Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Remembering Richard Gordon (1925-2011)

Bela Lugosi with Richard Gordon (left) and Alex Gordon (right), the origins of Monster Kid fandom.

The first film I ever reviewed professionally was HORROR ON SNAPE ISLAND (1971), now better known as TOWER OF EVIL, a Richard Gordon production. When I attended my first convention, FanEx in 1991, Richard Gordon -- to my immense surprise and delight -- was the first friend I made. I bumped into him in the lobby, we started talking about that early CINEFANTASTIQUE review, about our earlier telephone contact when I was seeking to license clips from his films for a documentary that never got made, about his director friend Antony Balch (who fascinated me because of his connection to William S. Burroughs), and the serendipitous fact that the first book I ever published, the "Video Times" paperback YOUR GUIDE TO MOVIE CLASSICS ON TAPES AND DISC in 1985, had been co-written with none other than his older brother, Alex Gordon. Alex and I never met, but we collaborated through the mail.

I had to break off our conversation, engrossing and friendly and exciting as it was, because I needed to help Donna set up Video Watchdog's dealer's room table, but Dick (as he prefered to be addressed), beaming with friendly engagement, happily followed along and we continued talking as he perused issues of the magazine -- to which he promptly subscribed. I haven't done an actual head count, and don't really want to, but I strongly suspect that, in the decade-plus that followed, Dick Gordon wrote more letters to VIDEO WATCHDOG than any other reader. And, except for a couple such letters that may have fallen prey to my sometimes-less-than-professional filing system, every one was published. And proudly so.

One of the many reviewing duties presently in front of me is Tom Weaver's recent book THE HORROR HITS OF RICHARD GORDON, which now turns bittersweet. I am grateful to Tom for compiling that book in time for Dick to see it, but even moreso for being the friend to him that geography and my own disparate ambitions did not allow me to be, keeping him occupied and feeling appreciated and involved in life and film for as long as he did. I once wrote in an editorial what Dick's friendship to me, to Donna and our magazine meant to me, and I fortunately have Tom's memory, written to me, of reading that editorial to Dick and how it moved him and how he asked Tom to read it to him a second time. Thanks to Tom's sharing of that story, I felt a very real connection to Dick that transcended our first and only physical meeting twenty years ago. That's a very sweet memory and, of all the people I've known in this business over the years, it's hard to think of another memory concerning them that's as sweet in quite the same way. When he suffered a grievous personal loss a few years ago, I picked up the phone to share my condolences and we spoke as though no time had passed. I'm a bit of a mystic, and when I think of how this was possible, after nearly twenty years, and all the other criss-crossing that took place in our lives prior to our actual meeting, well, it gives one pause... to wonder, and to appreciate.

As Tom told me earlier today after relating this sad news, when I referred to Dick as the first Monster Kid, "That would be his older brother Alex, but Monster Kid Membership Card #0002 ain't too shabby." Indeed not. In observing Dick's passing, it is less his films that come to my mind and heart than this connection to the origins of Monster Kiddom I was privileged to have by sort of knowing and working with both of the Brothers Gordon. Their earlier example, so bold and enterprising, made it feel less strange and more respectable to do what I do, to love what I love, to be who I am -- and to be doing in middle age what I've been doing since I was a teenager. I am still trying to emulate them to the extent of actually breaking into the business of making films.

He passed away in hospital this afternoon at the age of 85. How serendipitous, how he would have loved knowing, that his last night on Earth would be Hallowe'en!

He'll be missed.

Friday, October 28, 2011

First Look: VIDEO WATCHDOG #165

For a fuller listing of contents and select preview pages, click "Coming Soon" on the Video Watchdog website's main page!

Saturday, October 08, 2011

A Bad Week for Beloved Character Actors

Charles Napier (April 12, 1936 - October 5, 2011), the jut-jawed, horse-toothed, all-man actor who starred in numerous Russ Meyer pictures, was featured in several Jonathan Demme films, appeared in the classic STAR TREK episode "The Way to Eden" and, along the way, provided the roars for Lou Ferrigno's THE INCREDIBLE HULK. He was 75.

