Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Cathryn Harrison and Joe Dallesandro.
Glumly channel surfing after WHAT'S MY LINE? last night, my eyes suddenly thrust forward as I sat bolt upright: Louis Malle's rarely seen BLACK MOON (1975) was running on Flix! This is a film I've wanted to see ever since I first read about it in CINEFANTASTIQUE thirty or more years ago, but I've never had the chance till now. Unfortunately I'd missed the first half hour, but unable to find another showtime scheduled on my Dish Network channel grid, I bit the bullet and decided to settle in and watch the remaining hour and some. This is hard for me to do, because I've adopted a Woody Allen-like rule against seriously watching any movie that has already started, and half-an-hour is quite a bit started. I was only able to break my rule because I feared this might be my only chance to see any part of this elusive gem. (Is it really possible that I once collected 16mm odd reels?)

I don't understand why the film is so disliked. True, it's not a mainstream feature, but it's a wonderful, creative use of the medium and made with undeniable and often inspired artistry. From what I could gather, BLACK MOON is a kind of ALICE IN WONDERLAND story starring Cathryn Harrison (the stunning 16 year-old daughter of Noel Harrison, looking like the feral kid sister of Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorleac) as a young woman who emerges from a car accident into a feature-length dream experience. It takes her to a secluded cottage where she finds naked children chasing an enormous pig, twin siblings (Joe Dallesandro and Alexandra Stewart) intent on killing each other and various animals, and a bedridden old woman who has the ability to communicate with animals (like Cathryn's grandfather Rex!) and makes a smecking sound that periodically alerts the two women in the picture that it's time to bare their breasts and feed her.

Viewers desperately clinging to terra firma will likely have problems navigating this misty mountain fantasmagoria, but the quality of the cinematography alone (by Sven Nykvist) should be enough to keep most film buffs watching, narrative be damned. I was fascinated from the get-go, but as the crazy scenes and incidents accumulated, I began to love the film for its sheer anarchistic invention and humor. I laughed a lot, but most of the time my eyes sparkled in admiration. Some incredible images on view: the absurdly huge rat (almost a baby kangaroo) on the old lady's ham radio... the eagle that comes flying in through the open window, fulfilling the promise of a faded painting on the wall ... the obese unicorn... the scene of Cathryn lifting the old lady out of bed and carrying her around like a rag doll with wasted limbs, while singing to her... Oh, to have witnessed the effect this movie must have had on the stoned-out midnight movie audiences of its day!

Possibly it's not great Malle, but it's great something. For some reason, as I was watching it, I had the idea stuck in my mind that it was a Polanski film rather than a Malle one. I can only tell you that -- what with the black humor, the milk imagery, the dead sheep in the larder, and of course, the splendidly coltish jailbait heroine -- it works as a Polanski film extremely well, perhaps better than it works as a film by Louis Malle. Younger viewers than myself will likely think first of David Lynch as a frame of reference, and it's not unlike the kind of film Lynch would make if he was more of a country boy and less attracted to dark and infernal forces. Despite its tenebrous title, BLACK MOON has surprisingly bright bearing for a weird-out.

BLACK MOON will be showing a few more times on Flix this month (on June 25 at 3:45 am eastern, and on June 25 at 11:35 pm eastern), and on Showtime Beyond next month, so mark your desktop calendars as I have done. Internet searches reveal that it is also being released on DVD in Australia in July, but the Flix master is lovely and windowboxed at 1.66:1 -- very likely a more generous framing than will appear on the official release.

Monday, June 05, 2006

VW 126 At The Printer

The next issue of VW is now finished and at the printer. Even though printed copies don't exist yet, you can preview the contents of VW 126 by going to the VW website (use the convenient link above, to the right) and clicking on "Coming Soon." Then you can click on the cover to access opening spread previews of the issue's main features: John Bender's feeling tribute to the late Italian film composer Francesco de Masi and my own lengthy article about Edgar Wallace and his role in the creation of KING KONG.

Also in this issue: David Kalat's reviews of several recent J-horror titles, Kim Newman on CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and DRACULA II LEGACY (Kim outdid himself in reviewing this one, I thought), Bill Cooke on Jeff Lieberman's JUST BEFORE DAWN, Charlie Largent on the Miss Marple box set, John Charles on FOR YOUR HEIGHT ONLY and CHALLENGE OF THE TIGER, me on the Peter Jackson KING KONG and the second season of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, and additional reviews and departments by Anthony Ambrogio, Ramsey Campbell, Shane M. Dallmann, Joe Dante, Richard Harland Smith, Brett Taylor and Douglas E. Winter. In case you've been wondering what Ramsey Campbell decided to write about in the second installment of "Ramsey's Rambles," he selected Nicholas Ray's BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956) -- an inspired choice -- which is available as a French import with optional English audio.

And how's that for a front cover? Charlie Largent took a striking photo from the Peter Jackson KING KONG remake and added a Manhattan skyline and (my favorite touch) some biplanes careening high into our logo. If you go to our site and click on the cover, you'll also get an exclusive preview of the issue's back cover, which pictures the original King Kong holding his favorite magazine!


Sonny Landham and Rebecca Brooke.

1975, Retro-Seduction Cinema, DD-2.0/MA/HD/LB/16:9/+, $19.99, 99m 59s, DVD-0

Active in the "Adults Only" industry since the early 1960s, writer-director Joseph W. Sarno became a unique presence in the business by virtue of his interest in exploring the psychology of sex. Simply put, he wasn't as interested in titillating audiences of men in raincoats with peek-a-boo nudity and juvenile humor as he was interested in using the theaters where such films were shown to tell serious stories of sexual truth and its consequences to audiences of mature men and women.
Many of Sarno's films -- including several made before Pasolini's TEOREMA (1968) -- involve a compelling, possibly supernatural, outsider whose arrival provokes an epidemic of sexual change within set relationships or communities. Others involve magical talismans and secret societies. Any fantasist worthy of the name knows that a degree of realism is necessary to heighten screen fantasy, and beginning with the Swedish-made INGA (1967), Sarno encouraged those of his actresses who were willing to experience genuine orgasm on camera, though he had no interest in showing what was actively taking place below the waist -- even when the advent of hardcore later made this possible.
Like James Joyce with his stream-of-consciousness representation of Molly Bloom pleasuring herself in the climactic chapter of ULYSSES, Sarno's principal fascination was with the interior workings of the female mind in pursuit of sexual ecstasy and, most of all, while in its throes. (Appropriately then, YES! is the American title of Sarno's Swedish film KVINNOLEK, from 1968.) The women Sarno filmed might be attractive or plain, but they all became beautiful in these scenes of exaltation, which can be surprisingly moving to witness. Sarno's films may have been perceived in their day as "dirty" and were not generally attended by mass audiences (INGA was a popular exception), but they were actually similar in many ways to the more sexually descriptive novels that John Updike was writing at the same time (RABBIT REDUX, COUPLES), which habitually made the NEW YORK TIMES best-seller list.
If one charts the development of Sarno's themes through the 1960s, they can be viewed as an ongoing narrative illustration of how the sudden free availability of the Pill and sexual tools like the vibrator helped to sexually empower women. But as the inheritance of power usually precedes the wisdom of how to use it, as Sarno's films enter the 1970s, they chart a sometimes bizarre learning curve as his characters set about learning the hard way which sexual barricades need obliterating and which have been instilled in us for valid reasons. Consequently, in the films of this period, we find more sexual experimentation, more Dionysian abandon, ménages à trois et quatre, sex toys and phallic vegetables, mind control and peer pressure, and more questioning of traditional taboos like incest. For all this questing for sexual satori, Sarno's films have a conservative streak. His roads of excess sometimes destroy lives, but (as in this film, ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN) they can also lead to palaces of wisdom that are loving and implicitly monogamous.

