Monday, May 28, 2007

Back from Wonderfest 2007

WHAT A WEEKEND Donna and I had in Louisville, Kentucky! This photo is a distillation of only a part of its wonderment, but what a heady draught! Here are Donna and I, our three latest Rondo awards (Best Magazine for VW, Best Website for Video WatchBlog, and Writer of the Year) gathered in my arms, and sharing the frame with us is the one-and-only John Zacherle, the 88 years young Rondo Hall of Famer, who was present to celebrate the 50th anniversary of SHOCK THEATER and to collect a Rondo bust of his own for his latest CD, INTERMENT FOR TWO. This is a moment in time we'll always treasure -- many thanks to our pal Ted Haycraft for capturing it!!!
That's all the blog for now; I'm beat. But what are you waiting for? Go find a copy of INTERMENT FOR TWO and buy it now! It's a winner! Literally.
Stay tuned: More Wonderfest memories in the days ahead.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Bava Book High Resolution Photos Up

Today is one of those days you should check the Bava Book Update blog. See you over there!

Highway 61 Meets Route 66

Bob Dylan turns 66 today.

I've been on a Dylan jag pretty much all year, listening to the albums, his wonderful radio shows, reading the books about him and the books about his music (Paul Williams, Michael Gray's encyclopedia, and above all, Greil Marcus). I've been seeing as many of the films as I can find. A current favorite of mine is the song "Changing of the Guards" from STREET-LEGAL, an album I consider underrated as a collection of songs though I am sometimes annoyed by the producer's handling of the songs. "Changing of the Guards" was one of the songs selected by Patti Smith for her new album of covers, TWELVE, and her version may well redefine the song, much as Jimi Hendrix left his indelible imprint on "All Across the Watchtower." Lenny Kaye's acoustic guitar brings out the song's heroism so full-bloodedly, it's full of juice. Smith's haggard but expressive voice grabs onto the lyrics and wrests out all their medievalism, and the progression from one stanza to the next has all the drama of a series of overturned Tarot cards.

I'm up way too late and it's time for my boot heels to be wanderin' -- but I wish Bob Dylan a happy day and a good show tonight as he entertains the folks in Hershey, PA. On those occasions when I lose touch with what it means to be an artist, he's one of the lights who can always be counted on to bring me back on course, and I'm appreciative.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Read Me, Hear Me

SIGHT & SOUND have updated their webpage with samples of their new June 2007 "Grindhouse" issue, which I mentioned a week or so ago as forthcoming. In addition to posting my usual NoZone column (which this month focuses on Alain Robbe-Grillet's LA BELLE CAPTIVE), they've posted by the complete text of my "10 Picks from the Grindhouse" feature -- though the print edition is much more fully illustrated, having images from all ten feature films covered by the article.

Last week I reviewed Docudrama's new box set reissue of DA Pennebaker's BOB DYLAN DONT LOOK BACK for my next SIGHT & SOUND "NoZone" -- which, incredibly, will be Column # 50. I wrote the first of the columns in April 2003, and it was published a month or two later. My "10 Picks from the Grindhouse" article is, by my count, the 50th piece I've published in the magazine, the first being a short piece related to Joe Dante's MATINEE written about ten years before the column was proposed to me.

Also, Vince Rotolo's website B-Movie Cast has posted the first-ever podcast interview that Donna and I have ever given. I think I threw Vince a curve by suggesting that Donna join us in the interview, but as the publisher of VW and the designer of the Bava book (our two topics of discussion), I knew in advance that she could answer some questions better than I could. The download runs for about 25 minutes and I hope you'll take the time to give it a listen. Our thanks to Vince for the attention.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

It Never Ends

It was inevitable. As I await the return of my mastodontic Bava book from the printer, certain interesting tid-bits of information not privvy to me, or unnoticed by me as I was preparing its 1100+ pages, are beginning to come to light. It's a little frustrating to realize that even the work of a lifetime has its limitations, but all I can do now is to start a new document in which to collect these assorted facts and topics-for-further-research as they become known to me and find some way to make use of them in the future.

