Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Criterion Sunday, Anyone?

It's St. Valentine's Day, so it is only fitting that I should write something today about love as I know it. With this noble goal in mind, let me say that I don't know about the rest of you, but my Significant Other has much stricter views than I on what constitutes an acceptable evening's Entertainment. With her, it has to be new -- or at least in color -- and preferably "about relationships." No horror, thank you. And no subtitles, "because I've spent all day looking at words on a screen and now I want to relax."

My wish is to serve. Unfortunately, most of what we are sent for review is contradictory to my Wife's pleasure, so it usually takes me a minimum of thirty minutes of humorous offstage crashes as I rifle through bankers' boxes before I can find some oddball release that at least halfway meets her criteria... and then she watches my prize catch while sewing, scrabbling noisily through a nearby drawer in search of a lost thimble, looking at a quilting magazine, or delighting at the antics of our cats as they tussle in front of the TV screen. In the meantime, I'm watching whatever it is 100 per cent. But I am, as they say, a man in love.

We recently had one of these "entertain me" evenings, my Spouse and I, and the luck of the draw -- something acceptably recent (1990), a "relationship movie," in color, no subtitles -- turned out to be a recent offering from Criterion, Whit Stillman's METROPOLITAN. I'd never heard of the film and didn't know what to expect from it, but, as I should have expected from the Criterion endorsement, it turned out to be a sheer, unalloyed delight. An independent, low-budget film shot in New York City, METROPOLITAN was a "first film" for nearly everyone involved, but through some curious means, the end result is remarkably close to perfection. It might best be compared to a Woody Allen movie without Woody Allen's grandstanding neuroses being channeled by the entire cast list, or an Eric Rohmer movie set outside France, or an F. Scott Fitzgerald story set in a Manhattan he never lived to see.

The story, in short, is about a middle-class leftist named Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) who is serendipitously falls into the company of a group of upper class while exiting New York's Plaza Hotel at the height of Christmas debutante season. Tom doesn't approve of debutante parties, or the class snobbery they encourage, but he finds his conversation with these people invigorating and is persuaded to invest in a used tuxedo and tail coat to continue as an escort to Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina). Audrey, who finds Tom more substantial than other guys she's met, finds herself falling for Tom -- but Tom's heart is still tied to the girl who broke it -- Serena Slocomb (Elizabeth Thompson), who re-emerges at one of these gatherings in the company of Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe), a young baron whose selfish, womanizing ways are rumored to have driven at least one lovesick admirer to suicide.

Cast entirely with talented unknowns, including some who had never considered acting before, METROPOLITAN is one of the most sublimely written, dryly humorous, and engagingly well-cast American movies I've seen in a long time. (Stillman's original screenplay was recognized with an Academy Award nomination.) It's easy to see how Tom is drawn to these people and "the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie" (the subject of a hilarious sidebar), against his own ideals, and comes to relax some of his personal, social, and even literary biases. Another of the film's engaging qualities is that it never reveals its time frame -- it takes place "not so long ago" -- so that, even if we can't personally relate to the characters' way of socializing, we can accept that these events took place in another recent era. Indeed, some young people watching the film might roll their eyes at the notion that anyone could call sitting around and debating politics, philosophy or books "a party," but these parties are like some great ones I can remember attending in the 1970s. Today's parties (at least the ones in the movies I see) are all about getting wasted; yesterday's parties were about stimulation -- the stimulation of new ideas and new friendships, possibly new romances. I presume the film's time frame is sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, as Stillman brought a few of the actors and their characters back for fleeting glimpses in his late '70s-situated THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO (1998) -- a film I now need to see again.

Criterion's high-definition transfer of the film is splendid, needless to say. The extras include an interesting an informative audio commentary by Stillman, editor Christopher Tellefsen, and actors Chris Eigeman (who plays Nick, the "abrasive" one) and Taylor Nichols (who plays Charlie, the bespectacled and anxious one -- my favorite of the film's characters); an outtakes montage; a memorial to a key crew member; and an illustrated booklet built around an essay by Luc Sante.

Discovering METROPOLITAN reminded me of one of home video's most enduring rules of thumb: When all else fails, trust Criterion. In fact, with their backlog of DVD titles now topping 300, one could easily devote oneself entirely to Criterion for the better part of a year and come out the other end a more experienced, more fully rounded connoisseur of film. In my line of work, it's all too easy to get side-tracked and bogged-down by other, frankly lesser movies and lose track of some of the things that are truly important. There are nights when I, too, tell myself I'm not "feeling up to subtitles" or coming to grips with unfamiliar world cultures -- but what I'm failing to remember when I think these things is how invigorating the discovery of a real masterpiece can be.

With this in mind, I'm entertaining the idea of setting aside one day per week to catch up with my Criterion viewing -- "a Criterion Sunday," perhaps. I usually have things to watch on Sunday evening (new SOPRANOS and HUFF episodes are just around the corner), but a Sunday afternoon... Now that might be perfect -- kind of like playing hooky and going to church at the same time!

If my "Criterion Sunday" idea sounds good to you, be sure to include METROPOLITAN as one of the titles you should visit along the way.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Bad Times for Korean Cinema

My friends at Tartan Video Extreme sent me this press release today, which should be of concern to anyone who, like myself, feels that some of the best films being made today are coming out of Korea. I've never used this blog as a billboard for press releases or political statements before, and I don't intend to make a habit of it. But, in this case, I felt the news was relevant to the interests of those who read Video Watchdog:

Korean Cinema at a Crossroads
South Korean government drops screentime quota for domestic films
"Oldboy" director and star return Cultural Merit medals to Korean government in protest


LOS ANGELES — Feb. 1, 2006 — The Korean government is betting that homegrown cinema will continue to flourish without the safety of a screen quota system that has protected the Korean domestic film industry since 1966. Local actors, directors and moviegoers aren’t quite so optimistic and are protesting their displeasure with significant public gestures.

Established to help the Korean film market grow from its humble beginnings into the worldwide cinematic hotbed it is today, the quota requires Korean cinemas to show Korean films for 146 days of the year. Starting July 1st, that number will be reduced to 73. The reduction had been demanded for years by the US government as a key condition for free trade negotiations, but its implementation has not been well received by many, including some of the biggest filmmaking names in Korean cinema.

“The government's decision to cut the quotas is equivalent to giving up our culture,'' said Choi Min Sik, star of Crying Fist, Lady Vengeance and the immensely popular Korean film Oldboy.

Choi recently returned his Cultural Merit medal, a prestigious award which honors Korean artists, to protest the quota system. “The medal was personally my pride and honor,'' Choi told reporters in Seoul. “Now it is a symbol of the government's betrayal. I don't need a medal from a country that chooses to stamp on our own cultural rights.''

In addition to Choi, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance director Park Chanwook, currently preparing to promote his latest film Lady Vengeance at the Berlin Film Festival, also returned his medal and commented that he will voice his concerns further at the festival. Tae Guk Gi and The Coast Guard star Jang Dong-gun has also come forward to voice his opposition.

Korean Filmmakers and artists are not the only ones expressing their displeasure. A group of South Korean lawmakers are currently seeking legislation to maintain the country's current quota for the screening of domestic movies, claiming the government's compromise deal with the United States is humiliating.

Korean cinema has witnessed unheralded success the world over in recent years. A Tale of Two Sisters was one of the ten highest-grossing horror films worldwide in 2004. Oldboy received the Grand Prize of the Jury at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Korean cinema has made giant crossroads into America on the success of the Asian horror genre as well as the unique style of its filmmakers.

"This is not a fight only for ourselves,” Choi told reporters. “We are fighting for living between the Korean and American movies and cultures. Oldboy would not have existed without the screening quota.”

Oldboy, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Coast Guard are available now on DVD from Tartan Asia Extreme. Tae Guk Gi is available now on DVD from Sony Home Entertainment.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Revel in Evelyn

There is a mind set prevailing, even among those of us who have HD television and should know better, that there is only so much that old black-and-white movies can deliver in high-definition. When Monsters HD premiered THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) last weekend, I watched them both and came away pleased, but with mixed feelings -- the sort of mixed feelings that become possible after you've lived with HD television long enough to begin to accept it as commonplace.

There is no denying that both films looked better than ever, even better than on DVD, as HD decompresses the visual information. But SON looked better than BRIDE... possibly because it was a richer-looking production, and possibly because the art of cinematography had advanced in that four-year difference. I could even see, for the first time in SON, the slender black wires supporting the weight of Bela Lugosi's Ygor as Boris Karloff's Monster carried him to the family crypt, but I can't say that I noticed anything new in terms of nuances of performance. As wonderful as these films are, they are played pretty broadly; you can "get" all their performances have to offer in low-def. BRIDE and SON were fun to watch in HD, but when all is said and done, neither presentation really knocked me out.

The K.O. came last night, when Monsters HD celebrated the 100th birthday of Lon Chaney, Jr. by premiering Universal's THE WOLF MAN (1941) and FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1942). I found the further advance represented by the look of these two films almost startling. They shared with the two Frankenstein films a heightened sense of detail, which brought all of the grace notes buried in the art direction and set decoration to the forefront, but what I found most impressive was their heightened sense of depth, emotion, and temperature.

I never realized it until now, but much of THE WOLF MAN is filmed on studio sets with vast floors, both interior and exterior; the whole look of the film is a celebration of image in depth. A shot of Evelyn Ankers running through the woods, which in a duller presentation one's senses easily reduce to the essential information of her action, is now like watching a beautiful woman who once lived and breathed running through the cinematic equivalent of a magnificent painting. We sense that it must have been a delightful moment for her to perform, as a professional. The fogbound studio sets are a marvel of depth with their receding trees, shafts of light, and rolling fog.

