Friday, March 21, 2008

VIDEO WATCHDOG #138 Unveiled

Click to embiggen.

Charlie Largent, designer of the Rondo Award-winning Trailers From Hell site, graces our next cover with original art of Roger Corman directing on the set of PIT AND THE PENDULUM. It's a fun cover for a highly entertaining and informative issue whose centerpiece is a Round Table Discussion between Corman, his former art director Daniel Haller (a rare interviewee), fellow director and fan Joe Dante and moderator Lawrence French about the Corman/Haller collaborations at American International Pictures.

Dan Haller's presence at the candid talk helped to jog Roger's memory about all kinds of hilarious production anecdotes not touched upon in previous interviews -- some of them about grabbing footage while one step ahead of the law! You can find the whole rundown of this exciting issue's contents, and some clickable sample pages, on the Coming Soon page of our website!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Rick Baker's New WOLF MAN

The movie isn't due to be released until February of next year, but Universal has made the surprising decision to leak two advance portraits of Benicio del Toro in full makeup as THE WOLF MAN. Looking at these two shots (one here, the other further down -- click to enlarge), it's easy to understand the studio's enthusiasm: they show Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker at the very top of his game. In fact, this is rather more like the monster I had expected Baker to create for AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON back in 1981, where a more bestial, inhuman, wombat-like werewolf design won him his first Academy Award for Best Makeup. In an ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY interview with Lindsay Soll, conducted in support of these new images, Baker confessed about his new project, "The old fanboy in me is jumping up and down here!" And so are fanboys all across the Internet.

To appreciate what Baker has done here, you must consider the various werewolf makeups that have come and gone in the forty-odd years since the last truly great one: Roy Ashton's grey timberwolf interpretation of Oliver Reed in Hammer's 1961 film, CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF. (The casting of Benicio del Toro in Universal's remake of THE WOLF MAN shows that director Joe Johnston has already learned an important lesson from the Hammer film: to ensure a great werewolf, hire an actor who has a volatile edge even without the makeup -- it makes the transformation that much more convincing.) Paul Naschy's werewolf makeups have always been wildly uneven in execution; there are some terrific ones (FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR, CURSE OF THE DEVIL), some dull ones (THE WEREWOLF AND THE YETI, LYCANTHROPE), and quite a few at various stops in-between. Aside from the Naschy films, not all of which received American release at the time, and the occasional oddity like Universal's THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF (1973) or Amicus' THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974), werewolf movies were generally put on ice for most of a decade, only coming back into vogue when Rick Baker conceived some stage-magic-influenced makeup trickery that would allow him to transform an actor from man into wolf in a brightly lit room.

John Landis' AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON contains a classic transformation sequence, but frankly, I don't consider the end result a great werewolf makeup; I don't even consider it a great werewolf rig, because it's not all that lithe or believable onscreen. (Nor would I consider David Naughton particularly volatile casting.) In terms of conceptual design and execution, I was far more impressed by the wicked Big Bad Wolf designs brought to Joe Dante's THE HOWLING by Rob Bottin, a Baker protégé who introduced his mentor's change-o-head effects to the screen while Baker's much-postponed gig was still in post-production. The Eddie Quist werewolf in THE HOWLING is as good as a post-Universal werewolf can be, and this is partly thanks to the preparatory (and yes, volatile) performance of Robert Picardo. There have been quite a few werewolves onscreen since those two seminal pictures brought sprouting hair back into fashion -- in WOLFEN, THE MONSTER SQUAD, SILVER BULLET, WOLF and VAN HELSING, to name a few -- but they've mostly followed Baker's Oscar-winning template, leaving most of the man out of the Wolf Man equation.

