Burt Shonberg | The psychedelic 1960s artist behind those haunting House of Usher portraits

If you have ever seen Roger Corman’s The Fall of the House of Usher and wondered who did those haunting portraits of Roderick Usher’s disreputable ancestors – then wonder no more, for it was the magic realist Los Angeles artist Burt Shonberg (1933-1977).

I have just finished reading a terrific biography, Out There: The Transcendent Life and Art of Burt Shonberg, by author Spencer Kansa, and it’s a real eye-opener, not only about this psychedelic artist, but also about LA bohemia in the 1960s and 1970s.

From the late-1950s until his death in 1977, Shonberg was the premier psychedelic artist of Los Angeles. His surreal murals adorned the facades and interiors of hip coffee-houses and clubs (including his legendary Café Frankenstein in Laguna Beach); which brought him to the attention of actor Mel Welles and his Little Shop of Horrors director Roger Corman.

It was while working on project for the 7 Chefs restaurant on Sunset Boulevard that Shonberg was hired by Corman to create the ancestral portraits that hang in the Usher mansion in his 1960 Gothic horror. Corman felt Burt’s work had a ‘mystical, mysterious quality that would be perfect to capture the evil inherent in the faces of the ancestors’ – and he gave the artist a series of character histories to interpret.

‘He captured their tormented spirits and the spirit of the film perfectly,’ said Corman in a later interview; while art director Daniel Haller, who oversaw the artist’s progress, said, ‘he was unique and produced such great work for us’.

Vivien Usher ‘ Blackmailer, harlot, murderess – she died in a madhouse’

Shonberg conceived five family portraits and two pieces that Vincent Price’s aesthete character, Roderick Usher, paints – a colourful figure and a landscape featuring the Usher mansion.

According to Kansa, the blacked-out eyes in the Vivien Usher painting were eerily similar to a self portrait created by Shonburg’s lover, Marjorie Cameron, entitled The Black Egg.

Cameron’s story is also somewhat amazing, and the subject of another Kansa-penned biography, Wormwood Star. The occult artist – who later appeared in Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide – introduced Shonburg to the teachings of Aleister Crowley and to the mind-warping properties of peyote; which helped inform his unique artistic style, as did his participation in Dr Oscar Janiger’s ground-breaking study into the effects of LSD on the creative process.

Marjorie Cameron’s The Black Egg

For the depiction of Bernard Usher, Shonberg used his friend Ray Shevin as his model. Shevin was an adherent of George Gurdjieff, the Sufi-inspired mystic who developed the Fourth Way system to help people became fully conscious to every unfolding moment in their lives. Meanwhile, Francis Usher is a self portrait, but there’s no info as to who the subjects were for Anthony Usher or Captain David Usher.

Anthony Usher – ‘Thief, usurer – merchant of flesh’
Bernard Usher – ‘Swindler, forger, jewel thief, drug addict’
Francis Usher- ‘Professional assassin’
Captain David Usher – ‘Smuggler, slave trader, mass murderer’
This psychedelic painting comes from the warped imaginings of Roderick Usher

Being an art connoisseur and a champion of young artists, Vincent Price was intrigued to meet Shonberg, who was later invited to the set, where the two of them had a long conversation about art.

Artist Burt Shonberg (left) with Vincent Price

In the fiery climax of the film, the family portraits appear to perish in the flames. However, Shonberg’s paintings survived as they had been sprayed by a flame retardant beforehand.

Now this is where things get interesting. According to Kansa’s book, Vincent was said to have been given the portrait of David Usher, while Corman took two others, including the Usher mansion paintings. Unfortunately, they were stolen from Corman’s office at Amco Studios, shortly afterwards, a theft that still stings to this day (according to Corman).

The whereabouts of all the other pieces is today unknown – and that includes the one that Vincent took because, according to his estate, no Shonberg paintings were ever recorded in his collection. So did he ever have possession of it – even for a brief time? And will the missing paintings ever be found again? Only time will tell.

Shonberg’s association with Corman didn’t end with Usher. He was later employed to create several new canvases for 1963’s The Premature Burial. Like Roderick Usher, Ray Milland’s aristocrat, Guy Carrell, enjoys dabbling in painting, and the two share similar techniques – probably due to their individual torments (Guy suffers from taphephobia, the fear of being buried alive, while Roderick suffers acute sensibilities).

