Saturday, June 30, 2007

It Exists!

You can see a special 11-minute home video of Donna and me opening the very first copies of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK over on the Bava Book Update blog -- right now.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Friday Announcements

Contents from the July 2007 issue of SIGHT & SOUND are now posted at their website. Among the free samples on display are a well-worth-reading appreciation of Ken Russell by Linda Ruth Williams (remember her from MARIO BAVA MAESTRO OF THE MACABRE?), Michael Brooke on Jan Svankmajer's LUNACY, and my own review of DA Pennebaker's Bob Dylan documentary DONT LOOK BACK. This new issue may not have yet reached newsstands here in the States, so if you still haven't picked up June's swell "Grindhouse" issue, you'd better hurry -- it's not long for the newsstand.

Also, we are presently in the midst of shipping VIDEO WATCHDOG #132, which returned from the printer on Wednesday. It's a fine looking issue, with a great diversity of films and television covered, and the general tone strikes me as more nostalgic and light-hearted than our previous CASINO ROYALE number. For those of you who have been petitioning me for the return of "Things From the Attic"... it's in here!

I also wanted to mention some additional information about THE THOMAS MANN COLLECTION titles, which I blogged about a couple of days ago. Apparently there is some uncertainty at large about whether the set includes the full-length versions of the made-for-German-television THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN and DOCTOR FAUSTUS, or their condensed theatrical versions. I am currently two episodes into DOCTOR FAUSTUS, which is certainly the miniseries version; the IMDb lists a 137m running time for the movie, and the first two parts alone nearly amount to this. It takes awhile to get going, but I'm very much caught up in it. As for THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, it's packaged in an ever stouter disc booklet than FAUSTUS and lists a running time of nearly five hours. Also, THE THOMAS MANN COLLECTION is a Koch Vision (formerly Koch Media) and this label is rapidly becoming synonymous with careless DVD transfers. DOCTOR FAUSTUS looks like it was mastered from an old PAL tape, with lots of staggering during camera pans; it's acceptable only because it's the only opportunity I've had to see this film. It's also letterboxed in a manner that requires me to wide-zoom the picture, which gives it a bit of a taffy-pull, but it's the only way I can fill my screen and get both tiers of the English subtitling. I had the same complaint about Koch Media's LA BELLE CAPTIVE, and their release of Alain Resnais' MURIEL was only somewhat better. This label is exercising superb taste about what to license and release, but they could use an employee with a clue about how to present it all on disc properly.

Lastly, as I type these words, there is a large box sitting in our living room. It contains, I am told, two preliminary copies of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK -- the first two bound copies in the world. These copies are supposedly hand-stitched, in the manner of the dummy blank books we received last year, and once we approve these, the remainder of our order will be sent to the bindery, completing the print run. So why am I sitting here blogging, when I could be holding my book, savoring the fruits of my labors? Well, Donna wants to camcord the occasion for posterity, so rooms have to be cleaned (it's hard to find a presentable room here during the shipping of an issue, which is what's going on at the moment), showers have to be taken, and we have to learn how to use this camcorder, which we haven't touched in years, all over again. So much for spontaneity... but I hope to have some kind of report on the "grand opening" on the Bava Book Update blog later this evening.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Cronenberg's Next

I've found a riveting new trailer for David Cronenberg's forthcoming EASTERN PROMISES online. Watching this made me think of two things: as good as she was in them, it's heartening to see Naomi Watts moving away from KING KONG (film and video game) and the RING series and going back to serious drama (I recently watched 21 GRAMS again and she's never been better); and secondly, this dark thriller looks like it could be the Oscar contender for Cronenberg that A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE wasn't, quite.

Speaking of Cronenbergian things, I'm told that my Millipede Press book on VIDEODROME is proceeding nicely and now in the photo selection/clean-up stage. This past week I pulled out some additional never-before-published shots, including several of myself on the set -- images I literally haven't seen in decades. I was surprised to discover that photos exist of me standing on the actual Videodrome set, and the derelict ship where the film's closing scene takes place, and in Rick Baker's EFX workshop holding a severed arm and a big chunk of Barry Convex cancer. There are also shots of me in the company of David Cronenberg, James Woods, Debbie Harry, Mark Irwin, Carol Spier, and co-producer Victor Solnicki (who I didn't recall meeting). Since I don't anticipate seeing too much more of myself in the book than an author's photo, I will share some of those images here once Donna has a chance to digitally rejuvenate them.

PS: Truphen Newben is back with two more terrifying TALES FROM THE PUB at YouTube: "The Return" and "Doppelganger."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Exploring Genius and Madness with Thomas Mann

Back in 1981 or '82, when I was a regular consumer of VARIETY, I can remember being taken pleasantly aback by a pair of full page ads announcing the completion of a couple of German film productions based on two classic novels by Thomas Mann: THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN and DOCTOR FAUSTUS.

This was around the time I was just dipping my toe into home video and still very much a dedicated reader. Somewhat earlier in my life, in the mid- to late-1970s as I was chain-reading my way through my literary education, I read a great deal of Mann and loved it -- those two books particularly, though I also found myself deliriously overwhelmed by the scope and style of his most colossal work of the imagination, his JOSEPH AND HIS BROTHERS tetralogy. I was thrilled to know that both novels had finally been adapted for the screen and couldn't wait to see them. What I did not know is that it would take another 28 years for that to happen.

Only now have the film versions of THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN [Der Zauberberg, 1982] and DOCTOR FAUSTUS [Doktor Faustus, 1982] become available for viewing with English subtitles, in a DVD box set from Koch Vision called THE THOMAS MANN COLLECTION -- along with an epic miniseries production of Mann's BUDDENBROOKS previously televised here as part of PBS' GREAT PERFORMANCES. The seven-disc set runs longer than 19 hours, making its hefty cost seem more reasonable.

I'm posting this information in a state of excitement; I haven't as yet seen the films themselves, though I plan to dig in soon. But what I can tell you is appetizing. THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN stars Rod Steiger, Marie-France Pisier and Kurt Raab, and was scripted and directed by Hans W. Geissendörfer, best known for his political vampire film of 1970, JONATHAN. DOCTOR FAUSTUS stars Jon Finch (great casting, I'm guessing) and Marie-Hélène Breillat and was written and directed by THE TIN DRUM producer Franz Seitz, who also produced both films -- some twenty years after producing a picture based on Mann's celebrated story "Tonio Krüger."

For those of you who aren't familiar with the novels, both works explore the hazy margins between disease and inspiration, art and malady, genius and madness. THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN is the magic realist chronicle of the education and elliptic romances encountered by a young German male while stuck for a long period of time at a health sanitorium high in the Swiss mountains, and DOCTOR FAUSTUS is the fictional story of classical composer Adrian Leverkuhn, whose musical genius is rumored to have been cemented through a deal with the Devil.

This is one of those DVD releases that sneak out completely under the radar, so I thought I would bring it to your attention -- merely as a public service. Incidentally, if your knowledge of Mann's work is limited to a viewing of Visconti's DEATH IN VENICE, you haven't yet discovered him. These productions bode well to be the ideal place, short of the books themselves, to get acquainted.

