Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Lindberg Babe and Other Headlines

Do they ever present awards for the year's best DVD cover art? If so, those anonymous folks at Impulse Pictures deserve all possible honors for the adornment they have given to MAID IN SWEDEN, the 1971 Christina Lindberg picture. The disc is scheduled to street on June 24, but my preview copy arrived today and Xploited Cinema is already reporting it as "in stock." The eye-catching cover art is so quintessentially Christina, I can't believe I've never seen this image before. I also like the way her name appears under the title, like the name of an author under the title of a novel. The movie doesn't have a literary bone in its voluptuous body, as I recall, but it's several cuts above the norm for Swedish soft erotica and naturally a must-see for devotees of its doe-eyed star.

Overwork and a serious health scare related to a dear friend (I'm relieved to say that his surgery appears to have been a success) have taken the wind out of me, and consequently my blogging sails, of late. I've just finished the bulk of my work on VIDEO WATCHDOG #140, so this is my week between issues to concentrate on viewing and reviewing for the next issue or two. I'm currently working on a lengthy review of the long-awaited DVD premiere of the Peter Cushing-Christopher Lee classic THE SKULL (finally on DVD in its original Techniscope screen ratio) and making my way through Flicker Alley's extraordinary box set GEORGES MELIES - FIRST WIZARD OF THE CINEMA, as well as attending to some shorter reviews. One of these will be devoted to the first volume of cartoons from the PINK PANTHER spin-off series THE INSPECTOR, for which I have discovered a heretofore unsuspected love. Cartoons with titles like "Cirrhosis of the Louvre" and "Napoleon Blown-Apart" -- what's not to love?

For those who are wondering, copies of VIDEO WATCHDOG #139 -- our exciting DOCTOR WHO issue -- were shipped out last Thursday and Saturday to our subscribers and retailers. First class subscribers will either have them now, or very soon.

Finally, in case you (like me) had to miss the first public screening of Joe Dante's THE MOVIE ORGY last week at the New Beverly Cinema, there is primo vicarious info to be had from Glenn Erickson's DVD Savant, the blogs Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule and Mr. Peel's Sardine Liqueur, and also from this Variety report by Peter Debruge. Everyone is describing it as a tremendous and privileged cinephilic experience, and talking up the "Dante's Inferno" retrospective screenings in general as one of the great cultural events of the year. Atta boy, Joe!

