Sunday, October 08, 2006

It Was One Year Ago Today...

... that I had the crazy idea to launch this blog. It was the 20th anniversary of "Video Watchdog" and its first appearance in VIDEO TIMES magazine, so it seemed a fitting way to commemorate the continuing evolution of the concept, from magazine column to magazine to blog. Also, once the pun of "Video WatchBlog" occurred to me, I couldn't not do it.

My amigo Steve Bissette (whose blog MYRANT is linked over yonder to the right) deserves all credit for pointing me in this direction. Steve wasn't the first blogger I had read, but much as he helped to make the world of publishing seem more within Donna's and my grasp with the example of his TABOO, the literary, information and entertainment values of MYRANT showed me most appealingly what was possible within the form. I was impressed by the amount of writing he managed to generate on an almost daily basis, but also daunted by it; Steve assured me that the words stacked up quickly and easily, and that the process had become a pleasurable part of his morning routine. 365 days later, I can't say that he steered me wrong; I find writing Video WatchBlog very pleasurable and, to be perfectly candid, I often get a bigger kick out of clicking on "Publish Post" than i get from seeing my own work in print these days. The immediacy is intoxicating. The average blog takes about an hour or two to generate, and I usually write it either before going to bed, or immediately upon waking -- even before my first cup of coffee. So muchos gracias to Steve for being this blog's North Star (though Donna would like to re-train me to make our morning coffee first).

Looking back at my initial blog posting, on this 21st anniversary of the first VW column, it seems that I have broken just about every promise I initially made about this blog and what I expected it would become. I said I wasn't going to offer complete reviews of DVDs here, and I have. (I broke that promise almost immediately; it seems I can't do anything half-way.) I said I was going to use this blog to post information about new DVD releases, and I mostly haven't; I think it's a cheat to post press releases, though I don't mind sharing information that I personally find of interest. Most preposterously, I said I wasn't going to write long entries, and boy, have I ever! I did predict that there would be a certain amount of self-disclosure involved, and for better or worse, I've kept that promise. Looking over all the blogs I've generated, with their miscellaneous reviews, reports, cris de coeur, 100th birthday tributes, poems, and Outer Limericks, I think they represent a fairly accurate (and appropriately erratic) chart of my strengths and weaknesses, my emotional ups and downs, replete with moments of joy, playfulness and wistfulness. You've seen my love and hate for the blogging process, my reactions to the unexpected deaths of heroes and friends, and some odd moments of clarity prompting half-kept resolutions to turn my disordered life around. Many of you have written to let me know that you appreciate/enjoy/sympathize with what I've been up to here, and I am grateful for the feedback and camaraderie.

So what has this blog accomplished in its first year of existence? You, my readers, would probably be better postioned to answer to that question, but I can share with you some interesting basic facts. In the past 365 days, Video WatchBlog has racked up a total of 297 posts (including this one), while the Bava Book Update blog can claim an additional 29. (I've also written a couple that were never posted, and had to rewrite from scratch a few that were obliterated by random Blogger malfunctions.) My goal, at least over the last few weeks, has been to top 300 posts at this blog alone, but even with daily (and sometimes multiple daily) posts these past two weeks, it just wasn't possible. Our total number of page visits is presently just under 345,000 hits, and monthly attendance reached its all-time-high of 33,000+ hits last March. (Why March, I have no idea; it wasn't the month of the Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon, nor a particularly outstanding month in terms of content.) Mondays and Wednesdays seem to be our busiest days, with visits declining as we approach the weekend and dropping off to slightly more than half our weekday attendance on weekends. That doesn't stop me from putting in my time, of course, as with yesterday's two big Jess Franco preview-reviews, which I believe were the first to appear online.

The most amazing statistic of all (to me) I've saved for last. A week or so ago, I spent a few hours copying all the text from this blog into a separate Word document. Blogger had been suffering some irregularities and shutdowns, and it occurred to me that none of the material I'd written for Video WatchBlog had been backed up; therefore, it was all too possible that I might sign on one day to find everything gone, without warning. I couldn't copy over the illustrations, which all remain logged in my computer anyway, but I did pour all the text. I've been adding each new posting to the document since, and after applying standard manuscript specs to the pages -- Bookman Old Style font, 12-point type, double spaced -- the collected Video WatchBlog to date amounts to 870 pages!

That's work I generated not in my spare time, but in my spare spare time -- when I wasn't working on VW, or the Bava book, or my novel-in-progress. I don't say this to be boastful (well, not entirely), but rather to point out what can be achieved in a single year with no more than an hour or two of not-even-daily effort. A fellow writer wrote me last week to seek my advice about how he might better organize time for book writing when job, marriage and fatherhood are claiming most of the hours in his day; I sent him these statistics as proof of what can be done if one writes for only an hour or less, and not even every day, over the course of a year. The important thing is to let the work stack up, to be disciplined. Had I worked only half so hard as I did on this blog the first year, I'd have 400+ pages -- still enough for a book.

The only problem with devoting time to this blog is that it doesn't generate any income, so there's no compensation (other than your friendly e-mails) for the time and industry I put into it, other than the pleasure I personally derive from it, which is considerable. It keeps the machinery well-tuned, enabling me to be more proficient at paying work. It has also filled the breach while VW has been publishing irregularly over the past year, which is a good thing, and it's allowed me to branch out and write about things that don't fall within the general scope of VW -- life, comics, people, music. When he read my eulogy for Gene Pitney, Joe Dante sent me a note telling me that I'd outdone myself, which was one of one of my prouder moments of this past year. Video WatchBlog was also instrumental in achieving some positive changes at Monsters HD and Turner Classic Movies, and to effect positive change is perhaps the best kind of reimbursement.

Some bloggers have Amazon.com Wish List (identified on one blog I've visited as "Buy Me Stuff") or PayPal links on their pages, but I don't want to go there. Suffice to say, if you read this blog regularly and are not already a VW subscriber, you can help to perpetuate both magazine and blog by subscribing or picking up some back issues. We make it very easy for you at our website, accepting credit cards and PayPal and offering a toll-free number. Mind you, since this blog began, we've seen the unfortunate end of PSYCHOTRONIC VIDEO, FILM SCORE MONTHLY, WRAPPED IN PLASTIC, OUTRÉ, CULT MOVIES, and SCARLET STREET. VIDEO WATCHDOG has no intention of throwing in the towel, and especially with new contributors like Ramsey Campbell aboard, we're feeling stronger than ever and are determined to continue as a unique and useful voice in the HD DVD era looming ahead.

Having witnessed the struggle sometimes involved with producing this blog, which I've never bothered to disguise, a couple of you have proposed that I might want to discontinue it after reaching this first anniversary, or once VIDEO WATCHDOG is able to resume its monthly schedule. I have considered both possibilities, but I prefer to keep the door open and use this blog as I will. Perhaps once VW goes monthly once again, this blog can begin to keep some of those silly promises I made back at the beginning, like being short and sketchy and infrequent.

Whatever Video WatchBlog becomes or continues to be, you should know by now that I'll be giving it all that I can.

René Cardona Sr. Centenary


Writer-director-producer-actor René Cardona Sr. (1906-1988) would have been 100 years old today. Though not exactly the father of Mexican horror cinema, he remains the best-known of the many south-of-the-border filmmakers specializing in fright and fantasy, renowned for such popular works as DOCTOR OF DOOM, THE CRYING WOMAN, THE WRESTLING WOMEN VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY, NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES, numerous Santo films, and, of course, the mind-boggling SANTA CLAUS.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

MACUMBA SEXUAL: Reign of Tara

Ajita Wilson as Tara, Princess of Darkness, in Jess Franco's MACUMBA SEXUAL.

MACUMBA SEXUAL
1981, Severin Films, DD-2.0/16:9/LB/ST/+, $29.95, 80m 12s, DVD-0

In the late 1970s, after making films abroad for decades, Jess Franco returned to his native Spain to rediscover his identity as a Spanish director in the newly-liberated cinema of his homeland. This erotic voodoo film filmed on Gran Canaria, the largest of the Canary Islands, is one of his best films from this period, an elegantly shot, thinly-disguised remake of his Soledad Miranda classic VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970), with American transexual star Ajita Wilson cast as the otherworldly temptress. Lina Romay, using the same "Candy Coster" and wearing the blonde wig that came with that second identity, plays Alice Brooks, a real estate worker whose vacation in Bahia Feliz with novelist husband ("Robert Foster" aka Antonio Mayans) is beset by sexual nightmares about an imperious black woman called Tara, flanked by two naked human "pets." Alice receives a call from her boss, asking her to meet with a prospective buyer named Princess Obango, who happens to be in her vicinity. A pair of servants escort Alice to the Princess' desert home by camel, and (not surprisingly) the prospective buyer turns out to be the woman of her dreams -- Tara, Princess of Darkness, a 300 year-old voodoo priestess in search of a young acolyte to die into, sexually, thereby possessing her for the next three centuries of her reign.

Rosa Maria Almirall as "Lina Romay" as "Candy Coster," playing "Alice Brooks," caught in a web of supernatural sexual anguish.

