Tuesday, June 20, 2006

CONGRATULATIONS


... to Stephen Jones and VW contributor Kim Newman, whose anthology HORROR: ANOTHER 100 BEST BOOKS has won the Horror Writers Association's coveted Bram Stoker Award for the Best Non-Fiction Book of 2005!

Other Bram Stoker Award winners include:

Novel: CREEPERS by David Morrell and DREAD IN THE BEAST by Charlee Jacob (tie)


First Novel: SCARECROW GODS by Weston Ochse

Long Fiction: "Best New Horror" by Joe Hill

Short Fiction: "We Now Pause for Station Identification" by Gary Braunbeck

Fiction Collection: TWENTIETH CENTURY GHOSTS by Joe Hill

Anthology: DARK DELICACIES edited by Jeff Gelb and Del Howison

Poetry Collection: FREAKCIDENTS by Michael A. Arnzen and SINEATER by Charlee Jacob (tie)

Speciality Press Award: Necessary Evil Press

Richard Laymon / President's Award: Lisa Morton

Lifetime Achievement Award: Peter Straub

VW's Stephen R. Bissette and I were among the contributors to HORROR: ANOTHER 100 BEST BOOKS and we're proud of the book and this victory. It's also presently a nominee for Best Non-Fiction Book on the International Horror Guild Awards ballot (as is Kim's "long fiction" piece for SciFi.com, "The Serial Murders"), and we certainly wish it and him well.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Carburetors, Man. That's What Life is All About.

Swan (Paul Williams) advises new contractee Winslow Leach (William Finley).

PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE 1974, Gaumont/Hollywood Classics Limited, DD-2.0 or 5.1/DTS 5.1/MA/LB/16:9/ST/+, $31.95, 87m 48s, PAL DVD-0
About five years ago, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment finally got around to issuing Brian DePalma's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE on DVD and kind of botched the job. The packaging was neither colorful or alluring, the transfer was dullish and flecked with grit, the audio was limited to 2.0, and the programming was completely without frills. Now there is an alternative release from Hollywood Classics Limited, a French company working "on behalf" of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, that has exercised conspicuously greater care in delivering this very special cult film to disc. The French have always recognized PHANTOM as a modern classic; as the packaging reminds us, it won the Grand Prize at the Festival du Film Fantastique at Avoriaz in 1975.
In case you're not fortunate enough to have seen the film, it's the story of a naïve young composer, Winslow Leach (William Finley), who hopes to interest the reclusive rock impresario Swan (Paul Williams) in his rock cantata-in-progress, FAUST. Swan proceeds to steal the music, which Winslow discovers by happening upon a female chorus audition where he meets Phoenix (Jessica Harper), whose voice suits his music perfectly. Winslow is framed for arrest and sentenced to prison -- at Sing Sing, no less -- but escapes in a mad frenzy when he learns that Swan's retro group The Juicy Fruits will be debuting FAUST at the opening of a new rock palace, the Paradise. Winslow is hideously disfigured in a record press while trashing the first pressing of FAUST, and he haunts the Paradise until Swan gives Phoenix the chance at stardom her talent warrants -- his murderous rampage inadvertently turning the opening night into an unparallelled success.
Upon its release in December 1974, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE played well in Los Angeles... but flopped nearly everywhere else in America, particularly in New York City. As the picture flailed about in search of an audience, 20th Century Fox financed two different ad campaigns, neither of which did the trick. Finally, Pressman Williams (the film's production company) shelled out for a spectacular last-ditch campaign by renowned HEAVY METAL artist Richard Corben... but by the time it was ready, the film had had its day.
There are many different theories as to why it didn't attract a large audience. Some cast members feel it was because the film dealt with the craven nature of the music business, which young people still trusted. Or could it have been the title's reference to the Paradise, which wasn't a real place and didn't mean anything to anyone? Personally, as someone who was working as a young music critic at the time, I remember that middle-of-the-road composer Paul Williams' prominence on the film posters didn't do any favors to the film's credibility as a rock movie -- the battle lines (read: prejudices) in music were more clearly defined in those days. But anyone who actually saw the film needed no further convincing that Williams was absolutely the right man for the jobs of composer and actor; indeed, his two-fisted contribution has ripened with time to become PHANTOM's greatest bid for immortality. True enough, the movie's enduring quality has continued to attact new generations of initiates; in fact, last April in Winnepeg, a wonderful-sounding event called the Phantompalooza had the idea to screen the film at a convention-like setting where the film's fans could meet with its surviving cast and crew. It didn't have a big opening weekend, but PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE bids to have one hell of a shelf life.
Watching it on this French import disc for the first time in several years, I was struck by how long PHANTOM sustains its high notes of perfection on so many different levels -- casting, performance, cinematography, editing, choreography, set and wardrobe design, the writing and direction by DePalma, and -- as I say, most significantly -- the words and music of Paul Williams, whose inspired libretto manages to simultaneously honor the past of rock 'n' roll while also satirizing it and venturing fresh and meaningful dimensions of wisdom and poignancy. No fantasy film buff can fail to marvel at the sheer breadth of the visual references DePalma and Company cull from the genre's past; the "Somebody Super Like You" sequence alone manages to fuse German Expressionism and Universal horror (not to mention the playful severed head tossing from Roger Corman's TALES OF TERROR) with the macabre stage antics of Alice Cooper into a dazzling synthesis of horror's past, present, and future.

