Friday, November 25, 2005

Thanksgiving - The Day After

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

I got some nice goodies in the mail today, including my check from the gentlemen who have optioned the screen rights to my novel, The Book of Renfield. I knew that screenwriter Mark Kruger was one of the optioners, and now I have learned that his partner in this venture is Ryan Murphy, the creator of NIP/TUCK, who has written and directed several episodes of that hit series, as well as a couple of feature films, including the promising-sounding RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, currently in post-production. My agent tells me that Mr. Murphy is hoping to direct THE BOOK OF RENFIELD, which is exciting news. RUNNING WITH SCISSORS sounds like it could have been based on my own life, so his interests seem well-attuned to mine -- and his partner Mr. Kruger, of course, wrote the excellent Hallmark adaptation of Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN last year, which showed him to be a skillful practitioner of the faithful and artful adaptation. I feel the book is in good hands.

Also in today's mail came the three new French import sets of Alfred Hitchcock's 1927-32 work (said to be beautiful and a great improvement over the many domestic PD releases); an eBay-won copy of Peter Reich's memoir A Book of Dreams (logical next-step reading now that I've happily re-read Orson Bean's Me and the Orgone); a couple of books on the Pixies (a British copy of the oral history of the band that comes out in the States early next year, and John Mendelssohn's much-maligned book, which sounds intriguing to me); and Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again: Post Punk 1978-1984, which looks to be fabulously written and well-researched. My KING KONG box set also arrived.

VW #123 went to the printer before we turned in last night. So today is for unwinding, for prolonging a somewhat compromised holiday by tucking into some new books and listening to some music and appreciating the fact that I am inside and warm when it is turning so cold outside. A day for feeling blessed and being appreciative.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Turkey Day

Three hundred sixty four days of the year
"Turkey" means just one thing:
The kind of bad movie that goes down like beer,
Of whose charms you're left dying to sing.

But on Thanksgiving Day, it's the likely main course
Of a dinner that will hold us entranced.
Stuffing, cranberries -- pumpkin pie, of course,
With some coffee as we unbuckle our pants.

Give your thanks, pilgrim, and when you've eaten it all
In the company of those whom you love,
Here's a suggestion from me: Turn off the football...
And watch BLOOD FREAK (pictured above)!

Just an idea.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Of November 22, on November 23rd

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

As Fate would have it, this woman happened to be the same home room teacher I'd in second grade at North Norwood Elementary on the day of the assassination, and it was from her -- en route to the school's lunch room -- that I first heard about it. As I recall, the shooting was known but the fact of the President's death was not learned until after lunch, at which time the students were dismissed to go home and be with their families. I had not yet spoken to this teacher (whose name I've since forgotten) to remind her of our previous acquaintence, so I was eager to raise my hand and tell her what I remembered of that day, part of which we had spent together.

About halfway through my story, when she realized I was including her in my recollection, her expression became very strange, as if she was trying to place me. When I finished telling my story, she said with awed surprise, "I remember you!" Then she paused before adding... "Are you still drawing monsters?"

And the whole classroom broke into laughter because, yeah, I still was.

SPEAKING OF MONSTERS, I'm still awaiting my KONG stuff from Warner Home Video, so I chose not to pre-empt the pleasure of receiving the discs by watching the TCM broadcasts last night. Instead, I found myself drawn to watching a movie on IFC that I actually love a good deal more: Krzysztof Kieslowski's THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VÉRONIQUE, a wondrous and tragic masterpiece that deserves DVD release more than any other film I can think of. Watching the movie again for the first time in close to a decade, I was struck by how the scene in which Véronique (the wonderful Irène Jacob) begins to intuitively grieve the passing of the Polish double she has never met, and how evocative this scene is now of the fact of Kieslowski's own premature death. When I discovered Kieslowski's work, it was like discovering a brother; he captured on film something of the way I view my own world, which no one before him had done in quite the same way. Each of his films reawakened in me a long-dormant hope that was more of a constant in the 1970s, when any movie I went to see harbored the possibility that it might change my life. So when Kieslowski suddenly died in 1996, it was like losing someone of close and mysterious kinship, and much of my hope for a renaissance of the cinema also died with him. I have yet to see the work of any new director who I think might conceivably replace him, which would be impossible anyway; better to say, no new director has come along since to offer me anything like an equal measure of hope. So I still grieve for Kieslowski. I can only imagine how his actors must feel, carrying on in their careers without him.

