Thursday, January 08, 2009

Redmond, Maitland and Cave

I've been remiss in announcing that VIDEO WATCHDOG #146 was mailed to our subscribers just before the holidays and is now on newsstands everywhere. The cover feature is the first-ever interview with 99-year-old Harry Redmond, Jr., whose long special effects career extended from RKO's classic features of the 1930s (THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, KING KONG, SHE, THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII) to TV's THE OUTER LIMITS in the 1960s. Remarkably, Mr. Redmond appears to be the only worker on the original KING KONG still among us, thereby earning the interview's striking title: "Last Survivor of Skull Island." THE DINOSAUR FILMOGRAPHY author Mark F. Berry, who interviewed Judi Bowker for us in VW #135, adds another feather to his cap with this important career overview, which has already been suggested for a Rondo Best Article Award over on the Classic Horror Film Boards. You can find out more about the issue and its contents, and even order your copy, on the VIDEO WATCHDOG website.

Donna and I are only now starting to work on VIDEO WATCHDOG #147. The feature article in this issue will be another of our popular Round Table Discussions, this one devoted to Dario Argento's THE MOTHER OF TEARS, one of the more controversial horror releases of recent years. In this case, our round table is composed of , including input from Kim Newman, Richard Harland Smith, Brad Stevens, yours truly and -- happily making her first VW appearance since our 8th issue, back in 1991 -- BROKEN MIRRORS/BROKEN MINDS author Maitland McDonagh!

On a more personal note... I've been preoccupied over the past four months with writing a short story for an anthology of fiction based on the music of Nick Cave. I've never had much luck with writing short stories, and I guess this still holds true, since this one ultimately swelled into a novelette of five chapters, running close to 17,000 words -- just a couple of pages shy of novella status. I loved working on it and feel very pleased with the result, and am now contending with the usual post-partum depression though my nest is anything but empty. I've sent the story to the anthology's editor and will tell you more about it if and when it's accepted.

Mr. Lonely

Why, it's easy to join Facebook! Just reach out and click!

In the past couple of weeks, my daily e-mail arrivals have dropped from an average of 40-50 per day to maybe 10. I blame Facebook.

I don't think Don Siegel would have approved of Facebook.

Him! He's not my Facebook Friend!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Ron Asheton: The Coltrane of Psych Guitar

"C'mon, Ron... I say, c'mon, Ron... C'mon and tell 'em how I feel!"

So pleads Iggy Pop at the height of the Stooges' classic punk rant "No Fun," from their 1969 self-titled debut release -- because there comes a point in this song when even Iggy Pop can't express with voice, dance, exposed genitals or peanut butter what he feels. For that, he needed guitarist Ron Asheton. For the first 2:43 of the song, Asheton anchors the song with steady, distorted, rhythmic riffing from the right channel -- and just when we think we've heard everything this anthem to teenage boredom has up its patched denim sleeve, Iggy's pleas prompt Asheton to launch into the fuzziest, dirtiest, squiggliest, squealingest, noodly guitar solo ever heard, absolutely merciless in its full-on drilling against the hard stone walls of ennui.
"Well, come on! Well, come ON! Well, COME on! Well, COME ON!"
THE STOOGES was produced by ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale at a time when multi-track recording was already a couple of years removed from extreme stereo separation, but Cale went ahead and placed Ron's separately recorded solo in the left channel only, which made its sonic attack more focused and insistent, with the added bonus of embodying an especially excruciating "fuck you" to any hippie stoner of the era who might attempt listening to the record through stereo headphones. I once made the mistake of listening to the album this way, cranked way up, and the solo drilled straight into one of my molars and loosened a filling.
So minimal that any kid with access to two strings can play it, "No Fun" has become a standard of its genre, covered by many different (well, other) artists, but none of the cover versions can compare to the original because Asheton's solo is actually thematic, starting out with lazy, unfocused, mondo-distorto notes that gradually find focus and fire, only to succumb once again to boredom -- bee bee boop BLEEEEEEEEEER, bee bee boop BLLLLLEEEEEEEEEEEER -- as if he's too bored to continue being one of the hands-down-greatest psych guitarists ever to wear a shoulder strap and iron cross.
"Yeaaaaaaah, my MAN!" Iggy congratulates him, right there on the record. As always with the Stooges, it was when they were least brilliant that they were most brilliant.

And today comes the ultimate bore: the news that Ron Asheton was found dead today in his Ann Arbor home at the age of 60. The victim of a likely heart attack, no foul play suspected. He died alone, discovered by police notified by concerned neighbors who hadn't seen him in a few days.
More than just introducing "No Fun" to the world, THE STOOGES opens with "1969" and "I Want to Be Your Dog" -- already two inarguable petitions for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Every year that self-styled church of music locks the Stooges out, they flaunt their ignorance of their own gods.) Throughout the record, Ron Asheton (who, on the cover, looks like the real Max Frost) takes the late Sixties gimmick that was the Vox wah-wah pedal and wields it like Jackson Pollack wielded paint, ladling its molten liquidity over ballads and trances and odes to teenage solipsism.
The group's next album, 1970's FUN HOUSE, produced by Don Gallucci, has at various times been called The Greatest Rock Album of all time by Joey Ramone, Lester Bangs, Jack White and yours truly. I actually bought the first two Stooges albums without having heard them, except in my mind's ear as I read Lester Bangs' "Of Pop and Pies and Fun" essay in the pages of CREEM magazine (reprinted in the PSYCHOTIC REACTIONS AND CARBURETOR DUNG collection). The music more than lived up to its promise: "one of those rare albums that never sits still long enough to actually solidify into what it previously seemed," Bangs wrote in one of his most inspired insights. Lester hated FUN HOUSE on his first listen, but having gone through his process with him in print, I loved it on mine. It's a descent into the maelstrom that drops you down on the street where the faces shine, drags you through the dirt, and leaves you standing in the midst of Los Angeles in flames. (I hadn't thought about it till just this minute, but in some ways, FUN HOUSE is, or might as well be, a rock opera based on Susan Strasberg's STP freakout scene in PSYCH-OUT.) Ron's guitar sound on the album is enormous, silvery, modal, oceanic, godly -- but, during the epic ballad "Dirt," with the taint of human emotion.
One of my proudest possessions is THE FUN HOUSE SESSIONS, a delirious Rhino Handmade limited edition box set that collects every second of music laid down by the Stooges during their week-long recording sessions for the album, with one entire disc turned over to take after take after take after take after take after take after take after take after take after take of "T.V. Eye," a song that surely features one of hard rock's top twenty-five power riffs. Of course I took the dare, the plunge, or whatever it was, and I may damn well take it again later today.
When Iggy brought guitar wiz James Williamson into the band, Ron was demoted to bass guitar, the instrument formerly played in the Stooges by Dave Alexander (who died in 1975). Their third album, RAW POWER, credited to Iggy and the Stooges, is a classic in its own right, despite the curiously shrill and tinny mix given it by David Bowie for its 1973 release. It was remixed in the 1990s by Iggy, who showed how important Ron's thunder was to the overall sound -- the remix never fails to make me run to the volume control to turn the sucker down. This is an album that wants to trash your house.
The audio document of the last Stooges concert, METALLIC K.O., is the Altamont of vinyl -- less compelling as music than as a sociology documentary/thriller combination, as Iggy taunts and insults an audience of abusive bikers. MKO was all it took for me to become a compulsive collector of Stooges bootlegs, and I know that I was not alone in my habit as countless releases began emanating from Skydog, Bomp and other indy labels to drain my vinyl budget. It was an expensive but worthwhile indulgence, bringing to my attention lost live and studio gems like "I've Got a Right", "Gimme Some Skin", "Open Up and Bleed", "Rubber Legs", "Shake Appeal", "Heavy Liquid" and the unspeakably wonderful "I'm Sick of You."

