Monday, May 07, 2007

Curtis Harrington (1928-2007)

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I have written much more than a thousand words today about film director Curtis Harrington -- who passed away yesterday morning at age 78 -- but having completed that task, I don't feel this is the correct place to present them.

I took this photo of Curtis (whom Bill Kelley and I interviewed in VIDEO WATCHDOG #14) in his living room in 1993. It's the way I'll always remember him: wise, warm, and relaxed, enthroned in a Spanish-style house built in the heyday of Old Hollywood. Many parties had been held there and there was a sense about the place of rhubarbing voices and clinking glasses and raucous merriment that carried from empty rooms into the tossing heights of the cypress trees lining his backyard. I'm sure that Curtis got out and about more than I do, nevertheless his house was a perfect extension of him -- with its framed Belle Epoque posters, Tiffany lamps, porcelain masks, and a stuffed and mounted raven standing vigilant on one endtable, his domicile had the feel of him, and the feel of one of his movies. I remember particularly the cracks in the ceilings, dealt to the property by California earthquakes over the years, and I feel in my bones that they were the inspiration for his last short film, USHER (2002).

Curtis was more than a film and television director; he was also the first film critic (of whom I am aware) to make the ascent into the director's chair. He wrote a book about his favorite director Josef von Sternberg in 1948 (very early for a book about an individual director) and he was also a contributor to FILMS & FILMING and FILMS ILLUSTRATED in the early 1950s. People talk about directors like Bogdanovich, Coppola, Scorsese and DePalma being the first generation of directors raised on movies, but Curtis was making films before any of them -- and he was making films that were in their own way recursive, depending on the audience's knowledge of the screen languages formulated by Sternberg and by the great suspense masters Hitchcock, Lewton, and Clouzot.

A call I placed to his home today, in search of someone to whom I could express my regrets and learn more about the circumstances of his passing, found Curtis' easygoing voice still in absent residence, welcoming callers from his answering machine to send a fax or leave a message.

Here is mine: Farewell, my friend.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Some Thoughts on SPIDER-MAN 3

Your friendly neighborhood webslinger makes Flint Marko gravel in Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN 3 - now in theaters.

I liked the first SPIDER-MAN a lot, loved the second one, but SPIDER-MAN 3 is just about an unmitigated disaster.

Not because it's a cluttered mess that thinks bigger is better and action scenes are best when they fire past the retina rather than actually lodge in the brain. As a reader of the original Marvel comics since the Ditko days, I'm disturbed by the filmmakers' irreverent disregard for the content and chronology of what might be called the canon. I think the introduction of Gwen Stacy now is pointless and gratuitous, and I could tell that mixing the more wholesome spirit of Silver Age storylines with the darker Venom storyline from the Bronze Age Todd MacFarlane years was likely to be a stinkbomb long before it went off on Opening Day. I was especially disappointed by the sappy back story given to the Sandman, whose potential was further dissipated by all the other converging threats. I was really looking forward to him, to see him discovering the range of his powers, and feel gypped by his relative lack of screen time; it doesn't help that they turned him into King Kong.

I can't understand why Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire can't make Peter Parker seem like a good guy without also seeming borderline learning impaired; likewise, when the symbiote arouses his arrogant, evil streak (this movie's "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" moment), he's not just a short-tempered jerk, but like a strutting glue sniffer on a SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER jag. It's so broad, so lacking in subtlety, it made me feel ashamed to be a fan of the character. Even worse is his open cavorting in the jazz club -- after the cafeteria scene in the first movie and now this, I wouldn't be surprised if Peter Parker starts opening taxi doors with his webshooters in SM4. Surely everyone in New York has seen him unmasked by now, so why not?

It's time for Hollywood to call a moratorium on two things: 1) the use of 9/11-like imagery for cheap frissons, and 2) evil doppelgangers in heroic fantasy. We've been getting the latter since STAR WARS and it's deader than Joseph Campbell. It's one thing to say that we all have good and evil tendencies and the freedom to choose between them, but when you take this spiritual philosophy and amplify it into the unadulterated corn of SM3, the heroes somehow come out of it soiled and the bad guys come out of it slightly ennobled. Before picking which side we're on, we need to know which side we're on, and this movie's moral map is slippery as hell. So many characters here have split natures, it's like they got the cast for half price. SM3 actually suggests that people shouldn't have to pay for their mistakes, that acknowledging them is enough. I was dumbstruck by Sandman's exit, and Venom's fate is so dopey and arbitrary and blink-of-an-eye, I actually had to be reminded 10 minutes later what happened to him.

My beloved, not a reader of the comics, liked this one better than SM2. She also thought the old gentleman playing Uncle Ben this time around wasn't as good as the other one was.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Me O My Oh - It's Already Cinco de Mayo

The SIGHT & SOUND website is now offering some online samples of the current May 2007 issue, including Andrew Osmond's review of 300 and my review of Ernst Hofbauer's SCHOOLGIRL REPORT #1: WHAT PARENTS DON'T THINK IS POSSIBLE, now available on DVD from Impulse Pictures.

April proved to be a busier than usual month for me and now my batteries are running low; I'm hoping to cut down on extracurricular projects for a little while, until I'm feeling re-energized. I spent the past month on my book about the making of David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME for Millipede Press, who intend to publish it this fall as the first book in a new paperback series called "Studies in the Horror Film." The book was written 25 years ago, but in order to deliver it to Millipede Press, I had to pour the original (messy) typescript into my computer and clean it up, add a couple of separate articles I also wrote about the filming, include some other interesting material I found in my file cabinets that I was prevented from including in the original ms. by my previous deadline (including additional interviews with Cronenberg and Les "Barry Convex" Carlson), and then synthesize everything into an organic reading experience. I believe I was contracted to deliver a book of 10,000 words or so, but the end product was 150 single-spaced pages, closer to 35,000 words. As my pal David J. Schow exclaimed, "That's a short novel!" Happily, my editor at Millipede Press doesn't seem phased by the additional length and is moving forward. That's a relief to me, but it's the only relief. I had to jump right into preparing VW #131 this week, with no decompression time -- and it's an issue that has required some additional hurry-up reviewing on my part.

Our first-class subscribers should have started receiving our latest issue, VIDEO WATCHDOG #130, by now. Unfortunately, based on the feedback we've been receiving from our bulk rate subscribers, it seems that bulk-mailed issues can now take up to 5-6 weeks to reach their destinations. We apologize for the delay, but it's beyond our control. Your issue isn't lost, it's just being delivered by the USPS, who seem to be dragging their feet in regard to bulk mailings these days as they gear up for yet another postage rate hike. We offer bulk rate subscriptions as a financial convenience to our readers, but suffice to say, if you want your issues in a timely fashion, First Class is the way to go.

Finally, if you're looking for some Cinco de Mayo movie recommendations, you can't go wrong with the latest offerings from Casa Negra: Rafael Baledon's THE MAN AND THE MONSTER and Fernando Mendez's horror Western THE LIVING COFFIN. Of the two, I particularly recommend THE LIVING COFFIN which, though made in 1959, reminds me somewhat of Bava's KILL, BABY... KILL! (1966) in terms of its photography, settings, and atmosphere. Here a small Western town is haunted by the apparition of a llorona or "crying woman" ghost and a rational-thinking cowboy, riding through with his sidekick Crazy Wolf, decides to stick around and investigate these occurrences. It's a mixed bag by design -- Western, horror, mystery, even some comic relief -- but it's an attractive film with some effectively creepy moments.

