Thursday, March 13, 2008

Mr. Klein

Here we have the cover of MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE #20, one of the most arresting covers ever perpetrated by the greatest of all French magazines dedicated to the fantastic cinema. I've always loved this image and wondered about the obscure film it was from, even before realizing that the woman in the photo is none other than Delphine Seyrig (LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, MURIEL, DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS). If you, like me, have long been attracted to this photo and puzzled over its point of origin, you'll be interested to know that the movie in question is scheduled for release here in the States later this month.

On March 25, MR. FREEDOM (1969) will be released by the Criterion sub-label Eclipse as part of a box set bearing the provocative title THE DELIRIOUS FICTIONS OF WILLIAM KLEIN. I've just finished going through the whole set, which I've reviewed for the April 2008 issue of SIGHT & SOUND, and people need to know that this is the science fiction/fantasy release of the month and possibly of the season. MR. FREEDOM more than lives up to the promise of its promotional stills as the wildest superhero satire I've ever seen, a clear-cut antecedent of what Paul Verhoeven got up to in ROBOCOP. Also included in the set is Klein's feature debut, WHO ARE YOU, POLLY MAGGOO? (1966), a prescient spoof of Reality TV in which a camera crew invades the privacy of a ubiquitous fashion model that incorporates Felliniesque fashion shows and animated collage sequences reminiscent of Karel Zeman; and THE MODEL COUPLE (1977), in which an "average" French couple consent to live without privacy for six months to provide an entertainment program for the public, without realizing that the whole enterprise is a governmental experiment in reduction, calculated to gauge how much the average French citizen can comfortably live without.
Director Klein got his start as an award-winning photographer, specializing in layouts for VOGUE. He is also an American expatriate, having moved to Paris in the early 1960s, and these three films can be read as a trilogy of sorts about his disillusionment with America and his fears about the encroaching Americanization of his adopted country. These are brilliant and remarkable films, perhaps sharing a tendency to burn too brightly and to burn out sooner or later in the third act, but satisfying nevertheless on the strengths of their concepts, their sawtoothed satirical bite, and Klein's consistently dazzling eye for style. (These three films are written, directed and designed by William Klein -- the sort of possessory credit to which only William Cameron Menzies and Robert Fuest, I believe, have otherwise staked claim.) Klein's style and personality are unique, and even if one can readily discern his influences (Fellini, Méliès, Godard -- especially ALPHAVILLE), they never overwhelm what he brings to these projects. And what he brings to these projects includes a number of impressive fans who consented to appear in them: the aforementioned Delphine Seyrig (in two), Philippe Noiret (in two), Serge Gainsbourg, Yves Montand (as French superhero Captain Formidable!), DARK SHADOWS diva Grayson Hall, and le grand Eddie Constantine.
If you count yourself a discerning genre connoisseur, your future status will be determined by whether or not you own this set. At least two of the three films look and sound terrific, aside from a brief patch of roughly recorded dialogue in MR. FREEDOM). While it also looks good for the most part, there are enough instances of disruptive cropping in THE MODEL COUPLE to suggest that it was shot in 1.33:1 and should only be screened that way.

2008 Rondo Roundup

I want to thank everyone who took the time to vote in the Rondo Awards this year, and for VIDEO WATCHDOG contributors and products in particular. I won as Best Writer for the second year, and MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK won as Best Book of 2007 -- a victory that I share with Donna, whose brilliant design work made my 12-pound gorilla all the more conspicuous when it arrived on the scene.

Close to 3,000 people participated this year and, while there is some controversy about how well the results reflect the "Classic Horror" orientation of the award, I think they were all valid and interesting choices. Donna and I send our friendly congratulations out to the folks at RUE MORGUE, the first magazine to beat us the Rondo's Best Magazine competition; I was also happy to see FANGORIA finish as runner-up, because they both do excellent work at covering the past, present and future of horror cinema and pop culture, and haven't really received their fair share of attention in past Rondo polls. VW came in third, which is compliment enough as both RUE MORGUE and FANGORIA are owned by large corporations, produced from actual offices, and print at least ten times as many copies we do; I'm honored simply to know that VW is accepted on their same level of professionalism.

Speaking of VW contributors, I also want to congratulate Joe Dante and Charlie Largent, whose collaboration on the TRAILERS FROM HELL website earned it a well-deserved victory in the Best Website/Blog competition. By the way, the runner-up in that split category was none other than Video WatchBlog, so the blog you're reading is still Top Blog in Rondoville... but no cigar.

And finally, I was tickled to see my old pal Michael Schlesinger named Monster Kid of the Year. I've known Mike for something like 30+ years, ever since he worked in the office of a Cincinnati-based film distributor, when I was a writer for a local entertainment paper. Even then, he was more adept at quoting movie dialogue verbatim than I ever was. I've vicariously thrilled to the success he has earned since moving out west to supervise the repertory divisions of Paramount and Columbia, ensuring that a lot of great films (including a good deal of horror esoterica) remained available for 35mm bookings. Mike went on to direct the English version of GODZILLA 2000, snagged Larry Blamire's THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA for Columbia, and has since co-produced Blamire's TRAIL OF THE SCREAMING FOREHEAD and the now-filming THE LOST SKELETON RETURNS AGAIN. He is also pretty much single-handedly responsible for Sony's SAM KATZMAN COLLECTION DVD box set, which brought the sleeper THE WEREWOLF and the legendary snoozer THE GIANT CLAW into the digital age -- and he's currently prepping a HAMMER SWASHBUCKLERS set that will include things like THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER and THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY. In other words, sound judgment on Rondo's part.

A full account of Rondo's winners, runner-ups and honorable mentions can be found here.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Look Back at HENRY & JUNE

Anaïs Nin (Maria de Medeiros) finds literary merit in Henry Miller's wife June (Uma Thurman) in HENRY AND JUNE.

