Monday, May 21, 2007
Last week I reviewed Docudrama's new box set reissue of DA Pennebaker's BOB DYLAN DONT LOOK BACK for my next SIGHT & SOUND "NoZone" -- which, incredibly, will be Column # 50. I wrote the first of the columns in April 2003, and it was published a month or two later. My "10 Picks from the Grindhouse" article is, by my count, the 50th piece I've published in the magazine, the first being a short piece related to Joe Dante's MATINEE written about ten years before the column was proposed to me.
Also, Vince Rotolo's website B-Movie Cast has posted the first-ever podcast interview that Donna and I have ever given. I think I threw Vince a curve by suggesting that Donna join us in the interview, but as the publisher of VW and the designer of the Bava book (our two topics of discussion), I knew in advance that she could answer some questions better than I could. The download runs for about 25 minutes and I hope you'll take the time to give it a listen. Our thanks to Vince for the attention.
Saturday, May 19, 2007
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Earlier today, John Charles and I finished the final read-through of our next issue, VIDEO WATCHDOG 131, and Donna's in the next room right now getting it ready to be sent to the printer. This was a rigorous issue to put together; all the pieces weren't quite in place when we needed them, and it was also a bear to edit and proofread. Our feature article is a lengthy, groundbreaking piece about Greek fantastic cinema by Dimitris Koliodimos, and it brought John and I into contact with films and words and names and geography we've never had to deal with before! That said, reading the final text of this issue was deeply satisfying to me. I always feel good about our issues, because they're fun and smart and informative, but occasionally one comes along that also feels substantial. This is one of those, and I suspect it's one of our best. In fact, a short time ago, Donna showed me the finished cover for the issue and... hoo boy... front, back and inside, it looks like money. This may be the classiest-looking cover we've ever had. Splendid work by Charlie and Donna. You'll see what I mean soon: we'll be posting a new "Coming Soon" page on the website in the next day or so.
I'm excited to be back at work on a monthly.
Monday, May 14, 2007
Saturday, May 12, 2007
France: LES INASSOUVIES ’77 (1977)
UK: SINNER (Go Video PAL VHS)
USA: DIARY OF A NYMPHO (Howard Mahler Films, 1974)
This erotic cautionary tale was presumably inspired by the success of such films as Max Pecas’ Je Suis une Nymphomane/Forbidden Passions (1970) and Dan Wolman’s Maid in Sweden (1971): like them, it is a downbeat first person account of a young European woman who becomes involved in intensely sexual lives and lives to regret it. It has always been a staple of exploitation filmmaking to explore subjects like sex and drugs while wearing a mask of sanctimonious piety, granting their audience a margin of safety and separation. Le Journal Intime d’une Nymphomane shares some of these characteristics and thus is a most unusual feature for Franco, as its judgmental quality (reflected in the Scarlet Letter-like title of the English version) flies in the face of the amoral stance he generally takes as an individual and as a filmmaker.
Linda Vargas (Montserrat Prous) is a “live sex act” performer in a nightclub known as The Lucky Ghost. While feigning lovemaking with her co-worker Maria (Kali Hansa), she catches the eye of customer Ortiz (“Jean-Pierre Bourbon” aka Manuel Pereira) and joins him later at his table. After persuading him to buy and imbibe ten bottles of champagne, Linda walks Vargas around the corner to to a seedy hotel room she uses for assignations. By the time they undress, Vargas passes out – and after calling the police and informing them that a girl has been murdered in that room, she cuts her own throat and dies on Ortiz. He is charged with murder and his wife Rosa (Jacqueline Laurent, “Ruth” in the English version) is summoned to the station. Upset with her husband’s infidelity, she determines to help him establish his innocence by undertaking an investigation outside official province: an investigation into the victim’s life and relationships. An interview with Linda’s friend the Countess Ana de Monterey (Anne Libert) reveals that she was a small-town girl who came to Madrid only to lose her virginity to a rapist on an amusement park’s ferris wheel. While delivering laundry to the Countess, she observed her making love and was invited into her bed, eventually sharing her male lover, Paco (“Gene Harris” aka Francisco Acosta). Paco took Linda to the Lucky Ghost where she met Maria. Linda lost Paco when his wife caught them together in bed, and she took refuge in Maria’s apartment and open, nurturing sexuality. Through Maria, Linda became involved in nude modelling after meeting an aging “fat cow” junkie photographer named Mrs. Schwartz (Doris Thomas), and subsequently in drugs. That’s when the Countess lost track of her.
