Friday, January 30, 2015

Appreciating THE SCREAMING SKULL (1958)

Prefatory note:
Be warned that SPOILERS are unavoidable in the following discussion and I have not avoided them.

Alex Nicol's THE SCREAMING SKULL, for which I could find very little love to reward my Googling, strikes me as a film ripe for renewed appreciation - not as a horror classic, by any means, but rather as an extremely modest film of skilled parentage that succeeds in creating something pleasurably eerie within its very limited means.

Actor Alex Nicol conceived the six-week independent production as a career boost. After working nearly a decade onscreen - starting out as a Universal contract player in George Sherman's THE SLEEPING CITY (1950), being loaned out for the Hammer noirs THE BLACK GLOVE and HEAT WAVE (both 1954), and several years after having given an outstanding performance as Donald Crisp's deranged son in Anthony Mann's THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955) - Nicol felt that he wasn't receiving offers that were equal to his abilities. So he had the idea to make a low-budget film, in a popular genre that was all but guaranteed to make money, which might encourage those in his business to regard him with renewed seriousness. It is clear from the end product that he had studied the way Roger Corman had gone about his own early successes. THE SCREAMING SKULL was released to theaters in January 1958 on an American International double bill with TERROR FROM YEAR 5000 - a film in which, incidentally, Corman himself had invested though not officially; it isn't known whether this was also true of Nicol's film. The double bill didn't win much in the way of critical favor, but it was considered a commercial success. Even so, it didn't result in the professional sea change Nicol had anticipated.

As it happens, THE SCREAMING SKULL became one of those movies that frequently appeared on local television in my pre-teen years, during the mid-1960s, when horror pickings were so scarce that anything even remotely related to the genre tended to get watched again and again, sometimes more out of devotion and gratitude than real enthusiasm. Nevertheless, it was a movie I always liked; the story was simple enough for me to follow from an early age, and its modest, offbeat scares were genuinely creepy. 

On television, of course, whatever suspense the film generated was periodically punctured by commercial interruptions. And then, after the introduction of home video, this ambitious little film fell into the public domain, surfacing in a succession of dupey releases that made it a literal eyesore. As time went on, the simple act of trying to watch THE SCREAMING SKULL became its own worst discouragement.

So I was intrigued to discover the film on Amazon Prime's horror roster, available free to all members. Wondering if their presentation might mark any improvement over what has been generally the standard for the last 35 years, I pressed "Watch Now"  - and was delighted to see an Orion logo preceding a perfectly crisp transfer - by far, the very best quality I had ever seen! The film ended 67m 28s later with the MGM lion, marking it as being of still more recent vintage than the Orion tag suggested. This same transfer, I'm told, sneaked out on DVD last spring through Shout! Factory's economy label Timeless Media as part of a "Movies 4 U" package along with THE VAMPIRE (1957), THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970) and THE BAT PEOPLE (1973), priced at only $5.99, but Stephen R. Bissette tells me that this good-looking presentation drifts out of sync with its soundtrack about 45 minutes in. Not so with Amazon Prime.

After absorbing the film as it was meant to be seen, probably for the first time, it became obvious to me that Nicol planned this project very well and assembled his crew with great care. THE SCREAMING SKULL was the first feature film to be written by CLIMAX! staff writer John Kneubuhl, whose extensive later television credits include THRILLER's most terrifying episode, based on Robert E. Howard's "Pigeons From Hell." Kneubuhl, a well-read writer judging from his many adaptation credits, took his title from an otherwise unrelated story written in 1911 by F. Marion Crawford. The film's director of photography was Oscar-winning Floyd Crosby, A.S.C., then Roger Corman's principal cameraman, who embraced the film as an opportunity to explore the then-largely-untapped potential for fright in double-exposed imagery. As far as I know, Ernest Gold's score - recorded shortly before his high profile winning streak with ON THE BEACH, INHERIT THE WIND and EXODUS - was the first in the horror genre to borrow from Hector Berlioz's "Dies Irae," as Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING would do almost two decades later. (It caught on fast, with Gerald Fried adapting it for his bombastic main theme to THE RETURN OF DRACULA, only three months later.) Already, we count three aces.

