Monday, January 28, 2008

HDracula

Cinemax HD hosted the first high-definition broadcast of Terence Fisher's DRACULA aka HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) early this morning -- at 5:15am eastern time. It wasn't the recently restored version shown in the UK -- HORROR OF DRACULA is still the onscreen title -- and the source element didn't quite have that IB Technicolor quality I still cherish from a boyhood screening, when I was captivated by the bluish hue of the smoke wisping off the candle in Harker's room; the smoke was only grayish here, but the stained glass windows in the room burned brightly.

Nevertheless, it was a full aperture, non-widescreen broadcast, which meant that the top of Christopher Lee's head was in frame for his classic library close-up -- which will make even the DVD-R I burn from this telecast superior to the official Warner Home Video DVD release -- and it was also colorful and sharp as a tack. Valerie Gaunt's staking included the shot of the old woman in the coffin, and Carol Marsh's staking had one shot of blood burbling up as the stake was hammered in. Nothing was added back into the disintegration scene at the end, but I could see more detail in Dracula's ashen remains than ever before. I can also testify that this is one of those vintage films that benefits greatly from HD clarity -- when Donna passed through the room and saw a scene out of sequence, she guessed that I was watching something from 1971 or '72.

The best TV presentation of this title I've seen to date, this is going to join a select number of titles I can't bear not to have on HD and will keep protected on my hard drive -- until I can find some way of transferring HD quality to disc, or until something better comes along.

A Bigger Box o' Fields

As frequenters of this blog and readers of my magazine should be well aware by now, there are literally hundreds of good reasons why every DVD devotée ought to invest in a region-free player. Pictured here is one of the latest, a beautifully designed British import from Universal that collects no less than 17 films starring early sound era comedian W.C. Fields.

I suspect that Fields is not well-known to young people today, but when I was a young, rebellious longhair of the original Woodstock era, fond of playing my Blue Cheer and Electric Prunes albums so that the poor people without stereos in Indiana could hear them, Fields was a hero of mine -- even at a time when I had seen none of his films, even though he would have been the first grown-up on the block to tell me to turn that goddam racket down. I can't recall where or how I first became aware of Fields, but impressionists like Rich Little probably had something to do with it; twenty (and twenty-five) years after his death in 1946, Fields' distinctive carnival-barker speaking voice remained prime fodder for voice men. (Richard Dawson and Ed McMahon were also, and remain, devout Fields devotées.) But I do remember that one of my four bedroom walls was dominated by a poster of his likeness, from MY LITTLE CHICKADEE (1940 -- though I did not know its origin then), peering scurrilously over a tightly clutched fistful of playing cards. The phrase "close to the vest" incarnate. I don't know why this image spoke to me so directly at that age and that time, but it did -- and I was not alone.

My investigation into Fields properly began with a book by Richard J. Anobile (I think it was DRAT!) and an entertaining record album of sound bytes from Fields' movies, narrated by Gary Owens of LAUGH-IN fame. I listened to that album till I wore it out, at which point I no longer needed it because Fields' unabashedly baroque way of speaking had thoroughly infected my gray matter. I got my first-ever A+ on an English paper when my class was assigned to conduct an imaginary interview with someone from history. I chose Fields and not only wrote a longer paper than was needed (because the old so-and-so just wouldn't shut up), but I couldn't stop laughing as I wrote it.

Q: Mr. Fields, you have had a long career and now stand at the very pinnacle of your...
A: Pinochle, yes pinochle! A delightful game, I do not mind telling you, at which I have had the good fortune to be Tri-state Champion. Why, it's taken me all over the world! I'm reminded of a time when I was but a hardy towhead in a woolskin cap, romping through the hinterlands of Afghanistan. It was just me and Jake, my trusty yak. He could sniff out truffles in half a tick..

And so on and so forth (how easily it all comes back). Evidently my English teacher, Mrs. Rose, had taken my little paper so deeply into the cockles of her heart that she not only accorded it with the aforementioned nonpariel gradation, but she impressed its shining example upon her fellow instructors, several of whom sought me out that day in the groves of academe to tender their heartiest congratulations. I thank you.

There is a streak of the Rabelaisian in Fields' carny-speak and, in retrospect, I can see how my infection with it may have played a role in my becoming a writer. Fields was a writer himself and took a hand in most of his film scripts.

