Saturday, November 11, 2006

Brother Theodore Centenary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 10, 2006

Jack Palance and How to Say His Name

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

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

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

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

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

And merci beaucoup, Lucas, for teaching me this.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

ERIK Conquers DVD on Import


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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

After the Famine... FEAST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 06, 2006

Something Wonderful to Look Forward To

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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