Saturday, March 31, 2007

Finalmente!

Important news today on the Bava book blog.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Pan's Antecedent?


In the course of his marvelous audio commentary on Optimum Home Entertainment's two-disc import of PAN'S LABYRINTH, writer-director-producer Guillermo del Toro mentions during the harrowing Pale Man scene that its concept -- of an ogre who inserts a pair of disembodied eyes into the socket-like stigmata in the palms of his hands -- had its roots in a poster he once saw.
He doesn't name the poster, but when he said this, something immediately clicked with me. William Castle's film THE NIGHT WALKER opens with a creepy, Paul Frees-narrated prologue on the subject of nightmares. A key image from this sequence, used in some of its print advertising, depicted a fist balled around a staring eyeball. Eureka!
In fact, double eureka: The original poster art for THE NIGHT WALKER, I remembered, was a recreation of sorts of Henry Fuseli's famous 19th century painting "The Nightmare," which showed a puckish imp squatting atop a dreaming figure as a spectral mare glowered from the shadows of the sleep chamber. The poster for THE NIGHT WALKER, however, replaced the imp with... a faun.
In looking around the Internet, I found this fabulous Italian poster art for THE NIGHT WALKER, for which the artist combined both images on a single poster. I didn't bother to Photoshop-out the www.moviegoods.com watermark, so Movie Goods can consider this a free commercial -- and an endorsement too, because I was so enamored of this design, especially given its new currency, I ended up buying the poster. (Don't worry: it's still available, so you can buy one too, if it galvanizes you as it galvanized me.)
THE NIGHT WALKER was released in 1964, the year Guillermo del Toro was born. It's not a great movie, or even one of William Castle's better features, but it now becomes more important by virtue of carrying in its ad campaign the seed of a truly great film made in the following century. The faun and the seeing hand have nothing to do with THE NIGHT WALKER, and it took del Toro to make the masterpiece of fantasy that this memorable poster disingenuously promised.

FANGORIA Radio, Here I Come

I'm going to be one of the featured guests on tomorrow night's installment of FANGORIA Radio, hosted by Dee Snider and Debbie Rochon. Nobody's told me who the other guests are, and their website doesn't have any information about this week's show either, but I at least know that I've been scheduled.

For those of you who haven't heard FANGORIA Radio, it airs every Friday night from 10:00pm to 1:00am on Sirius Satellite Radio Channel 102. If you're not already a Sirius subscriber, I believe you can get a free three-day trial run online. Sign up now and get it just in time to hear Dee and Debbie interview me about Anchor Bay's new Mario Bava box set! I'll probably be asked about the Bava book too, and if so, I just may have an historic announcement to make. (How's that for a teaser?) Anyway, I'm scheduled to be interviewed between 11:00 and 11:20pm, so do pop in and lend an ear.

Need more incentive? I'm told that a copy of the Bava Box set and the KIDNAPPED/RABID DOGS disc will be awarded to a lucky listener!

By the way, it's worth visiting FANGORIA Radio's website, where various excerpts from past interviews are interred. I spent some time last night listening to Dee and Debbie's past talks with Roger Corman, John Waters, and Tom Weaver -- fun stuff.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Word to Reviewers of KIDNAPPED aka RABID DOGS

I received my advance copy of Anchor Bay Entertainment's KIDNAPPED aka RABID DOGS today, which features both versions of the Mario Bava thriller, a nice 16m "making of" featurette featuring Lamberto Bava, Lea Lander, and Alfredo Leone, and an audio commentary by your friendly blogger.

There was something about this release that was never quite confirmed for me while it was in production, and I was nervous about it. After checking the disc, I have my answer and feel it's important to say something about this, otherwise it's bound to lead to confusion in reviews of the disc and my commentary. This matter has nothing to do with the film's transfer, which is unbelievably improved over what it's had in the past -- visually, the film has been completely revitalized.

When RABID DOGS was first released on DVD back in 1997, I was invited by Lucertola Media to write the English subtitles. I gladly accepted this opportunity to collaborate with Mario Bava, and approached the job as a novelist -- holding true to the Italian dialogue, but taking care to reflect the nuances and intonations of each performance and also bringing the film verbally up to date, because even though it was made in 1975, it was being released in the era of Tarantino.

When I began working with Anchor Bay on this new release, I made my subtitles available to them, and I also made some minor revisions/improvements to the text, which I had been wanting to make over the years. Assuming that my subtitles would be used, I made more than one reference to them in my audio commentary and explained some of the translation choices I made.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, my subtitles were not used, so these parts of my commentary -- which were left in the track -- are now irrelevant at best, and completely confusing at worst.

The track still has value, I think, but it concerns me that some reviewers might take my comments at their word and credit me with the translation of these English subtitles. If you compare my subtitles on the Lucertola disc to those on the new Anchor Bay release, I think you will find the new ones drier, more formalized (speaking in English, would a couple of toughs like Bisturi and Trentedue really call their boss "Doctor"?), even somewhat restrained. My subtitles -- juicier, more freewheeling, and frankly dirtier -- I think allowed the film to be more deeply felt in English while also bolstering its contemporary feel. That was my intention, anyway.

Reviewers can draw their own conclusions, but I ask them to not credit me with the subtitles used here, regardless of what I say elsewhere on the disc.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Return of Mary Weiss

"Seems like the other day / My baby went away / He went away, 'cross the sea..."

In the early to mid 1960s, there was a group called The Shangri-Las. They took their name from the fabled Tibetan paradise of James Hilton's novel LOST HORIZON, memorably filmed by Frank Capra in 1939. Just as the Shangri-La of that novel was an Edenic realm where people never grew old, the Shangri-Las sang songs preoccupied with and possessed by a never-ending youth. Their music, overseen by the legendary producer George "Shadow" Morton, has been characterized as wall-of-sound melodrama, teen tragedy and pimple pop; some of their classics, like "Leader of the Pack" and "Give Us Your Blessings", certainly qualify for such epithets, but then there are their other principal recordings, like "Out in the Streets", the devastating "I Can Never Go Home Anymore", and especially the haunting "Remember (Walking in the Sand)" that continue to sound almost preternaturally adult and forever emotionally relevant -- despite the fact that they were recorded by three girls in their mid-teens.

"Tell me more / Tell me more..."

Marge and Mary Ann Ganser braided their voices in the background with Betty Weiss, while the solo vocals were taken by Betty's sister Mary. While record company publicity and sheet music typically pictured the group as a foursome, the Shangri-Las frequently performed as a vocal trio; Betty Weiss disappeared for most of 1964 and thereafter swapped places onstage with one of the Ganser twins, darkening her hair to keep the background visually consistent. Mary Weiss was always the focal point of the group, her long blonde hair standing out in stark contrast to the brunette perms of the background singers. Mary's voice was immediately distinctive: when she sang her heart out, she could sound lippy and petulant, but never in such a way that lost the listener's sympathy -- and I don't mean the sympathy we feel for someone who has experienced tragedy, but simpatico, the sympathy we feel for one of our own. Joey Ramone, a Queens native like Mary, had the same thing in his voice.

"Close. Very, very close."

Listening to the Shangri-Las again recently, I was struck by the thought that Mary Weiss may have been the first rock vocalist to break out of the traditional format of a pop record to speak directly and candidly, intimately and sometimes brutally, to the listener. This was not escapist pop but something altogether more confrontational; it was Cuban Missile Crisis era rock with consciousness of life's hard knocks, its unfair breaks, its randomness, the thin veil between life and death. As Shadow Morton has said, when Mary sang these songs, she not only had to be taught how to sing them, but how to act them with a maturity that may have still been beyond her, though Mary herself has countered that she had already known her share of personal pain when she made these recordings. Both perspectives can be true, and I believe them both.

