[Note: This column first appeared on The Huffington Post.]
It’s no secret that many Hollywood stars got started in the horror business. Jamie Lee Curtis debuted in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), and followed that up with appearances in The Fog, Prom Night, and Terror Train, all in the space of 1980. You can see Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th (1980). Jason Alexander went to camp with the Cropsy Maniac in 1981’s The Burning. Johnny Depp debuted in A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984. One year before Jennifer Connelly starred in Labyrinth, she played a psychic child in Phenomena (1985). Jennifer Aniston went toe to toe with the Leprechaun in 1993.
For my favorite example, though, we must go back two decades earlier than Halloween. In 1958, the eventual star of The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), and The Getaway (1972) made his leading-role debut—in Irvin Yeaworth’s The Blob. He was credited as Steven McQueen; at nearly thirty, he played one of the oldest teenagers I’ve seen outside of 90210. McQueen didn’t think much of the movie, opting for $3000 cash “rather than . . . profit participation,” according to this Criterion essay. But it’s McQueen’s performance that lends urgency and credibility—seriously!—to an otherwise unapologetically half-baked concept.
You know the score. It came from outer space!—“it” being, in this case, a meteorite containing a substance like Gushers fruit snack with an appetite of its own. It’s discovered in the forest by Old Man Plot Device (Olin Howland), who accidentally gets it stuck to his hand. Steve Andrews (McQueen) and his petting-averse date Jane (Aneta Corsaut), who have seen the thing crash to earth and want to investigate (note: never, ever investigate), nearly run down the shrieking Old Timer, then take him to Dr. Hallen (Alden Chase).
Steve is sent on an errand by the Doc, and returns just in time to watch him get eaten. From there the Blob just gets bigger and bigger, while Steve tries frantically to make the police and townsfolk believe him. (Telling wild lies to the police seems to have been fairly unremarkable behavior in the golden age of juvenile delinquency.) At last the Blob, now the size of a freight car, attacks the Colonial Theater during a midnight Lugosi flick. The sight of the Blob oozing through the projection booth window is memorable not only because it’s cool, which it is, but also for the heartbreaking crappiness of the miniature. They don’t make pictures like this anymore, and it’s a shame.
Cheesiness is more or less why I’ve picked this movie for Halloween weekend. Gore is good, but Halloween is about nostalgia and atmospherics. I understand that I can’t feel genuine nostalgia for a time that preceded my birth by a quarter-century. But no matter your age, watching The Blob, with its humble effects, its comic-book colors, and its dangerously infectious Bacharach & David theme song, will make you wish you were snug in a ’58 Caddy, preferably with a non-petting-averse date, at a moonlit drive-in theater in Spook City, U.S.A.
What’s for dinner? I’m not a big fan of the grad-school approach to horror movies, in which Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is about commies, Dawn of the Dead (1978) is about mindless consumerism, and the recent spate of torture-porn garbage is “about” renditions and waterboarding. Sure, fine, but when the subtext is written in red neon, it’s kind of beside the point. Do I need to tell you that The Blob played on people’s Atomic Age anxieties? (That reminds me: Don’t miss the film’s final line, which opens it up to a very modern climate change interpretation.)
Nevertheless, I can’t resist pairing The Blob with that forgotten hero of Fifties and Sixties cuisine, the quivering, hideous blob called an aspic. Unless it’s made a cameo on Mad Men—I don’t recall one—most people my age have never been face to face with this creature. I borrowed a couple molds from a friend and opened my copy of The Joy of Cooking to p. 174: tomato aspic. What followed was an unqualified disaster. I’m not even going to tell you how to make it, because it’s clear that I have no idea. What I was supposed to end up with is a delicate red mound of tomato gelatin filled with crab, jalapeño, yellow bell pepper, and avocado.
What went wrong? For one thing, the aspic was far less eager to leave its mold than the Blob was to leave its meteorite shell, and it mostly disintegrated in the process. For another, the mold was too small and the pieces of crab and vegetables far too large. It’s obvious why this dish is rarely attempted nowadays: I understand exactly what it feels like to be a diet-pill-addled housewife who spends twelve hours on a dish, only to have it fall apart five minutes before the dinner party starts. Approach this monster with extreme caution, or get a TV dinner instead.
