Monday, December 26, 2005
We had a visitor this morning, but my day has mostly been about delving into my gifts and enjoying some nice Sumatra decaf and Donna's pumpkin pie heavily mortared with Cool Whip. I've been perusing the excellent MOJO book THE BEATLES: TEN YEARS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD, Bob Spitz's new Beatles biography (much of which I gulped down last night -- it conveys a much greater sense of the stress and difficulty of being a Beatle than anything else I've read or seen), whilst listening to Bear Family's 8-CD Del Shannon box set (which sounds predictably fantastic and contains a previously unreleased novelty track called "Froggy" that I absolutely love) and an intriguing CD called MAMA KANGAROOS: PHILLY WOMEN SING CAPTAIN BEEFHEART -- which is exactly what it says it is.
While Naomi Watts gives an outstanding performance, I can now see that I was being too generous in my compliments to suggest that her performance as Ann Darrow eclipsed that of Fay Wray, even if only for me. Fay Wray cannot be eclipsed so easily and, again contrary to my previous remarks, neither can the original Kong. I do believe that the new Kong outstrips the original in almost every way, in terms of being a believable illusion, but the original had its originality going for it... and the original film as his showcase. That counts for a lot. The 1933 film remains supreme, a perfectly measured triumph of the imagination, and apparently an unrepeatable moment despite close to a century's advances in technology and endless additional spending.
While the new version's love for the original is its greatest strength, it is likewise its greatest weakness. The new film has some very clever narrative additions to make, like splitting the romantic male lead between Jack Driscoll and the vain actor Bruce Baxter (the scene where he is inspired by one of his defaced movie posters is one of the movie's great character moments), but I maintain that it shoots itself in the hoof by giving Jack Black those famous closing words to say. His Denham character doesn't follow the arc that arrives at those words, but Jackson's reverence for the original would allow him no alternative. It should also be mentioned, as not enough reviews are doing, that Thomas Kreutschmann brings a lot to the movie as Captain Englehorn.
Where I think the remake beats the original in every possible respect is atop the Empire State Building. Kong's chest-pounding in the wake of defeating the first biplane, standing at the very pinnacle of 1933 New York City's highest structure, is a sublime moment and everything about the scene adds to its suspense, heroism, pathos and vertigo. (That said, it's true that we must overlook the fact that Ann is walking without fear at the very peak of the building in high heels and dressed rather skimpily to look so comfortable in high December winds.) I don't know why it was deemed a good idea to set the New York scenes at Christmas time, just because the movie was opening then; the original KONG wasn't a Christmas picture -- though SON OF KONG was. At least the cold, crisp air gave us the ice pond scene, which I know is controversial but which I like because it works as a microcosm for human experience; in essence, though Ann's relationship with Kong is short-lived, the movie grants this unlikely couple opportunities to experience the highs and lows of a well-rounded relationship. The Empire State Building sequence works as well as it does, in part, because we have seen the idylls of which this twosome is capable disrupted by the military, and because we know that everything Kong has done has been motivated by his love for Ann. Here he scales the Empire State Building and fights back against the biplanes, first and foremost, not because they are attacking him but because he is acting as his golden girl's protector.
It worries me that Peter Jackson is already affirming the likelihood of an eventual "expanded edition" of his KONG for DVD, because this movie doesn't need more of what it already has. It would be much better served by trusting in the power of its images and essential story and cutting back to the equivalent of a few well-chosen words.
Jackson's film is beautiful in many ways, and while its beauty doesn't quite kill the beast, it does bloat it.
Sunday, December 25, 2005
Saturday, December 24, 2005
"MERRY CHRISTMAS" is what I would have been saying in this photo, taken Christmas Eve of last year, but my little niece Avery felt I didn't look quite festive enough and spent some time covering me with Christmas bows. God only knows what devilry she has in store for me tonight. Thank you all for taking a moment to peek in over the holidays. May you all have a safe and wonderful Christmas Eve, and a relaxing and fulfilling Christmas Day spent among your loved ones!
Video WatchBlog will be back to its usual mayhem... eventually.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
VIDEO WATCHDOG'S DVD OF THE YEAR, 2005:
KING KONG (1933, Turner Home Entertainment), ranked on 5 of 7 lists
And now, our lists! Selections are in order of preference unless otherwise noted...