"You can never / Go home / Anymore..."

The Shangri-Las disbanded in 1969, embroiled in the usual problems with management and label that bring musicians grief. In the 1980s, Mary and her fellow Las brought suit against a concert entrepreneur who had found the Shangri-Las' name unprotected by copyright, acquired it, and sent three impersonators in their 20s out on the road to profit from the Weiss and Ganser sisters' legacy. (Googling turns up more than one group of Shangri-Las, suggesting that they failed to win back the right to their name.) The four of them couldn't get far enough away from music after ridiculous tangles like that; the Ganser twins have since passed away, while Mary reportedly married and entered the furniture business. But, as the imitators proved, their original recordings lived on, somehow of their time but nevertheless enduring.

"Everytime I see you / It drives me crazy..."

I'm far from alone in admitting to a longtime crush on Mary Weiss. Some years ago, David Sanjek -- a colleague and acquaintence of mine -- happened to appear as a talking head in a documentary about pop songwriting, which also featured Mary's first public appearance in many years in a similar capacity. I hadn't communicated with David in some time, but his artificial proximity to Mary inspired me to shoot him an e-mail of unembarrassed envy. I once appeared in an episode of A&E's BIOGRAPHY, intercut with interview footage of Diana Rigg, so I'm well aware that interviewees in a documentary don't necessarily interact personally, but I was so pleased to see Mary Weiss again, and looking so well, that I didn't care. In the best Shangri-Las tradition, I didn't care!

"You know, I used to sing..."
These alternately sober and silly ruminations are prologue to the fact that tomorrow will see the release of one of the most unexpected musical surprises of our jaded era: DANGEROUS GAME, the first solo album by Mary Weiss and her first musical venture in close to 40 years. On the basis of the four songs available for listening on Mary's MySpace page, Mary's voice has deepened slightly, but the maturity and mileage it conveys is an edge that pleases; it's also poignant that, just as I could once hear her voice in Joey Ramone's, I can now hear his voice carrying on through hers, along with some grace notes of Patti Smith. But just as importantly, DANGEROUS GAME sounds like it may be a much-needed wake-up call to the craft of pop songwriting. Any one of these four songs could have been a Shangri-Las song, and one of them -- "Stop and Think It Over" -- could easily have been one of their greatest. When Mary bleats out "You'd bett-uh!", I want to put my fist in the air to champion her, which is a shade of enthusiasm I haven't felt for a pop song in dogs' years.

A musical event like the return of Mary Weiss to rock 'n' roll is the keeping of a promise so rare and so precious that it occurs maybe twice in a decent lifetime -- Brian Wilson actually finishing SMILE is another that's happened in mine. I don't know if there's a radio station that plays new music like this, because there isn't much new music like this ("and that's called... sad"), so I urge you to check it out, along with the cool YouTube videos on Mary's site, and give her your blessing!

Leigh Harline: When You Wish Upon a Score

It's been awhile since I've taken note of a centenary, and today brings one I can't resist. Composer Leigh Harline was born 100 years ago today in Salt Lake City. His is not one of the top five or ten names that get fired around when soundtrack buffs start talking shop, but it should be.

He began to score films in 1933 for the Walt Disney studios, and within his first first four years on the job, he had at least two incontestable short masterpieces to his credit: "The Band Concert" (1935) and "The Old Mill" (1937). This last was followed by the quantum leap -- for all concerned -- of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937), on which Harline collaborated with Frank Churchill and Paul J. Smith. It's easy to tell what Harline personally contributed to the score: if your heart soars or melts when you hear it, it's Harline.

SNOW WHITE's score was nominated for an Academy Award but did not win. In 1941, he and Smith and lyricist Ned Washington were jointly nominated for their musical score for Disney's immortal PINOCCHIO, and Harline and Washington alone were nominated for Best Song: "When You Wish Upon a Star." More than 35 years later, Harline's unforgettable melody was woven like a golden thread through one of John Williams' cues for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND as a personal tribute. (It was not one that Harline lived to hear, as he died in 1969 at age 62.) Harline and Washington also wrote "Hi Diddle Dee Dee (An Actor's Life for Me)" and "Give a Little Whistle" for PINOCCHIO, and he appears onscreen conducting a cartoon scoring session in Disney's THE RELUCTANT DRAGON (1941).

He left Disney after PINOCCHIO and wrote library music that turned up uncredited in numerous interesting programmers of the era, including the "Blondie" and "Falcon" series for Columbia. He also did interesting credited jobs, such as the Joe E. Brown comedy BEWARE SPOOKS! (1939), THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES (1942), THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942), THE BRIGHTON STRANGLER (1945), the Val Lewton classic ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945, in which Boris Karloff says "They call me... the Watchdog!"), THE ROAD TO UTOPIA (1946), Joseph Losey's THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR (1948), and Sam Fuller's PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953), and Anthony Mann's MAN OF THE WEST (1958) to pick out only the most conspicuous titles.

Long before I realized that Leigh Harline had scored PINOCCHIO, and that it had been his music which had such a vertiginous effect in me when I first saw it as a very young child, I heard another score that first brought his name to my attention: George Pal's THE 7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964). I saw that film for the first time when I was eight years old, and I saw it the second time when I was one day older -- and made a special point of seeking out the composer's name. I've remembered it ever since.

This wonderful score, the equal of anything he wrote for Disney but full of exoticism and strangeness as well as warmth and festivity, was released on CD for the first time last year by the good folks at Film Score Monthly. Sourced from the original stereo masters and a particular thrill to listen to through headphones, I can't recommend it highly enough. I doubt that anyone who's ever seen the film would have trouble calling immediately to mind its bittersweet main theme, the fluttering melody and dizzying culmination of "Pan's Dance", the come-hither rattling of "Medusa", or the bellowing bagpipes that accompany the arrival of the Loch Ness Monster. You can hear them all on this disc, which also contains 11 bonus tracks, including a wonderful piano demo of "Pan's Dance." You should move to obtain it before its limited edition of 3000 copies sells out.

Remembering Leigh Harline definitely has its advantages.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

A Strange Turn of Events

For those of you who may not frequent the Classic Horror Film Boards... first of all, shame on you; secondly, the past week has been a tempestuous one over there, for reasons having principally to do with the controversy following the announcement, nearly two weeks ago, of the Rondo Award for Best Writer of 2006.

The winner in this category, one Sam Borowski, was discovered to have few and negligible publication credits for the year in question, none of which really had anything to do with classic horror. As Rondomeister David Colton made known, the overwhelming majority of the votes received for Borowski were "singleton" ballots -- ballots that cast a vote only for Borowski (who was not nominated, Best Writer being a write-in category) and nothing else, which are evidently unique enough in the Rondo competition to appear suspicious. (The first and second runner-ups in this category received only two -- that's 2 -- singleton votes.) This information, coupled with other instances of "unRondolike behavior," was outlined in a Colton posting early yesterday, whose headline announced his decision that the 2006 Best Writer Award would be "vacated" -- in essence, revoked.

Within a few hours of its posting, Colton's lengthy account of the Borowski story was taken down and replaced much later in the day with an announcement from Sam Borowski himself, agreeing to withdraw from the winner's circle instead. In doing so, Borowski left the Best Writer Award to the person who had received the highest number of unsolicited votes (or, as he magnanimously put it in his statement, "the second place nominee")... me.