What Baker's latest design has effectively achieved is a completely successful modernization of one of the cinema's three great archetypes of horror. Since the late 1940s, more or less, the cinema has been stymied by an inability to improve upon Jack Pierce's original iconographic makeup designs for the Frankenstein Monster, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man. (Dracula, being more rooted in the performance of Bela Lugosi, didn't quite have the same problem; if anything, the cinema has been stymied about how to do something new with Dracula since Christopher Lee burst into the library with a blood-smeared mouth in Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA [1958], and with vampires in general since they took to wearing leather dusters and Goth hairstyles in THE LOST BOYS [1987].) But Baker's WOLF MAN makeup succeeds in modernizing Pierce's ideas without denying them; it's at once classic and contemporary, a very tough balancing act, which not only bodes well for Johnston's film, but for the possibility of a bona fide renaissance of the monster movie.

Not horror movie... monster movie. The difference between the two is that a horror movie, as we understand the species today, bludgeons you with situations involving pain and bloodshed, served up with all the grim realism the MPAA will allow (and even more when it comes to "unrated" video); a monster movie is escapist entertainment that excites your imagination with fantasy, spooky atmosphere and iconographic imagery. Monster movies are often thought of as being juvenile in nature, and they are distant cousins to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, but nearly all of the great archetypal monsters -- the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, the Phantom of the Opera -- originated in novels written by and for adult readers. Universal made its first forays into lycanthropy, THE WERE-WOLF OF LONDON (1935) and THE WOLF MAN (1941) after the literary precedent of Guy Endore's 1933 novel THE WEREWOLF OF PARIS.

My one concern about these fantastic promotional images is that it runs counter to the traditions of Hollywood to show all of your cards before a movie opens, especially a movie like this. Pre-release stills for horror movies from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) to THE EXORCIST (1973), and from FRANKENSTEIN (1931) to THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980), absolutely withheld the revelations of their shocking makeup designs: you bought your ticket, and THEN, and only then, you got to see the monster. With this in mind, I can't help thinking that THE WOLF MAN must have something else tucked far up its sleeve to surprise us. To trump work as magnificent as this, it's going to have to be damned good.

But these photos represent a new plateau in the astounding career of Rick Baker, who here proves himself the equal of any of the great masters who ever inspired him. The ball is in your hands, Rick -- I can't wait to see how far you run with it.

FEEDBACK (3/21/08): Bill Chambers, editor of Film Freak Central, writes: "This is ultimately irrelevant though others may point it out as well: Mark Romanek (of ONE HOUR PHOTO fame) was actually the guy who cast Del Toro as the Wolf Man. It's something they had been collaborating on for some time, and they had Baker working on it I think before the project was even greenlit. Romanek left just days before principal photography began over a budgetary dispute, and I believe the pictures being leaked was a form of damage control more than anything else... Knowing this was Romanek's dream project and considering his instincts to nab Del Toro and Baker, I think [his] would've been a less generic film than we're bound to get from journeyman Johnston. Which is probably all right by the studio--and in fairness, the approved budget of $100 million was already pretty extravagant for the material."

I Found No Thrill in the Swedish FANNY HILL

Many moons ago, in the pages of VIDEO WATCHDOG #15, I reviewed Mac Ahlberg's AROUND THE WORLD WITH FANNY HILL [Jorden runt med Fanny Hill, 1974], an entertaining softcore romp featuring Shirley Corrigan, Gaby Fuchs (MARK OF THE DEVIL) and, reason enough to watch all by herself, Christina Lindberg. It was released on VHS, circa 1992, by Kit Parker Video in tandem with Ahlberg's earlier and better-known FANNY HILL (1968), starring Diana Kjær -- "better-known" because it had been distributed here in the States by Jerry Gross' notorious Cinemation Industries as an early X-rated release, just prior to their memorable I DRINK YOUR BLOOD/I EAT YOUR SKIN double bill.

I watched both films back-to-back at the time, but for some reason, I never reviewed FANNY HILL -- perhaps because I was more demanding in those days that the titles we review contain some measure of fantastic content. I found my copy while doing some attic cleaning over the weekend and decided to refresh my memory of it.

