Monday, February 12, 2007

I'm Still Here

... just too overworked at present to give much time or attention to this blog. I wrote the first draft of a book in January, and now I'm editing material -- over 150 single-spaced pages of reviews! -- for the next couple of issues of VIDEO WATCHDOG (which should be ready for print by this time next week), my next SIGHT & SOUND column is due tomorrow, and I spent the early part of this afternoon responding to an interview questionaire from the San Francisco-based magazine THE BELIEVER. The day after tomorrow, I'm expecting to receive my first HD player: the LG BH100, the first hybrid HD unit capable of playing both HD DVD and Blu-Ray discs. So I also have wrestling with wires to look forward to... but the unit will probably have to sit in the box a few days before it gets hooked up, as I see my way clear of creating the next issue or two. As always, enjoy the backlog of material in the meantime.

Also happening right now: Joe Dante is in Berlin, Germany, where he's representing THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES (the Roger Corman biopic comedy script I wrote with Charlie Largent, about the making of THE TRIP) at the Berlinale Co-Production Market. This event is open to investor-seeking film projects that have already accounted for 30% of their total budget, and TMWKE (which got a headline mention in a recent VARIETY story about the Berlin market) is one of only three American properties represented among this year's Official Selections. I know that you all want to see this movie happen -- almost as much as Charlie and I do -- so join us in holding good thoughts for Joe through the days ahead.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Six Stanzas of Fear

Meticulous collectors of my work (if there are such people) will want to know that I'm one of the contributors to the current issue (Feb-May 2007, #14) of the Manchester-based poetry zine THE UGLY TREE. This is the second issue in which my work has appeared, after the previous issue's "Crapulous Elektra." I have three poems in the new issue: "The Breakfast Bell", "Mario Bava", and "Think of the Things You Could Drop in Black Ink."

I hadn't read any of these poems since turning them in, but I was particularly pleased upon revisiting the Bava piece. I think I nailed it; I find it picturesque and chilling in the way that Bava's films are, perhaps because I've lived with them for so long -- unlike my other poems, which are usually written on the spot to capture transient moods, frissons, or angles of light.

Where emerald and amber intersect
When clock hands overlap
Dead fingers cut the Tarot deck
As guilt drips from the taps.

That's how it begins. Yes, the Year of Mario Bava includes poetry.

To order your copy, visit the UGLY TREE website here.

Cover Art, As Promised

The Latarnia International forums beat me to it!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

THE YELLOW SIGN AND OTHERS reviewed

Shawna Waldron as a woman whose dreams reconnect her
to a forgotten identity in "The Yellow Sign."

THE WEIRD TALE COLLECTION, VOLUME 1:
THE YELLOW SIGN AND OTHERS
2001-03, Lurker Films, DD 5.1/2.0/16:9/LBX/+, $15.95, 100 minutes (approx.), DVD-5

Lurker Films, the Portland, Oregon-based company behind some well-received compilations of short films based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, here branch out into different avenues of short form horror with the first offering in a new series, "The Weird Tale Collection." While this disc has some unfortunate presentational faults, the films it collects are worth checking out, made with intelligence and subtlety and show a connoisseur's appreciation for the genre's history and what's best in it.

The program consists of Aaron Vanek's "The Yellow Sign" (2001, 45m 28s), David Leroy's "Tupilak" (2002, 13m 17s), Emilio Guarneri's "Il re giallo" ("The King in Yellow," 2003, 6m 20s), and a 15m profile of weird tales author Robert W. Chambers by French literary scholar Christophe Thill. The films are presented in a variety of formats and different aspect ratios, with "Tupilak" (the only 35mm contribution and the only anamorphic entry) looking the best of the bunch. The disc is best enjoyed on a standard video monitor.

