Tuesday, April 25, 2006
"The Hound of Blackwood Castle"
aka THE MONSTER OF BLACKWOOD CASTLE (export title)
1967, Kinowelt and TOBIS/UFA Home Entertainment (Region 2), 89 minutes
After the scenically brilliant DER MÖNCH MIT DER PEITSCHE (US: THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS, 1967), Rialto Film's long-running Edgar Wallace series entered into what might be called its "Roger Moore phase." The films that followed were not exactly bad, but hereafter, the use of color began to noticeably cheapen what it had so brilliantly illuminated in earlier productions, the scripts began to poke self-conscious fun at the series overall, and the performances became more generally tongue-in-cheek. Also, more than ever, Edgar Wallace was left at the door. One searches in vain for a clue as to which Wallace novel provided the source for DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE, whose title seems cobbled together from Arthur Conan Doyle and Algernon Blackwood (not to mention Bryan Edgar Wallace's THE STRANGLER OF BLACKMOOR CASTLE), but it does offer a cellar full of snakes, so 1926's THE YELLOW SNAKE (the source of 1963's CCC-produced DER FLUCH DER GELBEN SCHLANGE, or THE CURSE OF THE YELLOW SNAKE) may be a reasonable bet.
Upon the death of her father, Jane Wilson (Karin Baal) returns to Blackwood Castle for the reading of the will, only to learn that the castle itself -- a brooding, derelict place full of skulls, suits of armor, and stuffed polar bears -- is her only inheritance. The family solicitor (Hans Söhnker) informs her that the place is worthless, that he might be able to get her $10,000 for it, but while freshing up in her father's old room, she overhears a visitor offer the solicitor twice that amount. Something strange is going on, and it's going on in all directions. The servant at Blackwood Castle (Grimsby, played by Artur Binder) tries to frighten Jane by placing a snake in her bed (one of many he cares for in the cellar); a neighboring inn begins to see unprecedented seasonal business from visitors (Horst Tappert as "Douglas Fairbanks," CARMEN, BABY's Uta Levka) showing unusual interest in Blackwood Castle... and each other; and the two seemingly harmless old fogies playing chess in the inn's tavern are using a tricked-out chesspiece to send messages to the snake-caring servant. Meanwhile, Sir John of Scotland Yard (Siegfried Schürenberg, flirting as usual with sexy secretary Miss Findlay, played by Ilsa Pagé) sends a man (likeable Heinz Drache as "Humphrey Connery"!) to the area to investigate a series of animal attacks committed by a hound with large, tusk-like teeth.
This particular series entry, the most emphatically static and stagebound of all the Wallace-krimis, is not unlike watching a filmed stage play; and since the director is Alfred Vohrer, the most visually dynamic of the series' specialists, one can only surmise that this approach was experimental, possibly expressive of a passing interest in the limitations Alfred Hitchcock had imposed upon himself in his ROPE and DIAL M FOR MURDER period. The film begins nicely with a hound attack on a misty moor, preceding marvelously psychedelic main titles accompanied by one of Peter Thomas's all-time-great Wallace film themes. Thomas's score, in fact, is largely responsible for keeping one interested through all this gothic silliness; the visuals suggest what the experience of one of Wallace's 1920s stage productions might have been like, but the score is aggressively modern and humorous, a kind of sprightly, big band funk with barely coherent Mantan Moreland-like vocals by Joe Quick ("It's COLD, man... lookit that MOON lookit that MOON!... I gotta get outta here it's COLD... at Blackwood... CASTLE!"). As the strangely danceable film wears on, Thomas begins to underline each new surprise with a weird-sounding fanfare that's weird-sounding because it was recorded backwards, with the air gasping back into the trumpets; it's inventive at first, but it soon exhausts its welcome and becomes irritating.
Pictured: Siegfried Schürenberg and Ilsa Pagé.
DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE was originally released on DVD by Kinowelt with some welcome extras (outtakes, photo gallery, interviews with Uta Levka and Ilsa Pagé) but, alas, no provisions for the English-speaking viewer. This version remains the official stand-alone release in Germany, but a new 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer of the film with optional English 2.0 audio and subtitling is available as part of TOBIS/UFA Home Entertainment's four-disc Region 2 box set EDGAR WALLACE EDITION 7 (1967-68), which also includes DER MÖNCH MIT DER PEITSCHE (an infinitely superior transfer of the film released here by Dark Sky Films as THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS), IM BANNE DES UNHEIMLICHEN (aka THE HAND OF POWER) and DER GORILLA VON SOHO (aka THE GORILLA GANG or THE APE CREATURE). Of the four films in this set, only IM BANNE DES UNHEIMLICHEN is not English-friendly -- a needless omission, considering that Sam Sherman's Independent-International owns an English-language negative of THE HAND OF POWER, which was released to TV as THE ZOMBIE WALKS.
I am not aware that an English version of DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE ever received a US release, but the disc's English audio track is vintage and fairly well done, and English subtitles are included as optional accompaniment to the German audio track. The anamorphic transfer is occasionally grainy but nevertheless attractive and uber-colorful, and the German audio track is very full-bodied and the best choice for enjoying the musical accompaniment.
Both the Kinowelt release (search for "EDGAR WALLACE - DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE) and the EDGAR WALLACE EDITION 7 (1967-68) box set are available online from Sazuma Trading.
Reader Tom Schumaker of Parkton MD writes "I know of at least two playdates for DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE in US theaters. I saw an English-dubbed print of THE HORROR OF BLACKWOOD CASTLE (not “MONSTER” as referenced in your Blog review) at the Glen Drive-in in Richmond, VA, back in the late 1970’s. It was co-billed with the Peter Cushing/John Carradine potboiler SHOCK WAVES. It was also playing at a local urban Grind-house (the palatial Lowe’s) at the same time. As I recall, the print was marred with green scratches & a few jumps, but otherwise seemed OK. I still have an ad mat from the Lowe’s engagement , which I clipped from the local newspaper ('shows at 2:15, 5:15 & 8:15'). When THE STRANGLER OF BLACKMOOR CASTLE came out on DVD, I had to do some research to convince myself that these were, in fact, two different films."
Monday, April 24, 2006
Fortunately for the impatient and globally-connected, "Imprint" was shown on BRAVO (UK) a couple of weeks ago, on April 7... with commercial interruption (what brave sponsors!), but at least it was shown. It should trouble us that we Americans supposedly live in "the land of the free," but if we want to see Dario Argento's MOR episode "Jenifer" uncut, we're out of luck altogether; and if we want to see "Imprint" at all, we need to swap DVD-Rs with someone living in a country that is actually notorious for censoring theatrical and home video releases -- even if we've already paid Showtime for the privilege.
As you may remember, when "Imprint" -- the only MOH episode produced outside Vancouver, British Columbia -- was screened for Showtime, they made the decision not to air it. No official explanation was given, but MOH executive producer Mick Garris later told The Horror Channel that "Showtime felt it was something they didn't feel comfortable putting out on the airwaves." Consequently, "Imprint"'s position as the series' twelfth episode was inherited by "Haeckel's Tale," a Clive Barker story directed by John McNaughton, which was rushed into production to fill the vacated time slot. Originally to be directed by Roger Corman (who backed out for health reasons), "Haeckel's Tale" turned out to be one of the poorest episodes of the first dozen. For all its baleful warnings and talk of forbidden sights, the episode's "transgressive" imagery ultimately delivered nothing more taboo-breaking than a naked woman grinding her rounded hips atop a Romeroesque zombie in a misty graveyard. It was pathetic and laughable.
Which, after all, is what Americans really want horror to be. Statistics show that we won't support a horror film if it's promoted as being in the least comic, but what we really want from the genre, my experience as an observer shows, are scares we can either surf or ride like bulls. We love that feeling of victory as the shock waves swell beneath us, we love riding them out. But such cheap thrills were not the goal of Takeshi Miike (AUDITION, VISITOR Q), the most poetical of the new J-horror extremists. When speculating about the reasons behind Showtime's rejection of "Imprint," online pundits have often pointed to the episode's abortion-related imagery as a likely cause, but I always doubted this was so -- and now that I've seen the episode, I know that Right To Life sentiments weren't necessarily part of the problem. This episode has no shortage of ideas and imagery just as discomforting as having an unborn fetus pulled from your nether regions.
I believe Showtime's refusal of the episode has much more to do with the vast gulf between the American and Japanese concepts of horror. In America, everyone is raised on horror films; we want monsters, gore, laughs and titillation. In Japan, as in Europe, horror films have always been an adult genre. In Japan, perhaps most adult of all. Just look at a movie like HELL [Jigoku, 1960] and you know they're at least 40 years ahead of us in these matters, maybe 50. There, the genre has always been about the investigation, probing and rupturing of taboos; it's about transgression -- social, sexual, spiritual. The most frightening thing any Japanese horror film aspires to deliver is a new, irrational way of thinking or looking at the world. "Imprint" was not created to entertain, but to disturb, repulse and frighten. To those ends, it works admirably well.
