Tuesday, November 22, 2005
New Yorkers won't understand this because many of them grew up with the MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE, which sometimes played KING KONG every day of the week, but there are still a lot of people who have never seen the movie called "The Eighth Wonder of the World." In conversation with our next-door neighbor recently, we found that he'd never seen it, and we also know that a friend of ours who passed away some years ago spent her entire life without seeing it. I first saw KING KONG the first chance I got, when it turned up as the premiere offering when Bob Shreve's ALL-NITE THEATRE moved from the local CBS affiliate, WCPO-TV, to the NBC affiliate WLWT-TV around 1970. I went over each new issue of TV Guide like a hawk in those days, and it was the first local broadcast I was aware of. I was accustomed to the crystal clarity of the stills that appeared in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, so I was surprised by the ancient look of the actual movie -- remember this was a local television print of an early sound picture -- but I was instantly drawn in by the human drama of the depression-era "hard luck" of Fay Wray's character Ann Darrow and the exuberant bombast of Robert Armstrong's great '30s character, Carl Denham. Kong himself was worth the wait, and once he showed up, the movie was at once charmingly antiquated and intoxicatingly fresh. More than 30 years later, it still plays that way to me. Isn't it the closest thing to a genuine American fairy tale that we have?
A few years ago, when we first got our HD widescreen set, I discovered how much the format favored stop-motion films like EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS, turning my TV into a regular Saturday matinee movie-house. So I decided to watch a German import DVD of KING KONG I happened to have. I'd had it for awhile, but had been putting off because rumors of an impending domestic, restored KONG release were going on even then. That German import looked pretty good (though not as good as this new DVD is supposed to look), about as good as the laserdisc releases had looked, but it gave me the happiest KONG experience I'd ever had... and by then, I'd even seen it a few times in a theater -- in 16mm at the University of Cincinnati, and in 35mm at Cincinnati's (now long-gone) Alpha Theater, with the long-rumored "censored" scenes restored. (When the film got to those points of Kong stripping Fay Wray or stomping native Africans into the ground, the movie got a lot darker because the footage had been recovered from a dupier print. Reportedly, the new DVD makes these scenes and shots look fully reintegrated with the rest of the picture for the first time.) Seeing KING KONG large in your own living room is one of life's great pleasures.
If you're reading this blog, you're probably an old hand at KING KONG. Maybe you've even seen it more times than I have. (I've personally long stopped counting the numbers of times I've seen movies, but I know I've seen KONG more than 15 times.) But if you're one of the people who has somehow missed out on this ineffable pleasure, do yourself -- do your family -- a favor and rush down to the video store today and buy or rent yourself an unbeatable evening of entertainment. Or, if you have Turner Classic Movies, turn it on tonight starting at 8:00 p.m. eastern for a full evening of KONG-related entertainment, beginning with the Merian C. Cooper documentary, I'M KING KONG.
KING KONG changed Ray Harryhausen's life when he first saw it at the age of 13. If you're the right age, maybe it'll change yours, too.
Today I get to do the final proofreading of Video Watchdog #123, our 20th Anniversary issue, which features Steven Lloyd's coverage of the second LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION set and David Kalat's profile of the inventive Japanese horror writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (CURE, CHARISMA and BRIGHT FUTURE). You may be interested to know that the great horror novelist and critic Ramsey Campbell has agreed to join the VW Kennel with a regular column, "Ramsey's Rambles," which will debut in VW #124. In each issue, Ramsey is going to discuss whatever film is obsessing him at the moment, and I'm sure we'll all enjoy following his lead to wherever it might take us.
Lastly, I want to mention that the new Mario Bava Soundtrack Anthology, Volume 2 disc -- a two-disc set from DigitMovies featuring Carlo Rustichelli's complete scores for THE WHIP AND THE BODY (mono) and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (full stereo!) -- is now in stock here at Video Watchdog. (Several of these cues can also be heard in other beloved movies, too, including Bava's KILL, BABY... KILL! and the Paul Naschy film A DRAGONFLY FOR EACH CORPSE.) We don't have an order page up yet on the home site, because we're still busy with the issue-in-progress, but it can be ordered from our toll-free number 1-800-275-8395 for $29.95 (USA first class) or $34.95 (outside USA, air mail), postage paid. (I should emphasize that I think these are the correct prices, which are the same as the EUGENIE double disc set we are selling from the same company. Donna, who will be filling your order, will know all the correct pricing so discuss this with her.) This is the soundtrack set all your Eurocultists have been most eagerly awaiting, and it's everything you hoped it would be. The full-color, illustrated booklet includes liner notes by Claudio Fuiano and me, as well as an interview with Maestro Rustichelli, who lamentably passed away before seeing this project come to fruition.