There are times when I feel I need, for the well-being of my soul, to spend some time with the healing works of a Kieslowski or De Sica or Parajanov or Rohmer, but my job being what it is, what I have to watch is... something else. And so it was that I had to follow last night's viewing of THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VÉRONIQUE with Ishiro Honda's MATANGO, aka ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE -- a movie I've always enjoyed and respect to some degree, but hardly the ideal chaser for a Kieslowski film. I ask myself if I didn't hurt the experience by subjecting it to such comparison. Fortunately, I have to watch the movie again with its audio commentary on, so I'll have a second chance to approach the film when I'm in a more receptive mood for it.

TODAY IS THE 118th anniversary of Boris Karloff's birth (Billy Pratt's, anyway) but I'd like to extend more active birthday greetings to some still-vital people I doubt read this blog: the inimitable Michael Gough (who turns 88 today, proving that railing at people in Herman Cohen productions is good for your health); WILD WILD PLANET star and former president of the English Language Dubbers Association, Tony Russel (80); TOMB OF LIGEIA screenwriter Robert Towne (71); and, with pleasing symmetry, Boris' daughter Sara Karloff is celebrating her 67th today. (I once spoke to Sara on the telephone and she seemed to me a very nice lady.) Also worth mentioning is that ONE STEP BEYOND host-director John Newland (a fellow Cincinnatian) would have been 88 today, and CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN director Rafael Balédon would have been 86.

OVERNIGHT, CINCINNATI HAD its first snowfall of the year. I hate snow. It doesn't help that I'm dieting -- never a good idea on Thanksgiving week, anyway -- and taking diet pills that seem to be making me just a litt-tle bit cranky.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Eighth Wonder of the World... and More

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

New Yorkers won't understand this because many of them grew up with the MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE, which sometimes played KING KONG every day of the week, but there are still a lot of people who have never seen the movie called "The Eighth Wonder of the World." In conversation with our next-door neighbor recently, we found that he'd never seen it, and we also know that a friend of ours who passed away some years ago spent her entire life without seeing it. I first saw KING KONG the first chance I got, when it turned up as the premiere offering when Bob Shreve's ALL-NITE THEATRE moved from the local CBS affiliate, WCPO-TV, to the NBC affiliate WLWT-TV around 1970. I went over each new issue of TV Guide like a hawk in those days, and it was the first local broadcast I was aware of. I was accustomed to the crystal clarity of the stills that appeared in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, so I was surprised by the ancient look of the actual movie -- remember this was a local television print of an early sound picture -- but I was instantly drawn in by the human drama of the depression-era "hard luck" of Fay Wray's character Ann Darrow and the exuberant bombast of Robert Armstrong's great '30s character, Carl Denham. Kong himself was worth the wait, and once he showed up, the movie was at once charmingly antiquated and intoxicatingly fresh. More than 30 years later, it still plays that way to me. Isn't it the closest thing to a genuine American fairy tale that we have?

A few years ago, when we first got our HD widescreen set, I discovered how much the format favored stop-motion films like EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS, turning my TV into a regular Saturday matinee movie-house. So I decided to watch a German import DVD of KING KONG I happened to have. I'd had it for awhile, but had been putting off because rumors of an impending domestic, restored KONG release were going on even then. That German import looked pretty good (though not as good as this new DVD is supposed to look), about as good as the laserdisc releases had looked, but it gave me the happiest KONG experience I'd ever had... and by then, I'd even seen it a few times in a theater -- in 16mm at the University of Cincinnati, and in 35mm at Cincinnati's (now long-gone) Alpha Theater, with the long-rumored "censored" scenes restored. (When the film got to those points of Kong stripping Fay Wray or stomping native Africans into the ground, the movie got a lot darker because the footage had been recovered from a dupier print. Reportedly, the new DVD makes these scenes and shots look fully reintegrated with the rest of the picture for the first time.) Seeing KING KONG large in your own living room is one of life's great pleasures.

If you're reading this blog, you're probably an old hand at KING KONG. Maybe you've even seen it more times than I have. (I've personally long stopped counting the numbers of times I've seen movies, but I know I've seen KONG more than 15 times.) But if you're one of the people who has somehow missed out on this ineffable pleasure, do yourself -- do your family -- a favor and rush down to the video store today and buy or rent yourself an unbeatable evening of entertainment. Or, if you have Turner Classic Movies, turn it on tonight starting at 8:00 p.m. eastern for a full evening of KONG-related entertainment, beginning with the Merian C. Cooper documentary, I'M KING KONG.

KING KONG changed Ray Harryhausen's life when he first saw it at the age of 13. If you're the right age, maybe it'll change yours, too.

