Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Second "Homecoming"

For excellent further commentary on Joe Dante's MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Homecoming," see Dave Kehr's blog.

The weather here in Cincinnati has been miserable of late. It's too warm for November, and there's been a lot of rain and wind and general atmospheric pressure of the sort that predisposes me to dull but miserable headaches. This is something like my third or fourth straight headache day. Aspirin isn't helping much; acetaminophen isn't helping either. Plus I am presently in the midst of that stage of VW production called "frame-grabbing hell" and, between these two inconveniences, I'm feeling too bogged to blog today.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Masters of War


Got an e-mail from Joe Dante yesterday, telling me that his MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Homecoming" received a three-minute standing ovation this past weekend at the Turin Film Festival!

Joe sent me a preview disc of the ep, which I happened to watch a couple of nights ago. "Homecoming" (written by Sam Hamm of BATMAN/BATMAN RETURNS fame, and based on Dale Bailey's short story "Death and Suffrage") is about dead war soldiers who are shipped back home to America from overseas, and who return to life for the purpose of performing one last act (which I won't spoil for you). These aren't your mama's zombies, either; while it's in the tradition of J'ACCUSE and DEATH DREAM, "Homecoming" turns a new page in how the living dead are represented on film and uses the genre to truly heroic, satirical, and even patriotic ends.

To Joe and Sam: I salute you.

The news of the episode's enthusiastic reception in Turin is heartening, because I suspect a fair portion of the MASTERS OF HORROR audience won't appreciate it; it's fairly sophisticated and not really scary in the overt sense, except in the way it reflects with only slight exaggeration and caricature how scary the world in which we live already is. It contains some instances of graphic horror, but it's mostly a thoughtful and pointed piece, comic and tragic, that treats its audience like it treats its zombies -- as real people. Anyway, prepare yourselves for an innovative show, replete with some of the name-dropping for which Joe's work is famous, and similar in tone to his underrated THE SECOND CIVIL WAR (which was recently sneaked out on DVD).

"Homecoming" is going to air on Showtime, I believe, the weekend of December 2.


As for this past weekend's episode, Tobe Hooper's "Dance of the Dead," I dunno... I don't find myself particularly inspired to write about it. That's not to say I found it unwatchable or even uninteresting; but what is there to be said about that kind of glorying in nihilism? It was well-cast (Robert Englund, pictured above, slimier than usual) and certainly... er, dark. But strip away all that fashionable speed-thrash frame toggling and teenage hellbounding, and what's left is a very thin story about a sheltered 16 year-old girl who sells out her entire future because her mother lied to her... once. Stories this sensitive, I suspect, are not well-served by such a hard and sticky veneer and require more editorializing than Hooper was interesting in mustering, at least if they're aiming higher than making dissolution look cool. I'm still not entirely sure what happened -- another of Richard Matheson's "mists"?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

This Monkey's Gone to Macaroni Grill

Last night we had dinner at a Romano's Macaroni Grill across the river in Northern Kentucky with two out-of-town friends, Linda Franz and her fella Russell Bays. Donna and Linda met on the Internet, Linda being the author of a series of quilt books tied into the writings of Jane Austen and Donna being her #1 fan. They've become like sisters and Donna really blossoms in her company; it's a pleasure to see her come out from under the 400 lb. book and to know that the smiles I fell in love with are still there. I like Russ and Linda too; they're creative, convivial and fun-loving people, and they travel with Linda's professional mascot, Monkey, who is always a miraculously present personality in the room. We see them twice a year as they drive back-and-forth between their regular home near Toronto and their winter home in Naples, Florida. For you note-takers, I had a campari-and-soda aperitif, followed by a half portion of the insalada blu and, finally, the veal saltimbocca and two glasses of the house chianti. At Macaroni Grill, they leave a bottle of the house wine on your table and operate on the honor system. They have paper tablecloths and leave crayons so you can amuse yourself while awaiting your meal, and you're expected to mark your tablecloth for every glass of wine you have. I wrote two marks and made sure our earringed waiter knew that "II" meant two and not eleven. Anyway, a nice, relaxing, head-clearing visit -- and if you read yesterday's blog, you know I needed it.

After dinner (Linda, Russ and Monkey took the tablecloth and are threatening to reproduce it on her website), Donna was easily persuaded to drive over to the Best Buy neighboring the Hampton Inn where we'd dropped off our friends. (They are continuing on to Florida and, as I write this, Linda and Donna are already on the phone chatting and laughing, from Linda and Russ's intermediate stop in Atlanta.) This past week, I got a nice little windfall by selling off a chunk of my vinyl collection, so as Donna likes to say, it was burning a hole in my pocket. I knew nothing about this, but I was surprised to find that all of the Rolling Stones' releases between STICKY FINGERS and DIRTY WORK have been reissued by Virgin Records as part of something called "The USA Collection" in newly remastered pressings. (These aren't listed on Amazon.com, for some reason, so I have no idea how long they've been out.) As a big fan of the Stones' remastered SACD catalogue, I've been awaiting remasters of these later albums for some time, so I picked up my three favorites right away: STICKY FINGERS, EXILE ON MAIN ST. and SOME GIRLS. (I'm putting the rest on my Xmas list.) I bought a lot of other stuff -- including a copy of David Cronenberg's THE FLY, which Fox didn't send to me even though I contributed to the disc -- but be that as it may.

When I got home, I decided to listen to EXILE first and popped it on. I was disappointed when I loaded the disc and didn't see the little "SACD" sign light up on my player display. The earlier albums had been released as "CD/SACD Compatible," so I was hoping for the same here. Nevertheless, the disc sounded fantastic and vivid. As I read the booklet, I discovered it was mastered with a new SACD process, copyrighted by Virgin, that reproduces the complete sound of the original analogue tapes on standard equipment! Traditionally noted as a "murky" sounding album, EXILE burst through my speakers with robust clarity -- and as seems to work with SACD, the louder you play it, the more realistic the sound gets. A track I've never paid too much heed before, "Casino Boogie," riveted my attention to Charlie Watts' drumming, which is surely some of his best and most inspired on record. And comparitively, it became very obvious that Watts wasn't drumming on "Happy" (album producer Jimmy Miller took over here, without much elegance). Can't wait to load up STICKY FINGERS later today and hear "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" this way.

