Tuesday, April 24, 2007

E-mail JACK Attack

Yesterday's blog had an interesting back story I neglected to mention. I was making my usual blog rounds yesterday when I happened to click over to if charlie parker was a gunslinger there'd be a whole lot of dead copycats, where an image of Judi Meredith from JACK THE GIANT KILLER was posted as "Seminal Image #645." This prompted me to remember an article about the film I had left unfinished some time ago. I found it on my computer, dated 3-23-92 and it -- with only slight polishing and updating -- is what you read here yesterday.

A few correspondents have written to inquire what prompted that posting, curious if the musical version had turned up again somewhere. But no, it was just the World Premiere of something previously unreleased... and, incredibly, fifteen years old. Not quite ready for print, perhaps, but perfect for blogging.

Some people wrote with information worthy of a postscript. First of all, there was no board game; that was my own childhood hallucination. I was really high on GIANT KILLER during the Summer of '62, when I was an occasional customer at a neighborhood store that had a huge stack of board games on a shelf behind the counter for sale. There were so many other movie and TV tie-in board games, I probably assumed there would have to be a JTGK game and, as if willing it into existence, I spent a couple of weeks collecting enough empty pop bottles to fill the back seat of my mother's car. We took them to that little store to cash them in, but there was no JTGK game, so I took the money home instead. Nevertheless, imagining the game burnt a permanent impression in my memory cells: I can actually visualize the box cover, though it never existed. It has also been suggested to me that it's unlikely that I read the comic book adaptation prior to the film's release, which I suppose is entirely possible. Subjective experience is what it is.

I am also told that the reason the theatrical version has replaced the musical version in circulation -- besides good common sense -- is that the theatrical version boasts the ideal elements; the musical version was cobbled together from secondary elements, to leave the original unviolated, which explains too why it always looked so pasty and washed-out in comparison. I was also told that, although the film was shot to be projected with a 1.66:1 matte, the stop motion effects were filmed open aperture, so the special effects shots lose information on all four sides of the frame on MGM's DVD. It's the prettier of the two available DVDs, but the unauthorized Goodtimes release is the only source for seeing the special effects sequences as they were meant to be seen.

One good-hearted reader also wrote to point out my misuse of the word "lollygog" for "lollygag." I sent him an "Oh, go away" and a smiley face. Being a native Ohioan, I hear (and doubtless use) a lot of incorrect grammar but, in all my years, I've never heard anyone say anything but "lollygog." I suppose it's possible they've been feigning a continental accent when they say it, but I never felt the need to question it. My correspondent and Mr. Webster call it an error, but I reserve the right to call it dialect. My correspondent's correction will affect my future use of the word in print, one hopes, but prolly not in conversation (as people also say in Ohio) and possibly not here either.

The joy of blogging, you see, is that it's one of the few places where a person can write freely and subjectively. What you read here, I guarantee, will be off the top of my head and researched only insofar as I feel like researching it at the moment -- which is, more often than not, not at all. If these blogs are ever collected in book form, then I'll dot the I's and cross the T's. Which is not to say that some e-mailed corrections won't be immediately implemented. Sometimes I'm very responsive; it depends on how busy I am and how important I consider the correction to be. I am nothing if not consistent in my inconsistency. As I think I've said before, consider anything you read here a rough draft.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Jack the Singing Giant Killer

Perhaps it's not a great film, but I will always remember and revere JACK THE GIANT KILLER as one of the great matinee experiences of my childhood. I loved it even before I saw it; as you can see, it was blessed with a great poster and its fabulous image of Jack clutching onto a talon of a frightening griffin was also reproduced on the cover of a Dell comic book that preceded the film's actual release. My memory may be playing tricks on me here, but I also seem to remember the artwork appearing on the cover of a board game... but if one existed, I've never seen or heard reference to it since.

Scripted by Orville H. Hampton (THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE and THE UNDERWATER CITY) and director Nathan Juran, the Edward Small production has been handed down to posterity in two distinct versions; the first, the original theatrical release, and the second, a belatedly reconfigured version that turned the exciting adventure into a musical. Though it is the harder of the two versions to see today, the musical edition actually replaced the original in circulation for many years, and represented the film in its first appearances on cable television.

