Monday, April 14, 2008

First Look: VIDEO WATCHDOG #139

Information and sample pages now posted on the VW website here, now.

Something Extra with Your Morning Coffee

I'm like the character that Quentin Tarantino plays in PULP FICTION: I take my coffee seriously. I started out in young adulthood as a tea drinker, very fond of my jasmine and lapsang souchong teas (always with two teaspoons of honey, please), but, when I spent a fateful week house-sitting for Cincinnati legend Irma Lazarus in the latter months of 1974, there was no tea to be had... so, needing something warm to offset the chill weather, I sampled her house blend of coffee. It was her husband's personal blend of chocolate almond and mocha java beans. I was converted with my very first taste: this wasn't anything like the instant Maxwell House or freeze-dried Taster's Choice coffees my mother used to drink while chain-smoking her breakfast. The chocolate almond had just the right semi-sweet quality, its bitterness cut by the velvety smoothness of the mocha java. I left the Lazarus home a confirmed coffee enthusiast.

I was still a struggling young writer and could not afford the special blend that Irma had especially made, but I found Chock Full o' Nuts to be a pretty reasonable substitute -- at least it was then -- and stayed a faithful customer for many years. ("Better coffee a millionaire's money can't buy!," right?) But when special coffees began to infiltrate our local supermarkets in the 1980s, Donna and I went after them like sharks after chum. We're partial to chocolate, vanilla and hazelnut, also to robust flavors like Columbian and Kona; I like an occasional espresso, while Donna favors some desserty variants that don't do much for me, like caramel nut and chocolate raspberry. At the moment we find ourselves favoring Starbuck's Kenya and Breakfast Blends, and a new brand of coffee called Zavida that started showing up in our local stores last year; it comes in resealable silver foil bags -- very sensible, and the coffee in those bags tastes impressively rich and full-bodied from the first bean to the last. (I'm not too keen on their French Roast, though -- nor anyone's French Roast, for that matter.) And I do mean "bean" -- I prefer to grind my own, whenever possible.

Some recent sales on eBay have made me aware that America's coffee makers are missing out on just the sort of idea that inspires consumer loyalty. A few weeks ago, I discovered an eBay seller who was auctioning a series of celebrity figurines that were originally obtained as free giveaways in cans of an Italian brand of coffee called Mokalux. (I would have thought Mokalux was a French brand, considering the celebrities to whom they gave the premium treatment, but this website indicates they were an Italian company -- and have been since 1920.) Imagine the pleasure of opening a can of coffee and finding this little fellow swimming around inside the beans or flakes...

Jean Marais. Fantômas himself, the fabulous Beast of Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête!

Sacha Guitry. Actor, writer, producer, playwright, a true creature of the theatre.


Martine Carol. The star of Max Ophüls' Lola Montés, Henri Decoin's unforgettable ATOMIC AGENT aka Nathalie, Agent Secret (which no reader of this blog has yet sent to me, I am sad to say) and, evidently, some Esther Williams-type movies.

Yves Montand. The handsome star of THE WAGES OF FEAR and Z caught either at the height of song or in the headlights of an oncoming car.

and last but not least (you knew this was coming)...

Eddie Constantine!

I couldn't resist bidding on this one, which I scored for just a few bucks. He now occupies a permanent place on the round flat base of my Sony flatscreen monitor, next to a same-sized figurine of the Frankenstein Monster holding a pumpkin and a whitish stone chip from the Great Pyramid of Giza brought to me by my friends Wayne and Jan Perry. Now I can look down from my work and there's a little golden Eddie (or Lemmy, if I want him to be) giving me a wink and a "thumbs up."

This kind of premium was commonplace in the 1950s and '60s, when you could find gift towels or drinking glasses in boxes of detergent. I've recently seen DVDs in boxes of breakfast cereal, but they aren't nearly so enticing -- the movies carry a whiff of junk that didn't sell, and it doesn't make them any more desirable to know they've done time in cellophane wrappers inside a cereal box. Celebrity figurines, on the other hand, are an ideal premium because they're fun and serve no real utilitarian purpose. It's not going to happen, but wouldn't it be cool if we could open a can of Chock Full o' Nuts or a bag of Zavida coffee beans today and find little golden figurines of celebrities inside?

I'll trade you my Matt Damon for your Dirk Bogarde. Okay then, how about my Joaquin Phoenix for your Philippe Leroy?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Toast to Dieter Eppler (1927-2008)

Dieter Eppler, a German-born but quite international actor whose career encompassed everything from Edgar Wallace krimis and Italian vampire films to the occasional art film like Jerzy Skolimowski's DEEP END, has died in his hometown of Stuttgart, Germany at the age of 81.