Inspired by THE KING IN YELLOW by Robert W. Chambers, an early collection of dark metafiction that H.P. Lovecraft counted among his most influential readings, "The Yellow Sign" is a contemporary story about a young gallery worker, Tess (Shawna Waldron), who seeks out the reclusive artist Aubrey Scott (Dale Snowberger) to request an exhibition after having a series of nightmares about his work. Scott, who lives in a dank studio surrounded by his disturbing works, agrees to her request on the condition that she pose for him -- an exercise in stillness and concentration that makes her increasingly aware of something animated in a canvas hung on the wall behind the artist... a "yellow sign." Incisively scripted by John Tynes, the film is a good deal more engrossing than most MASTERS OF HORROR episodes, unsettling the viewer with words, ideas, and intimations of other dimensions lurking on the periphery of reality rather than bloodshed. It's well acted by the two principals and disappointed only by one unfortunate scene in which the Sony DV camerawork becomes so busy for its own sake that it upstages the action it should be representing. THE MONSTER SQUAD director Fred Dekker served as associate producer on this project. "The Yellow Sign" is offered in a choice of DD 5.1 or 2.0 audio with a variety of subtitle options, with numerous supplements, including outtakes, "normal" and "profane" audio commentaries, Snowberger's audition tape, and a slideshow.

Dale Snowberger as deranged artist Aubrey Scott in "The Yellow Sign."

Christophe Thill's "Chambers in Paris" documents the years which American author Robert W. Chambers spent in Paris, France, which yielded his obscure masterpiece of terror, THE KING IN YELLOW. For those familiar with the book, Thill's research is a treat as he videocams various authentic locations described in the novel and shows how they look today, which lends a verisimilitude to the fiction that Chambers would have surely appreciated.

"Tupilak," in French with English subtitles and filmed in a two-perf pulldown process called "Multivision 235", concerns the role played by an Inuit avenging spirit in the guilt suffered by two men (one of them played by writer-director David Leroy) who abandoned a dying man during an Arctic expedition. The story is predictable and a bit thin, but the acting is sincere and the film itself is opulently produced, to the extent of a grandiose score performed by the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra. It would be interesting to see such resources and commitment applied to a more ambitious story.

Despite its title, "Il re giallo" is less an hommage to Chambers' THE KING IN YELLOW than a revisitation of the zombie hospital action of Lucio Fulci's THE BEYOND, redone with lots of digital herky-jerky J-horror scare effects.

THE YELLOW SIGN AND OTHERS is available from the Lurker Films website. As the site acknowledges, mistakes were made in the mastering of these films for disc. Contrary to what Lurker Films suggests, however, "The Yellow Sign" or "Il re giallo" are presented in their correct 1.85:1 screen ratios; the problem is that neither film is anamorphically enhanced, which can lead to some playback problems. For example, on my widescreen set, the image defaulted to a correctly letterboxed albeit non-anamorphic format that I had to zoombox to fill my screen. This was okay for "The Yellow Sign" (though it did accentuate its grain), but in the case of the Italian film, it cropped the English subtitles offscreen, requiring me to watch it in "wide zoom" mode, stretching the image horizontally -- distortive but acceptable, considering how short it is. Viewed on my computer, however, I find that both films play back in a 1.78 anamorphic frame but with letterboxing bars visible, causing the image to be horizontally stretched to 2.35:1 or thereabouts, pulling it out like Silly Putty. I suppose it's possible that the disc could play back on some systems this way, and I disagree that either film is "watchable" under these conditions. Anyone who buys independently made product like this, sight unseen, is already meeting it at least halfway and shouldn't have to forgive anything about the presentation. (Incidentally, the frame grabs used to illustrate this piece come from the slideshow for "The Yellow Sign," not from the film itself.) On the bright side, I would imagine that anyone viewing the disc on a standard television monitor wouldn't have any playback problems.

Lurker Films promises that the problem will be fixed with the second pressing but, unfortunately, this is no incentive to buy the current, flawed pressing. This is regrettable because it prevents me from more enthusiastically endorsing THE YELLOW SIGN AND OTHERS, whose seriousness, intelligence, and literary grounding are otherwise a breath of fresh air in the "tits and blood" arena of DTV horror. It's a series (and approach) I would like to see continue, and graduate to even better things. In the meantime, I think I'll track down some books by Robert W. Chambers.

