Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Mr. Carpenter's opinion to the contrary, Kneale's work remains rare in my experience of, shall we say, speculative screenwriting in that it has never become old-fashioned. Even when his stories date from another era -- such as the time in the mid-1950s when we stood on the threshold of space travel, trepidatious yet determined to pierce the sky -- they hum with urgency, an urgency of to extend our knowledge, not only of space but of ourselves. People remember the 1960s as an era of mind expansion, but the best science fiction of that period (indeed, of any period) is much more in the nature of mind extension. No one knew better that minds respond better to being sharpened than being blown than Nigel Kneale, and he was just the gunslinger to do it.
How strange then, after sleeping on these ruminations, that I should come online today to discover, in an e-mail from Kim Newman, that Nigel "Tom" Kneale died last Sunday, October 29th, at the age of 84. To resort to an overused but fitting phrase, it feels like the end of an era -- one of those events that bookmark a chapter's end in one's own life.
As a boy who spent his weekends at the movies and his weekdays in front of a television showing movies, I came to understand the importance of the director by the placement of his name at the end of the main titles. The director's name was the one left to resonate in your thoughts during the dissolve that would brighten into the telling of the story. On the other hand, I never gave much thought to the screenwriter's job, other than to wonder where all of these horror movie stories (as in "Story by so-and-so" as a distinct credit) had been published; I later realized that they were mostly written expressly for the screen, sometimes on the back of an envelope or bar napkin. As an habitué of horror, science fiction and fantasy films, I didn't begin to appreciate the craft of the screenwriter until I caught up with Nigel Kneale. He was one of the earliest writers whose name I sought out in newspaper movie ads, and thus more than just a writer to me. He was one of my childhood heroes, along with the first generation of NASA astronauts and Dr. Christiaan Barnard, the surgeon who performed the world's first successful heart transplant. Note that I bracketed him not with fellow artists but with scientists whose visionary adventurism changed the very definition of our species and what we could consider possible; that is how highly I thought of him and the intelligence he brought to bear on the movies he signed.
Such a legacy! He wrote the famous BBC teleplay of George Orwell's NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR (1954) starring Peter Cushing, and his affiliation with Hammer Films was to predate even that of Cushing. His byline appeared on such feature films as THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT aka THE CREEPING UNKNOWN (1955, based on his teleplay "The Quatermass Experiment"), QUATERMASS 2 aka ENEMY FROM SPACE (1957), THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN OF THE HIMALAYAS (1957), THE ENTERTAINER (1960, one of Laurence Olivier's finest screen portrayals), THE FIRST MEN "IN" THE MOON (1964, one of the few Ray Harryhausen films to engage us as something more than an excuse for stop-motion magic), THE WITCHES (1966, not a favorite Hammer of my childhood but one that interests me more today), the magnificent QUATERMASS AND THE PIT aka FIVE MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1968, based on his 1959 teleplay), and of course those brilliant and often prophetic other teleplays written for British television, many of which are now available on import DVD: THE YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS (1968), THE STONE TAPE (1972), BEASTS (1976), THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION aka QUATERMASS (1979), and that marvelous goosebumper THE WOMAN IN BLACK (1989). THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT was revived in 2005 as a live BBC broadcast starring Jason Flemyng, but without Kneale's input; it was not a success.
The presence of Kneale's name on a project was always indicative of quality, indeed of a quality and character that could overcome even the most indifferent direction on the sheer power of its language and ideas. Thus, Kneale is one of the very few screenwriters who earn our full consideration as an auteur. Of course, he is the author of the work, but in the Andrew Sarris sense of the word, he is the work's principal creator -- which was perhaps the real problem that John Carpenter (who insists upon his own name above the title) couldn't overcome with his Kneale screenplay.
Kneale's TOMATO CAIN AND OTHER STORIES (1949) predated his work in television and points to a promising literary career sidetracked by television -- but, as I'm sure he would say, in the words of his Professor Bernard Quatermass, "I never had a career, only work." Thirty years later, he complemented his miniseries teleplays of the 1979 finale to his "Quatermass" saga with a novel version, titled simply QUATERMASS -- one of the most effectively written, elegiac and moving science fiction novels I've read. Largely on the strength of this novel, and of course the "Quatermass" series of stories as a whole, I've always regarded him as one of Britain's greatest literary visionaries, on par with H.G. Welles and J.G. Ballard.
