Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Her distinctive voice was groomed by many years in radio, where she played many a character role, the standout being that of Howard Duff's girl friday Effie in THE ADVENTURES OF SAM SPADE -- and her radio work with Orson Welles opened the door to her being cast as one of the witches in Welles' MACBETH (1948). She was in William Cameron Menzies' THE WHIP HAND (1951) and two of Marilyn Monroe's darkest, DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK (1952) and NIAGARA (1953), and she played the judge who sentences Mamie Van Doren and Lori Nelson to a prison labor farm in UNTAMED YOUTH (1957). She was one of the citizens of Rachel, Kansas -- a "Rachelanian" -- in THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (1966); in fact, the landlady of Luther Heggs' (Don Knotts) rooming house.
It was impossible to grow up in the 1950s and 1960s without seeing her everywhere on television, usually cast as kindly older ladies. On LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, she was the woman at the adoption agency who guided Beaver Cleaver back to his parents when he decided they didn't love him anymore; she was a neighbor to DENNIS THE MENACE; on PERRY MASON, she played six different roles in five years; on BACHELOR FATHER, she was Bentley's visiting Aunt Caroline; and she was a series regular on PETE AND GLADYS and JULIA.
Still can't place her? Okay, here's the clincher: she's the lady and the voice you think of whenever you hear the words "periwinkle blue," because of the vivid way she spoke them in Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960).
Such a nice, firm, yet gentle screen persona... yet Lurene Tuttle's only starring role came in MA BARKER'S KILLER BROOD, made the same year she appeared in PSYCHO. Produced by Screen Classics Inc. (the people who brought you GLEN OR GLENDA?) and distributed by the short-lived Filmservice Distributors Corporation (THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS), it opens with a bang: fade in on a hog-tied Byron Foulger screaming for his life as someone sets his legs on fire and sends his flaming car over a cliff!
Directed by Bill Karn (DOOR TO DOOR MANIAC), MA BARKER'S KILLER BROOD is a grossly inaccurate account of Kate "Ma" Barker's alledged life of crime with her four sons -- which goes so far as to portray her not only as a crook, but as a guru-of-sorts to Machine Gun Kelly (played by Vic Lundin of ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS), Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger, and every other headline-making gangster of the Depression era... and a great cook as well! Ma's much-beloved cherry pie becomes the centerpiece of a stomach-churning bit of symbolism as she forces her own besotted husband (Tristram Coffin) to play Russian Roulette with a slice of pie in his hand; we don't see the gun go off, but we don't need to because the camera focuses on his free hand as its death spasms wrench every gloopy drop of pie filling from Ma's flaky crust.
The movie is lopsidedly constructed, with a narration by Tuttle that comes and goes (even though she's left dead in the final act -- where's she narrating from?), and a major character dies offscreen under circumstances hastily covered in a last-minute death toll. These faults aside, no one can deny that this movie is way off the rails of 1950s propriety, in the same manner as Robert Aldrich's KISS ME DEADLY (1955). It rattles along like a box of zingers, many of which Lurene gets to say (click here for examples). She gives a terrific, hellbound performance that sometimes requires her to be convincingly maternal and hateful and ironic to three different characters in the same scene, without anyone glimpsing all three sides but the viewer. Maybe not as good as Roger Corman's BLOODY MAMA, but plainly superior to any other version of this oft-told story, MA BARKER'S KILLER BROOD is worth seeing by everyone who likes their exploitation fare served up red hot and raw. It's available from Alpha Video, so the price is right. And what better time to spin it up than today -- tonight -- on Lurene Tuttle's centenary?
SEE! Lurene ram a policeman with her car and then run him over for good measure!
SEE! Lurene empty a machine gun into another cop's chest!
SEE! Lurene force an alcoholic doctor with the shakes to perform plastic surgery on her son's face and hands... without anaesthesia!
SEE! Lurene slap Don (MY THREE SONS) Grady's face repeatedly and break his "sissy" violin!
And the fact that it recycles the Guenther Kauer library score from THE ASTOUNDING SHE MONSTER (1958)? That, dear reader, is just the whipped cream on the cherry pie.
Monday, August 28, 2006
I've sometimes wondered what it must be like, for someone who once had the privilege of seeing LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, to know that their own memory of this 1928 Lon Chaney classic may be all that survives of it. Now I have my answer -- because I have a precious childhood memory of being enthralled by a 1964-65 local television broadcast of a 1959 Mexican horror movie entitled BLACK PIT OF DR. M.
