Saturday, October 27, 2007

Slumming with Karloff on VOODOO ISLAND

It may be hard for some of my younger readers to believe (especially if they have seen THE CRIMSON CULT or THE SNAKE PEOPLE), but, in the 1950s and '60s, the participation of Boris Karloff participation in a new horror picture was the closest thing to a guarantee of greatness. As an editor, he had chosen the finest horror stories to appear in various hardcover and paperback collections, always demonstrating excellent taste; even moreso as an actor, he was able to pick and choose from the best horror scripts in circulation -- we knew this because he so seldom let us down. Consequently, when a new Karloff film somehow failed to deliver everything promised -- see THE CLIMAX, THE STRANGE DOOR or THE BLACK CASTLE -- it seemed far worse than it actually was.

VOODOO ISLAND (1957) is a case in point, if not a classic one. Even the film's one-sheet poster (pictured above) presents us with a haggard, unhappy-looking Karloff who appears to have been bullied into the artwork with a cattle prod. A new blog by Arbogast on the subject of VOODOO ISLAND prompted me to sit down last night and actually watch that legendarily turgid film for the first time since I turned it off, about halfway through, in my discerning childhood. I've always had a special liking for scenes involving women in the clutches of man-eating plants (see KONGA, THE LAND UNKNOWN, and the AIP Karloff film DIE, MONSTER, DIE! for far juicier examples), and Arbogast promised a good one, so I was there. I didn't feel the scene was quite the highlight that he believed, but I'm grateful for his powers of persuasion anyway. You see, I had grabbed TCM's recent broadcast with my Dish Network DVR, and that's the copy I watched -- having completely forgotten that I already owned the film as part of a Midnite Movies "double feature" DVD paired with THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE! Had I not decided to blog about this screening and done a little preliminary online Googling, I would have surely burned a copy of the movie I didn't need.

But to get to the point of VOODOO ISLAND itself... like THE CLIMAX, THE STRANGE DOOR and THE BLACK CASTLE, it's really not as bad as people claim. It's certainly not very good, at least not in the dry manner it was executed by director Reginald LeBorg, but it seems to me that the script by Richard H. Landau hoped for better and the performances (including the always reliable Elisha Cook, Jr.) are decent, though Karloff suffers from miscasting and perhaps also from the rigors of location shooting. Karloff is also clean-shaven here, revealing quite a long upper lip, and the look seems to take more away from him than just a mustache.

Landau's script deserves special credit on two counts, specifically. The first is that the role of Claire Winter, played by Jean Engstrom, is surely the most pronouncedly lesbian character to figure in a horror film of the 1950s; considering how oblique the matter of lesbianism is in movies like DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1935) and VOODOO ISLAND's near contemporary BLOOD OF DRACULA (1958), Claire is possibly the first undisguisedly lesbian character to appear in a horror film, or in any kind of fantastic film since the tuxedoed women in Fritz Lang's DR. MABUSE THE GAMBLER (1922). The other point of interest, and it's a related one, is how the script attempts to parallel the character of Karloff's assistant Sarah Adams (Beverly Tyler), a young woman who is all about work, with that of Mitchell (Glenn Dixon) -- a man who has fallen victim to a zombie curse and spends his entire time onscreen in a kind of "living death." The dialogue ventures several comments, some of them in the form of seductive comments from Claire, about how "Adams" (as she's called) shouldn't be so intent on work twenty-four hours a day, how she should let her hair down and live a little. To put it bluntly, her work drone ethic is delineated as another form of living death.

The film buys back some of its bonus points by depicting Adams as someone who, in the course of dedicating herself to work and armoring herself against the temptations of a personal life involving men like our hero Rhodes Reason, might inadvertently fall into the clutches of a same-sex affair... but, nevertheless, I appreciate the time taken by Landau to layer his themes when the project didn't exactly call for it. One thing I wasn't expecting from VOODOO ISLAND was craftsmanship, so its thematic resonance came as a pleasant surprise.

