Tuesday, July 03, 2007

This Is THE DAMNED


If you were lucky, on Monday night you were able to see Turner Classic Movies' premiere broadcast of Joseph Losey's Hammer film THESE ARE THE DAMNED (known in the UK simply as THE DAMNED), made in 1961 and first released in 1963. This showing marked the first time it has ever been shown on American television in its original Hammerscope 2.35:1 width and its original length. Until last night, I don't think I had ever seen a version longer than its 87m US running time, but TCM's print ran 95m 9s.

This is one of a select number of films, and perhaps the only Hammer film, that I find grows more profound with the passing years. I've always admired it, and always for different reasons. In my teens, I admired it for its alienated quality; in my twenties, for its nihilism; in my thirties, for its irony; in my forties, for its doomed idealism; and now, in my fifties, I am most impressed by the previously unsuspected depths of its realism. (Losey was in his early sixties when he made it.) This film still speaks with great urgency to our world and the cruel ways in which it operates, like a candle burning toward its center from two lighted ends, but also with a certain resignation. It's a film that believes in survival, while questioning the idea of survival-at-all-costs.

Oliver Reed as King, his earliest fully realized performance. Kenneth Cope as Sid, another important character, at frame right.

Scripted by Evan Jones and an uncredited Losey, the film is said to be loosely based on "The Children of Light," a story by H. L. Lawrence. The script is ingeniously aimed at the eventual convergence of three separate male-female relationships representative of different phases of life. The first is between King (Oliver Reed), the neurotic leader of a Teddy Boys gang, and his younger, independence-craving sister Joan (Shirley Anne Field); the relationship of these young people is predicated on the past, as it has been traumatized by their abandonment by their parents. The second is between Joan and Simon (Macdonald Carey), a middle-aged American tourist whom Joan lures into victimization by King's gang, but she is drawn to him by his old world gallantry, which makes her feel more a woman than a child; their relationship is predicated, as with all new lovers, on the future they might inhabit together. The third relationship is between two middle-aged lovers, Freya (Viveca Lindfors) and Bernard (Alexander Knox), respectively a sculptress and a former public servant whose professional ascent has left him in charge of a Top Secret military science program whose nature must be kept under wraps at all costs. Their once appealingly provocative oppositions have aged into dangerously divergent philosophies; their relationship is thus predicated on the past, because only in the past was there cause to believe in the future. Freya finds solace from reality in the pursuit of her art; Bernard has no such consolations.

Viveca Lindfors and Alexander Knox.


As I watched THESE ARE THE DAMNED again, I found myself most drawn this time to the different stages of life reflected in these three relationships, as well as the film's subtextual conviction that the world would be a much better place if we could all simply find a way to do what we most like to do. If this is a naïve idea, the film argues, that is its saving grace because any philosophy more cynical lends us as a civilization to our doom. This is an idea that comes out, as do all the film's meatiest philosophic exchanges, in dialogue between Freya and Bernard. As Freya suggests at one point, Bernard's ambition to public service was not his failing, but rather that his morals were different to hers. The film runs riot with divergent morals, and the worst we can do -- the film seems to say -- is to believe the conservative propaganda that there is only one valid morality, because therein lies the key to fascism and the ultimate instrument of political blackmail. Bernard has turned this key in his own heart, and his strict need for secrecy has closed him off, made him cold -- and coldness figures in his secret itself: the existence in a subterranean complex of nine naturally radioactive children who are being groomed to inherit the Earth after the inevitable nuclear devastation of the planet.


Bernard's clandestine classroom -- note the looming shadow of Freya's "cemetery bird" sculpture visible in frame with him.

Bernard's tenure in the world of politics has left him worse than a cynic; he's become a fatalist, too beaten down by bureaucracy to believe any longer in human solutions to human problems. His entire approach to his life and future has a basis in death. He's also a hippocrite, bemoaning how "the age of senseless violence" has reached the British Isles with the vicious antics of the Teddy Boys though he represents a far more conscious and final brand of senseless violence. For her part, Freya -- being a sculptress and daily engaged in the process, discipline and indeed the religion of creation (not creationism!) -- scoffs at Bernard's stoic certainty that such a day will ever come, and when she finally learns of the existence of the children, she rightly questions (as perhaps only a woman can) exactly what kind of world Bernard is preparing them to inhabit. It's my reading of the film that what Bernard hopes will survive the holocaust is not really the children, but rather the principles with which they have been inculcated, so that these creatures of radiation might endure as a tribute to the extinct ideals that promulgated them. Freya's accidental discovery of the children shatters her romantic covenant with Bernard, and naturally signs her own death warrant, and in this way Losey emphasizes that any government that keeps secrets from the people is by definition our enemy, deranged and fascist. When the light of the outside world touches upon Bernard's dark secret, the result is chaos in the classroom -- an anarchic rebellion among the children, itself an indictment of the postwar realities that gave rise to the Teddy Boys' own brand of violent anarchy.


Anarchy in the U.K., fifteen years before the Sex Pistols.

Joseph Losey, of course, made this film as an American expatriate working abroad, during the time following his blacklisting in the United States. Though Michel Ciment's career-length interview book CONVERSATIONS WITH LOSEY finds the director not overly enamored with the film, nor with science fiction as a genre, it's hard not to see powerful personal currents coursing through it. The importance that Losey places on doing what we love to do is most effectively illustrated with Freya's decision to return to chiselling away at her sculpture-in-progress, though she knows she has only minutes left in which to live. Though she lives in almost complete isolation, she has chosen to live in accordance with her ideals and beliefs, and truthfully tells Bernard that she will not live in denial of what she knows. She is, then, a victim of her own honsty, rejecting the offer to join Bernard in his world of shadows, much as Losey himself was sent into exile from a supposedly free country for his political beliefs. In the film's closing moments, seen from the God-like vantage of a government helicopter, we see Bernard's project in ruins, with many lives traumatized if not ended and much faith destroyed, and a barren seaside landscape only modestly removed from desolation. What most survives in the film's closing tableaux is the power of Freya's art, much as the power of this film has survived the political turbulence of Losey's own life and times.

Joan and Simon -- literally kept at sea by the forces of intimidation on a yacht flying the American flag.


It's hard to believe that critical reaction to the film was lukewarm at best. The cutting of ten minutes from the film may have done it no favors, but it didn't really damage it or obscure its bravery and brilliance. Among other things, Losey was criticized for hiring "the bland American actor"Macdonald Carey for the lead role of Simon. What I see in Simon's relationship with Joan -- again, at my present age -- is an illustration of how people necessarily go through life, on some levels, wearing rose-colored glasses, preferring to believe in a fantasy of life rather than look too closely at the true complexion of the world they inhabit. Vacations are always invitations to romantic fantasy, of course, and we imagine that the relationship between Simon and Joan is unlikely to endure even if they survive their accidental exposure to the contaminated children. It is dreams such as they discuss while in each other's arms that makes day-to-day life bearable under the best circumstances. That said, when they are made aware of the hideous truth buried beneath the craggy cliffs surrounding Freya's studio, they show righteous outrage and dedicate themselves to the children's cause. If they ultimate do more harm than good by following their hearts, it's because Bernard's experiment has nothing to do with matters of the heart, or even common sense.