So today, two great dreams come true: KING KONG on DVD, and the two greatest Mario Bava scores on CD!
Monday, November 21, 2005
The movie I felt most like watching to test these newly remastered waters was THE BIRDS (1963), which I haven't seen for awhile and was the subject of a recent interesting discussion on the Classic Horror Film Boards, in the "1960s and '70s Horror" folder. The gist of the conversation was, "Is it science fiction or not?" I can see where some might think so, but I would more readily categorize it as fantasy since there's no science involved, unless you side with the picture's resident ornithologist Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies, who played Mrs. Whack in 1935's WERE-WOLF OF LONDON!) and consider that different species of birds don't typically flock together; then, I suppose, the story might represent some department of science fiction.
Well before I'd read much in the way of film criticism or analysis, I understood intuitively that the movie was a kind of allegory and that the bird attacks were somehow connected to the clashing psychic energies surrounding the characters of Melanie ('Tippi' Hedren) and Lydia (Jessica Tandy, whose performance struck me as particularly marvelous on this viewing). Since it had been some time since I'd seen THE BIRDS, my memory was that Melanie was herself the instigator, being something of a flighty character, wary of being caged, and that her mysterious relationship to the birds became most pronounced at the end, following her attack in the upstairs room. Just as she, in her shock, is easily disturbed, so must the Brenners guide her through the birds warily. There is something to this interpretation, I think, but it doesn't shell out quite so perfectly -- or so I see on refreshed acquaintence -- as do the birds' ties to Lydia, a widow who fears the coming of Melanie as a sign that her grown son Mitch (a pitch-perfect Rod Taylor) may leave her home without its core male strength. A gull swoops down to strike Melanie as Mitch prepares to intercept her at the dock where she is returning her rented boat; a gull crashes into the door of Annie Hayworth's (Suzanne Pleshette's) house after Melanie agrees to stay for Cathy's (Veronica Cartwright's) birthday party; Lydia persuades Melanie to pick up Cathy from the school house because she is fearful of another attack, which does indeed happen -- endangering Melanie, as well; at the Tides restaurant, the bird attacks cause a group of (interestingly, all women) customers to turn against Melanie and accuse her of being "evil" and attracting the birds to Bodega Bay; and I also find it relevant that Lydia is startled by a dead bird at rest on the portrait of Mitch's father, because she later describes her "weakness" as being instilled in her by a lifetime with a strong husband. Of course, during the birthday party, Melanie confides to Mitch that she harbors only angry feelings toward her self-absorbed, absentee mother, a confession whose contained emotion seems to immediately precipitate another attack on the children at the birthday party.
Thus, the most meaningful storyline of THE BIRDS (as I read it, anyway) is really about Lydia's acceptance of Melanie as a daughter, and Melanie's acceptance of Lydia as a mother. (There is a physical resemblance between Melanie and Lydia too, that doesn't exist in Mitch's earlier girlfriend Annie; it may well be the sign Lydia recognizes as indication that this is the woman Mitch will take seriously.) When Melanie emerges from her shock long enough to look up at Lydia at the end of the movie, their connection has the uplifting power of a happy ending before the film continues on to its final, uncertain shot, and we sense that Lydia has finally found her strength in the necessity to care for this more vulnerable creature. The lovebirds are, in a sense, these two -- two of a kind. Their truce may last, or it may not.
I love the fact that THE BIRDS continues to reward me intellectually, as well as viscerally, each time I see it. I have vivid memories of seeing it for the first time, with my mother and grandmother, on NBC's SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES -- several years before I caught up with PSYCHO on television. People of subsequent generations can't appreciate the impact of that program, which was a very big deal in those three-network days, and I'm sure the movie was cut to some extent... but it was a major discovery for me, and I especially remember the excitement created in our living room by the playground scene as more and more birds were added to the jungle gym. Along with the TWILIGHT ZONE episode "Eye of the Beholder," it was one of my earliest and most captivating encounters with film technique. It was almost certainly one of the starting points of my appreciation for film editing. (All hail George Tomasini, who also edited Rod Taylor's performance in THE TIME MACHINE.)
