Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The First Doctor's 100th

Today, DOCTOR WHO fans the world over will likely be taking note that today would have been the 100th birthday of actor William Hartnell (1908-1975), who introduced the long-running character to the British public.

It's often observed that the success of The Beatles in America may have been allied to the country's need for something upbeat in the wake of the assassination of US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Likewise, DOCTOR WHO's inaugural serial chapter "An Unearthly Child" happened to premiere on the BBC on November 23, 1963 -- the evening immediately following the terrible news -- so it may have similarly benefitted as a much-needed ambassador of escapism and gladder tidings. Hartnell's "First Doctor" -- and the subsequent variations of him from Patrick Troughton to David Tennant -- have been a beloved part of the national (nay, international) fabric ever since.

Hartnell remained the star of the series through 1966, during which time Amicus Productions made two "Doctor Who" features in which they cast Peter Cushing, who played the role à la Hartnell: DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS (1965) and DALEK'S INVASION EARTH: 2150 A.D. (1966). Six years after being released from the show by its second team of producers, Hartnell returned to the role he made famous one final time, in the 10th anniversary broadcast "The Three Doctors."

Hartnell's other important performances include Darrow in BRIGHTON ROCK, Will Buckley in THE MOUSE THAT ROARED, and Dad in Lindsay Anderson's THIS SPORTING LIFE (which joins the Criterion Collection later this month), but for sheer pop cultural impact, his Who was the big What When. And for many fans, it still is.

Also, a hearty "Buon' compleanno!" to Marcello Fondato, the screenwriter of Mario Bava's BLACK SABBATH (I tre volti della paura, 1963) and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (Sei donne per l'assassino, 1964) and many other films, who turns 84 today.

And can you believe that this needs-no-introduction fellow is now 82 years young?

Monday, January 07, 2008


Wow. Many thanks to Mark Evanier's News From ME blog for posting a link to my defense of SKIDOO. As I type this, it's not even 2:30 in the afternoon, but thanks specifically to referrals from News from ME, Video WatchBlog has already received nearly as many hits as it usually accumulates in the course of an entire day. Which just goes to show that there's something about this movie that intrigues people. Maybe it's a sign of the fall of Western civilization or the crumbling of our educational standards, but if SKIDOO was just a bad movie, would hundreds of people (thousands before the day is out) be out there, chasing down information about it?

Also thanks to one of our frequent correspondents, B. Baker, who sent this informative communiqué:

"If BREWSTER McCLOUD is rather more respected [than SKIDOO] -- which I believe it to be -- it's because it was not only directed by Altman, but entirely re-written by the director and Brian McKay. According to C. Kirk McClelland's book about the making of the film, Cannon's deal with Altman and MGM guaranteed the writer sole screen credit. McClelland's book, published by Signet in 1971, interestingly includes both the final version of the Altman/McKay screenplay and Cannon's original script (titled "Brewster McLeod's Flying Machine") for comparison, and the two scripts have little in common. It has been years since I read the Cannon screenplay, but to my memory the only real similarities between it and the Altman/McKay version are the idea of a young man named Brewster who wants to fly away, and a mysterious mentor named Louise. The characters, setting, much of the story and nearly all of the comic situations -- in other words, almost everything -- are very different in the Altman film.

"I also recall [Cannon's script] as being extremely dark -- even bitter -- and I believe the story was set in New York. I think the script's climax involved Brewster being shot out of the sky by police. This idea almost survived in the Altman/McKay script -- Brewster was originally to be shot while flying around the Astrodome, with the film possibly ending with a freeze frame of a stricken Brewster in flight -- but shortly before the scene was shot, this idea was scrapped, partly because it seemed similar to the climax of the recent BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID. [Also, as the picture was constantly being re-written and re-imagined to take advantage of the Houston setting and locations, it was possibly inevitable that the Ringling Bros & Barnum & Bailey Circus, co-owned at the time by the Houston Astros organization, would figure into BREWSTER at some point.]"

Well, B., it's been decades since I saw BREWSTER McCLOUD so the auteur links I cited between it and SKIDOO were really nothing more than a nod to the broadest outlines of both projects: they're both wacky, eccentric pictures, wackier and more eccentric than other works in the filmographies of Preminger and Altman, POPEYE excepted. There's something about these two movies that is almost Thomas Pynchonean, or at least semi-Charles Griffithian, Robert Thomian, or T. Coraghessan Boylean. Hey, look at me -- I'm writing Harry Nilsson lyrics!

Speaking of which, as I noted on a favorite discussion board, the end credits of SKIDOO are like a musical remake of the opening credits of FAHRENHEIT 451. With subtitles.

SKIDOO - As Bad As All That?

Turner Classic Movies recently screened one of the most widely reviled films of the 1960s, Otto Preminger's SKIDOO (1968) -- the movie that inspired so many critics of its day to advise "Skiddon't."

I suppose it goes against the common wisdom, but it's my own belief that there are different kinds of bad movie. Some bad movies are simply dull and incompetent; some movies become a mess due to the inability of the filmmaker to grasp what he/she is reaching for; some movies are bad because they think their message is above your head when it's really beneath your contempt; and there are also movies, made by competent people, that just happened to be made with the wrong people at the wrong time and became an unintentional freakshow that, depending on its audience, either elicits our condescending sniggers or empathy and curiosity. If SKIDOO must be seen as a "bad" movie (a term I try my best to resist because it tends to slam the door on understanding), it best fits into the latter category.

I'd like to give SKIDOO the benefit of the doubt. First of all, I think it's unfair to be so harsh on a film that hasn't been given every opportunity to make its best impression. Despite a brand-new-looking Paramount logo, TCM's presentation of the Panavision 2.35:1 feature was cropped, had the stale look of an aged VHS conversion, and sported a horrendous sound mix that sometimes had background score drowning out dialogue. Whatever our knee-jerk response to SKIDOO, in all fairness we must remind ourselves that this is our reaction to seeing the film in this wretched state. We're looking at a distorted presentation -- photographed by the great Leon Shamroy (LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, SOUTH PACIFIC, PRINCE OF FOXES), no less -- so our response is bound to be similarly distorted.

No, I'm not going to make a case for SKIDOO's unrecognized brilliance, but I certainly wasn't bored at any point. (I wish I could say the same about Mike Nichols' last twenty years on the job.) One thing that interested me most was that the movie I saw had little to do with the godawful reputation that preceded it. It has been called Otto Preminger's mid-life crisis movie, but it's not really an auteur picture, even if Preminger himself thought of it in those terms. The script was written by Doran William Cannon, who later wrote Robert Altman's rather more respected fantasy BREWSTER McCLOUD (1970), and I can see a fairly straight creative line between those two pictures that simply doesn't exist between SKIDOO and Preminger's next, TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON (1970), or his previous HURRY SUNDOWN (1967, excepting the shared presence in both of John Phillip Law).

SKIDOO has long been the subject of underground finger-pointing: after all, it's the movie where Jackie Gleason takes an acid trip, the movie where Groucho Marx smokes a joint. From the days when I bought ZAP Comics in head shops, people have traded these bits of information as if such ideas were themselves contraband, but both actors handle these dramatic challenges, if that's what they were, with aplomb. In fact, smoking a joint from a roach clip is the only thing that Groucho does with his usual masterly ease in the movie, where it's painfully evident that he's reading all his lines off of cue cards. Even his trademark shoe-polish mustache is applied unevenly. I've never known anyone to mention, in conversation anyway, that the movie is about the Mafia. Jackie Gleason -- who plays a retired suburban mafioso recalled by his ex-captain "God" (Groucho) to infiltrate a prison and commit one last hit (against Mickey Rooney, of all people) -- gives his usual fine performance, one that actually reaches a kind of pinnacle at the height of his delirium, though it's surrounded by a lot of noise (like casting that sometimes feels decided by dartboard, panning-and-scanning, and that infernal sound mix). Seen today, SKIDOO makes it almost tempting to see Jackie Gleason and his pampered Jersey wife Carol Channing as psychedelic templates for Tony and Carmela Soprano; indeed, the adventure taken by this Tony (Gleason, it's also his character name) has probably become an easier pill to swallow now that we've followed James Gandolfini's Tony through the weirder side-streets of his life and crimes on HBO.