Filmed in his hometown of Amityville (Long Island), New York in 1973, ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN (the surname is spelled LESLEY onscreen) is one of several "soft-X" melodramas that Sarno made with the same principal cast members in the early 1970s, and one of the best in this group. It stars Mary Mendum, the fetching and fearless actress who also starred in Radley Metzger's handsomely produced S&M drama, THE IMAGE, though she is credited here (as in most of her adult film work) as "Rebecca Brooke." Mendum also starred in Sarno's CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE (1976, perhaps the best-realized and most sizzling of all his works I've seen), MISTY (also '76, which I haven't seen), and the first of the bunch to be released, the Swedish-made LAURA'S TOYS (1975). In each of these, and ABIGAIL LESLIE too, Mendum stars opposite "Eric Edwards" (real name, Rob Everett) and both seize the opportunity to act as well as perform. Mendum plays Priscilla, a cuckolded married woman fearful of embarking on affairs of her own, and Everett is Chet, a single man trying to free himself from an incestuous intanglement with his sister Alice Anne (Chris Jordan). In their hometown of Baypoint, Chet and Priscilla meet Monday and Wednesday afternoons on the beach, almost half-accidentally, for innocent chat -- their respective sexual baggage preventing them from taking their interest in one another to the next step.

Sarah Nicholson and Chris Jordan.

Enter Abigail Leslie or Lesley (Sarah Nicholson, who later worked in adult films as "Jennifer Jordan"), a sexual provocateuse from Priscilla's high school days who returns to Baypoint many years after being caught en flagrante with Priscilla's husband Gordon (Jamie Gillis). Abigail stands out in the dramatis personae like a compass point; she is discussed with such dread and awe in the early scenes that it's disarming when Nicholson first slides into frame, all but unnoticed. Reminiscing over an old yearbook (appropriated titled "The Triangle") with old classmate Lila (Julia Sorel), Abigail reminisces about everyone's grammar/high school dalliances, gay and straight, and determines to have everyone re-explore them for her own amusement. Beginning with Lila, Abigail tempts various neighbors into her bed in twos and threes, including Gordon, Alice Anne, Priscilla's liberated Aunt Drucilla (Jennifer Welles, giving a sassy and humorous performance) and her Elvis-lookalike lover Bo (Sonny Landham), and eventually, Priscilla herself. Though we see Priscilla engaged in contented sex with her husband early on, it is her startled, laughing orgasm with Abigail -- a woman she dreaded ever seeing again -- that lingers in the memory; it's one of the most surprising such scenes in the Sarno canon.

In the key moment of human confrontation that all Sarno films strive for, Abigail ensures that shy almost-lovers Priscilla and Chet eventually find themselves standing before one another, naked and exposed. Their first kiss occurs in the midst of a multi-partnered entanglement, a satisfying if literal visual metaphor for the necessity of seeing through the distractions of sex to find true love. It's by surviving the gauntlet of Abigail's orgiastic puppet-mastery that Chet and Priscilla, unhappy and repressed, find the ultimate courage to simply hold hands. And it's up to us, as viewers, to decide whether Abigail was finally a cruel or loving participant in their lives.

Thanks to Something Weird Video and Retro-Seduction Cinema, a good deal of Joe Sarno's work has become available on DVD over the years, and Retro-Seduction Cinema's HD telecine transfer of ABIGAIL LESLIE sets a new standard for the quality presentation of his work. According to the liner notes of Michael Bowen -- a splendid job of analytic and historic writing that bodes well for his Sarno biography-in-progress -- this film was barely given a theatrical release and has been unavailable for viewing since. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer, made from a one-of-a-kind 35mm archive print preserved by Sarno's son Matthew, is nearly flawless.

A five-minute interview with Sarno and wife/assistant Peggy Steffans is included, too short to be really useful. A feature-length commentary by Sarno, Bowen, disc producer Michael Raso and others, is poorly recorded but worth the effort of listening to. Now 85, Sarno is sometimes less aware of the relevant names, dates and facts than Bowen and Raso, but he discusses his intentions with the film, his rapport with the actors, his casting procedures, and his memories of Amityville, which extend to being a guest in the house later made infamous by THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (the DeFeo killings were committed in that house around the same time ABIGAIL LESLIE was in production). Also included is an aptly-named "Trailer Vault" consisting of no less than eleven different Sarno trailers, including one for the elusive MISTY, which Retro-Seduction Cinema will be releasing later in the year.

Friday, June 02, 2006

A Sense of Wonderfest, Part 4

In closing my week of Wonderfest reveries, I'd like to present a gallery of personal snapshots, pictorial and verbal, of some other fine folks who made an impression on us last weekend.

Donnie and Dana Dunagan Of course I've already written at length about the profound impression made on me by Donnie Dunagan, but I haven't written anything yet about "The Major's Minor," Dana (pronounced "Danna") or about the Dunagans as a couple. Dana is a wonderful, warm person whose sense of fashion (we loved the fringe work she sheared into her Donnie Dunagan T-shirt) is matched by her spirit of adventure. She and Donnie are planning an autumn's trip along the length of the Canadian boarder via their favorite mode of transportation: Harley-Davidson. This photograph was taken on the evening of the Sunday banquet; we were coming down in the elevator, the doors opened, and there they were -- looking like a million bucks. And when you see a million bucks, you photograph it! Favorite memory: Our Saturday dinner conversation, of course.

Basil Gogos This was my second time meeting the Michelangelo of the Macabre. I took the opportunity once again to shake his gifted hand and let him know how greatly his work had enriched my life and imagination, and how he, as much as anyone, connected the dots between the horror genre and fine art. I posed for a few pictures with him, but none is as good as this one of Basil and Donna (who he couldn't wait to pose with). As she pointed out later, Basil has such warm and unguarded eyes, it's impossible to take a bad picture of him. I used to think if I had the money, I'd commission a painting of myself by Gogos; after seeing this picture, I'd much rather see what he would do with a painting of my sweetie. Favorite memory: Seeing Gogos interact with partner Linda's be-ribboned pet Yorkie, Cleopatra.

Kerry Gammill Comic art legend, MONSTER KID online magazine publisher-editor, MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES filmmaker, and also the prime mover behind the superb book FAMOUS MONSTER MOVIE ART OF BASIL GOGOS, which I hear sold out its entire supply in the first hour-and-a-half of Wonderfest! Warm and soft-spoken, Kerry poses here with the handsome trophy with which he was presented at the Sunday night banquet. Favorite memory: Kerry shyly asking me if there was any way we could postpone the Bava book till January, so that he and Basil would have a better chance of winning the Rondo Award for the Best Book of 2006. (Considering how loved Gogos' work is, and how magnificently Kerry produced the Gogos book, I don't imagine he'll have any problem racking up the votes.)

David Colton USA TODAY front page editor, Classic Horror Film Boards moderator, Rondo Awards originator and Master of Ceremonies, and the gentleman who introduced the phrase "Monster Kid" to the popular lexicon, David is seen here hoisting the 14 pound "dummy" (blank book) version of the Bava book, which Donna and I brought along to Wonderfest. He observed that people could read the book in bed and bench-press at the same time, and more than a couple of folks had the eureka that this is the copy we should send to a certain trouble-maker. Favorite memory: Talking to David and his charming wife, ace punk photographer Eileen Colton, about their attendance of the 1969 Woodstock Music & Arts Fair -- but really, just talking to the man.

Frank Dietz Disney animator, MONSTER KID HOME MOVIE filmmaker, and horror fandom's premier caricaturist, Frank's latest collection is called SKETCHY THINGS MUST BE DESTROYED. His peerless knack for capturing what is most silly and divine about his movie subjects destroys me. Visit his website and its galleries and tell me that he doesn't absolutely nail Glenn Strange and Boris Karloff at the end of HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. As all artists do, Frank is feeling a bit constricted by his caricature work and is branching out into more serious portraits; he showed us an assortment of this brilliant new work he'd done for Wonderfest and nearly all of them were sold by the time we got into the dealer's room the next day. Favorite memory: Seeing Frank, a couple of minutes after toasting our happy reunion with a belt of Elijah Craig bourbon, suddenly knocked for a loop by what he'd swallowed.

