Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Skinny on Dario Argento's "Pelts"

Meat Loaf Aday takes a closer look at a fellow cast member who has run afoul of "Pelts," Dario Argento's latest contribution to MASTERS OF HORROR.

Last night, Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR presented the sixth episode of its second season, and the first I could call a qualified success. Up to now, the season has been a disaster, pairing uninspired veteran directors with shapeless, simplistic stories that have sought to please the show's viewers in the dumbest way possible: by seeking new and ever more inventive ways to tear the human body apart. It has not been until this latest episode, Dario Argento's "Pelts," that the season has attempted to explore horror in any sense other than graphic violence and dismemberment. "Pelts" is itself overloaded with both, yet it also contains moments of dark magic and enchantment and provides Argento's fans with set pieces that echo some of the "greatest hits" of his feature filmography. With very few exceptions, the directors working on this show have checked their known personalities at the door and delivered fairly anonymous results; but here, especially in the episode's closing minutes, there are enough echoes of classic bits from DEEP RED and TENEBRAE that most horror fans could probably guess who was behind the camera. True, "Pelts" seems more like the work of a fan of Dario Argento than Argento himself, but that's been largely true of Argento's work since OPERA (1987) -- the ferocious vitality of THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (1996) notwithstanding.

Scriped by Matt Venne (who wrote the forthcoming sequel to WHITE NOISE) from a short story by F. Paul Wilson, "Pelts" is the magic realist tale of Jake (Meat Loaf Aday), a seedy furrier who cranks cheap coats out of his low-rent sweatshop by day and hangs around a stripclub by night, indulging his obsession with an exotic dancer named Shanna (Ellen Ewusie). He pays for private lapdances, but what he really wants is anal sex, which doesn't interest Shanna, who is a lesbian on her own time. When Jeb Jameson (John Saxon), one of Jake's hillbilly trappers, calls with word that he's lucked into a dozen or more raccoon pelts of unbelievable quality, Jake makes a house call and discovers the trapper and his son dead... and that the pelts, left hanging in the cellar, are all that were promised and more. The celestial, intoxicating quality of these furs (digitally accentuated by visual effects supervisor Lee Wilson) is such that Jake is immediately convinced that they could be his ticket to claim anything in the world he might desire, including Shanna. What he doesn't know is that the pelts belong to a supernatural species of nocturnal animal native to the forest surrounding an ancient ruin -- or is it rune?

Argento has always demonstrated a tender affinity for animals in his work, and though "Pelts" necessarily involves some nasty violence toward animals (all faked), the episode's admiring shots of the animal skins are invested with the appropriate sense of sorrow and sacrifice. And the violence inflicted against the animals is subsequently turned in kind against those who have derived pleasure from their furs. For all the bludgeoning horror of the episode, it finds its greatest strength in a scene where Jake, desperate to find a pair of these special raccoons to use for mating purposes to keep the coats coming, takes a bottle of moonshine to "Mother Mater," a toothless old cackler who lives in a shack near the runic temple where the animals were first trapped. The character's name obviously hearkens back to Argento's Three Mothers (heralded in SUSPIRIA, INFERNO and the forthcoming THE THIRD MOTHER -- a movie whose title really must be changed), which keeps the attentive viewer on edge throughout the scene, and Argento's "fourth mother" helps the scene build to the nerve-rattling pitch hoped-for. Better still are the scene's cutaway shots to numerous raccoon faces assembled outside the shack's windows, which strike a complex note of eerie otherworldliness that the series hasn't touched since Stuart Gordon's "Dreams in the Witch-House" in Season 1. That the barbarism of animal skinning results in the ideal garb for a fashion model also tickles an old and much-missed nerve in Argento's work, namely the relationship between violence and haute couture. And it's fun to see John Saxon back in Argento harness, for the first time since TENEBRAE (1982).

Like a SAW-era updating of Robert Bloch's oft-filmed story "The Weird Tailor," "Pelts" tempers its savagery with just enough allusion to unearthly fantasy to arouse the imagination while it offends our other senses. An improvement on Argento's first season episode "Jenifer," I believe, and a welcome change of fortune for a show that we'd all like to see succeed artistically as well as commercially.

Friday, December 01, 2006

For The Film Criticism Blog-A-Thon

Andrew Horbal of the blog No More Marriages has launched a "Film Criticism Blog-A-Thon," lasting from today, December 1, through Sunday, December 3. Since I've already blogged about my own process of reviewing films, I thought I might contribute to the party by writing about film criticism from the standpoint of career, and how I've seen my identity as a critic develop in fits and starts over the course of my own.

I've been reviewing films since the age of 14 or 15, when I sent three reviews on spec to Fred Clarke at CINEFANTASTIQUE: a longish review of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and capsule reviews of HORROR ON SNAPE ISLAND and GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER. The SNAPE ISLAND review was accepted and published, while the other two were turned down -- reluctantly, I was told, in the case of the CLOCKWORK review, which had been promised to reviewer Dale Winogura. My own review of the film never appeared anywhere, but I still have a copy on file, typewritten on yellow paper, and plan to include it in the collection of my criticism I am planning.

Some might consider it the height of good fortune that I embarked on my career so early, and it's true that I never suffered, as so many do, from career indecision. However, because I started so early, my work had appeared in an internationally circulated magazine before I started publishing my own first fanzines, even before I started reviewing films for my high school newspaper in my freshman year. This means that I started out with nothing more than a grade school education -- which I find incredible now that I have nieces and nephews -- and my own audacity. I also started publishing before I had read anything substantial in the field of published film criticism, which is surely impossible today for anyone attempting to pursue this line of work. In the early 1970s, I had never read James Agee, Pauline Kael, or John Simon, though I had seen Simon's cross-legged, cold-blooded aestheticism in action on THE DICK CAVETT SHOW. My reading of film criticism at that time was limited to the CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN Movie Guide and the industry-minded reviews I had read in a stack of old BOXOFFICE magazines given to me by a branch office manager of a local independent distribution company. I was much too green to know anything about movies, but I knew a lot about horror movies and therein lay my saving grace. I somehow accured a body of work before anyone knew that I was too young to have done so, and breaking this fundamental rule in some ways saved my life. Had I known what I was doing, I might never have attempted it -- but I've always had an autodidactic nature. Even now, I prefer to play the bass rather than learn how to play the bass.

