Tuesday, November 21, 2006

CINEFANTAST-GEEK

Earlier this year, it was briefly rumored that the long-running CFQ (formerly CINEFANTASTIQUE) would be discontinued. The publishers denied this, but now, instead of receiving their expected latest issue of CFQ, subscribers have received the first issue of a new magazine called GEEK MONTHLY, with the following note from editor Jeff Bond attached:

"CFQ has been hard at work for over 35 years providing incisive coverage of fantastic films & television, and now it's time for the mag to take a much-deserved rest. While we plan on bringing CFQ back in the near future on an irregular basis for in-depth spotlights & special issues, the regular magazine will be going on hiatus into 2007."

As we all know, "hiatus" is a notoriously non-committal way for businesses to tacitly consign no-longer-viable properties to the necropolis. It pinches an illusion of bon vivance into the cheeks of an old soldier who wants to go out looking tired rather than exhausted. We can all count on the fingers of one hand the number of television shows that have come back from the quicksands of hiatus, and the number is surely far fewer when it comes to magazines. As a fellow publisher, I can tell you that there's no money in publishing any magazine "on an irregular basis," because distributors refuse to pay for them until the next issue of that title is published. And, of course, the longer any magazine is off newsstands, people stop looking for it. But I suspect the publishers of CFQ are wise to this, given the obscure phrasing of the closing words of Jeff's note. What exactly does "on hiatus into 2007" mean, anyway? Until 2007? Throughout 2007? Beginning with 2007? Whatever the answer, it surely conflicts with "we plan on bringing CFQ back in the near future" -- especially if GEEK MONTHLY should perform better than CFQ on newsstands.

A magazine apparently conceived to cover vaguely similar interests in extremely dissimilar fashion, GEEK MONTHLY summarizes its interests with the above-the-title beats of "Entertainment • Lifestyle • Tech • Sarcasm," and the first issue features cover boy Rainn Wilson, "TV's Coolest Geek," in ungeekly James Bond drag. Based on information posted at their website, it would appear that GM was conceived as a fashionable "lite" fusion of CFQ, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, and THE ONION. (A GeekMonthly.com blog posting uses pictures of telejournalist John Stossel and Borat as an opportunity to ask the age-old question "Separated At Birth?", which I hope is not symptomatic of the magazine's actual content.)

Some onlookers are cocking snoots and saying that CFQ's late founder/publisher/editor Frederick S. Clarke must be spinning in his grave. As someone who knew and worked for Fred, I'm not so sure. It's true that Fred started out as a purist, idealist, and publishing visionary, but as time marched on, he succumbed to the temptations of big business and embraced what was most commercial about science fiction and fantasy cinema -- even if he continued, to some extent, to be opinionated and somewhat contrarian in his coverage of it. He also founded FEMME FATALES (sic) in 1992 as a T&A sister publication to CFQ, which is what really indicates to me that, if Fred Clarke was still around today, GEEK MONTHLY might well be an option he would consider worth exploring.

But for those of us who loved CFQ -- and especially the original CINEFANTASTIQUE as published by Fred Clarke -- the substitution of GEEK MONTHLY in subscribers' mailboxes has got to make us ponder to what we, and the world, are coming. In a sense, the magazine's profile mocks the very sensibility upon which CINEFANTASTIQUE was founded: the idea of paying serious, in-depth attention to films not previously taken seriously by the mainstream press. That idea, which put considerable push toward the initial turning of an enormous wheel of industry that now spins like a multi-billion dollar lathe, is experiencing diminishing returns at the newsstand because what CFQ used to do best of all is now being done by the film studios themselves, in the form of DVD supplementary features -- the making-ofs, the audio commentaries, the storyboard galleries, the behind-the-scenes interviews. (The trouble with this, of course, is that we have collectively sold out objective journalism in favor of lookalike publicity. Call me Howard Beale, but woe is us.)

It makes sense, in these increasingly cynical and idiocratic times, that "sarcasm" is what has been dreamed up to replace boring intelligence. Sarcasm allows people to feel superior to what they don't know and are too cool to learn. At least the editors of GEEK MONTHLY are calling a spade a spade and are literate enough to not confuse sarcasm with that trendy word often misused as a synonym: "irony."

The name-checking of Woody Allen on the cover of the first issue recalls the nebbish director's maxim that he would never want to join any club that would have him for a member. Which beggars the question, "Who is the audience for this sort of magazine?" Speaking as one of the original first generation CINEFANTAS-geeks, I think any magazine calling itself GEEK MONTHLY is far more likely to attract closet geeks and wannabe geeks, if there are such things, than the genuine article -- who prefer to think of themselves as "obsessives", "eccentrics", or even "fanboys," and would resist on principle any corporate attempt to represent them and their interests. These people will continue to seek their information in genuinely oddball magazines and news sources that, like them, simply are what they are.

If this does prove to be the end of the line for CFQ, Fred Clarke can rest easily in the knowledge that his brainchild lasted the better part of 40 years (from the time its first mimeographed issue rolled off the hand-cranked press in 1967) and effected substantial change in the film and publishing industries.