As one might expect, one does tend to see better all the individual yak hairs on Chaney's face, but also hidden recesses of performance. To watch Chaney's performance as Lawrence Talbot in HD is to see much of its seeming bluntness smoothed away. True, he wasn't the actor whom screenwriter Curt Siodmak envisioned when he wrote Talbot as the prodigal son of an old English family and had him using expressions like "chap," but Chaney had an expressive face, the necessary inner turmoil, and the talent needed to convey all the tragic dimensions of the character and story. And then there's the diminutive Maria Ouspenskaya as the gypsy woman Maleva. In my earliest acquaintence with these movies, I can remember thinking that Madame Ouspenskaya was not the most expressive actress in the world. No, she doesn't make a meal of the scenery like some of her co-stars, but seeing her performances in high-def, one can better understand her mastery of film acting technique. She was calibrating her performance to the sensitivity of the camera lens and trusting it to deliver the emotions she was projecting on a more intimate keel. Seen in HD, closer to the readability of a 35mm big screen viewing, Ouspenskaya's Maleva is pitch-perfect: tremulous, fearful, brave, and wearily wise to the mysteries of the world. Even the sound quality is improved, making her muttered dialogue more easily understood.

Another of the uncanny things one can pick up from THE WOLF MAN in HD is a hint of body heat. For example, the scene in THE WOLF MAN where Lawrence Talbot (Chaney), under the boughs of a tree, gifts Gwen Conliffe (Ankers) with the medallion given to him by Maleva; Gwen says she was taught never to accept presents without giving one in return and offers him a penny for it, and Larry says it's not enough -- moving in for a kiss. Their kiss is interrupted before it gets started, but the blossoming of detail in this scene awakens its intended, long-dormant sense of intimacy and makes it surprisingly hot to watch.

Monsters HD general manager David Sehring knows and loves these movies, and one can see his awareness of their chronology and content in the fact that THE WOLF MAN was booked to be shown in tandem with its direct sequel, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. The opening graveyard scene where Chaney is revived in his tomb by a couple of unsuspecting graverobbers, long a top favorite among Universal buffs, is beautifully revitalized in HD. The exterior crane shots come alive in vivid detail -- blowing leaves, twitching trees and a lone crow; when the wind picks up, as one of the graverobbers runs away, the shot conveys a similar thrill to the coming of the tornado in THE WIZARD OF OZ. Inside the Talbot family crypt, one can more clearly read the names on the surrounding name plates inside the Talbot crypt, including one for Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains' character from the earlier film) and another for Lawrence and Anne Talbot, presumably the Wolf Man's grandparents. Seeing the two films en suite like this, one can also better appreciate the ironic arc they represent, as Chaney's character is initially infected with lycanthropy by Bela Lugosi, then seeks the answer to deliverance from this curse from the Frankenstein Monster, whose makeup is worn in the second picture by none other than Lugosi.

In short, Monsters HD gave Lon Chaney, Jr. the best possible present for his centenary. They gave his body of work a new lease on life. And so let it be said:

"Even someone so impure in heart as to shun films in black-and-white may become a fan if they watch Monsters on VOOM, where the picture's so sharp and bright."

PS: Since we last remarked on Monsters HD's introduction of the onscreen station bug, they have further reduced its frequency to only once per hour, so it now appears only once in any film they are presently broadcasting. We thank them for being so responsive to the wishes of their viewers!

Friday, February 10, 2006

Eurodrama: Films Without Pity

MPI Home Video's new subsidiary label, Dark Sky Films, has been making their presence known of late with a number of interesting, offbeat releases on DVD. Among them are the early gore classic THE FLESH EATERS (1963) with Martin Kosleck, the anime-like TERROR BENEATH THE SEA [Katei daisenso, 1966] with Sonny Chiba, the Edgar Wallace krimi THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS [Der Mönch mit der Peitsche, 1967], and the R-rated drive-in favorite WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS (1971). Another of their releases, a bit harder to find than the others, is a curious item titled WET ASPHALT, starring Horst Buchholz, Maria Perschy (both pictured above), and Gert Fröbe.

Dark Sky has labelled the release as "Lost Noir" -- but there's got to be a better name for it than that. For one thing, WET ASPHALT is a German picture.

Originally released as Nasser Asphalt in 1958, WET ASPHALT was distributed here in the United States by Walter Manley Enterprises, best-known for importing an especially kooky brand of science fiction film -- PRINCE OF SPACE and INVASION OF THE NEPTUNE MEN , to name a couple. Its release as a Dark Sky title hints at the phrase "contractual obligation" and it might well have been a contractual obligation for Manley too, as it's hard to imagine it ever selling many American tickets on its own. That is not to say that it's not good or not interesting; on the contrary, I was drawn to this release right away, without quite knowing why.

As one quickly surmises from the DVD's sketchbooky cover art, WET ASPHALT is not really a noir film at all -- it isn't a crime picture, per se, nor is it particularly stylized; it doesn't feature hardboiled male characters nor femmes fatale. So why did it continue to beckon to me, long after I had set it aside for later viewing? True, it has some cast and crew members with minor cult appeal, but I believe what most intrigued me is that it reminded me of other unclassifiable works from the same era and area. This led me to the consideration that there may well be a worthwhile kind of European film, largely forgotten now, that has been overlooked precisely because they are not allied to genre. Of course, these films could be said to fall under the basic generic heading of drama or love story, but I would argue that they are a certain kind of drama and love story in need of their own distinctive term. After all, because movie thrillers already existed, that didn't prevent the giallo from being pinned and labelled as something distinct, right?

What do I know about these strange, disenfranchised movies? They are European -- primarily German, French, Swiss, Czech or Yugoslavian; they are movies that, though well-made, didn't have the artistic gunpowder or pretension to make an international mark as art films; they are also mainstream pictures that, in every way other than story, seem to scream genre. They are not really atmospheric but they have mood in spades; they are neorealistic in terms of their look and their frankness about controversial subjects, yet they are decidedly more artificial, more movie-like, than, say, Italian neorealist pictures. Furthermore, they seem to be commonly steeped in post-war feelings of guilt, self-reproach, and sin by association. They make me think of the Gene Pitney song "Town Without Pity" -- written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington for the movie of the same name, which was set in the West Germany of 1961. I'm determined to find a generic handle for these movies, because if they become known as belonging to a specific genre, they stand a better chance of surviving, being re-released, and being discussed. There may also be a few buried masterpieces among their kind.

When I was a kid, I occasionally saw trailers for films like WET ASPHALT at the drive-in, or at a neighborhood indoor theater that hosted kiddie matinees on weekends and catered to the "art film" market on weeknights. They always mystified me because there was an air of otherness about them that I knew ought to interest me, but they didn't promise the monsters and mayhem that would have encouraged me to seek them out. There was also a palpable sense that these movies were for adults. Consequently, my main memory of them is that I saw the trailers, but the movies themselves never materialized. Sometimes these trailers turn up on Something Weird Video compilations; they feature actors like Curt (or Curd) Jurgens, Maximillian Schell, or the star of this particular film, Horst Buchholz. Some years before he made WET ASPHALT, Buchholz starred in another German picture called Die Halbstarken (1956), which was released in America under the title TEENAGE WOLFPACK. I wish I could remember the name of the Something Weird compilation that featured its trailer -- watching this compilation was like dreaming while wide-awake, because the names of the actors were familiar but the films were so obscure they all seemed imaginary! The trailer for TEENAGE WOLFPACK stood out because it humorously "introduced" Buchholz as "Henry Bookholt" -- a new sensation of the screen. TEENAGE WOLFPACK (whose title may well have helped inspire the "True Confessional" title for I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF in 1957) looked like it would belong to the same obscure, disenfranchised pack of Eurodramas as WET ASPHALT.

In hindsight, I suppose these films must have appealed to two basic groups of Americans in the 1950s and early 1960s: 1) immigrants to whom the European settings and actors were familiar, and 2) curiosity seekers who detected in these trailers a whiff of the unknown, the forbidden, the un-American. In other words, somebody might get naked.

Anyone hoping for a glimpse of forbidden fruit in WET ASPHALT will be disappointed, as it is actually a study of a young journalist and the conflicts that arise from his moral code. Buchholz plays Greg Bachmann, a young reporter who was sent to prison for six years for impersonating a French officer to infiltrate Spandau Prison and gain exclusive interviews with the most notorious of surviving Nazi war criminals. Upon his release, he is approached by Cesar Boyd (Martin Held), Germany's one-man news industry, who respects what Greg tried to do and needs an assistant; he offers him top dollar for his services. Narration carries us four years further down the road of their association. Boyd has maintained his stellar reputation and Greg is delighted to be working with him. Distracted by the arrival of Boyd's pretty niece Bettina (Perschy), the two journalists forget their obligation to file a strong weekend story with the leading Paris newspaper by 8:00 on Friday night and need to come up with something fast. Desperate, with the help of his chauffeur Joe (Gert Fröbe in the earliest of his screen appearances I've seen), Boyd concocts a far-fetched story about a group of Nazi soldiers and their prisoners being found alive in a Polish bunker, where they have spent the last six years -- and presents it to Greg as factual. Greg calls it the greatest news item he's ever heard, and to Boyd's astonishment, the world agrees. The story captures the world's imagination and the demand for further details pushes him to invent further updates.