Rosa gets the rest of the story from Maria, a lesbian exhibitionist, who reads aloud to her from Linda’s own diary while shocking the woman’s sensibilities by stripping off and pleasuring herself. Rosa confesses that she’s equally attracted and repulsed by such openness, admitting that her husband has never seen her naked (“we turn off the lights wen we go to bed”) and that she herself has never looked at her own body. Maria seduces Rosa and teaches her to appreciate her body. Returning to the diary, Rosa learns that Linda was nearly rehabilitated from her nymphomaniacal ways by a doctor (Howard Vernon) who ran a private clinic. When she relapsed, he called her a whore and insisted on being paid for his services as a whore would pay, then told her to get out. She then returned to The Lucky Ghost, where Paco tried to get back into her good graces, but it was too late. She went to work at the club with Maria and then, one night, the man who raped her at the amusement park showed up in the audience – Ortiz. She decided to punish him for ruining her life by ruining his own by framing him for murder, her own suicide. The story told, Rosa and Maria fall asleep in each other’s arms. When they awake, Rosa asks for the diary, which Maria gives to her. She takes the evidence of her husband’s innocence of the murder charge with her, but – overcome by the sound of Linda’s voice demanding “He must pay! He must pay!” – she tosses the diary into a lake.
Made in tandem with Les Ebranlées and Franco’s first Manacoa production Un Silencio de Tumba, Le Journal Intime d’une Nymphomane is notable for the first lead performance by Montserrat Prous, a young actress who briefly occupied centerstage in his filmography between the death of Soledad Miranda and his discovery of Rosa Maria Almirall, whom he recristened Lina Romay. Montserrat Prous entered the world of filmmaking as an assistant makeup artist and met Franco through her relatives Isidoro, Alberto, and Juan, who had worked as production secretary and camera assistants, respectively, on Franco’s El Conde Drácula/Count Dracula (1969). She began acting onscreen that same year, in Amor y Medias (1969), directed by Antonio Ribas.
Any seasoned Franco viewer with knowledge of Lina Romay’s later place in his filmography will find his Montserrat Prous films fascinating, because she foreshadows Romay in many ways. She bears a striking physical resemblance to Romay, but has more elegantly sculpted features; Prous represents an almost intermediary stage between Miranda and Romay, and one suspects that Franco must have perceived in her the same continuation of Soledad Miranda that he later observed in Romay. In this film particularly, Franco uses Prous exactly as he would later use Romay: she appears wearing a pair of the thigh-high leather boots similar to those worn by Romay in several films, including Le Comtesse aux Seins Nus and Exorcismes; she participates in red-light “live sex act” stage performances as in Midnight Party; she has lesbian sex with Kali Hansa; she compliments her own dark hair with a longer, straighter brunette wig that makes her look more like Miranda and Romay; and, in scenes representing flashbacks to her virginal youth, she wears her hair in ponytails.
Compared to Romay (at least in her earliest films), Prous was the conventionally superior actress; on the other hand, Romay’s looks had aspects of darkness and derangement that Prous, a more wholesome beauty, could not summon on her best day. With the arrival of Romay, and as Franco’s personal relationship with her took shape, there was no question of which actress was going to become the enduring “Dark Lady” of Franco’s cinema. Prous made her last Franco film in 1973; thereafter, she and Romay stood on equal ground only in the work of another director, Carlos Aured’s El Fontanero, su muer, y otras cosas de meter… (“The Plumber, His Tools, and How Where He Puts Them…,” 1981), shortly after which Prous married and retired for many years from the screen. She has more recently returned under the name Montserrat Prous Segura.
Like Necronomicon and Vampyros Lesbos, and like Exorcismes and several other films still to come, Le Journal Intime… opens with a stage act, a sexual scene followed by the surprise revelation that the intimacy we have witnessed is part of a performance, met with the approval of audience applause. From there, the film proceeds as an hommage to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, as the life of Linda Vargas (a nominal reference to Welles’ Touch of Evil) is reconstructed through interviews with those who knew this figure of mystery. Rosa Ortiz’s investigation, undertaken with the hope of helping her incarcerated husband, is a reprise of the archetypal undercover lover device dating back to Gritos en la Noche/The Awful Dr. Orlof.
In France, a version of the film including hardcore sequences was released under the title Les Inassouvies ’77 (suggesting a sequel to his earlier film Philosophy in the Boudoir aka Eugenie... the Story of Her Journey into Perversion, which was known as Les Inassouvies in France).
