Sunday, May 21, 2006

I'm Telling You Now

I will admit that Freddie and the Dreamers weren't one of the best groups to emerge from the 1964 British Invasion, but while the other English bands of the time were more exciting to listen to, or to see on television, none were funnier to watch. The Manchester-based group wasn't particularly musically inventive -- in fact, their few hits ("I'm Telling You Now", "You Were Made For Me") were all written in waltz-time or something close to it -- but they won my heart, and many others, by wearing their winky, eye-batting, high-kicking, merry-making charm on their sleeves. Chubby Checker may have topped the charts with "The Twist," but Freddie and the Dreamers topped the charts by acting like twits -- years before Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Freddie Garrity (right), the group's zany, gravity-defying frontman, was also one of the very first pop stars to have his own name and unique style of dancing commemorated in a hit song:

Kick your feet up
Swing your arms up too
Move your head both ways like you see me do
Then just repeat to the swinging beat
Do the Freddie!

Silly twaddle, to be sure. But "Do the Freddie," written by Dennis Lambert and Lou Courtney, was very catchy and it was a dance that kids could easily do without feeling self-conscious. I remember seeing it performed on school playgrounds and even at dances for years after the Top 20 song had vanished from the radio.

On a more pretentious level, you could say that this song (along with Ricky Nelson's earlier "Teenage Idol" -- a hit that Ricky personally hated to sing) marked the beginning of rock's self-mythification. Without lyrics like these to blaze the trail, could Jim Morrison's Lizard King have been able to do "anything"?

(Some interesting things I learned at the All Music Guide: "Do The Freddie" was never issued on record in the UK, nor did any of the Dreamers play on the record. And the aforementioned Chubby Checker was the first to pay tribute to Freddie's moves, beating him to the punch by recording a different song, "Let's Do the Freddie," written by Doc Pomus and Dave Appell! Freddie, being the real deal, had the hit, though.)

All this cute trivia is my way of beating around the sad news that Freddie Garrity passed away two days ago, on May 19, at the age of 65. Apparently Freddie had suffered a heart attack in 2004, after completing a British Invasion tour here in America, and his health never recovered; he'd been wheelchair-bound for the last two years and finally succumbed to circulatory problems. (Original Dreamers drummer Bernie Dwyer died at the end of 2002.)

Freddie appeared with the Dreamers in one of my favorite "Beach Party" knock-offs, OUT OF SIGHT (1966, featuring the unjustly forgotten Jonathan Daly and Norman "Woo Woo" Grabowski), and he earned a place in the fantastique, as the star of a weird British kids show called LITTLE BIG TIME, which ran from 1971-73 and sounds like fun. You can read/see more about it here. A live Freddie performance from 2000, played with a new Dreamers line-up, can be enjoyed on Image Entertainment's DVD, THE BRITISH INVASION RETURNS.

The image of Freddie Garrity and the infectious joy he spread will always be fond memories of my childhood. But when all is said and done, what I treasure most about his legacy is that he once penned this single, adorable stanza:

You were made for me
Everybody tells me so
You were made for me
Don't pretend that you don't know.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

What's My Time Line?

I have probably spoken here before about my addiction to Game Show Network's nightly (3:30 a.m., eastern) reruns of the classic WHAT'S MY LINE? program, hosted by the impeccable John Charles Daly. While watching last night's installment, Donna and I noticed something strange at the end of the show as announcer Johnny Olson said the most unusual closing words, "This program was pre-recorded." We promptly rechecked the beginning of the show, when he usually announces, "Live from New York," and true enough, it wasn't there... and it was spoken at the beginning of the last four episodes we have presently archived on our hard drive. Donna had a theory, which I promptly checked out on the episode guide at the IMDb, and her theory was correct.

Apparently last night's episode was the first to be aired in the wake of the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The host and panel show no inkling of this important blow to American history, as it was one of the program's rare pre-recorded episodes, taped earlier -- on November 3, I understand -- as a means of giving the panel some time off over the coming Thanksgiving weekend. (Interestingly, the first guest was none other than Colonel Harland Sanders, whose identity as the living logo of Kentucky Fried Chicken not one of the panelists recognized... which shows you how much KFC has grown in the past 40 years!) However, according to what we've been able to find out, the episode running tonight will be the first one aired live in the wake of this national tragedy. It should make fascinating viewing for anyone interested in American history, sociology, and pop culture.

The original WHAT'S MY LINE? transcends its status as a game show for several reasons. Some of them have to do with the unfailing civility and wit of the participants, and the little through-lines that carry from one show to the next -- Bennett Cerf's weekly search for the pun that will most agonize host Daly, Daly's unflagging fondness for his Tilton School alma mater, the interesting choices of fill-in panelists (Woody Allen, Peter Cook, Tony Randall [who recently appeared with head shaved in the wake of filming THE 7 FACES OF DR. LAO], and Martin Gabel, the actor husband of regular Arlene Francis, to name a few), and certainly, the show's occasional encounters with tragedy and near-tragedy.

In 1956, the show's amusing regular panelist, droll radio comedian Fred Allen, died of a heart attack, and his loss was strongly felt for awhile. Recently, the GSN episodes came to a point in the run when regular Dorothy Kilgallen suddenly began to suffer from facial spasms, evidently a side effect of alcohol and pill abuse, and disappeared from the show for the duration of her rehabilitation, during which time she was replaced by Phyllis Newman.

Then, about a week ago, the GSN reruns featured a series of episodes that coincided with Arlene Francis' 1963 automobile accident, in which her car collided with another, resulting in the death of the other driver. The consequences of the accident were never mentioned, but the show in which John Daly announced the accident, which had just happened, with Francis' fellow panelists looking shaken, was compelling television -- not least of all to everyone's valiant determination to give their viewers a game show worth watching. The episodes that followed found Francis replaced by various fill-ins, including Phyllis Newman, and she eventually returned with her right arm in a sling. A few shows later, a Sunday night live broadcast happened to coincide with Francis' 56th birthday and everyone (audience included) joined together to sing a very loving "Happy Birthday."

None of us who saw it will forget the most tragic of all the WML episodes, the one in which John Daly and company had to announce, and carry on in the wake of, Dorothy Kilgallen's untimely death at age 52. Her passing is commonly viewed an accident brought about by mixing alcohol and seconol, but in later years, the theory has been proposed that she was deliberately silenced after announcing she had obtained evidence that would blow the lid off the Kennedy assassination story. This theory is made somewhat more compelling by two associated facts: the notebooks containing her findings were never found, and Kilgallen's closest friend, with whom she may have shared or entrusted this evidence, also died an early death around the same time. Therefore it could be said that the drama of this particular series through-line, almost two years in duration, commences with tonight's broadcast. But as anyone who lived through those days will tell you, America became a different place in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. Actually, it was Americans who changed, because the media involve us in this and still-coming tragedies in unprecedented depth and proximity.

It was on tragic occasions such as these that the WML cast showed themselves to be not merely glib and charming, but also heroic individuals who could rise to any challenge and perform with grace under pressure. They soldiered on through the worst of times, and one's heart went out to them all the more because of it.

POSTSCRIPT added 5/21, 5:21 a.m.: The episode aired earlier tonight, performed live on December 8, 1963 -- some two weeks after the assassination -- made absolutely no reference to the national tragedy, but the regulars did seem uncustomarily tense and a bit rattled. Lastly, here is a link to an incredible WHAT'S MY LINE? site that features complete details, descriptions, and even reviews of every episode!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Revolutionary Times Require Revolutionary Films

Eric Rohmer is one of my favorite directors, but I don't think I've written much, if anything, about his work or what it means to me. His good name first came to my attention as a cheap joke in Arthur Penn's NIGHT MOVES; "I saw a Rohmer film once," says Gene Hackman's Harry Moseby; "it was kind of like watching paint dry." Penn later told an interviewer that he regarded Rohmer as "a wonderful filmmaker," that the opinion expressed was not his own, but rather one that he included to help movie-literate audiences understand where Harry was coming from, as a character. To this day, I think more people in America have heard that Rohmer's films are like watching paint dry than have actually seen them -- or NIGHT MOVES, for that matter.

