Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Somehow, during a magical period spanning from 1959 to 1963, Scott had the good fortune to always be featured in films that were a cut above the norm -- and he made them better than they would have been without him. A former Las Vegas lifeguard named Gordon Werschkul, he made his screen debut in 1955, replacing Lex Barker in producer Sol Lesser's Tarzan series, bridging the character's swing from black-and-white to color with TARZAN'S HIDDEN JUNGLE (Scott married his co-star Vera Miles, whose loveliness here is sufficient reward to watch the picture) and 1957's TARZAN AND THE LOST SAFARI. 1958's TARZAN AND THE TRAPPERS was Scott's only backward step, a return to black-and-white that cut together episodes of a unsold television series. The series was quick to rebound with TARZAN'S FIGHT FOR LIFE, an all-color feature made the same year, but it was the next two films that stood apart from every Tarzan feature that came before -- new series producer Sy Weintraub realizing that this Tarzan was being held back from true greatness by old series trappings like Jane and Boy (who was called Tartu in TARZAN'S FIGHT FOR LIFE) and especially the comedy relief of Cheta.
"You stay here," Scott tells Cheta early on in TARZAN'S GREATEST ADVENTURE (1959) and the chimpanzee shenanigans were also wisely left out of TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT (1960). Both of these films starred Gordon Scott as a solitary, "noble savage" Tarzan in raised-stakes adventures that many Edgar Rice Burroughs devotees regard as the finest films ever made about the character. Under the solid, respective direction of John Guillermin and Robert Day, with strong scripts (Berne Giler is the common name between the two) and handsome photography by the likes of Ted Skaife and Nicolas Roeg, these are the rare Tarzan films that transcend series standards to meet the highest demands of non-series action/adventure entertainment. Scott's robust physique may well look overly trained, the product of weight-resistance reps rather than the result of natural exercise, but he is the only Tarzan who looks at home while more than half-naked on location in the jungle -- and he performs most of his own stunts, as well. Both films also illustrate the credo that a film is only as good as its villain, with GREATEST ADVENTURE opposing Scott with Anthony Quayle and a young Sean Connery (in his second or third picture) and THE MAGNIFICENT with John Carradine and Jock Mahoney. For vague reasons, Scott was subsequently replaced by Mahoney in the Tarzan role; Mahoney was a better-than-able stuntman and a good actor, physically fit without being "pumped-up," but he was ill-suited for the role. Nevertheless, Mahoney's Tarzan films -- TARZAN'S THREE CHALLENGES and TARZAN GOES TO INDIA -- are even more epic in scope and worth seeing.
Legend has it that Steve Reeves recommended Scott to play his headstrong, ambitious brother in ROMULUS AND REMUS, which became DUEL OF THE TITANS when it was released here in America by Paramount (to whom Scott was still under contract). I was just a kid at the time, but I can vividly remember what a big deal DUEL OF THE TITANS was when it opened: lots of TV advertising, big titan-sized posters and standees, and people were genuinely curious about which of these men's men would triumph. And the movie didn't disappoint the expectations aroused by the ballyhoo; it was directed by Sergio Corbucci, one of the finest Italian action directors, and the many-authored script featured input from none other than Sergio Leone. Even in its somewhat reduced US length, the film had the scope and feel of a genuine historical epic, one of Reeves' better performances, and was made particularly fascinating by Scott's hellbound determination to prove himself as an actor and as Reeves' equal (or better yet, superior) in the genre he launched, and also perhaps to vindicate himself after losing the Tarzan role. The jealousy between two brothers is at the heart of the story, and you can feel Scott's personal investment in the material. It's probably his finest performance and one of the best films of its kind.
Next came MACISTE CONTRO I VAMPIRI, became GOLIATH AND THE VAMPIRES in the States, where the name Maciste carried no mythic resonance. (Maciste was first introduced on the silent screen in 1914's CABIRIA, as an heroic Nubian slave played by a Caucasian dockworker, Bartolomeo Pagano, who was such a hit that he subsequently continued as an actor, always playing Maciste and always billed as "Maciste," even in modern day adventures that found him fighting for right in a suit and tie.) Co-directed by Corbucci and Giacomo Gentilomo, this is more of a finely styled matinee potboiler than an epic adventure, but Scott is well supported by its supernatural villain Kobruk (a horrible apparition fed by the blood of women abducted by pirates!), villainess Gianna Maria Canale, and its SUSPIRIA-like lighting techniques. Scott is excellent as always and the climax gives him opportunity to actually clash with himself, as Kobruck assumes the human form of Maciste.
Scott returned as Maciste in Riccardo Freda's MACISTE ALLA CORTE DEL GRAN KHAN (1961), which became SAMSON AND THE 7 MIRACLES OF THE WORLD when released by American International. (In the French version, Maciste/Samson became Hercules!) I was so impressed by my reacquaintence with this movie that I've watched it three times in the past two days. Freda recognized the opportunity to make this film while directing the action scenes for the epic film MARCO POLO, and made hand-me-down use of its lavish period Asian sets and costumes, as well as the shared duties of enchanting lead actress Yoko Tani, who gives arguably the finest female lead performance in any of the pepla. Though he's best remembered for his work in horror films, Freda was most truly in his element in the realm of historic adventure, and this film allowed him to blend this nobler art with the pulpier, commercial interests of the pepla. Scott is absolutely tremendous here, actually picking up one adversary and swinging him around by the ankles to knock over other comers -- something I've never seen done for real, or so effectively, in any other movie. But his best scene takes place in the arena, where (without the benefit of stunt doubles) he commandeers a chariot with bladed wheels before it can reach a row of prisoners buried up to their necks in the ground, waiting to be decapitated. The film lost a couple of reels in its American release, and I imagine the whole "seven miracles" angle was an invention of the people who dubbed the movie, as the fifth miracle is the first to be mentioned... unless the first four were somehow covered in the reels that the movie forfeited under the banner of AIP. SAMSON AND THE 7 MIRACLES OF THE WORLD is presently available on DVD from Alpha Video and as a DVD-R from other sources like Sinister Cinema, but the movie is ill-served by this 20-minutes-shorter cut and its pan&scanned presentation. (For once, AIP's "Colorscope" fronted a legitimate anamorphic process -- Dyaliscope.)
Scott's work in Italian films remained solid for at least until Giorgio Ferroni's THE CONQUEST OF MYCENAE aka HERCULES VS. MOLOCH (1963), and he also did well in the made-for-TV film HERCULES AND THE PRINCESS OF TROY (1965). He disappeared from films around 1967, but he has made a number of convention appearances in recent years, including one convention show with Steve Reeves before Reeves' untimely death in 2000. People tell me that Scott isn't easily recognizable as himself anymore, wearing a baseball cap and having succumbed to middle-age spread, but that would describe many a man in his 40s or 50s -- and Gordon Scott, born in 1927, is a year or two shy of 80.
I can think of few things I would welcome to DVD more enthusiastically than properly presented versions of TARZAN'S GREATEST ADVENTURE, TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT, DUEL OF THE TITANS, GOLIATH AND THE VAMPIRES and SAMSON AND THE 7 MIRACLES OF THE WORLD. Gordon Scott was a great screen hero and deserves to be remembered. More than half of this job could be put into motion at Paramount; as for the two Maciste pictures, the prospects are dimmer. GOLIATH AND THE VAMPIRES was a Dino De Laurentiis production, so there's a degree of hope there; but the SAMSON picture was produced by a long-defunct company called Panda and is now pretty much a public domain title. If these ever surface given the respect they deserve, uncut and in widescreen, they will probably have to happen as import discs. My fingers are already crossed for an English subtitles option.
Monday, January 16, 2006
VW's other nominations:
Best Magazine Cover (2 nominations):
VIDEO WATCHDOG #115 (Harryhausen's Cyclops) and VIDEO WATCHDOG #120 (Larry Blamire as Dr. Paul Armstrong), both by Charlie Largent.
Best Magazine Article (5 nominations):
"They Did Science! Dr. Paul Armstrong's Handy Guide to '50s Sci Fi Heroes,'' by Larry Blamire, VIDEO WATCHDOG #120.
"Universal's Other Monsters: A Legacy Written in Gauze, Claws and Tana Leaves,'' by Bill Cooke, VIDEO WATCHDOG #118.
"24 Monsters Per Second: The DVD Voyage of Ray Harryhausen,'' by Charlie Largent, VIDEO WATCHDOG #115.
"Shades of Renfield: Ten Buzzing Performances,'' by Tim Lucas, VIDEO WATCHDOG #121.
"Triffids on the March: from John Wyndham to the BBC,'' by David J. Schow, VIDEO WATCHDOG #120.
Incidentally, if you haven't read these articles and would like to consider them for your vote, you can get samples of each of them by clicking on the issue numbers above, which will take you to a choice of spreads from inside each issue. Just click on the one you want to read to enlarge the text and you'll get a generous inside peek.
