Monday, October 02, 2006

Miami Lice

Michael C. Hall on the prowl for cold cuts in Showtime's DEXTER.

I'm not a fan of any of the epidemic forensic murder investigation shows, or our recent spate of torture-driven horror movies, so it's probably not too surprising that I didn't care much for Showtime's debut episode of DEXTER.

What intrigues me about the show are its sociologic implications. It posits a serial killer, a Miami PD forensics expert played by Michael C. Hall, in the heroic position while the police are depicted as either inept or corrupt. The first episode rationalizes Dexter's murderous impulses by giving him the equivalent of a superhero origin story, complete with roseate flashbacks to his boyhood, when his understanding cop father urged him to use his "talent" for killing stray animals for good, reminding him that most murder cases go unsolved -- hence, unpunished. Our "hero"'s initial adversary is a super-artistic killer whose acts of destruction are made to look downright creative. ("This guy is good," Dexter wows to himself, further confusing audience concepts of what is right and wrong.) And since Dexter is asexual and keeping company with a traumatized rape victim (Julie Benz), the concept of friendly, humanizing copulation is as mutually unacceptable to them as it would be to members of the Moral Majority. Besides, healthy sex and intimacy would only serve to distract viewers from the emotionally remote ways in which the show details the art of lowering one's carnage visor and inflicting a painfully slow and conscious death.

I wasn't so offended by anything in DEXTER that I wanted to turn it off, but given its implications rather than its gore, I found it kind of sick. I also fear its potential to inspire the wrong sort of people, not to mention subliminally reinforcing of our government's current pro-torture stance. I think, over time, worst case scenario, it could help people to become more accepting of the idea of inflicting pain and defying our laws for the "correct moral reasons," and make them more accepting of the idea that the monster can also be the hero. Perhaps the show is deliberately tapping into this zeitgeist, to present people with the horror of what we have become as a nation, but that doesn't make it easier to swallow, or any the less defiling.

I thought Michael C. Hall was fantastic on SIX FEET UNDER but, performance-wise, I have to wonder what he thought he was doing here with his eyes; he often has a deer-in-the-headlights-on-poppers expression, so extreme I worried that he might burst out of his own face if he stared and grinned at his co-stars with heartier enthusiasm. His voice-over narration, à la AMERICAN PSYCHO, is a bad idea that works against one's involvement with his performance while telegraphing its every turning point; is this show so subtle that it needs idiot cards, or is that the audience it hopes to attract? One hopes this supremely unsubtle technique will be discarded, like those funeral home accessory commercials that flanked the first episodes of SIX FEET UNDER.

I'll probably watch at least the next episode or so of DEXTER out of Sunday night inertia, but I was disappointed by this nasty, flower-shirted parade of anomie -- and especially so when I found out, later in the evening, the apparently stale news that Showtime has not renewed HUFF for a third season. Poor ratings aside, HUFF was an extremely well-acted, well-written, and challenging show that managed to be thoughtful, sensitive, and riotously transgressive at the same time.

After the debut, Showtime ran a series of promos for DEXTER accompanied by some of the most enthusiastic press blurbs I've seen in ages. I don't get it, but all this playing-up is another reason to be wary of the media. Yet there's too much talent invested in this show for me to give up after a single episode; I'm kind of curious to see where DEXTER thinks it's going, and a bit worried about it, too.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Essential Sunday Reading

Happy October, everyone! And a happy one it is, here at Chez Watchdog.

Harvey Chartrand has written to inform me of something wonderful in RUE MORGUE #61, their 9th Anniversary Halloween Issue. Evidently one of the articles is "The Connoisseur's Guide to 50 Alternative Horror Books," which includes my out-of-print novel THROAT SPROCKETS (1994) in a selection of 50 essential horror novels, dating back to Matthew G. Lewis' THE MONK (1796)!

The same issue also contains a feature article career retrospective of the great Ramsey Campbell, now one of the regular stars in the VIDEO WATCHDOG firmament. And I should also mention that I was pleased to find a very enthusiastic review to Rebecca & Sam Umland's DONALD CAMMELL - A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE in RUE MORGUE's previous issue. RUE MORGUE #61 is on newsstands now, or order/subscribe here.

Also in newsstand news, my review of ERIC ROHMER - SIX MORAL TALES is now available in the October 2006 issue of SIGHT & SOUND. My review is also available for your pleasure in its entirety on the S&S website. For an overview of the issue, ordering/subscription information, and a link to my review (scroll down a bit to "DVD Review"), click here.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Sam Sherman on Andy and Ivan

Before I go and forget the details, which I hastily scribbled down, I should make note of a surprise phone call I received a couple of days ago from Independent-International mogul, Samuel M. Sherman.

Sam is a longtime friend of VIDEO WATCHDOG, and an even-longer hero of mine, not only for importing LA MARCA DEL HOMBRE LOBO (as FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR) and a number of the West German Edgar Wallace krimis, but also for his early editorship of SCREEN THRILLS ILLUSTRATED (in retrospect, the most reliable and well-written of all Warren film publications) and for his inimitable talents as a designer of exploitation film campaigns. It was Sam who created all the best-loved, blood-drooling Hemisphere Pictures trailers and ad campaigns; it was he who hired Brother Theodore to narrate the trailers for THE MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND and HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS; and I had also heard that Sam was responsible for some of the campaigns for Andy Milligan's movies. For my money, Sam was the King of Lurid Advertising.

Out of curiosity, I asked Sam if he had been responsible for the classic campaigns for Milligan's BLOODTHIRSTY BUTCHERS, TORTURE DUNGEON, and THE RATS ARE COMING! THE WEREWOLVES ARE HERE! -- but he said No; neither did he have anything to do with another William Mishkin release I'd heard he'd done, THE ORGY AT LIL'S PLACE. But my question prompted some very interesting information about the role Sam had played in Andy Milligan's early career. The following quote I have reconstructed from what I jotted down as Sam was reminiscing. All news to me, and I don't believe any of this was covered in Jimmy McDonough's book THE GHASTLY ONE, either:

Sam Sherman: "I first became aware of Andy Milligan when I was doing ad campaigns. My partner Bob Price and I did some work at that time for a distributor named Jerry Balsam, and one day, Jerry showed us a film called SIN SISTERS, 2000 A.D. It was a terrible, amateurish picture and I didn't think much better of the title. It was later retitled THE DEGENERATES, at my suggestion. After we saw it, we came up with a campaign built around this new title, which I believe was fairly successful. Somewhere around here, I have a book about the days of 42nd Street exploitation -- I don't remember the title -- but the picture on the cover of the book is a shot of a 42nd Street theater marquee with the title THE DEGENERATES on it. That was considered quite a strong title in those days; "DEGENERATES" was one of the words that some newspapers wouldn't print, so you'd have to call the theater to find out the title.

"Later on, Andy Milligan bought this big house on Staten Island and started making pictures there. He also started shooting in color. The first picture he made there was a color film, a kind of Victorian story with a lot of sex in it. Jerry Balsam acquired it too, and he screened it for us. It had some thriller elements, but they didn't sit very well in the picture he had made. I suggested to Jerry and Andy that, if they really wanted a successful picture, they should go back and do some reshoots -- he still had the house, because he lived in it, and the cast were working cheaply if they were paid at all. I told them I thought they should rework it to be more of a horror picture. The film had this hunchback minion character [Hal Borske] who I thought should be played up a bit more, and it had too much sex in it, as it was. So Andy got the cast back together and shot some additional horror sequences with gore and what-not, cutting out a lot -- if not all -- of the sex and nudity. So, in a sense, I'm the person responsible for suggesting to Andy Milligan that he make horror pictures. That movie became THE GHASTLY ONES, which is also a title I suggested, because 'Ghastly' was a word that hadn't previously been used in the title of a horror movie; I thought it would be effective. I later used it again in the title for Al Adamson's BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR. The ad campaign for THE GHASTLY ONES was also one of mine; I did that with Bob Price."

When I told Sam that THE DEGENERATES is now considered a lost film, he sounded surprised. "I know that Milligan's early Mishkin films are considered lost, but THE DEGENERATES was a Jerry Balsam picture, so there's no reason why it should be. Jerry's passed away, and he wasn't one for copyrighting his prints, so if they could be found, there wouldn't be anything to stop someone from just putting them out. You say it's a lost film; I don't know that it is, but if it is, I'd have to say it's just as well. Of course, horror fans are often completists and want to see as much as they can, and I understand this -- but it really was a terrible picture, very badly made."

The reason Sam called me in the first place was because he had discovered a discussion folder I had created on the Latarnia International boards, called "The Mystery of Ivan Reiner," which can be found here. Reiner was the writer-producer behind the Gamma I films made by Antonio Margheriti and the Gamma III film THE GREEN SLIME, directed by Kinji Fukasaku; he was, as far as I can tell, their only common denominator, and so much more the "Gamma" man than Margheriti or anyone else. When I posted my original message, I was commemorating the 40th anniversary of his death, according to the IMDb... but, as Sam pointed out, those dates didn't jibe because it would have meant he was dead before THE GREEN SLIME was made! The thread petered out after only two replies, and there was even speculation that "Ivan Reiner" might be a pseudonym for the prolific Ennio Di Concini. Not so, says Sam Sherman.

