Friday, February 29, 2008

THE DEVILS A Hoax? and LA Bava Retro in March

Over the past few days, my in-box has been modestly inundated with e-mails related to two subjects. Today I might as well address them both.

First of all, there's a rumor going around the Internet -- complete with the cover art shown at left -- that Warner Home Video is preparing a DVD release of Ken Russell's THE DEVILS for May. I have ignored this rumor till now for several reasons: first of all, experience has taught me that I shouldn't believe any such rumor until I receive an announcement from the company itself; secondly, the artwork at left looks phony as the "hell that holds no surprises for them." There's an onlooker to the right of Vanessa Redgrave who looks like casting more appropriate to JESUS OF NAZARETH, the spear wound in Reed's abdomen is on the wrong side, the image is highly inflammatory not only as a religious metaphor but as a cunnilingual one, and I've never known Warner or any other major company to trumpet the word "Unrated" in the lower front corner of their DVD packaging. This is an uncommercial word they prefer to insert in the tiniest possible box on the back cover, if at all. But where I really smell a rat is in the accompanying promotional text, which appears on the DVDActive site here:

"Originally rated X, this film combines historical, comedic, and surrealistic elements to tell a tale of politics and witchcraft. In order to take over pre-rennaisance France, Cardinal Richelieu and his power-hungry followers will have to eliminate Father Grandier. Grandier controls the one town that keeps Richelieu from having total control of the region. The plan is to convince the townspeople that Grandier is a warlock and that all of his nuns are possessed by devils. The accusations are heard at a public trial - whose results may surprise you."

"Originally rated X" is nothing Warner would openly cop to about this vintage release, the word "comedic" is highly misplaced (at least without the adjective "darkly" attached), the movie has nothing remotely to do with witchcraft, and there's nothing at all surprising about the results of the trial. It's all a matter of historical record. While it's true there are strong political undercurrents in the film, it is exceedingly bizarre for any synopsis of the film to overlook the matter of Sister Jeanne's nymphomaniacal obsession with Father Grandier. If you were planning to sell this movie, would you opt for anti-Catholic intrigue over sex? Finally, the complete absence of extras seems highly suspect. So, while the release could conceivably turn out to be real, the reason I haven't reported it earlier is that I think I smell a rat. And, if it does turn out to be authentic (it's skedded, to use an old VARIETY term, for May 20, the rumor mongers say), the absence of any supplementary materials is nothing less than an outrage.

Now on to the second subject, which is confirmed, but for which I had reason not to speak earlier. The American Cinematheque will be presenting "Mario Bava, Poems of Love and Death," a 10-day retrospective at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, from March 13-23. You can find the full details of the retrospective here, but 17 different features are being shown (including CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER, not yet available on domestic DVD) and each of the films is being introduced by special celebrity guests, including directors Joe Dante, Eli Roth and Ernest Dickerson, Bava actors Elke Sommer and Dante Di Paolo (his first public Bava-related appearance), and -- just added to the program on the evening of Ms. Sommer's appearance -- producer Alfredo Leone.

As an added enticement, copies of Anchor Bay's MARIO BAVA COLLECTION box sets and a half-dozen copies of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK will be raffled off during the course of the retrospective -- so, if you haven't been able to afford the most-discussed film book of the year, here's your chance to win a copy for the price of a ticket!

Some correspondents have asked if I'll be attending the retrospective but, unfortunately, the American Cinematheque doesn't have the budget to fly me in. I was offered opportunities to do a book signing but, also unfortunately, the book's cost and weight are enough to discourage me from undertaking any kind of promotional jaunt. However, I have agreed to make myself available for interviews to coincide with the screenings, and I'm doing one with Susan King of the LOS ANGELES TIMES on Monday afternoon.

Update 7:57 pm: The webmaster of DVDActive has announced that THE DEVILS has disappeared from Warner's list of upcoming titles. In other words, "Never mind!" The misinformation was not the fault of DVDActive, as this link explains.

Also, some folks have written to correct me about my comment that the word "Unrated" never draws attention to itself on major studio product. I expressed my point badly. I wasn't talking about teen-targeted movies like AMERICAN PIE and HOSTEL, which practically append the word "Unrated" to their titles in big red headsline type, but more adult fare as was under discussion.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

You Axed For It!

Published 50 years ago today -- February 27, 1958 -- was the first issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. "Welcome Monster Lovers," the Editors greeted their readers on page 3, "You're Stuck! The stuff this magazine is printed on, which looks so much like ordinary black printer's ink, is actually glue. YOU CANNOT PUT THIS MAGAZINE DOWN!"

The joke was to become more true than editor Forrest J Ackerman could ever have envisioned -- half a century on, FAMOUS MONSTERS remains as undying as the Frankenstein Monster himself. Seized by schoolteachers, thrown away by parents, it has survived. Most serious genre devotées tend to agree that FM's best days were over by the time they published their 50th issue, by which time the dry rot of reprintism had commenced (the cover of #50 was in fact a reprint of #11's cover), followed by a brief burst of renewed inspiration that lasted from #56 (their Karloff memorial issue) to #66 (their OLD DARK HOUSE Filmbook issue). Nevertheless, the long-dead version of FM helmed by Ackerman -- not to be confused with the modern day FM published and edited by Ray Ferry, which has announced its imminent discontinuation with #250, after a 50-issue run -- remains an ever-vital topic of conversation in the "Horror Books and Magazines" folder of the Classic Horror Film Boards, continually drawing more attention (and heated debate) than other folders pounding their respective drums for contemporary publications ranging from MONSTERS FROM THE VAULT and LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS to, yes indeedy, VIDEO WATCHDOG.

A perusal of FM's fateful first "Collector's Edition" issue -- which is being released today in a special replica edition ($39.95) from the current publisher -- confirms its value as an opening salvo well fired. It's rich with diverse images, ranging from shots of Lon Chaney Sr. in various roles to images from Universal, MGM, Monogram, AIP, Toho and even Mexico's Churubusco Studios. A remarkable ratio of the photos have retained their rarity over the past half-century, from an unexplained shot of makeup artist Harry Thomas applying NEANDERTHAL MAN makeup to a busty starlet identified as Wanda Barbour, to a pictorial article by Paul and Jackie Blaisdell showing how the bulbous heads of the Saucer Men from INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN were cooked-up. There's also an ad for a KTLA Channel 5 show called NIGHTMARE, which ran the then-new "Shock Theater" package of films from Universal, which was hosted by a now-forgotten missing link between Vampira and Zacherley -- actress Ottola Nesmith. There's a reprint of monster-themed comic strip by artist Will Elder (carried over from a forgotten humor magazine called HUMBUG) and a Monster Quiz on the last page that's played for laughs, but the laughs are at least on par with what MAD Magazine was delivering around the same time. The issue doesn't hold up particularly well as scholarship -- a photo of Bernard Jukes as Renfield in the stage production of DRACULA is carelessly identified as Dwight Frye, FRANKENSTEIN is identified as a 1932 release, and the "articles" are generally an unreadable melange of filler, bluster and filibuster -- but it's noticeably better than the kid stuff which the magazine later degenerated into, and not nearly as specialized or restricted in its genre coverage as the magazines it inspired have tended to be.

Either directly or indirectly, the first issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS sent out shock waves that changed the course of film history; there has never been a comparable publishing event allied to any other film genre. (FM publisher James Warren later launched comparable magazines devoted to Westerns, serials, and science fiction films, none of which lasted very long.) Between February 1959 and March 1983, FAMOUS MONSTERS produced 191 issues -- 181, if you don't count the ten issues of the short-lived sister publication MONSTER WORLD that were later "incorporated" into its numbering. Its demise has been credited to any number of faults, from excessive reprints, to an inability to mature with its readership, to its eventual emphasis on the sci-fi product of the time like STAR WARS, E.T. and FLASH GORDON. (One issue featured THE DEVIL AND MAX DEVLIN on the cover, of all things.)

But there is something about the original FM, with its rich-smelling rotogravure paper and magnificent Basil Gogos cover art, something potent enough to overwhelm the lesser memory of its majority output and the sour feelings associated with buying issue after issue larded with reprints to keep one's collection intact. FM had the good fortune to be the first of its kind, at least in most readers' experience, and to hit those readers at an age when important impressions run deepest and strike the oil of everlasting gratitude. Part of FM's enduring appeal is sentimentality, to be sure, but, even though I ally myself with those for whom Calvin Beck's CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN was the more important and defining and valuable publication, I am quick to admit that CoF never yielded a single issue that was quite so much a feast as, say, FM #13 (their 100-page issue) or #21 (their BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN issue). My memory of the very first issue of FM I ever saw, #27, is burned deeply into my brain; and today, as I flip through its pages again, I find that it still has no serious rival in my mind as the most photographically compelling issue of any film magazine I've ever seen.

