Monday, August 07, 2006

FREUD: "A Place As Black As Hell Itself"

Montgomery Clift and Larry Parks pursue the moment
of a patient's trauma in John Huston's FREUD.

A couple of days ago, Donna and I commemorated John Huston's 100th birthday with a day's end screening of FREUD (1962), one of his more difficult films to see. This Universal release has never been available on video and, to the best of my knowledge, it's never appeared on any of the premium cable networks -- but, thanks to a friend with access to hidden reserves, I was able to see it for the first time in many years... for so long, in fact, that seeing it again was, appropriately, like exhuming a buried memory from childhood.

FREUD isn't widely regarded as one of Huston's better films; it didn't last in theaters for very long, and it made few critics' Ten Best lists in 1962. But as its proto-Star Child ending faded to black, I couldn't help but exclaim aloud, "What an astounding movie!" Rather like an Eric Rohmer film, it consists of one conversation after another, occasionally interrupted by an academic lecture, which is probably why it disenchanted mainstream audiences and critics; nevertheless, it had me by the throat from beginning to end, deriving suspense and excitement from its articulation of ideas and tentative probings of inner space. As the film ended, I felt the same elation I feel after seeing a thriller by Clouzot or Hitchcock, something that has put me through the ringer -- and then realized, with amusement, that what I'd seen was something like 140 minutes of talk. Huston himself called FREUD "an intellectual thriller."

I may be missing some other examples, but I believe there were only two major films about psychoanalysis prior to FREUD: Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND (1945) and Nunnally Johnson's THE THREE FACES OF EVE (1957); earlier movies like SHOCK CORRIDOR, THE SNAKE PIT and even THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, which are set in asylums without seriously broaching the subject of psychoanalysis, should be removed from consideration, as should later but still progressive films like DAVID AND LISA and LILITH. FREUD stands apart from all these films because it is about the excitement of discovery, and the singularly great discovery of unexplored wings of the human mind -- places "as black as Hell itself." Because it is the story of the first steps taken toward psychoanalysis, and because its protagonists are academics, it also offers us the rare opportunity to see people conversing on higher and deeper levels of awareness, and dawning awareness, than other films almost never aspire to attain.

I'm familiar with Huston's reputation as a big-time drinker, but I don't know how much experience he had, if any, with psychedelics. He made this film at a time when LSD therapy was legal and quite au courant, and the high-contrast scenes visualizing Freud's attempts to dredge information up from the subconscious and unconscious of his patients have as potent a lysergic edge as anything I've seen this side of ALTERED STATES. The movie encourages the viewer to look below the surface of everything and everyone involved, and manages to reveal a surprising amount of information without ever expressing it on the surface, or "consciously." For example, one senses that the misplaced love felt by the patient Cecily (Susannah York) for Dr. Breuer (Larry Parks) was in fact reciprocated, though this is never admitted, and that this was the true reason why he places Freud in charge of her care. Likewise, it is left to the viewer to recognize the actress playing Freud's wife Martha (Susan Kohner, the daughter of Lupita Tovar and Paul Kohner) as a "reflection" of the actress playing his mother (THE HAUNTING's Rosalie Krutchley), and to leap to the discovery of the "Freudian slip" before Freud himself. Also worthy of mention are an outstanding, disturbing scene showcasing the talents of a young David McCallum and, to move from the sublime to the ridiculous, a single line by one actor that is somewhat glaringly looped by Paul Frees.

FREUD, like SPELLBOUND before it (and Corman's PIT AND THE PENDULUM, come to think of it), helps to establish a narrative of process and revelation that points the way to a specific kind of Italian gialli -- the kind that build toward a cathartic understanding of the killer's moment of trauma. Mario Bava, I think, was the first to import this into the gialli with HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, and it resonates throughout much of Dario Argento's work -- DEEP RED, TENEBRAE, and TRAUMA, particularly. In this regard, it's worth noting that Huston's film features a flashback to a trauma in the childhood of Susannah York's character, where she is pictured as a girl with long blonde hair and piercing eyes, in a Victorian dress, holding a ball... Could Bava have seen this film and imported the memory into his KILL, BABY... KILL!?