SKIDOO opens with a lot of remote-control zapping of a televised image and later indulges in solarized color psychedelia, both of which featured prominently in Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson's Monkees movie HEAD (also 1968). If it's bad, it's certainly not because Otto Preminger was out-of-touch on the subjects of the youth and drug culture of the day, something that can't be said about THE LOVE-INS (again, 1968), the riotously conservative groove-fest that followed SKIDOO on TCM's schedule. Where SKIDOO goes astray is not in having establishment movie stars dabbling in counter-cultural amenities, but in taking an interesting premise and other intriguing divertissements and trying to make a comic musical out of it all. Even here, Preminger was not necessary incompetent; he had the good taste to hire Harry Nilsson (another Monkees affiliate) to supervise this end of things, and Nilsson's songs are fine, a bit in his COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER mode. Unfortunately, they don't have any kind of organic fix on the story at hand. Nilsson also appears in a very funny (because so unexpected) scene as one of two tripping prison guards -- the other is CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB's Fred Clark (again, "of all people") -- and looks down from his observation post to see a large yellow-orange hot-air balloon being filled to facilitate Tony's escape, which prompts him to ask the rhetorical question "Scrambled eggs?", which I, for one, found very funny.

People make a lot of fuss over SKIDOO's unfocused casting, its bizarre shuffling of media images, but this aspect of the movie is perfectly consistent with HEAD (which featured The Monkees, Sonny Liston, Frank Zappa, Carol Doda and Annette Funicello) and MYRA BRECKINRIDGE (Mae West, Rex Reed, John Carradine, Raquel Welch, William Hopper) -- not to mention the grand-père of them all, CASINO ROYALE (1967, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, David Niven, Daliah Lavi, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Vladek Sheybal, Frankenstein). All of these movies were long reviled by critics -- still are by the stodgier ones, say I -- but nowadays each of them has found champions among a subsequent generation of critics who have a better grasp of the zaniness these films were reaching for. Perhaps these films so kaleidoscopically of their time really were ahead of their time; perhaps they still are, though we are showing signs of drawing nearer to a better appreciation of what they captured, through design or sheer recklessness, about their moment.

In researching my (unpublished) book on Jefferson Airplane's CROWN OF CREATION, I found interviews with band members who remembered Otto Preminger dropping in on a recording session, probably because he happened to be at RCA Studios in Los Angeles to oversee Nilsson's SKIDOO scoring sessions. The Airplane were a little creeped out by his presence and they didn't find him particularly warm or likeable, but he assured them with his trademark icy unctuousness that, if they bothered to get to know him, they would realize they had much in common in terms of tastes and beliefs. It's said that Preminger, like Roger Corman prior to THE TRIP, took LSD in an effort to change his outlook -- and while it didn't have too positive an effect on his filmmaking, it does seem to have done something positive in terms of dismantling one of Hollywood's most infamous egos and making him a more empathetic human being. I can understand how some people might see SKIDOO and whatever Preminger was going through at the time as a mid-life crisis, but mid-life crises don't always have to be destructive or embarrassing. At least SKIDOO shows Otto Preminger attempting to push his work in a different direction -- more relevant, more playful -- and, disaster or not, I would personally prefer to watch it than just about any other movie from his last twenty years on the job.

In 1968, generational lines were so rigidly drawn that Jefferson Airplane couldn't help but see Otto Preminger as "the man," even as a dirty old man who was hanging around the studio to keep his epicurean eye trained on the comely Grace Slick. Looking at SKIDOO in 2008, I don't see anything that suggests Preminger as a dirty old man or as a card-carrying member of the Establishment. I see a brave, pleasurably catastrophic attempt at turnabout by an artist who was earnestly determined to reinvent himself, his life and his art. He didn't succeed of course, but even Bob Dylan, the master of self-reinvention, delivers the occasional DOWN IN THE GROOVE.

The important thing for any artist is to try and keep on trying -- or, to use another word, becoming. ("He who's not busy born is busy dying," to quote he who went down in the groove.) We, in turn, as their audience, need to become less insistent that high quality is the only valid aim for a piece of art, whether it's a film or a book or a piece of music, and more appreciative of work that scatters in all directions, reflecting the internal struggle that resulted when its makers set out to chart the unexplored territory of self and career, or simply to move from one place to another.

Stash, the hippie character played with a wink by John Phillip Law, has a line that puts what I'm trying to say right into the proverbial nutshell: "If you can't dig nothing, you can't dig anything... you dig?"

Sunday, January 06, 2008

New Shameful Cinema Link

Today at the Classic Horror Film Boards, VW critic Bill Cooke posted the following message:

"For years I have welcomed a close-knit group of friends over to my house once per week to eat, drink and experience the joys of crazy cult films. Recently, one of my fold started his own web site, www.shamefulcinema.com, as an outlet for his growing interest in writing about weird cinema. The site gets its name from our weekly gathering at 'Bill's House of Shame.' Since I review as many DVDs as I can handle for VIDEO WATCHDOG, I agreed to occasionally contribute soundtrack CD reviews since I'm not currently doing that elsewhere and film music has always been a special love of mine."

With Bill's good efforts in mind, I have added a permanent direct link to this site at screen right, where I provide an ongoing roster for the extracurricular online activities of the VW Kennel. Bill has already posted generous reviews of Jerry Goldsmith's ALIEN complete score and the Ronald Stein compilation MAD, MOD AND MACABRE, and his friends Andy and Stewart are tackling video reviews, so give them a look and keep the site bookmarked for regular visits.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Surely I'm Not the Only One...

... who saw this poster for the latest Jacques Rivette film (released here in the US as THE DUCHESS OF LANGEAIS) and thought, "Oh my god, they've remade THE BRIDE!"

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Resequencing THE PRISONER

Patrick McGoohan runs for office in "Free For All," the second PRISONER episode shot and the fourth to be shown.

I'm presently going through another viewing of the classic ITC series THE PRISONER, courtesy of Network Video's fulsome 40th ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL EDITION box set, by my count the third time I've gone through the entire series since its original broadcast. One thing that this new set brings to light, to me anyway, is that some of the episodes' rough edges are due to peculiarities stemming from their order of broadcast. There is a wonderfully thorough paperback book included with the box set, THE PRISONER - A COMPLETE PRODUCTION GUIDE by Andrew Pixley (poor fella didn't get his name on the spine of his own book), which chronicles the series in their original production order, different to their broadcast order, which in turn differed between the UK and the US.

I was surprised last night, while revisiting "Dance of the Dead" (Episode 8 in both countries), to notice several references in the dialogue to the Prisoner's "recent" arrival in The Village and various other signs in the program that "P" (as he was designated in the original scripts) was still just beginning to settle in. In this episode, for example, Number 2 informs him that The Village is a democracy in some respects, which is something he has already learned in "Free For All," the second episode to be shot and the fourth to be shown here and abroad -- a bewildering anachronism. It also introduces a black cat, initially a friend to "P" that is later identified as the property of Number 2; this same black cat figures prominently in the episode "Many Happy Returns," which happened to be broadcast immediately prior to "Dance of the Dead," thus depriving it of its character as a referent to Number 2. I felt sure that "Dance" had to be one of the earlier episodes shot, and indeed Mr. Pixley's book shows it to have been shot fourth. It feels decidedly misplaced in the show's chronology.

Speaking of "Many Happy Returns" (one of my favorite episodes, perhaps because it feels most closely allied to the way things were sometimes done on DANGER MAN), I was intrigued to discover that it was the 13th episode to be filmed, prior to the series' only break in production (as star Patrick McGoohan was off filming ICE STATION ZEBRA) -- in effect, the show's only season finale. It makes much greater sense, narratively and dramatically, if positioned this way. Indeed, I've yet to revisit the final episode "Fall Out", but I find myself wondering if "Many Happy Returns" might not be even more sequentially valid as the final episode, or as a postscript to the series as a whole.

THE PRISONER was conceived as a limited run series (only seven episodes were originally planned) but, as demand for additional episodes increased, it appears to have been reinvented on the fly, changed from a prototypical miniseries with more-or-less continuous narrative to a kind of anthology show about a rebellious protagonist who resigns from espionage, is abducted by mysterious forces (friend or foe?), and awakens into a different trap or test of character each week. In one notorious episode, "Living in Harmony", the show told its story in metaphoric Western drag, the main titles replaced with a scene of McGoohan flinging his marshall's badge on someone's desk. "P" doesn't know which end is up, week after week, and the chaotic ordering of events leaves the viewer about as disorientated. I personally feel this works against the show's overall success. Without narrative order, "P"'s imprisonment in The Village loses its sense of time and duration; there is no wearing-down of our hero. Unintentionally, the random manner in which his dilemma is ordered refreshes him.

In an opening statement in his book, Andrew Pixley cautions his readers that, while his book chronicles the episodes in the order they were made, "this is not a logical viewing order for the series." He offers no explanation why. My questions, then, are:

Has anyone ever come up with a more definitive viewing order for THE PRISONER? One that makes greater sequential sense in terms of what the dialogue reveals, one that strengthens the drama inherent in the episodes? Is this celebration of individuality ultimately best taken not as a collective series but as a series of individual episodes? Or is it really six of one, half a dozen of the other?