Last evening, I posted the following message at the CHFB on their Rondo Awards board, in the "Tim Lucas named Writer of the Year" folder, which offered my thoughts upon receiving this news. I include it here for the sake of this blog's personal continuity, and also for the information of my readers here, not all of whom may frequent the CHFB or be aware that any of this has transpired.

I have mixed feelings about all of this, as I think most of you will easily understand. After two weeks of confusion, any sense of winning this award, one I've hoped and worked hard to win for the past four years, is gone and cannot be retrieved.

Donna urged me not to make a rash decision by responding to David's announcement right away, so we went out, picked up some printing from Kinko's, and took advantage of being out to grab some dinner. Donna helped me to understand that my own feelings might not be the most important consideration here; that not accepting this award would be an insult to anyone who took part in this process and voted for me in good faith. I reminded myself that not every victory is won without effort or obstacle. I realized that to refuse the award would only serve to contaminate it as much as anything else that has come before; I don't want to do that.

After dinner, fortune cookies were brought to our table. We opened our respective cookies, read our fortunes... and started laughing.

Mine read "Your Luck Has Been Completely Changed Today."

Donna's read "Find release from your cares, have a good time."

So, with my deepest thanks and gratitude to David for his perseverance, to the regular visitors of this board who valiantly fought to preserve the integrity of the Rondo awards (this one in particular), and to everyone who voted for me (in some cases selflessly) -- I accept this award, which seems bound to a fortune in which I would very much like to believe.

It's Friday night. So, in the spirit of Donna's fortune, let's all of us find release from our cares and have a good time.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Freddie Francis (1917-2007)

Word is just reaching us that Freddie Francis, the distinguished but down-to-earth director and cinematographer, died in London on March 17 at the age of 89.
His career was a bowtie of sorts; his name was first recognized on the strengths of his camerawork for such films as ROOM AT THE TOP, SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING, SONS AND LOVERS (his first Oscar win) and THE INNOCENTS; then he became a director for Hammer and Amicus, cranking out stylish programmers like PARANOIAC, EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS, THE SKULL (his finest work as a director), TORTURE GARDEN and DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE; and he closed out his career with a glorious and widely celebrated return to cinematography, encompassing THE ELEPHANT MAN, DUNE and THE STRAIGHT STORY for David Lynch, THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN for Karel Reisz, GLORY (his second Oscar win) for Edward Zwick, and CAPE FEAR for Martin Scorsese.
Francis was the absolute master of one of cinema's most beautiful and seldom used palettes: black-and-white CinemaScope. He loved the scope ratio and delighted in experimenting with it, in the form of split-diopter shots (that would bring foregrounds and backgrounds in identical focus to jarring effect) and special filters that enabled him to manipulate the gray scale of black-and-white. For THE INNOCENTS, he worked with a special lens filter that framed the action inside an opaque iris, accentuating the vintage of the storyline while also relegating some of the image into a hazy periphery where ghosts might legitimately dwell. (The filter was later dusted off for re-use in DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, where cameraman Arthur Grant used it for scenes involving Christopher Lee as Dracula, the rust-colored iris evoking a sense of the vampire's bloodshot eyes.) By virtue of having Freddie Francis in control of its look, THE ELEPHANT MAN -- though written, directed and produced by Americans -- became inextricably bound to the blood and sinew of classic British cinema, not only in terms of its look but its heart.
Francis's directorial career, which was focused through commercial necessity and stereotyping on horror cinema, was a mixed bag because, as he freely admitted, it wasn't a genre particularly close to his heart. Beginning with reshoots for DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, he went on to helm important additions to the genre in three separate decades. Of his 1960s work, THE SKULL and THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN are remarkable for their incorporation of extended sequences of "pure cinema" (visual storytelling without dialogue); his outstanding works of the 1970s include the macabre comedy MUMSY NANNY SONNY AND GIRLY, TALES FROM THE CRYPT (the first authorized screen adaptation of the classic EC comics, with its classic "Poetic Justice" segment starring Peter Cushing), THE CREEPING FLESH (arguably the last great pairing of Cushing and frequent co-star Christopher Lee), and the haunting "Penny Farthing" segment of TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS; in the 1980s, he directed THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS, a respectable filming of Dylan Thomas's play based on Dr. Knox's affiliation with graverobbers Burke and Hare. In 1996, he closed out his directorial career with a Season 7 episode of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, "Last Respects", which was in itself poetic justice.
As Francis would be the first to admit in his no-nonsense way, he also directed a lot of rubbish -- THE DEADLY BEES, THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE, TROG, THE VAMPIRE HAPPENING, CRAZE, the Ringo Starr/Harry Nilsson SON OF DRACULA -- but even these tend to offer an evening of campy fun, picturesque at the very least and usually enlivened by one or more hysterical performances. His directorial career was erratic to be sure, but to glance over his filmography is to glance over an impressive slice of English-speaking film history, and it's a sobering occasion to consign such a living legacy to the past.
For the best writing available on his work in English, seek out the Freddie Francis chapter in Paul M. Jensen's THE MEN WHO MADE THE MONSTERS (Twayne, 1996), very likely one of the five best books on the horror genre I've read. In rereading parts of Jensen's carefully observed and deeply felt chapter, it becomes apparent that he was one of the few writers who felt about Francis's work, while the man was still living, as the rest of us are likely to start feeling about it now, now that his immense contribution has fled the present into the flickering pages of history.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Aztec Schoolgirl Angels

Highlights from the April 2007 issue of SIGHT & SOUND are now posted at their website, including my review of Masumura Yasuzo's RED ANGEL, available on DVD domestically from Fantoma. The blessing of having quite a lot of new releases to choose from each month carries with it the curse of indecision; when it comes time to choose a new disc to watch or review, everything is curiously reduced to a title on a spine, and I tend to gravitate toward what's familiar. In this case, I remember deliberating over my choice for longer than usual, becoming very frustrated, and picking out RED ANGEL just to end the aggravation. I didn't know anything about the film, but it turned out to be an engrossing evening's viewing. I couldn't exactly call it entertainment, but it carried the weight of valuable experience and stayed with me for days.

My next SIGHT & SOUND column, which I've already turned in, will be devoted to Impulse Pictures' forthcoming release of SCHOOLGIRL REPORT #1: WHAT PARENTS DON'T THINK IS POSSIBLE. (Amazon.com pins the disc with an April 24 release date, but Xploited Cinema is already listing it as in stock.) Impulse Pictures is a new label specializing in Eurosex imports; this will be their second release (after Mac Ahlberg's JULIETTE AND JUSTINE) and I understand they hope to release all thirteen films in this West German series (1970-80), with the next two already in the works. Unfortunately, the release does not include an English audio track, which means that the film on the disc is not quite the movie as I remember it from my drive-in days back in the '70s. However, the subtitled German track reveals the film I always suspected was lurking there: a defiant statement from postwar, freedom-entitled West German youth directed at the hypocrisies of their uber-conservative Hitlerjugend parents. When one girl, forced to "explain" her sexual activity by her elders, proudly replies "I'm 18 and I live in the 20th century!", one can easily imagine theaters full of young German people going crazy -- just as they did here in America when Peter Fonda outlined the dream of his generation in THE WILD ANGELS: "We want to be free! We want to be free to do what we want to do. We want to be free to ride. We want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! ... And we wanna get loaded!" The SCHOOLGIRL REPORT that played in US drive-ins was a more tongue-in-cheek movie, while the German version has an edge that hasn't dulled with time. It's sexploitation but also something of a revolutionary act, and exciting on both counts.