In "Voodoo Jess," the excellent 22-minute interview featurette accompanying this picture, Jess Franco likens the American transsexual star Ajita Wilson to Christopher Lee, saying that she wasn't that much of an actor, but was rather a singularly fantastic presence -- tall and compelling. Smirk if you will, but Franco's insight is actually well supported by the film at hand, which uses Wilson much in the way the Hammer Dracula series used Christopher Lee: shown standing by regally in a long cape (and, in Wilson's case, little else), presiding over dark supernatural rituals with lordly hand gestures, and arranging to be resurrected in a new body (much as occurred in TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, 1970). While it's true that the role of Tara gives Wilson few opportunities to act (Lee had the same complaint), "Candy Coster" throws herself into this febrile scenario with more passion and physicality than usual, her performance building to what may be the most affecting scream of Lina Romay's screen career. "Robert Foster" is also good as the husband who finds himself also drawn into Tara's web through the realm of his art (he experiences a SHINING moment of typing Tara's name till it covers a manuscript page from his novel), though it's not one of his best roles. Poppy and Tulip, the human beasts whom Tara leads about on leashes (recalling Barbara Steele's entrance in BLACK SUNDAY), are played by an actress credited as "Lorna Green" (the name of a recurring character name in Franco's filmography, beginning with Janine Reynaud's character in SUCCUBUS) and a man identified as José Ferro, who looks so much like Will Ferrell in one close-up that it all but defuses a scene's erotic tension. Franco himself, 51 at the time of filming, has the supporting role of Mémé, a moronic handyman who mirrors the simple-minded character Memmet, whom he portrayed in VAMPYROS LESBOS.

As the hotel's resident half-wit, Jess Franco warns Alice not to go to the castle in the desert.

Unlike the majority of goofy, half-condescending sex satires Franco was making during this period (TWO FEMALE SPIES WITH FLOWERED PANTIES, LAS CHICAS DE COPACABANA), MACUMBA SEXUAL is a serious production and a serious achievement. It benefits from a spaciousness of style that allows the actors to determine its dramatic content and enables the movie to breathe with sultriness and mystery. (1982's GEMIDOS DE PLACER would carry this method even further, consisting of only a dozen or so sustained takes.) Juan Soler's Eastmancolor/Techniscope photography is consistently lovely and evocative, sometimes employing star filters to lend hints of enchantment to the borders of a scene, with handsome location shots of beaches and junk-like ships setting sail. A preponderance of Senegalese art objects and fetish figures lend authenticity and flavor, and particularly memorable are shots of Alice struggling to cross dusky sand dunes that tease the eye with the possibility of morphing into the swells and hollows of Tara's own body.

Viewers should be cautioned that, unlike its Severin Films companion piece MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD, MACUMBA SEXUAL does cross the line into hardcore sexual content, to the same extent that 1973's FEMALE VAMPIRE did. However, the nature of the story is such that it could not have been so persuasively told, had it been coy about the role that our sexual organs and identities play in our lives. Of all Franco's erotic horror films, this one is perhaps closest to the feel of Joe Sarno's work, its overall tone recalling in particular the tribal, ritualistic, carnal call-and-answer of Sarno's vampire picture VEIL OF BLOOD (aka VAMPIRE ECSTASY, 1973). Indeed, it's our memory of Sarno's film, with its arousingly percussive score, that pointed out the inadequacy of MACUMBA SEXUAL's anemic and overly aerated synth score, which does nothing to communicate the power of Tara's effectively staged macumba rite or to resonate with any of the bizarre African nick-nacks adorning her desert lair.

Tara demonstrates to Alice's husband ("Robert Foster" aka Antonio Mayans) why he should not have come in answer to her siren's call.

Severin's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is exquisite, adding considerable lustre to a title heretofore known in this country only through dupey, unsubtitled, bootleg tapes. The aforementioned featurette "Voodoo Jess" interviews Franco and Lina Romay about the circumstances of production and their co-stars. While Franco expresses indifference about whether or not Wilson was transsexual, Romay (who got close enough to make a full study of her surgeon's handiwork) assures us that she was. Of the nearly 40 films Wilson made, MACUMBA SEXUAL is almost certainly the one that best understood her value as a screen presence and presented her as something more than a sex object -- a sex oracle, perhaps. This was her second (after 1980's SADOMANIA) and final collaboration with Franco; in a tragic coincidence, like VAMPYROS LESBOS star Soledad Miranda, Wilson died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident -- in 1987, in her mid-to-late 30s.

A quote on the box from Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill's book IMMORAL TALES describes MACUMBA SEXUAL as "Franco's last extended trip into delirium... One of the last glorious death throes of European sexploitation." These accolades may seem overstated, but the record tends to support them. The sex scream that ends this picture may well embody the incendiary finale to Franco's heartfelt pursuit of adult erotic fantasy; hereafter, his work became increasingly satiric, post-modernist, and cerebral, if not intellectual. As was signalled by the title of his 1981 sci-fi film LA SEXO ESTA LOCO ("Sex Is Crazy"), Franco seemed to lose interest in probing sexual subjects seriously. The delirium found here is palpably erotic, and well conveyed by this memorable line of dialogue: "The Princess? She doesn't exist... but your husband must be with her."

Severin Films will release MACUMBA SEXUAL on October 31. You can pre-order your copy here.

Strike, Tio Jess, and Cure Our Hearts


MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD
La Mansión de los Muertos Vivientes
1982, Severin Films, DD-2.0/16:9/ST/+, $29.95, 92m 47s, DVD-0

Widely misperceived as a rip-off or response to the "Blind Dead" films of Amando de Ossorio, MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD is actually Franco’s improvisation on ideas found in the stories of Andalusian writer Gustávo Adolfo Bécquer (1836-70), whose work also provided the basis of John Gilling’s little-seen LA CRUZ DEL DIABLO (1975) and was a possible source of inspiration for Ossorio. That said, Franco’s film also functions as a comment on the “Blind Dead” films, serving as both a brutal exposé of what is silliest about them, and a grudging genuflection to their perverse beauty.

Four giggly women, all topless waitresses from Munich ("It's 'in' right now"), arrive at a beach hotel described by their travel agent as "almost like Heaven on earth." Indeed it is, but in the most unsettling sense: there's no sign of life anywhere. A sinister hotel manager, Carlos ("Robert Foster" aka Antonio Mayans dyed blonde), assigns to the four ladies two rooms on opposite sides of the building, claiming that the hotel is too full to accomodate them any nearer to one another. The conveniently bisexual women wile away the hours till men arrive by having sex with each other, after which they begin to be individually lured to a nearby disused church by the beckoning sound of a dirge. Residing within the church they discover the undead members of the "Holy Court of the Cathar," accursed with ever-lasting life for their satanic practices, who punish these silly sinners by gang-raping them, while praying to their lord to "protect them from feeling any pleasure while carrying out this sinner's sentence." By the time Candy ("Candy Coster," a platinum blonde-wigged Lina Romay) finds her way to the church, Carlos -- secretly one of the ancient sect's brethren -- has recognized her as the reincarnation of Princess Irina, burned at the stake by the brethren ages before, whose loving forgiveness is the only possible salvation from him and the other devil worshippers.

Lina Romay played a Countess Irina in FEMALE VAMPIRE, of course, and that's one of many in-jokes in this schizophrenic film, which opens almost as a comic spoof of the teenage body-count movies popular at the time this film was made, then slowly grows more serious as it trundles along down dark corridors with an oversized bare bottom (literally). This is no place for viewers curious about that Franco fellow to start exploring, nor is this the sort of horror movie one could recommend to people looking for spooky Halloween viewing; there's no gore to speak of, and it's childish in the most adult terms. Though it's technically softcore, the nudity and erotic activity remain fairly explicit and would certainly be slapped with an NC-17 if rated today. But for those already familiar with the wanky laws governing the Franco universe, the film is a guilty pleasure on the basis of its experimentalism, and it manages an effective sequence or two, against all odds. The apocalyptically vacant hotel that is fully occupied according to the books is an eerie conceit, not to mention a potent metaphor for death, and the mise en scène of the empty hotel and its gleaming, empty corridors recalls Kubrick's THE SHINING (1980) as well as Willard Huyck's MESSIAH OF EVIL (1975).

Furthermore, in seeming response to a similar experiment performed by Dario Argento's TENEBRAE (1981), but actually dating back to VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970) in his own filmography, Franco dares stage nearly all of his horror sequences in direct, open sunlight, an inversion motif that is carried over to the bone-bleached color of the zombie monks' Templar-like robes. An intriguing subplot involving Eva Léon as Carlos' mad wife, chained to a bed in one of the hotel's empty rooms, owes something to THE SHINING's lady in Room 327 and is creepily well-played by Léon and Mayans. These and other compelling qualities, including the surprisingly romantic tone of the finale, are not quite full apology for the fact that much about the film is ridiculous (beginning with "based on the novel by David Khunne," and including dialogue like "Who would want to murder four hotties like us?"), yet for anyone with the imagination to laugh with this film, as well as at it, MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD might be a strange taste worth acquiring.


Severin Films has given the picture a beautiful, strikingly glassy 2.35:1 presentation (anamorphic) that will draw your eye to small bruises and sores in the clefts of bodies you might not normally examine. A few interior shots look considerably grainier than the exquisitely crisp and colorful balance of the movie, and are clearly the result of shooting in near-darkness with a light-sensitive stock. (The hotel location was obviously off-season, and the film appears to have been almost entirely sun-lit.) The 2.0 mono track is in Spanish only (with optional English subtitles) and very fine, bringing out the best in Pablo Villa's spare score and, for those who know their voices, making it easier to identify secondary characters who were dubbed in post by Jess and Lina. The only extra, a nice one, is a 19-minute visit with Jess and Lina called "The Mansion Jess Built," in which Franco discusses the film's origins in the short stories of Bécquer; his opinions of George Romero, Amando de Ossorio, and zombie movies in general; finally admits for the record that David Khunne's AWFUL DR. ORLOF novel never existed; and explains (as does Lina) the stories behind some of his many pseudonyms. Two of them -- Frank Hollmann and Dave Tough -- show up in the short's end credits as co-editor and music composer, respectively.

MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD has a street date of October 31, at which time Severin Films will also release Franco's rather more serious erotic voodoo film MACUMBA SEXUAL, starring Ajita Wilson.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Cardboard Sets

Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston) stands guard over Mina (Helen Chandler) in Tod Browning's DRACULA. Pay no attention to that huge chunk of trash blocking our view of the lamp.

Occasionally there is a great thread over at the Classic Horror Films Board that presents, in a nutty nutshell, what it's all about. Right now there's an impassioned new discussion, excited by Universal's new 75th Anniversary triple-dip of 1931's DRACULA, about a chunk of roughly torn cardboard that's visible in the movie and also in the production still pictured above.

The new reissue disc features two audio commentaries, one by HOLLYWOOD GOTHIC author David J. Skal (included on the previous issues) and another by DRACULA - DEAD AND LOVING IT screenwriter Steve Haberman. Mr. Skal believes the cardboard was obviously an accident, an oversight, a production gaffe never meant to be included in the picture; meanwhile, Mr. Haberman insists that it was just as obviously an intentional set prop and has some very harsh words to offer anyone who would seriously propose otherwise.

In a single day, the CHFB has racked up an impressive four pages of illustrated debate and discussion, with board moderators David Colton (Taraco) and Kerry Gammill (Count Gamula) getting into the act with film scholars Tom Weaver and Gary L. Prange, filmmaker Ted Newsom, and more pseudonymous cyber-phantoms than you could find in the Paris Opera House. Everything from frame grabs to shooting script notations have been dragged into the melée, and a lot of minds have been changed. As I was reading through it, I had my own response ready to roll out, but by the time I reached the last page, anything I might have contributed would've seemed redundant... so I thought I decided to post this blog instead.

My own response: I have to agree with Mr. Haberman's view, though, like many of the CHFB posters, I feel he should have phrased his information less offensively -- especially since he's referring to someone who's done as much on behalf of DRACULA history as David Skal. We probably wouldn't have the Spanish DRACULA on video today without his trail-blazing research, which located the only extant print at a Cuban cinemateca... and that would have been a terrible thing to miss, regardless of Mr. Haberman's dislike of this alternate version. The DRACULA shooting script refers to a device used to dim the light in Mina's room, and this slab of junk is plainly it; of course, they could have found something more attractive to do the job, like a neatly scissored piece of cardboard, but I imagine time was in short supply and the crew had to make do with what they had. (As Lupita Tovar boasts in the UNIVERSAL HORROR documentary, the Spanish version of DRACULA, which was shot at night on the same sets, finished filming earlier than the Browning version, which must have come as a profound embarrassment to Browning and crew, considering the Spanish version's lengthier running time and more mobile use of camera.)

It's possible too that this whole issue is a funny souvenir of a lighting problem. The filmmakers may have intended to do what most people do when they want to dim a lamp: drop a scarf over it. For some reason, that didn't work -- maybe the scarf or cloth caught fire, began to smell, or became a compositional distraction -- and another solution was needed on very short notice. Perhaps the cinematographer needed a dimmer that could sculpt the light cast on the side of Miss Chandler's face rather than diffuse or interfere with it, as the card does function here as a sort of "barn door." Maybe it was Tod Browning's way of flashing a finger at a production executive who was telling him to hurry up. We'll never know. Clearly, the cardboard shield was a solution but hardly an elegant one; it overwhelms the problem. And just as clearly, while it's possible that a piece of cardboard like this could go unnoticed in a single shot, like any other continuity error, it is much harder to explain as an accident when such an eyesore occupies such pride of place in a production still.

A scene from another picture comes to mind with that cardboard. I forget the film's title, but I remember the dialogue:

"I've never seen that before!"
"Now you always will."

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Perry Mason? Allow Me To Refresh Your Memory

Raymond Burr is Perry Mason, and you'd better believe it.

PERRY MASON
SEASON 1, VOLUME 1
1957, CBS DVD/Paramount, $49.99, 960 minutes, DVD-1

"Raymond Burr is PERRY MASON," says the front of this five-disc box set, and after watching the first 19 episodes of the long-running CBS teleseries, it's unlikely anyone will argue the point. Other actors have tried -- Warren William, Ricardo Cortez, even Monte Markham -- but Burr owns Mason in a way few other actors have taken possession of a part. In today's information age, we can now see that any number of Mason's investigational tactics, and even some of his courtroom ploys, are beyond the pale of acceptable behavior for an attorney, but the massive Burr (who was a mere 39 years old when filming began) brings tremendous authority to his performances, as well as intellect and an occasional, impish twinkle.

PERRY MASON debuted on September 27, 1957 and ran until May 22, 1966, an unprecedented run for an hour-long evening drama; it has never been off the air since. Nevertheless, as time has gone on, roughly 6-10 minutes of each episode has tended to be cut in order to provide more commercial time slots for the stations hosting it. The broadcasts on SuperStation WTBS in the 1980s and '90s were notoriously incomplete, but even as long ago as the mid-1970s, I can remember watching PERRY MASON on a local station and seeing in the end credits frequent references to "Gertie" (Mason's receptionist, played by Connie Cezan) and also "Autopsy Surgeon" (a role usually essayed by Michael Fox) -- neither of whom ever appeared in a single show, as locally broadcast. That's thirty years ago; thus, one of the greatest pleasures of acquiring the series on DVD -- especially for those of us who have supported the show with our audience over the last nearly 50 years -- is the now-privileged opportunity to see and judge the episodes once again in their complete state.

Mason at the scene of a crime, handling evidence with a hankie.

For those who don't know the basic set-up, Perry Mason is a high-profile Los Angeles attorney specializing in murder cases, who is assisted in his work by private detective Paul Drake (TWENTY MILLION MILES TO EARTH's William Hopper) and secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale). Mason's uncanny winning streak and knack for making his legal opponents look unprepared at best, and downright stupid at worst, has won him the resentment of district attorney Hamilton Burger (William Talman), while his tendency to use his thorough knowledge of the law to bend it without breaking it keeps police Lieutenant Tragg (Ray Collins) ever lying in wait to pounce in the event of a slip-up.

PERRY MASON was filmed during the heyday of B-sci-fi and horror movies, and the supporting guest casts of these first 19 episodes include such familiar faces as Robert Cornthwaite, Whit Bissell, Brett Halsey, William Schallert, Greta Thyssen, Morris Ankrum (as a judge!), Joan Weldon, Barbara Eden, Olive Sturgess, and even Minerva Urecal. It's a treat to see them plying their trade in a different genre. One of the episodes, "The Case of the Fan Dancer's Horse," is notable for featuring one of the very few screen appearances of the wonderful Judy Tyler, who was killed in an automobile accident at the age of 23, only three days after completing her role opposite Elvis Presley in JAILHOUSE ROCK. The directors include Christian Nyby (THE THING), Ted Post (MAGNUM FORCE), and Laszlo Benedek (THE WILD ONE).

Mason meets Minerva Urecal in "The Case of the Fan Dancer's Horse."

The debut episode, "The Case of the Restless Redhead," has a grabby opening that Sam Fuller might have envied: a woman driving alone on a dark and winding road is suddenly pursued by another car, driven by a scary figure with a pillowcase hood over his head, who fires a gun at her. The episode, directed by William D. Russell, is more sensationalistic than the later ones, and Mason's character is still a pair of new shoes for Burr, who ventures the sort of sexist comments that were de riguer in pulp fiction but essentially beneath his vision of the character. One or two of the episodes included herein seem to dabble with portraying Mason as a sort of 20th century Sherlock Holmes, pronouncing deductions on the basis of minute detritus left at the scenes of crimes, but this too disappears. Another episode flirts conspicuously with the possibility of Mason being a frequent hat-wearer. What we see in the later episodes is the deliberate arrival at a standard of quality that would serve the show well, an essential ingredient of which was a certain mystery about Mason himself. For all the audience identification he engenders, we actually learn very little about Mason as a human being, and it comes as something of an unsettling surprise on those rare occasions when we see him relaxing at home or awakened in bed by a telephone call.

As entertaining and involving as these episodes are, I find that watching one episode somehow erases the memory of the previous ones, so that, over time, the shows one has already seen can become fresh discoveries again; that's not to say that the episodes themselves are forgettable, but that, regardless of how many times we see them, they remain pleasingly repeatable. Also, each individual episode offers a lot of details to focus on; as I went through this set, I found it a particular treat to admire Barbara Hale's consummate skill in participating in the background of scenes without distracting from the foreground or occupying her own space needlessly. In these episodes, we are also witness to a certain amount of non-romantic intimacy between Perry and Della that helps us to understand how the mystery of their relationship also helped to bait audiences. These episodes also show the program's creators and writers already responding positively to the danger of making defense attorneys look too attractive to the viewing public at the expense of district attorneys, with Burger and Tragg depicted in vignettes of later shows as sharing a meal with Team Mason or paying a friendly afterhours visit to his office, and everyone portrayed as equally interested in seeing justice prevail. The haste with which these episodes were filmed shows up only in one episode -- I think it's "The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink" -- when an actor actually bumps into the camera while exiting frame; the fact that they kept the take rather than reshoot it shows that time was of the essence, probably far more often than is indicated onscreen.

Ray Collins as Lt. Arthur Tragg -- feisty flatfoot, Wonder Bread buyer.

