Monday, October 08, 2007

PERSONA: Roots of Captain Howdy

Bibi Andersson and Liv Ulmann in PERSONA.


I recently made a retroactive purchase of MGM's INGMAR BERGMAN SPECIAL EDITION DVD COLLECTION box set. Last night, I decided to begin my viewing at its beginning, with PERSONA (1966), the earliest movie in the set. I had seen it once before but, for some reason, remembered only its most soft-edged imagery; I had completely forgotten what a wrenching acid trip of a movie it really is, but I'm unlikely to forget this now. One of the reasons I resolved to write about the movie today is to better remember its traumatic impact, but there is also a more pressing reason for why I'm writing about the movie here.

PERSONA opens with a remarkable sequence deconstructing its own conveyance of images, beginning with the ignition of the carbon arc rods inside a 35mm projector and the rattle of perforated celluloid travelling through its gate. We are shown some subliminal images right away (including, shockingly for a 1966 film, an erect penis) and also during the subsequent main titles (including barely registering glimpses of a Keystone Kops comedy, or perhaps its Swedish equivalent). For some reason, during this procession of images meant to do nothing more than tap on my consciousness, I had the feeling of being in the presence of the same demonic energy I felt the first time I saw William Friedkin's THE EXORCIST -- probably because it, too, made potent use of subliminal imagery, as Mark Kermode and I first explored way back in VIDEO WATCHDOG #6, one of our earliest issues and still one of our best.

And then, about 46 minutes into this very involving but abstract "poem" about the mysterious bonding between a psychologically withdrawn actress (Liv Ullmann) and her attending nurse (Bibi Andersson), I was witness to something amazing. As some of you may recall, there is a pensive close shot of Andersson...

She is standing behind a sheer drape when, suddenly, the celluloid conveying Bergman's poem begins to disintegrate, along with the mind of the character. First, there is a scratch...

It follows the fluid form of the drape, but quickly is reassigned to other areas of the frame. Then portions of the frame disappear entirely...

And then even the anchored left side of the frame becomes unmoored and floats freely, the print seemingly destroyed and past the point of rethreading...


We fear the image has entirely disappeared, but it comes back just long enough to convey a penetrating glance from Andersson's eye that seems to burn from a place outside her performance.

The intensity of her gaze, her madness, seems to burn a hole into the celluloid, which grows like a cancer...


... until the nothingness of the burn engulfs the entire screen, turning it white.

The white lingers on the screen for several seconds. It is then followed by another sudden procession of intensive subliminal images, the first of which is this one:

It is there for no more than one or two frames, but I have a very good eye for subliminals. Many people would not have detected it, but I knew what I had seen. I had to stop the film at once and step back until I found the Devil in the details. My strange feeling, throughout PERSONA, from its opening subliminals and shock images of a hand being hammered to a crucifix, that I was somehow in the presence of THE EXORCIST was vividly explained.


For years, William Friedkin actively denied any knowledge of this subliminal image of Eileen Dietz as "Captain Howdy" in THE EXORCIST, but once the film came to home video and could be manipulated by those in the know, it became undeniable. (I should point out for the sake of interested historians that, even though Linda Blair's Regan refers to her inner voice/imaginary friend as "Captain Howdy" in an early scene of the movie, the epithet is never heard again in the movie and never mentioned in relation to her demonic possession. It was actually me who first identified this face as "Captain Howdy" in VW #6, and I note with some pride that the ID has caught on.) This is not the exact frame of the face as it flashes onscreen in THE EXORCIST, which you can see on the cover of the first edition of Mark Kermode's BFI Modern Classics book on the picture; the face in the movie bears much the same pallid, ogreish look as Bergman's Devil.

The brief appearance in PERSONA by a pasty-faced Devil is not the only instance I found of the Bergman film's influence on THE EXORCIST. Accompanying the flashing image of this Devil is a turmoil of sound effects, most particularly a chaos of tormented voices being played on tape in reverse. It sounds not unlike (in fact, quite like) the tape of Regan's nonsensical speech which is discovered to say "I am No-one!" when played in reverse.

Furthermore, as the culmination of an extended dialogue scene shown respectively as it plays on the face of the listener and then again as was communicated by the speaker, Bergman and his cameraman Sven Nykvist merge a disconcerting close-up of Bibi Andersson's face with an identically measured close-up of Liv Ulmann, combining their faces into one to accentuate their surprising likeness to one another -- indeed, their mutual "possession" of one another.

