Friday, August 10, 2007

New Books from Bryan Senn and Steve Bissette

Now available from McFarland and Company is A YEAR OF FEAR: A DAY-BY-DAY GUIDE TO 366 HORROR FILMS by Bryan Senn ($35 softcover, 560 pp), a hefty trade paperback generously illustrated with 218 B&W photos and ad mats. It's formatted around a very clever idea: go through the calendar year, find historical events for each day and then find a horror film relatable to each event.

For example, the movie for May 21 is THE MAZE (1953), because it was on that day in 1977 that the longest leap by a frog (33 feet, 5 ½ inches) was recorded. On November 11, the date of the first fatal train wreck in the US (in 1833) is DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965). September 16's selection is WHITE ZOMBIE (1932), because on that day in 1915 Haiti became a US protectorate. And the movie for November 5, Guy Fawkes Day? No, not V FOR VENDETTA (2006); it's Antonio Margheriti's THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (1964), which itself features the burning of an effigy. It's a rare movie fan who could resist at least thumbing through this book looking for the movie assigned to their birthday. (Lucky me: I get MARS NEEDS WOMEN for my birthday viewing.)

What would have likely become an instant White Elephant item if produced as an actual calendar (I know -- I've published a horror film calendar!) becomes a compellingly browsable book (and not limited to use over a single year, either). Best-known for his excellent 1930s horror reference GOLDEN HORRORS, Senn's entries for each film are smart, literate and interesting, and often leavened with quotes from various published sources related to the films. In case you have any doubt that Tom Weaver is the most valuable researcher classic horror films have ever had, just flip through this book at random; Tom's name appears on so many pages, crediting the sources for quotes and background information, he probably deserved co-author credit. Not all the data came from Weaver; there are also citations for works by David J. Skal, Mark A. Miller, Richard Bojarski, Robert Tinnell, David Del Valle, Dennis Fischer, Alan Upchurch, Bob Madison, Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio, as well as other articles from the pages of FANGORIA, FILMFAX and SCARY MONSTERS. (Me, I'm not so fortunate -- a few Mario Bava films are included herein, and the entries for BLACK SUNDAY [December 29, Barbara Steele's birthday] and BLACK SABBATH [March 7, the day the telephone was patented by Alexander Graham Bell] -- tap into my reseach and use at least one quote I obtained from Lamberto Bava, but other scribes are cited as the go-to people for Bava info. Oh, well.)

Senn's YEAR OF FEAR isn't exclusively horror, incidentally. There are several entries for science fiction films (WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE) and the odd marginal title like RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS. I could find only one silent film included: 1923's THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, an odd inclusion when you realize that NOSFERATU and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA aren't represented and a later version of HUNCHBACK (Charles Laughton's) is. Nevertheless, A YEAR IN FEAR is commendable for providing a welcome structured curriculum for studying a well-considered cross-section of genre fare ranging from the early sound classics (like DRACULA, 1931) to contemporary releases (like DOG SOLDIERS, 2002). And you just might learn some fun things about history in the process.

In other book news, Black Coat Press will soon begin publishing in book form the collected video review columns of VW's own (occasional) Stephen R. Bissette. BLUR is the umbrella title for these volumes, and because our man Steve is nothing if not loquacious, the first volume will cover June 1999 through March 2000. Literate, informative, well worth reading, and well worth having. The very cool front-back cover design, seen above (and incorporating Steve's inimitable graphic stylings), is the work of Jon-Mikel Gates.

Read more about BLUR over on the official SRB blog MYRANT.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Lucas on Lanza on Russell

Donna and I recently had the pleasure of meeting Jason Gargano, the entertainment editor of Cincinnati's popular free paper CITY BEAT. During our conversation, Jason asked me if I'd be interested in reviewing something for him, and proceeded to produce from somewhere in his car a copy of Joseph Lanza's new book PHALLIC FRENZY: KEN RUSSELL AND HIS FILMS. I pride myself on having read every book about Russell's work, so I agreed... and now that review (my first for CITY BEAT) is in print. For those of you who don't live locally and can't pick up the paper around town, here's a link to my review.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Dysfunction Cured!

