Saturday, October 15, 2005

Horrors of the National Film Museum

Last night on Turner Classic Movies, the 1933 horror classic THE VAMPIRE BAT was shown. This broadcast had attracted high interest among some fans because TCM's website listed a 76 minute running time -- significantly longer than the 67 minute film was known to run.

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.

Bava at the Mansion

Check out Page 165 in this month's issue of Playboy for a nifty mention of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark in their "Potpourri" section. It's 1/5th of the page, and illustrated at that, but the well-chosen text adds up to a very cool blurb:

"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

A Million Bright Ambassadors of Morning


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.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Pretentiousness is Good for You


In this day and age, "pretentious" has become an ugly word to most people, like "liberal." And yet, if one looks up this adjective in the dictionary, one finds it related to synonyms which are largely positive: challenging, demanding, elaborate, energetic, exacting, formidable, grandiose, impressive, industrious, aspiring, visionary. (We've become a much better society since "pretentious" and "liberal" became dirty words, haven't we?)

Billed as "The Mystery Film of the 1960s," Eclectic DVD Distribution's THE COMMITTEE (1968, $24.95) is certainly pretentious -- but in a good way, and it's all those other affiliated adjectives, too. Though I approached the film openly, I must admit to finding it opaque... but I am intrigued by it, and will gladly give it another go in the near future. I'd never heard of this strange little British film before; it's literally little, less than an hour long, but it has several points of interest that snared my attention straight away. It stars Paul Jones, the Manfred Mann vocalist who had previously appeared in Peter Watkin's dark cult rockudrama PRIVILEGE (1967), and features music by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (who perform onscreen, as pictured above) and The Pink Floyd, who contribute score. (This was done just after Syd Barrett bailed out, but before they became, simply, Pink Floyd.) A further enticement is that it's directed by Peter Sykes, who went on from this to direct episodes of THE AVENGERS and such distinctive horror features as VENOM aka THE LEGEND OF SPIDER FOREST (1971) and Hammer's DEMONS OF THE MIND (1972).

It opens with Jones (as the protagonist named "Central Figure") hitching a ride from a compulsive talker and decapitating him as he puts his head under the bonnet to check the motor... and then it gets stranger from there. Much of the dialogue is non sequitur, like the action, but there is a discernible purpose underlying all the opacity, namely an assertion of individuality/originality/non-conformity in overbearing societies, local and national, that take the form of committees. As I say, it's not a lucid film, at least not on the first pass, but it's diverting and it speaks the language of cinema beautifully. I can see why AVENGERS producer Albert Fennell would screen this and, regardless of not understanding it, invite Sykes to come and work for him. The disc is handsomely produced and the film's standard ratio B&W photography (by Ian Wilson, who also shot CAPTAIN KRONOS VAMPIRE HUNTER and QUEEN KONG!) is most attractive. I'm glad to add this to my Peter Sykes collection.

The DVD compensates for the sub-feature length of the picture with an almost equally long and certainly equally entertaining "The Making of THE COMMITTEE" featurette. This is composed of interviews (conducted by SPITTING IMAGE producer Jon Blair) with Sykes and writer Max Steuer, a noted economist/hot air balloonist/bass player whose only film experience this was. The questions are intelligent and forthright, and both men speak engagingly and articulately about their influences (Sykes mentions Franju and Bergman) and their intentions with the picture, freely admitting that THE COMMITTEE is not easily grasped or even wholly successful. What struck me is that, although I didn't feel I had responded to the film particularly warmly, whenever the interviews were interrupted by an illustrative film clip, I found myself responding to them with delight, pleased to be reminded of certain Pythonesque gags that were actually more amusing the second time around. Yes, it is a bit Pythonesque, but without all that eccentric mugging to underscore that "this is a gag" -- which, I suppose, would make it rather more Buñuelian. My response to the clips would seem to support Steuer's point that the film is most rewarding on subsequent viewings.