Here I gasped because, in this image, I recognized the seed of another dual image:

To the best of my knowledge, this relationship between PERSONA and THE EXORCIST has not been previously explored or detected. It certainly isn't noted by Bergman biographer Marc Gervais in his audio commentary for PERSONA. I would find it hard to accept that these shared images could have happened unconsciously on Friedkin's part; they are too studied. To me, this discovery does nothing to detract from Friedkin's brilliance as the mastermind behind the film of THE EXORCIST; any director could have taken William Peter Blatty's script and made a more straightforward film of it, but Friedkin had the sensitivity and the panache to recognize that PERSONA, too, in its own way, was a story of demonic possession. I not only accuse him of using this imagery knowingly, I also congratulate him for intuiting that PERSONA's extreme, nerve-flaying visual vocabulary was precisely what THE EXORCIST needed to rattle audiences -- a primary and wondrous instance of the commercial American cinema being secretly pollenated by the international art cinema.
BRAD STEVENS (VW contributor, author of MONTE HELLMAN HIS LIFE AND FILMS) writes on 10/9/07: "Enjoyed your blog comments on PERSONA. One thing you didn't make clear (or perhaps didn't realize) is that the devil who turns up in the subliminal image had already appeared in the film during the Keystone Kops-style sequence at the beginning. This sequence is actually Bergman's recreation of a (now-lost) silent film he recalls owning as a child: this recreation had already appeared, at much greater length, in Bergman's 1949 film PRISON."

Thursday, October 04, 2007

THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING reviewed

THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING (with CHOSEN SURVIVORS)
1964, 20th Century Fox, DD-2.0/MA/16:9/LB/ST/CC/+, $14.98, 62m 15s, DVD-1

Less eventful but generally preferable to its "Midnite Movies" companion feature CHOSEN SURVIVORS (reviewed 10/1) is Terence Fisher's barely feature-length THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING, made in B&W for producer Robert Lippert during Fisher's post-PHANTOM OF THE OPERA fall from favor at Hammer Films. Like CHOSEN SURVIVORS, it's a science fiction story of people thrust into a bizarre environmental situation they don't understand and must somehow overcome, but there is more than this thematic connection between the two films. In 1961, CHOSEN SURVIVORS screenwriter H.B. Cross wrote the title song for THE TEENAGE MILLIONAIRE, which was scripted by Harry Spaulding -- who later wrote (that's right) THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING.

In a set-up owed to VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED and DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS in equal parts, Spaulding's story takes place in a Northern English village where four independent couples come together to investigate (or take advantage of) why all the locals suddenly fell down dead or unconscious, and to determine why they themselves were unaffected by the phenomenon. Their sighting of stiff-legged, robotic soldiers patrolling in the area, with the capability of reanimating the dead, is all that de facto leader/pilot Willard Parker (TALES OFTHE TEXAS RANGERS) needs to suss out all the necessary answers on the first try, and Earth's invasion by aliens is put to rest rather easily, all told, between smokes and drinks in an up-for-grabs hotel and bar, all on an impressively small scale. (Though the three couples make camp in an abandoned hotel with presumably many empty rooms, everyone bunks in the downstairs lobby, for no apparent better reason than to consolidate action.) Parker's real life wife Virginia Field is the female lead.

Irresistably watchable actors like Dennis Price and Thorley Walters, Fisher's skilled direction, and especially a nearly non-stop, nerve-teasing score by Elizabeth Lutyens will be enough to keep most devotées of British fantasy watching, but this is truly an example of making a consummate craftsman making something passably good out of next to nothing. Shot in a 1.66:1 ratio, THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING's anamorphic presentation is handsome enough but looks moderately tight of frame, especially its Fox logo, though all the main titles and copyrights fit onscreen. Unlike CHOSEN SURVIVORS, the Fisher film contains an alternate Spanish audio track as well as the same subtitle options as the companion feature (English, French, Spanish). Also included is an amusingly hyperbolic trailer that exclaims the title at least a couple dozen times (2m 12s) and a photo gallery accompanied by a nicely isolated Lutyens music track that consists of an unbelievable 93 stills. A few behind-the-scenes shots excepted, that works out to 1½ shots for every minute of the picture -- virtually a flicker book!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Women of Buñuel

After a good deal of careful deliberation, in honor of Flickhead's Luís Buñuel Blog-a-thon (September 24-30), I have decided to make my own timely contribution to these laudations with a detailed discussion of Buñuel's actresses. It is obvious in his work from the very earliest examples, such as LAND WITHOUT BREAD, that Buñuel -- if nothing else -- certainly had an eye for glamourous women.