I followed EXILES by watching a new concert DVD I didn't know was out: Rhino Video's PIXIES SELL OUT, compiled from various performances on the Pixies' 2004 reunion tour. I've been able to download over a dozen Pixies shows from this tour, and they're all wonderful, but the effect of the music is greatly enhanced by seeing it performed. This isn't a particularly visual band, either; they don't exactly "put on a show," they just stand there (or sit, in the case of drummer David Lovering) and belt it out. But Frank Black is one of the best songwriters of the past 20 years, and it's sheer joy to see what was once a cult music being played to sea after sea of people, crowds of 100,000 and more, many of them singing along with the songs -- even when the lyrics are in Spanish. In addition to the concert, there's a menu of bonus performances that can be watched with or without interviews by the Pixies management about the tour, which is almost as generous as the main concert and includes some songs not presented in the other program. At one point, their manager mentions that he sometimes stood in the wings and could see audience members literally in tears to be in the presence of this music. I know it's true, because it happened unexpectedly to me during "Tame." This isn't a tender song; it's the kind of song that gives you goosebumps and makes them explode, which is much rarer. There's a moment in the middle eight, I guess, where all the instruments but the bass drum drop out and Frank Black and bassist Kim Deal keep the song going simply by breathing in a call-and-answer, mock-tantric fashion, and their voices are so primally complimentary, so evocative of roughness and softness, that they seem to fleetingly represent in sound all men and women... until the song resumes its former fury with the most open-throated roaring Frank manages all night long. The song becomes a cyclone. It's the Pixies at the height of their power -- the sort of moment that makes audiences jump and, evidently, strong men weep. If you like the Pixies' music, I think you need to pick this up; it's like finally reaching the main course after the appetizer of the Pixies DVD from last year, which included a 1988 concert and a documentary.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Faster, Pussycat! Write, Write!

While watching THE FORGER OF LONDON last night, I experienced a feeling that is becoming all too regular with me: a hungry wish that I could summon the clarity of mind (and somehow arrange the cleanness of desk) to focus on just one thing for awhile and explore it thoroughly -- like the Edgar Wallace krimis for instance. I would love to read all the Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan novels, to learn French and read all of Fantômas, and to search out the books that would teach me how to get a proper handle on my life, my physicality, and my disorderly thinking. I wish there were hours in the day for me to focus as much on my physical being as on my cerebral pursuits. I need to cultivate more of an appreciation for working up a sweat, and for a cleaner, more spartan, more inviting working place.

But it also weighs on me that I don't know enough about Jean Renoir or John Ford or Claude Chabrol; I've never seen CHILDREN OF PARADISE though it has been in my collection for years. I want to see more Parajanov. There are too many box sets in my life, clamoring for my time. The temptation to wile away the hours revisiting movies I've already seen, not just once but many times, is too strong; a comfort food for the eyes and a brain too tired at the end of a day to desire new experience. A new experience that might actually be refreshing or revivifying.

And I want to travel. Many of the people who are central to my life and work I have never met. There are many places in the world I know I will never visit, and this is something I probably should have started doing earlier in life, though, for me, it wasn't possible. As Donna says, "Thank God for the travel shows on Equator HD," but as pleasing as these are to the eye and ear, they can't bring you the smells and textures and interaction of another land.

I wish work wasn't so god-damned irresistable. At the same time, I feel I am well behind where I should be. I want to write more film scripts, and actually see some produced. And two novels aren't nearly enough; John Fowles was on the point of finishing Daniel Martin by the time he was my age. I don't want to be remembered only by a stack of magazines. I've got a number of ideas for next books crowding the ether around me, but I have to hold these at bay until the Bava book is out the door. Once I finish my work on Video Watchdog #123, my next task is to go through my manuscript and compile a proper Mario Bava filmography. I always felt that the length of the book itself provided the filmography, but more recently, I realized that, if I don't do this, someone else will go through my book and compile one, so the credit might as well be mine. The current filmographies, even the current biographies, are riddled with errors that need correcting.

I need a vacation. I need to work faster. I wasn't always this much of a Gemini.

My creative energies are chomping at the bit, wanting to surge out in all directions. I wonder if this desire to branch out in all directions, to do as much as possible with my available time, is a result of overseeing the omniverous appetites of my magazine, a desire to serve it best by being better informed, or if it's tied to the fears of mortality that become more pronounced with middle-age. The danger, I suppose, is actually undertaking too many new trivialities when I should be narrowing my focus to just a couple of important tasks, giving them something closer to my whole attention.

Why, I ask myself, did I start this blog? Perhaps to make the panic of a creative life less closeted, less subcutaneous. At least here I know I'm not talking to myself.

Alas, fretting takes time and energy, too.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Francesco De Masi (1930 - 2005)

Word reached me yesterday of the passing of the great Italian film composer Francesco De Masi, who died in hospital this past weekend of cancer at the age of 75. A funeral is being held in Rome this afternoon at the Chiesa degli Artisti on the Piazza del Popolo.

For anyone who seriously loves Italian film music, De Masi shares the pantheon with Nino Rota, Carlo Rustichelli, Piero Piccioni and, of course, Ennio Morricone. Morricone has been the most phenomenal of his generation of composers, scoring more than 500 films in addition to writing concert music and other outside projects, but there are some soundtrack collectors who hold De Masi's impassioned work in even higher esteem. They consider Morricone's music the brain of Italian film music, and De Masi's as the heart.

The bulk of De Masi's music was written for Italian Westerns (ARIZONA COLT, SEVEN PISTOLS FOR A MASSACRE, SARTANA DOES NOT FORGIVE), but he also composed and conducted outstanding music for horror (AN ANGEL FOR SATAN, THE NEW YORK RIPPER), war (INGLORIOUS BASTARDS), peplum (THE TRIUMPH OF HERCULES), swashbucklers (THE MAGNIFICENT ADVENTURER), and spy pictures (KOMMISSAR X). I was able to find an online English language interview conducted by John Mansell in 2002, which I am linking here for your information.

