Monday, October 20, 2008

First VIDEODROME Review

While doing my morning net browsing, I was pleased and surprised to discover the first review of my new book VIDEODROME that I've seen on Steve Bissette's S.R. Bissette.com site. (Pictured on the left is a photo not included in the book, showing me interviewing actor James Woods on the set.) Go ahead and click on the review, then come back after reading it and I'll comment.

As with his earlier review of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, Steve is wonderfully enthusiastic and commendatory about the book itself ("a brilliant dissection of the collaborative creative process at work, hence of interest to anyone who is either a creator themselves or eager to understand the creative process") and his review is one that any writer would be pleased to receive. He also has some strong opinions on the subject of what he sees as my ratification of "pejorative terminology" -- in this case, my identification of VIDEODROME as a conceptual granddaddy of the subgenre we know today as "torture porn" -- and I'd like to take a moment to respond to this.

In the book's final chapter discussion of VIDEODROME's influence on contemporary horror trends, the phrase I actually use is "so-called 'torture porn'" and I hardly "dismiss these successors" with the "simplistic contempt" Steve mentions. In fact, my space limitations being what they were (I was contracted to deliver a 144-page book and was generously granted an extension to 160 pages), the whole discussion is limited to a single paragraph that is shared with its influence on films such as THE RING.

Steve may be needled by the fact that I've used the phrase without the "so-called" in some of my past VIDEO WATCHDOG writing, but I've always used it as a convenience, without any political bias nor, as best I can recollect, any critical bias. I see the term as analogous to one that I coined back in my 1980s writing for GOREZONE and FANGORIA -- "gornography" -- a humorous pun that, as a matter of fact, I remember Steve enjoying at the time. I suppose this is a particularly appropriate explanation of anything apropos of VIDEODROME, but Steve seems to have an entirely different subjective take on "torture porn" than I do, one that may well be more connected to reality (as most people perceive it) than my own. I've never seen it as anything but a descriptive term, poppy rather than pejorative, referring to films meant to arouse audiences with dramatizations of reductive cruelty. This probably has something to do with me finding the term "porn" more amiable and user-friendly than its more severe-sounding root word "pornography."

For all that, I've had letters on the subject in the past, which is why I took care to predicate the term with "so-called" in VIDEODROME. Even though I don't take the term as nergatively as some, I would hope this gesture shows a dawning sensitivity on my part to how other people perceive it and a resolve to use it with greater care and awareness.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Follow the Bouncing Ball

Steve Bissette writes beautifully, and meaningfully, about Fellini's SPIRITS OF THE DEAD segment "Toby Dammit" today at his S.R. Bissette blog. Check it out here.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Delirium Tremendous

At the time of its release in 1949, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's THE SMALL BACK ROOM was praised as a welcome return to the postwar realism that audiences had come to expect of "The Archers" after their Technicolorful, fantasmagorical THE RED SHOES. The respectful but compact reputation enjoyed by this intimate wartime drama overlooks one of its most startling achievements, a sequence in which aging munitions expert Sammy Rice (David Farrar) -- tin-legged, alcoholic, self-loathing and lovesick -- finds himself alone in a room with an unopened bottle of whiskey as every tick of the clock suggests that his lover Susan (Kathleen Byron) has stood him up on their usual Wednesday night together.

The sequence, designed by Hein Heckroth, uses a stunning photograph of Byron to nudge Sammy's feelings of being teased. (There are hints of the mad siren that Byron becomes in the finale of BLACK NARCISSSUS in the way her eyes are lighted here.) Cinematographer Christopher Challis, working with Powell, ensures that, as Sammy paces impatiently about his apartment on his hurting leg, that the bottle of whisky set aside by the couple to celebrate the eventual end of the war is positioned threateningly in the foreground -- as it is in Sammy's consciousness -- whenever Susan's taunting portrait isn't. It's helpful to know that Sammy can't handle whiskey and the local publican (Sidney James) refuses to serve it to him, no matter how much his leg pains him.

Suddenly, this "realistic" minor masterpiece jolts into expressionism with a remarkable series of composed images that find Sammy more ogreishly dominated by the ticking clock -- a device conveying a double meaning in a scenario about British officers striving to learn how to dismantle unexploded "Jerry" bombs without incurring new casualties. The mise en scène suggests that Sammy is now himself a ticking time bomb.

Criterion's DVD of the film (the subject of Ramsey Campbell's column in VIDEO WATCHDOG #146, now in preparation) includes a new video interview with cinematographer Challis, who recalls how shots such as these were filmed with split diopters and other means of keeping the two disproportionate sides of the screen in equal focus.


Note the wallpaper in Sammy's flat in this Dutch angled set-up, because it's going to change.

There is something about this profile shot of Farrar that strongly evokes compositions in religious art, emphasizing his test of spirit.
Now the bottle begins to multiply within the patterns of the wallpaper.

Then the wallpaper explodes into panels of ticking clocks.