I found this remarkable essay about Huston's FREUD online, which comes to grips with the film biographically and psychologically far better than I could hope to do, and it also offers some fascinating behind-the-scenes information and gossip. (I didn't know, for example, that Jean-Paul Sartre had been involved in scripting it.) It's worth reading, and a film well worth tracking down. In fact, I'd compare it favorably to some of the acknowledged Huston classics, simply on the grounds that there are many other movies like them, and very few others like this. FREUD belongs on a short shelf with ALTERED STATES, THE ELEPHANT MAN, and... well, you tell me.

If anyone from Universal is listening, please let us have FREUD on DVD -- perhaps as part of a "John Huston Double Feature" with the also-missing-in-action THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Bummer in the Summer

August is all that I know
It's with me wherever I go
It's with me when I need a friend
It brings me good weather
It keeps me together
It picks me up when I'm down

-- Arthur Lee, "August"

Arthur Lee, the man behind the LA-based psychedelic rock band LOVE (a name always rendered in caps, and in red on their album covers), wrote those lyrics for a 1969 album. Yesterday, he was picked up by the month of August for the last time: he died of leukemia in his hometown of Memphis at the age of 61. You can read the story here.

Guitarist, vocalist and songwriter, Lee's place in musical history is cemented by LOVE's third album, FOREVER CHANGES, released in 1967. A mournful, elegiac but tuneful response to the Summer of Love, the album (which included the song "Bummer in the Summer" -- and the closing "You Set the Scene," which ranks with John Lennon's "God" as one of the most poignant songs in the annals of pop music) is now regarded as one of rock's masterpieces, but it was largely overlooked at the time of its release on Elektra Records. It was too much of an album statement to yield a hit single and, to make its fortunes worse, the musicians that recorded the album had disbanded by the time of its release. Lee later claimed that LOVE's replacement line-up (who recorded the FOUR SAIL album of which "August" was a part) disliked FOREVER CHANGES and refused to play in support of it -- but it also seems likely that Lee was simply too progressive, too mercurial a talent to look back for long, least of all at an unhappy band association. (It always amazes me to learn that the most accomplished works of some groups -- like The Zombies' ODESSEY AND ORACLE, Mott the Hoople's BRAIN CAPERS, or Public Image Ltd's METAL BOX -- were recorded as the bands themselves were falling apart, or not speaking to one another. You'd think the glory of the music alone would pull them back together.)

As time went on, LOVE's recorded work began to fracture and Lee began recording solo albums. This later work was intermittently as inspired as anything he'd ever done, like the song "Five String Serenade" (later covered by Mazzy Star), but even his most dedicated fans lost patience under a barrage of poorly recorded live albums issued on small labels, presumably issued to support him through his lean years. Always an eccentric recluse who refused to kow-tow to the music industry, Lee was commonly branded an "acid casualty." (Indeed, in case you've ever wondered who really lived in that crazy, psychedelic pad up in the Hollywood hills where Roger Corman's THE TRIP was filmed in 1967, it was Arthur Lee -- who had moved there after leaving "The Castle," reputed to be the former home of Bela Lugosi, areas of which are pictured on the covers of their first two albums.) As Lee's fortunes went into steep decline, his productivity ebbed and his public behavior turned more erratic.

Firing a gun into the air in the 1990s got Lee sentenced to a dozen years in prison, six of which he served. Upon regaining his freedom, Lee formed a new LOVE lineup consisting of the members of a band called Baby Lemonade, young fans who -- very much like The Wondermints, who support Brian Wilson on record and on tour -- had studied his music and could recreate his orchestral pop masterpieces live onstage. After spending a year getting his live chops back together, Lee and the new LOVE toured the world in 2003 with a concert that presented the FOREVER CHANGES album in its entirety.