Rohmer is best-known for two film series, his "Six Moral Tales" (1963-72) and "Tales of Four Seasons"(1990-98), and a few of his uncollected features of the 1980's -- LE BEAU MARRIAGE, FULL MOON IN PARIS, SUMMER aka THE GREEN RAY, and BOYFRIENDS AND GIRLFRIENDS -- are unofficially bound by the commonality of protagonists discontented with the lives they have chosen for themselves. I saw my first two Rohmer films -- MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S (1969, which seems older than it is by at least a few years) and CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON (1972) -- at the University of Cincinnati a year or so after I saw NIGHT MOVES, and was unexpectedly enchanted. I was especially taken with MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S, whose incidental uses of chance, theology, and coincidence resonated with a good deal of the French literature I was reading in translation at the time, the works of André Gide particularly. And without the delightful example of CLAIRE'S KNEE (1970), I might never have conceived of a throat fetish and written a certain novel.

For whatever reason, perhaps the largely collective nature of Rohmer's filmography, I have always been delinquent in keeping up with his stand-alone works. Sometimes these are truly minor (FOUR ADVENTURES OF REINETTE AND MIRABELLE, 1987), but they can also be transcendant (1978's PERCEVAL, the only Rohmer film I included in my Top Ten list for SIGHT AND SOUND, is one of these, though I have seen it only once and am frankly afraid to watch it again). Something I once said about Rohmer's films comes back to me: that, every time I saw a new one, I had the feeling of windows opening in my mind and letting a wonderful, warm breeze in, relaxing while also stimulating my gray matter -- and this is true to some extent of all the films I've mentioned thus far. The other night, I finally caught up with THE LADY AND THE DUKE, Rohmer's 2001 offering, and it's the first one I've seen that didn't make me feel this way. On the contrary, it gave the impression of windows that were locked, with heavy velvet curtains drawn, as the people huddled within spoke urgently of life-and-death matters they could not possibly anticipate and over which they had no control.

THE LADY AND THE DUKE stars Lucy Russell (pictured above) and Jean-Claude Dreyfus in an intimate drama situated during the French Revolution, based on Grace Elliott's JOURNAL OF MY LIFE DURING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION. It's a far cry from Rohmer's usual material -- which is typically about the problems of contemporary young people and the difficulties of finding and holding onto love -- being about a Scot aristocrat, Grace Elliott, whose social status in her beloved adopted France endangers her on the outbreak of revolution, and whose ongoing friendly relationship with a former lover, the Duke of Orleans (Dreyfus), becomes even more compromising as they find themselves on opposite sides in the question of whether or not the King should be executed. Through performance alone, the film potently conveys the unpredictable, seismic quality of a country whose government has been violently overthrown -- and the sickening futility of attempting to navigate safe passage through volatile times of rhetoric and paranoia on a rudder of logic or common sense. The key to survival, it argues, is not by bending whichever way the wind blows, but by remaining true to one's own beliefs -- and, if necessary for the survival of something larger than oneself, dying by them.

THE LADY AND THE DUKE is reminiscent of PERCEVAL to the extent of its willfully artificial presentation. PERCEVAL's greatness lies in its ability to conjure all the necessary details of its 12th century story by engaging the viewer's imagination; the world actually given us on screen are no more realistic than the set flats you would see in a stage play. In THE LADY AND THE DUKE, Rohmer uses CGI to recreate 18th century France in a series of mural-like tableaux. The effect is to amplify the story's human element, which would have been crushed if set against a more believably three-dimensional social tumult.

THE LADY AND THE DUKE isn't my favorite Rohmer film, but days after viewing it, I find myself still thinking about it, chewing it over, feeling haunted, moved, and also frightened by parts of it. I've seen I don't know how many decapitations in the movies, both badly done and more realistically than I care to see, but Grace Elliott's encounter with the severed head of a beloved friend chills me more than any I've seen since Polanski's MACBETH. But the greatest horror of this film isn't graphic, but rather its unsettling air of premonition. There is more of pre-Revolution France in present-day America than many of us may want to admit -- the widening gulf between the poor and the wealthy, the prejudices inherent in our government's handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the favor being shown for big business over the rights and best interests of the common man, all these things surfaced in my thoughts even while watching the film. I don't know how THE LADY AND THE DUKE plays to the French, but as an American, I found it food for thought -- bitter perhaps, but also nutritious.

Sony Pictures' release of the film is overpriced at $29.95, but I was able to score it from DVD Deep Discount during one of their sales at a very reasonable price (which may have actually been "free"). The transfer is a bit tight, indicating a 1.66:1 ratio given a 1.78:1 reformatting, but hardly unwatchable, and the Dolby 5.1 track is rich in grace notes and dramatic incident.

PS: Welcomely coinciding with my viewing of THE LADY AND THE DUKE, our friends at Criterion today announced their August DVD release titles, which include the following sure-fire contender for the most important box set of the year:


The multifaceted, deeply personal dramatic universe of Eric Rohmer has had an effect on cinema unlike any other. Gently existential, hyperarticulate character studies set against vivid seasonal landscapes, Rohmer’s audacious and wildly influential series defined a genre. A succession of jousts between fragile men and the women who tempt them, the Six Moral Tales unleashed onto the film world a new voice, one that was at once sexy, philosophical, modern, daring, nonjudgmental, and liberating.


SPECIAL FEATURES: New, restored high-definition digital transfers, supervised and approved by director Eric Rohmer; exclusive new video conversation with Eric Rohmer and Barbet Schroeder; the short films "Nadja in Paris", "Charlotte and Her Steak", "Une étudiante d’aujourd’hui", "The Camber", and "Véronique and Her Dunce"; archival interviews with Rohmer, actors Jean-Claude Brialy, Béatrice Romand, Laurence de Monaghan, and Jean-Louis Trintignant, film critic Jean Douchet, and producer Pierre Cottrell; a video Afterword with filmmaker and writer Neil LaBute; and original theatrical trailers.

PLUS: A book featuring the original stories by Eric Rohmer, and a booklet featuring “For a Talking Cinema” by Eric Rohmer, a memoir from cinematographer Nestor Almendros, and six new essays.

CAT: CC1640D. UPC: 7-15515-01912-5. ISBN: 1-55940-989-4. SRP: $99.95. Street date: 8/15/06

Fox Lorber's VHS and DVD issues of the "Six Moral Tales" films have always been stale-looking and sorely lacking in extras, so this release carries the clarion call of a godsend, and the book containing the original stories by Rohmer is a magnificent addition.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Postcard from Tim

Greetings from Cincinnati! Am feeling much happier and more focused since I stopped compulsively posting on movie message boards. Donna says the Bava book is now moving ahead by giant leaps -- the whole book is now indexed and she's moved on to the illustration insert phase. I'm joining her later today to page through the total layout and decide if any pictures need replacing or to be moved to different pages to better complement the text. My novel-in-progress feels alive again for the first time this year, and probably longer; I've been working on it almost full-time for over a week, which is why I haven't much time for reviewing or blogging. The work is going well; a chapter that has always given me trouble now sings. After working as much as I could on the third act, I've gone back to the beginning to re-read and re-write and work my way toward the portions that remain to be written. It's bringing me great joy. I wrote the first draft of this novel in 1978, and it's gone through various drafts since, but now it's finally gelling into the funny, bizarre and meaningful book I always knew it could be. So I find myself in the odd position of preparing not one, but two books which have been in the works, or in my head, for thirty years! Of course, novel-writing is as sedentary as any other writing, probably moreso, so my earlier stated plans to better organize my life (and unclutter the attic) have temporarily fallen by the wayside. I, we, will get back to that when these books are done. I wish it was easier to structure each day, or even each week, with more variety -- work (writing, viewing, reading), house work, exercise, and the all-too-easily-overlooked fun -- but work is where my days tend to start and end. Anyway, this is how I want to spend the last days of my forties: bringing this novel closer to completion. It's probably unlikely that I'll finish by my birthday, but I plan to keep going as if it is possible, at least perfecting what's already written and laying the groundwork for the rest. Sorry I can't recommend any new movies, but any day I spend reviewing something for this blog takes too much wind out of my other sails, so the only thing I'm watching at the moment with any regularity is Season 2 of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER.


Monday, May 15, 2006

Val Guest, 1911-2006

The writer-director of several of the most important science fiction films to emerge prior to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), Val Guest died last week on May 10 at the age of 94. As any cinematic Anglophile will tell you, Guest was also a bit more than just that, having written more than 80 different pictures and directed a somewhat lesser number of well-tuned, high-toned thrillers, adventures, comedies, dramas, and musicals. But those of us who were reared on fantasy films in the 1950s remember him as the fellow who was inspired by such American films as THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) to evolve a genre mostly about rayguns and spaceships into a realm of exciting, speculative, yet often sobering ideas. Crackling with theory and argument, and also conscious of human frailty, his films had a steely intelligence and an air of pregnant possibility which the genre often promised but had seldom known.