Set in a heavily stylized 19th century, it stars Billy Drago (Frank Nitti in Brian De Palma's THE UNTOUCHABLES) as a self-confessed "strange man" from America who returns after a lengthy absence to an unnamed island off the coast of Japan in search of Komomo (Michie), a geisha who once won his heart -- because she reminded him so of his dead sister. The American follows his lead to a carnival-like sin capital where he is warned of lurking dangers, and for his own safety, he agrees to spend the night with another geisha (Youki Kudoh, pictured above), a friend of Komomo's whose face is partially disfigured. The American surprises the geisha by not being repulsed by her twisted features, indeed by finding her "very attractive." Tired and lovesick, the American wants rest more than sex and asks the geisha to tell him a story about herself as he drifts to sleep. She tells him about her childhood, as the unwanted daughter of a midwife who discarded unwanted fetuses in the river outside their rustic home, and proceeds to tell him the story of her friendship with Komomo. The story ends with Komomo's death. Upset and angry, the American feels that the geisha isn't telling him the full truth and demands to know more -- prompting a different and more upsetting story. But this version strikes the American as so horrible that still worse secrets about these events must be harbored by the storyteller. "Why is it that everyone always wants to know the truth?" the geisha ponders. "Sometimes the lie is better. It's prettier."
I don't want to spoil the experience of this episode by revealing too much before most of you have the opportunity to see it, so I'll stop my synopsis there. In fact, I will warn those who haven't seen the episode to avoid at all costs a promotional clip from the episode which is available for viewing online (I won't give the URL, but its Googlable) because it reveals a plot revelation no one should anticipate before they reach that point in the story.
My own interpretation of "Imprint" is that it's about the human reflex that Roman Polanski charted so well in that moment from REPULSION when Ian Hendry, repulsed by the sight of the dead man in the bathtub, suddenly leans in closer for an unflinching look. It's about our desire to know the worst without being touched by it. It's about the horror of our flesh-and-blood existence, steeped not only in repugnant imagery, but much that is beautiful within its repugnant imagery, if we have the courage to lean in closer for a more unflinching look. The American's desire to know the worst he can know is inextricably tied to any viewer's own quest for the capital Truth, and Miike suggests that absolute truth is absolute horror. Our polite refusal to experience horror, even intellectually, especially intellectually, banishes us from the Truth. He shows us some monstrous things about who we are, where we come from, and where we sit in relation to stories such as this. As such, "Imprint" would have been the perfect way to conclude MASTERS OF HORROR's first season, because it responds to the very idea of the show by throwing down a gauntlet no Western director is likely to approach -- not for another 50 years, anyway.
It's a curious East/West schism that Japanese horror somehow becomes more delicate, more epicurean, when it is most gruellingly sadistic, whereas Western horror almost always forfeits its sophistication when crossing these lines, too blunt to be effectively cruel. We're going through a big "torture" phase now in American horror cinema (SAW, SAW II, HOSTEL), and the sociologists among you can fill in the reason for that. But there is a bluntness about the violence in these films that resists intellectualization; not thinking too much about the violence, even enjoying it to a degree, is part of the Big Picture. No matter how gross or gruesome these scenes become, the films always shy away from identifying too much with the victim. (The sociologists among you can rhubarb about that one too amongst yourselves.) There is a protracted torture scene in "Imprint" that is exceedingly difficult to watch, because we never once side emotionally with the pain being so exquisitely inflicted by the torturer, but remain resolutely identified with the victim. However, Miike keeps the process as gratifying to the eye as it is otherwise repulsive -- with color, motion, composition and the occasional goose of surprise. His 19th century Japan is highly stylized, with exquisite décor, much Felliniesque detail (the American's guide is a dwarf with a cancer-eaten nose and a severed cock's head bobbing atop his headdress), and the geishas sport blue and flaming red hair, allowing this ancient past to be shot through with irrational flashes of modernity. During one of the tortures, we see Komomo suspended from the ground like an inverted objet d'art, and as hard as it was to endure this scene, on reflection, I had to admit it was preferable to seeing someone anonymously chainsawed in an American slasher film. Why? Because, as repellent as these tortures might be, seeing a thinking, feeling body reduced to an objet d'art is somehow preferable to seeing a piece of meat reduced to meat. Miike forces us to weigh the civility of violence, inspired violence meted out with black-toothed glee against brute violence... fine distinctions I'm not often called upon by the cinema to acknowledge or consider. These are upsetting things to weigh in one's heart and stomach, and therefore defiantly uncommercial. As my friend Charlie remarked when we discussed this: "Can you imagine Miike trying to make movies like this in the States? They'd probably arrest him. And then torture him!"
On the basis of a single viewing, I'm not certain how successful "Imprint" is -- either as a film, or as a chapter in the Takeshi Miike canon. It is unquestionably as creepy as hell. This man can deliver visual horror like it's never been done. I also found myself chuckling a good deal late in the episode, but I can't be certain yet whether this was a correct or unintended response. Certainly some of my laughs were prompted by shock and surprise. Drago's performance is way over-the-top, in the best Jack Palance/Christopher Walken tradition, but it will take additional viewings before I know if this was a creative error, a thespic weakness, or exactly the spice needed by the stew. On the other hand, it was immediately evident that "Imprint" is the most ravishingly photographed (Toyomichi Kurita), designed (Hisashi Sasaki, Takashi Sasaki), and scored (Kôji Endô) of all the MASTERS OF HORROR episodes.
It's my understanding that Anchor Bay Entertainment will be issuing "Imprint" on DVD sometime this fall. I can't speak for the general horror audience, but no courageous student of the genre should miss it.
Friday, April 21, 2006
Thursday, April 20, 2006
In the Cold War days, don't you know,
We turned a man into Earth's common foe.
Surgeons reworked his face
Into a visage from space;
But ABC took one look and said "No."
THE SIXTH FINGER
There was a Welsh miner named Gwyllm
Who could just look at people and kill 'em.
In the end it was solved
That his head had evolved;
If you had some big hats, he could fill 'em.
THE ZANTI MISFITS
A consignment of misfits from Zanti
Were banished as socially anti.
In my favorite clip
They arrive in their ship
And one crawls down an Earthwoman's panty.
To the planet Annex One Reese did glide
Giving him eyes that looked kind of fried.
He didn't sleep much
And he could kill just by touch
But he always looked on the sunny side.
IT CRAWLED OUT OF THE WOODWORK
At NORCO, the movers and shakers
All wear new-fangled pacemakers.
They get frightened to death
But then they get back their breath.
On pay day, only zombies are takers.
As it happens, these shakers and movers
Are a legion of energy groovers
Who were bred in a pit
By a dustball called "It"
That got sucked up into a Hoover.
Two Martians, Earth students, did plot
To determine how a human got shot.
To a hotel they went
And with Diemos' assent
Phobos drank cups of joe by the pot.
Behind a plant in the lobby they spied
A spectacle logic defied:
A woman stood with a frown
As the lift came down
And she left a man Colt forty-fived.
Phobos smoked as he pondered this act
And examined the couple sans tact.
He wound time south to north
And played the crime back and forth
With a Martian machine quite exact.
They decided to let the man live
But Mars said it would never forgive
Them, if he fathered a son
And the son of a gun
Turned Earth to a vast bleeding sieve.
A compromise, in the end, was so set
That he'd survive -- with his pants a bit wet.
And so the two Martian buggers
Let him marry his plugger
And kiss her every chance that he'd get.
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
I didn't recognize any of the new version's panelists, or the host. I don't know what's most depressing -- that one of the secrets whispered into the host's ear was "I Can Break Pencils... In My Butt Cheeks"... that the panel actually guessed it... or that the home viewer had to be treated to an end credits demonstration of this noteworthy ability. Actually, I know which is most depressing, but the ramifications of the other two are perhaps more sobering.
The original show is no holy relic (Garry Moore always strikes me as brash and rude, unable to host the show without a cigarette in his hand and blowing smoke even in the faces of child guests) and its "secrets" are usually no more than lame pretexts to half-baked entertainment, but sweet Jesus, how far we have fallen.
Monday, April 17, 2006
I take a similarly "zen" approach to reviewing: I approach the task without consciousness or deliberation. I know the process is different for everyone; Richard Harland Smith once told me that he watches each film he reviews at least twice, and Pauline Kael notoriously boasted that she never saw any film more than once. I suppose I fall somewhere between those two disciplines, because I seldom watch anything more than once while I am in the process of reviewing it, though I will later watch those films I like as many times as curiosity and pleasure dictate.