Swan's house band The Juicy Fruits reinvented as Goth act The Undead:
Jeffrey Comanor, Harold Oblong (Peter Elbling) and Archie Hahn.

I mentioned performance, but merely mentioning it downplays the fact that everyone here was inspired to give their very best work, and performances such as those given by Jessica Harper, Paul Williams, Gerrit Graham and William Finley (so magnificently unlike his sinister menace in SISTERS) only seem sweeter with the passing of time. Harper, of course, had the talent and charisma to become a major star, not to mention a uniquely smoky gamine quality, but her audacious career choices (INSERTS, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, SHOCK TREATMENT and, of course, SUSPIRIA) and self-confessed independent streak worked against this, but she's played her career her way and undoubtedly derived great satisfaction from it. Also delightful is MEAN STREETS star George Memmoli as Philbin ("She was more than just a piece to me -- she was the light of my life!"). Had he lived, he would have surely gone on to become a SOPRANOS cast member.

I would love for someone to persuade me otherwise, but I've always found PHANTOM loses its momentum after its climactic rooftop sequence where the Phantom (William Finley) attempts suicide after witnessing a tryst between the evil Swan (Paul Williams) and his beloved interpreter Phoenix (Jessica Harper) and discovers himself and Swan both signed to contracts with the Devil. The remainder of the picture too abruptly switches gears from sprightly dark comedy to outright cynicism and tragedy, and the grand Dionysian finale at the Paradise is too shapeless and uncontrolled a conclusion to a story that is otherwise so well-constructed and resilient in the face of darkness. Had the film ended there, it would have been seriously compromised but, somehow, the end credits montage -- set to an extended take of Williams' rollicking "The Hell of It" -- succeeds in rescuing everything at the last minute. The Nino Rota-like music accompanies a montage of all the casting and performance coups, which is enough to refresh our emotional memory as to how wittily and wonderfully we've just been entertained, and send us out of the viewing experience on a cloud.

A star is born: Jessica Harper as Phoenix.

As mentioned above, the domestic DVD issue of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE was a serious disappointment. The French disc looks cleaner and moderately sharper, but, for reasons unknown to me, never on home video -- not on Beta, VHS, laserdisc, or DVD -- has the film ever conveyed the sparkle or the vivid presence it had in 35mm. Though the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer here is a notable improvement, the source elements include individual shots that look noticeably paler than the surrounding material, as if some footage had to be recovered from secondary elements and heavily cleaned. The continuing dullish complexion of the image may have something to do with the extensive optical work imposed on the film in post-production (to replace the "Swan Song" logo with that of "Death Records," when Led Zeppelin's newly-named record label brought suit against the film's producers); in the accompanying documentary, both DePalma and editor Paul Hirsch mourn the loss of the film they originally made, a "sinuous beauty" beside which the known version would be no more than an ugly stepsister. But this can't be the entire explanation because the film had a more lustrous, ebullient look in its initial theatrical playdates. Incidentally, though the packaging specifies this as a Region 2 disc, it is PAL Region 0.

The French disc offers the English and French 2.0 stereo tracks found on the domestic release, as well as brand new DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1 audio remixes. All of the musical performances are post-synchronized, so, even at its best, the music has no "live" presence and the studio recordings have a studied execution that's somewhat at odds with the freewheeling performances. That criticism aside, the presentation of the songs is unfailingly exciting, and DePalma's imagination as a director of musical sequences, hereafter untapped, is one of the film's greatest strengths. All of the soundtrack options are a delight, but the 2.0 mix needs cranking up; once the volume is adjusted, it improves upon the strictly separated stereo channels of the theatrical prints with a still discrete, yet more organic, embracing stereo image. Of the two five-channel mixes, both are outstanding -- what they do with the background vocals is especially revelatory -- but the DTS has the more shapely bass signal to our ears. If only the soundtrack album was available in a 5.1 mix...

"No one but Phoenix can sing FAUST! Anyone who tries... dies!"

A second disc includes "Paradise Regained," a delightful 50m 14s documentary that interviews nearly all of the surviving principals, including producer Edward Pressman, cameraman Larry Pizer, and editor Paul Hirsch (who contributes some of the best anecdotes). One wishes it had been a bit longer, because mention of how the production was slapped with four different lawsuits after Fox acquired the film for $2,000,000 does not explain how these respective suits were satisfied or dropped. People who love the film will be gratified by the actors' acknowledgement of the film's importance to them, and amused by their accounts of encounters with fans over the years. There are two minor sources of frustration. First of all, the documentary was clearly produced with the French DVD in mind, and Gerrit Graham chooses to reply to some questions in unsubtitled French. It's very basic French, though, and not too hard to follow. (Graham also contributes a 50s introduction to the film in French.) Secondly, cast member Archie Hahn is present at the interview of fellow Juicy Fruits member Peter Elbling (who worked under the name "Harold Oblong") but isn't interviewed onscreen, instead popping into frame now and again as Elbling's faux make-up man. His input would have been more desirable than the joke. Other extras include a 10m monologue of reminiscence from costumer Rosanna Norton (welcome but too long by half, frankly), a fake commercial with William Finley pitching a Phantom action figure that was actually once marketed in Japan, two trailers, and a French music video by Bob Sinclar ("I Feel for You") inspired by the "singers audition" scene in PHANTOM.

