Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Happy Centenary, Jack Pollexfen!

Instead of working today, let's all celebrate the 100th of the man who gave Butcher Benton 300,000 volts by watching this fine 1956 production ONCE AGAIN in its almighty entirety, this time courtesy of our techy friends at YouTube.

Need more incentive? "Grungily photographed by John L. Russell (PSYCHO) with bottles of hooch in nearly every shot, INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN looks like a dive bar smells..." -- Tim Lucas, VIDEO WATCHDOG #116, page 10.

What are you waiting for? Call in sick.

Part 1.

Part 2.

Part 3.

Part 4.

Part 5.

Part 6.

Part 7.

Happy Centenary, Robert Cummings!

Hooting, Robert! Positively hooting!

Monday, June 09, 2008

On the Road to 141

VIDEO WATCHDOG #140 is currently wending its way out to our subscribers and retailers, so first class customers should have it in hand very shortly.

Donna and I are now starting to work on our next issue, which will include Justin Humphreys' wonderful tribute to the late AIP/New World screenwriter Charles B. Griffith, Bill Cooke's detailed review of the FOX HORROR CLASSICS box set (which a more informed world would have called "The John Brahm Collection"), Kim Newman's continuing inspection of Fox's CHARLIE CHAN sets (covering VOLUME 4, introducing Sidney Toler and Sen Yung and containing the wonderful CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND), and my own epic-length review of Sony's SPIDER-MAN - THE HIGH DEFINITION TRILOGY, which in fact contains four different Spidey features in Blu-ray (the fourth being SPIDER-MAN 2.1). And that's all the teaser you get. For now.

I'd like to think that my flu has finally flown, but some minor coughing and audible respiratory crackling persists. I am feeling much more like my old self, though.
Had a fairly diverting weekend poring through Kino on Video's HOUDINI - THE MOVIE STAR set, which collects all of the surviving material from Harry Houdini's five-picture flirtation with film stardom. (Thanks to a Fire Department inspection of the suburban house of Houdini's brother and business partner, the highly combustable original nitrate elements of his complete screen works were ordered onto the curb for the morning garbage collection!) Consequently, several reels of the 1919 serial THE MASTER MYSTERY are missing, as are two entire reels from the surprisingly rousing 1920 jungle adventure TERROR ISLAND. These are the two most enjoyable films of the bunch, I thought, and it was interesting to discover that both films were co-authored by Arthur B. Reeve, a now-obscure hero from the dawn of American pulp fiction. Reeve was best-known for his scientific deduction stories about Prof. Craig Kennedy, a forerunner of Doc Savage, which originally appeared in COSMOPOLITAN magazine and were collected in a dozen hardcover books by 1918.
The characters Houdini plays in the Reeve-scripted films are basically Craig Kennedy with a different name. THE MASTER MYSTERY is also of interest for its memorable antagonist, a robot that is supposedly operated from within by a live human brain. This automoton is tall, flat-headed and large-footed, with two surprisingly familiar-looking bolts on either side of its head for ears... and, to my sights, a possible point of inspiration for Jack Pierce's makeup design for the Frankenstein Monster. I've done a review for my next SIGHT & SOUND column, but there remains so much else to be said that I'll probably be buckling down to a fuller study of the set for VW once my work on the next issue is out of the way.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Respects to Alton Kelley

I can take or leave the album itself (I'm more of an AOXOMOXOA or LIVE/DEAD man), but Grateful Dead's AMERICAN BEAUTY, released in November 1970, is packaged in the most beautiful album cover art I've ever beheld. The master who painted it, Alton Kelley, died yesterday from complications of osteoperosis at the much-too-young age of 67.

I look at this album cover, even now, and I thrill to how it manages to look at once traditional and frontier-shattering; how the design manages to accomodate woodwork, marble, ornate metalwork and decal-design; and, most especially, how Kelley so brilliantly revolutionized the art of typography. And the piece achieves all of this in service to the simple central image of a rose. In that way, I find it analogous to the eponymous suite in Vincente Minnelli's AN AMERICAN IN PARIS: both works traverse a history of art to arrive at the fundamental beauty of nature, despite all its thorns.

Kelley and his associate Stanley Mouse spearheaded San Francisco's psychedelic art movement in 1965, when Bay Area concert venues like the Fillmore Auditorium, The Family Dog and the Avalon Ballroom hired them and other artists to design promotional posters, flyers and postcards for their weekend shows.

"We were just having fun making posters," Mouse told Joel Selvin of THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE. "There was no time to think about what we were doing. It was a furious time, but I think most great art is created in a furious moment."

