Friday, March 21, 2008

VIDEO WATCHDOG #138 Unveiled

Click to embiggen.

Charlie Largent, designer of the Rondo Award-winning Trailers From Hell site, graces our next cover with original art of Roger Corman directing on the set of PIT AND THE PENDULUM. It's a fun cover for a highly entertaining and informative issue whose centerpiece is a Round Table Discussion between Corman, his former art director Daniel Haller (a rare interviewee), fellow director and fan Joe Dante and moderator Lawrence French about the Corman/Haller collaborations at American International Pictures.

Dan Haller's presence at the candid talk helped to jog Roger's memory about all kinds of hilarious production anecdotes not touched upon in previous interviews -- some of them about grabbing footage while one step ahead of the law! You can find the whole rundown of this exciting issue's contents, and some clickable sample pages, on the Coming Soon page of our website!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Rick Baker's New WOLF MAN

The movie isn't due to be released until February of next year, but Universal has made the surprising decision to leak two advance portraits of Benicio del Toro in full makeup as THE WOLF MAN. Looking at these two shots (one here, the other further down -- click to enlarge), it's easy to understand the studio's enthusiasm: they show Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker at the very top of his game. In fact, this is rather more like the monster I had expected Baker to create for AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON back in 1981, where a more bestial, inhuman, wombat-like werewolf design won him his first Academy Award for Best Makeup. In an ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY interview with Lindsay Soll, conducted in support of these new images, Baker confessed about his new project, "The old fanboy in me is jumping up and down here!" And so are fanboys all across the Internet.

To appreciate what Baker has done here, you must consider the various werewolf makeups that have come and gone in the forty-odd years since the last truly great one: Roy Ashton's grey timberwolf interpretation of Oliver Reed in Hammer's 1961 film, CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF. (The casting of Benicio del Toro in Universal's remake of THE WOLF MAN shows that director Joe Johnston has already learned an important lesson from the Hammer film: to ensure a great werewolf, hire an actor who has a volatile edge even without the makeup -- it makes the transformation that much more convincing.) Paul Naschy's werewolf makeups have always been wildly uneven in execution; there are some terrific ones (FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR, CURSE OF THE DEVIL), some dull ones (THE WEREWOLF AND THE YETI, LYCANTHROPE), and quite a few at various stops in-between. Aside from the Naschy films, not all of which received American release at the time, and the occasional oddity like Universal's THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF (1973) or Amicus' THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974), werewolf movies were generally put on ice for most of a decade, only coming back into vogue when Rick Baker conceived some stage-magic-influenced makeup trickery that would allow him to transform an actor from man into wolf in a brightly lit room.

John Landis' AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON contains a classic transformation sequence, but frankly, I don't consider the end result a great werewolf makeup; I don't even consider it a great werewolf rig, because it's not all that lithe or believable onscreen. (Nor would I consider David Naughton particularly volatile casting.) In terms of conceptual design and execution, I was far more impressed by the wicked Big Bad Wolf designs brought to Joe Dante's THE HOWLING by Rob Bottin, a Baker protégé who introduced his mentor's change-o-head effects to the screen while Baker's much-postponed gig was still in post-production. The Eddie Quist werewolf in THE HOWLING is as good as a post-Universal werewolf can be, and this is partly thanks to the preparatory (and yes, volatile) performance of Robert Picardo. There have been quite a few werewolves onscreen since those two seminal pictures brought sprouting hair back into fashion -- in WOLFEN, THE MONSTER SQUAD, SILVER BULLET, WOLF and VAN HELSING, to name a few -- but they've mostly followed Baker's Oscar-winning template, leaving most of the man out of the Wolf Man equation.

What Baker's latest design has effectively achieved is a completely successful modernization of one of the cinema's three great archetypes of horror. Since the late 1940s, more or less, the cinema has been stymied by an inability to improve upon Jack Pierce's original iconographic makeup designs for the Frankenstein Monster, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man. (Dracula, being more rooted in the performance of Bela Lugosi, didn't quite have the same problem; if anything, the cinema has been stymied about how to do something new with Dracula since Christopher Lee burst into the library with a blood-smeared mouth in Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA [1958], and with vampires in general since they took to wearing leather dusters and Goth hairstyles in THE LOST BOYS [1987].) But Baker's WOLF MAN makeup succeeds in modernizing Pierce's ideas without denying them; it's at once classic and contemporary, a very tough balancing act, which not only bodes well for Johnston's film, but for the possibility of a bona fide renaissance of the monster movie.

Not horror movie... monster movie. The difference between the two is that a horror movie, as we understand the species today, bludgeons you with situations involving pain and bloodshed, served up with all the grim realism the MPAA will allow (and even more when it comes to "unrated" video); a monster movie is escapist entertainment that excites your imagination with fantasy, spooky atmosphere and iconographic imagery. Monster movies are often thought of as being juvenile in nature, and they are distant cousins to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, but nearly all of the great archetypal monsters -- the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, the Phantom of the Opera -- originated in novels written by and for adult readers. Universal made its first forays into lycanthropy, THE WERE-WOLF OF LONDON (1935) and THE WOLF MAN (1941) after the literary precedent of Guy Endore's 1933 novel THE WEREWOLF OF PARIS.

My one concern about these fantastic promotional images is that it runs counter to the traditions of Hollywood to show all of your cards before a movie opens, especially a movie like this. Pre-release stills for horror movies from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) to THE EXORCIST (1973), and from FRANKENSTEIN (1931) to THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980), absolutely withheld the revelations of their shocking makeup designs: you bought your ticket, and THEN, and only then, you got to see the monster. With this in mind, I can't help thinking that THE WOLF MAN must have something else tucked far up its sleeve to surprise us. To trump work as magnificent as this, it's going to have to be damned good.

But these photos represent a new plateau in the astounding career of Rick Baker, who here proves himself the equal of any of the great masters who ever inspired him. The ball is in your hands, Rick -- I can't wait to see how far you run with it.

FEEDBACK (3/21/08): Bill Chambers, editor of Film Freak Central, writes: "This is ultimately irrelevant though others may point it out as well: Mark Romanek (of ONE HOUR PHOTO fame) was actually the guy who cast Del Toro as the Wolf Man. It's something they had been collaborating on for some time, and they had Baker working on it I think before the project was even greenlit. Romanek left just days before principal photography began over a budgetary dispute, and I believe the pictures being leaked was a form of damage control more than anything else... Knowing this was Romanek's dream project and considering his instincts to nab Del Toro and Baker, I think [his] would've been a less generic film than we're bound to get from journeyman Johnston. Which is probably all right by the studio--and in fairness, the approved budget of $100 million was already pretty extravagant for the material."

I Found No Thrill in the Swedish FANNY HILL

Many moons ago, in the pages of VIDEO WATCHDOG #15, I reviewed Mac Ahlberg's AROUND THE WORLD WITH FANNY HILL [Jorden runt med Fanny Hill, 1974], an entertaining softcore romp featuring Shirley Corrigan, Gaby Fuchs (MARK OF THE DEVIL) and, reason enough to watch all by herself, Christina Lindberg. It was released on VHS, circa 1992, by Kit Parker Video in tandem with Ahlberg's earlier and better-known FANNY HILL (1968), starring Diana Kjær -- "better-known" because it had been distributed here in the States by Jerry Gross' notorious Cinemation Industries as an early X-rated release, just prior to their memorable I DRINK YOUR BLOOD/I EAT YOUR SKIN double bill.

I watched both films back-to-back at the time, but for some reason, I never reviewed FANNY HILL -- perhaps because I was more demanding in those days that the titles we review contain some measure of fantastic content. I found my copy while doing some attic cleaning over the weekend and decided to refresh my memory of it.