In the "Paradise Regained" documentary, Jessica Harper observes: "In the film [DePalma] depicts the entertainment business as being sleazy and I think there's no question... it still is sleazy, and it always will be, with a few elements of truth and beauty." PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is surely one of those elements -- a film very much of its time whose pleasures, like its warnings, somehow never grow old.

The Gaumont disc of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is available here.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

In the Nick of Time - Dante DiPaolo!

Dante DiPaolo and Nick Clooney.

For those of you who check this blog more often than the other one, the Bava Book blog was updated a few days ago, but there's some other interesting book-related news that I'll post here. Long after giving up hope, I've finally been able to locate and interview Dante DiPaolo, who played important roles in two Mario Bava films, THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (also known as EVIL EYE) and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE.

Two nights ago, I was in Newport, Kentucky at the Shadowbox Cabaret to attend a wake for our late friend, Wayne Perry. Donna and I were looking at photographs of Wayne from throughout his life, when I happened to turn around and find myself face-to-face with Cincinnati broadcasting legend Nick Clooney. Wayne had been the editor of Nick's column for THE CINCINNATI POST, so it was good of him to be there, but I hadn't anticipated meeting him. The nation at large knows this gentleman as an AMC host par excellence and author of the book THE MOVIES THAT CHANGED US: REFLECTIONS ON THE SCREEN, as a Congressional candidate, as the host of the game show MONEY MAZE, or as the father of George. But to those of us were were born and raised in Cincinnati, he's a good deal more.

I have many fond memories of watching Nick's afternoon talk/variety show, circa 1970-75 -- especially the day when John Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk took over the show to promote their new movie HUSBANDS. (How I'd love to see that again!) He would sometimes sing on that show and released an album called, not entirely inappropriately, SONGS MY PRODUCER WON'T LET ME SING, which I once owned. He later became Cincinnati's local ABC news anchor and was the first competitor to ever wrest the #1 position away from local CBS anchor Al Schottelkotte, whose Walter Winchell approach to news delivery had ruled the 6:00 and 11:00 roosts since the inception of the medium. Nick Clooney humanized Cincinnati news, and rose to prominence here while covering the Beverly Hills supper club fire disaster in 1977. All these impressions were racing through my mind as he kindly thrust out his hand and said, "Hello... Nick Clooney." I tapped Donna's shoulder and introduced them, and we were introduced in turn to Nick's wife Nina, a charming lady whose name I've known almost as long as I've known her husband's.

Of all things I could have discussed with Nick and Nina in the short time we had together -- like Nick's working relationship with the friend we had in common, or his recent headline-making trip with George to the war-ravaged Darfur region of Sudan, to document on film what is happening to the people there -- my mind stupidly zoomed to his album, which sent his kindly gaze briefly ceilingward. (This has got to be like someone asking me to 'fess up to the two fanzines I published as a teenager...) As he was saying something friendly and self-effacing about it, that's when I suddenly remembered that Nick's late sister, the great Rosemary Clooney, had been married to Dante DiPaolo. I had always wanted to interview Dante for the Bava book, but could never locate him -- this was especially frustrating when I learned, in retrospect, that he and Rosemary had wed in a church in the Clooneys' hometown of Maysville, Kentucky -- not a half-hour's drive from my own front door! Dante also turned up a couple of years ago on HBO's UNSCRIPTED, produced by Nick's son George Clooney, in a role that actually harkened back to his role in THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, so I had the feeling that Dante looked back on his work with Mario fondly.

I mentioned my book project to Nick and told him how much I would love to get in touch with Dante, to include his memories therein. He told me that they speak on the phone about once a week, so I gave Nick my number and he promised to pass it along.

He was very prompt about this, which I appreciate. The next morning, we were awakened by a call from Dante DiPaolo (a very early riser) who spoke to Donna (who can sound awake on the phone much faster than I can) as I was pulling myself out of my dreams and eavesdropping on a waking one. Donna and Dante were immediately chatting and laughing together like old pals, and after 15 minutes or so, she took his number so I could return the call. I was able to reach him later in the day. He's now 80, and he had spent the day caring for his 97 year-old mother, who lives next door. He was about five minutes into a recuperative nap before dinner when I called, so it wasn't quite the right time... but, as we were trying to agree upon a better time to have our talk, he started reminiscing and I had the presence of mind to start recording. It was 70 minutes later that he was summoned to dinner, and we had covered most of the bases. I got some good stories from him -- not just about Bava, but pertaining to his work in JOSEPH AND HIS BRETHREN, ATLAS IN THE LAND OF THE CYCLOPS and SAMSON AND THE SEVEN MIRACLES OF THE WORLD -- and, since the layout of the chapters pertaining to his involvement haven't been finalized yet, there is still time to add a couple of pages to those chapters as long as I can transcribe and insert the material properly before Donna reaches that point in her work. She's about 150 pages ahead of where the relevant inserts need to be made, so it won't slow down anything or cause work to be redone to add Dante's memories to the book.

