Monday, August 11, 2008

Scenes From My Vita Nuova

First things first: VIDEO WATCHDOG #142 was shipped to subscribers and retailers at the end of last week. If you are one or the other, it should be in your hands soon -- or sometime later, if you're a bulk rate subscriber.

I'm going through a weird, distracted phase that's tied up with some important changes I've made in my life and my attempts to map out my future. I mentioned a blog or two ago that I've started swimming; I'm now doing it three times per week and have already dropped more than twelve pounds. Also, about three weeks ago, in fact to the day, I decided to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle and I'm liking that -- although the soup aisle at the grocery store (my former idea of health food), now throws up more "Forbidden" signs than are found in the archives of the Catholic Legion of Decency. I always loved the foods I am now swearing off, and to be perfectly honest, I'm not completely happy about my decision to live without them, but I am, I think, settled. Once you get into this, you realize it's more than just a dietary decision; it's also a code of morality. Until I can learn to cook for myself, which I don't foresee in the immediate future, thank God for the folks at Morningstar Farms.

I started working on a new novel this past week, made respectable progress (maybe 20 pages), hit the right tone, then realized it was not what I should be writing at this time. I hope to get on with the right project sometime this week.

In the meantime, and I recognize the danger of this, I feel myself losing a lot of old interests. I must have more than a month of ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOURs and WHAT'S MY LINE? episodes piled up on my DVR hard drive, but the prospect of dubbing them over onto my DVD recorder to get the commercials out of them is something I'm not ready to face and presently have no interest in doing. I don't understand why I ever collected anything. I have stopped watching more movies at or before the halfway-point this past week than I can count; these are movies that I've sometimes seen and know I like, but it seems a movie has to be really extraordinary to hold my attention these days. Fortunately, there was one: Lech Majewski's THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS (2004), which streets tomorrow on the Kino on Video label. I think this movie is an absolute masterpiece, and it's also the first movie I've seen since my first viewing of Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST at the age of 12 that I like so much, I'm actually wary of seeing the director's other works. I feel like I want to be faithful to this one, it's so good. I was faithful to ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST for at least 10 years; then I bit the bullet and saw Leone's other films, all of which had their own qualities but none of which ever equalled or surpassed my introduction to his work. Kino sent me three other movies by this amazing director -- THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO HARRY, THE ROE'S ROOM and GLASS LIPS -- and I apologize, but they'll just have to wait till I'm over this one.

In other news: To my surprise and honor, a young punk band from the Glendale, California area has adopted the name of Throat Sprockets. Lead singer Miss Lonelyhearts tells me "I think it's the best band name since Led Zeppelin!" If you go to their MySpace page, you can hear/download their first offering, "Keep Your Distance."

And finally, Jerad Walters of Centipede Press tells me that he has received the first six advance copies of my VIDEODROME book from its Hong Kong printer. He says "They look magnificent!" Hopefully the book's Amazon page will soon be corrected to reflect its "in print" status. In the meantime, you can order the book directly from the publisher here. Copies begin shipping in three weeks. Donna and I have not made arrangements with Centipede yet, but I imagine we will also be selling the book through Video Watchdog.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

HAZEL COURT - HORROR QUEEN reviewed


HAZEL COURT - HORROR QUEEN
An Autobiography
by Hazel Court
Tomahawk Press (www.tomahawkpress.com), 152 pages, $25.00, trade softcover

British actress Hazel Court passed away earlier this year, on April 15, just a month or two before the announced publication date of her long-promised autobiography. A copy of this sadly timed Tomahawk Press release arrived here yesterday, courtesy of Amazon.com (now offering the book for the sale price of $16.50), and I read it straight through in an evening.

The book's advance word of mouth has been beating the drum about the fact that it contains a never-before-seen color image of Hazel topless, as she was filmed for a continental release of THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH (1959). The photo is in the book, and different to the four sequential filmstrip images previously seen on the inside cover of LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS #16, but not printed large enough to permit much detail. Even so, it's neither the most beautiful or ravishing image in the book, which is loaded with lovely images of Hazel at all the different stages of her life. The two that particularly took my breath away can be found on the Acknowledgements page (which appears to be post-retirement) and page 38 (a photo from her first professional session at age 16).

As loath as I would be to say this to the dear lady's face, pretty pictures and a nice interior layout aside, I found the book a disappointment. Why? Because the opening chapters are so arresting, so complete and vivid a recreation of her early years, and so revelatory of an unexplored gift for writing, that the later chapters about her life in movies seem sketchy and shallow by comparison. There is an almost palpable feeling of difference here between chapters written by hand and others that might have been obtained otherwise, as through a transcribed tape or ghostwriter. I don't know how difficult a book it was for her to write, if other duties were in the way of her concentration, but the early chapters give us dense, delicious portraiture while the later ones give us snapshots.

