Monday, October 23, 2006
I've agreed to sign a contract for a film book that will be published next Fall and launch a whole new series of books... I've done an audio commentary for a DVD coming out next March, and I have an offer in front of me right now to record another three commentaries in December or January... I've started working on a new film book project for which a surprising number of pages were already written, and made exciting progress last week (though I know I'll have to set this project aside once I sign the aforementioned book contract, at which time I'll have to get the other film book into deliverable shape)... I'm 80-some pages into proofreading my novel-in-progress and making more changes to the manuscript than I expected (funny how things read so differently on paper!)... I'm collaborating with a friend on a radical rewrite of an unproduced horror screenplay I wrote many years ago... last Friday, I was interviewed by local radio station WVXU-FM for their upcoming Halloween show (I'll bring you more details when I have them; I believe the show will be archived online)... and, over the weekend, Donna and I -- presently in a holding pattern with the Bava book as we await the return of some color test proofs from our HK printer -- decided to go ahead and use this waiting period to quickly produce another issue of VW for December!
So, all the other projects I've mentioned have been temporarily set aside, while I'm in strict VW editorial mode.
I had no particular vision of this next issue when we started, but the available pieces miraculously locked in place as if the vision had been there all along in the assigning. The features in VIDEO WATCHDOG 128 will be David J. Schow's article on the first season of THE WILD WILD WEST and new VW contributor Michael Barnum's interview with actor and dubbing director Tony Russel, the star of such Italian films as THE SPARTAN GLADIATOR, THE INVINCIBLE 7, THE WAR OF THE PLANETS, and... THE WILD WILD PLANET!
You got it: VW 128 will be our "Wild Wild" Issue!
Tony talks about his Italian movie days, his early bit parts in America (in Elvis Presley's KING CREOLE, for example), his role as the founder and president of ELDA (the English Language Dubbers Association), and he also shares some revealing anecdotes about glamorous co-stars like Helga Liné, Erika Blanc, Lisa Gastoni, and Maria Perschy. It's a fun, informative read and we look forward to bringing it to you.
All of this "real world" activity is bound to cramp my blogging style this week, but stay tuned -- I may surprise both of us.
Thursday, October 19, 2006
To quote from Drkrm. Gallery's PR:
Roger Corman is a living legend in the film industry. Known for his lean budgets and savvy knowledge of what works in Pop Culture. Between 1960 and 1964, he would make eight film adaptations from the works of Edgar Allan Poe, seven of which would star Vincent Price. Together, Price and Corman became such a team in the public eye that each new Poe production was met with critical as well as world wide, box-office success.
Roger Corman turns 80 this year and in honor of him, The Del Valle Archive and Drkrm Gallery have assembled a collection of rare photographs from these eight films: HOUSE OF USHER, PIT AND THE PENDULUM, THE PREMATURE BURIAL, TALES OF TERROR, THE RAVEN, THE HAUNTED PALACE, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, and TOMB OF LIGEIA. We pay tribute to them, the legendary Roger Corman and the late Vincent Price with this exhibition of their greatest work together, the likes of which we will see... NEVERMORE.
David Del Valle has achieved national recognition as a journalist, columnist, film historian and radio & television commentator. His articles and interviews have appeared in such publications as CINEFANTASTIQUE, FANGORIA and FILMS IN REVIEW. David oversees The Del Valle Archive, a collection in progress of thousands of still photographs, artwork and ephemera dealing with the horror/fantasy/sci-fi and cult movie genres.
NEVERMORE will have its opening reception 7pm until 10pm on Saturday October 21st, 2006. The exhibit will run through November 18th, 2006. Regular gallery hours are Tues-Saturday 11am-5pm.
Drkrm. Gallery is an exhibition space dedicated to fine art photography, cutting edge and alternative photographic processes, and the display and survey of popular cultural images. All gallery events are free and open to the public.
Drkrm. Gallery - 2121 San Fernando Road, Suite 3
Los Angeles, CA 90065
For more information, visit www.drkrm.com/poe.html
Incidentally, David informs Video WatchBlog that Roger Corman himself has promised to attend the opening, and reclusive PIT AND THE PENDULUM star Barbara Steele has RSVP'd as well. Furthermore, VW's own Sam Umland is reportedly flying out to attend the exhibit, as he and David are preparing to collaborate on the ultimate book about the Corman Poe series (which will make exclusive use of these photos from the Del Valle Archive). It promises to be an amazing evening. True... true... True!
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
"More sad news, I'm afraid. This in from the Critics Circle -- 'Mrs Lizanne Strick has asked me to inform The Critics’ Circle membership of the death of her husband Philip, a Film Section member since 1972. He passed away suddenly on 7 October and a private funeral is being held this Wednesday.'
"I always thought Philip was one of the most underrated genre critics," Kim continues. "His SCIENCE FICTION MOVIES is still a smart, entertaining study which makes unusual connections. He contributed a batch of erudite, witty entries to my BFI COMPANION TO HORROR and was reviewing regularly for SIGHT & SOUND until fairly recently. I reprinted his 1968 review of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in a S&S reader a few years ago - I'm still impressed that anyone could be so perceptive about a movie that colossal within a few days of seeing it for the first time."
Kim's right; this well-observed, skillfully crafted review of 2001 -- which appears in Kim's anthology SCIENCE FICTION/HORROR: A SIGHT & SOUND READER -- is indeed worth finding and reading. Interestingly, considering that he voiced some initial reservations, Philip later included 2001 in his SIGHT & SOUND Top Ten Poll 2002 list. His choices include some (like 2001) that also found their way onto my list, which makes me regret all the more that I didn't know him personally.
Here, for your reading pleasure, are links to THE MATRIX, THE NINTH GATE, THE SIXTH SENSE, MISSION TO MARS, WHAT LIES BENEATH and A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, as reviewed for SIGHT & SOUND by Philip Strick -- clearly one of our most thoughtful and eloquent explorers of speculative cinema.
Monday, October 16, 2006
This is a publicity photo taken on the set of HOSTEL: PART II, currently in production. It was leaked by the film's writer-director Eli Roth (the guy in the CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST T-shirt) on his blog and shows him directing one of the film's stars... the ever-beautiful Edwige Fenech! To paraphrase JERRY MAGUIRE, Eli had me at the T-shirt, but for him to be bringing Edwige Fenech back to the screen in a major American motion picture? THIS IS GOOD! Hell, this is practically Mother Earth momentarily back in balance, if you ask me.
Re-fasten your centenary belts because Léon Klimovsky -- the director of WEREWOLF SHADOW, DR. JEKYLL AND THE WEREWOLF, VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES, THE DEVIL'S POSSESSED, THE SAGA OF THE DRACULAS, THE VAMPIRE'S NIGHT ORGY, THE PEOPLE WHO OWN THE DARK, and many others... also the man who gave Jess Franco his start in movies as a screenwriter... was born 100 years ago today. Yo le saludo, Maestro, y gracias.
Sunday, October 15, 2006
Visit www.cinemasitges.com for a complete list of award winners.