Carey may be unlikely casting, but he conveys a strong humanistic quality in his performance, quite genuine in contrast to Field's initially cool but increasingly warm portrayal, and he's convincing too as the film's only truly pro-active character. Field's dead-on performances as a vapid girlfriend in HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM and as a vapid actress in Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM were responsible for her earlier excoriation in the British press, but her scenes here with the children, or when she asks Simon to put her back ashore, convince me that she was better than competent, seem to me just what the Joan on the page needed.

Joan and Simon discover the cold children who do not turn warm when touched.

Seeing the film for the first time in its correct aspect ratio made me more aware of the specific importance of a supporting character, Sid, played by Kenneth Cope. Sid is first singled out by the film's framing when King (Reed) asks Joan if she thinks he'd ever let another man's hands touch her; it's cropped offscreen in standard ratio prints, but here we can see Sid's wounded reaction to King's words as he realizes that he, too, will have to tangle with King if his secret feelings for Joan ever come out.

Speaking of the film's cinematography, THESE ARE THE DAMNED is without a doubt one of the finest showcases director of photography Arthur Grant ever had. Though overshadowed in his career by the likes of Freddie Francis and Jack Asher, Grant was a master of widescreen photography in his own right, as this film and Roger Corman's TOMB OF LIGEIA show in particular. Both films, in fact, accrue a certain ambience from the presence of calcified rock -- the abbey in LIGEIA and the stony seaside cliffs of Portland Bill in THE DAMNED. The opening moments in the town square of Weymouth, set to an original James Bernard '50s-style rock song called "Black Leather Rock," offer us a fascinating idea of what A CLOCKWORK ORANGE might have looked like had a film been made closer to the time Anthony Burgess wrote his original novel. (Its first edition appeared in 1962, the year after THE DAMNED was made.)

King, Simon and Joan strike a temporary truce as they begin to succumb to radiation sickness.

But moreso than giving rise to appreciations of how well it is acted, directed, constructed, and photographed, viewing THESE ARE THE DAMNED reminds us of what a positive social tool the science fiction genre used to be, in the years before it succumbed to special effects, comic bookery, and soul-sucking nihilism wearing the expensive disguise of style. It was once a cinema of ideas and aspirations. At its best, science fiction could be a political force. As downbeat as this masterpiece may be, it has always left me feeling somehow more alert, more alive, with my hopes for the future in the ascendant. Part of that feeling is based in my own fundamental alliance with Freya's life philosophy -- it's not that I deny that bad things may happen, but that I refuse to live my life in service to the certainty that they will. Another part is my belief that the wisdom of this world-weary (yet world-loving) film is so eloquent and undeniable that -- as long as it can be seen by young people who might someday rise to positions of power -- our chances for survival should be in good hands.

Which brings me to my closing statement: This film has been out of circulation for too long. It's a profound pleasure, perhaps even a relief, to welcome it back.

Ken Russell at 80

The last two times I saw Ken Russell, it was rather unexpected. He makes surprise cameo appearances in two recent features, COLOR ME KUBRICK and TRAPPED ASHES, turning up late in the stories to play two different sorts of lunatic in two different asylums. Viewers of British television might feel that they too last saw him as an asylum inmate, as he turned up earlier this year as one of the surprise house residents of Channel 4's wonky reality show CELEBRITY BIG BROTHER.
Is he trying to tell us something?
Ken Russell has every right to gravitate to such roles because his asylum has always been the cinema, and our world is a madhouse if Ken Russell cannot be allowed to make movies. He hasn't made a full theatrical feature since 1991's dramatic monologue WHORE, though the IMDb claims that he's currently preparing a new version of MOLL FLANDERS for producer Harry Alan Towers. We can only hope that this provocative meeting of minds will yield something more ingratiatingly volatile than what he's been able to give us in the meantime, which ranges from the staid (PRISONER OF HONOR) to the silly (THE INSATIABLE MRS. KIRSCH), and from the disastrous (MINDBENDER) to the agreeably tame (LADY CHATTERLEY) and the unrecognizably bland (DOGBOYS).
Though it's been nearly twenty years of varying degrees of candy floss and novacaine, one instinctively knows that it hasn't been entirely his fault. Thirty years after VALENTINO (1977), I still can't see Ken Russell's byline on any film without imagining concussions of gunpowder and hearing the triumphal passages of the 1812 Overture. Only the spectre of Stanley Kubrick causes me to hesitate before hailing Ken Russell as the Beethoven of English-speaking cinema -- and yet, where Kubrick embodies the gravitas of Beethoven, Russell is the elation of Beethoven. And of Tchaikovsky. And of Mahler. And of Liszt. And of Townshend.
My first exposure to Ken Russell was THE DEVILS in 1971, when I was not really old enough to see it in the eyes of the MPAA. Walking into THE DEVILS without a clue is like inserting a finger(or worse) into a light socket without a clue; in retrospect, I'm certain there was much about the film that went over my 15 year-old head, but some very important life lessons have stuck with me, and every subsequent time I've seen it, I have felt renewed awe in regard to its intensity, passion, and honesty. I feel it's a necessary film to see if one resolves to see the world as it is, which is by no means a sugar pill on the tongue. I wrote a definitive article about THE DEVILS for VW some years ago, which compared all the extant video versions and explained what was still missing and what was known about it. Mark Kermode gave the issue to Ken Russell and sent word back to me that the great man had considered my work "authoritative." Years later, following the blueprint of that article, Mark made it his own cause to see THE DEVILS restored and did so, even managing the impossible: finding the film's notoriously suppressed "Rape of Christ" sequence and having it shown on the BBC. I'm very proud of playing even a detached inspirational role in that remarkable turn of events.
Next Russell film: WOMEN IN LOVE at a revival booking in 1974. When I tell people that going to the movies in the 1970s was exciting because one always went knowing that it was possible you might see something that would completely change your life, or at least your outlook on it, I am mostly thinking of WOMEN IN LOVE. Ken Russell was one of very few English directors who could be counted on to deliver this sort of ego-shattering blow every single time to bat. I was knocked out by WOMEN IN LOVE; I saw it four times the week I first saw it. It inspired me to read the D.H. Lawrence novel, followed by all of Lawrence, and later that same year, it was the movie that Donna and I saw together before I proposed to her.
The same theater where I saw WOMEN IN LOVE subsequently played host to THE MUSIC LOVERS and SAVAGE MESSIAH, and it was in the company of the theater's owners when I saw TOMMY for the first time. In the parking lot, they put me in such a condition for the screening that I felt like I was inside that burning cockpit with Robert Powell. I've since watched TOMMY more times than any of Russell's films, and while the cockpit shot now looks to me quite blatantly phony, everything up to and including the Cousin Kevin sequence is as much like a dramatization of my own life story as I've ever seen onscreen. There are moments, certain shots, when I actually feel as though I'm looking through my own navel at events that took place before I was born.
My Whitman Sampler of Unforgettable Russell Moments: Max Adrian as Delius, honking the score of his next masterpiece to amenuensis Christopher Gable in SONG OF SUMMER... Glenda Jackson taunting the bulls, Alan Bates' reading of the fig poem, and of course the wrestling scene of WOMEN IN LOVE... Richard Chamberlain's suicide attempt in THE MUSIC LOVERS... Oliver Reed's response to the threatened demolition of Loudon in THE DEVILS... Helen Mirren's spectacular nude scene in SAVAGE MESSIAH... Ringo Starr as the Pope, Rick Wakeman as Thor, and Paul Nicholas as a vampiric Richard Wagner in LISZTOMANIA... Ann Margret writhing about in soap suds, baked beans and chocolate in TOMMY... William Hurt and Blair Brown eroding like sand sphinxes under the passing winds of time in ALTERED STATES... Annie Potts wrapping a gift for her estranged husband John Laughlin in Life Savers wrapping paper in CRIMES OF PASSION, and the long dialogue scene between the two of them where she admits to feeling unclean about sex... and literally everything that Oliver Reed does in TOMMY. (Ken Russell gave us the best of Oliver Reed -- never forget that.)
Someday the BBC must release DVD box sets of all of Russell's short films and television works, including the long-withdrawn DANCE OF THE SEVEN VEILS (1970), the subject of a still-standing injunction by the Johann Strauss estate. And Warner Home Video must release THE DEVILS, preferably with Mark Kermode's wonderful "Hell on Earth" documentary included in the set. The day's not over yet -- announce it as a birthday offering, you infidels!
And so bravissimo, Maestro, and a very Happy Birthday to you, wherever you may be. We've never met, but you know me too well. Not only have you changed the way I see, you've shown me how to live.