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Best Cartoon Show Ever

Some VIDEO WATCHDOG readers were baffled when, back in our 35th issue (otherwise devoted to Ken Russell's THE DEVILS), I devoted the inside cover to a photograph of a couple of marionette ragamuffins and their pet goat. I did it, I don't regret it, and I'm convinced that time will only prove me prescient for having done it. You see, those three characters -- Rudy, Jumpin' Jesse B. and GoGo Goat -- were the stars of my favorite TV show at that time: TNT's early morning series THE RUDY AND GOGO WORLD FAMOUS CARTOON SHOW.
I don't know how many R&GG episodes were made and broadcast, but the show ran for a little more than two years. During that time, the show's restlessly inventive creators -- Barry Mills and Jack Pendarvis -- reconceived the show a number of times, doing everything from running the goat for President to giving the program a title in Spanish. But when they presented TNT with a completely and fabulously freaky, off-the-wall redo of the show called TATERHOLE (imagine Howdy Doody and Afrika Bambaataa lost with Annie Oakley in the zigzag room from TWIN PEAKS for 30 minutes, and screaming for 10 of them), that ended that. A second episode, already in the can, was never aired. One of its highlights depicted supporting character Uncle Carbunkle entertaining the show's young audience with a get-down-wittit logline rendering of Fyodor Dostoevsky's NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND.
It was a cartoon show ahead of its time, and well ahead of its time slot. It was a cartoon show for the David Lynch generation -- hysterical, surreal, funky, irreverent AND reverent. (Jesse B.'s "Black Historama" offered young viewers sketches of important figures from Black History in a respectful rap format.) Entertaining? Certainly. Insane? Whoa, yeah. Commercial suicide? Indubitabubitably... and the heroic thing about this is, the folks behind it HAD to know that. But this was a cartoon show with the power to drag hungover adults out of bed at an ungodly hour -- not to see "Believe It Or Else" for the umpteenth time, but to see what these characters were going to get away with doing on national television today. Sometimes they would have the goat wander through a Fleischer cartoon or a Technicolor scene from an MGM short buried deep in the Turner library; sometimes there would be appearances by members of The Mekons.
This was a cartoon show that was only incidentally watched for the cartoons -- most of which, being from the older, MGM-controlled end of the Warner Bros. library, I already had on laserdisc -- and, if you think about it, it's very rare to find that degree of creativity and invention anywhere on the air. Back in the 1970s, I used to watch Linda Ellerbee and Lloyd Dobyns do their middle-of-the-night newscast OVERNIGHT on NBC for the same reason: not to get the news, which I received incidentally, but to get Dobyns' and Ellerbee's singular and highly personable twist on the news. I watched RUDY AND GOGO because other stimulants of comparable intensity were and are illegal.
I loved this show and wish I had recorded more episodes. It would be PERFECT programming for my current Dish Network DVR set-up. I wish The Cartoon Network could be persuaded to re-run the series in a late night slot (much more appropriate to the tenor of the material), as they have done with Barry Mills' POPEYE SHOW, and let this lost masterpiece find the rabid midnight-toker cult that awaits it. In the meantime, Barry has recently launched a Rudy and GoGo website that offers extant and prospective fans much interesting information about the show and a goodly number of treasures from the vault, including the hilarious behind-the-scenes story of RUDY'S ROCKIN' KIDDIE CARAVAN (a CD project that got "caught up in red tape" after a zillion obstacles impeded its development) and the entire never-before-shown second episode of TATERHOLE in three segments. That one you don't want to miss.
The Links page on the site mentions that Rudy, Jesse B. and GoGo's appearance on the inside cover of VW #35 was their "one of Rudy and GoGo's proudest moments," which makes this mention one of mine.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

More Bond Where This Came From

This blog has been receiving an unprecedented number of visits over the last twenty-four hours, prompted by our free listen to the never-before-heard alternative James Bond theme "Never Say Never Again," sung by Phyllis Hyman (pictured). Thanks again to composer Stephen Forsyth for this exciting exclusive.

I should mention to 007 devotées who may not be familiar with this blog's parent magazine, VIDEO WATCHDOG, that we've published some of the most in-depth critical coverage of the Bond series to be found in any magazine. We urge Bond fans to check out these back issues:

VW #57, which includes this writer's "Lasers Revoked: Revisiting the Criterion Bonds" (8 pages), Glenn Erickson's "007: A Critical Dossier" -- an in-depth review of the seven titles composing MGM's initial JAMES BOND COLLECTION DVD gift set (15 pages), and a special sidebar on the censored scenes from LICENCE TO KILL;

VW #68 (in low supply!) features Nathaniel Thompson's "Box Sets Are Forever: The Rest of Bond on DVD," a 20-page review/article on the twelve remaining features in MGM's second and third JAMES BOND COLLECTION gift sets;

and, most recently, VW #131 with my feature-length review of the latest Bond film CASINO ROYALE. The link to our page for #131 has a clickable cover that will take you to a two-page sampling of my article. These back issues can be ordered, while supply lasts, through our website or by calling our toll-free number 1-800-275-8395.

I've been keeping Stephen Forysth abreast of the attention his song has been receiving, both here and on other Bond/spy blogs and discussion boards. He responds: "Thanks for the updates... interesting. Your description of the song couldn't have been more insightful and flattering ... thanks. Writing the song came to me easily as I had some previous experience with the Bond thing. I starred in a Bond take-off, FURY IN MARRAKESH, and was flown to Nice then London to meet Albert Broccoli for ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE."

A double surprise here, for me anyway: I haven't been able to see too much of Stephen's other film work, and haven't seen FURY IN MARRAKESH (also known in the States as DEATH PAYS IN DOLLARS), but its IMDb page carries an above-average rating and informs me that it was written by another friend, Ernesto Gastaldi -- so it's something I really ought to see. I'd never thought of it before, but Stephen could have made quite an acceptable and convincing young Bond -- I don't think his revelation about being considered for the role was made known before. It doesn't surprise me that Cubby Broccoli would have shown interest in him for the role, but the casting of George Lazenby suggests it was decided to go with an actor who might merge a bit more comfortably with the Bond created by Sean Connery. Stephen would have provided a smoother transition into, or away from, Roger Moore's characterization, but he had retired from acting by then.

