Monday, September 24, 2007

Go Directly to the Bava Book Blog

It seems like only last week, but it was exactly one month ago today that Donna and I received shipment of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK. And awaiting you today on the Bava Book Update blog are a photograph and letter that, believe me, embody the best possible reward for our past 32 years of shared endeavor.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Anne Desclos at 100

The woman born Anne Desclos one hundred years ago today left her greater marks on the world under different names. As Dominique Aury, she was a renowned writer, translator and resident critic for the venerable French publishing house Gallimard; but most of those who know her by either of these names likely knew her first as Pauline Réage, the pseudonymous author of the erotic novel HISTOIRE D'O (THE STORY OF O), first published in 1954. Desclos died in 1998, but has since become the subject of a wonderful documentary by Pola Rapaport, WRITER OF O, which I reviewed for the July 2006 issue of SIGHT & SOUND (unfortunately not archived online).

As a voracious reader in my late teens and early twenties, before video came along to dilute such self-improving disciplines, I always looked to Grove Press as a brand of quality. I would haunt the used bookstores of Cincinnati in search of unfamiliar authors who had the good fortune to share literary barracks with the works of Samuel Beckett, William S. Burroughs, Henry Miller, and the translated works of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Genet, and others. This was how I discovered writers and books like John Rechy's CITY OF NIGHT, Frantz Fanon's THE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH, Robert Gover's THE ONE HUNDRED DOLLAR MISUNDERSTANDING, and the harrowing works of Hubert Selby, Jr. (LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN, THE ROOM). It is also what led me to the austere, white-jacketed First Edition of THE STORY OF O that I was so lucky to find -- and it was the only book out of hundreds acquired over the years at Cincinnati's late, lamented Acres of Books that caused the perenially self-absorbed proprietor to give me a second look. Remarkably, though I had read any amount of scandalous prose under the Grove imprint, THE STORY OF O was the only one of their books to carry a disclaimer on the dust jacket recommending its sale be limited only to those over the age of 21.

Perhaps because I was young enough to read THE STORY OF O for the first time without any real foreknowledge of sadomasochistic subculture, before I had read either Sade or Masoch. Therefore I was able to receive it in the spirit in which it was written: as a bravely told love story so selfless in its desire that the act of submission became a state of grace. I have reread THE STORY OF O since and I still believe it is one of the most important novels of the 20th century and a sure contender, at least in Richard Howard's translation (the best I can judge), for one of the most beautifully written. But of Mme. Réage's works, I am most irresistably drawn to the prologue called "A Girl in Love," which opens her slim 1967 sequel to her premiere work, RETURN TO THE CHATEAU. Among the happy accomplishments of Pola Rapaport's film is committing a very convincing interpretation of this short piece -- in which the author looks back on the circumstances under which O came to be written, delineated in some of the most perfect, naked, emotional prose I've ever read -- to celluloid. I reread it for the umpteenth time before going to sleep last night and it remains, for me, perhaps the most moving description of the writing process I've found, with not a word misplaced. I bow to her.

To mark the centenary of someone like Anne Desclos, and more particularly Pauline Réage, is somehow more profound, I find, than marking the centenary of an actor or filmmaker, as I usually do on this blog. It reminds me that time and history claim more of us than our names and the broad outlines of our biographies; they also absorb the secret and powerful stories, told and untold, of our most violent passions.

Friday, September 21, 2007

VW Meets QT

Correspondent Paul Hurt reports that VIDEO WATCHDOG has made its long overdue debut in a major motion picture!

The cover of VW 126 (pictured left) can be seen on a newsstand visited by Rosario Dawson at the 103:49 mark in the new, expanded DVD of Quentin Tarantino's GRINDHOUSE offering "DEATH PROOF." It's arranged in the uppermost tier of a gas station newsrack, wedged between copies of JET and EBONY, which, come to think of it, is usually where I see it. I made one of my increasingly rare or decreasingly often treks out to a theater to see GRINDHOUSE and didn't notice this, so it may be one of the newly added scenes.

Unless he does so under an assumed name, we have no record of Quentin ever ordering anything from us, but we did notice one of our order blanks on an enticingly cluttered table in his living room, in a full page photo published in ROLLING STONE at the time of KILL BILL 1's release. So we suspect he's a fan, and of course it's mutual.

FILM FREAK CENTRAL editor Bill Chambers was kind enough to send in the screen grab above. As Bill says, "You gotta love that Lebanon, Tennessee gas stations stock VW."

Indeed.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

First Look: ABE's BARON BLOOD

Filmed in sumptuous Technicolor, Mario Bava's BARON BLOOD has always looked somewhat pasty on home video. This is not only a symptom of the longer European cut, which replaced the shorter, rescored American International version on tape and disc in the 1990s; even the old HBO videocassettes were lacking in brilliance. I first saw BARON BLOOD on the CBS LATE MOVIE circa 1973 and I've never forgotten how ravishing it looked -- primarily because the home video versions have never let me forget. But the film has now been treated to a top-to-bottom digital remastering in advance of its release as part of Anchor Bay Entertainment's THE MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 2, and my test disc comes close to perfectly capturing the handsome Gothic luxuriance I remember from my first viewing almost 35 years ago.

