Saturday, October 07, 2006


Ajita Wilson as Tara, Princess of Darkness, in Jess Franco's MACUMBA SEXUAL.

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.

Tara demonstrates to Alice's husband ("Robert Foster" aka Antonio Mayans) why he should not have come in answer to her siren's call.

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.

Strike, Tio Jess, and Cure Our Hearts

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.

MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD has a street date of October 31, at which time Severin Films will also release Franco's rather more serious erotic voodoo film MACUMBA SEXUAL, starring Ajita Wilson.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Cardboard Sets

Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston) stands guard over Mina (Helen Chandler) in Tod Browning's DRACULA. Pay no attention to that huge chunk of trash blocking our view of the lamp.

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

Perry Mason? Allow Me To Refresh Your Memory

Raymond Burr is Perry Mason, and you'd better believe it.

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

Mad About Ladislas

The amazing animated films of Ladislas Starewitch (also sometimes spelled Starevich, Starewich, or Starewicz, perhaps other ways too) are among my favorite later-life discoveries. Like many Americans of my generation, I was first exposed to his work by the late-lamented USA Network program NIGHT FLIGHT, which frequently showed longer or shorter excerpts from his charming yet macabre masterpiece "The Mascot" (1933), which somehow became known among those of us who saw this unlabelled fragment as "The Devil's Ball."

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 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 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

RIP: Renato Polselli & Armando Govoni

Walter Brandi has María Luisa Rolando well in hand in THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA.
Yesterday, a thread on the Anchor Bay UK discussion boards reported the passing of Italian horror and sexploitation director Renato Polselli at the age of 84. Born in Arce, Italy in 1922, Polselli died of natural causes on October 1 -- only two weeks after the death of actor Mickey Hargitay, who starred in some of his best-known films.

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).
Ernesto Gastaldi tells Video WatchBlog: "How weird is it that I have to learn that Polselli died from... Cincinnati!? The last time I met Polselli was 15 years ago. We met by chance. We talked for half an hour remembering the old happy times: L'AMANTE DEL VAMPIRO had a very funny troupe and a lot of problems that created hundreds of incredible gags." Some of these anecdotes are told in Ernesto's 1991 book VOGLIO ENTRARE NEL CINEMA, which he recently reprinted through under its original title, COME ENTRARE NEL CINEMA E RESTARCI FINO ALLA FINE (which means "How To Break Into the Movies and Stay There Till the End"). In Italian only, unfortunately.

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.
Ernesto Gastaldi, in turn, has informed me of the death of Italian production manager Armando Govoni at the age of 79, on September 17. Armando had a far more accomplished career than his few credits on the IMDb make known. When I interviewed him for the Bava book, he told me that Bava's SEI DONNE PER L'ASSASSINO [aka BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, 1964] was his first film as a full-fledged production manager, and though it was his final job with Bava, many other such credits followed. As the IMDb page shows, Armando was present for the filming of much of Bava's early work, including LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO and my chapters on those films owe a lot to his diary keeping, which kept strict account of production dates. I deeply regret that he won't be here to see the finished book, which would be much poorer without his unique contribution of data and insights.
Armando also played an important role in the life of Ernesto Gastaldi: "He was one of my best friends. I met him in 1955 at Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, then I shared an apartment with him for two years before my marriage. We worked together many times and we had the same passion for sailing." It was through an invitation from Armando that Ernesto was able to visit the set of LA BATTAGLIA DI MARATONA [aka THE GIANT OF MARATHON, 1959], where he first met Mario Bava and watched him transform a field occupied by perhaps 30 extras into a teeming battlefield of hundreds, via careful multiple exposures.
With the passing of these two men, those of us who adore the Italian cinema mourn not only them but the loss of everything they knew, but were never asked, about their careers, their colleagues, and their craft.
PS: A new update was added to the Bava Book blog earlier today.

The Dozen Year Itch

Fans of documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee's work are sure to remember the astonishing moment in BRIGHT LEAVES when he pays a visit to never-met cousin John McElwee, who turns out to be even more film-obsessed than himself. Particularly interesting is the moment when John produces his file on stills and memorabilia on Edgar G. Ulmer's THE BLACK CAT and produces a hand-written reply from actress Jacqueline Wells (aka Julie Bishop) to a fan letter he wrote to her twelve years earlier. In this recent entry on his essential blog Greenbriar Picture Shows, John pays tribute to Jacqueline/Julie by selecting her as his weekly Monday glamour girl, and takes the opportunity to reproduce her entire letter in full. Fascinating stuff.

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.

Feedback on DEXTER

In response to yesterday's DEXTER blog comes this interesting letter from a friendly correspondent, who works in the film business and wishes to remain anonymous:

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

Miami Lice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Essential Sunday Reading

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

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

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

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