The authority figures of my youth often criticized me for my interest in FM and similar publications, thinking that it was rotting my brain rather than honing it, and presuming that any time I applied to such pursuits would be wasted. But, thanks to the subculture that was first seriously excavated and brought together by their efforts, publisher Warren and editor Ackerman prepared a place (alright, a crack) in the world where I might earn the living I do today, and have done for the past two decades or more -- and I'm ever grateful. Today, FM is almost analogous to rhythm and blues as a 1950s taproot; even if you've never heard it, it's there in all the rock music that you do hear. Even if you've never seen an issue of FM, its influence is unavoidable in the genre film magazines you do read -- it's there in humorous captions, the emphasis placed on production dates, the corny names for letters columns, and in the ongoing tradition of extraordinary cover art.

In 1991, I was honored to be asked to join the likes of David J. Schow, Steve Bissette, Tony Timpone, Michael Weldon, Drew Friedman, Bill Warren, Jean Claude Romer, Gahan Wilson, and many other disciples in contributing an article of appreciation to THE FAMOUS MONSTERS CHRONICLES (FantaCo Enterprises), edited by Dennis Daniel. It's in this long out-of-print book that you'll find my fullest tribute to "The Magazine Monsters Believe In" and its merry, mustachioed Master of Cemeteries -- a piece called "FAMOUS MONSTERS Took Away My Fear (1990)." But I can't allow this golden anniversary to pass without acknowledging the importance of this day and sending my salutations to those whose early effort made jobs like mine possible.

Recommended Reading

Arbogast on Film's brief but uncommonly incisive thoughts on CLOVERFIELD. By the time you visit the page, my own appreciative response may have been added to his list of comments.

I should also note here that I've gone back to my Robbe-Grillet eulogy and added a few words of praise to my mention of his film THE MAN WHO LIES [L'homme qui ment, 1968], which I saw for the first time a couple of nights ago. It helps that Trintignant is probably my favorite actor anyway, but I think I like it even better than TRANS EUROP EXPRESS and possibly as much as L'IMMORTELLE. It's like MARIENBAD in that the entire story, such as it is, is sustained by the protagonist's willful and serial reinvention of himself and his own backstory in an attempt to seduce a woman, a castle inhabited by women, an entire village -- and it's also very funny, at times. I think, in retrospect, that I should have given Robbe-Grillet more credit for a sense of humor in his work, which is often overlooked, even by me.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sentimental, Isn't It?

According to the sternest and most task-mastering schoolmarm I ever had, the IMDb, Frederick Bean "Tex" Avery -- indisputably the greatest gag animator of all time -- was born 100 years ago today in Taylor, Texas. This is a centenary that catches me unaware but really cannot be ignored, so this posting will be more of a valentine than a full-length essay. I almost missed the train on this one, as the hipster protagonist of his classic MGM cartoon "Symphony in Slang" might have said in my position. The problem of paying proper tribute to Avery is really kind of hairy; it's eating away at me. I don't know whether I'm coming or going. I don't want to do a snow job on him or anything, but he was the tops to me, so I'm bent... on running off at the mouth with some good vibes.

How does one say "thank you" to the man who gave us the first recognizable Bugs Bunny cartoon, Daffy Duck, Droopy, Screwy (née Screwball) Squirrel, Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf, the Three Little Pups (is there any one among us who didn't try watching television with their eyes crossed and tongue thrust out the corner of our mouths after making their august acquaintence?), Spike, Egghead, Meathead, Willoughby, and the immortal Owl Jolson? I suppose all the thanks he would have wanted is our continued love (especially from fans of the female persuasion) and laughter, which we give effortlessly when faced with the likes of "King-Sized Canary", "Ventriloquist Cat", "Northwest Hounded Police", "Uncle Tom's Cabana", "Magical Maestro" (if thy hair in the gate offend thee, pluck it out), "Slap Happy Lion", "Senor Droopy" (with a cameo by the original Lina Romay) and "The Legend of Rockabye Point" -- the flat-out funniest body of work to be found in the annals of animation.

MGM, or whoever owns their stuff this week, should have been on the ball (insert "Symphony in Slang" image) to issue a complete Tex Avery set on DVD to commemorate this important occasion. French fans have such a set available to them, and we also had one in the days of laserdisc, but nowadays, here in the country of this Paul Bunyan-sized talent's birth, his genius is widely scattered on disc. (Ignore THE WACKY WORLD OF TEX AVERY - TEX RIDES AGAIN, which is Tex Avery in name only.)

The bear has just come out of his cave again to club my head and demand "Quiet," so I've got to make my summation quick. In a still-young 21st century where Charlie Chaplin is largely considered a museum piece, where W.C. Fields and Fred Allen and Jack Benny are barely remembered, where the name of Preston Sturges is known only to an elite core group of film buffs, where the Three Stooges are generally viewed with disdain by an entire gender, and where Jerry Lewis is appreciated mostly by the French, Tex Avery's brand of humor remains astonishingly fresh (in all senses of that word), direct, relevant, up-to-date and universal, so he would seem to stand a better chance at immortality than most of his 20th century contemporaries in fundom. I can say no more... because the cat has my tongue.

TECHNICOLOR ends here.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Zé do Caixao: The Nightmare That Must Survive

Without question, José Mojica Marins is one of the true mavericks of the fantastic cinema, a truly unique filmmaker and one of the genre's most assertive personalities. Working in tandem with his cinematographer Giorgio Attili and editor Luíz Elias, Mojica's early films were not only violent but violently original. Attili's camera, with its cubist framing, would zoom in and out as Elias' cutting made the images snap and crackle; the combination had the feel of bottled electricity, of a cubist painting not only brought to life but prodded to the brink of death. These films also sound like no other films in the world; they scream and vent and weep like the darkest corners in the madhouse of our dreams. If Jean Cocteau was the filmmaker most successful at making audiences dream with their eyes wide open, José Mojica Marins is the cinema's greatest conductor of waking nightmares.

I live and work in North America, where Mojica's films are not widely known, but they are venerated here by a growing cult of enthusiasts who were not able to gain access to his movies until more than four decades after the earliest were made. To tell the truth, we know little about Brazilian cinema in North America, and not much of Brazilian history; therefore, even the most famous Brazilian films have little or no sociologic context for us. It is their alien quality, their exotic strangeness, their sunniness and their sexiness, wherein lies their main appeal. Mojica's work, of course, is neither sunny nor particularly erotic, which makes him a distant cousin to Italy's Mario Bava -- who, like Mojica, told stories of horror retrieved from the darkest shadows of his sunny country.

Years before any of us in North America was able to see Mojica's films, we read about them. For us, the initial germ of the Mojica plague was spread by Phil Hardy's THE ENCLYCLOPEDIA OF HORROR FILMS, first published in 1986. Some of the most famous images from Mojica's films had appeared in earlier books and magazines, but it was not until the arrival of Hardy's book that they were accompanied by any substantial or enticing information. Though Hardy and his fellow contributors at times were harsh in their judgments of the films, their descriptions were outrageous and thus appetizing. Of ESTA NOITE ENCARNEREI NO TEU CADAVER ("This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse," 1965), for example, it was written that "the shoestring production exudes a genuine sense of madness both in its imaginings and in the treatment of its participants, with the eccentric, seemingly out-of-control staging veering from the pathological to the surreal." To read such an account in the increasingly safe and sterile environment of American horror cinema in the 1980s was to arouse a ferocious desire to find and see the work of this crazed genius. And finding these movies would not be easy.

I obtained my own first copies of Mojica's films on bootleg videocassette, which is how all first generation American fans saw them: in poor quality and in Portuguese, a language we did not read or speak, which made them all the more dreamlike and exciting --like the discovery of something long forbidden.

I have a strange confession to make. As a child, I once had a nightmare which I have never forgotten, in which I found myself standing alone in a darkened graveyard. As I saw the headstones around me and realized where I was, luminous eyes opened to peer at me from the darkness and I felt the ground open beneath me, an opening grave perhaps. I plummeted down through the earth, albeit slowly, the way Alice fell into Wonderland, past strange sights and sounds, until I came to rest in a scary room where I was approached by a cackling witch. As you must surely anticipate, when I first saw A MEIA-NOITE LEVAREI SUA ALMA ("At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul," 1964) on VHS, I had the uncanny experience of seeing something on video, a film from a distantland, that was basically exactly what I had once dreamed around the same time the film was being made or first shown. True, there was no descent underground, but the film's titles scroll up from the bottom of the screen, giving one the temporary sensation of falling. My entire experience of seeing that movie for the first time was tinged with déja vu. I told myself that this bizarre coincidence might be the ultimate proof of Mojica's success in capturing the soul-searing essence of a nightmare onscreen. But asI think back on it now, the apparition of Zé do Caixao appears before me, brandishing his cape and taunting me with questions:

What are dreams?
Why do they speak to us?
Do they describe to us our future, those events which arestill to come?
Or is there a common Unconscious, a pool in which we all swim as we sleep, composed of the images (even the moving images) that dictate how we will live and die?
Is it possible that dreams are like birds, migrating from one body to another?
How is it possible for a boy in Ohio to dream what a moviegoer in Brazil has seen in a darkened theater?
Might these images be the final recollections expelled by the mind at the moment of death, as someone is murdered on his way home from a cinema, images not ready to die, images desperate to survive by swimming into the soul of another?
Men may perish, but dreams never die!
For what is Man, if not the discarded skin of a dream?

