Soundtrack for a Missing Movie, Part 2 of 3

Part 1

Our Kiss odyssey carries on, as we continue to explore the brave but ultimately doomed experiment that was Music from “The Elder.” Today, our main concern is the album’s story, because every concept album needs, you know, a concept!

“When the earth was young, they were already old …”

So begin the liner notes. They go on to explain that the mystical Elder, benevolent beings from the dawn of time, have assumed mortal form in preparation for a looming battle. They’re making these preparations because of an equally old and powerful evil, and the Elder must now “find and train a warrior … a champion to conquer the evil.” Otherwise, this nameless menace will take over the world. There is some sort of journey, both in the physical world and of spiritual growth, and then the album tapers off. Morpheus, “the caretaker,” has pronounced that “the boy” is “ready for the sacred right of accession to the Order of the Rose,” and that’s pretty much it. Eleven songs take the listener to the threshold of what would be the second act of most other movies. So what happens across those eleven tracks? I’ll get to that in a minute—or two minutes, to be precise. First, here is an informative and funny little clip from around the time of the album’s release:

Music from “The Elder” opens with a short fanfare that segues into “Just a Boy.” Sung from the boy’s perspective, this song deals with his doubts and fears at the prospect of becoming a leader. “The Odyssey,” with its confident tone, seems to be a call to action and optimism from the Elder. Or maybe it’s more a description of ideal, godlike love—a well from which the boy can draw strength. Both interpretations are valid. In “Only You”, the boy is told that he is “the light and the way.” (It seems the Elder must work hard to convince the boy of his importance and latent power.) This song is followed by “Under the Rose,” in which the Elder council extorts the challenges and sacrifices of the task ahead.

Any movie with a bit of structural nous has a midpoint that gives renewed impetus to the story. And “Dark Light,” the sixth track, does just that. For the first time, the dark forces at work get some attention. The lyrics are mostly a loose assemblage of references to Sodom and Gomorrah, the Devil, “the malevolent order” and other vague threats, but we understand that the evil is mounting. “A World Without Heroes,” arguably the most well-known song on the album, emphasizes the importance of the brave and good among us. Here, heroes are mainly exalted as sources of inspiration, rather than as heroes in themselves. In the video, Gene Simmons, the demon, actually sheds a tear:

“The Oath,” the most rocking number of the bunch, is (probably) the boy’s pledge set to music. But is it an oath to the Elder, or the boy’s promise to himself? Whatever the explanation, it’s clear that the timid whelp of “Just a Boy” is now a memory. Song number nine, “Mr. Blackwell,” is possibly the most intriguing story clue. Here, at last, is a specific foe. However, the titular Mr. Blackwell is clearly human. Is he working with the dark, supernatural forces? Or is he merely a corrupter of his fellow men, preying on their weaknesses?  Alas, we don’t get to find out. The most interesting thing about “Escape from the Island,” another instrumental track, is its title. Clearly, someone escapes from, um, an island. And that just leaves the aforementioned “I,” a rousing ode to self-empowerment—sung, it’s reasonable to imagine, by the boy.

Through all of Music from “The Elder,” we perceive stages of the hero’s journey. It’s classic, very basic storytelling. Interestingly, the narrative, which was devised by Gene Simmons, combines Lovecraftian influences (the ancient gods) with the sword and sorcery genre that was at that moment gathering pace. Still, The Sword and the Sorcerer, The Beastmaster and Conan the Barbarian were a year away, which would indicate that Music from “The Elder” was some months ahead of its time. (Obviously, the genre itself had been established many years earlier.) Not that any of this made a lick of difference to the record buying public. The album sank without trace, and in their quest to regain lost ground, Kiss were forced to come up with yet another musical strategy. That new strategy was Creatures of the Night, an unapologetic, down-and-dirty dose of thunder released in 1982. By that time, Music from “The Elder” was probably already gathering dust in bargain bins the world over. Too bad, because the songs are all rather good, despite the occasional iffy lyric. And Bob Ezrin’s production is clean and grandiose, perfectly suited to the themes of heroism.