I was additionally nominated (with John Phillip Law) for Best DVD Commentary and VW's own Stephen R. Bissette was recognized in the Best DVD Extra category for his "From Fumetti to Film" featurette -- both on Paramount's DANGER: DIABOLIK DVD.
Set some time aside today to visit www.rondoaward.com and check out the other fine folks and things on the Rondo ballot -- and cast your vote for your favorites! You can also discuss the nominations and suggest possible write-in candidates in the Rondo folder of the Classic Horror Film Boards!
Saturday, January 14, 2006
Angela Bettis, who starred in McKee's earlier feature MAY (2002), plays Ida Teeter, a gay insectologist who can't hold onto girlfriends because of all the bugs she keeps as pets. She receives an anonymously sent package from Brazil containing an aggressive, undocumented specimen that manages to escape its container and secrete itself somewhere in her domicile -- around the time she summons the courage to arrange a date with an alluring, long-haired stranger named Misty Hills (Erin Brown -- aka "Misty Mundae"). The date turns hot and Ida reluctantly asks Misty back to her apartment, where her date proceeds to outdrink her and pass out. Ida brings a blanket and pillow to the sofa, not realizing that the missing insect is hiding inside the pillowcase. During the night, it enjoys a sticky close encounter with Misty's ear... provoking strange changes in her pixieish behavior which, in turn, anger the landlady and propel a weird situation toward even worse weirdness.
The story is flimsy, shored up with oddball retro touches, some raunchy dialogue, and a certain amount of entomological textbookery. McKee keeps this unstable cocktail watchable by giving us something we don't often see on television: a believably awkward account of two gay women nervously reaching toward one another in hopes of a relationship. Believable, but also exaggerated, overtly stylized. Speaking of style, half of the MOH episodes to date have been photographed by Hungarian cinematographer Attila Szalay, who has shown extraordinary adaptability and resourcefulness in responding to his directors' wildly different needs and tonalities. This episode showcases what may be his most striking work thus far, opening with a fluid and bubbly one-take tour of Ida's apartment (giving us details of her life and circumstances, à la the opening shot of REAR WINDOW albeit with De Palmian effervescence) and settling down to a Bava-like lighting scheme with lots of color gels and scrim-work that underscore the paranoia experienced by the variously cartoonish cast of characters. The episode's choice of music adds to its stimulative quality, all of it off-center and appealing -- much like the characters themselves.
The problem with this episode is that the interest of the characters and their relationship far outweighs the horror angle, and the horror angle is approached in a comic spirit much too long to successfully navigate the sharp turn into more serious territory. One sees where things are going early on, and we hope for a payoff akin to that of NIGHT GALLERY's "The Caterpillar," but what we get is closer to the payoff in New Concorde's remake of THE WASP WOMAN -- a big, clunky transformation effect that not even flashy editing can put across the field goal of belief. An attempt to connect the revulsion one character feels for lesbians with the more universal revulsion of insects isn't successfully achieved either. Had it worked, it might might explain why McKee and Wood chose to make their protagonist a lesbian in the first place, as it's a prominent detail not otherwise supported thematically by their script.
I haven't seen any of Lucky McKee's features, so I can't discuss how well the episode furthers or reinforces (or not) the work he's done for the big screen. Because I didn't know this "Master of Horror" from Joe Blow, I wasn't attuned to an idea of what to expect before watching the show. Consequently, I found its particular way of looking at its world a surprise and a refreshment, perhaps most of all when it underscored a dream related by Misty with a brief animated sequence that's equal parts Ladislas Starevich and YELLOW SUBMARINE.
In categorizing this episode -- pinning and mounting it, so to speak -- I have to take where it goes into account as much as how it gets there. Therefore, as a complete work, I'd have to reluctantly call "Sick Girl" a disappointment. Most people, I imagine, would weigh in on the negative side without too many second thoughts; Donna, who watched it with me, felt it was a complete waste of time, but I can't dismiss it so easily. There is something about the quirky character of this buggy ride that I found, at times, strangely invigorating.
Friday, January 13, 2006
Most of the news about the Lions Gate releases is, alas, bad news. There is no question that they are also sourced from the same old, stale-looking Teleworld masters. Lions Gate had the class (or sneakiness) to omit the Teleworld logo from the end of the films, but you can hear the first note or two of the Teleworld fanfare at the end of HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER, before it crash-fades to black. Furthermore, perhaps owing to the cheap source materials, Lions Gate has not flagged these discs for progressive scan viewing, resulting in blurry still-framing and occasional serrated edges on straight lines during camera pans. Yes, these discs offer two features for a price tag of less than $10 in some outlets, but most fans would have paid more for a job more adequately done.
Since Lions Gate has announced three early Roger Corman widescreen epics among their next offerings -- MACHINE GUN KELLY, DAY THE WORLD ENDED, and VIKING WOMEN AND THE SEA SERPENT -- these first two releases effectively dash all our hopes for proper anamorphic issues of these important titles, as they are almost assuredly bound to be the same pan&scanned Teleworld copies released on DVD in the UK. This is a tragedy because better source materials were certainly available, had Lions Gate taken the trouble to look beyond what was handed to them. All of the films in this initial batch are shown regularly in widescreen high definition on Dish Network's Monsters HD, which has also shown absolutely beautiful, properly scoped versions of DAY THE WORLD ENDED and VIKING WOMEN AND THE SEA SERPENT.
I've recorded all the Monsters HD broadcasts for my own use, and I decided to do some side-by-side comparisons with the Lions Gate transfers. The results were interesting and surprising enough that I felt I should share them here.
Let's start with BLOOD OF DRACULA, starring Sandra Harrison (pictured above). Below is a frame grab featuring Jerry Blaine and friends during his spontaneous performance of "Puppy Love." The top standard ratio grab is from the Lions Gate disc, and the squeezed grab below it is from my Monsters HD copy (recorded when I had VOOM and the signal was received by by DVD Recorder as anamorphically squeezed):
Mind you, I can't present the Monsters HD grab here in high definition, but I think you can see that the squeezed image is smoother, even though the HD resolution is still considerably sharper than it appears here. I think it's also obvious that the two presentations were imported from different elements; the Lions Gate disc is unmatted and exposes more top-and-bottom information, while the Monsters HD version reveals more information on the sides. One could argue that the lamp in the background distracts the eye from the action in the foreground, making the HD framing preferable if less all-encompassing.
The really startling differences come with a comparison of the Lions Gate and Monsters HD versions of HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER, particularly its color ending. Check out these two versions of the climactic moment when "Old Pete" (Robert H. Harris) prepares to dispose of the body of his faithless assistant (Paul Brinegar) -- this time Monsters HD first, followed by the Lions Gate version:
You've probably heard about digital recoloring -- now you've seen it in action! What was once billiard table green is now baby blue! Yes, the Monsters HD version looks cheesier, more yellowy, but that's the way the color in this sequence always was... until now. Brightening the picture is one thing, but tampering with actual colors is something else again. There's another instance of this elsewhere in the sequence, as the color of Gary Conway's shirt completely changes color! Check this out (Gary's the guy in the middle):
As this comparison illustrates, the framing of the two HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER differs as well, with approximately the same amount of information at the bottom of the screen and on the sides, but far less at the top.
You're probably muttering to yourself, "I dunno what Tim's talking about, those Lions Gate grabs are actually prettier..." -- and I'd have to agree, based on these grabs. But you need to take into account that the colors have been changed, and these scenes are supposed to take place in dimly lit rooms, adding to their atmosphere of menace. What you also can't judge properly here is that, of these two presentations, the Lions Gate transfer loses more of its definition on a large, calibrated monitor, while it's in this more demanding arena that the Monsters HD picture really begins to sing.
I haven't yet received my review copy of Retromedia's new ROGER CORMAN PUERTO RICO TRILOGY, but DVD Savant Glenn Erickson had some similar points to make in his review about dodgy preservation/presentation. The legacy of AIP is very important, not only for what it was but for what it lead to... a fact underscored by Roger Corman's THE HOUSE OF USHER being added this year to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry, not to mention the exploitation bent of practically every big movie coming out of Hollywood today. It's saddening to see the works of Roger Corman, Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson suffering signs of neglect in a medium designed to make the movies we love look better than ever.
If Lions Gate plans to release more titles in this Arkoff Collection series, they really need to get in touch with David Sehring of Monsters HD and work out a deal. He's got the gold, and Lions Gate's customers shouldn't be paying... even $10... for anything less.
Thursday, January 12, 2006
Of course, Bob Kane's creation The Batman is a lot older than that, but it was 40 years ago tonight that ABC-TV premiered the BATMAN series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. That's when Batman officially became Big Bat Business, one of the greatest pop cultural phenomenons of THE Pop Culture Decade. Holy Batmania!
