Tuesday, November 07, 2006

After the Famine... FEAST

New on DVD is a real oddity, possible only in these whacked-out times of ours: FEAST (2006, Dimension/Weinstein Company), a more-or-less direct-to-video gore picture that is nevertheless one of the most hotly-anticipated horror releases and directorial debuts of the year.

Some background: In late 2004, the Miramax/Live Planet-sponsored series PROJECT GREENLIGHT limped back to air after two failed attempts to produce a film more interesting than the preliminary documentation of their hapless, behind-the-scenes frig-ups. Rumors were rife that producers Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Chris Moore had deliberately fudged their choices of material in order to produce more interesting reality television, and the comedy-of-errors results made it hard to refute such word-of-mouth. For people interested in the business, it was fairly addictive viewing because it confirmed all our worst fears about the business, plucking sensitive, creative writers like Erica Beeney and Pete Jones out of midwestern obscurity and placing all their hopes and dreams in the hands of established film people whose arrogance and inattention doomed their contest-winning scripts to become something conspicuously more half-assed than they ever were on the printed page.

In reviewing the first two seasons, I noticed Affleck, Damon and Moore's tendency to look past the most intense, visionary finalists (the ones who might be problems when push inevitably came to shove) and scoped out either the meekest people on the bench (the ones who would make them look good) or the biggest "characters" (the ones who would make the show look good). The first two PG films, STOLEN SUMMER (2002) and THE BATTLE OF SHAKER HEIGHTS (2003), predictably flopped and Showtime dropped their support of the series. The show managed to return the following fall on Bravo, but in emasculated form, subjected to tension-dissolving commercial interruptions and entertainment-dissolving censored language. Once again, predictably, Affleck, Damon and Moore gravitated toward what was -- by common consensus -- the worst of the finalist scripts (a gore fest by Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton that new co-producer Wes Craven himself called a piece of crap) and handed it over to the least assertive of the director finalists -- John Gulager, a timid couch potato in his late forties who could barely speak at his own pitch meeting.

But this time, the producers' selection bit them in the ass.

The son of maverick actor Clu Gulager (the guy who effectively stole most of Lee Marvin's scenes in THE KILLERS), John Gulager turned out to be a "run silent, run deep" type, and something of a West coast Cassavetes, interested only in making films with his own friends and family. Consequently, much of the third season of PROJECT GREENLIGHT turned out to be a protracted stand-off between the producers, a friend-favoring casting director in sore need of firing, and Gulager, who reasonably fought for his right to the prize he had won: the opportunity to direct his film his way. He didn't get it, but he made the most of it. As the film went into production, with everyone still panicking about Gulager's ability and stubbornness, the dailies proved surprisingly encouraging. Suddenly, the movie was turning out much better than expected... and just as things were getting exciting, Bravo pulled the plug. We were left with a greatly compressed account of production that rushed the process toward preview screenings, and then a whole year went by without much news of what had happened to FEAST.

FEAST had the misfortune to be a Miramax release at the time the Weinstein brothers were separating from the company, and they took it with them when they left. This meant that the film bore the misfortune of a protracted stay on the shelf until the Weinsteins formed a new distribution set-up with Dimension Films, but it also benefitted from Harvey Weinstein's liking of what he saw, which resulted in reshoots, a more leisurely and perfectionistic editing schedule, and additional budget allocations above and beyond the bare-bones $1,000,000 budget that came with winning the contest. (The IMDb lists its final budget at $3,200,000. Even so, as the end credits roll and roll and roll and roll on, you've got to figure that most of these people were working either for credit or for peanuts.) And now -- a full year after its initial screenings at the Chicago International Film Festival and International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival -- FEAST has been rewarded for its extraordinary patience by being sent straight to DVD, in the wake of a few Midnight Movie playdates that kept the contractual promise of some kind of theatrical release.

So how is FEAST? I was pleasantly surprised. The movie is an unashamedly reductive, two-dimensional affair, more video game than narrative, stocked with caricatures rather than characters -- everybody is introduced with the equivalent of a score card that estimates their chances of survival. We get no explanations, no warnings, no quarter, and very little down time as everyone gets spritzed or sprayed or splashed with monster blood, drool, bile, slime, or semen. The monsters eat people, get their genitals stuck in slammed doors, hump hunting trophies and each other. What makes this 87-minute onslaught endurable is its humor (thanks to Dustan and Melton and a game cast) and wildly propulsive energy (thanks to Gulager, editor Kirk Morri, and cameraman Tom Callaway -- check out his filmography -- whose unrelenting use of shutter effects is like watching a whole feature with a finger stuck in an electrical outlet). Though everyone is playing a stereotype of some sort (Jason Mewes plays himself, and still suffers a messy fate), the performances are fairly vivid.

Watching FEAST, I was reminded of a few other feature debuts: Michael Reeves' THE SHE BEAST (1965, which in its day had a similarly raw, savage quality and outré sense of humor), Sam Raimi's THE EVIL DEAD (1981, which -- along with NEAR DARK -- is the film's most overt visual influence), and Peter Jackson's BAD TASTE (1987, for the way it also used extreme gore to hilarious ends). The later careers enjoyed by these three men should give us some indication of what we could be missing if John Gulager isn't given more opportunities to direct. So far, since completing FEAST, he has edited Sage Stallone's highly lauded film short VIC and he's acted in Frank A. Cappello's forthcoming HE WAS A QUIET MAN. He should be turned loose as a director on a project that he really cares about.

Dimension's anamorphic 2.40 DVD offers a handsome calling card for Gulager's talents. There's a highly directional, extremely busy 5.1 Dolby track and an audio commentary by the filmmakers, along with production featurettes, deleted scenes and outtakes. Unfortunately, Season 3 of PROJECT GREENLIGHT (which I'd love to see in uncensored form someday) remains a no-show on DVD.

PS: I watched FEAST last night because today, November 7th, is Donna's birthday and our post-midnight movie viewing was her choice. She doesn't really care for horror movies, and for gore movies even less, but she was caught up with me in Season 3 of PROJECT GREENLIGHT and has been asking me what's going on with FEAST for the past year or so. She was eager to see it, and I'm pleased to say that she enjoyed it as much as I did; we both laughed a lot. I can't impress upon the people responsible for FEAST how rare Donna's praise is, especially in this category, and I congratulate them.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Something Wonderful to Look Forward To

Ivana Baquero learns of her unsuspected destiny in Guillermo del Toro's masterful PAN'S LABYRINTH.

My review of Michael Apted's 49 UP (First Run Features), published in the November issue of SIGHT & SOUND, can now also be accessed freely on the magazine's website here. In today's mail, I received my advance copy of S&S's December issue, in which I review Jerzy Stuhr's THE BIG ANIMAL (Milestone Films), a magic realist story based on an unfilmed script by Krzysztof Kieslowski -- a review that will be made available on the S&S website next month. But, for me, the most interesting material in the new issue pertains to Guillermo del Toro's PAN'S LABYRINTH -- an engrossing interview with the writer-producer-director by Mark Kermode (in which he admits to refunding his entire director's fee in order to see the film realized the way he wanted it), and a very insightful review of the film by José Arroyo.

In brief, PAN'S LABYRINTH is set in 1944 Spain, where a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) follows her pregnant mother, the widow of a tailor, to join her new stepfather, a ruthless General in Franco's Civil Guard named Vidal (Sergi López). Aware of his cruelties and refusing her mother's desperate wish that she call Vidal "father," Ofelia closes out the threatening quality of the real world by immersing herself in fairy tale books and going for long walks in an ancient adjoining wooded labyrinth. There, she enters into a no-less-volatile fantasy world in which a darkly beguiling humanoid faun (not actually Pan, despite the English title) assigns her a series of fantastic tests to prove her real identity as Princess Moanna, the daughter of the Moon. Meanwhile, a group of resistance fighters camp in the woods surrounding Vidal's homebase, gathering the strength and awaiting the right moment to overthrow him.

"It's as if the dreaminess of Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was transported with Alice in Wonderland, only to erupt back into the real world as Goya-esque nightmares," Arroyo writes, nailing a heady and complex achievement that is, at the very least, del Toro's masterpiece. PAN'S LABYRINTH is a rare fantasy film in that it deals with childhood and enchantment without any of the cloying, trivializing sweetness that has infected the genre since Spielberg and Lucas entered the scene. It is also a virtually unique work of fantasy in that it understands, and communicates the understanding, that fantasy should exist to nurture and fortify us in trying times; that to flee into escapist fantasy is irresponsible, a shade of selfishness and surrender. It also has the courage to be a tragedy, and reminds us that tragedy can be an uplifting form of storytelling as long as the characters' dreams and wishes are fulfilled.

What I also find heartening and enjoyable about the film is the way its very original story, setting, and cast of characters echo, as they adhere to, the whole rich tradition of Spanish and Mexican fantasy cinema, including certain works of Luís Buñuel (LOS OLVIDADOS, EL BRUTO), Victor Erice (THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE), Jess Franco (TENEMOS 18 ANOS), Alejandro Jodorowsky (SANTA SANGRE), and even Paul Naschy (HOWL OF THE DEVIL), as well as del Toro's own most personal previous films (CRONOS, THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE). PAN'S LABYRINTH can be read as the third film in a del Toro trilogy about childhood and fantasy, but I suspect these themes are too close to him to be relinquished from his future projects.

Don't steal this monster's grapes. He doesn't like it.

As José Arroyo points out, PAN'S LABYRINTH is very much a CGI/special effects movie, yet it is the film's characters that stick in the memory; the uncanny warmth they communicate is what makes us feel the pain they suffer so deeply, as well. Maribel Verdú is especially good, I think, as the General's cook Mercedes, who serves as Ofelia's surrogate mother during her real mother's difficult pregnancy and smuggles food and weapons to the rebels camping in the wilderness. There is also something extraordinary about the vividness of the film's setting and its chosen place in history; this is not an era that del Toro himself lived through, of course, yet he shows an understanding of Spain's political and psychological past (comparable, I think, to what Bertollucci's THE CONFORMIST and 1900 depicted about Italy in a parallel timeframe) that makes certain American counterparts like MIDWAY and PEARL HARBOR look as preposterous and shallow as they are. The closest thing to PAN'S LABYRINTH in my experience is Wolfgang Petersen's THE NEVERENDING STORY, a film I found excruciating and a fantasy world I felt emotionally barred from entering; del Toro's fantasy world, on the other hand, however strange and volatile, is never alienating and seems to tremble around our young heroine like a bubble that might burst at any moment, letting all the horrors of her reality hemorrhage back in.