1. THE TWILIGHT ZONE: THE DEFINITIVE EDITION, SEASON 2 - 4 (Image Entertainment): The first volume was released at the end of last year, but this year's continuation -- encompassing many of the beloved series' most memorable episodes -- fulfills its promise and then some. Image's TZ sets have become the standard bearer of how vintage television should be handled and presented on DVD. The casual viewer can be satisfied with the most sparkling transfers these shows have ever seen (mastered from 35mm), while more ardent fans can drink as deeply as they desire, partaking of audio commentaries, Rod Serling lectures and interviews, isolated music tracks, and much else. Exhaustive in their scope, inexhaustible in their pleasures, these sets do Serling and his many talented collaborators proud -- and they deserve to be in every home where imaginative storytelling is respected. SEASON 5, the final set, will be streeting on December 27.
2. EDGAR WALLACE EDITION 1 - 8 (Tobis/UFA import R2): These eight box sets are a dream come true for the krimi collector, and I very nearly put them in the Number 1 position. The transfers (most of them anamorphic) are frequently astonishing to eyes familiar only with the 16mm English-dubbed TV prints put out by Sinister Cinema. To finally have the option of viewing these pictures in German with English subtitles, and to see the early black-and-white entries (like THE DEAD EYES OF LONDON) with their blood-red main titles for the first time, was a heady emotional and educational experience. In short, these sets helped me to understand the full glory and importance of this series, which influenced the James Bond films and even the shockers of Dario Argento. These box sets were actually my favorite DVD releases of the year, but I had to grit my teeth and take them down a notch on principle, because the disc producers opted to withhold English audio and subtitle options from at least one film (but never more than two films) in almost every set, including some titles (like DOUBLE FACE) that can easily be found in English. EDITION 4 (collecting THE BLACK ABBOT, THE INDIAN SCARF, ROOM 13 and THE MYSTERIOUS MAGICIAN) is the only set to offer English options for every feature. Available from Sazuma and Xploited Cinema.
3. L'ECLISSE (Criterion): I had never seen this Michelangelo Antonioni classic with Monica Vitti and Alain Delon before, and it turned out to be the most exciting and moving movie experience I had this year. The black-and-white widescreen photography gleams, and Criterion's extras are also top notch. Criterion issued an extraordinary number of top-notch releases this year (THE TALES OF HOFFMAN, THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY, JULES AND JIM, THE RIVER, etc), surpassing even their usual high standard, and I wish I could have accomodated more of them on this list.
4. THE KRZYSZTOF KIESLOWSKI COLLECTION: THE SCAR/CAMERA BUFF/BLIND CHANCE/NO END/A SHORT FILM ABOUT LOVE/A SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING (Kino on Video): This much-needed collection replaces New Yorker Films' earlier VHS releases of many of these titles, and sweetens them with additional colleague interviews and other worthy supplements, including several of Kieslowski's early documentary shorts. While none of these films quite attains the masterly blend of approachability and brilliance of Kieslowski's later work, the last three films in the set are masterpieces and the first three are more than worth seeing.
5. THE VAL LEWTON HORROR COLLECTION: CAT PEOPLE/CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE/I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE/THE BODY SNATCHER/THE LEOPARD MAN/THE GHOST SHIP/ISLE OF THE DEAD/THE SEVENTH VICTIM/SHADOWS IN THE DARK documentary (Turner Home Entertainment): One of the finest bodies of work ever amassed within the horror genre, treated with the respect it deserves. The audio commentaries -- including such VW alumni as Kim Newman, Tom Weaver, and Greg Mank -- are superb, and the documentary about Lewton is one of the best of its kind. My only regret about the set is that Turner apparently couldn't think of anyone who might provide a commentary for ISLE OF THE DEAD, which is one of my personal favorites of the bunch. That's the one where Boris Karloff says, "They call me The Watchdog..."
6. THE QUATERMASS COLLECTION (BBC Video): A perfectly realised, long-awaited collection of all the surviving kinescopes of the BBC's original "Quatermass" telecasts from 1953 (THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT, two episodes), 1955 (QUATERMASS II, complete) and 1958-59 (QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, complete). Nigel Kneale's original teleplays for the missing EXPERIMENT episodes are included, and the PIT episodes ameliorate the old problem of the BBC's initial stand-alone release of this title as a single, extended entity. The documentary extras are outstanding, too.
7. THE KING KONG COLLECTION (Turner Home Entertainment): I am still making my way through this mouth-watering set, but it's both a delight and an education. It appears to offer the best-looking and -sounding presentations of KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933) and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949) ever. In the case of KING KONG particularly, the image clarity enlarges one's appreciation of the film's technical achievement, and the bonus disc's exhaustive documentary features put these achievements into historic perspective in a way that fully supports the feature's claim to the name "The Eighth Wonder of the World." Long-awaited and worth the wait.