Like ALL AROUND THE WORLD WITH FANNY HILL, it is a contemporary treatment that has only a name in common with John Cleland's 1748 classic FANNY HILL: THE MEMOIRS OF A WOMAN OF PLEASURE. Ms. Kjær stars as Fanny, an unsophisticated virgin from the provinces who, while traveling by train to the Big City (presumably Stockholm), makes the acquaintence of Monika (Tina Hedstrom). Monika offers Fanny a room in her apartment until she finds a job, which she promptly obtains at her roommate's place of employment, a classy brothel run by Frau Schoon (MANNEQUIN IN RED's Gio Petré) -- who doesn't quite suspect Fanny's innocence. Fortunately, shortly after realizing what is expected of her, Fanny meets a new client, Roger (Hans Ernback), who urges her to quit when he learns that she is intact. Roger is the wealthy and carefree son of a shipping magnate and promptly takes Fanny and one of Dad's smaller yachts on a carefree, three-day cruise. Things have been going unbelievably well for the sheltered Fanny so far, but all this changes promptly upon their return, when Roger's dad (Gosta Pruzelius) puts his foot down, refusing to let the heir to his empire marry such an unpolished girl from the boonies. Fanny accepts his pay-off and, broken-hearted, embarks on a la ronde of subsequent relationships. Her lovers have their ups and downs, but in time, a rather remarkable turn of events leaves Fanny the unsuspecting heir to an infatuated gentleman's fortune, which gives her the necessary leverage for a happy, unexpected (by her, anyway) reunion with Roger.

Diana Kjær -- who would subsequently star in AIP's sex import DAGMAR'S HOT PANTS, INC. (1971), and who went on to play "Artist's Wife", "Girl Eating Meat" and "Whore" in later productions, according to the IMDb -- is cute, but the English dialogue is so lamely written and dubbed (by Titra Sound Studios, posing as Titan Productions) that everyone seems as thick and insipid as Fanny is supposed to be. It's impossible to gauge anyone's performance, or to gauge Fanny's personal growth during the course of her adventures. Furthermore, as Fanny's entire story unfolds as if by chance, the storyline is deprived of any sense of forward momentum; also, having been produced in 1968, the film is much tamer than many other films which had reached our shores by 1970. There is actually very little erotic content -- in those days, any film showing a bare breast in a sexual context got an R; if it was fondled or kissed, it got an X -- and what is present tends to be on the coy and playful side, as when one of Fanny's lovers coaxes her into exiting a car and walking into her apartment building nude -- an interlude we witness from behind, and in the dark. This is criticism at its cheapest, but I was reminded more than once of a line spoken by Severn Darden in THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST: "Teeedium... teeeeedium."

What holds one's interest, very loosely I admit, are the scenes involving music and dancing, which are decked out in appropriately retro-Euro style. However, this being a Cinemation release, Georg Riedel's original score was partially replaced stateside with music and songs by Clay Pitts. I've read that Pitts was the pseudonym of a successful, established musician who did this work on the side. Based on the voice heard on some of the songs, not to mention the cheerfully vacuous quality of tunes like "Sail A Boat" and "Do The Gravitational Pull," I found myself wondering if Clay Pitts might have been a beard for Neil Sedaka. After all, Sedaka was no stranger to writing and singing silly songs for low-rent pictures like PLAYGIRL KILLER and STING OF DEATH, so who knows? In this case, a soundtrack album was actually released -- in fact, I can remember finding a copy in the record racks of a local department store back in 1970 and wondering what the music from an X-rated film could possibly sound like.

Mac Ahlberg, who has since returned to his origins as a cameraman (Gordon's RE-ANIMATOR, Landis' INNOCENT BLOOD, Dante's THE SECOND CIVIL WAR, various Charles Band DTV titles), had a fascinating career as a director of erotic films in Sweden. FANNY HILL is pretty negligeable when compared to serious stuff like I, A WOMAN (1965) with Essy Persson, or the later films he made with Maria Forsa, like FLOSSIE (1974) and JUSTINE AND JULIETTE (1975); it's even negligeable when compared to the colorful, pneumatic fun of AROUND THE WORLD WITH FANNY HILL, which I called "imaginative" and "highly amusing" in my 1992 review. Mind you, if I were to see a subtitled version of FANNY HILL with the original score intact, I might feel differently.

The Kit Parker Video release of FANNY HILL carried an R rating on its packaging, incidentally... but it's doubtful that anything present in Cinemation's "Rated X... Naturally" theatrical release was missing from it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Look at JUDEX / NUITS ROUGE

Channing Pollock in one of the cinema's great entrances, from JUDEX.

It hasn't received much attention over here but, last November, CAHIERS DU CINÉMA released as part of their "Collection 2 Films De" series a two-disc set of Georges Franju's JUDEX (1963) and NUITS ROUGE (1974, the feature condensation of his miniseries L'HOMME SANS VISAGE). The Region 2 release wasn't carried by the usual importers because it didn't offer an English track for either of the films; however, it does offer one of my favorite films in a celestially lovely anamorphic transfer, as I thought I might share with you today in this series of screen grabs.

Jacqueline (Edith Scob) is overtaken by Diana Monti (Francine Bergè).

Jacqueline discovers the identity of her secret benefactor.

Judex (Channing Pollock) comes to Jacqueline's rescue.

Judex's shadowy accomplices ascend to save their mentor.

An unhappy discovery for the murderous Diana Monti.

The companion feature, NUITS ROUGE -- which I've always yearned to see in its complete form -- looks much nicer here than it did as a New Line Cinema theatrical release, or as the Beta/VHS release that came out in the very early days of home video. I've never seen it other than looking as grainy as a 16mm blow-up, but here it looks brighter and more richly colorful than I've ever seen it. Contrary to the 4:3 notation on the packaging, it has also been nicely letterboxed... but, for some reason, not treated to anamorphic enhancement. Nevertheless, here for your edification are an equal number of sample images.

Jacques Champreux as the Man Without a Face.
A moonlight robbery at knifepoint.

The Woman (Gayle Hunnicutt) on the prowl.

Hero Paul (Ugo Pagliai) holds a marching procession of robotized zombies at bay.

Inspector Sorbier (Gert Fröbe) saves Martine (Joséphine Chaplin) from her masked abductor.

Gayle Hunnicutt and Jacques Champreux at Shadowman HQ.
Both films are accompanied by interviews with Jacques Champreux, the grandson of French film pioneer Louis Feuillade (LES VAMPIRES, FANTOMAS, the original JUDEX), who scripted both features and played, very ably, the Man Without a Face in the latter picture. The JUDEX disc also contains a wealth of CD-ROM material for those who read French, including an interview with Franju, an article called "Feuillade and His Double" by Jean-André Fieschi, and CAHIERS' 1963 review of the film by filmmaker Jacques Rivette (CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING).
The set now appears to be officially out of print, as it is no longer directly available through Amazon.fr; however, a few stores selling through Amazon.fr still have it, which is how I lucked into my copy. Now my fingers are crossed for a stateside release in English, perhaps (please? please?) through Criterion's Eclipse label. With SPOTLIGHT ON A MURDERER, THERESE DESQUEYROUX and THOMAS THE IMPOSTER included, s'il vous plait.
The Anthology Film Archives in New York City are currently hosting a Franju retrospective, with a showing of JUDEX and a number of short films by the director being shown tonight. How I wish we had such things in my hometown! Follow this link for more details.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Fear and Loathing on Blood Island

More than a decade before Hemisphere Pictures introduced us to Dr. Lorca and his raucous, green-blooded progeny of science in MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND (1968), Hammer Film Productions set two important pictures on a Blood Island of their own.