In closing, a Happy Cinco de Mayo to you all, amigos! Alas, it's "Hold the Mayo!" as far as I'm concerned -- and back to work on the next issue....

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Scott's Last Days

Here's a link to a great online story I found about Gordon Scott and how a Baltimore-based fan made his last six years more comfortable.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

"John Austin Frazier"... Unmasked

... on the Bava Book Update blog today.

A Cry for Gordon Scott

An e-mail from Dave Dowling to William Connolly, posted on the Spaghetti Western Web Board, reports that actor Gordon Scott passed away on the morning of April 30 (10:50 a.m. EST) in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
"Gordon had been hospitalized for several months recovering from heart valve surgery, among other things," Dowling writes. "Unfortunately, following surgery he had infections and was kept in ICU from time to time. Just recently the infections reoccurred and he (physically) fought to remove his IV whenever he could. In short, Gordon chose not to prolong his life. I spoke with Gordon about 6 times over the past 9 months, most recently in March. He was in good spirits then, despite still being in the hospital, and experiencing much weight loss. He was 80, father of 5, and penniless."
Born Gordon Werschkul in Portland, Oregon in 1927, Scott had held down a broad variety of jobs -- including fireman and military judo instructor -- prior to being discovered by producer Sol Lesser while working as a lifeguard in Las Vegas. He replaced Lex Barker in the coveted role of Tarzan in TARZAN'S HIDDEN JUNGLE, during the filming of which he fell in love with and married his leading lady, Vera Miles. Miles was pregnant with their first child at the time Alfred Hitchcock wanted to cast her in the lead of VERTIGO; he was furious and replaced her with Kim Novak, subsequently casting her in the supporting role of Janet Leigh's sister in PSYCHO. Scott, on the other hand, rose in stardom, making three more entertaining Tarzan features for Lesser and another feature culled from episodes filmed for an unsold Tarzan tele-series. When Lesser sold his interests in the Tarzan character to producer Sy Weintraub, Scott had the best fortune of his career, starring in the well-named TARZAN'S GREATEST ADVENTURE (1959, featuring Sean Connery in a supporting role) and TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT (1960, featuring John Carradine and Jock Mahoney). Only the sentimental could seriously argue that Johnny Weissmuller was a superior Tarzan to Gordon Scott, who -- in addition to being 6' 3", handsome, with a massive build -- was also the superior actor.

Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott in DUEL OF THE TITANS.

Evidently Scott and Weintraub didn't get along, and Scott was subsequently replaced in the Tarzan role by the leaner, almost-ten-years-older Jock Mahoney. Scott's friend Steve Reeves arranged for Scott to star opposite him in the Sergio Leone-penned saga of Romulus and Remus, released here in the States as DUEL OF THE TITANS. My childhood memory of the publicity campaign attending this release was the closest thing to having two demigods descend from Olympus: "Giant Against Giant!" Movies simply didn't get any bigger. Remember, this was before King Kong had met Godzilla, and the spectacle of two colossal men engaged in battle on the widescreen was virtually unprecedented. It turned out to be a good movie too, in which Scott gives what may well be the performance of his career as a hero who, poisoned with jealousy of his brother, turns villainous.

Scott's introduction into Italian filmmaking sustained him through the remainder of a sadly dwindling career, but he made good films there. He assumed the role of Maciste in (renamed for America) GOLIATH AND THE VAMPIRES and SAMSON AND THE 7 MIRACLES OF THE WORLD (directed by Riccardo Freda, a worthy follow-up to his best Tarzan movies), and THE LION OF THEBES, CONQUEST OF MYCENAE and the unfortunately named but fabulous ZORRO AND THE THREE MUSKETEERS. He drifted into Italian spy pictures just before the end of his career, making his last screen appearance in 1967.

I've heard gossip about Scott's Italian years that describe him as the wildest of a wild pack, and gossip of more recent vintage that held that alcoholism, reckless living, and a preference for a footloose lifestyle had conspired to harm Scott's career and destroy his personal life. Certainly the beer-bellied, ballcap-wearing man seen at autograph shows over the past 10-15 years bore no resemblance to the mythic figure Scott had formerly been. I wanted very much to devote an issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG to an in-depth interview with him, as I considered him a great star, but somehow we could never get a proper commitment, perhaps because he was unsure where he was going to be from one month to the next. I still want to do my Gordon Scott issue someday, but now it will have to be in the manner of a career appreciation.

Hollywood rise and fall stories are a dime a dozen. If the story of Gordon Scott seems especially tragic, it is because he achieved such incredible heights of heroism on the silver screen and left us with such indelible memories of intelligent virility and confidence. He was a Tarzan that Edgar Rice Burroughs would have recognized as his own, and been proud of.

I blogged about Gordon Scott last year, and I can only hope that someone showed him my words of appreciation. I remain ever hopeful that the best of his films will someday make it to DVD -- if Paramount is reading this, you own the TARZAN'S GREATEST ADVENTURE and TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT, so what's the holdup?

Sadly, Gordon Scott is now gone... so bring on the Gordon Scott!

Monday, April 30, 2007

Naschy Returns in NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF

NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF, which BCI Eclipse has released along with VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES, is by far the superior picture. Filmed in 1980, it was Paul Naschy's eighth outing as the melancholy werewolf Waldemar Daninsky, but more importantly, it was the first such picture that he both wrote and directed (as Jacinto Molina Alvarez). He remains a derivative and somewhat lazy writer, but what the film lacks in originality is compensated by an open-hearted affection for and knowledge of the genre; the story unfolds almost as a series of winks from fan to fan. As you can see here, the opening pre-credits sequence finds Waldemar encased in an iron mask prior to being impaled and buried, an obvious nod to BLACK SUNDAY. It's not the only one, either. In fact, because of these and various other tropes from such films as NIGHTMARE CASTLE, TERROR FROM THE CRYPT, and BARON BLOOD -- and because the film is scored with CAM library tracks by the likes of Carlo Rustichelli, Armando Trovajoli, Stelvio Cipriani and others, cues in some cases 20 years old -- NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF has the feel of a deliberate tribute to 1960s Italian horror, filmed more lavishly than most Italians could manage themselves in 1980.

Naschy is reintroduced in a striking shot that finds him aiming a crossbow at the young woman who will become the love of his second life. Bearded and virile-looking, Naschy has never looked more relaxed onscreen or exuded more star quality; at no time is there any sense of a man dividing his attention between three different jobs. Here, Waldemar is protecting the castle ruins of his former associate, the notorious Countess Elizabeth Báthory (exquisitely portrayed by Julia Saly).

In the story, three Roman women bound for vacation are persuaded by their leader, Erika (Silvia Aguilar), to forego the usual tourist traps and seek out the ruins of Castle Báthory. With Karin (Azucena Hernandez) distracted by their handsome host, Erika is free to subdue the third traveler and use her blood to reanimate the Countess. She does this in a sequence clearly pattered on the resurrection sequence of Terence Fisher's DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1965), but it is so effectively staged (and souped-up with additional eroticism) that one can only sit back and watch in thrall. Then we get to meet the Countess herself...

