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.