Hammer's THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND (1957) and THE SECRET OF BLOOD ISLAND (1965) -- the company's most controversial forays into realistic, non-fantastic horror -- have more or less faded into obscurity, never released on tape or disc and no longer shown on American television. It is conceivable that these WWII dramas, detailing the suffering of British prisoners of war at Japanese encampments in occupied Malaya (now Malaysia), have been deliberately suppressed, as they were deemed outrageous and offensive long before the term "politically correct" was coined. One feels the urge to defend them because they are well-made, have noble humanistic content, and convey potent anti-war messages; at the same time, one feels embarassed by their depiction of Japanese soldiers, for reasons that have nothing to do with their wartime behavior.
Made during the period between Hammer's epoch-making THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND was directed and written by Val Guest (THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT), working from notes which he claimed had been scribbled on toilet paper by co-credited writer Jon Manchip White during his own Japanese POW experience. It is set in 1945 Malaya, where word of the war's end has yet to reach the prison camp of Colonel Yamamitsu (Ronald Radd). British Colonel Lambert (Andre Morell) has received the news through his own covert channels, but he and his men must keep it from reaching the enemy, as Yamamitsu's sadistic, rat-faced second-in-command Captain Sakamura (Marne Maitland) has made it known that, in the event of a Japanese defeat or surrender, he and Yamamitsu intend to save face by killing all their prisoners and then themselves by blowing up the camp. When an American soldier (Phil Brown) parachutes to ground and is captured by the Japanese, suspense kicks in as Lambert must somehow make the delicacy of the situation known to him before he can inform his captors of the Japanese surrender.
Photographed by the great Jack Asher in gritty black-and-white, and featuring bloodshed that is all the more startling for its black profusion and realistic context, CAMP comes very close to being one of Hammer's most serious, best-acted pictures. The dialogue is also surprisingly strong -- one line spoken by Michael Gwynne, "You friggin' Jap bastard!", was blatantly relooped, suggesting that even stronger words may have been used on set. The bleakly ironic ending, in particular, posits this film as an antecedent of Michael Reeves' WITCHFINDER GENERAL in showing how violence begets violence and corrupts the best of intentions. Morell is at his customary best, and he's ably supported by a Who's Who of Hammer's top supporting players -- Barbara Shelley, Michael Gwynne, Richard Wordsworth, Milton Reid, Edwin Richfield -- each of them giving their all in a quality and, let's face it, patriotic piece of melodrama. But their proud efforts cannot help but be deflated every time Maitland (who actually gives a fine performance), the chop-suey-munching Radd, or even Michael Ripper appear in their crummy yellow-face makeup.
Some genuinely Asian actors appear in the film as underlings, standing guard or driving trucks; of course, the British film industry had no shortage of such actors, but they were not cast in the appropriate key roles as it was the tendency of Hammer's casting department to stick with those names they knew and trusted. Even so, the portrayals of the Japanese are so hateful and inflammatory that there's every possibility that authentic Japanese actors, starving or not, would have turned the film down rather than risk adding to the tensions on the set. And those simmering postwar tensions were very real, even abroad: in September 1958, when THE CAMP ON BLOOD IDLAND was being readied for US release through Columbia Pictures, the chairman of the Motion Picture Production Association of Japan made an unsuccessful attempt to have the film banned in America. His point was inadvertently supported by VARIETY's reviewer, who praised the film by promising "It will jerk out of complacency any person who now tends to regard the Japanese as not being as bad as they thought."
It was the film's stated ambition -- presented in a caption appearing over the image of a starved prisoner lying in an open grave, machine-gunned in his bare chest -- to tell the "brutal truth" about the British POW experience, and there is no doubt that incidents such as it portrayed actually occurred. However, by casting the Japanese roles with ill-disguised British talent, the authenticity of the suffering it depicted was inadvertently cheapened by the ugly, seething racism inherent in its degree of caricature. Nevertheless, the film's many positive qualities demand that it be seen and preserved. Released to television in pan&scan transfers, the Megascope film has not been available for viewing in its original 2.35:1 dimensions for roughly half-a-century.
In 1959, director Gerardo de Leon made TERROR IS A MAN, the first Filipino horror film to be set on "Blood Island," a locale to be revisited to greater commercial success a decade later. Around the same time, Roger Corman's Filmgroup company released BATTLE OF BLOOD ISLAND (1960), an independent WWII film directed by Joel Rapp, based on the story "Expect the Vandals" by Philip Roth. It had nothing to do with the Hammer film, but it kept the phrase "Blood Island" alive in the consciousness of moviegoers as synonymous with Hell in the Pacific.
THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND, Hammer's 50th production, became one of the company's biggest early money-makers. Nevertheless, it generated so much heated controversy that they heeded strong suggestions from leading British film industry figures that further pictures exciting unpleasant memories of WWII should be discouraged. Nevertheless, after seven cooling years, it was possible for James Clavell to achieve best-sellerdom with the novel KING RAT, which was promptly bought by Columbia and filmed by Bryan Forbes in 1965. Hammer took this precedent as a green light to move ahead with THE SECRET OF BLOOD ISLAND, shot in color and released by Rank and Universal in 1965 -- a non-sequential "prequel" to their earlier hit, set in 1944 Malaya and involving a different set of characters.
Here Barbara Shelley plays a woman pilot on a top secret mission who is shot down over Japanese-occupied Malaysia -- almost 200 miles shy of her urgent destination -- and must elude discovery by the Japanese by posing as a male POW in one of their prison camps. Shelley, with short-cropped hair, gives a resolutely asexual performance and the film ventures very little in the way of sexual intrigue or romantic interludes. Surrounded once again by top-drawer talent including Charles Tingwell (her husband in DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS), Jack Hedley (THE ANNIVERSARY), and Edwin Richfield (QUATERMASS AND THE PIT), Shelley is here opposed by the ogreish and even more offensively made-up Patrick Wymark (!) as Major Jocomo and Michael Ripper as Lieutenant Tojoko. All things considered, Ripper isn't too bad; he barks his Japanese orders in a manner that shows he took the dialogue seriously... but Wymark is so blatantly miscast, he's an offense not only to the Japanese but to every other well-meaning actor in the piece.

SECRET was better than adequately directed by Quentin Lawrence, who had previously made another of Hammer's most winning non-horror titles, CASH ON DEMAND (1961); it was ably scripted by John Gilling, and is well-stocked with its own share of earnest performances. Yet, like its predecessor, it is a film that might have succeeded superbly if not for the inadvertently comic look of its leering putty-eyed villains. Furthermore, there is a feeling here of a film that was advised to pull its punches, in a way that THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND did not, and -- in a hint at studio editorial interference -- it starts off on an awkward foot by presenting the climax first, as a lead-in to Shelley's voice-over narration, which only serves to make the story's culmination needlessly familiar when we earn our way back to it.
The Blood Island films are somehow more attractive as a diptych, as a two film series, than as two stand-alone pictures from different decades. The fact that they are owned by two different studios makes it all the more unlikely that they will be revived any time soon on DVD. This is unfortunate because -- PC powderkegs or not -- they contain too much of quality and historic witness to be consigned to oblivion. One hopes they may someday return to circulation, and that its authors can forgiven for their strong feelings as we have forgiven those who provoked them. If Japan can produce a film about the facts of war as unflinching as Kazuo Hara's THE EMPEROR'S NAKED ARMY MARCHES ON, the least the rest of us can do is assume responsibility for our fictions.
Speaking of fiction, a movie tie-in novelisation of THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND ("The Brutal Truth of What Really Happened!") was published in paperback in 1958, credited only in terms of being based on the screenplay by White and Guest. It proved popular enough with the British public to earn later printings as recently as 1972.

In preparing this article, I relied on my own viewing of these films, as well as on research put forward by Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio in their book HAMMER FILMS - AN EXHAUSTIVE FILMOGRAPHY (McFarland and Company, 1996), which I gratefully acknowledge.
PS (3/18/08): Reader Mike Mariano has written to inform me that THE SECRET OF BLOOD ISLAND actually had a VHS release, possibly unauthorized, under the title POW: PRISONERS OF WAR. "[It was released] by Kestrel Gold Video, a Canadian company, I believe," he writes. "It's a decent fullscreen transfer in color. There are several copies available on the Amazon Marketplace, with pics of the box cover."

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Mr. Klein

Here we have the cover of MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE #20, one of the most arresting covers ever perpetrated by the greatest of all French magazines dedicated to the fantastic cinema. I've always loved this image and wondered about the obscure film it was from, even before realizing that the woman in the photo is none other than Delphine Seyrig (LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, MURIEL, DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS). If you, like me, have long been attracted to this photo and puzzled over its point of origin, you'll be interested to know that the movie in question is scheduled for release here in the States later this month.