Elizabeth Báthory has been played well in a number of films by several diverse and capable actresses -- Delphine Seyrig (DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS), Ingrid Pitt (COUNTESS DRACULA), Lucia Bosé (LEGEND OF BLOOD CASTLE), and Paloma Picasso (IMMORAL TALES), to name a few. Naschy himself pitted Waldemar Daninsky against this formidable figure of haunted history before in WEREWOLF SHADOW (1971), where she was played by Barbara Steele-lookalike Patty Shepard. But in terms of capturing an essence of the real historic figure, I think none of them came as close to published reports as Julia Saly, whose soulless eyes and patrician demeanor are both repugnant and compelling. It's not an eroticized performance, as Báthory roles often are, and all the more remarkable for its poise and reserve, which suggest an oil painting come to life. In a way that reminded me specifically of Bela Lugosi's performance in the original DRACULA (1931), Saly communicates the idea that the Countess has not only witnessed, but presided over unspeakable horrors we cannot begin to imagine. Once she infects Erika with vampirism, Silvia Aguilar becomes one of the shrillest, noisiest lady vampires ever to grace the talkies.
Oh yes, there's also a werewolf. Angel Luís Del Diego was responsible for the makeup and it's probably the finest werewolf makeup Naschy ever had. His performance isn't as explosively athletic as his first Waldemar Daninsky role in FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR; this is a more actorly werewolf performance, if you will, and Naschy blocks his onscreen appearances for effect within the frame rather than convey its impact with his body. The werewolf scenes have their moments, but they may be the weakest component of the film's horror; werewolves are by nature brutish, animalistic monsters, and so not as interesting as vampires, which act not to give vent to their nature but also to consciously please their nature. The film also makes a mistake, perhaps unavoidable, in showing us the werewolf prior to Naschy's first onscreen transformation. The werewolf's attack on a couple seeking shelter looks as if it may have been extracted from a later, lengthy sequence following Waldemar's first transformation, and placed earlier to get the werewolf into the picture sooner.
The authentic locations and spectacular sets add greatly to the film's production value, but more important still is the splendid cinematography of Alejandro Ulloa (CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z), who does wonderful things with backlighting, low-angled lighting and overly bright objects in otherwise tenebrous settings. Here are just a few frames in the film that stood out for me compositionally.



NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF was previously given a domestic VHS release back in the 1980s as THE CRAVING. As you can tell from these screen grabs, BCI's anamorphic, HD-mastered disc is a revelation, featuring some truly breathtaking mise en scène. Unlike VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES, NIGHT is best appreciated in its original Castilian Spanish audio track (with English subtitles); the English dub, included in mono and surround mixes, is painfully bad, especially atrocious in the scene introducing our three heroines and their foul-mouthed male admirers (one of them Mauro Ribera from Jess Franco's THE SEXUAL STORY OF O). Deleted scenes -- actually an extended scene that toggles between English and Castilian to show what was omitted from the original sequence -- are also included. As with the companion release, the disc is supplemented with a theatrical trailer playable in Castilian and English, the Spanish main titles (with much fuller production credits), Thorsten Benzel's superb stills and poster galleries, and expert liner notes by Mirek Lipinski, webmaster of Latarnia Fantastique International and The Mark of Naschy, that offer more background on Naschy specifically, indicating that these notes should be read before those of VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES, though VENGEANCE is the earlier of the two pictures.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Viva Naschy! Viva BCI! Viva Lipinski!

I couldn't resist bringing you some images today from the new BCI Eclipse release of León Klimovsky's VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES, written by Jacinto Molina and starring his alter ego Paul Naschy in no fewer than three roles. Fans love Naschy's werewolf performances, but I think this Devil character is the most fearsome image he ever conjured onscreen, with his cruel Mr. Hyde from DR. JEKYLL AND THE WEREWOLF a close second. In his autobiography MEMOIRS OF A WOLFMAN, Naschy couldn't decide whether or not this image had sprung from a nightmare or the effects of hashish. I never pegged this award-winning weightlifter as a stoner, but one feels grateful for whatever indulgences may have opened the portals to this particular vision.

The movie is actually not one of Naschy's best; in my opinion, it's kind of a mess -- a throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks conflation of Hammer's STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY and THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, Franco's A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD, and masked killer gialli with some cheap voodoo thrown in. Naschy principally stars as an Indian mystic, looking a lot like Marlon Brando in CANDY, but he also turns up as his own facially fried brother, Kantaka, who presides over the decapitation of a live chicken. (That's right: Kantaka... fried... chicken.) If you think that's funny, you should hear the score by Juan Carlos Calderón, with its stupefying "dow dow d-d-d dow dow" theme, or thrill to the Scotland Yard dialogue scene that runs for a full six minutes, or get a load of the scene where a morgue attendant is actually stabbed in the throat by a can of Amstel beer.

Uncut Spanish elements for Naschy's films are non-existent, but BCI Eclipse has successfully reconstructed an "uncut" VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES by wedding the export version with nudity to the Castilian Spanish soundtrack for the first time. The transfer is standard ratio, handsomely mastered in high definition (which doesn't mean it's in HD), and can be viewed in Castilian with English subtitles, or in English mono or English surround. I found the English dub a considerably livelier experience. Naschy himself introduces the film with the sort of portentous blarney that would have made William Castle feel proud, and the disc extras include alternate "clothed" versions of some scenes, the Spanish title sequence, Spanish and English trailers, and a wonderfully thorough stills and poster gallery compiled by MUCHAS GRACIAS SENIOR LOBO! author Thorsten Benzel. Incidentally, this book is a must for every Naschy fan: a paperback documenting stills and poster art from numerous countries pertaining to every Paul Naschy film. Most are in black-and-white, but each section is introduced with poster art in full color. The text is in German, but the book features a concise appendix that offers all the important details in English. If you miss out on this, you will regret it.

The cherry, whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles on this release are courtesy of Mirek Lipinski of Latarnia Fantastique International, who provided the generously informative text found inside the fold-out color brochure included inside the keepcase. Mirek answered every question that I had about the film and its cast, put the picture into context, and revealed some very interesting background stories that made me want to watch the film -- or at least portions of it -- again. It's a pleasure to read liner notes know that no one writing in English could have done the job better, though it's surprising to see FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR's Aurora de Alba, who strips down for her death scene, referred to as "a perfect MILF." Regardless, the notes are scholarly and BCI's Naschy series would seem to be in the best possible hands. I'm now looking forward to enjoying this title's companion release, NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF -- which, if memory serves, is a much better movie and one of the best Naschy werewolf pictures.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

E-mail JACK Attack

Yesterday's blog had an interesting back story I neglected to mention. I was making my usual blog rounds yesterday when I happened to click over to if charlie parker was a gunslinger there'd be a whole lot of dead copycats, where an image of Judi Meredith from JACK THE GIANT KILLER was posted as "Seminal Image #645." This prompted me to remember an article about the film I had left unfinished some time ago. I found it on my computer, dated 3-23-92 and it -- with only slight polishing and updating -- is what you read here yesterday.

A few correspondents have written to inquire what prompted that posting, curious if the musical version had turned up again somewhere. But no, it was just the World Premiere of something previously unreleased... and, incredibly, fifteen years old. Not quite ready for print, perhaps, but perfect for blogging.

