Saturday, March 11, 2006

Next Week's Must Buy

Streeting next Tuesday, March 14, is Tartan Asian Extreme's MAREBITO, the latest J-Horror import from Takashi Shimizu. Shimizu is the talented young fellow behind JU-ON (2003), its sequel JU-ON II (also 2003), and the American remake, THE GRUDGE (2004). I was given a welcome jolt or two by each of these films, which I consider the work of a brilliant stylist, but MAREBITO ("The Stranger from Afar"), based on a novel by screenwriter Chiaki Konaka, is something altogether more extraordinary. I think it may be a masterpiece, a fresh and defiantly uncommercial horror film with a cold finger tightly pressed to the pulse of our times.

Be warned: It's an oblique picture, full of unresolved mystery, and utterly void of human warmth -- which means it's bound to alienate a certain percentage of its audience. But these are traits it holds in common with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, though I'd be doing the film a great disservice to come right out and proclaim it the 2001 of horror films. I won't know if it can sustain such comparison until I see it a few more times. The analogy isn't a perfect fit anyway; 2001 was like nothing the science fiction genre had known before, and the same cannot fully be said of MAREBITO's relation to the horror genre. MAREBITO's antecedents are fairly obvious -- PEEPING TOM, VIDEODROME, PI and LOST HIGHWAY, to name a few -- but it's more disturbing than all of them; Shimizu melds their diverse ingredients in a highly original way, with a fluid visual style that replicates the ebb and flow of human thought, even to the extremes of obsession and disorientation, and a knack for visual horror (and more importantly, dread) that frequently achieves perfect pitch.

Most importantly, MAREBITO is that increasingly rare horror film that speaks with unsettling but gratifying directness to our present-day fears and concerns. I think it may have nailed the perfect metaphor for our soulless, internet/information age existence; that it speaks for where we are today, or where we're headed, in the same way VIDEODROME did back in 1983. There is perhaps only one dialogue scene in the film that plainly isn't taking place on the plane of the protagonist's own abstracted madness, and it's the film's most terrifying moment because it's our only glimpse of the rational. What makes the film all the more astonishing is that Shimizu knocked it off in eight days, shooting in Digital Betacam.

This is Tartan Asian Extreme's box art for the release. It's lovely, but note how, in contrast to the original poster art reproduced above, the female figure has been clothed... and unshackled. Interesting.

I will be writing in more detail about the film for VIDEO WATCHDOG, but I wanted to alert you to the fact that something very special is on the release horizon next week. Not an old TV show, not a box set... just a new horror movie that I expect the genre's devotées will be watching and discussing, and possibly debating, for decades to come.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Thoughts on Columbia's WHISTLER Series


This is a very busy week for me, deadline-wise, so I've perused my files for bits of previously unpublished writing to keep this blog going while I am otherwise disposed. Here's a fragment from a project that didn't get much further than this, though I like what I did here. Maybe I'll go back to it someday and finish what I started.

As I have said many times before, Columbia owns a vaultload of terrific crime B-movie series -- not just The Whistler, but also The Crime Doctor, Boston Blackie, and The Lone Wolf -- and it would be wonderful to have them in box sets on DVD. Several of the Whistler and Crime Doctor pictures were directed by none other than William Castle, and they occasionally point to ideas he expanded upon in his later, better-known films. -- TL

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THE WHISTLER (1944), MARK OF THE WHISTLER (1944), POWER OF THE WHISTLER (1945), VOICE OF THE WHISTLER (1945), MYSTERIOUS INTRUDER (1946), THE SECRET OF THE WHISTLER (1946), THE THIRTEENTH HOUR (1947), THE RETURN OF THE WHISTLER (1948)

Unlike Columbia's other crime series of the 1930s and '40s, the Whistler series is not constructed around a recurring role. Like the Columbia Broadcasting Services radio program which inspired it, the Whistler films are an anthology series, unified by the constant but otherwise hazy presence of The Whistler. Voiced by the otherwise unseen Otto Forrest, The Whistler is a slouch-hatted, trench-coated silhouette of a man who whistles a hauntingly discordant, halting tune as he strolls by night; because he walks the streets after dark, he "knows things" about the people who have"stepped into the shadows of life."

In all but the last of the eight Whistler films, these tragic protagonists are portrayed by the same actor: Richard Dix. Like most of the other Columbia crime series stars, Dix was a former matinee idol of the silent and early talking screen. He was in his 50s, but as with the dialogue in Warner Baxter's "Crime Doctor" films, the young actresses appearing opposite him often refer to him as handsome and quite a catch. A beefy, cordial actor who sometimes slurred and clipped his lines, Dix could turn on the ice as well as the charm, but was not an actor of particularly broad range. Nevertheless, the Whistler series turned him into one.