On March 25, MR. FREEDOM (1969) will be released by the Criterion sub-label Eclipse as part of a box set bearing the provocative title THE DELIRIOUS FICTIONS OF WILLIAM KLEIN. I've just finished going through the whole set, which I've reviewed for the April 2008 issue of SIGHT & SOUND, and people need to know that this is the science fiction/fantasy release of the month and possibly of the season. MR. FREEDOM more than lives up to the promise of its promotional stills as the wildest superhero satire I've ever seen, a clear-cut antecedent of what Paul Verhoeven got up to in ROBOCOP. Also included in the set is Klein's feature debut, WHO ARE YOU, POLLY MAGGOO? (1966), a prescient spoof of Reality TV in which a camera crew invades the privacy of a ubiquitous fashion model that incorporates Felliniesque fashion shows and animated collage sequences reminiscent of Karel Zeman; and THE MODEL COUPLE (1977), in which an "average" French couple consent to live without privacy for six months to provide an entertainment program for the public, without realizing that the whole enterprise is a governmental experiment in reduction, calculated to gauge how much the average French citizen can comfortably live without.
Director Klein got his start as an award-winning photographer, specializing in layouts for VOGUE. He is also an American expatriate, having moved to Paris in the early 1960s, and these three films can be read as a trilogy of sorts about his disillusionment with America and his fears about the encroaching Americanization of his adopted country. These are brilliant and remarkable films, perhaps sharing a tendency to burn too brightly and to burn out sooner or later in the third act, but satisfying nevertheless on the strengths of their concepts, their sawtoothed satirical bite, and Klein's consistently dazzling eye for style. (These three films are written, directed and designed by William Klein -- the sort of possessory credit to which only William Cameron Menzies and Robert Fuest, I believe, have otherwise staked claim.) Klein's style and personality are unique, and even if one can readily discern his influences (Fellini, Méliès, Godard -- especially ALPHAVILLE), they never overwhelm what he brings to these projects. And what he brings to these projects includes a number of impressive fans who consented to appear in them: the aforementioned Delphine Seyrig (in two), Philippe Noiret (in two), Serge Gainsbourg, Yves Montand (as French superhero Captain Formidable!), DARK SHADOWS diva Grayson Hall, and le grand Eddie Constantine.
If you count yourself a discerning genre connoisseur, your future status will be determined by whether or not you own this set. At least two of the three films look and sound terrific, aside from a brief patch of roughly recorded dialogue in MR. FREEDOM). While it also looks good for the most part, there are enough instances of disruptive cropping in THE MODEL COUPLE to suggest that it was shot in 1.33:1 and should only be screened that way.

2008 Rondo Roundup

I want to thank everyone who took the time to vote in the Rondo Awards this year, and for VIDEO WATCHDOG contributors and products in particular. I won as Best Writer for the second year, and MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK won as Best Book of 2007 -- a victory that I share with Donna, whose brilliant design work made my 12-pound gorilla all the more conspicuous when it arrived on the scene.

Close to 3,000 people participated this year and, while there is some controversy about how well the results reflect the "Classic Horror" orientation of the award, I think they were all valid and interesting choices. Donna and I send our friendly congratulations out to the folks at RUE MORGUE, the first magazine to beat us the Rondo's Best Magazine competition; I was also happy to see FANGORIA finish as runner-up, because they both do excellent work at covering the past, present and future of horror cinema and pop culture, and haven't really received their fair share of attention in past Rondo polls. VW came in third, which is compliment enough as both RUE MORGUE and FANGORIA are owned by large corporations, produced from actual offices, and print at least ten times as many copies we do; I'm honored simply to know that VW is accepted on their same level of professionalism.

Speaking of VW contributors, I also want to congratulate Joe Dante and Charlie Largent, whose collaboration on the TRAILERS FROM HELL website earned it a well-deserved victory in the Best Website/Blog competition. By the way, the runner-up in that split category was none other than Video WatchBlog, so the blog you're reading is still Top Blog in Rondoville... but no cigar.

And finally, I was tickled to see my old pal Michael Schlesinger named Monster Kid of the Year. I've known Mike for something like 30+ years, ever since he worked in the office of a Cincinnati-based film distributor, when I was a writer for a local entertainment paper. Even then, he was more adept at quoting movie dialogue verbatim than I ever was. I've vicariously thrilled to the success he has earned since moving out west to supervise the repertory divisions of Paramount and Columbia, ensuring that a lot of great films (including a good deal of horror esoterica) remained available for 35mm bookings. Mike went on to direct the English version of GODZILLA 2000, snagged Larry Blamire's THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA for Columbia, and has since co-produced Blamire's TRAIL OF THE SCREAMING FOREHEAD and the now-filming THE LOST SKELETON RETURNS AGAIN. He is also pretty much single-handedly responsible for Sony's SAM KATZMAN COLLECTION DVD box set, which brought the sleeper THE WEREWOLF and the legendary snoozer THE GIANT CLAW into the digital age -- and he's currently prepping a HAMMER SWASHBUCKLERS set that will include things like THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER and THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY. In other words, sound judgment on Rondo's part.

A full account of Rondo's winners, runner-ups and honorable mentions can be found here.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Look Back at HENRY & JUNE

Anaïs Nin (Maria de Medeiros) finds literary merit in Henry Miller's wife June (Uma Thurman) in HENRY AND JUNE.


Last night, for the first time in almost eighteen years, I watched Philip Kaufman's HENRY & JUNE (1990), a film I reviewed at that time for VIDEO WATCHDOG #5 -- one hundred and thirty two issues ago. Looking back at my review, which praised the film while faintly damning it, I feel a bit embarrassed; our reviews were shorter in those days, but even so, it seems to have been written in particular haste, without much empathy for the director's goals in telling the story of the 1931 Paris encounters of Dutch/Spanish diarist Anaïs Nin, American aspiring novelist Henry Miller, and his troubled wife June. I can't believe I failed to note a cameo by Juan-Luís Buñuel, the director of that fine film LEONOR (1975) and the son of the gentleman whose classic surrealist short UN CHIEN ANDALOU is shown in excerpt.
Since 1974's THE WHITE DAWN, where his mature directorial career effectively began, Philip Kaufman's work has achieved a remarkable fusion of technological skill, elegance, and emotion. To say it in shorthand, he's like Kubrick -- but with feelings. His INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) remains the only sequel to hold its own against Don Siegel's 1955 original; THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) and THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (1988) are two of the only post-1960s American films worthy of the epithet "epic," not only in length but in achieving a fulsome body of emotional and historic content; and QUILLS (2000) is a remarkably good, underrated addition to the filmography of the Marquis de Sade.
HENRY & JUNE was made directly after the superior UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, which surely also contributed to its lukewarm reception. My old review particularly takes it to task for earning its NC-17 rating too coyly; it was the first film to carry this "adult" rating and expectations, shall we say, were higher... and lower. Its restraint, which doesn't seem any more unbridled today, still seems a modest betrayal of the on-the-table candor of its literary sources, but Kaufman's first responsibility (I can now better appreciate) was to Kaufman. More explicit carnality would probably have worked against the film's eroticism -- or rather its mystique, which is what Kaufman works to a lather in place of eroticism. It smoulders, and it does so exquisitely.
Aside from finding a boyish Kevin Spacey in the cast, the biggest surprise to come from revisiting the picture is the enduring power of Uma Thurman's performance, of startling maturity considering her age (19-20) at the time, and quite possibly still the finest acting she's done to date. She's alternately alluring and repulsive, but the black-and-white footage of her, in the movie-within-the-movie, would have driven Fritz Lang mad with desire. Fred Ward (carried over from Kaufman's previous film THE RIGHT STUFF) and the enchanting Maria de Medeiros are ideally cast as Miller and Nin. In contrast with Thurman, these are two wonderful actors who have not had the glorious Hollywood careers they deserved (perhaps because they prefer more meaningful work -- witness Ward's collaboration with Robbe-Grillet in THE BLUE VILLA), which makes it all the more poignant to see them embodying these historical personages with such precision and seeming ease while Phillippe Rousselot's camera promotes them both so magnificently as movie stars. Ward followed HENRY & JUNE with arguably his finest work in George Armitage's modern cult classic MIAMI BLUES, but it was not until 1994 that de Medeiros made another American film, as Bruce Willis' oral pleasure-loving girlfriend in PULP FICTION.
What I failed to grasp about the film the first time around is that the Miller/Nin relationship, as depicted here, is essentially mutually parasitic, a tango between American and European litterateurs thrown so off-balance by the other's exoticism that they have to rut in order to regain their equilibrium. He gets her nose out of books and into the crotch-seam of life; she teaches him an appreciation for flamenco and tarantella; he teaches her how to cuss like a sailor. They offer each others' talent the opportunity to extend its vista by a conquered continent. In short, they are both in each others' pants to get moistened grist for their literary mills. Likewise, what June stands to obtain from this ménage a trois is the drama queen's pleasure of wishing to be the focus of a book she hasn't the gift to write herself. Once she decides that Henry's realistic prose hasn't done her proudly, she turns sapphically to Anaïs, the prose poetess, her next best shot at the Dostoevskian immortality she envisions as the only acceptable reward for a life of pain. One of the film's faults is that it demurs from authenticating or discrediting or even detailing the causes of that proposed pain.
The ultimate poignancy of all this ambitious trysting around the typewriter is that the books of Nin or Miller -- both of whom were widely read in the late 1950s, '60s and early '70s -- have since fallen out of fashion. It was Nin's crusading that got Miller's earthily philosophic joi du vivre into print in the first place, and ironically, it became her affiliation with him that made her own hour of fame possible -- moreso through her extensively edited and incomplete DIARIES than through often inscrutable "novels" like HOUSE OF INCEST and LADDERS TO FIRE. The true story of their relationship remained locked within her personal diaries until after the death of her devoted husband Hugo, played so well in the movie by the ever-dependable Richard E. Grant.
HENRY & JUNE has not had a DVD release in nearly a decade, not since Universal's non-anamorphic 1.66:1 presentation of 1999. The old disc is still in print; it zooms up acceptably well but its susceptibility to upconversion is limited. The digital 2.0 mix sounds more stunted to my ears than the warmer, richer analog mix on the VHS screener I originally reviewed. All these shortcomings are fixable now, and long overdue for an overhaul, suggesting HENRY & JUNE as a title worthy of remastering by Universal -- preferably with substantial supplementary input.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Happy Rondo Eve


Rondo voting ends tonight
Be sure to pick your Favorite Site!
Twelve times a year it makes the scene --
Shouldn't VW be your Favorite Zine?

