Wednesday, December 13, 2006

From My Mailbox

I watched the new Network "Special Edition" of HANDS OF THE RIPPER a few weeks ago and considered writing to you about a problem with the disc at the time. Then I decided that, when you reviewed the disc, you'd notice the error yourself and make a note of it. But you didn't, and I ended up giving myself a mental clip behind the ear for not writing in the first place. So, better late than never...

Unfortunately the print of HANDS OF THE RIPPER supplied by Carlton International to Network (and, I assume, also to Anolis, although I haven't actually seen the German disc to compare them) is a cut version of the film. The scene which has been truncated on the DVD is the murder of Dolly the maid. In the original cinema version of the film, the character of Anna swings the hand mirror back over her shoulder and it shatters against the full-length mirror behind her. She then slashes the maid back and forth three times across the throat and the film cuts back and forth between shots of Anna swinging the glass shard and POV shots of Dolly reacting as the three distinct slashes are streaked across her neck. (I have always assumed that part of the reason Marjie Lawrence was cast in this pretty thankless role was because she has such a long, lovely, swan-like neck – just perfect for the indignities which are heaped upon it!) Anna then buries the shard in the side of her neck and Dolly staggers backwards into the bath.

In the " special edition" DVD, the repeated slashes have been removed. Dolly appears to have her throat cut only once and then the shard is seen protruding from the side of her neck. This excision leaves a noticeable jump in the soundtrack and, if you look closely, has resulted in an unfortunate continuity gaffe with the placing of Anna's hands. Peter Sasdy might not be Alfred Hitchcock, but he did assemble the scene with surprising intricacy, editing back and forth between Anna and Dolly to the rhythm of the music and carefully building up to the savagery of the murder itself. The missing shots completely disrupt this rhythm, giving it a slightly anti-climactic feel.

As I said, the uncut throat slashing was present in the movie when I first saw it in the cinema (at least a couple of times) back in 1971. Part of the reason it stuck in my mind was because it was a genuinely brutal sequence even by Hammer's standards, and did have the power to kill stone dead any giggles or chattering in the cinema!

One might attribute my 30-year-old memories of the scene to an overactive imagination, except... A few years later, when I was helping run my university film society, we booked a 16mm library copy of HANDS OF THE RIPPER to screen to the student body. It was common practice for us film nerds to run private screenings of the films once the prints had been delivered, when we had a chance to play around with the projection and run scenes back and forth, dissecting how they had been put together. (You have to remember that this was all pre-commercial video, when one had no access to the pause button, let alone fast forward and rewind.) A group of us sat and watched that sequence over and over ad nauseum, working out the cutting sequence (no pun intended) and generally deconstructing Sasdy's work. So, in this case, I do know categorically that a longer version of the scene exists.

Needless to say, all subsequent TV screenings of the film cut the scene even more substantially than the current DVD version (and also trimmed the later murder of the the prostitute Long Liz, excising the shot of the hatpins being stabbed through her hand, as well as the shot of her hand pulling away from her face to reveal her mutilated eye). And, while I have never seen it myself, I understand that the US version of the film also trimmed the murders and used additional footage to bulk up the running time.

When I realized that Network's new DVD was cut, I e-mailed the company and pointed out the mistake. Although initially treated by the company like the Village Dunce in a Fifties monster movie – "Yes, Mr Taylor, I'm sure you really DID see a giant praying mantis crawling over an uncut print of HANDS OF THE RIPPER last night. Take two aspirin and call us in the morning." – I was forwarded to a very helpful woman who explained that the print Carlton had supplied was the "most complete available". We also mused that the British Board of Film Censors, as it was known back then, had inflicted some unspecified cuts on the film for its cinema release and wondered whether Hammer had noted their decision and gone ahead and released the film uncut anyway. (It's one of the amusing secrets of British film distribution that films were frequently released intact after their trip through the censors - film companies sent the films in to the BBFC for their verdict, but the cuts were never imposed and uncensored prints just shipped out to cinemas around the country, it being virtually impossible to monitor whether they were the approved version or not; I can cite numerous examples of times when I went to see films for a second time, after they had been booked for a second run at the cinema after the original roadshow presentation, to find myself watching an entirely different print of the film to the one I had seen first time round, with supposedly censored scenes unaccountably restored.) It was entirely possible that Carlton had supplied Network with the BBFC-approved cut of the film, but that uncut prints of the film had slipped through the net t the time of its theatrical release and been in circulation ever since.

