Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Criterion's forthcoming box set of PANDORA'S BOX (which streets November 28) arrived in my mailbox yesterday and it's one of their most attractively packaged sets. I may find time to watch the movie later today in her honor but, before going to bed tonight, I made a point of revisiting the TCM documentary LOUISE BROOKS: LOOKING FOR LULU, which is one of the items on the supplementary second disc. It's a candid, balanced, and wonderful piece of work that makes me want very much to see her final European film, PRIX DE BEAUTÉ (available on DVD from Kino on Video). Near the end of the program, someone remembers that Miss Brooks was of the opinion that her success had been an ingeniously disguised form of failure, and I find this dichotomy compelling. Certainly, by all accounts, she knew failure, hard times, loneliness, despair, and the bottom of a gin bottle... but she redeemed her misspent middle years by writing about her years before the fall and collecting her memoirs in a book called LULU IN HOLLYWOOD. By recapturing those years in words of hard-won wisdom, wit, and elegantly crafted expression, she found that she hadn't really lost anything. In writing about the girl who was Lulu, she also gave the ghostly flickering image of herself greater substance -- evidence, if you will, that not everything people responded to in her ever contemporary image was a deluded projection of their own desires. Had Garbo ever picked up a pen, we would have surely been disappointed.
Find and read a copy of LULU IN HOLLYWOOD if you haven't, and meet Louise Brooks. A more immediate way of accomplishing this is by reading Kenneth Tynan's famous profile of the actress, written for THE NEW YORKER in 1979, which is available online here.
Sunday, November 12, 2006
It was after O LUCKY MAN! that I got around to some of her earlier performances: the popcorn-dropping moment in Ken Russell's SAVAGE MESSIAH (1972) when she walks down a palatial flight of stairs resplendently nude in heels, and Michael Powell's final feature AGE OF CONSENT (1969) in which she again (to quote Powell himself) "stripped off magnificently." I don't mean to focus exclusively on Ms. Mirren's physical disclosures, but they need mentioning in any attempt to explain the full shock of her early screen appearances. Not only was she arguably the most ravishing creature of her era, but she gave altogether extraordinary performances in movies that reflected unusual intelligence and discernment in their selection... and then, when the credits rolled, came the triple whammy of seeing that this voluptuous firebrand had appeared in these movies by arrangement with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The years have passed remarkably for her, encompassing Tinto Brass' notorious CALIGULA (1979, which reteamed her with McDowell), THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (1979, now available in a deluxe edition from Anchor Bay including an excellent making-of featurette interviewing all the principles, including Mirren), EXCALIBUR (1981), 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT (1984), and Peter Greenaway's THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER (1989). In 1991, she accepted the lead role of District Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in a British TV movie called PRIME SUSPECT, which unexpectedly became one of the key roles of her distinguished career. She would reprise the role another half dozen times in the following 15 years, and her seventh (and reportedly final) performance in the role -- in PRIME SUSPECT: THE FINAL ACT -- airs tonight (and wraps up next week) on PBS' MASTERPIECE THEATER at 9:00pm.
Having matured into what Sean Burns has aptly termed "a foxy old bird," Mirren gives a performance in this two-parter that is one of her most unflinching and deeply felt, and it appears in the wake of her extraordinary work in the unrelated but serendipitous royal diptych of Tom Hooper's ELIZABETH I (aired on HBO) and Stephen Frears' THE QUEEN (2005, now in US theatrical release), making this a moment in her career that she's unlikely to top -- but perhaps that's more to do with my limitations of imagination than hers. On the basis of these three performances, we might as well declare this her year -- the former British ambassadrix of dramatic audacity and risqué risk-taking somehow reaching the pinnacle of her career by playing three of the most painfully zipped-up women you're likely to find fascinating.
The new PRIME SUSPECT reintroduces Jane Tennison at a difficult time: one month away from retirement and the pensioned life, she's taken to the bottle for companionship in her middle age, and at the point where she can no longer hide the fact from her co-workers (and ever her suspects) that she's become a blackout-prone alcoholic. Her job under threat, her career in the balance, her emotions shrieking but utterly sublimated, her only path to redemption is by solving one last case: the disappearance of 14 year-old girl Sallie Sturdy (Maxine Barton), which escalates to murder when she is found dead... and pregnant. The often harrowing investigation becomes unusually personal as DCI Tennison befriends one of Sallie's friends (Penny Philips, very well played by young Laura Greenwood) and possibly betrays that trust while under the influence. Making a tentative visit to an Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, she also encounters her former adversary Bill Otley (a fragile-looking Tom Bell in his final role), who -- in a poignant turnabout for their relationship -- helps to see her through the devastating news that her father (Frank Finlay) has been diagonosed with a very quick and inoperable cancer.
Helen Mirren befriends troubled teen Laura Greenwood in PRIME SUSPECT: THE FINAL ACT, airing tonight on PBS.