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

New Bava Book from Italy

A new book about Mario Bava has surfaced in Italy: KILL BABY KILL! IL CINEMA DI MARIO BAVA, edited by Gabriele Acerbo and Roberto Pisoni, with a sizeable introduction by Joe Dante. This book was apparently published last October in a very limited edition of only 1000 copies, but I received mine only yesterday. It's 312 pages, priced at 25.00 Euros, and carries an ISBN number of ISBN 978-88-89481-13-4. It was published by Un Mondo A Parte (Viale Angelico 77, 00195 Roma), whose website can be found at www.unmondoaparte.it. That's as much help as I can be in terms of directing you to a copy of your own.
This book is an expanded print version of the Sky TV documentary film MARIO BAVA OPERAZIONE PAURA, containing what appears to be transcriptions of the full (or at least fuller) interviews originally recorded for the program with such people as Lamberto and Roy Bava, Alfredo Leone, Carlo Rambaldi, Ernesto Gastaldi, Barbara Steele, Daria Nicolodi, John Saxon, Dino de Laurentiis, Roger Corman, Quentin Tarantino, Tim Burton and others, including me. (The book actually contains two chapters of interviews with me, apparently a general one and the other about Bava's special effects work.)
Beyond this, the editors have continued their research into the subject by appending to this already sizable brain trust additional interviews with numerous Bava colleagues, including Christopher Lee, John Phillip Law, Dario Argento, Fulvio Lucisano, Mario Monicelli, Luciano Emmer, Mark Damon, Elke Sommer, Don Backy, Alberto Bevilacqua, and directors Christophe Gans, John Landis, Sam Raimi and Umberto Lenzi. Sergio Stivaletti contributes an essay about Mario's own Mitchell camera, used by him in creating special effects sequences, which Lamberto Bava gave to him after Mario's death. (The essay includes a photo of the sacred machine, the only image in the book I hadn't seen before.) Mind you, this is just a partial listing of the book's contents. Also included are short chapters by various leading Italian Bava specialists, including Manlio Gomarasca, Alberto Pezzotta and Stefano Della Casa, as well as some input from Mario Bava himself. In a creative chapter entitled "L'Alfabeto," the editors have excerpted comments from Bava's few granted interviews to compile a literal A to Z of his observations on various topics.
For me, the book's greatest surprise corrects a grievous error in my own MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK. There, and in my recent audio commentary for ERIK THE CONQUEROR, I reported the death of actor Giorgio Ardisson, who played the title role in that film and also Theseus in the wonderful HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD. My sources told me that he had died of a heart attack while watching his last movie at a preview screening, but Gabriele Acerbo now confirms that Ardisson is "alive and kicking." The book contains a two-paragraph reminiscence of Bava that Acerbo obtained in a 2005 telephone interview with the retired actor, who today is the owner of the Villa dei Principi. Of course, I regret the error, but I'm very happy to learn that Giorgio Ardisson is still with us.
The text (which includes filmography, videography and an especially welcome bibliography) is entirely in Italian, of course, and the interior is entirely in black-and-white. It's an attractive volume and Bava fans and scholars should seek out a copy while the very limited supply still lasts.
On another topic, thanks to everyone who has written to express concern over my illness. It started out as a sore throat but got quite a bit worse over the past several days. This has been the worst case of flu I've ever endured, and the first case that helped me to understand how influenza was once able to actually kill people. I haven't slept for any length of time over the past week because, whenever I would lie down, I could hear something in my larynx trying to send Morse code messages to Mars. This would then develop into a bubbling or crackling sound that signalled the approach of another hellish coughing jag, for which I'd have to sit upright. My throat was so abused from deep coughing that I couldn't speak above a whisper without causing myself horrific pain. Last night my temperature got up to slightly over 103°, which was quite alarming, as my normal temperature usually hovers below the usual norm, at about 97.2°. I resorted to ice bags and cold compresses, which helped my fever to break, and which allowed me to get more sleep than usual last night. Today is the first day in about a week that I've felt so close to my usual self; the soreness in my throat is gone and I can talk, though my voice presently sounds an octave deeper. I'm still not well, but I think I'm getting there.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Das Geheimnis von meinem Birthday-Blues

It's my birthday today, and to those of you who have written to wish me well... thank you for remembering, but your wishes haven't worked. Today I'm running a slight fever, feeling head-achy and fatigued, and the ticklish little dry cough that started up a couple of days ago has turned into one of those jabbings-of-a-thousand-pinpricks sensations that must be suppressed at any cost. So I'm not exactly the poster boy for birthday fun. On the plus side, I'm not feeling too sick to watch a movie (or to blog, apparently), so maybe I'll do what I do best and watch a movie in a language I don't understand.

Speaking of which, look who recently published his autobiography! And he's not the only '60s Euro star who has written one: check this out! What do you think the chances are, of these being translated into English? Ja, I agree... but in Germany, both of these stars have recorded Audio CD versions of their books.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

His Name Rhymed With Horror

One of the outstanding stylists of 1960s fantastic cinema was Alfred Vohrer, who achieved his most lasting fame (such as it is) by directing the best of Rialto's Edgar Wallace krimi series: THE DEAD EYES OF LONDON, THE HEXER, THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS and THE HAND OF POWER, to name a few. It was Harald Reinl that initiated the Wallace series, and his series entries are also strong, but it was Vohrer who invested the krimis with most of their signature atmospheric traits; for example, having the main titles of these strikingly monochromatic films unreel with blood-red or full-color credits, filming scenes from the insides of characters' mouths (!), and encouraging composer Peter Thomas to go as far over the top as possible with his distinctive original scores.

I've been spending some time with the Wallace-krimis again, which has tempted my closer study of Vohrer. His films are sometimes guilty of exposition passages filmed too expediently or carelessly, but on the whole he was remarkably inventive and -- at the very least -- a master of what the Germans call stimmung: mood. Rialto seems to have greatly appreciated what Vohrer brought to the series because, after a fairly early point, he begins to receive a pre-credit possessory card (like the one above) in addition to his actual main titles credit (like the one below, from Neues vom Hexer, 1965).