Like ALL AROUND THE WORLD WITH FANNY HILL, it is a contemporary treatment that has only a name in common with John Cleland's 1748 classic FANNY HILL: THE MEMOIRS OF A WOMAN OF PLEASURE. Ms. Kjær stars as Fanny, an unsophisticated virgin from the provinces who, while traveling by train to the Big City (presumably Stockholm), makes the acquaintence of Monika (Tina Hedstrom). Monika offers Fanny a room in her apartment until she finds a job, which she promptly obtains at her roommate's place of employment, a classy brothel run by Frau Schoon (MANNEQUIN IN RED's Gio Petré) -- who doesn't quite suspect Fanny's innocence. Fortunately, shortly after realizing what is expected of her, Fanny meets a new client, Roger (Hans Ernback), who urges her to quit when he learns that she is intact. Roger is the wealthy and carefree son of a shipping magnate and promptly takes Fanny and one of Dad's smaller yachts on a carefree, three-day cruise. Things have been going unbelievably well for the sheltered Fanny so far, but all this changes promptly upon their return, when Roger's dad (Gosta Pruzelius) puts his foot down, refusing to let the heir to his empire marry such an unpolished girl from the boonies. Fanny accepts his pay-off and, broken-hearted, embarks on a la ronde of subsequent relationships. Her lovers have their ups and downs, but in time, a rather remarkable turn of events leaves Fanny the unsuspecting heir to an infatuated gentleman's fortune, which gives her the necessary leverage for a happy, unexpected (by her, anyway) reunion with Roger.

Diana Kjær -- who would subsequently star in AIP's sex import DAGMAR'S HOT PANTS, INC. (1971), and who went on to play "Artist's Wife", "Girl Eating Meat" and "Whore" in later productions, according to the IMDb -- is cute, but the English dialogue is so lamely written and dubbed (by Titra Sound Studios, posing as Titan Productions) that everyone seems as thick and insipid as Fanny is supposed to be. It's impossible to gauge anyone's performance, or to gauge Fanny's personal growth during the course of her adventures. Furthermore, as Fanny's entire story unfolds as if by chance, the storyline is deprived of any sense of forward momentum; also, having been produced in 1968, the film is much tamer than many other films which had reached our shores by 1970. There is actually very little erotic content -- in those days, any film showing a bare breast in a sexual context got an R; if it was fondled or kissed, it got an X -- and what is present tends to be on the coy and playful side, as when one of Fanny's lovers coaxes her into exiting a car and walking into her apartment building nude -- an interlude we witness from behind, and in the dark. This is criticism at its cheapest, but I was reminded more than once of a line spoken by Severn Darden in THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST: "Teeedium... teeeeedium."

What holds one's interest, very loosely I admit, are the scenes involving music and dancing, which are decked out in appropriately retro-Euro style. However, this being a Cinemation release, Georg Riedel's original score was partially replaced stateside with music and songs by Clay Pitts. I've read that Pitts was the pseudonym of a successful, established musician who did this work on the side. Based on the voice heard on some of the songs, not to mention the cheerfully vacuous quality of tunes like "Sail A Boat" and "Do The Gravitational Pull," I found myself wondering if Clay Pitts might have been a beard for Neil Sedaka. After all, Sedaka was no stranger to writing and singing silly songs for low-rent pictures like PLAYGIRL KILLER and STING OF DEATH, so who knows? In this case, a soundtrack album was actually released -- in fact, I can remember finding a copy in the record racks of a local department store back in 1970 and wondering what the music from an X-rated film could possibly sound like.

Mac Ahlberg, who has since returned to his origins as a cameraman (Gordon's RE-ANIMATOR, Landis' INNOCENT BLOOD, Dante's THE SECOND CIVIL WAR, various Charles Band DTV titles), had a fascinating career as a director of erotic films in Sweden. FANNY HILL is pretty negligeable when compared to serious stuff like I, A WOMAN (1965) with Essy Persson, or the later films he made with Maria Forsa, like FLOSSIE (1974) and JUSTINE AND JULIETTE (1975); it's even negligeable when compared to the colorful, pneumatic fun of AROUND THE WORLD WITH FANNY HILL, which I called "imaginative" and "highly amusing" in my 1992 review. Mind you, if I were to see a subtitled version of FANNY HILL with the original score intact, I might feel differently.