Sweetening the deal is a second disc (a CD) consisting of a new Paul Jones track called "The Committee" (not heard in the film itself, it recapitulates the story in song), where he is musically supported by the Homemade Orchestra. There are also two other unrelated songs performed by the Homemade Orchestra, "Bird" and a lovely cover of Peter Gabriel's "Here Comes the Flood." The CD runs just one second over 23 minutes, making it as shy of an album as the movie is shy of a feature.

Stimulating fun for those who are up to the challenge, certainly useful to those who need to fill that empty niche in their Pink Floyd collections -- and I'll kick in an extra point for generosity. My rating: B+

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Tweak Tweak Tweak

Since starting this blog, I have been reminded of something about myself. I am an obsessive rewriter. Thus, if you check this page early in the day, the text is bound to have been adjusted by later in the afternoon. Tweak, tweak, tweak -- that's me. Should you be of a mind to print off this blog for future reference or bathroom reading, be advised that early copy is a rough draft; final copy should be in place by midnight. Or by the day after the original posting, certainly. By a week after its initial appearance, most assuredly.

While I'm on the subject of tweaks, let me digress for a moment about pinches. My blog is connected to Site Meter, which allows me to see where visitors to this site found the links that brought them here. By using this, a lot of interesting websites all over the world have been brought to my attention, some of them in other languages. I very much appreciate that anyone, especially strangers in foreign lands, would promote Video WatchBlog on their site and provide an easy link to help their visitors find it. My thanks to you all.

But I was annoyed last night to find my entire BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE review posted on another site. For future reference (and this goes for certain British print media too), please don't copy and post any of my material in its entirety in another forum. I appreciate the publicity, but reproducing something of mine in its entirety defeats the purpose of your good will. Happily, the gentleman moderator of this other site was quick to respond to my request that he remove it, and I also received a personal apology from the poster, which shows me that he had acted in innocence and without malice.

For future reference, everyone has my permission to link to this site, to publicize specific posts or the blog in general -- my permission as well as my gratitude. In fact, I will go one step further and grant permission to anyone to reproduce the opening paragraph of any Video WatchBlog posting as a kind of teaser incentive to follow the link they provide and come here. But I'm afraid my open-handedness must end there.

There is a commercial purpose for this blog -- to draw more attention to Video Watchdog and to enable us to respond more immediately to current events in home video -- and I'm giving generously of my time to provide this diversion. Whether or not it continues depends largely on the extent to which my rights as creator of this material are respected. Okay? Okay.

Our blog log shows that we had 920 visitors yesterday, some from as far away as Russia and New Zealand -- amazing!

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Sexual Healing of Terry Stamp


Pier Paolo Pasolini’s controversial TEOREMA (1968) first came to home video on the Connoisseur label back in 1993, cropped, with a $79.95 price tag. Bear this in mind as you consider that Koch Lorber Films released it last week on DVD as a single disc priced at $29.98. It’s a little steep for a single disc, but we should not mind paying extra for the good things in life. The film’s audience is so marginal, especially in modern day America, that it’s worth the extra expense just to have it in a proper anamorphic presentation. When I first saw the film and reviewed it in Video Watchdog #18, page 26, it leaped immediately onto my list of favorite films, but I’ve never watched it a second time in all those years. I've prefered to savor the experience I had.

Watching the movie again, I find it still holds up, though I wasn’t as shaken by it as I was the first time. It's best when you're ravished by it the first time. If you’re unfamiliar with TEOREMA, it’s about the wealthy family of a Milanese industrialist (Massimo Girotti, married here to Silvana Mangano), who receives an unsigned telegram stating “Arriving Tomorrow.” Suddenly, a handsome and beatific Terence Stamp – identified only as “The Boy” – is among them, awakening feelings of passion in old and young alike. Everyone in the household is mysteriously touched and excited and fulfilled by his presence, even the maid (Laura Betti, who was kind of the Madonna of Italy in those days, won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the 1968 Venice Film Festival for her unglamorous performance). When he leaves, about halfway through the film, the maid returns to her hometown where she performs miracles and is found, at one point, levitating in rapture above a farmhouse. The fates awaiting the family she worked for are just as poignant and surprising.

