secluded island world, otherwise populated with depictions of natives very indicative of when the film was made, are Sammy Petrillo and Duke Mitchell- the poor man's Martin and Lewis. Hilarity of sorts ensues, and the whole movie plays like an alternate dimension knock-off of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein or perhaps, more appropriately, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff. Petrillo is uncanny in his Lewis-esque persona, and at times it's easy to forget you're not actually watching a young Jerry Lewis. He had built his brief career off of the impersonation, originally working with Jerry but eventually drawing his ire for stealing the act. He faded into obscurity and, as Jeff told me with a chuckle, ended up doing a send-up porno called Keyholes Are for Peeping in 1972- playing the part of a peeping tom. ...Broklyn Gorilla was meant to be the first in a series of movies featuring Mitchell and Petrillo, but it also turned out to be the last.

I have rewatched this movie several times, and consider it the very best of the films where Lugosi plays opposite a man in an ape suit- of which there are a surprising amount.

The Holy Mountain (1973, Alejandro Jodorowsky)

In the first "volume", I mentioned Jodorowsky along with David Lynch and Kenneth Anger in the final paragraph as being Jeff's favorite directors. While on any given day he might have given a different answer when asked about his favorite movie, I know with a fair degree of certainty that The Holy Mountain would have been close. I had hesitated to include some of these movies, favoring the more obscure and silly ones, because I am not nearly the cinematic analyst he and other cinephiles present themselves as. Simply put, I don't always feel equipped to speak to the more epic cult movies, and in attempting it grew an even greater appreciation for Jeff's reviews. Writing about movies is more difficult than it seems!

I also had the concern that the title "Bad Movies For Bad People" would be interpreted as a sleight to movies like this- although I think it's clear at this point that genuine appreciation for the movies is the order of the day, and that the title is just a play on the title of a Cramps album. Incidentally Jeff hosted a college radio show called "Bad Music for Bad People". 

With that hedging out of the way, The Holy Mountain is not an easy film to watch. It's long, and there are a lot of mystical overtones and characters to keep track of, mixed in with imagery ranging from the absurd and comedic to the off-putting and disturbing. In Jeff's own words "...only in the psychedelic era could such a surrealistic vision be produced with a high budget. Nothing else in cinematic surrealism has pushed as many boundaries as this masterpiece." The budget was largely due to Allen Klein, who had managed the Beatles. Jodorowsky plays the guru character, the Alchemist, which Jeff saw as equal parts pretentious and self-reflective in an ingenious way. 

If you haven't seen it, set aside the time and do nothing but watch it. Don't fiddle with your phone. It's a movie that demands your attention and rewards you for it.

It's a Bird! (1930) and: There It Is (1928), Charlie Bowers and Harold Muller

This double-dose of obscure "two-reelers" from the days of early sound pictures is really something special, and the kind of thing you only become privy to by friendship with a real film geek. Bowers and Muller worked on a string of films together, only some of which survive. Bowers starred in them as well; an interesting character, he claimed to have been kidnapped by circus people as a child and grew up learning how to perform on tightropes and other such carnivalesque arts. In addition to his onscreen performance, writing, and directing, he was also an animator- and found novel ways of combining live action with his animations. The effect has a level of uncanniness to it that can only adequately be described as surreal; as goofy as these films are, which were intended as comedy, they feel something like a fever dream when you watch them.

In There It Is Bowers plays a detective from Scotland Yard sent to investigate a haunting of sorts in New York. In his attempt to investigate the "Fuzz-Faced Phantom", he brings along an assistant called MacGregor, pictured above. It's not really clear what MacGregor is, but he's tiny, animated, and really weird looking. The story plays out like a lot of the old haunted house / mystery films of the era that came prior, beginning with Georges Melies' La Manoir du Diable (1896), in which the setting is a launchpad for impressive visual effects. It's a Bird! is probably a little less extravagant in that regard, but is impressive enough to feel like a film that should not have existed in 1930. The effects seem too good to be true, yet weirdly crude from our modern standpoint. This short film is really about a guy biting off more that he can chew after capturing a bird who eats metal. The plot is thin, but the short film delivers in weirdness what it lacks in story.

Both short films can be found on YouTube for your enjoyment.