Cast your votes by hook or crook:
Help BAVA win for Year's Best Book;
And Donna, at the very least,
Deserves to be Rondo's Best Artiste.

Newman, Newsom, Schow and me
Made the Best Article ballotry;
And other Kennel folk might rate
As a special write-in candidate.

Nothing to it, but act post-haste:
Just click the link and cut-and-paste.
It would mean so much to us, you know,
And give our best to Taraco.

Friday, March 07, 2008

The VWSE #2 Is Being Signed!

In today's e-mail, we received this shot of CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE star Ann Carter signing copies of the new VIDEO WATCHDOG SIGNATURE EDITION, which will soon be available. She's surrounded by family and friends -- from left to right, neighbor Sandy Horvath, husband Crosby Newton, son David and grandson Ryan. The photo was taken by Sandy's wife Georgia Horvath, and we appreciate it. We're told they all went out to dinner afterwards to celebrate the signing; I wish that Donna and I, along with her interviewer Tom Weaver, could have been there too, to raise a glass with them.

A reminder: the Ann Carter VWSE is limited to only 200 copies and Ann's signatures are the first fan autographs she has signed in many, many years. She retired from the screen in 1952 and has never made a convention appearance. Also, this particular issue features what is, in my opinion, one of the finest covers Charlie Largent has ever done for us (complete with unique inside front, inside back and back cover photos from Ann's personal scrapbooks) and is collectable on that score alone. The VWSE #2 will start shipping next week and, having been printed in such small quantity, our supply is bound to run out without warning -- so reserve your copy now!

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Playing Favorites

In the "How Cool is This?" department, the folks at Facets Multimedia recently invited me to join the ranks of their "Celebrity Favorites" where they are collecting the Top Ten Favorite lists of various filmmakers and critics. My lists, composed of 10½ films and another 10½ horror films (one short added to each list), is now posted here, and I get a kick out of seeing my choices sandwiched somewhere between those of Jerry Lewis and Guy Maddin.

If you bother to follow the link, you'll see that some of my main selections have changed since the list I provided for the SIGHT & SOUND Top Ten Poll of 2002. The reason for this is that I, perhaps naïvely, used greatness as a criteria for my S&S poll choices; as it turned out from the choices of the other participants, this wasn't necessary part of the plan, but it was the way I chose to meet the challenge of concocting a list. With my Facets lists, I took the word "Favorites" to heart and tried to pick and choose from a somewhat longer list of movies I love, while adding in a title or three purely for provocation purposes -- not the provocation of readers, but the provocation of DVD companies that might not otherwise consider a deluxe disc of Franju's JUDEX or Willard Huyck's MESSIAH OF EVIL (widescreen! and in proper Technicolor!) worth doing.

I freely admit that there are greater films that exist than are found on either of my lists, but these are the titles that push my specific buttons and that's all that counts. It's two lists of movies, yes, but more particularly a core sampling of me. I don't regret any of the choices I made, only that I couldn't make more of them. There is something wrong about any Top Ten film list that doesn't include Welles, Lang, Bunuel or Hitchcock (oh, that's right, I did pick one of his), and there is something just as askew when a Top Ten list of mine doesn't include some of the movies to which I'm known to be addicted (HATARI!, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, THE COMEDY OF TERRORS, MAN'S FAVORITE SPORT?, WOODSTOCK, TOMMY, LOCAL HERO, LOST IN TRANSLATION, THAT THING YOU DO!) or anything by Feuillade, Starewitch, Zeman, Ptushko, Corman, Fisher or Zulawski, not to mention the director I've often cited as my favorite: Eric Rohmer. (PERCEVAL got bumped from my Top Ten because I've only seen it once and feel trepidation about seeing it a second time; if I had to pick a favorite Rohmer today, it would probably be THE GREEN RAY aka SUMMER, which happened to slip my mind on "Make Your List" day.)

But a list of favorite movies can't really be anything more than a snapshot of how you felt about those films at the moment you were asked to provide the list -- unless you're cursed to be one of those mudturtle-minded critics who take pride in never watching any film a second time nor giving any a second thought after they've turned in their review. With that thought in mind, I hope you'll be moved to check out the lists -- all of 'em, not just mine (Joe Dante contributed one, too) -- and perhaps be inspired to familiarize yourself with those titles, if any, still awaiting your discovery.

In my ongoing effort to make my latest Top Ten list out-of-date, I saw a long-postponed pleasure -- Marcel Carné's CHILDREN OF PARADISE [Les Enfants du Paradis, 1945] -- today for the first time; the first half this morning, the second half this evening. I loved every minute of it, but -- forgive my ignorance of the extant literature about the film -- am I the first viewer who was left asking, "So where is Part Three?"

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Closed On Account of Molasses II

The opposite of molasses, actually. On Sunday night I was slammed hard with some kind of stomach virus. I thought it might be food poisoning at first, but nothing I consumed that day checked out as being bad. The worst of it was over by early yesterday, leaving me with various abdominal and body aches and incredible fatigue. The best thing, I found, to do was sleep through the discomfort. I've done very little eating since this started, as even an English Muffin looks too formidable to take on, but a protein shake offered some needed nutrients as my "dinner" last night. Today, aside from feeling as though I've taken a few hard punches to the gut, most of the body aches and fatigue are gone and I'm feeling a little more like my usual self. I may try some solid food later today. A lot of work has been piling up, so it's hard to say how active this blog will be this week.

In the meantime, please remember that the Rondo Awards are now down to their final days of voting. All ballots must be in by March 8, Saturday at midnight, and you can easily access the ballot by clicking on the visual link above. VIDEO WATCHDOG is nominated in quite a few categories including Best Magazine; Video WatchBlog is up for Best Website/Blog; and MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK is among the nominees for Best Book. And, once again, I humbly request that you consider Donna Lucas as Best Artist for her Michelangelo-like work on the Bava book.

Thanks for your support, as always, and I hope to be back with you soon. There's a new TV in the house and a lot to talk about.

Friday, February 29, 2008

THE DEVILS A Hoax? and LA Bava Retro in March

Over the past few days, my in-box has been modestly inundated with e-mails related to two subjects. Today I might as well address them both.

First of all, there's a rumor going around the Internet -- complete with the cover art shown at left -- that Warner Home Video is preparing a DVD release of Ken Russell's THE DEVILS for May. I have ignored this rumor till now for several reasons: first of all, experience has taught me that I shouldn't believe any such rumor until I receive an announcement from the company itself; secondly, the artwork at left looks phony as the "hell that holds no surprises for them." There's an onlooker to the right of Vanessa Redgrave who looks like casting more appropriate to JESUS OF NAZARETH, the spear wound in Reed's abdomen is on the wrong side, the image is highly inflammatory not only as a religious metaphor but as a cunnilingual one, and I've never known Warner or any other major company to trumpet the word "Unrated" in the lower front corner of their DVD packaging. This is an uncommercial word they prefer to insert in the tiniest possible box on the back cover, if at all. But where I really smell a rat is in the accompanying promotional text, which appears on the DVDActive site here:

"Originally rated X, this film combines historical, comedic, and surrealistic elements to tell a tale of politics and witchcraft. In order to take over pre-rennaisance France, Cardinal Richelieu and his power-hungry followers will have to eliminate Father Grandier. Grandier controls the one town that keeps Richelieu from having total control of the region. The plan is to convince the townspeople that Grandier is a warlock and that all of his nuns are possessed by devils. The accusations are heard at a public trial - whose results may surprise you."