TEOREMA was banned in Italy for being obscene, but there is no explicit frontal nudity or sex, and what innocuous nudity there is, is all male. I suppose the film was considered obscene because it is impossible to not see Stamp as a modern day Christ, and that the passions he excites are homosexual as well as heterosexual. Yet we never see this Holy Guest making love, only giving love – and the film’s second half rather clinically documents the sometimes dark paths people’s lives take when they feel deprived of, or energized by the grace of God. This theme of an outsider coming into a domestic situation and shaking it up, spiritually and sexually, occurs in a number of films by another of my favorite filmmakers, sexploitation director Joseph W. Sarno, reaching an apotheosis of sorts in his outstanding CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE (1976). I once asked Sarno about this, and he told me he'd never seen TEOREMA… in fact, the theme existed in Sarno’s work long before the Pasolini film was made.

Koch Lorber’s DVD is welcome, not least of all because it removes the time compression of the 94m 10s Connoisseur transfer and gives us the film at its correct 98m length and speed. On the negative side -- and this is considerable -- it suffers from overzealous digital noise reduction. Close-ups and less complicated medium shots look almost fully revitalized, but whenever the backgrounds introduce a lot of leafy trees, the haloing smears together into a vague and pasty mess; the narrow bars of a wrought iron gate or the pebbled path inside a courtyard yield all kinds of unwelcome moirés and rainbow effects. The average bit rate is 7.2, but it looks conspicuously worse on my 53" screen. I spot-checked the disc on my computer DVD drive and found that the smeary stuff looked merely soft-focused on a smaller monitor.

It should be mentioned that TEOREMA, like THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (and hundreds of other Italian films of the 1960s), was scored by the great Ennio Morricone. I suspect that Morricone and Pasolini were at odds, as (except for an Ornette Coleman-like main theme for jazz combo) the music is mostly heard in tinny snippets overheard on unseen radios. This is a movie that could have done without music.

The disc is filled-out with “Pasolini and Death: A Purely Intellectual Thriller,” a 53m interview with artist Giuseppe Zigaina, who worked as a technical consultant on TEOREMA. He doesn't discuss this collaboration; instead, Zigaina shares his theory – inspired by a complete rereading of Pasolini’s oeuvre – that the director’s violent 1975 murder was not unexpected but rather a work-for-hire that Pasolini felt was necessary to underscore his life’s work with meaning. For some reason, Koch Lorber have opted to overdub Zigaina rather than subtitle his conversation, which is a bit distracting. It’s a disturbing story nonetheless, and he presents a very convincing case. Engrossing material, but not the right chaser for TEOREMA.

So what are the right chasers for TEOREMA? Sitting under the stars, listening to jazz, running, cuddling, drinking, smoking, crying, praying, making love. All in all, a moving experience that not even an imperfect transfer can diminish. My rating: B

Black Tuesday

I awoke this morning overhearing Donna, in her office in the next room, consoling a relative of one of our readers. As I lay there in bed, listening for some clue to the reader's identity -- "He was with us almost from the beginning," I heard Donna say -- I understood that the tragedy was not just a death, but a suicide. "Sometimes the depression gets to be so much, and if you combine that with physical pain..." Donna offered, and I began to think of those VW readers who I know suffer from physical ailments and disabilities.

I put on my robe and walked into Donna's office, where -- still on the phone -- she looked at me and wrote a name on a handy tablet: "Thomas Scofield." This was not one of the names I called to mind, and this is indeed tragic.

