Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Joe Dante: Anarchy in L.A.

Today is Joe Dante’s 60th birthday, strange as that may seem. It’s hard to think of another filmmaker whose outlook has been, and remains, so perenially youthful; his protagonists are often children or child-like, and his projects have leaned toward stories of conflict between childlike idealism and the oppressive realities and counter-ideologies that would place barriers in the path of imagination in full flight.

Dante’s films are often caricatured as being heavily adorned with pop cultural references and in-jokes, but to simply note this element is not to understand it. The proliferation of fish and water jokes in PIRANHA (1978), for example, or the “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” clip in THE HOWLING (1980) are in place to acknowledge the difficulty of doing anything completely serious or original with such familiar material; it shows us how much cultural noise stands between us, as viewers, and fresh entertainment we should have every expectation of meeting head-on. And this brings us to the point where Dante’s work becomes so much more than merely pop-referential and -reverential. In a sense, his films use this material like a matador uses his red cape: he flaunts our familiarity with the territory, only to peel it away like a layer of skin and leaving us disoriented and newly vulnerable to attack.

Beginning with HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD (1976) and continuing through the recent acclaimed MASTERS OF HORROR episode “Homecoming” (2005), the films of Joe Dante have always found ways to circumvent genre expectations, by daring to make us uncomfortable. The last reel of the comic HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD suddenly posits us in the midst of a gory slasher film; even earlier than that, a rape scene in a sexploitation flick being shot in the Phillippines is shown crossing the line between cinema and reality, to the surprise of the movie’s star (Candice Rialson). Any director would play this joke just long enough to get the point across, but Dante holds the take until it scrapes our nerves and reminds the raincoat crowd of the violent crime that rape is. At the time of the film’s release, these points were either forgiven, on account of being in part of an exceedingly cheap maiden effort, or criticized for their tastelessness, but time has shown these aspects of Dante’s debut to be surprisingly consistent with the master plan (he said, tongue-in-cheek) of the work that followed.

Joe bumps into an old friend at Wonderfest in 2004.

In PIRANHA (1978), the genetically engineered “frankenfish” swimming upstream toward a children’s summer camp actually succeed in reaching the place, placing dozens of gaily splashing kids in the midst of serious danger, with camp director (something of a double entendre, that) Paul Bartel suddenly transformed from a fatuous figure of fun to a palpably tragic character. The heroine of THE HOWLING (1980) is not only voluntarily assassinated on national television at the end of the movie, but her death is quickly glossed over with a vignette culminating in the product shot of a hamburger pattie being fried up on a grill. Even a hit film like GREMLINS (1984) has to undercut the joyous warmth of its old-fashioned Christmas setting with Phoebe Cates telling the story of how her father met his untimely end by disguising himself as Santa and attempting to descend with holiday gifts through the chimney of his home, getting stuck and not getting discovered till the smell gave his caper away. EXPLORERS (1985), a movie that deliberately romances the possibility that a group of kids could build a working spacecraft with help from friendly aliens, works toward the epochal moment of communication with extraterrestial lifeforms only to expose them as beings braindead from being inundated with all the garbage broadcast into space on our airwaves. The creepy people who move into the derelict house in Tom Hanks’ suburban neighborhood in THE ‘BURBS (1989) are imagined to be cannibals or worse, and just when we give them the benefit of the doubt... they turn out to be malevolent after all! The element of surprise has always been one of Dante’s great strengths and he is especially adept at turning it against us, in the manner of a truly Swiftian satirist.

A number of the comic vignettes that Dante shot for the John Landis-produced omnibus AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON (1987) were omitted from the theatrical release “because John didn’t think they were funny” (as Joe once told me) – a mind-boggling prospect when one sees the stuff that made the cut, including a deliberately agonizing two-part skit (“Critics’ Corner” and “Roast Your Loved One”) featuring Archie Hahn. He stars as a regular guy who suffers a fatal heart attack while seeing his personal life scathingly reviewed on television by a pair of Siskel & Ebert stand-ins, and whose funeral is subsequently turned into a proverbial celebrity roast featuring the likes of Henny Youngman and Slappy White. Looking back, seeing this diptych in a theater was one of the more surprisingly expansive incidents in my movie-going life, perhaps as close as any movie-goer of my generation could get to experiencing the fresh taste of the “sick humor” (that is to say, confrontational humor) launched in the 1950s by Lenny Bruce, a comedian directly referenced in MATINEE. (Another “sick comic,” Brother Theodore, was prominently featured in THE ‘BURBS.)

Both of these skits made me extremely uncomfortable on the first pass, and I could also sense the discomfort of others in the auditorium with me, given the sudden epidemic of coughing, candy box-rattling, and noisy leg-crossings that broke out. There was a hushed sense of “Thank God that’s over” when the first part ended, and something just this side of an actual groan when we all realized we were only halfway done with this character. I can’t speak for anyone else who was with me that day, but I was intrigued. I was interested enough in my own reaction, and solid enough in my trust of Joe’s directorial instincts, to come back and see the film a second time; that second time, I could see this Mack Truck coming, knew what it was, and rolling with its punches instead of against them, I started laughing my ass off. I still do, when I see AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON today (though some of its deliberately funny material has lost some of its lustre over the years). In a sense, what Dante was doing here was Reichian comedy: pounding away at our emotional armor until our inner defense systems gave way, allowing us to experience at full strength the humor of our own worst fears – that the media might tap into our own worst secrets (the worst being our inconsequentiality in the great scheme of things), that we might be denied respect even in death, that our funerals might turn into a cheap burlesque where even our loved ones would laugh. “Reckless Youth,” the bizarre Dante-directed coda that ends AMAZON WOMEN -- a parody of the baleful Dwain Esper “teen pregnancy” exploitation reels of the 1930s -- has a similarly confrontational edge in that it shows us, beneath the impeccable surface layer joke of its camera and acting technique (both inept), how uncomfortable Americans continue to be when it comes to the matters of our own bodies and sexual education.

Dante’s “It’s A Good Life” remake for TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983) initiated a thematic thread that would blossom into fuller expression in his two GREMLINS films (the second being the wonderfully no-holds-barred GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH, 1990), namely the idea later revisited by the Spider-Man films: that with great power comes great responsibility. Dante gets to the heart of “It’s A Good Life” in a way the original TWILIGHT ZONE episode did not, showing that little Anthony (Jeremy Licht) is not inherently a monster but has become one because his family has allowed him to mature without the firm guiding hand that enters his life only with the accidental arrival of schoolteacher Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan). The Mogwai of the Gremlins films are analogous to Anthony’s reality-bending powers in that their potential for hazard is entrusted to the hands of young people who learn what can happen if you’re careless even once. Appropriately, when the Mogwai comes into contact with water, the resulting Gremlins are the very embodiment of antic, rampant Irresponsibility. And Joe Dante being Joe Dante, he couldn’t have experienced the irony of seeing his murderous, anarchic Gremlins merchandised as toys for children without responding with the underrated SMALL SOLDIERS (1998), in which we see the consequences of G.I. Joe-type action figures being beefed-up with military technology... which, of course, takes us back to the fine, finny, science-bred war machines of PIRANHA.

Dante, of course, was a child of the Vietnam War era and his collective works reflect an uneasy regard for the military, for politicians, and for big business, in all of which he sees a soullessness equal to that of the pods in Don Siegel’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1955). Indeed, the shadows of war and partisan contretemps send a chill through the majority of his collected works, whether it’s overtly as in SMALL SOLDIERS, the military intentions behind the flesh-eating fish of PIRANHA, and the Cuban Missile Crisis backdrop of the magnificent MATINEE (1993, a classic killed at the boxoffice by a non-descript title), or more subtly, as in the microcosmic-cum-analogous war strategies THE ‘BURBS (with its suburban sergeant Bruce Dern), and the personal-cum-national politics of his impressive made-for-cable feature THE SECOND CIVIL WAR (1997, which assembles one of the finest casts of its decade).

But for much of Dante’s career, his own personal war has been with Hollywood – whose play-it-safe policies have been in increasing conflict with the kinds of movies he wants to make and stories he wants to tell. In the decade between 1993 and 2003, he directed only three theatrical features, working increasingly on cable and commercial television films and series (like EERIE, INDIANA), and devoting much of his time to projects that did not pan out (like the Charlie Haas script TERMITE TERRACE, a no-go that Joe has called the “heartbreaker” of his career), or did not pan out as planned (like the 1996 film of Lee Falk’s comicstrip THE PHANTOM, which he ended up executive producing rather than directing). Joe’s biggest opportunity of the past decade, LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (2003), saw the either moribund or commercially sold-out cartoon characters of the Warner Bros. stable finally entrusted to the only director still living who understood them; unfortunately, with the film’s immense budget came even more immense second-guessing from the front office (“Why does he have to say, ‘What’s Up, Doc?’”). Though Bugs, Daffy and their celluloid cohorts live and breathe here as they haven’t done in decades, the end result is an amusing but overwritten conglomeration of the divine (the Louve sequence, for example), the magnificently apt, and the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding. BACK IN ACTION was Dante’s DANGER: DIABOLIK – a good movie, but a disappointing personal and artistic misadventure that seems to have redirected him back to the spirit of independent American cinema, where creative freedom can still thrive.

