Tuesday, November 29, 2005
I've never had the problems other laserdisc collectors have reported with "laser rot" and so forth, but I did discover a different kind of problem recently while attempting to convert a disc. In the past year, I had placed a winning eBay bid on a Japanese import laserdisc of the Sex Pistols last concert at Winterland in 1978. I watched it when it arrived and the disc played perfectly. Would that I had converted it then! A few weeks ago, while recording it to my hard drive, I discovered that somehow, in the meantime, it had developed a crack and no longer played past a certain song. Considering what I paid, I don't think I got my money's worth out of this one, so I was miffed. I was hoping to burn the Pistols' Long Horn Ballroom and Winterland shows to the same disc, and now I have the Long Horn Ballroom show on my hard drive, which I'll probably end up burning to disc separately. It makes me wonder what other sad stories might be awaiting me in the deadweight of my laserdisc closet.
Ah, but there are joys to be rediscovered there, too. Last night I decided to convert my Warner Home Video laserdisc of Lindsay Anderson's O LUCKY MAN! (1973), my thoughts having been turned in that direction by a recent letter asking me if Warner had any plans to release it on DVD. (Of course, I have no way of knowing what any company plans to do until they do it. I'm in Ohio.) I didn't intend to watch it, but once Alan Price's infectious score kicked in, I couldn't pull myself away.
That's Lindsay Anderson on set, directing Alan Price (who appears with his band throughout the film as a sort of Greek chorus commenting on the narrative).
Based on an original idea by star Malcolm McDowell and scripted by David Sherwin, O LUCKY MAN! attends the CANDIDE-like misadventures of an ambitious young coffee salesman that educate him in the dark, labyrinthine and oft-interconnected ways of sex and politics, big business and government, crime and punishment. It's one of those works of art, like John Lennon's ballad "Working Class Hero," that I think should be required experience for everybody when they reach a certain age, not only for the sake of their artistic education, but their education in life. Knowing this film, I believe, will make you a better person -- at least if you like it.
Though a stand-alone film, O LUCKY MAN! is also a vague sequel-of-sorts to an earlier Anderson film, IF... (1968), which starred McDowell as a character with the same name, Mick Travis. Whether McDowell's two characters are, or are not, the same person in terms of continuity, O LUCKY MAN! makes a number of references to IF... in terms of content and shared casting, and it makes similar references to McDowell's more recent success in Stanley Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) -- again, in terms of shared casting (Warren Clarke, ACO's "Dim") and other references (Ralph Richardson plays a "Mr. Burgess," McDowell sports an Alex-like derby at one point, and the films touch on similar subjects of good and evil, as well as prison and reformation). I'm making it sound overly intellectual and dull, but it's actually lively, spirited and funny, moving from one big surprise after another -- part of the fun is noticing how the actors recur in different roles, and determining what those different roles have to do with or say about one another. Seeing it again, I was not only surprised but deeply impressed that it managed to communicate itself in an adult fashion without the use of profanities and also that it's as erotic as sometimes is without nakedness. (The only sexual nudity in the film is, as they say, "non-diegetic" -- glimpsed in a stag movie and stage performance that are meant to look ridiculous.)
I first saw O LUCKY MAN! at Cincinnati's long-gone Carousel Theater (a fantastic screen) in the summer of 1973 with my friends Ben and Cathy, and we all liked it so much we automatically and unanimously decided to sit through it a second time -- and it's a three-hour movie. Actually, it was just under three hours in its original US release, which cut a section of the "East End" portion where Mick Travis (McDowell) attempts to dissuade Mrs. Richards (Rachel Roberts), a Welsh housewife and mother, from her plan to commit suicide. This section, which was restored to the home video release, would prove unfortunately prophetic as actress Rachel Roberts later took her own life. (The complex and messy details of her demise can be found on her IMDb page under the heading of "trivia.") The film ends jubilantly, with a festive dance with all the cast members in costume that begs confusion with the movie's actual wrap party, and as time goes on, it becomes more bittersweet to see the still-living (McDowell, the delicious Helen Mirren, Mary MacLeod) commingling so joyously with the now-dead (Anderson, Arthur Lowe, Mona Washbourne). McDowell, Anderson, and Sherwin revisited Mick Travis in a third film, BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (1982), interesting but the least of the series and the only one of the bunch that's ever had a DVD release. It's still available from Anchor Bay.