My review of Bret Wood's PSYCHOPATHIA SEXUALIS (Kino on Video) for the August SIGHT & SOUND is now up and functional over at their website.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

More Bava in Time for Halloween

It's being announced elsewhere, so I might as well join the bandwagon and report that Anchor Bay's MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 2 will be released on October 23. The titles included in this set are: BARON BLOOD, LISA AND THE DEVIL and HOUSE OF EXORCISM, ROY COLT & WINCHESTER JACK, FOUR TIMES THAT NIGHT, BAY OF BLOOD, and 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON. The audio commentaries I recorded are for LISA AND THE DEVIL, BAY OF BLOOD, and BARON BLOOD -- and I recorded them in that order, for those who may be interested in auditing them sequentially and hearing my voice disintegrate in slow motion. The Alfredo Leone/Elke Sommer commentary recorded for Image Entertainment's HOUSE OF EXORCISM release will be ported over for that title.

ERIK THE CONQUEROR (which will be the complete original export version, not the AIP reduction) will be released separately at the same time, also with a commentary by me, which I'll be recording before the end of this week. The closing shot and end card of the film (curiously missing from the German DVD release) has been restored, which should make this gorgeous-looking release of even greater interest to collectors.

Finally, I mentioned here recently that I managed to record the first three commentaries in a single marathon session last Thursday night. Someone on one of the horror discussion boards has suggested that my expeditious work somehow speaks poorly of me and makes the set's extras as a whole seem less attractive, because -- they presume -- the commentaries have got to be a reckless mess. I resent this because, first of all, I don't do careless work and certainly wouldn't boast about doing careless work; I only mentioned the marathon session because I felt so pleased to have succeeded in my aims against the odds and the clock. It was an achievement. Secondly, I didn't set the deadlines for these commentaries, but as a professional, I agreed to live up to them. I refused to let the quality of my work suffer due to time constraints and, if it somehow did suffer despite my best efforts, I wouldn't have released it. As I write this, it remains for those three recordings to be edited and synched to the movies, so I don't know yet myself how everything is going to turn out -- but I think even the raw tracks were on par with other commentaries I've done.

PS: I wanted very much to record an audio commentary for 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON but time simply didn't allow it.

Calling All Bloggers

Lee Marvin in his classic role as Slob in Edward Dein's SHACK OUT ON 101.

Over at Movie Morlocks, VW's own Richard Harland Smith is calling for an August 29 Blog-A-Thon for Lee Marvin to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the actor's death.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Ladislas Starewitch at 125

I don't know that any festivals or retrospectives have been organized anywhere around the world to commemorate this anniversary, but the great Polish-born animator Ladislas Starewitch was born 125 years ago today.
A worsening problem with any commemoration of Starewitch is the correct spelling of his name, as there are several. I am using, not altogether comfortably, the spelling used on and in a book about the great man recently published in France. His IMDb page spells his name "Wladyslaw Starewicz," which is how the surname has always looked correct to me, though the given name looks a little wonky. I've seen "Wladislas" too. It's a terrible problem for an artist to have, given how difficult it already is simply to see his work.
Starewitch was born in Poland and made his first short film (LUCANUS CERVUS, about stag beetles) in Lithuania in 1910. It was meant to be a naturalistic study, but Starewitch discovered that the heat of his lighting equipment made the beetles sluggish and resistant to action, so he incorporated what were then known as trick-photographic techniques (read: stop-motion) to get them to do what he wanted. When his family relocated to Russia in 1912, he continued along this line. Over the next eight years, he continued to make animated shorts but he also made some live action shorts as well, all of a fantastic nature. Included in the Ruscico DVD of the wonderful Russian horror film THE VIY (1967), for example, is a Starewitch short called THE PORTRAIT, which remains superbly frightening and is the earliest known film to pull the proscenium trick that later made THE RING so hair-raising. Among the several Starewitch films I'd love to see, I'm most curious about a few other live action pictures he made: RUSLAN AND LUDMILLA (1915), ON THE WARSAW HIGHWAY (1916), and CAGLIOSTRO (1920). In 1920, he and his clan fled Russia to Paris, France, where he picked up his work without dropping a stitch.


