Classic Beach Reads to Revisit

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“Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay.” 
― Grace Metalious, Peyton Place

In 1956 the book that would spawn nine sequels, two movies, two television series and two made for television features came out and immediately shot to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List where it stayed for fifty-nine weeks.  The heady mix of lust, adultery, murder, incest and abortion set in the strait-laced New England town was an instant success, selling sixty thousand copies in the first ten days of its release.

Being regularly banned only helped secure its place as a guilty pleasure.  It has inspired everyone from Jacqueline Susann to John Waters.  Read it for the ‘good bits’ left out by the cleaned up film version, and because as Vanity Fair writer Michael Callahan puts it it’s “a cultural bitch slap at the duplicitous notions of proper conduct in the age of Eisenhower“.

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“I bet the pill is harder to get than drugs–which shows how screwed up this world really is!” 
― Beatrice Sparks, Go Ask Alice

Before your insta-chats and snap-webs, when phones were attached to walls and therefore couldn’t come to school with you, books like this were what got passed around at lunch time.  Published anonymously as the real diary of a TROUBLED fifteen-year old who falls in with a BAD CROWD and succumbs to DRUGS, Go Ask Alice was in fact penned by Mormon counsellor Beatrice Sparks.  Sparks published a whole slew of teenage diary books around issues like teen pregnancy, homelessness and eating disorders.  Read it for the nostalgia hit or if you’re parents just won’t stop yacking and listen to the kids for once, man.

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“Elaine Conti awoke in her luxurious bed in her luxurious Beverly Hills mansion, pressed a button to open the electrically controlled drapes, and was confronted by the sight of a young man clad in a white T-shirt and dirty jeans pissing a perfect arc into her mosaic-tiled swimming pool.”  ― Jackie Collins, Hollywood Wives

Jackie Collins, sister of Joan and queen of the trash (novel) got her big break with her ninth book Hollywood Wives in 1983.  The book, which looks at the lives of Hollywood hostesses, stars and starlets has sold over fifteen million copies and was turned into the most successful mini series of the 80s by super producer Aaron Spelling.

Read it for the glitz, the sex and to try to figure out who the who the real life inspiration for the characters are!

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“Nothing is whole, not for too damned long. The world is half night.” 
― Peter Straub, Mystery
Mystery is the middle volume in Peter Straub’s weird Blue Rose trilogy, a thriller series that hovers somewhere between detective fiction and horror and is like nothing else you’ll read.  Despite being published as a trilogy the books are all stand alone works that cross paths only tangentially.  It came out in 1990, won the Bram Stoker Award in 1993, and continues be one of his most popular books.
Set on the Caribbean  island of Mill Pond, teenage sleuth Tom Pasmore investigates a historic murder case with the help of elderly neighbour and ex-celebrated detective Lamont von Heilitz.  At over five hundred pages Mystery is the perfect book to fill empty days at a bach with– just add a hammock and you’ve got the perfect holiday read.

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“There were shadows in the corners and whispers on the stairs and time was as irrelevant as honesty.” 
― V.C. Andrews, My Sweet Audrina

The only stand alone novel in V.C. Andrew’s oeuvre, My Sweet Audrina is an insane (even by her standards) mix of rape, hauntings, multiple falling-downstairs-accidents (in fact the same stairs), diabetes and brittle bone disease.  No, seriously.

Although many V.C. Andrews’ books were ghostwritten, this 1982 masterpiece of trashtastic madness is definitely from her own hand.  Her hugely popular books make the phrase ‘guilty pleasure’ kind of redundant– just embrace the magic and go with it.

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“Helen Lawson: They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway. But Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope. Now get out of my way, I’ve got a man waiting for me.” 
― Jacqueline Susann, Valley of the Dolls

It’s no secret that we at Eclectic Ladyland love Valley of the Dolls.  And we are far from alone– the novel was the best-selling book of 1966 and has since sold over thirty-one million copies.  Jacqueline Susann wrote what she knew– a stage and television actress she filled her books with show bizz types so familiar many assumed the book to be a Roman à clef .

Valley of the Dolls follows three friends through the trials and tribulations of Broadway and Hollywood and their increasing dependence on speed and tranquillisers– the eponymous dolls.  The book was adapted for the big screen in 1967 and the resulting film starring Patty Duke, Susan Hayward and Sharon Tate helped seal its place as a cultural artefact of high camp.

Fun fact— Jacqueline Susann had met Grace Metalious, author of previous trash hit Peyton Place when the latter was interviewed for television by Mike Wallace.  Minutes before the interview Metalious’s girdle broke and Susann who was working in the studio apparently helped her out– although exactly we may never know!

 

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“Which one of you bitches is my mother?” 
― Shirley Conran, Lace

 

That is the line that confronts the three central characters of Lace— Shirley Conran’s 1982 scandalous classic.  Filled to the brim with sex, bitchiness, and female desire the book has remained extremely popular.  It was adapted into a fabulous mini-series (with Phoebe Cates) in 1984 and was re-issued on its thirtieth anniversary, at which time The Guardian described it as a “feminist bonkfest”.

Read it for the high-class bitchery and remember how much it actually celebrates female friendship and sexual agency.

As always– one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and what may be denounced as low-brow entertainment in one era, can be another era’s celebrated classic.  Don’t feel guilty in your pleasures– literary or otherwise– whether you’re lazing on a beach or wishing you were.  As Shirley Conran once said– “Life’s too short to stuff a mushroom” .

Late Bloomers: the screen classics that started out as box office bombs

Laura Macfehin delves into the world of film classics that started out as box office bombs.

It is hard to imagine a world where nobody gets the reference “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” or where someone hasn’t cornered you at a party to explain which cut of Blade Runner is the superior one.  And yet that world came close to existing.

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The Thing poster by David Moscati

Now hailed as one of the greatest sci-fi horrors of all time John Carpenter’s The Thing was a colossal bomb at the box office.  The amazing special effects by Rob Bottin are now considered some of the finest creature work ever done– Bottin worked so hard on them that he ended up in hospital with double pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer.  He had to ask Stan Winston to finish the work.  Winston did so but refused any credit because he didn’t want to distract from the work Bottin had done.