During those early months of my Fields obsession, my attentions were rewarded -- sort of -- by TV GUIDE's announcement that Channel 16 would be hosting a week of W.C. Fields movies in their late night slot. Unfortunately, I was in Cincinnati and Channel 16 was in Dayton, Ohio; close enough to have their listings in our TV GUIDE but not always close enough to receive. Even on the clearest nights, the picture could be faint and snowy, unless I wrapped my calves and forearms in aluminium foil and stood to the right of my little television in the attitude of a flamingo. Even though I often couldn't see what was going on, I tuned in to every single broadcast -- just to hear the soundtracks in their complete and uninterrupted form, which had been edited down on the Gary Owens album to just the bon mots, so to speak. My perseverance was rewarded: the clearest night's reception I had that week was for IT'S A GIFT (1934), commonly acknowledged as Fields' masterpiece, which allowed me to see not only the classic "Carl LaFong" routine -- a highlight of the album -- but the even greater build-up to it, as Fields (unable to sleep in the same room with yappy wife Kathleen Howard) absconds to the outdoor swing for the peaceful repose that never comes.

Within the same year, my local theater hosted AN EVENING WITH W.C. FIELDS, which turned out to be THE BANK DICK (1940) and a selection of his early short films. A friend, whom I had also managed to infect with my record album, and I were there for the first showing with sleighbells on. The highlight of the show, for me, was THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER, which I proceeded to quote thereafter for weeks on end. That year, for my last Halloween as an active participant, I went about dressed as Fields -- in a bathrobe and plastic bowler hat, twirling a cane and sporting a fake nose artfully contrived of Silly Putty. As people gave me candy, I looked in my bag with "Godfrey Daniels" recoil and asked them entreatingly, "Haven't you anything stronger?"

So my love of Fields runs deep, but I had fallen out of touch with it. After ordering the 17-film import set, I found out that Universal had previously released two five-picture box sets, which had somehow escaped my notice -- good thing, too. The pair of them will set you back over $120 at Amazon.com, which is the sort of bitter pill that would discourage even the most stout-hearted Fieldsian from setting out to bag the bigger game.

When I heard about this import set (less than £55 from Amazon.co.uk), I knew I had to have it because, even after all these years, I had never managed to see most of Fields' early Paramounts in anything like watchable quality. Culled from Fields' stints at Paramount and Universal, the import box arranges its contents in non-chronologic, even higglety-pigglety order, most of them doubled-up on single discs while IT'S A GIFT and another title are stand-alones. ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933) and MRS. WIGGS OF THE CABBAGE PATCH (1934), which would have filled those gaps ideally, were for some reason not included -- though they are listed as part of the contents on the Amazon.co.uk sales page for the set. Perhaps those pictures were omitted because Fields appears only briefly in them, but that wouldn't explain how FOLLOW THE BOYS (1944), in which he also appears only briefly, got included. Should this set ever surface in the USA, Universal really should reconsider and include ALICE and MRS. WIGGS for the simple reason that they're part of Fields' Paramount story.

The complete contents of the import set are: THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 (1938), THE BANK DICK (1940), YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN (1939), MY LITTLE CHICKADEE (1940), MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE (1935), THE OLD FASHIONED WAY (1934), YOU'RE TELLING ME! (1934), SIX OF A KIND (1934), INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (1933), MILLION DOLLAR LEGS (1932), IF I HAD A MILLION (1932), MISSISSIPPI (1935), POPPY (1936), NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941), IT'S A GIFT (1934), TILLIE AND GUS (1933) and FOLLOW THE BOYS (1944). The titles in orange are included in Universal's R1 W.C. FIELDS COMEDY COLLECTION VOLUME 1, the titles in blue are included in VOLUME 2. (THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 was released domestically by Universal as half of a "Bob Hope Tribute Collection" disc, paired with COLLEGE SWING.)

I dove right into the middle of the set with IT'S A GIFT for starters, then went back to the beginning and continued with Disc 1: THE OLD FASHIONED WAY (1934) and POPPY (1936). While IT'S A GIFT retains its wonder as a necklace of all-time-great Fields bits, and for former opera singer Kathleen Howard's near operatic, non-stop nagging, I had more appreciation for THE OLD FASHIONED WAY as a film and was delighted by Fields' underplayed emotion at the end of the picture. I am supplementing my viewing with James Curtis' 2003 biography of Fields, which informed me of how ill the Great Man was during the filming of POPPY and impressed me all the more with how much he was still able to contribute to it. All the stories are basically the same Depression-era fantasy about people, surviving on little more than their sly wit, who achieve wealth or at least safe harbor through extreme trial and error by the final reel -- and Fields isn't always likeable. Watching YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN (1939) last night, I was startled to hear Fields' Larson E. Whipsnade refer to Eddie "Rochester" Anderson as a "pickaninny", to his black carnival workers as "Ubangis," and to a black-faced Charlie McCarthy as an "eggplant." When something goes wrong, he yells about there being "a Ubangi in the fuel supply" -- a sort of "Godfrey Daniels" twist on the old expression "a nigger in a woodpile." It erred one too many times on the wrong side of propriety for my liking... but the lady with the snake allergy nearly made up for it.

