Thursday, October 04, 2007

THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING reviewed

THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING (with CHOSEN SURVIVORS)
1964, 20th Century Fox, DD-2.0/MA/16:9/LB/ST/CC/+, $14.98, 62m 15s, DVD-1

Less eventful but generally preferable to its "Midnite Movies" companion feature CHOSEN SURVIVORS (reviewed 10/1) is Terence Fisher's barely feature-length THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING, made in B&W for producer Robert Lippert during Fisher's post-PHANTOM OF THE OPERA fall from favor at Hammer Films. Like CHOSEN SURVIVORS, it's a science fiction story of people thrust into a bizarre environmental situation they don't understand and must somehow overcome, but there is more than this thematic connection between the two films. In 1961, CHOSEN SURVIVORS screenwriter H.B. Cross wrote the title song for THE TEENAGE MILLIONAIRE, which was scripted by Harry Spaulding -- who later wrote (that's right) THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING.

In a set-up owed to VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED and DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS in equal parts, Spaulding's story takes place in a Northern English village where four independent couples come together to investigate (or take advantage of) why all the locals suddenly fell down dead or unconscious, and to determine why they themselves were unaffected by the phenomenon. Their sighting of stiff-legged, robotic soldiers patrolling in the area, with the capability of reanimating the dead, is all that de facto leader/pilot Willard Parker (TALES OFTHE TEXAS RANGERS) needs to suss out all the necessary answers on the first try, and Earth's invasion by aliens is put to rest rather easily, all told, between smokes and drinks in an up-for-grabs hotel and bar, all on an impressively small scale. (Though the three couples make camp in an abandoned hotel with presumably many empty rooms, everyone bunks in the downstairs lobby, for no apparent better reason than to consolidate action.) Parker's real life wife Virginia Field is the female lead.

Irresistably watchable actors like Dennis Price and Thorley Walters, Fisher's skilled direction, and especially a nearly non-stop, nerve-teasing score by Elizabeth Lutyens will be enough to keep most devotées of British fantasy watching, but this is truly an example of making a consummate craftsman making something passably good out of next to nothing. Shot in a 1.66:1 ratio, THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING's anamorphic presentation is handsome enough but looks moderately tight of frame, especially its Fox logo, though all the main titles and copyrights fit onscreen. Unlike CHOSEN SURVIVORS, the Fisher film contains an alternate Spanish audio track as well as the same subtitle options as the companion feature (English, French, Spanish). Also included is an amusingly hyperbolic trailer that exclaims the title at least a couple dozen times (2m 12s) and a photo gallery accompanied by a nicely isolated Lutyens music track that consists of an unbelievable 93 stills. A few behind-the-scenes shots excepted, that works out to 1½ shots for every minute of the picture -- virtually a flicker book!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Women of Buñuel

After a good deal of careful deliberation, in honor of Flickhead's Luís Buñuel Blog-a-thon (September 24-30), I have decided to make my own timely contribution to these laudations with a detailed discussion of Buñuel's actresses. It is obvious in his work from the very earliest examples, such as LAND WITHOUT BREAD, that Buñuel -- if nothing else -- certainly had an eye for glamourous women.

Buñuel was incorrigeable. Even in his most reverent religious works, L'AGE D'OR and MEXICAN BUS RIDE among them, matters of eroticism cannot help but intrude upon the Sacred. It occurred to me to address this particular level of Buñuel's works after a recent viewing of THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE. Rather like my own idea of Heaven, the Academy Award-winning film puts one in the company of Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, and Stéphane Audran while a creature no less divine than Milena Vukotic waits on the tables. Enjoying once again the convivial interplay of these women onscreen, I was struck by that uncommon quality which they all shared in common, namely... alas, I have lost my train of thought.

Photos of Buñuel in later life, of course, are impossibly rare but I was able to find this one by Googling his name.

I am reminded of a dream I had recently. I was sitting on the swing in my backyard, enjoying the warmth of the day while enjoying a cool drink and reading a newspaper. I do not usually read the newspaper, but I was drinking the sort of thing I would usually drink until I suddenly became aware that the ice cubes in the glass had become loose, swirling bits of fruit: it had become a sangria. At the same moment I noticed this, I tried to resume my reading but my concentration was thwarted by the sound of castanets. I looked around for signs of Carmen Miranda, who had perhaps lost her hat in my drink, but she was nowhere to be found. My investigation led me to my garage, which was built only two years ago and still looks brand new. Expecting to see nothing inside but our car and the usual bales of hay, I was startled to find a man I had never seen before. He was watching two young boys who were taking turns riding a piebald horse in circles around the inside of my garage. The horse's clacking hooves were the castenet-like sound I had heard.