Already screened at many film festivals and previews, PAN'S LABYRINTH opens nationwide on December 29th. Trust me: Brave the weather and experience this one on the biggest screen you can find. It is the finest film to date by the most talented and visionary craftsman currently working in the genre, and it exists so completely outside contemporary trends and fashions, I have no doubt that it will age not only gracefully but brilliantly. You can look forward to its release by visiting its impressive website, which features many trailers, clips, critics' blurbs (count how many times the word "masterpiece" is invoked) and discussion forums.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

MASTERS OF HORROR: A New Season

When Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR premiered last year, I jumped right into the saddle and wrote immediate reports for this blog, which generally appeared the day after broadcast. In case you are wondering why I haven't been doing the same this year, now that we're two episodes into the second season, my answer to that question is that I haven't been particularly inspired.

Season 2 began a week ago with Tobe Hooper's "The Damned Thing," Richard Christian Matheson's contemporary adaptation of a classic Ambrose Bierce story. Opening with a flashback in which black drippings from a ceiling contaminate a family man with the essence of evil and turn him violently against his loved ones, it becomes the story of the son who survived that event to become the sheriff of his small west Texas town (Sean Patrick Flanery), literally working to hold that inexplicable essence of evil at bay. In the finale, Flanery is attacked by a gigantic, anthropomorphic oil monster that makes one imagine the episode might have been more effectively titled "From Haliburton It Came." (Between this, the "black oil" episodes of THE X-FILES, and the smell of burning oil that accompanied the apparitions of BOB in TWIN PEAKS, a scholarly paper could surely be written about the meaning and increasing role of "Texas tea" in our 21st century horror fantasies.) While an improvement on Hooper's jittery, nihilistic-chic Season 1 episode "Dance of the Dead," "The Damned Thing" suffers from the same lack of directorial engagement. There are certainly thematic ties here to Hooper's best and earliest work, but he seems to have lost the knack to sink his teeth into them, much less chew them to get at their juice. The end result is like watching an earnest cast flail about a maddening sludge of vagueness that builds to an eruption of silliness.

Last night's follow-up, "Family," directed by John Landis and scripted by Brent Hanley (FRAILTY), was likewise an improvement on Landis' previous MOH offering "Deer Woman," arguably the worst episode of the first season. In this scenario, a youngish married couple (Meredith Monroe and Matt Keeslar), making a new start in the wake of their daughter's death from cancer, move into a house across the street from the rotund and reclusive Harold (George Wendt), and befriend him -- not knowing that it's his habit to abduct strangers, melt them down to skeletons in his cellar, dress them, and interact with them as members of an imaginary family.

Landis may have directed AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, but his bright and snappy, freshly-acted, self-amused style of direction stands at odds with the basic tenets of the genre. Consequently, though Hanley's script encompasses a good deal of dark territory and cleverly invites us into a subjective view of Harold's psychosis, the story unfolds in the parlance of comedy. This basically defuses much of the tensions inherent in the material, to the extent of making Harold's criminal habits seem no more than a mild eccentricity. The performances are very good and the episode makes some inspired use of contemporary gospel music, which serves as both counterpoint and thematic support while adding to the direction's overall buoyancy. Had the script actually gone somewhere unexpected or original, this one might have won me over, but it just missed.

It's hard to believe that these episodes are the best that Hooper and Landis could dream up, given creative carte blanche. The weak link may well have something to do with the manner by which the directors are selecting or being assigned their material; frankly, I suspect these episodes might have turned out at least marginally stronger had they swapped directors. Hooper has taken the genre to some of its most harrowing extremes with material not far removed from "Family" and would surely have tapped the horror at the bedrock of Hanley's script, and the needlessly murky "The Damned Thing" could only have benefitted from the alacrity of Landis' handling.

Last year, MASTERS OF HORROR debuted with Don Coscarelli's "Incident On and Off A Mountain Road," which wasn't one of my favorites but had appreciable qualities of script and performance. It was followed by Stuart Gordon's "Dreams in the Witch-House," which seemed to me a classic of TV horror and one of Gordon's best works. The series had some major highs and definite lows after that, but the clear escalation of quality in those first two episodes grabbed me and held on. This year, MASTERS OF HORROR's best opening punch has been to show two of Season 1's lesser contributors modestly outperforming their own meager initial showings. While this may technically represent an improvement, the new season is playing much weaker than last year, thus far. The Big Guns need to be brought on soon if MASTERS OF HORROR wants to hold onto its audience.

RECOMMENDED READING: Check out "Beyond Belief," Richard Harland Smith's blog on his late friend Adrienne Shelly, at MovieMorlocks.com. Just click the appropriate link to the right.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Great Escape

Since reporting the death of Nigel Kneale here a few days ago, I've learned of the passings of Tina Aumont (PRIDE AND VENGEANCE, TORSO), her FELLINI'S CASANOVA co-star Daniel Emilfork (whom you may remember as the gaunt-faced Devil in Jean Brismée's THE DEVIL'S NIGHTMARE), Tom Bell (who poignantly reprised his role as Bill Otley in PRIME SUSPECT: THE FINAL ACT, coming to PBS stations on November 12), and American independent film actress/director Adrienne Shelly (THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH, REVOLUTION #9). I read this tragic news and others do too; they send me e-mails asking "Are you going to blog about them?" -- which is my own fault, because I often do blog about people when they leave us -- but this is one of those times when "these things come in threes" feels more like three dozens, and makes me want to go back to bed and wake up on a different day.

Tina Aumont died of unreported causes last Saturday, October 28. The daughter of Maria Montez and Jean-Pierre Aumont, she was one of the sultriest starlets of the 1960s and too young to die; only 60, though prematurely aged by many years of heroin addiction. A sign of her deterioration is that one of her last screen roles was as "The Ghoul" in Jean Rollin's THE TWO VAMPIRE ORPHANS. Daniel Emilfork was 82 and died on October 17 of natural causes. Tom Bell died at 73 after a period of ill health, and went out on a noble performance. (The PRIME SUSPECT film, broadcast in the UK only days after his October 4 death, is dedicated to his memory.) Adrienne Shelly is the shocker of the bunch. She was 40, had a loving husband, a three year old child, and her third directorial feature (WAITRESS) is awaiting release -- every reason you can imagine to live for, which makes her abrupt exit from the world stage all the more unimaginable and unacceptable.

Most of you, like me, didn't know these people personally, but we're saddened, disturbed, or rocked by the news of their deaths all the same. What all these passings have in common, of course, is a talent great enough to have spanned countrysides, even oceans, to touch our lives. Let's be grateful for that, and for them, and not allow the pain and weight of all this death to obscure the fact that we have been blessed to know these artists as part of their appreciative audience.

And let's make an effort to acknowledge reasons for joy where they can be found. Tom Savini, who would be worth noting if he had only acted in KNIGHTRIDERS, is 60 today. Would you believe that Jean Rollin and Pupi Avati were both born on exactly the same day, 68 years ago? Film composer John Barry is celebrating his 73rd. The wondrous Monica Vitti turns 75 today. Robert Quarry, Count Yorga himself, lives on at 81. And Karel Zeman, one of the great fantasy filmmakers/animators of the 20th century, would have been 96 today. A few of us might even be lucky enough to toast these happy occasions eye-to-eye with the celebrities in question, and if you're one of those few, I envy you.

Speaking of celebrities, last night's choice of viewing (wholly arbitrary) was THE BIG CIRCUS (1959), which a friend had sent to me awhile ago on DVD-R -- and, boy, does it have a lot of celebrities. One of those frustrating videos that letterbox only the credits for the actors but not their performances, it's very deserving of a properly letterboxed DVD release, as it's in scope and fills the screen with lots of color, action, and as I said, celebrities. Vincent Price is the ringmaster, Peter Lorre is the lead clown, Red Buttons is the expense auditor, Gilbert Roland (who is particularly great) and David Nelson are the aerialists, Rhonda Fleming and Kathryn Grant are the obligatory love interests, and Victor Mature is the flamboyant owner of the Whirling Circus, "The Biggest Show on Earth." Ah, but who is the spy sent by a competing circus to sabotage their success?

Even in its cropped formatting, THE BIG CIRCUS struck me as being as entertaining as a movie can be without so much as a whiff of sophistication. I'm a sucker for Irwin Allen stuff anyway, and as far as Allen stuff goes, it's more respectable than most -- a movie you can laugh with, rather than at. (The theme song's opening line -- "There's nothing so gay as to be spending the day at the BIIIIIIIIIIG Circus!" -- excepted.) It has its silly moments, like the way the combatitive Mature and Fleming are first knocked into each others' arms by the sudden lurch of a train, but it was scripted by former Hitchcock scenarist Charles Bennett (YOUNG AND INNOCENT, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT), so it also has some clever ones -- and a probably accidental film buff moment when Mature solves a transportation problem by remembering Hannibal's 40-elephant trek across the Alps (the subject of his next lead role, in Edgar G. Ulmer's HANNIBAL, 1960). Allen must have loved the big scene where Gilbert Roland dares to cross Niagara Falls on a highwire because the scene was essentially restaged, nearer the end of his career, in the appropriately-titled WHEN TIME RAN OUT (1980) -- and I did, too.

