Saturday, June 30, 2007

It Exists!

You can see a special 11-minute home video of Donna and me opening the very first copies of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK over on the Bava Book Update blog -- right now.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Friday Announcements

Contents from the July 2007 issue of SIGHT & SOUND are now posted at their website. Among the free samples on display are a well-worth-reading appreciation of Ken Russell by Linda Ruth Williams (remember her from MARIO BAVA MAESTRO OF THE MACABRE?), Michael Brooke on Jan Svankmajer's LUNACY, and my own review of DA Pennebaker's Bob Dylan documentary DONT LOOK BACK. This new issue may not have yet reached newsstands here in the States, so if you still haven't picked up June's swell "Grindhouse" issue, you'd better hurry -- it's not long for the newsstand.

Also, we are presently in the midst of shipping VIDEO WATCHDOG #132, which returned from the printer on Wednesday. It's a fine looking issue, with a great diversity of films and television covered, and the general tone strikes me as more nostalgic and light-hearted than our previous CASINO ROYALE number. For those of you who have been petitioning me for the return of "Things From the Attic"... it's in here!

I also wanted to mention some additional information about THE THOMAS MANN COLLECTION titles, which I blogged about a couple of days ago. Apparently there is some uncertainty at large about whether the set includes the full-length versions of the made-for-German-television THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN and DOCTOR FAUSTUS, or their condensed theatrical versions. I am currently two episodes into DOCTOR FAUSTUS, which is certainly the miniseries version; the IMDb lists a 137m running time for the movie, and the first two parts alone nearly amount to this. It takes awhile to get going, but I'm very much caught up in it. As for THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, it's packaged in an ever stouter disc booklet than FAUSTUS and lists a running time of nearly five hours. Also, THE THOMAS MANN COLLECTION is a Koch Vision (formerly Koch Media) and this label is rapidly becoming synonymous with careless DVD transfers. DOCTOR FAUSTUS looks like it was mastered from an old PAL tape, with lots of staggering during camera pans; it's acceptable only because it's the only opportunity I've had to see this film. It's also letterboxed in a manner that requires me to wide-zoom the picture, which gives it a bit of a taffy-pull, but it's the only way I can fill my screen and get both tiers of the English subtitling. I had the same complaint about Koch Media's LA BELLE CAPTIVE, and their release of Alain Resnais' MURIEL was only somewhat better. This label is exercising superb taste about what to license and release, but they could use an employee with a clue about how to present it all on disc properly.

Lastly, as I type these words, there is a large box sitting in our living room. It contains, I am told, two preliminary copies of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK -- the first two bound copies in the world. These copies are supposedly hand-stitched, in the manner of the dummy blank books we received last year, and once we approve these, the remainder of our order will be sent to the bindery, completing the print run. So why am I sitting here blogging, when I could be holding my book, savoring the fruits of my labors? Well, Donna wants to camcord the occasion for posterity, so rooms have to be cleaned (it's hard to find a presentable room here during the shipping of an issue, which is what's going on at the moment), showers have to be taken, and we have to learn how to use this camcorder, which we haven't touched in years, all over again. So much for spontaneity... but I hope to have some kind of report on the "grand opening" on the Bava Book Update blog later this evening.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Cronenberg's Next

I've found a riveting new trailer for David Cronenberg's forthcoming EASTERN PROMISES online. Watching this made me think of two things: as good as she was in them, it's heartening to see Naomi Watts moving away from KING KONG (film and video game) and the RING series and going back to serious drama (I recently watched 21 GRAMS again and she's never been better); and secondly, this dark thriller looks like it could be the Oscar contender for Cronenberg that A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE wasn't, quite.

Speaking of Cronenbergian things, I'm told that my Millipede Press book on VIDEODROME is proceeding nicely and now in the photo selection/clean-up stage. This past week I pulled out some additional never-before-published shots, including several of myself on the set -- images I literally haven't seen in decades. I was surprised to discover that photos exist of me standing on the actual Videodrome set, and the derelict ship where the film's closing scene takes place, and in Rick Baker's EFX workshop holding a severed arm and a big chunk of Barry Convex cancer. There are also shots of me in the company of David Cronenberg, James Woods, Debbie Harry, Mark Irwin, Carol Spier, and co-producer Victor Solnicki (who I didn't recall meeting). Since I don't anticipate seeing too much more of myself in the book than an author's photo, I will share some of those images here once Donna has a chance to digitally rejuvenate them.