Today I get to do the final proofreading of Video Watchdog #123, our 20th Anniversary issue, which features Steven Lloyd's coverage of the second LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION set and David Kalat's profile of the inventive Japanese horror writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (CURE, CHARISMA and BRIGHT FUTURE). You may be interested to know that the great horror novelist and critic Ramsey Campbell has agreed to join the VW Kennel with a regular column, "Ramsey's Rambles," which will debut in VW #124. In each issue, Ramsey is going to discuss whatever film is obsessing him at the moment, and I'm sure we'll all enjoy following his lead to wherever it might take us.

Lastly, I want to mention that the new Mario Bava Soundtrack Anthology, Volume 2 disc -- a two-disc set from DigitMovies featuring Carlo Rustichelli's complete scores for THE WHIP AND THE BODY (mono) and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (full stereo!) -- is now in stock here at Video Watchdog. (Several of these cues can also be heard in other beloved movies, too, including Bava's KILL, BABY... KILL! and the Paul Naschy film A DRAGONFLY FOR EACH CORPSE.) We don't have an order page up yet on the home site, because we're still busy with the issue-in-progress, but it can be ordered from our toll-free number 1-800-275-8395 for $29.95 (USA first class) or $34.95 (outside USA, air mail), postage paid. (I should emphasize that I think these are the correct prices, which are the same as the EUGENIE double disc set we are selling from the same company. Donna, who will be filling your order, will know all the correct pricing so discuss this with her.) This is the soundtrack set all your Eurocultists have been most eagerly awaiting, and it's everything you hoped it would be. The full-color, illustrated booklet includes liner notes by Claudio Fuiano and me, as well as an interview with Maestro Rustichelli, who lamentably passed away before seeing this project come to fruition.

So today, two great dreams come true: KING KONG on DVD, and the two greatest Mario Bava scores on CD!

Monday, November 21, 2005

A Fine Feathered Film

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

The movie I felt most like watching to test these newly remastered waters was THE BIRDS (1963), which I haven't seen for awhile and was the subject of a recent interesting discussion on the Classic Horror Film Boards, in the "1960s and '70s Horror" folder. The gist of the conversation was, "Is it science fiction or not?" I can see where some might think so, but I would more readily categorize it as fantasy since there's no science involved, unless you side with the picture's resident ornithologist Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies, who played Mrs. Whack in 1935's WERE-WOLF OF LONDON!) and consider that different species of birds don't typically flock together; then, I suppose, the story might represent some department of science fiction.

Well before I'd read much in the way of film criticism or analysis, I understood intuitively that the movie was a kind of allegory and that the bird attacks were somehow connected to the clashing psychic energies surrounding the characters of Melanie ('Tippi' Hedren) and Lydia (Jessica Tandy, whose performance struck me as particularly marvelous on this viewing). Since it had been some time since I'd seen THE BIRDS, my memory was that Melanie was herself the instigator, being something of a flighty character, wary of being caged, and that her mysterious relationship to the birds became most pronounced at the end, following her attack in the upstairs room. Just as she, in her shock, is easily disturbed, so must the Brenners guide her through the birds warily. There is something to this interpretation, I think, but it doesn't shell out quite so perfectly -- or so I see on refreshed acquaintence -- as do the birds' ties to Lydia, a widow who fears the coming of Melanie as a sign that her grown son Mitch (a pitch-perfect Rod Taylor) may leave her home without its core male strength. A gull swoops down to strike Melanie as Mitch prepares to intercept her at the dock where she is returning her rented boat; a gull crashes into the door of Annie Hayworth's (Suzanne Pleshette's) house after Melanie agrees to stay for Cathy's (Veronica Cartwright's) birthday party; Lydia persuades Melanie to pick up Cathy from the school house because she is fearful of another attack, which does indeed happen -- endangering Melanie, as well; at the Tides restaurant, the bird attacks cause a group of (interestingly, all women) customers to turn against Melanie and accuse her of being "evil" and attracting the birds to Bodega Bay; and I also find it relevant that Lydia is startled by a dead bird at rest on the portrait of Mitch's father, because she later describes her "weakness" as being instilled in her by a lifetime with a strong husband. Of course, during the birthday party, Melanie confides to Mitch that she harbors only angry feelings toward her self-absorbed, absentee mother, a confession whose contained emotion seems to immediately precipitate another attack on the children at the birthday party.