On a closing, different note, I want to mention the passing of actress Kay Linaker (known as Kate Phillips in more recent years) last Friday at the age of 94. Tom Weaver interviewed Kate for our 90th issue about her friendships with directors James Whale and Tod Browning, and the result won the first-ever Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award for Best Article. She also wrote the screenplay for the original version of THE BLOB (whose soundtrack Doug Winter will review in VW #140, now in production) and played important supporting roles in a couple of Charlie Chan films, including the general favorite CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND. We send our sympathies to Kate's friends and loved ones, and salute this gracious lady for a long life well-lived.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Bond Theme You Never Heard

You may remember that, last August 6, Video WatchBlog directed you to some interesting videos from the musical career of former actor (and HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON star) Stephen Forsyth. Stephen and I have kept in touch; he's a talented and interesting man, a supportive friend, and always good for a surprise... and the other day, he came to me with a bombshell bit of information. Back in the early 1980s, he wrote a title song for a James Bond movie that the world has never heard.

In Stephen's own words:

During the filming of the James Bond movie NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN, I co-wrote the title song for the movie with Jim Ryan. Warner Bros informed our attorney that the song was to be used as the title song in the picture. However, shortly before its release, Warner Bros informed us that the song could not be used because Michel Legrand, who wrote the score, threatened to sue them, claiming that contractually he had the right to the title song. So my song was never released.

The legendary Phyllis Hyman was my first choice to sing the song and working with her is one of the highlights of my musical career. I personally auditioned and sang the song to her while she was having breakfast in her manager’s office. After agreeing to sing the song, she arrived at the studio and, without any rehearsal and only having heard the song sung once at the breakfast audition, sang the song in one perfect take.

Phyllis sadly took her own life in the early nineties. The year before she died, she called me late one night and told me she felt that "Never Say Never Again" was "her best and favorite recording." I have just now made the song available on the Internet (itunes, amazon, emusic, rhapsody, etc.) on an album of some of my early songs. I’d like to make the song available to Video WatchBlog readers to listen to. Enjoy.

I've always thought of NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN as an underrated Bond picture. It's got Connery, an attractive and capable female lead in Kim Basinger, and it's distinguished by one of the series' most intriguing and realistically faceted villains (Klaus Maria Brandauer as Maximillian Largo)... but it's seriously hobbled by its soundtrack, and particularly its theme song (an "all time low" in contrast to OCTOPUSSY's "All Time High"). Written by Michel Legrand, produced by Herb Alpert and Sergio Mendez, and sung by Lani Hall (a distinguished member of Brasil '66, and also Mrs. Alpert), it qualifies as an inexplicable off-day for four very talented people. Its embalmed-sounding, air-conditioned, disco schmaltz sounds more like a love theme from a Joe D'Amato grindhouse picture rather than the curtain-opener of a James Bond movie. The masochists among you can refresh your memory of it here.

Stephen's version, on the other hand, is much more like it. One can hear a John Barry influence in its dramatic unfolding, its alluring and insinuating minor chords, the way it oscillates from vulnerability to bringing out the big guns. It has the mystique and sultry sex appeal that a Bond song requires, and Phyllis Hyman drives it home with confidence.

So, Bond fans... enough of my Q-like preparation, it's time to do your own field work. Here's your link to a lost chapter in 007 history: "Never Say Never Again," sung by Phyllis Hyman -- words and music by Stephen Forsyth and Jim Ryan. Give it a listen; you'll be surprised how quickly Maurice Binder-like images will start streaming through your head.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Klein / Marker / Borowczyk

My review of Eclipse's THE DELIRIOUS FICTIONS OF WILLIAM KLEIN (including MR. FREEDOM, pictured) is now available for reading in the new issue of SIGHT & SOUND and also available on their website.