In the current issue of SIGHT & SOUND, various contributors from around the world were asked to name and write a bit about an obscure film they felt deserved to be better-known. I chose Starewitch's only feature-length achievement, LA ROMAN DE RENARD (1930), known in some territories as THE TALE OF THE FOX. If not for some unforeseen technical delays and distribution problems, it would have become what it was intended to be (and, I think, really is): the world's first stop-motion animated feature with sound. Based on a fable by Goethe, it tells the story of a crafty fox, always up to mischief and talking his way out of trouble, who dares to thwart the ruling of the King that animals should not prey on one another because Love must rule the land. Not only is the script clever and the character design impeccable (in S&S I said that it looked only a step or two away from taxidermy), but the animation -- executed by Starewitch and his daughter Irena over an 18-month period -- remains the most believably fluid and antic until the introduction of CGI, especially in its incredible interpolations of blurred movement.

Starewitch serenaded by the canine hero of his beloved 1934 short, "The Mascot."

Unfortunately, very little of Starewitch's mind-boggling work is available on DVD. LA ROMAN DE RENARD and a collection of short films were issued a couple of years ago as Region 2 discs in France, and these are already hard to find. While watching one of the shorts in one of these collections, LE RAT DE VILLE ET LE RAT DES CHAMPS ("The Town Rat and the Country Rat," 1927), I was amazed to discover listed in the credits as a backgrounds artist Josef Natanson, who went on to become an important matte painter in Italian films during the 1960s. The earliest screen credit for Natanson I had been able to find was for the backgrounds he painted for the classic dance sequence in Powell and Pressburger's THE RED SHOES (1948), but this one credit elucidates a 20-year gap in this important career about which we know nothing.

Here in America, Starewitch fans have had to make due with Milestone/Image Entertainment's compilation THE CAMERAMAN'S REVENGE AND OTHER FANTASTIC TALES, which includes his best-known short, "The Mascot," a 1934 short originally titled "F├ętiche." (It's also available as a $2.99 video download here.) This remarkable story of a puppy who struggles against natural and supernatural odds to fetch an orange to bring to a sick little girl is also known to some people as "The Devil's Ball," mostly due to a lengthy and untitled excerpt that used to run frequently on the USA Network show NIGHT FLIGHT back in the 1980s. That's where I first discovered the work of Starewitch and, all these years later, I'm still eager to find more.

A few of his animated shorts can be found at YouTube, and here's a link to a fine website that will serve as a more in-depth introduction to this brilliant filmmaker and his great works. Happy birthday, Maestro!

Stepping Out with Stephen Forsyth

In case you've ever wondered what became of Stephen Forsyth, the star of Mario Bava's HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON ("My name is John Harrington -- I'm a paranoiac"), he decided he didn't like the roles he was being offered and quit acting circa 1970. Then he returned to his native Canada, where he dedicated himself to a new career in music. I knew about this because he told me so when I interviewed him for the Bava book, but I could never get him to tell me anything too specific about his last 30 years in music. He said that he composed music mostly to accompany performance art, but that was about it.

Now up on YouTube are a pair of fascinating videos from the musical career of Stephen Forsyth. The first, dating from the 1980s, is a rock video called "Step Out of Love" and it actually features Stephen. The song (which he wrote and recorded) is catchy, the choreography is very impressive (I don't think I've ever seen Iggy Pop quite this animated in a video), and he remains very photogenic. By Googling around, I found out that this piece was part of a live Twyla Tharp dance retrospective held in New York in August 1990, reviewed by THE NEW YORK TIMES here.

"Step Out of Love":

And then for something completely different. The second video, dating from the 1990s, is an avant garde piece for piano and dance:


The work showcased in these two videos seems poles apart, representing opposite musical disciplines, yet both are very well accomplished. The second piece, "Helios," shows Stephen to be at home in atonal classicism, while "Step Out of Love" presents him as a fine pop tunesmith, vocalist, and (most surprising to me) dancer. And, unlike many other MTV acts of the period that look dated and silly now, Stephen's pop video remains convincing -- it looks like hard work played out with panache -- and the editing still feels contemporary.