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.