Last night, for the first time in almost eighteen years, I watched Philip Kaufman's HENRY & JUNE (1990), a film I reviewed at that time for VIDEO WATCHDOG #5 -- one hundred and thirty two issues ago. Looking back at my review, which praised the film while faintly damning it, I feel a bit embarrassed; our reviews were shorter in those days, but even so, it seems to have been written in particular haste, without much empathy for the director's goals in telling the story of the 1931 Paris encounters of Dutch/Spanish diarist Anaïs Nin, American aspiring novelist Henry Miller, and his troubled wife June. I can't believe I failed to note a cameo by Juan-Luís Buñuel, the director of that fine film LEONOR (1975) and the son of the gentleman whose classic surrealist short UN CHIEN ANDALOU is shown in excerpt.
Since 1974's THE WHITE DAWN, where his mature directorial career effectively began, Philip Kaufman's work has achieved a remarkable fusion of technological skill, elegance, and emotion. To say it in shorthand, he's like Kubrick -- but with feelings. His INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) remains the only sequel to hold its own against Don Siegel's 1955 original; THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) and THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (1988) are two of the only post-1960s American films worthy of the epithet "epic," not only in length but in achieving a fulsome body of emotional and historic content; and QUILLS (2000) is a remarkably good, underrated addition to the filmography of the Marquis de Sade.
HENRY & JUNE was made directly after the superior UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, which surely also contributed to its lukewarm reception. My old review particularly takes it to task for earning its NC-17 rating too coyly; it was the first film to carry this "adult" rating and expectations, shall we say, were higher... and lower. Its restraint, which doesn't seem any more unbridled today, still seems a modest betrayal of the on-the-table candor of its literary sources, but Kaufman's first responsibility (I can now better appreciate) was to Kaufman. More explicit carnality would probably have worked against the film's eroticism -- or rather its mystique, which is what Kaufman works to a lather in place of eroticism. It smoulders, and it does so exquisitely.
Aside from finding a boyish Kevin Spacey in the cast, the biggest surprise to come from revisiting the picture is the enduring power of Uma Thurman's performance, of startling maturity considering her age (19-20) at the time, and quite possibly still the finest acting she's done to date. She's alternately alluring and repulsive, but the black-and-white footage of her, in the movie-within-the-movie, would have driven Fritz Lang mad with desire. Fred Ward (carried over from Kaufman's previous film THE RIGHT STUFF) and the enchanting Maria de Medeiros are ideally cast as Miller and Nin. In contrast with Thurman, these are two wonderful actors who have not had the glorious Hollywood careers they deserved (perhaps because they prefer more meaningful work -- witness Ward's collaboration with Robbe-Grillet in THE BLUE VILLA), which makes it all the more poignant to see them embodying these historical personages with such precision and seeming ease while Phillippe Rousselot's camera promotes them both so magnificently as movie stars. Ward followed HENRY & JUNE with arguably his finest work in George Armitage's modern cult classic MIAMI BLUES, but it was not until 1994 that de Medeiros made another American film, as Bruce Willis' oral pleasure-loving girlfriend in PULP FICTION.
What I failed to grasp about the film the first time around is that the Miller/Nin relationship, as depicted here, is essentially mutually parasitic, a tango between American and European litterateurs thrown so off-balance by the other's exoticism that they have to rut in order to regain their equilibrium. He gets her nose out of books and into the crotch-seam of life; she teaches him an appreciation for flamenco and tarantella; he teaches her how to cuss like a sailor. They offer each others' talent the opportunity to extend its vista by a conquered continent. In short, they are both in each others' pants to get moistened grist for their literary mills. Likewise, what June stands to obtain from this ménage a trois is the drama queen's pleasure of wishing to be the focus of a book she hasn't the gift to write herself. Once she decides that Henry's realistic prose hasn't done her proudly, she turns sapphically to Anaïs, the prose poetess, her next best shot at the Dostoevskian immortality she envisions as the only acceptable reward for a life of pain. One of the film's faults is that it demurs from authenticating or discrediting or even detailing the causes of that proposed pain.
The ultimate poignancy of all this ambitious trysting around the typewriter is that the books of Nin or Miller -- both of whom were widely read in the late 1950s, '60s and early '70s -- have since fallen out of fashion. It was Nin's crusading that got Miller's earthily philosophic joi du vivre into print in the first place, and ironically, it became her affiliation with him that made her own hour of fame possible -- moreso through her extensively edited and incomplete DIARIES than through often inscrutable "novels" like HOUSE OF INCEST and LADDERS TO FIRE. The true story of their relationship remained locked within her personal diaries until after the death of her devoted husband Hugo, played so well in the movie by the ever-dependable Richard E. Grant.
HENRY & JUNE has not had a DVD release in nearly a decade, not since Universal's non-anamorphic 1.66:1 presentation of 1999. The old disc is still in print; it zooms up acceptably well but its susceptibility to upconversion is limited. The digital 2.0 mix sounds more stunted to my ears than the warmer, richer analog mix on the VHS screener I originally reviewed. All these shortcomings are fixable now, and long overdue for an overhaul, suggesting HENRY & JUNE as a title worthy of remastering by Universal -- preferably with substantial supplementary input.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Happy Rondo Eve

Rondo voting ends tonight
Be sure to pick your Favorite Site!
Twelve times a year it makes the scene --
Shouldn't VW be your Favorite Zine?

Cast your votes by hook or crook:
Help BAVA win for Year's Best Book;
And Donna, at the very least,
Deserves to be Rondo's Best Artiste.

Newman, Newsom, Schow and me
Made the Best Article ballotry;
And other Kennel folk might rate
As a special write-in candidate.

Nothing to it, but act post-haste:
Just click the link and cut-and-paste.
It would mean so much to us, you know,
And give our best to Taraco.

Friday, March 07, 2008

The VWSE #2 Is Being Signed!

In today's e-mail, we received this shot of CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE star Ann Carter signing copies of the new VIDEO WATCHDOG SIGNATURE EDITION, which will soon be available. She's surrounded by family and friends -- from left to right, neighbor Sandy Horvath, husband Crosby Newton, son David and grandson Ryan. The photo was taken by Sandy's wife Georgia Horvath, and we appreciate it. We're told they all went out to dinner afterwards to celebrate the signing; I wish that Donna and I, along with her interviewer Tom Weaver, could have been there too, to raise a glass with them.

A reminder: the Ann Carter VWSE is limited to only 200 copies and Ann's signatures are the first fan autographs she has signed in many, many years. She retired from the screen in 1952 and has never made a convention appearance. Also, this particular issue features what is, in my opinion, one of the finest covers Charlie Largent has ever done for us (complete with unique inside front, inside back and back cover photos from Ann's personal scrapbooks) and is collectable on that score alone. The VWSE #2 will start shipping next week and, having been printed in such small quantity, our supply is bound to run out without warning -- so reserve your copy now!

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Playing Favorites

In the "How Cool is This?" department, the folks at Facets Multimedia recently invited me to join the ranks of their "Celebrity Favorites" where they are collecting the Top Ten Favorite lists of various filmmakers and critics. My lists, composed of 10½ films and another 10½ horror films (one short added to each list), is now posted here, and I get a kick out of seeing my choices sandwiched somewhere between those of Jerry Lewis and Guy Maddin.

If you bother to follow the link, you'll see that some of my main selections have changed since the list I provided for the SIGHT & SOUND Top Ten Poll of 2002. The reason for this is that I, perhaps naïvely, used greatness as a criteria for my S&S poll choices; as it turned out from the choices of the other participants, this wasn't necessary part of the plan, but it was the way I chose to meet the challenge of concocting a list. With my Facets lists, I took the word "Favorites" to heart and tried to pick and choose from a somewhat longer list of movies I love, while adding in a title or three purely for provocation purposes -- not the provocation of readers, but the provocation of DVD companies that might not otherwise consider a deluxe disc of Franju's JUDEX or Willard Huyck's MESSIAH OF EVIL (widescreen! and in proper Technicolor!) worth doing.

I freely admit that there are greater films that exist than are found on either of my lists, but these are the titles that push my specific buttons and that's all that counts. It's two lists of movies, yes, but more particularly a core sampling of me. I don't regret any of the choices I made, only that I couldn't make more of them. There is something wrong about any Top Ten film list that doesn't include Welles, Lang, Bunuel or Hitchcock (oh, that's right, I did pick one of his), and there is something just as askew when a Top Ten list of mine doesn't include some of the movies to which I'm known to be addicted (HATARI!, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, THE COMEDY OF TERRORS, MAN'S FAVORITE SPORT?, WOODSTOCK, TOMMY, LOCAL HERO, LOST IN TRANSLATION, THAT THING YOU DO!) or anything by Feuillade, Starewitch, Zeman, Ptushko, Corman, Fisher or Zulawski, not to mention the director I've often cited as my favorite: Eric Rohmer. (PERCEVAL got bumped from my Top Ten because I've only seen it once and feel trepidation about seeing it a second time; if I had to pick a favorite Rohmer today, it would probably be THE GREEN RAY aka SUMMER, which happened to slip my mind on "Make Your List" day.)

But a list of favorite movies can't really be anything more than a snapshot of how you felt about those films at the moment you were asked to provide the list -- unless you're cursed to be one of those mudturtle-minded critics who take pride in never watching any film a second time nor giving any a second thought after they've turned in their review. With that thought in mind, I hope you'll be moved to check out the lists -- all of 'em, not just mine (Joe Dante contributed one, too) -- and perhaps be inspired to familiarize yourself with those titles, if any, still awaiting your discovery.

In my ongoing effort to make my latest Top Ten list out-of-date, I saw a long-postponed pleasure -- Marcel Carné's CHILDREN OF PARADISE [Les Enfants du Paradis, 1945] -- today for the first time; the first half this morning, the second half this evening. I loved every minute of it, but -- forgive my ignorance of the extant literature about the film -- am I the first viewer who was left asking, "So where is Part Three?"

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Closed On Account of Molasses II

The opposite of molasses, actually. On Sunday night I was slammed hard with some kind of stomach virus. I thought it might be food poisoning at first, but nothing I consumed that day checked out as being bad. The worst of it was over by early yesterday, leaving me with various abdominal and body aches and incredible fatigue. The best thing, I found, to do was sleep through the discomfort. I've done very little eating since this started, as even an English Muffin looks too formidable to take on, but a protein shake offered some needed nutrients as my "dinner" last night. Today, aside from feeling as though I've taken a few hard punches to the gut, most of the body aches and fatigue are gone and I'm feeling a little more like my usual self. I may try some solid food later today. A lot of work has been piling up, so it's hard to say how active this blog will be this week.