My first year was timid and restricted to short pieces. It was not until Fred Clarke assigned me a feature article on Robert Fuest's THE FINAL PROGRAMME (aka THE LAST DAYS OF MAN ON EARTH), to write about the film at length and to incorporate some interview quotes provided by a pair of British journalists, that I first embarked on a larger canvas. To this day, I can remember the pressure and exhilaration of pushing into new territory with that piece, which resulted in my first large font byline and "About the Author" sidebar. Over the next ten years, my tenure at CFQ allowed me to develop as a more in-depth writer and also as a film journalist, visiting film sets, interviewing cast and crew people, and assimilating the various pieces into solid reportage.

The experience of being on a film set and gaining insights to the actual process of making films is invaluable to anyone who writes about films. Of course, the critic is writing about the end result, but it is important to know that (for example) performance often has less to do with what is accomplished on-set than shaped in the editing room, and the extent to which budget can restrict the fulfillment of what is on the page. Too many critics blame faults on the writer, director or actors that would be more correctly laid at the door of the producer, the editor, or even the cinematographer. (I won't go into details, but I know of one occasion where I was less than impressed by a certain actress in a certain role, and I later realized that my response had more to do with the way she was photographed than her actual performance. I later heard gossip from the set about how the actress and the cameraman had not gotten along, which just goes to support the maxim that it is a wise actress who stays on the good side of her cameraman.) Thus, one of the great dangers of writing film criticism is saying the right things while innocently giving the wrong account of them, which turns the positive into a negative. One of my own key definitions of a good critic is anyone capable of making such fine distinctions.

Another definition is a critic who is not confined by genre, which has become more of a problem in recent years, as film coverage has become more specialized. After CFQ, I spent two years writing for VIDEO TIMES, which subsequently became VIDEO MOVIES, and it was there that I learned to break through my own genre barriers, and also how to write about films in a less scholarly and more entertaining manner -- even a personal manner when the subject matter called for it. I can remember (I'm doing it now) permitting a certain degree of first-person reminiscence to enter into two reviews I wrote in the space of one month, and my editors later referred to the issue in which they appeared as their "Tim Lucas Confessional Issue." I was taken aback when I heard that phrase, but no... they liked it, otherwise they wouldn't have run the reviews or edited out the personal stuff. Learning how to infuse my criticism with personality and confession was an important leap in my professional development, not only for the sake of my criticism but because these elements were useful to my later development as a novelist. It was also during my time at VIDEO MOVIES that the "Video Watchdog" concept was born, which would naturally have a vast impact on my future.

Filming the "Video Watchdog" segment for the first issue of Michael Nesmith's OVERVIEW in 1986 gave me camera experience and more insight, and writing the "Video Watchdog" column for GOREZONE helped to cultivate the audience for the spin-off magazine to come. This latter experience confirmed for me that the most valuable assets for anyone writing criticism is a reliable and personable homebase where one can attract a constant readership and, if at all possible, a unique angle. To this end, most film bloggers probably have an advantage over the young critics who are trying to make their names in magazines today, and print critics of any station would probably be wise to blog -- to have a place to work and a place to promote oneself. Too many current magazines feature interchangeable criticism or, worse, flavor-of-the-moment froth of no permanent consequence; even if I read something in a magazine today that I like, I can have a hard time remembering where I read it. Likewise, if a magazine's personality is distinct, it's often easier to remember that one read something in, say, SIGHT & SOUND or FILM COMMENT rather than the name of the writer responsible.

Seventeen years ago, as the first issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG was taking shape, I set about writing material for that first issue and the issues to come -- and none of it would have been considered acceptable anywhere else. I was writing at unacceptable length about subjects that would not have been countenanced by any other editor. It was Fred Clarke who had instilled in me (and all the CFQ contributors) the ideal of "definitive" coverage, but even he would have thrown something like my three-part "The Trouble With Titian" article (about how an obscure Yuoslavian film called OPERATION TITIAN was acquired by Roger Corman and turned into three different movies stateside: PORTRAIT IN TERROR, BLOOD BATH and TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE) back in my face. There is risk in breaking ground like that, and a certain arrogance may be necessary in the act. With projects like this, one risks exceeding the interest of even interested readers, but I told myself that, if I was interested, others would be as well. Obsession invites obsession, as long as the writing can communicate that obsession vividly; so, to an extent, it doesn't matter if the reader is actually interested in the subject at hand. The level of obsession shown by the writer makes the material interesting and all the more identifiable with the writer. Over the years, we've received a number of letters from readers telling us that "I have no interest in most of the films you cover, but you write about them in such interesting ways, I never miss an issue!" -- and I can't imagine higher praise. Without question, VIDEO WATCHDOG has been the most important chapter in my writing career, from a personal viewpoint, because it has offered me a livelihood as well as a byline; it's well-nigh impossible for a freelancing critic to undertake such work as anything more than a hobby. Even now, it's my work as a publisher and editor that makes my work as a critic -- and novelist, and screenwriter, and most certainly blogger -- financially feasible.

As my writing in this area matures, the less I find myself less concerned with the banalities of identifying good performances. This has its place in writing an essay on the worth of a specific performer, where the ups and downs of their individual craft must be noted, but in terms of film criticism, a good performance has as much right to invisibility as good editing. Making a point of such things is the very hallmark of the most basic, entry-level film criticism, and therefore to be moved beyond. Absolutes in general become more and more meaningless, and I find myself no longer particularly interested in the question of whether a film is "good" or not. No one ever sets out to make a bad film, and part of the challenge of writing quality criticism is to find the good, or at least the conviction, in whatever you're writing about. For the same reason, I am against the ideas of star ratings and thumbs-up/thumbs-down shorthand because these discourage the consideration of a film's worth at a glance.

People want a lot of different things from film criticism: suggestions of what to see, confirmation of their own opinions, infuriation, education, diversion, literary pleasure. Likewise, critics surely write about films for any number of reasons, ranging from the desire to see free movies or get free DVDs, to the wish to be recognized for the value of their opinions. My own reasons have more to do with the autodidactic impulse I referenced earlier. When I started out, I reviewed films as a matter of asserting (indeed solidifying) my own personal taste; but, as time has gone on, it's developed into something else entirely. Now, unless I write about a film I have seen -- and soon, before another replaces it in my thoughts -- the time I spent viewing it might just as well be chalked up to wasteful pleasure, because criticism is the means by which I arrive at a better understanding what I have seen. It's akin to keeping a diary to make sense of the events of one's life. In short, I now write criticism primarily to educate myself, to better know myself, and it's been my good luck that a select group of others seem to get something out of eavesdropping on the process.

THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES: Space Searchers

J. Madison Wright reads to brother John Corbett in Joe Dante's THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES, also known as THE WARLORD: BATTLE FOR THE GALAXY.

In addition to the excellent work he's done in feature films over the years, Joe Dante has also put in a lot of time on television projects. In addition to his recent lauded work for MASTERS OF HORROR, he directed two episodes of AMAZING STORIES (one of them, "The Greibble," gave him the opportunity of working with Hayley Mills and is a must-see for fans of Rob Bottin's work); one episode of the 1980s TWILIGHT ZONE revival ("The Shadow Man," in which he paid hommage to Mario Bava's BARON BLOOD); an offbeat Western story for the limited run Showtime series PICTURE WINDOWS (featuring Ron Perlman and Kathleen Quinlan -- "but the real fun was Brian Keith," says Joe); a pair of stories for the Fox Network series NIGHT VISIONS (neither of which was edited with his input); several episodes of EERIE, INDIANA (on which he also served as creative consultant); and, for my money, the two funniest episodes of POLICE SQUAD! ("Ring of Fear" and "Testimony of Evil," which features Leslie Nielsen going undercover as a nightclub entertainer and performing a riotous version of "I've Got A Lot of Livin' To Do"). For some reason, the IMDb doesn't credit Joe (or anyone) with directing these episodes, but his name's on them and Dick Miller's in one of them.

Dante's feature work for television is some of his most interesting. RUNAWAY DAUGHTERS, his in-name-only remake of a 1957 AIP film, was made for the Showtime limited series REBEL HIGHWAY in 1994. It's been awhile since I've seen it, but I remember it best for its delightful cameos by a grinning Roger Corman and his wife Julie, presiding over a backyard barbecue, and an inversion-of-sorts that allowed his stalwart supporting actor Dick Miller to essentially take the film's unofficial lead role for a change. It was sneaked out on DVD last year by Dimension Pictures, as was Jonathan Kaplan's REFORM SCHOOL GIRL, another title in the DRIVE-IN CLASSICS series.

THE SECOND CIVIL WAR, scripted by Canadian writer-director Martyn Burke (THE LAST CHASE) was made for HBO in 1997 and turns up the volume on the political shadings that became more pronounced in his 1993 feature MATINEE. THE SECOND CIVIL WAR was sneaked out on DVD by HBO in the fall of 2005, without Dante being notified. He regrets this as he considers the film one of his best and because he has in his possession a half-hour or so of deleted scenes that the disc could have used. I've seen the deleted scenes (which lend valuable delineation to Joanna Cassidy's character in particular) and plan to write about them, and the disc, in an upcoming VIDEO WATCHDOG. The film is also notable for the casting of the late Phil Hartman, who was killed by his wife two months prior to the release of his final theatrical feature, Joe Dante's SMALL SOLDIERS.

Dick Miller cameos as a futuristic junk peddler in THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES.

Perhaps Dante's most obscure television feature, and one well worth seeing, is the one broadcast under the title THE WARLORD: BATTLE FOR THE GALAXY on UPN (United Paramount Network) in January 1998. If you happened to miss it -- and frankly, I don't know anyone who caught it, as Joe's name was probably not featured in any on-air or print advertising -- your only way of seeing it is to score a pressing of the Hong Kong laserdisc (Paramount CIC Video, PL1297) that was issued under the title THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES. (I'm told there was also a German DVD under that title, but it no longer seems to be available.)

Scripted by novelist Caleb Carr (THE ALIENIST), THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES was the pilot for a science fiction series that never happened. This sticky little fact hobbles the film's resurrection value, as the movie only exists to introduce a group of characters and to set up a series of adventures that the interested viewer will never see. The film is set on the planet Caliban 6 in the year 2391, some three hundred years after the people of Earth began to desert their overcrowded planet and colonize the worlds in other star systems. John Corbett stars as Justin Thorpe, an outlaw abandoned by his parents as a youngster and left to fend for himself and his younger sister Nova (J. Madison Wright). They enjoy a close relationship, with the bookish Nova teaching her somewhat illiterate elder brother to read the classics of literature. The story takes off when Justin discovers that Nova has been kidnapped by a group of ruthless aliens, who insist that she accompanied them willingly. Justin doesn't buy this, and his only hope of getting her back is ruin a carefully mended relationship with his planet's warlord Heenoc Xian (John Pyper-Ferguson) by plundering his spoils, and acquiring a starship that he manages with the help of Nova's 15 year-old best friend Maggi (Elizabeth Harnois) and her grandfather General Sorenson (Rod Taylor, in his first substantial screen performance since the 1970s, excellent in a role that Christopher Lee accepted, then had to turn down because of tax reasons).

Rod Taylor adds another bravura performance to his list of credits as General Sorenson.

What we have here is a subversive space opera that peels away the obligatory sci-fi lingo and metaphorizing to get at the human story underneath, which happens to be an inspired sf-reweaving of THE SEARCHERS and SPLIT IMAGE (the 1982 religious cult deprogrammer drama starring James Woods), as Justin searches for the wise child who gave meaning and hope to his life in a prison as boundless as the galaxy. Upping the ante here is the fact that the abductors, when we meet them, have a philosophy that is not so easily discounted. The Engineers, as they are called, are a peaceful if unpleasant-looking breed that have worked hard to obliterate all conflict from their way of life -- which extends to the omission of the family from their society, families being "the basic unit of all conflict." (They are still working on the problem of the conflict between the sexes.) The aliens, led by a character who resembles a more reptilian, fish-lipped George Macready, live on an invisibility-cloaked planet and have the usual plan of galactic conquest, but their aim is tied up with their ideal of achieving true galactic liberation. The viewer is thus torn between what we want to see happen for emotional reasons and what we might like to see happen philosophically, which is a more rigorously involving stance than most TV drama bothers to take. Things take an even more interesting turn when Heenoc Xian pursues Justin's ship into the danger zone in order to have his revenge upon him, only to have the two natives of Caliban 6 forced to sort out their differences so that they and their planet might survive and give them both what they want most from life. Furthermore (and here's where SPLIT IMAGE comes in), when Justin and the others find Nova, while visiting the stealth planet, they discover that she did go with the Engineers voluntarily because she had the intelligence to understand their argument and their ultimate goals. Can her rescuers persuade her of the importance of family, and how solid is their argument when the members of the rescue mission are either at odds with one another, synthetic, or involved in broken families? If sworn enemies can work as partners, perhaps anything is possible.