It's been 40 years since that night, and seeing THE BIRDS again -- for the first time on my HD widescreen set (the biggest I've ever seen it, which gave me a whole new appreciation of its uses of landscape and depth of composition) -- I was filled with absolute admiration. Yes, Hitchcock takes his sweet time telling the story, which would certainly never be tolerated in today's market (today's loss), but it's not tedium; it's remarkable technique, a master toying with his story the way a cat toys with a mouse before the kill, and making his characters and their relationships all the more real in the process. Consequently, there is not a single performance in the film that falls short; not only that, but everyone seems to have layers of backstory and their intimate conversations often fade to black on notes of wonderment -- offbeat, haunting chords in a minor key. Most significantly, this is a special effects movie and it's hard to imagine any of its effects being filmed with greater success or to greater effect today. To note that its dramatic impact was not buttressed by a musical score only adds to its achievement, though it is nevertheless one of the most sonically manipulative of Hitchcock's films.
So much to savor here: the way Mitch's discovery of Melanie's lovebirds prank is played out entirely in long shot, silent, with Mitch emphasized in the distance by his white sweater... Lydia's discovery of the shattered teacups in the neighbor's farmhouse (pictured above)... her discovery of the dead neighbor, a FRANKENSTEIN-like three-step cut closer into his gouged eyesockets, follwed by her silent flight from the house and reckless drive back home (again, in long shot)... Cathy feeling sick prior to the attack on the Brenner home and asking Melanie, rather than Lydia, for help (and the cutaway to Lydia, underscoring her notice of it)... Mrs. Bundy unable to turn around fully to face Melanie in the wake of the attack outside the Tides restaurant... and the way the lights suddenly go out in the Brenner home during the final attack. For the first time, I got a sense from watching the film on video how theater audiences must have jumped when this happened -- and also the trepidation they must have felt when Melanie guides her flashlight beam toward the PSYCHO-like flight of stairs leading to that fateful room on the second floor.
Furthermore, this viewing pointed out to me how much George A. Romero is indebted to this film, in particular. Hitchcock's "siege" picture, like Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, begins with the everyday, offers no explanation for the attacks, stages some memorable shots of Rod Taylor bracing the interior of his home against invasion (I love the moment when, having no rope, he trashes a living room lamp to rip out its wiring and secure a shutter), and the ending finds the survivors packing up into a reliable vehicle and moving out. This film's basic structure has served Romero well for four separate films -- and it's a testament to Romero's own resourcefulness that he's parlayed his borrowings into a whole new subdivision of horror fare, itself imitated by countless others.
Hitchcock's later films all have points of interest, even long stretches of bravura filmmaking, but THE BIRDS is the last produced of the films in this "MASTERPIECE COLLECTION" that seems to me an inarguable masterpiece. As time goes on, Hitchcock shows signs of becoming, in death, a kind of conscience of cinema. We may drift away from his movies from time to time, but they always remain a part of us and it's always refreshing and nourishing -- even enlarging -- to return to them. It's hard to think of areas on the map of cinema that he did not chart or extend in some way, and our appreciation of them speaks to our own lifelong growth as an audience.
May we continue to be worthy of him.
Saturday, November 19, 2005
There are a few moments in Dario Argento's MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Jenifer" when you know, without a doubt, that the madman responsible for FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, DEEP RED, and SUSPIRIA is behind the camera. Ironically, one of them occurs when he's in front of the camera, his beady eyes peering through the window of a padded cell in a mental hospital. The other moments involve cats (cats must cross the street when they see Argento approaching) and his real bête noir, the female sex, which is herein portrayed as dominant and utterly enslaving to the male of the species.
Based on a comics story written by Bruce Jones and illustrated by Bernie Wrightson, "Jenifer" was adapted by actor Steven Weber, who also stars as the protagonist Frank -- a policeman who, while on a stake-out, witnesses the attempted murder of a manacled woman and prevents it by firing his pistol at the heart of her assailant. The woman, Jenifer -- who has a very alluring body and a head of curly golden hair -- turns out to be not only monstrously disfigured of face but incapable of communicating with anything other than the most basic animal gestures. Her licking and nuzzling demonstrate how appreciative she is of her savior. Frank shrugs off official advice to seek counselling in the wake of the shooting and finds himself haunted by images from the encounter, of the woman bent over a metal drum in a soiled slip, which prompt him to attempt rough anal intercourse with his wife -- which isn't to her liking. When Frank learns that no provisions exist for Jenifer's safekeeping, he introduces her into his own home, just for a night or two... with disastrous results. We're not talking about a clash of personalities or the usual breaches of etiquette; Jenifer behaves in ways that simply cannot be overlooked or excused. Yet Frank does. Jenifer bewitches him.