Buñuel was incorrigeable. Even in his most reverent religious works, L'AGE D'OR and MEXICAN BUS RIDE among them, matters of eroticism cannot help but intrude upon the Sacred. It occurred to me to address this particular level of Buñuel's works after a recent viewing of THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE. Rather like my own idea of Heaven, the Academy Award-winning film puts one in the company of Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, and Stéphane Audran while a creature no less divine than Milena Vukotic waits on the tables. Enjoying once again the convivial interplay of these women onscreen, I was struck by that uncommon quality which they all shared in common, namely... alas, I have lost my train of thought.

Photos of Buñuel in later life, of course, are impossibly rare but I was able to find this one by Googling his name.

I am reminded of a dream I had recently. I was sitting on the swing in my backyard, enjoying the warmth of the day while enjoying a cool drink and reading a newspaper. I do not usually read the newspaper, but I was drinking the sort of thing I would usually drink until I suddenly became aware that the ice cubes in the glass had become loose, swirling bits of fruit: it had become a sangria. At the same moment I noticed this, I tried to resume my reading but my concentration was thwarted by the sound of castanets. I looked around for signs of Carmen Miranda, who had perhaps lost her hat in my drink, but she was nowhere to be found. My investigation led me to my garage, which was built only two years ago and still looks brand new. Expecting to see nothing inside but our car and the usual bales of hay, I was startled to find a man I had never seen before. He was watching two young boys who were taking turns riding a piebald horse in circles around the inside of my garage. The horse's clacking hooves were the castenet-like sound I had heard.

"What are you doing in my garage?" I demanded.

The man took an exception to my volume and turned toward me. His manner was cordial but firm. "You are not to shout at those boys like that," he told me.

"Look," I said, maintaining my rights, "I don't want my garage to be used for walking horses."

There was more to it, but this is going nowhere; and, as they say, there is a time and a place for such stories. Suffice to say that Luís Buñuel was splendid. Besides his many noteworthy professional accomplishments, he is said to have read DON QUIXOTE many times and would hold accidental acquaintences spellbound for hours at a time by recounting the details of his favorite chapters and improvising new ones that typically involved needlepoint, matadors, priests, footwear, terrorism, and even toilets.

In closing, I was able to locate (also by Googling) this obscure retitling of Buñuel's VIRIDIANA. I have read a great deal about the Argentina-born director over the years, and I have also seen the documentary THE LIFE AND TIMES OF DOM DE LUISE BUNUEL, but never before have I discovered any reference to him casting Catherine Deneuve and Claudette Colbert in the same film in the same role. Still, I wouldn't put such a thing past him.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Remembering Charles B. Griffith


Audrey II opens wide for her creator, Charles B. Griffith, in the original THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, colorized version.


"Life is an obscure hobo, bumming a ride on the omnibus of art."
-- Charles B. Griffith, A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959)

Roger Corman has always said, though in not these exact words, that the recipe for a Roger Corman film was a good, fast-moving story, rich in exploitation potential, with an added element of social commentary or satire. Even if audiences didn't consciously pick up on that last part, it was there and got under their skin. You don't find much of this secret ingredient in Corman's earliest works, like HIGHWAY DRAGNET (which he wrote) or SWAMP WOMEN, but from the time screenwriter Charles B. Griffith joined his posse on GUNSLINGER (1956), it was suddenly there in full force. GUNSLINGER starred Beverly Garland as a woman whose lawmaker husband is killed, motivating her to pick up his badge as the marshal of a small western town. Post-JOHNNY GUITAR (1954), of course, but still early enough to qualify as the frontline of feminist cinema.