If anything the effects were perhaps too good– audiences found them, well, gross.  Roger Ebert even described the film as a ‘perfect barf-bag movie’.

It is also kind of dark, with an ambiguous ending that doesn’t offer much hope for the humans.  But probably its biggest assassin at the box office was a much friendlier little alien who came along at the same time.

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The Thing came out the same week as E.T. the Extra Terrestrial a film that also had great effects, a somewhat ambivalent view of humans but that also had cute kids, a cute alien and didn’t sound like a remake of a 50s B-grade pic that might scar your children for life.  E.T. cleaned up at the box office, leaving what ever was left over for another little space movie–Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.

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E.T. poster by Dean Walton

In June 1982 it seemed all the blockbuster movies were dealing with what makes us human in the face of aliens, androids and genetically engineered uber-mensch.  The ones that sold the most tickets were definitely the ones that had the most up-beat and triumphalist view of humanity.  Another casualty was the neo-noir Blade Runner.

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Blade Runner poster by Tracy Ching

Although a consistent presence in the ‘best movies ever made’ lists today on its release Ridley Scott’s dystopian sci-fi was not a runaway hit.  Critics were divided over whether it was visionary or just boring.  Tickets sales were quickly eaten up by Khan, Conan the Barbarian and that pesky little alien of Spielberg’s. 

The 1980’s boom in home video are what saw Blade Runner develop a cult following, an interest that led to re-screenings of both the original cinema cut and the longer director’s cut, and critics also began to re-assess its impact on the wider culture and film history.

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Citizen Kane poster by Martin Ansin

Citizen Kane is often cited as the greatest movie ever made, but its number one spot on film history lists is largely due to the French.  The film, which is not very loosely based on the figure of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, managed to keep the storyline secret throughout production, even from Hearst’s chief Hollywood snoop Louella Parsons. 

Upon release however, an enraged Hearst declared a media ban on not just Citizen Kane but all pictures from RKO.  The media blackout, along with its somewhat bleak take on humanity meant that despite generally good reviews the movie did not make waves.  In the fifties French critics started re-assessing American cinema and their attention brought Citizen Kane back into the limelight.  It has topped ‘best film’ lists ever since.

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Wizard of Oz poster by Aaron Wells

It is hard to imagine a world without The Wizard of Oz— the film is so enmeshed in so many facets of our culture.  Amazingly, however, the film wasn’t a huge success when it came out.  The production was fraught with problems– chewing through directors and budgets alike so that by the time it came out there was little chance of re-couping the losses. 

Dorothy and Toto might have been a quirky footnote in cinema history had it not been for the magic of syndication.  MGM re-released the film in 1949 but it was when television started playing the film in regular rotation that the film started to pick up a following and now there are friends of Dorothy all around the world.

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It’s a Wonderful Life poster by Laurient Durieux

It’s a Wonderful Life is another holiday classic that owes its fame to the power of television syndication.  The film was planned to have a New Years release, but producers pushed the release date forward to qualify it for the Oscars.  

The strategy did not pay off– the film faced stiff competition in the 1946 awards and although it was nominated for six awards it only won for technical achievement.  It also got somewhat lost in the holiday rush and ended up returning a loss for RKO.  

Television syndication breathed new life into the film, largely thanks to the fact that by the seventies RKO had let its copyright lapse due to its ‘flop’ status at the studio. 

It has since become standard holiday programming even though Frank Capra didn’t even really consider it a Christmas film when making it.  “I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.” 

Although it may seem like the epitome of wholesome family fare, it wasn’t viewed as quite so innocent when it came out.  The FBI investigated Capra and his films as possible Communist threats and Ayn Rand singled the film out as a pernicious threat against Americanism.  Which is another great reason to rally around George Bailey and his family every Christmas.

Frank Capra Director For 'Mr. Smith Goes To Washington'

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If any film any honestly claim to have a bona fide cult following it is The Big Lebowski.  The Coen Brothers film was a box office disappointment with mixed to lousy reviews.  The Dude abided, however, and over time the film has developed a devoted following.

‘Dudeism’ also known as ‘The Church of the Latter-Day Dude’ was founded in 2005, and there are now over 220,000 ordained ‘Dudeist’ priests worldwide. The film has regular screenings and in San Francisco a whole festival in its honour.  

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The Big Lebowski poster by Matthew Griffin

In film at least at seems to be true – good things come to those who wait!  What have been your favourite films that others have panned?

Scary Sisters: New horror directed by women

Laura looks at the current batch of lady horror filmmakers and the terrifying films they are bringing fans!

Genre films have always had a little more wriggle room for creators otherwise excluded from the mainstream… which is maybe one of the reasons women have a slightly higher representation as directors here than they have in big studio projects. 

In recent years directors like Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) and Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night ) have put women horror directors in the news in a way they have never been before.  So who are the new horror ladies on the scene I am most excited about?

Roxanne Benjamin

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Roxanne Benjamin is definitely a director on my ‘ones to keep an eye on’ list.  After producing and co-producing films like the V.H.S. series and Devil’s Candy, she made her directorial debut by contributing to the intriguing sort-of anthology movie Southbound (2015). 

She was then one of the five women who contributed to the horror anthology XX (2017) .  Her segment ‘Don’t Fall‘ involved curses and camping grounds and definitely delivered the scares.  XX is very solid anthology that delivers some spooky storytelling in delightfully different settings. 

Benjamin’s latest film, Body at Brighton Rock is currently in production and is set to provide more out-of-the-way scares as it features a park ranger guarding what could be a crime scene on a remote mountain trail.  I can’t wait!

XX can be found on Netflix,  The V.H.S. series of films and The Devil’s Candy are available on iTunes.

Julia Ducournau

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Julia Ducournau made her feature directorial debut with Raw (2016), which won her the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes Film Festival and garnered her plenty of attention as a perspective on the horror scene. 

The film follows the sheltered and decidedly vegetarian Justine as she enters into the chaotic and sensorialy overloaded environment of veterinarian school orientation, something which involves some decidedly carnivorous hazing rites, and something with which her older sister seems surprisingly au fait.

Raw is available on iTunes.