I saw the film on Cincinnati's WCPO-TV, then the city's CBS affiliate, and they had a strange habit in those days of starting movies in progress, fading in at some point after the opening credits. These would them be paraphrased by a single transparent overlay that read, for example, "BLACK PIT OF DR. M, starring Rafael Bertrand & Mapita Cortes." (This is also the way I saw James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN for the very first time.) I mention all this because, evidently, the English soundtrack for BLACK PIT OF DR. M has been missing-in-action for many years and will likely never heard again. Yet I remember seeing that film in English, minus its main titles, and being very impressed by it, one of those wondrous encounters with a movie on television that happens once and never again.
Since that initial viewing, I've been able to see BLACK PIT OF DR. M once in Spanish under its original title MISTERIOS DE ULTRATUMBA ("Mysteries from Beyond the Grave") and again this past weekend via an advance copy of Casa Negra Entertainment's DVD of BLACK PIT OF DR. M. The disc streets tomorrow, August 29, along with their eagerly awaited DVD of Chano Urueta's mind-boggling THE BRAINIAC [EL BARON DEL TERROR, 1962].
Directed by Fernando Mendez -- among the most accomplished of all Mexican horror specialists, whose work includes the Nostradamus series, the diptych THE VAMPIRE and THE VAMPIRE'S COFFIN, and the KILL, BABY... KILL!-like La Llorona Western THE LIVING COFFIN -- BLACK PIT OF DR. M chronicles the devastating aftermath of a metaphysical agreement between two doctors. In a page taken from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Case of M. Valdemar," Dr. Masali, director of the Mercedes Asylum, reminds his dying associate Dr. Jacinto Aldama of his promise to somehow retrieve for him the secret of how one might pass into the Beyond and return with its secrets to the realm of the living. When Aldama dies, he speaks to Masali through a medium and reveals that their plan is feasible. He foretells that, on a specific day and hour, two weeks hence, a door will close -- and its closure will portend the opening of a series of doors leading Masali to the horror of what he wishes to know.
The script by Ramón Obón (who later directed the K. Gordon Murray import 100 CRIES OF TERROR, 1965) boasts an unusual degree of delicacy and ambition, and these qualities are superbly complemented by the monochromatic photography of Victor Herrera, whose John Alton-inspired use of hard whites and blacks anticipates the look of Mario Bava's subsequent BLACK SUNDAY [LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO, 1960].
The burial of Dr. Aldama.
Bava had conjured his own unique horror atmosphere a year earlier in I VAMPIRI, but there is enough in BLACK PIT OF DR. M to make one wonder if he might have seen it prior to making BLACK SUNDAY. The scene of Elmer (Carlos Ancira, an asylum attendant disfigured with acid) bare-handedly clawing his way out of his grave and stomping off through the misty graveyard looks ahead to how Bava staged the resurrection of Javutich, and both films feature scenes in which metaphysical forces cause things to happen by affecting the wind. Both movies also end with a last-minute attempt by the monster to destroy the heroine's beauty, and with a fist-fight between the monster and the romantic male lead (in this case, Gaston Santos -- a young Mexican actor who somewhat resembles BLACK SUNDAY star John Richardson). A haunting scene of the misshapen Elmer calling attention to himself by playing a violin is also closer than anything else found in the cinema to a character Bava once described as a recurring figure in his nightmares -- a corpse who serenades his beloved by playing a violin bow across the exposed nerves of his decaying forearm.
Casa Negra presents BLACK PIT OF DR. M with its original Spanish soundtrack and English subtitles -- a step forward from the unsubtitled VHS in circulation, as is the handsome 1.33 windowboxed audio/visual presentation. Though naturally lacking the lost English dub track, the disc goes the extra mile in this direction by providing the original English continuity script, which allows us to read how the film was originally dubbed. But, in one of the disc's many peculiarities, it presents this text onscreen in an odd, cut-and-paste format that gives the script the look of a ransom note and discourages one from reading the entire document. The English subtitles on offer translate the Spanish dialogue with an eye to authenticity, without the dubbing continuity's mandate of matching the actors' lip movements. It would have been nice had the dubbing dialogue been included as an alternate subtitle option, rather than forceably separated from the image track like this.
Most of the supplements are problematical. The original Mexican theatrical trailer is welcome fun, and David Wilt's biography of director Fernando Mendez and the other bios of principal cast are well-researched and useful, but the rest are fairly expendible. An accompanying article "Mexican Monsters Invade the U.S.A." covers the K. Gordon Murray Mexican imports, a group of films to which BLACK PIT OF DR. M never belonged. It was the only horror film ever distributed by United Producers Releasing Corporation, a nudie-cutie outfit, and its theatrical release predated the American International Television package dubbed at Soundlab in Coral Gables by several years. Had it been one of the titles dubbed at Soundlab, the English soundtrack would have stood a better chance at survival.