Here, in the film's opening shots, you'll see the stepped-up grain levels common to optical title overlays. However, ABE's new remaster marks the first time when I've noticed that some of that "grain" (the area at 2:00 in front of the Pan Am 747's nose) is actually schmutz on the window of the plane carrying the photographer of the 747!

This isn't the best grab of actor Antonio Cantáfora I could have showed you, but it's excellent in terms of showing you the transfer's attention of detail. Look closely at Antonio's cheek and you'll see some lines there. Either he had some mild scarring, or his skin buckled on his pillow the night before and hadn't quite smoothed out by the time he had to shoot his close-up!

This shot of Elke Sommer and Rada Rassimov is a good illustration of the transfer's warm skin tones and sharp detail, especially in the colorful design of Elke's coat. There are medium shots of Elke, too, in which the details of that coat are perfectly legible and assertive in their coloring.
"Meester Beckair ist da ghost..."
Again, in this closeup of Joseph Cotten, the framing and coloring beautifully capture the full range of warm and cold tones. Very crisp-looking, and the blue of Cotten's eyes really pop.

When the film brings in the warm colors -- amber gels, the gold of the Baron's treasure, and bonfires like this -- now you can really feel them.

I've never been too knocked out by this particular shot of piccola Nicoletta Elmi before; it's a fairly straightforward shot, but I'm newly impressed by the range of colors and textures in it -- the greens of the foliage are rich and lovely, Nicoletta's auburn hair is beautiful, her frightened eyes are expressively and icily blue, and you can see every stitch in her knitwear.

This has always been a tricky shot to convey on home video. This dead, impaled character has a glassy glint in his eye that's always played a game of "now you see it, now you don't" on VHS and DVD. It's very apparent here, and the newly enriched blue of the formerly pastel sky in this day-for-night shot is now a convincing register of dusk.

So, yes, I'm very happy about this new transfer too, as I have been with the others I've shared with you so far.
As you may remember from an earlier confession on this blog, BARON BLOOD was the last of the three audio commentaries I recorded last December in an evening-long bout. For that reason, I was frankly a little wary about listening to it. I remember feeling that my voice was shot when I finished recording it, but I can't hear any wear or tear on my vocal cords on the finished track at all. I don't think anyone's going to call it the best of my commentaries, but that's to be expected -- and it's okay; BARON BLOOD isn't really one of Mario Bava's best movies. That said, I do think the track is above average -- it's got some quiet patches I could have filled with more prep time, but it's also the beneficiary of some recently unearthed information that didn't make it into MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK.
Post Logic Studios' exemplary restoration work on the picture has, in a matter of speaking, given BARON back its BLOOD, strengthening its proud pulse and revitalizing its long-lost warmth and complexion. Consequently, BARON BLOOD is now a more enjoyable and entertaining experience than this European version has ever been on home video. With Bava's lighting and the film's Technicolor palette finally back in the fullest sway we are likely to see, it's above average too.
THE MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 2 streets on October 23.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Before and After Bava


Top: Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Allen Rydell, taken December 17, 2006 at Tor Caldara.
Bottom: A trick shot from Mario Bava's 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON, shot in October 1969. "Not quite the same perspective," Jeff allows, "but not too far off..."

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

First Look: ABE's BAY OF BLOOD

When Image Entertainment released Mario Bava's ECOLOGIA DEL DELITTO (1971) back in 2001, they had many different English titles to choose from. It's known by many, ranging from CARNAGE to BLOODBATH to LAST HOUSE PART 2. Though the title on the print itself read "A BAY OF BLOOD," Image opted for commercial reasons to go with the best-known US theatrical release title, TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE. For its forthcoming reissue as part of THE MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 2, Anchor Bay Entertainment is reverting to the title on the print, which was also used for MPI Home Video's first VHS and Beta releases of the title back in the late 1980s.

BAY OF BLOOD is one of the films in the ABE set for which I recorded an audio commentary, and the track turned out fairly well. Because I know this film pretty much inside and out, and because my time was limited, I did my least amount of preparatory scripting for this track. So you'll hear a looser, more conversational me than you usually do in an audio commentary, where I tend to put on my professorial airs. Listening to the playback, I caught myself making only one error, but I'm not going to tell you what it is. You can have a contest among yourselves to find it, if you like.

Disc producer Perry Martin and his team at Post Logic Studios have executed a splendid visual restoration of the picture. It's the first home video rendering of this Technicolor feature that looks authentically like Technicolor, and the color intensities also match those of the color production stills in my possession. The blacks are also now noticeably deeper. You can almost feel the bedded warmth of Anna Maria Rosati's body in this shot. It's the first time this shot has ever reminded me of a similar shot of Daliah Lavi in THE WHIP AND THE BODY, which we pictured on the cover of VIDEO WATCHDOG #39 many years ago, and which now opens the "Love and Death" section of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK.