I recently spent a couple of nights watching BCI Eclipse's box set THE AZTEC MUMMY COLLECTION, which contains THE AZTEC MUMMY (in Spanish only), THE VENGEANCE OF THE AZTEC MUMMY and THE ROBOT VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY (both on flipper discs containing both the Spanish and English-dubbed versions, the former with subtitles). These are Mexican pastiches of Universal's Mummy series, cleverly relocating the ancient past from Egypt to the land of the Mayans, with aspects showing an equal debt to the 1940s serials of Universal and Republic. I'm going to reserve my full-length review for VIDEO WATCHDOG, but I'll tell you this much: these films plainly modelled themselves on the Universal series' weaknesses as well as its strengths. None of the films is longer than 70 minutes, and the first consists of maybe four or five scenes stretched as far as they can go (with nearly half the length spent on prologue); the second spends its first 20 minutes recapping the first movie, while the third opens five years later, with the hero inviting guests to his home so that he can relate to them the events of the first two pictures, which occupies nearly 25 minutes of screen time. An odd thing about the Spanish versions: Whenever the Aztec Mummy appears onscreen, the picture turns dark -- you can't get a bead on the bugger! I suspect this is a form of Mexican censorship, an attempt to tone down the horror content, because the cutaways to other characters during these scenes resume their brightness. The conclusion of the first film is so dark, I couldn't quite tell what happened in it until I saw those scenes recapped in the third movie! The same scenes in the English versions are much brighter, making it all the more regrettable that the first film has no back-up version included. Despite some fun moments, I found them tedious on the whole, though I imagine they play somewhat better in the presence of good friends and good beer.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

More Victims of DER RÄCHER!!!

Maria Litto is discovered unconscious in Griff Tower by Heinz Drache in the early Edgar Wallace krimi DER RÄCHER.

I hope that all readers of this blog are familiar with my article "Edgar Wallace and the Paternity of KING KONG," which appeared in VIDEO WATCHDOG #126, pages 26-37. I suspect it was the most important piece of film reportage that I wrote last year, and it was the runner-up for the Rondo Award for Best Article of 2006. A film that features quite prominently in that article, Karl Anton's early krimi THE AVENGER [DER RÄCHER, 1960] -- based on an Edgar Wallace novel known here in America as THE HAIRY ARM -- has now been released as a Region 2 German language DVD by Kinowelt. While the presentation itself leaves something (indeed, some things) to be desired, it's an exciting release nevertheless, for what it reveals of the film itself. The scene pictured above is the beginning of the reason why.

The only English-language version of DER RÄCHER to surface thus far is a miserable-looking 16mm transfer from Sinister Cinema which runs 83m 15s. The Kinowelt disc runs 95m 16s in PAL, which translates to an impressive 99m 20s in NTSC. Therefore, the R2 disc yields an additional 16m 5s of footage -- including what turns out to be the most exciting scenes in the entire picture. None of it's in English, but that's where your otherwise worthless videotape continues to earn its keep.

To briefly recap, DER RÄCHER is about a series of London-based decapitation murders credited to a killer known as the Avenger. Ruth Sanders (Ina Ducha), the only living relative of the Avenger's latest victim is discovered to be working as an extra on a film set. Detective Michael Brixan (Heinz Drache) of "the foreign office" goes to interview her, only to become imbroiled in dangerous goings-on at the filming locations, involving the unwelcome attentions paid to Ms. Sanders by lascivious nobleman/adventurer Sir Gregory Penn (Benno Sterzenbach), whose majordomo Bhag (Al Hoosman) is a hairy, domesticated, ape-like subhuman creature brought back to England from Borneo. After Brixan hears a woman's screams coming from Griff Tower, the peak of the nobleman's property, the cause is discovered in the next day's rushes, when -- in a sequence from the novel that anticipates BLOWUP and a good many giallo thrillers to come -- the film's director spots footage accidentally taken of a frightened woman at the tower's window. The English version sweeps the continuation of this thread under the rug, but after Brixan is shown a frame of the woman's face on a strip of film, the German version continues... with a 13m chunk missing from the English version!

In this footage, Brixan goes to his hotel's front desk and places a call to the "foreign office." His call is accepted by his superior, Major Staines (Siegfried Schurenberg in his first krimi), who -- in a bizarre comic moment -- hangs up only to discover his secretary dozing. He wakes her with a shout and she continues taking dictation. We then cut to the grounds below Griff Tower, where Brixan unfolds a portable ladder under cover of night and ascends to the oval window in the tower where the woman's face was seen. He finds the window unlocked and climbs inside into a darkened room. His flashlight beam finds a woman's bare foot, which tracks up her bare bruised leg to reveal the tear-stained face of an unconscious woman (Litto), the Indonesian dancer seen dancing for Sir Gregory's pleasure earlier in the film. A sound of approaching rattling chains alerts Brixan that Bhag is coming, and he ducks outside the window -- standing on a slender balcony -- to observe. Bhag enters the room, bringing food to the prisoner, and glowers at her with fascinated, lovesick eyes.

Brixan peers inside the window to see what's happening, making a noise in the process. Bhag looks to the window, but sees nothing. A cutaway to the exterior reveals that Brixon has fallen over the guardrail and is hanging on, VERTIGO-style, for dear life.

Back inside, Bhag returns his attentions to his beautiful prisoner, who revives, sees him looming over her, and screams. The sound of her cry gives Brixan the strength to surmount his problem and climb back to the window. When he sees that the woman is about to be molested by the creature, he silently opens the window and tosses his smoking pipe down the flight of stairs behind Bhag, which rise into the tower. Bhag hears the sound below and rushes off in pursuit.

Brixan then re-enters the tower room and ascertains the woman's safety before leaving to alert the authorities. Once back on terra firma, Brixan is startled as Bhag emerges from the shadows -- looking twice his height -- and stalks him into an inescapable corner.

Just as it appears that Brixan's luck has run out, he is saved by the sudden arrival of an Asian swordsman, who brandishes his sword and causes Bhag to retreat.

In a later police station scene included in the English version, Brixan is reunited with the rescued dancer and the swordsman, who is revealed to be her brother. Brixan takes the opportunity to thank him for saving his life. (The same scene pokes fun at the original by having the dancer speak to Brixan in German, which Major Staines professes not to understand.)

The next morning, Brixan awakens in his bed to find Major Staines in his room. He's pleased to see the Major but, after the events of the previous night, he's pleased to see anybody. Major Staines announces more soberly that the local constabulary have received another parcel from the Avenger (called "Der Kopfsjager" or "The Headhunter" in the German dialogue).

They proceed to the police station and nod their permission for the box to be opened. As the folds of the box lid are pulled back, a startling zoom shot reveals its contents:

It's the head of the screenwriter!


KLAUS KINSKI!