This same point is belatedly raised in the audio commentary by IVTV founder Frank Coleman, who appears to have made the initial mistake of including BLACK PIT among the Murray titles while recording his original track, and later inserted a more crudely recorded correction or two. Much (therefore) pointless talk about Murray and his peripheral importance to the history of Mexican cinema remains, the only alternative being the introduction of much dead air. Coleman's commentary is a sort of fannish filibuster around the problem of not having enough information on hand to warrant the track; he reiterates Wilt's notes on Mendez and gives us the basic IMDb info about the principal players, along with a lot of play-by-play, while admiring the "film noir" cinematography and playing fast-and-loose with words like "great", "classic" and "masterpiece."
He rattles off a lot of lists and film titles, but never compares scenes in BLACK PIT to scenes from Mendez' other work, or gives us any sense of his identity as a filmmaker. Nor does he successfully explain his claim that this particular film is superior to most Mexican horror cinema, or why it's even an outstanding example of Mendez' work. BLACK PIT OF DR. M is a very good example of Mexican horror cinema -- an outstanding work of atmosphere, with some exciting deep focus photography (see the cobweb-strewn lateral dolly movie that illustrates the main menu) -- but, to be realistic, it falls quite short of being a masterpiece. None of the casting is what one would call iconographic, the acting teeters between the overly stoic and the overly melodramatic, the romantic leads have no chemistry, the musical score is sometimes risibly barnstorming, and the film neither sustains its initial delicacy or fulfills its own ambitions as it races toward its flaming room finale. But its cinematography is of uncommonly high quality, as this shot attests:
I don't mean to belabor my problems with the commentary, but it -- along with recent books like Doyle Greene's MEXPLOITATION CINEMA and Robert Michael "Bobb" Cotter's THE MEXICAN MASKED WRESTLER AND MONSTER FILMOGRAPHY (both from McFarland) -- makes me wonder why Mexican horror cinema seems to invite such casual authority. Mexico is geographically closer to North America than any other seat of international filmmaking, yet those who have elected to advocate it in print and commentary generally seem to be far less informed on the subject than those writers who have researched British, Canadian, Italian, Spanish and Japanese horror cinema. (Greene's book is actually well-written and scholarly, but everything he writes is called into question by his decision to attribute to Mexican filmmakers the versions of their work that was dubbed and re-edited here in America.) The fact that Casa Negra Entertainment is cornering the market on such films on DVD demands, if only for their own success, that they meet the challenge of representing these films historically and critically, or leave them alone to speak for themselves.
Also included is a rock video by Coleman's group 21st Century Art, inspired by the film, which is about 15m long and accompanied by footage from the movie that has been digitally colored/altered/twisted. (This is how to treat a "masterpiece"?) The music is pretty good, jazz-influenced prog rock, but it doesn't really belong here and is best reserved for separate viewing. It's preceded by a ridiculously long (8m 52s!) introduction by Coleman that, again, makes one wish the disc's producers had striven to give us as much information about the main feature itself. The poster and stills gallery is meager, consisting mostly of a few Mexican lobby cards; the only poster on view is a low-res, black-and-white repro of the US poster which, I presume, was found online. (It's inexcusable that the beautifully surreal US one-sheet isn't included in full color, along with a full US lobby set, as these can usually be found online at reasonable prices.) Furthermore, the disc is irritating to navigate, with "Next" options always being a needless two or three steps away from where the page changes drop one's cursor. Lastly, the packaging erroneously dates the film as a 1958 release, though its Mexican premiere took place on May 13, 1959.
I hate having to be so critical of a disc that I want so badly to endorse, and my nit-pickings shouldn't dissuade anyone from acquiring BLACK PIT OF DR. M. The film itself has never looked better (in this country, anyway), and it's a pleasure to see it made available to English-speaking audiences again. That said, the amount of filler on this disc is exhausting, which makes its dearth of relevant bonus materials all the more unfortunate.
Thursday, August 24, 2006
In going over to Amazon to provide a shopping link for you, I discovered that my own Fifth Edition copy of this important tome is a few years out of date. There is now a Seventh, and an Eighth (tipping the scales at over 1700 pages!) is due on November 7. Whichever edition you choose, I recommend this book whole-heartedly to my fellow jazz buffs, and perhaps even moreso to my fellow film scribes. Amazon offers a "Search This Book" feature on the Seventh Edition, so go on over there and check it out.
Speaking of books, I've also had the pleasure recently of reading new books written by my friends and colleagues Alan Jones and Maitland McDonagh. They share the distinction of being two of the best-known authorities on the films of Dario Argento, but they both have new books on the market that extend their expertise into the wider range of world cinema.