The location chosen for the bunker happens to coincide with a spot in Poland where secret rocket tests are being conducted by the Russian army, and the story excites unwelcome interest in the region, resulting in grave impact on other peoples' lives. The demand for additional news becomes so great, and so lucrative, that other unscrupulous professionals begin to heap their own facets of invention on Boyd's original lie, exciting the hopes of families who lost loved ones in the war that husbands and brothers and sons may be among the fictional survivors. One woman's excitement so overwhelms her that she suffers a fatal heart attack, and mobs eventually converge on Boyd's home, demanding the identities of the survivors be revealed. In time, Bachmann realizes that the story is a lie and he must make the difficult choice of either covering up the deception, or telling the truth and losing his career in the process. In either case, he suffers a rude awakening in regard to the journalist who had become his hero and role model. There is a romantic subplot, but it is fairly prudent apart from some allusions to Boyd's non-avuncular interest in his young niece.

Horst Buchholz and Maria Perschy both passed away fairly recently -- Bucholz in 2003 (pneumonia) and Perschy in 2004 (cancer). Neither of them lived to reach the age of 70, which makes it a bittersweet and sentimental pleasure to find them here looking so young and full of promise. Even Gert Fröbe looks fresher than usual; this was a couple of years before Fritz Lang cast him as Inspector Kraus in THE 1000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE [Die Tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse, 1960], thus setting his career on track toward the immortal role of Auric Goldfinger. The film is stolen, however, by Martin Wald as Cesar Boyd, a robust actor who wasn't destined to enjoy the same level of international recognition as his co-stars. The director of photography, Helmut Ashley, later became a director specializing in krimis -- notably the excellent Moerderspiel ("Murder Game," 1961) and the Edgar Wallace film Das Rätsel der roten Orchidee ("The Puzzle of the Red Orchid," 1962, starring Christopher Lee).

WET ASPHALT (the title refers to the aftermath of a street where the Police have turned firehoses on unlawful public assemblies) was directed by Frank Wisbar, an East Prussia-born director, best remembered for the classic dark fantasy Fährmann Maria (1936), who fled Nazi Germany and made a series of B-pictures at Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) -- including a notable remake of the aforementioned picture called STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP and THE DEVIL BAT'S DAUGHTER (both 1946). He returned to West Germany in the mid-1950s and added another eight titles to his filmography (most of which score high ratings on the IMDb) before his death in 1967. I would never have recognized WET ASPHALT as Wisbar's work in a million years. It's a good and interesting movie, with some commendable things to say about personal and professional responsibility, but not the buried Eurodrama masterpiece I alluded to earlier. ("Eurodrama" -- could it be that simple?)

Dark Sky's disc is correctly rendered in standard ratio and looks pretty good except for some early shots that evince some noise and shimmer as the camera casts a look down a cobblestone road. I wish the disc offered a German language option with English subtitles, to help one get closer to the performances; nevertheless, the quality of the dubbing is excellent. The voices and dialogue doesn't always fit the lip movements, but the voice actors give valid performances and the English track feels unusually wedded to the film.

If you're looking for something offbeat, an unusual evening's entertainment that gestures to a whole other world of filmmaking you're not likely to know much about, consider taking a midnight stroll down WET ASPHALT.

Here's hoping that Dark Sky unearths some more "Lost Noir"! There must be more where this came from.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Master of Monster Music

I dislike the idea of making two death-related postings in a single week, much less four. But alas, it is necessary to reflect on the news from Japan of Maestro Akira Ifukube's passing at the age of 91, from natural causes.

With his grim, churning yet magisterial score for Ishiro Honda's Gojira [US: GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS!] in 1954, Akira Ifukube opened the door to a highly individual orchestral sound that would define the so-called kaiju eiga ("monster movies") of Toho Studios for more than half a century. Ifukube would not score all of the Godzilla films produced during that time, but his spirit was always present and guiding in the works of his replacement composers, who knew all too well whose shoes they were being asked to fill. A Godzilla film would somehow be less than a Godzilla film if his appearances were not accompanied, at least once, by those musical passages familiar to all the series' followers -- the hulking main theme, the strident march accompanying scenes of mobilized military forces, and most of all, the music (proud, ascendant, yet rich in gravitas) that told us that Godzilla was, although bloodied, unbowed.

It is true that Maestro Ifukube was sometimes criticized for leaning too heavily on these standards he had set, but it is also important to note that he continued to add scores of conspicuous significance to his backlog throughout the entire length of his career. Though KING KONG VS. GODZILLA was largely rescored with library music for its US release, the original version Kingukongu tai Gojira (1962) features one of his most ravishing scores, one that was faithful to the urban/jungle orchestral fusions of Max Steiner's seminal KING KONG score, while further fusing it with the lyricism of melodies evocative of the Pacific islands. This score was paid the ultimate compliment of being included in original Japanese release prints in full stereo. One of the greatest glories of Ifukube's catalogue, the heartbreakingly plaintive "Song for Mothra" sung by Imi and Yûmi Ito ("The Peanuts") in GODZILLA VS. THE THING [Mosura tai Gojira, 1963], was showcased in a passage of unexpected poignancy in the midst of what its young audience assumed would be little more than a knock-down, drag-out monsterfest. It was Ifukube's role as composer to keep the series' juvenile aspects rooted in emotion, wisdom and soul -- he infused scenes of war with the awareness of loss.

Knowing his value to the series all too well, Toho acknowledged the 30th anniversary of the original film by producing a memorable home video exclusive in 1984: GODZILLA FANTASIA, a "greatest hits" compilation of series highlights accompanied by all-new stereo orchestrations conducted by Ifukube. In Japan, even in the laserdisc era, it was not uncommon for Ifukube's kaiju eiga to be released on disc with isolated music-and-effects channels. When Ifukube returned to the Godzilla series after a nearly 20 year absence in the 1990s, he added two more masterpieces to his canon with Gojira tai Mosura [GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA - THE BATTLE FOR EARTH, 1992] and his penultimate series score, Gojira tai Mekagojira [GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA II, 1993]. In addition to scoring these films, Ifukube was responsible for creating/recording the roars of the various Toho giants.

Of course, Ifukube was not just about Godzilla. In addition to being an accomplished classical composer and conductor, he used his vast knowledge of medieval and ethnic Japanese music and instrumentation to score the DAIMAJIN and ZATOICHI film series for Daiei Studios, and incorporated all manner of bizarre and modernistic instrumentation (saws, theramin, electric guitar, Hammond organ) when scoring some of Toho's most impressive science fiction films, such as Chikyu Boeigun [THE MYSTERIANS, 1957], Uchu daisenso [BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE (1959), and Kaitei gunkan [ATRAGON, 1965].

Akira Ifukube retired two years ago, on the eve of his 90th year, so his admirers are at least saved the grief of a career interrupted or cut short. We have all the music he planned to give us, and we can rest confident that it will survive us all. Which means that all we recognize of ourselves in Ifukube's music -- our sometimes primitive emotions, our will to survive and triumph, and not least of all, our responsiveness to beauty and tenderness -- will live on, too.

Photo: Godzilla presents Akira Ifukube with a tribute on the occasion of his retirement in 2004. (c) Toho Studios

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

EEK! It's Deke

My friend, the late Louis M. "Deke" Heyward (pictured above with Buster Keaton on the set of 1964's PAJAMA PARTY), passed away in March 2002... yet four years later, his website Ask Deke remains active -- and is apparently still accepting e-mail!

At the time of Deke's passing, we were in the midst of a lengthy correspondence about, of all things, DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE GIRL BOMBS and AIP's early attempts to film a version of H. P. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror" that would have starred Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee and been directed by Mario Bava. While awaiting Deke's reply to another set of questions, I happened to get online and go to the Classic Horror Film Boards, which was then a fairly obscure AOL folder, only to find Deke's name posted at the top of the "Gone But Not Forgotten" section. I felt it very personally.

Deke was a sweetheart and gave me tremendous quotes for the Bava book, and also loaned me his own leatherbound copy of the GIRL BOMBS screenplay (which I returned after xeroxing). The script was an amazing document of chaotic international co-production with several pages scribbled hurriedly in longhand. His revelations about the GIRL BOMBS filming is "must" reading, and you'll all finally get a crack at it sometime this summer.

It's interesting: all the time I was communicating with Deke, I had no idea that he was also running a website. So it was rather, shall we say, oltre tomba, to stumble across his old site and find it still active and soliciting questions from the curious. Particularly as I've had frequent experience of reading about the deaths of celebrities I already thought were dead. My memory of Deke's sudden death, and the sudden end it brought to our happy correspondence, was so specific in my memory that I would have to check myself into a funny farm if I used that e-mail address and actually got an answer back. Fortunately, the IMDb supports my recollection of events.

Deke, despite being always as sad-faced as Droopy Dog in pictures, was the very soul of humor and surely would have had a chuckle over this.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Another Man Done Gone

In yesterday's mail, I received the 75th issue of WRAPPED IN PLASTIC, the magazine devoted to TWIN PEAKS and related cult television. Though I am very fond of this magazine and have read some marvelous articles in it, I must admit to occasionally shaking my head over new issues as they continued to filter in... in the best possible way, of course. It has been a wonderment to me that Craig Miller and John Thorne of Win-Mill Productions and their contributors could continue, for so long, to find so much worth exploring, discussing, and debating about the two-season David Lynch series. The show has had more than a decade to cool off, but Miller and Thorne have never allowed their torch to go out. In their latest, deluxe, 64-page issue, the fan phenomenon of WRAPPED IN PLASTIC (WIP) finally hits a wall of sorts, with its editors announcing that WIP #75 is their "last regular issue," marking "the end of a rewarding and memorable chapter in our lives."

This makes me feel great regret, especially coming so soon after the discontinuation of another obsessive fan favorite, FILM SCORE MONTHLY, as a print publication. (It continues as an online, subscription-basis cyberzine.)