Sammy finds himself crucified within their multiplicity.

Sammy is literally pinned to the wall by the looming bottle of temptation, now grown to enormous proportions as it bullies him.

As he squeezes himself free, he edges along the wallpaper -- note that the bottles integrated into the design have here assumed a more three-dimensional presence and tactility.

As he emerges from the pinch, Sammy is rendered into a complete coward by temptation, confirming his worst fears about himself -- which also show the way to his only salvation. Namely, he's nothing without Susan.
The hallucination sequence continues for quite a bit longer, but I don't want to spoil it for newcomers. What I will say is that the resolution of the sequence and the situation confirms, in its unexpected elements of irony, humanity and humor, why Michael Powell was one of cinema's most singular talents.

After an excruciatingly suspenseful bomb defusion sequence, THE SMALL BACK ROOM grants Sammy and Susan a happy ending. Exhausted but triumphant, Sammy finds the strength and self-respect to demand and receive the authority that's rightfully his, which Susan has been unsuccessfully goading him toward for the balance of the picture. He returns to his smashed-up apartment, where his homecoming is made magical by his discovery that everything broken -- including the picture frame that held Susan's taunting portrait -- has been fixed, replaced or put back in its proper place by his lover's caring hands. I've seen scenes in religious films of people ascending into Heaven itself that weren't filmed with half of this scene's payload of emotion and fulfillment.
Twice in the many years we've been together -- or, rather, as we've been reunited after the rare times we've been apart -- Donna has surprised me by imposing order on rooms that I've left in complete disarray (as I tend to do). Both times, I was extraordinarily moved by what she accomplished with this thoughtful gesture: not just a reordering of my environment, it was like being given a sense of restored well-being, the gift of a fresh outlook. For this reason, the finale of THE SMALL BACK ROOM held a special resonance for me, but the movie as a whole took me completely by surprise as one of Powell and Pressburger's most note-perfect studies of the human heart.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Swallowing TRUEBLOOD

Vampire Bill (Stephen Moyer) and Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) hit the slay bars in HBO's TRUEBLOOD.


As an admirer of Alan Ball's previous HBO series SIX FEET UNDER, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the September 7 debut episode of his new vampire-themed series TRUEBLOOD on that same network. The initial promotional use of imaginary commercials for vampire-related products didn't help, weakly echoing SIX FEET UNDER's own initial (and thankfully abandoned) use of tongue-in-cheek TV commercials for undertaker accessories. However, partly because it has such a great timeslot, I've stuck with the show -- based on Charlaine Harris's "Sookie Stackhouse" novels -- and have enthusiastically warmed to its well-thought-out imagining of a near-future world in which vampires and the living attempt to coexist.

With last night's episode "Cold Ground," TRUEBLOOD reached a climax of sorts with its most effective episode to date, full of genuine panic, pathos (at its most multi-leveled as Sookie cries while eating the remains of the last pecan pie made by her murdered grandmother) and passion (as she consecrates her advent into unsupervised adulthood by donning a nightgown any Hammer heroine would envy and racing to an intuited rendezvous with Vampire Bill, whom she finally allows to penetrate her orally with the vulnerable words "I want you to"). This episode, directed by Nick Gomez, achieved a level of greatness within its genre that made the sometimes awkward path it took to reach this high point seem more special and interesting in retrospect.

I've never been a particular fan of the Anne Rice approach to vampire fiction, or the rock star/leather duster-wearer variety of vampire that has cluttered the movies in their wake. I haven't read anything by Charlaine Harris either, but I'm beginning to think that TRUEBLOOD may be the most important addition to vampire cinema -- if television can be termed cinema -- since Count Yorga laughed at the crucifix wielded by his adversary. As the author of two vampire novels myself, I have my own ideas of what the subgenre should and should not be, and it pleases me to no end that another body of work has finally come forward that seems to share my ideals and wants to move the genre in a more correct direction.

TRUEBLOOD functions as social satire and metaphor, with the introduction of a Japanese brand of bottled synthetic blood called Trueblood allowing vampires to "mainstream" by nurturing themselves from product rather than victims, and the outsider nature of the bloodsuckers serving dual purpose as an illustration of antiquated biases against gays. In an especially clever subplot, vampire blood is being sold as an underground street drug called V, which is doled out on blotters and expands the consciousness and physical powers of the user like a combined hit of acid and Viagra. (Note: Kim Newman informs me that this same idea was explored in his novella ANDY WARHOL'S DRACULA, published two years before the first Sookie Stackhouse novel.) But what I find most consistently intriguing about the show is Stephen Moyer's nuanced portrayal of the 173-year-old vampire Bill Compton, a non-survivor of the Civil War, who speaks with a dead-accurate sense of Southern manners that convincingly embodies the sense of a character who has lived entire lifetimes and who, despite the obscenity of his condition, is struggling to preserve within his own demeanor a sense of values that make his pained existence somehow liveable. He may be the best vampire character to come along since Barnabas Collins, and the way he seems to speak from another era recalls the chills raised by Chris Sarandon in the 1992 Lovecraft adaptation, THE RESURRECTED. Bill's sometimes unbearably tense romantic link with the plucky and so-far-inexplicably-telepathic heroine Sookie (consistently good work by Anna Paquin) makes sense because, as damned as their relationship would seem to be, it's underscored by a mutual and specifically regional moral rigor that gives Sookie the peace of mind she craves (the thoughts of vampires cannot be overheard), and Bill the mirror he is otherwise denied in undeath.