I first came into contact with Tom Scofield in the wake of Video Watchdog's 5th issue, the one devoted to Mario Bava's BLACK SABBATH. Tom sent me a wonderfully descriptive, long letter about his first encounters with Bava's films at drive-ins in the Midwest. I haven't read it since, but I prize it in memory as one of the best Bava-related letters I ever received. It made mention of the fact that Tom, while still in high school, had conducted a correspondence with the film's American composer Les Baxter that touched on his Bava assignments for AIP. Tom offered to share that information with me for my Bava book, but as it turned out, he never did. Tom's initial letter had informed me that Baxter had recorded and released "Katia's Theme" from BLACK SUNDAY as the title theme of his exotica album The Jewels of the Sea, and he kindly loaned me his vinyl copy of this rare album for the year or so I misfiled it. When I found it again, I returned it to him with interest.

The next time I heard from Tom was quite some time later, circa 2000, when someone notified me by e-mail that I was the subject of some new controversy on the Film Score Monthly boards. Evidently Tom had been upset about some statements I had made (all perfectly true) in my liner notes or audio commentary for Image Entertainment's BLACK SUNDAY DVD, concerning the extent to which "Katia's Theme" had been copied from Roberto Nicolosi's original score. There's no need for me to paraphrase all this, because Tom's correspondence (unintended for publication) and my response to it are still available for reading on the FSM site. That his anger is still available for discovery, though the matter was later resolved amicably, is one of the misfortunes of an unforgetful cyberspace, where everything that survives seems to do so in the present tense.

Suffice to say, a year or so after that exchange, Tom e-mailed an apology to me for his overreaction, explaining that he had been suffering from depression and a physical ailment, both of which sometimes blinded him to reason. I accepted his apology, assured him that Les Baxter would be favorably represented in the Bava book, and wished him well -- but never heard from him again. Tom remained a VW subscriber (as he had been since 1991) for the rest of his life, and his mother tells Donna that receiving a new issue was always good for raising his spirits for a couple of days. She blames the dark mood swing that ended in his death on a new medication he was taking for depression, coupled with being several days off the medication he was taking for his bad back.

Tom's mother, his only survivor, is now trying to notify Tom's friends of his death but is completely out of her element with the computer he left behind. She would particularly like to find Tom's friend James Singer, for whom she doesn't have a current address. If anyone reading this blog knows of James Singer's present whereabouts (he used to live in Las Vegas), please write me by clicking the "Contact Tim" option to the right and I will forward the information to Mrs. Scofield. Likewise, if anyone who befriended Tom in cyberspace would like to forward their condolences, we will send those along as well.

Thomas Merritt Scofield was 50.

9:15 PM postscript: Donna tells me that Tom took his life last July, though we only heard about it today. His mother decided to contact us after receiving his subscription copy of VW #122 in the mail.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Building a Better Bird


Rules are made to be broken, and I'm going to give you a full-length review after all. Not the same review you'll later be enjoying in Video Watchdog, but a meaty one all the same. What's the point in doing a blog, if I can't occasionally surprise you... or myself?

In my VW 108:68 review of Medusa Home Entertainment’s Italian import disc of Dario Argento’s directorial debut, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970), I wrote, after encapsulating the movie’s long history of mishandling on home video, that “Medusa’s new Italian DVD release is as near to perfection is as likely to occur, wedding the perfect visual presentation – wider 2.34:1 image with more picture information, warmer color and richer detailing – to fine English and Italian mono tracks… and also a brand new Dolby 5.1 mix [only on the Italian soundtrack] that adds a scary new spaciousness to Ennio Morricone’s stalk-and-sigh score.”

On October 25, Blue Underground will make me eat those words by releasing a spectacular two-disc “Special Edition” of the film that eclipses the Medusa disc in every single way. The disc's executive producer William Lustig credits THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE with being the movie that initially inspired him to become a filmmaker. “I can remember going to see it when it first played at the Embassy 46th Street Theater in New York,” he enthuses. “I can remember sitting in the balcony and feel my hands break out in a sweat during the scene of the girl crossing the park. I had never experienced that kind of visceral suspense from a movie before.”