What we have here is a contemporary update of that ancient monster known as the Succubus, and an enactment of the idea that love is blind -- or, to be more precise, that as long as a woman is good in bed, the rest is negotiable. I haven't read the original story, so I can't attest to the nature or quality of the adaptation, but I can tell you that this is the best English dialogue Argento has had to work with... maybe ever. I'm not saying that "Jenifer" is on the same level as his best feature films, which have more complex storylines, but however good his features have been, they are always written or co-written by Argento, who is a masterful stylist, a bold conceptualist, an innovative technician, and let's face it, a mediocre writer at best. I love most of his movies, but those I love, I tend to love in spite of their writing. Or at least in spite of their dialogue.
Whether it's "Mata Hari filing her report" in SUSPIRIA, the guy in TENEBRAE noting in a loopy Scots accent that a moping girl "looks like a turkey at Christmas time," or the hilarious confusion of The Three Sisters in INFERNO with "those black singers," Argento's consistently risible dialogue has become a perverse point of lovability among his devotées. But in "Jenifer," one senses that nothing is funny unless it was meant to be. Here, even the minor characters are interesting and believable, none of them made to stand out like sore thumbs by their alien behavior and manic conversation. The performances are spot-on too, with Weber coming across as believably possessed by the sexual vigor of this subhuman creature, superbly played by Carrie Fleming as a conundrum that is part-needy child, part-nourishing nymphomaniac, and part hell-spawn. Weber has a particularly great moment when a gruesome discovery leaves him momentarily unsure of whether to laugh or scream or vomit. Argento's direction is relaxed and confident, steering with true expertise from the mundane to the hallucinatory. He turns out to be a superb interpreter of outside material, and may he pursue more of it.
As with Stuart Gordon's "Dreams in the Witch-House" a couple of weeks ago, "Jenifer" takes some surprisingly pitch-black turns that would never have been allowed to stand in a commercial feature, and the sex is as graphic and animalistic as the violence. (Reportedly, the content actually went slightly overboard as far as Showtime was concerned, and a shot involving violence being dealt to a character's penis had to be excised for broadcast -- but it will be included in the DVD box set of the series coming from Anchor Bay next year.) Despite this unflinching quality, facets of humor and homage are accomodated as well, the latter manifesting in a rather audacious quotation of James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN (1931). In short, I liked "Jenifer" better than anything Argento has done since THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (1996), and of the two works, "Jenifer" is probably the more consistent and watchable. Yes, its circular structure is predictable -- hence, so is its ending -- nevertheless, it feels right and inevitable. If Frank had supported Jenifer's strange appetites any longer, who would have been the greater monster?
On a semi-personal note: One thing I've been noting from week to week on MASTERS OF HORROR is the name of Lee Wilson in the main titles. Lee, the series' visual effects supervisor, is an old friend with whom I've fallen out of touch. We met on the set of VIDEODROME in 1981, where he was working as part of Michael Lennick's video effects team. Lee went on to design/animate Brundle's computer screen displays in THE FLY, and he's the guy who made Jeremy Irons twins in DEAD RINGERS. He eventually left Toronto for Vancouver, where it became the busier of the two cities in terms of film production. What I remember best about Lee, besides his fondness for Van Morrison and Lene Lovich, was that he was one of the first bonafide Argento freaks I'd ever met. Before it ever came to home video, I taped a pay-per-view broadcast of UNSANE (the hacked-to-pieces US version of TENEBRAE) and shipped a copy to Lee post-haste. On one of my subsequent trips to Toronto, he repaid that kindness by making me a tape of his super-rare Japanese laserdisc of TENEBRAE, called SHADOW, and treating me to a preview of all the uncensored gore sequences. I also remember tapes of SUSPIRIA and OPERA being swapped back and forth, all of which helped to fuel my FANGORIA article "The Butchering of Dario Argento" (included in THE VIDEO WATCHDOG BOOK, still available from our website). Lee and I fell out of touch after his move, which coincided with VW making my life less leisurely, but he tried calling earlier this week -- for the first time in many years -- just as we were halfway out the door to a dinner engagement. Donna took the message, and he said he'd call back. Maybe he wanted to make sure that I caught this week's episode and was aware that he had finally got to work with his hero. I was very pleased to see Lee's name on an Argento film (and on such a good one) and I hope I get to hear some of the stories he must have to tell.
