Monday, November 10, 2008

It's Ennio's Eightieth

"Now that you've called me by name..."
Enzo Santaniello as Timmy McBain in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.

If I had to trace the exact moment when the full weight of cinema's importance came crashing down on me, I could draw a straight line to that moment in Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST when little Timmy McBain comes running down the corridor of his family's farmhouse and stops cold and incomprehending at the sight of his family's slaughter. The bodies remain offscreen as Tonino delli Colli's camera holds tight on his face, but the power of his trauma is conveyed by the long-delayed introduction of music into the film -- Ennio Morricone's music, Alessandro Alessandroni's distorted electric guitar foregrounded against a full orchestra whose rising and falling, mathematical cadence seems to count the last grains of time left to this young orphan's life.
Today, Ennio Morricone -- far and away our greatest living film composer -- marks the 80th anniversary of his birth. He is well aware of the impact and significance and, I believe, unmatchable quality of his Italian Western music, to the extent that it deeply annoys him, so I do not propose to write not much more about it. Instead, I would like to use this occasion to discuss my own lengthy prowl through the Maestro's back catalogue in search of music that, for me, would be capable of rivaling the unforgettable shock of my initial introduction to his work.
There is obviously no shortage of music of the highest quality in Morricone's filmography, found in pictures as well-known as THE MISSION or CINEMA PARADISO, or as beloved as DANGER: DIABOLIK, or as obscure as Veruschka and Meti una sera a cena. He has also written music that has imbued some otherwise tepid films with the very deepest and richest of emotions -- Adrian Lyne's version of LOLITA comes to mind, a film I like primarily because of what Morricone's music does for it. As surely as Morricone coined the musical landscape of the Italian Western, he did the same for the Italian thrillers of the 1970s, beginning with Dario Argento's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, but continuing with his THE CAT O'NINE TAILS (plausibly one of Morricone's Top 10) and FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, and carrying on with other examples such as WHO SAW HER DIE? (a particularly brilliant session), SPASMO, and the underrated Jean-Paul Belmondo vehicle Peur sur la Ville. I don't think it is possible to say of any other composer short of Bernard Herrmann, but the effect of Ennio Morricone on our understanding of the language available to cinema has truly been incalculable. But the full breadth and depth of that contribution is oh, so tempting to calculate.
Morricone's immensely moving, lyrical and magisterial score for OUATITW is an almost impossible act to follow, and yet he has "followed it" to say the very least. He has, in fact, continued by writing nearly 400 additional scores, with his current IMDb total reaching a staggering and unchallenged 486 film scores to date! His artistic achievement to date is already of such monumental proportion that one almost feels the need of two lifetimes in order to do it justice as a listener and commentator.
I recently posted here about Morricone's soul-stirring pop song "Se telefonando," which comes as close to his own standards of perfection as anything else I've heard -- but it's not film music. It was only within the past year or so that I finally heard something else from Morricone's catalogue that I believe -- in its romanticism, melancholy, majesty and drama -- stands as a true equal to the likes of such outstanding OUATITW tracks as "Jill's America" or "Man with a Harmonica." That cue is "Amore come dolore" ("A Love Like Sorrow"), a haunting 6:10 piece from Luciano Ercoli's 1970 giallo thriller Le foto proibite di una signora per bene. You can find a full rundown on the different issues of this soundtrack album and the various compilations on which its cues have been included here.
Le foto proibite di una signora per bene, which is available on DVD from Blue Underground as THE FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION, is only a passable giallo but it is one of the genre's greatest soundtrack albums. The music runs the full spectrum, from breathy bossa nova pop to organ-driven discotheque tunes (I can't help feeling that Radley Metzger would have killed to have "Allegreto del Signora" in his CAMILLE 2000) to some of the Maestro's best thriller music: suspenseful tracks that seem to accrue more and more silken spiderwebs and eerie lighting as they slither from beginning to end.
But when the album reaches "Amore come dolore," time stands still. I wish I could play it for you, but the best I can do is direct you to this not-always-work-friendly YouTube trailer for the film, which is mostly scored with the piece in question. Since I can't play the music for you in its entirety, the best I can do is to describe it as best I can:
It opens with a vulnerable, naked-sounding piano signature being tapped out on two notes by a single hand, which gains in complexity when it is joined by another hand playing doublets of three complementary notes, which lend the initial signature greater poignancy. A muted trumpet enters, so softly as to be easily mistaken for one of the deeper woodwinds, carried on a river of strings almost hesitant to veer away from the one or two sustained notes that most concern them -- and with the dawning sound of the muted trumpet, the piece acquires a sense of hopeful momentum as the sound of the strings seems to double, triple, with all the disparate components still searching for proper unity. As the lovely ostinati continues, it finally reaches a point (at 1:20) when electric bass enters to ground everything into a strong and coherent, almost jaunty emotion. At this point, pizzicato strings enter, echoing the initial piano notes, and these are soon doubled on electric piano, brightening the same notes that sounded so sorrowful in their initial solitude. As the piece reaches its halfway point, something happens to undermine the coherence and security of the melody: the piano notes tremble and a snare drum rattles as the orchestral strings stretch and bend, in the manner of wary sighing, over a further repetition of the initial piano signature, abruptly darkening the atmosphere of the piece. Slightly after the four minute point, the composition returns to square one with the piano signature repeated solo, and once again, the introduction of the strings and the muted trumpet bring a measure of hope that sounds more bittersweet in recovery after the middle part's unsettled detour.
Considering the title that Morricone chose to give this composition -- and "Amore come dolore" really has nothing to do with anything in the story of Ercoli's film, suggesting that the piece was either written independently of the film or had some other meaning for its composer -- it may be a musical representation of love found, love threatened or possibly abandoned, but love also recovered as the opening theme is once again recovered from its loneliness by a measure of optimism.
Upon discovering this music, I immediately added the Le foto proibite soundtrack to my iPod (which contains very little other soundtrack music, not even OUATITW), but it was "Amore come dolore" that I continue returning to, even today. I consider it one of Morricone's indisputible masterpieces; at six minutes and change, I find it always takes me on a musical journey as complete and fulfilling as, say, Pink Floyd's "Echoes." It's no surprise that, in the last decade particularly, "Amore come dolore" has become one of Morricone's most anthologized pieces.
I was into my obsession with this track for close to a year before it dawned on me that I didn't really know anything about the movie it was from. When I finally looked up THE FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION on the IMDb, I was flabbergasted to discover that it was scripted by my friend Ernesto Gastaldi, with whom I've maintained a warm personal correspondence for the past fifteen years. (In fact, Ernesto is interviewed in a featurette included on the Blue Underground disc -- as I happily discovered once I got around to watching it.) I was so pleased for Ernesto -- imagine having Ennio Morricone respond to something you have written with one of his finest pieces of work! -- that I couldn't resist writing to him and telling him how I had fallen under the spell of "Amore come dolore." He didn't remember the piece, so I sent him an mp3 file so that he could experience it for himself. He replied to me: "Wonderful music! I don't remember it as the soundtrack of my movie, [but] that music is perfect by itself."
Indeed it is. The full Le foto proibite soundtrack album, and individual cues from it, are available for download at MSN Music here. Whatever music you choose to ring in this milestone in the Maestro's life, I'm sure you'll join me in wishing Ennio Morricone many more years of health and joyous productivity.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