This is a flat-out lovely set and I'm having a ball with it. Every transfer is lovely and silvery. Fields' juggling routine in THE OLD FASHIONED WAY, the only record on film of the skill upon which he built his theatrical reputation, is still awe-inspiring; I can easily imagine some young person seeing it today (if not on this import set, then on YouTube) and being inspired to innovate some kind of 21st century reinvention of the forgotten art.

Suffice to say, my little plum, if you have the wherewithal and can afford to get into the game, by all means go to Amazon.co.uk and have their croupier deal you these 17 cards... er, discs. I promise you will hold each and every one of them very tightly to your vest.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

My Alibi: I Was Revisiting CLOVERFIELD

I went back to see CLOVERFIELD again this afternoon with a couple of friends. We got to talking about how long it had been since the last time we'd been to a monster movie matinee, and I traced my last back to the early 1970s, when I saw things like DRACULA A.D. 1972 and THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA at Cincinnati's RKO Albee Theater. After this second viewing, I'm still very impressed by the film's sense of vision, its technical achievements, and its commercial assimilation of the best ideas in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, but this time I noticed Jason Cerbone (THE SOPRANOS) and Chris Mulkey (TWIN PEAKS) appear fleetingly onscreen; recognizing them, as they flashed by, served to mitigate some of the documentary-like tension and realism of the piece for me. All the other faces in the film were new to me, which is something I feel was as important to the film's particular impact as any of its deliberate contrivances. I still believe that CLOVERFIELD marks a whole new ballgame for the giant monster movie, but only time will tell if it's also the death knell for what monster movies used to be. I also feel that its brevity (72 minutes, minus the end titles), its urgency and confusion, and its almost complete lack of any sense of loss (those lead characters who perish do so offscreen) ultimately deprive it of the gravitas and sorrow that a true counterbalance to GOJIRA should have. This faux-realist "found footage" approach is pretty darned captivating, but when push comes to shove, drama still does it best.

Consequently, my second viewing of CLOVERFIELD felt less like the apocalyptic arrival I described in my previous column and more like a bracingly tense, disconcerting, out-of-control entertainment -- which, of course, is all it really needs to be. The end credits music, which is definitely worth staying seated for, may be partly responsible: it's a wonderful amalgam of Max Steiner- and Akira Ifukube-like themes that bring all our classic giant monster memories back home to roost, including everything from the Mothra twins to the Giant Claw. Delightful as it is, these associations help to dissipate the grim mood the film has worked so hard to achieve. Mind you, most people will want that before they step back out into the mall. Me, I'm different.

On another note: a free sampling of contents from the current February 2008 issue of SIGHT & SOUND is now posted at their website, including my review of Roland West's early talkie ALIBI (Kino on Video).

Thursday, January 24, 2008

"Run! Run! Run! Run!"

Seeing CLOVERFIELD has put me in an unusual position: I'm a little wary of saying anything about it. That's partly because I felt such unabashed enthusiasm and emotion for it -- it made me feel a monster movie again the way I felt them as a very young child (something uncommon in my adult experience, to say the least) -- and partly because I know the party stuff at the beginning is going to seem twice as long the next time I see it.

I know it has its faults, but they're fairly minor when one considers how well it reflects its time and America's post-9/11 mind-set of confusion and powerlessness. Time may well prove it to be, as Steve Bissette has already pronounced on his MYRANT blog, the American counterbalance to Japan's trauma-purging GOJIRA. The way the Japanese characters of GOJIRA regard its monster with almost reverent awe, and the noble ways in which they accept death, respect their dead, and band together for reconstruction, are not found in CLOVERFIELD, which is more of a disorienting whirl of action and chaos and military might, in which the characters -- already technologically distanced from reality -- haven't the social or spiritual reservoirs to cope with such a catastrophe.

I can't think of anything that the film borrows that it doesn't improve upon: the "found footage" origins and harrowing dropped camera realism of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, the grainy camcorded textures of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, every storytelling trick that Brian DePalma has called into service between SNAKE EYES and REDACTED. And it succeeds at reinventing the giant monster movie in ways that the American GODZILLA didn't (with the same tools at its disposal -- it's the movie that used the dropped camcorder view of the monster's attack as a throwaway shot!), as well as incorporating 9/11 imagery in more visceral ways than Spielberg's WAR OF THE WORLDS or indeed the pre-9/11 INDEPENDENCE DAY. It's like the great idea that all of these movies had but failed to fully grasp, so archetypally perfect that one can easily imagine all the parodies to come. All the more reason to see it now, before its impact can be diminished.