The executive story editor on TRUEBLOOD is Chris Offutt, whom I credit -- rightly or wrongly -- with some of the brushstrokes I'm appreciating so much in Moyer's rich characterization. In his bourbon-voiced courtliness and subdued volatility, Vampire Bill Compton reminds me a lot of Chris's dad, the sci-fi/sword & sorcery/pulp porn scribe Andrew J. Offutt. Andy was the first professional writer I ever met, and very kind to me when I was a youngster; in fact, he contributed an amusing article surveying the then-current horror movie scene to the second issue of a film-related fanzine that I published in the early 1970s. I remember meeting Chris when he was just a kid at various Midwestcons as the eldest in a procession of youngsters that fandom knew as the "Offuttspring," trailing their pretty mom Jody like so many quail. He has since gone on to enviable success and respect as a literary (as opposed to genre) novelist and short story writer, and I was pleased and surprised to find someone with his credentials and knowledge of the South affiliated with this program. I don't know if this perceived nod to his dad is deliberate or subconscious or just a natural emanation of Chris's life experience, but there's a lot of the Andy Offutt I remember in Vampire Bill.

This is a show rich in characterization, inventiveness and incident, and I hope it can stay on track after so powerfully forking the road of Sookie's humanity. Even if it stumbles after this, these early episodes of TRUEBLOOD will continue to represent vampire cinema at its most clever and progressive.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Coralina Rocks with Video Watchdog


This link will take you to a YouTube audience video of Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni performing "Suspiria" onstage in Toronto with ex-Goblin keyboardist Maurizio Guarini's band Orco Muto, in 2007. To my astonishment, Coralina's intense performance -- which is accompanied throughout by a rear screen slideshow of images from Dario Argento films -- climaxes with two strangely included Herschell Gordon Lewis projections, the second of which happens to be the controversially gruesome cover of VIDEO WATCHDOG #60!
This first collaboration came as a huge surprise to Donna and me, and I suspect it will surprise Coralina too! In a still more impressive coincidence, this performance took place on August 24 -- the very day that we first received MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK from our printer in Hong Kong!

SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL reviewed

If you feel like taking a dip into my review of Luigi Scattini's SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL (Klubb Super8 Video DVD), appearing in the November 2008 issue of SIGHT & SOUND, here is a link to the online version.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Some Pictures From Coralina

My new sister Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni sent me a selection of photos taken by her camera at Cinema Wasteland and I thought I would share them with you. This first picture is her personal favorite from the weekend and, with all due respect to Lamberto (whom I waited 28 years to meet!), it's mine too. Inside the box, of course, is Coralina's own personal copy of the Bava book. I am so proud to be in this picture, I can't tell you.

Here's another angle of the group shot featuring (left to right) Brett Halsey, Donna Lucas, John Saxon, me, Lamberto Bava, Mike Baronas, dear Coralina and Mariano Baino. What a great moment.

Here is a shot from Saturday's Q&A with Lamberto and Coralina, where she answered questions about her own career and also kindly translated for Lamberto. He was the first director to cast her in a motion picture (DEMONS 2: THE NIGHTMARE CONTINUES), giving her the role of Sally, the bratty birthday girl who becomes a blood-and-pus-drooling icon of Eighties Italian horror. She was so happy to get the part, she wept and apologized profusely. This prompted Lamberto to advise her, "Don't ever change."

During the show, I saw a few different modellers approach Lamberto with tributes they had made with their own two hands. This superb facsimile of the mask from DEMONS -- I initially thought it was the original! -- is one of these tributes. He signed its interior lining and handed it back to its creator.

One of the products displayed on Brett Halsey's neighboring table was this action figure of his mosca-headed self from 1958's RETURN OF THE FLY. Whenever Lamberto saw this box, he would chuckle and cry, "Help! Help!" I'm sure that's what he's saying here now.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Lamberto Bava and the Family Cross

When I met Lamberto Bava at Cinema Wasteland this past weekend, I told him that I had two great fears about our meeting. One: that he would tell me wonderful stories about his father that I didn't know to include in my book MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK; and Two: that he would open the book, point to something, and say, as nicely as possible, "Uh... maybe not."

