Saturday, October 22, 2005

Edison's FRANKENSTEIN Still Available

By now some of you have probably read Stephen R. Bissette's "Watchdog News" article/review of Thomas Edison's FRANKENSTEIN (1910) in Video Watchdog #122. (If not, get out to your local newsstand and support this blog by buying a copy, or follow the link to our website for prompt to-your-door service.) If you've read Steve's article/review, you may remember his mentioning that the DVD release of this title -- paired with F.W. Murnau's NOSFERATU (1922) -- is now out-of-print. Though this information checked out at the time we went to press, it was refuted in an e-mail I received this week from Jeff at Graveyard Records:

I recently saw your magazine at a local hobby store and its article on the 1910 Edison FRANKENSTEIN. Just to correct some misinformation, I manage a horror collectible store in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and we are the current official/exclusive distributor of the DVD from Alois Detlaff/ADA Ventures, Intl.

We are still selling the DVD through our website and retail store for $25.00 which includes free shipping in the USA.

This professional DVD contains the 1910 Edison FRANKENSTEIN and a print of the 1922 NOSFERATU all on one disc. You can read more information about the DVD on our website @

If you'd like any additional information, please do not hesitate to contact us at 414-486-1751 or via email.

Thank you for your time.

Graveyard Records & Collectables

4727 S. Packard Ave.
Cudahy, WI 53110

Friday, October 21, 2005

More on the Big S (and a Couple of F Bombs)

I spent some more time last night with Warner's new ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN box set and feel I must say something about Gary H. Grossman's audio commentaries. Mr. Grossman is the author of Superman: Serial to Cereal, a book from the 1970s which I haven't read but which I believe to be the first book to cover the series in any depth. Therefore he has the credentials to provide this commentary and he brings a marvelously warm and expressive voice and ease of communication to the medium. So why does he bungle the job?

Grossman's commentary for "The Haunted Lighthouse" (featuring Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen, pictured above) pretty much had me at wit's end. Not only does he build his entire talk around his boundless fascination with the idea that he still remembers the first time he saw this episode (at age four) as though it was yesterday, he speaks to his listeners like a kindergarten teacher -- as though he imagines us to be age four. It's very grating. When he does impart anything approaching technical information, it's usually to point out an actor's shadow on a cycloramic backdrop or some other "blooper," like Superman's costume drying right after he's gotten it wet. These points are not only insignificant but easily noticed, hardly requiring this sort of underlining. Still worse, when Grossman offers more substantial information, it tends to ring false. His account of what Steve Carr would have done as the show's dialogue coach isn't quite right. Carr wouldn't have told actors how to say their lines in a soundbooth; he would have run script lines with them in their dressing rooms during breaks in the shooting. During a climactic showdown between the Man of Steel and someone who tried to flatten him with a rock, Grossman interrupts a silent patch to issue a stunt man alert -- which is fine, but when the attacker rushes past Superman to fall off the cliff, there is a digital repair glitch which Grossman explains as a cut that allowed the filmmakers to reinsert Reeves back in the action. (Not so; you reinsert the actor before you call "action," not in the middle of a shot. Besides, this show isn't all that careful about keeping the face of George Reeves' stunt man off camera. Check out Superman's rescue of Lois and Jimmy in "Night of Terror" and you'll see what I mean.) Finally, when Jimmy Olsen's "real" Aunt Louisa enters the episode at the end, Grossman identifies the actress as Effie Laird. If he's correct, I'd like an explanation because Ms. Laird's name doesn't appear in the end credits and the accompanying featurette on Disc 5 identifies this lady as Maude Prickett.

While watching "The Haunted Lighthouse," you may notice what looks like segments of significantly poorer quality, where the crystal clear image suddenly turns flat and fuzzy. The longest of these few segments run from 14:16 to 14:57 and from 16:37 to 17:01. Here's an example:

People should know that the picture doesn't lose about 50% of its sharpness in these instances because these snippets survive only in degraded condition. Actually, this footage was degraded in post-production because it was double-printed with optical overlays of fog. (The shot starts out the way you see it above, then the fog slowly rolls in.) What's interesting about this footage is that the transition to these optical inserts was next to invisible when this program originally aired on TV and later in syndication, but with the non-optically-treated footage digitally restored, the difference between it and the optical footage is now literally glaring. Since these shots were intended to blend seamlessly with one another, they also give us a measure of how much the bulk of the program has been improved -- a kind of "before and after" illustration, so to speak.

