Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Who Needs SESAME STREET?

Richard Harland Smith's year-old daughter Vayda discovers the Vajdas.

Photo (c) RHS 2006.

Monday, September 11, 2006

POP GEAR on Flix

POP GEAR's Jimmy Savile: "Video WatchBlog! Wait, that's the name of this blog!"

1969 was an important year in the logline of my television viewing. It was in 1969 that Cincinnati got its first independent station, WXIX-TV, Channel 19, and with its arrival came an assortment of oddities I could never have seen on the city's three network affiliates. Much of my pleasure with Channel 19 came from its American International Television movie packages, which included quite a few Euro horror curiosities like PORTRAIT IN TERROR, STRANGLER OF THE TOWER, and HORROR CASTLE... but also included in one of the AIP-TV packages was a British import called POP GEAR, which was given the chronologically-skewed but more US-friendly retitling GO GO MANIA.

Running a mere 70 minutes and change, POP GEAR is essentially a collection of Scopitone-like lip-synch performances of various British musical acts from the Mersey Beat era: The Animals, Herman's Hermits, Peter & Gordon, Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas, The Honeycombs, The Spencer Davis Group, Sounds Unlimited, The Nashville Teens, The Fourmost, Tommy Quickly, The Four Pennies, Matt Monro, Billie Davis, and others. The movie is hosted by long-haired impresario Jimmy Savile, whose silly banter ("Pop gear! Wait, that's the name of this picture!") connects the dots with the dotty. Several of the groups on hand were managed by Brian Epstein, whose behind the scenes involvement opened the door to the film's producers being able to include The Beatles in the movie's list of stars, courtesy of some amazing color-and-scope footage from a newsreel entitled "The Beatles Come To Town."

Naturally, my earliest viewings of the picture were pan&scanned, and when I finally scored a copy of GO GO MANIA on videotape, early in my collecting days, it was not only pan&scanned but in black-and-white. I assumed I would never see it properly, but who knew in those days how widely available nearly everything would become? Some years ago, before they went south with incessant commercial interruption, American Movie Classics included the film during a week of rock 'n' roll movies, not only in color and scope but under its original title POP GEAR! It was a treat to finally see intact and in its original form. And now you too can have the pleasure of seeing it, if you have the Showtime cable package, because the premium cable channel Flix is showing POP GEAR -- in Technicolor and Techniscope -- throughout the month of September in a handsome, newly remastered version preceded by a Studio Canal logo.

What's astounding about POP GEAR is not only that it preserves so many classic (and some offbeat) groups in their prime, but that these acts were photographed in color and scope by none other than Geoffrey Unsworth, who would later photograph such important features as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and SUPERMAN THE MOVIE. Some of the acts are preposterous, like Tommy Quickly (a grinny fellow who embarrassingly mugs his way through a "song" reprising nursery rhymes) and the heavy-handed Big Band novelty act Sounds Incorporated (how to describe their sound? like a vocal-less Dave Clark Five on steroids and goofballs), and some are misplaced like suave "From Russia With Love" vocalist Matt Monro, who closes out the program with a "Pop Gear" song that pays lip service to all the movie's participants!

Tommy Quickly reminds us of the tragedy that befell Humpty Dumpty.

The movie also pads out its running time to feature length with a couple of absurd, pre-HULLABALOO choreography sequences.


POP GEAR's kitschy qualities are part of its appeal, but what saves it from being a purely guilty pleasure are the performances it preserves by people like The Honeycombs (Joe Meek's bedroom studio group with rock's first woman drummer, Honey Lantree, who perform their worldwide hit "Have I The Right"), The Nashville Teens (who scowl and lurch their way through "Tobacco Road"), and the original lineup of The Animals (I'd love this movie if only for the close shots of Alan Price's hands kangarooing all over the keyboard during his "House of the Rising Sun" solo). The Four Pennies, a largely-forgotten group who never cracked the US charts, are introduced performing their glimmering tremelo ballad "Juliet," a UK radio hit, but their second number is a disarming cover of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" -- a blues standard that had its next moment in the sun when Nirvana covered it as part of their historic MTV UNPLUGGED performance.

The Honeycombs ask the musical question, "Have I The Right?"

Art Sharp and Ray Phillips front The Nashville Teens.

