Tuesday, November 01, 2005
Folks, I am beginning to think this isn't a scope movie. The evidence against certainly beats the evidence for -- which appears to be none.
Thinking back, I believe all the assumptions that this was a scope movie (certainly including my own) were rooted in the terrible cropping of the original AIP-TV 16mm prints, which looked like your usual straight-down-the-middle, scope-cropping, with all the names in the opening credits being shorn in half. Well, now I'm thinking that the movie may well have been 1.85:1, which is technically widescreen though not anamorphic, and subject to pan&scan when adapted to television.
Which means I've got to pull out my ancient standard ratio copy and look at this thing again.
Beginning with a visit from Darth Vader, a hooded executioner and Herman Munster, the evening continued with visits from the usual Freddy Kruegers, purple-haired princesses, pointy-hatted witches and flour-faced undead. Our next-door neighbors ran out of candy early and came over to visit us with their four month-old baby, who was dressed as a red chili pepper. Not too many of the houses on our street were participating, and we noticed some parents helping their little ghouls and goblins reach illuminated houses by literally driving them door to door. A fire truck drove down our street, piloted by someone wearing a long white wig and a Viking helmet. Other than that, there wasn't much in the way of passing cars, and we saw a few cats wandering around the street, silhouetted by the backlight of street lamps. I took a little bowl of dry food out to the sidewalk to nourish an apple-headed Siamese that came close to our house, but it snubbed the friendly offering and went off in search of juicier findings. One straggling Halloweener came to our porch sans makeup of any sort and said, "Would you like to know what I am?" Yes, we would. "An escaped mental patient from a state hospital." Naturally, we filled the young man's bare hands with candy, for no other reason than to reward his candor. The usual number of adult trick-or-treaters turned up, some of them carrying a second bag ("This is for my baby"), but we figure that they're out there working for it, so why not? At least they're not carrying protest signs declaring that Halloween is Satanic.
We had a fun time -- that is, until we realized that we had locked ourselves out of the house without our keys! To make a long story short, we had to stop passing out candy for a short time while we tried to gain entrance to our impassible fortress. While my neighbor and I were fetching another neighbor's ladder to help us reach our only open window -- my office on the second floor -- Donna tried to reach a rear window unattended and fell off a patio table onto our back porch, straining a muscle in her leg. (She's limping about today in some pain, silly thing, but is mostly determined to stay in one place where she can keep it iced and elevated.) I climbed the ladder myself, but I was neither comfortable with the height or successful at forcing the screen up, so our neighbor heroically volunteered and managed this with comparative ease. After he came down and unlocked our front door, we all sat around on the porch having drinks and conversation till some time after Halloween was officially over, while their baby contentedly dozed. It was a worrisome Halloween for awhile, but one I'm sure we'll be reminiscing about for years to come.
Oh, yes: CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD was finally broadcast early this morning on TCM at 3:30 a.m. National Film Museum Incorporated logo, rephotographed main titles, the Markovic boys prominently credited, the director's name misspelled (there is only one "f" in "Warren Kieffer"). Any name that was cut in half by the pan&scanned AIP-TV prints was not included/recreated, so there was no credit for assistant director Michael Reeves. The movie was letterboxed, or should I say matted to appear letterboxed. I haven't compared it to the standard ratio cropping but it didn't strike me as looking conspicuously worse than usual -- I've seen some very poor copies of this over the years, dupey dubs, overscanned broadcasts with heavy commercial interruptions, miserable public access transmissions, you name it. Some of the long shots might have actually convinced me that the film was properly letterboxed, but the framing of the closeups and especially the medium shots (which always cropped half of one actor when three actors stood side-by-side) provided all the evidence one could need that Aldo Tonti's compositions were being... what's the term? monkeyed-with.
I think this is a very good movie -- it's certainly better than THE SHE BEAST, Reeves' official first movie as director -- and a proper presentation of this title is probably my Number 1 priority as a fan of the golden age of Italian fantasy. Are there any European WatchBlog readers out there who possess a properly letterboxed copy of this movie in French? Italian? Lithuanian? Any help/leads would be much appreciated.
CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD was preceded on TCM by Antonio Margheriti's HORROR CASTLE. I was watching something else, Jess Franco's LAS FLORES DE LA PASION (2003), which I paused long enough to check out the broadcast quality of this fine gothic giallo. It was letterboxed and looked... okay, but I noticed something queer about the color, which seemed to limn Rossana Podestà's nightgown with magenta on the left and lime green on the right, an anomaly I'd never seen before. Did anyone out there see this from the beginning? Did it carry the original HORROR CASTLE titles, or were they recreated à la the National Film Museum?
PS 5:12 p.m.: Joe Dante has written to inform me that HORROR CASTLE's main titles were not just recreated "à la the National Film Museum" but were in fact the work of the National Film Museum. At least it was a meticulous recreation -- in the sense that it didn't bother to correct the Italian misspelling of 'Cristopher' Lee's original screen credit. I believe this film is still copyright protected as THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG (it's available on DVD from Media Blasters), so it would seem that copyright issues were skirted here by resurrecting its orphaned US theatrical release title. It would be interesting to know also if any changes were made to the film's soundtrack in the interests of "authorship."
Monday, October 31, 2005
A surgeon needs another hand to wipe his brow
He was here not long ago
To fetch the whip I keep on show
Oh, where is my little Fritz now?
He's my best friend in darkest night and pouring rains
He cuts down bodies and retrieves abnormal brains
I miss the slumpy way he walks
I miss the way he tugs his socks
Oh, where is my little Fritz now?
He comes in handy when it's time to sweep the porch
His match is always ready for my torch
Yes, he has his faults, it's true
But deprived, I feel so blue!
Oh, where is my little Fritz now?
To be without you feels so odd!
Without you - I'm just a sentimental clod
Who knows just - what it feels like to be God!
I'm talking to myself! It's just the pits
I guess there is no life...
Mit-out mein kleine Fritz.
I think I heard a sudden sound from down below!
Could that have been my Fritzie screaming "No!"?
I may just sit right down and cry
The Monster's hung him up to dry...
Oh, where is my little Fritz now?
The above is one of about fifteen poems or songs I wrote for Monster Rally, an unpublished collection of "classic monster" verse that Charlie Largent and I were developing together a couple of years ago. The verse was mine, and the illustrations were to be Charlie's. He did some marvelous preliminary sketches but, as I recall, we both got side-tracked by paying work... and we had also been a little disillusioned by the way nothing much happened with our previous attempt at a children's book, Where Did My E-Mail Go?. My former agent wasn't interested in handling children's books, I suppose my publisher wasn't interested in confusing readers who thought of me as a writer of dark adult fiction, and the manuscript and full color art samples we sent out had a curious tendency to get misplaced and forgotten. Sometimes you have a perfectly fine project but it's not the right time for it, so you move on, hoping that the right time will come eventually.
Monster Rally isn't really a children's book so much as a collection of sophisticated light verse for classic horror aficionados. It's fun, it's smart; I think it's good. Perhaps we'll publish it ourselves someday. Or perhaps someone out there knows of a proper home for it. Whatever its ultimate fate, I thought I would share "Dr. Frankenstein's Lament" with all of you as a little Halloween treat. (On second thought, maybe I should have held back this particular example till Valentine's Day!) Anyway, you deserve it -- if only for good attendance. In the hour before I posted this, Video WatchBlog counted its 13,000th visitor and its 20,000th page visit! And we're just starting our fourth week.
Donna joins me, and the rest of the VW Kennel, in wishing all of you a very Happy (and Safe) Halloween!
Sunday, October 30, 2005
PHANTASM director Don Coscarelli's "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road," based on a Joe Lansdale story I'd never read before, struck me as a road I've been down several times before. A road accident strands a young woman (Bree Turner) in the woods where she is terrorized and captured by an unexplained subhuman armed with curiously advanced sword-and-sorcery-style cutlery, whose hobby appears to be the manufacture of formerly live scarecrows and whose violent actions are offset by a cute little "shushing" schtick. Our spunky and resourceful heroine is chained up and threatened with a drill press (used to hollow the eyes of the scarecrows-to-be) while another prisoner (Coscarelli dependable Angus Scrimm), driven insane, prattles on, ratcheting up the tension Hooper-style.
What's interesting about the episode is its inventive structure, as the story alternates between the woman's present ordeal, and the arc of a past love story with a survivalist boyfriend, who turned out to be a monster but whose schooling of her in the arts of self-defense prepared her for this ultimate test. The boyfriend is played by Ethan Embry (whom we fondly remember as T. B. Player in Tom Hanks' THAT THING YOU DO!), who gives the episode its outstanding performance and an element of horror that's earned through craft rather than cliché. Alas, it's these interesting qualities which are most sublimated, while the rest (like a showy shot of the "monster" leaping over a road barrier framed by an enormous full moon to become a kind of living Iron Maiden album cover) targets the head-banging, Rue Morgue crowd. This isn't the kind of horror that interests me anymore, and it's a kind that never interested me particularly. Horror rooted in fear of death and mutilation doesn't stick to the ribs, or the brain, the way horror based on the mystery of life and death can do, at least in my humble view. I readily concede that the numbers aren't on my side here, so occasional forays into this kind of horror are probably just good business from the producers' points of view.