The early chapters do offer the reader some insight about how this working class girl from Birmingham acquired her regal bearing onscreen and how she wore those period costumes with such ease. There is also a heartbreaking story about her first love, identified only by his initials, who went off to war and died in 1941, but not before taking the photographs (by gaslight) that led to Hazel's first screen test. Her first marriage to actor Dermot Walsh is almost elliptic in its modest coverage, and none of the reasons for their "painful" divorce are gone into, nor really is the story of how she came to fall in love with second husband, actor/director Don Taylor (obviously the great love of her life). A strange emphasis of photos showing Hazel in the company of artist Fred Yates, with whom the text mentions only one brief anecdotal meeting, begs curiosity. There are also odd instances of padding, with surprisingly detailed film synopses added in (complete with dialogue), and quotes taken from recklessly identified sources. One quote, allegedly from TV GUIDE, is far too long and critical in character to have ever appeared there, and it's an embarassment when the book reaches out to the IMDb for information anyone could find there for themselves. The text is also guilty of some inattentive editing (repeated information, etc) and proofreading (Edgar "Allen" Poe, "Heaven's" no!, etc).

Despite these unworthy birthmarks, it's still a pleasure to spend time in her thoughts and reveries, and a shade of her book's early substance eeks into its latter pages, which focus on her development as a sculptress, her widowhood, and her last years in a log cabin in the High Sierra Mountains. But my abiding feeling about the book, after closing it, is that it makes me wish that Hazel Court was still here with us, so that she might be coaxed into sharing even more details of her life and times as ably as she began to put them down here.

Also included are loving and observant Forewords by her daughter, animation art authority Sally Walsh, and Vincent Price (signed with a "V" I've never seen in his signatures before) and notes of affection and respect from Roger Corman, Ken Annakin and producer Harvey Bernhard.

PSYCHO - The Director's Cut?

In today's mailbox (8/4/08), an interesting letter from reader Simon Coombs of London, England, alerting me to the fact that a pre-US-censor cut of Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO has been shown on the German television station RTL. Simon included this link to a German video site where Universal's most recent DVD issue of PSYCHO was reviewed in tandem with a list of scenes missing from this current version, illustrated with grabs from the RTL broadcast. Hopefully the right people at Universal can be made aware of this missing footage and ensure that it is restored to their reportedly forthcoming two-disc remastered edition, which only then could be called a true "director's cut."

UPDATE: Reader Stephan Held informs me that the site Movie-Censorship.com offers an identical breakdown of the shots missing from the current PSYCHO DVD with English text. You can find it here.

Furthermore, VW contributor Brad Stevens tells me that this more complete version of PSYCHO used to be shown regularly by the BBC in the 1980s, though he does not know which version is currently being shown.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Man Who Could Cheat Mediocrity

I have a critique of Terence Fisher's THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH (1959) going into the next issue of VW -- it's available on DVD as one of those confounded "Best Buy exclusives" from Legend Films. While going through the disc in search of some screen grabs suitable to accompany my review, I was stopped in my tracks by this impressive shot of Christopher Lee, which had passed over me without particular effect as I watched the film itself. But seen here, as a composed image, I feel that cameraman Jack Asher succeeded in capturing something close to the soul of this much-too-easily-taken-for-granted actor and why I and so many of my generation love him so much.

In this film, which hasn't dated particularly well in my opinion, Lee plays the thankless "other man" role of Dr. Pierre Gérard -- just one of many laughably unimaginative French names peopling Jimmy Sangster's script. (The villain of the piece actually resides at No. 13 Rue Noire!) It's the sort of dull, stiff-upper-lip role that Lee readily accepted in his early determination not to become typecast as one of Hammer's monster men, and I used to think he was boring in it... when I was a much younger viewer not so well-versed in the ways of life and love. Seeing the movie now, I find that Lee is one of its most interesting, enduring facets: I admire his character's deeply held moral convictions, the way he values the medical experience of the elderly character played by Arnold Marlé, and especially the way he readily -- indeed, heroically -- responds in the affirmative when the film's villain, played by Anton Diffring, asks if he's in love with Janine Dubois, the heroine played by Hazel Court -- something we instinctively know he has not yet found the right moment to confide to her. It's in this single outburst of heart that he qualifies himself as the film's hero, allowing some heat to pass through his cool public image -- not that it would make any difference to Janine who, in the final reel, agrees even to damnation if it means remaining by the side of the man she loves so unwisely. The film ends with the usual incendiary mayhem and offers no real closure for Pierre Gérard, and it is only after reflecting on the film from a distance, and revisiting a shot such as this, that we realize that Janine's choice has probably damned him, too.