This film was made before rock music acquired an imagery of its own, and there's a certain preposterousness about the sets where the bands are shown performing, the props they're given (The Animals play under dangling Christmas-like ornaments, while The Nashville Teens establish their blues funk cred amidst bales of hay), and the choreography they are sometimes subjected to. One of my favorite moments finds Eric Burdon asked to lead his fellow Animals in a kind of conga line toward Unsworth's camera as "House of the Rising Sun" charges toward its crescendic finale; as a straight-faced Burdon relates his story of a man brought low, guitarist Hilton Valentine, visible just behind him, can't resist cracking up at the absurdity of what they're doing to promote their record. Incidentally, the director of POP GEAR, Frederic Goode, later ventured into the horror genre with the vampire film HAND OF NIGHT aka BEAST OF MOROCCO (1966).

Eric Burdon spins a cautionary tale, but Hilton Valentine's pickin' and grinnin'.

Set your TiVos and timers for POP GEAR, tomorrow (September 12) at 6:30 am and 2:50 pm, September 18 at 5:50 am, or September 26 at 6:00 am and 3:00 pm -- all times given are Eastern time zone. Flix is clearly booking the film into low traffic timeslots, but this is one of those movies that acquires a special flavor when viewed in the middle of the night.

If you find yourself loving POP GEAR as I do, I can steer you in the direction of the perfect chaser: SWINGING U.K., a budget-priced DVD that collects two short films very much in the POP GEAR mold: SWINGING U.K. and U.K. SWINGS AGAIN, dating from 1965. Here you'll find similarly sublimely silly lip-synchs by such artists as Lulu and the Luvvers, Little Millie Small (who sings one of her songs to a bewildered puppy), The Tornados (how could such an ungainly bunch of lads have recorded "Telstar," one of my favorite records of all time?), The Hollies (see Graham Nash clean-shaven and dressed like a banker!), The Merseybeats, The Applejacks (who play two songs that sound dead alike), the hilariously-named The Wackers, and the post-Alan Price lineup of The Animals. These two shorts (which were later combined with another short called MODS AND ROCKERS to manufacture a feature called GO GO BIG BEAT) are hosted by Alan Freeman, Brian Matthew, and Kent Walton, all of them much straighter-looking than Jimmy Savile and therefore exponentially funnier. The lucky kids who saw this on the big screen must have had a hoot.

I wasn't aware of this 2004 DVD release till a friend sent me a copy in the mail a couple of weeks ago, which just goes to show that -- even now, at this late date -- there continue to be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my flotsam and jetsam.