THE BIG CIRCUS was an Allied Artists release, so my best guess is that it's now owned by Warners. They should look into releasing it. People need escapist entertainment, perhaps now more than ever. Most every movie being green-lighted today is escapist in principle, in that it's mindless, but I don't know that graphically violent entertainment, or any film rooted in extreme or punishing realism, can be escapist by definition.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Under the Lens of Ellis W. Carter

Last September 20, this blog paid a centennial tribute to cinematographer Russell Metty, whom I described as one of the men responsible for defining the look of 1950s Universal-International horror and fantasy. Today, when some of you are probably expecting me to point out the centenary of the great Italian director Luchino Visconti, I prefer to confound your expectations by saluting the 100th birthday of the other great Universal-International cameraman, Ellis W. Carter.

Whether you know his name or not, you know his work and you love it. Among Carter's credits: THE MOLE PEOPLE, THE DEADLY MANTIS, THE LAND UNKNOWN, THE MONOLITH MONSTERS, CURSE OF THE UNKNOWN, THE LEECH WOMAN, and the first movie I ever saw projected on a theater screen: THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. He also photographed KING OF THE ROCKET MEN, THE INVISIBLE MONSTER, LOST PLANET AIRMEN, SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE, THE WIZARD OF BAGHDAD, DIARY OF A MADMAN, TWICE TOLD TALES, Sam Katzman's Elvis movie KISSIN' COUSINS, and the BELL SCIENCE episodes "Gateway to the Mind" and "The Alphabet Conspiracy."

I don't reckon Carter (who died in 1964) among the genre's great cameramen, as a lot of his work had a certain flat, static, setbound quality, and his color work seemed particularly unable to enrich sets with atmosphere; however, he racked up a lot of fun movies over the years (including a guilty pleasure of mine, HOOTENANNY HOOT) and his black-and-white period at Universal-International, contemporaneous with that of Russell Metty, helped to define one of the fantastic cinema's most recognizable "house styles." Movies like THE DEADLY MANTIS, THE LAND UNKNOWN, THE MONOLITH MONSTERS, and especially THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN showed Carter to be particularly capable of working well with special effects units and integrating spfx photography and his straightforward technique to potent, convincing effect.

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN recently made its American DVD debut as part of Universal's THE CLASSIC SCI-FI ULTIMATE COLLECTION, a Best Buy exclusive box set, which also includes TARANTULA, MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS, and two other films shot by Carter, THE MOLE PEOPLE and THE MONOLITH MONSTERS. There is an excellent review of the set over at DVD Savant; I'd give you one myself, but I'm still without a copy. But after reading Glenn Erickson's review, I feel like getting out to the nearest Best Buy and picking one up today.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Welcome To Bill O'Reilly's Videodrome

FOX News commentator Bill O'Reilly is back in the news, I see, as a self-styled crusader against the current trend of "torture porn" horror movies. That's right: the conservative advocate of our country's "harsh interrogation" methods in the real world finds all the Karo-syrup gore flooding our neighborhood multiplexes troubling and objectionable.

This is obviously a publicity ploy, just as it was when Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel did something similar with the slasher films of the early '80s. Sad to say, it seems to be working; every message board I frequent, as a participant or lurker, seems to have a posting or thread on the subject. Unlike Siskel & Ebert, who actually saw the films they were criticizing (even if they overlooked the fact that the MPAA had disembowelled most of them before granting an R rating, as well as the strong feminist statements later discerned by Carol Clover and other writers), O'Reilly is proudly crowing that he hasn't actually seen any of these films -- but since when have informed opinions been his strong suit?

Earlier this week, Bravo ran a special called 30 EVEN SCARIER MOVIE MOMENTS, a sequel to their previous 100 SCARIEST MOVIE MOMENTS. Because these moments were culled largely from movies made since the last sequel, a lot of them were gruelling torture highlights from SAW, SAW II, WOLF CREEK, HOSTEL (the #1 choice), and others of their ilk. The #4 choice was David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME, a 1982 movie about an imaginary cable channel that allows a privileged class of people to watch scenes of torture and murder. While watching 30 EVEN SCARIER MOVIE MOMENTS and seeing VIDEODROME placed within this context, I had the sudden realization that Cronenberg -- whose intentions in writing the movie were largely satirical -- had in fact predicted this recent turn of events in the horror genre, much as his early "venereal horror" movies SHIVERS and RABIDS had anticipated the rise of the AIDS virus.

After all, what is 30 EVEN SCARIER MOVIE MOMENTS but a concentrated form of VIDEODROME? And how bizarre that it was shown on a commercial cable network with all the R-rated gore intact but with the details of a couple of naked women's bodies digitally opaqued in the film clips, which is actually what I found most offensive about the program! What is wrong with people that all this violence against the human body is acceptable but the body itself is an unacceptable offense? (That's a whole other discussion, right there.)

Personally speaking, I don't care for these films either, even if they are well crafted; I've never been a gorehound, and furthermore, I don't like what these films say about our society (however true) and wouldn't like what they said about me if I enjoyed them. That said, I still grudgingly respect and appreciate them for providing the mirror which they hold up to our very sick society; that's what the horror film has always done. If we don't like what they're showing us, that should be our cue to change.

After the 30 EVEN SCARIER show ended, I remembered that, in Cronenberg's film, VIDEODROME was eventually revealed to be a program circulated by arch-conservatives to transmit cancer-causing agents into the brains of the "scum" who are titillated by that sort of "entertainment." So maybe Bill O'Reilly has better reasons for not seeing these films than you think.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Science Fiction Mourns Nigel Kneale

Last night, or early this morning, just after midnight, Monsters HD started running its annual HALLOWEEN Marathon. I ended up watching a bit of HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982), a film originally scripted by Nigel Kneale; I was curious to see how well it held up. After the commercial and creative disappointment of HALLOWEEN 2, series producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill decided to terminate Michael Myers by converting their popular franchise into an anthology about the eponymous season itself, one that would exploit and celebrate Halloween in different ways each year. Carpenter -- an avowed admirer of Kneale's "Quatermass" films for Hammer -- had approached Kneale to conceive the first chapter in this new direction. Kneale turned in what was, by all accounts, his customary thoughtful, thought-provoking job but, as was for some reason well-publicized before the film was even released, Carpenter infamously rejected the script. ("It was old-fashioned," he told me in a 1981 interview, when his disappointment was still fresh.) Nevertheless, some of Kneale's ideas are plain to see in the lopsided but occasionally interesting work that resulted. And, as irony would have it, these are the only elements in the disco-tempoed, bed-wrestling, gore-driven film that haven't dated.

Mr. Carpenter's opinion to the contrary, Kneale's work remains rare in my experience of, shall we say, speculative screenwriting in that it has never become old-fashioned. Even when his stories date from another era -- such as the time in the mid-1950s when we stood on the threshold of space travel, trepidatious yet determined to pierce the sky -- they hum with urgency, an urgency of to extend our knowledge, not only of space but of ourselves. People remember the 1960s as an era of mind expansion, but the best science fiction of that period (indeed, of any period) is much more in the nature of mind extension. No one knew better that minds respond better to being sharpened than being blown than Nigel Kneale, and he was just the gunslinger to do it.

How strange then, after sleeping on these ruminations, that I should come online today to discover, in an e-mail from Kim Newman, that Nigel "Tom" Kneale died last Sunday, October 29th, at the age of 84. To resort to an overused but fitting phrase, it feels like the end of an era -- one of those events that bookmark a chapter's end in one's own life.

As a boy who spent his weekends at the movies and his weekdays in front of a television showing movies, I came to understand the importance of the director by the placement of his name at the end of the main titles. The director's name was the one left to resonate in your thoughts during the dissolve that would brighten into the telling of the story. On the other hand, I never gave much thought to the screenwriter's job, other than to wonder where all of these horror movie stories (as in "Story by so-and-so" as a distinct credit) had been published; I later realized that they were mostly written expressly for the screen, sometimes on the back of an envelope or bar napkin. As an habitué of horror, science fiction and fantasy films, I didn't begin to appreciate the craft of the screenwriter until I caught up with Nigel Kneale. He was one of the earliest writers whose name I sought out in newspaper movie ads, and thus more than just a writer to me. He was one of my childhood heroes, along with the first generation of NASA astronauts and Dr. Christiaan Barnard, the surgeon who performed the world's first successful heart transplant. Note that I bracketed him not with fellow artists but with scientists whose visionary adventurism changed the very definition of our species and what we could consider possible; that is how highly I thought of him and the intelligence he brought to bear on the movies he signed.

Such a legacy! He wrote the famous BBC teleplay of George Orwell's NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR (1954) starring Peter Cushing, and his affiliation with Hammer Films was to predate even that of Cushing. His byline appeared on such feature films as THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT aka THE CREEPING UNKNOWN (1955, based on his teleplay "The Quatermass Experiment"), QUATERMASS 2 aka ENEMY FROM SPACE (1957), THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN OF THE HIMALAYAS (1957), THE ENTERTAINER (1960, one of Laurence Olivier's finest screen portrayals), THE FIRST MEN "IN" THE MOON (1964, one of the few Ray Harryhausen films to engage us as something more than an excuse for stop-motion magic), THE WITCHES (1966, not a favorite Hammer of my childhood but one that interests me more today), the magnificent QUATERMASS AND THE PIT aka FIVE MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1968, based on his 1959 teleplay), and of course those brilliant and often prophetic other teleplays written for British television, many of which are now available on import DVD: THE YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS (1968), THE STONE TAPE (1972), BEASTS (1976), THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION aka QUATERMASS (1979), and that marvelous goosebumper THE WOMAN IN BLACK (1989). THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT was revived in 2005 as a live BBC broadcast starring Jason Flemyng, but without Kneale's input; it was not a success.

The presence of Kneale's name on a project was always indicative of quality, indeed of a quality and character that could overcome even the most indifferent direction on the sheer power of its language and ideas. Thus, Kneale is one of the very few screenwriters who earn our full consideration as an auteur. Of course, he is the author of the work, but in the Andrew Sarris sense of the word, he is the work's principal creator -- which was perhaps the real problem that John Carpenter (who insists upon his own name above the title) couldn't overcome with his Kneale screenplay.