Nevertheless, the title of this program leads us, rightly or wrongly, to expect demonstrations of mastery in this art form. The mastery implied should refer to what's going on here, rather than what these directors and writers have acheived in the past. The debut episode of MOH did nothing to excite my imagination, but I was certainly hooked by the previews for next week's show. The trailer for Stuart Gordon's take on H.P. Lovecraft's "Dreams in the Witch House" (my favorite Lovecraft story) is indicative of an hour that will likely aim a good deal higher. The preview was rich in stylized and quirky imagery, and the glimpses of Brown Jenkin packed a double frisson of chills and laughs, which portends that the director of RE-ANIMATOR may be back to, or near, peak form.
Check Showtime's schedule for airings of "Horror Feast," a 15-minute restaurant round table featuring Joe Dante, Stuart Gordon, John Landis and MASTERS OF HORROR producer/creator Mick Garris, where they compare notes on the celluloid that scares (and amuses) them. Everything from THE BLACK CAT to FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER to AUDITION and IRREVERSIBLE gets mentioned, which is kind of reassuring.
PS: Some of you have noticed there was no blog yesterday, but hey, I gave you two blogs on Friday. My original idea was to post something here daily, but I think it may be best to take the occasional unannounced day off rather than risk burning out. Even God took a day off, right? : )
Friday, October 28, 2005
On newsstands now are the current issues of Sight and Sound (which contains my "No Zone" column review of the DICK CAVETT SHOW - ROCK ICONS box set) and, of course, Video Watchdog #122, to which I contributed a thing or two.
Due to arrive on newsstands soon is the latest issue of a magazine I thought I'd never write for again, CFQ (Cinefantastique). I was recently approached by CFQ's outgoing editor, Dave Williams, who invited me to participate in their 35th anniversary issue -- his last as editor -- by writing a 500-750 word memoir of my past history with the magazine and its founding publisher/editor, Frederick S. Clarke. I agreed to do this, but warned Dave that it would be impossible to summarize those twelve years in so few words. Dave kindly offered me a slight extension, but as I set to work on the piece -- drawing from 10 years of preserved correspondence with Fred, including his "post mortem" reports on every issue produced during that period -- I found myself writing, with Fred's posthumous help, a veritable pocket history of the magazine's development during its first decade. On the day of my deadline, I turned in two separate drafts of my article -- one was only twice as long as Dave wanted, and the other was close to 10,000 words in length. Both were titled "Citizen Clarke," but each contained exclusive material. As I understand it, the shorter of the two versions is the one featured in CFQ's new 35th Anniversary issue (which I haven't yet seen), but the longer version may turn up on CFQ's website. I haven't received confirmation of this yet from Dave, but whether it does or doesn't, I may well offer the "400 lb. gorilla" version as a free bonus feature on the Video Watchdog website in the near future. I will keep you posted.
Literally as soon as I had turned this article in, I received an e-mail from Douglas Milton, the editor of the Anthony Burgess Foundation newsletter The End of the World News, informing me that his next issue had been caught short by an article that failed to materialize and asking if I could dash off something -- 500 to 750 words, perhaps? -- to help fill the breach. (Why was Mr. Milton making such a bizarre request of the editor of Video Watchdog? Well, back in 1981, just before home video stole away all the time I formerly spent reading, I published an essay about Burgess's novels in Purdue University's literary magazine Modern Fiction Studies, which was subsequently included in a hardcover collection of "best Burgess essays" compiled by the estimable Harold Bloom. This remains my sole foray into literary criticism/analysis, but it was enough to establish me as a Burgess scholar.) Anyway, I agreed to lend a hand and, once again, ended up turning in something much longer than was requested. Online publishing being flexible about such things, I'm told my second Burgess article will appear online here sometime next week. It's an account of my brief correspondence with the author of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and many other important novels of comic irony (I particularly recommend ENDERBY, MF and EARTHLY POWERS), and touches on some of my own early attempts at novel-writing. Burgess's letters to me are quoted in full and will appear in print there for the first time.
In bookstores, you can find my chapter on FANTOMAS (the classic 1911 novel by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain) in HORROR: ANOTHER 100 BEST BOOKS, edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman. I was very pleased and flattered to be asked to contribute to this long-awaited follow-up to Steve and Kim's HORROR: 100 BEST BOOKS (1988), but the greatest pleasure was discovering that it also includes an essay about my own novel THROAT SPROCKETS (1994), written by the award-winning novelist Tananarive Due. It's delirious to see one's own work discussed in the company of Conan Doyle's THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, Leroux's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and Camus' THE STRANGER, and it's my hope that the attention paid to THROAT SPROCKETS will inspire some publisher or other to bring it back into print. Speaking of the talented Tananarive Due, she is scheduled to appear on CNN on Sunday morning, between 9:00 and 10:00 a.m., to promote her latest novel JOPLIN'S GHOST, so set your timers and TiVos. It's very rare these days for a novelist to receive air time, unless they die or kill somebody, so support literary television by tuning in.
In video stores is Subversive Cinema's DVD of Jack Cardiff's THE FREAKMAKER (aka THE MUTATIONS), for which I wrote the liner notes. I saw the film theatrically back in 1974 and can attest it has never looked better than it does on this disc.
Imminently due is Digitmovies' second release in their "Mario Bava Soundtrack Anthology" series, and this one is the disc all Italian horror music fans have been waiting for: Carlo Rustichelli's music for THE WHIP AND THE BODY aka WHAT [La frusta e il corpo, 1963] and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE [Sei donne per l'assassino, 1964]! Neither of these scores has been previously issued, though incredibly rare 45 rpm singles were released for each title at the original time of release. Best news of all, the BLOOD AND BLACK LACE tracks will be heard on this disc for the first time in full stereo! Several of my favorite tracks on this disc also qualify as soundtrack cues from Bava's KILL, BABY... KILL! [Operazione paura, 1966], a film that was entirely scored with library music. I wrote the liner notes for this release and also contributed a never-before-published interview with Maestro Rustichelli, which was conducted on my behalf and translated by my friend, Daniela Catelli (Italy's leading authority on the films of William Friedkin). We will be selling this CD through the Video Watchdog website, and I'll make an announcement here once it's in stock.
And now I must stop blogging and buckle down to write the liner notes for Digitmovies' third "Mario Bava Soundtrack Anthology" release, which will collect Stelvio Cipriani's music for TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE aka BAY OF BLOOD [Ecologia del delitto, 1971], BARON BLOOD (1972) and RABID DOGS [Cani arrabbiati, 1975]!
The Game Show Network "Horror Stars Marathon," as I understand it, will be in play all weekend -- from tonight through Sunday -- but only in the one-hour vintage programming slot between 3:00 - 4:00 a.m. eastern time. The commercials actually suggest it's running all weekend long, but my Dish Network program menu shows "Paid Programming" kicking back in at 4:00 a.m. and the usual run of game shows (including those without celebrity guests like JEOPARDY! and LOVE CONNECTION) scheduled throughout the day. Newly augmented commercials show clips of Anthony Perkins on PASSWORD and Janet Leigh on WHAT'S MY LINE?. I'm still hoping against hope that GSN's programmers pull that Zacherley show off the shelf. I remember that Joey Bishop was the guest panelist on that program, so if they start running a show with him on the dais, get those VCRs/DVD-Rs recording.
Thursday, October 27, 2005
COME TO OUR HOLYWEEN PARTY
Just as I believe it's important to keep Church and State separated, I can't help feeling that any church indulging in "Holyween" activities is simply not to be trusted.
Correction: It happens at midnight tonight.
If it makes you feel any better, I also tuned in (late) last night and saw a lanky model waving a flag around as a bunch of race cars darted up and down a track. When I decided that George Romero wasn't likely to turn up behind the wheel of one of those vehicles, I turned off the TV and went back to reading Andrew Biskind's The Real Life of Anthony Burgess.
EUREKA: Last night, while peddling furiously on my exer-cycle and listening to Television's Marquee Moon, the idea for a novel, coming from the opposite direction, peddled straight into my head. (I mention the album only to plug one of the greatest under-the-general-radar albums ever recorded, not because it offers any particular clues to the subject matter.) It's not another horror novel, certainly not another vampire novel, but rather the sort of literary idea that could really only work as a book. Ideas for books that aren't halfway houses to ideas for films or some other visual media are as rare as angel's hair, and one is privileged (maybe cursed) to receive them. The idea is for me to write a new short chapter for this book each day, blog fashion, and see how the material stacks up. My goal is a short comic novel -- kind of a return to the Kafkaesque territory of my still-unpublished second novel The Only Criminal -- that's meant to be read in short sips, much as it was written. I may tire of this idea within a week, or who knows, it could turn out to be something good.
HURRAH: Last night, Donna finally succeeded in completing the three-month task of compiling the index to Mario Bava - All the Colors of the Dark!