The film's pre-credits sequence alone proves Nicol a man of vision, if we look at it from the proper perspective. It opens on a lingering shot of a casket whose lid slowly opens to reveal a mood-setting message.

  
 
 
I know what you're thinking. Everything about this sequence suggests the influence of William Castle - the insurance against death by fright (explained to us in a voice-over), the surfacing of the eponymous skull from smoking, bubbling waters - I thought so, too. But if we check the release dates at the IMDb, Nicol's film premiered some ten months before the Halloween premiere of Castle's horror debut with MACABRE, which likewise insured its ticket-buyers against death by fright - and more than a year before Castle filmed a skeleton rising from a roiling acid bath in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959). To my mind, this detail alone requires a significant rewrite of 1950s horror film history.

As the narrative begins, Nicol immediately demonstrates his intention to invest the film with as much production value as he could afford, opening on an establishing shot of the splendid grounds of the Huntington Hartford Estate, located off Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, with its magnificent main mansion, San Patrizio, standing in for the Whitlock home. When the Whitlocks arrive, they do so in a new model Mercedes-Benz with gull-wing doors! Once we're inside the house, Nicol can't very cover the fact that the place is empty and unheated with chipped paint on the walls; it literally contains nothing but a downstairs rug, a particularly ragged-looking chair, a painting, a cabinet, two cots, a small wing table, and a candle! But a throwaway line of dialogue explains the spartan interior - the previous lady of the house, an eccentric, was very particular about adding only the pieces of furniture that really belonged there - and we're off and running.

The five-member cast boasts John Hudson (Nicol's co-star in Budd Boetticher's RED BALL EXPRESS, the twin brother of ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN's William Hudson) as the haunted widower Eric Whitlock; Peggy Webber (fresh from Alfred Hitchcock's THE WRONG MAN) as his new bride Jenni; Russ Conway (who had just appeared as the Hardy Boys' father in two MICKEY MOUSE CLUB serials) as the Reverend Edward Snow, a lifelong friend of Eric's; Tony Johnson as Mrs. Snow; and Nicol himself as Mickey, Eric's half-witted gardener, who clings to an irrational devotion to the late Mrs. Whitlock, Marian, who drowned on the property. Her spirit seems to inhabit a self-portrait that we're told by Eric was "poorly done" - and Floyd Crosby renders it suitably chilling with an unexpected superimposition.

Eric is seemingly devoted to his new wife, recently released from a sanitarium after suffering the shock of seeing both her parents drown in a boating accident. Jenni is one of the more sensitively written female characters to be found in this period of American horror cinema; she is not only grateful to have found love with Eric, but openly allows him any lingering feelings he may still have for Marian; she expresses her gratitude to her memory for teaching Eric what it means to love and value someone, as she needs to be loved and valued. The dialogue makes reference to Jenni being a "plain" woman, which becomes a telling plot point - but, as portrayed by Peggy Webber, Jenni is invested with all the personality, sensitivity and physical allure to make Eric's attraction to her plausible. (Without the personal charisma both Webber and Hudson bring to their characters, the film's first half would have been ruinously transparent.) This relationship stands in opposition to Mickey's more ethereal devotion to Marian, which is expressed through his keeping her former gardens in splendid condition, bringing flowers to her grave site, and paying poignant visits to the pond where she accidentally drowned, touching the face of the lilypad-mottled waters and raising his fingers to his lips. On first viewing, these scenes intentionally appear sick and neurotic but, in retrospect and on subsequent viewings, these scenes are revealed as the sanest and most tragic, as they humanize a character whom we never directly meet, whom Eric, unbeknownst to us and to Jenni, has deliberately distorted and demonized. (Nicol, wearing his hair much longer than was commonly acceptable in 1958 - prompting an early remark from the buzz-cutted Reverend Snow, about getting him to a barber soon - bears an unmistakable resemblance to Corman's screenwriter Charles B. Griffith which, considering their shared connections to Crosby and AIP, one suspects could be deliberate.)