A director since 1943, Guest's first step into the fantastic was a film I've still never seen, 1951's MR. DRAKE'S DUCK, which the IMDb describes as a British, science fiction variation on GREEN ACRES. (I obviously have to see it.) But his name began to mean something to devotées of the genre with the arrival of Hammer's THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955, initially known in America as THE CREEPING UNKNOWN). Based on the BBC teleplay by Nigel Kneale. Guest's script compressed the six-part serial into a tight 82 minutes and made the most of a low budget by having Brian Donlevy (as Professor Bernard Quatermass) and a crew of supportive British talent fire speculative dialogue back and forth at one another. Here Guest also guided actor Richard Wordsworth through a memorable performance as Victor Caroon, a returning experimental space pilot who physically absorbs his fellow crewmen, along with part of a cactus, attacks a pre-teen Jane Asher, and morphs into a gelid nightmare that hides out inside Westminster Abbey. Wordsworth's performance is truly eerie and poignant, on a level that few actors achieved in the genre after the heydays of Karloff and Lugosi.

Guest was subsequently retained by Hammer to adapt and direct QUATERMASS 2 (1957, aka ENEMY FROM SPACE), which upped the ante of quality and speculation despite having a less explicit monster to show. It was the first British science fiction film to use the genre to venture criticism of government and, thus, became a sort of English parallel to Don Siegel's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Guest effectively kept the "monsters" almost entirely offscreen in THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN OF THE HIMALAYAS (also '57), starring Peter Cushing and Forrest Tucker, based on Kneale's teleplay "The Creature." In 1958, Hammer hired Guest to film THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND, a gritty Japanese Prisoner of War drama that proved successful enough to launch its own short-lived franchise.

In 1961, working with another talented writer (Wolf Mankowitz, of THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED), Guest co-wrote and directed THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, a still-powerful account of the global nervous breakdown that occurs after nuclear tests of two global powers knocks the planet off its orbit and hurtling toward the sun. As with Guest's earlier films, urgent dialogue led to potent performances -- in this case from Leo McKern, Edward Judd, and Janet Munro -- and an adult complexity all too rare at the time to fantasy cinema. Guest would work with Mankowitz again on 1965's WHERE THE SPIES ARE, starring David Niven and Françoise Dorleac, one of the best of the early Bond knock-offs.

Guest's work with Niven aided his selection as one of the five directors (and, it's said, ultimately the principal one) of 1967's gonzophrenic Bond-for-all CASINO ROYALE, also co-scripted by Wolf Mankowitz. After decades of being critically maligned, the uneven film has started to evolve into less of a guilty pleasure in recent years, which may say something about its post-modern qualities, its jam-packed MAD Magazine-spoof patina, or simply how far we have fallen. Guest followed it with another, more serious spy effort, ASSIGNMENT K (1968, starring Stephen Boyd, which reunited Guest and Leo McKern), and a wholly original project, a sci-fi musical called TOOMORROW (1970), starring Olivia Newton-John and featuring Harrison Marks model Margaret Nolan.

After directing WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970), which received one of Hammer's few Oscar nominations (for Jim Danforth's stop-motion animation effects), Guest suffered some of the slings and arrows of a backsliding British film industry, succumbing to campy skinflick comedies (AU PAIR GIRLS, CONFESSIONS OF A WINDOW CLEANER) and television assignments. Guest directed his last film, THE BOYS IN BLUE, in 1982. Since then, he and his wife of more than 50 years, Yolande Donlan (an actress who appeared in several of his films), have personally endeared themselves to film fans by lending their charm and wit to numerous retrospectives, festivals and conventions.

Any career in which the likes of HELL IS A CITY, EXPRESSO BONGO and THE FULL TREATMENT (aka STOP ME BEFORE I KILL!) are reduced to also-rans must be counted an extraordinary success. But as long as science fiction remains a cinema of ideas, conscience and consequence, the spirit of Val Guest will always occupy an honored place at the table.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Sus obsesiones son mis obsesiones

Video WatchBlog is now well into its sixth month of activity, but until today, I don't think the name of Jess Franco has ever arisen here. This is strange because, as everyone knows, Franco is a central figure to VIDEO WATCHDOG; he was the subject of VW's first in-depth feature article ("How To Read a Franco Film") and VW has always striven to stay on top of his mercurial filmography, which amounts to more than 180 titles as a director, not counting numerous variants.

Today I must invoke Franco's name because (bring out the trombones!) it's the great man's 76th birthday, according to most references. He claims to be somewhat younger, but Franco revels in self-mythification and knows full well that most of his claims are preposterous. He's not just full of it; his claim that several of his films were based on novels he published under the name of David Khune, none of which have ever surfaced, has been reasoned as a tip of the hat to one of his favorite authors, H.P. Lovecraft, himself fond of window-dressing his horror stories with citations of various faux- and meta-fiction. It's this sort of delicious, costs-nothing patina that Franco and his knowing fans see as production value.

I was once one of many American critics who disregarded Franco's work at first glance, but somehow his work clicked with me when I first saw THE LOVES OF IRINA (now known as FEMALE VAMPIRE on domestic DVD) , VENUS IN FURS, and VAMPYROS LESBOS. I subsequently became the first American critic to write extensively and seriously about Franco's work, and one of the co-authors of OBSESSION: THE FILMS OF JESS FRANCO, the long-out-of-print and most-hotly-collectable book on the subject. Certainly my own search for elusive and definitive cuts of Franco's work helped to fuel my imagination in the direction of THROAT SPROCKETS, and I think most people-in-the-know can see that Sadilsa was my fictional projection of Franco, while that novel's Dark Lady was a similar projection of Soledad Miranda.

Most people have difficulty "getting into" Franco, as I did, and I'm not altogether sure why this barrier exists. I suspect it has something to do with challenging traditional precepts of how films "should" be made, but I know that watching a Franco film properly requires more from a viewer than receptive passivity. This is why I admittedly go through periods when I find myself absolutely obsessed with Franco's work and times when I don't feel up to the task of meeting it head-on. But there is no time when I am not an ardent Franco collector. In defense of this claim, here's a silly little impulse poem I wrote last December, after adding some new Franco titles to my collection, and posted at the Latarnia: Fantastique International forums:


When I count my blessings at Christmas time

I reflect on many things sublime

I'm a lucky sort of son of a gun

But when it comes to passions, I have one...

I've gotta lotta stuff, as much as you please

I've got my bread, my wine, my cheese

I've got my health, got no disease

All the horror fanzines I could seize

I've got CD shelves as tall as some trees

My widescreen set is the bee's knees

I'm having too much fun to catch any Z's

The books I've collected make me cry "Jeez!"

I like 'em all as much as you please

But I LOVE my Franco DVDs.

I was organizing to save some space

Wanted to have all my Francos in one place

But I couldn't fit 'em all in the same banker's box

It took two or three, stacked up like blocks

My collection is nothing at which to sneeze

There's close to a hundred, stacked twos and threes

They come from here and overseas

I've got Spanish and German and Japanese

I've written about 'em with expertise

I could hug 'em all till we turned Siamese

When I get a new one, my smile wants to freeze

My friends wanna be my estate's trustees

How those "Newstand Only" titles tease...

'Cause I LOVE my Franco DVDs.

One of these Mondays, I'm going to surprise you all by announcing an all-Jess Franco week here at Video WatchBlog. I can't do it this week or next, or the one after, because I'm busy with book projects at least through the end of the month, but someday. That's a promise.

In the meantime -- Happy Birthday, Tio Jess, wherever you are! Sus obsesiones son mis obsesiones... and I can't imagine my life or the world of film without them. I wish you long life and an even longer filmography!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Quoth Meiko Kaji: Nevermore

Few movie directors have ever loved a woman's face with the intensity that Shunya Ito loved the face of actress Meiko Kaji. His fascination with the fire of reproach in her bottomlessly black eyes is potently communicated in the three "Female Prisoner #701" films he directed: FEMALE PRISONER #701 SCORPION (1972, available on Tokyo Shock DVD), followed by two others released in 1973, FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION JAILHOUSE 41 (alas, Image Entertainment's essential DVD is now out of print and commanding big bucks) and FEMALE PRISONER #701 SCORPION: BEAST STABLE. Those of us who saw the first two have been on tenterhooks while waiting for the rest of the series to show up, and now Tokyo Shock -- a subsidiary of Media Blasters -- has finally released BEAST STABLE on DVD for the first time, along with the series' fourth and final entry, FEMALE PRISONER #701 SCORPION: GRUDGE SONG (likewise 1973), directed by series one-timer Yasyharu Hasebe.