Few actors could have played this man with such innate nobility and melancholy, and it's high time Christopher Lee was complimented on making something so touching out of next to nothing.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Fixing A Hole

In the course of recent events, various people have asked me what it feels like to have completed the project of a lifetime. The answer I've settled on, the most truthful one, is quick and to the point: "I feel bereaved."

I now have the Bava book as a tangible thing, rather than as a ghost in my head, but there remains the feeling of having lost it. The awards it has received thus far have been wonderful and gratifying, but these honors can't begin to fill the hole that was excavated by the thirty-plus questing years that preceded it. I've experienced "post partum depression" before, with other books I've finished, but this experience is something more profound. I remember reading somewhere that F. Scott Fitzgerald burst into tears when his first novel was accepted by Scribner's, and that he explained his emotional outburst by saying that he knew that nothing else in his life would ever feel so wonderful again. In my case, I'm not weeping uncontrollably or drinking to excess or auditioning bridges to leap off; I'm just very aware that as much as 50% of what used to be Tim Lucas isn't part of me anymore. I'm also aware that, whatever my next projects happen to be, it's unlikely that any of them, separately or in combination, will completely fill the void left behind by this lifetime endeavor.

We're working on VIDEO WATCHDOG #143 at present, so it's not the right time to start writing the next novel or screenplay, but I should start taking notes toward both projects more fastidiously. In the meantime, both Donna and I are focusing on effecting positive changes in our lifestyle. Last Sunday, I went swimming for the first time since 1989 at a local health facility. I've always loved the water; I've always been the sort of swimmer who never wants to come out once he gets in, but I had been depriving myself of this pleasure with mental preccupations and sheer physical indolence for close to twenty years. I stayed in the water for about 30-35 minutes and, I have to say, it was largely a struggle. But this morning -- before breakfast, before coffee, before e-mail (!!!) -- we went back and I swam for the better part of an hour: doing laps, treading water, floating on my back and watching the white ceiling piping and blue-and-white pennants drifty by above me, then I soothed my tensed muscles for 10 minutes or so in the whirlpool. Even while getting dressed afterwards, I took notice of the simple pleasure I was taking on putting my socks and shoes back on after a swim. Then, while sitting in a chair in the lobby, drinking an electrolyte beverage while waiting for Donna to join me after her own health regime, I realized that I felt wonderful -- "attuned" might be the more precise word. And, best of all, that for the entire time I had been in the water, I hadn't taken any notice of the names, titles, dates and other preoccupations that command my attention when I'm at home, sitting in front of this infernal machine.

Funnily enough, the writing I most enjoy doing at the moment is limericks. It's a form that forces the poet to work and finish quickly. What? Someone requested a Jess Franco limerick? Sure, here goes:

There once was a filmmaker, Jesus,
Whose flicks weren't financed by Cresus
A hotel and zoom lens
Were his means to an end
And the labia majora his thesis.

There. Believe it or not, I wrote that in just slightly more time than it took you to read it. Yes, my limerick muscle is firm and readily flexed -- but I know it's not going to make me rich. This stripe of poetry pays only in author's satisfaction, much like epic poetry today. But at least that satisfaction comes quickly, on the fifth line, like euphoria from a morphine drip.

Additionally, I seem to be going through a phase, probably brought on my the highs of my recent trips to Los Angeles and Louisville: I'm not very interested in watching movies at the moment, especially horror movies. I'm strugging against the morbid streak that has been my beat for so long; as one confidant expressed it, I've tasted a bit of life and a broader circle of companionship and liked it. Other people seem to juggle work and real life -- why shouldn't I try my hand at that for awhile? It's likely to mean less blogging, but for those times when the mood or the need strikes, I'll be leaving the door here open a crack and the lights on.

Tomorrow would have been Mario Bava's 94th birthday. I send my love to his flown spirit, wherever it may be, and thank him from the bottom of my heart for having been such an inexhaustibly interesting companion for so many years, all those years when I felt he was mine alone. I either know or have met quite a few people in fandom who are engaged in various book projects, some of them in developing manuscript, some without a single word yet written, and some have dragged on almost as long as mine. I hope the example of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK has given these writers and would-be writers more reason to finish. The longer we toil at such projects, wrestling them toward our idea of perfection, the more painful it is to separate ourselves from them, in ways so profound they're hard to imagine even if I described them to you. Empty as I feel, I have no doubt that the most important thing was to finish and move on toward the next big question mark. Isn't it best to be judged for what we do rather than for what we intend?