Building a Better Plague

The Sony Pictures DVD is called CLIVE BARKER'S THE PLAGUE, though the film was neither directed, written by, or based on a story by Clive Barker. THE PLAGUE was actually directed by Hal Masonberg, who co-authored the script with Teal Minton; Barker was one of the film's producers. When producers take a possessory credit, it's almost always a bad sign -- a front-and-center billboard of territorial conflict -- but, in this case, Masonberg and Minton can take a measure of relief in letting Barker stand in the spotlight: the version of the movie bearing his name has received such virulent critical and public reaction that "it wasn't that bad" is the best comment I could find about it online.

Normally, we could just forget the picture, along with so many other store-cluttering DTV titles... but in this case, it's not so easy. Word is coming out about the existence of a suppressed true creator's cut of THE PLAGUE that is supposedly far superior to the release version.
From my mailbox:

As an avid reader and fan of your site, I wanted to direct your attention to a site dedicated to getting the Writers & Director's Cut of THE PLAGUE released to DVD.
In the fall of 2005, the film was taken away from its writers and director during post. After an 8 year struggle to get the film made, the footage was re-cut from scratch by the producers without the involvement of the film's creators. Stock footage was added, new dialogue recorded, and the film completely restructured. It was released to dvd in September of 2006 at a running time of 88 minutes under the title CLIVE BARKER'S THE PLAGUE, though it was not based on any of Barker's work (it was an original screenplay by director Hal Masonberg and co-writer Teal Minton) and Barker, personally, had very little to do with the making of the film. That version of the film in no way reflects the years of hard work, creativity, or artistic intent of the writers and director of the film. It is solely and completely a "producers' cut".
However, after having been removed from the film, director Hal Masonberg took it upon himself to finish the film with the materials available to him (the film's dailies on dvd and a Macintosh computer-turned post-production facility) The film was originally shot in Super 35 by veteran cinematographer, Bill Butler (JAWS, THE CONVERSATION, FRAILTY), who was also not invited to partake in the film's post-production process.
The response to the Writers & Director's Cut by those who have seen it has been through the roof. However, without further support, this film may never see the light of day as the film's current distributor, Screen Gems, has no plans to release this cut.
I ask that you take a look at this site. On it you will find an hour-long documentary containing interviews with not only director, Hal Masonberg, but many others including Dee Wallace and other cast members, film authors/ journalists. There is also a link to a petition and much more info on what happened to this film.
It is people like you and sites like yours that can make a world of difference to a film like this. All the difference, in fact. By making your readers aware of the existence of this site, we may be able to convince Screen Gems that there is an audience for this cut of the film and, perhaps, other films that have met a similar fate.
Thanks in advance for your interest and we hope you enjoy.

My response to such an e-mail is complicated. I'm cynical enough about the Internet to initially suspect that this whole thing may be (at best) a clever ruse to draw me and other bloggers into the middle of an ego contest, or (at worst) to give a badly received film a second chance with a re-edit. On the other hand, I know there are talented filmmakers out there, even established names, who have their work taken away from them by money people who end up ruining good work with their needless, ego-driven interference. (I'm not talking about Clive Barker here specifically, as Masonberg's interview on the website makes clear that Barker himself was only involved remotely, as the figurehead of his production company.)
In short, the painful story laid out on the Spreading the Plague website -- which includes Masonberg being fired from the picture during its editing phase -- sounds pretty convincing to me. Whether or not a true creator's cut would yield a stronger PLAGUE or not, I can't say, but I do know that, in the history of such production interference, director's cuts usually prevail. However, in this case, such vindication is by no means assured. A director's cut exists only through Masonberg's independent, guerilla-like reconstruction of his and his co-author's original intentions, made at home from digital dailies after being barred from the editing room. It would seem that his cut therefore made use of materials that were not his legal property, and now Masonberg finds himself in the awkward position of trying to interest Screen Gems in releasing a product that was made in spite of Clive Barker's company, and in spite of them.
I know it's hard to work up any interest for a movie that badly disappointed you on the first pass, but if you're passionate about creator's rights, you may find the revelations of the Spreading the Plague website to your interest. You can find it here.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Other Addams Family

It is said that Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is preparing a number of their Hammer Film holdings for release on DVD later in the year. Though it is not one of the most beloved films in this batch, I'm hopeful that Sony will get around, sooner or later, to William Castle's one-shot collaboration with the illustrious horror studio, THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1963). I watched this film last night, courtesy of a year's old Encore Mystery broadcast, as part of my ongoing tape-to-DVD-R conversion procedure, and was surprised that this movie, about which I've always been lukewarm at best, suddenly kicked in as puckish entertainment.

Scripted by Robert Dillon -- whose other credits include Roger Corman's X THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES (1963), PRIME CUT (1972) and FRENCH CONNECTION II (1975)-- Castle's THE OLD DARK HOUSE is not really a remake of the 1932 Universal classic directed by James Whale, though it too claims basis in J. B. Priestley's 1928 novel BENIGHTED. I'm told that the Whale film is very faithful to the novel until just before the end, and the Castle film's storyline bears only very loose similarities to the earlier narrative. Castle's film was not accorded much respect upon its release; in the United Kingdom, it was issued in a cut 76m version, while, in America, it was issued at its full 86 minute length. However, US distributor Columbia refused the expense of color prints, releasing it only in decidedly unlustrous black-and-white. It was shown this way on American television until sometime in the late 1980s, when it began to appear on premium cable channels and local commercial stations in color. It looks startlingly good in color, and I was also pleased to discover how much precision and compositional quality Arthur Grant's photography gained when I zoomed the full-frame picture up on my widescreen set. This, too, is the way THE OLD DARK HOUSE was meant to be seen and too often hasn't.

My newfound appreciation of THE OLD DARK HOUSE certainly doesn't extend to comparing it to the 1932 version, which is truly incomparable, nor would I compare it favorably to some of Castle's own work. It's not a perfect-of-its-kind confection as were THE TINGLER and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. However, it's fairly assuredly the finest of Castle's many attempts to fuse humor and horror, and the opportunity to work with a thoroughly experienced British cast and Hammer's top-flight technical crew (including production designer Bernard Robinson and composer Benjamin Frankel) put Castle ahead of his usual game, which often made use of some less-than-impressive American supporting players. Top-billed American actor Tom Poston, returning to the Castle ranks from the previous year's ZOTZ!, carries the film confidently and amiably. In the earlier film, Poston played a variation on the absent-minded professor character played so successfully by Fred MacMurray in two then-recent Walt Disney productions, and came off as a likeable if diluted eccentric; here, he's playing a role better suited to his range and qualities and he manages to navigate a narrow and sometimes treacherous path between drama and physical comedy. Surrounding Poston are a motley crew of British players as the creepy Femm family: Robert Morley, Peter Bull, Joyce Grenfell (who fears that, if she stops knitting, the world will end -- as indeed it does), Mervyn Johns, Fenella Fielding, Danny Green, and the seemingly normal Janette Scott. Castle obtains a stronger body of performances than he got in any of the other films he directed in the 1960s, and if truth be told, the performances are uniformly stronger here than they were in the average Hammer film of this period.

So... the performances are delightful, the script's dark comedy plays well, the art direction is splendid, the music is appropriately baroque and doomy -- what is it about THE OLD DARK HOUSE that doesn't quite work? Somehow, whatever was necessary to bond these elements into a happy, organic package simply isn't in evidence. It isn't just that Danny Green makes a poor Morgan when compared to Boris Karloff -- indeed, when this film was first released, the James Whale version was considered all but lost, and few who went to see it knew much more about the earlier adaptation than the stills they had seen; the Morgan in this film isn't even the Femm's butler but rather a super-strong, strangulation-happy family member. Castle was able to cast his films, knew the atmosphere he was after, and had the right sense of humor, but he simply wasn't capable to make all these components move as one. In some ways, he didn't develop as a director beyond the abilities he'd acquired while making films for the Whistler and Crime Doctor series at Columbia in the 1940s: here as there, actors are trotted out in character when they are needed, and one almost feels them disappear as they move offscreen. The action is too stagey to convincingly blend with the mise-en-scène.