And so, at long last, Dante DiPaolo has become the Bava book's final interviewee. I find a measure of symbolic value in this because, of the more than 100 people interviewed for the book, Dante is the closest-to-home. Dante and Rosemary married in northern Kentucky, as Donna and I did, but their wedding day (November 7) was Donna's birthday as well. The DiPaolo-Clooney connection is the only other Bava-Cincinnati connection besides myself of which I'm aware, so closing my research on the book by talking with Dante is like coming full circle, like Ulysses returning home to Ithaca at the end of a long voyage.

One of the interesting revelations that came from our talk: Dante's first wife is usually mentioned in bios as "a Las Vegas showgirl," but she was actually a French-born model and dancer whose many magazine covers aroused European interest in her for a screen career. She and Dante relocated to Rome and she started making films under the name Nadine Duca, including Riccardo Freda's THE GIANTS OF THESSALY -- that's how Dante made the leap from MGM musicals and dancing in Vegas to appearing in Italian films. Nadia subsequently changed her screen name to Nadia Sanders, making a spy picture for André Hunebelle and doing a fair amount of 1960s American television before retiring from acting. (The IMDb lists separate filmographies for Nadine Duca and Nadia Sanders, assuming them to be two different people.)

"Life being the amazing thing that it is," Dante told me, "she's now my best friend again and, at this very minute, she's calling me in to dinner."

I'll only be using pieces of my interview with Dante DiPaolo for the book, and plan to publish the entire interview in a future issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Beyond FROM BEYOND (revised)

Carolyn Purdy-Gordon gives Jeffrey Combs a piece of her mind in FROM BEYOND.

I've received a couple of e-mails inquiring whether I saw the director's cut of FROM BEYOND when it ran on Monsters HD the other night. Indeed I did.

I've always liked FROM BEYOND, one of the most ravishing-looking horror films of its period. For all their allure and invention, the neon colors and the strong contrasts between the hot pink lighting and deep blue backgrounds resulted in a fairly sludgy-looking VHS presentation back in the day, so it's a pleasure to see the movie in high-definition and hear the new 5.1 remix. The R-rated running time was 84m 36s, minus the MGM logos, and the new unrated cut clocks in at 85m 16s -- a total of 1m 20s added. The major addition, the eye-sucking scene, is pretty revolting, but in a way that has you chuckling at the outrageousness of it all. Sometimes restored scenes will propel a tentative film toward triumph, but this isn't one of those cases. The restored footage completes the film, but it's not substantially improved by the restoration.

As I say, I've always liked FROM BEYOND. Seeing it complete for the first time, I find I still like it, but with reservations. It's got brilliant ideas, but the scripting (by Dennis Paoli and Stuart Gordon) is uneven, the supporting performances (beyond the three leads) are often amateurish, the special effects are dated and sometimes unconvincing, and the pace is slack at times -- and not entirely because the terror is so cerebral. I love the Resonator. It's no RE-ANIMATOR, but as always, it's a pleasure to see the integrity of art triumph once again over the politics of its time.

POSTSCRIPT 6/15/06: Domenick Fraumeni has contributed a posting to this thread at the Mobius Home Video Forum that details all the additions to the director's cut of FROM BEYOND. I have also amended my comments above to reflect some fact-checking I've done since originally posting this.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Audrey Campbell, 1929 - 2006

Audrey Campbell in OLGA'S GIRLS.

Michael Bowen has just notified me of the death of Cincinnati-born Audrey Campbell, best remembered for playing Madame Olga in the sexploitation "roughie" trilogy consisting of WHITE SLAVES OF CHINATOWN, OLGA'S HOUSE OF SHAME and OLGA'S GIRLS -- all made in 1964. The IMDb credits her with only ten feature films, the other notable one being Joe Sarno's macabre SIN IN THE SUBURBS, but she also played minor roles in many a New York-based soap opera, including AS THE WORLD TURNS, THE GUIDING LIGHT, RYAN'S HOPE, even DARK SHADOWS. Audrey died last Thursday, June 8th, concluding what I'm told was a long stay in a New York City hospital, at the age of 76. The cause of her death has not yet been reported, but she suffered from kidney and respiratory problems in recent years.

I once wrote an essay on the Olga films for VIDEO WATCHDOG, which appeared in our sold-out issue #32. At the time, I was able to get Audrey's address from my friend, Charles Kilgore, who had conducted a superb and now definitive interview with her for his fanzine ECCO. (It appeared in #20 and was later reprinted in the booklet included with the Something Weird DVD release of the Olga triple bill of OLGA'S HOUSE OF SHAME, OLGA'S DANCE HALL GIRLS and the film that started it all, WHITE SLAVES OF CHINATOWN. In that interview, Audrey remembered that Andrew Sarris once listed her, Laura Antonelli and Jenny Agutter as his fantasy women in an article for AMERICAN FILM.) I sent a copy of the VW issue containing my essay to Audrey's home address and received from her a card of handwritten thanks that included her home number and an invitation to call. I took her up on the offer one Sunday afternoon (funny how I can remember that detail) and we talked for three hours or more, during which she told me (among other things) that my essay was the finest thing she had ever read about the Olga pictures.