Earlier this week, I revisited Chris Marker's classic LA JETÉE as preparation for my next SIGHT & SOUND column, which is about a series of new Chris Marker titles from First Run Icarus Films, and noticed a "Bill Klein" in the cast list -- if it's indeed the same fellow, as seems likely, it's quite appropriate casting for a film so dependent on exquisite photography. (I just checked the IMDb and they report he played one of the men from the future.) Furthermore, GreenCine Daily reveals that today is M. Klein's 80th birthday, and I certainly wish him Many Happy Returns.

Incidentally, also in the cast of LA JETÉE is Ligia Borowczyk, the wife of Walerian Borowczyk, playing one of the women from the future. Her presence reminds us that Chris Marker and Walerian Borowczyk had previously collaborated on a short sf-themed film titled LES ASTRONAUTES in 1959, in which Ligia and at least one other cast member of LA JETÉE were featured. You can actually see this remarkable 14m film on YouTube (click to see Part One and Part Two), but let us hope that a proper release of this collaboration will be among the other Marker and Marker-related shorts forthcoming from First Run Icarus Films...

Update 4/20: Someone signing himself "Bill" reports that LES ASTRONAUTES is included as an extra in the Cult Epics DVD release of Borowczyk's GOTO, ISLAND OF LOVE. It has also subsequently been learned over at GreenCine Daily that William Klein was indeed the Bill Klein of LA JETÉE, and that his wife Janine also appeared in the film as one of the people from the future. Even more interesting to me, Klein was the American narrator of the English version of Marker's classic short -- his track is included on the Criterion DVD. It only remains to be discovered how much, if any, input he had into the film's still photography.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Got a Pendulum and Feel Like Swingin'?

If VIDEO WATCHDOG's current Roger Corman/Daniel Haller issue has you itching for some audio accompaniment, we heartily recommend this week's installment of Rue Morgue Radio, which is devoted to the Debonair Dean of Delirium himself, Vincent Price. Our good friend Lucy Chase Williams, the author of THE COMPLETE FILMS OF VINCENT PRICE, is RMR's special interview guest. This must-listen entertainment -- richly endowed by Vincent's choicest bon mots and trailer-speak -- goes into Rue Morgue Radio's archives after tomorrow, but by all means seek it out. Otherwise you may feel, in your heart of hearts, a hole the size of a medium grapefruit.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Bewitching Hazel

I took this photo of Hazel Court in her living room,
surrounded by her art, in 1993.

Actress Hazel Court died yesterday morning at the age of 82 -- which, to me, is a sentence of which neither half makes sense. Wasn't it only fifteen years ago that I had the good fortune to visit her at her home in Santa Monica, California, to kiss her hand, to drink her tea?
I took this photo of her that day, as she showed her gentleman callers around her living room: she stands surrounded by family photos and some of her own works of art, her hands at rest on the dorsal fin of one of her sculptures. Also on display in the room was a beautiful white sculpture of a nautilus shell, so perfectly smooth and proportioned that I told her it looked like something truly made by the sea. She liked that compliment, she told me, being an Aquarian.
I had always admired her as an actress; she was as comfortable in period pictures as in contemporary ones, she could be prim, saucy or serious. Also, I had always admired her as a woman -- and I do mean always: I have vivid memories of being dazzled, in my single-digit years, by the galaxy of freckles revealed by some of the low-cut gowns she wore in some of the Poe pictures. (Thankfully, these can be seen once again in the latest DVD and HD presentations, proving they were not figments of my overactive young imagination.) So my expectations before meeting her were great, but the woman I met that afternoon was extraordinary. Warm, civilized, artistic, full of humor, bawdy in the nicest possible way, completely charming. I sent her roses the next day, so that she might remember me a little longer, but we never spoke or met again.
One meeting fifteen years ago, yet the news of her death has touched me surprisingly deeply. I can't really process the news as yet, nor am I ready to pay her achievements proper tribute. I watched THE RAVEN in HD tonight, mostly to spend some time with her in semi-lifelike resolution. She was fun and in her saucy mode, she looked enchanting as always, but it was just a performance; it wasn't her. The people in her life were fortunate.
Coming out later this year from Tomahawk Press is her autobiography, which carries the misleading title HAZEL COURT: HORROR QUEEN. "Horror Heroine," absolutely -- she's up there with Fay Wray, Gloria Stuart and Valerie Hobson. To my mind, "Horror Queen" suggests something that Hazel Court was not and perhaps could never be. She played some duplicitous, conniving, and downright evil women, but they were always warm-blooded. This small criticism aside, I'm very much looking forward to reading her book and pretending that it's just her and me, listening as she recounts her life story.
There is a second photograph that I had planned to include here, a photograph of the two of us together. I don't think of myself as particularly handsome, nor do I feel I photograph well in my own opinion, but, in this photograph, I do look handsome -- perhaps because I was aspiring to belong in a photograph beside Hazel Court. As I say, I had planned to post that photograph here, but on second thought, I'm keeping it to myself, for myself. I don't want anything to detract from the singularity of photo above.
Today is for Hazel Court alone, with my affection.