I can't help wondering: Is this the end of Rico? As a fellow publisher and editor, I know all too well that the reasons not to publish a print magazine far outweigh the reasons to do so. Magazine distribution has changed greatly in the last decade; it used to be a dozen different companies who didn't pay their bills, and now it's basically one huge monolithic company that sends back returns so pristine it's obvious they've never spent an hour on a magazine stand. Then there are the big bookstore chains, who encourage their customers to sit in big comfy chairs and sip lattes all day while they read your product for free. Publishers are also expected to pay for "shrinkage," the brainchild of some brilliant lawyer who couldn't see why his bookstore clients should be financially responsible for copies of magazines stolen from their premises. (Why, then, do these stores have so many security cameras? Are they real?) And there is also the here-take-it phenomenon of the Internet working against the concept of readers paying for the privilege of access to well-written articles, essays, reviews and editorials. Add to all this what hard work it is, and it's really no wonder that some publishers get tired and hang up their hats.

I was very pleased to discover that WIP has decided to go out with a bang: WIP #75 is one of the best issues they've ever done. In addition to interviews with David Lynch, co-creator Mark Frost, chief writer Bob Engels, Lynch collaborator Mary Sweeney, and log lady Catherine Coulson, there is a complete WIP index and an assortment of fresh articles, including one consisting of further thoughts on aspects of TWIN PEAKS FIRE WALK WITH ME that Miller and Thorne never managed to accomodate in earlier efforts. The principal topics of these thoughts are: Garmonbozia, the song standards referenced by Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) during his appearance in the movie, and that enticing topic nobody wants to talk about, Judy. Great stuff.

On the Win-Mill website, the question of WIP's future is handled less definitely than in the magazine itself. Online, Craig and John are calling #75 a "hiatus edition" -- so the door is being left open for a possible return, but as the old song goes, "who knows where or when?" Like TWIN PEAKS itself, we hope that WRAPPED IN PLASTIC will return in some form, someday -- perhaps when the deleted scenes from FIRE WALK WITH ME finally turn up on DVD. In the meantime... Vale, Craig and John, and heartfelt thanks for a job well done.

Given that print magazines seem to be dropping like flies, it's all the more admirable to see a new one preparing for take-off. Jessie Lilley, the former publisher of SCARLET STREET and WORLDLY REMAINS, is now taking wing as the editor-in-chief of a new magazine, MONDO CULT. As the title suggests, the focus is on the world of cult entertainment. The first issue contains departments addressed to new movies on disc, new music (including an especially solid collection of soundtrack reviews), new books, and more. The roster of contributors includes some familiar names, like Ray Bradbury and Forrest J Ackerman, but also excellent work from publisher Brad Linaweaver, Terry Pace (who offers Fay Wray's final interview) , Jerry L. Jewett, Michael Draine, Paul Gaita, and others. #1 has a KING KONG focus that's not exactly unique at this point in time, but I suspect future issues will be more inclined to go their own way. More power to them; I'm interested to see what MONDO CULT becomes. The indicia page says it will be published twice yearly, so let's see what we can do to encourage Jessie and Brad to publish more frequently. Do your part by picking up a copy at your favorite newsstand today.

SUPPORT PRINT MAGAZINES!

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Passing of a Eurocult Master

Walerian Borowczyk, the renowned Polish animator and director of live-action erotic films steeped in the bizarre, has died of heart failure at the age of 82.

Borowczyk made his directorial debut in 1946 with the animated short Mois d'août ("Months of August") and continued to work as a high profile animator through the 1960s, receiving a BAFTA nomination for his 1958 short Dom. It was in 1968 that Boro made his first live action film, Goto, l'île d'amour, starring Pierre Brasseur of Eyes Without a Face fame. As he continued to direct live action, his work naturally gravitated toward erotic fantasy. In more general circles, he is undoubtedly most famous for THE STORY OF SIN (a Palme d'Or nominee at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival) or BLANCHE, which won the Grand Prix at the 1972 Berlin International Film Festival. But among devotées of the fantastique, of which Boro himself was certainly one, his best-known works are IMMORAL TALES (1974, featuring Paloma Picasso as Countess Elizabeth Bathory), THE BEAST (1975, an explicitly adult rumination on "Beauty and the Beast" featuring Sirpa Lane), LULU (1980, a loose remake of Pabst's PANDORA'S BOX, with a cameo by Udo Kier as Jack the Ripper), and BLOODLUST aka DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE (1981).

The latter film is particularly memorable, with Udo Kier's Dr. Jekyll periodically excusing himself from his dinner guests (including Patrick Magee) to thrash about in a chemically-treated bath, emerging as the vicious rapist Mr Hyde (Gérard Zalcberg), whose knife-like phallus is digitally opaqued in the only uncut version of the film I've seen (from Japan). Shocking, sexy, and also devastatingly funny as Jekyll's increasingly transgressive behavior brings about the collapse of his dining room's microcosm of polite Victorian society.

A frequent but delightful fixture of Borowczyk's work was actress Marina Pierro, who had previously worked with Sergio Bergonzelli and Luchino Visconti before devoting herself almost exclusively to "Boro's" vision from 1977 onwards. (She also appeared in Jean Rollin's THE LIVING DEAD GIRL.) Though she did not appear at all in some of Boro's major works, such was her impact that is it impossible to consider his work without considering her frequent and affectionate recurrence within it.

I found some of Boro's work a bit dry for my liking, but there is no denying that his was one of the most distinctive personalities to emerge from the world of Eurocult in its "Silver Age" (say, 1967-84). One of my favorite descriptions of the special flavor of his work can be found in Phil Hardy's AURUM/OVERLOOK FILM ENCYCLOPEDIA: HORROR. In an entry about the Jekyll picture (as Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes), the author writes: "Borowczyk's imagery, here fed by his fetishistic fascination with all things antiquarian, is often stunning and the film becomes a sort of still life in which familiar yet alien objects -- an ancient dictaphone, a treadle sewing-machine, a book of remembrance -- seem imbued with a secret significance all their own, and in which a glimpse of a whalebone corset or ruffled petticoat carries a heady whiff of eroticism." [Kim Newman has written to inform me that these words are the work of former MONTHLY FILM BULLETIN critic Tom Milne.]

If you find yourself in a mood to celebrate Borowczyk's life and work, it's hard to find domestically... but several examples are available on import DVD from our friends at Xploited Cinema, Diabolik DVD, and Sazuma Trading. We recommend their service.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Verne, Verne, Verne

Now here's something interesting: an advertisement from an old Charlton comic, REPTISAURUS #3, published in January 1962. (The first two issues of REPTISAURUS were called REPTILICUS and "Based on the American International Pictures Film," but I'm guessing all that changed when the folks at Charlton saw a preview of the film and decided it might be wise to withdraw from that affiliation. In the first REPTISAURUS issue, the creature is unmistakably still Reptilicus and hurriedly recolored red, but the creature's look changed completely for its next comic book appearance.) But do you know what's so interesting about this ad? It promotes a movie that was never produced.

As someone who was a kid in those days, I can remember that Jules Verne was pretty hot stuff. It had all started (or re-started) with Disney's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), which was somewhat before my time, but Verne Fever was still in progress in the early years of my time, even the early years of my time as a moviegoer. AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956), FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON (1958), JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959), MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961), FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON (1962)... and let us not forget Karel Zeman's wonderful live action/animation combo Vynález zkázy (1958), which turned up here in America in 1961 as THE FABULOUS WORLD OF JULES VERNE.

In May of 1961, AIP had hopped aboard this public domain money wagon with MASTER OF THE WORLD, starring Vincent Price. It had done well for them, and they were deternined to maintain a foothold in the Jules Verne saddle. Evidently after taking out this ad, it was brought to the attention of the folks at AIP and Charlton that Jules Verne's OFF ON A COMET had already been made -- as the recently released VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS (1961), distributed by Columbia. Suddenly, there were no more Jules Verne titles forthcoming from AIP.

Seeing this ad, I can't help wondering if anyone entered the contest and how they were notified that there was no longer any movie, no longer any contest. Was the winner invited instead to attend the filming of the Woolner Brothers' FLIGHT OF THE LOST BALLOON (1962), which AIP distributed, written and directed by that well-known Verne wannabe, Nathan Juran? (This was the movie that infamously passed out "motion sickness pills" with every ticket sold. How AIP cleared the dispensation of drugs from movie theater boxoffices with the Food and Drug Administration, I'll never know.)

Consequently, the Charlton Comic of OFF ON A COMET promised in the ad also never happened, but some of us kids had this nifty Classics Illustrated adaptation.

PS: It seems that Blogger has been suffering from some kind of network problem the last couple of days... maybe it was only one day, but it felt like a couple. Anyway, I couldn't access my blog and couldn't post anything new during that period. Most of you couldn't either, because yesterday we had the lowest attendance since we started -- less than half our daily average. I discovered that the system was on the blink after trying to post a blog I'd spent two hours writing; it vaporized in the process. Losing that much work isn't exactly gladdening, even if it usually is improved by its reconstruction from memory. So, from now on, I'll be writing/saving this blog in Word before I post it here. Never fear about the lost article; I patiently reconstructed it in Word. This allowed me to see a manuscript page count and I realized that the blog I was writing was too long, too detailed, and too much hard work. It wasn't a blog after all, but an article... so it'll be turning up in a future issue of VW instead.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Domo Arigato, Sensei

Last night I had a dream about Mark Irwin, one of North America's finer cinematographers, whom I got to know in the days when he worked frequently with David Cronenberg in Toronto. The dream was probably precipitated by me mentioning to Donna, the night before I had the dream, that I should add a word of thanks to Mark in the Bava book acknowledgements; the reason being that Mark had taught me more about cinematography, as a job and as a craft, than anyone I've ever known.