Alone of all the Columbia crime series, the Whistler films offered their continuous lead perpetual opportunities to extend his playbook. In seven short pictures, Dix portrays a melancholic, a quirky gumshoe, a workaholic executive, an amnesiac who gradually awakens to his identity as a murderer, as well as men in love, sociopaths, bad luck charlies, and normal honest guys driven into desperate corners by circumstance who must bend the law... usually past its breaking point. In each of Dix's performances, one tonality is ever-present: a furtiveness which recalls the later performances of David Janssen in TV's THE FUGITIVE (1963-66). Beset by a series of strokes, Dix retired from films in 1947 and died of a heart attack in 1949 at the age of 56. A solid attempt to perpetuate the series, 1948's THE RETURN OF THE WHISTLER, failed to be carried commercially by top-lined actor Michael Duane.

For all their edgy, paranoid atmosphere, the Whistler films nevertheless portray a shadowy world in which it is comparatively safe for people, like The Whistler, to walk by night. In THE POWER OF THE WHISTLER, our heroine (Janis Carter) approaches a perfect stranger, for whom she has read a baleful fortune in a deck of playing cards, and not only pursues his acquaintence to warn him, but when he shows signs of dizziness, she steps with him into the backseat of a stranger's parked car until he feels better! And when the car's owner (I. Stanford Jolley) happens along, he not only shows no sense of outrage at their presumptuous trespass on his property, but offers to drive the two strangers wherever they might need to go! Likewise, in THE VOICE OF THE WHISTLER, a former UK lightweight boxing champion (Rhys Williams) gladly retires his cab stand in order to follow a wealthy chance acquaintence and his new bride to a solitary lighthouse, to work as their general dogsbody.

All in all, the Whistler universe is an unusually healthy, trusting and upbeat world... but, as is common in the writings of series contributor Cornell Woolrich and in the annals of film noir in general, it is a world governed by ironic fate. Things go wrong, bad pennies keep turning up, the best laid plans turn out to be rotten eggs. And nowhere in the Columbia crime series are these principles more directly and piercingly felt than in the Whistler films, because the misfortune always befalls Dix, whomever he might be portraying. The Lone Wolf, Boston Blackie and The Crime Doctor get into their share of hot water, but it's always circumstantial; in the Whistler films, the hot water is always existential.

For more hard data and beautiful graphics pertaining to this series, check out this well-stocked Whistler website.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Red Quartet

From my Dream Diary, April 4, 2005:

I am standing on a public street in cold weather. To my left, very close to me, is a short shelf of books I have written in my dream state. I do not recognize them by title, but I feel a bond with them.

I am standing on a short flight of stairs and the shelf is built into the façade of a building. On the street, catching the cold wind, is an attractive African-American woman in her 30s, who has evidently prepared a copy of my most recent book for me, turning it into a matching small-sized hardcover that I can shelve with the other books. I take it from her and ask how she liked it.

“I liked it. I like straight-forward writing like that; it’s not what I expect from you, but I liked the directness of it. There wasn’t anything between you and getting your thoughts out.”

“And what thoughts were those?” I ask.

“What do you mean? You wrote it. You know better than I do.”

“You don’t understand,” I tell her. “I wrote it so fast, I don’t remember what I wrote. My whole memory of the process is a smear.”

She looks at me warily, as though she doesn’t believe me and wants to get out of the cold.

“What should I call it?”

“That’s your job, not mine,” she says irritably. “Why don’t you sit down and read it and come up with a title yourself?”

“I haven’t got the time,” I tell her. “I’ve got to press on.”

“Me too,” she says, waving half-heartedly and trudging off, leaning into the winter winds. I wave my farewell.

The weather doesn’t bother me. I look at the little handmade book and place it at the end of the queue of other books identical in size. I notice that the other books in the sequence have similar titles, all pertaining to shades of red: CRIMSON SAILS, DOCTOR SCARLET, VERMILLION TO ONE. As I shelve the new book, I remember something about it: it was about the loss of innocence and the wisdom that comes with age.

Suddenly, I have the title: CHERRY LIQUEUR.

As I name my book, I realize that, in my dream state, I am the author of "The Red Quartet."

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

To the Friends of Sanney Leung

VIDEO WATCHDOG associate editor John Charles has asked if I would post the following personal message to the friends of Sanney Leung, and to frequenters of John's website Hong Kong Digital. I am happy to do this for John, and for Sanney, who has been very helpful to VW over the years. We wish him a strong and sound recovery. -- TL

Before I get to the gist of this message, let me start by saying that I owe the existence of my website, Hong Kong Digital, to my dear friend Sanney Leung, proprietor of the much beloved Hong Kong Entertainment News in Review website. It was he who encouraged me to start HKD, which was originally just meant as a temporary means of promoting my book. It has grown to be so much more and lasted far longer than I would ever have expected. While I do all of the writing, cover scans and video grabs, it is Sanney who does the design work and uploading. Unfailingly generous and modest man that he is, Sanney refused to be credited for this, but there would quite literally be no HKD without his dedication. In fact, Sanney is so diligent, there have only been two or three instances in the past 5 1/2 years when HKD did not offer at least one update for the week. Thus, when we missed three in a row last month, readers first expressed surprise and then worry that something was wrong.

Ah San is an avid jogger and come hell or high water, he is out there logging the miles on a regular basis. Unfortunately, he also seems to always be pulling muscles or ending up with the flu by going out when it is far too cold. On more than one occasion, I have joked to him that jogging would end up killing him. As it turns out, it just may have saved his life. A while back, Sanney hurt one of his legs and this required a trip to the hospital for minor surgery. A routine blood test revealed a high percentage of Epstein-Barr antibodies. While this is never a good sign, it was particularly worrisome to Sanney's doctor. Cantonese men in their 30s whose roots can be traced to a certain region in China have some sort of flaw in their DNA that makes them susceptible to Nasopharynx Cancer. Tests were done and, alas, it was discovered that Sanney did indeed have this disease. A tumor was discovered at the point inside his head where his throat and his nasal cavity meet. I don't have to tell anyone that cancer is a horrible disease; in Sanney's case, it is also a horribly unfair one. Not only does he jog, he rarely drinks, doesn't smoke or do drugs, and eats just about the most consistently balanced and healthy variety of foods of anyone I know.

Sanney began his regimen of chemotherapy treatments three weeks ago. Many different side effects can occur from this, including electrolyte and enzyme imbalances. The body tries to compensate for this through vomiting and, a day or so after this first session, Sanney found himself to be consistently sick and unable to keep anything down. This required a stay in hospital and, not long after he got home, the problem re-occurred and he had to be re-admitted. He was home again for awhile, but a few hours ago, a member of his family contacted me to say that he had contracted a chest infection and would be in hospital indefinitely.

Sanney had planned to post a message on both of our websites around the time of his first session, but the severity of his body's reaction took him by surprise. He told me last week to notify everyone about the situation, but I felt that its personal nature required that he be the one to make any kind of announcement. However, in light of this most recent development, it seemed necessary for this to finally be done. Let me take this opportunity to apologize to anyone whose letters I have not answered and to those who received answers that were a dilution of what was really happening. While I have not yet had another update on Sanney's condition, I can thankfully offer some very encouraging news: after just the one treatment, the tumor volume decreased by 40%. His oncologist was so encouraged by the results, he told Sanney that he might be able to reduce the chemo treatments by half. I'd imagine that his latest hospitalization will delay things somewhat, but hopefully the positive signs will continue when treatments resume.

As it stands now, there may be updates on his and/or my websites in the coming weeks or, quite possibly, none until the fall when his treatments are scheduled to conclude. Both websites have mailing list options so that subscribers can be notified when there is an update. Click on the following link for Hong Kong Entertainment News in Review:
http://www.hkentreview.com/pages/join.html; the Hong Kong Digital update box can be found about halfway down the front page (http://www.dighkmovies.com/).

If you would like to express your Get Well wishes to Sanney, please send them to my website address (
mail@dighkmovies.com) and I will forward them to him. At this point, I think this is all the communication that Sanney can have with anyone outside of immediate friends and family until he feels noticeably better. Even without the other complications, he told me in his most recent letter that the drugs, fatigue and restlessness resulting from these treatments makes it difficult for him to even watch TV, let alone correspond. In addition to his many other positive qualities, Ah San is extremely humble and I know that he would not want a fuss to be made over him. However, I think this is exactly what is really needed here. Lord knows he deserves it after all of the thousands of hours he has spent enriching the education of English-speaking HK entertainment fans. So please direct any and all positive thoughts his way and think about getting your own blood test, particularly if you are a Chinese male in your 30s. Sanney's prognosis is very good because the cancer was detected early; if it had been found as little as two or three months later, it may well have been too late for him to beat it.

If anyone would like to re-post this announcement on their own sites or on a newsgroup, please do. There isn't enough space on this message board for me to properly convey how much my life has been enriched by Sanney's friendship and counsel. I could not ask for a better friend and I truly wish I could trade places with him.