Woe is us, as Howard Beale might say, because Chuck Griffith died of undisclosed causes on September 28th at the age of 77 -- and we are in a lot of trouble. With the possible exception of Charlie Kaufman, I don't see any other Chuck Griffiths climbing up the ranks of today's screenwriters and the movies need such voices -- irreverent, acerbic, edgy, well-read, flippant, disdainful of the hoi polloi yet also generous, transcendent. Griffith was an unpolished gem of a screenwriter, a beatnik/stoner/outsider who smuggled those crazed and (then) highly individual sensibilities into the mainstream via Corman's commercial cinema. He was the sort of writer who could answer cinema's cry of "Feed me!" by dashing off a non-conformist vampire script like NOT OF THIS EARTH and make room in it for Dick Miller to shine as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, or to introduce a character like Jack Nicholson's masochistic dental patient into the midst of the two-day mayhem of THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS; who could write a whole movie like ROCK ALL NIGHT that more or less took place in a single room; who had the audacity to write the dialogue for THE UNDEAD and ATLAS and A BUCKET OF BLOOD that ran the gamut from mock-Shakespearean to quasi-Homeric to Beat poetic. Chuck Griffith, man! Who else would have dared? Sometimes his quirky cantos got rewritten, but it was impossible to subvert their essentially subversive character. His zany script for Corman's Puerto Rican lark CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA is the reason why it's the closest thing to a Thomas Pynchon novel ever to appear on the screen... and Griffith pulled it off years before the first edition of V. hit bookstore shelves.

Griffith's credited screen work disappears between 1961 and 1966, a period of European self-exile after which he scripted Corman's still-shocking and iconographic THE WILD ANGELS. Yes, he was responsible for Peter Fonda's unforgettable tirade: "We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do! We wanna be free to ride! We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded! And we wanna have a good time. And that's what we are gonna do. We are gonna have a good time... We are gonna have a party!"

One of Chuck's known activities during this blank period is tagging along with his pal Mel Welles to work as a script polisher on the Italian cheapie now known as THE SHE BEAST -- the directorial debut of Michael Reeves (WITCHFINDER GENERAL). It was apparently Griffith's idea to turn the horror film into a tongue-in-cheek essay on how the mythologies associated with Transylvania were corroding under 20th century communism. Chuck Griffith, man! Who else would have effing dared?? Mel Welles told me that it was his idea for the moment when the resurrected witch Vardella kills someone with a scythe, then throws it across a mallet to form the hammer-and-sickle symbol of Soviet power -- but I've always felt that Griffith must have had a hand in it. It was precisely his brand of crazy, a Third Man in a triumvirate with PAIN Magazine and the statue called "The Third Time Phyllis Saw Me, She Exploded."

When Roger Corman had the idea to make a film about LSD, Griffith was still his go-to guy for cutting edge counterculture and he asked him to write the script. The result was deemed "unfilmable" by Corman, because it was too long, too costly, too outré, whatever -- so the job of writing the film ultimately fell to Jack Nicholson. When Charlie Largent and I were writing THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES, our comic screenplay about the making of THE TRIP, the character of "Chuck" sprang to immediate life and got a lot of the script's best dialogue. Joe Dante (who has optioned the script) later told me that, when Quentin Tarantino read it, his first response was to say that he wanted to play Chuck. Well, you know and I know that Quentin says a lot of things, but I think his reaction shows what a standout character Chuck became in our scenario. I don't know how the casting cards will eventually play out, but Quentin went on to dedicate "DEATH PROOF" to Charles B. Griffith, and I'd be happy if our script played even a small part in putting that particular bee in his bonnet.

Consequently, I am feeling at the moment not only as though a hero has died, but that one of my characters has died -- one that Charlie and I loved so much, we worked extra hard to assign him a happy ending. I never got to meet the real Chuck Griffith. Joe tells me that Chuck never got to read the KALEIDOSCOPE script, which is a shame, but then again, he might have felt funny about it. I feel confident that the movie will be made someday and shine a spotlight once again on Griffith's particular maverick shade of genius.

Griffith also directed a half-dozen films over the years, the most commercial being EAT MY DUST! (1976) and the most interesting being DR. HECKYL and MR. HYPE (1980) with Oliver Reed, a contemporarily comic twist on the R. L. Stevenson story about man's dual nature -- but directing was not his strong suit. He was a writer through and through.

A lot of people get away with saying they did it their way, when they actually spent years if not decades paying their dues and kow-towing to lesser mortals, but as far as I know, Charles B. Griffith really did do it his way -- living in Hollywood (later, San Diego) but apart from Hollywood, living incognito on giant silver screens, directing enough movies to know it wasn't what he was best at, writing a number of genuine countercultural classics -- and he'll always be immortal to those who care as one of the primary colors, arguably the primary color, in Roger Corman's palette.

