Monday, December 12, 2005

Deer John PS

For what it's worth, after posting my "Deer John" blog early this morning, I visited some sites and found a MASTERS OF HORROR thread at Shocklines Forum that startled me by being unanimous in its praise for this John Landis episode. Now the folks there weren't terribly articulate about why they loved it so much, so I didn't find anything there to change my mind. Then a correspondent wrote me earlier today, after reading my blog, to say that my opinions of previous MOH episodes had mirrored his exactly, but that "Deer Woman" was his favorite episode to date! He rattled off a list of highlights and argued that the abrupt ending actually made perfect sense, given Benben's conversation with the Native American casino worker. (I remembered that conversation, where the guy says that the Deer Woman myth never ends, but I don't think this makes her vanishing at the end dramatically sound, much less satisfying.) Even though this correspondent offered reasons why the episode worked for him, none of them changed my mind either. Alas.

On another note, here's a birthday roll call:

Happy 35th to Jennifer Connolly, the star of Dario Argento's PHENOMENA -- and Happy 51st to Eva Axén, the first murder victim in Argento's SUSPIRIA.

Happy 71st to Annette Vadim, the lovely star of BLOOD AND ROSES. Hey Paramount! When is this coming to DVD already???

Happy 75th to Gordon Hessler, the subject of our interview in Video Watchdog #98 (by David Del Valle), best remembered for such films as SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, THE OBLONG BOX and THE GIRL IN A SWING.

Happy 78th to Honor Blackman, THE AVENGERS' Cathy Gale and GOLDFINGER's Pussy Galore. One of the immortals.

Happy 79th to comic art great Joe Kubert, beloved for his work on SGT. ROCK and HAWKMAN.

Old Blue Eyes (Frank Sinatra) would have been facing 90 candles... but I reserve my deepest bow of the day to the late Tony Williams, the finest and most adventurous jazz drummer of his generation, who would have been 60 today.

Deer John

This weekend's MASTERS OF HORROR offering was "Deer Woman," directed by John Landis from an original script co-written with his son Max. The first episode to be shot, it's obvious why this horror-comedy was not the first episode aired: it's a stinker of colossal proportions.

Brian Benben, a talented light comedian best remembered as the movie-mad, horndog protagonist of the Landis-produced HBO series DREAM ON, stars as a graying, grizzled cop, separated from his wife (one of many irrelevant plot points), who is investigating a series of trampling murders traced -- by sheer luck and accident -- to a Native American mythic figure, a femme fatale who is half woman (the lovely Cinthia Moura, pictured above) and half CGI deer, with a mule kick worthy of The Incredible Hulk. The episode can't even seem to stomach its own lazily delineated premise, stopping at one point to poke fun at itself (in triplicate, no less), even to the absurd extreme of staging a brief hommage to MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS as it might have played with antlers.

Benben does his best with a weak role, Moura contributes the weekly skin quotient, and Sonja Bennett deserves kudos for breathing some life and interest into the thinly-written character of Dana, a body-pierced morgue worker. There's a throwaway line of dialogue that connects the episode tenuously to AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, a Mick Garris cameo, and a well-played (but ill-advised) soliloquy by Benben in which his character goes on at length about the pain of living with the memory of being responsible for a coworker's accidental death. As if to prove there are even worse things awaiting man than self-loathing and bad taste, "Deer Woman" has the gall to end abruptly with a non-fatal car crash and the Deer Woman fading into thin air -- without the script bothering to resolve or explain anything that's taken place!

I've taken a little heat from friends who think I've been cutting this Showtime series too much slack, but I call them as I see them. There have been two or three outstanding episodes, in my view (Dante, Gordon, Argento); as far as the balance is concerned, they've all had their moments or standout performances to commend them, even if I thought they fell a bit short overall. I don't think anyone deliberately sets out to make anything bad, so I always try to look for what's good or real in whatever I review... but "Deer Woman" finally seems so indifferent to its opportunity, and contemptuous of its audience and itself, that it left me questioning the validity of that stance.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Sunday Sermon: Home Sweet Homicide

As I've been watching episodes from Universal's ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS - SEASON ONE, I've found myself responding warmly to an aspect of the show that we just don't have anymore in our entertainment, and it's stoked a rather perverse form of nostalgia in me.

I'm charmed by the way Mr. Hitchcock (as host) could discuss the premise of homicide -- even suicide -- with such exquisitely dry humor. I'm equally dazzled that he could take this approach to his weekly stories without having his tongue-in-cheek attitude contaminate the stories at hand. (You'll remember Hitchcock's wonderful trailers for PSYCHO and THE BIRDS, both delightfully funny, which is something no one ever accused those two films of being.) At the outset of "The Case of Mr. Pelham," a doppelgänger fantasy, he actually apologizes at the top of the program because viewers may be disappointed at not receiving their weekly dose of "mayhem" -- meaning murder.

What a sane society it must have been. The nature of Hitchcock's intros underscore how tied the concept of domestic murder was, in those days, to fantasy. Yes, murder was then a fact of life and we were only a decade away since a devastating World War, but somehow it could be dramatized and presented as a form of escapism. I can remember when some of the later seasons of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS were actually aired, and how the grown-ups around me always chuckled at them and treated them as stress-relieving, as a kind of tonic. In the 1980s, NBC colorized the Hitchcock intros and brought the show back, but it didn't last for more than a season -- the notion of murder was no longer so tongue-in-cheek, and the show played differently, quaint and out of its time, even with new actors in the parts and redone in color. Today, things are even worse; there is so much violence and abuse in our world, in the news, and its all so realistically and extremely treated in network crime series, it's impossible to think lightly of homicide anymore, in the way that was once so central to the enjoyment of mystery fiction and the celebrity of a director who is still, curiously, universally beloved by the common man.