A stage actor from the time of his graduation, Eppler made his screen debut in the early 1950s under his birth name of Heinz Dieter Eppler. Though the Edgar Wallace krimis didn't really come into vogue until Rialto Film began producing them in 1959, Eppler was already an old hand at Wallace by then, having played the role of Sgt. Carter in an earlier TV movie for SDR: Franz Peter Wirth's Der Hexer (1956), based on Wallace's novel THE GAUNT STRANGER. After attracting further attention as the lover of a decapitated and re-capitated stripper (!) in Viktor Trivas' Die Nackte und der Satan (US: THE HEAD, 1959), Eppler made a proud addition to the repertory cast of Rialto's Wallace series, first appearing as Joshua Broad in Der Frosch mit der maske (US: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE FROG, 1959).

The Wallace-krimis demanded memorable faces, and Eppler had a great one. His burly build, combined with his virile features, wavy hair and piercing eyes, made him the ideal henchman, maniac, tradesman or nobleman. During the 1960s, he appeared in a variety of sizeable roles in such well-remembered German productions as (let's stick to the American titles) THE HEAD, THE TERRIBLE PEOPLE, THE STRANGLER OF BLACKMOOR CASTLE, THE WHITE SPIDER, THE SINISTER MONK, THE DEATH RAY MIRROR OF DR. MABUSE, and Jess Franco's LUCKY THE INSCRUTABLE. He was a particular favorite of director Harald Reinl, who cast him several times in later projects, including a 1966 remake of Fritz Lang's Die Niebelungen and also in Die Schlangengrube und das pendel (1967), the Christopher Lee vehicle variously known as CASTLE OF THE WALKING DEAD and THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM.

One of the stranger turns of Eppler's career was his star turn as the chief bloodsucker of Roberto Mauri's La strage dei vampiri (SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES aka CURSE OF THE BLOOD GHOULS, 1963). His characterization was a throwback to the tuxedoed Bela Lugosi model of the 1930s, while also charged with the violence and eroticism that Christopher Lee had brought to Count Dracula in HORROR OF DRACULA (1957); in some ways, this blending of influences, combined with Eppler's well-fed physique and the general romanticism of the piece, anticipates Paul Naschy's stylish 1973 stab at the Un-dead: COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE.

Eppler, married since the age of 20 to the same woman -- Magdalene Schnaitmann -- and the father of five children, remained active in films and television series until 2001, when he retired from acting. This Das Neue Blatt news story from January 7th appears to paint a bittersweet portrait of his later years, which found him and his wife still together after 61 years but increasingly dependent upon their children, as a couple of bad falls consigned him to a wheelchair, and his wife began suffering from Alzheimer's disease. It's a humbling, sobering, yet heart-warming glimpse into the private life of an actor who contributed a great deal to post-war German cinema, and to international popular cinema, as a skilled actor and an unforgettable face.

In other words, as a movie star.

Friday, April 11, 2008

For Doug Holm

It has just come to my attention, through postings at Arbogast on Film and Green Cine Daily, that film scholar and journalist D.K. Holm is battling a form of esophageal cancer. Doug once did a very good turn for me, by writing a wonderful article about MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK (actually using the book as an excuse to prepare a remarkable overview of my life and crazy career) for Green Cine Daily. The author of books about Quentin Tarantino, Robert Crumb and independent film, he's a talented man and a class act, and I wish him a complete and comfortable-as-possible recovery. A group of concerned friends are organizing a fundraiser on his behalf, in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, to help defray some of his medical expenses. I can't be there, so I plan to send a check instead. If it's at all within your power to do so, I would encourage you to send some sort of contribution his way. Follow this link for more details.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Fred Lightner: Another Rondo Hatton?

I recently had the pleasure of seeing some episodes of a 1950s television series called FOLLOW THAT MAN, starring Ralph Bellamy as private eye Mike Barnett. In its original run, the show was called MAN AGAINST CRIME but it went into syndication as FOLLOW THAT MAN, under which title 28 different episodes are available on disc in seven volumes from Alpha Home Video. Starting in 1949, the first three seasons were broadcast live, and I don't know if any of these episodes survive; it went to film in 1952, the year its fourth season began.

The eighth episode of that fourth season, "Get Out of Town," I found especially interesting because it features a henchman character named Stanley, clearly modelled on the persona made popular by the late Rondo Hatton in various Universal horror and mystery programmers, including THE PEARL OF DEATH and HOUSE OF HORRORS. Hatton died with his last picture, 1946's THE BRUTE MAN, still awaiting release -- the victim of a bone-distorting pituitary disease called acromegaly, which had also been responsible for his distorted features.