Saturday, October 14, 2006
Frank has published several booklet collections of his caricatures, which are available for browsing and purchase at his website, and if you follow that link, I guarantee that you'll see something that will cause you to laugh your head off. Frank's caricatures are not just hilarious because they look funny; they appeal specifically to the film buff's experience and memory of a movie, a scene, a performance. As I once told Frank about one of his caricatures, after pulling my jaw and the rest of myself off the floor, he has the ability to instill into his work not only what an actor is thinking about the movie he's in, but how much he's being paid to be in it.
At this year's Wonderfest, I had opportunities to talk with Frank and found him in that position all artists reach sooner or later, where he was chomping at the bit to move past caricature (which now comes easily to him) into a more challenging realm. For Frank, that beckoning challenge is the world of legitimate portraiture. He had made steps in this direction by creating exclusively for Wonderfest a dozen or so charcoal portraits of the great stars and performances of classic movie horror. He was nervous about putting them on public display the next day, fretful that he might have priced them too high ("I've got to at least cover the cost of materials," he reasoned), but by the time I reached the dealers' room the next morning, all but a couple had been sold -- and Frank was beaming. He'd made his breakthrough. By the end of the day, I'm sure they were all gone and he may have received commissions for more.
Tonight, he's going to make another breakthrough. Tonight, Frank Dietz becomes the subject of a solo exhibit at the Wax Poetic Gallery (their 7th Annual Halloween show) at 3208 West Magnolia Blvd. in Burbank, California, which is going to feature not only his caricatures, pencil drawings, and new charcoal portraits, but -- something new for Frank -- original oil paintings as well. The event, which promises lots of music, refreshments, and guest celebs (not to mention first crack at purchasing the highly collectable pieces on exhibition), will be from 8:00 to 11:00 pm. Call 818-843-9469 for more details.
If you're in the area, don't miss it.
Friday, October 13, 2006
A lot of new doors opened for me this past week, and I look forward to sharing some happy news about a number of new projects in the coming weeks, once everything is in writing.
Finally, there is sad news from Rome announcing the death of film director Gillo Pontecorvo at age 86. A political filmmaker, Pontecorvo was best-known for his riveting and truly neorealistic THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (1966, featuring one of the great Ennio Morricone scores) and the Marlon Brando-starring BURN! (1969), a study of the profitability of creating wars. In one of the more inspired jokes in John Landis' film THE STUPIDS (1996), Pontecorvo was one of several "intellectual" directors who gamely agreed to appear in bit parts; the others included Costa-Gavras, David Cronenberg, and Atom Egoyan.
Thursday, October 12, 2006
GHOST OF MAE NAK
2005, Tartan Asian Extreme, DD-2.0 & 5.1/DTS 5.1/MA/16:9/LB/ST/+, $22.98, 105m 5s, DVD-1
This new horror film from Thailand has the distinction of having been scripted and directed by an English cinematographer, Mark Duffield (KISS KISS BANG BANG, BUTTERFLY MAN). Based on a Thai legend previously filmed more than twenty times, it's the story of a young engaged couple, Mak and Nak, whose lifelong devotion to one another mirrors the eternal love of another Mak and Nak who lived a century earlier. Taken away from his wife shortly after their marriage by war duties, the first Mak returned home to find Nak the mother of his child; they lived happily ever after... until their neighbors confided to Mak that Nak had died during his absence, while pregnant, and that he was being deceived by her ghost. The ghost wreaked its vengeance against the villagers for destroying her last chance at happiness, and her mortal remains were exhumed by monks who silenced her by removing a piece of her skull, which they engraved and formed into a protective amulet for Mak. A century later, the new Mak finds the amulet in an antiques shop and gives it to Nak as a wedding gift. When Mak suffers an accident and falls into a coma, the amulet becomes an device through which Nak receives a desperate psychic message from her husband: "Find Mae Nak!" Only by returning the medallion piece to Nak's buried remains can Mak be freed from her thrall.
Duffield's film is being well-received by some mainstream reviewers, but experienced genre buffs are sure to see it for what it is: an overlong, utterly unoriginal fusion of contemporary J-horror tropes and 1970s possession excess. Opening with a creepy spoken introduction by Nak's elderly aunt (recalling Katherine Emery's narration of THE MAZE, 1953), it gives us the overused J-Horror plot of a dark-haired ghost with a grudge, then throws in elements of PATRICK (a comatose man channelling destructive psychic energy), DON'T LOOK NOW (the blind "seer"), THE OMEN (a series of grisly showy deaths, including one involving a falling sheet of glass that's the most interesting I've seen since the opening of DEATH SHIP), THE EXORCIST (levitation, exorcism), and so on. There's a Cheech and Chong-like pair of cat burglars out of Martin Scorsese's AFTER HOURS, and the cliché-o-meter runs amok with medicine chest mirror scares and shots of Mak jolting out of nightmares in a cold sweat. To Western sensibilities, the performances are too cloying, too wholesome to be believed (when Mak is told the amulet will bring him good luck, he beams as though he's won the national lottery), and the storyline is too scattered and rambling to hold together, the off-the-rails excess of the final half hour becoming laughable. When was the last time you saw wire-work involved in an operating room sequence?
Making this mediocre film even less attractive -- and this is particularly surprising for a film directed by a cinematographer -- the picture quality is overly dark and muted, with mostly ugly colors and some deliberately blooming whites. Tartan's disc offers three sound options, all in the original Thai language, one in Dolby 2.0 and two 5.1 options in DD or DTS. The two five-channel options are quite active and functional in context, but a sampling of individual moments reveals a lot of ambient "haunted house"-type sounds that rarely let up. The extras include a very dry, play-by-play-reliant audio commentary by Duffield, which is nevertheless informative and useful toward understanding why this love story shies away from depictions of kissing. A 65m 52s video diary of the film's production takes us on-set and finds almost everyone speaking perfect English. Viewers with an obsessive interest in Thai filmmaking procedures may find this material of value, but for the rest of us, the feature itself doesn't really warrant any more of our time than has already been wasted.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Hello. My name is Katherine Emery.
Perhaps you remember me as Mrs. Mary St. Aubyn in Val Lewton's chilling ISLE OF THE DEAD, as Mrs. Willis in John Brahm's THE LOCKET, or as the appropriately termed "Grim Nurse" in Lewis Milestone's ARCH OF TRIUMPH. But those who have seen William Cameron Menzies' 3-D classic THE MAZE will certainly remember me as the film's matronly narrator, Edith Murray.
I don't actually open the picture as everyone seems to remember, but apparently something about the way I walked in three-dimensions from a distance into closeup -- all the while looking straight ahead, straight into your eyes -- registered in the minds of young children as even more frightening than the Frog-thing whom Mr. Menzies unveiled in the final reel! I understand that the new Thai horror film GHOST OF MAE NAK may even pay a kind of homage to my scene in THE MAZE. I personally doubt it, but Mr. Lucas tells me that it has an opening "in my tradition," whatever that means.
Who can say why children found me frightening? I tried my best to appear friendly and approachable. Perhaps I reminded them of a stern teacher or someone who once pulled their teeth. If you happen to be one of those children I sent scurrying under their theater seat, back in the day, all I can say is... BOO!