David Hess (September 19, 1942 - October 8, 2011), actor and musician responsible for writing Pat Boone's "Speedy Gonzales" (under the name David Dante) and for scaring the hell out of 1970s audiences with his uncomfortably real portrayals of psychopaths in Wes Craven's THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, Ruggero Deodato's THE HOUSE AT THE EDGE OF THE PARK and other thrillers. In his last film SMASH CUT (2009), he acted alongside Sasha Grey, Michael Berryman, Herschell Gordon Lewis and THE WIZARD OF GORE's Ray Sager, playing a horror film director in the recursive gore flick hommage. He and Charles Napier acted together in Deodato's BODY COUNT (1987), starring VIDEO WATCHDOG interview subject Mimsy Farmer. He was 69.

Additionally -- or should I say "subtractively" -- this past week also claimed the lives of onar Films founder Bill Barounis, actress/novelist Diane Cilento (THE WICKER MAN), actor George Baker (THE CURSE OF THE FLY, ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE), Pentangle founder/folk guitarist Bert Jansch, pianist Roger Williams (who had hit singles with the themes from AUTUMN LEAVES and BORN FREE in the mid-'50s and '60s) and, of course, Apple Inc. founder Steve Jobs.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

R.I.P. Bill Barounis of Onar Films

It has just come to my attention that Bill Barounis, the man responsible for the small but important DVD label Onar Films, passed away earlier today.

I was not aware of it, but Bill was reportedly diagnosed with brain cancer a couple of years ago; the last update on his website mentions a stroke and being wheelchair-bound. But it is to Bill's single-minded (and often single-handed) determination and devotion to Turkish cinema that a handful of fascinating oddities, considered too outré for wider release, found their way to DVD in subtitled and extremely limited editions.

VIDEO WATCHDOG reviewed a number of Onar Films' titles in the past -- Ramsey Campbell, John Charles and David Kalat all took particular interest in the field Bill was so individually mining. I don't know if anyone else is in place to fulfill new or outstanding orders at Onar, but you might want to head over to their website, click on "Contact Us" and submit a query about the availability of their remaining titles -- or perhaps just a heartfelt message of thanks. In his own way, Bill Barounis was one of the video industry's visionaries... and obviously, he loved movies more than most.

As a reminder of his enterprising spirit, here's a link to an interview conducted with Bill a few years ago when Onar was just beginning. This photo of Bill was first published at enlejemordersertilbage.blogspot.com and we hope his friends there won't mind its use here.

Unmasking THE WAX MASK

I'm presently on a long overdue Gaston Leroux kick, acquiring and reading as many of his novels as appeared in English translation as I can find. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is wonderful in ways that have yet to be filmed, but there is much more to him and his contribution to the horror genre than just that. In fact, in an impressive two-part article published in the final two issues of MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE (issues 23 and 24, 1970), none other than Jean Rollin wrote in depth about horror cinema's immense debt to Leroux's literary imagination -- a debt that, among English speaking horror fans, remains largely unpaid.

All films about intelligent apes who learn to kill can be traced back to his novel BALAOO (even the 1932 MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE contains ideas that didn't originate with Poe), Roger Corman's THE HAUNTED PALACE is based on H.P. Lovecraft's "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" but that story was itself indebted to Leroux's darkly comic THE MAN WITH THE BLACK FEATHER (also translated as THE DOUBLE LIFE), and of course every unmasking scene from THE FLY to PSYCHO to MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM owes something to PHANTOM, and so on.

Speaking of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, I've often wondered about the real literary basis, if any, for Sergio Stivaletti's film M.D.C. MASCHERA DI CERA (THE WAX MASK, 1997), which articles sometimes link to a Gaston Leroux novel called "THE WAX MUSEUM" or "MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM" depending on your reporter... but no such novel exists, and no screen credit was ultimately given. In the course of my collecting, I've now discovered that a short story exists, entitled "The Waxwork Museum," which was collected in translation in a 1980 story compendium called THE GASTON LEROUX BEDSIDE COMPANION, edited by Peter Haining. A foreword acknowledges that the translation by Alexander Peters first appeared in FANTASY BOOK in 1969, but no original French publication date is given. It very likely appeared in the 1910s-1920s, possibly prior to Paul Leni's classic silent picture WAXWORKS (1924).

Of related interest: in Leroux's THE MAN WITH THE BLACK FEATHER (aka THE DOUBLE LIFE OF THEOPHRASTE LONGUET), there is a chapter bearing the title "The Wax Mask"... but it has nothing to do with the story of the film.