Both things came to pass.
On the first count, he told me a wonderful story about Mario Bava's first encounter with horror cinema, which may have been the childhood moment that predisposed him to a fascination with the macabre. When Mario was a young boy, he lived with his family on the top floor of an apartment building. From the bed in his room, Mario could look out the window at a neighboring movie theater. On warm nights, the roof of this theater rolled back to let in the cool night air... but, from Mario's perspective, the opening of the roof revealed the theater screen. One night, the young Mario happened to be looking out his window when the theater's roof opened to reveal... F.W. Murnau's NOSFERATU (1922), which he proceeded to watch with a sense of mounting terror. The film clearly left its impression on the boy, who included an inversion of NOSFERATU's undercranked coach ride sequence in his official directorial debut, BLACK SUNDAY. Good story.
On the second count, Lamberto is unsure of the validity of the Mario Bava signature on the Brett Halsey photo included in the book's chapter on FOUR TIMES THAT NIGHT. I told Lamberto that it was the only signed photo of Mario I had ever seen, and he answered, "Maybe not his." Lamberto's reason is that everyone in the Bava family signs their name in a manner that includes what has become known as "the family cross" -- a cross worked into one of the letters. He showed me what he meant with his own signature, in which the L of his first name grows out of an initial cross. Later in the day, Lamberto watched me sign a copy of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK for someone and saw that I drew a line through the middle of the S at the end of my name. "Since [I told you]?" he asked, smiling. But no, I explained that crossing my S started years ago, when I carelessly added the bridge too my A too far to the right. I liked the effect and kept it, sometimes as a dash after my S, sometimes as an elongated tail of the letter that extends across it, but more commonly as a line through my S -- the way I draw lines through my 7's in the European manner. I'm sure there are copies of the Bava book which I signed that don't have a crossed S, because the task of signing one thousand books required some variation to break up the monotony; likewise, I remember signing some of the books straight across and others more diagonally. That's why I believe the signed Halsey photo to be genuine. I know that I'm inconsistent and occasionally careless about the way I sign my name. But you can see what Lamberto means by comparing the signature on the book's title page, which has the family cross, to the one on Brett's still.
As we were preparing to leave on Sunday, Lamberto presented both Donna and me with signed photos of himself. The one he gave to me was signed, in Italian, "To Tim - an honorary member of the family." As the recipient of this tremendous compliment, I will do my best to live up to it by taking care to cross the closing S's in all my signatures from now on.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Our Weekend at Cinema Wasteland

This past weekend, Donna and I drove four hours north of Cincinnati to Strongsville, Ohio -- near Cleveland -- where we attended the Cinema Wasteland convention. Among the guests of honor was Maestro Lamberto Bava, with whom I have been corresponding and speaking by phone since 1980, twenty-eight years ago. Travel makes me nervous, but (as I told him in an e-mail a couple of weeks ago), Lamberto could not come halfway around the world to my state without me making the effort to join him. I am so glad that I did. This picture was taken within minutes of our first meeting at Lamberto's table.

There was an instantaneous sense of warmth and familiarity, and our rapport was immediate, happy and intense. I was with Lamberto for most of Saturday and until about 1:00pm on Sunday, and despite my general lack of Italian and Lamberto's fractured English, our communication was nearly non-stop. I love this picture because it captures some of that intensity.

I snapped this picture of Donna and Lamberto. They were charmed by each other and it was such a treat to see them interact.

While snapping some "official portraits" of Lamberto and I, Donna suddenly told us, "And now just look at each other." (She got a kick out of "directing the director.") Thus resulted my favorite picture of the two of us. There is a similar photo of Donna and me from the early years of our marriage, in which the look we're exchanging seems to miraculously summarize who we are to each other. This picture has a similar quality.

I guess this is our "John Bender meets Francesco de Masi" moment, but it wasn't a conscious recreation. The emotion here is very sincere. To communicate with Lamberto from long distance is one thing, but it was so much more meaningful for me to communicate with him in person. His eyes twinkle; he's a truly genial person, and it was a treat to sit beside him at his table and see him greeted by a constant procession of his admiring public. Most of what has been written about Lamberto's work in English has been of the "He lives and works in the shadow of his father, Mario Bava" school, and while that may be the general critical view, it's not a realistic view. I saw numerous awestruck people approach Lamberto's table and tell him that his movies -- his, not his father's -- inspired them to become artists, writers, painters, actors, or just horror fans. I felt so pleased for him.
My favorite overheard story came from a couple who run a day-care center, who told Lamberto that DEVILFISH was loved so much by their kids that one group actually watched it five times in two days! I'm sure that's the best review DEVILFISH ever had!

When Lamberto was talking with me, sometimes his English failed him and he asked fellow guest of honor Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni (the Dario Argento diva also featured in Lamberto's own DEMONS 2: THE NIGHTMARE CONTINUES and GHOST SON) to translate his thoughts. Meeting Coralina was one of the sweetest treats of the weekend for us, and I refer you to today's posting at the Bava Book Blog for more about this special lady.