Kneale's TOMATO CAIN AND OTHER STORIES (1949) predated his work in television and points to a promising literary career sidetracked by television -- but, as I'm sure he would say, in the words of his Professor Bernard Quatermass, "I never had a career, only work." Thirty years later, he complemented his miniseries teleplays of the 1979 finale to his "Quatermass" saga with a novel version, titled simply QUATERMASS -- one of the most effectively written, elegiac and moving science fiction novels I've read. Largely on the strength of this novel, and of course the "Quatermass" series of stories as a whole, I've always regarded him as one of Britain's greatest literary visionaries, on par with H.G. Welles and J.G. Ballard.

Science fiction mourns Nigel Kneale because he was one of the genre's most illuminating humanists -- not a sentimentalist like Bradbury, or a myth-maker like Frank Herbert, but a confrontational writer in the tradition of Orwell and Huxley, who used the genre as a framework within which to identify and grapple with the nature of the problematic times in which we find ourselves. He often painted cynical landscapes of our future, and found fault with us as a species for our pendulum swings, the way we seem to follow every notable advancement with cowardly retreats into arch-conservatism. He was also a masterful Swiftian satirist whose tweaks at humankind's expense proved just as prophetic as his works undertaken in a more somber mood. He predicted our dire fascination with "reality television" in 1968's THE YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS; the cosmic "ball of twine" narrative of QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, which puts forth a frightening (and, as more recent discoveries have suggested, quite possibly accurate) theory about the origin of our species, was a startling forebear of stories like THE DA VINCI CODE; and even his HALLOWEEN III script, as I noticed last night or this morning, is every bit as critical and satirical of the television medium as David Cronenberg's contemporaneous VIDEODROME.

There is no replacing a talent of this magnitude. We can only thank Nigel Kneale for the many inexhaustible gifts he left behind -- on film, on videotape, and on paper.

Monday, October 30, 2006

VAMPIRE BLOG-A-THON: Six Short Bites

I'm not a vampire novelist, but I play one in real life. In case you're wondering what the author of THROAT SPROCKETS and THE BOOK OF RENFIELD looks for in a vampire movie, this is my response to Nathaniel at Film Experience, who asked fellow bloggers to participate today in a "Vampire Blog-A-Thon": a list of a half-dozen titles I particularly prize in this overworked sub-genre. When it comes to vampires, I'm a progressive, not an Anne Rice/Buffy/Lost Boys sort of person; I loathe the romantic vampires that say "Love Never Dies," and the New Romantic vampire even moreso. I want vampires as metaphor, vampires that bring me into contact with serious real life emotions -- not a gang of morphing, lion-faced Goths with Heavy Metal hair wearing leather dusters. And I want to see them in material that crosses a line, that disturbs me, that makes me think. Here are some vampire movies that do all that, and more:

NOSFERATU (1922)
Surely most lists of this sort would begin the same way, but the obviousness of this silent film's quality and style, and its lasting propensity for chills, are hard to deny. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau is one of the few unquestionable geniuses to have worked in this subgenre, and while he's not quite yet the wholly accomplished artist capable of SUNRISE, he had the benefit of making this film at a time when only Stoker's novel, older folk tales, and his own imagination existed to inspire the direction in which he took his material. Melodramatic and overwrought at times, but if you see this with the right score (the James Bernard-scored version is actually a very good selection), your gooseflesh will confirm that these are some of the visions that reside in the heart of darkness. The moment when the vampire's shadow creeps across the heroine's chest to still her beating heart may be the earliest instance of dark eroticism in the horror film.

BLACK SABBATH (1964)
Mario Bava's stylish triptych of terror tales concludes, in its now-hard-to-find English version, with "The Wurdalak," based on Alexei Tolstoy's story "Family of the Wurdalak." The episode is remarkable for any number of reasons, the foremost being Boris Karloff's frightening portrayal of Gorka, the patriarch who returns... changed... from his mission to bring an end to the life of an undead monster feeding on his neighbors. "I am hungry," he says, and we don't doubt him for a moment as fear and uncertainty turn his family members against one another in the wake of his homecoming. This was Karloff's only vampire performance, and it's one of his best; the makeup he wears as Gorka is remarkably like the description of Dracula given in Stoker's novel, and I wonder if this is how Karloff had planned to look in a stillborn remake of DRACULA (in color and widescreen) in which he had hopes of starring in the late 1950s. Even scarier is his undead grandchild, who returns from his burial to pound on the door and cry, "Mommy, I'm cold!" The Italian-dubbed version (the only DVD release to date) relocates "The Wurdalak" to the middle position of the three stories and naturally dubs Karloff's performance, robbing it of one of its most important dimensions. Still powerfully effective, though. Unfortunately, the Image disc is currently out-of-print and fetches a steep price, but perhaps you can find it as a rental.

DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971)
Of the various screen vampires to whom I would gladly surrender my neck, Delphine Seyrig's Countess Elizabeth Bathory reigns over the rest. It's not her marcelled hair or her silver lamé dress, but her voice -- the voice that said "It can't be" in that intoxicating loop in Joseph Losey's ACCIDENT -- and her verbal powers of persuasion; I can well understand the way she works John Karlen to a lather with her descriptions of her "ancestor's" tortures. Flanked by Andrea Rau and Danielle Ouimet, Seyrig makes this the sexiest of all vampire movies, and director Harry Kumel dresses it with a high style worthy of Josef von Sternberg. THE TRANSYLVANIA GESTURE, why not? An exciting, new upgraded transfer with fresh extras from Blue Underground streets tomorrow.

COUNT DRACULA (1977)
Don't get me wrong; I love Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee too, but I'm assuming that you know all about them. Briefly released as an import DVD that was almost immediately withdrawn, this BBC adaptation of Stoker's novel is the most faithful of all Dracula movies, and the surprise casting of Louis Jourdan in the title role is a complete success. Many of the supporting players -- particularly Judi Bowker as Mina and Susan Penhaligon as Lucy -- embody the characters they play better than anyone who's played them before or since. The two-hour-plus program is somewhat compromised by its combining of film and videotape, but those who have read the novel will never find a better DRACULA.

MARTIN (1977)
Still one of George A. Romero's best films, this study of a troubled Pittsburgh teenager (John Amplas) from a Romanian family approaches vampirish from a then fairly unique angle: not as a supernatural thing, but as an infantile oral compulsion/blood fetish. (The earlier BLOOD SUCKERS, based on Simon Raven's novel DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET, covered some of this same ground, as did Theodore Sturgeon's novel SOME OF YOUR BLOOD.) Martin suffers from a compulsion to drink warm, gushing fluid from the veins of women he fantasizes to be willing and loving; he's sick, but so is his Old World uncle, a self-styled Van Helsing who dogs his every movement and instills him with self-loathing by calling him a "nosferatu." Still a very dark and extreme vampire picture, MARTIN works not only as an unflinchingly transgressive horror film, but as one of the most memorable East Coast examples of independent American filmmaking.

THE HUNGER (1980)
Tony Scott's directorial debut, this film didn't win many fans upon its first release, and it still tends to be remembered more as "the movie where Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve get it on" than as a quality vampire film. But from its opening performance of "Bela Lugosi's Dead" by Bauhaus to its closing image of the unexpected victor in this tangle of predatory relationships, I find it very compelling, one of the genre's rare examples of "composed filmmaking" -- that is, a film that makes more musical (in this case, operatic) than narrative sense. Everyone in the cast is at their best, with David Bowie contributing a memorable bit as Deneuve's expiration-dated lover, and no vampire film better captures the loneliness and heartbreak of eternal life or the surprise and joy of finding an unexpected new love.

WatchBlog's Halloween DVD Recommendations

Halloween has come again
And to make tomorrow scary
Seems the time is right for me to pen
A DVD itinerary.

Here's a frightful five chosen for you
By your WatchBlog kemosabe
They range in sheer shock value
From mild to "POW!" wasabi...


THE ZACHERLEY ARCHIVES
The haunted holiday has no wittier Master of Cemeteries than New Jersey-based John Zacherle (pictured above), who hosted Philadelphia's SHOCK THEATER as "Roland" and New York City's ZACHERLEY AT LARGE as "Zacherley" from the late '50s through the early '60s. All the surviving kinescopes from his broadcasting heyday are collected on this excellent DVD, along with extensive supplements. The vintage material proves beyond question that Zacherle wasn't just one of the first TV horror hosts but, like his colleague Vampira, an offbeat genius of the Beat Generation. He has also recorded several horror-themed musical comedy albums which, for my money, demonstrate a level of artistry in terms of songwriting and performance that are every bit the equal of Ghoul Porter. Still spry in his 80s, Zacherle was a guest at last weekend's Chiller Theater convention, promoting a new book about him, written by Rich Scriviani -- about which you can read more here. I apologize for the short notice, but even if you can't score a copy of this disc in time for Halloween, you should order it anyway. You owe it to yourself to know as much as you can learn about this true American original.

MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES
Joe Busam's Rondo Award-winning compilation of 30 different monster-themed home movies, dating from 1952 to just a few years ago, makes for magical viewing at any time of year, but it acquires additional lustre at Halloween time. Every single film features an audio commentary. Tom Abrams and I contributed an audio commentary to Alan Upchurch's NIGHT STALKER-inspired epic "The Gentle Old Madman," and the disc also runs the gamut from Bob Burns' 16mm short THE ALIEN to Kerry Gammill's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN remake to stop-motion dinosaur animation by Frank Dietz. A must-have disc regardless of season, you can order MKHM from Amazon.com or directly from the www.monsterkidhomemovies.com website. If you feel like still more in the same vein, another Monster Kid auteur -- Don Glut (pronounced "Gloot") -- has also released a two-disc set of all 41 of his own B (as in Boyhood) Movies, I WAS A TEENAGE MOVIEMAKER, but I can't tell you anything about it because I wasn't sent a review copy.