Gary L. Prange "Have you ever heard of... Prange?" A past (and hopefully future) VW contributor, and a moderator and frequent poster at the Classic Horror Film boards, Gary hosted the CHFB Hospitality Suite (Room 870) at Wonderfest. This gave us many opportunities to talk, especially about a mammoth book on silent genre films for which Gary is presently in the "research and accumulation" phase. Gary brought some DVD-Rs to the room, including a HITCHCOCK HOUR called "The Magic Shop" which I've been wanting to see again for decades, but sorry, Hitch, the conversation was just too engrossing. Favorite memory: Gary's discussion of the Bull Montana curio, GO AND GET IT -- an impressive measure of the man's obsession.

Joe Busam MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES producer and contributor ("The Raven"!) and Rondo's Monster Kid of the Year. Joe and his wife Patty have become two of our best local friends and we dine out together as often as work and pocketbook allow. Being around Joe at Wonderfest was like standing next to the direct current of Monster Kid electroplasma: his joy was our joy, and you can see exactly what I mean in this photo of Joe and the King Kong armature. We love him and his success is well-deserved. Favorite memory: Many, but mostly knowing that Joe's wife Patty and his grown children Susie and Joe, and their Significant Others, were in attendance when he accepted his Rondo Awards.

Jim & Marian Clatterbaugh The folks behind the extraordinary classic horror magazine MONSTERS FROM THE VAULT are seen here with frequent MFTV contributor Tom Weaver at the Sunday night banquet. In the CHFB Hospitality Suite shared by Gary Prange and Joe Busam, Jim and I did most of our infrequent talking while mutually absorbed in watching "Monsterama" shorts from the Monsters HD channel. On Saturday night, when the suite was filled to the gills with people, I saw Donna and Marian having an animated discussion and I had to cross the room to listen in. Favorite memory: Their neat and interesting girl-talk about the real life problems of producing/copy-editing magazines.

And while I'm at it...

Tom Weaver Horror cinema's most accoladed scribe likes to project the image of a crusty cuss who can recognize poseurs and bad apples from the get-go. All this is true; Tom isn't one to suffer fools or willingly waste his own time (we saw him make a few early exits from various festivities over the weekend, but always after bidding a formal farewell and thank-you to his hosts). But those who know Tom well will confirm that he's actually a big softie, and good company because he's someone who can always be trusted to find the humor in any situation. Favorite memory: His generous comments about me while accepting the Rondo for Best Writer... at least I think they were about me! If so, coming from Tom, they were better than winning the award!

Chris Walas How many times in life can you meet someone, not see them for 20 years, and then suddenly pick up exactly where you left off, as though time stood still? That's how it was when I went up to Chris at Wonderfest and tapped him on the shoulder. We haven't seen each other since THE FLY was in production back in 1986. For him, it's an Academy Award, two directorial efforts and two kids later, and for me, it's 125 issues of VW and two novels later, but we're still the same people -- more seasoned and experienced, but still passionate about movies. Favorite memory: Our post-banquet talk about the films of Aleksandr Ptushko and Karel Zeman, and meeting his eldest daughter, who is Chris's wife Gillian (the continuity person on THE FLY, whom I first met on VIDEODROME in 1981) all over again. (Chris has heard about a big new Russian fantasy film made within the last few years, but he doesn't know the title -- could it be that new remake of VIY I've been reading about?)

John Clymer An occasional poster at the Classic Horror Film Boards, John is just Good People. We first met at the last Wonderfest we attended, a couple of years ago, and Donna and I enjoy hanging out with him. We had a few opportunities and got to see a picture of his pretty little daughter. John held our digital camera during the Rondo Awards ceremony and took the pictures seen in Part 1 of this report. Favorite memory: Learning that John had read and enjoyed THE BOOK OF RENFIELD while on a business trip last year.

Richard and Angie Olson
Father and daughter. Richard, whose home movies planted the seed of inspiration for Joe Busam's MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES, is a towering teddy bear of a man; he raised Donna off the ground when he hugged her -- and Joe Busam says he does the same when he hugs him. A warm and effusive man, he is just about the love of monster movies incarnate, and we enjoyed the little tour he gave us of the memorabilia sideshow he helped furnish at the show. Richard's daughter Angie has her father's sweet nature and made an excellent presenter at the Rondo Awards and (as seen here) a makeup model for CSI makeup artist John Goodwin. Favorite memory: A couple of people told me they saw father and daughter sitting in the hotel hallway sharing tears of joy and sadness when Wonderfest ended. I know how they felt.

And last but never least...

Donnie Waddell Meeting Donnie, the talent coordinator of Wonderfest, was very much like meeting an old friend... because he's like David Del Valle all over again! There is a slight resemblance between them, but if I was blindfolded and listening to them, I might have trouble figuring out which one of them was in the room with me. (Well, eventually I would... eventually, Donnie stops and David doesn't!) But Donnie's mind, like David's, is a freewheeling carousel of pop cultural references that can and will keep an entire room in stitches. I'll never be able to think of Gordon Lightfoot the same way again. Favorite memory: Donnie and me riffing on the 1966 BATMAN movie and premiere episode, especially his dead-on impression of an inebriated Caped Crusader: "Robin! I've got to find Robin!"

Undoubtedly there were many other terrific people at Wonderfest we didn't meet or with whom we didn't share much time. It was good to see Vincent di Fate again, and it was only as we were preparing to leave that I met Dave Conover, who I am hoping to interest in writing a feature article about Willis O'Brien's abandoned WAR EAGLES project (the subject of a fantastic after-banquet slide show). Ah well... thanks to everyone for the happy memories.

"That's my final report / Of the Wonderfest sort / Till next year on the WatchBlog Fitzgerallllld -- Woo HOO!"

All photos reproduced in this blog are copyrighted (c) by Tim & Donna Lucas, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

INNOCENCE reviewed

2004, Artificial Eye (UK), DD-5.1/LB/16:9/French with optional English subtitles, £19.99, 114m 56s, DVD-2

This award-winning debut feature by French writer-director Lucile Hadzihalilovic demonstrates remarkably assured talent and an enticing command of poetic unease recalling the Val Lewton productions of the 1940s. Shot under the working title L'ECOLE ("The School") and based on the novella MINE-HAHA, OU L'EDUCATION CORPORALE DE JEUNE FILLES ("Mine-Haha, or The Physical Education of Young Girls") by LULU playwright Frank Wedekind, INNOCENCE opens with subjective images of what may be a drowning, then cuts to the interior of a school for young girls (aged 6-12) where a group of tiny ballerinas encircle a small coffin, open the lid, and welcome new student Iris (Zoé Auclair) to their world.

Iris attaches herself to a pretty older student, Bianca (Bérangère Haubruge), who is preparing for a new chapter in her life. Her adult teachers prepare her for menstruation and, each night at 9:00, she departs from the school and walks down an eerily illuminated path in the woods to some unknown place. After we discover that the school's wooded grounds are encircled by a tall, ivy-covered wall without no discernible exit, and that anyone who attempts to leave the schoolgrounds must thereafter stay forever and serve the girls who will follow, the story's focus shifts to the dilemmas being suffered by other students. Among these are Alice (Lea Bridarolli), a graceful dancer whose desperation to know what exists outside the school leads her to audition for the school's Headmistress (Corinne Marchand), and another girl who unmoors a boat and heads downstream to the heart of darkness. The film returns to Iris as she prepares to follow Bianca to her evening destination, and as Bianca and some other older girls are asked to perform for a mysterious audience in a theater that could pass for the Club Silencio.