Monday, February 05, 2007

More Bava Specs from Anchor Bay

On the same day that Anchor Bay Entertainment will be releasing their MARIO BAVA COLLECTION, VOLUME 1, they will be separately releasing another Bava two-fer feature on DVD.

Also due on April 3 is RABID DOGS/KIDNAPPED, which will present the two extant versions of Bava's cult crime thriller, originally produced in 1975 but impounded when the production was bankrupted and shelved until a belated release more than 20 years later. Anchor Bay's disc will include the following:

RABID DOGS
96 minutes
1.78/16:9
Italian mono with English subtitles
Tim Lucas audio commentary

KIDNAPPED
95 minutes
1.78/16:9
Italian mono with English subtitles
Featurette: "End of the Road: Making RABID DOGS and KIDNAPPED" with producer Alfredo Leone
Mario Bava bio
Bava trailers

A word about the English subtitles on RABID DOGS. I provided ABE with newly corrected English subtitles for the film -- these were written for the original Lucertola Media release, but they included a mistake or two I've long wanted to fix -- but, at the moment, no one at ABE can tell me whether or not they were used. If they weren't used because a subtitle master had already been created, this could be a little embarrassing for me, as I reference some of the choices I made in my audio commentary, and without my subtitles onscreen, those comments won't make any sense. ABE sent me an advance tape to check my audio commentary for accuracy and placement, but it was wedded to an unsubtitled copy of the film, so I can't tell whether or not they'll be included. I guess we'll all find out together.

In closing, you might say that I've buried today's headline. Contrary to my earlier spec notes on the MARIO BAVA COLLECTION, VOLUME 1, I am now told that Anchor Bay's BLACK SUNDAY disc will indeed include both the MASK OF SATAN and BLACK SUNDAY versions of the film! I've corrected yesterday's blog to bring this information up to date.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Anchor Bay BAVA COLLECTION Specs

Everybody's wondering what's going to be included in Anchor Bay Entertainment's forthcoming MARIO BAVA COLLECTION, VOLUME 1 box set (due April 3). Well, I've been wondering too, but today my friends at ABE sent me an itemized list of all the contents and gave me first dibs on sharing them with you, the Video WatchBlog audience. I recorded audio commentaries for a few of these titles last December, but even I was surprised by some of the contents! Suffice to say, there's some very welcome news here, so let's get right down to it. Here's what to expect from VOLUME 1:

BLACK SABBATH / THE THREE FACES OF FEAR
1.77:1/16:9 (both)
English and Italian versions with English subtitles
Featurette: Mark Damon interview
Tim Lucas audio commentary
International & US trailers
TV Spots
Poster and Stills gallery
Mario Bava & Boris Karloff bios
Bava trailers

BLACK SUNDAY / THE MASK OF SATAN
Original Italian export English dub scored by Roberto Nicolosi
American International English dub scored by Les Baxter
1.66:1/16:9
English mono with subtitles
Tim Lucas audio commentary
International and US trailers
TV spots
Radio spots
Mario Bava & Barbara Steele bios
Bava trailers

THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH / EVIL EYE
English and Italian versions with English subtitles
1.33:1 (English), 1.66:1/16:9 (Italian)
Featurette: "Remembering the Girl with John Saxon"
Tim Lucas audio commentary
International and US trailers
Poster and Still gallery
Bava trailers

KILL, BABY... KILL!
English and Italian audio with English subtitles
1.85:1/16:9
International trailer
TV Spots 1 - 3
Mario Bava bio
Bava trailers

KNIVES OF THE AVENGER
2.35:1/16:9
English and Italian audio with English subtitles
International trailer
Mario Bava bio
Bava trailers

The best and most surprising news, of course, is that ABE will be including the AIP versions of BLACK SUNDAY, BLACK SABBATH and EVIL EYE in these sets. (I actually concluded my GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH commentary by saying that I hope the English version will somehow become available someday, and encouraging listeners to ask among their friends for a copy -- so much for how "in the loop" I am!) Also good to know is that BLACK SABBATH will share the same anamorphic ratio as its Italian counterpart, making this the first time that the version featuring Boris Karloff's audio performance will be released on DVD, or in widescreen. These titles were last released on DVD by Image Entertainment back in 2000, so these new remasters should also reflect the improvements made in digital restoration over the past seven years.