"Get Out of Town" begins with Mike Barnett entering his apartment, only to be quickly overcome by a gigantic hand that chloroforms him.

When Barnett awakens, he has been blindfolded -- and the monstrous hand responsible for subduing him occupies the foreground of the shot, flexing its fingers eagerly. The partner of this ominous, subhuman figure -- the fellow holding the gun -- explains to Barnett that a criminal of considerable wealth and influence wants him to get out of town for a year, and offers him a lot of money to high-tail it to Mexico.

When Barnett questions the arrangement, the ogre walks around the sofa and offers some encouragement by using his massive hand to crumple the shoulder of his sportcoat. As often happened with Rondo Hatton's characters, this character of the henchman named "Stanley" is kept under wraps a bit longer, which adds to the weight of his presence, but his face is eventually shown as he, his partner Sammy, and the requisite femme fatale escort Barnett to the airport. Here they are, seeing him off.

Looking at the actor on the right, I surmised right away that he, like Rondo Hatton, was very probably a victim of acromegaly. The end credits listed the actor as Fred Lightner, and I promptly looked him up on the IMDb to see if he left behind any other outstanding credits. His IMDb page, which does not mention the FOLLOW THAT MAN episode, lists only four other screen credits, ranging from a 1935 Western to a supporting role in 1948's THE BABE RUTH STORY. Legend has it that Rondo Hatton was a handsome college football star until wartime exposure to mustard gas prompted his disfiguring disease, so I began wondering if this might also have been the fate of Fred Lightner, whose long absence from films coincides with the war years. I also became curious about whether he had looked conspicuously different in his earliest pictures.

In a thread on the Classic Horror Film Boards, where I initiated this topic for discussion, "Doctor Kiss" posted a not-very-high-quality shot of Lightner and William Bendix together in THE BABE RUTH STORY in which he looks -- even at that late date -- like a completely different man. (I suppose I should allow for the possibility that it is.) As far as I know, there are no comparable before-and-after shots of Rondo Hatton to illustrate how quickly and lethally acromegaly derailed his once-handsome features; but if the actor in the BABE RUTH STORY still is indeed Fred Lightner, to compare the shots of taken of him in 1948 to these frame grabs from a 1952 production is a fairly sobering exercise.

No information about the later life of Fred Lightner is yet available, but it seems likely from these photos that he would not have had much longer to live. The point is not whether Rondo Hatton and Fred Lightner really were exposed to mustard gas, or if they -- like many others -- became acromegalic through some other internal process. The real point is that, until now, Rondo Hatton has always been a singular case study among actors, but this sighting of Fred Lightner proves that at least one other, authentically disfigured actor followed in his footsteps to play the sort of character he made infamous.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Heston on Making Movies

Charlton Heston arrives at a Northern Kentucky bookstore to sign copies of "In the Arena" -- the day I met him in 1995 -- photograph by Donna Lucas.

"Making movies is very hard work, and it's not fun... I eat my work, I drink it, and breathe it -- even dream it at night. But it's supposed to be fun for you, not us. Or scary, or inspiring, or even, once in a hundred times, profound.

"There are shining times, surely -- sitting [on] a good horse at five in the morning, waiting for the first shooting light in Montana, or Mexico, or the Spanish Guadarramas. Struggling with a scene all morning, and arguing through lunch about it, and then suddenly finding the way in, like opening a locked door. Exploring Shakespeare with a camera. Yes, there are wonderful things in it, my whole life, for instance. But it counts too much to be 'fun,' and if you can't understand that, I can't explain it to you."

-- Charlton Heston, IN THE ARENA (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster), pp. 141-142. Copyright (c) 1995 by Agamemnon Films, all rights reserved.

Charlton Heston: Larger Than Life

Some important news from a press release received today:

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will honor the life and career of legendary actor Charlton Heston, who died Sunday at the age of 84. This Friday, April 11, the network will present a 15-hour marathon of memorable Heston performances, including his Oscar®-winning role in Ben-Hur (1959). Also featured will be two opportunities to watch an in-depth conversation between Heston and TCM host Robert Osborne in the TCM original special Private Screenings: Charlton Heston.

“Charlton Heston was a towering man both in person and on screen,” said Osborne. “He was also one of the nicest, most courteous gentlemen I ever met. He will forever stand tall among those rare few we know as genuine Movie Stars.”