"I knew Ivan," Sam told me, "and I can tell you a little about him. He was, in fact, a New Yorker who lived in New York City and was originally the program director for WOR-TV, Channel 9, in Secaucus, New Jersey. He later worked with a film distributor by the name of Walter Manley, who had film distribution deals with companies all around the world, including the United States, Italy, and Japan. When I read your posting, I went to the IMDb -- which I often find runs riot with misinformation, though it is getting better. It said that Ivan had died back in the 1960s, which I knew wasn't true, so I went and looked up his name via the Social Security death records and found that he passed away sometime in September 1997. It also gave the date of his birth as 1911. I submitted this information to the IMDb and I hope it appears there, sooner or later."

I just checked Ivan Reiner's IMDb page and the correct information is indeed now posted there. My thanks to Sam for calling -- the mind boggles at the kinds of things he must know, but hasn't been asked about!

Friday, September 29, 2006

My Movie Meme

Henry Fonda has his way with Claudia Cardinale in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.

A MOVIE THAT CHANGED MY LIFE: Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST was the Big One. I've told this story before, but I went to my local theater one Saturday when I was 12 to see the latest Elvis Presley movie, CHARRO!. OUATITW was the co-feature. I must have got there late or something, so I decided to come back the next day (Sunday) to enjoy it from the beginning. When I got there, I discovered that the theater had reversed the showtimes, so I had to see OUATITW anyway; an idea that didn't exactly thrill me because I didn't care for Westerns. To make a long and already told story short, I became enthralled by the movie to the extent that I felt branded by it. It put hair on my chest. And when the movie ended, I could suddenly see how ephemeral the Presley co-feature couldn't help but be, and I made what I count as the first adult decision of my life: I got up and went home. To this day, I have never seen CHARRO!.

A MOVIE I'VE SEEN MORE THAN ONCE: Tons of them, including many I don't particularly care for. Much moreso than the maxim "reading is re-reading," I find that watching movies is re-watching movies. Among the movies I believe I've seen more often than any others: ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, WOODSTOCK, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, WOMEN IN LOVE, TOMMY, WITCHFINDER GENERAL, THE ASTOUNDING SHE MONSTER, THAT THING YOU DO! (which I feel is a nearly perfect movie), the Bava films of course, and a goodly number of the classic Universal horror films. We're talking as many as 20 times in some cases. Looking over that list in printed form, I have to say that -- with a few exceptions I can still understand -- I could have picked better movies to obsess over! Very often when a movie affects me deeply, I deliberately keep my distance from it, prefering to cherish the memory rather than wear it out. Four of the titles I chose for my SIGHT & SOUND TOP 10 in 2002 I have seen only once.

A MOVIE I WOULD TAKE WITH ME IF I WERE STUCK ON A DESERT ISLAND: I think Charlton Heston in THE OMEGA MAN had the right idea with WOODSTOCK. It's got drama, humor, idealism, a huge cross-section of humanity, and great music. It's not just a movie; it's company.

A MOVIE THAT MADE ME LAUGH: I have a perverse sense of humor and things like W. C. Fields' THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER and the "Black Cat" episode of Roger Corman's TALES OF TERROR resonate especially well with my funny bobne. Feature-wise, however, three stand out: Preston Sturges' UNFAITHFULLY YOURS, Bruce Robinson's WITHNAIL & I, and Richard Kwietniowski's LOVE AND DEATH ON LONG ISLAND. All three have an aggressively literary bent in their dialogue, so that all three would have been just as funny on the printed page; none of them is particularly cinematic, but all three feature great performances.


Fritz Lang discusses the day's rushes with producer Jack Palance in CONTEMPT.

A MOVIE THAT MADE ME CRY: Strangely enough, Jean-Luc Godard's CONTEMPT. There is an exterior moment after the episode in the screening room, in which Fritz Lang walks pensively across the wide screen as Georges Delerue's tragic theme music swells; the combination kills me every time. That's how much I love movies.

A MOVIE I WISH HAD NEVER BEEN MADE: I agree with whomever had the insight that great art is a lie (an invention) that tells the truth. Ergo, any film that tells lies to propogate falsehoods and to take cynical advantage of public ignorance I find, by definition, repugnant. So my answer is THE PATH TO 9/11.

A MOVIE I'VE BEEN MEANING TO SEE: Movies I've been meaning to see are the bane of my existence. At the moment I have about ten bankers boxes, containing 50 DVDs each, stacked high in a corner of my dining room. Discs I've bought, discs sent to me by friendly correspondents, and, of course, review screeners. Every one of them is screaming "Watch me!" at the top of their imaginary lungs, and some are (ouch) box sets.

A MOVIE I RECENTLY SAW: The 1929 version of SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE, starring Richard Dix (who reminds me a great deal of George Reeves). It ran on Turner Classic Movies yesterday morning and it ran about 10 minutes longer than my Dish TV menu screen said it would, so my recording cut out before the movie was over.

Irène Jacob models for a bubble gum ad campaign in RED.

A MOVIE I WISH I'D MADE: Krzysztof Kieslowski's THREE COLORS trilogy, particularly RED. I felt immediately at home in this movie, and somehow saw most of its levels at once, but this didn't do anything to exhaust my fascination with it. A perfect mesh of the commercial and the metaphysical, it captures the daunting magic of meeting someone who gives your life unsuspected depths of meaning -- a recurring theme in my own work. Jean-Louis Trintignant probably ties with Oliver Reed as my favorite actor (they star in more of my favorite films than anyone else), and I'm very smitten with Irène Jacob; I love the way their characters seem to represent real people while at the same time boldly occupying a more symbolic plane, and the bolero theme written by Zbigniew Preisner gives the whole a vaguely apocalyptic tense that is highly dramatic and would sadly be fulfilled by the retirement and quick death of Kieslowski. As a Gemini with a deep interest in music, I am in some ways even more drawn to THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE... but my senses tell me that RED is the more complex and satisfying achievement.

In closing... apropos of some of the finest films it has ever been my pleasure to see -- one of which (L'ECLISSE) is certain to make my next SIGHT & SOUND Top 10 list -- a very Happy 94th Birthday to Michelangelo Antonioni. Buon' compleanno, Maestro.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

My Book Meme

I had no idea what a "meme" is, until I saw the word used on some other blogs presenting their own versions of the following questionnaire. I subsequently looked it up at Dictionary.com and understood how the word was being applied. Anyway, I saw this meme on Ann Powers' Eensy Weensy and also on David Barker's 33 1/3 (both worthwhile music blogs), and it made me want to play along. So here goes...

A BOOK THAT CHANGED MY LIFE: GREAT EXPECTATIONS by Charles Dickens. For as long as I can remember, I've been a book collector; as a child, much as today, I owned more books than I had actually read. When my class was assigned to read GREAT EXPECTATIONS in my freshman high school year, I approached it as an obligatory duty; the last thing I expected was to fall in love with the characters, their plight, and the storytelling. We were told to read only chapter per day, and I had to fight the inclination to read ahead. Before I read this book, my own expectation was that I would become a commercial artist; after I read it, the seed was definitely planted that I should be a writer.

A BOOK I'VE READ MORE THAN ONCE: There have been several, but one that stands out for me is BULLET PARK by John Cheever, which I've read three times. I've read just about all of Cheever save for some short stories -- he's one of the great American magic realists, though he's not commonly thought of that way -- and, despite a jaggedly abrupt conclusion and closure, this one stands supreme for me: a haunting, melancholy novel about a man named Hammer and the arrival of a newcomer named Nailles. The chapter about the cafard and the search for a house with yellow windows is one for which I felt extraordinary empathy; I would love to have written this particularly, but writing such material surely had a certain price attached, and it's known that Cheever went through hell before receiving this vision.

A BOOK I WOULD TAKE WITH ME IF I WERE STUCK ON A DESERT ISLAND: Probably ULYSSES by James Joyce, if only for its variety. Every chapter is written in a different style, rooted in a different myth, and it is entertaining whether read simply or academically. Second choice: THE ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY by Robert Burton.

A BOOK THAT MADE ME LAUGH: THE HARD LIFE by Flann O'Brien. All of Flann O'Brien makes me laugh hysterically -- AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS, THE THIRD POLICEMAN, THE DALKEY ARCHIVE, THE POOR MOUTH, even his Irish Post newspaper columns. But THE HARD LIFE (again, not his best-loved book) really got to me and was such an unalloyed delight that I've read it four times; that's more times than I've read any other novel, save the ones I've written. When you've read the book once, even the somber opening French epigraph becomes hilarious. Vladimir Nabokov's PALE FIRE and Raymond Queneau's WE ALWAYS TREAT WOMEN TOO WELL also come to mind, as do certain stories in FANCIES AND GOODNIGHTS by John Collier.

A BOOK THAT MADE ME CRY: The last chapters of ULYSSES and Henry Green's BACK (an undersung book well worth your discovery) were so beautiful they not only made me cry, but made me re-read them immediately and many times thereafter. I was also deeply moved when I finished Thomas Mann's THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN and his JOSEPH AND HIS BROTHERS cycle, because I was sorry to have them end. As a boy, I cried when Gwen Stacy was killed by The Green Goblin in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #121; that was when it first struck me that requited love was no guarantee of a happy ending.