That's Mark up there, in a photo by Douglas Kirkland. As Paul McCartney would say, it's just like him.

When I visited the set of THE FLY in 1986, it was in part because I had been assigned to cover Mark's camera unit for AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHER. (The infamous issue that featured two FLY-related articles but made the not-too-bright decision to feature HOWARD THE DUCK on the cover.) When I got up to Ontario, I confessed to Mark -- whom I'd already seen at work on VIDEODROME and THE DEAD ZONE and knew to be a very nice guy -- that I really didn't know all that much about cinematography. With the responsibility of photographing a major motion picture already resting on his shoulders, Mark could have easily said "Well, it's not my job to teach you"... but that's not what he did. Instead, on his day off, he drove me to an office building and screened for me, on Beta cassette, two films he had recently photographed -- THE PROTECTOR (1985) and YOUNGBLOOD (1986). As the movies ran, he gave me a live, running commentary about both films, from a purely cinematographic point-of-view.

Watching a movie like YOUNGBLOOD, which is about ice hockey, my natural tendency at that time would be to get so involved in the action that I wouldn't give any thought to the picture's technical challenges -- which, of course, is the desired response on the part of all the filmmakers -- so listening to Mark was like being handed an extra set of senses. It was a great little four-hour education, and to say that it has been useful to me would be an understatement. More DVDs should offer cinematographer audio commentaries -- Mark shares a track with David Cronenberg on Criterion's VIDEODROME, a release to which I contributed as well.

I haven't been in Mark's happy company since he took me to lunch during one of my return visits to Toronto, when I went up to visit friends and pass around copies of the CINEFEX issue featuring my FLY coverage. (My god, has it actually been twenty years?) Some time later, around the time VIDEO WATCHDOG was getting started, I contacted Mark with a question about screen ratios and he sent me an illustrated chart of different screen ratios -- again, of great help to me in my work. I'm reminded of that jolly line from HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD: "I didn't use to know what an f-stop was, and now I am one."

Anyway, last night -- after a brief interruption of twenty years -- I dreamed that Mark Irwin and I were in the same building once again; we kept trying to sit down and talk but were consistently interrupted. That's as much as I can remember about it, except our mutual amusement at the interruptions, which escalated to Buñuelian proportions.

One of the first things I did today after waking was to get online and Google Mark, to bring myself up-to-date on his recent activities. I found a very good Kodak.com interview with Mark that told me things I either didn't know or had forgotten about him. Then... I noticed that the site also had a Tonino Delli Colli interview on file, in which he talked (among other things) about filming the first Italian color film, Totò in colori ("Totò in Color"). I've often wondered why Mario Bava wasn't invited to shoot the film; he was better established than Delli Colli at the time, and I imagined he would have jumped at such an opportunity. Delli Colli's Kodak interview explained why -- he didn't want the job either! And he wasn't the first to be offered the job. This interview turned out to be very useful, offering a few paragraphs of background about the difficulties involved in Italy's transition to color features... so whaddya know?! In the most mysterious of ways, in a way that perhaps only Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Dale Cooper would be quick to appreciate, Mark turned out to be helpful to my Bava book mission once again!

So, wherever you are, Mark -- domo arigato, sensei. I hope our paths will someday cross again. After all, what's twenty years?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Beware of the Blog: The New Wave of Fanzines

Maybe I'm just the last guy on the block to realize that 2 + 2 = 4, but I had a eureka the other day while writing my "Watchdog Barks" editorial for VIDEO WATCHDOG #124. That eureka being that Video WatchBlog is the fanzine I work on between issues of VW, my magazine.

I thought this blog would be one thing when I started, but it's morphed into something else that I like a lot better -- something looser that plays by only one rule, that rule being the ebb and flow of whatever interests me at the moment. This blog feels to me like a return to the original spirit of VW, before the magazine column matured into the magazine it is today. It's also fun for me in ways that the hard work of VW isn't, always. I suspect this blog and the work I'm putting into it will influence VW in some ways, I hope all for the better, but we're not publishing regularly enough at the moment for me to determine what shape this influence will take.

Since I joined the alternate universe of bloggers, various people have drawn my attention to other blogs, some of which I really like, and a few of which I could grow to love. The blogs that really reach for my heart are not the review sites or the personality sites, but what I'll call (for lack of a better or more concise term) the obsession sites. These focus on a single facet of pop culture and go at it with all the intensity of a diamond drill. These blogs feel to me like the real fanzines of today.

The most glamorous of all the movie blogs I've discovered is undoubtedly John McElwee's Greenbriar Picture Shows, "a site dedicated to the great days of movie exhibition." John, who is a cousin of the brilliant documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee (SHERMAN'S MARCH, TIME INDEFINITE) and figures pivotally in his recent must-see BRIGHT LEAVES, lives up to his appearance in that family drama on his blog with a treasure trove of reminiscence, insight and photographic memorabilia. John generously posts the most amazing, obscure photographs in superb "click to enlarge" resolution. I admire this site because it's so anchored in affection for all facets of movies; I always learn something new by going there.

Then there's Flickhead, which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago when it coralled a number of fellow bloggers into celebrating "International SHOWGIRLS Day" or somesuch. Flickhead is the brainchild of Ray Young, whose MAGICK THEATRE was one of the greatest fanzines, or semi-prozines, ever devoted to fantastic cinema. Ever. Scout for copies on eBay -- you won't be disappointed. I assume that Ray stopped publishing because he found his interests expanding beyond those perimeters of his formative years, and Flickhead illustrates that growth by covering a broader range of obsessions, albeit in the same detail and with the same personality. More than just a blog, Flickhead has characteristics of an online magazine. (A curious footnote: I don't usually surf the net with my computer speakers activated, but I happened to visit Flickhead's index page recently with my speakers on. I was astonished to be greeted by a John Barry cue from A VIEW TO A KILL which had been haunting me for weeks, since I'd last seen the picture. Further proof, if I needed any, of a kindred spirit.)

Another blog I like to frequent is Curt Purcell's The Groovy Age of Horror, which is devoted to "'60s/'70s horror in paperbacks, Groschenromane, fumetti, comics, and movies." Curt is constantly turning up shelfloads of obscure, forgotten horroriana -- a lot of it trash at a glance, the sort of thing people only collect for the covers -- and actually reading it (my hero!), posting full reports on each title's plot and literary quality. He is on a Peter Saxon kick at the moment -- Saxon being the author of the novel on which the AIP cult favorite SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970) was based. Recent postings not only reveal that "Saxon" was one of many pseudonyms employed by this specific writer, but also a "house" pseudonym used by a number of different writers -- and the same fellow who wrote THE DISORIENTATED MAN (the basis of SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN) also wrote the novel that became the basis of the notorious Peter Cushing film CORRUPTION (1967)! I've also gotten a big kick out of past blogs addressing the topic of obscure novels written about the Frankenstein Monster (more extensive than you'd ever imagine), horror-based erotica, and Italian fumetti. Poring through the backlog of amazing book cover scans and poring over the accompanying text will shave hours off your day, but you need to check this place out. The only down side is that The Groovy Age of Horror creates a terrible appetite to read or at least sample all the neat junk uncovered by its archaeology dig.

A couple of days ago, Charlie Largent introduced me to Bubblegumfink! -- damn him, damn him! This is one of a growing number of music blogs that either include or lead one to locations where vintage music can be downloaded in mp3 or flac format. What's interesting about Bubblegumfink! in particular is that it encompasses very-hard-to-find children's LPs from yesteryear, like SQUIDDLY DIDDLY'S SURFIN' SAFARI and SNOOPER & BLABBER'S MONSTER SHINDIG, in addition to its primary diet of '70s bubblegum pop. One of this site's most daunting features is its list of other recommended blogs, all of which are sure to tempt a click. New worlds await. Yeep.

By clicking on Bubblegumfink!'s link to a Jack Kirby-themed blog, I was led to something even more commanding of my interest -- a Steve Ditko weblog (not by Ditko himself, naturally) and it led me to this wonderful page of "alternate universe" STRANGE TALES covers. For those of us who were sad whenever Doctor Strange wasn't featured on the cover.

And then there's Record Brother, another download blog, which leans toward blaxploitation and action soundtracks, psychedelia, and other sonic oddities. MAGOO IN HI FI, anyone?

Like exotica music? Then you'll like all the goodies on offer at Planet Xtabay. I can't tell you more about them; I just discovered them... but I'm headed back there now as soon as I can bring myself to stop typing this blog of my own.

With all this in mind, a reader e-mailed me yesterday with the following questions:

Dear Tim -- Does the world need yet another website about genre movies? If so, what would it be about? What would it have that all the others do not? What would YOU want to see and read about?

To which I replied: Dear [Reader] -- I'm afraid the world doesn't need another website about genre movies. If a better one came along, it would simply edge one of the few I visit now off my radar. What the world really needs is a website that could teach us how to micromanage our free time to allow us to do everything we want to do, and don't have time for. If I had more time in my day, I'd read more books and get out of the house once in awhile -- not visit more websites. Sorry, but that's the truth as I see it!

Which is soitenly the truth as I see it, but I also have to admit that the aforementioned (and many other) blogs, of all configurations, are becoming more interesting to me and harder and harder to resist. Like I said at the beginning, I don't know if this is a fresh observation or not, but it does seem to me that these blogs are the new fanzines.