Carnival of Souls (1962, Herk Harvey)

Carnival of Souls is an example of an amateur director trying his darnedest to make a good film on a small budget for the love of doing it, and Jeff argued he achieved more in that respect than many such filmmakers. Contrasted against other examples like Manos: Hands of Fate, it's a masterpiece. It has a cult following, and I've always loved it as something that achieves a type of spookiness in spite of its reputation as a "bad movie". Jeff would go further, and say that Harvey's ambitious drive to emulate Jean Cocteau and Ingmar Bergman as a guerilla filmmaker actually worked pretty well. He saw the movie as a dreamlike, eerie depiction of alienation in its purest sense. More than a ghost story, or the spooky tale I always loved it as, Jeff saw deeper meaning in it- and held high regard for it. Herk Harvey appears in the movie as a mysterious, ghoulish phantom who menaces the main character- a young woman who moves to a new town after a car accident. Looking at some of these weird movies the way Jeff did, one can find ways to appreciate aspects of them that perhaps the director or cast never intended. Secret meanings are to be found all the way from the trash strata to the divine, and Carnival falls somewhere in-between- floating like a car being dragged out of a river.

Kiss Me Quick! (1964, Peter Perry Jr

I had considered doing a whole volume of "NSFW" Bad Movies for one of these posts, as Jeff considered himself an aficionado of sleaze cinema and of pornography. His love of outsider art extended to the most puerile movies, and he would quite literally watch pornos for the plot sometimes. He was unabashed in his interests there and even described himself at times as a pervert.

The thing is that he would, as previously mentioned, cater his choice of movies to whichever friend was dropping by- and in my case, that usually meant something really off the wall but less on the pornographic side. I'll admit to being a bit of a prude, and in light of that and the limited amount of those flicks I actually took in with Jeff, this movie will have to suffice... for now.

Kiss Me Quick! is a truly bizarre movie in the very odd genre of "nudie-cutie" flicks. Being the prude that I am, this minimal exposure to the genre made me appreciate the appeal. Being mostly a send-up of science fiction and horror motifs, blended in the most incongruent ways as a means to showcase scantily clad women, it boggles the mind in its choices. More than anything, it's weird how well it works.

My understanding was it was supposed to be a nudie film parody of Dr. Stranglove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, but for some reason they weren't able to do that. The only remnant of the idea is in the mad scientist's name, "Dr. Breedlove". Breedlove is visited upon by a dopey alien named Sterilox, from the "Buttless Galaxy", where his race has evolved past the need for sex (I think) but needs to reintroduce the idea with some female specimens. Dr. Breedlove is a Dr. Frankenstein of sorts, who creates sexy robot ladies in his lab, and proceeds to showcase them to Sterilox. All of this is goofy as hell, and if you're in it just for the nudity is just filler, but the details are so damned odd they demand explanation.

Breedlove looks vaguely like Strangelove at a glance, but his voice is that of a cartoon version of Lugosi's Dracula. His sunglasses and prosthetic seeming nose evoke Claude Rains' Invisible Man, and all the while he's supposed to be a mad doctor. Sterilox is like the bastard child of TV's Frank from Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Stan Laurel- he's inexplicably doing a pretty dead-on impression of Stan the entire time he's shopping for robo-ladies. Breedlove gets increasingly frustrated as Sterilox proves to be a picky customer, booming out terrible lines in a mock Transylvanian accent while his face remains static and unchanging. Every cut to a nearly naked woman the mind is still cycling through questions such as "Why? Why Stan Laurel? Why this combination? Why am I enjoying this movie?" Invariably such thoughts might lead one to an existential crisis, but thankfully the movie isn't terribly long and throws in just enough B-Movie madness to keep you entertained. It should get tiresome, or annoying, but instead inspires a consistent supply of chuckles if for no other reason than the overabundance of absurdity in it.  

The Music Box (1930, James Parrott)

Since I referred to Stan Laurel in the previous movie write-up, it only makes sense to end with a Laurel and Hardy movie. I loved Stan and Ollie as a kid, and really hadn't gone out of my way to watch them in adulthood until Jeff collected the movies. I think he and I agreed that The Music Box contained the most laughs per frame. We watched it together a bunch of times, along with some of the other short films by the classic duo, and had an inside joke that Stan was just stoned all of the time. As such, "getting laureled" became a code word for certain illicit activities which these days are legal in some states. In addition, he would always say "We need more productivity around here! Less Stan Laurel, more Oliver Hardy!"