Friday, July 25, 2008

First Look: VIDEO WATCHDOG #142

Our next issue is now at the printer and it's, of all things, a Tim Lucas triple-header. I wrote the feature article on the classic cult television series THE PRISONER (in which I propose a new viewing sequence of the 17 episodes); the text for a co-feature photo gallery of mostly never-before-seen color images of Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr. and Peter Lorre from the classic ROUTE 66 episode "Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing" (courtesy of the Bob Burns Collection); and also the "DVD Spotlight" review of the Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee classic THE SKULL.

There's also a wealth of material in the issue I didn't write, and I invite you to savor your anticipation by reading all about it (and sampling a few pages) here.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Double Life of Two Sisters

Irène Jacob in THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VÉRONIQUE -- nice double bill material for people unafraid to swim in the deep end.

The editors of SIGHT & SOUND have very generously chosen to offer this month's cover story -- in which 52 different critics suggest "double bill" ideas, based either in reality or fantasy -- free online as a downloadable pdf file. It's a very interesting piece and I was among the critics asked to participate; I chose to write about the genuine 1962 double bill of Georges Franju's THE HORROR CHAMBER OF DR. FAUSTUS (English-dubbed version of EYES WITHOUT A FACE) and George Breakston & Kenneth Crane's THE MANSTER, which I discuss as a kind of ground zero in terms of the fusion of art and sleaze.

However, while checking Jeremy Richey's Moon in the Gutter blog last week, I found that he had posted a series of "Images From the Greatest Films of the Decade" from Kim Ji-woon's Korean horror film A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (a fitting selection, I think) -- and it gave me an unbidden notion of what a terrific double bill it would make with Krzysztof Kieslowski's THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VÉRONIQUE. I immediately regretted my reality-rooted choice and wished that I had proposed this more creative pairing.

I wish I could go into more detail here, but time won't allow it. We start a new issue next week and I'm behind schedule, reviewing one or two movies a day and reviewing them in the time I have left.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wonderfest Photos by Joe Busam

My friend Joe Busam had a birthday yesterday and, princely fellow that he is, he gave me a present: a disc of the photos he took at this past weekend's Wonderfest, and his permission to use them here.

First series of photos: Let's call this THE FALL AND RISE OF THE RO-MAN EMPIRE.

This year's "Doctor Gangrene" show at Wonderfest was devoted to the campy ape-in-a-diver's-helmet opus ROBOT MONSTER. Bob Burns brought the actual helmet used in the 1953 space oddity and agreed to don it in a new portrayal of the legendary space invader, Ro-Man. Uh-oh, the helmet's antennae needs repair and the show is tonight! Nashville-based artist Ethan Black was summoned to Gary Prange's Old Dark Club House to put things right!

Success! Ethan celebrates a victorious reattachment by trying the legendary movie prop on for size!

Then everybody in the room got into the act, starting with Joe Busam...

... and then Monster Kid of the Year, Michael Schlesinger...

... and, of course, the host with the most, Gary Prange...

... and finally, Larry Thomas, who gave a real Ro-Man Holiday performance!

Bob Burns had to come down to the Old Dark Club House and knock some heads together, but he finally got Ro-Man's helmet back in time for the evening performance. He later told me that he couldn't see or hear a thing when he was wearing the helmet, but the audience went ape anyway.

Here's a shot that Joe took of this year's assembled Rondo Award winners. That's Rondo founder David Colton at the lectern on the right, and next to him, going right to left, are Frank Dietz (Best Artist); Michael Schlesinger (Monster Kid of the Year); the legendary Bernie Wrightson (Monster Kid Hall of Fame); Tim Lucas (Best Book and Best Writer... they said); Professor Emcee Square (Mark Menold), who accepted the Best Fan Event award for the Monroeville Mall Zombie Walk, which he organized; the lovely Penny Dreadful and her loopy sidekick Garou (Best Horror Hosts); Son of Ghoul; the Frankenstein monster (Tim Herron); and the original Jason from FRIDAY THE 13th, Ari Lehman (accepting for this year's Best Magazine choice, RUE MORGUE). Hall of Fame inductees Cortlandt Hull and Dennis Vincent of the Witch's Dungeon were also present but couldn't attend due to food poisoning! They were honored the following night at the Cook-out on Clavius banquet.

