Wednesday, January 10, 2018

When ‘Eraserhead’ spanked Jerry Van Dyke’s daughter

In researching a piece of footage that relates to recent Deceased Artiste Jerry Van Dyke, I found the mind-boggling piece of video found below. Why and how this has been up online since the end of 2016 with very little being made of it (esp. in David Lynch fan circles) is a major surprise, but it definitely serves as a wonderful substitute for the footage I *was* looking for and couldn’t find.

That footage would be a segment from a nighttime syndicated tabloid show — I think it was A Current Affair — reporting on the very tragic death of Kelly Van Dyke, the daughter of Jerry Van Dyke and the niece of Dick. The segment included interviews with Nance, who openly cried while talking about Kelly, his wife (there was an age difference of 15 years between them but, due to Jack’s prematurely old looks and cranky manner, it looked as if he was a few decades older than her).
The two had met while in rehab — Kelly was addicted to both drugs and alcohol at different times in her life, while Nance was an alcoholic. In the heartbreaking interview on the tabloid show, he discussed how he had loved her and how she had tormented him, calling him when she was sleeping with another man.

There were also interviews with Lisa Loring from The Addams Family, who claimed to have found Kelly’s body after she hanged herself (this has been disputed by Nance’s brother), and a Native American gent who had protected Kelly by getting her out of a bachelor party that was getting out of hand.

Kelly’s work as a porn star had slid down to the level of appearing as a stripper at bachelor parties, and at this particular one the men were responding so positively to her teasing behavior that this gent felt he had to get her out of the party. He drove her home and she demanded he come into her house with her (the presumption being that she would sleep with him) or she’d kill herself. That, sadly, was the night she hanged herself.

The most eye-opening piece of footage in the segment was not any of the interviews, as harrowing and sad as they were. It was an outtake from one of Kelly’s porn films (made under the name “Nancee Kellee”) in which she and another woman were about to do a lesbian scene but were sitting on a bed in lingerie between takes. I’m recalling this from memory, but their conversation centered around the fact that Kelly said she had had a bad dream the night before, one with her father in it. Her actress friend then asks something to the effect of “…again?”

Now, this could mean a number of things. The mind immediately jumps to the most damning reasons for such a nightmare: that she was recalling being abused or beaten by her father. It’s entirely possible that she was just having sad dreams about him because the two had had a bad rift and hadn’t seen each other in a long time (the accounts of her funeral mention how shattered Jerry was by her death). It’s not my place to try to analyze what she said in this outtake – I was just rather stunned that the tabloid show had gotten this piece of footage (you don’t often see porn outtakes on mainstream commercial television) and that it related to something that was bothering her, which involved her celebrity father.

So the lives of both Kelly Van Dyke and Jack Nance were both sadly strewn with tragedy — Nance, of course, died in 1996 after he was severely injured in some kind of fight that occurred at a donut shop near his house. Thus, I shouldn’t be surprised that anything odd occurred in their relationship and yet I was taken aback seeing Jack acting in one of Kelly’s fetish-video appearances.

The title of the tape was “Old Fashioned Spankings,” and it was shot in 1991, presumably during the few months that Jack and Kelly were a married couple (as is recounted in the documentary You Don’t Know Jack, Nance was on the set of Meatballs 4 when he received the final phone calls from Kelly, threatening suicide).

The eight-minute spanking segment that Jack appeared in with Kelly is par for the course in terms of pre-Internet fetish videos (ruled by rules created with the Postmaster General in mind --   no mixing of actual sex and fetish activity!). It’s actually quite innocent, except for the very NSFW images of Kelly’s vag when Jack is tenderly touching her behind before he spanks it.

The scenario, such as it is, involves Jack as an angry “old” husband who finds that his “child bride” (again, he’s 48, she’s 33) has been going out and drinking when she’s supposed to be doing her homework. 

These kinds of vignettes don’t have scripts, so Jack has to outline the premise in his dialogue, which clearly seems improvised. At one point, he notes while spanking her that he didn’t get the veal cordon bleu he was expecting for dinner and had to have cornbread instead. At another point he decries the “heavy metal hippies” she’s hanging around with in the evenings. 