8. A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (Tartan Video): The most skillfully made horror film of recent vintage I've seen, this darkly lyrical South Korean film merges ghost story and dark psychology with a virtuosity seldom encountered anymore. The score by Byung-woo Lee is an instant classic, haunting and beautiful. If you pick this up, I insist you pop for the two-disc deluxe edition, whose supplements are not only informative but offer behind-the-scenes glimpses of the director and his actors that are remarkable in their humanism and candor. One of those DVD releases that extends the boundaries of what the medium is capable of achieving.
9. DAVID CRONENBERG'S THE FLY (1986, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment): Long in the works, this definitive treatment of Cronenberg's "reimagining" of the 1958 classic was worth the wait. Besides an excellent rendering of the film, this two-disc set offers a feast of bonus materials, of which the most notable are a lengthy retrospective documentary and an assortment of invaluable deleted scenes. The "monkey-cat/crab-leg" sequence is the DVD Bonus supplement of the year. I'll go to my grave insisting that Cronenberg opted for a good horror film instead of a great one when he cut this powerful footage, but the disc offers a valid counter-argument of why cutting it was the right thing to do.
10. (tie) DANGER: DIABOLIK (Paramount DVD), THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and VENUS IN FURS (Blue Underground): The year's most stunning Eurocult releases. I had the privilege of contributing to the commentary track of DIABOLIK with its star John Phillip Law, but I include this title mostly for restoring and presenting the most complete and ideal version of the film ever released -- and Steve Bissette's interview tying DIABOLIK into the history of comics and comic adaptations to film is superb. Blue Underground's two releases continue their tradition of going the extra mile with worthy cult items. BIRD is the deluxe edition of Dario Argento's directorial debut that his fans have long been craving, topped off with a stunning from-the-negative transfer supervised by Vittorio Storaro; VENUS is one of Jess Franco's quintessential works, perhaps his definitive psychedelic treatment of romantic obsession. All three films have never looked or sounded better.
Honorable Mention: MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES (PPS Group): This nostalgic collection of home-made 8mm/16mm monster movies, dating from 1952 to fairly recently but emphasizing the 1960s, is a time capsule preserving our love of movies and our desire to share in their magic. Every one of the 20 films included has something to commend it, whether it's raw talent (or somewhat more sophisticated talent), a gift for mimicky, ambition and pluck, or simply the reflected innocence of a less complicated time. Every film is accompanied by an audio commentary that puts each piece in perspective, perspectives which allow the set to cover the whole arc of human emotions from joy to tragedy. I contributed an audio commentary to my late friend Alan Upchurch's film "The Gentle Old Madman," which makes MKHM particularly meaningful for me, but even without my participation, or Alan's, this disc would have touched my heart. Irresistable, and an outstanding debut release from PPS Group. Available directly from PPS Group or from Diabolik DVD.
Other Notables: TITANIC (Paramount DVD "Special Collector's Edition"), THE WIZARD OF OZ (Warner Home Video "Three-Disc Collector's Edition"), THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953; Paramount DVD "Special Collector's Edition"), THE LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION - Volumes 1, 2 and 3 (Warner Home Video), DIVORCE, ITALIAN STYLE (Criterion), UNFAITHFULLY YOURS (Criterion), THE DEFA SCI-FI COLLECTION: THE SILENT STAR, IN THE DUST OF THE STARS and EOLOMEA (First Run Features), SIX FEET UNDER - THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON (with the stunning episode "That's My Dog," HBO Video), THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (Warner Home Video), CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (Grindhouse Releasing), GIRL MEETS GIRL COLLECTION (EI Independent/RetroSeduction Cinema), GREEN ACRES - THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (with the stunning episode "Arnold Goes to Hollywood," MGM Home Entertainment), THE FLESH EATERS (Dark Sky/MPI), also THE MYSTERIANS, DOGORA, MATANGO and VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE (Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock).