One of De Masi's earliest horror scores, for Riccardo Freda's THE GHOST [LO SPETTRO, 1963], is full of shuddery passages and vertigo-inducing heights, but it's most memorable for an achingly tender Irish melody that is heard variously throughout the film with full orchestra, on piano, and as a music-box melody. It's one of those melodies that gives a film so much more than the story demanded; it grabs you by the heart and refuses to let go. A still later cue, written for the finale of THE MURDER CLINIC [LA LAMA NEL CORPO, 1966] but also heard at the end of Mario Bava's library-scored KILL, BABY... KILL! [OPERAZIONE PAURA, 1966], is so exquisitely evocative of tender, guarded optimism that it awakens feelings almost too big to seem an appropriate response to a horror picture. When I was asked to provide some music for the memorial service of my friend Mark Upchurch, I sent along an mp3 of this rare track, which is one that I knew he and his brother Alan had loved.

When I heard this news, I immediately thought of my friend John Bender, a columnist for Film Score Monthly and writer about Euro lounge soundtracks in Video Watchdog #104, who had the good fortune to meet Maestro De Masi in 2003. John wrote back to me as concise and fine a tribute as I can imagine:

"I've cried for this great man's passing. There is just so much courage and honesty in his music, an emotional immediacy that can only come from a man of profound integrity and compassion. When I listen to his music, I can hear what it means to be a man, and it is in this regard that I have lost a father."

Thursday, November 10, 2005

WOLFSTEIN!


"Now! The most fright-en-ing Frankenstein story of all, as the ancient werewolf curse brands the family of monster-makers as Wolfstein... Wolfstein! The inhuman clan of blood-hungry wolf monsters!"

Under a crudely animated main title, a narrator uses these feverish words to feebly explain why the movie we are about to see -- FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR -- offers two werewolves and two vampires but no man-made monsters. It's the sort of inane drivel that separates the real, dyed-in-the-wool horror fans from the poseurs. You've got to admire the sheer balls of this kind of salesmanship, the kind that tells you right up front -- even before the story starts -- that you can consider yourself screwed if you came to this movie expecting to see Frankenstein. Of course, with a company like Independent-International, audiences were screwed even when they did see Frankenstein, as in Al Adamson's incoherent DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1973), a movie which played an important role in the story of why this movie is called what it's called. But FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR is so stylish, and has such a great werewolf, and is so utterly not to blame for what its US distributor did to it, that all is quickly forgiven. A lot of fans worship at its altar.

Before Independent-International got their mitts on it, FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR was a Spanish-German import called LA MARCA DEL HOMBRE LOBO ("The Mark of the Werewolf," 1967), the first of numerous horror films starring Paul Naschy, one of the great continental horror stars of the era, who created his own makeup, staged the film's effects sequences, and also wrote the picture under his real name, Jacinto Molina. It was also the first of numerous films Naschy would make about the Polish werewolf Waldemar Daninsky, his most popular character, who would return in such movies as ASSIGNMENT TERROR, THE WEREWOLF VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMAN (aka WEREWOLF SHADOW), FURY OF THE WOLFMAN, DR. JEKYLL AND THE WEREWOLF, NIGHT OF THE HOWLING BEAST, CURSE OF THE DEVIL, THE BEAST AND THE MAGIC SWORD, HOWL OF THE DEVIL, LYCANTHROPUS and the recent TOMB OF THE WEREWOLF. Naschy himself is perhaps an unlikely leading man, being short and stocky and with something of a comb-over even in this early role, but he had been a champion weight-lifter and brought a rare robust quality to his performances, that was not without certain intellectual or brooding shadings as well. His werewolf scenes in FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR are arguably the most ferocious and delirious ever filmed, and reason enough to track it down. The film also features an excellent couple of vampires, played by Julián Ugarte (whom you may remember as a vampire in Amando de Ossorio's MALENKA aka FANGS OF THE LIVING DEAD) and his enticing companion Aurora de Alba -- a voluptuous stiff with gloating eyes who does not like to be kissed on the mouth.

Director "Henry L. Egan" was in fact Enrique López Eguiluz, who had no other major works in the genre, but much of the film's stylistic impact is owed to the particolored scope cinematography of Emilio Foriscot, who previously shot Jess Franco's LABIOS ROJOS (1960, his first "Red Lips" movie) and later worked with Sergio Martino on THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL and THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH. There is a lot of moody scenery and lollipop lighting here...


... and the ancient castle locations include the El Cercón Monastery in Madrid as seen in TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD. If the music sounds familiar, that's because the original soundtrack (a downright silly score by Angel Arteaga) was scrapped in the dubbing process and replaced with hypnotic, sitar-driven cues by the great Bruno Nicolai, some of them originally heard in EUGENIE - THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION (1969). I also noticed a stray Gino Marinuzzi, Jr. cue from Mario Bava's PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965)!

Media Blasters/Shriek Show have released FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR -- for the first time ever on any video format! -- on DVD, priced at $19.95. If you shop around, you can surely find it cheaper. I want to be enthusiastic; after all, Media Blasters and I-I's Sam Sherman went the extra distance by including the two opening reels originally lopped-off the US release, which are presented here in English for the first time anywhere. Sherman's audio commentary (which runs for 87m 14s of the the 90m 27s feature) is a bit filibustery, but it covers a lot of ground and answers all the questions one might have about the film's title and about the 3-D version of the movie which has long been rumored to exist. (In short, it does... Sherman owns the negative, and he'd love to arrange some screenings of this version, which is composed entirely of unique takes, making it something of an unseen Naschy film.) The extras are superb, including a number of "deleted scenes" (more like deleted shots, indicated by marking excised shots from familiar sequences with an X) which include some samples of the original score, an interview with Naschy, and I-I's superbly lurid trailers and radio spots for the film's theatrical release. There's also a never-before-seen title sequence from HELL'S CREATURES, the original export title of this movie, which is built around a spinning roulette wheel laden with costume jewelry, à la DANGER: DIABOLIK.