BVD on DVD

The Kelly Affair (Marcia McBroom, Dolly Read and Cynthia Myers) perform at a midwestern school prom before becoming The Carrie Nations in BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's two-disc set of Russ Meyer's cult classic BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is one of those rare cases where an offbeat film is given all the love and indulgence even the most ardent fan could muster, proving once and for all that the film's place in history is now assured. Last night, I watched BVD (as it's known by cultists) no less than three times -- once in "stereo" (a kind of mono surround), and twice more with the two commentary tracks Fox has included (the first by screenwriter Roger Ebert, the second with cast members Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, John La Zar, Erica Gavin and Harrison Page) -- and had to fight the impulse to watch it a fourth time in a row. This sparkling, anamorphic widescreen DVD gives the film the most beautiful presentation I've ever seen, and there is something about the film's manic energy, its polished irreverance, and the artistry underlying its rampant bad taste that is almost too rare in this world to voluntarily turn off.
They don't make movies like this anymore and, of course, they didn't really make them like this in 1969 either, which is why BVD had to endure so many years of mainstream disapproval as it grew in stature as (what Russ Meyer liked to call) the greatest cult movie of all time. Watching the film three times in a row gave me ample opportunity to pay attention to its innovative staccato cutting and even more innovative structuring, its use of flashbacks and flash-forwards, its chortling mixture of volatile dramatic and comedic chemicals (not to mention progressive and old-fashioned chemicals), its finale in triplicate. To see a movie so alive makes it all the more poignant to realize that Meyer is now gone, that there will be no more Meyer pictures... and this was another incentive to keep the film rolling, out of sheer denial that those days are over, when inspired lunatics like Meyer and Orson Welles could take over the asylum.
While making my way through the commentaries and extras, I was also struck by the many parallels between Meyer's career and that of Mario Bava. Both of them were cameramen, of course; both were also photographers who followed their wartime careers with what might be termed "fashion photography" (Meyer with PLAYBOY, Bava with the films of Gina Lollobrigida); both mades their names directing exploitation films, a level of production that gave them more opportunities to explore their creative/artistic freedom "under the radar" of the majors; both were complete filmmakers, in that they both worked with small crews and could effectively perform any crewman's task in a pinch, whether it was editing or selecting library music to assemble a soundtrack; both were recruited to make one big film for a major studio (Bava's was DANGER: DIABOLIK -- a similar Pop Art classic predating BVD -- for Paramount); and then both retreated back to the level of filmmaking they knew and loved, turning their backs on mainstream success. Also, both paid the price for turning back, working relatively little during their last ten years of life. The way Z-Man's hookah party is lit, with potent green and red gels, suggests to me that either Meyer or director of photography Fred J. Koenekamp were familiar with Bava's work.
John La Zar as Ronnie "Z Man" Barzell, entering into his third act persona as "Superwoman."
Perhaps the greatest compliment that I can pay to Roger Ebert's commentary is that at no time was I certain whether it was improvised or scripted. The talk is informative, personable, and amusing, and though it occasionally commits the sin of pride, that's usually understandable -- and one of the lesser sins on display in this programming. In addition to everything else he conveys, Ebert vividly communicates the pleasure he felt while actively writing several of the film's scenes, and he ventures some of his usually canny criticism toward the film in general and several of its performances. Ebert mentions that he has looked in vain for glimpses of Pam Grier in the party sequences, as I have; it was her first film, and the photo gallery includes two shots of her, proving that "Pamela Grier" -- as she's billed onscreen -- was there. There are some sound gaps later in the track, which one wishes had been spent covering some of the scenes that didn't make the final cut, which are documented in the stills gallery; instead, Ebert reminiscences about working with Meyer and The Sex Pistols on the ill-fated WHO KILLED BAMBI?. On the whole, the track isn't up to Ebert's commentary for DARK CITY (a masterpiece of the form, by my reckoning), but his personal stake in this one gives it a more vital aspect, perhaps, than perfection.
On the whole, the cast commentary track I found more compelling because of the stew of personalities it offers. Everyone seems touched, even wounded, to see how young they are onscreen, but the screening is largely jubilant, with everyone noting their favorite lines and scenes and laughing at the memory of Meyer's "Don't blink!" approach to directing actors. Two of the actors in the film had their first screen kisses with members of the same sex, and BVD's homosexual content is perhaps the most interesting lightning bolt to conversation; Erika Gavin had a real crush on Cynthia Myers during the filming (you can see it in the way Erika is focused on Cynthia even in the production stills), which raised the temperature of their tender love scenes together, and John La Zar admits (perhaps facetiously) that his screen kiss with Michael Blodgett prompted years of psychiatric therapy. Watching Erika and Cynthia onscreen together, to Harrison's effusive approval, Dolly Read drops her guard and admits that husband Dick Martin tried to get her to have threesomes with other women in those days (and, when she continually refused, the LAUGH-IN star finally married her). I expected John La Zar to dominate the session, which he does to some extent through passive aggression, sulking in silence through large patches and apologizing for occasionally interrupting "The Dolly and Harrison Show." They do talk a good deal, but much of what they have to say is generous in nature, showing appreciation for other performers or the film's construction. On La Zar's behalf, he does seem to have paid more attention during the filming, or studied the film more closely since making it, than the other participants; he knows all the names no one else remembers, and often has anecdotes to back up his trivia. Erika Gavin is perhaps the most passive of the participants, but it's a great moment when she realizes that Dolly is cavorting onscreen in an orange chiffon nightgown that she wore earlier in VIXEN. All the commentators seem rather amazed to realize that Duncan McLeod, who plays smarmy lawyer Porter Hall, probably had the biggest part in the movie.
The second disc is a non-stop parade of winning supplements, beginning with John La Zar's on-camera introduction "in character" and ranging from production featurettes (incorporating on-camera interviews with many cast and crew members) to teaser trailers and theatrical trailers with their own little surprises; one of the teasers is an amazing document showing Meyer at work on the set as a stills photographer, and the theatrical trailer is a riot, nearly heart-bursting in its hyperbolic bravado. The detailed and thorough stills gallery is fascinating for its inclusion of various unexplained shots from scenes not included in the film, including some picturing Dolly Read in elderly makeup as her own deceased aunt. The detailed coverage of the film's music, featuring interviews with producer Stu Phillips and vocalist Lynn Carey (the daughter of actor MacDonald Carey), is especially enjoyable and the music itself, along with Read's dead-on pantomiming of Carey's lusty vocals, is a big reason for the film's repeatability. My only complaint about the set (and it's a minor one) is that some of the featurettes take too much of a E!-list approach to celebrating the movie. Do we really need to know various peoples' opinion of who had the best breasts in the movie? Probably not, but if truth be told, the question provokes some enjoyable responses. All in all, the supplements do a commendable job of addressing themselves to the full spectrum of BVD's admiring audience.
In the realm of cinema, the time-honored definition of "classic" is a movie that gets better with age, like a fine wine. BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is a rarer breed still; a film that intended to represent its time but didn't get it quite right. This error was a blessing in disguise, as BVD now seems to exist outside of time in the traditional sense. With each passing year, it not only gets better, it seems to get smarter and younger, too.
Yesterday's X rating, today's wide-eyed innocence. Count me among those proud to be in its thrall.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Big Monkey Hugs