A BOOK THAT I WISH HAD BEEN WRITTEN: Leaving aside the novels that I still hope to write (some of which have been rattling around in my head far too long), I wish that more of Alain Robbe-Grillet's work was available in English translation, particularly the subsequent volumes of his autobiography.

A BOOK I WISH HAD NEVER BEEN WRITTEN: I can think of a couple, but the one I'll mention is ANTHONY BURGESS, the recent biography of the British author by Roger Lewis. It's like reading the smug, snotty, self-serving hate tract of a disinherited relative.

A BOOK I'VE BEEN MEANING TO READ: Dozens, hundreds. If I have to pick one, I'll go with REPETITION by Alain Robbe-Grillet. It's on the shelf with all his others, which I've read, but I haven't been in the right mood to connect with this one yet. John Cale calls it his favorite novel, so I'm curious to see how I find it stacks up against the others.

I'M CURRENTLY READING: KINGDOM COME by J. G. Ballard, one of our best living writers and thinkers. (Didn't this book have an editor? A character named Tom Carradine becomes David Carradine for two pages.) A strong off-center premise, lots of exciting sociological insight, but ultimately I doubt it will shape up as one of his best. Suffers from Rod Serling Syndrome: all the characters speak in the same voice, from the same viewpoint. I've also recently read two books in Continuum's terrific "33 1/3" series of paperback essays about classic rock albums, the ones on Jimi Hendrix's ELECTRIC LADYLAND (by John Inglis) and Neil Young's HARVEST (by John Perry). I'm just starting into the one on David Bowie's LOW (by Hugo Wilcken). As ever, these books give one an excuse to delve into these albums on a deeper-than-usual listening level, which is a pleasure in itself.

A BOOK I WISH I'D WRITTEN: Vladimir Nabokov's INVITATION TO A BEHEADING. I know I should say LOLITA, because being its author would make me rich, but therein lies an aversion of commercial success I am struggling to overcome. Nabokov himself cited INVITATION as the personal work for which he felt the most admiration.

The idea of a meme is that I am now supposed to reach out and "tag" or "infect" another friendly blogger, inducing them to post a book meme of their own. My friends and fellow bloggers are all overworked, so I'd rather tag them with a relaxation meme... but if anyone out there cares to follow through of their own free will, consider yourself tagged.

In the meantime, maybe tomorrow I'll post my movie meme...

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

This Is My Magazine and It Freaks Me Out!


Is this not a cool cover? Now click on the pic and watch it blow up, man. And all ye of ruffled cuffs and spangled wrists, hoist high your flagons of felicitation to charmin' Charlie Largent, for yet another mind-bending feat of cover art legerdemain!

Yes, VIDEO WATCHDOG #127 is now at the printer! You can get the customary run-down of the issue's contents and a free preview of its feature articles (my article on Del Tenney, and Bill Cooke's article on the Universal Hammer titles) by visiting the Coming Soon area of our website, or simply by clicking here.

Collect 'Em All!

Bubblegumfink! has posted an amazing collection of imaginary SUSPIRIA trading cards, complete with wrapper. Go here and scroll down to Wednesday, September 20's "Giallofink" posting.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Letters! I Get Letters!

I've received some interesting blog-related correspondence of late, and since I don't want to open this blog to comments and have to play moderator, it might be a good idea to post selected comments when I feel they're worth sharing.

For example, here's some interesting background on STONE COLD DEAD from reader Robert Richardson:

"Having only ever seen STONE COLD DEAD in standard pan & scan prints both on broadcast television and cable movie channels (and neither were would you could call pristine) news of a clean, clear, widescreen copy circulating perks my interest. I'm hardly a fan of the film but I've seen it more than once already and would give it another go if the presentation was up to snuff.

"A couple weeks back I found an old copy of the source novel in a thrift shop for 70 cents. THE SIN SNIPER was originally published in 1970, and a tie-in re-dubbed with the movie's title was issued by Paper Jacks in 1978. It includes eight pages of b/w stills from the film, including a three-still recreation of the initial sniping and one behind-the-scenes shot of director George Mendeluk blocking a scene.

"The author of the book is Hugh Garner, a war veteran who turned to writing as the 1940s waned. His book CABBAGETOWN is perhaps his best known, but he won the Governor General's Award in 1963 for a short story collection he penned. I can tell you that the movie and the original novel are substantially different. Toronto was Garner's home and it served as the background to virtually all of his writing, including THE SIN SNIPER. The characters present in the novel differ radically from those in the film. In fact, the identity of the killer is completely different as is the resolution. Why Mendeluk chose to detour so far from the novel is beyond me, and I do not believe that the changes were for the better.

"Mendeluk's next film, THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT, was also adapted from a source novel. It too would benefit from a proper widescreen presentation. After some juvenile comedies he seemed to drift into episodic television and these days mostly works on television movies.

"The cast of STONE COLD DEAD also includes Cronenberg vet Chuck Shamata (SCANNERS as well as the Ivan Reitman produced DEATH WEEKEND); Paul Bradley (ever so briefly), who years earlier had costarred effectively in both GOIN' DOWN THE ROAD and WEDDING IN WHITE; professional boxer George Chuvalo (who fought Ali in the 1960s); Alberta Watson (from THE KEEP, THE SWEET HEREAFTER, SPANKING THE MONKEY and more recently 24); and lovely Jennifer Dale, making her debut as initial victim Claudia Grissom. Dale was the love interest of Alliance Atlantis honcho Robert Lantos. He produced several of her films though arguably she has found wider recognition (at least here in Canada) on television."


I thank Robert for the information.

Readers Mike Schlesinger and C. Jerry Kutner commented on the good timing on my Russell Metty centenary acknowlegement, which happened to coincide with a 3D screening of TAZA, SON OF COCHISE in Los Angeles. Mr. Kutner writes:

"Living in L.A., I was lucky enough to catch the screening two weeks ago of TAZA, SON OF COCHISE at the 2nd World 3D Expo. It was extraordinarily beautiful to see the vast open spaces of Monument Valley in 3D with those incredible natural formations in the distant background. (For an approximation of what this looked like, check out Ford’s CHEYENNE AUTUMN, which in 70mm achieves something close to a 3-dimensional effect.) As in most of Metty’s work with Sirk, there are foreground objects in almost every shot, but unlike most other Sirk films, this one was shot almost entirely on location outdoors, and the 3D combined with unobtrusive camera movement (mostly panning – to follow the characters) results in a lovely flowing dance of foreground, middle ground, and background. And those arrows shot into the audience are cool!"

But the most eye-opening blog response I received last week was from a PBS employee whose correspondence was labelled "not for publication." Naturally, I'll respect this reader's wishes, but I think it's important to paraphrase some of the behind-the-scenes reasons therein provided why Ric Burns' ANDY WARHOL: A DOCUMENTARY FILM had to be broadcast in censored form.

Evidently, PBS stations are now being suffocated by increased restrictions from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), whose fines have become so steep that even a single fine could be enough to put a smaller PBS affiliate out of business. (When a public complaint results in the issuing of a fine, these fines are issued not only to PBS as a network, but to the individual affiliate in the area where the complaint originated.) A California affiliate was fined earlier this year for broadcasting Martin Scorsese's THE BLUES with utterances of "fuck" and "shit" intact, these used more for seasoning and exclamation rather than in literal terms; the matter of context was immaterial, and the station was slapped with heavy fines for repeated utterances.

Thus far, PBS has been unsuccessful in obtaining even the vaguest guidelines from the FCC, so affiliates have no idea in advance of what the FCC may find objectionable, until the killing fine is thrown down. This effectively has Public Television existing in a state of uncertainty bordering on terror. PBS stations have become so gunshy that, in some cases, they are going to the additional trouble and expense of digitally blurring the lip movements of documentary interviewees, rather than incur possible penalties for broadcasting too-emphatically-mouthed obscenities. Imagery that might be deemed controversial, like some rear nudity in one of the Warhol films, is also being blurred for the same reason. The letter I received suggested that future PBS programming, such as their upcoming WWII documentary, will likely be offered to affiliates in uncut or pre-censored form -- but in this event, it's all but certain that most if not all affiliates would choose the sanitized version rather than face the consequences of Freedom of Speech.

This was an enlightening but tragic letter to receive because it essentially confirmed, from the inside, that PBS is being stripped of the special qualities and privileges that its members continue to believe they are paying for. Programs that could have aired uncut one year ago are now being aired with more bleeps than are heard at the average Stereolab concert. There are programs that aired uncut on PBS thirty years ago that would no longer be permitted in any shape or form. But public funding is more important than ever, as government funding has become so reduced that long-running PBS series like MYSTERY! and MASTERPIECE THEATER can no longer afford hosts.

In its heyday, PBS was the only alternative to commercial network television; it was educational, progressive, and it had the freedom to be outspoken. Today, with its mouth gagged and blinders keeping its eyes trained on the straight and narrow, it's become another government detainee -- forbidden to use even PG-level language in serious discussions of art and construction, and relying more and more on the "good business" of presenting sanitized documentaries about war and destruction.