Not bad for a geek from Oak Park, Illinois.

Monday, November 20, 2006

By The Gods!

What stars Steve Reeves, Gordon Scott and Peter Lupus, was filmed all over Europe, runs over four thousand minutes, covers thirteen discs, but can be had for less than thirty dollars? (And, in some places, for less than twenty?) It's a tempting but worrisome box set called WARRIORS from Mill Creek Entertainment -- 50 different sword-and-sandal pictures from the '50s and '60s, presented four to a disc (two to the thirteenth disc) at an almost irresistable price.

The natural reaction to such an item is, "Yes, I might be interested... but how's the quality?" With that question in mind, I plunked down my money and awaited its arrival.

WARRIORS is interestingly packaged. The discs come in individual sleeves, couched inside a deep cardboard box with a velcro-fastened door-hinge cover. Each sleeve contains a paragraph of plot description about each movie on that particular disc. Each movie is limited to only four chapter marks, and a Mill Creek Entertainment bug appears in the lower right corner of each feature, though for no more than once or twice (briefly) per picture. A minor point of annoyance is that most of the discs revert to Menu mode before the music heralding the end of each picture completely fades out. (What's the hurry?)

I am not about to review 50 films for free, even sketchily, so here are my notes on the first 24 titles in the set (click on the titles for IMDb links and further information):

Disc 1: HERCULES AND THE MASKED RIDER (83m 25s)
Soft-looking, with okay color. Cropped to standard ratio from the Totalscope (2.35:1) original. The greens and reds are intact, but the blues have largely faded. Some infrequent video artifacting -- adding up to a probable tape source of a 16mm element.

SPARTACUS AND THE TEN GLADIATORS (98m 16s)
Softish, but boasts decent, warm color and strong blacks. The cropping of this Techniscope (2.35:1) original looks a bit zoomed-into, resulting in some headroom cropping.

THE CONQUEROR OF THE ORIENT (74m 8s)
Horizontal cropping of this Dyaliscope (2.35:1) original is again a problem, with upper and lower credits getting lopped off my screen -- depending on your overscan (or mine), your mileage may differ. Good color, but soft - denoting another 16mm source, but the close-ups have a surprising amount of detail.

LAST OF THE VIKINGS (103m 22s)
Opens with Medallion Pictures logo. Initially, this transfer appears cropped to 1.66 from the 2.35 Dyaliscope original, but the black bars quickly disappear, leaving us with a standard 1.33 pan&scan (with no actual panning). The menu shows the title frame with more room on all four sides, indicating that Mill Creek could have done better. The blue has mostly disappeared from the color palate, and the remaining color is somewhat greenish and orangey, though pleasingly sharp. Enjoyable, but the element is faded enough to make it hard to appreciate all that Mario Bava brought (unofficially) to the mise en scène. Faint hum on the soundtrack.

Disc 2: URSUS IN THE LAND OF FIRE (87m 29s)
Another formerly Dyaliscope pan&scan print with no panning; there are several occasions when the actor speaking is not onscreen, as the framing stares down the wall between two actors. Grainy, muted color. This movie is nevertheless delightful as a catalogue of classic Italian Golden Age locations -- the Cascate de Montegelato waterfall from HERCULES, the lake from MEDUSA AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES, etc.

THE TWO GLADIATORS (93m 4s)
A rarely seen Mario Caiano title in which Richard Harrison and Mimmo Palmara, who look nothing like one another, play twin brothers. Harrison looks incredibly like Ben Affleck here. This Techniscope picture is slightly letterboxed throughout, to about 1.66, which is better than nothing but remains noticeably cropped. The color is faded; it's practically black-and-white... and red. The English dialogue is credited to former actress Tamara Lees.

CLEOPATRA'S DAUGHTER (89m 14s)
Shot in "Ultrascope," the opening main titles scroll is squeezed, tempting widescreen set owners to decompress the picture... but the regular cropped dimensions soon return. Soft picture, decent color, from a 16mm source.

THE LION OF THEBES (87m 47s)
Again, this widescreen original -- lensed in "Euroscope" -- is presented here with squeezed main titles, which look correctly proportioned when uncompressed to 1.78; the rest of the movie is cropped with panless pan&scanning that cuts from one side of the screen to the other, imposing an unwanted editorial rhythm on the picture. Watchable, but hardly ideal.

Disc 3: HERCULES AGAINST THE MOON MEN (86m 52s)
Grainy, badly cropped 16mm TV print source, with flecking and some overly dark scenes. Something Weird Video has released a perfect, widescreen, brightly colorful version of this Cromoscope title, so there's no need ever to consult this version.

THE GIANTS OF THESSALY (87m 52s)
This Totalscope release is letterboxed here at a compromised 1.66 framing, as was VCI's release (taken from a standard ratio 16mm print), but the color looks bumped up a bit -- a bit too much, actually. An official release would doubtless look superior, but until that unlikely event comes to pass, this is acceptable.