"What are you doing in my garage?" I demanded.

The man took an exception to my volume and turned toward me. His manner was cordial but firm. "You are not to shout at those boys like that," he told me.

"Look," I said, maintaining my rights, "I don't want my garage to be used for walking horses."

There was more to it, but this is going nowhere; and, as they say, there is a time and a place for such stories. Suffice to say that Luís Buñuel was splendid. Besides his many noteworthy professional accomplishments, he is said to have read DON QUIXOTE many times and would hold accidental acquaintences spellbound for hours at a time by recounting the details of his favorite chapters and improvising new ones that typically involved needlepoint, matadors, priests, footwear, terrorism, and even toilets.

In closing, I was able to locate (also by Googling) this obscure retitling of Buñuel's VIRIDIANA. I have read a great deal about the Argentina-born director over the years, and I have also seen the documentary THE LIFE AND TIMES OF DOM DE LUISE BUNUEL, but never before have I discovered any reference to him casting Catherine Deneuve and Claudette Colbert in the same film in the same role. Still, I wouldn't put such a thing past him.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Remembering Charles B. Griffith


Audrey II opens wide for her creator, Charles B. Griffith, in the original THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, colorized version.


"Life is an obscure hobo, bumming a ride on the omnibus of art."
-- Charles B. Griffith, A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959)

Roger Corman has always said, though in not these exact words, that the recipe for a Roger Corman film was a good, fast-moving story, rich in exploitation potential, with an added element of social commentary or satire. Even if audiences didn't consciously pick up on that last part, it was there and got under their skin. You don't find much of this secret ingredient in Corman's earliest works, like HIGHWAY DRAGNET (which he wrote) or SWAMP WOMEN, but from the time screenwriter Charles B. Griffith joined his posse on GUNSLINGER (1956), it was suddenly there in full force. GUNSLINGER starred Beverly Garland as a woman whose lawmaker husband is killed, motivating her to pick up his badge as the marshal of a small western town. Post-JOHNNY GUITAR (1954), of course, but still early enough to qualify as the frontline of feminist cinema.

Woe is us, as Howard Beale might say, because Chuck Griffith died of undisclosed causes on September 28th at the age of 77 -- and we are in a lot of trouble. With the possible exception of Charlie Kaufman, I don't see any other Chuck Griffiths climbing up the ranks of today's screenwriters and the movies need such voices -- irreverent, acerbic, edgy, well-read, flippant, disdainful of the hoi polloi yet also generous, transcendent. Griffith was an unpolished gem of a screenwriter, a beatnik/stoner/outsider who smuggled those crazed and (then) highly individual sensibilities into the mainstream via Corman's commercial cinema. He was the sort of writer who could answer cinema's cry of "Feed me!" by dashing off a non-conformist vampire script like NOT OF THIS EARTH and make room in it for Dick Miller to shine as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, or to introduce a character like Jack Nicholson's masochistic dental patient into the midst of the two-day mayhem of THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS; who could write a whole movie like ROCK ALL NIGHT that more or less took place in a single room; who had the audacity to write the dialogue for THE UNDEAD and ATLAS and A BUCKET OF BLOOD that ran the gamut from mock-Shakespearean to quasi-Homeric to Beat poetic. Chuck Griffith, man! Who else would have dared? Sometimes his quirky cantos got rewritten, but it was impossible to subvert their essentially subversive character. His zany script for Corman's Puerto Rican lark CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA is the reason why it's the closest thing to a Thomas Pynchon novel ever to appear on the screen... and Griffith pulled it off years before the first edition of V. hit bookstore shelves.

Griffith's credited screen work disappears between 1961 and 1966, a period of European self-exile after which he scripted Corman's still-shocking and iconographic THE WILD ANGELS. Yes, he was responsible for Peter Fonda's unforgettable tirade: "We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do! We wanna be free to ride! We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded! And we wanna have a good time. And that's what we are gonna do. We are gonna have a good time... We are gonna have a party!"

