Tuesday, September 02, 2008

First Look: VIDEO WATCHDOG #144

Our October issue is now at the printer, which means it's time for me to offer Video WatchBlog's monthly advance peek at our next cover and a link to our website's "Coming Soon" page, where you can find a comprehensive list of its contents and contributors and an enlargeable, four-page free preview sample.

I'm very pleased with the way this issue turned out. When Dabbs Greer died last year, I cast my net looking for an unpublished interview to pay proper tribute to this fine character actor, and found one in the hands of our valued occasional contributor, M.J. Simpson. Unfortunately, Mike didn't have any photos to illustrate the interview (which was conducted in 1999), so I had to assign myself to do screen grabs from a wide variety of his work, ranging from movies like IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, THE VAMPIRE and Joe Dante's RUNAWAY DAUGHTERS to his extensive TV appearances in shows like TWILIGHT ZONE, THE OUTER LIMITS, THE WILD WILD WEST and THE RIFLEMAN. It was hard work, but fortunately I had a lot of this material on hand and the piece is now very handsomely adorned. It's a terrific interview that reveals the ubiquitous Mr. Greer as a very savvy fellow whose memory was understandably selective but who had some great stories to share. I wish he was still around to see how well Mike's interview turned out.

Doug Winter is also trying something new in his "Audio Watchdog" column by focusing for the first time on a feature film: Anton Corbijn's Ian Curtis biopic CONTROL -- and he will continue to follow this very interesting vein in our next issue's column, in which he will write about the music of Curtis' seminal post-punk group Joy Division (which became New Order following the suicide of Curtis in 1980). It might be fair to say that Joy Division's music falls outside the scope of fantastic cinema, but it has been a seminal force in terms of the expression of horror, existential dread and anomie within the arts, and has left its mark on film and other areas of the arts other than music. I consider this VW's first step in the direction I outlined in our current issue's editorial, where I talked about wanting VW to go back somewhat to its original roots as a place where our contributors can more deeply explore their current obsessions, and write about films available on video from stances other than "the DVD review."

My own contributions to the issue include my promised full-length reviews of Zulawski's THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE and Dallamano's VENUS IN FURS (both subjects of recent bloggery here), as well as a full-length review of Tinto Brass' THE VOYEUR and my Blu-ray coverage of CLOVERFIELD.

Plus there's Ramsey Campbell on Cecil B. DeMille's SIGN OF THE CROSS, Bill Cooke on the Hammer ICONS OF ADVENTURE set, Kim Newman on SIMON KING OF THE WITCHES, the Umlands on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: RAZOR, John Charles on CHALLENGE OF THE MASTERS with Gordon Liu, more from new contributor Michael Barrett, and (whew!) pretty much something for everybody... so reserve your copy now!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Where I'm At

Sorry for my disappearance over the past week but, as soon as I completed my work on VIDEO WATCHDOG #144, I jumped right into a new screenplay project. It's going really well, with nearly 40 pages written already, so this blog isn't much on my mind at present. I'm just hoping to get a solid first draft together before I have to start on VW #145, two weeks from now!

VIDEO WATCHDOG #143, with the Rodd Dana cover, is now back from the printer... for the second time! The shipment was actually delivered yesterday and, a short time into the mailing process, I discovered that the issues were cut a fraction of an inch too tall to fit into our deluxe VW binders! We immediately halted the mailing (none of these copies were actually sent out) and our printer recollected the entire order, cut every issue down to its intended size, then redelivered half the order last night and the other half this morning. So the mailing of #143 is now back on track, and copies should begin reaching our First Class and Air subscribers sometime next week.

Finally, for those of you who have taken an interest in my Vita Nuova, yes, I'm still vegetarian and still swimming three times per week. I don't see either of these things as a fad, but as facets of a new approach to living. I've lost twenty-odd pounds in the past month and am now wearing a belt I haven't been able to pull around myself in at least eight years -- on the third notch. I'm pretty happy about that, though not exactly satisfied, which seems to me the healthiest outlook to maintain.

Friday, August 22, 2008

SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES reviewed

Real-life couple Andrew Prine and Brenda Scott redefine screen magnetism in the quirky SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES.

SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES
1971, Dark Sky Films, DD-2.0/16:9/LB/+, $14.98, 98m 54s, DVD-1

Despite its scary title and the violent, druggy, sexist, black magic trappings of its original promo campaign, this isn't a horror film at all, nor a particularly exploitative one; it's actually part character study about a homeless, mostly likeable, cigar-smoking practitioner of White Magic who lives in a storm drain and a satire of the myriad cults arising from the ashes of psychedelicized Los Angeles of the early 1970s, informed to some extent by the gnostic legends of Simon Magus.

Andrew Prine stars as the affable Simon, who starts out with little more than his own seemingly insane self-beliefs and a bag of cheap trinkets (including a "Pentagram of Solomon," a likely nod to low-budget producer Joe Solomon), but quickly ascends the power chain of LA, using genuinely caring relationships with naïve streethustler/minion Turk (George Paulsin─picture Peter Noone with a Jack Nicholson grin) and the pill-popping daughter of the district attorney (Cincinnati-born Brenda Scott, looking intensely vulnerable and distracted), to reach effete socialite Hercules Van Sant (Gerald York). Stiffed with a bad check by one of Hercules' party guests, Simon proves his abilities with a death curse and soon has enough cash and clients to buy into some real accessories, like an oval mirror that allows him to venture onto the astral plane like a Dr. Strange of the counter-culture, and set about his ultimate plan to expose the corrupt nature of the city at large, its officials as well as its lawbreakers and flakes.

There's a jokey Black Mass scene featuring Warhol acolyte Ultra Violet, some non-sexualized nudity and one or two nearly bloodless stabbings, and a goat─but it's all fairly mild, eclipsed by the humor of scenes like Simon's solution to Turk's priapic problem. Scripted by Robert Phippeny (THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY), an alleged warlock himself, the film's cleverly etched characters, general air of hedonism, and baroque dialogue ally it with the more personal works of screenwriters Charles B. Griffith and Robert Thom. There's far more talk than action, explaining the unusually long running time, but hit-and-miss as it is, it can't be faulted for not talking straight. Alternately interesting, intelligent, moving, rambling and incoherent but, as one character says, "At least it's different!"

The anamorphic 1.78:1 mono transfer is colorful and well-balanced but with variable sharpness traceable to limitations in the original cinematography. The supplements, overseen by Michael Felsher, interview an affable Andrew Prine (16m 53s) and director Bruce Kessler (11m 58s), adding on a 1m trailer and a 58s radio spot accompanied by a lobby card slide show. The Prine interview makes the editorial mistake of illustrating his reference to a naked "ditz" on an altar in the Ultra Violet sequence with footage of Brenda Scott in a similar situation, inadvertently denigrating his ex-wife and a serious actress. For a backstage peek into the casting of the blonde on the altar, see Roger Ebert's profile of producer Joe Solomon in the classic reference book KINGS OF THE B'S.
8/23/08 Update, 1:06 a.m.:
SIMON supplements director Michael R. Felsher responds...
Glad to see a review of SIMON KING OF THE WITCHES on the site. It’s a great little movie and one that a lot of people have never had the opportunity to see. It’s certainly the best movie ever made about a warlock who lives in a storm drain.

I noticed though your comment about an editorial mistake in SIMON SAYS where Prine refers to a “ditz on a platform” as being mistakenly played under a shot of Brenda Scott from the film which you felt added an unintended backhanded comment about Scott from her former husband.

What was left out of the final featurette due to some audio issues and some fragmented sentences from Mr Prine during the interview were some more direct references to that exact scene in the film where Simon seduces Scott’s character and gets her naked on the platform/slab in his abode. Prine was asked by the interviewer to restate the answer and that’s the take I used in the final featurette, which was more concise but did leave out a few details which were garbled by a microphone squelch in the previous answer. As a result, some of the contextual info surrounding his discussion of this scene was lost. I can assure you he was not referring to Scott personally but her character, and was also not referring also to the later scene(s) with Ultra Violet. I noticed at the time, that this “ditz” reference could be taken somewhat out of context, which is why I chose to use this bit to lead into Prine’s discussion of his fond memories of working with Scott on the picture which I felt would clarify his relationship with her and make it clear that his previous comment had only been about the characters.