Hitchcock spoke to his audience as if every man watching his program secretly wanted to kill his wife, and vice versa -- and they ate it up. People had a sense of humor about it in those days... because they could. The majority of people were then sane; they didn't imitate what they saw on television, at least not in epidemic numbers.

I think we lost something important, as a society, when we lost our ability to laugh at things like this. When we could no longer laugh at someone killing their spouse and failing to get away with it by some terrible last-second twist of ironic fate, it meant that we had started taking such notions too seriously -- and not necessarily out of social concern.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Going Back to My Criminal Ways

This past week's server problems (all behind us now, apparently) actually came at a very convenient time for me. My temporary inability to receive e-mail or post blogs coincided with a conversation with my editor at Simon and Schuster that put me back onto a novel I wrote some years ago called The Only Criminal. It's "dark fantasy" rather than horror, but also comic, and distinctly different to The Book of Renfield -- it's also my personal favorite of all the ideas I've had for fiction.

I was a dedicated diarist in those days, so I can trace the idea back to its moment of conception: February 15, 1977. I finished it for the first time on May 26, 1978 -- it was a novelette or long short story of only 67 pages. The moment I laid down my pen, there was a huge automobile accident outside the apartment building where I lived. I gave a public reading of a chapter at the University of Cincinnati on November 25. The length of the piece was all wrong, and I was still looking for things to do with it in 1982, even cutting it down to the length of a short story that I could place somewhere like The Twilight Zone Magazine. My trouble in those days, as an unrepresented writer, was that I had little stamina for sending out the material I'd worked so hard to write. I'd no sooner finish something than become obsessed with the next project. But The Only Criminal remained insistent: I later revised it as a somewhat longer novella... and then it became a full-length novel. No matter what form it took, it was never quite right and I knew that.

The thing about this book is that it demands to be read with the open-mindedness of a child. My artist friends have always gone crazy with enthusiasm about the book's premise, or excerpts when I've let them read it -- but people who are more logical, who favor the left side of their brain, have a harder time getting it. My former agent loved the book and worked long and hard to find an editor who shared her affection for it. She tried to place it after selling Throat Sprockets, and later told me that an editor at TOR Books named Melissa Singer handed it back to her by saying, "I'll be happy to publish anything by Tim Lucas you bring to me... except this!"

The Only Criminal has been in a figurative drawer now for some years, and my current editor at Simon and Schuster (who likes the book) has had trouble getting it passed at editorial meetings in its present state. It's too unlike The Book of Renfield, and it's the Renfield author they signed and expected to be grooming. I spoke to my editor last week and made it clear to him that I don't intend to write any more Books of Renfield, that The Only Criminal is much more in keeping with what Throat Sprockets was, and the unwritten novels I still hope to write. I also told him something he'd already considered, that The Only Criminal is very much a graphic novel idea written in classic novel form. If handled properly, it is the sort of book that could lure more graphic novel people back to the unillustrated page. I also suggested it might also be a good idea to hire a well-known artist to provide spot illustrations throughout the book, to lure these people in.

So the idea is for me to deliver a draft that my editor can take to his next editorial board meeting, allowing him to pitch me and this book to the company in a new way. The switch to a new server involved a certain amount of change-over time, of which I've taken full advantage to go back to the manuscript. The original idea was to take a manuscript that clearly needs more work and make it more consistent and presentable... but, as it turns out, the book is much closer to being truly finished than I realized. Once I understood this, I decided to jump whole-heartedly back into the rabbit hole.

My average day this week has been to wake up, sit immediately in this chair and visit my usual sites for 45 minutes to an hour, break for diet pills and a big glass of water, continue visiting sites for half an hour till I can breakfast and have decaffeinated coffee, get back into this chair and work on the book till it's time for the next round of diet pills and water, continue working until midnight, and then take the last round of diet pills and water, wait half an hour till I'm allowed to eat my next (small) meal, and then -- completely zonked by twelve to thirteen straight hours of editing and writing -- find something inspirational to watch till bedtime. (Of course, these diet pills work best with exercise, which I haven't been getting, but they sure do their job as legal speed, and I have lost about 4-5 pounds.)

For my inspirational viewing, I found myself going back to Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy of BLUE, WHITE and RED. These films are not explicitly tied to what I'm doing in any way, but they do share a certain attitude and atmosphere. They put me in a creative place I feel will be more beneficial than something more explicitly connected to what I'm creating, like, say, a Franju film. It's also good to go back and examine the extras in this box set more thoroughly than I was able to do when it was first released.

I've been advancing about 120 pages per day, and that includes a modicum of rewriting. Going back to The Only Criminal has been an eye-opening experience. The most recent draft, the one my poor editor has been trying to pitch without success, was a real mess -- the first 100 or so pages had been rewritten and didn't fit the remainder at all, because the names of places and some characters had been changed. I've also gained enough distance from the book, and experience at my craft in the intervening years, to understand why some of the smaller details were preventing some readers from embracing my premise. I was giving them too many fantasy angles to deal with, when all the book really needed was one. So I've done some judicious cutting that, I believe, has strengthened the material considerably. The book does wrestle with the reader in some ways, but it's hopefully a bit like wrestling with an Angel, going through the chaos and confusion that comes before an epiphany. By the time the reader reaches the end of the book, the entire journey comes into sweet focus -- at least that's the goal.