The world was a lot smaller then -- most television sets could pull in only three or four clear channels and a lot of noise -- and the night of that broadcast is as indelibly etched in my memory as the day John F. Kennedy was shot, or the night The Beatles first appeared on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. Holy Total Recall! ABC had been leading up to the premiere with some atmospheric promos, which focused on Adam West's mouth, so as not to reveal Batman's face -- so to see the costume was a big incentive to tune in. The incentive certainly wasn't the show's choice of villain, The Riddler, one of the more commonplace-looking of the DC comics' nemeses... but Frank Gorshin brought Edward Nigma (a name was never uttered on the show) magnificently to life with a gleeful laugh that was heard all across America the very next day -- on elementary school playgrounds. Holy Copyright Infringement!
There is an aura about that first episode, "Hi Diddle Riddle," that can't be found in any other BATMAN episode; it's not the best episode -- in retrospect, it's easy to see that West and Ward haven't had time to become fully comfortable in character, and there's a lot of post-sync and dubbing work in this first two-parter, not all of it owing to characters in masks or in disguise -- but it plays by somewhat harder rules than the episodes that followed. Robin gets graphically shot in the arm with a dart, Batman enters an "Adults Only" nightclub (where he performs the Batusi later reprised by Uma Thurman and John Travolta in PULP FICTION -- Holy Trivia Question!) and gets "doped," and Jill St. John as Molly (probably the best of the show's many "moll" characters) actually meets her death in the Batcave, her demise unforgettably eulogized by West: "What a way to go-go!"
Forty years ago tonight, within half an hour of the premiere episode of BATMAN ending, I was still buzzing when our doorbell rang. It was my Uncle Imel -- a cranky guy who never did anything for me except complain that my long hair (long compared to his!) made me look like a girl -- and he was bringing me a present... a Batman sweatshirt! He had been in a department store earlier that day and bought one for his son Greg, who insisted that I get one, too. We were a welfare family -- my mother, half-sister, and I -- and we didn't spend too much time in department stores, so this was the first Batman merchandise I had ever seen. I wore it to school the next day, prouder than I ever was in my clothes until the day I walked to school in my first pair of bell-bottoms. Thanks, Uncle Imel. Holy Unnecessary Autobiographical Aside!
When more familiar villains showed up on BATMAN in the subsequent weeks, it was a thrill to see how well the roles had been cast -- Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, Cesar Romero as the Joker, George Sanders as Mr. Freeze (a character memorably reprised by Otto Preminger, in a "wildly" different way, in Season 2), David Wayne as the Mad Hatter. But the backbone of the show was its regular supporting cast, especially Alan Napier as Alfred, and particularly Neil Hamilton as Commissioner Gordon. Hamilton, a popular silent screen star, managed to play Gordon seriously, as a pompous windbag, and as Batman's unabashed #1 fan, all at the same time. As an impatient kid who couldn't wait for Commissioner Gordon to reach for the the Bat Phone, I didn't realize how much Hamilton brought to the program until the Bookworm (Roddy McDowall) episode, which opened with Bruce and Dick witnessing the apparent death of Commissioner Gordon, as he was shot and fell from a public suspension bridge. Holy Porpoise Song!
My personal favorite of the BATMAN episodes? The first season two-parter featuring Malachi Throne as the master of disguise, Falseface. Throne, who never became a household name actor, was billed as "?" for the first 3/4s of the shows, à la Karloff, his own name appearing only at the end of Part 2... which doubtless provoked an additional "?" in the minds of viewers expecting someone they had actually heard of. Holy anonymity! (Throne worked a lot in those days as a voice actor in cartoons and commercials; you may remember him as the narrator of LANCELOT LINK - SECRET CHIMP.) The Falseface episodes were something of a dropped experiment for the show, in that they allowed the material to be played somewhat more seriously. Falseface brought the spirit of Fantômas to Gotham City; he was seriously malevolent, and the episode's high speed car chases looked ahead to some of the ideas in Bava's DANGER: DIABOLIK, as when Falseface's escape vehicle actually changed colors as it turned corners.
The great thing about BATMAN, of course, is that kids could appreciate it on one level, and their parents could get a completely different kick out of it. All this grown-up laughter was easy for sensitive children to misinterpret (Holy condescension!), but it is actually this double-edged appeal that makes the show such a perennial -- much like Warner Bros. cartoons.
I was loyal to BATMAN throughout its three-season run. I turned 12 in the months prior to BATMAN's third and final season, which introduced Yvonne Craig as Barbara Gordon and her alter ego Batgirl, which came as a welcome complement to the onset of puberty. That's why, despite some singularly crappy latter-day villains -- Holy Louie the Lilac! -- BATMAN was still hot as far as I was concerned when TV GUIDE broke the news that the show had been cancelled.
In total, BATMAN lasted for 120 episodes, ending its bat-run on March 24, 1968. I watched its reruns for years to come, and I still enjoy watching them occasionally, though my pleasure is usually tempered by scenes I remember seeing -- which have been cut to accomodate more commercials. The BATMAN feature film I find especially durable, with the wittiest of all of Lorenzo Semple, Jr.'s writing for the show, not to mention Lee Meriwether's Catwoman -- whom I find the sexiest and most lethal of them all.
And all my days are trances /And all my nightly dreams / Are where thy grey eye glances / And where thy footstep gleams, indeed. (Edgar Allan Poe, Miss Kitka.)
Like many people of my generation, I can't begin to fathom why BATMAN isn't out on DVD, especially to coincide with this anniversary. Whoever owns it must know that the sales would go through the roof, and that the primary audience for the show can only grow smaller with each passing year. Holy Mortality Rate! Warner Home Video, DC Comics, Greenway Productions -- don't make us wait too much longer, huh?
On this special anniversary, I'd like to send a Bat Signal of special thanks to Adam West and Burt Ward, for the important role they played in my second childhood. That would be the childhood that immediately followed my first (toys, Elvis, monster magazines, The Beatles) and preceded my third (James Bond, Top 40 radio, MAD), fourth (FM radio, PLAYBOY), fifth (CINEFANTASTIQUE, foreign films), sixth (Grove Press fiction), seventh (punk), and so on, right up to this very day. Holy iconographic timelines!
Wouldn't it be wonderful to see something like TV's BATMAN grip the world's imagination once again -- something naive rather than cynical, something cool and creative, something colorful and upbeat, something fun? We need it... and we need it now, old chum.
"Hello, is this Video WatchBlog? Young man, I just wanted to say... Truer words were never spoken!"
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
Evidently today is the 10th anniversary of the day when SHOWGIRLS (starring Elizabeth Berkley, pictured above) was released in the Netherlands, director Paul Verhoeven's native country. This is reason to celebrate the film that opted to straddle the bar of bad taste, rather than merely raise it? Well, why not?
I'm lukewarm on the subject actually, and not particularly inspired to get involved beyond the gesture you see here. But for those who care, get yourself some brown rice, vegetables and a bottle of Evian, and follow this link -- and wow to Flickhead's fancy moves.
He has succeeded in convincing VOOM management to cut back the number of station ID bugs from once every 10 minutes to once every half-hour. This change officially went into effect yesterday, on January 10. Hey, that's eight fewer watermarks per two-hour slot -- a significant improvement!
Of course, that still leaves four bugs every two hours, so things could still be better -- they could be the way they used to be, with no bugs! But I'm a realist and know that most everything, eventually, changes for the worse. If the bugs have to stay, maybe they can be made transparent and inanimate, like the Showtime bug. The present VOOM bug is not only brightly and distractingly colored, but animated (rotating from the initial VOOM logo to reveal the subsidiary Monsters HD or whatever other channel name). Even if things have to change for the worse, there's still room for compromise and improvement. There must be.
One thing in our favor as VOOM subscribers is that David's one of the good guys. He knows our concerns and he's in there pitching for us. He's still appealing to management for fewer bugs per broadcast, and I would imagine that goes for all the VOOM channels and not only Monsters HD.
Cross your fingers, and stay tuned for further updates.
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
For some reason, Friday night's premiere broadcast was not shown in HD -- not just in my area, but apparently anywhere, according to reports I've heard. I recorded it just in case, but set my timer to catch the Saturday night replay, which ended up running afoul of a boxing match than ran overtime. So I ultimately had to watch my Friday night standard-def broadcast, which put me into grumble-grumble mode as it detracts a bit of sparkle from the program. My annoyance was further aggravated by the MOH website's not having any gallery images from the episode that I could share with you. I did find some images online, but they were all watermarked exclusives to different horror websites. Therefore, I'll have to leave the pictures up to your imagination -- or just Google them for yourself.