From a chromatic standpoint, I was also newly impressed by this shot featuring Leopoldo Trieste and Claudio Volonté. The water is a rich sapphire blue, the boat looks almost freshly painted, and the skin tones are accurate.

I haven't done a side-by-side check with any of them, but, to the best of my memory, I believe earlier transfers of this scene were brighter, making Brigitte Skay's breast more visible. Bava would have approved of the subtlety and light accuracy recaptured here.

The Image disc was rightly criticized for failing to eliminate a large volume of distortion, pops, clicks and sizzles from the audio track. I'm told they were there in the original source, and were still there when the source came to Post Logic, but the audio has been almost completely cleaned up. Doing spot audio checks of the disc here on my computer, I couldn't hear much in the way of unwelcome sound; on my home entertainment system, I did a similar check and occasionally turned up the faintest afterburns of noise clinging to sudden bursts of sound, such as bird cries. There remains some limitation in the audio source, which doesn't deliver much in the way of bottom, but it's acceptable. Put it this way: the audio is no longer distracting.

The framing also seems ideal. I'm reminded by this dialogue scene between Laura Betti and Leopoldo Trieste that all of my region-free readers who admire this film should waste no time in tracking down a copy of the Italian release, called REAZIONE A CATENA (which means "Chain Reaction"). All of the film's dialogue scenes were shot two different ways -- once in Italian and once in English -- and the Italian release includes the never-before-exported Italian dialogue (along with English subtitles, quite different to the dialogue you'll hear in the ABE version)! The Italian track has a more intellectual and philosophic tenor to it, raising the film even higher in my estimation, and the actors speak their lines with greater ease and confidence. Released in Italy by Raro Video, REAZIONE A CATENA is available here in America from Xploited Cinema, and it's a must-have for all Bava fans.

The improved image quality is crisp enough to deliver skin textures as well as tones in close-ups like these.

Under any title, BAY OF BLOOD is one of Bava's most beloved and influential films and, once again, ABE's new remaster proves a noticeable upgrade in quality. And yes, the radio spots and CARNAGE trailer have been ported over from the previous Image release.

IF.... I Ever Remember

It seems I forgot to link to my review of Criterion's release of Lindsay Anderson's IF.... over at the SIGHT & SOUND website. It's also in the September 2007 issue of SIGHT & SOUND, which may still be on newsstands here; I understand it has already been supplanted on British newsstands with the October issue, in which I review the Facets Video release of Kazuo Hara's searing documentary THE EMPEROR'S NAKED ARMY MARCHES ON.

Monday, September 17, 2007

First Look: ABE's 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON


Ely Galleani, credited as Justine Gall, peers indoors at the events of Mario Bava's underrated 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON.

Just as Anchor Bay's forthcoming remaster of LISA AND THE DEVIL is a conspicuous improvement over what we've had before, their remaster of 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON [Cinque bambole per la luna d'agosto, 1970] included in THE MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 2 is also significant. For one thing, it's the first anamorphic DVD presentation the film has ever had. The disc includes two soundtrack options: the English dub and the original Italian dub track with English subtitles, both included on the 2001 Image Entertainment disc.

I wasn't able to record an audio commentary for this movie, unfortunately -- I would have much preferred talking about it than BARON BLOOD (which ABE requested I talk about instead) -- so I popped the disc on with the intention of giving it only a cursory spot check. It was such a pleasing experience, I ended up watching the entire movie. From the first shots, the anamorphic presentation helped heretofore unsuspected details to pop off the screen at me, along with richer colors, so I sat transfixed till it was over.


In shots like these, revitalized to the depths of their original color palette, you can understand why French critic Pascal Martinet (author of the first-ever book on Bava's films) called 5 DOLLS "a veritable symphony of blue."

At times, I felt I was watching a movie I had never seen before, or at least not so fully experienced before. Like LISA, 5 DOLLS is drenched in sensual details and the crispened image and heightened color amplify its intentions in this regard.

Never before have I seen the details of this particular trick shot quite so clearly. I had always assumed that the ship and the beachfront house were part of the same glass matte set-up. The new clarity of the anamorphic transfer exposes new detail and dimensionality to the house, suggesting that, while the boat was a clipped photo affixed to glass in front of the camera, the beach house and the ridge it occupies were more likely a foregrounded miniature.

I've always loved this swirling colored caftan worn by Edith Meloni in the film. It's even lovelier now. Congratulations to Post Logic Studios for a job well done.