Maitland's MOVIE LUST: RECOMMENDED VIEWING FOR EVERY MOOD, MOMENT, AND REASON (Sasquatch Books, 290 pp., $16.95) is a clever, personality-driven overview of all kinds of movies, bracketed according to theme or creator or raison d'etre. The idea is to know yourself, to isolate your yearnings or symptoms, and pick the movie that's just what the doctor ordered. Before you can say "popcorn," allow me to fine-tune that remark to "popcorn drenched in dark, decadent, velvety-smooth chocolate with a soupçon of pepper, a headiness of hashish, and an aftertaste of lipstick."
MOVIE LUST is a book as much for lovers of language as for film hipsters; most every paragraph is like a carefully-crafted bon-bon that can be quickly sucked down to a rich bon mot center. The book opens with a fascinating autobiographic sketch (I actually wished it was a good deal longer) detailing how Maitland became interested, engrossed, and finally obsessed with movies, nailing down a viewpoint that guides us through the observations to come like a steady compass. "If Pauline Kael lost it at the movies, I found it," she writes -- and maybe she did; much of this book channels the high-spirited candor and color one associates with the best of Kael's writing. And, truth be told, I agree with Maitland more often. Don't judge this book by its cover, which looks like a remote control ad designed by the agency that services Westinghouse appliances. This is a clever approach, a sophisticated piece of work, and an engaging testimonial to the author's omniverous appetite for anything moving at 24 frames per second. MOVIE LUST has a street date of August 28, but I'm told it's already available in some bookstores now.
Back in the 1960s and '70s, a number of hardcover histories of the horror film hit the market, usually distinguished by terrific color plate signatures and usually written by Englanders. These were predominantly picture books but, once you got around to reading the text, it turned out to be equally of interest. There's been a lot of water (and blood) under the bridge since those days, so you'd imagine it would be terribly hard, if not impossible, to write a manageable history of horror cinema today. And yet Alan Jones has almost done this with his softcover THE ROUGH GUIDE TO HORROR MOVIES (Rough Guides, 278 pp., $14.99). That cover photo, let me tell you, is so Alan.
One expects a book this concise to be slight in one respect or another, but Alan has done an admirable job of compressing a wealth of information and insight into these profusely-illustrated, dual-columned pages. The book opens with a history of the first hundred years of horror cinema, then follows through with an admirably balanced selection of 50 outstanding horror films (everything from THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI to HIGH TENSION); bios of the genre's leading actors and creators, each followed by a capsule review of a representative work (oddly, he follows the entry on Peter Cushing with one of his worst films, CORRUPTION); a look at "Horror Movies Around the World," documenting the different ways in which most world countries have contributed uniquely to the genre; and finally, a conclusive list of places on-line and off where you can learn more (such as VIDEO WATCHDOG, about which Alan is very complimentary). And scattered throughout the text are eye-catching sidebars about such related topics as Fog ("the quintessential horror movie weather condition"), Ballyhoo, and beloved horror movie locations like Hammer's Black Park.
You see Rough Guides piled high on their own little tables in bookstore chains, and you might assume from the way they look that they're a bibliophilic variety of Christmas stocking stuffer. But, regardless of topic, these books are usually surprisingly substantial. (At the same time I picked up Alan's book, I bought THE ROUGH GUIDE TO CULT FICTION. Though I'm incredulous at its omission of cult figures like Anthony Burgess, Baron Corvo, and Alexander Theroux, I must say I enjoyed it, as well.) Like Maitland McDonagh, Alan Jones has taken advantage of his publisher's general mandate to deliver the kind of book he would enjoy reading himself -- something as useful for seasoned film buffs as it will be for the nephews and nieces they may have on their Halloween gift lists. As always, Alan writes with the ebullience and enthusiasm of a recent convert, and his stance throughout is commendably modernist and cosmopolitan, eschewing the Universal or Hammer biases found in many such books. I'm tempted to call it the best entry-level book on the subject written to date.
Keep these books handy for those nights when all the titles in your DVD collection look alike and you can't decide what to watch. They're sure to remind you why you've given yourself over to all this, body and soul.
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Speaking for myself, I don't watch television news anymore. I used to watch it regularly, but had to stop A) because it's too upsetting, and B) because it's too painfully obvious that what it reports is selective and biased and non-confrontational. For this reason, I was not that aware of the full dimension of the Hurricane Katrina situation. In advance of seeing this film, I was wondering how Spike Lee was going to spend four hours on the subject, and I was still wondering about that as Act I drew to a close; but the fact is, it's really not a documentary about Hurricane Katrina. It's about what happened before, during, and -- most importantly -- after Katrina.