"The Fair-Haired Child," an original script by Matt Greenberg (HALLOWEEN H20, REIGN OF FIRE), is about a teenage girl named Tara (Lindsay Pulsipher) who is deliberately struck by a minivan while bicycling through the woods, abducted, and taken to an isolated mansion. There she is initially fooled into thinking herself a patient at a hospital in another state, but when she wises up, her nurse (Lori Petty) and doctor (William Samples) throw her into an inescapable cellar, covered with ominous graffiti like "Beware the Fair-Haired Child," where she finds herself in the company of a desperate young man (Jesse Hadock) trying to hang himself. Unable to speak, the young man introduces himself as Johnny, communicating with her by finger-writing on the dusty floor. In time, Tara learns that Johnny is his own worst enemy... and, unintentionally, hers, too; he's the son of the couple upstairs, who used occult means to reanimate him following a fatal boating accident, but at the price of using his body as a portal between worlds of a hideous, flesh-eating demon.
As with Mick Garris' earlier episode "Chocolate," the horror here is more emotional and despairing than conceptual, which provokes some strong performances, especially from Pulsipher and Hadock. The characters of Anton and Judith, as played by Samples and Petty, are oddly stylized; for a couple who keep such a messy basement, they seem to have drifted in from Jim Sharman's James Whale-like SUMMER OF SECRETS (1976). You'd expect these two to have some sort of Art Deco pièd-a-terre down there, like Dr. Phibes (another Anton, come to think of it). The story relies a good deal on atmosphere, which is probably Malone's strongest suit as a director. His previous work in the genre (including the HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL remake, FEARDOTCOM) has looked good, but his scripts haven't always had the right degree of substance to support his flamboyant technique. Greenberg's story has its points of cliché, but it offers Malone more intriguing material than he's worked with before now, and he makes the most of it. His sometimes literally flashy, pyrotechnic style is given opportunities to create some startlingly creepy imagery that prods the gooseflesh more effectively than his Bava-derived little girl ghost in FEARDOTCOM.
I want to see the episode again in Hi Def before deciding exactly where it falls, but as MOH episodes go, it's certainly in the Top 5.
Monday, January 09, 2006
Here's a special WatchBlog preview of its cover, featuring Kumi Mizuno sinking her teeth into unholy temptation in Ishiro Honda's MATANGO (1963, aka ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE), available on DVD from Tokyo Shock/Media Blasters. You can click on it for a bigger look.
As is our usual procedure, Donna sent a preview of the cover to our associate editor John Charles for his feedback, and John responded that she should share it with Bill Cooke, who wrote this issue's Toho coverage. Bill promptly wrote back that he thinks it's our greatest cover ever, and I must admit that it gave me some definite frissons of glee as I saw it coming together on Donna's computer. Even though he didn't provide artwork for this cover, per se, Charlie Largent was responsible for the framing of the photo (which came to me courtesy of John Bender) and the addition of the cute little shrooms up top. I think all the components add up to something pretty exciting.
"I don't know what it is about this cover," Donna mused, "but it seems to be touching a nerve with you guys."
"Yep," I said. "It touches our Kumi nerve."
Which, as you all know, is a real spot on the map of human anatomy.
You can find out more about this upcoming issue of VW on the VW website. Just click on "Coming Soon" and it will take you to a complete overview of the contents. Click on the cover again and you'll be taken to an interior preview, where you can read samples of two articles. Enjoy.
Saturday, January 07, 2006
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (Added 10/28) Tales of Terror (Added 10/28) Thing, The '51 (Added 10/28) Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight (Added 10/28) Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The (Added 10/28) Bride of Frankenstein (Added 10/28) Creature Walks Among Us, The (Added 10/28) Dracula (Added 10/28) Hellraiser: Bloodline (Added 10/28) Hellraiser: Inferno (Added 10/28) Revenge of the Creature, The (Added 10/28) Frankenstein (Added 10/28) Son of Frankenstein (Added 10/28) Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (Added 10/28) House of Dracula (Added 10/28) House of Frankenstein (Added 10/28) Wolf Man, The (Added 10/28) Dead Heat (Added 10/28) Godzilla (Added 10/28) Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (Added 10/28) House (Added 10/28) House II: The Second Story (Added 10/28) It’s Alive (Added 10/28) It Lives Again (Added 10/28) It’s Alive 3: Island of the Alive (Added 10/28) Golden Voyage of Sinbad, The (Added 10/28) Blob, The '58 (Added 10/28) Wishmaster 4: The Prophecy Fulfilled (Added 10/28) Jaws 3 (Added 10/28) Jaws 4: The Revenge (Added 10/28) Day of the Dead (Added 10/28) Grudge, The (Added 10/28) Poltergeist 3 (Added 10/28) Wishmaster 3: Beyond The Gates of Hell (Added 10/28) Body Snatchers (Added 10/28) Child’s Play (Added 10/28) Cyclops, The (Added 10/28) Fright Night (Added 10/28) Jaws (Added 10/28) Them! (Added 10/28) Jaws 2 (Added 10/28) Blob, The '88 (Added 10/28) Cujo (Added 10/28) Ghoul, The (Added 10/28) Return of the Living Dead Part 3 (Added 10/28) Creep (Added 10/28) Orca (Added 10/28) Candyman (Added 10/28) Friday the 13th Part 3 (Added 10/28) Scream, Blacula, Scream (Added 10/28) Psycho 3 (Added 10/28) Lost Boys, The (Added 10/28) Rage: Carrie 2, The (Added 10/28) Seventh Sign, The (Added 10/28) Wolfen (Added 10/28) Child’s Play 2 (Added 10/28)
A second wave of added titles: Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (added 12/15/05) Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (added 12/15/05) Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (added 12/15/05) Alien Nation (added 12/15/05) Amityville 3D (added 12/15/05) Amazing Transparent Man (added 12/15/05) Friday the 13th-Pt. 2 (12/20/05) Return of the Living Dead-Pt. 2 (12/20/05) Wolf Creek (12/20/05) Frogs (12/21/05) Funhouse (12/21/05) Ghost of Frankenstein (12/21/05) Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (12/21/05) Giant Gila Monster (12/21/05) Gorilla At Large (12/21/05) Graveyard Shift (12/21/05) Halloween 2 (12/21/05) Grizzly (12/21/05) Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (12/21/05) Army of Darkness (12/22/05) Attack of the Puppet People (12/22/05) Birds, The (12/22/05) (12/22/05) Black Cat, The (12/22/05) Black Friday (12/22/05) Brides of Dracula (12/22/05) Cat People (12/27/05) Colossus Forbin Project (12/27/05) Darkman 2 (12/27/05) Deadly Mantis (12/27/05) Dolls (12/27/05) Dracula's Daughter (12/27/05) Dr. Cyclops (12/27/05) Evil of Frankenstein, The (12/27/05) Fantastic Voyage (12/27/05) Fly, The (12/27/05) Horrors of the Black Museum (12/27/05) I Walked With a Zombie (12/27/05) I Married a Monster From Outer Space (12/27/05) Incredible Shrinking Man, The (12/27/05) Invisible Ray, The (12/27/05) Invisible Man Returns, The (12/27/05) Island of Terror (12/28/05) Kiss of Evil aka Kiss of the Vampire (12/28/05) Leech Woman (12/28/05) Leopard Man (12/28/05) Magic (12/28/05) Man in the Attic (12/28/05) Metalstorm (12/28/05) Mole People (12/28/05) Monolith Monsters (12/28/05) Monster On the Campus (12/28/05) Motel Hell (12/28/05) Murders in the Rue Morgue (12/28/05) Nomads (12/28/05) Phantom of the Opera '62 (12/28/05) Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas, The (12/28/05) Tobor, the Great (12/28/05) Tarantula (12/28/05) Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (12/28/05) Werewolf of London (12/28/05)
Forgive me for not retyping all that in our standard caps, but it was too much work. You get the idea.
In response to this roster, I have to say that the additional titles are very welcome indeed -- it's a treat any time new titles crop up on Monsters HD -- but for me, considering that I already own many of these titles on disc, the stepped-up (every 10 minutes) VOOM/Monsters HD watermarks would still be a deal-breaker for me as a viewer. And certainly, it goes without saying, as a home recorder.
Any station that believes that they are not providing entertainment to be recorded and enjoyed at home, in this day and age especially, is living in a fool's paradise. One watermark per movie should be enough to brand a broadcast against being bootlegged. Twice per movie, once an hour, is pushing it but grudgingly acceptable. Once every ten minutes is offensively excessive. It's like paying someone to do you a favor and have them ask you every ten minutes, "Did you like that favor I did for you? I did that favor for you! I did! Don't forget!" Never mind that we know. Never mind that we paid for it. And we are paying for these broadcasts, don't forget, and the product we are buying to enjoy without commercial interruption are effectively being ruined for us by all this overzealous ID-ing, which amounts to commercial interruption. Indeed, on this scale, it amounts to harassment.