So what's not to like? In a word, the transfer. Granted, it's anamorphic, but the framing has been somewhat zoomboxed to omit the spherical bowing at the extreme periphery of the frame, cropping off the tops of some heads in the process. Furthermore, the quality of the source material -- evidently cobbled together from more than one positive print -- varies throughout, sometimes drastically. Waldemar's transformation in chains, as the vampires lure away his beloved (Dianik Zurakowska), is overly dark and coarse-looking, yet followed by material that looks significantly clearer and brighter. Blue regularly seems to disappear from the available palette. Skin tones are often ashen, and brown hair flares orange while Naschy's red shirts and another actor's tweed jacket excite all kinds of chroma-noise. There are individual shots wherein the colors are so intense that it's all the taste you need to know that the rest of the presentation is suffering. Stepping through the disc also evinces regular frame-blurring; even the grab at the top suffers from this, as you'll see by clicking and enlarging the image. There is also a distinct lack of quality control amid the supplements, where the subtitling runs rampant with misspellings, a Spanish print is identified as a German print, and the name of Mirek Lipinski -- a top Naschy fan responsible for contributing and/or arranging many of the disc's extras -- has been carelessly misspelled at least two different ways. (It is spelled correctly on the back cover.) An enclosure includes informative liner notes by George Reis of DVD Drive-In.

It's a fact of life related to business and probable returns that I don't expect a superior domestic release of this title to come along, but I think a more definitive DVD will happen along someday as an import -- perhaps offering the flat and 3-D versions on the same disc. FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR is the sort of title you might be embarrassed to ask for at your favorite video store, but a lot of care and craft went into making this movie and it deserves to be seen and preserved on DVD at its best. I appreciate Media Blasters' release for what it is, and what it accomplishes, and it's acceptable for now. But let's hope it inspires someone overseas with deeper pockets to go the whole distance.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

I Still Dream of Orson Bean

A journal entry from April 23, 2003:

Dream: I was walking down 7th street downtown, mostly nobody around, and entered a department store where I saw a familiar stranger shopping. I couldn't quite place him; he looked like somebody I knew, but he had a little white mustache and, if I ever had seen him, he was older than I had seen him before. I hovered, watching him shop in an area filled with little glass-domed clocks, hoping the name on the tip of my tongue would make itself known to me before he disappeared. Then he got a call on his cellphone, and once he started talking in his funny, boistrous, mock-industrious voice, I knew this fellow was Orson Bean.

He yammered into the phone: "I've written a hit song, I tell ya! It's got 'hit' written all over it. What's it called? Are you kidding? I'll tell ya what it's called, my good man! It's called 'My Name Is Love and I'm Gonna Break Down Your Door, But It's Not You I Want - I'm Gonna Grab That Hot Daughter of Yours and Carry Her Away!' What? Are you kidding? The title is not too long! The title is what's gonna sell it! Why, the kids'll eat it up like pancakes!"

He put his phone away, took a piece of paper from a nearby jewelry counter, patted himself down, then abruptly turned to me: "Hey, you! You got a pen?" Before I had a chance to answer, he reached out and pulled a pen from my breast pocket and started scribbling something down, like he was jotting down the lyrics of this crazy song before they slipped his mind. He seemed crazy with excitement at what he'd just hatched. Then he folded the paper, handed my pen back to me, seized both my hands and shook them warmly. "I couldn't have done it without 'cha, but don't let that go to your head," he said, releasing me and starting to move away.

I said, "Mr. Bean, before you go -- there's something I've been wanting to tell you since I was 18." He looked a bit bewildered and came back, saying, "Really? What's that?" "Well," I said, "I just wanted to say 'thank you for writing ME AND THE ORGONE.'" He threw his head back with his mouth in an big O shape, squeezed his eyes shut as if it was all too much to bear, then shook my hands vigorously, even bowing in mock theatrical fashion to kiss them. "Why, thank you, thank you, my boy!" he said, making too much of a fuss. All around this little scene, people in the store who had gathered to watch this meeting of two Americans stood beaming fondly at us and applauding.

Then I woke up. The first thing I thought was, "Shit, watch me get online now and find out that Orson Bean has died." Happily, this wasn't the case and I'm even happier to say that Orson Bean is still among the living and employed.

It was odd of me to have this dream, because it wasn't prompted by anything recent. I hadn't read ME AND THE ORGONE since I was 18 years old. It's an autobiographic account of the failure of Bean's first marriage, his adventures in Reichian therapy, and how he fell in love with and married his second wife, Carolyn. (I must interject here that one of the reasons I was prompted to read this book -- which was passed on to me by an acquaintence named Peter Umbenhauer who taught a course on Wilhelm Reich at the University of Cincinnati -- was that I had seen the Beans together numerous times on the 1970s "candid" game show TATTLE TALES, where I learned a lot about the two of them and came to think of them as possibly the coolest couple on the planet. I got to know more about their background by reading ME AND THE ORGONE, which was a "three E" book: engrossing, enlightening and entertaining. I think Joe Dante must have read it too, because he seemed to know the book when I mentioned it while telling him, years ago, how pleased I was to see Orson Bean pop up in INNERSPACE. But I digress; I digress like hell.

I haven't read ME AND THE ORGONE since I was 18, but the first thing I did after waking from this dream was to get online, confirm that Mr. Bean was alright and then look up his book in the usual search engines, to see if it was still available. It is, and if any of this interests you, you should read it. My researches also revealed that he had since written another volume of autobiography which I'd also like to read. He and Carolyn are no longer together, apparently; he has since remarried to Ally Mills (the mom from TV's THE WONDER YEARS) and I'm sure they're a neat couple, too.

I don't know how much feedback Orson Bean gets on his books, but I want to re-read the one I remember so fondly and maybe read the more recent one too, and satisfy this unrest in my subconscious by dropping him a line of appreciation. Whenever I have a vivid dream like this, some little devil seems to tell me that these familiar strangers -- people I've known all my life in a sense, but who are in fact strangers -- need to hear from me on some level, and it's always an emotional battle of sorts to deny the force of the dream and come to the more sensible conclusion that these people are probably getting along just fine without me.