Joe bumps into an even older friend at Wonderfest 2004: Me.

For the last couple of years, when not filming standout episodes for MASTERS OF HORROR, Joe has been travelling the globe in search of funding for THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES, a comedy script written by this writer and Charlie Largent about Roger Corman’s experiences prior to, during, and after his filming of his LSD epic THE TRIP (1967), and its role in the founding of the US independent film scene. In the time since Joe has optioned it, Charlie and I have done some rewrites, and there’s been an intermediary rewrite by Michael Almereyda and James Robison, and our script, as it now stands, reads like a bonafide Joe Dante movie, and one we’d all dearly love to see – a fascinating experience for me, as a writer and as a fan.

But it’s most of all as a friend that I want to wish Joe a happy birthday. We’ve known each other, though at a distance, for more than 25 years. I first got in touch with him back in 1980 to request an interview for a piece about contemporary horror trends I was preparing for HEAVY METAL magazine. I was nervous before calling him for the first time because I’d known his name since my boyhood, thanks to his bylines in CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and I was taken aback when he responded to my self-introduction with an undisguisedly familiar and impressed “Oh, HI!” (He knew me from my writings for CINEFANTASTIQUE.) I also spoke to David Cronenberg, George Romero, John Carpenter and Tom Savini for that article, but I felt the strongest personal affinity for Joe; by the end of that first call, we were finishing each other’s sentences. A decade later, he became one of VIDEO WATCHDOG's first subscribers, and a letter written in his own hand appeared in the Letterbox of our first issue. We first met face-to-face in 1993, around the time of MATINEE’s release. Later that year, he allowed me to co-host with him a 1993 Mario Bava retrospective at the American Cinematheque, where we talked, answered questions, and interviewed the likes of John Saxon and Harriet White Medin. (That night I also had the pleasure of speaking with Harriet’s escort, actor Robert Cornthwaite, whom I congratulated on his “virtuoso… or skilled" performance in Joe’s classic movie-within-a-movie, MANT.)

Some years ago, before he joined our pages with his “Fleapit Flashbacks” column, I told Joe that I had it in mind to devote an upcoming issue to his films. But, as fate would have it, when the time rolled around to begin that issue, I was well into my surprise obsession with Andy Milligan, which resulted not one... not two… but three feature articles. For some reason, Joe still talks to me, and I’m grateful. I still intend to do that Joe Dante issue, but I want to do it when I really feel it... and looking at the length of what I've written here, maybe that day was today! Anyway, until that mythic issue finally materializes, I hope this birthday blog will do – along with the other Blog-A-Thon offerings of the day.

Come to think of it, I have still more to say on this subject, so there just might be a Part 2, devoted to one of Joe’s lesser-known projects, later in the week.

In the meantime... Have a great day, Joe!


Movie Morlocks.com: http://www.moviemorlocks.com/blog?action=detail&entry_id=8a25caad0f2cf4b9010f2d5f72c30002

Nadaland: http://nadalander.blogspot.com/2006/11/happy-birthday-joe-dante.html

The Exploding Kinetoscope: http://explodingkinetoscope.blogspot.com/

Joplin John: http://blog.myspace.com/joplinjohn

Film Ick: http://filmick.blogspot.com/2006/11/films-not-directed-by-joe-dante.html

KGB Films: http://kgbfilms.blogspot.com/

The Horror Blog: http://www.thehorrorblog.com/2006/11/28/half-dan-half-ante/

This Is Not A Dark Ride: http://e-ticket.livejournal.com/219658.html

Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule: http://sergioleoneifr.blogspot.com/2006/11/joe-dantes-birthday-party.html

Monday, November 27, 2006

Should Old Acquaintence Be Bloodshot

Gene Evans holds satanic children at bay with a golf club in DEVIL TIMES FIVE.

DEVIL TIMES FIVE is known, like the Devil, by many names. It was produced and previewed under the title PEOPLETOYS, then became THE HORRIBLE HOUSE ON THE HILL for its first theatrical release, before settling into the moniker that's stuck. I first saw the film in 1974 at a private screening under the PEOPLETOYS title, probably before it was acquired for release by Jerry Gross's Cinemation Industries, and being 18 and frankly stoned, was sufficiently impressed by what I saw to fire off the following "Capsule Comment" postcard for publication in CINEFANTASTIQUE (Vol 4 No 2):

"Titanic, nightmarish horror-of-personality film about a team of 'special' children who walk together in a VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED type pack. They invade a household and destroy its dull, vanity-conscious occupants in various jolting ways. One of the most thought-provoking works of horror in recent years." (TL, +4)

"Plus-four" being CFQ's very highest rating, and only one notch higher than the gratuitous accolades I had accorded around the same time to MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR. Hey, I was a teenager. It was the Seventies.

Ten years later, I reprised those red-eyed comments into a toned-down but still-excessive three-star entry for my VIDEO TIMES paperback compendium YOUR MOVIE GUIDE TO HORROR VIDEO TAPES AND DISCS (Signet Books, 1985):

"Five wandering homeless 'special' children are offered shelter in [Gene] Evans' handsome winter retreat, where his haughty and privileged guests are unaware that the kids have just escaped an asylum for the criminally insane. This unsettling, moralistic horror story sees the affluent adults gradually falling victim to the sudden reality of the children's true natures (the most memorable scene shows one guest beaten to death with chains in a chilling sequence of grainy still photographs). Promising director Sean McGregor [sic] never made another feature after this sleeper, also known as PEOPLETOYS and THE HORRIBLE HOUSE ON THE HILL." (p. 39)

It's hard to believe that almost 30 years have passed since that initial screening, and I've been wary ever since of seeing the film again, because I knew it was unlikely to be even half of what I wrote it was. For one thing, though the memory of the picture stuck with me for awhile, that's not the same thing as provoking thought -- a distinction I wasn't critically equipped to make in those green days. In fact, aside from an extended slow-motion sequence (not "grainy still photographs") that couldn't have possibly have lasted as long as it seemed to (could it?), I was very soon unable to remember much about the film at all.

The mind-boggling drop-piranha-in-the-bathtub scene.

Last week, DEVIL TIMES FIVE was released on DVD for the first time, courtesy of a new label called Code Red, distributed by Media Blasters. After spending part of a day last week blogging about CFQ's mutation into GEEK MONTHLY, I was in a mood to reminisce about my fledgling days in my profession and this traipse down Memory Lane inevitably intersected with my long-postponed reacquaintence with this work credited to director Sean MacGregor. When I first saw this movie, MacGregor's name leaped off the screen at me much as Oliver Stone's did when I saw SEIZURE (the two films have things in common), and I expected to hear more from him; I never did. Media Blasters' excellent disc goes a long way toward explaining why. (MacGregor is credited or co-credited with the direction of two subsequent pictures, supposedly neither of which he completed.)

This is one of those DVDs as important, if not moreso, for what it reveals about the facts of production as for the main feature itself. As a horror movie of its period, DEVIL TIMES FIVE doesn't hold together very well (the film's first victim is played by three different people, one of them THE BROOD's Henry Beckman!), but it contains its share of scenes and images exert a certain disturbing quality. There are things in this movie that would never be permitted in today's climate; for example, in one scene, a little girl and a novice nun (!) dump a bowl of piranha fish into a bathtub with a very full-breasted, naked woman, and her naked body is later shown being dragged through the snow by a group of kids whose average age is 12. To make matters even weirder, we later learn that the actress in question (Carolyn Stellar) was the mother of two of the children (Leif Garrett and Dawn Lyn). The audio commentary's willful overlooking of this point -- "Wasn't it weird seeing your mother naked, much less dumping piranha fish on your mother naked?" -- is proof of the film's still-valid discomforting quality, and its use of children directly interacting with graphic violence and adult nudity remains creepy, as does its unexpectedly but very Seventies nihilistic ending.

The even more mind-boggling Leif Garrett-drags-his-mother-naked-through-the-snow scene.

Furthermore, remember that extended slow-motion scene I mentioned earlier? It wasn't just the pot; it really did last as long as I remembered, running a full six minutes -- because the producers had to s-t-r-e-t-c-h the movie out when the director's cut, filmed at Lake Arrowhead over a four-week period, amounted to only 38 minutes of footage!

And here's where the value of this disc truly kicks in, because the supplementary materials -- the audio commentary and on-camera interviews with cast and crew -- reveal that Sean MacGregor was fired from the production and sued by the producers following those four weeks, after which time the balance of the picture was completed in only one week, under the shared direction of uncredited production consultant David Sheldon (a production executive at AIP) and Sandra Lee Blowitz, the film's production manager and the wife of producer Michael Blowitz. She also revised the original screenplay to make the film completable within the short allotted time. DEVIL TIMES FIVE thus earns the unsuspected distinction of being one of the few horror films of the 1970s (THE VELVET VAMPIRE, BLOOD SABBATH) directed by a woman, and one of the very few in history to be written and directed by a woman.

