Saturday, July 22, 2006

No Zone Goes Public

It feels like it was less than a year ago that I was invited by the editors of SIGHT & SOUND to write a monthly import DVD column, but earlier this month, I turned in my 40th "No Zone." My editor, James Bell, told me yesterday that "No Zone" is now going online as part of the S&S website, to attract web surfers to the magazine, where it will also continue to appear. My current column, about Jonathan Weiss's extraordinary film of J.G. Ballard's novel THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION, can be found here -- and I hope it inspires you to buy the magazine as well, which is consistently thoughtful, progressive, and well-written. (VW scribes Kim Newman, Mark Kermode, and Brad Stevens are also frequent contributors.)

There has been some discussion over on the Classic Horror Film Boards ringing the death knell of print magazines, in the wake of Michael J. Weldon's announcement that he was discontinuing PSYCHOTRONIC. I don't get out to bookstores as often as I'd like, but I was in a Barnes & Noble earlier this week and, I must say, I saw more print magazines displayed there than I've ever seen on a single newsstand. This is not what you hear online, but it is apparently what you see when you venture away from your computer. What most struck me was the astounding degree of specialization on display: magazines for screenwriters, piercing advocates, gay & lesbian readers, bikers, Heavy Metalers, stock car racers, lefties, right-wingers, tattoo mavens, adults, children, surfers, chocolate lovers -- and there seemed to be an equally healthy diversity of magazines devoted to horror and fantasy films. I saw FANGORIA, RUE MORGUE, STARLOG, CFQ, CINEFEX and VW -- plus, both FILM COMMENT and SIGHT & SOUND have covers devoted to A SCANNER DARKLY this month -- and even more magazines built around DVD reviews.

So, contrary to internet rumor, print magazines do not appear to be becoming extinct. Sales are down, true; to be sure, distribution is strangling off the small press publisher, specifically the fanzines that broke the newsstand barrier at the dawn of the desktop publishing revolution. Michael Weldon is blame rising costs of paper, postage and gas for PSYCHOTRONIC going under, but surely irregularity of publication was also a factor; after his first issue was published in 1989, he produced only 40 more after nearly 18 years in business. That's an average of slightly more than two issues per year, which is a good rate for a fanzine, but hardly a frequency that can sustain a business or a living. (Donna and I found out a few years ago that it's difficult to make a living by publishing a bimonthly, and we don't live in a particularly expensive city.)

Another factor, of course, is that the very audience that once supported the fan press at newsstands in solid numbers is increasingly staying indoors and reading whatever they can scope out for free -- as they have learned to do with music and movie downloads. The desktop publishing revolution has moved online.

Blogs are the fanzines of today, as I said here some time ago, and I believe this is the nature of the displacement we're witnessing. Not the survival of the fittest, necessarily; rather, the survival of the glossiest. The desktop publishing revolution has reached its saturation point, and newsstands are returning more and more to the way they were, pre-1985, but with far more high-scale specialization on display as the legacy of that revolution.

I love the instantaneous effect of publishing Video WatchBlog, and I frankly feel closer to this blog than I do to my print magazine sometimes, because it's all mine -- I write it, I edit and proofread it, I design and illustrate it, I post it. I try to update it as often as possible because, even in cyberspace, that is what keeps people coming back. In the year or so I've been paying attention to blogs, I've scrapped a number of otherwise promising blogs from my Favorite Places because it grates to click on a good site and find nothing new day after day after day. That blogs cost nothing may be their great incentive, but it also makes them that much easier to dispose of. Click "delete" and they're gone, making those snap judgments all the snappier.

Gavin Smith offers his own thoughts on the subject of print vs. the internet in his editorial for the new FILM COMMENT, where he theorizes that "blogs are more important to people who want to write than they are to people who like to read." Blogging has certainly made me more attentive to what other bloggers are doing and the Blog-A-Thons that sometimes occur are a testimonial to the proposal that, to some extent, bloggers are writing for each other -- not unlike the days when people would start a fanzine for the sole purpose of trading with another fanzine publishers. I love that culture, because I came from that, and I count myself as fortunate that I'm able to have my writing reach people both online and in print, because these are separate worlds seemingly growing more separate.

I invest more thought and energy into this blog than I should, and Donna sometimes has to remind me that the number of people frequenting this blog on a daily basis is approximately 1/10th of the number who actually purchase VW at the newsstand or by subscription. Seeing all those new magazines arrayed at Barnes & Noble was a bit of a wake-up call, for me, to VW's place in the real world, and I'm looking forward to putting our next monthly issue together in September and getting another one out there.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

You Won't Believe Your Eyes and Ears

It's always big news in my house when Monsters HD premieres a new title, and today, the little parade in my heart was held in honor of the HD debut of Bert I. Gordon's THE CYCLOPS (1957), starring Gloria Talbott, James Craig, Lon Chaney, Dean Parkin and the grunts and growls of the inimitable Paul Frees. Last available on VHS as one of those "Elvira Presents" titles on the Thriller Video label, THE CYCLOPS is being shown by Monsters HD in a windowboxed presentation that is prettier than this B&W cheapie has ever looked.

To my incredulity, Monsters HD followed THE CYCLOPS with Sid Pink's REPTILICUS... which I frankly wasn't too excited about because it's already been released on DVD as part of MGM's "Midnite Movies" series. I'm not even certain if this was another premiere or not, which goes to show how casual I was about this, but... wow. I thought I had seen REPTILICUS looking good, but this windowboxed presentation truly earns the epithet "staggering." If a film this miserable can look this good, anything's possible -- and it lends new meaning to the old saying "You ain't seen nothing yet." A presentation like this makes you feel like you have to start your movie-watching life all over again from scratch. And as long as we're feeling that way, Monsters HD has three good places to start: they're premiering the original KING KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG in HD on July 29th, and JAWS on July 31. Visit their website for more information, clips, and exclusives.

On another subject, I discovered a phenomenal music blog today called 7 Black Notes. The specialty here is horror and fantasy soundtrack music downloads, and wait till you see what the anonymous blogger from La La Land has assembled: THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (Fred Katz), CIRCUS OF HORRORS (with the original "Look for a Star"), Cinemation Industries' Clay Pitts rescoring of Mac Ahlberg's FANNY HILL, SCREAMERS, GRIZZLY, THE BOOGEY MAN (a soundtrack originally released in a limited edition of 1000 vinyl pressings), YOR THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE, PRIVILEGE, DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE GIRL BOMBS (not much music actually in the movie here!), WUTHERING HEIGHTS (one of Michel Legrand's most haunting scores), and best of all, Les Baxter's 53-minute score for PIT AND THE PENDULUM, taken from the previously unreleased music-and-effects track!

You just left-click on the titles and you're taken to a downloadable zip file in Rapidshare. You can either pay $12 for a month of unlimited downloads, or go for the freebie version and download a single file every 80 minutes. With all the great music blogs that are popping up (7 Black Notes' links column will lead you to some other good ones), I've found that the 12 bucks repays itself within the first half-hour. Bookmark it, Danno.

A Scanner Freely

Simulacra of Keanu Reeves and Winona Rider star
in Richard Linklater's A SCANNER DARKLY.

For those of you who don't know, IGM.com is offering a free preview of the first 24 minutes (well, 23:55, actually) of Richard Linklater's new film of Philip K. Dick's A SCANNER DARKLY. I read the novel a good many years ago and liked it very much, and have been looking forward to this movie. I just finished watching the generous clip -- which has outstanding picture quality in high-res -- and had an unexpected reaction to it. What I saw captures the flavor of the novel I remember reading extremely well, and it may well be (as at least one critic has said) "the most faithful PKD adaptation ever," which is why I find it all the more curious that viewing the clip pretty much killed any interest I had in seeking the film out in a theater.

There's a lot going on in this clip visually; it's very imaginately filmed; the electronic music is edgy and refreshing; the characters of course are a mite oblique but the performances seem to be on-the-ball, with the Rory Cochrane character capturing an essence of Dick himself (odd, since it's the Bob Arctor character with whom he identifies in the novel); but -- and this is a peculiar thing to say about a movie that looks like it was directed by Earl Scheib -- but I felt bombarded, even more than by color, by language. The essence of the clip is of images in the service of conveying dialogue, and thus, despite all the time and energy and artistry that was poured into making it a cutting edge cartoon, this sample struck me as having failed in its mission to work as cinema.