Monday, April 14, 2008

First Look: VIDEO WATCHDOG #139

Information and sample pages now posted on the VW website here, now.

Something Extra with Your Morning Coffee

I'm like the character that Quentin Tarantino plays in PULP FICTION: I take my coffee seriously. I started out in young adulthood as a tea drinker, very fond of my jasmine and lapsang souchong teas (always with two teaspoons of honey, please), but, when I spent a fateful week house-sitting for Cincinnati legend Irma Lazarus in the latter months of 1974, there was no tea to be had... so, needing something warm to offset the chill weather, I sampled her house blend of coffee. It was her husband's personal blend of chocolate almond and mocha java beans. I was converted with my very first taste: this wasn't anything like the instant Maxwell House or freeze-dried Taster's Choice coffees my mother used to drink while chain-smoking her breakfast. The chocolate almond had just the right semi-sweet quality, its bitterness cut by the velvety smoothness of the mocha java. I left the Lazarus home a confirmed coffee enthusiast.

I was still a struggling young writer and could not afford the special blend that Irma had especially made, but I found Chock Full o' Nuts to be a pretty reasonable substitute -- at least it was then -- and stayed a faithful customer for many years. ("Better coffee a millionaire's money can't buy!," right?) But when special coffees began to infiltrate our local supermarkets in the 1980s, Donna and I went after them like sharks after chum. We're partial to chocolate, vanilla and hazelnut, also to robust flavors like Columbian and Kona; I like an occasional espresso, while Donna favors some desserty variants that don't do much for me, like caramel nut and chocolate raspberry. At the moment we find ourselves favoring Starbuck's Kenya and Breakfast Blends, and a new brand of coffee called Zavida that started showing up in our local stores last year; it comes in resealable silver foil bags -- very sensible, and the coffee in those bags tastes impressively rich and full-bodied from the first bean to the last. (I'm not too keen on their French Roast, though -- nor anyone's French Roast, for that matter.) And I do mean "bean" -- I prefer to grind my own, whenever possible.

Some recent sales on eBay have made me aware that America's coffee makers are missing out on just the sort of idea that inspires consumer loyalty. A few weeks ago, I discovered an eBay seller who was auctioning a series of celebrity figurines that were originally obtained as free giveaways in cans of an Italian brand of coffee called Mokalux. (I would have thought Mokalux was a French brand, considering the celebrities to whom they gave the premium treatment, but this website indicates they were an Italian company -- and have been since 1920.) Imagine the pleasure of opening a can of coffee and finding this little fellow swimming around inside the beans or flakes...

Jean Marais. Fantômas himself, the fabulous Beast of Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête!

Sacha Guitry. Actor, writer, producer, playwright, a true creature of the theatre.

Martine Carol. The star of Max Ophüls' Lola Montés, Henri Decoin's unforgettable ATOMIC AGENT aka Nathalie, Agent Secret (which no reader of this blog has yet sent to me, I am sad to say) and, evidently, some Esther Williams-type movies.

Yves Montand. The handsome star of THE WAGES OF FEAR and Z caught either at the height of song or in the headlights of an oncoming car.

and last but not least (you knew this was coming)...

Eddie Constantine!

I couldn't resist bidding on this one, which I scored for just a few bucks. He now occupies a permanent place on the round flat base of my Sony flatscreen monitor, next to a same-sized figurine of the Frankenstein Monster holding a pumpkin and a whitish stone chip from the Great Pyramid of Giza brought to me by my friends Wayne and Jan Perry. Now I can look down from my work and there's a little golden Eddie (or Lemmy, if I want him to be) giving me a wink and a "thumbs up."

