Tuesday, August 11, 2015


Though it has been fashioned with an eye toward scaring us and upsetting our sleep, it is fair to say that the horror film has inspired more loving devotion than any other genre. Much of this devotion has been manifested in the form of representational art. There is no doubt that a lot of artists - and not just those who continued to pay homage to the genre - got their start by drawing monsters, by using pencil and paper to gird themselves against what frightened them and to better understand what it was about monsters that attracted them. The specifically great thing about such art, in its highest expression, is what another pair of eyes can tell us about different faces and moments on film that we - though decades, even lifetimes, of exposure - have convinced ourselves we have completely seen. The marvelously craggy, garishly colored paintings of Basil Gogos, the almost clinically precise portraiture of Daniel Horne and, more recently, the boldly realistic lifesize sculptures of Mike Hill form a testimony to how much more there is to experience from any single horror film image passed down to us.

Then there is the field of what is called "fan art" - art that is produced without a professional goal, though very often with professional chops. It sometimes appears in fan magazines and is sold from tables at conventions. The dean of such work, certainly where the world of monsters is concerned, is Frank Dietz, whose restless and varied professional career has included stints as a film director, actor, Disney animator and award-winning documentarian. Frank is accomplished at any number of things, but he is beloved for his Rondo Award-winning fan art - pencil drawings, charcoals and acrylic paintings that are now proudly collected in an irresistible softcover compendium entitled SKETCHY THINGS: THE ART OF FRANK DIETZ (sketchythingsart.com, $50.00).

Dietz's art is remarkable for its own innate restlessness, encompassing and lampoons, as well as some portraits of stunning sobriety and profundity. And then there are the occasional pieces, the real pinnacles of this book, in which all of his available styles come home to roost. His Edgar Allan Poe is done in his cartoon style, ever so slightly heightened with limnings of realism, and he stares back at you, somewhat lopsidedly as was his want, with such clarity you can almost read the insolent thought at the back of his mind and the fears foregrounding it. Equally impressive is his rendering of Roddy McDowall as Caesar in CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, where his love for the film, for the actor, for the performance, for animals and matinees invite the eye to linger over its layers and layers of textured devotion.

Elsewhere, he delights in showing us the lunacy of the genre, from Lon Chaney as Quasimodo ringing the bells at Notre Dame to the the dolefully-eyed Brain balloon from Planet Arous. To see his drawings of the various heroes of these horrors - from Lon Chaney Jr to Kevin McCarthy, from a shrieking Elsa Lanchester to a post-BATMAN Adam West, from a Tingler-examining Vincent Price to a poodle-haired Boris Karloff surrendering to a pool of quicksand - is to have a lifetime of cinema flash before our eyes, and to laugh at revelations buried in the tenor of his draughtsmanship about the actor's individual pride or shame. The caricatures on display are sometimes mercillessly (but always lovingly) observed, telling us how much the actor was likely paid for their performance, how many drinks they had for lunch, and who was directing them.  The more you know about such films, the more richly Dietz's work repays your attention.

It's not all horror and sf-related art. The most ambitious piece in the book is a mind-boggling panorama entitled "The Last Call," which depicts several dozen memorable Western stars from film and television, in costume, scattered around the tavern from the John Wayne feature THE SHOOTIST. Set aside a good half hour to fully appreciate everything buried in it, and then begin to ponder the months of work that must have gone into its creation.
Opening with a Foreword by Greg Nicotero and an Introduction by comedian Dana Gould, SKETCHY THINGS presents its portfolio in themed chapters, ranging from silents to early talkies, "The Big Guys", the Fifties, the Black Lagoon, Hammer horror, Harryhausen, Apes, jungle girls, Vincent Price and so forth. Going through it all is an almost overwhelming experience because it's not just a book about a man and his art; it's about the emotions aroused by this supposedly repellant genre of horror, the splendid creativity that so many other artists have brought to it, and so many little twinkles we were so sure that only we saw when they passed by on the silver screen.

There are any number of books about the genre that have more to say, but few books about the cinema of imagination are as articulate, affectionate and altogether stimulating as SKETCHY THINGS.

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