I can't help noticing that the parallels between the respective careers of Vohrer and another master of stimmung, Mario Bava, are fairly pronounced. Alfred Vohrer was born in Stuttgart in Bava's year of birth, 1914, and he directed his first feature DIRTY ANGEL [Schmutziger Engel] in 1958 -- the same year that Bava anonymously directed the first Italian science fiction movie, THE DAY THE SKY EXPLODED [La morte viene dallo spazio]. Like Bava, Vohrer had no intention of becoming a director; it happened to him almost in spite of his own ambitious meanderings, which had been in service to his dream of becoming an actor. Unfortunately, Vohrer had lost his right arm during Germany's ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1941. After the war, Vohrer applied his knowledge of acting and theater to becoming an assistant director at UFA. In 1949, he became a dubbing director and embarked on a period of work that has a parallel in Bava's own apprenticeship as a subtitler of Italian films into other languages for export at the Istituto LUCE.

Here we have Heinz Drache and Siegfried Schürenberg, two wonderful actors, in the foreground of a scene from Neues vom Hexer. Pay no attention to that other gentleman in the dark glasses... yet.
Bava and Vohrer both found their footing in their careers belatedly, in their late 40s, and at roughly the same time: Mario was promoted to director to helm BLACK SUNDAY [La maschera del demonio] in 1960, and Alfred was given the opportunity to direct THE DEAD EYES OF LONDON [Die Toten Augen des London] in 1961. Both of these maiden voyages in the horror genre became international hits and made iconic horror stars of Barbara Steele (as Princess Asa) and Ady Berber (as the bald, white-eyed and gorilla-armed Blind Jack). In 1964, both directors were reassigned to Westerns, Bava directing THE ROAD TO FORT ALAMO [La strada per Fort Alamo, 1964] and Vohrer directing a few entries for the Karl May WINNETOU series. Neither man's work reflected much feeling for the Old West. To continue the thread of coincidence, both directors turned to erotic comedy in the late 1960s and eventually to brutal crime dramas and television projects. Finally, after a period of forced inactivity, both men died in their beds of heart failure on the eve of promised returns to work, Bava in 1980 and Vohrer on February 3, 1986.

I own a few German-language reference books on the Wallace krimi series, which include behind-the-scenes photos of Alfred Vohrer at work. As a long-time fan, I was fascinated to see what he looked like, and not knowing about his wartime injuries, was surprised to see that his right sleeve was always either empty or, in later days, filled with a stiff, black-gloved prosthetic. Thanks to the photos in those books, while watching Neues vom Hexer the other night (a good sequel to 1964's Der Hexer, good enough to make one wonder why it appears to have never been issued anywhere in English), I was able to recognize the concierge behind the hotel desk in one scene...

... who calls ahead to the room of Cora-Ann Milton (Margot Trooger) to inform her...

... "Two gentlemen are coming up to your room, Milady."

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Alfred Vohrer!
Vohrer is a filmmaker whose mysterious life and career would probably reward a book-length examination. German friends and scholars who may be in a position to conduct such research are advised to act quickly, as those who worked with Vohrer are now rapidly disappearing. Looking at THE DEAD EYES OF LONDON again, I'm reminded how many of its set pieces were later recalled into service by Dario Argento: for example, the woman ascending a lengthy staircase to her apartment only to have the lights suddenly go out on the upper floors (THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE), the elevator shaft killing (DEEP RED, TRAUMA), or the character who peers through a hole only to be shot through the eye by someone on the other side (OPERA); Vohrer's films also make frequent use of deranged artists, screaming chimps and squawking animals, all familiar signposts in Argento territory.
Sorry to keep coming back to this one film in a career that yielded so many (and better ones), but it's worth nothing that, in Neues vom Hexer, Vohrer included a young male character named Charles, who, for no reason germaine to the plot, is missing the same arm that the director was. (We are told that the child lost his arm in a road accident, well before the story begins, the victim of a hit-and-run driver.) This instance hints strongly at the possibility that Vohrer invested his films with personal touches, a fuller disclosure of which could only serve to make his already fascinating work of still greater interest.
For some of the information included above, I am indebted to an informative Vohrer career sketch by Mike Haberfelner, which I found online here. I would vehemently disagree with Mr. Haberfelner on a couple of counts; for example, that Vohrer's work is lacking in personal style. It would take more time and space to make my argument than I'm prepared to give here, but I can attest that, while Vohrer didn't launch the krimis, he was by far the most essential contributor to what the krimis became (especially in their uses of garish imagery and macabre humor), much as Mario Bava's approach to filming thrillers defined what we now know as the giallo. That said, I was grateful to find any information about Vohrer in English and recommend to those of you, like me, who are curious to know more.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Trust Me, You're Going to Love This

In my e-mail box today, a how-do-you-do missive from one Andre Perkowski, bearing the gift of links to cinematic madness.

"Back when I was 22," Mr. Perkowski writes, "I over-earnestly pulled off two feature films based on Edward D. Wood Jr. pulp novels and old screenplays: DEVIL GIRLS and THE VAMPIRE'S TOMB - shot on Super-8, 16mm, video, with acres ofstock footage and scrupulous dedication to the angora-ed one. Recently, through acts of dark alchemy, I've assembled them into a viewable form after noticing 9th generation bootlegs floating around of a rough cut of the first film. Here are some rough teaser trailers, with Phil Proctor of The Firesign Theatre doing the voiceovers..."

Here's a link to a couple of fabulous trailers for these homunculic hommages: DEVIL GIRLS (based on a Wood pulp novel) and THE VAMPIRE'S TOMB (based on an unfilmed Wood script that was to have starred Bela Lugosi as "Dr. Acula."). Frankly, I find far more cinematic verve in these trailers than Ed Wood himself ever mustered, and their expressionistic bent, high energy and Super-8/16mm origins actually suggest (to me, anyway) what Andy Milligan -- or, dare I say it, a more nascent Guy Maddin -- might have made of this musty old Wood material.