Peggy Webber was pregnant with her first child at the time of filming, and Nicol - seizing upon another commercial element at hand - exploits her ripening figure with nightgown shots and one particularly gratuitous scene (missing from many PD tapes and discs) where she strips down to her bra (this is pre-PSYCHO, remember) to read Henry James' novella "The Beast in the Jungle." The James story is at least as foregrounded as Ms. Webber's bosom, encouraging one to seek out connections between the two works. They are there. A Wikipedia consultation reveals that the story is about a man and a woman who waste their lives by living under a sense of ominous foreboding about something that ultimately never happens - which finds resonance in the way Eric and the Reverend try to discourage Jenni's escalating feeling of being haunted, as she feels the mansion is haunted, by Marian's ghost - which becomes her idée fixe once the Reverend innocently confides to her something that Eric would not (knowing that the Reverend would) - namely, that Marian died the same way her parents did. But "The Beast in the Jungle" is also the story of an egotistical man's sense of expectation and entitlement, of feeling destined for great things that - in his mind - raise him above the commonplace rewards of the home and love that might have been his, which is ultimately revealed as the true nature of Eric.


When Eric spends a night away from the mansion, leaving Jenni alone with Mickey and the mansion and her story, the haunting takes more aggressive steps - in the form of a grinning skull that continually crosses her path. (Peggy Webber proves herself an able screamer with a terrific scream face in these scenes.) When Eric returns, he confronts Mickey with accusations of trying to torment Jenni, whom he allegedly hates for trying to take Marian's place as lady of the house. In a scene I found particularly disturbing as a child, Eric slaps Mickey repeatedly before threatening the innocent with even greater violence. We soon learn that Eric is in fact engineering the haunting himself, that he married Jenni - whose parents were wealthy - only to terrorize her back into a sanitarium so that he could take charge of her fortune. Because the script has openly referenced Jenni as a plain and troubled woman, the film allies her with Mickey as someone who is somewhat less than whole, whose perceived deficiencies makes her easy prey for the delusionally entitled Eric. In the final analysis, these deficiencies are revealed as qualities that make both Jenni and Mickey more authentic and caring as people.

Once Eric's true nature is revealed, the "Beast in the Jungle" begins to materialize to manifest his "spectacular fate." This begins when Jenni has a surprise encounter with what appears to be Marian's ghost in the greenhouse. 

 
 

In the film's most chilling shot, the transparent ghost of Marian follows Jenni down the stairs of the greenhouse into close-up - an effect that Floyd Crosby could only have achieved with a meticulously planned double exposure, matching the actual exterior of the greenhouse to an exact studio recreation of the exterior covered in black fabric, with the white-clad ghost filmed descending a cloaked set of stairs - the same principle used by John Fulton in creating his special effects for James Whale's THE INVISIBLE MAN in 1933.


From this point on, the film plays out in the style of a classic EC horror comic, with the scheming Eric attempting to strangle Jenni and being chased down by the very horror he dared to impersonate and manipulate to his own selfish ends. The Beast of his Jungle pounces and sinks its teeth into him.


In Tom Weaver's 2010 book A SCI-FI SWARM AND HORROR HOARDE: INTERVIEWS WITH 62 FILMMAKERS, Peggy Webber recalled that she felt like throwing up after seeing the finished picture. (Morning sickness, perhaps?) In its public domain status, the film went on to become the butt of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000's jokes. I don't get it. Knowing what I know about low-budget filmmaking of this period, I can find nothing in THE SCREAMING SKULL that speaks of creative negligence, crudity, or condescension toward its genre. On the contrary, for a directorial debut, it demonstrates remarkable credibility and resourcefulness, and for a horror film of its station and era, it earns a well-deserved niche in the curator's mind. It's a nice example of what people used to call a "sleeper." Alex Nicol himself recalled the film fondly, telling Wheeler Dixon in his book COLLECTED INTERVIEWS: VOICES FROM TWENTIETH CENTURY CINEMA, "I liked it. It had some nice dolly shots, a good atmosphere. So I was happy with that; it was a nice change from what I'd been doing."