No, it's not Kathy Burns at home with Kogar! It's Margo Johns being terrorized by someone in George Barrows' ape suit in KONGA.

If you're one of the many who faithfully click your links to this page daily, my apologies for a mostly unproductive week here at Video WatchBlog. If I didn't already have a review of THE MUMMY'S REVENGE on file, this would have been my first no-show week in this blog's history. A new issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG (#127) is now in progress, so my energies have been in demand elsewhere. In addition to selecting and editing the next issue's contents, I was finally able to kick the butt of that difficult Del Tenney article I mentioned previously; I hope you'll enjoy reading it. I also spent some time yesterday updating the Bava book blog -- By Popular Demand, no less -- so if that's something that interests you (and why wouldn't it be?), you can pop over there for the latest news.

At the risk of turning this into a Special Occasions blog, I want to acknowledge that today, September 9th, is the 50th wedding anniversary of two of my favorite people, Bob & Kathy Burns, and it's also the (cough, cough) ...th birthday of just about the only person I ever speak to by telephone anymore, VW cover artist extraordinaire Charlie Largent. Bob and Kathy have never met Charlie, but the three of them have something significant in common besides being my friends. For some reason, nothing makes them happier than the sight of a Big Monkey. So the above scene from Herman Cohen's shocker KONGA (1961) is my shameless dancing bear of an attempt to delight them all in one swell foop. Hopefully, the image won't prove too frightening to the small fry and little nippers in my audience.

Charlie Largent has designed and illustrated most VIDEO WATCHDOG covers since #84 -- that's over 40 issues ago! -- and has contributed greatly to the look of MARIO BAVA - ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK. We don't know what we'd do without him. Charlie also co-authored the Roger Corman bio comedy script THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES with me, which continues its quest for financing, and we're hopeful of collaborating on other scripts when time allows. Charlie's a fine artist and a good friend, the kind who can always be counted on for a laugh, even when it's one o'clock in the morning, my time -- which, in my world, is a precious thing. So Feliz Cumpleaños, Carlos!

Kathy and Bob Burns' 2005 Christmas card photo, showing them with the original King Kong armature on the set of Peter Jackson's KING KONG.

Not to upstage Charlie's birthday, which I hope he'll be celebrating in style, but I'm feeling especially sentimental about Bob and Kathy's anniversary. I haven't known them very long, but when I first read Bob's book IT CAME FROM BOB'S BASEMENT, my immediate reaction was, "Why don't I know this man?" I took steps to correct this with an e-mail, and we've been able to spend time together now at two Wonderfests. Upon meeting Bob and Kathy, I had the feeling that I was with family, and the longer I've known them and seen how other people interact with them, I believe most people feel the same way. Bob and Kathy's marriage, therefore, has been an invaluable gift to fandom -- for as long as they've been attending conventions and turning their house into the biggest Halloween attraction on the west coast, they've been its happiest glow. No wonder that they've been inducted into the Rondo Awards' Monster Kid Hall of Fame. No wonder Kathy Burns was presented with a special award at Wonderfest last May... just for being Kathy Burns.

They are wonderful individuals and a cute couple but, more importantly, they're a team. This isn't true of every couple, however durable, but it's true of them -- and it's true of Donna and me, so their example gives us hope. Fifty years is a long time but, as I know after 31 years of marriage, it's also just the blink of an eye. My fondest wish is that Donna and I can make it to our 50th anniversary in 2024 and beyond; today, Bob and Kathy are showing us -- showing all of us -- that it's not only possible, but life's sweetest pleasure for those who pursue it. I'm grateful and encouraged.