POSTSCRIPT 6:31 pm. Robert Cashill writes: "VOODOO ISLAND was shown as part of TCM's Gay and Lesbian Fest in June. The co-host with Robert Osborne, Richard Barrios, has written a new book on gay and lesbian cinema that gives prominent attention to VOODOO ISLAND... a film that he said he hadn't heard of, much less seen, till a friend alerted him to a TCM telecast some years back."

Thursday, October 25, 2007

He Has Eyes Like Steve McQueen

... and he's looking more like Dabbs Greer all the time, but Malcolm McDowell remains one of the most electrifying screen presences of the last 40 years and he's having one hell of a 2007.

Though McDowell has continued to work steadily, this once prominent star of IF..., A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, O LUCKY MAN! and TIME AFTER TIME -- whose stardom (some have said) was derailed by his participation in the Bob Guccione XXX production of CALIGULA -- has only recently begun to recapture his former authority onscreen with captivating performances in GANGSTER NO. 1 (2000), RED ROSES AND PETROL (2003), EVILENKO (2004), and as the current incarnation of Dr. Loomis in Rob Zombie's remake of HALLOWEEN. Of course, he also killed off William Shatner's Captain Kirk in 1994's STAR TREK: GENERATIONS and, in one of his stranger castings of recent years, he was the second "Mr. Roarke" in an ill-fated 2002 TV relaunch of FANTASY ISLAND. (Can you imagine the kinds of fantasies Malcolm McDowell might stage for his visitors? The mind boggles.)

But 2007 has been the year of McDowell's advent into the realm of DVD audio commentary, which make the rest of us very rich indeed. They began earlier this year with Criterion's extraordinary release of Lindsay Anderson's IF... (which, as of this moment, still has the inside track as my favorite DVD release of the year), and they have continued this month in triplicate with Image Entertainment's CALIGULA and Warner Home Video's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (also available in HD and Blu-ray) and O LUCKY MAN! Furthermore, the two Warner titles both include O LUCKY MALCOLM!, Jan Harlan's highly entertaining and absorbing feature-length (86m) profile of the actor. Part of the pleasure of Harlan's film comes from McDowell's own participation in it (we get a clear sense of the man, not just his performances) and part comes from sharing in the fulfillment he must feel from his current wave of recognition. The film loves him for who he is, not just for what he's done, and we feel happy for the ornery devil.

McDowell's audio commentaries confirm a clear and excited memory about his participation in each of his early key works (and the film maudit), as well as his reputation as a masterly raconteur. A word to the wise filmmakers in my audience who may be in a position to hire him: put it in Malcolm's contract to participate in your movie's DVD commentary, turn him loose on it, and you're guaranteed better reviews.

To move only slightly off-topic in closing, Warner's Kubrick titles (which I've bought in the snazzy Blu-ray format) appear to be ideally mastered and assembled. Last night I went through all the supplements on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (the first film I ever reviewed, though that review remains unpublished * ) and it cheers me to no end to know that I have other British television documentaries to look forward to on the other Kubrick discs. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE offers an excellent Channel 4 documentary about the film's 28-year suppression in the UK, as well as a pretty good American "making of." (You can tell it's American because nearly every sound byte has its Mickey Mousey visual counterpart -- e.g., someone says Malcolm was exhausted during the filming and we cut to a clip of the beaten, rain-soaked Alex slumping to the floor of the writer's home.) The British TV doco, on the other hand, is content to be authoritative, informative, enlightening, and smart rather than merely witty -- and to spend an hour or so in its presence is to emerge sickened by what American television has become in contrast.

* Originally written in hopes of a sale to CINEFANTASTIQUE, this typewritten relic is now being saved for my next volume of collected writings -- which I hope to compile and publish within the next year or two.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Cover Story & Twitch

Now on Cincinnati newsstands and racks about town, the new issue of CITY BEAT (our local entertainment paper) profiles Donna and me and our 32 year struggle to produce MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK in a cover story called "Book of a Lifetime." Excellent work by Jason Gargano, which non-Cincinnatians can read online here.