Cool portrait of Ron Asheton by Rick Chesshire, found in the Caricatures slideshow here.
The original lineup of the Stooges reformed (with Minuteman Mike Watt now on bass) in 2003 after a nearly 30-year hiatus, during which time Ron had toiled in bands like Destroy All Monsters, The New Order and New Race, and also did some acting in minor league horror movies (one of his pet enthusiasms) like MOSQUITO, FROSTBITER: WRATH OF THE WENDIGO and LEGION OF THE NIGHT. Asheton went right back to playing Stooges guitar as if none of the intermediary years had passed, maintaining a tight steer on the shows as Iggy went his own dionysian way.
The group's only reunion album, 2007's THE WEIRDNESS, is as lyrically stupid and musically monotonous as the first two Stooges albums, but producer Steve Albini emphasizes the heavy-handed rhythm side of the band, downplaying Ron's ingenuity as a soloist, and unlike the classic albums, there's not much musical variety. There are no ballads, and too many of the songs share the same kick-off, the same key, the same shtick. Nevertheless, in live concert, the reunited Stooges -- the original members now at least pushing 60 -- continued to cook like eternal teenagers, Iggy continuing to dismantle the traditional boundaries separating artist and audience by diving into the mosh pits and inviting ticket buyers to come onstage and share his microphone, while Ron stayed by the amps as designated band driver, standing zen-still as he continued to perfect his searching squall.
When I call Ron Asheton the Coltrane of Psych Guitar, I'm not being colorful or facetious. The two musicians, one uber-respected and the other uber-unpretentious, one a musical maestro and the other an autodidact who came to guitar from the accordion, actually have a great deal in common -- in their modal approaches to soloing, their brave explorations of the glory of noise, even the ways in which they made a spirit of love spurt like paydirt from music under the hard drill of probing persisitence. It doesn't take exceptional ears to hear glimpses of "A Love Supreme" in "We Will Fall" from THE STOOGES, and in the course of my own bass-ackwards musical education, I first heard music that fit the description "sheets of sound" on FUN HOUSE, courtesy of Ron's dense soloing, years before I discovered Coltrane.
A few years ago, Elektra/Rhino Records reissued the first two Stooges albums in deluxe editions that incorporated additional discs of alternate and extended takes. Anyone craving a superdose of what made Ron Asheton so special need look no further than the previously unreleased "full versions" of "Ann" (7:52!) and "No Fun" (6:49!) appearing on THE STOOGES' second disc -- and we can also share in how misunderstood and undervalued he often was when his sizzling extended lead on the end of an alternate "Real Cool Time" is followed by producer John Cale drolly asking, "Can we cut that off at 2:20?"
Stranger things have happened (The Who touring minus the late Keith Moon and John Entwistle, hello?), but I would imagine the Stooges are behind us now. Iggy Pop is Iggy Pop, but goddamn the past tense, Ron Asheton was the Stooges. We might think our teenage years, when the Stooges' music was most relevant to us, are behind us too, but as modern life conspires to make us spend our adulthood in rooms with computers, texting each other, craving human interaction, hating to be alone and having to troll on Facebook for friends, their music continues to speak to us more directly than we may be willing to admit.
Another year with nothin' to do.
Don't let me be alone.
Ain't no wall.
Can I come over 2night?

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Here's To Edmund Purdom

Actor Edmund Purdom -- whose initial stardom in the stodgy 20th Century-Fox epics THE EGYPTIAN and THE PRODIGAL gave way to a lengthy career in international co-productions and dubbing gigs -- died January 1, 2009, in Rome, at the age of 84.

Born in Hertfordshire, England in 1924, Purdom's early work as a Fox contract player landed him minor bits in TITANIC and JULIUS CAESAR but, more importantly, put him in the right place at the right time. In 1954, when Mario Lanza put on too much weight to carry THE STUDENT PRINCE, director Richard Thorpe put Purdom in the lead, and when his JULIUS CAESAR co-star Marlon Brando pulled out of THE EGYPTIAN, Purdom rode that opportunity to a brief-lived stardom. His star then descended fast: He was named the 1954 recipient of the Golden Apple Awards' "Sour Apple" as "Least Cooperative Actor" and, by 1957, he was back in England working on the TV series SWORD OF FREEDOM. Two years later, he was doing anonymous voice work for THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK.

Much like Cameron Mitchell, Purdom found Rome to be a rich playground of opportunity for actors disregarded by Hollywood. His Italian career began with Riccardo Freda's TRAPPED IN TANGIERS (1957) and would eventually encompass some of the best, worst and most intriguing Italian pictures of his time: FURY OF THE PAGANS, NEFERTITI OF THE NILE, Sergio Corbucci's 1966 remake of THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, Pupi Avati's THOMAS E GLI INDEMONIATI, Jess Franco's LOS OJOS SINIESTROS DEL DR. ORLOFF and UN CAPITAN DE QUINZE ANOS, DR. FRANKENSTEIN'S CASTLE OF FREAKS, Massimo Dallamano's THE CURSED MEDALLION, MR. SCARFACE, Umberto Lenzi's riotous CITY OF THE WALKING DEAD aka NIGHTMARE CITY, PIECES, ATOR THE INVINCIBLE, AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK, ANTHROPOPHAGUS 2 aka MONSTER HUNTER and the TV-Movie SOPHIA LOREN: HER OWN STORY, in which he played actor-director Vittorio de Sica. In 1984, he directed his only film: DON'T OPEN 'TIL CHRISTMAS, a low-budget "slashing through the snow" item in which he also starred.

Purdom also narrated the English version of the film SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL -- which happened to be the subject of two feature articles in VIDEO WATCHDOG #145, still on sale at newsstands at the time of his death.

The IMDb credits Purdom with the familiar quote, "One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important" -- suggesting that he was the sort who preferred a lifetime of work to a "career."

Thursday, January 01, 2009

In Genuflection to Myriem Roussel

Since compiling my list of Twenty Favorite Actresses for this blog a couple of weeks ago, I have been unexpectedly blindsided by the work of another actress, another European actress, who somehow failed to captivate me on the first pass. I'm speaking of the Moroccan-born Myriem Roussel, best remembered for playing the title role in Jean-Luc Godard's controversial HAIL MARY (Je vous salue, Marie; 1985, pictured above and below). Were I compiling my list today, I'd be tempted to include Roussel -- a daring and talented, even iconoclastic actress, and one of the very few able to retain an aura of mystery while leaving little or nothing of her physicality to the imagination in various body-conscious films.

I've not been able to find out much about Roussel online except for a brief interview by Gerald Peary, which purports to be the only one she ever granted. (Colin MacCabe's book on Godard quotes her, in English, from another interview published in France.) Besides that, the IMDb shows that she has continued to work, for the last decade exclusively in French television. The IMDb lists a December 26, 1962 birthdate for her, while the French website for her current French teleseries DIANE, FEMME FLIC ("Diane, Lady Cop") records her natal day as February 26, 1961. Prior to HAIL MARY, she played small roles in Godard's PASSION (1982) and FIRST NAME: CARMEN (Prénom: Carmen; 1983, in which she's excruciatingly lovely as a swan-necked violinist), but the role that first caught my attention and led me back to these others was Luciano Odorisio's SACRILEGE [La monaca di Monza, 1986], in which she plays the 15th century historical figure of Sister Virginia Maria de Leyva -- the haughty, landowning nun at the nunnery at Monza who publicly offended a neighboring young nobleman, who had his comeuppance by seducing her repeatedly, corrupting her sisters, and undermining her authority in the eyes of the church.

It would be insulting and dismissive to call SACRILEGE a "nunsploitation" film, but that's how it was sold and how I approached it. I sought it out because I've been asked to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming biographical book about my friend, the actress Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, and SACRILEGE was chronologically the first film she made, playing the small but important supporting role of Sister Candida. (Coralina has one important scene in the film that was actually banned from exhibition in Italy, but which is included in the Substance Video DVD -- a fact that amazes her, as she has never seen the footage and considered it lost!) What I didn't expect is that SACRILEGE would turn out to be such an elegantly crafted little gem; it's exquisitely photographed by Romano Albani (Argento's INFERNO) and also features one of Pino Donaggio's most beautiful scores. But what is most lingering about the picture is what lingers about the films Roussel made with Godard: the devotion it pays to her Renaissant loveliness, which somehow looks as much at home in a nun's habit as in the basketball uniform she sports in HAIL MARY. There's a scene in SACRILEGE where Sister Virginia, awakening to her sexuality under the smouldering, corruptive gaze of neighboring nobleman Giampaolo Osio (Alessandro Gassman), looks into a mirror and pulls her habit away from a cascade of long auburn hair. The effect is nearly breathtaking:

What makes this moment so powerful is how, in the space of these few frames, Roussel's expression subtly morphs from timid curiosity to combined arousal and sorrow -- she tears her habit like a hymen -- and then from awe at her mirror's disclosure of her sensuality to a final expression that shows contempt for her vanity as she feels herself empowered by it. It is the moment of Sister Virginia's emergence as a complete, sexual being, body and soul, and by this point in the movie, we feel our heart breaking for her as it also pounds for her. SACRILEGE closes with a freeze-frame of Roussel's face that is too dark to reproduce here, but believe me, it would not look at all out of place hung in the Uffizi Gallery.