There hasn't been a proper release of O LUCKY MAN! since Warner issued it on VHS and LD a decade ago, which means there's now an entire generation of people out there who haven't had the opportunity to be enriched by it. The soundtrack album is available on CD and highly recommended, though it's absurdly overpriced for a disc that barely runs 25 minutes.
Monday, November 28, 2005
Garris's highest profile work to date has probably been his TV miniseries versions of two Stephen King properties, THE STAND (1994) and the aforementioned "King's way" remake of THE SHINING (1997). Both of these are technically well-made and faithful adaptations of very difficult-to-adapt novels, but lacking any kind of unique directorial vision or creative edge. They're good television, sometimes very good, but they are ultimately too moderate, too temperate, too careful to summon the balls-to-the-wall horror of Stephen King at his best.
Part of my anticipation for this particular episode was based on what Garris was demanding of himself by agreeing to play this particular venue. Based on the previous four shows, it seemed that MASTERS OF HORROR, by its own evolving definition, almost had to extend Garris's creative perimeters into areas of violence and sexuality that his work isn't exactly noted for exploring. The major exception: his 1990 made-for-cable prequel, PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING -- written by Joseph Stefano -- starred former E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL moppet Henry Thomas as the young Norman Bates, developing into the murderous adult he would become under the twisted tutelage of "Mother" (Olivia Hussey). In a review that I wrote nearly 15 years ago for VW #7, I described PSYCHO IV as "a low-voltage thriller" while praising the daring casting and uncanny performance of Thomas.
It makes good sense, then, that Garris would renew this working relationship for "Chocolate." Thomas (pictured above) stars as Jamie, a recently divorced chemist working at a company that develops artificial food flavoring, whose lonely readjustment to bachelorhood is suddenly besieged by strange phenomena. It begins when his mouth is unexpectedly flooded with the taste of gourmet chocolate. After being dragged to a rock concert by a co-worker (Matt Frewer) who's in the band, his sense of hearing temporarily swaps the hard rock being played with calmer classical music; on the drive home, he is momentarily stricken sightless. In time, Jamie realizes that he is experiencing subjective flashes from someone else's life, waking and sleeping -- a psychic link. In fits and starts he cannot predict, he becomes subject to extended habitations of this other person's body, which he discovers to be female after experiencing sexual intercourse and orgasm the way the other sex feels them. His empathy with this woman's inner life now complete, it turns to full-blown romantic obsession when he glimpses her face in a mirrored reflection, and his impulses turn protective when he experiences her commission of murder, when she stabs her artist boyfriend to death during an attempted rape. When the next of his visions reveals her to live in Vancouver (where MASTERS OF HORROR is actually shot), Jamie drives north there and makes the dangerous move of stepping into her life -- actually rather than literally.
"Chocolate" is based on an original story by Garris which was included in his 2000 short fiction anthology Life in the Cinema. I haven't read it, but the story is not the episode's strongest suit. The premise of psychic links has been explored in films before -- most meaningfully in Douglas Trumbull's BRAINSTORM (1983), but also in THE EYES OF LAURA MARS (1978) and other murder mysteries -- and Garris doesn't make any attempts to rationalize or suggest a cause for this unusual turn of events. This technically takes the story out of the realm of horror and posits it more in the arena of fantasy, not unlike a TWILIGHT ZONE episode (or an episode of AMAZING STORIES, on which Garris served as story editor), where things sometimes happen merely to satisfy an idle curiosity about "What if...?" Again, I haven't read his story, but if Garris's script for this episode had somehow introduced the problem in Jamie's marriage as being associated with his lack of empathy, the phenomena would have at least been given some thematic underpinning. The finale, with Jamie and the woman holding each other at bay with dangerous weapons, seems confused and rushed -- even with the end credits unusually scrolling over the final scene, the episode overstays the program's timeslot by a minute or two. I've heard that the teleplay was cut down from an earlier draft written at feature length, and there is a feeling of dramatic haste and incompleteness. Nevertheless, looking back over the hour, there are occasional sparkles that lend the episode its own distinct character and way of looking at the world. For instance, the vividly imagined or well-observed moment when Jamie spies a blotch on his ex-wife's chest as she's changing clothes in front of him and asks, dumbstruck, without thinking, "Is that a hickey?" A moment like that, and the silent reaction it gets, is worth 10 pages of a guy crying and soliloquizing into his beer.