The first PRIME SUSPECT involvement by both director Phillip Martin and screenwriter Frank Deasy, THE FINAL ACT is not the series' most intense or surprising episode, but it is certainly its most poignant and dramatically complex, and perhaps its most deeply satisfying. Not only is it the most captivating dramatic television I've seen all year -- it eclipses ELIZABETH I in that respect -- but its strong performances (special kudos to Gary Lewis and Katy Murphy as the dead girl's parents), involving direction, and sensitive writing place it at equal standing with the best theatrical features I've seen this year; I'll be including it tandem with the more subtly remarkable THE QUEEN (to which it allies itself with the instantaneously classic line "Don't call me 'Ma'am,' I'm not the bloody queen") on my year's best list. The first part includes a terrific action scene, a chase down the side of a multi-story apartment building, and next Sunday's conclusion includes a startling compression of narrative action into a staccato howl of despair that trusts us to fill in the details. One gets the feeling it came about with the director and editor (Trevor Waite) having their backs in the corner, time-wise, but they fought their way out of that corner brilliantly.
How well PRIME SUSPECT: THE FINAL ACT will adapt to PBS standards remains to be seen. In its original UK broadcast version, the show contained some very strong language that many PBS affiliates may not want to risk, lest they get slapped with heavy FCC fines. (Isn't that an ironic acronym for a company that forbids obscene language?) I recommend you watch it anyway, and fill in the FCC-ing blanks at your own discretion.
Not all great series have the benefit of a great ending, but PRIME SUSPECT has given one of contemporary detective drama's great heroines an impressive farewell. Such is the quality of Helen Mirren's valedictory performance in the role that one doesn't feel the least bit disappointed that this is the end of Jane Tennison's story.
Because it's been a good story well and fully told, and because Helen Mirren's own story is fabulously ongoing.
Saturday, November 11, 2006
Only one man could have produced such a pronouncement. Only one man could have scooped out such an insight. The late Theodore Gottlieb, better known to man and beast as "Brother Theodore." Click on that appropriately illuminated cognomen for the whole story, courtesy of the quadrupedians at Wikipedia.
Every day of my life, ladies and gentlemen, I celebrate the wisdom, humor, and wonderment of Brother Theodore. In the nightmare of the dark, I walk with him in my thoughts as Enoch walked with his God. But then... all of a suddenly... like a bolt from the blue... it comes to my attention that he was born 100 years ago today! I ask you, people at your peepholes, how is this possible? I spoke to this man on the phone! He's mouldering in his grave! How could he be 100 years old? As he said himself, in a prophecy of this moment in the trailer for HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS, It's incredible! It's unbeLIEvable!
Theodore isn't with us to partake in our celebration of his cerebrated gloom but, as he would be the first to tell you, take heart -- as long as there is death, there is hope.
Wherever you are, Theodore, hear your voice blasting from my stereo... hear my typing thundering down the broadband... hear the thousands of people turning away from their cyberporn to ask "Brother Who?"... and know that nothing here on Earth has changed, but that you are still admired, loved, and remembered.
You can click here for a special rant from Theodore, filmed late in his life, in the bloom of his youth.
Donna's paternal grandmother, whom we called Grandma Sweetie Pie, was also born 100 years ago today -- which has nothing to do with Theodore, of course, but this strikes me as one of life's sweet coinkydinks.
Friday, November 10, 2006
Palance was what the French like to call "a sacred beast" -- a category that also claimed the likes of Klaus Kinski and Oliver Reed. When I read of his death earlier today, fron natural causes at age 87 -- mere weeks after many of his personal possessions were auctioned at his farm in Hazelton, Pennsylvania -- my first thought was of my friend, the French journalist/archivist Lucas Balbo, who once devoted an issue of his fan magazine NOSTALGIA to the actor. To Lucas, the actor's name was always to be spoken like an incantation, an audacious summoning of magic: "Zzzzhack PAL-ANCE!" Lucas spent some time visiting Donna and me back in 1989, as VIDEO WATCHDOG magazine was in its pre-production stages, and, ever since then, Donna and I have never thought of Jack Palance or spoken his name in quite the same way. We say it like someone says "And there you have it!" Et voila! The way a tightrope walker says "I made it" after crossing Niagara Falls. The way someone says "I have survived." Lucas taught us that to speak the name of Jack Palance aloud was to exclaim "Boredom BEGONE!"
To me, Palance was always one of the top tier movie grotesques, and I use that term with great respect and affection. I loved his panting delivery, his hardy yet feline quality, the way dialogue burbled from his lips like wine expressed from swollen grapes, his peculiar pronunciations (the way he said "Beelly the Kid" when name-checking history's greatest desperadoes in a Time/Life LEGENDS OF THE OLD WEST book commercial), his poetical stance, his divine eccentricities. He could take bland crap like RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOT and make it compelling with his completely unpredictable reading of whatever was written on his cue cards. As another writer once said of Jean-Pierre Léaud, he was one of those rare actors who could say nothing more than "Good morning" and transport you to a magical place -- amusing, surreal, or scary, whatever the script demanded. Palance could say "Good morning" the way Christopher Jones said "Give me the power!" in WILD IN THE STREETS... and if he didn't quite get away with it all the time, you at least had to admire the attempt.
