Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Joe Dante's DANTE'S INFERNO

L.A. residents rejoice, everyone else check your frequent flyer miles.

This just in from Joe Dante, who is finally claiming the above title (impressed upon him by movie reviewers for so many years) for an upcoming series of retrospective screenings.** Prepare yourself for at least one "Holy $%#@!" booking:

I'm hosting a series of screenings at the recently renovated NEW BEVERLY CINEMA in Hollywood from April 9 thru 22. (I'm not there every night tho.) Come down and wallow if you're in the neighborhood. Here's the final rundown:

April 9 + 10 MONDO CANE and ZULU

It's hard to imagine today the impact this tawdry but fascinating Italian "shockumentary" had on the world in 1962, when the bizarre customs of people in other lands seemed both exotic and horrifying to Western eyes. Its smash success spawned a whole genre of mostly phony Mondo movies, each outdoing the other for pure sleaze, which lasted into the 80s and paved the way for something much more upsetting: Reality TV.

Cy Enfield's ZULU is simply one of the great historical epics ever--100 stuff-upper-lip British soldiers battle 4000 Zulu warriors in a beautifully staged reenactment of the 1879 Battle of Roarke's Drift. John Barry should have won (but didn't) an Oscar for his brilliant score. The cast, led by producer Stanley Baker, is terrific, but the great Nigel Green steals the show as the consummate side-whiskered, mustached Victorian Sergeant-Major. With Jack Hawkins, James Booth, Patrick Magee and a very young Michael Caine, whose work here got him THE IPCRESS FILE.

April 11 + 12 HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD and TRUCK TURNER

We called it "Day For Nothing" when we made it (shot in ten days around footage from 12 other movies on a bet with Roger Corman). One of the last of New World Pictures' popular "three girl" drive-in movies where pretty girls doff their duds and chase around non-permitted LA locations. The late great Candice Rialson plays a version of herself as a naive Indiana girl trying to make it in scuzzy 70s Hollywood. Pulled from 42nd Street after two days, it seems to have survived as a cult movie. It's certainly an accurate record of what it was like to make a New World Picture. Producer Jon Davison, co-director Allan Arkush and co-star Dick Miller are scheduled to appear.

TRUCK TURNER, which came out late in the blaxploitation game, got lost in the Hollywood shuffle but it's as dazzling a piece of action filmmaking as the 70s had to offer. Isaac Hayes is a bounty hunter on the trail of a big-time pimp whose vengeful, bitch-slapping squeeze is played by Star Trek's Nichelle Nichols! Along for the violent ride are Yaphet Kotto, Alan Weeks, Scatman Crothers, Sam Laws and Dick Miller. One of the overlooked gems of the decade.

Director Jonathan Kaplan (HEART LIKE A WHEEL) will introduce the film.

April 13, 14, 15 THE SADIST and THE PRIVATE FILES OF J EDGAR HOOVER

Fairway-International was a tiny company specializing in grade-C drive-in movies like WILD GUITAR and EEGAH! But from such unlikely soil springs a chilling surprise! James Landis' intense 1963 drive-in classic is based on the same true crime story as BADLANDS-- the serial killing exploits of Charles Starkweather and his underage girlfriend. Brutally unfolding in Real Time over 94 taut minutes, mad killer Arch Hall Jr. terrorizes our small cast in a junkyard -- maybe the best-photographed junkyard ever, courtesy of the great Vilmos Zsigmond, who will appear in person on the 15th.

THE PRIVATE FILES OF J EDGAR HOOVER - Tabloid genius Larry Cohen brings his guerilla style Sam Fuller-lite approach to this 1977 ripped-from-the-headlines pop-culture AIP comic book about the near fifty-year reign of America's "top cop", who dug up the dirt on famous personalities through six turbulent administrations. It's gutsy and disreputable and Broderick Crawford 's finest hour. Eat your heart out, Oliver Stone!

Larry Cohen will be on hand to introduce.

April 16 + 17 THE SECRET INVASION and TOMB OF LIGEIA

This scenic WWII epic, shot in Yugoslavia in 1964, is one of Roger Corman's least-seen yet most accomplished films, with essentially the same plot as THE DIRTY DOZEN -- which wasn't made until three years later! Stewart Granger, Mickey Rooney, Edd Byrnes, Henry Silva and Raf Vallone are felons recruited for a mission to rescue an Italian general from behind enemy lines. Roger used this story idea in his first movie, FIVE GUNS WEST. I haven't seen this since it came out!