I have only one last section to edit, so there's every chance the manuscript will be in publishable shape by Monday. And after that? It would be nice to write a book that didn't take thirty years to gestate...

Friday, December 09, 2005

"Do You Think That You Could Make It With Frankenstein?"

That's a Bob Gruen photo of the one-and-only New York Dolls, honey. Left to right: Johnny Thunders (lead guitar), Sylvain Sylvain (rhythm guitar), Arthur "Killer" Kane (bass), Jerry Nolan (drums) and David Johansen (vocals, harmonica, monkey bidness). If a band could have been born straight from the forehead of John Waters, it would have been the Dolls. Trash-mongers and chatterboxes singing about jet boys and Vietnamese babies, they ruled from 1972 to 1975, and they still rule -- even though most of them are now dead.

For die-hard Dolls fans, the limited video documentation of this most flamboyant of groups has always been a source of disappointment -- like the dearth of listenable audio coverage of the original lineup of The Stooges. But a few years ago, Rhino Handmade scratched the Stooges itch big time with a heaven-sent, nine-disc FUN HOUSE SESSIONS box set of previously unreleased studio performances (now out-of-print)... and now it's the Dolls' turn to roll out the horn-of-plenty with the DVD release of a (surprise!) feature-length, hitherto-unknown documentary and various extras, totalling an amazing 230 minutes of rude-and-ritzy Dolls-related video. Considering that all that existed of the band on video before this were some rarely-seen clips of appearances on THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL and the BBC, ALL DOLLED UP: A NEW YORK DOLLS STORY (Music Video Distributors, $19.99) qualifies as a major archival rock release.

What is ALL DOLLED UP, exactly? Well, in the early 1970s, rock photographer Bob Gruen and his wife Nadya Beck invested in a Sony Portapak video camera, which recorded half-inch, analog mono, B&W video. As Gruen explains in his liner notes, there was no commercial market for video in 1973, because video players weren't sold in stores in those days, so he and Nadya and their his friend Rick Fuller went around taping various NYC-based bands for their own amusement. After recording a Dolls concert and showing it to singer David Johansen (later known as "Buster Poindexter"), Gruen became friends with the members and was invited to regularly record what now looks like bonafide rock history in the making.

The material collected here -- which has been culled from those archives and edited into a more-or-less cohesive documentary by Jolynn Garnes for directors Gruen and Beck -- covers the period immediately following the release of the Dolls' self-titled first album for MCA, and sees them performing at NYC's notorious Max's Kansas City, then flying out west to play their first-ever west coast gigs at LA's Whisky-A-Go-Go and San Francisco's Matrix (where they were introduced by LA DJ Rodney Bingenheimer), and making their first-ever TV appearance on THE REAL DON STEELE SHOW. (To see Don Steele -- the voice of New World Pictures -- and Bingenheimer participating in a photo session with the Dolls is like seeing clips from some kind of strange prequel to ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL that never got made, and some sort of bizarre annex to MAYOR OF THE SUNSET STRIP.) The documentary climaxes with the Dolls' return to New York, where they are shown presiding over what the local media described as the city's "first rock'n' roll Halloween party," at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The wildly costumed audience at this gig clearly eclipsed even the Dolls' outrageousness (Johansen was dressed in white tie and tails) and so claimed more of Gruen's interest than the band, but we are given a glimpse of them ending their signature song, "Frankenstein."

ALL DOLLED UP only bothers to document what paraded past Gruen's camera; it doesn't go into the band's earlier history, which ended with the drug-related death of first Dolls drummer Billy Murcia in London, nor does it make reference to the group's second album from 1974, Malcolm McLaren's failed "Red Patent Leather" 1975 makeover of the group, or the breakup of the group shortly thereafter. So don't expect a formal overview or an attempt to summarize the Dolls as a whole. Instead, you'll get a genuine you-are-there feeling of the east and west coast music scenes and privileged glimpses of the happy camaraderie that existed within the group at the time. The guys were such sweet characters that, when their stoic bassist Arthur Kane couldn't play bass at their west coast shows because he'd broken his wrist, they brought him along anyway and bought him a pair of boob-toed slippers at Frederick's of Hollywood as a consolation prize.

One thing that the film documents surprisingly well is the Dolls' chops as a blues-rock outfit. They're remembered for playing sassy, Chuck Berry-styled rock with hilarious lyrics that touched on everything from Frankenstein to the Wolf Man and Diana Dors, but as a straightforward cover of "Hootchie Cootchie Man" shows, there was clearly potential for serious growth here. Unfortunately, that promise was derailed by lead guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan's joint descent into heroin addiction, which led to the band breaking up after their second album, the formation of Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers, and eventually Johnny's and Jerry's early deaths. One of the nice surprises of ALL DOLLED UP is how sweet and funny and charismatic these two guys come across in the interview material, taped well before smack made them sullen and humorless caricatures. The camera even catches punk god Thunders shyly sneaking out of a party into an LA phonebooth because he needs to call his wife back home and let her know he's okay.