As it happens, the spirit and message of that album were more pertinent than ever in 2003, sounding remarkably at home in the contemporaneous context of bands like The Arcade Fire and The Flaming Lips. Furthermore, Lee's live performances (one is preserved on DVD as the must-have THE FOREVER CHANGES CONCERT) miraculously seemed to bring the heyday of the 1960s almost within reach. His shows always closed with an encore of the group's original hit single, the Burt Bacharach-penned "My Little Red Book." Our recovery of the 1960s through the power of Arthur Lee was not to be, but with his final tour given new meaning by the news of his death, perhaps it's most important that he recovered those years personally by finally celebrating, and bringing back to new and old generations, the one unquestionably great thing he created. It was his act of contrition for misspent years, his redemption, and heartening proof that nothing of enduring quality can be overlooked forever.

Arthur Lee spoke of FOREVER CHANGES as his "Mona Lisa," but it would be a mistake to limit his achievements to a single album. He and LOVE started out as a jangly Byrds-like combo with a harder edge, but they were also responsible for introducing outside musical influences to pop and rock, like flamenco, jazz and samba; they are said to have been Jim Morrison's favorite group. They were also influential: their song "She Comes in Colors" prompted The Rolling Stones' "She's Like a Rainbow," the derelict in "Live and Let Live" (whose snot has caked upon his pants and turned to crystal) presages Jethro Tull's "Aqualung," and "Signed D.C." sounds uncannily like The Moody Blues' later "Nights in White Satin" with different lyrics. LOVE were also the first group to cut a track that lasted an entire B-side of an album; "Revelation" (produced by an uncredited Neil Young) wasn't quite what its title promised musically, but its true revelation lay in the fact of showing what could be done. It took that giant stride from the edge of the vinyl to the inner groove first.

For Arthur Lee's death to occur so soon after Syd Barrett's passing gives his loss a doubled resonance, because those of us who loved their music will miss them both for very similar reasons. They were not only musicians, but painters, interpreters, surrealists, and adventurers. We didn't know them as well as they seemed to know us, and there was something a bit scary and forbidding about their kind of genius. Unlike Syd, Arthur gave us (and more importantly, himself) the happy ending of coming back one last time -- as a humbled and ennobled ambassador of the incense-scented music which had been given him to express and share.

Needless to say, it will live on.

This is the time and life that I am living
And I'll face each day with a smile
For the time that I've been given's such a little while
And the things that I do must consist of more than style

This is the only thing that I am sure of
And that's all that lives is gonna die
And there'll always be some people here to wonder why
And for every happy hello, there will be good-bye

-- Arthur Lee, "You Set the Scene"

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Posting a Post-Poster Post Posting

Yesterday's quickie blog about movie poster art, in which I said that APOCALYPSE NOW (the work of artist Bob Peak) was the last great painting I could remember on a movie poster, prompted correspondent William D'Annucci to get in touch. He showed me some recent poster art samples indicating that the painted movie poster is not necessarily a thing of the past. Some of my correspondent's favorite examples:

SUPERMAN RETURNS
THE LADY IN THE WATER
PAN'S LABYRINTH

Of the three, I like the PAN'S LABYRINTH poster best, because it is scene- rather than personality-driven, and also because it is clearly a painting -- and a rather Freudian one, at that. The SUPERMAN RETURNS art, whose overhead art seems to deliberately echo Dalí's Crucifixion, is handsome but not the kind of poster I would choose to frame and hang. Bill shares my doubts that THE LADY IN THE WATER is a painting at all, as it seems more like a Photoshopped photo, but we agree it's an arresting image. (Though, to my eyes, it looks less like a lady in the water than Elijah Wood bundled up for a winter walk.) In fact, this LADY IN THE WATER poster reminds me of one of the last photographic one-sheets I liked enough to buy: Wes Craven's DEADLY BLESSING.