I don't know why I decided to blog about this two-year-old dream today, except that maybe the seed was planted by the fact that Donna and I dined last night at a wonderful new Argentinian tapas restaurant called The Argentine Bean. And there was an even stranger coinky-dink that occurred as I was writing this, when the aforementioned Joe Dante e-mailed me with this little story about "The Wilhelm Scream," which he says shall be heard again (several times) in the December 2 installment of MASTERS OF HORROR, which he directed.

Now that I think about it, Kate Bush once wrote a wonderful song about Wilhelm Reich called "Cloudbusting" -- which I guess ties today's blog to yesterday's!

Monday, November 07, 2005

Happy Synergy to You

As I mentioned yesterday, today is my Beloved's 50th birthday.

We had plans to go out for brunch, but we woke late and decided to stay in and domesticate. The rules began breaking last night, shortly after midnight anyway, when I presented her with some gifts, which she distinctly told me not to get for her -- I always get her books, and she doesn't have the time these days to read. So I got her a few books she can look at before bedtime, and also the new three-disc set of THE WIZARD OF OZ, whose new high-definition 5.1 transfer we enjoyed last night. Today, she's been chuckling over congratulatory e-mails from friends and I've been serenading her with mp3s, everything from Carpenters' "Close to You" to Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot's "Bonnie and Clyde" -- and, of course, the theme from "Hawaii 5-0." I sneaked Leon Russell's "A Song for You" into the mix, which was well-intended but more melancholy than was appropriate for such a happy day, so I raised the mood and the tempo by playing James Brown's "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine)," which is just as admired around here but in a different way.

She's starting to get ready for our evening -- we've been invited by our friends Wayne and Jan Perry to join them for dinner at a new Argentinian restaurant in town -- so I decided the time was right to start listening to Kate Bush's new album Aerial. It's very lovely; it's her first album in many years, and it's wonderful to hear something fresh from her, on today of all days. "Mrs. Bartolozzi" is one of those songs that makes you lower your head and smiley-pout, humbled by the expression of a superior artist.

As I started listening to the album, I continued to browse the Internet and learned on the Shockwaves boards that novelist John Fowles died over the weekend. I haven't read Fowles in awhile, which is okay because he hasn't published in awhile; after the death of his first wife, who had been the inspiration for the heroine of his The Magus, he decided there was no point in writing anymore... or at least not in publishing. He wrote many splendid novels and I have particularly warm memories of a season I spent reading his Daniel Martin and the revised edition of The Magus back-to-back. A few weeks ago, his name popped into my head as I was browsing Amazon.com and I read a few pages available there from a new biography and a new volume of his collected correspondence. It awakened some old feelings in me, feelings I hadn't realized I'd missed so much or still cherished. When I think of Fowles I think of books that read and feel like the books I want to write will read and feel. How I would love to have the time to re-read Daniel Martin someday...

Fowles was one of those quintessientially British novelists, a true heir to the walking stick of Thomas Hardy. Is the time for such men now behind us? I wonder. As I absorbed the mild shock of his passing, I realized that I was listening to a similarly, quintessentially British artist, a much younger one, whose long-awaited new album is similarly alive with landscape and eros, its songs apparently unified by the theme of domesticity.

Which brings me back to home and hearth and my Beloved's 50th birthday. Tonight, we celebrate. I will raise a glass to her, to our friends, and to these two others not present at our table who have come to nest in my thoughts today.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Just a Short Sunday Scribble

First of all, thanks to Brad Stevens for visiting the Mobius Home Video Forum and, in their Sci Fi, Horror and Fantastic Cinema folder, correcting a fine point in my original "Cormania" posting about THE TERROR. The stone portal I mentioned/pictured is not located at Big Sur, but on a stretch of Leo Carrillo Beach; I've gone back to my posted remarks here and made the appropriate correction. Brad also offered an interesting breakdown of who-shot-what for THE TERROR, which is worth reading.

I recorded Encore Mystery's showing of THE TERROR and was pleased to discover it's a newer transfer than I used to do the frame grabs appearing in this blog a couple of days ago. That version, as I mentioned, was preceded by an Orion Pictures logo; this new one is preceded by the MGM lion. The photography is much sharper-looking, the contrast is superior, and the color has been brightened and digitally enhanced; also the scene in which Jonathan Haze is blinded by an eagle plays out in this latest version with a day-for-night tint; the Orion version of the scene unfolds in broad daylight. The improvements are significant and admirable.

THE TERROR will be showing once again on Encore Mystery on Wednesday, November 23 at 5:00 a.m. eastern time.

My next Sight and Sound column is due tomorrow and I still don't know what I'm writing about yet, so I can't devote much time to this blog today. Also, tomorrow is Donna's birthday -- a major one... the half centenary... the "Big 5-0" -- and the first of my presents to her was a weekend off. I'm going to go downstairs now, play a little reggae (always a relaxing ambiance for a Sunday), make a nice pot of coffee, maybe rustle up some eggs, and spend some time with my lady fair.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

MASTERS OF HORROR's 1st Masterpiece


Stuart Gordon's "Dreams in the Witch-House," adapted by Dennis Paoli and Gordon from one of H.P. Lovecraft's finest stories and starring Ezra Godden (pictured above), certainly lived up to the promise of last week's promo, scoring the new Showtime series its first masterpiece of televised horror.

"Masterpiece" might seem a strong word to use in this context, but I'm thinking about the TV terrors that have survived over the decades to become bonafide classics -- THE TWILIGHT ZONE's "Nick of Time," "Eye of the Beholder" and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," THRILLER's "Pigeons from Hell" and "The Grim Reaper," and THE OUTER LIMITS' "The Forms of Things Unknown." Being a limited premium cable broadcast rather than a cultural phenomenon from the three-network heyday, "Dreams" can't touch as many lives with the same immediacy those earlier shows had, but there's no doubt that it's every bit as good, and at least as scary. Years and years from now, it will be one of the episodes for which MASTERS OF HORROR is remembered.