"Originally rated X" is nothing Warner would openly cop to about this vintage release, the word "comedic" is highly misplaced (at least without the adjective "darkly" attached), the movie has nothing remotely to do with witchcraft, and there's nothing at all surprising about the results of the trial. It's all a matter of historical record. While it's true there are strong political undercurrents in the film, it is exceedingly bizarre for any synopsis of the film to overlook the matter of Sister Jeanne's nymphomaniacal obsession with Father Grandier. If you were planning to sell this movie, would you opt for anti-Catholic intrigue over sex? Finally, the complete absence of extras seems highly suspect. So, while the release could conceivably turn out to be real, the reason I haven't reported it earlier is that I think I smell a rat. And, if it does turn out to be authentic (it's skedded, to use an old VARIETY term, for May 20, the rumor mongers say), the absence of any supplementary materials is nothing less than an outrage.

Now on to the second subject, which is confirmed, but for which I had reason not to speak earlier. The American Cinematheque will be presenting "Mario Bava, Poems of Love and Death," a 10-day retrospective at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, from March 13-23. You can find the full details of the retrospective here, but 17 different features are being shown (including CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER, not yet available on domestic DVD) and each of the films is being introduced by special celebrity guests, including directors Joe Dante, Eli Roth and Ernest Dickerson, Bava actors Elke Sommer and Dante Di Paolo (his first public Bava-related appearance), and -- just added to the program on the evening of Ms. Sommer's appearance -- producer Alfredo Leone.

As an added enticement, copies of Anchor Bay's MARIO BAVA COLLECTION box sets and a half-dozen copies of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK will be raffled off during the course of the retrospective -- so, if you haven't been able to afford the most-discussed film book of the year, here's your chance to win a copy for the price of a ticket!

Some correspondents have asked if I'll be attending the retrospective but, unfortunately, the American Cinematheque doesn't have the budget to fly me in. I was offered opportunities to do a book signing but, also unfortunately, the book's cost and weight are enough to discourage me from undertaking any kind of promotional jaunt. However, I have agreed to make myself available for interviews to coincide with the screenings, and I'm doing one with Susan King of the LOS ANGELES TIMES on Monday afternoon.

Update 7:57 pm: The webmaster of DVDActive has announced that THE DEVILS has disappeared from Warner's list of upcoming titles. In other words, "Never mind!" The misinformation was not the fault of DVDActive, as this link explains.

Also, some folks have written to correct me about my comment that the word "Unrated" never draws attention to itself on major studio product. I expressed my point badly. I wasn't talking about teen-targeted movies like AMERICAN PIE and HOSTEL, which practically append the word "Unrated" to their titles in big red headsline type, but more adult fare as was under discussion.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

You Axed For It!

Published 50 years ago today -- February 27, 1958 -- was the first issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. "Welcome Monster Lovers," the Editors greeted their readers on page 3, "You're Stuck! The stuff this magazine is printed on, which looks so much like ordinary black printer's ink, is actually glue. YOU CANNOT PUT THIS MAGAZINE DOWN!"

The joke was to become more true than editor Forrest J Ackerman could ever have envisioned -- half a century on, FAMOUS MONSTERS remains as undying as the Frankenstein Monster himself. Seized by schoolteachers, thrown away by parents, it has survived. Most serious genre devotées tend to agree that FM's best days were over by the time they published their 50th issue, by which time the dry rot of reprintism had commenced (the cover of #50 was in fact a reprint of #11's cover), followed by a brief burst of renewed inspiration that lasted from #56 (their Karloff memorial issue) to #66 (their OLD DARK HOUSE Filmbook issue). Nevertheless, the long-dead version of FM helmed by Ackerman -- not to be confused with the modern day FM published and edited by Ray Ferry, which has announced its imminent discontinuation with #250, after a 50-issue run -- remains an ever-vital topic of conversation in the "Horror Books and Magazines" folder of the Classic Horror Film Boards, continually drawing more attention (and heated debate) than other folders pounding their respective drums for contemporary publications ranging from MONSTERS FROM THE VAULT and LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS to, yes indeedy, VIDEO WATCHDOG.

A perusal of FM's fateful first "Collector's Edition" issue -- which is being released today in a special replica edition ($39.95) from the current publisher -- confirms its value as an opening salvo well fired. It's rich with diverse images, ranging from shots of Lon Chaney Sr. in various roles to images from Universal, MGM, Monogram, AIP, Toho and even Mexico's Churubusco Studios. A remarkable ratio of the photos have retained their rarity over the past half-century, from an unexplained shot of makeup artist Harry Thomas applying NEANDERTHAL MAN makeup to a busty starlet identified as Wanda Barbour, to a pictorial article by Paul and Jackie Blaisdell showing how the bulbous heads of the Saucer Men from INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN were cooked-up. There's also an ad for a KTLA Channel 5 show called NIGHTMARE, which ran the then-new "Shock Theater" package of films from Universal, which was hosted by a now-forgotten missing link between Vampira and Zacherley -- actress Ottola Nesmith. There's a reprint of monster-themed comic strip by artist Will Elder (carried over from a forgotten humor magazine called HUMBUG) and a Monster Quiz on the last page that's played for laughs, but the laughs are at least on par with what MAD Magazine was delivering around the same time. The issue doesn't hold up particularly well as scholarship -- a photo of Bernard Jukes as Renfield in the stage production of DRACULA is carelessly identified as Dwight Frye, FRANKENSTEIN is identified as a 1932 release, and the "articles" are generally an unreadable melange of filler, bluster and filibuster -- but it's noticeably better than the kid stuff which the magazine later degenerated into, and not nearly as specialized or restricted in its genre coverage as the magazines it inspired have tended to be.

Either directly or indirectly, the first issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS sent out shock waves that changed the course of film history; there has never been a comparable publishing event allied to any other film genre. (FM publisher James Warren later launched comparable magazines devoted to Westerns, serials, and science fiction films, none of which lasted very long.) Between February 1959 and March 1983, FAMOUS MONSTERS produced 191 issues -- 181, if you don't count the ten issues of the short-lived sister publication MONSTER WORLD that were later "incorporated" into its numbering. Its demise has been credited to any number of faults, from excessive reprints, to an inability to mature with its readership, to its eventual emphasis on the sci-fi product of the time like STAR WARS, E.T. and FLASH GORDON. (One issue featured THE DEVIL AND MAX DEVLIN on the cover, of all things.)

But there is something about the original FM, with its rich-smelling rotogravure paper and magnificent Basil Gogos cover art, something potent enough to overwhelm the lesser memory of its majority output and the sour feelings associated with buying issue after issue larded with reprints to keep one's collection intact. FM had the good fortune to be the first of its kind, at least in most readers' experience, and to hit those readers at an age when important impressions run deepest and strike the oil of everlasting gratitude. Part of FM's enduring appeal is sentimentality, to be sure, but, even though I ally myself with those for whom Calvin Beck's CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN was the more important and defining and valuable publication, I am quick to admit that CoF never yielded a single issue that was quite so much a feast as, say, FM #13 (their 100-page issue) or #21 (their BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN issue). My memory of the very first issue of FM I ever saw, #27, is burned deeply into my brain; and today, as I flip through its pages again, I find that it still has no serious rival in my mind as the most photographically compelling issue of any film magazine I've ever seen.

The authority figures of my youth often criticized me for my interest in FM and similar publications, thinking that it was rotting my brain rather than honing it, and presuming that any time I applied to such pursuits would be wasted. But, thanks to the subculture that was first seriously excavated and brought together by their efforts, publisher Warren and editor Ackerman prepared a place (alright, a crack) in the world where I might earn the living I do today, and have done for the past two decades or more -- and I'm ever grateful. Today, FM is almost analogous to rhythm and blues as a 1950s taproot; even if you've never heard it, it's there in all the rock music that you do hear. Even if you've never seen an issue of FM, its influence is unavoidable in the genre film magazines you do read -- it's there in humorous captions, the emphasis placed on production dates, the corny names for letters columns, and in the ongoing tradition of extraordinary cover art.