[Note: This column first appeared on The Huffington Post.]
It was a dark and stormy night. I’d just spent close to six hours in traffic, at least some of which had been caused by an escaped kitten scampering around on I-95 outside Providence. My reward, on arriving in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, for the tenth annual Wellfleet Oyster Festival, was an old fashioned glass brimming with ice, Gosling’s ginger beer, and Myer’s Dark Rum.
For all the pedants out there, lurching zombie-like toward the comments section, I’m aware that the Dark ’n’ Stormy (a trademark of Gosling’s) is properly made with Gosling’s Black Seal in a highball glass. I was in no position to care, and the following night I reprised my devil-may-care flouting of the rules by mixing a Dark ’n’ Stormy with the delicious, chocolatey Kraken Black Spiced Rum.
The Kraken depicted on its bewitching, double-handled jug is a giant octopus, but the word also refers to a giant squid—in fact, to any colossal sea monster. Tennyson gave the Kraken life in this sonnet, which speaks of its “[u]nnumber’d and enormous polypi” and reassures us that, for the time being, “[t]he Kraken sleepeth.” It sounds rather like Cthulhu, the half-bat, half-octopus aquatic megafauna dreamed up by Providence’s favorite son, H. P. Lovecraft.
I had nautical horror on the brain all weekend. What goes with seafood, rum, and howling, wind-lashed nights blacker than a lobster’s armpits? Keeping it literal, we have classics like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1956), Jaws (1975), and Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus (2009). The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has tentacles in slippery abundance. How about John Carpenter’s seaside classic The Fog (1980) or James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989)? The Lovecraft fanatic might prefer Dagon (2001) or the silent short The Call of Cthulhu (2005).
At the risk of sounding unforgivably pretentious, I recommend you prepare a batch of Clams Casino or Oysters Rockefeller, whip up a pitcher of Dark ’n’ Stormies, and watch Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). It isn’t a horror movie, though it does feature the bubonic plague, Death in a wetsuit, and the line “A skull is more interesting than a naked woman.” Still, its beautiful beaches give Turks and Caicos a run for their money, and its striking, high-contrast imagery is Halloween to the core. (Commenters: Were Antonius Block [Max von Sydow] and Jöns [Gunnar Björnstrand] by any chance the basis for these two?)
Maybe I’m just squeamish about sea monsters. In the front matter of Moby-Dick, William Paley’s Natural Theology is quoted: “The aorta of a whale is larger in the bore than the main pipe of the water-works at London Bridge, and the water roaring in its passage through that pipe is inferior in impetus and velocity to the blood gushing from the whale’s heart.”
I like my seafood a bit more manageable than that. Wellfleet oysters, crassostrea virginica, are substantial, briny but not overwhelmingly so, and do not shoot geysers of blood when you bite into them. They also make for the finest oyster stew I’ve ever eaten—which, apart from all this, and staggering quantities of raw oysters on the half-shell, is the best feature of the Festival.
I’ve tried unsuccessfully to determine how the stew is made—the stew-masters are secretive, and will cop to nothing but the use of “a little salt and pepper”—but I can say confidently that the trick is not skimping on butter, cream . . . or oysters. Eight dollars will get you more and fatter oysters in a cup of Wellfleet stew than twice that would get you in any restaurant, unless my brine-addled mind was playing tricks on me. You can fill any remaining stomach volume with sausage, roasted sweet corn dusted with sea salt and Old Bay, fried dough, and clam cakes. And remember, never eat an oyster with a funky smell, or chances are you’ll find yourself sprawled on the beach, bargaining with Death—and it won’t involve a friendly game of chess.
[Note: This column first appeared on The Huffington Post.]
Is it safe to say that, after Suspiria and The Beyond, we could all use a breather? I, for one, have had my fill of sadistic, stomach-knotting violence for, oh, at least the next couple days. (Nothing puts a damper on one’s culinary enthusiasm like watching a dozen eyeballs get popped out like grapes from their peels.) So let’s take a little trip back through the gauzy mists of time, to the studio era, when horror was beautiful, mellow, and unlikely to disturb either one’s sleep or one’s appetite.