I'm not going to synopsize the story but I may refer to some things in general that you might not want to know about if you haven't yet seen the show, so be forewarned... but whatever I say, I don't think it can ruin it for you.

Despite its contemporizing of the story, as is consistent with Gordon & Paoli's previous Lovecraft adaptations (RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND), the imagery of the episode is remarkably consistent with the story's arcane and often involuted descriptions; and where the teleplay introduces its own conceits to lend the story more dramatic enhancement, it pulls no punches. Not only does the episode commit the unthinkable by allowing every fear it anticipates to actually come to pass, it pulls into port on a downbeat note that transcends isolated tragedy so as to seem almost like a death-knell for the human race. To achieve all this with tongue at least partly in cheek is pretty remarkable, and there is little in the scenario (blurred subjective reality, abstract geometric horror, frontal nudity, the threat of violence against children and its fulfillment, the violent death of a nice guy protagonist, etc) that would pass the gauntlet of test screenings necessary to reach a commercial theatrical release. Which is to say that the producers of MASTERS OF HORROR may not be merely being glib when they say they want the directors they hire to explore what frightens them.

I was especially pleased by the geometric horror aspect, which I expected to be something the segment would find some way to overlook; it's a difficult-to-pin-down aspect of Lovecraft that only Lucio Fulci has successfully tapped into before, in THE BEYOND. (Geometry, to me, is in some ways the ultimate horror because it suggests a malevolent intelligence well in advance of anything human beings could combat -- like uncovering a malignance in the very fiber of reality.) I thought Gordon and his cameraman Jon Joffin also succeeded spectacularly in delivering some of the most deliciously Lovecraftian imagery I've seen onscreen, richer and more twisted than the eldritchiana that's figured in Gordon's earlier romps in and around Miskatonic University. And then there's Brown Jenkin, the (unnamed here, except in the end scroll) half-rodent familar of the rooming house witch. When I read Lovecraft's story some years ago, it was this weird character I most cherished about it, and if this screen version isn't quite as tantalizing as the impossible oddity I remember Lovecraft describing, it's nevertheless an audacious attempt and somewhat successful at capturing its complex cocktail of charm and unspeakable repugnance.

Many years ago, circa 1968, Tigon and American International co-produced an adaptation of this story, variously known as THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR and THE CRIMSON CULT, starring Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele and Michael Gough. Despite that formidable cast, they made a real mess of it -- the "witch-house" was a sprawling, upscale English manor house with perfectly papered walls, Steele was painted green, and Gough was the closest thing to Brown Jenkin, a mute butler silently beseeching innocent visitors to go. Stuart Gordon has come much closer to the bullseye, which could perhaps only be perfectly scored by Lovecraft himself. If you've never read "Dreams in the Witch-House," the original story is the perfect aperitif -- or chaser -- to its new adaptation. Those with sufficient courage can invite the complete text into their senses here.

"Dreams in the Witch-House" airs again on Showtime East and Showtime HD tonight at 11:00 p.m. and tomorrow, Sunday night, at 10:00 p.m. eastern time, with other playdates scheduled throughout the week. For more information (including a photo gallery and a trailer), visit the series website here.

With its second episode, MASTERS OF HORROR has gone from being cause for cautious optimism to the show no horror fan can afford to miss. They've raised the stakes that high, and now we know the incredible is well within their grasp.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Cormania


What do THE TERROR (1963) and EASY RIDER (1969) have in common besides Jack Nicholson?

Strangely enough, both films introduce their protagonists riding into frame (Jack Nicholson on a horse, Peter Fonda on a motorcycle) and throwing away a device that has previously anchored them to their perceptions of time or space. In EASY RIDER, it's a wristwatch; in THE TERROR, it's a compass.

I noticed this shared detail whilst refreshing my memory of THE TERROR a couple of nights ago and became fascinated by it. I don't know who was responsible for suggesting this moment for EASY RIDER -- it could have been Fonda, Dennis Hopper, or possibly Nicholson himself, who was certainly around at the time -- but, all Corman alumni, were they flashing back to THE TERROR when it occurred to them? Can the germ of the independent American film movement be traced back that much farther, to the most admittedly desperate film Roger Corman ever made?

As legend has it, Corman commissioned the script for THE TERROR because THE RAVEN wrapped early and its beautiful Daniel Haller sets were going to waste. Completing THE RAVEN ahead of schedule also meant that Corman was still entitled to the acting services of Boris Karloff for a set period of time, and the venerable actor certainly wasn't getting any younger. As it happens, Karloff's scenes for THE TERROR were wrapped so quickly that, four years later, Corman was able to offer Peter Bogdanovich two still-uncollected days of the actor's time as an incentive to make his directorial debut, TARGETS (1968)!

As another legend has it, Corman allowed a number of associates to take turns directing parts of THE TERROR, including Francis Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Jack Hill, Monte Hellman and Dennis Jakob, and their ringleader gleefully admits that the resulting patchwork doesn't really stand up to close scrutiny. Watching it again, and paying closer-than-usual attention to its plot, I found that it does make sense... sort of... until [SPOILER ALERT!] it asks you to believe that Boris Karloff (born 1887) is the son of local witch Dorothy Neumann (born 1914)! That's asking even more than EARTHQUAKE asked audiences to believe when its producers cast Ava Gardner as the daughter of Lorne Greene. "I'm not the man I was twenty years ago," indeed!

Nevertheless, I love this movie as I love the people closest to me -- despite its faults. Nicholson is often jeered for being miscast as a soldier in Napoleon's army, but he's better here than in THE RAVEN and it's a pleasure to see him act opposite the lovely Sandra Knight (of FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER fame), who was his real-life wife at the time. It's also strange to contemplate that, before this picture was made, these two actors, seen here cavorting in 18th century costume, had embarked on psychiatrically-supervised LSD therapy as a form of marriage counseling. (LSD only became illegal in this country sometime in 1965.)


