Monday, December 19, 2005

Making A List, Checking It Twice

Since it started in 1990, Video Watchdog magazine has taken a stubbornly erratic approach to Year's Best lists. Sometimes we've offered them, sometimes we've offered them elsewhere (like in our VW Special Editions, or on the Mobius Home Video Forum), but mostly we haven't compiled them at all. I personally have never liked lists, and I've never known the right time to present them anyway, so I've never urged VW's contributors to submit them -- unless I simply had no better idea to offer at the moment. That said, now that Video WatchBlog exists, I see it's that time of year when all the other video-related sites are beginning to offer their choices for the Year's Best... so we should make our preferences known, too.

With this in mind, I'll be posting my own Top Ten DVDs of 2005 list, as well as those of as many of our regular reviewers as were able to participate.

Compiling my own list, I was reminded of why I hate them so much. I receive many more discs than I'm able to watch; consequently, I've seen far from everything, which admits a bias into the process pertaining to which releases I preferred to watch, or made time to watch. Furthermore, and perhaps even more damningly, my selections are limited to those releases I remembered to include. I must admit to including some titles in my early drafts that, on further investigation, turned out to be releases from late 2004.

One fact that was surely driven home by this project is that 2005 was an amazing year for home video. Even limiting the scope of our lists to horror and fantasy, the candidates seem endless. Quite a few of our most-wanted releases became realities this year, notably KING KONG (1933) , THE INNOCENTS, the Val Lewton and Bela Lugosi and Hammer sets, DANGER: DIABOLIK, Nicolas Roeg's BAD TIMING, Jess Franco's VENUS IN FURS, and the first season of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN. There were also countless, more marginal releases just as deserving of our attention and enthusiasm, like Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock's widescreen Toho titles, First Run Features' East European Sci-Fi set (including THE SILENT STAR, the original cut of the cult favorite FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS), and RetroSeduction Cinema's box set of Joe Sarno "Girl Meets Girl Trilogy" -- not to mention a wealth of astonishing import releases, including Tobis/UFA's eight box sets of Edgar Wallace krimis and three box sets of Karl May Westerns. It was actually discouraging for me to compile my list because there was no much that was worthy that could not be encompassed, even by appending my Top Ten with a paragraph of Honorable Mentions.

So stay tuned to Video WatchBlog for a parade of very, very, very difficult choices.

Get Your Templars Fixed

Today's e-mail brought the following announcement from our friends at Blue Underground:

THE BLIND DEAD COLLECTION

TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD and
RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD – Replacement Discs

BLUE UNDERGROUND discovered a one-second audio dropout in the Spanish Version of TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, and a one-frame video/audio glitch in the Spanish Version of RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD, included in THE BLIND DEAD COLLECTION. The DVDs have been fixed and remastered.

Replacement DVDs are ready now should any customers wish to replace their discs. Please mail the Disc(s) Only (do not send the plastic case or coffin box) along with the Return Address to:

BLIND DEAD Replacement
11271 Ventura Boulevard #500
Studio City, CA 91604

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Triumph! Acceptance! Vindication!

I got online this morning to discover that two very nice things had happened.

First of all, I received a classy early morning e-mail from "Cigarette Burns" writer Drew McWeeny saying that he thought my review of his MASTERS OF HORROR episode was "very fair." He was also complimentary about THROAT SPROCKETS and apologetic for inadvertently blocking the story idea I'd submitted to the show, which was certainly nobody's fault. Our mutual friend David J. Schow told me that Drew was one of the good guys, and his generous response to the blog below ("From the Desk of A. K. Meyers") is solid evidence of that. He didn't mention whether or not I truly was the model for the A. K. Meyers character, so I'll just go on savoring the many similarities, whether I'm deluding myself or not.

Secondly, Kim Aubry of ZAP Zoetrope Aubry Productions wrote to inform me that our collaboration (with John Phillip Law and Steve Bissette) on Paramount's DVD of DANGER: DIABOLIK has been selected by DVD Savant Glenn Erickson as his Number 1 choice for "The Most Impressive DVD of 2005"! This is a marvelous accolade, and a well-deserved, observant tribute to all the extra hard work that Kim applied to the project. We're hoping to get together on another project sometime in the New Year. You can read Savant's comments on DANGER: DIABOLIK and his other top DVD choices for 2005 here.

