Saturday, January 14, 2006

Mist for the Grill

Lucky McKee's "Sick Girl," based on a story by Sean Wood, is one of the easier MASTERS OF HORROR episodes to criticize -- yet one of the more difficult ones to appraise.

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

AIP in the Lions Den

For many habitués of this blog, Lions Gate Home Entertainment's impending release of the first DVD double features in their "Samuel Z. Arkoff Collection - Cult Classics" series has been a source of great suspense and speculation. The films paired in the first two sets -- the Herman Cohen productions HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER/BLOOD OF DRACULA, and the Bert I. Gordon productions EARTH VS. THE SPIDER/WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST -- have all been released on DVD previously in England (by Direct Video Distribution Ltd.) as single feature discs (see example). These have all been disappointments, as they stemmed not from 35mm positive or negative elements but from aged one- or half-inch videotape TV syndication masters from a company called Teleworld.

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

Holy Anniversary!

Lordy, lordy -- BATMAN's forty.

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

My Friend Flickhead

Ray Young -- the former publisher/editor of the great fanzine MAGICK THEATRE and the current webmaster of Flickhead, one of the finer film discussion/blog sites around -- wrote me the other day to ask if Video WatchBlog would care to participate in "International SHOWGIRLS Day," a cause he was (to use Joe Eszterhas' word) pimping.

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.

Monsters HD - Results! Yes!

David Sehring, the Senior Vice-President and General Manager of Monsters HD, has written to let me know that Video WatchBlog's complaints about the VOOM bug have paid off... not completely, but appreciably.

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

Fair Thee Well

I'm a few days behind schedule in offering my comments about William Malone's MASTERS OF HORROR episode, "The Fair-Haired Child," so I should explain why.

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

Touching the Kumi Nerve

Over the weekend, Donna put the next-to-final touches on the next issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG. It still awaits a couple of drop-in items like my "Barks" editorial and Doug Winter's "Audio Watchdog" column, but is otherwise complete. (Yes, it's back to the Bava book now.)

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.