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)