Leigh Janiak

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Leigh Janiak’s first feature film Honeymoon (2014) is a salutary lesson in what can be achieved with a good idea and a good eye even if the budget is not on the large side.  It asks the creepy questions “what if you don’t know the person you’re in love with?” and “what if that person is a monster?”.

The film proved her directing mettle so satisfactorily that she is now super busy developing projects for Sony and 20th Century Fox including a sequel to the 1996 witchy classic The Craft (oh my god I know– I am so excited too!!) and three, count them three adaptations of the R. L. Stine Fear Street books.  Did I mention how excited I am about The Craft sequel?

Honeymoon is available on Netflix.

Karyn Kusama

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Karyn Kusama is responsible for one of my favourite creepy films of recent years–  The Invitation (2015).  If the social dynamics of new partners, old friends, at a dinner hosted by your ex in your old home isn’t frightening enough throw in some California-style religious recruitment and a slow ratcheting of the creep factor and you will soon be deliciously unnerved by this beautiful and disturbing film. 

Her segment in XXHer Only Living Son‘ (2017) is similarly spooky tale of motherhood.  Also check out the (in my opinion underrated) Jennifer’s Body from 2009 which features Megan Fox as a demon possessed succubus working her way through the males of her high school.  

Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation are both available on Netflix.

Agnieszka Smoczynska

Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska is on this list even though I have not seen any of her films because the clips I have seen have been disgustingly enticing and because the woman made a goddamn musical-comedy-horror-mermaid film.  The Lure (2015), as far as I can tell, is about some mermaid sisters who become sort of cabaret/club singers, but jeopardise their careers by continuing to do what mermaids do– which is kill men. 

 She also has a segment in the upcoming The Field Guide to Evil (2018) which recently screened at SXSW and looks super-fantastic.

If anybody knows how I can watch this film and would like to tell me I would very much appreciate it!

Jovanka Vuckovic

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Jovanka Vuckovic made three short films before providing the anthology film XX (2017) with her segment ‘The Box‘.  Based on the Jack Ketchum story of the same name it is for me the stand out piece of the anthology– a terrifying story where nothing is seen or even suggested but which will haunt you long after.   

She has a feature film of her own– Riot Girls— in post-production which is a post-apocalyptic thriller set in an alternate 1995, and which I am seriously hyped for.

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Veronika Franz

In Goodnight Mommy (2014) twin boys move to a new house with their mother, whose face is covered after undergoing surgery.  The only thing is– the boys aren’t sure they recognise the woman  under the bandages. 

Goodnight Mommy is that rare film– both thoughtful and visceral (yes– some viewers did faint in screenings).  Veronika Franz is one half of a creative partnership with Severin Fiala and their blending of high and low brow filmmaking norms make for an intensely satisfying horror experience.  They also have a ‘chapter’ in A Field Guide to Evil (2018), and another feature film, The Lodge,  in post-production.

See a clip from A Field Guide To Evil here

Goodnight Mommy is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Tell me, what lady-led horror are you most excited about?  What have you seen? What are you looking forward to? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

 

10 top podcasts to put in your ears!

Laura Macfehin listens in and reports back from the land of podcasting.

If you’re not already familiar with podcasts you might ask “What the heck are they and why is that annoying guy at work always talking about them?”

Put simply, podcasts are free audio programmes that you can download and listen to whenever you want.  It’s like the radio, but you are your own station manager. 

Podcasting has taken off in a huge way over the last few years and it is possible to find a podcast on any subject you might be interested in (if there really isn’t one out there catering to your tastes you should be making a podcast). 

Podcasts can be found on platforms like iTunes or Spotify, or directly from the website of individual podcasts.  There are some production houses that specifically make podcasts  (like Panoply, Radiotopia, Parcast, Gimlet Media) and these have a baseline standard of production values that is quite high, and often podcasts of a similar vein so if you like one from a certain production house you might like their other ones too. 

There are also thousands of independent podcasters whose skills and resources vary considerably but amongst whom are some real gems!  I like podcasts because there are times when I can’t be reading or watching documentaries (like when I am cooking or sewing) but I don’t want to stop cramming information into my head.  I find it relaxing and allaying of loneliness to hear people talk about stuff, or to be told stories– especially when I don’t have to have clothes on or respond politely to have that company.

So what I have I been listening to?

Boo!

The first podcast I ever followed was rather unsurprisingly Real Ghost Stories Online—and I found it on YouTube. Ex-radio DJ Tony Brueski had put together calls from the Halloween specials he had done on the radio. He asked people to call in with new stories and eventually he was putting out a show a day (with an extra one on the weekends for subscribers). Sort of like paranormal talkback radio the show is addictive if you enjoy human nature as much as ghost stories—which I do—I find hearing what scares people and how they turn that into a story as fascinating as the stories themselves! (Plus there are literally hundreds of episodes available now so it is definitely bingeable). It’s a little bit cheesy but Tony and his wife Jenny take all stories at face value and are very respectful in their treatment of callers and their stories.

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Knock Once for Yes is a much newer paranormal podcast—again hosted by a couple—this time English pair Lil and Fitz. They also read listener’s real ghost stories, and relate their own but they also provide what they describe as ‘paranormal postcards’ which are very charming segments featuring haunted sites in Britain that they have visited. They give a run down of the place’s haunted history and describe their visit. Very pleasant listening if you enjoy ghosts plus stately homes!

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The drama!

Audio drama is one of the ways in which podcasts are stretching the boundaries and at the same time harking back to early days of radio. There are two main forms of audio drama in podcasting at the moment—there is straight fiction where the drama is presented much in the way a serial radio play would have been in the past, and there is the faux documentary style where the podcaster presents fictional content as if it were factual. My tastes, as you may have noticed, run to the creepy so most of my fave dramas are in this direction also—see Tanis, The Black Tapes, Limetown, et al. My two favourites of the last year have been Ghosts in the Burbs and The Magnus Archives.