The Kit Parker Video release of FANNY HILL carried an R rating on its packaging, incidentally... but it's doubtful that anything present in Cinemation's "Rated X... Naturally" theatrical release was missing from it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Look at JUDEX / NUITS ROUGE

Channing Pollock in one of the cinema's great entrances, from JUDEX.

It hasn't received much attention over here but, last November, CAHIERS DU CINÉMA released as part of their "Collection 2 Films De" series a two-disc set of Georges Franju's JUDEX (1963) and NUITS ROUGE (1974, the feature condensation of his miniseries L'HOMME SANS VISAGE). The Region 2 release wasn't carried by the usual importers because it didn't offer an English track for either of the films; however, it does offer one of my favorite films in a celestially lovely anamorphic transfer, as I thought I might share with you today in this series of screen grabs.

Jacqueline (Edith Scob) is overtaken by Diana Monti (Francine Bergè).

Jacqueline discovers the identity of her secret benefactor.

Judex (Channing Pollock) comes to Jacqueline's rescue.

Judex's shadowy accomplices ascend to save their mentor.

An unhappy discovery for the murderous Diana Monti.

The companion feature, NUITS ROUGE -- which I've always yearned to see in its complete form -- looks much nicer here than it did as a New Line Cinema theatrical release, or as the Beta/VHS release that came out in the very early days of home video. I've never seen it other than looking as grainy as a 16mm blow-up, but here it looks brighter and more richly colorful than I've ever seen it. Contrary to the 4:3 notation on the packaging, it has also been nicely letterboxed... but, for some reason, not treated to anamorphic enhancement. Nevertheless, here for your edification are an equal number of sample images.

Jacques Champreux as the Man Without a Face.
A moonlight robbery at knifepoint.

The Woman (Gayle Hunnicutt) on the prowl.

Hero Paul (Ugo Pagliai) holds a marching procession of robotized zombies at bay.

Inspector Sorbier (Gert Fröbe) saves Martine (Joséphine Chaplin) from her masked abductor.

Gayle Hunnicutt and Jacques Champreux at Shadowman HQ.
Both films are accompanied by interviews with Jacques Champreux, the grandson of French film pioneer Louis Feuillade (LES VAMPIRES, FANTOMAS, the original JUDEX), who scripted both features and played, very ably, the Man Without a Face in the latter picture. The JUDEX disc also contains a wealth of CD-ROM material for those who read French, including an interview with Franju, an article called "Feuillade and His Double" by Jean-André Fieschi, and CAHIERS' 1963 review of the film by filmmaker Jacques Rivette (CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING).
The set now appears to be officially out of print, as it is no longer directly available through Amazon.fr; however, a few stores selling through Amazon.fr still have it, which is how I lucked into my copy. Now my fingers are crossed for a stateside release in English, perhaps (please? please?) through Criterion's Eclipse label. With SPOTLIGHT ON A MURDERER, THERESE DESQUEYROUX and THOMAS THE IMPOSTER included, s'il vous plait.
The Anthology Film Archives in New York City are currently hosting a Franju retrospective, with a showing of JUDEX and a number of short films by the director being shown tonight. How I wish we had such things in my hometown! Follow this link for more details.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Fear and Loathing on Blood Island

More than a decade before Hemisphere Pictures introduced us to Dr. Lorca and his raucous, green-blooded progeny of science in MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND (1968), Hammer Film Productions set two important pictures on a Blood Island of their own.