I spent most of DEVIL TIMES FIVE wishing it was more cohesive, but the best scenes do appear to have been shot after MacGregor's departure and pretty much forged from the fires of desperation. The producers, to their credit, lament that the alledged incompetence of MacGregor (whose name appears nowhere on the packaging) made it impossible to film John Durren's script as it was written, and -- given their repeated endorsements of its quality and difference from the end result -- viewers will lament that the script wasn't included on the disc as a PDF file. As moderator (and sometimes VW contributor) Darren Gross points out in the commentary, the slow-motion sequence -- which features stand-ins for the victim as well as the novice nun played elsewhere by MacGregor's girlfriend, Gale Smale -- is nightmarish almost in spite of itself, with its gritty snuff-movie quality striking chords associated with Andy Milligan's THE GHASTLY ONES or perhaps MARAT/SADE.

The 16:9 presentation is splendidly colorful and crystal clear, and the pristine source element sports the HORRIBLE HOUSE ON THE HILL title. An alternate sequence consisting of the Cinemation Industries logo and a DEVIL TIMES FIVE title card is also included. Actors Joan McCall and Dawn Lyn are featured in on-camera interviews and the audio commentary, along with producers Blowitz and Sheldon. The theatrical trailer is curious for name-checking VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (as I did in my original notes on that preview screening... coincidence?), a film older than more than half the film's cast list.

Seen again after all these years, I must revise my original overblown opinions and declare DEVIL TIMES FIVE a mess, but it's an interesting mess. Maybe, just maybe, a two-star mess. And the Code Red disc makes for a very interesting, three-star evening's entertainment as an illustrated, annotated lesson in independent genre film production. BTW, for those who love to live dangerously, take a peek at the Code Red trailer supplement. Tucked away there are unbelievable coming attractions for the renowned necro-sickie LOVE ME DEADLY, the mind-boggling SCHOOLGIRLS IN CHAINS (it's incredible to think that theaters ever played trailers like this!), and other toxic untouchables that we're glad to know are soon forthcoming.

P.S. BLOGGERS! Remember the Joe Dante Blog-A-Thon tomorrow!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Question Mark

Does Monsters HD realize they are showing THE MYSTERIANS right now in Japanese... WITHOUT English subtitles?

Friday, November 24, 2006

90 Years of EEEE

That's me in 1993, sharing a three-way handshake with my childhood hero and his beloved robotic Metropolitan, Maria.

Thanks to Flickhead's call for a Blog-A-Thon in his honor, many people will doubtless spend today penning Happy 90th Birthday testimonials to Forrest J Ackerman (no period after the middle initial, please) -- a.k.a. Uncle Forry, a.k.a. FJA, a.k.a. 4SJ, a.k.a. The Ackermonster, a.k.a. Dr. (period, please) Acula, a.k.a. everything from Spencer Strong to, yes, Robot Mitchum. So today's subject line is my little attempt to say something actually quite ubiquitous today in a singular way. Besides, I think Forry would like the conceit that all of those women shrieking in darkened movie houses across America were actually screaming his name all along. (EEEE = 4 E, get it? Of course you did.)

Puns are inseparable from the legacy of Forry "The Pun is Mightier Than the Sword" Ackerman, who introduced us to issues of his seminal magazine FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND with editorials signed "Beast Witches," who accorded accolades with his heartiest "Kong-gratulations," and who gladly fulfilled photo requests in a department called "You Axed For It!" There were readers who found the pun-loving side of FM somewhat less than divine, but as one of the many kids of the early 1960s who acquired a taste for puns in the pages of FM, I credit FM and Forry particularly in helping me to cultivate an appreciation of what was clever/wry/discerning before I was really old enough to be smart. By "reading" FM from the time I was more likely to have just looked at the pictures, I developed into a kid who, by the age of 10 or 11, had books by the likes of H. G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Sax Rohmer in his personal library.

When we published our first issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG back in 1990, I sent two copies to Forry (whom I had never met, phoned, nor corresponded with) with the inscription "For Safe-Creeping in Your Lie-Buried of Kong-ress, The Ackermansion. Beast witches..." It was my way of saying a belated Thank You for having instilled in me a love of language as well as a love of movies, and also for having founded a job definition that (unknown to me at the time) would be mine for the next 17 years and counting. In all those years, I've never received a word of comment from Forry, even though he helped to present the first award VW ever received (the FanEx Award for Best Semi-Prozine in 1991); in fact, walking onstage to accept that surprising award was made doubly daunting because I was not only accepting my first professional award, but meeting my childhood hero at the same moment. I paused before leaving the stage to shake his hand, and spoke with him at somewhat greater length after the ceremony about his favorite film, METROPOLIS. He seemed much more interested in meeting Donna, whom he immediately gathered into an unctuous embrace while slyly pressing into her palm a keychain bearing the words "Remember Me with Every Key - 4E 4E 4E."

A couple of years later, Eric Hoffman arranged for me to visit the Ackermansion during a 1993 trip to LA -- I met Joe Dante in person for the first time earlier that day and, running behind schedule, had to turn down his invitation to lunch in the Universal commissary in order to keep my appointment. Forry was under the weather, but he graciously received me and let me roam around his mansion, pointing out that it had been formerly owned by actor Jon Hall and that a corridor lined with framed photos of the actor led to the first floor "Jon."

Who he? Why, 4E, of course -- pointing to his own life mask, proudly displayed among those of other great Titans of Terror.

After taking a mostly unguided tour through the premises, greatly diminished since its glory days by the ransackings of too many unsupervised "Open Houses," we sat and talked for close to three hours. It was a strange conversation, with my questions prompting either faltering memories or well-memorized soliloquies I'd previously heard Forry intone in television interviews -- Robot Mitchum, indeed.

The thing I remember most fondly about Forry is his almost childlike idealism, conveyed not only in his abiding love for what he was the first to call "Sci Fi," but also in his dearly cultivated sense of altruism. He admitted that many people close to him had tried to make him see the world otherwise, but he refused on principle to have visitors to his house searched prior to leaving. He prefered to be robbed blind than to think and expect the worst of the people who came to visit him. He also couldn't understand why either the city of Los Angeles or the wealthiest of FM's followers (Spielberg, the other Lucas, Stephen King) had never taken him up on his offer to stock a Fantafilm Museum, and this was something I couldn't understand either... until I saw how little of museum value was actually left in his collection. A vintage hardcover of Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN, signed by dozens of people associated with the film versions (including Elsa Lanchester and Bela Lugosi), would have been priceless in good or better condition, but it sat broken-hinged and unprotected, basically handled to death; priceless props from classic films were covered with dust and thrown just any old where; vintage lobbycards had been cut for display; even valuable back issues of FM sat unbagged and exposed on a damp cellar floor.

In retrospect, I could better understand why some collectors might have "liberated" items from Forry's safekeeping, and for reasons only partly to do with greed. Not that I consider thievery a defensible act, but if one accepts Forry's own idea of himself as an honor-system "custodian" of these precious artifacts, who believed that everyone had an equal right to enjoy them, some of these pieces might have stood better chances of actually making it into a museum someday in the care of more attentive "custodians."

Bumping into a fellow browser at the Ackermansion.

During my visit, VW was sort of the 400... nah, the 200-pound gorilla in the room. Any mention of VW or my own life as a publisher/editor was quickly glossed over, and Forry didn't remember receiving my inscribed first issue ("I get a lot of mail..."). With VW already 30-some issues into its run, I left the Ackermansion that day feeling a little uncertain if Forry knew me as anything other than a friend of Eric Hoffman, that I had been a contributor to FantaCo's FAMOUS MONSTERS CHRONICLES, or even that we had met before. Eric assured me that he was fully aware of me and VW, but Forry never tipped his hand. So I left the Ackermansion that day with unexpectedly shaded feelings.

We parted ways that day and never kept in touch, but this is as it should be, because, regardless of my own proclivity for puns, VIDEO WATCHDOG was always most closely allied to, and inspired by, the spirit of Calvin Beck's CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN. I'm not sorry that I spent those private hours on Mt. Olympus (or was it Mt. Aluna?) with Forry, but I've always regretted missing that lunch with Joe in the Universal commissary, because it was with him and his own history as a CoF contributor that my own affinities were most deeply rooted. ("Aw, you didn't miss anything," I can hear Joe saying -- but he'll never convince me of that. Actually, now that I've said this, he'll probably e-mail me and say, "Y'know, come to think of it, that was the day Steven came over to my table and asked me if I knew any talented young writers...")

But even Joe was first published in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND ("Dante's Inferno," FM #18, July 1962), and he'd be the first to agree that we'd probably all be doing something else today if Forrest J Ackerman had been doing something else then. For those interested in a fuller account of my personal history with FM, I refer you to "FAMOUS MONSTERS Took Away My Fear (1990)," my heartfelt contribution to FAMOUS MONSTERS CHRONICLES (FantaCo Enterprises, 1991), edited by Dennis Daniel and written before the founding of VW and my encounters with Forry. As I said in concluding that piece, "To paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard's famous comment on the modern cinema's debt to Orson Welles: Never let us forget for one moment that anyone who writes about horror films owes FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND everything."

So, on behalf of everyone whose life was profoundly changed or even made possible by FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND...

Harpy Birthday, Forry!

You're ever a part of us. Enjoy your naughty Nineties.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Proposing a JOE DANTE Blog-A-Thon

"We want to... blog."