ALL DOLLED UP looks like it was shot with bank security cameras, with lots of hemorrhaging light sources, but anyone who loves the New York Dolls will readily look past the flaws. In the early 1970s, I was a CREEM reader like any other self-respecting punk and I bought my copy of the Dolls' first album when it was released in 1973. So I find it kind of incredible to be able to peek in at some of the group's hometown shows at Max's and see how few people were actually there -- maybe even how few people could actually be squeezed into the room. And this makes it all the more impressive and appreciated that Bob Gruen and Rick Fuller were there to document the Dolls. The disc's biggest rush of sonic excitement comes when the band tears into a standout track destined to appear on their second album, "Who Are the Mystery Girls?", at The Matrix -- happily, one of the performances included in its entirety.

In the context of the documentary, which veers from live performance to interviews and backstage antics, the group's songs aren't always presented in their entirety, which keeps the program true to itself. However, a dozen songs are presented in their entirety in a square-up supplementary section. The disc also includes a 16-page full color photo booklet with liner notes by Gruen; Gruen's narrated photo gallery; an interview of Gruen conducted by former Dictators front man "Handsome" Dick Manitoba; and the documentary can be viewed in 2.0 or 5.1 mono, or with an audio commentary by Gruen and surviving band members David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain.

Last year, the surviving members of The New York Dolls (Johansen, Sylvain and Kane) were regrouped by none other than Morrissey, who arranged for them to appear in concert at Royal Albert Hall. That concert, played just a couple of months before Arthur Kane passed away from complications of leukemia, is available now on DVD, but I haven't seen it. The CD's pretty good, though. This music hasn't aged a day.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Sound of MURDER!

Well, it seems that our Donna's ingenuity has successfully shepherded VW's cyberholdings to another server, which we hope will bring us a greater sense of security in the days, weeks, months and years ahead.

I received an interesting response to my earlier Hitchcock blog from musician/composer Neal Kurz:

"I'm still catching up with these Studio Canal sets, but I thought I would throw an observation out there, which affects the sound films included (the silents certainly seem absolutely top drawer quality-wise). I'm afraid a disturbing recent trend in French 'restoration' techniques has reared its ugly head once again. I don't know if the same folks are involved, but, as with the French-produced (and ported to Kino for US release) set of the Maurice Pagnol trilogy, someone has seen to "improve" the audio on these "creaky" early sound films (despite their including the clearest rendition of the best source material I've encountered on these titles) by adding all manner of overdubbed sound effects!

"I first noticed this problem in MURDER, which has many added sound effects, from pen scratchings to paper rustlings, and various footsteps. RICH AND STRANGE, likewise. At first, it may seem that the improvement in fidelity is what causes these sounds to stand out from the texture, but I assure you this is not the case. Once I became aware of what was going on, I became incredibly distracted, watching and waiting for the next infraction! At least they are left in the mono domain, unlike the 5.1 atrocities Ruscico has grafted on some films that really can't take this approach (Tarkovsky). I haven't gone back to NUMBER SEVENTEEN to verify this problem (since catching some of this when TCM ran this version a few months ago). I guess this is a bit ironic, seeing that VERTIGO and the Robert Harris restoration with its controversial multi-channel audio track has received much criticism, while these less seen films/discs have flown in under the radar. Also, quite frankly, I just don't see how these changes really 'improves' anything.... they still sound like 1930s audio tracks! I have not auditioned BLACKMAIL in this version, since I own the German set (with the fantastic "silent" cut of the film on Disc 2!), but if they have altered what is surely a seminal early sound film artifact with this sonic mayhem, I hope someone calls them on it!

"By the way, if you have Criterion's Eisenstein box, there's a similar problem with ALEXANDER NEVSKY, with all manner of junk added to the track..... which they seem unwilling to acknowledge, seeing that Peter Becker stopped writing back to me after I (nicely, I assure you!) called this to his attention. If I seem unusually persnickety about this, I guess it's because I'm a musician by profession, so my ears probably work better than my eyes."

I'm inclined to take Neal's eurekas on the subject seriously for this very reason. (Incidentally, if his name seems familiar, he has done a few piano scores for silent films on DVD, including David Shepard's discs of Carl Dreyer's THE PARSON'S WIDOW and MICHAEL, and the underrated CAPTAIN FRACASSE, among others.) I happened to watch Hitchcock's MURDER! a couple of nights ago, and none of the foley work Neal mentions stood out for me -- as he says, it still sounds like a 1930s track -- but I don't know the film by heart. The film's audio still has flaws, and one can see lip movements that were not given dialogue in the post-sync. But whatever work was done on the audio track was pleasingly organic, at least. Sometimes, as in Retromedia's sound effects additions to films like THE GHOST, I find these added-on sound effects fairly glaring, but if I don't notice them, it's hard to tell how seriously I should take these things as an artistic transgression. I'd need a side-by-side comparison, I suppose, which also might help to explain why such cosmetic work was deemed necessary.

Hark! I can hear the new issue of Video Watchdog being delivered downstairs! Excuse me while I go to get acquainted with the new addition to the family...

Monday, December 05, 2005

Skeletons from the Closet of Italian Music Video

Last year, I inherited many boxes of old videotapes from my late friends Alan and Mark Upchurch, all of them originally belonging to Alan (who died in 1993) but bequeathed to me upon the death of his brother Mark. I'm still making my way slowly through them all and discovering strange things. Earlier today, I stumbled across a hum-dinger.