When I was a staff reviewer for CINEFANTASTIQUE in the 1970s, publisher-editor Fred Clarke supplied me with a regular stack of pre-printed, postage-paid index cards, which I was to fill out and mail back after seeing new movies. These were formatted so I could jot down the name of a film, its director and distributor, running time, and a few sentences of critical comment. As a young writer, these cards were very helpful to me. They taught me how to compose my thoughts as I was watching something, and how to be certain of them -- because once I had written something down in marker, there was no erasing it... and crossing it out would limit my available space to file my report. Fred probably never thought of these cards as an educational tool for his staff, but speaking only for myself, I found they sharpened and organized my thinking.
I occasionally saw other reviewers in screening rooms jotting down notes in the dark, so I also adopted this habit in my early days, but I wouldn't fully embrace it till much later. If I was responding favorably or warmly to a picture, annotating the experience tore me away from it; I might miss something good, some important incidental, if I was trying to see what I was scribbling in the dark. And if I wasn't responding favorably or warmly to something, the scribbling became about itself; I became much more interested in creating a witty retort to something I hated, rather than giving it a fair chance to win me back. But, in the days before films were available to reviewers on tape or disc, those notes in the dark were critics' best guarantee of accuracy if they wanted to quote dialogue or venture comment on a cutting strategy.
Nowadays, much moreso than before, the process begins with notes. I keep a packet of unlined index cards on a small table next to my viewing spot, and I jot down thoughts that occur to me throughout my screenings. Sometimes I will stop the disc as I write, but usually not; it depends on the ambition of the thought. My note cards don't show complete or finished sentences. I use them to refresh my memory about important plot points, character names, dialogue, trivia. I try to review the films I annotate promptly, but it's not always possible. Consequently, there's usually a stack of unprocessed note cards resting in the recess just behind my computer keyboard. For example, here -- chosen at random -- are some (slightly dusty) notes written while screening GINGER (1971), that will eventually germinate into a "Things From the Attic" review... or not:
GINGER 100m 26s
Derio Oldsmobile 23 college "straight B average" cheerleader from Hampton NY parents killed plane crash 1 brother extensive travel Brighton NJ resort popu. multiplies 10 x 3 months of year Rex Halsey "people on vacation want what they can't get at home" boss hands her envelope "We call it 'The Halsey Report' - no pun intended" $50 grand to crack case Bondian vocabulary: "dossier," "attaché" handcuffs gun bullets tape recorder camera infra-red film "anything you don't know how to use, learn" etc...
I have no idea how useful this excerpt may be, but it offers the literal answer to the question posed on the title line. If you know the film, my notes should at least give you an index as to which details in the passing parade I'm inclined to pounce on. For instance, the Derio Oldsmobile notation seemed important to me because the producer of the "Ginger" films was named Ralph Desiderio, and seeing this reminded me of a BILLBOARD article I read in the early 1970s, which mentioned that the seed money for this series originated from a New Jersey car dealership. I may not use any of the information I write on these cards, but they bring back the experience of the movie, or at least my experience of the movie -- that time.
While the goal of these note cards is to make some of the more elusive details of a viewing more concrete, the most important aspect of the work is by definition intangible. I find it's essential that I review a film while my experience of it is still reasonably fresh in my senses. This GINGER card depresses me because, as I say, it's been sitting around awhile; when I finally clear the time and have the desire to review it, it may be necessary for me to watch it again, or at least a bit of it, to help me absorb some of its particular atmosphere and energy (or torpor, as the case may be). Yes -- if I wait too long, my note cards become impenetrable even to me.
Here's another note card, dating from the last time I watched the Universal B-picture HOUSE OF HORRORS (1946). I think VW has already reviewed the VHS release of this movie, which is all the release it's ever had on video, so there was no intention to review it again... but the card reflects that the movie was written by someone far more intelligent and world-weary and professional than what they had been hired to write. I jotted down three lines of dialogue with which I felt a particular shade of simpatia:
"Rush, rush, rush -- that's all you get around here."
"The hungry maw of the cinema is always ready to devour new beauty."
"I have to dig up material for a Sunday column... and I haven't the slightest idea where I'm going to find it!"
These were clearly preserved as candidates for VW's Table of Contents page epigram -- where we present relevant quotations pertaining to art, the fantastic, the creative process, or wherever Donna and I feel ourselves to be at that particular moment in time. The last quote particularly reminds me of the "NoZone" column I write for SIGHT AND SOUND, which, until recently, had a Monday morning deadline that always kept me working on Sundays. My schedule being what it is, I tend to decide what I'll be reviewing for S&S one day before the piece needs to be turned in (which is now the first Friday of every month), writing through the night and turning in the finished piece a few hours before the S&S editors reach their desks on the morning of the deadline. It's my experience that necessity is the mother of invention, and that deadlines are probably its father. Things get done when they have to get done and, as the old saying goes, if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.
The present tense of my work looks forward, not back. People are surprised when I tell them I have only partial recollection of all the films I've reviewed for VIDEO WATCHDOG over the years, but it's absolutely true. A friend once sent me a trade list of DVD-Rs and I asked him to send me a certain title, which I'd heard was interesting; he wrote back, in effect, "Well, you seemed to think so when you reviewed it in VW issue-whatever." I had no recollection of ever seeing the film, and when I went back to my review to recharge my memory, not only did my review not remind me of the film I had seen, I couldn't remember writing the review. (At the moment, I must admit to a shiver of worry because I can sense that I have written about this anecdote once before... but I can't remember if it was for this blog, or in a past editorial, or in private correspondence, so please forgive me if I've repeated myself. If your life becomes a roman fleuve, you run the risk of drowning -- and I stock more than one river.)
Charlie Largent cleverly summarized this phenomenon as "the Mashed Potato factor." He says I've seen and reviewed so many movies, over such a long period, they must repose in my head like a lot of mashed potatoes, and trying to pick out one movie in memory from all the others must be like trying to distinguish one plate of mashed potatoes I've eaten from another. It's actually a very apt simile. It's not to say that everything I've seen has been equal; it has more to do with what these movies become, once they have been chewed and discarded only once. Just as we hold important events or moments in memory by reflecting on them again and again, either as memories or with the aid of photographs and home movies, I think important movies demand to be re-experienced. I imagine Pauline Kael carried around a lot of mashed potatoes.
Donna, John and I finished VIDEO WATCHDOG #125 over the weekend, with Donna and I passing over what must have been a nice Easter Sunday with her family to stay at home and get the work done that much sooner. All the details, including previews of Charlie Largent's cover art and four interior pages, can now be found on the "Coming Soon" page of our website. Today we start prepping VW #126, for which all the text is written... except for my editorial and my "DVD Spotlight" review of Peter Jackson's KING KONG. I have no idea how I'm going to do it, but I know that both will be in hand within the next couple of days. After all, a couple of hours ago, this essay you're reading didn't exist. Not even the title. Just the need for a Monday blog.
So, how do you review movies? As another Lucas might say, by doing it until the Force is with you.
Now where's that card?
KING KONG 187:05
opens w/ apes zoo, images of captivity Depression Jolson "Sittin' Top of World" no green anywhere The Lyric Vaudeville Revue all of Ann's backstory looped into uncle's mouth offscreen - written in post? CHANG insert framed outside screening room etc.
Thursday, April 13, 2006
Why did none of us remember that today marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Beckett? Doesn't that make you feel a little ashamed, as one of the surviving torch-bearers for what we laughingly call civilization, to have missed commemorating such an occasion? It does me.
Let's boil this stew down to its basest aroma. It's because of Sam Beckett that the phrase "Waiting for Godot" has entered the popular lexicon, as a way of referring to anticipating something that isn't going to happen, a hope that isn't going to be fulfilled, a prayer that won't be answered -- much like "Catch-22" refers to things that can't happen because their very possibility is inextricable from their unlikelihood. The phrase is known and understood by multitudes for whom the play itself would be well above and beyond comprehension.
On a personal note, the name Godot carries a special personal meaning for Donna and me. We spent many happy, loving years with a beautiful black-and-white longhaired cat named Godot, so named because we had to wait three months to take possession of her and because she never came when anyone called her. I read my share of Beckett in those days, when a novelist is all that I worked at being and hoped to be, and I spent much time coveting the Grove Press hardcover collected works that used to reside near the basement cash register at Cincinnati's long-gone Kidd's Bookstore, priced at a then-astronomical $100.
When was the last time I saw something as substantial as Beckett's collected works given such pride of place in a bookstore? Ouch. How far we have fallen.
I ask myself. I ask you. Which is the more tragic -- that I had to be reminded that today was the first centenery of Samuel Beckett's birth by the IMDb? Or that every link I could find relating to Beckett centenary celebrations (all in his native Ireland) led to "This Page is Unavailable" notices?
I must admit to having gained distance from Beckett myself in this video age of ours, but I cherish the impact he had on me -- as a reader, moreso than as a writer. His early works like MURPHY were novels of acute and comic Irish absurdity and caricature, but as time went on, his titles became more and more about themselves, and reflected such reductive powers of concentration as could be compared to the pressure that transforms coal, over thousands of years, into diamond.