And over at Twitch, Dave Canfield presents his own ATCOTD interview with yours truly.

Monday, October 22, 2007

GRADUATE Thoughts

I had a wonderful evening Saturday night going through MGM's new 40th Anniversay reissue of Mike Nichols' THE GRADUATE. It's a splendid two-disc set, with the best-looking transfer the film has ever had on home video, numerous supplementary trailers and featurettes (two of them ported over from the film's 10th and 25th anniversary home video releases) and, best of all, two compellingly listenable audio commentaries. The first is by stars Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross, and the other finds Nichols interviewed by fellow director Steven Soderbergh, making this disc a sequel of sorts to their superb commentary for CATCH-22 and hopefully a flag for a more detailed, eventual reissue of CARNAL KNOWLEDGE.

The Hoffman/Ross commentary is historic for its repairing of one of the most charismatic screen couples of the 1960s, as the two have never worked together again. Hoffman admits several times to having a huge crush on Ross during the filming, which makes sense for an actor who studied under Lee Strasberg, which elicits a silence from Ross whenever it's brought up that is impossible to read. Either it makes sense to her too, or she simply doesn't know what to do with such a confession, but she doesn't return it in kind. It makes one wonder what their onscreen chemistry might be like, were Hoffman's pet project of a GRADUATE sequel ever to be made. But the track's most valuable aspect is the appreciation shown by both actors for the phenomenal widescreen photography of Robert Surtees, which opened my eyes to what an amazing feat of cinematography this film represents.

Ross is still angry with herself for having been unable to cry, as she was supposed to do, in the close-shot where she, Elaine, discovers that Benjamin (Hoffman) has had an affair with her mother, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). She continues to see this instance as her own technical failure, though it led to the far greater triumph brought to the moment by Surtees, who gave us what may be the screen's most brilliant use of delayed focus:







"Oh my God..."

I've seen THE GRADUATE numerous times since my first time in 1969, and the Nichols/Soderbergh commentary likewise guided my latest viewing to notice aspects of the production's design and wardrobe, for example, that had previously escaped my notice. Though it was Nichols' first film in color, his insecurity about working in a full-on color palette led to a creative decision to make THE GRADUATE a very monochromatic color film -- it's the kind of thing you may have never noticed but, once you're told, you can't not see it everywhere in evidence.
Watching the film again, I came away with two observations that are not discussed on the disc, nor am I aware of them having been discussed anywhere else. First of all, about the music score: I've always felt that the Simon & Garfunkel songs work perfectly well, and Nichols explains that their use in the film resulted from a gift of their music from his brother and his own ensuing obsession with it. While I feel the film was wise to omit any reference to timely events, such as the Vietnam war, to maintain its fable-like universality, I think the music puts it into a bubble that is very much of its time and offers little thematic reinforcement.
It occurred to me that Nichols might have been better served for the long haul with selections from the Beach Boys album PET SOUNDS. Imagine the early scenes of Benjamin's homecoming depression accompanied by "That's Not Me" or "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," the manic driving scenes prior to the church finale accompanied by the instrumental title track, and the church scene itself accompanied by "God Only Knows." I think the film's ending works beautifully as is, but I'm now wondering if it might play even more ironically in concert with "Wouldn't It Be Nice." Of course, such a marriage of movie and music would have made PET SOUNDS a greater hit of its time and less available to rediscovery; we might think of it today as "music from THE GRADUATE" rather than the classic album it is, but PET SOUNDS remains ever fresh and relevant to new generations while the Simon and Garfunkel songs, obsessively played and replayed, seem overtly precious, hearkening back to a time of fragile romantic illusion, especially in tracks like "Scarborough Fair."