Also present was Italian horror director (and Coralina's lucky companion) Mariano Baino, whose DARK WATERS was released here on DVD by No Shame in a deluxe box set with amulet. I haven't yet seen DARK WATERS, which Lamberto gave a strong and persuasive endorsement, but I much enjoyed meeting and talking with Mariano, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema and likewise had that combination of warmth, friendliness and intensity.

I was so pleased to finally be in Lamberto's company that I never left his table except to attend to the call of nature. On Sunday, we got into the dealer's room early and I had a little time to visit some of Lamberto's immediate neighbors on Celebrity Row and that's when I discovered that, just a few seats to my right, all along, was none other than writer-director Jeff Lieberman! As a horror fan hitting all the drive-ins back in the 1970s, Jeff became an instant genre luminary with the release of SQUIRM, and he completed his Big Three with the cult classics BLUE SUNSHINE and JUST BEFORE DAWN. In reviews I wrote at the time, I compared Lieberman to David Cronenberg and the later release of REMOTE CONTROL (his VIDEODROME, if you will) supported the comparison. Jeff told me about some exciting new irons he has in the fire, and I look forward to seeing more of his work, which has always been original and healthy for the genre.

Sitting to my immediate right throughout the weekend was the great Brett Halsey, who starred in two Mario Bava films (FOUR TIMES THAT NIGHT and ROY COLT & WINCHESTER JACK) and also worked with him during the filming in some sequences for the Riccardo Freda costume adventure THE SEVENTH SWORD. I've known Brett via phone and e-mail for five or six years, and this was our first meeting. Now that the Bava book is done, I was able to broaden the scope of our subject matter and he told me some fascinating stories about working with Freda and he also gave me a surprising insight into the personality of the late Steve Reeves, someone I approached to be interviewed for the Bava book a few times without success. He told me that it was his understanding that Reeves' parents were deaf-mutes and that Steve himself did not learn to speak until he was seven years old. This is something I don't recall ever reading about, and it explains a good deal of Reeves' personal reserve. Brett kindly gave me a copy of John Murray's new book about his career (from Midnight Marquee Press) and I bought the new edition of his novel THE MAGNIFICENT STRANGERS, out of print since the 1970s, and newly revised and expanded in its current edition from I-Universe.

During our Sunday morning stroll along Celebrity Row, we met Betsy Palmer, who was wearing either her original Mrs. Voorhees sweater from FRIDAY THE 13TH or something very like it! Now 83, Betsy turned out to be a real sweetheart and hugged us both for commemorative photos. As die-hard fans of I'VE GOT A SECRET, we asked for some behind-the-scenes stories about her curmudgeonly co-star Henry Morgan (a personal favorite), and boy, did we get 'em! A short but very sweet encounter.

The surprise of the weekend came when Donna and I were heading to the elevators to get ready for dinner on Saturday, when I heard an unmistakable voice call my name from around the corner. It was Don May, Jr. of Synapse Films! Don (seen here at the right, with his partner Jerry Chandler in the middle) has been a friend and reader/supporter of VIDEO WATCHDOG since the beginning, then became a contributor of articles about HIGHLANDER and THE EVIL DEAD, and now he heads one of the most important independent horror/exploitation DVD labels around. As this photo shows, every moment I spent with these two guys was an absolute joy. Support Synapse Films and Impulse Pictures products! They tell me they'll be bringing Christina Lindberg to the next Cinema Wasteland convention!
I don't have a photo to commemorate the event, but during Saturday night's dinner with Lamberto, Coralina, Mariano and Mike Baronas (who brought everyone together at this event -- bravissimo, Michele!), our table was approached by an effusive admirer of Lamberto's whom I immediately recognized as Adrienne King, the female lead of the first FRIDAY THE 13th. It seems Adrienne is quite an admirer of classic Italian horror, knew all about the movie's debt to TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE, and we invited her to join us. She added still more excitement to an already happy and animated table, and Brett Halsey also dropped by, completing a perfect evening.

This weekend also allowed for a personal reunion for Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni and her aunt and uncle, Bruno and Rose Botti, whom she hadn't seen in about five years. She told me that they weren't very familiar with her work in movies, and the convention gave them an opportunity to see their famous niece in her professional element. They were very nice, friendly people, clearly very proud of their niece, and you can see how moved Coralina was to be in their company again.
As the clock ticked down the moments to the time of our departure on Sunday afternoon, we finally succeeded in assembling the Italian horror contingent for a commemorative photo. From left to right: Brett Halsey, Donna Lucas, John Saxon (so consistently in-demand at his signing table that we had very little time to get reacquainted), Tim Lucas, Mike Baronas, Lamberto Bava, Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni and Mariano Baiano. The photo was taken by John Saxon's fiancée Gloria Martel, a terrific lady, and I consider it one of the great keepsakes of my life.
In fact, once Gloria started setting up the shot, she was suddenly joined by a half-dozen other photographers... and as the flashes started going off, they were joined by other camera bugs who followed the bombardments of light over to our corner. Soon, our eyes were all dazzled by the blue afterburns of flashing cameras.