One of my favorite of all literary epigrams comes from the closing lines of THE UNNAMEABLE, the conclusion of a trilogy-of-sorts beginning with MOLLOY and MALONE DIES; in just a few words, Beckett succeeded in summarizing a feeling about life and work that I wouldn't fully appreciate till I reached my 40s, when it became a veritable motto: "I can't go on. I'll go on." I can't think of seven other words that more richly evoke what it is like to live and work in today's world, and that's why we should be raising one to this man's memory today.
To Samuel Beckett. One of the few winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature who was actually worth a damn.
May I humbly suggest that we all adjourn with our pints to the nearest roadside curb, where we can sit and wait for the parade in Sam's name that isn't going to come?
It's hard to put this mysterious kinship into words, but I've always felt that my first intimations of the spirit to which I gravitate, not just in music but in all the arts, began around 1961-62, when songs like "Town Without Pity" and "Telstar" by The Tornados first seared through the sameness of Top 40 radio. I was only five or six years old, not a sophisticated listener, but whenever these songs came on the radio, I became very still. I became an active listener. They attuned me to something deep inside myself that naturally inclined toward the dark and the fantastical.
I would not realize for several years still to come that "Town Without Pity" was the theme song of a movie, a West German-US co-production starring Kirk Douglas and Christine Kaufmann, about the gang rape of a young German girl by four US soldiers (two of them GOMER PYLE U.S.M.C.'s Frank Sutton and Robert Blake in a performance that points forward to his later work in IN COLD BLOOD) and how the ensuing trial "rapes" her in a different way, more decisively ruining her life and driving her to suicide. But it's appropriate that the vibe in that song for which I felt such affinity would turn out to have ties to what we now call Eurocult.
TOWN WITHOUT PITY is an affecting movie, though not a particularly good one, and when I finally got to see it for the first time in the late 1960s, it didn't eclipse the feelings I already had for the song. I think the song fits the story and the mood of the movie very well, but I also feel that it stands for a great deal more than the concrete situation about which it was written. (It was written, incidentally, by the great Dimitri Tiomkin and lyricist Ned Washington.) For example, I have gay friends who relate to "Town Without Pity" because it speaks to a relationship whose existence must be whispered between its two intimates, because society -- lyrically reduced to a "town" -- doesn't understand or condone their love. (This reading may have had something to do with why John Waters selected it for use in his HAIRSPRAY soundtrack.) At the time, it doubtless spoke just as directly to interracial lovers. There is also something about Tiomkin's music, its slinky 6/4 piano PERRY MASON atmosphere, that speaks even to innocent ears about corruption and despair, about a world of vice and law whose sheer opposing weight is geared to crush out what is best in the human heart through sheer oppression. So I guess you could say that my attraction to "Town Without Pity" was that it offered Top 40 listeners substantially more truth about the world at large ("it isn't very pretty...") than the average pop song.
Of course, it was Pitney's tortured vocal that brought the song so committedly to life. One of the most distinctive interpreters pop music has ever known, Pitney was a superior stylist, a tuneful enunciator who seemed to look past the lyric to each song's underlying meaning -- the soul of each word, and the spirit that strung them together. To hear such an unmistakable voice, one might expect it to be limited or unlikely to be flexible in terms of milieu, but Pitney was much more than just a maestro of octave-swooping melodrama. He could be twee in some song settings, but he could also sing convincingly from the stances of cowboys ("The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"), truck drivers ("Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa" and "Last Chance to Turn Around" -- a song whose chorus incidentally inspired the title of Hubert Selby Jr.'s hard-hitting novel LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN), and even gondoliers. Pitney was one of the first pop vocalists to record foreign language export versions of his hits, and he recorded entire albums of material for the Italian market, which was especially receptive to his near-operatic delivery. He was also one of the pop song's technical pioneers: almost a full ten years before Paul McCartney recorded his 16-track one-man-band solo album McCARTNEY, Gene Pitney provided his own musical accompaniment on his first hit single, "(I Wanna) Love My Life Away," though recording technology was limited at the time to only two or three tracks.
Justly recognized as a talented songwriter ("He's A Rebel", "Hello, Mary Lou"), Pitney spent most of his recording career covering the work of other composers. He was arguably the most notable male interpreter of the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David ("True Love Never Runs Smooth" being a particularly good example). For the past few years, a British label called Sequel has been reissuing most of Pitney's 1960s albums as two-fers, and to know Pitney properly, it's important to move away from the hits and see what he accomplished on his albums, uneven as they often are. A particularly fascinating index to his talents is the album GOLDEN GREATS, which Musicor paired with THIS IS GENE PITNEY. GOLDEN GREATS is Pitney-as-one-man-jukebox, finding him accepting the challenge of either improving upon songs already placed in the Top 40 (if not the Top 10) by other artists, or failing miserably. An awkwardly reworded rendition of The Supremes' "Stop in the Name of Love" frankly kicks his ass, but Pitney manages to score well or better with most of his choices, which include The Hollies' "Bus Stop" and Gary Lewis and The Playboys' "Count Me In." He shows the expected affinity for Roy Orbison's exquisitely melodramatic "Crying," the countrified shadings of Tom Jones' "The Green, Green Grass of Home," and the inspirational doo-wop of The Platters' "The Great Pretender," but it's Pitney's incredible cover of Jay and the Americans' "Cara Mia" that brings the listener to his knees. Here, we realize that it wasn't enough for Pitney to be a sensitive stylist and interpreter; a song had to meet him halfway, to be available to an instrument of Pitney's unique range and ability, for the alchemy to fully ignite. "Cara Mia" offers him opportunities to drag lyrics across the gravel of his lower register and also to soar above one's highest expectations. This track, vastly superior to the hit rendition it covers, deserves to be remembered as one of Pitney's greatest moments on record.
Still, when we note that GOLDEN GREATS was released in 1967 -- the year of SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND -- it's easy to see how out-of-step the album was with its times, regardless of its achievement of moments that now seem absolutely timeless. It also had the misfortune to carry a title which, at a glance, portended yet another of the "greatest hits" albums that were epidemic in Pitney's output. There were exceptions to the rule, but apart from the album he later cut with George Jones (which not only prophesied the 1970s country-rock-crossover but the 1980s "duets" craze as well), Pitney's albums never really took the necessary quantum leap of vision and creativity to maintain his dominance in the field. His popularity may have also suffered by someone's decision to photograph him in the company of an attractive model who would change from one album cover to the next; after all, there was a commercial reason why the Beatles management wanted to keep John Lennon's marital status under wraps in those days. Despite these professional missteps, Pitney seems to have had an unusually solid grip on reality and his place in the world; he resolutely did what he was good at doing, without conceding to trends. He also put his real life first, with his wife and three sons, always making his home in his native state of Connecticut. America forgot him, at least to the extent of making it unfeasible for him to tour the States in later years, but he remained a beloved figure abroad. The only time I saw Pitney on American television in the 1970s was when he appeared on THE DON LANE SHOW, an Australian talk show briefly syndicated here.
When I first came online in 1995, I discovered that AOL hosted some music newsgroups and I spent some time lurking in several of them, among them one devoted to Gene Pitney. I was amazed to discover that Pitney himself was a frequent participant (his screen name was "ThePits") who took pleasure in answering people's questions, at least the ones he hadn't been asked a million times before. It was my first exposure to how the Internet could bring previously distant or unapproachable celebrities within one's virtual reach; in other AOL news forums at that time, it was not uncommon to find the likes of Bobby Vee, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby holding court. My standout memory of "ThePits" is that there came a time when he announced that he would be absenting himself from the forum because he felt a now-or-never need to throw himself into some new songwriting. I don't know what, if anything, came of that woodshedding, but I suspect the yield wasn't anything like he must have hoped for, like a new record deal. However, thereafter, he did more earnestly pursue a return to live performance abroad.
A few years ago, Gene Pitney appeared on PBS television stations across the country in a live performance recorded in, I think, Hartford, Connecticut -- not far from home. The performance, which was also issued as a live album, proved that little about this consummate craftsman had diminished over time. Though they were by then over 40 years old, his most familiar hits were sung as though their sentiments were still coming directly from his heart rather than from the teleprompter of memory. In the midst of this parade of request fulfillments, I was particularly struck by his performance of a Robbie Williams song, "Angels," which seemed tailor-made for the Pitney treatment and proved him a still-heroically-vital interpreter of modern-day songwriting. Unfortunately, I don't think Pitney ever recorded a studio version; it might well have been the adult contemporary hit he was hoping to record.
Yes, 65 is much too young to die... but, on the other hand, Pitney ended his life asleep -- without misadventure, without pain, without infirmity, without disease, without knowing the end was coming, and without the heartbreak of conscious goodbyes -- after a triumphal performance to an appreciative audience, knowing that many more such evenings were still to come. I honestly can't think of a more blessed exit.
