Friday, March 03, 2006

Whither FOUR FLIES?

One of the great mysteries about home video for those of us who love Eurocult movies is how Dario Argento's FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971) has managed to remain unreleased on tape, laserdisc, or DVD here throughout 98% of the world market since the introduction of the videocassette player circa 1980. That's more than a quarter century, and it's not from lack of trying, as I understand it.

FOUR FLIES (or 4 Mosche di velluti grigio) was Argento's third feature film -- following THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970, released by UMC Pictures) and THE CAT O' NINE TAILS (Il gatto a nove code, 1971, released by National General Pictures) -- and his first to receive US distribution from an actual major, Paramount Pictures. There may well be other exceptions to the rule out there in the world somewhere, but I'm aware of only one official release: a French VHS tape from Atlantic Home Video called 4 Mouches de Velours Gris; it's dubbed in French, of course, and sort of incompletely letterboxed with the sides of the main titles noticeably cropped.

Given the situation with the film, Argentophiles have had to resort to what is euphemistically called "the grey market," probably in tribute to this very film. Over the years, I've been able to find three different copies in addition to my French pre-record. I'm not fanatical about it, and I haven't looked recently, so there may well be other options on the grey market today, but what I've been able to find are: 1) a complex dupe utilizing the French tape visual track, with English dialogue slotted in; 2) a squeezed copy of a 16mm print of the English language version that is so squeezed, I can't fully unsqueeze it on my widescreen set; and 3) an excellent looking copy that opens with perfectly letterboxed main titles and then adjusts -- "Goddammit!" the viewer wails, striking the arm of his chair -- to pan&scan. Of these three, surprisingly enough, I found the pan&scan version most pleasing, if only because it alone summoned a hint of the beauty that must reside in a perfect print. The colors are bold and the image is consistently clear; it's like watching the film on television in the 1980s, but without commercial interruption. This version, in case anyone is wondering, hails from Video Search of Miami. (It also includes the padded cell scene missing from some prints, including the French tape.) I have no idea if VSoM have upgraded their copy since then, but this pan&scan version is/was one of their best-looking tapes, at least in my experience.

Watching FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET again for the first time in maybe ten years, I have to say I didn't care much for it... but, then again, I chose the French/English synch source for my first viewing. I suspect I was distracted by how the ambient sound of the tape kept shifting as the compiler shifted from the French and English sound sources. I was aware that it wasn't an optimal presentation, but there was a great deal about the film itself that annoyed me. Given its final resolution/explanation, the story -- or rather the situation -- makes no sense, and Argento spends so much time gagging around with his semi-comic supporting characters, it seems evident that even he was aware of how flimsy it was. I was so disappointed, in fact, that I turned to Maitland McDonagh's chapter in BROKEN MIRRORS, BROKEN MINDS and Kim Newman's chapter on the film in THE ART OF DARKNESS (all of two pages!) for illumination. Kim's piece may have been written to the order of finding something nice to say about it, and he struggles valiantly toward that end, settling on faint/forced praise like calling it one of Argento's "most cynical and cruel" movies. Maitland also gives it short shrift, just half a chapter, but in those few pages, she probes its psychological underpinnings with some success. Her insights primed me to give the film a second viewing, this time with the pan&scan print. (After watching the picture, which involves a woman driven mad by being raised as a boy, I couldn't help but smile at the irony that two of the film's chief commentators are a man named Kim and a woman named Maitland.)

Watching the film a second time, with sharper focus and sweeter colors and a smoothly consistent soundtrack, as well as armed with leads as to what to look for in terms of theme, I found FOUR FLIES somewhat more enjoyable... and I also came up with some ideas of my own. Argento's next picture, Le cinque giornate, an historical comedy, broke from the giallo mold that brought him fame, and I believe he was already showing signs of restlnessness here. FOUR FLIES is a kind of anti-giallo: the prog-rock musician hero (Michael Brandon), who lives on Via Fritz Lang (!), believes himself to be a murderer, which causes him to keep his distance from the authorities. Consequently, this is that rare giallo without any kind of ongoing police investigation; instead, Brandon finds his answers internally, by probing his dreams and by talking with God -- his friend Godfrey, that is, played by Bud Spencer. The mystery is ultimately solved and the film's title are explained in a single, far-fetched stroke, as the Italian police remove the eye of a murder victim, hook it up to some sort of nonexistent machine, and read the last image imprinted on its retina by death. At the time of the film's release, Argento insisted that such a machine was being used by some progressive police departments, but he surely stole the idea from the old Universal sci-fi/horror film, THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936).