Best Box Set of 2005: JERRY LEWIS - THE LEGENDARY JERRY COLLECTION: THE NUTTY PROFESSOR/THE LADIES MAN/CINDERFELLA/THE FAMILY JEWELS/THE PATSY/THE BELLBOY/THE ERRAND BOY/THE DELICATE DELINQUENT/THE DISORDERLY ORDERLY/THE STOOGE (Paramount DVD) Okay, I'm taking advantage of a technicality here. The individual DVDs composing this box set were originally released in October of 2004, and I complained then that they should have been collected in a more affordable box set. If you skipped these titles last year because they were too costly, I urge you to take advantage of this economically priced collection. Of course the humor is juvenile, but the filmmaking is frequently inspired, with an original approach to color, set design, spectacle, and an often surrealistic sensibility. If THE NUTTY PROFESSOR is all you know, you must at least check out THE LADIES' MAN. The recording session in THE PATSY had me laughing so hard I thought I might die. Seriously.
Restoration of the Year: THE WIZARD OF OZ (Warner Home Video).
Other Notable Restorations of 2005: ALFRED HITCHCOCK: LES PREMIERES OEUVRES 1927-28, 1929-31, 1932-1940 (Studio Canal, French imports), DANGER: DIABOLIK (Paramount), WILD IN THE STREETS/GAS-S-S-S! (MGM Home Entertainment), THE FLESH EATERS (Dark Sky/MPI) and THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH (No Shame Films).
1. THE VAL LEWTON HORROR COLLECTION (Warner R1): After well-deserved criticism regarding their lackluster catalogue of vintage library titles, Warner Home Video finally got fully on-track in 2005. Their magnificent box set of Val Lewton's subtle RKO chillers proved well worth the wait.
2. THE KING KONG COLLECTION (Warner R1): I have almost no interest in seeing Peter Jackson's gazillion dollar CGI overkill extravaganza, but am glad it finally came out as we now have this gorgeous restoration of the RKO original. Nice extras, plus high quality presentations of the studio's other two giant ape classics make this a must.
3. PHANTASM I-IV SPHERE BOX SET (Anchor Bay UK R2 PAL): No amount of gloss and supplemental goodies can compensate for the travesty that is PHANTASM: OBLIVION, but this set is otherwise exemplary and comes in the year's grooviest packaging: an oversized reproduction of the series' classic silver sphere! With the North American rights to the movies divided between MGM and Universal, an R1 equivalent seems unlikely.
4. DAVID CRONENBERG'S THE FLY (Fox R1): Previous editions of this grotesque but remarkably poignant remake were too bright and lacking in supplements, flaws eradicated by this new, director-approved set. It also offers some of the most extensive and fascinating extras in recent memory.
5. THE CANDY SNATCHERS (Subversive R1): In this age of unabashed double dipping, it is all but unheard of for a movie's very first video release in any format to also be definitive. Subversive Cinema has managed to accomplish just that, offering a beautiful transfer of this essential '70s grindhouse thriller complimented by quality supplementary material.
6. THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (Blue Underground R1): This lovingly restored, uncut presentation of Dario Argento's excellent giallo almost makes me forget that he has made absolutely nothing of worth in the past 15 years. Almost.
7. DANGER: DIABOLIK (Paramount R1): Another studio with a less-than-impressive selection of library titles, Paramount starts to right their wrongs by doing this Mario Bava classic justice. A first-rate transfer and marvelous extras completely wash away the taste of that MST3K travesty.
8. DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY (Anchor Bay R1): The greatest car chase epic to blaze across 1970s drive-in screens finally hits DVD...and in a highly polished special edition to boot! Sensational driving and a wonderful character performance from Vic Morrow keep this platter constantly spinning in my player.
9. FAREWELL FRIEND (Cinema Club UK R2 PAL): Jean Herman's witty, masterfully plotted, and tres cool tale of honor and male bonding features Alain Delon and Charles Bronson at the height of their craft. A barebones release, but the movie and the presentation are so good, it doesn't matter (and you get the complete European version, unlike that wretched public domain R1 release).
10. GAMBLING CITY (NoShame R1): One of the first Italian crime thrillers I saw and still one of my favorites, even in its abbreviated, pan&scan release as THE CHEATERS from Vogue Video 20+ years ago. Naturally, NoShame's beautiful, uncut, widescreen edition is the only version I'll watch from now on.
John's Honorable Mentions: 42ND. STREET FOREVER VOL. 1 (Synapse R1), CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (Grindhouse R1), THE DEVIL'S REJECTS: TWO DISC DIRECTOR'S CUT (Lions Gate R1), DIRTY HO (Intercontinental HK R3), DOGORA (Media Blasters R1), DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER (1977; Intercontinental HK R3), KING KONG VS GODZILLA/KING KONG ESCAPES (Universal R1), MATANGO (Media Blasters R1), THE MYSTERIANS (Media Blasters R1), THE WAR OF THE WORLDS: SPECIAL COLLECTOR'S EDITION (1953; Paramount R1).
choices in alphabetical order
THE CANDY SNATCHERS (Subversive Cinema): Bizarre, unpredictable Seventies exploitation crime drama is given a sterling transfer and detailed reminisces from two of its female stars.