PS: Truphen Newben is back with two more terrifying TALES FROM THE PUB at YouTube: "The Return" and "Doppelganger."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Exploring Genius and Madness with Thomas Mann

Back in 1981 or '82, when I was a regular consumer of VARIETY, I can remember being taken pleasantly aback by a pair of full page ads announcing the completion of a couple of German film productions based on two classic novels by Thomas Mann: THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN and DOCTOR FAUSTUS.

This was around the time I was just dipping my toe into home video and still very much a dedicated reader. Somewhat earlier in my life, in the mid- to late-1970s as I was chain-reading my way through my literary education, I read a great deal of Mann and loved it -- those two books particularly, though I also found myself deliriously overwhelmed by the scope and style of his most colossal work of the imagination, his JOSEPH AND HIS BROTHERS tetralogy. I was thrilled to know that both novels had finally been adapted for the screen and couldn't wait to see them. What I did not know is that it would take another 28 years for that to happen.

Only now have the film versions of THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN [Der Zauberberg, 1982] and DOCTOR FAUSTUS [Doktor Faustus, 1982] become available for viewing with English subtitles, in a DVD box set from Koch Vision called THE THOMAS MANN COLLECTION -- along with an epic miniseries production of Mann's BUDDENBROOKS previously televised here as part of PBS' GREAT PERFORMANCES. The seven-disc set runs longer than 19 hours, making its hefty cost seem more reasonable.

I'm posting this information in a state of excitement; I haven't as yet seen the films themselves, though I plan to dig in soon. But what I can tell you is appetizing. THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN stars Rod Steiger, Marie-France Pisier and Kurt Raab, and was scripted and directed by Hans W. Geissendörfer, best known for his political vampire film of 1970, JONATHAN. DOCTOR FAUSTUS stars Jon Finch (great casting, I'm guessing) and Marie-Hélène Breillat and was written and directed by THE TIN DRUM producer Franz Seitz, who also produced both films -- some twenty years after producing a picture based on Mann's celebrated story "Tonio Krüger."

For those of you who aren't familiar with the novels, both works explore the hazy margins between disease and inspiration, art and malady, genius and madness. THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN is the magic realist chronicle of the education and elliptic romances encountered by a young German male while stuck for a long period of time at a health sanitorium high in the Swiss mountains, and DOCTOR FAUSTUS is the fictional story of classical composer Adrian Leverkuhn, whose musical genius is rumored to have been cemented through a deal with the Devil.

This is one of those DVD releases that sneak out completely under the radar, so I thought I would bring it to your attention -- merely as a public service. Incidentally, if your knowledge of Mann's work is limited to a viewing of Visconti's DEATH IN VENICE, you haven't yet discovered him. These productions bode well to be the ideal place, short of the books themselves, to get acquainted.

Building a Better Plague

The Sony Pictures DVD is called CLIVE BARKER'S THE PLAGUE, though the film was neither directed, written by, or based on a story by Clive Barker. THE PLAGUE was actually directed by Hal Masonberg, who co-authored the script with Teal Minton; Barker was one of the film's producers. When producers take a possessory credit, it's almost always a bad sign -- a front-and-center billboard of territorial conflict -- but, in this case, Masonberg and Minton can take a measure of relief in letting Barker stand in the spotlight: the version of the movie bearing his name has received such virulent critical and public reaction that "it wasn't that bad" is the best comment I could find about it online.

Normally, we could just forget the picture, along with so many other store-cluttering DTV titles... but in this case, it's not so easy. Word is coming out about the existence of a suppressed true creator's cut of THE PLAGUE that is supposedly far superior to the release version.
From my mailbox:

As an avid reader and fan of your site, I wanted to direct your attention to a site dedicated to getting the Writers & Director's Cut of THE PLAGUE released to DVD.
In the fall of 2005, the film was taken away from its writers and director during post. After an 8 year struggle to get the film made, the footage was re-cut from scratch by the producers without the involvement of the film's creators. Stock footage was added, new dialogue recorded, and the film completely restructured. It was released to dvd in September of 2006 at a running time of 88 minutes under the title CLIVE BARKER'S THE PLAGUE, though it was not based on any of Barker's work (it was an original screenplay by director Hal Masonberg and co-writer Teal Minton) and Barker, personally, had very little to do with the making of the film. That version of the film in no way reflects the years of hard work, creativity, or artistic intent of the writers and director of the film. It is solely and completely a "producers' cut".
However, after having been removed from the film, director Hal Masonberg took it upon himself to finish the film with the materials available to him (the film's dailies on dvd and a Macintosh computer-turned post-production facility) The film was originally shot in Super 35 by veteran cinematographer, Bill Butler (JAWS, THE CONVERSATION, FRAILTY), who was also not invited to partake in the film's post-production process.
The response to the Writers & Director's Cut by those who have seen it has been through the roof. However, without further support, this film may never see the light of day as the film's current distributor, Screen Gems, has no plans to release this cut.
I ask that you take a look at this site. On it you will find an hour-long documentary containing interviews with not only director, Hal Masonberg, but many others including Dee Wallace and other cast members, film authors/ journalists. There is also a link to a petition and much more info on what happened to this film.
It is people like you and sites like yours that can make a world of difference to a film like this. All the difference, in fact. By making your readers aware of the existence of this site, we may be able to convince Screen Gems that there is an audience for this cut of the film and, perhaps, other films that have met a similar fate.
Thanks in advance for your interest and we hope you enjoy.

My response to such an e-mail is complicated. I'm cynical enough about the Internet to initially suspect that this whole thing may be (at best) a clever ruse to draw me and other bloggers into the middle of an ego contest, or (at worst) to give a badly received film a second chance with a re-edit. On the other hand, I know there are talented filmmakers out there, even established names, who have their work taken away from them by money people who end up ruining good work with their needless, ego-driven interference. (I'm not talking about Clive Barker here specifically, as Masonberg's interview on the website makes clear that Barker himself was only involved remotely, as the figurehead of his production company.)
In short, the painful story laid out on the Spreading the Plague website -- which includes Masonberg being fired from the picture during its editing phase -- sounds pretty convincing to me. Whether or not a true creator's cut would yield a stronger PLAGUE or not, I can't say, but I do know that, in the history of such production interference, director's cuts usually prevail. However, in this case, such vindication is by no means assured. A director's cut exists only through Masonberg's independent, guerilla-like reconstruction of his and his co-author's original intentions, made at home from digital dailies after being barred from the editing room. It would seem that his cut therefore made use of materials that were not his legal property, and now Masonberg finds himself in the awkward position of trying to interest Screen Gems in releasing a product that was made in spite of Clive Barker's company, and in spite of them.
I know it's hard to work up any interest for a movie that badly disappointed you on the first pass, but if you're passionate about creator's rights, you may find the revelations of the Spreading the Plague website to your interest. You can find it here.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Other Addams Family

It is said that Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is preparing a number of their Hammer Film holdings for release on DVD later in the year. Though it is not one of the most beloved films in this batch, I'm hopeful that Sony will get around, sooner or later, to William Castle's one-shot collaboration with the illustrious horror studio, THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1963). I watched this film last night, courtesy of a year's old Encore Mystery broadcast, as part of my ongoing tape-to-DVD-R conversion procedure, and was surprised that this movie, about which I've always been lukewarm at best, suddenly kicked in as puckish entertainment.

Scripted by Robert Dillon -- whose other credits include Roger Corman's X THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES (1963), PRIME CUT (1972) and FRENCH CONNECTION II (1975)-- Castle's THE OLD DARK HOUSE is not really a remake of the 1932 Universal classic directed by James Whale, though it too claims basis in J. B. Priestley's 1928 novel BENIGHTED. I'm told that the Whale film is very faithful to the novel until just before the end, and the Castle film's storyline bears only very loose similarities to the earlier narrative. Castle's film was not accorded much respect upon its release; in the United Kingdom, it was issued in a cut 76m version, while, in America, it was issued at its full 86 minute length. However, US distributor Columbia refused the expense of color prints, releasing it only in decidedly unlustrous black-and-white. It was shown this way on American television until sometime in the late 1980s, when it began to appear on premium cable channels and local commercial stations in color. It looks startlingly good in color, and I was also pleased to discover how much precision and compositional quality Arthur Grant's photography gained when I zoomed the full-frame picture up on my widescreen set. This, too, is the way THE OLD DARK HOUSE was meant to be seen and too often hasn't.