ALI BABA AND THE SEVEN SARACENS (80m 5s)
American International Television logo, hence a 16mm source. Like many AIP TV exclusives, this movie appears to have the first reel lopped off, and there are next to no credits onscreen (only those of presenters James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, star Gordon Mitchell, and director Emmimo Salvi). The print has some white flecks and is pan&scanned from the 2.35:1 original Totalscope framing. The color appears to have been given a digital boost and looks fairly strong.

THE GIANT OF MARATHON (84m 18s)
Supposedly lensed in two different gauges -- Dyaliscope with underwater scenes filmed in Totalscope -- this film opens with windowboxed widescreen credits that segue into the barest of letterboxing, with thin bars at top and bottom that may not be visible on some monitors. The cropping of Mario Bava's ravishing cinematography is damaging -- and unnecessary, as fully or partially letterboxed versions of this PD title are in circulation. There is some image ghosting as well during action scenes, and the robust color is compromised by a yellowish bias. A waste.

Disc 4: COLOSSUS AND THE AMAZON QUEEN (83m 32s)
As with ALI BABA AND THE SEVEN SARACENS, greatly abbreviated credits and the opening reel of the original Italian version seems to be missing as the film essentially begins "in progress." AIP-TV (whose presentational card is missing) seems to have had some fun at director Vitttorio Sala's expense, rescoring the film with jazzy '50s style rock 'n' roll and giving it some gratingly bad "comic" dubbing. Color overly strong with yellowish skin tones and bluish foliage. Cropped from original Dyaliscope framing.

DUEL OF CHAMPIONS (89m 9s)
This may be a "Terence Young Picture" starring Alan Ladd, but it's "directed by Fernando Baldi" and conspicuously a peplum, having been shot in Rome, written by the usual suspects (Ennio De Concini, et al), and featuring a number of recognizable Italian supporting players. A tape crinkle or three is visible during the overly red main titles. The image is badly cropped from the Totalscope original, color has been beefed-up a bit too much, and the soundtrack is unpleasantly prone to distortion and break-up due to fluctuating tracking of the tape master. A mess.

HERO OF ROME (86m 32s)
This is a weird one: the film begins in progress, with reconstructed video titles superimposed over the first dialogue scene. The superimpositions are obviously modelled on the original screen credits, and include credits for the "Version Française." Soft, darkish, cropped from 2.35:1 Spesvision, and with unpredictable color -- sometimes it's good, othertimes greenish and pale, so probably reconstructed from more than a single print. Despite the opening problem, an acceptable way to see this film.

THOR AND THE AMAZON WOMEN (85m 36s)
Opening titles are squeezed, with an L-shaped windowbox and a bad splice or two... but the rest of the film looks good for a pan&scanned item, with sharp picture, good color, and an overall clean look. Cropped from Totalscope. Likely taken from the Panther Entertainment VHS tape release from the 1980s.

Disc 5: DAMON AND PYTHIAS (98m 39s)
Green skies prevail in this badly faded 16mm source, replete with original Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer "Leo the Lion" logo, which sports very moderate windowboxing throughout. Not a scope picture, it was shot open aperture for adjustable soft-matte framing. Turner Classic Movies and other Turner channels have shown this with exquisite color in recent years.

THE FURY OF HERCULES (96m 20s)
Filmed in Totalscope, this is a very soft pan&scan transfer with squeezed main titles. The color isn't perfect, but it's acceptable; unfortunately, the picture is almost too soft to watch with any pleasure and, on some occasions, the image seems contorted, as when the vertical lines of palace windows seem to curve ever so slightly to the left. Notable for the presence in the cast of Serge Gainsbourg.

CAESAR THE CONQUEROR (98m 5s)
Green and red, scratches. Main titles are squeezed, the remainder an unfortunate pan&scan presentation of a film that must have been impressive in its original 2.35:1 Totalscope splendor.

SON OF SAMSON (87m 28s)
This is a completely letterboxed transfer that, despite a slight squeeze, still can't fit every letter of every name in the main titles. It looks to be a 1.66:1 transfer of a Totalscope original, and viewers with widescreen sets can easily decompress the image to restore the original framing, making this one of the most worthwhile titles in the set. The color has a yellowish cast that makes the muscular Mark Forest look like a living, breathing Academy Award in some shots. The print gets very ragged at the end, and the end title card appears to have been imported from another movie, something in the Arabian Nights milieu.

Disc 6: GLADIATORS SEVEN (87m 56s)
This excellent Richard Harrison film has been released by a number of different labels, on its own (Westlake Entertainment) and as parts of multi-disc sets (Brentwood's 2-disc GLADIATORS and St. Clair Entertainment's group same-named 3-disc set), usually with its original Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer card present. There's no MGM logo here, and the 2.1 letterboxing is slightly squeezed from the film's original Techniscope dimensions. This version looks somewhat softer than other versions I've seen and the ragged print ends abruptly, with score mid-note.