Some people wrote with information worthy of a postscript. First of all, there was no board game; that was my own childhood hallucination. I was really high on GIANT KILLER during the Summer of '62, when I was an occasional customer at a neighborhood store that had a huge stack of board games on a shelf behind the counter for sale. There were so many other movie and TV tie-in board games, I probably assumed there would have to be a JTGK game and, as if willing it into existence, I spent a couple of weeks collecting enough empty pop bottles to fill the back seat of my mother's car. We took them to that little store to cash them in, but there was no JTGK game, so I took the money home instead. Nevertheless, imagining the game burnt a permanent impression in my memory cells: I can actually visualize the box cover, though it never existed. It has also been suggested to me that it's unlikely that I read the comic book adaptation prior to the film's release, which I suppose is entirely possible. Subjective experience is what it is.

I am also told that the reason the theatrical version has replaced the musical version in circulation -- besides good common sense -- is that the theatrical version boasts the ideal elements; the musical version was cobbled together from secondary elements, to leave the original unviolated, which explains too why it always looked so pasty and washed-out in comparison. I was also told that, although the film was shot to be projected with a 1.66:1 matte, the stop motion effects were filmed open aperture, so the special effects shots lose information on all four sides of the frame on MGM's DVD. It's the prettier of the two available DVDs, but the unauthorized Goodtimes release is the only source for seeing the special effects sequences as they were meant to be seen.

One good-hearted reader also wrote to point out my misuse of the word "lollygog" for "lollygag." I sent him an "Oh, go away" and a smiley face. Being a native Ohioan, I hear (and doubtless use) a lot of incorrect grammar but, in all my years, I've never heard anyone say anything but "lollygog." I suppose it's possible they've been feigning a continental accent when they say it, but I never felt the need to question it. My correspondent and Mr. Webster call it an error, but I reserve the right to call it dialect. My correspondent's correction will affect my future use of the word in print, one hopes, but prolly not in conversation (as people also say in Ohio) and possibly not here either.

The joy of blogging, you see, is that it's one of the few places where a person can write freely and subjectively. What you read here, I guarantee, will be off the top of my head and researched only insofar as I feel like researching it at the moment -- which is, more often than not, not at all. If these blogs are ever collected in book form, then I'll dot the I's and cross the T's. Which is not to say that some e-mailed corrections won't be immediately implemented. Sometimes I'm very responsive; it depends on how busy I am and how important I consider the correction to be. I am nothing if not consistent in my inconsistency. As I think I've said before, consider anything you read here a rough draft.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Jack the Singing Giant Killer

Perhaps it's not a great film, but I will always remember and revere JACK THE GIANT KILLER as one of the great matinee experiences of my childhood. I loved it even before I saw it; as you can see, it was blessed with a great poster and its fabulous image of Jack clutching onto a talon of a frightening griffin was also reproduced on the cover of a Dell comic book that preceded the film's actual release. My memory may be playing tricks on me here, but I also seem to remember the artwork appearing on the cover of a board game... but if one existed, I've never seen or heard reference to it since.

Scripted by Orville H. Hampton (THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE and THE UNDERWATER CITY) and director Nathan Juran, the Edward Small production has been handed down to posterity in two distinct versions; the first, the original theatrical release, and the second, a belatedly reconfigured version that turned the exciting adventure into a musical. Though it is the harder of the two versions to see today, the musical edition actually replaced the original in circulation for many years, and represented the film in its first appearances on cable television.

The film's troubles began when it was accused by Ray Harryhausen and his producer Charles H. Schneer of being a carbon copy of their Dynamation success, THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, released by Columbia Pictures in 1958. The charge was impossible to deny: JACK not only starred SINBAD principals Kerwin Mathews and Torin Thatcher and was directed by the man who had helmed 7th VOYAGE, it had a similar "rescue the Princess" plot and approximated several of the earlier film's creature designs -- most brazenly in the case of a Harlequin doll that enlarged into a two-eyed variation of Harryhausen's famed Cyclops. The two films also shared a Genie, though JACK's Irish imp (Don Beddoe) was easier to tolerate than Baronni (Richard Eyer), the whiny, freckle-faced kid in a turban conjured up by Harryhausen and Schneer. Apparently, Schneer and Harryhausen's complaint against the film was filed too late to interfere with its original theatrical release, but it successfully pulled the plug on the film's sale to TV.

It may sound like sacrilege, but in terms of its plot, imagination, and extravagant Technicolor palette, JACK THE GIANT KILLER outperforms most of Harryhausen's films in terms of uncompromised entertainment value. The "Fantascope" stop motion creatures -- designed by Wah Chang and Gene Warren's Projects Unlimited, animated by Jim Danforth and David Pal (George's son) -- may be sculpted with less vision and articulated with less imagination than Harryhausen's creatures (which they resemble in a rough draft sense), but they are presented with impressive menace and, impressively, were put before the camera with a fraction of the Dynamation Master's prep time.

After its 1962 release, JACK THE GIANT KILLER faded away into limbo until 1976, when MC Productions Limited re-released the film -- hot on the heels of Columbia's successful reissue of 7TH VOYAGE -- as something the Dynamation film clearly was not: a musical. Large patches of the original symphonic score (by Paul Sawtell & Bert Shefter) were wiped to pave the way for a new "Musical Process" produced by Edwin Picker and Moose Charlap, making use of eight compositions by Charlap and lyricist Sandy Stewart. This "process" was such an intrusion on Grant Whytock's original editing, that Whytock rightfully deferred credit to Picker as Editor on the new prints.

The musical numbers are as follows:

"Main Titles Theme"
This song is played over a new opening credits montage that resembles scenes from the film portrayed by children's experiments with crepe paper. It doesn't hold a candle to the original's golden lettered titles and plush red velvet background.

"Ding Dong"
After Princess Elaine (Judi Meredith) is crowned, exterior shots of celebrating villagers and regal trumpeteers at the castle's turrets are shown. The lyrics are sung by a boistrous choir of untrained voices, suggesting that the entire village has erupted into joyous song after the coronation.

"We Have Failed"
One of the revised film's most forced compositions, this song begins with the weepy return of Pendragon's diminutive sidekick garna (Walter Burke) to his Master's fortress, where he reports that the mission to kidnap Princess Elaine has failed. The song is constructed by re- recording the rhymeless dialogue of Thatcher and Burke with singing, albeit unmelodic voices; the result is akin to an operetta. A chorus is achieved by repeating a shot of Burke, as he wails "We have failed! We have failed! We have failed!" Indeed.

"Because It's True"
This song is the gem of the musical version, because it's sooooooo bad and so audacious in its means of construction. The song materializes at the point of Jack and Elaine's first confessions of love for one another, which occurs on the boat sailing the Princess into protective isolation. In the original, Elaine wishes that she and her beloved protector could remain on the boat forever, travelling together, with herself nothing more than a peasant girl. The dialogue continues thusly:
JACK: I wish I were a genie to make your wish come true.
ELAINE: Suppose you did, what would you do?
JACK: I would turn myself into a great prince and I would search every farm and village in England until I found you. And then I would hold you and tell you that I love you.
ELAINE: And... and I would answer that I love you. But it wouldn't be make-believe, Jack. Because it's true.
They kiss.