Anyway, I have been summoned from the Beyond by your blogger for the simple reason that I happened to be born one hundred years ago today. He has a thing about centenaries that I can't pretend to understand, but I thank him and the rest of you for remembering me.
One hundred years ago... I suppose that was the beginning. It happened in Birmingham, Alabama, and it started the fantastic chain of events that led to my experience in THE MAZE. My niece Kitty and I were with a group of friends in a delightful little café in Cannes, on the French Riviera. It was an engagement party...
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
For reasons unknown to me, BRIGHTON ROCK is one of those high-profile British films that has always been next to impossible to see here in America. It was given a US theatrical release under the title YOUNG SCARFACE, but it has disappeared since. Amazon.com assures me that there was a VHS release from Movies Unlimited, now out-of-print, but isn't Movies Unlimited a store rather than a video label? I've never known the film to appear on television, and I didn't get around to seeing it for the first time until just a couple of years ago, when a friend sent me a darkish dub made from a copy in a Los Angeles video store's private collection.
As a longtime admirer of Greene's novel (still one of the scariest things I've ever read), I found the movie to be uncannily successful in all departments: Richard Attenborough is the very image of Pinky Brown, the soft-voiced, sadistic ringleader of a criminal gang (it wouldn't surprise me if he based Pinkie's speech patterns on those of fellow British actor Philip Stone, familiar from later Stanley Kubrick films); Hermione Baddeley is note-perfect as Ida Arnold, a good-hearted goodtime gal who decides to investigate the disappearance of an attentive man she met at Brighton Rock, which she links to a mob hit; Harcourt Williams is unforgettable as the alcoholic mob lawyer Prewitt; Nigel Stock (THE LOST CONTINENT) and William Hartnell (a future DOCTOR WHO) are vivid as Pinky's associates; and then there is Carol Marsh, who is not the Rose I pictured while reading the novel, but I'll give the filmmakers this: such were the limits of my imagination. Were I to read the novel again, I doubt I could keep the memory of Marsh's face, smile, or jittery, eager-to-please mannerisms at bay for very long.
Hers is a mesmerizing and ultimately heartbreaking performance, much of which is wrapped up in her demure yet vaguely animalistic presence. For all of Rose's sweetness, it's nigh impossible not to see the wicked quality that prompted Terence Fisher to cast Marsh as Lucy. She is like an English rose with thorns gathering in her brows. Rose is a simple, pure-hearted girl whose lack of complication is both her virtue and her downfall. Marsh makes us believe in Rose as a small town girl, honest and open to a fault, who has fled a no longer tenable home life (involving, we sense, physical and perhaps sexual abuse) to seek her fortune in the big city, naturally starting at the bottom -- as a waitress. She's eager to find love and protection to replace the family she's lost, but the chance intervention of a ten-pound contest ticket into her life damns her to marry the biggest little monster on the midway. Rose has seen too much, knows who killed the man in the haunted house ride on Palace Pier, and that's why Pinky wants to tie the knot -- right around her throat -- in the event she's ever called to testify against him. Already hurt by the world and desperate for protection, she is starry-eyed over her ice-cold suitor, and he flaunts his clammy loathing of her to the extent of recording a litany of hateful insults in an arcade sound booth, under cover of being a love letter, knowing that the poor girl doesn't own a phonograph to play the tell-tale acetate.
Another striking thing about BRIGHTON ROCK, when seen today, is the modernity of its construction. The story unfolds obliquely, standing close by the efforts of a secondary character (Alan Wheatley) to stay alive, who doesn't survive the first twenty minutes. The real protagonists are only glimpsed prior to this, but their presence is felt throughout -- Attenborough is potently introduced as a pair of hands flexing with alacrity whilst executing various cat's cradles with a web of string. The music by Hans May also feels quite contemporary in the way it pushes the action through orchestrated rhythm rather than melody, and it's hard to believe that this was only the second feature assignment for director of photography Harry Waxman, whose highly mobile, dramatic style qualifies BRIGHTON ROCK as a masterpiece of film noir cinematography and perhaps the greatest British example. Its place in the hiearchy of gangster films is unquestionable, and devotées of the genre will find interesting a sequence where Pinky meets with the Italian leader of local organized crime, a man named Colleoni (according to the IMDb, that is; his name sounded more to me like "Corleone").
The finale of Greene's novel, which found Rose returning home while looking forward to listening to Pinky's recorded "love letter" for the first time, is one of the great harrowing finales of 20th century English literature. Because it was considered too strong and downbeat for the film version, Greene worked with screenwriter Terrence Rattigan to conceive an acceptable alternative ending, which is arguably the movie's only fault. Viewers unfamiliar with the book may find it acceptable enough, but it's like a bad joke; the extent to which we've bonded with Marsh's touching performance is the only thing that keeps it from being risible. To laugh at her gullibility would be too much of a sin on our part.
My quest for a perfect-looking BRIGHTON ROCK has now been satisfied. It's now available on DVD as part of a fabulous four-disc PAL R2 import set called THE GRAHAM GREENE COLLECTION (Optimum Releasing). In addition, the set includes splendid presentations of THE THIRD MAN (1949, including two "Third Man" radio plays and a featurette on zither musician/composer Anton Karas); THE FALLEN IDOL (1948, a longtime PD eyesore in America, here restored to its original lustre); and THE HEART OF THE MATTER (1953, with its great performance by THE THIRD MAN's Trevor Howard). All of the discs originate from Studio Canal masters.
The standard ratio presentation of BRIGHTON ROCK is generally excellent, with thin black matte lines on the peripheries; the PAL to NTSC playback does result in a faint awareness of accelerated film speed, especially when the action becomes naturally accelerated. The DD-2.0 mono audio track manages to reduce background noise without overly clipping the dialogue. Some viewers may have trouble making sense of some of the dialogue, which includes Cockney rhyming slang as well as some dated hardboiled slang, both of which are further obscured by regional accents; but if you can make it through PERFORMANCE, it shouldn't be a problem.
Criterion's THE THIRD MAN remains the definitive presentation of that title, but the remaining three titles are well worth the cost of this set; if you haven't acquired the Criterion disc, it becomes that much more attractive. Enthusiastically recommended, especially for BRIGHTON ROCK and the rejuvenated THE FALLEN IDOL, THE GRAHAM GREENE COLLECTION is available domestically from Xploited Cinema, here.
Sunday, October 08, 2006
My amigo Steve Bissette (whose blog MYRANT is linked over yonder to the right) deserves all credit for pointing me in this direction. Steve wasn't the first blogger I had read, but much as he helped to make the world of publishing seem more within Donna's and my grasp with the example of his TABOO, the literary, information and entertainment values of MYRANT showed me most appealingly what was possible within the form. I was impressed by the amount of writing he managed to generate on an almost daily basis, but also daunted by it; Steve assured me that the words stacked up quickly and easily, and that the process had become a pleasurable part of his morning routine. 365 days later, I can't say that he steered me wrong; I find writing Video WatchBlog very pleasurable and, to be perfectly candid, I often get a bigger kick out of clicking on "Publish Post" than i get from seeing my own work in print these days. The immediacy is intoxicating. The average blog takes about an hour or two to generate, and I usually write it either before going to bed, or immediately upon waking -- even before my first cup of coffee. So muchos gracias to Steve for being this blog's North Star (though Donna would like to re-train me to make our morning coffee first).