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL
As far as feature films go, this is the one that SCREAMS "Halloween" loudest to me. This William Castle classic posits Vincent Price as the millionaire host of an evening spent among a group of strangers locked inside a haunted Frank Lloyd Wright mansion where murder was once committed; he offers $10,000 to anyone who can survive the evening. Will anyone live to collect? Watch out for the human heads without bodies and the pools of blood that drip from the ceiling! Leona Anderson, the sour songstress responsible for the great MUSIC TO SUFFER BY album (with its great song "Rats In My Room"), has a memorable, hair-raising bit as the house's blind housekeeper. This movie is apparently now in the public domain and thus available from many different labels, but we haven't seen better than the Warner Home Video release, which offers the film in a choice of standard ratio (open aperture) or anamorphically enhanced widescreen (a beautifully composed matted image). Need something a little lighter? How about...

THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN
The definitive Don Knotts comedy casts the quaky comedian as yet another character who must spend the night in a haunted house -- namely Luther Heggs, a typesetter who dreams of having his byline on page 1 and accepts the challenge of bunking down in The Old Simmons Place on the 25th anniversary of the slaying that made it infamous. Rarely has small town America been so sweetly and cleverly lampooned (reportedly no less than Andy Griffith gave the script an uncredited polish), but the spooky parts work too. The score by Vic Mizzy (THE ADDAMS FAMILY, GREEN ACRES) is a big part of its atmosphere and charm, as is the stellar supporting cast: Hal "Otis" Smith, Charles Lane, Robert Cornthwaite, Liam Redmond, Reta Shaw, Skip Homeier, and lovely former Playmate Joan Staley as Luther's main squeeze, Alma. The artfulness and hilariousness of it will never actually be forgotten, not even if you use Bon-Ami on your gray matter. Evidently this movie is now available only as part of a box set with three other Knotts features, but the pricing is like getting the other three movies free. Oh, you want something stronger? A lot stronger? Well, then you can't go wrong with...

SUSPIRIA
This acid-strength immersion in wicked witchiness remains Dario Argento's most effective demonstration reel after thirty years. Jessica Harper (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE) stars as an American ballet student who travels to Germany to study at an exclusive dance academy that turns out to headquarter a coven of witches. Alida Valli as the headmistress gloats more incandescently than a lit Jack O' Lantern, but creepier still is the sinisterly silhouetted Mater Suspiriorum, the wheezing crownhead who, with her two sisters, controls all the evil in the world. Not a lot of plot here, but the style (largely inspired by Disney's SNOW WHITE AND THE 7 DWARFS) is syrup-thick and the violence is, well, thick with syrup. The first murder offers a serious challenge to the shower murder in PSYCHO in the dazzling department, and -- thanks to the DD-5.1 capability of DVD -- the thundrous Goblin sountrack can be enjoyed in something very near its original theatrical presentation. A cameo by Udo Kier is the cherry on top of a very black sundae. If you missed the three-disc limited edition of a few years ago, shame, shame... but you can still get it as a single-disc offering.

And I'll add a postscript to the effect that Tartan Asia Extreme's MAREBITO remains the scariest and most original horror movie I've seen all year. If you've "been there, done that" with all my other suggestions, go straight to MAREBITO. I dare you.

Here's wishing you all a very happy and safe Halloween! Find a good, scary movie and try to go easy on the candy. (DVDs and Peanut M&M's... my only weaknesses! Well, they're the only ones I'm telling YOU about.)

Friday, October 27, 2006

Yours Truly On the Air

I mentioned last week that I had been interviewed for a special Halloween radiocast that was forthcoming on Cincinnati radio station WVXU-FM and promised to share details when I found out about them. I learned today that my interview will be included as part of AROUND CINCINNATI's Sunday broadcast, which can be heard live at WVXU's website (you'll have to register, I'm told) or listened to later as an archived program. My interview originally ran about 15 minutes, but it might be abbreviated for airtime. I'm not the only person being interviewed on the program; among the other guests is my friend and fellow Rondo Award-winner Joe Busam, Rondo's Monster Kid of the Year and producer of the MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES DVD. You can read all about the program here.

My interviewer on this program was Frank Johnson, a local broadcaster whom I've known since we were both teenagers. In fact, Frank was an associate in my first publishing venture as he and I and a third partner, Brad Balfour, collectively chipped in to buy a used mimeograph machine in the early 1970s. We called the machine the Vergen Press for reasons that shall not be elaborated upon, and that imprint was shared by the respective fanzines we produced. Brad's was CONGLOMERATION, mine were THE HYDRAULIC PEANUT BUTTER SANDWICH #1 and APPLES WOOFER #2 (even then I was weird, changing the titles from issue to issue, but keeping the numbering consecutive), and Frank's was SCHAMOOB, which he had already been publishing for awhile. My two were crap (apart from an article in #2 by Andrew J. Offutt about the contemporary horror movie scene), but I have especially fond memories of Frank's fanzine because he was the most innovative publisher among us; he experimented with offset covers, colored inks, photo transfers, even half-pages. This was thirty-some years ago, so I don't remember much about the content, but the ambitious presentation of SCHAMOOB has always stuck in my mind as inspirational. As far as my own work was concerned, I thought at the time it was ambitious enough just to attempt something -- anything! The best thing I did in those days were some cartoons and spot graphics I did for SCHAMOOB, which I remember primariy because they won praise from the late Bea Mahaffey, OTHER WORLDS editor and the belle of the Cincinnati Fantasy Group in those days.

Frank and I saw the original FRIDAY THE 13TH together at a preview screening back in 1980 and laughed all the way through it. As we were getting reacquainted by phone prior to our interview, he mentioned reading the review I subsequently wrote for CFQ and thinking that about half the quips I made at the movie's expense were his, which I suppose is quite possible. When the subject of F13 came up during our interview, Frank -- ever the professional -- didn't tip his hand and made no reference to this past shared history. It was good to see him again, and I expect the program will be good radio.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

ZAZIE and the Sixties: What Did Que Know?

Back in the early 1980s, I went through a phase of reading a lot of Raymond Queneau, the French surrealist-absurdist écrivain (pictured at left). In addition to reading his convulsively funny EXERCISES IN STYLE (the same literary situation rewritten a hundred different ways, from Hemingway plain to tendrilously Proustian and beyond), I remember wolfing down WE ALWAYS TREAT WOMEN TOO WELL (an Irish heist novel with ridiculously overstated, overdescribed violence – an uproarious “gore” novel, if you will) and, of course, his wonderful ZAZIE – a highly literary, comic wordplay novel about a 12 year old girl’s desire to ride the Métro on her first visit to Paris, which is thwarted by a rail strike and leads to mass chaos. At the time of reading ZAZIE, I was vaguely aware that Louis Malle had somehow made this seemingly unfilmable novel into a film that was seemingly impossible to see.

I was thwarted in my wish to see Malle’s ZAZIE DANS LE MÉTRO until a few nights ago, when my wish was finally fulfilled by one of the discs in a new R2 import set, LOUIS MALLE COLLECTION VOLUME 1, released by the French label Optimum Entertainment. This initial set (a second is now also available, including the wonderfully weird dream movie BLACK MOON) consists of the films known in America as ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS, THE FIRE WITHIN, THE LOVERS, and ZAZIE DANS LE MÉTRO (yes, that’s the English title!) and all have English subtitle options. All four films are in their intended screen ratios, anamorphic when necessary, but ZAZIE is in standard 1.33:1 dimensions.

Perhaps because of its placement in the set as Disc 4, I watched ZAZIE assuming that it was made circa 1965 or ’66, after the others in the set – which meant that I watched it under the misapprehension that Malle produced it under the influence of Richard Lester. While putting the disc away – very tickled and pleased with what I’d seen, regardless – the packaging informed me that it was actually made in 1960, and later examination of the disc (and watching a supplementary interview with Malle’s brother Vincent) confirmed that Malle’s acutely attentive, damn-it-all-let’s-go-for-it adaptation of Queneau had actually beaten Lester to the punch, at least in terms of what was possible in a feature-length film. Lester’s seminal comic short THE RUNNING JUMPING & STANDING STILL FILM was first shown in 1959, proving that the germ of this kind of manic, vignettish filmmaking was already alive in him, but even so, I think there’s no question that ZAZIE was a huge influence on Lester’s work, especially HELP! (1965). And now that I have seen it for myself, I believe Lester admitted as much himself when he put Leo McKern in a polar bear suit.

ZAZIE too runs, jumps, and stands still. It also accelerates, grinds down to floaty slow-motion during chases through the rues and rooftops of Paris, has people jumping safely to the ground from upstairs windows, hanging off the Eiffel Tower, declaring their love to strangers, throwing bombs, and plump star Philippe Noiret gets to repel the romantic attentions of a bevy of sexy German tourists called the Five Gretchens. The giddy eye at the center of this far giddier hurricane is the foul-mouthed gamine Zazie, played by Catherine Demongeot in the first of only a few film roles. She’s wonderful, a kind of female counterpart to THE 400 BLOWS’ Antoine Doinel (indeed the film could have been called THE 400 BLOWS OUT YOUR ARSE and fit perfectly into Zazie’s sassy vocabulary), and Demongeot reprised her already iconic role a year later in Godard’s UNE FEMME EST UNE FEMME (1961). I’m told that ZAZIE played in French theaters without interruption for something like two years. But the novel was a best-seller there too, which is hard to imagine in this country, where our most revered authors are Jackie Collins, Dr. Phil, and Rachael Ray.

Philippe Noiret shows la petite Catherine Demongeot around Paris in ZAZIE DANS LE MÉTRO.

