Saturday, December 06, 2008

Fearwell to 4SJ

The Watchdog meets the Ackermonster, 1993.

The news was expected, but I was very sorry to learn that Forrest J Ackerman passed away last night, mere days after his 92nd birthday, and mere minutes before December 4th became December 5th -- the sort of detail I believe would have intrigued him, if he were writing this.
He and I had a modest personal history: I wrote to him for the first time (affectionately) in the pages of Dennis Daniel's book THE FAMOUS MONSTERS CHRONICLES, met him a couple of times at Fanex, was a personal guest at his Ackermansion on a day it was officially closed to the public, and even held hands with him for what seemed like a couple of minutes as Eric Hoffman struggled with my camera to nail this wonderful shot of he and I and his METROPOLIS robotrix all shaking hands together. There were times in my childhood that he seemed like one of the most important people in the world, and he certainly played a major role in the shaping of mine.
It's a natural feeling for those of us whose lives were changed by our introduction to Forry's Warren publications FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, MONSTER WORLD and SPACEMEN to feel as though part of our childhood has died, but you can't close a door that was blasted off its hinges. He made that kind of a difference. Admittedly, he was a controversial figure, beloved by hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) and disliked by others, some of whom had comparably outsized egos or perhaps felt they better deserved to inhabit his place in the epicenter of horror and sf fandom. I'd like to think that a biography will come forth someday that, in the right hands (they will NOT be mine), will show how much in the dark both sides of the argument really dwell. There seems to be very little middleground of opinion where 4SJ was concerned, but I suppose I inhabit it; I spent enough time with, or around, him to see and understand him from both perspectives. I know people who were personally upset and/or offended by things he did, but I don't think there's any question that he did more good, for more people, in his near-century among us than ill. He changed countless lives -- his activities surely helped to increase the production of horror and science fiction film genres in the 1960s, one of their most fertile and rewarding decades -- and, as I've said here and elsewhere before, his example defined the way I've been able to earn my living for almost twenty years.

There is a lot more to say about Forry, but I prefer to pay him the balance of my respects in VIDEO WATCHDOG #146 (our special "JAWS vs. APE" issue -- NOT!) , which I'll be writing tomorrow. Until then, you may find interesting this article, written by Forry in 2003, in contemplation of his own imminent mortality, which someone called "soundstage28" has thoughtfully posted on the Classic Horror Film Boards. It's the eighth posting from the top.

No Blossom on the Trees

Winter's not supposed to start until sometime in January, but the temperature here in Cincinnati tonight is in the teens, so I say it's here ahead of schedule. And I can't think of a more timely reason to recommend you check out this YouTube video of Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man performing "Funny Time of Year" in Nyon, Switzerland on July 26, 2003.

Though nearly ten minutes in length, it's one of the most gripping live performances I've had the pleasure of discovering at YouTube. Unfortunately OUT OF SEASON (Beth's superb album with Rustin Man) didn't attract the same level of attention as her Portishead albums, and consequently I don't think this particular show (in a tent!) has gone down in rock history, but -- my God! -- it deserves to. I'd stack this number up against most of the performances in MONTEREY POP or WOODSTOCK. That's Beth's Portishead mate Adrian Utley shredding it up on lead guitar.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

"You Can't Buy A Ticket To See This Movie!"

... So teased the posters for THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! at the time of its 1968 release, and the ballyhoo has somehow adhered as prophecy. This well-crafted horror sleeper has become one of the most difficult to see of its era, though a number of its lesser fellow releases from The Fanfare Corporation -- like SIMON KING OF THE WITCHES and WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS -- have surfaced on DVD in recent years. Last week, I had the good fortune to see it again on DVD-R, for the first time since the early 1970s, when a cut version of this film "Suggested for Mature Audiences" ran on local television.
It stars Jack Lord, Susan Strasberg, Collin Wilcox (so memorable as Thedy in THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR's "The Jar"), Tisha Sterling and T.C. Jones (HITCHCOCK HOUR's "An Unlocked Window") -- and it probably works best if you have no idea who T.C. Jones is (or was; the actor died in 1971). The director was Gunnar Hellstrom, a Swedish expatriate who worked primarily in television (his 1967 WILD WILD WEST episode "The Night of the Running Death" also featured T.C. Jones), and the twisted screenplay was the best effort of Gary Crutcher, author of the subsequent snake melodrama STANLEY and the Joyce Jillson jigglethon SUPERCHICK.

Reviewing THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! for CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Joe Dante reported that the film contained "moments of Bava-like brilliance," and indeed it does. The film is obviously the work of a craftsman with a feeling for the genre, and it's regrettable that Hellstrom never made another horror picture. The only circulating copy of the film originated from a dim and faded 16mm print, so it's impossible to determine what cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was able to achieve with its color, but Hellstrom and art director Ray Markham adorn the story with subtle and decorative scares and a deliberately unsettling mise en scène cluttered with psychologically resonant geegaws like broken dolls. The story involves Lord, playing a Hungarian emigré hitchhiker in the American West, who has the good fortune to be rescued by a beautiful savior (Strasberg), who takes him to the secluded home that she shares with her mother and an older and younger sister, all very strange and unpredicatable women. Their home also maintains a roadside display of rattlesnakes and tarantulas -- Sterling's beloved pets -- which marks the picture as the missing link between Jack Hill's SPIDER BABY and Tobe Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. The family name here is Terry, a soundalike to the Merrye family of SPIDER BABY.