The following is a complete schedule of TCM’s April 11 tribute to Charlton Heston:

2:30 p.m. Private Screenings: Charlton Heston (hour-long career interview)
3:30 p.m. THE BUCCANEER (1958) – co-starring Yul Brynner and Claire Bloom.
5:30 p.m. THE HAWAIIANS (1970) – co-starring Geraldine Chaplin and John Philip Law.
8 p.m. Private Screenings: Charlton Heston (hour-long career interview)
9 p.m. BEN-HUR (1959) – co-starring Jack Hawkins and Stephen Boyd.
1 a.m. KHARTOUM (1966) – co-starring Lawrence Olivier and Richard Johnson.
3:30 a.m. MAJOR DUNDEE (1965, pictured) – co-starring Richard Harris, Jim Hutton and James Coburn.
I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Heston briefly back in 1995, when he came to a northern Kentucky bookstore to sign copies of his then-new autobiography IN THE ARENA. Some of his obits are claiming he was 6' 2," but I'm 6' 2" and I remember being surprised by how much smaller in stature he was than I expected; nevertheless, he had the aura of a colossus. He was my mother's favorite actor -- she called him "Charleston Heston" -- and Donna and I took her to the bookstore to meet him. Everyone on queue was cautioned to have their book open to the title page for signing, not to ask for other items to be signed (however, an entire table of 8x10 photos of Heston on various film sets, taken by his wife Lydia, were available to be ordered and could be sent to you signed and inscribed), and not to engage him in too much talk, so that everyone could be accomodated.
When we reached his signing table, my mother pushed her book across the table to be signed... and, when he finished signing, she humbly asked, "Could I just touch you?" With a warm chuckle, he said "Certainly, madam!", put down his pen, and took both her hands in his. For my part, I asked him if there was going to be a second volume of his journals, to follow the first such collection called AN ACTOR'S LIFE: JOURNALS 1956-1976, which I had very much enjoyed. To this, he replied confidently, "Yes," saying that IN THE ARENA was not intended to take the place of that follow-up volume. In parting, I thanked him for helping Orson Welles to find work and moved on, but he called after me, "I'm very proud of that." "Rightly so," I called back.

I still have my copy of IN THE ARENA -- signed with a flourish that looks downright presidential. Like many, I was opposed to most of Mr. Heston's politics (it shouldn't be overlooked that he was an important civil rights crusader in the 1950s and '60s), but I was greatly disappointed by the way he was treated over the years by people, like Michael Moore, who share views closer to my own. I liked him -- as an actor, as an activist (for speaking out on behalf of what he believed in), for the way he used his clout to get TOUCH OF EVIL made and MAJOR DUNDEE finished; he was also a very good writer. I also liked him for the way he handled my mother.
Thirteen years after that meeting, the second volume of AN ACTOR'S LIFE still hasn't appeared, but perhaps it will now.
Postscript: For some of the best eulogistic writing about Charlton Heston that I've found online, see Sam Umland's essay on his 60x50 blog. He makes a strong case for Heston as the actor who not only best exemplified the Epic but also the Apocalypse.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

