Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Jack (o-lantern) Of All Trades

In today's entertainment industry, let alone the horror business, it's common for someone to be devoted to one artistic pursuit. Maybe they're a director, maybe a novelist, maybe an illustrator. It's rare to find a jack-o-lantern-of-all-trades, if you will. This was not always the case. American theatre and film was once choked with men and women who did it all. Without their tireless efforts, it's not unfair to say that classic horror (and entertainment media in general) as we know it today would be quite different.

No list about multi-tasking entertainers can start with anyone besides George M. Cohan. Dubbed "the man who owned Broadway" for obvious reasons, Cohan was a ridiculously successful playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer, and producer. Yes, I did just copy that from Wikipedia. Saves time. Cohan did vaudeville at an early age, and would eventually go on to write over 500 songs in his lifetime, including the immortal "You're A Grand Old Flag." What does he have to show for horror cred? Not much, although he was the primary inspiration for Sander Cohen, the insane composer featured in the Bioshock games. That's got to count for something.

Yeesh. It's like Salvador Dali and The Joker's lovechild.

If we fast-forward to the drive-in days, one name stands above all others: William Castle. Not only did he write, produce, and direct his own films, he gave the B-movie world the most ingenious advertising gimmicks it had ever seen, or likely would ever see. Flying skeletons! Ghost goggles! Magic coins! There's not one trick in Castle's bag that would fly with audiences today (pun intended). Back in the 1960s though, this stuff sold tickets like you wouldn't believe. If J.J. Abrams dropped all these viral campaigns and promised that his next alien flick would be released in Emergo, I'd be there opening night, every showing. If you want the full William Castle experience people got back in the day, either watch House On Haunted Hill and wave a prop skeleton in front of your friends at the finale, or rent I Saw What You Did and install seat belts in your living room, lest someone "bolt out of their seat in fright!"

The 1980s were a significant period for the genre, and John Carpenter was one of the men who changed the face of horror. Carpenter handled all the typical behind-the-scenes work, creating some of the most iconic horror movies of all time in the process. More impressively, he frequently composed the scores for the films himself. The theme from his own Halloween is still considered a masterpiece of suspense. Carpenter has dabbled in other genres, but he will never be more fondly remembered than for his contributions to our nightmares.

Today, such men are few and far between. Some, like Jhonen Vasquez, will write and illustrate comic books featuring their characters while occasionally jumping into another realm, such as animation. For the most part however, the jack-o-lantern-of-all-trades (yes, I want that to catch on) is a severely endangered species. Although... I can think of two cases that might yet start a new trend of horror maestros.

The easy one is Voltaire (the musician, not the 18th century philosopher). Even people who don't like his kind of music like Voltaire, mostly due to his original tunes for the Cartoon Network series The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy. It's hard to tell when this guy sleeps. His resume includes twelve albums, an aggressive touring schedule, live appearances on the online MMO AdventureQuest Worlds, producing three different comic book series, maintaining a toy line, directing animated station IDs for national network channels, and being a professor at the School of Visual Arts in NY! Plus, he's a husband and father. If anyone is living up to the spirit of George Cohan, it's Voltaire.

The other is Gris Grimly. An author and illustrator with over 15 books to his credit, Grimly has also found time to direct a handful of short films which have been well-received, such as the 2006 micro-budget wonder Cannibal Flesh Riot! Gris also directed a music video for Hellbilly band Ghoultown, featuring Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

This list is far from exhaustive. There are dozens more men who have spread themselves across all aspects of the horror community, and I didn't even start on the women. Hopefully more people will see the value of these individuals and their multi-faceted work. Use the comments section to tell me about some obvious ones that I forgot to include, or maybe some really obscure folks that history has itself forgotten.

Just for the Hell of it, here's the opening to Billy and Mandy's Big Boogie Adventure, featuring Voltaire's song "Land of the Dead."

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