Next Tuesday, November 28, marks the 60th birthday of Joe Dante -- one of our favorite filmmakers, a seminal critical influence via CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN, a longtime VIDEO WATCHDOG supporter and contributor ("Fleapit Flashbacks"), a personal friend of (has it really been) 26 years, and a colleague who's devoted all of his available time the past couple of years to getting our Roger Corman biopic project closer to production. He's a hard guy to shop for, cheaply anyway, and I've been wondering what to get him to commemorate this special day. Then Darren Gross approached me today with the ideal suggestion:

"How about a Joe Dante Blog-A-Thon?"

We had a great time with our Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon last April, so who's with me for a special Tuesday tribute to Joe? There are so many aspects of his career to cover: the great movie trailers he and Allan Arkush created for New World Pictures in the 1970s... his onscreen cameos... his pre-Tarantino promotion of overlooked directors and actors... his long affiliation with actor Dick Miller... his film criticism from "Dante's Inferno" to VW... his love of cartoons... his fondness for in-jokes... the political content of his work... his reputation as "the subversive Spielberg"... his editing collaborations with Joe D'Amato (that's a joke, son)... or any of his movies from HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD to LOONEY TUNES BACK IN ACTION.

I hope my fellow bloggers will be stoked to join me in this abrupt and utterly madcap venture. Should you plan to participate, let me know in time to post a link to your site with my own contribution. Now go spread the word.

And Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Earlier this year, it was briefly rumored that the long-running CFQ (formerly CINEFANTASTIQUE) would be discontinued. The publishers denied this, but now, instead of receiving their expected latest issue of CFQ, subscribers have received the first issue of a new magazine called GEEK MONTHLY, with the following note from editor Jeff Bond attached:

"CFQ has been hard at work for over 35 years providing incisive coverage of fantastic films & television, and now it's time for the mag to take a much-deserved rest. While we plan on bringing CFQ back in the near future on an irregular basis for in-depth spotlights & special issues, the regular magazine will be going on hiatus into 2007."

As we all know, "hiatus" is a notoriously non-committal way for businesses to tacitly consign no-longer-viable properties to the necropolis. It pinches an illusion of bon vivance into the cheeks of an old soldier who wants to go out looking tired rather than exhausted. We can all count on the fingers of one hand the number of television shows that have come back from the quicksands of hiatus, and the number is surely far fewer when it comes to magazines. As a fellow publisher, I can tell you that there's no money in publishing any magazine "on an irregular basis," because distributors refuse to pay for them until the next issue of that title is published. And, of course, the longer any magazine is off newsstands, people stop looking for it. But I suspect the publishers of CFQ are wise to this, given the obscure phrasing of the closing words of Jeff's note. What exactly does "on hiatus into 2007" mean, anyway? Until 2007? Throughout 2007? Beginning with 2007? Whatever the answer, it surely conflicts with "we plan on bringing CFQ back in the near future" -- especially if GEEK MONTHLY should perform better than CFQ on newsstands.

A magazine apparently conceived to cover vaguely similar interests in extremely dissimilar fashion, GEEK MONTHLY summarizes its interests with the above-the-title beats of "Entertainment • Lifestyle • Tech • Sarcasm," and the first issue features cover boy Rainn Wilson, "TV's Coolest Geek," in ungeekly James Bond drag. Based on information posted at their website, it would appear that GM was conceived as a fashionable "lite" fusion of CFQ, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, and THE ONION. (A GeekMonthly.com blog posting uses pictures of telejournalist John Stossel and Borat as an opportunity to ask the age-old question "Separated At Birth?", which I hope is not symptomatic of the magazine's actual content.)

Some onlookers are cocking snoots and saying that CFQ's late founder/publisher/editor Frederick S. Clarke must be spinning in his grave. As someone who knew and worked for Fred, I'm not so sure. It's true that Fred started out as a purist, idealist, and publishing visionary, but as time marched on, he succumbed to the temptations of big business and embraced what was most commercial about science fiction and fantasy cinema -- even if he continued, to some extent, to be opinionated and somewhat contrarian in his coverage of it. He also founded FEMME FATALES (sic) in 1992 as a T&A sister publication to CFQ, which is what really indicates to me that, if Fred Clarke was still around today, GEEK MONTHLY might well be an option he would consider worth exploring.

But for those of us who loved CFQ -- and especially the original CINEFANTASTIQUE as published by Fred Clarke -- the substitution of GEEK MONTHLY in subscribers' mailboxes has got to make us ponder to what we, and the world, are coming. In a sense, the magazine's profile mocks the very sensibility upon which CINEFANTASTIQUE was founded: the idea of paying serious, in-depth attention to films not previously taken seriously by the mainstream press. That idea, which put considerable push toward the initial turning of an enormous wheel of industry that now spins like a multi-billion dollar lathe, is experiencing diminishing returns at the newsstand because what CFQ used to do best of all is now being done by the film studios themselves, in the form of DVD supplementary features -- the making-ofs, the audio commentaries, the storyboard galleries, the behind-the-scenes interviews. (The trouble with this, of course, is that we have collectively sold out objective journalism in favor of lookalike publicity. Call me Howard Beale, but woe is us.)

It makes sense, in these increasingly cynical and idiocratic times, that "sarcasm" is what has been dreamed up to replace boring intelligence. Sarcasm allows people to feel superior to what they don't know and are too cool to learn. At least the editors of GEEK MONTHLY are calling a spade a spade and are literate enough to not confuse sarcasm with that trendy word often misused as a synonym: "irony."

The name-checking of Woody Allen on the cover of the first issue recalls the nebbish director's maxim that he would never want to join any club that would have him for a member. Which beggars the question, "Who is the audience for this sort of magazine?" Speaking as one of the original first generation CINEFANTAS-geeks, I think any magazine calling itself GEEK MONTHLY is far more likely to attract closet geeks and wannabe geeks, if there are such things, than the genuine article -- who prefer to think of themselves as "obsessives", "eccentrics", or even "fanboys," and would resist on principle any corporate attempt to represent them and their interests. These people will continue to seek their information in genuinely oddball magazines and news sources that, like them, simply are what they are.

If this does prove to be the end of the line for CFQ, Fred Clarke can rest easily in the knowledge that his brainchild lasted the better part of 40 years (from the time its first mimeographed issue rolled off the hand-cranked press in 1967) and effected substantial change in the film and publishing industries.

Not bad for a geek from Oak Park, Illinois.

Monday, November 20, 2006

By The Gods!

What stars Steve Reeves, Gordon Scott and Peter Lupus, was filmed all over Europe, runs over four thousand minutes, covers thirteen discs, but can be had for less than thirty dollars? (And, in some places, for less than twenty?) It's a tempting but worrisome box set called WARRIORS from Mill Creek Entertainment -- 50 different sword-and-sandal pictures from the '50s and '60s, presented four to a disc (two to the thirteenth disc) at an almost irresistable price.

The natural reaction to such an item is, "Yes, I might be interested... but how's the quality?" With that question in mind, I plunked down my money and awaited its arrival.

WARRIORS is interestingly packaged. The discs come in individual sleeves, couched inside a deep cardboard box with a velcro-fastened door-hinge cover. Each sleeve contains a paragraph of plot description about each movie on that particular disc. Each movie is limited to only four chapter marks, and a Mill Creek Entertainment bug appears in the lower right corner of each feature, though for no more than once or twice (briefly) per picture. A minor point of annoyance is that most of the discs revert to Menu mode before the music heralding the end of each picture completely fades out. (What's the hurry?)

I am not about to review 50 films for free, even sketchily, so here are my notes on the first 24 titles in the set (click on the titles for IMDb links and further information):

Soft-looking, with okay color. Cropped to standard ratio from the Totalscope (2.35:1) original. The greens and reds are intact, but the blues have largely faded. Some infrequent video artifacting -- adding up to a probable tape source of a 16mm element.

Softish, but boasts decent, warm color and strong blacks. The cropping of this Techniscope (2.35:1) original looks a bit zoomed-into, resulting in some headroom cropping.

Horizontal cropping of this Dyaliscope (2.35:1) original is again a problem, with upper and lower credits getting lopped off my screen -- depending on your overscan (or mine), your mileage may differ. Good color, but soft - denoting another 16mm source, but the close-ups have a surprising amount of detail.

Opens with Medallion Pictures logo. Initially, this transfer appears cropped to 1.66 from the 2.35 Dyaliscope original, but the black bars quickly disappear, leaving us with a standard 1.33 pan&scan (with no actual panning). The menu shows the title frame with more room on all four sides, indicating that Mill Creek could have done better. The blue has mostly disappeared from the color palate, and the remaining color is somewhat greenish and orangey, though pleasingly sharp. Enjoyable, but the element is faded enough to make it hard to appreciate all that Mario Bava brought (unofficially) to the mise en scène. Faint hum on the soundtrack.

Disc 2: URSUS IN THE LAND OF FIRE (87m 29s)
Another formerly Dyaliscope pan&scan print with no panning; there are several occasions when the actor speaking is not onscreen, as the framing stares down the wall between two actors. Grainy, muted color. This movie is nevertheless delightful as a catalogue of classic Italian Golden Age locations -- the Cascate de Montegelato waterfall from HERCULES, the lake from MEDUSA AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES, etc.