The film includes the credit "drawn by Charles Addams" (a monstrous hand actually paints the great man's signature onscreen in moon-pale ink), though the great NEW YORKER cartoonist drew neither the film poster nor designed the production. What he drew was the old dark house visible behind the main titles -- and drawn black on a deep purple background, his work isn't terribly visible, at least not in the print I viewed. Nevertheless, his presence acknowledges the debt that the Femms played in developing his own Addams Family -- indeed, he openly acknowledged that his butler Lurch had been inspired by Karloff's Morgan in the original film. It was clever of Castle to hire Addams, not only for the coup of adding his name to the credits and advertising, but for recognizing the relationship that existed between Addams drawings and the movie that he wanted to make. If you think about it, all of Castle's earlier horror films had been comedic though in a non-diegetic sense; they were genuinely horrific, but comedic in the way he sold them. After the rip-roaring success of HOMICIDAL, Castle's work in horror sought to balance horror and humor; it's there in 13 GHOSTS, in MR. SARDONICUS (if we see the version including Castle's "Punishment Poll" footage), and in I SAW WHAT YOU DID -- and it's in THE OLD DARK HOUSE that this uneasy fusion works best. It works well enough, in fact, to have inspired in other people the idea of developing Addams' cartoons as a television series.

William Castle (who died in 1977) is still about as popular among movie fans as he ever was when he was alive. Most of his best movies are available on DVD and he inspired the character played by John Goodman in Joe Dante's terrific 1993 movie MATINEE. Neither Castle's nor Hammer's most devoted admirers have had much good to say about THE OLD DARK HOUSE over the years, but it's doubtful that a cut or cropped or colorless version of the experience really passes for an intended viewing of THE OLD DARK HOUSE. My memory suitably refreshed and corrected, I think it harbors enough of the mysterious and spooky and altogether ooky to warrant a closer look, should a Sony DVD ever wend our way.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Get Twisted

It was more than a decade ago that Something Weird Video released the first volume in an ongoing series of trailers called TWISTED SEX. There are currently 22 different volumes, each running over 90m in length, but it doesn't appear that the series is destined for an official DVD release. Instead, SWV continues to offer the compilations for $10 each, on VHS and DVD-R. The full set, along with SWV's other fascinating trailer compilations, can be found here and I give them my strongest recommendation.

I recommend the TWISTED SEX compilations, and also another equally fascinating comp called THE LATE LATE SHOW, because -- at their best -- they are like archaeological digs into a buried world of lost, or nearly lost, cinema. No one who truly loves movies can fail to become absorbed in the revelations they have to show and tell us. The trailers used to fill out THE LATE LATE SHOW, for example, are from primarily European films so obscure to American sensibilities -- stuff like X-RAY OF A KILLER, HEADLINES OF DESTRUCTION and THE BLACK MONOCLE-- that it's like a window into an alternate universe.

A couple of nights ago, I decided to load up the first volume of TWISTED SEX for the first time in at least a decade, giving myself something to watch while I decided what I really wanted to watch. It only took a few trailers for me to realize that I had already made my choice, and I stayed with it for the whole 100 or so minutes. Leaving the program's erotic content out of it, which is considerable and sometimes extends to full frontal nudity for both sexes, I found myself primarily absorbed in what these trailers have to tell us about those sidestreets of cinema history that have never been thoroughly investigated and may never be. One such case is MADAME OLGA'S MASSAGE PARLOR (1965), the fourth and final entry in American Film Distributing Corporation's notorious "Olga" series, which now survives only in the form of the promotional trailer included here and other excerpts that were used to pad AFDC's compilation film MONDO OSCENITA. Also currently believed lost are two Barry Mahon titles promo'd here, FANNY HILL MEETS LADY CHATTERLY and FANNY HILL MEETS THE RED BARON. Though it's no longer lost (thanks to the efforts of Something Weird mogul Mike Vraney), the trailer for Andy Milligan's VAPORS -- a collection of high-contrast still images -- gives the film the aura of something lost, something eluding us even as it falls within our grasp.

As interesting and poignant as it can be to witness scenes from lost movies, I find it just as remarkable to encounter familiar voices and faces in the unlikely environs of sexploitation and its ballyhoo. For example, the trailer for STRANGE COMPULSION (a 1964 film evidently influenced by PEEPING TOM as well as Sacher-Masoch) is narrated by Les Tremayne, an experienced radio and voice actor (he narrated FORBIDDEN PLANET and dubbed RODAN) principally remembered by children of the Seventies as the avuncular co-star of SHAZAM. Then there are the sightings: someone who may be Robert Alda is glimpsed in the trailer for ALL WOMAN (1967); the famous NYC photographer Weegee shows up as the unlikely star of THE IMP-PROBABLE MR. WEEGEE (1967), seemingly set in Paris; John Beck, a member of the classic psych band The Seeds before becoming an actor, can be seen in a clip from Barry Mahon's GOOD TIME WITH A BAD GIRL (1967); Richard B. Schull drowns a woman in a toilet and gloats about it in the promo for WATCH THE BIRDIE (1965); and RE-ANIMATOR's David Gale can be seen with Jennifer Welles in the trailer for A WEEKEND WITH STRANGERS (1971). I have to wonder if Farley Granger himself ever knew that he was the star of something called BAD GIRLS, apparently a reissue retitling of an Italian giallo picture alternately known as THE SLASHER IS THE SEX MANIAC and PENETRATION.

A trailer for something called THE BRUTES (1970) not only features German actor Klaus Löwitsch (DESPAIR) but turns out to be an exploitative US retitling of Roger Fritz's Mädchen... nur mit Gewalt, not a film I realized had achieved an American release. This movie is legendary among fans of progressive rock as one of the few films to be scored by the pioneering Krautrock group Can. It introduced the song "Soul Desert" from their album SOUNDTRACKS -- which can also be heard in the trailer, though not the same performance included on the album. Similarly, I noticed that the trailer for THE RAPE KILLER makes use of library music whose descending electric bass pattern I recognized from my past viewings of TWILIGHT PEOPLE and MY PLEASURE IS MY BUSINESS (with Xaviera "The Happy Hooker" Hollander). Also mixed into this highly-charged intoxicant are trailers for movies with titles like THE IMMORAL, STEFANIA, and THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS -- which hail from the last countries you'd expect: Sweden, Greece, and Japan, respectively. (Okay, that THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS comes from Japan is not so unexpected.)

It's an old defense that the kid caught with an issue of PLAYBOY insists that he's only perusing it for the articles, and a not-always-supportable argument among devotées of sexploitation cinema that such films often have more than eroticism to commend them. But watching TWISTED SEX VOLUME 1, I must admit that I spent almost as much time scribbling down notes as I did looking at the screen. So, apparently, did Robert Plante, whose nostalgic blog Chateau Vulgaria has been running intermittent write-ups about the TWISTED SEX series since last September. He's currently up to Volume 6, and his notes include valuable additional information about release dates and distributors. You can find them here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Am I Still a Novelist?