Godard (who has cited Roussel as one of the three faces of his cinema, along with his ex-wives Anna Karina and Anne Wiazemsky) cast her in his films at a point when his work became obsessed with composition and the schism between the static nature of great paintings and the necessity of motion pictures to move. Roussel was the perfect Muse for this era of his filmmaking because her beauty is absolutely in keeping with that of the models who posed for the great paintings of antiquity. Godard underscores this fact in the PETITES NOTES... featurette that accompanies HAIL MARY on the New Yorker Video DVD by dissolving between one of Roussel's screen tests and a Leonardo da Vinci sketch of the Virgin Mary:

I liked PASSION and loved FIRST NAME: CARMEN (which offers a delicious quote from Rainer Maria Rilke: "Beauty is only the start of bearable terror") but must admit, as moved as I was by Roussel's performance, to not fully understanding what Godard was up to in HAIL MARY, a film whose impenetrable qualities were surely a deliberate part (if not a double entendre) of his semi-reverent plan. In my equal parts impressed/befuddled view, I think Peter Rainer of THE LOS ANGELES HERALD EXAMINER summed it up quite capably in his back-cover blurb "Bewildering, beautiful." Suffice to say, I glean as much -- if not more -- profound satisfaction from these two genuinely miraculous frames as I do from anything in HAIL MARY itself.

Coralina tells me that Myriem Roussel kept to herself during the making of SACRILEGE, and didn't get to know her. It was possibly the nature of Roussel's role in that film which made her remoteness from fellow cast members seem the correct stance to maintain, but the Peary interview also describes the actress as "shy." A hypothetical lack of social skills could also explain why Roussel, after breaking off with Godard, has made only a dozen or so features and a few shorts in the past 23 years, while Juliette Binoche -- who had an early supporting role in HAIL MARY, and isn't terribly good in it -- went on to an extraordinary career (not to mention high placement on my Top Twenty Actresses list). Online images of Roussel are rare -- but here's a link to a couple of shots of her from DIANE, FEMME FLIC which show her now as a less ethereal but still handsome woman in early middle age. Somehow a TV cop show isn't a port I would have forecast for this particular actress, but sometimes a so-so career is indicative of a sage preference for private life, security and personal happiness; I hope this has been the case with Godard's Mary. You want someone like this to be happy.
As with too many of my favorite actresses, very little of Myriem Roussel's work is available in English apart from the few titles I've mentioned, but I'm determined to see more of it. I'm particularly curious to see SADNESS AND BEAUTY (Tristesse et beauté, 1985), THE VENUS TRAP (Die Venusfalle, 1988) and THE EYE THAT LIES (L'oeuil qui ment, 1994).

Have a Super Fine 2009

Last night was December thirty-one
But now a brand new year's begun!
So let's turn off the Dick Clark show
And finish off the Veuve Cliquot
By toasting all we've left to do:
May all our New Year's dreams come true.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Happiest Christmas

Donna and me at Cincinnati's Amarin restaurant, on our 34th anniversary -- December 23, 2008. Photo by Linda Wylie.

In many, mostly personal ways, 2008 has been the best year of my life to date and, though I don't think I expected it to be so, our 2008 Christmas turned out to be the happiest in memory and, I suspect, the happiest ever.
Donna and I usually spend the holidays alone, except for the evening we share with family members on Christmas Eve and one or two friendly visitors from out-of-town, but this year, we invited our friend Linda Wylie to come up from Nashville to share Christmas with us. We decided she would spend six days here, the 21st through the 27th, which meant that she had to bring her pet Westy, Shelby Gunn, with her. Our household of spoiled cats would be turned upside-down by the presence of a dog, but we felt they needed the experience. As it happens, our two male cats spent nearly all those days in our basement, cowering in groundless fear of the peppy little pooch, while our female -- the snooty one who never deigns to greet or acknowledge human company -- assumed the role of sovereign protector, venturing forth to flaunt her disregard of our four-footed guest and occasionally hiss to keep this bright-eyed intruder at bay.
Shelby Gunn, the Watchdog's watchdog.

We only got to know Linda -- who plays Nurse Moan-eek, the ditzy sidekick to Larry Underwood's Doctor Gangrene on the Nashville-based CREATURE FEATURE -- at WonderFest last year, but she rushed into our hearts and quickly became one of our dearest friends. More than that, it would now seem, she's like a missing piece from our household; while she and Shelby were here, both Donna and I felt happier and more complete. When she and I are together, I feel myself in the company of a kind of friend I've always needed but never had -- someone who makes me laugh, feel at ease, and become more of an extrovert (not to mention drink and smoke too much... but hey, it's the holidays); and when she and Donna are together, they become an amazing third entity -- funnier, more boistrous and uninhibited, always in perfect sync. We first bonded at Louisville's Sapporo, the world's greatest sushi restaurant, so sushi bar-hopping is a big part of our ritual. Linda and Donna even dress the part, donning matching chi-peis or complimentary kimonos (Donna's was given to her by Linda as a Christmas gift) and becoming Sista Red Dawn and Sista Golden Dawn... The Sushi Sistas!

Sushi sistas...

There were never such devoted sistas...

Caring, sharing every little thing that they are wearing...

Lord help the mista who comes between the Sushi Sistas!

I felt truly blessed to have both of these lovely ladies under my roof for a whole week -- and it actually became a whole week. We couldn't bear separating on the 27th, so the visit was extended by a day.
The highlight of that week, more than Donna's and my 34th wedding anniversary or presents or anything else, was seeing The Sushi Sistas sing along to various player piano rolls in the living room of our friends Joe & Patty Busam, including a WHITE CHRISTMAS medley that included the song "Sisters." They sometimes sounded like a pair of mangy cats squalling in the moonlight but, as I'm sure Joe and Patty would agree, witnessing this impromptu performance was the sweetest music to my eyes and ears. I was so happy to be in their zany orbit that I didn't even look at my presents, or remember what most of them were, after I'd opened them... not until last night when things returned to normal. (I did score some cool Xmas swag: a couple of Miles Davis box sets, some EC Comics reprints, and two volumes of TALES OF SUSPENSE Marvel Masterworks, including that unforgettable tale of terror, "Googam, Son of Goom.")
Linda and Shelby had to return home yesterday, and today our house feels like the Executive West Hotel in Louisville on the Monday after WonderFest closes out: much quieter, emptier, a little sad. Now it's time once again to lose ourselves in work and bring the next issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG into the world -- which should make our readers happy... right?
PS: VIDEO WATCHDOG #146 was mailed to our subscribers and distributors on December 19th, the week before Christmas, so it should be in the hands of our first-class subscribers by now or very soon. There's nothing up yet on our website about it, because we've been distracted, but, as it came out a bit late, we're calling it our December/January issue. The cover story is Mark F. Berry's interview with special effects veteran Harry Redmond, Jr., now 99 years of age, whose work on several classic RKO titles has earned him the extraordinary title of "Last Survivor of Skull Island"!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

R.I.P. Bill Landis

A posting by Lee Peterson at the Mobius Home Video Forum reports the sudden death of exploitation cinema expert, fanzine publisher, 42nd Street projectionist and actor Bill Landis from a heart attack.

Landis, who would have turned 50 next year, published the legendary fanzine SLEAZOID EXPRESS between 1980-1985 and later revived it for six issues with partner Michelle Clifford (with whom he also published the fanzine METASEX) in 1999. The couple collected the best of their writings in the Touchstone/Simon & Schuster book SLEAZOID EXPRESS, published in 2002. He also wrote the book ANGER: THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY OF KENNETH ANGER, reviews for the SOHO WEEKLY NEWS, articles and interviews for FILM COMMENT, THE VILLAGE VOICE, the early years of FANGORIA (his Andy Milligan interview remains one of the most important and amazing documents in FANGO's long history), and other publications.

One of exploitation cinema's most important archaeologists, Landis was the first writer to pay serious attention to the works of filmmakers like Milligan and Michael & Roberta Findlay, and film series like the OLGA pictures, FLESH trilogy and the ILSA saga starring Dyanne Thorne. A whole generation of fanzines, beginning with Michael J. Weldon's original PSYCHOTRONIC, were cast in his image. This IMDb bio tells more, and a whole assortment of promotional interviews can be found here.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Translated from the Old Morse

Käre Hedebrant waxes wintery in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.

A friend who is similarly enamored of a certain Swedish horror film sent me this link today, along with the following message:

-- . .-. .-. -.-- / -.-. .... .-. .. ... - -- .- ... / ..-. .-. --- -- / . .-.. ..