And, on that final score, it's scary as Hell. More than once, it occurred to me that the only filmmaker who had come anywhere close to touching the same nerves that are strummed by Lee's elegiac epic was George A. Romero. I don't mean to trivialize the grave events portrayed herein by comparing them to the events in Romero's zombie movies, but Romero is the only filmmaker who has, prior to this, so effectively and prophetically shown that, to paraphrase the man himself, "when the shit hits the fan, we're screwed."
Some may balk at seeing this film because they know that, it being a "Spike Lee Film" (not a "Spike Lee Joint"), it's going to have an in-your-face point-of-view, perhaps contrary to their own. Yes, WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE has a point-of-view, and it's sometimes guilty of making an emphatic truth even more emphatic by turning sound bytes into hammers, but it's a documentary, first and foremost... and a great one, a film that ranks with Lee's most humane and passionate work. The raw emotional response of the participants in this, the biggest natural disaster in US history, is naturally subjective, but the accumulation of response gives all sides a voice while immersing the viewer in an over-the-head state of chaos and bureaucratic inepititude. It asks some tough questions -- like "Were the levees deliberately sabotaged to protect the French Quarter at the expense of the impoverished sections of the city?" and "Why should New Orleans rebuild slums when the same land could be gentrified?" and "Is there going to be a place for poor people in a country ruled by Big Business?" But it doesn't let these looming shadows get in the way of reporting the facts. The most chilling information to emerge from these four engrossing hours is that the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the lives of those most devastated by it was nothing -- nothing -- compared to the scattering of traumatized, uprooted, predominantly black families imposed by governmental and military intercession (which awakened racial memories of slave trading), and the continuing neglect of the welfare of stubborn New Orleans residents by those same parties.
One thing that struck me, by virtue of its coincidence, is that, in two pivotal cases, the only force that could make anything positive happen was the wake-up call of a man cursing. In one instance, it was the Mayor of New Orleans (Ray Nagin) breaking down and showing his anger and despair verbally during a radio interview, which prompted a visit from George W. Bush and a complimentary shower aboard Air Force One. In another, it was an Army General whose foul mouth alone turned what was threatening to become a violent police state back into a neighborhood, albeit a ruined one. Later, a glimpse of similar, mobilizing belligerence was conveyed in a Fox News clip, and I had the insight that perhaps this is why a lot of people will swallow any polarizing crap that Fox News gives them -- because it also gives them the illusion, à la Howard Beale, of talking to them straight. The relevance of the cursing has to do with shaking up the spectre of Political Correctness, embodied by FEMA's imperative to calmly follow company lines and protocol, which may have played a role in why they have been so singularly non-responsive to this predicament and its aftermath. The importance of language in understanding where sides really stand is further explored by Lee's close attention the media's adoption of the term "refugees" for those US citizens divested of home, family and property by Katrina, who were taken care of with none-too-subtle one-way-tickets out of town. "Send us your poor, your huddled masses," indeed.
WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE is a long film, and carries more stress than some people will want to take on in one or two sittings; it is guaranteed to extend the range of your anger and despair beyond the US government to the Army Corps of Engineers, the media, insurance companies, and that rising monolithic Moloch we call Big Business. I found it absorbing almost in the same way I find Michael Wadleigh's WOODSTOCK absorbing (above and beyond its musical performances): both films study, from a variety of angles, a technical disaster and social phenomenon involving close to a million people, and document how people of different social backgrounds coped under these extraordinary circumstances. While WOODSTOCK accentuates the positive in its ersatz Garden of Eden, Lee's film chronicles how the best and worst in people are summoned in a pressure-cooker setting closer to martial law. It's a tribute to human resilience and a eulogy to those whose resilience could be bent only so far before it snapped and was left to rot in the streets or be set adrift in the Mississippi swells. Interest is sustained not only by the enormity of the story's tragedy and drama and conflict, but by the rich human tapestry provided by its interviewees, ranging from the sage and polished Winton Marsalis and Harry Belafonte, to the winning outspokenness of Phyllis Montana Leblanc (whose indomitable spirit puts a fine and sassy wind into this movie's sails), to the Army Corps of Engineers rep who promises the people of New Orleans, without the slightest irony, that their levees will be rebuilt to "pre-Katrina specifications."
On a purely technical note, kudos to Terence Blanchard (an active participant in the story of Katrina) for an eloquent and sometimes heart-rending score, which has been given a remarkable 5.1 sound mix.
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
I was expecting a backlash of negative response after yesterday's internet cri de coeur, but every response I've received thus far has been sympathetic -- not in the sense of being comforting, but in the sense of expressing common accord.