The episodes are presented in their original broadcast order on five discs contained in three booklets in an attractive slipcase. They sport generally excellent audio/visual quality, looking much sharper than any episode you'll see on broadcast television, and retaining the original end credit windows for sponsor products like Sweet Heart soap and Dutch Cleanser. There is infrequent speckling, always preferable to excessive digital noise reduction, and more noticeable damage is briefly evident in "The Case of the Sulky Girl" in a moment where Perry and Paul, exiting a courtroom, light up some cigs. The episodes gain a good deal from being available in their complete form; some contain filler, but it usually functions in the service of character, adds a subtle element of humor, or helps to plant or support clues that are essential to the court cases. Unfortunately, the set is lacking in, shall we say, DVD "pyrotechnics" -- Barbara Hale is still around, as is director Ted Post, and it would be nice to have some series alumni contribute an audio commentary or two to forthcoming volumes. PERRY MASON - SEASON 1, VOLUME 2 (another no-friller) has been announced for a November release.

There have been a lot of courtroom dramas in the wake of PERRY MASON, but it's the one that continues to impress. To use a somewhat unclassy word, it's still classy after all these years.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Mad About Ladislas

The amazing animated films of Ladislas Starewitch (also sometimes spelled Starevich, Starewich, or Starewicz, perhaps other ways too) are among my favorite later-life discoveries. Like many Americans of my generation, I was first exposed to his work by the late-lamented USA Network program NIGHT FLIGHT, which frequently showed longer or shorter excerpts from his charming yet macabre masterpiece "The Mascot" (1933), which somehow became known among those of us who saw this unlabelled fragment as "The Devil's Ball."

I'm not certain how my subsequent education in Starewitch unfolded, but it was probably through the legitimate VHS, laserdisc, and DVD releases, such as THE CAMERAMAN'S REVENGE AND OTHER FANTASTIC TALES. Adding a delicious layer of complexity to his legacy was the chance inclusion of his short live action film "The Portrait" (1914) as a bonus on the Ruscico DVD of Aleksandr Ptushko's THE VIY, a silent work that laid the groundwork for the great frisson of THE RING and remains a goosebumper in its own right. I'm always eager to see and learn more about this amazing pioneer of the fantastic cinema.

Last week, I discovered by chance that a number of Starewitch compilations had been issued on DVD in France (with English subtitles!), so I popped over to Amazon.fr to see what was available. Unfortunately, most of these releases now appear to be out of print... but I did discover, to my surprise, that a book about Starewitch's work had been published in France in September 2003 and remains available. I promptly ordered a copy of LADISLAS STAREWITCH (1882-1965) by Léona Béatrice and François Martin (pictured), and it arrived here in no time. It's a nice, thick paperback -- written in French, of course -- but it appears to be extremely well researched, and it contains a complete filmography and other lists of great value to scholars, regardless of how well they speak or read the language. One of the appendices compares different versions of the short animated film "The Cameraman's Revenge," and includes some intertitles in English. The only drawback is that this book about a supremely visual artist contains no photographs.

Evidently unavailable at present are the DVD releases of Starewitch's LE MONDE MAGIQUE, and LE ROMAN DE RENARD (TALE OF THE FOX, a feature), which are still pictured at Amazon.fr. I've also noticed DVD-Rs of three other titles -- TALE OF THE FOX, LADISLAS STAREWICZ FANTASIES and THE MAGIC WORLD OF LADISLAS STAREWICZ, all with English subtitles -- which an eBay seller is presently auctioning. It occured to me, in my desperation, that some of this blog's readers may have copies of these discs they wouldn't mind making available to me at a friendlier rate than the $25 per DVD-R that this fellow has set. If you do, I'm very interested; please write me via the Contact link found at the top of the right-side column.

In my searches, I found this fascinating Starewitch website, which includes some actual animation samples. Worth visiting.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

RIP: Renato Polselli & Armando Govoni

Walter Brandi has María Luisa Rolando well in hand in THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA.
Yesterday, a thread on the Anchor Bay UK discussion boards reported the passing of Italian horror and sexploitation director Renato Polselli at the age of 84. Born in Arce, Italy in 1922, Polselli died of natural causes on October 1 -- only two weeks after the death of actor Mickey Hargitay, who starred in some of his best-known films.

Polselli directed his first feature, L'ULTIMO PERDONO, in 1952; it was the first of four proto-giallo thrillers that preceded his first international success, L'AMANTE DEL VAMPIRO (1960), released in America as THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA. A significant title in the history of Italian horror cinema, L'AMANTE DEL VAMPIRO (scripted by the great Ernesto Gastaldi) was the first Italian horror film to be green-lighted after the surprise boxoffice success of DRACULA IL VAMPIRO, the Italian dub of Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA. While not a film of the caliber of Mario Bava's LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO [aka BLACK SUNDAY], which went into production three months later, it was the first Italian horror film to turn a profit.

As legend has it, Polselli wanted to follow up L'AMANTE DEL VAMPIRO with another Gastaldi horror script, IL VAMPIRO DELL'OPERA, but the picture ran out of funding while shortly into production and was shelved. Polselli filled his time by moving on to a series of dramas -- including the Gastaldi-scripted ULTIMATUM ALLA VITA (1962) -- notable for the recurring presence of actor Antonio de Teffé, soon to adopt the nom d'ecran "Anthony Steffen." By 1963, Polselli's horror film had made its inroads around the world, and he found himself with the funding to continue his shelved project, which became the ill-fated IL MOSTRO DELL'OPERA (1964). Despite a promotional pictorial article that appeared in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, preparing its fanbase for the release of a picture called "THE VAMPIRE OF THE OPERA," no such picture ever materialized stateside, and the film managed no outside continental sales until it was acquired by a French distributor in 1969. IL MOSTRO DELL'OPERA circulates as a bootleg videotape taken from two different RAI-TV broadcasts, and it's worth seeing for its vintage B&W atmosphere, a surprisingly early lesbian subplot, and the early casting of one of my favorite character actresses: the delightfully quirky Milena Vukotic (BLOOD FOR DRACULA, HOUSE OF THE YELLOW CARPET, and Luís Buñuel's last three films).
Ernesto Gastaldi tells Video WatchBlog: "How weird is it that I have to learn that Polselli died from... Cincinnati!? The last time I met Polselli was 15 years ago. We met by chance. We talked for half an hour remembering the old happy times: L'AMANTE DEL VAMPIRO had a very funny troupe and a lot of problems that created hundreds of incredible gags." Some of these anecdotes are told in Ernesto's 1991 book VOGLIO ENTRARE NEL CINEMA, which he recently reprinted through Lulu.com under its original title, COME ENTRARE NEL CINEMA E RESTARCI FINO ALLA FINE (which means "How To Break Into the Movies and Stay There Till the End"). In Italian only, unfortunately.

After three more films -- including an obligatory Spaghetti Western called LO SCERIFFO CHE NON SPARA (aka THE SHERIFF WON'T SHOOT, 1965), which marked his first collaboration with former Mr. Universe, Mickey Hargitay -- Polselli disappeared from the scene, only returning in 1970 as the screenwriter of two erotic films made by other directors. One of these features, Alessandro Santini's QUESTA LIBERTA DI AVERE... LE ALI BAGNATE (1972), introduced Polselli to the actress who would become the centerpiece of his work for the remainder of the decade: the ravishing Rita Calderoni. With 1972's LA VERITA SECONDO SATANA, Calderoni and Polselli (adopting the disguise "Ralph Brown") embarked on a lengthy phase of feverish, hallucinatory sex-horror films, fraught with druggy scenes of rape, sadism, and Satanic sacrifice. It was followed by the two Hargitay films, both available on DVD: DELIRIO CALDO (aka DELIRIUM, 1972) and RITI, MAGIE NERE E SEGRETE ORGE NEL TRECENTO (aka THE REINCARNATION OF ISABEL, 1973). These films, much moreso than Polselli's early work, have become the keys to his cult legend; the second, in particular, will give anyone pause to wonder if someone has spiked their drink. If you haven't seen these, you have quite the decadent treat in store.

Image Entertainment, who released these two films on VHS, laserdisc, and later DVD, also announced their intention to release Polselli's RIVELAZIONI DI UNO PSICHIATRA SUL MONDO PERVERSO DEL SESSO ("Revelations of a Psychiatrist in the World of Perverse Sex," 1973), but cancelled the release after discovering the mondo-style film's hardcore content. Polselli's next film, QUANDO L'AMORE E OSCENITA' (1974), continued in this vein and was banned in Italy until 1980, when it was issued as OSCENITA' ("Obscenity"). According to the Anchor Bay UK discussion thread, a book about Polselli's career is in the works, and we look forward to reading its Revelations about the Perverse World of Filmmaking.
Ernesto Gastaldi, in turn, has informed me of the death of Italian production manager Armando Govoni at the age of 79, on September 17. Armando had a far more accomplished career than his few credits on the IMDb make known. When I interviewed him for the Bava book, he told me that Bava's SEI DONNE PER L'ASSASSINO [aka BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, 1964] was his first film as a full-fledged production manager, and though it was his final job with Bava, many other such credits followed. As the IMDb page shows, Armando was present for the filming of much of Bava's early work, including LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO and my chapters on those films owe a lot to his diary keeping, which kept strict account of production dates. I deeply regret that he won't be here to see the finished book, which would be much poorer without his unique contribution of data and insights.
Armando also played an important role in the life of Ernesto Gastaldi: "He was one of my best friends. I met him in 1955 at Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, then I shared an apartment with him for two years before my marriage. We worked together many times and we had the same passion for sailing." It was through an invitation from Armando that Ernesto was able to visit the set of LA BATTAGLIA DI MARATONA [aka THE GIANT OF MARATHON, 1959], where he first met Mario Bava and watched him transform a field occupied by perhaps 30 extras into a teeming battlefield of hundreds, via careful multiple exposures.
With the passing of these two men, those of us who adore the Italian cinema mourn not only them but the loss of everything they knew, but were never asked, about their careers, their colleagues, and their craft.
PS: A new update was added to the Bava Book blog earlier today.