In the meantime, please remember that the Rondo Awards are now down to their final days of voting. All ballots must be in by March 8, Saturday at midnight, and you can easily access the ballot by clicking on the visual link above. VIDEO WATCHDOG is nominated in quite a few categories including Best Magazine; Video WatchBlog is up for Best Website/Blog; and MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK is among the nominees for Best Book. And, once again, I humbly request that you consider Donna Lucas as Best Artist for her Michelangelo-like work on the Bava book.

Thanks for your support, as always, and I hope to be back with you soon. There's a new TV in the house and a lot to talk about.

Friday, February 29, 2008

THE DEVILS A Hoax? and LA Bava Retro in March

Over the past few days, my in-box has been modestly inundated with e-mails related to two subjects. Today I might as well address them both.

First of all, there's a rumor going around the Internet -- complete with the cover art shown at left -- that Warner Home Video is preparing a DVD release of Ken Russell's THE DEVILS for May. I have ignored this rumor till now for several reasons: first of all, experience has taught me that I shouldn't believe any such rumor until I receive an announcement from the company itself; secondly, the artwork at left looks phony as the "hell that holds no surprises for them." There's an onlooker to the right of Vanessa Redgrave who looks like casting more appropriate to JESUS OF NAZARETH, the spear wound in Reed's abdomen is on the wrong side, the image is highly inflammatory not only as a religious metaphor but as a cunnilingual one, and I've never known Warner or any other major company to trumpet the word "Unrated" in the lower front corner of their DVD packaging. This is an uncommercial word they prefer to insert in the tiniest possible box on the back cover, if at all. But where I really smell a rat is in the accompanying promotional text, which appears on the DVDActive site here:

"Originally rated X, this film combines historical, comedic, and surrealistic elements to tell a tale of politics and witchcraft. In order to take over pre-rennaisance France, Cardinal Richelieu and his power-hungry followers will have to eliminate Father Grandier. Grandier controls the one town that keeps Richelieu from having total control of the region. The plan is to convince the townspeople that Grandier is a warlock and that all of his nuns are possessed by devils. The accusations are heard at a public trial - whose results may surprise you."

"Originally rated X" is nothing Warner would openly cop to about this vintage release, the word "comedic" is highly misplaced (at least without the adjective "darkly" attached), the movie has nothing remotely to do with witchcraft, and there's nothing at all surprising about the results of the trial. It's all a matter of historical record. While it's true there are strong political undercurrents in the film, it is exceedingly bizarre for any synopsis of the film to overlook the matter of Sister Jeanne's nymphomaniacal obsession with Father Grandier. If you were planning to sell this movie, would you opt for anti-Catholic intrigue over sex? Finally, the complete absence of extras seems highly suspect. So, while the release could conceivably turn out to be real, the reason I haven't reported it earlier is that I think I smell a rat. And, if it does turn out to be authentic (it's skedded, to use an old VARIETY term, for May 20, the rumor mongers say), the absence of any supplementary materials is nothing less than an outrage.

Now on to the second subject, which is confirmed, but for which I had reason not to speak earlier. The American Cinematheque will be presenting "Mario Bava, Poems of Love and Death," a 10-day retrospective at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, from March 13-23. You can find the full details of the retrospective here, but 17 different features are being shown (including CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER, not yet available on domestic DVD) and each of the films is being introduced by special celebrity guests, including directors Joe Dante, Eli Roth and Ernest Dickerson, Bava actors Elke Sommer and Dante Di Paolo (his first public Bava-related appearance), and -- just added to the program on the evening of Ms. Sommer's appearance -- producer Alfredo Leone.

As an added enticement, copies of Anchor Bay's MARIO BAVA COLLECTION box sets and a half-dozen copies of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK will be raffled off during the course of the retrospective -- so, if you haven't been able to afford the most-discussed film book of the year, here's your chance to win a copy for the price of a ticket!

Some correspondents have asked if I'll be attending the retrospective but, unfortunately, the American Cinematheque doesn't have the budget to fly me in. I was offered opportunities to do a book signing but, also unfortunately, the book's cost and weight are enough to discourage me from undertaking any kind of promotional jaunt. However, I have agreed to make myself available for interviews to coincide with the screenings, and I'm doing one with Susan King of the LOS ANGELES TIMES on Monday afternoon.

Update 7:57 pm: The webmaster of DVDActive has announced that THE DEVILS has disappeared from Warner's list of upcoming titles. In other words, "Never mind!" The misinformation was not the fault of DVDActive, as this link explains.

Also, some folks have written to correct me about my comment that the word "Unrated" never draws attention to itself on major studio product. I expressed my point badly. I wasn't talking about teen-targeted movies like AMERICAN PIE and HOSTEL, which practically append the word "Unrated" to their titles in big red headsline type, but more adult fare as was under discussion.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

You Axed For It!

Published 50 years ago today -- February 27, 1958 -- was the first issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. "Welcome Monster Lovers," the Editors greeted their readers on page 3, "You're Stuck! The stuff this magazine is printed on, which looks so much like ordinary black printer's ink, is actually glue. YOU CANNOT PUT THIS MAGAZINE DOWN!"

The joke was to become more true than editor Forrest J Ackerman could ever have envisioned -- half a century on, FAMOUS MONSTERS remains as undying as the Frankenstein Monster himself. Seized by schoolteachers, thrown away by parents, it has survived. Most serious genre devotées tend to agree that FM's best days were over by the time they published their 50th issue, by which time the dry rot of reprintism had commenced (the cover of #50 was in fact a reprint of #11's cover), followed by a brief burst of renewed inspiration that lasted from #56 (their Karloff memorial issue) to #66 (their OLD DARK HOUSE Filmbook issue). Nevertheless, the long-dead version of FM helmed by Ackerman -- not to be confused with the modern day FM published and edited by Ray Ferry, which has announced its imminent discontinuation with #250, after a 50-issue run -- remains an ever-vital topic of conversation in the "Horror Books and Magazines" folder of the Classic Horror Film Boards, continually drawing more attention (and heated debate) than other folders pounding their respective drums for contemporary publications ranging from MONSTERS FROM THE VAULT and LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS to, yes indeedy, VIDEO WATCHDOG.

A perusal of FM's fateful first "Collector's Edition" issue -- which is being released today in a special replica edition ($39.95) from the current publisher -- confirms its value as an opening salvo well fired. It's rich with diverse images, ranging from shots of Lon Chaney Sr. in various roles to images from Universal, MGM, Monogram, AIP, Toho and even Mexico's Churubusco Studios. A remarkable ratio of the photos have retained their rarity over the past half-century, from an unexplained shot of makeup artist Harry Thomas applying NEANDERTHAL MAN makeup to a busty starlet identified as Wanda Barbour, to a pictorial article by Paul and Jackie Blaisdell showing how the bulbous heads of the Saucer Men from INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN were cooked-up. There's also an ad for a KTLA Channel 5 show called NIGHTMARE, which ran the then-new "Shock Theater" package of films from Universal, which was hosted by a now-forgotten missing link between Vampira and Zacherley -- actress Ottola Nesmith. There's a reprint of monster-themed comic strip by artist Will Elder (carried over from a forgotten humor magazine called HUMBUG) and a Monster Quiz on the last page that's played for laughs, but the laughs are at least on par with what MAD Magazine was delivering around the same time. The issue doesn't hold up particularly well as scholarship -- a photo of Bernard Jukes as Renfield in the stage production of DRACULA is carelessly identified as Dwight Frye, FRANKENSTEIN is identified as a 1932 release, and the "articles" are generally an unreadable melange of filler, bluster and filibuster -- but it's noticeably better than the kid stuff which the magazine later degenerated into, and not nearly as specialized or restricted in its genre coverage as the magazines it inspired have tended to be.