If we discount the two Tarzan features adapted from episodes of the NBC-TV series, Nicol went on to direct two other features before his death at age 85 in 2001: the 1961 Italian-made war drama THREE CAME BACK and the 1973 Crown International release POINT OF TERROR with Peter Carpenter and Dyanne Thorne. In both cases, he demonstrated discernible care while working within challenging borders, creating modest works of quality out of almost nothing. Not bad for someone who directed only three features, each in a different decade.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Hello 2015 - A Step Forward In Time

Donna and I saw in the New Year as we saw in the New Century: by watching George Pal's 1960 classic THE TIME MACHINE, which made its Blu-ray debut in 2014. I'd heard some quibbles about the Turner Entertainment presentation, but it was far closer to the experience I remember feeling theatrically (I saw a matinee revival in the late 1960s or early '70s) and - despite rather dullish-looking titles, some individually grainy shots and some special effects shots that make an honest show of their rough edges - everything we hoped it would be. The Morlock sequences, especially, have wonderful depth and color, and Wells' prediction of the shoegazing Eloi has come to pass sooner than he could have imagined. It remains one of the cornerstone works of filmed science fiction, from one of its warmest and wisest voices.

We also enjoyed seeing our beloved friend Bob Burns show up in Clyde Lucas' (no relation) accompanying featurette THE TIME MACHINE - THE JOURNEY BACK, a 1993 documentary about the eponymous prop which includes a little pocket drama written by original screenwriter David Duncan, in which George (Rod Taylor) and Filby (Alan Young) are finally reunited. The odds were incalculably against it, but somehow the gentle hand of George Pal seems to have touched it - and it works.

This was the first time we'd watched the film since actually visiting with the Time Machine itself in Bob's legendary basement, and it was nice to discover that, as a result, the film now feels even more infused with love, warmth and nostalgia.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Goodbye 2014

2014: a year of extremes.

Death loomed large and came as near as it dared, at least this time around, taking admired colleagues like Something Weird's Mike Vraney, my uncle Jimmy, our little girl Snooper, and two particularly wonderful friends I already dearly miss, Michael Lennick and Mark Miller. For all that, it still could have been worse: another of my friends made a fortunately unsuccessful suicide attempt this year. This is a different sort of death, but I unfriended someone on Facebook just the other day, someone I've cared about, someone whose life I once helped to save, because he crossed a line in his self-destructive behavior that I could no longer endorse with my continued attention and implicit support. Life is just too precious now to see it wasted and ridiculed. Additionally, several friends of mine lost their parents this year, my close friend Steve Bissette losing both his mother and father within a one-month period. And then there were all the deaths of people who have been inspirational to me and you and others like us, in some cases for the whole of our lives; I remember at some point feeling that we were losing more than I thought were left after all the losses we suffered last year. The wisdom that comes down to us from all this loss should be clear: life is precious and we must make the most of it.

Donna and I published only two issues of VIDEO WATCHDOG this year, making this a bad year for personal income. Some outlets that owe us money started spreading the rumor among our readers that we'd closed up shop, perhaps so they wouldn't feel badly about not paying their bills when we might need the money most. There was also the agony of creating the VIDEO WATCHDOG Digital Archive - a task in which I and others participated, but in a small way compared with Donna, whose masterpiece it is - and this is where we begin to see and appreciate the other side of 2014. The VW Digital Archive is our second Everest, after the Bava book. It is an immense achievement that, we well know, not everybody is going to be able to appreciate right away because it's too ahead of the curve. That said, we've received some marvelous emails and accolades that Donna will be posting as part of her Digital Dog blog.