Looking back at my initial blog posting, on this 21st anniversary of the first VW column, it seems that I have broken just about every promise I initially made about this blog and what I expected it would become. I said I wasn't going to offer complete reviews of DVDs here, and I have. (I broke that promise almost immediately; it seems I can't do anything half-way.) I said I was going to use this blog to post information about new DVD releases, and I mostly haven't; I think it's a cheat to post press releases, though I don't mind sharing information that I personally find of interest. Most preposterously, I said I wasn't going to write long entries, and boy, have I ever! I did predict that there would be a certain amount of self-disclosure involved, and for better or worse, I've kept that promise. Looking over all the blogs I've generated, with their miscellaneous reviews, reports, cris de coeur, 100th birthday tributes, poems, and Outer Limericks, I think they represent a fairly accurate (and appropriately erratic) chart of my strengths and weaknesses, my emotional ups and downs, replete with moments of joy, playfulness and wistfulness. You've seen my love and hate for the blogging process, my reactions to the unexpected deaths of heroes and friends, and some odd moments of clarity prompting half-kept resolutions to turn my disordered life around. Many of you have written to let me know that you appreciate/enjoy/sympathize with what I've been up to here, and I am grateful for the feedback and camaraderie.
So what has this blog accomplished in its first year of existence? You, my readers, would probably be better postioned to answer to that question, but I can share with you some interesting basic facts. In the past 365 days, Video WatchBlog has racked up a total of 297 posts (including this one), while the Bava Book Update blog can claim an additional 29. (I've also written a couple that were never posted, and had to rewrite from scratch a few that were obliterated by random Blogger malfunctions.) My goal, at least over the last few weeks, has been to top 300 posts at this blog alone, but even with daily (and sometimes multiple daily) posts these past two weeks, it just wasn't possible. Our total number of page visits is presently just under 345,000 hits, and monthly attendance reached its all-time-high of 33,000+ hits last March. (Why March, I have no idea; it wasn't the month of the Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon, nor a particularly outstanding month in terms of content.) Mondays and Wednesdays seem to be our busiest days, with visits declining as we approach the weekend and dropping off to slightly more than half our weekday attendance on weekends. That doesn't stop me from putting in my time, of course, as with yesterday's two big Jess Franco preview-reviews, which I believe were the first to appear online.
The most amazing statistic of all (to me) I've saved for last. A week or so ago, I spent a few hours copying all the text from this blog into a separate Word document. Blogger had been suffering some irregularities and shutdowns, and it occurred to me that none of the material I'd written for Video WatchBlog had been backed up; therefore, it was all too possible that I might sign on one day to find everything gone, without warning. I couldn't copy over the illustrations, which all remain logged in my computer anyway, but I did pour all the text. I've been adding each new posting to the document since, and after applying standard manuscript specs to the pages -- Bookman Old Style font, 12-point type, double spaced -- the collected Video WatchBlog to date amounts to 870 pages!
That's work I generated not in my spare time, but in my spare spare time -- when I wasn't working on VW, or the Bava book, or my novel-in-progress. I don't say this to be boastful (well, not entirely), but rather to point out what can be achieved in a single year with no more than an hour or two of not-even-daily effort. A fellow writer wrote me last week to seek my advice about how he might better organize time for book writing when job, marriage and fatherhood are claiming most of the hours in his day; I sent him these statistics as proof of what can be done if one writes for only an hour or less, and not even every day, over the course of a year. The important thing is to let the work stack up, to be disciplined. Had I worked only half so hard as I did on this blog the first year, I'd have 400+ pages -- still enough for a book.
The only problem with devoting time to this blog is that it doesn't generate any income, so there's no compensation (other than your friendly e-mails) for the time and industry I put into it, other than the pleasure I personally derive from it, which is considerable. It keeps the machinery well-tuned, enabling me to be more proficient at paying work. It has also filled the breach while VW has been publishing irregularly over the past year, which is a good thing, and it's allowed me to branch out and write about things that don't fall within the general scope of VW -- life, comics, people, music. When he read my eulogy for Gene Pitney, Joe Dante sent me a note telling me that I'd outdone myself, which was one of one of my prouder moments of this past year. Video WatchBlog was also instrumental in achieving some positive changes at Monsters HD and Turner Classic Movies, and to effect positive change is perhaps the best kind of reimbursement.
Some bloggers have Amazon.com Wish List (identified on one blog I've visited as "Buy Me Stuff") or PayPal links on their pages, but I don't want to go there. Suffice to say, if you read this blog regularly and are not already a VW subscriber, you can help to perpetuate both magazine and blog by subscribing or picking up some back issues. We make it very easy for you at our website, accepting credit cards and PayPal and offering a toll-free number. Mind you, since this blog began, we've seen the unfortunate end of PSYCHOTRONIC VIDEO, FILM SCORE MONTHLY, WRAPPED IN PLASTIC, OUTRÉ, CULT MOVIES, and SCARLET STREET. VIDEO WATCHDOG has no intention of throwing in the towel, and especially with new contributors like Ramsey Campbell aboard, we're feeling stronger than ever and are determined to continue as a unique and useful voice in the HD DVD era looming ahead.
Having witnessed the struggle sometimes involved with producing this blog, which I've never bothered to disguise, a couple of you have proposed that I might want to discontinue it after reaching this first anniversary, or once VIDEO WATCHDOG is able to resume its monthly schedule. I have considered both possibilities, but I prefer to keep the door open and use this blog as I will. Perhaps once VW goes monthly once again, this blog can begin to keep some of those silly promises I made back at the beginning, like being short and sketchy and infrequent.
Whatever Video WatchBlog becomes or continues to be, you should know by now that I'll be giving it all that I can.
Writer-director-producer-actor René Cardona Sr. (1906-1988) would have been 100 years old today. Though not exactly the father of Mexican horror cinema, he remains the best-known of the many south-of-the-border filmmakers specializing in fright and fantasy, renowned for such popular works as DOCTOR OF DOOM, THE CRYING WOMAN, THE WRESTLING WOMEN VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY, NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES, numerous Santo films, and, of course, the mind-boggling SANTA CLAUS.