I realize that PRISONER fandom is hardly new, and it's possible that I'm not the first spectator to ask these questions. If not, perhaps someone out there has done all the footwork to formulate a more satisfying sequencing for THE PRISONER's 17 episodes; if so, I'd love to know about it. God help us, I suppose there may even be different theories out there about how to resequence the show to maximum effect, which would make this classic program not only a puzzlement but a veritable Rubik's cube.

Update: Friendly correspondent Nate Yapp has written to inform me that A&E's box sets of THE PRISONER are presented in what is known as "the fan order," which proceeds thusly:

Arrival / Free for All / Dance of the Dead / Checkmate / The Chimes of Big Ben / A, B, and C / The General / The Schizoid Man / Many Happy Returns / It's Your Funeral / A Change of Mind / Hammer into Anvil / Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling / Living in Harmony / The Girl Who Was Death / Once Upon a Time / Fall Out

This reordering does suggest an improvement, except for one or two troublesome details -- most notably Colin Gordon's casting as Number 2 in two consecutively placed episodes, "A, B, and C" and "The General." In "A, B, and C" (originally Episode 3), Gordon is introduced as a rattled, ulcerous Number 2 whose job (and nervous system) are under threat by the offscreen Number 1, whose warnings of dire consequences should he fail to break Number 6 once again have him twitching and sipping milk through the entire episode. In "The General" (originally Episode 6), Gordon's Number 2 is mysteriously back -- despite his previous failure -- and comports himself altogether more confidently. The inconsistency between these two episodes is distractingly bizarre. According to Andrew Pixley's book, the episodes were indeed shot in this order, but the role of Number 2 in "The General" was not intended to be played by a returning actor. Mr. Pixley reveals that the actor originally cast as Number 2 didn't work out and the dependable Gordon was asked to step in as a quick replacement, without any thought given to the performance he had previously given or its context. Therefore, though not intended to be shown other than in the order they are seen on the A&E and Network discs, the fact of Gordon's recasting nevertheless requires "The General" to precede "A, B, and C." This rearrangement not only clears up the confusion of Gordon's recasting but provides us with the backstory for his Number 2 character that is only vaguely implied at the beginning of "A, B, and C."

Monday, December 31, 2007

Here's to 2007: An Amazing Year

Those of you who dislike personal blogs (probably the same folks who dislike pasta in their Italian cuisine) can tune out now. Another year is ending and I feel inclined to take stock. Professionally speaking, 2007 was far and away my most productive year to date; I pushed myself so hard, in fact, that I'm closing out this year, for the first time I can remember, under the weather. I came down with a cold just after Christmas, and I'm presently feeling sluggish and a bit feverish, and my constant reaching for the tissue box has aggravated a problem I've been having with my left eye since the physical exertions of the Bava book shipping last September. On the first day of the book signing, I felt that something -- perhaps some powder from the books -- had found its way into my left tear duct and, shortly thereafter, I began to notice a new and most unwelcome heavy-duty floater in that eye. Now, whenever I look to the right, the floater (which resembles a large shred of dirty opaque plastic sheeting) gets dragged to the left, and vice-versa. I'm hopeful that something can be done to zap it in the New Year.

First and foremost, 2007 was the year Donna and I finally delivered MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK. Even though this was the year I added the last paragraphs to this 32-year project, the year I finally held the finished book in my hands, and the year of our "Ultimate Bava Book" auction on eBay, it's the saga of the book's shipping that stands out most prominently in my mind. Having our home invaded by hundreds of 37-pound boxes, seeing my little 5' 1" wife bossing around two immense delivery trucks and commandeering our friends and relatives through the militaristic details of packing and shipping... it was a nightmare, but in retrospect, one of my life's most amazing adventures.

Likewise, the response to the book has been truly gratifying, from the feature article in the current issue of RUE MORGUE to the rave reviews in SIGHT & SOUND and FANGORIA, and of course the many wonderful letters and photos and postcards sent to us by happy readers. I'm a bit unhappy that the same factors that made the Bava book such a monumental event in publishing (not just in fan publishing) are working against its availability to greater numbers of readers, and its recognition on many year-end Best lists. I'm seeing that it may be necessary to create a kind of "Shorter FINNEGANS WAKE" version of the Bava book for the benefit of general and introductory-level readers. Nevertheless, sales of what RUE MORGUE calls "The Black Bible of Mario Bava" continue to be strong and my new agent -- Howard Morhaim of the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, Inc. -- is presently pursuing "popular edition" and foreign language opportunities for the book. One Italian company, I'm told, has already expressed interest in publishing the book in Italian translation, so here's hoping.

This year I also wrote two other, shorter, non-fiction books. The first was a monograph on Jefferson Airplane's 1968 album CROWN OF CREATION, which I analyzed in terms of being, in part, a science-fiction concept album inspired in part by the writings of British author John Wyndham -- the flower children of 1967 mutating into the Midwich Cuckoos, so to speak. I wrote this book in hope of contributing to Continuum Press's "33 & 1/3" line of books on classic albums. Though editor David Barker didn't accept the book on the basis of my selection, he later read and approved my completed manuscript... but he has no place for it on his roster unless one of his other contracted writers has trouble making a delivery date. This hasn't happened yet, and the book is starting to burn a proverbial hole in my pocket; I'd like to find a home for it.

The other book is VIDEODROME, my inaugural contribution to Millipede Press's forthcoming "Studies in the Horror Film" series, which is an updating of my 25-year-old unpublished book-length manuscript on the making of David Cronenberg's film, originally intended as a double-issue of CINEFANTASTIQUE. Portions of this book have previously appeared in Piers Handling's 1983 book THE SHAPE OF RAGE: THE FILMS OF DAVID CRONENBERG and as a text feature included on Criterion's VIDEODROME DVD. Originally announced for November of this year, the book is running behind schedule and I'm presently proofreading the text and helping to select images for the final layout.

Eric Yarber and I also collaborated this year on an original horror screenplay called SCARS & STRIPES. Represented by Judy Coppage of The Coppage Company, it's a potent horror script with an anti-war message, strong dramatic roles for a young cast, and, I believe, franchise potential. If I've intrigued any lurking producers out there, drop me a line and I'll direct you to Judy's office. So many new horror DVDs are released every week, made by people I've never heard of; I'd like to think that an original horror film written by a known genre authority and novelist would have some promotional advantages that others might not.

Joe Dante and his partner Elizabeth Stanley are continuing to seek funding for THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES, the comedy script about the making of Roger Corman's THE TRIP that I wrote with Charlie Largent. I've been asked not to share specific details, but some recent developments are encouraging. I feel sure it's going to happen.

More visibly, I also edited and co-published eight new issues of VIDEO WATCHDOG this year, to which I also contributed numerous reviews and one notable feature article: VW #133's study of Joseph Losey's THESE ARE THE DAMNED. Additionally, I wrote a dozen "No Zone" columns for SIGHT & SOUND, as well as a separate feature article choosing 10 outstanding "grindhouse" movies.

Though it won't be surfacing until sometime next year, I also contributed to Scott Bradley's project THE HORROR BOOK OF LISTS, a list of "10 Great Horror Films That Aren't Horror Films" that I'm told had an even longer word-count than the list submitted by Richard Stanley.

Today, friendly correspondent Bill McAlpine wrote to share with me the happy news that I tied with Alejandro Jodorowsky in DVD Beaver's DVD of the Year 2007 poll for Best Audio Commentary. This serves to remind me (I actually forgot this last night, when making up a preliminary mental list!) that, in addition to everything else I did this year, I released eight new audio commentaries for Anchor Bay Entertainment's MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUMES 1 and 2 as well as two stand-alone Bava releases: ERIK THE CONQUEROR, THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, BLACK SABBATH, KILL BABY... KILL! (withdrawn), BARON BLOOD, BAY OF BLOOD, LISA AND THE DEVIL and RABID DOGS -- and my 2000 commentary for BLACK SUNDAY was reissued as part of VOLUME 1 and as a stand-alone release (as was BLACK SABBATH). The majority of DVD Beaver's respondents (28%) say they don't listen to commentaries, which is a shame; nevertheless, 25% voted for Jodo in the "Director" category and another 25% voted for me in the "Scholar" category. This comes as a great surprise and a very nice honor with which to close out the year. I found all the catagories in the DVD Beaver survey very interesting indeed and I recommend you give them a look.

I was also extremely fortunate to be the recipient of three Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards at last May's Wonderfest in Louisville, Kentucky -- for Best Magazine, Best Website (Video WatchBlog) and Best Writer. And this past December 23, Donna and I celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary, an honor beside which the rest of these accomplishments pale.

What else did I write this year? Oh, yes -- this blog.

I've been giving some serious consideration of late to retiring this blog, because it imposes a lot of extra work on me; frankly, since the completion of the Bava book, I've been having difficulty finding my way back into purely creative writing and the blog isn't helping. But after compiling this list of everything I was able to achieve this year, above and beyond Video WatchBlog, I'll try to carry on awhile longer. I have a couple of projects already in mind for 2008, and this past year I managed to carry out a little more than a couple, so everything should be doable as long as I keep my health.