Monday, July 02, 2007

What, Me Thinking?

Jeremy Richey's Moon in the Gutter blog, which I've recommended to you in the past, has seen fit to "tag" me with a Thinking Blogger Award. There's no tangible award involved; rather, it's a thumbs-up from a fellow blogger, entitling one to include the above jpg with one's blogging and their blessing. I have no idea who started this ball rolling, but I'm flattered that it came to me before it rolled full-circle.

As I explained to Jeremy, I'm appreciative of his supportive gesture but I was reluctant to acknowledge it because that meant compliance with the rules that come with winning this honor, particularly the meme-like obligation to reassign it to five other worthy blogs. I'm really not that much into reading blogs, especially not film-related ones. (Believe me, I have enough film-related material to read by publishing a monthly magazine!) So the few blogs I do frequent, like Jeremy's, typically touch on a variety of different subjects. Also, the blogs I like can be, but are not necessarily, cerebral. Some are, but in many cases, I'm most attracted to the personality of the blogger, their kindred quality, their point of view, the brand of information or wisdom they impart.

As I was saying, it was my intention to thank Jeremy privately for his kindness (which I did) and otherwise pretend it didn't happen (which he understood), but now Peter Nellhaus over at Coffee Coffee and More Coffee has seen fit to give me an Honorable Mention on his list... so I'm feeling like I must make some kind of acknowledgement or run the risk of appearing snobbish.

So, okay, I'll tag some thinking blogs. Here are some personal favorites -- in no particular order, other than "ladies first" -- that I believe would make honorable additions to the roster. I don't know any of these bloggers personally and, to the best of my knowledge, none have been previously tagged:

THE SHEILA VARIATIONS by Sheila O'Malley

IF CHARLIE PARKER WAS A GUNSLINGER THERE'D BE A WHOLE LOT OF DEAD COPYCATS by Tom Sutpen, Stephen Cooke and Richard Gibson

ROBERT FRIPP'S DIARY

MORRICONE LOVER by Soundtrack Lover

JAHSONIC: A VOCABULARY OF CULTURE by Anonymous

I don't want to explain why I chose these particular blogs. Follow the links, check them out, and come to an understanding of your own. Likewise, I'm not going to tell any of these bloggers that I've "tagged" them. They can find out for themselves -- by reading my (ahem, award-winning) blog.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

It Exists!

You can see a special 11-minute home video of Donna and me opening the very first copies of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK over on the Bava Book Update blog -- right now.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Friday Announcements

Contents from the July 2007 issue of SIGHT & SOUND are now posted at their website. Among the free samples on display are a well-worth-reading appreciation of Ken Russell by Linda Ruth Williams (remember her from MARIO BAVA MAESTRO OF THE MACABRE?), Michael Brooke on Jan Svankmajer's LUNACY, and my own review of DA Pennebaker's Bob Dylan documentary DONT LOOK BACK. This new issue may not have yet reached newsstands here in the States, so if you still haven't picked up June's swell "Grindhouse" issue, you'd better hurry -- it's not long for the newsstand.

Also, we are presently in the midst of shipping VIDEO WATCHDOG #132, which returned from the printer on Wednesday. It's a fine looking issue, with a great diversity of films and television covered, and the general tone strikes me as more nostalgic and light-hearted than our previous CASINO ROYALE number. For those of you who have been petitioning me for the return of "Things From the Attic"... it's in here!

I also wanted to mention some additional information about THE THOMAS MANN COLLECTION titles, which I blogged about a couple of days ago. Apparently there is some uncertainty at large about whether the set includes the full-length versions of the made-for-German-television THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN and DOCTOR FAUSTUS, or their condensed theatrical versions. I am currently two episodes into DOCTOR FAUSTUS, which is certainly the miniseries version; the IMDb lists a 137m running time for the movie, and the first two parts alone nearly amount to this. It takes awhile to get going, but I'm very much caught up in it. As for THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, it's packaged in an ever stouter disc booklet than FAUSTUS and lists a running time of nearly five hours. Also, THE THOMAS MANN COLLECTION is a Koch Vision (formerly Koch Media) and this label is rapidly becoming synonymous with careless DVD transfers. DOCTOR FAUSTUS looks like it was mastered from an old PAL tape, with lots of staggering during camera pans; it's acceptable only because it's the only opportunity I've had to see this film. It's also letterboxed in a manner that requires me to wide-zoom the picture, which gives it a bit of a taffy-pull, but it's the only way I can fill my screen and get both tiers of the English subtitling. I had the same complaint about Koch Media's LA BELLE CAPTIVE, and their release of Alain Resnais' MURIEL was only somewhat better. This label is exercising superb taste about what to license and release, but they could use an employee with a clue about how to present it all on disc properly.

Lastly, as I type these words, there is a large box sitting in our living room. It contains, I am told, two preliminary copies of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK -- the first two bound copies in the world. These copies are supposedly hand-stitched, in the manner of the dummy blank books we received last year, and once we approve these, the remainder of our order will be sent to the bindery, completing the print run. So why am I sitting here blogging, when I could be holding my book, savoring the fruits of my labors? Well, Donna wants to camcord the occasion for posterity, so rooms have to be cleaned (it's hard to find a presentable room here during the shipping of an issue, which is what's going on at the moment), showers have to be taken, and we have to learn how to use this camcorder, which we haven't touched in years, all over again. So much for spontaneity... but I hope to have some kind of report on the "grand opening" on the Bava Book Update blog later this evening.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Cronenberg's Next

I've found a riveting new trailer for David Cronenberg's forthcoming EASTERN PROMISES online. Watching this made me think of two things: as good as she was in them, it's heartening to see Naomi Watts moving away from KING KONG (film and video game) and the RING series and going back to serious drama (I recently watched 21 GRAMS again and she's never been better); and secondly, this dark thriller looks like it could be the Oscar contender for Cronenberg that A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE wasn't, quite.

Speaking of Cronenbergian things, I'm told that my Millipede Press book on VIDEODROME is proceeding nicely and now in the photo selection/clean-up stage. This past week I pulled out some additional never-before-published shots, including several of myself on the set -- images I literally haven't seen in decades. I was surprised to discover that photos exist of me standing on the actual Videodrome set, and the derelict ship where the film's closing scene takes place, and in Rick Baker's EFX workshop holding a severed arm and a big chunk of Barry Convex cancer. There are also shots of me in the company of David Cronenberg, James Woods, Debbie Harry, Mark Irwin, Carol Spier, and co-producer Victor Solnicki (who I didn't recall meeting). Since I don't anticipate seeing too much more of myself in the book than an author's photo, I will share some of those images here once Donna has a chance to digitally rejuvenate them.