Saturday, October 07, 2006
1981, Severin Films, DD-2.0/16:9/LB/ST/+, $29.95, 80m 12s, DVD-0
In the late 1970s, after making films abroad for decades, Jess Franco returned to his native Spain to rediscover his identity as a Spanish director in the newly-liberated cinema of his homeland. This erotic voodoo film filmed on Gran Canaria, the largest of the Canary Islands, is one of his best films from this period, an elegantly shot, thinly-disguised remake of his Soledad Miranda classic VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970), with American transexual star Ajita Wilson cast as the otherworldly temptress. Lina Romay, using the same "Candy Coster" and wearing the blonde wig that came with that second identity, plays Alice Brooks, a real estate worker whose vacation in Bahia Feliz with novelist husband ("Robert Foster" aka Antonio Mayans) is beset by sexual nightmares about an imperious black woman called Tara, flanked by two naked human "pets." Alice receives a call from her boss, asking her to meet with a prospective buyer named Princess Obango, who happens to be in her vicinity. A pair of servants escort Alice to the Princess' desert home by camel, and (not surprisingly) the prospective buyer turns out to be the woman of her dreams -- Tara, Princess of Darkness, a 300 year-old voodoo priestess in search of a young acolyte to die into, sexually, thereby possessing her for the next three centuries of her reign.
Rosa Maria Almirall as "Lina Romay" as "Candy Coster," playing "Alice Brooks," caught in a web of supernatural sexual anguish.
In "Voodoo Jess," the excellent 22-minute interview featurette accompanying this picture, Jess Franco likens the American transsexual star Ajita Wilson to Christopher Lee, saying that she wasn't that much of an actor, but was rather a singularly fantastic presence -- tall and compelling. Smirk if you will, but Franco's insight is actually well supported by the film at hand, which uses Wilson much in the way the Hammer Dracula series used Christopher Lee: shown standing by regally in a long cape (and, in Wilson's case, little else), presiding over dark supernatural rituals with lordly hand gestures, and arranging to be resurrected in a new body (much as occurred in TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, 1970). While it's true that the role of Tara gives Wilson few opportunities to act (Lee had the same complaint), "Candy Coster" throws herself into this febrile scenario with more passion and physicality than usual, her performance building to what may be the most affecting scream of Lina Romay's screen career. "Robert Foster" is also good as the husband who finds himself also drawn into Tara's web through the realm of his art (he experiences a SHINING moment of typing Tara's name till it covers a manuscript page from his novel), though it's not one of his best roles. Poppy and Tulip, the human beasts whom Tara leads about on leashes (recalling Barbara Steele's entrance in BLACK SUNDAY), are played by an actress credited as "Lorna Green" (the name of a recurring character name in Franco's filmography, beginning with Janine Reynaud's character in SUCCUBUS) and a man identified as José Ferro, who looks so much like Will Ferrell in one close-up that it all but defuses a scene's erotic tension. Franco himself, 51 at the time of filming, has the supporting role of Mémé, a moronic handyman who mirrors the simple-minded character Memmet, whom he portrayed in VAMPYROS LESBOS.
As the hotel's resident half-wit, Jess Franco warns Alice not to go to the castle in the desert.
Unlike the majority of goofy, half-condescending sex satires Franco was making during this period (TWO FEMALE SPIES WITH FLOWERED PANTIES, LAS CHICAS DE COPACABANA), MACUMBA SEXUAL is a serious production and a serious achievement. It benefits from a spaciousness of style that allows the actors to determine its dramatic content and enables the movie to breathe with sultriness and mystery. (1982's GEMIDOS DE PLACER would carry this method even further, consisting of only a dozen or so sustained takes.) Juan Soler's Eastmancolor/Techniscope photography is consistently lovely and evocative, sometimes employing star filters to lend hints of enchantment to the borders of a scene, with handsome location shots of beaches and junk-like ships setting sail. A preponderance of Senegalese art objects and fetish figures lend authenticity and flavor, and particularly memorable are shots of Alice struggling to cross dusky sand dunes that tease the eye with the possibility of morphing into the swells and hollows of Tara's own body.
Viewers should be cautioned that, unlike its Severin Films companion piece MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD, MACUMBA SEXUAL does cross the line into hardcore sexual content, to the same extent that 1973's FEMALE VAMPIRE did. However, the nature of the story is such that it could not have been so persuasively told, had it been coy about the role that our sexual organs and identities play in our lives. Of all Franco's erotic horror films, this one is perhaps closest to the feel of Joe Sarno's work, its overall tone recalling in particular the tribal, ritualistic, carnal call-and-answer of Sarno's vampire picture VEIL OF BLOOD (aka VAMPIRE ECSTASY, 1973). Indeed, it's our memory of Sarno's film, with its arousingly percussive score, that pointed out the inadequacy of MACUMBA SEXUAL's anemic and overly aerated synth score, which does nothing to communicate the power of Tara's effectively staged macumba rite or to resonate with any of the bizarre African nick-nacks adorning her desert lair.
Severin's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is exquisite, adding considerable lustre to a title heretofore known in this country only through dupey, unsubtitled, bootleg tapes. The aforementioned featurette "Voodoo Jess" interviews Franco and Lina Romay about the circumstances of production and their co-stars. While Franco expresses indifference about whether or not Wilson was transsexual, Romay (who got close enough to make a full study of her surgeon's handiwork) assures us that she was. Of the nearly 40 films Wilson made, MACUMBA SEXUAL is almost certainly the one that best understood her value as a screen presence and presented her as something more than a sex object -- a sex oracle, perhaps. This was her second (after 1980's SADOMANIA) and final collaboration with Franco; in a tragic coincidence, like VAMPYROS LESBOS star Soledad Miranda, Wilson died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident -- in 1987, in her mid-to-late 30s.
A quote on the box from Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill's book IMMORAL TALES describes MACUMBA SEXUAL as "Franco's last extended trip into delirium... One of the last glorious death throes of European sexploitation." These accolades may seem overstated, but the record tends to support them. The sex scream that ends this picture may well embody the incendiary finale to Franco's heartfelt pursuit of adult erotic fantasy; hereafter, his work became increasingly satiric, post-modernist, and cerebral, if not intellectual. As was signalled by the title of his 1981 sci-fi film LA SEXO ESTA LOCO ("Sex Is Crazy"), Franco seemed to lose interest in probing sexual subjects seriously. The delirium found here is palpably erotic, and well conveyed by this memorable line of dialogue: "The Princess? She doesn't exist... but your husband must be with her."
Severin Films will release MACUMBA SEXUAL on October 31. You can pre-order your copy here.
MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD
La Mansión de los Muertos Vivientes
1982, Severin Films, DD-2.0/16:9/ST/+, $29.95, 92m 47s, DVD-0
Widely misperceived as a rip-off or response to the "Blind Dead" films of Amando de Ossorio, MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD is actually Franco’s improvisation on ideas found in the stories of Andalusian writer Gustávo Adolfo Bécquer (1836-70), whose work also provided the basis of John Gilling’s little-seen LA CRUZ DEL DIABLO (1975) and was a possible source of inspiration for Ossorio. That said, Franco’s film also functions as a comment on the “Blind Dead” films, serving as both a brutal exposé of what is silliest about them, and a grudging genuflection to their perverse beauty.