Of course, all of this writing I do would be meaningless without its audience, and I thank you all for being there for me and my eagerly-shared opinions and insights, for paying attention, and for keeping me honest by correcting my occasional mistakes. Donna joins me in wishing you all a very happy, healthy -- and, above all, productive -- 2008.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Bissette on I AM LEGEND, Matheson, etc.

I recommend you check out Steve Bissette's MYRANT blog, where he has posted some typically well-considered thoughts of typically epic length on the new Will Smith blockbuster I AM LEGEND, bringing into his discussion notes on the source novel by Richard Matheson and its previous film adaptations THE LAST MAN ON EARTH and THE OMEGA MAN.

By serendipity, we caught I AM LEGEND tonight and, like Steve, I thought it was going along pretty darned well... until the bad guys showed up and turned out to be a bunch of Hulk-roaring cartoons. (Makes it easier to adapt to a video game, I suppose.) Nevertheless, Smith puts a lot of heart into his performance and, despite running on a relatively flat tire for too much of its third act, it's got three or four terrific sequences definitely worth seeing.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

New Franco Doc Goes on Sale Sunday Night!

Brian Horrorwitz' long-awaited documentary ANTENA CRIMINAL - MAKING A JESS FRANCO MOVIE is finally going on sale at the Trash Palace website tomorrow night -- Sunday night/Monday morning -- at midnight. You may want to make arrangements to be there because there are certain benefits to being one of the first seven people to order a copy.

ANTENA CRIMINAL is a new documentary that chronicles the making of Franco's 2000 crime thriller BLIND TARGET, filmed by Horrorwitz, who was cast to play a supporting role in the film. Brian showed me a rough cut of the picture a couple of years ago and I found it very interesting even in that state -- more interesting than BLIND TARGET, frankly -- including some candid scenes that have stuck with me ever since. I'm very much looking forward to seeing the final cut.

The two-disc DVD-R set includes: ANTENA CRIMINAL (84 minutes), an exclusive interview with Jess Franco (25 minutes), outtakes and deleted footage (from ANTENA CRIMINAL, not BLIND TARGET - 50 minutes)a Photo Gallery with complete score (21 minutes), documentation of ANTENA CRIMINAL's World Premiere (8 minutes), a trailer (3 minutes), and liner notes by Pete Tombs of Mondo Macabro. Each copy of ANTENA CRIMINAL comes with a free DVD of Sub Rosa's release of BLIND TARGET. The low, low price for the whole package is $11.98 plus shipping.

Horrorwitz writes about the sale: "Here's how it works: The DVD will go on sale December 30th at the stroke of midnight (that's this Sunday night / Monday morning). [Editor's note: That would make it technically December 31, but you know what he means.] The first 7 orders that come through the Trash Palace website's order page each get a free autographed photo as follows:

"Customers # 1 to 3 each get a beautiful color glossy 8 x 10 still of Jess Franco and Lina Romay from the 1970s with Lina licking Jess' face! It is signed in gold ink by Jess and black ink by Lina!

"Customers # 4 and 5 each get a color glossy 8 x 10 still of Jess from DR. WONG'S VIRTUAL HELL, his name and a "secret Asian message" signed in gold by Jess Franco!

"Customers #6 and 7 get a color glossy 8 x 10 still of Lina from "Dr. Wong's Virtual Hell" signed in black ink by Lina Romay!

"In order to qualify you must be one of the first 7 customer at or after 12 o'clock midnight this Sunday night / Monday morning via our website. Any orders coming in before midnight will count as pre-orders but will NOT qualify for the photo giveaway."

For more information on ANTENA CRIMINAL (check out the trailer!), click here. To go directly to the secure order form, use this link.


There is no shortage of new things to watch here at Chez Watchdog -- the new BLADE RUNNER briefcase edition, the MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. set in its similar attaché case, and much else -- but Donna and I have become absorbed in the myriad pleasures of Mill Creek Entertainment's monolithic-in-its-own-way 12-disc box set THE ESSENTIAL OZZIE & HARRIET COLLECTION, which contains no less than 100 "complete" episodes.

Regrettably, not all of the episodes are quite complete -- it seems that the original cuts of some episodes got misplaced along the way when they were re-cut for shuffling back into the original run as retrospective episodes, at which time the first couple of minutes were lopped off to make room at the end for a newly-inserted Ricky Nelson performance -- but an impressive percentage of them are intact, even to the point of including their original commercials for such products as Coca-Cola, Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, and Kodak camera.

THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE & HARRIET has an undeserved reputation of being bland family comedy. With many of its best episodes co-authored by future GREEN ACRES scribe Jay Sommers, it's often delirious in its comic convolutions of ordinary life and sometimes downright surreal, as in the classic episode "Ozzie's Triple Banana Surprise" (also included here). The shows benefit all the more from being seen in their original broadcast context, as the Nelson family would also often appear in the commercials adorning their program -- and so would some other surprising, familiar faces.

Case in point: Here is a frame from one of the show's Kodak commercials, which finds Ricky Nelson aiming his Kodak camera at actress Joyce Taylor. You may remember Joyce as Beatrice Rappaccini in the best segment of the Nathaniel Hawthorne anthology film TWICE TOLD TALES or as the female lead in Edward L. Cahn's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, but this is her closer to the beginning of her career.

Around this same time, Joyce was the female interest in an episode of OZZIE AND HARRIET called "Ricky the Bullfighter" -- shots from which, featuring her, later turned up in Ozzie's 1961 promotional film (the prototypical "rock video") for Rick's hit single "Travelin' Man."

No, this isn't a scene from LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD; it's an even more bizarre pairing of actors in a different Kodak commercial, found in Mill Creek's offering of the episode "David the Law Clerk." Here we see future ZOTZ! co-star Julia Meade extending the palm of her hand toward actor William Berger -- who would subsequently appear with Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney in a classic Halloween episode of ROUTE 66 and then relocate to Europe, where he founded a commune for psychedelic experimentation and appeared in such films as THE MURDER CLINIC, Jess Franco's LOVE LETTERS OF A PORTUGUESE NUN, and HERCULES II with Lou Ferrigno.

A star comes down from the heavens, alighting on Julia's hand...

... et voila! It becomes Kodak's then-new Starliner camera!

If they still made commercials as trippy as this, psychedelic communes might well be more prevalent today.

But the commercial is a great discovery because it dates from 1959, pre-dating the earliest of Berger's known work on film and television.

The OZZIE & HARRIET episode which this commercial accompanies, "David the Law Clerk", rates special attention for a still-astonishing dream sequence in which David Nelson (who finds his application for a job in a law firm troubled by a true but unbelievable number of coincidences) rehearses pleading his case to prospective employer Mr. Ralph Dobson (Francis DeSales) in a court of law. The tour de force sequence, directed by Ozzie Nelson himself, finds David Nelson playing all of the principals except the members of the jury.

David also plays the court stenographer in a single cutaway shot. The only characters he doesn't play, as I said, are the members of the jury, who are all played (even the female members!) by Francis DeSales!

Mind you, no CGI or motion control were used in the creation of this sequence!

This last shot is particularly clever because as the jury foreman stands to deliver the verdict (which he cannot find on his person), he blocks the view of the jury member seated directly behind him, who peeks around for a better look at what's going on. This sort of thing shows tremendous pre-planning, and the trick photography (by DP Neal Beckner) continues to represent a superior, seamless technical standard almost 50 years after it was shot.

"David the Law Clerk" was one of the episodes included in this year's somewhat disappointing Shout Factory release THE NELSON FAMILY PRESENTS THE BEST OF THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET, the only family-authorized release of these public-domain episodes to date. (The authorized version is the one that doesn't include the original commercials, sad to say.) David Nelson contributed audio commentaries to some of the episodes in the Shout Factory set, but unfortunately not for this episode, which I imagine would have made for very interesting listening.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Happy Holidays!

On this Christmas Day, Donna joins me in wishing all VIDEO WATCHDOG and Video WatchBlog readers the happiest of holidays. Thanks for looking in, but we're spending the next few days in the company of family and friends -- like our good friend Joe Busam, who took this nifty photo of us last month. Feel free to look around the blog and peruse its vast archive, which now amounts to exactly 600 posts to date (601 if you count this one)... my gift to you.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

FOUR FLIES on Grey Market

One of the most exciting developments of this holiday season is the unexpected arrival of a German gray market release of Dario Argento's elusive FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET on DVD. I've received some e-mails asking me if the rumors are true and, if so, how does it look... so I'll devote today's blog to answering that question.