Though I was deprived for much of this year of my primary platform as a VW critic, this year was not without its professional accomplishments. The major one was the ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET box set from the BFI, to which I contributed five audio commentaries. I also contributed an essay to Arrow Films' THE HOUSE OF USHER and a commentary to their PIT AND THE PENDULUM, marking my advent into representing the work of two of my principal heroes: Roger Corman and Vincent Price. I also paid homage to Vincent with a commentary for Arrow's DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN and recorded an audio commentary for one of my favorite films, Georges Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE, which will be released in March 2015 by the BFI. In addition to some reissued Mario Bava commentaries I did - THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, RABID DOGS - I recorded my first Bava commentary re-recording/update for THE WHIP AND THE BODY (forthcoming from Odeon Entertainment in the UK) and a brand-new commentary for the Kino/Scorpion Blu-ray of PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES. Furthermore, I got to co-produce a video interview with actress Edith Scob for the EYES WITHOUT A FACE set, and I'm credited as an Associate Producer of Elijah Drenner's documentary THAT GUY DICK MILLER. I might even be forgetting a thing or two.

Indeed I did: 56 Video WatchBlog postings! Not quite as many as in 2013 (62 postings), but it makes this blog anything but moribund.

All in all, not bad for a guy in Ohio who barely left his house.

Other highlights of the year: Finally finishing my long in-the-works novel THE ONLY CRIMINAL. Receiving a handwritten letter from Steve Ditko. Spending my birthday weekend with friends at Wonderfest, where my beautiful friend Danya made me all emotional by reading aloud to our group of friends a poem she'd written about me and our friendship. My mother-in-law's miraculous recovery from a briefly fatal heart attack. Getting Larry Blamire to become a guest columnist for VIDEO WATCHDOG. Donna's and my 40th wedding anniversary on December 23.

Next year promises still more good things.

To anyone and everyone who continues to keep tabs on this old blog and its new tricks - you have my abiding appreciation and thanks. Here's to a happy, healthy and productive 2015 for us all!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Response to the VW Digital Archive

Merry Christmas!

For those of you who don't know, the VIDEO WATCHDOG Digital Archive - all 176 issues - was published the other day. Subscribers via our Indiegogo campaign should have received emails informing them of how to access and download their issues. If you haven't, please write to Donna at kickstarter@videowatchdog.com and she will put things right. We hope to have it available for everyone by the beginning of next week; we're having some shopping cart issues that need to be resolved before then. In the meantime, anyone can visit our Digital Library (see the left hand side of our website page) and preview the first five pages of all those issues for free, to assist you with deciding which back issues you might want to acquire if you can't go for the whole enchilada.

Last year, we told you the story of the Christmas miracle that enabled all of this to happen. This Christmas Day, let me share with you a wonderful email that Donna and I received only yesterday from a long-time reader in Switzerland, just in time to sweeten our holiday and make all of our efforts of this past year seem all the more worthwhile. It is reprinted with the sender's kind permission:

Hi Donna and Tim,

First off, let me wish you both the very best of Holidays. I hope you’re taking some time off, you deserve it after the wonderful job you’ve accomplished with the Digital Edition of VW.

Ever since issue # 175 came out in the format, I’ve wanted to let you know how much I love love LOVE these digital versions, how insanely pleasurable they are to read all over again and how generous to your readers you’ve been with them.

And I happen to think their importance goes a lot deeper than what all the superlatives could hope to express. I think that, with them, you’re teaching us all a lesson about the permanence of cinema, of the love of it and of the pleasures found in writing and reading about it

I’ve been returning to a lot of the first issues (I of course own the printed editions but I hardly go back to them, they’ve been sort of locked in their own time, thought of almost as obsolete as the formats described and critiqued therein) and what you’ve done with the Digital is to make them all relevant all over again. In other words, you’ve managed to overcome the curse of obsolescence. Otherwise why would it be so much fun to read, in late 2014, a twenty + year old piece about “The Exorcist” or “Twin Peaks. Fire Walk With me”… Because it’s never been about the formats - formats come and go -, neither is it about the painstaking listings of deleted scenes - we’ve seen them all by now – nor has it ever been only about the quality of a given transfer.