As you can see, Zé do Caixao's migration to America was a resounding success, perhaps even before we received his films. He is Zé the Inevitable.

The publication of Phil Hardy's book also made possible the belated discovery for several other, similarly transgressive horror directors: Jesús Franco, Nobuo Nakagawa, Walerian Borowczyk, Jean Rollin, and Yasuzo Takamura, to name only a few. Neither Mojica or any of these filmmakers were well-known in America prior to the arrival of this important book, because they made films for adults. In the North America of the 1960s, horror was regarded as a genre suitable only for the entertainment of children. To have exposed a child to the work of José Mojica Marins in the 1960s might well have been a criminal offense.

Through the intervention of André Barcinski, Mojica's special work made the leap from the video underground into the hands of Something Weird Video, an offbeat Seattle-based company which had resurrected the works of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Doris Wishman, David F. Friedman, and many other exploitation outlaws on videotape. The company's owner was Mike Vraney, possibly the only real showman the world of home video has ever had, who understood that Mojica's films needed something to help them vault over the cultural obstacles that too often stand between general American viewers and international cinema. It was Vraney's idea, I believe, to reinvent Zé do Caixao as "Coffin Joe" -- a name that, to American ears, was not only approachable but integrated everything he had to offer into our own cultural tradition of horror. For this demon to have a nickname placed him in the company of other beloved cult figures dating from this same era: "Uncle Forry" (Forrest J Ackerman, the editor of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND), Ed "Big Daddy" Roth (the man behind Rat Fink, futuristic cars and monster T-shirts), and "Brother Theodore" Gottlieb (our most macabre and demented "stand-up tragedian").

Certainly there are many aspects of Mojica's work that are alien to American sensibilities -- its sense of Carnivál, its sadistic glee, its obsession with procreation -- but it also overlaps with some American traditions, notably those of the Western. Like most Westerns, the story of A MEIA-NOITE LEVAREI SUA ALMA is set in a small, dusty village with a graveyard, and one of the first scenes depicts Zé do Caixao visiting a tavern, offending others by his mere presence like a notorious outlaw, and beating another man into submission with chains -- a nightmarish twist on the traditional confrontation in an Old West saloon. Mojica's work also foreshadows the most baroque and psychedelic extremes of the Italian Westerns of the late 1960s.

As fascinating as the technique of Mojica's films may be, they are most remarkable in terms of the character of Zé do Caixao. Introduced as the anti-hero of A MEIA-NOITE LEVAREI SUA ALMA (indeed, the role was written by Mojica with the expectation that it would be played by someone else), Zé has become the filmmaker's alter ego, his doppelgänger, his very shadow, whose sheer force of presence sometimes seems to threaten Mojica's place on the worldstage. It is impossible for me to know how much of the Zé do Caixao persona was consciously rooted in American culture, because I am unaware of how available this culture was to Mojica or any other Brazilian of his time. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the antecedents of Zé do Caixao first appeared in North American culture in the horror radio broadcasts of the 1930s and '40s. It was here that macabre characters first stepped outside their narrative involvements to entice listeners into stories of dreadful, horrific character. Perhaps the earliest of these was THE WITCH'S TALE (1931-38, hosted by "Old Nancy, Witch of Salem"), followed by THE HERMIT'S CAVE (mid-1930s) and, most famously, Orson Welles as the all-knowing announcer and protagonist of the long-running series THE SHADOW (1937-54).

Whether or not Mojica actually heard these broadcasts is irrelevant; it was Welles who established the archetype of a black cloaked character inhabiting the twilight between Life and Death, chortling at his audience's ignorance of the vagaries of the Afterlife and his own tenebrous privilege,while baiting us with existential questions. So popular was Welles' presentation of these stories, his approach long outlasted him in the radio medium; he left the role of the Shadow in 1938, but subsequent actors in the role followed in his footsteps, as did other radio horror hosts still to come: "Raymond" of THE INNER SANCTUM MYSTERIES (1941-52), and also the title characters of THE MYSTERIOUS TRAVELER (Maurice Tarplin, 1943-52) and THE STRANGE DR. WEIRD (1944-45).

These creepy, ironic characters, presiding over the theater of our imaginations, subsequently inspired the storytellers of the famous EC Comics of the 1950s: the Crypt Keeper of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, The Vault Keeper of VAULT OF HORROR, and the Old Witch of HAUNT OF FEAR─and subsequently the first generation horror hosts of television, "Vampira" (Maila Nurmi), "Roland" and "Zacherley" (John Zacherle), and the droll Alfred Hitchcock of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. As I say, how available these influences were to someone like Mojica, I do not know; if he had no direct access, perhaps these ideas and archetypes migrated to him through the depths of his dreams, as once happened to me. These apparitions migrate from one mind to another because they must survive.

The character of Zé do Caixao seems to me very much the personification of a nightmare that must survive. In his first two adventures, he is literally hellbent on siring a son. A new chapter in the Zé do Caixao saga, ENCARNACAO DE DEMONIO ("Incarnation of the Demon"), has been promised by Mojica for more than 40 years; it has become the son that José Mojica Marins must sire. The films made during this period have served to fortify the potency of Zé do Caixao as icon and myth. In each new film, Zé do Caixao has become less fictional, more real; he is determined not only to have a son, but to break free of the boundaries of cinema, to pass from fantasy into reality like the character of Sadako in Hideo Nakata's RINGU (1998). In the third film of the trilogy, the anthologic O ESTRANHO MUNDO DE ZE DO CAIXAO ("The Strange World of Coffin Joe," 1968), Zé steps outside the story to become the storyteller. In O EXORCISMO NEGRO ("Black Exorcism," 1974), he stands in opposition to José Mojica Marins himself -- a polarized personality, each half determined to preserve its dominance.

In the documentary DEMONIOS E MARAVILHAS ("Demons and Wonders," 1987) -- one of the few films I have seen that truly warrants the description "astonishing" --Mojica folds himself back into the Tarot deck of his own art, unable to move forward with his trilogy and deciding instead to simultaneously celebrate and mourn his struggle. The film uses Mojica's disadvantages to its advantage, forging a dark romance from his oppression by criminals and fools, his depression, his worsening health, his stroke, even taking us into the moment of his own "near death" -- all the while reminding us of his celebrity, his popularity, his many friends and supporters, his parties, his continuing presence in newspapers and magazines... in short, his refusal to be denied.

Watching DEMONIOS E MARAVILHAS, it is impossible (for me, anyway) to determine how much of its story is true, and how much of it is, frankly, bullshit -- an incredible pageant of Mojica's narcissism and bravado. Either way, Mojica wins: if the film is truthful, it stands as a stunningly candid and vulnerable expression of the filmmaker's ego; if it's all as phony as its near-death scene, it nevertheless deserves acclaim as a masterwork of meta-fiction, worthy of comparison to the Cthulhu mythos of H. P. Lovecraft and Orson Welles' own F FOR FAKE (1974). It is here that Zé do Caixao achieves his third dimension.

It is now twenty years since DEMONIOS E MARAVILHAS. In a fascinating turn of events, Zé do Caixao's quest to sire a son and José Mojica Marins' quest to complete Zé's Unholy Trinity now appear to be on the point of convergence. It is reported that ENCARNACAO DO DEMONIO is being made at last, and that Mojica has discovered his own twin in a young American admirer, Raymond Castile, who has been cast in the role of the young Zé do Caixao -- the first time anyone but Mojica himself has played the part, and perhaps the first time ever that the part has been "played."

The ramifications of Mojica's discovery of Castile are significant. More than a century ago, Count Dracula left his homeland in Transylvania to conquer England. Where he failed --staked and withered to bones in his coffin -- Zé do Caixao has apparently triumphed. In the person of a young admirer from his conquered America, Zé do Caixao has achieved not only survival but his own rejuvenation.

This essay was written for JOSE MOJICA MARINS: 50 ANOS DE CARRIERA, edited by Eugenio Puppo, published by Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil in association with the Ministério da Cultura, February 2008, for which appearance it was translated into Portuguese by Ricardo Lisias. (c) 2008 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

What Would the Great Man Say?

Now I have seen everything. Click here if you wish to make the same claim.


The March 2008 issue of SIGHT & SOUND is now on newsstands with my "Nozone" review of Criterion's release of Cornel Wilde's THE NAKED PREY. You can also read it online for free, right here, on their website.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Remembering Pere Ubu guitarist Jim Jones

Pere Ubu, with guitarist Jim Jones on the right.

I just learned that Jim Jones -- a prominent Cleveland-based musician who played with Pere Ubu, the Easter Monkeys and The Mirrors -- died last Monday night, February 18, at age 57. This obit article from the Cleveland PLAIN DEALER, which includes commentary from PSYCHOTRONIC editor Michael Weldon (another Mirrors alumnus) renders a sketch of someone I would have liked very much to know more than musically.