THE FLESH EATERS (Dark Sky) -- Great transfer of one of the great low-budget genre underdogs.
FOR YOUR HEIGHT ONLY / CHALLENGE OF THE DRAGON (Mondo Macabro): This fun double feature of Dick Randall exploitation imports will have your friends worrying about your sanity, particularly the Filipino James Bond parody FOR YOUR HEIGHT ONLY, which stars the diminutive, 3-foot tall Weng Weng as secret agent "00".
HANZO THE RAZOR (Home Vision Entertainment) : Box set of the audacious Seventies samurai trilogy starring Shintaro (ZATOICHI) Katsu.
JUST BEFORE DAWN (Media Blasters) : One of the better slasher pics of the Seventies is treated to an anecdote-filled commentary from director Jeff Lieberman (SQUIRM, BLUE SUNSHINE), whose talks typically contain more useful information than most film courses.
KING KONG (Warner Home Video) : You will see details in the film you never saw before... plus the documentary material is exhausting in its scope. Peter Jackson's recreation of the lost spider pit sequence is unbelievably good, an early Christmas present to all us monster fans.
LONG WEEKEND (Synapse Films): Flawless anamorphic transfer of a highly unusual "nature's revenge" film, where the wildlife attacks are metaphors for a disintegrating marriage.
MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (Warner Home Video) : Sparkling transfer and a heart-warming commentary with Ray Harryhausen and Terry Moore. Effects artist Ken Ralston moderates the commentary, and every time there is a startling stop-motion image, he remarks with deadpan awe, "oh, Ray... oh, Ray."
POINT BLANK (Warner Home Video): This nice special edition of John Boorman's experimental neo-noir, along with new DVD releases of THE PROFESSIONALS and PRIME CUT, made 2005 the unofficial Year of Lee Marvin.
VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE (Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock): All of Media Blasters' recent Toho releases have something extraordinary about them to recommend: MATANGO is essential to anyone interested in J-horror; THE MYSTERIANS has, among many other extras, an isolated Akira Ifukube score... but if I had to pick just one to represent them all it would have to be VARAN, not only for presenting the very different (and much better) Japanese version of the film, but for a fascinating audio commentary with effects artist Keizo Murase, who gives rare insight into the day-to-day life of a starving, struggling Toho studios technician.
P.S. from T. L. - It's Bill's birthday today. Happy Birthday, Bill!
1. DOCTOR WHO - SERIES 1 (BBC import R2): I'll take the tack that TV does deserve to be included, and this revival of my favorite show is simply perfect.
2. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT SEASON 1 and 2 (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment): Probably doomed on network TV, but we'll always have the DVDs.
3. UNIVERSITY OF LAUGHS: Only available on disc in Japan as a R2 import, but with subtitles, this astonishing film has almost no market in the US. Two great actors sit in a room and talk, in a script that takes the awful grind towards Japan's declaration of war in the 1940s and turns into absurdist comedy of the highest order. This may not appeal much to VW's readership, but it is one of the best movies I've seen in many, many years.
4. LE ROI DE CHAMPS-ELYSEES (Reel Classic DVD-R): Buster Keaton's 1935 French language comedy, produced by Seymour Nebezahl and including clips from THE TESTAMENT OF DOCTOR MABUSE, is Keaton's greatest talkie feature, yet long out of the reach of fans. At last a top notch DVD-R with newly translated subtitles can be found online from Reel Classic DVD.
5. DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (BBC R2): The BBC miniseries is a work of apocalyptic dread that takes itself seriously enough to feel plausible.
6. THEY CAME BACK (Fox Lorber): A French zombie drama (yup, not a horror film, a drama) recently on Region 1 DVD, that is unlike any other zombie movie ever made. Finally, something new under the sun.
7. LOST - THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Buena Vista Home Entertainment): I dropped it down the list only because the currently airing second season makes the first season look weak by comparison.
8. CHARLEY CHASE COLLECTION VOLUME 2 (Kino on Video): Thank God for Kino, giving this underrated slapstick star an overdue reappraisal. This disc includes the short "Isn't Life Terrible?" which, in my book, is one of the most jaw-dropping pieces of silent comedy ever created. If you like old slapstick and haven't seen this short, your life is missing something.