Big monkeys for everybody!

By way of postscript, the If Charlie Parker Was A Gunslinger blog alerts us all to another golden anniversary taking place today. Fifty years ago tonight, Elvis Presley made his first-ever appearance on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Feliz Cumpleaños, Paul Naschy!

As a special remembrance of Paul Naschy, who turns 72 years old today, and to all his fans, here is a special "Things From the Attic" exclusive. Happy Birthday, Señor Molina -- and may all your moons be full and bright!


THE MUMMY'S REVENGE
La Venganza de la Momia
1973, Unicorn Video Inc., OOP, VHS

Having already portrayed Dracula, Mr. Hyde, serial killers Jack the Ripper and Gilles de Rais, and, of course, his recurring werewolf character Waldemar Daninsky, Spanish horror star Paul Naschy (Jacinto Molina) added another classic monster to his personal gallery with this sadistic reinvention of the Mummy mythos, working from his own script.

Opening in Ancient Egypt, the film briefly documents the cruel reign of Amen-Ho-Tep (Naschy), who, with his beloved Amarna (Rina Ottolina), liked to be entertained by the torture of manacled virgins prior to drinking their blood and eating their flesh. The monstrous monarch and his moll were brought to death by a rival for the throne, prompting the mummified ruler's mute oath to exact revenge with the help of his descendents. At the turn of the 20th century, the pieces begin to fall into place as British archaeologist Dr. Nathan Stern (Jack Taylor) discovers Amen-Ho-Tep's tomb and travels back to England and the Landsbury Museum with the sarcophagus in tow. (Actually, it's just suddenly there; this is not a film to waste time on process.) The museum is soon visited by two Egyptians, Assad Bey (Naschy) and Zenifer (Helga Liné, at her most alluring), who are welcomed by curator Sir Douglas Carter (Eduardo Calvo) to study the relic taken from their country. Unbeknownst to Sir Douglas and Nathan, Assad Bey is a descendent of Amen-Ho-Tep, who has the knowledge of reactivating his bandaged and heavily bejewelled ancestor, who requires the blood of seven women to establish his immortality prior to his coming conquest of the civilized world. Said plans would appear to be endorsed by the Gods, given the fact that Sir Douglas' daughter Elena (Ottolina) is recognzied by the swathed savage as the reincarnation of his lost love Amarna.

This was the last of four films Naschy made in collaboration with director Carlos Aured in 1973. Though the cut print issued by Unicorn Video is void of nudity, it flaunts eroticized violence and cruelty in a manner consistent with the earlier three: EL RETORNO DE WALPURGIS (CURSE OF THE DEVIL), LOS OJOS AZULES DE LA MUNECA (HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN), and the superior EL ESPANTO SURGE DE LA TOMBA (HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB). Naschy's stocky, weightlifter's build is ill-suited for such a traditionally gaunt monster as the Mummy, but his massive, gauze-swathed, head-smashing cannibal, buried under layers of ornamental gold and wheezing like Mater Suspiriorum with every movement, is an intriguing, fresh interpretation of the character. The film is a collector's curio, more unusual than outstanding, with decently executed horror scenes and some appealingly shabby atmosphere. Its main fault is laziness at the script stage, which never quite reconciles its idealization and hatred of women, and too often establishes emotional states not through developmental drama but merely by saying so. For example: heroine Abigail (THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF's Maria Silva) says that Nathan is becoming "obsessed" by the Mummy murders before we are shown any signs of his interest or awareness, and he likewise becomes "convinced" of Assan Bay's involvement in the killings without involving the viewer in his arrival at that conclusion. (Admittedly, these may be faults of the US edit rather than the film itself.) Aured is most capable of staging horror sequences in static shots, fumbling any scenes requiring camera mobility, such as when Abigail discovers her murdered father and then walks backwards for what seems an eternity until she finally bumps into a slain butler at the far end of the room. Taylor, who previously played Dr. Jekyll to Naschy's Hyde, fully looks the part of the archaeologist hero in his pith helmet and Van Dyke beard, and one sorely wishes the film had given him more to do. The dubbing saddles Naschy's Assad Bey with a humorous, whiny voice, and the music score (Alfonso Santistebán, working with CAM library tracks) is a patchwork assembled from many films and composers; I recognized snippets from Mario Bava's THE WHIP AND THE BODY (Carlo Rustichelli) and Mel Welles' MANEATER OF HYDRA (Antón Gárcia Abril).