Let's see that face again.

Somehow the passive beauty of Meiko Kaji's face comes to fuller life when her character, Nami Matsushima (also known as Sasori, or "Scorpion"), is holding something sharp or standing victoriously in a pool of blood. But it comes to fullest life when she's looking over her shoulder, her dark eyes burning with hateful promise.

Sasori is part of the cinema's great lineage of avenging angels, like Myrna Loy in THIRTEEN WOMEN (1932), Jeanne Moreau in THE BRIDE WORE BLACK (1968), the ghostly little girl in Mario Bava's KILL, BABY... KILL! (1966), and of course, Uma Thurman's Beatrix Kiddo in KILL BILL, VOLUMES 1 and 2 (2003-04) -- a diptych clearly inspired by the "Female Prisoner Scorpion" films and Meiko Kaji's other vengeful showcase, LADY SNOWBLOOD (1973). Sasori is also the most poignantly, assertively, and positively feministic of these characters, though it helps her status that not a single man inhabiting her universe is anything but the lowest scum imaginable, regardless of social or official position. Like most of those other characters, Sasori stays mostly mute as she sets about evening a progressively cosmic scorecard (Beatrix Kiddo, being a creation of Quentin Tarantino, has much to say), so one never gets a proper sense of Meiko Kaji's abilities as an actress. But as screen presences go, she has a star quality that gets deeply under one's skin -- not least of all because, no matter how sordid the material, she never loses her dignity or her positive charge.

His name is not as well known here in America as those of Seijun Suzuki, Kinji Fukasaku, or even Nobuo Nakagawa, but I daresay that Shunya Ito was, or is, the most consistently powerful Japanese stylist of the bunch. The Japanese industry was clearly aware of his talent, too; the Toei trailer for the first "Female Prisoner Scorpion" film mentions him by name while stressing the importance of his debut, and the trailer for BEAST STABLE, made only one year later, hails it as the "masterpiece of his career." (Yes, already.) Perhaps his star burned too brightly, and perhaps it's a fault of research, but the IMDb shows BEAST STABLE followed by a nearly ten-year gap in his filmography.

I have not yet watched GRUDGE SONG, but for anyone wanting my recommendation for one or two handy, single-disc definitions of dazzling and audacious low-budget film technique, I would point to Mario Bava's BLACK SABBATH (or BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, take your pick) and, now, FEMALE PRISONER #701 SCORPION: BEAST STABLE. I would gladly assign credit to the cameraman, but the film itself doesn't appear to do so. From beginning to end, the visual invention is ceaseless though, miraculously, it never upstages the emotions of the story, which is functionally more of a multi-faceted character study than either of the previous two films. In fact, it's probably because this film is more intimately pitched that its technique is more compelling than in either of the earlier films, which are just as riveting in their own right.

The scene above is a classic example. Sasori, an escaped convict, is wanted by the law and is the particular quarry of a detective (Mikio Narita) who lost his arm while foolishly attempting to apprehend her on a subway train. Here, Sasori's presence is conveyed by a wall of almost preposterously sexy "Wanted" posters while her silhouette deals pointedly with the latest in a series of would-be captors. Later in her plight, she takes to hiding out in the sewers of Tokyo, where a friend (a hooker who sells glimpses of her sex, illuminated by however many matches she's paid to light) summons her by dropping matches through the grating of a manhole cover. The image of these matches plummeting through the darkness as she calls "Sasori... Sasori..." is so poignant and haunting that the director cannot resist increasing the speed and number of the matches falling, until the image becomes absolutely hallucinatory, a literal torch song. A throwaway scene in a nightclub is almost frighteningly hopped-up by frame-dropping, and even the dullest dialogue scene sticks in the memory due to a lamp that's allowed to swing in the foreground.

And then there are the other characters -- all tragic, some hateful. The aforementioned hooker, Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe), lives with an older brother reduced by a work-related accident to a sex-crazed vegetable. Incestuous rape has seasoned into numb, incestuous submission and unwanted pregnancy. Yuki meets Sasori in a cemetary; lying on the ground after sex-for-cash, a grating sound draws her attention to a nearby headstone, where she sees the fugitive glowering at her from afar, ferally holding in clenched teeth a man's severed arm, to which she is handcuffed, viciously filing the chain against the edge of the grave marker! (That's another thing about Shunya Ito's films: the story content is seldom less delirious than the technique.) There is another pregnant prostitute, too, and the most difficult sequence to endure counterpoints the two women's abortions -- one voluntary, the other not. It's not a graphic sequence, but the screams of the woman who wants to keep her baby are as bone-piercing as an arctic wind. Then there is the evil prostitution ringleader Katsu (Reisen Lee), an ugly, cackling, cross-eyed woman garbed in raven's feathers -- in each of the films, Sasori's beauty is contrasted with the ugliness of some opposing female -- who keeps a cage of ravens as a place of punishment. She is thrilled when Sasori (whom she knew in prison) falls into her clutches, but Sasori has her revenge... largely because she gets deeply under Katsu's skin, too.

The final act is gripping in the fever pitch of its delirium, but also irritating to the extent that it introduces minor details that compromise the film's otherwise perfect design. It involves Sasori being arrested for arson (we never learn the circumstances) and enacting two final acts of vengeance from behind bars. What is great about this section is that her presence in the prison may be a delusion of one of the inmates, driven crazy, and her persecution may not actually occur other than on the abstract planes of symbolism or madness. But a needless, penultimate voice-over suggests that Sasori really was there, an assertion that plays hob with the episode's delicious ambiguity and screams "studio interference." (Was this why Shunya Ito walked away from the series?) Despite this, the director follows the voice-over with one last tour de force -- a wholly visual, decorous moment that exists outside reality and even outside filmic reality -- that reasserts his artistic control and ties just the right bow around the overall package.

To the very end, FEMALE PRISONER SCORPION: BEAST STABLE holds one spellbound, enamored, disgusted, amused, and constantly on edge. It's an astonishing piece of work.

Monday, May 08, 2006

A New Chapter

I haven't written here in a few days and I don't really feel like posting today either, but I wanted people to know what's going on with me.

Last Friday, a good friend of ours, Wayne Perry, died in his sleep at the age of 54. That link will lead you to a spendid memorial article that appeared in THE CINCINNATI POST, for which he worked as a features editor, and it will tell you how loved and respected he was as a man and as a newspaperman. Donna and I met Wayne through his wife Jan, a POST columnist whom we've known for about twelve years, ever since she worked the late shift at a local service bureau we used to employ. Though Donna and I are both native Cincinnatians, we know fairly few local people and socialize with even fewer. Wayne and Jan were one of only two couples whom we regularly see; they would occasionally invite us to join them for dinner when they were assigned to do restaurant reviews for the paper. Consequently, nearly every single one of our favorite restaurants in town was first experienced in their warm and chatty company.

When Jan called to tell us that Wayne had died -- according to the coroner, of an advanced yet undiagnosed heart disease -- we felt shaken... then grieving and very, very sorrowful for Jan... and then we became very fatigued and very scared. As the mental shock faded on Saturday, we began to feel bodily injured by the news. Donna said she felt like she had been punched in the stomach; I felt like I had been punched in the chest. We found it hard to do much else other than to sit and stare, reminisce, or nap to recharge our batteries.

Counting up all the times we'd actually met and spent time with Wayne, we were surprised to realize it was maybe only ten or twelve times at most, but all of our get-togethers had been undertaken in the spirit of enjoying good food, good company, and good conversation. But above all, the impact of Wayne's death had most to do with the fact that he and Jan reminded us very much of ourselves. They were writers and collectors who lived in a big, rambling old turn-of-the-century house, who worked together, who had a great many friends but not much time to share with them, who worked too hard. Wayne was an easy-going guy with a wonderfully dour sense of humor, but he often seemed frazzled by the responsibilities of his job.