New Books from Weaver and Schow

I am pleased to note that I'm not the only VIDEO WATCHDOG contributor with a new book out. In yesterday's mail came the latest hardcover from ace interviewer Tom Weaver, bearing the clever title I TALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (McFarland and Company, $45).

Included in this new compendium are "Interviews with 23 Veterans of Horror and Sci-Fi Films and Television, including COLOSSUS THE FORBIN PROJECT's Eric Braeden, Robert Conrad of THE WILD WILD WEST, James Darren, Robert Colbert and Lee Meriwether of THE TIME TUNNER, '50s kid star Charles Herbert, THE QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE herself Laurie Mitchell, HORROR HOTEL's Betta St. John, THE RAVEN's Olive Sturgess and more than a dozen others, including the hardcover debut of Tom's interview with THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE child star Ann Carter, which originally ran in VW. This is reportedly Tom 's 19th book, and I believe it's his twelfth collection of interviews, not counting McFarland's retitled paperback collections. It's amazing that he continues to find such top-drawer people to talk with, but it reflects the skill he applies to the job. As always, Tom dedicates this latest Q&A collection to past interviewees who have passed on since the last one; this book is dedicated to 32 people, which in itself is a testament to the value of the history Tom has been compiling.

Also now in bookstores is David J. Schow's GUN WORK (Hard Case, $6.99), his opening salvo as a contributor to the Hard Case Crime paperback series. I haven't read it yet, but it's my understanding that DJS undertook this book as a sort of lark, as a fan infatuated with the series, which revives the sleazy crime potboiler paperback genre of yesteryear, with reprints of classic long-out-of-print fiction by the likes of Mickey Spillane, Lawrence Block, Robert Bloch and George Axelrod, and new works in the milieu by such steel-eyed idolators as Max Alan Collins, Richard Aleas (a beard for the Hard Case line's founder Charles Ardai) and Christa Faust.

David supposedly wrote this book faster than a speeding bullet, but it turns out that's a key ingredient in the winning recipe for this type of thing. He knows his firearms anyway, and a thing or two about the ladies, I'm sure, and it's all paid off in what is being appreciated as a real knack for this sort of down-and-dirty storytelling. GUN WORK just scored an enthusiastic review at Bookgasm, and if you ask me, a label like "gun porn" just might have more staying power than "splatterpunk."

Monday, November 03, 2008

Dear People

I've only just learned that production assistant Betty Moos died last month, on October 4, at the age of 79. I knew Betty for close to 30 years by phone as the warm and friendly voice of Joe Dante's production office. Long before the one and only time we met in person, Betty would take my calls and ask me nicely to hold for Joe, always adding a "dear" or a "sweetie." I was probably just another caller to her, certainly was in the early years, but she always made me feel welcome and comfortable -- like we had years of friendship behind us. This is a rare commodity in humanity, much less the film business, and I always hoped that Betty would somehow be part of the team behind the movie Joe and I are still trying to make together. I'm deeply sorry to learn of Betty's passing, and I've privately extended to Joe -- as I do to everyone who loved her -- my condolences on the loss of such an irreplaceable and longterm associate, confidant and good friend.

I met Betty only once, in Joe's office in 1993, around the time MATINEE was arriving in theaters. Joe and I had known each other by phone for 13 years at that point, but it was our first-ever meeting. Betty volunteered to commemorate the occasion by snapping a couple of pictures, and this is one of them. Thank you, dear.