9. MATANGO (Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock): When I saw that what was once known as ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE was getting a platform release with extras, in Japanese with subtitles, I'd assumed I was the victim of a practical joke. But no, now everybody with $15 to spare can enjoy this masterpiece of Japanese sc-fi delirium.
10. SCARY TRUE STORIES (MPI Home Video): Sneaking out onto DVD at the end of the year, with little fanfare, is one of the important J-Horror releases yet: the birthplace of the genre.
choices include some 2004 releases first viewed in 2005*
1. THE QUATERMASS COLLECTION (BBC Video R2)
2. DOCTOR WHO: SERIES 1 [the new series] (BBC Video R2)
3. THRILLER: THE COMPLETE SERIES [the UK 1970s show, not the US 1960s one, R2]
4. EDGAR WALLACE EDITION 1 - 8 (Tobis/UFA R2)
5. LAURA (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)
6. THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (Criterion)
7. VIDEODROME (Criterion)*
8. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (Criterion)
9. DEADWOOD: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (HBO Video)
10. DAWN OF THE DEAD - ULTIMATE EDITION (Anchor Bay Entertainment)*
Kim adds: "All sorts of possibles or probables - the Lewton box set (though I should rule that out for nomination since I contributed to it), the King Kong collection, the Universal Hammer and Lugosi sets - might qualify, except I've not even got them out of the shrinkwrap, let alone watched them down to the last Easter egg!"
RICHARD HARLAND SMITH
choices in random order
THE BLIND DEAD COLLECTION (Blue Underground): The ayes finally have it -- essential EuroCult gets its due in a box set that puts the fun back in funereal.
THE VAL LEWTON HORROR COLLECTION (Turner Home Entertainment): Not just a collection of some of the finest horror and suspense films ever made but a primer for shock by suggestion.
TORTURE GARDEN (Columbia Home Entertainment): Not the best omnibus horror film of all time... but better than most that have already been given the digital upgrade and Burgess Meredith is a hoot as Dr. Diablo.
MATANGO/ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE (Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock): Shriek Show finally gets one right, and one of the most disturbing horror films of all time, too.
RACE WITH THE DEVIL (Anchor Bay Entertainment): The butt-ugly cover art aside, which makes this tale of Satanism along the Rio Grande look like a CB radio chase flick, Anchor Bay serves up vintage 70s drive-in shock with all the trimmins'.
ALMOST HUMAN (NoShame Films): Even if I hadn't written liner notes for this bloody slice of ItaloCrime, I'd still give it the thumbs up for being the EuroCult release of the year.
KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER (Universal): Wash the taste of that awful re-imagining with the original series. Occasionally excellent, often downright awful, with Darren McGavin as tour guide, THE NIGHT STALKER was at least a fun diversion and had character to burn.
THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (Blue Underground): In a word: finally.
THE INNOCENTS (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment): Not only is this classic spooker finally available on DVD, but at an affordable price not much above $10. Do it for the children.
KING KONG COLLECTION (Warner Home Video): Best Buy offered an exclusive box set of KING KONG, SON OF KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG with extras galore and 10 collectible cards of original poster art from around the world. But even if Warners had put out a no frills single disc, it would have been worth all the chest pounding.
REBECCA & SAM UMLAND
choices in random order
EVIL DEAD 2: BOOK OF THE DEAD LIMITED EDITION (Anchor Bay Entertainment, "Divimax Special Edition"): Worth it for the fabulous packaging, HD transfer, and The Book of the Dead looks great on our mantle.
AU HASARD BALTHAZAR (Criterion): Beautiful transfer of a sublime, flawless film.
NAKED (Criterion): Existentialism without despair, and David Thewlis is simply superb.
DEMON SEED (Warner Home Video): A fine LETTERBOXED transfer of a vastly under-rated film, long overdue on DVD.
POINT BLANK (Warner Home Video): Forget what you’ve read: Boorman’s brilliant film was the real inspiration for Cammell and Roeg’s PERFORMANCE.
DISNEY RARITIES: CELEBRATED SHORTS 1920s-1960s (Walt Disney Treasures): An excellent selection of historically important material, with excellent annotations. We are aware of the controversy this particular issue of the "Walt Disney Treasures" has elicited, but we stand by our assessment that this is an historically important release, despite the limitations of some of the source materials used for the transfers. While the quality of the presentation is important, our decision to include the title is based not simply on the quality of the transfers, but on the historic importance of the material included on the set.
MAJOR DUNDEE: THE EXTENDED VERSION (Sony/Columbia): Who would have believed it? Wasn’t this the GREED of our generation?