As I've mentioned here before, I once had the pleasure of seeing Pere Ubu live at Bogart's here in Cincinnati when the group reformed in the 1980s. Jones, a former roadie for the band, had replaced Red Crayola guitarist Mayo Thompson in the lineup at the time, and I remember him playing a hell of a lead on "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," the kind that should require a guitarist to wear a welder's mask as it sprays sparks all over the stage. The show attracted a small turnout but I was front and center for it with a huge smile plastered all over my face -- close enough for bassist Tom Maimone to return it more than once.

Fifty-seven is much too young a demise, but Jim was blessed to go the way we probably all of us want to go -- not seeing it coming, while happily engaged in conversation with a friend about stuff.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Video WatchBlog: Over One Million Hits Served

Pictured: Raquel Welch puts on the dog to attend the World Premiere of her own "1,000,000" hit: ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966).

What a week: it's been the best of times and the worst of times. Let's start with the worst. I hate snow and we're snowed in, with more freezing rain in the immediate forecast; I'm burned out from preparing two issues of VW faster than should be humanly possible; we're trying to adjust our cats to a new diet and they're hounding us for food all the time; and our widescreen TV has picked the week before the Oscars telecast as a peachy time to die. Fortunately, its replacement is already here, but it has been standing for days, in a box the size of a drive-in screen, in the middle of our living room floor, making the only room in our house suitable for waking relaxation no longer very fit for such, and we can't get anyone out here to unpack and mount it to our entertainment system for us until "maybe next Tuesday"... but, on the other hand, what a great week for accomplishments this has been.

First, there was the announcement of the Special Achievement Saturn Award for MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK; then the latest issue (#70) of Tom Betts' long-running fanzine WESTERNS ALL'ITALIANA was released, featuring Lee Broughton's review of the Bava book and his lengthy interview with me, both focusing on the book's Italian Western content (just click on the link to retrieve the pdf files); then I received contributor's copies of a book that represents my first publication in Portuguese; early today, a delivery truck arrived bearing beautiful copies of VIDEO WATCHDOG #137 and the VIDEO WATCHDOG SIGNATURE EDITION #2 (which must now be forwarded to Ann Carter for signing)... and later today, around 5:27pm, my visits counter logged in the 1,000,000th page view of Video WatchBlog. (The visitor was French and had a account, so "Merci beaucoup!" whoever you are!)

The number of individual blog visits logs somewhat behind at about 740,000, but for this blog to have attracted over 1,000,000 individual views (or "hits," as they call them) is a happy occasion and a milestone I've looked forward to reaching. The thought had crossed my mind to give up the blog after reaching 1,000,000 hits, but I'm not ready to do that. The demands of this blog haven't been very good for my creative writing output, but it's an addictively spontaneous outlet for my thoughts about film, music and books. I derive a good deal of satisfaction from it, especially when I hear from new readers who are just discovering it, or from readers who are exploring the backlog of posts and getting excited about things I posted here months or years ago, long since forgotten by me as I keep adding on new posts. Just today I received this delightful e-mail from a recent reader, John Linton, who writes:

"I never was much of a computer guy, and only discovered the blog when the Bava book was almost out. I've grown so addicted to it that I'm going back and reading the earlier blogs, one at a time, savoring each like a fine wine. I won't go into how many wonderful things I've discovered, how many amazing people I've grown to know, and how many awesome books and DVDs I've discovered through the blog. The main reason I read it, along with finding out which version of whatever DVD is best to get, is to get to know you personally in a way that I'll never be able to in real life. I just finished reading your fantastic blog on Sterling Hayden from 3/2006, and your 'About Friday's Blog' blog, which is hilarious. All I can say is, your blogs are a treasure... If you ever collect the blogs into a book, I'll be the first to order a copy."

Well, John, thank you, and we hope to do just that -- the problem is finding the time to do it. I've always resisted this because I'm a writer rather than a layout artist, but I may have to get Donna to teach me how to do what she does on PageMaker, so that I can start moving ahead with selecting material and pouring text into new page templates in my spare time (such as it is), while she's laying out the magazine. In addition to collecting the blog in book form, I also intend to start collecting my archival writings in book form, too. It remains to be seen how much of this we can actually manage, while also maintaining our monthly schedule and other tasks; after all, we had also hoped to organize some merchandising items to tie in with the Bava book, but again, not enough hours in the day, not enough man power, and we can't afford to hire (nor do we really want) employees to help out. I guess we value our privacy even more than our productivity.

What's that? I didn't previously mention the Portuguese publication? That's right, I didn't -- it's been a busy week, with work now already nearly done on VW #138. But to fill you in: some months ago, I was approached by Eugenio Puppo to contribute an essay to a book that was being published in conjunction with the Brazilian Ministerio da Cultura and the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil to celebrate the works of José Mojica Marins (Zé do Caixao). The resulting book, JOSE MOJICA MARINS: 50 ANOS DE CARREIRA, edited by Eugenio Puppo, is a handsome 176-page paperback composed of interviews, reviews, essays and various appendices, with rare stills on nearly every spread. My essay, which occupies two pages in print, is called "Zé do Caixao: O Pesadelo que deve Sobrevivier" ("Zé do Caixao: The Nightmare That Must Survive") and was translated into Portuguese by Ricardo Lisias. The book's ISBN number is 978-85-98404-02-8, but, beyond that information, I really couldn't tell you how to locate a copy. Since there has been no English publication of my essay, I'll post it here in the days ahead.

The issue-after-next of VIDEO WATCHDOG, incidentally, #138, will feature a wonderful Round Table Discussion of the AIP Edgar Allan Poe series by (get this line-up) Roger Corman, Daniel Haller (art director of the series), and Joe Dante, moderated by Lawrence French. Larry's new book, VISIONS OF DEATH, is out now from Gauntlet Press and collects Richard Matheson's original scripts for THE HOUSE OF USHER and PIT AND THE PENDULUM, along with outstanding production articles and a new interview with Matheson. Corman has told his Poe stories many times over the years, even in audio commentary form, but this RTD is remarkable in that the presence of Dante, and Haller in particular, spurs him on to tell numerous stories and go into candid details I've never heard or read before, and Haller has rarely been interviewed. I'm excited about presenting this issue... but before I can do that, I have to proofread it, so here I go.

But first, I want to thank you all for being there for Video WatchBlog -- every day, for a lot of you. Those seven digits are numbers you helped to accumulate, so this milestone is yours, as well as mine. In case I haven't said so before, the best part of writing Video WatchBlog is knowing there are Video WatchBlog readers.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Another Reason to Learn German

Fans of the Edgar Wallace krimis like me, who don't speak more than a few words of German, have been taught an exquisite form of agony by the Tobis/UFA box sets of Wallaciana that have been released, mit-out English audio or subtitles, over the past few years. (It's true that nearly all of the main Wallace sets include English audio or subtitles, but there is always at least one title per box that doesn't... and then they reached a point where they were withheld altogether.) But I learned years ago that, sometimes, you just have to jump into the deep end without knowing how to swim; it is cinema, after all, and dialogue should be secondary to a brilliant mise-en-scène, or whatever the German equivalent might be, and a stellar anamorphic transfer. Consequently, I've gone ahead and bought the German DVD sets -- not only of the Edgar Wallace and Bryan Edgar Wallace krimis, but also the Karl May Westerns, the Eddie Constantines, and the RAUMPATROILLE sci-fi series -- and, regardless of our "failure to communicate," I've derived a good deal of enjoyment from them.
I recently rolled the dice again with my purchase of another Wallace-krimi collectable, a three-CD set called EDGAR WALLACE FILMEDITION 1. I couldn't quite tell what it was from the listing on, but I understood the chances were slim that I would derive too much satisfaction from it because it was a purely audio entertainment... auf Deutsch, natürlich. But being a collector, I had to have it -- partly to find out what it was, and partly because I had to have it.
What this FILMEDITION turns out to be is a set of three Wallace-krimi film classics -- THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE FROG (1959), THE DEVIL'S DAFFODIL (1961) and THE INN ON THE RIVER (1962), to use their English titles -- whose original German soundtracks (featuring the talents of Joachim "Blacky" Fuchsberger, Klaus Kinski, Eddi Arent, Siegfried Schurenberger... and Christopher Lee (who spoke his own German in THE DEVIL'S DAFFODIL) have been adapted by the leute at VGH Audio into "audio book" format, with the addition of newly recorded narration by (as best I can tell) Joachim Kramp, author of the indispensible reference HALLO! HIER SPRICHT EDGAR WALLACE.
It's an interesting little oddity, an attempt at crossover from Wallace fandom into the audio book market. As such, it's an important validation of how close these early Wallace-krimis were to their original literary sources before the scripts began following their own lead, not unlike the Bond films. I would have thought that these films would lose more than half their appeal if deprived of their imagery and atmosphere, but these discs assert the opposite view -- that the stories and performances are sufficient to sustain interest. Listening to all three discs (und ja, I'm crazy enough to have done this), I have to say that I'm as persuaded as I can be. This set is strangely listenable, even without a grasp of the language, because of the lively interplay of voice, sound effects, the terrific music scores, and the occasional woman's scream. It's also a pleasure to realize that I can recognize Fuchsberger's and Kinski's (and even Lee's!) voices in German, and -- bottom line -- one should never snub the rebellious thrill that comes with thinking to oneself, "I've got to be the only person in the country who's listening to this right now."
One might expect a nice fat annotated booklet to accompany a set like this, but there is only a four-page (single folded sheet) enclosure with a few pictures and the major cast lists for the three films. Mein urteilsspruch: a neat little offbeat thing to have, and the price is right. Impress your friends... and maybe learn a little German in the bargain.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

2008 Saturn Awards Nominations Announced

I announced here yesterday that my book MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK will be honored with the Saturn Award for Special Achievement later this year. Today, the official announcement -- and the full roster of nominees and special recipients for the 34th Annual Saturn Awards -- was unveiled on their website, which is well worth a visit. I'm very pleased to see that our friend Guillermo del Toro is being recognized for his impressive body of work with this year's George Pal Memorial Award, and Donna and I look forward to meeting him at the festivities in June.