As these screen grabs illustrate, the 97m disc -- titled VIER FLIEGEN AUF GRAUEM SAMT and credited to a company called Retrofilm -- is indeed real and it looks pretty good. It was also obviously assembled by people who know their Argento movies well. The great bulk of the source material comes from a 35mm print, in English, that looks like it's been around the block a few times; it's a bonafide, old-fashioned grindhouse print, complete with the occasional travelling scratches and thumpy splices... but the image quality, imperfect as it is, is by far the best I've seen for this particular film. If you've only seen the film on one or more of the ratty bootleg videocassettes long in circulation (which happens to also be my story), I think I can safely promise you a viewing of FOUR FLIES that you might consider revelatory.

Closeups like this one, of the blackmailing maniac's mask, are sharp enough to bring out previously unsuspected textures. I always thought this was a facial mask, but it appears to be more of a whole-head mask.

Medium or long shots like this look a bit softer, but still more than acceptable on my 58" widescreen set. If your screen is smaller than mine, the quality will only improve for you.

As always, the sharper the picture, the more attentive we can be to matters of performance and Mimsy Farmer gives one of her most interesting and brittle performances here.

This shot of protagonist Michael Brandon, sharing the screen with Euro great Bud Spencer (as "God") is a good index to the disc's color quality. As you can see by comparing these skin tones to those in the bed shot shown previously, they are prone to fluctuation. Not ideal, but those who saw the film in theaters here in 1972 probably saw something similar.

Earlier I said that "the bulk" of the disc looks pretty good. I qualified my statement because the 35mm print used for this release was evidently incomplete, requiring the Argento buffs behind the scenes to obtain the best possible inserts from other sources to make their presentation as complete as it could be. I didn't notice anything missing from the movie; in fact, there are shots included in this disc that I've either never seen before, or saw in such poor quality that I could never appreciate them for what they were. The scene illustrated here, of Brandon's maid waiting in the park for a meeting with the killer, is one of five or six short patches inserted into the continuity from other sources. They're unfortunate, but it would be worse not to have them in place.
I should also mention that it's a pleasure to see this Techniscope film in its correct ratio, which brings to life fleeting shots like this one -- of the gay private eye investigating the case.

Indeed, the disc salvages so much heretofore obscured detail that, for the first time, I noticed that Argento or his art director used some record albums of the day to wryly underscore the film's death imperative prior to its grand finale: Traffic's JOHN BARLEYCORN MUST DIE and George Harrison's ALL THINGS MUST PASS.
The only source I know for this Region 0 PAL disc is Xploited Cinema, where it is priced at $29.95. The disc includes English, German and Italian audio options, but only German subtitles. A bonus section includes German trailers for this film, as well as one each for Argento's previous features THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and THE CAT O'NINE TAILS. Alternate Italian titles and an extended edit of the film's finale also taken from that version are included, as well.
Of course, VIER FLIEGEN AUF GRAUEM SAMT is not what anyone would call a definitive release. It's really just a deluxe pacifier to keep Argento's fans contented until whatever legal problems are preventing the film's legitimate release can be solved. Anyone who buys this disc will inevitably want to upgrade in the event of an official release, but it's worth the inevitable double dip to have this movie available to us now -- for those crazy goddamn nights when nothing else will do.

Friday, December 21, 2007


Jess Franco's EUGENIE DE SADE, starring Soledad Miranda (pictured above) and Paul Muller, has been released a number of times on DVD -- domestically from Wild East, as an Australian R0 import from Force Video, and so forth. However, next month on January 29, Blue Underground will be reissuing this important title -- perhaps the finest and most intimate title in Franco's sprawling filmography -- in its most breathtaking transfer to date. Here, to whet your appetite, are some remarkable advance screen grabs.

The reason why this new release is so much better looking than any other we've seen may have something to do with the title card, which lists the 1970 film under the title EUGENIA with a 1984 copyright.

To the viewer's surprise, the new transfer reveals the film to be full of enticing textures, like the upholstery on this chair, the hanging carpet above the Franval family sofa, the scarlet leather of the thigh-high boots that Eugenie wears as part of her disguise in Berlin.

For my money, this is the single greatest closeup in Franco's filmography and I prize it more highly than the closing shot of Greta Garbo in QUEEN CHRISTINA. The transfer is so sharp, as it moves even more closely into Eugenie's face as she looks on adoringly at her father that you can see the exhaustion limning Soledad's eyes and read her thoughts. In the accompanying 20m interview with Jess Franco, he reveals for the first time that Soledad was beset by premonitions of her early death throughout the shooting of what she was convinced would be her last film. She lived to make three more.

Jess Franco as the inquisitive author Attila Tanner.

The hot red lighting in the nightclub during the band's performance is rendered with zero chromatic noise, and the colors of Andres Monales' scarf really pop.

Here's Paul Muller in a closeup that reveals more detail in his face than was delivered by the earlier, comparatively soft transfers. Likewise, a light smattering of freckles can sometimes be seen peppered over the bridge of Soledad Miranda's nose.

What ultimately makes the Blue Underground disc definitive, however, is its provision of not only the (frankly not-so-hot) English dub track, but also the French soundtrack with optional English subtitles. For some reason, during the scene of Eugenie's strip-tease in the midst of a drinking game, the accompanying dance cue is different on the two soundtracks -- and far more effective in the French track, as is the film's drama in general.
In David Gregory's interview featurette "Franco de Sade," the writer-actor-director discusses his teenage discovery of the forbidden works of the Marquis de Sade, his love for the characters in this story of incest and crime, and also the late Soledad Miranda. He denies any suggestion that he and she were lovers, insisting that their relationship was more like a father and daughter -- rather a suspicious comment to make in tandem with a movie like this, but one which I suspect is true. He also goes on the record for the first time about eerie details of Soledad's oltre-tumba endorsement of her successor, Lina Romay.

All in all, an ideal disc of one of the great transgressive horror films of the 1970s, which Blue Underground is releasing on the same day as another Franco title, CECILIA, a picturesque piece of '80s erotica also known as Aberraciones sexuales de una mujer casada.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Soledad Sang

I'll never forget that fateful morning a few years ago when Amy Brown turned my world upside-down.

I was just out of bed and getting online, before coffee (as is my unfortunate habit), when I discovered on the Mobius Film Discussion Boards a posting from Amy announcing her discovery of two forgotten EPs recorded by the late Spanish actress Soledad Miranda in 1964 and 1965. I had written a seminal appreciative essay about Soledad -- unforgettable as the Dark Lady of such Jess Franco sonnets as VAMPYROS LESBOS and SHE KILLS IN ECSTASY, tragically killed in an automobile accident in 1970 -- so I had very specific feelings about her and who she was. Therefore, it came as a great shock when I set eyes for the first time on the picture sleeve of her first Belter Records EP (pictured above), which showed this apparition of silken severity sporting a most unlikely goofy grin and a tousled blonde hairstyle that made her look like the Peggy Lee pooch in Disney's LADY AND THE TRAMP. Without her name there, I would never have recognized her in the photo. I gawked at it and gawked at it and thought I had finally lost my mind.

The Soledad I thought I knew was somewhat better represented by the picture sleeve of her second and last EP (pictured above), which showed her, still with that zany look in her eyes, peering through a fistful of color gels -- apparently a nod to "El Color del Amor," one of the songs therein featured. She was more recognizable, but the whole thing still struck me as unbelievable, not least of all because this EP also found the star of EUGENIE DE SADE singing "Chim Chim Cheree" from Walt Disney's MARY POPPINS! What did this exquisite creature, the very epicenter of Spanish horrotica, know about being a chimney sweep?

