Sunday, August 13, 2006

GSN Cancels WHAT'S MY LINE? COMPLAIN!!!!

A dark day in our household, and many others, I'm sure. Game Show Network is cancelling its "Black & White Overnight" programming -- an oasis of civility and good gamesmanship on cable television.

You'll find all the relevant information about the stupid decision here. Read it and then COMPLAIN!

You can express your displeasure by writing to programming@GSN.com.

Happy Birthday, Mr. H


There once was a son of a grocer
Who aspired that we lose our composure.
He delighted in battle
With Hollywood cattle
And offed them in ways that weren't kosher.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Dubs Come Unexpectedly!

He took a bite out of Carroll Baker in BABY DOLL.
But could Karl Malden have also been...
THE MONSTERS DEMOLISHER?

I come to you in the breathless state of a reporter with a scoop.

As a lifelong devotee of the somewhat sneaky craft of movie dubbing, I've always paid close attention to the voices I hear on the soundtracks of foreign movies dubbed into English. Over the years, I've been able to put names to some of the more familiar voices heard on the English dubbed tracks of Italian and other imported genre films, and done my part to make actors like Carolyn De Fonseca, Bernard Grant, Brett Morrison, Dan Sturkie, and Tony Russel better known to film fans who, like myself, know their voices and think of them as old friends.

I just finished watching the second film in what might be called the "Nostradamus Quartet," THE MONSTERS DEMOLISHER. (Ridiculous title, I know, but what are you going to do?) According to Phil Hardy's THE OVERLOOK FILM ENCYCLOPEDIA: HORROR, this series of four Mexican films -- THE CURSE OF NOSTRADAMUS, THE MONSTERS DEMOLISHER, THE GENIE OF DARKNESS, and THE BLOOD OF NOSTRADAMUS -- were filmed in 1959 as twelve 25-minute serials, and later re-edited into these four continuous features for export. The English versions were dubbed in Coral Gables, Florida and released under the auspices of kiddie-matinee entrepreneur, K. Gordon Murray.

While watching THE MONSTERS DEMOLISHER, I was especially looking forward to the performance of the actor credited as "Grek Martin," who later relocated to Spain, where he became better known as Jack Taylor, the co-star of many Paul Naschy and Jess Franco films. Taylor turns up in the film's third act, looking very much like himself, but the voice he was given by the Coral Gables dubbers was disorienting. Not only was it completely unlike Jack Taylor's own voice (which graces many a dubbed Spanish horror movie), but it was also familiar... damned familiar. And not because it was one of the voices usually heard on the dub tracks of Murray's matinee fodder, like those of Paul Nagel (interviewed in VW #2) and Manny San Fernando.

Jack Taylor as "Igor," THE MONSTERS DEMOLISHER.

Every time Taylor speaks in THE MONSTERS DEMOLISHER, he sounds like the one and only Karl Malden! ON THE WATERFRONT. BABY DOLL. POLLYANNA. HOW THE WEST WAS WON. THE CAT O' NINE TAILS. THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO. "Don't leave home without it." It's not just the voice, but the enunciation -- everything.

As soon as the movie was over, I got online and went to the IMDb to see what Karl Malden might have been doing in 1962, when this film was dubbed for American release. As it happens, this was a time when Malden was one of the busiest actors around, getting second leads and even top billing in some cases... but, in his very busy year of 1962, one of the many films he made was John Frankenheimer's ALL FALL DOWN... which happened to be shot on location in Key West, Florida!

He could have spent one of his days off in Coral Gables. And I think he did.

Incidentally, Jack Taylor's character also appears in the third Nostradamus film, THE GENIE OF DARKNESS, and the voice heard there is the same. So that's two highly suspect Karl Malden dubbing credits!

In my past years as a Dubbing Detective (a sideline to my work as a Video Watchdog), I've had a couple of other interesting eurekas along these lines. When I saw Sergio Corbucci's MINNESOTA CLAY (1965) for the first time, a couple of years ago, on a Japanese import DVD, I noticed that whoever dubbed Fernando Sancho's villainous performance sounded a lot like Anthony Quinn. I later found out that Quinn was indeed working in Rome around the same time, starring in a picture called MARCO THE MAGNIFICENT. I'm convinced that it's Quinn's voice, but I have no proof. It makes sense to me that Quinn might have agreed to do the job for many reasons -- for the experience, for the bread, for a friend. And it makes me wonder, as does this Malden ID, how many big stars might be lurking on celluloid unseen but heard.

There's also the case of Roger Corman's THE YOUNG RACERS. The first and only time I saw this 1963 movie, shot without live sound in various European locales, I realized that Mark Damon's entire performance had been dubbed by William Shatner -- from his vocal mannerisms as much as his voice. From the moment I made that realization, the movie became hysterically funny for me... and I wrote about this in VIDEO WATCHDOG. I just checked the IMDb and someone posted the information there under "Trivia." Of course, in 1963 Shatner had just finished starring in Corman's THE INTRUDER -- thus establishing the connection and the timeline.

