Monday, January 22, 2007

Woo-Hoo! TCM's New Columbia Crime Package


Beginning this month, Turner Classic Movies began premiering a whole new set of additions to their library "from the Hollywood studios of Columbia Pictures." Last week, the delightful and rarely-seen Gainsborough mermaid fantasy MIRANDA turned up on their schedule, the first time I've ever known it to appear on television (now bring on HELTER SKELTER and MAD ABOUT MEN, which also featured Glynis Johns as Miranda!), as well as the Jacques Tourneur classic CURSE OF THE DEMON. A reader called to notify us that TCM inadvertently ran the shorter American version of DEMON, even though the full length cut is available on domestic DVD, and asked me in a voice full of concern if I thought TCM "might be losing it."

To which I must answer "No chance!" -- especially after seeing the lineup they have prepared for us this coming Tuesday. In addition to an early morning broadcast of Howard Hawks' THE CRIMINAL CODE (1931, the film that brought Boris Karloff to the attention of FRANKENSTEIN director James Whale), TCM gets down to the nitty-gritty with their first showcasing of one of Columbia's classic B-mystery series, based on Jack Boyle's pulp fiction character "Boston Blackie."

Rather like Arsène Lupin, the French pulp hero of Maurice Leblanc, Boston Blackie (played by Chester Morris of THE BAT WHISPERS) is a former master criminal who -- with his accomplice-turned-valet The Runt (George E. Stone) -- goes straight, but is somehow never able to convince the law (usually personified by the gruff Richard Lane) of the sincerity of his intentions. Unlike the noirish quality of Columbia's "The Whistler" series, or the sometimes weird extremes of their "Crime Doctor" films, the "Boston Blackie" films are a snappy combination of B-mystery conventions and occasional screwball situation comedy that never outstays their welcome. It was Columbia's longest running B-mystery series, lasting for fourteen films over a period of nine years.

On Tuesday, January 23, between the hours of 1:30 and 6:30 pm eastern time, TCM will be showing the series' first four entries, described thusly on their website:

MEET BOSTON BLACKIE (1941)
A reformed thief uncovers a spy ring while investigating a murder at sea. Cast: Chester Morris, Rochelle Hudson, Richard Lane. Dir: Robert Florey. BW-58 mins

CONFESSIONS OF BOSTON BLACKIE (1941)
A reformed thief cracks a ring of art thieves to clear himself of murder charges. Cast: Chester Morris, Harriet Hilliard, Richard Lane. Dir: Edward Dmytryk. C-65 mins

ALIAS BOSTON BLACKIE (1942)
A reformed thief tracks down an escaped convict so he can prove the man is innocent. Cast: Chester Morris, Adele Mara, Richard Lane. Dir: Lew Landers. C-67 mins

BOSTON BLACKIE GOES HOLLYWOOD (1942)
When he's framed for robbery, a reformed thief takes off to find the real culprit. Cast: Chester Morris, George E. Stone, Constance Worth. Dir: Michael Gordon. BW-68 mins

I was a little disappointed to see that TCM hasn't booked "Boston Blackie" for daily appearances, but I can understand why they wouldn't want to show the whole bunch right away. I haven't seen their February schedule yet, but my fingers are crossed for more. In the meantime, by all means, grab these while you can -- I believe you'll find them habit-forming -- and join me in an eager wait for other Columbia B-mystery series to emerge from the Turner vaults.

The remaining titles, by the way: AFTER MIDNIGHT WITH BOSTON BLACKIE (1943), THE CHANCE OF A LIFETIME (1943), ONE MYSTERIOUS NIGHT (1944), BOSTON BLACKIE BOOKED ON SUSPICION (1945), BOSTON BLACKIE'S RENDEZVOUS (1945), A CLOSE CALL FOR BOSTON BLACKIE (1945), THE PHANTOM THIEF (1946), BOSTON BLACKIE AND THE LAW (1946), TRAPPED BY BOSTON BLACKIE (1948), and BOSTON BLACKIE'S CHINESE VENTURE (1949).

The titles without "Boston Blackie" in them are trickier than the others to find, but hopefully TCM will do what they can to make the search easy for us.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Into The Sub-Conchis

The new issue of SIGHT AND SOUND features my review of THE MAGUS, now on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment -- go to your local newsstand and buy a copy, or read my review online here. When I was writing the piece, I didn't recollect the one thing people seem to remember the movie version of THE MAGUS for: namely, Woody Allen's quote that, if he had his whole life to live over, he wouldn't change a thing... except maybe, the second time around, he'd skip seeing THE MAGUS. I understand why he said that, but, to tell you the truth, I could say the same thing about MATCH POINT. No doubt about it, THE MAGUS is a failure... but some failures are interesting. Some failures are damned interesting -- not that THE MAGUS is one of those. Actually, a surprising number of my heroes could be considered failures from some perspectives.

But let's not go there.

Earlier this evening, I happened to catch Stuart Gordon's take on "The Black Cat," this week's installment of Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR, and was very impressed. The episode, scripted by Gordon and his frequent collaborator Dennis Paoli (like last year's "Dreams in the Witch-House"), necessarily covers some ground that's all too familiar from earlier adaptations of this oft-filmed story -- including the obscure 1966 Harold Hoffman version -- but it goes at the material with unusual vigor and sympathy, wrenching fresh emotion and agony from it. As a sometimes writer of dark fiction, I can also attest that it says some regrettably, embarassingly, incontestably true things about the drawbacks of being a writer and darkly imaginative that I've never seen dramatized before, at least not with such knowledge and sympathy. A nearly unrecognizable Jeffrey Combs contributes an outstanding performance as Edgar Allan Poe that may be the series' most impressive to date, and the shot of Poe walking by night down a city street, followed by the enormous shadow of a stalking cat, strikes me as an instant classic. Don't miss it.

This is the first time I've commented on MASTERS OF HORROR in awhile. I've been recording them and watching them when I can. I haven't seen Mick Garris's "Valerie On the Stairs" yet, but I've heard it's an improvement on his first season episode ("Chocolate," which I thought was decent). Rob Schmidt's "Right To Die," scripted by John Esposito, had its moments -- including a truly shuddery bandaged horror also shown voluptuously and gruesomely undraped -- but the surprise ending struck me as dramatically dishonest, rendering everything that came before it a deception... and not in a good way. Tom Holland's "We All Scream for Ice Cream" (adapted from a John Farris story by our friend, the wild wild David J. Schow) I found surprisingly involving, considering that the story seemed a Mr. Softee redo of Stephen King's IT. (For all I know, the Farris story could have preceded the King novel; somebody will clue me in. David, probably.) To DJS's credit, while the premise of voodoo dollops of vanilla was a bit off the Richter scale of believability, he kept me hooked by grounding the nonsense with canny adult dialogue and a steely view of childhood that was impressive and unusual in its determination to remain clear-eyed and unsentimental. The episode's success is that it dealt with the subjects of guilt and nostalgia without letting nostalgia get the upper hand.

Speaking of nostalgia, I couldn't decide what to watch tonight, so I drifted back to something semi-familiar. I picked Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes' ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, which I wrote about on this blog some weeks ago with enthusiasm. Perhaps it was my mood, or the amontillado aftertaste of "The Black Cat," but most everything about it struck me on this viewing as wrong, miscast, or miscalculated. I remembered it as brighter, funnier, more energetic, but this time it moved awkwardly and I laughed only once (when Prof. Okamura says "Another day, another dollar" -- not when John Malkovich says "I was one of the first," as would have been my guess). Perhaps it's because I watched the film alone this time; perhaps this time my heart went out to the characters a bit more, but something brought out the stifling darkness of the piece, which I can't imagine how I sublimated the first time around. It now seems to me as dark a film as BAD SANTA, though that eureka probably qualifies for a "duh." Even the closing shot, which I found so eloquent before, felt a bit too much on the nose. I almost feel as though I've lost a friend.

This is why Pauline Kael saw movies only once. She liked knowing where she stood.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The One That Achieves Madness

Mick Jagger reminisces about Hemlock Row in the "Memo from Turner" sequence of PERFORMANCE.

One of my ambitions at the moment is to write a monograph for Continuum Books' impressive "33 1/3" series. Introduced in 2003, the numbered sequence now consists of more than 40 paperbacks, each devoting 25-40,000 words to the in-depth exploration of a single album. (Click on those orange letters for a list.) I personally enjoy reading music criticism more than film criticism and have read twenty or so of these books to date, with the ones devoted to Dusty Springfield's DUSTY IN MEMPHIS, Love's FOREVER CHANGES, The Kinks' THE VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY, James Brown's LIVE AT THE APOLLO VOLUME 1, and Bob Dylan's HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED being some of my favorites. Though I finally proposed to Continuum's editor a book on a different album, one of the others I was seriously considering was the soundtrack to Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's PERFORMANCE (1970).

I've seen PERFORMANCE now countless times, but the album takes me back to a time when I was 14 years old, still too young to see X-rated films, and could only experience "the wild electric dream" promised in the film's newspaper ads through the annex of its music. Anyone of any age could buy the album, though I confess I did so somewhat self-consciously, feeling more than a twinge of transgression as I meekly handed my shrink-wrapped copy over to the salesgirl. Warner Bros. Records had wisely placed Mick Jagger's lippy puss front and center, wanting the maximum return on the closest thing to a Rolling Stones album they had yet marketed, though the Stones would soon sign with sister company Atlantic Records and get their own label in the bargain. Not knowing what the music contained therein might say, exclaim or scream, I listened to the album for the first time under headphones -- and my prudence was, to an extent, well advised.