In actuality, in their offscreen lives Stanley was the driving force. He would write the scripts, come up with the gags, and plan most of what was to happen. Their affection for each other and commitment to their working relationship comes through in the old pictures, and it's incredibly sweet to see. There were many great comedy teams throughout the history of film, but there's a quality to Stan and Ollie that is as unique to them as it is hard to define. They're inseparable pals, and after Ollie's death Stan refused every offer to partner with anyone else- and the movies they made together remain immortal.

The Music Box is the best example of the short film version of a Stan Laurel story. Their feature length movies are good, but the short film (whether silent or sound) was where they really shined- unencumbered by any complicated plot, they would fill 16-30 minutes with the most wonderful pratfalls, camera-mugging, and slapstick anyone ever performed. The plot in question here is simple: Stan and Ollie have been hired to deliver a player piano to a house. All that stands between them and their destination is an incredibly tall flight of cement stairs on a hillside. Most of the movie revolves around the Sisyphean effort to move the heavy item from the street to the top of the stairs, and the rest with getting it inside the house. One of the only other characters in the film acts as a foil to the boys, Professor Theodore von Shwartzenhoffen, M. D., A.D., D. D. S., F. L. D., F. F. F. and F. He's played by Billy Gilbert, who Stooges fans will recognize as the crazy guy in the classic short Men in Black.

I often felt as a kid that I was alone in my appreciation for classic comedy. In the 80s the average school kid might be familiar with the Three Stooges, but less so with the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, or the Little Rascals. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were just names to other kids, and Laurel and Hardy were largely unknown because they were just old black and white movies. The grown-ups knew them, but no one my age. I only mention this as a way to say: if you're younger and have never bothered with some of the old comedy stuff, give The Music Box a watch. It might be old, perhaps a little corny, but it contains timeless qualities about it that lead me to believe it will never be completely forgotten. Let's have some productivity, shall we?

That should do it for this Volume of Bad Movies For Bad People. I hope the reader enjoyed exploring some of the mind-bending and great cinema Jeff felt the need to show me, and do hope you check out any of these selections. Until next time, stay weird, keep it sleazy (within reason) and try to avoid getting mixed up in fine messes.


Saturday, April 6, 2024

That Literary Spirit and the Ghosts Between the Lines

"Sing in me, O Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending..."

The opening line to The Odyssey makes it very clear that Homer is not the author, and perhaps implies that no mortal is capable of spontaneous creation. Homer is acting as a medium, through which the goddess of poetry can amplify the memory and myth of Odysseus to his audience and then continue on, down through the ages. In order to make sense of the world, humanity has always needed stories, it seems. The craft of telling stories, through poetry, song, or prose then is something of a magical affair. We divine the quintessence of our mundane lives and the systems that sustain them through the words and tales of others; it is the job of the writer to act as the intermediary between the mortal realm and the otherwordly.

The earliest known writings attributed to an author are hymns to the goddess Inanna, written by Enheduanna, daughter of the emperor Sargon of Akkad. Sargon ruled over the Sumerian city-states in the 23rd century B.C.E., and Enheduanna was a high priestess of the moon goddess at Ur. There is debate about the extant writings, and whether they can rightfully be attributed to the ancient priestess, but be that as it may there is considerable evidence that the earliest works of what we now call literature were in service of a divine purpose. Propitiation to the gods, giving meaning and direction to the common person using the spoken and written word allowed for an evolution of sorts in the human psyche. If, as some scholars claim, the hymns were written down centuries after Enheduanna died and recorded in her name to preserve the lineage of Sargon, the point is still very interesting- in a sense, Enheduanna herself has become elevated to a plane of existence above our own. Achieving immortality, like the gods she worshipped, she becomes our earliest example of an author from the Other-Where.

As virtually any writer can attest, the act of putting words on a page can at times be magical and invigorating. Each word spills out quickly and without effort, with brief breaks for congratulation to one's self for their own brilliance. Other times the blank page becomes an impassable void, an abyss that defies traversal. Demons at the threshold, in the form of a blinking cursor perhaps, mock and dishearten the writer. "Go back", they say. "No one wants to read your writing anyway." A writer must summon the fortitude to continue on in spite of it, and it can certainly feel miraculous when the words begin to drown out the diabolical chatter.