I thought I'd do the seasonal thing by sharing them.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

After Reading Susan Strasberg

Hi, Susan -- can I carry your books?

As I recently mentioned, my interest in the screen career of Susan Strasberg inspired me to finally acquire copies of her two books, BITTERSWEET and MARILYN AND ME, both works of autobiography. I've read them both now and, while I was very pleased to discover that the personality captured in these capably written books was bright and resourceful and good company, it was disconcerting to find out how frustrated, unhappy and tense she was for so much of her short life. These books make the reader want to reach out to comfort someone who is no longer there.

It was appalling to read the details of the constraint that characterised her relationship with her famous parents, the violent ups and downs of her mostly disastrous love life (which began with a teenage affair with older married man Richard Burton), the hellish abuse that rained down upon her during her marriage to Christopher Jones (whose work I fill find it hard to enjoy again), and the additional tears that came with the birth of her daughter Jennifer, who was born with heart and soft palate problems (both eventually corrected by surgery). She writes with enthusiasm about her early successes, especially those on the stage, which suggests she may have been happier as a stage actress; she writes about her films with less feeling, and is surprisingly (but understandably) antagonistic toward two of my favorites, THE TRIP and PSYCH-OUT, for, as she claims, romanticizing a drug culture whose disastrous effects she had already seen at first hand -- Jones had coerced her into trying pot and peyote, but she had steered clear of LSD because it was a chemical, unnatural, and her feelings about it were confirmed when her younger brother Johnny had taken acid in a despondent mood and leaped from a high window in an unsuccessful suicide attempt, the year before she made those two films. (His life was saved by an awning -- which then bounced him through another glass window.)

BITTERSWEET was written in 1980, when Strasberg would have been nearly 40, and it ends on a note of hard-won wisdom and clarity; she has learned to love a man's soul before his flesh (a difficult lesson for her), to act in order to live (not vice-versa), and she is writing the book that her mother always intended to write, making that family dream come true. My only criticism of the book is that it becomes sketchier as it nears the end, rendering many more contemporary episodes as mere vignettes, probably evidence of the working actor's schedule bearing down on a publishing deadline.

MARILYN AND ME, written in 1992 (when she was approximately the age I am now), presents a subtly changed Susan Strasberg, who was by then a drama teacher as well as an actress. While the book delivers an interesting, candid, fully dimensional account of her friendship with Marilyn Monroe, I found it more rushed, less illuminatingly written than BITTERSWEET. The final chapter crams in an unseemly number of epigrams from other people, often applied to subjects they weren't talking about, and it gave me the off-putting impression of a text written by one of those motivational speakers, or by a teacher so insecure or limited in her own eurekas that she must reference and apply the wisdom of others. The only positive news about this book, really, is that its author has finally become her own mother, Paula Miller Strasberg, likewise a teacher, whose 1966 death in her mid-fifties left her daughter feeling so vulnerable and alone. Unfortunately, part of that metamorphosis was that this valiant survivor would also die young, of the same disease that claimed her mother, at the age of 60, in 1999. The dust jackets of both books mention that Strasberg was working on a novel at the time of their publications, but the (at least) 12-year project never came to fruition.

One of the more surprising episodes of BITTERSWEET, for me, reveals that Strasberg's friendship with Noel Harrison and his family got her interested in Reichian therapy. After reading some introductory books loaned to her by the Harrisons -- including Orson Bean's ME AND THE ORGONE (which Strasberg calls the best and most comprehensive general introduction to Reich's theories, and which I'm presently adapting into a screenplay for a romantic comedy) -- she embarked on therapy for herself and her infant daughter, which restored some much needed pink color into the bluish baby and had apparently worthwhile psychological benefits for herself. It amazes me to think that, while Noel Harrison was making episodes of THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E and Susan Strasberg was making THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL!, they were both involved in Reichian therapy. The world is a much more interesting place than our entertainment usually lets us know.


Joy Bang soaks in a stylishly creepy bathroom in MESSIAH OF EVIL.

Code Red, the exciting cult video label, has made my Christmas by announcing on their blog that the first-ever widescreen release of Willard Huyck's MESSIAH OF EVIL is currently being readied for DVD release next May or June. Huyck is supervising the 2.35:1 transfer himself and will be recording an audio commentary sometime in January.

Though it was made in 1973, I tend to think of MESSIAH OF EVIL as the American SUSPIRIA: I don't know if Dario Argento ever saw Huyck's film, but both pictures make similarly auspicious use of disorienting art direction and Technicolor. Unless you happened to see this film during its scattered original releases as DEAD PEOPLE or REVENGE OF THE SCREAMING DEAD, you've had to settle for one of many public domain releases that always make a hash of its original stunning anamorphic framing, making the film impossible to fully experience or appreciate. The mise en scène here, which makes extensive use of neon lighting and eerie post-Warholian murals by Joan Mocine, is truly unsettling.

This is always one of the first titles I mention to people who ask me to recommend an outstanding obscure horror movie; I advise them to run right out and pick up one of those cheap editions -- they won't regret it. But if you still haven't seen it, I would now suggest you wait and see it next summer the way it was intended to be seen. In the meantime, visit the Code Red site and check out some of the other fantastic frame grabs they've posted.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Cult Equals MC Quare

My "No Zone" review of THE QUARE FELLOW, starring Patrick McGoohan, is now posted at SIGHT & SOUND's website here, and it can also be found in their January 2009 issue, on newsstands now. The cover story is the Best of 2008, in which 50 different critics and contributors are polled on their favorite films of the past year. I'm not included in that number; I was invited, but I saw so few new films this past year, I declined to participate.

I did, however, participate in a critical symposium on Cult Movies that appears in the current, Winter 2008, issue of CINEASTE magazine, along with J. Hoberman, Danny Peary (author of the book CULT MOVIES) and others. It's my first-ever appearance in the pages of this venerable publication, and I'm honored to be there. My fellow contributors and I were all asked the same five questions, geared toward to defining and redefining this elusive term "cult movie" for the 21st century, and it makes for interesting reading. This one you can only read by putting on your galoshes and trudging out to your local newsstand, but it's worth the effort.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

VIDEO WATCHDOG's Favorite DVDs of 2008

VIDEO WATCHDOG's Favorite DVD of 2008:
Another year, another ton of DVDs to process: an impossible job, as always, and a job now further complicated by Blu-ray editions. This process being driven primarily by whatever we're most attracted to watch, and what we have time to watch, there is inevitably a huge number of worthy releases that fell through the cracks. For example: Fox's mouth-watering MURNAU AND BORZAGE AT FOX set, which I frankly can't afford and which Fox was able to send us only in the form of a few sample discs. It looks fantastic, and is surely worth mentioning if only for offering both the silent and talkie versions of Murnau's SUNRISE.

This year, in order to keep things more focused and semi-concise, I have asked our contributors to select only their Top 5 picks, with domestic and import titles fair game. The results still offer variety and were able to zone in on one specific favorite title, even though the honored title was still chosen by fewer than half of our participants.
We start with the editors, then move on to our contributors. Thanks to everyone for participating!


TIM LUCAS (Editor's Choice)

In alphabetical order:
THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS (Kino on Video): The most moving, stimulating film experience I've had this year, probably this decade, and it would be my top pick even if this list wasn't alphabetical -- proving that, sometimes, a film alone is enough to qualify. Shot entirely by camcorder, Lech Majewski's masterwork shows what is possible within the limitations of hand-held cinema if the story is approached with sufficient density and imagination. It's a magical, chronologically skewed love story involving a terminally ill art historian and a naval engineer, who take an apartment in Venice and set about spending their remaining months, weeks or days making a film about Hieronymous Bosch's eponymous masterpiece. In the process of doing so, they blur the lines between art and reality and life and death, bringing the painting's details to life while inadvertently documenting their own desperate searches for truth in the face of inevitable tragedy. Rarely has a film taken its audience into such unflinchingly intimate contact with its characters, their hopes and fears, their spirit and dreams, their intimacy. You can read my full SIGHT & SOUND review here.
GEORGES MÉLIES: FIRST WIZARD OF CINEMA 1896-1913 (Flicker Alley): Anyone who fancies himself a devotée of fantastic cinema needs to be better acquainted with the work of its father. While this revelatory compilation is not a complete set of Méliès' surviving films, it's as close as we're likely to see anytime soon. There is enough here, though, to offer a more rounded view of his achievement than can be derived from sets that focus only on his fantasy-themed shorts, which deny him larger recognition as the father of the docu-drama, as well. The set also includes Georges Franju's exquisite short film LE GRAND MÉLIES in excellent quality.
HOUDINI THE MOVIE STAR (Kino on Video): I'm not sure that Harry Houdini could have acted his way out of a paper bag, but you can't take your eyes off him, which makes the collection of all the surviving footage from his dramatic screen career an important testament to his magnetism. The set is just as valuable as a collection of screen work by scenarist Arthur B. Reeve, the author-inventor of fictional science detective Prof. Craig Kennedy, without whom pop culture might not have given us Doc Savage or The Batman.
ICONS OF HORROR: HAMMER FILMS (Sony): This set is of tremendous importance for releasing, for the first time ever in America, the uncut version of THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, which (aside from a signal failure on the part of makeup artist Roy Ashton) is now more clearly evident as one of Terence Fisher's finest, most original and transgressive horror retreads. This counts as the genre's most important restoration of the year. Also included are Fisher's THE GORGON, one of his most memorable atmospheric pieces; Seth Holt's SCREAM OF FEAR, an effective mystery thriller with Susan Strasberg and Christopher Lee; and Michael Carreras' THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB, available for viewing in widescreen for the first time since its 1965 theatrical release.
KEN RUSSELL AT THE BBC (BBC America): It was one of the year's greatest disappointments when this box set of Ken Russell's BBC work arrived minus the long-unavailable DANCE OF THE SEVEN VEILS originally touted as part of the package. However, disappointment doesn't alter the fact that Russell used this period of filmmaking to forge one of the most brilliant directorial styles ever to come out of British cinema. And a must for admirers of Oliver Reed.