Lustig has repaid his debt to Argento in full by giving BIRD “the full Criterion-style treatment.” Blue Underground’s DVD marks the first time any company has utilized the film’s original two-perf Cromoscope camera negative in the creation of its master, and in this case, it’s also the first-ever high definition master of this title. [FYI, “two-perf” refers to a camera system devised by Techniscope which enabled special cameras to film scope in 35mm without the use of anamorphic lenses. This was achieved by cutting the height of the four-perforation frame literally in half, which effectively doubled the width of the image.] The disc has an impressively high bit rate (it almost never dips below 9.2!) and looks remarkably vivid, yielding an extraordinarily enhanced perception of depth and detail, which Lustig credits in part to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro's use of spherical lenses.

"The classic widescreen images we tend to associate with the Italian cinema come from the early films of Sergio Leone and Dario Argento, and they were all shot two-perf with spherical lenses, which resulted in this amazing sense of scope and depth," Lustig notes.

“I don’t know how much you know about two-perf scope,” Lustig told me, “but, because there is a certain amount of image degradation involved in the process, filmmakers would often compensate by going a bit brighter and bolder in their lighting on set, so when you go back to the original negative as we did, it’s like stripping away a dingy layer you’ve been used to seeing all these years.”

Compared to the Medusa disc, the transfer is slightly darker, resulting in warmer, more naturalistic skin tones and colors that pop more brightly. Compare the frame below (from the Blue Underground disc) to the same frame as it appears on the Medusa disc, which appears on page 69 of Video Watchdog # 108:


(Just click on the image to enlarge it.)

Of course, grain is more apparent in BU's razor-sharp BIRD transfer than it was in earlier releases, which were all taken from diminished positive print sources. The presence of grain indicates that a scene was either filmed on location with insufficient natural light, or it can tip-off the presence of an optical effect like a dissolve or an optical zoom. But grain is even more noticeable in films of two-perf origin, because each frame is printed on the film strip at half the normal size and is later blown-up to full size in projection.

By going back to the original negative, BU also ensured that their BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE would be as complete as it can be. This has not been too much of a problem with earlier European releases, but the film was trimmed for America, notably in the "panties ripping" scene (which has been restored for some time) and the elevator murder scene (which here makes its US debut wholly intact, with the addition or extension of a couple of shots). Disc producer David Gregory tells me that some recent domestic issues of the film on disc have also eliminated the line “Bring in the perverts!” from the police lineup scene, but it has once again been restored to its rightful place.

BU’s deluxe disc also improves on Medusa’s Italian disc sonically. Whereas Medusa offered only a mono English track, BU offers four English tracks (five if you count a fun, spirited audio commentary by Profondo Argento author Alan Jones and VW’s own Kim Newman) and another three in Italian.

Here’s the run-down:
English: DTS 6.1 EX, DD 5.1 EX, DD 2.0 Surround and DD 2.0 mono.
Italian: DD 5.1 EX, DD 2.0 Surround and DD 2.0 mono.

If you’re set up to enjoy DD 5.1 or DTS 6.1 EX sound, I think you’ll agree the audio enhancement is unbelievable, not least of all because it has one of Ennio Morricone's most intoxicating thriller scores to work with. As Alan and Kim note during their commentary, BIRD is one of the few Argento films that has sustained a contemporary look and feel over the decades, but the new sound mix (which Lustig approved at an additional cost of over $30,000) brings it even more up-to-date. Watching the scene of Tony Musante ambling home in the fog, prior to his being nearly decapitated by a machete, the 6.1 track lowers a shimmering curtain of ambient sound around your head from your rear speakers, with the descending electric bass notes of the Ennio Morricone score seeming to actually step toward you, as other instrumentation and sound effects phase spookily from left to right.

Now I’m a purist when it comes to these things, too, but if sonic re-landscaping can enhance what’s already there without upstaging it, and somehow underline a picture’s suspense or its ability to frighten – as also happened with Warner Home Video’s extraordinary stereo remix of Kubrick’s THE SHINING – then I’m all for it. The degree to which BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE has been revitalized is truly amazing, and remember – BU is providing its audience with an experience of this film (indeed, several experiences of this film) they can have only on DVD. The mono track is always there if you want it, as is the original Italian soundtrack with an English subtitle option. The English subtitles appear to offer a genuine translation of the Italian dialogue rather than a dubbing transcription, and it’s yet another interesting way to watch the movie by listening to the English dub with the subtitles activated.