I thought for sure that the opening 24 minutes of the film had to be dynamite for Warner to be giving them away free online. I didn't expect to have this reaction, and kind of resent having it. My feeling is that I can re-read the novel and don't need Richard Linklater to hand me a picture book version; I was hoping for his interpretation, his reflection, his translation of the novel into a different medium. Perhaps the film somehow delivers this in its entirety... I'll find out when it comes to DVD... but I can't imagine so literal a retelling taking many people back to Dick's novel, which should be an important function of this enterprise. Somehow I suspect that Charlie Kaufman's rejected screenplay would have done all of this, and probably more that I can't begin to imagine.

Anyway, if this movie interests you, do yourself a favor and read the novel first. Philip K. Dick can use his words to tell his stories and paint his particular universe better than any emulatory filmmaker. You can probably find a copy of A SCANNER DARKLY cheaper than a movie ticket, and those androids at your local Borders and Barnes & Noble stores will actually allow -- nay, encourage -- you sit in one of their comfy chairs and drink a latte or two while you read one of their copies for free.

At least weigh the first 24 pages of the novel against the film's first 24 minutes -- and, by all means, go on over to IGM.com and see how the free sample strikes you. I promise that the sudden cut-off will not be excruciating and drive you crazy if the film doesn't happen to be playing in your town. And once you finish with SCANNER, I recommend moving on to the very best of PKD: THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH (which John Lennon once thought of producing as a film) and UBIK.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Meeting The Umlands

L to R: Me, Donna, Sam and Rebecca Umland
crowd into frame in a sweaty auto garage. Photo by John Umland.

It may strike longtime VIDEO WATCHDOG readers as odd, or maybe not, but in 17 years of publishing, Donna and I have actually met very few of our most frequent contributors. For instance, we've never had the pleasure of shaking hands with John Charles, our Associate Editor, who joined us first as a letter writer in our single-digit issues; we came close once, but the only time were near his home base of Guelph, Ontario, in that timeframe unfortunately coincided with a weekend when he had to be away from home. The same goes for Ramsey Campbell, Bill Cooke, Shane M. Dallmann, Kim Newman, Brett Taylor -- we haven't met 'em, but we'd sure like to.

There have been quite a few happy exceptions to this twain, though. Over the years, we've had the pleasure of spending personal time with (in alphabetical order) Steve Bissette, Joe Dante, David Del Valle, G. Michael Dobbs, Paul M. Jensen, Alan Jones (a one-time contributor to VW #4), Craig Ledbetter, Greg Mank, Jeff Smith, Richard Harland Smith, Erik Sulev, Nathaniel Thompson, Alan Upchurch, Bill Warren, Tom Weaver, Doug Winter, and Bret Wood. And, last night, Becky and Sam Umland -- along with their 12 year-old son John -- joined our lengthening list of happy meetings. In fact, John is a past Kennel member himself (our youngest ever!), as he assisted his parents on their review of THUMBTANIC, THUMB WARS, THE GODTHUMB et al in VW #97 as "John Thumland."

Practically from the moment of our first meeting in their hotel lobby, the five of us were like old friends -- which, in a sense, we are. Speaking of "et al," each of us cleaned our plates last night at Brio Tuscan Grille, an elegant Italian ristorante in Newport, Kentucky's bustling "Newport on the Levee" area. Sam acquired an exquisite bottle of Italian wine for the table, and it fuelled wonderful conversation well into the evening.
One of the main topics of conversation was the Umlands' newly published book DONALD CAMMELL: A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE, which was recently published in hardcover and softcover by FAB Press. They've been working on this biography of the notorious writer-director of PERFORMANCE, DEMON SEED, WHITE OF THE EYE and WILD SIDE for the better part of five years, and they both seemed relieved and pleased with the way the book turned out. FAB Press has done an outstanding and tasteful job in designing the book, which seems to stand a bit apart from the deluxe horror and exploitation retrospectives on which they've built their reputation. Indeed, the Umlands' CAMMELL book has already scored featured reviews in the pages of both SIGHT & SOUND (by Colin McCabe) and FILM COMMENT (by Chris Chang), which I believe is a first for a FAB Press title.

These reviews prompted us to talk a bit about the necessary evils of book reviewing. Both of the aforementioned reviews of the Umlands' book were assigned by those magazine's respective editors to known Cammell authorities -- McCabe wrote the BFI Film Classics book on PERFORMANCE and Chang wrote a feature article on Cammell for a 1996 issue of FILM COMMENT. While this shows alertness and sensitivity to the book's specific needs by the editors in question, it doesn't take into account the probability that authorities on a given topic are going to have their own agendas, consciously or not, and be prone to criticize a book within their realm of expertise as much for what it isn't -- that is to say, the book they would have written or attempted to write -- than for what it is. As in all things, there is good and bad in this.

Both of the aforementioned reviews, while commending the Umlands' journalistic standards and attention to detail, complain that their book is either overly academic, or not gossippy enough. The review by Colin McCabe (whose own research is pointedly corrected on some counts by the Umlands) bemoans the lack of juice while denying its meat; he claims not to have learned much from the Umlands, then proceeds to refer to information gleaned from their research throughout his review, so his call seems a bit disingenuous. Chris Chang (who admits the first thing he did with the book was to look for his own name in the index, where it did not appear) opens a full-page review by saying that DONALD CAMMELL: A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE is (I'm paraphrasing, but this is close) "part biography and part mindfuck." Chang may have intended this description as a snipe, and an indelible one at that -- and the Umlands may have taken it that way, I don't know -- but my own reaction was that his comment would make an ideal blurb, because it demonstrates the extent to which the Umlands are in tune with their subject. (Cammell's films and film scripts are all half-autobiography and half-mindfuck, are they not?) Chang lets another plum blurb drop when he off-handedly calls A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE "a delectable tome," so I don't consider his review a negative one, by any means, however aggressively he phrases his reservations.

Chang goes on to express annoyance over the bio's academic leanings, in particular picking on an observation from T. S. Eliot that opens its chapter on PERFORMANCE. It's true that a quote of Eliot is historically dissociated from PERFORMANCE, but that's not to say its use is pretentious or overreaching. It would be wrong to regard Eliot as any the less audacious than Cammell in his own time and realm, and equally wrong to assume that someone like Eliot has nothing to say to Cammell's admirers, or that his work would have been shunned by Cammell himself. In the particular case of the Eliot quote that opens the PERFORMANCE chapter, it's not used glibly but to give the chapter a point of origin -- it's a way into some very challenging material, no more, no less.

I must plead guilty to a measure of the reviewer's stance taken by Chang and McCabe myself. I'm fully aware of my own tendency as a reviewer to be harder on books whose subjects I know a good deal about, than I am toward books about subjects that cover more casual interests. Italian horror being one of my own pet points of expertise, I can remember being tough on Louis Paul's ITALIAN HORROR FILM DIRECTORS (McFarland) and also Stephen Thrower's BEYOND TERROR: THE FILMS OF LUCIO FULCI (FAB Press) -- not unfair or inaccurate, in my view, but tough. Paul's book showed a knowledgeable mind at work, but his material was so haphazardly presented, it worked against his best intentions. Steve Thrower's book, while a valuable academic analysis of Fulci's work, struck me as a bit of a castle in the sky. We still await the just-the-facts book on Fulci to lay the road that will take us there. MidMar's Luminary Press published a book on Italian horror last year, but I wasn't sent a review copy -- and you know what, perhaps rightfully so.

The absence of gossippy material in the Umlands' book, by definition, I regard as a journalistic plus. Sam told me that he and Becky worked closely in researching the book with Cammell's editor/friend Frank Mazzola and also Cammell's brother David, the latter of whom did exercise a modest degree of veto power over some material deemed inessential to the book -- as one expects in cases of "authorized biography." The Umlands' book did not seek and doesn't carry that identification, but Sam feels that it would probably be fair to call A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE an authorized biography. Certainly, no future authorized biography could offer more of value than has been collected between its covers. The value of working closely with one's subject's family is that one comes into possession of much valuable material (like Cammell's personal drawings and archival family photos) and intimate witness in exchange for the odd instance or two of editorial control. An unauthorized, independent biography has a much greater capacity of editorial freedom but also a far greater margin for overstatement, carelessness, and outright error. I think Becky and Sam chose the proper leaning, especially as they were writing the first biography of Cammell. Now others can follow in their footsteps and write the books they feel need to be written, with a wealth of reliable data in print to assist them. What, if anything, of serious value remains to be added to Cammell's story remains to be seen, and time will tell.