To forge a song out of this exchange, seemingly barren of melodic possibilities, Charlap and Stewart recut the scene in a crafty series of loops and cutaways:

ELAINE: Just ask me / Ask me if I'm simply dreaming / For if I'm make-believing you, do! / And then / then I would answer / That I love you / Because it's true. / Just ask me / Ask me if I'm simply dreaming / For if I'm just deceiving you, do! / And then, then I would answer/ That I love you /Because it's true.
JACK: Then I would hold you / And tell you that I love you. / Kiss me, kiss me my love! / How I would hold you and /Tell you that I love you!
They kiss. The song continues.
ELAINE: Just ask me / Ask me if I'm simply dreaming. / With dreams my heart's conceiving too, do! / And then, then I would answer / that I love you / Because it's true.

The song -- which concludes with a second kiss identical to the first! -- is made possible by cutting away from Elaine to a reaction shot of Jack during the second line of each of Elaine's verses. If you look closely at the rope dangling behind Jack's head from the ship's rigging, its unnatural undulations expose the shot as a film loop. Even worse, the waves of the sea in the background behind Elaine rock forwards and in reverse, in a manner which is distinctly queasy-making.

"A Spectacle"
Proof that the musical inserts were not in the film's best interests can be found here, as Pendragon and his sidekick sing happily during Jack's attack on their fortress. As Jack uses a whip wrought from a skeleton's arm against an army grown from a stone dragon's teeth, the song proceeds merrily along, despite Pendragon's concern over this display of heroic power. There's even a whistling break!

"To Us"
Even more pathetic than "A Spectacle" is this tuneless exchange, which musically redubs the original dialogue between Jack and Elaine, as the Princess -- under Pendragon's spell -- drugs his wine. What do you make of these lyrics?

ELAINE: What's the matter?
JACK: I don't know...
Jack collapses in a dead faint.

"You Can Do It"
Considered separately, this boistrous little song isn't bad and would seem an upbeat addition to a children's film. But one can't help but question the sanity of its placement here, sung by the Imp in the Bottle during the film's exciting climax, in which Jack climbs aboard the transformed Pendragon, now a high-flying griffin. The tense excitement of the scene is completely shattered by the accompaniment of "Stick out your chin / With a grin, you're gonna win / Stand on his tail /Make him weep, make him wail / C'mon, c'mon, c'mon! /You... can... do... it!"

"Dreams Do Come True"
This is the End Titles theme, and not a minute too soon.

The JACK THE GIANT KILLER musical runs exactly 90 minutes, as opposed to the original's 94 minutes. In addition to the rank rhapsodizing, several dramatic scenes were deleted for the reissue version, which were subsequently restored to the film when the original theatrical cut prevailed on MGM/UA Home Video. The musical's main titles eliminated the original opening minute of the film, in which a jewel-studded book called "The Legend of Jack the Giant Killer" was opened, as an offscreen narrator read three beautifully illustrated pages explaining the reasons behind Pendragon's latest campaign of evil.

The first of the musical's missing scenes followed Lady Constance (Anna Lee) sending word of Princess Elaine's whereabouts to Pendragon via carrier raven, and contained the first views of the evil sorcerer's castle and his resident staff of goblins. Also omitted from the musical was a wonderful extended ceremony in which Pendragon -- wearing an outrageous High Priest costume of Heavy Metal spikes and leather -- transformed the good Elaine into her own witchy negative (an idea later reprised by Ridley Scott's LEGEND, 1985); in the musical, Elaine simply creeps out of the shadows with palegreen skin, yellow eyes, and a tall red spangled headdress, giving the misimpression that she is an actual sorceress posing as the Princess. A surprising close-up of Jack's sword hacking deeply (albeit bloodlessly) through the flesh of the griffin was also removed, presumably because it wasn't in keeping with the chipper merriment of "You Can Do It."

It is also worth pointing out that Jack's "rescue" of the still-spellbound Princess Elaine, sent by Pendragon to discover the source of Jack's powers, occurs in the musical in broad daylight, while the MGM/UA release reinstated the scene's original day-for-night filter. The same goes for a few exterior matte paintings of Pendragon's castle.

When JACK THE GIANT KILLER was first shown on premium cable channels in the 1980s, it could be seen only in this abhorrent musical version. For reasons unknown to me -- possibly having something to do with the heirs of Edward Small (who died in 1977) selling the full rights to the picture to MGM -- the original version replaced the musical without fanfare in the 1990s on cable television, and a proper VHS "Family Entertainment" release then followed. This original cassette release was unmatted, as was the subsequent LaserDisc release, which some consider preferable to the widescreen framing that was used for the film's subsequent appearance on DVD. ("Fantascope" did not refer to an anamorphic lensing process; the original aspect ratio was 1.66:1.)

A competing standard ratio DVD release of JACK THE GIANT KILLER was issued by the Goodtimes label in 2001 and is still available -- at least on eBay. I thought it might be the musical version, which would explain why MGM would tolerate a competing release, but this is not the case. It is, however, an unmatted presentation.

Happy Birthday, VN

Vladimir Nabokov, arguably the greatest novelist of the 20th century, was born 108 years ago today -- which almost sounds like something he himself might have remarked about Tolstoy or one of his other great predecessors during one of his Cornell University lectures on literature. Seize the day and celebrate the moment with one of his books or, failing that, one of the films based on his books. There are several worth seeing -- and here they are, in my own order of preference:

DESPAIR (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
LOLITA (Stanley Kubrick)
THE LUZHIN DEFENCE (Marleen Gorris)
LOLITA (Adrian Lyne)
LAUGHTER IN THE DARK (Tony Richardson)
KING, QUEEN, KNAVE (Jerzy Skolimowski)

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Franco Upconverted

Alicia Príncipe lollygogs on holiday in Jess Franco's erotic terror opus THE SEXUAL STORY OF O.

Last night I decided to spend some time getting to know my new LG Super Multi Blue Player, the first DVD player on the market able to play both HD DVD and Blu-ray formats. The reason this blog is opening with an image from Jess Franco's THE SEXUAL STORY OF O -- a 1984 film to be released on May 1 by Severin Films -- is that part of my study was spent looking at how well various non-HD titles "upconvert" to 1080i resolution.

One of the discs I had handy was MGM's latest reissue of THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, which, like all the recent Bond reissues, was treated to a much-ballyhooed digital process that promised to make them look better than ever. Played on my LG Multi Blue, it was impossible to overlook the prevalence of haloing in the presentation -- every moving figure appeared to be outlined in a bid to gain sharper definition, but it wasn't as defining as it was noisy. It wasn't as bad as the nightmare that is Koch Lorber's LA BELLE CAPTIVE (the worst transfer I've seen of late), but it was noticeable -- especially after admiring the dazzling beauty of the Blu-ray release of CASINO ROYALE. Daniel Kleinman's main titles for that movie are now my high-def demonstration reel. I continued to sample different discs until I remembered that I had received Severin's two latest Franco titles in the mail that morning. What was I doing watching THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH when I could be watching THE SEXUAL STORY OF O? In English!

THE SEXUAL STORY OF O is not a high-definition release, but in a side-by-side comparison to MGM's highly-publicized Bond transfers, THE SEXUAL STORY OF O is almost miraculous. It's a minimalist erotic film, but it delivers Costa del Sol scenery that knocks anything comparable in the Bond film off the map -- especially when viewed as a 1080i upconversion. I'm still educating myself in these matters, but to my eyes, this presentation could easily pass for a high-definition disc. It passes the upconversion test with flying colors -- candy colors, in fact. Image liquidity, depth perception, fine details... all were beautifully enhanced, adding to the tactile pleasures of what would likely be a much lesser film in a lesser presentation.