Either directly or indirectly, the first issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS sent out shock waves that changed the course of film history; there has never been a comparable publishing event allied to any other film genre. (FM publisher James Warren later launched comparable magazines devoted to Westerns, serials, and science fiction films, none of which lasted very long.) Between February 1959 and March 1983, FAMOUS MONSTERS produced 191 issues -- 181, if you don't count the ten issues of the short-lived sister publication MONSTER WORLD that were later "incorporated" into its numbering. Its demise has been credited to any number of faults, from excessive reprints, to an inability to mature with its readership, to its eventual emphasis on the sci-fi product of the time like STAR WARS, E.T. and FLASH GORDON. (One issue featured THE DEVIL AND MAX DEVLIN on the cover, of all things.)

But there is something about the original FM, with its rich-smelling rotogravure paper and magnificent Basil Gogos cover art, something potent enough to overwhelm the lesser memory of its majority output and the sour feelings associated with buying issue after issue larded with reprints to keep one's collection intact. FM had the good fortune to be the first of its kind, at least in most readers' experience, and to hit those readers at an age when important impressions run deepest and strike the oil of everlasting gratitude. Part of FM's enduring appeal is sentimentality, to be sure, but, even though I ally myself with those for whom Calvin Beck's CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN was the more important and defining and valuable publication, I am quick to admit that CoF never yielded a single issue that was quite so much a feast as, say, FM #13 (their 100-page issue) or #21 (their BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN issue). My memory of the very first issue of FM I ever saw, #27, is burned deeply into my brain; and today, as I flip through its pages again, I find that it still has no serious rival in my mind as the most photographically compelling issue of any film magazine I've ever seen.

The authority figures of my youth often criticized me for my interest in FM and similar publications, thinking that it was rotting my brain rather than honing it, and presuming that any time I applied to such pursuits would be wasted. But, thanks to the subculture that was first seriously excavated and brought together by their efforts, publisher Warren and editor Ackerman prepared a place (alright, a crack) in the world where I might earn the living I do today, and have done for the past two decades or more -- and I'm ever grateful. Today, FM is almost analogous to rhythm and blues as a 1950s taproot; even if you've never heard it, it's there in all the rock music that you do hear. Even if you've never seen an issue of FM, its influence is unavoidable in the genre film magazines you do read -- it's there in humorous captions, the emphasis placed on production dates, the corny names for letters columns, and in the ongoing tradition of extraordinary cover art.

In 1991, I was honored to be asked to join the likes of David J. Schow, Steve Bissette, Tony Timpone, Michael Weldon, Drew Friedman, Bill Warren, Jean Claude Romer, Gahan Wilson, and many other disciples in contributing an article of appreciation to THE FAMOUS MONSTERS CHRONICLES (FantaCo Enterprises), edited by Dennis Daniel. It's in this long out-of-print book that you'll find my fullest tribute to "The Magazine Monsters Believe In" and its merry, mustachioed Master of Cemeteries -- a piece called "FAMOUS MONSTERS Took Away My Fear (1990)." But I can't allow this golden anniversary to pass without acknowledging the importance of this day and sending my salutations to those whose early effort made jobs like mine possible.

Recommended Reading

Arbogast on Film's brief but uncommonly incisive thoughts on CLOVERFIELD. By the time you visit the page, my own appreciative response may have been added to his list of comments.

I should also note here that I've gone back to my Robbe-Grillet eulogy and added a few words of praise to my mention of his film THE MAN WHO LIES [L'homme qui ment, 1968], which I saw for the first time a couple of nights ago. It helps that Trintignant is probably my favorite actor anyway, but I think I like it even better than TRANS EUROP EXPRESS and possibly as much as L'IMMORTELLE. It's like MARIENBAD in that the entire story, such as it is, is sustained by the protagonist's willful and serial reinvention of himself and his own backstory in an attempt to seduce a woman, a castle inhabited by women, an entire village -- and it's also very funny, at times. I think, in retrospect, that I should have given Robbe-Grillet more credit for a sense of humor in his work, which is often overlooked, even by me.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sentimental, Isn't It?

According to the sternest and most task-mastering schoolmarm I ever had, the IMDb, Frederick Bean "Tex" Avery -- indisputably the greatest gag animator of all time -- was born 100 years ago today in Taylor, Texas. This is a centenary that catches me unaware but really cannot be ignored, so this posting will be more of a valentine than a full-length essay. I almost missed the train on this one, as the hipster protagonist of his classic MGM cartoon "Symphony in Slang" might have said in my position. The problem of paying proper tribute to Avery is really kind of hairy; it's eating away at me. I don't know whether I'm coming or going. I don't want to do a snow job on him or anything, but he was the tops to me, so I'm bent... on running off at the mouth with some good vibes.

How does one say "thank you" to the man who gave us the first recognizable Bugs Bunny cartoon, Daffy Duck, Droopy, Screwy (née Screwball) Squirrel, Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf, the Three Little Pups (is there any one among us who didn't try watching television with their eyes crossed and tongue thrust out the corner of our mouths after making their august acquaintence?), Spike, Egghead, Meathead, Willoughby, and the immortal Owl Jolson? I suppose all the thanks he would have wanted is our continued love (especially from fans of the female persuasion) and laughter, which we give effortlessly when faced with the likes of "King-Sized Canary", "Ventriloquist Cat", "Northwest Hounded Police", "Uncle Tom's Cabana", "Magical Maestro" (if thy hair in the gate offend thee, pluck it out), "Slap Happy Lion", "Senor Droopy" (with a cameo by the original Lina Romay) and "The Legend of Rockabye Point" -- the flat-out funniest body of work to be found in the annals of animation.

MGM, or whoever owns their stuff this week, should have been on the ball (insert "Symphony in Slang" image) to issue a complete Tex Avery set on DVD to commemorate this important occasion. French fans have such a set available to them, and we also had one in the days of laserdisc, but nowadays, here in the country of this Paul Bunyan-sized talent's birth, his genius is widely scattered on disc. (Ignore THE WACKY WORLD OF TEX AVERY - TEX RIDES AGAIN, which is Tex Avery in name only.)

The bear has just come out of his cave again to club my head and demand "Quiet," so I've got to make my summation quick. In a still-young 21st century where Charlie Chaplin is largely considered a museum piece, where W.C. Fields and Fred Allen and Jack Benny are barely remembered, where the name of Preston Sturges is known only to an elite core group of film buffs, where the Three Stooges are generally viewed with disdain by an entire gender, and where Jerry Lewis is appreciated mostly by the French, Tex Avery's brand of humor remains astonishingly fresh (in all senses of that word), direct, relevant, up-to-date and universal, so he would seem to stand a better chance at immortality than most of his 20th century contemporaries in fundom. I can say no more... because the cat has my tongue.

TECHNICOLOR ends here.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Zé do Caixao: The Nightmare That Must Survive

Without question, José Mojica Marins is one of the true mavericks of the fantastic cinema, a truly unique filmmaker and one of the genre's most assertive personalities. Working in tandem with his cinematographer Giorgio Attili and editor Luíz Elias, Mojica's early films were not only violent but violently original. Attili's camera, with its cubist framing, would zoom in and out as Elias' cutting made the images snap and crackle; the combination had the feel of bottled electricity, of a cubist painting not only brought to life but prodded to the brink of death. These films also sound like no other films in the world; they scream and vent and weep like the darkest corners in the madhouse of our dreams. If Jean Cocteau was the filmmaker most successful at making audiences dream with their eyes wide open, José Mojica Marins is the cinema's greatest conductor of waking nightmares.

I live and work in North America, where Mojica's films are not widely known, but they are venerated here by a growing cult of enthusiasts who were not able to gain access to his movies until more than four decades after the earliest were made. To tell the truth, we know little about Brazilian cinema in North America, and not much of Brazilian history; therefore, even the most famous Brazilian films have little or no sociologic context for us. It is their alien quality, their exotic strangeness, their sunniness and their sexiness, wherein lies their main appeal. Mojica's work, of course, is neither sunny nor particularly erotic, which makes him a distant cousin to Italy's Mario Bava -- who, like Mojica, told stories of horror retrieved from the darkest shadows of his sunny country.

