Thursday, September 24, 2020

'Witching Hour' is a fun collection of horror shorts by great writers and artists

Showcase Presents: The Witching Hour, Vol. 1 (2011, DC Comics)
Writers: Steve Skeates, Mike Friedrich, Sergio Argones, Maury Boltinoff, and more 
Artists: Alex Toth, Nick Cardy, Don, Heck, Tony DeZuniga, Dick Giordano, and more
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

"The Witching Hour" was one of DC Comics' long-running horror anthology titles. This massive, low-cost volume reprints more than 500 pages of content and covers from the first 21 issues, showcasing artwork from some of the comic book mediums true masters in glorious black-and-white.

As a kid, I loved DC Comics' horror anthologies, what few of them I ever gained access to. I'm not sure what my reaction would have been to "Witching Hour" if I had come across back in those days, but as an adult and a lover of anthology films, I thought the majority of this book was an exceptionally fun read. The early issues of this title should be counted among the best horror anthology comics ever published.

A standard for a comic book horror anthology has always been a host character giving a little introduction and epilogue to the stories, and some titles would take it further and start the issue with a page or two establishing the host with a couple of puns and a gag situation. It's also typical for the host to make some joke or ironic comment at the end of each story.

But with "The Witching Hour," editor Dick Giordano took this convention a little further and brought it in line with produced a title that followed the standard set by horror anthology films, placing the titles' hosts in a wrap-around story that sometimes tied all the stories together thematically, but that always provided a prologue, epilogue, and amusing interludes in each issue.

"The Witching Hour" was hosted by three witches, which appear to be loosely based on the Weird Sisters from "MacBeth" and which also had fun with the notion that the younger generation never has any respect for the older generation and visa-versa. Two of them are the stereotypical slovenly hags with warts and pointed hats while the third one is a sexy, swinging, college educated chick who keeps her wardrobe and rooms as fashionable and clean as her older sisters keep theirs tattered, run-down, and vermin infested. And while her sisters boil their witch's brew in the traditional large iron pot over a live flame with ingredients gathered from the swamp surrounding their home, their younger (adopted, they are quick to point out) sister happily lets hers simmer in a pan on an electric range using frozen ingredients from the grocery store.

The framing stories featuring the sisters often involve amusing arguments over modernity and tradition as it relates to witchcraft, and over what makes better stories... old school fairy tales and twist-ending chillers, or more modern and futuristic stories with sci-fi angles. The generation gap jokes are full of 1960s and 1970s slang and outdated technology, but they're still amusing, especially with the recently passed "Okay Boomer" craze.

Unfortunately, after Dick Giordano was replaced as the title's editor, the framing sequences are reduced and eventually phased out. The stories remain interesting--and a few of the best ones in the entire book can be found in the back half--but I still missed the side stories with the sisters, as well as the subplot involving their hideous servant. (The promise of readers getting to see his face, and the payoff of that promise, is one of the funnier running bits I have come across. It's too bad the editors at DC Comics didn't keep that approach going.)

Artwise, the quality is universally top-notch, with a virtual whos-who of comic book greats providing it. The black-and-white presentation and superior printing and paper quality makes it even easier to admire the line-work. Of particular note is the many pages by Alex Toth, who drew many of the framing sequences, and even the majority of the short tales in some issues as well. The art on those Nick Cardy covers especially benefit from being in black-and-white.

"DC Showcase Presents: The Witching Hour" is an anthology of anthologies, and it's a book I highly recommend if you like well-done comics and horror short stories. With Halloween coming up in a few weeks, it even be the book to get you in the proper mood.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Picture Perfect Wednesday with Alyssa

Happy birthday to model and actress Alyssa Sutherland, born on this day in 1982! We hope her birthday is picture perfect (and perhaps even have something in it to smile about)!

Wonder Woman Wednesday

As we continue to count the days, hours, and minutes until we might have a chance to see Wonder Woman on the big screen again, we continue to offer bi-weekly art shows featuring everyone's favorite Amazon!

Wonder Woman portrait by Renee Rienties
By Renee Rienties

This time out, we're focusing on Wonder Woman busts. (Okay... that sounds worse than it is. I think.)

WonderWoman portrait by Neal Adams
By Neal Adams

Wonder Woman portrait by Paul Abrams
By Paul Abrams

Wonder Woman portrait by Ivan Reis
By Ivan Reis

Wonder Woman portrait by Dick Giordano
By Dick Giordano

Wonder Woman portrait by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez
By Jose Luis Garcia Lopez

Wonder Woman portrait by Frank Cho
By Frank Cho

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

'Murders in the Zoo' is top-notch

Murders in the Zoo (1933)
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Kathleen Burke, Charles Ruggles, Randolph Scott, Gail Patrick, and John Lodge
Director: Edward Sutherland
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Psychopathic millionaire and patron of the Municipal Zoo (Atwill) uses it as a cover to murder his wife's lover (Lodge)... and else anyone who he thinks is a threat or challenge to him.

For a film made in the early 1930s, "Murders in the Zoo" is an unusually constructed thriller with some surprisingly shocking scenes. From the opening scene where Lionel Atwill is taking revenge on a fellow member of a safari for making a pass at his wife, through the climactic chase sequence through the titular zoo where dozens of dangerous predators are running wild in addition to the killer, this film delivers surprisingly brutal violence... and it doesn't shy away from showing it. 