Another idea I had puts an interesting twist on the essential drama and on Anne Bancroft's performance in particular. What if Mrs. Robinson's intense objection to Benjamin's courtship of her daughter was rooted in a better reason than her own vanity and her lame excuse that he isn't "good enough" for her daughter? What if, in her younger days, she and Benjamin's father -- her husband's business partner -- had an affair that resulted in her pregnancy with Elaine?
It's not uncommon for husbands to stray while their wives are pregnant, and it seems a reasonable possibility, especially given the way Murray Hamilton's character screams "cuckold" and the evasive mien Mrs. Robinson adopts in the hotel scene where Benjamin pumps her for details about how Elaine was conceived. The story of Elaine's conception which she offers to her young lover could as easily be illustrative of the mundane circumstances under which she lost her virginity. Everything in Anne Bancroft's performance is consistent with this reading of the material; I would go so far as to say that it is more consistent than the vague territorial explanations given. It would explain her attraction to Benjamin as a remnant or representative of a past affair, perhaps as an opportunity to do damage to the house of a man who once rejected her and gave her the child that necessitated her acceptance of another man's proposal.
In one of the interview supplements ported over from an earlier release of THE GRADUATE, Dustin Hoffman offers his interesting idea for a sequel: Benjamin and Elaine are still married, more through habit than happiness, but when their son returns home from college with a young woman he introduces as his fiancée, Benjamin embarks on an affair with his future daughter-in-law, in effect "becoming" Mrs. Robinson. It's a good idea, a movie I'd certainly pay to see, but imagine a sequel in which Benjamin and Elaine are still together, actually happily married, and discover after the death of Mrs. Robinson certain documents illuminating Mr. Robinson's impotence and her affair with Benjamin's father.
Now that could be dynamite.
Addenda 6:09 pm: The Hoffman/Ross commentary track also includes some interesting and amusing anecdotes about filming the scene in the stripclub, which Hoffman cheerfully recalls as being a much easier day's work for him than for Ross. He recalls asking the stripper (whose name he remembers as Elaine) at the end of the day how she felt after hours of keeping her tassles twirling in opposite directions. Her response: "My feet are killing me." What the track doesn't reveal, and what I did not discover until this very day, is that the stripper was played by an uncredited Lainie Miller, the wife of beloved character actor Dick Miller. Last Christmas, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

This Month's No Zone: THE THIRD SECRET

My "No Zone" review of Charles Crichton's gripping B&W psychological thriller THE THIRD SECRET appears in the November issue of SIGHT & SOUND, and it's also now posted on their website. Reading it over, I think this is among the best columns I've written for them to date.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Happy Birthday to Édith Scob

Today we send our warm regards to Édith Scob on the happy occasion of her 70th birthday. The mad woman with the holy voice in Georges Franju's HEAD AGAINST THE WALL, the masked Christiane in EYES WITHOUT A FACE, the angelic heroine Jacqueline of JUDEX, the Virgin Mary in Luís Buñuel's THE MILKY WAY, and also prominently featured in Pitof's VIDOCQ and Christophe Gans' BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF -- it is for no small reason that we at VIDEO WATCHDOG think of her as "Our Lady of the Fantastique."

Truth be told, Édith Scob is no less remarkable in her non-fantastic roles. I recently had the pleasure of seeing her splendid performance as Oriane de Guermantes in Raoul Ruiz's Marcel Proust adaptation TIME REGAINED, opposite Johnny Hallyday in Patrice Laconte's THE MAN ON A TRAIN, and in Andrzej Zulawski's epic-length FIDELITY, in which she embraced with great gusto the opportunity to act against type as an slutty and obnoxious alcoholic. She has also been busy as the recurring character of a Mother Superior in the successful French teleseries SOEURTHÉRESE.COM. It's wonderful to see this sublime actress continuing to be so visible in what we get to see of modern day French cinema over here. Her latest project -- Olivier Assayas' L'HEURE D'ETÉ ("Summertime") -- stars Juliette Binoche, so there's a very good chance that we'll be able to see it too.