YouTube is also hosting a rough cut trailer for another Andre Perkowski production, the Hong Kong action pastiche A BELLY FULL OF ANGER, which you can find here (if you can take it).

Should any information be forthcoming about where the re-emergent Wood tributes can be obtained in their entirety, I will let you know.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Bava Book Wins IPPY Award

I'm pleased to announce that my book MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK has been awarded the Bronze Medal in the "Performing Arts" category of the 2008 Independent Publisher Book ("IPPY") Awards. This article will give you the particulars about the award and our fellow finalists.

I was surprised and also pleased to discover that this year's Gold Medal recipient, RETURN TO THE CAFFE CINO, is a history of the off-off-Broadway night spot where Andy Milligan got his start as a dramatist. In fact, the book contains a number of the gay- and S&M-themed plays originally produced at Caffé Cino, including (surprise of surprises) "The Brown Crown," written by my friend and former Milligan repertory player Hal Borske! I guess I'll have to buy it now. Anyway, major congratulations to Hal for being part of the IPPY Awards' #1 choice.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Last Three Hours of 24:1

Dennis Hopper and Kiefer Sutherland in 24: SEASON ONE.

We finished watching the first season of 24 last night, which was very exciting if also somewhat disappointing. The finale brings to mind all the reasons why most drama doesn't go the "real time" route. As Alfred Hitchcock realized after making ROPE (1948), cutting is necessary to drama; I would add to this that, while real time is an engaging complement to suspense, a certain degree of time manipulation is necessary for drama to achieve its fullest potential, and suspense cannot exist without dramatic content. The real challenge of drama is not to subvert its rules, as this show does quite brazenly, but to find ways in which to innovate within their perimeters without being so crass as to break them.

In 24 SEASON ONE's final couple of hours, we discover who the second mole at CTU is (the truth is actually tipped-off in the opening montage of every episode). As the commentaries confess, the answer was improvised pretty much as that episode was being prepared, which meant that the actor had no idea that he/she had been playing a traitor for the bulk of his/her performance. This upset the actor, and it does result in a performance that doesn't work quite so well in hindsight as it did when it was in progress, through no fault of the performer's own.

A major character also dies just minutes before the end, an infuriating death that was dealt into the game for -- the creators admit -- no better purpose than to inform the viewer that all bets were off where future seasons were concerned. Anything could happen here, and they had better learn to expect the unexpected. Apparently the actors had no idea how the show was going to end either, because an alternative version was shot (included in this set as a bonus), in which this character survived. Oddly enough, this alternate version isn't particularly satisfying either, for the simple reason that the preceding wrap-up took so much screen time that both endings had to be rushed through. So one is left with the feeling that the storyline simply stops, in keeping with its internal clock, rather than draws to a satisfying conclusion.

My friend Michael Schlesinger wrote in response to yesterday's blog, and his engaging remarks warrant sharing in full:

You're absolutely right about the repetition of certain phrases (my favorite, which came in later seasons: "Chloe, I'll upload the data from my PDA and explain everything when I get back to CTU!"), but you danced around the more telling point: to paraphrase FDR, Bauer is an SOB, but he's our SOB. The right-wingers who make this show clearly see him as a hero, but most of us at home see Bauer as basically a bad guy who just happens to be working for us, and much of 24's brilliance is getting us to root for him instead of booing him.

Season #1 is rather uneven--they don't really understand the cliff-hanger concept, often ending the show with the take-out instead of delaying it till next week. But it greatly improved as it went along, reaching its pinnacle in the absolutely remarkable fifth season. So stick with it.

And most importantly: you're exhausted from watching several episdoes in a row? You're not supposed to watch several episodes in a row!! It's a goddamn serial! One chapter a week--just like the good old days. Where's the delicious tingle of suspense if you see the resolution two minutes later? I'm allowing you one episode a day, no more. I have spoken.

Unfortunately. watching one episode per day from a boxed set release is a luxury beyond the means of DVD reviewers, who are obliged to jump into the deep end and gulp down almost as much water as they swim in. Also, if the real viewing mandate is one episode per day, what's with the "Play All" option on each disc, which indicates a covert encouragement from the show's producers to watch as many as four episodes in a sitting? It doesn't really matter: any progress I make with subsequent episodes now will probably have to be limited to one episode per evening, if I intend to get anything else done. But Mike's endorsement of Season Five is tantalizing indeed.

As my comments have shown, we agree that Season One is uneven; a number of plot threads are dropped without closure (for example, Kim never learns about the fate of her girlfriend) and I also noticed that a couple of episodes cheated themselves of better cliffhangers, which sometimes appeared at the end of the first act in the next episode. But real time is a hugely difficult challenge for any dramatist (Beckett excepted, perhaps), and this group of episodes meet that challenge far better than most. It's one of the most impressive feats of construction I've seen in a TV show, maybe the most impressive; I also find myself looking fondly back at some of the throwaway characters, like the woman cop who takes a bullet in the alley or the fed-up, due-in-court-on-a-DIY-charge waitress whose car Jack commandeers, the latter played by Kathleen Wilhoite (a welcome return by a likably quirky actress I used to see often in 1980s television).

I have my quibbles, but I can't argue with the commonly held belief that 24 SEASON ONE is riveting television.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

24: If 6 Was 16:9

Streeting today is a metal box "Special Edition" of the first season of the acclaimed TV-series 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland. The seven-disc set includes new audio commentaries for the first and last episodes, and an entire disc of new supplementary materials, including deleted and alternative scenes.