In case any of you are wondering if I'm still a novelist, I sometimes wonder this as well. I'd certainly like to be, and I hope another eleven years won't have have to pass between my previous novel and the next. THROAT SPROCKETS was published in 1994, and THE BOOK OF RENFIELD is now two years old and counting. (Incidentally, Ryan Murphy's option on the Renfield book has expired, and we are now entertaining new offers for the screen rights.) I've begun work on a new screenplay, based on a book I'm adapting, but something deep inside me isn't feeling the profound satisfaction that I get from writing fiction, and I miss it. Now that I've finished editing my second monthly issue of VW in a row, the old fictive itch is asserting itself once again, beckoning me to complicate my life and deadlines once again.

You may remember that I've mentioned here in the past a novel-in-progress, one which I've actually finished several times but never fully to my liking, called THE ONLY CRIMINAL. I first got the idea for this book almost as long ago as I began researching the Bava book; it's the best idea I've ever had for a novel, but for some reason, I could never quite find my way out the other end of its maze. Some months ago, at the request of my agent, I sent her a nearly-but-not-quite-finished draft of the novel because she had found an editor who expressed interest. Last night before going to bed, I sent her an e-mail asking if there was an update. This morning, she copied me on the editor's response, which I reproduce here in full, minus his signature:

"Thank you for sending over THE ONLY CRIMINAL. I thought this was a fun, well-written book supported by a great, fantastical idea. However, I would have liked if the author focused more on one or two main characters, instead of jumping around so much, and began digging deeper into what the Only Criminal really is earlier in the book. I hope you find a good home for this project."

I must be getting old, because I can remember 1) when "fun", "well-written" books with a "great idea" were in demand by publishers, and 2) when editors still worked with writers on promising manuscripts to make the most of them. Those days, it would seem, are somewhere over our shoulder in the next county.

This editor didn't know my work, evidently, or understand the book, even if he derived pleasure from it. Like my other novels, THE ONLY CRIMINAL is about a central character and others in his immediate orbit, but it's more importantly about a global phenomenon tied to found artifacts of, shall we say, infernal provenance. That's my thing -- I've worked hard to make it my own, and according to the reviews I've received over the years, it's well-liked. You wouldn't ask J. G. Ballard to please resubmit his latest after beefing up the characterizations and leaving out the clinical lingo and psychosexual sociology, would you? And dig deeper into "what the Only Criminal really is earlier in the book"? Never mind that I begin asking that question as early as the first chapter!

This careless little paragraph got me angry enough to spend the day doing something I haven't been able to do in longer than I would care to admit: I finally finished THE ONLY CRIMINAL to my own liking. It was much closer to being finished than I suspected, and perhaps part of me hadn't been willing the cut the cord until now, until the Bava book was behind me. I sensed what still needed to be done the other day when it occurred to me that I might conclude the climactic chapter with a passage I had used to finish a novel I wrote back in the 1970s and never tried to publish, a segue from my own words into words and images imported from the Bible. I did this, and voila, it fit like a missing jigsaw piece. THE missing jigsaw piece. I excitedly spent the rest of the afternoon polishing some other areas, changing some street names and such, and now I feel the book is as good as I can make it -- at least as good as I can make it until it finds its way beneath the wing of strong editorial guidance. If such a thing still exists. I believe it does.

I've printed off a copy of the manuscript and I intend to ship it out tomorrow to another agent who has agreed to consider me as a client. It's time for a change. I'm hopeful; it's a special book. In the meantime, please be so kind as to light a candle for me and THE ONLY CRIMINAL... or I may just give T.O.C. your address.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

VIDEO WATCHDOG #132 at the Printer

Here's your first look at the cover of the next issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG, which we finished in the early hours of the morning and delivered to the printer later today!

I think the cover of this issue, with its Charlie Largent-created centerpiece, gives a very good indication of what fun it is. (Click it to see it giant-sized.) We're not calling it one as such, but this is very much one of our "All Review Issues." David J. Schow (who hearby joins the elite group of writers who have had their names on the cover of our magazine) contributed a wonderful piece on the delicious Season Two of THE WILD WILD WEST; Bill Cooke delivers his long-awaited coverage of THE TARZAN COLLECTION 2, with its half-dozen RKO productions starring Johnny Weissmuller; Shane Dallmann roars back with reviews of Classic Media's GOJIRA, GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN and MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA discs; and, by popular demand, "Things From the Attic" returns with my vintage tape reviews of some Paul Naschy rarities, the crazy Ed Wood-scripted THE REVENGE OF DR. X, and TOWER OF SCREAMING VIRGINS (one of the first letterboxed tapes ever to hit the market). And that's still just the beginning!

You can read all about it on the "Coming Soon" page of the VIDEO WATCHDOG website, and sample the opening pages of our WILD WILD WEST and TARZAN coverage, as well!

Incidentally, if you're keeping track, this is the first time we've featured Boris Karloff on the cover of VIDEO WATCHDOG since our fifth issue, back in 1990. That issue included the first published excerpt of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, and we enjoy the symmetry that this will be the issue on newsstands as that book finally becomes a reality.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Into the WTF Zone with Larry Blamire