The internet is hurting a lot of people, either by actively infringing on the livelihoods of professional craftspeople, or by making them increasingly passive. Donna and I were talking the other night and we mutually noted that it's rare anymore that anyone ever speaks to us with a genuine sense of curiosity. I can understand this where I'm concerned, since I seem to post my thoughts on this blog almost as soon as I have them, but Donna feels the same way. Even in the best of situations, don't you find that people nowadays tend to talk about themselves and it ends there? Unless, of course, they're people whose lives are so void of personal interest that they have utterly supplanted their sense of self by talking about nothing but the hapless misadventures of Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Mel Gibson, et al that pass for Hollywood publicity these days. The art of conversation is mutating insidiously; people are bouncing monologues off each other rather than truly exchanging ideas (which requires being open to new ideas and points-of-view). I suspect this attitude is prompted by the degree to which e-mail has taken over so many of the former uses of the telephone and good old over-the-backyard-fence dialogue. I don't like sounding like a sign-waving, it's-the-end-of-the-world-crying fuddy-duddy, but we need to realize the extent of the very subtle damage that's being done to us, that we're doing to ourselves by embracing all this convenience. Remember the Eloi -- even they had curiosity! ("How did they wear their hair in your time?")
In related headlines... Bob Dylan says modern music is worthless..., TONY BENNETT: 'AMERICA IS CULTURALLY VOID'... and, in the words of the late great Brother Theodore, "I'm not feeling so good myself!"
Actually, I'm feeling a bit better. I took a friend's advice and spent some time last night sitting on my patio, on the first cool night Cincinnati has enjoyed in awhile, with a fine Montecristo cigar and an iPod loaded with some old time radio shows. (One of them was an ADVENTURES OF OZZIE & HARRIET show called "Have a Cigar.") For those of you who are automatically turned off by the phrase "old time radio," don't think of it as old: think of it as "classic." Or better yet, think of it as one of those Krell devices from FORBIDDEN PLANET that hook up to your head and boost your intelligence, because radio forces the mind to fill in the blanks. It's not an imposition; it's a pleasure. You create the actors' faces, their wardrobe, their props, their art direction... and, when the show's over, you're left with the pleasant afterglow of having used what today's entertainment typically denies you: your imagination.
But back to me. (I'm laughing, and I hope you are.) When I came back indoors, I rounded out my evening by watching a film I've long been wanting to see: Abel Gance's 1955 film of Alexandre Dumas pere's LA TOUR DE NESLE. Some background: Several months ago, I went to the attic and pulled down an old tape of a movie I hadn't seen in about 20 years, which was released here theatrically as TOWER OF SCREAMING VIRGINS in 1970-71. It's actually a 1968 film called DER TURM DER VERBOTENEN LIEBE ("The Tower of Forbidden Love"). Despite the lurid title, it's a 14th century historical swashbuckler in which the virgins are men who are lured to a tower with promises of sexual ecstasy, where the masked courtesans include the Queen of France, Marguerite de Bourgogne (a real historic personage, 1290-1315) and her two handmaidens, who indulge their nymphomania during the King's absence by having their way with strangers all night and having them slain at dawn.
I reviewed TOWER OF SCREAMING VIRGINS for a future "Things From the Attic," and in the course of researching it, I found out that it was actually based on a play (not a novel, as cited onscreen) by Dumas, which is widely regarded as the finest example of French melodrama ever written. Even more intriguing, it was not the first film adaptation of the play, which had been previously filmed as a silent serial, as a feature in 1937, and a few times in the 1950s -- the most important of which was Gance's version, which marked his return to the screen after a twelve-year absence.
I was fortunate to find a copy of the Rene Chateau French VHS release of Gance's LA TOUR DE NESLE as a "Buy It Now" item on eBay. There is apparently also a more recent DVD release, which is also out-of-print but sometimes turns up there. Old French tapes are usually the bottom-of-the-barrel, quality-wise, due to the inferior SECAM system, but I must say that this was an exception, the equal of some of the best PAL tapes I've seen.
It's to be expected that a movie titled TOWER OF SCREAMING VIRGINS will contain some female nudity, but it comes as a bit of a shock to American sensibilities to discover that the 1937 version did as well; you can see the proof by going here and scrolling down. Somehow, the Gance film is most startling in this department, as the women's bared breasts and the men's bared bottoms -- not to mention the devastatingly unleashed female libido portrayed -- are couched in an opulent production that marries the rustic fantasia of Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST to a velvety color cinematography that recalls THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD or, better yet, one of the early Disney animated features.
Watching LA TOUR DE NESLE is not unlike seeing Disney's SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS with all the missing scenes documenting the evil Queen's orgiastic sex life put back in. And because Americans like myself are not accustomed to seeing sex dealt with so graphically in films of this vintage, it consequently carries a stronger erotic charge than 1968 version, which actually offers more skin. One gets the feeling of having stumbled onto a special print manufactured to satifsy a film producer's private predelictions and never meant to be seen by the general public. Silvana Pampanini, whose first close-up (in which she wears a lace mask) is guaranteed to draw gasps, uses a body double... but it doesn't matter. Probably owing to its erotic candor, LA TOUR DE NESLE was never released in America, so it is extremely difficult to see here -- but it's a classic of its kind and an essential addition to any self-respecting film buff's education. Criterion, are you listening?