May they never go semi-pro.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Fifty Years Young

... today is that Flower of Romance, the great John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten. You can celebrate his golden jubilee by going to your favorite CD shop and picking up his new 2-disc career overview set, THE BEST OF BRITISH ONE POUND NOTES. It's got almost all the essential tracks from Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd., as well as the fabulous "Time Zone" recording he made with Afrika Bambaata back in the '80s, which was later used to open Season Three of THE SOPRANOS. (Why not the track he did with The Golden Palaminos? Oh, well.)

John has long been a hero of mine. In addition to being one of the truly singular and irreplaceable characters on our world stage, he's made history (while spitting on history), he's lorded over concerts that were sociological epicenters, he's turned AMERICAN BANDSTAND on its head, he's even acted with Harvey Keitel in a movie made by Italians. Look at that face: he should be doing Beckett plays. And making up new words if he can't memorize the scripted ones. The great music he spawned ("Poptones"!), the potent lyrics he's written ("Bodies"!), that one-of-a-kind voice of his... these are colossal contributions (and I haven't even invoked "Anarchy in the UK"), yet they're almost incidental to the greater gift of who he is.

I recently sold off nearly all of my old vinyl. I kept my Captain Beefheart albums, my Can stuff, my Velvet Underground -- and all of my Public Image Ltd. I hope John would take that as a compliment. It's not just that he sang me out of my 20s and into my 30s, but that nearly everything he ever recorded still sounds plugged directly into the raging current that gave it life in the first place. He called it the end of rock, but based on how valid the new Sex Pistols box set sounds, it's an apocalypse we can thrill to for the rest of our lives.

Thank you, John. And if anyone reading these words should see him today, buy that AntiChrist a lager.

Remember These?

Recently, needing some physical respite from the act of writing, I decided to reorganize a couple of shelves in my living room that hold CD box sets and laserdiscs. The object was to go through my laserdiscs and weed out the non-essentials, at least enough of them to make some room for future CD sets I may wish to acquire. A pretty mundane procedure, but it became surprisingly engrossing as I began to slide these laserdiscs off the shelf for the first time in years, and remember what they were all about.

I know that a large percentage of what I own on laserdisc has since been reissued on DVD. I should not need the larger, bulkier, less perfect-looking, older cousin, correct? That's all well and good in theory. But beyond what laserdiscs were and are in terms of pictorial quality, the laserdisc collector must acknowledge what they were and are in terms of packaging. Laserdiscs were the movie version of album covers -- something you could hold in your lap and admire, something that could psych you up for the experience of watching a movie. When was the last time you spent any quality time with a DVD keepcase, other than to curse it for being genetically unable to anchor its disc in place? I know a few people who don't even keep their keepcases; they pop the discs out, slip them into an envelope and keep them in shoeboxes. Why not?

I found that I had not one, but two different deluxe editions of TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY. One was in a nice, thick, multi-platter silver box emblazoned "T2" and the other was in a luxurious, cushiony black vinyl box with a silvery emblem on the front, also emblazoned "T2." I decided to look into the dark one and slipped out a gorgeous inner drawer that pictured Arnold Schwarzenegger on one side and his skinless Stan Winston form on the other, housing three discs and two mini laserdiscs of trailers. A stunning, stunning package. So why did I keep the other version? To find out, I slipped the box set out of its plastic sleeve and took the lid off. Inside the box, atop four platters and a menu brochure, was a letter from James Cameron on Lightstorm Entertainment stationery -- facsimile signed (of course) in blue ink -- that explained in charming detail why this laserdisc was letterboxed, why it was in CAV, and why these factors added up to the ultimate home experience of the movie.

That's why I kept the set. I'll probably never actually load it up and watch it again, but owning it is like owning a piece of history. A piece of history that, once upon a time, posited me in a private club with James Cameron, fellow laserdisc connoisseur. (Incidentally, the silver box houses the theatrical edtition and the darker box houses the "special edition" -- its world premiere, in fact. Cool. Still cool.)

Some laserdiscs need to be kept, or at least burned to DVD-R, because they have audio commentaries you can't find anywhere else. Some have wonderful liner notes and pictures -- Tom Weaver wrote most of the fabulous unsigned notes you find in old MCA Universal laserdiscs, and they compile a fair number of quotes and whatnot that probably don't figure in any other commentary he's done or book he's written. Another interesting case I found was the first letterboxed issue of TOMB OF LIGEIA, whose handsome gatefold offers an article by my friend David Del Valle, copiously illustrated with stills from his archive -- including a shot of Roger Corman directing that is inscribed, strangely, "Better to be on the set than in the office." I guess he'd been having a bad day when he signed that. I've written some liner notes for laserdiscs myself, and I can remember the unique sense of pride I felt in seeing my words printed on the equivalent of an album cover. I like seeing the words of my friends printed on them, too. With that in mind, I couldn't help holding back some titles because I felt that, if I didn't preserve these things, perhaps they wouldn't be preserved. True, I can't hang onto them forever... I may live in a big house, but I'm still running out of room... but perhaps I can hang onto these things until other collectors experience a renewal of interest in them.

Everything from Criterion is numbered; allow a single disc to go and you've broken up a set. The BEATLES ANTHOLOGY laserdisc set (a mere $100 when brand new) is a beautiful thing -- it's like the Beatles album that never existed, and the individual album covers inside the box can be assembled to recreate the Klaus Voormann collage on the cover... almost as much fun as trying to guess the names of all the people in the collage of famous faces on the SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND album cover.

I find it difficult to part with any musical laserdisc because, as I remember discovering while comparing the LD and DVD versions of WOODSTOCK, the audio on a DVD is compressed. Having decompressed audio, my WOODSTOCK laserdisc set roars during The Who's set the way it did in the theater where I first saw it. Townshend's guitar sounds dirty and Entwistle's bass sounds dirtier, growling and crackling. The same performance on the DVD, on the other hand, roars... clinically. I never did get around to playing my laserdisc of YELLOW SUBMARINE -- it's still shrinkwrapped, I see -- but I imagine it's the best option I have of hearing the movie, the next time I feel like seeing it.

When all was said and done, I did clear some space -- enough to make room for the CD box sets I have, with a little room left over for inevitable expansion -- but not as much as I'd hoped to clear. Laserdiscs may be passé as tools for home viewing, but as artifacts, they remain just too damned intoxicating. To handle a laserdisc, especially a deluxe laserdisc box set, is like being reminded of a time when the home video phenomenon was more civilized, more aesthetic, and geared more to the specific concerns of the hardcore cinema enthusiast.

Nowadays, the picture quality is better, the discs themselves are more compact, and everybody's into DVD. But what is everybody buying and watching? That's right: TV shows. TV shows and CGI movies.

I still have another entire upstairs closet full of laserdiscs to process, which represents a few hundred decisions I'll have to make someday. I don't even like deciding what I'm going to have for breakfast, so I think that particular pleasure is one I'll be postponing for as long as time and space will bear.

Don't Forget to Vote!

A friendly reminder to one and all to remember to vote for the Fourth Annual Rondo Awards. Yes, the deadline's still a few weeks away -- Saturday, February 18, to be exact -- but important tasks shouldn't be postponed till the last minute. If you've got time to read this blog, you've got time to vote, right?

You don't have to vote in every category. You don't have to vote for what or whom you THINK will win. You don't even have to vote for this blog. (Not that I'd object if you did!) All I'm asking is that you get involved, to whatever extent you wish, by taking a stand for your own personal preferences on the ballot. These are adorable little puppies and it's important that they all find their way to good homes.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

What Do You Want On YOUR Tombstone?

How about a naked actress, grinding away?

This weekend, MASTERS OF HORROR concluded its First Season with "Haeckel's Tale," a Mick Garris adaptation of a Clive Barker short story, directed by John McNaughton. Roger Corman was scheduled to direct this episode until he had to withdraw for health reasons; then it was turned over to George Romero to direct, but he had to beg off for personal reasons. In the long run, I think they both rather lucked out.

Not that "Haeckel's Tale" is all bad. It's set in 1832, which makes it at least distinct from its predecessors this season. It's also fairly well acted, and offers a jolt or two. (I especially liked the bit with the hanging man.) Best of all, it plays like a story rather than a script; it has the unmistakable feel of a literary backbone running through it, which counts as a mark of distinction in a series which has primarly felt screen-written. But regrettably, "Haeckel's Tale" is one of those dramatic pieces that pulls you along by the nose, promising you that you will see things you'll never forget, unimaginable sights that will sear your eyes and stain your very soul... and then delivers silly horror clichés that are actually so feeble, they're laughable.

Derek Cecil stars as the young medical student Ernest Haeckel, whose Frankensteinian ambitions to restore life to the dead are curbed after a disastrous, failed demonstration. When his provider of cadavers alerts him to the presence of a necromancer (Joe Polito) in the vicinity, he attends his sideshow and witnesses the reanimation of a dead dog. But the necromancer reveals that to resurrect a more ambitious subject, like a human being, would rob him of an entire year of life, so such requests must be well compensated. Informed by letter of his father's failing health, the penniless Haeckel sets out on the open road and is met by bad weather. A passing elderly stranger (Tom McBeath) offers him shelter and a meal cooked by his beautiful young wife (Leela Savasta) but, as the evening passes, Haeckel observes that the May-November couple has a baby... and that the wife has a lover beckoning to her from outside. Left alone with his host, Haeckel discovers that the wife was impregnated by her lover, with whom she has assignations in the neighboring cemetery.