This kind of premium was commonplace in the 1950s and '60s, when you could find gift towels or drinking glasses in boxes of detergent. I've recently seen DVDs in boxes of breakfast cereal, but they aren't nearly so enticing -- the movies carry a whiff of junk that didn't sell, and it doesn't make them any more desirable to know they've done time in cellophane wrappers inside a cereal box. Celebrity figurines, on the other hand, are an ideal premium because they're fun and serve no real utilitarian purpose. It's not going to happen, but wouldn't it be cool if we could open a can of Chock Full o' Nuts or a bag of Zavida coffee beans today and find little golden figurines of celebrities inside?

I'll trade you my Matt Damon for your Dirk Bogarde. Okay then, how about my Joaquin Phoenix for your Philippe Leroy?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Toast to Dieter Eppler (1927-2008)

Dieter Eppler, a German-born but quite international actor whose career encompassed everything from Edgar Wallace krimis and Italian vampire films to the occasional art film like Jerzy Skolimowski's DEEP END, has died in his hometown of Stuttgart, Germany at the age of 81.

A stage actor from the time of his graduation, Eppler made his screen debut in the early 1950s under his birth name of Heinz Dieter Eppler. Though the Edgar Wallace krimis didn't really come into vogue until Rialto Film began producing them in 1959, Eppler was already an old hand at Wallace by then, having played the role of Sgt. Carter in an earlier TV movie for SDR: Franz Peter Wirth's Der Hexer (1956), based on Wallace's novel THE GAUNT STRANGER. After attracting further attention as the lover of a decapitated and re-capitated stripper (!) in Viktor Trivas' Die Nackte und der Satan (US: THE HEAD, 1959), Eppler made a proud addition to the repertory cast of Rialto's Wallace series, first appearing as Joshua Broad in Der Frosch mit der maske (US: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE FROG, 1959).

The Wallace-krimis demanded memorable faces, and Eppler had a great one. His burly build, combined with his virile features, wavy hair and piercing eyes, made him the ideal henchman, maniac, tradesman or nobleman. During the 1960s, he appeared in a variety of sizeable roles in such well-remembered German productions as (let's stick to the American titles) THE HEAD, THE TERRIBLE PEOPLE, THE STRANGLER OF BLACKMOOR CASTLE, THE WHITE SPIDER, THE SINISTER MONK, THE DEATH RAY MIRROR OF DR. MABUSE, and Jess Franco's LUCKY THE INSCRUTABLE. He was a particular favorite of director Harald Reinl, who cast him several times in later projects, including a 1966 remake of Fritz Lang's Die Niebelungen and also in Die Schlangengrube und das pendel (1967), the Christopher Lee vehicle variously known as CASTLE OF THE WALKING DEAD and THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM.

One of the stranger turns of Eppler's career was his star turn as the chief bloodsucker of Roberto Mauri's La strage dei vampiri (SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES aka CURSE OF THE BLOOD GHOULS, 1963). His characterization was a throwback to the tuxedoed Bela Lugosi model of the 1930s, while also charged with the violence and eroticism that Christopher Lee had brought to Count Dracula in HORROR OF DRACULA (1957); in some ways, this blending of influences, combined with Eppler's well-fed physique and the general romanticism of the piece, anticipates Paul Naschy's stylish 1973 stab at the Un-dead: COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE.

Eppler, married since the age of 20 to the same woman -- Magdalene Schnaitmann -- and the father of five children, remained active in films and television series until 2001, when he retired from acting. This Das Neue Blatt news story from January 7th appears to paint a bittersweet portrait of his later years, which found him and his wife still together after 61 years but increasingly dependent upon their children, as a couple of bad falls consigned him to a wheelchair, and his wife began suffering from Alzheimer's disease. It's a humbling, sobering, yet heart-warming glimpse into the private life of an actor who contributed a great deal to post-war German cinema, and to international popular cinema, as a skilled actor and an unforgettable face.

In other words, as a movie star.