More in my forthcoming "Things from the Attic" review...
PS: Earlier today, Video WatchBlog counted its 300,000th hit. I thank you all for your continued... curiosity.
Monday, August 21, 2006
Apologies to Joe Strummer, it's true. Working on the last stages of the Bava book has been mentally exhausting, and when I have felt up to writing something new, creative writing being the only reliable road back to my real self, I've been trying to stockpile reviews for the return of VW in October. Right now, I'm not feeling up to meeting the obligations of this blog, whatever they are, but I feel the need to keep my foot in the door -- if only to keep you somewhat engaged and entertained during this, my period of ambivalence.
It's not entirely due to this blown fuse in my brain; as my subject line suggests, there is also an element of disenchantment involved. When I started this blog last October, I quickly became familiar with the blogs that were happening at that time. It hasn't been a full year quite yet, but a number of the blogs I bookmarked at that time have since disappeared or become stuck in their own inability to progress. I made the decision a few months ago to delete any blog from my Favorite Places that didn't update itself in a two-week period; before jettisoning an old blog, though, I would explore their list of links and bookmark one or two that were to my liking. It occurred to me that I was like a polar bear, struggling to stay afloat on blogdom by stepping off one shrinking ice floe onto another.
There is also this Blog-A-Thon phenomenon, a means of unifying like-spirited blogs into a virtual magazine on a given theme for a day. Today is the 101st anniversary of Friz Freleng's birth and a Blog-A-Thon has been called. I think it's a good idea; Friz, the subtlest of the great Warners animators, is a worthy subject. Part of me has something to say about him and wants to participate, but the greater part of me doesn't, especially now, because I'm feeling overworked and come here to get away from assignments and deadlines.
I posted here some weeks ago about my excitement at discovering music blogs. Since then, most of the best music blogs have succumbed to some RapidShare-related problem, with alledged trouble-makers arranging to have music files blocked or taken down. Some outstanding music blogs are still active, like 7 Black Notes, but there was one week not so long ago when they were dropping like flies. Very sad, and a potent reminder to me of how ephemeral all this internet business really is. Online publication reminds me of Keats' epitaph about lines "writ on water."
It's hard for me to imagine that all this blogging is going to endure or amount to anything important, and I also worry about what all this virtual communication is doing to the world of book publishing -- where the real history of our life and times should be written. I've called blogs the fanzines of today, and there is certainly a place for these in our culture, but can we lay claim to a culture if fanzines become our major source of information, or just a pop culture? When Donna and I started publishing VIDEO WATCHDOG in 1990, there was a period of identity crisis at first because the miracle of desktop publishing had the sudden ability to make fanzines look pretty slick. VW was called a "semi-prozine" for awhile, even after it became our full-time job and sole means of support. Now I'm seeing a reversal of that confusion, with numerous professional writers, and the magazines and newspapers employing them, publishing their work on the internet to avail themselves of its instantaneous and potentially boundless audience. I've been writing a monthly column for SIGHT & SOUND for the past few years, which made its online debut last month. Though having "No Zone" online makes it easier for me to share tear sheets with DVD companies, I have mixed feelings about its free availability. It was a more meaningful and satisfying achievement for me as a print exclusive.
Over the weekend, I got into a little online joust with Paula Guran on her DarkEcho blogsite, which I certainly didn't intend. She was insisting that there was no difference in quality between print and internet writing, and invited responses. I responded that there were a great many reasons why print writing was inherently superior to internet writing -- not only the qualitative differences between professional and amateur sources of information, but others owing to the essence of the internet medium and the way readers interact with it. I sincerely believe that while people read books and magazines, they surf the internet. I'm no different; when I read material online, I find that I do so with greater impatience, which leads me to skim, rather than read, other people's online writing. I have a lot of bookmarked sites to visit, after all, and if one doesn't grab me, I'm off to the next; it's akin to channel surfing. But when I feel like reading print, I grab the one book or magazine I want to read; I don't grab an armful and then flip through them until I find something that holds my flighty attention, which I then drop after a minute or two's perusal. I don't remember what I read online; I don't quote articles to my friends, I send them links.