It's an Old Dark Club House tradition to get the elite few admitted into this dark domain in front of a camera for a group photo. I must admit I didn't get everyone's name, but going more or less left to right, I can identify: Larry Thomas, Chris Herzog, Harry Hatter, Lisa Herzog, Tim & Donna Lucas, Linda "Nurse Moan-eek" Wylie, Mike Schlesinger, Gary Prange, ? in suit and tie, Carrie Galloway, Donnie Waddell, Mike Parks, Danya Linehan, ? in front holding the decanter and signed ashtray, ? sitting next to Joe Busam, Joe Busam, Ethan Black and Dave Conover. This picture was taken by Frank Dietz, who's missing from the picture.

It is also an Old Dark Club House tradition to have everyone make a scary face for the camera. Frank Dietz -- now a movie star, incidentally -- can be found in the position previously occupied by Joe. I love the way Mike and Danya, standing on the right way in the back, look literally fused at the neck into a single two-headed being.
And finally, in the you-hadda-be-there department, here's a priceless still from one of Donnie Waddell's funniest performances:

Hello?
Hello?
Is somebody there?
Why do you keep ringing my phone? Don't you know it's after eleven?
Hello?
Hello?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Wonderfest! Sushi! And the Moon!

Just back from an appropriately wonderful weekend at Wonderfest in Louisville, Kentucky, where Donna and I got to spend time talking, laughing, drinking and eating with our extended family of friends. Pictures may follow, once I see what they look like.

On Friday night, our annual SushiFest in Bardstown confirmed once again that Sapporo serves the best sushi anywhere in our ever-expanding range of experience. SushiFest has grown from six to eight to sixteen participants in its three-night history. Along for the experience this year, along with founding member Linda "Nurse Moan-eek" Wylie, were Bob and Kathy Burns and also Frank Dietz, who said that he eats sushi regularly in Los Angeles and couldn't believe that he had to come to Louisville to find the best. (We especially recommend the VIP, No Name, Volcano and Godzilla rolls. They even serve a White Castle roll, but it should not be confused with the celebrated little square hamburger.)

The 2007 Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards ceremony took place on Saturday night, co-hosted by founder David Colton and Nurse Moan-eek, and I picked up the Best Book and Best Writer awards, this time improvising my acceptance speeches; my Best Book speech was inadequate but passable, and I think I stumbled through the Best Writer speech miserably, feeling a little embarrassed by its seeming redundancy in light of the Best Book award, but some were complimentary. Anyway, the moment is over and it's best not to dwell on such things. The highlight of the presentation was without a doubt Michael Schlesinger's induction as Monster Kid of the Year, introduced by Raymond Castile as Coffin Joe, Jr. -- his maniacal Portuguese incantations and hilarious mangling of "Mee-kay-eeel Skla-essh-ink-kair"'s name softly translated by a docile cloaked idolator. As Monster Kid Mike said later, "I was supposed to follow THAT?" But he managed to, and it was cool to see my old friend's efforts recognized and applauded.

Dr. Gangrene's post-Rondos show on Saturday night was a blast, built around a screening of ROBOT MONSTER and featuring Bob Burns in a live, run-amuck-through-the-audience appearance as Ro-Man (wearing in the original helmet). The Exotic Ones rocked the house with before and after the show performances of such hits as "It's the Mummy," "The Green Slime" and (dedicated to Monkees fan Donna Lucas) "Circle Sky." I had a great time getting to know some of the band members better this year.

The guests of honor at the show were Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, the stars of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (which I include on my list of 10 favorite films), and I surprised myself by not approaching them all weekend. They seemed like very friendly and approachable gentlemen, but aside from a reciprocated nod from across a crowded dealer's room... no. While checking out, I had one last chance with Mr. Dullea and again let the opportunity pass, prompting me to look inside for the reason why. That's when I realized I was subconsciously protecting my sense of the film itself. I've listened to their audio commentary about the film and know that both men are splendid vocal representatives of the picture and its legacy, but I didn't want my future viewings of a film I consider a profound work of art to be complicated by meeting and becoming familiar with the real people behind the roles they were playing.

Banquet night at Wonderfest has become an almost comically accursed cock-up. They tried to straighten things out this year by hosting a simpler sort of buffet -- a "Cook-out on Clavius" with burgers and dogs, but the buffet turned out to be almost anti-gravitationally arrayed: plates were stacked at the wrong end of the queue, so everyone had to start loading up their plates with dessert, then the potato salad and baked beans, then burgers and brats, and finally the buns. It made for a lot of mess and plate juggling. If Wonderfest was hosting the Miss Nude Universe Pageant at one of their banquets, they'd find a way to cover up the contestants. So, come next banquet night, I'm stealing my friends away to discover some of the other culinary haunts Bardstown has to offer.