Anyway, the lady at Network did ask me to keep my eyes open and said that, if I managed to track down a version of the film that included the scene as I described, to let her know. A similar situation arose with the DVD release of FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL awhile back, when the film was reissued after various scenes had been found and restored from other DVD versions. I had been curious as to whether the German version of HANDS OF THE RIPPER was any different to the UK version, but your review would seem to indicate that it is not. I am currently trying to get hold of the Japanese DVD release of the film, which was issued some time ago and is now OOP, to see whether that is any different.

It's ironic that I only bought a copy of the new special edition of HANDS OF THE RIPPER in a burst of nostalgia to see the film after all these years, and have inadvertently been thrust into the role of its unofficial restorer – a role for which I am probably ill-equipped to fulfil! Anyway, if you or any of your readers can cite a release of HANDS OF THE RIPPER that includes the scene as I have outlined above, please let me know. Hammer films have had a pretty spotty history on home video and DVD; they may not all be masterpieces, but one wishes that they were treated with a modicum more respect than they have been in the past. (To be fair, Network have to be applauded for unearthing that formerly excised scene for their recent re-issue of TWINS OF EVIL and including it as an extra on the DVD). HANDS OF THE RIPPER is, I think, one of the best of the 70s efforts and it would be nice to at least have a definitive copy of the film after all these years.

David Taylor

If anyone has any information about more complete prints of HANDS OF THE RIPPER on video, please drop me a line at the Contact link and I will forward the information to David.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Royale Screwfly Confidential

CASINO ROYALE (2006, Sony Pictures theatrical)
Producers Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli have jump-started the long-running 007 franchise with a picture that makes all but a select few Bond movies seem trivial. Daniel Craig (pictured) may not be our idea of Bond initially, but this is effectively the story of the birth (or more to the point, the finessing) of Bond, and it's a pleasure to see the hard granite edges of Craig gradually smoothed and polished as he acquires professionalism and as the stakes of victory require a higher standard of him. What's strange about the film is that it's not a completely fresh start; Judi Dench is back as M, and there are also certain (forgive the word) spectres of the past, including the use of a 1964 Aston Martin; also, because the film is not only contemporary but technically cutting edge (if not advanced), this Bond is no longer a Cold War relic but a distillation of ruthless self-interest put into national harness. The formula has likewise been played with; instead of the pre-credits stunt showpiece that's been more or less standard since THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977), there's a slow, cerebral simmer to the familiar gun barrel logo, quickly followed by an early stunt showcase at a construction site that's easily one of the series' most breathless and exciting. Several more follow, accentuating hard-hitting realism over fantasy, all the more impressive for never succumbing to profanity or vulgarity. Complementing this new blond Bond are an unusual emphasis of brunette Bond girls, including Eva Green in an appreciably mature performance as Vesper Lynd, whose character arc shapes Bond's future attitude to women and gives this film an emotional resonance not found in the series since at least THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH and perhaps not since ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE. To be perfectly honest and unsentimental, I think this film taps into real romantic emotion better than either. CASINO ROYALE embodies such a revolution of thought about Bond that only time will tell how good it truly is, and I'm in no rush to sell out the past. But I can 't think of another introductory Bond film as successful as this one on so many levels -- and when the deliberately withheld Bond theme enters in the final scene, only the most hard-hearted viewer will be able to contain their cheers.

ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (2006, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment DVD)
This film reunites artist-screenwriter Daniel Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff for the first time since their remarkable GHOST WORLD (2001), a film I'm proud to have seen probably ten times. For anyone expecting a feature-length exploration of Illeana Douglas' art class in that movie, ASC is bound to disappoint on some level, but it's actually a far more profound rumination on the costs that come with choosing this path in life. We follow protagonist Jerome Platz (Max Minghella, pictured) from his arrival at Strathmore Art College on a course that encompasses naive talent, first love (when the Davy Jones-eyed Minghella first sets eyes on Sophia Myles, we half-expect them to twinkle like stars), the discovery of a topic, the pursuit of a personal style, heartbreak, cynicism, madness, opportunism, ruthlessness, and finally a form of commercial sell-out celebrity that denies him everything but his dream of success and the pleasure of gazing upon that which inspires him. The final shot is one of the ouchiest twists of a narrative knife I've ever felt from a movie, and it strikes me as complete a metaphor for what it means to be an artist as I've seen. For all the pain -- and there's at least as much here as there was in BAD SANTA (2003) -- there's even more humor and intelligence, confirming Zwigoff and Clowes as one of the great teams of American independent cinema. Sony's DVD includes a nice featurette and 11 minutes of deleted scenes, nearly all valuable but which would have darkened the film even more. Producer John Malkovich gets the film's instant classic line: "I was one of the first."