This is the sort of helpful information the commentary could have used, as well as some general information about how this great program came to be produced and why the tone of these first season episodes are so different from that of later seasons. I can't say that Warner Home Video got the wrong guy for the job when they called Gary Grossman, but the evidence of his two commentaries shows that he charged into the task with far more enthusiasm than care. There are two more commentaries in the set by George Reeves biographer Chuck Harter, and I hope they take better advantage of the opportunity.

Interesting tid-bit: Check out the janitor's visit to Clark Kent's office in "Night of Terror," about 14m 40s into the episiode. When he leans a broom against the wall of the office, you can see the whole wall tremble -- it's not a solid wall at all, but some kind of stretched fabric! This is the sort of detail it was just about impossible to see in this program until now.

On a different note, here's a Video WatchBlog consumer alert from VW reader John Gentile of Jersey City, New Jersey:

"MGM quietly released the 1976 Canadian gem THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVED DOWN THE LANE recently, and even though the DVD box claims it's rated PG, I suspect that this was transferred from an R rated version from the vaults. First of all, Scott Jacoby drops the "F bomb" early on. Then, in a brief love scene, Jodie Foster's character disrobes (it's pretty clear this was a body double). The Vestron tape from the 1980s does not include these scenes, and is rated PG."

Along these same lines, I'll take this opportunity to mention that MGM's "Midnite Movies" release of Roger Corman's GAS-S-S-S! was also quietly restored for its DVD debut. When the film was being prepared for release by American International Pictures in 1971, they tampered with Corman's original cut, removing a couple of "F bombs" (which are actually uttered rather sweetly) and omitting some voice-overs by a omniscient offscreen character called God. Corman took the AIP's shanghai-ing of his picture so much to heart that he never worked for Arkoff & Nicholson again and started his own company, New World Pictures, to gain executive control over his own future product. GAS-S-S-S! still has some coherency issues, but it's far more comic and entertaining (almost Kurtzmanesque) and obvious as a career testament than was the previous VHS release from the 1980s. When I noticed that the movie had been released as Corman intended it to be seen for the first time, I notified Joe Dante, who brought the matter to Roger Corman's attention. He had not been notified of the restoration by MGM (who probably didn't know they were restoring it), nor did he know that his original cut had survived that long-ago night-of-the-long-knives in the AIP vaults. It was released on a two-fer disc with Barry Shear's WILD IN THE STREETS (1968).

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Meat is Murder

I received my advance copy of Grindhouse Releasing's "25th Anniversary Special Edition" of Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980, $29.95) and was proud to see a certain blurb on the back of the box: "Bar none, the most frightening film I've ever seen." - Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog.

I can't remember where I wrote this, possibly somewhere online, but it's certainly true. CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is one of those films that takes you to a foreign place and then proceeds to take all your compasses away, including your moral compass. It strands you in a deadly, despairing place where the monsters are all too real and occupy both sides of the story, the familiar as well as the strange, leaving us feeling all the more stranded and vulnerable. It's a movie that makes you feel fearful not only for the characters, but of what you might be shown next, and finally of the whole human condition.

If you're unfamiliar with the movie, be forewarned that there are some fairly heavy instances of authentic animal death in the film, which I agree is indefensible; it's one of the reasons this is not a movie I revisit easily, and why I fast-forward through a couple of scenes or look the other way when I do. The director has said that no animal was killed for the film that isn't habitually killed to provide food for the natives in the New Guinea jungle where it was made, but this doesn't make the images more digestible, so be forewarned. These mondo-style animal scenes do, however, heighten the film's horror -- and I use that word advisedly; this is that rare movie that underscores the distinction between horror and terror (99.9% of every other scary movie in your collection). There are other movies out there that may go further into the spectacle of shock (MAN BEHIND THE SUN is one I'm thinking of, based on what I've heard of it), but I don't want to see them. This is my limit.

What calls me back in continual support of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is that, aside from the animal deaths, it is an ingeniously crafted faux-documentary that not only looks back to "found manuscript" examples of classic literature like Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but looks ahead to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and the whole phenomenon of "reality television." Nowhere is the astounding success of this film more apparent than when you compare it to other examples of the mondo film genre it was working within: THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER, THE EMERALD JUNGLE, SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD and, of course, Umberto Lenzi's CANNIBAL FEROX aka MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY. Plus, it's got a great Riz Ortolani score.