PS: Truphen Newben is back with two more terrifying TALES FROM THE PUB at YouTube: "The Return" and "Doppelganger."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Exploring Genius and Madness with Thomas Mann

Back in 1981 or '82, when I was a regular consumer of VARIETY, I can remember being taken pleasantly aback by a pair of full page ads announcing the completion of a couple of German film productions based on two classic novels by Thomas Mann: THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN and DOCTOR FAUSTUS.

This was around the time I was just dipping my toe into home video and still very much a dedicated reader. Somewhat earlier in my life, in the mid- to late-1970s as I was chain-reading my way through my literary education, I read a great deal of Mann and loved it -- those two books particularly, though I also found myself deliriously overwhelmed by the scope and style of his most colossal work of the imagination, his JOSEPH AND HIS BROTHERS tetralogy. I was thrilled to know that both novels had finally been adapted for the screen and couldn't wait to see them. What I did not know is that it would take another 28 years for that to happen.

Only now have the film versions of THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN [Der Zauberberg, 1982] and DOCTOR FAUSTUS [Doktor Faustus, 1982] become available for viewing with English subtitles, in a DVD box set from Koch Vision called THE THOMAS MANN COLLECTION -- along with an epic miniseries production of Mann's BUDDENBROOKS previously televised here as part of PBS' GREAT PERFORMANCES. The seven-disc set runs longer than 19 hours, making its hefty cost seem more reasonable.

I'm posting this information in a state of excitement; I haven't as yet seen the films themselves, though I plan to dig in soon. But what I can tell you is appetizing. THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN stars Rod Steiger, Marie-France Pisier and Kurt Raab, and was scripted and directed by Hans W. Geissendörfer, best known for his political vampire film of 1970, JONATHAN. DOCTOR FAUSTUS stars Jon Finch (great casting, I'm guessing) and Marie-Hélène Breillat and was written and directed by THE TIN DRUM producer Franz Seitz, who also produced both films -- some twenty years after producing a picture based on Mann's celebrated story "Tonio Krüger."

For those of you who aren't familiar with the novels, both works explore the hazy margins between disease and inspiration, art and malady, genius and madness. THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN is the magic realist chronicle of the education and elliptic romances encountered by a young German male while stuck for a long period of time at a health sanitorium high in the Swiss mountains, and DOCTOR FAUSTUS is the fictional story of classical composer Adrian Leverkuhn, whose musical genius is rumored to have been cemented through a deal with the Devil.

This is one of those DVD releases that sneak out completely under the radar, so I thought I would bring it to your attention -- merely as a public service. Incidentally, if your knowledge of Mann's work is limited to a viewing of Visconti's DEATH IN VENICE, you haven't yet discovered him. These productions bode well to be the ideal place, short of the books themselves, to get acquainted.

Building a Better Plague

The Sony Pictures DVD is called CLIVE BARKER'S THE PLAGUE, though the film was neither directed, written by, or based on a story by Clive Barker. THE PLAGUE was actually directed by Hal Masonberg, who co-authored the script with Teal Minton; Barker was one of the film's producers. When producers take a possessory credit, it's almost always a bad sign -- a front-and-center billboard of territorial conflict -- but, in this case, Masonberg and Minton can take a measure of relief in letting Barker stand in the spotlight: the version of the movie bearing his name has received such virulent critical and public reaction that "it wasn't that bad" is the best comment I could find about it online.

Normally, we could just forget the picture, along with so many other store-cluttering DTV titles... but in this case, it's not so easy. Word is coming out about the existence of a suppressed true creator's cut of THE PLAGUE that is supposedly far superior to the release version.
From my mailbox:

As an avid reader and fan of your site, I wanted to direct your attention to a site dedicated to getting the Writers & Director's Cut of THE PLAGUE released to DVD.
In the fall of 2005, the film was taken away from its writers and director during post. After an 8 year struggle to get the film made, the footage was re-cut from scratch by the producers without the involvement of the film's creators. Stock footage was added, new dialogue recorded, and the film completely restructured. It was released to dvd in September of 2006 at a running time of 88 minutes under the title CLIVE BARKER'S THE PLAGUE, though it was not based on any of Barker's work (it was an original screenplay by director Hal Masonberg and co-writer Teal Minton) and Barker, personally, had very little to do with the making of the film. That version of the film in no way reflects the years of hard work, creativity, or artistic intent of the writers and director of the film. It is solely and completely a "producers' cut".
However, after having been removed from the film, director Hal Masonberg took it upon himself to finish the film with the materials available to him (the film's dailies on dvd and a Macintosh computer-turned post-production facility) The film was originally shot in Super 35 by veteran cinematographer, Bill Butler (JAWS, THE CONVERSATION, FRAILTY), who was also not invited to partake in the film's post-production process.
The response to the Writers & Director's Cut by those who have seen it has been through the roof. However, without further support, this film may never see the light of day as the film's current distributor, Screen Gems, has no plans to release this cut.
I ask that you take a look at this site. On it you will find an hour-long documentary containing interviews with not only director, Hal Masonberg, but many others including Dee Wallace and other cast members, film authors/ journalists. There is also a link to a petition and much more info on what happened to this film.
It is people like you and sites like yours that can make a world of difference to a film like this. All the difference, in fact. By making your readers aware of the existence of this site, we may be able to convince Screen Gems that there is an audience for this cut of the film and, perhaps, other films that have met a similar fate.
Thanks in advance for your interest and we hope you enjoy.

My response to such an e-mail is complicated. I'm cynical enough about the Internet to initially suspect that this whole thing may be (at best) a clever ruse to draw me and other bloggers into the middle of an ego contest, or (at worst) to give a badly received film a second chance with a re-edit. On the other hand, I know there are talented filmmakers out there, even established names, who have their work taken away from them by money people who end up ruining good work with their needless, ego-driven interference. (I'm not talking about Clive Barker here specifically, as Masonberg's interview on the website makes clear that Barker himself was only involved remotely, as the figurehead of his production company.)
In short, the painful story laid out on the Spreading the Plague website -- which includes Masonberg being fired from the picture during its editing phase -- sounds pretty convincing to me. Whether or not a true creator's cut would yield a stronger PLAGUE or not, I can't say, but I do know that, in the history of such production interference, director's cuts usually prevail. However, in this case, such vindication is by no means assured. A director's cut exists only through Masonberg's independent, guerilla-like reconstruction of his and his co-author's original intentions, made at home from digital dailies after being barred from the editing room. It would seem that his cut therefore made use of materials that were not his legal property, and now Masonberg finds himself in the awkward position of trying to interest Screen Gems in releasing a product that was made in spite of Clive Barker's company, and in spite of them.
I know it's hard to work up any interest for a movie that badly disappointed you on the first pass, but if you're passionate about creator's rights, you may find the revelations of the Spreading the Plague website to your interest. You can find it here.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Other Addams Family

It is said that Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is preparing a number of their Hammer Film holdings for release on DVD later in the year. Though it is not one of the most beloved films in this batch, I'm hopeful that Sony will get around, sooner or later, to William Castle's one-shot collaboration with the illustrious horror studio, THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1963). I watched this film last night, courtesy of a year's old Encore Mystery broadcast, as part of my ongoing tape-to-DVD-R conversion procedure, and was surprised that this movie, about which I've always been lukewarm at best, suddenly kicked in as puckish entertainment.