The episode's greatest asset is... I was going to say "the performance of Henry Thomas" (who, as an actor, can summon the edge Garris's story needs), but in fact, after scanning through the show a second time, I have to say there is not a single instance of bad casting or uninteresting performance in it. Garris would seem to be an actor's director; it's in the performances that his work finds what character it has. And yet, between the good performances and the adequate story, there is a layer or gulf that doesn't feel quite lived-in. As expected, there is an unusual (for Garris) amount of requisite sex and graphic violence in the episode, but even the stuff that happens directly to Jamie feels somewhat vicarious, as if the story is merely referencing the emotions it deals with rather than sinking its teeth into them.
I know Mick only slightly (we both wrote for CINEFANTASTIQUE back in the '70s); I have no idea what sort of life he's had, but I suspect that his art comes from -- to fall back on a convenient and overused musical parallel -- a McCartney place rather than a Lennon place. "Chocolate" is a story about pain and longing, but it's theoretical or conceptual pain/longing rather than a pain/longing that the viewer instantly recognizes as coming from a real and hurting place. As Paul McCartney has said (and I paraphrase), "John had a terrible childhood; I didn't, and if that's what you need to be a great artist, I'd rather not be a great artist." Of course, McCartney is a great artist anyway, and he didn't become a conspicuously greater one after his songwriting partner was murdered, or after his wife died of the same cancer that claimed his mother when he was a young man. So it's not always necessary for pay one's dues as an artist with blood and tears; sometimes sweat alone (i.e., hard work) is enough to push the craft on to the highest plateau. But horror, of all genres, cries out for that "something extra" -- something we find in the work of David Cronenberg and George Romero and Tobe Hooper and other masters going all the way back to Tod Browning and F. W. Murnau. In the cases of all these men, one has no doubt that something very real and very close to them, at one time or another, scared them all shitless -- and they were so traumatized, they consecrated their lives to scaring it back, or at least to thoroughly exploring the emotion to better understand its impact on them. I've never really sensed that "something extra" in Mick's work; he may not have it in him, yet he clearly loves the fantastic and has given a lot of himself to it. "Chocolate" marks an advance in his filmography: while not an especially original or solid story, it feels more personal than much of his past work, and is noticeably more adult. What is most vital here are its characters, their human dimension and their relationships, rather than its horror content. It wouldn't surprise me if Mick eventually produced his best and most successful work in another genre, like drama or romantic comedy.
As you may remember, The Boomtown Rats ("I Don't Like Mondays") played a memorable set at Live Aid. In a similar vein, "Chocolate" finds Mick Garris entertaining at his own party and earning his place onstage. I know this because, although it's not the best MOH episode I've seen, it's not the worst either.
Sunday, November 27, 2005
A number of our appliances have recently elected to give up the ghost or show signs thereof -- two living room lamps, the coffee maker, the washing machine, and last night, the vacuum cleaner. Our vacuum "up and died," as they say, last night, so we went out, grabbed a quick deli dinner at Izzy's (I recommend the Izzy's Mex sandwich -- corned beef, melted cheese, diced onion and jalapeño chips on rye toast), and went to Best Buy where we looked at washing machines and bought a fancy front-loader, along with one of these new Dyson contraptions. The washing machine will be delivered December 18, but the Dyson vacuum we brought home with us. The crazy thing works like a charm and sucked up a surprising amount of dirt from floors and rugs heretofore imagined clean. I took the occasion of the downstairs clean-up to change some of the framed objects on our living room wall, taking down a couple of Bava locandini and putting up some autographed album covers. The posters had been up for years, maybe four years, which is well beyond the time when one starts to see through them. The change was refreshing and gave me a new feeling of pride about my surroundings; maximum return for minimal effort. I really must try to remember what a healthful difference it makes to one's outlook simply to change the things on the walls now and then.