TOMB OF LIGEIA was the last of Corman's popular series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, but unlike the others it has many beautiful English countryside exteriors and mostly departs from the stylized stage-bound unreality of its forebears. Robert Towne (CHINATOWN) wrote the script in a more romantic vein, thinking Richard Chamberlain would play the lead--but AIP intervened and sure enough, Vincent Price took over.

Roger Corman will elucidate further in person, schedule permitting.

April 18 + 19 WRONG IS RIGHT and Mystery Movie

When Richard Brooks' star-studded adaptation of Charles McCarry's spy novel The Better Angels came out in 1982 it was roundly dismissed as a confused jumble. From the hindsight of 2008, it looks like the STRANGELOVE of its era. So many aspects of this film have come true, it's up there with NETWORK as a predictor of the future, our sorry present. Sean Connery stars as a globe-trotting tv reporter who's tracking a terrorist dealing nuclear weapons in the mideast. Along the way we meet a President who goes to war to boost his ratings, a (Condi-like) Vice President, CIA and FBI figures who are so broadly caricatured they seemed divorced from reality in 1982-- but who closely resemble figures we now see on the news every day! Suffice it to say the climax involves the World Trade Center. One of the all-star ensemble will join us--John Saxon!

Plus another movie in the same vein TBA with guest.

April 20 + 21 BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW and HORROR EXPRESS

Piers Haggard's atmospheric and beautifully photographed (Dick Bush) entry in the burn-the-witches genre benefits from a prolonged sense of dread, literate dialog and an unusually convincing period flavor -- sort of a Masterpiece Theater horror film. When hairy patches of "satan's skin" start cropping up on the bodies of nubile 17th century teenagers, local judge Patrick Wymark gets to the bottom of things, starting with voluptuous teen temptress Linda Hayden's. Less well known than the same studio's earlier WITCHFINDER GENERAL, but equally effective, with more emphasis on the supernatural. Great score by Marc Wilkinson.

I love train movies. HORROR EXPRESS was made because the producers had access to the train models from NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA. One of my very favorite vehicles (get it?) for Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, this Spanish-made extravaganza (also known as Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express) has it all -- good characters, lots of wry humor, a mad monk, a mysterious countess, a prehistoric fossilized monster alien, eyeballs in a jar, Telly Savalas as a bellicose Cossack (it's 1906) and a surprisingly complex science fiction plot. And I left out the zombies! Seriously, this one of my top favorites of all time.

April 22 THE MOVIE ORGY

This the first, one nite only public showing in many years of my first project. In 1968 when "camp" was king, Jon Davison and I put together a counterculture compendium of 16mm bits and pieces (tv show openings, commercials, parts of features, old serials etc.), physically spliced them in ironic juxtapositions and ran the result at the Philadelphia College of Art interspersed with parts of a Bela Lugosi serial. The reaction was phenomenal. This led to THE MOVIE ORGY, a 7-hour marathon of old movie clips and stuff with a crowd-pleasing anti-war, anti-military, anti-establishment slant that played the Fillmore East and on college campuses all over the country for years -- always the one print, viewed through a haze of beer and controlled substances. We called it a 2001-splice odyssey. We kept adding and subtracting material over time so this, alas, is not the original version-- it's the later cutdown, running a mere 4 hours and 19 minutes! But it's still a pop time capsule that will bring many a nostalgic chuckle from baby boomers and dazed expressions of WTF?! from anyone else.

Admission to THE MOVIE ORGY is FREE, so buy plenty of concession stand items!

** Actually, "Dante's Inferno" was the title of Joe's first published article, which appeared in FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND #18. But he's never used it on a movie. Not that this is a movie, of course, it's a film festival, but... oh, never mind.

VIDEODROME Delayed

A reader wrote to me this afternoon with some concern about the state of my forthcoming VIDEODROME book from Millipede Press. He was notified today by Amazon.com that his advance order of the book was being cancelled because they "found that it is not available from any of our sources at this time." He added, "I hope everything's OK with its publication and that it's delayed rather than cancelled."

That's exactly the case. The preparation of the book has proven more time-intensive than expected, which has caused it to miss one or two seasonal deadlines. At present, the text has been proofread, the footnotes have been placed, and we are now waiting for the last of the photos to be scanned and dropped into the layout for captioning. I'm personally very excited about the way it's taking shape.
Publisher Jerad Walters expects the VIDEODROME book to be available in June, and both he and I apologize for its unavoidable postponement.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Rain, the Park and Two Kennel Guys

If you'd like to see where I've been doing a lot of my free-time writing over the past couple of days, check out Sam Umland's 60x50 music blog, which is permanently linked from this site over there ► to the right. I started by responding to this posting about the concept of "Desert Island Discs," then commented on this posting about bubblegum and psychedelic music; after that, Sam responded to my comments in a new posting, to which I also responded. Now, today, he has this to say about how satisfying the exchange has been for him -- and, in case it's needful to say, the feeling is mutual.