The episode opens with the title card "In Association with George A. Romero," placed there to dot some legal I's, because the series had Romero's name attached when it was proposed to its financers. It has a nice Cormanesque atmosphere in the cemetery scenes, but when it introduces its living dead characters, they all come across as pathetically comic -- like the reanimated dog, who's in pretty bad shape but, as the old joke goes, at least he's "in show business." As I've suggested, the episode involves necrophilia, but it's not NEKROMANTIK-style necrophilia or even KISSED-style necrophilia; it's more like Sara Bay-movie-poster necrophilia. Silly as it is, at least it allows the season to end with a bang as well as a whimper. The whimpering, incidentally, comes from Baby, whose true nature is another low-level shock you can see coming from a mile away. The final surprise of the framing story did catch me unawares, but not in a good way; it merely served to add another layer onto an underbaked cake, causing the whole thing to collapse.

The good news, as you've probably read elsewhere by now, is that this episode was put into production at the last minute to replace the original, intended, final episode of MOH, which Showtime refused to air. The only episode filmed outside of Vancouver, Takashi Miike's "Imprint" apparently succeeded in its aims to unsettle and frighten only too well, becoming the series' unexpected sole foray into toxic cinema -- kind of a "Cigarette Burns" for real. This reportedly very-hard-to-take episode will be released on DVD by Anchor Bay Entertainment in the fall, for those of you prepared to surpass the spectacle of a naked girl ecstatically humping a KNB EFX Group zombie and break on through to something really serious and adult and confrontational.

How do I rate the Season 1 episodes of MASTERS OF HORROR? Since you're bound to ask, here's my Top 12, presented in reverse order for maximum suspense:

12. Deer Woman (Landis)
11. Haeckel's Tale (McNaughton)
10. Incident On and Off a Mountain Road (Coscarelli)
09. Dance of the Dead (Hooper)
08. Chocolate (Garris)
07. Sick Girl (McKee)
06. The Fair-Haired Child (Malone)
05. Jenifer (Argento)
04. John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns (guess who?)
03. Pick Me Up (Cohen)
02. H. P. Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch's House (Gordon)
01. Homecoming (Dante)

I think the top four finalists add something significant to the filmographies of their respective directors, and this in itself is a vindication of the series. The three top finalists converge for me in something very close to a photo finish. I think Gordon's episode is the strongest traditional short horror film of the bunch, but Dante's and Cohen's are ultimately more disturbing and innovative and reflective of our times. I'm not even sure that either of them really qualify as horror, or if they are just reflecting as unflinchingly as possible the horror of what we've become as a society. As a fan, I am delighted by that sort of uncertainty.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Closed On Account of Molasses

Some days I'm here to tell you what
Was cut from this or cut from that,
And some days I'm here bright and brisk
To recommend a DV disc,

An Argento remaster, a case of the punks,
The best of the grand and the not-so-grand funks,
A TV show that's worth a look,
A Dobie Gillis comic book.

Some blogs are long and some are small
And some blogs are not here at all.
As the little voice inside you knows,
To-day's blog is one of those.

Some days they roll right off my cuff
But other days they can be tough;
And some days when this blog is good
I'm too tired to write what else I should.

I'll be back in a little while.
First, I must go and find my smile.
(You know: Billy Crystal-style.)
I won't be long. I'll be back soon.
Maybe later on this afternoon.

Pictured: The Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Strange Case of Dr. Jerry and Mr. Gillis (expanded)

As luck would have it, yesterday I happened to get my mitts on a copy of an old DC comic book from the early 1960s, THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS #18. I've been a fan of DC's BOB HOPE and JERRY LEWIS comics for as long as I can remember, but I only recently discovered that their DOBIE GILLIS title (an adaptation of the TV series starring Dwayne Hickman, Bob Denver, Tuesday Weld and Warren Beatty) was written and drawn by the same people. The chief writer of all these comics was Arnold Drake (whom you may remember as the screenwriter of THE FLESH EATERS) and the artist was Bob Oksner, whose style reminds me a lot of MAD's master caricaturist, Mort Drucker. The BOB HOPE and JERRY LEWIS comics were always dependably hilarious, so I thought I'd give DOBIE GILLIS a spin.

I was amazed by what I discovered.

The untitled story in DOBIE's 18th issue begins with Dobie and Maynard in their chemistry class at college, where Dobie is trying very hard to get his gorgeous classmate Lucinda to go out with him on a date. Lucinda feels no chemistry; she says she wouldn't go out with Dobie if he was the last man on earth -- and vines herself around the arm of handsome college letterman Steven. Maynard jokes that maybe Dobie can cook up something in class that will take the starch out of Steven's collar, and Dobie declares his beatnik friend a genius. His eureka: Perhaps he can concoct something like the potion in Robert Louis Stevenson's DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE... Since he's already repulsive to Lucinda, maybe he can invent a potion that will make him irresistable to her instead! (You see where this is going?)

The next day in class, Dobie's fevered ingredient mixing causes an explosion in the classroom. When the dust clears, he has indeed become more attractive. He dubs himself "Mr. Handsome" and everyone in class is awestricken by him. Lucinda is ready to fall all over him, but Dobie hasn't just become Mr. Handsome; he's also become something of a... conceited, abrasive jerk! (It's also suddenly the 25th century, because Dobie's explosion actually knocked him out cold and he's only dreaming, but that's beside the point.)

Dobie... er, Mr. Handsome struts away from Lucinda and sets his romantic sites on Delora Delora, who has won the title of Miss Beautiful everywhere in the galaxy. He drops in on her without bothering to call first, reasoning that the two of them just "go together." Delora agrees to receive him because he's "so breathtakingly fabulous" and Mr. Handsome shoots back, in a very Jerry way, "That's a wise decision... it's not every day you receive a visitor like me. I mean, so good-looking and gentlemanly and all!" Press photographers descend on their meeting but are so preoccupied with snapping shots of Mr. Handsome that Delora mopes about being ignored. "I'm too much of a good thing," Mr. Handsome reasons, and he reassures her by promising to send a special 8x10 that she can admire when no one else is around.

In addition to all this, Dobie and Maynard call each other "Buddy" throughout this wacky MANY LOVES story, which ends with a visit to Venus where all the Venusian women are attracted to Maynard instead -- the shock of which causes Dobie to regain consciousness in the wreckage of his 20th century chemistry class.

Reading this comic, I quickly took note of its many parallels to Jerry Lewis' classic movie THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, which the IMDb tells me was first released on June 4, 1963. I assumed that the hit movie had inspired the plotline but was surprised upon checking Page 1 of the comic that it was dated March-April 1963 -- which means that it actually streeted a few months earlier than the film and was scripted and drawn a good deal earlier than that!

Adding further confusion (and interest) to the timeline is a news item that tops the "Inside Hollywood" text feature appearing on Page 19 of the comic. Get this: "Stella Stevens to Star with Jerry Lewis in 'The Nutty Professor.'" The third paragraph of the item reads, "'The Nutty Professor,' a Jerry Lewis production in which Lewis will play a Jekyll and Hyde type of character, is scheduled to go before cameras late in September with Ernest D. Glucksman producing and Lewis directing."

Given its phrasing, this item suggests that Lewis was still casting principal roles at the time the GILLIS comic was in production, so THE NUTTY PROFESSOR was either still in pre-production as the comic was being assembled, or on the earliest stages of shooting. The screenplay that Lewis co-authored with Bill Richmond already existed, of course. Don't misunderstand me; I'm not suggesting that either party ripped the other off, nor am I theorizing that Jerry Lewis got the idea of Buddy Love from a DC comic. What's interesting about this discovery is that Lewis's most notorious plot twist (which was greeted as something of a shocker at the time) -- and other little touches like his film's college milieu and the use of the endearment "Buddy" -- were somehow anticipated in the pages of DC's THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS months before THE NUTTY PROFESSOR reached theater screens... and by whom? By the same people who worked on Lewis's own comic! Did DC have access to an advance script of the film? Was it just a matter of kindred comic spirits pulling the same concept out of the ether at roughly the same time? You just have to wonder if the similarities between the two projects were coincidental... or accidental... or osmosis... or what?

Of course, Jerry Lewis wasn't the first filmmaker to get the idea to reverse the traditional roles of Jekyll and Hyde. In the underrated Hammer Films production THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL (1961), which was released in American theaters as JEKYLL'S INFERNO and HOUSE OF FRIGHT, Canadian actor Paul Massie played a bearded, bookish, bespectacled Jekyll who became a clean-shaven, handsome, pleasure-loving and ultimately sadistic Hyde. The film was scripted by Wolf Mankowitz and directed by the great Terence Fisher, and I personally forgive its few rough edges and place it with Fisher's most important work. That said, if the world's last print of THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL was in a burning building with the last print of Lewis's THE NUTTY PROFESSOR and there was time to save only one of them, the Paul Massie Fan Club would probably cast a stern eye on the choice I'd be forced to make.

A strange footnote to all this is that DC never issued a NUTTY PROFESSOR tie-in issue of their popular ADVENTURES OF JERRY LEWIS comic. It's a peculiar omission considering that DC had used the title to present earlier tie-in editions of DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP, THE BELLBOY and THE LADIES' MAN (see below), also illustrated by Oksner.

I don't know what to make of this strange coincidence, but it just goes to show you: If you read comics, you might learn something. Or wonder something. Or something.

Speaking of JERRY LEWIS comics, I was pleased to be reminded, while examining some back issues of that beloved title, that he was among the very first "Monster Kids." Or maybe it was his nephew. I'm wary of probing too deeply into such questions, for fear I might end up writing THE BOOK OF RENFREW...

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Horrible THING -- Revealed!!!

Courtesy of Mr. David J. Schow, here's the original production art for "The Horrible THING!," the mysterious billboard that adds an intriguingly eerie layer to his MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Pick Me Up," airing this week on Showtime. The art -- which I received uncredited, but which probably fell within the creative province of production designer David Fischer or art directors Don McCauley and Teresa Weston -- is segmented because the billboard is rickety and a bit broken down. It may add to the effect to imagine Michael Moriarty peeking through one of those openings at you.