The film's troubles began when it was accused by Ray Harryhausen and his producer Charles H. Schneer of being a carbon copy of their Dynamation success, THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, released by Columbia Pictures in 1958. The charge was impossible to deny: JACK not only starred SINBAD principals Kerwin Mathews and Torin Thatcher and was directed by the man who had helmed 7th VOYAGE, it had a similar "rescue the Princess" plot and approximated several of the earlier film's creature designs -- most brazenly in the case of a Harlequin doll that enlarged into a two-eyed variation of Harryhausen's famed Cyclops. The two films also shared a Genie, though JACK's Irish imp (Don Beddoe) was easier to tolerate than Baronni (Richard Eyer), the whiny, freckle-faced kid in a turban conjured up by Harryhausen and Schneer. Apparently, Schneer and Harryhausen's complaint against the film was filed too late to interfere with its original theatrical release, but it successfully pulled the plug on the film's sale to TV.

It may sound like sacrilege, but in terms of its plot, imagination, and extravagant Technicolor palette, JACK THE GIANT KILLER outperforms most of Harryhausen's films in terms of uncompromised entertainment value. The "Fantascope" stop motion creatures -- designed by Wah Chang and Gene Warren's Projects Unlimited, animated by Jim Danforth and David Pal (George's son) -- may be sculpted with less vision and articulated with less imagination than Harryhausen's creatures (which they resemble in a rough draft sense), but they are presented with impressive menace and, impressively, were put before the camera with a fraction of the Dynamation Master's prep time.

After its 1962 release, JACK THE GIANT KILLER faded away into limbo until 1976, when MC Productions Limited re-released the film -- hot on the heels of Columbia's successful reissue of 7TH VOYAGE -- as something the Dynamation film clearly was not: a musical. Large patches of the original symphonic score (by Paul Sawtell & Bert Shefter) were wiped to pave the way for a new "Musical Process" produced by Edwin Picker and Moose Charlap, making use of eight compositions by Charlap and lyricist Sandy Stewart. This "process" was such an intrusion on Grant Whytock's original editing, that Whytock rightfully deferred credit to Picker as Editor on the new prints.

The musical numbers are as follows:

"Main Titles Theme"
This song is played over a new opening credits montage that resembles scenes from the film portrayed by children's experiments with crepe paper. It doesn't hold a candle to the original's golden lettered titles and plush red velvet background.

"Ding Dong"
After Princess Elaine (Judi Meredith) is crowned, exterior shots of celebrating villagers and regal trumpeteers at the castle's turrets are shown. The lyrics are sung by a boistrous choir of untrained voices, suggesting that the entire village has erupted into joyous song after the coronation.

"We Have Failed"
One of the revised film's most forced compositions, this song begins with the weepy return of Pendragon's diminutive sidekick garna (Walter Burke) to his Master's fortress, where he reports that the mission to kidnap Princess Elaine has failed. The song is constructed by re- recording the rhymeless dialogue of Thatcher and Burke with singing, albeit unmelodic voices; the result is akin to an operetta. A chorus is achieved by repeating a shot of Burke, as he wails "We have failed! We have failed! We have failed!" Indeed.

"Because It's True"
This song is the gem of the musical version, because it's sooooooo bad and so audacious in its means of construction. The song materializes at the point of Jack and Elaine's first confessions of love for one another, which occurs on the boat sailing the Princess into protective isolation. In the original, Elaine wishes that she and her beloved protector could remain on the boat forever, travelling together, with herself nothing more than a peasant girl. The dialogue continues thusly:
JACK: I wish I were a genie to make your wish come true.
ELAINE: Suppose you did, what would you do?
JACK: I would turn myself into a great prince and I would search every farm and village in England until I found you. And then I would hold you and tell you that I love you.
ELAINE: And... and I would answer that I love you. But it wouldn't be make-believe, Jack. Because it's true.
They kiss.