Scripted by Robert Dillon -- whose other credits include Roger Corman's X THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES (1963), PRIME CUT (1972) and FRENCH CONNECTION II (1975)-- Castle's THE OLD DARK HOUSE is not really a remake of the 1932 Universal classic directed by James Whale, though it too claims basis in J. B. Priestley's 1928 novel BENIGHTED. I'm told that the Whale film is very faithful to the novel until just before the end, and the Castle film's storyline bears only very loose similarities to the earlier narrative. Castle's film was not accorded much respect upon its release; in the United Kingdom, it was issued in a cut 76m version, while, in America, it was issued at its full 86 minute length. However, US distributor Columbia refused the expense of color prints, releasing it only in decidedly unlustrous black-and-white. It was shown this way on American television until sometime in the late 1980s, when it began to appear on premium cable channels and local commercial stations in color. It looks startlingly good in color, and I was also pleased to discover how much precision and compositional quality Arthur Grant's photography gained when I zoomed the full-frame picture up on my widescreen set. This, too, is the way THE OLD DARK HOUSE was meant to be seen and too often hasn't.

My newfound appreciation of THE OLD DARK HOUSE certainly doesn't extend to comparing it to the 1932 version, which is truly incomparable, nor would I compare it favorably to some of Castle's own work. It's not a perfect-of-its-kind confection as were THE TINGLER and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. However, it's fairly assuredly the finest of Castle's many attempts to fuse humor and horror, and the opportunity to work with a thoroughly experienced British cast and Hammer's top-flight technical crew (including production designer Bernard Robinson and composer Benjamin Frankel) put Castle ahead of his usual game, which often made use of some less-than-impressive American supporting players. Top-billed American actor Tom Poston, returning to the Castle ranks from the previous year's ZOTZ!, carries the film confidently and amiably. In the earlier film, Poston played a variation on the absent-minded professor character played so successfully by Fred MacMurray in two then-recent Walt Disney productions, and came off as a likeable if diluted eccentric; here, he's playing a role better suited to his range and qualities and he manages to navigate a narrow and sometimes treacherous path between drama and physical comedy. Surrounding Poston are a motley crew of British players as the creepy Femm family: Robert Morley, Peter Bull, Joyce Grenfell (who fears that, if she stops knitting, the world will end -- as indeed it does), Mervyn Johns, Fenella Fielding, Danny Green, and the seemingly normal Janette Scott. Castle obtains a stronger body of performances than he got in any of the other films he directed in the 1960s, and if truth be told, the performances are uniformly stronger here than they were in the average Hammer film of this period.

So... the performances are delightful, the script's dark comedy plays well, the art direction is splendid, the music is appropriately baroque and doomy -- what is it about THE OLD DARK HOUSE that doesn't quite work? Somehow, whatever was necessary to bond these elements into a happy, organic package simply isn't in evidence. It isn't just that Danny Green makes a poor Morgan when compared to Boris Karloff -- indeed, when this film was first released, the James Whale version was considered all but lost, and few who went to see it knew much more about the earlier adaptation than the stills they had seen; the Morgan in this film isn't even the Femm's butler but rather a super-strong, strangulation-happy family member. Castle was able to cast his films, knew the atmosphere he was after, and had the right sense of humor, but he simply wasn't capable to make all these components move as one. In some ways, he didn't develop as a director beyond the abilities he'd acquired while making films for the Whistler and Crime Doctor series at Columbia in the 1940s: here as there, actors are trotted out in character when they are needed, and one almost feels them disappear as they move offscreen. The action is too stagey to convincingly blend with the mise-en-scène.

The film includes the credit "drawn by Charles Addams" (a monstrous hand actually paints the great man's signature onscreen in moon-pale ink), though the great NEW YORKER cartoonist drew neither the film poster nor designed the production. What he drew was the old dark house visible behind the main titles -- and drawn black on a deep purple background, his work isn't terribly visible, at least not in the print I viewed. Nevertheless, his presence acknowledges the debt that the Femms played in developing his own Addams Family -- indeed, he openly acknowledged that his butler Lurch had been inspired by Karloff's Morgan in the original film. It was clever of Castle to hire Addams, not only for the coup of adding his name to the credits and advertising, but for recognizing the relationship that existed between Addams drawings and the movie that he wanted to make. If you think about it, all of Castle's earlier horror films had been comedic though in a non-diegetic sense; they were genuinely horrific, but comedic in the way he sold them. After the rip-roaring success of HOMICIDAL, Castle's work in horror sought to balance horror and humor; it's there in 13 GHOSTS, in MR. SARDONICUS (if we see the version including Castle's "Punishment Poll" footage), and in I SAW WHAT YOU DID -- and it's in THE OLD DARK HOUSE that this uneasy fusion works best. It works well enough, in fact, to have inspired in other people the idea of developing Addams' cartoons as a television series.

William Castle (who died in 1977) is still about as popular among movie fans as he ever was when he was alive. Most of his best movies are available on DVD and he inspired the character played by John Goodman in Joe Dante's terrific 1993 movie MATINEE. Neither Castle's nor Hammer's most devoted admirers have had much good to say about THE OLD DARK HOUSE over the years, but it's doubtful that a cut or cropped or colorless version of the experience really passes for an intended viewing of THE OLD DARK HOUSE. My memory suitably refreshed and corrected, I think it harbors enough of the mysterious and spooky and altogether ooky to warrant a closer look, should a Sony DVD ever wend our way.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Get Twisted

It was more than a decade ago that Something Weird Video released the first volume in an ongoing series of trailers called TWISTED SEX. There are currently 22 different volumes, each running over 90m in length, but it doesn't appear that the series is destined for an official DVD release. Instead, SWV continues to offer the compilations for $10 each, on VHS and DVD-R. The full set, along with SWV's other fascinating trailer compilations, can be found here and I give them my strongest recommendation.

I recommend the TWISTED SEX compilations, and also another equally fascinating comp called THE LATE LATE SHOW, because -- at their best -- they are like archaeological digs into a buried world of lost, or nearly lost, cinema. No one who truly loves movies can fail to become absorbed in the revelations they have to show and tell us. The trailers used to fill out THE LATE LATE SHOW, for example, are from primarily European films so obscure to American sensibilities -- stuff like X-RAY OF A KILLER, HEADLINES OF DESTRUCTION and THE BLACK MONOCLE-- that it's like a window into an alternate universe.

A couple of nights ago, I decided to load up the first volume of TWISTED SEX for the first time in at least a decade, giving myself something to watch while I decided what I really wanted to watch. It only took a few trailers for me to realize that I had already made my choice, and I stayed with it for the whole 100 or so minutes. Leaving the program's erotic content out of it, which is considerable and sometimes extends to full frontal nudity for both sexes, I found myself primarily absorbed in what these trailers have to tell us about those sidestreets of cinema history that have never been thoroughly investigated and may never be. One such case is MADAME OLGA'S MASSAGE PARLOR (1965), the fourth and final entry in American Film Distributing Corporation's notorious "Olga" series, which now survives only in the form of the promotional trailer included here and other excerpts that were used to pad AFDC's compilation film MONDO OSCENITA. Also currently believed lost are two Barry Mahon titles promo'd here, FANNY HILL MEETS LADY CHATTERLY and FANNY HILL MEETS THE RED BARON. Though it's no longer lost (thanks to the efforts of Something Weird mogul Mike Vraney), the trailer for Andy Milligan's VAPORS -- a collection of high-contrast still images -- gives the film the aura of something lost, something eluding us even as it falls within our grasp.