Well beyond what I have contributed, Sam's "experiment in invention and discovery" always offers bracing and original insights into pop music history and culture and it's become a favorite bookmark spot of mine. Becoming an active participant and getting Sam's responses back has only made its appeal more infectious.

About Sam's current posting, I don't think I was aware that he, like me, had submitted a proposal to the 33&1/3 people. My CROWN OF CREATION manuscript is certainly burning a hole in my pocket. What do you think, WatchBloggers? Should VW launch a complementary series of books examining important rock albums?

Friday, March 28, 2008

Important VW Website Announcement

Since many of you access this blog through the VIDEO WATCHDOG website, please be aware that the VW website will be down periodically during Saturday and Sunday, March 29 - 30, due to a major server transfer. You'll still be able to reach this blog, as Donna has set up a temporary website for the interim (all praise this hard-working soul, who put in an all-nighter to achieve this); you can reach its main page by clicking on the Temporary Video Watchdog Site link found over there ► in the right-side column.

Not all of our website's usual functions will be operational during this changeover period. Most will. Should you wish to place an order, and find some function or other of the temp page unaccomodating to your needs, you can reach us by phone (1-800-275-8395) or the usual e-mail links.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Discovering A Russian Horror-Fantasy Classic

A woman falls helpless before the thunderous hoofbeats of THE SAVAGE HUNT OF KING STACH.


Some weeks back, I was reading posts on the Classic Horror Film Board and found reference to Aleksandr Ptushko's THE NEW GULLIVER being available on disc from a German-based DVD importer called PeterShop. I went to http://www.petershop.com/ and promptly placed an order for THE NEW GULLIVER as well as a half-dozen other Russian horror-fantasy rarities, some of which were on the Ruscico label but not as yet available from the US-based http://www.ruscico.com/ website.

Unfortunately, after placing my order, I received an e-mail from PeterShop telling me that THE NEW GULLIVER was no longer available. They said I could request a replacement title of equal value or a refund, which I did. My shipment of the other titles, including Russian discs of BURATINO and THE CHILDREN OF CAPTAIN GRANT (both 1930s films featuring special effects by the young Ptushko), arrived in good time, so I can recommend PeterShop whole-heartedly.

One of the Ruscico oddities I ordered was a 1979 film called THE SAVAGE HUNT OF KING STACH (pronounced "Stack"). I had never heard of it before, but I took the plunge because the PeterShop ordering page claimed that it had "been assigned a most honorable place in history, next to CAT'S EYE, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and a masterpiece of national sub-horror, the animation HAZELNUT TREE." Now, I don't personally consider CAT'S EYE on an equal level with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but nevertheless I was intrigued... and the hyperbole was grounded by a half-dozen prizes and citations awarded to the film at various international festivals.

The disc is packaged in cover art that I didn't find very tantalizing, so it has been sitting here unwatched since it arrived, but last night -- needing some Dog Byte material -- I watched it on a whim... and surprise, surprise: I think it's one of the great unheralded horror films of the 1970s. I was prompted to write a full-length review for VIDEO WATCHDOG #139 (now going into production). To bait your interest in that review, and in the film, here is an excerpt:

"Boris Plotnikov stars as Bielarecki, a young ethnographer who, at the end of the 19th century, requests the hospitality of Marsh Firs, an isolated castle in the Northwest marshlands, while he conducts research into the myths and legends of the region. He discovers from the castle's young and tragic owner, Nadzieja Jankowska (Yelena Dimotrova), that the place is haunted by two ghosts─the Little Man of Marsh Firs and the Lady in Blue─and that her family line was accursed centuries ago when ancestor Roman Jankowska denied the hand of his daughter to King Stach, whose ghost now rides with those of thirteen horsemen to drag Jankowska offspring and their servants to death in the surrounding marshes... This winner of numerous international film festival prizes could be described as THE HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS meets TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, with grace notes of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, LISA AND THE DEVIL and DON'T LOOK NOW."