To forge a song out of this exchange, seemingly barren of melodic possibilities, Charlap and Stewart recut the scene in a crafty series of loops and cutaways:

ELAINE: Just ask me / Ask me if I'm simply dreaming / For if I'm make-believing you, do! / And then / then I would answer / That I love you / Because it's true. / Just ask me / Ask me if I'm simply dreaming / For if I'm just deceiving you, do! / And then, then I would answer/ That I love you /Because it's true.
JACK: Then I would hold you / And tell you that I love you. / Kiss me, kiss me my love! / How I would hold you and /Tell you that I love you!
They kiss. The song continues.
ELAINE: Just ask me / Ask me if I'm simply dreaming. / With dreams my heart's conceiving too, do! / And then, then I would answer / that I love you / Because it's true.

The song -- which concludes with a second kiss identical to the first! -- is made possible by cutting away from Elaine to a reaction shot of Jack during the second line of each of Elaine's verses. If you look closely at the rope dangling behind Jack's head from the ship's rigging, its unnatural undulations expose the shot as a film loop. Even worse, the waves of the sea in the background behind Elaine rock forwards and in reverse, in a manner which is distinctly queasy-making.

"A Spectacle"
Proof that the musical inserts were not in the film's best interests can be found here, as Pendragon and his sidekick sing happily during Jack's attack on their fortress. As Jack uses a whip wrought from a skeleton's arm against an army grown from a stone dragon's teeth, the song proceeds merrily along, despite Pendragon's concern over this display of heroic power. There's even a whistling break!

"To Us"
Even more pathetic than "A Spectacle" is this tuneless exchange, which musically redubs the original dialogue between Jack and Elaine, as the Princess -- under Pendragon's spell -- drugs his wine. What do you make of these lyrics?

ELAINE: What's the matter?
JACK: I don't know...
Jack collapses in a dead faint.

"You Can Do It"
Considered separately, this boistrous little song isn't bad and would seem an upbeat addition to a children's film. But one can't help but question the sanity of its placement here, sung by the Imp in the Bottle during the film's exciting climax, in which Jack climbs aboard the transformed Pendragon, now a high-flying griffin. The tense excitement of the scene is completely shattered by the accompaniment of "Stick out your chin / With a grin, you're gonna win / Stand on his tail /Make him weep, make him wail / C'mon, c'mon, c'mon! /You... can... do... it!"

"Dreams Do Come True"
This is the End Titles theme, and not a minute too soon.

The JACK THE GIANT KILLER musical runs exactly 90 minutes, as opposed to the original's 94 minutes. In addition to the rank rhapsodizing, several dramatic scenes were deleted for the reissue version, which were subsequently restored to the film when the original theatrical cut prevailed on MGM/UA Home Video. The musical's main titles eliminated the original opening minute of the film, in which a jewel-studded book called "The Legend of Jack the Giant Killer" was opened, as an offscreen narrator read three beautifully illustrated pages explaining the reasons behind Pendragon's latest campaign of evil.

The first of the musical's missing scenes followed Lady Constance (Anna Lee) sending word of Princess Elaine's whereabouts to Pendragon via carrier raven, and contained the first views of the evil sorcerer's castle and his resident staff of goblins. Also omitted from the musical was a wonderful extended ceremony in which Pendragon -- wearing an outrageous High Priest costume of Heavy Metal spikes and leather -- transformed the good Elaine into her own witchy negative (an idea later reprised by Ridley Scott's LEGEND, 1985); in the musical, Elaine simply creeps out of the shadows with palegreen skin, yellow eyes, and a tall red spangled headdress, giving the misimpression that she is an actual sorceress posing as the Princess. A surprising close-up of Jack's sword hacking deeply (albeit bloodlessly) through the flesh of the griffin was also removed, presumably because it wasn't in keeping with the chipper merriment of "You Can Do It."

It is also worth pointing out that Jack's "rescue" of the still-spellbound Princess Elaine, sent by Pendragon to discover the source of Jack's powers, occurs in the musical in broad daylight, while the MGM/UA release reinstated the scene's original day-for-night filter. The same goes for a few exterior matte paintings of Pendragon's castle.

