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.

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. 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.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

It Was One Year Ago Today...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

René Cardona Sr. Centenary

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