Jack is well-remembered by Lynch cultists for his delivery of peculiar lines (so many of them in Eraserhead, including one personal fave, “Why are you asking me this question?”; in Twin Peaks both the much-beloved “She’s dead… wrapped in plastic!” as well as the surreal, “There’s a fish… in the perc-ulator!”). Here he just has to sketch out that he’s mad at Kelly and she has to deny what he’s saying.

By the end she’s confessing that she really enjoyed the spanking and he’s telling her “Give me a kiss and let me tell you that I love you… I couldn’t live without you,” which is a pretty sweet endearment for a spanking video. (Kelly responds, "I couldn’t live without you either.”). In the documentary You Don’t Know Jack, it is noted that Jack really did love her, but her addictions and depression got the better of her in the end (as he get the better of her end here).

Their real lives were irredeemably sad in their last few years: Nance kept trying to beat his drinking habit, but seemed unable to, and Kelly’s drug habit was causing her to slide down the porn ladder to the point where, again, she was dancing at local bachelor parties. One of her few porn features was titled The Coach’s Daughter, to capitalize on her dad’s role on the sitcom Coach.

This odd little video puts Nance in an obscure category – he is hailed as “the only mainstream actor to appear in a fetish video.” It also offers a weird little window into a relationship that was doomed and the lives of two people who died well before their time. Not a good recommendation to watch something “erotic,” but this fairly tame (except, again, for the full view of Kelly) video is not exactly an erotic masterwork in the first place. I’m going to take an educated guess, though, and say that sitting through this eight minutes of no-budget, almost-wholesome sleaze is more fascinating than watching all of Meatballs 4….

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Monster kid for life: Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Bleak House’ Exhibit

While I was in Toronto to see the Bat Out of Hell musical, I was able to attend the exhibit of Guillermo del Toro's horror/supernatural/Victoriana collectibles at the Art Gallery of Ontario museum (closed today, unfortunately). I will readily confess that I am woefully deficient on del Toro's films, something I want to correct now that I've seen the gent's “soul,” as mirrored in his insane collection of “monster kid” dream artifacts.

I was utterly overwhelmed by the collection and did take photos – something I never, ever do in a museum, nor would I want to. At this exhibit, though, photography was encouraged and it seemed part of del Toro's sharing of his collection – that others could photograph and even pose with (at a reasonable distance, natch) the memorabilia and lifesize figures.

If you need background on the exhibit you can find it any number of places online. Suffice it to say that, since del Toro's film work has taken off and he has been hailed as one of the best horror/thriller directors working today (including a Best Director Golden Globe he won for The Shape of Water shortly after this blog entry was posted), he has invested his money in things that remind of the stuff that has comforted him over the years.

There has always been a kind of “club” feeling among those who love horror, sci-fi, and monster movies – from the earliest American fans who organized (whose ranks included the “unholy three”: Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury, and Forrest J. Ackerman) to goth kids and well beyond. There will be no end to this phenomenon (as witnessed by the “creepypasta” fans online and the endless flow of near anonymous horror flicks that still make it into theaters in this era of streaming and downloads).

At the outset I will mention that there were two points in the exhibit in which I was emotionally touched by del Toro's fan boy-ishness. The first was right at the beginning, in which a video greeting by del Toro acknowledged the person who inspired his collecting hobby. That person was, of course, Funhouse interview subject Forry Ackerman, perhaps the greatest “monster kid” of all (and certainly one of the first to be proudly recognized as such). del Toro notes in the opening video that hearing about Forry's “Ackermansion” made him want to have the same kind of crazy collection. And while he lacks Forry's connection to the great men of yesteryear (Karloff, Lugosi, Price, Lang, and Willis O'Brien), he has compensated beautifully by having incredibly realistic-looking mannequins made of his favorite artists and “monsters.”