Grindhouse's special edition (see frame grab above) includes a brand-new high definition master of the film and an audio commentary with director Ruggero Deodato and actor Robert Kerman on Disc 1, and a second disc packed with other supplements, including on-camera interviews and some never-before-seen deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes material, trailers and much else besides.

David Szulkin, who worked on this disc with producers Sage Stallone and Bob Murawski, e-mailed me this morning with some surprising news about this release: "As of October 18-19, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST has made it to #3 in the Top 100 DVD pre-order charts at The most recent STAR WARS movie and WAR OF THE WORLDS are in the #1 and #2 slots respectively. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg... and Grindhouse!"

There's some interesting background about the disc's post-production in this recent press release:

October 17, 2005


LOS ANGELES -- After fighting a difficult battle with printers over a graphic photo insert, Sage Stallone and Bob Murawski of Grindhouse Releasing have at last prevailed in their mission to bring Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST to DVD.

No less than eight different printers refused to handle the artwork for Grindhouse's 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST during the final stages of the project. The company encountered further resistance from numerous binderies who likewise turned down the job of putting together the elaborate DVD package due to the inner sleeve design, which features an image of a nude woman impaled on a stake.

The stonewalling by printers caused a nerve-wracking last-minute delay in Grindhouse's production schedule, and ultimately cost the disc producers thousands of dollars in added expenses. "It was a real nightmare. We almost didn't make our street date because of these problems," says Murawski. "For a while, it seemed like nobody was going to take on the job. We had a similar problem years ago with our release of CANNIBAL FEROX, where we actually did make some changes in the artwork that we felt were appropriate. But we would never change our design to suit a printer's sensibilites. We put too much hard work into the project to back down."

The producers have faced many other obstacles bringing the DVD to market in recent months. A well-known film magazine refused to run an ad for CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, denying Grindhouse the opportunity to submit an alternate design; the same publication promptly killed a story on the movie after seeing the ad. Major retailers such as Blockbuster have passed on the DVD, citing content issues.

“With all the uncensored horror product in the marketplace, it is amazing that CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is still a lightning rod for First Amendment issues decades after it was made," says Grindhouse's head of theatrical distribution David Szulkin, who served as Associate Producer of the DVD.

All 11,111 copies of the limited edition 2-disc set had to be hand-assembled, as the "offending" artwork was printed in a different facility than the rest of the DVD box. Based on the impressive advance orders, distributor Rykodisc predicts that the entire run will sell out in record time.

CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST arrives in stores on October 25, 2005. "This is the mother of all DVDs, period," says Ryko's Jay Douglas, the first to view the finished product. "With CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, Grindhouse has raised the bar for everyone."

Don't worry; I'm not going to turn Video WatchBlog into a bulletin board for company press releases, but I find these background stories interesting, and they're not just ballyhoo. A review of Grindhouse Releasing's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST will appear in a forthcoming issue of Video Watchdog.

Addendum from David Szulkin, circa 1:43 p.m.: "I just received an e-mail from Rykodisc informing me that CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST has climbed to #2 (!) on the DVD Empire chart today.
CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST knocked Spielberg out of the slot!"

About That TCM Copy of "Castle of the Living Dead"...

... the matte thickens! I've just been notified that the National Film Museum version of CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD that is scheduled to air on Turner Classic Movies at 3:30 a.m. on October 31 is indeed letterboxed, after all!

Now, considering that this movie has only ever been released in this country as a dead-center pan&scan TV print, I can't help being suspicious... this is probably going to be that same pan&scan print with mattes ("black bars") slapped over the picture, along with the usual additional screen credits for those big stars at NFM... but now I've got to tune in, damn it.

In case you're wondering why this broadcast is of such interest to me and a few others, it's that CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is not only one of Christopher Lee's better European vehicles of the 1960s, but Donald Sutherland's screen debut (in a dual role as a soldier and a witch) and the (second unit) directorial debut by Michael Reeves, the cult British director of THE SHE BEAST (1965), THE SORCERERS (1967) and WITCHFINDER GENERAL aka THE CONQUEROR WORM (1968). Sutherland named his son Kiefer after the film's nominal director, Warren Kiefer. All this, plus the fact that this picture has never been screened stateside in its original aspect ratio.