As interesting and poignant as it can be to witness scenes from lost movies, I find it just as remarkable to encounter familiar voices and faces in the unlikely environs of sexploitation and its ballyhoo. For example, the trailer for STRANGE COMPULSION (a 1964 film evidently influenced by PEEPING TOM as well as Sacher-Masoch) is narrated by Les Tremayne, an experienced radio and voice actor (he narrated FORBIDDEN PLANET and dubbed RODAN) principally remembered by children of the Seventies as the avuncular co-star of SHAZAM. Then there are the sightings: someone who may be Robert Alda is glimpsed in the trailer for ALL WOMAN (1967); the famous NYC photographer Weegee shows up as the unlikely star of THE IMP-PROBABLE MR. WEEGEE (1967), seemingly set in Paris; John Beck, a member of the classic psych band The Seeds before becoming an actor, can be seen in a clip from Barry Mahon's GOOD TIME WITH A BAD GIRL (1967); Richard B. Schull drowns a woman in a toilet and gloats about it in the promo for WATCH THE BIRDIE (1965); and RE-ANIMATOR's David Gale can be seen with Jennifer Welles in the trailer for A WEEKEND WITH STRANGERS (1971). I have to wonder if Farley Granger himself ever knew that he was the star of something called BAD GIRLS, apparently a reissue retitling of an Italian giallo picture alternately known as THE SLASHER IS THE SEX MANIAC and PENETRATION.

A trailer for something called THE BRUTES (1970) not only features German actor Klaus Löwitsch (DESPAIR) but turns out to be an exploitative US retitling of Roger Fritz's Mädchen... nur mit Gewalt, not a film I realized had achieved an American release. This movie is legendary among fans of progressive rock as one of the few films to be scored by the pioneering Krautrock group Can. It introduced the song "Soul Desert" from their album SOUNDTRACKS -- which can also be heard in the trailer, though not the same performance included on the album. Similarly, I noticed that the trailer for THE RAPE KILLER makes use of library music whose descending electric bass pattern I recognized from my past viewings of TWILIGHT PEOPLE and MY PLEASURE IS MY BUSINESS (with Xaviera "The Happy Hooker" Hollander). Also mixed into this highly-charged intoxicant are trailers for movies with titles like THE IMMORAL, STEFANIA, and THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS -- which hail from the last countries you'd expect: Sweden, Greece, and Japan, respectively. (Okay, that THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS comes from Japan is not so unexpected.)

It's an old defense that the kid caught with an issue of PLAYBOY insists that he's only perusing it for the articles, and a not-always-supportable argument among devotées of sexploitation cinema that such films often have more than eroticism to commend them. But watching TWISTED SEX VOLUME 1, I must admit that I spent almost as much time scribbling down notes as I did looking at the screen. So, apparently, did Robert Plante, whose nostalgic blog Chateau Vulgaria has been running intermittent write-ups about the TWISTED SEX series since last September. He's currently up to Volume 6, and his notes include valuable additional information about release dates and distributors. You can find them here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Am I Still a Novelist?

In case any of you are wondering if I'm still a novelist, I sometimes wonder this as well. I'd certainly like to be, and I hope another eleven years won't have have to pass between my previous novel and the next. THROAT SPROCKETS was published in 1994, and THE BOOK OF RENFIELD is now two years old and counting. (Incidentally, Ryan Murphy's option on the Renfield book has expired, and we are now entertaining new offers for the screen rights.) I've begun work on a new screenplay, based on a book I'm adapting, but something deep inside me isn't feeling the profound satisfaction that I get from writing fiction, and I miss it. Now that I've finished editing my second monthly issue of VW in a row, the old fictive itch is asserting itself once again, beckoning me to complicate my life and deadlines once again.

You may remember that I've mentioned here in the past a novel-in-progress, one which I've actually finished several times but never fully to my liking, called THE ONLY CRIMINAL. I first got the idea for this book almost as long ago as I began researching the Bava book; it's the best idea I've ever had for a novel, but for some reason, I could never quite find my way out the other end of its maze. Some months ago, at the request of my agent, I sent her a nearly-but-not-quite-finished draft of the novel because she had found an editor who expressed interest. Last night before going to bed, I sent her an e-mail asking if there was an update. This morning, she copied me on the editor's response, which I reproduce here in full, minus his signature:

"Thank you for sending over THE ONLY CRIMINAL. I thought this was a fun, well-written book supported by a great, fantastical idea. However, I would have liked if the author focused more on one or two main characters, instead of jumping around so much, and began digging deeper into what the Only Criminal really is earlier in the book. I hope you find a good home for this project."

I must be getting old, because I can remember 1) when "fun", "well-written" books with a "great idea" were in demand by publishers, and 2) when editors still worked with writers on promising manuscripts to make the most of them. Those days, it would seem, are somewhere over our shoulder in the next county.

This editor didn't know my work, evidently, or understand the book, even if he derived pleasure from it. Like my other novels, THE ONLY CRIMINAL is about a central character and others in his immediate orbit, but it's more importantly about a global phenomenon tied to found artifacts of, shall we say, infernal provenance. That's my thing -- I've worked hard to make it my own, and according to the reviews I've received over the years, it's well-liked. You wouldn't ask J. G. Ballard to please resubmit his latest after beefing up the characterizations and leaving out the clinical lingo and psychosexual sociology, would you? And dig deeper into "what the Only Criminal really is earlier in the book"? Never mind that I begin asking that question as early as the first chapter!

This careless little paragraph got me angry enough to spend the day doing something I haven't been able to do in longer than I would care to admit: I finally finished THE ONLY CRIMINAL to my own liking. It was much closer to being finished than I suspected, and perhaps part of me hadn't been willing the cut the cord until now, until the Bava book was behind me. I sensed what still needed to be done the other day when it occurred to me that I might conclude the climactic chapter with a passage I had used to finish a novel I wrote back in the 1970s and never tried to publish, a segue from my own words into words and images imported from the Bible. I did this, and voila, it fit like a missing jigsaw piece. THE missing jigsaw piece. I excitedly spent the rest of the afternoon polishing some other areas, changing some street names and such, and now I feel the book is as good as I can make it -- at least as good as I can make it until it finds its way beneath the wing of strong editorial guidance. If such a thing still exists. I believe it does.

I've printed off a copy of the manuscript and I intend to ship it out tomorrow to another agent who has agreed to consider me as a client. It's time for a change. I'm hopeful; it's a special book. In the meantime, please be so kind as to light a candle for me and THE ONLY CRIMINAL... or I may just give T.O.C. your address.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

VIDEO WATCHDOG #132 at the Printer

Here's your first look at the cover of the next issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG, which we finished in the early hours of the morning and delivered to the printer later today!

I think the cover of this issue, with its Charlie Largent-created centerpiece, gives a very good indication of what fun it is. (Click it to see it giant-sized.) We're not calling it one as such, but this is very much one of our "All Review Issues." David J. Schow (who hearby joins the elite group of writers who have had their names on the cover of our magazine) contributed a wonderful piece on the delicious Season Two of THE WILD WILD WEST; Bill Cooke delivers his long-awaited coverage of THE TARZAN COLLECTION 2, with its half-dozen RKO productions starring Johnny Weissmuller; Shane Dallmann roars back with reviews of Classic Media's GOJIRA, GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN and MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA discs; and, by popular demand, "Things From the Attic" returns with my vintage tape reviews of some Paul Naschy rarities, the crazy Ed Wood-scripted THE REVENGE OF DR. X, and TOWER OF SCREAMING VIRGINS (one of the first letterboxed tapes ever to hit the market). And that's still just the beginning!