This is such a relief to us both, you can't imagine. Every evening, for the past three months, she's been calling my office from the room next door and asking me things like "Is it Ercole e la regina di Lidia or Ercole e la reina di Lidia?"... "Is it Roy Colt e Winchester Jack or Roy Colt & Winchester Jack?"... "Is it 5 Bambole per la luna d'agosto or 5 bambole per la luna d'Agosto, or Cinque bambole per la luna d'Agosto... and in English, is it 5 Dolls for an August Moon or Five Dolls for an August Moon... and was it 1969 or 1970?" And then there are the questions about Italian spellings -- "Is it Dino De Laurentiis or Dino de Laurentiis?" etc.
Because I finished writing this book nearly two years ago, not all of these answers have been poised on the tip of my tongue. So Donna's sudden questions were often my cue to drop whatever I might be doing and look up the answers, before she could move on to the next conundrum -- usually just one paragraph further on. This book has been proofread by several different film historians, but in a book this size and this comprehensive, there are all sorts of invisible inconsistencies that only come to light when compiling an index. It's been hell, but the book has been made stronger by the effort. Neither of us want to go through anything like this ever again, so don't ask me which director I'm going to write about next.
Some of the printers who are courting us for this job are sending us some samples of their work, along with dummy blank books that will show us exactly the size and weight and dimensions of the Bava book. One of the companies still within our price range is an Italian printer that is responsible for all the great Taschen books, including the recent Stanley Kubrick Archives monster -- it would be great to work with them, not least of all because they are in Italy and could make it easier for us to get copies of the book to Bava's family members and some of my research associates. But of course, there are more considerations involved than just that.
UH-OH: It's getting to be "that time" again. Next week we must take another break from this process to assemble Video Watchdog #123, which should only take two weeks if all goes according to plan. (That means it's my cue, this week, to start brain-birthing as many reviews for the next issue as I possibly can.) Then it's back to work on Bava book, with Donna designing the layouts for the front matter and final appendices. We expect to get through with all this before the holidays, barring any computer crashes or unforeseen photo file problems. We don't expect the job will reach the printer we ultimately choose until sometime in January, and then it will take them however long it takes to produce the books and deliver them to our door. So our best guess for the book's arrival is Spring 2006... but it could be earlier.
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
This weekend, The Game Show Network will celebrate Halloween with a special late night retrospective of horror and thriller star celebrities' appearances on vintage game shows, notably appearances by Vincent Price and Alfred Hitchcock on WHAT'S MY LINE? (My fingers are crossed that they might also show John Zacherle's WML appearance, which caught me unawares when it played some years ago in the dead of night.) I can't find any details about the special programming on GSN's website (thanks a lot) but the promo I saw last night suggested it would be running all weekend long in their "Late Night Black & White" slot, which should begin on Friday morning at 3:00 a.m. eastern. I will amend this posting later should I find out more.
And lastly, don't forget that Friday also marks the debut of Showtime's new horror anthology series MASTERS OF HORROR, at 10:00 p.m. eastern. The first episode, "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road," adapted from a short story by Joe Lansdale, was scripted and directed by Don Coscarelli (PHANTASM). It will be repeating all weekend long in the same time slot. You can find more information about the series and program here.
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
Being American, I didn't grow up listening to John Peel of course, but I've been able to collect a number of his broadcasts from different eras and have the greatest respect for what he achieved. Music needs an outlet where it can be judged on its integrity or quality, free of commercial considerations, and Peel gave it this, just as he brought young bands of promise to wider exposure. Nowadays, more than ever, young people need short cuts to what is good and dependable barometers like Peel are harder than ever to come by. Knowing the difference Peel had made in countless careers by virtue of a good and incorruptible ear, I felt terribly moved when I saw, on a broadband video, his coffin being raised and carried out of his memorial service as The Undertones' "Teenage Kicks" (his favorite song, and one of mine) was played. And now I can't hear Feargal Sharkey's raspy voice without getting a big lump in my throat. (BTW, if you love rock or pop music and don't own a copy of The Very Best of The Undertones, it's money bloody well spent.) The great concern that is raised by the passing of a giant like Peel is "Who will carry the torch for him now?" -- or does the privilege and position that he carved out for himself vanish along with him? I don't know what the BBC has been doing to fill his void, if anything, but I hope someone there can come to fill his void eventually... it's not a mantle to be earned overnight.
Vincent Price's death touched me even more directly because we had been in communication in the months just prior to it. Because I had written an essay called "The Importance of Being Vincent" for the 11th issue of Video Watchdog, which Vincent had liked, I was invited to participate in a 1993 segment of A&E's BIOGRAPHY that was being dedicated to his life and career -- as was my friend and colleague David Del Valle, in whose apartment we taped our on-camera interviews. Vincent, who had sent a very sweet handwritten acknowledgement of our special issue dedicated to his career, got to see the program before it was aired and sent me another personal thank you note on a card adorned with a water color of a manatee. As it happens, he passed away just a few days before the program aired -- making those of us who were involved all the more grateful he had seen it early. The program received some criticism for focusing solely on Price's horror career, notably from Price's biographer (and my chum) Lucy Chase Williams, but the show had been designed with a Halloween week broadcast date in mind. At any rate, it was eventually withdrawn from broadcast (because some clips had not been properly licensed, as I understand it) and replaced with a more all-encompassing career overview featuring Lucy and others. I like both shows and don't think one is particularly better than the other, but I do think the one David and I did together is more fun... plus it gave us boasting rights to say that we had co-starred in something with Diana Rigg, Roddy McDowall, Joanna Gleason (who told some wonderful stories), John Waters, Joan Rivers, and of course, Vincent. I'm sorry there's no way for people to see it anymore.
It's never a pleasure to eulogize people, but there is satisfaction in encapsulating the life of someone you admire, respect or love in a way that you feel captures their arc and essence. I've asked myself why this is so, and I think it has something to do with appreciating when we are privileged to see someone else's life whole, as it were. After all, books and movies have spoiled us into thinking that we're entitled to proper endings, whether they are happy or tragic or merely sad or non-committal. In fact, we have no birthright to proper endings. We may well exit this world without knowing how our own stories end -- or those of our significant others, should we predecease them. And therein lies the satisfaction and reassurance of a well-turned eulogy: it's evidence that a life well-lived can have the power and impact and design of art. And where there is Art, there is usually an Artist.
Both of these gentlemen led such lives, and ours were made all the richer by their endeavor.
Monday, October 24, 2005
I'm experiencing one right now after having viewed the three films that make up Tobis/UFA Home Entertainment's "limited edition" German import KARL MAY DVD COLLECTION I: Harald Reinl's DER SCHATZ IM SILBERSEE (aka THE TREASURE OF SILVER LAKE, 1962), Harald Phillip's WINNETOU UND DAS HALBBLUT APANATSCHI (aka HALF-BREED, 1966) and Alfred Vohrer's WINNETOU UND SEIN FREUND OLD FIREHAND (aka WINNETOU: THUNDER AT THE BORDER, 1966).
These films came about when 11 year-old Mattias Wendlandt -- an ardent reader of the 70-odd Western novels written by the popular German writer Karl May (pronounced "My"), who lived from 1842 to 1912) -- suggested to his father, Rialto Film producer Horst Wendlandt, that a series of May films might prove just as popular as his Edgar Wallace krimis. Indeed, they were an immediate hit with the release of DER SCHATZ IM SILBERSEE, starring Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand and Pierre Brice (MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN) as his Apache friend, Winnetou. The series continued through 1968 and, if you include the three movies based on Karl May's "Orient Travels," exceed a dozen films. The notion of a French actor playing an Apache may seem strange, but Brice gives a superb and non-stereotypical portrayal that he later revived on German television in the 1980s and again as recently as 1998.
The first KARL MAY DVD COLLECTION (there are presently three available, with more due later this year) is a scattershot assortment; it begins at the beginning, but then checker-jumps through the years to offer a representative sampling of the series as a whole. I had seen some of the Karl May films previously on Encore's Western Channel, where they are always pan&scanned and, needless to say, dubbed in English. (If you have the Western Channel, I recommend that you record RAMPAGE AT APACHE WELLS [DER ÖLPRINZ, 1965] the next time it gallops through, because the presentation of this title in KARL MAY DVD COLLECTION II doesn't include an English dub track.)
I was initially interested in these movies because they often feature talent carried over from the Edgar Wallace movies (Eddi Arent plays an eccentric butterfly collector in DER SCHATZ IM SILBERSEE) , and because it was the success of these films that enabled Sergio Leone's Italian Westerns to get made. You can certainly see evidence of the Leone Westerns coming back home to roost in the last of the COLLECTION I films, but the first two are remarkably pure -- they are like classic American Westerns, but like the Leone films, they seem an idealized, rarified dream of life in the Old West. Barker and Brice are fabulous and have faces that wouldn't look out of place carved into the side of Mount Rushmore. Old Shatterhand is like Superman without the super powers, and the Indian (Native American) tribes are depicted only with respect and reverence. I was particularly impressed with Götz George, the romantic lead of the first two films, who is not only a likeable actor but an expert horseman and formidable stunt man. His love interest in DER SCHATZ IM SILBERSEE is played by future Bond girl (and Mrs. Harald Reinl) Karin Dor. Here they are, pictured together, in one of their third act difficulties:
Note the importance in all of these screen grabs of the full breadth of the original widescreen photography. These films are packed with action but their abiding appreciation for the miracle of nature and the majesty of Western landscapes (actually shot in a Yugoslavian national park) is the true hallmark of the series, made all the more captivating by Martin Böttcher's dreamy orchestral music. (They may be unlike the grittier Leone films but clearly influenced them.) It is the beauty and simplicity of these films that make them such a happy refuge, and they have been given extraordinary new life with digitally enhanced, Technicolor-rich hues.