Wednesday, May 09, 2007
Some quick thoughts: I don't think any single movie better embodies the great divide between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood than GAMES. It has an Old Hollywood sense of elegance and décor, all consciously indebted to the influence of the great European filmmakers who brought style to Hollywood from overseas and the plot (with its not-too-subtle tips of the hat to DIABOLIQUE) distinctly European in tenor. Meanwhile, the mise en scène -- with its references to Lichtenstein and Segal and other pop and postmodern art, is well ahead of the 1967 Hollywood curve and the film's interests in role playing, practical jokes, black magic and murder casts it as a clear-cut progenitor of PERFORMANCE. I can't remember ever reading anything that connected GAMES and PERFORMANCE, and this is undoubtedly due to Universal's seeming disregard for the film, which Curtis himself long petitioned for a proper LaserDisc or DVD release. People don't know the movie, and those who do find it hard to look past its allusions to DIABOLIQUE... yet Curtis was a personal friend of Donald Cammell and they had several other friends in common, making the notion of influence a tantalizing possibility, especially for GAMES' sake. Some viewers feel that the second half of the film is weaker than the first, but I disagree. There's no question that we know that a game is afoot in the second half, but we don't know who is involved, what the circumstances are, or the goal of the proceedings -- so the movie engages the viewer, or should, on a different tier (shall we say) in its second part.
As fine as GAMES is on the level of performance, direction, cinematography, wardrobe and set decoration, I feel it was let down in terms of its score by Samuel Matlovsky, which is borderline fussy and overstressed during the masterfully constructed suspense sequences, which would have been better served by having their accompaniment pared down to well-orchestrated sound effects. (Matlovsky had previously conducted Gustavo Cesár Carreón's score for THE FOOL KILLER  -- a pioneering work of dark Americana scored with orchestra and crudely overlaid electric guitar parts. Flawed but fascinating, and with a staggering performance by former WEREWOLF OF LONDON Henry Hull, THE FOOL KILLER is far less well-known today than GAMES.) Movie musicologists will be amused by a scene in GAMES wherein the three principals (Simone Signoret, James Caan, and Katharine Ross looking her personal best) are dressed in costume and pantomiming some strange sacrificial ritual with a 78rpm record spinning on a Victrola, playing organ music. The scene is shot with a lot of panache and it would have been very effective indeed... had Matlovsky not used for this cue Vic Mizzy's "organ loft" piece from THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN!
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
I did some online exploring in regard to Curtis' published works and found that, in addition to writing a chapter for the 1972 book FOCUS ON THE HORROR FILM (not one that I own, unfortunately), he wrote a lengthy feature called "Ghoulies and Ghosties" which appeared in a special edition of THE QUARTERLY OF RADIO FILM AND TELEVISION (Winter 1952) devoted to horror cinema. I found the latter item for sale through abebooks.com and ordered it; if this item is all that the seller's description claimed it to be, it would precede in print the issue of the French magazine CINEMA devoted to "Le Fantastique" that is said to have inspired Forrest J Ackerman's FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. (Curtis' article was more recently reprinted in THE HORROR FILM READER, edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini.)
Novelizations also exist for two Curtis Harrington films: GAMES by Hal Ellson (Ace Books) and, the more desirable of the two, QUEEN OF BLOOD by Charles Nuetzel (Greenleaf Classics, one of those sexed-up items from the publishers of Ed Wood's novelization of ORGY OF THE DEAD). Does anyone out there know if Charles and Albert Nuetzel (FM cover artist) were related or perhaps even one and the same?
Monday, May 07, 2007
I took this photo of Curtis (whom Bill Kelley and I interviewed in VIDEO WATCHDOG #14) in his living room in 1993. It's the way I'll always remember him: wise, warm, and relaxed, enthroned in a Spanish-style house built in the heyday of Old Hollywood. Many parties had been held there and there was a sense about the place of rhubarbing voices and clinking glasses and raucous merriment that carried from empty rooms into the tossing heights of the cypress trees lining his backyard. I'm sure that Curtis got out and about more than I do, nevertheless his house was a perfect extension of him -- with its framed Belle Epoque posters, Tiffany lamps, porcelain masks, and a stuffed and mounted raven standing vigilant on one endtable, his domicile had the feel of him, and the feel of one of his movies. I remember particularly the cracks in the ceilings, dealt to the property by California earthquakes over the years, and I feel in my bones that they were the inspiration for his last short film, USHER (2002).