If writers blog when they aren't writing, what do filmmakers do?
Well, if you're Larry Blamire -- the actor-writer-director responsible for the cult favorite THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA (which netted him the coveted Rondo Award as "Monster Kid of the Year"), JOHNNY SLADE'S GREATEST HITS, and the recently completed TRAIL OF THE SCREAMING FOREHEAD -- you recognize the absolute freedom, ease of access, and final cut made available to you by YouTube.
And you go for it.
Blamire (pictured above, reportedly at the precise moment he conceived his next project) is currently having "way too much fun" writing, directing, and occasionally acting in his latest creation, TALES FROM THE PUB, six episodes of which are presently available for free viewing on YouTube.
What exactly is TALES FROM THE PUB? Allow me to answer that question by posing a few others... Have you ever had a blackout that snipped five unaccountable minutes out of your life? Have you ever suddenly noticed that your beer is gone? Have you ever been aware that you are being stalked by invisible stalkers? Have you ever noticed how such things are even more likely to occur if you happen to be in the local pub? Weird, huh?
Glomming onto that weirdness as if it was the very pulse of our lives and times, Blamire manages to tackle these questions and many others in these episodes, which run under three minutes and are hosted by Truphen Newben, our creepily debonair guide into WTF Zone.
Six episodes are currently available. In the order of their release, they are "The Other Glass", "The Premonition" (featuring Jennifer "Animala" Blaire), "The Invisible Unseen", "Past Life", "Puppet for Your Thoughts" (starring TWILIGHT ZONE alumnus H.M. Wynant), and "Message from Beyond." Other LOST SKELETON alumni Brian Howe and Andrew Parks also frequently appear.
According to Blamire, there are currently another 10 episodes of TALES FROM THE PUB already in the can, and scripts for another 20 awaiting production. I, for one, can't wait to see them and hope there are plans afoot to collect them all on DVD someday. Each episode is a tiny gem of absurdist filmmaking that entertains while tweaking our tendency to leap to fantastic explanations for the most commonplace occurrences and brain farts, while also making textural nods to the show's real point of reference: the John Newland-hosted ALCOA PRESENTS, better known by its syndication title, ONE STEP BEYOND.
When I first saw THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA, I was immediately charmed beyond all expectation but, because it was a spoof of '50s sci-fi/horror cheapies, it was hard to tell anything from it about Blamire's real abilities as an actor, writer, or director. Even so, I could recognize that his brand of satire was genuinely witty as well as unabashedly silly, and that, as an actor and writer, he was remarkably well in touch with his inner child. These characteristics also run riot through TALES FROM THE PUB. It's not just Ed Wood; there's some Buñuel and Dalí in there, too. (And Larry is a gifted artist, aside from his other accomplishments. Check out his production art for his dream project STEAM WARS if you doubt me.)
Because it's a straightforward comedy rather than a spoof, Blamire's second theatrical feature, JOHNNY SLADE'S GREATEST HITS, gives a somewhat clearer view of his abilities and potential. It's not necessarily better than LOST SKELETON, but it is more polished, and you can see Blamire capably meeting the challenge of working with more experienced screen actors in a more professional setting. This mob comedy, which features numerous actors from THE SOPRANOS, has won all kinds of awards at independent film festivals, but, for some reason, hasn't had any luck finding proper theatrical distribution. Never mind those pesky details: the film is available from as a letterboxed DVD-R and also as an authorized download. And it's well worth seeing.
John Fiore (the guy who died on the toilet in THE SOPRANOS) produced the film and stars as Johnny Slade, a faded middle-of-the-road singer who finds his career unexpectedly jump-started when he accepts an unrefusable offer from a club owner (Vincent Curatola, THE SOPRANOS' Johnny Sack) to headline. The catch: he has to perform a new song each night, and only once -- the lyrics handed to him by the Boss. These absurd songs (lyrics by Blamire, natch) are actually coded instructions to hitmen posted in the audience, embroiling Slade in mafia crossfire while also garnering him unlikely celebrity among wacko music fans who can't wait to hear what unique thing he might sing next.
JOHNNY SLADE'S GREATEST HITS was a work-for-hire; Blamire didn't generate the idea, he didn't write it solo, nor did he have final cut on the project. Consequently, the film has some weaknesses it might not have had otherwise, but it's nevertheless funny, entertaining, and, like Blamire's other work, it has a lot of heart as well as a surrealistic streak. Vincent Curatola is hilarious -- a terrific deadpan comic -- and so are the songs and a montage of Johnny's past triumphs on vinyl (including "The White Album"). I can't imagine any SOPRANOS fan not wanting to see it; now that the show is history, I recommend it as a one-stop shopping solution for that craving that kicks in on Sunday night.
In future years, I think it's likely that people will look back on the films and shorts Larry Blamire is making now with an affection similar to that which we feel for Roger Corman's early work, which was similarly silly but with undercurrents of sophistication. I already feel it, and can't wait to see TRAIL OF THE SCREAMING FOREHEAD, a furrowed forage into the worry lines of paranoid '50s sci-fi which has been described to me as "Douglas Sirk meets Jack Arnold" -- which they probably did, as they were both under contract to Universal-International at the same time. Perhaps they even hoisted a few together once or twice... in a pub.
Hmmm... Now what would Truphen Newben make of that?

Friday, June 15, 2007

Corman's Poe: Are You Experienced?

"Here I am -- young and handsome!"

Our visiting friends from out-of-town have departed, so today we're buckling back down to work today -- albeit slowly and not altogether willingly. Sitting in the sunlight for a few days engenders its own form of drunkenness and it's a pleasant way to wile away the waning days of spring. Maybe I'll do my proofreading outdoors on the patio swing, as the sun totters below the horizon.

I mentioned showing Roger Corman's PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961) to my teenage animator friend and Poe devotée. When he and his parents returned yesterday, I surprised him with a spontaneous showing of Corman's TALES OF TERROR (1962), a copy of which happened to be handy. When it ended, I asked him for his thoughts. He felt it had its moments, but that, on the whole, it wasn't quite the equal of PIT -- which prompted from me a sidebar on the subject of how, sometimes, the whole of a movie experience can sometimes feel inequal to the sum of its parts.
Actually, I believe he was quite correct in his assessment -- as horror anthologies go, TALES OF TERROR isn't even in the same neighborhood with Bava's BLACK SABBATH or Kobayashi's KWAIDAN, and I suppose there are other horror anthologies of frankly lesser parts that somehow feel stronger as a whole. Though it feels like the stronger picture, PIT suffers (in my opinion) from some miscasting that results in some subpar performances. John Kerr's one-note, sullen performance makes for an unappealing hero, and though Luana Anders is good, as she always is, she looks uncomfortable in the movie; she's too modern an actress to be saddled with that 16th century wardrobe and dialogue. And Antony Carbone, as the doctor who likes to advertise his chest hairs, loses me from the second he mispronounces the word "forté." It's also a very talky film, but somehow the coups de theatre of Elizabeth's return from the grave, Nicolas' mental breakdown, and the climactic pit sequence redeems it almost entirely in its last couple of reels.
TALES OF TERROR, on the other hand, is extremely well-acted throughout but, because it's an anthology of stories, it cannot build to a superb last couple of reels, even though it reserves the strongest story for last. The anthology format itself gives the whole an erratic, inconsistent pace. It's difficult to consider the film as a whole, only in terms of the part that constitute its uneven sum.

The opening story, "Morella," is almost universally disliked -- those of us who can remember the scary promotional images of the undead Leona Gage and her wicked fingernails can't help but wonder why she was replaced in the final cut with the subtler image of a spectral silhouette. Yet, each time I see "Morella," I gain more appreciation for Vincent Price's performance as the haunted, alcoholic Locke, which strikes me as possibly the most sincere and best modulated of all his dramatic performances in the Poe series. There's not a whiff of humor or self-consciousness about it, one of his most undeservedly overlooked characterizations. Maggie Pierce gives a sincere-enough supporting performance, but her wholesome, blonde looks seem out of register with the story's atmosphere and she pales and merges with the predominantly colorless scenery (one of the episode's more intriguing aspects).
"The Black Cat" is rightfully honored for the superlative comic performances of Price, Peter Lorre and Joyce Jameson, Richard Matheson's script neatly dovetails the title story and "The Cask of Amontillado," and nearly every line of dialogue (including the one I used to open this blog entry) is a delight. "The Case of M. Valdemar" is the most potent of the three stories, thanks to a wickedly authoritative performance by Basil Rathbone and a story that ventures beyond mere morbidity and taps into the genuinely metaphysical. It's an uneven film, I agree, but each of the three stories has great (not just good) things to offer.
So why doesn't TALES OF TERROR hang together better? I suspect it's because the first story isn't quite assertive enough, either in its impact or familiarity, and the film also has a very odd, even tacky manner of transition -- freezing images and zooming in and out of their details. (Upon seeing these, my teenage friend's father, a documentary filmmaker, asked if the film had been originally made for television, and it was a reasonable enough question.) The final shots of two episodes are so lacking in revelatory detail that they require the "fade-to-etching" end cards to point out the crying cat atop Annabelle's head or the skeleton within the putrescent muck that descends on the mesmerist. By casting Vincent Price in each story, the film also seems to emphasize itself as a portfolio of Price's range as an actor, rather than as an advertisement for Roger Corman's range as a director -- but he presides over some very fine performances here, as well as some classic horror sequences of the mid-to-late 20th century.
I know from researching my book on Mario Bava that American International Pictures was going through a censorious phase at this time, bowing to pressure from parents groups to soften the impact of the horror films they were selling primarily to kiddie matinee audiences. They tampered quite a bit with the US version of BLACK SABBATH, so might it also be possible that TALES OF TERROR was similarly toned-down in anticipation of its release?
One thing I do know about TALES OF TERROR and PIT AND THE PENDULUM: Neither of these pictures was available for viewing in their correct Panavision screen ratios for more than thirty years. Tragic as it is to consider, it is possible that some short-lived fans never had a chance to see these films any other way but in an unsatisfying pan&scan presentation on television, or on VHS. Even though both films are more easily appreciated now that they are available on DVD in widescreen transfers, even a 57" screen like mine can't hope to deliver the theatrical experience of these films. TALES OF TERROR was one of my earliest scope memories, and I can still vividly remember having to turn my head throughout the film, like a tennis viewer, to see what was happening on different sides of the screen. And there is little in my childhood memories to rival the experience of sitting in a darkened theater full of screaming kids as PIT's pendulum began its swinging descent.
DVD is able to deliver Roger Corman's Poe films on some levels, but almost exclusively, those levels feel more cerebral to me than visceral, which is the level where they most seriously counted when I was first exposed to them. I suspect that not even HD will be likely to fully render the full experience of the Poe films, at least as I have the good fortune to remember them. But it was a real pleasure for me to introduce these movies to a young person and to see, from his response, that they are capable of thrilling newcomers even in that reduced arena, at least to the extent of exciting their imaginations and giving them a sleepless night or two.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Out of the Loop