In my heart of hearts, I have a creeping suspicion that CLOVERFIELD may be the most important horror movie (or horrifying movie) I've seen in a long time, maybe since THE EXORCIST or TAXI DRIVER or CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, because it gave me the same apocalyptic feeling those films did when I first saw them -- a sense that movies, as I knew them, would never be the same again.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Resting Place for Vampira

I get a lot of e-mail from publicists and other people with various causes they would like this blog to promote and, generally, I turn a blind eye to all of them. But I feel that Gabrielle Geiselman's attempt to raise a memorial fund for her late friend (and ours) Maila "Vampira" Nurmi is such a worthy one, I've swiped it from the Classic Horror Film Boards to repost here. Click to enlarge and read the details, and please contribute whatever you can -- if her work or example has inspired you in any way.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Rondo VI: VW & Co. Receive 9 Nominations!

The final ballot for the Sixth Annual Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards has been posted, and I'm proud to announce that VIDEO WATCHDOG and its contributors have received a total of nine (9) nominations this year. In the order in which they appear on the ballot, our nominations are:

BEST DVD COMMENTARY
-- MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUMES 1 and 2 (Anchor Bay Entertainment), five new commentaries by Tim Lucas
(Furthermore, ABE's MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUMES 1 and 2 have been nominated for Best Classic DVD Collection.)

BEST BOOK OF 2007
-- MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK by Tim Lucas

BEST MAGAZINE OF 2007
-- VIDEO WATCHDOG, published by Tim & Donna Lucas

BEST MAGAZINE ARTICLE OF 2007 (Voters may pick two)
-- 'Edgar Wallace: Your Pocket Guide to the Rialto Krimi Series,' by Kim Newman, VIDEO WATCHDOG #134. A film-by-film, 30-page look at the German crime mysteries (krimi), from 1959-71.

-- 'In Remembrance of Freddie Francis,' by Ted Newsom, VIDEO WATCHDOG #130. A eulogy for the Hammer director.

-- 'THESE ARE THE DAMNED: The Restored Director's Cut Examined,' by Tim Lucas, VIDEO WATCHDOG #133. 'Old school' VW approach dissects ever excised scene, shows what was restored and makes a new case for this once-butchered film.

-- 'THE WILD WILD WEST: Second Season,' by David J. Schow, VIDEO WATCHDOG #132. Karloff and Victor Buono are among the guest stars in this episode by episode recap.

BEST MAGAZINE COVER
-- VIDEO WATCHDOG #134, cover (pictured) by Charlie Largent

BEST WEBSITE or BLOG OF 2007
-- Video WatchBlog by Tim Lucas (you're reading it!)

There are also four special "write-in" categories for WRITER OF THE YEAR, ARTIST OF THE YEAR, MONSTER KID OF THE YEAR, and THE MONSTER KID HALL OF FAME.

You can access the ballot and instructions for the very simple voting procedure by going to the Rondo page here. There are 27 categories in all and it's a fun, tighter, more comprehensive ballot this year. While it's not necessary to vote in every category, it is advisable to check the Rondo RULES page before casting your ballot to ensure that your selections are properly counted. If our work has pleased you this past year, we ask that you remember us with your vote. But the important thing is to participate, and to vote for those nominees whose work you feel is most deserving of recognition.

Donna joins me in sending our heartiest congratulations to VW contributors Kim Newman, Ted Newsom and David J. Schow for their Best Article nominations, and to charmin' Charlie Largent for his Best Cover nomination!

Friday, January 18, 2008

A 21st Century CAMILLE 2000

Danièle Gaubert as the tragic heroine of CAMILLE 2000.
I first saw Radley Metzger's CAMILLE 2000 (1969), his erotic haute couture retelling of Alexandre Dumas' "La Dame aux Cammelias", in the late 1990s when First Run Features brought it to VHS. Since I reviewed the film in VIDEO WATCHDOG #48, it has become a personal favorite, its appeal rooted not only in the remarkably touching (and, sadly, prescient) performance of Danièle Gaubert -- who succumbed to cancer in 1987 at the age of 44 -- but in the hauntingly lyrical and spacious beat score by Piero Piccioni, surely one of the most visionary Eurocult soundtracks ever. As much as I've embraced this film in the years since, I have deliberately watched it sparingly because the First Run Features transfer looks so stale; I hoped that someday there would be a DVD release that would put some gloss back into it. So, last week, when I read on the Mobius Home Video Forum about a new German release (from E-M-S) called KAMELIENDAME 2000, with an English audio option, I pounced on it.

Marguerite (Gaubert) warns Armand (Nino Castelnuovo) not to fall in love with her.

The disc is not perfect, but it is anamorphic (a great leap forward in itself); it doesn't have the digital sharpness of an internegative transfer, but for a 35mm-sourced transfer, its film-like qualities are quite acceptable.

The lovers admire themselves in the 360° mirror surrounding Marguerite's circular bed.