It's little wonder then that modern writers would seek methods by which a Muse might sing through them. The confluence of the Occult and supernatural with the arts is such a broad topic that it would seem there's no end to the examples which could be brought forth. Even just in literature, or modern literature, the history is rife with the ectoplasmic residue of spooks on every page. For our purposes today, then, a brief sampling of the ghosts hidden in the margins of well-known writers is in order.

The Ouija Board is an ever-controversial object in our popular conceptions of the supernatural. Often used as a plot device in horror films, and hotly debated in various sectors of paranormal investigation, it has also been used to conjure poetry and stories. More than simply a plot device, it has been a device for developing plots itself. Whether one believes that the board has the potential to connect the living with the dead, or whether it is simply the ideomotor effect causing the participants to subconsciously spell out words is irrelevant. In particular, where poetry is concerned, the act of writing could be characterized as summoning the difficult emotional thought from the subconscious, and translating it to verse. However one defines the Muse does little to negate its existence.

Sylvia Plath famously used an Ouija Board to contact an entity calling itself "Pan" to aid in her poetry writing. She was introduced to the board through her then husband, Ted Hughes, who was much more interested in the Occult than she was. The story of their marriage is a tragic and rocky one, mired in controversy and myth-making, culminating in their separation and eventually Plath's suicide. The séance sessions occurred during a happier time for them both, and Hughes was quoted as saying that she possessed a natural psychic talent "strong enough to make her frequently wish to be rid of them." His influence in bringing Occult devices and concepts to Plath were in service of increasing the volume of the well she drew from in her writing. A talented and prolific poet, Plath seemed to find new boundaries to push throughout her life. Whereas Hughes, even in early works such as The Thought-Fox, was naturally inclined to a mystical bent and describing the poem as a creature slipping in from the darkness of the natural world, Plath had to learn to eschew her pragmatism. She described the sessions as "more fun than a movie", and in her poem Ouija captures the mood of a "god of shades" communicating his own form of verse to her. Where life is filled with turmoil, joys and struggles jockeying for attention, poetry is perhaps a meeting-ground between realms.

At around the same, poet James Merrill, along with his partner, artist David Jackson, began a series of Ouija Board sessions which over the course of decades inspired a trilogy of books.  Originally winning acclaim for more traditional and formal poetry, his 1959 poem Voices From the Other World was an early example of where his work was to go. The poem was the first to include material channeled through the board, and after decades of such sessions he released The Changing Light at Sandover, a 560 page epic including previously published works. In it, voices such as those of poet W. H. Auden and friends of Merrill's such as Maya Deren are conjured. Channeled messages contain warnings about contacting the dead, and some in Merrill's social circle worried about his obsession with the Occult device.

Poetry seems adaptable to channeled messages from an Ouija Board, but what about a novella? In 1919, two children named Virginia and Robert Wauchope accomplished it when they wrote The Invisible Inzi of Oz. L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz and its sequels, had passed away earlier that year. While it's unclear that the children, aged between 9 and 14 at the time, actually channeled Baum or were just clever enough to write convincingly in his style, the story was sufficiently Oz-like that Baum's widow deemed it part of the canon. It was originally published in 1925 in a series of sections in A Child's Garden, and later in 1980 in the Oz fan magazine The Baum Bugle. It should be noted as well that Baum and his wife Maud were members of the Theosophical Society, and some have read Theosophical meanings into the Oz stories. Baum seemed to think the idea for the book came fully formed, as though divinely inspired- that he was merely the most convenient instrument for "The Great Author" to use in getting the story down.

The idea of authors being channeled to continue their work, or in some cases, to complete unfinished works, is an old one. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle collects a few such examples in his book The Edge of the Unknown. While primarily remembered as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and the author of the mystery stories featuring him, Doyle was also very interested in Spiritualism and psychical phenomenon. He was a proponent for the existence of Fairies, and famously promoted the Cottingley Fairies as proof. Where Holmes is depicted as being shrewd and brilliant, sussing out the truth with limited information, Doyle is seen by many today as a gullible old daydreamer by the end. In writing about alleged channeling of famous writers, he considers himself as an author to be uniquely equipped to determine the legitimacy of the written results. He felt that the charm, or the spirit of the author would come through in a diminished form- his conception of the afterlife led him to believe that any effort to write from beyond would be hampered by the trauma of death and the adjustment to another form of existence. After all, writing is hard enough in the material realm! Further to that point, Doyle thinks of gross imitation of style as parody, which itself is a talent he contends not many mediums have.