What this set proved to me is that the Karl May Westerns are not just hampered but ruined when they are shown in any other way but in German and in their original aspect ratio. The German language tracks restore their soul, their sincerity. I was never completely won over by the Western Channel showings (where I noticed William "Blacula" Marshall dubbing one of the Indians in THE TREASURE OF SILVER LAKE), but to see these films in German, with English subtitles, and in 5.1 sound is intoxicating.
Now I'm hooked, and I want to see them all. I was even moved to check out some Karl May websites, where I learned that this author (whose sales in Germany were second only to the Bible) has only recently begun to be adequately translated into English. One publishing house specializing in new Karl May translations can be found here. There are also some downloadable texts of a few early, abridged May translations on the Internet, which you can find here.
Of the three titles in Volume 1, only the last -- WINNETOU UND SEIN FREUND OLD FIREHAND (featuring Rod Cameron as the raccoon-hatted Old Firehand) -- fails to offer an English track, but the story is easy enough to follow in the hands of Alfred Vohrer, the greatest of all the Edgar Wallace directors and one of the most visually impressive German directors of the 1960s. Even without dialogue I could follow, this movie proved to me that Vohrer wasn't just a krimi director; he had something to offer other genres as well.
The first three KARL MAY DVD COLLECTIONs are available domestically as a Region 2 import from Xploited Cinema, priced at $49.95 each.
Sunday, October 23, 2005
Thirty years ago today -- October 23, 1975 -- Barboura Morris died at the age of 43. She had celebrated her birthday the day before... I imagine poorly, because the IMDb specifies her cause of death as a "stroke and complications from cancer."
All that I really know about Barboura Morris is that she was a comely supporting presence in many Roger Corman films through the 1950s and 1960s, and that she was married to Monte Hellman for awhile. Her best acting showcases were probably in SORORITY GIRL (1957) and A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959, pictured above). In the former, she plays the sane foil to Susan Cabot's psychotic college girl, and in the latter she plays Carla, the mellow beatnik girl who congratulates Walter Paisley's (Dick Miller's) sculpting "success" with a kiss and unexpectely wins his twisted heart. She also has a memorable, non-glamorous supporting role in THE TRIP (1967) as the lady in hair-curlers who has a surprisingly poignant encounter with Peter Fonda's tripping protagonist in a laundromat.
Corman first met Barboura as a fellow student in Jeff Corey's acting class, and I get the sense from the sheer unimportance of some of her roles that Corman would give her little parts, when she wasn't otherwise working, as a personal favor, to lift her spirits and keep her in front of the camera. You can see her in a pelt, poking around the rocky hillsides in TEENAGE CAVEMAN (1958); pulling her tricycle-peddling toddler out of the way of Peter Fonda's motorcycle in the pre-credits sequence of THE WILD ANGELS (1966); and as one of the frightened people of Arkham in the Corman-produced H.P. Lovecraft adaptation THE DUNWICH HORROR (1970). The IMDb lists only 15 screen credits for her, and a lot of them are precisely this sort of thankless, often unbilled stuff. I'm aware of at least one other role that isn't reported there: she appears in the closing minutes of DE SADE (1969) where she appears, again uncredited, as a nun, obviously one of the scenes Corman shot for credited director Cy Endfield.
For some reason -- lack of ambition, a lousy agent -- Barboura doesn't seem to have worked in a movie Corman wasn't involved with until 1970's HELEN KELLER AND HER TEACHER, an obscure picture in which she played the role of Annie Sullivan, made famous by Anne Bancroft in 1962's THE MIRACLE WORKER. I don't know anything about this production except that it didn't lead to bigger and better things. I would love to see it, if only to see Barboura tackling another of her all-too-few lead roles.
Likewise, I would have loved to read an interview with her, to get her point-of-view on those crazy fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants years of AIP filmmaking, but I don't think any journalists ever spoke to her. It's our loss.
A toast, on this overcast and chilly Cincinnati Sunday, to "the girl with the lovely smile"... Walter Paisley's muse... the long-gone but not forgotten Barboura Morris.
Saturday, October 22, 2005
I recently saw your magazine at a local hobby store and its article on the 1910 Edison FRANKENSTEIN. Just to correct some misinformation, I manage a horror collectible store in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and we are the current official/exclusive distributor of the DVD from Alois Detlaff/ADA Ventures, Intl.
We are still selling the DVD through our website and retail store for $25.00 which includes free shipping in the USA.
This professional DVD contains the 1910 Edison FRANKENSTEIN and a print of the 1922 NOSFERATU all on one disc. You can read more information about the DVD on our website @ http://www.graveyardrecords.com/edisons-frankenstein-1910-p-1221.html
If you'd like any additional information, please do not hesitate to contact us at 414-486-1751 or via email.
Thank you for your time.
Graveyard Records & Collectables
4727 S. Packard Ave.
Cudahy, WI 53110
Friday, October 21, 2005
I spent some more time last night with Warner's new ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN box set and feel I must say something about Gary H. Grossman's audio commentaries. Mr. Grossman is the author of Superman: Serial to Cereal, a book from the 1970s which I haven't read but which I believe to be the first book to cover the series in any depth. Therefore he has the credentials to provide this commentary and he brings a marvelously warm and expressive voice and ease of communication to the medium. So why does he bungle the job?
Grossman's commentary for "The Haunted Lighthouse" (featuring Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen, pictured above) pretty much had me at wit's end. Not only does he build his entire talk around his boundless fascination with the idea that he still remembers the first time he saw this episode (at age four) as though it was yesterday, he speaks to his listeners like a kindergarten teacher -- as though he imagines us to be age four. It's very grating. When he does impart anything approaching technical information, it's usually to point out an actor's shadow on a cycloramic backdrop or some other "blooper," like Superman's costume drying right after he's gotten it wet. These points are not only insignificant but easily noticed, hardly requiring this sort of underlining. Still worse, when Grossman offers more substantial information, it tends to ring false. His account of what Steve Carr would have done as the show's dialogue coach isn't quite right. Carr wouldn't have told actors how to say their lines in a soundbooth; he would have run script lines with them in their dressing rooms during breaks in the shooting. During a climactic showdown between the Man of Steel and someone who tried to flatten him with a rock, Grossman interrupts a silent patch to issue a stunt man alert -- which is fine, but when the attacker rushes past Superman to fall off the cliff, there is a digital repair glitch which Grossman explains as a cut that allowed the filmmakers to reinsert Reeves back in the action. (Not so; you reinsert the actor before you call "action," not in the middle of a shot. Besides, this show isn't all that careful about keeping the face of George Reeves' stunt man off camera. Check out Superman's rescue of Lois and Jimmy in "Night of Terror" and you'll see what I mean.) Finally, when Jimmy Olsen's "real" Aunt Louisa enters the episode at the end, Grossman identifies the actress as Effie Laird. If he's correct, I'd like an explanation because Ms. Laird's name doesn't appear in the end credits and the accompanying featurette on Disc 5 identifies this lady as Maude Prickett.
While watching "The Haunted Lighthouse," you may notice what looks like segments of significantly poorer quality, where the crystal clear image suddenly turns flat and fuzzy. The longest of these few segments run from 14:16 to 14:57 and from 16:37 to 17:01. Here's an example:
People should know that the picture doesn't lose about 50% of its sharpness in these instances because these snippets survive only in degraded condition. Actually, this footage was degraded in post-production because it was double-printed with optical overlays of fog. (The shot starts out the way you see it above, then the fog slowly rolls in.) What's interesting about this footage is that the transition to these optical inserts was next to invisible when this program originally aired on TV and later in syndication, but with the non-optically-treated footage digitally restored, the difference between it and the optical footage is now literally glaring. Since these shots were intended to blend seamlessly with one another, they also give us a measure of how much the bulk of the program has been improved -- a kind of "before and after" illustration, so to speak.
This is the sort of helpful information the commentary could have used, as well as some general information about how this great program came to be produced and why the tone of these first season episodes are so different from that of later seasons. I can't say that Warner Home Video got the wrong guy for the job when they called Gary Grossman, but the evidence of his two commentaries shows that he charged into the task with far more enthusiasm than care. There are two more commentaries in the set by George Reeves biographer Chuck Harter, and I hope they take better advantage of the opportunity.
Interesting tid-bit: Check out the janitor's visit to Clark Kent's office in "Night of Terror," about 14m 40s into the episiode. When he leans a broom against the wall of the office, you can see the whole wall tremble -- it's not a solid wall at all, but some kind of stretched fabric! This is the sort of detail it was just about impossible to see in this program until now.