And his songs stand every chance of living on forever, or at least as long as hearts can be broken or swell with pride or love or aspiration to the point of breaking. Feeling these things and listening to Gene Pitney, we know that we are not alone.
Monday, April 10, 2006
Fans of, shall we say, audacious rock music will be excited to learn about two new releases coming out later this week from Music Video Distributors and Sexy Intellectual. The first two DVDs in a new series called "Under Review," these feature length programs focus on two 1960s bands whose legacy was supremely influential on the cutting edge music of subsequent decades: Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground. They street on 4/15 and retail for $19.98 apiece.
Fans of these cult groups will find it almost wondrous to see their histories discussed so seriously and eloquently, not only by well-credentialed critics but by former members of the bands in question. VELVET UNDERGROUND: UNDER REVIEW (85 minutes) interviews VILLAGE VOICE music editor Robert Christgau; Clinton Heylin, author of essential books on punk rock, Bob Dylan, bootleg albums and Public Image Limited; Total Rock DJ, author and journalist, Malcolm Dome, and Luna mainman Dean Wareham, as well as Velvets members Maureen "Moe" Tucker and Doug Yule, and Andy Warhol Factory photographer/Velvets album cover designer Billy Name.
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: UNDER REVIEW (115 minutes) interviews Beefheart biographer Mike Barnes; author/critic Alan Clayson; UNCUT magazine contributing editor Nigel Williamson, and a vast assortment of Beefheart Magic Band alumni, including John "Drumbo" French, Mark "Rockette Morton" Boston, Jeff Moris Tepper, Elliott "Winged Eel Fingerling" Ingber, ira Ingber, Jerry Handley, Doug Moon, Gary Marker, Eric Drew Feldman and Gary Lucas. Both discs contain many clips of rare performances, archival interview footage, and are supplemented with interview outtakes and interactive quizzes. It's also great to hear the music of these bands remixed in stereo surround. I want a whole album of how "Ella Guru" sounds on the BEEFHEART DVD.
Both programs approach their subjects chronologically, single by single and album by album. As someone intimately acquainted with the discographies of both bands, I found it actually cathartic to watch these documentaries, to see the work of these often overlooked units so fulfillingly appreciated. Of course I have my own feelings about their recorded output, so I was somewhat disappointed that Beefheart's ultimate statement TROUT MASK REPLICA was not addressed with the same gravity as, say, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO on the corresponding release. (There is some disagreement among the Beefheart authorities assembled here, but LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY and CLEAR SPOT seem to vie for their #1 choice, with TROUT MASK being... well, singular. And for a double album, it IS pretty singular. I wish Matt Groening had been invited to balance the books.) My own favorite Velvets album is their third, self-titled album, which I feel is given its due her, but the VELVET UNDERGROUND program actually reminded me of the importance of the AND NICO album, their first, which was actually recorded in 1966 and not issued until 1967. It is not the better album, but it is unquestionably the more important group statement. Likewise, Beefheart's CLEAR SPOT track "Big Eyed Beans from Venus," his most beloved track by fans and arguably his best-realized studio performance, is rather surprisingly dismissed by Mike Barnes as popular on account of its accessibility. Accessibility doesn't explain why I am nearly moved to the point of tears every time I hear it; it has much more to do with the alchemy of its clean production and the sound of every member of the band mining dissonance until they tap an almost exorcismal sublimity and sweetness. Again, the Velvets disc excels in this area with its extended appreciation of "Venus in Furs" from THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO, which the critics identify -- to a man -- as the moment where that album becomes timeless and transcendent. To hear Robert Christgau, echoing Lester Bangs, cite this track as the moment "where modern music begins" is incredibly satisfying and insightful.
Watching these documentaries, one realizes that Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground had far more in common than their very different music makes apparent. Both groups were dominated by a single personality: Beefheart himself, Don Van Vliet (who abandoned music in 1981 to pursue a successful career in painting), and Lou Reed of The Velvets (who left the band in 1970 to pursue a still successful if increasingly literary solo career). Both groups had members in their early lineups who left after creative clashes with the "alpha male" -- John Cale in The Velvets, Ry Cooder in The Magic Band -- their departures radically changing the nature of the groups' music. Both groups were also "sponsored", in a sense, by iconographic art figures: Andy Warhol (VU) and Frank Zappa (CB). Furthermore, as the two figureheads of these bands have become more remote and inaccessible -- Van Vliet, reportedly suffering from multiple sclerosis, has not been photographed in decades, while Reed prefers to focus on his solo work -- the contributions of their fellow band members have been given the space to come into much stronger relief. It's refreshing to see the Velvets documentary pay so much respectful attention to Moe Tucker, founding member/guitarist Sterling Morrison, and especially Doug Yule, who replaced Cale in the band, which he joined in time to play on their third album. The first VU album is almost certainly their greatest and most important, and their second album WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT is just as grand in a darker way, but the greater balance of the group's classic core of material was written and recorded after Cale's departure. It was only after Yule's joining, and the loss of Cale's abrasive signature viola, that The Velvets became a classic rock-and-roll band.
An interesting result of Van Vliet's silence in recent years, and one about which I have very mixed feelings, is that much of his original projected persona has been revealed as, for lack of a better word, "show biz." His amazing voice, once self-described as encompassing six or more octaves, has since been professionally charted as somewhat narrower. His stories about never attending school and having never indulged in drugs have been proved various shades of hooey, and his former band members have portrayed him as a ruthless task master, almost a cult leader, not to mention a sometimes wrongful appropriator of song credit. And then there is the 1973-76 "Tragic Band" period when Beefheart turned his back on his muse to attempt more commercial music, only to discover that his watered-down brand of funk-pop attracted no new listeners and turned away those he already had. The stories presented on the BEEFHEART disc by his fellow band members are generally very respectful, sometimes acknowledging that Van Vliet was absolutely and unerringly aware of the impact his music would have over time. (John French recalls Van Vliet telling him, some 35 years ago, "Someday you'll hear a knock on your door and it will be someone who has travelled halfway around the world to record your recollections of what we are doing right now!") But the program pays rightful attention to the musical skills of Beefheart's associates, all of whom continue to do good work but clearly miss the "north star" visionary who led them in younger days to vistas previously unexplored in music. Some of them are working today in tribute bands to keep Beefheart's extraordinary blues-avant-art-swamp-rock fusion alive and available to fresh discovery.
These discs mark an impressive starting point for what I hope will be a successful, ongoing series. I'd love to see similar discs address the music of, say, King Crimson, Can, Nick Drake, Brian Eno, Laura Nyro, Amon Duul I and II -- and that's just for starters. Based on the choices shown here, I suspect the producers of these discs are thinking along much the same lines.
Postscript: Music Video Distributors and Sexy Intellectual have now announced the third and fourth releases in the "Under Review" series. June 6 will see the release on a profile of KATE BUSH, and following on June 27 will be THE SMITHS.
Saturday, April 08, 2006
Congratulations to VW contributor Kim Newman and his partner Stephen Jones are in order. Their softcover anthology HORROR: ANOTHER 100 BEST BOOKS survived the final cut of the preliminary ballot to be nominated this week in the Best Non-Fiction category of the Horror Writers Association's Bram Stoker Awards. The book's forerunner, HORROR: 100 BEST BOOKS, won this category in 1989 in a tie with HARLAN ELLISON'S WATCHING by Harlan Ellison.
I contributed to Steve and Kim's outstanding genre survey an essay about Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain's 1911 novel FANTOMAS. As Kim kindly notified me by e-mail, I can therefore "claim 1/100th of the nod." That's very kind... but for me, the real award was receiving the book and discovering that my first novel THROAT SPROCKETS had been chosen as one of the second 100 by Tananarive Due, a fellow novelist whose work I respect and whose enthusiasm I appreciate. It was an honor to be published in the company of so many talented colleagues, but to see my own work considered as part of a continuum that also included THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, ROSEMARY'S BABY and FROM HELL (to name a few) was one of the great thrills of my 30+ year career.
Here's hoping that Kim and Steve will be adding another Stoker to their trophy cases in the months ahead.
Friday, April 07, 2006
It's been a wonderful week here, celebrating Roger Corman's 80th birthday and seeing so many other, like-minded people attending the party and throwing parties of their own. Those who backtrack will notice that I announced the Blog-A-Thon the day after I posted a complaint about being too busy -- and yes, conceiving the Blog-A-Thon committed me to additional daily postings. But I met all my deadlines, the last of them being my SIGHT AND SOUND deadline early this morning. For my 37th "No Zone" column, I decided to stick with my current diet and review Retromedia Entertainment's THE ROGER CORMAN PUERTO RICO TRILOGY.