Vampira at Rest

An e-mail received yesterday from VW contributor (and Rondo nominee) David J. Schow, who gave permission to reprint here:

Hey Friends:
Just a footnote, but we put Maila Nurmi's remains into the ground at Hollywood Forever Cemetery yesterday morning (Sunday 11 AM, 2/17/08), weirdly enough, about two feet away from Darren McGavin's plot. About 100 people attended the private service (we had to use a code word to get through the gates), including a lot of mutual friends like Coop & Ruth (Waytz), Bryan Moore & Heather Saenz, Dana Gould, Gabrielle Geiselman (who helped administer and organize the fund drive for Maila), Evil Wilhelm & Tara Greer, and haxanthroboticist Tommy Kuntz. Verne Langdon was also there, as I believe were a couple of Maila's very distant kin (cousins, I think -- I could have that wrong). Apparently the fundraiser to purchase Maila a bit of Hollywood Forever (at a cost of about $12K, I've heard) was a smashing success.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Bava Book to Receive Special Achievement Saturn Award

Excerpted from a letter received today from Robert Holguin, president of the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films:

Dear Tim:

The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films was founded in 1972 to honor, recognize and promote genre entertainment. The organization was an extension of another group, The Count Dracula Society, which was founded by Dr. Donald A. Reed. Dr. Reed’s passion was bringing recognition to the people who were often overlooked because they dealt in the fields of filmmaking which were considered, in certain circles, juvenile entertainment. Through Dr. Reed’s efforts, we have seen the genre film become a major force at the box office. It’s the genre film which keeps the studios alive and well. Dr. Reed felt strongly in honoring and recognizing extraordinary work and the people who create it. I try to follow in his footsteps.

With your recent publication,
Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark
, you have completely awed us in your efforts to chronicle the life and work of filmmaker Mario Bava. The book is simply astounding. I am completely blown away by your accomplishments in publishing this monster of a book. The devotion you show to your subject matter is inspiring to the point of obsession. And we are humbled that you had this passion to work on a book which took many years of your life to complete. It’s one of the most incredible achievements we have seen in our lifetime.

The Academy has chosen you to receive a Saturn Award,
The Special Achievement Award, for your hard work in seeing this project come to fruition. If Dr. Reed were with us today, I know he would be the first to congratulate you on this monumental labor of love and wish to honor you for it.
We would like to present this award to you at the upcoming 34th Annual Saturn Awards. The show will take place on Tuesday, June 24, at the Universal Hilton in Universal City, California (right on the hill where Universal Studios sits). If you and Donna are able to attend, I can assure you that you will be surrounded by many admirers and peers who feel the same as I do about your work. I know this would be a memorable occasion for both of you. I hope you will be able to fit this into your schedule. It would be our great honor to see you receive earned accolades at the 34th Annual Saturn Awards.
Thanks so much, Tim, for your years of hard work and devotion. It is greatly appreciated by those who work within the fields of genre entertainment.

Robert Holguin
President – The Saturn Awards
Naturally, Donna and I are delighted by the news and we hope to attend the Saturn Awards ceremony in June to accept this honor in person.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Alain Robbe-Grillet Exits the Labyrinth

Novelist and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet has passed away at the age of 85. This news saddens me, because he has been prominent on my short list of personal heroes for most of my life; but it also excites me because a great deal of his recent work -- including the second two volumes of imaginative autobiography begun with GHOSTS IN THE MIRROR -- has yet to be translated into English and the lack of new product, as well as the perspective his death will bring to his existing oeuvre, will doubtless compel this long-overdue work to be done.

I was introduced to Robbe-Grillet by my friend Robert Uth when I was still in my teens, with the famous Grove Press double of JEALOUSY and IN THE LABYRINTH, which pictured the author himself peering through the slats of a jalousie shade or venetian blind. This gesture was, in itself, instructive as it encouraged me, as a young reader and writer, to imagine the author as protagonist; he vigorously denied any such association, but as time has shown, he delighted in tweaking and provoking his audience. The two novellas, two of his greatest, were preceded by analytic essays by Bruce Morrissette and others, which helped me to contextualize these revolutionary, ambigous, objectivist works of fiction -- examples of the so-called "Nouveau Roman" ("New Novel"). I discovered them ten years or more after they were "new," but they remained absolutely unlike anything else I had read. They taught me, before I discovered Nabokov, about the value of scientific detail in description and word selection, yet they also went extraordinarily afield of the Flaubertian search for the mot juste ("right word"). It was Robbe-Grillet's example that taught me, more than either Burroughs or Ballard, that a novel can be a psychological playground where the narrative possibilities are limited only by the author's own imagination and capacity for candor. Robbe-Grillet delighted in slowing down time, collapsing it, having it swallow its own tail, and having key episodes repeat like a hiccup, subtly altering them with each repetition. He was similarly fearless in allowing aspects of the fantastic to encroach upon settings constructed with meticulous realism.

His first published novel, THE ERASERS, was a detective novel based on the Oedipus myth (its basic idea was later echoed by Lucio Fulci's film THE PSYCHIC), and his second, the award-winning THE VOYEUR (Polanski should have filmed this long ago), was an oblique investigation into the death of a young woman told from the perspective of her murderer. (Two ropes looped into figure-eights are found at the scene of the crime, and the novel's first printing by Editions Gallimard arranged to have the murder scene -- a blank page gap in the narrative -- printed on page 88.) JEALOUSY upped the ante by implying the murder of a woman by her jealous husband while leaving the reader absolutely unsure of whether or not the crime had been committed or merely contemplated; if the English translation by Richard Howard is any indication, it contains some of Robbe-Grillet's most beautiful writing. With LA MAISON DE RENDEZVOUS (which appeared in the UK as THE HOUSE OF ASSIGNATION), Robbe-Grillet began to more frankly explore his own erotic nature -- which he admitted in interviews inclined toward the sadomasochistic -- and, I believe, his personal interest in pulp fictional tropes and forms. (Brad Stevens' book on Monte Hellman reveals that LA MAISON DE RENDEZVOUS has long been an unfulfilled dream project of Hellman's.) My own personal favorite of Robbe-Grillet's novels is PROJECT FOR A REVOLUTION IN NEW YORK, a febrile dreamscape that occupies a nightmare version of the great city, which Douglas E. Winter and I believe is one of the great unheralded horror novels of the late 20th century. When David Bowie sang on his DIAMOND DOGS album of Hunger City, where shops sold "bulletproof faces of Charlie Manson, Cassius Clay," that's pure PROJECT FOR A REVOLUTION IN NEW YORK -- a novel whose malignant atmosphere I've only seen approximated on film by Dario Argento's INFERNO.
Robbe-Grillet's later novels, like REFLECTIONS OF THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE and TOPOGRAPHY OF A PHANTOM CITY, tended to be reworkings of texts originally written for limited editions and art installations; they're fascinating, but somewhat less than full-strength Robbe-Grillet. His last novel to be translated into English was REPETITION, which I haven't yet read, but which was praised by musician John Cale as offering perfection in every paragraph.