From the Desk of A. K. Meyers

Of his MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Cigarette Burns," written by Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan, director John Carpenter has been quoted as saying, "I've never seen anything else like it." While it may seem innovative to him, the show is reminding some viewers of certain books, like Ramsey Campbell's ANCIENT IMAGES, Theodore Roszak's FLICKER, and my own 1994 novel THROAT SPROCKETS, which first appeared as a graphic novel chapter published in the 1988 debut issue of Stephen R. Bissette's TABOO -- the same publication that later launched Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's FROM HELL. Drew McWeeny himself, I was pleased to learn, is a fan of THROAT SPROCKETS. He can be found enthusing about it here in his Ain't It Cool News persona of "The Real Moriarty."

Let me say right away that no experienced writer is invulnerable to influence. I have probably been influenced on some level by every artist I've even half-liked, and perhaps by some I don't like much at all; I don't believe creative people have a conscious choice in which colors stick to their palette. Therefore, while elements of THROAT SPROCKETS are visible in "Cigarette Burns," I would never accuse Messrs. McWeeny and Swan of deliberately trying to copy me on that basis. In retrospect, though I certainly didn't intend it, I must admit that aspects of THROAT SPROCKETS were influenced by David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME, which is not merely a film I saw but a film that I lived, as someone who was a guest on the set for nine days and who spent a further year of his life researching and writing about it. The notion of image as a weapon, which resurfaces in "Cigarette Burns," is one of the things my novel absorbed as a result of my personal exposure to VIDEODROME -- and I also know that Cronenberg absorbed the notion from his own reading of William S. Burroughs, who wrote about image as virus and contagion. Burroughs was probably riffing on an idea he absorbed from a writer before him. Long before Burroughs' NAKED LUNCH, Manet's painting "Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe" (a landscape depicting a literal "naked lunch") scandalized Parisian society and was branded as obscene. I once had occasion to bring this to Burroughs' attention and he told me he was surprised that he had never noticed the parallel before, nor had anyone previously brought it to his attention. He liked the idea of his NAKED LUNCH carrying Manet's baton, so to speak. Suffice to say that even Shakespeare, in his time, said there's nothing new under the sun.

Some of the specific parallels I noticed between THROAT SPROCKETS and "Cigarette Burns"... Both titles are aggressive sounding and refer to punctures or impressions on 35mm film strips. The "cigarette burns" in this MOH episode are analogous to the "splices" in my novel, which herald jumps in time and blackouts in the narrative. My mysterious director/terrorist character Sadilsa is credited not only with the imaginary film THROAT SPROCKETS, but with another called LONGUE VERIFICATION FINAL AVANT DE LANCER UN PROJECTILE DANS L'ESPACE, which is a very long-winded French way of saying "Countdown" (literally, "Extended, Last Minute Verification Before the Firing of a Missile Into Space"). In "Cigarette Burns," the imaginary movie LA FIN ABSOLUE DU MONDE (a wonderful title) is described as "a bullet," which is a kind of missile fired into space. The wings of an Angel figure prominently in this episode, and there is a pivotal appearance by a winged Devil in my book (it was Gahan Wilson's favorite part, I remember). The scene of the hooded film collector filming himself as he inflicts damage on the throat of a woman bound to a chair is very much like the climactic eureka of my book, involving the Glover and the Dark Lady; indeed, if a film is ever made of THROAT SPROCKETS, I'll likely be accused of copying McWeeny and Swan when it reaches that scene.

Another thing: Is it possible that the screenwriters were actually caricaturing me to some extent with their character of A. K. Meyers? (Carpenter supposedly renamed the character, who was named "Peter Dunnigan" in the original script. That's "Dunnigan" as in Donnie Dunagan, who played "Peter" von Frankenstein in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN -- the subject of Tom Weaver's Rondo-winning cover story of VIDEO WATCHDOG #112.) This A. K. Meyers is depicted as a reclusive genre film critic (like me), known for writing lengthy essays on foreign and obscure cinema (like me), who is found sitting in his home surrounded by thousands of pages of an unpublished 30-year project his obsession won't allow him to finish. (Well... I kind of wish I'd been asked to play the part!)