Of course, it's commendable that some individuals within the PBS power structure are still quixotic enough to try, to present something like Ric Burns' Warhol epic as a two-parter in the context of AMERICAN MASTERS. Even in bastardized form, it communicates an idea of its quality and gives the viewer enough information to seek out the uncut original on DVD, or to explore Warhol's legacy further in books and museums. But it's a shame that the ideal of Public Television has so quietly become a thing of the past, and that its hallmarks of free speech have been inherited by premium cable and satellite television, luxuries -- like so much else, from vitamins and health care to gasoline -- that cannot be afforded by all men created equally.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

STONE COLD DEAD on TMC

Andrée Cousineau as one of the tragic victims in STONE COLD DEAD.

To date, George Mendeluk's STONE COLD DEAD (1980) -- starring Richard Crenna and Paul Williams -- has only reached home video here in America as a standard, pan&scanned VHS release from Media Home Entertainment. With this in mind, some of you may be interested to learn that it aired on The Movie Channel last night in a brand new, letterboxed transfer. It is still a notable turn of events, sad to say, when a pay cable station shows a film in its correct aspect ratio, especially a picture on the level of this Canadian thriller.

Crenna stars as a recently separated police sergeant investigating a series of prostitute murders in an unnamed city that he describes as dirty and scummy while driving past a storefront that reads "Disney." (It was shot in Toronto, then credited as being a North American city so clean you could practically eat off its sidewalks, with lots of recognizable Yonge Street landmarks like Sam's record shop.) The hookers are being shot with a customized rifle attached to a 35mm still camera, allowing the limping assassin to develop quasi-cinematic serial photos of each killing in progress; the red-tinted developing room shots, showing black leather-gloved hands hanging the wet prints on a wire, lends the proceedings an occasional Argento-like flavor. Another Argentovian touch can be found in the delineation of Crenna's character, an eccentric who has rigged a special unlisted telephone number to feed his pet fish whenever it rings ("I don't get home much," he explains). An unusually pudgy Paul Williams plays Kurtz, a shag-haired crime boss/pimp -- and the Movie Channel print was so sharp that the red impression of a discarded wedding band is sometimes distractingly visible on the third finger of Williams' left hand. (It's not in this sleazy character's profile to have been married.) Williams, who has a big dialogue scene outside the "Paradise Cinema," is miscast as a crimelord who strikes terror into people's hearts, but Crenna brings a world-weary gravitas to his character that works, and Belinda J. Montgomery has one of her best showings as a daring female officer who goes too far undercover to solve the case; she also gets a rare opportunity to sing, and is in good voice. Christopher Walken lookalike Frank Moore (from Cronenberg's RABID and THE ITALIAN MACHINE) is on hand as a strip-club habitué red herring, and Michael Ironside, buried way down the cast list, appears just long enough to get shot during a stakeout.

I had never seen STONE COLD DEAD before, but I remember seeing TV spots during its initial release to local drive-ins that made it look ugly and sordid and cheap. With that in mind, it was a nice surprise to find it so competent, watchable, and evocative of my own happy memories of Toronto -- and it held my attention even at an hour when common sense dictated I should have long been in bed. It's sleazy too, but a sweet kind of sleazy. It's probably nothing I would bother to record, but sometimes it's pleasure enough to find good people injecting a little soul into a project where such dimension wasn't really necessary or expected.

I've checked The Movie Channel's schedule for the next week and can't find any future playdates for STONE COLD DEAD, so it may be played out there, but -- for those interested -- it's bound to resurface sooner or later on one of the other TMC or Showtime family channels.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Back To Medfield College

Made curious by this week's earlier encounter with Robert Stevenson's THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND (1936), I've decided to stage an impromptu return to Medfield College (the site of numerous Stevenson comedies for Disney, from THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR to the Dexter Riley trilogy starring Kurt Russell) and some of Stevenson's other work.

When they were new, live action Disney films of the 1960s were anathema to young people of my age. The trailers showed us that they were silly and unsophisticated and, somehow worst of all, wholesome; we didn't need to see them to know they would be bland and insufferable. But now that I'm older, I'm feeling a curiosity about some of these matinee pictures I missed. (I said "some" -- I still have no interest in seeing LT. ROBIN CRUSOE, U.S.N., for example, but I'm keen to see THE GNOME MOBILE and BLACKBEARD'S GHOST.) I decided to begin with a personal double-feature of THAT DARN CAT! (the Hayley Mills version, directed by Stevenson but not set at Medfield) and THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES (the first of the Dexter Riley films, set at Medfield College but not directed by Stevenson).

THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES (1969) is an amusing idea that falls victim to mishandling. In short, middling Medfield student Dexter Riley happens to be in physical contact with a computer recently donated to the school's science department during an electrical storm, which drains the computer of all data and transfers all its storage files and analytic ability to him. Dexter begins to excel in tests and science teacher William Schallert deduces what has happened (he proves this to Medfield dean Joe Flynn by aiming some sort of viewing device through Dexter's ear, which makes stock footage of the computer visible inside his head!); rather than do something to return the kid to normal, Medfield takes advantage of their advantage and includes Dexter in a national academics competition. Things get hairy when it's discovered that the computer was presented to Medfield by a local business leader (Cesar Romero) with big ties to organized gambling, and that Dexter's fund of knowledge includes a good deal of incriminating evidence. Richard Bakalyan is on hand as Romero's stooge, and the inimitable Alan Hewitt (memorable in other roles in earlier Medfield movies) is back as the dean of Medfield's rival college. As with the Flubber movies, COMPUTER builds to a madcap road chase and a climax involving a scoreboard, with the winning point scored by someone other than the scientifically-assisted.

What's odd about the film is that Kurt Russell, ostensibly the star here, is given very few close-ups by director Robert Butler and the Dexter Riley character is so flatly written that he has few opportunities to make an impression. It doesn't help that he's always surrounded by other teen actors (including LASSIE's Jon Provost) to the point of being overwhelmed onscreen. Speaking of Russell's co-stars, the film perversely casts a number of capable young people with impossible-to-ignore facial flaws; one actor has a badly bruised eye, and another not only has a serious complexion problem but a large boil on his neck! I'm all for giving the part to the right actor, but there's a reason why casting directors keep faces like these off the screen: they're distracting. Schallert is a welcome presence and he does his best, but to see him teach a science class is a crash course in appreciation for the snap, crackle and pop that Fred MacMurray could bring to such scenes. In retrospect, it's hard to see why this lackluster movie spawned a series, but it would continue with the invisibility comedy NOW YOU SEE HIM, NOW YOU DON'T (1972) and the super-strength fantasy THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD (1975). THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES was also remade for television in 1995, with Kirk Cameron as Dexter Riley. It tanked.

THAT DARN CAT! (1965) casts Hayley Mills and Dorothy Provine as two grown sisters of curiously disparate ages, left alone by vacationing parents, whose pesky Siamese cat D.C. discovers a kidnappers' hide-out during his nightly wanderings. When D.C. brings home a wristwatch etched with the word "Help!," placed around his neck by the abductee (Grayson Hall, of all people), Hayley somehow deduces its correct origin and involves FBI agent Dean Jones, who assigns a group of other agents to shadow the cat's night walks in hopes of learning the whereabouts of criminals Neville Brand and Frank Gorshin.

Based on a children's book by The Gordons, this is an overlong (nearly two hours) but attractive movie with a cool Bobby Darin theme song, heard under a main title sequence of genuinely comic scenes and atmospheric suburban matte paintings. The opening scenes with Gorshin, Brand and Hall are surprisingly rough for Disney family fare, and the Bill Walsh script manages to insert some subversive social satire in a vein similar to his and Stevenson's earlier SON OF FLUBBER, this time poking fun at Disney's chief competitor for the youth market, American International, and their "Beach Party" pictures. (Hayley's boyfriend Canoe, engagingly played by Tom Lowell, takes her to so many surfing movies at the drive-in that she comes home sea-sick.) Provine tries to explain the British lilt of Mills' voice by doing an impression of her in some scenes, but in others, Mills seems to be imitating Provine's American accent. This confusion aside, everyone's in pretty good form, with Jones particularly appealing as the supple-voiced hero. There are also some supporting players whose shenanigans alone are worth the price of a rental: Roddy McDowall, Elsa Lanchester and William Demerest. (The DVD includes a tinny-sounding French audio track, and you owe it to yourself to sample at least one of Lanchester and Demerest's scenes as Hayley's nosy neighbors in French. The dialogue is amazingly well synchronized to the actors' lip movements, and Demerest comes across like Jean Gabin!)

Hardly the "film classic" described by the box, THAT DARN CAT! is no embarrassment to Robert Stevenson's filmography; it's a slick and pleasing evening's entertainment with more than its share of laughs. Having finally seen it on DVD, I kind of wish that I also had it as a childhood memory, which probably would have sweetened the experience a bit more. THAT DARN CAT! was remade in 1997 as a theatrical feature starring Christina Ricci, which featured Dean Jones in a minor role.