Our emotions exhausted us, but as Saturday wore on, we felt the need to take some kind of action. Donna realized that she hadn't put anything in place to help me make sense of her duties and our financial obligations, if she were to predecease me, so she embarked on writing a computer program that would answer any questions I might have. We also talked about material possessions and what burdens they can be to survivors in events such as this, so I took to the attic and embraced the physical therapy of clearing out some of my unnecessary videotape accumulation -- the duplicates and redundancies and the no-longer-relevant-or-interesting detritus of my collection. I only went through a portion of my VHS tapes, but by Sunday at dusk, I had discarded something in the neighborhood of 400 tapes. I just put them on the curb and the garbage truck took them away this morning.

This pro-active therapy was good for us and Donna and I are starting to rebound from the shock. It's now Monday and time to continue working on the Bava book. Donna will need to consult me about this, so I have to remain "on call" to answer questions and offer suggestions, but I also want to use my time more valuably, which means spending less time in this chair. I've decided to withdraw as an active participant from the online boards it's been my habit to frequent over the last 10 or 11 years. I value the friendships I've made through these boards, but there has also been a fair amount to stress attached. All told, there have been too many days when I've spent hours responding to other people's passing curiosity, wasting time creatively, and even defending my own honor. None of these things seems a valid priority at present. Meanwhile, my office has been a wreck since January and it's about time I did something to make my work environment more welcoming; that I could endure this clutter for so long, I think, says something about the degree to which I have been inhabiting my own reality. I need to embrace life for awhile, even in its drudgery. I've also discovered that I enjoy writing fiction in longhand while sitting on the swing in our backyard, and something may come out of that.

In short, Wayne's death has been a wake-up call of sorts. I am going to be turning 50 at the end of this month, so perhaps this is my mid-life crisis, but I'm now more aware that there are things I have to do... things that Donna may have to do if I don't do them... things I want to do with my life... things I want to achieve... things that don't involve sitting here and filling my time at this keyboard... things I may not have the energy or the opportunity to do, if I keep putting them off. This isn't the end of Video WatchBlog, but I expect it is the end of what some might consider my online over-exposure.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Cinco de Mayo with Princess Asa

A couple of nights ago, I decided for no particular reason to treat myself to a spontaneous little "Barbara Steele on Television" film festival. Thanks to a couple of proverbial tapes from the attic, I was able to watch her early guest appearances in JAMES A. MICHENER'S ADVENTURES IN PARADISE ("Daughter of Illusion" -- Season 2, Episode 10, first aired December 10, 1960) and ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS ("Beta Delta Gamma" -- Season 7, Episode 6, first aired November 14, 1961).
While the HITCHCOCK appearance actually followed Steele's role in BLACK SUNDAY and coincided with her return to Los Angeles to appear in Roger Corman's PIT AND THE PENDULUM, the ADVENTURES IN PARADISE (a prophecy in that acronym: AIP) episode was the only thing ever released from her short-lived, "blonde" phase at 20th Century Fox. Here, she plays "the delectable Dolores," the daughter of a magician (Alan Napier) who is smuggling diamonds out of a South Pacific island sewn onto the costume of second assistant Sondi Sondsai in place of the customary rhinestones. I hadn't seen an episode of this show since childhood and had only vague recollections of it, but this one was charming, with fine work by all, and Steele -- speaking in her own voice, of course -- is quite natural, at ease, and good humored in it. I always found her blonde publicity poses ludicrous, the lighter hair color so ill-suited to her face, but onscreen, smiling and in motion, she's a fairly convincing blonde. But I still don't think I would have bought her in blue jeans opposite Elvis Presley in FLAMING STAR.

Barbara shares a laugh with ADVENTURES IN PARADISE co-star Alan Napier.

My memory of the HITCHCOCK episode, which I hadn't seen since I originally recorded it off of Nick at Nite (where it was much ballyhooed as being shown "uncut," but shown without the famous Hitchcock profile intermission card), was that Steele scarcely appeared in it, but it's actually a prominent supporting role with quite a bit of dialogue. She seems miscast as one of a group of California college kids -- maybe she was cast from one of those blonde Fox publicity pics. There is no explanation for her age, her accent, or her obvious sophistication, but she plays one of an ensemble who pull the prank of convincing a fellow party attendant (bombed on beer) that he committed a murder while intoxicated, only to have the joke backfire on them. What's odd about the episode is that it's the fresher-faced kids who hatch the plan, quietly goaded on by a bearded but otherwise baby-faced Severn Darden (with an unrecognizable Barbara Harris, future star of FAMILY PLOT, as his girlfriend -- buried under a wig and behind dark glasses), while Steele, introduced doing a slinky cha-cha to the music on a record player, is mostly a dissenting voice of conscience. I suppose that director Alan Crosland Jr. was playing against type, but it is she who ultimately places the "murder" weapon in the hand of the passed-out, hapless hero, top-lined Burt Brinckerhoff.

As a slinky college prankster in ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS' "Beta Delta Gamma."

This little mini-festival of mine tweaked my curiosity, so I turned to the IMDb to see what other early TV Steele might have done. I knew about the SECRET AGENT and I SPY gigs, but I was very surprised to find a listing for a 1961 BONANZA episode called "The Tin Badge." This has got to be one of those IMDb mix-ups; not just because I can't imagine Barbara Steele and Dan Blocker inhabiting the same cinematic universe, but because the IMDb cast list shows two actresses in the role of "Sylvia Ann" -- Barbara Steele and Karen Steele. That's too much Steele for a "Tin Badge." I vote for Karen as the Steele most likely to have visited the Ponderosa.

Speaking of Barbara's TV appearances, does anyone out there have a copy of THE SPACE-WATCH MURDERS, a made-for-television film from the 1970s that features a brief appearance by Barbara as a green-faced alien? That's something I'd love to find.

Rounding out this Cinco de Mayo look back at "Barbara Steele on Television": You may remember that, many blogs ago, I mentioned my surprise discovery of Barbara in a 1960s music video by an Italian artist named Gianni Pieretti. I couldn't provide grabs from the video at that time, but now, here at long last, are a few frame grabs from "Julie Julie." It's just a silly little time capsule, but whoever was responsible for hiring her that morning or afternoon, I think they just might have lucked out and caught The Queen of Horror on the day, hour, and moment when her unusual beauty was at its zenith. This fellow Pieretti just enters frame and flops down beside her on the couch, lip-synching. No wonder Barbara spends the next few minutes looking either cross, bored, or bemused. But regardless of how she's looking, she looks absolutely enchanting.

"You mean I'm just supposed to sit here? What if Federico calls?"

Adesso fingere lei è vampiro, Barbara! ! Molto brava!

Guardare la sua faccia... Lei mai ha visto che niente l'ami?

Ahhhh... semplicemente fantastico.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Add These to Your Datebook

TONIGHT: At 7:30 p.m. eastern time, Turner Classic Movies' Festival of Shorts offers a pair of rarely-seen two-reel shorts directed for MGM by Jacques Tourneur: "Killer-Dog" and "The Jonker Diamond." Both produced in 1936, these were among the first films Tourneur made in this country after leaving France; in fact, "The Jonker Diamond" was the first. Fans of Tourneur's work in the Val Lewton series and elsewhere won't want to miss these early demonstrations of his taste, skill and directorial economy. In case I am not giving you sufficient notice, TCM is running these again at 5:30 a.m. eastern, very early next Tuesday morning, May 9. (TCM's online schedule designates this as their last offering of the day on Monday, May 8, but everything after midnight is the next day, according to the way I was brought up.)

THIS WEEKEND: Those of you who live in the Los Angeles area and are looking for something to do this weekend should saunter over to Drkrm. Gallery (2121 North San Fernando Road, Suite 3, Los Angeles, 90065) for the opening of VW contributor David Del Valle's photographic exhibit, "Haunted Hacienda." No, David didn't go to Mexico with a camera... this exhibition -- in session from May 5 to June 3 -- celebrates the mise en scène of the Mexican horror cinema through rare stills from the Del Valle Archives. For more information, about the exhibit and about David himself, visit

VIDEO WATCHDOG #125 should be reaching subscribers by now, and we look forward to hearing some feedback.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

What We Have In Mind is Breakfast in Bed for 200,000

Earlier today, Video WatchBlog topped 200,000 hits. It's a good excuse for me to thank you all, once again, for your regular attendance and giving me audience and reason to write some things out of my system that might not otherwise get written.

I spent today writing my next SIGHT AND SOUND "No Zone" column, which is about Pola Rapoport's WRITER OF O, a documentary about STORY OF O's pseudonymous author Pauline Réage, who after several decades revealed herself to be Dominique Aury, an editor at Editions Gallimard. Without previewing my column too much, this is one of the most extraordinary and moving films about writing and love of literature that I've seen. It streets next week, and I recommend it to all of you, hand on heart. It's not just a documentary; it also includes dramatic stagings of scenes from STORY OF O (superior, I feel, to the 1975 Just Jaeckin film) and the essay "A Girl in Love," and dramatic recreations of events that actually happened -- and it all flows together beautifully, without seeming in the least indecisive about what kind of film it wants to be.