Four giggly women, all topless waitresses from Munich ("It's 'in' right now"), arrive at a beach hotel described by their travel agent as "almost like Heaven on earth." Indeed it is, but in the most unsettling sense: there's no sign of life anywhere. A sinister hotel manager, Carlos ("Robert Foster" aka Antonio Mayans dyed blonde), assigns to the four ladies two rooms on opposite sides of the building, claiming that the hotel is too full to accomodate them any nearer to one another. The conveniently bisexual women wile away the hours till men arrive by having sex with each other, after which they begin to be individually lured to a nearby disused church by the beckoning sound of a dirge. Residing within the church they discover the undead members of the "Holy Court of the Cathar," accursed with ever-lasting life for their satanic practices, who punish these silly sinners by gang-raping them, while praying to their lord to "protect them from feeling any pleasure while carrying out this sinner's sentence." By the time Candy ("Candy Coster," a platinum blonde-wigged Lina Romay) finds her way to the church, Carlos -- secretly one of the ancient sect's brethren -- has recognized her as the reincarnation of Princess Irina, burned at the stake by the brethren ages before, whose loving forgiveness is the only possible salvation from him and the other devil worshippers.
Lina Romay played a Countess Irina in FEMALE VAMPIRE, of course, and that's one of many in-jokes in this schizophrenic film, which opens almost as a comic spoof of the teenage body-count movies popular at the time this film was made, then slowly grows more serious as it trundles along down dark corridors with an oversized bare bottom (literally). This is no place for viewers curious about that Franco fellow to start exploring, nor is this the sort of horror movie one could recommend to people looking for spooky Halloween viewing; there's no gore to speak of, and it's childish in the most adult terms. Though it's technically softcore, the nudity and erotic activity remain fairly explicit and would certainly be slapped with an NC-17 if rated today. But for those already familiar with the wanky laws governing the Franco universe, the film is a guilty pleasure on the basis of its experimentalism, and it manages an effective sequence or two, against all odds. The apocalyptically vacant hotel that is fully occupied according to the books is an eerie conceit, not to mention a potent metaphor for death, and the mise en scène of the empty hotel and its gleaming, empty corridors recalls Kubrick's THE SHINING (1980) as well as Willard Huyck's MESSIAH OF EVIL (1975).
Furthermore, in seeming response to a similar experiment performed by Dario Argento's TENEBRAE (1981), but actually dating back to VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970) in his own filmography, Franco dares stage nearly all of his horror sequences in direct, open sunlight, an inversion motif that is carried over to the bone-bleached color of the zombie monks' Templar-like robes. An intriguing subplot involving Eva Léon as Carlos' mad wife, chained to a bed in one of the hotel's empty rooms, owes something to THE SHINING's lady in Room 327 and is creepily well-played by Léon and Mayans. These and other compelling qualities, including the surprisingly romantic tone of the finale, are not quite full apology for the fact that much about the film is ridiculous (beginning with "based on the novel by David Khunne," and including dialogue like "Who would want to murder four hotties like us?"), yet for anyone with the imagination to laugh with this film, as well as at it, MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD might be a strange taste worth acquiring.
Severin Films has given the picture a beautiful, strikingly glassy 2.35:1 presentation (anamorphic) that will draw your eye to small bruises and sores in the clefts of bodies you might not normally examine. A few interior shots look considerably grainier than the exquisitely crisp and colorful balance of the movie, and are clearly the result of shooting in near-darkness with a light-sensitive stock. (The hotel location was obviously off-season, and the film appears to have been almost entirely sun-lit.) The 2.0 mono track is in Spanish only (with optional English subtitles) and very fine, bringing out the best in Pablo Villa's spare score and, for those who know their voices, making it easier to identify secondary characters who were dubbed in post by Jess and Lina. The only extra, a nice one, is a 19-minute visit with Jess and Lina called "The Mansion Jess Built," in which Franco discusses the film's origins in the short stories of Bécquer; his opinions of George Romero, Amando de Ossorio, and zombie movies in general; finally admits for the record that David Khunne's AWFUL DR. ORLOF novel never existed; and explains (as does Lina) the stories behind some of his many pseudonyms. Two of them -- Frank Hollmann and Dave Tough -- show up in the short's end credits as co-editor and music composer, respectively.
Friday, October 06, 2006
Occasionally there is a great thread over at the Classic Horror Films Board that presents, in a nutty nutshell, what it's all about. Right now there's an impassioned new discussion, excited by Universal's new 75th Anniversary triple-dip of 1931's DRACULA, about a chunk of roughly torn cardboard that's visible in the movie and also in the production still pictured above.
The new reissue disc features two audio commentaries, one by HOLLYWOOD GOTHIC author David J. Skal (included on the previous issues) and another by DRACULA - DEAD AND LOVING IT screenwriter Steve Haberman. Mr. Skal believes the cardboard was obviously an accident, an oversight, a production gaffe never meant to be included in the picture; meanwhile, Mr. Haberman insists that it was just as obviously an intentional set prop and has some very harsh words to offer anyone who would seriously propose otherwise.
In a single day, the CHFB has racked up an impressive four pages of illustrated debate and discussion, with board moderators David Colton (Taraco) and Kerry Gammill (Count Gamula) getting into the act with film scholars Tom Weaver and Gary L. Prange, filmmaker Ted Newsom, and more pseudonymous cyber-phantoms than you could find in the Paris Opera House. Everything from frame grabs to shooting script notations have been dragged into the melée, and a lot of minds have been changed. As I was reading through it, I had my own response ready to roll out, but by the time I reached the last page, anything I might have contributed would've seemed redundant... so I thought I decided to post this blog instead.
My own response: I have to agree with Mr. Haberman's view, though, like many of the CHFB posters, I feel he should have phrased his information less offensively -- especially since he's referring to someone who's done as much on behalf of DRACULA history as David Skal. We probably wouldn't have the Spanish DRACULA on video today without his trail-blazing research, which located the only extant print at a Cuban cinemateca... and that would have been a terrible thing to miss, regardless of Mr. Haberman's dislike of this alternate version. The DRACULA shooting script refers to a device used to dim the light in Mina's room, and this slab of junk is plainly it; of course, they could have found something more attractive to do the job, like a neatly scissored piece of cardboard, but I imagine time was in short supply and the crew had to make do with what they had. (As Lupita Tovar boasts in the UNIVERSAL HORROR documentary, the Spanish version of DRACULA, which was shot at night on the same sets, finished filming earlier than the Browning version, which must have come as a profound embarrassment to Browning and crew, considering the Spanish version's lengthier running time and more mobile use of camera.)
It's possible too that this whole issue is a funny souvenir of a lighting problem. The filmmakers may have intended to do what most people do when they want to dim a lamp: drop a scarf over it. For some reason, that didn't work -- maybe the scarf or cloth caught fire, began to smell, or became a compositional distraction -- and another solution was needed on very short notice. Perhaps the cinematographer needed a dimmer that could sculpt the light cast on the side of Miss Chandler's face rather than diffuse or interfere with it, as the card does function here as a sort of "barn door." Maybe it was Tod Browning's way of flashing a finger at a production executive who was telling him to hurry up. We'll never know. Clearly, the cardboard shield was a solution but hardly an elegant one; it overwhelms the problem. And just as clearly, while it's possible that a piece of cardboard like this could go unnoticed in a single shot, like any other continuity error, it is much harder to explain as an accident when such an eyesore occupies such pride of place in a production still.