Because of his essential passivity (not to mention his inability as a rock drummer to maintain any kind of beat or rhythm), Brandon is easily the least interesting of Argento's heroes; the movie comes to life most enjoyably when it redirects its attention to gay private detective Gianni Arrioso (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who defends his ability to solve the case by citing his formidable track record of having never solved a case before -- 84 unsolved cases, ergo he's due to solve one imminently! Arrioso's flitty, touchy-feely investigation is dated and stereotypical but also affectionate, and the scene in which he runs afowl of a hypodermic loaded with some kind of luminous blue poison that exists only in the Argento apothecary (found in the same outré universe as the Argento library and Argento airport) is surprisingly poignant. Mimsy Farmer plays Brandon's wife with the brand of porcelain calm and bared electric wiring that is her trademark; when she is revealed as the puppet-master behind her husband's carefully engineered torment (I'm not revealing anything here that wasn't revealed in the movie's stills set), she's as convincing a psychopath as Argento ever showcased. McDonagh's book reveals that FOUR FLIES was the only one of Argento's films in which the director did not stand in for his killer; she surmises that this is because Brandon's resemblance to the director satisfied his narcissistic needs, but I can well imagine the white-coiffed Ms. Farmer flashing her clenched teeth at Argento the moment he got too near her black gloves and sending him cowering to the nearest corner.

So why don't we have FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET on DVD yet? Is Argento suppressing it? Is Paramount unaware that they have it? Does Paramount still have it? I don't have the answers to these questions, but though I've already watched it twice in the past week, I'd eagerly give a definitive presentation a go if such a disc was released tomorrow. Until that day comes, those of us who wait are all hapless Argento heroes, straining toward the perfect recollection of an image just beyond our grasp.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Weronika's Death

To my surprise, I received my copy of Mk2's LA DOUBLE VIE DE VÉRONIQUE from Amazon.fr in today's mail. I'm very impressed with their service, as I wasn't expecting the movie to arrive for several more days.

The cover art is both handsome and peculiar. What looks like the thin white outlining of Kieslowski's name on the accompanying illustration is actually transparent; the letters are glossy and stand out against the matte finish of the packaging. As you can see, Irène Jacob looks surprisingly unlike herself in the cover photo (which I've never seen before); she looks rather like Nastassja Kinski. The set is elegantly packaged in a slip case, from which a wallet-like insert slides out, which opens to reveal a menu enclosure and the two discs, one featuring the film and the other consisting of extras. As you slip the wallet out (a tight fit), the first thing you see is a handsome sheet of dark card stock resting on top of it; the card has a tall window cut out of it, which exposes a strip of 35mm film -- six frames worth -- a piece of the film itself. The card is numbered, one in a limited edition of 20,000.

My card bears the richly-doubled number of 4488 and I recognized the scene immediately as I held the film strip up to light. I was initially disappointed to find that it wasn't an image of the luminous Ms. Jacob, but then I realized it was something even more precious. It was my luck of the draw to receive the shot from Weronika's (Véronique's Polish doppelgänger) point of view as she suffers her heart attack onstage, moments into her first and only professional vocal performance, as she sees the conductor (Aleksander Bardini) giving her cue. It's the moment when her zenith of achievement is touched by the moment of her death. I feel like whomever ordered THE STANLEY KUBRICK ARCHIVES book and got the section of 2001 film strip that showed the femur turning into the spaceship.

So I count my lucky stars. After all, I could have received six frames of the pedestrian who opens his overcoat and flashes her.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Monsters HD Restores Gordon's FROM BEYOND

MONSTERS HD & FILMMAKER STUART GORDON UNITE
FOR THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY HIGH-DEF RESTORATION
OF THE HORROR CLASSIC “FROM BEYOND”

World Premiere of restored “Director’s Cut”
to air June 10 at 8pm on Monsters HD
in advance of DVD debut.

New York, NY (March 1, 2006) – TIME Magazine called it a “Bloody good entertainment” while Roger Ebert said that it “establishes [Stuart Gordon] in the tradition of Hollywood horror directors who really try – directors including James Whale, Tod Browning and Roger Corman.” Released in the fall of 1986, Stuart Gordon’s FROM BEYOND, H.P. Lovecraft’s tale of an ambitious scientist’s experiments to discover a sixth sense, shocked and delighted horror fans and critics everywhere much in the same way that his previous Lovecraft adaptation, RE-ANIMATOR, did in the fall of 1985. But beyond the film’s monstrous creatures and scientific mutations there lurked an even more dreaded entity, one that almost destroyed the film, its makers, and its audience: the MPAA.

Forced to cut his film by the MPAA in order to get an “R” rating, Gordon has waited two decades for his vision of FROM BEYOND to escape the darkness and now, to commemorate the film’s 20th anniversary, Monsters HD and Stuart Gordon have teamed up to finally bring the “Director’s Cut” of FROM BEYOND to terrifying light.