Finally, for those who come here expecting some kind of commentary on video, here's a link to my review of Kino's HOUDINI - THE MOVIE STAR, published also in this month's issue of SIGHT & SOUND.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Strange Seeing Ways of Steve Allen

The late, great Steve Allen. Look into his eyes. On second thought...

I've been meaning to mention these two incidents here for quite awhile, and it's time I got around to it. I know that what I'm about to tell you stretches the fabric of believability, but I assure you that both incidents actually occurred.

BELIEVE IT OR NOT... On April 11, 1966, I'VE GOT A SECRET host Steve Allen introduced special guest George Segal to the program. Segal walked onstage in the company of six other gentlemen; his secret was that he and these men used to be known as the Red Onion Jazz Band and he was their banjo player. Before the panel's questioning got underway, Allen laughingly referred to the assemblage of dark-suited men standing behind him and Segal as "the St. Valentine's Day Massacre." Oddly enough, Segal's next motion picture would be Roger Corman's THE ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE, released in June 1967!

BELIEVE IT OR NOT... While questioning challenger Ms. Lucille Bohn ("Police Detective") on the January 1, 1967 broadcast of WHAT'S MY LINE?, panelist Steve Allen inquired "Are you some kind of lovely... meter maid?"
His bizarrely phrased question actually preceded the release of The Beatles' SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND album, featuring the song "Lovely Rita" ("Lovely Rita, meter maid / Where would I be without you?"), by six months. According to Barry Miles' book THE BEATLES: A DIARY, all of the Beatles were in London on the date of the broadcast. Furthermore, the US version of WHAT'S MY LINE? was never shown in the UK. According to Miles, Paul McCartney did not begin working on the song until February 23. Weird, huh?
Did Steve Allen actually peer into the future, or merely influence it? We may never know. In the words of Larry Blamire, "I wonder. Oh, well..."

Thursday, July 17, 2008

SCOTT WALKER 30 CENTURY MAN reviewed

It is truly a shame that, two years after its first public screenings, Stephen Kijak's documentary SCOTT WALKER 30 CENTURY MAN has yet to score a US release. The current word is that the film will receive US theatrical distribution in the fall. But, tired of waiting and being a 21 century man who doesn't have to, I broke down and ordered a copy of Verve Pictures' Region 2 disc from Amazon.co.uk, which streeted about a year ago. The film's own subtext seems to prophesy its lack of (or belated) exposure in America as inevitable, because here in the land of Top 40 radio, artists like Scott Walker are not understood. It's a shame, because as music documentaries go, this one is about as good as they come. Kijak tells a story, one that has elements of mystery and moments of epiphany, and one that stands as a source of great inspiration to anyone toiling in any branch of the arts.

Kijak, whose previous documentary CINEMANIA was a somewhat frightening portrait of New York area moviegoers whose love of film tipped over (or plummeted freely) into signs of psychosis, here turns his attention to what some might view as a similar case. Scott Walker -- born Scott Engel in 1945, not far from Cincinnati, Ohio -- rose to fame in 1965 as one third of The Walker Brothers, an American group of three unrelated young men who adopted a common family name. (The whole idea of The Ramones was a pop historic reference to them.) The Walker Brothers inverted the British Invasion by relocating from the West coast to London, where they recorded three albums (two in the US) and many singles, including a couple of transatlantic hits ("Make It Easy On Yourself", "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore"). Somehow, despite chart success, they maintained US anonymity while taking England by storm. Their UK fan club was reportedly bigger than that of The Beatles, and singer Lulu admits to having a terrible crush on Scott, the cute one. "Is he still cute?" she wants to know.

Scott penned a number of the Walkers' increasingly fantastic B-sides and became the breakout star of the group but, behind his dark Foster Grants, he professed having no interest in money; his only interest was in expressing himself musically, wherever that happened to take him -- and being a young man of taste and intelligence, it took him far afield. His interest in European cinema led to an infatuation with the then-scandalous, theatrical songs of Jacques Brel, but during the period when he attempted to become a British chanteur, Scott continued to write his own increasingly abstract songs and honing one of the most distinctive voices ever raised in pop music -- a deep crooner's voice often seemingly at odds with his poetry and the soundscapes he constructed in support of it. Today, that voice sounds archetypally familiar, after decades of its commercial imitation by the likes of Bryan Ferry, David Sylvian and, especially, David Bowie (who repaid some dues by executive producing this film). It was a voice that could have easily gone mainstream and reaped every platinum album ever to fall into the laps of Tom Jones, Englebert Humperdinck, Rod Stewart and Michael Bolton, but that sort of career didn't interest Scott Walker.