The leader of those icky Engineers, barring your view of The Supreme Plenum.

In a sense, THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES is the perfect link between EXPLORERS and Dante's more political later work, because it shares the same ravishing look and wide-eyed idealism about outer space as the former film, while braving a narrative tapestry that's more ambitious and politically-minded than the usual space opera. If the film has any weakness, it's that John Corbett doesn't quite earn the Captain's chair in his starship, but that might have been a subject explored or a question satisfied in subsequent episodes. This introductory chapter is dominated in many ways by Rod Taylor, the experienced officer on the bridge, who embodies not only the authority on the starship but the conscience of the science fiction genre itself, knowledgeable and appreciating his moment in time much as he did as George Wells in 1960's THE TIME MACHINE. The production values are impressive, as is the makeup and costume design; the production, in fact, received the only Emmy nomination yet attracted by a Dante film -- for hairdressing! The supporting cast is also exceptional, with Elisabeth Harnois especially good, Marjorie Monaghan striking as the android Jana, Dick Miller appearing briefly as a street peddler, and J. Madison Wright (at 12 years of age, already a TV sci-fi veteran of EARTH 2) making the perfect impression in her limited screen time of a memorable and valuable character well worth the effort of recovering. I was so impressed by the warmth and intelligence of Wright's performance, in fact, that I looked her up on the IMDb. I was initially surprised to discover that she was a fellow Cincinnatian... and then heartbroken to learn that she died under tragic circumstances earlier this year. You can read her sad story here.

Shelved for two years before it was finally aired, THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES first came to my attention in the form of the HK LD, which I managed to win on eBay. It's a standard ratio, subtitled presentation with stereo surround sound, and the subtitles cover a mostly inactive area of the frame that can be zoomboxed out for playback on widescreen sets, without hardly any disruption of the compositions. I watched it without knowing that the story is was going to tell was incomplete, which is probably the best way to go at it. It leaves the viewer with a breastful of unresolved emotions, questions and daydreams about The Show That Never Was, which is testament to how appealing this opening chapter really is. The WARLORD broadcast version reportedly had an alternate ending, I assume to make it more self-contained.

Over the years, Paramount has issued a pile of science fiction programming on DVD as high as the mountain peak of their logo. THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES is more thought-provoking than most of it, even if its grand scheme was only just begun. I hope they'll someday consider this bittersweet might-have-been for domestic DVD issue, with a director's commentary and both endings included. It's an interesting film with an equally fascinating production history worth detailing.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Joe Dante: Anarchy in L.A.


Today is Joe Dante’s 60th birthday, strange as that may seem. It’s hard to think of another filmmaker whose outlook has been, and remains, so perenially youthful; his protagonists are often children or child-like, and his projects have leaned toward stories of conflict between childlike idealism and the oppressive realities and counter-ideologies that would place barriers in the path of imagination in full flight.

Dante’s films are often caricatured as being heavily adorned with pop cultural references and in-jokes, but to simply note this element is not to understand it. The proliferation of fish and water jokes in PIRANHA (1978), for example, or the “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” clip in THE HOWLING (1980) are in place to acknowledge the difficulty of doing anything completely serious or original with such familiar material; it shows us how much cultural noise stands between us, as viewers, and fresh entertainment we should have every expectation of meeting head-on. And this brings us to the point where Dante’s work becomes so much more than merely pop-referential and -reverential. In a sense, his films use this material like a matador uses his red cape: he flaunts our familiarity with the territory, only to peel it away like a layer of skin and leaving us disoriented and newly vulnerable to attack.

Beginning with HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD (1976) and continuing through the recent acclaimed MASTERS OF HORROR episode “Homecoming” (2005), the films of Joe Dante have always found ways to circumvent genre expectations, by daring to make us uncomfortable. The last reel of the comic HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD suddenly posits us in the midst of a gory slasher film; even earlier than that, a rape scene in a sexploitation flick being shot in the Phillippines is shown crossing the line between cinema and reality, to the surprise of the movie’s star (Candice Rialson). Any director would play this joke just long enough to get the point across, but Dante holds the take until it scrapes our nerves and reminds the raincoat crowd of the violent crime that rape is. At the time of the film’s release, these points were either forgiven, on account of being in part of an exceedingly cheap maiden effort, or criticized for their tastelessness, but time has shown these aspects of Dante’s debut to be surprisingly consistent with the master plan (he said, tongue-in-cheek) of the work that followed.


Joe bumps into an old friend at Wonderfest in 2004.

In PIRANHA (1978), the genetically engineered “frankenfish” swimming upstream toward a children’s summer camp actually succeed in reaching the place, placing dozens of gaily splashing kids in the midst of serious danger, with camp director (something of a double entendre, that) Paul Bartel suddenly transformed from a fatuous figure of fun to a palpably tragic character. The heroine of THE HOWLING (1980) is not only voluntarily assassinated on national television at the end of the movie, but her death is quickly glossed over with a vignette culminating in the product shot of a hamburger pattie being fried up on a grill. Even a hit film like GREMLINS (1984) has to undercut the joyous warmth of its old-fashioned Christmas setting with Phoebe Cates telling the story of how her father met his untimely end by disguising himself as Santa and attempting to descend with holiday gifts through the chimney of his home, getting stuck and not getting discovered till the smell gave his caper away. EXPLORERS (1985), a movie that deliberately romances the possibility that a group of kids could build a working spacecraft with help from friendly aliens, works toward the epochal moment of communication with extraterrestial lifeforms only to expose them as beings braindead from being inundated with all the garbage broadcast into space on our airwaves. The creepy people who move into the derelict house in Tom Hanks’ suburban neighborhood in THE ‘BURBS (1989) are imagined to be cannibals or worse, and just when we give them the benefit of the doubt... they turn out to be malevolent after all! The element of surprise has always been one of Dante’s great strengths and he is especially adept at turning it against us, in the manner of a truly Swiftian satirist.