His performances could be all over the map, from brilliant to barking mad, but he gave of himself to the screen generously, exuberantly, wildly -- the way Jackson Pollack gave paint to his canvases. "Walter Jack Palance" in PANIC IN THE STREETS. Jack the Ripper in MAN IN THE ATTIC. The bad guy in SHANE. The tortured actors in SUDDEN FEAR and THE BIG KNIFE. "Mountain" McClintock in REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT. Simon in THE SILVER CHALICE, believing he could fly. The sleek warrior in THE MONGOLS. The demented producer Jeremiah Prokosh in CONTEMPT, my favorite of all films. The man who collected Poe in TORTURE GARDEN. The completely frigging off-the-rails priest in MARQUIS DE SADE'S JUSTINE. My favorite of the screen's many Mr. Hydes. (Makeup artist Dick Smith once told me that Hyde's satyr-like likeness was based on a figure that he and his wife found while vacationing in Egypt, and that Palance's own facial features were so flat that he had to build up the forehead and cheekbones artificially. He also told me that when Palance suffered a bad fall and was briefly hospitalized during production, he visited and got a glimpse of the actor's bare torso -- a miasma of scars dating back to earlier stunts, air and automobile crashes, and his days in the boxing ring.) Fidel Castro in CHE!. A miscast DRACULA. The pot-smoking baddie in COMPANEROS. The African deity-worshipping antiques dealer of CRAZE. MISTER SCARFACE. BRONK. The bohemian Hollywood exile Rudi in BAGDAD CAFE. And he played Curly twice, once in THE MERCENARY and again in CITY SLICKERS (not the same Curly, of course... at least I don't think so) -- the latter of which brought him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and international headlines when he celebrated his victory with a set on one-handed push-ups. Believe it... or not.
So as we remember Jack Palance and discuss his legacy, remember how to say his name. The way he approached every role: with panache. Make that PANache, accent on the first syllable.
And merci beaucoup, Lucas, for teaching me this.
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Thanks to the past efforts of Image Entertainment, VCI Home Entertainment, and Anchor Bay Entertainment, most Mario Bava films have been released at least once on DVD. But, of all his directorial works, one has always been conspicuous in its absence: ERIK THE CONQUEROR [GLI INVASORI, 1961].
Next week, in Germany, Colosseo Film will correct that oversight with the release of DIE RACHE DER WIKINGER, an eye-popping presentation of Bava's third directorial effort in all its original Technicolor and anamorphic Dyaliscope splendor. It's the first time this important title has been available for public viewing in its original ratio since the early 1960s, and for those of us who import this Region 2 PAL disc (which does include an English audio track, as well as German and Italian ones) to America, it will be the first time the complete version has ever been available for viewing in its original scope ratio. The title, which also includes the original German trailer in scope, is available now as a pre-order from Amazon.de and I assume it will be available domestically through Xploited Cinema in the coming weeks.
The box art for DIE RACHE DER WIKINGER subtitles the film ERIK THE CONQUEROR for clarity, but this is actually as misleading as it was for Image Entertainment to call THE MASK OF SATAN (the original English language export print of LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO) "BLACK SUNDAY." ERIK THE CONQUEROR was a re-edited and partly rescored reduction of GLI INVASORI's original English export print, which was called "THE INVADERS." That original version saw a surprise VHS release in the 1980s from Panther Entertainment as THE INVADERS; it was a cropped, pan&scanned transfer, but it ran about 10 minutes longer than the AIP cut and revolutionized one's perception of the film Bava had actually made. It is this longer original export version that is included on the DVD, needless to say.
In all fairness, the AIP reduction had one thing going for it: it got rid of the film's painfully static opening, which forces the viewer to consider a crudely drawn map as a narrator gives us a lot of long-winded historic background not entirely essential to the story. The story, to be brief about it, is a bare-faced remake of Richard Fleischer's THE VIKINGS (1958), with Cameron Mitchell starring in his first Bava film in the Kirk Douglas part and Giorgio Ardisson (Theseus in HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD) in the Tony Curtis role. The two sons of the Viking king are separated on a battlefield in the wake of a failed seaside attack on England, in which the kings of the two countries die -- the Viking king in battle, the English king through the ambition of his evil underling, Sir Rudfort (BLACK SUNDAY's Andrea Checchi). The younger of the Viking sons is found by the Queen of England, who raises him as her own son, poising him for unwitting conflict with his longlost brother when he reaches maturity. Their relationship is foreshadowed by the love they share for twin vestal virgins, played by the leggy German song-and-dance act, The Kessler Twins (Alice & Ellen Kessler).
You want frame grabs? Here, have some frame grabs:
I'm sorry these can't be click-enlarged; I had to downsize the images by 50% to fit them onto this page. Trust me, they look many times more ravishing on a big screen.