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Liz Sower‘s Ghosts in the Burbs presents a series of stories highlighting the darker side of preppy Massachusetts town Wellesley. Stories that are told to her by yoga going moms on their way to pick up their children from desirable schools and real estate guys and ladies who sit on charitable boards. Sower’s lighthearted but deft skewering of this social strata only makes the chills when they arrive that much chillier—and boy do they arrive! This is a podcast that I listen to immediately when a new episode drops and selfishly offer regular prayers for Sower’s continued health and productivity.

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The Magnus Archives presents a chilling story weekly, in the form of testimonial being archived on tape detailing a strange or paranormal occurrence. Jonathan Simms writes and presents each story as the head archivist of the titular institute, helped by a cast of supporting players.  Singularly they are some of the best spooky stories I have heard in recent years– taken together they provide even greater thrills as an overarching mystery is revealed…

Historically Speaking

Nerds like me love information—especially that information that has only a tangential relevance to our current lives. That is one of the reasons history podcasts are so important to me—the other being that without them I could not treat my friends and family to tidbits of this semi-relevant knowledge on a regular basis. They love it when I say “I heard a podcast that was sort of about that the other day…”

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Illustration for the episode on the Historical Roots for Holiday Treats on Stuffed You Missed in History Class

My favourite history podcast is Stuff You Missed in History Class. The charming hosts Tracey V. Wilson and Holly Frey provide concise episodes on things and people who are often overlooked in ‘mainstream’ history—including the stories of marginalised and yet significant folks and true accounts of episodes you might have thought you knew about already. Their delight in history and the research that uncovers these stories is infectious and their writing and presentation is respectful to both subject and listener. Highly recommended.

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Artwork by Julienne Alexander for the episode on Carry A. Nation

My other favourite history podcast is Criminal. What’s that you say? That sounds more like a true crime podcast than a history podcast? That is because Criminal really defies categorisation, but it feels to me more like a history podcast with other elements involved. The mellifluously voiced Phoebe Judge (fun fact- Judge has my cat Watson’s favourite podcast voice) presents stories which hover around the central concept of criminality—sometimes this means old, cold or sensational crimes and sometimes it means stories focussing more on the concept of legality or stories that touch on social or personal issues created by criminal justice systems.  It is always fascinating, well researched and presented and the one that I listen to immediately when a new episode comes out.

Hollywoodland!

The history of Tinsel Town and its inhabitants is a pretty common fascination and I am certainly not immune.  For my money the two best podcasters on the subject are Karina Longworth and Adam Roche.

You Must Remember This is Longworth’s contribution and I truly believe everybody with any kind of interest in film should listen in.  Each season has a different theme– she covers the lives of actors, writers and studios with an unsurpassed depth of research and a feel for the subject matter that borders on the uncanny.  Her take on history eschews regular tropes and eviscerates the uncritically accepted version of events, so even if you think you know the subject matter well Longworth is sure to bring something fresh to your ears.

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Karina Longworth of You Must Remember This

The Secret History of Hollywood is film buff Roche’s generous gift to a most undeserving world.  Essentially some of the best texts put together about subjects like Alfred Hitchcock, Val Lewton, The Warner Brothers, James Cagney and more; Roche brings these stories to life with his beautiful storytelling and sound design.  This is the podcast if you want to be swept away to another time and place, with outrageous characters, their very human foibles and the contribution they made to film history.  If you don’t tear up listening to these you are a concrete shell of a humanoid.  You don’t have to take my word for it though– Mark Gatiss is such a fan he even lent his voice to the most recent season on famed auteur producer Val Lewton!

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Chit Chat

This is the genre perhaps best exemplified by pioneer This American Life– true life stories revealed in a self-reflexive manner by the podcaster.  Or as a university professor in one episode of Heavyweight dismissively describes them– ‘chit-chat’ podcasts.  My two recent favourites in this genre are both relatively new– two seasons a piece and have a similar premise– people exploring something from their pasts that has always bugged them.  In Heavyweight Canadian New Yorker Jonathan Goldstein examines everything from his own lapsed Judaism to his friend Gregor’s beef with musician Moby (yes they do travel to L.A. but you’ll have to listen to see whether they actually meet up with Moby or not).  Goldstein is very funny, the episodes are a little bit poignant but mainly very funny and seem to fit in perfectly with the length of time it takes me to make dinner.

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Family Ghosts despite its name is not a paranormal show– in a similar vein to Heavyweight it investigates questions that have niggled away at people, but in this case focussing on a family figure who has always been something of a mystery.  Sam Dingman and his subjects examine jewellery smuggling grandmothers, missing siblings, and uncles with double lives in this very compelling podcast.  If you are at all worried that your family might be a little unusual in its weirdness this is the podcast that will put those fears to rest!

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These 10 are just the tippy top of the podcast iceberg– I am always excited to hear about podcasts I might not have discovered so if you are a podcast fan please let me know what you listen to!

 

 

The Astounding History of the world’s most famous Super-Heroine!

Laura Macfehin brings you up to speed on the polyamorous, feminist and BDSM heavy back story of the most successful female comic book character of all time.

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“In your satin tights! Fighting for our rights! And the old Red, White and Blue!”

So proclaimed the impossibly funky intro to the 1970s New Adventures of Wonder Woman starring ex-beauty-queen Lynda Carter. This was the incarnation that I was first exposed to and I loved for all the usual reasons kids love superheroes; she was strong, beautiful and she had adventures.  At the time I was not cognizant of the fact that the programme was meant to be set in the 1940s – I didn’t know where or when she came from– just that she could do really big jumps and deflect bullets with her jewellery.  And also that she was somehow outside of time and space – she was super and therefore eternal.

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Introducing… Wonder Woman!

On paper Wonder Woman had sped into popular consciousness in the early 1940s, flying her invisible plane to a top spot in popularity just behind Superman and Batman. Since then the public has seen her not just battle super villains, but also be banned, tamed, divested and reinvested with her superpowers, reclaimed as a feminist icon and dismissed as a pawn of the CIA. And all the while the secrets of her origins her possibly the wildest story of all. Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s latest work The Secret History of Wonder Woman explores the sometimes seamy, always fascinating secret history of America’s favourite super-heroine.