A number of the comic vignettes that Dante shot for the John Landis-produced omnibus AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON (1987) were omitted from the theatrical release “because John didn’t think they were funny” (as Joe once told me) – a mind-boggling prospect when one sees the stuff that made the cut, including a deliberately agonizing two-part skit (“Critics’ Corner” and “Roast Your Loved One”) featuring Archie Hahn. He stars as a regular guy who suffers a fatal heart attack while seeing his personal life scathingly reviewed on television by a pair of Siskel & Ebert stand-ins, and whose funeral is subsequently turned into a proverbial celebrity roast featuring the likes of Henny Youngman and Slappy White. Looking back, seeing this diptych in a theater was one of the more surprisingly expansive incidents in my movie-going life, perhaps as close as any movie-goer of my generation could get to experiencing the fresh taste of the “sick humor” (that is to say, confrontational humor) launched in the 1950s by Lenny Bruce, a comedian directly referenced in MATINEE. (Another “sick comic,” Brother Theodore, was prominently featured in THE ‘BURBS.)

Both of these skits made me extremely uncomfortable on the first pass, and I could also sense the discomfort of others in the auditorium with me, given the sudden epidemic of coughing, candy box-rattling, and noisy leg-crossings that broke out. There was a hushed sense of “Thank God that’s over” when the first part ended, and something just this side of an actual groan when we all realized we were only halfway done with this character. I can’t speak for anyone else who was with me that day, but I was intrigued. I was interested enough in my own reaction, and solid enough in my trust of Joe’s directorial instincts, to come back and see the film a second time; that second time, I could see this Mack Truck coming, knew what it was, and rolling with its punches instead of against them, I started laughing my ass off. I still do, when I see AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON today (though some of its deliberately funny material has lost some of its lustre over the years). In a sense, what Dante was doing here was Reichian comedy: pounding away at our emotional armor until our inner defense systems gave way, allowing us to experience at full strength the humor of our own worst fears – that the media might tap into our own worst secrets (the worst being our inconsequentiality in the great scheme of things), that we might be denied respect even in death, that our funerals might turn into a cheap burlesque where even our loved ones would laugh. “Reckless Youth,” the bizarre Dante-directed coda that ends AMAZON WOMEN -- a parody of the baleful Dwain Esper “teen pregnancy” exploitation reels of the 1930s -- has a similarly confrontational edge in that it shows us, beneath the impeccable surface layer joke of its camera and acting technique (both inept), how uncomfortable Americans continue to be when it comes to the matters of our own bodies and sexual education.

Dante’s “It’s A Good Life” remake for TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983) initiated a thematic thread that would blossom into fuller expression in his two GREMLINS films (the second being the wonderfully no-holds-barred GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH, 1990), namely the idea later revisited by the Spider-Man films: that with great power comes great responsibility. Dante gets to the heart of “It’s A Good Life” in a way the original TWILIGHT ZONE episode did not, showing that little Anthony (Jeremy Licht) is not inherently a monster but has become one because his family has allowed him to mature without the firm guiding hand that enters his life only with the accidental arrival of schoolteacher Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan). The Mogwai of the Gremlins films are analogous to Anthony’s reality-bending powers in that their potential for hazard is entrusted to the hands of young people who learn what can happen if you’re careless even once. Appropriately, when the Mogwai comes into contact with water, the resulting Gremlins are the very embodiment of antic, rampant Irresponsibility. And Joe Dante being Joe Dante, he couldn’t have experienced the irony of seeing his murderous, anarchic Gremlins merchandised as toys for children without responding with the underrated SMALL SOLDIERS (1998), in which we see the consequences of G.I. Joe-type action figures being beefed-up with military technology... which, of course, takes us back to the fine, finny, science-bred war machines of PIRANHA.

Dante, of course, was a child of the Vietnam War era and his collective works reflect an uneasy regard for the military, for politicians, and for big business, in all of which he sees a soullessness equal to that of the pods in Don Siegel’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1955). Indeed, the shadows of war and partisan contretemps send a chill through the majority of his collected works, whether it’s overtly as in SMALL SOLDIERS, the military intentions behind the flesh-eating fish of PIRANHA, and the Cuban Missile Crisis backdrop of the magnificent MATINEE (1993, a classic killed at the boxoffice by a non-descript title), or more subtly, as in the microcosmic-cum-analogous war strategies THE ‘BURBS (with its suburban sergeant Bruce Dern), and the personal-cum-national politics of his impressive made-for-cable feature THE SECOND CIVIL WAR (1997, which assembles one of the finest casts of its decade).

But for much of Dante’s career, his own personal war has been with Hollywood – whose play-it-safe policies have been in increasing conflict with the kinds of movies he wants to make and stories he wants to tell. In the decade between 1993 and 2003, he directed only three theatrical features, working increasingly on cable and commercial television films and series (like EERIE, INDIANA), and devoting much of his time to projects that did not pan out (like the Charlie Haas script TERMITE TERRACE, a no-go that Joe has called the “heartbreaker” of his career), or did not pan out as planned (like the 1996 film of Lee Falk’s comicstrip THE PHANTOM, which he ended up executive producing rather than directing). Joe’s biggest opportunity of the past decade, LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (2003), saw the either moribund or commercially sold-out cartoon characters of the Warner Bros. stable finally entrusted to the only director still living who understood them; unfortunately, with the film’s immense budget came even more immense second-guessing from the front office (“Why does he have to say, ‘What’s Up, Doc?’”). Though Bugs, Daffy and their celluloid cohorts live and breathe here as they haven’t done in decades, the end result is an amusing but overwritten conglomeration of the divine (the Louve sequence, for example), the magnificently apt, and the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding. BACK IN ACTION was Dante’s DANGER: DIABOLIK – a good movie, but a disappointing personal and artistic misadventure that seems to have redirected him back to the spirit of independent American cinema, where creative freedom can still thrive.

Joe bumps into an even older friend at Wonderfest 2004: Me.

For the last couple of years, when not filming standout episodes for MASTERS OF HORROR, Joe has been travelling the globe in search of funding for THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES, a comedy script written by this writer and Charlie Largent about Roger Corman’s experiences prior to, during, and after his filming of his LSD epic THE TRIP (1967), and its role in the founding of the US independent film scene. In the time since Joe has optioned it, Charlie and I have done some rewrites, and there’s been an intermediary rewrite by Michael Almereyda and James Robison, and our script, as it now stands, reads like a bonafide Joe Dante movie, and one we’d all dearly love to see – a fascinating experience for me, as a writer and as a fan.