WRITER OF O's depiction of Madame Réage's writing habits left me feeling as though I have disgraced my craft by not writing more often in longhand. Before the computer age, I used to write in longhand a great deal -- in a personal journal, and also fiction that I wrote on index cards that I subsequently stacked in order and held together with rubber bands. I got my first PC in 1985, and it was paid for with money I received for agreeing to write four volumes and edit all twelve of VIDEO TIMES' "Your Movie Guide" paperback series, which Signet Books later published. Since that time, except for signing books and the monthly checks I send to my debtors, I've basically stopped writing in longhand and do all my writing the way I am writing these words now.

There was one exception: a lone piece of fiction that I wrote in my attic on a legal pad in a sudden burst of inspiration. After watching WRITER OF O, I was inspired to search for it. I found it copied into my computer and dated exactly ten years and one week ago. As I read through its eight pages, the material felt exciting to me and I am thinking of returning to it, extending it into either a novella or novel, and writing the whole thing by hand -- organically. The way artists paint. The way musicians play their instruments.

Oddly enough, my second novel THE BOOK OF RENFIELD was written in a similar way, with the opening chapter written (if memory serves) eight years before the rest of the book. I've been thinking lately that the best way to write is to write fast, to give one's writing the benefit of absorbing one's subconscious, which naturally dissipates the more an author consciously thinks about what he/she is writing, over time. The screenplay I wrote with Charlie Largent, THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES, was written this way and, while some layerings of the material were constructed deliberately, the script also contains a wealth of subtext that entered into the project because it wasn't belabored and thus made too "conscious," and also because we knew our subject well enough that we didn't have to think too much before we wrote each new page. Vladimir Nabokov once wrote that LOLITA was his favorite novel, but that INVITATION TO A BEHEADING (one of my favorites) was the one for which he had the most respect because it came to him in an instant and was completed nearly as fast. Thanks to my collaboration with Charlie, I know how that feels.

To create something new and add it your shelf -- to your self as a broadening achievement -- is one of the best feelings in the world, and I really, really, really want to get back there.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Gidget Goes to Cinecittà

While taking advantage of a recent Deep Disc Discount "Buy So Many, Get One Free" sale, I decided to add Columbia's THE COMPLETE GIDGET COLLECTION to my shopping cart, even though none of the transfers were letterboxed or anamorphic. It was a matter of education for me; I know the BEACH PARTY movies very well, know the various knock-offs (BEACH BALL, THE GIRLS ON THE BEACH, OUT OF SIGHT, etc) pretty well, but I've always been a little weak on the GIDGET series -- GIDGET (1959), GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN (1961) and GIDGET GOES TO ROME (1963). They started out of the gate a little before my theater-going time, and I didn't warm to the sequels as a kid.

Now, with my memory of all three films duly refreshed, I can see that the GIDGET series was somewhat weak on itself. For some reason, the lead role was one that aspiring young actresses apparently couldn't wait to get away from. A different girl plays Frances "Gidget" Lawrence in all three films, and (I guess appropriately) different actors play her parents in all three, as well. (The mother in the second film, the curiously named Jeff Donnell, plays the same role in the third, opposite a different husband, swapping out bossy Carl Reiner for mellow Don Porter, who would play Gidget's widowed father on the later ABC-TV series starring Sally Field.) Only James Darren as Jeffrey "Moondoggie" Matthews remains constant... on the cast list, anyway; his character's heart is all over the place, and he's seldom written to be much more than handsome, superficial and dedicated to playing the field. We never really learn what makes Moondoggie tick, or what bonds Gidget to him so readily and tenaciously. Darren tries to give the character a depth that isn't really there by smoking and brooding. He also sings the theme songs for all three films. The entire trilogy, if we can use that word for movies like this, were directed by Paul Wendkos, a director who worked predominantly in series television and is probably best remembered today for THE MEPHISTO WALTZ (1971).

GIDGET is by far the best of the three films. It's the ebullient story of a young girl's determination to become part of the beach/surf culture that attracts her -- but the movie also has interesting subtexts concerning the lingering aftermath of WWII on surviving soldiers and the burgeoning spirit of feminism. Sandra Dee gives an endearingly stubborn and spirited performance, but the movie is stolen by Cliff Robertson -- brown as a blue-eyed tobacco leaf -- giving a gritty portrayal as an enigmatic, self-described "beach bum" known as "The Big Kahuna." The nickname has become a cliché over the years, but Robertson's performance is not. Tom Laughlin and Doug McClure are recognizable among the surfers, and Yvonne Craig (not as formidably sexy as she would be in THE GENE KRUPA STORY, but always worth seeing in a bikini) and 13 GHOSTS' Jo Morrow are among Gidget's friends. Watching the movie actually stoked my interest in reading the book on which it's based, a memoir by Kathy Kohner Zuckerman (the real "Gidget," whose nickname was a contraction of "girl midget") and her screenwriter father Frederick Kohner (who wrote 1944's THE LADY AND THE MONSTER).

GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN may have the most famous title of the three films, but it's the broadest, campiest, and (for me) least enjoyable of the series. Too bad, because I think Deborah Walley, of the three Gidget actresses showcased here, inhabits the role most comfortably; I always liked the shadings she brought to Les, her female drummer character in the Elvis vehicle SPINOUT, and it would have been nice to see what she could have done with Gidget story with more adult (or adult-ish) shadings, such as the first one had. When this sequel tries to get adult, it gets unpleasantly snarky or sappy; the primary "situation" of this "situation comedy" results when Gidget's overly romantic, overly dramatic nature gives another girl the impression that she's no longer a virgin, which leads to gossip and a spoiled reputation. As vacations go, this is a bad one, and it's made no more pleasant by Carl Reiner's loud and unlikeable Mr. Lawrence, a far cry from Arthur O'Connell in the original, who had his apoplectic moments but was kindly and a bit dithering even when he was laying down the law. It's easy to understand why the sequel's Mrs. Lawrence drinks a bit more than the first one did.

As a Eurocultist, I was especially interested to see GIDGET GOES TO ROME, which was made in the Eternal City at the very height of not only the Golden Age of Italian Fantasy, but of "la dolce vita" as well. Here, Cindy Carol (real name: Carol Sydes) -- the worst Gidget of all -- convinces her parents to grant her adult independence by allowing her to join a mixed group of friends on a trip to Rome. As would also occur in another Elvis vehicle, GIRL HAPPY, the following year, Gidget's father arranges for a "respectable" male acquaintence (Cesare Danova in this case) to look after his young daughter without her knowing she's under adult supervision, and the close attention results in an unintentional romantic bond. Meanwhile, Jeffrey falls for the party's Italian tour guide, Danielle De Metz -- who is actually French. The movie becomes a HERCULES UNCHAINED-style study in infidelities of the heart, and without a single scene that takes place at the beach, it seems to be a Gidget film in name only. The filmmakers are very aware of a certain side of Italian cinema, making self-conscious references to LA DOLCE VITA (a romp through the Trevi Fountain and a crazy party that verbally references the movie) and throwing in a Biblical peplum daydream sequence for good measure, and Cindy Carol's moony, swoony Gidget is a bit like the character played by Leticia Roman in Bava's THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH; her imagination is an ashtray that's collected the butts of all the foreign films she's read about in movie magazines but has never seen. Nevertheless, I was pleased and surprised to have the pain of an otherwise hard-to-endure movie eased by a veritable parade of beloved faces and locations from the annals of Italian genre fare. For instance (and feel free to CLICK on these images to enlarge them)...

Gidget's debonair hotel manager is played by Claudio Gori, later the police chief in DANGER: DIABOLIK.

Cesare Danova's wife (sorry, Gidge... he's married!) is played by the lovely Lisa Gastoni, who, under the name "Jane Fate," appeared in a couple of Antonio Margheriti space operas, including the legendary WILD, WILD PLANET.

The Maitre 'D at the restaurant where Cesare Danova introduces Gidget to the pleasures of Italian bitter aperitifs is played by Umberto Raho, who starred the same year in Riccardo Freda's THE GHOST. He would later be featured in Dario Argento's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE.

