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.