Since Amy's discovery of these rare records, their exposure has been limited to sound bytes on her valuable website soledadmiranda.com, but now the site is making all eight tracks from the two Belter EPs, with other rare and pertinent tracks, available on CD-R as SOLEDAD SINGS! Also included on the disc are previously unreleased musical performances taken from the soundtracks of the films CANCION DE CUNA (1961), EVA 63 (1963) and CURRITO DE LA CRUZ (1965); sound bytes from the movies SOLTERA Y MADRE EN LA VIDA and 100 RIFLES; and three tribute songs performed by American Boyfriends and Papillon.
Listening to this body of music is a strange experience because so much of what we (or, more to the point, I) know about Soledad Miranda is dissociated from her real voice. Therefore, the music brings us into more direct personal contact with her than even her movies allow; in her films she is playing characters and often speaking with someone else's voice, but, whether they are suited to her or not, these songs reflect her own interpretations.
The first Belter EP finds Soledad attempting to demonstrate her musical range with three poppy "yé yé" numbers and a ballad. The notes explain that she was accompanied by The Latin Quartet, but I suspect this was the name for the background singers as the instrumentation includes piano, alto sax and vibes, as well as the instruments usually associated with pop music. Soledad's voice is equal parts perky and smoky, and she seems to be having fun on the twisty dance numbers "Pelucon" ("Big Wig") and "Lo que hace alas chicas llorar" ("What Makes Little Girls Cry," which finds her singing "Ai yi yi, shooby-dooby dum day!"). The piano/organ ballad "Amor Perdoname" ("Pardon Me, Love") gives her opportunity to introduce an element of drama to the record and is the track where she seems to feel most at home. A third yé yé number, "No leas mi carta" ("Don't Read My Letter") is interesting for the way her vocal performance doesn't quite match the energy of the accompaniment; she sounds as though she is recording the song under duress. Taken collectively, the EP has the feel of a project undertaken purely for PR purposes -- to make Soledad better known to young people and the filmmaking community -- rather than a work of genuine self-expression.
The second Belter EP, recorded with an orchestra led by Adolfo Ventas, is more musically satisfying. While she doesn't bring anything to "Chim Chim Cheree" that you haven't heard before, hers is not an insincere performance and she does remind us that this song, much like "My Favorite Things" from THE SOUND OF MUSIC, attracted the respectful attention of many outstanding jazz artists of the time. The remaining three tracks find Soledad finally blossoming as a recording artist. "El Color del Amor" ("The Color of Love") is very much the musical performance Soledad's fans will be hoping for, a Gene Pitney-like ballad with a chilling, orchestral backdrop that seems to reach out from the grave; "No lo Quiero" ("You Can Have Her") builds from a pizzicato opening to a performance of almost gospel fervor; and "La Verdad" ("The Truth," which Soledad sings as "la verità") finds her singing well to a jerky beat, though the song seems badly mixed with the rhythm section too much up-front. The sound quality on these first eight tracks is acceptable, not as crackly as you might expect old vinyl to be, though the audio is subject to distortion when the performance gets loud.

It is actually in the songs recorded for the three aforementioned films that Soledad's singing sounds most natural and heartfelt. The three songs from CANCION DE CUNA, a movie set in the late 19th century, have an operatic quality to which her voice seems ideally suited. In EVA 63, set in 1963, Soledad actually played a young woman named Soledad who aspires to a singing career, and in these songs she ventures into gypsy and flamenco music, mostly a cappella, that again feels bright and genuine. The two songs from CURRITO DE LA CRUZ, a bullfighting melodrama, are bolero-like dirges sung at the funeral services for two matadors -- almost identical in character, but nevertheless moving.
Following a few curiosity-satisfying tracks that offer Soledad's own voice speaking Spanish and English, and another that reveals how her name is pronounced, are the tribute tracks. "Soledad Miranda" by American Boyfriends is light, romantic pop with lyrics specifically addressing her mystique, while "Soledad" and "Miranda" -- two songs by the French electropop group Papillon -- are more oblique tributes, but (for me, personally) more satisfying. Sleek sophisticated pop with a dark, enticing undercurrent that left me wanting to hear more.
As a piece of construction, this CD-R has its rough edges -- it's not chronological, some of the audio clips from movies end bluntly, and the dialogue cues might have been more comfortably sequenced as a postscript after the music -- but, if any project's success can be measured by how it excites your imagination or curiosity, SOLEDAD SINGS! is a winner. Not only do I want to hear more by Papillon, but the songs from the three movies made me want to track them down (fortunately, they're available from Amy's site) and explore the totality of this woman's screen career; I don't expect the films to be better than EUGENIE DE SADE, but I expect I'll know Soledad Miranda better after seeing them. The disc also stands as a jagged but persuasive argument that, had she survived, Soledad might well have followed her work for Franco with a serious recording career, much as Daliah Lavi -- the Dark Lady of Mario Bava's THE WHIP AND THE BODY -- enjoyed in Germany in the 1970s and '80s. Would that she had that chance.
SOLEDAD SINGS! is available for $10 (CD alone) or $14 (CD with a separate 10-page color brochure) postpaid within the United States. Order by sending PayPal payment to Amy at inkybrown@hotmail.com or by sending a money order to Amy Brown c/o Cliburn, 2525 Ridgmar Blvd. Ste. 307, Fort Worth TX 76116. Those who live outside the US are asked to inquire about specific postal rates by writing to Amy at the aforementioned e-mail address. Those who need more than my word for it are referred to a special page at Amy's site here, where samples of the various tracks are archived.

Monday, December 17, 2007

VIDEO WATCHDOG'S DVD of the Year 2007

6 Votes


4 Votes

3 Votes

2 Votes
IF... (TL, RSU)

SRB - Stephen R. Bissette
BC - Bill Cooke
JC - John Charles
SMD - Shane M. Dallmann
DK - David Kalat
SI - Sheldon Inkol
TL - Tim Lucas
RHS - Richard Harland Smith
RSU - Rebecca and Sam Umland

Note: Though Shane Dallmann didn't specifically include WITCHFINDER GENERAL on his list as a stand-alone title, he did make a special point of highlighting it in his notes for VINCENT PRICE: THE SCREAM GREATS COLLECTION, which he did select -- so I am counting this as a vote in the movie's favor.

VW's Favorite DVDs of 2007: Editor's Choice

John Charles is right: to compile these lists is torment. No matter how hard you try, you cannot see everything; in fact, the more you do see, the task only becomes more difficult because that leaves more to be remembered, and more to be forgotten. I assume I've seen more movies on disc in the last year than most of the others on staff (with the possible exception of Kim Newman, whose own time is divided by reviewing theatrical releases), but that advantage doesn't necessarily narrow the playing field of choices.

As with anyone else, my selections have been guided as much by mood and impulse as personal taste -- that is to say, I had to choose from those titles I initially chose to watch. I didn't always go with the easy titles, but some formidable ones did get overlooked, but I do still hope to watch and review some of them, sometime or another. So my apologies, in advance, to everything from FORD AT FOX to THE SERGIO LEONE ANTHOLOGY to THE FILMS OF ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY to THE THREEPENNY OPERA to LA JETÉE/SANS SOLEIL to the remastered GANJA & HESS to EARLY BERGMAN to THE MONSTER SQUAD (I was perhaps most surprised that this one didn't rank on any of our past week's lists)... discs that, for whatever reason, didn't enter the running, through no fault of their own.

To make this game a little more bearable for me and fun for you, I've divided my list into two: one for single movie releases, and another for box sets. I've also thrown in an additional list of notable DVD restorations of 2007 and a couple of "back to the drawing board" titles. Everything is listed in order of preference.


1. IF…. (Criterion, pictured)
Of all the DVDs I viewed in 2007, this is the one that lifted my heart highest. Lindsay Anderson’s savage and surrealistic parable about how the British school system prepares its young men to inherit the world is one of the great examples of British postwar filmmaking, a key work film of the 1960s, and now one of the great Criterion releases. Malcolm McDowell’s candid audio commentary gives an already exhilarating experience the personal element that makes this two-disc set an instant classic.

I return to this film maudit periodically, always expecting more from it than it can actually deliver; it perpetually frustrates in that it’s never quite so good or so bad as you want it to be. But this handsome set, the unlikely crown atop Image Entertainment’s annual roster, is an important release, not least of all for presenting a reconstructed pre-release version that comes much closer to the target than either of the previous releases issued by Image nearly a decade ago. This explicit-but-not-hardcore 203-minute edition (in which the climactic barge orgy still goes on far too long to no apparent point) is made additionally attractive by two wonderfully dishy commentaries by Malcolm McDowell (moderated by the articulate Nick Redman) and Helen Mirren (moderated by Alan Jones, who exclaims at the sight of Paolo Heusch’s name in the end credits – good man! – and James Chaffin, the author of a forthcoming book on CALIGULA, whose fannish intensity emboldens him to interrupt Dame Helen a few times too often), as well as another featuring a telephone interview with one of the film’s on-set writers, Ernest Volkman (I’ll get around to this one someday, I promise). The set also includes executive producer Bob Guccione’s 156-minute hardcore theatrical version (not the R-rated version that merely snipped out the hardcore material); a wealth of deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes clips, alternate camera angle supplements (including a good deal of additional coverage of the “wedding rape”), and making-of featurettes; new interviews with director Tinto Brass and actors John Steiner and Lori Wagner; a color booklet with molto Watchdoggian liner notes by Thomas A. Ryerson and R. J. Buffalo; two DVD-ROM drafts of Gore Vidal’s original script and miscellaneous press materials; and a good deal more. The reminiscences of the participants seldom coincide but do add up to an enthralling “Rashomon” of an important end-of-an-era production; it is only when Brass speaks about the film that we find someone completely informed about its origins, its mishaps, its misfortunes, its mutinies and lawsuits. His comments about what the movie might have been (he compares his film to the extant one by comparing the original Coliseum to today's ruin) convince us that he is the auteur of this film… or, rather, he would have been, had he not been barred from the shot selection, editing, scoring and so forth by Guccione and others who had no practical experience of assembling a motion picture, much less such a complex and ornate one. Brass insists that he has no interest in going back to this project, so it remains for us to assemble what might have been in our own heads – and this outstanding set makes that goal much closer to possible.