Now we know why the film's biggest star suddenly disappears from the picture! These three consecutive scenes aren't the only footage missing from THE AVENGER, but they are the most conspicuous omissions. Siegfried Schurenberg has more scenes in the German version, meeting and discussing the case with Heinz Drache, and a brief altercation between Drache and the gentleman revealed to be Der Kopfsjager is somewhat more violent, with an additional shot of the unconscious Drache's blood-streaked face. The two versions also open differently, the German one starting with the precredit sequence of the first head's discovery, while the English version moves this scene into the main body of the picture, following the main titles. Best of all, the character of Bhag -- described as an authentic domesticated gorilla in the novel rather than the hirsute half-human seen in the movie -- has more screen time, adding a great deal to the picture's suspense, to its value as a horror film, and to our appreciation of the late Al Hoosman and the pathos he gave to this Kong kin.

Kinowelt's presentation is windowboxed to an odd proportion of 1.54:1 and looks overly harsh and dark. Plaid sportcoats and brick walls seen from a distance shimmer with moirés. The edge of the picture closest to the top matte can often be seen jittering. There is also a slight, metallic shrillness to the voice recording, while the accompanying soundtrack -- which, as with the English version, never lets up -- is more richly recorded. Compared to the Sinister tape, the only other copy of the film available till now, the disc is no great shakes but acceptable (though an English track would have cemented the sale for a bigger audience); however, it's a different matter when one compares it to the theatrical trailer also included. The trailer (2m 44s) is presented in a doubtless intended 1.66:1 ratio and looks cleaner, brighter and infinitely more detailed -- watch the trailer after the movie and you'll feel disappointed; watch it before the movie and you'll feel worse. There are also biographies of a few cast members and a stills gallery consisting of 28 images, only 10 of which are actual stills, the others being frame grabs.

DER RÄCHER is an important film in the history of the Edgar Wallace krimis for many reasons. It was the second of the West German Wallaces and the only attempt made by a competitor of Rialto Film, as the company discouraged further such attempts. Nevertheless, it introduced three of the most beloved krimi actors -- Drache, Schurenberg, Kinski -- and Al Hoosman's Bhag proposed a blueprint of sorts for Blind Jack, the sightless ogre played by the unforgettable Ady Berber in the following year's THE DEAD EYES OF LONDON [DIE TOTEN AUGEN VON LONDON, 1961], much as his literary forebear was the predecessor of King Kong.

When I wrote about THE AVENGER for my Wallace article, I noted that it was one of the most faithful of all Edgar Wallace adaptations. Now that I've finally seen the full version, I'm pleased to discover that it's better than just faithful.

POSTSCRIPT (3-18-06). Gary Banks has written with the following important information: "I have the Sinister Cinema VHS and it indeed has all of the scenes that you mention and has a running time of close to 100 minutes. Greg Luce upgraded this title back in the mid 90's (not exactly sure of the date). The print is still rather on the poor side, but it is intact." Evidently my copy pre-dates that upgrade, so I'll leave this blog posted for those who may not be aware of the availability of these longer versions.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Unreleased RIFLEMAN Episodes Start Tonight

You may remember my blog from last January about THE RIFLEMAN, which listed quite a number of episodes from Seasons 3, 4 and 5 that were not included in the last of MPI Home Video's now-OOP box sets of the classic Western series. For your easy reference, click here.

Larry Blamire has written to alert me that the first of the unreleased RIFLEMAN episodes, "Closer Than a Brother" (#98), will be airing tonight on Encore Westerns. The channel's RIFLEMAN hour begins at 7:00pm eastern, and "Closer Than a Brother" airs tonight at 7:30. For the next week or two, every episode being shown in this hour slot will be previously unreleased on DVD. So now's the time to print off that list of episodes and keep an eye on EW's program schedule.

Thanks, Larry!

Cronenberg at 64, Cronenbook at 25


Today is David Cronenberg's 64th birthday, and the perfect occasion to go public with some news I've been keeping quiet for awhile.
Some background first: Perhaps some of you know that I spent most of the 1980s writing almost exclusively about Cronenberg's films, beginning with a series of CINEFANTASTIQUE set reports -- and finally a cover story -- about the making of VIDEODROME. I was the only journalist granted access to the set, which was closed to protect the film's revolutionary storyline from being leaked. I visited for nine full days. My deal with CFQ was to write a book-length article that would appear as a double issue. This issue happened to coincide with the editor's marriage and, by the time he and his wife returned from their honeymoon, VIDEODROME had opened and closed -- a huge boxoffice flop. CFQ had an unfortunate history of bad feature article choices (KRULL, THE BLACK HOLE, etc.) and it was decided to literally cut the losses by editing my material down to a single issue feature. (I was, of course, being paid by the word.) Then it was announced that Cronenberg had been signed to direct THE DEAD ZONE for Dino De Laurentiis, which prompted the decision to assign me to cover that filming for a special double issue that would cover both films, to be published about a year later. (I was, of course, to be paid on publication.) I visited the set of THE DEAD ZONE for a few days, wrote my article and sent it in, whereupon the editor got cold feet -- Stephen King movies were not doing so well at the boxoffice, so it was decided to run my coverage of both Cronenberg films in a single issue. This whittling-down process was agonizing on a monetary level, but that agony was nothing compared to reading what the magazine had done to my VIDEODROME manuscript. Piers Handling, the head of the Academy of Canadian Cinema, had told me that it was the finest production history of a Canadian film he had ever read -- he included a section of the manuscript in a book he edited, THE SHAPE OF RAGE: THE FILMS OF DAVID CRONENBERG, as it was originally written, while CFQ published an abortion, so greatly condensed that my work couldn't be simply cut; it had to be paraphrased. I was so angry when I read the results that I temporarily lost the power to speak, and it ended my ten-year affiliation with the magazine.
My original manuscript then went into a file cabinet, where it resided for the next 20-odd years. Criterion welcomed portions of it into their marvelous DVD of VIDEODROME, but there was a much they didn't use. In fact, material exists in my files -- like a lengthy Q&A with Cronenberg, which I conducted after my first viewing of the film -- that was omitted from the original manuscript because I didn't then have the time to include it and meet my original deadline. After that first deadline had passed, there was no reason to add anything more because pages were already being cut.
Now that you have the messy background, here's my very neat announcement:
Later this year, in the fall, Millipede Press will be publishing my VIDEODROME book as the first offering in an exciting new trade paperback series called "Studies in the Horror Film." If you've seen the BFI's "Film Classics" and "Modern Classics" series, or Continuum Press's "33 1/3" series about rock albums, the same principle applies here... except this series will consist of uniform numbered books devoted to the in-depth study of individual classics of horror cinema. Publisher Jerad Walters is anticipating that later books in the series will run, on average, about 20,000 words and 144 pages, but VIDEODROME -- being a full production history -- will likely be a bit longer. I'll also be adding some new material to help the book bridge the years of its long sleep: hard as it is to believe, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the manuscript's completion.
I've been working with my original typescript to recreate it as an editable computer document, and reading through it again has been an uncanny experience. The book puts me back on the set in so many ways, back into the warm and funny camaraderie of the people who made it, and I think fans of the film and Cronenberg's work in general will be impressed by the level of intimacy it achieves with its subject. I honestly can't remember reading another book quite like this -- it will give you the VIDEODROME you know, of course, but also the VIDEODROME you don't know unless you too were there, the one that David Cronenberg didn't quite know even as he was writing it by night and directing it by day. In other words, it will put you in the midst of Cronenberg's creative process, his wrestling with the raw idea of VIDEODROME. That's what reading it has been doing for me anyway, and it's been so long since I wrote this book, it feels like the work of someone else, a better writer than I remember being at that age, who was somehow privy to my own experiences.
I've been out of touch with David Cronenberg for a long time, so it's interesting to resume touch with him again through my writing, which was so sympathetic and attuned to him and what he was doing. Wherever he is, whatever he's doing, I wish him much happiness on this, his Paul McCartney birthday. As the aged onion skin of my typescript is being rejuvenated on my computer screen, I reflect on those words I was among the first to hear -- "Long Live the New Flesh!" -- and pass them back to their author with many happy returns.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

THE RED SHOES (2005) reviewed

The extraordinary Kim Hye-soo descends into a subway tunnel to suffer a memorably macabre meltdown in Tartan Asia Extreme's THE RED SHOES.


