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.