When it is not being lent to a museum for an exhibit, the collection resides in del Toro's “Bleak House” in L.A. (He's also a big Dickens fan.) Perhaps the most important thing about the exhibit was that he was emphasizing not just film but reading matter throughout – kids were brought there by their parents (who were most likely into this stuff growing up) and they saw that books (and, naturally, comics) are a seminal “path” that leads to a thorough exploration of the enjoyably eerie part of our pop culture.

The mannequins in the exhibit are incredibly life-like. They resemble the beautifully rendered pieces at Madame Tussaud's (although I believe no wax was involved in the creation of these figures/statues/models/mannequins they are referred to by all these names online). The one that first reinforced the literary connection to weirdness is the figure of Poe that was seated and seemed ready to converse with visitors to the museum.

Seeing this wildly life-like version of an extremely long-dead author made one realize how deeply del Toro is devoted to his passions – a lot of these figures would completely creep out even the most dedicated horror buff (the ruminations about waking up and stumbling toward the bathroom and walking into a creepy-looking statue began among the attendees when inside the “rain room” that housed the Poe figure).

Poe is the pathway, Lovecraft is the uncut drug. The figure of Lovecraft is uncannily real-looking. He was situated in a room that had the covers of every book found in Lovecraft's library pasted on the wall and several busts and smaller statues of Lovecraft's trawlers “from beyond” displayed across from the figure himself (to complete the creepiness, the AGO hired a pianist to play suitably “Phantom”-esque music in the room).


But much of the exhibit was naturally tied up with movies, del Toro's own and the ones he clearly lived and thrived upon throughout his youth. The range was from the silent era to the much-loved cult pics of the Seventies (both the films that were more successful when they went to midnight shows, like The Phantom of the Paradise, and those that made money when they were initially released, like Alien).

The devotion to childhood and adolescent heroes was apparent throughout the exhibit. Like many of us, del Toro grew up worshipping the inimitable Boris Karloff, and his rogues' gallery of immortal horror characters. del Toro has noted in interviews that he found a sense of belonging when he discovered Uncle Forry's Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and there was no better person to salute the glories of Karloff than the late pun-master, Mr. Ackerman. Karloff will always remain to many of us the “king of monsters.”

There are many disturbing life-size (and bigger!) creatures in the exhibit, many of which are scary to behold and must've taken some care in mounting, since they are (again) so goddamned big. But what was undoubtedly the scariest set-up to me were three “innocent”-looking figures lurking in the corner of one room of memorabilia. These three cast members of Freaks (1932) retain their power to both intrigue and scare the crap out of the ordinary schlub encountering them.

When I went to the exhibit, a bunch of teenage students were being taken through it by a very nice, open-minded, clearly very liberal teacher, who was explaining Todd Browning's film to the assembled young minds. Her argument was that we don't use the word “freaks” any more, but do call these people “outsiders” while we try not to discriminate against them in society. She preached the joys of diversity and inclusivity, and spoke (rightly) of the film's true message of brotherhood.

While listening to this heartening speech by the teacher, I was watching del Toro's own videotaped intro to the figures, which said, simply enough, that he loved Freaks because the “good-looking people are evil” and the scary-looking people are good and support each other in a very tight-knit community. He hit the nail on the head in 2-3 minutes, while the teacher continued to preach as the teens were simultaneously attracted and repulsed by the three figures on the platform in front of them.

While the teacher is indeed right – we should not in any way discriminate against people who look different than us – she had seemingly forgotten that Browning was a showman (he worked with fr… er, “outsiders” like the ones in the film before he started directing). He made Freaks after his Dracula had been a gigantic hit and he could do whatever he wanted. He *did* want to preach a gospel of diversity, inclusivity, and brotherhood among outcasts – but he also wanted to scare the shit out of the viewer.

The “normal” person's response to the people in the film is certainly to be both attracted and repulsed by the “different” people in the film – they mean no harm, but their appearance initially scares us. We come to love them in the film and enjoy their sense of community, but they also scare the hell out of us when they decide to “punish” the woman who has wronged their friend. 