The Dozen Year Itch

Fans of documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee's work are sure to remember the astonishing moment in BRIGHT LEAVES when he pays a visit to never-met cousin John McElwee, who turns out to be even more film-obsessed than himself. Particularly interesting is the moment when John produces his file on stills and memorabilia on Edgar G. Ulmer's THE BLACK CAT and produces a hand-written reply from actress Jacqueline Wells (aka Julie Bishop) to a fan letter he wrote to her twelve years earlier. In this recent entry on his essential blog Greenbriar Picture Shows, John pays tribute to Jacqueline/Julie by selecting her as his weekly Monday glamour girl, and takes the opportunity to reproduce her entire letter in full. Fascinating stuff.

It's been a particularly great run on GPS of late, so you might just as well go here and read from the top down, to see and learn more about THE RETURN OF CHANDU, THE MYSTERIOUS FU MANCHU and lots of other fun things.

Feedback on DEXTER

In response to yesterday's DEXTER blog comes this interesting letter from a friendly correspondent, who works in the film business and wishes to remain anonymous:

I have no interest in the show DEXTER, but your description of it immediately made me think of a wildly common thread in scripts that get greenlighted and fail because the subtext is aimed at people in the movie business, not a general audience. People in Hollywood love to think of themselves as utterly ruthless and amoral, yet also brilliant and unconventional, their genius allowing them to suspend all need for common decency.

Thus, suits are always pushing ugly projects about people gleefully screwing each other over, while audiences are simply repelled by such stuff, because the average person takes it for granted that you have to develop some degree of empathy and cooperation with those around you if you're going to survive in the real world. Power fantasies and meglomania simply don't push you ahead when you're working in an office or on an assembly line. (They don't do much for you in Hollywood either, except that the jerks at the top love to feel that's what got them ahead, instead of the toadying and deference to established power that actually opened doors for them when they started out.)

That might help [you to] focus what sounds like an otherwise unfathomable premise, apparently aimed at status-driven people who lack any ability to deal with others from a position of parity.

-- Name Withheld by Request
Los Angeles, CA

Monday, October 02, 2006

Miami Lice

Michael C. Hall on the prowl for cold cuts in Showtime's DEXTER.

I'm not a fan of any of the epidemic forensic murder investigation shows, or our recent spate of torture-driven horror movies, so it's probably not too surprising that I didn't care much for Showtime's debut episode of DEXTER.

What intrigues me about the show are its sociologic implications. It posits a serial killer, a Miami PD forensics expert played by Michael C. Hall, in the heroic position while the police are depicted as either inept or corrupt. The first episode rationalizes Dexter's murderous impulses by giving him the equivalent of a superhero origin story, complete with roseate flashbacks to his boyhood, when his understanding cop father urged him to use his "talent" for killing stray animals for good, reminding him that most murder cases go unsolved -- hence, unpunished. Our "hero"'s initial adversary is a super-artistic killer whose acts of destruction are made to look downright creative. ("This guy is good," Dexter wows to himself, further confusing audience concepts of what is right and wrong.) And since Dexter is asexual and keeping company with a traumatized rape victim (Julie Benz), the concept of friendly, humanizing copulation is as mutually unacceptable to them as it would be to members of the Moral Majority. Besides, healthy sex and intimacy would only serve to distract viewers from the emotionally remote ways in which the show details the art of lowering one's carnage visor and inflicting a painfully slow and conscious death.

I wasn't so offended by anything in DEXTER that I wanted to turn it off, but given its implications rather than its gore, I found it kind of sick. I also fear its potential to inspire the wrong sort of people, not to mention subliminally reinforcing of our government's current pro-torture stance. I think, over time, worst case scenario, it could help people to become more accepting of the idea of inflicting pain and defying our laws for the "correct moral reasons," and make them more accepting of the idea that the monster can also be the hero. Perhaps the show is deliberately tapping into this zeitgeist, to present people with the horror of what we have become as a nation, but that doesn't make it easier to swallow, or any the less defiling.

I thought Michael C. Hall was fantastic on SIX FEET UNDER but, performance-wise, I have to wonder what he thought he was doing here with his eyes; he often has a deer-in-the-headlights-on-poppers expression, so extreme I worried that he might burst out of his own face if he stared and grinned at his co-stars with heartier enthusiasm. His voice-over narration, à la AMERICAN PSYCHO, is a bad idea that works against one's involvement with his performance while telegraphing its every turning point; is this show so subtle that it needs idiot cards, or is that the audience it hopes to attract? One hopes this supremely unsubtle technique will be discarded, like those funeral home accessory commercials that flanked the first episodes of SIX FEET UNDER.

I'll probably watch at least the next episode or so of DEXTER out of Sunday night inertia, but I was disappointed by this nasty, flower-shirted parade of anomie -- and especially so when I found out, later in the evening, the apparently stale news that Showtime has not renewed HUFF for a third season. Poor ratings aside, HUFF was an extremely well-acted, well-written, and challenging show that managed to be thoughtful, sensitive, and riotously transgressive at the same time.

After the debut, Showtime ran a series of promos for DEXTER accompanied by some of the most enthusiastic press blurbs I've seen in ages. I don't get it, but all this playing-up is another reason to be wary of the media. Yet there's too much talent invested in this show for me to give up after a single episode; I'm kind of curious to see where DEXTER thinks it's going, and a bit worried about it, too.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Essential Sunday Reading

Happy October, everyone! And a happy one it is, here at Chez Watchdog.

Harvey Chartrand has written to inform me of something wonderful in RUE MORGUE #61, their 9th Anniversary Halloween Issue. Evidently one of the articles is "The Connoisseur's Guide to 50 Alternative Horror Books," which includes my out-of-print novel THROAT SPROCKETS (1994) in a selection of 50 essential horror novels, dating back to Matthew G. Lewis' THE MONK (1796)!

The same issue also contains a feature article career retrospective of the great Ramsey Campbell, now one of the regular stars in the VIDEO WATCHDOG firmament. And I should also mention that I was pleased to find a very enthusiastic review to Rebecca & Sam Umland's DONALD CAMMELL - A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE in RUE MORGUE's previous issue. RUE MORGUE #61 is on newsstands now, or order/subscribe here.

Also in newsstand news, my review of ERIC ROHMER - SIX MORAL TALES is now available in the October 2006 issue of SIGHT & SOUND. My review is also available for your pleasure in its entirety on the S&S website. For an overview of the issue, ordering/subscription information, and a link to my review (scroll down a bit to "DVD Review"), click here.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Sam Sherman on Andy and Ivan

Before I go and forget the details, which I hastily scribbled down, I should make note of a surprise phone call I received a couple of days ago from Independent-International mogul, Samuel M. Sherman.

Sam is a longtime friend of VIDEO WATCHDOG, and an even-longer hero of mine, not only for importing LA MARCA DEL HOMBRE LOBO (as FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR) and a number of the West German Edgar Wallace krimis, but also for his early editorship of SCREEN THRILLS ILLUSTRATED (in retrospect, the most reliable and well-written of all Warren film publications) and for his inimitable talents as a designer of exploitation film campaigns. It was Sam who created all the best-loved, blood-drooling Hemisphere Pictures trailers and ad campaigns; it was he who hired Brother Theodore to narrate the trailers for THE MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND and HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS; and I had also heard that Sam was responsible for some of the campaigns for Andy Milligan's movies. For my money, Sam was the King of Lurid Advertising.

Out of curiosity, I asked Sam if he had been responsible for the classic campaigns for Milligan's BLOODTHIRSTY BUTCHERS, TORTURE DUNGEON, and THE RATS ARE COMING! THE WEREWOLVES ARE HERE! -- but he said No; neither did he have anything to do with another William Mishkin release I'd heard he'd done, THE ORGY AT LIL'S PLACE. But my question prompted some very interesting information about the role Sam had played in Andy Milligan's early career. The following quote I have reconstructed from what I jotted down as Sam was reminiscing. All news to me, and I don't believe any of this was covered in Jimmy McDonough's book THE GHASTLY ONE, either:

Sam Sherman: "I first became aware of Andy Milligan when I was doing ad campaigns. My partner Bob Price and I did some work at that time for a distributor named Jerry Balsam, and one day, Jerry showed us a film called SIN SISTERS, 2000 A.D. It was a terrible, amateurish picture and I didn't think much better of the title. It was later retitled THE DEGENERATES, at my suggestion. After we saw it, we came up with a campaign built around this new title, which I believe was fairly successful. Somewhere around here, I have a book about the days of 42nd Street exploitation -- I don't remember the title -- but the picture on the cover of the book is a shot of a 42nd Street theater marquee with the title THE DEGENERATES on it. That was considered quite a strong title in those days; "DEGENERATES" was one of the words that some newspapers wouldn't print, so you'd have to call the theater to find out the title.

"Later on, Andy Milligan bought this big house on Staten Island and started making pictures there. He also started shooting in color. The first picture he made there was a color film, a kind of Victorian story with a lot of sex in it. Jerry Balsam acquired it too, and he screened it for us. It had some thriller elements, but they didn't sit very well in the picture he had made. I suggested to Jerry and Andy that, if they really wanted a successful picture, they should go back and do some reshoots -- he still had the house, because he lived in it, and the cast were working cheaply if they were paid at all. I told them I thought they should rework it to be more of a horror picture. The film had this hunchback minion character [Hal Borske] who I thought should be played up a bit more, and it had too much sex in it, as it was. So Andy got the cast back together and shot some additional horror sequences with gore and what-not, cutting out a lot -- if not all -- of the sex and nudity. So, in a sense, I'm the person responsible for suggesting to Andy Milligan that he make horror pictures. That movie became THE GHASTLY ONES, which is also a title I suggested, because 'Ghastly' was a word that hadn't previously been used in the title of a horror movie; I thought it would be effective. I later used it again in the title for Al Adamson's BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR. The ad campaign for THE GHASTLY ONES was also one of mine; I did that with Bob Price."

