Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Invasion of the Ozalids!

Check the Bava book blog today for new developments!

"Magic Is All Around Us"

It's one of the most-quoted lines in Eurocult cinema history, and the person who spoke them onscreen in Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA (1977) -- actor-director Rudolf Schündler -- was born 100 years ago today.

Many people don't make the connection, but Schündler played an even more widely-seen role in the 1970s: that of Karl, the chauffeur of Chris MacNeil and her daughter Regan in THE EXORCIST (1973). But his roots as a player in the West German kinefantastiche goes back to the 1930s, encompassing Fritz Lang's THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE (1933) and various Edgar Wallace krimis, including THE SINISTER MONK (1965), THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS (1967), and THE MAN WITH THE GLASS EYE (1969). In the early 1970s, he began accepting work in Italy and was featured in THE RED QUEEN KILLS 7 TIMES (1972), MAGDALENA POSSESSED BY THE DEVIL (1974, as Father Conrad), Hans-Jurgen Sylberberg's epic biography KARL MAY (1974), and the aforementioned SUSPIRIA, in which he played Dr. Milius, the authority on witchcraft who explains the history of the Three Mothers to Jessica Harper's Susy Banyon.

The son of a businessman, Schündler trained to be an actor in Leipzig and appeared in stage performances in Beuthen, Zurich, Nuremberg and Dortmund before making a name for himself in Berlin, where he worked as an actor and stage director until 1937. In Munich, he founded the Kabarett Die Schaubude in 1945 and worked there as a player and as the cabaret's artistic director until 1949. After this, he returned to working exclusively in film, initially in the role of director. He directed more than 20 films of his own between 1950 and 1962 (none of a fantastic nature), but acting was his true passion. He followed SUSPIRIA with many more roles in film and television, including a part in Wim Wenders' modern classic THE AMERICAN FRIEND (1977), before bringing his acting career full circle by starring in the 1985 short DR. MABUSE IM GEDACHTNIS ("Dr. Mabuse in Memorium").

Schündler died of a heart attack in December 1988 at the age of 82. He was buried in Munich at the Ostfreidhof cemetery and a photograph of the burial site he shares with his mother and two siblings can be found on this page of an interesting German website, which also pictures the Baden-Baden grave of Dr. Mabuse himself, Wolfgang Preiss.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Lost and Found: Chris Jordan and A TOUCH OF GENIE

Chris Jordan (right) with Jennifer Nicholson in Joe Sarno's ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN.

Correspondent Alan Bobet has written to inform me of the death of actress Chris Jordan, best-remembered as a standout supporting player in several Joe Sarno films of the 1970s.

According to the IMDb, Chris made her screen debut under the name Kathy Everett in Alan & Jeanne Abel's X-rated comedy IS THERE SEX AFTER DEATH? (1970), which also starred Buck Henry, Robert Downey and Marshall Efron. She made at least four films with Joe Sarno in 1974, including the softcore DEEP THROAT PART II, the comedies THE SWITCH AND HOW TO ALTER YOUR EGO and A TOUCH OF GENIE, and CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE, in which she gave a memorable comic performance as heroine Rebecca Brooke's perpetually hungry friend Anna. The films ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN (in which she played a deglamorized tomboy role) and MISTY, shot back-to-back, followed in 1975-76. Her other films include Roberta Findlay's THE CLAMDIGGER'S DAUGHTER and the lead as "Mouse" in TEENAGE HITCHHIKERS. As with most performers working in the adult film industry, it's likely that she acted under an assumed name. She also worked under the names Cris Jordan and Karen Craig in her XXX films, but was credited as Kathie Christopher in TEENAGE HITCHHIKERS; the latter may have been her real name, as this would have been an important project for her -- her only lead in an R-rated film.

Unfortunately there are no details at present, but the news of Jordan's "recent" death was announced at an April 5th screening of A TOUCH OF GENIE at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in New York City, with Joe Sarno and his wife/assistant Peggy Steffans Sarno in attendance. Considered one of Sarno's lost films until recently, A TOUCH OF GENIE is scheduled to be restored and released on DVD this summer by RetroSeduction Cinema, along with THE SWITCH AND HOW TO ALTER YOUR EGO, another sex-comedy featuring the same basic cast.