Years before any of us in North America was able to see Mojica's films, we read about them. For us, the initial germ of the Mojica plague was spread by Phil Hardy's THE ENCLYCLOPEDIA OF HORROR FILMS, first published in 1986. Some of the most famous images from Mojica's films had appeared in earlier books and magazines, but it was not until the arrival of Hardy's book that they were accompanied by any substantial or enticing information. Though Hardy and his fellow contributors at times were harsh in their judgments of the films, their descriptions were outrageous and thus appetizing. Of ESTA NOITE ENCARNEREI NO TEU CADAVER ("This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse," 1965), for example, it was written that "the shoestring production exudes a genuine sense of madness both in its imaginings and in the treatment of its participants, with the eccentric, seemingly out-of-control staging veering from the pathological to the surreal." To read such an account in the increasingly safe and sterile environment of American horror cinema in the 1980s was to arouse a ferocious desire to find and see the work of this crazed genius. And finding these movies would not be easy.

I obtained my own first copies of Mojica's films on bootleg videocassette, which is how all first generation American fans saw them: in poor quality and in Portuguese, a language we did not read or speak, which made them all the more dreamlike and exciting --like the discovery of something long forbidden.

I have a strange confession to make. As a child, I once had a nightmare which I have never forgotten, in which I found myself standing alone in a darkened graveyard. As I saw the headstones around me and realized where I was, luminous eyes opened to peer at me from the darkness and I felt the ground open beneath me, an opening grave perhaps. I plummeted down through the earth, albeit slowly, the way Alice fell into Wonderland, past strange sights and sounds, until I came to rest in a scary room where I was approached by a cackling witch. As you must surely anticipate, when I first saw A MEIA-NOITE LEVAREI SUA ALMA ("At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul," 1964) on VHS, I had the uncanny experience of seeing something on video, a film from a distantland, that was basically exactly what I had once dreamed around the same time the film was being made or first shown. True, there was no descent underground, but the film's titles scroll up from the bottom of the screen, giving one the temporary sensation of falling. My entire experience of seeing that movie for the first time was tinged with déja vu. I told myself that this bizarre coincidence might be the ultimate proof of Mojica's success in capturing the soul-searing essence of a nightmare onscreen. But asI think back on it now, the apparition of Zé do Caixao appears before me, brandishing his cape and taunting me with questions:

What are dreams?
Why do they speak to us?
Do they describe to us our future, those events which arestill to come?
Or is there a common Unconscious, a pool in which we all swim as we sleep, composed of the images (even the moving images) that dictate how we will live and die?
Is it possible that dreams are like birds, migrating from one body to another?
How is it possible for a boy in Ohio to dream what a moviegoer in Brazil has seen in a darkened theater?
Might these images be the final recollections expelled by the mind at the moment of death, as someone is murdered on his way home from a cinema, images not ready to die, images desperate to survive by swimming into the soul of another?
Men may perish, but dreams never die!
For what is Man, if not the discarded skin of a dream?

As you can see, Zé do Caixao's migration to America was a resounding success, perhaps even before we received his films. He is Zé the Inevitable.

The publication of Phil Hardy's book also made possible the belated discovery for several other, similarly transgressive horror directors: Jesús Franco, Nobuo Nakagawa, Walerian Borowczyk, Jean Rollin, and Yasuzo Takamura, to name only a few. Neither Mojica or any of these filmmakers were well-known in America prior to the arrival of this important book, because they made films for adults. In the North America of the 1960s, horror was regarded as a genre suitable only for the entertainment of children. To have exposed a child to the work of José Mojica Marins in the 1960s might well have been a criminal offense.

Through the intervention of André Barcinski, Mojica's special work made the leap from the video underground into the hands of Something Weird Video, an offbeat Seattle-based company which had resurrected the works of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Doris Wishman, David F. Friedman, and many other exploitation outlaws on videotape. The company's owner was Mike Vraney, possibly the only real showman the world of home video has ever had, who understood that Mojica's films needed something to help them vault over the cultural obstacles that too often stand between general American viewers and international cinema. It was Vraney's idea, I believe, to reinvent Zé do Caixao as "Coffin Joe" -- a name that, to American ears, was not only approachable but integrated everything he had to offer into our own cultural tradition of horror. For this demon to have a nickname placed him in the company of other beloved cult figures dating from this same era: "Uncle Forry" (Forrest J Ackerman, the editor of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND), Ed "Big Daddy" Roth (the man behind Rat Fink, futuristic cars and monster T-shirts), and "Brother Theodore" Gottlieb (our most macabre and demented "stand-up tragedian").

Certainly there are many aspects of Mojica's work that are alien to American sensibilities -- its sense of Carnivál, its sadistic glee, its obsession with procreation -- but it also overlaps with some American traditions, notably those of the Western. Like most Westerns, the story of A MEIA-NOITE LEVAREI SUA ALMA is set in a small, dusty village with a graveyard, and one of the first scenes depicts Zé do Caixao visiting a tavern, offending others by his mere presence like a notorious outlaw, and beating another man into submission with chains -- a nightmarish twist on the traditional confrontation in an Old West saloon. Mojica's work also foreshadows the most baroque and psychedelic extremes of the Italian Westerns of the late 1960s.

As fascinating as the technique of Mojica's films may be, they are most remarkable in terms of the character of Zé do Caixao. Introduced as the anti-hero of A MEIA-NOITE LEVAREI SUA ALMA (indeed, the role was written by Mojica with the expectation that it would be played by someone else), Zé has become the filmmaker's alter ego, his doppelgänger, his very shadow, whose sheer force of presence sometimes seems to threaten Mojica's place on the worldstage. It is impossible for me to know how much of the Zé do Caixao persona was consciously rooted in American culture, because I am unaware of how available this culture was to Mojica or any other Brazilian of his time. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the antecedents of Zé do Caixao first appeared in North American culture in the horror radio broadcasts of the 1930s and '40s. It was here that macabre characters first stepped outside their narrative involvements to entice listeners into stories of dreadful, horrific character. Perhaps the earliest of these was THE WITCH'S TALE (1931-38, hosted by "Old Nancy, Witch of Salem"), followed by THE HERMIT'S CAVE (mid-1930s) and, most famously, Orson Welles as the all-knowing announcer and protagonist of the long-running series THE SHADOW (1937-54).

Whether or not Mojica actually heard these broadcasts is irrelevant; it was Welles who established the archetype of a black cloaked character inhabiting the twilight between Life and Death, chortling at his audience's ignorance of the vagaries of the Afterlife and his own tenebrous privilege,while baiting us with existential questions. So popular was Welles' presentation of these stories, his approach long outlasted him in the radio medium; he left the role of the Shadow in 1938, but subsequent actors in the role followed in his footsteps, as did other radio horror hosts still to come: "Raymond" of THE INNER SANCTUM MYSTERIES (1941-52), and also the title characters of THE MYSTERIOUS TRAVELER (Maurice Tarplin, 1943-52) and THE STRANGE DR. WEIRD (1944-45).

These creepy, ironic characters, presiding over the theater of our imaginations, subsequently inspired the storytellers of the famous EC Comics of the 1950s: the Crypt Keeper of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, The Vault Keeper of VAULT OF HORROR, and the Old Witch of HAUNT OF FEAR─and subsequently the first generation horror hosts of television, "Vampira" (Maila Nurmi), "Roland" and "Zacherley" (John Zacherle), and the droll Alfred Hitchcock of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. As I say, how available these influences were to someone like Mojica, I do not know; if he had no direct access, perhaps these ideas and archetypes migrated to him through the depths of his dreams, as once happened to me. These apparitions migrate from one mind to another because they must survive.

The character of Zé do Caixao seems to me very much the personification of a nightmare that must survive. In his first two adventures, he is literally hellbent on siring a son. A new chapter in the Zé do Caixao saga, ENCARNACAO DE DEMONIO ("Incarnation of the Demon"), has been promised by Mojica for more than 40 years; it has become the son that José Mojica Marins must sire. The films made during this period have served to fortify the potency of Zé do Caixao as icon and myth. In each new film, Zé do Caixao has become less fictional, more real; he is determined not only to have a son, but to break free of the boundaries of cinema, to pass from fantasy into reality like the character of Sadako in Hideo Nakata's RINGU (1998). In the third film of the trilogy, the anthologic O ESTRANHO MUNDO DE ZE DO CAIXAO ("The Strange World of Coffin Joe," 1968), Zé steps outside the story to become the storyteller. In O EXORCISMO NEGRO ("Black Exorcism," 1974), he stands in opposition to José Mojica Marins himself -- a polarized personality, each half determined to preserve its dominance.