Assembled under the musical direction of principal composer Jack Nietsche, the PERFORMANCE soundtrack is not your usual soundtrack album, and this was even truer at the time of its release. Much of the album is devoted to byzantine instrumentals featuring (in all their variety) vocals by "Gimme Shelter" soloist Merry Clayton, Moog synthesizing by Paul Beaver, mouth-bow solos by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Mrs. Nietsche at the time), and bluesy electric bottleneck guitar miniatures played by six-string maestro Ry Cooder. The opening section of one of the Cooder showcases, "Get Away," is blatantly patterned on Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band's "Sure 'Nuff 'n' Yes I Do," on which Cooder played but which neither he nor Nietsche had a role in composing. Which brings us to the meat and drink of the album, provided by three vocal tracks: Randy Newman's "Gone Dead Train", The Last Poets' "Wake Up Niggers", and of course, Mick Jagger's "Memo from Turner."

All three of these songs are fairly frightening -- "Gone Dead Train" for Newman's suffering, yelping vocal, "Wake Up Niggers" for its confrontational militant fury, and "Memo from Turner" for its Burroughsian cut-up lyrics, which seem at times to point recursively to imagistic content of the film as well as other lyrical content on the album. ("I was eatin' eggs in Sammy's when the black man there drew his knife...") With its great slide guitar work by Little Feat's Lowell George, it remains, I think inarguably, one of the finest things Jagger has ever recorded; it's as apocalyptic in tenor as "Gimme Shelter" but sports hermaphroditic colors, autobiographic shadings ("the baby's dead, my lady said" reportedly refers to a lost child with Marianne Faithfull), and even a sneering sense of humor. As its music heats up, the blood of its lyrics run cold.

The album's title track and closing track "Turner's Murder," with their ominously sustained low end synthesizer notes, put me very much in the mind of another soundtrack of which I was already aware: Quincy Jones' IN COLD BLOOD. I had seen Richard Brooks' film on my 12th birthday and its cold realism left a powerful impression on me; I hid my eyes during the murder scenes on that first pass, which left my senses entirely in the hands of its music, no less violent in its insinuations. So to hear similar music on the PERFORMANCE album promised an equally overpowering experience, and I listened to it repeatedly to conquer my feelings of dread.

I was especially taken by Side 1's closing "Harry Flowers," in which a sweepingly romantic orchestral piece is gradually infected by a phasing synthesizer effect that blooms into receding white noise. It probably prepared me for The Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)", now that I think about it.

As I look back over the music I absorbed at an early age as I began to wean myself from Top 40 radio, I find that the PERFORMANCE soundtrack was as significant as any record I ever bought in terms of opening my ears and widening my musical boundaries. The album totals a mere 36:26, yet it encompasses alternative rock, Delta blues, electronica, atonal classical, Indian sitar, early rap, MOR and choral music. It's a marvelous record, an important thing considered separately from the film it scored. (It also warrants a digital remaster, as the flat sound of the current CD -- issued way back in 1991 -- suggests it may have been sourced from vinyl.) But, when push came to shove, I couldn't trust myself to write 25,000 words about it. If the proposal I've submitted to Continuum Books gets accepted, I'll tell you which album I decided to write about instead.

I finally saw PERFORMANCE a year or two later. I don't recall the name of the place, but the theater was in northern Kentucky and it was a small room above a regular theater. It was smaller than some home entertainment constructs are today, consisting of only two rows of maybe eight seats, wedged very close together. It looked like a place where an elite circle of powerful executives might congregate to watch porn or snuff movies. There was only one showing of the film, at 12:00 midnight, and the print was a 16mm rental. There was only one projector too, so there was an intermission. As I recall, Brad Balfour, Joel Zakem and Earl Whitson were there, all of whom had seen the movie before and spoken of it with enthusiasm, to say the least. As the movie unreeled, we quickly realized that something was seriously wrong with the sound, either a fault of the projection, the sound system, or the print itself -- which, considering the vaguely illicit setting, might well have been a dupe. So the first time I saw PERFORMANCE, it was an assault of imagery with not too much dialogue that could be sorted out. I remember "Shut your bleeding hole!" and "I'm normal!" being the only two lines that made themselves clear. We told the theater manager about the problem during the reel change and he kindly refunded our money, though we all insisted on sticking around for the rest of the garbled presentation. (Those were, after all, the days when we would apply aluminum foil to the rabbit ears on our television sets and stand with one leg up, flamingo-like, just to watch the snowy reception of some movie playing on a station in a neighboring city.) When I finally saw a proper 35mm revival of the film some years later, I found its Cockney accents so thick, I still couldn't make out a great deal of the dialogue! All this was vital experience in coming to terms with PERFORMANCE, a film I now understand and love a great deal -- which, by the way, will finally be released on DVD by Warner Home Video on February 13.

This random personal history is my way of plugging a beloved series of books, but also of building up to a plug for my friend David Del Valle's latest exhibit of motion picture stills at the Drkrm Gallery in Los Angeles. Following David's popular shows devoted to Mexican horror, Italian sword-and-sandal epics, and Roger Corman's Poe films, "PERFORMANCE: A Photographic Exhibition featuring the work of Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg" will have its opening reception this Saturday night, January 20, from 7:00 - 10:00pm.

VIDEO WATCHDOG's own Sam Umland will be in attendance to sign copies of his superb book DONALD CAMMELL: A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE, and David tells us that THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH stars Buck Henry and Candy Clark will also be present. Among the items in the PERFORMANCE portion of the exhibit are eleven seldom-seen photos taken by the celebrated Cecil Beaton on the set, from Cammell's own collection.

For more information about the exhibit, which runs through February 24, visit the Drkrm Gallery website here.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

You Asked for It! More Dexter Riley!

Dexter Riley (Kurt Russell) has a scientific eureka after dropping his glasses into his new formula. He wears glasses at no other time in the picture.

NOW YOU SEE HIM, NOW YOU DON'T
1972, Walt Disney Video, DD-2.0/16:9/LB/CC/ST, 88m 15s, $19.99, DVD-1

Perhaps the most one can say on behalf of Walt Disney's second "Dexter Riley" movie, NOW YOU SEE HIM, NOW YOU DON'T, is that it's an improvement on the first (THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES, reviewed here last September 23). Otherwise, returning screenwriter Joseph L. McEveety recycles the same template: ace Medfield College science student Riley (Kurt Russell) is working on a new and absurd-sounding project; a random storm facilitates his unexpected success; his invention attracts the attention of local crooked businessman A.J. Arno (Cesar Romero), to whom the college dean E.J. Higgins (Joe Flynn) is financially indebted; the smug Dean Higgins is still in competition with Dean Collingswood (Alan Hewitt), the smugger head of a larger college, this time for a $50,000 grant from local businessman Timothy Forsythe (Jim Backus); a scientifically augmented student (this time Richard Schuyler, played by Michael McGreevey) snoops into Arno's affairs to expose him, prompting him to take steps to embarrass Riley and Medfield College publicly; and it all builds to a finale with a wild-and-woolly road chase sequence and scholastic competition.

In this case, Riley's science project turns out to be an invisibility formula, which he's copped from the disregarded 200 year-old writings of a Russian scientist who died in an insane asylum. The invisibility agent is a water-soluble liquid, which allows for some humorous moments when Schuyler's invisibility is rendered partial (when he walks his invisible sneakers through a puddle, for instance) or altogether negated without his knowledge. Among the supporting players are Edward Andrews, Richard Bakalyan, Burt Mustin, Mike Evans (Lionel of TV's ALL IN THE FAMILY and THE JEFFERSONS, who recently died of throat cancer at age 57), and a very young, tousle-haired Ed Begley, Jr., who would do his own amusing invisible-but-not-really routine in "Son of the Invisible Man," a Carl Gottlieb-directed segment of the later AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON (1987).

Joyce Menges looks agog as a horrified Michael McGreevey realizes that Dexter's latest formula actually works.

As with the earlier film, NOW YOU SEE HIM... suffers from low energy editing by Cotton Walburton, showing none of the comedy-enhancing snap, crackle and pop he had brought to his cutting of THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR or MOON PILOT, and a vague yet action-intensive script that leaves us none the wiser about who Dexter Riley and his friends really are, or why we should care about them. The cover art suggests, if not a romantic relationship (à la Annette Funicello and Tommy Kirk in the Merlin Jones movies), at least a sense of equality between Kurt Russell and cute co-star Joyce Menges; but -- like Debbie Paine in THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES -- Menges is merely the token female character. She called her screen career quits after this.

If possible, this sequel is even cheaper-looking than its predecessor, the invisibility effects fraught with dirty-looking bluescreen traces of stepped-up grain and all-too-visible wires ambulating an invisible teen's all-too-visible gym shoes. A much-promoted photo depicting a student with eyeglasses and familiar facial wrappings turns out to have nothing to do with invisibility, but with an allergy to bee stings! Much as the previous film was remarkable for the array of facial flaws and blemishes on display, this one is a nearly non-stop parade of bad hair (aside from the ever-suave Cesar Romero) -- not because the hairstyles look unfashionable, but because the actors (William Windom as Prof. Lufkin particularly) were allowed to go before the camera looking poorly groomed, not to mention wearing clashing wardrobe that looks imported from home. The film's saving grace is an extended golfing sequence that finds gaudily-dressed golf amateur Dean Higgins effortlessly winning a game on the green with invisible help; it's here that Flynn's comic performance and the comedic timing of COMPUTER director Robert Butler momentarily spring to life. Someone in the casting department was also showing a sense of humor when they hired an actor named Jack Griffin (uncredited) to play one of the traffic cops.

Ed Begley, Jr. explains to William Windom and Joe Flynn why he won't be able to participate in Medfield College's science competition.

Whereas Disney's DVD of THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES was standard ratio, NOW YOU SEE HIM, NOW YOU DON'T (released in May 2004) is soft-matted from its standard camera ratio to its intended projection ratio of 1.85:1. I would imagine that a full frame rendering would only serve to expose some of the invisibility mattes and rigs moreso than they are exposed here. The picture quality is okay, and the only curiosity about the audio track is that the frankly miserable score has been so buried in the sound mix that it often sounds like it's emanating from another, semi-soundproofed room. The closed-captioned disc features subtitles in French and Spanish but no secondary audio tracks.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

My First Artist

The Baby Boomers among you will surely share a common memory of sitting in front of an old black-and-white television set and watching in thrall as a goateed man in a plaid shirt -- who signed his name boldly and with great authority -- brought random lines together into coherent images on LEARN TO DRAW, the first-ever art instructional program on TV.