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Friday, November 18, 2005
Some months back, a reader wrote us out of the blue -- knowing of our fondness for European and Russian fairy tale films -- to recommend one he had recently seen, THREE WISHES FOR CINDERELLA. We tracked the title down to Facets Video and sent them a request for a screener; their representative wrote back to say it would be sent as soon as they could replenish their supply. The film (originally released in 2003) had proved so unexpectedly popular, it was presently on back-order. Our disc arrived some weeks later, and we watched it last night.
THREE WISHES FOR CINDERELLA is actually a Czech film, Tri orísky pro Popelku (1973), whose title translates -- and appears onscreen -- as "Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella," which would certainly confuse American audiences. It's a delightfully unconventional retelling of the classic story that is remarkable for the degree to which it empowers its put-upon protagonist from the outset. Sweetly played by the winsome Libuse Safránková (pictured above), this Cinderella has a more limited number of adversaries, just her fat and stupid stepmother and a single, snooty step-sister named Dora (who may be mildly plain, but isn't the "ugly" step-sister of American tellings of this tale). And this Cinderella also has the affection and support of the household's other servants, including a doting coachman who promises the girl that he will bring her "the first thing that hits his nose" when he ventures next into town. It just so happens that the young Prince (Pavel Trávnicek), out hunting, notices that the coachman has fallen asleep in his coach and deftly aims an arrow at an empty bird's nest, which drops onto his face as he rides below the tree branch, waking him. Inside the nest is a cluster of three hazelnuts, the gift that subsequently provides Cinderella with the means to make her dreams come true -- rather than have the traditional fairy godmother grant them for her. Also, here Cinderella is able to cross the path of the Prince twice, in two different guises (one of them male), before their climactic meeting at the Royal Ball, which necessitates that she dance with the Prince while wearing a veil. In another delightful invention, she presents him with a riddle he must answer in order to find her, after she flees -- but there remains the convention of the slipper which must fit a foot "no larger than a doll's." There is no sudden transformation "back" into the poor little ash-sweeper; there is magic abounding, but it is left to the girl to prove her worthiness by putting the tools at her disposal to practical use.
Directed by the Czech fantasy specialist Václav Vorlícek, THREE WISHES FOR CINDERELLA is a charming little movie whose winning unpredictability succeeds in revitalizing an overly familiar story. There are some things about it which seem stylistically stilted or dated (like the freeze-framed main and end titles, and a couple of ABBA-like songs accompanying scenes of horse-riding) and Facets' standard ratio presentation is very basic, with unsteady still frames, no progressive scan flagging, and awkward (and unremovable) subtitles that tend to confuse "think" with "thing" and "of" with "have." The subtitles will be an obstacle for many children who might have enjoyed the film otherwise, and the DVD's labelling as one of "Facet's Family Classics" overlooks the fact that the film contains a rather graphic account of a fox hunt. I guess Czech kids are made of stronger stuff.
Fans of the great Russian fantasists Aleksandr Ptushko and Aleksandr Rou will find Vorlícek's approach less stylized and more earthbound (the first and second act scenes are deliberately drab in their coloring), yet appealing on its own terms, which are progressive but nonetheless sweet. For this select audience, and children who don't mind reading a movie if it will expand their horizons, THREE WISHES FOR CINDERELLA is worth seeking out. It's available from Facets Multimedia on DVD and VHS, both priced at $19.95.
Thursday, November 17, 2005
In the scene, Brundle (Jeff Goldblum, who is seen for the only time in the picture in his Stage 2 makeup, pictured above, which was the personal favorite of Chris Walas/Stephan Dupuis' makeup team) seeks to reverse what has been done to him by teleporting a baboon and a cat from two separate telepods into a third while keeping their molecules separate; instead it fuses them into a pained and angry "mistake" of science that he is obliged to club to death to put it out of its agony. Then he scales the wall to the roof and falls to an awning where a crab-like leg bursts from the hernia-like bulge in his abdomen, which he chews from his own body in self-disgust. Everyone who read Cronenberg's original script recognized this amazing stretch of incident as the highlight of the film, but it encountered endless trouble.