On a different note, here's a Video WatchBlog consumer alert from VW reader John Gentile of Jersey City, New Jersey:
"MGM quietly released the 1976 Canadian gem THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVED DOWN THE LANE recently, and even though the DVD box claims it's rated PG, I suspect that this was transferred from an R rated version from the vaults. First of all, Scott Jacoby drops the "F bomb" early on. Then, in a brief love scene, Jodie Foster's character disrobes (it's pretty clear this was a body double). The Vestron tape from the 1980s does not include these scenes, and is rated PG."
Along these same lines, I'll take this opportunity to mention that MGM's "Midnite Movies" release of Roger Corman's GAS-S-S-S! was also quietly restored for its DVD debut. When the film was being prepared for release by American International Pictures in 1971, they tampered with Corman's original cut, removing a couple of "F bombs" (which are actually uttered rather sweetly) and omitting some voice-overs by a omniscient offscreen character called God. Corman took the AIP's shanghai-ing of his picture so much to heart that he never worked for Arkoff & Nicholson again and started his own company, New World Pictures, to gain executive control over his own future product. GAS-S-S-S! still has some coherency issues, but it's far more comic and entertaining (almost Kurtzmanesque) and obvious as a career testament than was the previous VHS release from the 1980s. When I noticed that the movie had been released as Corman intended it to be seen for the first time, I notified Joe Dante, who brought the matter to Roger Corman's attention. He had not been notified of the restoration by MGM (who probably didn't know they were restoring it), nor did he know that his original cut had survived that long-ago night-of-the-long-knives in the AIP vaults. It was released on a two-fer disc with Barry Shear's WILD IN THE STREETS (1968).
Thursday, October 20, 2005
I received my advance copy of Grindhouse Releasing's "25th Anniversary Special Edition" of Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980, $29.95) and was proud to see a certain blurb on the back of the box: "Bar none, the most frightening film I've ever seen." - Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog.
I can't remember where I wrote this, possibly somewhere online, but it's certainly true. CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is one of those films that takes you to a foreign place and then proceeds to take all your compasses away, including your moral compass. It strands you in a deadly, despairing place where the monsters are all too real and occupy both sides of the story, the familiar as well as the strange, leaving us feeling all the more stranded and vulnerable. It's a movie that makes you feel fearful not only for the characters, but of what you might be shown next, and finally of the whole human condition.
If you're unfamiliar with the movie, be forewarned that there are some fairly heavy instances of authentic animal death in the film, which I agree is indefensible; it's one of the reasons this is not a movie I revisit easily, and why I fast-forward through a couple of scenes or look the other way when I do. The director has said that no animal was killed for the film that isn't habitually killed to provide food for the natives in the New Guinea jungle where it was made, but this doesn't make the images more digestible, so be forewarned. These mondo-style animal scenes do, however, heighten the film's horror -- and I use that word advisedly; this is that rare movie that underscores the distinction between horror and terror (99.9% of every other scary movie in your collection). There are other movies out there that may go further into the spectacle of shock (MAN BEHIND THE SUN is one I'm thinking of, based on what I've heard of it), but I don't want to see them. This is my limit.
What calls me back in continual support of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is that, aside from the animal deaths, it is an ingeniously crafted faux-documentary that not only looks back to "found manuscript" examples of classic literature like Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but looks ahead to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and the whole phenomenon of "reality television." Nowhere is the astounding success of this film more apparent than when you compare it to other examples of the mondo film genre it was working within: THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER, THE EMERALD JUNGLE, SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD and, of course, Umberto Lenzi's CANNIBAL FEROX aka MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY. Plus, it's got a great Riz Ortolani score.
Grindhouse's special edition (see frame grab above) includes a brand-new high definition master of the film and an audio commentary with director Ruggero Deodato and actor Robert Kerman on Disc 1, and a second disc packed with other supplements, including on-camera interviews and some never-before-seen deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes material, trailers and much else besides.
David Szulkin, who worked on this disc with producers Sage Stallone and Bob Murawski, e-mailed me this morning with some surprising news about this release: "As of October 18-19, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST has made it to #3 in the Top 100 DVD pre-order charts at DVDEmpire.com. The most recent STAR WARS movie and WAR OF THE WORLDS are in the #1 and #2 slots respectively. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg... and Grindhouse!"
There's some interesting background about the disc's post-production in this recent press release:
October 17, 2005
CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST DVD arrives!
LOS ANGELES -- After fighting a difficult battle with printers over a graphic photo insert, Sage Stallone and Bob Murawski of Grindhouse Releasing have at last prevailed in their mission to bring Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST to DVD.
No less than eight different printers refused to handle the artwork for Grindhouse's 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST during the final stages of the project. The company encountered further resistance from numerous binderies who likewise turned down the job of putting together the elaborate DVD package due to the inner sleeve design, which features an image of a nude woman impaled on a stake.
The stonewalling by printers caused a nerve-wracking last-minute delay in Grindhouse's production schedule, and ultimately cost the disc producers thousands of dollars in added expenses. "It was a real nightmare. We almost didn't make our street date because of these problems," says Murawski. "For a while, it seemed like nobody was going to take on the job. We had a similar problem years ago with our release of CANNIBAL FEROX, where we actually did make some changes in the artwork that we felt were appropriate. But we would never change our design to suit a printer's sensibilites. We put too much hard work into the project to back down."
The producers have faced many other obstacles bringing the DVD to market in recent months. A well-known film magazine refused to run an ad for CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, denying Grindhouse the opportunity to submit an alternate design; the same publication promptly killed a story on the movie after seeing the ad. Major retailers such as Blockbuster have passed on the DVD, citing content issues.
“With all the uncensored horror product in the marketplace, it is amazing that CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is still a lightning rod for First Amendment issues decades after it was made," says Grindhouse's head of theatrical distribution David Szulkin, who served as Associate Producer of the DVD.
All 11,111 copies of the limited edition 2-disc set had to be hand-assembled, as the "offending" artwork was printed in a different facility than the rest of the DVD box. Based on the impressive advance orders, distributor Rykodisc predicts that the entire run will sell out in record time.
CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST arrives in stores on October 25, 2005. "This is the mother of all DVDs, period," says Ryko's Jay Douglas, the first to view the finished product. "With CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, Grindhouse has raised the bar for everyone."
Don't worry; I'm not going to turn Video WatchBlog into a bulletin board for company press releases, but I find these background stories interesting, and they're not just ballyhoo. A review of Grindhouse Releasing's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST will appear in a forthcoming issue of Video Watchdog.
Addendum from David Szulkin, circa 1:43 p.m.: "I just received an e-mail from Rykodisc informing me that CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST has climbed to #2 (!) on the DVD Empire chart today.
CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST knocked Spielberg out of the slot!"
Now, considering that this movie has only ever been released in this country as a dead-center pan&scan TV print, I can't help being suspicious... this is probably going to be that same pan&scan print with mattes ("black bars") slapped over the picture, along with the usual additional screen credits for those big stars at NFM... but now I've got to tune in, damn it.
In case you're wondering why this broadcast is of such interest to me and a few others, it's that CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is not only one of Christopher Lee's better European vehicles of the 1960s, but Donald Sutherland's screen debut (in a dual role as a soldier and a witch) and the (second unit) directorial debut by Michael Reeves, the cult British director of THE SHE BEAST (1965), THE SORCERERS (1967) and WITCHFINDER GENERAL aka THE CONQUEROR WORM (1968). Sutherland named his son Kiefer after the film's nominal director, Warren Kiefer. All this, plus the fact that this picture has never been screened stateside in its original aspect ratio.
Will this be the screening we fans have been waiting for? Probably not, but if only to hasten the possibility, I'm going to do my best to approach this playdate with an open mind.
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Signed copies of The Book of Renfield are available from the book's website http://www.bookofrenfield.com, where you can also find a reading sample and other information. Keep watching the site in the weeks ahead, as I intend to be adding some interesting new features.
Meanwhile, the screen rights to Throat Sprockets remain unsold, though my agents and I have received several inquiries about it over the years -- and I hope to receive more, now that it's been included as one of the selections in Stephen Jones and Kim Newman's new anthology Horror: Another 100 Best Books. ("Before there was The Ring," writes Tananarive Due, "there was Throat Sprockets" -- nice.) One of the difficulties about adapting the book to film is that it's such an "internalized" story, some people in the business have a hard time seeing how it could be "externalized." Of course, as the writer, I can see very easily how this can be done and I can take liberties with my text other writers might not want or think to do. So, in what little spare time I have, I've started taking a long overdue crack at a Throat Sprockets script myself.
The film rights to my work are represented by Judy Coppage of The Coppage Company in North Hollywood. Telephone: (818) 980-8806.