The second disc is pure gravy, providing four interviews with cast and crew members, averaging 11 to 18 minutes apiece. Assembled here are writer-director Dario Argento, composer Ennio Morricone (who reminded me of Bela Lugosi's great phrase from THE RAVEN, “a god... with the taint of human emotions”), cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (who obscures his reflections on Argento and the film with a cerebral monologue, then dismisses us), and German actress Eva Renzi. Interviewed last January by BU correspondent Uwe Huber, Frau Renzi died of lung cancer last August, but she’s feisty as hell here.

The running time of Disc 2 is sure to excite comment from online reviewers about whether this material should/could have been crammed onto Disc 1, in an effort to keep the overall cost of the set down. Yes, such a move would have cheapened the set... in more ways than one. If you're watching this disc on your home computer or a portable TV you bought at Sears, then yes, you're not likely to appreciate the brilliance of what's been delivered here. But for those of us with widescreen sets and HD capability, the high bit rate is much appreciated and not to be degraded. The two-disc presentation was absolutely the right choice.

Additional kudos to Blue Underground for the classiest packaging an Argento picture has ever had on video. This disc might actually be bought by some people who don’t go to bed in “Fulci Lives” T-shirts, and it deserves to be. My rating: A+

PS: The Jones/Newman commentary doesn't indulge too much in the way of pointing out character actors like Fulvio Mingozzi (the taxi driver in SUSPIRIA, seen here as a secondary detective) or the great Umberto "Humi" Raho, veteran of such Italian horror classics as THE GHOST and BARON BLOOD. I always notice Signore Raho when he pops up in a movie, and I've seen BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE numerous times, but not until this viewing did I notice how much he resembles Anthony Perkins in later life... during his WINTER KILLS phase, for example. What do you think?


Why Kurt Won't Be Visiting

"Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different." -- Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

And he's right, you know.

Thank Columbus for Contests!

Happy Thanksgiving to my Canadian brothers and sisters, and Columbus Day greetings to my fellow statesiders, though this is one of the US holidays I gripe about. With all due respect to Christopher Columbus, I’d much rather receive my Monday mail. I can’t help but wonder how much longer Columbus Day will linger on the American calendar; the supposed discovery of America is a bit far back to look for a country that’s starting to remake movies that were made in the 1970s.

In one of the stranger episodes of my on-again/off-again novel-writing career, my publisher Simon and Schuster has seen fit to make me the subject of a contest. If you search my name on their SimonSays.com website, you will be taken to a page that includes, among other things, the giddy proposition “Win A Phone Call with Tim Lucas!” (The Official Rules page stresses that this prize has no monetary value, but I say that depends on who’s paying for the call.)

The idea is that Book Club members should go to the description page for my novel The Book of Renfield and answer a trivia question on the entry form posted there. But, for the life of me, I can’t find any questions (apart from those of the book’s Reading Guide) nor any entry forms. What with all this obfuscation, and no mention of the contest on the "Simon Says" main page, I’ll be very surprised if anyone enters, much less wins, this competition. But here’s the link, in case any of you dare to brave the labyrinth:

http://www.simonsays.com/content/destination.cfm?sid=33&pid=364950&qid=1&app=poll_quiz

[1:48 PM Update: Upon checking out how this blog link was working, I found a button installed under the "Official Rules" link. It is labelled "Start." This is what you push to gain access to the Renfield question. But be warned: it's a real brain-teaser!]

Check back later in the day because I plan to post some thoughts on Blue Underground's forthcoming deluxe disc of THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE... but I'd like to confirm a thing or two with the folks at BU first.