I always get THE YOUNG RACERS confused with another AIP flick, Daniel Haller's THE WILD RACERS, which stars Fabian and Mimsy Farmer. In that one, Dick Miller dubs one of the lead performances and turns up in a cameo role. Thanks to you-know-who for setting me straight.

And Richard Harland Smith tells me that he's been able to identify Hal Linden (pre-BARNEY MILLER) as the voice of "Baby Lucas" in Radley Metzger's CARMEN BABY, as well as the voices of Pier Paolo Capponi (Police Superintendent Spini) in THE CAT O'NINE TAILS and Romano Puppo (Dino) in COMMANDOS. "Capponi and Puppo have scenes together in COMMANDOS and I keep expecting Linden's voice to come out of both of them!" says RHS.

We all know that the voices of actors like Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford can be heard, anonymous but recognizable, on television commercials. Same thing here... in fact, better thing here, because Malden, Quinn, and Shatner were using their talent to act. It's too late for Anthony Quinn to come forward, but I think it's high time that the great stars of yesteryear stood up and admitted that they dubbed films, and which films they dubbed, while they're still among us.

It's nothing to be ashamed of. It's actually kind of wonderful.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

HOLLYWOOD BLVD Directors Remember Candice Rialson

Various film-related message boards and blogs have been lit up today with the surprising, belated news of the untimely death of 1970s cult actress Candice Rialson. The flaxen-haired Queen of New World Pictures, Rialson evidently passed away of as-yet-undisclosed causes last March, at the age of 54. The news was broken two days ago on the Code Red DVD blog.

Considering that all the available online discussion is coming from fans, rather than from friends and colleagues who knew Candice, I extended an invitation to Joe Dante and Allan Arkush, the directors of her cult classic HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, to use this space to reminisce about her.

"So sad to hear about Candice, the first movie star I ever worked with. She was really witty & sweet & flirtatious and fun to be around. I will forever love those funny sounds she made when she did that fight scene at the drive-in. She played a great drunk, & the afternoon we spent walking around Hollywood Blvd, looking at the "Stars names written in concrete" & singing along to the just-released LP of Bruce Springsteen's BORN TO RUN (which was blasting out of every stereo from every store) will always stay with me. I think, when that night of the last scene on the rooftop of New World was shot, she looked beautiful and embodied all the glamour a New World Picture could muster. I'm missing you, Candice... but I'm sure Paul Bartel is calling you & all actors 'cattle' in Movie Heaven." -- Allan Arkush

"Candice was also the first movie star I ever worked with, since Allan and I shared directing duties on what was our first picture after a year or so of cutting trailers for pictures starring... Candice Rialson! Though out of the public zeitgeist for over two decades, it should be remembered that Candice was a very hot personality in the drive-in movie world. We were thrilled when she consented to play the lead in HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD -- it was the exploitation movie equivalent of getting Julie Christie! Although she was the pro and we were the amateurs, there was no attitude, no airs, just enthusiasm for getting the job done. She made it fun to get up early! Although her reign was brief, she set many an ozoner heart aflutter and is warmly remembered by not only those of us lucky enough to work with her, but by what Norma Desmond called 'those wonderful people out there in the dark.'" -- Joe Dante

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

BLOOD CASTLE: Gold from the Silver Age

Erna Schürer in the obligatory candelabra scene of BLOOD CASTLE.

Last night I happened to pull down from the attic Wizard Video's BLOOD CASTLE, their surprisingly full-length 1986 release of the Spanish-Italian co-production originally released here in America as SCREAM OF THE DEMON LOVER. The film's original running time of 98 minutes (97m 23s, to be exact) was cut down to a reported 75 minutes by its US distributor, New World Pictures, to facilitate its double-billing with Stephanie Rothman's THE VELVET VAMPIRE in 1971. Given this history, the film's uncut arrival on video was a surprise -- not least of all because it had been retitled, making it impossible to guess what picture it might really be (some buyers/renters were doubtless hoping it was the uncut version of Jorge Grau's LEGEND OF BLOOD CASTLE), and also because the box listed an incorrect running time of only 87 minutes.