Science fiction mourns Nigel Kneale because he was one of the genre's most illuminating humanists -- not a sentimentalist like Bradbury, or a myth-maker like Frank Herbert, but a confrontational writer in the tradition of Orwell and Huxley, who used the genre as a framework within which to identify and grapple with the nature of the problematic times in which we find ourselves. He often painted cynical landscapes of our future, and found fault with us as a species for our pendulum swings, the way we seem to follow every notable advancement with cowardly retreats into arch-conservatism. He was also a masterful Swiftian satirist whose tweaks at humankind's expense proved just as prophetic as his works undertaken in a more somber mood. He predicted our dire fascination with "reality television" in 1968's THE YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS; the cosmic "ball of twine" narrative of QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, which puts forth a frightening (and, as more recent discoveries have suggested, quite possibly accurate) theory about the origin of our species, was a startling forebear of stories like THE DA VINCI CODE; and even his HALLOWEEN III script, as I noticed last night or this morning, is every bit as critical and satirical of the television medium as David Cronenberg's contemporaneous VIDEODROME.
There is no replacing a talent of this magnitude. We can only thank Nigel Kneale for the many inexhaustible gifts he left behind -- on film, on videotape, and on paper.
Monday, October 30, 2006
Surely most lists of this sort would begin the same way, but the obviousness of this silent film's quality and style, and its lasting propensity for chills, are hard to deny. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau is one of the few unquestionable geniuses to have worked in this subgenre, and while he's not quite yet the wholly accomplished artist capable of SUNRISE, he had the benefit of making this film at a time when only Stoker's novel, older folk tales, and his own imagination existed to inspire the direction in which he took his material. Melodramatic and overwrought at times, but if you see this with the right score (the James Bernard-scored version is actually a very good selection), your gooseflesh will confirm that these are some of the visions that reside in the heart of darkness. The moment when the vampire's shadow creeps across the heroine's chest to still her beating heart may be the earliest instance of dark eroticism in the horror film.
BLACK SABBATH (1964)
Mario Bava's stylish triptych of terror tales concludes, in its now-hard-to-find English version, with "The Wurdalak," based on Alexei Tolstoy's story "Family of the Wurdalak." The episode is remarkable for any number of reasons, the foremost being Boris Karloff's frightening portrayal of Gorka, the patriarch who returns... changed... from his mission to bring an end to the life of an undead monster feeding on his neighbors. "I am hungry," he says, and we don't doubt him for a moment as fear and uncertainty turn his family members against one another in the wake of his homecoming. This was Karloff's only vampire performance, and it's one of his best; the makeup he wears as Gorka is remarkably like the description of Dracula given in Stoker's novel, and I wonder if this is how Karloff had planned to look in a stillborn remake of DRACULA (in color and widescreen) in which he had hopes of starring in the late 1950s. Even scarier is his undead grandchild, who returns from his burial to pound on the door and cry, "Mommy, I'm cold!" The Italian-dubbed version (the only DVD release to date) relocates "The Wurdalak" to the middle position of the three stories and naturally dubs Karloff's performance, robbing it of one of its most important dimensions. Still powerfully effective, though. Unfortunately, the Image disc is currently out-of-print and fetches a steep price, but perhaps you can find it as a rental.
DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971)
Of the various screen vampires to whom I would gladly surrender my neck, Delphine Seyrig's Countess Elizabeth Bathory reigns over the rest. It's not her marcelled hair or her silver lamé dress, but her voice -- the voice that said "It can't be" in that intoxicating loop in Joseph Losey's ACCIDENT -- and her verbal powers of persuasion; I can well understand the way she works John Karlen to a lather with her descriptions of her "ancestor's" tortures. Flanked by Andrea Rau and Danielle Ouimet, Seyrig makes this the sexiest of all vampire movies, and director Harry Kumel dresses it with a high style worthy of Josef von Sternberg. THE TRANSYLVANIA GESTURE, why not? An exciting, new upgraded transfer with fresh extras from Blue Underground streets tomorrow.
COUNT DRACULA (1977)
Don't get me wrong; I love Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee too, but I'm assuming that you know all about them. Briefly released as an import DVD that was almost immediately withdrawn, this BBC adaptation of Stoker's novel is the most faithful of all Dracula movies, and the surprise casting of Louis Jourdan in the title role is a complete success. Many of the supporting players -- particularly Judi Bowker as Mina and Susan Penhaligon as Lucy -- embody the characters they play better than anyone who's played them before or since. The two-hour-plus program is somewhat compromised by its combining of film and videotape, but those who have read the novel will never find a better DRACULA.