But it’s most of all as a friend that I want to wish Joe a happy birthday. We’ve known each other, though at a distance, for more than 25 years. I first got in touch with him back in 1980 to request an interview for a piece about contemporary horror trends I was preparing for HEAVY METAL magazine. I was nervous before calling him for the first time because I’d known his name since my boyhood, thanks to his bylines in CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and I was taken aback when he responded to my self-introduction with an undisguisedly familiar and impressed “Oh, HI!” (He knew me from my writings for CINEFANTASTIQUE.) I also spoke to David Cronenberg, George Romero, John Carpenter and Tom Savini for that article, but I felt the strongest personal affinity for Joe; by the end of that first call, we were finishing each other’s sentences. A decade later, he became one of VIDEO WATCHDOG's first subscribers, and a letter written in his own hand appeared in the Letterbox of our first issue. We first met face-to-face in 1993, around the time of MATINEE’s release. Later that year, he allowed me to co-host with him a 1993 Mario Bava retrospective at the American Cinematheque, where we talked, answered questions, and interviewed the likes of John Saxon and Harriet White Medin. (That night I also had the pleasure of speaking with Harriet’s escort, actor Robert Cornthwaite, whom I congratulated on his “virtuoso… or skilled" performance in Joe’s classic movie-within-a-movie, MANT.)

Some years ago, before he joined our pages with his “Fleapit Flashbacks” column, I told Joe that I had it in mind to devote an upcoming issue to his films. But, as fate would have it, when the time rolled around to begin that issue, I was well into my surprise obsession with Andy Milligan, which resulted not one... not two… but three feature articles. For some reason, Joe still talks to me, and I’m grateful. I still intend to do that Joe Dante issue, but I want to do it when I really feel it... and looking at the length of what I've written here, maybe that day was today! Anyway, until that mythic issue finally materializes, I hope this birthday blog will do – along with the other Blog-A-Thon offerings of the day.

Come to think of it, I have still more to say on this subject, so there just might be a Part 2, devoted to one of Joe’s lesser-known projects, later in the week.

In the meantime... Have a great day, Joe!

OTHER PARTICIPANTS IN THE JOE DANTE BLOG-A-THON:

Movie Morlocks.com: http://www.moviemorlocks.com/blog?action=detail&entry_id=8a25caad0f2cf4b9010f2d5f72c30002

Nadaland: http://nadalander.blogspot.com/2006/11/happy-birthday-joe-dante.html

The Exploding Kinetoscope: http://explodingkinetoscope.blogspot.com/

Joplin John: http://blog.myspace.com/joplinjohn

Film Ick: http://filmick.blogspot.com/2006/11/films-not-directed-by-joe-dante.html

KGB Films: http://kgbfilms.blogspot.com/

The Horror Blog: http://www.thehorrorblog.com/2006/11/28/half-dan-half-ante/

This Is Not A Dark Ride: http://e-ticket.livejournal.com/219658.html

Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule: http://sergioleoneifr.blogspot.com/2006/11/joe-dantes-birthday-party.html

Monday, November 27, 2006

Should Old Acquaintence Be Bloodshot

Gene Evans holds satanic children at bay with a golf club in DEVIL TIMES FIVE.

DEVIL TIMES FIVE is known, like the Devil, by many names. It was produced and previewed under the title PEOPLETOYS, then became THE HORRIBLE HOUSE ON THE HILL for its first theatrical release, before settling into the moniker that's stuck. I first saw the film in 1974 at a private screening under the PEOPLETOYS title, probably before it was acquired for release by Jerry Gross's Cinemation Industries, and being 18 and frankly stoned, was sufficiently impressed by what I saw to fire off the following "Capsule Comment" postcard for publication in CINEFANTASTIQUE (Vol 4 No 2):

"Titanic, nightmarish horror-of-personality film about a team of 'special' children who walk together in a VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED type pack. They invade a household and destroy its dull, vanity-conscious occupants in various jolting ways. One of the most thought-provoking works of horror in recent years." (TL, +4)

"Plus-four" being CFQ's very highest rating, and only one notch higher than the gratuitous accolades I had accorded around the same time to MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR. Hey, I was a teenager. It was the Seventies.

Ten years later, I reprised those red-eyed comments into a toned-down but still-excessive three-star entry for my VIDEO TIMES paperback compendium YOUR MOVIE GUIDE TO HORROR VIDEO TAPES AND DISCS (Signet Books, 1985):

"Five wandering homeless 'special' children are offered shelter in [Gene] Evans' handsome winter retreat, where his haughty and privileged guests are unaware that the kids have just escaped an asylum for the criminally insane. This unsettling, moralistic horror story sees the affluent adults gradually falling victim to the sudden reality of the children's true natures (the most memorable scene shows one guest beaten to death with chains in a chilling sequence of grainy still photographs). Promising director Sean McGregor [sic] never made another feature after this sleeper, also known as PEOPLETOYS and THE HORRIBLE HOUSE ON THE HILL." (p. 39)

It's hard to believe that almost 30 years have passed since that initial screening, and I've been wary ever since of seeing the film again, because I knew it was unlikely to be even half of what I wrote it was. For one thing, though the memory of the picture stuck with me for awhile, that's not the same thing as provoking thought -- a distinction I wasn't critically equipped to make in those green days. In fact, aside from an extended slow-motion sequence (not "grainy still photographs") that couldn't have possibly have lasted as long as it seemed to (could it?), I was very soon unable to remember much about the film at all.

The mind-boggling drop-piranha-in-the-bathtub scene.

Last week, DEVIL TIMES FIVE was released on DVD for the first time, courtesy of a new label called Code Red, distributed by Media Blasters. After spending part of a day last week blogging about CFQ's mutation into GEEK MONTHLY, I was in a mood to reminisce about my fledgling days in my profession and this traipse down Memory Lane inevitably intersected with my long-postponed reacquaintence with this work credited to director Sean MacGregor. When I first saw this movie, MacGregor's name leaped off the screen at me much as Oliver Stone's did when I saw SEIZURE (the two films have things in common), and I expected to hear more from him; I never did. Media Blasters' excellent disc goes a long way toward explaining why. (MacGregor is credited or co-credited with the direction of two subsequent pictures, supposedly neither of which he completed.)