Purely for compositional purposes, I've cropped the frame grab seen above from its standard presentation on disc, which, for the record, does feature English audio and subtitle options. (I think it may work better in English than in Russian.) The director, Valery Rubinchik, claims in a supplementary interview that he made THE SAVAGE HUNT OF KING STACH not with the intention of making a horror film, but a film whose inherent fears and mysteries made it truer to real life. Regardless of his intentions, he made a real gooseflesh-raiser, though it more properly belongs to the realm of fantasy rather than horror. It's one of those movies that force its reviewers to recount a long list of haunting images, so I recommend you try to see them for yourself.

One Hell of a Book

This is actually the 666th piece written for Video WatchBlog. To underscore this interesting fact, I thought I should draw your attention to this new and worthy trade paperback from Dark Horse Comics.

480 pages of the best art and stories ever published by Harvey Entertainment Inc. 110 stories. 64 pages in full color. Edited by Leslie Cabarga, with an terrific intro by the ever-able Jerry Beck and a foreword by Mark Arnold.

HOT STUFF. I bought it, and I love it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Be It Ever So Jumbled

On a personal note, I'd like to mention here that it was twenty-five years ago today that Donna and I moved into our white house high in the Cincinnati suburbs.

Built in 1907, it was the seventh house we were shown by our realtor and we knew it was for us right away -- we loved its woodwork, its staircase, its tiled fireplaces, its apartment-sized attic, but, being two not-very-handy people, its most attractive feature may have been that the walls didn't need repainting nor repapering. Believe it or not, all these years later, the walls remain as they were on the day we moved in. It's not that we can't bear to have them painted or repapered; we just can't get at them anymore.

Before coming here, we were being driven mad by downstairs neighbors in a four-apartment building in an area slipping down the steep slope to disaster. We both remember clearly the day when we took the bus from that apartment here to our future house, with broom and mop and bucket in tow, and prepared the empty three-level place for our occupancy. We kept our two cats, Godot and Kaboodle, shut inside the bathroom of our apartment as the movers emptied its other three rooms of furniture; when I let them out, they dug their claws into the finished wooden floor as if thinking that the law of gravity had been repealed and sent all our furniture skyward, with them to follow presently. I got them into a pet carrier and brought them here by taxi, while Donna traveled here with the movers. Opening the pet carrier, Godot and Kaboodle stepped out hesitantly... but then a wonderful expression seemed to bloom on their faces as they understood how much their territory had been enlarged. That day we met neighbors who remain our dear friends, though they have since moved away, and we attended the weddings of their 7-year-old girl and 2-year-old boy. As a kid, with the exception of one family I lived with for a year, I lived only in apartments and it was a wonderment to discover the pleasures of living in a house. After so many years of being harrassed by neighbors' high drama and overloud and inconsiderate music, it became a source of great pleasure simply to sit in my own yard and listen to the sounds of nature, church bells, or people working on their cars a block away. Our back yard remains our special retreat, weather permitting, the closest thing your hardworking Watchdog team ever gets to vacation time.

Our once-empty house is far more cluttered and disorderly these days, and we groan to ourselves a good deal about the lack of wall space to display our art, posters and books, not to mention the absence of an actual shower. (Funnily enough, the possibility of wake-up and before-bed showers every day has always been one of Wonderfest's many attractions for us.) In the past few years, we've been able to make a number of needed improvements to the property (we're now talking about having a shower built in our basement), but we've accumulated so much stuff in the past quarter-century, our large walls have become covered and our once-spacious attic is cluttered with boxed books and movies. We're outgrowing the place and don't anticipate living here another twenty-five years; we do anticipate that, when Moving Day comes (probably moving days), it (or they) will loom large among days of infamy.

We've been blessed with good neighbors over the years -- some of whom remain, but many of whom have either moved or passed on. We've known and loved their pets, as well. Aside from Pat, who lives on the other side of us and has lived in her house for all but one of her 70+ years, Donna and I are bemused to find ourselves now the elders of our immediate area. Having married in our teens, we have obviously lived here longer than we ever before lived in any one place, and I personally leave this house so seldom that it sometimes seems like my space station, my submarine, my dream-within-a-dream. We've had no children, but it was here that VIDEO WATCHDOG was conceived in 1989; since moving here, we've given birth to 140+ magazine projects, numerous books (four in 1985 alone) and novels and screenplays and comics scripts, assorted unpublished novels and non-fiction, a calendar, and 664 blog entries -- 664 being the inversion of our house number, as serendipity would sweetly have it. This is a good house for entrepreneurs: the couple that lived here before us not only raised a family here, they ran a dental lab from the basement. We once found some false teeth inside a basement wall, reminding me of a scene in Roman Polanski's THE TENANT.