As it happens, I went directly from Joe's office that afternoon to the Ackermansion, where I had a two-hour private visit with Forry Ackerman -- our second and last meeting. It was reported this weekend that Forry has been diagnosed with congestive heart failure and isn't expected to live much longer. Upon receiving the news, he asked to be released from the hospital so that he might spend his remaining time at home, visiting with friends and fans. This thread on the Classic Horror Film Boards contains some participatory reports from this final "Open House" from monster kids Rick Baker and Bill Warren, and many others who hold Uncle 4E dear. You'll find a message there from me, too.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Bava Book Wins International Horror Guild Award!


The Terror. Dan Simmons (Little, Brown & Company)

Dagger Key and Other Stories. Lucius Shepard (PS Publishing)

Softspoken. Lucius Shepard (Night Shade Books)

"Closet Dreams". Lisa Tuttle (Postscripts 10: PS Publishing)

"Honey in the Wound". Nancy Etchemendy (The Restless Dead: Candlewick Press)

Inferno. Ellen Datlow, editor (Tor)

Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. Tim Lucas (Video Watchdog)

Postscripts. Peter Crowther & Nick Gevers, editors (PS Publishing)

The Nightmare Factory. Thomas Ligotti (creator/writer), Joe Harris & Stuart Moore (writers), Ben Templesmith, Michael Gaydos, Colleen Doran & Ted McKeever

Elizabeth McGrath for "The Incurable Disorder", Billy Shire Fine Arts, December 2007

PETER STRAUB, named earlier as the year's LIVING LEGEND, was honored in an essay by Stefan R. Dziemianowicz ( or download as a document:

About The IHG Awards

The International Horror Guild Awards recognized outstanding achievements in the field of Horror and Dark Fantasy. Nominations are derived from recommendations made by the public and the judges knowledge of the field.

The IHG Living Legend Award is determined solely by the judges. Living Legends are individuals who have made meritorious and notable contributions and/or have substantially influenced the field of horror/ dark fantasy. Previous recipients are Ramsey Campbell, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Gahan Wilson, Stephen King, Richard Bleiler, Charles L. Grant, William F. Nolan, Alice Cooper, Ray Bradbury, Clive Barker, Hugh B. Cave, Edward W. Bryant, Richard Matheson, and Harlan Ellison.

Edward Bryant, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, Ann Kennedy Vandermeer, and Hank Wagner adjudicated for the final award year of 2007. William Sheehan and Fiona Webster have also served as judges. Paula Guran administered the award beginning in 1996. The awards were overseen by a non-profit corporation, The Mirabundus Project, Inc.

For additional information on the International Horror Guild, please contact

Donna and I are honored and delighted by this wonderful news! We extend our heartfelt thanks to the IHG judges and membership, and our congratulations to all the other recipients and nominees!

Friday, October 31, 2008

In Heaven and Hell With You

I've been listening almost exclusively to Siouxsie and the Banshees for the last couple of weeks. Halloween seems an appropriate time to write something about them, and about Siouxsie Sioux in particular, given that a song entitled "Halloween" figures so prominently in their discography.

In my opinion, no other British group of the post-punk era underwent such dramatic metamorphoses or so thoroughly explored their potential as a recording unit as Siouxsie and the Banshees. Their albums were strong and intelligently sequenced, their singles (collected as ONCE UPON A TIME and TWICE UPON A TIME) were glorious, and their B-sides (collected in the box set DOWNSIDE UP) were a laboratory for fascinating experimentation. Siouxsie herself was such a compelling figure, so obviously a creature of theater and so sleekly photogenic in their videos, I find it incredible, even outrageous to this day that no one ever approached her to act in features. And when harrowing flipsides like "Umbrella" started turning up, I couldn't understand why at least one enterprising horror director out there didn't have the brain to put them in harness right away as the Anglo answer to Goblin. They were not ones for standing still; they went through guitarists like Kleenex (The Cure's Robert Smith moonlighted with them briefly), but their core guitar sound was essentially defined from the get-go by original six-stringer John McKay and later refined when the extraordinary John McGeoch joined the Banshees for three of their most beloved albums (KALEIDOSCOPE, JUJU and A KISS IN THE DREAMHOUSE). Even with later guitarists on board, they were a powerhouse live band, driven by Budgie's thundrous drum sound and one of the most original and authoritative female figureheads a rock band has ever had.