Before most of us knew the names of Van Gogh, Manet, Rembrandt, or Da Vinci, we knew the name of Jon Gnagy.

Checking the IMDb, I was astonished to learn that today, January 13, would have been the 100th birthday of "America's Original Television Art Teacher." Surely I'm too young to have had a teacher celebrating a centenary! Yet these are the facts... What I find almost more incredible is the revelation, according to his biography, that on the day television was first transmitted to the public at large from the antennae atop the Empire State Building -- May 13, 1946 -- Jon Gnagy was the very first performer on the very first show ever broadcast.

Happily for those of us who have long craved to see one of his lessons again, the artist's daughter, Polly Gnagy Seymour, has launched a website to perpetuate the memory of her father, who died in 1981. There you can find ten different video clips, glorious samples of his painting, three complete lessons from Gnagy's printed art instruction, and even a link to a company that continues to sell the original Jon Gnagy art kits! Maybe you had one! (Donna did.) Today of all days, if you remember the thrill of seeing his hand poised over those blank sheets of paper, ready to create something out of nothing, you should visit Polly's site and sign her guest book with your remembrances.

Why not follow the link and... learn to draw!

Friday, January 12, 2007

LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN previewed

Anita Strindberg as the dissolute Julia Durer.
LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN
Una lucertola con la pelle di donna
1971, Shriek Show, DD-5.1/2.0/MA/SUB/+, 103m 19s, $19.95, DVD-0

One of the earliest Italian gialli produced in the wake of Dario Argento's hugely successful THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, Lucio Fulci's LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN was a far steeper plunge into surrealism and strangeness and, as such, proved just as influential as -- if not moreso than -- Argento's Antonioniesque shocker.

Florinda Bolkan stars as Carol Hammond, the bourgeois daughter of respected lawyer-politician Edmund Brighton (Leo Genn), introduced as a careworn figure pushing through people crowded into the passageway of a train, who turn naked as her dream segues into an erotic, wind-tossed encounter with Julia Durer (Anita Strindberg). Once Carol regains consciousness, we realize that Julia is her nextdoor neighbor in a London apartment complex, socially snubbed by most residents for her psychedelic orgies -- a woman to whom Carol has never actually spoken, as she confesses to her psychiatrist (George Rigaud). One night, a particularly loud party inspires Carol to dream of murdering Julia. The morning after, Julia is found dead in exactly the manner dreamed, with Carol's fur coat and letter opener left at the scene of the crime. In Carol's dream, she realized after stabbing Julia that there were two witnesses to her deed, two white-eyed hippies gazing at her from a mezzanine within the apartment. This aspect of the dream also proves real when Carol's stepdaughter Joan (Ely Galleani, billed as Edy Gall) makes the acquaintence of these hippies, whose behavior subsequently turns calculatedly predatory. No description of the film's plot can really do it justice, as it was made to be experienced -- almost in the Jimi Hendrix sense of that phrase. Though conceived and executed by a director who reportedly hated hippies and despised the drug culture, LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN is a decidedly psychedelic entertainment, graced by one of Ennio Morricone's most volatile yet sensual giallo scores.

Co-scripted by Fulci and frequent collaborator Roberto Gianviti, with additional credit extended to José Luís Martínez Mollà and André Tranché to mollify Spanish and French co-production quotas, LIZARD is overly contrived on an explicatory level but dazzles as a cinematic construction. In this way, it deceptively appears to be as indebted to Brian De Palma as to Argento or Hitchcock, though it braves into areas of sensuality and technique (split screen, split diopter shots, etc) two full years before SISTERS and almost a decade before DRESSED TO KILL, the De Palma film LIZARD most sleekly resembles. If the film's resolution seems needlessly obscure and distended, one reaches it through a procession of marvelously disorienting suspense sequences in which one can see the pictorial influences of Francis Bacon and Salvador Dalí, among others. In the extended sequence in which Bolkan is pursued through the now derelict Alexandra Palace by Mike Kennedy, the vast emptiness of the place suggests not only the spectral landscapes of some Dalí paintings but also sequences in Hitchcock in which characters are dwarfed by the passive countenances of national landmarks, as in the British Museum sequence of BLACKMAIL. The frequently impressive cinematography was the work of Luigi Kuveiller (DEEP RED, A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY, FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN), assisted by Mario Bava's former operator Ubaldo Terzano.

Carol (Florinda Bolkan) could kill that noisy neighbor of hers... but does she?

When Shriek Show first released LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN in February 2005, it provoked a storm of controversy within Internet discussion groups. While preparing this earlier release, Shriek Show's disc producers were aware that the English language print they had acquired -- titled SCHIZOID (95m 33s) and originally released by American International -- was far from complete, even after two separate English source elements had been cobbled together. They sought to smooth over its shortcomings by adding a second disc featuring a cropped, softish, standard framed transfer of the Italian version (97m 48s PAL, 101m 58s real time), subtitled in English, which contained additional material exclusive to the Italian version.

In the wake of its release, Italy's Federal Video issued a Region 2 disc of the film that included the far handsomer, anamorphic presentation of a unique edition -- essentially the Italian cut, with some footage exclusive to the AIP version seemingly ported back into the continuity via the Shriek Show presentation. It ran 98m 8s in PAL, or 102m 19s in real time. This version's reliance on the SCHIZOID edition was most obvious during the scene of Julia's murder, which AIP had treated to a distorting ripple-like optical to obscure the nudity of Bolkan and Strindberg and details of the film's pivotal stabbing; the Federal DVD presented the scene in a combination of rippled and unrippled footage, evidently because the aptly-named SCHIZOID included individual shots not found in the Italian cut. The R2 disc also offered a "deleted scene" not edited back into the picture. Despite this oversight and the fact that the Federal DVD offered nothing in the way of English subtitles, Media Blasters/Shriek Show was raked over the coals in Cyberspace because a superior-looking element had been found to exist, which the company was berated for not importing and subtitling.

Shriek Show is hoping to make good for their earlier release by issuing a new and improved single-disc remaster of Fulci's classic psycho-thriller that, they hope, will provide the best of all possible Lucertoli for the film's admirers. Having been given a first look at the new disc, I can attest that this new version is -- like the Federal presentation -- a unique cut of the film that was likely never shown in any theater anywhere in the world. It runs a full minute longer than Federal's earlier composite and is certainly the most complete version of the film likely to surface on DVD. I've heard that Studio Canal are the current custodians of the film's original negative, but while a negative would ensure the best possible picture quality, it would carry no guarantee of being more complete. Only the scenes included in the SCHIZOID cut were actually dubbed into English, under the direction of AIP line producer Salvatore Billetteri. Also, mind you, it is unlikely that Studio Canal would allow any negative out of their hands, so anyone licensing the film from them would be required to accept the transfer they were given. The only way to arrive at a complete version of this film would appear to be by cobbling together the English and Italian versions, as Shriek Show has done here with the help of a new Italian print element.

Mike Kennedy and Penny Brown as the tripping witnesses to murder.

So how does Shriek Show's second go at LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN differ from, or improve upon, their first? The following is a breakdown of some points of comparison between the new version and its predecessors, which has been assembled with the help of Shriek Show's Richard York:

2:08-2:30 The scene of Carol walking through the masses of naked people in the train's passageway has been lengthened by 22 seconds.

4:00-4:30 During the first lesbian encounter between Carol and Julia, there is an additional shot exposing Florinda Bolkan's backside as Anita Strindberg pulls the fur coat off her shoulders. This shot appeared in neither version of the film included in Shriek Show's previous release, though an abbreviated version of the shot appeared in SCHIZOID. It should be mentioned that Federal's R2 version was lacking some moments of Bolkan writhing and moaning in her bed before she wakes up, which were included in SCHIZOID.

9:08-9:18 and 9:48-10:16 During these time codes, some shots not seen in SCHIZOID -- most of which involved nudity of some sort -- were reinserted into the quick-cut montage.

10:38-11:04 The scene of Strindberg removing her top, walking toward a man and kissing him was not in Federal's R2 version but was included on their DVD as a "deleted scene." The scene was already present in SCHIZOID.

17:09-17:30 The Francis Bacon-inspired nightmare sequence in SCHIZOID omitted the shot in which a blue-faced Ely Galleani was shown to be cradling a tumult of gooey intestines spilling from her midsection, as well as much of Carlo Rambaldi's gigantic swan-thing. This material was reinserted.

17:32-19:26 As mentioned earlier, in SCHIZOID, the murder of Julia by Carol was treated to a rippling optical effect, presumably to obscure nudity and violence -- and possibly to heighten the ambiguity of whether or not it's a dream. On the Federal R2 disc, this scene cuts back and forth between rippled and non-rippled material in an effort to reincorporate footage found only in the SCHIZOID cut. The Italian master provided to Shriek Show contained the entire scene unrippled, which is what they have opted to include in their new release -- providing a wholly unobstructed view of the proceedings.

26:10-26:21 The scene of Jean Sorel, Ely Galleani and Silvia Monti walking and talking, expressing concern for Florinda Bolkan's character was not previously included in SCHIZOID or the Italian version included on Shriek Show's original release. The dialogue scene exists only in Italian and thus had to be inserted into the otherwise English-language film in Italian with English subtitles.

26:22-30:06 Immediately following the above scene is the paranoid dinner sequence during which Carol receives the phone call from her neighbor, then frantically looks for her notes. This scene was in Shriek Show's earlier standard-framed Italian version, but not in SCHIZOID.

30:24-31:19 A tense-looking Florinda is smoking cigarettes on a sofa while Silvia sits at a table. Ely brings Silvia a drink and some brief dialogue is exchanged. This nearly minute-long scene was likewise not on any previous version and had to be subtitled. This scene leads up to Florinda barging in on the crime scene.