I've been meaning to transfer a Barbara Steele film called I SOLDI to my hard drive for awhile now, and I decided to finally get around to it. While fast-forwarding/rewinding the tape prior to dubbing it over, I noticed with a sinking heart that the copy of I SOLDI I had found ran only 18 minutes. I examined the tape, which seemed to include only Barbara's scenes, fast-forwarding through the rest. As "FINE" finally spread across the screen, I was about the eject the tape in disappointment when something else started up -- an extra, unnoted on the label, occupying the last 2:30 of the tape.

It was a relic recorded from a RAI TRE program of vintage music videos called PALEOCLIPS. The clip was identified as "Julie" by Gian Pieretti, an amiable, curly-haired Dylan/Donovan wannabe. (Further research shows that the song was actually released as "Julie Julie" and dates from 1967.) The clip shows Pieretti settling down on a sofa and lip-synching his silly love song to... you guessed it, Barbara Steele! It's a bouncy, folky, pop song, sung entirely in Italian of course, and Barbara sits there for the duration smoking a cigarette, tossing her straight black hair, and shooting occasional bemused glances at the cameraman that seem to say, "I can't believe I'm doing this when I could be working for Federico!" When the song reaches its sitar solo, the camera focuses solely on Barbara, looking as nervous and embarrassed as she is glamorous. On the bookshelf behind her head rests a pair of Foster Grant sunglasses -- who knows, maybe the same pair she wore in THE SHE BEAST.

I've never heard of this curio before, and certainly Alan never mentioned it to me (or offered to share it with me), so I can only assume it was a secret he meant to hoard until the publication of his sadly-never-completed book about La Steele. With that book no longer forthcoming, at last the truth can be told. Unfortunately, the tape stopped cold after "Julie Julie," but I would have loved to see another few hours' worth of these PALEOCLIPS and find out what other skeletons might reside in their closets. Some pert young Petula Clark wannabe serenading Mickey Hargitay's Crimson Executioner, perhaps? One never knows.

On a similar note, I was surprised earlier this year to receive in the mail a complimentary DVD of an Italian television special called L'ITALIA DEI GENERE which included unused portions of the interview I had granted awhile back to the producers of the Italian Sky TV documentary MARIO BAVA OPERAZIONE PAURA. I had no complaints about the program, except how I looked in it, and was tickled to find my name on the cover, dead-center in a list of famous fellow co-stars, including Clint Eastwood and one of my heroes, Ennio Morricone. Why I mention L'ITALIA DEI GENERE has to do with the program's shock ending: a kinescope from an Italian TV variety program, circa 1958, that showed a bearded Steve Reeves (in Rome to film HERCULES UNCHAINED) walking onstage in a suit and tie and singing "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face"! (No, I am not making this up!) Reeves may have looked like a genuine earthbound god in the Hercules films, but take it from me, he couldn't have carried a tune if it had handles on it. When the song ends, he smiles radiantly as though the job was well-done! The clip ran under the end credits scroll, acknowledging what a weird embarrassment it was, but silly or not, I was stunned by the discovery -- it's the only film footage I know to exist of Reeves in his Hercules prime, speaking in his own voice.

The mind boggles at what other curios must reside in the archives of RAI TV...

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Server Woes

I may or may not post something else today, but now -- before breakfast -- I want to post something here about our server -- Remember that name, because you will want to forget it.

I don't know how many hours our website, this blog, our e-mail AND our internet telephone service were unavailable to us yesterday, but everything was down for 7 or 8 hours by the time we finally went to bed. promises a 24-hour help line, which we've found this must refer to the length of time you can expect to stay on hold with muzak before an actual person answers to help. At any rate, we are leaving later today for, we hope, sunnier shores at another internet server.

If you've tried writing to Donna or me in the last few days and had your mail bounced back to you, please resend it now, as things appear to be working -- for the moment. If anything else gets bounced back to you, please understand it's the fault of our server and should be cleared up soon.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Another "Homecoming" and Hitch-ing Post

JUST A REMINDER that tonight is the night Joe Dante's "Homecoming" premieres on Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR, at 10:00 p.m. eastern. In addition to my own enthusiastic blogging about this show (see "Masters of War," November 14), the episode has received glowing advance notices from a lot of heavy hitters:

"Dante has created a political parable with genuine emotional force as well as glinting moral clarity. It is, one fervently hopes, a film whose time has come... [Of the MOH episodes to date] only 'Homecoming' has gone beyond the series' mandate. Joe Dante hasn't simply seized the opportunity to offer a bit more sex and violence than the system generally allows. He's opened a door and walked through it, with the contagious joy of a suddenly free man." -- Dave Kehr,

"The dizzying high point of Showtime's new Masters of Horror series... At once galvanic and cathartic, Dante's film uncorks the rage that despondent progressives promptly suppressed after last year's election and that has only recently been allowed to color mainstream coverage of presidential untruths and debacles. For all its broad, bludgeoning satire, 'Homecoming' is deadly accurate in skewering the callousness and hypocrisy of the Bush White House and the spin industry in its orbit." -- Dennis Lim, The Village Voice

"Six weeks in, [MASTERS OF HORROR has] been a mixed bag — [Tobe] Hooper’s stank, and Don Coscarelli’s was amusing if not exactly scary — but this Friday the series unveils a real doozy: Joe Dante’s wry and uncompromising zombie satire 'Homecoming'." -- The LA Weekly

"The way in which Dante and [screenwriter Sam] Hamm keep the story twists coming, never losing steam or running in place thematically or dramatically, is kind of breathtaking... For the second year in a row, a satirical zombie project stacks up as the year’s best horror production; here’s hoping someone in Hollywood notices, and gives Dante a shot at a feature which will show off the skills that, on this evidence, are only becoming sharper with time." -- Michael Gingold, (4-skull review)

If these blurbs (and my past blogs on the series) haven't persuaded you to sign up for Showtime yet, I understand that Showtime is conveniently hosting a Free Preview weekend in some, if not all, areas, so now you have no excuse not to check it out. (As long as you're living in the United States, that is.) I've already seen "Homecoming" once, on an advance disc that Joe kindly sent to me, but I'm psyched to see it tonight in hi-def.