From his point of view, Chuck undoubtedly saw things differently and harbored some bitterness, as I know Mel Welles also did -- but I'm betting that, deep down, he knew moments of deep satisfaction in the crafting of his work, enough to matter, and that he understood he was living the life given him to live. Not as the celebrated Walter Paisley, sitting on his throne with a toilet plunger scepter, as he once parodied every artist's dreamed-of moment of success, but happier still as "an obscure hobo, bumming a ride on the omnibus of art."

Monday, October 01, 2007

CHOSEN SURVIVORS Reviewed

The assembled cast of CHOSEN SURVIVORS examine an unwelcome visitor to their subterranean stronghold.

CHOSEN SURVIVORS
1974, 20th Century Fox, DD-2.0/MA/16:9/LB/ST/CC/+,$14.98, 98m 22s, DVD-1

Filmed at Mexico City's Churubusco Studios with Mexican actors supplementing what was then a made-for-TV-level cast, CHOSEN SURVIVORS finds ten people -- mostly scientists (Bradford Dillman, Barbara Babcock, Diana Muldaur), but also a rich executive (Jackie Cooper), an aging athlete (Lincoln Kilpatrick), a how'd-he-get-in-here novelist (Alex Cord), and a young woman (Christina Moreno) whose only apparent skill is hysteria -- who are isolated by the US Military in a silvery bunker some 1,800 feet underground. There, a videotape of vacuous-looking LA newscaster Kelly Lange informs them that they are one of a number of "chosen survivors" of a nuclear attack which has taken place in North America. Beyond this, it's impossible to write about this film without spoilers, so be warned.

Surprisingly, despite the strict racial balancing of the group and absence of any gay characters, the survivors' responsibility for repopulating the Earth is largely overlooked. Just as well, as no two cast members spark any romantic chemistry (Cord and Muldaur, already paired it seems, lie in bed together as though embalmed), and once Richard Jaeckel turns up, they become an odd-numbered bunch as well. The movie doesn't really get going until 25m into the story, when a decorative cage of birds is raided by vampire bats, somehow able to penetrate the stronghold from the caves surrounding it. When subsequent fatal attacks coincide with a failing lighting system, Dillman (giving a twitchy Anthony Perkins performance) announces that the whole program has been a hoax carried out as an experiment in human behavior that has gone horribly wrong. With the only emergency alarm within easy reach disconnected by the bats, the task falls to Kilpatrick (THE OMEGA MAN) to "go for the gold" by grapple-hooking his way to the top of an elevator shaft to manually press an otherwise unreachable "Help" button.

The film suffers from cheesy special effects and a dreary droning score, but -- being a performance-based melodrama -- is most adversely affected by a capable cast uninspired by the script's clichéd dialogue ("I just never thought it would really happen...") and characterization (Cooper actually pulls a Thurston Howell by promising Kilpatrick a small fortune if he can get him back to civilization, and perhaps most incredibly, novelist Cord uses the term "per se" in the midst of an angry outburst). Nevertheless, it conjures up some intermittent suspense and unease, thanks to Sutton Roley's able direction and some exceptional bat wrangling. This is one of those films that plunge its setting into total darkness at the worst possible moments, followed by unnerving neon-blue emergency reserve lighting, so it works less well on video than on the big screen, where it more completely affects the viewer's own environment.

CHOSEN SURVIVORS garnered some halfway favorable reviews when it was first released in May 1974, but it was only sparsely distributed by Columbia Pictures. Movies like this became very trivial very quickly with the release of JAWS the following summer, and, since then, CHOSEN SURVIVORS has been one of the more difficult horror films of its period to see. Now available as a 20th Century Fox "Midnite Movie" double feature with Terence Fisher's black-and-white and barely-feature-length THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING (1964), it's a welcome enough collector's item release though it has not stood the test of time particularly well. The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer does what it can with the blandly photographed materials, which look alternately musty and nostalgically misty with mild grain and acceptable color. Considering the film's production background, it's surprising that no Spanish track is included, but the English audio is supplemented with a choice of English, Spanish and French subtitles.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Donnie Dunagan Goes to Auction

Mr. and Mrs. Donnie Dunagan recently sent us the following message, which it is now time for me to share with all readers of Video WatchBlog:

Well Hello, Everyone!

To all of our friends who are fans of SON OF FRANKENSTEIN and BAMBI, here is a heads-up. Donnie has consigned with Heritage Auction House for the sale of his original memoribilia from his childhood movie days, beginning OCTOBER 6, 2007. The address is
www.ha.com.