What unfolds once Lord gets to the house, where the various daughters proceed to fight over the right to mate with him by circulating disinformation about one another, is what came to be known for awhile as a "horror of personality" film (a term coined by Charles Derry's 1977 book DARK DREAMS: A PSYCHOLOGICAL HISTORY OF THE MODERN HORROR FILM [A.S. Barnes & Co., 1977]), but which is now termed "psychological horror." Strasberg as Tracey, to whom Lord is most drawn, is said to be a nymphomaniac with a history of violent break-ups; the plainish Willcox as Diz ("Diz N. Terry," perhaps?) is initially hostile to Lord but soon reveals herself to be very attracted and perhaps the most sexually experienced of the group; Sterling as Nan is the youngest and comports herself like Jill Banner's Virginia in SPIDER BABY, doting on a tarantula and acting like a child, unconscious of her own sexuality yet expert at deploying it to achieve her own ends. (In one of the film's most peculiar moments, a miniskirted Sterling dances provocatively to the psychedelic caterwaul of "Shadows," a forgotten song by The Electric Prunes ["I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night"]). The mother (Jones) is seemingly the most normal of the bunch... until we learn that she may have murdered her own husband, an act of extreme violence that drove her and her daughters to this secluded outpost. Everyone gets their own soliloquy, occasionally stopping the story's progress cold but at the same time deepening it and further disorienting the viewer, who receives so many alternate backstories that it's impossible to get one's bearings. The possibilities simply turn stranger and stranger until the film reaches a point where the volatile mixture cannot help but explode.

The film ends with a tantalizing freeze-frame of Susan Strasberg, chilling in its beauty, and in the days since I've seen the movie again, what I've most carried away from it is a greater appreciation of what this neglected actress brought to the cult cinema of the 1960s. The daughter of legendary Actor's Theater coach Lee Strasberg, Susan made this film when she was 30 -- thirteen years down the road from her Tony-nominated stage debut in the title role of the original 1955 production of THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK. (She had done some even earlier small roles in live television drama like GOODYEAR TELEVISION PLAYHOUSE and GENERAL ELECTRIC THEATER.) She worked on the stage, in television, starred in Hammer's psychological horror gem TASTE OF FEAR (aka SCREAM OF FEAR), and spent time making films in Italy before she returned to the States.
In 1965, she married the hot young actor Christopher Jones and, with him, signed a short-term contract with American International Pictures. It was under AIP's auspices that Strasberg made Roger Corman's THE TRIP (in which she is a compelling but almost incidental ingredient as Fonda's ex-wife) and Richard Rush's PSYCH-OUT, in which she played a deaf-mute searching the Haight-Ashbury scene for her lost brother. No one ever has control over what they'll be best remembered for, and one doubts that Strasberg knew while making PSYCH-OUT that she was giving what would arguably become her signature screen performance. After making CHURUBUSCO with Jones, they divorced. Neither she nor Jones went on to fulfill the promise expressed by the performances they gave at AIP, but Strasberg continued to make her presence known in horror and exploitation films. She was featured in episodes of NIGHT GALLERY and THE EVIL TOUCH, and features like SO EVIL MY SISTER, THE LEGEND OF HILLBILLY JOHN and BLOODY BIRTHDAY. And let us not forget (though she'd probably wish us to) she also gave birth to THE MANITOU.

By the time she had reached 30, Strasberg had transformed from the vaguely elfin ingenue of her earliest work, and the prematurely matured star of SCREAM OF FEAR, into a beauty whose sexiness was rooted in an unusual combination of silken good looks, sobriety and confidence. She was the opposite of what passed for sexy at the time, closer to the epicenter of what passes for sexy when one considers The Big Picture. There was something about her that made her better casting as the ex-wife than the wife, and perhaps better still as disillusioned, defensive loners. She made us want to reach out to her, despite the likelihood that our hand would be slapped away, at least initially. Her later career, heavy in guest spots on interchangeable TV shows about doctors and lawyers, emphasizes the trouble she encountered in finding a niche onscreen -- and, as much as I like her and have strived to make sense of her persona, I'm finding it difficult to write about her. Nevertheless, it's a tribute to her work in THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! that I finally got serious about wanting to know her better, and promptly ordered used copies of her two works of biography -- BITTERSWEET and MARILYN AND ME -- to spend some time inside her head. All that I know now, in my heart of hearts, is that Susan Strasberg mattered -- if only for the vaguely absurd reason that I now find it impossible to hear anything by the Strawberry Alarm Clock without being reminded of her and moved by the memory. She died of breast cancer in early 1999 at the much-too-young age of 60, only a few titles shy of 100 different movie and TV credits.
Bootleg copies of THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! do circulate online. Google the title and you're certain to find one or two sources.