In the Craven film itself, the scene depicted by the poster involves Sharon Stone (then a relative newcomer) being held in place as she dreams of an overhead spider falling into her mouth. I liked the movie better than most of Craven's stuff, but still not enough to have acquired the poster as a memento. I was sold on the poster because it was a rare example of a standout horror moment being restaged as a promotional image; Stone does not appear on the poster itself, and when I saw the film again, years later, I was disappointed to find that the scene didn't play as well onscreen as it did on the poster.


I grew up in the era of Reynold Brown and Albert Kallis, the kings of AIP poster design, and I miss the interpretative angle of their work in today's movie posters. Of course, part of Brown and Kallis' work was to take a cheap film and give its premise as much production value as they could possibly envision. I'll never forget the afternoon I went to the movies as a kid and found myself face to face with Kallis' poster for THE ASTOUNDING SHE-MONSTER; I was maybe five or six years old and it was the first direct hit of eroticism I can remember experiencing. It was on a sandwich board to the right of the red carpet where the ticket buyers entered; it was clearly there to be looked at, but I can remember being torn between my desire to indulge my curiosity and my awareness that I probably shouldn't let anyone catch me looking at it for too long. I hung around the lobby, stealing glimpses from the corner of my eye. When I came back to see the movie, it didn't bear much resemblance to the poster, but the poster had given me the key to daydream about the movie for weeks and years afterward.

Today's movies have all the production value the screen can stand, so today's posters need do little more than nod in their direction. Today's posters show us stars -- not action, not drama, not horror, and sex appeal maybe, but not sex itself. Perhaps there are collectors of today's movie posters, but I can't imagine that they regard them as anything more than paper souvenirs of an experience. Today's posters don't have that larger-than-life, artistic punch that made classic movie posters collectible in the first place.

Given the examples I've shown above, it probably seems as though I collect posters exclusively on the basis of their erotic value, but that's not true. What I look for in a poster, first and foremost, is its ability to astonish me -- either with image, brush strokes, or the artist's ability to summon the entire flavor of a film with an independent work of art. A favorite example of mine is the German poster for the Italian film ATOM AGE VAMPIRE. Regrettably, I don't know the artist's name, but he/she somehow arrived at exactly the right combination of color and caricature to enlarge upon the memory of that black-and-white film experience:

Earlier today I wrote a VW review of the new Shriek Show release of Pete Walker's THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW. Its lively, nouveau-like cover art reminded me that David Friedman's Entertainment Ventures Inc. once had in their employ a very unique and talented poster artist. I can remember seeing the same hand at work in the promotional art for THAR SHE BLOWS! and THE ADULT VERSION OF JEKYLL & HIDE, as well. Can anyone out there tell me this artist's name?

PS: Thanks to Christopher Hasler for identifying Bob Peak for me.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Papa's Got a Brand New Bhag


A correspondent e-mailed me a link to this fantastic Italian poster for Alfred Vohrer's DER GORILLA VON SOHO, which is being auctioned on eBay. I have my eye on another piece, so it's a bit rich for my blood at the moment, but it's a beauty... and a beast. I wish I'd had this poster on hand to help illustrate my article "Edgar Wallace and the Paternity of KING KONG" in the current issue of Video Watchdog. It's got everything, doesn't it? -- the big ape, the blonde, the tower in the background. An excellent demonstration of why the Italian posters for the Edgar Wallace krimis tend to be more beautiful than the German originals, which employed a coarser style of design and were often heavily crowded with text.

I pine for the days when a new movie was an opportunity for some of the world's leading commercial artists to interpret the experience of that film on a highly collectable poster. What was the last major American release to feature an authentic painting on its poster, anyway? The last one that comes to mind was APOCALYPSE NOW, and it was a great one.