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William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator was literally a master of deception. He invented the first lie detector, a machine he continued to peddle to everyone from the War department to Hollywood studios for the rest of his working life. This interest in obfuscation had a palpable parallel in his personal life, in which he maintained a polyamorous relationship with two women, with whom he had four children. All seven lived together in a family set up which would be considered somewhat unconventional today and in the first half of the 20th century required some out-and-out lying to protect.  As a backdrop for creating a comic book character with the dual identities of Wonder Woman and Diana Prince it would turn out to be perfect.

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You and me and Olive makes three

Marston was already married to Elizabeth Holloway Marston when he met Olive Byrne, a student at Yale where he was teaching psychology.  Byrne was a radical young woman with an Eton crop and large heavy bangles on both wrists; Marston gave her the best marks she received at college and the two became inseparable. The Marston’s had previously lived with another woman, so the scenario William proposed was not completely out of the blue. Elizabeth agreed with the proviso that Olive be the one to stay home and keep house while she continued to work in the city. It was a set up that continued through the rest of their lives, with Elizabeth being the most consistent breadwinner, Olive raising the children and William being free to pursue he various academic pursuits. The two women continued to live together until their deaths, outlasting their husband by several decades.

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Family portrait with Marston surrounded by his children.  Elizabeth stands behind him and Olive is seated on the right.

The two women formed the basis not only for their rather bohemian home life but also for one of the most lasting cultural icons of the 20th century. Marston had been interested in the potential of comics after seeing the rapid rise of their popularity in the 1930’s. An ardent feminist from the 19th century suffragette mould, he believed a superhero could promote the values he felt were lacking in the world — equality between the sexes being the chief of these. Elizabeth, looking at the profusion of superheroes in newsprint insisted the new superhero be a heroine. Olive Byrne provided the physical blueprint for the comic book heroine, right down to the large silver bracelets which are able to deflect bullets, but the philosophy for Amazonian princess also fell right out of her family tree. You see, Olive had rather a famous aunt. In fact she owed her life to that aunt who not only delivered her into the world but rescued her from the snow drift her drunk father threw her into only a few hours later.

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Olive Byrne’s aunt, Margaret Sanger

The most dangerous woman in America

Margaret Sanger was indeed on of the most famous women in the world (some would have said infamous) in her heyday. In the early years of the 20th century she was prosecuted for indecency after the publication of her book ‘Family Limitation’ which detailed how to obtain and use contraception, and jailed along with her sister Ethel after they opened a free clinic in New York distributing contraception and birth control advice. Her sister Ethel went on hunger strike and was the first woman to be force-fed in the United States. Sanger was a socialist and a feminist whose books underpinned what would become Wonder Woman’s ideology to such a degree that when a new writer was hired to write the strip Olive handed her a copy of Sanger’s ‘Woman and the New Race’ telling her it contained everything she needed to know about the super-heroine.

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Tie me up, tie me down

As well as the strong feminist and socialist leanings of early Wonder Woman (“Suffering Sappho!” was one of her favourite catchphrases as she encouraged young shop girls to strike) there was another marked characteristic to the comic strips that was hard to ignore. With her spike heel red boots and tendency to be chained up in just about every adventure it would hard not to think that her creator had more than a passing interest in BDSM, and in fact he certainly did. He, Elizabeth and Olive had all belonged to radical groups interested in different sexualities and he continued to be a keen advocate for what he described as ‘love subjugation’. Thus Wonder Woman spends half her time breaking the shackles imposed on herself and other women and the other half tying people up (the lasso of truth must surely be the most succinct expression of Marston’s two hobbies).

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After Marston relinquished control of Wonder Woman she went through the cycle of breaking down and reinvention common to many superheroes during the twentieth century.  The 1950s saw her tamed by Steve Trevor and the 1960s saw her briefly stripped of her powers all together.  She was held up as an icon during second wave feminism, only to be shot down as perpetuating sexist ideas of femininity.

Kristy Guevarra-Flanagan’s documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines shows how central to cultural iconography Wonder Woman remains, whether she is being re-contextualised in Riot Grrrl zines or cosplayed at ComicCon she remains immediately identifiable and ready to defend and empower. The new blockbuster coming out next week will see her finally get the same cinematic treatment as her DC pals Superman and Batman, although what Marston, Elizabeth and Olive with their anti-war beliefs would have thought about a literal poster-girl for the Israeli Defence Forces playing the super-heroine I am not sure. It is fitting that as with much of women’s history Wonder Woman’s story was all but lost due to close links to an unorthodoxy within the home; to the static between family and national politics. One thing is for sure, in the current climate we have never been in more need of either Wonder Woman herself or of the research that has unearthed her true identity.

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The Coney Island Baby who was almost King of the Jungle

Laura Macfehin looks back on body builder Joe Bonomo- how the son of a Candyman almost became the most famous ‘swinger’ of all time!

The Sweet Life

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On a mild summer morning towards the end of the 19th century, a ship was steaming into New York. It had come from Istanbul and the decks were crowded with people keen to get a look at their new home. The harbour was crowded with other ships of all sizes and the sunlight sparkled on the water. Al and Esther Bonomo stood together in the breeze and shaded their eyes against the glare – with the rest of the passengers they craned their necks and stared at the imposing statue that loomed up as they passed Bedloe’s Island. There were oohs and aahs and a couple of whoops as they steamed passed. A thrill of inspiration ran through Al as he gazed at the copper giantess, holding aloft what appeared to be a monumental ice-cream.

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Although later disabused of the notion that Liberty was welcoming them to the New World with frozen confectionery the inspiration stuck, and within a year the Bonomos were established on the Coney Island boardwalk with a stall selling ice-creams and homemade candy. On Christmas day in 1901 little Joe was born, and quickly became a fixture along with his parents in the carnival world of Coney Island. Despite having unlimited access to ice-cream and sweets the Brooklyn boy was a scrawny lad— often at the butt end of others jokes and earning himself the nickname ‘Toothpicks’. He kept to himself—exploring the world of sideshows and thrill rides with just his dog Babe for company.

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“What’s the matter, kid?”