Shonberg was also commissioned to provide some paintings for Roger Corman’s The Premature Burial, starring Ray Milland

One of the pieces is entitled Sin Consummations Devoutly to be Wished, which Guy keeps in his tomb. In this piece, Baphomet looms over a grisly hell-scape, where condemned souls are nailed to crosses; beheaded by guillotines; burnt at the stake; and over flaming cauldrons. It’s a powerful piece, that could very well have been influenced by Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, but Kansa doesn’t say what happened to the piece after filming wrapped on the production.

Shonberg’s Sin Consummations Devoutly to be Wished as featured in The Premature Burial

As for Shonberg (who died in 1977, aged 44), his life story was a heady fusion of ‘magical inspiration, psychedelic experience and artistic production’, all the while ‘walking the thin and dangerous between dimensions’.

His artwork was all about beckoning us onward into the realm of our dreams, and Kansa’s book goes along way into helping us understand Shonberg’s artistic mindset. I so recommend you get your mitts on this and also Wormwood Star.

Share This:

The Dr. Phibes Companion | Reviewing Justin Humphreys’ Romantic History of the Classic Vincent Price Horror Film Series

Back in October 2012, Little Shoppe of Horrors editor Richard Klemensen dedicated Issue 29 to tell the ‘definitive history’ of director Robert Fuest’s cult classic The Abominable Dr Phibes, starring Vincent Price in one of his most iconic movie roles. It was a revelation, featuring Phibesologist Justin Humphreys’ phan-tastic feature, The Kind of Fiend Who Wins, which was packed with detailed information about the making of the film, from its story genesis to its hugely successful cinema release.

This beautifully-designed issue also included Humphreys’ essay on the film’s art director Brian Eatwell, alongside David Taylor and Sam Irvin’s well-researched feature The Unphilmed Phibes, which exhumed all the lost Phibes movies, and Bruce Hallenbeck’s informative article on the making of the sequel, Dr Phibes Rises Again, and contributions from cult film writers Denis Meikle, David Del Valle, Derek Botello, and many more. Plus, it had special introductions from Tim Burton and Frank Darabont.

I so love this issue and have returned to it countless times – especially for the many behind-the-scenes photos and artwork, as well as the interesting sidebar features that included the hunt for Phibes’ Rolls Royce, a review of the original LP Soundtrack, as well as tributes to the two actresses who played Vulnavia, Virginia North and Valli Kemp.

Fast-forward to 2018 and Humphreys, who works as a film historian at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, has revived his original essay for this new paperback book from Bear Manor Media. Now the big question for anyone who already has the LSoH celebration issue is – ‘Is it worth getting?’

On the plus side, and it’s a big plus, you get expanded versions of Humphreys’ The Kind of Fiend Who Wins and the Taylor/Irvin contribution, The Unphilmed Phibes, both of which include extra bits added from interviews with screenwriters William Goldstein and James Whiton, sound designer Peter Lennard, actress Fiona Lewis, and many others.

There’s a Foreward from Dr. Phibes’ creator, William Goldstein, and also new conversations with organist Nicholas Kynaston (who played the War March of the Priests title track), Dr Phibes Rises Again composer John Gale, and screenwriter Lem Dobbs. Plus, longer versions of Humphreys’ previously published articles on Brian Eatwell and his wonderful tribute to Bob Fuest, which originally appeared in Video Watchdog, Issue 168.

Humphreys has also written an informative essay on the making of Dr Phibes Rises Again, using interviews from a variety of sources, which can be found in the extensive bibliography in the front of the book. Plus, there’s two short pieces by Phibes enthusiast Mark Ferelli, including one about his amazing magic lantern show which I was lucky to have seen at London’s Horse Hospital back in 2005.

On the negative side, the book lacks the stunning design of LSoH, with a number of blank pages that could have easily been filled with more photos or some of the previously published sidebar features, as well as a couple of typo errors. A big selling point for me was the opportunity to see never-before-seen production artwork by Fuest from his personal shooting script as well as previously unpublished behind-the-scenes photographs. Well, there are only three scans of the shooting script (I would have like to have seen more), but there are some rare images not published before on offer, including James Whiton’s photos from the world premiere.