Other Highlights: Masters of Cinema's UK import of Georges Franju's JUDEX and NUITS ROUGE (aka SHADOWMAN); Freddie Francis' terror masterpiece THE SKULL (Legend Films), available for viewing in full scope for the first time in over 40 years; the definitive issue of Jess Franco's mesmerizing EUGENIE DE SADE (Blue Underground); SWEDEN HEAVEN AND HELL (Klubb Super8), a mondo film you can dream on; VAMPYR (Criterion and Masters of Cinema import), two stellar presentations of Dreyer's classic with unique extras exclusive to each, including an audio commentary on the import by Guillermo del Toro; HOW THE WEST WAS WON (Warner), mostly for its outstanding supplemental documentary CINERAMA ADVENTURE; and NIGHT GALLERY - SEASON TWO (Universal), the long-awaited DVD completion of Rod Serling's series, including several of the program's best episodes ("Cool Air", "Pickman's Model", "The Sins of the Fathers", "The Caterpillar") and three commentary tracks by the busiest man in show business, Guillermo del Toro.


JOHN CHARLES (Associate Editor)
2008 found me largely forgoing New Releases in order to get caught up on the backlog of formerly New Releases still residing in their now dust-covered shrink wrap-up on my over crowded shelves. I did get around to seeing a few titles and the following ones (listed alphabetically) were especially notable.

CHUNGKING EXPRESS (Criterion): Wong Kar-wai's exquisite international cult favorite finally arrives in a Region 1 special edition that features video (the intended 1.66:1 ratio) and audio (an invigorating new 5.1 remix) approval from Wong and co-cinematographer Christopher Doyle. A fine presentation is enhanced by a consistently interesting and valuable Tony Rayns commentary.
HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (Universal): More imaginative and entertaining (not to mention, far less oppressive) than THE DARK KNIGHT, Guillermo Del Toro's follow-up equals his original's imagination and visual poetry, while also delivering some surprisingly stark PG-13 horror (watch out for The Tooth Fairies!) A very impressive transfer and extras make the 3 disc Special Edition the way to go.
HEROES TWO (Media Blasters): The first release from Media Blasters' Shaw Brothers package offers a beautiful rendition of Chang Cheh's martial arts perennial, but is also a bittersweet offering that represented the final work of the incredibly knowledgeable and generous martial arts scholar Linn Haynes, who delivers an excellent audio commentary.
RODAN/WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (Classic Media): The presentations are uneven (the English dub of RODAN looks pretty shopworn and the original Japanese version of GARGANTUAS is too dark), but either one of these kaiju eiga classics would have been worth buying on its own, so this double feature (well, quadruple feature, as you get both versions) release is irresistible. Classy packaging and a good documentary on the history of special FX in Japanese monster movies make the offering even more unbeatable.
SUPERMAN REDEEMED (No official release): The prevalence of sophisticated editing tools like Final Cut Pro is resulting in some surprising slick and sophisticated amateur productions. In addition to these are a series of Fan Edits that seek to reshape disappointing professional movies into something more palatable. The resulting revamps vary in quality, but the anonymously created SUPERMAN REDEEMED is a clever and accomplished blending of scenes and storylines from SUPERMAN III and SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (with a pair of sequences from both the Richard Donner and Richard Lester versions of SUPERMAN II used for bridging) into a new, standalone film that is more satisfying than either one of them, and suffers from fewer continuity hiccups than seen in SUPERMAN II: THE RICHARD DONNER CUT. Not officially available on DVD (or officially sanctioned at all, for that matter), SUPERMAN REDEEMED can be downloaded from various torrent sites and is an unexpected treat for fans of the Christopher Reeve Man of Steel series.


CLOVERFIELD (Paramount): This 9/11 elegy functions as the best Godzilla movie ever and the saddest, from the POV of the stomped-upon instead of those saving the world. It's also another in the trend of American Failure stories that explode the myth of the self-sufficient hero--see also GRIZZLY MAN, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, INTO THE WILD, IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, etc.

SWEENEY TODD (Paramount): 2007's best horror movie. Cannibal pics (with or without zombies) are always some kind of statement about "consumer society." This movie is frank about it, and we can take the rhetoric and the gloom because it's all so paradoxically artificial and lovely, from the voices to the gouts of blood. Tonally, it's the dour flip side to BIG FISH, the other contender for Tim Burton's best film. The DVD has good docs and spares us a Burton commentary, all good choices.

INNOCENCE (Homevision): Lucile Hadzihalilovic's fable of uncertain time and unfathomable place: a boarding school deep in a forest. Girls arrive in coffins and learn certain skills before going forth into the world's mysteries. Idyllic and lovely, harsh and dreadful, metaphorical and concrete, it's told almost completely and calmly from the girls' point of view.

DEXTER: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (Showtime/Paramount): More suspenseful and disturbing than Season One and deeper in its revelations and ambiguities. With boxes of new TV like this, HEROES, PUSHING DAISIES, MAD MEN etc. on top of old shows like THE UNTOUCHABLES, ROUTE 66, HONEY WEST, M SQUAD etc. to catch up on, I propose a moratorium on new releases for five years.

MICHAEL CLAYTON (Warner): Not the kind of socially earnest statement I dread from George Clooney. Suffused with the immanence of an alternate reality and edited with lovely indirectness, this is almost a subtle work of fantasy, a dangerous fairy tale complete with doppelgangers. Every scene combines classical clarity with modernist ambiguity. Tilda Swinton radiates desperation as she tries to swim in a sea of powerful men.

Omitted from this list at great pain: GEORGES MELIES: FIRST WIZARD OF CINEMA (1986-1913), on the cop-out that I haven't finished watching it), BRAND UPON THE BRAIN, THE SAVAGES, THERE WILL BE BLOOD, PHASE IV, NORIKO'S DINNER TABLE, and THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY.



Only five selections! Lord, ten would be easier, and a couple of dozen much more so. Well, I’ll contain myself as best I can…

GAUMONT, LE CINEMA PREMIER (Paramount, France): A seven-disc set, attractively packaged in a file box, of early French cinema. Two discs offer eleven Feuillade shorts made between 1907 and 1913, ranging from staged tableaux of social realism to surreal comedy (BOUT DE ZAN VOLE UN ELEPHANT). Three contain the work of Léonce Perret, including two full-length melodramas with strikingly naturalistic performances, L'ENFANT DE PARIS and LE ROMAN DE MOUSSE (which ends as possibly the cinema’s first courtroom drama). Two represent the early career of Alice Guy, the first female film director, who proves to have made great silent comedies: try LA COURSE A LA SAUCISSE, a four-minute chase that becomes increasingly surreal, and the 1907 LE BILLET DE BANQUE, which in eleven minutes manages to prefigure Chaplin’s tramp, Hulot’s dogs, Renoir’s Boudu and even (in the moment when the tramp finds a rosary in his pocket and chucks it on the floor) Buñuel, as well as being genuinely hilarious. A trove for film historians, often a lot of fun, not infrequently beautiful.