This is decidedly not a horror film -- don't expect scares -- but if you can be content with a magic realist story that is insinuated rather than told, rooted in intriguing questions rather than answers, and which may be an allegory or a fantasy situated in the Afterlife or in pre-natal memory, this is for you. In a director's interview included in the supplements, Hadzihalilovic lists Robert Bresson and Dario Argento as principal influences, and there is something of SUSPIRIA in the tenebrous ballet school setting, as well as something of Bresson in the pensive yet hazy pitch of the narrative. I couldn't understand why, but, throughout the film, my thoughts kept drifting back to Gaspar Noé's IRREVERSIBLE, which is set in an entirely different milieu; I learned afterwards that the cinematographer of INNOCENCE was Benoît Debie, who photographed both IRREVERSIBLE and Argento's THE CARD PLAYER. Working largely without artificial light, he contributes some of his best work here, and the director dedicates her maiden effort to Noé.

American viewers particularly, I suppose, should be cautioned that the film features some of its young cast members (while swimming, and so forth) in various stages of undress. These scenes are natural, non-exploitative, and non-eroticized, but may make some viewers uncomfortable. One brief scene with Mlle. Haubruge features frontal nudity and touches on eroticism in that it concerns her curiosity about her changing body, but the scene is filmed in such a way as to almost guarantee the use of a body double.

Available domestically from Xploited Cinema.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Bond Bows in Hi-Def

Sean Connery informs Prof. Dent that he's had his six in DR. NO.

James Bond is making his world hi-definition premiere today on Film Fest HD, one of the VOOM channels available from Dish Network. All month long, 24/7, the channel will be showing "Ultimate Bond in HD" -- 17 different classic Bond films in cleaner, sharper, more brilliant detail than they have ever been seen before. The festivities began today with DR. NO, LIVE AND LET DIE, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, MOONRAKER and THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, all hosted by a tuxedoed, Walther PPK-toting David Hasselhoff, who treats viewers between films to Bondian trivia amid a high-tech wash of digital graphics.

After catching the very end of THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, I couldn't resist hanging around to watch a complete feature and had the luck to start at the beginning with 1962's DR. NO. The films are described as being shown in their original aspect ratios (as indeed THE SPY WHO LOVED ME was), but DR. NO was decidedly cropped to 1.78:1 from its original 1.66 ratio. The tops of some heads were cropped off, so we can almost certainly expect the same when the title comes to MGM HD DVD. That by-no-means-minor reservation aside, I was very impressed by the quality of the presentation; in HD, you can see the subtle makeup applied to Sean Connery's knuckles after a fistfight and, unlike some earlier home video releases which bumped up the color, the color volume in evidence here was absolutely realistic, with Quarrel's (John Kitzmiller's) hot red T-shirt standing out brilliantly against pools of pale green sea water. (I can see this will be an interesting and welcome aspect of HD transfers, their ability to present hot and cool colors in the same frame without heating/cooling or neutralizing both.) I don't believe I've seen DR. NO since watching the Criterion Collection laserdisc, and I remember writing about that release that the film looked conspicuously cheaper than its many successors. I don't know why that should have been the case, because this presentation gave the impression of a film that looked a good deal more expensive than I know it was. And the privilege of getting "closer" to Eunice Gayson, Zena Marshall and Ursula Andress through the miracle of HD is itself worth the price of installation. You can almost taste Miss Taro's lip gloss.

Among tomorrow's offerings: FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE. Having lived with HD television for awhile, one gets kind of used to it... but knowing that these two are in the offing, I'm feeling giddy about the possibilities.

A Sense of Wonderfest, Part 3

Bob Burns and the gorilla his dreams.

Have you ever heard of... KONG?

Well, he was at Wonderfest too -- in the form of the animation model armature used in the 1933 classic -- along with his similarly skinned relative, Mighty Joe Young. Carl Denham had to capture him on Skull Island and bring him to New York City against his will, but Kong is now a willing world traveller in the company of his current keepers Bob and Kathy Burns, who generously brought Kong and Joe along to Louisville in a continuation of an unofficial World Tour.

This tour began in 2005, when the Burnses took Kong for a personal visit to the production headquarters of the Peter Jackson remake in New Zealand. Kong was later Jackson's "date" at the film's World Premiere in New York City in December 2005, where Bob & Kathy were surprised to find that their participation in a crowd scene was actually a playful cover for the fact that Jackson had sneakily photographed them in close-up. You can see them onscreen just as Kong breaks free of his shackles in the theater and emerges on the wintery streets of Manhattan.

On Sunday night, after the Wonderfest banquet, Kathy Burns presented a special slide show reminiscing about Kong's visit to the KONG set and the Weta special effects facilities, where Kong met and was articulated by everyone from the coffee servers in the animation department to Peter Jackson himself. He was even animated for the first time since 1933 -- an unbelievable treat that's included in the extras of Warner Home Video's KING KONG DVD, a moment that Bob says actually brought him to tears.

The Burns slides captured the hearts of Wonderfesters because they vividly conveyed the power this comparatively (and admirably) simple prop has to excite peoples' imaginations. When people handle this model, move his jaws, arms, and multi-jointed fingers, they find themselves literally in the driver's seat of movie magic. The faces captured in Bob & Kathy's slides are a combination of intense focus, infinitely youthful admiration, and open-hearted affection.

The two armatures -- built some 16 years apart -- sport some interesting differences. Kong has no toes, while Joe has articulated toes (with some residue of their original covering still visible). Joe also has a bendable wire brow, facilitating more detailed facial expressions.

As in New Zealand, Bob allowed the two props to be freely handled by anyone and everyone at Wonderfest. I didn't witness a single instance of anyone abusing this privilege, trying to photograph Kong with an obscene digit raised, or anything that would have sullied the preciousness of the opportunity. I asked Bob if either of the armatures required any upkeep, like regular oiling or WD-40-ing, and he said that both were so well-made, they haven't needed anything of the sort. Kathy told Donna and me that it's her feeling that the models get so much exercise, thanks to Bob's generosity with them, that they are kept limber by nothing more than the loving attention regularly paid to them.

With Bob's kind permission, we photographed Kong holding his favorite magazine... but that shot is being reserved for a place of honor in our next issue, which we're finishing up this week.

To Be Continued.

"Well, you cannot go wrong / If you're meeting King Kong / So ahoy from the Wonderfestgerald -- Woo HOO!"

The KKK took my baby away...

The King Kong Kiss, that is!

All photos reproduced in this blog are copyrighted (c) by Tim & Donna Lucas, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Sense of Wonderfest, Part 2

Rondo Winners of 2006: Joe Busam, Donnie Dunagan, Donna Lucas, Tom Weaver, Basil Gogos, Tim Lucas, Bob Burns, John Goodwin (accepting for Dan Roebuck) and Kathy Burns. Photo courtesy of David Phillippi.)
One of the highlights of Wonderfest was the Rondo Awards ceremony on Saturday afternoon. Previous shows found the awards appended to another assembly, but this year, the Rondos came fully into their own with host David Colton illustrating the show with an animated Powerpoint backdrop and handing out the awards with the help of a bona fide presenter (presentrix?), Angie Olson.

Donna and I accept our third and fourth Rondo Awards for Best Magazine. (Photo by John Clymer.)

Taking the stage with Donna to accept our Rondo for Best Magazine (VIDEO WATCHDOG, of course) for the third and fourth years in a row, I explained that I felt a little guilty about receiving the 2005 award for producing six issues annually when we produced twice that many the previous year. As she is liable to do, Donna promptly corrected me by saying that we had actually produced eight issues last year. "Oh, then to hell with guilt!" I joked. Donna rightly pointed out that none of what we did would be possible without our wonderful contributors, and we closed by encouraging everyone to "Support Your Free Press!" (That doesn't mean "free" as in Internet, by the way. Support paper magazines if you like the idea of information sources you can trust and hold accountable -- not to mention collect!)

Donnie Dunagan and Tom Weaver accept their Rondos for Best Magazine Article of 2004 from host David Colton. (Photo by John Clymer.)