Curtis was more than a film and television director; he was also the first film critic (of whom I am aware) to make the ascent into the director's chair. He wrote a book about his favorite director Josef von Sternberg in 1948 (very early for a book about an individual director) and he was also a contributor to FILMS & FILMING and FILMS ILLUSTRATED in the early 1950s. People talk about directors like Bogdanovich, Coppola, Scorsese and DePalma being the first generation of directors raised on movies, but Curtis was making films before any of them -- and he was making films that were in their own way recursive, depending on the audience's knowledge of the screen languages formulated by Sternberg and by the great suspense masters Hitchcock, Lewton, and Clouzot.
A call I placed to his home today, in search of someone to whom I could express my regrets and learn more about the circumstances of his passing, found Curtis' easygoing voice still in absent residence, welcoming callers from his answering machine to send a fax or leave a message.
Here is mine: Farewell, my friend.
Sunday, May 06, 2007
I liked the first SPIDER-MAN a lot, loved the second one, but SPIDER-MAN 3 is just about an unmitigated disaster.
Not because it's a cluttered mess that thinks bigger is better and action scenes are best when they fire past the retina rather than actually lodge in the brain. As a reader of the original Marvel comics since the Ditko days, I'm disturbed by the filmmakers' irreverent disregard for the content and chronology of what might be called the canon. I think the introduction of Gwen Stacy now is pointless and gratuitous, and I could tell that mixing the more wholesome spirit of Silver Age storylines with the darker Venom storyline from the Bronze Age Todd MacFarlane years was likely to be a stinkbomb long before it went off on Opening Day. I was especially disappointed by the sappy back story given to the Sandman, whose potential was further dissipated by all the other converging threats. I was really looking forward to him, to see him discovering the range of his powers, and feel gypped by his relative lack of screen time; it doesn't help that they turned him into King Kong.
I can't understand why Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire can't make Peter Parker seem like a good guy without also seeming borderline learning impaired; likewise, when the symbiote arouses his arrogant, evil streak (this movie's "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" moment), he's not just a short-tempered jerk, but like a strutting glue sniffer on a SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER jag. It's so broad, so lacking in subtlety, it made me feel ashamed to be a fan of the character. Even worse is his open cavorting in the jazz club -- after the cafeteria scene in the first movie and now this, I wouldn't be surprised if Peter Parker starts opening taxi doors with his webshooters in SM4. Surely everyone in New York has seen him unmasked by now, so why not?
It's time for Hollywood to call a moratorium on two things: 1) the use of 9/11-like imagery for cheap frissons, and 2) evil doppelgangers in heroic fantasy. We've been getting the latter since STAR WARS and it's deader than Joseph Campbell. It's one thing to say that we all have good and evil tendencies and the freedom to choose between them, but when you take this spiritual philosophy and amplify it into the unadulterated corn of SM3, the heroes somehow come out of it soiled and the bad guys come out of it slightly ennobled. Before picking which side we're on, we need to know which side we're on, and this movie's moral map is slippery as hell. So many characters here have split natures, it's like they got the cast for half price. SM3 actually suggests that people shouldn't have to pay for their mistakes, that acknowledging them is enough. I was dumbstruck by Sandman's exit, and Venom's fate is so dopey and arbitrary and blink-of-an-eye, I actually had to be reminded 10 minutes later what happened to him.
My beloved, not a reader of the comics, liked this one better than SM2. She also thought the old gentleman playing Uncle Ben this time around wasn't as good as the other one was.
Saturday, May 05, 2007
April proved to be a busier than usual month for me and now my batteries are running low; I'm hoping to cut down on extracurricular projects for a little while, until I'm feeling re-energized. I spent the past month on my book about the making of David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME for Millipede Press, who intend to publish it this fall as the first book in a new paperback series called "Studies in the Horror Film." The book was written 25 years ago, but in order to deliver it to Millipede Press, I had to pour the original (messy) typescript into my computer and clean it up, add a couple of separate articles I also wrote about the filming, include some other interesting material I found in my file cabinets that I was prevented from including in the original ms. by my previous deadline (including additional interviews with Cronenberg and Les "Barry Convex" Carlson), and then synthesize everything into an organic reading experience. I believe I was contracted to deliver a book of 10,000 words or so, but the end product was 150 single-spaced pages, closer to 35,000 words. As my pal David J. Schow exclaimed, "That's a short novel!" Happily, my editor at Millipede Press doesn't seem phased by the additional length and is moving forward. That's a relief to me, but it's the only relief. I had to jump right into preparing VW #131 this week, with no decompression time -- and it's an issue that has required some additional hurry-up reviewing on my part.