When JACK THE GIANT KILLER was first shown on premium cable channels in the 1980s, it could be seen only in this abhorrent musical version. For reasons unknown to me -- possibly having something to do with the heirs of Edward Small (who died in 1977) selling the full rights to the picture to MGM -- the original version replaced the musical without fanfare in the 1990s on cable television, and a proper VHS "Family Entertainment" release then followed. This original cassette release was unmatted, as was the subsequent LaserDisc release, which some consider preferable to the widescreen framing that was used for the film's subsequent appearance on DVD. ("Fantascope" did not refer to an anamorphic lensing process; the original aspect ratio was 1.66:1.)

A competing standard ratio DVD release of JACK THE GIANT KILLER was issued by the Goodtimes label in 2001 and is still available -- at least on eBay. I thought it might be the musical version, which would explain why MGM would tolerate a competing release, but this is not the case. It is, however, an unmatted presentation.

Happy Birthday, VN

Vladimir Nabokov, arguably the greatest novelist of the 20th century, was born 108 years ago today -- which almost sounds like something he himself might have remarked about Tolstoy or one of his other great predecessors during one of his Cornell University lectures on literature. Seize the day and celebrate the moment with one of his books or, failing that, one of the films based on his books. There are several worth seeing -- and here they are, in my own order of preference:

DESPAIR (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
LOLITA (Stanley Kubrick)
LOLITA (Adrian Lyne)
LAUGHTER IN THE DARK (Tony Richardson)
KING, QUEEN, KNAVE (Jerzy Skolimowski)

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Franco Upconverted

Alicia Príncipe lollygogs on holiday in Jess Franco's erotic terror opus THE SEXUAL STORY OF O.

Last night I decided to spend some time getting to know my new LG Super Multi Blue Player, the first DVD player on the market able to play both HD DVD and Blu-ray formats. The reason this blog is opening with an image from Jess Franco's THE SEXUAL STORY OF O -- a 1984 film to be released on May 1 by Severin Films -- is that part of my study was spent looking at how well various non-HD titles "upconvert" to 1080i resolution.

One of the discs I had handy was MGM's latest reissue of THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, which, like all the recent Bond reissues, was treated to a much-ballyhooed digital process that promised to make them look better than ever. Played on my LG Multi Blue, it was impossible to overlook the prevalence of haloing in the presentation -- every moving figure appeared to be outlined in a bid to gain sharper definition, but it wasn't as defining as it was noisy. It wasn't as bad as the nightmare that is Koch Lorber's LA BELLE CAPTIVE (the worst transfer I've seen of late), but it was noticeable -- especially after admiring the dazzling beauty of the Blu-ray release of CASINO ROYALE. Daniel Kleinman's main titles for that movie are now my high-def demonstration reel. I continued to sample different discs until I remembered that I had received Severin's two latest Franco titles in the mail that morning. What was I doing watching THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH when I could be watching THE SEXUAL STORY OF O? In English!

THE SEXUAL STORY OF O is not a high-definition release, but in a side-by-side comparison to MGM's highly-publicized Bond transfers, THE SEXUAL STORY OF O is almost miraculous. It's a minimalist erotic film, but it delivers Costa del Sol scenery that knocks anything comparable in the Bond film off the map -- especially when viewed as a 1080i upconversion. I'm still educating myself in these matters, but to my eyes, this presentation could easily pass for a high-definition disc. It passes the upconversion test with flying colors -- candy colors, in fact. Image liquidity, depth perception, fine details... all were beautifully enhanced, adding to the tactile pleasures of what would likely be a much lesser film in a lesser presentation.

Mamie Kaplan as she appears in the film's nearly three-minute toe-sucking sequence.

I think Severin Films is doing heroic work in bringing Franco's 1980s work to DVD at all, but the label deserves our recognition and applause for the stellar (some might say unnecessary) quality they bring to each presentation. I have no idea how many units of these titles are being sold, but it can't be many, and that's what makes their level of craftsmanship all the more impressive. It's a company that visibly cares.