For example, today, while listening to some Ennio Morricone soundtracks, I made a very interesting discovery. I've never seen the 1967 spy film MATCHLESS, but while listening to an mp3 of the soundtrack album, I quickly recognized elements of the first track -- "Donna e amori" -- as coming from Mario Bava's film PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES. This film, scored by Gino Marinuzzi, Jr., was produced two years earlier than MATCHLESS. The sounds heard during the first 18 seconds of the cue -- the low bubbling sound, the intermittent foghorn-like bellowing -- just prior to the ascending, layered brass pattern, are heard in PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES during the opening scene aboard the spaceship Argos and probably elsewhere, as well. Then, from 00:49 - 00:53, just after a brief electric bass solo, the track utilizes another sound heard throughout PLANET, even under its opening titles: a kind of sparkling electronic chatter, which later repetitions of the sound in a lower octave (for example, 1:45-49) reveal as electronic keyboard vamping, probably by Bruno Nicolai, who played something vaguely similar during the animated IdentiKit sequence of 1968's DANGER: DIABOLIK.

This discovery raises some interesting questions. Could the components heard in PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES actually be the uncredited work of Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai? If so, even if these were library tracks at the time, it would allow us to add another Morricone collaboration, or at least an asterisk, to Bava's filmography -- which presently allows for only a single such collaboration, the justly-celebrated DANGER: DIABOLIK. (I'd have to listen to the PLANET soundtrack CD again to make sure, but I don't remember these bits being present on the Digitmovies CD, which would suggest that they weren't Marinuzzi's work and did originate from a film music library.) Another possibility is that Morricone sampled these sounds by Marinuzzi, who was in fact an accomplished electronic composer; this possibility holds potential too because the MATCHLESS soundtrack ends with a reprise of "Donna e amori" that completely omits the electronic musical effects to which I'm referring and sounds much the more organic of the two versions.

If any Morricone experts out there are able to shed light on the questions raised by this discovery, please let me know.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