The following material has been extensively revised since it first appeared yesterday afternoon:
THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN - THE FIRST SEASON (Warner Home Video, $39.98) hits video stores today -- all 26 episodes on five discs, in addition to a breezy 17-minute featurette about the show's history, the pre-series feature SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN (later re-edited/re-scored to create Episodes 25 and 26, "The Unknown People," also included here), and a few of the Kellogg's cereal commercials featuring George Reeves that played during the original series run. There were great episodes still to come in subsequent seasons, but in this first season from 1951 -- known to many Superman fans as "the film noir season" for its brooding B&W atmosphere and often hardboiled depiction of crime -- virtually every episode is memorable. There are a lot of us, I'd say, who have been waiting for this set even longer than we've been waiting to see Tom Welling put on his Man of Steel duds, so this is a happy day.
I just received my set a few days ago. As it happens, I felt I had spoiled my appetite for it a little by plunking down for a DVD-R set of the entire series on eBay a few months ago, before this release was announced. Having seen all the episodes recently, I decided to start with Disc 5, where all the extras (apart from the audio commentaries) are collected. SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN has never looked better; the B&W image is bright and detailed, even in muted light scenes. Fans who have only seen this story as the two-part "The Unknown People" will be interested to see some scenes cut from the broadcast version, a different musical score, and revel in following the story without commercial or episode interruption. And because "The Unknown People" is a re-edited version, these episodes are slightly darker and not quite as crisp as the original feature.
The "From Inkwell to Backlot" featurette focuses on the show rather than George Reeves' death, which is as it should be, especially for the first season. It's an okay overview, though I feel the set would have been enriched as a whole if the commentators (including Leonard Maltin and Superman from Serial to Cereal author Gary Grossman) had allowed themselves to be a little more specific in their trivia. For example, it would have been useful for them to introduce Steve Carr (the show's dialogue director and brother to frequent director Tommy Carr), because he shows up in some role or other in almost every episode. (Grossman does point him out in at least one commentary.) Carr plays Eddie in SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN, the doctor on the train in "The Monkey Mystery," the film director in "Czar of the Underworld," a sinister Peruvian in "Treasure of the Incas," he even appears in drag in "Double Trouble"... plus he's the guy who is pointing up at the sky in the frame grab above! Once you know about Steve Carr, you start seeing him everywhere. (There's a great moment in "Czar" when George Reeves opens a trailer door and finds Steve Carr standing there, and breaks into a huge grin, acknowledging how ubiquitous he is.) There are also instances where the same actors show up in different episodes playing different characters, but I'll leave those for you to discover. I was pleased that the commentators acknowledge Jack Larson's comic gifts and give Phyllis Coates her due as the best of all Lois Lanes. Sexy without being showy and feisty despite showcasing one of Hollywood's all-time great screams, Coates makes Lois a feminist heroine, standing up to lynch-mob leaders, mob bosses and psychopaths alike.
Speaking of psychopaths, there is some great horror in the set. Some people have written to ask me for Halloween viewing recommendations, and you really can't go wrong with "The Haunted Lighthouse," "Mystery in Wax," and "The Evil Three." "The Haunted Lighthouse" is like a classic Hardy Boys mystery (none of which had been filmed yet), "Mystery in Wax" is a creepy wax museum story with a cackling madwoman whose laugh will disturb your dreams, and "The Evil Three" points the way to Tobe Hooper territory. There's even a terrorist episode, "The Human Bomb," which reveals that the famous opening shot of people pointing skyward ("It's a bird! It's a plane! It's SUPERMAN!") is actually a relooped shot of people supposedly watching a man strapped with dynamite standing on a high window ledge of the Daily Planet Building with hostage Lois Lane.
Since originally posting an earlier draft of this entry, I've taken a look at several episodes in this set and was most impressed by what I saw. The episodes have been brought to disc looking brighter and crisper than I've ever seen them before, so they have an aspect of fresh experience -- and I can recite dialogue from some of these. (Who can't? "No comment until the time limit is up!") The first time I saw Clark Kent run down that alley in a shot that's duplicated in many first season episodes, I actually exclaimed that I'd never seen that alley look so clean and beautiful. There is one exception, however: the episode "The Stolen Costume," which looks dupey and covered with faint scratches throughout; it's the only ugly duckling in this swanage of episodes. This is the episode in which Superman's secret identity is first uncovered by criminals and are flown to a snowy mountaintop while Superman ponders what to do with them; they try to escape and... It's one of many moments in this set where you have to pinch yourself and ask "They really got away with putting this stuff in a kid's program from Kellogg's?"
Actually, the episodes presented here are full-strength, with occasional highlights that go a whit too far around the bend of good taste (there's one, "The Birthday Letter," where an abducted disabled girl cries hysterically as her leg braces are removed by a gangster to prevent her going anywhere) ; when they were originally shown on television, they were subjected to some sponsor-demanded cuts. In fact, if you've only seen these episodes on commercial TV during the past 20 years or so, chances are you saw them either cut or time-compressed to fit more commercials into the half-hour. To see these episodes in their entirety -- for example, with the Polish oppression-themed prologue intact at the top of "The Monkey Mystery" -- can be a revelation.
My only complaint so far is that the packaging is a little odd, with four of the discs "double-layered" on clear plastic hubs. Thus, every time we want to watch Disc 2 or Disc 4, we must remove Disc 1 or Disc 3 to get at them. I'm also a bit concerned that the overlapping may cause scratching on the uppermost discs. Were these little extra troubles really necessary?
I can remember watching a condensed episode of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN on a Kenner toy projector I had as a kid, and thinking it was the coolest thing in the world. To be able to hold every episode from Season 1 in my hand is like a dream, and to see how good 99.5% of this material looks is a dream come true. I recommend this set as the perfect companion for a night of high-flying nostalgia in your own Fortress of Solitude.
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
TCM has other NFM titles scheduled in the near future, some of which can't be helped at this late stage (including a replay of THE VAMPIRE BAT at 7:30a.m. on October 31), but in some instances substitute copies will be sought and aired instead. Viewers should also be cautioned in advance that TCM's showing of the 1964 Italian film CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (scheduled for 3:30 a.m. on October 31) -- first announced by TCM as a widescreen broadcast -- is indeed a pan&scanned National Film Museum title, and we're told it looks pretty bad.
I also spoke on the phone yesterday to TCM's Steve Iverson, a longtime VW reader who brought Video WatchBlog to Mr. Tabesh's attention. Steve was interested to read my comments about TCM's current copy of THE MANSTER, a crummy NFM dupe, and was able to offer a sound explanation of how MGM's picture-perfect master got lost in the shuffle. Apparently the TCM film archive has been around so long that it now exists on several different tape formats. The MGM master of THE MANSTER has been around for so long, it's on one-inch tape, the oldest of these formats. TCM's current broadcast standard is Digi-Beta, and they are currently in the process of remastering select titles in the next format, High Definition. As Steve surmised, "Since the MGM MANSTER was on an old one-inch, when National Film Museum sent us the title on Digi-Beta, we probably assumed it represented an upgrade, which it obviously wasn't." Now that TCM knows it's just an ugly cousin copy, they are going to check into the possibility of transferring the one-inch master to Digi-Beta for future broadcasts. Let's hope it works out.
And let's hear it for TCM for taking this matter so seriously! How many other stations would bother listening to viewers complaining about the quality of their copies of THE VAMPIRE BAT and THE MANSTER, much less take decisive action about it?
Monday, October 17, 2005
Warner Home Video's new DVD of DRACULA A.D. 1972 ($19.98), along with THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960, included in Universal's recent HAMMER HORROR SERIES set), completes the availability on DVD of Hammer Films' saga of Count Dracula, as portrayed by Christopher Lee, challenged by Peter Cushing's Dr. Van Helsing, and filmed between 1958 and 1974.
Here's my critical overview of this beloved (and much debated) series, followed by some notes on Warner's DRACULA A.D. 1972 disc in particular:
HORROR OF DRACULA (1958): It's not exactly Stoker-by-the-book, yet it has retained its power as a valid reinterpretation of Stoker for close to half-a-century. Paired together once again after Hammer's successful CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Cushing and Lee were poised here to make film history, and under the careful guidance of returning director Terence Fisher. The bloody surprise at the end of the main titles, the library scene, Jonathan Harker's entrapment in the crypt, the seduction of Lucy, the capture and staking of Lucy, and the action-packed finale -- Stanley Kubrick once said that all a film needed to succeed were five "non-submersibles," and this one has this many and more. One of the finest vampire films ever produced; everything that follows in the series was an attempt to recapture the magic found here. Warner Home Video's anamorphic DVD crops the original 1.66:1 framing, and wasn't mastered from the original Eastmancolor negative, or one of the eye-popping IB Technicolor 35mm positives originally circulated, so the definitive release remains to be seen.
THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960): Lee sat this one out, but Cushing returned to brandish his Holy weaponry against Baron Meinster (David Peel), a spoilt, blonde, pretty-boy vampire who became one of the undead by walking on the Wilde side with some "decadent" friends. Without Dracula overshadowing everything, Jimmy Sangster's script is free to explore other facets of vampirism, some of them creepy and transgressive, always with interesting results. The heroine, Yvonne Monlaur, doesn't work for me but her friend, played by Andree Melly, conveys a wickedness not equalled by any other female presence in the series. Not the equal of the original, but the best parts are every bit as scary and possibly even more flamboyant. Haven't watched Universal's HAMMER HORROR SERIES transfer yet -- sorry! (In 1960, Monarch Books published a sexed-up novelization of BRIDES written by Dean Owen. The vampire pictured on the cover painting looks more like Reed Hadley than David Peel!)
DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1965): Lee returned, but refused to speak in this third and last of the series directed by founder Terence Fisher, while no role was provided for Cushing. I find this one entertaining, even engrossing for much of the time, but ultimately a mixed-bag. The second half is a trifle meandering (Thorley Walters pops up as someone named Ludwig, who is Renfield in every other way) and the finale is uninspired, but the first half -- I believe -- may offer the very best filmmaking Hammer ever gave us. Fisher reaches out, pinches us by the nose and walks us through an amazing succession of suspenseful events, as two English couples on holiday are tricked into position at Castle Dracula to revive its absent Master. Thank God for Anchor Bay's DVD, which allowed this Techniscope film to be seen in its correct screen ratio after more than 30 years of pan&scanned TV airings. This needs to be reissued as an anamorphic disc.
DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1967): Freddie Francis, one of Britain's greatest cinematographers and a hit-and-miss director for Amicus, took over the direction of this gaudy, overdone but nevertheless diverting direct sequel to the preceding film. Best remembered as the debut of the radiant Hammer star Veronica Carlson and for the scene where Dracula, staked by an atheist, is thereby empowered to rip the stake from his own chest. There's a very nice Warner Home Video DVD of this.
TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969): Some fans are extremely fond of this entry, directed by newcomer Peter Sasdy, which documents how three Victorian families are destroyed by Dracula when the sensation-seeking fathers of the respective houses are involved in the death of his disciple. I like it too, but the pre-credits scene with Roy Kinnear is atrocious ("Dracula's b-b-b-blood!"), and so is Dracula's running scorecard of his conquests ("The first!" "The second!" etc) and the weak finale. It scores extra cojones points for a scene in which a man is staked by his own vampire daughter. Also from Warner Home Video, and also nice.
SCARS OF DRACULA (1970): Before this film, directed by Roy Ward Baker (A NIGHT TO REMEMBER), fans always had to endure long waits between Hammer Dracula movies, but this one followed TASTE close on its heels. Surprisingly, it doesn't pick up where the other left off, and begins with Dracula's ashes (curiously strewn about in a tower room inaccessible to outsiders) being reanimated by a blood-barfing bat. Some call this a return to HORROR OF DRACULA territory, but it's more like a nastier, grimmer HAS RISEN with appallingly cheap production values. Hammer's great art director Bernard Robinson had died by this point, and it showed. This is the one of two films in the series to get novelized (this time by Angus Hall) and I recommend SCARS as a much better read than a view. Despite the movie's shortcomings, it was brought to DVD by Anchor Bay Entertainment in splendid form, with a brilliant anamorphic transfer and audio commentary by Christopher Lee and Roy Ward Baker. After decades of trashing it in the press, they end their session by muttering that it's not as bad as all that, after all.
DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972): The success of AIP's COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) showed Hammer the way to resurrect their waning Dracula series -- bring him into modern day London. The trouble is, once he's resurrected, he never leaves the ancient derelict church where he's been revivied, so as far as he's concerned, the movie might as well take place in 1872, where the film's rousing pre-credits battle (reuniting Cushing and Lee) takes place. The younger characters look well into their twenties and talk like much younger kids from a different place and era, and their hilariously misconceived, tutti fruitti banter has led some to draw comparisons with BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. Russ Meyer would surely have approved of the casting of Stephanie Beacham, whose voluptuous form is poured into a skin-tight white gown that no red-blooded male who saw this film in his teen years is likely to ever forget. Cushing is the designated driver here, giving an admirably well-modulated performance as Van Helsing's descendant. Caroline Munro gives her décolletage a bloodbath, Christopher Neame extends the definition of "over the top" as Johnny Alucard, and Bay Area rock group Stoneground funks up a posh party with "Alligator Man." See critical comments about the disc below.
THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1974): A.D. 1972 director Alan Gibson returned with this more dynamic and interesting sequel, which brings Cushing and Lee together one last time. The story concerns Van Helsing's race to prevent Dracula from unleash bubonic plague on the world, evidence of the immortal vampire's death wish. Directed with a lot of verve, the film is thankfully more soberly written than its predecessor and also jacks up the levels of sex (nudity, anyway) and violence. Anchor Bay has released the best version of this (now out of print), but it has also surfaced on a number of public domain labels (Front Row Features, Gotham Distribution, etc) under titles like THE RITES OF DRACULA and COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE priced at five to seven dollars.
As I was about to say before this list occurred to me, Warner Home Video's presentation of DRACULA A.D. 1972 is very welcome indeed, and the online reviews I've read have been unqualified raves. I, however, see it as a bit of a disappointment. I saw the film theatrically more than once and still have vivid memories of how ravishing it looked on the big screen. (The cameraman, Dick Bush, was a favorite of Ken Russell and also shot TOMMY, CRIMES OF PASSION and LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM.) The DVD, while pretty, doesn't capture the original's richness of color, and there are other hair-splitting problems as well.
The gripes start at the very first frame, where Warner has superimposed their current logo over the preliminary James Bernard "Dracula" theme, rather than the WB logo that appeared on the original prints, as seen here:
(No, "WB" does not stand for WatchBlog.)
Then, with the fade-in, the gripes continue. My concerns were immediate when I noticed, very plainly, that during the opening 1872 coach battle between Dracula and Van Helsing, the first Dracula whose face we see first is not Christopher Lee but his stunt man, hanging on to the outside of the runaway coach. The reason the stuntman is plainly visible is because someone forgot to lay on the pre-dawn tinting that accompanied the scene on the big screen, and which gave the sequence an added sense of urgency. Oddly enough, when Dracula's flashbacks to this earlier contretemps occur later in the film, the footage is correctly tinted. I'd always wondered what this scene would look like with that aquamarine tint stripped away, and now that I know, I'd like it back, please.
Correct tinting from flashback:
Too bright tinting from start of film:
Fortunately, I have the correct rendering on a Japanese laserdisc released by Warner, which I reviewed back in VW #20. In reviewing that disc, I referred to Bush's cinematography as "luminous," which isn't a word that comes to mind while watching this DVD. The DVD colors are okay but they've been digitally cooled, giving the movie the pastel, tepid look of... well, an Amicus film. The colors in A.D. 1972 should be ripe and warm, as they are in the accompanying trailer. Compare the skintones and you'll see what I mean. And the neon colors inside the Cavern bar should burn hot, as they certainly don't here. I was motivated by curiosity to the extent of switching around some wires in my home entertainment set-up and fire up my old laserdisc player and spin the disc, which is now 12 years old. The original WB logo and pre-dawn tinting are in place, you can't clearly see the stunt man's face in the opening shot, and the colors are indeed bolder. Unfortunately, the laserdisc is hardly definitive because its unmatted standard ratio framing dilutes the intended impact of 1.85:1 framing, which is dead perfect on the DVD, and the picture is often occluded with Japanese subtitles. The LD is also often a tad too dark and the image resolution hasn't the pinpoint clarity available to DVD. It is, however, mastered from an actual positive print and is thus a somewhat more accurate reference as to how the film originally looked.
Japanese laserdisc grab:
From Warner Home Video's DVD:
There's really no contest between these two grabs, especially when viewed on a computer screen (where my A.D. 1972 DVD looks great), but on a large screen set, you do lose a sense of the warmth of human skin and the full advantage of the film's lighting and art direction.
Something else to add to the "Pro" column concerning Warner's DVD is that it offers a complete presentation of the movie -- which never happened in US theaters. Approximately 10 seconds of gore footage have been restored to Dracula's demise, as a stake point comes... what's the correct word?... gooshing further, further, and further out his back. (Dracula almost always gets staked, so I don't count this as a spoiler.)
One last, little gripe: Fans who saw the movie in theaters here in the States are also bound to miss the "HorroRitual" exploitation leader that was shipped out at the head of Warners' 35mm prints during the picture's first run. This 5-minute short featured Barry Atwater ("Janos Skorzeny" of the original THE NIGHT STALKER) in blue-face, sitting up in his coffin and reciting along with audiences the "HorroRitual," apparently a prerequisite to joining the late Donald A. Reed's Count Dracula Society. (I can't remember if the audience were provided with recitation cards at the boxoffice, or if the words of the ritual were spelled out onscreen -- probably the latter, because I'm sure I would have kept the card had there been one.) It would be fun to see this again, as one of the last gasps of major studio ballyhoo; I understand it can be found among the various public domain clips found in the HS documentary HORROR TALK (1989).
Personal note to you Hammer collectors: If anyone out there is interested in my Japanese LD of DRACULA A.D. 1972, I'm prepared to part with it now -- feel free to click the "Contact Tim" option and make me an offer. The same goes for my Japanese discs of HORROR OF DRACULA and DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE. They were all priced at $49.98 when new, and their uniform packaging is eye-catching and not at all like the domestic releases. All three are in near-mint condition, having been played only once or twice each, and they're still in their original plastic sleeves with OBI banners. I'll field offers through Friday and get back to the high bidder. I accept VISA, MasterCard and PayPal.