32:17-32:24 Inserted back into the scene of Carol's visit to the crime scene were 7 seconds of her being conforted by her husband (Sorel) and a disquieting close-up of Julia's dead body.

53:53-54:06 This scene of Sorel and Monti's extramarital lovemaking was extended by 13 seconds of additional kissing and rolling around.

58:26-59:12 Finally, the infamous scene of Carol's accidental discovery of the clinic's room of conscious, vivisected dogs -- not included in SCHIZOID -- has been reinserted.


Inspector Corvin (Stanley Baker) brings cold comfort to Carol as she mourns a relative.

Shriek Show's forthcoming release thus improves upon earlier attempts in meaningful ways and warrants recognition as a significant upgrade -- indeed, it's the most integral version we're likely to see. Nevertheless, the disc has some modest faults that must also be noted.

When compared to the Federal DVD, there is no question that the Italian disc is cleaner, sharper-looking, with more realistically modulated color. (Mind you, it's also incomplete and in Italian only, with some faux compositing -- like the on/off rippling -- that favor AIP's preferences over those of Fulci. Though LIZARD is of Italian origin, it was set and shot in London and acted almost entirely in English, with some principals like Baker and Genn doing the actual dubbing, so the English track takes precedence above any other.) For some reason, Shriek Show opted to brighten the feature's overall color, as I suppose was in keeping with their predominant source, the SCHIZOID element; I felt it necessary to turn the color settings of my monitor down a notch or two, to a more realistic, less distracting register, after which the film-like quality of the anamorphic image was very pleasing. That the new master made use of more than one source element is not particularly evident, showing that great pains were taken to achieve a consistent look throughout. I noticed brief instances of glare and grain, possibly inherent in the source elements rather than the transfer, but no cause for common complaints like overdone edge enhancement. Certain scenes are mildly marred by fine bluish scratches, which I didn't find objectionable, as it's better to have such reminders of 35mm film stock than too much digital cleanup. In comparing footage shared by this new transfer and Shriek Show's earlier SCHIZOID transfer, I found the new transfer more vivid. The audio options are English 5.1 and 2.0 mono, and Italian 2.0 mono (viewable with English subtitles). My sampling of the 5.1 option found that it didn't do much but send the mono signal equally from all five channels, which I found spatially disorienting and quickly did without. Perhaps I gave up too early, as I'm told the track does include some directional effects, particularly during the film's celebrated bat attack sequence.

With the exception of the several Fulci trailers carried over from the previous release (including the one featuring a ponderous epigraph by author "M. Hawthorne"), the new disc's extras have all been imported from the R2 disc and given English subtitles. These consist of a generous 31m discussion of Fulci and this particular film by Prof. Paolo Albiero, co-author of the book IL TERRORISTA DEI GENERI: TUTTO IL CINEMA DE LUCIO FULCI (something I need to acquire). Albiero's talk, at once intellectual yet entertaining and approachable, I found quite engrossing; it deals with LIZARD on conceptual and generic levels, places the film intelligently in context with Fulci's other work (Albiero feels that Fulci's horror films were "his ruin," in the overall story of his career, though he discusses them with obvious appreciation), and Albiero speaks with warmth and confidence. The talk is followed by Albiero's concise history of the film's censorship problems abroad (5m 51s). The feature's original Italian title sequence is also included.

Having compiled such a nearly definitive package, it's all the more regrettable that Shriek Show chose not to go all the way by carrying over from their original release Kit Gavin & Mike Baronas' "Shedding the Skin" (33m 44s) -- a terrifically thorough and entertaining featurette including interviews with the surviving cast and effects men, as well as visits to original shooting locations. The absence of this most valuable labor of love from the new release makes it essential that fans of the film either hold onto, or belatedly acquire, the original Shriek Show two-disc set.

Bear in mind that this article is a preview; Shriek Show's LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN will not street until March 17. Minor quibbles aside, it's an impressive disc with absorbing extras -- and likely to stand out as one of the most important genre film restorations of the year. Where this title is concerned, we're never going to get completeness and perfection, but this presentation comes remarkably close to achieving just that.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

I 3 VOLTI DEL TERRORE reviewed

John Phillip Law as hypnotist Dr. Peter Price, offering three fellow train passengers glimpses into their fates in 1 TRE VOLTI DEL TERRORE.

I 3 VOLTI DEL TERRORE
"The Three Faces of Terror"
2004, Pulp Video/Xploited Cinema, DD-5.1/2.0/MA/16:9/LB/SUB/+, 84m 35s, $21.95, DVD-0

The spirit of Mario Bava may live on in today's Italian horror cinema but -- judging by this anthology from special makeup effects artist-turned-director Sergio Stivaletti -- in name only. The title and format of this digitally-shot feature are plainly indebted to Bava's 1963 I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA ("The Three Faces of Fear"), also known as BLACK SABBATH; it toplines John Phillip Law, the star of Bava's DANGER: DIABOLIK, who is featured in the wraparound story and plays different characters in all three principal stories; and there is also an amusing cameo by Lamberto Bava, who appears in the second story as the director of "DEMONI 7." Stivaletti's heart may be in the right place, but he could have paid greater tribute to Bava by aspiring to the standards of craftsmanship he established, rather than with tongue-in-cheek name-and-trivia-dropping and a troika of lame stories.

Scripted by Stivaletti and Antonio Tentori, I 3 VOLTI DEL TERRORE is most obviously indebted to the 1965 Amicus production DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS, and also the 1985 low-rent anthology NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR, which also featured Law. Three strangers (Riccardo Serventi, Ambre Even, Emiliano Reggente) travelling in an otherwise unoccupied traincar are joined by Dr. Peter Price (Law), who introduces himself as a hypnotist. He carries with him a silver ball that is the agent of his hypnosis, popping open in the palms of the passengers to reveal spinning mirrors that offer frightening glimpses of their futures, which turn out to be reminders of their immediate pasts. In "L'Anello della Luna" ("The Ring of the Moon"), Law plays a wealthy relics collector who pays a small fortune to two men to loot an ancient tomb, but one (Serventi) decides to keep the dead man's ring, which cuts into his finger and infects him with lycanthropy. (Popular keyboardist/composer Claudio Simonetti makes a cameo in this segment, as a victim of the werewolf.) In "Un Viso Perfetto (Dr. Lifting)," an actress (Even) escorts her best friend (Elizabetta Rocchetti) to a plastic surgeon (Law, actually named Dr. Fisher -- whose office and waiting rooms are stocked with film reference books and video guides!) and is taken aback when her friend expresses a wish to look more like her. In "Il Guardiano del Lago" ("Guardian of the Lake"), Law plays a half-masked boatman who warns three lakeside visitors to abandon their campsite because the surrounding waters harbor danger.
The stories are not only flimsy, but made to seem weaker than they are by the film's ill-considered structure, which cuts them off before they are properly finished -- giving the impression of weak endings all around; the proper story endings are withheld till a procession near the end of the movie, after certain facts about the wraparound story (already glaringly apparent to anyone halfway familiar with the horror genre) have been made sledgehammer clear.

Riccardo Serventi wishes he hadn't stolen "L'Anello della Luna."

Though inspirationally rooted in the 1960s, everything else about this picture -- Stivaletti's gooey Change-O-Head transformation effects, the prog rock-oriented soundtrack, the blue-and-black-colored atmospherics, the stumblingly phonetic supporting performances, the dated-looking CGI effects, an unnecessary sex scene (to call it "gratuitous" would indicate that it actually delivered some cheap thrills) -- all this seems a hapless hommage to 1980s Italian horror, the kind that always went straight to videocassette, courtesy of labels like Media Home Entertainment and Lightning Video back in the day.

If the film is worth seeing for any reason at all, it's to enjoy the sweet and somewhat sentimental scenery-chewing of John Phillip Law, who gets to play a range of characters in a range of dramatic modes. As Dr. Peter Price, he seems to be reprising the "old man" disguise he wore as Diabolik while reclaiming the emerald pendants from the crematorium; elsewhere, he can be found effectively underplaying in "L'Anello della Luna" and chortling his way wildly over the top in classic Grade Z mad scientist tradition in the final moments of "Un Viso Perfetto" (which recalls his work in Sergio Bergonzelli's insane BLOOD SACRIFICE. Even more to the picture's credit is a well-done stop-motion animation sequence (supervised by Fabrizio Lazzeretti and Gaetano Polizzi) involving a sea monster that briefly harkens back to the Harryhausen and Danforth fantasies of the early 1960s, a spirit which should have infected this enterprise a bit more.

As previously noted, I 3 VOLTI DEL TERRORE was shot on digital video and it looks here about the same as many 1980s Italian efforts shot in 16mm or Super 16mm; the lighting is a trifle glaring at times, the color is adequate, and the picture quality is a bit soft with occasional haloing. It's viewable in Italian with optional English subtitles or in English, which plays more awkwardly but at least preserves the vocal performances given onset by Law and his co-stars. The Italian track is playable in Dolby Digital 5.1 (an impressive mix) and 2.0 surround, while the English track is presented only in Dolby Stereo. The English subtitles are an oddity, punctuated with several instances of transcribed Italian muttered (ad libbed?) onscreen. The copy under review also evinced quite a few audio glitches on the English track.

Elizabetta Rocchetti gets what she asked for in"Un Viso Perfetta."

No fewer than three different editions of the film are available on import DVD, including a single-disc no-frills edition, a single-disc edition loaded with extras, and a three-disc edition containing a second disc of even more bonus materials and a CD of the musical score; all three are available from Xploited Cinema. The disc under review here is the single disc with extras, which already seems like much ado about fairly little. The bonus materials include deleted scenes, an unsubtitled 13m behind-the-scenes featurette, two trailers (the English one is a charmer, including original footage of Law in character), various photo galleries, an audio commentary by Stivaletti and Tentori (in Italian, without subtitles), and more.