MASTERS OF HORROR: "The Screwfly Solution" (2006, Showtime)
Season Two's reunion of director Joe Dante and screenwriter Sam Hamm ("Homecoming") adapts a 1977 story by the late "Raccoona Sheldon," one of the pseudonyms used by science fiction writer Alice Bradley (1915-87, also known as "James Tiptree, Jr."). It concerns the spread of an airbourne virus of unknown but apparently deliberate origin designed to wipe out the human race by turning the aggression of the male reproductive impulse into a homicidal one. Dante and Hamm use the story (which can be read in its entirety here) to illustrate the extent to which dangerous levels of misogyny are already countenanced in our society (like the free use of words like "bitch," and even a commendably we-bad clip from Season 1's "Imprint"), which makes the seemingly far-fetched scenario not so great a leap of the imagination, hence not only shocking but horrifying. Elliott Gould (pictured), in the supporting role of a grizzled gay scientist, gives what may be his best performance since his Altman days. My only complaint -- and I have to precede this comment with a SPOILER flash -- is that it builds to the revelation of an alien cause, with a CGI alien that looks like it stepped out of a SHOWGIRLS variation on THE ABYSS. This twist may be faithful to Sheldon's story, but it cheapens (and, to a degree, contradicts) the long and unflinching gaze into the mirror that precedes it. Nevertheless, this is not only the best episode to yet emerge this season, but one of the very best episodes of either season, and an outstanding work of feminist -- no, make that humanist -- horror.

Monday, December 11, 2006


SIGHT & SOUND has posted a sampling of the contents of their December issue on their website, well-worth checking out, including my review of Roy Ward Baker's 1967 Hammer film THE ANNIVERSARY, starring Bette Davis.

I was also asked to submit a list of my Top 5 films, and they have posted the lists of everyone who complied. I forgot all about WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE, for which I have been kicking myself, and didn't think to include the DVD release of Antonioni's THE PASSENGER (as someone else did); also, since submitting my list, I've seen a couple (if not a few) films that would definitely have knocked a couple of titles off my extant list, including Terry Zwigoff's ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL and what I found to be the most impressive film of the year, James McTeigue's V FOR VENDETTA -- neither of which appears to have made anyone else's list, more's the pity. I'm still looking forward to seeing 98% of the films that made the other lists, particularly CASINO ROYALE and THE DEPARTED.

Happiest outcome: Guillermo del Toro's PAN'S LABYRINTH made S&S's collective Top 10 list, even if I do flinch a bit at the injustice that it's only #10. It's a good sight better than THE QUEEN (which, mind you, also made my list).

Biggest "Wha?": Woody Allen's MATCH POINT (which I found to be one of his most bland films) made a couple of lists.

In another instance of a list of mine appearing online elsewhere, I've contributed lists of my Top 10 Jess Franco Films and a selection of my favorite Franco film moments to Robert Monell's blog I'm In A Jess Franco State of Mind.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Late Jim Dolen

I found this photograph online today and I thought I would share it with you, because I find it touching. Fans of Sixties Italian cinema may remember Jim Dolen as the fortyish, prematurely white-haired actor who played a number of small roles in beloved films of the early 1960s. The IMDb tells us that he was in TOTO NELLA LUNA ("Totò on the Moon," 1958), Margheriti's BATTLE OF THE WORLDS (1961), and Richard Fleischer's BARABBAS (1962); I remember him primarily as a priest in Bava's THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, a nosy FBI agent in Margheriti's THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG (1963), and a UN spokesman in GIDGET GOES TO ROME (1963). The IMDb lists a final role in the Disney produced THE BALLAD OF HECTOR THE STOWAWAY DOG (1964), filmed in Lisbon. When Dolen spoke in GIDGET GOES TO ROME, perhaps his only live sound performance, I recognized a voice I'd heard many times before in the English dubbing of Italian pictures.

I never knew why Jim Dolen vanished from movies just as he was becoming a conspicuous screen presence, but this stone explains it... at least in part. We don't have his cause of death, or the relevant dates, but this monument tells us that he took great pride in his career, that he predeceased at least one of his parents, and died looking forward to his wedding day. It stands somewhere on the south side of Rome's Protestant Cemetery, whose directory lists Jim Dolen as being a English citizen (not an American, as I've always surmised).

Rest in peace, Jim. You're still remembered.