THIS SPORTING LIFE (Criterion): A splendid restoration of Lindsay Anderson’s first masterpiece, one of the few real films to emerge from the British new wave of the period. It can be mistaken for mere social realism, but it’s far more than that – its scenes of passion have a terrifying intensity, and its structure recalls Resnais without aping him. It makes me mourn all over again the lost opportunity of Anderson’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS with Richard Harris. The two-disc set also contains (along with much else) two of his early documentaries and his dispirited final filmic statement, Is That All There Is?

Which epic from the Miriam collection? Much as I love EL CID, I’m even fonder of THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, and the Miriam restoration is the kind of treatment it deserves.
Have the colours been boosted a little? I much prefer how it looks here to the appearance of the 70mm print that turned up in Britain last year, faded to amber (appropriately elegiac, maybe, but that kind of inadvertency can pall). Even without the copious extras on the two-disc set (or three-disc, if you can find it), this would be an essential edition of Anthony Mann’s great late film.

I’ve chosen a western, though that immediately makes me wish I had room for the excellent Boetticher box. However, the restoration of Raoul Walsh’s THE BIG TRAIL is extraordinary – a 1930 widescreen epic in semi-documentary style with vistas as awesome as anything in Ford or Anthony Mann. That the camera hardly ever moves only adds to the film’s power. The two-disc Region 1 set from Fox includes the reshot Academy ratio version, a fascinating comparison in itself.

Leo McCarey’s legendary 1937 box-office disaster MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (rumoured at the time to have driven members of the audience to suicide) is at last available from BAC Video in France as PLACE AUX JEUNES. It may well be the director’s greatest film; it’s certainly his most moving (as much so in its own way as TOKYO STORY, which is a partial remake). The French subtitles are irremovable, but don’t let them put you off. The film is available as a single Region 2 disc or as part of the set HOLLYWOOD CLASSICS: LEO McCAREY, which also includes SIX OF A KIND, BELLE OF THE NINETIES and RUGGLE OF RED GAP.



GRINDHOUSE (Japanese import box set): The long-supressed (in America) theatrical cut, both extended features, all of the American supplements and a handful of exclusive Japanese extras? Okay--color me satisfied. GRINDHOUSE (Japanese import box set) The long-supressed (in America) theatrical cut, both extended features, all of the American supplements and a handful of exclusive Japanese extras? Okay--color me satisfied.

ICONS OF ADVENTURE/ICONS OF HORROR (Sony): A Hammer bumper crop is always cause for celebration, and it's nice to see such potentially "troublesome" titles as THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY and THE TERROR OF THE TONGS slip through, but it's the original British cut of THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL that would have landed on this list with or without the accompanying features. And while there's more to it than that, let me say it for the record: "DAMN you, Jekyll!!!!"

THE NAKED PREY (Criterion): One of the most gripping and influential films of my youth--and still the first thing I name when asked about horrific sequences in non-horror films. Amazing work from a near one-man-band (Cornel Wilde) with a healthy respect for nature which comes across in spite of the deliberately disturbing footage of predation by man and beast alike. This stands in direct contrast to...

STANLEY (BCI): Certainly not one of the "best" titles available this or any year, but unquestionably one of the most significant jobs of restoration performed in 2008. Over 15m of extra footage does, indeed, make William Grefe's "respect nature or die" snake thriller a stronger film... and simultaneously reveals it to be a work of contemptible hypocrisy from filmmakers every bit as bad as the fictional snake-bashers earmarked for lethal revenge in their work. Get 'em, Stanley!

WALKER (Criterion): Twenty years ago, I thought I was the only one who liked Alex Cox's ill-received followups to his acclaimed REPO MAN and SID AND NANCY. Well, STRAIGHT TO HELL justifiably remains a cult item at best, but there's nothing like a little Criterion vindication to set the record straight on Cox's astonishing biopic, headlining a mesmerizing Ed Harris as William Walker, the notorioius, self-appointed President of Nicaragua...


1. ZODIAC 2-DISC DIRECTOR’S CUT (Paramount): An outstanding presentation of David Fincher’s absorbing investigation into the true story of California’s Zodiac Killer. Kudos to the filmmakers for including extensive documentaries that open the main feature’s take on events up to question. See my review in VW 139 for more detail.

2. DOCTOR WHO: THE COMPLETE FOURTH SERIES (BBC Video/2 Entertain): 13 episodes, including more gems from the pen of Steven Moffat (who wrote the best episodes from previous seasons, among them “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink"), a 70m special placing The Doctor (David Tennant) on the Titanic, an 8m short teaming Tennant with the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison), and over 4 hours of special features… I haven’t had time to take it all in yet, but the new DOCTOR WHO consistently delivers the goods.

3. A PISTOL FOR RINGO (Eine Pistole für Ringo, KOCH Media, PAL R2): Ducio Tessari’s outstanding 1965 Euro-Western, released in an anamorphic transfer for the first time, making up for the compromised and expensive Japanese release and the more recent (but still non-anamorphic) Thai release. English and Italian soundtracks are included in addition to the German track, but there are no English subs, unfortunately. The lack of English subs does render the extras of limited value to monolingual English speakers, but, still, this is an attractive release of an undeservedly obscure movie that makes for great holiday viewing (it takes place at Christmas). Available from

4. THE LAST WINTER (IFC): Graced with a much higher budget than his earlier trilogy of revisionist horror, it should come as no surprise that THE LAST WINTER is the most expansive of Larry Fessenden’s movies, as well as a distillation and summation of his prior work. Like NO TELLING, HABIT and WENDIGO, THE LAST WINTER serves up melancholy horror, but this time it’s melancholy on a planetary level. Following a Toronto screening of HABIT, Fessenden stated that, in an ideal world, the audience wouldn’t know what kind of a movie they were about to watch, and would get drawn in by the drama before being blindsided by the fantastic. Of course, that’s not how the marketplace works, and Fessenden’s restrained, low-key approach to the horror genre can leave some fans feeling frustrated. For those on Fessenden’s wavelength, however, his “arthouse horror films” often resonate in ways that typical scary movies just don’t. Fessenden sees horror films as an attempt at “accepting death [and] coming to terms with our limitations.” It’s impossible to watch THE LAST WINTER without comparing it to John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982); the biggest difference is that, this time, instead of an alien threat coming to our planet, it’s the planet itself that has turned against humanity. Fessenden is much more concerned with messages than Carpenter is, and while his movie does not come close to providing the horror or thrills that THE THING does, THE LAST WINTER has its own, different strengths, among them a genuine emotional dimension, mounting dread, and a poignant and moving climax. A worthy release of the latest feature from one of the most original and interesting voices working in the horror genre today.
5. JACK BROOKS: MONSTER SLAYER (Anchor Bay): Okay, I might be a bit biased, as my good friend David Scott (and my partner on ALL THAT IS HIDDEN) provided the special makeup effects for this, the debut feature from Jon Knautz… but from any viewpoint, this is a well-executed and extras-packed presentation of a fun movie that brings back the days when monsters were real (i.e. actors in suits) and genre filmmakers wanted to scare and amuse us, not just disturb us. If you haven’t seen this likeable throwback, check it out. As a DVD experience, its far more satisfying than long-awaited but barebones 2008 releases like LOST HIGHWAY, NAVAJO JOE and PHASE IV, so it earns its place on my list on that basis too.


It's been a great year for DVDs, in my opinion, partly because I've been retroactively discovering so many great treasures that were released in years past that I overlooked. Kino's LUBITSCH IN BERLIN box set, Network's box set of ALFRED HITCHCOCK THE EARLY YEARS, Masters of Cinema's KURONEKO, DARKPLACE, ACE IN THE HOLE... but I'm supposed to focus on just five selections, so I'll try to stay within the calendar year of 2008:

1. I would be hard pressed to imagine any more momentous or worthy DVD release than Flicker Alley's GEORGES MELIES: FIRST WIZARD OF CINEMA set. The majority of DVDs present home-use editions of movies recently seen in theaters, or upgrades of home-use versions of classic and catalog titles. From time to time, specialist labels unearth long-lost treasures making their DVD debut, but many of these are more curious or collector's pieces than truly essential products. But here, oh my, here we have a massive collection of films that are all at once fun, enchanting, inspirational, immeasurably influential, and the vast majority of which have not been available to the public for nearly a hundred years. It doesn't get any more essential than this.

