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


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 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):

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.