Monday, July 31, 2006

A Look at the Criterion Rohmer Transfers

Last Thursday, I had no idea what I'd be writing about for my next SIGHT & SOUND column (due tomorrow). On Friday, I received an advance copy of Criterion's forthcoming ERIC ROHMER'S SIX MORAL TALES box set and, suddenly, I knew that my course was set. In my house, Rohmer waits for no one.

In two days, I devoured the entire box -- features, interviews, books and extras; I had to, because of my deadline and other pressing duties. I suppose this was a bit like gulping down a particularly fine bottle of wine, over the tongue and into the belly, but the retrospective was no less intoxicating for it. These films were previously issued on DVD by Fox Lorber in scratchy, stale-looking presentations, so I'm happy to report that Criterion's new high-definition transfers of his establishing works (supervised by Rohmer himself) are exquisite. Have a look for yourself:

THE BAKERY GIRL OF MONCEAU (1962) was shot in 16mm, and looks surprisingly crisp and sensual in this presentation.

SUZANNE'S CAREER (1963): Also shot in 16mm, this film has the grainiest-looking transfer, but much of the film was shot in low-light interiors and it actually looks quite good, so all is forgiven.

MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S (1969): How many black-and-white DVD transfers have you viewed that can compare to savoring a rich dessert? This may be the most ravishing black-and-white DVD transfer I've ever experienced. In shots like these, of Françoise Fabian, you can actually sense how warm her skin is and can almost read her thoughts.

LA COLLECTIONEUSE (1967): This film was shot third but always intended as the series' fourth segment, as Rohmer wanted the stories split between three black-and-white and three color. Fox Lorber's DVD of this title was ugly trash. Criterion makes the colors and textures of leap off the screen with remarkable sharpness and clarity. Of all the films in the Rohmer set, this is the most surprising transfer and the most gorgeous of the color films. The young lady seen here, Haydée Politoff, later co-starred in Paul Naschy's COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE and can be seen reading a paperback of DRACULA in this movie.

CLAIRE'S KNEE (1970): This probably isn't the best frame for showing off the transfer's vibrant colors and amazing sense of depth, but I love this shot of Laurence de Monaghan, so that's what you get. A wonderful presentation of a delightful film.

LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (aka CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON, 1972): The colors and textures in this film really pop, and when Zouzou strips down to her black chemise, for the first time on video, you can actually see through the sheer fabric. Based on my viewings of this film in 16mm and on Fox Lorber DVD, it was never a favorite of mine, but now I find it the second best of the Moral Tales, after MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S.

As you may have noticed, all six of the films are presented in the standard 1.33:1 ratio. In an accompanying interview, Rohmer explains why this is his favored ratio and the films included amount to a veritable celebration of the format. The last two films in the set, CLAIRE'S KNEE and LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, were composed so they could also be projected at 1.66:1, if necessary. I zoomed both of them up on my widescreen set and, while the images became more enveloping as a result, they also felt incomplete. I quickly returned to the 1.33:1, and I think you will, too.

That's as much as I'm going to say for now. Criterion will be releasing ERIC ROHMER'S SIX MORAL TALES on August 15, and I'll be writing at greater length about the set in next month's issue of SIGHT & SOUND.

But, in closing, let me be the first to tell you this much: If you get the set, be sure to empty the box of all the discs and books, at least once, to look inside. You'll be glad you did.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Bava Book Milestone

As I've reported on the Bava Book Update Blog, last night Donna completed her work on the main section of the book -- everything but the front and back matter, which we start laying-out today. Minus those prefaces, appendices, and the index, the page count already stands at 1,012 pages. This is an important milestone, which we celebrated last night with a bottle of Bolla Valpolicella -- and now it's back to work. All that remains to be done are the layouts of the front and back sections, which we hope to finish by early next week, and my proofreading of the final layout and Donna's implementing of my final corrections, which should take an additional week.