If the context of his remarks come across as unclear, it was certainly not intentional in any way, but I stand by my editorial decisions in this piece, and hope that this email puts any confusion to rest.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Loving THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE

For a couple of years now, I have resisted seeing Andrzej Zulawski's THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE [L'important c'est l'aimer, 1975] a second time, because I was afraid that it wouldn't -- couldn't possibly -- live up to my recollection of it. Sometimes the oddest films can seem like masterpieces because you happen to see them under a certain phase of the moon. I can well remember seeing Alan Rudolph's TROUBLE IN MIND for the first time on cable and hugging a pillow more and more tightly to me as the story advanced... and seeing it again, some time later, and wondering what the hell had captivated me so the first time around. But yesterday, the time came to put my feelings about Zulawski's film to the test, and I'm pleased to say that it is the masterpiece my earlier viewing suggested it was. I like Zulawski's work more often than not, but this film I find the most spellbinding of them all, due in no small part to the central performance of Romy Schneider, without whose beauty and gravity at its core I suspect the entire zany, enraptured film might collapse like a house of cards.

She plays a 30-year old B-movie actress fallen on hard times, a once-promising talent whose career has nose-dived into pornography ("NYMPHACULA" is one of the fictional movies she's supposed to have done), drugs, prostitution and a marriage to a deranged admirer that seems more like captivity. A paparazzi (Fabio Testi) tries to score a photo of her, is beaten up for his troubles, but she takes amused pity on him when he persists and promises that he can sell better shots as magazine covers. Thus begins one of the most peculiar and affecting love stories I've ever seen, rooted in Testi's earnest belief that, if he intrudes into this woman's life (as he feels he must), things may end badly, but that if he doesn't, they will certainly end much worse.

The movie's effectiveness boils entirely down to the chemistry between these two. It's mysterious, captivating, utterly convincing and never quite explained. It's not a sexual relationship, though the offer is on the table and the tension is palpable between them, enough to sometimes send her pitiable husband (Jacques Dutronc) out of the room when they are brought back into each other's orbit. My theory about Testi's reticence is that he knows that what this woman needs in her disintegrating life, much more than another lover, is a friend -- and he rises above his own urges, and her own cruel and self-destructive taunting, to provide that.

The trouble with THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE is that, for all of its strange magic to kick in, in order to hear its actual heartbeat, you have to watch it in French. It's the live sound option, the one that was recorded as these performances were given (except for Testi, who is post-synched but effectively so), and this is particularly vital to appreciating Schneider's luminous yet ashen performance -- which she considered to be her own best work, and which won her the very first César Award for Best Actress in 1975. (Schneider died at age 43 in 1982, officially of a heart attack, though she was known to have been inconsolable and increasingly dependent on pills and alcohol following the accidental death of her 14 year-old son the previous year. There are currently two different films about her life in production, a feature and a TV movie, respectively starring Yvonne Catterfield and Jessica Schwarz, both remarkable look-alikes.) Unfortunately, while the French version of Zulawski's film is available on DVD, it comes with no English subtitle option. I've only seen that version shown once on the Sundance Channel, as part of a tribute to the late, great Z Channel -- and I prize my DVD-R of that broadcast. A German import from New Entertainment World also exists called NACHTBLENDE (meaning "Day for Night," oddly enough, a translation of the title of the Christopher Frank novel LA NUIT AMERICAIN on which the film is based), which contains audio options in French, German and English -- but only German subtitles are provided. The English dub is kind of heroic in many respects, but cannot help but occupy a much lower level than the exalted plane of the French version.

I failed to mention that it also stars Klaus Kinski, giving one of his most tortured, incandescent and emotional performances. Reason enough to see any movie, but an "also ran" here.
This German disc is available from Xploited Cinema with a choice of three different clamshell covers, based on the German and Belgian poster art. The Belgian poster cover is priced slightly higher and represents a limited edition of only 999 copies. If interested, I would hurry because Xploited has announced their intention to retire from activity and will not be reordering any discs once their current supply expires. Furthermore, the under-construction website of a new company called Mondo-Vision has announced L'important c'est l'aimer as one of three Zulawski pictures on their roster of upcoming releases, but offers no information about its release date or language/subtitle options.
I'm inclined to promote THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE to my Top Ten; that's how strongly I feel about it. I'm going to watch the French version again before I decide. If the German disc is your only means of seeing the film, go for it. It's unlikely that any other issue is going to outperform it in terms of extras, which include PC exclusives as well as Georges Delerue's haunting soundtrack in its five-track entirety. The track called "Largo" is as close as the Maestro ever came to recapturing the tortured gravitas of his unforgettable tragic theme for Godard's CONTEMPT, which happens to be a key word in the screenplay of this film. My fuller review of THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE will appear in VIDEO WATCHDOG #144, now in production.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Top 10 Lines of Dialogue from Dallamano's VENUS IN FURS

Laura Antonelli strikes a pose for her lover's pleasure -- and agony -- in Massimo Dallamano's VENUS IN FURS (1969).