Anyway, I posted my feelings on the subject, which I proceeded to regret, because somehow -- owing to another of the major inequalities between print and net -- there was, in Strother Martin's immortal words, "failure to communicate." I could not get Paula to see that I wasn't belittling her work or her arena personally with my stated beliefs, and I couldn't tell when her responses to me were being sincere or sarcastic. After some public ping-pong, she guided our exchange to private e-mail, where we still didn't solve anything and probably only served to make a happy acquaintence worse. I don't know Paula personally, but she's been a friend to me and my work over the years; I like her and respect her devotion to horror-related fiction and non-fiction, and hate to think that she might now regard me as some kind of high-horse snob because I proposed some considerations she didn't want to hear, and because of the noise-to-sense ratio inherent in internet communications. And perhaps, even probably, I got some garbled signals from her too. So that was another discouragement.
Online, an ordinary exchange of ideas -- the root of the symposium, upon which principle of open and equal discussion the concepts of democracy and civilization were based -- can escalate all too suddenly into battle lines drawn in imaginary sand. We absorb what we read online before we can properly digest it, which means that we absorb it in a coating of our own biases and preconceptions. Nowadays, no one has the time or patience to want to adequately explore or entertain new or different or opposing points of view. The internet has seen to that, with additional indoctrination from the folks at Fox News.
This is my 257th blog posting in less than a year and, as you know, my postings can go for 18 or more paragraphs some days. (Hell, look at today's -- I can do 13 paragraphs even when I have nothing to say!) I've amassed enough material here to fill a book, even if I was selective about what I included; I think most of it would be worthy of preserving between covers, given a tweak here and there. I'm proud of this accomplishment, but it's also an accomplishment that suggests thoughts to me of what else I might have accomplished, had I not been so faithful to this task. Like finishing my current novel-in-progress, something I used to wrestle with, which I have lately been watching wrestle with itself. And that's just not right.
Last week, Gary Svehla of MIDNIGHT MARQUEE (who was presented over the weekend with his Monster Kid Hall of Fame Rondo Award -- congratulations, Gary!) wrote me to say that he reads this blog much more religiously than he ever read VIDEO WATCHDOG. (Ouch! Thanks!) "Your blog reminds me of what fanzines used to be in the 1960s and 1970s," he wrote. I know that Gary meant well, and I do take his words as a sincere compliment, but I published my first fanzine, back in the '70s, when I was 14. I work very hard at this task, and Gary's words (along with my aforementioned exchange with Paula) helped me to see that, no matter how much time I lavish on this blog, it's unlikely to amount to anything more than what it is. The question is, Can I be content with that? And the answer, I feel, is that I am going to be very unhappy with myself, now or later, if I don't apply my energies, while I have them, to something more personally fulfilling and, perhaps, rewarding.
Don't misunderstand; I'm not preambling an end to this blog. Knowing me, as I try to do, I could be back here again tomorrow, suddenly re-energized and re-engaged. I'm just saying that, for the past week and today also, I've been feeling a bit burnt-out (you'll understand better when you see all the detail work that's gone into the book) and need to find something that might recharge my batteries. Everything I see online right now seems to be draining them, hemorrhaging me of time and energy and determination. I know in my heart-of-hearts that Video WatchBlog serves an important purpose, especially during this period when VIDEO WATCHDOG is being temporarily published at half-ration frequency, which is why I'm not yet prepared to retire it.
If you've followed my writing, or my online presence, for any period of time, you know that I go through phases -- phases when I feel the need to stop posting on film boards, when I yearn to get offline altogether, when I miss the camaraderie and come back, when I love movies, when I hate movies. My relationship with the internet has always been like a bad marriage: argumentative, unhappy, but nevertheless committed, always threatening but never quite carrying through with divorce. If I can't give you material, I can at least give you my honesty. At the moment, I'm neither hating or loving this blog -- it might be easier for me to love it if there were more hours in the day -- but, for the moment anyway, I'm not feeling the need to be here. Still, I'm a faithful husband. As Beckett wrote, I can't go on. I'll go on.
So, until tomorrow...
Thursday, August 17, 2006
Part 1 (FAMOUS MONSTERS and CINEFANTASTIQUE): http://www.popmatters.com/columns/lanzagorta/060727.shtml
Part 2: (FANGORIA, CINEFEX and VIDEO WATCHDOG) http://www.popmatters.com/columns/lanzagorta/060817.shtml
Some might complain about the omission of certain titles from Marco's coverage, but his purpose was to show how such magazines and their readers have changed over the years, and not to be all-inclusive. That said, I think it's a very good overview, and I'm naturally honored by its discussion of VW.
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Fortunately, the SIGHT & SOUND website has posted my latest "No Zone" column, so I'll direct you over there for your daily dose of TL.
Sunday, August 13, 2006
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.
Saturday, August 12, 2006
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
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
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
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
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
THE LADY IN THE WATER
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
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
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.
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.