Still one of George A. Romero's best films, this study of a troubled Pittsburgh teenager (John Amplas) from a Romanian family approaches vampirish from a then fairly unique angle: not as a supernatural thing, but as an infantile oral compulsion/blood fetish. (The earlier BLOOD SUCKERS, based on Simon Raven's novel DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET, covered some of this same ground, as did Theodore Sturgeon's novel SOME OF YOUR BLOOD.) Martin suffers from a compulsion to drink warm, gushing fluid from the veins of women he fantasizes to be willing and loving; he's sick, but so is his Old World uncle, a self-styled Van Helsing who dogs his every movement and instills him with self-loathing by calling him a "nosferatu." Still a very dark and extreme vampire picture, MARTIN works not only as an unflinchingly transgressive horror film, but as one of the most memorable East Coast examples of independent American filmmaking.
THE HUNGER (1980)
Tony Scott's directorial debut, this film didn't win many fans upon its first release, and it still tends to be remembered more as "the movie where Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve get it on" than as a quality vampire film. But from its opening performance of "Bela Lugosi's Dead" by Bauhaus to its closing image of the unexpected victor in this tangle of predatory relationships, I find it very compelling, one of the genre's rare examples of "composed filmmaking" -- that is, a film that makes more musical (in this case, operatic) than narrative sense. Everyone in the cast is at their best, with David Bowie contributing a memorable bit as Deneuve's expiration-dated lover, and no vampire film better captures the loneliness and heartbreak of eternal life or the surprise and joy of finding an unexpected new love.
And to make tomorrow scary
Seems the time is right for me to pen
A DVD itinerary.
Here's a frightful five chosen for you
By your WatchBlog kemosabe
They range in sheer shock value
From mild to "POW!" wasabi...
THE ZACHERLEY ARCHIVES
The haunted holiday has no wittier Master of Cemeteries than New Jersey-based John Zacherle (pictured above), who hosted Philadelphia's SHOCK THEATER as "Roland" and New York City's ZACHERLEY AT LARGE as "Zacherley" from the late '50s through the early '60s. All the surviving kinescopes from his broadcasting heyday are collected on this excellent DVD, along with extensive supplements. The vintage material proves beyond question that Zacherle wasn't just one of the first TV horror hosts but, like his colleague Vampira, an offbeat genius of the Beat Generation. He has also recorded several horror-themed musical comedy albums which, for my money, demonstrate a level of artistry in terms of songwriting and performance that are every bit the equal of Ghoul Porter. Still spry in his 80s, Zacherle was a guest at last weekend's Chiller Theater convention, promoting a new book about him, written by Rich Scriviani -- about which you can read more here. I apologize for the short notice, but even if you can't score a copy of this disc in time for Halloween, you should order it anyway. You owe it to yourself to know as much as you can learn about this true American original.
MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES
Joe Busam's Rondo Award-winning compilation of 30 different monster-themed home movies, dating from 1952 to just a few years ago, makes for magical viewing at any time of year, but it acquires additional lustre at Halloween time. Every single film features an audio commentary. Tom Abrams and I contributed an audio commentary to Alan Upchurch's NIGHT STALKER-inspired epic "The Gentle Old Madman," and the disc also runs the gamut from Bob Burns' 16mm short THE ALIEN to Kerry Gammill's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN remake to stop-motion dinosaur animation by Frank Dietz. A must-have disc regardless of season, you can order MKHM from Amazon.com or directly from the www.monsterkidhomemovies.com website. If you feel like still more in the same vein, another Monster Kid auteur -- Don Glut (pronounced "Gloot") -- has also released a two-disc set of all 41 of his own B (as in Boyhood) Movies, I WAS A TEENAGE MOVIEMAKER, but I can't tell you anything about it because I wasn't sent a review copy.
HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL
As far as feature films go, this is the one that SCREAMS "Halloween" loudest to me. This William Castle classic posits Vincent Price as the millionaire host of an evening spent among a group of strangers locked inside a haunted Frank Lloyd Wright mansion where murder was once committed; he offers $10,000 to anyone who can survive the evening. Will anyone live to collect? Watch out for the human heads without bodies and the pools of blood that drip from the ceiling! Leona Anderson, the sour songstress responsible for the great MUSIC TO SUFFER BY album (with its great song "Rats In My Room"), has a memorable, hair-raising bit as the house's blind housekeeper. This movie is apparently now in the public domain and thus available from many different labels, but we haven't seen better than the Warner Home Video release, which offers the film in a choice of standard ratio (open aperture) or anamorphically enhanced widescreen (a beautifully composed matted image). Need something a little lighter? How about...
THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN
The definitive Don Knotts comedy casts the quaky comedian as yet another character who must spend the night in a haunted house -- namely Luther Heggs, a typesetter who dreams of having his byline on page 1 and accepts the challenge of bunking down in The Old Simmons Place on the 25th anniversary of the slaying that made it infamous. Rarely has small town America been so sweetly and cleverly lampooned (reportedly no less than Andy Griffith gave the script an uncredited polish), but the spooky parts work too. The score by Vic Mizzy (THE ADDAMS FAMILY, GREEN ACRES) is a big part of its atmosphere and charm, as is the stellar supporting cast: Hal "Otis" Smith, Charles Lane, Robert Cornthwaite, Liam Redmond, Reta Shaw, Skip Homeier, and lovely former Playmate Joan Staley as Luther's main squeeze, Alma. The artfulness and hilariousness of it will never actually be forgotten, not even if you use Bon-Ami on your gray matter. Evidently this movie is now available only as part of a box set with three other Knotts features, but the pricing is like getting the other three movies free. Oh, you want something stronger? A lot stronger? Well, then you can't go wrong with...
This acid-strength immersion in wicked witchiness remains Dario Argento's most effective demonstration reel after thirty years. Jessica Harper (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE) stars as an American ballet student who travels to Germany to study at an exclusive dance academy that turns out to headquarter a coven of witches. Alida Valli as the headmistress gloats more incandescently than a lit Jack O' Lantern, but creepier still is the sinisterly silhouetted Mater Suspiriorum, the wheezing crownhead who, with her two sisters, controls all the evil in the world. Not a lot of plot here, but the style (largely inspired by Disney's SNOW WHITE AND THE 7 DWARFS) is syrup-thick and the violence is, well, thick with syrup. The first murder offers a serious challenge to the shower murder in PSYCHO in the dazzling department, and -- thanks to the DD-5.1 capability of DVD -- the thundrous Goblin sountrack can be enjoyed in something very near its original theatrical presentation. A cameo by Udo Kier is the cherry on top of a very black sundae. If you missed the three-disc limited edition of a few years ago, shame, shame... but you can still get it as a single-disc offering.
And I'll add a postscript to the effect that Tartan Asia Extreme's MAREBITO remains the scariest and most original horror movie I've seen all year. If you've "been there, done that" with all my other suggestions, go straight to MAREBITO. I dare you.
Here's wishing you all a very happy and safe Halloween! Find a good, scary movie and try to go easy on the candy. (DVDs and Peanut M&M's... my only weaknesses! Well, they're the only ones I'm telling YOU about.)
Friday, October 27, 2006
My interviewer on this program was Frank Johnson, a local broadcaster whom I've known since we were both teenagers. In fact, Frank was an associate in my first publishing venture as he and I and a third partner, Brad Balfour, collectively chipped in to buy a used mimeograph machine in the early 1970s. We called the machine the Vergen Press for reasons that shall not be elaborated upon, and that imprint was shared by the respective fanzines we produced. Brad's was CONGLOMERATION, mine were THE HYDRAULIC PEANUT BUTTER SANDWICH #1 and APPLES WOOFER #2 (even then I was weird, changing the titles from issue to issue, but keeping the numbering consecutive), and Frank's was SCHAMOOB, which he had already been publishing for awhile. My two were crap (apart from an article in #2 by Andrew J. Offutt about the contemporary horror movie scene), but I have especially fond memories of Frank's fanzine because he was the most innovative publisher among us; he experimented with offset covers, colored inks, photo transfers, even half-pages. This was thirty-some years ago, so I don't remember much about the content, but the ambitious presentation of SCHAMOOB has always stuck in my mind as inspirational. As far as my own work was concerned, I thought at the time it was ambitious enough just to attempt something -- anything! The best thing I did in those days were some cartoons and spot graphics I did for SCHAMOOB, which I remember primariy because they won praise from the late Bea Mahaffey, OTHER WORLDS editor and the belle of the Cincinnati Fantasy Group in those days.
Frank and I saw the original FRIDAY THE 13TH together at a preview screening back in 1980 and laughed all the way through it. As we were getting reacquainted by phone prior to our interview, he mentioned reading the review I subsequently wrote for CFQ and thinking that about half the quips I made at the movie's expense were his, which I suppose is quite possible. When the subject of F13 came up during our interview, Frank -- ever the professional -- didn't tip his hand and made no reference to this past shared history. It was good to see him again, and I expect the program will be good radio.