Friday, April 11, 2008

For Doug Holm

It has just come to my attention, through postings at Arbogast on Film and Green Cine Daily, that film scholar and journalist D.K. Holm is battling a form of esophageal cancer. Doug once did a very good turn for me, by writing a wonderful article about MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK (actually using the book as an excuse to prepare a remarkable overview of my life and crazy career) for Green Cine Daily. The author of books about Quentin Tarantino, Robert Crumb and independent film, he's a talented man and a class act, and I wish him a complete and comfortable-as-possible recovery. A group of concerned friends are organizing a fundraiser on his behalf, in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, to help defray some of his medical expenses. I can't be there, so I plan to send a check instead. If it's at all within your power to do so, I would encourage you to send some sort of contribution his way. Follow this link for more details.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Fred Lightner: Another Rondo Hatton?

I recently had the pleasure of seeing some episodes of a 1950s television series called FOLLOW THAT MAN, starring Ralph Bellamy as private eye Mike Barnett. In its original run, the show was called MAN AGAINST CRIME but it went into syndication as FOLLOW THAT MAN, under which title 28 different episodes are available on disc in seven volumes from Alpha Home Video. Starting in 1949, the first three seasons were broadcast live, and I don't know if any of these episodes survive; it went to film in 1952, the year its fourth season began.

The eighth episode of that fourth season, "Get Out of Town," I found especially interesting because it features a henchman character named Stanley, clearly modelled on the persona made popular by the late Rondo Hatton in various Universal horror and mystery programmers, including THE PEARL OF DEATH and HOUSE OF HORRORS. Hatton died with his last picture, 1946's THE BRUTE MAN, still awaiting release -- the victim of a bone-distorting pituitary disease called acromegaly, which had also been responsible for his distorted features.

"Get Out of Town" begins with Mike Barnett entering his apartment, only to be quickly overcome by a gigantic hand that chloroforms him.

When Barnett awakens, he has been blindfolded -- and the monstrous hand responsible for subduing him occupies the foreground of the shot, flexing its fingers eagerly. The partner of this ominous, subhuman figure -- the fellow holding the gun -- explains to Barnett that a criminal of considerable wealth and influence wants him to get out of town for a year, and offers him a lot of money to high-tail it to Mexico.

When Barnett questions the arrangement, the ogre walks around the sofa and offers some encouragement by using his massive hand to crumple the shoulder of his sportcoat. As often happened with Rondo Hatton's characters, this character of the henchman named "Stanley" is kept under wraps a bit longer, which adds to the weight of his presence, but his face is eventually shown as he, his partner Sammy, and the requisite femme fatale escort Barnett to the airport. Here they are, seeing him off.

Looking at the actor on the right, I surmised right away that he, like Rondo Hatton, was very probably a victim of acromegaly. The end credits listed the actor as Fred Lightner, and I promptly looked him up on the IMDb to see if he left behind any other outstanding credits. His IMDb page, which does not mention the FOLLOW THAT MAN episode, lists only four other screen credits, ranging from a 1935 Western to a supporting role in 1948's THE BABE RUTH STORY. Legend has it that Rondo Hatton was a handsome college football star until wartime exposure to mustard gas prompted his disfiguring disease, so I began wondering if this might also have been the fate of Fred Lightner, whose long absence from films coincides with the war years. I also became curious about whether he had looked conspicuously different in his earliest pictures.

In a thread on the Classic Horror Film Boards, where I initiated this topic for discussion, "Doctor Kiss" posted a not-very-high-quality shot of Lightner and William Bendix together in THE BABE RUTH STORY in which he looks -- even at that late date -- like a completely different man. (I suppose I should allow for the possibility that it is.) As far as I know, there are no comparable before-and-after shots of Rondo Hatton to illustrate how quickly and lethally acromegaly derailed his once-handsome features; but if the actor in the BABE RUTH STORY still is indeed Fred Lightner, to compare the shots of taken of him in 1948 to these frame grabs from a 1952 production is a fairly sobering exercise.

No information about the later life of Fred Lightner is yet available, but it seems likely from these photos that he would not have had much longer to live. The point is not whether Rondo Hatton and Fred Lightner really were exposed to mustard gas, or if they -- like many others -- became acromegalic through some other internal process. The real point is that, until now, Rondo Hatton has always been a singular case study among actors, but this sighting of Fred Lightner proves that at least one other, authentically disfigured actor followed in his footsteps to play the sort of character he made infamous.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Heston on Making Movies

Charlton Heston arrives at a Northern Kentucky bookstore to sign copies of "In the Arena" -- the day I met him in 1995 -- photograph by Donna Lucas.