A scene from another picture comes to mind with that cardboard. I forget the film's title, but I remember the dialogue:
"I've never seen that before!"
"Now you always will."
Thursday, October 05, 2006
SEASON 1, VOLUME 1
1957, CBS DVD/Paramount, $49.99, 960 minutes, DVD-1
"Raymond Burr is PERRY MASON," says the front of this five-disc box set, and after watching the first 19 episodes of the long-running CBS teleseries, it's unlikely anyone will argue the point. Other actors have tried -- Warren William, Ricardo Cortez, even Monte Markham -- but Burr owns Mason in a way few other actors have taken possession of a part. In today's information age, we can now see that any number of Mason's investigational tactics, and even some of his courtroom ploys, are beyond the pale of acceptable behavior for an attorney, but the massive Burr (who was a mere 39 years old when filming began) brings tremendous authority to his performances, as well as intellect and an occasional, impish twinkle.
PERRY MASON debuted on September 27, 1957 and ran until May 22, 1966, an unprecedented run for an hour-long evening drama; it has never been off the air since. Nevertheless, as time has gone on, roughly 6-10 minutes of each episode has tended to be cut in order to provide more commercial time slots for the stations hosting it. The broadcasts on SuperStation WTBS in the 1980s and '90s were notoriously incomplete, but even as long ago as the mid-1970s, I can remember watching PERRY MASON on a local station and seeing in the end credits frequent references to "Gertie" (Mason's receptionist, played by Connie Cezan) and also "Autopsy Surgeon" (a role usually essayed by Michael Fox) -- neither of whom ever appeared in a single show, as locally broadcast. That's thirty years ago; thus, one of the greatest pleasures of acquiring the series on DVD -- especially for those of us who have supported the show with our audience over the last nearly 50 years -- is the now-privileged opportunity to see and judge the episodes once again in their complete state.
Mason at the scene of a crime, handling evidence with a hankie.
For those who don't know the basic set-up, Perry Mason is a high-profile Los Angeles attorney specializing in murder cases, who is assisted in his work by private detective Paul Drake (TWENTY MILLION MILES TO EARTH's William Hopper) and secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale). Mason's uncanny winning streak and knack for making his legal opponents look unprepared at best, and downright stupid at worst, has won him the resentment of district attorney Hamilton Burger (William Talman), while his tendency to use his thorough knowledge of the law to bend it without breaking it keeps police Lieutenant Tragg (Ray Collins) ever lying in wait to pounce in the event of a slip-up.
PERRY MASON was filmed during the heyday of B-sci-fi and horror movies, and the supporting guest casts of these first 19 episodes include such familiar faces as Robert Cornthwaite, Whit Bissell, Brett Halsey, William Schallert, Greta Thyssen, Morris Ankrum (as a judge!), Joan Weldon, Barbara Eden, Olive Sturgess, and even Minerva Urecal. It's a treat to see them plying their trade in a different genre. One of the episodes, "The Case of the Fan Dancer's Horse," is notable for featuring one of the very few screen appearances of the wonderful Judy Tyler, who was killed in an automobile accident at the age of 23, only three days after completing her role opposite Elvis Presley in JAILHOUSE ROCK. The directors include Christian Nyby (THE THING), Ted Post (MAGNUM FORCE), and Laszlo Benedek (THE WILD ONE).
Mason meets Minerva Urecal in "The Case of the Fan Dancer's Horse."
The debut episode, "The Case of the Restless Redhead," has a grabby opening that Sam Fuller might have envied: a woman driving alone on a dark and winding road is suddenly pursued by another car, driven by a scary figure with a pillowcase hood over his head, who fires a gun at her. The episode, directed by William D. Russell, is more sensationalistic than the later ones, and Mason's character is still a pair of new shoes for Burr, who ventures the sort of sexist comments that were de riguer in pulp fiction but essentially beneath his vision of the character. One or two of the episodes included herein seem to dabble with portraying Mason as a sort of 20th century Sherlock Holmes, pronouncing deductions on the basis of minute detritus left at the scenes of crimes, but this too disappears. Another episode flirts conspicuously with the possibility of Mason being a frequent hat-wearer. What we see in the later episodes is the deliberate arrival at a standard of quality that would serve the show well, an essential ingredient of which was a certain mystery about Mason himself. For all the audience identification he engenders, we actually learn very little about Mason as a human being, and it comes as something of an unsettling surprise on those rare occasions when we see him relaxing at home or awakened in bed by a telephone call.
As entertaining and involving as these episodes are, I find that watching one episode somehow erases the memory of the previous ones, so that, over time, the shows one has already seen can become fresh discoveries again; that's not to say that the episodes themselves are forgettable, but that, regardless of how many times we see them, they remain pleasingly repeatable. Also, each individual episode offers a lot of details to focus on; as I went through this set, I found it a particular treat to admire Barbara Hale's consummate skill in participating in the background of scenes without distracting from the foreground or occupying her own space needlessly. In these episodes, we are also witness to a certain amount of non-romantic intimacy between Perry and Della that helps us to understand how the mystery of their relationship also helped to bait audiences. These episodes also show the program's creators and writers already responding positively to the danger of making defense attorneys look too attractive to the viewing public at the expense of district attorneys, with Burger and Tragg depicted in vignettes of later shows as sharing a meal with Team Mason or paying a friendly afterhours visit to his office, and everyone portrayed as equally interested in seeing justice prevail. The haste with which these episodes were filmed shows up only in one episode -- I think it's "The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink" -- when an actor actually bumps into the camera while exiting frame; the fact that they kept the take rather than reshoot it shows that time was of the essence, probably far more often than is indicated onscreen.
Ray Collins as Lt. Arthur Tragg -- feisty flatfoot, Wonder Bread buyer.
The episodes are presented in their original broadcast order on five discs contained in three booklets in an attractive slipcase. They sport generally excellent audio/visual quality, looking much sharper than any episode you'll see on broadcast television, and retaining the original end credit windows for sponsor products like Sweet Heart soap and Dutch Cleanser. There is infrequent speckling, always preferable to excessive digital noise reduction, and more noticeable damage is briefly evident in "The Case of the Sulky Girl" in a moment where Perry and Paul, exiting a courtroom, light up some cigs. The episodes gain a good deal from being available in their complete form; some contain filler, but it usually functions in the service of character, adds a subtle element of humor, or helps to plant or support clues that are essential to the court cases. Unfortunately, the set is lacking in, shall we say, DVD "pyrotechnics" -- Barbara Hale is still around, as is director Ted Post, and it would be nice to have some series alumni contribute an audio commentary or two to forthcoming volumes. PERRY MASON - SEASON 1, VOLUME 2 (another no-friller) has been announced for a November release.
There have been a lot of courtroom dramas in the wake of PERRY MASON, but it's the one that continues to impress. To use a somewhat unclassy word, it's still classy after all these years.