When I told Sam that THE DEGENERATES is now considered a lost film, he sounded surprised. "I know that Milligan's early Mishkin films are considered lost, but THE DEGENERATES was a Jerry Balsam picture, so there's no reason why it should be. Jerry's passed away, and he wasn't one for copyrighting his prints, so if they could be found, there wouldn't be anything to stop someone from just putting them out. You say it's a lost film; I don't know that it is, but if it is, I'd have to say it's just as well. Of course, horror fans are often completists and want to see as much as they can, and I understand this -- but it really was a terrible picture, very badly made."

The reason Sam called me in the first place was because he had discovered a discussion folder I had created on the Latarnia International boards, called "The Mystery of Ivan Reiner," which can be found here. Reiner was the writer-producer behind the Gamma I films made by Antonio Margheriti and the Gamma III film THE GREEN SLIME, directed by Kinji Fukasaku; he was, as far as I can tell, their only common denominator, and so much more the "Gamma" man than Margheriti or anyone else. When I posted my original message, I was commemorating the 40th anniversary of his death, according to the IMDb... but, as Sam pointed out, those dates didn't jibe because it would have meant he was dead before THE GREEN SLIME was made! The thread petered out after only two replies, and there was even speculation that "Ivan Reiner" might be a pseudonym for the prolific Ennio Di Concini. Not so, says Sam Sherman.

"I knew Ivan," Sam told me, "and I can tell you a little about him. He was, in fact, a New Yorker who lived in New York City and was originally the program director for WOR-TV, Channel 9, in Secaucus, New Jersey. He later worked with a film distributor by the name of Walter Manley, who had film distribution deals with companies all around the world, including the United States, Italy, and Japan. When I read your posting, I went to the IMDb -- which I often find runs riot with misinformation, though it is getting better. It said that Ivan had died back in the 1960s, which I knew wasn't true, so I went and looked up his name via the Social Security death records and found that he passed away sometime in September 1997. It also gave the date of his birth as 1911. I submitted this information to the IMDb and I hope it appears there, sooner or later."

I just checked Ivan Reiner's IMDb page and the correct information is indeed now posted there. My thanks to Sam for calling -- the mind boggles at the kinds of things he must know, but hasn't been asked about!

Friday, September 29, 2006

My Movie Meme

Henry Fonda has his way with Claudia Cardinale in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.

A MOVIE THAT CHANGED MY LIFE: Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST was the Big One. I've told this story before, but I went to my local theater one Saturday when I was 12 to see the latest Elvis Presley movie, CHARRO!. OUATITW was the co-feature. I must have got there late or something, so I decided to come back the next day (Sunday) to enjoy it from the beginning. When I got there, I discovered that the theater had reversed the showtimes, so I had to see OUATITW anyway; an idea that didn't exactly thrill me because I didn't care for Westerns. To make a long and already told story short, I became enthralled by the movie to the extent that I felt branded by it. It put hair on my chest. And when the movie ended, I could suddenly see how ephemeral the Presley co-feature couldn't help but be, and I made what I count as the first adult decision of my life: I got up and went home. To this day, I have never seen CHARRO!.

A MOVIE I'VE SEEN MORE THAN ONCE: Tons of them, including many I don't particularly care for. Much moreso than the maxim "reading is re-reading," I find that watching movies is re-watching movies. Among the movies I believe I've seen more often than any others: ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, WOODSTOCK, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, WOMEN IN LOVE, TOMMY, WITCHFINDER GENERAL, THE ASTOUNDING SHE MONSTER, THAT THING YOU DO! (which I feel is a nearly perfect movie), the Bava films of course, and a goodly number of the classic Universal horror films. We're talking as many as 20 times in some cases. Looking over that list in printed form, I have to say that -- with a few exceptions I can still understand -- I could have picked better movies to obsess over! Very often when a movie affects me deeply, I deliberately keep my distance from it, prefering to cherish the memory rather than wear it out. Four of the titles I chose for my SIGHT & SOUND TOP 10 in 2002 I have seen only once.

A MOVIE I WOULD TAKE WITH ME IF I WERE STUCK ON A DESERT ISLAND: I think Charlton Heston in THE OMEGA MAN had the right idea with WOODSTOCK. It's got drama, humor, idealism, a huge cross-section of humanity, and great music. It's not just a movie; it's company.

A MOVIE THAT MADE ME LAUGH: I have a perverse sense of humor and things like W. C. Fields' THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER and the "Black Cat" episode of Roger Corman's TALES OF TERROR resonate especially well with my funny bobne. Feature-wise, however, three stand out: Preston Sturges' UNFAITHFULLY YOURS, Bruce Robinson's WITHNAIL & I, and Richard Kwietniowski's LOVE AND DEATH ON LONG ISLAND. All three have an aggressively literary bent in their dialogue, so that all three would have been just as funny on the printed page; none of them is particularly cinematic, but all three feature great performances.


Fritz Lang discusses the day's rushes with producer Jack Palance in CONTEMPT.

A MOVIE THAT MADE ME CRY: Strangely enough, Jean-Luc Godard's CONTEMPT. There is an exterior moment after the episode in the screening room, in which Fritz Lang walks pensively across the wide screen as Georges Delerue's tragic theme music swells; the combination kills me every time. That's how much I love movies.

A MOVIE I WISH HAD NEVER BEEN MADE: I agree with whomever had the insight that great art is a lie (an invention) that tells the truth. Ergo, any film that tells lies to propogate falsehoods and to take cynical advantage of public ignorance I find, by definition, repugnant. So my answer is THE PATH TO 9/11.

A MOVIE I'VE BEEN MEANING TO SEE: Movies I've been meaning to see are the bane of my existence. At the moment I have about ten bankers boxes, containing 50 DVDs each, stacked high in a corner of my dining room. Discs I've bought, discs sent to me by friendly correspondents, and, of course, review screeners. Every one of them is screaming "Watch me!" at the top of their imaginary lungs, and some are (ouch) box sets.

A MOVIE I RECENTLY SAW: The 1929 version of SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE, starring Richard Dix (who reminds me a great deal of George Reeves). It ran on Turner Classic Movies yesterday morning and it ran about 10 minutes longer than my Dish TV menu screen said it would, so my recording cut out before the movie was over.

Irène Jacob models for a bubble gum ad campaign in RED.

A MOVIE I WISH I'D MADE: Krzysztof Kieslowski's THREE COLORS trilogy, particularly RED. I felt immediately at home in this movie, and somehow saw most of its levels at once, but this didn't do anything to exhaust my fascination with it. A perfect mesh of the commercial and the metaphysical, it captures the daunting magic of meeting someone who gives your life unsuspected depths of meaning -- a recurring theme in my own work. Jean-Louis Trintignant probably ties with Oliver Reed as my favorite actor (they star in more of my favorite films than anyone else), and I'm very smitten with Irène Jacob; I love the way their characters seem to represent real people while at the same time boldly occupying a more symbolic plane, and the bolero theme written by Zbigniew Preisner gives the whole a vaguely apocalyptic tense that is highly dramatic and would sadly be fulfilled by the retirement and quick death of Kieslowski. As a Gemini with a deep interest in music, I am in some ways even more drawn to THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE... but my senses tell me that RED is the more complex and satisfying achievement.

In closing... apropos of some of the finest films it has ever been my pleasure to see -- one of which (L'ECLISSE) is certain to make my next SIGHT & SOUND Top 10 list -- a very Happy 94th Birthday to Michelangelo Antonioni. Buon' compleanno, Maestro.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

My Book Meme

I had no idea what a "meme" is, until I saw the word used on some other blogs presenting their own versions of the following questionnaire. I subsequently looked it up at Dictionary.com and understood how the word was being applied. Anyway, I saw this meme on Ann Powers' Eensy Weensy and also on David Barker's 33 1/3 (both worthwhile music blogs), and it made me want to play along. So here goes...

A BOOK THAT CHANGED MY LIFE: GREAT EXPECTATIONS by Charles Dickens. For as long as I can remember, I've been a book collector; as a child, much as today, I owned more books than I had actually read. When my class was assigned to read GREAT EXPECTATIONS in my freshman high school year, I approached it as an obligatory duty; the last thing I expected was to fall in love with the characters, their plight, and the storytelling. We were told to read only chapter per day, and I had to fight the inclination to read ahead. Before I read this book, my own expectation was that I would become a commercial artist; after I read it, the seed was definitely planted that I should be a writer.

A BOOK I'VE READ MORE THAN ONCE: There have been several, but one that stands out for me is BULLET PARK by John Cheever, which I've read three times. I've read just about all of Cheever save for some short stories -- he's one of the great American magic realists, though he's not commonly thought of that way -- and, despite a jaggedly abrupt conclusion and closure, this one stands supreme for me: a haunting, melancholy novel about a man named Hammer and the arrival of a newcomer named Nailles. The chapter about the cafard and the search for a house with yellow windows is one for which I felt extraordinary empathy; I would love to have written this particularly, but writing such material surely had a certain price attached, and it's known that Cheever went through hell before receiving this vision.

A BOOK I WOULD TAKE WITH ME IF I WERE STUCK ON A DESERT ISLAND: Probably ULYSSES by James Joyce, if only for its variety. Every chapter is written in a different style, rooted in a different myth, and it is entertaining whether read simply or academically. Second choice: THE ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY by Robert Burton.