I'll always treasure that memory particularly, but everything she had to say was of interest, especially her stories of the early days of live Cincinnati television. She had her biggest success in local television on WKRC-TV, where she was cast in the wrap-arounds of a bizarre late night movie called THE GIRL IN THE WINDOW. The opening, commercial lead-ins, and closing of each show found Audrey -- then known as Mrs. Audrey Theile -- wandering around her apartment in different $100 nightgowns from Shillito's department store, brushing her hair at her vanity table, filing her nails, getting ready for bed, and finally going to sleep. This 10:00 pm movie aired weeknights in 1956 -- the year I was born; I don't know how many years it ran, but I actually have vague memories of such a program. This marathon call was all on my dime, but I'd gladly have paid for it a second time if I could have had a tape recorder running. Fortunately, Don May Jr. and Synapse Films had the foresight to record an audio commentary with Audrey for their OLGA'S GIRLS DVD.


Audrey told me that she and Gerard Malanga (a fellow Cincinnatian) left town around the same time, in 1961, but kept in touch after they arrived independently in New York City. Audrey was courted to followed Gerard into the Warhol Factory crowd, but she never did. However, I suspect that Gerard's familiarity with Audrey's work in the Olga films helped inspire the whip-cracking role that was played in the Velvet Underground's Exploding Plastic Inevitable live stage show by Mary Woronov -- who had a look and presence similar to that of Audrey's Olga. The Olga trilogy actually anticipated Lou Reed's writing of "Venus in Furs" by a couple of years.

Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart...

Audrey Campbell created one of exploitation cinema's great iconic characters -- a 1960s successor to the sorts of roles Myrna Loy played in the 1930s, but with a more brutal edge -- and she was a bright, vivacious, amazing person. I liked her a lot and wish I'd known she was ill.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN 1969-2000 reviewed

Intimacy under a microscope in the Swedish instructional film Kärlekens språk (1969).


DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN 1969-2000
("Swedish Sin 1969-2000")
1999, Max's Films/Xploited Cinema, DD-2.0/ST/+, 189m 58s, PAL DVD-0

This is something I never expected to see: a three-hour-plus retrospective of Swedish erotic cinema and its evolution (or devolution, depending on your point-of-view) from 35mm film to DTV. It covers exclusively hardcore (XXX) and apparently only work that is owned by the Max's Films label, so that it ends up being a highly indulgent sampler of the firm's product rather than a full-fledged documentary.

Given these unspoken ground rules, DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN necessarily omits a lot of important erotic filmmaking that was done in Sweden. For example, there is no mention of Ingmar Bergman's contribution with films like SUMMER WITH MONIKA, Vilgot Sjöman's 491 or I AM CURIOUS films, Essy Persson, Marie Liljedahl, Christina Lindberg, or the many films that Joe Sarno has made there under his own name (INGA, DADDY DARLING, YOUNG PLAYTHINGS, BUTTERFLIES, etc.) -- all of which would have helped contribute to a fascinating and authentic documentary. That said, what is provided here is organized at least partly as an educational overview and I did learn a good deal from it.

DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN covers a total of 18 different films, giving us the main titles and a lengthy representative excerpt (10 graphic minutes, on average) from each, with informative background narration over the titles. The first two films discussed, Kärlekens språk ("The Language of Love," 1969) and its sequel Mera ur kärlekens språk ("More About the Language of Love," 1970), both directed by Torgny Wickman, are incorrectly described as the first films to graphically depict acts of masturbation and intercourse. (In fact, Matt Cimber's MAN AND WIFE [1969] beat Kärlekens språk into theaters by a few months.) No mention is made of Kärlekens språk being the movie that Robert de Niro drags Cybill Shepherd to see in TAXI DRIVER, but what goes around comes around: the choice of entertainment so offensive to Ms. Shepherd's character was recently the subject of a screening at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. It's interesting to learn how these two films got around the Swedish censor by presenting themselves as documentaries based on the research of sex columnists Inge and Sten Hegeler. The filmmakers may have been disingenuous in their approach, but that didn't prevent them from using the opportunity to make their films a valid educational tool as well as exploitatative. In hindsight, one can also see from these excerpts that their clinical approach influenced the Schulmädchen-Report ("Schoolgirl Report") films, a series of anthropological sex comedies that came out of West Germany the following year.

The film proceeds to cover a series of accomplished comedies -- clearly influenced by the Schülmädchen Report films -- made by the pseudonymous "Bent Torn," in fact Mac Ahlberg, who has since directed films under his own name and and today works steadily as a high-profile director of photography (John Landis's INNOCENT BLOOD, Joe Dante's THE SECOND CIVIL WAR, and several films for Stuart Gordon, including FROM BEYOND). Based on their excerpts, these movies -- including Porr i skandalskolan (1974), Justine och Juliette (1975) and Bel Ami (1976) -- had outstanding production values and better-than-capable comic performances, much better than were found in American or even West German sex films of the period. It's obvious that they were made for literate adult audiences who demanded to be entertained as well as aroused. The latter two films also featured the important adult film actress Marie Forså (whose surname, the film teaches us, is pronounced "For-show-a"), a wholesome-looking young woman who made only a dozen films in her career, could really act, and was notable for refusing to participate in hardcore photography though she was often filmed actually having sex with her co-stars.

"Marie Lynn" (Marie Forså) in Mac Ahlberg's JUSTINE AND JULIETTE (1975).

Included in this section is the interesting Den ''K- Släkten (1976), an erotic anthology film by Heinz Ahland which Ms. Forså only narrated. Also, an historic step is documented by the inclusion of Veckända i Stockholm ("Vacation in Stockholm," 1976), the only Swedish hardcore film ever directed by a woman -- Ann-Mari Berglund -- but she doesn't appear to have done much with the opportunity except to also star in it.

DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN arrives at its most compelling stretch with a discussion of two pseudonymous Joe Sarno pictures, Fäbodjäntan (1978, credited to "Lawrence Henning") and Kärleksön (1977, credited to "Hammond Thomas"), which are covered in reverse chronologic order for some reason. The narrator (female, incidentally) surprised me by describing Fäbodjäntan as "the most successful Swedish porn feature of all time," because it's considered an obscure title even among Sarno devotées. It's actually an outstanding example of his hardcore work, with elements of fantasy, and the sex is sometimes tantric in its intensity and spiritual dimension. Sarno had a knack for finding performers who were really into their work and it's clear they are not only enjoying themselves but exploring themselves onscreen. I found this source for a Swedish import DVD double feature of these two Sarno films, also on the Max's label; unfortunately this double-feature doesn't appear to offer English subtitle options, though the excepts from both features included here are subtitled.

A date is set between members of the young cast of Joe Sarno's Fäbodjäntan (1978).

After this, we're a little more than halfway through the program but it's sort of all downhill from there. What distinguishes the sex on view in the first half of the program is that it's all very egalitarian, healthy and unselfish. The women have desire equal to that of the men and pursue it with equal vigor. Just as importantly, it's all skillfully filmed and has a dramatic or historic context that involves you in what's going on. After the Sarno films, DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN embarks on what's hard not to see as a downward spiral, with video taking over from film circa 1986 and the innovations becoming more superficial. When Swedish erotica made the transition to video, it seems to have turned from warm and positive to cold and fetishistic. After a numbing series of mechanical trysts (that frankly had me leaning on my fast-forward key), the program ends with a prolonged, MTV-style encounter between a strutting blonde and a welding-masked stud in a auto repair garage, with sparks flying everywhere -- except between the viewer and the material.

The stage is set for a meaningful relationship in Mike Beck's ?? (that's the title).

Viewing this DVD the day after I watched THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION, I found the index provided by this chronological overview of Swedish erotica as a confirmation of J. G. Ballard's view that our world has become psychotic. DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN begins with material that is healthy and intellectual, instructional and humanistic, but it goes somewhere increasingly abstract, synthetic, and also mildly hostile. There's no trend toward silicone here (which is a plus over the current American porn stars), but pubic hair seems to become a thing of the past as the women become more purely imagistic and increasingly robotic in the second half; the men become less real too, masked phantoms with big muscles. The high-gloss scenarios on view are increasingly sealed off from reality, twisting its viewers' imaginations rather than liberating or indulging them. A near-exception is a "Reality TV"-like segment by Christer Frankell in which an on-the-street interview with a very cute girl becomes an "opportunity" for her to perform in an erotic "screen test." Here the prospect of an initially erotic encounter is soured by the extent to which Frankell and his cameraman exploit this young woman and put her personal safety at risk (they refuse to wear condoms, only promising "you won't get pregnant"). The male arrogance and female subjugation found here, which would have been unthinkable to the people who made Kärlekens språk, is a turn-off... though, with appropriate cynicism, we never doubt for a moment that the entire encounter is staged.

As the grabs included here will attest, the image quality is variable depending on the source. On the whole, the mostly standard ratio presentation looks good for such a densely-packed disc. Some of the clips are letterboxed, if only modestly. The Swedish dialogue has an English subtitling option, the only way a good deal of this material is at all available in English. (The subtitles sometimes lag a bit behind the dialogue they should accompany.) There is also a wealth of trailers for other Max's Film Swedish hardcore releases, one of which features a blurb (in Swedish) attributed to Woody Allen!


In short, not all of DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN 1969-2000 is necessarily of value, but it's a must for Joe Sarno collectors and a good place to learn more about a genre of serious filmmaking (initially serious, anyway) generally not accessible to English-speaking audiences. It does make one wish that a more genuine, non-partisan documentary existed on the subject, featuring interviews with the participants. Until that unikely chimera descends to earth, you can find DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN here.

POSTSCRIPT 6/15/06: Since this blog was posted, a couple of readers have independently informed me that the apparent "blurb" by Woody Allen is in fact a quotation from ANNIE HALL (1977), translated into Swedish: "Don't knock masturbation! It's sex with someone I love."

Friday, June 09, 2006

For West Coast Readers

Taylor White of Percepto Records has written to inform us that Percepto and LaLaLand Records are sponsoring a composer signing at Dark Delicacies at 4213 W. Burbank Blvd in Burbank on Saturday, June 10th from 2pm-4pm.

"We've got a terrific line-up," he writes, "including David Newman, Lee Holdridge, John Ottman, Chris Young, John Frizzell, John Massari, Bear McCreary and Stu Phillips, plus we have a great selection of CDs on hand to sign, including a few extra goodies to be offered exclusively at the event. For more details, visit www.darkdel.com. We're hoping this signing will be successful enough to make it a regular quarterly event, so please stop by, say hello and show your support!"

Miskalaneous

Oh, well.

I am informed by One In The Know that THE GOLDEN ARROW and CAPTAIN SINDBAD are currently owned by Warner Bros., and that the rights to THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN are now likely controlled by Studio Canal. I don't understand how MGM could still own THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, which was made the same year as THE GOLDEN ARROW and THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN (and by many of the same people), but there you have it.