Thursday, October 26, 2006
I was thwarted in my wish to see Malle’s ZAZIE DANS LE MÉTRO until a few nights ago, when my wish was finally fulfilled by one of the discs in a new R2 import set, LOUIS MALLE COLLECTION VOLUME 1, released by the French label Optimum Entertainment. This initial set (a second is now also available, including the wonderfully weird dream movie BLACK MOON) consists of the films known in America as ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS, THE FIRE WITHIN, THE LOVERS, and ZAZIE DANS LE MÉTRO (yes, that’s the English title!) and all have English subtitle options. All four films are in their intended screen ratios, anamorphic when necessary, but ZAZIE is in standard 1.33:1 dimensions.
Perhaps because of its placement in the set as Disc 4, I watched ZAZIE assuming that it was made circa 1965 or ’66, after the others in the set – which meant that I watched it under the misapprehension that Malle produced it under the influence of Richard Lester. While putting the disc away – very tickled and pleased with what I’d seen, regardless – the packaging informed me that it was actually made in 1960, and later examination of the disc (and watching a supplementary interview with Malle’s brother Vincent) confirmed that Malle’s acutely attentive, damn-it-all-let’s-go-for-it adaptation of Queneau had actually beaten Lester to the punch, at least in terms of what was possible in a feature-length film. Lester’s seminal comic short THE RUNNING JUMPING & STANDING STILL FILM was first shown in 1959, proving that the germ of this kind of manic, vignettish filmmaking was already alive in him, but even so, I think there’s no question that ZAZIE was a huge influence on Lester’s work, especially HELP! (1965). And now that I have seen it for myself, I believe Lester admitted as much himself when he put Leo McKern in a polar bear suit.
ZAZIE too runs, jumps, and stands still. It also accelerates, grinds down to floaty slow-motion during chases through the rues and rooftops of Paris, has people jumping safely to the ground from upstairs windows, hanging off the Eiffel Tower, declaring their love to strangers, throwing bombs, and plump star Philippe Noiret gets to repel the romantic attentions of a bevy of sexy German tourists called the Five Gretchens. The giddy eye at the center of this far giddier hurricane is the foul-mouthed gamine Zazie, played by Catherine Demongeot in the first of only a few film roles. She’s wonderful, a kind of female counterpart to THE 400 BLOWS’ Antoine Doinel (indeed the film could have been called THE 400 BLOWS OUT YOUR ARSE and fit perfectly into Zazie’s sassy vocabulary), and Demongeot reprised her already iconic role a year later in Godard’s UNE FEMME EST UNE FEMME (1961). I’m told that ZAZIE played in French theaters without interruption for something like two years. But the novel was a best-seller there too, which is hard to imagine in this country, where our most revered authors are Jackie Collins, Dr. Phil, and Rachael Ray.
Philippe Noiret shows la petite Catherine Demongeot around Paris in ZAZIE DANS LE MÉTRO.
From what I can remember of Queneau’s novel, I must say that Malle did a fantastic, imaginative job of adapting the unadaptable. It ranks, although in stark contrast, with LACOMBE LUCIEN as perhaps his finest work. His methods of adaptation are worth examining. For example, in the novel, the character of Zazie’s aunt is named Marceline (for some reason, she’s Albertine in the movie and played by former model Carla Marlier) and all that we’re told about this wraith-like female is that she’s delicate. “Marceline cleaned the table delicately”, “Marceline took her seat delicately”, “asked Marceline delicately” and so forth. In Queneau’s inspired hands, this simple device piles up deliriously till the Coca-Cola you’re drinking rushes out your nose. But such a literary device was unavailable to Malle per se, so instead he had Marlier play Albertine as a kind of living mannequin, a notion that reaches its peak as she climbs onto a motorcycle and whirrs around at a ridiculous speed through the streets of Paris on a rescue mission, her wide eyes expression unchanging and unblinking as she careens through the metropolis, taking the full brunt of the coming wind. Marlier is ideally cast here, in her first film role, and the VW crowd will be interested to learn that she also later appeared in SPIRITS OF THE DEAD [HISTOIRES EXTRAORDINAIRES, 1968], though in Roger Vadim’s “Metzengerstein” rather than Malle’s “William Wilson” episode.