From what I can remember of Queneau’s novel, I must say that Malle did a fantastic, imaginative job of adapting the unadaptable. It ranks, although in stark contrast, with LACOMBE LUCIEN as perhaps his finest work. His methods of adaptation are worth examining. For example, in the novel, the character of Zazie’s aunt is named Marceline (for some reason, she’s Albertine in the movie and played by former model Carla Marlier) and all that we’re told about this wraith-like female is that she’s delicate. “Marceline cleaned the table delicately”, “Marceline took her seat delicately”, “asked Marceline delicately” and so forth. In Queneau’s inspired hands, this simple device piles up deliriously till the Coca-Cola you’re drinking rushes out your nose. But such a literary device was unavailable to Malle per se, so instead he had Marlier play Albertine as a kind of living mannequin, a notion that reaches its peak as she climbs onto a motorcycle and whirrs around at a ridiculous speed through the streets of Paris on a rescue mission, her wide eyes expression unchanging and unblinking as she careens through the metropolis, taking the full brunt of the coming wind. Marlier is ideally cast here, in her first film role, and the VW crowd will be interested to learn that she also later appeared in SPIRITS OF THE DEAD [HISTOIRES EXTRAORDINAIRES, 1968], though in Roger Vadim’s “Metzengerstein” rather than Malle’s “William Wilson” episode.

Before seeing ZAZIE, I was under the mistaken impression that the Beatles films had truly launched the spirit of the Sixties in filmmaking, as most people are. But now I have no doubt that ZAZIE was closer to, and may have been, the actual point of ignition. (A good argument, say I, for remaking it – instead of something like DAY OF THE DEAD.) To think that the real instigator behind all the Beatle and Monkee romps, the anarchic glee, the nose-thumbing between the generations, the sheer dizzying no-holds-barred possibilities of Sixties cinema was a bookish Frenchman born in 1903! Incroyable! Suffice to say that the brilliant ZAZIE DANS LE MÉTRO should be regarded as an essential chapter in anyone’s moviegoing education, especially if they are interested in the story of how the cinema got from, oh, CARNIVAL ROCK to HEAD.

For all my fellow centenary fans: Today would have been the 100th birthday of 1933’s world heavyweight boxing champion Primo Carnera, whose films include the Mussolini-era fantasy classic THE IRON CROWN [LA CORONA DI FERRO, 1941], MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949, in which he’s one of the strongmen pitting his muscle against that of the title character in a nightclub act), and HERCULES UNCHAINED [ERCOLE E LA REGINA DI LIDIA, 1958], in which he played the lusty earth god Antaeus and challenged Steve Reeves in a memorable scene.

On a closing note, I’m happy to report that VW’s own Richard Harland Smith has joined the blogging crew over at the Turner Classic Movies subsidiary page MovieMorlocks.com. In his short time there, he’s already knocked out some knock-out postings – one about the relationship between the heroines of PSYCHO and CARNIVAL OF SOULS, and another about his own relationship with an older sister who helped encourage his lifelong love of movies. Once you read these, I’m sure you’ll add MovieMorlocks.com to your list of blog favorites.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

NEW VW ISSUE SELLS OUT - And More

The big news of today is that our current issue, VIDEO WATCHDOG #127, is now officially SOLD OUT. We have no more copies on hand to sell, nor will we have any returns to stock our back issue inventory in the future. Anyone not a subscriber who is interested in picking up this instant Collector's Item is advised to haunt their local Barnes & Noble or Borders Books & Music outlets until they find it, as this will likely be your last chance. (Check our website's "Current Issue" page for a partial listing of stores where VW is stocked.) The reason for this brisk sell-out is that our printer ended up delivering fewer copies of this issue than we ordered. Without going into a lot of needless explanation, there's an acceptable percentage of possible overruns and underruns in our printer's contract, which usually errs on the side of overruns. Sadly, not this time -- when our 80 colorful pages are wrapped in what one enthusiastic reader called our "Best. Cover. Ever."

We've been inundated with calls this past week from subscribers who read on this blog last week that our new issue was sent out on October 10th and are worried that they still haven't received theirs. Rest easy, folks: I was mistaken about the date of our big mailing. The only copies mailed out on the 10th went to our contributors; the subscriber and distributor orders didn't go out until October 12. Suffice to say, the issue left our hands about two weeks later in the month than it usually does. We've heard from some First Class subscribers who have received it, but that doesn't mean all First Class subscribers should have it in hand right now. And Bulk Mail subscriptions take even longer to receive, naturally. So I apologize for the misinformation. Please be patient, and please do us the favor of spreading the word if you know other subscribers who don't have access to this blog/announcement.

On a related note about VW 127, I received a very nice call today from Del Tenney, thanking me for my article "Del Tenney - Auteur of Party Beach" in the new issue. A gracious man, he told me that he agreed with everything I wrote and promised to send me, as a gift, copies of CLEAN AND NARROW (1999) and DO YOU WANT TO KNOW A SECRET? (2001), the two films he executive produced which (because he didn't direct them) weren't covered in the scope of my article. I get the feeling that Del's taken a rough ride over the years, because he interrupted my reprised compliments on his work to apologize for how low budget it was... but one of the points raised by my article was that the quality of his work seemed to falter when he had to work with a larger, union crew on the movie that became I EAT YOUR SKIN. Tenney's work came alive on a low budget, and he should be prouder of what he accomplished. Anyway, all the more reason for me to have written this article, and I hope he takes heart from it. He told me that he has a new "J-Horror-type" film called POD now in pre-production, as well as a book written with his partner Kermit Christman, so the world has not heard the last of Del Tenney.

In another WatchBlog news, VW's own Douglas E. Winter is among the interviewees on tonight's History Channel special THE FEAR FILE: ZOMBIES, which airs tonight at 8:00 pm eastern. Doug tells us that he was interviewed in a graveyard on a 100+ degree day and has no idea how the end product turned out, or how well he'll be represented, because there were many other interviewees, but we're tuning in for sure. If you can't watch or TiVo the broadcast this evening, the show will be repeated on Wednesday, October 25 at 12:00 AM - Sunday, October 29 at 11:00 PM -- and on Monday, October 30 at 3:00 AM.

And finally, pursuant to last week's "The House is the Monster" posting, David Del Valle has sent us a link to the Drkrm. Gallery's "Nevermore" webpage, where you'll find a link to photos taken at Saturday night's opening festivities. Barbara Steele, Curtis Harrington, VW's Sam Umland and Richard Harland Smith, and Roger Corman himself were in attendance. Maybe you were there too? Also check out the link to some "Nevermore" memorabilia from the better slopes of the vineyard, including a coffee cup from which Richard Harland Smith himself has been quaffing his morning java of late.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Wild Wild Monday

If my blogging has become a bit lackadaisical over the past week or so, it's because things have been kicking into high gear here. I've been playing it close to the vest, but it's been an amazing couple of weeks. I can't give you the full details about most of this yet but...

I've agreed to sign a contract for a film book that will be published next Fall and launch a whole new series of books... I've done an audio commentary for a DVD coming out next March, and I have an offer in front of me right now to record another three commentaries in December or January... I've started working on a new film book project for which a surprising number of pages were already written, and made exciting progress last week (though I know I'll have to set this project aside once I sign the aforementioned book contract, at which time I'll have to get the other film book into deliverable shape)... I'm 80-some pages into proofreading my novel-in-progress and making more changes to the manuscript than I expected (funny how things read so differently on paper!)... I'm collaborating with a friend on a radical rewrite of an unproduced horror screenplay I wrote many years ago... last Friday, I was interviewed by local radio station WVXU-FM for their upcoming Halloween show (I'll bring you more details when I have them; I believe the show will be archived online)... and, over the weekend, Donna and I -- presently in a holding pattern with the Bava book as we await the return of some color test proofs from our HK printer -- decided to go ahead and use this waiting period to quickly produce another issue of VW for December!

So, all the other projects I've mentioned have been temporarily set aside, while I'm in strict VW editorial mode.

I had no particular vision of this next issue when we started, but the available pieces miraculously locked in place as if the vision had been there all along in the assigning. The features in VIDEO WATCHDOG 128 will be David J. Schow's article on the first season of THE WILD WILD WEST and new VW contributor Michael Barnum's interview with actor and dubbing director Tony Russel, the star of such Italian films as THE SPARTAN GLADIATOR, THE INVINCIBLE 7, THE WAR OF THE PLANETS, and... THE WILD WILD PLANET!

You got it: VW 128 will be our "Wild Wild" Issue!

Tony talks about his Italian movie days, his early bit parts in America (in Elvis Presley's KING CREOLE, for example), his role as the founder and president of ELDA (the English Language Dubbers Association), and he also shares some revealing anecdotes about glamorous co-stars like Helga Liné, Erika Blanc, Lisa Gastoni, and Maria Perschy. It's a fun, informative read and we look forward to bringing it to you.

All of this "real world" activity is bound to cramp my blogging style this week, but stay tuned -- I may surprise both of us.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The House is the Monster

This weekend, David Del Valle and Drkrm. Gallery of Los Angeles will follow their earlier photo exhibits (most recently, "Beefcake Babylon") with their most ambitious presentation of all. On Saturday night, October 21, the gallery will be host the opening night reception for "NEVERMORE: The Edgar Allan Poe Films of Roger Corman", an exposition of stunning photographs taken on the sets of Corman's legendary AIP Poe pictures, some of them behind-the-scenes (like the image of Barbara Steele and Vincent Price pictured above) and many of them never-before-seen shots in full color.

To quote from Drkrm. Gallery's PR:

Roger Corman is a living legend in the film industry. Known for his lean budgets and savvy knowledge of what works in Pop Culture. Between 1960 and 1964, he would make eight film adaptations from the works of Edgar Allan Poe, seven of which would star Vincent Price. Together, Price and Corman became such a team in the public eye that each new Poe production was met with critical as well as world wide, box-office success.

Roger Corman turns 80 this year and in honor of him, The Del Valle Archive and Drkrm Gallery have assembled a collection of rare photographs from these eight films: HOUSE OF USHER, PIT AND THE PENDULUM, THE PREMATURE BURIAL, TALES OF TERROR, THE RAVEN, THE HAUNTED PALACE, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, and TOMB OF LIGEIA. We pay tribute to them, the legendary Roger Corman and the late Vincent Price with this exhibition of their greatest work together, the likes of which we will see... NEVERMORE.