In 1986, Gordon, who also founded Chicago’s famed Organic Theater, had just come off of RE-ANIMATOR, which screened at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival and quickly became a worldwide hit with critics and audiences – all without a rating. As a result, Gordon says, “They were very upset and, I think, trying to get revenge for the unrated RE-ANIMATOR. So we had to submit the film at least a dozen times, maybe more.” According to Gordon, meeting with the ratings board “was like going to the principal’s office to get scolded. They sat me down and the woman I was meeting with said, ‘This is disgusting. Instead of pulling away, you keep pushing in and pushing in and pushing in!’ and I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry!’ We ended up cutting out over a minute’s worth of material to finally get it released with an R-rating. They really took out some of the best stuff.” Gordon describes the experience as “a real ordeal, this process just went on and on, and the distribution people were screaming, ‘We’ve got a release date, you’ve got to make those cuts.’”

The director proudly discusses one scene in particular that really got him into trouble. “The scene that upset them the most (and as I describe it, it is truly disgusting) is when Jeffrey Combs’ character’s pineal gland has gone out of control and he’s hungry for brains. He attacks a psychiatrist, played by my wife [Carolyn Purdy-Gordon], and he plants his mouth onto her eye socket and starts sucking. And the material that was cut out was when he actually sucks her eyeball out, spits it onto the floor and the eyeball lands looking back up at him and he continues to suck her brains through the eye socket and the camera pushes in. It’s really disturbing and it’s the longest restored piece, my guess is it’s about 30 seconds or so. I think it’s the most horrific moment in the whole movie.”

Upon its release in October of 1986, FROM BEYOND was a success with both critics and audiences and went on to cult classic status once it was released on video. But there was always something missing. “People started asking me if we would release a director’s cut. I went back looking for the material and even went looking through warehouses trying to find it and was told it had been thrown out. The movie moved from one company to another after [original distributor] Empire Pictures went under, so about five years after the release I gave up on it. So whenever people asked me about it I would tell them it was gone forever.”

But like a re-animated corpse, FROM BEYOND just wouldn’t stay dead. “A year ago last Christmas, I got a call from MGM saying ‘We’ve got a film can with this material and we don’t know what it is, could you come down and take a look at it?’ The can had been marked by my editor, Lee Percy, and it said ‘For the video release’, and inside were all the little trims that the MPAA had objected to. Everything was great until MGM was bought by Sony, and all the people I was dealing with were no longer there.” The resurrection of his original vision in jeopardy once again, Gordon luckily found an ally in Monsters HD president David Sehring. “He told me that they would be airing FROM BEYOND and knew about the discovery of the missing material. He said ‘How about if Monsters HD pays to have it done?,’ which I thought was great. Things began to move forward again.”

Debuting on the VOOM Satellite service in October 2003 (and now available on Dish Network’s HD package), Monsters HD is America’s only 24-hour horror movie network, broadcasting world premiere HD transfers of genre classics from every era. Having broadcast RE-ANIMATOR in the past, Monsters HD General Manager David Sehring was eager to show FROM BEYOND on the network.

“Being a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft and Stuart Gordon's work (they go hand-in-hand you know) I licensed the television rights to FROM BEYOND for MONSTERS HD. Having known about this holy grail of horror and the controversy surrounding it, I made it a mission for MONSTERS HD to restore FROM BEYOND's long-lost footage for all the world to see. Monsters HD makes every effort to preserve and present rare director's cuts and European versions of horror movies when the film elements are made available to us. I asked Stuart Gordon as well as MGM & Sony's technical services departments if they could work together to restore the legendary missing footage into a new high definition transfer for MONSTERS HD's broadcast. After some questions as to where the lost footage was, the work of transferring the material to High Definition and reconfiguring the cut material into the film was supervised by Stuart.”

According to Sehring, “The restoration of FROM BEYOND was truly a ‘search and rescue’ effort. The biggest challenge of doing the restoration was locking down the location of the lost materials. Having worked on AMC's Film Preservation Festival for over 10 years, I discovered that playing detective and reporter, while asking the right questions, is always valuable. Luckily, the folks at MGM and Sony came to Stuart's and MONSTERS HD's rescue by finding the material that was cut from the FROM BEYOND work print. MGM & Sony re-transferred the material for us to High Definition and had to do a little digital clean-up and color correction in addition to some sound work and design - again - all supervised by the one and only Stuart Gordon.”

Along with the restored footage, Monsters HD’s broadcast of FROM BEYOND will also feature a new 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. For this to happen, some new sound work was done in early 2006. “This material was cut before the movie was mixed, so all that exists for it is the sound that was recorded on stage, which was mono, so we have to mix it back into the film,” reports Gordon. “Plus I think we need some of those really truly disgusting sound effects for that brain-sucking scene,” while Serhing says he hopes to hear “some delicious slurping sounds in 5.1 stereo surround that will accentuate some ‘eye –popping’ visuals in High Definition!”