I’ve seen Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), starring Bela Lugosi, more times than I can count. The same goes for James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), which, in any case, doesn’t hold a cobwebbed candelabrum to Mel Brooks’s classic Young Frankenstein (1974). But I realized that I had a gap—a gaping, festering hole, in fact—in my horror education. I’d never seen The Mummy (1932), starring Boris Karloff and directed by Karl Freund, the cinematographer of Browning’s Dracula and a member of the cinematography team responsible for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).
I mentioned needing a breather: Now consider the makeup session Karloff called “the most trying ordeal I have ever endured.” You’ve read about how the ancient Egyptians made their mummies; here’s how Universal Studios did it. As Gregory William Mank’s Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration (2009) relates:
The 11:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. transformation took place in [Jack P.] Pierce’s cosmetology sanctuary, where a photograph of King Seti II served as a model. Pierce pinned back Boris’s ears, dampened his face and covered every facial area (including eyelids) with thin cotton strips, covered the cotton with collodion and went to work with spirit gum and an electric drying machine. . . . Boris’s only pleasures during the procedure: a cigarette and tea. The makeup application made speech virtually impossible and the star had to pantomime every time he wanted a fresh smoke. Then came beauty clay slicking back the actor’s hair . . . , 22 different colors of makeup covering the actors face, hands, and arms, 150 yards of acid-rotted linen (passed through an oven, so it looked decayed), bandages taped in the body joints so that the star could move, and a dusting of Fuller’s earth.
Well, here’s the big reveal: Karloff appears as a mummy for about five minutes, in the first scene. He doesn’t even kill anyone as a mummy. A young archaeologist named Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) reads a forbidden papyrus; the mummy awakens; the mummy takes his papyrus back, and takes off. Norton dissolves into hysterical laughter—which is impressively painful to listen to—and we’re later told that he “died laughing—in a straitjacket.” That’s the last we see of this or any mummy. The next time we encounter Karloff, the resurrected priest Imhotep, he is a “modern” Egyptian named Ardath Bey, who wears a fez and a veritable Lone Ranger mask of kohl.
Watching Freund’s Mummy is an amusing object lesson in just how much the American moviegoer’s expectations have changed. Apart from the opening scene, for which Karloff nearly suffocated, there are virtually no special effects. There are no 3-D scarab beetles. If you were expecting a walking ACE® bandage, you were probably thinking of a different movie.
This Mummy is a love story with a horror flick trying to claw its way out. Without giving up too much in the way of plot, I can say that Imhotep’s chief concern is being reunited with the reincarnation of an Egyptian princess for whom he defied the gods thirty-seven centuries earlier. He speaks slowly, is scrupulously polite, and can make you obey by staring very hard (not unlike someone else I know). Depending on how much you appreciate old-school filmmaking, you’ll find him either unforgettably frightening or about as menacing as a sulky cab driver.
Charles Taylor on Salon.com made the case for the former back in 2000, calling The Mummy “the most dreamlike and creepily erotic of horror films. . . . With skin dried to look like parchment, Karloff’s Imhotep is a nightmare vision of sexual desire that persists even as the body decays. Delicately and masterfully lighted, the film is a languorous classic of perverse romanticism.” With all due respect, I remain unconvinced. The Mummy is a clumsy, albeit entertaining, look at how horror has evolved over the years—but where Dracula is eternal, this guy is really starting to show his age.
What’s for dinner? The New Best Recipe instructs us that “[i]n Middle Eastern countries, baba ghanoush is served as part of a meze platter . . . which might feature salads, various dips, small pastries, meats, olives, other condiments, and, of course, bread. The driving force behind baba ghanoush is grill-roasted eggplant, sultry and rich. The dip’s beguiling creaminess and haunting flavor come from tahini (sesame paste) enhanced with a bit of garlic and brightened with both fresh lemon juice and parsley.”
I won’t say baba ghanoush is more beguiling and haunting than The Mummy, but it’s a close-run race. To make the dip, roast two large eggplants at 500° for an hour, flipping them every fifteen minutes. Let the eggplants cool before scooping out the yellow pulp and draining it in a colander. Move it to a food processor, and add a tablespoon of real lemon juice, a large minced garlic clove, two tablespoons of tahini, and salt and pepper. Process for about ten seconds, refrigerate for one hour, and serve with parsley, a little pool of olive oil, and pita wedges. Some people (e.g., me) are mildly allergic to eggplant; to prevent my baba ghanoush from liquefying and draining my insides, I balanced it with this delicious digestive-friendly hummus.