It's generally known that Anchor Bay Entertainment have secured ERIK THE CONQUEROR for release in America next year, but their release isn't expected to include this German import's ace-in-the-hole: a new 50-minute documentary called MARIO BAVA ENTHÜLLT DIE MAGIE SEINER WERKE ("Mario Bava Explains the Magic of His Works"), which is subtitled simply as "Mario Bava Speaks." Directed by Patrick O'Brien, the program is hosted by Luigi Cozzi, who occupies his behind-the-counter position at Rome's Profondo Rosso store and peruses a well-thumbed copy of Troy Howarth's THE HAUNTED WORLD OF MARIO BAVA (for which he wrote the Foreword) while reminiscing about his own relationship as fan, friend, and collague of Bava. The value of this documentary comes from its many (subtitled) excerpts from Bava's only known television interviews, both broadcast on RAI-TV: one was recorded in 1970 as a talking head snippet for a program about horror cinema in general, and the other was a guest appearance with Carlo Rambaldi on a full hour talk show called L'OSPITE DALLE DUE ("The Guests at 2:00") that aired in July 1974, shortly after Bava's abandonment of THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM and one month before shooting commenced on his next production, RABID DOGS. Neither of these interviews are shown in their entirety, but they are generously excerpted and make this disc an essential purchase for Bava fans.
Speaking for myself, I have had these interviews on VHS for many years, as well as a translated transcript, but to see Bava speak in this archival footage -- in perfect quality, with English subtitles keeping the meaning of his words apace with his inflections and facial expressions -- made this material live for me as it never has before. Bava has been at the core of my creative life for many, many years, but watching this footage made me feel as though I was meeting Mario Bava for the first time, or coming as close to that pleasure as I ever will. O'Brien has cleverly upgraded the latter interview, with its many film clips, so that the original B&W footage segues into full color, widescreen clips as the soundtrack remains constant. Here Bava discusses the craft, the secrets, even the "madness" of special effects, and a sizeable sequence from his "Polyphemus" episode of THE ODYSSEY is also included, in full color, with English subtitles. (This superb miniseries, which is out in Italy on DVD without subtitles, represents the finest of Bava's special effects work yet it remains unavailable here in America.) We are also shown the exterior of one of Bava's former homes, his townhouse on Rome's Via di Rispetta (near the Spanish Steps he immortalized as a giallo mecca in THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH aka EVIL EYE), and Barbara Steele and GLI INVASORI supporting player Enzo Doria (Sir Bennett) are also interviewed.
Colosseo Film's DVD is a very exciting addition to the Bava shelf, and ample proof that there's nothing quite as exciting as being shown new dimensions of a film or a subject you thought you knew well. DIE RACHE DER WIKINGER peels decades of obfuscation away from a neglected picture that now stands fully revealed as one of the most dazzling visual works of one of the most visual of all film directors.
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
Some background: In late 2004, the Miramax/Live Planet-sponsored series PROJECT GREENLIGHT limped back to air after two failed attempts to produce a film more interesting than the preliminary documentation of their hapless, behind-the-scenes frig-ups. Rumors were rife that producers Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Chris Moore had deliberately fudged their choices of material in order to produce more interesting reality television, and the comedy-of-errors results made it hard to refute such word-of-mouth. For people interested in the business, it was fairly addictive viewing because it confirmed all our worst fears about the business, plucking sensitive, creative writers like Erica Beeney and Pete Jones out of midwestern obscurity and placing all their hopes and dreams in the hands of established film people whose arrogance and inattention doomed their contest-winning scripts to become something conspicuously more half-assed than they ever were on the printed page.
In reviewing the first two seasons, I noticed Affleck, Damon and Moore's tendency to look past the most intense, visionary finalists (the ones who might be problems when push inevitably came to shove) and scoped out either the meekest people on the bench (the ones who would make them look good) or the biggest "characters" (the ones who would make the show look good). The first two PG films, STOLEN SUMMER (2002) and THE BATTLE OF SHAKER HEIGHTS (2003), predictably flopped and Showtime dropped their support of the series. The show managed to return the following fall on Bravo, but in emasculated form, subjected to tension-dissolving commercial interruptions and entertainment-dissolving censored language. Once again, predictably, Affleck, Damon and Moore gravitated toward what was -- by common consensus -- the worst of the finalist scripts (a gore fest by Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton that new co-producer Wes Craven himself called a piece of crap) and handed it over to the least assertive of the director finalists -- John Gulager, a timid couch potato in his late forties who could barely speak at his own pitch meeting.
But this time, the producers' selection bit them in the ass.
The son of maverick actor Clu Gulager (the guy who effectively stole most of Lee Marvin's scenes in THE KILLERS), John Gulager turned out to be a "run silent, run deep" type, and something of a West coast Cassavetes, interested only in making films with his own friends and family. Consequently, much of the third season of PROJECT GREENLIGHT turned out to be a protracted stand-off between the producers, a friend-favoring casting director in sore need of firing, and Gulager, who reasonably fought for his right to the prize he had won: the opportunity to direct his film his way. He didn't get it, but he made the most of it. As the film went into production, with everyone still panicking about Gulager's ability and stubbornness, the dailies proved surprisingly encouraging. Suddenly, the movie was turning out much better than expected... and just as things were getting exciting, Bravo pulled the plug. We were left with a greatly compressed account of production that rushed the process toward preview screenings, and then a whole year went by without much news of what had happened to FEAST.