I had the good fortune to see them live once; it was good fortune because Siouxsie and the Banshees never came to Cincinnati, but they happened to be playing in Washington DC in May 1986, on the day after a wedding we attended there. It was a funny situation: we were staying with the friends who got married, who had already been living together for awhile. Donna didn't want to go, but the bride did, but the bride was supposed to be honeymooning, so Donna ended up using my spare ticket under duress. We were strangers to Washington, didn't know where the Warner Theater was, but as we wandered around, people with pink mohawks and chained leatherware began to appear, so I suggested we just follow them. I had seen a number of punk and post-punk acts in Cincinnati, but here people never dressed the act -- you couldn't particularly tell a Ramones audience from a Jackson Browne audience by sight in Cincinnati. This concert was my only direct exposure to anything like an authentic punk audience, and I found their style and energy stimulating, but once the show was over, Donna wanted to get out of there pretty fast, so we did.
Apart from a little accident at the outset when the theater's heavy velvet curtains opened too swiftly, causing a backdraft that sent one right into Budgie's thundering drum kit, the performance was impeccably played with all three musicians giving their all. (I saw them with John Valentine Carruthers on guitar, whose gleaming work on "Cities in Dust" and "92 Degrees" is as definitive as anything they did with McGeoch.) I had seen only very early performance footage of the group at that time and was particularly impressed by how Siouxsie had matured as a live performer. She, who had started out shaking her fists and thumbing her nose and goosestepping across the stage, danced sinuously like an art nouveau Salomé, till the show climaxed with her somersaulting through stage fog while singing "Eve Black/Eve White," one of her many songs of fractured personality, this one inspired by THE THREE FACES OF EVE.
The classic group's only official live video release, NOCTURNE, captures them at an earlier point in time (with Robert Smith still aboard) but playing a similar set list; I recommend it, especially for the show-stopping "Night Shift," a grippingly dolorous dirge that opened Side 2 of JUJU and somehow became the cathartic centerpiece of every concert they played thereafter. (There's a circulating 1981 Cologne show that finds Siouxsie urging her catatonic audience to stand up, dance, do something, explaining "We're just a pop group" -- and then launching into this song.) Siouxsie and the Banshees were also, among other things, a highly film-literate band, even opening TINDERBOX's "92 Degrees" with a sound byte from IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE ("Did you know that more murders are committed at 92 degrees fahrenheit than any other temperature? I read an article once... At lower temperatures, people are easygoing; over 92, it's too hot to move, but just 92, people get irritable!!!")
I'm glad I had the chance to see them play when I did, because they began losing their appeal for me with their next album, the covers collection THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS. Their best remaining song, "Peek-A-Boo," was reportedly based on the master tape of one of their earlier songs... played backwards. That they could turn something so rooted in the outré into their only US chart hit testifies to their gifts of invention, even at this late stage. They disbanded after their 1995 album THE RAPTURE, with Siouxsie and Budgie (who married in 1991) focusing their attentions thereafter on the side project, The Creatures. The way groups end often colors the way we feel about them in retrospect, and the way Siouxsie and the Banshees slowly succumbed to overproduction, revolving door personnel and divided attentions meant that I spent a good deal of the past decade not listening very much to the many wonderful songs and albums they gave us.
This latest Banshees binge of mine got underway strangely. I hit a wall in a writing project and felt a depression coming on, so I decided to meet it head-on by listening to "Swimming Horses" from the HYAENA album. Of all the group's recorded work, this is the one song that never fails to get under my skin, and it's been known to induce blue moods in me that last for days -- blue but somehow delicious. In this case, however, I administered it to myself as a kind of antigen -- before the depression could take hold, I hoped the song would. Surprisingly, it worked. I then loaded all of my Siouxsie CDs onto my iPod and found that, despite the music's sometimes dark imagery, its propulsive drumming and spider-woven guitar lines and the sheer gusto of Siouxsie's bellowing combined into something quite energizing and uplifting. It's been a good companion.

In the course of this latest immersion in the Banshees, I read some things and discovered that Siouxsie and Budgie divorced awhile ago and disbanded The Creatures, and that Siouxsie released her first solo album, MANTARAY, last year. She's still a handsome woman, and the album finds her still in strong voice, and noticeably less guarded about showing her tender side. (What's next, a sense of humor?) It's a good album, opening with "Into A Swan," a pounding ode to impending personal transformation -- a theme also reflected in song titles like "About to Happen", "Here Comes That Day" and "If It Doesn't Kill Me." The instrumental sound of the album is percussive techno-cabaret, appropriately fantasmagorical but with a array of instrumentation whose broad musical palette recalls A KISS IN THE DREAMHOUSE. But hearing Siouxsie's voice severed from the tantric, flangey, tidal swell of The Banshees sometimes brings about in actuality the sense of dislocation that she often sang about on the albums she made with The Banshees in the late '70s and '80s. The ever-fluctuating flavors of the record's instrumental backing gradually ring hollow (or at least fickle) over the course of ten songs, failing to provide in visceral anchoring what it delivers in varietal color. Of all the tracks, "Into A Swan" and "They Follow You" come closest to capturing a classic yet distinctively fresh Siouxsie sound. Vocally and instrumentally, MANTARAY is an inventive album, though it falls short of being a wholly convincing or coalescent one. Siouxsie's voice needs to backed by stronger personalities, and I hope her next solo album finds her sounding just as bold but less alone.
To help set the mood for your holiday festivities, I leave you with Siouxsie performing the aforementioned "Halloween" with the classic Banshees lineup of Steve Severin (bass), the late John McGeoch (guitar) and Budgie (drums).