Donna and I watch as little commercial television as possible these days, so, while we were vaguely aware of the 24 phenomenon, we didn't actually give the show a spin until this box set came into our hands. I don't know how well the subsequent seasons hold up, but the first season episodes are fairly addicting and seem tailor-made for marathon viewing sessions. I think we've done as many as seven in a day, which is, of course, nothing compared to what Jack Bauer (Sutherland) and company are going through. However, watching a show this suspenseful, actionful and unpredictable can take a certain toll on one's psychological health; I personally hit a bump a little more than halfway through the season where I was feeling so emotionally exhausted by the whole thing that I had to take a break. Your mileage may differ, but I would recommend maybe a few episodes a night, tops. Beyond that, believe it or not, it can begin to tear at you.

The series was photographed by Rodney Charters (whose name I first noticed on the old FRIDAY THE 13th series, when he shot David Cronenberg's "Faith Healer" episode) and other Canadian cameramen in a widescreen format, and is presented here in mostly handsome 16:9 with semi-muted color. However, it appears that the series was shot wide in consideration of its future DVD release and domestic/overseas HD broadcasts, and initially shown (and indeed framed) in standard ratio. In the course of viewing, I noticed a couple of glaring camera gaffes that turn the old "boom mike" shots we used to see in unmatted VHS releases topsy-turvy; 24 ushers in a new era of unmatted widescreen transfers that expose area not meant to be seen in the periphery of the image.

Example #1: Here's an image from episode "7:00am to 8:00am," found at 12:40 on Disc 2. Here, Counter Terrorist Unit agent Nina Meyers (Sarah Clarke) finds an abandoned building and phones headquarters, and the silhouette of a camera operator edges not once, not twice, but three times into frame. I've brightened the image slightly to better accentuate the little red bead on the camera, which was very noticeable on my TV display.

Example #2: In the Disc 3 episode "11:00am to 12:00pm" at 21:59, acting CTU chief Alberta Green (Tamara Tunie) questions her subordinate Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) in a supposedly empty interrogation room. However, as we see from this shot, the CTU apparently uses the room to store camera dollies. The scene is cut in such a way as to keep the camera looming into frame offscreen as much as possible, but it does appear twice -- this time, the second time, actually edging further into frame than it did at first glimpse. In essence, here we have an example of a show that has been released in widescreen because 16:9 transfers now have a certain consumer cachet, though it was clearly not framed to be viewed in this format.
As wrapped up as we've become in the show, 24's Season One is not without its little annoyances. It sends some very mixed messages, the major one being that it's okay to break rules where country and national security are concerned as long as it's for the good of one's own family. The (teenage) kids in this show, for whom their parents act so dangerously and unselfishly, comport themselves smugly and insolently because they have grown this way from years of parental neglect. There is not a single character in the program who seems entirely above-ground in a moral sense; everyone is compromised by their work, their ambition, their arrogance, their selfishness, or their own ignorance. The role of family so central to the character arcs of Jack Bauer, Senator David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) and Victor Drazin (Dennis Hopper!) gets to seem like a cheap ploy to excuse their questionable behavior, especially when each little victory scored for family seems to do nothing to bring them closer together. The tired issue of family is even dragged into issues between minor characters, like the stoner sociopath kidnapper Dan (Matthew Carey) and his "he's worse than the other one was" drug dealer brother Frank (Eduoardo Ballerini).
Another thing we've noticed about the show is that there are certain catch-phrases that become worn out with overuse. For example, it would make a fun (if potentially toxic) drinking game to toss back a shot every time someone began a sentence with "I need..." -- "I need back-up," "I need you to do this for me," "I need you to do what I tell you," "I need you to do this one thing for me," "I need to speak to Jack" (this one's heard several times per episode), "I need this number traced," "I need you to back me up on this." (If this is how these adults talk, with everything so predicated on prioritized personal need, it's no wonder their kids turned out the way they did.) There is also a lot of "we'll get through this if we just stick together" blather, always spoken without a hint of irony by those characters best described as free agents or loose cannons. Finally, there's no shortage of (mostly empty) promises being made -- "I promise you, we will get out of this," "I promise I will kill you" -- all spoken solemnly for dramatic effect. Another frequent line is "I'll explain later." I'm presently three episodes from the end and no one has, yet.
Yes, I'm critical, but I'm also firmly in this show's grip and don't deny it. 24 is a classic example of why "enervating" rhymes with "entertaining."

SIGHT & SOUND June 2008

My latest SIGHT & SOUND review, of four new DVD releases by filmmaker Chris Marker (La Jetée, Sans Soleil), is now available for public consumption on the magazine's website here. It also appears in the current June 2008 issue, now on newsstands everywhere. The focus of this issue's feature articles is on New European cinema (works from the former Eastern bloc countries), including an interview with Andrzej Wajda (also available online, but more beautifully illustrated in print) and a very interesting Richard Combs piece on Jerzy Skolimowski (which isn't); here's a general overview. The issue's always generous assortment of reviews include VW's Kim Newman on Steve Barker's new zombie opus OUTPOST.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Robert Heinlein on Blogging

"In the absence of clearly-defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily trivia until ultimately we become enslaved by it."

This Robert Heinlein quote appeared as "Quote of the Day" over at the House Next Door blog's "Links for the Day," today. It was given no citation or context, so I cannot say what brought this prophetic insight about, but, to me, it says very concisely what I was trying to say about the dangers of blogging a week or two ago. The irony of announcing that I intended to step back from blogging, only to redouble my efforts here, has not been lost on me, I assure you, but over the past week, this blog has been valuable to my personal decompression. As for my goals, I'm working on them.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

First Look: VIDEO WATCHDOG #140

Though the prevailing tone of this blog has recently been one of crisis and mourning, things are looking up now that another exciting (and surprisingly upbeat) issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG is at the printer!