This picture was snapped dozens upon dozens of shots later, just as we thought we had finally finished. Then one of the many photographers, a member of the Cinema Wasteland staff, suddenly exclaimed, "This is too good to pass up; I'm getting in on this!" -- then handed his camera to his girlfriend and sidled through the tables to stand in front of the group. More pictures ensued. And then more people joining the group to be photographed ensued! The expressions in this candid shot -- the way Donna and Mike and I are laughing, the way Coralina is looking at me, the way John is looking at the Cinema Wasteland staffer who wants a piece of this historic moment ("Oh yeah? You want a piece of this?") -- capture the spirit of the weekend in ways that the posed shot doesn't, and that's why I cherish it just as much.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Rolling Stones Do Lovecraft

Didja ever wake up to find

A day that broke up your mind

Destroyin' your notion of circular time?

It's just that Evil Eye

... that got you in its sway.

Words: "Sway" by the Rolling Stones, written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, from the album STICKY FINGERS (1971).
Images: "Dreams in the Witch-House" (2005) by Stuart Gordon, based on the story by H.P. Lovecraft. From the series MASTERS OF HORROR, available from Anchor Bay Entertainment.
Note 10/9/08: I've had a few e-mails from helpful readers who inform me that, according to the song lyrics posted on whatever website, I've got the lyric wrong and that the real line is "It's just that demon life has got you in its sway." I know, I looked around for lyrics, but finally went with what's on the actual recording. "Demon life" may have been part of a rough draft, it might even be in the background vocals, but it's not what Mick Jagger is singing. I have the album and I studied the recording carefully prior to, and even after, posting. It's a common saying that the evil eye or malocchio has one in its sway, or thrall. "Demon life" in this context would make no sense. Granted, Jagger sings the song like he's a couple of bottles of cognac to the wind, but I believe "evil eye" is fairly plainly heard, considering how some entire other verses are slurred.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Farewell, Cirio Santiago

Cirio H. Santiago, in a 2007 photo from the Search for Weng Weng blog.


The PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER has reported the death of Filipino exploitation master Cirio H. Santiago, best-known as the line producer of New World Pictures' popular WIP quartet of THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, WOMEN IN CAGES, THE HOT BOX and THE BIG BIRD CAGE (the first and last of which were directed by Jack Hill). As a director, Santiago was also responsible for such legendary '70s drive-in fare as T.N.T. JACKSON (scripted by Dick Miller), COVER GIRL MODELS, FLY ME, VAMPIRE HOOKERS and FIGHTING MAD. The DAILY INQUIRER report, written by Marinel Cruz, reads as follows:

Filmmaker and producer Cirio Santiago, who award-winning Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino considers a big influence and inspiration, died Friday night of complications from lung cancer. He was 72.

Santiago, who was diagnosed early this year, was pronounced dead at 11:50 p.m. at Makati Medical Center. His doctors declared respiratory failure as the immediate cause, his sister Digna, an official of the Film Development Council of the Philippines, told the Inquirer by phone on Saturday.

Like Cirio, Digna is a film producer for the family-owned Premiere Productions.
At the time of his death, Cirio was chair of the Laguna Lake Development Authority.
Cirio’s son Cyril died of testicular cancer six months ago, said Digna. “Cirio became very depressed.”


She said her brother was taken by ambulance to the hospital on Sept. 18 after he complained of difficulty breathing. “His family learned of his condition in March, after his son, Cyril, was buried,” Digna said. “He didn’t even tell us, probably because he didn’t like too much attention.”
He is survived by wife Annabelle; children Christopher, Cathy, Claudine and Cirio Jr.; and siblings Digna and Danilo.


Cirio was cremated on Friday. A Mass will be held tomorrow, 10 a.m., at Santuario de San Antonio in Forbes Park, Makati.

Cirio, who also used the screen name Leonard Hermes, was chair emeritus of Premiere Productions. In 1995, he was president of the Philippine Film Development Fund.
In 1960, he was one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) of the Philippines, for Movies.


Among Cirio’s better-known films were T. N. T. JACKSON (1975) and FIREHAWK (1993). In the 1980s, he made low-budget Vietnam war movies, working with American producer Roger Corman and directors Jonathan Demme and Carl Franklin.

Several of these B-movies have become cult favorites, cited by such “renegade” Hollywood filmmakers as Tarantino. During his first visit to the country last year, Tarantino sought a meeting with his two “idols,” Cirio, and Filipino director, Eddie Romero. Tarantino proudly announced that he had based some of the characters in his iconic film, KILL BILL, on those in Cirio’s earlier movies.

At the time of his death, Cirio was filming ROAD WARRIORS [sic, actually ROAD RAIDERS], produced by US-based 147 Productions, as the sequel to his [1983] sci-fi flick STRYKER. He was to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Film Academy of the Philippines next month.