FEAST had the misfortune to be a Miramax release at the time the Weinstein brothers were separating from the company, and they took it with them when they left. This meant that the film bore the misfortune of a protracted stay on the shelf until the Weinsteins formed a new distribution set-up with Dimension Films, but it also benefitted from Harvey Weinstein's liking of what he saw, which resulted in reshoots, a more leisurely and perfectionistic editing schedule, and additional budget allocations above and beyond the bare-bones $1,000,000 budget that came with winning the contest. (The IMDb lists its final budget at $3,200,000. Even so, as the end credits roll and roll and roll and roll on, you've got to figure that most of these people were working either for credit or for peanuts.) And now -- a full year after its initial screenings at the Chicago International Film Festival and International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival -- FEAST has been rewarded for its extraordinary patience by being sent straight to DVD, in the wake of a few Midnight Movie playdates that kept the contractual promise of some kind of theatrical release.
So how is FEAST? I was pleasantly surprised. The movie is an unashamedly reductive, two-dimensional affair, more video game than narrative, stocked with caricatures rather than characters -- everybody is introduced with the equivalent of a score card that estimates their chances of survival. We get no explanations, no warnings, no quarter, and very little down time as everyone gets spritzed or sprayed or splashed with monster blood, drool, bile, slime, or semen. The monsters eat people, get their genitals stuck in slammed doors, hump hunting trophies and each other. What makes this 87-minute onslaught endurable is its humor (thanks to Dustan and Melton and a game cast) and wildly propulsive energy (thanks to Gulager, editor Kirk Morri, and cameraman Tom Callaway -- check out his filmography -- whose unrelenting use of shutter effects is like watching a whole feature with a finger stuck in an electrical outlet). Though everyone is playing a stereotype of some sort (Jason Mewes plays himself, and still suffers a messy fate), the performances are fairly vivid.
Watching FEAST, I was reminded of a few other feature debuts: Michael Reeves' THE SHE BEAST (1965, which in its day had a similarly raw, savage quality and outré sense of humor), Sam Raimi's THE EVIL DEAD (1981, which -- along with NEAR DARK -- is the film's most overt visual influence), and Peter Jackson's BAD TASTE (1987, for the way it also used extreme gore to hilarious ends). The later careers enjoyed by these three men should give us some indication of what we could be missing if John Gulager isn't given more opportunities to direct. So far, since completing FEAST, he has edited Sage Stallone's highly lauded film short VIC and he's acted in Frank A. Cappello's forthcoming HE WAS A QUIET MAN. He should be turned loose as a director on a project that he really cares about.
Dimension's anamorphic 2.40 DVD offers a handsome calling card for Gulager's talents. There's a highly directional, extremely busy 5.1 Dolby track and an audio commentary by the filmmakers, along with production featurettes, deleted scenes and outtakes. Unfortunately, Season 3 of PROJECT GREENLIGHT (which I'd love to see in uncensored form someday) remains a no-show on DVD.
PS: I watched FEAST last night because today, November 7th, is Donna's birthday and our post-midnight movie viewing was her choice. She doesn't really care for horror movies, and for gore movies even less, but she was caught up with me in Season 3 of PROJECT GREENLIGHT and has been asking me what's going on with FEAST for the past year or so. She was eager to see it, and I'm pleased to say that she enjoyed it as much as I did; we both laughed a lot. I can't impress upon the people responsible for FEAST how rare Donna's praise is, especially in this category, and I congratulate them.
Monday, November 06, 2006
My review of Michael Apted's 49 UP (First Run Features), published in the November issue of SIGHT & SOUND, can now also be accessed freely on the magazine's website here. In today's mail, I received my advance copy of S&S's December issue, in which I review Jerzy Stuhr's THE BIG ANIMAL (Milestone Films), a magic realist story based on an unfilmed script by Krzysztof Kieslowski -- a review that will be made available on the S&S website next month. But, for me, the most interesting material in the new issue pertains to Guillermo del Toro's PAN'S LABYRINTH -- an engrossing interview with the writer-producer-director by Mark Kermode (in which he admits to refunding his entire director's fee in order to see the film realized the way he wanted it), and a very insightful review of the film by José Arroyo.
In brief, PAN'S LABYRINTH is set in 1944 Spain, where a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) follows her pregnant mother, the widow of a tailor, to join her new stepfather, a ruthless General in Franco's Civil Guard named Vidal (Sergi López). Aware of his cruelties and refusing her mother's desperate wish that she call Vidal "father," Ofelia closes out the threatening quality of the real world by immersing herself in fairy tale books and going for long walks in an ancient adjoining wooded labyrinth. There, she enters into a no-less-volatile fantasy world in which a darkly beguiling humanoid faun (not actually Pan, despite the English title) assigns her a series of fantastic tests to prove her real identity as Princess Moanna, the daughter of the Moon. Meanwhile, a group of resistance fighters camp in the woods surrounding Vidal's homebase, gathering the strength and awaiting the right moment to overthrow him.