Bunhongsin
2005, Tartan Asia Extreme, DD-5.1/DTS 5.1/DD-2.0/MA/16:9/ST/+, 103m 45s, DVD-1
This Korean horror film by sophomore writer-director Kim Yong-Gyun doesn't hit all of its marks but is well worth seeing; it's deeply unsettling rather than frightening or abusive, and it has a visual flair (courtesy of DP Kim Tae-Kyung) that at times taps into the stylized wickedness of Dario Argento's work at its zenith. Tropes from other films and filmmakers are evident at times, but there is also a kernel of great originality and promise here. The film is well-acted throughout, but outstanding are Kim Hye-soo and little Park Yeon-ah as a mother and daughter who (in scenes reminiscent of DARK WATER) take a cheap, grungy apartment after separating from the unfaithful man of the family. The mother, Sun-jae, is an optometrist who hires a young separated architect (Kim Sung-su) to design her new offices; she is also a shoe collector who finds an abandoned pair of elegant violet pink (not red) heels on the subway, which she takes home with her. The shoes have an overpowering, irresistible effect on Sun-jae, her daughter Tae-soo , and her sister, all of whom come to hysterical blows in the effort to hold onto them. Sun-jae recognizes the shoes' destructive influence and makes an effort to get rid of them, but they always come back into the possession of her increasingly strange daughter, who claims visitations from her father -- who has not been informed of their whereabouts.
Writer-director Kim has said that his film is about "the extremity of a woman's desire for her womanhood." Part of the shoes' allure is certainly narcissistic and tied to female fantasies of glamor; however, the film's story also encompasses aspects of the original Hans Christian Andersen tale of the same name, the Powell and Pressburger classic, the 1990 Tobe Hooper TV movie I'M DANGEROUS TONIGHT (based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich), as well as David Lynch's TWIN PEAKS FIRE WALK WITH ME (there is even a filthy homeless woman who looks like a deliberate facsimile of the one played by Lynch himself in the trailer park prelude of that film) and some perceptual surprises worthy of A TALE OF TWO SISTERS. Kim makes the notion of the shoes more personal and nationalistic by weaving into this material references to the insecurities attached to bare feet and the Eastern tradition of leaving one's shoes at the door.
After a fairly gripping first hour, the film loses some of its hold with a disappointing, belabored "logical explanation" of its supernatural events, which -- in an appropriate but peculiar swipe from Kieslowski's RED -- involves a woman appearing on billboard advertisements all over town. Despite the choppy navigation of its middle, THE RED SHOES is worth seeking out for its picturesque and poetical set-pieces, its adventurous toying with audience (and protagonist) perceptions, and, most of all, for a magnificent climactic meltdown by Kim Hye-soo, who conveys the most palpable sense of fear and dread I've seen onscreen since Angelica Lee in THE EYE [Gin gwai, 2002]. Frankly, Ms. Kim commands one's attention on an altogether more complex level, being sexier and scarier and disciplined enough to stylize a performance without ever losing touch with its realism. There's no erotic content to speak of, but one of the most admirable things about the film is its ability to pull those punches in a way that baits and intrigues rather than disappoints. Lee Byung-woo's minimalist electronic score also warrants praise and special recognition for sounding original, supportive of the action and atmosphere, and musically interesting all at the same time.
Tartan's disc presents the film in a very nice anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer, but especially pleasing are the five-channel audio tracks which sport unusual and sometimes ticklish attention to detail. The extras include a Making-of featurette interviewing the director and principal actors (17m 3s), a "Look at the Visual Effects" (13m 43s), a theatrical trailer that references Hans Christian Andersen and the Bible (2m 12s), and a subtitled audio commentary by the director and cinematographer, which I have not yet sampled.

Monday, March 12, 2007

33 1/3rded -- Not


In earlier postings, I've mentioned that it's become an ambition of mine to write a book for Continuum Press's "33 1/3" series. I've read about 30 of these virulently collectable monographs devoted to classic albums, and even when the books turn out to be something other than what I expected, I always enjoy or learn something from them. Late last year, I sent a multi-title proposal to series editor David Barker, introducing myself and suggesting a half-dozen or so titles I could tackle. He wrote back to inform me that he wasn't reading new proposals at that time, suggesting that I check his blog regularly for updates about when he would be accepting proposals again. So I began to haunt his blog, and eventually there came the awaited cue.
Dr. Barker cautioned everyone that he would consider only proposals about individual titles, and only one per applicant, please. I had some time in which to ponder the question of what to write about, and -- as you can surmise from my choice of illustration -- I finally settled on Jefferson Airplane's 1968 album CROWN OF CREATION. At the time I wrote my proposal, I didn't think it was necessarily the Airplane's best album, but "33 1/3" books seldom are about the best albums of any given musician or musicians -- they've devoted books to Elvis Costello's ARMED FORCES, R.E.M.'s MURMUR, Joni Mitchell's COURT AND SPARK and Sly and the Family Stone's THERE'S A RIOT GOING ON, to name a few (all undeniably interesting and good fodder for books, but hardly "Best ofs"). More importantly, I found I had most to say about CoC and thought it also provided the ideal vantage point from which to discuss the group's other work. So I wrote a thorough proposal and sent it off.
As January rolled around, I found myself with a free month, more or less, and not knowing how available I would be later in the year, especially with VW bound to resume its monthly schedule, I decided to go ahead and write the book on spec.

I finished the book in a matter of weeks (except for an interview I was hoping to add with the album's producer Al Schmitt), in the process convincing myself that CoC really is Jefferson Airplane's finest studio album. I put the manuscript aside as I waited for the proposal deadline of February 14th to come to pass. Shortly afterwards, Dr. Barker's blog presented a staggering list of close to 450 proposals received. Among these were three other Airplane proposals, one for SURREALISTIC PILLOW and two for AFTER BATHING AT BAXTER'S, which were especially antagonizing as the series observes a strict "one book per artist" rule. Even without these, the competition was formidable.
A couple of days ago, on Saturday, I received a form letter from Dr. Barker informing me that my proposal had not been chosen. While accepting this unhappy news, I couldn't help but write back to let him know that the book existed, that I had written it on spec, and would be glad to submit it, especially as it had ended up quite different to the description I gave in my proposal. I'm still awaiting an answer, but I'm skeptical. He's made his choices. Either one of the other Airplane albums was chosen as more a more commercial selection, or they didn't go with the Airplane at all. (CoC scored a gold record within its first year of release and remains the second best-selling of the Airplane's albums.)
So now I have a book about CROWN OF CREATION on file and not a single idea of what to do with it. Having read more than half of the "33 1/3" books, I'm convinced it would be a worthy addition to the series. It's adventurously devised in accordance with the spirit of the band I was writing about -- a compendium of music criticism, music journalism, autobiography and screenplay. I could self-publish it, I suppose, but I'd rather place it with a company with a track record of publishing books on rock music and getting them reviewed and into libraries.
If any of you have any recommendations about where my latest book might find a home, please let me know.