Donna and I have been watching the entire SIX FEET UNDER series again, for the first time on DVD with the audio commentaries. Some of the commentaries are quite good, certainly a cut above those on HBO's THE SOPRANOS sets. We finished Season Two and started Season Three last night, where the discs suddenly bloom into anamorphic widescreen -- a pleasing change. Before starting Season Three, we decided to watch AMERICAN BEAUTY for the first time in several years, and now that we have the SIX FEET UNDER experience behind us, it's certainly easy to see it was written by Alan Ball: the main protagonist is aware of his own impending death; the wife is uptight; the daughter is an alienated artist-type with a more "popular" best friend who at least pretends to be a teenage sexual predator; there's the pot smoker, the gay couple, the "uniform" character -- it's interesting in retrospect to find all the 6FU archetypes there, having their moments of campy effusion as well as their moments of epiphany about the beauty and brevity of life. I don't mean to sound critical or condescending; we loved the series (we habitually watched it twice each week in first run) and we liked the movie, so we're fond of Alan Ball and his characters. Annette Bening has a scene in AMERICAN BEAUTY with Peter Gallagher -- the scene where she's sloshed and confesses her admiration of him -- that has some of the most pitch-perfect acting I've ever seen.
Anecdote: Donna has been snacking of late on a Shur-Good product called "Cheese Flavored Crunchy," which features the additional word "Baked" in a starburst on the bag. I looked at her happily munching on this stuff and noted, reading the bag, "'Cheese Flavored Crunchy -- Baked'... That's weird; it's all adjectives and not a single noun. It's like they know what it's like, but not what it is..."
Worry: The Game Show Network has been showing something other than WHAT'S MY LINE? in the 3:30 a.m. slot the last couple of nights/mornings. I hope they haven't taken it off their schedule.
Promise: I watched Mick Garris's MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Chocolate" last night and will be posting something about it later today.
Next, at any rate.
Friday, November 25, 2005
I got some nice goodies in the mail today, including my check from the gentlemen who have optioned the screen rights to my novel, The Book of Renfield. I knew that screenwriter Mark Kruger was one of the optioners, and now I have learned that his partner in this venture is Ryan Murphy, the creator of NIP/TUCK, who has written and directed several episodes of that hit series, as well as a couple of feature films, including the promising-sounding RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, currently in post-production. My agent tells me that Mr. Murphy is hoping to direct THE BOOK OF RENFIELD, which is exciting news. RUNNING WITH SCISSORS sounds like it could have been based on my own life, so his interests seem well-attuned to mine -- and his partner Mr. Kruger, of course, wrote the excellent Hallmark adaptation of Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN last year, which showed him to be a skillful practitioner of the faithful and artful adaptation. I feel the book is in good hands.
Also in today's mail came the three new French import sets of Alfred Hitchcock's 1927-32 work (said to be beautiful and a great improvement over the many domestic PD releases); an eBay-won copy of Peter Reich's memoir A Book of Dreams (logical next-step reading now that I've happily re-read Orson Bean's Me and the Orgone); a couple of books on the Pixies (a British copy of the oral history of the band that comes out in the States early next year, and John Mendelssohn's much-maligned book, which sounds intriguing to me); and Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again: Post Punk 1978-1984, which looks to be fabulously written and well-researched. My KING KONG box set also arrived.
VW #123 went to the printer before we turned in last night. So today is for unwinding, for prolonging a somewhat compromised holiday by tucking into some new books and listening to some music and appreciating the fact that I am inside and warm when it is turning so cold outside. A day for feeling blessed and being appreciative.
Thursday, November 24, 2005
Three hundred sixty four days of the year
"Turkey" means just one thing:
The kind of bad movie that goes down like beer,
Of whose charms you're left dying to sing.
But on Thanksgiving Day, it's the likely main course
Of a dinner that will hold us entranced.
Stuffing, cranberries -- pumpkin pie, of course,
With some coffee as we unbuckle our pants.