Will this be the screening we fans have been waiting for? Probably not, but if only to hasten the possibility, I'm going to do my best to approach this playdate with an open mind.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

"The Book of Renfield" Film Option Sold

I'm excited and proud to announce that the motion picture rights to my novel The Book of Renfield: A Gospel of Dracula have been optioned by Puckster Productions and Neely O'Hara. (I know that "Neely O'Hara" is a character in the original VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, but it's a name on my contract, too.) Mark Kruger -- whose past credits include CANDYMAN: FAREWELL TO THE FLESH (1995), CALLING ALL MONSTERS (1999), the 2004 Hallmark miniseries of Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN (with Alec Newman, Julie Delpy and William Hurt), and the recent NBC miniseries REVELATIONS -- will be writing the screenplay, and I wish him well.

Signed copies of The Book of Renfield are available from the book's website, where you can also find a reading sample and other information. Keep watching the site in the weeks ahead, as I intend to be adding some interesting new features.

Meanwhile, the screen rights to Throat Sprockets remain unsold, though my agents and I have received several inquiries about it over the years -- and I hope to receive more, now that it's been included as one of the selections in Stephen Jones and Kim Newman's new anthology Horror: Another 100 Best Books. ("Before there was The Ring," writes Tananarive Due, "there was Throat Sprockets" -- nice.) One of the difficulties about adapting the book to film is that it's such an "internalized" story, some people in the business have a hard time seeing how it could be "externalized." Of course, as the writer, I can see very easily how this can be done and I can take liberties with my text other writers might not want or think to do. So, in what little spare time I have, I've started taking a long overdue crack at a Throat Sprockets script myself.

The film rights to my work are represented by Judy Coppage of The Coppage Company in North Hollywood. Telephone: (818) 980-8806.

Look! Up in the Sky!

The following material has been extensively revised since it first appeared yesterday afternoon:

THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN - THE FIRST SEASON (Warner Home Video, $39.98) hits video stores today -- all 26 episodes on five discs, in addition to a breezy 17-minute featurette about the show's history, the pre-series feature SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN (later re-edited/re-scored to create Episodes 25 and 26, "The Unknown People," also included here), and a few of the Kellogg's cereal commercials featuring George Reeves that played during the original series run. There were great episodes still to come in subsequent seasons, but in this first season from 1951 -- known to many Superman fans as "the film noir season" for its brooding B&W atmosphere and often hardboiled depiction of crime -- virtually every episode is memorable. There are a lot of us, I'd say, who have been waiting for this set even longer than we've been waiting to see Tom Welling put on his Man of Steel duds, so this is a happy day.

I just received my set a few days ago. As it happens, I felt I had spoiled my appetite for it a little by plunking down for a DVD-R set of the entire series on eBay a few months ago, before this release was announced. Having seen all the episodes recently, I decided to start with Disc 5, where all the extras (apart from the audio commentaries) are collected. SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN has never looked better; the B&W image is bright and detailed, even in muted light scenes. Fans who have only seen this story as the two-part "The Unknown People" will be interested to see some scenes cut from the broadcast version, a different musical score, and revel in following the story without commercial or episode interruption. And because "The Unknown People" is a re-edited version, these episodes are slightly darker and not quite as crisp as the original feature.

The "From Inkwell to Backlot" featurette focuses on the show rather than George Reeves' death, which is as it should be, especially for the first season. It's an okay overview, though I feel the set would have been enriched as a whole if the commentators (including Leonard Maltin and Superman from Serial to Cereal author Gary Grossman) had allowed themselves to be a little more specific in their trivia. For example, it would have been useful for them to introduce Steve Carr (the show's dialogue director and brother to frequent director Tommy Carr), because he shows up in some role or other in almost every episode. (Grossman does point him out in at least one commentary.) Carr plays Eddie in SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN, the doctor on the train in "The Monkey Mystery," the film director in "Czar of the Underworld," a sinister Peruvian in "Treasure of the Incas," he even appears in drag in "Double Trouble"... plus he's the guy who is pointing up at the sky in the frame grab above! Once you know about Steve Carr, you start seeing him everywhere. (There's a great moment in "Czar" when George Reeves opens a trailer door and finds Steve Carr standing there, and breaks into a huge grin, acknowledging how ubiquitous he is.) There are also instances where the same actors show up in different episodes playing different characters, but I'll leave those for you to discover. I was pleased that the commentators acknowledge Jack Larson's comic gifts and give Phyllis Coates her due as the best of all Lois Lanes. Sexy without being showy and feisty despite showcasing one of Hollywood's all-time great screams, Coates makes Lois a feminist heroine, standing up to lynch-mob leaders, mob bosses and psychopaths alike.