That Thing He Did


I haven't written about it before, but I believe that Tom Hanks' THAT THING YOU DO! is one of the best American films to emerge in the last decade or so, and arguably the most impressive American directorial debut since Preston Sturges accepted the princely sum of one buck to direct his original screenplay THE GREAT McGINTY in 1940.
I've seen it countless times -- it's one of those films I can't click away from when I'm channel surfing -- and never grow tired of it; there is always something new to discover in it, endless character arcs to follow through its immensely rich weave. It's a small film in some ways; there are no real stars aside from Hanks himself, an as-yet-unfamous Charlize Theron, and a brief bit by Warren Berlinger -- yet it's teeming with character, incident, in-jokes, historic references, and other such grace notes. The original songs are endlessly listenable and appealing; when I hear them, I know immediately which artists and songs they were meant to reference, but I'm so deeply impressed by their craftsmanship, on the levels of songwriting and performance, that I concede to them a complete suspension of disbelief. These songs would have been hits in the day, had they been recorded then.
Furthermore, the film and its cast of characters is a virtual pop-up trivia test of the viewer's pop history savvy; catching all the references isn't essential to one's enjoyment of the picture, but to recognize how well they have been assimilated into this imaginary tale adds immeasurably to one's respect for its achievement. (I wouldn't half-mind writing an "Annotated THAT THING YOU DO!" if there was an audience for it.) I think it is the most completely imagined rock-'n-roll fantasy ever filmed -- the story of the rise-and-fall of The Oneders (pronounced "Wonders," not "oh-needers"), a fictional Erie, PA garage band whose one-and-only single reached the BILLBOARD #7 slot in 1964. In telling this story with such empathy and humor, it also succeeds in telling a representative story that is actually commonplace, so commonplace as to have spawned the phrase "One Hit Wonders."
Because I love this movie so much, it was with some trepidation that I awaited 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's release of a two-disc "Tom Hanks Extended Cut" of THAT THING YOU DO!, which streeted last week. Expecting maybe 8 additional minutes at most, I was startled to learn that it had actually been lengthened by 40 minutes, which made its odds for success seem even more precipitous. You have to understand: I believe the original theatrical cut is as close to air-tight as any picture I've ever seen -- the cutting rhythms are actually vibrant, ideally complementary to the bright colors of the songs and Tak Fujimoto's cinematography. On the other hand, I can't think of another film of such recent vintage that revels so evidently and so well in its love for actors (everyone onscreen seems to have his or her own discernible backstory), so this is the extended cut's potential ace-in-the-hole: more time in which to explore the nooks and crannies of its sprawling canvas.
I wouldn't have believed it possible, but in most ways, the new extended cut actually improves upon a film I consider perfect. The additional scenes do indeed lend depth and detail to what was already there, and they also lay the groundwork toward a more lucid understanding of various relationships within the story. Group leader-songwriter Jimmy (Jonathan Schaech) is more of a prick earlier on, ignoring his girlfriend Fay (Liv Tyler) yet always quick to label her as his property whenever anyone else pays her any mind. We also see earlier signs of rapport between Fay and Guy (Tom Everett Scott), which makes the eventual turn of their relationship seem as grounded as it is serendipitous. There are also hilarious revelations about the touching relationship between The Bass Player (Ethan Embry) and a member of the Chantrellines, and the private life of band agent Mr. White (Hanks) -- both of which come as welcome disclosures dramatically and comedically, while also touching on their apparent basis in the personal lives of Supremes singer Mary Wilson and Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Obba Babatundé, who brings a wealth of personality to a role that would likely be negligeable if guided by another director, has an especially good added moment opposite Liv Tyler.
What is startling, though, about the extended cut is that -- just before the end -- it not only augments what we know about these beloved characters, but actually rewrites the fate of the lead character. In the theatrical cut, Guy leaves a magical unexpected studio jam session with his jazz hero Del Paxton (Bill Cobbs) advised that he has what it takes to make it as a session drummer on the west coast. Here, a dazzled phone call to the only other person who might understand his dream day -- a jazz disc jockey played by Clint Howard -- results in a job opportunity of a different kind. I don't know what precipitated this change in Hanks' mind (did he decide that Guy really didn't have the chops to make it in LA?), but he clearly provided for it during the shooting. From my perspective as a fan, as well as a critic, as interesting as this alternative direction for the character may be, it has the feel of a misjudgment, whether it is or not; it's the only moment that isn't kindly and generously accomodating to one's familiarity with the picture. Up to this point, having an alternative version of the film is a unalloyed treat, but after this left-field switcheroo, our choice of which version we might want to watch in the future (and the disc gives us both) is going to rest on how we want things to work out for Guy. I may grow to love it, but at first sight, I'm uneasy with it. I love these characters, I believe in them, and I don't like to think of their fates as flexible. It's tempting to think that Hanks deliberately built... not a flaw exactly, but a point of contention into this longer cut so that the original version could continue to hold its own ground. If I didn't know the other version so well, there would be no problem.
There's a second disc of extras, but one hesitates to call it "a whole disc of extras," as they constitute well under two hours. (They also are assembled on the menu in a manner that doesn't strike me as chronological, so if we simply click down the queue, we get a jumble. A more orderly "Play All" option would have been preferable.) Included are documentation of The Wonders' promotional visit to Japan, interviews pertaining to the film's casting and production history, an HBO "First Look" special hosted by Martha Quinn, and a fun reunion of cast members Schaech, Theron, Scott and Embry, with inserted comments from the movie's MVP, Steve Zahn (Lenny). It's all very gratifying, yet there's not enough of it to be fully satisfying -- especially because the featurettes include fun shots, lines, and bits still not included in either the theatrical version or the extended cut. (One of these, a cutaway from the "Hollywood Television Showcase," has Guy's father -- Holmes Osborne, another great, nuanced performance -- describing a recent movie starring the show's host Troy Chesterfield [Hanks' BOSOM BUDDIES co-star Peter Solari]: two guys disguise themselves to live in an all-girls apartment complex.) These prepare us for a "Deleted Scenes" option, but one isn't included. Nor is an audio commentary or any recent input from Hanks himself. These might have helped to fill in the punchlines teasingly withheld from a couple of insiderly jokes in the movie (for example, what happened that was so funny when Lenny stayed up after midnight?), and also told the story behind a featured music video called "Feelin' Alright" (not heard in the film or on the soundtrack), accompanied by a montage of shots from the movie, credited to Josh Clayton-Felt in a memorial gesture that's now seven or eight years old (1967-2000).
I have the greatest respect for Tom Hanks as an actor and producer, but despite FORREST GUMP, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, I sincerely feel that he's done his best work to date as a director. I wish he was more prolific in this area, but you can't argue with his track record.
He's directed two perfect features since 1996 -- and they're both called THAT THING YOU DO!.
PS: Thanks to Terry Thome for writing with a couple of corrections and observations. He also adds: "It would have been nice to finally recognise Mike Viola as the 'ghost' vocalist for Jimmy Mattingly III's performances. He's one of the great unknown POP vocalists of our time and THAT THING YOU DO! led me to be a good friend of his. Check out his Bio from 1999 that I uploaded to Youtube. It's a hoot. Please watch, as there's a piece of THAT THING YOU DO! in it. Check out http://www.mikeviola.com/ for his records, too!"