Thus, the most meaningful storyline of THE BIRDS (as I read it, anyway) is really about Lydia's acceptance of Melanie as a daughter, and Melanie's acceptance of Lydia as a mother. (There is a physical resemblance between Melanie and Lydia too, that doesn't exist in Mitch's earlier girlfriend Annie; it may well be the sign Lydia recognizes as indication that this is the woman Mitch will take seriously.) When Melanie emerges from her shock long enough to look up at Lydia at the end of the movie, their connection has the uplifting power of a happy ending before the film continues on to its final, uncertain shot, and we sense that Lydia has finally found her strength in the necessity to care for this more vulnerable creature. The lovebirds are, in a sense, these two -- two of a kind. Their truce may last, or it may not.

I love the fact that THE BIRDS continues to reward me intellectually, as well as viscerally, each time I see it. I have vivid memories of seeing it for the first time, with my mother and grandmother, on NBC's SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES -- several years before I caught up with PSYCHO on television. People of subsequent generations can't appreciate the impact of that program, which was a very big deal in those three-network days, and I'm sure the movie was cut to some extent... but it was a major discovery for me, and I especially remember the excitement created in our living room by the playground scene as more and more birds were added to the jungle gym. Along with the TWILIGHT ZONE episode "Eye of the Beholder," it was one of my earliest and most captivating encounters with film technique. It was almost certainly one of the starting points of my appreciation for film editing. (All hail George Tomasini, who also edited Rod Taylor's performance in THE TIME MACHINE.)

It's been 40 years since that night, and seeing THE BIRDS again -- for the first time on my HD widescreen set (the biggest I've ever seen it, which gave me a whole new appreciation of its uses of landscape and depth of composition) -- I was filled with absolute admiration. Yes, Hitchcock takes his sweet time telling the story, which would certainly never be tolerated in today's market (today's loss), but it's not tedium; it's remarkable technique, a master toying with his story the way a cat toys with a mouse before the kill, and making his characters and their relationships all the more real in the process. Consequently, there is not a single performance in the film that falls short; not only that, but everyone seems to have layers of backstory and their intimate conversations often fade to black on notes of wonderment -- offbeat, haunting chords in a minor key. Most significantly, this is a special effects movie and it's hard to imagine any of its effects being filmed with greater success or to greater effect today. To note that its dramatic impact was not buttressed by a musical score only adds to its achievement, though it is nevertheless one of the most sonically manipulative of Hitchcock's films.

So much to savor here: the way Mitch's discovery of Melanie's lovebirds prank is played out entirely in long shot, silent, with Mitch emphasized in the distance by his white sweater... Lydia's discovery of the shattered teacups in the neighbor's farmhouse (pictured above)... her discovery of the dead neighbor, a FRANKENSTEIN-like three-step cut closer into his gouged eyesockets, follwed by her silent flight from the house and reckless drive back home (again, in long shot)... Cathy feeling sick prior to the attack on the Brenner home and asking Melanie, rather than Lydia, for help (and the cutaway to Lydia, underscoring her notice of it)... Mrs. Bundy unable to turn around fully to face Melanie in the wake of the attack outside the Tides restaurant... and the way the lights suddenly go out in the Brenner home during the final attack. For the first time, I got a sense from watching the film on video how theater audiences must have jumped when this happened -- and also the trepidation they must have felt when Melanie guides her flashlight beam toward the PSYCHO-like flight of stairs leading to that fateful room on the second floor.

Furthermore, this viewing pointed out to me how much George A. Romero is indebted to this film, in particular. Hitchcock's "siege" picture, like Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, begins with the everyday, offers no explanation for the attacks, stages some memorable shots of Rod Taylor bracing the interior of his home against invasion (I love the moment when, having no rope, he trashes a living room lamp to rip out its wiring and secure a shutter), and the ending finds the survivors packing up into a reliable vehicle and moving out. This film's basic structure has served Romero well for four separate films -- and it's a testament to Romero's own resourcefulness that he's parlayed his borrowings into a whole new subdivision of horror fare, itself imitated by countless others.

Hitchcock's later films all have points of interest, even long stretches of bravura filmmaking, but THE BIRDS is the last produced of the films in this "MASTERPIECE COLLECTION" that seems to me an inarguable masterpiece. As time goes on, Hitchcock shows signs of becoming, in death, a kind of conscience of cinema. We may drift away from his movies from time to time, but they always remain a part of us and it's always refreshing and nourishing -- even enlarging -- to return to them. It's hard to think of areas on the map of cinema that he did not chart or extend in some way, and our appreciation of them speaks to our own lifelong growth as an audience.

May we continue to be worthy of him.