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

FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD Unveiled


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 kaij├╗ Baragon, 1965]. Now here are the specs for this two-disc set:

DISC ONE:
FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD
"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)

DISC TWO:
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
THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES.

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.