DONALD CAMMELL: A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE has already been out in the UK for a month or so, and the US publication date looms on July 30. You can order it here now, or pre-order a copy now at substantial savings by going here. It's an achievement of which Becky and Sam are and should be rightfully proud, and I was pleased to be told by Sam that they are contemplating the films of Anthony Mann for their next book project.

After dinner, we spent some time walking around the Newport on the Levee area together, admiring the riverfront view of an almost completely inactive-looking Cincinnati as a lone riverboat cruised through our field of vision. Then it was time for the Umlands to return to their hotel, as St. Louis was on their U.S. tour schedule for today. (Sam says he's become a morning person and finds his retention of the movies he watches has actually improved since he's started watching them at the start of his day.) Donna and I greatly enjoyed meeting the three of them and we look forward to continuing our professional affiliation with fond faces newly attached to their bylines, hoping that we'll someday meet again.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Some Notes on Recent Viewings


Last night I realized that it's been a full week since I'd watched an entire feature film; it's been a week spent working on the next novel, being available to Donna for feedback on the Bava book layout, and listening to music rather than watching stuff to review.

What I have been watching is a lot of boxed set classic TV: third season episodes of Warner Home Video's THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN and first season episodes of MPI Home Video's THE RIFLEMAN. The color and crispness of the SUPERMAN episodes is pretty extraordinary, marred only by those long takes that precede or follow opticals like special effects or dissolves. If they had known back then how long takes tied to opticals were going to degrade the picture quality of such shots in the digital medium, I'm sure they would have done shorter takes whether it slowed things down or not. The color episodes are generally regarded as the point where the series turned addle-pated, but there's still some good stuff to be enjoyed here -- like John Hamilton's work in the episode "Great Caesar's Ghost." Noel Neill's Lois Lane is also a sweeter, less bipolar character here than in Season 2, which helps.

I'm only three episodes into THE RIFLEMAN, two of which were written by Sam Peckinpah, and these have been absolute revelations. First of all, they look great and, secondly, ever since this show came to the Hallmark Channel, they've been cut to ribbons; it's a treat to see them with all their atmosphere and dramatic gravity intact. The second episode has a bit where Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) improvises an Old West retelling of the Biblical story of Job to teach a lesson to his son Mark (Johnny Crawford), and the scene left me in awe. Connors not only had remarkable presence and was built for action -- find me one 21st century bad-ass who could stare him down in that opening credits shot -- but he could be one hell of an actor when the material allowed. MPI has six of these sets out presently, 20 episodes per set, and I'm going to enjoy what is already sizing up to be a cherished reacquaintence.

All this is prologue to the fact that I decided last night it was high time I watched another movie before I forgot how. I picked out Blue Underground's forthcoming disc of Jess Franco's SUCCUBUS, which streets on July 25th. Before watching the feature, I went straight to the extras -- a 22-minute interview with Franco, and a 7-minute visit with actor Jack Taylor -- and found them both very invigorating. Turner Classic Movies recently showed an hour-long special called EDGE OF OUTSIDE, about the history of independent filmmaking -- with commentary by Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, John Sayles, David Thomson, Peter Biskind and others -- and I swear I learned more about independent filmmaking, and obtained more food for thought on the subject, by watching Jess reminisce about his experiences and agonize about the filmmaking system as it exists today.

After I got finished with SUCCUBUS itself, I immediately sought out Blue Underground's companion "Red Lips Double Feature" release of Franco's TWO UNDERCOVER ANGELS (aka SADISTEROTICA) and KISS ME MONSTER, starring Janine Reynaud and Rosanna Yanni. This set includes two interviews with Jess -- 14 minutes and 22 minutes, respectively. The second, longer one in particular, called "Jess' Tangents," seems to be composed entirely of off-topic material that director David Gregory felt needed to be out there. Bless you, David. "Jess' Tangents" was the cherry on top of my whole evening. Franco talks here about LSD and Porn, Spain under Generalissimo Franco, working with Orson Welles on CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT and TREASURE ISLAND (some real revelations here), and cinema in general.

I know there are some people who love cinema who don't get Franco's work, but I believe that even they would be fascinated by his observations and the lively, frank stories he tells about working on these three pictures. At one point, he makes a compelling argument on behalf of the idea that people expect a good story from the movies they see, but never take away a good story from these movies and seldom actually grasp more than a sequence of compelling images or edits. He reminisces about critics at the time not understanding SUCCUBUS and admits, chuckling, that he doesn't quite understand it himself. (I don't quite buy this; surely Jess realizes that his succubus Lorna is an attempt to contemporize the Lllorona, the unearthly femme fatale who haunts the pages of Spanish fantasy lore.) He also remembers SUCCUBUS, touchingly, as the first film he made with absolute freedom, and speaks with regret that he was so accustomed to working with his hands tied by producers that it was not until halfway through the production that he truly began to appreciate the creative freedom available to him. I could listen to the man talk forever, and sincerely wish there was some kind of interactive DVD that would allow you to pick any title in Franco's filmography, where any title could be selected to trigger every story he could remember about the filming of that particular title, or its stars, or whatever else came to his mind.

The Jack Taylor profile is interesting too; in slightly more than 7 minutes, we get to revisit SUCCUBUS shooting locations in Berlin with him, and learn that he was paid exactly half of the salary he was promised. But he seems a philosophic man rather than a bitter one, and he's aged wonderfully well. If Welles could see him today, he'd want him for his Don Quixote.

A word, too, about the production of these Franco discs, which represent producer-director David Gregory's final work for Blue Underground. (He has since moved on to produce supplements for other companies, like Dark Sky Films, and started his own company, Severin Films, which is going to bring some 1980s Franco titles to disc.) Knowing what a marginal director Franco is, we must applaud Blue Underground -- David certainly, and BU founder and executive producer Bill Lustig above all -- for indulging him and us, his audience, with such exemplary treatments of his best work: SUCCUBUS, EUGENIE - THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION, VENUS IN FURS, MARQUIS DE SADE'S JUSTINE, and others. The menu design on these new releases is brilliant and actually looks more lavishly produced than some of Franco's recent features. These releases may carry the aura of the end of an era, but perhaps another era is just beginning. So circle July 25th on your calendars and pounce on these discs right away.

On a closing note, I'd like to steer my fellow Franco fans to Robert Monell's new blog I'm In A Jess Franco State of Mind, which promises to become a key resource for English language insights and information about his work.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Twice the Might! Twice the Delight!

Now in stock here at Video Watchdog is Digitmovies' new double-disc release of Enzo Masetti's original soundtracks for LE FATICHE DI ERCOLE [US: HERCULES, 1957] and ERCOLE E LA REGINA DI LIDIA [US: HERCULES UNCHAINED, 1958]. I've been listening to these discs since they arrived a few days ago and, speaking purely on a musical basis, I think this set is probably the most deeply satisfying archival rescue/restoration Digitmovies has made to date from the CAM vaults. Considering that said list includes their phenomenal WHIP AND THE BODY/BLOOD AND BLACK LACE two-fer, which collected my two most-wanted scores of all time, I can't offer higher praise. This music is a well-rounded feast for the senses: romantic, proud, harkening, thrilling, heroic, tender, and tinged here and there with the most baroque, evocative sorcery.

Experienced soundtrack collectors are probably aware that these scores have been previously released in different forms -- HERCULES first appeared in America as an album featuring narration by Conrad Nagel, dialogue from the English-dubbed version, and some Masetti music; many years later, CAM issued limited edition vinyl pressings on the Phoenix label. These were subsequently bootlegged in a rather professional-looking, two-CD package credited to Soundtrack Library. CD #1 amounted to 45:12, while CD #2 ran 42 minutes even (reproducing some material from CD #1 in the process). The Digitmovies release issues the complete orchestral sessions for the two films for the first time, not only correcting the erroneous sequencing of the earlier releases but adding a wealth of material never previously heard offscreen; the HERCULES disc runs 73:51 and HERCULES UNCHAINED clocks in at 53:51. A twelve-page, illustrated booklet contains liner notes by Yours Truly and Digitmovies producers Claudio Fuiano and Enrico Celsi, as well as many rare, behind-the-scenes stills and international poster art.