Monsters HD’s world premiere broadcast of FROM BEYOND coincides with a renewed interest in the renowned author H.P. Lovecraft, who died in 1937. In the last few years there have been over a dozen films based on Lovecraft’s writings which include Gordon’s recent episode of MASTERS OF HORROR, DREAMS IN THE WITCH-HOUSE, the best-selling videogame Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth from Bethesda Softworks, as well as Guillermo Del Toro’s upcoming adaptation of AT THE MOUNTIANS OF MADNESS. Monsters HD will also be celebrating the author’s legacy by airing such Lovecraft-related films as THE UNNAMABLE, DIE MONSTER DIE and Dan O’ Bannon’s THE RESURRECTED. But Lovecraft has had no better champion than Stuart Gordon, who has adapted the author’s works in five films: RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND, CASTLE FREAK (loosely based on Lovecraft’s “The Outsider”), DAGON, and DREAMS IN THE WITCH-HOUSE.

With the restored FROM BEYOND now set to air, Stuart Gordon is looking forward to seeing his maligned masterwork in its restored version in High Definition. He says, “The transfer is really stunning. Mac Ahlberg, the D.P., did a beautiful job and it’s got all these lurid colors. It was fun to see it again and to see it looking so good. I think it holds up pretty well. Everything that was trimmed by the MPAA is now back in the movie and it was great to see it restored. I had a wonderful feeling after it was done. An enormous sense of relief.” And David Sehring says of the restoration process, “As you know, Monsters HD's tagline is ‘It's Alive!’ We really take that to heart as we re-master films, like FROM BEYOND. Monsters HD hopes to bring forth more frights ‘from beyond’ and will continue to dig up long lost footage and film elements from the hallowed vaults of our favorite monster movie studios.”

__________________________

Addendum from Tim: The frame grabs accompanying this Monsters HD press release (picturing Barbara Crampton, Ted Sorel, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon and Jeffrey Combs) are low-res jpg grabs from the HD version of FROM BEYOND currently being shown on Monsters HD, which runs about 85 minutes in length. Frankly, when I watched FROM BEYOND on Monsters HD, I got the misimpression that it was already longer than the version I knew from home video. This MGM master looks incredible as is, and the announcement of a more complete version forthcoming is exciting news I wanted to share.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Véronique et Fantômas

A few days ago, the world changed in a subtle but significant way. Krzysztof Kieslowski's THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VÉRONIQUE (1991), starring the celestial Irène Jacob (pictured above), was released somewhere in the world on DVD. In France, specifically; one of its two countries of the heart. Those who feel as strongly about this story of metaphysical longing as I do may want to go straight to Amazon.fr and order the region-free PAL French import, released by MK2. The feature and all of the extras include English subtitle options, which suggests that the imminent UK release from Artificial Eye will likely be utilizing the same master. The big difference here is that the first 20,000 copies of the MK2's LA DOUBLE VIE DE VÉRONIQUE include an actual six-frame strip of film from a 35mm print. I'm indebted to reader Jason Minnix for the tip -- I ordered my copy straight-away.


Then I went over to Amazon.co.uk with the intention of ordering another Artificial Eye title, their new three-disc set of Louis Feuillade's FANTOMAS. I already have the three disc French set, which includes all five of Feuillade's Fantômas serials, but I'd naturally love to have these in English now that they're available. But Amazon.co.uk is saying that the title is "usually dispatched in 4 to 6 weeks"... in God's name, WHY? Artificial Eye can't be more than a taxi ride away from their shipping room. Anyway, I was discouraged; when I turn to Amazon of any stripe, it's because I want and expect something now, or at least within the coming week. If anyone knows of a venue offering more immediate gratification where the Lord of Terror is concerned, let me know.

Interesting thing about the Gaumont poster art pictured above: it's censored. I'd never noticed this before, but in the original book cover art by Gino Starace, Fantômas' right fist is clenched around a dagger that has been recently plunged into someone. It was a shattering image when it was unleashed upon the world in 1911 -- I'm certain it inspired F. W. Murnau's opening shot of FAUST (1926). If you'd like to learn more about FANTOMAS, you can check out my essay on the book series in HORROR: ANOTHER 100 BEST BOOKS, edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman.

Finally, I should mention that the 124th issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG (with beauteous, mushroom-munching Kumi Misuno on the cover) was mailed to subscribers and our distributors last week. First class subscribers may already have it in hand. If you're not already one of the VW elite, check our website's "Current Issue" option for more details and be sure to click on the cover for a free sample preview.