Before I say what I thought of the episode, I should cop to the fact that I had a chip or two on my shoulder going in. Hoping to write for MASTERS OF HORROR myself, I submitted an original treatment on a similar theme to one of the show's producers a few months ago. My story was about a legendary lost horror film and its grip on the imaginations of a group of horror buffs, some of whom were quite deranged. My offering (which gave me chills as I typed the last paragraph) was turned down... because MOH had already committed to film this script, so all their needs for scripts on the topic of "lost" and/or "forbidden" movies were filled. In addition to knowing that my best shot at writing something genuinely scary for MOH had been deflected by this script, I also heard rumors beforehand that there might be some THROAT SPROCKETS parallels, which made me feel all the more guarded and annoyed.

As it turns out, I found "Cigarette Burns" to be one of the most enjoyable MOH episodes. The first act was very perusasive and seductive; the dialogue is very knowing, I loved the props of Bellinger's (Udo Kier's) film collection, and also the bit about the projectionist stealing a frame from PROFONDO ROSSO ("Dude, it's Argento -- gotta have it!"). But whenever the story turned to its subplot, about protagonist Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus, pictured above with Kier) being haunted by his dead heroin addict girlfriend and bullied by her father, I could feel the episode hemorrhaging relevance and myself hemorrhaging interest. When dealing with obsession, it's a mistake to make the object of obsession anything less than constant and overriding. Secondary characters are not a good idea unless they share or reinforce the central obsession.

After the first act, I felt the episode lost its direction and had no idea of where to go. The introduction of the Angel, especially so early in the story, was too fantastic, too much of a WTF moment; its role in the story, which I found poignant and provocative, is never as clear as it needed to be. The gory bit with the Asian manservant poking out his eyes I found embarrassing. But most embarrassing of all is that the long-lost print of LA FIN ABSOLUE DU MONDE, which no other collector had been able to track down, was ultimately found sitting in plain sight on a film rack in the late director's home editing suite! For Chrissakes, it's the first place anyone would look! It was also a serious error not to end the episode with Udo Kier's fabulous, climactic coup de theâtre; the episode continues on for several more minutes, none of which add anything of value to the story, even dragging the dead girl's father back in (where'd he come from?) for no apparent purpose.

Despite these faults, Udo Kier used this episode as an opportunity to achieve greatness. He's nothing short of fabulous here. It was wonderful to see him playing not just another cold Germanic bureaucrat, but a role that treats him like the star he is, acknowledging his history as an actor for the likes of R. W. Fassbinder, Michael Armstrong, and Paul Morrissey. His final act with the film projector is a wonderful tip of the hat to the outrageous deaths in the final reel of FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN, in which Udo starred over 30 years ago. His casting is a potent reminder that some of the greatest "Masters of Horror" are actors, and more of them should be showcased on this program while they're still among us.

As for John Carpenter, I haven't cared for anything he's done since THEY LIVE (1988) -- I actually cringed for the screenwriters when his, alas, customary possessory credit faded in over the episode's title. Nevertheless, I have to say that "Cigarette Burns" is the most engaging, intriguing, and successful film he's made since PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987), so congratulations are due.

Sure, it's annoying (not to mention ironic) that my original story proposal got knocked out of the running by a script that spends a goodly amount of time reiterating or riffing on something I wrote. But ultimately, "Cigarette Burns" doesn't pre-empt my novel any more than THE RING (also quoted by McWeeny and Swan) did. I still think THROAT SPROCKETS itself could turn the movie or cable TV world on its ear, if given half a chance.

Until that day comes, at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that something I published more than a decade ago is still resonating in the genre, influencing a new generation of writers. It's gratifying, but I envy their opportunity.

Just have to keep working harder, I guess!

Saturday, December 17, 2005

KONG - The Lost Sequel

aka "Beauty and the Butch"? Amazing stuff: inverted sexual role-playing, occultism, bestiality... somehow, the George Reeves TV series missed adapting this one!

Ah, the '50s! As Lou Reed says, "Those were different times..."