Rondo Award Results

They can be found here.

Donna and I had written off any chance of VW winning the Rondo this year, so to receive the Best Magazine Award for the fifth year in a row came as an astounding surprise. We published only five issues in 2006, and the magazine business isn't as healthy as it once was, so it's heartening to know that readers still like what we're doing -- even with bigger magazines like FANGO, RUE MORGUE and the venerable FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND added to the competition this year.

The win for Best Website is especially meaningful to me, because I regard it as a writing award. I feel that VIDEO WATCHDOG's Rondos were awarded in recognition of the work of all our wonderful contributors; I treasure them, but I can't take them personally. So the Best Website Rondo feels like my first Rondo. It's the first recognition I've received for my writing in my 35 years as a writer; the only other award I've ever received for personal achievement was an Art Award that I won at my 8th grade graduation, which still commands a place of honor in my home -- which should give you some idea of how much this Rondo means to me.

I'm grateful to everyone who voted for me, and for everyone affiliated with VIDEO WATCHDOG.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Don't Forget!

Voting for the 5th Annual Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards ends Saturday night at 12:00am midnight!

Just to remind you: VIDEO WATCHDOG is nominated for six awards (Best Magazine, four Best Article nominations divided between Bill Cooke, Paul Talbot and myself, and one for Best Cover -- Charlie Largent's classic Kong) and Video WatchBlog is nominated for Best Website. There are also numerous write-in categories, and write-in votes are accepted in most categories if you don't find your own favorites on the ballot. A mere click on the link bar above this posting will take you there.

Make a difference! Participate!

Weird Serendipity with Komeda

Who knows why these things happen, but I was sitting here at my desk in Cincinnati, Ohio at the end of a long day of typing/correcting when the thought crossed my mind, "I wonder if there are any Komeda videos up at YouTube?"

I am not being facetious. It really happened that way. I have moments like this.

I first became aware of Komeda about ten years ago (gad... has it really been that long?), when I was chasing down groups whose sound was compared to Stereolab, with whom I was newly enamored at the time, and who weren't releasing nearly enough new music to sate me. When I saw the name Komeda, I knew these characters had to be up to something good. They're a Swedish pop or retropop group who took their name from Krzysztof Komeda, the remarkable Polish jazz musician-composer who wrote the music for Roman Polanski's films through ROSEMARY'S BABY, until his early death in 1969. ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY described their sound as "ABBA meets Nico and goes to a new wave film festival," which isn't a bad description. I think they sound like 21st century AM radio might sound if it had followed a natural evolutionary course from the heyday of the 1960s and hadn't devolved into ever-descending circles of Hell involving talk radio and jailbait dancers who get songs in the Top 10 by flaunting their bellybuttons on MTV. Komeda have released four albums so far; I have two of them which I like very much, and apparently I need two. You can read more about them and their albums here.

For reasons I can't explain, a curiosity struck me tonight about Komeda -- very belatedly, it would seem -- that made me wonder what kind of videos they might make. Here's where things get weird: When I looked them up on YouTube, I discovered that their record label MintyFresh Records had posted a few of Komeda's videos only yesterday. Talk about serendipity! So I thought I would share some links with you.

This video, for "Blossom," is one of the most impressively stylized and executed music videos I've ever seen: think Karel Zeman and YELLOW SUBMARINE crossed with Steve Gerber and an irresistible beat.

Also impressive is this colorful video for the tuneful "Cul De Sac" (another Polanski reference).

If you have time to only check out one Komeda video today, go directly to this mind-meltingly wonderful illustration of their breakthrough song, "It's Allright, Baby." I don't know if this piece is authorized or not (it's not a Minty Fresh posting), but it's a brilliant and inspired prank, if it isn't. Particularly recommended to the Eurohorror cultists among you.

Once you've enjoyed that, you can chase it with what is more surely an authorized video for the same song, in that it actually features the band. Like their videos, it's enticing, unusual, bracing, and above all intelligent. Brain food from Komeda's Swedish soul kitchen.

I don't know much about Komeda really, and I fear I'm a bit behind the times with them and need to catch up. But after viewing these videos, I have a sense of distant friends, a feeling that the members of this terrific band and I are connected, under the skin, by the things we both love, a shared aesthetic. This message was smuggled into my knowing from the get-go by their chosen name, and their videos, now that I've seen them, reinforce that impression. They haven't issued an album since 2003; their website hasn't been updated since August of last year -- which makes the weirdness of this serendipity and the cutting edge I feel from these years-old videos all the more mystifying. I hope Komeda are still making music because they seem to me a viable cure for much of the blandness and tacky excess assailing what we laughingly call our culture today. Nothing's wrong with our culture that can't be cured by inspiring more people to step up to a higher standard of taste and common sense. You can find it in Komeda.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

No Vecento

The Rare & OOP DVDs site has announced the surprising news that Paramount has abruptly withdrawn Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 [NOVECENTO, 1976] from the marketplace. The disc, which marked the first-ever release of Bertolucci's five-hour director's cut in America (there was a Bravo channel broadcast of a moderately censored version in the early 1980s), was issued last December and made my own list of favorite DVDs of 2006. It's still in stores, supposedly, so if you find a copy, I recommend you grab it before the eBay sellers snag them all. Speculation is that a graphic shot of Stefania Casini (SUSPIRIA) simultaneously masturbating Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu, with all three actors nude and in plain sight, may be the reason for the disc's retraction.

A tip of the hat to Jeremy Richey's always interesting Moon in the Gutter blog for bringing this news to our attention.

"DON'T LOOK NOW" Special Edition reviewed

"DON'T LOOK NOW"
1973, Optimum Releasing, DD-2.0/MA/LB/16:9/+,105m 25s, £17.99, DVD-2 PAL

This extraordinary, influential Nicolas Roeg film was based on a novella by Daphne Du Maurier, originally included in her 1971 collection NOT BEFORE MIDNIGHT and republished in 2006 as DON'T LOOK NOW AND OTHER STORIES -- a reappearance testifying to the movie's status as a modern classic. Not only is it one of the most tantalizing films ever to explore the subject of the paranormal, it is also one of the most complete, balanced and satisfying films about normal waking life.

The story profiles a married couple healing in the wake oftheir daughter's accidental death by drowning, the wife Laura (Julie Christie) finding peace through two psychic sisters (Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania), while her scoffing architect husband John (Donald Sutherland) restores a derelict church in the waterbound city of Venice.

In telling this story, "DON'T LOOK NOW" (the quotation marks appear onscreen) seems to touch on more facets of human experience than so-called mainstream films tend to do: working, making love, eating, vomiting, defecating, arguing, sleeping, worshipping, doubting, mourning, fearing, laughing, surviving brushes with death, and -- above all -- the fleeting and curiously meaningful déja vu moments that accumulate within and without us throughout our lifetime. Edited by Graham Clifford (with whom Roeg had been working since 1968's PETULIA), the film shuffles past, present and future tenses of visual information as radically as any of Roeg's other works (PERFORMANCE, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, EUREKA and BAD TIMING to name the most conspicuous), yet it remains the most approachable of them all, its fractured visual continuity striking a near-miraculous balance of emotional and cerebral sense, the technique almost organically attuned to the story being told -- namely, John's rejection of his own psychic intuitions.