These Walt Disney Video DVDs, which first streeted in 2003, feature no-frills, standard ratio presentations with excellent, full-bodied audio. Both features were shot in the 1.66:1 screen ratio, so they are not badly compromised by the cropping, but it is occasionally noticeable.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Cream of Documentary

Over the past two nights, I sat happily absorbed, enlightened, and often mentally stimulated by Ric Burns' outstanding documentary ANDY WARHOL: A DOCUMENTARY FILM on our local PBS affiliate. Unlike other documentaries on the subject, Burns had the courage to focus on the art Warhol left behind, rather than his cultural impact and cult cachet, and it paid off in one of the most powerful and articulate vindications of contemporary art by any artist I've seen or read.

It's rare to see something like Burns' film, which naturally makes you melancholy because Warhol was dead by the time he was 58 and because there's no one quite like him in our world today, but which provokes joy by virtue of the sheer bravado of its intelligent argument and defense. What is art? One valid answer of many: Art is something important enough to provoke mindful and heartfelt responses like this. I think we all agree that our world is becoming less encouraging and supportive of artists, which is surely our damnation, but as long as art can be discussed in public forums on this level, it's not dead and certainly not irrelevant. Burns' handling of this life and material I found personally inspiring; it gave me an idea for an article I'd like to write, offering a Warholian reading of a certain movie. (Along these same lines, check out Amy Taubin's article in the current FILM COMMENT about David Cronenberg's audio guide to a recent Toronto retrospective of Warhol's "Death and Disaster" paintings -- good stuff.)

All plaudits to PBS for presenting this two-part program, but on the other hand, all shame on PBS for the way they presented it. Each of the two segments ended with important documentary footage of Warhol himself being interviewed, which almost packed an element of surprise since such footage was deliberately used sparingly during the program itself. But shortly after the subject of the preceeding two hours began to talk, PBS shrank the screen to occupy the right side of the screen only and cut the sound off! -- the better to run advertisements on the left side of the screen, selling the DVD and soundtrack CD (not mentioning that neither will be available till the end of October), promoting the next night's programming, and acknowledging Rosalind P. Walter and all the other PBS members whose contributions helped to make this butchered programming possible.

Yes, "butchered." As became even more apparent in Part 2, Burns' film was also compromised in terms of content censorship -- censoring not only Burns, but Warhol's art itself. In a discussion of the short film "Blow Job" (1963, pictured), the title of the film was excised from the soundtrack though a brief section of the film itself (observing the ecstatic face of the recipient) was shown. One film clip featured digitally obscured nudity, and some profanity used by the onscreen commentators was also bleeped. To encounter these sheepish counter-maneuvers in the midst of such intelligent discussion made me feel increasingly ashamed to be an adult member of PBS's viewing audience.

When PBS was first formed in the early 1970s, it was an oasis where open-minded viewers could turn to see and hear what was happening within our culture, and within the counter-culture, without the usual network restraints. Something terrible happened along the way, and this principle evidently no longer exists as a hallmark of PBS, so don't believe those membership drive pitches ("Join now for $25... or if you join at our Elite rate of $150, we'll send you this DVD of the show you've just burned to your hard drive!") when they tell you that PBS is any different than any other network; it may be public-owned, but it's no longer public-serving. If PBS can no longer be trusted to speak without shame and self-consciousness where some of the greatest art of the 20th century is concerned, we should turn our back on it and say Hallelujah for cable. After all, this Warhol documentary isn't a place where kids are going to flock in search of porn; that place is called the Internet. And if kids happen to be watching and learning something from this documentary, for God's sake, let them do so -- better in an open arena of enlightened, non-exploitative discussion, than in some shame-fostering dot-com smegma pit.

As a DVD label, however, there may still some use for PBS. By going to their website, you can pre-order ANDY WARHOL: A DOCUMENTARY FILM on disc -- which I assume will be presented uncut, in a manner suitable for people old enough to at least have fake ID. For a taste of what to expect, be on the lookout for replays of the program on your own local PBS affiliate, but don't encourage their censorious ways by sending them money. Patrons of the Arts should send their Andy-loving money directly to Ric Burns, who I understand is still about $25,000 in the red with this admirable production.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND reviewed

Dr. Laurience (Boris Karloff) reacts as his theories are ridiculed by boorish peers in THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND.


THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND
1936, Shanachie/Carlton International, DD-2.0, $19.98, 62m 42s, DVD-1

Originally released in the States as THE MAN WHO LIVED AGAIN, this Gaumont-British production is easily misfiled among the "Mad Doctor" titles that Boris Karloff made for Columbia five years later. Here, Karloff stars as the chain-smoking, musty-looking Dr. Laurience (pronounced "Lorenz") , who has somehow developed a two-seated apparatus in his Genoa retreat capable of extracting "thought content" from the human mind and either storing it or transmitting it into the brain of a new host. Dr. Claire Wyatt (Anna Lee), one of the new 1930s breed of willful female scientist, breezily sidesteps the marriage proposal of Dick Haslewood (John Loder), the sole son and heir of millionaire publisher Lord Haslewood (Frank Cellier), in order to assist Laurience. Though her coachman disagrees ("I don't go to THAT door!" he says, dropping her bags at the curb), Claire rather likes Laurience, understanding his scientific dedication, but she is repelled by his wheelchair-bound associate Clayton (Donald Calthrop) who, of course, has been promised that his thoughts will someday reside in a more perfect body.

Dick's attempts to get Claire fired by planting an exploitative newspaper story about Laurience backfire, and Lord Haslewood, thrilled to recognize a genius, sponsors the scientist's relocation to London, where he spends a year upgrading his laboratory and finessing his work before announcing his discovery to an assemblage of peers. In an astonishingly abrupt reversal of fortune, the medical establishment (led by an actor who resembles Russ Meyer) ridicule him and Lord Haslewood curtly withdraws his support... but Laurience insures the continuation of his work by performing a quick switcheroo between Lord Haslewood and Clayton, whose crippled body dies moments after receiving Haslewood's fund of memories.

Dr. Laurience's experiment -- shades of Medfield College!

The most surprising aspect of this mind-boggling melodrama is its keen and immediately apparent sense of fun. Directed by Robert Stevenson from a script involving John L. Balderston (THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN), it actually plays like one of Stevenson's later "Medfield College" comedies for Disney -- THE MISADVENTURES OF MERLIN JONES and THE MONKEY'S UNCLE, particularly -- with some James Whale characters tossed into the salad. The early scenes between Lee and Loder are overly strident in their gaiety and seem over-rehearsed and hurried, making a bad initial impression; but by the time Karloff trots out the chimps to demonstrate his invention, and Clayton utters the memorable line, "I wonder which revolts you more -- my miserable body or my perverted mind?", we relax and let this amusing hour-killer take us where it will. (Incidentally, the most perverted thing to explicitly cross Clayton's mind is that the mise-en-scène could use a little piano-playing.) Even so, the movie only truly blooms when Frank Cellier and Donald Calthrop get to have fun by swapping performances, as Loder and Karloff also get to do later. Karloff's decision to smoke in literally every scene initially seems an inspired performance tic (it really brings out the Jeremy Irons in him), but the script makes the habit relevant to the final twists of narrative, making it too obvious a tic in hindsight. The photography by Jack Cox (DOCTOR SYN, THE LADY VANISHES) is crisp and inventive, using double exposed montages to reinforce the film's theme of ideas in conflict, and the employment of background music (uncredited) is occasionally innovative. Karloff and Anna Lee (here a luminous and spirited, if ultimately unimportant heroine) would memorably cross paths once again in the Val Lewton production BEDLAM (1946). The production's uncredited make-up artist was Roy Ashton, later much-revered for his contributions to 1960s' Hammer Films.

Anna Lee gives chain-smoker Karloff a piece of her mind.

This 2004 DVD release in Shanachie's "British Cinema Collection" series is absolutely no-frills, but it preserves a fairly immaculate copy of a film that was decidedly hard to find in watchable form prior to its release. The Carlton International credit tips off the fact that the source materials were recorded in PAL (25 frames per second), and the 24 f.p.s. NTSC conversion makes an already brisk film unreel at even more determined pace. (Had the source element run at the correct speed, its running time would translate to 65m 22s.) The audio restoration is also of particularly fine quality for a British film of this period, digitally enhancing dialogue while taking care not to eliminate too much of the background crackle of the soundtrack.

A droll aperitif for double-billing with Douglas Trumbull's BRAINSTORM (1983), THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND works best if approached not as a vintage horror film, but rather as a tongue-in-cheek entertainment with macabre overtones. It also makes one regretful that Karloff never decamped from AIP in the 1960s long enough for "Dr. Laurience" to rear his unkempt head again over at Disney, as one of the more venerable scrambled eggheads at Medfield College.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

That Touch of Metty

Russell Metty (1906-78), one of America's outstanding cinematographers, was born 100 years ago today. He's perhaps best known for executing the most celebrated sustained shot in movie history: the opening "bomb in the trunk" sequence of Orson Welles' TOUCH OF EVIL, but he has much, much more to his credit.

Metty got his start at RKO Radio Pictures in the early 1930s and photographed his first acknowledged classic less than a decade into his career: Howard Hawks' BRINGING UP BABY. This slapstick screwball comedy, which continues to cast an avuncular shadow over its genre almost 70 years later, is remarkable in many ways, not least of all for Metty's contribution, which incorporated trick photographic techniques that have not grown embarrassing or overly apparent over time.