Add Another Yuletide Blog to the Fire

I feel I must apologize for this blog's erratic appearances this week. Clearly, my originally stated plan to post something daily isn't going to work out, because I find myself applying more time and energy to this blog than I can reasonably sustain on a daily basis. I thought I could use this blog to file short reports, popcorn items, and that sort of stuff, but instead, I've been writing fairly polished essays of considerable (or, as some might say, not inconsiderable) length. It seems I take this blog as seriously as any other writing commitment -- perhaps even more seriously because it's a daily concern -- but if it's going to continue, I'll need to keep it more in perspective. It must come second or third on my list of writing duties, following writing professionally and writing toward my future, both of which take time and energy and focus.

I mentioned some blogs ago that I have gone back to polish an unfinished novel. This effort worked out fine for the first 300 pages or so, then I hit a sort of wall. It seems to me that what might best serve the novel is to scrap the last 80 pages, at least most of them, and write a new third act that follows the same basic synopsis. It's too hard to look at what's there and try to rearrange it all into something that works; it might be easier to recreate it from scratch. All of this takes immense concentration and it's sometimes hard to concentrate knowing that people out there are awaiting a new blog that hasn't been written yet.

No one's complaining about the irregularities of this blog but me, but the site meter shows me how many people are visiting daily, and just as it's gratifying to please those numbers with a flow of new material, it's even more disappointing to disappoint them. Friends, including other bloggers, tell me to forget the numbers and only post when I'm able and have something to say. This isn't a paying gig and I should be free to blog by my own rules. So if you should come here and not find something new to read, you can assume that it's because my concentration is fully engaged elsewhere. You can also assume I won't be away for long.

Oh my, only eight days till Christmas. Fortunately, all my holiday shopping is done, our cards are sent, the new issue has been mailed to our subscribers and distributors. (Please write and let us know what you think of it.) For the second year in a row, Donna and I have opted not to put up a tree. We have a young cat in the family (named Elvis for the way he shakes his hips when he's excited, but variously called Pipsqueak or Pippy or Elvy) who would only try to climb it and thus knock it over or break precious heirloom ornaments. Besides, neither of us has the time to want to put it up and decorate it, or take the bloody thing apart and down. We find a mantlepiece covered with Christmas cards from well-wishers, and a couple of stockings hung by the chimney with care, are enough to Christmasize our house. We get enough tree when we spent Christmas Eve with Donna's family, but I must admit one does miss something by not having a tree of one's own. What I miss most about Christmas is being able to think of it as a day to look forward to, rather than a day one must start preparing for at least a month in advance.

Despite the unusual number of orders I've been placing at Amazon.com, I haven't quite caught the Christmas spirit yet. I think it's time to start putting some Christmas music in heavy rotation and maybe quaff some egg blog... er, nog.

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Other Gollum

Ladies and gentlemen, you must forgive the shamelessly commercial title of today's blog, come Rimsky or Korsakov. For today I pay hommage, homage and just plain kudos to the late Brother Theodore, née Theodore Gottlieb, a self-described philosopher, metaphysician, and podiatrist who took hideous glee in being the gloomiest light on the TV talk show circuit.

For perhaps thirty years of his life, I was his fan; for perhaps two hours of his life, he was my friend.

I first encountered Theodore as a bizarre and genuinely frightening guest on THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW and THE DAVID SUSSKIND SHOW; I was a mere seedling at the time, and the sardonic literary humor of his rants soared more or less over my branch, but he certainly made an impression. So it was with great welcoming pleasure that I noticed his resurfacing in the early 1980s as a frequent and somewhat more approachable guest on LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, where he made a total of 16 appearances. For those rubberneckers among you who are murmuring politely amongst yourselves, "What in the bloody hell has this got to do with Gollum?", well, Theodore provided the voice of Gollum in two animated films, THE HOBBIT and THE RETURN OF THE KING. Theodore's career in films was short but nonetheless astonishing; he played an uncredited role in Orson Welles' THE STRANGER; he played all the roles in a little-seen tour de force short called THE MIDNIGHT CAFE; he played a deranged sailor in the porno JAWS rip-off GUMS; and his last screen appearance was in Joe Dante's THE 'BURBS. He was also a survivor of Dachau, the son of a wealthy publishing magnate who lost everything after the rise of Nazism -- a sobering fact that I add for the benefit of those who took his Hitleresque rants too seriously.