And then there is Robbe-Grillet's work as a screenwriter, director and actor -- which I suppose also diffused the energies he once applied solely to his fiction. His maiden effort at screenwriting, LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, was directed by Alain Resnais (whom AR-G grew to resent because he received great acclaim for "simply" following his script to the letter) and was received with great controversy, yet feted internationally. Robbe-Grillet proceeded to direct his own scripts; they are conspicuously more the work of LAST YEAR's auteur than anything Resnais directed subsequently, yet it was Resnais who gave that film its essential measure of quality, in terms of its casting, direction, and production value. All of Robbe-Grillet's dozen-or-so films were modestly budgeted, often cast with actors perceived as having the right look rather than adequate acting range (which made them more apparent as mere chesspieces in his various games), and lacking in the glorious style that Resnais and cameraman Sascha Vierny brought to their great collaboration, and which was always present on the pages he wrote. The highlights of Robbe-Grillet's film work are his earliest, the underrated L'IMMORTELLE (1963, starring Françoise Brion) and TRANS EUROP EXPRESS (1966), the most approachable of all his works, in which he stars as himself, accompanied by his wife Catherine, an actress/dominatrix who wrote the S&M novel THE IMAGE with Robbe-Grillet under the nom de plume "Jean De Berg"). The movie finds him improvising a mystery story while travelling by train with his wife and editor, after spotting actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (who becomes the de facto protagonist) also aboard. Trintignant enjoyed the experience and worked with Robbe-Grillet again in other pictures like the extraordinary THE MAN WHO LIES (1968, which, like LAST YEAR, utilized an unreliable protagonist whose insistence on providing possible backstories generates the self-mythifying storyline) and PLAYING WITH FIRE (1975). The author himself occasionally appeared in small roles in other director's films, the most recent example being TIME REGAINED (1999), Raoul Ruiz's elegant distillation of Marcel Proust's seven-volume roman fleuve REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST -- a work whose unmoored handling of time and tendrilous sentence structure must have been influential to him. Only last year did the first of Robbe-Grillet's films arrive on DVD: LA BELLE CAPTIVE (1983) -- not one of his best, and an unworthy transfer in any case. One hopes that, with Robbe-Grillet's death, a stubborn wall will topple to make this body of work more accessible.
The emphasis placed by Robbe-Grillet's films on nudity, sadomasochism, fetishism, ghosts and vampires have led them to be included in written overviews of Eurohorror such as Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs' IMMORAL TALES -- an identification that the filmmaker resented and resisted. By the same token, throughout his career, he would consent to collaborate only with historians capable of discussing his work on the theoretical planes he approved, resisting any published form of popular appraisal. He also insisted throughout his career that there was no psychological content in his objectivist fiction, stories that were allegedly about places and things rather than people. But, as his fan Vladimir Nabokov happily brayed in response, "Robbe-Grillet's claims are preposterous!" -- their entire substance is psychological, in the best possible tradition.
My own first experiments in fiction, written in the mid-1970s, were highly imitative of him; I can remember embarking on a novel that was to be set entirely on a sparsely furnished street corner, its perspective rotating between a man passing a department store's display window and that of the mannequin inside. It hurt a little at the time, but Bob Uth did me the great favor of weaning me from those raw tendencies with some valuably blunt, constructive criticism. The funny thing is that everything I was going to use in that untitled project, except the imitative way in which I had approached the material, has come into play in my, shall we say, mature fiction. There are places in both of my published novels where time seems to liquify and the tense becomes delirious, and this is at least partly the influence of Robbe-Grillet, tenpered by my own voice and my own experience.

In all the years since I first discovered this author with the beautiful name, his alphabetically named characters, and his exotic ports of imagination, I doubt there have been many days when I haven't thought of Robbe-Grillet in passing, or reproached myself for not getting around to reading this or that unread book, or observed something through the perspective his work specifically shared with me. He left a brand, much more than a mark, on my own imagination. He shaped me -- not just the writer I am -- as much as any other teacher or life example I've had, and unlike the living agent of that influence, whom I never knew, these gifts are too deeply assimilated to ever be missed.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A Big Rondo for the Little Lady?

Donna burning the midnight oil as she designs the discography layout for the Bava book, with lil' Pip riding shotgun, on March 10, 2007.
I filled out my Rondo Classic Horror Awards ballot a couple of nights ago and sent it in, but last night I received an e-mail from a friendly reader and customer that jolted my thinking about a particular category.
Tim Hammell of Calgary, Alberta wrote: "Just did my Rondo voting with MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK as Best Book, yourself as Best Writer for said book, and wrote in Donna as Best Artist for book design of said book."
This friendly note was gratifying to read, but especially for the part that had nothing to do with me. I'm on the ballot for the Bava book, but to be perfectly honest, I had not considered Donna for the Best Artist category and had cast my vote for someone else, someone who paints and draws. But as soon as I read Tim's note, I knew immediately that Donna was not only worthy of the award, but -- as I had witnessed at first hand -- had done more to earn it this year than anyone else. The wording of the category guidelines only served to further solidify my conviction:
25. ARTIST OF THE YEAR (for 2007)
Not your favorite all-time artist (although they might be the same), but which painter, illustrator, model-maker or designer did the best published (or online), work in 2007?
The key word here is "designer." Most everyone who received the Bava book has written or called to tell us how overwhelming it is visually, and I know myself that it actually satisfies the reader on purely visual and visceral levels before they read a word of my text. What Donna achieved with her design of the book is extraordinary, and if you agree, I ask that you consider Donna Lucas as your choice for Best Artist of 2007. Or -- if you've already voted, like me -- there is still the option of writing to Rondomeister David Colton at and reconsidering your previous vote.
Donna is the first to remind people who compliment her efforts on the book that she was assisted in her labors by people who are more deserving of being called artists -- Charlie Largent, Simonida Perica-Uth, and Matt Bradshaw -- but I can personally testify that it was Donna's vision of the book that guided them all, and that she and her computer were the final filters through which all of her assistants' digital work had to be passed, processed, and finally applied to page.
I think it's wonderful that the Rondo rules are flexible enough to allow for the recognition for the superhuman work she did. If you were impressed by the book, I would naturally appreciate your vote in the appropriate category or categories, but I would particularly love to see Donna win a Rondo all her own for what she contributed to MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Recorded at the Real Tombs of Horror!

2007 was an outstanding year for movie soundtrack discs; indeed, the market has become so vast yet specialized that it's easy for some very worthy small label releases to be overlooked. A good case in point is Elysee Productions' 1000-unit limited pressing of Tito Arevalo's soundtrack for the Hemisphere drive-in classic MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND (1969). This is the kind of "impossible dream" release that should be causing all horror fans of my generation to froth joyously green at the mouth, but I haven't found much discussion about it online. It didn't make the ballot for the 2007 Rondo Awards either, so I was obliged to cast my vote on its behalf as a write-in -- and was proud to do so.

True, the score -- played by a smallish Filipino orchestra with choir and recorded in mono -- isn't particularly tuneful, but it is original, distinctive, and played with a lot of sweat, saliva and brio. I don't think any other soundtrack CD in my collection quite as effectively conjures up memories of my own grindhouse experience. Listening to this deliriously woozy music, equal parts voodoo exotica and barroom brawl, one is sorely tempted to shake the images in the illustrated booklet violently in front of one's face to fully recreate the experience of the zoom-crazed picture. Tracks 11 and 18 in particular will make fans of Hemisphere and Independent-International's movies squirm in delight because they seem like the theme music for something like 90% of their horror trailers.

The disc has a total running time of 50:43, the main sequence consisting of 20 cues with an additional 14 bonus tracks, including a few with bilingual studio chatter -- which adds greatly to the atmosphere and documentary value of the release and is at least as wondrous a thing to own as the music itself. ("It's incredible! It's unbelieeeeeevable!" as Brother Theodore famously opined.) But the finest additional value brought to these previously unissued recordings is the eight-page full-color annotated booklet written by disc producer Tim Ferrante, who presents a forensically detailed account of how this music came to be recorded, used, reused (in the movie BRAIN OF BLOOD and the trailers for CHILLER CARNIVAL OF BLOOD and BLOOD-O-RAMA SHOCK FESTIVAL), and even re-recorded (the same music was later rerecorded with a smaller orchestra to provide score for BEAST OF BLOOD). A useful bio of Tito Arevalo, who died in 2000, is also included, along with photos of the original session reels and a rare MAD DOCTOR giveaway doll (only a few of these are known to still exist).

The MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND soundtrack is available from Xploited Cinema here for $19.95 -- admittedly a trifle steep for a domestic single-disc release, but reasonable when one considers the rarity of its limited pressing and the scholarship that went into its liner notes. It can also be obtained directly from the Elysee Productions website, where you can read more about the disc and actually sample some of its ineffable sounds in Real Audio or mp3 format. Here's a link to an interview with Tim Ferrante about the production. I encourage you to support this release, which can only encourage Mr. Ferrante and Company to undertake others in the same vein in the months and years ahead.

Speaking of the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards, a few weeks still remain for casting your votes. Voting ends at 12:00am midnight (eastern time) on March 8, so use the link above to support your favorite nominees and write-in candidates while you still can!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

What Some DVD Distributors Find Unthinkable

Dietrich Kerky is tempted by hitchhiker Ingeborg Steinbach in an especially exuberant episode of SCHOOLGIRL REPORT 3.