A rarely seen Mario Caiano title in which Richard Harrison and Mimmo Palmara, who look nothing like one another, play twin brothers. Harrison looks incredibly like Ben Affleck here. This Techniscope picture is slightly letterboxed throughout, to about 1.66, which is better than nothing but remains noticeably cropped. The color is faded; it's practically black-and-white... and red. The English dialogue is credited to former actress Tamara Lees.

Shot in "Ultrascope," the opening main titles scroll is squeezed, tempting widescreen set owners to decompress the picture... but the regular cropped dimensions soon return. Soft picture, decent color, from a 16mm source.

Again, this widescreen original -- lensed in "Euroscope" -- is presented here with squeezed main titles, which look correctly proportioned when uncompressed to 1.78; the rest of the movie is cropped with panless pan&scanning that cuts from one side of the screen to the other, imposing an unwanted editorial rhythm on the picture. Watchable, but hardly ideal.

Grainy, badly cropped 16mm TV print source, with flecking and some overly dark scenes. Something Weird Video has released a perfect, widescreen, brightly colorful version of this Cromoscope title, so there's no need ever to consult this version.

This Totalscope release is letterboxed here at a compromised 1.66 framing, as was VCI's release (taken from a standard ratio 16mm print), but the color looks bumped up a bit -- a bit too much, actually. An official release would doubtless look superior, but until that unlikely event comes to pass, this is acceptable.

American International Television logo, hence a 16mm source. Like many AIP TV exclusives, this movie appears to have the first reel lopped off, and there are next to no credits onscreen (only those of presenters James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, star Gordon Mitchell, and director Emmimo Salvi). The print has some white flecks and is pan&scanned from the 2.35:1 original Totalscope framing. The color appears to have been given a digital boost and looks fairly strong.

Supposedly lensed in two different gauges -- Dyaliscope with underwater scenes filmed in Totalscope -- this film opens with windowboxed widescreen credits that segue into the barest of letterboxing, with thin bars at top and bottom that may not be visible on some monitors. The cropping of Mario Bava's ravishing cinematography is damaging -- and unnecessary, as fully or partially letterboxed versions of this PD title are in circulation. There is some image ghosting as well during action scenes, and the robust color is compromised by a yellowish bias. A waste.

As with ALI BABA AND THE SEVEN SARACENS, greatly abbreviated credits and the opening reel of the original Italian version seems to be missing as the film essentially begins "in progress." AIP-TV (whose presentational card is missing) seems to have had some fun at director Vitttorio Sala's expense, rescoring the film with jazzy '50s style rock 'n' roll and giving it some gratingly bad "comic" dubbing. Color overly strong with yellowish skin tones and bluish foliage. Cropped from original Dyaliscope framing.

This may be a "Terence Young Picture" starring Alan Ladd, but it's "directed by Fernando Baldi" and conspicuously a peplum, having been shot in Rome, written by the usual suspects (Ennio De Concini, et al), and featuring a number of recognizable Italian supporting players. A tape crinkle or three is visible during the overly red main titles. The image is badly cropped from the Totalscope original, color has been beefed-up a bit too much, and the soundtrack is unpleasantly prone to distortion and break-up due to fluctuating tracking of the tape master. A mess.

HERO OF ROME (86m 32s)
This is a weird one: the film begins in progress, with reconstructed video titles superimposed over the first dialogue scene. The superimpositions are obviously modelled on the original screen credits, and include credits for the "Version Française." Soft, darkish, cropped from 2.35:1 Spesvision, and with unpredictable color -- sometimes it's good, othertimes greenish and pale, so probably reconstructed from more than a single print. Despite the opening problem, an acceptable way to see this film.

Opening titles are squeezed, with an L-shaped windowbox and a bad splice or two... but the rest of the film looks good for a pan&scanned item, with sharp picture, good color, and an overall clean look. Cropped from Totalscope. Likely taken from the Panther Entertainment VHS tape release from the 1980s.

Disc 5: DAMON AND PYTHIAS (98m 39s)
Green skies prevail in this badly faded 16mm source, replete with original Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer "Leo the Lion" logo, which sports very moderate windowboxing throughout. Not a scope picture, it was shot open aperture for adjustable soft-matte framing. Turner Classic Movies and other Turner channels have shown this with exquisite color in recent years.

Filmed in Totalscope, this is a very soft pan&scan transfer with squeezed main titles. The color isn't perfect, but it's acceptable; unfortunately, the picture is almost too soft to watch with any pleasure and, on some occasions, the image seems contorted, as when the vertical lines of palace windows seem to curve ever so slightly to the left. Notable for the presence in the cast of Serge Gainsbourg.

Green and red, scratches. Main titles are squeezed, the remainder an unfortunate pan&scan presentation of a film that must have been impressive in its original 2.35:1 Totalscope splendor.

SON OF SAMSON (87m 28s)
This is a completely letterboxed transfer that, despite a slight squeeze, still can't fit every letter of every name in the main titles. It looks to be a 1.66:1 transfer of a Totalscope original, and viewers with widescreen sets can easily decompress the image to restore the original framing, making this one of the most worthwhile titles in the set. The color has a yellowish cast that makes the muscular Mark Forest look like a living, breathing Academy Award in some shots. The print gets very ragged at the end, and the end title card appears to have been imported from another movie, something in the Arabian Nights milieu.

Disc 6: GLADIATORS SEVEN (87m 56s)
This excellent Richard Harrison film has been released by a number of different labels, on its own (Westlake Entertainment) and as parts of multi-disc sets (Brentwood's 2-disc GLADIATORS and St. Clair Entertainment's group same-named 3-disc set), usually with its original Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer card present. There's no MGM logo here, and the 2.1 letterboxing is slightly squeezed from the film's original Techniscope dimensions. This version looks somewhat softer than other versions I've seen and the ragged print ends abruptly, with score mid-note.

Very faded -- black-and-green rather than black-and-white, with faintly blooming brights, motion blurring/ghosting, and with ugly coarse reds. The standard ratio presentation is cropped from a Euroscope original. There must be better copies available than this.

Like HERCULES AGAINST THE MOON MEN, this "Colorscope" (actually Totalscope) movie has been released in a splendid widescreen version by Something Weird Video, reducing this sub-standard presentation to mere filler. Letterboxed, with sometimes badly turned color, blooming greenish brights, and intermittent banjo-string scratches.

A fairly clean print, but cropped from Techniscope and again subject to greenish hue, action blurring, and blossoming brights. The flesh tones are decent however, and the picture is crisper than most in this set.

Already, with these 24 titles alone, I think the WARRIORS set has accounted for its purchase price -- and we're less than halfway through its contents. The source materials may be faulty but the discs themselves are well mastered and easy to navigate. (Each movie is limited to only four chapter marks.) When one considers that we once readily paid $30 for VHS copies of two or three of these films from Sinister Cinema, taken from similar sources in many cases, the bargain of this set comes into even greater focus.

If authorized releases of any of these titles should surface in years to come, it's quite possible -- as the some recent Toho DVDs have shown us -- that the AIP and AIP TV dubbing tracks may remain exclusive to these worn sources, replaced by new English tracks if given English tracks at all. In short, I consider WARRIORS a worthwhile purchase. These cropped and faded presentations may not capture the films themselves at their best, but they do capture moments in time -- the way these films looked on television, the way they once sounded in this country -- and, for those of us who love them, these are things worth preserving.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Wild Wild Preview

Ladies and gentlemen, here is your first peek at the cover of VIDEO WATCHDOG #128 -- now at the printer and due to hit newsstands and mailboxes sometime next month. Feel free to click on it for a more life-sized impression.

As always, you can find more information about this special "Wild Wild" issue in the Coming Soon section of our website, with near-complete details (we've got to keep some surprises up our sleeves) and a four-page preview, accessible by clicking on the cover as displayed there.

Rather than give you samples of only two articles or reviews, as we do usually, this time we're previewing three different pieces: Michael Barnum's Tony Russel interview (a must for you Eurocult buffs), David J. Schow's coverage of THE WILD WILD WEST - THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON, and Ramsey Campbell's valentine to the wacky Turkish superhero fest 3 DEV ADAM.

Peek in and enjoy!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Spreading The Word

I found the following press release posted at Matt Zoller Seitz's The House Next Door blog. Normally, I would simply include a link to the original posting but, in this case, I feel the correct thing to do is to spread the word. I invite my fellow bloggers and discussion board posters to do the same.

The Adrienne Shelly Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the memory of Writer/Director/Actress Adrienne Shelly, is being founded by her husband, Andy Ostroy. Plans include a Womens’ Filmmaking Scholarship Fund, with a particular emphasis on awarding film school scholarships and helping women make the transition from acting to directing. “I know what Adrienne would want most would be to help women get a chance to pursue their dream,” says Ostroy. More initiatives from the foundation will be announced at a later date.

Those wanting to contribute can send checks made out to THE ADRIENNE SHELLY FOUNDATION, via Belardi/Ostroy LLC, 16 West 22nd Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10010. Checks should be post-dated December 15th, until the legal status of the Foundation is finalized.