In 1991, I was honored to be asked to join the likes of David J. Schow, Steve Bissette, Tony Timpone, Michael Weldon, Drew Friedman, Bill Warren, Jean Claude Romer, Gahan Wilson, and many other disciples in contributing an article of appreciation to THE FAMOUS MONSTERS CHRONICLES (FantaCo Enterprises), edited by Dennis Daniel. It's in this long out-of-print book that you'll find my fullest tribute to "The Magazine Monsters Believe In" and its merry, mustachioed Master of Cemeteries -- a piece called "FAMOUS MONSTERS Took Away My Fear (1990)." But I can't allow this golden anniversary to pass without acknowledging the importance of this day and sending my salutations to those whose early effort made jobs like mine possible.

Recommended Reading

Arbogast on Film's brief but uncommonly incisive thoughts on CLOVERFIELD. By the time you visit the page, my own appreciative response may have been added to his list of comments.

I should also note here that I've gone back to my Robbe-Grillet eulogy and added a few words of praise to my mention of his film THE MAN WHO LIES [L'homme qui ment, 1968], which I saw for the first time a couple of nights ago. It helps that Trintignant is probably my favorite actor anyway, but I think I like it even better than TRANS EUROP EXPRESS and possibly as much as L'IMMORTELLE. It's like MARIENBAD in that the entire story, such as it is, is sustained by the protagonist's willful and serial reinvention of himself and his own backstory in an attempt to seduce a woman, a castle inhabited by women, an entire village -- and it's also very funny, at times. I think, in retrospect, that I should have given Robbe-Grillet more credit for a sense of humor in his work, which is often overlooked, even by me.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sentimental, Isn't It?

According to the sternest and most task-mastering schoolmarm I ever had, the IMDb, Frederick Bean "Tex" Avery -- indisputably the greatest gag animator of all time -- was born 100 years ago today in Taylor, Texas. This is a centenary that catches me unaware but really cannot be ignored, so this posting will be more of a valentine than a full-length essay. I almost missed the train on this one, as the hipster protagonist of his classic MGM cartoon "Symphony in Slang" might have said in my position. The problem of paying proper tribute to Avery is really kind of hairy; it's eating away at me. I don't know whether I'm coming or going. I don't want to do a snow job on him or anything, but he was the tops to me, so I'm bent... on running off at the mouth with some good vibes.

How does one say "thank you" to the man who gave us the first recognizable Bugs Bunny cartoon, Daffy Duck, Droopy, Screwy (née Screwball) Squirrel, Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf, the Three Little Pups (is there any one among us who didn't try watching television with their eyes crossed and tongue thrust out the corner of our mouths after making their august acquaintence?), Spike, Egghead, Meathead, Willoughby, and the immortal Owl Jolson? I suppose all the thanks he would have wanted is our continued love (especially from fans of the female persuasion) and laughter, which we give effortlessly when faced with the likes of "King-Sized Canary", "Ventriloquist Cat", "Northwest Hounded Police", "Uncle Tom's Cabana", "Magical Maestro" (if thy hair in the gate offend thee, pluck it out), "Slap Happy Lion", "Senor Droopy" (with a cameo by the original Lina Romay) and "The Legend of Rockabye Point" -- the flat-out funniest body of work to be found in the annals of animation.

MGM, or whoever owns their stuff this week, should have been on the ball (insert "Symphony in Slang" image) to issue a complete Tex Avery set on DVD to commemorate this important occasion. French fans have such a set available to them, and we also had one in the days of laserdisc, but nowadays, here in the country of this Paul Bunyan-sized talent's birth, his genius is widely scattered on disc. (Ignore THE WACKY WORLD OF TEX AVERY - TEX RIDES AGAIN, which is Tex Avery in name only.)

The bear has just come out of his cave again to club my head and demand "Quiet," so I've got to make my summation quick. In a still-young 21st century where Charlie Chaplin is largely considered a museum piece, where W.C. Fields and Fred Allen and Jack Benny are barely remembered, where the name of Preston Sturges is known only to an elite core group of film buffs, where the Three Stooges are generally viewed with disdain by an entire gender, and where Jerry Lewis is appreciated mostly by the French, Tex Avery's brand of humor remains astonishingly fresh (in all senses of that word), direct, relevant, up-to-date and universal, so he would seem to stand a better chance at immortality than most of his 20th century contemporaries in fundom. I can say no more... because the cat has my tongue.

TECHNICOLOR ends here.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Zé do Caixao: The Nightmare That Must Survive


Without question, José Mojica Marins is one of the true mavericks of the fantastic cinema, a truly unique filmmaker and one of the genre's most assertive personalities. Working in tandem with his cinematographer Giorgio Attili and editor Luíz Elias, Mojica's early films were not only violent but violently original. Attili's camera, with its cubist framing, would zoom in and out as Elias' cutting made the images snap and crackle; the combination had the feel of bottled electricity, of a cubist painting not only brought to life but prodded to the brink of death. These films also sound like no other films in the world; they scream and vent and weep like the darkest corners in the madhouse of our dreams. If Jean Cocteau was the filmmaker most successful at making audiences dream with their eyes wide open, José Mojica Marins is the cinema's greatest conductor of waking nightmares.

I live and work in North America, where Mojica's films are not widely known, but they are venerated here by a growing cult of enthusiasts who were not able to gain access to his movies until more than four decades after the earliest were made. To tell the truth, we know little about Brazilian cinema in North America, and not much of Brazilian history; therefore, even the most famous Brazilian films have little or no sociologic context for us. It is their alien quality, their exotic strangeness, their sunniness and their sexiness, wherein lies their main appeal. Mojica's work, of course, is neither sunny nor particularly erotic, which makes him a distant cousin to Italy's Mario Bava -- who, like Mojica, told stories of horror retrieved from the darkest shadows of his sunny country.

Years before any of us in North America was able to see Mojica's films, we read about them. For us, the initial germ of the Mojica plague was spread by Phil Hardy's THE ENCLYCLOPEDIA OF HORROR FILMS, first published in 1986. Some of the most famous images from Mojica's films had appeared in earlier books and magazines, but it was not until the arrival of Hardy's book that they were accompanied by any substantial or enticing information. Though Hardy and his fellow contributors at times were harsh in their judgments of the films, their descriptions were outrageous and thus appetizing. Of ESTA NOITE ENCARNEREI NO TEU CADAVER ("This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse," 1965), for example, it was written that "the shoestring production exudes a genuine sense of madness both in its imaginings and in the treatment of its participants, with the eccentric, seemingly out-of-control staging veering from the pathological to the surreal." To read such an account in the increasingly safe and sterile environment of American horror cinema in the 1980s was to arouse a ferocious desire to find and see the work of this crazed genius. And finding these movies would not be easy.

I obtained my own first copies of Mojica's films on bootleg videocassette, which is how all first generation American fans saw them: in poor quality and in Portuguese, a language we did not read or speak, which made them all the more dreamlike and exciting --like the discovery of something long forbidden.

I have a strange confession to make. As a child, I once had a nightmare which I have never forgotten, in which I found myself standing alone in a darkened graveyard. As I saw the headstones around me and realized where I was, luminous eyes opened to peer at me from the darkness and I felt the ground open beneath me, an opening grave perhaps. I plummeted down through the earth, albeit slowly, the way Alice fell into Wonderland, past strange sights and sounds, until I came to rest in a scary room where I was approached by a cackling witch. As you must surely anticipate, when I first saw A MEIA-NOITE LEVAREI SUA ALMA ("At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul," 1964) on VHS, I had the uncanny experience of seeing something on video, a film from a distantland, that was basically exactly what I had once dreamed around the same time the film was being made or first shown. True, there was no descent underground, but the film's titles scroll up from the bottom of the screen, giving one the temporary sensation of falling. My entire experience of seeing that movie for the first time was tinged with déja vu. I told myself that this bizarre coincidence might be the ultimate proof of Mojica's success in capturing the soul-searing essence of a nightmare onscreen. But asI think back on it now, the apparition of Zé do Caixao appears before me, brandishing his cape and taunting me with questions:

What are dreams?
Why do they speak to us?
Do they describe to us our future, those events which arestill to come?
Or is there a common Unconscious, a pool in which we all swim as we sleep, composed of the images (even the moving images) that dictate how we will live and die?
Is it possible that dreams are like birds, migrating from one body to another?
How is it possible for a boy in Ohio to dream what a moviegoer in Brazil has seen in a darkened theater?
Might these images be the final recollections expelled by the mind at the moment of death, as someone is murdered on his way home from a cinema, images not ready to die, images desperate to survive by swimming into the soul of another?
Men may perish, but dreams never die!
For what is Man, if not the discarded skin of a dream?