GLADIATORS OF ROME (99m 28s)
Very faded -- black-and-green rather than black-and-white, with faintly blooming brights, motion blurring/ghosting, and with ugly coarse reds. The standard ratio presentation is cropped from a Euroscope original. There must be better copies available than this.

GOLIATH AND THE DRAGON (86m 20s)
Like HERCULES AGAINST THE MOON MEN, this "Colorscope" (actually Totalscope) movie has been released in a splendid widescreen version by Something Weird Video, reducing this sub-standard presentation to mere filler. Letterboxed, with sometimes badly turned color, blooming greenish brights, and intermittent banjo-string scratches.

MACISTE IN KING SOLOMON'S MINES (92m 47s)
A fairly clean print, but cropped from Techniscope and again subject to greenish hue, action blurring, and blossoming brights. The flesh tones are decent however, and the picture is crisper than most in this set.

Already, with these 24 titles alone, I think the WARRIORS set has accounted for its purchase price -- and we're less than halfway through its contents. The source materials may be faulty but the discs themselves are well mastered and easy to navigate. (Each movie is limited to only four chapter marks.) When one considers that we once readily paid $30 for VHS copies of two or three of these films from Sinister Cinema, taken from similar sources in many cases, the bargain of this set comes into even greater focus.

If authorized releases of any of these titles should surface in years to come, it's quite possible -- as the some recent Toho DVDs have shown us -- that the AIP and AIP TV dubbing tracks may remain exclusive to these worn sources, replaced by new English tracks if given English tracks at all. In short, I consider WARRIORS a worthwhile purchase. These cropped and faded presentations may not capture the films themselves at their best, but they do capture moments in time -- the way these films looked on television, the way they once sounded in this country -- and, for those of us who love them, these are things worth preserving.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Wild Wild Preview


Ladies and gentlemen, here is your first peek at the cover of VIDEO WATCHDOG #128 -- now at the printer and due to hit newsstands and mailboxes sometime next month. Feel free to click on it for a more life-sized impression.

As always, you can find more information about this special "Wild Wild" issue in the Coming Soon section of our website, with near-complete details (we've got to keep some surprises up our sleeves) and a four-page preview, accessible by clicking on the cover as displayed there.

Rather than give you samples of only two articles or reviews, as we do usually, this time we're previewing three different pieces: Michael Barnum's Tony Russel interview (a must for you Eurocult buffs), David J. Schow's coverage of THE WILD WILD WEST - THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON, and Ramsey Campbell's valentine to the wacky Turkish superhero fest 3 DEV ADAM.

Peek in and enjoy!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Spreading The Word

I found the following press release posted at Matt Zoller Seitz's The House Next Door blog. Normally, I would simply include a link to the original posting but, in this case, I feel the correct thing to do is to spread the word. I invite my fellow bloggers and discussion board posters to do the same.

The Adrienne Shelly Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the memory of Writer/Director/Actress Adrienne Shelly, is being founded by her husband, Andy Ostroy. Plans include a Womens’ Filmmaking Scholarship Fund, with a particular emphasis on awarding film school scholarships and helping women make the transition from acting to directing. “I know what Adrienne would want most would be to help women get a chance to pursue their dream,” says Ostroy. More initiatives from the foundation will be announced at a later date.

Those wanting to contribute can send checks made out to THE ADRIENNE SHELLY FOUNDATION, via Belardi/Ostroy LLC, 16 West 22nd Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10010. Checks should be post-dated December 15th, until the legal status of the Foundation is finalized.

Shelly, who first became known as an actor for her teamings with director Hal Hartley on THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH and TRUST, recently appeared in FACTOTUM. She wrote and directed three feature films in which she acted, SUDDEN MANHATTAN, I'LL TAKE YOU THERE, and the soon-to-be-seen WAITRESS. She also appeared in over 20 other films.

Press Contact: Reid Rosefelt 718-855-2804, 917-691-3312.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Humpday Announcements

My review of Jerzy Stuhr's THE BIG ANIMAL (First Run Features), based on a script by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski, is now posted to the SIGHT & SOUND website. You can read it here in its entirety.

Today I signed a contract for a film book that will be published in the fall of 2007, the first book in a new series from a small independent publisher. I can't tell you anything about it yet, but the publisher kindly attached to my contract a beautiful, full color likeness of the book's cover art -- already finished! -- which made it all the more exciting to sign.

Speaking of books, just knowing something is out there can sometimes make all the difference. Fantasy novelist Craig Shaw Gardner, whom VW is honored to count among its readers, wrote to me recently about a trilogy of tongue-in-cheek, film-based fantasy novels called "The Cineverse Cycle," first published by Ace in 1989. He told me that the books, which were well-received at the time, have been newly reissued but aren't getting any promotional push (I hear you, brother!); he asked if I might mention them here on my blog -- primarily because he feels, in retrospect, that he wrote them for VIDEO WATCHDOG's slightly before VW actually existed. Craig sent me the three books -- SLAVES OF THE VOLCANO GOD, BRIDE OF THE SLIME MONSTER, and REVENGE OF THE FLUFFY BUNNIES -- for perusal, and they're good, clean, silly, film buffy fun. Each one follows hero Roger Gordon and superhero Captain Crusader through a plethora of different movie-based worlds, including some not reflected in the book titles, like planets built around Beach Party movies (complete with musical numbers), foreign art films, and sword-and-sandal epics, so that the reader never stays in one genre for too long. You're his target audience, so check 'em out.