Also, tune into the Bava blog tomorrow for an important surprise.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The War with Stuff

We're now reaching a point with the Bava book that Donna and I have long awaited. Donna plans to finish her work on the bulk of the interior by this weekend, and we're going to spend Saturday and Sunday finally laying out the front and back matter. Next week, I have a few deadlines and am also scheduled to be proofreading the last 700 or so pages of the Bava book one last time, so for the immediate future, I'm barred from doing what my heart yearns for me to be doing: finishing my novel-in-progress, on which I made substantial progress last week. While my unborn book weeps inside me from the latest in a series of shows of neglect, I've had to decide how I'm going to spend this waiting period, knowing that, whatever I do, I may be pulled away for Bava consultation at any time. The answer was unavoidable, especially with a wife who always has such suggestions at the ready: My office has been a hell-hole for too long. I really should use this time to get my environment in order.

I know in my heart-of-hearts that I respond well to orderliness; a neat and attractive environment is more welcoming and uplifting. However, my mind is usually juggling a number of things at once: the book, my novel, our current issue, the next couple of issues, my extracurricular deadlines, this blog, etc. I have a habit of writing notes to myself, as well as epigrams, DVD info for reviews, on little index cards are leaving them all over the house. (I just noticed the other night that the "Winsor Concerto" from THE WHIP AND THE BODY is briefly heard in Paul Naschy's THE MUMMY'S REVENGE, a film evidently scored with CAM library tracks, so I made a note of that.) I leave these cards wherever I happen to write them, with the idea of taking them with me on my next trip upstairs, where I intend to log them into my computer, where they can add to whatever I'm working on. Somehow, this seldom happens and each card ends up joining many others in a stack that I tuck just north of my keyboard until the fabled day when they'll get processed. Some might say this is procrastination, but it's more like "I need a secretary." But, as Donna says, if we had a secretary, I couldn't work in my bathrobe.

Organizing my office has been my ongoing project for the last three days, and it still looks like a cross between a train wreck and a yard sale. In a stack of papers and magazines, I actually found a homemade birthday card which Donna had printed for me on a dot-matrix printer, welcoming me to "the elite group of people who are now 35," an incriminating illustration of how lax I've been about filing things away. (I'm a bit older now.) An important preliminary task was cataloguing all my uncatalogued CD-R and DVD-R binders, which is a task I can only stand to perform five hours at a time, so it took a couple of days. With those binders finally off my floor, and placed on shelves (recently cleared of laserdiscs) in our living room, the next major task was weeding out my office bookshelves, which cover two walls from floor to ceiling. Though toiling in an air-conditioned room and dressed for comfort, I worked up quite a sweat deciding which of the books could be boxed up and which could be dispensed with. At this stage of my life, I figure that if I'm putting books into boxes, I might as well lower them into the ground as well. There are always going to be so many books in front of me that I'll almost certainly never have need to seek my old file-aways out. The process of removing books from these shelves, adding books finally taken off the floor, and reorganizing everything alphabetically took a good five to six hours. At the end of the work, I had two shortish stacks of books to be taken to the attic and three stacks of discarded books that rose as high as my thigh.

My bookshelves looked infinitely tidier to me, so I called Donna in to admire my progress. I showed her where to stand to get the best vantage point (as if my cluttered floor offered her many options). She looked at the shelves and said, "You know, the sad thing about this is that, already, you have no room to grow -- so, if one more book comes into this room, it's going on to the floor and the whole nightmare starts over again."

That's the last thing I wanted to hear, partly because I knew at once she had a point. As they now are, the books are pretty tightly packed and there are a few books resting on top of other books. A section of one shelf is filled with smaller paperbacks that should be somewhere else, and another section of another shelf is stacked with books incoming for review. These need to be shipped out to reviewers. One entire shelf is occupied by music-related books, which Donna thinks should be moved somewhere else (preferably boxed away), but these are what I reach for most commonly, when I need a break from movie-related writing. Actually, when I'm editing VW full-time, I read so much movie-related writing that I sometimes wonder why I keep any of these books at all. After a full day of reading/editing film reviews and features, I'm going to kick back and relax with more film reviews and analysis? I have days when I'd like to box all these movie books away and bring my novel collection down from the attic, where they've been gathering dust for more than a decade. Dipping into other writers' fiction might be just the tonic I need; I shouldn't have to worry about reading them from cover to cover, if I haven't the time for it. After all this time, I've sincerely forgotten which novels I own, as they've mostly flowed together down the rivers of forgetfulness with the ones I've sold or merely borrowed from the library.