The BLACK SUNDAY commentary is the same one I recorded for the out-of-print Image Entertainment release, so I assume the source material will be the same. The contents listing for the BLACK SUNDAY disc make no reference to the sidebar I wrote for the Image release about a scene exclusive to the Italian language version between Prince Vajda and Princess Katia, so perhaps it hasn't been carried over. I was expecting RABID DOGS to be part of this set, because I also recorded an audio commentary for it, so it must be coming out separately or in the second Bava box.

I'm told that I should be able to offer you a preview of the box set's cover art sometime in the coming week.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

First KILL BABY KILL Grabs

In today's mail, I was surprised and pleased to find an advance copy of Dark Sky Films' KILL BABY KILL (no punctuation on the cover). I had some involvement with this disc, and since KBK is my favorite of all Mario Bava movies, I'm feeling new-papa proud. Since I can't very well pass out cigars, I thought I would pop the disc into the old computer and treat Video WatchBlog visitors to some early screen grabs, which you can savor in anticipation of its March 27th release.

This DVD marks the belated debut of the audio commentary I originally recorded back in the summer of 2000 for an Image Entertainment release that failed to materialize. Since recording the track, I found a few minor errors in my talk that I feared would make the commentary unusable. However, after consulting my transcript, I realized that it could still be used, given some easily-made edits. So those errors are now gone, with the exception of my mispronunciation of the film's shooting location of Calcata as ""Calpata." Sorry about that, but when I interviewed Lamberto Bava about this movie, that's how he remembered the name of the village! (Mind you, this track was recorded years before most of us had heard of Google!)

As you can see, the anamorphic image looks bright and crisp, with the full frame revealed. For these grabs, I've cropped out the slight black horizontal bars at the top and bottom of the frame, but they are present on the disc, testifying to the presence of the frame in its entirety. I'm so accustomed to the crude, cheap processing of the 35mm prints made for US distribution by Europix, which gave the film an even more dreamlike atmosphere, I'll probably never get used to seeing this movie look so brilliant. There's a shot in this transfer where the Baroness Graps points to an old photograph, and the crepe-like textures on the back of actress Giovanna Galletti's hand are incredibly vivid. "Vivid," too, is the word for the colors on display; it wasn't until seeing this version that I became aware of how extensively Bava had used emerald green gels as a signal of the cast members coming into the presence of the Uncanny. By stepping through the reveal of Giacomo Rossi-Stuart's doppelgänger, I noticed that the green light that suddenly illuminates the side of his face flares up a beat or two after he turns to face the hero -- as if it was already on, waiting for a piece of cardboard to drop away, or a lighting "barndoor" to open and expose it.

Talk about all the colors of the dark: look at this amazing atmosphere...

And this shot below, which seems to exist only to present action in most copies of the film I've seen before, but which here exists to encompass an astounding diversity of color...

The disc also includes the dream-come-true featurette "Kill, Bava, Kill," in which David Gregory takes Lamberto Bava back to the film's original filming locations -- it's a nominee for next year's Rondo Award for Best DVD Extra, to be sure. There is also a trailer and a stills gallery that includes the full set of German lobby cards (in Germany, the film is known as DIE TOTEN AUGEN DES DR. DRACULA, or "The Dead Eyes of Dr. Dracula"), some extremely rare Italian fotobusti (I don't have these myself!), and other goodies. The unsigned back cover copy, I hear, was written by VW's own Richard Harland Smith.

I also contributed liner notes to this release, which I was told were going to be used. I don't know what happened, but they don't appear to be present on the disc itself nor included in paper form. That's no reason why you should go without -- as an exclusive for WatchBlog readers, I'll post them here at the time of the disc's release.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

VW Nominated for 7 Rondo Awards!

I am delighted to report that VIDEO WATCHDOG has been nominated seven times in four categories in the Fifth Annual Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards ballot, which was unveiled today at the Rondo website and the Classic Horror Film Boards.