David Del Valle has achieved national recognition as a journalist, columnist, film historian and radio & television commentator. His articles and interviews have appeared in such publications as CINEFANTASTIQUE, FANGORIA and FILMS IN REVIEW. David oversees The Del Valle Archive, a collection in progress of thousands of still photographs, artwork and ephemera dealing with the horror/fantasy/sci-fi and cult movie genres.

NEVERMORE will have its opening reception 7pm until 10pm on Saturday October 21st, 2006. The exhibit will run through November 18th, 2006. Regular gallery hours are Tues-Saturday 11am-5pm.

Drkrm. Gallery is an exhibition space dedicated to fine art photography, cutting edge and alternative photographic processes, and the display and survey of popular cultural images. All gallery events are free and open to the public.

Drkrm. Gallery - 2121 San Fernando Road, Suite 3
Los Angeles, CA 90065

ph. 323-223-6867
email: gallery@drkrm.com

For more information, visit www.drkrm.com/poe.html

Incidentally, David informs Video WatchBlog that Roger Corman himself has promised to attend the opening, and reclusive PIT AND THE PENDULUM star Barbara Steele has RSVP'd as well. Furthermore, VW's own Sam Umland is reportedly flying out to attend the exhibit, as he and David are preparing to collaborate on the ultimate book about the Corman Poe series (which will make exclusive use of these photos from the Del Valle Archive). It promises to be an amazing evening. True... true... True!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Philip Strick (1939-2006)

From our friend Kim Newman:

"More sad news, I'm afraid. This in from the Critics Circle -- 'Mrs Lizanne Strick has asked me to inform The Critics’ Circle membership of the death of her husband Philip, a Film Section member since 1972. He passed away suddenly on 7 October and a private funeral is being held this Wednesday.'

"I always thought Philip was one of the most underrated genre critics," Kim continues. "His SCIENCE FICTION MOVIES is still a smart, entertaining study which makes unusual connections. He contributed a batch of erudite, witty entries to my BFI COMPANION TO HORROR and was reviewing regularly for SIGHT & SOUND until fairly recently. I reprinted his 1968 review of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in a S&S reader a few years ago - I'm still impressed that anyone could be so perceptive about a movie that colossal within a few days of seeing it for the first time."

Kim's right; this well-observed, skillfully crafted review of 2001 -- which appears in Kim's anthology SCIENCE FICTION/HORROR: A SIGHT & SOUND READER -- is indeed worth finding and reading. Interestingly, considering that he voiced some initial reservations, Philip later included 2001 in his SIGHT & SOUND Top Ten Poll 2002 list. His choices include some (like 2001) that also found their way onto my list, which makes me regret all the more that I didn't know him personally.

Here, for your reading pleasure, are links to THE MATRIX, THE NINTH GATE, THE SIXTH SENSE, MISSION TO MARS, WHAT LIES BENEATH and A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, as reviewed for SIGHT & SOUND by Philip Strick -- clearly one of our most thoughtful and eloquent explorers of speculative cinema.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Good Monday

Lately it seems that every single day brings with it more and more bad news of all kinds, whether it's on the cosmic scale of a total of 650,000 dead civilians in Iraq, or the further erosion of the ozone layer or the middle class, or on the more personal scale of hearing that Tower Records, C.B.G.B.'s, and PSYCHOTRONIC are closing up shop. So when I see/hear about something -- anything -- which proves beyond a shadow of doubt that wonderful and magical things can still happen on our jaded, cynical, backward planet, I feel a moral imperative to pounce on it, embrace it, and proclaim to the world... THIS IS GOOD!



This is a publicity photo taken on the set of HOSTEL: PART II, currently in production. It was leaked by the film's writer-director Eli Roth (the guy in the CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST T-shirt) on his blog and shows him directing one of the film's stars... the ever-beautiful Edwige Fenech! To paraphrase JERRY MAGUIRE, Eli had me at the T-shirt, but for him to be bringing Edwige Fenech back to the screen in a major American motion picture? THIS IS GOOD! Hell, this is practically Mother Earth momentarily back in balance, if you ask me.

And while we are honoring that which is (or was) good...

Re-fasten your centenary belts because Léon Klimovsky -- the director of WEREWOLF SHADOW, DR. JEKYLL AND THE WEREWOLF, VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES, THE DEVIL'S POSSESSED, THE SAGA OF THE DRACULAS, THE VAMPIRE'S NIGHT ORGY, THE PEOPLE WHO OWN THE DARK, and many others... also the man who gave Jess Franco his start in movies as a screenwriter... was born 100 years ago today. Yo le saludo, Maestro, y gracias.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Awards Coming Home

Congratulations to Joe Dante and Sam Hamm, whose MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Homecoming" was recognized for excellence at this weekend's Sitges Festival Internacional de Cinema de Catalunya. Sam won the festival's "Best Screenplay" honors, while Joe and "Homecoming" received the Special Jury Prize.

Visit www.cinemasitges.com for a complete list of award winners.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Waxing Poetic with Frank Dietz

If you read the fine classic monster magazine MONSTERS FROM THE VAULT, you've no doubt marvelled at the funny little department heads, all rendered by the same dead-on artist's hand. That hand belongs to the inimitable Frank Dietz, a Disney animator and sometimes actor whose uncanny knack for caricature has made him the logical successor to Jack Davis as the premier cartoonist specializing in macabre movie moments and idols.

Frank has published several booklet collections of his caricatures, which are available for browsing and purchase at his website, and if you follow that link, I guarantee that you'll see something that will cause you to laugh your head off. Frank's caricatures are not just hilarious because they look funny; they appeal specifically to the film buff's experience and memory of a movie, a scene, a performance. As I once told Frank about one of his caricatures, after pulling my jaw and the rest of myself off the floor, he has the ability to instill into his work not only what an actor is thinking about the movie he's in, but how much he's being paid to be in it.

At this year's Wonderfest, I had opportunities to talk with Frank and found him in that position all artists reach sooner or later, where he was chomping at the bit to move past caricature (which now comes easily to him) into a more challenging realm. For Frank, that beckoning challenge is the world of legitimate portraiture. He had made steps in this direction by creating exclusively for Wonderfest a dozen or so charcoal portraits of the great stars and performances of classic movie horror. He was nervous about putting them on public display the next day, fretful that he might have priced them too high ("I've got to at least cover the cost of materials," he reasoned), but by the time I reached the dealers' room the next morning, all but a couple had been sold -- and Frank was beaming. He'd made his breakthrough. By the end of the day, I'm sure they were all gone and he may have received commissions for more.

Tonight, he's going to make another breakthrough. Tonight, Frank Dietz becomes the subject of a solo exhibit at the Wax Poetic Gallery (their 7th Annual Halloween show) at 3208 West Magnolia Blvd. in Burbank, California, which is going to feature not only his caricatures, pencil drawings, and new charcoal portraits, but -- something new for Frank -- original oil paintings as well. The event, which promises lots of music, refreshments, and guest celebs (not to mention first crack at purchasing the highly collectable pieces on exhibition), will be from 8:00 to 11:00 pm. Call 818-843-9469 for more details.

If you're in the area, don't miss it.

Friday, October 13, 2006

T.G.I. Friday the 13th

I'm starting to hear from our contributors that their copies of VIDEO WATCHDOG #127 have arrived. Other subscriber and distributor copies were mailed out Tuesday (Monday being Columbus Day, a mailing holiday), so they should be reaching everyone else shortly. Some of our First Class subscribers may have even received them in time for this Friday the 13th weekend. I hope you enjoy it, and I look forward to reading any responses.

A lot of new doors opened for me this past week, and I look forward to sharing some happy news about a number of new projects in the coming weeks, once everything is in writing.

Finally, there is sad news from Rome announcing the death of film director Gillo Pontecorvo at age 86. A political filmmaker, Pontecorvo was best-known for his riveting and truly neorealistic THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (1966, featuring one of the great Ennio Morricone scores) and the Marlon Brando-starring BURN! (1969), a study of the profitability of creating wars. In one of the more inspired jokes in John Landis' film THE STUPIDS (1996), Pontecorvo was one of several "intellectual" directors who gamely agreed to appear in bit parts; the others included Costa-Gavras, David Cronenberg, and Atom Egoyan.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

She's A Mae Nak

Mak (Siwat Chotchaicharin) is tormented by Porntip Papanai as the GHOST OF MAE NAK.

GHOST OF MAE NAK
2005, Tartan Asian Extreme, DD-2.0 & 5.1/DTS 5.1/MA/16:9/LB/ST/+, $22.98, 105m 5s, DVD-1

This new horror film from Thailand has the distinction of having been scripted and directed by an English cinematographer, Mark Duffield (KISS KISS BANG BANG, BUTTERFLY MAN). Based on a Thai legend previously filmed more than twenty times, it's the story of a young engaged couple, Mak and Nak, whose lifelong devotion to one another mirrors the eternal love of another Mak and Nak who lived a century earlier. Taken away from his wife shortly after their marriage by war duties, the first Mak returned home to find Nak the mother of his child; they lived happily ever after... until their neighbors confided to Mak that Nak had died during his absence, while pregnant, and that he was being deceived by her ghost. The ghost wreaked its vengeance against the villagers for destroying her last chance at happiness, and her mortal remains were exhumed by monks who silenced her by removing a piece of her skull, which they engraved and formed into a protective amulet for Mak. A century later, the new Mak finds the amulet in an antiques shop and gives it to Nak as a wedding gift. When Mak suffers an accident and falls into a coma, the amulet becomes an device through which Nak receives a desperate psychic message from her husband: "Find Mae Nak!" Only by returning the medallion piece to Nak's buried remains can Mak be freed from her thrall.