Incidentally, Steve Bissette's Myrant blog today concludes a two-part article about "Homecoming" and its precedents in film, well worth reading.

BRAD STEVENS, OCCASIONAL VW contributor and the author of Monte Hellman - His Life and Films, has written to Video WatchBlog: "Re. your comments about the French disc of Hitchcock's THE RING running 85m 35s. I feel it's worth pointing out that the version of this film released in the UK by BFI Video in 1999 clocked in at 109m 22s!"

Brad feels that the additional length is due to variable projection speeds but adds that the BFI Video release is "absolutely gorgeous."

This reminds me of the one-and-only time to date I've ever seen Hitchcock's THE LODGER, as an early videocassette release from a company called, I think, Video Yesteryear. They slowed the film's projection speed to such an extent that the movie actually looked like a dream unfolding... and consequently, very nearly put me to sleep. It's put me off ever seeing THE LODGER again, though I realize I need to get over it and give the movie a proper chance.

ANOTHER CORRESPONDENT, DAN Gosse, wrote to inquire how I had arrived at the total of 53 Hitchcock features. The laziest way imaginable, actually -- by remembering an old promotional still released at the time of FAMILY PLOT, which showed Hitch posing paternally with a row of numbered film cans, ending with #53, FAMILY PLOT. Of course, since then, other works have come to light (notably several wartime shorts), but it's on that photo I based my number. I assumed it was accurate, but Mr. Gosse submitted a filmography that lists 59 films (including shorts), asking which six titles I may have omitted from my number.

In looking over his list, I can see some tempting candidates for omission at the time that photo was taken: ALWAYS TELL YOUR WIFE (1923, direction credited to Hugh Croise), MARY (SIR JOHN GREIFT EIN!; 1930, the German version of MURDER); ELSTREE CALLING (parts only, also 1930), and certainly a number of shorts, including another 1930 title, AN ELASTIC AFFAIR. Hitchcock's lost film, THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE, may also have been scratched from the list, and Hitch himself may well have disowned one or two others -- who knows? Then again, it may simply have been a matter of Universal being careless at their abacus. At any rate, excluding the shorts and the shared directorial credits, Dan's filmography shapes up to be 54 Hitchcock features by my own count... with the missing title likely being the German version of MURDER. My thanks to Dan for bringing this discrepancy to my attention.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Vintage Hitch - Bright and Bubbly

Some weeks ago, while visiting Dave Kehr's blog, I discovered the existence of three new French import box sets (from Studio Canal) cataloguing reportedly superb prints of Alfred Hitchcock's 1927-32 work. Though I had copies of most, if not all, this material in cheapo Brentwood box sets -- like THE ESSENTIAL ALFRED HITCHCOCK COLLECTION, which offers nine features and a documentary for only $19.98 (I found it at Best Buy for $14.98) -- and at least one of the titles (BLACKMAIL) as an exquisite Criterion Collection laserdisc with an audio commentary by screenwriter Charles Bennett, I decided to order the sets anyway, if only to provide some guidance for you, my devoted readers. I ordered them from -- somewhat blindly, as their listings itemized the contents of each set only in French. Here is a handy translation:

Disc 1: Le Masque de Cuir (THE RING, 1927) #6
A l'Americaine (CHAMPAGNE, 1928) #8
Disc 2: Laquelle des Trois? (THE FARMER'S WIFE, 1927) #7
Manxman (THE MANXMAN, 1928) #9

Disc 1: Chantage (BLACKMAIL, 1929) #10
The Skin Game (THE SKIN GAME, 1931) #13
Disc 2: Meurtre (MURDER, 1930) #12

Disc 1: A L'est de Shanghai (RICH AND STRANGE, 1932) #15
Numero 17 (NUMBER SEVENTEEN, 1932) #14
Disc 2: Correspondant 17 (FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, 1940) #25

As you probably noticed, the sets aren't really a definitive overview of Hitchcock's "first works" (none of his first five films is included), nor are they arranged in correct chronological order. (I've added numbers after each title above to show where the movies fall in the sequence of Hitchcock's 53 features.) The three sets are packaged in moss-green colored clamshell boxes with a printed contents sheet affixed to the back, which can be removed after cracking the shrinkwrap and tucked inside for future reference. Every online description of these releases I've seen lists them as offering the films in French and English -- which is true, but the French subtitles are non-removable. They are also non-disruptive, but it would be nice to have the option of not being distracted by them.

The rumors about the films' quality are true. They look beautiful -- crisp, silvery and full of detail simply not available in domestic PD prints. Many are preceded by their original British Board of Film Censorship certificates. The only detailed comparison I've done so far concerns CHAMPAGNE, included in the first set, which is available domestically as part of Brentwood's THE ESSENTIAL ALFRED HITCHCOCK COLLECTION. Like its companion feature in the Studio Canal set, THE RING, this 1928 silent is not in the true Hitchcock vein, being essentially a maudlin romance rather than a thriller. Hitchcock himself described it to François Truffaut as "probably the lowest ebb in my output."