In the documentary DEMONIOS E MARAVILHAS ("Demons and Wonders," 1987) -- one of the few films I have seen that truly warrants the description "astonishing" --Mojica folds himself back into the Tarot deck of his own art, unable to move forward with his trilogy and deciding instead to simultaneously celebrate and mourn his struggle. The film uses Mojica's disadvantages to its advantage, forging a dark romance from his oppression by criminals and fools, his depression, his worsening health, his stroke, even taking us into the moment of his own "near death" -- all the while reminding us of his celebrity, his popularity, his many friends and supporters, his parties, his continuing presence in newspapers and magazines... in short, his refusal to be denied.

Watching DEMONIOS E MARAVILHAS, it is impossible (for me, anyway) to determine how much of its story is true, and how much of it is, frankly, bullshit -- an incredible pageant of Mojica's narcissism and bravado. Either way, Mojica wins: if the film is truthful, it stands as a stunningly candid and vulnerable expression of the filmmaker's ego; if it's all as phony as its near-death scene, it nevertheless deserves acclaim as a masterwork of meta-fiction, worthy of comparison to the Cthulhu mythos of H. P. Lovecraft and Orson Welles' own F FOR FAKE (1974). It is here that Zé do Caixao achieves his third dimension.

It is now twenty years since DEMONIOS E MARAVILHAS. In a fascinating turn of events, Zé do Caixao's quest to sire a son and José Mojica Marins' quest to complete Zé's Unholy Trinity now appear to be on the point of convergence. It is reported that ENCARNACAO DO DEMONIO is being made at last, and that Mojica has discovered his own twin in a young American admirer, Raymond Castile, who has been cast in the role of the young Zé do Caixao -- the first time anyone but Mojica himself has played the part, and perhaps the first time ever that the part has been "played."

The ramifications of Mojica's discovery of Castile are significant. More than a century ago, Count Dracula left his homeland in Transylvania to conquer England. Where he failed --staked and withered to bones in his coffin -- Zé do Caixao has apparently triumphed. In the person of a young admirer from his conquered America, Zé do Caixao has achieved not only survival but his own rejuvenation.

This essay was written for JOSE MOJICA MARINS: 50 ANOS DE CARRIERA, edited by Eugenio Puppo, published by Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil in association with the Ministério da Cultura, February 2008, for which appearance it was translated into Portuguese by Ricardo Lisias. (c) 2008 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

What Would the Great Man Say?

Now I have seen everything. Click here if you wish to make the same claim.


The March 2008 issue of SIGHT & SOUND is now on newsstands with my "Nozone" review of Criterion's release of Cornel Wilde's THE NAKED PREY. You can also read it online for free, right here, on their website.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Remembering Pere Ubu guitarist Jim Jones

Pere Ubu, with guitarist Jim Jones on the right.

I just learned that Jim Jones -- a prominent Cleveland-based musician who played with Pere Ubu, the Easter Monkeys and The Mirrors -- died last Monday night, February 18, at age 57. This obit article from the Cleveland PLAIN DEALER, which includes commentary from PSYCHOTRONIC editor Michael Weldon (another Mirrors alumnus) renders a sketch of someone I would have liked very much to know more than musically.

As I've mentioned here before, I once had the pleasure of seeing Pere Ubu live at Bogart's here in Cincinnati when the group reformed in the 1980s. Jones, a former roadie for the band, had replaced Red Crayola guitarist Mayo Thompson in the lineup at the time, and I remember him playing a hell of a lead on "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," the kind that should require a guitarist to wear a welder's mask as it sprays sparks all over the stage. The show attracted a small turnout but I was front and center for it with a huge smile plastered all over my face -- close enough for bassist Tom Maimone to return it more than once.

Fifty-seven is much too young a demise, but Jim was blessed to go the way we probably all of us want to go -- not seeing it coming, while happily engaged in conversation with a friend about stuff.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Video WatchBlog: Over One Million Hits Served

Pictured: Raquel Welch puts on the dog to attend the World Premiere of her own "1,000,000" hit: ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966).

What a week: it's been the best of times and the worst of times. Let's start with the worst. I hate snow and we're snowed in, with more freezing rain in the immediate forecast; I'm burned out from preparing two issues of VW faster than should be humanly possible; we're trying to adjust our cats to a new diet and they're hounding us for food all the time; and our widescreen TV has picked the week before the Oscars telecast as a peachy time to die. Fortunately, its replacement is already here, but it has been standing for days, in a box the size of a drive-in screen, in the middle of our living room floor, making the only room in our house suitable for waking relaxation no longer very fit for such, and we can't get anyone out here to unpack and mount it to our entertainment system for us until "maybe next Tuesday"... but, on the other hand, what a great week for accomplishments this has been.

First, there was the announcement of the Special Achievement Saturn Award for MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK; then the latest issue (#70) of Tom Betts' long-running fanzine WESTERNS ALL'ITALIANA was released, featuring Lee Broughton's review of the Bava book and his lengthy interview with me, both focusing on the book's Italian Western content (just click on the link to retrieve the pdf files); then I received contributor's copies of a book that represents my first publication in Portuguese; early today, a delivery truck arrived bearing beautiful copies of VIDEO WATCHDOG #137 and the VIDEO WATCHDOG SIGNATURE EDITION #2 (which must now be forwarded to Ann Carter for signing)... and later today, around 5:27pm, my visits counter logged in the 1,000,000th page view of Video WatchBlog. (The visitor was French and had a account, so "Merci beaucoup!" whoever you are!)

The number of individual blog visits logs somewhat behind at about 740,000, but for this blog to have attracted over 1,000,000 individual views (or "hits," as they call them) is a happy occasion and a milestone I've looked forward to reaching. The thought had crossed my mind to give up the blog after reaching 1,000,000 hits, but I'm not ready to do that. The demands of this blog haven't been very good for my creative writing output, but it's an addictively spontaneous outlet for my thoughts about film, music and books. I derive a good deal of satisfaction from it, especially when I hear from new readers who are just discovering it, or from readers who are exploring the backlog of posts and getting excited about things I posted here months or years ago, long since forgotten by me as I keep adding on new posts. Just today I received this delightful e-mail from a recent reader, John Linton, who writes:

"I never was much of a computer guy, and only discovered the blog when the Bava book was almost out. I've grown so addicted to it that I'm going back and reading the earlier blogs, one at a time, savoring each like a fine wine. I won't go into how many wonderful things I've discovered, how many amazing people I've grown to know, and how many awesome books and DVDs I've discovered through the blog. The main reason I read it, along with finding out which version of whatever DVD is best to get, is to get to know you personally in a way that I'll never be able to in real life. I just finished reading your fantastic blog on Sterling Hayden from 3/2006, and your 'About Friday's Blog' blog, which is hilarious. All I can say is, your blogs are a treasure... If you ever collect the blogs into a book, I'll be the first to order a copy."

Well, John, thank you, and we hope to do just that -- the problem is finding the time to do it. I've always resisted this because I'm a writer rather than a layout artist, but I may have to get Donna to teach me how to do what she does on PageMaker, so that I can start moving ahead with selecting material and pouring text into new page templates in my spare time (such as it is), while she's laying out the magazine. In addition to collecting the blog in book form, I also intend to start collecting my archival writings in book form, too. It remains to be seen how much of this we can actually manage, while also maintaining our monthly schedule and other tasks; after all, we had also hoped to organize some merchandising items to tie in with the Bava book, but again, not enough hours in the day, not enough man power, and we can't afford to hire (nor do we really want) employees to help out. I guess we value our privacy even more than our productivity.