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Grace Slick @ 69

Grace Slick, self portrait.
Somewhere in California, I suppose, Grace Slick is celebrating her 69th birthday today -- and if she's not, because she has it in that fool head of hers that old people don't look good when they're making music or having fun, well... I'll celebrate for her.
I first saw and heard Grace singing "Somebody To Love" and "White Rabbit" on radio and television a bit earlier in life, when Jefferson Airplane's SURREALISTIC PILLOW album was climbing the charts, but they didn't become my favorite band until I saw them play live on National Public Television in two hour specials that aired in 1970. Those two shows, "San Francisco Rock: A Night at the Family Dog" and "Go Ride the Music", were released on DVD this year to little notice but, after decades of having to contend with bleary, jittery dupes, these clean and steady presentations (with remixed 5.1 mono sound) are godsends. These shows don't just represent the ground zero of my nearly lifelong love affair with Jefferson Airplane; they embody the moment I became obsessed with live music recordings -- savoring the ways in which live performance differs from studio recordings. As good as their studio albums were and are, live performance was everything to Jefferson Airplane. Witness this sample from "A Night at the Family Dog" -- where I also fell in love with Jack Casady's electric bass.
The way Grace Slick presided over Jefferson Airplane's initial media blitzkrieg, with her soaring contralto painting powerful Cassandra-like visions of the drug-amplified mind, I had assumed that she was the band's lead singer. In fact, she had replaced the group's initial female vocalist, Signe Anderson, who had been granted only one solo number and generally sang backup. Grace left her initial band, The Great Society, to join the Airplane and brought with her the two numbers she proceeded to make world-famous with them. Marty Balin, the group's mellow-voiced founder and actual lead singer, can be seen in footage of these early TV appearances huddled over an electric piano he's not playing, looking like the odd man out. Marty's persona as a singer was romantic and persuasive, almost feminine, and Grace complemented him with rock's first non-melodic female voice, whose value lay in its conveyance of a power that went beyond masculine into something nearer the prophetic or the godly. Finding herself the unwitting focal point in a band she'd just joined, Grace was sensitive to Marty's feelings and refused to allow either of her original contributions to the follow-up album, AFTER BATHING AT BAXTER'S, to go out as the A-sides of their next singles. As a result, Jefferson Airplane stopped being a singles band overnight and became one of the first true avatars of AOR (album oriented rock).
In addition to being beautiful, smart, sassy, sexy and a distinctive vocalist, Grace was one of the most original songwriters of her time: "Rejoyce" reduced Joyce's ULYSSES to a four minute song, "Eskimo Blue Day" and her remarkable live vocal improv on "Bear Melt" were impressionistic ecology, and "Hey Fredrick" and "Across the Board" are two of the most unflinching songs about sex ever recorded. She's underrated as a keyboardist and still generally an unknown quantity as a guitarist, though I've heard a tape of her playing acoustic guitar that proved her at least as adept at the instrument as the Airplane's rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner -- the father of her only child, former MTV veejay China Kantner. But, in a band also featuring Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, the last thing the Airplane needed was another guitarist.

My favorite photo of Grace, circa 1969, from the inner sleeve of Paul Kantner's BLOWS AGAINST THE EMPIRE album.

Over the years, I've done my best to celebrate my love for Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane in some tangible form -- I've finished the work but haven't been able to share it with the public as yet. Last year, I wrote an entire book about Jefferson Airplane's 1968 album CROWN OF CREATION that I hoped Continuum Press would publish in their "33 & 1/3" series; to date, they haven't. (They will start considering new submissions within the coming weeks and I will try, try again.) Before that, I wrote a four-hour script entitled JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: LOVE & HAIGHT, which told the band's entire story with founder Marty Balin as its protagonist and Grace Slick as its accidental antagonist. When more than a year passed without interest from anyone, I took my agent's advice and rewrote the script as a regular feature focusing on Grace. I had lots of ideas for people who could play Grace, ranging from Leelee Sobieski to Pink to Sarah Silverman, but the word that came back after all my troubles is that Grace and the Airplane weren't sufficiently well-known to have a movie made about them.

Excuse me? We're talking about the band that headlined at Woodstock and supported the Rolling Stones at Altamont, the band that Ed Sullivan and LIFE Magazine called "the top rock group in America." Grace herself was ranked #20 on VH1's 100 GREATEST WOMEN OF ROCK 'N' ROLL special. We're also talking about an industry that has made TV-movies about bands like Sweetwater and The Monkees. But be that as it may.

In honor of Grace's birthday, I've decided to post -- for the first time anywhere -- the first five pages of my unproduced Grace Slick biopic screenplay. Maybe someday we'll all be able to see the rest. In the meantime, enjoy.

Caption: San Francisco, 1946.

Two little, dimpled hands carefully place a 78 rpm record on an RCA Victrola turntable and lower the heavy needle onto its spinning grooves.

Cue: “Three Little Maids from School Are We” from THE MIKADO, by Gilbert & Sullivan (any version dating from the period).

CLOSE SHOT of an ornate, black, Spanish-style fan fluttering. As the words of the song emerge from the crackles of the worn recording, the fan lowers to reveal the face of a plump little GIRL, six or seven years old, covered in heavy Geisha-style makeup which she has obviously applied herself. This is the YOUNG GRACE SLICK.

YOUNG GRACE (pantomiming)
Three little maids from school are we,
Pert as a school-girl well can be,
Filled to the brim with girlish glee,
Three little maids from school!

Her middle-class MOTHER and FATHER sit on the living room couch, looking more dumb-struck than entertained.

The little girl is wearing a fox stole and one of her mother’s dresses, which drags along the ground as she moves in a child’s version of grown-up choreography.

YOUNG GRACE (cont’d, pantomiming)
Everything is a source of fun!
Nobody’s safe, we care for none!
Life is a joke that’s just begun!
Three little maids from school!

Caption: Palo Alto High School, 1954.
Three 13 YEAR OLD GIRLS are carrying their books to class. Two of the girls are cute, blonde and shapely, but the third is dark-haired, moody, flat-chested and pudgy.

He’s in my chemistry class! Talk about chemistry! Isn’t he the dreamiest?
I wish he’d asked me to the dance before Darryl did.
How about you, Gracie?
Don't call me that. I hate that.
Okay, but who’s taking you to the prom?
Jack Shit.
You mean nobody asked you?
Nobody sees blonde hair and big boobs when they look at me. What’s left? Funny knees and a smart mouth?
You don’t have to be blonde or have... a womanly figure to get a boy, Gracie.
TEENAGE GRACE(irritated)
Oh, yeah?
No. You just need to make... an impression.
SCHOOL MAID #1 bats her eyes at a passing BOY, who crashes into an open locker door.
Cue: “Greasy Heart” by Jefferson Airplane.
A distorted sting of electric guitar grows in volume, sounding larger and larger until...