It was on one of these explorations that little Joe meet Ladislaw—a hulking Polish man who was in Coney Island with his strong man act. Ladislaw found Joe skulking round the back of the tent and asked the boy why he looked so glum. Joe replied that he was sick of being teased, and he wished he’d been born strong like Ladislaw.  Ladislaw chided him—“there’s nothing to it; being a big guy like me—anyone can do it. All it is eating the right foods and exercising your muscles”. Joe was fascinated—he got all the information he could from Ladislaw and from then on befriended every muscle man who came through Coney Island, even the world-famous Eugen Sandow.

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Famous Strongman the magnificent Sandow (on the left) interferes with a dead tiger.

By high school he was a footballer and wrestler, and he had also managed to teach himself fencing, horse riding and ballroom dancing. He loved the glamour of the ballroom, but above all he was in love with motion pictures.

New Jersey Babylon

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The Great Train Robbery (1903) filmed in the wilds of New Jersey and made by one of Edison’s employees was one of the first films to feature a plot.

At this time, New Jersey, not Hollywood was the centre of film production in America. Thomas Edison had set up his studio near his workshops in 1892 and from that time filmmakers had flocked to the area, setting up their own studios. As well as the proximity to technology New Jersey provided photogenic scenery and locales an a steady stream of talent just a ferry ride away from Broadway.  The previously sedate semi-rural New Jersey was over taken by film folk who churned out thousands of pictures for the new Nickelodeons that were springing up all over the country.

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Charles Atlas in leopard print posing pants

In 1921 Joe Bonomo was encouraged by muscle man and founding father of the body-building universe Charles Atlas  to enter a star search competition looking for the ‘Modern Apollo’.  Maybe was there was magic in the leopard print loincloth Atlas lent him because Bonomo beat out thousands of other hopefuls.  The prize was a role opposite film star Hope Hampton.  Hampton, herself a competition winner was successful actress/producer who continued at the top her game until talkies came in.  The role Bonomo won was in ‘The Light in the Dark‘ a seven-reel melodrama featuring Hampton, Lon Chaney as a crook with a heart of gold and a hokey plot centred around the holy grail.

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Silent screen star Hope Hampton.  After she retired from movies she tried her hand at Opera singing before devoting herself to being a New York socialite.

Most films from this era were melted down after a week’s run and turned into new stock – The Light in the Dark has survived in a much abbreviated form as The Light of Faith because it was picked up for use in Religious Education classes –but it no longer has any trace of Bonomo in it.  He must have done okay in it though because from that time on Bonomo was in work constantly in the pictures.

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Joe Bonomo in The Light in the Dark, with Hope Hampton and Lon Chaney

When the movie industry decamped to Hollywood seeking cheap land, sunshine and a continent-sized distance between them and the extremely litigious Edison, Bonomo went too.  His impressive physique and animated features made him a perfect fit for silent movies, and he starred in features like Eagle’s Nest and The Great Circus Mystery, as well as serials like The Chinatown Mysteries, Perils of the Wild and The Fighting Marines. He also doubled for actors like Lon Chaney, performing stunts in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and other hugely successful films.  Days were spent leaping from rooftops, from moving cars, throwing punches and falling from windows.  In The Hunchback of Notre Dame he completed a rope stunt that had seen another stuntman badly burnt by lining his gloves and trousers with tinfoil.  At the end of work he showered off the plaster dust and danced the sprains away with partner Ethel.

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Bonomo with actress Magaret Quimby in the adventure serial The Perils of the Wild

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Bonomo holds another actor above his head in The Chinatown Mysteries

Tarzan that wasn’t

In the early 30s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer negotiated the rights to turn the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel Tarzan of the Apes into a motion picture.  Bonomo was considered a lock for the part– he had the athleticism, the good looks and he performed his own stunts.  There was one stumbling block– pictures now had sound and this Coney Island baby had a broad Brooklyn accent.  Like many actors of the era Bonomo scrambled to get voice lessons– trying get the necessary refinement for a leading man.  Burroughs was not impressed– Tarzan is meant to be an English lord after all.  In the end it didn’t matter.  Two accidents took Bonomo out of the running for this or any other role.

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Bonomo leaps from balcony to flagpole in a stunt

In the first incident Bonomo had hit western star Buck Jones with a chair in a fight scene.  The Jones mis-timed his response and ended up with three broken ribs and a fractured back.  While not his fault the accident badly shook Bonomo’s confidence.  Then, while performing a car crash scene Bonomo broke a hip.  After being x-rayed it was found Bonomo had broken over 37 bones since arriving in Hollywood.  He was now un-insurable and therefore unhireable.  The role of Tarzan went to Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic gold-medal winning swimmer, who went on to make a dozen films as the Lord of the Apes, perfecting the ‘yell’ that became synonymous with the character and then thirteen films as the Safari hero Jungle Jim.

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One of Joe Bonomo’s last roles– as the ‘tigerman’– one of Dr Moreau’s ‘manimals’ in The Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Muscle by mail

Like many stars of the silent era, Joe Bonomo was out of work almost over night.  With his movie career behind him he married his dance partner Ethel and together with their baby daughter Joan they moved back to Coney Island, where Al Bonomo’s health had taken a turn for the worse.  Bonomo took over the family business, but his mind soon turned to a different area of revenue.  After all his early years on the boardwalk had taught him that you could hawk pretty much anything if you put your mind to it and came up with a good enough spiel.

At the height of his fame Bonomo had employed people to answer his fan mail, and one of the things he had sent out was a form letter outlining the steps needed to get a ‘new Apollo’ physique like his.  He now turned his mind to how he could market this plan, and in 1939 his first magazine Your Figure Beautiful was launched.  This publication featured diet and exercise plans, as well as advertisements for his mail-order courses which promised everything from a more beautiful bust to a completely new muscle-man physique.

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Then (as now) his combination of quick-fix aspirational lifestyle advice and pictures of scantily clad models made these magazines very popular.  He also managed to include the importance of eating plenty of sweets for building muscle-tone– which tied in nicely with his family business selling the reasonably priced Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy!

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From the 1940s on Bonomo also published ‘minis’– pocket-sized manuals on everything from being a good war-worker, to simplifying housework to looking taller.  These had gaudy loud covers and were sold on shop counters throughout the country.  In the sixties he included titles on the evils of drugs (Don’t Be A Dope!) and What I Know About Women-– which was 64 blank pages (har har).