I thought Stivaletti's earlier WAX MASK showed promise, but it was a real movie; I 3 VOLTI DEL TERRORE seems less an actual feature than a Digicam lark made on weekends by fans who happen to be professionals. I wish I liked this concoction better, but I can only recommend it -- with reservations -- to Italian horror buffs interested in checking in with John Phillip Law's career. And if an Italian horror booster like myself can find so little joy in it, I can't commend it to the attention of anyone whose genre interests may be more tempered.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Collecting THE RIFLEMAN

A disarming promo shot of THE RIFLEMAN's Johnny Crawford
and Chuck Connors.


With THE RIFLEMAN starting anew on Encore Westerns this evening (at 7:00 pm eastern), I know I'm not the only collector who's wondering which episodes I still need. With this idea in mind --instilled in me by fellow McCain rancher Larry Blamire -- I decided to sit down with the six extant MPI Home Video box sets (now officially out-of-print, though still available), find the correct season and episode numbers for each program therein, and use that information to determine which shows were still missing.

The listings below present of the volume number for each MPI box set, followed by the episode titles in that set, each show followed by its correct season and episode number in parentheses. (The episode numbers are sequential; in other words, Season 2 begins with Episode 41, not Episode 1.) These are followed by a final, season-by-season accounting of the 48 episodes not issued on DVD by MPI. I have also color-coded the seasons, to make their episodes easier to identify at a glance: Season 1, Season 2, Season 3, Season 4 and Season 5.

The good news: If you bought the MPI sets, you won't have to start recording for awhile.

VOLUME 1
Sharpshooter (S1 E1)
Home Ranch (S1 E2)
End of a Young Gun (S1 E3)
The Marshall (S1 E4)
Duel of Honor (S1 E7)
The Angry Gun (S1 E13)
The Sheridan Story (S1 E16)
The Money Gun (S1 E33)
The Mind Reader (S1 E40)

Bloodlines (S2 E42)
Day of the Hunter (S2 E55)

The Vaqueros (S4 E111)
Knight Errant (S4 E117)
The Long Goodbye (S4 E119)
High Country (S4 E122)
Man From Salinas (S4 E130)
Two Ounces of Tin (S4 E131)

Waste: Part I (S5 E143)
Waste: Part II (S5 E144)

The Deadly Image (S4 E132)

VOLUME 2
The Boarding House (S1 E22)
The Brother-in-Law (S1 E5)

The Bullet (S5 E163)
Dead Cold Cash (S3 E85)
The Hero (S2 E59)
The Indian (S1 E21)
Lariat (S2 E67)
Mail Order Groom (S2 E56)
The Martinet (S3 E83)
Miss Bertie (S3 E90)
The Most Amazing Man (S5 E151)
New Orleans Menace (S1 E10)
One Went To Denver (S1 E25)

The Prodigal (S2 E71)
The Safe Guard (S1 E8)
The Schoolmaster (S3 E86)
Three-Legged Terror (S1 E30)
The Wyoming Story 1 (S3 E96)
The Wyoming Story 2 (S3 E97)

The Young Englishman (S1 E12)

VOLUME 3
The Patsy (S2 E41)
The Blowout (S2 E43)
Obituary (S2 E44)
Tension (S2 E45)
Eddie's Daughter (S2 E46)
Panic (S2 E47)
Ordeal (S2 E48)
The Spiked Rifle (S2 E49)
The Letter of the Law (S2 E50)
Legacy (S2 E51)
The Babysitter (S2 E52)
The Coward (S2 E53)
The Surveyors (S2 E54)
A Case of Identity (S2 E57)
The Visitor (S2 E58)
The Spoiler (S2 E61)
Heller (S2 E62)
Meeting at Midnight (S2 E74)
Nora (S2 E75)
The Hangman (S2 E76)

VOLUME 4
Trail of Hate (S3 E77)
Eight Hours to Die (S1 E6)
The Sister (S1 E9)
The Apprentice Sheriff (S1 E11)
The Gaucho (S1 E14)
The Pet (S1 E15)
The Retired Gun (S1 E17)
The Photographer (S1 E18)
Shivaree (S1 E19)
The Dead-Eye Kid (S1 E20)
The Deadly Wait (S1 E26)
The Wrong Man (S1 E27)
The Challenge (S1 E28)
The Woman (S1 E32)
The Angry Man (S1 E31)
A Matter of Faith (S1 E34)
Blood Brothers (S1 E35)
Stranger at Night (S1 E36)
The Raid (S1 E37)
Outlaw's Inheritance (S1 E38)


VOLUME 5
The Trade (S1 E24)
Boomerang (S1 E39)
The Hawk (S1 E29)

The Horsetraders (S2 E60)
Jailbird (S2 E73)
The Grasshopper (S2 E63)
The Fourflushers (s2 E72)
The Deserter (S2 E65)
Smoke Screen (S2 E68)
Shotgun Man (S2 E69)
Old Man Running (S5 E166)
Old Tony (S5 168 - final episode)
Quiet Night, Deadly Night (S5 E146)
Suspicion (S5 E157)
Which Way’d They Go? (S5 E167)
Gun Shy (S5 E153)
I Take This Woman (S 5 E148)
Incident at Line Shack 6 (S5 E156)
Lou Mallory (S5 E145)
Mark’s Rifle (S5 E150)


VOLUME 6
The Vision (S2 E66)
Woman From Hog Ridge (S3 E78)
Sins of the Father (S2 E70)
The Illustrator (S3 E88)
Baranca (S3 E82)
The Actress (S3 E94)
A Time For Singing (S2 E64)
Seven (S3 E79)
The Long Trek (S3 E93)
Flowers By the Door (S3 E92)
Face of Yesterday (S3 E95)
Miss Millie (S3 E84)
The Pitchman (S3 E80)
The Promoter (S3 E87)
Silent Knife (S3 E89)
Six Years and a Day (S3 E91)
Strange Town (S3 E81)

The Second Witness (S1 E23)
And Devil Makes Five (S5 E161)
Anvil Chorus (S5 E154)


SEASON 1 - Complete.

SEASON 2 - Complete.

Still Needed:

SEASON 3 - Closer Than A Brother (98), Lost Treasure of Canyon Town (99), Dark Day at North Fork (100), The Prisoner (101), The Assault (102), Short Rope for a Tall Man (103), The Clarence Bibs Story (104), The Score Is Even (105), The Mescalero Curse (106), Stopover (107), Lonesome Bride (108), Death Trap (109), The Queue (110).

SEASON 4 - First Wages (112), Sheer Terror (113), The Stand-In (114), The Journey Back (115), The Decision (116), Honest Abe (118), The Shattered Idol (120), Long Gun from Tucson (121), A Friend in Need (123), Skull (124), The Princess (125), Gunfire (126), The Quiet Fear (127), Sporting Chance (128), A Young Man's Fancy (129), The Debt (133), Tin Horn (134), None So Blind (135), The Jealous Man (136), Guilty Conscience (137), Day of Reckoning (138), The Day a Town Slept (139), Millie's Brother (140), Outlaw's Shoes (141), The Executioner (142).

SEASON 5 - Death Never Rides Alone (147), The Assailants (149), Squeeze Play (152), Conflict (155), The Sidewinder (158), The Sixteenth Cousin (159), Hostages to Fortune (160), End of the Hunt (162), Requiem at Mission Springs (164), The Guest (165).

Sunday, January 07, 2007

What's Old West is New Again

This past weekend, Encore Westerns hosted 24-hour marathons of the popular 1950s teleseries THE RIFLEMAN (Saturday) and BAT MASTERSON (Sunday). Happily, these round-the-clock broadcasts were preamble to the announcement that both shows are joining the channel's regular broadcast schedule this week.

Effective Monday, January 8, BAT MASTERSON will be airing in hour-long, two-episode blocks from 5:00-6:00 pm weekdays, with THE RIFLEMAN airing in hour-long, two-episode blocks from 7:00-8:00 pm weekdays (eastern time). I understand there will also be Saturday showtimes; for these, consult Encore Westerns schedule here. Both programs will be shown complete and uninterrupted, and (importantly for perfectionists like us) in their original broadcast order.

Encore Westerns' acquisition of THE RIFLEMAN is welcome news, as it signals the show's rescue from the Hallmark Channel, its home for the past several years, where episodes were hacked to pieces to accommodate commercials and often interrupted at dramatically inopportune moments. Arguably the greatest of all television Westerns, THE RIFLEMAN is also the warmest and frequently the most profound. At heart, it's about the father-and-son relationship of widowed rancher and expert marksman Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors in the role he was born to play) and his son Mark (Johnny Crawford, who's an able young horseman as well as one of the most gifted child actors ever), but the show also tackled difficult subjects like prejudice and mob violence and equally rigorous situations, including more than one episode in which Lucas was required to survive strandings in the desert without food or water. A number of outstanding first season episodes were helmed by Sam Peckinpah, who shocked audiences from the get-go by allowing the show's hero Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) to be felled by a bullet at the end of the first episode he directed -- none of the show's characters, including Paul Fix as stoic Marshall Micah Torrance, was bullet-proof. THE RIFLEMAN was also the site of the earliest collaborations between Peckinpah and Warren Oates, who guests in several episodes. GUN CRAZY auteur Joseph H. Lewis also directed many episodes.

The right to a second chance was another of the show's recurring themes, and the quality of its writing is exemplified by a moment in the episode "The Sheridan Story," in which Lucas takes on the help of a wretched homeless man (Royal Dano) whose state literally repulses the McCains. When the boy asks his father if he hired the vagrant because he was so far gone, Lucas replies, "No, son... because we were so far gone" -- in other words, so far gone that their instincts were to turn away from a fellow human being in need. The show's writing is sometimes startlingly resonant in its simplicity and humanity, and the second act of this episode features dialogue that is positively Shakespearean in its crafting. Other episodes can be just as surprising and pleasing in the degree of their tongue-in-cheek playfulness. Akim Tamiroff, Sammy Davis Jr., John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr., and Dennis Hopper are among the show's most memorable guest stars.