Give your thanks, pilgrim, and when you've eaten it all
In the company of those whom you love,
Here's a suggestion from me: Turn off the football...
And watch BLOOD FREAK (pictured above)!
Just an idea.
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
As Fate would have it, this woman happened to be the same home room teacher I'd in second grade at North Norwood Elementary on the day of the assassination, and it was from her -- en route to the school's lunch room -- that I first heard about it. As I recall, the shooting was known but the fact of the President's death was not learned until after lunch, at which time the students were dismissed to go home and be with their families. I had not yet spoken to this teacher (whose name I've since forgotten) to remind her of our previous acquaintence, so I was eager to raise my hand and tell her what I remembered of that day, part of which we had spent together.
About halfway through my story, when she realized I was including her in my recollection, her expression became very strange, as if she was trying to place me. When I finished telling my story, she said with awed surprise, "I remember you!" Then she paused before adding... "Are you still drawing monsters?"
And the whole classroom broke into laughter because, yeah, I still was.
SPEAKING OF MONSTERS, I'm still awaiting my KONG stuff from Warner Home Video, so I chose not to pre-empt the pleasure of receiving the discs by watching the TCM broadcasts last night. Instead, I found myself drawn to watching a movie on IFC that I actually love a good deal more: Krzysztof Kieslowski's THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VÉRONIQUE, a wondrous and tragic masterpiece that deserves DVD release more than any other film I can think of. Watching the movie again for the first time in close to a decade, I was struck by how the scene in which Véronique (the wonderful Irène Jacob) begins to intuitively grieve the passing of the Polish double she has never met, and how evocative this scene is now of the fact of Kieslowski's own premature death. When I discovered Kieslowski's work, it was like discovering a brother; he captured on film something of the way I view my own world, which no one before him had done in quite the same way. Each of his films reawakened in me a long-dormant hope that was more of a constant in the 1970s, when any movie I went to see harbored the possibility that it might change my life. So when Kieslowski suddenly died in 1996, it was like losing someone of close and mysterious kinship, and much of my hope for a renaissance of the cinema also died with him. I have yet to see the work of any new director who I think might conceivably replace him, which would be impossible anyway; better to say, no new director has come along since to offer me anything like an equal measure of hope. So I still grieve for Kieslowski. I can only imagine how his actors must feel, carrying on in their careers without him.
There are times when I feel I need, for the well-being of my soul, to spend some time with the healing works of a Kieslowski or De Sica or Parajanov or Rohmer, but my job being what it is, what I have to watch is... something else. And so it was that I had to follow last night's viewing of THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VÉRONIQUE with Ishiro Honda's MATANGO, aka ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE -- a movie I've always enjoyed and respect to some degree, but hardly the ideal chaser for a Kieslowski film. I ask myself if I didn't hurt the experience by subjecting it to such comparison. Fortunately, I have to watch the movie again with its audio commentary on, so I'll have a second chance to approach the film when I'm in a more receptive mood for it.
TODAY IS THE 118th anniversary of Boris Karloff's birth (Billy Pratt's, anyway) but I'd like to extend more active birthday greetings to some still-vital people I doubt read this blog: the inimitable Michael Gough (who turns 88 today, proving that railing at people in Herman Cohen productions is good for your health); WILD WILD PLANET star and former president of the English Language Dubbers Association, Tony Russel (80); TOMB OF LIGEIA screenwriter Robert Towne (71); and, with pleasing symmetry, Boris' daughter Sara Karloff is celebrating her 67th today. (I once spoke to Sara on the telephone and she seemed to me a very nice lady.) Also worth mentioning is that ONE STEP BEYOND host-director John Newland (a fellow Cincinnatian) would have been 88 today, and CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN director Rafael Balédon would have been 86.
OVERNIGHT, CINCINNATI HAD its first snowfall of the year. I hate snow. It doesn't help that I'm dieting -- never a good idea on Thanksgiving week, anyway -- and taking diet pills that seem to be making me just a litt-tle bit cranky.
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.
You have been reading "Video Watchblog"...
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'd already been there, done that. He was ready to move on to a new plateau. 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!