Speaking of psychopaths, there is some great horror in the set. Some people have written to ask me for Halloween viewing recommendations, and you really can't go wrong with "The Haunted Lighthouse," "Mystery in Wax," and "The Evil Three." "The Haunted Lighthouse" is like a classic Hardy Boys mystery (none of which had been filmed yet), "Mystery in Wax" is a creepy wax museum story with a cackling madwoman whose laugh will disturb your dreams, and "The Evil Three" points the way to Tobe Hooper territory. There's even a terrorist episode, "The Human Bomb," which reveals that the famous opening shot of people pointing skyward ("It's a bird! It's a plane! It's SUPERMAN!") is actually a relooped shot of people supposedly watching a man strapped with dynamite standing on a high window ledge of the Daily Planet Building with hostage Lois Lane.

Since originally posting an earlier draft of this entry, I've taken a look at several episodes in this set and was most impressed by what I saw. The episodes have been brought to disc looking brighter and crisper than I've ever seen them before, so they have an aspect of fresh experience -- and I can recite dialogue from some of these. (Who can't? "No comment until the time limit is up!") The first time I saw Clark Kent run down that alley in a shot that's duplicated in many first season episodes, I actually exclaimed that I'd never seen that alley look so clean and beautiful. There is one exception, however: the episode "The Stolen Costume," which looks dupey and covered with faint scratches throughout; it's the only ugly duckling in this swanage of episodes. This is the episode in which Superman's secret identity is first uncovered by criminals and are flown to a snowy mountaintop while Superman ponders what to do with them; they try to escape and... It's one of many moments in this set where you have to pinch yourself and ask "They really got away with putting this stuff in a kid's program from Kellogg's?"

Actually, the episodes presented here are full-strength, with occasional highlights that go a whit too far around the bend of good taste (there's one, "The Birthday Letter," where an abducted disabled girl cries hysterically as her leg braces are removed by a gangster to prevent her going anywhere) ; when they were originally shown on television, they were subjected to some sponsor-demanded cuts. In fact, if you've only seen these episodes on commercial TV during the past 20 years or so, chances are you saw them either cut or time-compressed to fit more commercials into the half-hour. To see these episodes in their entirety -- for example, with the Polish oppression-themed prologue intact at the top of "The Monkey Mystery" -- can be a revelation.

My only complaint so far is that the packaging is a little odd, with four of the discs "double-layered" on clear plastic hubs. Thus, every time we want to watch Disc 2 or Disc 4, we must remove Disc 1 or Disc 3 to get at them. I'm also a bit concerned that the overlapping may cause scratching on the uppermost discs. Were these little extra troubles really necessary?

I can remember watching a condensed episode of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN on a Kenner toy projector I had as a kid, and thinking it was the coolest thing in the world. To be able to hold every episode from Season 1 in my hand is like a dream, and to see how good 99.5% of this material looks is a dream come true. I recommend this set as the perfect companion for a night of high-flying nostalgia in your own Fortress of Solitude.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

WatchBlog Gets Results!

Yesterday I received an e-mail from Charles Tabesh, head of programming at Turner Classic Movies, in response to my "Horrors of the National Film Museum" blog. In short, Mr. Tabesh shares our concerns about the National Film Museum and their questionable "restorations" and vows to sever TCM's ties with the company.

TCM has other NFM titles scheduled in the near future, some of which can't be helped at this late stage (including a replay of THE VAMPIRE BAT at 7:30a.m. on October 31), but in some instances substitute copies will be sought and aired instead. Viewers should also be cautioned in advance that TCM's showing of the 1964 Italian film CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (scheduled for 3:30 a.m. on October 31) -- first announced by TCM as a widescreen broadcast -- is indeed a pan&scanned National Film Museum title, and we're told it looks pretty bad.

I also spoke on the phone yesterday to TCM's Steve Iverson, a longtime VW reader who brought Video WatchBlog to Mr. Tabesh's attention. Steve was interested to read my comments about TCM's current copy of THE MANSTER, a crummy NFM dupe, and was able to offer a sound explanation of how MGM's picture-perfect master got lost in the shuffle. Apparently the TCM film archive has been around so long that it now exists on several different tape formats. The MGM master of THE MANSTER has been around for so long, it's on one-inch tape, the oldest of these formats. TCM's current broadcast standard is Digi-Beta, and they are currently in the process of remastering select titles in the next format, High Definition. As Steve surmised, "Since the MGM MANSTER was on an old one-inch, when National Film Museum sent us the title on Digi-Beta, we probably assumed it represented an upgrade, which it obviously wasn't." Now that TCM knows it's just an ugly cousin copy, they are going to check into the possibility of transferring the one-inch master to Digi-Beta for future broadcasts. Let's hope it works out.