This HERCULES set is not part of Digitmovies' "Mario Bava Original Soundtrack Anthology" series, even though Mario Bava did photograph and also co-directed these films. (In fact, they contain the earliest horror sequences Bava photographed in color.) Instead, Digitmovies is using this set to launch a promising new series of archival CAM releases, "The Italian Peplum Original Soundtracks Anthology." Having listened to both discs, I can declare them a resounding success. I've had the Soundtrack Library bootleg for years and haven't often listened to it because the programming is so repetitive and the rendering so lo-fi. Listening to the new Digitmovies set proves, beyond a doubt, that Enzo Masetti brought as much muscle to these films as Steve Reeves did, and as much evocative tenderness as did Sylva Koscina.

You can order the Digitmovies HERCULES set, or the latest "Mario Bava Original Soundtracks Anthology" release of music from I VAMPIRI and CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (especially recommended to those who love classic Universal Monsters-type music), by clicking here. While you're there, scroll down to check out the other Bava and Franco related soundtracks we have in stock.

On a related note, this weekend, VW contributor David Del Valle will follow the triumph of his recent "Haunted Hacienda" photo and poster art exhibition of Mexican horror memorabilia with "Beefcake Babylon," a truly Olympian tribute to "the iconography of Sword and Sandal epics from De Mille to Fellini." The exhibit -- which David is dedicating to the memory of our late friend (and proud peplumite) Christopher Sven Dietrich -- covers an arc of heroic film production that extends from Cecil B. De Mille's pre-code THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932) to Fellini's SATYRICON (1970), but the "beef" is largely contributed by the muscle men who made the Italian sword-and-sandal genre great: Steve Reeves, Gordon Scott, Reg Park, Mark Forest, Gordon Mitchell, "Alan Steel" (Sergio Ciani), Dan Vadis, Ed Fury, "Kirk Morris" (Adriano Bellini), "Rock Stevens" (that's MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE's Peter Lupus, of course), and all the rest.

Like "Haunted Hacienda" and "Until Dawn" (David's well-attended exhibit of silent horror era imagery), "Beefcake Babylon" is being hosted by the fashionable and forward-thinking Drkrm Gallery in Los Angeles, and will run from July 14 to September 23. We're told that Mickey Hargitay (THE LOVES OF HERCULES, BLOODY PIT OF HORROR) and Mark Forest (GOLIATH AND THE DRAGON) are among the celebrities expected to attend the opening night festivities, and the Digitmovies HERCULES set will be there as well, to provide the event with suitably celestial musical accompaniment.

Break a sweat, break those chains, pull down those marble columns, and read all about "Beefcake Babylon" here -- by the Gods!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Make Your Name Like a Ghost

It's both moving and a bit alienating to read the news today that Syd Barrett has died at age 60, from diabetes-related complications. Barrett's public self died, in a sense, more than thirty years ago when he recorded his last music; or perhaps more than twenty years ago, when his last album of unreleased material was issued; or perhaps more than ten years ago, when it was all collected on a box set.

The founding member of Pink Floyd, the author of their early singles "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play", the visionary responsible for taking their psychedelic noodlings into space ("Jupiter and Saturn / Oberon, Miranda and Titania / Neptune, Titan, stars can frighten..."), Barrett dropped out of the band as it finally stood on the brink of ascension above and beyond mere cult status. His closing (almost solo) song on the PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN album, the awkwardly pedal-toggling "Bike", showed the direction in which his songwriting craft was being lured by his acid-knurled imagination, which we're told initiated psychological problems. He withdrew from public life, abandoning music and sharing a Cambridge flat with his mother.

I have no idea who he was, or what he was like personally, but his songwriting and performing was an inspiration to later musicians like David Bowie and Robyn Hitchcock, and even to writers like me. As far as music goes, Syd Barrett was THE object lesson in the value of scrapping the traditional rules and making combinations of words and notes and tempi that suit you, because the more directly you are in touch with your own spirit, flaws and all, the more likely yours will touch others -- and, if the kiss is a bit raw, all the better. It's a lesson applicable to all the arts. I won't make the time-honored observation of the thin line dividing genius from madness, which would be lazy and presumptuous of me, but I think it's unquestionable that Barrett's three solo albums stand as some of the most original, completely unmoored, and sublimely playful and poetical music to be found in any category. His catalogue isn't dark and self-absorbed and deadly, or any of the things commonly associated with mental illness, but fractured and fanciful -- a fun place, prone to occasional wonderment and melancholy and longing, but essentially true to the emotional roller-coaster of life.

I first heard Pink Floyd after Barrett had left, with UMMAGUMMA, and I heard Syd Barrett for the first time when it was all over, basically -- when a local FM station played "Baby Lemonade" from his second solo album, BARRETT. The song's sleek but coltish feel and absurd lyrics encouraged me to seek it out, and I discovered there were far greater pleasures awaiting me on the album (which may have been the first import vinyl I ever bought): "Gigolo Aunt", the sweetly inebriated "Wined and Dined", "Maisie" (a heavy blues song sung to a cow). I'm listening to the album now, as I write this, and I find myself impressed anew by the song "Rats", which contains a wealth of inspired incantatory, impressionistic couplets, each one chanted twice ("I like the ball that brings me to / I like the cord around sinew.../ Love an empty son and guest / Dimples dangerous and blessed"). In fact, I got so deeply into BARRETT that I've never been able to take his debut solo album THE MADCAP LAUGHS into my heart on the same level, and most Barrett observers claim that it's the masterpiece and BARRETT that falls short. Perhaps the day will come when I can fully embrace THE MADCAP LAUGHS, but whenever I want to hear a nice stretch of Syd Barrett, I can't help it: I instinctively reach for BARRETT.

But when I crave the hardcore essence of this artist, it's the third album -- the odds-and-ends compilation OPEL -- that I reach for. And the opening title track is often all I really need because, somehow, this previously unreleased epic stands, for me, as Barrett's definitive musical statement. His two solo albums are sometimes described as "ragged," but they are actually very well produced and the musical ideas advanced and avant garde rather than sloppy. "Opel," however, is genuinely ragged -- no more than a demo, really -- but the album compilers had the wisdom to issue the rough-hewn song as it was, without production embellishment.

Guitar string searchings, almost tunings, arrive at the right chord, then give way to a chiming, striving rhythm as Barrett describes his own stance in a desolate yet also fantastic landscape:

On a distant shore, miles from land
Stands the ebony totem in ebony sand
A dream in a mist of gray
On a far distant shore

The pebble that stood alone
In driftwood lies half buried
Warm shallow waters sweep shells
So the cockles shine

A bare winding carcass, stark,
Shimmers as flies scoop up meat,
An empty way
Dry tears

Crisp flax squeaks tall reeds
Make a circle of gray
In a summer way (around man)
Stood on ground

At this point, the guitar makes an inspired turn toward an absolutely heartbreaking chord progression, its tonalities tragic and somehow innocently nostalgic while its cadence is almost that of a child happily skipping along. It's played only on a starkly recorded acoustic guitar, but somehow I can hear this passage (indeed the whole song) as though it were fully orchestrated and being played by orchestra, full steam ahead. As the voice returns, soaring with longing sung off-key and all the more vital for it, the chords turn bitter and brittle with an encroaching admission of yearning and struggle:

I'm trying
I'm trying to find you
To find you
I'm living
I'm giving
To find you
To find you

The entire arc of Syd Barrett's musical career is somehow encapsulated in this inspired demo. The presence of some obviously unfinished lyrics (i.e., "An empty way / Dry tears") does nothing to mar its perfection, but rather invites us more intimately into his creative process. It's this one piece of music that makes me most sad to hear that he's dead.