When he died in 1978 he left behind a mixed legacy– on the one hand his publications have a pretty direct lineage to infomercials; possibly not the finest of human cultural excretions, and yet the publications themselves are beautifully composed odes to physical culture (and in particular the muscular male form) in full camp colour.  Not only that, but his stunt-work from the Twenties is breathtaking.  Who knows what could have been had his diction been more malleable (he was also a contender for the role of Anthony to Claudette Colbert’s Cleopatra)– but for now let us pop some candy in our mouths and say bravo Bonomo- the Brooklyn boy with the biceps!

For more info on Joe Bonomo try

The Strongman – Pictorial Autobiography of Joe Bonomo – 1973

What’s Shaking: Genever Juniper

Laura Macfehin tries three different New Zealand gins in three classic cocktails— the Gimlet, the Gibson and the dangerously coy Orange Blossom!

After being almost completely replaced by vodka in the late sixties, gin has had a real upswing in popularity in the last decade. Crafty folks in distilleries around the globe have brought gin back into favour with small batch runs using old methods and new interesting botanicals. Not one to be left out of the party New Zealand has been producing some fine gins using some of our own native flora to give it a distinctly antipodean flair.

Here’s looking at you…

I was first introduced to gimlets by Philip Marlowe, who, in The Long Goodbye, bonds with the sad and unreliable Terry Lennox at Victor’s bar over the correct way the cocktail should be prepared. Lennox complains to Marlowe that “they don’t know how to make them here… [w]hat they call a gimlet is just some lime or lemon juice and gin with a dash of sugar and bitters. A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else.” And that melancholic reflection on the state of their drinks stands in for a lament for a lost code of conduct amongst men; one that has left Marlowe and Lennox adrift as throwbacks out of step with the time they are living in.

 

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Obviously reading Chandler 40 years after it came out and in the maudlin atmosphere of the late 90s I could identify with melancholic throwbacks; and so buoyed by the two-ingredient ease of achieving something so evocatively authentic I threw my arms around the gimlet and did not look back. Their simplicity made them easy to order even in bars not versed in cocktail culture, and after many iterations over the years I agree with Lennox that the 1:1 recipe of gin to Roses Lime is still supreme. If you do ever want to get fancy on it the best way I think is just to get a really nice gin and make your own cordial.

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Reid-ing you loud and clear

Reid+Reid is a really nice gin. Actually it is a really, really nice gin. So nice that after buying a bottle on a Friday by Monday (and with help from my very game family as testers) there was only about 2oz left in the bottle. Still that is enough for a gimlet so I tipped it in a shaker with some ice-cubes, added the required cordial , stirred briskly and strained into a glass. Reid+Reid gin is not the only New Zealand gin using native botanicals but (and please correct me if I’m wrong) it is the only one using three—horopito, manuka and kawakawa. The manuka has an almost medicinal herbiness that plays very nicely with the standard gin flavours of juniper and coriander, while the horopito and kawakawa add a  peppery punchiness. It is a very sophisticated drink and makes a gimlet that is not so much ‘jaded-detective-in-a-dive-bar’ as ‘newly-single-Betty-Draper-in-Manhattan’.  Very good.

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January Jones as Betty Draper in season two of Mad Men

Gibson girl

Okay—there are people who will say that putting a pickled onion in your drink is uncouth and makes you some kind of monster. There may also be some significant overlap in the people who say this and people who will be up against the wall after the revolution. Because I contest that the Gibson is one of the very finest cocktail creations of last century. As with most early 20th century cocktails there is debate over how this came about but quite possibly it was named after the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson who asked his bartender for something a little different and had an onion instead of an olive plopped in his martini. Because that is what a Gibson is really—a martini with an onion in it. A statement which belies how incredibly yum this drink is!

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Exhibit A: Cary Grant demonstrates the extreme ‘couthity’ of putting an onion in your drink in North by Northwest (1959)

To get this drink right you do need to follow a few simple rules. As with a martini everything needs to be very cold. Your vermouth should be in the fridge already, but put your shaker, glass and even your gin in the freezer until everything is nice and chilly. Because I like being able to taste the vermouth I make my Gibsons a little ‘wetter’ than I make my martinis. Rogue Society is an extremely smooth gin just right for Gibson mixing—the mix of botanicals is strong enough to stand up to the higher quantity of vermouth without fighting with it. It comes in a very appealing bottle—easily achieving Cary Grant levels of suavity while having a heft that could come in handy should the night get too bumpy.

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Celeste Holm and Bette Davis hold on to their gibsons in All About Eve (1950)

 

My perfect mix for Gibsons is 1 ¾ oz gin to 1 ½oz vermouth—almost a 1:1 ratio. Stir in your cold shaker with a couple of ice-cubes and strain into your chilled glass. Finally, skewer 1 or 2 tiny, perfectly crunchy cocktail onions and drop them in. This is not the moment for your big, mushy pickled onions. They have to be crisp and zingy like Bette Davis delivering a barbed one liner. Seriously I love Gibsons so much they might even be my desert island cocktail.  So unless you have a serious aversion to onions I ask you not to knock ’em till you’ve tried ’em.

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Laid back… (with my mind on my money and my money on my mind)

Last but by no means least on the list is the flapper favourite- the Orange Blossom! Well before Snoop got in on the act Americans were sippin’ on gin and juice prohibition style. The Orange Blossom has a somewhat notorious part in popular culture—despite the innocent name the orange blossom has been present in some less than lugubrious circumstances—perhaps simply because it was such a go to in the 1920s. Legend has it that Zelda Fitzgerald was found wandering lost on a golf course after drinking a thermos of orange blossoms. Zelda was singing “You can throw a silver dollar upon ground, And it’ll roll, because it’s round…” which you can’t really argue with.  This actually happened to me with a thermos of orange blossoms many years ago—although it was my own living room not a golf course. Zelda was singing “You can throw a Silver dollar upon ground, And it’ll roll, because it’s round…” which you can’t really argue with.