A BOOK THAT MADE ME LAUGH: THE HARD LIFE by Flann O'Brien. All of Flann O'Brien makes me laugh hysterically -- AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS, THE THIRD POLICEMAN, THE DALKEY ARCHIVE, THE POOR MOUTH, even his Irish Post newspaper columns. But THE HARD LIFE (again, not his best-loved book) really got to me and was such an unalloyed delight that I've read it four times; that's more times than I've read any other novel, save the ones I've written. When you've read the book once, even the somber opening French epigraph becomes hilarious. Vladimir Nabokov's PALE FIRE and Raymond Queneau's WE ALWAYS TREAT WOMEN TOO WELL also come to mind, as do certain stories in FANCIES AND GOODNIGHTS by John Collier.

A BOOK THAT MADE ME CRY: The last chapters of ULYSSES and Henry Green's BACK (an undersung book well worth your discovery) were so beautiful they not only made me cry, but made me re-read them immediately and many times thereafter. I was also deeply moved when I finished Thomas Mann's THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN and his JOSEPH AND HIS BROTHERS cycle, because I was sorry to have them end. As a boy, I cried when Gwen Stacy was killed by The Green Goblin in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #121; that was when it first struck me that requited love was no guarantee of a happy ending.

A BOOK THAT I WISH HAD BEEN WRITTEN: Leaving aside the novels that I still hope to write (some of which have been rattling around in my head far too long), I wish that more of Alain Robbe-Grillet's work was available in English translation, particularly the subsequent volumes of his autobiography.

A BOOK I WISH HAD NEVER BEEN WRITTEN: I can think of a couple, but the one I'll mention is ANTHONY BURGESS, the recent biography of the British author by Roger Lewis. It's like reading the smug, snotty, self-serving hate tract of a disinherited relative.

A BOOK I'VE BEEN MEANING TO READ: Dozens, hundreds. If I have to pick one, I'll go with REPETITION by Alain Robbe-Grillet. It's on the shelf with all his others, which I've read, but I haven't been in the right mood to connect with this one yet. John Cale calls it his favorite novel, so I'm curious to see how I find it stacks up against the others.

I'M CURRENTLY READING: KINGDOM COME by J. G. Ballard, one of our best living writers and thinkers. (Didn't this book have an editor? A character named Tom Carradine becomes David Carradine for two pages.) A strong off-center premise, lots of exciting sociological insight, but ultimately I doubt it will shape up as one of his best. Suffers from Rod Serling Syndrome: all the characters speak in the same voice, from the same viewpoint. I've also recently read two books in Continuum's terrific "33 1/3" series of paperback essays about classic rock albums, the ones on Jimi Hendrix's ELECTRIC LADYLAND (by John Inglis) and Neil Young's HARVEST (by John Perry). I'm just starting into the one on David Bowie's LOW (by Hugo Wilcken). As ever, these books give one an excuse to delve into these albums on a deeper-than-usual listening level, which is a pleasure in itself.

A BOOK I WISH I'D WRITTEN: Vladimir Nabokov's INVITATION TO A BEHEADING. I know I should say LOLITA, because being its author would make me rich, but therein lies an aversion of commercial success I am struggling to overcome. Nabokov himself cited INVITATION as the personal work for which he felt the most admiration.

The idea of a meme is that I am now supposed to reach out and "tag" or "infect" another friendly blogger, inducing them to post a book meme of their own. My friends and fellow bloggers are all overworked, so I'd rather tag them with a relaxation meme... but if anyone out there cares to follow through of their own free will, consider yourself tagged.

In the meantime, maybe tomorrow I'll post my movie meme...

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

This Is My Magazine and It Freaks Me Out!


Is this not a cool cover? Now click on the pic and watch it blow up, man. And all ye of ruffled cuffs and spangled wrists, hoist high your flagons of felicitation to charmin' Charlie Largent, for yet another mind-bending feat of cover art legerdemain!

Yes, VIDEO WATCHDOG #127 is now at the printer! You can get the customary run-down of the issue's contents and a free preview of its feature articles (my article on Del Tenney, and Bill Cooke's article on the Universal Hammer titles) by visiting the Coming Soon area of our website, or simply by clicking here.

Collect 'Em All!

Bubblegumfink! has posted an amazing collection of imaginary SUSPIRIA trading cards, complete with wrapper. Go here and scroll down to Wednesday, September 20's "Giallofink" posting.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Letters! I Get Letters!

I've received some interesting blog-related correspondence of late, and since I don't want to open this blog to comments and have to play moderator, it might be a good idea to post selected comments when I feel they're worth sharing.

For example, here's some interesting background on STONE COLD DEAD from reader Robert Richardson:

"Having only ever seen STONE COLD DEAD in standard pan & scan prints both on broadcast television and cable movie channels (and neither were would you could call pristine) news of a clean, clear, widescreen copy circulating perks my interest. I'm hardly a fan of the film but I've seen it more than once already and would give it another go if the presentation was up to snuff.

"A couple weeks back I found an old copy of the source novel in a thrift shop for 70 cents. THE SIN SNIPER was originally published in 1970, and a tie-in re-dubbed with the movie's title was issued by Paper Jacks in 1978. It includes eight pages of b/w stills from the film, including a three-still recreation of the initial sniping and one behind-the-scenes shot of director George Mendeluk blocking a scene.

"The author of the book is Hugh Garner, a war veteran who turned to writing as the 1940s waned. His book CABBAGETOWN is perhaps his best known, but he won the Governor General's Award in 1963 for a short story collection he penned. I can tell you that the movie and the original novel are substantially different. Toronto was Garner's home and it served as the background to virtually all of his writing, including THE SIN SNIPER. The characters present in the novel differ radically from those in the film. In fact, the identity of the killer is completely different as is the resolution. Why Mendeluk chose to detour so far from the novel is beyond me, and I do not believe that the changes were for the better.

"Mendeluk's next film, THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT, was also adapted from a source novel. It too would benefit from a proper widescreen presentation. After some juvenile comedies he seemed to drift into episodic television and these days mostly works on television movies.

"The cast of STONE COLD DEAD also includes Cronenberg vet Chuck Shamata (SCANNERS as well as the Ivan Reitman produced DEATH WEEKEND); Paul Bradley (ever so briefly), who years earlier had costarred effectively in both GOIN' DOWN THE ROAD and WEDDING IN WHITE; professional boxer George Chuvalo (who fought Ali in the 1960s); Alberta Watson (from THE KEEP, THE SWEET HEREAFTER, SPANKING THE MONKEY and more recently 24); and lovely Jennifer Dale, making her debut as initial victim Claudia Grissom. Dale was the love interest of Alliance Atlantis honcho Robert Lantos. He produced several of her films though arguably she has found wider recognition (at least here in Canada) on television."


I thank Robert for the information.

Readers Mike Schlesinger and C. Jerry Kutner commented on the good timing on my Russell Metty centenary acknowlegement, which happened to coincide with a 3D screening of TAZA, SON OF COCHISE in Los Angeles. Mr. Kutner writes:

"Living in L.A., I was lucky enough to catch the screening two weeks ago of TAZA, SON OF COCHISE at the 2nd World 3D Expo. It was extraordinarily beautiful to see the vast open spaces of Monument Valley in 3D with those incredible natural formations in the distant background. (For an approximation of what this looked like, check out Ford’s CHEYENNE AUTUMN, which in 70mm achieves something close to a 3-dimensional effect.) As in most of Metty’s work with Sirk, there are foreground objects in almost every shot, but unlike most other Sirk films, this one was shot almost entirely on location outdoors, and the 3D combined with unobtrusive camera movement (mostly panning – to follow the characters) results in a lovely flowing dance of foreground, middle ground, and background. And those arrows shot into the audience are cool!"

But the most eye-opening blog response I received last week was from a PBS employee whose correspondence was labelled "not for publication." Naturally, I'll respect this reader's wishes, but I think it's important to paraphrase some of the behind-the-scenes reasons therein provided why Ric Burns' ANDY WARHOL: A DOCUMENTARY FILM had to be broadcast in censored form.

Evidently, PBS stations are now being suffocated by increased restrictions from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), whose fines have become so steep that even a single fine could be enough to put a smaller PBS affiliate out of business. (When a public complaint results in the issuing of a fine, these fines are issued not only to PBS as a network, but to the individual affiliate in the area where the complaint originated.) A California affiliate was fined earlier this year for broadcasting Martin Scorsese's THE BLUES with utterances of "fuck" and "shit" intact, these used more for seasoning and exclamation rather than in literal terms; the matter of context was immaterial, and the station was slapped with heavy fines for repeated utterances.

Thus far, PBS has been unsuccessful in obtaining even the vaguest guidelines from the FCC, so affiliates have no idea in advance of what the FCC may find objectionable, until the killing fine is thrown down. This effectively has Public Television existing in a state of uncertainty bordering on terror. PBS stations have become so gunshy that, in some cases, they are going to the additional trouble and expense of digitally blurring the lip movements of documentary interviewees, rather than incur possible penalties for broadcasting too-emphatically-mouthed obscenities. Imagery that might be deemed controversial, like some rear nudity in one of the Warhol films, is also being blurred for the same reason. The letter I received suggested that future PBS programming, such as their upcoming WWII documentary, will likely be offered to affiliates in uncut or pre-censored form -- but in this event, it's all but certain that most if not all affiliates would choose the sanitized version rather than face the consequences of Freedom of Speech.

This was an enlightening but tragic letter to receive because it essentially confirmed, from the inside, that PBS is being stripped of the special qualities and privileges that its members continue to believe they are paying for. Programs that could have aired uncut one year ago are now being aired with more bleeps than are heard at the average Stereolab concert. There are programs that aired uncut on PBS thirty years ago that would no longer be permitted in any shape or form. But public funding is more important than ever, as government funding has become so reduced that long-running PBS series like MYSTERY! and MASTERPIECE THEATER can no longer afford hosts.