VW's nominations are: Best Magazine, Best Website (Video WatchBlog), Best Magazine Cover (Charlie Largent's classic King Kong for VIDEO WATCHDOG #125), and four nominations for Best Article (more than any other magazine):

"Edgar Wallace and the Paternity of KING KONG," by Tim Lucas, VIDEO WATCHDOG #126. New information about the mystery writer's role in the creation of Kong.

"Hammer and Universal: A Marriage of Monsters," by Bill Cooke, VIDEO WATCHDOG #127. In-depth examination of the Hammer Horror DVD Collection.

"In Search of Del Tenney, Auteur of Party Beach," by Tim Lucas, VIDEO WATCHDOG #127. The cult director who vanished professionally for 40 years.

"Third Dimension of Evil: The Making of AMITYVILLE 3-D," by Paul Talbot, VIDEO WATCHDOG #124. An insightful second look at a film most have forgotten; includes last interview with late Richard Fleischer.

Links to samplings of all these Best Article nominees, and to a detailed enlargement of Charlie's cover art for VW #125, can be found on the VW website home page. All of the different voting categories accept write-in votes, while others are determined by write-in votes only, including (nudge, nudge) Best Writer, Best Artist (I ask you, who has given you more great magazine covers this year than Charlie Largent?), Monster Kid of the Year, and this year's additions to the Monster Kid Hall of Fame.

So what are you waiting for? Follow those links up in the first paragraph, follow the simple voting directions, pick your favorites, and Go Rondo!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

More Words on PERFORMANCE

Warner Home Video's forthcoming DVD of PERFORMANCE is the most beautiful, comprehensive, and comprehensible presentation of the film I've ever seen... but.

Truly, the quality of image and sound is a revelation, and the disc provides a most welcome subtitling option (like the audio, in English only) that clarifies all that the ear cannot easily interpret. The subtitles aren't always perfect, though: when Chas (James Fox) calls his nephew "good boy" on the telephone, the subtitle reads "goodbye," even though they continue talking; there are other faux pas as well, yet somehow "Orbis Tertius" is spelled correctly. Unfortunately, as often happens with DVD subtitles, the song lyrics are not transcribed; they may, however, be present in the closed captioning.

The audio is given a particular boon by the clear digital separation of the dialogue and music/effects tracks, which allow the music in the film to stand out and sparkle (I'm now much more aware of music cues in the film that were not included on the album), and the dialogue to be heard separately from the sounds that have heretofore bled into it, making it more easily understood even without the subtitles. Never before have I followed the details of the plot so well. Never before did I catch the reference to "Mick" before Chas shoots the man who beat him in his apartment, the one time Chas calls Turner "Nick," or Pherber's suggestion that they call "Dr. Burroughs." (Isn't he "the man who works the Soft Machine"?)

The tragic "but" to which I referred in my opener is a very irritating and needless one. During the "Memo from Turner" sequence, when Turner (Mick Jagger) raises a glass in a toast and cries "Here's to Old England!" (reprising an earlier line of Harry Flowers, played by Johnny Shannon), his lips move... but... no sound comes out! Other dialogue heard during the song is intact, so why not this? Boo, hiss.

This mistake aside, I had the feeling while watching this disc that it might be the first time I have ever seen PERFORMANCE at the correct projection speed. Everything about the picture seemed a semi-tone lower in register, more comprehensively paced. As I noted yesterday, there's a difference in running time over the previous Warner PAL VHS and NTSC laserdisc releases that amounts to an additional 6 seconds. At present, I can't be sure of where all those seconds occur, but the main titles seemed more revealing than I remembered them, so I took the time to write out a cutting continuity of the title sequence, as it appears on the new disc, and compared it to the shots that open the British tape. I found two brief shots omitted from that earlier continuity; there is an additional shot of Ann Sidney naked between the legs of James Fox and a followup cutaway to the Rolls-Royce, placed immediately prior to a similar shot that shows Fox rocking Sidney from side to side between his legs -- to be blunt, the shot of her giving him head prior to the shot of his orgasm. (The Rolls was removed only to maintain the editing rhythm established by the sequence, so that one Rolls shot wouldn't directly cut to another -- thus tipping the audience off that something had been removed.) Also, one of the shots included in the earlier continuity, also between Fox and Sidney, goes on some frames longer here, permitting a brief glimpse of Sidney's pubic hair. Also, this sex scene was darkened considerably in all earlier presentations, but is brighter here, permitting more obvious glimpses of full frontal and rear nudity, by Fox as well as Sidney. Likewise, later in the film, when Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) is filming Turner as he sleeps nude and covers his genetalia with his hands, a single frame is intact showing Jagger's testicles.