Alan Bobet writes: "A TOUCH OF GENIE film was originally filmed by Sarno in 1974 as a XXX rated explicit version, as well as a soft core version, under the pseudonym of Karl Anderson. Retro Seduction Cinema found the only existing copy of the film, which is the softcore version, thru a private collector who sold the only existing print on eBay. Since Retro couldn't find the right materials or master print for this film, they decided to restore it as best as possible even with it's splotches and splices. The film is 70 minutes long and the plot is a combination of TV's I DREAM OF JEANIE and THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, while also an affectionate and funny spoof of early 1970's porno films. Douglas Stone plays a young nebbish named Melvin with a overbearing and oversexed mother, played by 70's adult film star, Ultramax. Melvin spends his days running his parent's thrift shop, while at night he goes to his neighborhood Manhattan down-and-out porno theater in various ridiculous disguises to watch porn films starring his idols, Harry Reems, Marc "10 1/2" Stevens, Eric Edwards, and Tina Russell. One day he finds a genie's lamp on his way to work and rubs it and a beautiful and sexy genie appears, played by Chris Jordan. The genie tells Melvin that she will grant him five wishes, instead of the usual three (because of 70's inflation) and Melvin uses those wishes to become his favorite male pornstars and have sex with Tina Russell and other female pornstars. But Melvin learns that getting his wishes doesn't turn out as well as he thought. The audience laughed and responded very well with the film, even in it's present condition."

According to film historian Michael Bowen, who is preparing a biography of the writer-director, Sarno's other chief female stars of this period -- Rebecca Brooke and Jennifer Welles -- are both alive and well but retired from public life.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

VIDEO WATCHDOG #130: First Peek

Here is your first look at the cover of our next issue, VIDEO WATCHDOG #130, which will be shipping on April 27. A tip of the hat to cover artist Charlie Largent for his evocative trip back to FORBIDDEN PLANET, which handsomely acknowledges Sam & Rebecca Umland's detailed review of Warner Home Video's new HD DVD of this classic title.

Though the Umlands' review isn't one of the issue's feature articles, it's only a two-page spread shy of the length of our two features -- Ted Newsom's Freddie Francis tribute and David Kalat's behind-the-scenes story about producing a restored version of GANJA & HESS for All Day Entertainment. The comparative brevity of these articles (six pages each) allowed us to accomodate more reviews this time around, which is helpful since we wanted to make up somewhat for lost time by covering a larger number of new releases. Anyway, we've had a number of 1950s icons on our covers over the years -- the Gillman, Harryhausen's Cyclops, James Arness as the Thing, even the She-Creature -- and I feel a sense of fulfillment to have the ultimate '50s sci fi icon, Robby the Robot, gracing our cover for the first time.

VW #130 is an important issue for us because it marks the resumption of our monthly schedule for the first time since #119, which we published a full two years ago. We're up to the task of meeting tighter deadlines, and we're hoping that you'll all fall happily back into the habit of seeking out VW at your favorite newsstand on a more regular basis.

Visit the "Coming Soon" page on the VW website for a near-complete rundown of the issue's contents and a free four-page preview.

Friday, April 13, 2007


There's your first peek at the cover art for Media Blasters' eagerly awaited "Tokyo Shock" release of Ishiro Honda's FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD [Furankenshutain tai chitei kaijû Baragon, 1965]. Now here are the specs for this two-disc set:

"English Language Version" (84:47) - English Mono / English 5.1, 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen (contrary to the earlier reports saying it was 1.78:1 - meaning this will be an improvement on the 1.78:1 master still being shown on Monsters HD)
EXTRAS: Special Announcement (40 seconds), Theatrical Trailer (2 minutes), Extra International Footage (alternate octopus ending), Deleted Scenes (approx 5 minutes), Photo Gallery (approx 150 images)

FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON "International Version" (93:04)*
FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON "Japanese Theatrical Version" (89:53) - 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, Japanese Mono / Japanese 5.1 / English Subtitles, Audio Commentary with Sadamasa Arikawa (Director of Special EffectsPhotography) with English Subtitles, plus trailers for ATRAGON, DOGORA, MYSTERIANS, MATANGO