Unlike most thrillers from this period, there isn't much mystery here as to who the murderer is. Like an episode of "Columbo", the fun is in watching the villain be villainous as he commits his murders and evades capture... and like some of the best episodes of "Columbo", there are unexpected plot twists that spring from the killer's actions, especially when the killer is a straight-up psychopath like the one this film.

And Lionel Atwill plays a great psychopath. His character's monstrous nature is establish in the film's very first scene and it brings tension to every scene he appears in afterwards, because you know that anyone he interacts with--especially his terrified wife (played by Kathleen Burke)--is under the threat of violent death. It gives this movie an atmosphere that few other films of this era has. Even the antics of the obligatory comic relief character (the zoo's publicist, played by Charles Ruggles) can't break the tension.

Like all true B-movies, "Murders in the Zoo" barely clears one hour of run-time, including the opening credits. It is such an unusual film that I wish it had been longer, because I think it could have benefitted from a little more screen-time for John Lodge and background on his character. In fact, I wanted to know a little more about all the secondary characters, because I found myself becoming invested in them, because I knew the dangers they were oblivious to. The only other complaint I can mount about it is that I wished the denouement had been stronger and that the film's final moment would have been completely different. (That said, I am grateful that we were treated to the nicety of a denouement, something this kind of movie of this vintage often lacks.)

"Murders in the Zoo" is a far better movie than its humble origins imply. With a script full of well-crafted dialogue and a cast of actors perfect in their parts and performing at the top of their game, it's a film where everything works. It you like vintage thrillers, it's definitely worth your time.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Happy Batman Day!

Some say it's on the third Saturday in September. Others say it's on September 21. Whatever the case, Batman Day is as mysterious as the Caped Crusader it is named after! And we're celebrating it with this gallery of fine art portraying Batman along with his friends and foes!

Batman artwork
Batman art

Batman and Robin and Enemies

Batgirl, Batman, and Robin
Batman and Foes by Neil Volkes

Batman and Catwoman by Paul Gulacy

Batman by Jim Aparo

Musical Monday with The Correspondents

The Correspondents are back (for the third time this year) with "Fear & Delight", a title that seems appropriate as we gear up for Halloween! This tune is part swing, part techo, and all fun! The video is a kaleidoscopic festival of trick photography, and other exuberantly creative bit of filmmaking. We hope the color sequence near the middle doesn't shock your senses too much!

Fear & Delight (2013)
Starring: Ian Bruce and Abigail O'Neill
Director: Naren Wilks
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Yarr! Here be comely pirate lasses!

Here at Shades of Gray we observe Speak Like a Pirate Day by looking like a pirate!

Bebe Daniels

Tahliah Debrett Barnett (FKA Twigs)
Joan Crawford

Joan Blondell
Gloria Blondell

Colleen Moore

Saturday Serial: Jenna of the Jungle

Continuing Don Hudson's "Jenna of the Jungle" (and including a random bonus jungle girl afterwards). Click on any panel for a larger version, and come back next Saturday for Part Nineteen.

By Don Hudson
To Be Concluded...

Girls of the Jungle
By Arianna Farricella

Friday, September 18, 2020

Firearms Friday with Diana Rigg

This is Dame Diana Rigg's second appearance on Firearms Friday... because who doesn't love Diana Rigg? It was originally planned for November 6, 2020, but she sadly passed away last week, on September 10, at the age of 82. In saddened observance of her death, we're posting it early (with some obvious revisions).

Dame Diana, whose busy stage, film, and television career spanned eight decades, worked up until the very end of her life. Her final screen appearances are in the film "Last Night in Soho" and the television mini-series "Black Narcissus", both tentatively slated for release in 2021.

Here at Shades of Gray, later this month, we'll be taking a look at her debut as what is perhaps her most famous and celebrated role--that of Emma Peel on "The Avengers". Will it surpass what has long been our favorite 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

'Happy Hoboes' will bring you joy

Happy Hoboes (1933)
Starring: Unknown Voice Actor (delivering a single spoken line)
Directors: George Stallings and George Rufle
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

They've tried their hands at plumbing and instrument repair, and they've even been partners in their own law firm. They've owned and operated a bakery and a diner. They've even been test pilots. But now Tom & Jerry have fallen on hard times, and are living in homeless camps and riding the rails when the locals chase them out. Despite it all, they are as full of mischief and music as ever....
"Happy Hoboes" has a bit more plot than most Tom & Jerry, but ultimately it also counts among the most nonsensical and surreal ones with visual gags coming at the viewer non-stop and many impossible and weird. My favorites include the explanation of what causes snowstorms, Tom & Jerry's luxurious lifestyle while they ride the rails, and the lumberjack who is so strong that he wanders through the forest chopping down trees with a single swing of s scythe. (I also appreciated a cooking gag that did not go where I was expecting it to; it's always nice to be surprised!)

Out of all the Tom & Jerry cartoons I've watched so far, this might also be the one that will feel most relevant to modern viewers, so long as those above the age of 7 can look past some of the more juvenile gags. That said, some modern viewers might also feel put out by the appearance of the Chinese cook at a lumber camp in the second half of the film, but it makes sense within a pop cultural context of the 1930s and the basic genre being spoofed here... and I suppose it wouldn't be a Tom & Jerry cartoon without some sort of racial stereotype to pull modern-day triggers.

As always with these posts, I invite you to take a few minutes and check out "Happy Hoboes" for yourself. It's embedded below, via YouTube. I think you'll have fun.