I'm in the process of converting to DVD-R as many Brother Theodore/Letterman appearances as I had the wisdom to record on Beta in my misspent youth. Last night, I watched about eight different segments in a row, an unparalleled display of sour comic effervescence that had my goosebumps doing the goose step. As for my usually loving wife, she stormed out of the living room in disgust after Letterman introduced Theodore for the third time, uttering the apt epithet "Oh, brother!" as she suddenly stood and took her beauty elsewhere. I was left alone to anoint my wounded vanity with the bitter butter of Theodore's gravelly voice. (Too bad for her, my dubbing resumes tonight!)

I know how envious you must be, so to share some of this divine grace with all of you -- in the spirit of Christmas, if you will -- I herewith present a Top Ten of Brother Theodore's most memorable quotes from LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN (at least the ones I've dubbed over so far):

10. "It's dynamite. It's dynamite. Ladies and gentlemen, it's dynamite."

9. "You can train a rat. Yes, if you work for hours and days and months and years, you can train a rat. But when you're done, all you'll have is a trained rat!"

8. "I am sitting here sweating like a chunk of rancid pork."

7. "I am a pig with butterfly wings, a madman who thinks he is Brother Theodore. I am also the reincarnation of Lala Bargavann Shree Moogagoopaya -- a real swell joe."

6. "I see my dead aunt Marie swimming in the chicken soup."

5. "The female rat is a mess. She is a nudist and inordinately fond of companionship. She goes steady in no uncertain terms with anyone and everyone, without benefit of clergy."

4. "You were gracious enough to invite me here, and I was gracious enough to accept your invitation. I came here with an open heart and full of love... and then... all of a suddenly... without rhyme or reason... like a bolt from the blue... you pounce on me! You say "Bullshit!" And now I'll tell you something... I will not take it mamby-pambily. I will not take it wishy-washily. I will hit back, and I will. Hit. Back. Hard."

3. "As long as there is death, there is hope. All of our great spiritual leaders are dead. Moses is dead, Mohammed is dead, Buddha is dead, the Reverend Jim Jones is dead... and I'm not feeling too good myself!"

2. "Miss America makes Bella Abzug look like an airline hostess. My ideal woman is a rich widow of 13, like my Lolita... with her tiny, bouncing breasts... and her frenzied little behind... 90 pounds of submissive, quivering flesh!"

1. "In the nightmare of the dark, the hounds of madness bark! 'Woof'!"

I had the good fortune to contact Theodore on a couple of occasions, ostensibly for business but ultimately on a genuinely philosophic level. I obtained his home number from the Letterman offices because I wanted him to narrate a documentary I was hoping to direct for MPI Home Video. It was going to be an overview of eroticism in horror movies called HORROTICA. Nothing ever came of the project because I was inexperienced and didn't have the sense to work exclusively with clips MPI already owned, but the scholar in me prevailed and insisted on being true to my subject by trying to license clips from other companies. I called a lot of companies, majors and independents. When I budgeted the production, I took the figure to the company and its owners basically laughed in my face -- at least I think it was laughter I heard on the other side of that slammed door. But for all my folly, that project gave me an excuse to call Theodore and express my admiration... and my desire to employ him.

I told Theodore that I had long been an admirer of his talk show appearances, but it had been his voiceovers for various Hemisphere and Independent-International trailers that convinced me he was the right man for the job. He was initially wary of my subject matter, though, and gave me the one quote from our conversations that will always ring most indelibly in my ears (imagine him saying this in his voice, and you'll know just how it sounded): "I don't want to have to say those words, you see. I don't like them. I don't want to have to say FUCK and PISS and SHIT!" I almost died laughing, which pleased him, but he was also serious... and I assured him that he would be given a script that would aspire to be clever and intelligent and which would also welcome his input. I let him know that I took the genre seriously, not as some Golden Turkey venue, and that my documentary would be an appreciation of the art of horror and eroticism, as an outgrowth of these themes in literature.

With this, we began to talk as kindred spirits. I explained that I saw his contribution to the film as the element of sardonic humor that would make it less stuffy, and more of an amusing and outrageous viewing experience. Theodore confided to me some of his professional disappointments, which had made him wary of approaches like mine, adding "but you seem to be a good fellow." He invited me to come to New York and see one of his performances, which took place every weekend; I wish I had been able to do so. He had recently injured his leg and warned me that travelling to Chicago (where MPI was/is based) might be a problem, and that a traveling companion would have to accompany him if travel was essential. I believe we discussed his financial terms for two days of work, but I don't remember them.