"How many of these are you really going to refer to?" Donna asks, nodding at the formidable barriers of bound print I have amassed between myself and Death. Probably not many. I now use www.dictionary.com for my dictionary and thesaurus needs, but having an actual three-dimensional Webster's gives one the power to browse and actually add words to one's vocabulary. "How often do you do that?" Well, I once had a life of relative leisure in which I could do things like that, and though I don't do it much (okay, at all) nowadays, I am not prepared to admit that those days are gone and will not be returning. Yes, I admit that the need I feel to hold on to some of these books is rooted in the self-delusion that, someday, time might decide to move backwards.

Some of the books on my walls are important reference tools; some are classic references past their prime (emphasis on "classic," so they stay within reach); some were written by friends and are warmly inscribed; some I wrote myself or contributed to; some I am unlikely to read but are just cool to have and admire; and others I've read and loved, so I feel the need to keep them visible in my daily life, both as memento and source of invigorating inspiration. If I sincerely had to make a hard and realistic decision based on how often I might actually open and use these books, surely many more could be taken down... but they'd have to go somewhere else in our Incredible Shrinking House, and there simply isn't anywhere else for them to go. Certainly not downstairs, and upstairs (the attic) is crowded enough. And, as an author of books, I have to insist on the right to display what I've done in my own house, though there is little need for me to read them again after publication.

Books are hard things to throw away and, trouble is, they are even harder to sell. You can't get even half of what they're worth in second-hand stores; the last time I tried, I ended up leaving two entire boxes of turned-down books at the store rather than lug them back home to my attic. (I think the book dealer was banking on me doing this, and I felt so cheated by this ordeal, I've never returned to that once-favorite book store.) Until I can decide what to do with them, it looks like they'll continue to take up residence on my office floor, but perhaps I can clear a corner where they can gather dust until new homes can be found for them.

Increasingly, my life can be described as a war with stuff: the old stuff, the incoming stuff, the stuff that needs to be processed, the stuff that needs to be shipped out to contributors, the stuff I love, the stuff I've outgrown, the cool but otherwise unfunctional stuff, the sentimental stuff, the stuff that's cute, the heirloom stuff, the broken stuff that needs to get fixed or replaced -- all of it demanding a place in my life and regular dustings and refusing to be thrown away. With each new thing I acquire, I have the feeling of adding soldiers and rations and ammunition to the enemy, but my refusal to stop is as steadfast as my refusal to surrender.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

CYCLOPS Addenda from Joe Dante

"Actually THE CYCLOPS, filmed in 1955, was, like X THE UNKNOWN and RUN OF THE ARROW and several others, originally to be released by the then-struggling RKO. Many stills exist from these with RKO trademarks. But by 1957 RKO was on the ropes and many of the pics went to other distributors. Obviously some had already made RKO release negatives, if not prints. So the credits of the Monsters HD CYCLOPS are original. Whether that cut of the already quite short picture is too, is anybody's guess."

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Cut Scenes from THE CYCLOPS

Today, I have some additional notes to offer on the subject of Bert I. Gordon's THE CYCLOPS. Those of you who are under the age of 40 may not realize this, but when many B-horror pictures originally distributed by Allied Artists Pictures Corporation were first shown on television, they were newly padded with opening narrative scrolls to fill 90-minute timeslots. Among the titles featuring such scrolls were ATTACK OF THE FIFTY FOOT WOMAN, THE DISEMBODIED, DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL, BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE (which was further padded with additional footage), and -- unless I'm mistaken (and I might be) -- THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE.