All of these, much as the world they exist in are always changing, adapting to the evolving requirements of the marketplace, but the absolute love of movies, the passion - yours… ours… mine… - for the art itself, which runs throughout all of these pages, has remained a constant. They’ve run in parallel for close to twenty-five years and my personal relationship to the medium, my own passion for the form I’ve now made my profession to convey to the next generation, has been influenced by VW in so many ways that they’ve become impossible to dissociate.

But it is naturally not (only) about me and my relationship to VW. What you’ve done for the home video market during these 25 years is simply astounding. I don’t think we’d be in this place today at all had VW had not been around, guiding the producers, setting the standards. Just thinking of some of the household names: Kim Newman, David Kalat, Mark Kermode, the fondly remembered Michael Lennick and Tim himself have all become ubiquitous in the industry and all of them for the very best of reasons.

This may sound silly, but thank you for reminding us, through these digital pages and the hours of fascinated and educated fun they will bring us all, of the importance of Video Watchdog in our lives.

A Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year to the two of you…

Didier Gertsch
Les Ateliers du Cinéma
Aubonne, Switzerland

Friday, December 19, 2014

Giorgio Ardisson (1931 - 2014)


It saddens me to report, so soon after the passing of Mary Dawne Arden, the death of another prominent player in the films of Mario Bava. The Facebook fan page Peplum Eternity is reporting that Italian actor Giorgio Ardisson - the handsome young actor best remembered for his roles in Bava's HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (Ercole al centro della terra, 1961) and ERIK THE CONQUEROR (Gli invasori, 1961) - died on December 11, at the age of 82. Before either of these films, he had been featured in two other films in which Mario Bava played a behind-the-scenes part: Andre de Toth's MORGAN THE PIRATE (Morgan il pirato, 1960) and Giacomo Gentilomo's LAST OF THE VIKINGS (L'ultimo dei vichinghi, 1961).

Among his many other screen credits were roles in KATARSIS with Christopher Lee, Antonio Margheriti's THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH with Barbara Steele (recently released on Blu-ray by Raro Video), Albert Band's HERCULES AND THE PRINCESS OF TROY and Federico Fellini's JULIET OF THE SPIRITS. He also played Sartana in Pasquale Squitieri's DJANGO DEFIES SARTANA, opposite THE WHIP AND THE BODY'S Tony Kendall.

Owing to some unfortunate misinformation passed on to me, MARIO BAVA - ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK mistakenly reported an earlier death date for Ardissson, a detail I have always regretted.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

RIP Michel Caen of MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE


There they are, the twenty-four issues that redefined what genre film journalism and criticism could and should be. The first eleven issues were digest-sized, printed on pulp paper, and as thick as paperback books; the remaining numbers were full-sized magazines printed on firm, non-glossy stock. It lasted only nine years, but MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE existed to celebrate the dark beauty of the horror and fantasy genres, to draw attention to experimental and independent cinema, the literature that provoked such images, their fetishism, their eroticism. It was not a monster magazine rife with jokes and clubhouse fun; it was a magazine for adults, for connoisseurs. It celebrated mystery, surrealism, the bizarre, the brazen beauty of the strange. Their eighth issue, in fact, became a cause de scandale - a celebration of "Eroticism and Fear in the British Cinema" that featured a portfolio of never-before-published nude images from the so-called "continental versions" of various British horror films, which led to the issue being banned by many newsstands. They presented the first in-depth print interviews with the likes of Terence Fisher, Jacques Tourneur, Roger Corman and Barbara Steele, enabling their readership to cross the proscenium of the entertained to see the film business as a reality that they too might enter and change - as one of their readers, Jean Rollin, did, in time to see his work on the cover of their penultimate issue.

MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE - named for the Midi-Minuit cinema in Paris where films of this sort habitually played - inspired many people outside of France, including people who couldn't speak a word of French, because the magazine was, above all, beautiful. Its carefully selected images were enough to propose a different understanding of its subject. I know for a fact that M-MF (along with Tom Reamy's TRUMPET) inspired Frederick S. Clarke to create CINEFANTASTIQUE, and it certainly inspired me to create VIDEO WATCHDOG. The VCR was my Midi-Minuit cinema.


