Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Sweden, Authorized and Unauthorized

Andreas Frisk of the Swedish DVD label Klubb Super8 has written to inform me that the Japanese Avanz Entertainment DVD release of SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL is unauthorized, and that the Klubb Super8 release is the only authorized release of the film to date.

"The Avanz DVD is most certainly a bootleg," he writes, "since it has burned-in subtitles and it looks like it's taped from TV." (Indeed, the Avanz disc transfer features a rotating TV station bug that reads "Ciao!" I cropped these out of the screen grabs in my previous posting.) "I have been in contact with Avanz," Andreas continues, "and the Italian company that hold the rights to the film, regarding an upload of the whole movie on Google Video that I found. The reply from Avanz confirmed my suspicions: 'We're not original licenser and almost public domain... a rights holder might have permitted it...' 'Almost public domain'... there is no such thing as 'almost' public domain. The worldwide rights holder is the Italian company that produced the film and they are still around, and it is with them Klubb Super 8 made a deal for our legitimate release. It would be great if you could somehow point this out in your blog. I have made an comparison of the two DVD's, check attached files."

I have reproduced the attachment above, which you can click to enlarge. It speaks very well indeed for the superior quality of the Klubb Super 8 release.
I should also mention, to those of you who read and enjoyed my "Cincinnati, Heaven and Hell" posting (thanks to those who wrote to me), that I've been tweaking it ever since it first went up on Sunday; I don't think I've ever revised anything else written for this blog to quite this extent, but this piece has continued to develop as its topic continues to entice my imagination. In other words, if you've read it before and liked it, you might want to read it again because it's probably different now and hopefully that much improved. In fact, I just added some new material to it within the last ten minutes.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Cincinnati, Heaven and Hell

You tried to warn me then
And I still loved you when
You said the words I could not believe...

When you work in the business of film and video reviewing, there's a constant and sometimes oppressive pressure to cover only what is new. More and more often of late, I've been fighting this sense of regimentation by watching what I want to watch, what I'm most drawn to. The movies I find most enticing at any given time may not be new releases; they may not even be official releases -- indeed, they may not have been released at all. There is, and always will be, a tremendous allure about those unsanctioned titles which can only be seen through the efforts of a dedicated subterranean community. Fortunately, each issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG can support only so much of my own writing, which leaves me a certain amount of time each month in which to truffle out the kinds of movies that can only be found by those who are willing to dig. It is the pursuit and study of these random obsessions that keep me excited about what I do.

That love was just a game
A game to play
Any way
Maybe madly
Or maybe sadly...

A Swede maybe, frozen to death possibly.

I was recently able to realize a long-held dream of seeing Luigi Scattini's mondo film SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL (1968) in English. Judging from the copy I obtained, it must have had an official DVD release in Japan, because it was in English with fixed Japanese subtitles. I looked around the internet in search of the actual disc, but couldn't find it at any of the usual outlets, so I can only surmise it has gone out-of-print.

Could it be really true

My love meant nothing too

And I was only just a passing affair?

Marie Liljedahl - A Swede in danger?

Supposedly a documentary about the peculiarities of Sweden and its people, SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL is a patently false construction -- for example, a segment on a Swedish biker gang ends with the cyclists dismounting to chase a young woman through the woods, whom they catch and then proceed to gang-rape in a coyly filmed and very short sequence. Close-ups of the supposed victim reveal her to be actress Marie Liljedahl, a fact which, at the time, would have been apparent only to those few who had also seen INGA, EUGENIE... THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION or GRIMM'S FAIRY TALES FOR ADULTS.

Trauma? Acting?

Edmond Purdom's narration of a later segment about a secret lesbian club (where we witness the congregation of what Mr. Purdom calls "human wreckage") mentions that the earlier segment's rape victim is among the women onscreen -- hinting that all lesbians share a history of traumatic contact with the male sex -- but Ms. Liljedahl is nowhere to be seen among their number. Other segments profile a kind of permissive barge cruise where teenagers can lose their virginity and gain sexual experience with multiple partners; a nightclub featuring a topless rock band; the birth of a baby destined for adoption; a home for unwanted children; Sweden's supposed epidemic tendencies to alcoholism and suicide; a tour of a Swedish atomic shelter (which looks rather like the dressing room area of a sports arena), and a group of teen girls who run semi-naked through the snow after opening their pores with a nice schvitz in a sauna.

Brother and sister, man and wife -- or are they?

Yes, it was true that

You never did care...

Da dee da dee-dee ( Mah-ná mah-ná), Deet dee-dee deet...