Up for auction are many personal items from his early days as a child star, all one-of-a-kind. Included are his original signed contract for BAMBI, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, and others. There are signed original 8x10's from stars like Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Jackie Moran, Ian Hunter, Nan Grey, and others. There are even some actual 35mm film clips from SON OF FRANKENSTEIN.

If you know of anyone who is an avid collector, please let them know. This will be the only time these one-of-a-kind items will be available. Check Heritage Auctions on the web for more info.

Let us hear from you all!

Donnie & Dana Dunagan


Here's a link that will take you directly to the fabulous Dunagan items up for grabs at Heritage Auctions, including a remarkable signed letter in which Donnie Dunagan (age five) fires his agent!
For your information, the photographs included in these lots are the same ones used to illustrate Tom Weaver's Rondo Award-winning interview with Donnie Dunagan, as it appeared in VIDEO WATCHDOG #112 and our unique VIDEO WATCHDOG SIGNATURE EDITION #1. Bear in mind that Donnie was not only the voice of Bambi, but he's the last surviving cast member of the last film to star Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster, and the actor with the closing line in the last film of the Karloff Frankenstein trilogy. These artifacts are remarkable beyond belief and -- like the gentleman himself -- their like will not pass this way again.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Uncut Craven and Wiederhorn

I hate to tempt my readership, but word is getting around that Warner Home Video's TWISTED TERROR COLLECTION box set contains the uncut versions of Ken Wiederhorn's EYES OF A STRANGER (1981) and Wes Craven's DEADLY FRIEND (1986). Both films were originally rated X for graphic violence by the MPAA and, being contractually obliged to carry R ratings, were subjected to additional cutting. Neither film excited much enthusiasm at the time, and while the passing years haven't exactly been kind to them either, these uncut versions are said to play marginally better. So, once again, art triumphs over the politics of the past.

Also included in the set are John Carpenter's very good Hitchcockian TV-movie SOMEONE IS WATCHING ME!, Oliver Stone's first major studio release THE HAND, the final Amicus anthology film FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE, and Larry Drake's post-L.A. LAW vehicle DR. GIGGLES. The set would be a lot more attractive without DR. GIGGLES -- Warners missed a great opportunity to release CRAZE (1974), which surely would have filled the "Twisted" bill, or even Hammer's CRESCENDO (1972) -- but even so, now I'm thinking I may have to snag one of these for myself.

Friday, September 28, 2007

VIDEO WATCHDOG Taking a Break

It's been kind of a slow week here at Video WatchBlog, but an involved enough week elsewhere in my life. I just added a new photo update to the Bava Book Update blog (with additional comments from producer Alfredo Leone and actors Stephen Forsyth and Dante Di Paolo -- check it out), and we've also finally found the time to update our website to include a page for VIDEO WATCHDOG #134, which is available now.

Today I need to announce that there is going to be a two-month disruption of VW's monthly publishing schedule.

Donna and I usually begin working on each new issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG at the first of the month, which is when new submissions from our contributors are due. This month, by the time the principal mailing of the Bava book was finished, we found that we were already more than halfway through the month, making our October issue no longer possible; we would have to skip one month of publication. Donna and I were exhausted, so I personally welcomed this news, as Margaret Dumont might say, "with open arms."

But finishing the principal mailing of the Bava book doesn't mean that our deck is clear. With three weeks set aside for fulfilling those orders, Donna is now a bit behind in filling our usual subscription and back issue orders, and new orders for the book and other VW products are continuing to come in every day. I'm also being called upon to promote the book (and the upcoming Anchor Bay box sets) with interviews, one of which is requiring us to look into webcam technology. With all this in mind, we've decided that we're going to take next month... not "off" exactly, because we'll continue working, reviewing, filling orders... but let's say "easy." We're going to try to reward our recent overactivity by taking next month a little more easily. Not exactly the vacation we need, but not having to produce new issues in addition to everything else that needs doing during this period should offer us the minimal respite we need.

So please pass the word that there won't be a new issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG in October or November; it may help to cut down the number of calls we're inevitably going to get when our subscribers notice a two-month gap in their delivery. We won't be gone long: VIDEO WATCHDOG #135 should be published sometime around Thanksgiving, near the end of November, and that will be our December 2007 issue.

Of course, this news does not affect Video WatchBlog, which will remain in full session during this period! Halloween is coming, and you can expect me to write about some interesting releases, new and old, through the weeks to come.

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.