One of Chuck's known activities during this blank period is tagging along with his pal Mel Welles to work as a script polisher on the Italian cheapie now known as THE SHE BEAST -- the directorial debut of Michael Reeves (WITCHFINDER GENERAL). It was apparently Griffith's idea to turn the horror film into a tongue-in-cheek essay on how the mythologies associated with Transylvania were corroding under 20th century communism. Chuck Griffith, man! Who else would have effing dared?? Mel Welles told me that it was his idea for the moment when the resurrected witch Vardella kills someone with a scythe, then throws it across a mallet to form the hammer-and-sickle symbol of Soviet power -- but I've always felt that Griffith must have had a hand in it. It was precisely his brand of crazy, a Third Man in a triumvirate with PAIN Magazine and the statue called "The Third Time Phyllis Saw Me, She Exploded."

When Roger Corman had the idea to make a film about LSD, Griffith was still his go-to guy for cutting edge counterculture and he asked him to write the script. The result was deemed "unfilmable" by Corman, because it was too long, too costly, too outré, whatever -- so the job of writing the film ultimately fell to Jack Nicholson. When Charlie Largent and I were writing THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES, our comic screenplay about the making of THE TRIP, the character of "Chuck" sprang to immediate life and got a lot of the script's best dialogue. Joe Dante (who has optioned the script) later told me that, when Quentin Tarantino read it, his first response was to say that he wanted to play Chuck. Well, you know and I know that Quentin says a lot of things, but I think his reaction shows what a standout character Chuck became in our scenario. I don't know how the casting cards will eventually play out, but Quentin went on to dedicate "DEATH PROOF" to Charles B. Griffith, and I'd be happy if our script played even a small part in putting that particular bee in his bonnet.

Consequently, I am feeling at the moment not only as though a hero has died, but that one of my characters has died -- one that Charlie and I loved so much, we worked extra hard to assign him a happy ending. I never got to meet the real Chuck Griffith. Joe tells me that Chuck never got to read the KALEIDOSCOPE script, which is a shame, but then again, he might have felt funny about it. I feel confident that the movie will be made someday and shine a spotlight once again on Griffith's particular maverick shade of genius.

Griffith also directed a half-dozen films over the years, the most commercial being EAT MY DUST! (1976) and the most interesting being DR. HECKYL and MR. HYPE (1980) with Oliver Reed, a contemporarily comic twist on the R. L. Stevenson story about man's dual nature -- but directing was not his strong suit. He was a writer through and through.

A lot of people get away with saying they did it their way, when they actually spent years if not decades paying their dues and kow-towing to lesser mortals, but as far as I know, Charles B. Griffith really did do it his way -- living in Hollywood (later, San Diego) but apart from Hollywood, living incognito on giant silver screens, directing enough movies to know it wasn't what he was best at, writing a number of genuine countercultural classics -- and he'll always be immortal to those who care as one of the primary colors, arguably the primary color, in Roger Corman's palette.

From his point of view, Chuck undoubtedly saw things differently and harbored some bitterness, as I know Mel Welles also did -- but I'm betting that, deep down, he knew moments of deep satisfaction in the crafting of his work, enough to matter, and that he understood he was living the life given him to live. Not as the celebrated Walter Paisley, sitting on his throne with a toilet plunger scepter, as he once parodied every artist's dreamed-of moment of success, but happier still as "an obscure hobo, bumming a ride on the omnibus of art."

Monday, October 01, 2007

CHOSEN SURVIVORS Reviewed

The assembled cast of CHOSEN SURVIVORS examine an unwelcome visitor to their subterranean stronghold.

CHOSEN SURVIVORS
1974, 20th Century Fox, DD-2.0/MA/16:9/LB/ST/CC/+,$14.98, 98m 22s, DVD-1

Filmed at Mexico City's Churubusco Studios with Mexican actors supplementing what was then a made-for-TV-level cast, CHOSEN SURVIVORS finds ten people -- mostly scientists (Bradford Dillman, Barbara Babcock, Diana Muldaur), but also a rich executive (Jackie Cooper), an aging athlete (Lincoln Kilpatrick), a how'd-he-get-in-here novelist (Alex Cord), and a young woman (Christina Moreno) whose only apparent skill is hysteria -- who are isolated by the US Military in a silvery bunker some 1,800 feet underground. There, a videotape of vacuous-looking LA newscaster Kelly Lange informs them that they are one of a number of "chosen survivors" of a nuclear attack which has taken place in North America. Beyond this, it's impossible to write about this film without spoilers, so be warned.