CHAMPAGNE is the flimsy story of "The Girl" (Betty Balfour, pictured below), a flighty young heiress whose romance with a slick-haired young man, "The Boy" (Jean Bradin), comes to a halt after she uses her fortune to arrange a flight to his transatlantic ship, leaving her to the more suspect intentions of a sinister, older admirer, "The Man" (Theo Von Alten, pictured above). Our heroine's father, "The Father" (Harker), aiming to teach his willful child the value of money, and to test whose romantic interest is most sincere, pretends he has lost the family fortune in the stock market, leaving he and his daughter without a sou -- the stuff of comedy in 1928, destined to become the stuff of tragedy only a year later. (One can easily imagine CHAMPAGNE being remade starring Sandra Bullock or Meg Ryan, if it hasn't been done already.)

Like its disc companion THE RING, CHAMPAGNE shows Hitchcock compensating for a milquetoast story by revelling in audacious (one might even say "effervescent") camera technique, montage, and opportunities for droll humor. He takes particular delight in staging a banquet hall sequence on an ocean liner suffering rocky seas, where the cast (presumably prompted by cues barked off-camera) go stumbling left or right in remarkable concert with one another. Though not Hitchcock at his best (or even half-best) by any means, CHAMPAGNE is worth watching by anyone interested in eavesdropping on people intoxicated by the untapped possibilities of cinema.

The film, which Studio Canal's info sheet lists at a mere 72 minutes, actually runs a startling 85m 11s in PAL -- which translates to 88m 49s in NTSC -- and that's without including the British Board of Film Censors certificate at the beginning. In contrast, Brentwood's CHAMPAGNE (included in THE ESSENTIAL ALFRED HITCHCOCK COLLECTION) runs 84m 56s -- and has no BBFC certificate. The Studio Canal presentation is exquisite, making the 1928 film look surprisingly fresh, with a wealth of fine detail. The piano accompaniment by Xavier Berthelot adds to the film's enjoyment, being attentive to its spirit and variety of moods, even accenting little gestures like Gordon Harker's feigned facial tic. The classical orchestra accompaniment on the Brentwood version actually scores this lighthearted, bubbly film as though it were something far more grave, like the story of a sinking ship with all hands lost. The Brentwood picture quality has no fine detail (Theo Von Alten loses all the little wrinkles around his eyes, which not only gives him a face-lift of sorts, but erases nuances of his performance) and looks pasty and smudgy by comparison.

There is a 4-minute difference between the two versions, but I didn't notice anything missing in its entirety; instead, little bits and the odd intertitle were missing from individual scenes and shots. The omissions are damaging to the two scenes which I consider the film's comic and dramatic highlights.

The comic highlight occurs when "The Boy" (Bradin) visits "The Girl" (Balfour) in her humble apartment, where she is trying to learn how to bake. She is overjoyed to see him and embraces him. They argue when the Boy offers the Girl and her father his charity, and the Boy leaves with the parting shot, "You'll make a mess of it, the way you do everything you lay your hands on" -- then he turns his back to the camera to exit, revealing the Girl's flour-covered handprints all over the back of his suit jacket. This scene is present on the Brentwood disc, but an intertitle is edited into the wrong place, so that the parting shot is followed by the Boy's earlier intertitle, "You can't live on pride!" -- ruining the continuity of the joke, and the scene!

The film's most intriguing dramatic moment occurs when the Girl, reduced to selling boutonnieres in a nightclub, is spotted by the Man, who invites her to dinner. Learning of her predicament, he pledges his eternal friendship and guides her from their table to one in a series of private nooks in the club where men and hired women can enjoy their privacy. He begins kissing his way up her arm, then takes even fresher advantage of her mouth, and she fights her way free as he tries to force himself upon her even more... In context, the scene is nearly as disturbing as the rape scene in FRENZY, but as the action settles on a close shot of the Girl, the camera dollies back to reveal her still seated at the restaurant table across from the Man, imagining all this -- just as the Boy happens along to save her from this presumed fate.

This sort of thing is fairly commonplace in today's movies and television (I've seen it often used in SIX FEET UNDER, for example), and I can remember seeing it used in some of Luís Buñuel's work of the 1970s and finding it quite radical then. There may be earlier examples of this sort of narrative trickery in silent movies, but I can't think of an earlier instance than this, nor can I name another as brilliantly deceptive. After seeing this scene in the Studio Canal presentation, which had great impact, it was disheartening to compare it to the Brentwood version, which was not only "scored" insensitively, but was missing snippets from the Man's attempted molestation of the Girl and ended up making her seem less vulnerable and invaded. And because the Brentwood version delivers a soundtrack dissociated from the original celluloid, it doesn't offer the usual pops and other telltale audio clues that usually tip us off when footage is missing or rearranged.

As for THE RING (a boxing story, not to be confused with the recent Japanese horror hit or its remake), I've given it only a cursory look; I watched my Brentwood copy (included in Brentwood's 10-movie set ALFRED HITCHCOCK - THE MASTER OF SUSPENSE) only a month or so ago, so it's not something I'm eager to view again so soon. But I did notice that the image on the Studio Canal disc is, again, delightfully vivid and the framing is far superior to what I had seen. I can remember some heads being lopped off in some of the Brentwood shots, from the nose up! I didn't make note of the Brentwood running time, but the Studio Canal version of THE RING runs 85m 35s in PAL (it carries no BBFC certificate) -- that's 89m 14s in NTSC -- so you can compare that to the running time of your copy, should you have one.