For a rundown on the songs, check back on Sunday!

Part 3

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Cheap Creeps

It’s possible that my recent dissection of Paranormal Activity came across as a tad harsh. Although I tempered the review with praise, the general impression was probably negative. I didn’t mean to imply that Paranormal Activity is a bad movie, because it isn’t. But even a brief inspection of proceedings reveals the forced plot mechanics cranking away underneath. As a consequence, Oren Peli’s debut doesn’t feel genuine. It’s a work of palpable fiction, slave to the same story conventions as a more traditional narrative. Unless you’re making anti-cinema that only people seeking refuge from the rain will see, that’s the tried and true way to do it.

But despite the touch of artificiality that all fake documentaries possess, Paranormal Activity is still creepy as hell. Though not the best new movie I saw this year, it was certainly the eeriest. Peli makes effective use of simple elements like a door, a light switch and a billowing blanket. (More “cinematic” ingredients, like the demonic footprints and Ouija board, aren’t quite as effective.) Additionally, the mundane setting heightens the tension. Many people, after viewing the film, go home to houses that look not unlike the one in the movie (Peli’s own). In the dead of night, do they wake up for no apparent reason, dreading the innocuous click of a light switch?

Peli is currently at work on an Area 51 movie, once again comprised of “found” footage but this time with a bigger budget ($5 million). I can picture it now—lab technicians ensconced in dark laboratories, panicked soldiers, shadowy hallways and a sinister, barely-glimpsed alien or two. Or perhaps something completely different. At any rate, on the basis of his debut, I’m looking forward to Peli’s next project. I just hope he doesn’t shake the camera too much, as that gives me motion sickness. Fat chance, right?

Belated Props to Karl Malden

Giallo, that distinctly Italian crime subgenre, has some signature characteristics. There’s usually a ludicrous whodunit plot, some striking visuals, and a groovy soundtrack. Fans like me watch these movies for the flash, since there’s precious little substance. And we’re seldom given anyone to really root for, becauseall the characters, even the heroes, are frequently utter jerks. Dario Argento’s Terror at the Opera (1986) provides a fitting example when a stage manager tells the protagonist, an opera singer, that a stagehand died while she was singing. Apparently, it was “molto strano”. With his very next breath, he tells her to leave her costume in the dressing room for refitting. She hangs her dress on the coat stand, turns back, and asks him to accompany her to the opening night party. Yikes! There’s cold, and then there’s heartless, know what I mean?

"Some guy just died. It's pretty weird. Wanna go to a party?"

To compensate for the insensitive weasels and shrill hellcats that often populate these callous movies, Italian filmmakers will usually include a character that’s so innocent and goody-goody as to nearly induce vomiting. This person, sometimes an ebullient colleague of the main character or some absurdly kind neighbor, inevitably suffers a grisly death at the hands of the killer. This person adds nothing of value—other than a cool death scene. To craft a genuinely sympathetic character in a giallo, the actor has to do all the work, through sheer talent and star power. As it happens, that’s just what veteran character actor Karl Malden did in Argento’s The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), in which he plays a blind one-time reporter. His Franco “Cookie” Arno has inane dialogue like everyone else around him, but Malden’s acting chops and charisma help him rise above the material. And although his is a small part, it’s one of the better performances in the Argento back catalogue. Leonard Maltin once wrote that he “brings his innate dignity to every role he tackles,” and that quality is certainly on display here. Imagine, dignity in a giallo!

Malden's blind ex-reporter gets the feel of a crypt.

When Malden passed away on July 1st, at the ripe old age of 97, the media was already in a frenzy. Six days earlier, some controversial pop star or other had expired from an accidental drug overdose, and consequently most people were far too busy elsewhere to notice that a Hollywood legend had died. It’s pretty disconcerting that a suspected pederast gets saint-like status upon his death, while a genuinely decent guy and top-notch actor is practically ignored. Watch Cat o’ Nine Tails to see how Malden injects sincere warmth into otherwise trashy, but certainly entertaining, material.

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