The featurettes are very good. The longer one is about a good deal more than just the film's censor problems; in fact, it hardly touches on them. It's more of an overview of the film's development and production, and an appreciation of its current status. The interviewees include star Anita Pallenberg, producer Sanford Lieberman, associate producer David Cammell, Jack Nietsche Jr. (son of the film's late music supervisor), and author Colin McCabe. The "Memo from Turner" piece does attend to the behind-the-scenes of filming that sequence, and features some neat footage of Cammell directing Jagger, as well as shots not in the final assembly. The trailer is in mint condition.

How the producers of this disc could have been sharp enough to track down millimeters of never-before-seen footage to include in this gorgeous assembly, making it the most complete and brilliant-looking version of PERFORMANCE ever, yet so careless as to mute an important (at least resonant) line of dialogue, I can't explain. I hate to rain on this release over something so minor, especially when it accomplishes so much else, but the error is minor only in length; anyone who already knows this movie is going to miss that line, and wince in pain when they discover it for themselves.

I'd still recommend this disc very highly. If you haven't seen PERFORMANCE, you must; if you're already among the converted, you know you'll have to get this -- just resign yourself to the fact that this won't be the last time we line up to buy this title.

PERFORMANCE streets on February 13.

Friday, January 26, 2007

A Quick Word on Warner's PERFORMANCE

I received my advance copy of PERFORMANCE today and, though it's a busy time here, I wanted to post a quick report.

I was a bit unnerved to see that the packaging carries an R rating -- THAT'S a first! -- but the picture quality looks extraordinary and, best news of all, the disc runs 105m 18s by my time counter... which is a few seconds longer than either the Warner PAL VHS or Warner's previous domestic laserdisc version, both of which clocked in at 105m 12s, according to Rebecca and Sam Umland's DONALD CAMMELL: A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE. With a movie like this, of course, even a couple of seconds could mean a world of difference. I'll post something more detailed once I've had a chance to properly absorb the disc and its featurettes.

Speaking of the featurettes, "Influence and Controversy" (a new featurette about the film's censor problems) runs about 25m, and "Memo from Turner" (a look at the filming of the song with behind-the-scenes material) runs close to 5m. There is also a 2m 44s trailer.

It looks like a terrific disc.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

VROOM! Forward... Into the Past!

What we have here, to the left, is a typically superior example of Italian poster art for a comparatively obscure Roger Corman film entitled THE YOUNG RACERS (1963). In Italy they called it "The Devils of the Grand Prix." It was filmed in Monte Carlo during Grand Prix season and starred Luana Anders, William Campbell, and Patrick Magee (all of whom would subsequently follow soundman Francis Coppola to Ireland to film DEMENTIA 13), as well as Mark Damon (who would pass up DEMENTIA 13 to make BLACK SABBATH with Mario Bava, and whose performance here was dubbed by William Shatner), Béatrice Altariba of EYES WITHOUT A FACE, and even the obscure actress who later played the mysterious Julia in Antonio Margheriti's CASTLE OF BLOOD, Margarete Robsahm. That's my idea of an outstanding cast.

No, THE YOUNG RACERS isn't due to arrive on DVD, more's the pity. I was motivated to write about it today because it happened to be on a VHS tape I pulled down from my attic to convert to DVD-R. I had assumed that the movie came from American Movie Classics' much-missed, pre-commercial "American Pop" days, but after popping it into my VCR, I discovered that it was actually something even more precious: a relic of Bruce Dern's days as the host of LOST DRIVE-IN, a weekly Saturday night procession of car-related movies that used to run on the Speedvision Channel. I immediately kicked myself for not realizing at the time what a precious gift to movie fans this program was; I should have taped it every week. I didn't, of course, not having a lot of interest in car movies, but I should have learned by then that the real reason to hit the "Record" button for LOST DRIVE-IN was Bruce Dern himself.