In further news, VARIETY is announcing the official death of the VHS format.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Words Fail Me

... but I mustn't fail her. Louise Brooks was born 100 years ago today and it's not a centenary to be overlooked. I could have picked any number of different images of Our Miss Brooks to lionize here today -- winsome, frank, coquettish, wholesome, provocative, naked, even some from late in her life when something vaguely Asian crept into her crepey yet undiminished beauty -- but I'm especially fond of this one, for its irony. It also reflects her fondness for books, her cleverness, and her self-evident defiance of convention. I defy anyone to find a comparable photo of another silent screen siren.

Criterion's forthcoming box set of PANDORA'S BOX (which streets November 28) arrived in my mailbox yesterday and it's one of their most attractively packaged sets. I may find time to watch the movie later today in her honor but, before going to bed tonight, I made a point of revisiting the TCM documentary LOUISE BROOKS: LOOKING FOR LULU, which is one of the items on the supplementary second disc. It's a candid, balanced, and wonderful piece of work that makes me want very much to see her final European film, PRIX DE BEAUTÉ (available on DVD from Kino on Video). Near the end of the program, someone remembers that Miss Brooks was of the opinion that her success had been an ingeniously disguised form of failure, and I find this dichotomy compelling. Certainly, by all accounts, she knew failure, hard times, loneliness, despair, and the bottom of a gin bottle... but she redeemed her misspent middle years by writing about her years before the fall and collecting her memoirs in a book called LULU IN HOLLYWOOD. By recapturing those years in words of hard-won wisdom, wit, and elegantly crafted expression, she found that she hadn't really lost anything. In writing about the girl who was Lulu, she also gave the ghostly flickering image of herself greater substance -- evidence, if you will, that not everything people responded to in her ever contemporary image was a deluded projection of their own desires. Had Garbo ever picked up a pen, we would have surely been disappointed.

Find and read a copy of LULU IN HOLLYWOOD if you haven't, and meet Louise Brooks. A more immediate way of accomplishing this is by reading Kenneth Tynan's famous profile of the actress, written for THE NEW YORKER in 1979, which is available online here.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

She Is The Bloody Queen

Helen Mirren, looking luscious in John Mackenzie's British crime classic THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (1979) -- now available from Anchor Bay Entertainment.

Helen Mirren first wafted across my consciousness in Lindsay Anderson's O LUCKY MAN! (1973), in which she played the daughter of the most evil man in the world. She was perfectly cast as ambitious working class git Mick Travers' (Malcolm McDowell's) living, breathing, unattainable trophy of sexual achievement: rich, dignified, but with an anarchistic, adventurous streak that sends her cutting Daddy's masterpieces out of their frames to secure the money she is too insolent to ask for. Deep, dangerous, worldly and not merely sexy, but opulently sexy. It wasn't just the way she filled an exquisitely cut white evening gown with a body seemingly possessed of everything in all the abundance a man could ever crave; it was also the way she said "Michael." She made the name sparkle with decadent delight.

It was after O LUCKY MAN! that I got around to some of her earlier performances: the popcorn-dropping moment in Ken Russell's SAVAGE MESSIAH (1972) when she walks down a palatial flight of stairs resplendently nude in heels, and Michael Powell's final feature AGE OF CONSENT (1969) in which she again (to quote Powell himself) "stripped off magnificently." I don't mean to focus exclusively on Ms. Mirren's physical disclosures, but they need mentioning in any attempt to explain the full shock of her early screen appearances. Not only was she arguably the most ravishing creature of her era, but she gave altogether extraordinary performances in movies that reflected unusual intelligence and discernment in their selection... and then, when the credits rolled, came the triple whammy of seeing that this voluptuous firebrand had appeared in these movies by arrangement with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The years have passed remarkably for her, encompassing Tinto Brass' notorious CALIGULA (1979, which reteamed her with McDowell), THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (1979, now available in a deluxe edition from Anchor Bay including an excellent making-of featurette interviewing all the principles, including Mirren), EXCALIBUR (1981), 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT (1984), and Peter Greenaway's THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER (1989). In 1991, she accepted the lead role of District Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in a British TV movie called PRIME SUSPECT, which unexpectedly became one of the key roles of her distinguished career. She would reprise the role another half dozen times in the following 15 years, and her seventh (and reportedly final) performance in the role -- in PRIME SUSPECT: THE FINAL ACT -- airs tonight (and wraps up next week) on PBS' MASTERPIECE THEATER at 9:00pm.