But aside from those couple of niggles what shines through is Humphreys’ incredible passion for the Phibes films and his admiration for Bob Fuest, whom he befriended while conducting his research. It’s what makes this book a phan-tastic companion to the LSoH celebration issue. Oh, and its thanks to reading this book that I have now tracked down a copy of the Great Organ Works LP, which not only contains Nicolas Kynaston’s rendition of War March of the Priests, but also his Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which opened Amicus’ 1972 anthology Tales from the Crypt. Win win! I say!

Save

Save

Save

Share This:

Cooking with Columbo | Lovely But Lethal and Vera Miles’ Mexican Casserole

Cooking with ColumboWhen Jenny Hammerton at Silver Screen Suppers was preparing her latest cuinary adventures, Cooking with Columbo: Suppers With the Shambling Sleuth, she invited friends and fellow Columbo fans to test cook the recipes. Of course, I couldn’t resist – especially as one the episodes, Lovely But Lethal, featured Vincent Price alongside Vera Miles as the guest villain of the week.

Courtesy of Jenny, here’s the page for you check out, including the recipe, Vera Miles’ Mexican Casserole, and my verdict. You can purchase Cooking With Columbo from Amazon.

LOVELY BUT LETHAL – 1973
Anyone who wears an entirely white outfit topped by a pristine white turban is fine by me. The wardrobe department for this episode pulled out all the stops, and Vera Miles looks absolutely sensational in every single outfit. Vera plays Viveca Scott, Queen of Cosmetics, who is ruthless in her quest for the ultimate anti-wrinkle cream. Her business rival is played, with great panache, by screen legend Vincent Price, and the two of them take great relish in throwing insults at each other.

It’s an early morning murder-callout for Columbo, but luckily he has a hard-boiled egg in the pocket of his raincoat to snack on for breakfast. In the kitchen of the murder victim, he searches in vain for salt to sprinkle on his egg. Usually, he says, he carries a shaker in his pocket, but alas, not so on this occasion. Luckily for Columbo, while he is on his condiment hunt, he spots a clue he might otherwise have missed…

Beauty Mark is the name of Viveca’s cosmetics business. For British readers, a beauty mark is what Americans call a beauty spot. This might seem irrelevant, but nothing is lost on Columbo of course, and there is a clue bound up with Viveca’s beauty spot. Also worth pointing out to those not in North America, and too young to remember the popular 1960s song, poison ivy is a plant that causes a violent reaction when touched. Remember this refrain: “Poison ivy, Lord’ll make you itch!”

Viveca gets annoyed with the Lieutenant when he questions her about a romantic relationship she once had with the murder victim. She screeches, “I like young men Lieutenant, lots of them, and if that shocks your masculine double-standard, I’m sorry.” She thinks he belongs “in a museum,” but Columbo is not a judgmental man when it comes to the love-lives of his suspects. We know this from many other episodes.

When Columbo comes to search for evidence at Viveca’s health farm, he is suffering from poison ivy. She condescendingly asks him, “Poor thing, still worried about your itch?” But Viveca should be worried about hers. It’s the itch that will send her to the Clink.

In the newspaper article from which this recipe of Vera’s is taken, published in 1974, she is quoted as saying that she felt that there weren’t many good acting roles for women. “It’s a man’s world, and so many of the writers are men who write for men.” She must have been happy with this role in 1973 though, striding around her health farm in a bright, white jumpsuit, Viveca is the epitome of someone who “owns it.” Vera is a fabulous actress and one of my very favorite Columbo adversaries.

Viveca’s favorite tipple is apparently a tequila cocktail with organic cactus juice, so if you can get your hands on such a juice, that would be a fun thing to serve. It would fit with Vera’s Mexican inspired dish too. A super-cheesy treat with chilies.

Vera Miles' Mexican CasseroleVera Miles’ Mexican Casserole
1 lb / 450g of Jack/Gouda cheese
1 lb / 450g of Cheddar cheese
6 eggs, separated
Salt
1½ tablespoons flour
Two small cans of green chili peppers
One fresh tomato, sliced
Dash of oregano
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F / 190 degrees C / gas mark 5.

Grate the two kinds of cheeses and mix together. Beat egg whites until stiff, adding about 1½ tablespoons flour for added body. Beat the egg yolks until fluffy and gently fold into the egg white mixture. Add a dash of salt to taste.