Duffield's film is being well-received by some mainstream reviewers, but experienced genre buffs are sure to see it for what it is: an overlong, utterly unoriginal fusion of contemporary J-horror tropes and 1970s possession excess. Opening with a creepy spoken introduction by Nak's elderly aunt (recalling Katherine Emery's narration of THE MAZE, 1953), it gives us the overused J-Horror plot of a dark-haired ghost with a grudge, then throws in elements of PATRICK (a comatose man channelling destructive psychic energy), DON'T LOOK NOW (the blind "seer"), THE OMEN (a series of grisly showy deaths, including one involving a falling sheet of glass that's the most interesting I've seen since the opening of DEATH SHIP), THE EXORCIST (levitation, exorcism), and so on. There's a Cheech and Chong-like pair of cat burglars out of Martin Scorsese's AFTER HOURS, and the cliché-o-meter runs amok with medicine chest mirror scares and shots of Mak jolting out of nightmares in a cold sweat. To Western sensibilities, the performances are too cloying, too wholesome to be believed (when Mak is told the amulet will bring him good luck, he beams as though he's won the national lottery), and the storyline is too scattered and rambling to hold together, the off-the-rails excess of the final half hour becoming laughable. When was the last time you saw wire-work involved in an operating room sequence?

Making this mediocre film even less attractive -- and this is particularly surprising for a film directed by a cinematographer -- the picture quality is overly dark and muted, with mostly ugly colors and some deliberately blooming whites. Tartan's disc offers three sound options, all in the original Thai language, one in Dolby 2.0 and two 5.1 options in DD or DTS. The two five-channel options are quite active and functional in context, but a sampling of individual moments reveals a lot of ambient "haunted house"-type sounds that rarely let up. The extras include a very dry, play-by-play-reliant audio commentary by Duffield, which is nevertheless informative and useful toward understanding why this love story shies away from depictions of kissing. A 65m 52s video diary of the film's production takes us on-set and finds almost everyone speaking perfect English. Viewers with an obsessive interest in Thai filmmaking procedures may find this material of value, but for the rest of us, the feature itself doesn't really warrant any more of our time than has already been wasted.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Greetings from The Maze


Hello. My name is Katherine Emery.


Perhaps you remember me as Mrs. Mary St. Aubyn in Val Lewton's chilling ISLE OF THE DEAD, as Mrs. Willis in John Brahm's THE LOCKET, or as the appropriately termed "Grim Nurse" in Lewis Milestone's ARCH OF TRIUMPH. But those who have seen William Cameron Menzies' 3-D classic THE MAZE will certainly remember me as the film's matronly narrator, Edith Murray.

I don't actually open the picture as everyone seems to remember, but apparently something about the way I walked in three-dimensions from a distance into closeup -- all the while looking straight ahead, straight into your eyes -- registered in the minds of young children as even more frightening than the Frog-thing whom Mr. Menzies unveiled in the final reel! I understand that the new Thai horror film GHOST OF MAE NAK may even pay a kind of homage to my scene in THE MAZE. I personally doubt it, but Mr. Lucas tells me that it has an opening "in my tradition," whatever that means.



Who can say why children found me frightening? I tried my best to appear friendly and approachable. Perhaps I reminded them of a stern teacher or someone who once pulled their teeth. If you happen to be one of those children I sent scurrying under their theater seat, back in the day, all I can say is... BOO!


Anyway, I have been summoned from the Beyond by your blogger for the simple reason that I happened to be born one hundred years ago today. He has a thing about centenaries that I can't pretend to understand, but I thank him and the rest of you for remembering me.


One hundred years ago... I suppose that was the beginning. It happened in Birmingham, Alabama, and it started the fantastic chain of events that led to my experience in THE MAZE. My niece Kitty and I were with a group of friends in a delightful little café in Cannes, on the French Riviera. It was an engagement party...

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

BRIGHTON ROCK's Wild English Rose

Carol Marsh -- best-known to readers of this blog as Miss Lucy in Terence Fisher's DRACULA (aka HORROR OF DRACULA, 1958) -- disappeared from the screen back into private life shortly after making that film. Posterity will likely remember her as the girl whose forehead was ruined by the touch of Van Helsing's crucifix, a vision of innocence turned feral and virulent by a ravishment of evil ("Come... let me kiss you"). But as fine as her DRACULA performance was, Carol Marsh gave it in the long shadow cast by an even better one, her very first chance at (pardon the expression) bat. Born Norma Simpson in 1929, Marsh made her screen debut under truly auspicious, well-publicized circumstances, beating out 2,000 other contenders for the coveted role of Rose Brown in John Boulting's 1947 film of Graham Greene's hard-hitting novel BRIGHTON ROCK.

For reasons unknown to me, BRIGHTON ROCK is one of those high-profile British films that has always been next to impossible to see here in America. It was given a US theatrical release under the title YOUNG SCARFACE, but it has disappeared since. Amazon.com assures me that there was a VHS release from Movies Unlimited, now out-of-print, but isn't Movies Unlimited a store rather than a video label? I've never known the film to appear on television, and I didn't get around to seeing it for the first time until just a couple of years ago, when a friend sent me a darkish dub made from a copy in a Los Angeles video store's private collection.

As a longtime admirer of Greene's novel (still one of the scariest things I've ever read), I found the movie to be uncannily successful in all departments: Richard Attenborough is the very image of Pinky Brown, the soft-voiced, sadistic ringleader of a criminal gang (it wouldn't surprise me if he based Pinkie's speech patterns on those of fellow British actor Philip Stone, familiar from later Stanley Kubrick films); Hermione Baddeley is note-perfect as Ida Arnold, a good-hearted goodtime gal who decides to investigate the disappearance of an attentive man she met at Brighton Rock, which she links to a mob hit; Harcourt Williams is unforgettable as the alcoholic mob lawyer Prewitt; Nigel Stock (THE LOST CONTINENT) and William Hartnell (a future DOCTOR WHO) are vivid as Pinky's associates; and then there is Carol Marsh, who is not the Rose I pictured while reading the novel, but I'll give the filmmakers this: such were the limits of my imagination. Were I to read the novel again, I doubt I could keep the memory of Marsh's face, smile, or jittery, eager-to-please mannerisms at bay for very long.

Hers is a mesmerizing and ultimately heartbreaking performance, much of which is wrapped up in her demure yet vaguely animalistic presence. For all of Rose's sweetness, it's nigh impossible not to see the wicked quality that prompted Terence Fisher to cast Marsh as Lucy. She is like an English rose with thorns gathering in her brows. Rose is a simple, pure-hearted girl whose lack of complication is both her virtue and her downfall. Marsh makes us believe in Rose as a small town girl, honest and open to a fault, who has fled a no longer tenable home life (involving, we sense, physical and perhaps sexual abuse) to seek her fortune in the big city, naturally starting at the bottom -- as a waitress. She's eager to find love and protection to replace the family she's lost, but the chance intervention of a ten-pound contest ticket into her life damns her to marry the biggest little monster on the midway. Rose has seen too much, knows who killed the man in the haunted house ride on Palace Pier, and that's why Pinky wants to tie the knot -- right around her throat -- in the event she's ever called to testify against him. Already hurt by the world and desperate for protection, she is starry-eyed over her ice-cold suitor, and he flaunts his clammy loathing of her to the extent of recording a litany of hateful insults in an arcade sound booth, under cover of being a love letter, knowing that the poor girl doesn't own a phonograph to play the tell-tale acetate.

Another striking thing about BRIGHTON ROCK, when seen today, is the modernity of its construction. The story unfolds obliquely, standing close by the efforts of a secondary character (Alan Wheatley) to stay alive, who doesn't survive the first twenty minutes. The real protagonists are only glimpsed prior to this, but their presence is felt throughout -- Attenborough is potently introduced as a pair of hands flexing with alacrity whilst executing various cat's cradles with a web of string. The music by Hans May also feels quite contemporary in the way it pushes the action through orchestrated rhythm rather than melody, and it's hard to believe that this was only the second feature assignment for director of photography Harry Waxman, whose highly mobile, dramatic style qualifies BRIGHTON ROCK as a masterpiece of film noir cinematography and perhaps the greatest British example. Its place in the hiearchy of gangster films is unquestionable, and devotées of the genre will find interesting a sequence where Pinky meets with the Italian leader of local organized crime, a man named Colleoni (according to the IMDb, that is; his name sounded more to me like "Corleone").

The finale of Greene's novel, which found Rose returning home while looking forward to listening to Pinky's recorded "love letter" for the first time, is one of the great harrowing finales of 20th century English literature. Because it was considered too strong and downbeat for the film version, Greene worked with screenwriter Terrence Rattigan to conceive an acceptable alternative ending, which is arguably the movie's only fault. Viewers unfamiliar with the book may find it acceptable enough, but it's like a bad joke; the extent to which we've bonded with Marsh's touching performance is the only thing that keeps it from being risible. To laugh at her gullibility would be too much of a sin on our part.

My quest for a perfect-looking BRIGHTON ROCK has now been satisfied. It's now available on DVD as part of a fabulous four-disc PAL R2 import set called THE GRAHAM GREENE COLLECTION (Optimum Releasing). In addition, the set includes splendid presentations of THE THIRD MAN (1949, including two "Third Man" radio plays and a featurette on zither musician/composer Anton Karas); THE FALLEN IDOL (1948, a longtime PD eyesore in America, here restored to its original lustre); and THE HEART OF THE MATTER (1953, with its great performance by THE THIRD MAN's Trevor Howard). All of the discs originate from Studio Canal masters.

The standard ratio presentation of BRIGHTON ROCK is generally excellent, with thin black matte lines on the peripheries; the PAL to NTSC playback does result in a faint awareness of accelerated film speed, especially when the action becomes naturally accelerated. The DD-2.0 mono audio track manages to reduce background noise without overly clipping the dialogue. Some viewers may have trouble making sense of some of the dialogue, which includes Cockney rhyming slang as well as some dated hardboiled slang, both of which are further obscured by regional accents; but if you can make it through PERFORMANCE, it shouldn't be a problem.

Criterion's THE THIRD MAN remains the definitive presentation of that title, but the remaining three titles are well worth the cost of this set; if you haven't acquired the Criterion disc, it becomes that much more attractive. Enthusiastically recommended, especially for BRIGHTON ROCK and the rejuvenated THE FALLEN IDOL, THE GRAHAM GREENE COLLECTION is available domestically from Xploited Cinema, here.