I know that many people who love Hitchcock can't get into his early films, finding them "too creaky," and that many of those who do "kind of" like them are perfectly satisfied with the PD versions so prevalent on DVD here in America. But if you take your Hitchcock seriously, I submit that these Studio Canal presentations just might make a difference in how well these films play for you. After watching CHAMPAGNE, I referred to some of my Hitchcock books and found it given fairly short shrift by pretty much everybody. (Donald Spoto's The Art of Alfred Hitchcock dismisses the "amusing trifle" in far fewer words that I've given you today.) Having now seen the film under refreshed conditions, I can't help thinking that a smudgy presentation may lead to smudgy thinking. When considered in relation to other films being made at the same time, Hitchcock's early silents are remarkable for the degree to which their images burst off the screen, even evoking the illusion of sound on occasion. CHAMPAGNE may tell a tedious story, but there are other valid reasons to watch a film -- especially a Hitchcock film -- than to be told a story. A Hitchcock scholar armed with these new transfers just might be able to write a more enticing defense of these early years.

Of course, the inclusion of FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT in the third set is baffling, especially when so many other, earlier Hitchcock titles would better fit the description of a "First Work." It's also a useless addition to those of us who own the recent, extras-laden Warner Home Video release, but you shouldn't let that prevent you from obtaining the best available copies of RICH AND STRANGE (one of Hitchcock's very best early works) and NUMBER SEVENTEEN (as close as Hitchcock ever got to filming a Monogram "old dark house" comedy).

The sets also include optional introductions by Noël Simsolo and various other treats. The 1927 - 28 set adds only a photo gallery, but the other two sets both contain a half-dozen glossy, postcard-sized still reproductions. Some of these I've seen in books before, but never so generously cropped. 1929 - 31 contains a stills gallery, an alternative ending for MURDER, something to do with BLACKMAIL star Anny Ondra, and a 52m documentary called HITCHCOCK - LES FILMS DE JEUNESSE (featuring Claude Chabrol and critic Bernard Eisenschitz) that is undoubtedly in French sans soutitre. The final volume contains a stills gallery and a 26m documentary featurette, JEUX AVEC L'INVISIBILE, featuring commentator Noël Simsolo.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

If You Have a Disc On Which You Think You Can Rely

In recent months, I've been converting some old tapes as well as some laserdiscs to DVD-R. I don't always watch them while I do this, but it can be an engrossing process, refreshing my memory about beloved films, good and not-so-good, which have not been part of my current consciousness because they haven't been released on DVD or shown recently on broadcast television. The process can also unearth some unhappy discoveries about the state of one's collection, and how it's deteriorated while we haven't been watching it.

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

Chocolate, Lite and Dark

The fifth episode of Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR series, "Chocolate," arrives with some added pressures attached and I've been looking forward to it with equal parts curiosity and trepidation. The added pressures have to do with the episode's writer and director, Mick Garris, also being the show's creator and executive producer. Of the 13 directors represented in the first season, Garris is (I'm betting admittedly) the ringer, the one not generally thought of as a "Master of Horror." He's got a track record as a director and screenwriter -- he's one of only two men who can be called "the director of THE SHINING" -- but most of his work has been produced for network and cable television, and therefore fairly tame. For him to step up to bat alongside the likes of Dario Argento, Joe Dante, John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper is a bit like Bob Geldof insisting that The Boomtown Rats (a terrific but non-A List band, which Geldof fronted) be included on the exclusive bill at Live Aid, which he organized in 1985: "It's my party and my band is damned well going to play." Like Geldof, Garris is well within his rights, but the pressure is on for him to deliver.

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

Where's Tim?

It might seem like I'm taking a long and lazy holiday weekend, but we've had a number of little household emergencies the past couple of days, in addition to me starting immediate work on editing the contents of VW #124 (even though it won't be out till February or March), all of which has conspired to keep me from blogging.

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.

Or tomorrow.

Next, at any rate.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Thanksgiving - The Day After

Today is one of those get-up-late, sit-around-in-your-bathrobe days here at Chez Watchdog; it doesn't feel unlike the day after Christmas.

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

Happy Turkey Day

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

Of November 22, on November 23rd

A MEMORY OF November 22, which I should have posted yesterday: About four years after the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, while I was attending grade school at Allison Elementary, we had a substitute teacher who brought up the subject of "Where where you the day the President was shot?"

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

The Eighth Wonder of the World... and More

In case you need reminding, today is the day that the original KING KONG finally comes to DVD here in America. In case you need psyching-up, or want to know why this is such an important event, I recommend you high-tail it over to the Classic Horror Film Boards, where there is a lot of stimulating discussion in an entire folder devoted to all aspects of the film, its sequel, and its remakes. I am particularly tickled by this thread about SON OF KONG star Helen Mack.

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

A Fine Feathered Film

Last night I decided to crack the shrink-wrap on my new store-bought copy of ALFRED HITCHCOCK - THE MASTERPIECE COLLECTION (Universal, $119.98) and was very pleasantly surprised to find that the attractive box is covered in burgundy-colored velvet. The presentation gives one the feeling of opening a gift package of Louis XIII de Rémy Martin cognac, and no other filmmaker deserves the comparison more.

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

Love Means Never Having to Say "You Ate WHAT?"

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"...