As you can see, Zé do Caixao's migration to America was a resounding success, perhaps even before we received his films. He is Zé the Inevitable.

The publication of Phil Hardy's book also made possible the belated discovery for several other, similarly transgressive horror directors: Jesús Franco, Nobuo Nakagawa, Walerian Borowczyk, Jean Rollin, and Yasuzo Takamura, to name only a few. Neither Mojica or any of these filmmakers were well-known in America prior to the arrival of this important book, because they made films for adults. In the North America of the 1960s, horror was regarded as a genre suitable only for the entertainment of children. To have exposed a child to the work of José Mojica Marins in the 1960s might well have been a criminal offense.

Through the intervention of André Barcinski, Mojica's special work made the leap from the video underground into the hands of Something Weird Video, an offbeat Seattle-based company which had resurrected the works of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Doris Wishman, David F. Friedman, and many other exploitation outlaws on videotape. The company's owner was Mike Vraney, possibly the only real showman the world of home video has ever had, who understood that Mojica's films needed something to help them vault over the cultural obstacles that too often stand between general American viewers and international cinema. It was Vraney's idea, I believe, to reinvent Zé do Caixao as "Coffin Joe" -- a name that, to American ears, was not only approachable but integrated everything he had to offer into our own cultural tradition of horror. For this demon to have a nickname placed him in the company of other beloved cult figures dating from this same era: "Uncle Forry" (Forrest J Ackerman, the editor of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND), Ed "Big Daddy" Roth (the man behind Rat Fink, futuristic cars and monster T-shirts), and "Brother Theodore" Gottlieb (our most macabre and demented "stand-up tragedian").

Certainly there are many aspects of Mojica's work that are alien to American sensibilities -- its sense of Carnivál, its sadistic glee, its obsession with procreation -- but it also overlaps with some American traditions, notably those of the Western. Like most Westerns, the story of A MEIA-NOITE LEVAREI SUA ALMA is set in a small, dusty village with a graveyard, and one of the first scenes depicts Zé do Caixao visiting a tavern, offending others by his mere presence like a notorious outlaw, and beating another man into submission with chains -- a nightmarish twist on the traditional confrontation in an Old West saloon. Mojica's work also foreshadows the most baroque and psychedelic extremes of the Italian Westerns of the late 1960s.

As fascinating as the technique of Mojica's films may be, they are most remarkable in terms of the character of Zé do Caixao. Introduced as the anti-hero of A MEIA-NOITE LEVAREI SUA ALMA (indeed, the role was written by Mojica with the expectation that it would be played by someone else), Zé has become the filmmaker's alter ego, his doppelgänger, his very shadow, whose sheer force of presence sometimes seems to threaten Mojica's place on the worldstage. It is impossible for me to know how much of the Zé do Caixao persona was consciously rooted in American culture, because I am unaware of how available this culture was to Mojica or any other Brazilian of his time. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the antecedents of Zé do Caixao first appeared in North American culture in the horror radio broadcasts of the 1930s and '40s. It was here that macabre characters first stepped outside their narrative involvements to entice listeners into stories of dreadful, horrific character. Perhaps the earliest of these was THE WITCH'S TALE (1931-38, hosted by "Old Nancy, Witch of Salem"), followed by THE HERMIT'S CAVE (mid-1930s) and, most famously, Orson Welles as the all-knowing announcer and protagonist of the long-running series THE SHADOW (1937-54).

Whether or not Mojica actually heard these broadcasts is irrelevant; it was Welles who established the archetype of a black cloaked character inhabiting the twilight between Life and Death, chortling at his audience's ignorance of the vagaries of the Afterlife and his own tenebrous privilege,while baiting us with existential questions. So popular was Welles' presentation of these stories, his approach long outlasted him in the radio medium; he left the role of the Shadow in 1938, but subsequent actors in the role followed in his footsteps, as did other radio horror hosts still to come: "Raymond" of THE INNER SANCTUM MYSTERIES (1941-52), and also the title characters of THE MYSTERIOUS TRAVELER (Maurice Tarplin, 1943-52) and THE STRANGE DR. WEIRD (1944-45).

These creepy, ironic characters, presiding over the theater of our imaginations, subsequently inspired the storytellers of the famous EC Comics of the 1950s: the Crypt Keeper of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, The Vault Keeper of VAULT OF HORROR, and the Old Witch of HAUNT OF FEAR─and subsequently the first generation horror hosts of television, "Vampira" (Maila Nurmi), "Roland" and "Zacherley" (John Zacherle), and the droll Alfred Hitchcock of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. As I say, how available these influences were to someone like Mojica, I do not know; if he had no direct access, perhaps these ideas and archetypes migrated to him through the depths of his dreams, as once happened to me. These apparitions migrate from one mind to another because they must survive.

The character of Zé do Caixao seems to me very much the personification of a nightmare that must survive. In his first two adventures, he is literally hellbent on siring a son. A new chapter in the Zé do Caixao saga, ENCARNACAO DE DEMONIO ("Incarnation of the Demon"), has been promised by Mojica for more than 40 years; it has become the son that José Mojica Marins must sire. The films made during this period have served to fortify the potency of Zé do Caixao as icon and myth. In each new film, Zé do Caixao has become less fictional, more real; he is determined not only to have a son, but to break free of the boundaries of cinema, to pass from fantasy into reality like the character of Sadako in Hideo Nakata's RINGU (1998). In the third film of the trilogy, the anthologic O ESTRANHO MUNDO DE ZE DO CAIXAO ("The Strange World of Coffin Joe," 1968), Zé steps outside the story to become the storyteller. In O EXORCISMO NEGRO ("Black Exorcism," 1974), he stands in opposition to José Mojica Marins himself -- a polarized personality, each half determined to preserve its dominance.

In the documentary DEMONIOS E MARAVILHAS ("Demons and Wonders," 1987) -- one of the few films I have seen that truly warrants the description "astonishing" --Mojica folds himself back into the Tarot deck of his own art, unable to move forward with his trilogy and deciding instead to simultaneously celebrate and mourn his struggle. The film uses Mojica's disadvantages to its advantage, forging a dark romance from his oppression by criminals and fools, his depression, his worsening health, his stroke, even taking us into the moment of his own "near death" -- all the while reminding us of his celebrity, his popularity, his many friends and supporters, his parties, his continuing presence in newspapers and magazines... in short, his refusal to be denied.

Watching DEMONIOS E MARAVILHAS, it is impossible (for me, anyway) to determine how much of its story is true, and how much of it is, frankly, bullshit -- an incredible pageant of Mojica's narcissism and bravado. Either way, Mojica wins: if the film is truthful, it stands as a stunningly candid and vulnerable expression of the filmmaker's ego; if it's all as phony as its near-death scene, it nevertheless deserves acclaim as a masterwork of meta-fiction, worthy of comparison to the Cthulhu mythos of H. P. Lovecraft and Orson Welles' own F FOR FAKE (1974). It is here that Zé do Caixao achieves his third dimension.

It is now twenty years since DEMONIOS E MARAVILHAS. In a fascinating turn of events, Zé do Caixao's quest to sire a son and José Mojica Marins' quest to complete Zé's Unholy Trinity now appear to be on the point of convergence. It is reported that ENCARNACAO DO DEMONIO is being made at last, and that Mojica has discovered his own twin in a young American admirer, Raymond Castile, who has been cast in the role of the young Zé do Caixao -- the first time anyone but Mojica himself has played the part, and perhaps the first time ever that the part has been "played."

The ramifications of Mojica's discovery of Castile are significant. More than a century ago, Count Dracula left his homeland in Transylvania to conquer England. Where he failed --staked and withered to bones in his coffin -- Zé do Caixao has apparently triumphed. In the person of a young admirer from his conquered America, Zé do Caixao has achieved not only survival but his own rejuvenation.


This essay was written for JOSE MOJICA MARINS: 50 ANOS DE CARRIERA, edited by Eugenio Puppo, published by Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil in association with the Ministério da Cultura, February 2008, for which appearance it was translated into Portuguese by Ricardo Lisias. (c) 2008 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

What Would the Great Man Say?

Now I have seen everything. Click here if you wish to make the same claim.

THE NAKED PREY reviewed

The March 2008 issue of SIGHT & SOUND is now on newsstands with my "Nozone" review of Criterion's release of Cornel Wilde's THE NAKED PREY. You can also read it online for free, right here, on their website.