Hammer's THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND (1957) and THE SECRET OF BLOOD ISLAND (1965) -- the company's most controversial forays into realistic, non-fantastic horror -- have more or less faded into obscurity, never released on tape or disc and no longer shown on American television. It is conceivable that these WWII dramas, detailing the suffering of British prisoners of war at Japanese encampments in occupied Malaya (now Malaysia), have been deliberately suppressed, as they were deemed outrageous and offensive long before the term "politically correct" was coined. One feels the urge to defend them because they are well-made, have noble humanistic content, and convey potent anti-war messages; at the same time, one feels embarassed by their depiction of Japanese soldiers, for reasons that have nothing to do with their wartime behavior.
Made during the period between Hammer's epoch-making THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND was directed and written by Val Guest (THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT), working from notes which he claimed had been scribbled on toilet paper by co-credited writer Jon Manchip White during his own Japanese POW experience. It is set in 1945 Malaya, where word of the war's end has yet to reach the prison camp of Colonel Yamamitsu (Ronald Radd). British Colonel Lambert (Andre Morell) has received the news through his own covert channels, but he and his men must keep it from reaching the enemy, as Yamamitsu's sadistic, rat-faced second-in-command Captain Sakamura (Marne Maitland) has made it known that, in the event of a Japanese defeat or surrender, he and Yamamitsu intend to save face by killing all their prisoners and then themselves by blowing up the camp. When an American soldier (Phil Brown) parachutes to ground and is captured by the Japanese, suspense kicks in as Lambert must somehow make the delicacy of the situation known to him before he can inform his captors of the Japanese surrender.
Photographed by the great Jack Asher in gritty black-and-white, and featuring bloodshed that is all the more startling for its black profusion and realistic context, CAMP comes very close to being one of Hammer's most serious, best-acted pictures. The dialogue is also surprisingly strong -- one line spoken by Michael Gwynne, "You friggin' Jap bastard!", was blatantly relooped, suggesting that even stronger words may have been used on set. The bleakly ironic ending, in particular, posits this film as an antecedent of Michael Reeves' WITCHFINDER GENERAL in showing how violence begets violence and corrupts the best of intentions. Morell is at his customary best, and he's ably supported by a Who's Who of Hammer's top supporting players -- Barbara Shelley, Michael Gwynne, Richard Wordsworth, Milton Reid, Edwin Richfield -- each of them giving their all in a quality and, let's face it, patriotic piece of melodrama. But their proud efforts cannot help but be deflated every time Maitland (who actually gives a fine performance), the chop-suey-munching Radd, or even Michael Ripper appear in their crummy yellow-face makeup.
Some genuinely Asian actors appear in the film as underlings, standing guard or driving trucks; of course, the British film industry had no shortage of such actors, but they were not cast in the appropriate key roles as it was the tendency of Hammer's casting department to stick with those names they knew and trusted. Even so, the portrayals of the Japanese are so hateful and inflammatory that there's every possibility that authentic Japanese actors, starving or not, would have turned the film down rather than risk adding to the tensions on the set. And those simmering postwar tensions were very real, even abroad: in September 1958, when THE CAMP ON BLOOD IDLAND was being readied for US release through Columbia Pictures, the chairman of the Motion Picture Production Association of Japan made an unsuccessful attempt to have the film banned in America. His point was inadvertently supported by VARIETY's reviewer, who praised the film by promising "It will jerk out of complacency any person who now tends to regard the Japanese as not being as bad as they thought."
It was the film's stated ambition -- presented in a caption appearing over the image of a starved prisoner lying in an open grave, machine-gunned in his bare chest -- to tell the "brutal truth" about the British POW experience, and there is no doubt that incidents such as it portrayed actually occurred. However, by casting the Japanese roles with ill-disguised British talent, the authenticity of the suffering it depicted was inadvertently cheapened by the ugly, seething racism inherent in its degree of caricature. Nevertheless, the film's many positive qualities demand that it be seen and preserved. Released to television in pan&scan transfers, the Megascope film has not been available for viewing in its original 2.35:1 dimensions for roughly half-a-century.
In 1959, director Gerardo de Leon made TERROR IS A MAN, the first Filipino horror film to be set on "Blood Island," a locale to be revisited to greater commercial success a decade later. Around the same time, Roger Corman's Filmgroup company released BATTLE OF BLOOD ISLAND (1960), an independent WWII film directed by Joel Rapp, based on the story "Expect the Vandals" by Philip Roth. It had nothing to do with the Hammer film, but it kept the phrase "Blood Island" alive in the consciousness of moviegoers as synonymous with Hell in the Pacific.
THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND, Hammer's 50th production, became one of the company's biggest early money-makers. Nevertheless, it generated so much heated controversy that they heeded strong suggestions from leading British film industry figures that further pictures exciting unpleasant memories of WWII should be discouraged. Nevertheless, after seven cooling years, it was possible for James Clavell to achieve best-sellerdom with the novel KING RAT, which was promptly bought by Columbia and filmed by Bryan Forbes in 1965. Hammer took this precedent as a green light to move ahead with THE SECRET OF BLOOD ISLAND, shot in color and released by Rank and Universal in 1965 -- a non-sequential "prequel" to their earlier hit, set in 1944 Malaya and involving a different set of characters.
Here Barbara Shelley plays a woman pilot on a top secret mission who is shot down over Japanese-occupied Malaysia -- almost 200 miles shy of her urgent destination -- and must elude discovery by the Japanese by posing as a male POW in one of their prison camps. Shelley, with short-cropped hair, gives a resolutely asexual performance and the film ventures very little in the way of sexual intrigue or romantic interludes. Surrounded once again by top-drawer talent including Charles Tingwell (her husband in DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS), Jack Hedley (THE ANNIVERSARY), and Edwin Richfield (QUATERMASS AND THE PIT), Shelley is here opposed by the ogreish and even more offensively made-up Patrick Wymark (!) as Major Jocomo and Michael Ripper as Lieutenant Tojoko. All things considered, Ripper isn't too bad; he barks his Japanese orders in a manner that shows he took the dialogue seriously... but Wymark is so blatantly miscast, he's an offense not only to the Japanese but to every other well-meaning actor in the piece.