I won't pre-empt my column by going into a lot of detail here, but Retromedia has taken a fair amount of online heat for this release, which I found rather admirable. I know from talking to disc producer Fred Olen Ray that great pains were taken to digitally reframe LAST WOMAN ON EARTH shot-by-shot, because just slapping soft mattes over the picture (as was done theatrically in projection) tended to crop actors off at the eyes or forehead. Fred and partner Steve Latshaw also did wonderful things to digitally refresh the color and, I think, the movie (scripted by Robert Towne, who co-stars as "Edward Wain") is made stronger by all this restorative attention. LAST WOMAN is now more noticeable than ever as one of the most important works of Corman's first decade -- it can even be viewed as the second film in an apocalypse trilogy with DAY THE WORLD ENDED and GAS-S-S-S-S!.
I had never seen the Corman-produced BATTLE OF BLOOD ISLAND before, and had no idea that it was based on a novella by Philip Roth. Corman should start dropping Roth's name in his list of celebrity discoveries, as this movie was made a few years before Roth's first novel was published. It's an engrossing, compact little movie, effectively plain-spoken in its drama and direction (by Joel M. Rapp, whom the IMDb incorrectly declares dead since 1972). There's a live toucan in this film as a supporting player, and a dead toucan turns up in LAST WOMAN... I hope they weren't one and the same.
CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA looks worst of the three, but that just means it's a bit greyish with soft contrasts; I didn't find it nearly as bad as others seem to think, and it's certainly not the worst I've seen. Retromedia had to use an original element, without the added TV scenes, so their pickings must have been severely limited. (The TV clips included in the supplements look clearer, but had they used a TV print for all the footage, it might have disrupted the continuity of the music tracks.) I get a big kick out of this movie; it fails to deliver to the monster audience, and it's too beatnik-sophisticated for kids and straights, but as I say in my S&S column, it's probably the closest thing to a Thomas Pynchon novel ever committed to celluloid.
The audio commentaries (one by Joel Rapp, the other two by Betsy Jones-Moreland and Anthony Carbone) are all fun, interesting, and well-moderated by Ray and Latshaw. (I love Tony Carbone's story about how Corman made LAST WOMAN ON EARTH in color because he was offered an experimental color film stock for free!) The additional TV scenes, directed by Rapp and Monte Hellman, are presented separately and are more interesting and successful in this context. A bunch of Corman trailers are added as a bonus. None of the films are given anamorphic transfers, but they all zoom up on a widescreen fairly well. But the best thing about this set is that it gives us a new way of looking at these three extremely different films -- as a "trilogy" -- and it packages them in a manner that makes the story of how they were made as important as the features themselves.
An undeservedly controversial release. I recommend it.
Thursday, April 06, 2006
But seriously, folks... wow. According to our current count, Video WatchBlog had 31 fellow participants in yesterday's "Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon." When I first posted my own Corman Birthday blog -- at precisely 01:02:03 on 04/05/06, natch -- I was only able to list 4 other companions in my cause. I was a little worried that the short notice might have backfired. But you good people kept me adding new blog links to the page right up to the time I went to bed last night. When we were only up to 16, Green Cine Daily commented about the response to my Monday request, "You wouldn't believe the turn-out." But together, we managed to effectively double that number. I'm proud of us.
Furthermore, yesterday's celebration resulted in Video WatchBlog's highest daily attendance of the year, and possibly since its inception: 1,983 hits between 01:02:03 and the following Midnight. That's not even a full 24-hour period.
I'm especially delighted by the fact that, in visiting and reading the various blogs generated about Roger, that everyone seems to have instinctively gravitated to a different period of his work, or at least different films. Everything from ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS to MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH to HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD rated in-depth discussion. There was very little, if any, repetition -- and it was all very interesting and heartfelt, even though some of it was critical.
I haven't informed Roger of the Blog-A-Thon; it's my intention to print-off copies of everyone's blog and send them to him as a big package next week. But Joe Dante told me that he phoned Roger and "mentioned the explosion of affection on the blogosphere." When Joe surmised that bloggers were observing the day as a milestone, Roger cheerfully answered, "Well, it is a milestone... for me!"
I'm sure you all join me in wishing him many more.
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
ROGER CORMAN SWINGS (at 80)
Lyrics by Tim Lucas
(with apologies to Roger Miller)
Roger Corman swings like a pendulum do,
Vincent Price, Bruce Dern -- Shatner too!
Mobsters in Chicago, Richtofen and Brown,
Stock footage of a warehouse burning down.
Now, if you huff and puff and you finally shoot enough
You can make a whole movie in just two days, believe you me.
But here's a tip: before you take a trip, go up to Big Sur,
It's so pretty thur, oh...
Roger Corman swings like a pendulum do,
Dick Miller, Susan Cabot -- Dinocroc too!
See the Wild Angels go to Rock and Roll High,
Ray Milland rippin' out his X-ray eyes.
Now get your cameras ready, everybody go dutch,
Hang onto your wallet, we don't letting you spend too much
Add a social message, some boob shots, mind expenses
And no novocaine -- because it dulls the senses.
(OWWWWWW! Don't stop NOW!!!!!)
Roger Corman swings like a pendulum do,
They buried Babs alive and it's True! True! True!
Charles Dexter Ward and a sub-machine gun,
The rosy red cheeks of Angie Dickinson.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ROGER!_______________
I should have thought of this myself, but Dennis Cozzalio kindly used his blog to ask any bloggers complying with my "Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon" request to contact me with their URLs. I appreciate that gesture very much. I have no idea how many other bloggers might also be commemorating Roger's octogenarian phase, but if you are one of them -- or if you know of one or found one in your travels -- send me the information and I will gladly post a link here. In the meantime, here are the authors, names, and links of some blogs who have already confirmed with me their intention to participate. These guys knocked themselves out meeting this absurd deadline, so please give them the benefit of your attendance today:
1. Ray Young, Flickhead: http://flickhead.blogspot.com/
2. John McElwee, Greenbriar Picture Shows: http://greenbriarpictureshows.blogspot.com/
3. Dennis Cozzalio, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule: http://sergioleoneifr.blogspot.com/
4. Robert Cashill, Between Productions: http://robertcashill.blogspot.com/
5. Aaron Graham, More Than Meets the Mogwai: http://awcgfilmlog.blogspot.com/
6. Peter Nellhaus, Coffee Coffee and More Coffee: http://www.coffeecoffeeandmorecoffee.com
7. Dave Bohnert, filmZoneX: http://filmzonex.blogspot.com/
8. Marty McKee, Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot: http://pimannix.tripod.com/craneshot/
9. Lance Tooks, Lance Tooks' Journal: http://lancetooksjournal.blogspot.com/
10. Robert J. Lewis, Nadaland: http://nadalander.blogspot.com/2006/04/happy-80th-to-roger-corman.html
11. Steven Wintle, House of Irony: http://houseofirony.com/2006/04/05/roger-corman-is-everywhere/
12. Neil Sarver, The Bleeding Tree: http://bleeding-tree.blogspot.com/
13. Drew McWeeny, Moriarty's DVD Shelf: http://moriartylabs.typepad.com/moriartys_dvd_shelf/
14. Marty Langford, VertiBlog: http://martylangford.blogspot.com/
15. "Dr. Gangrene," Tales From the Lab: talesfromthelab.blogspot.com/
16. Karl Bauer, KGB Productions, Inc: http://kgbfilms.blogspot.com/
17. Brian O., Giant Monster Blog: http://giantmonsters.blogspot.com/
18. Christopher Stangl, The Exploding Kinetoscope: http://explodingkinetoscope.blogspot.com/
19. Jerry Lentz, Jerry Lentz Radio: http://www.jerrylentz.com/Beverlygray.mp3 (a radio interview with Roger Corman biographer, Beverly Gray)
20. Aleck Bennett, The Squeaky Reel: http://squeakyreel.blogspot.com/
21. Steve Monaco, Couch Pundit: http://blogs.citypages.com/amadzine/2006/04/happy_80th_birt.asp
22. Anonymous, Given to Hyperbole: http://giventohyperbole.blogspot.com/
23. El Thomazzo, Olhar Elétrico: http://eletriceye.blogspot.com/
24. Although not technically a blog, David Hudson's Green Cine Daily gave the "Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon" a very nice mention: http://daily.greencine.com/
25. Rod Barnett: http://blog.myspace.com/47619990
26. Mr. Ghoul: http://blog.myspace.com/mrghoul
27. Rhatfink: http://blog.myspace.com/rhatfink
28. Matt Zoller Seitz, The House Next Door: http://www.mattzollerseitz.blogspot.com/
29. Rod Barnett, Bloody Pit of Rod: http://pitofrod.blogspot.com/
30. Pete Roberts, Cult Clash: http://cultclash.iblogs.com/
31. Anonymous, That Little Round-Headed Boy: http://roundheadedboy.blogspot.com/2006/04/roger-corman-movie-poster.html
For those of you reading this entry after April 5, 2006, that's the date you'll need to look up to find the Corman Blog-A-Thon postings at each of the above addresses. Thanks to everyone who participated for making today's Blog-A-Thon a tremendous success!