The adult GRACE SLICK is seen performing “Greasy Heart” onstage with JEFFERSON AIRPLANE.
She is dressed in an elegant, pearly white, silk pantsuit with loose sleeves and neckline, low white pumps. Her classically simple apparel offers minimal distraction from her long dark hair, icy blue eyes and porcelain Nordic features. She’s like a haute couture model, but scary as well; she’s like the 1960s prototype of a Goth punk.
Periodically throughout the song, Grace’s wardrobe changes.
Lady, you keep asking why he likes you
How come?
Now she’s wearing a Girl Scout’s uniform...
Wonder why he wants more
If he’s just had some
Now a nun’s habit, wielding a crucifix...
Boys, she’s got more to play with
In the way of... toys

Now a loose-woven, see-through black net blouse with pockets over her nipples, complemented by a black leather miniskirt and thigh-high leather boots...
Lady’s eyes go off and on
With a finger full of glue
Her lips are torn apart
Her face in come-to-me-tattoo
Now she’s performing with black makeup covering every exposed inch of her skin. She thrusts a fist into the air in a Black Power salute...
Creamy suntan color that
When she
Now she’s in Adolph Hitler drag, a little square mustache cut out of black paper stuck on under her nose...
Paper dresses catch on fire!
And you lose her in the haze
With wicked alacrity, she makes a warning “Sieg heil!” gesture to her audience, cautioning them...
Don't ever change people
Even if you can!

The stage is now covered in orange smoke. Grace emerges from the fog dressed in “Bride of Frankenstein” mode. Her hair is jagged, spiky, like an aurora of electricity. Her hands, moving mechanically, scratch at the air like robo-claws.
You’re your own best toy
To play with
Remote control hands
Made for each other

As before, a CLOSE SHOT of an elaborate Japanese fan, which drops to reveal the adult Grace in full Geisha makeup and apparel.

Made in Japan!
Woman with a greasy heart
Auto-matic man
Don't ever change people!
Your face will hit the fan

She whacks the side of her powdered face with the fan, and we return to the white pantsuit:
Don't... ever change people
Even if you can!
Don't change before the empire falls


As the song continues, Grace (circa 1972) is laughing and drinking from a bottle of Jack Daniels while speeding down Lombard Street in San Francisco, where it turns into Doyle Drive in the vicinity of the Golden Gate Bridge. She must be going over 100 miles per hour.

You'll laugh so hard
You'll crack the walls
Grace loses control of the vehicle, which spins and crashes into a wall as the last word hangs in the air, resonating.

Grace today. Anybody want to buy a painting?

Jefferson Airplane's manager Bill Thompson read my script (which was informed by my own research, as well as Jeff Tamarkin's fine book GOT A REVOLUTION! THE TURBULENT FLIGHT OF JEFFERSON AIRPLANE) and told me it was pretty accurate. For now, though, it's in a drawer.

Grace, whose tongue-in-cheek song "Silver Spoon" once extolled the joys of carnivorous living (including cannibalism), is today a practicing vegan. A previously unreleased recording called "Surprise Surprise," featuring her, appears on the new Jefferson Starship release JEFFERSON'S TREE OF LIBERTY, but she has been retired from music for many years and now devotes her time to painting. I like the pretty storybook quality of her art, but it doesn't begin to compare to the cutting edge brilliance of her voice or the songs she wrote. Grace says that she continues to write and record songs at home on the piano for her own amusement, and I hope to hear some of them someday. There have been reports of health problems in recent years, but she continues to appear at gallery shows to promote her art. For now, I'm simply glad that she's still with us and that the possibility of new work from her still exists.

Happy Birthday, Grace. You made an impression.

Tomorrow: Some Halloween thoughts on one of Grace's greatest stylistic descendants... Siouxsie Sioux.

COTTONMOUTH Debuts Tonight

At the tolling of Midnight...


Go here, Trick or Treaters, for the World Premiere of COTTONMOUTH, a new and terrifying film short by Christopher P. Garetano, based on Stephen R. Bissette's classic horror comic, which originally appeared in the pages of GORESHRIEK and TABOO.

And here's a link to Steve's own intensive account of the project's history.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Redder Than Ever and Less Deserted

Monica Vitti, l'adoro.

Last night I had the pleasure of screening BFI's new high-definition import disc of Michelangelo Antonioni's RED DESERT [Il deserto rosso, 1964] and came away with the unusual feeling that I had finally seen a beautiful woman captured in the Blu-ray format.

Of course, Monica Vitti isn't the first beautiful woman to be showcased in Blu-ray, but my own appreciation of beauty involves a woman's faults and flaws, her intensity, her fun, her mystery. Till now, I never came away from a Blu-ray experience with so many details of femininity left to savor. The freckles on her back. The fainter freckles on her cheekbones, sublimated by powder. The intoxicating auburn swell of her hair. The zipper down the back of her green dress. The wrinkling of her beige nylons. The way she gives herself to the camera, and what she withholds from the camera. The impish delight with which she bites into a quail egg when she's told it's an aphrodesiac. It's no wonder that Roger Corman once cited Monica Vitti as his favorite actress. Blu-ray brings us so close to her that we can feel all the warmth of this alleged Ice Princess of the northern Italian intelligentsia, and this startling access into her humanity brings us into deeper intimate contact with the anxieties she portrays. The film itself consequently becomes more powerful because the presentation excuses the iconography and lets us become involved with her as a flesh-and-blood being, alienated by a once-rural landscape that, with its foregrounded miniatures and electronic music, has creepily transformed into something like the alien spookscapes of Mario Bava's Terrore nello spazio.