Having matured into what Sean Burns has aptly termed "a foxy old bird," Mirren gives a performance in this two-parter that is one of her most unflinching and deeply felt, and it appears in the wake of her extraordinary work in the unrelated but serendipitous royal diptych of Tom Hooper's ELIZABETH I (aired on HBO) and Stephen Frears' THE QUEEN (2005, now in US theatrical release), making this a moment in her career that she's unlikely to top -- but perhaps that's more to do with my limitations of imagination than hers. On the basis of these three performances, we might as well declare this her year -- the former British ambassadrix of dramatic audacity and risqué risk-taking somehow reaching the pinnacle of her career by playing three of the most painfully zipped-up women you're likely to find fascinating.

The new PRIME SUSPECT reintroduces Jane Tennison at a difficult time: one month away from retirement and the pensioned life, she's taken to the bottle for companionship in her middle age, and at the point where she can no longer hide the fact from her co-workers (and ever her suspects) that she's become a blackout-prone alcoholic. Her job under threat, her career in the balance, her emotions shrieking but utterly sublimated, her only path to redemption is by solving one last case: the disappearance of 14 year-old girl Sallie Sturdy (Maxine Barton), which escalates to murder when she is found dead... and pregnant. The often harrowing investigation becomes unusually personal as DCI Tennison befriends one of Sallie's friends (Penny Philips, very well played by young Laura Greenwood) and possibly betrays that trust while under the influence. Making a tentative visit to an Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, she also encounters her former adversary Bill Otley (a fragile-looking Tom Bell in his final role), who -- in a poignant turnabout for their relationship -- helps to see her through the devastating news that her father (Frank Finlay) has been diagonosed with a very quick and inoperable cancer.

Helen Mirren befriends troubled teen Laura Greenwood in PRIME SUSPECT: THE FINAL ACT, airing tonight on PBS.

The first PRIME SUSPECT involvement by both director Phillip Martin and screenwriter Frank Deasy, THE FINAL ACT is not the series' most intense or surprising episode, but it is certainly its most poignant and dramatically complex, and perhaps its most deeply satisfying. Not only is it the most captivating dramatic television I've seen all year -- it eclipses ELIZABETH I in that respect -- but its strong performances (special kudos to Gary Lewis and Katy Murphy as the dead girl's parents), involving direction, and sensitive writing place it at equal standing with the best theatrical features I've seen this year; I'll be including it tandem with the more subtly remarkable THE QUEEN (to which it allies itself with the instantaneously classic line "Don't call me 'Ma'am,' I'm not the bloody queen") on my year's best list. The first part includes a terrific action scene, a chase down the side of a multi-story apartment building, and next Sunday's conclusion includes a startling compression of narrative action into a staccato howl of despair that trusts us to fill in the details. One gets the feeling it came about with the director and editor (Trevor Waite) having their backs in the corner, time-wise, but they fought their way out of that corner brilliantly.

How well PRIME SUSPECT: THE FINAL ACT will adapt to PBS standards remains to be seen. In its original UK broadcast version, the show contained some very strong language that many PBS affiliates may not want to risk, lest they get slapped with heavy FCC fines. (Isn't that an ironic acronym for a company that forbids obscene language?) I recommend you watch it anyway, and fill in the FCC-ing blanks at your own discretion.

Not all great series have the benefit of a great ending, but PRIME SUSPECT has given one of contemporary detective drama's great heroines an impressive farewell. Such is the quality of Helen Mirren's valedictory performance in the role that one doesn't feel the least bit disappointed that this is the end of Jane Tennison's story.

Because it's been a good story well and fully told, and because Helen Mirren's own story is fabulously ongoing.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Brother Theodore Centenary

"To the mouse in the cheese, the cheese is the Universe. To the maggot in the corpse, the corpse is the Cosmos. What do any of us really know about the Universe? How can any of us know what is behind the Beyond? Most people do not know what is beyond the Behind."

Only one man could have produced such a pronouncement. Only one man could have scooped out such an insight. The late Theodore Gottlieb, better known to man and beast as "Brother Theodore." Click on that appropriately illuminated cognomen for the whole story, courtesy of the quadrupedians at Wikipedia.

Every day of my life, ladies and gentlemen, I celebrate the wisdom, humor, and wonderment of Brother Theodore. In the nightmare of the dark, I walk with him in my thoughts as Enoch walked with his God. But then... all of a suddenly... like a bolt from the blue... it comes to my attention that he was born 100 years ago today! I ask you, people at your peepholes, how is this possible? I spoke to this man on the phone! He's mouldering in his grave! How could he be 100 years old? As he said himself, in a prophecy of this moment in the trailer for HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS, It's incredible! It's unbeLIEvable!

Theodore isn't with us to partake in our celebration of his cerebrated gloom but, as he would be the first to tell you, take heart -- as long as there is death, there is hope.

Wherever you are, Theodore, hear your voice blasting from my stereo... hear my typing thundering down the broadband... hear the thousands of people turning away from their cyberporn to ask "Brother Who?"... and know that nothing here on Earth has changed, but that you are still admired, loved, and remembered.

You can click here for a special rant from Theodore, filmed late in his life, in the bloom of his youth.