With frosted sand-colored hair and a cocoa-butter complexion, Laura Antonelli is at her most delectable in Massimo Dallamano's VENUS IN FURS, a contemporary adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's definitive S&M novel. The Velvet Underground captured the spirit of the book better; in Dallamano's hands, it's the Salem cigarette ad-looking story of Severin (Régis Vallée), a perverse would-be philosopher about sexual matters who is happy for reasons buried deep in his childhood only when he's made to feel miserable... up to a point. He meets his match in Wanda (Antonelli), a former stripper and erotic exhibitionist whom he meets at a Spanish resort. Once they discover they're... er, compatible, they marry, move into an Italian villa, enter into a cosplay game of mistress and chauffeur, hire a couple of lesbian maids, and -- this being a product of macho Spain and Italy -- Severin eventually learns the hard way that man was not meant to serve as his woman's bitch. At times it seems more like a writ of bitterness from someone who hasn't quite gotten over a bad divorce, rather than something based on the gospel of whips and leather. It's not great, but there are various delights to be found here, including Gian Franco Reverberi's infectious Eurotrash score (it sounds like the sitarist was imported from the VAMPYROS LESBOS sessions), a classic beauty in its prime, and scads of the most deliriously quotable dialogue you've ever heard. To wit:

1. "If deep pleasure is born most of all from suffering, then this is the woman of whom I've always dreamed!"

2. "It's very difficult to act like a prostitute when one is in love."

3. "You're all the same, you men! When you love a woman, you want to lock her up in the most secret cell of the Pyramid of Chaos."

4. "Women are always forbidden the most amusing things."

5. "Wanda, will you marry me?" "Yes, yes, I will marry you, because I want to betray you, bring you to desperation! I will make you unhappy, you'll see!"

6. "Such happiness as this... almost makes me unhappy."

7. "Sometimes women are whores uselessly, and the vulgar side of this is its uselessness."

8. "You're too beautiful to belong to just one man." (Did I hear an "amen" in the house?)

9. "All I can say is, after two months, you've become like any other husband!"

10. "I must resign myself to being normal."

Need I say more? VENUS IN FURS is available from Xploited Cinema in two different editions: the preferable 16:9 Shameless Screen Entertainment PAL Region 0 import for $24.95 (82m 3s -- trimmed of roughly 55s of a red-tinted scene by the BBFC), and the fullscreen IVC's Japanese NTSC Region 2 import (83m 26s, unmatted fullscreen and reportedly uncut, but if so from the wrong projection speed, with one instance of optical fogging) for $39.95. The material missing from the Shameless disc has been posted on the label's website for free viewing by those claiming to be 18 years of age or older, and involves an extension of a non-explicit rape scene in which the violation becomes pleasurable to the victim. (The tinting on the scene emphasizes that it's a fantasy of Severin's, rather than something that actually happens, making the cut seem particularly gratuitous and ill-considered.) The Shameless disc includes a widescreen trailer featuring alternative takes and shots, some including nudity, not found in the feature version itself.

Kihachiro Kawamoto Films Reviewed

Here's a link to my review of stop-motion animator Kihachiro Kawamoto's feature THE BOOK OF THE DEAD and the short film collection THE EXQUISITE FILMS OF KIHACHIRO KAWAMOTO (both released by KimStim/Kino on Video), as published in the new September 2008 issue of SIGHT & SOUND.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

First Look: VIDEO WATCHDOG #143

It's now at the printer! That's Rodd Dana as Marcellus in CLEOPATRA on our front cover, as classically rendered by the ever-talented Charlie Largent. For more details and samples of this fabulous issue yet to come, check the "Coming Soon" page of our website.

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.