I had a friend once tell me that the “freaks” didn't scare him because he could run away from them, and I had to remind hm that the film's alternate message was that, when you wrong these people, they will get you one way or another. Even the one gent who lacked both arms and legs would most certainly slice your throat while you were asleep as he chinned himself along the ground to get to you. (Yes, you can run now, but you can't run forever…).

Enough for the thoughts that flittered into one's mind while seeing del Toro's incredible collection. The room that produced very emotional feelings for me was “the comic room,” in which they had hung up del Toro's original comic art (with everyone from Eisner to Moebius on display) with many of the comics he owned – and Famous Monsters issues at eye-level.


The room overwhelmed me because it made me think of going to comic-cons in the early Seventies with my father and the way in which he introduced me to all of that material – from FM to Eisner to EC Comics and well beyond – and how the later items (like Neil Gaiman's Sandman) were things I was able to share with him when the time came that I was still going to comics stores and he wasn't. You may think a bunch of funny-books might not hold any emotional undercurrent but they do, believe me, they do.

The piece de resistance was in the final room: a celebration of the Frankenstein monster, most specifically the monster as played by Karloff in the first three films of the series (1931, 1935, 1939 – committed it to memory as a warped little kid).

With every book cover that featured the monster's likeness on the wall, and life-size figures in the center and on the sides, and even more Franken-art in other parts of the room, it was an overwhelming celebration of the ultimate “outsider” figure in monster-movie lore.

del Toro's collectibles are supposedly headed back to his suburban home in L.A. (the place he has dubbed “Bleak House”), but there's still a chance the exhibit may be reconstituted in another city in the U.S. or overseas. I'm glad I took these pictures, but there is something overwhelming about seeing all that stuff in one place. And, of course, coming face-to-face with one's childhood/adolescent dream and nightmare figures in a museum setting. 

Thanks to "monster kid" emeritus Kayleigh for recommending this exhibit and fellow Famous Monsters fan M. Faust for sharing it with me.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Jukebox dystopia: ‘Bat Out of Hell: the Musical’

I love Jim Steinman. I mean, I've never met the man, but I'm a diehard fan of his bombastic, excess-laden melo-dra-matic (hyphens needed) pop-rock for several decades now.

So when I heard that Steinman's long-planned Bat Out of Hell musical had finally seen the light of day and was playing in Toronto (it closes this coming Sunday), I knew I needed to see it, since there is no assurance it will ever reach Broadway. (The fact that it’s playing at the Ed Mirvish Theater, named after the owner of the much-missed “Honest Ed’s” emporium, only made the trip more essential.)

The show is a mess but a fun one. Steinman is an unrepentant master of excess, so it follows that problems with the show aren't simple miscalculations but are instead pretty sizable mistakes. The first is the book by Steinman. One must remember that Sondheim himself, the greatest living Broadway composer, has never written his own librettos — Steinman is a control freak, so he did so in Bat.

The result is a futuristic, dystopian scenario involving street kids that grow no older than 18 (one of Steinman's big dream-projects has been a Peter Pan musical), an evil yet oddly charismatic business mogul/dictator, and a star-crossed Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story romance. Add in odd supporting characters, like a “soulmate” for our hero named “Tink” (a male — and no, we didn't have to applaud to keep him alive), and you begin to see the confused, placeholder status of the storyline.

To help viewers understand the plotline, there are both mock newspapers from the city of “Obsidian” (the location of the play, a future identity for NYC) given to each audience member and introductory projected titles before the show begins. These nuggets of info are helpful but also distracting — the show inevitably boils down to “romance between rich girl and street gang leader” and “evil leader learns he'll lose his daughter if he stays evil.” The fantasy aspect — which seems to have come from two Walter Hill films (The Warriors and a film Steinman supplied songs for, Streets of Fire) is distracting and unnecessary.

The other distraction from the blissfully overwrought score is Emma Portner's choreography. She chose to go with moves that evoke the past — namely the well-remembered (but solely as kitsch) music videos of Bob Giraldi. This isn't modern dance, nor is it classical ballet or Agnes de Mille's revamp of same. It blends the moves of old MTV staples with the “hand jive” synchronized dancing from Grease, an odd choice for a harder-edged pop-rock enterprise. Here is a sample, from a person who shot scenes from the play on their phone.