Coming Soon from VW

Didn't I tell you it was a great cover? Click here for all the details.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Girls at the Grecian Grindhouse

Yesterday I received an advance copy of the June issue of SIGHT & SOUND (Vol 17 No 6), and it's a great one. In addition to their usual international film reviews and features, they have devoted eleven full-color pages to grindhouse cinema: Nick James on the Rodriguez/Tarantino double-feature, Mike Atkinson pursuing a workable definition of the term through various examples, Tony Rayns on his memories of Anthony Balch and the UK grindhouse experience, Ben Hervey on the new Samuel L. Jackson/Christina Ricci flick BLACK SNAKE MOAN, and then there's my three-page article selecting ten prime examples of grindhouse fare (everything from THE ABDUCTORS to GIRLS AT THE GYNECOLOGIST to SS HELL CAMP). My list not only gets a mention on the cover, but it got a mention in Nick's editorial which is an even tougher score to make. Plus the issue has my "NoZone" review of Alain Robbe-Grillet's LE BELLE CAPTIVE. In short, I think this is an issue of SIGHT & SOUND you'll want to check out.

Earlier today, John Charles and I finished the final read-through of our next issue, VIDEO WATCHDOG 131, and Donna's in the next room right now getting it ready to be sent to the printer. This was a rigorous issue to put together; all the pieces weren't quite in place when we needed them, and it was also a bear to edit and proofread. Our feature article is a lengthy, groundbreaking piece about Greek fantastic cinema by Dimitris Koliodimos, and it brought John and I into contact with films and words and names and geography we've never had to deal with before! That said, reading the final text of this issue was deeply satisfying to me. I always feel good about our issues, because they're fun and smart and informative, but occasionally one comes along that also feels substantial. This is one of those, and I suspect it's one of our best. In fact, a short time ago, Donna showed me the finished cover for the issue and... hoo boy... front, back and inside, it looks like money. This may be the classiest-looking cover we've ever had. Splendid work by Charlie and Donna. You'll see what I mean soon: we'll be posting a new "Coming Soon" page on the website in the next day or so.

I'm excited to be back at work on a monthly.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Over the Moon About VW

Many thanks to Jeremy Richey, whose always interesting Moon in the Gutter blog today presents a very welcome appraisal of our current issue (VIDEO WATCHDOG #130) and return to monthly publication.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

On VHS

Oops, we just found out there's another birthday to report today! Our warmest congratulations to VW contributor Richard Harland Smith and wife Barbara Fish on the birth this afternoon of their second child (and first son) Victor Harland Smith -- 7 lbs., 14.9 oz. of bouncing baby boy.

Here's to Jess Franco on His 77th

Jess Franco celebrates with a small group of friends in the 1980 film MACUMBA SEXUAL.

Today Jess Franco -- one of my favorite filmmakers, favorite personalities, and favorite people -- is celebrating his 77th birthday. I would like to mark the occasion with a glimpse into a little side project of mine that has been incubating for awhile. I've just completed an immense book about Mario Bava and I have no intention at present of writing another book of that size and scope; however, over the years, many correspondents have encouraged me to write a book about Franco, and this is something that part of me also yearns to do specifically for him. Jess Franco is one of the very few film directors who literally changed my way of seeing, and I would like to repay that debt with a book that, unlike OBSESSION, is wholly mine.
Sometime last year, I began compiling and ordering new thoughts about Franco's work as I set about transfering some of my old tapes to DVD-R. I decided to start with Jess's 1970s films, as I feel this was his most vital and progressive era, and see what developed. As it happens, some interesting things began to take shape. I'm not prepared to embark on a film-by-film study of Franco's entire career (which would probably take another 32 years to complete), but I believe that an in-depth study of his '70s work is doable and could be valuable in itself. Later, if I cared to, I could add to it with other books devoted to the other decades, but I don't want to think about that now. I'm not quite ready to commit even to this endeavor to the extent of calling it a project; at least for now, I prefer to think of it as a hobby.
I thought I would pay tribute to Jess today by excerpting from the text I have written about one of his most interesting and offbeat films of the 1970s. And so, without further ado... Cumpleaños Felices, Tio Jess!