I first saw RED DESERT (very much a science fiction film, I think) many years ago when it was released in a much inferior DVD presentation by Image Entertainment. I'd heard that the film marked an important advance in the use of color onscreen, but the Image disc did little to show why this was so. Consequently, I have long chalked the film up as my least favorite of the Big Antonionis. Today I feel quite differently. The BFI disc makes the film's innovative uses of color quite conspicuous, as it also does with what was gained from its use of heavy grain and shots lensed out of focus. Unfortunately, the richer presentation can do nothing to get the starch out of Richard Harris, whose dubbed performance isn't half the obstacle of the sheer two-dimensional look of him. Every time Harris appeared onscreen, I couldn't help thinking how much RED DESERT could have used the readier warmth and self-abandon of Antonioni's ZABRISKIE POINT compatriot Rod Taylor.

The movie's unusually understated climax did nothing to resolve my concerns for Vitti's Giulietta, whose expressed wish that everyone who ever loved her might form a wall around her is, I must confess, a yearning I have sometimes felt myself. For this reason, RED DESERT will probably now become one of those movies I revisit, less for cinematic reasons than because I found them inhabited by a kindred spirit -- like the calls I sometimes make on the spur of the moment to friends I've fallen out of touch with, to compare notes on how life has been treating us. Of course, Giuliana's fate will not change, but that's beside the point, because neither will mine.

RED DESERT is also available as a standard definition disc, also from BFI.

JVC Presses Eject

Yesterday was an historic day -- according to this sobering report from VW's own Sam Umland.

Monday, October 27, 2008

DEEP THROAT Director Damiano Dies

Director Gerard Damiano as seen in the 2005 documentary INSIDE DEEP THROAT.

One of my favorite cultural blogs, Jahsonic, is reporting the death of Gerard Damiano, the notorious director of DEEP THROAT, at the age of 80. Further online research shows that he died Saturday night, October 25, of complications from a stroke.
To call Damiano a writer-producer-director would be cutting him short: he was also an editor-production designer-actor-composer-cable carrier and special effects guy. He wasn't the most polished filmmaker of his generation, as he freely admitted, but no one could accuse him of being uninventive within his means. While most other adult filmmakers were thinking exclusively about different ways to showcase the sexual act, Damiano brought a wealth of imagination to a genre that didn't require it. In the process, he extended the possibilities of sex onscreen and underscored the value of fantasy and imagination in the meeting of two (or more) bodies.
As the prime mover behind DEEP THROAT, he created the most famous adult film of all time, a picture that scored regular mentions in its day on THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JOHNNY CARSON and ROWAN & MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN, later lent its name to a significant supporting player in the uncovering of the Watergate scandal, and continues to be a subject of interest and controversy almost forty years later. I'm reminded that my "Throat Sprockets," the graphic novel chapter that appeared in the debut issue of Stephen R. Bissette's TABOO, was bootlegged in Spanish under the title "Garganta Profunda" -- meaning "Deep Throat." (This annoyed me because it suggested to Spanish readers that my storyline was about a protagonist having a vampiric reaction to seeing Damiano's film!) I don't know that Jerry Damiano can be said to have changed the world, but his work certainly had an impact that is still being felt.
Damiano isn't often credited as a fantasy director, but his XXX cinema was pregnant, shall we say, with fantasy: THE MAGICAL RING (1971), THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES (1973), MEMORIES WITHIN MISS AGGIE (1974, which featured a ghost), LET MY PUPPETS COME (1976, which is exactly what it sounds like), ODYSSEY: THE ULTIMATE TRIP (1977), the sf diptych THE SATISFIERS OF ALPHA BLUE (1980) and RETURN TO ALPHA BLUE (1984), NIGHT HUNGER (1983) and, of course, DEEP THROAT (1972) itself. Just before working with Linda Lovelace changed his life, Damiano also took a stab at a "legitimate" (non-porn) horror film, LEGACY OF SATAN (1972, released 1974).
In 2005, Damiano was interviewed for the Brian Glazer-produced INSIDE DEEP THROAT, a major studio documentary about the phenomenon of that film's original release. For reasons that are now hard to fathom, DEEP THROAT briefly captured America's imagination and made hardcore pornography not only acceptable but chic. I remember this period particularly well because, in the mid-1970s, at a time when the film could not be screened here in Cincinnati (as indeed it probably still can't), a 16mm collecting friend loaned a print of DEEP THROAT to Donna and me -- yes, the first and last time I saw the film was on the living room wall of our first apartment. Donna was working a day job at a local hospital at the time, and the film was such a tantalizing part of the zeitgeist that she had no problem with inviting a select group of female co-workers to a private screening at our apartment. Sadly, my presence at this gathering was not welcome, but Donna gave me a very entertaining recap of everyone's comments during the screening after her guests went home. Within the last couple of years, we confided this story to a couple of other local friends, who surprised us by admitting that they, too, once had possession of a 16mm print and used to screen it for their friends!
While I don't think DEEP THROAT itself is anything to "write home about" (and neither did Damiano, apparently), what was written home about it makes for a fascinating time capsule, and this makes INSIDE DEEP THROAT is well worth seeing. It's also a humbling... nay, devastating exposé of the illusory nature of fame and the personal costs that are all too frequently paid for even a fleeting taste of the limelight.
The most inspired title of Damiano's zany career: 1989's SPLENDOR IN THE ASS.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Halloween Gift from VW's Shane Dallmann

Greetings, friends--

To pave the way for Halloween, and to pay tribute to a fallen--but NEVER to be forgotten--friend, we of the MANOR would like to share a special project with you.