It's during the almost embarrassingly innocent sauna scene that Piero Umiliani's hit song "Mah-ná Mah-ná" is heard for the first and only time in the picture. To be sure, a large measure of this strange film's pull on my imagination stems from my purchase of the 45rpm single -- a song wholesome enough for Cincinnati's Larry Smith Puppets (and later, the Muppets) to pantomime on television -- when I was in my early teens. The Ariel Records label mentioned parenthetically that the song was from the movie SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL, about which I knew nothing, but I can vividly recall the tingles of teenage complicity and transgression I felt when the film eventually opened at Cincinnati's Twin Drive-In Theater, carrying an X rating. I suppose I had already transgressed along similar lines when I bought Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'" from the MIDNIGHT COWBOY soundtrack, but there was nothing conspicuously adult about that song. There was something vaguely creepy about discovering "Mah-ná Mah-ná"'s ties to an X-rated movie; it was such an otherworldly novelty record, an instrumental from a film peopled with unprofessionals, my brain boggled as it pondered what racy spectacles the song might accompany onscreen. Easy Tempo's soundtrack CD contains a list of the musicians who performed Umiliani's score (including none other than Gato Barbieri) and reveals that the vocals were by Sandro Alessandroni ("Mah-ná Mah-ná") and Edda Dell'Orso ("Deet dee-dee-deet") -- both of whom contributed significantly to Ennio Morricone's unparalleled score for Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST the very same year. Indeed, there is a track on the album called "La Signora Cameriera" featuring a distinctive whistle by Alessandroni that evokes "Cheyenne's Theme" from the Leone masterpiece.

What do Swedish policewomen do when off-duty? Nude modelling, of course.

Umiliani's alternately spritely, mournful and longing lounge score (currently out of print, but downloadable from emusic.com here) lends a haunting ambiance to what otherwise would be a peculiarly arid sketch of European despair. Perhaps its most compelling cue is a bluesy torch song called "You Tried To Warn Me" (amusingly listed in the end titles as "You Tried To Worm Me"), sung by Lydia MacDonald. The song's melody is repeated serially throughout the picture, even instrumentally reprised within other cues, though its lyrics make no specific comment about anything in it. Other reprised melodies, like that of "Solitudine," have a greater bearing on the picture, their symphonic strains of overbearing sadness going some way towards describing in music the supposed Swedish sense of malaise -- that bizarre nullity of spirit that blooms only in the land of the midnight sun, compelling the natives to marry their siblings, drink antifreeze, jump off the roofs of buildings, and dance with members of the same sex.

Cavorting at the lesbian bar.

And, though you're gone,

I'll still keep on loving you.

Sweden's Love Boat. Or is it?

With its POV shots of boats meeting the horizon lines of glittering waterways, cars venturing along barren country roads, soulless architecture and a cast of (mostly) nameless people, some of whom are shown leaping to faked deaths from window ledges or sharing a bottle of Aquavit with strangers in a public pissoir -- all set to unexpectedly gripping music that counts, along with 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON, as Umiliani's masterpiece -- SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL is one of those movies that best come alive when watched in solitude in the after-midnight hours. After watching the movie, I seriously considered giving it another spin right away, knowing that a second viewing would inevitably take me to even stranger corners of the night and my imagination. It struck me, unexpectedly, as a Ballardian picture, empathic but strangely clinical, the kind of movie that entices one (at least entices me) to think about exploring it further -- not in the form of a review, but in a work of experimental short fiction. It's not so much about Sweden, I gather, as it's about a place in the imagination called Sweden.

J.G. Ballard's Sweden. Or is it?

Could it be really true

My love meant nothing too

And I was only just a passing affair?

Going to the drive-in. Or am I?

Now that I've finally seen SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL via this DVD-R disc, I find myself wishing all the more ardently that I could have seen it in 35mm when it played at my local Twin Drive-In Theater in 1970. I wish I could find and interview the Ohioans and Northern Kentuckians who went in my stead, like one of those man-in-the-street interrogators from the SCHOOLGIRL REPORT films: What was the experience like for them? Was it what they expected? Why did they go? Because of the hit song? Because of the X rating? Did they curse to themselves when they realized that it wasn't going to be quite the sensational exposé they had been led to expect? Did they snicker or feel revulsion at the grinny brother and his shy-looking sister who (we're told) met belatedly in life, fell in love, and had to leave Stockholm for the anonymity of life in a smaller town? Did they see through the phony parts, which supposedly caused a public uproar when the film was finally televised, many years later, in Stockholm? Did they inadvertently learn something about Sweden, its progressive views on sex, its socialist society, despite Scattini's fictions and manipulations? Did they recognize themselves in it?

A Swedish girl broods in her room -- as I once did. Were they showing "Cincinnati, Heaven and Hell" only four blocks away and she couldn't go?