You can read all about it on the "Coming Soon" page of the VIDEO WATCHDOG website, and sample the opening pages of our WILD WILD WEST and TARZAN coverage, as well!

Incidentally, if you're keeping track, this is the first time we've featured Boris Karloff on the cover of VIDEO WATCHDOG since our fifth issue, back in 1990. That issue included the first published excerpt of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, and we enjoy the symmetry that this will be the issue on newsstands as that book finally becomes a reality.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Into the WTF Zone with Larry Blamire

If writers blog when they aren't writing, what do filmmakers do?
Well, if you're Larry Blamire -- the actor-writer-director responsible for the cult favorite THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA (which netted him the coveted Rondo Award as "Monster Kid of the Year"), JOHNNY SLADE'S GREATEST HITS, and the recently completed TRAIL OF THE SCREAMING FOREHEAD -- you recognize the absolute freedom, ease of access, and final cut made available to you by YouTube.
And you go for it.
Blamire (pictured above, reportedly at the precise moment he conceived his next project) is currently having "way too much fun" writing, directing, and occasionally acting in his latest creation, TALES FROM THE PUB, six episodes of which are presently available for free viewing on YouTube.
What exactly is TALES FROM THE PUB? Allow me to answer that question by posing a few others... Have you ever had a blackout that snipped five unaccountable minutes out of your life? Have you ever suddenly noticed that your beer is gone? Have you ever been aware that you are being stalked by invisible stalkers? Have you ever noticed how such things are even more likely to occur if you happen to be in the local pub? Weird, huh?
Glomming onto that weirdness as if it was the very pulse of our lives and times, Blamire manages to tackle these questions and many others in these episodes, which run under three minutes and are hosted by Truphen Newben, our creepily debonair guide into WTF Zone.
Six episodes are currently available. In the order of their release, they are "The Other Glass", "The Premonition" (featuring Jennifer "Animala" Blaire), "The Invisible Unseen", "Past Life", "Puppet for Your Thoughts" (starring TWILIGHT ZONE alumnus H.M. Wynant), and "Message from Beyond." Other LOST SKELETON alumni Brian Howe and Andrew Parks also frequently appear.
According to Blamire, there are currently another 10 episodes of TALES FROM THE PUB already in the can, and scripts for another 20 awaiting production. I, for one, can't wait to see them and hope there are plans afoot to collect them all on DVD someday. Each episode is a tiny gem of absurdist filmmaking that entertains while tweaking our tendency to leap to fantastic explanations for the most commonplace occurrences and brain farts, while also making textural nods to the show's real point of reference: the John Newland-hosted ALCOA PRESENTS, better known by its syndication title, ONE STEP BEYOND.
When I first saw THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA, I was immediately charmed beyond all expectation but, because it was a spoof of '50s sci-fi/horror cheapies, it was hard to tell anything from it about Blamire's real abilities as an actor, writer, or director. Even so, I could recognize that his brand of satire was genuinely witty as well as unabashedly silly, and that, as an actor and writer, he was remarkably well in touch with his inner child. These characteristics also run riot through TALES FROM THE PUB. It's not just Ed Wood; there's some Buñuel and Dalí in there, too. (And Larry is a gifted artist, aside from his other accomplishments. Check out his production art for his dream project STEAM WARS if you doubt me.)
Because it's a straightforward comedy rather than a spoof, Blamire's second theatrical feature, JOHNNY SLADE'S GREATEST HITS, gives a somewhat clearer view of his abilities and potential. It's not necessarily better than LOST SKELETON, but it is more polished, and you can see Blamire capably meeting the challenge of working with more experienced screen actors in a more professional setting. This mob comedy, which features numerous actors from THE SOPRANOS, has won all kinds of awards at independent film festivals, but, for some reason, hasn't had any luck finding proper theatrical distribution. Never mind those pesky details: the film is available from Amazon.com as a letterboxed DVD-R and also as an authorized download. And it's well worth seeing.
John Fiore (the guy who died on the toilet in THE SOPRANOS) produced the film and stars as Johnny Slade, a faded middle-of-the-road singer who finds his career unexpectedly jump-started when he accepts an unrefusable offer from a club owner (Vincent Curatola, THE SOPRANOS' Johnny Sack) to headline. The catch: he has to perform a new song each night, and only once -- the lyrics handed to him by the Boss. These absurd songs (lyrics by Blamire, natch) are actually coded instructions to hitmen posted in the audience, embroiling Slade in mafia crossfire while also garnering him unlikely celebrity among wacko music fans who can't wait to hear what unique thing he might sing next.
JOHNNY SLADE'S GREATEST HITS was a work-for-hire; Blamire didn't generate the idea, he didn't write it solo, nor did he have final cut on the project. Consequently, the film has some weaknesses it might not have had otherwise, but it's nevertheless funny, entertaining, and, like Blamire's other work, it has a lot of heart as well as a surrealistic streak. Vincent Curatola is hilarious -- a terrific deadpan comic -- and so are the songs and a montage of Johnny's past triumphs on vinyl (including "The White Album"). I can't imagine any SOPRANOS fan not wanting to see it; now that the show is history, I recommend it as a one-stop shopping solution for that craving that kicks in on Sunday night.
In future years, I think it's likely that people will look back on the films and shorts Larry Blamire is making now with an affection similar to that which we feel for Roger Corman's early work, which was similarly silly but with undercurrents of sophistication. I already feel it, and can't wait to see TRAIL OF THE SCREAMING FOREHEAD, a furrowed forage into the worry lines of paranoid '50s sci-fi which has been described to me as "Douglas Sirk meets Jack Arnold" -- which they probably did, as they were both under contract to Universal-International at the same time. Perhaps they even hoisted a few together once or twice... in a pub.
Hmmm... Now what would Truphen Newben make of that?

Friday, June 15, 2007

Corman's Poe: Are You Experienced?

"Here I am -- young and handsome!"

Our visiting friends from out-of-town have departed, so today we're buckling back down to work today -- albeit slowly and not altogether willingly. Sitting in the sunlight for a few days engenders its own form of drunkenness and it's a pleasant way to wile away the waning days of spring. Maybe I'll do my proofreading outdoors on the patio swing, as the sun totters below the horizon.

I mentioned showing Roger Corman's PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961) to my teenage animator friend and Poe devotée. When he and his parents returned yesterday, I surprised him with a spontaneous showing of Corman's TALES OF TERROR (1962), a copy of which happened to be handy. When it ended, I asked him for his thoughts. He felt it had its moments, but that, on the whole, it wasn't quite the equal of PIT -- which prompted from me a sidebar on the subject of how, sometimes, the whole of a movie experience can sometimes feel inequal to the sum of its parts.
Actually, I believe he was quite correct in his assessment -- as horror anthologies go, TALES OF TERROR isn't even in the same neighborhood with Bava's BLACK SABBATH or Kobayashi's KWAIDAN, and I suppose there are other horror anthologies of frankly lesser parts that somehow feel stronger as a whole. Though it feels like the stronger picture, PIT suffers (in my opinion) from some miscasting that results in some subpar performances. John Kerr's one-note, sullen performance makes for an unappealing hero, and though Luana Anders is good, as she always is, she looks uncomfortable in the movie; she's too modern an actress to be saddled with that 16th century wardrobe and dialogue. And Antony Carbone, as the doctor who likes to advertise his chest hairs, loses me from the second he mispronounces the word "forté." It's also a very talky film, but somehow the coups de theatre of Elizabeth's return from the grave, Nicolas' mental breakdown, and the climactic pit sequence redeems it almost entirely in its last couple of reels.
TALES OF TERROR, on the other hand, is extremely well-acted throughout but, because it's an anthology of stories, it cannot build to a superb last couple of reels, even though it reserves the strongest story for last. The anthology format itself gives the whole an erratic, inconsistent pace. It's difficult to consider the film as a whole, only in terms of the part that constitute its uneven sum.