On another note, reader Michael Swart has written to inform us that Palm Pictures' DVD of Asia Argento's THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS (2004) appears to be a defective pressing. "About 80 minutes in," Michael writes, "the disc jumps to the beginning of the next chapter. It does this on both my players, and I know a scene is missing because I saw the film last year - and it's not just any scene, it's a key scene. I made a point of buying the DVD of this film on its release date because I think it's a very good movie that's been unfairly neglected by most critics. The majority of this film's audience will probably see it on home video, so it's unfortunate that this error will spoil their experience of it. Hopefully, these discs will be recalled and a corrected version issued (although a similar problem with Monte Hellman's IGUANA back in the early days of DVD was never corrected)."

I spent most of yesterday working on my next "No Zone" column for SIGHT AND SOUND, devoted to Jonathan Weiss's THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION, an astonishing adaptation of J. G. Ballard's 1970 novel now available as a Dutch import DVD. Not to pre-empt my column, but as an longtime admirer of Ballard and this novel in particular, I was floored by the successful filming of this "unfilmable" work. It's just like the book -- clinical yet savage, non-narrative, non-linear, and full of arresting bits of beauty and ugliness. Strong stuff, but recommended to those who can take it. The disc also includes two audio commentaries, one by Ballard himself, which is the proverbial detail that had me at "hello." You can find it here, or at www.reel23.com.

Finally, I've been asked to remind you all that the World HD Premiere of the "director's cut" of Stuart Gordon's FROM BEYOND will be taking place on Monsters HD on Saturday night, June 10, at 8:00 pm eastern. On Monday, June 12th, Monsters HD is presenting an entire day of AIP programming in honor of the company's late founding father Samuel Z. Arkoff, who would have celebrated his 88th birthday on that date.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Walking the Plank with Sony's "Midnite Movies"

Later this month, on June 27, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment will be bringing back MGM's "Midnite Movies" double-feature discs from the brink of oblivion. You may recall that the disc series was doing well for awhile, then became a Best Buy exclusive (in theory; not all of the MM titles could be found in all Best Buy stores), and the popular horror and science fiction titles that launched the banner were gradually phased out in favor of ho-hum biker and racing dramas. The beloved budget series is now making its comeback with a couple of pirate-themed flipper discs -- most of which, unfortunately, not even I have any interest in seeing, much less owning.

These are FORTUNES OF CAPTAIN BLOOD/CAPTAIN PIRATE and THE BOY AND THE PIRATES/CRYSTALSTONE ("featuring performances by legendary actors Louis Heyward, Patricia Medina and Charles Herbert," says the press release), each of which will retail for $19.94 -- bumped up from the series' original $14.98 pricing. Perhaps it's someone's idea that these sets are just what mainstream American mateys need to help them count down the hours till the July 7th opening of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST, but they could just as easily kill America's Opening Day appetite for skulls and crossbones. Of the four titles included in these sets, only Bert I. Gordon's THE BOY AND THE PIRATES holds any true cult appeal... but then I'm a sucker for a sullen Susan Gordon asking the question "Am I not a cool kid?" Having Timothy Carey aboard as one of the salty cutthroats doesn't hurt either, nor does the enviable fact that I own the Dell tie-in comic book.


But, as "Midnite Movies" go, even the pirattiest among you must admit, these are some pretty dull double-oons. With so much of infinitely greater interest retained in the MGM vaults, it's my guess that whomever is presently in charge of selecting the "Midnite Movies" titles is out of their depth, possibly someone's relative, or an employee who's being punished with the assignment. So I thought I'd offer this poor individual a helpful hand by recommending a couple of other first-rate family-adventure titles in the MGM archives that would make one splendido double-feature package. And before he/she asks, YES! They're both swashbucklers!

I'm speaking of Arthur Lubin's remake of THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD (1961), starring Steve Reeves, and Antonio Margheriti's THE GOLDEN ARROW (also '61), starring Tab Hunter and Rosanna Podestà. Filmed respectively in Tunisia and Egypt, these Italian-American co-productions were both lensed in scope and would look absolutely breathtaking on DVD.


THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD has been out on video before, but only as a pan&scanned VHS from Embassy Home Video released before some of you were born. Steve Reeves was fabulous in the first two Hercules films, of course, but whenever I find myself discussing Reeves with people, it's surprising how often I hear confessions of a special liking for THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD; I wholly agree that it's something special, with one of Reeves' most endearing performances, but I have this old and intractable idea in my head that it's an obscure movie no one's ever heard of -- probably because I didn't get around to seeing it till it was released on home video in the 1980s. But when this movie played in US theaters, it was given the full Joseph E. Levine ballyhoo treatment -- constant television advertising, a Dell tie-in comic book, even a paperback novelization.