Whatever Syd Barrett was seeking in music, he clearly found it -- seemingly at great cost to himself. As I say, the personal Syd is a cipher to me and to most people, and I can only hope that he found more happiness in his strange, enchanted life than is commonly known. Knowing his music certainly made my life richer, and I know this is true for thousands of people. No, we can't mourn him because his death means there will be no more music, because none was forthcoming; true, his death changes nothing where most of us are concerned. But we received the messages he sent into the void in intimate places most recording artists never touch, and that's why he mattered and always will.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Watch Out for These Books - They're Lulu's


The latest phenomenon in the world of Print-on-Demand is Lulu.com, a cyber publishing service that professional and amateur writers alike are turning to, as a means of packaging and sharing works of marginal interest.

I haven't investigated Lulu too thoroughly myself, but I'm told that the service can even be used to manufacture single copies of documents in book form, and writers also share more generously in the profits than they would when working with a major publisher. I'm sure there must be a downside to it -- no bookstore distribution, certainly, would fall under that heading -- but Lulu does make their books available to online outlets such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders.

A couple of my friends have been using Lulu to make some interesting rare items available to a wider readership. David White, a past VW contributor, recently published through Lulu a lost novel by Fantômas creator Marcel Allain. While shopping on eBay, David happened to score a series of old FLYNN DETECTIVE WEEKLY magazines from 1927, which featured the serialization of Allain's A WOMAN OF PREY, as translated by Lawrence Morris. The novel was never collected in English, making it a real eureka for Fantômas collectors like me. Taking a tip from Allain's novel THE YELLOW DOCUMENT, which was published in America with the commercial subtitle FANTOMAS OF BERLIN, David scanned the PD documents and retitled the British-based novel FANTOMAS OF LONDON (A WOMAN OF PREY). It's now available in an attractive trade softcover edition, complete with the pen-and-ink illustrations that accompanied the novel's original pulp presentation.

Fantômas collectors should also use Lulu to seek out a reprint edition of the hard-to-find THE LORD OF TERROR (an English translation of Allain's first solo Fantômas novel, FANTOMAS EST-IL RESSUSCITE?), hardcover copies of which now sell for hundreds of dollars when they can be found at all.

Lastly, fans of Italian horror and science-fiction will be interested to learn that screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi has published two of his unproduced film scripts in English at Lulu.com. THE KEY OF LUCK, a science-fiction comedy, is published in a bilingual English/Italian edition, and UNION SQUARE, a thriller comedy, is available in English only. I haven't read these yet, but the presentation is attractive and indistinguishable from store-bought paperbacks. (A third book by Ernesto, I QUARANTA BELANTI [THE ROARING FORTIES] is available in Italian only. it has a great cover collage of Ernesto and family, so I assume it's autobiographical.) Ernesto's books are also available for direct PDF downloads at less than half-price. Support the Maestri of Italian fantasy!

So many interesting film scripts are failing to be produced these days -- on second thought, this has always been the case -- that this manner of instant publishing may prove a viable alternative life for such works. Movies that you can cast and project inside your own skull -- why not?

Some other interesting titles I found while browsing Lulu.com include PROFESSOR CHALLENGER, a collection of all three novels (THE LOST WORLD, THE POISON BELT and THE LAND OF MIST) and additional stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring said hero; new editions of Sax Rohmer's extraordinary BROOD OF THE WITCH QUEEN, QUEST OF THE SACRED SLIPPER and an omnibus containing THE GREEN EYES OF BAST and BAT-WING; and even a new pulp fiction reprint zine called LOST SANCTUM.

Might Lulu also be a solution to the high cost and distribution woes of magazine publishing? The mind boggles...

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Two Dollars Short -- a poem (1997)

Two men of old age in a hospital lay:
Grumpy old Ralph and the grumpier Ray.
They'd both had long lives
They were both rich as kings
But Ralph felt deprived - like a bird without wings.

"I'm one dollar short of a million" (he said)
"And never a millionaire!
I've worked hard and I've saved...
Dear Lord, how I've slaved!
But that dollar, it just isn't there!"

If you think that's sad, I would have to agree,
But the other old geezer was much sadder than he.
Yes, Ray was well off
But he was worse off, as well
And here's what he said as he growled in his hell:

"I'm one dollar short of a billion" (he said)
"And never a billionaire!
I've worked hard and I've saved...
Oh God, how I've slaved!
But that dollar, it just isn't there!"

Then Ralph thought of a way to better their luck.
He sat up and exclaimed, "Ray! Lend me a buck!
I'll achieve my life's dream
And go out with a splash!
And put you in my Will - for two dollars cash!"

So Ray finally made his first billion
And Ralph died a millionaire
They'd worked hard and they'd saved
From their cribs to their graves...

It almost covered their hospital care.

-- Tim Lucas
10-19-97

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

For Love of a Seasick Sea Serpent

Cecil (who's, like, square -- dig?) meets Gogh Man Van Gogh, the "Wildman of Wildsville."


Since it was first released back in 2000, Image Entertainment "Special Edition" DVD of Bob Clampett's BEANY & CECIL has become a prized collector's item, with used copies nowadays selling on Amazon.com at a starting price of $122.00. It's an amazing disc, and one I recall with mixed agony and ecstasy because it was so jam-packed with data, it loaded up in some early DVD players like peanut butter. The memory of that wealth of material has become misleading with time, and it came to my attention only recently that the disc contained only a dozen actual B&C cartoons, along with a lot of very interesting and worthwhile supplements! Twelve cartoons is equal to only two of the original BEANY & CECIL VHS tapes that were released in the 1980s by RCA/Columbia Home Video, each of which collected the equivalent of two episodes -- three cartoons each, and occasional bumpers and other filler.

For the record, the twelve cartoons included in the Image Entertainment DVD (and the VHS volumes in which they were originally issued) were: “Beany Meets the Monstrous Monster” (VOL. 3), “So What and the Seven Whatnots” (VOL. 9), “Beany and the Boo Birds” (VOL. 4), “Super Cecil” (VOL. 1), “Wildman of Wildsville” (VOL. 1), “The Spots Off a Leopard” (VOL. 1), “Beanyland” (VOL. 11), “Cecil Meets the Singing Dinosor [sic]” (VOL. 1), “The Mad Isle of Madhattan” (VOL. 12), “Dirty Pool” (VOL. 10), “D.J. the D.J.” (VOL. 13), and “Snorky - There’s No Such Thing as a Sea Serpent” (VOL. 13).

Wot the heck! That means there's still a ton of BEANY & CECIL not yet available on DVD! The scorecard of available B&C toons on DVD amounts to this: VOL. 1 (three), VOL. 2 (none!), VOL. 3 (one), VOL. 4 (one), VOL. 5 (none!!), VOL. 6 (none!!!), VOL. 7 (none!!!!), VOL. 8 (none!!!!!), VOL. 9 (one), VOL. 10 (one), VOL. 11 (one), VOL. 12 (one), and VOL. 13 (two).

I don't have all the individual B&C VHS volumes, but fortunately, I have the majority (including the swell gift box edition of VOLUME 8, which came with a nifty Cecil hand-puppet), so I've started burning these onto DVD-R for myself. The B&C cartoons are deeply hard-wired into my brain, as they came along at just the right time in my childhood; they gave me a love of puns that almost certainly pre-dated my discovery of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, and I had all the toys -- the Beany copter hat (I must have lost all those propellers on the roof the first day I had it -- programmed obsolescence at its finest), the Cecil jack-in-a-box, the hand puppets, the B&C ukelele, the Cecil Soaky bottle, the comics, the talking dolls. Watching these cartoons again, I am astonished by their enduring vitality and by how they invigorate me. Thirty minutes of cartoons is usually my limit -- certain classics aside, cartoon features are almost always too long for my liking -- but I find that I can burn three volumes of B&C (that's 18 cartoons, plus bumpers) to disc in a sitting and still be ready for more. They are smart, hip ("So What and the Seven Whatnots" is not just a Disney gag, but a Miles Davis reference!), silly, and brilliantly designed -- and the secret, I think, is as simple as that.

In the course of my dubbing project, I discovered that my attic collection harbors three episodes of the 1988 BEANY & CECIL Saturday morning revival series masterminded by John Kricfalusi. These I hadn't watched since I'd recorded them 18 years ago (!), and the picture quality was enough to remind me of how the cards were stacked against this program. I watched the first episode on the local Cincinnati network affiliate. Said affiliate dumped the show after that single broadcast, so I had to seek out the next two episodes on the Dayton network affiliate, which was thankfully part of our cable package at the time. But after those second and third episodes, the new BEANY & CECIL disappeared from the Ohio airwaves and went over the rainbow in toto. I've read online that five episodes were aired, but the truth is: five cartoons, but only three episodes. An equal number of shows were produced -- "Cecil Meets Clambo," "The Courtship of Cecilia," and "The Golden Menu" -- that never received their public unveiling.