Officially unreleased (for now), THE WOODEN GATE was the second feature length effort from Labcoat Productions. This "evil in the woods" tale from the makers of FLESH EATERS (previously exhibited as an "independent cinema" special at the MANOR) was filled with local (Monterey County) talent, with writing/directing chores shared by Christo Roppolo and yours truly.

THE WOODEN GATE features guest appearances by directors Jeff Burr (THE OFFSPRING, LEATHERFACE, STRAIGHT INTO DARKNESS) and Jim VanBebber (DEADBEAT AT DAWN, THE MANSON FAMILY)--and also boasts the final role of our dear friend Jonelle Snead (as "Lucy"). Refusing to let a terminal diagnosis keep her down, Jonelle gave the part everything she had.We couldn't do anything about said diagnosis--but there WAS something we could do for her. It was 2004, we were still working on the movie, but Jonelle had greater concerns--she needed a place to live. At the time, MANOR was transitioning from the Barbary Coast Theatre to the R.O.P. Studio, but the Barbary was still available for our concept--an independent genre film festival in the name of charity--with all proceeds going directly into a fund for Jonelle's temporary residence (we were all willing to help, but couch-crashing and car-bedding weren't the way to go).

The MANOR crew hosted the event. Christo and I supplied FLESH EATERS. Gary Ambrosia (Super Genius Productions) served up his WWII thriller THE ANGELS OF DEATH ISLAND. Jeff Burr screened THE OFFSPRING and Jim VanBebber premiered THE MANSON FAMILY... without a doubt, the nastiest piece of work ever run in the name of charity!

Also on the card was horror-host/storyteller/FRIEND Carpathian (of the Patient Creatures), who regaled the audience with amusing anecdotes and a heartfelt tribute to Jonelle (who, despite initial misgivings, proudly attended the event front and center). The WOODEN GATE cast and crew joined the MANOR team for setup, concessions, cleanup and everything else under the sun, while fellow hosts and friends coast-to-coast donated special auction items and video encouragements.

I will always remember this event--but more important was the aftermath: we did, indeed, secure lodgings for Jonelle (in the company of a registered nurse, no less) for the space of several months before she was relocated to pass away in peace and comfort at the local Hospice House (now known as Westland House) in October of 2004.

So whither THE WOODEN GATE? As frustrating as it has been for the cast and crew, we have been holding out for a PROPER release of our sophomore effort rather than go the "self-publishing" route. At one point, we held out hopes that a certain genre-affiliated DVD company would take advantage of the fact that it was releasing several other properties associated with Jim Van Bebber... but after several months of what amounted to stalling and teasing, their appointed lackey finally admitted that they'd never actually planned to do anything with it.

Whoa--whoa... stop... getting bitter here and that's not where I meant to go. We are shopping THE WOODEN GATE (which sold out the Osio Cinema in Monterey for its Halloween premiere) to a worthy distributor and it's going to happen. But this weekend, on the anniversary of Jonelle's passing, we're going to give it to you FREE.

The MANOR timeslot will kick in with a special introduction and some cartoon fun at 10 Pacific... delaying the start of the feature mayhem to approximately 30m into the show. We did that for a reason--THE WOODEN GATE is one EXTREME piece of work. No hardcore sex or anything like that... but everything ELSE is a go. So as we're fond of saying, "Give the youngsters a book to read."

This is an unofficial MANOR episode--an "independent cinema" special which will run UNCUT and UNINTERRUPTED. Save for our intro material, we will NOT be breaking in and "hosting" it. You'll be getting THE WOODEN GATE full-strength for this pre-Halloween weekend ONLY.

You can meet several of my "Gate-Mates" through my Myspace profile. You'll find lead actor Douglas Matthews as "Douglas," co-players Alfonso Milla and Kat Reina (as "El Chingon" and "kittykat") and special makeup effects mistress Robin Shaw (as "KAT").

And if so moved? Please make a donation to the American Cancer Society--or to the MANOR's current charity of choice, (tell them DR. CREEP sent you).

Friday (Oct 24) and Saturday (Oct 25) 10PM Pacific

Saturday (Oct 25) and Sunday (Oct 26) 5AM Pacific

Monterey cable channel 24 (AMP) or on-line at

Choose "Programs" and then "Web Stream" for Channel 24

All my Halloween best,

Shane "Remo D." Dallmann

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"Se telefonando"

No less a musical authority than FILM SCORE MONTHLY's John Bender considers this song, written by Ennio Morricone and performed by Mina Mazzini, to be the most sublime few minutes in the history of pop music. He directed me to this 1966 performance on YouTube, which reminded me that I knew the song well (if not by name) from various Morricone anthologies and have never failed to be moved by it. What's especially wonderful about this live performance is that you can tell that Maestra Mazzini knows perfectly well that she has found her defining moment of stardom and, for three minutes and change, she rides that wave in a state of perfect joy and confidence. May we all be so well prepared when our moment comes.

Monday, October 20, 2008


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. 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.