The Italian soundtrack gives the film a smarter, more staccato feel; I recommend it over the lazier English dub. Had I recorded a commentary for 5 DOLLS, I would have argued against its reputation of Mario Bava's worst movie (far from it!) and discussed its curious tendency to frustrate viewer expectations. I would have also pointed out that the movie's highly unorthodox and LOUD use of rock music predates Dario Argento's uses of Goblin's progressive rock score for DEEP RED by several years, though Argento tends to be universally credited with introducing rock to horror cinema. Bava also toys with the diegetic placement of music, with soundtrack sometimes revealed as being played on records by the cast, as Argento also did in TENEBRAE. This is a woefully obscure and underrated movie -- Bava's only film to bypass US theatrical distribution altogether -- and it may have been his most progressive. Happily, it was been winning more admirers in recent years, mostly through the initial persuasion of Umiliani's brilliant soundtrack, and I suspect it will find still more converts after the release of this fine presentation.
The one area in which this new 5 DOLLS does not meet the standards of the Image release is in its menus, which are attractive but no more than functional and straightforward. The Image menus not only featured samples of Piero Umiliani's and Il Balletto di Bronzo's original score in bold stereo, but it incorporated a playful graphic of a character whose eyes began to drift around if you left the main page in play to listen to the music. I wish the disc producers had been able to spend more time and money on details such as this (I know they wish the same thing), but budget was obviously concentrated on those areas where it was most important. I wouldn't recommend that anyone throw the previous disc away, because its menus are classics, like a love letter to the film's highly specialized clique of fans -- but it's no more than a conversation piece when compared to this otherwise well-advanced presentation.

A Happy 90th to Ib Melchior

Ib J. Melchior, the Danish gentleman responsible for writing such speculative fantasy treats of the early 1960s as THE ANGRY RED PLANET, JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET, ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, THE TIME TRAVELLERS (which he also directed, and very well), REPTILICUS, PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, and the OUTER LIMITS episode "The Premonition" turns 90 today.
During this general period -- 1960 to 1965 -- Melchior, the son of acclaimed operatic tenor Lauritz Melchior, earned a name for himself as one of America's most distinctively imaginative filmmakers. His was a name I memorized along with all the other recurring names I collected from the movies I liked, and I always filed him away mentally next to the Hungarian emigré George Pal. In general, I liked Pal's movies better but I had to grant that Melchior's work was consistently more imaginative (in concept, if not in execution) as well as slightly darker and more ironic. Both Melchior and Pal seemed to share a similarly pixie-ish sense of humor, and I always thought it was a great loss to cinema history that they never collaborated.
In October 1993, when I was in Los Angeles to co-host a Bava retrospective with Joe Dante at the American Cinematheque Director's Theater, I took advantage of my location to conduct a face-to-face interview with John Phillip Law. Finding myself with some spare time on my hands, I consulted the telephone directory and discovered that Ib Melchior was not only listed, but within walking distance from my hotel. I rang him up, he invited me over, and we had a lively visit together, during which he told me his side of the PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES experience. I was impressed by his home (next door to the notorious Chateau Marmont), which was in the process of having an indoor waterfall added to his living room, and also by the order he had imposed on his past work -- every film had its own bound script and scrapbook. One of those scrapbooks contained the only correspondence written by Mario Bava that I found in more than thirty years of searching. Ib also enjoyed talking about his other films, and I told him how much I had enjoyed his TIME TRAVELLERS; a film that looks ahead to THE TIME TUNNEL, in my opinion, as much as his SPACE FAMILY ROBINSON project looked ahead to LOST IN SPACE. And when our discussion of REPTILICUS got around to acknowledging the existence of the trashy, sexed-up novelization, I proudly produced a copy from my shoulder bag and asked him to sign it. Which he laughingly did.
Robert Skotak has written an excellent book/biography/tribute to the man, impeccably written and researched, entitled IB MELCHIOR: MAN OF IMAGINATION, published by Midnight Marquee Press. I could not find it on the MidMar website, but if you move quickly, you might be able to nab one of the few remaining copies at Amazon.com.
He not only gave us Reptilicus, but the Rat-Bat-Spider-Crab! Thank you, Ib -- and Happy Birthday!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Believe In What You Think You See

Mario Bava fans, does this place look familiar?

During my audio commentary for Bava's LISA AND THE DEVIL, to be released on October 23 as part of the MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 2, I note -- as Lisa (Elke Sommer) exits the antiques shop and gets lost in a series of backstreets -- that some of the locations recall the labyrinthine passages of Karmingen, the fictional village where KILL, BABY... KILL! (1966) takes place. In his audio commentary for THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM, producer Alfredo Leone remarks that all of these early scenes were filmed in Toledo, Spain, where the mural of the Devil carrying away the dead is seen by Lisa's tour group.

On the basis of Alfredo's remarks, I scrapped from my book manuscript (to the best of my knowledge) any reference I had once made to the possibility that some of these set-ups might have been filmed in Faleria, the ancient Italian village where KILL, BABY... KILL! was made. As I recorded my commentary, I couldn't resist adding a mention of the similarity, and after watching the film again on my preview disc, I was driven to pull out the two films and look for shared points of compass.