Donna's paternal grandmother, whom we called Grandma Sweetie Pie, was also born 100 years ago today -- which has nothing to do with Theodore, of course, but this strikes me as one of life's sweet coinkydinks.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Jack Palance and How to Say His Name

Jack Palance (bow your head or bend your knee when you say that name) insisted that his surname rhymed with "balance," and that the accent wasn't to be placed on the second syllable. But even when you know this, there's another trick to how the name of Jack Palance should be pronounced.

Palance was what the French like to call "a sacred beast" -- a category that also claimed the likes of Klaus Kinski and Oliver Reed. When I read of his death earlier today, fron natural causes at age 87 -- mere weeks after many of his personal possessions were auctioned at his farm in Hazelton, Pennsylvania -- my first thought was of my friend, the French journalist/archivist Lucas Balbo, who once devoted an issue of his fan magazine NOSTALGIA to the actor. To Lucas, the actor's name was always to be spoken like an incantation, an audacious summoning of magic: "Zzzzhack PAL-ANCE!" Lucas spent some time visiting Donna and me back in 1989, as VIDEO WATCHDOG magazine was in its pre-production stages, and, ever since then, Donna and I have never thought of Jack Palance or spoken his name in quite the same way. We say it like someone says "And there you have it!" Et voila! The way a tightrope walker says "I made it" after crossing Niagara Falls. The way someone says "I have survived." Lucas taught us that to speak the name of Jack Palance aloud was to exclaim "Boredom BEGONE!"

To me, Palance was always one of the top tier movie grotesques, and I use that term with great respect and affection. I loved his panting delivery, his hardy yet feline quality, the way dialogue burbled from his lips like wine expressed from swollen grapes, his peculiar pronunciations (the way he said "Beelly the Kid" when name-checking history's greatest desperadoes in a Time/Life LEGENDS OF THE OLD WEST book commercial), his poetical stance, his divine eccentricities. He could take bland crap like RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOT and make it compelling with his completely unpredictable reading of whatever was written on his cue cards. As another writer once said of Jean-Pierre Léaud, he was one of those rare actors who could say nothing more than "Good morning" and transport you to a magical place -- amusing, surreal, or scary, whatever the script demanded. Palance could say "Good morning" the way Christopher Jones said "Give me the power!" in WILD IN THE STREETS... and if he didn't quite get away with it all the time, you at least had to admire the attempt.

His performances could be all over the map, from brilliant to barking mad, but he gave of himself to the screen generously, exuberantly, wildly -- the way Jackson Pollack gave paint to his canvases. "Walter Jack Palance" in PANIC IN THE STREETS. Jack the Ripper in MAN IN THE ATTIC. The bad guy in SHANE. The tortured actors in SUDDEN FEAR and THE BIG KNIFE. "Mountain" McClintock in REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT. Simon in THE SILVER CHALICE, believing he could fly. The sleek warrior in THE MONGOLS. The demented producer Jeremiah Prokosh in CONTEMPT, my favorite of all films. The man who collected Poe in TORTURE GARDEN. The completely frigging off-the-rails priest in MARQUIS DE SADE'S JUSTINE. My favorite of the screen's many Mr. Hydes. (Makeup artist Dick Smith once told me that Hyde's satyr-like likeness was based on a figure that he and his wife found while vacationing in Egypt, and that Palance's own facial features were so flat that he had to build up the forehead and cheekbones artificially. He also told me that when Palance suffered a bad fall and was briefly hospitalized during production, he visited and got a glimpse of the actor's bare torso -- a miasma of scars dating back to earlier stunts, air and automobile crashes, and his days in the boxing ring.) Fidel Castro in CHE!. A miscast DRACULA. The pot-smoking baddie in COMPANEROS. The African deity-worshipping antiques dealer of CRAZE. MISTER SCARFACE. BRONK. The bohemian Hollywood exile Rudi in BAGDAD CAFE. And he played Curly twice, once in THE MERCENARY and again in CITY SLICKERS (not the same Curly, of course... at least I don't think so) -- the latter of which brought him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and international headlines when he celebrated his victory with a set on one-handed push-ups. Believe it... or not.

So as we remember Jack Palance and discuss his legacy, remember how to say his name. The way he approached every role: with panache. Make that PANache, accent on the first syllable.

And merci beaucoup, Lucas, for teaching me this.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

ERIK Conquers DVD on Import


Thanks to the past efforts of Image Entertainment, VCI Home Entertainment, and Anchor Bay Entertainment, most Mario Bava films have been released at least once on DVD. But, of all his directorial works, one has always been conspicuous in its absence: ERIK THE CONQUEROR [GLI INVASORI, 1961].

Next week, in Germany, Colosseo Film will correct that oversight with the release of DIE RACHE DER WIKINGER, an eye-popping presentation of Bava's third directorial effort in all its original Technicolor and anamorphic Dyaliscope splendor. It's the first time this important title has been available for public viewing in its original ratio since the early 1960s, and for those of us who import this Region 2 PAL disc (which does include an English audio track, as well as German and Italian ones) to America, it will be the first time the complete version has ever been available for viewing in its original scope ratio. The title, which also includes the original German trailer in scope, is available now as a pre-order from Amazon.de and I assume it will be available domestically through Xploited Cinema in the coming weeks.