What's that? I didn't previously mention the Portuguese publication? That's right, I didn't -- it's been a busy week, with work now already nearly done on VW #138. But to fill you in: some months ago, I was approached by Eugenio Puppo to contribute an essay to a book that was being published in conjunction with the Brazilian Ministerio da Cultura and the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil to celebrate the works of José Mojica Marins (Zé do Caixao). The resulting book, JOSE MOJICA MARINS: 50 ANOS DE CARREIRA, edited by Eugenio Puppo, is a handsome 176-page paperback composed of interviews, reviews, essays and various appendices, with rare stills on nearly every spread. My essay, which occupies two pages in print, is called "Zé do Caixao: O Pesadelo que deve Sobrevivier" ("Zé do Caixao: The Nightmare That Must Survive") and was translated into Portuguese by Ricardo Lisias. The book's ISBN number is 978-85-98404-02-8, but, beyond that information, I really couldn't tell you how to locate a copy. Since there has been no English publication of my essay, I'll post it here in the days ahead.

The issue-after-next of VIDEO WATCHDOG, incidentally, #138, will feature a wonderful Round Table Discussion of the AIP Edgar Allan Poe series by (get this line-up) Roger Corman, Daniel Haller (art director of the series), and Joe Dante, moderated by Lawrence French. Larry's new book, VISIONS OF DEATH, is out now from Gauntlet Press and collects Richard Matheson's original scripts for THE HOUSE OF USHER and PIT AND THE PENDULUM, along with outstanding production articles and a new interview with Matheson. Corman has told his Poe stories many times over the years, even in audio commentary form, but this RTD is remarkable in that the presence of Dante, and Haller in particular, spurs him on to tell numerous stories and go into candid details I've never heard or read before, and Haller has rarely been interviewed. I'm excited about presenting this issue... but before I can do that, I have to proofread it, so here I go.

But first, I want to thank you all for being there for Video WatchBlog -- every day, for a lot of you. Those seven digits are numbers you helped to accumulate, so this milestone is yours, as well as mine. In case I haven't said so before, the best part of writing Video WatchBlog is knowing there are Video WatchBlog readers.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Another Reason to Learn German

Fans of the Edgar Wallace krimis like me, who don't speak more than a few words of German, have been taught an exquisite form of agony by the Tobis/UFA box sets of Wallaciana that have been released, mit-out English audio or subtitles, over the past few years. (It's true that nearly all of the main Wallace sets include English audio or subtitles, but there is always at least one title per box that doesn't... and then they reached a point where they were withheld altogether.) But I learned years ago that, sometimes, you just have to jump into the deep end without knowing how to swim; it is cinema, after all, and dialogue should be secondary to a brilliant mise-en-scène, or whatever the German equivalent might be, and a stellar anamorphic transfer. Consequently, I've gone ahead and bought the German DVD sets -- not only of the Edgar Wallace and Bryan Edgar Wallace krimis, but also the Karl May Westerns, the Eddie Constantines, and the RAUMPATROILLE sci-fi series -- and, regardless of our "failure to communicate," I've derived a good deal of enjoyment from them.
I recently rolled the dice again with my purchase of another Wallace-krimi collectable, a three-CD set called EDGAR WALLACE FILMEDITION 1. I couldn't quite tell what it was from the listing on, but I understood the chances were slim that I would derive too much satisfaction from it because it was a purely audio entertainment... auf Deutsch, natürlich. But being a collector, I had to have it -- partly to find out what it was, and partly because I had to have it.
What this FILMEDITION turns out to be is a set of three Wallace-krimi film classics -- THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE FROG (1959), THE DEVIL'S DAFFODIL (1961) and THE INN ON THE RIVER (1962), to use their English titles -- whose original German soundtracks (featuring the talents of Joachim "Blacky" Fuchsberger, Klaus Kinski, Eddi Arent, Siegfried Schurenberger... and Christopher Lee (who spoke his own German in THE DEVIL'S DAFFODIL) have been adapted by the leute at VGH Audio into "audio book" format, with the addition of newly recorded narration by (as best I can tell) Joachim Kramp, author of the indispensible reference HALLO! HIER SPRICHT EDGAR WALLACE.
It's an interesting little oddity, an attempt at crossover from Wallace fandom into the audio book market. As such, it's an important validation of how close these early Wallace-krimis were to their original literary sources before the scripts began following their own lead, not unlike the Bond films. I would have thought that these films would lose more than half their appeal if deprived of their imagery and atmosphere, but these discs assert the opposite view -- that the stories and performances are sufficient to sustain interest. Listening to all three discs (und ja, I'm crazy enough to have done this), I have to say that I'm as persuaded as I can be. This set is strangely listenable, even without a grasp of the language, because of the lively interplay of voice, sound effects, the terrific music scores, and the occasional woman's scream. It's also a pleasure to realize that I can recognize Fuchsberger's and Kinski's (and even Lee's!) voices in German, and -- bottom line -- one should never snub the rebellious thrill that comes with thinking to oneself, "I've got to be the only person in the country who's listening to this right now."
One might expect a nice fat annotated booklet to accompany a set like this, but there is only a four-page (single folded sheet) enclosure with a few pictures and the major cast lists for the three films. Mein urteilsspruch: a neat little offbeat thing to have, and the price is right. Impress your friends... and maybe learn a little German in the bargain.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

2008 Saturn Awards Nominations Announced

I announced here yesterday that my book MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK will be honored with the Saturn Award for Special Achievement later this year. Today, the official announcement -- and the full roster of nominees and special recipients for the 34th Annual Saturn Awards -- was unveiled on their website, which is well worth a visit. I'm very pleased to see that our friend Guillermo del Toro is being recognized for his impressive body of work with this year's George Pal Memorial Award, and Donna and I look forward to meeting him at the festivities in June.

Vampira at Rest

An e-mail received yesterday from VW contributor (and Rondo nominee) David J. Schow, who gave permission to reprint here:

Hey Friends:
Just a footnote, but we put Maila Nurmi's remains into the ground at Hollywood Forever Cemetery yesterday morning (Sunday 11 AM, 2/17/08), weirdly enough, about two feet away from Darren McGavin's plot. About 100 people attended the private service (we had to use a code word to get through the gates), including a lot of mutual friends like Coop & Ruth (Waytz), Bryan Moore & Heather Saenz, Dana Gould, Gabrielle Geiselman (who helped administer and organize the fund drive for Maila), Evil Wilhelm & Tara Greer, and haxanthroboticist Tommy Kuntz. Verne Langdon was also there, as I believe were a couple of Maila's very distant kin (cousins, I think -- I could have that wrong). Apparently the fundraiser to purchase Maila a bit of Hollywood Forever (at a cost of about $12K, I've heard) was a smashing success.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Bava Book to Receive Special Achievement Saturn Award

Excerpted from a letter received today from Robert Holguin, president of the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films:

Dear Tim:

The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films was founded in 1972 to honor, recognize and promote genre entertainment. The organization was an extension of another group, The Count Dracula Society, which was founded by Dr. Donald A. Reed. Dr. Reed’s passion was bringing recognition to the people who were often overlooked because they dealt in the fields of filmmaking which were considered, in certain circles, juvenile entertainment. Through Dr. Reed’s efforts, we have seen the genre film become a major force at the box office. It’s the genre film which keeps the studios alive and well. Dr. Reed felt strongly in honoring and recognizing extraordinary work and the people who create it. I try to follow in his footsteps.

With your recent publication,
Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark
, you have completely awed us in your efforts to chronicle the life and work of filmmaker Mario Bava. The book is simply astounding. I am completely blown away by your accomplishments in publishing this monster of a book. The devotion you show to your subject matter is inspiring to the point of obsession. And we are humbled that you had this passion to work on a book which took many years of your life to complete. It’s one of the most incredible achievements we have seen in our lifetime.

The Academy has chosen you to receive a Saturn Award,
The Special Achievement Award, for your hard work in seeing this project come to fruition. If Dr. Reed were with us today, I know he would be the first to congratulate you on this monumental labor of love and wish to honor you for it.
We would like to present this award to you at the upcoming 34th Annual Saturn Awards. The show will take place on Tuesday, June 24, at the Universal Hilton in Universal City, California (right on the hill where Universal Studios sits). If you and Donna are able to attend, I can assure you that you will be surrounded by many admirers and peers who feel the same as I do about your work. I know this would be a memorable occasion for both of you. I hope you will be able to fit this into your schedule. It would be our great honor to see you receive earned accolades at the 34th Annual Saturn Awards.
Thanks so much, Tim, for your years of hard work and devotion. It is greatly appreciated by those who work within the fields of genre entertainment.