Sunday, October 16, 2005
Today marks the first week anniversary of the day Video WatchBlog "went public" -- that is, when I first announced it and the blog received its first visitors. WatchBlog has received a warm welcome with a total of 4,419 visits this week, averaging 597 visits per day; Tuesday was our best day, Monday being a national holiday, with something like 920 visitors -- 300+ more than our daily average. Having the first online review of Argento's BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE helped, it seems. We've also had 7,016 page visits this week, averaging 949 per day, and Site Meter shows that the WatchBlog's readership literally encircles the globe, reaching from Quebec to Singapore, from Iceland to Cape Town. Doing this has meant a lot of extra writing on my part (everybody's asking me where I find the time), so I'm pleased to know there are a lot of you out there reading it.
Donna and other friends have been cautioning me to pace myself, but I wanted the WatchBlog's first week to show everyone how good it could be. I'll try to live up to that standard as much as I can, as long as it's worth doing, and as long as it's fun... but mind you, I have other things to do, and still other things I should be doing, so I can't be going full tilt here all the time. But you can certainly look forward to the WatchBlog going full tilt tomorrow, as I've written another LONG piece on a popular topic which I believe you'll find worthy of your time and attendance...
Saturday, October 15, 2005
Today on the Classic Horror Film Boards, VW contributor Gary L. Prange filed a surprising report on TCM's THE VAMPIRE BAT: "I became suspicious when I noticed that some of the costuming evident in these shots were from the wrong century. Indeed, a new shot inserted before one showing Lionel Atwill entering his manse and removing his cloak and hat depicted a man approaching a large mansion wearing a cloak and hat -- a bicorn or tricorn hat. During the search for Herman in the cave, another cutaway depicts a man in a similar hat searching with a torch. Other shots depict characters that don't belong in VB. The scene of Fay Wray reading in the garden were preceded by shots of another woman reading in the garden next to a fountain, including cuts to another woman. Neither are characters in THE VAMPIRE BAT."
Gary's full report and responses to it can be found here.
I forgot about the broadcast until it was almost over, so I didn't see the inserts Gary describes. Where did they come from? Certainly from some other public domain title... DR. SYN or JAMAICA INN, perhaps? What I did observe was that TCM's print had been given a handsome sepia tone, and that the noise reduction brought to bear on the soundtrack had not only buried the hiss-and-crackle but the clear edges of the dialogue as well, which sounded mushy -- and not because Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray were pitching woo.
Unfortunately, the company responsible for this travesty -- The National Film Museum -- appears to be gaining a stronger foothold at TCM, a channel which has long prided itself in matters of film history and film preservation. The National Film Museum presents itself as a company dedicated to preserving our motion picture history, but their product indicates that their real concern is to sufficiently alter the audio/visual content of public domain titles that they may be re-copyrighted by the National Film Museum for fun and profit. You may remember the National Film Museum logo from those pixilation pageants known as Elite Entertainment's DRIVE-IN DISCS (e.g., ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES, THE GIANT GILA MONSTER), or perhaps you caught their presentation of THE MANSTER (1959) when it recently aired on TCM. In appalling contrast to the pristine, from-the-original-negative master of this title which MGM owns, has issued on laserdisc, and has licensed to TCM in the past, the National Film Museum master was comparable to a fairly ragged 16mm print and obscured the mood-setting opening scene with several credits for NFM personnel!
The essence of film preservation is respecting a film's original integrity. If Turner Classic Movies is sincere in the stance they have taken about film preservation, they need to take a closer look at the bill of goods being sold to them by The National Film Museum.
"Tim Lucas delves deep into Bava's world... the be-all-and-end-all on one of the most influential horror movie directors." -- Playboy
Friday, October 14, 2005
Having mentioned Pink Floyd in yesterday's posting, I was moved to pick "Echoes" (their Side 2 epic from 1971's Meddle) as the accompaniment for last night's half-hour session on my Vitamaster 1000XT exer-cycle. It's a slow and dreamy song, unlike the more energetic music I usually find essential for exercize, but it's never just one thing for long. It's got a sense of not only going somewhere, but going somewhere important that makes it an ideal soundtrack to peddling for that length of time in a stationary place. Listening to it again reminded me of what a singular place this song has occupied in my life; in fact, the word "song" seems inadequate to describe all that "Echoes" is.
Suffice to say, a lot of nice things have happened to me over the years while listening to "Echoes." One of the ones I can tell you about involves my friend Michael Lennick, a writer-director-special effects designer who lives up in Bala, Ontario.
I first met Michael on the set of VIDEODROME in 1981, where he (the video effects supervisor of a future movie classic directed by David Cronenberg) won me over by saying to me (a writer for Cinefantastique), "You have my dream job, you know?" Since then, he has directed the award-winning short film SPACE MOVIE, supervised the special effects on the WAR OF THE WORLDS TV series, written-produced-and-directed the excellent Kubrick commemorative documentary 2001 & BEYOND as well as a full season of the self-produced series ROCKET SCIENCE, and he's presently embarking on a documentary about his affiliation with THE ALL-NITE SHOW, a much-missed Canadian cult TV phenomenon of the early 1980s. He has also written for VIDEO WATCHDOG on a few occasions, on such beloved topics as STAR WARS, Stanley Kubrick, and STARSHIP TROOPERS.
Donna and I took a trip to visit Michael and his sweetie Shirley back in 2000, partly to enjoy their warm company and the hospitality of their lakeside cottage, and partly because Michael had volunteered to produce my audio commentaries for Image Entertainment's BLACK SUNDAY and KILL... BABY, KILL! (never released) during our stay. A working vacation, if you will.
During that visit, it came up during one of our late night conversations that Michael and I had both heard rumors that Pink Floyd's Roger Waters may have originally written "Echoes" to accompany the "Jupiter and Beyond" sequence of Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. On the spot, Michael decided to sync them up. After one false start, Michael had the eureka to use the film's first planetary "reveal" as a sync spot for the first sonar "ping" of "Echoes." Once that was done, Michael hit his remotes and we were off... As best I can remember, the film and music played out in surprising if not perfect synchronicity, with little "flashes" of perfect alignment that made us laugh out loud in appreciation. Remarkably, the two pieces do run at roughly the same length. Our conclusion about the theoretical Kubrick/Waters connection: who knows, probably not, but pretty neat anyway.
"A Million Bright Ambassadors of Morning" is perhaps the most inspired of the imagistic lyrics of "Echoes," and it offers me a perfect segue to two days ago, when I received a package from Michael containing his two latest achievements: an hour-long documentary called DR. TELLER'S VERY LARGE BOMB, which he wrote, produced and directed, and a complementary article "A Final Interview with the Most Controversial Father of the Atomic Age, Edward Teller," which appears in the Summer 2005 (Vol 21 No 1) issue of AMERICAN HERITAGE OF INVENTION & TECHNOLOGY.
As I watched Michael's documentary, the recurring and escalatingly horrific images of atomic detonation and the attendant shockwaves rushing toward the camera brought that phrase from "Echoes" back to mind, though these giant mushroom clouds were, to bend a point, bright ambassadors of mourning. It's an engrossing and informative program that touches not only on Edward Teller, but on J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs and other key players in America's "hell-bomb" program, and there is also contemporary commentary by Dr. Teller, fellow scientists, published authorities, and Teller's own grandson Astro (I kid you not) who talks about the human side of the Father of the Atomic Age. I was also surprised to see actor Reed Hadley (ZORRO'S FIGHTING LEGION, RACKET SQUAD) turn up as the host of a military film made on the occasion of the first hydrogen bomb test in the South Pacific. I felt my friend's presence and could sense his complete engagement in every aspect of this important story, and I congratulate him and his colleagues at Foolish Earthling Productions for pulling it off. DR. TELLER'S VERY LARGE BOMB was a labor of love for Michael, and it has so far aired only once in September, on a French CBC station in Quebec. It makes the important point that Dr. Teller was a great man not for conceiving of the most destructive weapon known to man, but the literal weapon to end all weapons. He succeeded in making the heads of opposing nations fear their own capabilities and step back in dread from the threshold of Armageddon, and the technology necessitated to realize that invention now assists everyone reading this in their everyday life. This program deserves to be aired on the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and God knows whatever science channels are abounding. Interested parties and programmers can approach Michael via his production company website, http://www.foolishearthling.com.
Why the last interview ever granted by the father of the atom bomb isn't mentioned on the cover of INVENTION & TECHNOLOGY, I can't imagine, but Michael's interview with Dr. Teller is admirable and the paragraphs leading up to it are the very best writing he's ever signed: lucid, dramatic and brilliant. Reading his comments about all the hoops he had to jump through, all the little spot quizzes proposed to him by Dr. Teller right up to the final rolling of tape, all to reassure the great man (who died in 2003) that his time wouldn't be wasted, left me wondering how I've managed to rate so remarkable a friend as Michael -- but then, all my friends are remarkable, and it makes me very happy and very proud when I see them follow their dreams and achieve success.
Way to go, Mikey.