This issue is unusual for presenting, for what I believe is only the second time in our 18-year history, a feature article licensed from an existing book. When I read Rikke Schubart's SUPER BITCHES AND ACTION BABES: THE FEMALE HERO IN POPULAR CINEMA 1970-2006, I was greatly impressed by the quality of its writing and analysis -- but also frankly surprised by it, considering the book's unabashedly exploitative title. I was particularly pleased by its chapter on Japanese actress Meiko Kaji, whose work in the "Female Prisoner Scorpion" and "Lady Snowblood" films I admire, so I decided to license it from McFarland and Company, in the hopes of introducing Ms. Schubart's work to an audience that might otherwise overlook it. It was a treat to subject such quality writing about such a picturesque subject to a full color layout. Also in this issue is David Del Valle's heartfelt tribute to the equally colorful Hazel Court, whom he befriended for many years. With our focus given over to these two actresses this month, VW #140 is particularly rich in images of dazzling feminine beauty -- but there is a good deal else to recommend it.

For proof, in the form of a near-complete list of contents and free sample pages, visit the "Coming Soon" page at our website here.


About a month ago, Dennis Hopper hosted a screening of his film maudit THE LAST MOVIE (1970) at the Silent Film Theater in Los Angeles. There was a Q&A session after the screening, during which Hopper was surprised by a question from cast member John Phillip Law, who was in unannounced attendance. Filmmaker Howard S. Berger had the foresight to capture the Q&A on his camcorder and thoughtfully sent along this link to his YouTube posting of John's amusing dialogue with Hopper and their reunion in the lobby afterwards. A touching record of what appears to have been John's last public appearance.

I also want to note that I told John's daughter Dawn about the great outpouring of affection that followed the news of his death online, in numerous blogs and discussion groups. I assembled links to all the JPL memorial blogs and threads I could find and sent them along to her, so that she can read them and print them out for preserving/sharing with other family members.

Friday, May 16, 2008


I spoke today to John Phillip Law's daughter Dawn, who told me that his cause of death was pancreatic cancer. It had been diagnosed last January, so the sixth month scenario mentioned in my previous posting was approximately right. For some reason -- perhaps because John was so perennially handsome and youthful, and exuded such an expansive spirit of life -- I couldn't find a sense of closure in all this without knowing how and why, so I pass this information on to those of his friends and fans who likewise need to know.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

More On JPL

JPL as the Red Baron in VON RICHTOFEN AND BROWN (1970).

Though the cause of John Phillip Law's death remains unreported, it was disclosed by Chris Casey today on the Spaghetti Western Web board that John's good friend, actor Ted Markland, had been keeping the confidence that John was told he had about six months left to live. With this in mind, I'm thanking God that I finished the Bava book when I did and was able to get it into his hands.

In brighter news, correspondent Simon Birrell informs me that Carlos Aguilar, the author of the Glittering Images/Bizarre Sinema! book on Jess Franco, is about to release an in-depth book about the life and career of John Phillip Law. Simon writes: "It's terrible that John missed it by a few weeks (although he got to see the proofs). The book will be released in a bi-lingual (English & Spanish) edition with a ton of photos and illustrations."

Addio, Diabolik

I may have posted this photo here once before; it shows John Phillip Law, disc producer Kim Aubry and I at the recording session for the DANGER: DIABOLIK audio commentary back in 2004. And now the LA TIMES has reported John's death, two days ago, at the age of 70.

I'm in shock. John and I met several times: I was a guest in his home, a passenger in his cluttered car; we went to the movies together, and were collaborators on a wonderful DVD commentary track (which I'm so grateful to have now as a souvenir of our rapport). We talked about the things we'd do the next time I came out to California. When I sent him an inscribed copy of my long-promised MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, he sent me an effusive note of congratulations. (It's thanks to John that the Bava book contains those never-before-published shots of Catherine Deneuve as Eva Kant. He had complete stills sets filed on every picture he had ever made.) I was very much looking forward to seeing him again in LA next month; there was even some talk of having him present me with the Saturn Award. And now this.

I can't believe we won't have a next time, that I won't be able to introduce him to Donna. The cause of his death hasn't yet been reported, but the facts aren't going to make this news any easier for me to digest. He was a youthful 70, still handsome, still a very young guy in spirit and hadn't lost any of his professional ambition. He was always auditioning, checking his car phone for messages from his agency; he loved to work and loved knowing that a handful of the films he made had become cult pictures, movies that earned him a niche in popular culture, that would outlive him: THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, BARBARELLA, DEATH RIDES A HORSE, DANGER: DIABOLIK (of course), CQ and -- as I always insisted whenever in his company -- THE LAST MOVIE. On the occasion of our first meeting, he was so impressed that I knew and loved his crazy Sergio Bergonzelli movie BLOOD DELIRIUM that he ran back into his house and came back out with a large rolled Italian poster bearing the title DELIRIO DI SANGUE as a gift. I'm told it may be the next best thing to one-of-a-kind because the film never had a theatrical release.