Taped in the waning daylight at some abandoned drive-in theater, Dern would sit in the front seat of an old-fashioned roadster or pad around the gravel while reminiscing about the old days of entertainment under the stars, and sometimes about the people in the films he was presenting, when he had memories of working with them. No attempt was made by the producers to glamorize him, and his comments didn't seem to be pre-scripted in any way -- all you got was the straight, undiluted juice from Bruce.

I can't swear to this, but I think all the LOST DRIVE-IN I managed to preserve on tape was THE YOUNG RACERS and a 1967 movie called HELL ON WHEELS, starring Marty Robbins and John Ashley. I had never heard of the latter movie before, but it captured that single summer of my youth when I was into car culture so well (and not in an entirely pleasant way) that I had to snag it when Speedvision re-ran the movie later that same evening. At least I had the good sense not to trim out the host footage. The IMDb tells me that LOST DRIVE-IN ran from 1996 to 2001, so I guess I missed out on some good times.

Speaking of "American Pop" (as I did a few paragraphs ago), I recently had occasion to dub another tape from the attic to DVD-R, which I had recorded from those short-lived golden days when AMC was regularly previewing that Sixties-themed channel that never happened. The movie, a hugely entertaining spy/beach spoof called OUT OF SIGHT, was incidentally produced by Bart Patton, who had previously acted in DEMENTIA 13, probably in the role Mark Damon would have been played, had he tagged along to Ireland with the rest of the YOUNG RACERS cast. (Small world.) Again, I was delighted to discover that my tape not only caught AMC's one-time-only letterboxed presentation of OUT OF SIGHT -- starring Jonathan Daly, Carole Shelyne as "Marvin," and Norman "Woo Woo" Grabowski as "Huh" (I ask you, what more could anyone possibly WANT?) -- but also 30 minutes or so of spy-themed filler, including Scopitones, toy commercials, a Johnny Rivers video of "Secret Agent Man", and other inspired silliness. Silliness, yes, but it takes smarts to compile such ephemera, and that kind of smarts is what's in embarrassingly short supply on television today. It would have made such a great channel, "American Pop." But who needs it when people will pay for 300 channels of after-midnight "Paid Programming" about Vitamin B-12, male enhancement, and how to strike it rich on eBay?

In closing, a little study in interpretation. As I was watching the beginning of THE YOUNG RACERS and making sure the tape was tracking properly, I was struck by the main titles. In addition to offering the usual animation graphics for which AIP films were famous in those days, the titles feature still photos of a boy playing with a toy race car; after a series of shots that show the boy's hand on the miniature racer, and another that finds him making roaring engine sounds with his mouth, he's suddenly joined in frame by a second boy with a toy racer of his own, and the two boys place them side by side to stage a competition in the dirt. Then Roger Corman's credit appears and we're off to the real Grand Prix races.

What immediately struck me about this mostly still photo sequence -- besides its seeming debt to Chris Marker (whose LA JETÉE Corman possibly saw in its first year of release), and allusions to the competitive relationship that Corman was raised to have with his brother Gene -- is that it prefigures the memorable way Corman introduces the motorcycles in THE WILD ANGELS, with a boy pedalling his tricycle down the street until Peter Fonda's thundering hog cuts into frame. In both cases, Corman seems to suggest that the roads of motor racing and cycling run both ways. Children fantasize about the power, velocity, and victory that comes with belonging to those worlds; and, at the same time, the adults who pursue those lifestyles are living out fantasies conceived in childhood and run the risk of never moving beyond them.

My trouble, on the other hand, is that I did move beyond certain interests of my younger days -- like paying more attention to things like LOST DRIVE-IN and "American Pop" -- and now I find myself regretting it. It was only yesterday, it seems, and yet so long ago.

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.