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
I'm not certain how my subsequent education in Starewitch unfolded, but it was probably through the legitimate VHS, laserdisc, and DVD releases, such as THE CAMERAMAN'S REVENGE AND OTHER FANTASTIC TALES. Adding a delicious layer of complexity to his legacy was the chance inclusion of his short live action film "The Portrait" (1914) as a bonus on the Ruscico DVD of Aleksandr Ptushko's THE VIY, a silent work that laid the groundwork for the great frisson of THE RING and remains a goosebumper in its own right. I'm always eager to see and learn more about this amazing pioneer of the fantastic cinema.
Last week, I discovered by chance that a number of Starewitch compilations had been issued on DVD in France (with English subtitles!), so I popped over to Amazon.fr to see what was available. Unfortunately, most of these releases now appear to be out of print... but I did discover, to my surprise, that a book about Starewitch's work had been published in France in September 2003 and remains available. I promptly ordered a copy of LADISLAS STAREWITCH (1882-1965) by Léona Béatrice and François Martin (pictured), and it arrived here in no time. It's a nice, thick paperback -- written in French, of course -- but it appears to be extremely well researched, and it contains a complete filmography and other lists of great value to scholars, regardless of how well they speak or read the language. One of the appendices compares different versions of the short animated film "The Cameraman's Revenge," and includes some intertitles in English. The only drawback is that this book about a supremely visual artist contains no photographs.
Evidently unavailable at present are the DVD releases of Starewitch's LE MONDE MAGIQUE, and LE ROMAN DE RENARD (TALE OF THE FOX, a feature), which are still pictured at Amazon.fr. I've also noticed DVD-Rs of three other titles -- TALE OF THE FOX, LADISLAS STAREWICZ FANTASIES and THE MAGIC WORLD OF LADISLAS STAREWICZ, all with English subtitles -- which an eBay seller is presently auctioning. It occured to me, in my desperation, that some of this blog's readers may have copies of these discs they wouldn't mind making available to me at a friendlier rate than the $25 per DVD-R that this fellow has set. If you do, I'm very interested; please write me via the Contact link found at the top of the right-side column.
In my searches, I found this fascinating Starewitch website, which includes some actual animation samples. Worth visiting.
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
Polselli directed his first feature, L'ULTIMO PERDONO, in 1952; it was the first of four proto-giallo thrillers that preceded his first international success, L'AMANTE DEL VAMPIRO (1960), released in America as THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA. A significant title in the history of Italian horror cinema, L'AMANTE DEL VAMPIRO (scripted by the great Ernesto Gastaldi) was the first Italian horror film to be green-lighted after the surprise boxoffice success of DRACULA IL VAMPIRO, the Italian dub of Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA. While not a film of the caliber of Mario Bava's LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO [aka BLACK SUNDAY], which went into production three months later, it was the first Italian horror film to turn a profit.
As legend has it, Polselli wanted to follow up L'AMANTE DEL VAMPIRO with another Gastaldi horror script, IL VAMPIRO DELL'OPERA, but the picture ran out of funding while shortly into production and was shelved. Polselli filled his time by moving on to a series of dramas -- including the Gastaldi-scripted ULTIMATUM ALLA VITA (1962) -- notable for the recurring presence of actor Antonio de Teffé, soon to adopt the nom d'ecran "Anthony Steffen." By 1963, Polselli's horror film had made its inroads around the world, and he found himself with the funding to continue his shelved project, which became the ill-fated IL MOSTRO DELL'OPERA (1964). Despite a promotional pictorial article that appeared in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, preparing its fanbase for the release of a picture called "THE VAMPIRE OF THE OPERA," no such picture ever materialized stateside, and the film managed no outside continental sales until it was acquired by a French distributor in 1969. IL MOSTRO DELL'OPERA circulates as a bootleg videotape taken from two different RAI-TV broadcasts, and it's worth seeing for its vintage B&W atmosphere, a surprisingly early lesbian subplot, and the early casting of one of my favorite character actresses: the delightfully quirky Milena Vukotic (BLOOD FOR DRACULA, HOUSE OF THE YELLOW CARPET, and Luís Buñuel's last three films).
After three more films -- including an obligatory Spaghetti Western called LO SCERIFFO CHE NON SPARA (aka THE SHERIFF WON'T SHOOT, 1965), which marked his first collaboration with former Mr. Universe, Mickey Hargitay -- Polselli disappeared from the scene, only returning in 1970 as the screenwriter of two erotic films made by other directors. One of these features, Alessandro Santini's QUESTA LIBERTA DI AVERE... LE ALI BAGNATE (1972), introduced Polselli to the actress who would become the centerpiece of his work for the remainder of the decade: the ravishing Rita Calderoni. With 1972's LA VERITA SECONDO SATANA, Calderoni and Polselli (adopting the disguise "Ralph Brown") embarked on a lengthy phase of feverish, hallucinatory sex-horror films, fraught with druggy scenes of rape, sadism, and Satanic sacrifice. It was followed by the two Hargitay films, both available on DVD: DELIRIO CALDO (aka DELIRIUM, 1972) and RITI, MAGIE NERE E SEGRETE ORGE NEL TRECENTO (aka THE REINCARNATION OF ISABEL, 1973). These films, much moreso than Polselli's early work, have become the keys to his cult legend; the second, in particular, will give anyone pause to wonder if someone has spiked their drink. If you haven't seen these, you have quite the decadent treat in store.
Image Entertainment, who released these two films on VHS, laserdisc, and later DVD, also announced their intention to release Polselli's RIVELAZIONI DI UNO PSICHIATRA SUL MONDO PERVERSO DEL SESSO ("Revelations of a Psychiatrist in the World of Perverse Sex," 1973), but cancelled the release after discovering the mondo-style film's hardcore content. Polselli's next film, QUANDO L'AMORE E OSCENITA' (1974), continued in this vein and was banned in Italy until 1980, when it was issued as OSCENITA' ("Obscenity"). According to the Anchor Bay UK discussion thread, a book about Polselli's career is in the works, and we look forward to reading its Revelations about the Perverse World of Filmmaking.
It's been a particularly great run on GPS of late, so you might just as well go here and read from the top down, to see and learn more about THE RETURN OF CHANDU, THE MYSTERIOUS FU MANCHU and lots of other fun things.
I have no interest in the show DEXTER, but your description of it immediately made me think of a wildly common thread in scripts that get greenlighted and fail because the subtext is aimed at people in the movie business, not a general audience. People in Hollywood love to think of themselves as utterly ruthless and amoral, yet also brilliant and unconventional, their genius allowing them to suspend all need for common decency.
Thus, suits are always pushing ugly projects about people gleefully screwing each other over, while audiences are simply repelled by such stuff, because the average person takes it for granted that you have to develop some degree of empathy and cooperation with those around you if you're going to survive in the real world. Power fantasies and meglomania simply don't push you ahead when you're working in an office or on an assembly line. (They don't do much for you in Hollywood either, except that the jerks at the top love to feel that's what got them ahead, instead of the toadying and deference to established power that actually opened doors for them when they started out.)
That might help [you to] focus what sounds like an otherwise unfathomable premise, apparently aimed at status-driven people who lack any ability to deal with others from a position of parity.
-- Name Withheld by Request
Los Angeles, CA
Monday, October 02, 2006
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
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 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!