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.

Who Is Number One?

Those who have invested once or more in A&E Home Video's DVD sets of THE PRISONER have cause to weep. Now, to commemorate the ground-breaking programme's 40th anniversary, Network Video has released a new, digitally remastered, R2 edition of THE PRISONER in the UK, and this nifty webpage offers some tantalizing before-and-after screen grabs worth checking out. And if they're not enough to make you want to exclaim "Be Seeing You," take a look at the extras also included.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

BAVA COLLECTION 2 Art Revealed

As if in reply to the 12-pound heft of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, Anchor Bay/Starz Entertainment have upped the ante with their forthcoming BAVA - THE MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 2. The set has now been increased in size to encompass eight (8) different Bava films!
According to this recently leaked cover art, KIDNAPPED is joining the set. What, no RABID DOGS? I would hope this is an oversight or perhaps an unavoidable omission considering the clearly crowded list of titles. The publicist for the set has promised Video WatchBlog an exclusive on the set's extras as soon as they're confirmed, so keep watching this space for further details.
To refresh your memory, three of these titles -- BAY OF BLOOD, BARON BLOOD and LISA AND THE DEVIL -- will also feature audio commentaries by me, Tim Lucas, as will Bava's wonderful Viking adventure film ERIK THE CONQUEROR, which is being sold separately by the label as it was licensed from a different licensor.