His fourth solo album, SCOTT 4, is now regarded as his masterpiece but it heralded the end of his solo success. The movie skirts the issue, but offers lines to be read between about incidents of public drunkenness, no-shows at scheduled concerts, and an increasing discomfort with live performance. A Walker Brothers reunion yielded another Top 10 hit, but their third reunion album coincided with the dissolution of their record company, encouraging Scott to follow his Muse to the end with his contributions to the record. Spacy, adventurous and nonlinear, Scott's contribution to the album NITE FLIGHTS pointed the way to a resuscitated solo career that is second to none in terms of artistic integrity. Looking over the lyrics to one of his older solo compositions, no less than Brian Eno chuckles ruefully, "It's humiliating... after all this time, we [musicians] still haven't moved past this."

Narrated by Sara Kestelman (ZARDOZ), SCOTT WALKER 30 CENTURY MAN skips over some individual albums in telling its story but does paint a compelling portrait of an artist capable of working only on his own terms. In an extraordinary coup, Kijak scored the cooperation of the secretive Walker himself, who is shown in original interviews, on the set of a film directing the live performance of his original score, and in the recording studio during the making of his solo album THE DRIFT. Remarkably for someone whose truly avant garde music has been described as abrasive, inaccessible, abyssal and suicidally dark ("This isn't a funk session," he once cautioned a collaborator in the studio), Scott Walker personally projects an almost wholesome image and still speaks with a Midwestern accent after decades spent overseas; nevertheless, he speaks about his music and his goals for his music with unyielding focus and passion. He admits to suffering from nightmares and outsized emotions, noting that everything in his world seems "big" to him, but unlike some other composers (Brian Wilson leaps to mind), he has never lost control of his vision or been broken by it.

In some ways, Scott Walker's greatest legacy to the greatest number of people will be his approach to career -- his refusal of easy, soulless, pretty-boy pop success and embrace of a more meaningful lifestyle predicated on artistic risk, his willingness to let ten years pass between albums -- rather than his actual music, which is extraordinary but hardly accessible to the average ears. That said, the film also embodies a moving introduction to, of defense of, Scott's music, particularly in a lengthy sequence that shows a number of interview subjects (including David Bowie, Sting, Jarvis Cocker, Marc Almond, Johnny Marr, Alison Goldfrapp and members of Radiohead) intently listening to individual songs and occasionally remarking on them. (These scenes take us to the core of the musician/listener relationship and remind us that this form of intimacy is where music truly lives, not in the charts or the loud car radios of people needing a "soundtrack to their lives.")

This film should be considered required viewing for artists of all kinds for the simple reason that it is so inspirational; it depicts a level of almost monastic consecration to one's craft that is so rare as to be easily mistaken for incipient insanity -- when it is the idea that the value of any music is dictated by the marketplace that is truly mad. French journalist Brian Gascoigne, a longtime devotée of the artist, speaks enviously of those people who have yet to discover Scott Walker's recorded works, and this film will surely seduce a good many viewers into seeking them out.

The 16:9 disc is attractive and features a number of brilliantly animated sequences assembled in illustration of the musical content. The audio is two-channel stereo only. The extras include a director's commentary, a trailer, and bonus interviews (none longer than 5m) with about a dozen people, including Walker's former manager Ed Bicknell, who admits to loaning Scott more money than he ever made from representing him, and that he'd do it all again in a heartbeat. "It's great music to fuck to," he grins -- and, when he says that, something clicks and we realize that this unclassifiable music and funk have something essential in common, after all.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Barbara Steele is Rising from the Grave Again

Good news in today's mail box from David Gregory of Severin Films:

ORIGINAL NEGATIVE OF BARBARA STEELE CLASSIC "NIGHTMARE CASTLE" (aka "THE FACELESS MONSTER") UNEARTHED IN ROME

Gothic horror fans will be delighted to know that Severin Films will be giving the first official DVD release to the 1965 Barbara Steele chiller NIGHTMARE CASTLE/THE FACELESS MONSTER (original title: Amanti d’oltretomba, or "Lovers Beyond The Tomb"). The original negative has recently been discovered in a Rome storage vault and apparently in good condition. We will be doing a new HD transfer in its original aspect ratio, so all those super cheap bootleg DVDs taken from 10th generation TV prints can now be discarded forever. The film was directed by Mario Caiano, a veteran of all the great Italian exploitation genres including Spaghetti Westerns (MMY NAME IS SHANGHAI JOE/BULLETS DON'T ARGUE), Pepla (ULYSSES AGAINST HERCULES/GOLIATH AND THE REBEL SLAVE) and Poliziatesci (Napoli Spara/Milano Violenta). Caiano is still very much with us, and we recently shot a great interview with the 75 year old master at his home just outside of Rome. NIGHTMARE CASTLEe also showcases the very first horror score by the legendary Ennio Morricone, and the beautiful black & white cinematography comes courtesy of Enzo Barboni, who would later strike gold as the director of the 'Trinity' westerns starring Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. We’re very excited to be releasing this uncut, uncensored and unsung hit of Italian horror history, which after years of bootleg abominations will now find its rightful place alongside the other Barbara Steele classics like Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY and Margheriti’s CASTLE OF BLOOD. This is NIGHTMARE CASTLE as it truly has never been seen before.