And what if a few people in the viewing audience do try to sell DVD-Rs of these titles on eBay? If some people did this, they might sell a few copies. That's hardly reason to punish the majority who are paying to view this material in good faith. And the fact remains that the majority of the titles listed above are already available on DVD, so what would be the point of trying to sell DVD-R copies online?
Furthermore, to be force-fed thse bugs in such a manner is a shoddy "thank you" to those of us who have loyally stuck with Dish Network, solely to hang onto their VOOM channels, which have added little or no new HD programming since they acquired these channels. I would be surprised if anyone watched Rave HD other than new subscribers, their musical programming is so severely limited. LATER... WITH JOOLS HOLLAND is on every week in the UK, but Rave HD seems to own the rights to air only four or five segments.
Other hope-inducing Dish TV/VOOM news: Two other VOOM HD channels, Guy TV and The Majestic, are no more. They have been replaced by Kung Fu HD and Film Festival HD, with both newly recristened channels now playing daily loops of three films per day rather than the previous two. Also, in February 2006, Dish TV will be adding five more VOOM channels to their current lineup -- Family Room HD, Gameplay HD, Treasure HD, World Cinema HD, and WorldSport HD -- as well as HD locals, Universal HD, and ESPN 2 HD.
If we can just apply some vox populi pressure to get Dish Network to reduce the frequency of those on-screen VOOM bugs, all of this could be good and welcome news.
As you know, I have been an ardent advocate for this channel since I began receiving it a year ago. I went through the trouble of changing from VOOM to Dish Network just to keep it. But if these are the conditions under which I'll have to watch Monsters HD in the future, I'd rather not continue to pay for it. It makes their programming worthless for recording, and too irritating to watch.
I've written to the powers that be at Monsters HD to unburden a most disappointed heart, and unless they can give me some good reason why I shouldn't, I fully intend to cancel my VOOM subscription next week and maybe go back to Time Warner.
More to come.
Friday, January 06, 2006
This pretty thing is the cover of a 1964 digest-sized fanzine -- HORRORS OF THE SCREEN -- published out of Brooklyn, New York by one Alexander Soma. I've been in love with this impressionistic cover drawing of Steven Ritch (as he appeared in THE WEREWOLF, 1956) since I first saw it reproduced in the pages of, I think, a survey of fan press ventures in FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, probably 40 years ago. Today I finally succeeded in laying hands on a copy of this long-coveted relic and learned that the name of the artist responsible was Charles Johnson.
1964 was a long time ago, of course, and HORRORS OF THE SCREEN (or HOTS for short, as it called itself) has since faded into obscurity from an only slightly more prominent level of obscurity. I don't know how many copies were published, but the scarcity of HOTS has been an unfortunate obstacle in terms of Alexander Soma and company being properly remembered and acknowledged for what they brought to the field of horror movie fan publishing. In brief, HOTS appears to have been the earliest fanzine to insist on the need for more serious writing and reportage about the genre -- something attempted previously only by Calvin T. Beck's one-shot enterprise of 1959 , THE JOURNAL OF FRANKENSTEIN.
In "The Monster Philosophy," the editorial of HOTS #3, the genesis of Soma's brainchild is explained: "In 1961, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND was for the most part a 'phun-filled' monsterzine aimed at the younger set, with little regard for the serious horror-phantasy addict. This was also true of the few 'fanzines' [note the quotes! it was an uncommon term!] available then! Alex Soma gathered several friends in the New York area and discussed the idea of publishing a completely serious fanzine. Thus the first 'crude' issue of HOTS was born."
I have also obtained the first "Collector's Edition" issue of HOTS (pictured here), published in the Spring of 1962, which describes itself as an "experimental" issue and welcomes fine-tuning suggestions from its readers. Though ambitious, it is a bit of a mess, with a cut-and-paste interior look and lots of typographic errors. "Please excuse the price of HORRORS," the publisher/editor pleads on the first page, "due to printing costs, mailing, and limited circulation we are forced to charge fifty cents." A sentence like this brings the artifact into sharper perspective. HOTS #1 was truly a homemade venture, literally typed onto paper and pasted onto boards with photographs from a variety of sources. In those days, when mimeography and ditto-press ruled, for a fanzine to include photographs at all was a big deal. HOTS was actually lithographed, and the first issue had a laminated cover.
In the Spring of 1962, the debut issue of Beck's CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN had only just appeared (in February), and the first issue of the influential French digest MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE was just around the corner, coming out in May/June 1962. So a journal devoted to the serious discussion of horror cinema was extremely novel at the time, in any language. That said, the first issue of HOTS is hardly for intellectuals only; it's pretty basic from a contemporary viewpoint. The contents cover four articles: an overview of silent horror films 1885 - 1927, a biographical sketch of Vincent Price, a short and superficial survey of recent "macabre fiction" (illustrated with the same portrait of Christopher Lee -- in black-and-white, sans overlays -- that soonafter graced the cover of CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN's second issue in full color), and an 18-page illustrated story synopsis of Hammer's THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.
As is noted in HOTS #3, this synopsis article appears to have inspired FAMOUS MONSTERS to follow their example by undertaking their own long-running series of "filmbooks" (which began in earnest circa 1963, around the time of their popular BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN filmbook), making this otherwise unexceptional piece rather a seminal moment in this particular sphere of publishing. Nearly all the photos reproduced inside the debut issue are familiar to us today, though Soma's editorial describes some as "never before published." There is one signed photo of Lon Chaney (Sr.) that I don't remember seeing before.
I don't have the second issue, which sported a not-very-accomplished drawing of Christopher Lee as Dracula on the cover, but compared to the first, the third issue represents something of a quantum leap. Here Alexander Soma is listed only as publisher, with John Eyman recruited as editor. The first issue's typos are a thing of the past, and the interior features a number of different typefaces or fonts, with some articles even presented via the miracle of reverse type (white on black). Very attractive. The unsigned articles (likely by Soma) in #1 here advance to a number of different contributors, including articles on Bela Lugosi and Peter Cushing written by their then-fan club presidents William C. Obbaggy and Annette Florance. (The Cushing Filmography ends with 1962's NIGHT CREATURES!) Short reviews or looks at such films as THE FLY, THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, THE BIRDS and THE INNOCENTS fill out the issue, but most interesting of all is Edwin Schallert's surprisingly detailed study of how John Fulton created the special effects in James Whale's THE INVISIBLE MAN, probably explained in print for the first time and presented with fascinating procedural illustrations. It's a piece that many fanzines would be proud to publish (or reprint) today.
One of the biggest surprises of HOTS #3 is its letters page, which starts off with a letter from Christopher Lee himself (the likes of which I never saw in the pages of FM or CoF!) and a very sharply observed and thoughtful communiqué about adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe in the cinema from none other than Joe Dante, Jr., of 68 Crestview Drive in Parsippany, NJ!
Looking back at this third issue of HOTS, one feels the stage has been set for something truly wonderful to follow -- but, for whatever reason, it didn't happen. Number 3 was the final issue of HORRORS OF THE SCREEN. I can't find any further information on Alexander Soma or John Eyman, so I have no idea if they couldn't afford to continue, if it was simply too early to make an idea like this succeed, or if the two of them were packed off to Viet Nam. (If anyone within range of this blog knows more, please tell me.) But their pioneering efforts surely inspired other fan publishers to follow their example, and thus we had Fred Clarke's CINEFANTASTIQUE (preceded by his and Dave Keil's GARDEN GHOULS GAZETTE), Gary Svehla's GORE CREATURES (later MIDNIGHT MARQUEE), and countless others who loved FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND but felt the urge to move beyond it.
I'm just seeing these two issues for the first time today, so I could not honestly claim that HORRORS OF THE SCREEN was an influence on me and what I've done with VIDEO WATCHDOG... and yet, in its pages, I can see what must have inspired the people whose work did inspire me. Examining these 40 year-old fanzines has left me feeling more deeply in touch with the world in which I make my living. And I'm grateful.
Tuesday, January 03, 2006
Over recent evenings, Donna and I have been spending at least an hour a night watching the Walt Disney Treasures' THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB set, devoted to the show's first week of broadcasts in October 1955. Between these episodes, another that's included in the Walt Disney Treasures SPIN AND MARTY set, and episodes from Universal's LEAVE IT TO BEAVER - THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON, our household -- which traditionally leans toward the Sixties-centric -- has ventured farther back into the 1950s.
For me, these early hour-long episodes of THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB took a little getting used to, because they predate my own memories of the program. In fact, they predate me! But, by the time we ran out of shows to watch, Donna and I were both feeling fairly hooked. We want more, right away, but I have no idea when the next batch of WDT metal-boxed limited editions are due, or if a second volume is scheduled to be included.