Mamie Kaplan as she appears in the film's nearly three-minute toe-sucking sequence.

I think Severin Films is doing heroic work in bringing Franco's 1980s work to DVD at all, but the label deserves our recognition and applause for the stellar (some might say unnecessary) quality they bring to each presentation. I have no idea how many units of these titles are being sold, but it can't be many, and that's what makes their level of craftsmanship all the more impressive. It's a company that visibly cares.

I wrote a review of THE SEXUAL STORY OF O today, but I'm going to hold it back for publication in VIDEO WATCHDOG #131. In the meantime, here are links to two reviews already online: one by Robert Monell at his I'm in a Jess Franco State of Mind website and another by Troy Howarth at DVD Maniacs. I would caution you to take Troy's "ranks among Franco's most satisfying works" comment with a grain of salt, but that it ranks among Franco's most satisfying DVD presentations is indubitable.

One thing I will add to their comments is something I noticed about the film's soundtrack. This film would appear to be an experiment in bilingual cinema by Franco. The film's heroine is a young American and all of her dialogue is in English; the film's story is dependent upon her not understanding what her co-stars are saying. I haven't yet watched the film in this way, but it made me wonder if -- like Fellini's "Toby Dammit" in SPIRITS OF THE DEAD -- THE SEXUAL STORY OF O might not be even more winningly disorienting and suspenseful if viewed without subtitles. Fortunately, they are removable.

For the record, I must say I agree with those observers who prefer the look of Blu-ray over HD DVD... but I can't tell if my preference has anything to do with me viewing HD DVD on a player whose primary bias is Blu-ray. What both formats appear to love above all is digital information: CGI detailing, digital animation, that sort of thing -- THE CORPSE BRIDE in high-definition is an unbelievable treat. Which means that the format might not fully come into its own until the film industry fully switches over from 35mm to DV.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

PERFORMANCE Retitled in France!

An interesting e-mail from French correspondent Samuel Bréan:

Tim, I would like to ask you a question about PERFORMANCE. It was released on French DVD a few days ago; its contents seem identical to the US edition, except for the language and subtitle options (I can give you the details if you want).

However... The major difference is that it is not sold as PERFORMANCE, but as "VANILLA"! This title is present on the cardboard box, and on the DVD box itself (but not anywhere on the disc, menu, or the print itself, thankfully!) I have no clue as to why this strange title has been chosen! PERFORMANCE was released theatrically under the same title in France and I can find no valid explanation for this sudden shift.

I just finished reading Sam & Rebecca Umland's book on Donald Cammell (which prompted me to seek out his films on DVD) and, apparently, they say nothing about this. I think this must be a publisher's whimsy and a very odd one at that... Unless you know anything about this??

No, I knew nothing about this "change of identity" (how appropriate!) -- but this grab from Amazon.fr confirms what Samuel says. The title wasn't changed because it's an unauthorized release, as this is the actual Warner Home Video release for France. Whatever the reason, this must be the highest profile film ever to be retitled on DVD, maybe on video ever!

It strikes me as rather an ironic title, too. If PERFORMANCE was an ice cream, vanilla is the last flavor it would be! To my tastebuds, it's more like Spumoni.

Some other strange facts about this release: First of all, the cover pictured above is not the actual cover art, which is slightly different (it can be seen here); secondly, it's very hard to find on Amazon.fr; and thirdly, when you do find it, the top-billed actor is not Mick Jagger, not James Fox, not Anita Pallenberg... but Allan Cuthbertson -- who appears only briefly as an attorney whom Chas (Fox) is sent to intimidate!

Update 5:35 pm: Sam and Rebecca Umland respond:

In all our years of research, we never found a reference to PERFORMANCE as having been retitled VANILLA in France. We believe it to be a re-titling specific to this DVD edition, and used ironically. The term "vanilla" in this context does not refer to the flavor, at least it does so only figuratively. We recall coming across the term (not in our research on PERFORMANCE, however) and did a quick web search to verify our memory of this slang term. Go to http://www.peevish.co.uk/slang/v.htm where the term is defined as follows:

Adj. 1. Gay expression for conventional sex without any kinky extras such as bondage or sado-masochism. Usually used in a perjorative sense.
2. Orthodox, conventional.

Here's to old England!

Speaking of "Here's to Old England," Samuel Bréan confirmed to us earlier that this line, formerly heard spoken by Mick Jagger during the "Memo from Turner" sequence, is missing from the French disc as it is omitted from the domestic release -- though it is present in the disc's English subtitles.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Invasion of the Ozalids!

Check the Bava book blog today for new developments!

"Magic Is All Around Us"

It's one of the most-quoted lines in Eurocult cinema history, and the person who spoke them onscreen in Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA (1977) -- actor-director Rudolf Schündler -- was born 100 years ago today.

Many people don't make the connection, but Schündler played an even more widely-seen role in the 1970s: that of Karl, the chauffeur of Chris MacNeil and her daughter Regan in THE EXORCIST (1973). But his roots as a player in the West German kinefantastiche goes back to the 1930s, encompassing Fritz Lang's THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE (1933) and various Edgar Wallace krimis, including THE SINISTER MONK (1965), THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS (1967), and THE MAN WITH THE GLASS EYE (1969). In the early 1970s, he began accepting work in Italy and was featured in THE RED QUEEN KILLS 7 TIMES (1972), MAGDALENA POSSESSED BY THE DEVIL (1974, as Father Conrad), Hans-Jurgen Sylberberg's epic biography KARL MAY (1974), and the aforementioned SUSPIRIA, in which he played Dr. Milius, the authority on witchcraft who explains the history of the Three Mothers to Jessica Harper's Susy Banyon.

The son of a businessman, Schündler trained to be an actor in Leipzig and appeared in stage performances in Beuthen, Zurich, Nuremberg and Dortmund before making a name for himself in Berlin, where he worked as an actor and stage director until 1937. In Munich, he founded the Kabarett Die Schaubude in 1945 and worked there as a player and as the cabaret's artistic director until 1949. After this, he returned to working exclusively in film, initially in the role of director. He directed more than 20 films of his own between 1950 and 1962 (none of a fantastic nature), but acting was his true passion. He followed SUSPIRIA with many more roles in film and television, including a part in Wim Wenders' modern classic THE AMERICAN FRIEND (1977), before bringing his acting career full circle by starring in the 1985 short DR. MABUSE IM GEDACHTNIS ("Dr. Mabuse in Memorium").

Schündler died of a heart attack in December 1988 at the age of 82. He was buried in Munich at the Ostfreidhof cemetery and a photograph of the burial site he shares with his mother and two siblings can be found on this page of an interesting German website, which also pictures the Baden-Baden grave of Dr. Mabuse himself, Wolfgang Preiss.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Lost and Found: Chris Jordan and A TOUCH OF GENIE

Chris Jordan (right) with Jennifer Nicholson in Joe Sarno's ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN.

Correspondent Alan Bobet has written to inform me of the death of actress Chris Jordan, best-remembered as a standout supporting player in several Joe Sarno films of the 1970s.