Seeing the film again for the first time in a year or two, in this enriched presentation, I was more deeply impressed by Metzger's ability to combine the arch artificial look of Italian pop cinema of this period and a dimension of genuine tragedy. He uses the décor -- color cubes, clear inflatable sofas, mirrored walls -- in a Fitzgeraldian sense, much as Fitzgerald used the flapper era to reflect a hellbound emptiness at the core of the youth culture of his day, and he explores it to a more satisfying and moving degree than any filmed adaptation of Fitzgerald (or Dumas' original story, including George Cukor's CAMILLE) has achieved to date.

Armand goes to Marguerite's friend Prudence (Eleanora Rossi-Drago) for advice in a scene found only in the German version.

The E-M-S disc features the German version of the picture, which features some unexpected variations. If one selects the English viewing option, the film is preceded by a card in German (not too helpful for some of us!) that reads, in translation, "Dear Film-friend: We apologize for the fact that some scenes in this English language version are worded in German. These scenes were cut from the English edition." The presentation includes four instances where German dialogue has been inserted into the English version, most of them less than 10-15 seconds in length. The exception is a 1m 30s scene that occurs between 63:33-65:04, in which Armand (Nino Castelnuovo) visits Prudence (Eleanora Rossi-Drago) in her dress shop to discuss his problems with Marguerite (Gaubert). Most startling of all is the discovery that the German version has a different, less satisfying ending. The US ending is included as a supplementary item, evidently ported from the FRF DVD.

It's incredible to me that Roger Ebert, of all people, could have detested this movie, especially in the same year that he wrote BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS; if your jaw hasn't dropped in awhile, you should read his hideously condescending dismissal of it. As for me, I'm not certain whether CAMILLE 2000 is Metzger's best film -- THE LICKERISH QUARTET, which I haven't seen in many years, enjoys that reputation -- but I feel confident in saying that it's a masterpiece of its kind, an erotic film invested with taste, sophistication, and real emotion.

To the best of my knowledge, the E-M-S disc is presently available to US customers only from Amazon.de. I ordered the disc and had it in my hands inside a week, so I can recommend Amazon.de as a source absolutely. [Update 1/27/08: It is also now available from Xploited Cinema.] A more complete review will appear in a future issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Notes on THE MOTHER OF TEARS

I was able to see Dario Argento's THE MOTHER OF TEARS yesterday and came away with the usual mixed feelings. As I expected, it's not in the same league with SUSPIRIA (1977) or INFERNO (1980) -- its dazzling precursors in the "Three Mothers" trilogy; its visual look is so subdued that it doesn't seem a close relative at all. The new title is better than the Italian one ("The Third Mother") but so bad, it makes me wish Argento would retitle the other two THE MOTHER OF SIGHS and THE MOTHER OF DARKNESS in retrospect, which, were it his franchise, George Lucas would have done before this film even went into production.

Argento has opted to work with a youngish cinematographer (Frederic Fasano, SCARLET DIVA) and production design team (Francesca Bocca, Valentina Ferroni) rather than with the likes of Luciano Tovoli and Giuseppe Bassan, whose visionary skills imbued the earlier films with their all-important sense that "magic is all around us." But the return to alchemical themes alone gives the film an edge that Argento's work hasn't had in decades. In terms of the classic horror setpieces that floated the first two, the third one doesn't really have anything comparable to offer; the terrific stills which have circulated online capture the most arresting imagery for about as long as it appears onscreen. When he allows the horror to linger, it begins to look silly. There's an Asian witch in this movie who is all punked out and supposed to be frightening, but she just looks like a fan emulating an old Nina Hagen album cover.

I'm mostly disappointed that Argento's staging of horror sequences has lost its former sense of beauty so entirely. It has been gone for a long time, and it was only present in parts of THE STENDHAL SYNDROME because Giuseppe Rotunno put it there. The murder scenes included here, especially one involving vaginal impalement, are so ugly and disgustingly misogynistic that they are difficult to watch, and impossible to enjoy from any standpoint of aesthetic pleasure, which is the very hallmark of the first two films in this trilogy. If you recall the slow passages involving Varelli in INFERNO, this whole film is like that, more or less, with a haggard-looking Asia Argento in the foreground, doing a lot of stupid things -- like escaping from a friend's apartment when Satanists break in, then making a call back to the apartment (which she's just visited for the first time!), waking up her friend to tell her to clear out, unaware that the stopped ringing of the telephone will alert the Satanists to her presence and seal her doom. Daria Nicolodi, fairly unrecognizable (Asia weeps when looking at photos of her younger self), is in the movie but only as a Tinker Bell special effect with dialogue like "Run!" and "Go now!"

Speaking of dialogue, we are treated to some more of that lovably loopy Argento dialogue, as in this scene where Asia goes for help to Guglielmo De Witt (Philippe Leroy), "a renowned Belgian thinker." She is greeted (actually barred) at the door by his wary young assistant.