Another VW-related victory at the Rondo ceremony was the presentation of last year's Best Article award to Donnie Dunagan and interviewer Tom Weaver for "Here's To a Son of the House of Frankenstein: The Donnie Dunagan Interview," which appeared in VW #112 and was described by host Colton as one of the most remarkable documents pertinent to the genre ever published. Tom self-effacingly accorded all credit for the interview's quality to Donnie and his extraordinary life. As a very surprised Major Dunagan accepted his award and addressed the audience, he said that he recognized Rondo Hatton and had always thought of him as "the unsung hero." The Major has received many military honors in his illustrious career, but he accepted his Rondo with all the emotion and humility of someone who was, until the appearance of this interview, an unsung hero in terms of his own screen career.

Joe Busam accepts the Rondo for Best Independent DVD as David Colton smiles approvingly. (Photo by John Clymer.)

Perhaps the biggest cheers at the Rondo Awards were reserved for Joe Busam, who accepted two awards this year -- one for his production of the PPS Group's MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES DVD (Best Independent DVD) and another naming him "Monster Kid of the Year." Joe is a fellow Cincinnatian and he told me over dinner last night that, aside from his marriage and the births of his children and the knowledge that his first grandchild is on the way, the Rondo ceremony was the greatest moment of his life. The Best Independent DVD award is now displayed in the reception area of the PPS Group offices where Joe works, and his Monster Kid of the Year award has pride of place in his own home. I've never known a more thorough and sincerely deserving Monster Kid than Joe, and it made me feel good to see his superb efforts and his sweet nature recognized and applauded.

David and Angie did a splendid job of presiding over the festivities, and special thanks to the wonderful Eileen Colton (a Woodstock veteran!) for painting the Rondo busts so beautifully.

In closing for today, there are some more things I'd like to add about Donnie Dunagan. Since posting Part 1 of this report, I remembered another topical area that the Major and I covered in our dinner conversation. We got into a discussion of the troubles being experienced by our country and how the current political system -- a polarized situation between two basically similar parties -- isn't helping. I mentioned that, in my view, the foundation of this attitude may reside in the way we're taught, from early on, "right from wrong," which leads to a simplified, either/or view of the world when many of the truths and solutions more likely reside in the gray area between. It takes more thinking to navigate that gray area, but more thoughtfulness is what this country needs. I also wish that competitive sports weren't stressed so much in schools and recreational activities; I know the theory is that it teaches kids to excel, but it also teaches kids to excel at the cost of others' excelling and fosters a liking for seeing one's competitors ground into the dirt. I'm all for sports based on individual performance, but team sports (I feel) are... if not uncivilized, at least decivilizing at heart, fostering "us versus them" thinking that we, as adults, carry over to our politics, and "scoring" attitudes that trivialize our sexual lives (and render some men deaf to the word "no"), not to mention the barbaric levels of mob violence and destructive behavior that are increasingly noticed at sports-related celebrations. I don't expect to change anybody's mind about this, but if it can happen with smoking... and I really do see this as something we need to evolve beyond before the planet can achieve true peace.

"Where's me Pot o' Gold?" Donnie Dunagan catches a pretty leprechaun at Wonderfest.

From there, we went on to discuss the media situation, which is increasingly isolating and polarizing the way Americans think. For one political party to demonize the other, we agreed, chews away like a rat at the foundation of American brotherhood. With the number of specialized cable channels available now, right-wing and left-wing thinkers have their own newscasts and need never be exposed to the other guy's way of thinking. And increasingly, Americans don't care to know what the other guy thinks. (You should read some of the mail we've received about the unavoidable political content in the LAND OF THE DEAD round table discussion in our current issue. It's like some conservatives feel that they have the right NOT to ever be exposed to contrary thinking, however reasonably expressed, and that no one with a contrary view has the right to put forth their viewpoint. And, for the record, I don't regard the most lavishly-spending, invasive US President in history as "conservative" by definition. But that's just how I and Noah Webster feel.) As Donnie told me, General George Patton attributed much of his military success to the fact that he had read the writings of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. Yes, if you expose yourself to alternative thinking, you may run the risk of having your mind changed -- not because it will brainwash you, but because you may persuaded to genuinely see the error of your own closed-mindedness. As Donnie pointed out, for those who truly do have the conviction of their beliefs, familiarizing oneself with the way "the other side" thinks could be the key to anticipating their actions and staging their defeat. The arrogance of self-righteousness is, simply put, a weakness. Many a kingdom has fallen due to assumption and vanity. And we would never have achieved civilization if the great orators of ancient Greece hadn't conceived the symposium, giving everyone an equal voice and, more importantly, equal attention.

Donnie told me that he had read extensively the writings of America's founding fathers. I haven't, but according to him, America was initially founded on the principle that the presidency would be shared by a rotating system of five privileged families, which would have been equivalent to a domestic monarchy, if a slightly more democratic one. It was Thomas Jefferson, he told me, who proposed the party system and Benjamin Franklin who wrote that the worst thing that could ever befall this new land was to adopt a two party system; his writing specified that anything less than a five-party system was corruptible and very dangerous. He said that if I was to read Benjamin Franklin's writings on American politics with the key names and some turns of phrase blanked out, I would swear I was reading a description of our current problems.

To Be Continued.

"There's much more to say / But you must wait one day / Stay tuned to the WatchBlog Fitzgerald -- Woo HOO!"

All photos reproduced in this blog are copyrighted (c) by Tim & Donna Lucas, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Sense of Wonderfest, Part 1

This must be the place!

Today is my 50th birthday -- the Big 5-0, the Book 'Em Danno, the Half Century, the Halfway Mark, the Summit, the It's-all-downhill-from-here birthday. I'm not feeling too profound or eloquent about it, but I had a few unexpectedly profound experiences while attending Wonderfest this past weekend at the Executive West Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky.

Constant readers are aware there has been a sense of depression here at Video WatchBlog of late, brought on by the recent death of our friend Wayne Perry and a couple of other deaths in the family (we returned home on Monday to learn that Donna's Uncle Paul had died that morning), not to mention overwork and too many years spent without a vacation. Getting away for a weekend and spending some concentrated yet relaxed time with old and new friends was just what the Doctor ordered (his name is Dr. Gangrene, by the way, and he stands about 6' 5").

Dr. Gangrene meets your Video WatchBlogger.

The event is well-named. Being at Wonderfest is like being present at a sampling of what life would be like if people were into imaginative fantasy rather than competitive sports, politics, and other polarizing pastimes. Everyone there was so friendly and so polite; if I ever bumped into someone accidentally, another smiling apology would be made as I made mine. I felt absolutely no tension, no fannish antagonism, nothing negative or needling from anybody. It was heavenly. And, as Donna remarked, it was also uplifting to find ourselves in the good company of so many artistically gifted people:

Graphic maestri like Basil Gogos, Kerry Gammill and Frank Dietz...

Actors like Yvonne Craig (a sweetheart), Donnie Dunagan (a superman and a super man), and the wonderful Bob Burns (Monster Kid #1), who brought along the original armatures of Mighty Joe Young and, yes, King Kong ("Somebody get my picture with this guy!" cried Major Dunagan. "I finally found someone here older than me!")...

Effects artists like Chris Walas (with whom I was reunited for the first time since we met on the set of THE FLY -- could it really be 20... gulp... years ago? -- and the two of us yammered about Aleksandr Ptushko and Karel Zeman like a house afire)...

Fellow editors (like David Colton of USA TODAY and The Classic Horror Film Boards), magazine publishers (like Jim & Marion Clatterbaugh of MONSTERS FROM THE VAULT), and writers like Tom Weaver (who paid me a cherished compliment as he accepted his fourth consecutive Rondo for Best Writer) and Gary Prange (who's pregnant with what promises to be one hell of a book on silent films)...