3. KILL, BABY… KILL! (Dark Sky Films)
Actually, this one was withdrawn just prior to its release, so I'm splitting hairs a bit by including it, but this was, is, and remains a dream disc for me. This definitive (yet unauthorized) issue of Mario Bava’s most unique film – despite its title, a haunting turn-of-the-20th-century ghost story that has inspired countless filmmakers – exists only in a limited number of copies leaked to the press before the judge’s gavel fell. It’s sourced from a more beautiful and integral element than the authorized Anchor Bay release (included in THE MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 1) and, better yet, it features a remarkable documentary in which David Gregory takes Lamberto Bava back to the original shooting locations for some reminiscing – a must-see for all Bava fans. It also features a fairly good audio commentary by Yours Truly (my second attempt), recorded in 2000 before a couple of facts were in place, so it needs redoing.

4. THAT THING YOU DO! – THE DIRECTOR’S CUT (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)
Tom Hanks co-wrote and directed this tuneful, comedic story of the meteoric rise and fall of The Wonders, an imaginary one-hit wonder pop group from the Sixties – and it’s one of the most refreshing and confident directorial debuts ever. Magically attentive to detail, meticulously well-cast, clearly in love with actors and its subject matter, it may well be not only the best movie yet made about this period of American music, but about this period of American history. The director’s cut – which adds more than 40 minutes to the original running time – achieves the unthinkable, actually improving upon a feature that I consider technically perfect and brimming with heart.

5. PAN’S LABYRINTH (New Line Platinum Series)
Guillermo del Toro’s latest is a magnificent addition to our archive of fantasy cinema – proof that it’s possible to deal with children and fairies and still produce a film of substance. His audio commentary is the year’s best: he’s the rare filmmaker who can discuss his own work as its creator, as a critic, as a psychoanalyst, and as a fan. The other supplements offer us more than even the most voracious admirer has time to consume.

6. O LUCKY MAN! (Warner Home Video)
A long-awaited arrival on DVD, Lindsay Anderson’s second film in the “Mick Travers” triptych (preceded by IF…. and followed years later by BRITANNIA HOSPITAL) is another masterpiece, this time about life after graduation and on the theme of ambition. More approachable for American viewers, its three-hour-plus running time goes by remarkably fast thanks to Alan Price’s sagely winning songs and a consistently surprising script. After hearing the commentary for IF…., I was expecting a bit more vitality from this one (a joint effort by McDowell, writer David Sherwin, and Price) and it’s unfortunate that Warner decided to insert a disruptive disc break. The bonus documentary, Jan Harlan’s O LUCKY MALCOLM!, a feature-length profile of McDowell, is splendid. [Note: My full-length review of O LUCKY MAN! appears in the current January 08 issue of SIGHT & SOUND, also on their website here.]

Literally for decades, I’ve been campaigning for a proper restoration of this film – the most abused of all horror-related movies, the rescored “continental” version of which has seriously and rampantly damaged the reputation of its late director, Michael Reeves (who died in 1969 at age 25), since it succeeded the director’s cut on video in the 1980s. Oddly, now that MGM has finally restored the picture – indeed, presented it uncut in America for the first time – I feel as though I’ve moved beyond it. Strange to think that IF…., made the same year by a man in his late 40s, now seems to me infinitely more angry and revolutionary and romantic than this parallel warning about the perils of politics and regimentation. MGM's restoration is not all of what makes this an important DVD release; its value also resides in the clarity of thought expressed by co-star Ian Ogilvy in his commentary, when he insists that, yes, it’s a wonderful picture… but not really a classic, rather a film whose tremendous promise some people simply cannot bring themselves to accept would remain unfulfilled. That, and the fact that Michael Reeves can finally rest in peace, now that his own best work is able to speak on his behalf.

A splendid two-disc set that resurrects and updates one of Criterion’s most outstanding and outré laserdisc releases: a new anamorphic transfer of the 1964 film, a remarkably humanistic and science-rooted picture; the laserdisc commentary by its two stars, remarkably candid about the ways in which this film did and did not change their lives; and an entire second disc of valuable extras, including Michael Lennick’s canny dissection of the science fact underpinning this Ib Melchior-penned science fiction classic.

Mario Bava’s Viking tragedy is the richest of his costume pictures, a staggering triumph of vision over budget, a terrific action picture yet every bit as contemplative and introspective as the later KNIVES OF THE AVENGER, which was more obvious about it. The wedding scene, with its pagan pageantry, numerous extras, and its shower of golden glitter, may be the single most confectionary image I saw on my widescreen monitor all year – because this disc didn’t exist at the time, I wasn’t able to pay it proper respect in MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK. Pure matinee movie magic. I provided the audio commentary for this disc, as well as the Cameron Mitchell interview, but hubris has nothing to do with my selection; the editing skills of producer Perry Martin made both of these supplements better than they were in their raw states.

10 (tie). HELP! (Capitol)
If any proof was needed that the DVD market is oversaturated, it’s that this long-desired release came out last month, finally, to almost no fanfare; it’s got to be the most invisible major release of the year – and it doesn’t help that the deluxe edition, the one fans want most, is so overpriced. That said, I believe in all seriousness that time will ultimately be kinder to HELP! than to A HARD DAY’S NIGHT; its sense of humor is every bit as innovative and cutting (the main titles joke of Beatles performance footage being used as a dartboard – and as an intrusion of color into their black-and-white cinematic image – is bravely self-mocking), the songs are better, their presentation is far more inventive, and David Watkin’s color photography is some of the most delicious of the decade. My only complaint: if the Beatles don’t rate the HD DVD or Blu-ray treatment, who should?

This wonderful two-disc release isn’t likely to make many year’s end lists, but that’s not because it’s undeserving. It had the misfortune to hit the market last mid-December – just in time for last-minute holiday shoppers, but too late to make the 2006 lists and, by now, long enough ago to be forgotten. It collects the entire “Mystery of the Applegate Treasure” serial starring Tim Considine and Tommy Kirk (who, it needs to be said, gives a nearly James Dean level performance as Joe Hardy), the entire episode of THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB that introduced the serial, new camera interviews with the stars, a fascinating featurette about the literary history of the Hardy Boys and author “Franklin W. Dixon” (the house name used by various different authors), and much else of interest. The original broadcast of the serial and its repeat in the late 1960s were seismic events for their respective generations, and it remains the definitive adaptation of the Dixon stories, of its time but still retaining its teasing mystery, good humor, and inviting spookiness.


1. BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (Criterion, pictured)
To know that Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s epic adaptation of Alfred Doblin’s comparatively compact novel runs fifteen hours does not fully prepare us for the tempestuous, tumultuous and often tender experience of it; this is not something merely to be seen, but to be lived through – a story of one man’s survival in a frighteningly mercurial and dangerous world, filled with some of the most memorable and heartbreaking characters you will ever meet. Made for German television, it is best absorbed on video and it satisfies differently depending on if you choose to absorb it all in one or two sittings, or in more occasional doses. Barbara Sukowa is astonishing from the moment she enters the picture. The final segment, unapologetically free-form and dreamlike, points the way to what David Lynch would create in the strangest passages of TWIN PEAKS. The set also includes all the documentary support one might wish, and a crucial point of reference: a fascinating 1931 film version, a mere 90 minutes long, scripted by Doblin himself.

We’ve bought these films twice already on DVD, but the triple dip is truly the pièce de resistance: not only are the audio commentaries and documentary supplements essential, but Kubrick’s MGM-Warner Bros. period is now available in HD DVD and Blu-ray, where the perfect aura of his product is most palpable. The only problem with the set is that it makes one ache for the missing-in-action BARRY LYNDON, which one suspects will benefit most of all (after 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) from high definition.

3. MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 1 & 2 (Anchor Bay Entertainment)
Fox’s FORD AT FOX box set (which, needless to say, wasn’t sent to us for review) is receiving a lot of attention for packaging 25 John Ford films (1/5th of them previously released) for just under $300… but shop at the right places and you can acquire the 14 different Mario Bava films collected in these two sets for about $60, in fully restored and supplemented presentations with numerous audio commentaries (most, but not all, by me). FORD AT FOX includes a modest hardcover book; for roughly the same total amount of money (a $10 difference) you can acquire these two sets and a copy of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK besides. You don’t need me to tell you which is the better value.