THE RIFLEMAN (which ran for five seasons) is one of the classic television series worth owning in its entirety. Six 20-episode box sets have been released on DVD by MPI Home Video; the intact episodes look fine, but unfortunately, this collection got off on the wrong foot by initially collecting the "best of" compilations MPI originally issued as single discs -- so the MPI box sets do not represent entire seasons, nor are the episodes presented in original broadcast order; the final episode was included in VOL. 5, and some first season shows continue to turn up as late as VOL. 6. This is a problem because the program did observe a certain continuity, sometimes referencing earlier episodes in the dialogue, and the sequencing of the discs can become distracting as Johnny Crawford grows or shrinks an inch or two in height between episodes. Furthermore, the half-dozen MPI sets in release are a substantial 48 episodes shy of the complete run, and MPI's press rep has sadly informed me that the company's rights to THE RIFLEMAN expired with the coming of the New Year. Therefore, there won't be any additional MPI sets, and even if you've been collecting them in the hopes of acquiring them all, your only hope now of securing the complete series -- and in its original broadcast order -- is to record the Encore Westerns broadcasts.

BAT MASTERSON (which ran for three seasons, beginning in 1958) is one of those programs I've heard about all my life, but didn't actually see until yesterday. To the best of my knowledge, it's been off the air for many years and not commonly found in syndication. Gene Barry stars as real historical figure William Barclay "Bat" Masterson, a dapper gunfighter so nicknamed because of his self-defensive abilities with a gold-capped walking stick. The first episode, "Double Showdown," I didn't find very interesting until a premature finale led to an out-of-character appearance by Barry, who explained that history recalls this particular adventure of Masterson ending two different ways... at which point, the episode gives us the other version, as well. Subsequent episodes not only held my interest; they held me in thrall until 5:00 in the morning. I left the balance of the marathon's offerings in the capable hands of my DVD burner's hard drive.

I don't recall ever reading about Barry's portrayal being any kind of precursor to the screen version of James Bond, but I find the comparison (and debt) glaringly obvious. Barry's Bat is debonair and worldly, a professional gambler, a connoisseur of fine wines and fine living, a ladies man (he not only gets around, but seems to have previously known every woman of visible experience to appear in each episode... and gets around to knowing some of the innocent ones too), and armed with a ready quip at the most daunting moments. Strapped to a tree with rawhide bonds and left behind as bear bait, Masterson tells his farewell-bidding adversary, "I'd shake hands, but I'm all tied up." (One of the episodes is even called "License To Cheat.") Make no mistake: Sean Connery wasn't the first hero to punctuate his prowess with smug remarks like "Shocking" -- Gene Barry was doing it years earlier, in high style, and the memory of this show probably helped to inspire the later cult series THE WILD WILD WEST.

As with THE RIFLEMAN, the guest stars alone provide good reason for watching. The episodes of BAT MASTERSON I watched last night featured Allison Hayes, Yvette Vickers, Gloria Talbott, Marie Windsor, and Louise Fletcher (they all got kissed) -- as well as Elisha Cook Jr., William Conrad, Ross Martin, Walter Barnes (who appears uncredited in "Bear Bait"), Joe Turkel, Barry Atwater, and Hank "Fred Ziffel" Patterson.

Tune in or set your timers: the adventures of these Western heroes are habits you'll find well worth acquiring.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

CAULDRON OF BLOOD reviewed

A nightmare vision from the Spanish-made Boris Karloff film,
CAULDRON OF BLOOD.

CAULDRON OF BLOOD
Las Coleccionista de Cadáveres ("The Corpse Collectors")
1967/70, NTA/Republic Home Video, HF/OOP, 99m, VHS


This curious Spanish-American co-production starring Boris Karloff was filmed in 1967, contemporaneously with his I SPY episode "Mainly On the Plains," but not released anywhere in the world until February 1970, a full year after the actor's death. At this time, it was one of several films falsely advertised as showcasing his final performance. Uncommonly in the context of a horror film, Karloff is not top-billed; though his bearded and begoggled visage looms large in the psychedelic opening credits (with the film's title spelled out in animated bones, à la ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN), that distinction falls to dashing Jean-Pierre Aumont, who stars as photojournalist Claude Marchand.

Assigned by HOLIDAY Magazine to travel to Torremolinos and charm his way past the barred doors of reclusive artist Charles Badalescu (Karloff), Marchand achieves his goal with the help of Valerie (Rosenda Montéros), an attractive local artist on friendly terms with Badalescu's protective wife and former model Tania (Viveca Lindfors). Badalescu, blinded and crippled in an automobile accident years earlier, is working on a series of commissions involving the sculptural recreations of the figures in various classic paintings. He achieves this -- in a manner requiring only slightly more ability than fellow sculptor Walter Paisley (in Roger Corman's A BUCKET OF BLOOD, 1959) -- by using actual human and animal skeletons acquired by Tania as armatures. What Badalescu doesn't know is that Tania isn't robbing graves but working with a handsome cohort (Milo Quesada, the murderous Frank in BLACK SABBATH's "The Telephone") to "arrange" the deaths of various turistas who have the misfortune to resemble figures in the paintings being recreated in three dimensions; she then dips them in a basement acid bath to provide the artist with his raw materials. Prominent among the supporting cast are Dianik Zurakowska -- one of the female figureheads of Seventies Spanish horror, whose short screen career encompassed THE SWEET SOUND OF DEATH (1965), FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR (1968), THE VAMPIRE'S NIGHT ORGY (1973) and SEXY CAT (1973) -- and Manuel de Blas, who subsequently played an interesting Count Dracula in the many-titled ASSIGNMENT TERROR aka DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1969).

Boris Karloff as the blind sculptor Charles Badalescu.

At the time of its initial release, CAULDRON OF BLOOD was generally dismissed by horror fans; Karloff's role wasn't prominent enough, his expressive eyes were covered throughout (either by heavy black goggles or a grotesque makeup showing his eyes welded closed), and the modernist style of the film was jarring, its jazzy score (credited to Ray Ellis, though it sounds very much like a Spanish film score of its era) and its garish lighting not in keeping with the traditional qualities found in Karloff's best pictures. Revisited today, with more familiarity with Spanish horror cinema and its own traditions under our belt, it's easier to appreciate for what it is -- not a good film by any means, but more interesting than previously thought.

The English version is self-described as "A Film By Edward Mann," but this provenance is troublesome as Mann (who previously scripted ISLAND OF TERROR) was known to make arrangements with friends and acquaintences to add his name to scripts he had nothing to do with, as in the case of Oliver Stone's SEIZURE. The screenplay is credited to John Melson and Edward Mann, while Spanish references credit José Luís Bayonas. It's possible that Mann wrote some English dialogue for the film, but he at most co-directed it with Santos Alcocer (THE ORGIES OF DR. ORLOFF), whose role is obscured in the otherwise English credits with the job description "realizador." There is no director credit, per se.
Viveca Lindfors as Tania -- wife, caregiver, sado-masochist, and worse -- in a shot displaying the film's inventive color lighting.
Aumont (the father of Tina Aumont) looks throughout like an actor who knows he is slumming, but he fires off some crude lines early in the picture that are amusingly at odds with his debonair persona. (Looking around while checking into an empty hotel, he sighs, "Boy! The zhoint is zhumping!" And when he's assured that the hotel bar is much cleaner than the other bar in town, he responds that he's glad because he wouldn't want to be taking home "any portable pets.") Karloff, who dubs his own performance, gives a fine workmanlike portrayal of the sort he gave earlier in the year in THE VENETIAN AFFAIR; if he's not particularly memorable, it's because the role has been given illusory substance by being cast with a better actor than it required. The film truly belongs to Viveca Lindfors, who -- in her late 40s at the time of filming -- gives a sexy performance as Karloff's imperiously chic, implicitly bisexual caregiver, who wears a chauffeur's uniform, leather pants, and whip regalia to a masquerade party and suffers nightmares of being mercilessly flogged as a child, dreams which also contain an eerie presentiment of her eventual fate. This nightmare sequence also features crude special effects of Karloff's head melting; these, attributed to the company Thierry Pathé, are very much like those seen in MALENKA and the Blind Dead films and suggest the uncredited involvement of Amando de Ossorio. Fans of Spanish film locations may recognize Karloff's Byzantine abode from its appearances in other pictures, notably Jess Franco's DORIANA GRAY (1976).

NTA/Republic Home Video's long-out-of-print videocassette naturally presents the film dubbed into English, but the job is incompletely done, with one scene of Spanish actors talking to one another in their native language subtitled in English (the words are not only horizontally cropped in this pan&scan transfer, but may also be vertically so, depending on your monitor's calibration). Also, scenes involving Aumont, Quesada and a young Spanish actor find the boy speaking in untranslated Spanish in response to their English dialogue; amusingly, they all seem to understand each other. As with many Republic tapes dating back to their earlier NTA incarnation, the film is presented in what appears to be its TV version; there is a brief through-the-suds glimpse of Zurokowska's nipple in a bubble bath scene, but more prolonged views of her nude body are splicily excised from a later sequence. (Nudity would also have been forbidden in any Spanish film of this vintage.) Some sources list this film as having been photographed in a scope ratio, but it was actually shot in a "Panoramico" (1.85:1) ratio, and cropped here to standard framing, with only a couple of instances of lateral scanning. The color quality of the tape looks surprisingly fresh and undated.