* Note: The FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON "International Version" is the same film as the "Japanese Theatrical Version" except that it includes the alternate octopus ending included as an extra on DISC ONE. The Sadamasa Arikawa commentary appears over this version of the film.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Dylan Times Two/No Limit

D.A. Pennebaker's classic documentary of Bob Dylan's 1965 tour of the United Kingdom has been refurbished for a new, deluxe DVD release that, when held in one's hand, has the earnest heft of a Bible. In addition to a digitally restored presentation of the main feature, there's a collection of uncut performances culled from various venues during the tour; an entire second disc of compelling outtakes, including other performances and a guest appearance by Nico; and a reprint of the 168-page book version of Pennebaker's film, containing images and transcriptions of every word spoken in it. When this film was first released to US theaters, some of its strong language was censored, but this was restored for the previous video releases and remains intact here. For a film shot in 16mm with available light, the image quality is exceptional and the sound quality is also improved, but there is something about a document of such historical importance that entices the eyes and ears to dilate, to make the most of what's available. What's especially great about this set is that the uncut performances shift the package's focus from Dylan the charming provocateur to Dylan the artist; it is amazing in itself, in this era of stage teleprompters and song books, to see him stand alone on a stage and call to mind all the imagistic words from these songs, at a time when they were less than a year old in some cases, and interpreted with so much inflection, immediacy, and urgency. At the same time, it becomes easier to understand why audiences were so powerfully drawn to the almost Holy force of the truths he summoned and why they felt betrayed when he chose to diffuse the unacceptable burden of that limelight by sharing it with a band and erecting a wall of electricity and volume between his audience and his vulnerability. Impossible to watch without thinking, "Woe is us, but how blessed we were."

It's hard to tell whether this film -- co-scripted by Bob Dylan and director Larry Charles -- was intended as a fantasy or an allegory, but I'm inclined to see it as a remake of DON'T LOOK BACK of sorts, and Dylan's own jet-black recrimination of a world that has failed to heed the warnings of his best-loved songs and grown monstrous. Dylan himself, looking like a diminutive Dr. Phibes in Hank Williams garb, plays Jack Fate, a legendary musician caught and imprisoned after witnessing, shall we say, an unsharable political truth involving his father. Many years later, as his father lies on his deathbed, Fate is released and immediately snared by snake-oil agent John Goodman and producer Jessica Langue as the only available musical star for a televised charity event. The nature of the charity is vague, but so is the nature of the heavily spray-painted, multi-racial, brooding, self-interested landscape of the America herein portrayed. Fate himself is no more familiar; a wiry little man no one recognizes, he steps out of his communal prison cell into an America where his once-famous songs (like "My Back Pages") are heard principally in languages other than English, or thrashed out by groups like the Ramones; no one remembers him except a few people who might profit from that memory. Dylan proves himself a better actor than any of his earlier screen work indicated, noble and touching and cypherish, and Jeff Bridges and Val Kilmer have terrific supporting roles as an arrogant journalist and animal wrangler, respectively. Bridges' interview with Jack, which seems to have been improvised and whittled down to its most vicious essence, is one of the film's highlights. Shapeless perhaps, but sprawling and impressionistic in the best sense, not unlike "Desolation Row" applied to cinema. Though it's fairly obscure now, it's bound to gain greater recognition as one of Dylan's major latter-day projects in years to come. Why was this film called MASKED AND ANONYMOUS? Perhaps because AMERICAN GRAFFITI was already taken.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Let Me Tell You 'Bout THE BIRDS and THE BEAST

Over the years, many a film buff has pondered the unexplained "why" of Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 shocker THE BIRDS. By not giving a concrete explanation for the avian attacks depicted in his and Evan Hunter's adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novella, Hitchcock gave his film a philosophic buoyancy that has kept it ever fresh and open to debate and discussion, while countless other screen mysteries have lost their appeal from the moment they were stamped "case closed."