I'm quite excited about this pending release, which for the record also stars fan favorites Helga Liné and Paul Müller, but its presentation begs some comment. First of all, that MONSTERS AT PLAY quote -- it's not only an unwarranted shot at the Maestro, it's ungrammatical.

More importantly, I think Severin is doing this important release an inadvertent disservice by referring to any restored and uncut version with runamuck titles like NIGHTMARE CASTLE and THE FACELESS MONSTER. NIGHTMARE CASTLE was the abortive US cut of Caiano's film, which was bluntly shortened by a couple of reels; it was the worst, most incoherent importation of any Italian horror film EVER -- so bad, in fact, it ought to be preserved alongside the original cut for posterity's sake. As for THE FACELESS MONSTER, it was the title given to a more complete but still censored version issued in the UK. Retromedia Entertainment attached it to their release of the uncut version, which would have been nice if they hadn't tampered with the audio track, adding new sound effects. So any way you look at them, NIGHTMARE CASTLE and THE FACELESS MONSTER are bad memories.
The uncut export edition of this movie is known as NIGHT OF THE DOOMED, and as a fan who not only remembers but loves this stuff (the audience Severin is courting), my gut reaction is to view any copy bearing the title NIGHTMARE CASTLE with a measure of suspicion. I'm sure it's not warranted in this case, but the people handling these releases need to be sensitive about such things. Nevertheless, I wish Severin Films all the best with what promises to be an exciting new release.
A photo from the film which Barbara inscribed to our late friend Alan Upchurch.
The uncut version, whether you call it Amanti d'oltretomba or NIGHT OF THE DOOMED, is an important title from the Italian Golden Age pantheon, and one of Barbara Steele's best star vehicles. Not a notch on BLACK SUNDAY, of course, but it is significant as the only horror film for which Steele dubbed her own performance (one of her dual roles) -- and the news about the discovery of the original negative element is wonderful. Just to know that people over there are looking for such things is wonderful.

Now where is THE TERROR OF DR. HICHCOCK?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Catching Up with GLIMPSES

Encouraged by my friend David J. Schow (thanks, Dave!), I just read GLIMPSES by Lewis Shiner, a fantasy novel published in 1993.

It's the powerfully imagined story of a stereo repairman and music lover who discovers, while dealing with the fall out from his father's suicide, that he has the ability to imprint music that he has imagined onto recording tape. His fascination with lost and unfinished legendary records prompts him to mentally create a non-existent track from The Beatles' GET BACK sessions, a version of "The Long and Winding Road" played by all four members without Phil Spector's symphonics, which is released as a bootleg single. His partner then sets him to work on other legendary unfinished albums that need recreating: The Doors' CELEBRATION OF THE LIZARD, The Beach Boys' SMILE and Jimi Hendrix's FIRST RAYS OF THE NEW RISING SUN. The chapters in which the protagonist, Ray, "meets" Brian Wilson in 1966 and Jimi Hendrix in 1970 and confides in them that he's a man from the future are actually believable, surprising and incredibly exciting.

This novel remains an absorbing, thoughtful and relevant read, despite the fact that we now live in a world in which FIRST RAYS OF THE RISING SUN and SMILE (as a Brian Wilson solo album) exist -- not to mention LET IT BE - NAKED. The chapters involving Ray's personal life are as believable and captivating as the musical ones, and there's a sex scene so vividly described that it becomes a "you are there" head trip on par with Shriner's imaginings of the classic recording sessions.

My only complaint about the books that the final chapter needed more... or less. As is, it's a paragraph too long; the book's conversational closing lines have no resonance and almost make Ray's closing in on happiness seem an almost unworthy goal. I would still enthusiastically recommend GLIMPSES, particularly to rock fans and fans of my novel THROAT SPROCKETS, which probes some similar venues of obsession -- which, I assume, is the reason why David put it in front of me.

Snooping around online, I found a generous "preview" sampling of GLIMPSES here, and author Lewis Shiner also has a website and a special "Fiction Liberation Front" page where downloadable files of much of his writing have been made freely available.