CAULDRON OF BLOOD is also available here as a low-frills UK import Region 2 DVD from Orbit Media. This release is also said to feature a cropped standard ratio presentation, and Kim Newman informs me that it is also lacking the nudity absent from the NTA/Republic tape. It also includes an episode of Karloff's COLONEL MARCH OF SCOTLAND YARD series ("The Silver Curtain," featuring Anton Diffring) and bonus trailers as incentive. One of the trailers, appropriately, is for the aforementioned A BUCKET OF BLOOD.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Monday, January 01, 2007

VWb's New Year's Day Parade

HAPPY NEW YEAR! It's New Year's Day and my health is feeling (dare I say it?) on an upward swing, so I thought I would celebrate both facts by recommending a few items which have come to my attention over one transom or another. In case you're wondering, sending something over my transom (Tim Lucas, Video WatchBlog, PO Box 5283, Cincinnati OH 45205-0283) is no guarantee that I will like it or mention it here -- I'm a busy fellow, can't do all I'd like to do, and tend to gravitate toward known quantities that already interest me. These entrepreneurs lucked out, however, and I commend them and their projects to your support.

Mirek Lipinski, whose LATARNIA INTERNATIONAL forums are an essential meeting ground for the serious discussion of all things fantastic, is starting off the New Year in a most impressive and unexpected way. In this age of rampant blogging, Mirek is going back to print! He is launching KRIMI CORNER, a by-mail-only newsletter devoted to detailed coverage of the West German crime cinema based on the works of Edgar Wallace and his son Bryan Edgar Wallace. The first issue consists of only four pages, but they are four quality pages, encompassing an introductory essay about Wallace père, a checklist of Edgar Wallace krimis produced by Rialto Film, and an in-depth, illustrated review of Retromedia's double-feature DVD, THE MONSTER OF LONDON CITY and THE SECRET OF THE RED ORCHID. It's well worth the $2.00 asking price, and five-issue subscriptions are available for $8.00; it's mailed folded in a standard mailing envelope, unless you prefer it mailed flat in a manila envelope at an additional fifty cents per issue. Order with checks, money orders, or well concealed cash from M. Lipinski, PO Box 2398, New York NY 10009, or send PayPal payments to Mirelski@aol.com. The first issue gave me a lot of pleasure, and I'm looking forward to the pleasure the future issues will provide me as they accumulate in a binder. It's such a pleasure to see something like this printed on paper, that can be read in any room in the house, or outside the house! Bravo, Mirek!

Regular readers of VIDEO WATCHDOG may recall that, several issues ago, we covered the release of something called "The Monster Box," a box set of actual size reproductions of 8mm horror movie box cover art from the 1950s and 60s. Now, Mixed Nitrate -- a division of Pulp Novelties, the company behind the original release -- has issued "The Monster Box, Vol. 2" which consists of 25 additional vintage 8mm movie covers. Among the classic covers included in this latest selection are THE BLOB (pictured above), FRANKENSTEIN'S NEW BRAIN (scenes from THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN), ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, and THE WEREWOLF, as well as a few titles that reach into the late '60s and early '70s like FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, FRENZY, SQUIRM, and EQUINOX. I found particularly interesting the "weird menace"-style artwork given to DOCTOR X (featuring a mad doctor seemingly patterned on Everett Van Sloan), THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (an artist's rendition of a scene from THIS ISLAND EARTH!) and THE WOMAN IN THE COFFIN ("Beautiful Girls Stolen for Experiments," says the box... evidently this was a condensed version of the Baker & Berman film BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE). A fun nostalgia item, "The Monster Box,Vol. 2" and its predecessor are both available here.

Some weeks ago, a fellow named Jeremy Richey sent me a link to his new blog The Moon in the Gutter. I responded as I always do to such links, by telling Jeremy that I would visit his site as time permitted and would comment only if I found his work there of personal interest. In the short time Moon has been up and running, Jeremy has proven himself an outstanding online essayist about film and music, and I find his choice of topics fascinating, as well as the angles he takes in approaching them. Check out what he's doing here.

Some of you may be aware of my long-running obsession with the San Francisco-based psych group Jefferson Airplane -- in addition to penning the liner notes for the "Ahuka's Choice" archival live sets and reviewing some of their bootleg albums for the Fly Jefferson Airplane site, I've written two drafts of an unproduced biopic screenplay about them (a four-hour miniseries chronicling the band's full history, and a feature-length draft focusing on Grace Slick).

This background is preamble to my recommendation -- to those kindred spirits among you -- of a new, telephone directory-sized book called TAKE ME TO A CIRCUS TENT, written and compiled by Craig "The Airplane Man" Fenton. This compendium from Infinity Books (which takes its title from a line in the song "3/5ths of a Mile in Ten Seconds") consists partly of interviews with band members and associates, more than 260 answered questions about Airplane arcana, 90 archival photographs (one particularly rare one contributed by me), and -- of particular interest -- a complete run-down/description of every documented live setlist in the band's history, including their 1989 reunion shows. Fenton actually times every song performed, gives authenticated names to various instrumental jams and improvs, mentions guest musicians (like Nicky Hopkins on piano at Woodstock), and notes the first and final live performances of individual songs. He also presents his choices for the band's ten best-ever live performances. The book could have used the attention of a proofreader in terms of spellings and grammar but, as an informational source, it's absorbing and can hardly be faulted. This is the kind of fan scholarship that infects with its rabid enthusiasm, and I recommend it. You can order TAKE ME TO A CIRCUS TENT from Amazon.com here -- or from Craig's own website, where you'll also find "Jeffersounds Audio," a healthy number of downloadable mp3s of live performances by various incarnations of the band, as well as band members' solo and secondary group projects.

In closing, on a different note, I wanted to mention that, last night, Game Show Network ran two 1968-era WHAT'S MY LINE? episodes with mystery guests Gerald R. Ford (then Congressman, not yet US President) and James Brown (then "soul singer," not yet Godfather). This was less than 40 years ago, and both men appeared surprisingly young and vital, yet they died at ages 93 and 73, respectively. A sobering reminder of how short our time on life's stage really is... so as we embark upon 2007, let's join together in our resolve to seize our days and make the most of them.

Or, as Donna says, "Don't expect parades when you're gone. Make the most of what you have now. This is as parade as it gets."

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Another Year Done Gone

Despite my lingering head cold, which now seems to be moving down my throat, Donna and I began closing out 2006 last night in high style, with a welcome visit from our out-of-town friends Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kilgore of ECCO fame.

This was the year we discovered/fell in love with/collected everything I could find by 50s rockers The Collins Kids (pictured, whom Charles plans to see in concert next month when they preside over a Link Wray tribute in Alexandria, VA), so we treated our guests to a number of the Collinses' TOWN HALL PARTY performances -- available on DVD from Bear Family. The Kilgores had never before seen Larry and Lorrie Collins in action, and they were as delighted as we've been through all three volumes of the Bear Family DVDs and also the two-disc CD box set from the same German import label. The music is rockabilly, but as I was listening to the second disc in the CD set, I was literally stunned by Lorrie's 1960 rendition of "Another Man Done Gone" -- which is such a chilling, despairing and erotic slab of blues that I can't help but imagine David Lynch will build a movie around it someday. I was so flabbbergasted to hear this morbid, piano-wire-scraping masterpiece in the context of so much buoyant fun that I had to play it a second, a third, AND a fourth time in succession just to believe it really existed. Now that I've worked myself up over it again, I'm regretting that I didn't play it for the Kilgores.

After watching a sampling of soda-poppin' performances that showed Lorrie's sultriness and Larry's flea-hopping, double-necked guitar-picking enthusiasm at their finest, we headed out to the nearby Primavista restaurant, with its superb Italian menu and a spectacular view overlooking the city on a crisp, clear, and not-very-cold winter's night. We've only been there once before under its current management, last November 7th for Donna's birthday, but hostess Isabella remembered us and made us all feel well-liked and at home. The food was beyond spectacular, and we can all recommend their Espresso Martini, which we bought for the table and each sampled (with me, the germy one, sampling last). Afterwards, we brought the Kilgores back to the house and treated them to a perusal of the Bava book proofs, and it was exciting to witness a fresh reaction to what we've been creating here all this time.

After our company departed, I scanned the cable channels and discovered that Joe Massot's WONDERWALL, a cult movie from the '60s I hadn't seen, was coming up on Flix -- so I tuned in. It's most notorious for featuring a music score by "George Harrison, M.B.E." (the first solo music by a Beatle ever released, if you don't count "Yesterday"); I'm fond of the soundtrack album, which is inventive and somewhat Krautrockish, but as accompaniment to the film, its aural mandalas and arabesques become rather grating. The screenplay also has a high pedigree, being based on a story by Polanski associate Gérard Brach (there are echoes or presentiments of THE TENANT here) and scripted by Cuban novelist G. Cabrera Infante (THREE TRAPPED TIGERS), but unfortunately it doesn't add up to much. It's basically overbearingly quirky British surrealism about an aging academic (Jack MacGowran) who knocks a peephole into his wall that peers into the otherworldly apartment of his neighbor, a beautiful but depressed fashion model (Jane Birkin). The eccentric supporting cast were impeccably chosen (THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS' Iain Quarrier, THE GREAT ROCK & ROLL SWINDLE's Irene Handl, FAHRENHEIT 451's Bee Duffel all good fun to see in ensemble) and the film itself is imaginatively designed and gives us a lot of Jane Birkin in her prime to admire, which is a good thing. I wasn't stoned while watching it, not even on Nyquil, which might have helped. Curiously, Flix presented the film in a noticeably aged, unremastered transfer with the odd splice, audio thumps, and other imperfections of the sort I haven't seen in a cable broadcast in more years than I can count.