I've always been intrigued by the insistence of some viewers to describe THE BIRDS as Hitchcock's only science fiction film, a point I personally question as the story conveys no scientific basis; indeed, the story is pitched in such a way that one is tempted to respond to the film more as metaphor than as a straightforward narrative. More than a science fiction film, it is an apocalyptic film -- a kind of movie often seen as a sub-genre of science fiction, but which only literally applies when the nature of the apocalypse is scientifically caused, effected, or resolved (Andrew Marton's fine but often overlooked CRACK IN THE WORLD being a good case in point). Rendered without explanation and concluded without closure, THE BIRDS is that rare mainstream production that approximates poetry rather than prose.

A flock of birds attack Paul Birch, low-budget-style, in

These thoughts were prompted by my viewing, last Friday night, of THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES (1955) on Turner Classic Movies as part of a three-film tribute to Roger Corman, who celebrated his 81st birthday last week. (Has it already been a year since Video WatchBlog's 80th birthday Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon?) Corman isn't credited onscreen, but he produced and apparently co-directed this picture (scripted by Tom Filer) with David Kramarsky, previously a production assistant and manager on a number of Corman's early Westerns (FIVE GUNS WEST, OKLAHOMA WOMAN, GUNSLINGER). Kramarsky apparently left the Business after producing THE CRY BABY KILLER in 1958. It's easy to see why THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES was Kramarsky's only directorial credit: its principal trait is a preponderance of rough edges, as scenes consistently fail to cut together or to convey any sense of narrative momentum. Even as a die-hard apologist for this sort of thing, I can't quite dodge the fact that it's a crummy picture; after all, this is the movie whose fancifully-named monster turns out to be a tiny, two-eyed Paul Blaisdell creation that lives inside what appears to be a coffee percolator decorated with empty rifle shells and stakes its claim to the title by seeing through the eyes of all the Earth creatures it possesses. But seeing the movie again, for the first time in many years, now preceded by a United Artists logo that must have cost more to produce than the feature itself, I was struck by its many similarities to THE BIRDS and by the idea that it might well be described as "THE BIRDS -- with an explanation."
Paul Birch discovers the gored remains of neighbor Chester Conklin.

Seven years later, Hitchcock directs Rod Taylor in a similar scene.

Like Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in THE BIRDS, the protagonist of THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES is a manly, jut-jawed fellow named Allan Kelley, played by Paul Birch -- whose deep Alabama-bred voice is rich in Biblical cadences, thus making him the perfect Moses for Corman's apocalyptic scenarios. Like Mitch, Allan lives apart from the main crush of civilization with two women -- his daughter Sandra (Dona Cole, presaging Mitch's pre-teen sister played by Veronica Cartwright) and his isolation-frazzled wife Carol (Lorna Thayer, presaging Mitch's brittle mother Lydia played by Jessica Tandy). After the titular alien lands in a desert area neighboring the Kelley's farmhouse, the local animals begin to attack their owners -- the Kelley's dog Duke terrorizes Carol, who is also attacked by her chickens while collecting eggs. (Lorna Thayer was plagued by chickens throughout her screen career, most famously being told by Jack Nicholson to hold one between her knees in FIVE EASY PIECES.) Communication lines are destroyed by hails of kamikaze crows, which also attack Allan's car. Later, in a scene paralleling Lydia's discovery of a neighbor pecked eyeless by a murder of birds, Ben Webber (played by silent film comedian Chester Conklin), a neighbor of the Kelleys, is fatally gored while trying to milk his cow and discovered by Allan in a manner like that of Mitch's discovery of the dead schoolteacher Annie Hayworth, played by Suzanne Pleshette. Nailing the comparison is the bird attack on Sandra near the end, which leaves her in a state of shock-induced catatonia through the last reel. Like Lydia's later relationship with Melanie Daniels ('Tippi' Hedren), Carol's relationship with her daughter is initially adversarial but becomes more caring and maternally protective as the dangers they share deepen.

Dysfunctional couple Lorna Thayer and Paul Birch rally to the support of comatose daughter Dona Cole.