A particularly novel channeled author he looks at is none other than Oscar Wilde. Remembered for works during his lifetime such as The Importance of Being Earnest and  The Picture of Dorian Gray, there are some spooky connections as well. His mother, Lady Jane Wilde, wrote extensively about fairies and folklore from Ireland after the passing of her husband, Sir William Wilde, who had collected manuscripts on the subject. She wrote under the pen name Speranza, and was also an activist for women's rights. When she was on her deathbed, Oscar was in Reading Gaol and not allowed to visit her. She is said to have made the visit in spectral form at the moment of death.

Oscar Wilde's own return to the land of the living from the great beyond came by way of a medium named Hester Dowden, aka Hester Travers Smith. She worked with a man named Soal, who transcribed her messages. These came both in the form of automatic writing and through an Ouija Board, and in the flowery prose Doyle was convinced that none other than Wilde could have composed them. As one might expect, Wilde didn't lose his wit and humor in the afterlife, at one point saying "Being dead is the most boring experience in life. That is, if one excepts being married, or dining with a school-master." He also takes shots at W. B. Yeats, who, it should be mentioned, inspired the aforementioned Hughes, Plath, and Merrill with his mystic poems derived from automatism. "I knew Yeats well- a fantastical mind but so full of inflated joy in himself that his little cruse of poetry was erupted only with infinite pains over the span of many years." One wonders if Yeats has ever come through in a séance session to add to his terrestrial portfolio, or to give comment about Wilde. Doyle is convinced in his assessment of the legitimacy of the channeled Wilde work, considering it to be just as good as anything Wilde wrote in life. To his mind, if it were an imitation, it was a superb one- while Wilde himself might have said "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness". 

All of literature and poetry is imitation or channeling in a sense. Doyle himself, through his enduring character Sherlock Holmes, continues to spawn imitators to this day while the character seems to never go out of style. Yeats is hailed as one of the most influential poets of all time, and even if his methods aren't used as in the case of Plath and the others previously mentioned, the spirit of his writing is. Authors and the personalities that emerge from their works bound along, like the sprites Lady Wilde wrote about and Sir Doyle believed in, through the pages of novels and collections of poetry from Enheduanna all the way to the present day. This brings us to our final example, for now- that of Charles Dickens and his unfinished work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

In 1873 Thomas Power James, a printer living in Brattleboro, Vermont, claimed to have channeled the recently deceased Dickens and finished the story of Edwin Drood. Other attempts had been made to finish the tale, which had been published incompletely when Dickens died in 1870. Critics hated it, and Conan Doyle, while more sympathetic and thinking it had elements of the purported ghostly author's style, found the plot and resolution wanting. He wrote in his review of it that "it reads like Dickens gone flat". Fortunately for Doyle, he had the chance to talk to Dickens personally in a séance conducted by Florizel von Reuter. He was convinced von Reuter wasn't familiar enough with the work of Dickens to have faked her way through a conversation concerning the unfinished story. From the other side of the veil, Dickens himself disavowed any involvement in James' version of his story. When asked about particular plot points, Dickens returned with a perplexing quote: "What about the fourth dimension? I prefer to write it all out through you." Shortly thereafter, he gives a few hints about where the story should have headed- which one assumes implies that he wished for Sir Arthur to finish the story.

While the mystery of The Mystery of Edwin Drood may forever be unsolved, ghostly hints notwithstanding, there is another strange bit of Dickens lore that is worth considering. On June 9, 1865, he was traveling by train with his friend Ellen Ternan and her mother when suddenly it derailed. A section of the rail was missing  on a viaduct in Staplehurst, Kent, and the train had no time to slow down to avoid it. The man stationed to flag down the train was too close to the viaduct, costing the engineer precious space to brake. The rail crash killed ten people and injured forty; Dickens was fortunate to be among those with minor injuries and helped others escape. Some died in his presence. The following year, he published a ghost story called The Signal-Man, a first-person tale about a man working at the signal box in a train tunnel who is visited upon by a spectre who acts as a harbinger of disaster on the rails. The setting, a train tunnel, may have been inspired by The Clayton Tunnel collision of two trains a few years prior, but one can't help but imagine his own experiences played into the narrative. In the story, the titular Signal-Man has a premonition of his own death- and Dickens died, with unfinished business, on June 9, 1870- five years to the day after surviving the Staplehurst crash.