Metty's affiliation with Orson Welles went all the way back to CITIZEN KANE (on which he served as a special consultant) and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (for which he shot some individual scenes); he was also the DP of credit on that important film from Welles' middle period, THE STRANGER. On all of these assignments, Metty proved himself one of the exemplars of film noir technique, a master of black-and-white who had no fear of plunging the screen into near-pitch.

Few cinematographers who distinguish themselves in black-and-white exert equal ability in the realm of color, but Metty was one of the exceptions to that rule. In the late 1940s, he became a contract cameraman at Universal Pictures (later Universal-International), where he shot MR. PEABODY AND THE MERMAID, a number of boldly colored B-Westerns (including TAZA, SON OF COCHISE), and eventually worked his way toward a series of collaborations that was arguably his most defining, at least in color: his work with director Douglas Sirk. Together, Sirk and Metty made MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, and WRITTEN ON THE WIND (now acknowledged classics of melodrama, the latter two available as Criterion DVDs), all of which broke new ground in terms of expressionistic and impressionistic uses of Technicolor photography and saturated gel lighting.

During this same period, Metty continued to make remarkable statements in black-and-white, including the widescreen Lon Chaney bio pic, THE MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES, starring James Cagney and WRITTEN ON THE WIND'S Dorothy Malone. He also left his visual stamp on a run of Universal-International horror pictures, beginning with CULT OF THE COBRA (1955) and carrying on through THE THING THAT COULDN'T DIE and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS -- sleek, atmospheric, and exciting. The late 1950s also found him working as one of a core group of cameraman who shot John Newland's classic series of psychic phenomena stories, ONE STEP BEYOND.

Metty made a few more films for Sirk while at Universal-International, including A TIME TO LOVE A TIME TO DIE, BATTLE HYMN and IMITATION OF LIFE. A less happy collaboration came in 1960, when Metty butted horns with Stanley Kubrick over the cinematography of SPARTACUS -- which Metty had been hired to photograph (by fired director Anthony Mann), but which Kubrick (Mann's replacement, and a cameraman in his own right) saw differently. The film proved a major episode in Metty's career when, ironically, he ended up winning his only Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1961, for SPARTACUS; he received his only other nomination the following year, for Henry Koster's FLOWER DRUM SONG. These were also Metty's Doris Day years, as he was the cameraman for her underrated proto-giallo thriller MIDNIGHT LACE, THAT TOUCH OF MINK, and THE THRILL OF IT ALL.

It seems odd in retrospect that Russell Metty was not Oscar-nominated for one of the most visually groundbreaking films of his career, John Huston's THE MISFITS -- the last completed film for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. The film's intentionally harsh and gritty B&W cinematography helped to usher in a new era of unvarnished realism in motion picture photography, manifest for years to come in such films as HUD, SECONDS and IN COLD BLOOD -- the respective work of James Wong Howe and Conrad Hall.

Metty's fianl decade was a mixed bag, encompassing Don Siegel's MADIGAN, EYE OF THE CAT, THE OMEGA MAN (now a cult film, for reasons that escape me), and the WILLARD sequel BEN. The most important achievement of his later years was the trademark look he innovated for such beloved television programs of the late 1960s and early 1970s as MARCUS WELBY M.D., COLUMBO (he shot the Steven Spielberg episode "Murder By the Book"), and THE WALTONS. His last major assignment was photographing the host wraparounds for THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT -- Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Bing Crosby, Mickey Rooney, Debbie Reynolds, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Lawford, Donald O'Connor, Liza Minnelli -- a dream assignment by any yardstick, and not a bad way to end a career.

Only two Oscar nominations for such a man? It's possible that Russell Metty was undervalued during his lifetime because he brought his talents to bear on too many B-pictures and A-melodramas, but the passing of time has shown his work (and the projects he chose to work on) to be tremendously durable. His signature styles -- stalking the shadows of night with a panther-like grace, or candy-coating tragedy -- were responsible for bringing many an intended B-picture and trash novel adaptation to the brink of art.

Pick one of the many great pictures he left us and watch his work in action tonight.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Of Mickey, Gérard and The Ugly Tree

By now, I'm sure you've heard about the passing of the great Mickey Hargitay at age 80. He's earned his place in the cult film pantheon on the strength (and audacity) of his pre-Z Man performance as The Crimson Executioner in THE BLOODY PIT OF HORROR (1965), and also for his latter day roles in Mel Welles' LADY FRANKENSTEIN (1973) and various Renato Polselli hallucinations, including the unparallelled THE REINCARNATION OF ISABEL (1973).

But when I think of Mickey Hargitay, I now think of three other things first. I think of the way Jayne Mansfield turned dreamy and answered "yes" when she Mystery Guested on WHAT'S MY LINE? and was asked if she was married to someone in show business. I think of the great movie MR. UNIVERSE (1988), in which two Hungarians journey to America to meet the most famous actor in the world -- Mickey Hargitay -- and end up driving cross-country for the pleasure, only to first encounter Mickey as he's carrying out the trash; it's one of the best movies ever made on the subject of celebrity. And I think of the moving shot of Mickey wiping away proud tears as his daughter Mariska accepted her well-deserved Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Dramatic Series for her work on LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT in 2005. In the last year of his life, Mariska also made Mickey a grandfather. He suffered great tragedies in his life, but I feel certain that he died a fulfilled and grateful man.

Word has also reached me of the death, on September 9, of screenwriter Gérard Brach, which also demands acknowledgement. Brach was the principal collaborator of Roman Polanski on all his best work, having scripted REPULSION, CUL-DE-SAC, THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, WHAT?, TESS, and even some of the later works, the best of which was 1992's BITTER MOON. He also wrote WONDERWALL, Marco Ferreri's BYE BYE MONKEY, THE NAME OF THE ROSE, and the recent RENEGADE (2004), based on the Lieutenant Blueberry comics of Jean "Moebius" Giraud. A marginal career indubitably, but one that embraced much greatness in its time.

One is torn, as ever, between wishing to pay proper homage to these names as they leave our company, and not wishing to turn one's blog into a serial necrology. In a gesture toward balancing the scales with some glad tidings, permit me to share some happy news: I'm now a published poet.

Earlier this year, as a visitor to the now-discontinued Anthony Burgess discussion boards, I made the acquaintence of a number of creative, literary-minded people and encouraged the penchant for poetry demonstrated by one of them. I strongly advised this fellow, a Mancunian named Simon Rennie, to send his work around to poetry magazines and he followed through, submitting a selection to the Manchester-based poetry magazine THE UGLY TREE... and they were accepted. Simon, in turn, encouraged me to follow suit, saying what fun it would be if the two of us were to appear in the same issue someday. And now that day has come, as both Simon and I appear in THE UGLY TREE #13, now on sale at their website. I have only one poem in this issue ("Crapulous Elektra"), but I am told by esteemed editor Paul Neads that three more will follow in #14, including one entitled "Mario Bava."

It makes me smile. In all the years I've spent online, this may be the only time where my attention to a discussion board has paid me back by extending my achievements as a writer. It's a joy and a surprise to have attempted something new like this and succeeded.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Peter Tevis and Charles L. Grant


John Bender informs me that singer Peter Tevis died last Wednesday, September 13, of Parkinson's disease at the age of 69. Though he never quite made a name for himself here in his native America, Tevis had a successful singing career in Rome, the most significant highlight of which turned out to be his 45 rpm recording of the Woody Guthrie song "Pastures of Plenty," which was arranged and conducted by the young Ennio Morricone. A year after that record was issued, it was played by Morricone for Sergio Leone, who was looking for a new kind of Western music to accompany his new film A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. A special bridge that Tevis wrote for the song provided the eureka Leone was looking for, and it was subsequently developed by Morricone into the theme of Leone's film -- the birth of Spaghetti Western music. Though uncredited for this initial effort, Tevis achieved a modest but growing celebrity within the genre, issuing his Woody Guthrie cover with new lyrics as the theme from A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (pictured) and singing later themes for such Italian Westerns as PISTOLS DON'T ARGUE, A COFFIN FOR THE SHERIFF, and GUNFIGHT AT RED SANDS. His classic "Gringo Song" (from GUNFIGHT AT RED SANDS) can be heard in all its glory here. Tevis, who returned to America in the late 1960s, is also credited as the music producer of FLESH GORDON (1974). He will not only be missed but, as one of the chief architects of Italian Western music, never forgotten.

Another sad passing to report is that of Charles L. Grant -- the award-winning horror and fantasy novelist, short story writer and anthologist -- who died on September 15 after a long illness, at age 64. Grant had reportedly been hospitalized for the better part of the last year and recently returned home in accordance with his wishes. Grant is best-known for his "Oxrun Station", "Black Oak", "Parric Family" and "Millennium" novel series; he also wrote two novels in the X-FILES series, edited eleven volumes of the SHADOWS anthology of short horror fiction, and appeared in dozens of anthologies edited by others. He also found time to moonlight, publishing other novels (including the novelization of HUDSON HAWK) under such pseudonyms as Geoffrey Marsh, Steven Charles, and Simon Lake. VW's own Douglas E. Winter counted Charlie Grant not only as a personal friend but as a mentor, and we extend our condolences to him, and most particularly to Grant's widow Kathryn Ptacek (a novelist/anthologist in her own right), and his many friends and readers.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES reviewed

Boris Karloff stars as a scientist revived after ten years on ice in THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES.

THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES
aka BEHIND THE DOOR (UK)
1940, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, $14.98, 74m 2s, DVD R1-4

Dr. Tim Mason (Roger Pryor), a pencil-mustached staffer at King Hospital, has been experimenting with cryogenics since becoming inspired by the book FROZEN THERAPY, written by the controversial theorist Dr. Leon Kravaal, who mysteriously disappeared ten years earlier. After he gives a public demonstration -- successfully freezing a woman patient for five days, then reviving her with thermal blankets and lots of hot coffee! -- his pompous supervisor (THE MUMMY'S HAND's Charles Trowbridge) orders Mason to take a leave of absence till the furor dies down. Mason and fiancée/nurse Judy Blair (Jo Ann Sayers, who calls him "Steve" at one point) decide to visit Kravaal's home in Silver Lake, Canada, in hope of discovering papers relevant to his research. They find much more after stumbling upon a subterranean laboratory with a special refrigerated chamber in which Kravaal himself (Boris Karloff) lies frozen. Ordering Judy to make coffee, Mason succeeds in reviving Kravaal, who embarks on the story of how he came to be put on ice ten years before, along with a group of other men (including B-movie favorite Byron Foulger) who meant to arrest him, yet to be thawed. Once revived, these men create additional problems, and one of them -- realizing that his status as legally dead has robbed him of a million dollar inheritance -- destroys Kravaal's secret formula for using frozen therapy to cure cancer, angering the doctor to the point of shooting him. Kravaal then imprisons the others, intent upon using them as guinea pigs until he can recreate the formula, whose basic ingredients he remembers, though not their measurements.

Of the four "Mad Doctor" films that Karloff made for Columbia -- the others being THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (1939), BEFORE I HANG (1940), and THE DEVIL COMMANDS (1941) -- this taut Nick Grindé-directed effort has long been the hardest to see, and it's also the most satisfying of the bunch, despite some chuckle-raising aspects. Scripted by Karl Brown (who wrote three of the four) from a story by Harold Schumate, this is a rare B-thriller that ratchets its suspense by guiding its characters through more moral minefields than straightforward action, and it sustains its ambivalence so well that the viewer remains uncertain throughout of which group to side with, and equally uncertain of whether Kravaal really is a genius or a madman. (Even when battle lines are seemingly clearly drawn, as when Kravaal shoots a man in cold blood, the script presents the action with additional angles of gray; the victim was not only the aggressor -- but already legally dead, as well.) Karloff, goateed and briefly donning Mr. Moto spectacles to mix phials of smoking chemicals, gives a surprisingly humane performance that fairly glows from the midst of so much other ham. The atmospheric photography is the work of Benjamin Kline, who also shot the two "HANG" pictures; he would later photograph 28 THRILLER episodes hosted by Karloff, including the great Karloff-starring "Mad Doctor" episode, "The Incredible Doctor Markesan."

Sony's no-frills 1.33:1 DVD features only the original English soundtrack and English, French and Japanese subtitles (what, no Spanish?); though the disc is identified as Region 1, it is also playable in Regions 2-4. Evidently the original negative materials for this title no longer exist; the source material used here is a digitally cleaned, somewhat darkish Famous Film Corporation re-release print hailing from 1947, but even this source appears to have been incomplete. The disc looks fine until 64:12, whereafter the last ten minutes look noticeably softer and grayer, and slightly more zoomed-in, with cloudy signs of digitally repaired water damage. The "after and before" impression is hard to miss, and acceptable only given the rarity of the title. The otherwise classy, sepia-toned packaging refers to the film's protagonist as "Dr. Tim Morgan."

Friday, September 15, 2006

In the Night. In the Dark.


Or "The Art of the European Horror Film Poster #1."

This, of course, is a striking stone lithograph affiche for Robert Wise's THE HAUNTING (1963), known in France as "The Devil's House." I can't make out the artist's signature in the upper right corner, but it's interesting to discover that the film was forbidden to small fry (petite frites?) in France.

This poster commemorates a decision I've made, to start compiling the best of my articles and essays in book form. I've got a huge backlog of material and it's time I started doing something with it. I'm going to call the first collection IN THE NIGHT, IN THE DARK.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Who Needs SESAME STREET?

Richard Harland Smith's year-old daughter Vayda discovers the Vajdas.

Photo (c) RHS 2006.

Monday, September 11, 2006

POP GEAR on Flix

POP GEAR's Jimmy Savile: "Video WatchBlog! Wait, that's the name of this blog!"

1969 was an important year in the logline of my television viewing. It was in 1969 that Cincinnati got its first independent station, WXIX-TV, Channel 19, and with its arrival came an assortment of oddities I could never have seen on the city's three network affiliates. Much of my pleasure with Channel 19 came from its American International Television movie packages, which included quite a few Euro horror curiosities like PORTRAIT IN TERROR, STRANGLER OF THE TOWER, and HORROR CASTLE... but also included in one of the AIP-TV packages was a British import called POP GEAR, which was given the chronologically-skewed but more US-friendly retitling GO GO MANIA.

Running a mere 70 minutes and change, POP GEAR is essentially a collection of Scopitone-like lip-synch performances of various British musical acts from the Mersey Beat era: The Animals, Herman's Hermits, Peter & Gordon, Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas, The Honeycombs, The Spencer Davis Group, Sounds Unlimited, The Nashville Teens, The Fourmost, Tommy Quickly, The Four Pennies, Matt Monro, Billie Davis, and others. The movie is hosted by long-haired impresario Jimmy Savile, whose silly banter ("Pop gear! Wait, that's the name of this picture!") connects the dots with the dotty. Several of the groups on hand were managed by Brian Epstein, whose behind the scenes involvement opened the door to the film's producers being able to include The Beatles in the movie's list of stars, courtesy of some amazing color-and-scope footage from a newsreel entitled "The Beatles Come To Town."

Naturally, my earliest viewings of the picture were pan&scanned, and when I finally scored a copy of GO GO MANIA on videotape, early in my collecting days, it was not only pan&scanned but in black-and-white. I assumed I would never see it properly, but who knew in those days how widely available nearly everything would become? Some years ago, before they went south with incessant commercial interruption, American Movie Classics included the film during a week of rock 'n' roll movies, not only in color and scope but under its original title POP GEAR! It was a treat to finally see intact and in its original form. And now you too can have the pleasure of seeing it, if you have the Showtime cable package, because the premium cable channel Flix is showing POP GEAR -- in Technicolor and Techniscope -- throughout the month of September in a handsome, newly remastered version preceded by a Studio Canal logo.

What's astounding about POP GEAR is not only that it preserves so many classic (and some offbeat) groups in their prime, but that these acts were photographed in color and scope by none other than Geoffrey Unsworth, who would later photograph such important features as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and SUPERMAN THE MOVIE. Some of the acts are preposterous, like Tommy Quickly (a grinny fellow who embarrassingly mugs his way through a "song" reprising nursery rhymes) and the heavy-handed Big Band novelty act Sounds Incorporated (how to describe their sound? like a vocal-less Dave Clark Five on steroids and goofballs), and some are misplaced like suave "From Russia With Love" vocalist Matt Monro, who closes out the program with a "Pop Gear" song that pays lip service to all the movie's participants!

Tommy Quickly reminds us of the tragedy that befell Humpty Dumpty.

The movie also pads out its running time to feature length with a couple of absurd, pre-HULLABALOO choreography sequences.


POP GEAR's kitschy qualities are part of its appeal, but what saves it from being a purely guilty pleasure are the performances it preserves by people like The Honeycombs (Joe Meek's bedroom studio group with rock's first woman drummer, Honey Lantree, who perform their worldwide hit "Have I The Right"), The Nashville Teens (who scowl and lurch their way through "Tobacco Road"), and the original lineup of The Animals (I'd love this movie if only for the close shots of Alan Price's hands kangarooing all over the keyboard during his "House of the Rising Sun" solo). The Four Pennies, a largely-forgotten group who never cracked the US charts, are introduced performing their glimmering tremelo ballad "Juliet," a UK radio hit, but their second number is a disarming cover of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" -- a blues standard that had its next moment in the sun when Nirvana covered it as part of their historic MTV UNPLUGGED performance.

The Honeycombs ask the musical question, "Have I The Right?"

Art Sharp and Ray Phillips front The Nashville Teens.

This film was made before rock music acquired an imagery of its own, and there's a certain preposterousness about the sets where the bands are shown performing, the props they're given (The Animals play under dangling Christmas-like ornaments, while The Nashville Teens establish their blues funk cred amidst bales of hay), and the choreography they are sometimes subjected to. One of my favorite moments finds Eric Burdon asked to lead his fellow Animals in a kind of conga line toward Unsworth's camera as "House of the Rising Sun" charges toward its crescendic finale; as a straight-faced Burdon relates his story of a man brought low, guitarist Hilton Valentine, visible just behind him, can't resist cracking up at the absurdity of what they're doing to promote their record. Incidentally, the director of POP GEAR, Frederic Goode, later ventured into the horror genre with the vampire film HAND OF NIGHT aka BEAST OF MOROCCO (1966).