According to the IMDb, Chris made her screen debut under the name Kathy Everett in Alan & Jeanne Abel's X-rated comedy IS THERE SEX AFTER DEATH? (1970), which also starred Buck Henry, Robert Downey and Marshall Efron. She made at least four films with Joe Sarno in 1974, including the softcore DEEP THROAT PART II, the comedies THE SWITCH AND HOW TO ALTER YOUR EGO and A TOUCH OF GENIE, and CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE, in which she gave a memorable comic performance as heroine Rebecca Brooke's perpetually hungry friend Anna. The films ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN (in which she played a deglamorized tomboy role) and MISTY, shot back-to-back, followed in 1975-76. Her other films include Roberta Findlay's THE CLAMDIGGER'S DAUGHTER and the lead as "Mouse" in TEENAGE HITCHHIKERS. As with most performers working in the adult film industry, it's likely that she acted under an assumed name. She also worked under the names Cris Jordan and Karen Craig in her XXX films, but was credited as Kathie Christopher in TEENAGE HITCHHIKERS; the latter may have been her real name, as this would have been an important project for her -- her only lead in an R-rated film.

Unfortunately there are no details at present, but the news of Jordan's "recent" death was announced at an April 5th screening of A TOUCH OF GENIE at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in New York City, with Joe Sarno and his wife/assistant Peggy Steffans Sarno in attendance. Considered one of Sarno's lost films until recently, A TOUCH OF GENIE is scheduled to be restored and released on DVD this summer by RetroSeduction Cinema, along with THE SWITCH AND HOW TO ALTER YOUR EGO, another sex-comedy featuring the same basic cast.

Alan Bobet writes: "A TOUCH OF GENIE film was originally filmed by Sarno in 1974 as a XXX rated explicit version, as well as a soft core version, under the pseudonym of Karl Anderson. Retro Seduction Cinema found the only existing copy of the film, which is the softcore version, thru a private collector who sold the only existing print on eBay. Since Retro couldn't find the right materials or master print for this film, they decided to restore it as best as possible even with it's splotches and splices. The film is 70 minutes long and the plot is a combination of TV's I DREAM OF JEANIE and THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, while also an affectionate and funny spoof of early 1970's porno films. Douglas Stone plays a young nebbish named Melvin with a overbearing and oversexed mother, played by 70's adult film star, Ultramax. Melvin spends his days running his parent's thrift shop, while at night he goes to his neighborhood Manhattan down-and-out porno theater in various ridiculous disguises to watch porn films starring his idols, Harry Reems, Marc "10 1/2" Stevens, Eric Edwards, and Tina Russell. One day he finds a genie's lamp on his way to work and rubs it and a beautiful and sexy genie appears, played by Chris Jordan. The genie tells Melvin that she will grant him five wishes, instead of the usual three (because of 70's inflation) and Melvin uses those wishes to become his favorite male pornstars and have sex with Tina Russell and other female pornstars. But Melvin learns that getting his wishes doesn't turn out as well as he thought. The audience laughed and responded very well with the film, even in it's present condition."

According to film historian Michael Bowen, who is preparing a biography of the writer-director, Sarno's other chief female stars of this period -- Rebecca Brooke and Jennifer Welles -- are both alive and well but retired from public life.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

VIDEO WATCHDOG #130: First Peek

Here is your first look at the cover of our next issue, VIDEO WATCHDOG #130, which will be shipping on April 27. A tip of the hat to cover artist Charlie Largent for his evocative trip back to FORBIDDEN PLANET, which handsomely acknowledges Sam & Rebecca Umland's detailed review of Warner Home Video's new HD DVD of this classic title.

Though the Umlands' review isn't one of the issue's feature articles, it's only a two-page spread shy of the length of our two features -- Ted Newsom's Freddie Francis tribute and David Kalat's behind-the-scenes story about producing a restored version of GANJA & HESS for All Day Entertainment. The comparative brevity of these articles (six pages each) allowed us to accomodate more reviews this time around, which is helpful since we wanted to make up somewhat for lost time by covering a larger number of new releases. Anyway, we've had a number of 1950s icons on our covers over the years -- the Gillman, Harryhausen's Cyclops, James Arness as the Thing, even the She-Creature -- and I feel a sense of fulfillment to have the ultimate '50s sci fi icon, Robby the Robot, gracing our cover for the first time.

VW #130 is an important issue for us because it marks the resumption of our monthly schedule for the first time since #119, which we published a full two years ago. We're up to the task of meeting tighter deadlines, and we're hoping that you'll all fall happily back into the habit of seeking out VW at your favorite newsstand on a more regular basis.

Visit the "Coming Soon" page on the VW website for a near-complete rundown of the issue's contents and a free four-page preview.

Friday, April 13, 2007

FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD Unveiled


There's your first peek at the cover art for Media Blasters' eagerly awaited "Tokyo Shock" release of Ishiro Honda's FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD [Furankenshutain tai chitei kaijû Baragon, 1965]. Now here are the specs for this two-disc set:

DISC ONE:
FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD
"English Language Version" (84:47) - English Mono / English 5.1, 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen (contrary to the earlier reports saying it was 1.78:1 - meaning this will be an improvement on the 1.78:1 master still being shown on Monsters HD)
EXTRAS: Special Announcement (40 seconds), Theatrical Trailer (2 minutes), Extra International Footage (alternate octopus ending), Deleted Scenes (approx 5 minutes), Photo Gallery (approx 150 images)

DISC TWO:
FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON "International Version" (93:04)*
FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON "Japanese Theatrical Version" (89:53) - 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, Japanese Mono / Japanese 5.1 / English Subtitles, Audio Commentary with Sadamasa Arikawa (Director of Special EffectsPhotography) with English Subtitles, plus trailers for ATRAGON, DOGORA, MYSTERIANS, MATANGO

* Note: The FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON "International Version" is the same film as the "Japanese Theatrical Version" except that it includes the alternate octopus ending included as an extra on DISC ONE. The Sadamasa Arikawa commentary appears over this version of the film.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Dylan Times Two/No Limit

D.A. Pennebaker's classic documentary of Bob Dylan's 1965 tour of the United Kingdom has been refurbished for a new, deluxe DVD release that, when held in one's hand, has the earnest heft of a Bible. In addition to a digitally restored presentation of the main feature, there's a collection of uncut performances culled from various venues during the tour; an entire second disc of compelling outtakes, including other performances and a guest appearance by Nico; and a reprint of the 168-page book version of Pennebaker's film, containing images and transcriptions of every word spoken in it. When this film was first released to US theaters, some of its strong language was censored, but this was restored for the previous video releases and remains intact here. For a film shot in 16mm with available light, the image quality is exceptional and the sound quality is also improved, but there is something about a document of such historical importance that entices the eyes and ears to dilate, to make the most of what's available. What's especially great about this set is that the uncut performances shift the package's focus from Dylan the charming provocateur to Dylan the artist; it is amazing in itself, in this era of stage teleprompters and song books, to see him stand alone on a stage and call to mind all the imagistic words from these songs, at a time when they were less than a year old in some cases, and interpreted with so much inflection, immediacy, and urgency. At the same time, it becomes easier to understand why audiences were so powerfully drawn to the almost Holy force of the truths he summoned and why they felt betrayed when he chose to diffuse the unacceptable burden of that limelight by sharing it with a band and erecting a wall of electricity and volume between his audience and his vulnerability. Impossible to watch without thinking, "Woe is us, but how blessed we were."