In the night. In the dark.

Aware of my ungainly infatuation with "The Horrible THING," David kindly indulged me by rounding up this image (and another, seen below) for me to share with others who might feel similarly affected. He also sends along this doggy-bag of additional insight: "The Horrible Thing was originally my homage to that venerable roadside attraction encountered by virtually anybody driving cross-country through the Southwest..."

"... It wasn't The THING itself," DJS explains as everything starts to go all squiggy, "but the fact that at one time (perhaps not now) these billboards were EVERYWHERE, more prolific than Stuckey's encampments. They had an odd cumulative effect on the imagination as you were pounding those long hard stretches of desolate road, particularly in the high desert, or anywhere in Texas (once you begin driving through Texas it just ... never ... seems ... to end). You could literally mark your progress by waiting to spot the next billboard for The THING in inevitable succession.

"It got even weirder at night. These bright yellow billboards would loom up out of total desert darkness, some of them quite dilapidated, and one could imagine all sorts of unlikely, er, things.

"But the mystery promised by the THING (and indeed by The Horrible Thing) are rooted deep in that mystic primordial brain-jelly that really, truly beckons the imagination," he summarizes. "We should never actually see such THINGS and have the rug pulled by some rude physical artifact."

To which I can add only, "Bingo."

P.S. Be sure to check out David's reunion "Raving and Drooling" column in the current 250th issue of FANGORIA.

Now get out of here with that bump-bump-bump.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Dig It -- Six Digits!

Last night, around 11:19 pm, someone from San Antonio, Texas visited Video WatchBlog and rang up its 100,000th hit, or page visit. I promise to give the bragging about attendance a rest for awhile, but Donna and I are astounded by the blog's popularity and this is the kind of milestone that needs to be acknowledged. If you weren't coming here to visit every day, or nearly every day, this blog couldn't be what it is (or what it's becoming), so it's natural to want to share this news with you. We launched VWb less than four months ago, and our daily averages have been steadily on the rise -- especially lately, thanks to friendly mentions and links on other sites and blogs. I'm enjoying my participation here and your friendly attention, response, and correspondence makes me want to continue being here for you. It may be a little difficult this week because Bava book work is piled high and I'm back to a tight schedule, but I'll do the best I'm able.

In the meantime... Thanks, everybody!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

I Saw The Horrible THING... and Survived!

Just a short time before settling down to watch "Pick Me Up" -- the latest installment of MASTERS OF HORROR (this one directed by Larry Cohen and written by my buddy and Rondo Award-nominated VW contributor David J. Schow, based on his own story) -- I received a foreboding e-mail. My friendly correspondent didn't enjoy the episode, it seems, and was asking me how it could have possibly been written by the same discerning DJS who writes those great articles for VW.

This e-mail put me on pins and needles because I've written about all the MOH episodes in detail on this blog; if I didn't like "Pick Me Up," I'd have to find some way of expressing that without being hurtful to David. Mind you, I knew, going in, that it probably wasn't going to be one of my favorite episodes, simply because of its orientation. DJS is Mr. Splatterpunk -- he likes the smell of bacon in the morning, mixed with a little burning hair, and as much gunpowder as you can pack into the skillet. Whereas I tend to gravitate to the genre for its qualities of poetry and stylization, irony and subtlety, its propensities toward surprise and the bizarre.

To my great and unexpected pleasure, the two very different roads we walk find a meeting place in "Pick Me Up," which I found to be one of the most devilish and delicious MOH episodes to date. It's cut from the same general cloth as Don Coscarelli's "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road" -- i.e., "There's a killer on the road / his brain is squirmin' like a toad" -- but what it makes out of that cloth is closer to an Armani suit than a deer-skin coat. It had me laughing the way a Tarantino movie makes me laugh: because a) I get the references, b) the smoothness of the ride makes me giddy, and c) I know I'm in the hands of a maniac who has shocked me before, with great glee, and will most assuredly do it again. Here, the maniacs are two... in more ways than one.

When a bus driver spots a rattlesnake in the road ahead, he maliciously swerves to run it over and damages his vehicle in the process, stranding it out in the middle of nowhere. One lone passenger, a bitchy young divorcée (Fairuza Balk), decides to walk to the nearest sign of civilization while the few other passengers, equally bitchy, decide to stay with the bus. A helpful but eccentric trucker (Cohen regular Michael Moriarty) happens along and offers a lift to two passengers, the most he can accomodate. Not long after the truck rumbles away, a lone drifter (Warren Kole) appears from the woods carrying a dead rattlesnake. After exchanging a few pleasantries with the driver, his dark side emerges and two of the three people still with the bus are left dead, the third fleeing the scene screaming. When the story cuts back to the trucker and the passengers he's taken to the nearest restaurant, we learn that he too is a psychopath -- he's hung one of his pick-ups on one of the many meathooks in the refrigerated compartment of his truck. In the first of many deft cat-and-mouse maneuvers on his part, the wily Mr. Schow returns to his bitchy divorcée heroine (if she can be called that) as she reaches a remote motel, where she unwittingly takes a room that sandwiches her between Mr. Trucker and Mr. Rattlesnake. The muffled, carnal sounds she hears emanating from the room next door are not sexual, but the taped-up squeals of a young woman whom Mr. Rattlesnake is skinning alive.

I don't want to spoil the experience by going into too much detail about what follows. Suffice to say, "Pick Me Up" ultimately succeeds in introducing to the splatter genre its most interesting ironic dimension since Mario Bava's TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE [ECOLOGIA DEL DELITTO, 1971] -- a film so steeped in misanthropy that, basically, everybody killed everybody else. Here, again, there's not a single likeable character -- they're all pissy and bridge every other word with the f-one; the two monsters are the most civil, philosophic, and polite of the bunch, at least until you're alone with them. But what is most ingenious about it is that the story becomes a cat-and-mouse game not between killer and prey, but a mutually amused, tongue-in-cheek contest between two "civilized" killers over their "right" to claim the last survivor of a roadside smorgasbord. The penultimate scene of the episode finds the Balk character handcuffed and strapped into the trucker's rig, and Mr. Trucker stopping to pick up a hitchhiker who happens to be Mr. Rattlesnake. After driving back to the motel they've all escaped from for a final showdown, they stop the truck to allow a rattlesnake to pass... and, not long after they are moving again, both killers are pointing their guns at Balk's screaming head. But it's the payoff of the final scene that puts everything that comes before into perspective -- it belongs to the same family of completely unexpected, riotous twist as Bava's TWITCH, which Joe Dante (as a young reviewer for CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN) called "the greatest ending since CITIZEN KANE!" The fates that Mr. Schow has reserved for his characters bring his story to an equally ironic and misanthropic full stop, but one possibly more clever and unexpected.

Nasty and unpleasant, you're damned tootin'. Especially in the skinning scene, the episode crosses a line where even ironic laughter isn't possible. But the performances of the three principals are outstanding, with a strangely bloated, slurry and limping Moriarty giving the sort of performance that will have you thinking of Kinski or Palance or Walken or any other tall glass of I'm-playing-this-however-I-please. He was probably a handful to work with, but I can't imagine any other actor playing the role with his quality and unpredictability quotient. (I love the way he runs his lighter along the length of his cigarettes, warming his tobacco before he smokes it -- Mr. Trucker is a true connoisseur of his vices.) Fairuza Balk, whose work I've enjoyed since RETURN TO OZ, is often hilarious as the eternally put-out damsel-in-effing-distress. ("I think every one of Fairuza's 'asides' is priceless," DJS tells me.) Newcomer Warren Kole is a talent to watch; he plays his wicked "Western gentleman" with such a poker face that took me offguard more than twice. One of the joys of watching this episode is not only not knowing what's going to happen next, but how these two guys are going to play whatever happens. I'm assured that everyone's ad libs were brilliant, but I can't tell where the writing ends and the ad libs begin. The end result is beautifully layered, and that's what counts.

The auteuristes among you are doubtless grumbling that I haven't mentioned director Larry Cohen's contribution to this episode, and rightly so. I've been a fan of Cohen's work since his early days as a teleplaywright (CORONET BLUE, THE INVADERS, THE FUGITIVE) and I've always found his specific talents as a writer intrinsic to his appeal as a director. DJS tells me that he approached the job of directing this episode with the writing and its most accurate representation as his greatest concerns. That he kept everybody reined in and focused is to his credit, and the episode has a number of brilliantly timed and executed moments -- like the hypnotic POV shot of the curving sameness of the road, as one hitcher notes that the scenery around every next bend is so unchanging that it feels like you're not going anywhere. "Maybe you're not," Moriarty offers with a smile. The overhead camera shot that reveals the rooming arrangements of Kole, Balk and Moriarty is also pretty sweet. I actually liked Cohen's direction of this piece -- like I said, "the smoothness of the ride" -- better than much of what he's directed of his own work.

The title of this blog refers to a compelling side-ingredient that floats into view a couple of times in the episode: a broken-down billboard for something called "The Horrible THING," which Moriarty explains is some kind of exhibit in a travelling carnival, the skeleton of a two-headed baby or something like that. The sight of this billboard struck a chord with me, reminding me of all the non-existant horror movies that have invaded my dreams, usually in the form of similar advertising. In an exceedingly clever bit of writing, or directing, or set dressing, we are shown included among the many souvenirs of Mr. Trucker's kills a giveaway button that boasts, "I Saw The Horrible THING... and Survived!" Unfortunately for that person, there was something even more horrible they hadn't seen yet: the next guy to offer them a ride.

I'm not a button collector, but I'd love to have that one.