This blog received over 300 hits in its first 24 hours – an extraordinary début! Please tell your friends and I’ll keep spinning the plates.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

An Open Letter to Susan Sennett


Dear Susan:

My name is Tim Lucas, and I'm a novelist and film critic; I edit and publish a monthly magazine called Video Watchdog and also write a monthly column for the British magazine Sight and Sound. I also write occasional liner notes for Subversive Cinema, and I asked Norm Hill if he could put me in touch with you. When I told him why I wanted to contact you, he told me that he would appreciate it personally if I sent this letter, and he thought you might appreciate it too -- which makes it all the more worth doing.

I watched Subversive's disc of THE CANDY SNATCHERS (1973) a couple of nights ago. While the disc looks great, I was frankly not much impressed with the movie, and I was wondering how I was going to express my disappointment to Norm -- until I watched the "Women of the Candy Snatchers" featurette and listened to the audio commentary. It rarely but occasionally happens that a DVD supplement will actually redeem the main feature, and I believe this is one of those extraordinary occasions. On the strength of what you, primarily, contributed to the disc I've decided to make THE CANDY SNATCHERS the subject of my next Sight and Sound column. It will appear in print sometime next month. I only wish I could have gone on a bit longer, and I may well expand the piece for my own magazine.

I thought it essential to reach out and thank you, for overcoming some serious personal ghosts in order to bring these documents into being. The stories of your personal experience on the picture were heartbreaking in such a matter-of-fact, non-self-serving way -- even managing to be humorous at times -- that I think they will make a world of difference to how this movie is perceived. I understand there are some "gore fans" out there who are ragging on the disc because you don't tow the usual PR line with the picture in your commentary, but I think the positive response will come in greater numbers.

It is so difficult in today's rigorously controlled media environment to hear candid accounts of the difficulties involved in becoming a working actor that stories such as yours are a breath of fresh air. I have always thought well of you -- I've liked you and your work for a long time (I remember you from OZZIE'S GIRLS, well before BIG BAD MAMA)... but after hearing about how you walked out of your THREE'S COMPANY audition and your refusal to play a victimized woman for no reason in that television commercial, not to mention the tragic stories of how you soldiered on through the making of CANDY SNATCHERS -- I now think of you as a heroic woman.

To be honest, though I'm sure she's very nice, I can't send a similar letter to Tiffany Bolling because she came to the disc from a completely different angle. I got the sense from her input that, though she's not presently a working actor, she'd like to be and is hoping to use her participation here as a calling card. Because she didn't suffer through the movie as you did, she has more positive feelings about it and there was a palpable sense of her hope that this old skeleton in the closet might somehow be her ticket to renewed cult recognition as "Queen of the B's." Things may well work out that way, and godspeed to her, but I found her contribution interesting mostly for the way her reactions to the picture and her memories stood in contrast to yours, which I found so touching and vulnerable and sensible.

For the record, even though I didn't care much for the film (the attempts to blend comedy and tragedy just don't work, I feel), I found much to admire in your performance specifically, if you don't mind your natural responses to your predicament being called a "performance." You remind me very much of a French actress I admire, Édith Scob -- she often worked with a director named Georges Franju, and if you ever see a film called JUDEX, you'll know what I mean. She had an angelic face that made tragedies all the more tragic, yet she gave what is arguably her finest performance while forced to wear a mask throughout most of a movie called EYES WITHOUT A FACE. I thought of how she made the most of that obstacle while watching you give your performance mostly blindfolded and gagged, unable to use your voice or your eyes for much of the running time, yet somehow imbuing Candy with all the information the viewer needs to care about her and her fate. What you gave to the film -- and I use that "gave" advisedly -- is one of the few things it can be unreservedly proud of.

I wish you had continued in films long enough to have found your own Georges Franju, a director who could have built some really important films around you, even better cult movies, but it sounds like your life in Hawaii has worked out for the best. I'm very happy for you, and also glad for me -- that I was able to make your better acquaintence on this DVD.

In admiration,
Tim Lucas