2001: It Is What It Is

Last night, I observed the 40th anniversary of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY's original release by watching it for the first time (in its entirety) in Blu-ray. I intend to write a fuller review of the disc for VW, but seeing the movie in this ideal home format brought back vivid memories of its 70mm majesty, which I first experienced in the mid-1970s.
Warner's Blu-ray disc is magnificent, the first video medium to properly deliver the antiseptic essence of Kubrick, but even with a 60" Pioneer Elite monitor, a new amplifier and five Bose speakers, there remain areas where the translation of the 70mm experience to disc falls conspicuously short. I miss the gigantic curved screen, but I particularly found myself noticing that the both the DD and LPCM 5.1 audio failed to replicate the discrete audio separations of the 70mm six-track sound. It's most noticeable aboard the space station, where the sounds of paging announcements are pushed to the front of the 5.1 surround image, rather than sounding truly ambient and separated from the spoken dialogue. As wonderful as this disc may be, Kubrick's mastery of cinema, at least in the case of this film, remains ultimately exclusive to theatrical experience -- which is, I suppose, how it should be.
I include 2001 on my list of Top Ten favorites. My primary reason for this is its ultimate unknowability and openness to interpretation, which I feel separates it from the majority of films and places it among our greatest objects of art. Watching it again, perhaps because of the anniversary circumstances, my attention was particularly riveted to the black monolith, which not only heralds three stages of man's advancement -- from animal to thinking creature, from earthbound man to space explorer, from man to Starchild -- but may also be the catalyst behind these metamorphoses. Kubrick and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth take great care to have these graduational moments coincide, compositionally, with an exact alignment of the monolith with our moon, the sun, and other planets -- a harmonic convergence, to use a phrase that came well after the film's release. I've known people who hate the film because they claim it makes no sense, or because they find it godless, but I've always questioned why art should have to make complete sense in a world that none of us fully understands, and I have always recognized a form of godliness in the film's moments of celestial alignment; a kind of mathematic intelligence whose benign quality is expressed through a pleasing symmetry.
This symmetry doesn't begin and end with the three appearances of the monolith. The film itself is presented as three chapters or segments. The story also encompasses three birthdays, beginning with that of Heywood Floyd's daughter (sorry, Squirt, Daddy's travelling), repeating with the birthday greeting sent by Frank Poole's parents (alienation), and finally with Dave Bowman rebirth as the Starchild (the final shedding of human skin). There's a similar recurrence of references to liquid refreshment: the two warring ape tribes in "The Dawn of Man" are fighting over a watering hole, control of which leads one ape to commit the first murder; then, in the Howard Johnson Earthlight Room aboard the space station, a group of Russian scientists engage Dr. Floyd in polite but pointed conversation about the US government's secrecy concerning a rumored epidemic outbreak on Clavius, a tense dialogue between divided nations once again unfolding over Floyd's refusal to share drinks; and late in the film, Bowman, while dining alone in some kind of alien zoo recreation of 19th century earthly environment, accidentally knocks over a crystal water glass, breaking it. The monolith's appearances also find counterpart in the final scenes of Bowman, who, after travelling through a black hole (or "stargate") above Jupiter, arrives in captivity and spies a future tense of himself, who then replaces his younger self in the present moment... until he catches another glimpse of a future self that, once again, assumes his place to carry the narrative one more leap into the future. He sees as many stages of himself as we see appearances of the monolith, the threads ultimately coming together (aligning) in the moment when the monolith appears at the foot of Bowman's bed like a doorway to the mysteries awaiting us all.
These are just my thoughts of the moment, and I may have different ones the next time I see 2001. There have been times when I've watched it and found it very funny, which wasn't the case last night. (Has anyone else ever watched 2001 and wondered how differently it might have played had HAL 9000 been voiced by Woody Allen?) There have also been times when I've paid very close attention to the elliptic storyline and other times when I've let the experience wash over me like music. It's one of those rare films that grows and changes apace with us as we move through life.
If there is anything about 2001 that I feel should not be open to interpretation, that should be evident to everyone regardless of how well they understand the picture, it's that it was the creation not only of a genius but of something rarer still: a truly colossal artist. I don't think it is an exaggeration to place Kubrick on equal footing with Michelangelo, and the ways in which 2001 has enabled later generations to better interpret the universe and design the ships we sail into it may place him on a par with the likes of Galileo and da Vinci.
And herein lies my big thought about 2001, based on last night's viewing, which is that the film, in its own oblique way, is the black monolith. (On disc, what we see for the first several minutes of overture music is a black screen of comparable proportions.) 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is something that suddenly appeared in theaters back in April 1968, that wasn't immediately a hit (certainly not with critics) but which happened to coincide with searching trends in art and music, science and cinema -- another harmonic convergence -- and gradually attracted a cult of viewers determined to have the experience and have it again from the very first row. (And this first generation of fans was, as it happens, quite hairy.) It inspired many people to become filmmakers, many more to become special effects technicians and model builders, and no doubt many more still to become scientists, physicists, astronauts.
Time has revealed Kubrick's masterpiece to be a kind of celluloid enzyme, a herald of our graduation as a species, the epicenter of a cultural force that changed the very face of our planet. It lives on as a kind of moveable milestone, a touchstone that we can revisit throughout our lives to keep track of how much we have grown or remained the same. If the black monolith represents an inscrutable source prompting quantum leaps in human growth and discovery, I ask you, what film better fills that definition than 2001?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Michael Reeves' First Film

Well, first proper film or first surviving film, take your pick. It's a 16mm thriller short entitled INTRUSION. Made in 1961, when Reeves was only 17 or 18, it's a remake of an earlier (lost) 8mm project called CARRION and features Ian Ogilvy, Reeves himself (acting as "Martin Reade"), Sara Dunlop and some of their friends. Photographed by WITCHFINDER GENERAL cameraman Tom Baker, it runs just under 10 minutes and, until now, it has been just about impossible for Reeves' fans to see. But now, thanks to the generosity of Reeves' biographer Benjamin Halligan (whose excellent book can be found here), you can see INTRUSION here on David Cairns' blog Shadowplay.

Thanks to David for alerting me and for sharing with the rest of us.

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."