On the Mobius Home Video Forum, Don May, Jr. of Synapse Films has announced that Xploited Cinema has agreed to assume all distribution duties for Impulse Pictures' new DVD release of SCHOOLGIRL REPORT #3: WHAT PARENTS FIND UNTHINKABLE. Impulse -- a sub-label marketed by Synapse -- took special precautions to ensure that this 1972 sequel (co-directed by Walter Boos and Ernst Hofbauer) was uncut, in response to earlier complaints about a missing segment from their supposedly complete release of Hofbauer's SCHOOLGIRL REPORT #1 (1970). Evidently, the uncut content of this particular film was too much for Synapse's usual distributor to bear; after examining a preview disc, they refused to issue it.

Admittedly, SCHOOLGIRL REPORT #3 is one of the darker and bolder films in the series, featuring a few vignettes involving teenage rape at the hands of school officials, peers and pedophiles. However, the bothersome segment in question is undoubtedly one that features some fleeting prepubescent male nudity in a story about a teenage girl who volunteers to satisfy her younger cousin's curiosity about the ways in which their bodies differ. Granted, the boy's nudity can be a bit startling to American sensibilities, but let's be realistic: there is no erotic contact between the girl and boy (which one couldn't say, for example, of a similar scene between Laura Dern and Lukas Haas in RAMBLING ROSE) nor does the scene show anything couldn't be seen on a nude beach.

The film also has its share of more lighthearted, comic vignettes, two of which feature the respectively aged and twitchy series regulars Rosyl Mayr and Michael Schreiner, and there's a remarkably zesty romp -- one of the most erotic in the entire series -- involving doctor/father Dietrich Kerky and experience-seeking student Ingeborg Steinbach in which both performers appear to be enjoying the hell out of themselves... and each other. Jess Franco veteran Erik Falk is also featured in the final episode.

Thanks to the folks at Impulse, Synapse and Xploited for going the extra mile with this important Euro-exploitation series. Here's a link to the SCHOOLGIRL REPORT #3 ordering page at Xploited Cinema. They also have the first two releases in the series, as well as a highly collectable, full-color, 82-page souvenir magazine featuring dozens of poster and stills reproductions, as well as articles and bios pertaining to each film in the series and their key cast and crew members.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Steve Gerber: Gone from a World He Never Made

I am feeling very saddened by the news of comics creator Steve Gerber's passing from pulmonary fibrosis at the too-young age of 60. I stopped reading comics when I discovered higher forms of literature in my mid-teens, and it took Gerber's HOWARD THE DUCK to bring me back to them in my twenties.

I can remember with great clarity the day I discovered the book on the racks, when it was in its third issue, and it quickly became a passion that left me seeking out the back issues and Howard's back history; it also got me started drawing cigar-smoking ducks which adorned our refrigerator and were also left scattered about our apartment to convey messages to my wife. I bought duck posters like "The Duccaneer" and another one that depicted a Howard-like duck wielding a tommy gun in a scene out of THE UNTOUCHABLES. It was a sweet time of life. I got so deeply into Gerber's brand of comic book existentialism -- that's exactly what HOWARD was, a populist form of Sartre mixed with Groucho Marx -- that I also wrote my first and only letter to Marvel Comics in a lifetime of devoted reading, which appeared in HOWARD THE DUCK #10.

I never met or communicated with Steve Gerber directly, but somehow -- I don't recall how it came together -- I learned that the inspiration for the Duck lived in my hometown of Cincinnati and I tracked him down. Howard Tockman, apparently a college buddy of Gerber's and an aspiring writer, came to our apartment on Dixmyth Avenue with his wife and consented to an interview for CINCINNATI Magazine -- as the first in a series of projected interviews with so-called "Cincinnati Dreamers" -- which they never used. I must still have the article somewhere in my attic files, but I do have a comics newspaper with Howard the Duck on the cover that Howard himself cordially signed. A nice souvenir of those heady times.

Steve Gerber left behind him a good deal more accomplishment than many do, but his death remains a bitter pill -- not just because he was comparatively young, but because we know that he spent much of his prime fighting with his employers over issues like character rights, which ultimately prevented him from leaving behind as much as he might have. It seemed that the initial run of HOWARD THE DUCK ended almost as soon as it hit its stride, and its second incarnation under Gerber was forced by the looming shadow of Disney to evolve into a bizarre mutant strain of its original self, with Howard becoming a rather ratty-looking mouse. But the worst insult of all was the atrocious 1986 Lucasfilm movie adaptation, which eclipsed the actual character in the consciousness of most people and gave the whole franchise -- which included a daily newspaper strip -- the bouquet of stinky cheese.

A couple of years ago, a surge of nostalgia and the right price on eBay inspired me to plunk down for a complete set of HOWARD THE DUCK -- the original comic, the black-and-white magazines, the reboot, the specials, the early appearance books, everything. It held up splendidly, and while it certainly took me back to a specific time and place in my life and heart, I also found it possessed of a certain timeless quality that comes only with art that earnestly speaks the truth. The satiric humor of the book was undeniable, as was its warmth and wit, but what stood out most for me was the pride and passion of Howard's war cry: "Waugh!" Times like ours need that cry, and heroes like Howard the Duck. That's why our world tried to crush and conform him.

I did not know until reading about his death that Steve Gerber had a blog. It is now being handled by his friend Mark Evanier, who hopes to keep it online in an effort to preserve the writing that Gerber did for it and also to give fans a place to vent their feelings of loss over this and coming weeks. Evanier also wrote a moving piece about Gerber on his own blog, News From ME, which you can find by scrolling down here. If Steve Gerber's work meant something to you, you might want to click on these links to read more of and about him. I must plead guilty to unfamiliarity with the greater breadth and depth of his work, but I knew enough of it for his loss to mark a difference in my life. His work will be cherished as he will be missed.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Introducing Ann Carter... and Two Watchdogs

Our next issue is now at the printer, which means it's time for all the teasing to come to an end and for your curiosity to be rewarded.

The much-anticipated main feature in VW 137 is the first career-length interview ever granted by 1940s child actress Ann Carter, best known for her performance as little Amy Reed in Val Lewton's classic THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944) — conducted by award-winning film historian Tom Weaver. The photo above, showing Ann with two dogs that appear to have padded out of a stage production of PETER PAN, is a rare promotional shot taken on the set of the film... and just the beginning of a bounty of rare images soon to be unveiled in VIDEO WATCHDOG.

Ann talked to Tom quite a bit about her signature role, and about working with the film's two directors, but did you also know that she also worked with the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Edgar G. Ulmer, Lillian Gish, Paul Muni, Veronica Lake, John Farrow, Fred Zinnemann, and Joseph Losey, just to name a few? Hers is an amazing story, not just because she happened to appear in so many classics of the 1940s, but because of the unusual details of her personal life, including the reason why she had to abandon her acting career in 1951. She also responds to the long-circulating rumor that she was killed in an automobile accident in 1978!
We've gone all out with this issue, one of the very best we've done in our 18-year history. Our coverage includes not only Tom's interview, but a total assortment of more than 40 rare (and many never-before-published) photos from Ann's personal collection, and an appreciative introductory essay by Yours Truly. Plus all of our usual features — the reviews, the columns by Ramsey Campbell and Douglas E. Winter, the Letterbox, and more.
The photo above is my way of announcing that there are two Ann Carter issues of VIDEO WATCHDOG coming your way: the regular edition that will be sent to our subscribers and newsstands, and also a VW SIGNATURE EDITION, with unique outside and inside covers, each copy of which will be personally autographed by Ann herself on the front in silver pen — the first fan autographs she has signed in half a century! The VW SIGNATURE EDITION (#2, following our Donnie Dunagan SE #1 of 2004) goes on advance sale today. It will be strictly limited to only 200 copies, so if you count yourself as one of Amy's friends... claim your copy now, while supplies last!
I know you're eager to see the breathtaking covers that Charlie Largent has designed for these two editions (and I mean that; he's outdone himself), and also to see what else is set for the issue, so here's what you've been waiting for — a direct link to our website's "Coming Soon" page, where you'll find both covers, a clickable preview of the interior, and an FAQ about the VW SIGNATURE EDITION #2.
And yes, copies of the VW SIGNATURE EDITION #1 -- personally signed by SON OF FRANKENSTEIN's Donnie Dunagan (also the voice of Bambi) -- are still available!

Friday, February 08, 2008

More Eddie Constantine... from Criterion!

I was taken by surprise last night, while watching Agnes Varda's CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 (1961) for the first time, to find Eddie Constantine and some other luminaries of the French New Wave making cameo appearances in a charming little film-within-the-film. Criterion's new disc of CLEO, included in their quietly wondrous box set 4 BY AGNES VARDA, includes the entire short film -- Les Fiancés du Pont Macdonald -- as one of the supplements, along with commentary by the director.

In the film, shot in the style of a silent comedy, two young lovers have a sentimental parting on the Macdonald bridge -- a place, we're told, that's no longer extant. The lovers, seen here, are played by none other than Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina. Varda recalls that she was inspired to make this little film because she resented Godard's habit of always wearing sunglasses because she thought his eyes were beautiful. In her film, after the lovers part, Godard dons his "lunettes noirs" and watches his beloved skip away... but everything that was white about her a moment ago -- her dress, her shoes, her hair, even her skin -- has turned black, when seen through his dusky lenses. (David Cronenberg told me, during the filming of VIDEODROME, that he couldn't remember an earlier example of a film that contrasted subjective realities, but here it is -- twenty years earlier -- in a comic context.)