And let's hear it for TCM for taking this matter so seriously! How many other stations would bother listening to viewers complaining about the quality of their copies of THE VAMPIRE BAT and THE MANSTER, much less take decisive action about it?

Monday, October 17, 2005

Dracula D.V.D. 2005

Warner Home Video's new DVD of DRACULA A.D. 1972 ($19.98), along with THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960, included in Universal's recent HAMMER HORROR SERIES set), completes the availability on DVD of Hammer Films' saga of Count Dracula, as portrayed by Christopher Lee, challenged by Peter Cushing's Dr. Van Helsing, and filmed between 1958 and 1974.

Here's my critical overview of this beloved (and much debated) series, followed by some notes on Warner's DRACULA A.D. 1972 disc in particular:

HORROR OF DRACULA (1958): It's not exactly Stoker-by-the-book, yet it has retained its power as a valid reinterpretation of Stoker for close to half-a-century. Paired together once again after Hammer's successful CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Cushing and Lee were poised here to make film history, and under the careful guidance of returning director Terence Fisher. The bloody surprise at the end of the main titles, the library scene, Jonathan Harker's entrapment in the crypt, the seduction of Lucy, the capture and staking of Lucy, and the action-packed finale -- Stanley Kubrick once said that all a film needed to succeed were five "non-submersibles," and this one has this many and more. One of the finest vampire films ever produced; everything that follows in the series was an attempt to recapture the magic found here. Warner Home Video's anamorphic DVD crops the original 1.66:1 framing, and wasn't mastered from the original Eastmancolor negative, or one of the eye-popping IB Technicolor 35mm positives originally circulated, so the definitive release remains to be seen.

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960): Lee sat this one out, but Cushing returned to brandish his Holy weaponry against Baron Meinster (David Peel), a spoilt, blonde, pretty-boy vampire who became one of the undead by walking on the Wilde side with some "decadent" friends. Without Dracula overshadowing everything, Jimmy Sangster's script is free to explore other facets of vampirism, some of them creepy and transgressive, always with interesting results. The heroine, Yvonne Monlaur, doesn't work for me but her friend, played by Andree Melly, conveys a wickedness not equalled by any other female presence in the series. Not the equal of the original, but the best parts are every bit as scary and possibly even more flamboyant. Haven't watched Universal's HAMMER HORROR SERIES transfer yet -- sorry! (In 1960, Monarch Books published a sexed-up novelization of BRIDES written by Dean Owen. The vampire pictured on the cover painting looks more like Reed Hadley than David Peel!)

DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1965): Lee returned, but refused to speak in this third and last of the series directed by founder Terence Fisher, while no role was provided for Cushing. I find this one entertaining, even engrossing for much of the time, but ultimately a mixed-bag. The second half is a trifle meandering (Thorley Walters pops up as someone named Ludwig, who is Renfield in every other way) and the finale is uninspired, but the first half -- I believe -- may offer the very best filmmaking Hammer ever gave us. Fisher reaches out, pinches us by the nose and walks us through an amazing succession of suspenseful events, as two English couples on holiday are tricked into position at Castle Dracula to revive its absent Master. Thank God for Anchor Bay's DVD, which allowed this Techniscope film to be seen in its correct screen ratio after more than 30 years of pan&scanned TV airings. This needs to be reissued as an anamorphic disc.

DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1967): Freddie Francis, one of Britain's greatest cinematographers and a hit-and-miss director for Amicus, took over the direction of this gaudy, overdone but nevertheless diverting direct sequel to the preceding film. Best remembered as the debut of the radiant Hammer star Veronica Carlson and for the scene where Dracula, staked by an atheist, is thereby empowered to rip the stake from his own chest. There's a very nice Warner Home Video DVD of this.

TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969): Some fans are extremely fond of this entry, directed by newcomer Peter Sasdy, which documents how three Victorian families are destroyed by Dracula when the sensation-seeking fathers of the respective houses are involved in the death of his disciple. I like it too, but the pre-credits scene with Roy Kinnear is atrocious ("Dracula's b-b-b-blood!"), and so is Dracula's running scorecard of his conquests ("The first!" "The second!" etc) and the weak finale. It scores extra cojones points for a scene in which a man is staked by his own vampire daughter. Also from Warner Home Video, and also nice.