Sorry to have been unavailable for much of this week, but in an unusual circumstance, out-of-town friends have descended on us for a few days -- so we've interrupted production on the next issue of VW to spend some time in the pleasure of their rare company, sitting outdoors, conversing on the patio over mild frosty intoxicants, grilling delicious meals under the sun, laughing and sharing entertainment.

So I haven't had time to blog, nor even time to watch much of anything since Sunday night's SOPRANOS finale. However, last night, I had the treat of introducing Roger Corman's Poe films to my friends' teenage son who has already made his own computer-animated Poe short without ever having seen Corman's trail-blazing work in the field. I chose PIT AND THE PENDULUM as his introduction, and he enjoyed it... almost as much as his mother did, who was shuddering anew while enjoying having her memory refreshed of a film that she saw back in the 1960s in her native Belgrade. We all loved the zinger ending, though Donna had to compromise it by asking how Barbara Steele's character got gagged after she had been tossed into the Iron Maiden.

To report some recent work I've done: my next SIGHT & SOUND columns will be devoted to DA Pennebaker's DONT LOOK BACK and Bret Wood's PSYCHOPATHIA SEXUALIS, respectively. Also, SIGHT & SOUND requested my participation in an upcoming forum in which various critics are asked to write about their choices for "Forgotten and Overlooked Films" -- I submitted a couple hundred words on LE ROMAN DE RENARD ("The Tale of the Fox"), the 1930-37 animated feature by Ladislas Starewitch (the family's preferred spelling -- he's Wladislaw Starewicz on the IMDb).

Also my VIDEODROME book for Millipede Press is currently in the layout stage and I am supposed to see some sample layout pages tomorrow. I'll report more fully once I've seen the pages.

Monday, June 11, 2007


My first reaction was to say aloud, "You son of a bitch."
But after a second viewing, I am aglow with admiration for the way David Chase handled it. It's not what I expected, or what I might have wanted, but it has the ring of truth -- Meadow's parking difficulty sold it, brilliantly -- and also the brassier ring of audacity. If the scene had run longer and shown us everything, it could have played out in one of two ways: anticlimatic, or so traumatic it would have been an even greater outrage to discontinue. On reflection, I think it was actually a very loving exit, for both the characters and the viewing audience that has followed their family saga for the past nine years.
I must say, I'm tickled by the riotous Le Sacre du Printemps-like controversy the finale has provoked. I visited the HBO discussion boards and they're hilarious -- it's like Chase and company have left half or more of their viewership angrily spanking the butt end of their catsup bottles. I loved one person's funny speculation that Tony actually wasn't hit, but suddenly succumbed to the cholesterol depth charge of the best onion rings in North Jersey. That's not just a joke, but a perfectly plausible interpretation of what we were shown -- one of many, his survival being among them.
My own interpretation? I've been in life and death situations and remember how they feel. THE SOPRANOS' final scene captures perfectly the atmospheric charge of convergence that I remember from those moments.
RIP Tony Soprano: he didn't see it coming.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Remembering the "If...." Girl

"I was secretly in love with Christine Noonan," Malcolm McDowell admits during his wonderful, open-hearted audio commentary for Criterion's eagerly-awaited issue of Lindsay Anderson's IF.... (1968), "but she was married, so there was no question of any hanky-panky."

McDowell certainly wasn't alone in his affections for IF....'s enigmatic, coffee dispensing heroine; in fact, I must admit that the possibility of learning more about Christine Noonan was one of the major reasons I was so keen to get to the audio commentary and extras for this superb set. On the one hand, I was disappointed in this regard because McDowell's commentary was recorded in 2002, a year before Noonan's premature death from cancer, so her passing goes unreported by the disc, even in the 2007 comments by film historian David Robinson, a visitor to the filming who augments the commentary track. But on the other hand, McDowell tells us just enough about this robust yet alluring Eastender to appease our curiosity and keep it vibrant at the same time.

The film, which Criterion will release on June 19, is a scathing criticism of Britain's public school system with surrealist passages, and was filmed by cameraman Miroslav Ondricek in both color and black-and-white. Noonan appears in only a few scenes of the film, and all but one of her scenes is in black-and-white, the palate that brings her particular qualities most to the fore. She first appears as the waitress in an off-the-A3 greasy spoon, who serves coffee to a pair of hooky-playing collegiates played by McDowell (in his first screen role) and David Hood. McDowell, sizing up the Girl (as she's called) like a predator, steals a kiss, for which she slaps him good and hard. He demands sugar for his coffee, takes two heaping helpings, then drops the polluted spoon back in the sugar bowl before walking sullenly away to a jukebox. Moments later, her hand appears on his shoulder.

He turns to face her.

Her eyes fix on him, tease him, tempt him.

They communicate through their senses of sight and smell, venting their sublimated passions through their teeth like a pair of tigers on heat. McDowell lunges at her, and she lunges back. Before you know it -- with David Hood looking on, touchingly covering his friend's forgotten coffee cup with a saucer -- the two of them are rolling violently on the floor, all teeth and claws and flailing limbs.
Then, in a sudden change of tense that cements the sequence as one of the most memorable in the postwar British cinema, the two wrestlers are suddenly stark naked in their tussle, the Girl baring her teeth and sinking them into McDowell's arm.