Shelly, who first became known as an actor for her teamings with director Hal Hartley on THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH and TRUST, recently appeared in FACTOTUM. She wrote and directed three feature films in which she acted, SUDDEN MANHATTAN, I'LL TAKE YOU THERE, and the soon-to-be-seen WAITRESS. She also appeared in over 20 other films.

Press Contact: Reid Rosefelt 718-855-2804, 917-691-3312.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Humpday Announcements

My review of Jerzy Stuhr's THE BIG ANIMAL (First Run Features), based on a script by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski, is now posted to the SIGHT & SOUND website. You can read it here in its entirety.

Today I signed a contract for a film book that will be published in the fall of 2007, the first book in a new series from a small independent publisher. I can't tell you anything about it yet, but the publisher kindly attached to my contract a beautiful, full color likeness of the book's cover art -- already finished! -- which made it all the more exciting to sign.

Speaking of books, just knowing something is out there can sometimes make all the difference. Fantasy novelist Craig Shaw Gardner, whom VW is honored to count among its readers, wrote to me recently about a trilogy of tongue-in-cheek, film-based fantasy novels called "The Cineverse Cycle," first published by Ace in 1989. He told me that the books, which were well-received at the time, have been newly reissued but aren't getting any promotional push (I hear you, brother!); he asked if I might mention them here on my blog -- primarily because he feels, in retrospect, that he wrote them for VIDEO WATCHDOG's slightly before VW actually existed. Craig sent me the three books -- SLAVES OF THE VOLCANO GOD, BRIDE OF THE SLIME MONSTER, and REVENGE OF THE FLUFFY BUNNIES -- for perusal, and they're good, clean, silly, film buffy fun. Each one follows hero Roger Gordon and superhero Captain Crusader through a plethora of different movie-based worlds, including some not reflected in the book titles, like planets built around Beach Party movies (complete with musical numbers), foreign art films, and sword-and-sandal epics, so that the reader never stays in one genre for too long. You're his target audience, so check 'em out.

In further news, VARIETY is announcing the official death of the VHS format.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Words Fail Me

... but I mustn't fail her. Louise Brooks was born 100 years ago today and it's not a centenary to be overlooked. I could have picked any number of different images of Our Miss Brooks to lionize here today -- winsome, frank, coquettish, wholesome, provocative, naked, even some from late in her life when something vaguely Asian crept into her crepey yet undiminished beauty -- but I'm especially fond of this one, for its irony. It also reflects her fondness for books, her cleverness, and her self-evident defiance of convention. I defy anyone to find a comparable photo of another silent screen siren.

Criterion's forthcoming box set of PANDORA'S BOX (which streets November 28) arrived in my mailbox yesterday and it's one of their most attractively packaged sets. I may find time to watch the movie later today in her honor but, before going to bed tonight, I made a point of revisiting the TCM documentary LOUISE BROOKS: LOOKING FOR LULU, which is one of the items on the supplementary second disc. It's a candid, balanced, and wonderful piece of work that makes me want very much to see her final European film, PRIX DE BEAUTÉ (available on DVD from Kino on Video). Near the end of the program, someone remembers that Miss Brooks was of the opinion that her success had been an ingeniously disguised form of failure, and I find this dichotomy compelling. Certainly, by all accounts, she knew failure, hard times, loneliness, despair, and the bottom of a gin bottle... but she redeemed her misspent middle years by writing about her years before the fall and collecting her memoirs in a book called LULU IN HOLLYWOOD. By recapturing those years in words of hard-won wisdom, wit, and elegantly crafted expression, she found that she hadn't really lost anything. In writing about the girl who was Lulu, she also gave the ghostly flickering image of herself greater substance -- evidence, if you will, that not everything people responded to in her ever contemporary image was a deluded projection of their own desires. Had Garbo ever picked up a pen, we would have surely been disappointed.

Find and read a copy of LULU IN HOLLYWOOD if you haven't, and meet Louise Brooks. A more immediate way of accomplishing this is by reading Kenneth Tynan's famous profile of the actress, written for THE NEW YORKER in 1979, which is available online here.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

She Is The Bloody Queen

Helen Mirren, looking luscious in John Mackenzie's British crime classic THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (1979) -- now available from Anchor Bay Entertainment.

Helen Mirren first wafted across my consciousness in Lindsay Anderson's O LUCKY MAN! (1973), in which she played the daughter of the most evil man in the world. She was perfectly cast as ambitious working class git Mick Travers' (Malcolm McDowell's) living, breathing, unattainable trophy of sexual achievement: rich, dignified, but with an anarchistic, adventurous streak that sends her cutting Daddy's masterpieces out of their frames to secure the money she is too insolent to ask for. Deep, dangerous, worldly and not merely sexy, but opulently sexy. It wasn't just the way she filled an exquisitely cut white evening gown with a body seemingly possessed of everything in all the abundance a man could ever crave; it was also the way she said "Michael." She made the name sparkle with decadent delight.

It was after O LUCKY MAN! that I got around to some of her earlier performances: the popcorn-dropping moment in Ken Russell's SAVAGE MESSIAH (1972) when she walks down a palatial flight of stairs resplendently nude in heels, and Michael Powell's final feature AGE OF CONSENT (1969) in which she again (to quote Powell himself) "stripped off magnificently." I don't mean to focus exclusively on Ms. Mirren's physical disclosures, but they need mentioning in any attempt to explain the full shock of her early screen appearances. Not only was she arguably the most ravishing creature of her era, but she gave altogether extraordinary performances in movies that reflected unusual intelligence and discernment in their selection... and then, when the credits rolled, came the triple whammy of seeing that this voluptuous firebrand had appeared in these movies by arrangement with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The years have passed remarkably for her, encompassing Tinto Brass' notorious CALIGULA (1979, which reteamed her with McDowell), THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (1979, now available in a deluxe edition from Anchor Bay including an excellent making-of featurette interviewing all the principles, including Mirren), EXCALIBUR (1981), 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT (1984), and Peter Greenaway's THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER (1989). In 1991, she accepted the lead role of District Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in a British TV movie called PRIME SUSPECT, which unexpectedly became one of the key roles of her distinguished career. She would reprise the role another half dozen times in the following 15 years, and her seventh (and reportedly final) performance in the role -- in PRIME SUSPECT: THE FINAL ACT -- airs tonight (and wraps up next week) on PBS' MASTERPIECE THEATER at 9:00pm.

Having matured into what Sean Burns has aptly termed "a foxy old bird," Mirren gives a performance in this two-parter that is one of her most unflinching and deeply felt, and it appears in the wake of her extraordinary work in the unrelated but serendipitous royal diptych of Tom Hooper's ELIZABETH I (aired on HBO) and Stephen Frears' THE QUEEN (2005, now in US theatrical release), making this a moment in her career that she's unlikely to top -- but perhaps that's more to do with my limitations of imagination than hers. On the basis of these three performances, we might as well declare this her year -- the former British ambassadrix of dramatic audacity and risqué risk-taking somehow reaching the pinnacle of her career by playing three of the most painfully zipped-up women you're likely to find fascinating.

The new PRIME SUSPECT reintroduces Jane Tennison at a difficult time: one month away from retirement and the pensioned life, she's taken to the bottle for companionship in her middle age, and at the point where she can no longer hide the fact from her co-workers (and ever her suspects) that she's become a blackout-prone alcoholic. Her job under threat, her career in the balance, her emotions shrieking but utterly sublimated, her only path to redemption is by solving one last case: the disappearance of 14 year-old girl Sallie Sturdy (Maxine Barton), which escalates to murder when she is found dead... and pregnant. The often harrowing investigation becomes unusually personal as DCI Tennison befriends one of Sallie's friends (Penny Philips, very well played by young Laura Greenwood) and possibly betrays that trust while under the influence. Making a tentative visit to an Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, she also encounters her former adversary Bill Otley (a fragile-looking Tom Bell in his final role), who -- in a poignant turnabout for their relationship -- helps to see her through the devastating news that her father (Frank Finlay) has been diagonosed with a very quick and inoperable cancer.

Helen Mirren befriends troubled teen Laura Greenwood in PRIME SUSPECT: THE FINAL ACT, airing tonight on PBS.

The first PRIME SUSPECT involvement by both director Phillip Martin and screenwriter Frank Deasy, THE FINAL ACT is not the series' most intense or surprising episode, but it is certainly its most poignant and dramatically complex, and perhaps its most deeply satisfying. Not only is it the most captivating dramatic television I've seen all year -- it eclipses ELIZABETH I in that respect -- but its strong performances (special kudos to Gary Lewis and Katy Murphy as the dead girl's parents), involving direction, and sensitive writing place it at equal standing with the best theatrical features I've seen this year; I'll be including it tandem with the more subtly remarkable THE QUEEN (to which it allies itself with the instantaneously classic line "Don't call me 'Ma'am,' I'm not the bloody queen") on my year's best list. The first part includes a terrific action scene, a chase down the side of a multi-story apartment building, and next Sunday's conclusion includes a startling compression of narrative action into a staccato howl of despair that trusts us to fill in the details. One gets the feeling it came about with the director and editor (Trevor Waite) having their backs in the corner, time-wise, but they fought their way out of that corner brilliantly.