Unicorn's long-unavailable VHS release -- a relic of a time when the company issued Spanish horror in great quantity, sometimes even in their original Spanish language versions -- is a grainy, occasionally blurry, pan&scanned, and cut (whew!) presentation of the film, originally lensed in the four-perf Techniscope process. Though a 97m Spanish-language widescreen copy reportedly circulates in collector's circles, it adds only dialogue scenes. No copy of this film unearthed to date features the nudity included in theatrical export prints, and one hopes this variant will resurface someday. While the cropped imagery renders some ofthe gore incoherent, the Unicorn tape is more complete in terms of head-smooshing violence than US television prints were. THE MUMMY'S REVENGE may not be one of Naschy's top tier titles, but such is the sorry state of this old VHS presentation, one thirsts for a proper restoration of this title over almost any other in his catalogue.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Del, Ellen, Kim, Joe, DJS and I (and Kasey)

Where I'm At: This upcoming week, my next SIGHT & SOUND column is due and I must go through a fresh print-out of the BAVA book interior and check my red pen corrections to the previous print-out against the changes Donna has implemented... and somewhere in there, I also have to start (continue, actually) putting together the next issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG.

I have spent much of this past week fighting to reel in an article that so far hasn't wanted much to cooperate. I wonder how many of my fellow film journalists have tackled articles on a given subject only to realize, in the midst of the process, that you can't imagine whatever possessed you to undertake it in the first place? With me, this problem article is about the films of Del Tenney. I've always enjoyed his films, which I've found to be interesting and fairly consistent and recognizably the work of the same filmmaker. When Dark Sky released their DVDs of VIOLENT MIDNIGHT and the two-fer of THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH and THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE earlier this year, I thought I might write something in an attempt to sort out whether or not Tenney qualified as a genuine horror auteur -- and I've been fighting with this article ever since. A couple of nights ago, I watched VIOLENT MIDNIGHT again... a film I've always liked, but suddenly, I could only see what was wrong with it. The article is somehow making me feel adversarial towards the films, which is not a good thing. Del Tenney only produced VIOLENT MIDNIGHT, of course... and that's part of the problem. It's far and away the best-acted movie to carry his name. I'm now at the point of wondering whether I should junk the article and break it up into a series of reviews, without a unifying context, because frankly I'm now questioning whether the question that prompted this article is worth the effort of answering it.

I've also been feeling some discouragement from the arrival of the new edition of THE YEAR'S BEST FANTASY & HORROR, edited by Ellen Datlow and Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant. Back in 1995, when my first novel THROAT SPROCKETS was published, Ellen very kindly singled it out in a paragraph as the year's best first novel; it's been more than a decade since then, and I had hoped that THE BOOK OF RENFIELD would be acknowledged in some way, for good or ill -- especially as there were so few reviews. Certainly an incentive in undertaking a novel is to see what knowledgeable people will say about it, especially when they've shown signs of being discerning about your past work. Unfortunately, Ellen's section on "Notable Novels of 2005" in the new edition begins with her lamenting, "I rarely have time to read novels..." and then proceeding to list the best of those she had, including the latest Harry Potter. (As a fellow novelist commiserated, "I think it's time people stopped congratulating themselves on reading YA" -- besides which, Harry Potter is fantasy, a genre subject to an annual overview of its own by Link & Grant, who give every book they mention its due.)

THE BOOK OF RENFIELD is mentioned in Ellen's overview, but only as a facet of a lengthy, many paged list of novels "Also Noted." Here, the titles of novels and the names of their authors are presented on an unbroken list so multitudinous as to appear unselective, so monolithic in their accumulation as to resemble the Viet Nam War Memorial. Readers of the book are unlikely to read through such a list. Such uncomprehensive handling of the category made me feel sad -- not only for myself, but for every other novelist who took the time and care this past year to contribute something more substantial than a short story to the genre. If Ellen's not reading many novels these days, she needs to hire someone who is; better still, perhaps an altogether new horror anthology is needed, one that would select and excerpt from the best horror novels of each given year.

On the other hand, I very much appreciate Ellen's continuing enthusiasm for VIDEO WATCHDOG, which once again received first mention among the year's best film-related magazines. "One of the most exuberant film magazines around... invaluable for the connoisseur of trashy, pulp, and horror movies and enjoyable for just about everyone," she writes. She also singles out Charlie Largent's Ray Harryhausen retrospective and David J. Schow's Triffids article as outstanding, which they certainly were.