On the day the "crab-leg" scene was shot, DP Mark Irwin suffered a family tragedy and had to leave the set, which left this critical scene in the hands of another member of the camera crew. The footage came back from the lab too dark to use. (It has been miraculously restored on the disc by digital means unavailable to the film at the time.) Though I saw the footage in dailies, I don't remember it being included in the screening assembly for this reason. Thus, I remember the scene ending at the screening with Brundle bludgeoning the monkey-cat to a squirting standstill.
I thought then that the "monkey-cat" scene was the horrific highlight of the picture, and after the screening I stood in the lobby and pleaded its case to Cronenberg and producer Stuart Cornfeld, telling them that they had made a horror picture and they would be crazy to cut it out. The test results came back. I guess the questionnaire asked leading questions like, "Did you enjoy the scene where Brundle hurts the monkey-cat?" and "Did you care less for Brundle after he killed the animal in his lab?" and the majority predictably replied that no, they did not enjoy graphic demonstrations of cruelty toward animals, however misshapen. So the test got the result it wanted and the scene was out -- by popular demand. Audiences did not understand the reason for the scene (how many people do read those computer screen read-outs and comprehend them?) or they simply did not take the dispassionate, scientific view.
When I opened my disc of 20th Century Fox's special two-disc release of THE FLY, the "monkey cat" scene was the first thing I went to. Aside from the omission of an opening foot-to-head reveal of Brundle in his Stage 2 makeup, which opened the scene in the assembly I saw at the Uptown Theatre (and which can be seen separately in the very interesting "making of" documentary), the scene is everything I remember, only moreso -- with the addition of the restored "crab-leg" scene and Howard Shore's thrilling musical scoring. This scene transcends the biological horror of THE FLY as people know it by turning Brundle's teleportation lab into a witch's cauldron of hellish possibilities. Seeing the scene again, for the first time fully-fleshed with music, I felt my original views were completely vindicated. It is absolutely horrifying.
And yet THE FLY went on to become Cronenberg's biggest commercial hit -- which it probably would not have been, had this sequence been retained. It would have taken audiences to a place they wouldn't want to go, and which they wouldn't recommend to their friends. It doesn't matter that the movie tells the story of a woman who falls in love with a man who becomes a mutant who dissolves his food with corrosive vomit, or that it ends with the ultimate tragic fusion of man and animal mutely pleading with its former girlfriend to blow his brains out with a rifle, and getting his wish. All of that still works in the context of the love story the film somehow became in the editing room. In the "making of," even production designer Carol Spier remarks that she was surprised to discover that she had been working on a love story rather than a horror film.
So I came away from watching this new disc set, of a film I know intimately well, with a fresh understanding of its success. At some point while working with Ron Sanders on the editing of this film, Cronenberg saw in his material a way out of the horror ghetto and he went for it. The exit was already inherent in his script, of course, and it was fully realized by the calibre of the performances Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis gave to him. To have retained the "monkey cat" sequence may well have resulted in horror fans lionizing Cronenberg as a Master of Horror, but he already been there, done that. He was ready to move on to new plateaux. As a horror fan, it was difficult for me to reconcile these facts, but I am more appreciative now of the fact that it's sometimes necessary to make a creative sacrifice like this in order to evolve as an artist. To pull your punches is sometimes a matter not of cowardice or regression, but of creative modulation.
If either Cronenberg or Stuart Cornfeld had explained this process to me then in those (or similar) terms, I might have better understood why it was important to eliminate the sequence, but they didn't -- and perhaps, at that time, they were not all that aware of what they were doing, and why, themselves.
I spent two weeks on the set of THE FLY -- you can catch a glimpse of me at 2:58 into the David Cronenberg profile segment of the Electronic Press Kit, standing behind the director and star as they check a video playback:
It's hard to believe the film is now almost twenty years old; when the end credits roll, I can still put a face to almost every crew member's name -- a swell bunch of people. On my last day on the set, I swiped a copy of the crew picture that was taped to a wall in the makeup corridor -- because a lot of them had come to feel like family. (A couple of high-ranking people on the picture witnessed the act, smiled, and pretended to look the other way.) I later wrote two articles about the making of the picture, focusing on Mark Irwin's and Chris Walas' respective units, which appeared in Cinefex and American Cinematographer (who unbelievably put HOWARD THE DUCK on the cover). Both of these articles have been long out-of-print, but they are included as bonus content on Disc 2 in a new interactive form.