Asia: Would it be possible to see Guglielmo De Witt?
Assistant: He's very busy. Who should I tell him is calling?
Asia: He wouldn't recognize my name.
Assistant: Oh well, come on in.

Jace Anderson and Adam Gierash, the American screenwriters writers of the Nu Image flicks SPIDERS, CROCODILE and RATS, got a lot of PR for writing this movie, and maybe they're the principal reasons why it feels more like an OMEN or EXORCIST sequel than what it really is, but there is no mistaking the auttore of that dialogue.

Moran Atias is an uninspiring Mater Lacrimarum, last in this chain of all-too-mortal immortals, this time with fake boobs, but given the chemical similarity of tears and saline, this may make more sense than I am willing to concede. (Thanks to Richard Harland Smith for that observation.) Her big line is "Who wants to eat the girl?" -- and the "girl" is forty if she's a day. A tight budget hampers what was clearly intended to depict a fullscale breakdown of morality andd society in the streets of Rome, which is conveyed in little two-or-three-person vignettes of beatings which reminded me of the Ludovico Treatment films in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. For all that, the only misstep that actually made me howl in pain is that the man behind the wheel during the obligatory taxi ride scene was not Fulvio Mingozzi. It would have meant so much to have him there.

But mixed feelings means that some of the movie is good, too. Viewers who are well versed in Italian genre film history -- surely all Video WatchBlog readers -- will be hugely entertained by the way Argento weaves familiar imagery from other filmographies into his wicked tapestry. There are a pair of lovers bound together in barbed wire, as in Mario Bava's ERIK THE CONQUEROR, tormented people in shackles as in NIGHTMARE CASTLE, and people getting disembowelled à la Lucio Fulci. Best of all, Mater Lachrimarum is given a domicile that is the logical but wonderfully unexpected successor to the Tanz Akademie of SUSPIRIA and the Riverside Drive apartment building in INFERNO: she lives in Rome in "Villa Graps" from Bava's KILL, BABY... KILL! The unexpected introduction of this beloved location, in my mind the ground zero of Italian horror geography, made me want to stand and applaud (even though this villa has been around for centuries, so Varelli couldn't possibly have built it) . There is some interesting reconjuring of the Italian gothic golden age to be found in Lamberto Bava's recent THE TORTURER too, but Argento really nails it and proves that it could all live again if enough people cared. In fact, the only Maestro that Argento doesn't quite nail is his man in the mirror.

Dario Argento has announced that his next movie -- starring Ray Liotta, Vincent Gallo, and you guessed it, Asia Argento -- is going to be called GIALLO. That's right: an American production with a one-word Italian title, a word known to very few Americans, which till recently still rated an explanatory footnote in most reviews aimed at the genre's cognoscenti. It strikes me as funny but also a little tragic, and makes me wonder if Sergio Leone, had he lived, would be announcing a new movie called SPAGHETTI WESTERN. But if a "reboot" is what it takes for Argento to bring back the magic, more power to him.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

In Work Mode

Donna tells me that VW associate editor John Charles dropped her a line yesterday. He said that he assumed, because I hadn't blogged since Saturday, that I was deep in my editorial duties. Indeed I am.

Sorry for the silence. I had intended to blog about Kent Jones' very fine documentary VAL LEWTON: THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS on Monday, but the day got away from me. I have more writing yet to do for the next issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG, as well as editing everyone else's work, and this is going to be a major, major issue. We're not ready to announce the subject of our feature article/interview, but I can tell you this much -- VW #137 will be the second issue in our history (the first since #112's Donnie Dunagan interview by Tom Weaver) to be released in standard format as well as a limited Signature Edition. Stay tuned for more details.

This is also one of those home improvement weeks, plus our TV is dying and needs to be replaced. (Please, no advice/recommendations -- we know what we want and we're already on the case, not that this makes it any easier.)

It's doubtful I'll have more to post here until next week, but you never know. In the meantime, I have added to the Bava book blog in the past few days...

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Edward Klosinski: Fade to White

I just learned today of the death of Polish cinematographer Edward Klosinski, who passed away on January 5, at age 65, after a relatively short battle with lung cancer.

Klosinski's 70-plus picture filmography includes such classics of Polish cinema as Andrzej Wajda's MAN OF MARBLE (1977) and the Palme d'Or-winning MAN OF IRON (1981), as well as Lars von Trier's EUROPA (1991). The news of his death carries an extra sting because he was a favorite collaborator of the man whom I consider the most important director of the last quarter-century, the late Krzysztof Kieslowski. Klosinski photographed "Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of the Lord thy God in Vain," one of the finest episodes of Kieslowski's THE DECALOGUE (1990) and, more importantly, he was the director of photography for the second film of his celebrated "Three Colors" trilogy, WHITE (1994), starring Julie Delpy and Zbigniew Zamachowski -- the brightest dark comedy ever made.