Not all Allied Artists titles were so altered; neither FRANKENSTEIN 1970, THE HYPNOTIC EYE, nor CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER were so retailored for TV. But for anyone who saw these films between their theatrical playdates and, roughly, 1984 -- when these TV syndication prints abruptly disappeared as local stations sought to compete with cable television, this is the only way they could be seen... and those of us who loved these films expected they would remain changed in this way forever.

However, since the arrival of the home video age, film companies have been going back to original camera negatives and 35mm positive elements to obtain the best-looking masters possible for DVD and cable television release -- and this has left those "narrative scroll" versions forgotten on old 16mm reels. Naturally, I'm a purist and I prefer to have these films as they looked in theaters... but I'm also a nostalgist and miss these absurdly ponderous scrolls, which were incidentally the work of HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER director Herbert L. Strock. They are hard-wired into my memory of these pictures, because they were part of them the first time (in some cases, the first several times) I saw them.

To illustrate this little history lesson, here is the opening scroll originally seen in TV prints of THE CYCLOPS, probably never to be seen again except on the old Beta and VHS tapes of those of us who recorded them off the air, twenty-some years ago. You can click on any of the images in this posting to enlarge them:







Pretty cool, eh? There was no narrator's voice, just some very hoary library music playing underneath the ssssssllllllllooooooowwwwwwwwlllllllllyyyyyy scrolling text -- all of which helped to set the mood on those Saturday and Late Night spook shows of yesteryear.

All of this is prologue to some unfortunate and more timely news about Monsters HD's print of THE CYCLOPS, about which I posted with enthusiasm the other day. It was a long time since I'd seen the picture, however, and it took the alerting of Dennis Rood and Steve Pickard to make me aware that the climactic moment in the picture -- the blinding of the Cyclops -- is actually cut in its high-definition version.

As this scene appears on Monsters HD, James Craig fashions a flaming javelin out of a stick and some vegetation, climbs up a hillside to gain height, and hurls it at the Cyclops -- CUT to a shot of the giant's superimposed hand trembling with pain over a shot of Craig on the hillside. The Cyclops falls prone on the ground and Craig makes his escape. The Cyclops then rises with the javelin still in his covered eye, protruding between his fingers... CUT to the spinning propellers of our heroes' getaway plane, followed by a process shot of the giant staggering toward it.

Here is the sequence as it appears uncut (which is not only the way it appeared in theatrical prints, but in the Allied TV prints, as well):


The flaming javelin approaches the eye of actor Duncan (Dean) Parkin...

OW! THAT'S GOTTA HURT! Then he covers the wound with his hand, and collapses.

After Craig escapes, the Cyclops revives from his swoon and sets about extracting the javelin. This shot is in the Monsters HD print, but it cuts away just short of this...

The Cyclops extracting the bloody (and evidently deeply penetrating!) weapon and...

... exposing a grisly view of the bleeding, punctured orb! (Ironically, it was the censored version of this scene that Monsters HD used in their on-air promotions for the picture, promising viewers that they would "See All the Good Parts.")

Another curious point of variation about the Monsters HD print is that it lacks the opening "Allied Artists Pictures Corporation Presents" card which opened the theatrical prints, and replaces the plain "The End" card of that print and the "Distributed by Allied Artists Pictures Corporation" end card of the TV prints with a new closing card that reads "The End - Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures." As far as I (and the IMDb) know, THE CYCLOPS was never released by RKO Radio Pictures, at least not in this country. Perhaps this is the clue that will help to identify the source and cause of this missing footage.

Here's hoping that David Sehring and Team Monsters HD can do something to recover this missing footage (which was in the previous Thriller Video VHS release) and remaster THE CYCLOPS for future broadcast, as they've already done with FROM BEYOND, THE FLESH EATERS, and other important films.

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...