Among Santiago's other productions were THE BLOOD DRINKERS, EBONY IVORY AND JADE, UP FROM THE DEPTHS, BLOODFIST I and II, and DEMON OF PARADISE. Thanks to Joe Dante for sharing this news with me.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Missing Page in VW #144

Unfortunately, it has come to our attention that there is a missing page in the new issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG. Its absence cuts off the bulk of Michael Barrett's BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! review and the first paragraph of John Charles' review of CHALLENGE OF THE MASTERS. For some reason, instead of page 51 leading to page 52, it leads to a repetition of page 25, a section of M.J. Simpson's Dabbs Greer interview. Mind you, this was not an editorial glitch, but an accident of the printing process. We've had individual issues come back from the printer with strange anomalies before, but this is the most serious widespread error we've experienced -- and our printer is very apologetic about it.
We intend to reprint both full reviews in VW #146 (December 2008), the next issue on our production schedule, for the benefit of those readers without online access. In the meantime, we want to provide immediate satisfaction for as many of our readers as possible. At the top of this posting is an enlargeable jpg. of the missing page, which you can click on to read. Also, this link will take you to a downloadable pdf file that readers with color printers can print-off and insert into their issue. We have also added this missing page to the free samples selection appended to VW 144 on our website -- just click on the cover.
Thanks for your understanding, and please pass the word along to other VW subscribers you may know.

HELP! Yourself


A word to the wise: If you hurry, there's a chance you could score a mint copy of the deluxe box set edition of HELP! (which lists at $134.99) for less than twenty dollars.

Amazon.com's sellers page for the film opens with a dealer called Warehouse Deals whose orders are fulfilled by Amazon.com. They are offering copies of the set for only $16.62, noting that there is a "Large crack on boxed set case. Large cut on boxed set case. Large mark on boxed set case. Large scratch on boxed set case. Manufacturer shrink-wrapped. All purchases eligible for Amazon customer service and 30 day return policy."

Marty McKee, via John Charles, informed me and a group of other correspondents that he ordered a copy and received a deluxe edition in mint condition. Knowing a good deal when I see one, I promptly did the same and today also received a mint condition, sealed copy.

I don't know how long the supply of mint copies will last, so interested parties should roll the dice now. I'm not saying you won't get a cracked, cut, marked copy like the one described by the seller, but Marty and I didn't.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Unveiling the Diabolika and Diabolik Angel

Reader Mark Turner has kindly sent us a link to the Carscoop blog, where he found a tantalizing profile of the new Diabolika car being offered by Fiat. That's right: the great antihero creation of the Giussani sisters is being celebrated with his own car. It's enough to make me want to learn how to drive, or at least a black leather catsuit for Donna to wear as she chauffeurs me from place to place. Wait till you see the tire tread!

Oh, how I wish John Phillip Law was still around to see this! He'd flip. Speaking of whom...

... I've just had the pleasure of reading JOHN PHILLIP LAW: DIABOLIK ANGEL, a new bilingual book by Carlos Aguilar and his wife Anita Haas, published in Spain by the magazines SCI FI WORLD and QUATERMASS. Carlos (who wrote the Jess Franco volume for Glittering Images' "Bizarre Sinema!" series) and Anita befriended John at various Spanish festivals and tributes and got him to agree to a career-length interview, which forms the core of this book, which is also mostly illustrated with stills from John's personal archive. Among the visual highlights are photos from the legendary censored sex scene from VON RICHTOFEN AND BROWN and a couple of stage productions starring JPL as Dracula!

It was the nature of my friendship with John that we mostly talked about one film, DANGER: DIABOLIK, and occasionally the other two films that framed it, DEATH RIDES A HORSE and BARBARELLA, and this book soothed my curiosity about his feelings about his other work while also telling me much more about him as a human being than I ever expected to learn. (I had no idea that he was a distant relative of George Washington, or that he was a Christian Scientist, or the candid details of his past love life and drug usage, or that he had been the co-owner of the first sushi restaurant in Los Angeles!) I'm very grateful to Carlos and Anita for the education and all the more sorrowful that John is no longer among us for further conversation about these and so many other things. I will be reviewing the book in more detail for VIDEO WATCHDOG, but, for now, I will just say that it's a great gift to JPL's fans, as well as an engrossing insight into the actor's life (and I mean "the actor's life" generally, not just specifically) and an object lesson in how to live life to the fullest by putting one's personal search for happiness and fulfillment before professional ambition. Great cover and production values, too. The book's ISBN number is 978-84-612-4501-7, and it can be ordered online here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Thoughts On The Need For Critics

In response to the question posed on the cover of the current issue of SIGHT & SOUND -- "Who Needs Critics?" -- VIDEO WATCHDOG publisher/art director Donna Lucas replies, "I do... to take out the garbage!"