A compulsive smoker, Kieslowski died of cardiac arrest in 1996, shortly after completing "Three Colors" and embarking on a life of speculative retirement. Five years later, in 2001, his valued collaborator Piotr Sobocinski -- the cameraman responsible for two DECALOGUE episodes and the third entry in the trilogy, RED (1994), died unexpectedly of the same cause at age 43. Klosinski's death leaves only Slamowir Idziak, the gifted cinematographer of THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VÉRONIQUE (1991) and BLUE (1993), as a living representative of Kieslowski's final camera trust.

Julie Delpy in THREE COLORS: WHITE, photographed by Edward Klosinski.

Of the "Three Colors" films, WHITE has always carried the burden of being the odd one out; in contrast to the tragically wrenching BLUE, set in France, and the metaphysically momentous RED, set in Switzerland, it's a wry black comedy set in Poland -- and Nabokovian to the extent of featuring a protagonist named Karol Karol. Whether or not one finds Julie Delpy a comparable beauty to Juliette Binoche and Irène Jacob is a matter of taste, but she wasn't called upon to carry her film in the way her two colleagues were; her Dominique is an important supporting character, a bedevilling harpy rather than a heroine. The film is really about her miserable husband Karol, from whom she is separated and pursuing a divorce, and the Faustian friendship he strikes up with a businessman met in a tube station, a vaguely written character that becomes one of Kieslowski's most memorable personages through the performance of actor Janusz Gajos.

Klosinski photographed WHITE in a manner that is at once en suite with its companion films while also striking a distinctly different attitude, more earthy and realistic, depicting its director's homeland as a humble country that magic can reach only from within.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Vampira: Too Cool for the Graveyard

Some of those horror hosts who succeeded her professionally have preceded her in death, but today the sad news reaches us that Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira -- the world's first horror movie host -- has died of natural causes at the age of 86. This link will take you to a fairly complete episode guide for the historic VAMPIRA SHOW (which ran on KABC-TV, Channel 7, in Los Angeles, Saturday nights at midnight, from 1954-55).

Vampira -- the name was coined by her then-husband Dean Riesner, a screenwriter who, the year before, had penned MESA OF LOST WOMEN -- launched every episode with a scream guaranteed to raise hackles, wearing a black dress so tight it raised many a tent. A shapely creation forged from elements of the "sick humor" that was arising at the time from the beatnik culture (making her a sister of sorts to Lenny Bruce and Brother Theodore), Vampira's sense of humor was dry, droll and devastatingly unpredictable; no one else could get the upper hand with her around. She was simply too cool for the graveyard.

As this remarkable photo encapsulates, Vampira was more than a horror host: she was a genuine pop cultural icon whose original, beckoningly deathly look left what is likely to be a permanent impression on her world. The rough sketch for her character may have originated in the NEW YORKER cartoons of Charles Addams, but it took the corporeal form of Maila Nurmi, her bohemian sensibility, and her dry rapier wit to make it avant-garde and sexy. There had been other "horror women" in the past, like Gloria Holden in DRACULA'S DAUGHTER and Acquanetta in CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, but only Elsa Lanchester's BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN seemed to foreshadow Nurmi's flair for fashion and similarly exult in her own macabre appeal; Holden and Acquanetta, like June Lockhart's SHE WOLF OF LONDON, were accursed, baleful women, saddened by their status as monsters. Maila Nurmi took the beauty of the horror genre, adapted it into a personal fashion statement, and called it Vampira. Unlike her sisters onscreen, Vampira was a one-woman celebration of the pleasures of mixing abominable thoughts and an epicure's libido -- which, it must be said, not only made her horror's first truly liberated female figure, but arguably the first liberated horror character of either sex.

Merely to peruse the list of some of the movies she presented -- ROGUE'S TAVERN, MIDNIGHT LIMITED, LADY CHASER and CASE OF THE GUARDIAN ANGEL (the baby of the bunch, made in 1949!) -- is to realize just how early a phenomenon she was; there was not yet a Universal "Shock Theater" package and, obviously, the world was still four years away from the first issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND magazine. Vampira never once presided over a Frankenstein, Dracula or Wolf Man movie; her beat was Monogram miseries, British quota-quickies, and forgotten films noir. She also established a behavior pattern for all those who followed in her footsteps by looking down the full length of her nose at them.

Though only a very small portion of the country ever saw her show (of which very little kinescope footage survives), her legend spread like wildfire -- partly through Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s casting of her as Bela Lugosi's dead wife in the immortally cheesy PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1956), where she sported a waistline so narrow that it has been known to make other women wince in pain; it had the ribs-removed look that could make even a martini glass envious. (Of course, in 1994 Lisa Marie gave a touching and dead-on performance as Vampira in Tim Burton's career high ED WOOD.) By the late 1950s, Vampira's likeness had become a popular Halloween mask, an evidence of her fame that also ironically marked the moment when Maila Nurmi lost control of her immortal creation.