If I think hard enough, I am there... semi-reclined in the driver's seat of a 1967 Camaro at the Twin Drive-In on that lost evening -- which I actually spent approximately four blocks away, "in my room, in my room," even then grinding my teeth at the thought of the experience I was missing, so close yet so far away. As the film ends, cheap images of atomic devastation followed by splicy, jumpy footage of teenage girls sunning their naked bodies on a riverbank -- nubile representatives of a reborn Sweden -- the closing song ("Sleep Now, Little One") cuts out on my window speaker. It is abruptly replaced by the Twin's stock intermission/exit music, which always began with either The Box Tops' "Cry Like a Baby" or The Beatles' "Lady Madonna" joined in progress. The movie is over, I tell myself; it will never play here again. I sit patiently, savoring the moment, letting the cars around me ignite and jockey for positions in the exiting queues, all of their drivers somehow more eager than I to break away from this shared spell of mystification and return to their mundane lives.

Yes, it was true that

You never did care

And, though you're gone,

I'll still keep on loving you.

It occurs to me, as I watch their Mustangs and Thunderbirds and Ramblers inching away and suddenly bolting onto Tennessee Avenue like racehorses, that I will, in all likelihood, never know any of the people with whom I just shared this singular experience, which makes them indistinguishable from the people who appeared in SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL, whom I will also never know. Sometimes, years later, a revelation may crop up in conversation at a party or around a watercooler -- "You were there too?" -- but it occurs so rarely that those other cars might as well be filing out of a theater somewhere in Stockholm.

Knowing that it will be some time before the exits are cleared, I decide to stretch my legs. I get out of my car, light a cigarette and look up at the stars -- the stars that Cincinnati shares with Stockholm and the little Swedish town where the incestuous lovers have hidden themselves away from worldly scrutiny, while consenting to celebrate their love openly in a motion picture that will be shown all around the world. I think about how a movie like SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL is like a message in a bottle, sent from one culture to another... I've found it, I've seen it, but now what do I do with it? A train whistle blows in the distance and wonder where it is going at this hour. Will it cross the Erie Canal? Both Sweden and Cincinnati have an Erie Canal...

Suddenly, a car horn intrudes upon my reverie. The lot is now empty and a man is waving impatiently to me from the theater gate; he wants to close up. I drop my cigarette, replace the speaker on its stand and climb back into my Camaro; I start up the engine and enjoy the slow sensation of my tires rolling over the gravel and the condoms and the popcorn boxes on the way out, my headlights bouncing off the arrows leading to the exit. I take the right turn on to Tennessee Avenue slowly and gracefully. A left turn would take me home.

Cincinnati's Tennessee Avenue... or somewhere in Sweden? You tell me.

I drive past the Porter's Paint store ("Cover the Earth"), past the McDonalds, past Natorp's Garden Center -- looking for back roads at the outskirts of my neighborhood that might click with the torch song from the movie that is stuck on automatic replay in my head.

You tried to warn me...

I continue to avoid the roads that would take me home until well after 3:00 am, celebrating the fact that it is still the weekend, that it is still 1970, knowing that the sun must inevitably rise on Monday and the commencement of a new working week. I know that, as surely as Monday slips into Tuesday, Tuesday into Wednesday into Thursday, my memory of SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL will slip into those fuzzy banks of the brain where we file those unexpectedly important moments we didn't share, the things we finally cannot be sure actually happened. I muse to myself: I'll never see that movie again. They never show X-rated films on television.

As long as I continue driving, holding my responsibilities at bay, my memory of this peculiar and strangely longing, lonely film will stay as fresh in my mind as it will ever be. And so I drive on, reflecting on the places I may never go, on broken hearts and lives half a world away, as I hum once again Umiliani's song about a love affair entered into with reckless abandon.

You tried to warn me.


POSTSCRIPT (6:16am): It must be serendipity... The first response I received to the above fever dream came from reader Lars Erik Holmquist at Stockholm University! Lars wrote to inform me of the happy news that SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL has just been released on DVD in Sweden, where it never received a theatrical release! Here is a link to Klubb Super 8's sales page for the disc, which includes audio tracks in English, Italian and Spanish -- in which the narration is respectively read by Edmond Purdom, Enrico Maria Salerno and... I don't know who. Lars tells me that he contributed some of his paper collection on the title to this release, which features a stills and poster gallery as well as pictorial adornments on the packaging. Lars also sent me these links (here and here) to pages from his own blog, Terror in the Midnight Sun, where he blogged about SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL himself.

POSTSCRIPT (9:42 pm): Reader Miles Wood informs me that SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL was in fact released on DVD in Japan on the Avanz label, back in 2004. An Avanz sales page suggests it may still be available.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

HATCHET For the CD Player

Our friends at Xploited Cinema are now carrying the latest release in the "Mario Bava Original Soundtracks Anthology," Sante Maria Romitelli's complete score for HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON [Il rosso segno della follia, 1969]. Some of you may already have some of these cues from their previous release in tandem with Roberto Nicolosi's BLACK SABBATH [I tre volti della paura, 1963] score, but this seventh Bava Anthology release from Digitmovies contains more than twice as much music, running a total of 61 minutes. The disc also includes a special full-color illustrated booklet containing liner notes by disc producer Claudio Fuiano and Tim Lucas, and an exclusive message from the star of the film, Stephen Forsyth.

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.