Anyway, the silver anniversary of one's home and hearth is a sentimantal occasion, and one probably not often achieved in today's transient world. "Home is a name, a word," Charles Dickens wrote in MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT; "it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration." Like Dickens, I had an unsteady childhood, fraught with constant moving from place to place, so I share his fondness for the almost mythic conceptual stature of a constant home and hearth. "Home" is much more than the skin that covers our own skin -- that much is a house. "Home" is what we call the walls and roof that give oneness to all that we hold most dear and close to ourselves; it's where we externalize our interior selves in the form of décor and furnishings and comforts; it's the walls of muscle we erect between the outside world and the atria and ventricles of our true selves. We invite friends in.

Absolutely, it's where the heart is.

4 BY AGNES VARDA reviewed

My "Nozone" review of Criterion's box set 4 BY AGNES VARDA -- containing her films LE POINTE COURTE, CLEO FROM 5 TO 7, LE BONHEUR (HAPPINESS) and VAGABOND -- appears in the current April 2008 issue of SIGHT & SOUND, on newsstands now. As usual, my review also appears on the BFI's S&S website and can be read here.

Sidebar to Bava fans: CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 (1962) is shot in real time, like Bava's movie RABID DOGS (1975, released 1998). In my chapter on the latter film in MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, I explained how Bava managed to shoot inside a moving car on a public highway without permits by using different fragmented vehicles mounted on the back of a flatbed truck. Unfortunately, no production stills I have ever found showed how this was done. But, happily, the supplementary materials on CLEO in the Varda set show how a sequence inside a moving cab was shot -- exactly the same way! It's hard to tell if Bava was familiar with the film and heard through the grapevine how it solved such technical problems, or if he solved them the same way intuitively, but it's fascinating that two films shot in real time encountered the same problem and solved it identically.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Bill, Agnès, Eddie and the King

Several entries ago, I previewed Eclipse's forthcoming set THE DELIRIOUS FICTIONS OF WILLIAM KLEIN, originally announced for late March. The latest word from parent company Criterion is that the set is being postponed (for the second time, actually) to May 20th. No reason has been given for the additional delay, but I'm crossing my fingers in the hope that it has something to do with correcting the incommodious, head-cropping, widescreen framing given to THE MODERN COUPLE (1977) on the test discs that were sent to me and other members of the press.

My home viewing has been wildly scattered of late, random "want to" viewing always being more of an enticement to my weak will than regimented "have to" viewing. Over this past Easter weekend, I had the opportunity to show Agnès Varda's CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 to some visiting friends and it was a pleasure to experience it on that deeper, secondary viewing level. Seeing it again made me more astonished by the sheer choreography of Jean Rabier's extraordinary cinematography, always sinuous, vivant, multi-layered, and faceted with mirrored and other reflections and the occasional serendipitous accident. I'm also still proceeding through Tobis' EDDIE CONSTANTINE COLLECTION box sets from Germany and had a wonderful time with John Berry's Je suis un sentimental (1955, in VOLUME 2) in particular, which features extraordinary black-and-white film noir cinematography. Checking the IMDb, I found out that its cameraman -- Jacques Lemare -- had not only shot La môme vert de gris and Les femmes s'en balancent, two of the best Constantine features from the first volume, but Jean Renoir's THE RULES OF THE GAME as well. Unfortunately, unlike the more gracious first volume, the second Constantine set cheaps out by not including French subtitles, which unfortunately makes it harder for me to follow the dialogue and, therefore, get my money's worth.

My recent reading has been just as scattered, but one book that has held my interest this past week is Mark Evanier's much-anticipated KIRBY: KING OF COMICS, a magnificently produced coffee table book about the art of the late Jack "King" Kirby. Wrapped in a dustjacket whose pulpy finish suggests a more durable form of comicbook paper, it achieves new heights of accuracy in reproducing comic art, the off-whites of cardstock noticeably augmented with the brighter whites of whited-out corrections. On some pages, you can see the brushwork in the inking. More than a handsome pictorial tribute to one of the great conceptual artists of the 20th century (and arguably the most fecund of its myth-makers), Evanier's book purposefully and gracefully walks the tightrope between dispassionate history and heartfelt personal insights, the latter drawn from the author's many years of working as Kirby's assistant and befriending the artist and his family. Evanier is reportedly still toiling on a larger, more obsessive exegesis on the subject, which fans are awaiting as they have awaited nothing since the coming of Galactus, but don't mistake this one for a mere appetizer. For anyone who loves comics, it's an eye-wowing, heart-in-the-throat reading experience that renders to the King his overdue and rightful due.

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.