The next and last time I spoke to Theodore was when I had to inform him that the project had fallen through. I didn't want to leave him hanging, as some others who had approached him and raised his hopes had done. He was pleased that I called him back, and to my surprise and gratification, he ended up consoling me... and we ended up talking about life and business and literature and philosophy for the better part of 90 minutes. I will always regret that I didn't record our conversations, especially this one, but I didn't anticipate how special they would be or that they would last so long. He loved to talk, and I loved talking with him. Unfortunately, this last call was predicated on the fact that we wouldn't be working together, and I had no other valid reason to call him; I imagined that I would only be wasting his time. In retrospect, I think he might have welcomed a friendship, but I was probably too much of a fan for that to work. It's difficult to be friends with someone whose work you admire to the point of being endlessly curious about it; most people get tired of talking about their work eventually. (I can remember David Cronenberg's wife Carolyn once chiding us because we seemed to have so little to say to one another outside of a Q&A. Strange, but true.)

Brother Theodore was one of the genuine lights of our world as he trod its crust in gloom. He died in 2001 at the incredible age of 94 -- which proves that he was exaggerating, but not by much, when he claimed on the Letterman show to be 83 or 86 years old. (As Letterman said, he could have passed for someone in his late 50s or early 60s.) I think Theodore would be amused by the fact that the IMDb reports his cause of death as "pneumoina," because he always stood in the avant garde of "sic" humor.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Of Annette and The Raincoats

As I sit here this afternoon, listening to the blissfully rough-hewn sounds of The Raincoats' debut album, I find myself musing on the pros and cons of flawed beauty and formalized perfection.

When The Raincoats' album was first released in late 1979, I can remember playing it with great enthusiasm for a friend and telling him that it was my "desert island" record of the moment. He couldn't understand what I saw (or heard) in it, and I told him, "But it sounds like it was made by real women!" It was my friend's contrary view that, as long as you were going to listen to women making music, you might as well be listening to Barbra Streisand. But it was my view that Barbra Streisand wouldn't remind me of real women on my desert island. If any monument is to be built to womankind, let's give them the honor of addressing who they are when they're sweating, when they're without makeup, when they're nagging, when they're "on the rag," and not whatever fantasy of womankind best conforms to the idealized coordinates of men. To which argument I can now add that The Raincoats still sound real and contemporary to me, while Barbra Streisand's music sounds to my ears either dated or not quite of this earth.

I am intrigued by my own inconsistency in favoring performers like The Raincoats while, over the past several nights, I have felt equal admiration for the interviews and audio commentaries that Annette Insdorf provided for the Miramax DVDs of Krzysztof Kieslowski's THREE COLORS TRILOGY (BLUE/WHITE/RED). Her contributions to these discs are models of precision, polish and perfection, rather the opposite of the aesthetic ideals embodied by The Raincoats.

An aside: Speaking of raincoats, in one of the serendipities I'm so fond of noting (as Kieslowski also would, I believe), I first saw the THREE COLORS TRILOGY at a local repertory theater on a rainy Sunday afternoon. As the three movies conjured their collective spell, I was always aware of the thunderstorm taking place outside the theater. When the last of the three movies ended in a fateful storm, I exited the auditorium into the rain and felt like... well, Steven Killian, the unseen seventh survivor of RED's climactic disaster at sea, as though I had crossed a proscenium into Kieslowski's world. It was the most magical day I had spent at the movies since I was taken by surprise by Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST at the age of twelve, and it was gratifying to find out that I could still fall in love with a cinematic experience at my age, and in such a different yet still violent way. But back to my main thesis...