Early this morning, reports began appearing on my Facebook news feed announcing the passing on Monday evening (December 15) of Michel Caen, the creator and editor-in-chief of this life-changing publication. I don't know his age and know nothing of the cause. He and I never met, we never exchanged words, but I hope my work shows his influence. Earlier this year, Rouge Profonde published the first of four projected hardcover volumes that will collect, reprint, update and append the contents of all 24 issues: MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE: L'INTEGRALE.

My sincere sympathies to M. Caen's wife Geneviève, his family, his friends and collaborators like his M-MF co-editor Jean-Claude Romer, and those who - like me - have shared in his stardust.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Mary Dawne Arden (1933 - 2014)

Best remembered as Peggy, one of the loveliest of the "sei donne" in Mario Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE [Sei donne per l'assassino, 1964], actress, model and entrepreneur Mary Dawne Arden passed away Saturday, December 13, in a Brooklyn, New York hospital at the age of 79. She was one of the many people I interviewed for MARIO BAVA - ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, and one of those with whom I became and remained friends.  

Mary Dawne (she insisted on never being addressed as simply Mary) was the daughter of a single mother, born in St. Louis during the the years of the Great Depression, and had to face adult responsibility early on in life. This forged her character as a hard worker, entrepreneur and self promoter. Though I liked - and, more to the point, respected - her immensely, she was one of those people who didn't seem able to ever fully relax or have a good laugh, though she was always friendly and good natured. She told me that she had never acted for money ( a good thing too, she philosophized, because she sometimes got stiffed on those Italian films come pay day), but to promote herself - quite an unusual and avant garde attitude for an actress, but Mary Dawne was, above all, a businesswoman. 

She likewise saw her successful career as a fashion model as a means of "branding herself," to use today's parlance - and she did seem proud of her accomplishments in that realm, which were indeed stunning, as she was of the fact that Federico Fellini had cast her in a role as a television hostess meant to be recurring in his JULIET OF THE SPIRITS, but which was cut from the final assembly. She asked me to keep on the lookout for other films in which she appeared and, over the years, I was able to get copies of the B&W giallo A... come Assassino (1966) and the fumetti adaptation KRIMINAL (1966) into her hands. When I asked what she thought of the films, she would dodge that uncomfortable issue by saying "Kind of a cute kid, wasn't I?" Indeed she was, a classic Grace Kelly type, and her modelling portfolio was truly stunning. But looking at those photos, at those VOGUE covers, I can always see the practical side of Mary Dawne, the good soldier and the good egg. I imagine that, as a young woman in the full bloom of her beauty, she must have been very like Peggy, who, finding herself the object of a co-worker's infatuation with her, sits him down, assures him of her friendship, and patiently copes with the problem till she can make the nutter see plain sense. 

It was during the period when we were most closely in touch that VCI announced their plan to release BLOOD AND BLACK LACE on DVD. I was hired to record an audio commentary and arranged for Mary Dawne to film a video introduction for the movie, which she was very happy to do. When I later told her that I had enjoyed the zany energy of her introduction, it seemed to confuse her, to make her worry and feel self-conscious, which was not at all my intention. She exuded such confidence that I was surprised to find a sensitivity there, not often tapped but still very present; it was one of the things about her that I found touching, which got to me. In short, I liked her tremendously - she was strong and loyal and, above all, dependable - which I remember telling her were characteristics I prized especially, since I see and value them in my wife.

When the Bava book finally came out, Mary Dawne was quite effusive about it and the lovely pictures I found of her, some of which she had never seen. As a thank-you, Donna and I presented her with a print of the color shot that opens the BLOOD AND BLACK LACE chapter, which she told me she planned to frame and hang near the entryway of her apartment. As this news reached me via a Facebook friend sharing her NEW YORK TIMES obituary this morning, Mary Dawne and I fallen out of touch for some time. I'm both sorry to know that she's gone and grateful to know that this dear and driven woman is finally at rest.

Here is a link to her NEW YORK TIMES obituary.