Chop the chili peppers. Vera says: “If you desire less of a hot taste, remove some of the chile seeds, as they contain the hot flavor.” Grease a large casserole dish that would serve about five people and layer a portion of the egg mixture into the dish. Next layer part of the chopped chili pepper, ending with a portion of the cheese. Repeat until ingredients are used up. Arrange the fresh tomato over the top, and sprinkle with oregano.
Bake for 30 minutes or until mixture is set.
Serves 6 (or more according to test cooks!)

Vera Miles' Mexican CasseroleJust one more thing… Stalwart test cook Peter Fuller, curator of the Vincent Price Legacy UK, made a rather deluxe version of Vera’s casserole, searing fresh chilies over a naked flame and scraping off the charred flesh before adding them to the dish. His feedback was as follows, “My tasters called it a glorified cheese toastie (grilled cheese sandwich), minus the bread. And I have to agree. It certainly should not be viewed as a main, rather as a side dish. I would suggest after baking, to cut it into small bite size pieces as a warm side dish, hors-d’oeuvre, canapé, or amuse bouche depending in what country you’re celebrating. As for reheating leftovers, this doesn’t work in a microwave as it turns into a slab of hot cheese. Best to reheat under a grill.”

I think it is fair to say that this is a super cheesy dish that might be TOO cheesy for some. Test cook Samantha Ellis’ husband, put it like this when he sampled a slice, “just tastes of cheese,” so you might need a big salad with a sharp dressing or a ton of vegetables alongside this dish to cut through the cheesiness.

Save

Save

Share This:

Cooking With Columbo | The Johnny Cash Chili Bowl Cook-along

Cooking with Columbo20 February marks the 50th anniversary of Prescription Murder – the first pilot episode of Columbo, the US murder mystery series starring Peter Falk as the raincoat-wearing sleuth that ended up running for 10 seasons until 2004. And what better way to celebrate than with the launch of a fantastic new culinary tome from Silver Screen Suppers’ Jenny Hammerton, the author of the Cooking with Joan Crawford Cookbook.

Cooking with Columbo: Suppers with the Shambling Sleuth is a treasury of 100 recipes, collected from Peter and his many co-stars, served up episode by episode alongside a selection of tasty side dishes and kitchen tested tips.

To accompany the book’s release, Jenny has been hosting the Columbo Bowl Chili Cook-Along (which ends on 20 February and everyone is invited to join in so check it out here), in which foodie fans are whipping up a chili dish based on a recipe by country and western star Johnny Cash (he was the guest in the 1974 episode Swan Song).

Chili was a big favourite of Columbo’s; although he got quite the surprise when Johnny’s version in the episode turned out to be made from squirrel meat. Thankfully Jenny asked everyone to either use beef (or try out the vegetarian version) for the cook-along. I opted for the former and you can see the results that I made live for the cook-along in the video below. Plus, I’ve included the recipe at the bottom on this post.

So what’s the Vincent Price link? Well, not only was Vinnie a big foodie himself (and the author of a number of cookbooks), he was also one of the many guest stars and appeared in Lovely But Lethal alongside Vera Miles, whose recipe appears in the book. Jenny has kindly provided that extract and I’ll be doing a post real soon.

In the meantime, here’s Johnny’s Chili recipe – and as it calls for beer as one of the ingredients, I have of course used a bottle of Hopdaemon’s Vincent Price Ale: Black Cat.

Johnny Cash ChiliJohnny Cash’s Chili
1 lb / 450g ground/minced venison (if available) or ground/minced beef (chuck or sirloin)
1/2 lb / 225g venison steaks (if available) or beef steaks, such as sirloin, or a rump roast, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 and 1/2 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon canola/rapeseed oil
24 oz / 680g canned tomatoes
1 large green bell pepper
1/2 large red bell pepper
2.5 jalapeño peppers (optional)
1/2 habanero pepper (optional)
1 packet McCormick’s Mild Chili Seasoning Mix (or your favorite brand)
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup / 32g chili powder (New Mexico chili powder if available)
1/6 cup / 21g cumin
1/2 tablespoon sage
3/4 teaspoon oregano
1/2 tablespoon cayenne pepper
15 oz / 400g can black beans, drained
15 oz / 400g can pinto beans, drained
15 oz / 400g can chili beans/kidney beans in chili sauce
12 oz / 340g can kidney beans, drained*
6 oz / 170ml beer
1/8 cup / 25g sugar
A handful of self-rising cornmeal*

In a large pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Brown the steak in the oil in batches, draining off some of the fat if necessary. Remove from the heat and set aside. In a separate frying pan, brown the ground meat over medium-high heat. Drain off the fat and set meat aside.