Dr. Insdorf, who teaches film at Columbia University, first came to my attention when she hosted a retrospective of films by François Truffaut on BRAVO many years ago. To be perfectly honest -- and I am truly being only critical of myself when I say this -- there was something about her personal presentation that put me off at first; she seemed a bit too polished, too confident, too glamorous. She reminded me of those not-quite-real women who write self-help books and pitch them with consummate skill on TV talk shows and infomercials. I regarded her with the initial skepticism and jealousy that those of us with unhappy childhoods and informal educations instinctively feel for those luckier than we, who have met their full potential by virtue of having been well-loved, well-groomed, and well-schooled. (When I say this, I have no doubt that she also worked very hard, but the envious don't readily take such things into account.) Yet over a series of broadcasts, I found myself interested and enlightened enough by the things she had to say about Truffaut's work to buy François Truffaut, her book on the subject, which turned out to be very fine indeed. Not only perceptive but faithful to the spirit of the films themselves.

It was interesting and educational for me to catch up with her all these years later and find a more silvery but no less sleek Dr. Insdorf speaking with such eloquence and feline grace about Kieslowski. As someone now familiar with the invisible pressures and challenges of recording DVD audio commentaries, I can only look on with astonishment and admiration to see how clearly and impeccably Dr. Insdorf is able to express herself in this arena on her chosen subjects. She has the gift of extemporizing in perfectly formed, final draft sentences, and does so in a voice that is at once warm, caressing and crystalline. She can seque perfectly from English to French, referring to characters with the French pronunciations of their names in the context of an English lecture, without seeming in the least affected. I suppose it's possible that she might come across more stuffily if she were speaking about less generous directors, but she has chosen to specialize in the most open-hearted of filmmakers and this generosity shines through in her eagerness to share with us her unique way of looking at their work.

Dr. Insdorf's commentaries for BLUE, WHITE and RED are a fascinating hybrid of play-by-play and straightforward annotation; in essence, she describes the films for us as we watch, moment by moment and shot by shot. But instead of merely telling us what is going on in the narrative (as so many unskilled commentators do, including some important filmmakers like William Friedkin), she guides our eye to the invisible threads so skillfully woven throughout by the director, his actors, the scenarists, the directors of photography, and other creative principals. To listen to these commentaries is really akin to the gift of sight. I love these films and know them very well, but Dr. Insdorf's open eyes and friendly voice consistently guided me to new facets and layers of discovery. I was so pleased by her performance that it was all the more irritating when she made an occasional error of perception, such as repeatedly referring to Michel's borrowed coat (the red object on Valentine's bed in RED) as a blanket, or when she failed to comment on certain grace notes I've found in these films myself, such as Valentine's oblique comment "It's happening again" when she hangs up with her increasingly jealous boyfriend. (Not only does this off-hand remark underscore that Valentine's goodness has had trouble thriving in closed romantic relationships, leading to serial jealousies, but the line reflects the very nature of the film's structure, which is based on repetition.) Of course, had Dr. Insdorf succeeded in mentioning all these things, and getting everything right, I would probably be even more unhappy because I would be left with nothing to see and think for myself.

Last night, I continued my Kieslowski retrospective by viewing Kino on Video's excellent disc of BLIND CHANCE (1981), an early metaphysical work later ripped-off by the banal English film SLIDING DOORS. There is no audio commentary on this disc, but Dr. Insdorf does contribute a 10-minute lecture on the film, which she improvises at her desk in nearly faultless French -- for which she apologizes.

I should also mention that Annette Insdorf is the author of a book about Kieslowski, called Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski. I promptly placed an order at Amazon.com, but I made the mistake or ordering the hardcover -- not realizing at the time that the later trade paper edition added a new closing chapter about Kieslowski's influence on world cinema in the wake of his 1996 death at the age of 52. Oh well, Christmas is coming... right?

You can be sure that Dr. Insdorf is coming with me (and The Raincoats) to my desert island, in the form of her DVD commentaries and lectures -- if only because I'll need someone to run the place.

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 -- HostOnce.com. 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. HostOnce.com 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 HostOnce.com 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, davekehr.com

"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, Fangoria.com (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 Amazon.fr -- somewhat blindly, as their listings itemized the contents of each set only in French. Here is a handy translation:

LES PREMIERES OEUVRES 1927 - 28
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

LES PREMIERES OEUVRES 1929 - 31
Disc 1: Chantage (BLACKMAIL, 1929) #10
The Skin Game (THE SKIN GAME, 1931) #13
Disc 2: Meurtre (MURDER, 1930) #12

LES PREMIERES OEUVRES 1932 - 40
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.