There are things about the Kricfalusi B&C that don't quite work -- notably its updating of Beany into a more expressive, pro-active character, which I think misses the joke of the poker-faced Beany and reeks of network "advice." I also wish that the show had been as punny as it was funny. But, over the course of the three shows I have, it was clearly coming more fully into its own. At the time, when the show was cancelled, I paid an anonymous call to Bob Clampett Productions and left a message on their machine bemoaning the cancellation and congratulating them on their effort. I didn't know who Kricfalusi was at the time, but it wasn't terribly long after the cancellation that I saw in TV GUIDE a color picture of two new cartoon characters called Ren and Stimpy who were about to be unveiled on Nickelodeon. I didn't make the connection to the new BEANY & CECIL, or even the new MIGHTY MOUSE which I also enjoyed, but I instinctively knew that I was going to like these guys; I clipped the picture, posted it on our home bulletin board, and became quite the REN & STIMPY buff for the first couple of years it was on the air.

One of the reasons I'm writing about BEANY & CECIL today is in the hope that somebody out there has the unaired Kricfalusi episodes, and might entertain the idea of a swap of some sort. I don't usually do this but, as I say, Beany & Cecil are characters that touch a special nerve in the old Watchdog. For those of you who never saw Kricfalusi's B&C revival, You Tube is making available the amusing episode called "The Bad Guy Flu." Fun and disease are just a click away.

It seems that The Watchdog is on a cartoon binge
He's making puns and having fun out on the lunatic fringe
He's watching BEANY & CECIL morning, night and noon
And now he's hoping you'll help him find
Those John Kricfalusi tooooooOOOOOOOOONS!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

2001: A High Definition Odyssey

Last night I happened to discover Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY playing on HDNet Movies. I don't know whether or not it was the film's world high-definition premiere, but it was new to the channel and I was so impressed by what I saw, I happily strapped myself in for the remainder of the broadcast.

I first saw 2001 the way it should be met, if at all possible -- in 70mm Super Panavision and six-track stereo sound -- circa 1975, at Cincinnati's Valley Theater, which I believe was the city's only 70mm venue at that time. The screen was immense and curved and the seats were very comfortable. I had several of my most memorable theatrical experiences there, but 2001 was supreme. In the years since, I've seen the film in many formats, from standard 35mm prints to commercial television broadcasts and the various tape and disc releases, but it was truly made for viewing in 70mm -- it loses something significant when viewed in any other format, even standard 35. That something boils down to presence.

I joined the HDNet Movies presentation just as Heywood Floyd (always the accepted spelling of William Sylvester's character, or is it "Haywood Floyd," as his name is captioned on a telescreen?) was making his trip to the moon. One of the unique qualities of HD viewing is an increased awareness of composition in depth, but I've never seen that sense better explored, or exploited, than in the special effects shots from this sequence. The famous shot of the spinning parallel wheels of the space station conveyed, for the first time in my living room, an appreciable sense of its size, its dimension, and its weightlessness -- as did the later cutaway shot to the asteroids hurtling past, and the whole episode of Poole's (Gary Lockwood's) unhappy encounter with a psychotically puppeteered space pod. At its best, I find that HD also communicates a sense of temperature, and here -- in the pinpoint precision of the starry backgrounds and the razor-sharp details of the lunar surface from afar -- 2001 HD permits a sometimes frightening impression of the cold emptiness of space. Consequently, the story is heightened by being told against this subtly terrifying background of the void.

The labels on the space food trays were readable. The anti-grav toilet directions were, to some extent, readable. The detail evident in the spaceship models was astonishing. I could almost smell the fresh vinyl of the seat cushions. I noticed that misspelling of Heywood Floyd's name, and wondered, for the first time, why Bowman (Keir Dullea) left certain of HAL's memory banks connected while disconnecting him. And I was continually amazed that a film that looked this immediate, this present, could have been first released in 1968. Many of the actors in this film are now dead, but the film itself has not aged a day in nearly 40 years, and its special effects have dated least of all. It is antiquated only by a level of quality control that was unique to the eye of Stanley Kubrick, which forever closed in 1999.

In short, I found the image quality of 2001 HD to be generally as rich and as plush as it had been in 70mm, and I also found there were unexpected advantages to having the screen downsized -- in my case, to a mere 53 inches. True, one can't "inhabit" the film to the extent one can on an immense screen, but new layers of appreciation await those who can take a step back, or outside, the experience while still "feeling" it courtesy of the exquisite transfer. In my case, I found it allowed me to focus, in a way I never have before, on the calm, cool, exacting logic that guides the film from one composition to the next. Everything unfolds at an unusually pensive pace that, I realized, is perfectly analogous to a chess master inhabiting a problem, viewing it from different angles, and gradually arriving at the decision of which of these solutions is best and then advancing there. Each shot in a scene holds for as long as it takes that decision to be made, and each step forward does appear to be predicated on a logic that is there to be read in the preceding image. Granted, I've seen the film many times, but never before have I been so conscious of how many shots contain the next shot, or the idea propelling the viewer toward the next shot, or propelling the story to its next plateau.

Whether or not viewers are consciously aware of this logic, I believe they feel it and come to rely on it -- and this is why the "Jupiter and Beyond" segment remains so controversial. Because 2001 has been so unyieldingly logical and deliberate up to this point, the introduction of action and information beyond our ken is galling for many viewers. Even before I could appreciate some of the finer subtleties of this segment, I could appreciate the beauty and mystery of it -- and now that I think I have a better idea of what it's all about, my knowledge still boils down to being more receptive to that same beauty and mystery. Clearly, Bowman (Keir Dullea) undergoes an experience involving alien terrain and presence that is beyond his comprehension -- an odyssey through space and time and color that leaves him emotionally shattered. Would the film be better had Kubrick staged this segment in a manner that popcorn munchers everywhere would have easily grasped, or was he right to take us along on the same ride into the Infinite as Bowman? I think the answer is obvious, and if 2001's arrival at narrative opacity kills it as a movie for some people, that same opacity offers it endless levels available to interpretation, discussion, debate and revisitation -- the stuff of great art.

For those of you with HD service, HDNet Movies will be presenting 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY several more times during the month, usually in showings followed by 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT (which, needless to say, also looks a good deal better than the transfer currently available on DVD). It's heartening to know that this exemplary transfer exists, and it proves beyond question that Stanley Kubrick was truly ahead of his time -- the HD filmmaker par excellence.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

VIDEO WATCHDOG 126 Has Shipped

The new issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG is now wending its way to subscribers and newsstand distributors. This is our second KING KONG issue in a row, featuring an in-depth essay on the Peter Jackson film and a lengthy article about Edgar Wallace's role in authoring the original -- both written by Yours Truly -- and much else besides. You can see the cover and a complete list of contents and contributors by clicking here. Click again and you'll be taken to free previews of two articles. Clicking on the front cover a second time will reveal the back cover -- a picture of the original Kong armature posing with his favorite magazine -- and, if you click on that, you'll be taken to an unobstructed view of the background art by Richard Harrison Green and some biographical notes about the artist -- a VW website exclusive!

Friday, June 30, 2006

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The 9th Voyage of SnoopBlab, with Lil' Pip

At least once a day, our two male cats -- Blabber and Pipsqueak -- wage friendly war on one another, scattering clumps of hair about the living room carpet. Blabber, an amiable Maine Coon, typically maintains a battle stance of lying on his back, feet in the air, his shaggy belly proferred to the world, and scooting in circles around on the floor à la Curly Howard, as if anticipating the direction from which Pippy (a lethally athletic Siamese mix, black as a ninja) will next nip at his hindquarters. Then comes the clinch... and inevitably, after some ouchy, plucky talon sounds and a short yelpy meow or two, they separate and glower at one another, defiant, jurassic, their tails thrashing around behind them. That's when either Donna or I, watching from the sidelines, observe that they look like they are being animated by Ray Harryhausen.

Blab and the Pipster disagree about who should be napping on the comfy chair. Fur will soon fly. Blabber's.