SCARS OF DRACULA (1970): Before this film, directed by Roy Ward Baker (A NIGHT TO REMEMBER), fans always had to endure long waits between Hammer Dracula movies, but this one followed TASTE close on its heels. Surprisingly, it doesn't pick up where the other left off, and begins with Dracula's ashes (curiously strewn about in a tower room inaccessible to outsiders) being reanimated by a blood-barfing bat. Some call this a return to HORROR OF DRACULA territory, but it's more like a nastier, grimmer HAS RISEN with appallingly cheap production values. Hammer's great art director Bernard Robinson had died by this point, and it showed. This is the one of two films in the series to get novelized (this time by Angus Hall) and I recommend SCARS as a much better read than a view. Despite the movie's shortcomings, it was brought to DVD by Anchor Bay Entertainment in splendid form, with a brilliant anamorphic transfer and audio commentary by Christopher Lee and Roy Ward Baker. After decades of trashing it in the press, they end their session by muttering that it's not as bad as all that, after all.

DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972): The success of AIP's COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) showed Hammer the way to resurrect their waning Dracula series -- bring him into modern day London. The trouble is, once he's resurrected, he never leaves the ancient derelict church where he's been revivied, so as far as he's concerned, the movie might as well take place in 1872, where the film's rousing pre-credits battle (reuniting Cushing and Lee) takes place. The younger characters look well into their twenties and talk like much younger kids from a different place and era, and their hilariously misconceived, tutti fruitti banter has led some to draw comparisons with BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. Russ Meyer would surely have approved of the casting of Stephanie Beacham, whose voluptuous form is poured into a skin-tight white gown that no red-blooded male who saw this film in his teen years is likely to ever forget. Cushing is the designated driver here, giving an admirably well-modulated performance as Van Helsing's descendant. Caroline Munro gives her d├ęcolletage a bloodbath, Christopher Neame extends the definition of "over the top" as Johnny Alucard, and Bay Area rock group Stoneground funks up a posh party with "Alligator Man." See critical comments about the disc below.

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1974): A.D. 1972 director Alan Gibson returned with this more dynamic and interesting sequel, which brings Cushing and Lee together one last time. The story concerns Van Helsing's race to prevent Dracula from unleash bubonic plague on the world, evidence of the immortal vampire's death wish. Directed with a lot of verve, the film is thankfully more soberly written than its predecessor and also jacks up the levels of sex (nudity, anyway) and violence. Anchor Bay has released the best version of this (now out of print), but it has also surfaced on a number of public domain labels (Front Row Features, Gotham Distribution, etc) under titles like THE RITES OF DRACULA and COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE priced at five to seven dollars.

As I was about to say before this list occurred to me, Warner Home Video's presentation of DRACULA A.D. 1972 is very welcome indeed, and the online reviews I've read have been unqualified raves. I, however, see it as a bit of a disappointment. I saw the film theatrically more than once and still have vivid memories of how ravishing it looked on the big screen. (The cameraman, Dick Bush, was a favorite of Ken Russell and also shot TOMMY, CRIMES OF PASSION and LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM.) The DVD, while pretty, doesn't capture the original's richness of color, and there are other hair-splitting problems as well.

The gripes start at the very first frame, where Warner has superimposed their current logo over the preliminary James Bernard "Dracula" theme, rather than the WB logo that appeared on the original prints, as seen here:

(No, "WB" does not stand for WatchBlog.)

Then, with the fade-in, the gripes continue. My concerns were immediate when I noticed, very plainly, that during the opening 1872 coach battle between Dracula and Van Helsing, the first Dracula whose face we see first is not Christopher Lee but his stunt man, hanging on to the outside of the runaway coach. The reason the stuntman is plainly visible is because someone forgot to lay on the pre-dawn tinting that accompanied the scene on the big screen, and which gave the sequence an added sense of urgency. Oddly enough, when Dracula's flashbacks to this earlier contretemps occur later in the film, the footage is correctly tinted. I'd always wondered what this scene would look like with that aquamarine tint stripped away, and now that I know, I'd like it back, please.