France: LE JOURNAL INTIME D’UNE NYMPHOMANE (“The Intimate Diary of a Nymphomaniac,” 1972 - Videobox)
France: LES INASSOUVIES ’77 (1977)
UK: SINNER (Go Video PAL VHS)
USA: DIARY OF A NYMPHO (Howard Mahler Films, 1974)

This erotic cautionary tale was presumably inspired by the success of such films as Max Pecas’ Je Suis une Nymphomane/Forbidden Passions (1970) and Dan Wolman’s Maid in Sweden (1971): like them, it is a downbeat first person account of a young European woman who becomes involved in intensely sexual lives and lives to regret it. It has always been a staple of exploitation filmmaking to explore subjects like sex and drugs while wearing a mask of sanctimonious piety, granting their audience a margin of safety and separation. Le Journal Intime d’une Nymphomane shares some of these characteristics and thus is a most unusual feature for Franco, as its judgmental quality (reflected in the Scarlet Letter-like title of the English version) flies in the face of the amoral stance he generally takes as an individual and as a filmmaker.

Linda Vargas (Montserrat Prous) is a “live sex act” performer in a nightclub known as The Lucky Ghost. While feigning lovemaking with her co-worker Maria (Kali Hansa), she catches the eye of customer Ortiz (“Jean-Pierre Bourbon” aka Manuel Pereira) and joins him later at his table. After persuading him to buy and imbibe ten bottles of champagne, Linda walks Vargas around the corner to to a seedy hotel room she uses for assignations. By the time they undress, Vargas passes out – and after calling the police and informing them that a girl has been murdered in that room, she cuts her own throat and dies on Ortiz. He is charged with murder and his wife Rosa (Jacqueline Laurent, “Ruth” in the English version) is summoned to the station. Upset with her husband’s infidelity, she determines to help him establish his innocence by undertaking an investigation outside official province: an investigation into the victim’s life and relationships. An interview with Linda’s friend the Countess Ana de Monterey (Anne Libert) reveals that she was a small-town girl who came to Madrid only to lose her virginity to a rapist on an amusement park’s ferris wheel. While delivering laundry to the Countess, she observed her making love and was invited into her bed, eventually sharing her male lover, Paco (“Gene Harris” aka Francisco Acosta). Paco took Linda to the Lucky Ghost where she met Maria. Linda lost Paco when his wife caught them together in bed, and she took refuge in Maria’s apartment and open, nurturing sexuality. Through Maria, Linda became involved in nude modelling after meeting an aging “fat cow” junkie photographer named Mrs. Schwartz (Doris Thomas), and subsequently in drugs. That’s when the Countess lost track of her.

Rosa gets the rest of the story from Maria, a lesbian exhibitionist, who reads aloud to her from Linda’s own diary while shocking the woman’s sensibilities by stripping off and pleasuring herself. Rosa confesses that she’s equally attracted and repulsed by such openness, admitting that her husband has never seen her naked (“we turn off the lights wen we go to bed”) and that she herself has never looked at her own body. Maria seduces Rosa and teaches her to appreciate her body. Returning to the diary, Rosa learns that Linda was nearly rehabilitated from her nymphomaniacal ways by a doctor (Howard Vernon) who ran a private clinic. When she relapsed, he called her a whore and insisted on being paid for his services as a whore would pay, then told her to get out. She then returned to The Lucky Ghost, where Paco tried to get back into her good graces, but it was too late. She went to work at the club with Maria and then, one night, the man who raped her at the amusement park showed up in the audience – Ortiz. She decided to punish him for ruining her life by ruining his own by framing him for murder, her own suicide. The story told, Rosa and Maria fall asleep in each other’s arms. When they awake, Rosa asks for the diary, which Maria gives to her. She takes the evidence of her husband’s innocence of the murder charge with her, but – overcome by the sound of Linda’s voice demanding “He must pay! He must pay!” – she tosses the diary into a lake.