And finally there is the cast. The show was first performed in London and Manchester, so the performers are primarily English. On the night I saw the show — a Wednesday in early December — stand-ins were substituting for the two main performers (the younger couple). Of these two, Georgia Carling acquitted herself nicely, but Benjamin Purkiss seemed to be struggling to stay in key during some of Steinman's extremely demanding rock anthems.

In one department, both performers did deliver (they had to — it was in the script). The lead female character, “Raven,” the 18-year-old daughter of the evil mogul, spends a good deal of the play in a teddy and other form-fitting outfits. Not to make this a sexist affair, the male lead, “Strat,” appears shirtless at every opportunity, to lend his character an Iggy/Daltrey air. This is clearly done to add a rock 'n' roll aspect to the proceedings but instead serves to distract viewers in a pleasant way during the moments of exposition.

Sharon Sexton is quite good as “Sloane,” the mogul's wife, who has to tackle the “Will you love me forever?” half of “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” among other great songs. Her duet partner is Rob Fowler as the mogul “Falco,” a character who is supposed to be an evil prick but is in fact the most likable character in the show. Fowler's singing voice has the right combination of rock 'n' roll bravado and theatrical belting, and he is thus perfectly suited for the material.

Sexton and Fowler are involved in the one of the show's most memorable moments, a bit of stagecraft  that is memorable enough to stay with one well after the show (and needs to be “undone” by stage hands during the intermission). Falco and Sloane are at dinner when they reminisce about their first seduction — which, of course, leads to “Dashboard Light.” Their dining table slides away to reveal a car, which, as the song concludes, crashes down into the orchestra pit (which exists for this sole purpose — the rock band accompanying the singers is located backstage). Two other special effects occur later in the show, but I won't give them away here.

Suffice it to say that the production design is impressive enough to distract one from the simple-yet-still -too-dubiously-complicated plot line. The set is a dystopian landscape — composed of a tilted, Blade Runner-esque skyscraper, the teen gang's hideout, and Raven's bedroom, which achieves greater depth (and, yes evokes early MTV once more) through the use of a video camera that is used to project it onto monitors and screens (why the cameraman is visible isn't explained, but that's the least of the odd plot points).

This brings me to the show's strong suit, and the reason it exists in the first place, namely Steinman's sublime earworm tunes. Every one is an anthem of one sort or another, be it a full-out rocker or a power ballad, all ideal inclusions in a stage musical. When the performer's voice is right for the material and the backstage band is cookin', the plotline seems to disappear and Steinman's work shines in all its deeply-sincere-yet-slyly tongue-in-cheek glory.

The humor in Steinman's work is a factor missed by those who view the Meat Loaf/Steinman albums as kitsch. While Steinman aspires to take rock into the arena inhabited by one of his two heroic Richards, Richard Wagner (the other one is Little Richard), many times he's also kidding. 

In this interview in Billboard, Todd Rundgren presented the best analysis of Steinman’s music by exploring how the Bat Out of Hell album seemed to him (Todd) to be a spoof of Springsteen, whom he felt had brought rock back to Fifties iconography but took it all too seriously. Steinman, on other hand, “wove this sense of humor into the material in a way that Springsteen never did.”

The songs included here hail primarily from the three Bat Out of Hell albums, with the inclusion of the soft pop Air Supply hit “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” (a Steinman composition). The “epic” numbers are of course accorded the biggest set-pieces (and the attendant crazy fx), while the shorter ballads and pop-rock classics keep the evening moving right along (and, again, thankfully distract from the plot).

Steinman receives a degree from Amherst College (he's in the studded outfit).
Steinman's genius for crazed, sensational “melo” (as opposed to mellow) music comes through when the songs are at the forefront. It's indeed uncertain whether the show will ever reach Broadway — and, if so, whether it can catch the attention of the folks who made Rock of Ages such a long-running hit (nearly six years).