Surprisingly, despite the strict racial balancing of the group and absence of any gay characters, the survivors' responsibility for repopulating the Earth is largely overlooked. Just as well, as no two cast members spark any romantic chemistry (Cord and Muldaur, already paired it seems, lie in bed together as though embalmed), and once Richard Jaeckel turns up, they become an odd-numbered bunch as well. The movie doesn't really get going until 25m into the story, when a decorative cage of birds is raided by vampire bats, somehow able to penetrate the stronghold from the caves surrounding it. When subsequent fatal attacks coincide with a failing lighting system, Dillman (giving a twitchy Anthony Perkins performance) announces that the whole program has been a hoax carried out as an experiment in human behavior that has gone horribly wrong. With the only emergency alarm within easy reach disconnected by the bats, the task falls to Kilpatrick (THE OMEGA MAN) to "go for the gold" by grapple-hooking his way to the top of an elevator shaft to manually press an otherwise unreachable "Help" button.

The film suffers from cheesy special effects and a dreary droning score, but -- being a performance-based melodrama -- is most adversely affected by a capable cast uninspired by the script's clichéd dialogue ("I just never thought it would really happen...") and characterization (Cooper actually pulls a Thurston Howell by promising Kilpatrick a small fortune if he can get him back to civilization, and perhaps most incredibly, novelist Cord uses the term "per se" in the midst of an angry outburst). Nevertheless, it conjures up some intermittent suspense and unease, thanks to Sutton Roley's able direction and some exceptional bat wrangling. This is one of those films that plunge its setting into total darkness at the worst possible moments, followed by unnerving neon-blue emergency reserve lighting, so it works less well on video than on the big screen, where it more completely affects the viewer's own environment.

CHOSEN SURVIVORS garnered some halfway favorable reviews when it was first released in May 1974, but it was only sparsely distributed by Columbia Pictures. Movies like this became very trivial very quickly with the release of JAWS the following summer, and, since then, CHOSEN SURVIVORS has been one of the more difficult horror films of its period to see. Now available as a 20th Century Fox "Midnite Movie" double feature with Terence Fisher's black-and-white and barely-feature-length THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING (1964), it's a welcome enough collector's item release though it has not stood the test of time particularly well. The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer does what it can with the blandly photographed materials, which look alternately musty and nostalgically misty with mild grain and acceptable color. Considering the film's production background, it's surprising that no Spanish track is included, but the English audio is supplemented with a choice of English, Spanish and French subtitles.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Donnie Dunagan Goes to Auction

Mr. and Mrs. Donnie Dunagan recently sent us the following message, which it is now time for me to share with all readers of Video WatchBlog:

Well Hello, Everyone!

To all of our friends who are fans of SON OF FRANKENSTEIN and BAMBI, here is a heads-up. Donnie has consigned with Heritage Auction House for the sale of his original memoribilia from his childhood movie days, beginning OCTOBER 6, 2007. The address is
www.ha.com.

Up for auction are many personal items from his early days as a child star, all one-of-a-kind. Included are his original signed contract for BAMBI, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, and others. There are signed original 8x10's from stars like Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Jackie Moran, Ian Hunter, Nan Grey, and others. There are even some actual 35mm film clips from SON OF FRANKENSTEIN.

If you know of anyone who is an avid collector, please let them know. This will be the only time these one-of-a-kind items will be available. Check Heritage Auctions on the web for more info.

Let us hear from you all!

Donnie & Dana Dunagan


Here's a link that will take you directly to the fabulous Dunagan items up for grabs at Heritage Auctions, including a remarkable signed letter in which Donnie Dunagan (age five) fires his agent!
For your information, the photographs included in these lots are the same ones used to illustrate Tom Weaver's Rondo Award-winning interview with Donnie Dunagan, as it appeared in VIDEO WATCHDOG #112 and our unique VIDEO WATCHDOG SIGNATURE EDITION #1. Bear in mind that Donnie was not only the voice of Bambi, but he's the last surviving cast member of the last film to star Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster, and the actor with the closing line in the last film of the Karloff Frankenstein trilogy. These artifacts are remarkable beyond belief and -- like the gentleman himself -- their like will not pass this way again.