Thursday, November 29, 2007

Fantômas Strikes Again

For several years now, I've had the pleasure of playing intermittent but unusually thoughtful e-mail tag with David White, a VW reader who -- like more than a few of our readers, I'm proud to say -- makes a living in the creative arts. David, who is a playwright affiliated with the Passage Theater Company of Trenton, New Jersey, shares with me a special passion for French crime fantasy of the early 20th century -- the books about such characters as Arsène Lupin, Belfagor, Les Vampires, and of course, Fantômas -- and the films made about them and others by the likes of Louis Feuillade and Georges Franju.

For much of our correspondence, David has expressed a desire to add a book of his own to this bat-wing of world fiction, and I'm happy to announce that his first novel, FANTOMAS IN AMERICA, has just been published by Black Coat Press (imprint of Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier, authors of the indispensible McFarland reference work FRENCH SCIENCE FICTION FANTASY, HORROR AND PULP FICTION). It was added to Amazon.com today.

FANTOMAS IN AMERICA has the distinction of being the first new Fantômas novel to appear since the last of the Marcel Allain novels, FANTOMAS JOUE ET GAGNES ("Fantômas Gambles and Wins"), was serialized in French newspapers in 1938. Allain originally conceived the character with collaborator Pierre Souvestre, with whom he wrote no less than 32 lengthy adventures between February 1911 and September 1913. (And I think VW has a punishing schedule!) Souvestre was killed in the first World War, and Allain (who subsequently married Souvestre's widow) resumed the adventures of the "Genius of Crime" in 1925, writing only eight more novels between then and 1938 -- that, David tells me, lack the verve and imagination of the original classic 32.

David's novel picks up in 1917, four years after Fantômas disappeared during the fateful cruise of the mega-ship Gigantic in the last Souvestre/Allain novel, LE FIN DU FANTOMAS? ("The End of Fantômas?")... and is partly based on FANTOMAS, a now-lost Fox Corporation film serial of 20 episodes directed by Edward Sedgwick, originally released in 1921. Some sources credit Boris Karloff among the production's supporting players, but this may be a mistake based on the resemblance of lead actor Edward Rosenman (who plays Fantômas) to Karloff in the print ads. David was able to learn about the obscure American serial by winning a rare pressbook on eBay, which provided chapter synopses for only a limited number of the film's chapters; thereafter, he was free to imagine the rest, which he managed to do by introducing as characters not only Sedgwick and Rosenman, but other characters from the silent screen such as D.W. Griffith's scrappy street gang of 1912, the Musketeers of Pig Alley. There are many other secreted pop cultural references too, including some more recent ones, but I'll leave the pleasure of discovering them to you.

The book contains approximately 50 illustrations culled from the rare Fox Corp. pressbook, making FANTOMAS IN AMERICA as pertinent a non-fiction purchase for devotées of silent film fantasy as it surely is as a bold continuation of a wonderful literary tradition.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Coming Soon in VW #135

VIDEO WATCHDOG has been on hold for the past couple of months while we attended to other business, but we're on the way back in a big way. We've just posted some contents info about VW 135 on the "Coming Soon" page of our website, which you can find here. I think it's a dandy, one of those rare issues where a lot of the material covered seemed to magically dovetail together in shared themes. If the list of titles under review in this issue seems a little light, that's because I've decided not to reveal everything about what's inside... so, this time, when we say "and much, much more!", we really mean "and much, much more!" When you follow the link, be sure to click on the cover to access a free preview of a selection of interior pages!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Elvira and the Manglers of Heedra

I've often said that what this world needs is a really good video representation of Mel Welles' LA ISLA DE LA MUERTE. Theatrically released by Allied Artists in 1967 as ISLAND OF THE DOOMED, the Spanish-Italian co-production is one of those all-too-common stories about a tourist bus that breaks down, forcing its varied and sometimes bickering passengers to knock on the door of an isolated villa -- isolated because the locals have all been frightened away by a "vampire legend." In this case, the villa is owned by the Baron von Weser (Cameron Mitchell), a crazed experimental botanist who -- in the course of breeding vegetables that taste like meat -- develops a carnivorous strain of Venus flytrap that requires a steady diet of human blood. Some viewers, remembering Welles' acting stint as Gravis Mushnik in Roger Corman's THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1959), find the plant angle of interest; I, on the other hand, see this film as a little gem of the European co-production period of the 1960s, and one of the few titles that hasn't been available for viewing in its correct aspect ratio in 40 years.