Some world-weary souls might argue that the MMC was as popular as it was because there were only three channels in those days, but I would argue that its popularity was rooted in a spirit that's still there to be enjoyed by those with an open heart. It's a thoroughly engaging production where everything is done in the spirit of creativity, responsibility and constructive encouragement; it's post-war, but a product of the spirit that won the war -- firm, idealistic, and ready to pitch in and make the most of the today and tomorrow of the Baby Boomer generation.
There's an interesting daily feature called "What I Want to Be" that features future GREEN ACRES star Alvy Moore guiding two children through tours of the jobs they aspire to hold one day, as an airline pilot and airline hostess. (The little girl, Pat Morrow, grew up to act on ABC-TV's PEYTON PLACE as Rita, the girlfriend and wife of Christopher Connolly's character, Norman Harrington.) Unfortunately, this segment lasted ten episodes, so we are given only the first half of the entire saga in this initial box set. (Moore also makes a mistake by saying "See you tomorrow!" at the end of the Friday segment, because there were no weekend episodes.) It was an unfortunate bit of strategy that Walt Disney Video chose to issue the show "by the week"; it required a more complete box set -- the first month of broadcasts, at least.
Childhood is always kept in perspective on the show, but so is the idea that the world can be a child's oyster, that it's a wonderful and varied place where all their dreams can come true. The daily change of setting within the program -- "Fun with Music Day", "Guest Star Day", "Anything Can Happen Day", "Circus Day" and "Talent Roundup Day" -- is like a mini-world tour in itself, mixing the regular opportunities for creative expression with opportunities for spontaneity and surprise. The Mickey Mouse Newsreels focus on everyday occurrences and may seem quaint today, but they also helped children to see their own activities as special and may have inspired them to raise the bar for themselves in untold personal ways. We see kids having fun, even raising a little... er, heck, but it's never outside the lines of the law or even propriety. If it's sometimes hokey, at least it's never snide or cynical or some other 21st Century alternative. Most of all, the show is just plain healthy and inspiring, due in no small part to the participation of host and resident songwriter, Jimmie Dodd.
A fellow Cincinnatian and veteran of the THREE MESQUITEERS B-Westerns, Dodd looks like Lampwick from PINOCCHIO... but, like a select breed of folks who made it through the Great Depression, he embodies the very soul of optimism and community. His songs lend sparkle to each episode, their words full of heart and wisdom and wordplay, and his closing remarks (apparently improvised on a set theme) are warmly advisory without conveying any hint of pushiness. He can even quote Scripture without it seeming an inappropriate intrusion into a secular entertainment -- and, in a supplementary profile of Dodd, the Mouseketeers remember him exactly this way, as a devout Christian who allowed people to have their own spiritual "space" and never intruded upon them with his own beliefs. He's the show's lightning conductor and his centrality brings out the very best in all the Mouseketeers who, in these earliest episodes, included not only Annette Funicello but future RIFLEMAN co-star Johnny Crawford (who demonstrates the art of fencing with his older brother Bobby on "Talent Roundup Day"). The first week of shows also gives us a surprise encounter with a surprise Mouseketeer, future DONNA REED SHOW co-star Paul Petersen, who is involved in some heavy-duty acrobatics on "Circus Day" -- but was, I hear, booted out of Mouseketeer camp early on for unruly behavior.
A week or so ago, I added some rhubarbs to another blog's reprimanding of Leonard Maltin's endorsement of some less-than-complete-or-ideal WALT DISNEY TREASURES releases, so let me assert here, once again, that he's the ideal host for these releases, no doubt about it. He does an outstanding job of interviewing a select group of veteran Mouseketeers and also SPIN AND MARTY stars Tim Considine and David Stollery on those respective sets, and he's even named an honorary Mouseketeer.
Initially, I wished that the MMC set had offered personal updates on all the Mouseketeers, but there are places online where you find out about all that -- and, after Googling up tales of the later, unfortunate misadventures of members like Darlene Gillespie (of CORKY AND THE WHITE SHADOW fame), who performs with such enthusiasm here, I can better understand the company's decision to leave well enough alone. Some viewers may wonder why Karen Pendleton, the raspy-voiced pixie Mouseketeer best remembered in tandem with mite-sized drummer Cubby O'Brien, is shown moving about in a wheelchair; WIKIPEDIA reports that she was involved in a car accident in 1983 that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Watching these shows, you do become interested in all this raw talent and what ultimately became of it.
The next batch of MICKEY MOUSE CLUB shows can't reach my doorstep too soon. Till then, I guess it's back to my Jess Franco DVDs...
Monday, January 02, 2006
Well, yes and no.
The fact is, today our VIDEO WATCHDOG website (www.videowatchdog.com) launched a special Updates blog as part of our page devoted to my forthcoming book, MARIO BAVA - ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK. Just go to the main page, click on the Bava book link in the left-hand column (you may need to slide the guide bar down to find it), and click on the "Click Here for Updates" link under the book cover. That will take you right to the Update blog, where I'll be posting occasional reports on where the book's progress presently stands.
So why not try it now? I'll meet you over there and fill you in on the rest!
Yesterday I decided to warm up to the new edition by sitting down with both versions and doing a cover-to-cover, side-by-side comparison. Before I get to my findings, I should tell you what the publisher's press release had to say about the new edition. It reports that the new edition is 272 pages, which adds 48 pages to the previous one. Other points of attraction include:
• Never-before published pages from McCay’s private animation production notebook revealing the filmmaker’s ideas for timing and visualizations in "Gertie the Dinosaur" (1914), "Lusitania," and "Flip’s Circus" (c. 1921).
• Rare concept art by McCay for a second film starring Gertie the Dinosaur.
• New documentation of McCay’s early career, including the Wonderland and Eden Musée in Detroit, where he sold his first cartoons.
• McCay’s professional relationship and longtime personal friendship with cartoonist Apthorp "Ap" Adams, one of his two assistants on the monumental animated epic "The Sinking of the Lusitania" (1918).
• Full-page reproduction of a 1907 New York Herald showcasing eight top comic strip cartoonists and illustrators including McCay, and their art.
• A complete Winsor McCay Chronology, and extensive additions to the Notes and Bibliography sections.
• Many rarely seen photos and drawings from private collections.
• A new cover, book design and page layout.
What I discovered myself is not always flattering to the new edition, but to go through the two editions simultaneously told me much more than an ordinary sit-down perusal of the new book would have done. One thing that is immediately evident is that, despite the added page count, the new edition is thinner and slighter in stature than the Abbeville incarnation. Upon opening the book, I noticed that the Abrams book is printed on much thinner paper with a slight degree of "see-through" not found in the Abbeville, which subsequently has the richer and more durable feel. The Abrams also opens wider to expose its sewn signatures, while the Abbeville is more sturdily bound. I frankly prefer the cover of the Abbeville edition, which highlights the artist and his creations rather than Abrams' wallpapery detail of one of the "Little Nemo" strips.
The illustrations are comparable in the two editions, but with some interesting distinctions. More than once, a single vintage photo in the Abbeville appears in the Abrams with another similar photo taken during the same session, giving these rare glimpses of McCay's documentary past the fleeting illusion of cinematic reality. Whereas the Abbeville edition was unable to offer color on every page, the Abrams edition does; even when it presents art in black-and-white, it uses color to offer variety of tones, lending enhancing sepia tones to B&W photos and creamier background shades to line art. I was also fascinated to see that almost all of the photos and source art is presented by Abrams with its outer borders intact; both were cropped to present only the art in the Abbeville edition. Therefore, we can now see the tattered outer edges of a gorgeous "Gertie the Dinosaur" poster, and the handwritten notations and surrounding pictures of those photos which reside in McCay family albums. I find this additional textural information fascinating; it demonstrates that our perception of what is important in such documentation has become more exacting since 1987. Context is now regarded as potentially revelatory as content; looking at the same illustration rendered both ways, I found that it really is preferable to see the whole object, warts and all. These "warts" may harbor hidden truths. For example, there is a surviving film cel from McCay's "The Sinking of the Lusitania" that is printed in the two books two different ways. It's flipped the wrong way around in the Abbeville, but presented correctly in the Abrams, as is proved by the newly exposed notation "End" written below the picture line on the uncropped document!
The Abrams book does add quite a bit of newly discovered illustration -- such as the aforementioned Gertie sketches, showing her attempting to cross the Brooklyn Bridge with disastrous results under the sweet heading "She Meant No Harm" -- but sometimes the shared illustrations are larger or more favorably rendered in the earlier edition. Some "Little Nemo in Slumberland" Sunday strips, in particular, are wrecked in the Abrams version by being presented in the book sideways... what fun to turn a large book sideways!... ostensibly to permit a larger rendering, but it also causes the panel midway down to get creased and sunken in the depths of the spine. Of the two books, I must say that the Abrams edition, despite its many other advantages, is not as well designed or laid-out as the Abbeville.