Which brings us to THE TRIP, which Nicholson scripted for Corman in 1966, and which I watched again for the umpteenth time last night on Encore. I didn't mean to watch it again, but as soon as Peter Fonda's line "There's only one man that can walk on water" was followed by his kaleidoscopic screen credit, I was hooked for the full ride. And because I had watched THE TERROR the night before, I could recognize all sorts of Leo Carillo Beach location scenery shared by THE TERROR and THE TRIP. At one point in THE TERROR, Jack Nicholson tries following the apparition of Sandra Knight into the ocean, where she has seemingly walked through a portal of stone that powerful waves begin crashing through. There is a scene in THE TRIP where Peter Fonda, playing Paul Groves (a character rooted in screenwriter Nicholson's own experiences), is seen wading into the ocean at this exact same spot, assailed by wave after wave pounding through that stone portal. And he too has been led there by a female apparition, played by the wondrous Salli Sachse. I don't know what it all means, if Nicholson was reminiscing about his TERROR experience or if Corman was simply echoing a moment from his own filmography, but glimpsing this sort of creative resonance, I figure, is worth three hours of my time.


Right now Donna and I are shaping the material we have on hand into the next issue of Video Watchdog. It's going to be issue #123, but it's not going as easily as one-two-three. Every time we do a new issue, it seems, I experience regrets about something or other that I wanted to do in that issue, but which there simply wasn't time to do. For over a year now, I have been looking forward to devoting an issue to Roger Corman's 50th anniversary as a producer-director. His first feature as a director, FIVE GUNS WEST, was released on April 18, 1955. And now we find ourselves already working on our last issue of the year, and there's been no time in these past months to research, compile and publish the sort of tribute I envisioned. I suppose, technically, this anniversary will remain in effect till April 17, 2006. It's an anniversary I feel demands commemoration, and I'm determined to do it.


I'm frankly surprised that every other magazine devoted to the fantastic cinema hasn't also planned a similar issue, because for us genre fans, Corman's career has truly been the phenomenon of our time. As a director, he's delivered a thoughtful and remarkably consistent body of work that has not only explored but expanded several different film genres; as a producer, he has lived to see his personal tastes change the entire landscape of mainstream entertainment; as an interviewee, he was perhaps the most articulate spokesperson the fantastic had, prior to David Cronenberg; and as a discoverer of new talent, he is simply without parallel. He's also become a hugely enjoyable screen presence, particularly in the films of his devotées Joe Dante (RUNAWAY DAUGHTERS, LOONEY TUNES BACK IN ACTION), Jonathan Demme (THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE), and Francis Ford Coppola (THE GODFATHER II).

Of how many people can it be said that the last 50 years of cinema is unimaginable without them?

Now that I think of it, next April is actually ideal for the special issue I had in mind. Because the anniversary-inclusive date of April 5, 1926 will also mark the 80th birthday of Roger William Corman -- my hero.

PS: It's easy to find THE TERROR on DVD, but beware -- the discs on the market look terrible. The grabs pictured above were taken from the best source I've found, a Showtime Beyond broadcast from a year or two ago, which carried the Orion Pictures logo. It's one of those pesky public domain titles whose original negative resides deep in the vaults at MGM. It's possible they might never consider it worth their while to release it, but they surprised us recently by putting out the similarly AIP/PD title LAST MAN ON EARTH last year, so maybe an MGM "Midnite Movies" release of THE TERROR isn't all that pie-in-the-sky.

PPS 5:48 p.m.: WatchBlog reader John Bernhard has e-mailed me with word that the Encore Mystery channel is showing THE TERROR tonight at 2:40 a.m. eastern time! This is bound to be at least the same as the Showtime Beyond broadcast I mentioned above, and possibly of even newer origin, so get those recorders revved up. I didn't realize my TERROR musings were so timely!

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Credit Where Credit is You

Someone wrote to me recently to ask why my name, of all names, appeared near the top of a long list of acknowledgements at the end of a new comedy called WAITING. I'm know I'm not the only Tim Lucas in the world -- Google me and you'll find doctors, musicians, priests, real estate agents and even a stand-up comic working under the professional name I've been using since 1971 -- but evidently there is also some parenthetical text onscreen that suggests I am the acknowledged Tim.

The writer-director of WAITING is one Rob McKittrick, whose name rings familiar or familiarly to me. Perhaps we corresponded by e-mail in the past, but I'm unaware of anything I might have done to earn such a prominent place in his acknowledgement scroll. I did work as a busboy in an Italian restaurant once, but only for a week. Anyway, I doubt the film was based on my own experience, as I never speak of those five days I spent in the uppermost circle of Hell to anyone.

I rarely see any movie till it comes to home video anymore, so I'm looking forward to seeing WAITING on DVD. I've spent a fair amount of time and energy trying to get my name up on the screen, but I believe this is only my second motion picture screen credit. My name also scrolls by at the end of Martin Scorsese's MY VOYAGE TO ITALY because I provided some photos, but this is the first time I've received a screen credit just for being me. So I send my thanks to Rob McKittrick for remembering whatever I did to warrant this little taste of immortality.

Speaking of immortality, today is or was the birthday of a remarkable number of those whom I consider immortal: Czech fantasy director/animator Karel Zeman (BARON MUNCHAUSEN), American actors Charles Bronson (who gives my favorite performance in my favorite movie, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) and Robert Quarry (COUNT YORGA - VAMPIRE), Italian writer-director Pupi Avati (THE HOUSE WITH THE LAUGHING WINDOWS), French writer-director Jean Rollin (REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE), British composer John Barry (surely you don't need to be reminded of his achievements!), Italian actress and cinema icon Monica Vitti (L'AVVENTURA and L'ECLISSE), Japanese anime pioneer Osamu Tezuka (ASTRO BOY, METROPOLIS), Taiwanese screen goddess Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia (THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR), British actor and Sherlock Holmes extraordinaire Jeremy Brett, German actress Eva Renzi (THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE), American makeup artist-actor Tom Savini (DAWN OF THE DEAD) -- and perhaps the biggest of them all, Godzilla (KING KONG VS. GODZILLA), who was born on Tokyo cinema screens this day in 1954.