Our first-class subscribers should have started receiving our latest issue, VIDEO WATCHDOG #130, by now. Unfortunately, based on the feedback we've been receiving from our bulk rate subscribers, it seems that bulk-mailed issues can now take up to 5-6 weeks to reach their destinations. We apologize for the delay, but it's beyond our control. Your issue isn't lost, it's just being delivered by the USPS, who seem to be dragging their feet in regard to bulk mailings these days as they gear up for yet another postage rate hike. We offer bulk rate subscriptions as a financial convenience to our readers, but suffice to say, if you want your issues in a timely fashion, First Class is the way to go.
Finally, if you're looking for some Cinco de Mayo movie recommendations, you can't go wrong with the latest offerings from Casa Negra: Rafael Baledon's THE MAN AND THE MONSTER and Fernando Mendez's horror Western THE LIVING COFFIN. Of the two, I particularly recommend THE LIVING COFFIN which, though made in 1959, reminds me somewhat of Bava's KILL, BABY... KILL! (1966) in terms of its photography, settings, and atmosphere. Here a small Western town is haunted by the apparition of a llorona or "crying woman" ghost and a rational-thinking cowboy, riding through with his sidekick Crazy Wolf, decides to stick around and investigate these occurrences. It's a mixed bag by design -- Western, horror, mystery, even some comic relief -- but it's an attractive film with some effectively creepy moments.
In closing, a Happy Cinco de Mayo to you all, amigos! Alas, it's "Hold the Mayo!" as far as I'm concerned -- and back to work on the next issue....
Thursday, May 03, 2007
Tuesday, May 01, 2007
Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott in DUEL OF THE TITANS.
Evidently Scott and Weintraub didn't get along, and Scott was subsequently replaced in the Tarzan role by the leaner, almost-ten-years-older Jock Mahoney. Scott's friend Steve Reeves arranged for Scott to star opposite him in the Sergio Leone-penned saga of Romulus and Remus, released here in the States as DUEL OF THE TITANS. My childhood memory of the publicity campaign attending this release was the closest thing to having two demigods descend from Olympus: "Giant Against Giant!" Movies simply didn't get any bigger. Remember, this was before King Kong had met Godzilla, and the spectacle of two colossal men engaged in battle on the widescreen was virtually unprecedented. It turned out to be a good movie too, in which Scott gives what may well be the performance of his career as a hero who, poisoned with jealousy of his brother, turns villainous.
Scott's introduction into Italian filmmaking sustained him through the remainder of a sadly dwindling career, but he made good films there. He assumed the role of Maciste in (renamed for America) GOLIATH AND THE VAMPIRES and SAMSON AND THE 7 MIRACLES OF THE WORLD (directed by Riccardo Freda, a worthy follow-up to his best Tarzan movies), and THE LION OF THEBES, CONQUEST OF MYCENAE and the unfortunately named but fabulous ZORRO AND THE THREE MUSKETEERS. He drifted into Italian spy pictures just before the end of his career, making his last screen appearance in 1967.
I've heard gossip about Scott's Italian years that describe him as the wildest of a wild pack, and gossip of more recent vintage that held that alcoholism, reckless living, and a preference for a footloose lifestyle had conspired to harm Scott's career and destroy his personal life. Certainly the beer-bellied, ballcap-wearing man seen at autograph shows over the past 10-15 years bore no resemblance to the mythic figure Scott had formerly been. I wanted very much to devote an issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG to an in-depth interview with him, as I considered him a great star, but somehow we could never get a proper commitment, perhaps because he was unsure where he was going to be from one month to the next. I still want to do my Gordon Scott issue someday, but now it will have to be in the manner of a career appreciation.
Hollywood rise and fall stories are a dime a dozen. If the story of Gordon Scott seems especially tragic, it is because he achieved such incredible heights of heroism on the silver screen and left us with such indelible memories of intelligent virility and confidence. He was a Tarzan that Edgar Rice Burroughs would have recognized as his own, and been proud of.
I blogged about Gordon Scott last year, and I can only hope that someone showed him my words of appreciation. I remain ever hopeful that the best of his films will someday make it to DVD -- if Paramount is reading this, you own the TARZAN'S GREATEST ADVENTURE and TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT, so what's the holdup?
Sadly, Gordon Scott is now gone... so bring on the Gordon Scott!
Monday, April 30, 2007
Saturday, April 28, 2007
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
DESPAIR (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
LOLITA (Stanley Kubrick)
THE LUZHIN DEFENCE (Marleen Gorris)
LOLITA (Adrian Lyne)
LAUGHTER IN THE DARK (Tony Richardson)
KING, QUEEN, KNAVE (Jerzy Skolimowski)