Made in tandem with Les Ebranlées and Franco’s first Manacoa production Un Silencio de Tumba, Le Journal Intime d’une Nymphomane is notable for the first lead performance by Montserrat Prous, a young actress who briefly occupied centerstage in his filmography between the death of Soledad Miranda and his discovery of Rosa Maria Almirall, whom he recristened Lina Romay. Montserrat Prous entered the world of filmmaking as an assistant makeup artist and met Franco through her relatives Isidoro, Alberto, and Juan, who had worked as production secretary and camera assistants, respectively, on Franco’s El Conde Drácula/Count Dracula (1969). She began acting onscreen that same year, in Amor y Medias (1969), directed by Antonio Ribas.

Any seasoned Franco viewer with knowledge of Lina Romay’s later place in his filmography will find his Montserrat Prous films fascinating, because she foreshadows Romay in many ways. She bears a striking physical resemblance to Romay, but has more elegantly sculpted features; Prous represents an almost intermediary stage between Miranda and Romay, and one suspects that Franco must have perceived in her the same continuation of Soledad Miranda that he later observed in Romay. In this film particularly, Franco uses Prous exactly as he would later use Romay: she appears wearing a pair of the thigh-high leather boots similar to those worn by Romay in several films, including Le Comtesse aux Seins Nus and Exorcismes; she participates in red-light “live sex act” stage performances as in Midnight Party; she has lesbian sex with Kali Hansa; she compliments her own dark hair with a longer, straighter brunette wig that makes her look more like Miranda and Romay; and, in scenes representing flashbacks to her virginal youth, she wears her hair in ponytails.

Compared to Romay (at least in her earliest films), Prous was the conventionally superior actress; on the other hand, Romay’s looks had aspects of darkness and derangement that Prous, a more wholesome beauty, could not summon on her best day. With the arrival of Romay, and as Franco’s personal relationship with her took shape, there was no question of which actress was going to become the enduring “Dark Lady” of Franco’s cinema. Prous made her last Franco film in 1973; thereafter, she and Romay stood on equal ground only in the work of another director, Carlos Aured’s El Fontanero, su muer, y otras cosas de meter… (“The Plumber, His Tools, and How Where He Puts Them…,” 1981), shortly after which Prous married and retired for many years from the screen. She has more recently returned under the name Montserrat Prous Segura.

Like Necronomicon and Vampyros Lesbos, and like Exorcismes and several other films still to come, Le Journal Intime… opens with a stage act, a sexual scene followed by the surprise revelation that the intimacy we have witnessed is part of a performance, met with the approval of audience applause. From there, the film proceeds as an hommage to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, as the life of Linda Vargas (a nominal reference to Welles’ Touch of Evil) is reconstructed through interviews with those who knew this figure of mystery. Rosa Ortiz’s investigation, undertaken with the hope of helping her incarcerated husband, is a reprise of the archetypal undercover lover device dating back to Gritos en la Noche/The Awful Dr. Orlof.

In France, a version of the film including hardcore sequences was released under the title Les Inassouvies ’77 (suggesting a sequel to his earlier film Philosophy in the Boudoir aka Eugenie... the Story of Her Journey into Perversion, which was known as Les Inassouvies in France).

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A Night of Fun and GAMES


Last night I decided to spend a little time with Curtis Harrington by refreshing my memory of his first major studio production, GAMES (1967). Though the film was a critical favorite and a commercial success in its day, Universal has never given the film a proper DVD release, and its two pan&scan VHS releases (the most recent released in 2000, after the advent of the new format) are by definition unsatisfactory considering that it was filmed in Techniscope.
Actually, revisiting the movie eased my mind on this issue somewhat, because cameraman William A. Fraker took care to compose the picture at once for scope framing and for television cropping, reserving the periphery of most shots for set decoration accents. I twice noticed an art nouveau bust that I remembered seeing in Curtis' home hovering on the edge of a composition, just out of sight. (The golden helmeted mask worn by Katharine Ross, seen on the VHS cover shown here, also went on to proud placement on the wall of Curtis' living room.) But there is relatively little cutting from one side of the screen to the other -- at least on my copy, which I recorded from a pay cable channel in the 1980s.