The opening story, "Morella," is almost universally disliked -- those of us who can remember the scary promotional images of the undead Leona Gage and her wicked fingernails can't help but wonder why she was replaced in the final cut with the subtler image of a spectral silhouette. Yet, each time I see "Morella," I gain more appreciation for Vincent Price's performance as the haunted, alcoholic Locke, which strikes me as possibly the most sincere and best modulated of all his dramatic performances in the Poe series. There's not a whiff of humor or self-consciousness about it, one of his most undeservedly overlooked characterizations. Maggie Pierce gives a sincere-enough supporting performance, but her wholesome, blonde looks seem out of register with the story's atmosphere and she pales and merges with the predominantly colorless scenery (one of the episode's more intriguing aspects).
"The Black Cat" is rightfully honored for the superlative comic performances of Price, Peter Lorre and Joyce Jameson, Richard Matheson's script neatly dovetails the title story and "The Cask of Amontillado," and nearly every line of dialogue (including the one I used to open this blog entry) is a delight. "The Case of M. Valdemar" is the most potent of the three stories, thanks to a wickedly authoritative performance by Basil Rathbone and a story that ventures beyond mere morbidity and taps into the genuinely metaphysical. It's an uneven film, I agree, but each of the three stories has great (not just good) things to offer.
So why doesn't TALES OF TERROR hang together better? I suspect it's because the first story isn't quite assertive enough, either in its impact or familiarity, and the film also has a very odd, even tacky manner of transition -- freezing images and zooming in and out of their details. (Upon seeing these, my teenage friend's father, a documentary filmmaker, asked if the film had been originally made for television, and it was a reasonable enough question.) The final shots of two episodes are so lacking in revelatory detail that they require the "fade-to-etching" end cards to point out the crying cat atop Annabelle's head or the skeleton within the putrescent muck that descends on the mesmerist. By casting Vincent Price in each story, the film also seems to emphasize itself as a portfolio of Price's range as an actor, rather than as an advertisement for Roger Corman's range as a director -- but he presides over some very fine performances here, as well as some classic horror sequences of the mid-to-late 20th century.
I know from researching my book on Mario Bava that American International Pictures was going through a censorious phase at this time, bowing to pressure from parents groups to soften the impact of the horror films they were selling primarily to kiddie matinee audiences. They tampered quite a bit with the US version of BLACK SABBATH, so might it also be possible that TALES OF TERROR was similarly toned-down in anticipation of its release?
One thing I do know about TALES OF TERROR and PIT AND THE PENDULUM: Neither of these pictures was available for viewing in their correct Panavision screen ratios for more than thirty years. Tragic as it is to consider, it is possible that some short-lived fans never had a chance to see these films any other way but in an unsatisfying pan&scan presentation on television, or on VHS. Even though both films are more easily appreciated now that they are available on DVD in widescreen transfers, even a 57" screen like mine can't hope to deliver the theatrical experience of these films. TALES OF TERROR was one of my earliest scope memories, and I can still vividly remember having to turn my head throughout the film, like a tennis viewer, to see what was happening on different sides of the screen. And there is little in my childhood memories to rival the experience of sitting in a darkened theater full of screaming kids as PIT's pendulum began its swinging descent.
DVD is able to deliver Roger Corman's Poe films on some levels, but almost exclusively, those levels feel more cerebral to me than visceral, which is the level where they most seriously counted when I was first exposed to them. I suspect that not even HD will be likely to fully render the full experience of the Poe films, at least as I have the good fortune to remember them. But it was a real pleasure for me to introduce these movies to a young person and to see, from his response, that they are capable of thrilling newcomers even in that reduced arena, at least to the extent of exciting their imaginations and giving them a sleepless night or two.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Out of the Loop

Sorry to have been unavailable for much of this week, but in an unusual circumstance, out-of-town friends have descended on us for a few days -- so we've interrupted production on the next issue of VW to spend some time in the pleasure of their rare company, sitting outdoors, conversing on the patio over mild frosty intoxicants, grilling delicious meals under the sun, laughing and sharing entertainment.

So I haven't had time to blog, nor even time to watch much of anything since Sunday night's SOPRANOS finale. However, last night, I had the treat of introducing Roger Corman's Poe films to my friends' teenage son who has already made his own computer-animated Poe short without ever having seen Corman's trail-blazing work in the field. I chose PIT AND THE PENDULUM as his introduction, and he enjoyed it... almost as much as his mother did, who was shuddering anew while enjoying having her memory refreshed of a film that she saw back in the 1960s in her native Belgrade. We all loved the zinger ending, though Donna had to compromise it by asking how Barbara Steele's character got gagged after she had been tossed into the Iron Maiden.

To report some recent work I've done: my next SIGHT & SOUND columns will be devoted to DA Pennebaker's DONT LOOK BACK and Bret Wood's PSYCHOPATHIA SEXUALIS, respectively. Also, SIGHT & SOUND requested my participation in an upcoming forum in which various critics are asked to write about their choices for "Forgotten and Overlooked Films" -- I submitted a couple hundred words on LE ROMAN DE RENARD ("The Tale of the Fox"), the 1930-37 animated feature by Ladislas Starewitch (the family's preferred spelling -- he's Wladislaw Starewicz on the IMDb).

Also my VIDEODROME book for Millipede Press is currently in the layout stage and I am supposed to see some sample layout pages tomorrow. I'll report more fully once I've seen the pages.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The SOPRANOS Finale

My first reaction was to say aloud, "You son of a bitch."
But after a second viewing, I am aglow with admiration for the way David Chase handled it. It's not what I expected, or what I might have wanted, but it has the ring of truth -- Meadow's parking difficulty sold it, brilliantly -- and also the brassier ring of audacity. If the scene had run longer and shown us everything, it could have played out in one of two ways: anticlimatic, or so traumatic it would have been an even greater outrage to discontinue. On reflection, I think it was actually a very loving exit, for both the characters and the viewing audience that has followed their family saga for the past nine years.
I must say, I'm tickled by the riotous Le Sacre du Printemps-like controversy the finale has provoked. I visited the HBO discussion boards and they're hilarious -- it's like Chase and company have left half or more of their viewership angrily spanking the butt end of their catsup bottles. I loved one person's funny speculation that Tony actually wasn't hit, but suddenly succumbed to the cholesterol depth charge of the best onion rings in North Jersey. That's not just a joke, but a perfectly plausible interpretation of what we were shown -- one of many, his survival being among them.
My own interpretation? I've been in life and death situations and remember how they feel. THE SOPRANOS' final scene captures perfectly the atmospheric charge of convergence that I remember from those moments.
RIP Tony Soprano: he didn't see it coming.