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. ( 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!


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.