With the oil remaining in the pot, brown half the onions and garlic over medium heat until they are caramelized. Now add the well-drained ground beef and steak. Stir and heat it all up. Add the cans of tomatoes, the bell peppers, hot peppers (if using), and the remainder of the onions and garlic. Heat to a brisk simmer, stirring often.

John Carter Cash says that his dad would normally add the spices in the following order, first the chili packet, followed by some salt and black pepper, chili powder, cumin, sage, oregano, and cayenne pepper. John advises tasting the chili and once the spicing it is to your liking, drain the cans of beans and add to the mixture. Now taste again, as the beans mellow the flavor of the chili. Once the chili is to your taste, pour in the bottle of beer. Stir well. Cover and simmer for at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add sugar to your taste. Simmer, covered, for at least another 30 minutes, making sure to stir so the chili does not burn. Now add the cornmeal and stir in.

* If self-rising cornmeal is unavailable, you can make it yourself. Just combine 1 cup / 120g of cornmeal, 1/3 cup / 40g all-purpose/plain flour, 1 & 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Put the leftover mix in a sealed container and save for your next batch of Johnny Cash chili.
Serves 6

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Share This:

The Art of Horror: An Illustrated History | Vincent Price’s legacy lives on in this colourful tome

The Art of Horror: An Illustrated HistoryFrom the team behind The Art of Horror and edited by writer/editor Stephen Jones, comes this vividly colourful companion book which takes a visual journey through the entire history of the horror film, from the early 1900s to today’s latest scare fests, celebrating one of the most crucial promotional elements: the movie poster.

The Art of Horror: An Illustrated HistoryBeginning with a foreword from director/screenwriter John Landis, who elaborates on why ‘the image of the poster must not just inform, but also entice’, each chapter charts the evolution of horror movies through the posters that were designed with the sole purpose to grab the film-goers attention and get those all-important ‘bums on seats’.

The Art of Horror: An Illustrated HistoryFrom The Sinister Silents to The 2000s Maniacs, these chapters are written by a host of esteemed guest contributors, including Sir Christopher Grayling, Jonathan Rigby, Kim Newman, Anne Billson and Ramsey Campbell, and are packed with over 600 images including posters, lobby cards, ads, promotional items, tie-in books (my favourite) and magazines; plus original artwork, including Graham Humphreys, who was responsible for Arrow’s iconic Vincent Price covers, as well as our 2015 Legacy poster and the Black Cat: Vincent Price Ale label (above); and US artist Jeff Carlson, who did this atmospheric private commission below.

The Art of Horror: An Illustrated HistoryGorgeously designed over 256 pages, this must-have tome celebrates not only the actors and filmmakers, but also the amazing artists who were responsible for ‘scaring the pants off successive generations of movie-goers’. Amongst those featured are Basil Gogos (who drew all of the best Vincent Price portraits for Famous Monsters of Filmland, including the one from Madhouse, below), Marcario Gomez Quibus, Reynold Brown, Robert Tanenbaum and Renato Casaro.

The Art of Horror: An Illustrated HistoryWhile Vincent Price features heavily (Jonathan Rigby’s column on the Merchant of Menace really put a smile on my face), there’s so much more for classic horror movie fans to enjoy… and there’s also quite a few surprises, especially the inclusion of posters from Far East countries like Taiwan and Thailand (which so deserve greater appreciation).

And once you have swooned over the artwork through the decades, it will leave you with one lasting thought – that no amount of clever photo-shopping (the mainstay of movie posters today) will ever replace the vibrant truth of pencil and paint.

Available from Applause Books and Amazon UK

And speaking of Graham Humphreys, just take a look at this wonderful original early piece from the artist, which he has donated to the Vincent Price Legacy UK. Thanks Graham. We love it!

Vincent Price in The Raven

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Share This:

Listen to Vincent Price’s The Book of Joe read by his daughter Victoria

The Book of Joe (1961)In the tradition of classic dog stories like Anna Quindlen’s Good Dog. Stay. and JR Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, Vincent Price shared the heartwarming tale of his 14-year love affair with his mischievous yet endearing mutt Joe in the wonderful 1961 memoir, The Book of Joe: About a Dog and His Man, which is now out on audiobook, narrated by his daughter Victoria Price.

Check it out on audible.

Share This: