Saturday, July 01, 2006

VIDEO WATCHDOG 126 Has Shipped

The new issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG is now wending its way to subscribers and newsstand distributors. This is our second KING KONG issue in a row, featuring an in-depth essay on the Peter Jackson film and a lengthy article about Edgar Wallace's role in authoring the original -- both written by Yours Truly -- and much else besides. You can see the cover and a complete list of contents and contributors by clicking here. Click again and you'll be taken to free previews of two articles. Clicking on the front cover a second time will reveal the back cover -- a picture of the original Kong armature posing with his favorite magazine -- and, if you click on that, you'll be taken to an unobstructed view of the background art by Richard Harrison Green and some biographical notes about the artist -- a VW website exclusive!

Friday, June 30, 2006

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The 9th Voyage of SnoopBlab, with Lil' Pip

At least once a day, our two male cats -- Blabber and Pipsqueak -- wage friendly war on one another, scattering clumps of hair about the living room carpet. Blabber, an amiable Maine Coon, typically maintains a battle stance of lying on his back, feet in the air, his shaggy belly proferred to the world, and scooting in circles around on the floor à la Curly Howard, as if anticipating the direction from which Pippy (a lethally athletic Siamese mix, black as a ninja) will next nip at his hindquarters. Then comes the clinch... and inevitably, after some ouchy, plucky talon sounds and a short yelpy meow or two, they separate and glower at one another, defiant, jurassic, their tails thrashing around behind them. That's when either Donna or I, watching from the sidelines, observe that they look like they are being animated by Ray Harryhausen.

Blab and the Pipster disagree about who should be napping on the comfy chair. Fur will soon fly. Blabber's.

Today is Blabber's 9th birthday -- and also that of his standoffish "twin sister" Snooper (who put the "Sssssss!" in "Princess") -- and it's the day we celebrate Lil' Pip's birthday too, since we imagine he was born at roughly this time of year, being only a few months old at the time we took him in. (Squeaky is two today, and he's been running things almost since he joined us.) And in a coincidence unnoticed till now but sweet in the observance, today also happens to be the birthday of their spiritual animator, Ray Harryhausen -- his 86th. (And if Harryhausen's great composer Bernard Herrmann was still around, he'd be celebrating his 95th natal day today.) Many happy returns to them all, and I include Maestro Herrmann in that salutation, though he's not likely to return except in the form of a new Joel McNeely release. I don't know what awaits Mr. Harryhausen at dinnertime, but our cats get real tuna and a song.

Ah, the lovely ladies of the Lucas abode. Notice which one has the comfy chair.

I think I'll wait till Blabber takes his daily nap in the middle of the living room floor, then put on the 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD soundtrack and see what happens...

PS for those who have read THE BOOK OF RENFIELD: You may remember from the dedication page that I mentioned having secreted the names of my past and present pets throughout the novel's text as a gesture of my love and esteem. I honestly don't know if the word "pipsqueak" appears therein, but this lil' pet's given name is Elvis -- which does appear in the penultimate chapter -- but nowadays, we tend to call him that only when he's being reprimanded. Once, when Donna was really driven around the bend by something he did, she used the memorable exclamation, "Elvis PRESLEY!"

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Phoenix! Phoenix! Phoenix!

There are some fabulous homemade camcorder clips from last April's Phantompalooza -- a celebration of Brian De Palma's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE where surviving cast members reunited -- to be enjoyed over at You Tube. This link will take you directly to Jessica Harper's live performance of "Old Souls" before an ecstatic crowd. The directory at the right of the screen offers additional Phantompalooza clips of Paul Williams' performance of "Faust" and a cast reunion panel.

Possession is 9/10ths of Guffaw


You'll have to excuse that subject line; I've topped off my evening's viewing with some BEANY & CECIL cartoons and the puns are pouring out of me.

But it's a true enough analogy when it comes to the movie I chose for my evening's main viewing, Amando de Ossorio's EXORCIST rip-off DEMON WITCH CHILD [LA ENDEMONIADA, 1975], which arrived here on VHS many years ago under the Dostoevskian moniker THE POSSESSED. This tape has been in my attic for about twenty years, watched only once, and I was delighted to find that time had stood still in terms of the tape itself; it still plays like it was brand new. The last time I saw DEMON WITCH CHILD, I merely thought it was bad, so I'm even more delighted to discover that my response to the movie today, twenty years further on, is conspicuously richer and more complex. I'm going to write it up for VW's "Things From the Attic" department, so I'm not going to review it here, but I do feel like previewing some of my thoughts on how this film has dated.

If you haven't seen it -- and there's not many opportunities to do so, as it's never turned up on cable, laserdisc or DVD -- it's the story of an old witch, Mother Gaultier ("the Mother of the Old Ones"), who leaps to her death through a glass window after being arrested for the abduction of an infant required by her coven's human sacrifice. (You know that comic "crashing" sound effect? It actually accompanies Mother Gaultier's suicide, right down to the sound of the plate rattling to a standstill.) In turn, her spirit possesses the body of the police commissioner's daughter, Susan. Before you know it, Susan (played by Marián Salgado, who was 11 or 12 at the time but looks somewhat older, thanks to her sexily cascading hair) is questioning the status quo, criticizing the hypocracies of her elders, sneering at the terminally staid, and startling everyone with words like "shit" and "fuck." Her governess (Lone Fleming, from the first two BLIND DEAD pictures) wails, "Her friends couldn't have taught her such words!"

My friends, welcome to the Twilight Zone. The amazing thing about DEMON WITCH CHILD is that, if you look past Susan's levitation (where the tracks doing the lift are in plain sight) and her transformation into Mother Gaultier and her spider-walk down the outside of her house (during which her skirt curiously defies gravity), everything this demonically-possessed child does to arouse terror in the hearts of her parents, caregivers, and local clergy would pass for standard behavior in an American child of her age in the year 2006!

This was 1975, of course. THE LAWRENCE WELK SHOW (or its Spanish equivalent) was still on the air. GIRLS GONE WILD, gangsta rap, and FEAR FACTOR were still no more than glints in the eyes of future pioneers of the arts. It was a different world then. But that doesn't make it any less amazing that, seen today, DEMON WITCH CHILD is only a scene or two removed from a straightforward cautionary tale about the generation gap. In fact, while watching it, I was often less alarmed by the doings of the kid with the snotty attitude than by the ultraconservative, reactionary ways of the adults who encircled her like so many prison bars. That is, until she kills and castrates one of them, and gift-wraps the severed genitals as a present for the victim's girlfriend. That's when Ossorio's movie lets you know, in case you still haven't caught on (as I hadn't), that it's not actually subversive entertainment and has every intention of siding with the grown-ups. Of course, it's possible that the English dubbed version is a travesty and that the original Spanish version is a more sober viewing experience, but I doubt it.

If 35 mm prints of DEMON WITCH CHILD could be found, it might well be the title that could revive the '70s phenomenon of the Midnight Movie. There's nothing that REEFER MADNESS or DAMAGED LIVES have that it doesn't have, and the lousy dubbing adds considerably to its pleasures. I'm in no particular rush to watch my tape of DEMON WITCH CHILD again... but I can't wait to tell my friends about it, and it would be an evening to remember to see it some night in a darkened auditorium with a bunch of of stoned kids out past their curfews.

Would you like to know more? Okay.

Here's a link to an amusing "visual examination" of the film I found online.

And in case you're wondering what Marián Salgado is doing today... incredibly, she's a blogger in Madrid! Her blog is in Spanish of course, and her only entry to date (from what I can understand of it) is sad and possibly tragic in nature; that said, she does seem to be reaching out to others by posting such a message, so I would urge you to proceed there only with the best and kindest of intentions. (And please write to me of anything you find out.) Naturally, I don't hold Ms. Salgado responsible for the shortcomings or the silliness of DEMON WITCH CHILD -- I rather enjoyed her in it -- and her only other movie credit is attached to one of the great classics of Spanish horror: Narcisco Ibañez-Serrador's WOULD YOU KILL A CHILD? aka ISLAND OF THE DAMNED (1976). I sincerely wish her well.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The 65th You Never Had


The 65th you never had
A day of smokes and celebration
Your second self abroad is sad
Discarded shadow resignation

Ten years you've gone from here to there
Traced in smoke, transfiguration
Your second self abroad knows where
To find you benched on your vacation

I seek you still, the truth to see
Revealed through smokes and cerebration
Your second self abroad's not me
But gives me grace of expectation.

for Krzysztof Kieslowski
June 27, 1941 - March 13, 1996

THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII reviewed

Glaucus (Steve Reeves) discovers evidence of his father's murder
in THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII.

Laser Paradise's widescreen German import DVD of Mario Bonnard's THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1959) has been available for awhile, but it was only recently that I got around to adding it to my collection. Watching this Mario Bonnard film starring Steve Reeves and Christine Kaufmann the other night -- or "Sergio Leone's Meisterwerk mit Christine Kaufmann and Steve Reeves," as the German packaging would have it -- I was momentarily surprised, about eight minutes or so into the movie, by the brief appearance of a young actor who looked like Jacinto Molina, toiling anonymously onscreen in the years before he became Spain's top horror star, Paul Naschy.

THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII isn't on any list of Naschy films I have seen -- it doesn't help that Naschy's autobiography eliminates all of his pre-starring appearances from his official filmography -- but it was mostly shot in Madrid and at a time when Molina was known to be making screen appearances. In the scene in question, the centurion Glaucus (Reeves) returns to Pompeii after victory in battle and stops to intercede in a Roman guard's flogging of a helpless villager. Glaucus grabs the sadistic guard by the wrist and then you see this:

My apologies for the lousy image compression, but this is as large as I can make the frame without knocking all the information to the right to the bottom of this screen. Yesterday I sent these grabs to various friends, including Naschy authority Mirek Lipinski of Latarnia International, for verification. Mirek agrees there is a resemblance, but otherwise doubts it could be Naschy, as he feels El Hombre Lobo would have spoken before now of having acted opposite someone as iconic and as personally inspirational to him, as an athlete, as Reeves. (PS: Yes, that's Angel Aranda of PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES to the side of Reeves in the second shot.)

You know, having just published these grabs and seen how poorly they communicate what I am talking about, I'm going to blow them up and crop them a bit so you can better see what I saw:

Better, yes? The first one really looks like him, I think... but it's probably not Paul Naschy, so please don't go spreading this rumor all over the Internet; I just wanted to share my surprise with you, and the possibility, shall we say, because I got a bigger kick out of this little eureka than I did from almost everything else this rather turgid epic had to offer.

This DVD was my first opportunity to see THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII in its correct anamorphic widescreen ratio, and I was disappointed to find that it doesn't hold up very well. The script -- written by a half-dozen old hands at Italian pepla including Ennio De Concini, Sergio Leone, Duccio Tessari and Sergio Corbucci -- plays less like an adaptation of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel than a "greatest clichés of the sword-and-sandal genre." The romantic leads meet when Reeves rescues Kaufmann from a runaway chariot; hooded men in the secret employ of Pompeii's High Priest (Fernando Rey) are murdering innocent people and leaving evidence behind to implicate Christians; henchmen deprived of their due are led to a pile of riches that turns out to be fatally booby-trapped; Reeves is chained in a dungeon and tears his way free just in time to save the day -- it's all very familiar. This could have been any other peplum script with an erupting volcano tagged onto the end. The climactic cataclysm is an immense disappointment too, consisting of lots of extras running around under a shower of fireworks sparklers, intercut with stock footage of Vesuvius and optical overlays of fireworks, and only one shot of lava -- which looks more like raw sewage as it feebly engulfs a fleeing man's dropped riches. I hope you know by now that I am not one of those critics who looks down his nose at all movies of this kind; I love a good many of them, from the best to the cheesiest, but this one fails in pretty much every department.

The film's direction is credited to Mario Bonnard, but the aging filmmaker fell ill shortly after production began and he was replaced by his assistant Sergio Leone. (Hence, Leone's "Meisterwerk.") Leone had his own difficulties on the sets in Madrid (he and Reeves didn't get along), and Sergio Corbucci was drafted to direct second-unit scenes at Cinecittà. It was the first of the sandaloni to be produced as a truly epic international co-production, with talent and monies pooled not only from Italy and America, but also from Germany, France, and Monaco; this diversity seems to have been more hindrance than help. Reeves and Kaufmann, speaking English and German at one another, never seem to connect, and the film's villainess, the voluptuous but otherwise boring Barbara Carroll, appears to have been cast solely for her ability to fill Anita Ekberg's old wardrobe from SIGN OF THE GLADIATOR. By far the most expensive peplum produced up to its time, THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII looks like one of the cheapest -- and the special effects men may have agreed because neither of them worked under their real names. “Magasoli” likely refers to one of two Spanish cinematographers active at the time (Augustín or Antonio Macasoli), while “Erasmo Bacciucchi” was surely the pyrotechnician Eros Bacciucchi. Speaking of which, the screen credits of this film are a veritable madhouse of misinformation -- Sergio Leone himself is credited with directing the second unit!

Laser Paradise's DVD is a deluxe two-disc item that pairs the 1959 film with the 1913 silent version from Italy, directed by Mario Caserini. (Do not confuse the German import with this domestic release, a pan&scan atrocity which also includes the 1913 film as a bonus.) The 1959 version is presented in its original aspect ratio and is generally fine, allowing for some individual scratchy or flecky shots that turn up in otherwise spotless sequences. The color is bold without being overdone. Three different soundtracks are offered in both German or English: original mono, DD 5.1, and DTS 5.1. The latter two principally pack more dimensional, re-recorded sound effects, with some outright fireworks sounds during the scenes of destruction that inadvertently make them more comic. The 5.1 mixes also have a tendency to drown out dialogue and, to an even greater extent, the Angelo Francesco Lavagnino score. The original mono mixes are recommended. The bonus feature (alas, without English intertitles) looks good and is effectively tinted; the red-tinted disaster scenes (likely the uncredited work of Mario Bava's father, Eugenio) seem light years ahead of the remake's capabilities. Cast and crew bios, information about Mt. Vesuvius, and a photo gallery are also included, as are some unrelated promotional trailers.

THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (or DIE LETZEN TAGE VON POMPEJI, as the cover art reads) is available here.

Postscript: To the best of my knowledge, this piece marks the English-language debut of the plural term "sandaloni." I found this interesting generic term in an Italian interview with screenwriter Ennio De Concini, published in a history of the Italian production company Galatea. I find this synonym less cumbersome than "sword-and-sandal" and more manly than "peplum," the more compact term assigned to this genre by the French, and I naturally bow to its Italian provenance.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Kate Bush and The Smiths "Under Review"


Since my earlier coverage of the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart releases in the series, I've been continuing to follow Sexy Intellectual's "Under Review" titles with keen interest. The latest two I've seen are devoted to the recording careers of Kate Bush and The Smiths. As an American admirer of these artists, one of the most gratifying things about these "Under Review" discs is that they present me with an opportunity to see these artists, who were never very big in America, through the eyes of observers who knew them as the chart-topping celebrities they were in Britain. I've always followed their work, liking pretty much all of it, but without any particular insight as to how their respective careers were affected by the ways in which their various singles and albums managed to hit or miss.

Before getting into the two new releases, I should stop for a moment and correct a common misconception about this series, which seems to be needlessly upsetting some people. The "Under Review" discs are not video compilations, so don't expect complete songs or state-of-the-art quality where video clips are concerned. If that's what you're looking for, you're bound to be disappointed. These discs are, as plainly labelled, "An Independent Critical Analysis"; that is, a visual presentation of music criticism and pop cultural history -- and, as such, I find them very interesting. But I read and like rock criticism.

Of the two new discs, I found the KATE BUSH - UNDER REVIEW most satisfying; in fact, its coverage of her innovations as a video artist and dancer inspired me to spend some money at eBay to acquire someone's (fairly decent) homemade compilation of her videos and various television appearances. The clips on view throughout the program (including some rarities) are mostly of conspicuously better quality than those of the VU and Beefheart releases, which is a definite plus, but the program's greatest value is that the commentators -- including series regular Paul Morley and, in this case especially, BBC Radio 1 DJ Paul Gambaccini -- are so insightful and articulate about Bush's work and its (and her) enduring appeal. Their annotation of all her music, from the uncanny perfection of her debut "Wuthering Heights" single to her recent comeback album AERIAL, I found not only hard to argue with, but often embellishing of my own ideas, and therefore gratifying. The magical quality of Bush's work as a music video artist, dancer, choreographer and director shines through even in short glimpses, and makes the need for a proper, official, DVD release of her work seem essential.


THE SMITHS UNDER REVIEW (which streets tomorrow, June 27) is also of interest, but harder to recommend. It benefits from having access to Smiths producers John Porter and Stephen Street, and also Smiths second guitarist Craig Gannon, all of whom offer more of an insider's perspective of the group's sessions and inter-personal dynamics. However, the program loses some of its integrity because the opinions of the various commentators are so often diffuse and contradictory. I was pleased that at least one participant challenged the common view by arguing that STRANGEWAYS, HERE WE COME was actually their finest album, and even more pleased that the disc had no intention of being "Morrissey - Under Review" in disguise. The contributions of brilliant guitarist-composer Johnny Marr are given at least equal time to Morrissey's, and Andy Rourke's suave and often melodic playing is also accorded proper respect. The clip quality here may be the most consistently good I've seen in this series overall, but the availability of so many TOP OF THE POPS clips and so forth may have inspired the filmmakers to take a more singles-oriented approach to documenting The Smiths' story. In England, The Smiths were widely known as a singles band, but their albums are their great legacy. The posthumously released live album, RANK, is not mentioned at all and the participants monologize on Morrissey and Marr's subsequent solo careers in a bonus featurette.

My feelings about THE SMITHS UNDER REVIEW can basically be boiled down to a single question: "How can I recommend a Smiths career overview that doesn't even mention 'There is a Light That Never Goes Out'?"