VW fans like Paul J. Schiola and Jason Bechard, whose enthusiasm and affection for the magazine was almost palpable...

Old pals like Joe Busam (Rondo's Monster Kid of the Year 2005) and John Clymer... new friends like Larry "Dr. Gangrene" Underwood, MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES star Richard Olsen and daughter Angie, and the unforgettable Donnie Waddell (who can set any situation to the theme of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald")... and of course, that earthly angel Kathy Burns, who, during the Banquet festivities on Sunday night, was rightly presented with an award simply for being herself and so well-loved by everyone present. (My heartbreak of the show was not getting to spend more time with Kathy, or a picture together, but we share the frame in the Rondo winners roundup shot taken by Eileen Colton, which can be found at the CHFB "Horror Events" folder, under "Live from Wonderfest '06.")

If it sounds more like Lovefest than Wonderfest... well, it was that too. There was a whole lot of hugging going on.

You never know just who you're going to meet... at Wonderfest!

Some stories from the weekend...

I took a copy of the British edition of my novel THROAT SPROCKETS to Wonderfest as a gift for Joe Busam and it sat in the hospitality suite shared by him and Gary Prange through Friday and Saturday, waiting for me to sign it. Then, on Sunday morning, as Donna and I were preparing to attend the Yvonne Craig Q&A, it suddenly dawned on me that Yvonne was mentioned in THROAT SPROCKETS and could, in a sense, be called a character in it (her surrogate, anyway)! After the Q&A, I found Joe and explained the situation to him, and he graciously returned the book to me (he's getting his replacement copy tonight); I promptly inscribed it and got in line at Yvonne's table.

I introduced myself as the fellow who had asked the two embarrassing questions at her Q&A -- one about the Batgirl theme song, and another about the made-for-TV behind-the-scenes BATMAN movie, of neither of which she's very fond. "Now," I continued, "I have to bring up something that just might embarrass us both..." I proceeded to tell her the basic outline of THROAT SPROCKETS (as her eyes enlarged) and then explained that there is a fantasy-tinged chapter in which my hero finds a movie theater called The House of Usherettes (she laughed) that is staffed by four '60s starlet celebrity lookalikes (a bright lady, she now anticipated the punchline to all this preamble): Pamela Franklin, Stella Stevens, Barbara Steele... and Yvonne Craig, all of whom were responsible in different ways for, shall we say, erecting a composite Feminine Ideal in my fevered brain during my formative years.

I presented Yvonne with the book and she seemed very surprised and touched by the tribute, then she asked quickly if I had her book of memoirs, FROM BALLET TO THE BATCAVE AND BEYOND. I didn't, so she pulled one over, put it under her pen and signed a gift copy to me. "We're two authors swapping books!" she told her sister Meridel, who was assisting at the table.

Back in the House of Usherettes... but this time, it's for real.

Yvonne and Meridel. Aren't they cute together?

Sidebar: I've now been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to share THROAT SPROCKETS with three of my Usherettes over the years, the other two being Pamela Franklin and Barbara Steele. When I brought it to Barbara's attention, she was in the process of reading the book but hadn't reached the Usherettes chapter yet, so I read it to her aloud. She was amused by the key line I gave her, and later told me she thought TS "a masterpiece." Pamela Franklin, my first movie crush and an enduring one, I've never met but we have spoken a few times by telephone. I sent her a copy of the book and she later told me honestly that, while she was flattered by her cameo, the book wasn't her "cup of tea," though she did find it "very well-written." Yvonne told me that she was especially pleased to receive the book because she had been dreading her flight home, not having brought anything along with her to read. I hope she likes it; I've already read her book, which I enjoyed a good deal, and I got a kick out of thinking that we might be reading each other simultaneously. The woman conveyed by her autobiography is bright and quirky, well-read and full of humor, so she just might appreciate it. I hope so.

On Saturday night, everybody was hoping to eat together at one big table, but it just wasn't possible at the Executive West's restaurant. Donna and I lucked out because we were assigned to a booth with Donnie and Dana Dunagan, whom we've known by e-mail since the time we accepted Tom Weaver's Rondo-winning interview with Donnie for publication in VW #112. We met them for the first time when they accepted our invitation to join us upstairs in the CHFB hospitality suite hosted by Gary Prange and Joe Busam, where Donnie held the room spellbound with the story of their very scary flight to the convention through stormy skies. "His mudder was de lightnink!" indeed!

L to R: David Colton, Maj. Don Dunagan (retired on wounds), Donna and me, and the lovely Dana Dunagan (in a T-shirt of her own design)

It's one thing to talk to Donnie about his Hollywood experience, and it's an incredible thing because this is a man who shared the screen with Boris Karloff (in his Frankenstein Monster makeup no less) and took direction from the same man (Rowland V. Lee) who inspired Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill to give what are arguably their greatest performances. He also has the last line in the picture! On top of that, he was the voice and animation model for BAMBI, which might very well be the one Disney animated classic whose negative I, as an animal lover, would rescue from a burning building over all the others, if it came to that.

But after you work through all the movie questions with Donnie, and you move on to more important topics that concern anyone and everyone who draws breath, that's when you discover how fortunate you really are to be sharing his time. Women seem to love him at first sight, but there is also something profound that happens to men when they meet the Major (and I had others agree with me on this). To stand in the same room with him makes you want to stand up straighter, to suck it in, to look him right back in the eye, to cash in all your bad habits and follow his example. He is a walking inspiration. What did I take away from meeting Donnie Dunagan? I grew up without a father; I've known many men in my life, of course, and most of them are (like me) big kids. I have to say, in all candor, that the Major is the first man I've ever met who gave me a profound sense of what I missed out on by not having a father.

Donnie Dunagan - my new Zen master.

I don't have the best memory in the world where details are concerned, and after that dinner, I felt almost emotional over the fact that I knew that the details of much of our conversation would fade sooner than later. (The acoustics in the restaurant were also terrible, and I had a hard time hearing some of what he said -- and, I'm sure, vice versa.) But one thing I'll never forget: As the four of us sat there in the booth, impressed by our food, I said, "Donnie, here's a question for you: You're 72 years old, you've lived and worked all over the world -- what was the greatest meal you ever had?"

He looked up, as if in search of an answer, or humbled by one already in mind. His eyes sparkled as he told me: "An orange!" About ten years ago, the Dunagans were involved in a terrible automobile accident when someone fiddling with their CD player slammed into the side of their car. Donnie was thrown from the vehicle and Dana rolled forward, over the edge of the road and down into a nearby ravine. She suffered some relatively minor injuries, but Donnie was nearly totalled (and not for the first time in his eventful life) with a broken neck and a lot of upper torso damage. He lay in a hospital bed -- in a body cast, unable to open his mouth, fed only by IV -- for the next three months. During that time, he focused on the taste of orange juice and the simple act of eating an orange obsessed him. His desire to taste an orange again saw him overcome the odds for recovery that his doctors had given him. His damaged throat had required some reconstructive work and, after his swallowing mechanism was tested and deemed safe, he was treated to the greatest meal of his life.

I was expecting maybe a colorful description of some incredible Thai dish he'd sampled while stationed in Asia, or perhaps a mind-melting Down South dinner he'd eaten back in the days when he twice marched as a Federal agent with Dr. Martin Luther King. But, instead, Maj. Dunagan astonished me with a snap return to basics, reminding me of what really counts in life, and the preciousness of the most common, easily-taken-for-granted human experience.

To Be Continued.

"There's more in store / Of Wonderfest lore / Right here on the WatchBlog Fitzgerald.... Woo-HOO!"