Eric Burdon spins a cautionary tale, but Hilton Valentine's pickin' and grinnin'.

Set your TiVos and timers for POP GEAR, tomorrow (September 12) at 6:30 am and 2:50 pm, September 18 at 5:50 am, or September 26 at 6:00 am and 3:00 pm -- all times given are Eastern time zone. Flix is clearly booking the film into low traffic timeslots, but this is one of those movies that acquires a special flavor when viewed in the middle of the night.

If you find yourself loving POP GEAR as I do, I can steer you in the direction of the perfect chaser: SWINGING U.K., a budget-priced DVD that collects two short films very much in the POP GEAR mold: SWINGING U.K. and U.K. SWINGS AGAIN, dating from 1965. Here you'll find similarly sublimely silly lip-synchs by such artists as Lulu and the Luvvers, Little Millie Small (who sings one of her songs to a bewildered puppy), The Tornados (how could such an ungainly bunch of lads have recorded "Telstar," one of my favorite records of all time?), The Hollies (see Graham Nash clean-shaven and dressed like a banker!), The Merseybeats, The Applejacks (who play two songs that sound dead alike), the hilariously-named The Wackers, and the post-Alan Price lineup of The Animals. These two shorts (which were later combined with another short called MODS AND ROCKERS to manufacture a feature called GO GO BIG BEAT) are hosted by Alan Freeman, Brian Matthew, and Kent Walton, all of them much straighter-looking than Jimmy Savile and therefore exponentially funnier. The lucky kids who saw this on the big screen must have had a hoot.

I wasn't aware of this 2004 DVD release till a friend sent me a copy in the mail a couple of weeks ago, which just goes to show that -- even now, at this late date -- there continue to be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my flotsam and jetsam.

BVD on DVD

The Kelly Affair (Marcia McBroom, Dolly Read and Cynthia Myers) perform at a midwestern school prom before becoming The Carrie Nations in BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's two-disc set of Russ Meyer's cult classic BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is one of those rare cases where an offbeat film is given all the love and indulgence even the most ardent fan could muster, proving once and for all that the film's place in history is now assured. Last night, I watched BVD (as it's known by cultists) no less than three times -- once in "stereo" (a kind of mono surround), and twice more with the two commentary tracks Fox has included (the first by screenwriter Roger Ebert, the second with cast members Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, John La Zar, Erica Gavin and Harrison Page) -- and had to fight the impulse to watch it a fourth time in a row. This sparkling, anamorphic widescreen DVD gives the film the most beautiful presentation I've ever seen, and there is something about the film's manic energy, its polished irreverance, and the artistry underlying its rampant bad taste that is almost too rare in this world to voluntarily turn off.
They don't make movies like this anymore and, of course, they didn't really make them like this in 1969 either, which is why BVD had to endure so many years of mainstream disapproval as it grew in stature as (what Russ Meyer liked to call) the greatest cult movie of all time. Watching the film three times in a row gave me ample opportunity to pay attention to its innovative staccato cutting and even more innovative structuring, its use of flashbacks and flash-forwards, its chortling mixture of volatile dramatic and comedic chemicals (not to mention progressive and old-fashioned chemicals), its finale in triplicate. To see a movie so alive makes it all the more poignant to realize that Meyer is now gone, that there will be no more Meyer pictures... and this was another incentive to keep the film rolling, out of sheer denial that those days are over, when inspired lunatics like Meyer and Orson Welles could take over the asylum.
While making my way through the commentaries and extras, I was also struck by the many parallels between Meyer's career and that of Mario Bava. Both of them were cameramen, of course; both were also photographers who followed their wartime careers with what might be termed "fashion photography" (Meyer with PLAYBOY, Bava with the films of Gina Lollobrigida); both mades their names directing exploitation films, a level of production that gave them more opportunities to explore their creative/artistic freedom "under the radar" of the majors; both were complete filmmakers, in that they both worked with small crews and could effectively perform any crewman's task in a pinch, whether it was editing or selecting library music to assemble a soundtrack; both were recruited to make one big film for a major studio (Bava's was DANGER: DIABOLIK -- a similar Pop Art classic predating BVD -- for Paramount); and then both retreated back to the level of filmmaking they knew and loved, turning their backs on mainstream success. Also, both paid the price for turning back, working relatively little during their last ten years of life. The way Z-Man's hookah party is lit, with potent green and red gels, suggests to me that either Meyer or director of photography Fred J. Koenekamp were familiar with Bava's work.
John La Zar as Ronnie "Z Man" Barzell, entering into his third act persona as "Superwoman."
Perhaps the greatest compliment that I can pay to Roger Ebert's commentary is that at no time was I certain whether it was improvised or scripted. The talk is informative, personable, and amusing, and though it occasionally commits the sin of pride, that's usually understandable -- and one of the lesser sins on display in this programming. In addition to everything else he conveys, Ebert vividly communicates the pleasure he felt while actively writing several of the film's scenes, and he ventures some of his usually canny criticism toward the film in general and several of its performances. Ebert mentions that he has looked in vain for glimpses of Pam Grier in the party sequences, as I have; it was her first film, and the photo gallery includes two shots of her, proving that "Pamela Grier" -- as she's billed onscreen -- was there. There are some sound gaps later in the track, which one wishes had been spent covering some of the scenes that didn't make the final cut, which are documented in the stills gallery; instead, Ebert reminiscences about working with Meyer and The Sex Pistols on the ill-fated WHO KILLED BAMBI?. On the whole, the track isn't up to Ebert's commentary for DARK CITY (a masterpiece of the form, by my reckoning), but his personal stake in this one gives it a more vital aspect, perhaps, than perfection.
On the whole, the cast commentary track I found more compelling because of the stew of personalities it offers. Everyone seems touched, even wounded, to see how young they are onscreen, but the screening is largely jubilant, with everyone noting their favorite lines and scenes and laughing at the memory of Meyer's "Don't blink!" approach to directing actors. Two of the actors in the film had their first screen kisses with members of the same sex, and BVD's homosexual content is perhaps the most interesting lightning bolt to conversation; Erika Gavin had a real crush on Cynthia Myers during the filming (you can see it in the way Erika is focused on Cynthia even in the production stills), which raised the temperature of their tender love scenes together, and John La Zar admits (perhaps facetiously) that his screen kiss with Michael Blodgett prompted years of psychiatric therapy. Watching Erika and Cynthia onscreen together, to Harrison's effusive approval, Dolly Read drops her guard and admits that husband Dick Martin tried to get her to have threesomes with other women in those days (and, when she continually refused, the LAUGH-IN star finally married her). I expected John La Zar to dominate the session, which he does to some extent through passive aggression, sulking in silence through large patches and apologizing for occasionally interrupting "The Dolly and Harrison Show." They do talk a good deal, but much of what they have to say is generous in nature, showing appreciation for other performers or the film's construction. On La Zar's behalf, he does seem to have paid more attention during the filming, or studied the film more closely since making it, than the other participants; he knows all the names no one else remembers, and often has anecdotes to back up his trivia. Erika Gavin is perhaps the most passive of the participants, but it's a great moment when she realizes that Dolly is cavorting onscreen in an orange chiffon nightgown that she wore earlier in VIXEN. All the commentators seem rather amazed to realize that Duncan McLeod, who plays smarmy lawyer Porter Hall, probably had the biggest part in the movie.
The second disc is a non-stop parade of winning supplements, beginning with John La Zar's on-camera introduction "in character" and ranging from production featurettes (incorporating on-camera interviews with many cast and crew members) to teaser trailers and theatrical trailers with their own little surprises; one of the teasers is an amazing document showing Meyer at work on the set as a stills photographer, and the theatrical trailer is a riot, nearly heart-bursting in its hyperbolic bravado. The detailed and thorough stills gallery is fascinating for its inclusion of various unexplained shots from scenes not included in the film, including some picturing Dolly Read in elderly makeup as her own deceased aunt. The detailed coverage of the film's music, featuring interviews with producer Stu Phillips and vocalist Lynn Carey (the daughter of actor MacDonald Carey), is especially enjoyable and the music itself, along with Read's dead-on pantomiming of Carey's lusty vocals, is a big reason for the film's repeatability. My only complaint about the set (and it's a minor one) is that some of the featurettes take too much of a E!-list approach to celebrating the movie. Do we really need to know various peoples' opinion of who had the best breasts in the movie? Probably not, but if truth be told, the question provokes some enjoyable responses. All in all, the supplements do a commendable job of addressing themselves to the full spectrum of BVD's admiring audience.
In the realm of cinema, the time-honored definition of "classic" is a movie that gets better with age, like a fine wine. BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is a rarer breed still; a film that intended to represent its time but didn't get it quite right. This error was a blessing in disguise, as BVD now seems to exist outside of time in the traditional sense. With each passing year, it not only gets better, it seems to get smarter and younger, too.
Yesterday's X rating, today's wide-eyed innocence. Count me among those proud to be in its thrall.