Later in the film, while snooping around backstage at a fashion show, Gidget is mistaken for a model, stripped and redressed by a flurry of dressers. To my astonishment, one of the model dressers (on the right) was none other than my dear, late and much-missed friend Harriet White Medin, familiar from her performances in PAISAN, LA DOLCE VITA, BLACK SABBATH, THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK, THE WHIP AND THE BODY and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. This appearance was completely unknown to me, and it's not included in her IMDb filmography!

As an added kick, James Darren is shown at the end of this sequence brooding and smoking on the lip of the runway, which was evidently the same interior location used for Christiane Haute Couture in Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, filmed toward the end of the same year. (Albeit with red curtains, of course.)

Finally, when Gidget and Jeffrey (there's really no reason to call him "Moondoggie" in such a landlocked scenario) seek sanctuary at the American Embassy, there is an appearance by Jim Dolen -- an actor with close-cropped white hair whom you may remember as an undercover cop in THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG -- as an embassy spokesman. And the guard standing a couple of shoulders to his right is none other than Gustavo de Nardo, the actor with whom Mario Bava worked more than any other. He appears in THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, BLACK SABBATH (opposite Harriet Medin), THE WHIP AND THE BODY (ditto), BARON BLOOD and RABID DOGS, but almost never accepted screen credit. When Jim Dolen speaks in this movie, perhaps for the only time in his screen career with direct sound recording, I recognized a voice I've known all my life from dubbed movies filmed in Rome. (I've tried in vain to upload the frame grab I took from this sequence, but it refuses to cooperate, so please refer to your own disc or, failing that, your imagination.)

THE COMPLETE GIDGET COLLECTION turned out to be more worthwhile than I expected, transfer-wise, because, of the three films, only the first is really and truly "modified to fit your screen." It's a 2.35:1 film cropped and panned and scanned to give you only half of every single composition -- apart from the opening credits, of course. It deserves to be remastered in anamorphic widescreen. The other two films were shot open aperture and shown theatrically with a soft projection matte; both of these can be zoomed up on a widescreen monitor and look pretty nice.

So. When all is said and done, who was the best Gidget?

No contest, ladies and gentlemen: Sally Field. I don't know how well the series stands up as a whole, but the concept seemed to find its true footing once it became a half-hour situation comedy, and I remember Field's Gidget as likeable and endearing. She knew how to play all of the character's eccentricities in a way that made her seem interesting and upbeat and kooky rather than merely fanciful and meddling, and she was also a deft physical comedienne. I was on the point of asking "Where's the box set?" when I checked and found that one was actually released by Sony last month.

Surf's up, Watchdoggie!

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Sorrow and Sympathy

While paying my usual daily visit to those few blogs I consider part of my own fraternity yesterday, I was mortified to visit Matt Zoller Seitz's The House Next Door and discover a replacement host informing the regulars that Matt's wife Jennifer had passed away suddenly on Thursday evening at the age of 35. She was upstairs using the computer to plan an upcoming vacation, while their two children, aged 8 and 2, played downstairs. The eight year-old went upstairs to ask her mother a question and found her lying on the floor, unresponsive; an uncle was summoned to revive her and explain to the children what had happened, and the truth was kept from Matt till he could get from his office to the hospital. At present, no cause is known.

As a happily married man, wedded young, whose significant other is not only his wife but his business partner, someone on whom I rely each and every day, I can't imagine much worse than this. I don't know Matt except through his blog, and also through his fine independent film HOME (which Jennifer co-produced), and I feel shaken to know that someone for whom I have such respect and feel such kinship -- we even use the same blogging system -- must now live through this reality. If any of you know Matt or visit his blog irregularly, you can use the link above to read more about Jennifer, the family's preferred way of making a donation in her memory, and also leave a note of sympathy and support.

As for me, I want to spend more time off this computer and in the company of my wife this weekend. The last copies of the new issue are being shipped out today, we are having dinner with Donna's mother tonight, and we resume work on the Mario Bava book on Monday -- with a renewed sense of purpose and a renewed appreciation of the preciousness of time.

Friday, April 28, 2006

The Diabolic One, Oh Oh!

Today marks the centenary of the birth of Pierre Boileau, the elder half of the Boileau-Narcejac writing team. Their internationally famous partnership of the pen was the subject of this marvelously gruesome editorial cartoon (Boileau is the one impaled on the right), which I found on a Russian website; I couldn't find out anything about it, not even the artist's name. As this is one centenary even more likely to be overlooked in our day and age than that of Samuel Beckett (which was in fact commemorated with festivities in Ireland and also here by the Sundance Film Channel, which has been presenting various "Beckett on Film" programs this month), I hope you'll join me in remembering M. Boileau today and, by association, his friend and writing partner. Even if you don't recognize their names, it is virtually guaranteed that you've enjoyed their work.

Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (real name: Pierre Robert Ayraud) began writing separately and were admirers of each other's books, in which they recognized common interests and diverse approaches. They joined forces in 1951, proposing a new form of mystery fiction that attended not the killer (as in the whodunit), nor the investigator (as in police procedurals), but the victim. Once they began to collaborate, Boileau-Narcejac became one of the great phenomenons of European mystery fiction. Their prose was lean and dialogue-driven, which made it naturally adaptable to the screen. Indeed, their work seeded and brought to bloom some of the finest thrillers ever to grace the screen: Henri-Georges Clouzot's LES DIABOLIQUES (based on their novel CELLE QUI N'ÉTAIT PLUS, translated into English as THE WOMAN WHO WAS NO MORE), Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO (based on their novel D'ENTRES LES MORTS, translated as THE LIVING AND THE DEAD), and two directed by Georges Franju, LES YEUX SANS VISAGE (aka EYES WITHOUT A FACE, which they adapted from a novel by Jean Redon) and the original PLEINS FEUX SUR L'ASSASSIN. One of their 1960s novels, translated as CHOICE CUTS, was later the basis for the 1991 thriller BODY PARTS. All told, Boileau-Narcejac receive screen credit on some 40 different films.

In addition to writing thrillers for adults, they also published many mysteries for youngsters and were also responsible for the continuation of two famous "orphaned" characters, Maurice Leblanc's "gentleman burglar" Arsène Lupin and Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret. In this sense, the Boileau-Narcejac partnership was also post-modernist -- professional mystery fiction written by fans of the genre capable of impersonating earlier literary voices to perfection. Boileau died in 1989, some nine years before his partner. The Criterion DVD of EYES WITHOUT A FACE includes a most enjoyable interview with the two gentlemen, filmed for French television in the 1970s.

English-speaking bibliophiles who aspire to read and/or collect Boileau-Narcejac have a tough row to hoe, and I speak from experience. Dozens of their books remain in print... alas, nearly all of it in French and German. Only a portion of their output has been translated into English at all, and some of that portion appeared only in Great Britain; consequently, what exists is highly collectable. THE LIVING AND THE DEAD was reprinted under the title VERTIGO by the British Film Institute some years ago, but if it should whet your appetite for more, Heaven help you. ABE Books shows that used first editions of their most famous novels in translation are priced in the hundreds, even the thousands.

In VIDEO WATCHDOG #40, I published an article based on my long-overdue reading of THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, in which I compared Boileau-Narcejac's now-obscure novel to the Hitchcock film prized by many as the Master's best. If I had to pick a list of my 10 favorite articles I've written for VW, I might well include it; it's one of the VW pieces I'm proudest of writing, if only because articles comparing novels to films are so much less common than articles comparing different versions of films, and also because there is so little information available in English about this great literary partnership. This issue is still in print, for those of you who missed it -- and now you can even read the novel yourself, which wasn't so easy at the time the article was first published.

Maîtres de mystère, je bois à votre mémoire!

Thursday, April 27, 2006

VIDEO WATCHDOG 125 Is In The House

The new issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG was delivered to our door this afternoon and the mailing process is now getting underway. Since we posted the particulars about this "Coming Soon" issue on our website, the cover has generated an unusual amount of pre-release interest and advance orders. It would seem that new customers have been attracted by the KONG coverage, but also, every title mentioned on the cover is a big, multi-million-dollar production with a high recognizability factor -- which I suppose isn't always the case with the stuff on our covers. Why the sudden commercial stance? Well, even though VW has continued to reach newsstands on a strict bimonthly schedule, for Donna, our Kennel contributors, and me, VW was the first issue we had produced in about four months. It was the first time in 15 years that so much time had transpired between issues, or at least between bouts of active magazine production, so I was frankly a little nervous about returning to bat. I felt the occasion required everyone to pull together and put the best foot forward.