I wrote a review of THE SEXUAL STORY OF O today, but I'm going to hold it back for publication in VIDEO WATCHDOG #131. In the meantime, here are links to two reviews already online: one by Robert Monell at his I'm in a Jess Franco State of Mind website and another by Troy Howarth at DVD Maniacs. I would caution you to take Troy's "ranks among Franco's most satisfying works" comment with a grain of salt, but that it ranks among Franco's most satisfying DVD presentations is indubitable.

One thing I will add to their comments is something I noticed about the film's soundtrack. This film would appear to be an experiment in bilingual cinema by Franco. The film's heroine is a young American and all of her dialogue is in English; the film's story is dependent upon her not understanding what her co-stars are saying. I haven't yet watched the film in this way, but it made me wonder if -- like Fellini's "Toby Dammit" in SPIRITS OF THE DEAD -- THE SEXUAL STORY OF O might not be even more winningly disorienting and suspenseful if viewed without subtitles. Fortunately, they are removable.

For the record, I must say I agree with those observers who prefer the look of Blu-ray over HD DVD... but I can't tell if my preference has anything to do with me viewing HD DVD on a player whose primary bias is Blu-ray. What both formats appear to love above all is digital information: CGI detailing, digital animation, that sort of thing -- THE CORPSE BRIDE in high-definition is an unbelievable treat. Which means that the format might not fully come into its own until the film industry fully switches over from 35mm to DV.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

PERFORMANCE Retitled in France!

An interesting e-mail from French correspondent Samuel Bréan:

Tim, I would like to ask you a question about PERFORMANCE. It was released on French DVD a few days ago; its contents seem identical to the US edition, except for the language and subtitle options (I can give you the details if you want).

However... The major difference is that it is not sold as PERFORMANCE, but as "VANILLA"! This title is present on the cardboard box, and on the DVD box itself (but not anywhere on the disc, menu, or the print itself, thankfully!) I have no clue as to why this strange title has been chosen! PERFORMANCE was released theatrically under the same title in France and I can find no valid explanation for this sudden shift.

I just finished reading Sam & Rebecca Umland's book on Donald Cammell (which prompted me to seek out his films on DVD) and, apparently, they say nothing about this. I think this must be a publisher's whimsy and a very odd one at that... Unless you know anything about this??

No, I knew nothing about this "change of identity" (how appropriate!) -- but this grab from Amazon.fr confirms what Samuel says. The title wasn't changed because it's an unauthorized release, as this is the actual Warner Home Video release for France. Whatever the reason, this must be the highest profile film ever to be retitled on DVD, maybe on video ever!

It strikes me as rather an ironic title, too. If PERFORMANCE was an ice cream, vanilla is the last flavor it would be! To my tastebuds, it's more like Spumoni.

Some other strange facts about this release: First of all, the cover pictured above is not the actual cover art, which is slightly different (it can be seen here); secondly, it's very hard to find on Amazon.fr; and thirdly, when you do find it, the top-billed actor is not Mick Jagger, not James Fox, not Anita Pallenberg... but Allan Cuthbertson -- who appears only briefly as an attorney whom Chas (Fox) is sent to intimidate!

Update 5:35 pm: Sam and Rebecca Umland respond:

In all our years of research, we never found a reference to PERFORMANCE as having been retitled VANILLA in France. We believe it to be a re-titling specific to this DVD edition, and used ironically. The term "vanilla" in this context does not refer to the flavor, at least it does so only figuratively. We recall coming across the term (not in our research on PERFORMANCE, however) and did a quick web search to verify our memory of this slang term. Go to http://www.peevish.co.uk/slang/v.htm where the term is defined as follows:

Adj. 1. Gay expression for conventional sex without any kinky extras such as bondage or sado-masochism. Usually used in a perjorative sense.
2. Orthodox, conventional.

Here's to old England!

Speaking of "Here's to Old England," Samuel Bréan confirmed to us earlier that this line, formerly heard spoken by Mick Jagger during the "Memo from Turner" sequence, is missing from the French disc as it is omitted from the domestic release -- though it is present in the disc's English subtitles.

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.