I'm happy to be on there. It makes me feel like I'm still part of the family.
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Bean addresses this question right away, by saying that he somehow grew to maturity with the idea that "it would not satisfy me to be less than the happiest son of a bitch who ever lived." He then goes on to explain how he learned to stop worrying and love life, essentially, by taking his ego (the classic Freudian ego) out of his driver's seat and letting the universe surrounding him take care of itself and him. The rest of the book, after covering the story of his early life and career as young Dallas Burrows (Bean's real name), is actually the story of his second marriage, to the lovely Carolyn Maxwell, with whom he forged a model of open-minded and spontaneous living that somehow (he doesn't go into reasons) fell short of "till death do us part." He notes that he once had a fabulous golden lighter that he was afraid of showing around too much for fear it would get swiped, and after three years, it finally did. By the time he wrote this book, he had gotten to the point of moving past the loss to boast, "I had a great lighter for three years" -- and also that he had a great wife once, for fourteen years. There is a sense of lament about it, and about living on his own, but also of a man unburdening himself onto paper so that he can press on with the next chapters of his life.
There is an enormous amount of serendipity in the story he tells, which is surely a sign of an attentive and appreciative fellow. One story concerns the Bean family returning to America after a retreat to Australia and buying the first suitable vehicle they saw, a used Volkswagen bus, which cost only $500 but served them well for years, eventually dying -- where else? -- in front of a VW dealership. This and other anecdotes are illustrative of the book's commencing wisdom that "things will take care of themselves." There are also chapters devoted to Orson and Carolyn Bean's experimentation with LSD (a happy trip under controlled circumstances) and open marriage, even a shy visit to the Sandstone sex commune in California, and a chilling moment near the end of the Australian section that touches on the likelihood of a local Satanic cult reaching out for their baby and culminates in a real life encounter with some spectral form of Evil that invaded their home. Here, Bean acknowledges that it's not always enough to leave Life to its own devices; that we can sometimes surround ourselves with negative energy born of our own frustrations and worries and we must find our own ways out of these quandaries with positive and decisive action. By the same token, there are also certain contracts that exist in Nature where we cannot intrude, as a fascinating story about a drama between a mouse and the family cat attests.
Sidebar to my pal Steve Bissette, who would be especially interested in the chapter that relates Bean's weird experiences as the Guest of Honor at 1976 Bicentennial festivities in his hometown of Burlington, Vermont. An excerpt might make a worthwhile feature in a future issue of Green Mountain Cinema.
TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH is a good deal more than your usual celebrity bio, and covers much more ground and human experience in slightly more than 200 pages than might be expected. I was able to get through it in a single evening, and felt richer for it. I hope Mr. Bean writes another book about his subsequent experiences. In today's mail, I received my recent purchase of a signed used hardcover of ME AND THE ORGONE and I'll likely be sitting down with it soon -- though not too soon, as we're presently assembling two issues of VW back-to-back before the end of the year.
Something I've observed over the course of my own life is that, if you find yourself inexplicably drawn to someone else's work, chances are there may be personal similarities involved as well. The more I researched the career and life of Mario Bava, the more things I discovered that we had in common personally, and the same goes for my interest in the novels of Anthony Burgess; I always assumed from his erudition and vast vocabulary that he had impressive academic credentials, but when he got around to writing his autobiography, I discovered that his childhood and schooling were not all that different to my own. He too was largely self-taught. Reading Andrew Biskind's recent biography brought to light even more curious parallels. And, while reading TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH, I discovered not only that Orson Bean was a "monster kid" like me -- there are several passing references to FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, KING KONG and collecting comics -- but that he and I sort of had the same mother.
Orson's mother, never a nurturing or steady presence in his life, committed suicide when he was sixteen, after he had already left home. My father died before I was born, but my history with my mother has always been the greater tragedy. A couple of years ago, she willfully absented herself from my life (not for the first or even the second time), and today she is marking her 77th birthday, with none of her children by her side.
Once while visiting a friend in Los Angeles, the subject of conversation at a small gathering of "monster kids" turned to our mothers. To our amazement and horror, each of us could recognize our own mother in the maternal reminiscences shared by the others. Strong melodramatic mothers, absent fathers. There's a university press book in this, I tell you.
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.