He grimaces in satisfaction, and then -- suddenly -- everything is back to normal, the scene utterly discharged of its sexual tension. The Girl joins the two young men at their table and says, enigmatically, "I like Johnny" -- Johnny being the David Hood character, who smirks contentedly as though he's been married to the Girl for years.
Cut to the three of them riding a stolen BMA motorcycle, the Girl standing between McDowell and Hood on the seat, extending her arms in the air -- a JULES & JIM image for a new age. On the Criterion disc, as they ride past the camera, you can barely discern a look on Noonan's face that suggests sheer, undisguised terror. McDowell admits that he had never driven a motorcycle before that day, giving her trepidations good reason.
The Girl shows up thrice more in the film. Offered a view of the heavens by his classmate Peanuts, McDowell looks through his telescope and points it down from the stars to a house, where the Girl makes a charmingly unlikely appearance combing her hair in her bedroom window, then looks back at him and waves fondly in his direction. When the protagonists are later punished for an indiscretion (nothing too serious -- shooting a faculty member) by being made to clean out a storage room, they find a cabinet of jarred fetuses, and the Girl steps out of nowhere to embrace one of these "mysteries of life" with warm, maternal hands. (McDowell recalls that Noonan actually fainted upon seeing the preserved human fetus and completed the scene only with difficulty. She's perfect in it.) The last time we the Girl, she's with the others atop the roof at College House, firing pistols and machine guns at the faculty and guests of the university.
Without the Girl beside McDowell and the others, the film's climactic act of revolution and anarchy would not only appear more random, it would root the scene in realism. However, with her there and actually taking part in their vicious assault on tired tradition, the climax becomes at once more fanciful -- she's there as an inspirational image, like the magazine clippings adorning McDowell's dormitory wall -- and more rooted in serious concerns. The presence of the Girl helps to coalesce the rebels into a family -- an alternative family, fighting for an alternative society (alternative to the school' s tiered and systemized cruelty), one more sensibly based in righteousness and brotherhood.

It's such an odd role and Christine Noonan -- short, thick-haired, and solidly built -- seems an odd, decidedly non-ethereal actress to have been cast in it, but she lays absolute claim to it, her appeal still direct and enticingly musky after all these years. "She was really like that," marvels McDowell as he watches the moment where she turns to meet his covetous gaze through a curtain of heavy black hair.
McDowell credits his reaction to Noonan's unexpected slapping of his face with his landing a screen career. The two of them auditioned together and he, knowing only his lines and not the scripted action, genuinely responded to her slap ("she didn't hold anything back") by stalking her like a tiger around the stage and tackling her. This, of course, was exactly the action that was scripted. "You've got your Mick and your Girl," screenwriter David Sherwin, all of 24 years old, told Lindsay Anderson -- referring to McDowell's character, Mick Travis -- and the rest is history. Anderson recreated McDowell's "Zen moment" at the end of O LUCKY MAN! (1973), the second film in his and Sherwin's "Mick Travis trilogy," himself slapping McDowell with a film script and thus launching Travis' own screen career. Christine Noonan also appears briefly in O LUCKY MAN! as a worker in a coffee factory, one of many, many correlations to the earlier film. (Unfortunately, this masterpiece still awaits its debut on DVD.) She was curiously absent from the final film of the trilogy, BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (1982).

Knowing that hanky-panky was out of the question with his wedded co-star, McDowell cheekily proposed to Anderson that he and Noonan perform some of their wrestling in the nude. ("It's up there with the one from WOMEN IN LOVE," he says of the sequence, "it was quite risqué for its time.") Anderson demurred from suggesting it to Noonan himself, but was agreeable if she had no problem with the idea. McDowell promptly approached his co-star and opened, "Lindsay has asked me to ask you..." to which she replied in her broad Eastern accent, "Oy don't moynd." Within minutes, they were both starkers and making cinema history. For his part, McDowell remembers feeling as though he had "died and gone to Heaven."
I didn't have the opportunity to see IF.... for the first time until I was in my late twenties, and obviously I'm American, but I can imagine how this film must have spoken to intelligent British youth when it was released in the wake of actual revolution in the streets of Paris and elsewhere in 1968. A film like this would have been taken immediately to heart by many politically- or progressively-minded young Britons, even young Americans dissatisfied with their different-yet-the-same System, as a blueprint for future action -- future action that might have taken any number of contrarian forms, from participating in public demonstrations, to starting an underground newspaper, or simply buying a copy of "Street Fighting Man" by the Rolling Stones.
However deep one's commitment to the ideal of change, finding a girlfriend like Christine Noonan would have surely been part of the plan. All these years later, her nameless heroine retains her uncanny ability to provoke, inspire, and encourage our vestiges of revolutionary spirit, and there are those of us who will always love her for it.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

I'm There Right Now

Robert Blake hands you the phone in David Lynch's LOST HIGHWAY.

Have you ever come across a song in the course of your listening that stands in front of you defiantly, like a roadblock, daring you to pass?

For me, recently, that song is currently "Ballad of a Thin Man" from Bob Dylan's HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED album -- and, for some reason, the live version from Manchester 1966 (erroneously released as THE "ROYAL ALBERT HALL" CONCERT) seems even more insistently impassable. I've taken to playing the song every night before retiring, a ritual I've been known to enact in the past with other minor key songs like "Telstar" by The Tornados, "Love Song for the Dead Ché" by The United States of America, "Share a Little Joke" by Jefferson Airplane, and "Swimming Horses" by Siouxsie and the Banshees.
There's a stanza in the song that goes:

You hand in your ticket
And you go watch the geek
Who immediately walks up to you
When he hears you speak
And says, "How does it feel
To be such a freak?"
And you say, "Impossible"
As he hands you a bone
And something is happening here
And you don't know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

It recently occured to me, in the course of this obsession, that if you just change "bone" to "phone," you've got a scene from David Lynch's LOST HIGHWAY.
"I'm there right now," says the Mystery Man (Robert Blake), his words unexpectedly poising the scene on the precipice of madness. Which brings to mind the title of Todd Haynes' forthcoming biopic, with six different actors (including Cate Blanchett) playing Dylan: I'M NOT THERE.
Curiously enough, "Lost Highway" is also the name of a Hank Williams song that Dylan can be seen playing to Bob Neuwirth in one of the hotel room scenes in the 1965 UK tour documentary DONT LOOK BACK.
Take my advice, you'll curse the day
You started going down that lost highway.
It was that Hank Williams song, incidentally, that delivered unto Dylan the phrase "rolling stone" and led him to the gunpowder moment of his reinvention.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Some Recent Viewings