The above shot is a frame grab of one such supposedly Spanish location from LISA that has always jogged a little KILL, BABY... KILL! muscle in my brain. Now, compare it with the following shot:

This is a fairly famous image from KILL, BABY... KILL! featuring Giacomo Rossi-Stuart and Erika Blanc. The location is obviously the same, albeit with Bava's peerless knack for atmosphere applied to it, making every shadow pregnant with the unseen presence of the ball-bouncing spectre Melissa Graps. We know for a fact that KILL, BABY... KILL! was not shot in Spain.
Here is Elke Sommer, passing through the same location in LISA AND THE DEVIL, filmed seven years later. Not in the nearly 30 years I've been acquainted with both films have I ever consciously matched the location shared by these two shots.

And here is Lamberto Bava revisiting Faleria more than 30 years after LISA AND THE DEVIL, in David Gregory's "Kill, Bava, Kill!" featurette -- intended for release on Dark Sky Films' regrettably withdrawn KILL, BABY... KILL! DVD. I rather prefer that stone wall with the green moss clinging to it, don't you?

Also in LISA AND THE DEVIL I found this shot, which is another setting I felt I had seen more recently. It turns out it was also photographed in Faleria, on the street outside their San Giuliano L'Ospitaliero Church. This particular set-up doesn't appear in KILL, BABY... KILL!, at least to the best of my notice, but the church's bell tower memorably does.

Finally, here's Lamberto Bava again, rediscovering the location in the David Gregory featurette. He notes, a few moments later, that the crew of KILL, BABY... KILL! used to take their meals on the steps outside that church on the very cold evenings of the production.

Certainly, I'm not blaming Alfredo for not remembering a little side trip to Faleria during the making of LISA AND THE DEVIL thirty-some years ago. How could I, when these shared locations weren't obvious to me after countless viewings of both films over a period of decades? Also, as you can see, there's a world of difference in how these locations can look in different times of day and also over the years.

The confirmation of recurring Faleria settings in LISA AND THE DEVIL is actually significant, because the film originated from a screenplay co-authored by Roberto Natale and Romano Migliorini, the authors of KILL, BABY... KILL! After finally confirming the logistical connection I long intuited between the two films with these screen grabs, my imagination began to accelerate and still more connections between the two films began to suggest themselves. The Baroness Graps (played by Giovanna Galletti) dies at the end of KILL, BABY... KILL! and the Contessa (played by Alida Valli) in LISA AND THE DEVIL is blind and dies differently... but are they not, in some inexplicable way, the same character? They look and dress much the same, and both are noblewomen who never leave their morbid, secluded villas. Is the Contessa's "shrine of death" villa not an echo of Villa Graps? Are not both women doomed by their unhealthy attachment to their children? And, as I ask in my LISA commentary -- in the movie's closing minutes, as Lisa emerges as a ghost from the ruins of the villa with a ball in her hand -- might not Lisa be short for... Melissa?

These are discoveries and ideas that didn't occur to me until long after finishing my book, so I am evidently still learning about my subject, even after writing close to 800,000 words. I can assure you that you'll learn some new things about LISA AND THE DEVIL from my audio commentary for the DVD, even if you've read my chapter on the film in MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK... and vice versa. But it's only now that I have confirmed for myself this spatial relationship between the two films, and I'm glad to have an additional venue like Video WatchBlog, where I can share these eurekas with like-minded folk immediately.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

First Look: ABE's LISA AND THE DEVIL

Because I worked as a commentator for a number of the movies included in Anchor Bay Entertainment's forthcoming MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 2, I've been sent a set of preview test discs for the new remasters included in this compendium, as well as ERIK THE CONQUEROR, which will be released separately at the same time. I've already watched a few of the movies and I'm here to tell you that the movies have indeed been conspicuously improved over their previous issues. If you're already excited about this incredible bargain of a set, prepare to get more excited.

My breath was taken away by Post Logic Studios' restorative work on Bava's baroque masterpiece LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973). I've never seen this film on video in a presentation that didn't look like a poor cousin to HOUSE OF EXORCISM (1975, which is largely composed of footage from LISA) -- which makes sense because the original negative of LISA was lost or destroyed as it was being used to create 16mm TV prints at Allied Artists. Only once did I see the film as it was meant to look, at a showing of a restored 35mm print supervised by the late Carlos Sylva at the American Cinematheque in the early 1990s. That version, I recall, was sharper and more boldly colored than any other I had seen... and that stunning viewing experience is pretty much perfectly replicated by ABE's newly remastered version.

The heightened detailing is evident from the very first shots of the animated titles sequence, with new textures evident in the red table surface and the white glove turning over the cards of the Tarot deck.

Even when Cecilio Paniagua's nostalgic-looking cinematography turns misty-eyed, in closeups of Elke Sommer and in faintly sun-dazzled shots like this, the mistiness never softens the essential sharpness of the picture.