Today is Blabber's 9th birthday -- and also that of his standoffish "twin sister" Snooper (who put the "Sssssss!" in "Princess") -- and it's the day we celebrate Lil' Pip's birthday too, since we imagine he was born at roughly this time of year, being only a few months old at the time we took him in. (Squeaky is two today, and he's been running things almost since he joined us.) And in a coincidence unnoticed till now but sweet in the observance, today also happens to be the birthday of their spiritual animator, Ray Harryhausen -- his 86th. (And if Harryhausen's great composer Bernard Herrmann was still around, he'd be celebrating his 95th natal day today.) Many happy returns to them all, and I include Maestro Herrmann in that salutation, though he's not likely to return except in the form of a new Joel McNeely release. I don't know what awaits Mr. Harryhausen at dinnertime, but our cats get real tuna and a song.

Ah, the lovely ladies of the Lucas abode. Notice which one has the comfy chair.

I think I'll wait till Blabber takes his daily nap in the middle of the living room floor, then put on the 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD soundtrack and see what happens...

PS for those who have read THE BOOK OF RENFIELD: You may remember from the dedication page that I mentioned having secreted the names of my past and present pets throughout the novel's text as a gesture of my love and esteem. I honestly don't know if the word "pipsqueak" appears therein, but this lil' pet's given name is Elvis -- which does appear in the penultimate chapter -- but nowadays, we tend to call him that only when he's being reprimanded. Once, when Donna was really driven around the bend by something he did, she used the memorable exclamation, "Elvis PRESLEY!"

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Phoenix! Phoenix! Phoenix!

There are some fabulous homemade camcorder clips from last April's Phantompalooza -- a celebration of Brian De Palma's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE where surviving cast members reunited -- to be enjoyed over at You Tube. This link will take you directly to Jessica Harper's live performance of "Old Souls" before an ecstatic crowd. The directory at the right of the screen offers additional Phantompalooza clips of Paul Williams' performance of "Faust" and a cast reunion panel.

Possession is 9/10ths of Guffaw


You'll have to excuse that subject line; I've topped off my evening's viewing with some BEANY & CECIL cartoons and the puns are pouring out of me.

But it's a true enough analogy when it comes to the movie I chose for my evening's main viewing, Amando de Ossorio's EXORCIST rip-off DEMON WITCH CHILD [LA ENDEMONIADA, 1975], which arrived here on VHS many years ago under the Dostoevskian moniker THE POSSESSED. This tape has been in my attic for about twenty years, watched only once, and I was delighted to find that time had stood still in terms of the tape itself; it still plays like it was brand new. The last time I saw DEMON WITCH CHILD, I merely thought it was bad, so I'm even more delighted to discover that my response to the movie today, twenty years further on, is conspicuously richer and more complex. I'm going to write it up for VW's "Things From the Attic" department, so I'm not going to review it here, but I do feel like previewing some of my thoughts on how this film has dated.

If you haven't seen it -- and there's not many opportunities to do so, as it's never turned up on cable, laserdisc or DVD -- it's the story of an old witch, Mother Gaultier ("the Mother of the Old Ones"), who leaps to her death through a glass window after being arrested for the abduction of an infant required by her coven's human sacrifice. (You know that comic "crashing" sound effect? It actually accompanies Mother Gaultier's suicide, right down to the sound of the plate rattling to a standstill.) In turn, her spirit possesses the body of the police commissioner's daughter, Susan. Before you know it, Susan (played by Marián Salgado, who was 11 or 12 at the time but looks somewhat older, thanks to her sexily cascading hair) is questioning the status quo, criticizing the hypocracies of her elders, sneering at the terminally staid, and startling everyone with words like "shit" and "fuck." Her governess (Lone Fleming, from the first two BLIND DEAD pictures) wails, "Her friends couldn't have taught her such words!"

My friends, welcome to the Twilight Zone. The amazing thing about DEMON WITCH CHILD is that, if you look past Susan's levitation (where the tracks doing the lift are in plain sight) and her transformation into Mother Gaultier and her spider-walk down the outside of her house (during which her skirt curiously defies gravity), everything this demonically-possessed child does to arouse terror in the hearts of her parents, caregivers, and local clergy would pass for standard behavior in an American child of her age in the year 2006!

This was 1975, of course. THE LAWRENCE WELK SHOW (or its Spanish equivalent) was still on the air. GIRLS GONE WILD, gangsta rap, and FEAR FACTOR were still no more than glints in the eyes of future pioneers of the arts. It was a different world then. But that doesn't make it any less amazing that, seen today, DEMON WITCH CHILD is only a scene or two removed from a straightforward cautionary tale about the generation gap. In fact, while watching it, I was often less alarmed by the doings of the kid with the snotty attitude than by the ultraconservative, reactionary ways of the adults who encircled her like so many prison bars. That is, until she kills and castrates one of them, and gift-wraps the severed genitals as a present for the victim's girlfriend. That's when Ossorio's movie lets you know, in case you still haven't caught on (as I hadn't), that it's not actually subversive entertainment and has every intention of siding with the grown-ups. Of course, it's possible that the English dubbed version is a travesty and that the original Spanish version is a more sober viewing experience, but I doubt it.

If 35 mm prints of DEMON WITCH CHILD could be found, it might well be the title that could revive the '70s phenomenon of the Midnight Movie. There's nothing that REEFER MADNESS or DAMAGED LIVES have that it doesn't have, and the lousy dubbing adds considerably to its pleasures. I'm in no particular rush to watch my tape of DEMON WITCH CHILD again... but I can't wait to tell my friends about it, and it would be an evening to remember to see it some night in a darkened auditorium with a bunch of of stoned kids out past their curfews.

Would you like to know more? Okay.

Here's a link to an amusing "visual examination" of the film I found online.

And in case you're wondering what Marián Salgado is doing today... incredibly, she's a blogger in Madrid! Her blog is in Spanish of course, and her only entry to date (from what I can understand of it) is sad and possibly tragic in nature; that said, she does seem to be reaching out to others by posting such a message, so I would urge you to proceed there only with the best and kindest of intentions. (And please write to me of anything you find out.) Naturally, I don't hold Ms. Salgado responsible for the shortcomings or the silliness of DEMON WITCH CHILD -- I rather enjoyed her in it -- and her only other movie credit is attached to one of the great classics of Spanish horror: Narcisco Ibañez-Serrador's WOULD YOU KILL A CHILD? aka ISLAND OF THE DAMNED (1976). I sincerely wish her well.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The 65th You Never Had


The 65th you never had
A day of smokes and celebration
Your second self abroad is sad
Discarded shadow resignation

Ten years you've gone from here to there
Traced in smoke, transfiguration
Your second self abroad knows where
To find you benched on your vacation

I seek you still, the truth to see
Revealed through smokes and cerebration
Your second self abroad's not me
But gives me grace of expectation.

for Krzysztof Kieslowski
June 27, 1941 - March 13, 1996

THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII reviewed

Glaucus (Steve Reeves) discovers evidence of his father's murder
in THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII.

Laser Paradise's widescreen German import DVD of Mario Bonnard's THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1959) has been available for awhile, but it was only recently that I got around to adding it to my collection. Watching this Mario Bonnard film starring Steve Reeves and Christine Kaufmann the other night -- or "Sergio Leone's Meisterwerk mit Christine Kaufmann and Steve Reeves," as the German packaging would have it -- I was momentarily surprised, about eight minutes or so into the movie, by the brief appearance of a young actor who looked like Jacinto Molina, toiling anonymously onscreen in the years before he became Spain's top horror star, Paul Naschy.

THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII isn't on any list of Naschy films I have seen -- it doesn't help that Naschy's autobiography eliminates all of his pre-starring appearances from his official filmography -- but it was mostly shot in Madrid and at a time when Molina was known to be making screen appearances. In the scene in question, the centurion Glaucus (Reeves) returns to Pompeii after victory in battle and stops to intercede in a Roman guard's flogging of a helpless villager. Glaucus grabs the sadistic guard by the wrist and then you see this:

My apologies for the lousy image compression, but this is as large as I can make the frame without knocking all the information to the right to the bottom of this screen. Yesterday I sent these grabs to various friends, including Naschy authority Mirek Lipinski of Latarnia International, for verification. Mirek agrees there is a resemblance, but otherwise doubts it could be Naschy, as he feels El Hombre Lobo would have spoken before now of having acted opposite someone as iconic and as personally inspirational to him, as an athlete, as Reeves. (PS: Yes, that's Angel Aranda of PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES to the side of Reeves in the second shot.)