Another long-missed movie I was happy to recently catch was Richard Lester's directorial debut, IT'S TRAD, DAD!, an early Amicus production that Turner Classic Movies broadcast a couple of nights ago under its US title, RING-A DING RHYTHM. The barest of plots finds a couple of college-age kids (UK chart toppers Helen Shapiro and Craig Douglas) challenging a curmudgeonly mayor (Felix Felton) who closes down the jukebox at a popular hang-out for lack of an entertainment license. They decide to stage a talent show to force a reconsideration, don't ask me how. Most of the music showcased here is Dixieland swing (the most famous proponent being Mr. Acker Bilk), hardly the sort of thing that would have led to a generational gap here in America, but there are bargain chip appearances by Del Shannon, Chubby Checker, Gary "U.S." Bonds, Joe Meek discovery Joe Leyton, and The Paris Sisters. What keeps the film from being absolutely insufferable, besides the music, is Lester's already developed spirit of madcap innovation and non sequitur comedy. Derek Nimmo, the dove-producing magician in A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, is here as a head waiter, and Bruce Lacey (the gentleman in HELP! who trims lawns with wind-up chattering teeth) is also on hand, using hedge-clippers to trim the lettuce off sandwiches. The two leads have dialogue exchanges with the offscreen narrator, who moves them from one location to another by replacing their backgrounds -- momentarily exposing the sprocketholes of the film print, the sort of thing previously seen only in Tex Avery cartoons. It runs out of steam toward the end, where the Dixieland music takes over completely, but it's beautifully photographed (by Gil Taylor) and made with far more invention than the Milton Subotsky script deserved.

This is the last day of 2006 and, as always, one feels an inclination to reflection and resolve. Our big resolution, of course, is to get the Bava book out by the spring, but I am under contract for a second book that will be out in the fall, which should also be exciting... and there's still another book assignment I'm hoping to get. With this, plus the nine DVD audio commentaries coming out in the spring, 2007 is looking like my most productive and important professional year so far, and I'm only talking about part of what's in the works. I thank you all for your continued attendance and friendly correspondence over the past year, and wish each of you the best of health and prosperity in 2007.

Friday, December 29, 2006

A Quiet Day at Home

I've been laid low by a post-Christmas head cold, and haven't felt like doing much of anything the past few days. My favored mode of relaxation and recovery has been converting tapes from the attic to DVD-R -- everything from the Paul Naschy DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (aka ASSIGNMENT: TERROR) to BEAT CLUB anthologies to THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS. It's an appropriately Christmassy thing to do, to focus on the things you're privileged to have, and to appreciate them.

The latest batch of pull-downs from the attic included MGM's 2000 Amazon.com exclusive, Elio Petri's A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY (now out of print). I reviewed this film for VW in issue #72 and haven't thought much about it since; I reviewed it more enthusiastically than I remembered it, actually. I put it on expecting to walk away and do something else, but I found myself instantly gripped by its energy and peculiar way of storytelling. To my surprise, I not only sat there and watched the entire film in my bathrobe, but the movie now felt to me like something profound and significant -- I think it may have joined the ranks of the very limited number of films that have changed my way of seeing. Now I want to see much more Elio Petri.

This raises some interesting questions: Are our perceptions amplified or otherwise altered, when we are running a fever or in some way diseased? Under such conditions, do we respond to films and other stimuli the same way we would when healthy? Does an elevated temperature bring us closer to art and consciousness, or does it effect a distortion? It might be an interesting experiment to watch some other films I feel I didn't entirely "get" on the first pass, and see if they strike more lucid chords in my state of fever.

One thing I completely missed the first time around with this movie: Rita Calderoni, who plays Franco Nero's housekeeper at the villa, is seen earlier in the movie as a model playing a role in one of the "Supersexy" fumettis he reads. If you notice this, it makes her later appearance in the flesh all the more jarring... and it's also curious to see how mousy she is here, in contrast with how prominently sexy she could be in the movies of Renato Polselli.

Anyway, whatever the reason, today turned out to be an exciting day at the movies.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Hardest Working Man in Show Business

The Seed and Creed of Rock and Soul: Mr. James Brown.

The word "LIVE!", shouting from the covers of so many of his albums, seems inseparable from the soul and essence of James Brown. That -- and the boundless energy he showed onstage throughout a 50 year career, not to mention the boundless invention he showed in the recording studio over an equal period of time -- make the news of his death on Christmas morning hard to accept.

Back in the 1970s, when punk was starting to happen, I was in a record store and the seller, who knew my tastes, steered me gently but firmly in the direction of the newly reissued LIVE AT THE APOLLO, VOLUME 1 by James Brown. I was a little hesitant because it was an earlier era of music than I tended to buy, and I was mostly listening to trancey avant garde alternative rock; also, the cover art was kind of kitschy, an airbrushed rendering of JB in a vast pompadour howling into a stage microphone. But I bought it and, lo and behold, it was one of the great musical discoveries of my life. I loved it.

I loved it enough to scoop up a used copy of JB's 1974 double album HELL as soon as I found one; it was recorded in a different era than the APOLLO disc, but it was, if anything, even more feisty and infectious. I especially loved the closing, side-long track "Papa Don't Take No Mess," which has the crackly sound of a groove-sampling epic decades before there were such things. It was around this same time that Robert Christgau devoted an installment of his "Consumer Guide" in CREEM magazine to JB, reviewing and grading all of his 1970s-80s work. I think I would have graded HELL a fraction better than he did, which gave me my bearings and stoked my curiosity. Then, just as I was starting to wonder how some things like "Soul Power" and "Get On The Good Foot" sounded, an Australian import appeared -- the first double-album Greatest Hits collection ever devoted to the full breadth of JB's work. Once I heard "Give It Up or Turnit A Loose" and "Sex Machine," there was no turning back. I had to collect the whole story, hear every track, leave no groove unturned. Again, as if by divine coincidence, GOLDMINE chose that precise moment to devote a feature article to James Brown, equipped with a complete discography -- my road map.

Mr. Brown's first record label, King Records, was Cincinnati-based, which made my quest a bit easier to accomplish, but over the course of the following 8-10 years, I subsequently found and bought every legitimately released JB album on vinyl, and then on CD. We're talking more than 100 albums, plus variants, repackagings, and special releases.

Little Richard calls himself "the architect of rock and roll," but James Brown made an epithet like that seem like so many small potatoes. JB was the architect of everything that came after rock and roll: soul, disco, rap, extended grooves and improvs, drum and bass, trance, sampling (he remains the most-sampled artist ever, possibly for "Funky Drummer" alone), and whatever comes next, probably. He was the first R&B artist to venture outside the box of 4/4 R&B shuffles. His rhythms and increasingly complex polyrhythms struck a mathematical counterpoint to the directness and simplicity of his message, which could be pro-social and constructive ("Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," "Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved!"), narcissistic ("I paid the cost to be the Boss"), or nakedly rut-hungry ("Can I get INTO it? Can I get INTO it? Can I pull the sheet off of 'em? CAN I GET INTO IT?"). Because the music cut deeper and deeper with each repetition of the groove, no music was ever sexier or more sensual.

I've heard everything he ever recorded, and it must be admitted that he recorded his fair share of material that was dumb or preachy (the very last track on his last album was called "Killing's Out, School Is In") or in questionable taste; and, if truth be told, his live shows have been half-spirited and often tacky since his 1991 release from prison -- but none of that matters in terms of the Big Picture. He was also a visionary artist, a dazzling showman, and he could be very, very funny. (Check out "For Goodness Sakes, Take A Look At Those Cakes," an epic paen to butt-watching in which he actually invites Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles to "lookie here" and "lookie there," or the great moment in "Make It Funky" when Bobby Byrd pathetically beseeches JB to NOT be so funky, and he fires back "I cain't hep it, Byrd.") He was way too prolific to be perfect (someone once said that, if JB sneezed in the studio, he'd release it as a two-sided single), and if his last fifteen years of live performance were not his best, the show with which he toured represented a lot of mouths he had to feed, and he remained James Brown and all that JB represented till the end. Despite that, the quality of his releases always remained respectable (his penultimate album I'M BACK is very good) and his archival releases (especially the unparalleled box set STAR TIME) were among the best on the market.

I don't think any other one person could be said to have changed (hell, revolutionized) the world of music and the art of live performance to the extent that James Brown did. Mick Jagger didn't dance onstage until he stood in the wings and watched JB dance his way through his T.A.M.I. SHOW performance in 1964, a performance the Stones had to follow, which remains one of the very greatest live pop music performances ever captured on film. In 1986, he was one of the first inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, along with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Little Richard and many other fathers of the form; he was the only inductee that year to simultaneously have a new single zooming up the charts (ROCKY IV's "Living In America").

James Brown may be dead, but I guarantee you he's not resting in peace. Somewhere, he's dancing with the renewed energy of a newborn and already scoping out the thangs ain't never been done.

"What I was doin' thirty years ago is what the rest of 'em are doin'... tomorrow." -- JB

MY FAVORITE JAMES BROWN ALBUMS
You could do a Top 10 of Best Ofs with JB, but I'm not going to cheat you like that. It should go without saying that nascent JB collectors need the STAR TIME box set first and above all, followed by ROOTS OF A REVOLUTION, FOUNDATIONS OF FUNK, FUNK POWER 1970, MAKE IT FUNKY - THE BIG PAYBACK, and DEAD ON THE HEAVY FUNK -- all fabulous archival overviews of specific periods in Mr. Brown's 50 year career. You can live content with the knowledge that you know your James Brown if you have only those, or some of those. THE GREATEST HITS OF THE FOURTH DECADE collects some worthwhile cuts not included elsewhere. For this list, however, I wanted to focus on JB's individual albums. I consider everything listed below a stand-alone album; though IN THE JUNGLE GROOVE and MOTHERLODE look like hits compilations, they are actually compilations of archival tracks previously unreleased, or in previously unreleased form. Albums are listed in my personal order of preference. Can't do a Top 10, but this isn't a Top 10, so I don't have to.

1. IN THE JUNGLE GROOVE 2. LIVE AT THE APOLLO, VOL. 1 3. LIVE AT THE APOLLO, VOL. 2 (original version; Side Two's suite of "Let Yourself Go/There Was a Time/I Feel Alright/Cold Sweat" may be the single greatest side JB ever cut) 4. LOVE PEACE POWER 5. THERE IT IS 6. HOT PANTS 7. THINK! 8. I'M REAL 9. HELL 10. IT'S A NEW DAY - LET A MAN COME IN 11. IT'S A MAN'S MAN'S MAN'S WORLD 12. MOTHERLODE.