According to a thread on the Classic Horror Films Board, Hitchcock did option -- prior to filming THE BIRDS -- a novella by Fredric Brown called THE MIND THING, which bore certain similarities to THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES. He never produced the film, but it has been known to happen that properties are sometimes optioned to keep them from being produced in conflict with a similar project. I can't imagine that Hitchcock would have seriously directed a film based on THE MIND THING, but it could be that its explanation of its bird attacks paralleled an explanation that Hitchcock may have had in mind for his own project -- one that he eventually (and wisely) opted to do without. This would better explain the often startling parallels between THE BIRDS and THE BEAST better than the other hypothesis... which would be that Hitchcock was somehow lassoed into seeing THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES, thought it was the worst thing he had ever seen, and accepted someone's bet that he could remake it on the sly and produce a legitimately silken purse out of that sow's ear.

One last note: The IMDb credits the voice-over narration of the Beast to one Bruce Whitmore, his only screen credit. It sounds a lot like Les Tremayne (who had extensive voice acting credits) to me.

Friday, April 06, 2007

A 100 Gun Salute to Joseph H. Lewis

Born 100 years ago today, Joseph H. Lewis -- the Republic Pictures editor who became the legendary director of film noir classics GUN CRAZY and THE BIG COMBO. His name is also revered by horror film cultists for his memorable 1940s B-pictures INVISIBLE GHOST with Bela Lugosi and THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET with Lionel Atwill. Lewis also directed the outstanding '50s Western TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN, starring Sterling Hayden, which was likely responsible for involving him in the show in which I've been revelling lo these past many months: THE RIFLEMAN. Lewis directed an impressive 51 episodes of the series between 1958 and 1963, a third or so of its remarkably high quality run. Among his greatest contributions were a couple of its two-parters, the thrilling "The Wyoming Story" and "Waste." Lewis also directed other great Western series from GUNSMOKE to Chuck Connors' later series BRANDED. He died in 2000, after his career had been rediscovered and celebrated by film noir, Western, and indeed Western noir cultists -- especially for GUN CRAZY, the most fetishistic film ever made about firearms and by far the sexiest.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Writing and Dining

A lot of happy, well-meaning people have been e-mailing us, suggesting that we celebrate completing the Bava book by taking a small trip or at least taking a day off. Unfortunately, no-can-do. Finishing the book coincided with the beginning of our work on VW #130, and I've taken on more than my share of additional work this month, too. In addition to assembling the next issue, which will resume our monthly schedule, I've agreed to write an article on Grindhouse films for the next SIGHT & SOUND (along with my regular Nozone column) and a short chapter for a book about José Mojica Marins that's being published in Brazil. All of that is due by mid-month. And somewhere in the next few weeks, I have to finish and turn in that VIDEODROME book I told you about. So I am presently on the wrong side of frazzled and can't imagine myself having too much spare time for blogging... but, knowing me, I will probably find some time to keep this blog and the Bava book blog (which I've updated thrice in the last three days) at least semi-active.

Last night we were taken to dinner at The Olive Garden by our friends Jan and Jane. Before dinner, they presented us with a set of very attractive wine glasses etched with modernistic designs and a long-cellared bottle of wine. It was a French red table wine, Marquis de Valclair Rouge, whose label, unfortunately, was undated; however, it likely dated from at least the late 1970s and was certainly the oldest wine Donna and I had ever tasted -- "Rembrandty" was the first adjective that came to mind -- deep, dry, tasty, and introspective. It provided a dramatic contrast with the red table wine we had at the restaurant, which immediately struck me as living in the present tense. We returned to Jan's house after dinner and had some more of the vintage wine, which we had allowed to breathe while we were away, and its flavors had "opened up" a bit more in our absence, becoming even more flavorful.

As I told Jan, Donna's and my completion of the Bava book is a bit like the question of whether a falling tree makes any sound if there's no one around to hear it. Left to our own devices, we would probably just continue working on something else, but to see this feat confirmed in the eyes and hearts of our friends is what makes it real. It's been such a struggle for us, for so long, that even we need convincing. It was a joy to see how happy our friends are for us, and humbling too to see how impressed and moved they are to see this enormous task -- which they've lived with for awhile too -- finally carried out. So we drove home last night with a dawning sense of what we may have accomplished -- not just for Bava fans, but for anyone craving evidence that not all impossible dreams are impossible.

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!


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.