All photos reproduced in this blog are copyrighted (c) by Tim & Donna Lucas. All rights reserved.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Ritual Echo Goes Live

You may remember reading at some point on VW's Kennel page that Audio Watchdog Douglas E. Winter (above, right) has started a band called Ritual Echo with friends Leslie Combemale (center) and Michael Barry (left). Doug just sent me this link to the band's new website, where you can listen to and download various songs that he, Leslie and Michael recorded together -- or click on their names to go to personal pages where other music, created individually, can be heard and accessed. Last Christmas, Doug sent me a limited CD with some holiday-themed tracks by the band (including a cover of The BeeGees' "Holiday"), which was pretty good. The originals archived on their site are more compelling and powerful and boast a distinctive group identity. Check it out.

A Jolly Birthday Q & A

This past week -- on May 24th (Bob Dylan's 65th birthday, as a matter of fact) -- my second novel, THE BOOK OF RENFIELD: A GOSPEL OF DRACULA, quietly celebrated its first birthday, or anniversary of publication. The year has gone by very quickly. Like my first novel THROAT SPROCKETS, THE BOOK OF RENFIELD received some truly wonderful reviews (if too few overall for my liking) and didn't sell terribly well as hoped. It takes a similar approach to the Dracula legend as did Elizabeth Kostova's #1 blockbuster THE HISTORIAN, a coincidence that allowed my book to freeload on the front-of-house theme tables her book was given in various bookstore chains, but I suppose that one 700-page Dracula-related novel per year is all that most readers can handle.

When my novel came out, a week or so before HISTORIAN fever hit, I was approached by a couple of different websites with requests for interviews. Neither of them followed through, but as I was waiting, I undertook a personal exercise to become more conscious of what I had achieved with the book: I conducted a pre-interview with myself. I've long planned to complete this text and post it on the www.bookofrenfield.com website, but what with everything else that's going on, I haven't had the time. And now a whole year has gone by. But this blog needs material and I thought, given the fact of its anniversary this past week, that this partial interview might suffice. May it inform the book's earliest readers and inspire a few to hop aboard the next wave.

PS: Don't you worry. We'll get back to discussing movies one of these days.


THE BOOK OF RENFIELD is your second published novel, and your first in eleven years. Why did it take so long?

There's more than one answer to this. I earn my living as the publisher and editor of Video Watchdog, a monthly magazine, and these duties claim most of the hours in my day. At any one time, my wife Donna and I might be sending out one issue, working on another, and planning the next. Therefore, any time that I spend writing fiction has to be stolen from this work or other writing projects. I think anybody who's done the time will tell you there are few tasks less attractive than writing at night after you've spent all day writing. It doesn't matter that it's two different kinds of writing; that particular shifting of gears I find to be part of the problem. Also, I've spent a big chunk of the past decade finishing the manuscript of my non-fiction book, MARIO BAVA - ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, a critical biography of the Italian film director which I started researching back in 1975.

Despite these other demands on my time, I did write some other fiction between the two published novels. One of the projects was a novel that I'm currently back to working on, called THE ONLY CRIMINAL. I had the idea for this novel in 1977 and, over the years, it's been a short story, a novella, and more than one stillborn novel. I'm still in love with the concept, and after a very long and difficult gestation, the current draft is now singing... at least through about the first quarter of the third act. The other project was a novella called THE ART WORLD that, on the advice of a former agent, I expanded into a novel called THE COLOR OF TEARS. I'm fond of this one, in both its forms; I suppose you could call it progressive science fiction, because it's a human story that's only incidentally science fiction. It's not in print yet because my agent at the time, Lori Perkins, counseled me that it should be saved as the centerpiece of a collection of short fiction. Unfortunately, I don't seem to write short fiction. So I was actually fairly industrious during this seemingly fallow period between novels.

What made you decide to write a novel based on Bram Stoker's DRACULA?

THE BOOK OF RENFIELD was conceived for purely commercial reasons, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. A year or two after THROAT SPROCKETS was published, I was talking to Lori Perkins about what I might write next. We had both noticed that a lot ofpeople reviewing my book had compared it, sometimes favorably, to another novel called FLICKER by Theodore Roszak. Lori told me that Mr. Roszak had received a handsome advance for his new book, THE MEMOIRS OF ELIZABETH FRANKENSTEIN, and I suppose MARY REILLY was happening around this time also. Anyway, Lori suggested I think about something like that for my next book. As it happened, I had just finished reading DRACULA for the first time since high school (in Leonard Wolf's annotated edition), so the notion of a retelling of Dracula from Renfield's perspective came to me quickly. Renfield is one of the greatest and most identifiable characters in horror fiction, but he had never been the subject of his own novel before. Lori became very excited by the idea and told me to work upan outline and a fifty-page sample. This I did, writing the entire Seward foreword -- pretty much as it still reads in the novel -- in a couple of inspired sittings. The clincher was that I could deliver THE BOOK OF RENFIELD in time for it to coincide with the Dracula centenary in 1997... but, as it happened, Lori couldn't find a publisher interested in doing anything to coincide with the Dracula centenary. So the sample chapter and outline went into the proverbial drawer. For the next eight years.

Once Lori commits herself to something, she doesn't stop, and she continued to pitch the novel to anyone willing to listen. It was after discussing the book with Marcela Andres, an editor at Simon & Schuster, that Lori was advised to pitch it to another young editor at the company, Allyson E. Peltier, who had a liking for dark subjects. Ally read the sample and, after discussing it with me, decided she was interested in acquiring it... but I hadn't written a word of it in eight years... Could I deliver? Like the actor who insists he knows how to ride a horse, then does his best to learn, I said "Of course" and signed the contract... which meantthat I had to deliver it. With VW and the Bava book being written at the same time, of course.

I fought with the book a great deal, especially in its early stages, but my difficulties weren't about not knowing what to do. They were about coming to terms with certain autobiographic matters that I had chosen to share with Renfield. There were things in my past I knew that Renfield would also have to experience, but I wasn't too keen about living through those episodes again.

For example?

It's difficult to answer that question without invading the privacy of others, but I can point to the part of my dedication that specifies "my dead father and absent mother." Therein lies the personal genesis of the novel.

I was born in May 1956, six months after the death of my father. He died during reconstructive heart surgery on November 14, 1955 -- exactly one week after the birth of my wife, in the same city. Because I have never known a time when my father was not dead, this made him what you might call an "active absence" in my life; the only way I could know him was to imagine him. My mother -- widowed in her 20s, while pregnant with a son her husband didn't know was coming, went back to work (as I understand it) after I turned three, and I was subsequently placed in the homes of different families during the week. My mother would pick me up on weekends, take me to movies, buy me toys, and so forth. So, like Renfield, I was raised in strangers' homes, sleeping in rooms that weren't mine, which gave me plenty of time in which to daydream about both my absent parents, and to look forward to the weekends, when one of them would come for me.

As I describe in the novel, whenever I was placed in homes with other little boys of my own age, my introduction into the family was always seen as an invasion of their turf. Consequently, these boys would lie about me to get me into trouble, or if they were slightly older or bigger, physically beat me -- which made those times when my mother returned for me all the more important. Friday brought the joy of rescue, and Sunday night always brought the dread of going back. I didn't return to live with my own mother until the age of eight, when I was yanked out of my foster home after one of these boys (older than me by about four years) actually made an attempt on my life, succeeding in stabbing me through the foot with a butcher knife. He threatened me not to reveal my injury or risk another beating, but my limping gave it away... My mother took me to a doctor as soon as she was told, but too much time had passed for the wound to be sealed with stitches. I still have the scar, of course.

I remember reading somewhere that children do all their most important bonding with parents between the ages of three and eight, which is the exact time frame in which I was living in these cold (and sometimes dangerous) family situations as an outsider and victim. By the time I returned to live with my mother full-time, she had remarried, moved into another apartment, and was expecting another child. In fact, she and her second husband had already separated; one day, he had a yard sale without her knowledge, selling all my toys and belongings for liquor money. So when I finally got to live at home, after getting stabbed, I found that my mother wasn't the same, our home wasn't the same, and every thing I had ever owned was gone. As a child, Renfield loses everything that he owns, too -- and he voluntarily walks away from it all at another point, which I also did.