In this shot of Alida Valli familiarizing herself with Sommer's face, as Telly Savalas rhapsodically describes the coloring of her hair, you can see how the colors have a certain Technicolor strength without losing the naturalistic subtlety of their coloring. The blue of Valli's eyes manage to pop while the purple of her dress remains muted and not overpowering.

This closeup of Savalas, as Leandro, is one of the shots I remember best from the American Cinematheque screening. I remember Alfredo Leone being annoyed by the pale quality of the color in past home video presentations, which diminished the ruddiness of Savalas' skin and god knows what else. On the big screen, Savalas looked distinctly redder than the other cast members, betokening his devilish caste, and this was something always lost on video. The effect has now been fairly well reinstated.

And here you can see how lovely are the presentations of skin tones, hair gloss, even the honeyed warmth of Sommer's hair color. All of these improvements help to make a very sensual film play more sensually, and to better delineate the fascinating components of its rococo set decoration. LISA AND THE DEVIL finally arrives on disc as ravishing as it was always intended to be, and it actually looks better to me than the glimpses I stole of HOUSE OF EXORCISM, which is featured on the same disc. But the LISA footage has always looked good in that heretofore prevailing context.
The only drawback: Sylva Koscina's bludgeoning death (intact in HOUSE OF EXORCISM) remains unintegrated, a problem that I hope can be corrected at some point in the future. Otherwise, Bava fans can rejoice because LISA AND THE DEVIL has finally triumphed in pictorial beauty over its more financially successful, frog-barfing twin.
And, in the "if I do say so myself" department, I was very pleased with how my audio commentary for the film plays. This is partly the work of disc producer Perry Martin, who edited my talk, eliminating some "um's" and "uh's" and sometimes shifting bits around for heightened effect -- a very happy collaboration. Together, I think we've done a very good job of shedding a bit of light on one of Bava's most mysterious and beckoning works.
I'll be continuing with previews of other titles in the BAVA COLLECTION 2 set in the days ahead.

Early Ditko Find

While those of us stuck with American television won't be enjoying BBC4's Steve Ditko special tomorrow night, David Zuzelo's Tomb It May Concern blog has performed the important service of posting what may be Steve Ditko's earliest horror comic story, "Stretching Things."
I have no proof other than what I can see, but I personally suspect that the unsigned artwork (already distinctly Ditko) had a little help from a moonlighting Jack Davis on pages 3 and 4 -- see what you think.
Be sure to read the accompanying comments for input from Yours Truly, and a concise history of the story's initial 1954 appearance in print.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Twas Beauty Thrilled the Beast

The divine Fay in Michael Curtiz's DOCTOR X (1932).
It's hard to believe, even for one of my generation, but actress Fay Wray -- whose name remains synonymous with "heroine" and "damsel in distress" -- would have been 100 years old tomorrow. Born Vina Fay Wray in Cardston, Alberta, Canada on September 15, 1907, she spent part of her early childhood in Arizona with parents who divorced before she entered her teens. The dimple-chinned beauty won her first film role, a modest one, in 1923, but within five years she was playing the female lead in Erich von Stroheim's THE WEDDING MARCH (1928). She came to the attention of producer Merian C. Cooper, who cast her in his 1929 film THE FOUR FEATHERS and set his mind to mapping out her ultimate destiny. In the meantime, she became one of the first Technicolor stars in the memorable double-punch of 1932's DOCTOR X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, and she played female leads in THE VAMPIRE BAT and THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (also for Cooper), after which she ascended forever more into the firmament of great stars as Ann Darrow in KING KONG (1933).

A fine actress, as articulate as she was ornamental, and one of the greatest screamers the movies have ever known, Fay Wray is the quintessential goddess of the 1930s fantastique. KONG was the sort of film no career could ably follow; she refused to appear in the hastily made sequel SON OF KONG, but went on to appear in Maurice Elvey's fantastical THE CLAIRVOYANT (aka THE EVIL MIND) and Roy William Neill's voodoo piece BLACK MOON in 1934. For the next decade she played scrappy, spirited independent women, often born of privilege but determined to prove themselves on equal turf. After appearing in 1942's NOT A LADIES' MAN, she temporarily retired from the screen to raise her three children, the first from a failed marriage to playwright John Monk Saunders, and to concentrate on a somewhat successful second career as a playwright.

When she returned to the screen in the early 1950s, she made the adjustment to playing married, staid women -- as in the MGM musical SMALL TOWN GIRL (1953) and Gerd Oswald's CRIME OF PASSION (1957). The great parts never returned, but she had already left an indelible mark. Appearing occasionally in guest slots on TV series like PERRY MASON and ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, Wray remained remarkably youthful looking well into her sixties, which she ascribed in part to a sensible diet. Having turned down the TITANIC role that won Gloria Stuart her Oscar, Wray died in August 2004, just as Peter Jackson's colossal remake of KING KONG was entering production. The lights of the Empire State Building were dimmed for 15 minutes in her memory.