"It's as if the dreaminess of Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was transported with Alice in Wonderland, only to erupt back into the real world as Goya-esque nightmares," Arroyo writes, nailing a heady and complex achievement that is, at the very least, del Toro's masterpiece. PAN'S LABYRINTH is a rare fantasy film in that it deals with childhood and enchantment without any of the cloying, trivializing sweetness that has infected the genre since Spielberg and Lucas entered the scene. It is also a virtually unique work of fantasy in that it understands, and communicates the understanding, that fantasy should exist to nurture and fortify us in trying times; that to flee into escapist fantasy is irresponsible, a shade of selfishness and surrender. It also has the courage to be a tragedy, and reminds us that tragedy can be an uplifting form of storytelling as long as the characters' dreams and wishes are fulfilled.
What I also find heartening and enjoyable about the film is the way its very original story, setting, and cast of characters echo, as they adhere to, the whole rich tradition of Spanish and Mexican fantasy cinema, including certain works of Luís Buñuel (LOS OLVIDADOS, EL BRUTO), Victor Erice (THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE), Jess Franco (TENEMOS 18 ANOS), Alejandro Jodorowsky (SANTA SANGRE), and even Paul Naschy (HOWL OF THE DEVIL), as well as del Toro's own most personal previous films (CRONOS, THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE). PAN'S LABYRINTH can be read as the third film in a del Toro trilogy about childhood and fantasy, but I suspect these themes are too close to him to be relinquished from his future projects.
Don't steal this monster's grapes. He doesn't like it.
As José Arroyo points out, PAN'S LABYRINTH is very much a CGI/special effects movie, yet it is the film's characters that stick in the memory; the uncanny warmth they communicate is what makes us feel the pain they suffer so deeply, as well. Maribel Verdú is especially good, I think, as the General's cook Mercedes, who serves as Ofelia's surrogate mother during her real mother's difficult pregnancy and smuggles food and weapons to the rebels camping in the wilderness. There is also something extraordinary about the vividness of the film's setting and its chosen place in history; this is not an era that del Toro himself lived through, of course, yet he shows an understanding of Spain's political and psychological past (comparable, I think, to what Bertollucci's THE CONFORMIST and 1900 depicted about Italy in a parallel timeframe) that makes certain American counterparts like MIDWAY and PEARL HARBOR look as preposterous and shallow as they are. The closest thing to PAN'S LABYRINTH in my experience is Wolfgang Petersen's THE NEVERENDING STORY, a film I found excruciating and a fantasy world I felt emotionally barred from entering; del Toro's fantasy world, on the other hand, however strange and volatile, is never alienating and seems to tremble around our young heroine like a bubble that might burst at any moment, letting all the horrors of her reality hemorrhage back in.
Already screened at many film festivals and previews, PAN'S LABYRINTH opens nationwide on December 29th. Trust me: Brave the weather and experience this one on the biggest screen you can find. It is the finest film to date by the most talented and visionary craftsman currently working in the genre, and it exists so completely outside contemporary trends and fashions, I have no doubt that it will age not only gracefully but brilliantly. You can look forward to its release by visiting its impressive website, which features many trailers, clips, critics' blurbs (count how many times the word "masterpiece" is invoked) and discussion forums.
Saturday, November 04, 2006
Season 2 began a week ago with Tobe Hooper's "The Damned Thing," Richard Christian Matheson's contemporary adaptation of a classic Ambrose Bierce story. Opening with a flashback in which black drippings from a ceiling contaminate a family man with the essence of evil and turn him violently against his loved ones, it becomes the story of the son who survived that event to become the sheriff of his small west Texas town (Sean Patrick Flanery), literally working to hold that inexplicable essence of evil at bay. In the finale, Flanery is attacked by a gigantic, anthropomorphic oil monster that makes one imagine the episode might have been more effectively titled "From Haliburton It Came." (Between this, the "black oil" episodes of THE X-FILES, and the smell of burning oil that accompanied the apparitions of BOB in TWIN PEAKS, a scholarly paper could surely be written about the meaning and increasing role of "Texas tea" in our 21st century horror fantasies.) While an improvement on Hooper's jittery, nihilistic-chic Season 1 episode "Dance of the Dead," "The Damned Thing" suffers from the same lack of directorial engagement. There are certainly thematic ties here to Hooper's best and earliest work, but he seems to have lost the knack to sink his teeth into them, much less chew them to get at their juice. The end result is like watching an earnest cast flail about a maddening sludge of vagueness that builds to an eruption of silliness.
Last night's follow-up, "Family," directed by John Landis and scripted by Brent Hanley (FRAILTY), was likewise an improvement on Landis' previous MOH offering "Deer Woman," arguably the worst episode of the first season. In this scenario, a youngish married couple (Meredith Monroe and Matt Keeslar), making a new start in the wake of their daughter's death from cancer, move into a house across the street from the rotund and reclusive Harold (George Wendt), and befriend him -- not knowing that it's his habit to abduct strangers, melt them down to skeletons in his cellar, dress them, and interact with them as members of an imaginary family.
Landis may have directed AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, but his bright and snappy, freshly-acted, self-amused style of direction stands at odds with the basic tenets of the genre. Consequently, though Hanley's script encompasses a good deal of dark territory and cleverly invites us into a subjective view of Harold's psychosis, the story unfolds in the parlance of comedy. This basically defuses much of the tensions inherent in the material, to the extent of making Harold's criminal habits seem no more than a mild eccentricity. The performances are very good and the episode makes some inspired use of contemporary gospel music, which serves as both counterpoint and thematic support while adding to the direction's overall buoyancy. Had the script actually gone somewhere unexpected or original, this one might have won me over, but it just missed.