KING KONG (Turner Home Entertainment, "2-Disc Collector’s Edition"): Another fine issue of vast historical importance, with excellent supplements.
EDISON: THE INVENTION OF THE MOVIES, 1891-1918 (Kino on Video): What can we say? These films started it all: why we’re writing, and why you’re reading. There’s truly fascinating material on these four discs.
THE WIZARD OF OZ (Warner Home Video, 3-Disc Collector’s Edition): Yet another of the many profoundly important historic sets Warner issued in 2005, with important supplements from the silent era.
Best TV Issue (#11, excluding THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, which goes without saying): BUFFALO BILL: THE COMPLETE FIRST AND SECOND SEASONS (Lion’s Gate) One of the most sublimely funny TV shows ever shown on national television, sadly short-lived.
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
A total of seven (7) Kennel regulars found the time to join in the fun, and several of us have annotated our selections at some length, with our total efforts adding up to the biggest WatchBlog yet!
I decided to publish the lists on Thursday rather than Friday, because so many of us (me included) begin to find our leisure time seriously curtailed the closer we get to Christmas weekend. It's always a hectic time of year for us, with Donna and I celebrating our wedding anniversary on the 23rd (this year is our 31st!), taking charge of Christmas Eve catering and spending it with family, and visiting with out-of-town friends on Christmas Day... but feel free to check in at Video WatchBlog through the holidays and see if I've left you a little cyber-present.
As someone who's been involved in a number of DVD releases myself, I can well understand Leonard's stance in all this, and I'm sympathetic. It's true that the experts about these films are often ("often"? always!) kept remote and removed from the actual production of the discs, and therefore have no control over the look or content of the final result. Someone on the Mobius Home Video Forum once asked me if my participation in a DVD release -- providing audio commentary, writing liner notes, or whatever -- should be considered an endorsement of that release. My truthful answer was "Not necessarily." As a matter of fact, I've written liner notes or box copy for movies I don't particularly like; I do this to give myself some extra spending money, and I only accept these side jobs if I feel I can bring some insight or expertise to the assignment, a way of explaining why these films might be of interest to someone else.
But Leonard's involvement with the "Walt Disney Treasures" series has been far more extensive. He not only conceived the line and sold Disney on undertaking it, he introduces each set and his face and name are plastered all over each (pricey) set. Therefore, while I'm understanding of Leonard's situation in relation to Disney as a company (and I would imagine it's a more forbidding company than most), I agree with Al Lutz that the extra dimensions of his involvement are indicative of his active participation and approval, tantamount to his personal assurance as an authority that these releases have been painstakingly restored and are absolutely uncut... which is, unfortunately, not the case.
Sometimes taking the money should mean taking the responsibility. And, with all due respect to one of animation's great scholars, this would appear to be one of those times.
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Today: #101,106 in Books
Yesterday: #418,705 in Books
The only thing these figures (which are updated hourly) absolutely mean is that, even today, THE BOOK OF RENFIELD is selling significantly lesser numbers than the more urgent likes of the latest Rachel Ray cookbooks (#3, #17) and WHY DO MEN HAVE NIPPLES? (#11). I realize the number may well drop precipitously tomorrow, or even a few hours from now, but in the meantime, this jump in sales -- or is it merely a slump in the sales of everything else? -- is cause for a hard-working writer's smile. As is the idea that my book might be waiting gift-wrapped under some people's trees this Christmas.
If Amazon.com should sell that last copy before you can get yours, remember it can be found at your favorite local bookstore chain and that copies signed by the author can be found here at no extra cost.
Acknowledgement: KING KONG photos courtesy/copyright Universal.
1. I don't know if it's a good thing that Fay Wray didn't live to see this movie or not. I think she would have liked it enough to have her heart broken a little by it. Fay Wray was Ann Darrow, "the girl in the hairy paw," till the day she died, and that's as it should have been. I'll always love Fay, but I think Naomi Watts is Ann Darrow for me now.
2. I also think Jackson's Kong (Andy Serkis) is Kong for me now. He better embodies a living, breathing animal and conveys a richer range of emotions. I'll always love the original, of course, but I suspect Willis O'Brien's stop-motion model will look more like an eye-rolling toy to me on future viewings, its emotions limited to variations on fury and cute. I know the Obie-Kong inspired a lot of important film careers, but I feel certain this movie will plant seeds of its own. With this Kong, I instinctively knew that, when the theater curtain was raised on him, he would be sitting there slumped over, soulless and shamed -- not the upright manacled trophy of the 1933 film -- and it's a magnificent touch. So is the shot of the life fading from Kong's eyes before he plummets from the Empire State Building. Jackson allowed his King to hold his ground. Bravo.