You can read more about Fay Wray in Lorraine LoBianco's fine overview at the Turner Classic Movies website here, and make plans to spend some time watching TCM's Fay Wray centenary celebration -- six of her films, including the rarely screened BELOW THE SEA and DIRIGIBLE (a Frank Capra picture!) -- tomorrow night, beginning at 8:00pm eastern.

BAVA Box Clarifications

A despoiled vestal virgin and her lover are bound in barbed wire and set for sacrifice in Mario Bava's ERIK THE CONQUEROR.


I need to follow-up on my previous posting about the second Bava box specs. It seems that a number of readers failed to notice that little dividing line that I placed between the nine titles included in the box and the three Bava titles that Anchor Bay are selling separately. Consequently, I am seeing online advisories for people to cancel their ERIK THE CONQUEROR orders because it's also being included in the second Bava set. But it's NOT!

To restate things more clearly, the ninth film in the box set is RABID DOGS, not ERIK THE CONQUEROR. ERIK is only being sold separately. The good news is that Deep Discount DVD is having an Anchor Bay horror "Buy 2 Get1 Free" sale, so you can now pre-order THE MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 2 (nine movies!) for a mere $30.18, and add on ERIK THE CONQUEROR absolutely free! See this page for details.

Nor did I mean to suggest that LISA AND THE DEVIL was going to be cut. What I said, or should have said more plainly, is that Anchor Bay's remastered disc will not carry over a sexually explicit "deleted scene" that was included on the previous Image disc. Bava had nothing to do with shooting it, and I'm personally in favor of its omission.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Finally! BAVA COLLECTION 2 Box Set Specs

The box says "8 Films By Mario Bava," but rest assured, there are actually nine. Here's the rundown on all the specs and extras:

BARON BLOOD
Uncut European version
Widescreen (1.85:1) presentation, enhanced for 16x9 televisions
Audio Commentary by Mario Bava biographer Tim Lucas
Theatrical Trailer
Radio Spots

BAY OF BLOOD (formerly TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE)
English version
Widescreen (1.78:1) presentation, enhanced for 16x9 televisions
Audio Commentary by Mario Bava biographer Tim Lucas
Theatrical trailer
Radio Spots
Poster and still galleries

5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON
International version in Italian with English subtitles and English-dubbed
Widescreen (1.85:1) presentation, enhanced for 16x9 televisions

FOUR TIMES THAT NIGHT
International version in Italian with English subtitles
Widescreen (1.78:1) presentation, enhanced for 16x9 televisions

KIDNAPPED / RABID DOGS
YES! Two versions: Mario Bava’s original 1975 work print (RABID DOGS) and the 2002 alternate version (KIDNAPPED)
Widescreen presentation (1.78:1), enhanced for 16x9 televisions
In Italian with English subtitles
Featurette: “End of the Road: Making Rabid Dogs and Kidnapped”
Audio Commentary by Mario Bava biographer Tim Lucas
Mario Bava bio

LISA AND THE DEVIL / HOUSE OF EXORCISM
Two versions: Mario Bava’s original film (LISA AND THE DEVIL) and the alternate "Mickey Lion" version (HOUSE OF EXORCISM)
Widescreen (1.85:1) presentation, enhanced for 16x9 televisions
Audio Commentary for Lisa and the Devil by Mario Bava biographer Tim Lucas
Audio Commentary for House of Exorcism by Producer/Co-Director Alfredo Leone
Theatrical trailers
Radio Spot

ROY COLT AND WINCHESTER JACK
In Italian with English subtitles
Widescreen (1.85:1) presentation, enhanced for 16x9 televisions

And then there are the single-disc Mario Bava DVD releases:

ERIK THE CONQUEROR
International version in Italian with English subtitles and English-dubbed
Widescreen presentation (2.35:1), enhanced for 16x9 televisions
Audio Commentary by Mario Bava biographer Tim Lucas
Audio Interview with actor Cameron Mitchell
U.S. and German trailers
Poster and still galleries
Mario Bava bio

THE MASK OF SATAN (BLACK SUNDAY)
International version with English dubbing
Widescreen presentation (1.66:1), enhanced for 16x9 televisions
Audio commentary by Mario Bava biographer Tim Lucas
U.S. and International trailers
TV spot
Mario Bava & Barbara Steele bios


THE THREE FACES OF FEAR (BLACK SABBATH)
International version in Italian with English subtitles
Widescreen (1.77:1) presentation, enhanced for 16x9 televisions
Featurette: “A Life In Film - An Interview with Mark Damon”
Audio commentary by Mario Bava biographer Tim Lucas
International & U.S. trailers
TV spot
Radio spot
Poster and stills gallery
Mario Bava & Boris Karloff bios
The good news is that RABID DOGS, though not mentioned on the BAVA COLLECTION 2 packaging, will be included in the set, and I've been assured that the feature masters have all been improved over the previous Image Entertainment releases to varying degrees. However, please note that the LISA AND THE DEVIL upgrade included in this set will not contain the sexually explicit "deleted scene" previously released, so Bava completists will need to hang on to their Image discs or Elite laserdiscs for future reference.
The set retails for $49.98, but it's being offered in some locations (ahem) for far less. Even at full price, that works out to about five bucks per movie. An amazing value -- and a great introduction to some of Bava's best, and some of his most offbeat, work.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Citizen Ditko