It's hard to believe that these episodes are the best that Hooper and Landis could dream up, given creative carte blanche. The weak link may well have something to do with the manner by which the directors are selecting or being assigned their material; frankly, I suspect these episodes might have turned out at least marginally stronger had they swapped directors. Hooper has taken the genre to some of its most harrowing extremes with material not far removed from "Family" and would surely have tapped the horror at the bedrock of Hanley's script, and the needlessly murky "The Damned Thing" could only have benefitted from the alacrity of Landis' handling.
Last year, MASTERS OF HORROR debuted with Don Coscarelli's "Incident On and Off A Mountain Road," which wasn't one of my favorites but had appreciable qualities of script and performance. It was followed by Stuart Gordon's "Dreams in the Witch-House," which seemed to me a classic of TV horror and one of Gordon's best works. The series had some major highs and definite lows after that, but the clear escalation of quality in those first two episodes grabbed me and held on. This year, MASTERS OF HORROR's best opening punch has been to show two of Season 1's lesser contributors modestly outperforming their own meager initial showings. While this may technically represent an improvement, the new season is playing much weaker than last year, thus far. The Big Guns need to be brought on soon if MASTERS OF HORROR wants to hold onto its audience.
RECOMMENDED READING: Check out "Beyond Belief," Richard Harland Smith's blog on his late friend Adrienne Shelly, at MovieMorlocks.com. Just click the appropriate link to the right.
Friday, November 03, 2006
Tina Aumont died of unreported causes last Saturday, October 28. The daughter of Maria Montez and Jean-Pierre Aumont, she was one of the sultriest starlets of the 1960s and too young to die; only 60, though prematurely aged by many years of heroin addiction. A sign of her deterioration is that one of her last screen roles was as "The Ghoul" in Jean Rollin's THE TWO VAMPIRE ORPHANS. Daniel Emilfork was 82 and died on October 17 of natural causes. Tom Bell died at 73 after a period of ill health, and went out on a noble performance. (The PRIME SUSPECT film, broadcast in the UK only days after his October 4 death, is dedicated to his memory.) Adrienne Shelly is the shocker of the bunch. She was 40, had a loving husband, a three year old child, and her third directorial feature (WAITRESS) is awaiting release -- every reason you can imagine to live for, which makes her abrupt exit from the world stage all the more unimaginable and unacceptable.
Most of you, like me, didn't know these people personally, but we're saddened, disturbed, or rocked by the news of their deaths all the same. What all these passings have in common, of course, is a talent great enough to have spanned countrysides, even oceans, to touch our lives. Let's be grateful for that, and for them, and not allow the pain and weight of all this death to obscure the fact that we have been blessed to know these artists as part of their appreciative audience.
And let's make an effort to acknowledge reasons for joy where they can be found. Tom Savini, who would be worth noting if he had only acted in KNIGHTRIDERS, is 60 today. Would you believe that Jean Rollin and Pupi Avati were both born on exactly the same day, 68 years ago? Film composer John Barry is celebrating his 73rd. The wondrous Monica Vitti turns 75 today. Robert Quarry, Count Yorga himself, lives on at 81. And Karel Zeman, one of the great fantasy filmmakers/animators of the 20th century, would have been 96 today. A few of us might even be lucky enough to toast these happy occasions eye-to-eye with the celebrities in question, and if you're one of those few, I envy you.
Speaking of celebrities, last night's choice of viewing (wholly arbitrary) was THE BIG CIRCUS (1959), which a friend had sent to me awhile ago on DVD-R -- and, boy, does it have a lot of celebrities. One of those frustrating videos that letterbox only the credits for the actors but not their performances, it's very deserving of a properly letterboxed DVD release, as it's in scope and fills the screen with lots of color, action, and as I said, celebrities. Vincent Price is the ringmaster, Peter Lorre is the lead clown, Red Buttons is the expense auditor, Gilbert Roland (who is particularly great) and David Nelson are the aerialists, Rhonda Fleming and Kathryn Grant are the obligatory love interests, and Victor Mature is the flamboyant owner of the Whirling Circus, "The Biggest Show on Earth." Ah, but who is the spy sent by a competing circus to sabotage their success?
Even in its cropped formatting, THE BIG CIRCUS struck me as being as entertaining as a movie can be without so much as a whiff of sophistication. I'm a sucker for Irwin Allen stuff anyway, and as far as Allen stuff goes, it's more respectable than most -- a movie you can laugh with, rather than at. (The theme song's opening line -- "There's nothing so gay as to be spending the day at the BIIIIIIIIIIG Circus!" -- excepted.) It has its silly moments, like the way the combatitive Mature and Fleming are first knocked into each others' arms by the sudden lurch of a train, but it was scripted by former Hitchcock scenarist Charles Bennett (YOUNG AND INNOCENT, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT), so it also has some clever ones -- and a probably accidental film buff moment when Mature solves a transportation problem by remembering Hannibal's 40-elephant trek across the Alps (the subject of his next lead role, in Edgar G. Ulmer's HANNIBAL, 1960). Allen must have loved the big scene where Gilbert Roland dares to cross Niagara Falls on a highwire because the scene was essentially restaged, nearer the end of his career, in the appropriately-titled WHEN TIME RAN OUT (1980) -- and I did, too.