Now more than thirty years old, "DON'T LOOK NOW" still looks fairly contemporary and has lost very little of its initial power, though it's most vital in its first few viewings, when one is most enthusiastically engaged in the initial decoding of its various color keys and resonating images. Once one has begun to exhaust this engaging process, the film can begin to look overly deliberate, but chances are that you'll still be sussing out new layers to appreciate well into your tenth viewing and beyond. (I've seen it about ten times myself and found myself noticing repeat appearances by the daughter's ball this time around.)

This "Special Edition" import disc makes use of a new Studio Canal anamorphic master that looks quite crisp, immaculate, and colorful. An exciting incentive to this purchase is the addition of a feature-length audio commentary by director Roeg, moderated byAdam Smith. Roeg tends to ramble obliquely and elliptically in a muttering voice, frequently failing to finish sentences and trains of thought, but the track is nevertheless a worthwhile reference for tenacious listeners. Among its interesting revelations: John and Laura's daughter Christine, a role credited to Sharon Williams, was ultimately played by three different young actresses, due to Williams' unexpectedly extreme reaction to filming her drowning scene. The filming of the picture's celebratedly authentic lovemaking scene is also covered in fair detail; incredibly, it was the very first scene to be shot -- in an actual hotel room, with just Sutherland, Christie, Roeg and cameraman Anthony Richmond present, as well as a bottle or two of courage. Roeg's memory fails him on occasion, as when he mistakenly recalls the film being released in America with an X rating; it was actually trimmed (losing a shot or two from the love-making scene, and some of the final murder victim's twitching) to qualify for an R rating.

Still more interesting are two Blue Underground-produced featurettes, "'DON'T LOOK NOW' Looking Back" (19m 31s, interviewing Roeg, Richmond and editor Graham Clifford) and "Death in Venice" (17m 36s, interviewing composer Pino Donaggio), both directed by David Gregory. The former is very good and properly illuminating, with a wicked backdrop for its more coherent Roeg talk, but the Donaggio profile stands out as one of the most pleasingly detailed film music featurettes I've seen on DVD. The composer, visited at his home facing the Venetian Grand Canal, has perfect recall of the circumstances behind this, his first film score, and he speaks unaffectedly about his earlier career as a singer, how he was approached and hired without prior scoring experience, how he developed specific themes and motifs, and how his score for this picture led to his discovery by Brian DePalma for CARRIE and a new and still-thriving career abroad.

Also included are an onscreen Introduction by ROUGH GUIDE TO HORROR MOVIES author Alan Jones, the film's original UK trailer (2m 14s), and a 16-page booklet with numerous rare photos and a sensitive, well-written appreciation by Ryan Gilbey. Available domestically from Xploited Cinema.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Fall of the 49th CandleUH

Somewhere in the world today, Mark E. Smith -- the sullen, piss-minded and logorheic founder and only constant of The Fall, the world's most prolific and stubbornly eternal punk band -- is commemorating his 50th birthday. I'm raising a warm Guinness to toast his productivity, his durability, and his bloggerlike ability to find something of interest to bark and mumble about just about anything. He's one of the few musicians around whose insolent voice seems indomitable, above and beyond silencing. Whenever he does decide to call it a career, or has it called for him, the ensuing silence will come as a shock comparable to the one that followed the Christmas Day death of James Brown. Say what you like about MES, once you've heard him, when he's in the room, you know it; when he's in the world, you know it.

Back in the Eighties, The Fall covered the Kinks' classic "Victoria" and brought a valuable truth into focus: as a lyricist and frontman, Mark E. Smith is the post-modern Ray Davies; no one else of his generation has come so close to embodying the eternal voice of working class England. There's not often the elegance, or poetry, or poignancy of Davies in Smith's work, much less his voice, or in The Fall's endlessly repetitive, droning music, but its sheer volume and pertinence captures the drama -- alternately exciting and depressing -- of intelligence treading water in a tumult of information devolving to infotainment in its deluge.

The Fall are perhaps the ultimate cult band in that they demand nothing less than total immersion from the listener. Glenn Kenney once borrowed my quote "You can't see one Jess Franco film until you've seen them all" to apply it to them, and it's just as true of their obsessive backlog. In The Fall's nearly thirty year recording career, they've released something very close to 50 albums, not counting countless compilations and repackagings, representing something very close to 30 different lineups. Such overproductivity, as with Franco, encompasses some sloppiness but also glorious epiphanies, epiphanies that might come from an unexpectedly tight band performance, or one of Smith's tossed-off phrasings, or a deadening groove that unexpectedly opens a subterranean door of emotion.

The music is always dense, sometimes surprising the listener by aping another band's sound; for example, the seasoned Fall listener immediately cranks up their attention to the lyric of "Fall Sound" (on the new album REFORMATION! POST TLC) to suss out why the so-called "Fall Sound" has a New Order sound. "Scenario" bends lyrics from Captain Beefheart's "Veteran's Day Poppy" into a somewhat darker balloon sculpture that numbly reiterates the human cost of war. The album's opener, "Over! Over!", turns out to be a rewrite of the kaleidoscopic "Coming Down" by the incomparable (and incomparably short-lived) Sixties group, The United States of America. "I think it's over now/I think it's endingUH," sings Smith, with his trademark curling of his final consonants. "I think it's over now/I think it's beginningUHHHH...!" Smith sings these words with the inflection of Samuel Beckett writing "I can't go on, I will go on" -- sounding bored to brain death one moment and inspired the next -- and he's earned the right. He's still riding the wave.

The lyrics of any Fall song tend to be more inscrutable than not, reading more like Beat graffiti than Beat poetry, but that's the genius of Mark E. Smith: he's more reporter than composer. He writes to reflect the passing moment, not the eternity called into doubt by our ever blackening newspaper headlines. If you want eternity, his fecundity implies, there's always the wait for the next album. There are days when the coming of the next Fall album seems more likely than the coming of another tomorrow. And for that reason, above all, I salute Mark E. Smith. He's there for us, and his contribution, for all its rascally contrarianism, gives one hope.

And because this is a video blog, here's a link to The Fall on DVD.

RIP Otto Brandenburg 1934-2007

The Danish actor and singer, best-known to readers of this blog for his beautiful theme song for the Ib Melchior-scripted JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET (1963), died on March 1 at age 72. His film career actually began in 1958 and continued till his retirement in 2000; it included the role of "Hansen" in both series of Lars von Trier's influential THE KINGDOM. His song "Journey to the Seventh Planet" was cut from the film's end titles during its entire life on VHS, but happily restored to the more recent "Midnite Movies" DVD.

Here's to you, Otto:

Journey to the seventh planet
Come to me
Let your dreams become reality
I wait for you.

Somewhere on the seventh planet
Out in space,
You and I will find a magic place
Like lovers do.

And while we're up above,
We'll touch the stars
That we have wished upon.
There our love will take wings
And go on and on!

Journey to the seventh planet
In your eye
Let a spark of love begin to spy
For us to share
Forever!

Seventh planet!
Seventh heaven!
If you learn to care
Our love will be beyond
Compare!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

RONDO Awards Countdown Begins

This blog has been carrying the banner of the Rondo Awards for the past few weeks, but I should issue a reminder that this is the last week to participate in the 5th Annual Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards. The voting will end next Saturday, March 10. The ballot can be found at www.rondoaward.com, or by clicking on that handsome-faced banner up above.

If you care about fantastic cinema, its research and its celebration, do your part in preserving the Rondo's standards of quality by bringing your knowledge and taste to bear on the final tally. If you don't see your choices on the ballot, write them in -- at the very least, it will help to make more people aware of those works that slipped through the cracks.