Friday, July 17, 2015

Welcome to My Nightmare (1976)

          Years of merchandising and reunion tours have kept face-painted rockers Kiss in the public eye, but Gene Simmons and co. weren’t the only ’70s FM-radio favorites to weave elements of classic horror movies into their stage shows. Vincent Damon Furnier, better known by his stage name Alice Cooper, actually preceded Kiss in the practice of blending ballads with bloodshed. Like Kiss, Cooper eventually traded the fake gore for PG-rated thrills, the better to please the young children who became part of his fan base. By the time Cooper released the concert film Welcome to My Nightmare, his antics were about as threatening as the average episode of Scooby-Doo. Nonetheless, Welcome to My Nightmare is fun to watch because it captures Cooper at the apex of his popularity, and because the concert tour that’s documented in this movie was  so ambitious. Dancers! Monsters! Special effects! Vincent Price’s voice on a recording! Most of this stuff is pure camp, of course, but the tunes are fairly strong, and the overall presentation is entertaining.
          A little bit of context is necessary. In the early ’70s, Alice Cooper was the name of both Furnier’s stage persona and the tight rock band he fronted. Alice Cooper, the band, earned fame with attitudinal hits including “I’m Eighteen” and “School’s Out,” while their stage shows often climaxed with a fake head getting chopped off by a guillotine. In 1975, Cooper went solo and released Welcome to My Nightmare, which features the ballad “Only Women Bleed.” To promote the album, Cooper and choreographer/director David Winters created an elaborate stage show telling the story of the album from start to finish. (In the songs and the show, a young man named Steven becomes trapped in a phantasmagoria of demons, monsters, and spiders.) The team shot the show twice. First, they videotaped the performance on a soundstage, adding even more elaborate costumes and effects and sets, to create the Emmy-winning TV special Alice Cooper: The Nightmare. Then they shot part of the tour, complete with real audiences, to create this feature film. Overkill? Sure, but restraint wasn’t exactly the guiding principle of Cooper’s ’70s career.
          The separation of Cooper from his old backing band means that during many scenes, Cooper is alone onstage except for dancers, resulting in a high kitsch factor. The sequence of Cooper wearing a white tuxedo and a white top hat while high-kicking with dancers wearing skeleton costumes is silly. Yet the lengthy sequence during which two dancers dressed as spiders crawl up and down a giant web while Cooper’s guitarists engage in a shrieking six-string duel is a treat for the ears and the eyes. Cooper runs through the expected hits (“I’m Eighteen,” “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” “School’s Out”), as well as playing all of Welcome to My Nightmare. The material is uneven, and Cooper’s croak of a voice is unremarkable. However, there’s a lot to be said for an artist willing to work this hard in order to keep his audiences amused.
          Today, rock bands seeking to create spectacle have arsenals of digital technology at their command. Back in the day, folks like Alice Cooper and Kiss made their wonderments by hand. Especially since Kiss never made a proper concert movie in the ’70s (a shocking oversight by the entrepreneurial Mr. Simmons), Welcome to My Nightmare might be the best artifact we have from the original, low-tech “shock-rock” era.

Welcome to My Nightmare: FUNKY

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