Correct tinting from flashback:

Too bright tinting from start of film:

Fortunately, I have the correct rendering on a Japanese laserdisc released by Warner, which I reviewed back in VW #20. In reviewing that disc, I referred to Bush's cinematography as "luminous," which isn't a word that comes to mind while watching this DVD. The DVD colors are okay but they've been digitally cooled, giving the movie the pastel, tepid look of... well, an Amicus film. The colors in A.D. 1972 should be ripe and warm, as they are in the accompanying trailer. Compare the skintones and you'll see what I mean. And the neon colors inside the Cavern bar should burn hot, as they certainly don't here. I was motivated by curiosity to the extent of switching around some wires in my home entertainment set-up and fire up my old laserdisc player and spin the disc, which is now 12 years old. The original WB logo and pre-dawn tinting are in place, you can't clearly see the stunt man's face in the opening shot, and the colors are indeed bolder. Unfortunately, the laserdisc is hardly definitive because its unmatted standard ratio framing dilutes the intended impact of 1.85:1 framing, which is dead perfect on the DVD, and the picture is often occluded with Japanese subtitles. The LD is also often a tad too dark and the image resolution hasn't the pinpoint clarity available to DVD. It is, however, mastered from an actual positive print and is thus a somewhat more accurate reference as to how the film originally looked.

Japanese laserdisc grab:

From Warner Home Video's DVD:

There's really no contest between these two grabs, especially when viewed on a computer screen (where my A.D. 1972 DVD looks great), but on a large screen set, you do lose a sense of the warmth of human skin and the full advantage of the film's lighting and art direction.

Something else to add to the "Pro" column concerning Warner's DVD is that it offers a complete presentation of the movie -- which never happened in US theaters. Approximately 10 seconds of gore footage have been restored to Dracula's demise, as a stake point comes... what's the correct word?... gooshing further, further, and further out his back. (Dracula almost always gets staked, so I don't count this as a spoiler.)

One last, little gripe: Fans who saw the movie in theaters here in the States are also bound to miss the "HorroRitual" exploitation leader that was shipped out at the head of Warners' 35mm prints during the picture's first run. This 5-minute short featured Barry Atwater ("Janos Skorzeny" of the original THE NIGHT STALKER) in blue-face, sitting up in his coffin and reciting along with audiences the "HorroRitual," apparently a prerequisite to joining the late Donald A. Reed's Count Dracula Society. (I can't remember if the audience were provided with recitation cards at the boxoffice, or if the words of the ritual were spelled out onscreen -- probably the latter, because I'm sure I would have kept the card had there been one.) It would be fun to see this again, as one of the last gasps of major studio ballyhoo; I understand it can be found among the various public domain clips found in the HS documentary HORROR TALK (1989).

Personal note to you Hammer collectors: If anyone out there is interested in my Japanese LD of DRACULA A.D. 1972, I'm prepared to part with it now -- feel free to click the "Contact Tim" option and make me an offer. The same goes for my Japanese discs of HORROR OF DRACULA and DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE. They were all priced at $49.98 when new, and their uniform packaging is eye-catching and not at all like the domestic releases. All three are in near-mint condition, having been played only once or twice each, and they're still in their original plastic sleeves with OBI banners. I'll field offers through Friday and get back to the high bidder. I accept VISA, MasterCard and PayPal.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

First Week Stats

My greetings to you all on this chilly Cincinnati Sunday.

Today marks the first week anniversary of the day Video WatchBlog "went public" -- that is, when I first announced it and the blog received its first visitors. WatchBlog has received a warm welcome with a total of 4,419 visits this week, averaging 597 visits per day; Tuesday was our best day, Monday being a national holiday, with something like 920 visitors -- 300+ more than our daily average. Having the first online review of Argento's BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE helped, it seems. We've also had 7,016 page visits this week, averaging 949 per day, and Site Meter shows that the WatchBlog's readership literally encircles the globe, reaching from Quebec to Singapore, from Iceland to Cape Town. Doing this has meant a lot of extra writing on my part (everybody's asking me where I find the time), so I'm pleased to know there are a lot of you out there reading it.

Donna and other friends have been cautioning me to pace myself, but I wanted the WatchBlog's first week to show everyone how good it could be. I'll try to live up to that standard as much as I can, as long as it's worth doing, and as long as it's fun... but mind you, I have other things to do, and still other things I should be doing, so I can't be going full tilt here all the time. But you can certainly look forward to the WatchBlog going full tilt tomorrow, as I've written another LONG piece on a popular topic which I believe you'll find worthy of your time and attendance...