"Look at it! It grows like a cold sore from the lip!" -- THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960)
Tuesday, April 04, 2006
And it won't happen again for another hundred years. (01:02:03 in the afternoon is technically 13:02:03.)
The following is a press release from Cataldi Public Relations that arrived in the WatchBlog's mailbox. I've altered the original text slightly to incorporate a few informative amendments and asides:
HDTV-owning horror fans will definitely want to mark their calendars (perhaps, in blood?) for Wednesday, April 5. Monsters HD, the 24-hour high-definition, all-monster movie channel from VOOM HD, will be marking the 80th birthday of the master of the low-budget flicks with a round-the-clock marathon of some of Corman’s classiest and kookiest celluloid. Monsters HD actually tackled all the remastering on this bevy of gore, 13 films in all including THE BRAIN EATERS, THE UNDEAD, THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN, DAY THE WORLD ENDED (in SuperScope!), HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1980 and 1996 versions!), PIRANHA (Joe Dante's classic, even better-looking than it is on DVD), TALES OF TERROR, and TEENAGE CAVEMAN (with a young, but not exactly teenage Robert “Man from U.N.C.L.E” Vaughn). Monsters HD is one of 15 high-def channels available on VOOM HD to Dish Network subscribers nationwide. For more fun, check out the network’s website – www.monstershd.com
Monsters HD also seems to have booked HOUSE (1986) and HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY (1987) as part of Roger's B-Day schedule. These were New World pictures and the IMDb says that Corman was an uncredited executive producer on them. Anyway, I've seen almost all of these pictures on Monsters HD at one time or another and can recommend all of these. THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN looks amazing, and not only when June Kenney is strutting around in her Old Norse miniskirt and go-go boots. It's far, far superior-looking than the Region 2 DVD.
And you bloggers, don't forget to join in the Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon tomorrow! I know this is short notice, but that's what's so Roger about it. Post an essay, a review, a tribute, a Top 10, a haiku, a fitful epigraph from the pages of Poe, a relevant still you've right-clicked off someone else's blog -- anything! Just do it and get it up on the screen. Don't worry about money. ("There is no money, Montresor. You haven't worked in seventeen years.") Monsters, social commentary, and breast nudity are all the currency you need. Now get clicking because we're opening on more than 500 screens Wednesday -- and I'm talking hardtops! Impressive, huh? And think of the points you'll score when you tell everybody you wrote your great Corman blog in a single day... or an hour... or less than five minutes. If you're reading this, you're already at your machine. You're already in the saddle, man. No hassles...
"We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded! And we wanna have a good time! And that's what we are gonna do! We're gonna have a good time... We're gonna have a party!" -- THE WILD ANGELS (1966)
Monday, April 03, 2006
This Wednesday, April 5, Roger Corman will celebrate his 80th birthday. One of the strange customs I discovered upon entering the world of blogdom is that, occasionally, the International Brotherhood of Bloggers (if there is such a thing) will suggest that everybody blog on the same topic on a given day. For instance, Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule is currently requesting that all bloggers participate in an Angie Dickinson "Blog-A-Thon" on April 19.
With this in mind... and, hey, I realize this is short notice... but I'd like to see a Roger Corman "Blog-A-Thon" this Wednesday. That gives you about as much time as Roger had to make THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. It doesn't have to be ambitious, just post a rough-and-ready blog in the true Corman spirit. It's the least we can all do for a man who has given us 50 years of entertainment... the man who infused exploitation with social commentary... the man who kept Vincent Price and Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre working when no one else would... the man who discovered everybody from Jack Nicholson to James Cameron to Jennifer Love Hewitt... the man who made Dick Miller a star... the man who sent Angie Dickinson the script for BIG BAD MAMA... the man, when all is said and done, who changed the face of Hollywood.
Every post I make here at Video WatchBlog this week is going to be on the subject of Roger William Corman. I feel it's the least I can do.
Anyway, fellow bloggers, there's the gauntlet. Consider it thrown down. I've got my eye on all of you. Don't make me pluck it out.
Sunday, April 02, 2006
I've also promised to deliver tomorrow some liner notes and graphics to Digitmovies for their upcoming Bava Anthology soundtrack CD of I VAMPIRI (Roman Vlad) and CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (Roman Vlad and Roberto Nicolosi), which I think will be another two-disc set, and another two-disc set of Enzo Masetti's dazzling music for HERCULES and HERCULES UNCHAINED. I'm told we can all toss out those old vinyl and CD boots of the Masetti scores; Digitmovies has received original studio tapes from CAM that unearth at least 75 minutes of music per film!
In addition to all this, my next "No Zone" column for SIGHT AND SOUND is due next Friday... I have no idea what I'll be reviewing yet. It seems I don't have time to watch anything in the evenings, except that blessed half-hour of old WHAT'S MY LINE? reruns on Game Show Network at 3:30 a.m. eastern. That's our decompression time.
All of this work needs to be done and out of the way within the next two weeks, at which time it's back to work on the Bava book.
Fool that I am, with my plate already piled so high, I started working on a new screenplay last week. I had received some promising news from my screenwriting agent, and that encouraging word was enough to spark me in that direction. I've had the idea for this film for awhile now; it was just the vaguest outline, really, but once I started putting it "on paper" (so to speak), I found that my ideas were more developed than I realized; the characters sprang readily to life, themes were becoming pronounced, and I was able to knock out a pretty solid opening 10 pages in half a day. Just to sit down and produce some fiction made me feel like a complete human being for this first time this year. But this was the same sort of energy that propelled Charlie Largent and me through our initial draft of THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES (then called SUNSHINE BLVD.) in less than two weeks; I know how rare that level of energy and inspiration is and I have the greatest respect for it. It's the rush I live for, as a writer. I'd love to press on with this script, because it's best to get these ideas down while they are young and vital and flowing, but I don't know where I'm going to find the time.
But I will.
Thursday, March 30, 2006
And you thought Criterion just "put stuff out on disc"!
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
FAMOUS MONSTER MOVIE ART OF BASIL GOGOS
Compiled and edited by Kerry Gammill and J. David Spurlock
Vanguard Productions (390 Campus Drive, Somerset NJ 08873, firstname.lastname@example.org), 160 pages (softcover, hardcover), 176 pages (deluxe hardcover), $24.95 (sc), $34.95 (hc) or $59.95 (dx hc) plus $6.95 shipping
THIS BEAUTIFULLY DESIGNED art book by Kerry Gammill and J. David Spurlock is the first to pay tribute to Basil Gogos, the Michelangelo of the Macabre. The basic edition, available in soft and hardcover, collects more than 150 color illustrations from Gogos' 40+ year career in book and magazine illustration (many reproduced from the original art) and more than 50 in B&W, while a deluxe edition limited to 600 slipcased copies, signed by the artist, adds an additional 16 page portfolio in color. Some may quibble that the portfolio contains a repeated image from the main pages, but it is substantially enlarged, further enhancing one's appreciation of what went into it. According to publisher J. David Spurlock, the deluxe edition was an instant sell-out with retailers and is now available only from Vanguard,while supply lasts. Those able to afford (and find) the limited edition are advised to shoot for the moon.
Despite the specificity of its title, FAMOUS MONSTER MOVIE ART OF BASIL GOGOS devotes about 40 of its pages to Gogos' paperback, Western, and men's magazine art, some of which is quite good, but none of which strikes the profound chords of his monster portraiture. Paging through the monster cover portraits collected here, one is continually struck by their amazing powers of reference.
The HOUSE OF USHER painting that started it all on the cover of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND #9 is a classic case in point: in its coarse caulky outlines, bleachy tonalities, and uncanny flecks of irrational color, it seems to define in visual terms the relationship between Roderick Usher's (Vincent Price's) disintegrating mind and family hearth. One of Gogos' greatest works, his rendering of Fredric March's Mr. Hyde for the cover of FAMOUS MONSTERS #62, facets the distorted, bedraggled features of Dr. Jekyll's alter ego with so many daubs of fantasmagorical color (lavenders, lime greens, sunny yellows) that we can imagine how Rouben Mamoulian's B&W film might have looked under the painterly direction of Mario Bava.
There is something about the way Gogos paints the cold blue light striking the combed hair of Christopher Lee's Count Dracula (MONSTERSCENE #3) that summons the entire flavor of the experience that is HORROR OF DRACULA. Gogos' uncommonly impressionistic, almost sketchy painting of Ingrid Pitt for the cover of MONSTERSCENE #8 captures the vivacity of its subject in an unexpected cocktail of colors. It's so alive that one's impression of the painting is one of startling brightness, though the work itself is more than half-based in dark hues. When tackling a subject as seemingly soulless as the prehistoric GORGO (FAMOUS MONSTERS #11 and 50), Gogos somehow imbues the image with a sense of gigantism and primordial power that one would imagine beyond the province of a page dimension usually reserved for characters of human proportion. Even something as rudimentary as a charcoal sketch of Henry Hull in WERE-WOLF OF LONDON miraculously captures the whole truth of the actor's body language and threatens to leap snarling off the page.