I'm also very pleased for VW's own Kim Newman, whose novella THE GYPSIES IN THE WOOD (originally published in an anthology of all-new novellas called THE FAIR FOLK) was selected for inclusion in this edition and, in fact, closes it out. It's unusual for TY'sBF&H to reprint entire novellas, but Kim's appears to be fully deserving of this honor. I've started reading it, and it's an inspired piece of writing, beautifully detailed and completely absorbing; every page makes me wish that John Gilling was still around to film it. The British fantastic cinema we all miss still breathes in the written word.

Finally, I want to write a few lines about Joseph Stefano, while our thoughts are still on his recent loss. As a connoisseur of the dark fantastic, I'm as much in it for beauty as for horror, and Stefano was one of the rare American proponents of this ethic. I truly believe he would be remembered as one of the greats, had he written only "The Forms of Things Unknown," "The Invisibles," or "The Bellero Shield." Somehow, in these teleplays for THE OUTER LIMITS (which he also produced), the grace and eloquence of his words vaulted past aggressively stylish directions and visuals with a force all their own. Lines like "History forgives great men their murderous wives" resonate to this day as powerfully as any shot and, in a show as artfully filmed as THE OUTER LIMITS, that's saying something. Stefano also had the good fortune to write the greatest horror film ever made, Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO, and -- based on what I know of his later work -- it's my belief that Stefano's contribution made the difference between PSYCHO being the cheap, hard-hitting shocker that Hitchcock wanted to make and the infinitely chewable box of chocolates that it is. "I'll lick the stamps" is certifiably a Stefano line -- thoughtful, vulnerable, aspiring, deep-cutting -- consistent with the peerless eye for detail and the carefully weighed word that we find in Mrs. Bates' "periwinkle blue" dress (mentioned earlier this week in my memorial blog for Lurene Tuttle) or the "fine stilletto heels" of Kasha Paine.

David J. Schow's indispensible THE OUTER LIMITS COMPANION (if you don't own a copy, buy one now) pictures Stefano holding the drafts of a first and only novel, LYCANTHROPE, back in 1985. David tells me that the novel was accepted for publication but then rejected after a round of musical chairs in the publishing company's editorial board. Now that the life's work is done and the road is clear, here's hoping that the manuscript will be exhumed from its desk drawer and properly shepherded to publication. As the author of THE OUTER LIMITS COMPANION, David is now feeling a special pain because Joe Stefano was not only a personal friend, but the last OUTER LIMITS man standing. My sympathy goes out to David -- and to all devotees of the fantastique for our shared loss of one of the genre's true artists.

In the meantime, a new novel is whispering to me. (No, not the one that remains to be finished.) Do I listen? And, if so, when?

PS: I finally got around to hearing Kasey Chambers' album BARRICADES AND BRICKWALLS (2002) last night, which I think comes fairly close to being a perfect alternative country album -- closer than Lucinda Williams' last studio album actually, which is tantamount to blasphemy, coming from me. The final track is followed by a minute or so of silence and then moves into an hidden track called "Ignorance," which is the finest song of its kind I've heard since John Lennon's "Working Class Hero." This Aussie gal's amazing, and she's got a new album out in a couple of weeks, too.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Exit Ed Benedict

Over at Cartoon Brew, Jerry Beck has announced the passing of animation legend Ed Benedict at the age of 94.

Benedict had a long and varied career in animation, but his greatest impact on pop culture occurred during his tenure as Hanna-Barbera's character designer in the late '50s through the early '60s. The Flintstones (and the Rubbles), Quick Draw McGraw and Baba Louie, Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Snagglepuss, Snooper and Blabber, Snuffles, Yakky Doodle, and many others sprang from Benedict's fertile imagination -- to be given the spark of life by the vocal talents of Daws Butler, of course, and the musical genius of Hoyt Curtin. All gone now, alas... but we still have the cartoons. The characters. The Pez dispensers. The lunchboxes, even!

Apparently Benedict didn't care for the H-B cartoons at all, but as a wise man once said, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans." I went through a season when I was disenchanted with the H-B cartoons myself, in my teens, when I saw them as the harbinger of limited animation; but animation has long since circumvented that little problem, which makes it easier to appreciate the H-B cartoons as the clever, satirical little films they are. Speaking for myself, I find that -- much moreso than the classic Warner Bros. and MGM cartoons, which are more overtly clever, artistic, and ingenious -- the H-B cartoons are animation's comfort food. When I see them on Boomerang today, they make me feel good, pure and simple. They're cute. And I love how flamingly gay Snagglepuss is.