 

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Zelda in the flowers

 

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The beautiful Virginia Rappe

Orange blossoms were also what Virginia Rappe reportedly got drunk on before her scandalous death in the room of Fatty Arbuckle in 1921, and what director William Desmond Taylor drank with Mabel Normand just hours before his (to this day unsolved) murder in 1922. Recipes abound for this seemingly simple drink—from a basic gin and orange juice combo to mixtures involving triple sec, orange blossom water, simple syrup, vermouth, lime juice and grenadine. My favourite falls somewhere in the middle—the only addition I like to make is vermouth (yeah I know—I always like to add vermouth).  The main way in which to elevate this drink is with the juice component.  This is one of those situations where fresh is best- freshly squeezed orange juice somehow sends this drink through the stratosphere – to the point where it becomes a different drink altogether.

Freshly squeezed

Personally I think this drink is already sweet enough and pretty enough without the addition of simple syrup or grenadine. Instead, squeeze yourself 1 ½ oz orange (mandarin is also yummy) juice. Add to an ice filled shaker or mixing glass with 1 ½ oz gin and 1 ½ oz vermouth. Lighthouse Gin is perfect for orange blossoms—with naval orange and lemon notes it is has a wonderful citrussy base already. One of New Zealand’s original small batch gins Lighthouse is a fabulous all-rounder; something that early Hollywood innovators would have approved of I am sure! Swizzle your orange blossom, strain into a glass, and try not to get into any trouble.

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Disclaimer!  I have no affiliation with any of these companies and bought all my own booze myself.  I will always tell when goods reviewed have been gifted and my opinions are always my own!

Let me know what you think- have any New Zealand made spirits impressed you recently?  What is your favourite classic cocktail?

For more info on the gins mentioned here, check out

http://www.reidbrothersdistilling.com/gin

http://roguesocietygin.com/

http://lighthousegin.co.nz/

If you are interested in the William Desmond Taylor case I can recommend the book on King Vidor’s investigation into his murder ‘A Cast of Killers‘ by Sidney Kirkpatrick as a starting point.

 

 

Small Screen Screams

Laura Macfehin retrieves some made-for-television goodness from the golden age of TV movies- resurrecting some her childhood faves and pointing fans to some seventies gems.

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There was a time when the television set was the central screen in most people’s lives, and broadcast television was what was on it. Before personal computers and streaming and smart phones and downloading—hell before DVD rentals—before VHS!—you came home, switched on the tube and what was on was on was what there was until the end of broadcasting when there was nothing more till morning time.

It was a weird, boring, beautiful form of entertainment—a sort of static filled magic-mirror that as a kid you lay on the floor in front of and waited for whatever cultural artefacts were going to bob up to its surface in front of you. It could be some studio audience sitcom making references to a culture you didn’t fully understand, or a Forties matinee with beautifully lettered title cards or late at night an English horror set where bouffanted ladies in Technicolour negligees ran through Gothic castles.

Things appeared and were gone with broadcast television and there was no way to revisit them or find out how or why they existed. If you tuned in half way through you might not what you were watching until the ad break— sometimes you might never know what it was you just saw and with no context the strange images stayed in your brain and formed their own neural networks.

What I did I just see?

As you grew up there would be conversations that started “did you ever see a movie set on a plane where Captain Kirk was a priest fighting evil druid ghosts?” or “what was that thing we saw once with a house that killed the families who lived there? And Bette Davis was in it? That scared the shit out of me!” Then eventually the internet came along and most of our questions and some of our prayers were answered.

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If you could turn back time

Not every thing from your childhood can hold up to adult scrutiny.  Having re-watched MacGyver I speak with bitter experience.  On the other hand sometimes what caught the attention of our half-formed psyches turn out to be even better than we remember.  The Legend of Lizzie Borden was made for television in 1975, but I saw it some time in the eighties, when it confirmed my suspicion that the Victorian era was full of tainted meat, gender inequality and dark parlours containing bludgeoned corpses.  It was released on DVD in 2014 and you can also watch it on YouTube.  Elizabeth Montgomery (everybody’s favourite TV witch) is fantastic as possible axe-murderess Lizzie (who in real life was Montgomery’s sixth cousin!).  Although not a horror as such the film has such a creepy vibe and is so chillingly told it is likely to spook you long after the credits roll.  Be sure and watch the European cut if you can – it is four minutes longer and features essential nudity!

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Devil or Angel

When I was 10 years old I read and re-read the Lois Duncan teen horror Summer of Fear.
It featured a teen witch who inveigles her way into a family and displaces the heroine of the book; stealing her boyfriend and most shockingly- tricking her into sewing an unflattering prom dress!  I was chuffed when I found as an adult that the book had been adapted for the small screen in 1978.  Directed by Wes Craven and starring Linda Blair Stranger In Our House aka Summer of Fear captures all of the weirdness of the book in full seventies fabulousness.  Added bonuses include Fran Drescher (and her voice) in a supporting role and the craziest perm you’ve ever seen on Blair.

stranger in our house

Something Evil was one of those films that niggled away at the back of my brain for years.  I didn’t know what it was called, who was in it or much of the plot but that didn’t stop me from trying to track it down.  Luckily then Google came along and all I needed was ‘creepy film with barn’ to tell me what I needed to know.  Something Evil is the second of four television films Steven Spielberg was contracted to direct for Universal.  The first, Duel with Dennis Weaver, has become a cult classic whereas Something Evil doesn’t get a lot of love.  I think that’s a shame because it is a perfectly formed little film- even weirder than I remembered it- with a marvellous Sandy Dennis who I find mesmerising to watch.  

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Prime Time

The seventies and eighties were a special time for creepy television.  I’ve only mentioned three here and haven’t even gone near the British stuff, but tomes could be written (actually, if they have let me know because I’d love to read them).  The films made had to be safe enough for general viewing and not too budget heavy, which meant filmmakers had to be a lot more creative with their scares.  True, some just replaced the gore you’d get in theatres with histrionics instead, but through the lens of some forty years even the screaming and fainting can have a kitsch appeal.  There are loads more wonderful tv movies out there but tell me — what are your favourites? Or is there something you half remember seeing as a kid that scared the bejesus out of you?  You never know… I might have seen it too!