This is one of those DVDs as important, if not moreso, for what it reveals about the facts of production as for the main feature itself. As a horror movie of its period, DEVIL TIMES FIVE doesn't hold together very well (the film's first victim is played by three different people, one of them THE BROOD's Henry Beckman!), but it contains its share of scenes and images exert a certain disturbing quality. There are things in this movie that would never be permitted in today's climate; for example, in one scene, a little girl and a novice nun (!) dump a bowl of piranha fish into a bathtub with a very full-breasted, naked woman, and her naked body is later shown being dragged through the snow by a group of kids whose average age is 12. To make matters even weirder, we later learn that the actress in question (Carolyn Stellar) was the mother of two of the children (Leif Garrett and Dawn Lyn). The audio commentary's willful overlooking of this point -- "Wasn't it weird seeing your mother naked, much less dumping piranha fish on your mother naked?" -- is proof of the film's still-valid discomforting quality, and its use of children directly interacting with graphic violence and adult nudity remains creepy, as does its unexpectedly but very Seventies nihilistic ending.

The even more mind-boggling Leif Garrett-drags-his-mother-naked-through-the-snow scene.

Furthermore, remember that extended slow-motion scene I mentioned earlier? It wasn't just the pot; it really did last as long as I remembered, running a full six minutes -- because the producers had to s-t-r-e-t-c-h the movie out when the director's cut, filmed at Lake Arrowhead over a four-week period, amounted to only 38 minutes of footage!

And here's where the value of this disc truly kicks in, because the supplementary materials -- the audio commentary and on-camera interviews with cast and crew -- reveal that Sean MacGregor was fired from the production and sued by the producers following those four weeks, after which time the balance of the picture was completed in only one week, under the shared direction of uncredited production consultant David Sheldon (a production executive at AIP) and Sandra Lee Blowitz, the film's production manager and the wife of producer Michael Blowitz. She also revised the original screenplay to make the film completable within the short allotted time. DEVIL TIMES FIVE thus earns the unsuspected distinction of being one of the few horror films of the 1970s (THE VELVET VAMPIRE, BLOOD SABBATH) directed by a woman, and one of the very few in history to be written and directed by a woman.

I spent most of DEVIL TIMES FIVE wishing it was more cohesive, but the best scenes do appear to have been shot after MacGregor's departure and pretty much forged from the fires of desperation. The producers, to their credit, lament that the alledged incompetence of MacGregor (whose name appears nowhere on the packaging) made it impossible to film John Durren's script as it was written, and -- given their repeated endorsements of its quality and difference from the end result -- viewers will lament that the script wasn't included on the disc as a PDF file. As moderator (and sometimes VW contributor) Darren Gross points out in the commentary, the slow-motion sequence -- which features stand-ins for the victim as well as the novice nun played elsewhere by MacGregor's girlfriend, Gale Smale -- is nightmarish almost in spite of itself, with its gritty snuff-movie quality striking chords associated with Andy Milligan's THE GHASTLY ONES or perhaps MARAT/SADE.

The 16:9 presentation is splendidly colorful and crystal clear, and the pristine source element sports the HORRIBLE HOUSE ON THE HILL title. An alternate sequence consisting of the Cinemation Industries logo and a DEVIL TIMES FIVE title card is also included. Actors Joan McCall and Dawn Lyn are featured in on-camera interviews and the audio commentary, along with producers Blowitz and Sheldon. The theatrical trailer is curious for name-checking VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (as I did in my original notes on that preview screening... coincidence?), a film older than more than half the film's cast list.

Seen again after all these years, I must revise my original overblown opinions and declare DEVIL TIMES FIVE a mess, but it's an interesting mess. Maybe, just maybe, a two-star mess. And the Code Red disc makes for a very interesting, three-star evening's entertainment as an illustrated, annotated lesson in independent genre film production. BTW, for those who love to live dangerously, take a peek at the Code Red trailer supplement. Tucked away there are unbelievable coming attractions for the renowned necro-sickie LOVE ME DEADLY, the mind-boggling SCHOOLGIRLS IN CHAINS (it's incredible to think that theaters ever played trailers like this!), and other toxic untouchables that we're glad to know are soon forthcoming.

P.S. BLOGGERS! Remember the Joe Dante Blog-A-Thon tomorrow!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Question Mark

Does Monsters HD realize they are showing THE MYSTERIANS right now in Japanese... WITHOUT English subtitles?

Friday, November 24, 2006

90 Years of EEEE

That's me in 1993, sharing a three-way handshake with my childhood hero and his beloved robotic Metropolitan, Maria.

Thanks to Flickhead's call for a Blog-A-Thon in his honor, many people will doubtless spend today penning Happy 90th Birthday testimonials to Forrest J Ackerman (no period after the middle initial, please) -- a.k.a. Uncle Forry, a.k.a. FJA, a.k.a. 4SJ, a.k.a. The Ackermonster, a.k.a. Dr. (period, please) Acula, a.k.a. everything from Spencer Strong to, yes, Robot Mitchum. So today's subject line is my little attempt to say something actually quite ubiquitous today in a singular way. Besides, I think Forry would like the conceit that all of those women shrieking in darkened movie houses across America were actually screaming his name all along. (EEEE = 4 E, get it? Of course you did.)

Puns are inseparable from the legacy of Forry "The Pun is Mightier Than the Sword" Ackerman, who introduced us to issues of his seminal magazine FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND with editorials signed "Beast Witches," who accorded accolades with his heartiest "Kong-gratulations," and who gladly fulfilled photo requests in a department called "You Axed For It!" There were readers who found the pun-loving side of FM somewhat less than divine, but as one of the many kids of the early 1960s who acquired a taste for puns in the pages of FM, I credit FM and Forry particularly in helping me to cultivate an appreciation of what was clever/wry/discerning before I was really old enough to be smart. By "reading" FM from the time I was more likely to have just looked at the pictures, I developed into a kid who, by the age of 10 or 11, had books by the likes of H. G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Sax Rohmer in his personal library.

When we published our first issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG back in 1990, I sent two copies to Forry (whom I had never met, phoned, nor corresponded with) with the inscription "For Safe-Creeping in Your Lie-Buried of Kong-ress, The Ackermansion. Beast witches..." It was my way of saying a belated Thank You for having instilled in me a love of language as well as a love of movies, and also for having founded a job definition that (unknown to me at the time) would be mine for the next 17 years and counting. In all those years, I've never received a word of comment from Forry, even though he helped to present the first award VW ever received (the FanEx Award for Best Semi-Prozine in 1991); in fact, walking onstage to accept that surprising award was made doubly daunting because I was not only accepting my first professional award, but meeting my childhood hero at the same moment. I paused before leaving the stage to shake his hand, and spoke with him at somewhat greater length after the ceremony about his favorite film, METROPOLIS. He seemed much more interested in meeting Donna, whom he immediately gathered into an unctuous embrace while slyly pressing into her palm a keychain bearing the words "Remember Me with Every Key - 4E 4E 4E."