SECRET was better than adequately directed by Quentin Lawrence, who had previously made another of Hammer's most winning non-horror titles, CASH ON DEMAND (1961); it was ably scripted by John Gilling, and is well-stocked with its own share of earnest performances. Yet, like its predecessor, it is a film that might have succeeded superbly if not for the inadvertently comic look of its leering putty-eyed villains. Furthermore, there is a feeling here of a film that was advised to pull its punches, in a way that THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND did not, and -- in a hint at studio editorial interference -- it starts off on an awkward foot by presenting the climax first, as a lead-in to Shelley's voice-over narration, which only serves to make the story's culmination needlessly familiar when we earn our way back to it.
The Blood Island films are somehow more attractive as a diptych, as a two film series, than as two stand-alone pictures from different decades. The fact that they are owned by two different studios makes it all the more unlikely that they will be revived any time soon on DVD. This is unfortunate because -- PC powderkegs or not -- they contain too much of quality and historic witness to be consigned to oblivion. One hopes they may someday return to circulation, and that its authors can forgiven for their strong feelings as we have forgiven those who provoked them. If Japan can produce a film about the facts of war as unflinching as Kazuo Hara's THE EMPEROR'S NAKED ARMY MARCHES ON, the least the rest of us can do is assume responsibility for our fictions.
Speaking of fiction, a movie tie-in novelisation of THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND ("The Brutal Truth of What Really Happened!") was published in paperback in 1958, credited only in terms of being based on the screenplay by White and Guest. It proved popular enough with the British public to earn later printings as recently as 1972.

In preparing this article, I relied on my own viewing of these films, as well as on research put forward by Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio in their book HAMMER FILMS - AN EXHAUSTIVE FILMOGRAPHY (McFarland and Company, 1996), which I gratefully acknowledge.
PS (3/18/08): Reader Mike Mariano has written to inform me that THE SECRET OF BLOOD ISLAND actually had a VHS release, possibly unauthorized, under the title POW: PRISONERS OF WAR. "[It was released] by Kestrel Gold Video, a Canadian company, I believe," he writes. "It's a decent fullscreen transfer in color. There are several copies available on the Amazon Marketplace, with pics of the box cover."