Robert Holguin
President – The Saturn Awards
Naturally, Donna and I are delighted by the news and we hope to attend the Saturn Awards ceremony in June to accept this honor in person.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Alain Robbe-Grillet Exits the Labyrinth

Novelist and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet has passed away at the age of 85. This news saddens me, because he has been prominent on my short list of personal heroes for most of my life; but it also excites me because a great deal of his recent work -- including the second two volumes of imaginative autobiography begun with GHOSTS IN THE MIRROR -- has yet to be translated into English and the lack of new product, as well as the perspective his death will bring to his existing oeuvre, will doubtless compel this long-overdue work to be done.

I was introduced to Robbe-Grillet by my friend Robert Uth when I was still in my teens, with the famous Grove Press double of JEALOUSY and IN THE LABYRINTH, which pictured the author himself peering through the slats of a jalousie shade or venetian blind. This gesture was, in itself, instructive as it encouraged me, as a young reader and writer, to imagine the author as protagonist; he vigorously denied any such association, but as time has shown, he delighted in tweaking and provoking his audience. The two novellas, two of his greatest, were preceded by analytic essays by Bruce Morrissette and others, which helped me to contextualize these revolutionary, ambigous, objectivist works of fiction -- examples of the so-called "Nouveau Roman" ("New Novel"). I discovered them ten years or more after they were "new," but they remained absolutely unlike anything else I had read. They taught me, before I discovered Nabokov, about the value of scientific detail in description and word selection, yet they also went extraordinarily afield of the Flaubertian search for the mot juste ("right word"). It was Robbe-Grillet's example that taught me, more than either Burroughs or Ballard, that a novel can be a psychological playground where the narrative possibilities are limited only by the author's own imagination and capacity for candor. Robbe-Grillet delighted in slowing down time, collapsing it, having it swallow its own tail, and having key episodes repeat like a hiccup, subtly altering them with each repetition. He was similarly fearless in allowing aspects of the fantastic to encroach upon settings constructed with meticulous realism.

His first published novel, THE ERASERS, was a detective novel based on the Oedipus myth (its basic idea was later echoed by Lucio Fulci's film THE PSYCHIC), and his second, the award-winning THE VOYEUR (Polanski should have filmed this long ago), was an oblique investigation into the death of a young woman told from the perspective of her murderer. (Two ropes looped into figure-eights are found at the scene of the crime, and the novel's first printing by Editions Gallimard arranged to have the murder scene -- a blank page gap in the narrative -- printed on page 88.) JEALOUSY upped the ante by implying the murder of a woman by her jealous husband while leaving the reader absolutely unsure of whether or not the crime had been committed or merely contemplated; if the English translation by Richard Howard is any indication, it contains some of Robbe-Grillet's most beautiful writing. With LA MAISON DE RENDEZVOUS (which appeared in the UK as THE HOUSE OF ASSIGNATION), Robbe-Grillet began to more frankly explore his own erotic nature -- which he admitted in interviews inclined toward the sadomasochistic -- and, I believe, his personal interest in pulp fictional tropes and forms. (Brad Stevens' book on Monte Hellman reveals that LA MAISON DE RENDEZVOUS has long been an unfulfilled dream project of Hellman's.) My own personal favorite of Robbe-Grillet's novels is PROJECT FOR A REVOLUTION IN NEW YORK, a febrile dreamscape that occupies a nightmare version of the great city, which Douglas E. Winter and I believe is one of the great unheralded horror novels of the late 20th century. When David Bowie sang on his DIAMOND DOGS album of Hunger City, where shops sold "bulletproof faces of Charlie Manson, Cassius Clay," that's pure PROJECT FOR A REVOLUTION IN NEW YORK -- a novel whose malignant atmosphere I've only seen approximated on film by Dario Argento's INFERNO.
Robbe-Grillet's later novels, like REFLECTIONS OF THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE and TOPOGRAPHY OF A PHANTOM CITY, tended to be reworkings of texts originally written for limited editions and art installations; they're fascinating, but somewhat less than full-strength Robbe-Grillet. His last novel to be translated into English was REPETITION, which I haven't yet read, but which was praised by musician John Cale as offering perfection in every paragraph.

And then there is Robbe-Grillet's work as a screenwriter, director and actor -- which I suppose also diffused the energies he once applied solely to his fiction. His maiden effort at screenwriting, LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, was directed by Alain Resnais (whom AR-G grew to resent because he received great acclaim for "simply" following his script to the letter) and was received with great controversy, yet feted internationally. Robbe-Grillet proceeded to direct his own scripts; they are conspicuously more the work of LAST YEAR's auteur than anything Resnais directed subsequently, yet it was Resnais who gave that film its essential measure of quality, in terms of its casting, direction, and production value. All of Robbe-Grillet's dozen-or-so films were modestly budgeted, often cast with actors perceived as having the right look rather than adequate acting range (which made them more apparent as mere chesspieces in his various games), and lacking in the glorious style that Resnais and cameraman Sascha Vierny brought to their great collaboration, and which was always present on the pages he wrote. The highlights of Robbe-Grillet's film work are his earliest, the underrated L'IMMORTELLE (1963, starring Françoise Brion) and TRANS EUROP EXPRESS (1966), the most approachable of all his works, in which he stars as himself, accompanied by his wife Catherine, an actress/dominatrix who wrote the S&M novel THE IMAGE with Robbe-Grillet under the nom de plume "Jean De Berg"). The movie finds him improvising a mystery story while travelling by train with his wife and editor, after spotting actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (who becomes the de facto protagonist) also aboard. Trintignant enjoyed the experience and worked with Robbe-Grillet again in other pictures like the extraordinary THE MAN WHO LIES (1968, which, like LAST YEAR, utilized an unreliable protagonist whose insistence on providing possible backstories generates the self-mythifying storyline) and PLAYING WITH FIRE (1975). The author himself occasionally appeared in small roles in other director's films, the most recent example being TIME REGAINED (1999), Raoul Ruiz's elegant distillation of Marcel Proust's seven-volume roman fleuve REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST -- a work whose unmoored handling of time and tendrilous sentence structure must have been influential to him. Only last year did the first of Robbe-Grillet's films arrive on DVD: LA BELLE CAPTIVE (1983) -- not one of his best, and an unworthy transfer in any case. One hopes that, with Robbe-Grillet's death, a stubborn wall will topple to make this body of work more accessible.
The emphasis placed by Robbe-Grillet's films on nudity, sadomasochism, fetishism, ghosts and vampires have led them to be included in written overviews of Eurohorror such as Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs' IMMORAL TALES -- an identification that the filmmaker resented and resisted. By the same token, throughout his career, he would consent to collaborate only with historians capable of discussing his work on the theoretical planes he approved, resisting any published form of popular appraisal. He also insisted throughout his career that there was no psychological content in his objectivist fiction, stories that were allegedly about places and things rather than people. But, as his fan Vladimir Nabokov happily brayed in response, "Robbe-Grillet's claims are preposterous!" -- their entire substance is psychological, in the best possible tradition.
My own first experiments in fiction, written in the mid-1970s, were highly imitative of him; I can remember embarking on a novel that was to be set entirely on a sparsely furnished street corner, its perspective rotating between a man passing a department store's display window and that of the mannequin inside. It hurt a little at the time, but Bob Uth did me the great favor of weaning me from those raw tendencies with some valuably blunt, constructive criticism. The funny thing is that everything I was going to use in that untitled project, except the imitative way in which I had approached the material, has come into play in my, shall we say, mature fiction. There are places in both of my published novels where time seems to liquify and the tense becomes delirious, and this is at least partly the influence of Robbe-Grillet, tenpered by my own voice and my own experience.

In all the years since I first discovered this author with the beautiful name, his alphabetically named characters, and his exotic ports of imagination, I doubt there have been many days when I haven't thought of Robbe-Grillet in passing, or reproached myself for not getting around to reading this or that unread book, or observed something through the perspective his work specifically shared with me. He left a brand, much more than a mark, on my own imagination. He shaped me -- not just the writer I am -- as much as any other teacher or life example I've had, and unlike the living agent of that influence, whom I never knew, these gifts are too deeply assimilated to ever be missed.