It would seem to be her example that resulted in the arrival of this sort of predatory seductress in horror cinema, such as Barbara Steele's Princess Asa in BLACK SUNDAY (1961) and Ingrid Pitt's Carmilla in THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1969); indeed, Vampira's two-year reign over the midnight airwaves in Los Angeles influenced Carolyn Jones' performance as Morticia in THE ADDAMS FAMILY TV series, as well. In Jerry Lewis' 1963 classic THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, his character Buddy Love summons a sullen waitress by shouting, "Hey, Vampira!" Her image also crossed over into the music world, evident in everyone from Siouxsie Sioux to Marilyn Manson, and today we can meet any number of Vampiras simply by walking down the street, people who emulate her look and deadpan manner of speaking without ever having seen footage of she who started it all.

Ms. Nurmi's death follows the release last August of VAMPIRA THE MOVIE, a 70m documentary by Kevin Sean Michaels that combines archival footage and one of the last interviews granted by its subject, still wickedly sharp-witted in her mid-eighties. Rest assured that we will see her like again... and again... and again... but let us bow our heads in wistful sadness as another true original leaves the building for a future etched in marble.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

I, Videowakkhond

Full kudos to artist Enrico Guido Krieko (Erik Kriek) for this amusing caricature of me unmasking Mario Bava -- by telephone, of course -- which appears in the current "Tutto Bava" ("All Bava") issue of the Dutch horror film magazine SCHOKKEND NIEUWS. The magazine's website offers a generous 13-page free sample pdf of the issue online, in which this cool illustration appears on page 13. Signor Krieko has done a marvelous job of recreating the look of Sei donne per l'assassino's Belgian poster art, by way of Daniel Clowes perhaps, and I must say he also nailed my hairstyle -- if not my height. (Or my neck -- I have one.) I haven't yet seen more of the issue than appears in the free sample, so I don't know if this is a single pager or if it continues into a fuller comic strip... but time will tell. And when it does, I'll tell you.
The text below the image, written by Bartolomeo del Pozzo (Bart van der Put), translates thusly: "Evasively, the mysterious filmmaker eludes those who threaten to expose his true identity. The Italian manages to hide behind his darkness and death-filled body of work. A quarter of a century after his death, his obsessed biographer sees his chance. From another continent, and armed only with phone, fax and remote-control, video watchdog Tim Lucas strikes. The six kilograms-weighing MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK ends many mysteries of the Maestro. But those who descend into his colorful darkness will always find new mysteries...."
My thanks to friendly correspondent Gustav Verhulsdonck for the translation.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Dreams Is Dapressin'

If my day today was a Popeye cartoon, that would be its title.

I went to bed late but was awakened early, after just a few hours, by one of the most remarkable dreams I ever had. It was scary, funny, full of action, and it had a tense dramatic story attached to it. I woke myself by consciously realizing, in the midst of this subconscious wallow, that I had never seen a movie quite like this, and it would be lightning in a bottle if I could only get it onto paper. So I woke and scribbled down eight lines of notes -- I used to do this all the time in my twenties, as an aspiring novelist, and rarely do it anymore, which made the effort seem even more exciting.

Then I returned to bed, where I found myself unable to sleep because I kept going over the idea and its imagery in my thoughts, trying to reel back in the parts of it I was losing touch with. An odd thing is that parts of it dovetail with fragments remembered from another dream from decades ago, which I've always held onto as having possibilities. The more I tried to fit these two together, natural as the fit seemed to be, the more I could feel the new dream's freshness and unpredictable, mercurial quality becoming hemmed in by the hard nails of conscious detail. Unable to get back to sleep, I got up for the day about an hour later and looked at the notes I'd written down. Fortunately, they didn't say "Boy Meets Girl" -- there is a real live germ of a book or movie in there, but it's sketchy as hell and it's going to take a lot of work to romance it out of the dream world into this one.

The torment is that part of me keeps saying "This could be your fortune." And I know that, if I don't take the most important steps in this process in the next day or two (which I can't, due to other obligations), or at least within the next week, there's a good chance it will be pretty much gone. No wonder so many people just play the lottery; it's easier than playing "The Old Man and the Sea" with one's own inner pool of hobgoblins.

As long as I can keep this idea interesting to myself, and add to it slowly, there's a chance it could become something. But, because of this dream and attendant lack of sleep and a determined return to the gym yesterday, I've had a long day of fuzzy-headedness, tired muscles, and haven't gotten much done other than some laundry. We have a dinner date with friends this evening, so my only aspiration for the rest of the day is to be good company.

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

Skidoozy

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.