The film first came to my attention circa 1970, when it was presented by Cincinnati's The Cool Ghoul on WXIX-TV's SCREAM-IN under the TV syndication title MANEATER OF HYDRA. Even then, I was impressed by its creepy atmosphere, its effective set pieces, its cast -- Mitchell, Kai Fischer (a striking redhead whom I'd seen in UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE), pretty Elisa Montés (providing a Mary Anne to Fischer's Ginger), and Riccardo Valle (Morpho in THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF) -- and a dubbing crew that prominently featured the recognizable voice of Anne Meara for the character of Myrtle. (The IMDb lists no screen credits for Meara between 1964 and 1970, making her a likely candidate for voice work.) I can also now recognize the voice of Rodd Dana issuing from the mouth of heroic lead Jorge Martín, if it's true -- as Welles told me himself -- that Dana provided the voice for Stephen Forsyth in HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, a dubtrack that Welles directed in 1969. More impressive than the cast to my younger self was the movie's impressively gloopy special effects, which now look like a cheapish but plausible forerunner of some of the gloopy things Rob Bottin created for John Carpenter's THE THING (1982). The enticing music score, some of which sounds warbly here, if not faintly waterlogged, is by Antón García Abril, best-remembered today for scoring TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD.
This quickly disappearing year marks the 40th anniversary of ISLAND OF THE DOOMED. We should be enjoying a DVD presentation that gives us the Techniscope picture in its true 2.35:1 framing, with crisp clarity and eye-popping color (in case anyone at Warner Bros., the film's most probable true owner, is listening). Alas, the only offer on the table is Shout Factory's "Elvira's Movie Macabre Double Feature" release (one of several), pairing the Mistress of the Dark's respective presentations of MANEATER OF HYDRA and Narciso Ibanez Serrador's THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED [LA RESIDENCIA, 1971] -- on separate discs. Because I first saw MANEATER under the bat-like wing of a TV horror host, I like the option of being able to watch the movie without interruption or with the breaks featuring Elvira (Cassandra Peterson), every mention of whose name on the packaging is accompanied by a registered trademark (R). She must have great lawyers. If only the cinematic legacy of the late Mel Welles had fared so well in this Shout Factory venture.
Because the film is called MANEATER OF HYDRA, we know in advance that it's going to be pan&scanned, and it is... but that doesn't begin to prepare us for the truly wretched quality of the source element, which appears to be a dupey VHS tape of a complete 87m 48s rendering of the film, possibly chained from a 16mm print. Whites blush loudly, and heavy intermittent grain in the lower third of the screen reminds us of the tracking problems that bedevilled us in the videotape era. Objectively speaking, it looks a couple of generations south of the tape I obtained from European Trash Cinema about 20 years ago. Here are some frame grabs I took to prove my point (presented without any cropping, to better expose the videotape artifacting at the bottom of the screen):
The Elvira (pardon the expression) bumpers extend the overall running time to 99m 57s and are retained from a 1983 MOVIE MACABRE broadcast from KHJ-TV, when the "B-movie queen's" disposition was more that of a sour Valley Girl than the bubbly double entendriste we know and love today. What's most infuriating about the presentation is that, if one watches the Elvira (R) footage, we see shots from the movie -- incorporated for comic purposes -- that are of markedly superior quality! Still cropped, of course, but crisper and more colorful. Clearly, this was the version shown in tandem with the Elvira (R) footage, so why wasn't THAT source used?
I haven't as yet watched THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED -- a better picture than MANEATER OF HYDRA, frankly -- because I know I'm bound to be disappointed by the quality. The presentation of MANEATER OF HYDRA (which our "hostess with the mostest" repeatedly calls "Maneater of Heedra") is so crummy, in fact, it's the first time I've ever watched this film and wondered what I ever saw in it. Obviously, a quality that this presentation has literally reduced to nothing.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Achievements and Improvements

The most exciting news of the day comes from fellow publisher-editor Gary J. Svehla, who tells us that my MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK is featured in the current issue of PASTE, the music and pop culture magazine, on their list of the Best Books of 2007 -- right next to the new Harry Potter book! I don't know how it came to their attention, but I'm grateful.

The response to the Bava book in print is just beginning to get underway. MJ Simpson wrote an excellent review and author profile for the current issue of the British magazine DEATH RAY, and I know that feature articles and reviews are forthcoming in RUE MORGUE and FANGORIA. My fingers are already crossed for some kind of Bava book mention in THE NEW YORK TIMES' Best Books of 2007 issue -- even to receive mention as one of the Honorables would be wonderful.

On his MYRANT blog, Steve Bissette has announced that he recently finished reading "the truly massive, moving" Bava book and promises to write at length about the experience soon.

Also, all seven segments of Colin Reboy's interview with Donna and me -- the complete novel for television, as they used to say -- are now posted at the Studio Kaiju site.

And what of the reclusive fellow behind this blitzkrieg of publicity? I am presently running a VW gauntlet that's likely to keep me busy up till the last pre-holiday moment, which is why Video WatchBlog activity has been so irregular of late.

We've just completed work on VW #135 (one of our best, if I do say so myself); the principal features are my "DVD Spotlight" on PAN'S LABYRINTH and Mark F. Berry's fine interview with English actress Judi Bowker (CLASH OF THE TITANS, COUNT DRACULA), but fuller contents information will be posted on our website in the coming days. We are going right into VW #136, our GRINDHOUSE issue, which is pretty much complete and ready for editing and layout; and Donna is pressing for us to jump into VW #137 as soon as we finish the previous one. Of course, the first thing she's going to ask me when that time rolls around is "Where are your reviews for this issue?" -- but I've been working on two other issues of the magazine (including writing some emergency material for them), so when have I had time to watch movies, much less review any?

This sort of frenzied pace may suit Roger Corman, but it doesn't suit me. We've been doing this for seventeen years now; for once, I would like to take a more leisurely and receptive approach to the Christmas season. I want to send cards, telephone neglected friends, do some actual in-store shopping, and so forth -- but it doesn't seem too likely. It's just as well I find myself on a Ramones binge these days; I need the energy.

Today -- at my suggestion, actually (although this isn't going to sound like me) -- Donna and I decided to forego our usual Christmas gifts for one another and direct our holiday budget toward some needed home repairs and improvements. I guess that means we've finally grown up. We spent part of this evening in the home improvements department of a nearby Lowe's store, ogling things like storm doors, windows and floor lamps. You know, it's amazing what you can buy to dress up your home for the same amount of money I typically spend on Euro posters I look at once and file away...