This one arrived on my doorstep in time to slip in right under the wire. The packaging is a retro-delight: 41 discs in a compact silver attaché case bearing the logo of the classic NBC-TV spy series (1964-1968) in orange, white and black. Alas, the attaché case doesn’t snap covert photographs or fire daggers, but this is nevertheless one U.N.C.L.E. that ups the auntie, so to speak: it contains every episode from all four seasons, uncut and digitally remastered, as well as the original “SOLO” pilot in color, the feature ONE SPY TOO MANY, and numerous other supplements and featurettes, elegantly assembled in plastic booklets with transparent slipcases. The set is all that it claims to be – the complete series – but completists will note the absence of the other U.N.C.L.E. movies (which do contain unique footage and were released some years back as a multi-disc set in the UK) and the 1983 CBS reunion TV-movie RETURN OF THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. But there is pa-lenty here to keep us busy until the rest becomes available. This set is available exclusively from Time/Life, and it’s my understanding that the sets are going to be released to stores next year, one season at a time. If true, this is your only shot at acquiring the attaché case and the two bonus discs.

5. POPEYE THE SAILOR VOLUME 1 1933-1938 (Warner Home Video)
Long subjected to horrid colorization and even censorship on TBS, The Cartoon Network, Boomerang and other channels, the original B&W POPEYE cartoons produced by the Fleischer studio comprise what many animation buffs consider to be the finest collection of animation shorts ever produced. This set delivers the goods that explain why. Wonderful characters, surreal funhouse glimpses of an equally unique world, infectious songs, and daredevil animation techniques that encompass three-dimensional backdrops and a mind-bending mastery of matters of depth and perspective. And the work is supported by all the scholarship you could want. With four discs, 58 shorts, and two two-reelers in full color (and still a second set to come!), not to mention numerous scholarly commentaries and historical featurettes, this is the most important work of film restoration issued on disc this year. Had it given us “THE COMPLETE POPEYE” all in one place, such generosity might have vaulted it nearer the top of my list.

6. HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA (Gaumont Video, French import)
Jean-Luc Godard’s “Story of Cinema” is neither your story of cinema or mine; it’s “his toi,” as the punning logos sometime confess. What is contained in these five discs is an epic poem on the theme of motion pictures, their personalities, their images, their potential – a visual mash-up of images ranging from silent-era pornography to Hitchcock, from Hawks to the Nouvelle Vague, and beyond. Starting to watch this project is a bit like starting to read Nabokov’s ADA: it took me about ten minutes to find the rhythm of the piece, and then I got into it; it was almost like accepting a transfusion of someone else’s blood. Admittedly, it can be disconcerting to see documentary footage from concentration camps ebbing and flowing over and under images of 1920s copulation, but you do come out the other end of this experience with new ways of seeing, and the shorthand achieves greater coherence over time so that you’re tempted to start over from the beginning. With original cameo appearances by Alain Cuny and a very young Julie Delpy. Available stateside from Xploited Cinema.

7. THE PRISONER – 40th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Network Video, British import)
A&E Home Video has glutted the US market with packagings and repackagings of their same old same-old masters of this classic Patrick McGoohan series, but it took Network Video in the UK to do it right: all 17 episodes have been newly transferred from their original negatives and digitally restored, giving the still-progressive show a look of immediacy it never had even on television – the episodes somehow look more vibrant and lifelike than the TWIN PEAKS episodes in my #8 position, which were made twenty-odd years later. They have also been supplemented by seven informative audio commentaries from directors and other production crew, PDF files of the original shooting scripts (including some never produced!), and a new feature-length documentary. No McGoohan input, of course, but you want the show to retain some mystery… Available stateside from Xploited Cinema.

It’s natural to feel conflicted about this important release, which too closely followed a separate release of the second season (which includes audio commentaries not ported over here), but it does present the long-desired, never-before-domestically-released “first episode” cut of the pilot, the complete run of the series in one compact package, all the Log Lady intros filmed for Bravo, fresh input from David Lynch, a candidly forthcoming making-of documentary, a look at TWIN PEAKS fan getaways, and much else of interest. Aspects of the show have dated, but this set still contains some of the most progressive and harrowing material ever shot for series television – and some of the stand-out scenes in Lynch’s filmography.

9. HEROES – SEASON 1 (Universal Studios Home Entertainment)
Only time will tell if this release deserved higher placement on my list, but for now, the classics must take precedence. Nevertheless, here we have one of the most impressive and sustained feats of imaginative storytelling I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing unfold on television in one tidy, generously supplemented package – undeniably, already, a great thing. Going back to the first episode after watching the last is to be astonished by how far a single season of TV can take us and its vividly sketched cast of characters, many of whom are traded between the teams of Good and Evil more times than we can count – and checking out Tim Kring’s original cut of the pilot makes its overall evolution still more remarkable. Yes, it’s like a prequel to X-MEN… but without the gaydar and without the overbearance that comes aboard with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan. And it’s a pleasure to have so many episodes accompanied by helpful, spirited commentary. Take that, SOPRANOS. (Is this Malcolm McDowell’s year or what?)

10. CLASSIC FLY COLLECTION (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)
Kurt Neumann’s THE FLY (1958), filmed in color and scope, and its B&W scope sequel RETURN OF THE FLY (1959) have been issued on disc before. While they are very much two peas in a telepod, both featuring Vincent Price, their previous issues have always missed the companionship of their distant cousin sequel, Don Sharp’s sorely underrated and somewhat (dare I say it?) pre-Cronenbergian CURSE OF THE FLY, made in 1964 in familiar scope and B&W. This set corrects that omission and includes a featurette history of the series that ranks among the very best of its kind. Everything good I can say about this set can also likely be said of the same company’s FOX HORROR CLASSICS set, which collects three important works by director John Brahm (THE LODGER, HANGOVER SQUARE, THE UNDYING MONSTER), which unfortunately I have yet to see.


1. POPEYE THE SAILOR 1933-1938 (Warner Home Video)
The greatest cartoon series of them all, magnificently restored to something that looks even better than brand new.

For the first time in a half-century, this film can be seen by American viewers as Michael Reeves actually made it. The cheesy nudity of the continental version is gone, but its soul and sinew are finally back.

Contains a 203-minute pre-release cut that puts forth this film maudit’s best bid to date for cinematic importance. Seeing this version, I came to the conclusion that its opulent Danilo Donati sets, so grandiose as to make no allowances for camera placement and composition, were ultimately the film’s aesthetic downfall; it had to be shot with four cameras simultaneously, none (or at least few) of the compositions ideal. But finally, there is now a version of the film that warrants more than a single viewing.

I still haven't found time to explore the wonders of MGM's SERGIO LEONE ANTHOLOGY set, hence its omission from my multiple title/box set list, but all the accounts I've read seem to agree that Leone's epic revolutionary Western -- always a problem title on tape, laserdisc and DVD -- is now finally as complete as it's ever likely to be, with its long-missing ending finally restored. That's good enough for me.

These two lavishly packaged sets preserve the UCLA Film Archive restorations of Anger’s experimental shorts, produced between 1947 and 1981. Watching them is like seeing the juice put back into a blood orange, or a brace of staid museum curios recharged with their innate unholiness.

6. BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (Sony Pictures)
Though met with ill-informed controversy online, producer Kim Aubry’s work restores Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation as it originally appeared onscreen – undoing much of the chromatic reinvention applied to the picture to make it more “readable” in earlier, cruder home video transfers.

7. IF…. (Criterion)
The Criterion disc restores a small amount of footage trimmed from the film’s American release, a frontal view of headmistress Mary McLeod’s nude walk through the empty corridors of the school.

After decades of acquiring its cult audience via cut and cropped videotape presentations, the film that many fans consider Paul Naschy’s best arrives on disc as it was meant to be seen. Spanish horror at its most diabolic and merciless.

This marvelous BBC television production, usually relieved of a brief passage implying the devouring of an infant by Dracula’s wives, arrives on disc intact.

10. QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE (Warner Home Video)
Granted, it’s not much to write home about, but this sexist sf-trash favorite does regain something by being available again in its original scope framing – for the first time in almost half a century. Fifty years, people. Fifty years.

11 & 12. TWISTED TERROR COLLECTION (Warner Home Video)
This Eighties-Nineties horror collection includes, without any flagging whatsoever, the never-before-released uncut versions of EYES OF A STRANGER and Wes Craven’s DEADLY FRIEND. Yesterday’s X-rating is today’s all-ages-friendly “Unrated.”


PERFORMANCE (Warner Home Video)
So close, but the missing "Here's to Old England!" grates on me. Sorry.

TALES FROM THE CRYPT/VAULT OF HORROR (20th Century Fox "Midnite Movies")
These long-awaited Amicus adaptations of EC's classic horror comics arrived on DVD half-baked. TALES appears to be alright, but VAULT is still missing the shot trimmed from US prints during the most scissor-happy days of the MPAA, a comic shot of blood being dispensed from a keg in a man's neck in a restaurant for vampires. The shot is included in a Region 2 DVD release that can be obtained from XploitedCinema.com, but the domestic transfer is more attractive.

Later today, I will be posting the announcement of VIDEO WATCHDOG's DVD of the Year, as chosen by our contributors. No fair doing the math yourself. Be surprised.