[Note: This column first appeared on The Huffington Post.]
Last week, to inaugurate my Halloween movie-and-food series, I presented Huffington Post readers with as unappetizing a combination as I could think of: Dario Argento’s 1977 Suspiria and Beef Heart alla Soffritto. Today we return to the world of orrore Italiano—horror gory enough to make a Borgia wince—with Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (1981). I must admit, when I picked Fulci’s flick for this week’s lesson, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. My friend Neil, with whom I’ve been attending horror conventions for years, had a Beyond poster tacked up in his bedroom in high school, so I assumed I’d seen the movie and forgotten it. I was mistaken. You don’t forget The Beyond without some very expensive therapy.
I had seen Fulci’s Zombie (1979), famous for its surprisingly convincing zombie versus shark fight scene, and considered pairing it with citrus-marinated mako steak. I wish I had; it would have meant I could skip The Beyond. Unfortunately, like a zombie, I’m always thinking with my stomach, and I had a hankering for some bayou cuisine.
Louisiana has long been a favorite gothic setting. The Last Exorcism and the wildly popular True Blood are fine recent examples of the bayou’s persistent appeal. Perhaps you’ve read, or watched, Interview with a Vampire. Perhaps you’ve blown a few bucks on a New Orleans ghost tour or a “monkey and cock” voodoo fetish; perhaps you’ve been relieved of your wallet by a charming local in Saint Louis Cemetery #1.
All this belongs to the Big Cheesy, as far as Fulci is concerned. Instead of giving us vampires or voodoo, he goes straight to the source: The Beyond’s setting, the dilapidated, plantation-style Seven Doors Hotel, sits on one of the seven gates to hell. This is established in a sepia-toned opening sequence—in 1927, everything was sepia-toned—in which a painter named Schweick is crucified in the hotel by a mob convinced that he’s a “warlock.”
Decades later, Europe is inspired to record an unforgettable rock classic, and the hotel is inherited by a young woman named Liza (Catriona MacColl), who hopes to renovate and reopen it. So it’s a lot like the 1986 Tom Hanks classic The Money Pit, except with gouged-out eyes (a Fulci specialty), morgue mayhem, hungry tarantulas, crucifixions, demons, zombies, and a pretty spooky matte painting of hell. Oh, and a blind woman gets mauled by her own guide dog. Your typical screwball comedy.
What’s for dinner? The truth is, unless you’re a serious gore aficionado, you don’t want to visit The Beyond. Stick with Sookie or Lestat or, I don’t know, Easy Rider. But you do want to try The New Best Recipe’s fantastic Creole-style shrimp and sausage gumbo. I made the easiest version, the one without okra or filé; I also had to substitute spicy Italian sausage for andouille. First, get a pound and a half of small to medium shrimp. Bring the shells, and four and a half cups of water, to a boil over medium-high heat. Turn down to medium-low and simmer twenty minutes, then remove the shells and add a cup of clam juice and three and a half cups of ice water. That’s your stock—now set it aside.
Next, the roux. In a Dutch oven, heat a half-cup of vegetable oil over medium-high heat, to about 200°. Turn the heat to medium and stir in a half-cup of flour very, very slowly over the course of twenty minutes. Don’t stop for any reason! If you suspect your glorious liquid mahogany is burning, take it off the heat for a bit, but keep that wooden spoon moving.
Add the “holy trinity” (Creole for mirepoix), in this case two finely chopped onions, one diced bell pepper, and one diced stalk of celery. Add six cloves pressed garlic, as well as cayenne, salt, and pepper to your liking (I think the Best Recipe skimps on cayenne). Keep stirring for ten minutes, and don’t worry, it’s supposed to be a thick, stubborn paste. Drizzle in one quart of stock while stirring hard, and then dump in the rest. Add a couple bay leaves, simmer and skim for thirty minutes; add as much sausage as you please, simmer for thirty minutes; add shrimp, cook five minutes; serve over rice, with a Sazerac, an Abita, or a foaming goblet of Tabasco sauce.