2. THREE'S A CROWD/THE CHASER from Kino. There is something vaguely unseemly about listing a DVD I worked on, but notice I selected Kino's competing Harry Langdon set, not my own collection (which actually came out in 2007 and so wouldn't qualify anyway)--I have no personal vested interest in this thing any more and I can honestly say that even if you never listen to, or vehemently despise, my commentary track, you need this DVD. Harry Langdon was an avant-garde comedian, a minimalist artist, a pioneer of abstract impressionism--the silent comedy equivalent of Samuel Becket. THREE'S A CROWD is a comedy that isn't funny, a masterpiece that was so reviled it destroyed his career, and has been widely maligned as a terribly made film. But that's all either untrue or beside the point--it is a brilliantly stinging tragedy that in my opinion takes Charlie Chaplin's THE KID out back and beats it to a bloody pulp. Do you like Claude Chabrol? Kiyoshi Kurosawa? Well, here's their slapstick equivalent. The DVD was mastered in HD and looks amazing--and the version of THE CHASER that accompanies it was reconstructed for this DVD thanks to the valiant assistance of several unsung Langdon fans who were not prepared to let his last surviving silent feature remain mangled and incomplete. This is film historical heroism at its best.

3. JUDEX/SHADOWMAN from Masters of Cinema, fast becoming my favorite DVD label. Both of these pulp thriller classics from Georges Franju were previously only available as DVD-Rs from the usual haunts, consigned to lower class status in the world of mid-century French New Wave films. American critics have never been very comfortable with the New Wave's love of pulp--preferring to prioritize the more conventionally dramatic work from the stuff like this that betrays its love of B-movies and comic books. Now you can compare Feuillade's original JUDEX serial to its swingin' sixties remake--and who doesn't want to do that?

4. When I first saw JEKYLL sitting on the new release shelf at my local Borders, my first reaction was, "the world doesn't need yet another adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde." But then I saw Steven Moffat's name on the thing, and my curiosity was piqued. If one of the most deservedly lauded screenwriters in England thinks he has something new to bring to this hoary old idea, then he deserves the benefit of the doubt. I intended to watch the 6 episode mini-series over 6 nights, but halfway through I was so hooked I had no option but to gun it through and watch the last three hours in succession. If there's any criticism to bear on this extraordinary achievement it is that there are too many good ideas, and some of them remain underdeveloped as a result. But as flaws go, I'd always prefer too many ideas to too few.

5. THE PRISONER 40th Anniversary set from Network is one of those "upgrades" I mentioned above, but for the Best Television Show Ever, what are ya gonna do? It's too bad the A&E editions didn't show this degree of curatorship and quality, but it may have taken the success of previous editions to prove to the producers at Network that there was a strong enough market to support and reward the investment in this gorgeous upgrade.


As usual, many of what I suspect will be the DVDs of 2008 are in my to-be-watched pile and still shrink-wrapped – but here are some random recommendations of things that came out this year, or which I got round to watching.

THE COLLECTOR'S CHOICE: THE FILMS OF BUDD BOETTICHER (Sony): Following up the excellent standalone edition of SEVEN MEN FROM NOW, here are all the other Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns (THE TALL T, DECISION AT SUNDOWN, BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE, RIDE LONSESOME, COMANCHE STATION), plus a documentary, celebrity intros, etc. Endlessly rewatchable films in optimal editions.

THE OWL SERVICE (Network UK import): I contributed an essay to the liner notes of the R2 Network release of this 1969 TV serial, adapted from the novel by Alan Garner. Three teenagers – notably Gillian Hills (BEAT GIRL, BLOW UP, DEMONS OF THE MIND) in her greatest role – discover mysteriously decorated crockery in the attic of a remote house in Wales, and are caught up in the cyclical re-enactment of an ancient, tragic legend. Ostensibly for kids, this does many startling things adult drama would be afraid of these days. I listed this last year as a bootleg, but the official release is splendid.

TOUCH OF EVIL (Universal): When I reviewed an earlier release of the ‘restored version’ of this major title, containing a cut of the film re-edited after Welles’ death in accordance with a memo he made at the time of the original release, I said it was a shame that the disc didn’t include also the previously accepted version of the film, arguing that the Welles memo was a negotiating document (making suggestions he didn’t really want to fight for as bargaining chips to get the changes he wanted) rather than a hard-and-fast plan. Well, the 50th Anniversary R1 edition from Universal has two versions. The original theatrical release and a longer, ‘preview’ cut (the default version in the UK for as long as I can remember), plus four commentary tracks (including one from the late Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston) and documentaries. Now, the job is done …

GET SMART (HBO): I have the nicely-packaged R1 box set of all five seasons, but various R1 and R2 single season releases are around or coming. In viewing, I’m near the end of Season Three, when the show is slipping slightly – but the earlier episodes hold up remarkably well, not so much for the snappy satire (a commentator in Sight & Sound said Get Smart gave a better sense of how the CIA conducted its business than THE GOOD SHEPHERD) and clever gadgetry but the endlessly funny central relationships, as the blithe, confident idiot Max (Don Adams) is taken to be a superspy genius by everyone, including his more competent but loveblind partner 99 (Barbara Feldon), except his eternally frustrated, driven-to-the-edge-of-insanity Chief (Ed Platt).

THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS (New Line): This was among my favourite films of last year on the strength of its theatrical showing, and the disc does an admirable job of contextualising the documentary – it has especially strong commentary tracks, one by the filmmakers on how they found and shaped the material and one by experts who offer real insights into the odd, obscurantist world of retro computer gaming. I’ve written more about the film online here.


VAMPYR (Criterion): I'm sure I'm not alone in nominating this for one of the best - if not the best - DVD release/rescue of 2008. The supplements are wonderful in their own right and certainly welcome and Criterion's packaging is exemplary but it's the feature itself that continues to impress, especially now that it's been freed from the company of elephantine subtitles that in previous prints ate up half the picture. Skip a couple of meals and pick this up... it's good enough to eat.

PHASE IV (Legend Films): How wonderful to have this 70s rarity - the only feature film ever directed by main title creator Saul Bass - available on DVD and a good-looking one, too. Me Generation sci-fi ponderousness at its best!

RODAN/WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (Classic Media): I never would have packaged these two daikaiju eiga together but I'm glad somebody did... and who better than Toho? Answer: nobody.
RICCO THE MEAN MACHINE (Dark Sky Films): It's so great to have this particularly nasty piece of Euro-sleaze available (especially after such a long delay due to legal wrangling), complete, uncut and gin clear in all its acid-washed glory. If you're been able to watch Manny Zarzo castrated on a 52" flatscreen... a drink to you, sir.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (Dimension): Happy 40th birthday, NOTLD, and what a gorgeous, sharp transfer to mark the occasion. We all grew up with this classic looking like a kinescope on any number of late, late show broadcasts and public domain video tapes; if you haven't revisited this in optimum condition, you may well see it as if for the first time. Toss all previous editions onto the fire.



1. FIST OF LEGEND (Weinstein Company): Thanks to the Weinstein Company, a lot of kung fu cinema wrongs have been righted with the continuation of their outstanding Dragon Dynasty series. Last year’s KING BOXER (Tian Xia Di Yi Quan) was a joy to behold in comparison with my wretched old public domain copy (under the title FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH). Earlier this year THE TAI-CHI MASTER (Tai ji: Zhang San Feng) finally got the treatment it deserved, thereby condemning the old Dimension Home Video version (retitled TWIN WARRIORS) to the scrap pile. Perhaps the most impressive Dragon Dynasty release to date is the Jet Li classic FIST OF LEGEND, an exciting remake of the Bruce Lee vehicle THE CHINESE CONNECTION (Jing Wu Men). Unlike the anemic Buena Vista Home Entertainment disc from 2000, this robust two-disc rendition of FIST OF LEGEND boasts over three hours of supplemental material and, most important, features a digitally re-mastered, anamorphic widescreen interpretation of the film in original Cantonese with English subtitles. Watching Li tear through opposition in the film’s opening fight sequence tells you everything you need to know about his fighting style, which has never been on display any better than in this Gordon Chan film, with imaginative martial arts chorography by the great Yuen Woo Ping.

2. THEM (Dark Sky Films): As much as I enjoyed THE STRANGERS, the exceptionally scary American takeoff of this taut French horror film, somehow THEM left more of a lasting impact on me; those unexplained noises than emanate from my downstairs periodically are now cause for investigation. So riveting is the film’s home invasion component that the dénouement cannot quite measure up to it, but I never felt cheated—not sure if I ever have felt that way following a modern movie experience that failed to reach eighty minutes. Fortunately this DVD is augmented with a collection of featurettes that are worth investing some time in. Skillfully photographed and edited, THEM is one of the most accomplished exercises in suspense to be released on DVD this past year.