Happy birthday to them all, wherever they are, and long may their screen credits reign.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Yes, Another CASTLE Blog. (You Know You Want One)

After screening my Sinister Cinema tape of THE CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (there is a "THE" on the title card) -- a cropped, standard ratio presentation of the American International Television 16mm print -- I am now fully persuaded that it was never a scope picture. Watching it on my widescreen set with gray bars on either side of the picture, it's easy to see that the main titles were not cropped of any information that would have extended beyond the 1.85:1 frame. Likewise, I didn't notice a single instance of pan&scaning, nor were any of the compositions seriously disrupted by the dead-center framing, just an occasional third person who doesn't quite fit onscreen in a three-shot.

I also looked at an older Beta source I have for this movie, taken from a local public access telecast circa 1983-84. This was brighter and slightly more detailed than the Sinister version, which had deeper blacks and a somewhat softer look. This soft look is a common factor among all three versions, and it's making me wonder if CASTLE wasn't shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm for theatrical release. The 35mm blow-up/16mm reduction might help to explain why the movie has always looked so soft and smudgy. Of course, cheap lab work could account for this, too.

I've often wondered why AIP licensed this movie directly to television. It was a Christopher Lee vehicle primed for release in the same year when CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA were cleaning up across the country as a reissue double-bill. Lee's face was gracing the covers of different monster magazines. You'd think that AIP would want a Lee picture on the bench and ready to play. I suppose the fact that the movie was shot in black-and-white had a lot to do with its bypass of a theatrical release. Speaking of which, a fellow gentleman and scholar wrote to ask me if I knew anything about the movie being in color, which is how he remembers it -- and, as he points out, Pohle & Hart's book The Films of Christopher Lee labors under the same impression. But no, THE CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD was a black-and-white film, even in foreign release.

It's good to feel satisfied that CASTLE isn't as overly cropped as I've long suspected, but that doesn't negate the need for a properly framed release. I'm still interested in seeing some more accurately ratioed foreign language copies, if anyone within range of this blog has one to offer in trade.

One last remark: In watching CASTLE again last night, I noticed that this was one of the many Italian films of this period whose English language version was prepared by the recently deceased Mel Welles. In fact, Mel dubs the role of Dart, played by Luciano Pigozzi. The dubbing for this picture is exceptional, I think, with many of Christopher Lee's scenes playing as though they were shot with live sound. He was later quoted in a Castle of Frankenstein interview as saying that, after hearing the wrong voice issue from his lips in the English version of Bava's THE WHIP AND THE BODY, he'd had it written into his contract that he must dub all his own performances. CASTLE was made less than a year later, so he obviously took immediate steps to rectify the problem. He meets the challenge of reactivating his performance as Count Drago superbly.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD Footnote

My curiosity about the original scope format of this movie motivated me to check a few references, starting with Poppi & Piccorari's Dizionaro del Cinema Italiano vol 3 (1960-69). Interesting: the listing for IL CASTELLI DEI MORTI VIVI doesn't make any note of Aldo Tonti filming it in scope. I decide to skip over the usual next steps and go straight to my fotobusta collection. I have an example or two from this movie and, to my surprise, they make no mention whatever of a scope format! Finally, to confirm my growing suspicions, I checked Tom Johnson & Mark A. Miller's The Christopher Lee Filmography (McFarland and Company) and, once again, no mention of a scope format.

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.

Halloween 2005

We usually just pass candy out the door on Halloween night, usually with some spooky movie or music playing, but this year the weather was so nice, so we decided to set up some chairs on the porch and pass out candy outdoors.

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

"Dr. Frankenstein's Lament"

Where is my little Fritz now?
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?

Fritzie!
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

MASTERS OF HORROR Premieres

Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR got off to a start on Friday night, with some occasional bothersome glitches during its premiere broadcast (at least my local Dish Network feed did). I was impressed by the show's general presentation -- it's extremely well-produced, with enticing main titles that catalogue a spectrum of definitions of "horror," and the HD look and sound will offer the next best thing to sitting in a clean theater every week.

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

Some New and Forthcoming Bylines

DVD Savant Glenn Erickson calls me "writing-addicted," a difficult charge to refute given my recent plethora of activities. To keep you all abreast of what I've been writing in an extracurricular vein, here is a rundown of what's presently, or about to be, on newsstands or elsewhere.

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]!

Yet Another Halloween Programming Update

After all that build-up, it seems that The Men's Channel did not present a preview of The Horror Channel after all. I dutifully tuned in at midnight and found myself gaping at an infomercial for a Time/Life rock oldies CD offer, hosted by Roger Daltrey. Unless The Horror Channel plans to become another of cable television's innumerable ready recepticles for this sort of late night "Paid Programming," something went wrong. A disastrous debut, to say the least.

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

The Separation of Church and Halloween

Seen on the roadside sign of a local church:

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.

Oops / Eureka / Hurrah / Uh-Oh

OOPS: In what is bound to be only the first of many time-slips experienced by this blog, I inaccurately stated yesterday that the Horror Channel preview was going to happen on The Men's Channel at 12:00 a.m. midnight last night.

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

Halloween Programming Notes

Tonight at 12:00 a.m. midnight, The Men's Channel will be presenting a preview broadcast of The Horror Channel, the much-ballyhooed everyman's alternative to Monsters HD. Things start tonight with what is described as "a tribute to film director George A. Romero," but I could find no details about whether this means movies we've already seen or new interview material we have not. Until The Horror Channel is properly launched, these previews will continue on The Men's Channel on Saturday nights at midnight beginning on November 5th. Visit this link for more information about where to find The Men's Channel on your existing cable lineup.

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

Of Price and Peel

Is it possible that a full year has already passed since the death of BBC disc jockey John Peel? Or that twelve years have now passed since the death of Vincent Price? True on both counts, as hard as that may be to believe.

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

Discovering Karl May

Isn't it a strange thing when a new enthusiasm overtakes you?

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

A Blog for Barboura


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.