We had a good laugh about this (hers was somewhat lustier than mine) but, in hindsight, taking out the garbage is not a bad metaphor for what a critic does. (And this is me, turning a sow's ear into a silk purse: another thing critics do.) Film critics don't work for everyone, it's true; they work for people with little time to spend at the movies, who value their time and need to have the wheat separated from the chaff; they are also for those people who see everything and like to hone their understanding of the films they've seen but not necessarily processed. Critics give the Everyman access to intensive thought and quality conversation. A good critic is someone who not only has a gift for fashioning an impressionable sentence or phrase, but also the depth and breadth of experience as a viewer to approximately assess a new film's standing by using an internal historical slide rule that runs the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. I really don't care how many John Ford movies a critic has seen; it tells me more if he or she knows as much about the lower registi on the keyboard. It tells me even more if their idea of the lower register is my idea of the middle register. Even Dante had to visit the many levels of his Inferno before he could lend language to his Paradiso.

I was fortunate enough to receive an e-mail from the star of the film I reviewed in this month's SIGHT & SOUND: Claudine Spiteri of Lech Majewski's marvelous THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS. "The cover of this particular edition of SIGHT & SOUND really made me chuckle!!" she wrote. "‘Who Needs Critics'?!!! If there’s one person in the world who needs a critic right now, it’s me!!" Claudine gives an extraordinary performance in this film, which was made in 2004 and which I now consider one of my favorite films of all time... but it wasn't widely seen, and my review is probably one of the most conspicuous it has received in the five years since it was made. Claudine is brilliant in the film, but she has made only one other movie since, a horror film that didn't make particularly good use of her. She is presently retired from acting and working as the director of a British production company. I cherish the note of appreciation she sent to me, and I'm delighted she felt her work vindicated by my review, as this points out another important value of the critic that is completely divorced from the general public: critics can sometimes prove beneficial to careers.

Pauline Kael's famous NEW YORKER review of THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, in which she heaped high praises on the young director Steven Spielberg, is a classic example. On the other end of the spectrum, I can remember how Lester Bangs' seminal 1970 CREEM piece "Of Pop and Pies and Fun" caused me to jump aboard the Iggy and the Stooges cult when it was still at ground level, when Iggy had yet to bottom out for the first time. John Cassavetes used to tell a story about the first public screening of his directorial debut, SHADOWS: the theater seated 600 and 400 people were turned away; during the screening, the audience began to leave until, by the end of the picture, only the cast and crew and one other person remained; that other person turned out to be Jonas Mekas, who walked over to Cassavetes and told him, "That was the most amazing film I've ever seen." Cassavetes initially wanted to punch Mekas out, thinking his high praise was sarcasm, but he learned soon enough that this is how innovative filmmaking is commonly greeted -- with mass indifference or hostility, and maybe (if the film is lucky) one influential voice shouting hosannas in the void. It's true that the Internet can create curiosity about a new film, as it did with THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT or CLOVERFIELD, but it's doubtful that it can create the same level of cultural excitement as a single well-placed review or think piece; it's too diffuse -- think of Cable TV's 900+ channels times, oh, a million.

In the time I've been writing the "No Zone" column for S&S, I haven't received much written feedback from readers, but I have received other notes of appreciation or forwarded comment from some filmmakers whose work has impressed me. I was very pleased when Brad Stevens wrote to me about showing my review of MYRA BRECKINRIDGE to its director Michael Sarne, who said in reply, "Wow, he really got it, didn't he?" (It wasn't a purely enthusiastic review, either; I simply delineated the good in it and tried to make sense of the rest.) I've also received thanks from independent filmmakers like Jonathan Weiss (THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION) and Pola Rapaport (WRITER OF O) for bringing wider attention to their marvelous work, which was immensely gratifying. After more than thirty years at this job, it still amazes me to find out that some filmmakers really do value evidence that their work was properly understood as much as they prize commercial success and recognition or, failing those, notoreity.

Back in the 1980s, when I was writing mostly about David Cronenberg's work for various magazines, it was my goal as a critic to write about Cronenberg's movies in a manner that represented him as much as they represented me, to reach a common level of clarity that would be equally illuminating for me the writer, for him the director, and also for our shared audience. In watching parts of Cameron Crowe's ALMOST FAMOUS again on television the other day, I noted the same approach present in young rock journalist William Miller's attitude toward interviewing Russell Hammond and Stillwater -- so it must have been an approach that Crowe brought to his own early work for ROLLING STONE. In the film, William (who started out in this business as young as I did) approaches his job seriously, but also as a fan and a friend -- as I did. I suppose it can be dangerous to wear your heart on your sleeve like that, but what's the worst that can happen? A broken heart is going to make you a better artist while it's healing, and the scar will always be there like a pang in your ribcage to remind you that you've lived. It's better to risk the hurt by fully embracing your subject than to hold back and produce superficial work.

Some terrific writing usually results when a critic drops his/her defenses to adopt the attitude of a fan; unfortunately, I've rarely seen the same happen when a fan has adopted the attitude of a critic.