THE BIG CIRCUS was an Allied Artists release, so my best guess is that it's now owned by Warners. They should look into releasing it. People need escapist entertainment, perhaps now more than ever. Most every movie being green-lighted today is escapist in principle, in that it's mindless, but I don't know that graphically violent entertainment, or any film rooted in extreme or punishing realism, can be escapist by definition.
Thursday, November 02, 2006
Whether you know his name or not, you know his work and you love it. Among Carter's credits: THE MOLE PEOPLE, THE DEADLY MANTIS, THE LAND UNKNOWN, THE MONOLITH MONSTERS, CURSE OF THE UNKNOWN, THE LEECH WOMAN, and the first movie I ever saw projected on a theater screen: THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. He also photographed KING OF THE ROCKET MEN, THE INVISIBLE MONSTER, LOST PLANET AIRMEN, SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE, THE WIZARD OF BAGHDAD, DIARY OF A MADMAN, TWICE TOLD TALES, Sam Katzman's Elvis movie KISSIN' COUSINS, and the BELL SCIENCE episodes "Gateway to the Mind" and "The Alphabet Conspiracy."
I don't reckon Carter (who died in 1964) among the genre's great cameramen, as a lot of his work had a certain flat, static, setbound quality, and his color work seemed particularly unable to enrich sets with atmosphere; however, he racked up a lot of fun movies over the years (including a guilty pleasure of mine, HOOTENANNY HOOT) and his black-and-white period at Universal-International, contemporaneous with that of Russell Metty, helped to define one of the fantastic cinema's most recognizable "house styles." Movies like THE DEADLY MANTIS, THE LAND UNKNOWN, THE MONOLITH MONSTERS, and especially THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN showed Carter to be particularly capable of working well with special effects units and integrating spfx photography and his straightforward technique to potent, convincing effect.
THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN recently made its American DVD debut as part of Universal's THE CLASSIC SCI-FI ULTIMATE COLLECTION, a Best Buy exclusive box set, which also includes TARANTULA, MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS, and two other films shot by Carter, THE MOLE PEOPLE and THE MONOLITH MONSTERS. There is an excellent review of the set over at DVD Savant; I'd give you one myself, but I'm still without a copy. But after reading Glenn Erickson's review, I feel like getting out to the nearest Best Buy and picking one up today.
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
This is obviously a publicity ploy, just as it was when Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel did something similar with the slasher films of the early '80s. Sad to say, it seems to be working; every message board I frequent, as a participant or lurker, seems to have a posting or thread on the subject. Unlike Siskel & Ebert, who actually saw the films they were criticizing (even if they overlooked the fact that the MPAA had disembowelled most of them before granting an R rating, as well as the strong feminist statements later discerned by Carol Clover and other writers), O'Reilly is proudly crowing that he hasn't actually seen any of these films -- but since when have informed opinions been his strong suit?
Earlier this week, Bravo ran a special called 30 EVEN SCARIER MOVIE MOMENTS, a sequel to their previous 100 SCARIEST MOVIE MOMENTS. Because these moments were culled largely from movies made since the last sequel, a lot of them were gruelling torture highlights from SAW, SAW II, WOLF CREEK, HOSTEL (the #1 choice), and others of their ilk. The #4 choice was David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME, a 1982 movie about an imaginary cable channel that allows a privileged class of people to watch scenes of torture and murder. While watching 30 EVEN SCARIER MOVIE MOMENTS and seeing VIDEODROME placed within this context, I had the sudden realization that Cronenberg -- whose intentions in writing the movie were largely satirical -- had in fact predicted this recent turn of events in the horror genre, much as his early "venereal horror" movies SHIVERS and RABIDS had anticipated the rise of the AIDS virus.
After all, what is 30 EVEN SCARIER MOVIE MOMENTS but a concentrated form of VIDEODROME? And how bizarre that it was shown on a commercial cable network with all the R-rated gore intact but with the details of a couple of naked women's bodies digitally opaqued in the film clips, which is actually what I found most offensive about the program! What is wrong with people that all this violence against the human body is acceptable but the body itself is an unacceptable offense? (That's a whole other discussion, right there.)
Personally speaking, I don't care for these films either, even if they are well crafted; I've never been a gorehound, and furthermore, I don't like what these films say about our society (however true) and wouldn't like what they said about me if I enjoyed them. That said, I still grudgingly respect and appreciate them for providing the mirror which they hold up to our very sick society; that's what the horror film has always done. If we don't like what they're showing us, that should be our cue to change.
After the 30 EVEN SCARIER show ended, I remembered that, in Cronenberg's film, VIDEODROME was eventually revealed to be a program circulated by arch-conservatives to transmit cancer-causing agents into the brains of the "scum" who are titillated by that sort of "entertainment." So maybe Bill O'Reilly has better reasons for not seeing these films than you think.
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.