So zip on over to Cartoon Brew and read all about Ed Benedict, the man who gave us these great stars of paint and celluloid.

PS: Yes, I have heard about the passing of Joseph Stefano and would like to respond in some worthy manner, but that task seems to require more of me than I am able to give at present.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Two Blonde Beauties


If I can do it for Lurene Tuttle, I have to do it for the late, great Joan Blondell -- so "Happy 100th Birthday, Beautiful!"

Appropriately, Ms. Blondell is seen here in her, er, birthday suit. The Wikipedia link I've provided above is worth clicking, if only for the opportunity of ogling an even prettier shot of the birthday girl in full color. Her contributions to the world of horror and fantasy include TOPPER RETURNS (1941), NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947), WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? (1957), Curtis Harrington's THE DEAD DON'T DIE (1975), and episodes of TALES OF TOMORROW, SUSPENSE, and THE TWILIGHT ZONE. She passed away of leukemia on Christmas Day, 1979.

As a Warner Bros. starlet since 1930, known for appearing in racy promotional photos such as the above, I also suspect that Joan Blondell might be the unidentified nude woman featured in this creepy publicity still for MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933), which we published 14 years ago as the inside front cover of VIDEO WATCHDOG #12:

Of all the unpleasant connotations in that photo, it's the way Lionel Atwill's finger is perched on the window frame that really creeps me out. Imagine if FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND had actually run this photo back in the day; a whole generation of Monster Kids might today be as fixated on MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM as some seasoned CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN readers are still twitterpated about THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU!

And now I must apologize for all this salty talk because, on the other side of life's compass, I want to wish a very Happy 1st Birthday to Vayda Jane, the first-born of VIDEO WATCHDOG scribe Richard Harland Smith and his marathon-running bride, Barbara Fish. Vayda's been photographed more times in her first year than PEEPING TOM's Mark Lewis and the flashbulbs are expected to reach some kind of jubilant crescendo today. She's already been to Criswell's grave -- can your Year One top that?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Happy Birthday, Lurene Tuttle

One hundred years ago today in Pleasant Lake, Indiana, character actress Lurene Tuttle was born. Sadly, she didn't make it this far, having passed away in 1986 at the ripe old age of 80. Though she's one of those performers whom film buffs tend to recognize without knowing her name, Lurene claimed more than her fair share of big and small screen history in her half-century career.

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

Into the BLACK PIT OF DR. M

Carlos Ancira in BLACK PIT OF DR. M,
available from Casa Negra Entertainment.

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:

Carolina Barret as the escaped mental patient.

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

What Am I Reading?

Last night, while listening to Bill Evans cut loose with Scott La Faro and Paul Motian on one of their classic Riverside label recordings, I decided to open my copy of THE PENGUIN GUIDE TO JAZZ ON CD and read all the entries on Evans, and then several other entries chosen at random. As someone who loves jazz but hasn't ventured too far afield of the great pillars of the music (Satchmo, Duke, Basie, Miles, Coltrane, Monk, Ornette), I must say that having the knowledge and experience of tasteful and articulate jazz scholars like Richard Cook and Brian Morton at one's disposal is a priceless gift. This hefty book has never steered me wrong, and it has steered me toward some of my most fulfilling adventures in my life as a listener. Furthermore, it collects some of the best concise music criticism I've read in any genre; indeed, it's been a more useful model for my own critical writing, over the years, than any film criticism I've read.

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

Watch WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE

We watched both installments of Spike Lee's HBO documentary WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE: A REQUIEM IN FOUR ACTS last night. Predictably, given the man at the helm, it was a moving, righteously upsetting, heart-afire experience; in fact, I think HBO should be hosting a Free Preview when they re-run the two parts together on the evening of August 29 (8:00 to midnight), the first anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, if they're not planning to do so already. This is the kind of forthright public address that one feels should fall under some kind of Freedom of Information act, rather than being part of a subscription cable service, especially with House and Congressional elections looming in November.

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

Per Gance To Dream

Yvette Mimieux and Rod Taylor in George Pal's now uncomfortably prophetic THE TIME MACHINE (1960).

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

I'm So Bored With The Internet


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...