How well PRIME SUSPECT: THE FINAL ACT will adapt to PBS standards remains to be seen. In its original UK broadcast version, the show contained some very strong language that many PBS affiliates may not want to risk, lest they get slapped with heavy FCC fines. (Isn't that an ironic acronym for a company that forbids obscene language?) I recommend you watch it anyway, and fill in the FCC-ing blanks at your own discretion.

Not all great series have the benefit of a great ending, but PRIME SUSPECT has given one of contemporary detective drama's great heroines an impressive farewell. Such is the quality of Helen Mirren's valedictory performance in the role that one doesn't feel the least bit disappointed that this is the end of Jane Tennison's story.

Because it's been a good story well and fully told, and because Helen Mirren's own story is fabulously ongoing.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Brother Theodore Centenary

"To the mouse in the cheese, the cheese is the Universe. To the maggot in the corpse, the corpse is the Cosmos. What do any of us really know about the Universe? How can any of us know what is behind the Beyond? Most people do not know what is beyond the Behind."

Only one man could have produced such a pronouncement. Only one man could have scooped out such an insight. The late Theodore Gottlieb, better known to man and beast as "Brother Theodore." Click on that appropriately illuminated cognomen for the whole story, courtesy of the quadrupedians at Wikipedia.

Every day of my life, ladies and gentlemen, I celebrate the wisdom, humor, and wonderment of Brother Theodore. In the nightmare of the dark, I walk with him in my thoughts as Enoch walked with his God. But then... all of a suddenly... like a bolt from the blue... it comes to my attention that he was born 100 years ago today! I ask you, people at your peepholes, how is this possible? I spoke to this man on the phone! He's mouldering in his grave! How could he be 100 years old? As he said himself, in a prophecy of this moment in the trailer for HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS, It's incredible! It's unbeLIEvable!

Theodore isn't with us to partake in our celebration of his cerebrated gloom but, as he would be the first to tell you, take heart -- as long as there is death, there is hope.

Wherever you are, Theodore, hear your voice blasting from my stereo... hear my typing thundering down the broadband... hear the thousands of people turning away from their cyberporn to ask "Brother Who?"... and know that nothing here on Earth has changed, but that you are still admired, loved, and remembered.

You can click here for a special rant from Theodore, filmed late in his life, in the bloom of his youth.

Donna's paternal grandmother, whom we called Grandma Sweetie Pie, was also born 100 years ago today -- which has nothing to do with Theodore, of course, but this strikes me as one of life's sweet coinkydinks.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Jack Palance and How to Say His Name

Jack Palance (bow your head or bend your knee when you say that name) insisted that his surname rhymed with "balance," and that the accent wasn't to be placed on the second syllable. But even when you know this, there's another trick to how the name of Jack Palance should be pronounced.

Palance was what the French like to call "a sacred beast" -- a category that also claimed the likes of Klaus Kinski and Oliver Reed. When I read of his death earlier today, fron natural causes at age 87 -- mere weeks after many of his personal possessions were auctioned at his farm in Hazelton, Pennsylvania -- my first thought was of my friend, the French journalist/archivist Lucas Balbo, who once devoted an issue of his fan magazine NOSTALGIA to the actor. To Lucas, the actor's name was always to be spoken like an incantation, an audacious summoning of magic: "Zzzzhack PAL-ANCE!" Lucas spent some time visiting Donna and me back in 1989, as VIDEO WATCHDOG magazine was in its pre-production stages, and, ever since then, Donna and I have never thought of Jack Palance or spoken his name in quite the same way. We say it like someone says "And there you have it!" Et voila! The way a tightrope walker says "I made it" after crossing Niagara Falls. The way someone says "I have survived." Lucas taught us that to speak the name of Jack Palance aloud was to exclaim "Boredom BEGONE!"

To me, Palance was always one of the top tier movie grotesques, and I use that term with great respect and affection. I loved his panting delivery, his hardy yet feline quality, the way dialogue burbled from his lips like wine expressed from swollen grapes, his peculiar pronunciations (the way he said "Beelly the Kid" when name-checking history's greatest desperadoes in a Time/Life LEGENDS OF THE OLD WEST book commercial), his poetical stance, his divine eccentricities. He could take bland crap like RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOT and make it compelling with his completely unpredictable reading of whatever was written on his cue cards. As another writer once said of Jean-Pierre Léaud, he was one of those rare actors who could say nothing more than "Good morning" and transport you to a magical place -- amusing, surreal, or scary, whatever the script demanded. Palance could say "Good morning" the way Christopher Jones said "Give me the power!" in WILD IN THE STREETS... and if he didn't quite get away with it all the time, you at least had to admire the attempt.

His performances could be all over the map, from brilliant to barking mad, but he gave of himself to the screen generously, exuberantly, wildly -- the way Jackson Pollack gave paint to his canvases. "Walter Jack Palance" in PANIC IN THE STREETS. Jack the Ripper in MAN IN THE ATTIC. The bad guy in SHANE. The tortured actors in SUDDEN FEAR and THE BIG KNIFE. "Mountain" McClintock in REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT. Simon in THE SILVER CHALICE, believing he could fly. The sleek warrior in THE MONGOLS. The demented producer Jeremiah Prokosh in CONTEMPT, my favorite of all films. The man who collected Poe in TORTURE GARDEN. The completely frigging off-the-rails priest in MARQUIS DE SADE'S JUSTINE. My favorite of the screen's many Mr. Hydes. (Makeup artist Dick Smith once told me that Hyde's satyr-like likeness was based on a figure that he and his wife found while vacationing in Egypt, and that Palance's own facial features were so flat that he had to build up the forehead and cheekbones artificially. He also told me that when Palance suffered a bad fall and was briefly hospitalized during production, he visited and got a glimpse of the actor's bare torso -- a miasma of scars dating back to earlier stunts, air and automobile crashes, and his days in the boxing ring.) Fidel Castro in CHE!. A miscast DRACULA. The pot-smoking baddie in COMPANEROS. The African deity-worshipping antiques dealer of CRAZE. MISTER SCARFACE. BRONK. The bohemian Hollywood exile Rudi in BAGDAD CAFE. And he played Curly twice, once in THE MERCENARY and again in CITY SLICKERS (not the same Curly, of course... at least I don't think so) -- the latter of which brought him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and international headlines when he celebrated his victory with a set on one-handed push-ups. Believe it... or not.

So as we remember Jack Palance and discuss his legacy, remember how to say his name. The way he approached every role: with panache. Make that PANache, accent on the first syllable.

And merci beaucoup, Lucas, for teaching me this.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

ERIK Conquers DVD on Import

Thanks to the past efforts of Image Entertainment, VCI Home Entertainment, and Anchor Bay Entertainment, most Mario Bava films have been released at least once on DVD. But, of all his directorial works, one has always been conspicuous in its absence: ERIK THE CONQUEROR [GLI INVASORI, 1961].

Next week, in Germany, Colosseo Film will correct that oversight with the release of DIE RACHE DER WIKINGER, an eye-popping presentation of Bava's third directorial effort in all its original Technicolor and anamorphic Dyaliscope splendor. It's the first time this important title has been available for public viewing in its original ratio since the early 1960s, and for those of us who import this Region 2 PAL disc (which does include an English audio track, as well as German and Italian ones) to America, it will be the first time the complete version has ever been available for viewing in its original scope ratio. The title, which also includes the original German trailer in scope, is available now as a pre-order from Amazon.de and I assume it will be available domestically through Xploited Cinema in the coming weeks.

The box art for DIE RACHE DER WIKINGER subtitles the film ERIK THE CONQUEROR for clarity, but this is actually as misleading as it was for Image Entertainment to call THE MASK OF SATAN (the original English language export print of LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO) "BLACK SUNDAY." ERIK THE CONQUEROR was a re-edited and partly rescored reduction of GLI INVASORI's original English export print, which was called "THE INVADERS." That original version saw a surprise VHS release in the 1980s from Panther Entertainment as THE INVADERS; it was a cropped, pan&scanned transfer, but it ran about 10 minutes longer than the AIP cut and revolutionized one's perception of the film Bava had actually made. It is this longer original export version that is included on the DVD, needless to say.

In all fairness, the AIP reduction had one thing going for it: it got rid of the film's painfully static opening, which forces the viewer to consider a crudely drawn map as a narrator gives us a lot of long-winded historic background not entirely essential to the story. The story, to be brief about it, is a bare-faced remake of Richard Fleischer's THE VIKINGS (1958), with Cameron Mitchell starring in his first Bava film in the Kirk Douglas part and Giorgio Ardisson (Theseus in HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD) in the Tony Curtis role. The two sons of the Viking king are separated on a battlefield in the wake of a failed seaside attack on England, in which the kings of the two countries die -- the Viking king in battle, the English king through the ambition of his evil underling, Sir Rudfort (BLACK SUNDAY's Andrea Checchi). The younger of the Viking sons is found by the Queen of England, who raises him as her own son, poising him for unwitting conflict with his longlost brother when he reaches maturity. Their relationship is foreshadowed by the love they share for twin vestal virgins, played by the leggy German song-and-dance act, The Kessler Twins (Alice & Ellen Kessler).