Reeves plays Karim, a charming thief (of the Robin Hood variety, stealing from those who can afford to lose and giving to those who cannot afford even simple pleasures), who falls in love at first sight of Amina (CONTEMPT's Georgia Moll), daughter of the Sultan of Baghdad, while robbing the palace. He vies for her hand in marriage against the evil, Conrad Veidtian Prince Osman (BLACK SUNDAY's Arturo Dominici), with whom he sets out to claim his bride by being the first to locate the seven doors that will lead the victor to the fabled Blue Rose. The film's direction is credited to Arthur Lubin, best known for the 1943 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and the Francis the Talking Mule movies, and Italian sources also credit Bruno Vailati. The special effects are credited solely to Tom Howard (GORGO), but while researching my Mario Bava book, I was told by more than one interviewee that Bava was the film's true special effects supervisor; it really shows, especially in the scene where Karim and his men are besieged by living trees while camping in the desert, which is redolent with Bavian color lighting. (One highlight promised on all the US advertising -- a "gigantic killer crab" -- never materializes onscreen, not even in European prints.) Also praiseworthy is its extraordinarily lyrical score by Carlo Rustichelli, one of his loveliest and most beckoning creations.

To see this film in its correct aspect ratio someday has been a long-cherished dream of mine. The closest I've come to realizing it is a French VHS tape -- even older than the American release! -- called LE VOLEUR DE BAGDAD, which was letterboxed at roughly 1.85 and so still subtantially cropped. This version also included a number of short scenes and snippets cut from the US version, which I hope can be incorporated in the event of a DVD release. It's a wonderful movie.

I recently had the opportunity to see a DVD-R of THE GOLDEN ARROW, one of the very few films which director Antonio Margheriti signed with his own name. (His earlier work had been credited to either Anthony Daisies or Antony Dawson.) His pride was understandable; I've seen a lot of his work and have affection for a good deal of it, but this is one of the best made and entertaining of his pictures. It was made the same year as THIEF OF BAGHDAD, and written by three of the same screenwriters: Augusto Frasinettii, Filippo Sanjust (who seems to have written these and other exotic scripts as a pretext to designing their fabulous costumes) and Bruno Vailati. It's virtually the same story reenacted on some of the same interior Cinecittà sets.

Tab Hunter takes a magic carpet ride in THE GOLDEN ARROW.

Tab Hunter (dubbed by, I think, Jim Dolen) plays Hassan, an orphan adopted and raised by a band of thieves, who is in fact the rightful heir to the throne of Damascus. He falls in love with the Princess Jamila (Rossana Podestà, the heroine of HELEN OF TROY and Margheriti's scary THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG) after kidnapping her. Hassan loves Jamila enough to release her, a deed which helps him to win her heart, but he releases her back into her father's plot to marry her off. Three royal contenders win the right to woo her, but are told that, in order to win her hand, they must participate in a contest to bring her the most precious gift of all. Separately, they find a crystal ball, a magic flying carpet, and a liquid that restores life to the dead, but Hassan finally trumps them all with the help of not one, not two, but three genies determined to help him regain his rightful throne -- but only after he learns some important life lessons. (It's clear from the behavior of these genies that there were hopes of hiring The Three Stooges.)

Taken together, these two movies summon a vivid chapter in early movie-going for Baby Boomers, when the combined success of the Hercules films and the Ray Harryhausen mythologies prompted a window of revival for Arabian Nights fantasy. MGM had a big hand in these; come to think of it, I could extend my "Midnite Movies" recommendation to include two other features of the same period and ilk: THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN (1961, starring Donald O'Connor) and CAPTAIN SINDBAD (1963, starring Guy Williams and Heidi Bruhl). No offense to Gordon Douglas, Ralph Murphy and Antonio Paláez (the directors of FORTUNES OF CAPTAIN BLOOD, CAPTAIN PIRATE and CRYSTALSTONE, respectively), but CAPTAIN SINDBAD was directed by a heavy-hitter, Byron Haskin (the original THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS), and THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN was co-directed by two, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH's Henry Levin and the Italian Maestro of the Macabre, Mario Bava.

I know that Gordon Douglas was a very able filmmaker; he directed DICK TRACY VS. CUEBALL and THEM!, but I was never motivated by their quality to explore the length and breadth of his nearly 100 other films. And I have no idea what CRYSTALSTONE is doing on a DVD with THE BOY AND THE PIRATES; it was made in 1988 -- an entirely different era, with no relevance to nostalgia or double-billing! THE BOY AND THE PIRATES at least has auteur value; in fact, that's just about its only value. I say this with the love.

Unlike these June 27th titles, the movies I've suggested star cult figures whose names people still recognize, they were directed by filmmakers of consequence, and they are fondly remembered by the generation for which they were made. FORTUNES OF CAPTAIN BLOOD and CAPTAIN PIRATE were made in 1950 and 1951, so the audience for which they were made is 10 years older and therefore, regrettably, smaller. Horror and sci-fi sells regardless of decade because these genres appeal to fans and collectors (not to mention fanatical collectors); but when it comes to iffier terrain like B-movie swashbucklers, sticking with Sixties fare is just good business sense.

If Sony/MGM begins to release double features like THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD/THE GOLDEN ARROW and THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN/CAPTAIN SINDBAD, not only are they going to sell, they'll get enthusiastic press, and send out a signal that the people in charge of "Midnite Movies" actually know what they are doing. We want this imprint to succeed... because there's a lot more MGM cult movies where these came from, and if the current titles flop, we may never get our hands on them.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

BLACK MOON on Flix

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!

ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN reviewed

Sonny Landham and Rebecca Brooke.

ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN
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

INNOCENCE
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.