There are also many, many instances in which Gogos' oils and acrylics provide his subjects with atmospheric settings far in excess of any they ever received onscreen. Jonathan Frid makes his greatest bid for immortality as Barnabas Collins not on the videotape of DARK SHADOWS or in its theatrical spin-off, but in the oils of Gogos on the cover of FAMOUS MONSTERS #59. One aches to see the Technicolor Wolf Man movie starring Lon Chaney sampled on p. 156. Looking at King Kong on p. 153, his face looming with godly majesty and ungodly delight, we experience the same awe and revulsion and terror we imagine Ann Darrow must have felt when lashed to those sacrificial posts on Skull Island. For dyed-in-the-wool monster fans, almost every page of this book offers that kind of rich, emotional experience.
Despite a blandish accompanying text that doesn't fully succeed in revealing the man behind the art or the reasons for his singular affinity for these subjects, FAMOUS MONSTER MOVIE ART OF BASIL GOGOS keeps its promise of collecting and paying tribute to Gogos' work superbly. It covers his diversity as an artist both reasonably and fairly, while accentuating the monster paintings where he found his most lasting success. The art reproductions alone are worth the cost of the book in any edition. A fair amount of digital restoration was likely involved in refreshing these works for print, and it is to the designers' credit that such work is absolutely invisible.
Of course, Gogos is still living his story and his growing legacy may well inspire other books in time. Future volumes on the subject may cut deeper, but they will need to go to superhuman lengths to be more beautiful or more loving than this one.
Note: A longer and more detailed draft of this review will appear in VIDEO WATCHDOG #125.
Monday, March 27, 2006
Unfortunately, another passing to report. Correspondent Darren Gross has written to inform me that writer-producer-director Dan Curtis -- the formidable producer best known for the groundbreaking Gothic soap opera DARK SHADOWS and its spin-off feature films, and also the ratings-shattering made-for-TV movie THE NIGHT STALKER -- died this morning at 6:15 a.m. PST of brain cancer, diagnosed only four months ago. His wife of 54 years, Norma, succumbed to heart failure only two weeks earlier.
Curtis also produced the memorable adaptation of THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE starring Jack Palance, a later adaptation of DRACULA (also starring Palance) that greatly influenced Francis Coppola's later film version, and the well-remembered feature BURNT OFFERING starring Bette Davis and Oliver Reed.
A man whose name was once as synonymous with American trends in horror as that of Stephen King, Curtis' death occurs only a few months after the November cancellation of an attempted NIGHT STALKER series revival on ABC (which lasted only two months) and one month after the death of original series star Darren McGavin. For some years, DARK SHADOWS scholar Darren Gross has been working with Dan Curtis Productions to recover and restore uncut elements of the two DS features, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS and NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS. We hope that work will continue.
Correspondent Samuel Bréan has written to notify me of the death of Spanish writer-director Eloy de la Iglesia (GLASS CEILING, CANNIBAL MAN, NO ONE HEARD THE SCREAM, CLOCKWORK TERROR) last Thursday, at the age of 66. (The IMDb lists an apparently erroneous birth year of 1944.) Here is a link to some Spanish language reports.
It's amazing the degree to which one can put the noses of strangers out of joint just by writing candidly about something personal that doesn't even concern them. For people who admitted they hadn't read VW in years, or only thumbed through it at Borders on occasion, these milling souls felt fully authorized to broadcast some rather fresh opinions about me. One of them, with only five or six postings on the entire site to his credit, had devoted more than half of them to taking me down a few pegs. (I just paused in my typing to see if anything else worth reporting had happened in the thread, and it appears the administrator has locked it because things were starting to turn nasty!)
Let's drink to being a so-called public figure.
To correct an unfortunately common misunderstanding, I'm not "bitter." I've been somewhat depressed of late, but not about this. As I clearly stated, I was disappointed that my articles were not acknowledged in the Criterion's pocket-sized history of MR. ARKADIN annotation. No more, no less. I think they deserved a mention. That thought was on my mind when it was time for me to write a blog, so the blog turned out to be about that. As I hope my friends at Criterion know, I'm very enthusiastic about the set and looking forward to watching it and reviewing it. (Of course, I won't be mentioning my lack of mention in my review; that would be impertinent, but I don't believe it was an unreasonable passing subject for a personal soapbox like this.) As I also mentioned, it's possible someone mentioned my articles in a commentary track or somewhere else on the disc. If not... oh, well. At least I know, and you know -- right?
Also, I may feel worn-out at times, but as Glenn Erickson and my wife will tell you, I am the polar opposite of "worn-down." In the last 30 days, I've probably written 30 reviews, columns, blogs and essays, as well as parts of a couple of articles still in-progress, not counting God knows how many e-mails and message board postings. I knocked off yesterday's Sterling Hayden blog, a biggie, before breakfast. Before coffee. Of course, I have no right to be proud of any of this, even though self-satisfaction is all that most of it pays.
One of the e-mails I received this weekend offered the following counsel: "I have not read your initial essay that ran in VIDEO WATCHDOG, but from how you describe it in your blog, it sounds like the type of piece that runs often in the mag, an essay that's more of a shopping list of differences than a text exploring the films themes and ideas. It seems sort of weird that you would want your article to be included or mentioned in the box set. What's the point? Watching the films, any viewer can see what's missing or been added compared to the others. Hardly sounds like an 'important' text... You seem to do this a lot, especially in the blog - blow your own horn, congratulating yourself. It's a little unnerving at times. Let us, your fans, do that. Sorry if this sounds like a mean note, it's just that I read the blog religiously, and that last entry just sounded so weirdly indignant, it left a bad taste in my mouth."
Hey, pass the Listerine. Twenty-two double-columned pages which annotated, in full detail for the first time, the minute differences between three distinct versions of a classic Orson Welles film, and it "hardly sounds like an 'important' text." Ladies and gentlemen... my fan.
In the hope of clearing up any and all remaining misunderstandings, the purpose of Friday's MR. ARKADIN blog was three-fold. I wanted to 1) help generate anticipatory interest in the Criterion set, which I count as a very exciting release; 2) to do what I could to re-stake my 14 year-old claim in ARKADIN matters (which, sorry, I consider an important personal achievement), and 3) to let people know that these Welles issues of VW were still available, because the release of the Criterion set makes them relevant and timely once again. Since Friday, we've sold more than a dozen sets of the magazines, so some people got the idea. Without the blog, they'd still be sitting in inventory... so it was a good idea.
Oh yes, about the "self-aggrandizing." The participants on this shall-be-nameless message board somehow overlooked the fact that everybody blows their own horn, from the guy who finds a quarter on the sidewalk to every television channel on the dial. True, some people hire publicists to make it appear that other people are talking them up, but I can't afford that phony luxury. I do, however, have the advantage of publishing a magazine -- and our Kennel page exists to further compensate our contributors (of whom I am one) with a little personal publicity about their outside activities. Even though VW doesn't cover fiction, per se, we donated full page ad space to my novel THE BOOK OF RENFIELD -- Lord knows Simon and Schuster didn't have an advertising budget for it. The ad featured some enthusiastic critical blurbs, which is obligatory. I also used VW to announce when the novel and my Roger Corman bio script were optioned. It's called sharing good news. I think friendly readers accept such things in that spirit.
Perhaps when one publishes a monthly magazine, one's byline and constantly updated list of activities begins to look like "me, me, me" to the surly, the teeth-grinding, and the unoccupied. But there's a big difference between saying "This is what I've done" and "Look how great I am." I don't think I qualify for greatness, but I do think I write my butt off. My work is the better part of me and, through discipline and diligence, it stacks up. I take a natural, parental pride in what I produce. I'd like my work ethic, the quality of my work, and the good notices paid to my efforts to pay off in better opportunities, and this desire occasionally leads me to the indignity of self-promotion. An indignity, by the way, not exactly alien to Pablo Picasso, Alfred Hitchcock, Norman Mailer, William Castle, Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, John and Yoko, David Bowie, or Forrest J Ackerman -- to name only a few of the thousands of shameless self-promoters beloved by history, and possibly by you. Not that I'm saying I'm in their same league, only that I'm entitled to the same rights as they. And I think I avail myself of those rights with relative restraint. What, me Morrissey?
Anyway, enough about me. "I couldn't agree more," some of you good people are likely murmuring. For those of you who don't care for the occasional toot of my horn, I recommend that you employ common sense and avoid those of my outlets which are "first person" by nature and design, like my blog and my VW editorial.
Like it or not, I'm the only "first person" I have.