I noticed in the revised edition several instances of additional and amended text, bringing Canemaker's research fully up-to-date. The instances range from newly uncovered information (like correspondence relating to the ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA's acknowledgement of McCay as the father of film animation) to the fine-tuning of nuance. The 1987 John Canemaker pondered whether McCay might have been divining his own imminent death when he placed a death's head in his final editorial drawing, completed three days before his fatal aneurysm, as a personification of the narcotics threat. "Probably not consciously," he hedged, not really knowing but liking the conceit. But the 2005 John Canemaker, perhaps more of a realist or simply more cautious about making such pronouncements, weighs the same evidence and decides, "Probably not."
I love this book, and after comparing the two versions, I've decided that I have to keep them both. If you can only afford one, the Abrams edition -- despite some presentational lapses in judgment -- is clearly the one that represents the subject and its author most accurately. And this Amazon link offers the book at significant savings off the cover price.
Saturday, December 31, 2005
See you next year!
Friday, December 30, 2005
SOULS FOR SALE aka CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER: I taped this 1962 Albert Zugsmith film off of a local television station maybe fifteen years ago, and if ever a film was made to watch on Nyquil, this is it. With Vincent Price starring in eerie films based on the public domain literary writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Zugsmith cast him in this loosey-goosey adaptation of Thomas De Quincey's fever dream writings.
Narrating as De Quincey and playing a descendant of the writer, Price is a merchant seaman -- at least he's dressed that way -- who becomes involved in liberating some Asian women who have been abducted by slave traders aiming to sell them for opium. There are scenes where the tall, lanky Price is required to participate in action scenes better suited for Indiana Jones, and his undercover work requires him to take an opium pipe, which leads to dreams of imagery from various AIP films like INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN and VOODOO WOMAN! The De Quincey narration is enticing, and the dialogue contributed by Robert Hill (SHE GODS OF SHARK REEF) is equally steeped in philosophy and hard-boiled crime clichés, granting the film the verbal character of a William S. Burroughs novel, at times.
Zugsmith's direction, given hazy and byzantine setting by slumming art director Eugene Lourie and cameraman Joe Biroc, is appropriately druggy, off-kilter and mysterious. There is also a delightful supporting performance by Yvonne Moray (a Lullaby League dancer from THE WIZARD OF OZ) as a teasing Chinese midget who develops a maternal attachment for Price. Genuinely strange and worth seeing, but its slippery quality resists lodging in the memory.
THE COUCH and THE PSYCHOPATH: Two Robert Bloch-scripted films, recorded in the old days off of WOR-TV and the USA Network, respectively.
The only fright flick of forgotten director Owen Crump, and sporting a creepy Vic Mizzy-like score by Frank Perkins, THE COUCH holds up better than any other Bloch-sourced film, short of PSYCHO. Grant Williams stars as a serial killer who times his murders to coincide with his psychiatric appointments, and who forms a dangerous attachment for his psychiatrist's receptionist (Shirley Knight -- when is someone going to pay this outstanding, overlooked actress her due in an essay?). I saw this movie several times as a child (probably not a good idea!) and it still works for me now as it did then; there is a disturbing moment when Williams fantasizes giving his belligerent father some comeuppance, portrayed with apparent stop-motion work of a fist slamming repeatedly into the man's increasingly blood-spattered mouth. There is also a scene of a maniac infiltrating a hospital operating theater more than ten years before RABID. This excellent thriller is owned by Warner Bros., and considering that it's in B&W and has no big names in the cast, there probably isn't much chance of an official release.
THE PSYCHOPATH, an Amicus production from about four years later, is very slow going about the investigation of a series of murders in which the corpses are found in the company of dolls in the deceased's own likeness. Patrick Wymark makes a surly protagonist and the murders are filmed elliptically by director Freddie Francis. It might work somewhat better when viewed in its proper screen ratio, but not enough to save it. It builds to a very nice final reel, though, with Margaret Johnston (BURN WITCH BURN) -- cast as a wheelchair-ridden biddy who lives with her adult son (John Standing) in a Bavian house of dolls -- belatedly rising to the occasion by going completely off the rails.
CHARLOTTE - LA JEUNE FILLE ASSASSINÉE: This is an obscure 1974 film directed by, and starring, Roger Vadim, which I first saw in theatrical release in its native French with English subtitles. I was completely taken with it and saw it two or three times in one week. Those viewings magically coincided with my discovery of the French writer André Gide, who is not only mentioned/quoted in the dialogue, but the film itself follows the same general pattern as Gide's great novel THE COUNTERFEITERS (being about the writing of a novel that shares the same title of the work at hand) and is dedicated to Gide's close friend Marc Allegrét.
Vadim plays a bourgeois, prize-winning author who sets aside his current work-in-progress to research a book about the murder of a young girl (Sirpa Lane) whose virginity he took some years earlier. He soon interviews a wealthy young decadent (Matthiew Carriére) who claims to have been the murderer, and who entices him into a web of mystery, mind games, and gambles with life and death. Antonio de Teffé appears briefly in a bit part. Made in the wake of EMMANUELLE, CHARLOTTE was released to US theaters with an X rating and features, among other things, scenes of masturbation, incest, necrophilia, and glimpses of male and female genitalia.
This film is very hard to see; the only source I've ever found is Video Search of Miami, whose overly dark, English-dubbed VHS release I reviewed in VIDEO WATCHDOG #29, page 8. The English version plays significantly worse than the French one, whose sybilline dialogue becomes more concretely, unbearably pretentious when Anglicized. The young characters in the film are meant to be pretentious, hellbound in a sense, in their determination to make works of art out of their lives, ultimately confusing destruction with creation, rather than complement normal and happy lives with the creation of art. There is a wonderfully surreal sequence in which Vadim tests an experimental machine that visualizes/projects people's dreams, and Michel Duchaussoy (who bears a strong resemblance to the young Curtis Harrington) gives a moving performance as a gay film critic who recounts his brief marriage to the object of Vadim's reawakened obsession. All of the film's music was taken from Mike Oldfield's still-new TUBULAR BELLS album (Vadim carefully avoids the passage made famous by THE EXORCIST) and I've heard it was shot in 16mm, which -- coupled with the fact that Vadim plays the lead himself -- indicates an unusually personal dedication to the material. I remain very fond of this movie, and would love to find a better copy of it -- can anyone out there help?
I also saw a couple of interesting films recently for the first time.
A friendly reader of this blog, knowing of my enthusiasm for the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski, wrote to suggest that I track down Tom Tykwer's films THE PRINCESS AND THE WARRIOR and HEAVEN, the latter of which was based on Kieslowski's final script (co-written with his longtime collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz). I was able to find affordable used copies of these DVDs on eBay, and found both to be very worthwhile. PRINCESS is a beautifully sustained piece of magic realism about a sanitorium worker (Franka Potente) who becomes obsessed with the strange and dangerous man (Benno Fürmann) who saved her life after she was hit by a truck with an on-the-spot tracheotomy... and HEAVEN stars Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi (pictured above) in the story of a terrorist bomber who is helped to escape her Italian prison by a young carabiniere who falls in love with her. Blanchett, one of the most exceptional actresses of her generation, gives an impressive performance even by her usual standards, while Ribisi, whom I've always found to be something of a lightweight (hard to tell otherwise given his mostly lightweight roles), gives a well-shaded, fully nuanced, mature portrayal; their mutual success is made all the more remarkable by the fact that both speak most of their lines in Italian.
Seeing Tom Tykwer direct a Kieslowski script is not the same as seeing Kieslowski do the same thing; Kieslowski was known to impose a lot of creative changes on his original scripts in the cutting room, and Tykwer was likely obliged to follow the HEAVEN script with respectful deference. I liked both of these movies, HEAVEN somewhat more than PRINCESS, but neither of them spoke to me on the same level as the better Kieslowski films.
Thursday, December 29, 2005
I've come down with a bad cold, my first in several years, so I'm taking it easy, seeing out the year by drinking a lot of liquids, using a lot of tissues, and watching a lot of movies. When I start getting my energy back, I'll tell you more about them.
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
A couple of items like the documentary THE ALIEN SAGA come close, but there's really never been anything quite like the PRODUCTION DIARIES before. This isn't a documentary feature. What we have here is the clever marketing of the sort of publicity material heretofore given away free, via television or internet, to promote a new feature film -- in other words, traditional DVD supplements packaged separately to generate additional profits for a very costly picture. The contents of this set, "making of" vignettes originally offered as fodder for the www.kongisking.net website to generate interest while KONG was in production, are here collected to give the public something they can purchase while the film is still in theaters, when their interest in the picture is keenest.