I read on Mark Evanier's blog today that BBC4 will be running a Jonathan Ross documentary entitled IN SEARCH OF STEVE DITKO next Sunday night. Sounds exciting. I'm not sure of the times, but if a WatchBlog reader within range of that broadcast could record a copy for me, I'll promise to blog about it and thank you personally. DVD-R or VHS welcome.

Postscript 3:58pm: A kind soul has come forward with a promise to record this event for me, but I will leave the above posted to inform others of the broadcast.

Monday, September 10, 2007

WITCHFINDER GENERAL in Stores Tomorrow

Vincent Price as the corrupt puritan Matthew Hopkins in WITCHFINDER GENERAL, a.k.a. THE CONQUEROR WORM.


It's been a long time coming.

It was in May 1988, in the debut of "Video Watchdog" in the pages of GOREZONE #1, that I first reported the atrocities imposed upon Michael Reeves' cult classic THE CONQUEROR WORM (aka WITCHFINDER GENERAL, 1968) by HBO Video's VHS release. It was the film's home video debut. In the nearly twenty years since, the film has never been available for viewing here in the States as Reeves intended it. Not only was the 17th century historical drama cut to soften the blow of its gore (and hence its outrage); worse still, its original Paul Ferris score, an enormous factor in its emotional sweep and impact, was replaced with an anachronistic synthesizer score by NEON MANIACS composer Kendall Schmidt. The film was the last ever made by the prodigious Reeves, who died of an accidental barbiturates overdose in 1969, at the age of 25 -- and it looked as though his best bid for remembrance was doomed by its current owner's refusal to pony up for the renewal of its music rights. In my two decades as a Video Watchdog, it remains in my view the most abominable offense ever perpetuated by a home video company, one that was instrumental in diminishing the reputation of a talented young man no longer among us to defend himself or his legacy.

Tomorrow, all this nonsense finally comes to an end with 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's "Midnite Movies" release of a fully restored WITCHFINDER GENERAL. The score is back in place, sounding grand and giving this modestly-made picture a measure of majesty, and the film has also been restored to the extent of including some shots never before seen in American release. Here are two of them, featuring Maggie Kimberley as an accused witch being prepared for burning.


There are also other additional shots of gore, witch-pricking and torture that have heretofore only been available as part of a patchwork reconstruction of the movie issued on R2 DVD. The quality of Fox's reconstruction -- actually MGM's reconstruction, as it was done there under the aegis of James Owsley -- is seamless and the movie looks remarkably good, even to the extent of darkening some previously overbright day-for-night shots and brightening some shots that have always been impenetrably dark. I have only one quarrel with the transfer, which I'll illustrate with the following grab:

The reds are far too hot, and not only in these military uniforms. The blood is so luminously red, it looks fake -- it's always been overly bright, but distractingly so. So I recommend you buy the disc and mute your color somewhat before watching. Some of the deep royal blues in the film may look more indistinguishable from black as a result, but the film overall will play better.

The extras consist of a featurette ("WITCHFINDER GENERAL: Michael Reeves' Classic") with appearances by VW's own Kim Newman, Stephen Jones and Vincent Price exhibit curator Richard Squires. (I wish the producers could have invited Price biographer Lucy Chase Williams or one of Reeves' two biographers for some first-hand input; Mr. Squires seems a nice fellow, but I could tell where he read everything he has to say about the film, none of which -- this not being a text presentation -- is attributed.) There's also a very fine audio commentary by actor Ian Ogilvy and producer Phillip Waddilove (who, parents may wish to know, drops a few f-bombs while reminiscing about the once GP but now "Not Rated" feature), moderated by the articulate and respectful Steve Haberman. The extras can also be found on the WITCHFINDER disc included in Fox's new VINCENT PRICE - MGM SCREAM LEGENDS COLLECTION box set.

Alas, with this restoration comes some loss. This is the British director's cut version of the film, so it doesn't feature the opening and closing US narration by Vincent Price (reciting stanzas from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Conqueror Worm"), nor does it feature the continental version's nude tavern wenches as seen in all previous home video releases of the film under its US release title, THE CONQUEROR WORM. The loss of the Kendall Schmidt score is nothing to cry about, of course, but these other omissions fall under the heading of necessary ephemera as far as we collectors and completists are concerned. They really should have been included here as extras.

In short, WITCHFINDER GENERAL is a long overdue release of one of the milestone horror films of the 1960s -- a job well done, but one which also leaves room for improvement the next time around.