The box art for DIE RACHE DER WIKINGER subtitles the film ERIK THE CONQUEROR for clarity, but this is actually as misleading as it was for Image Entertainment to call THE MASK OF SATAN (the original English language export print of LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO) "BLACK SUNDAY." ERIK THE CONQUEROR was a re-edited and partly rescored reduction of GLI INVASORI's original English export print, which was called "THE INVADERS." That original version saw a surprise VHS release in the 1980s from Panther Entertainment as THE INVADERS; it was a cropped, pan&scanned transfer, but it ran about 10 minutes longer than the AIP cut and revolutionized one's perception of the film Bava had actually made. It is this longer original export version that is included on the DVD, needless to say.

In all fairness, the AIP reduction had one thing going for it: it got rid of the film's painfully static opening, which forces the viewer to consider a crudely drawn map as a narrator gives us a lot of long-winded historic background not entirely essential to the story. The story, to be brief about it, is a bare-faced remake of Richard Fleischer's THE VIKINGS (1958), with Cameron Mitchell starring in his first Bava film in the Kirk Douglas part and Giorgio Ardisson (Theseus in HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD) in the Tony Curtis role. The two sons of the Viking king are separated on a battlefield in the wake of a failed seaside attack on England, in which the kings of the two countries die -- the Viking king in battle, the English king through the ambition of his evil underling, Sir Rudfort (BLACK SUNDAY's Andrea Checchi). The younger of the Viking sons is found by the Queen of England, who raises him as her own son, poising him for unwitting conflict with his longlost brother when he reaches maturity. Their relationship is foreshadowed by the love they share for twin vestal virgins, played by the leggy German song-and-dance act, The Kessler Twins (Alice & Ellen Kessler).

You want frame grabs? Here, have some frame grabs:





I'm sorry these can't be click-enlarged; I had to downsize the images by 50% to fit them onto this page. Trust me, they look many times more ravishing on a big screen.

It's generally known that Anchor Bay Entertainment have secured ERIK THE CONQUEROR for release in America next year, but their release isn't expected to include this German import's ace-in-the-hole: a new 50-minute documentary called MARIO BAVA ENTHÜLLT DIE MAGIE SEINER WERKE ("Mario Bava Explains the Magic of His Works"), which is subtitled simply as "Mario Bava Speaks." Directed by Patrick O'Brien, the program is hosted by Luigi Cozzi, who occupies his behind-the-counter position at Rome's Profondo Rosso store and peruses a well-thumbed copy of Troy Howarth's THE HAUNTED WORLD OF MARIO BAVA (for which he wrote the Foreword) while reminiscing about his own relationship as fan, friend, and collague of Bava. The value of this documentary comes from its many (subtitled) excerpts from Bava's only known television interviews, both broadcast on RAI-TV: one was recorded in 1970 as a talking head snippet for a program about horror cinema in general, and the other was a guest appearance with Carlo Rambaldi on a full hour talk show called L'OSPITE DALLE DUE ("The Guests at 2:00") that aired in July 1974, shortly after Bava's abandonment of THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM and one month before shooting commenced on his next production, RABID DOGS. Neither of these interviews are shown in their entirety, but they are generously excerpted and make this disc an essential purchase for Bava fans.

Speaking for myself, I have had these interviews on VHS for many years, as well as a translated transcript, but to see Bava speak in this archival footage -- in perfect quality, with English subtitles keeping the meaning of his words apace with his inflections and facial expressions -- made this material live for me as it never has before. Bava has been at the core of my creative life for many, many years, but watching this footage made me feel as though I was meeting Mario Bava for the first time, or coming as close to that pleasure as I ever will. O'Brien has cleverly upgraded the latter interview, with its many film clips, so that the original B&W footage segues into full color, widescreen clips as the soundtrack remains constant. Here Bava discusses the craft, the secrets, even the "madness" of special effects, and a sizeable sequence from his "Polyphemus" episode of THE ODYSSEY is also included, in full color, with English subtitles. (This superb miniseries, which is out in Italy on DVD without subtitles, represents the finest of Bava's special effects work yet it remains unavailable here in America.) We are also shown the exterior of one of Bava's former homes, his townhouse on Rome's Via di Rispetta (near the Spanish Steps he immortalized as a giallo mecca in THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH aka EVIL EYE), and Barbara Steele and GLI INVASORI supporting player Enzo Doria (Sir Bennett) are also interviewed.

Colosseo Film's DVD is a very exciting addition to the Bava shelf, and ample proof that there's nothing quite as exciting as being shown new dimensions of a film or a subject you thought you knew well. DIE RACHE DER WIKINGER peels decades of obfuscation away from a neglected picture that now stands fully revealed as one of the most dazzling visual works of one of the most visual of all film directors.

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.