In its heyday, PBS was the only alternative to commercial network television; it was educational, progressive, and it had the freedom to be outspoken. Today, with its mouth gagged and blinders keeping its eyes trained on the straight and narrow, it's become another government detainee -- forbidden to use even PG-level language in serious discussions of art and construction, and relying more and more on the "good business" of presenting sanitized documentaries about war and destruction.

Of course, it's commendable that some individuals within the PBS power structure are still quixotic enough to try, to present something like Ric Burns' Warhol epic as a two-parter in the context of AMERICAN MASTERS. Even in bastardized form, it communicates an idea of its quality and gives the viewer enough information to seek out the uncut original on DVD, or to explore Warhol's legacy further in books and museums. But it's a shame that the ideal of Public Television has so quietly become a thing of the past, and that its hallmarks of free speech have been inherited by premium cable and satellite television, luxuries -- like so much else, from vitamins and health care to gasoline -- that cannot be afforded by all men created equally.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

STONE COLD DEAD on TMC

Andrée Cousineau as one of the tragic victims in STONE COLD DEAD.

To date, George Mendeluk's STONE COLD DEAD (1980) -- starring Richard Crenna and Paul Williams -- has only reached home video here in America as a standard, pan&scanned VHS release from Media Home Entertainment. With this in mind, some of you may be interested to learn that it aired on The Movie Channel last night in a brand new, letterboxed transfer. It is still a notable turn of events, sad to say, when a pay cable station shows a film in its correct aspect ratio, especially a picture on the level of this Canadian thriller.

Crenna stars as a recently separated police sergeant investigating a series of prostitute murders in an unnamed city that he describes as dirty and scummy while driving past a storefront that reads "Disney." (It was shot in Toronto, then credited as being a North American city so clean you could practically eat off its sidewalks, with lots of recognizable Yonge Street landmarks like Sam's record shop.) The hookers are being shot with a customized rifle attached to a 35mm still camera, allowing the limping assassin to develop quasi-cinematic serial photos of each killing in progress; the red-tinted developing room shots, showing black leather-gloved hands hanging the wet prints on a wire, lends the proceedings an occasional Argento-like flavor. Another Argentovian touch can be found in the delineation of Crenna's character, an eccentric who has rigged a special unlisted telephone number to feed his pet fish whenever it rings ("I don't get home much," he explains). An unusually pudgy Paul Williams plays Kurtz, a shag-haired crime boss/pimp -- and the Movie Channel print was so sharp that the red impression of a discarded wedding band is sometimes distractingly visible on the third finger of Williams' left hand. (It's not in this sleazy character's profile to have been married.) Williams, who has a big dialogue scene outside the "Paradise Cinema," is miscast as a crimelord who strikes terror into people's hearts, but Crenna brings a world-weary gravitas to his character that works, and Belinda J. Montgomery has one of her best showings as a daring female officer who goes too far undercover to solve the case; she also gets a rare opportunity to sing, and is in good voice. Christopher Walken lookalike Frank Moore (from Cronenberg's RABID and THE ITALIAN MACHINE) is on hand as a strip-club habitué red herring, and Michael Ironside, buried way down the cast list, appears just long enough to get shot during a stakeout.

I had never seen STONE COLD DEAD before, but I remember seeing TV spots during its initial release to local drive-ins that made it look ugly and sordid and cheap. With that in mind, it was a nice surprise to find it so competent, watchable, and evocative of my own happy memories of Toronto -- and it held my attention even at an hour when common sense dictated I should have long been in bed. It's sleazy too, but a sweet kind of sleazy. It's probably nothing I would bother to record, but sometimes it's pleasure enough to find good people injecting a little soul into a project where such dimension wasn't really necessary or expected.

I've checked The Movie Channel's schedule for the next week and can't find any future playdates for STONE COLD DEAD, so it may be played out there, but -- for those interested -- it's bound to resurface sooner or later on one of the other TMC or Showtime family channels.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Back To Medfield College

Made curious by this week's earlier encounter with Robert Stevenson's THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND (1936), I've decided to stage an impromptu return to Medfield College (the site of numerous Stevenson comedies for Disney, from THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR to the Dexter Riley trilogy starring Kurt Russell) and some of Stevenson's other work.

When they were new, live action Disney films of the 1960s were anathema to young people of my age. The trailers showed us that they were silly and unsophisticated and, somehow worst of all, wholesome; we didn't need to see them to know they would be bland and insufferable. But now that I'm older, I'm feeling a curiosity about some of these matinee pictures I missed. (I said "some" -- I still have no interest in seeing LT. ROBIN CRUSOE, U.S.N., for example, but I'm keen to see THE GNOME MOBILE and BLACKBEARD'S GHOST.) I decided to begin with a personal double-feature of THAT DARN CAT! (the Hayley Mills version, directed by Stevenson but not set at Medfield) and THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES (the first of the Dexter Riley films, set at Medfield College but not directed by Stevenson).

THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES (1969) is an amusing idea that falls victim to mishandling. In short, middling Medfield student Dexter Riley happens to be in physical contact with a computer recently donated to the school's science department during an electrical storm, which drains the computer of all data and transfers all its storage files and analytic ability to him. Dexter begins to excel in tests and science teacher William Schallert deduces what has happened (he proves this to Medfield dean Joe Flynn by aiming some sort of viewing device through Dexter's ear, which makes stock footage of the computer visible inside his head!); rather than do something to return the kid to normal, Medfield takes advantage of their advantage and includes Dexter in a national academics competition. Things get hairy when it's discovered that the computer was presented to Medfield by a local business leader (Cesar Romero) with big ties to organized gambling, and that Dexter's fund of knowledge includes a good deal of incriminating evidence. Richard Bakalyan is on hand as Romero's stooge, and the inimitable Alan Hewitt (memorable in other roles in earlier Medfield movies) is back as the dean of Medfield's rival college. As with the Flubber movies, COMPUTER builds to a madcap road chase and a climax involving a scoreboard, with the winning point scored by someone other than the scientifically-assisted.

What's odd about the film is that Kurt Russell, ostensibly the star here, is given very few close-ups by director Robert Butler and the Dexter Riley character is so flatly written that he has few opportunities to make an impression. It doesn't help that he's always surrounded by other teen actors (including LASSIE's Jon Provost) to the point of being overwhelmed onscreen. Speaking of Russell's co-stars, the film perversely casts a number of capable young people with impossible-to-ignore facial flaws; one actor has a badly bruised eye, and another not only has a serious complexion problem but a large boil on his neck! I'm all for giving the part to the right actor, but there's a reason why casting directors keep faces like these off the screen: they're distracting. Schallert is a welcome presence and he does his best, but to see him teach a science class is a crash course in appreciation for the snap, crackle and pop that Fred MacMurray could bring to such scenes. In retrospect, it's hard to see why this lackluster movie spawned a series, but it would continue with the invisibility comedy NOW YOU SEE HIM, NOW YOU DON'T (1972) and the super-strength fantasy THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD (1975). THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES was also remade for television in 1995, with Kirk Cameron as Dexter Riley. It tanked.

THAT DARN CAT! (1965) casts Hayley Mills and Dorothy Provine as two grown sisters of curiously disparate ages, left alone by vacationing parents, whose pesky Siamese cat D.C. discovers a kidnappers' hide-out during his nightly wanderings. When D.C. brings home a wristwatch etched with the word "Help!," placed around his neck by the abductee (Grayson Hall, of all people), Hayley somehow deduces its correct origin and involves FBI agent Dean Jones, who assigns a group of other agents to shadow the cat's night walks in hopes of learning the whereabouts of criminals Neville Brand and Frank Gorshin.

Based on a children's book by The Gordons, this is an overlong (nearly two hours) but attractive movie with a cool Bobby Darin theme song, heard under a main title sequence of genuinely comic scenes and atmospheric suburban matte paintings. The opening scenes with Gorshin, Brand and Hall are surprisingly rough for Disney family fare, and the Bill Walsh script manages to insert some subversive social satire in a vein similar to his and Stevenson's earlier SON OF FLUBBER, this time poking fun at Disney's chief competitor for the youth market, American International, and their "Beach Party" pictures. (Hayley's boyfriend Canoe, engagingly played by Tom Lowell, takes her to so many surfing movies at the drive-in that she comes home sea-sick.) Provine tries to explain the British lilt of Mills' voice by doing an impression of her in some scenes, but in others, Mills seems to be imitating Provine's American accent. This confusion aside, everyone's in pretty good form, with Jones particularly appealing as the supple-voiced hero. There are also some supporting players whose shenanigans alone are worth the price of a rental: Roddy McDowall, Elsa Lanchester and William Demerest. (The DVD includes a tinny-sounding French audio track, and you owe it to yourself to sample at least one of Lanchester and Demerest's scenes as Hayley's nosy neighbors in French. The dialogue is amazingly well synchronized to the actors' lip movements, and Demerest comes across like Jean Gabin!)

Hardly the "film classic" described by the box, THAT DARN CAT! is no embarrassment to Robert Stevenson's filmography; it's a slick and pleasing evening's entertainment with more than its share of laughs. Having finally seen it on DVD, I kind of wish that I also had it as a childhood memory, which probably would have sweetened the experience a bit more. THAT DARN CAT! was remade in 1997 as a theatrical feature starring Christina Ricci, which featured Dean Jones in a minor role.

These Walt Disney Video DVDs, which first streeted in 2003, feature no-frills, standard ratio presentations with excellent, full-bodied audio. Both features were shot in the 1.66:1 screen ratio, so they are not badly compromised by the cropping, but it is occasionally noticeable.