3. ICONS OF HORROR: HAMMER FILMS (Sony): This addition to Sony’s Icons of Horror Collection offers tremendous value at its $24.96 SRP, but at the moment the savvy internet shopper can give it a home for well under $20. Hell, I would have paid $20 just for THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, or the enjoyable PSYCHO permutation SCREAM OF FEAR. Also included in the 2-disc set are THE GORGON and the merely passable Hammer film THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB. Special features are limited to theatrical trailers, but each film is presented in an anamorphically enhanced widescreen version for the first time in the U.S. I’ll take multiple widescreen films over supplemental material any day.

4. IRON MAN (Paramount): I cannot say I’m a big fan of the superhero genre; heretofore my two faves were UNBREAKABLE and THE INCREDIBLES. But IRON MAN is as good as any film of this type that preceded it, especially alongside such modern catastrophes as SUPERMAN RETURNS and the crummy X-MEN films. If anything comes along to trump IRON MAN’s surprisingly intelligent screenplay and spot-on performances anytime soon—well—let’s face it, that just isn’t likely to happen (count me among the few who found THE DARK KNIGHT to be a bit overrated). IRON MAN on Blu-ray delivers a particularly potent demonstration of the format’s potential, along with the expected amount of supplemental material (a lot).

5. FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (Universal): I seldom laugh much at mainstream comedies, but no other film this past year made me laugh to the extent of FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL. As a fan of VERONICA MARS, it’s always good to see Kristen Bell (aside from Kiyoshi Kurosawa remakes), even though Mila Kunis and Russell Brand effectively steal the show. I’m still no Judd Apatow fan; I truly hated PINEAPPLE EXPRESS—probably the worst film I saw theatrically this past year. But FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL is undeniably funny and well worth repeat viewings. It’s available in various DVD incarnations, including a loaded 3-disc DVD, as well as a Blu-ray disc.

Honorable Mentions:



The flood of great and rare cinema being made available for home viewing continued unabated in 2008. Indeed, it is now hardly possible to keep up with every worthwhile release: I haven't yet purchased Artificial Eye's HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA, while my pile of unwatched discs has now hit the ceiling, and contains films by Visconti, Dreyer, Melville, Naruse, Resnais and Shepitko. The following must therefore be seen as less a definitive list than a casual guide to DVDs which were of personal importance.

1- KENJI MIZOGUCHI box sets (Masters of Cinema and Eclipse): Masters of Cinema released many sublime films last year, including masterpieces by Lang, Pialat, Antonioni and Murnau. Perhaps the finest were those contained in their four Mizoguchi double-billl discs, which, along with Eclipse's FALLEN WOMEN collection, finally provided some long overdue DVD exposure for one of the greatest directors of all time. Now if only somebody would release an English-subtitled transfer of THE LOVE OF SUMAKO THE ACTRESS.

2- MARCO FERRERI COLLECTION (Koch Lorber): Another great director whose reputation has suffered from his work's lack of availability, Marco Ferreri seemed an unlikely candidate for the box set treatment. Koch Lorber's very welcome 8-disc collection (which includes an excellent documentary) contains a mixture of Ferreri's better known films (LA GRANDE BOUFFE, TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS) and rarities such as EL COCHECITO and THE SEED OF MAN. The set's highlight is the rarely seen uncut 113-minute version of the remarkable BYE BYE MONKEY, running 19 minutes longer than Image's disc, which eliminated the character played by William Berger (still uncredited here).

3- MIKLOS JANCSCO (Second Run): Second Run is another UK-based company releasing films for love rather than profit. Recent highlights include Miklós Jancsó's THE ROUND UP, THE RED AND THE WHITE and MY WAY HOME, all of which are accompanied by episodes of the director's documentary series MESSAGE OF STONES. Second Run's tireless founder Mehelli Modhi even brought Jancsó to London to help promote these discs: meeting him was among the most memorable events of 2008.

4- TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (Criterion) and TRAPPED ASHES (Lionsgate): It's been almost two decades since the words "Directed by Monte Hellman" last appeared on our screens, so seeing them five times in one year certainly suggested things were looking up. Four of these directorial efforts consist of documentaries made by Hellman for Criterion's splendid TWO-LANE BLACKTOP disc, which also includes some fascinating screen tests and a new commentary track, as well as a flawless transfer of the film. The fifth is "Stanley's Girlfriend," part of Dennis Bartok's anthology TRAPPED ASHES. The version of this sublime short (a more perfect 27 minutes is difficult to imagine) found in the actual film has been damagingly shortened and reworked, but Hellman's original cut, shown separately at Cannes, is included on Lionsgate's Region 1 disc as an extra.

5- THE FLOCK (High Fliers): The image has been cropped to 1.85, there are no extras, and, quite frankly, the film isn't even that good. But the totally unexpected appearance of Andrew Lau's much revised and reshot (by Niels Mueller) US debut in a director's cut released straight to DVD by a minor UK distributor was certainly cause for celebration. High Fliers didn't bother to boast (and probably didn't even know) about the restored status of their transfer, but any resemblance between this version and the producer's cut (a Region 1 disc of which is available from Genius, whose packaging includes a still from a scene that only appears in the Region 2 edition) is purely coincidental. A comparison of the two variants testifies eloquently to the difference between a film made by a filmmaker and a film made by a committee.



Our “best of” choices are presented in no particular order. Two of our choices are the Blu-ray editions of the films, although the same material is available in SD DVD as well.

PLANET OF THE APES: 40-YEAR EVOLUTION (20th Century-Fox, 5-Blu-ray Disc set):
For long-standing fans of the Planet of the Apes series such as ourselves, this is the definitive set to have of this series—finally! Besides the HD image quality, both theatrical and director’s cuts of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES are included, as well as many hours of exclusive supplements. The set also includes a hardcover book of exclusive photos and other materials.

THE INVADERS: THE FIRST SEASON (Paramount 4-DVD set): Although short-lived, the Quinn Martin produced series THE INVADERS (1967-68)—about the Cassandra-like David Vincent vainly trying to warn the world of an invasion by aliens from outer space—is vintage television at its (paranoid) best. We long looked forward to this series appearing on Region 1 DVD (season two is to appear on Region 1 DVD in late January 2009), and we were not disappointed by the presentation of the series in this excellent box set. Not only does the set include the unedited, never-aired version of the pilot (“Beachhead”), but there are new introductions to each episode provided by Roy Thinnes as well as other supplements. What’s more, the transfers are excellent.

DAVID LYNCH: THE LIME GREEN SET (Absurda): This 10-DVD set is an absolute must-have for fans of Lynch’s work, or those wishing for an extended introduction. The LIME GREEN SET includes 1) ERASERHEAD; 2) the (remastered) ERASERHEAD soundtrack; 3) THE SHORT FILMS OF DAVID LYNCH; 4) THE ELEPHANT MAN, presented here with a new audio mix approved by David Lynch and interesting new supplements; 5) THE ELEPHANT MAN EXTRAS, which includes a documentary plus new interviews with David Lynch and John Hurt; 6) BLUE VELVET with a new Lynch-approved DD 5.1 mix exclusive to this set; 7) WILD AT HEART (identical to the 2005 MGM Sp. Ed.); 8) DVD debut of INDUSTRIAL SYMPHONY No. 1, presented in 4:3 standard as well as 16:9 anamorphic WS; 9) DUMBLAND; Disc 10 is the highly anticipated “Mystery DVD,” which includes roughly three dozen deleted scenes from WILD AT HEART, episodes of OUT YONDER; 4 episodes of RABBITS, and several short clips transferred from 16mm material from the late 60s while Lynch was still in Philadelphia, the “Twin Peaks Festival Greeting” (a short film Lynch recently made for the Twin Peaks Festival), and many other rare pieces. Additionally, the box comes with a 30-page booklet of stills with many rare photos.

BECKET (MPI Blu-ray): BECKET, starring Peter O’Toole as King Henry II and Richard Burton as Thomas à Becket, is one of our all-time favorite films, a grand historical epic about two old friends who become enemies. It was the martyred Thomas Becket, after all, that prompted Chaucer’s entourage in THE CANTERBURY TALES to undertake their pilgrimage to Canterbury, where the shrine to Becket is located. MPI’s BD issue of the restored print is simply outstanding. We’re delighted to be able to retire our roughly twenty-years old (standard transfer) laser disc.

WHITE DOG (Criterion): We met the inimical Sam Fuller at the 1981 Telluride Film Festival, by which time the filming of WHITE DOG had been completed, but we have waited the twenty-seven years since that weekend to see this film. For us this release was the biggest revelation of the year. We had no idea what to expect, but we were more than impressed by WHITE DOG, one of the final films of the famed auteur.