If the plotline is retooled or trimmed back, Bat Out of Hell could easily be a hit on Broadway, since the Meat Loaf/Steinman albums were always big, boisterous musicals waiting to happen. Perhaps if the piece can simply become a suite of Steinman's pop-rock classics with the barest hint of a West Side Story through-line for the characters, Bat could truly take off to hell and back.
Steinman with the original 'Bat"
women: Karla DeVito and Ellen Foley.

As video “bonuses,” here are a few choice bits of music that relate to Steinman and the show. The first is a killer monologue that he first did on his one and only solo album, Bad for Good. It is performed by "Strat" right at the opening of Bat Out of Hell: the Musical, but this particular version is the craziest. It appeared on the electronic press kit for the Original Sin album by Pandora’s Box, a group of female studio singers (including Ellen Foley), who were intended to be Steinman’s own version of another one of his fave musical acts, the Shangri-Las.

Steinman has done one of these monologues per album since the original Bat LP. They are clearly homages to, and satires of, the poetry of Jim Morrison. This piece in particular evokes Morrison’s super-arch spoken-word interlude in “The End.”

I in no way advocate or support people bringing video devices to a theater. But, since someone did, I refer you to this song as wonderfully performed in the Toronto version of Bat. One of Steinman’s great evocations of the Phil Spector school of songwriting, “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)”:

Steinman has reworked some of his songs for different purposes. Here is the original demo version of a song that appears in the Bat musical. Intended for the never-produced Batman musical, it is a grim little number called “In the Land of the Pig (the Butcher is King).” You want “melo”? You got it.

Throughout the show, one flashes on the original versions of the songs by one Marvin Lee Aday, aka Meat Loaf. Meat is an incredible performer, a rock singer of operatic range and intensity. He will always be *the* foremost interpreter of Steinman’s work.

Here he is performing one of the “epic” Steinman compositions (and one of the biggest-ever hits for both “Mr. Loaf” and Steinman), “I'd Do Anything for Love.” This is from a concert performance where Meat was in full kick-ass mode. He is the most elegant Big Man who has ever sung a rock song (and yes, Jack Black has stolen his every move for those rock “performances” he does….).

To my mind, the song below is the Steinman's finest pop-rock classic — his epic tunes are indeed what he will always be remembered for, but there’s something about this rapid-fire attack. It truly works as a spoof of Springsteen’s heartsick Americana, per Todd Rundgren’s formulation of the album (“I was a varsity tackle/and a helluva block./When I played my guitar/I made the canyons rock…”).

Pursuing the idea that sometimes other folks can alter Steinman’s material for the better, Jim is interviewed here about how Rundgren sped this song up in the studio when Steinman was sick with the flu, trying to get a standard-length rock song into the album (the irony being that the two songs played to death by the radio at the time of the album’s success were always the epic-length “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” and the snowy ballad, “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”).

The insanely sincere lyrics, Edgar Winter’s sax, Meat’s incredible vocal, and the speed with which the damned thing is delivered make this, for me, the ultimate Steinman composition (and, needless to add, theatrical to the max).

And to close this out, I must showcase my all-time fave visualization of a Steinman song, a music video made for the Pandora’s Box album by none other than Funhouse interview subject “Unkle” Ken Russell. I can’t imagine a better combination of wonderful madmen than a fusion of Jim Steinman’s operatic rock and Ken Russell’s frenzied genius for dream imagery.

Here Unkle Ken is borrowing from himself, using the scenario from his moving segment for the film Aria (1987). The result, however, is the most gloriously delirious visualization of a Steinman tune ever — bikers, gods and goddesses (who might be aliens, or not), glitter, fire, studs, snakes, and a sacred ritual. It’s hard to ask for more than this.

It was noted somewhere that the initial idea was to produce a “video album” for the Pandora’s Box album, to be directed entirely by Ken Russell. The mind fairly reels at what we lost in the way of brilliant (and brilliantly sincere) excess.