After the session, John gave me that catalogue he's holding (from the 2003 FantaFestival, where he and Lamberto Bava had been Guests of Honor) as a keepsake and inscribed it "To Tim, my Video Watchdog... It was a pleasure to work with you!" It was much more than a pleasure for me, my friend; it was one of the best days of my life. I thank our friend Kim Aubry for making it possible.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

He Does It Because He's Driven

Aside from being intermittently bothered by action spectacle that was too frenetic to mentally process, I quite enjoyed the Wachowski Brothers' SPEED RACER. Anyone who tells you it's profound is pulling your leg, but it's a clever adaptation of anime to... (ha! I almost called it "live action") something else, a kind of psilocybin cotton candy, the sheer vertiginous beauty of which at times engenders feelings not unlike rapture of the deep. A good point of comparison is Joel Schumacher's BATMAN FOREVER -- as my late friend Radomir Perica told me, maybe it's not a good movie, but it is a masterpiece of visual design. (In other words, Schumacher dropped the ball, but his production designers were at the top of their game.) Therefore, if you have an artistic bone in your body, SPEED RACER is something you should see, just to see how some other cutting edge artists of the moment are thinking graphically. Be aware, though, that the racing cars drive sideways more often than straight ahead, and the chimp gets down with some screaming kung fu. The connoisseurs among you will appreciate that Emile Hirsch (as Speed) and Matthew Fox (as Racer X) actually sound like Peter Fernandez.

There's an interesting little thread about the movie over on the Mobius boards that provoked the following Ballardian outburst from Yours Truly, worth preserving here:

Someday, long after we are all gone (maybe sooner), all the digital mapping done of actors like Christina Ricci to achieve scenes in movies like this will be reused to create super-realistic fetish videos in three-dimensional, interactive, holographic PalpaVision. No plot, just light and shadow and synthetic flesh. It's inevitable, given the ways of devolution, that the trend of remakes will eventually devolve to three-dimensional re-imaginings and re-explorations of individual scenes and shots. Movies like SPEED RACER are a training ground to get us there.

Dish HD Giveth and Dish HD Taketh Away

Today is May 14th and Dish Network HD package subscribers are seeing some drastic changes in their channel lineups. I'm delighted to see the addition of MGM HD, about which I've heard very good things and from which I've already recorded a stupefyingly beautiful copy of the John Carradine programmer REVENGE OF THE ZOMBIES (!) and a lovely letterboxed transfer of BLAST OFF (aka THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS), not available on DVD. There is also now Cartoon Network HD, Bio HD, ABC Family HD, Universal HD (which I stopped counting as a premium channel when they began including HD commercial interruptions in their HD movies), and many others, some of which are in Stretch-O-Vision rather than real HD. There are also some new non-HD channels, such as the Universal horror channel Chiller. Thanks to Chiller, I'm now snugly back in the nightly habit of watching THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR.

HOWEVER. And it's a BIG, mother-loving HOWEVER.

Overnight, without warning, all 15 of Dish Network's VOOM channels suddenly disappeared, including my beloved Monsters HD. (The night before, ten of the channels vanished from the Dish channel grid, also without prior warning.) After struggling through the English language with a Dish tech for several unsatisfying minutes, I asked to be referred to their supervisor, who informed me that Monsters, World, Kung Fu, Gallery, Rave, Animania and nine other VOOM channels are presently off the Dish schedule... even though there are new channels assigned for each of these stations on the programming grids on the Dish website. I was told that Dish is currently negotiating with the provider of these stations for their return, in which case they will either be reintroduced as a special package (for which we'll likely be charged a still higher monthly rate) or reintegrated into the lineup. Of course, they might be gone for good. Well, not for good -- for ever.

This situation must come as quite a surprise to my friend David Sehring, the head guy at Monsters HD, who e-mailed me not long ago to inform me of some of the great new titles headed to the high-definition channel this summer -- including the English-language version of BLACK SABBATH. Just within the past few weeks, Monsters HD has shown a number of Hammer titles new to their lineup, including ONE MILLION YEARS B.C., THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HORROR OF DRACULA (a different transfer than the standard ratio version aired last month on another HD channel) and an especially exquisite-looking presentation of the 1959 version of THE MUMMY. I assume it's carried by other satellite providers, but not by any that I know of in this country.

Many indignant Dish subscribers will likely find themselves now in the uncomfortable position of wanting to dump what is essentially, without the VOOM channels, a pricier subscription service to fewer channels and sign up with the cheaper, more HD-generous DirecTV-- but knowing that would entail returning their DVR hard drives. In my case, that's more than 50 movies in standard and high def that I'm storing in permanent HD quality or waiting to be dubbed for burning to disc. And a lot of the stuff I've recorded from Monsters, World and Kung Fu doesn't turn up on other HD channels.

Dish is promising to have more than a hundred HD channels in place by year's end. Will the VOOM channels be among them? Stay tuned.

In the meantime, please add your name to this online petition to bring Monsters HD and the other VOOM channels back.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

If they ever make a Christopher Lee biopic...

... Amitabh Bachchan has the job! Read an interview with Outlook India.com's "Favorite Bollywood Star of All Time" here.

PS: As reader Bob Cashill notes, "... and Ralph Fiennes for Peter Cushing!"

Monday, May 12, 2008

Happy Birthday to Bob Burns!

Also known as Kogar, Tracy the Gorilla and the little Indian boy from DISTANT DRUMS (???), Rondo Award Hall of Famer Bob Burns is one of fandom's true gentlemen. He's not only a gifted comic actor (he rolls his eyes when I tell him this), DVD commentator, and the owner of the world's most famous basement: he's one of the sweetest, warmest people you'll ever meet outside of a George Pal movie. Here's a picture I took of him and my sweetie at last year's Wonderfest -- and we're looking forward to taking more later this year. Happy 73rd, Bob -- and here's to many more!