Did you have any trepidations about following THROAT SPROCKETS with another vampire-themed novel?

Of course. I don't want to be stereotyped as a vampire novelist, or even as a horror novelist. Actually, neither of my novels is much about vampirism; "oral horror" might be a more accurate description. THROAT SPROCKETS is about neck fetishism, with the puncturing of the skin by the teeth representing thebreaking of a taboo. And THE BOOK OF RENFIELD is about zoöphagy: the eating of live things.

You've never been to England, yet THE BOOK OF RENFIELD is set there, pretty much in its entirety -- and Victorian London and pre-Victorian rural England, at that. How did you make the book's geographic descriptions so believable?

I suppose the various Englands of the novel are concoctions of scenery I've retained from a lifetime of seeing movies set in suchplaces. It was easy for me to envision the dirt roads, the vicarage, the field of cat tails, the ocean crashing beyond the ledge of land. But whatever veracity the novel's geography has, is due in large part to the input of my friend and fellow novelist Kim Newman, who was kind enough to look over an early draft of the book and tell me what I'd got wrong. He was even able to tell me where Renfield's childhood took place, and the process by which Jack Seward would have travelled from Carfax to the Harkers' home for dinner. These were tremendous gifts.

What would you say to the reader who loved THROAT SPROCKETS as a progressive work of horror fiction, who might think a novel in a traditional horror mode such as THE BOOK OF RENFIELD might be a backward step for you?

The two novels have more in common than may meet the eye. Or than may meet my own eye, for that matter, since it took one of my readers -- my friend Steve Bissette, actually -- to point out to me that THE BOOK OF RENFIELD's method of bolding excerpts from the Stoker novel suggests that I am giving my readers a privileged view of pages censored from the published text of Stoker's DRACULA. It's obvious now that it's been pointed out to me, but it never consciously occurred to me asI was writing the book. Stoker's novel is public domain now, so I wasn't obliged to bold the passages which the two books share in common, but on the one hand, I felt duty-bound to give full credit to Stoker where it was due, and I also wanted my editors to know how much of my novel was written by another hand as they read it. (I should mention that the editing of the book was taken over, mid-stream, by Brett Valley after Ally Peltier resigned her post to return to school.) Hence the bolding -- it was in the manuscript, but I left it up to Brett whether to keep it or standardize the typeface for publication. It was Brett's decision to keep it, and I'm glad he did because it gives the novel a similar textual resonance to THROAT SPROCKETS that happened, as you can see, almost in spite of myself. Some readers found the fluctuating emphases of type distracting. I find it innovative, if unintentionally so; it adds another level of depth to the prose, and perhaps a unique one.

THROAT SPROCKETS was also a composite work made up of first person accounts, third person accounts, newspaper articles, television transcripts and so forth, just as THE BOOK OF RENFIELD is composed of wax cylinder recordings, diary entries, and correspondence. Because I did write THROAT SPROCKETS, I think itwould be hard, if not impossible, for me to write a book that had none of the earlier work's perspective in it, even if the story is set in a different era. Perhaps the Stoker novel interested me so, initially, because of the way it cut-and-pasted its narrative, using different fictional sources, to suggest a more plausibly realistic world. This approach dates all the way back to Daniel Defoe and his A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR, but there's something anticipatory of William S. Burroughs in it too, at least as I practice it.

Furthermore, I see a lot of the nameless THROAT SPROCKETS protagonist in Jack Seward, who is essentially witnessing a horrific subject, trying to piece together a whole (or at least a whole diagnosis) from the pieces of the story he is given by Renfield, and abusing himself in the process, missing out on life as it passes him by. One of the curses of being a critic as well as a novelist is that you can't help analyzing your own work, to a degree.

THE BOOK OF RENFIELD ends with a modern day chapter which surprises the reader by invoking the events of September 11. Some reviewers have criticized the novel for "going there." Any rebuttal? Any regrets?

First, let me correct you/me on two important points. First, it's the penultimate chapter; the book doesn't end there. That's an important distinction, because I felt it was essential that the novel end in the Victorian era where most of it took place. (The final chapter is one of my favorite things about the book and one of my favorite pieces of my own writing.) Secondly, the very first thing that follows the dedication page and opening epigraph is an "Editor's Note" by Martin Seward, dated 2005. This, as well as the 1939 Foreword by Dr. John L. Seward (written on the eve of World War II) should make the reader more aware and accepting, fromthe very beginning, of a time frame extended beyond the years covered by the core story.

Part of my mission in writing this book was to bring to people's attention that Stoker's novel is still wonderfully modern and still thematically relevant. A friend of mine, Richard Harland Smith, also a VIDEO WATCHDOG contributor, was a New Yorker at the time of the 9/11 attacks and he posted on the Mobius Home Video Forum a marvelous essay about reading DRACULA with his girlfriend in the wake of that nightmare and discovering how much the novel reflected the feelings and fears he was witnessing among his fellow NewYorkers by day. I reproduced that essay in my novel, in full, with Richard's kind permission. I suppose the nature of the novel tempts some people to think I made him up, and his essay too, but both are real. (You can't find it online anymore because Mobius was hacked shortly before the book came out, losing its entire history of postings. But I assure you I am not making this up.)

So that chapter isn't an instance of me being facile and unfeeling about the price America paid that day, and cyncially capitalizing on it by putting it into a vampire novel. On the contrary, it's me quoting a sincere response felt at the time by someone who was actually living in the heart of all that horror and loss and trying to make sense of it. Richard's essay actually gave my novel a point of compass, a place to go, a reason to exist. As a storyteller, I can easily see a parallel between the wrecking of the Demeter against the rocks on the coast of Whitby, which unleashed a devastating evil against a cast of sympathetic characters, and the crashing of those jets into the World Trade Center... That's what novelists do, good ones anyway: They draw parallels; they ponder life and death and God; they interpret their times. If a reader feels I'm being presumptuous by doing this, then they aren't taking the threat posed in my novel seriously enough, which is part of the point which that chapter seeks to make. Our culture has made a friend of Dracula. Some people want to read my book to share vicariously in his bloodlust, and they are disappointed.

So, to answer your/my question... No, I have no regrets about this. On the contrary, I think it's the only direction in which the novel could have gone and become something more than a literary sport based on DRACULA. And why on earth should I want to write something as unnecessary as that?

I'm still flummoxed by the PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY review that got so hung up on how well I mimicked Stoker's writing style that the reviewer found the book's overall accomplishment "dubious." THE BOOK OF RENFIELD isn't about how well I mastered the Victorian vocabulary; it's a modern story about interpreting vintage materials. It's about the importance of learning from history, and a caution against admiring and making a friend or god of evil. It also shows how the practice of evil is often tied-up with the best of intentions, like religious zeal or the hunger for love.

There's a character in this book by the name of Jolly. Why Jolly?

Because "Brown Jenkin" was taken. Seriously, I chose the name Jolly because it was the name that came to mind as the narrative took that particular turn. The name was so dead-on, it made me laugh and I was never tempted to change it. The pet mouse episode also actually happened, I regret to say, though not exactly as it occurs in the book. Mine didn't come back to life. But, then again, it didn't occur to me until years later to conduct a Moonlight Experiment...

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

What Are You Doing Here

... when you could be visiting If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats (Cultural and Personal Observations by Tom Sutpen and Stephen Cooke) and downloading mp3s of the original interview tapes that composed the classic reference HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT?

HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT was the first book on film I ever bought, incidentally, at age 11 or 12 or thereabouts. I've always loved it, and Mr. Sutpen reports that the tapes are even better and more revealing. My thanks to him for sharing with the world.

The sixth installment (of a total projected 12 hours out of the complete 50) was posted on May 21; use the blog's search engine to locate the previous five. Make sure your computer knows where to send the sound files, right click, and you're in business.

Thanks to David Hudson of GreenCine Daily (one of my daily stops) for bringing this to my attention.

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!