I am so proud of our contributors. They really outdid themselves, providing Donna and me with enough reviews to fill the greater part of not one, not two, but three issues. God bless them every one: As I sat down to edit their material, I found that their submissions collectively pooled into 104 single-spaced pages of criticism... but editing the work turned out to be pure pleasure because the time off had energized everyone; everyone was writing at the top of their form. As I read through the submissions, I noticed that some reviews mysteriously dovetailed with other, unrelated reviews, either topically or thematically, which made it fairly easy to organize everything into three distinct issues. But, for this first issue of the three (as I mention in my "Watchdog Barks" editorial), my goal was specific. I wanted to start out by picking "the biggest, reddest apples in the orchard."

Beyond the blockbuster titles listed on the front cover, VW 125 also reviews such releases as KING KONG - PETER JACKSON'S PRODUCTION DIARIES, THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN - THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON, SON OF KONG, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, ALONE IN THE DARK (1982), HOUSE OF WAX (2005), KONGA, FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON, Bruce Campbell's MAN WITH THE SCREAMING BRAIN, Jess Franco's NIGHT OF THE SKULL, and much else of interest. Furthermore, our LAND OF THE DEAD Round Table Discussion (14 pages!) is complemented with a review of the direct-to-video DAY OF THE DEAD 2: CONTAGION; we've got Ramsey Campbell on The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's THE CALL OF CTHULHU; and "Biblio Watchdog" features an expanded, more detailed draft of my WatchBlog review of THE FAMOUS MONSTER MOVIE ART OF BASIL GOGOS. Even Doug Winter's "Audio Watchdog" covers only monster-related soundtracks, this time around.

For a free sampling of the issue, visit our website at the link near the top of this page, click on "Coming Soon" and click on the KONG cover. This will bring up pdfs of two different page spreads from the issue -- four pages you're free to enlarge and peruse to your heart's content. The issue can also be ordered from that page.

All in all, I think it's one of our best issues, and I hope you will all add it to your collections. And for you KING KONG buffs, the KONG saga will continue in VIDEO WATCHDOG 126, with two major contributions by Yours Truly -- a "DVD Spotlight" review of the Peter Jackson film, and a feature article about Edgar Wallace and his oft-overlooked role in the genesis of the 1933 classic. I'm especially pleased with the latter, which I believe adds something conspicuously new to the annals of KONG research. You may never look at Kong in quite the same way again.

In the meantime... First Class subscribers should find VIDEO WATCHDOG 125 in their mailboxes sometime next week. Enjoy!

PS: Please note that my review of DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE of a few days ago has been amended to include a postscript with US release information shared by reader Tom Schumaker. Danke schoen!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Le conseguenze dell'amore
2004, Articifial Eye (UK, Region 2) and Medusa (Italy, Region 2), 100 minutes

It has been a very long time since I've seen an Italian film, a purely Italian film, that didn't look like it was produced for television. This is the initial gratification of writer-director Paolo Sorrentino's THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE -- there is an immediate sense of confidence and craft and style, and an attention to minutiae, that warrants a big screen presentation -- but its gratifications are continuous and diverse.

Though it's an Italian film about Italian characters, it takes place in an unnamed city in Switzerland (we presume Geneva) where a 50 year-old gentleman of apparently Northern Italian origin (placid, unemotional) has occupied the same seat in a hotel bar for the last eight years. This enigmatic fellow with the poker face, we learn through his interior monologue narration, is named Titta Di Girolamo (Toni Servillo), but we quickly learn more about him through our own observations than from his confessions -- looking through a hotel window, he sees a man distracted by a beautiful woman walk straight into a lamppost, and doesn't laugh; while riding an escalator, he passes a beautiful woman going up while he is going down, and he doesn't turn to answer her gaze. Nor does he respond when Sofia (Olivia Magnani), the attractive 20ish hotel barmaid, bids him goodnight at the end of the days they silently share. Instead, he sits in his customary seat, day after day, and jots a memo to himself in a pad that he carries: "Things to remember in the future: The Consequences of Love." (A telephone call reveals that Titta is an estranged husband and father of three children, none of whom care for him... but these aren't the consequences alluded to in his note-to-self.) Another clue is dealt when Titta notes that, every Wednesday morning at precisely 10:00 a.m. for the last 24 years, he has injected himself with heroin -- and only then. Thus we understand that this is a man who has taught himself to live in absolute mastery of his feelings, his emotions and weaknesses -- and become detached from all human feeling and ties in the process.

For all its outward stillness (even the opening shot depicts a stationary hotel porter being brought into closeup by a moving sidewalk), Sorrentino's film is a thriller in the best sense. Here, it is the mysteries of character that hold us in thrall. It's also a mob picture, as Titta's reticence is explained eventually by the fact that he is affiliated with the Mafia, for whom he performs a regular task for which a poker face sometimes comes in handily. But Sofia is angered by the refusal of that poker face to acknowledge her, and one day, when Titta doesn't reply to her goodnight, she gives him a piece of her very Roman mind. The next morning, Titta sits at the bar and tells Sofia that his change of seat may well be the most dangerous thing he's ever done in his life. This seemingly melodramatic remark turns out to be a most realistic and knowing comment.

Marked with deliberate but always surprising and very dry humor, THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE is a skillful construction in all departments, but is a most obvious showcase for Toni Servillo's remarkable, absorbing performance, which makes Titta one of the most memorable screen characters of recent years. Given his general look and outward passivity, it's hard not to think of Peter Sellers in BEING THERE, but Titta's passivity is icy and vigilant, steeped in the calm of an ever present danger. He's not a cipher, he's trying to blend in with the wallpaper. Olivia Magnani's playful, sensual warmth makes her an excellent foil for him, her bright eyes jewelling from a tawny complexion, as does Adriano Giannini (the son of Giancarlo Giannini), who appears briefly as Titta's exuberant younger brother -- a surfing instructor, of all things, who manages to accomplish in a single day what Titta's self-control hasn't permitted him to do in eight increasingly desirous years.

It's become a cliché to refer to the 1970s as a time of unparalleled creativity and achievement in international cinema, but THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE would have fit in well as a product of that period. Yet it is unmistakably contemporary in its look (kudos to director of photography Luca Bigazzi), its tasteful and often exciting techno scoring, and the enjoyably rhythmic feel of Giorgio Franchini's editing. Born in 1970, Paolo Sorrentino is more than just a promising writer-director; he's already delivering the goods. This, his fourth feature, gives one encouragement to think that the Silver Age of Italian Cinema could happen again.

Artificial Eye's THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE (in Italian with optional English subtitles) gives the film an attractive 16:9 presentation with handsomely detailed Dolby 5.1 sound. A short "making of" documentary (9 minutes) and a somewhat longer "behind-the-scenes" visit (15 minutes) are also included, along with a theatrical trailer, all with optional English subtitles. It must be noted that an Italian release, LE CONSEGUENZE DELL'AMORE, is also available on the Medusa label. This disc offers the film with the same audio mix and a choice of English, Italian or French subtitles, and the same production supplements, though these are not subtitled on this release. What makes the Italian disc particularly desirable for fans of the film is a selection of alternate and deleted scenes, for some reason not imported to the Artificial Eye disc; it's also a bit cheaper. But one shouldn't underestimate the value of the English subtitles on Artifical Eye's production supplements, as Sorrentino offers some important insights as to the film's themes and origin.

Both discs are available domestically from Xploited Cinema.


Tonight on Game Show Network's WHAT'S MY LINE?, they showed a 1963 episode with mystery guest Jean Pierre Aumont and guest panelist Tony Randall. When it became known that the mystery guest starred in a new movie opening on Broadway that week, the blindfolded Randall asked, "According to the newspapers, the motion pictures opening on Broadway this week are DIARY OF A MADMAN, CORRIDORS OF BLOOD and WEREWOLF IN A GIRL'S DORMITORY... are you in one of those?"

Naturally, the answer was negative but the question got a big laugh. From me, especially.

After the guest's identity was made known, amused host John Daly asked Randall about the picture he had mentioned called "MADMAN IN A GIRL'S DORMITORY." Randall replied, "No, it's WEREWOLF IN A GIRL'S DORMITORY. Isn't that something? No, I'm not making it up! I'm going to see it!"

It's for moments like this that I love watching vintage TV.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


"The Hound of Blackwood Castle"
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.

Postscript 4/27/06:
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."