You know, having just published these grabs and seen how poorly they communicate what I am talking about, I'm going to blow them up and crop them a bit so you can better see what I saw:

Better, yes? The first one really looks like him, I think... but it's probably not Paul Naschy, so please don't go spreading this rumor all over the Internet; I just wanted to share my surprise with you, and the possibility, shall we say, because I got a bigger kick out of this little eureka than I did from almost everything else this rather turgid epic had to offer.

This DVD was my first opportunity to see THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII in its correct anamorphic widescreen ratio, and I was disappointed to find that it doesn't hold up very well. The script -- written by a half-dozen old hands at Italian pepla including Ennio De Concini, Sergio Leone, Duccio Tessari and Sergio Corbucci -- plays less like an adaptation of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel than a "greatest clichés of the sword-and-sandal genre." The romantic leads meet when Reeves rescues Kaufmann from a runaway chariot; hooded men in the secret employ of Pompeii's High Priest (Fernando Rey) are murdering innocent people and leaving evidence behind to implicate Christians; henchmen deprived of their due are led to a pile of riches that turns out to be fatally booby-trapped; Reeves is chained in a dungeon and tears his way free just in time to save the day -- it's all very familiar. This could have been any other peplum script with an erupting volcano tagged onto the end. The climactic cataclysm is an immense disappointment too, consisting of lots of extras running around under a shower of fireworks sparklers, intercut with stock footage of Vesuvius and optical overlays of fireworks, and only one shot of lava -- which looks more like raw sewage as it feebly engulfs a fleeing man's dropped riches. I hope you know by now that I am not one of those critics who looks down his nose at all movies of this kind; I love a good many of them, from the best to the cheesiest, but this one fails in pretty much every department.

The film's direction is credited to Mario Bonnard, but the aging filmmaker fell ill shortly after production began and he was replaced by his assistant Sergio Leone. (Hence, Leone's "Meisterwerk.") Leone had his own difficulties on the sets in Madrid (he and Reeves didn't get along), and Sergio Corbucci was drafted to direct second-unit scenes at Cinecittà. It was the first of the sandaloni to be produced as a truly epic international co-production, with talent and monies pooled not only from Italy and America, but also from Germany, France, and Monaco; this diversity seems to have been more hindrance than help. Reeves and Kaufmann, speaking English and German at one another, never seem to connect, and the film's villainess, the voluptuous but otherwise boring Barbara Carroll, appears to have been cast solely for her ability to fill Anita Ekberg's old wardrobe from SIGN OF THE GLADIATOR. By far the most expensive peplum produced up to its time, THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII looks like one of the cheapest -- and the special effects men may have agreed because neither of them worked under their real names. “Magasoli” likely refers to one of two Spanish cinematographers active at the time (Augustín or Antonio Macasoli), while “Erasmo Bacciucchi” was surely the pyrotechnician Eros Bacciucchi. Speaking of which, the screen credits of this film are a veritable madhouse of misinformation -- Sergio Leone himself is credited with directing the second unit!

Laser Paradise's DVD is a deluxe two-disc item that pairs the 1959 film with the 1913 silent version from Italy, directed by Mario Caserini. (Do not confuse the German import with this domestic release, a pan&scan atrocity which also includes the 1913 film as a bonus.) The 1959 version is presented in its original aspect ratio and is generally fine, allowing for some individual scratchy or flecky shots that turn up in otherwise spotless sequences. The color is bold without being overdone. Three different soundtracks are offered in both German or English: original mono, DD 5.1, and DTS 5.1. The latter two principally pack more dimensional, re-recorded sound effects, with some outright fireworks sounds during the scenes of destruction that inadvertently make them more comic. The 5.1 mixes also have a tendency to drown out dialogue and, to an even greater extent, the Angelo Francesco Lavagnino score. The original mono mixes are recommended. The bonus feature (alas, without English intertitles) looks good and is effectively tinted; the red-tinted disaster scenes (likely the uncredited work of Mario Bava's father, Eugenio) seem light years ahead of the remake's capabilities. Cast and crew bios, information about Mt. Vesuvius, and a photo gallery are also included, as are some unrelated promotional trailers.

THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (or DIE LETZEN TAGE VON POMPEJI, as the cover art reads) is available here.

Postscript: To the best of my knowledge, this piece marks the English-language debut of the plural term "sandaloni." I found this interesting generic term in an Italian interview with screenwriter Ennio De Concini, published in a history of the Italian production company Galatea. I find this synonym less cumbersome than "sword-and-sandal" and more manly than "peplum," the more compact term assigned to this genre by the French, and I naturally bow to its Italian provenance.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Kate Bush and The Smiths "Under Review"


Since my earlier coverage of the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart releases in the series, I've been continuing to follow Sexy Intellectual's "Under Review" titles with keen interest. The latest two I've seen are devoted to the recording careers of Kate Bush and The Smiths. As an American admirer of these artists, one of the most gratifying things about these "Under Review" discs is that they present me with an opportunity to see these artists, who were never very big in America, through the eyes of observers who knew them as the chart-topping celebrities they were in Britain. I've always followed their work, liking pretty much all of it, but without any particular insight as to how their respective careers were affected by the ways in which their various singles and albums managed to hit or miss.

Before getting into the two new releases, I should stop for a moment and correct a common misconception about this series, which seems to be needlessly upsetting some people. The "Under Review" discs are not video compilations, so don't expect complete songs or state-of-the-art quality where video clips are concerned. If that's what you're looking for, you're bound to be disappointed. These discs are, as plainly labelled, "An Independent Critical Analysis"; that is, a visual presentation of music criticism and pop cultural history -- and, as such, I find them very interesting. But I read and like rock criticism.

Of the two new discs, I found the KATE BUSH - UNDER REVIEW most satisfying; in fact, its coverage of her innovations as a video artist and dancer inspired me to spend some money at eBay to acquire someone's (fairly decent) homemade compilation of her videos and various television appearances. The clips on view throughout the program (including some rarities) are mostly of conspicuously better quality than those of the VU and Beefheart releases, which is a definite plus, but the program's greatest value is that the commentators -- including series regular Paul Morley and, in this case especially, BBC Radio 1 DJ Paul Gambaccini -- are so insightful and articulate about Bush's work and its (and her) enduring appeal. Their annotation of all her music, from the uncanny perfection of her debut "Wuthering Heights" single to her recent comeback album AERIAL, I found not only hard to argue with, but often embellishing of my own ideas, and therefore gratifying. The magical quality of Bush's work as a music video artist, dancer, choreographer and director shines through even in short glimpses, and makes the need for a proper, official, DVD release of her work seem essential.


THE SMITHS UNDER REVIEW (which streets tomorrow, June 27) is also of interest, but harder to recommend. It benefits from having access to Smiths producers John Porter and Stephen Street, and also Smiths second guitarist Craig Gannon, all of whom offer more of an insider's perspective of the group's sessions and inter-personal dynamics. However, the program loses some of its integrity because the opinions of the various commentators are so often diffuse and contradictory. I was pleased that at least one participant challenged the common view by arguing that STRANGEWAYS, HERE WE COME was actually their finest album, and even more pleased that the disc had no intention of being "Morrissey - Under Review" in disguise. The contributions of brilliant guitarist-composer Johnny Marr are given at least equal time to Morrissey's, and Andy Rourke's suave and often melodic playing is also accorded proper respect. The clip quality here may be the most consistently good I've seen in this series overall, but the availability of so many TOP OF THE POPS clips and so forth may have inspired the filmmakers to take a more singles-oriented approach to documenting The Smiths' story. In England, The Smiths were widely known as a singles band, but their albums are their great legacy. The posthumously released live album, RANK, is not mentioned at all and the participants monologize on Morrissey and Marr's subsequent solo careers in a bonus featurette.

My feelings about THE SMITHS UNDER REVIEW can basically be boiled down to a single question: "How can I recommend a Smiths career overview that doesn't even mention 'There is a Light That Never Goes Out'?"