Some quick thoughts: I don't think any single movie better embodies the great divide between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood than GAMES. It has an Old Hollywood sense of elegance and décor, all consciously indebted to the influence of the great European filmmakers who brought style to Hollywood from overseas and the plot (with its not-too-subtle tips of the hat to DIABOLIQUE) distinctly European in tenor. Meanwhile, the mise en scène -- with its references to Lichtenstein and Segal and other pop and postmodern art, is well ahead of the 1967 Hollywood curve and the film's interests in role playing, practical jokes, black magic and murder casts it as a clear-cut progenitor of PERFORMANCE. I can't remember ever reading anything that connected GAMES and PERFORMANCE, and this is undoubtedly due to Universal's seeming disregard for the film, which Curtis himself long petitioned for a proper LaserDisc or DVD release. People don't know the movie, and those who do find it hard to look past its allusions to DIABOLIQUE... yet Curtis was a personal friend of Donald Cammell and they had several other friends in common, making the notion of influence a tantalizing possibility, especially for GAMES' sake. Some viewers feel that the second half of the film is weaker than the first, but I disagree. There's no question that we know that a game is afoot in the second half, but we don't know who is involved, what the circumstances are, or the goal of the proceedings -- so the movie engages the viewer, or should, on a different tier (shall we say) in its second part.

As fine as GAMES is on the level of performance, direction, cinematography, wardrobe and set decoration, I feel it was let down in terms of its score by Samuel Matlovsky, which is borderline fussy and overstressed during the masterfully constructed suspense sequences, which would have been better served by having their accompaniment pared down to well-orchestrated sound effects. (Matlovsky had previously conducted Gustavo Cesár Carreón's score for THE FOOL KILLER [1964] -- a pioneering work of dark Americana scored with orchestra and crudely overlaid electric guitar parts. Flawed but fascinating, and with a staggering performance by former WEREWOLF OF LONDON Henry Hull, THE FOOL KILLER is far less well-known today than GAMES.) Movie musicologists will be amused by a scene in GAMES wherein the three principals (Simone Signoret, James Caan, and Katharine Ross looking her personal best) are dressed in costume and pantomiming some strange sacrificial ritual with a 78rpm record spinning on a Victrola, playing organ music. The scene is shot with a lot of panache and it would have been very effective indeed... had Matlovsky not used for this cue Vic Mizzy's "organ loft" piece from THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN!
GAMES is currently out of print on VHS. If anyone within range of this blog has any pull with Universal, please put a bug in their ear about releasing GAMES on DVD. There are few people around today under the age of 55 who can claim to have seen it as it was intended, and it shouldn't be overlooked by audiences or by history. It's a genuine American suspense classic, and a sophisticated foreshadowing of things to come.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Before Curtis

I remarked yesterday that I could think of no film critic prior to Curtis Harrington who made the leap to directing features. Reader Richard Heft wrote to suggest that I check out the IMDb pages for producer-director Alexander Korda and writer-director Pare Lorentz, which proved educational indeed. Apparently, Korda wrote newspaper and magazine film criticism in Paris between 1911-18, while Lorentz' collected criticism was collected in book form in 1975 under the title LORENTZ ON FILM: MOVIES 1927 TO 1941.

I did some online exploring in regard to Curtis' published works and found that, in addition to writing a chapter for the 1972 book FOCUS ON THE HORROR FILM (not one that I own, unfortunately), he wrote a lengthy feature called "Ghoulies and Ghosties" which appeared in a special edition of THE QUARTERLY OF RADIO FILM AND TELEVISION (Winter 1952) devoted to horror cinema. I found the latter item for sale through abebooks.com and ordered it; if this item is all that the seller's description claimed it to be, it would precede in print the issue of the French magazine CINEMA devoted to "Le Fantastique" that is said to have inspired Forrest J Ackerman's FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. (Curtis' article was more recently reprinted in THE HORROR FILM READER, edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini.)

Novelizations also exist for two Curtis Harrington films: GAMES by Hal Ellson (Ace Books) and, the more desirable of the two, QUEEN OF BLOOD by Charles Nuetzel (Greenleaf Classics, one of those sexed-up items from the publishers of Ed Wood's novelization of ORGY OF THE DEAD). Does anyone out there know if Charles and Albert Nuetzel (FM cover artist) were related or perhaps even one and the same?

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.