John Charles

Monday, March 06, 2006

America's Favorite Funnyman

"America's Favorite Funnyman" -- that's how the earliest issues of THE ADVENTURES OF BOB HOPE comics described their ski-nosed protagonist. The star of more than 60 films, numerous television specials, countless hours of radio, countless live performances, Bob Hope was indefatigable at the heroic task of being Bob Hope. When he died in 2003 at the age of 100, he proved himself (among other things) the best poster boy ever for Doing It All.

It's doubtful that anyone is going to come along and fill the shoes Hope left empty: a celebrity who loved being out among people, who entertained the troops, who golfed with US Presidents and other leaders of state. Hope's entire legacy of stand-up comedy was predicated on current events, in-jokes, and breaking the fourth wall -- things that endeared him to audiences of his time, but which may well work to obscure his legacy where future generations are concerned. But the character he affected in movies is going to remain forever relevant: the sly, self-deprecating, girl-crazy bluffer on the make. That's an archetype with whom young men can always identify, and one that women will always appreciate in the way they appreciate all incorrigible rascals. Woody Allen once said that Bob Hope's screen persona was one of his biggest influences, and it's possible to see a lot of Bob Hope in Woody's work -- especially in lines like (I'm paraphrasing) "I'm allergic to fighting; I break out in blood."

This weekend, I had unexpected cause to give a good deal of thought to the man who was Bob Hope -- which is one of those names, I find, when you look at the name itself on paper, it ceases to mean anything. At least for me. When I hear the name Bob Hope, my brain somehow jumps past the name itself to a face and a unique style of delivery. When I look at the name printed out, like on a comic book cover, it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the legend to whom it belonged. It's too unassuming, too much an Everyman name for someone so larger than life.

Metaphysics aside, I recently received my copy of THE DICK CAVETT SHOW-COMIC LEGENDS -- and went directly to the Bob Hope interview. Yes, I jumped right past Groucho Marx to get to Bob Hope. The interview was everything I wanted it to be: Hope was funny, no less funny when his jokes bombed, debonair and talkative, sometimes revealingly so -- and Cavett was every bit the unabashed fan boy that I would have been, had I been conducting the interview. It's as close as I, or most of us, will get to an informal sit-down with this national landmark, and I wanna tell ya, it's wild...

Hope talks about his early days in vaudeville, his Hollywood injuries, even a couple of near-death experiences aboard airliners in desperate trouble. Asked if he's ever been fired, he looks back with candor on the miserable feeling of not having his option renewed by Paramount Pictures after being under contract to them for 19 years. He also tells a heart-warming but unsentimental story about Fred MacMurray's rise to fame, which doesn't always portray Hope himself in the best possible light, but which is an admirably real confession of recognizable human nature. A clip from Hope's then-current movie, CANCEL MY RESERVATION, is also shown -- and it's absolutely dreadful. It would turn out to be his last star vehicle theatrical feature.

Then this weekend, for reasons I still don't understand (perhaps there's an anniversary of something I failed to observe), The Game Show Network suddenly jumped backwards in their chronology of WHAT'S MY LINE? episodes to present Saturday and Sunday night episodes from the early 1950s featuring Bob Hope as the Mystery Guest. Watching these two appearances, I realized that my whole mood brightens and opens up like a spring bloom whenever Bob Hope turns up onscreen. After last night's show, Donna and I stayed up an hour or so longer so that I could show her the Cavett/Hope interview, which I enjoyed watching just as much the second time.

As I type these words, I think the reason for WHAT'S MY LINE?'s Hopealooza just occurred to me. It was Academy Awards weekend, and Bob Hope was (among other things) the greatest host Oscar ever had. The Academy should release DVDs of the classic Oscar presentations, don't you think? I'd love to see Hope's introductory remarks again: "Welcome to the Academy Awards... or, as it's known at my house, Passover."

And all that's why Bob Hope is on my mind today, at the start of a new week. I'll close with a shot from one of my favorite Hope vehicles, CALL ME BWANA. (I may be in the minority, as usual, but I find it hilarious. That's the one where Hope plays Matthew Meriwether -- "That's M.A.T.T. -- as in 'available," as he tells a female member of the cast.) Hope always had the good sense to surround his sly smile with the most beautiful women he could find. For CALL ME BWANA, he got Anita Ekberg and Edie Adams, but they needed one more to play the big bed scene with Bob. "Get me the gal with the best legs in the business," he said.

And the rest is B-movie history...



"Couldn't you at least find one who shaved?"