You want frame grabs? Here, have some frame grabs:

I'm sorry these can't be click-enlarged; I had to downsize the images by 50% to fit them onto this page. Trust me, they look many times more ravishing on a big screen.

It's generally known that Anchor Bay Entertainment have secured ERIK THE CONQUEROR for release in America next year, but their release isn't expected to include this German import's ace-in-the-hole: a new 50-minute documentary called MARIO BAVA ENTHÜLLT DIE MAGIE SEINER WERKE ("Mario Bava Explains the Magic of His Works"), which is subtitled simply as "Mario Bava Speaks." Directed by Patrick O'Brien, the program is hosted by Luigi Cozzi, who occupies his behind-the-counter position at Rome's Profondo Rosso store and peruses a well-thumbed copy of Troy Howarth's THE HAUNTED WORLD OF MARIO BAVA (for which he wrote the Foreword) while reminiscing about his own relationship as fan, friend, and collague of Bava. The value of this documentary comes from its many (subtitled) excerpts from Bava's only known television interviews, both broadcast on RAI-TV: one was recorded in 1970 as a talking head snippet for a program about horror cinema in general, and the other was a guest appearance with Carlo Rambaldi on a full hour talk show called L'OSPITE DALLE DUE ("The Guests at 2:00") that aired in July 1974, shortly after Bava's abandonment of THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM and one month before shooting commenced on his next production, RABID DOGS. Neither of these interviews are shown in their entirety, but they are generously excerpted and make this disc an essential purchase for Bava fans.

Speaking for myself, I have had these interviews on VHS for many years, as well as a translated transcript, but to see Bava speak in this archival footage -- in perfect quality, with English subtitles keeping the meaning of his words apace with his inflections and facial expressions -- made this material live for me as it never has before. Bava has been at the core of my creative life for many, many years, but watching this footage made me feel as though I was meeting Mario Bava for the first time, or coming as close to that pleasure as I ever will. O'Brien has cleverly upgraded the latter interview, with its many film clips, so that the original B&W footage segues into full color, widescreen clips as the soundtrack remains constant. Here Bava discusses the craft, the secrets, even the "madness" of special effects, and a sizeable sequence from his "Polyphemus" episode of THE ODYSSEY is also included, in full color, with English subtitles. (This superb miniseries, which is out in Italy on DVD without subtitles, represents the finest of Bava's special effects work yet it remains unavailable here in America.) We are also shown the exterior of one of Bava's former homes, his townhouse on Rome's Via di Rispetta (near the Spanish Steps he immortalized as a giallo mecca in THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH aka EVIL EYE), and Barbara Steele and GLI INVASORI supporting player Enzo Doria (Sir Bennett) are also interviewed.

Colosseo Film's DVD is a very exciting addition to the Bava shelf, and ample proof that there's nothing quite as exciting as being shown new dimensions of a film or a subject you thought you knew well. DIE RACHE DER WIKINGER peels decades of obfuscation away from a neglected picture that now stands fully revealed as one of the most dazzling visual works of one of the most visual of all film directors.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

After the Famine... FEAST

New on DVD is a real oddity, possible only in these whacked-out times of ours: FEAST (2006, Dimension/Weinstein Company), a more-or-less direct-to-video gore picture that is nevertheless one of the most hotly-anticipated horror releases and directorial debuts of the year.

Some background: In late 2004, the Miramax/Live Planet-sponsored series PROJECT GREENLIGHT limped back to air after two failed attempts to produce a film more interesting than the preliminary documentation of their hapless, behind-the-scenes frig-ups. Rumors were rife that producers Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Chris Moore had deliberately fudged their choices of material in order to produce more interesting reality television, and the comedy-of-errors results made it hard to refute such word-of-mouth. For people interested in the business, it was fairly addictive viewing because it confirmed all our worst fears about the business, plucking sensitive, creative writers like Erica Beeney and Pete Jones out of midwestern obscurity and placing all their hopes and dreams in the hands of established film people whose arrogance and inattention doomed their contest-winning scripts to become something conspicuously more half-assed than they ever were on the printed page.

In reviewing the first two seasons, I noticed Affleck, Damon and Moore's tendency to look past the most intense, visionary finalists (the ones who might be problems when push inevitably came to shove) and scoped out either the meekest people on the bench (the ones who would make them look good) or the biggest "characters" (the ones who would make the show look good). The first two PG films, STOLEN SUMMER (2002) and THE BATTLE OF SHAKER HEIGHTS (2003), predictably flopped and Showtime dropped their support of the series. The show managed to return the following fall on Bravo, but in emasculated form, subjected to tension-dissolving commercial interruptions and entertainment-dissolving censored language. Once again, predictably, Affleck, Damon and Moore gravitated toward what was -- by common consensus -- the worst of the finalist scripts (a gore fest by Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton that new co-producer Wes Craven himself called a piece of crap) and handed it over to the least assertive of the director finalists -- John Gulager, a timid couch potato in his late forties who could barely speak at his own pitch meeting.

But this time, the producers' selection bit them in the ass.

The son of maverick actor Clu Gulager (the guy who effectively stole most of Lee Marvin's scenes in THE KILLERS), John Gulager turned out to be a "run silent, run deep" type, and something of a West coast Cassavetes, interested only in making films with his own friends and family. Consequently, much of the third season of PROJECT GREENLIGHT turned out to be a protracted stand-off between the producers, a friend-favoring casting director in sore need of firing, and Gulager, who reasonably fought for his right to the prize he had won: the opportunity to direct his film his way. He didn't get it, but he made the most of it. As the film went into production, with everyone still panicking about Gulager's ability and stubbornness, the dailies proved surprisingly encouraging. Suddenly, the movie was turning out much better than expected... and just as things were getting exciting, Bravo pulled the plug. We were left with a greatly compressed account of production that rushed the process toward preview screenings, and then a whole year went by without much news of what had happened to FEAST.

FEAST had the misfortune to be a Miramax release at the time the Weinstein brothers were separating from the company, and they took it with them when they left. This meant that the film bore the misfortune of a protracted stay on the shelf until the Weinsteins formed a new distribution set-up with Dimension Films, but it also benefitted from Harvey Weinstein's liking of what he saw, which resulted in reshoots, a more leisurely and perfectionistic editing schedule, and additional budget allocations above and beyond the bare-bones $1,000,000 budget that came with winning the contest. (The IMDb lists its final budget at $3,200,000. Even so, as the end credits roll and roll and roll and roll on, you've got to figure that most of these people were working either for credit or for peanuts.) And now -- a full year after its initial screenings at the Chicago International Film Festival and International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival -- FEAST has been rewarded for its extraordinary patience by being sent straight to DVD, in the wake of a few Midnight Movie playdates that kept the contractual promise of some kind of theatrical release.

So how is FEAST? I was pleasantly surprised. The movie is an unashamedly reductive, two-dimensional affair, more video game than narrative, stocked with caricatures rather than characters -- everybody is introduced with the equivalent of a score card that estimates their chances of survival. We get no explanations, no warnings, no quarter, and very little down time as everyone gets spritzed or sprayed or splashed with monster blood, drool, bile, slime, or semen. The monsters eat people, get their genitals stuck in slammed doors, hump hunting trophies and each other. What makes this 87-minute onslaught endurable is its humor (thanks to Dustan and Melton and a game cast) and wildly propulsive energy (thanks to Gulager, editor Kirk Morri, and cameraman Tom Callaway -- check out his filmography -- whose unrelenting use of shutter effects is like watching a whole feature with a finger stuck in an electrical outlet). Though everyone is playing a stereotype of some sort (Jason Mewes plays himself, and still suffers a messy fate), the performances are fairly vivid.

Watching FEAST, I was reminded of a few other feature debuts: Michael Reeves' THE SHE BEAST (1965, which in its day had a similarly raw, savage quality and outré sense of humor), Sam Raimi's THE EVIL DEAD (1981, which -- along with NEAR DARK -- is the film's most overt visual influence), and Peter Jackson's BAD TASTE (1987, for the way it also used extreme gore to hilarious ends). The later careers enjoyed by these three men should give us some indication of what we could be missing if John Gulager isn't given more opportunities to direct. So far, since completing FEAST, he has edited Sage Stallone's highly lauded film short VIC and he's acted in Frank A. Cappello's forthcoming HE WAS A QUIET MAN. He should be turned loose as a director on a project that he really cares about.

Dimension's anamorphic 2.40 DVD offers a handsome calling card for Gulager's talents. There's a highly directional, extremely busy 5.1 Dolby track and an audio commentary by the filmmakers, along with production featurettes, deleted scenes and outtakes. Unfortunately, Season 3 of PROJECT GREENLIGHT (which I'd love to see in uncensored form someday) remains a no-show on DVD.

PS: I watched FEAST last night because today, November 7th, is Donna's birthday and our post-midnight movie viewing was her choice. She doesn't really care for horror movies, and for gore movies even less, but she was caught up with me in Season 3 of PROJECT GREENLIGHT and has been asking me what's going on with FEAST for the past year or so. She was eager to see it, and I'm pleased to say that she enjoyed it as much as I did; we both laughed a lot. I can't impress upon the people responsible for FEAST how rare Donna's praise is, especially in this category, and I congratulate them.