The second of the four movies included in 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's MICHAEL SHAYNE MYSTERIES VOLUME 1 collection, this snappy little number was actually the fifth of seven Fox B-mysteries starring Lloyd Nolan as Brett Halliday's "keyhole dick" hero. (After an interim of a few years, the character was resurrected at PRC in the person of Hugh Beaumont, of all people.) Marjorie Weaver, Nolan's leading lady in the series opener MICHAEL SHAYNE, PRIVATE DETECTIVE, returns as the daughter of a senator under investigation who hires Shayne to pose as her husband to unmask a "ghost" who goes around firing bullets into her bedroom at night. Essentially an "old dark house" thriller in then-contemporary guise (admiring a sunken marble bathtub in his room, Shayne quips, "Did DeMille have something to do with that?"), the movie has some superbly creepy atmospherics, a fun supporting cast (Billy Bevan, Olin Howland, Jeff Corey), and a beautifully executed opening sequence that runs a full three minutes without dialogue.
"Ozzie's Triple Banana Surprise" (1957)
The first family-authorized DVD release of THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE & HARRIET was recently released as a self-styled "BEST OF." As much as I'd love to endorse it (and I do recommend it to the show's fans), it's hardly all that it claims to be -- it emphasizes the later college-and law office-set episodes featuring the Nelson sons, skimping on the early episodes featuring Ozzie Nelson. For an essential core sampling of the real "Best of OZZIE & HARRIET, check out Mill Creek's 38-episode FUN WITH OZZIE AND HARRIET, which offers such must-see classics as "A Night with Hamlet" (with guest John Carradine) and "Tutti Frutti Ice Cream," an obsessive-compulsive gem in which Ozzie Nelson embarks on a nighttime quest to re-experience the forgotten taste of a favorite dessert of yesteryear. Even more extraordinary is this surrealist masterpiece, co-scripted by future GREEN ACRES scribe Jay Sommers, in which Ozzie's consumption of two Triple Banana Surprises at the malt shop inspires a sleepless night of adventures that make Abbott & Costello's "Who's On First?" routine seem lucid and linear. This single episode is worth the cost of the set, which gives you so much more -- and most of the programs include the original commercials for products like Kodak cameras, Hotpoint dishwashers (hawked by Mary Tyler Moore as "Happy Hotpoint") and Prophylactic Toothpaste (you heard me). How's the quality? Uneven, but generally as good as many of these episodes looked during their 1980s Disney Channel run.
"The Night of the Golden Cobra" (1966)
I was never a devotée of THE WILD WILD WEST when it was on the air, but David J. Schow's writing about the show for VW has been making a convert of me. In preparation for editing a forthcoming VW feature about the second season of TWWW, I watched this recommended episode without knowing beforehand that its Special Guest Star was Boris Karloff! The master of menace is in fine form as Dr. Singh, garbed in flowery silks and satins, and '50s genre heroine Audrey Dalton is on hand as his daughter. It amazes me how Robert Conrad, wearing a green suit that appears to be painted on him, could walk in such outfits without feeling sudden breezes, much less do his own stunts. The sitar-spotlighting score of this episode is unusual for its time and adds nicely to its exoticism.
And this week's disappointment:
Directed by Brian W. Cook -- Stanley Kubrick's first AD on every film from BARRY LYNDON to EYES WIDE SHUT -- this is a black comedy about the late Alan Conway, a flamboyantly gay British nutter who successfully impersonated Kubrick as a ticket to free meals and travel in the 1990s. (Kubrick had been out of the limelight for so long during this period, such a masquerade was actually possible, though Conway looked nothing like the great filmmaker.) The movie begins well, juxtaposing squalid scenes from Conway's life and the wake of his mischief with familiar classical cues from Kubrick's oeuvre, in ways that are not only hilarious but thematically mirroring as they point up the vast (unperceived) gulf between the real artist and the con artist. As Conway, John Malkovich is a somewhat sunnier shade of his usual Persian cat self, with a slippery accent that changes practically from scene to scene. At one point, "Conway" references Malkovich as an actor he is considering hiring for his next movie, making Cook's film a kissing cousin to the metafiction of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. Scripted by Anthony Frewin (Kubrick's former personal assistant), it's a clever but rudderless time-waster with fun moments, some delightful dialogue, but otherwise lacking in momentum, variety, and steerage. Ending abruptly with a crawl about Conway's fate, it doesn't amount to much more than the conventional wisdom that everybody is some sort of fake, at least while climbing the rungs of show business.

Hack Sunday

The main page of our VW website was hacked earlier today and left to display a skull-and-crossbones graphic boasting that it had been hacked by Team Maroc Hackerz, inscribed in Arabic and signed by Drs. Ayoub and Sakolako. "Two swell joes," as Brother Theodore might have said.

The problem has been cleaned up for now, but our site was hacked earlier this week and I guess it could happen again. With that in mind, in the event we're not able to receive online orders due to malicious mischief, if you need to subscribe or renew, our toll-free number is 1-800-275-8395. If you can't telephone toll-free from your area, our you-pay-for-the-call number is 513-297-1855.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Gangway! It's Ray do Caixao!

Raymond Castile's unforgettable performance as Coffin Joe in Wonderfest's Old Dark Clubhouse was captured on video by Max Cheney and is now posted at YouTube. You can see it by clicking here. Among those visible in his cowering but camera-wielding audience: Gary Prange, David J. Schow, Joe Busam pére et fils, Frank Dietz, Tim Keegan, Linda Wylie, Harry Hatter, Ethan Black, Jane Considine, Donna Lucas, and yours truly. A great souvenir of a great surprise.

Through a Glass, Calmly

It's Friday, I arrived at Wonderfest one week ago today, and it's damned well time I got off of my cloud and back to work. Donna has been mailing out VW #131 over the past few days and muttering whenever I'm in earshot that we'll be starting up on #132 next week, so I've broken my spell by doing my first real writing and reviewing of the week today. I started watching 20th Century Fox's MICHAEL SHAYNE MYSTERIES, VOL. 1 last night, a set that has its good points (the movies are short and entertaining) and its bad points (it requires a reviewer like me to agree to watch four movies in a row headling Lloyd Nolan, a good actor but hardly my idea of a steady diet). I never thought of this before, but Nolan's Shayne reminded me at times of Hubie, the wiseacre leader of Chuck Jones' comic mouse duo Hubie and Bertie, even down to the sneer in his voice.

It was my birthday on Wednesday. Donna gave me a Zen Vision: M (a 30 GB "IPod" sort of thing that can play up to fifteen hours of music or four hours of video) and a pair of Sony noiseless headphones. I don't have any plans to watch video on it, but the display is nice, and the headphones sound really fine. Donna's had a similar Zen product for a couple of years, but I've always resisted the temptation to join the IPod generation for reasons as vague as they are various. Yesterday I got it charged up, docked it with my computer, and filled half of its available giggage with mp3s. And wouldn't you know it? I love the thing. It appears to be the accessory I've long needed to make walking on the treadmill not only less of a drudgery but actual fun. I walked five laps in the late afternoon on a #5 incline (one more than I usually do at my best) and another two in the evening just because the presence of music in my head made moving around seem more pleasing than sitting or standing still. I think the internal focus on music also takes away (valuably) from some of my usual focus on myself, which can foster anxiety and lead to nail-biting and other unattractive habits, so I'm now seeing in this needlessly postponed device the possibility for positive change. As I say, it's nearly a week since Wonderfest and I still have fingernails -- not like Richie Havens has fingernails, but they are fingernails.

Producing a new issue is always anxiety-inducing, so they may not survive next week, but I'm curious to see how my ZV:M will see me through the process.

Favorite ZV:M listening so far...

Robyn Hitchcock's performance from last Saturday at a "Games for May" tribute to Syd Barrett. Backed by musicians calling themselves Robyn's "Heavy Friends," the acoustic and electric set gives us a satisfying replica of what we might have heard, had Syd not retreated from the limelight and instead returned for an anniversary performance of his music. No "Baby Lemonade" or "Opel" regrettably, but a "Dominoes" and "Wined and Dined" to weep for, and throbbing ticking whiplash performances of "Astronomy Domine" and "Interstellar Overdrive" that sound directly channelled from the night everyone made love in London. This morning, as my coffee was brewing, I picked up my acoustic bass and surprised myself by being able to play both of these numbers by ear.

I'm also still getting a lot of pleasure from revisiting Patti Smith's TWELVE, her new album of covers. I haven't been an active listener to Patti's music in many years, but her choice of covers I find both sympathetic and adventurous. "We Three," from her classic EASTER album, has also become a renewed favorite of late.

As I said at Wonderfest while accepting my Rondo Award for "Best Website," VW's return to a monthly schedule is bound to interfere with my blogging duties. I can already feel it claiming some of the energies I was putting to use here. I intend to continue as best I can, but it won't be as frequently as before, and its character may even change somewhat. Stay tuned and we'll see what it becomes together.