A couple of years later, Eric Hoffman arranged for me to visit the Ackermansion during a 1993 trip to LA -- I met Joe Dante in person for the first time earlier that day and, running behind schedule, had to turn down his invitation to lunch in the Universal commissary in order to keep my appointment. Forry was under the weather, but he graciously received me and let me roam around his mansion, pointing out that it had been formerly owned by actor Jon Hall and that a corridor lined with framed photos of the actor led to the first floor "Jon."


Who he? Why, 4E, of course -- pointing to his own life mask, proudly displayed among those of other great Titans of Terror.

After taking a mostly unguided tour through the premises, greatly diminished since its glory days by the ransackings of too many unsupervised "Open Houses," we sat and talked for close to three hours. It was a strange conversation, with my questions prompting either faltering memories or well-memorized soliloquies I'd previously heard Forry intone in television interviews -- Robot Mitchum, indeed.

The thing I remember most fondly about Forry is his almost childlike idealism, conveyed not only in his abiding love for what he was the first to call "Sci Fi," but also in his dearly cultivated sense of altruism. He admitted that many people close to him had tried to make him see the world otherwise, but he refused on principle to have visitors to his house searched prior to leaving. He prefered to be robbed blind than to think and expect the worst of the people who came to visit him. He also couldn't understand why either the city of Los Angeles or the wealthiest of FM's followers (Spielberg, the other Lucas, Stephen King) had never taken him up on his offer to stock a Fantafilm Museum, and this was something I couldn't understand either... until I saw how little of museum value was actually left in his collection. A vintage hardcover of Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN, signed by dozens of people associated with the film versions (including Elsa Lanchester and Bela Lugosi), would have been priceless in good or better condition, but it sat broken-hinged and unprotected, basically handled to death; priceless props from classic films were covered with dust and thrown just any old where; vintage lobbycards had been cut for display; even valuable back issues of FM sat unbagged and exposed on a damp cellar floor.

In retrospect, I could better understand why some collectors might have "liberated" items from Forry's safekeeping, and for reasons only partly to do with greed. Not that I consider thievery a defensible act, but if one accepts Forry's own idea of himself as an honor-system "custodian" of these precious artifacts, who believed that everyone had an equal right to enjoy them, some of these pieces might have stood better chances of actually making it into a museum someday in the care of more attentive "custodians."

Bumping into a fellow browser at the Ackermansion.

During my visit, VW was sort of the 400... nah, the 200-pound gorilla in the room. Any mention of VW or my own life as a publisher/editor was quickly glossed over, and Forry didn't remember receiving my inscribed first issue ("I get a lot of mail..."). With VW already 30-some issues into its run, I left the Ackermansion that day feeling a little uncertain if Forry knew me as anything other than a friend of Eric Hoffman, that I had been a contributor to FantaCo's FAMOUS MONSTERS CHRONICLES, or even that we had met before. Eric assured me that he was fully aware of me and VW, but Forry never tipped his hand. So I left the Ackermansion that day with unexpectedly shaded feelings.

We parted ways that day and never kept in touch, but this is as it should be, because, regardless of my own proclivity for puns, VIDEO WATCHDOG was always most closely allied to, and inspired by, the spirit of Calvin Beck's CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN. I'm not sorry that I spent those private hours on Mt. Olympus (or was it Mt. Aluna?) with Forry, but I've always regretted missing that lunch with Joe in the Universal commissary, because it was with him and his own history as a CoF contributor that my own affinities were most deeply rooted. ("Aw, you didn't miss anything," I can hear Joe saying -- but he'll never convince me of that. Actually, now that I've said this, he'll probably e-mail me and say, "Y'know, come to think of it, that was the day Steven came over to my table and asked me if I knew any talented young writers...")

But even Joe was first published in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND ("Dante's Inferno," FM #18, July 1962), and he'd be the first to agree that we'd probably all be doing something else today if Forrest J Ackerman had been doing something else then. For those interested in a fuller account of my personal history with FM, I refer you to "FAMOUS MONSTERS Took Away My Fear (1990)," my heartfelt contribution to FAMOUS MONSTERS CHRONICLES (FantaCo Enterprises, 1991), edited by Dennis Daniel and written before the founding of VW and my encounters with Forry. As I said in concluding that piece, "To paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard's famous comment on the modern cinema's debt to Orson Welles: Never let us forget for one moment that anyone who writes about horror films owes FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND everything."

So, on behalf of everyone whose life was profoundly changed or even made possible by FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND...

Harpy Birthday, Forry!

You're ever a part of us. Enjoy your naughty Nineties.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Proposing a JOE DANTE Blog-A-Thon

"We want to... blog."


Next Tuesday, November 28, marks the 60th birthday of Joe Dante -- one of our favorite filmmakers, a seminal critical influence via CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN, a longtime VIDEO WATCHDOG supporter and contributor ("Fleapit Flashbacks"), a personal friend of (has it really been) 26 years, and a colleague who's devoted all of his available time the past couple of years to getting our Roger Corman biopic project closer to production. He's a hard guy to shop for, cheaply anyway, and I've been wondering what to get him to commemorate this special day. Then Darren Gross approached me today with the ideal suggestion:

"How about a Joe Dante Blog-A-Thon?"

We had a great time with our Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon last April, so who's with me for a special Tuesday tribute to Joe? There are so many aspects of his career to cover: the great movie trailers he and Allan Arkush created for New World Pictures in the 1970s... his onscreen cameos... his pre-Tarantino promotion of overlooked directors and actors... his long affiliation with actor Dick Miller... his film criticism from "Dante's Inferno" to VW... his love of cartoons... his fondness for in-jokes... the political content of his work... his reputation as "the subversive Spielberg"... his editing collaborations with Joe D'Amato (that's a joke, son)... or any of his movies from HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD to LOONEY TUNES BACK IN ACTION.

I hope my fellow bloggers will be stoked to join me in this abrupt and utterly madcap venture. Should you plan to participate, let me know in time to post a link to your site with my own contribution. Now go spread the word.

And Happy Thanksgiving!

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.