Cumpleaños felices, Jess Franco!

Dear Jess --

I did not want the day to pass without wishing you a Happy Birthday. It seems that a month never passes that doesn't produce some never-before-seen movie from your infinite past; it is a continuing process of discovery and delight for so many of us. The new DVD releases of EUGENIE and CECILIA are very beautiful indeed. This year I became a big fan of Eddie Constantine's films, many of which are hard to see in America, and seeing the early films he made with Bernard Borderie and others has given me new insights into the movies he made with you.

I hope that both you and Lina know that your work is loved a great deal by many people all around the world. Although its subject matter is often strange or extreme, it nevertheless makes us feel affectionate toward you both. We all wish we could be with you this evening, toasting your talent and your continued health on this happy occasion! But though we may be scattered all around the globe, you are in our thoughts today and we will still be toasting to you and your generous gift to cinema! I hope this letter finds you in good spirits and engaged in the creation of new work.

Warm regards from your friend and fan,
Tim Lucas

The Heart and Soul of Iron Man

I have written here in the past about my unparalleled admiration for the comic art of Steve Ditko and my affection for the work of Jack Kirby, but what you see here is probably my favorite comic book cover of all time: TALES OF SUSPENSE #79. The artist was Gene Colan, who took over the "Iron Man" feature from Don Heck sometime earlier and gave the character unsuspected depts of suavity and grace. What I love about this cover is the dramatic contrast between two super beings -- one who needs protective covering to live, and the other who flaunts his own bare skin as an armor -- as the former is caught up against the wall with a patch of his own bare skin vulnerably exposed.

While it's not perfect, I greatly enjoyed the new film version of IRON MAN with Robert Downey, Jr.; it's probably my favorite of Marvel Entertainment's filmed origin stories to date, and it promises to become one of their most successful movie franchises. One of its few disappointments is that Gene Colan's name is missing from its long list of creative credits because, for me and many other Marvel readers of my generation, Gene "The Dean" Colan was Iron Man. He gave a once clunky character a dimension of streamlined gladiatorial majesty that went significantly beyond even what Jack Kirby had summoned to earlier TALES OF SUSPENSE covers, a dimension that somehow made the armor transparent enough to suggest the spirit of Tony Stark striving within it. That aspect of Iron Man is often visible in the screen character's body language and, whenever I see it, it's clearly stamped Gene Colan -- everywhere except on the screen.

My reason for going into all this is that I awoke today to internet reports that Mr. Colan is not well; his liver is failing him. Writer Clifford Meth, with the approval of Gene's wife Adrienne, is organizing a fund-raising auction over at his Everyone's Wrong and I'm Right blog and seeking auctionable signed books, art and other goods from any professional willing to contribute. I know that quite a few professionals in different branches of the entertainment world read this blog regularly, so I'm doing what I can to get the word out. If you can, please contribute work. If you can't, please follow the auction and bid.

My best wishes to Gene Colan, and my thanks for many years of some of the most exciting comic art I've ever marvelled to. (I loved his blue Stilt Man in DAREDEVIL, too...)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Loves of Mimsy Farmer #1: Robbie Douglas

You won't find any reference to it on her IMDb page, but Mimsy Farmer's earliest known TV appearance took place in an episode of the long-running series MY THREE SONS. The episode hails from Season 3, Episode 10: "Steve Gets an 'A'." It originally aired on ABC-TV on November 22, 1962, thus predating her appearance on the ADVENTURES OF OZZIE & HARRIET episode "Rick's Wedding Ring" by close to a year.

The episode finds Robbie Douglas (Don Grady) unable to focus on his studies due to the pheromonious allure of fellow student Janee Holmes (Mimsy). Father Steve Douglas (Fred MacMurray) insists that Robbie stay at home over the weekend until he finishes writing a theme for his history class, a project that threatens him with missing out on a pre-arranged date at the lake with Janee. Above, we see the girl of Robbie's dreams meeting Bub, a role essayed by William Frawley for the show's first six seasons.

The whole family gathers approvingly around the future Queen of the Giallo, even the usually-immune-to-girls Chip (Stanley Livingston, right).

Janee doesn't take the prospect of missing out on their lake date very well...

... and after issuing an ultimatum, pauses at the door of the Douglas household to shoot Robbie one of those blood-icing PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK looks of hers.

Under crippling sexual pressure, Robbie is compelled to cheat on his homework in order to meet Janee's demands. He accomplishes this by copying one of his father's old history schoolpapers, found in the attic and graded "A." (The existence of the paper is brought to his attention by older brother Mike [Tim Considine], who understands what he's up against after getting a hubba-hubba glimpse of she who was destined to star in RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP, THE WILD RACERS, FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET and MORE.) This frees Robbie up for his eagerly awaited lakeside assignation with Janee, which is depicted in a montage of double-exposed, romantic highlights like this strolling shot...

... this swimming shot...

... this "Polaroid Moment" shot of them smiling and waving to each other, seemingly from opposite sides of the lake...

... and finally, this rowing scene, which finds Robbie heroically paddling a canoe as passenger Janee dreamily cocks an ear to... what is that, a conch shell? A transistor radio? (Okay, we can see why it's not on her résumé...)
Robbie gets caught at cheating, is scolded by father Steve who is summoned to school for a discussion with his professor, and the two men realize that Steve copied the text, too, out of a textbook from the 1870s! There's a last minute curve that helps to save the Douglas patriarch's moral character from reproach, but that's all we get of Mimsy Farmer...
... except for this closing affirmation of her presence in this surreal showcase, brought to us by the fine people at Chevrolet.