My newfound appreciation of THE OLD DARK HOUSE certainly doesn't extend to comparing it to the 1932 version, which is truly incomparable, nor would I compare it favorably to some of Castle's own work. It's not a perfect-of-its-kind confection as were THE TINGLER and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. However, it's fairly assuredly the finest of Castle's many attempts to fuse humor and horror, and the opportunity to work with a thoroughly experienced British cast and Hammer's top-flight technical crew (including production designer Bernard Robinson and composer Benjamin Frankel) put Castle ahead of his usual game, which often made use of some less-than-impressive American supporting players. Top-billed American actor Tom Poston, returning to the Castle ranks from the previous year's ZOTZ!, carries the film confidently and amiably. In the earlier film, Poston played a variation on the absent-minded professor character played so successfully by Fred MacMurray in two then-recent Walt Disney productions, and came off as a likeable if diluted eccentric; here, he's playing a role better suited to his range and qualities and he manages to navigate a narrow and sometimes treacherous path between drama and physical comedy. Surrounding Poston are a motley crew of British players as the creepy Femm family: Robert Morley, Peter Bull, Joyce Grenfell (who fears that, if she stops knitting, the world will end -- as indeed it does), Mervyn Johns, Fenella Fielding, Danny Green, and the seemingly normal Janette Scott. Castle obtains a stronger body of performances than he got in any of the other films he directed in the 1960s, and if truth be told, the performances are uniformly stronger here than they were in the average Hammer film of this period.

So... the performances are delightful, the script's dark comedy plays well, the art direction is splendid, the music is appropriately baroque and doomy -- what is it about THE OLD DARK HOUSE that doesn't quite work? Somehow, whatever was necessary to bond these elements into a happy, organic package simply isn't in evidence. It isn't just that Danny Green makes a poor Morgan when compared to Boris Karloff -- indeed, when this film was first released, the James Whale version was considered all but lost, and few who went to see it knew much more about the earlier adaptation than the stills they had seen; the Morgan in this film isn't even the Femm's butler but rather a super-strong, strangulation-happy family member. Castle was able to cast his films, knew the atmosphere he was after, and had the right sense of humor, but he simply wasn't capable to make all these components move as one. In some ways, he didn't develop as a director beyond the abilities he'd acquired while making films for the Whistler and Crime Doctor series at Columbia in the 1940s: here as there, actors are trotted out in character when they are needed, and one almost feels them disappear as they move offscreen. The action is too stagey to convincingly blend with the mise-en-scène.

The film includes the credit "drawn by Charles Addams" (a monstrous hand actually paints the great man's signature onscreen in moon-pale ink), though the great NEW YORKER cartoonist drew neither the film poster nor designed the production. What he drew was the old dark house visible behind the main titles -- and drawn black on a deep purple background, his work isn't terribly visible, at least not in the print I viewed. Nevertheless, his presence acknowledges the debt that the Femms played in developing his own Addams Family -- indeed, he openly acknowledged that his butler Lurch had been inspired by Karloff's Morgan in the original film. It was clever of Castle to hire Addams, not only for the coup of adding his name to the credits and advertising, but for recognizing the relationship that existed between Addams drawings and the movie that he wanted to make. If you think about it, all of Castle's earlier horror films had been comedic though in a non-diegetic sense; they were genuinely horrific, but comedic in the way he sold them. After the rip-roaring success of HOMICIDAL, Castle's work in horror sought to balance horror and humor; it's there in 13 GHOSTS, in MR. SARDONICUS (if we see the version including Castle's "Punishment Poll" footage), and in I SAW WHAT YOU DID -- and it's in THE OLD DARK HOUSE that this uneasy fusion works best. It works well enough, in fact, to have inspired in other people the idea of developing Addams' cartoons as a television series.

William Castle (who died in 1977) is still about as popular among movie fans as he ever was when he was alive. Most of his best movies are available on DVD and he inspired the character played by John Goodman in Joe Dante's terrific 1993 movie MATINEE. Neither Castle's nor Hammer's most devoted admirers have had much good to say about THE OLD DARK HOUSE over the years, but it's doubtful that a cut or cropped or colorless version of the experience really passes for an intended viewing of THE OLD DARK HOUSE. My memory suitably refreshed and corrected, I think it harbors enough of the mysterious and spooky and altogether ooky to warrant a closer look, should a Sony DVD ever wend our way.