Known in Italy as IL CASTELLO DALLE PORTE DI FUOCO ("The Castle with the Door of Fire"), this José Luís Merino film was released in Spain as IVANNA, the name of its heroine, played by the attractive Erna Schürer. In this 19th century tale, Schürer plays Ivanna Rakowsky, a medical school graduate who is contracted to assist the experiments of Baron Janos Dalmar at his castle in the Balkans. When she arrives, she learns that the Baron is hated by the villagers, who hold him responsible for the sex-murders of various local virgins, though they have no proof. The Baron (Carlos Quiney, flanked by menacing hounds that give him a Zaroffian aspect and pay a nod to BLACK SUNDAY) takes one look at Ivanna and orders his housekeeper Christiana (Christiana Galloni) to dismiss her with three months' pay -- women are too curious by nature, and he doesn't want her snooping into his personal secrets. But Ivanna holds the Baron to his contract and soon impresses him with her intellect, her disregard of local gossip, and the way she warms to his monstrous dogs. Ivanna learns that the Baron is preserving the body of his late brother, Igor, who was burned to death in a terrible fire, and looking for a means by which to return him to life. She begins to suffer vivid nightmares of being stretched nude on a rack in a torture chamber by the Baron, which he explains as a side-effect of the fumes in the laboratory... but it turns out there is another explanation. At first, Ivanna suspects that the Baron may be a lycanthrope, a man who assumes bestial form in the light of the full moon to give violent vent to his desires, but the truth has more to do with the wing of the castle no one is permitted to visit. There, in a dungeon chamber presumed to be inescapable, the Baron's disfigured brother still lives -- escaping at the height of each maddening full moon to ravage the women denied him by his disfigurement. Noticeable among the cast members is Antonio Jiménez Escribano, "Dr. Zimmer" in Jess Franco's THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z (1965), as the Baron's butler.

Baron Dalmar (Carlos Quiney, left) confronts his disfigured brother.

The so-called "Golden Age of Italian fantasy" is generally bookended with the years 1957-66, beginning with I VAMPIRI and ending with the never-exported and rarely-seen LA VENDETTA DI LADY MORGAN. BLOOD CASTLE is clearly a film of mixed parentage; though it looks more Spanish than Italian, it was filmed in Italy and tells a period story so closely related to the Gothic romances upon which this "Golden Age" was founded that one may be tempted to extend its date of closure to 1970. Though it technically dates from the beginning of Italian horror's "Silver Age," which probably commenced with Mario Bava's HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON in 1969, BLOOD CASTLE -- with its period setting, hidden subhuman family members, obligatory candelabra scene, and discoveries behind red pleated curtains -- is a throwback to the earlier era, despite instances of female nudity provided by Schürer and co-star Agostina Belli. Its only serious shortcoming is the lack of a full-blooded score; it's the last score the IMDb lists for Luigi Malatesta, and it's extremely spare -- basically violin, keyboard, and percussion.

The film has never been regarded as particularly worthy of note, but it was a great favorite of my late friend Alan Upchurch, and it was his large box Wizard pre-record that I watched last night. It's been years since I've seen the shorter version, but despite its near 100-minute length, I enjoyed BLOOD CASTLE and never felt it was overstaying its welcome. I had completely forgotten the werewolf angle of the story; however misleading it may ultimately be, it's nevertheless pronounced enough that it should be included in werewolf movie references. The story may be a bit hackneyed -- and we never do find out what the Baron was really keeping submerged in those black, bubbling chemicals of his laboratory vat! -- but the characters and their relationships are reasonably convincing, and it's refreshing to find a heroine with such pluck and unconventionality in this otherwise old-fashioned scenario. (Surprisingly, when Ivanna suspects the Baron of drugging her to stage those S&M "nightmares," she seems willing to indulge his kink, if that's what it will take to win him.) The dialogue between Schürer and Quiney is frequently jousting and well-played in the English dub, which features Richard Johnson in a few roles (including the brothers Dalmar) and a couple of other British voices that sounded very familiar, but which I couldn't finally identify.

A Wizard Video promo at the end of the tape dates the release as March 1986 (when the company also released Franco's THE SCREAMING DEAD, THE POSSESSOR, and the made-for-video BREEDERS). Wizard's presentation is cropped, evidently from a 1.85:1 original framing; nevertheless, I was able to zoombox the picture on my widescreen set without hurting the compositions much, or at all. Only one brief "split-diopter"-type shot of Christiana eavesdropping on the Baron and Ivanna evidenced any extreme use of the frame. There is some speckling here and there, but the color is pretty good and so is the audio quality.

As these things usually transpire, I came online today and found out that Retromedia had issued BLOOD CASTLE on DVD in a letterboxed presentation, back in 2003. This release somehow completely got past my radar and is now officially out-of-print, but I was able to order a sealed copy from an Amazon Marketplace dealer. So, if you have any interest in this title, you'd better move on it now. The reviews at Amazon.com aren't particularly kind to the look of the disc, but I'm curious to see how the letterboxing enhances the experience -- and who knows if this film will ever see a better DVD treatment? (Of course, with Paul Naschy's VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES and NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF coming on HD DVD from Brentwood next month, anything's possible!)

The SCREAM OF THE DEMON LOVER variant, released around the same time as the Wizard release on the Charter Entertainment label, seems to be available on disc too, for those of you with a mind to locate and itemize the cuts New World inflicted. At least one such release double-bills the film with the aforementioned HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON.

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.