The vignettes, averaging six minutes in length, cover all technical aspects of production like cinematography, set design (live and miniature), makeup, wardrobe, even set visits by the press and exhibitors -- with less attention paid to the creation of the creature effects than most buyers might think. The camera crew run out of ideas about what to document (based on what they were free to document) fairly early, and beg website visitors to make suggestions, which are entertained. There are also a few segments that indulge in self-spoofery, such as a vignette about someone calling himself Gandalf who is supposedly posting unauthorized set photos online, whom the crew spots and pursues (he's in Hobbit clothes with a long white beard and a staff), and another in which Jackson outlines his three-picture KONG franchise plan, which is played with such a straight face it still has me wondering.
The packaging is very attractive, replicating a leather "Denham Productions" briefcase whose top slips off to reveal an inner pocket containing four production art prints suitable for framing, a numbered letter of authenticity (signed by Jackson but not individually so), and cardboard housing for a kind of clamped writing tablet that holds a 52-page illustrated booklet and the two discs. Disc One runs about 113 minutes when you press "Play All," in addition to a get-acquainted intro from Jackson. (It's also possible to jump directly to specific diary entries, or those pertaining to specific parts of the film.) Disc Two runs about 124 minutes. There's very little Naomi Watts (and no Kong) on the first disc, though we do see her visit the real Empire State Building with Jackson and entourage, and she wishes us a Merry Christmas at the end -- and promises to figure more in subsequent diary entries when the film resumes production after Christmas break in early 2005. She keeps her promise by participating more fully in Disc Two, which most people will find more interesting anyway, as it shows more of the faux New York and Skull Island shooting, and green-screen work; it also includes a chunk of completed footage from the movie's Kong vs. T. rex family sequence. (It seemed to me that not all of the sound effects here were quite finalized, which may add to its collectability.) Most viewers, I think, will be surprised to discover how much of the film's scenery was computer-generated, and thus how little of the film's spectacle is evident from the on-set footage.
We may feel a bit resentful about being asked to shell out for promotional materials traditionally accessed freely on television, as we do when we're forced to watch commercials in a theater before the movie starts, but this is a hard item to resist. If you love the movie, you'll want it; if you like the movie, you'll probably want it because it's unlikely to show on television; and even if you don't think Jackson's film is comparable to the original, if you have any love for fantasy films at all, this set will still fairly scream "Collectible!" It's not the sort of item one imagines will have a long shelf life, at least not in stores, nor does one imagine it will turn up anywhere as cable programming -- at least in this form. Let's just hope that Universal doesn't try double-dipping this material when the feature itself comes to DVD.
Of course, by its very nature, PRODUCTION DIARIES has limited viewability. Entertaining and informative as it is, it's not something most people will want or need to see more than once or twice. Watching the programming straight through is a little tiring because the segments unfold in self-contained, six-minute arcs, and the serial interruptions make the discs seem longer than they really are. This isn't to say that the material itself is dull, just that it carries no ongoing narrative momentum. (There is no big pay-off at the end either, as neither Jack Black or Adrien Brody were still in harness on the day of the wrap party.) These diaries were created to be viewed in small, irregular doses and might best be viewed in half-hour installments over a series of evenings, unless you're absolutely obsessed.
What's interesting to me, as a long-time writer and journalist who has specialized in this sort of reporting, is that what was once the exclusive province of niche publications like CINEFANTASTIQUE -- detailed reportage about fantasy films in production -- has now become the entire substance of a stand-alone DVD release from a major Hollywood studio. I would imagine that the bulk of this material might be a bit too technical or boring or sound-bytey for the average filmgoer, but it does scratch an otherwise hard-to-reach itch for the people who are most excited by the movie right now, who are eager to know more about it and to own a piece of it. If you visited the KONG website regularly to see these reports as they were posted, you'll likely want this set as a memento... and, as Jackson notes upfront, the picture quality of these anamorphically-enhanced discs is much superior to the finest broadband internet reception.
Of course, not every film warrants this sort of supplemental release -- no more than Sandra Bullock or Billy Crystal movies really need audio commentaries or "making of" featurettes. But, of course, those very things have come to pass, which makes me worry a little that an idea like this might catch on and lead the DVD industry to places where most DVD collectors don't want to go. Dark harbinger or not, KING KONG - PETER JACKSON'S PRODUCTION DIARIES is an idea whose time has come, and in this particular application, it's a good idea made better.
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Such disappointment seems to be part and parcel of my relationship with this movie. I grew up seeing WHITE CHRISTMAS on television at Christmas time and I always remember liking it more than I actually do. This is tied-up with it being more of a musical than I remember it being -- kind of a THREE LITTLE WORDS about a songwriting duo that didn't really exist, because all of its songs were actually written by Irving Berlin. Consequently, the movie doesn't show its composers (Wallace & Davis, played by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) actually writing songs together, working out choreography, or doing anything but hitting on their co-stars, pining for their war years, and spontaneously generating dance and music. The duo also has the uncanny ability to flawlessly lipsync and lampoon the Haynes Sisters' (Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen) signature performance piece "Sisters" act after seeing it performed only once.
While I can admire Vera-Ellen as a dancer, her anorexic figure is a distraction; her waist puts Vampira to shame and her thighs look like a boy's upper arms. Bing is sullen and bossy and Danny is annoying, despite their character's good, soft-hearted intentions. Rosemary Clooney I much prefer as a vocalist than as an actress. Furthermore, I don't buy either romance the movie has to offer, anymore than I buy that so many ex-servicemen would leave their wives and kids on Christmas Eve, on short notice, to prop up their former commanding officer no matter how much affection they have for him. And what's his dilemma? He owns a magnificent if empty Vermont hotel, and the only obstacle between him and a full house is that it isn't snowing -- which it ultimately does, as though God Himself finally breaks down and decides to add to Wallace & Davis' collection plate.
I don't really buy WHITE CHRISTMAS as a Christmas movie, either. It's more of a patched-together musical that capitalizes on Christmas. "Peace on Earth, good will toward men" I can appreciate as a Christmas sentiment, but not "Gee, I miss being behind enemy lines in World War II under the Old Man's command." (Of course, it was Irving Berlin whose "Alexander's Ragtime Band" celebrated bugle calls "so natural that you want to go to war...") But, as I say, I always forget how much I'm at odds with this movie until I work up a need to see it again, and get around to seeing it again. It's not unlike when I convince myself that McDonalds can't be as bad as it was the last time I ate there, because it's tied-up with nice memories from my childhood or the less discerning tastes I had as a teenager.
There are, nevertheless, some things which I continue to like about WHITE CHRISTMAS. They boil down to Dean Jagger and Mary Wickes (who gets to kiss both leading men -- a rarity in her screen career), a few of the songs, and a sometimes surprising cast of supporting actors like Percy Helton and I. Stanford Jolley. I also love that little bit on the train, during the song "Snow," where the principals conjure the image of a snow-covered slope with a couple of table napkins, and the bit where they open the barn door during their performance's finale to reveal the Vermont snowfall is hard to resist. But that's very little upon which to hang the film's dubious reputation as a screen classic.
It crossed my mind while watching WHITE CHRISTMAS this year that it might be a fun subject for a belated spinoff series, in which Wallace & Davis (Crosby and Kaye lookalikes, if there are such things) would meddle weekly in the lives of the other downtrodden folks from their pasts, changing their bad luck around with impromptu nationally televised performances originating from garages, solariums, neighborhood bars, or public school gymnasiums. For the pilot, they could find out that their old high school gym teacher (say... George Carlin) has fallen on hard times. They could organize a hush-hush event, gathering all the school's alumni via a "top secret" announcement on Leno, who would all fly back to their old school at their own expense to watch the old guy blow out some candles on a three-tiered cake. The pageant could build to a heart-tugging song like:
He made us do a hundred laps
And hit the showers and turn the taps
Do more chin-ups than we could do
And push-ups till we all turned blue...
But we love him
We love him
As much as we love tumbling or dodging ball
Yes, we love him
We love him
The nastiest son of a gymnast of them all!
Subsequent weeks could focus on Wallace & Davis turning about the misfortunes of their ex-wives (a guest appearance by the Haynes sisters!), their former agents, their proctologists, their IRS auditors, and so forth.
It's dynamite. It's dynamite. Ladies and gentlemen, it's dynamite.
Seriously, a lot of people seem to share my interest in WHITE CHRISTMAS -- my initial interest anyway, as it's presently the #28 DVD title at Amazon.com. Paramount's DVD is anamorphic and has a Dolby 5.1 audio option in addition to the 2.0 ones in English and French. On the one hand, it's the handsomest presentation of the film I've seen, but the image is softish throughout and sometimes rendered blurry by too much digital noise reduction -- during one of the songs, I noticed that Bing Crosby's eyes lost a serious degree of definition. There's an audio commentary and on-camera interview by the great Rosemary Clooney, who has since died. I haven't listened to the commentary, but the interview is interesting and candid, making the movie sound like hard work -- and worth it for her, as it allowed her to work with her idol, Bing Crosby.
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.