Anna skips merrily down to the quay where she trips on a hose, attracting the attention of Eddie Constantine, who is rinsing off the stonework of the landing. Eddie's in blackface and charmed by "meeting cute" with this temporarily ebony goddess. He raises his hose into frame for a double entendre.

Godard witnesses this from afar and removes his glasses to dash to Anna's rescue. Everything is white again (except Eddie), and an ambulance driven by Jean-Claude Brialy arrives to assist the fallen girl.

I don't think Anna Karina has ever been more beautiful than when she sits up from her pratfall, batting her eyelashes. Godard intervenes before the handsome doctors, stealing peeks up her dress, can spirit her away, and the short concludes with the two lovers returning atop the bridge and kissing in celebration after the repentant Godard throws his "damned sun-glasses" into the Seine.

Without his glasses, Godard looks remarkably like the later British actor Robert Powell and the sequence indeed plays like one of the stylistic vignettes from Ken Russell's MAHLER (which starred Powell) or LISZTOMANIA, made in the mid-1970s. It is a treat to see how wonderfully well all of the participants adapted to this antiquated manner of filmmaking, with Godard especially evoking comparisons to the likes of Buster Keaton (no small compliment, of course), and Agnes Varda also conforming to filmmaking techniques quite unlike her own with such studied success. I had assumed, while watching CLEO FROM 5 TO 7, that Varda must have filmed this short while Godard, Karina and Constantine were working together on ALPHAVILLE, but no... both CLEO and this short date from 1961, so this was in fact the first collaboration of Team Alphaville.
CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 chronicles, in real time (actually closer to "from 5 to 6:30"), roughly two hours in the life of a pampered, alienated yé-yé singer (Corinne Marchand) awaiting test results from a cancer exam. Dreading the worst, she embarks on a walk through Paris and we discover, with her, just how much a person and their outlook on life can change in such a short time. Criterion's disc includes a wonderful 35m documentary by Varda that reunites her with the film's cast and crew, and it's a wonderful chaser to a lovely and surprisingly profound experience.
The disc also includes Varda's early experimental short L'opera mouffe (1956), which reminded me of work in the short form that David Lynch would only achieve after a passing of twenty years or more. It also rewrites all the film history books I have ever read, moving back the advent of full frontal female nudity on the screen by approximately a decade. It's powerful, sensual, deeply felt work.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

On Reading Sax Rohmer's YELLOW SHADOWS

As a boy, I collected Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu novels in paperback yet never read them; I liked them for their association value, and for their evocative cover art. Much later, about ten years ago, I became interested in Rohmer's work anew and read a few titles. I started with BAT-WING -- not one of his better titles, but it was enough to make me want to read another, and the next ones were good enough to dedicate me to his work wholly: I began haunting eBay and didn't stop until I had acquired all his work in hardcover.

I read a dozen or so his novels and story collections -- finding his black magic novels BROOD OF THE WITCH-QUEEN and GREY FACE superior to the rest, and delighting at discovering the roots of Chandu and Dr. Strange in THE DREAM DETECTIVE -- before deciding that I needed a change, but the books have remained on display in my attic, where the limited space of my downstairs floors dictates I must hoard my fiction. While paying a visit to the attic the other night, a title on my Rohmer shelf jumped out at me and I simply had to read it, there and then. It was his 1925 novel YELLOW SHADOWS.

It turned out to be a Limehouse (Chinatown) variation on a locked room mystery, in which a playwright enamored of a young actress finds himself embroiled in the murder of a London Tong leader, who is discovered dead -- but still breathing, a macabre side-effect of the exotic poison used on him -- in a sealed room of his Limehouse mansion. The story wears its melodramatic stripes proudly, but there is enough of striking atmospheric value herein to make me think this might still be adapted into an entertaining film. There is an exotic femme fatale named Suzee Lo Chee who is described in ways that recalled to me the Myrna Loy of THIRTEEN WOMEN, which wasn't made until 1932 -- seven years later. To my surprise, the big scare of the book involves a character who, feeling increasingly nervous in his cottage rooms on a stormy night, suddenly throws open the curtains of the room to view the extent of the bad weather and discovers the huge, pock-marked face of a Chinese stalker mashed hideously against the outer glass, looking in. This was almost 40 years before Richard Matheson wrote the same scare into his classic TWILIGHT ZONE episode, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." (I wonder -- did Matheson read YELLOW SHADOWS?)

After much accumulation of romance and incident, YELLOW SHADOWS ends -- abruptly, I felt, as does much of Rohmer's work that was originally written on tight deadlines for pulp magazine and newspaper serialization -- with one of the primary characters receiving an anonymous package, whose enclosure of a single jade earring identifies the sender as Suzee Lo Chee. The note invites the British lawman to return to China someday, confirming that he now has friends there. I find this ending hopeful and significant.

Whenever anyone bothers to write about Rohmer today, it's rare to find anyone able to look sufficiently past their own smug, "politically correct" times to consider him as anything other than a racist -- a writer who sensationalized the Chinese immigrant influx of his day as a malevolent, subhuman force intruding upon the purity and tradition of Great Britain in the early 20th century. While Rohmer certainly did exploit the phrase "Yellow Peril" in his earliest Fu Manchu stories, he did not originate it -- and though he described the arch-enemy of Sir Dennis Nayland Smith as an obscene caricature of every dogface's worst nightmare about the Far East, Rohmer was anything but a white supremacist. Even the most demonizing of his yarns offer tantalizing descriptions that present us with a man torn by Orientalia, a little concerned about its rising presence in his country's midst but also rapturously tempted to succumb to it.

In YELLOW SHADOWS (whose title incidentally refers to the yellowish hue of the heavy night fogs in Limehouse -- the author apologizes in advance for any other interpretation in a brief foreword), he uses the telling phrase "attractive yet repellent" in reference to the Chinese. Mind you, this is 1925: Rohmer is not using the word "repellent" as a synonym for "loathsome," but to indicate their resistance to his interest, their inscrutability. He finds them fascinating but alienating. His characters reach out to them at times, but often find that, however one may be drawn to their beauties and mysteries, they carry with them a persistent and unemotive reminder that the Western ways do not exist for them. Rohmer respects them and their right to their own cultures and traditions, which makes me to see him as more of an anti-Imperialist than a racist. Racism works from a position of power to denigrate and disempower, and this is not at all what is at work in his novels. Rohmer's Asian characters are formidable, knowing and sophisticated. They often are in possession of answers to eternal questions that the English have yet to learn to ask of themselves. Rohmer's stance in relation to them is not that of a racist, but that of a fetishist.

It's important for readers to remember that China and Great Britain were great and geographically opposed empires, meeting for the first time on Britain's home turf. Chinese immigrants were a fairly new element in Britain during Rohmer's day, often forced by poverty to dwell in the less respectable areas of town, and this lowly social standing, and the language barrier, fostered mutual feelings of distrust and secrecy. Even at their most open and communicative, the two peoples were only beginning to interact with, to conform to one another. Rohmer's writing and personal habits show him to have been actually progressive -- in contrast to the xenophobia otherwise common among the native classes -- in terms of being sincerely interested in the exoticism and strangeness of the Asian people. Cay Van Ash's biography MASTER OF VILLAINY tells stories of how Rohmer would sometimes disappear from home for days to live among Chinese immigrants in boarding houses, observing them, coming to a better understanding of them. Fu Manchu himself becomes a more recognizably human character over the course of the 14 different books Rohmer wrote about him, which is perhaps why some readers find the later books in the series lacking.

The primary Chinese characters in YELLOW SHADOWS are wealthy, fascinating, and more sophisticated and at ease with the ways of the world than their authoritative but sometimes fumbling English counterparts. Much of the book's subtext concerns establishing a trust -- not between nations (that's still impossible!), but between people of different nations -- each respecting the other's right to its own traditions, beliefs and sacred secrets. Rohmer's interest was clearly as sexual as it was aesthetical. His British and Asian characters not only work together toward common goals, while mutually respecting the laws and codes of their respective empires, they also kiss.

Rohmer was a superior stylist to, say, Edgar Wallace -- a more cinematic storyteller, too -- but it's true that his work doesn't have the subtlety that the open-minded now demand from such subject matter. Our world is a lot smaller today, and we take international relations so much for granted that they have lost their former charge of magic and exoticism. For Sax Rohmer, when Western man met Eastern woman, the air crackled with electricity as surely as it did when Adam first encountered Eve. Without early thinkers and dramatists as dedicated as Rohmer to seeking common ground between East and West -- and for a grass roots readership, no less -- it might have taken our world a good deal longer to find an in-between. It's important to read him, and to read past the early Fu Manchu novels, to get at the true heart of his infatuated, mystified, and outreaching body of work.