It's hard to tell whether this film -- co-scripted by Bob Dylan and director Larry Charles -- was intended as a fantasy or an allegory, but I'm inclined to see it as a remake of DON'T LOOK BACK of sorts, and Dylan's own jet-black recrimination of a world that has failed to heed the warnings of his best-loved songs and grown monstrous. Dylan himself, looking like a diminutive Dr. Phibes in Hank Williams garb, plays Jack Fate, a legendary musician caught and imprisoned after witnessing, shall we say, an unsharable political truth involving his father. Many years later, as his father lies on his deathbed, Fate is released and immediately snared by snake-oil agent John Goodman and producer Jessica Langue as the only available musical star for a televised charity event. The nature of the charity is vague, but so is the nature of the heavily spray-painted, multi-racial, brooding, self-interested landscape of the America herein portrayed. Fate himself is no more familiar; a wiry little man no one recognizes, he steps out of his communal prison cell into an America where his once-famous songs (like "My Back Pages") are heard principally in languages other than English, or thrashed out by groups like the Ramones; no one remembers him except a few people who might profit from that memory. Dylan proves himself a better actor than any of his earlier screen work indicated, noble and touching and cypherish, and Jeff Bridges and Val Kilmer have terrific supporting roles as an arrogant journalist and animal wrangler, respectively. Bridges' interview with Jack, which seems to have been improvised and whittled down to its most vicious essence, is one of the film's highlights. Shapeless perhaps, but sprawling and impressionistic in the best sense, not unlike "Desolation Row" applied to cinema. Though it's fairly obscure now, it's bound to gain greater recognition as one of Dylan's major latter-day projects in years to come. Why was this film called MASKED AND ANONYMOUS? Perhaps because AMERICAN GRAFFITI was already taken.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Let Me Tell You 'Bout THE BIRDS and THE BEAST

Over the years, many a film buff has pondered the unexplained "why" of Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 shocker THE BIRDS. By not giving a concrete explanation for the avian attacks depicted in his and Evan Hunter's adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novella, Hitchcock gave his film a philosophic buoyancy that has kept it ever fresh and open to debate and discussion, while countless other screen mysteries have lost their appeal from the moment they were stamped "case closed."

I've always been intrigued by the insistence of some viewers to describe THE BIRDS as Hitchcock's only science fiction film, a point I personally question as the story conveys no scientific basis; indeed, the story is pitched in such a way that one is tempted to respond to the film more as metaphor than as a straightforward narrative. More than a science fiction film, it is an apocalyptic film -- a kind of movie often seen as a sub-genre of science fiction, but which only literally applies when the nature of the apocalypse is scientifically caused, effected, or resolved (Andrew Marton's fine but often overlooked CRACK IN THE WORLD being a good case in point). Rendered without explanation and concluded without closure, THE BIRDS is that rare mainstream production that approximates poetry rather than prose.

A flock of birds attack Paul Birch, low-budget-style, in
THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES.

These thoughts were prompted by my viewing, last Friday night, of THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES (1955) on Turner Classic Movies as part of a three-film tribute to Roger Corman, who celebrated his 81st birthday last week. (Has it already been a year since Video WatchBlog's 80th birthday Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon?) Corman isn't credited onscreen, but he produced and apparently co-directed this picture (scripted by Tom Filer) with David Kramarsky, previously a production assistant and manager on a number of Corman's early Westerns (FIVE GUNS WEST, OKLAHOMA WOMAN, GUNSLINGER). Kramarsky apparently left the Business after producing THE CRY BABY KILLER in 1958. It's easy to see why THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES was Kramarsky's only directorial credit: its principal trait is a preponderance of rough edges, as scenes consistently fail to cut together or to convey any sense of narrative momentum. Even as a die-hard apologist for this sort of thing, I can't quite dodge the fact that it's a crummy picture; after all, this is the movie whose fancifully-named monster turns out to be a tiny, two-eyed Paul Blaisdell creation that lives inside what appears to be a coffee percolator decorated with empty rifle shells and stakes its claim to the title by seeing through the eyes of all the Earth creatures it possesses. But seeing the movie again, for the first time in many years, now preceded by a United Artists logo that must have cost more to produce than the feature itself, I was struck by its many similarities to THE BIRDS and by the idea that it might well be described as "THE BIRDS -- with an explanation."
Paul Birch discovers the gored remains of neighbor Chester Conklin.

Seven years later, Hitchcock directs Rod Taylor in a similar scene.


Like Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in THE BIRDS, the protagonist of THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES is a manly, jut-jawed fellow named Allan Kelley, played by Paul Birch -- whose deep Alabama-bred voice is rich in Biblical cadences, thus making him the perfect Moses for Corman's apocalyptic scenarios. Like Mitch, Allan lives apart from the main crush of civilization with two women -- his daughter Sandra (Dona Cole, presaging Mitch's pre-teen sister played by Veronica Cartwright) and his isolation-frazzled wife Carol (Lorna Thayer, presaging Mitch's brittle mother Lydia played by Jessica Tandy). After the titular alien lands in a desert area neighboring the Kelley's farmhouse, the local animals begin to attack their owners -- the Kelley's dog Duke terrorizes Carol, who is also attacked by her chickens while collecting eggs. (Lorna Thayer was plagued by chickens throughout her screen career, most famously being told by Jack Nicholson to hold one between her knees in FIVE EASY PIECES.) Communication lines are destroyed by hails of kamikaze crows, which also attack Allan's car. Later, in a scene paralleling Lydia's discovery of a neighbor pecked eyeless by a murder of birds, Ben Webber (played by silent film comedian Chester Conklin), a neighbor of the Kelleys, is fatally gored while trying to milk his cow and discovered by Allan in a manner like that of Mitch's discovery of the dead schoolteacher Annie Hayworth, played by Suzanne Pleshette. Nailing the comparison is the bird attack on Sandra near the end, which leaves her in a state of shock-induced catatonia through the last reel. Like Lydia's later relationship with Melanie Daniels ('Tippi' Hedren), Carol's relationship with her daughter is initially adversarial but becomes more caring and maternally protective as the dangers they share deepen.

Dysfunctional couple Lorna Thayer and Paul Birch rally to the support of comatose daughter Dona Cole.

According to a thread on the Classic Horror Films Board, Hitchcock did option -- prior to filming THE BIRDS -- a novella by Fredric Brown called THE MIND THING, which bore certain similarities to THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES. He never produced the film, but it has been known to happen that properties are sometimes optioned to keep them from being produced in conflict with a similar project. I can't imagine that Hitchcock would have seriously directed a film based on THE MIND THING, but it could be that its explanation of its bird attacks paralleled an explanation that Hitchcock may have had in mind for his own project -- one that he eventually (and wisely) opted to do without. This would better explain the often startling parallels between THE BIRDS and THE BEAST better than the other hypothesis... which would be that Hitchcock was somehow lassoed into seeing THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES, thought it was the worst thing he had ever seen, and accepted someone's bet that he could remake it on the sly and produce a legitimately silken purse out of that sow's ear.

One last note: The IMDb credits the voice-over narration of the Beast to one Bruce Whitmore, his only screen credit. It sounds a lot like Les Tremayne (who had extensive voice acting credits) to me.