Before seeing ZAZIE, I was under the mistaken impression that the Beatles films had truly launched the spirit of the Sixties in filmmaking, as most people are. But now I have no doubt that ZAZIE was closer to, and may have been, the actual point of ignition. (A good argument, say I, for remaking it – instead of something like DAY OF THE DEAD.) To think that the real instigator behind all the Beatle and Monkee romps, the anarchic glee, the nose-thumbing between the generations, the sheer dizzying no-holds-barred possibilities of Sixties cinema was a bookish Frenchman born in 1903! Incroyable! Suffice to say that the brilliant ZAZIE DANS LE MÉTRO should be regarded as an essential chapter in anyone’s moviegoing education, especially if they are interested in the story of how the cinema got from, oh, CARNIVAL ROCK to HEAD.
For all my fellow centenary fans: Today would have been the 100th birthday of 1933’s world heavyweight boxing champion Primo Carnera, whose films include the Mussolini-era fantasy classic THE IRON CROWN [LA CORONA DI FERRO, 1941], MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949, in which he’s one of the strongmen pitting his muscle against that of the title character in a nightclub act), and HERCULES UNCHAINED [ERCOLE E LA REGINA DI LIDIA, 1958], in which he played the lusty earth god Antaeus and challenged Steve Reeves in a memorable scene.
On a closing note, I’m happy to report that VW’s own Richard Harland Smith has joined the blogging crew over at the Turner Classic Movies subsidiary page MovieMorlocks.com. In his short time there, he’s already knocked out some knock-out postings – one about the relationship between the heroines of PSYCHO and CARNIVAL OF SOULS, and another about his own relationship with an older sister who helped encourage his lifelong love of movies. Once you read these, I’m sure you’ll add MovieMorlocks.com to your list of blog favorites.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
We've been inundated with calls this past week from subscribers who read on this blog last week that our new issue was sent out on October 10th and are worried that they still haven't received theirs. Rest easy, folks: I was mistaken about the date of our big mailing. The only copies mailed out on the 10th went to our contributors; the subscriber and distributor orders didn't go out until October 12. Suffice to say, the issue left our hands about two weeks later in the month than it usually does. We've heard from some First Class subscribers who have received it, but that doesn't mean all First Class subscribers should have it in hand right now. And Bulk Mail subscriptions take even longer to receive, naturally. So I apologize for the misinformation. Please be patient, and please do us the favor of spreading the word if you know other subscribers who don't have access to this blog/announcement.
On a related note about VW 127, I received a very nice call today from Del Tenney, thanking me for my article "Del Tenney - Auteur of Party Beach" in the new issue. A gracious man, he told me that he agreed with everything I wrote and promised to send me, as a gift, copies of CLEAN AND NARROW (1999) and DO YOU WANT TO KNOW A SECRET? (2001), the two films he executive produced which (because he didn't direct them) weren't covered in the scope of my article. I get the feeling that Del's taken a rough ride over the years, because he interrupted my reprised compliments on his work to apologize for how low budget it was... but one of the points raised by my article was that the quality of his work seemed to falter when he had to work with a larger, union crew on the movie that became I EAT YOUR SKIN. Tenney's work came alive on a low budget, and he should be prouder of what he accomplished. Anyway, all the more reason for me to have written this article, and I hope he takes heart from it. He told me that he has a new "J-Horror-type" film called POD now in pre-production, as well as a book written with his partner Kermit Christman, so the world has not heard the last of Del Tenney.
In another WatchBlog news, VW's own Douglas E. Winter is among the interviewees on tonight's History Channel special THE FEAR FILE: ZOMBIES, which airs tonight at 8:00 pm eastern. Doug tells us that he was interviewed in a graveyard on a 100+ degree day and has no idea how the end product turned out, or how well he'll be represented, because there were many other interviewees, but we're tuning in for sure. If you can't watch or TiVo the broadcast this evening, the show will be repeated on Wednesday, October 25 at 12:00 AM - Sunday, October 29 at 11:00 PM -- and on Monday, October 30 at 3:00 AM.
And finally, pursuant to last week's "The House is the Monster" posting, David Del Valle has sent us a link to the Drkrm. Gallery's "Nevermore" webpage, where you'll find a link to photos taken at Saturday night's opening festivities. Barbara Steele, Curtis Harrington, VW's Sam Umland and Richard Harland Smith, and Roger Corman himself were in attendance. Maybe you were there too? Also check out the link to some "Nevermore" memorabilia from the better slopes of the vineyard, including a coffee cup from which Richard Harland Smith himself has been quaffing his morning java of late.
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."