3. I've read some postings online by people who hated the movie because they could not accept the idea a woman could fall in love with a giant gorilla. Well, there's love and there is love. I had no trouble understanding that Ann bonds with Kong after witnessing the extent to which he was willing to protect her from harm (i.e., the T. Rex brood). This proved that she could be as assured of her safety in his company as she could be anywhere, whereas her own species had placed her in harm's way for commercial gain and would again; it was her open-hearted response to Kong's overwhelming show of love -- or, at least, devotion -- for her. I loved the way Kong made a show of his wounded pride afterwards by refusing to face her in his moment of victory; it was like he was reproaching her for everything he, a king in his world, had to endure because of her capricious decision to run away from him, and it's a fabulous moment when he forgives her by picking her up and flinging her onto his shoulder. In the midst of the Great Depression and unimaginable dangers, Kong becomes a Gibraltar-sized rock Ann can literally cling to. When she later climbs to the peak of the Empire State Building (another deal-breaker for some viewers), I can accept that she does this because she feels so safe in Kong's presence, even when he's vulnerable. She has already faced greater heights and dangers at his side. True, the top of the Empire State Building has got to be much less hospitable in wintertime than Jackson depicts it, but by this time in the movie, emotions should be overriding logic. This story is the very pinnacle of motion picture fantasy; if you need realism, find something with fewer people running away from dinosaurs.
4. I didn't catch a screen credit for him, but I believe that's Howard Shore who is seen conducting the orchestra at Kong's NYC debut. If it is him, his cameo must be painful to him now. How I would love to hear his rejected score! The James Newton Howard score that Jackson went with instead is, in a word, banal. It doesn't hurt the film, but neither does it lodge in the heart or memory.
5. Jack Black. Loved him in THE SCHOOL OF ROCK (which is always a "Stop" sign when I'm channel surfing), but I didn't for a moment buy him as a filmmaker familiar with or equal to danger, or as someone with any working knowledge of emotion, for that matter. Denham should love adrenalin more than money, and he should also know the worth of human lives. Black's Denham is a cardboard money-grubber with no gravitas in his voice whatsoever; he's a Denham for our times, I suppose, for which woe is us. Black's shallow characterization makes the new KING KONG one of the most virulently anti-capitalist films I've seen -- an odd achievement for one of the most expensive films ever made.
6. As thrilled and moved as I was by everything during the wonderfully dizzy-making Empire State Building sequence, I dreaded the coming of the movie's end because I knew Jack Black had some obligatory words to say at the end, and I knew he couldn't possibly say them without sounding like he was quoting the 1933 film. And that's exactly how it played out -- magnificent ESB sequence, followed by a wimpy, hollow sentiment. (What does this Denham know about beauty? He didn't even look at Ann as she passed back through the gate alive.) I know Jackson would think the idea a sacrilege, but believe the movie would have worked better if he'd cut the line -- or given his Denham a more appropriate one to say.
6.5. Speaking of the ESB sequence, the reveal of the biplanes actually made me gasp and wince at the same time. A stunning moment.
7. I love the way Adrien Brody carries Naomi Watts off the Empire State Building on his back, the way Kong slung her onto his shoulder after defeating the T. Rex. That sort of attention to character detail is one of the movie's most winning traits. The movie might have been wiser to fade to the end credits there, rather than fading to Black.
8. Note to cameraman Andrew Lesnie: Was all that arty, jagged, slow-motion crap really necessary? It takes the movie out of its 1930s milieu far worse than Adrien Brody's haircut does (a common complaint in the KONG threads on the Classic Horror Film Boards). During the Great Depression, I suspect that self-barbering was a fairly common practice... and if truth be told, writers as a species are not the world's most image-conscious people.
9. It's a beautiful, heart-rending, flawed movie, clearly the product of a mind that has spent years in awed contemplation of its themes both stated and unstated. It is KING KONG on an operatic scale. Many of its faults and excesses are the result of having loved the original too much. I'm eager to see it again, even though I felt the movie didn't really begin to work as a whole until the ship reached Skull Island. There is an antic energy in the early NYC material that doesn't work for me, and it's in most of Jackson's pre-Tolkein films, too. For all that, the apple-stealing scene is perfect.
10. Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody -- they're Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, right?
Monday, December 19, 2005
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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...