"Making movies is very hard work, and it's not fun... I eat my work, I drink it, and breathe it -- even dream it at night. But it's supposed to be fun for you, not us. Or scary, or inspiring, or even, once in a hundred times, profound.

"There are shining times, surely -- sitting [on] a good horse at five in the morning, waiting for the first shooting light in Montana, or Mexico, or the Spanish Guadarramas. Struggling with a scene all morning, and arguing through lunch about it, and then suddenly finding the way in, like opening a locked door. Exploring Shakespeare with a camera. Yes, there are wonderful things in it, my whole life, for instance. But it counts too much to be 'fun,' and if you can't understand that, I can't explain it to you."

-- Charlton Heston, IN THE ARENA (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster), pp. 141-142. Copyright (c) 1995 by Agamemnon Films, all rights reserved.

Charlton Heston: Larger Than Life

Some important news from a press release received today:

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will honor the life and career of legendary actor Charlton Heston, who died Sunday at the age of 84. This Friday, April 11, the network will present a 15-hour marathon of memorable Heston performances, including his Oscar®-winning role in Ben-Hur (1959). Also featured will be two opportunities to watch an in-depth conversation between Heston and TCM host Robert Osborne in the TCM original special Private Screenings: Charlton Heston.

“Charlton Heston was a towering man both in person and on screen,” said Osborne. “He was also one of the nicest, most courteous gentlemen I ever met. He will forever stand tall among those rare few we know as genuine Movie Stars.”

The following is a complete schedule of TCM’s April 11 tribute to Charlton Heston:

2:30 p.m. Private Screenings: Charlton Heston (hour-long career interview)
3:30 p.m. THE BUCCANEER (1958) – co-starring Yul Brynner and Claire Bloom.
5:30 p.m. THE HAWAIIANS (1970) – co-starring Geraldine Chaplin and John Philip Law.
8 p.m. Private Screenings: Charlton Heston (hour-long career interview)
9 p.m. BEN-HUR (1959) – co-starring Jack Hawkins and Stephen Boyd.
1 a.m. KHARTOUM (1966) – co-starring Lawrence Olivier and Richard Johnson.
3:30 a.m. MAJOR DUNDEE (1965, pictured) – co-starring Richard Harris, Jim Hutton and James Coburn.
I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Heston briefly back in 1995, when he came to a northern Kentucky bookstore to sign copies of his then-new autobiography IN THE ARENA. Some of his obits are claiming he was 6' 2," but I'm 6' 2" and I remember being surprised by how much smaller in stature he was than I expected; nevertheless, he had the aura of a colossus. He was my mother's favorite actor -- she called him "Charleston Heston" -- and Donna and I took her to the bookstore to meet him. Everyone on queue was cautioned to have their book open to the title page for signing, not to ask for other items to be signed (however, an entire table of 8x10 photos of Heston on various film sets, taken by his wife Lydia, were available to be ordered and could be sent to you signed and inscribed), and not to engage him in too much talk, so that everyone could be accomodated.
When we reached his signing table, my mother pushed her book across the table to be signed... and, when he finished signing, she humbly asked, "Could I just touch you?" With a warm chuckle, he said "Certainly, madam!", put down his pen, and took both her hands in his. For my part, I asked him if there was going to be a second volume of his journals, to follow the first such collection called AN ACTOR'S LIFE: JOURNALS 1956-1976, which I had very much enjoyed. To this, he replied confidently, "Yes," saying that IN THE ARENA was not intended to take the place of that follow-up volume. In parting, I thanked him for helping Orson Welles to find work and moved on, but he called after me, "I'm very proud of that." "Rightly so," I called back.

I still have my copy of IN THE ARENA -- signed with a flourish that looks downright presidential. Like many, I was opposed to most of Mr. Heston's politics (it shouldn't be overlooked that he was an important civil rights crusader in the 1950s and '60s), but I was greatly disappointed by the way he was treated over the years by people, like Michael Moore, who share views closer to my own. I liked him -- as an actor, as an activist (for speaking out on behalf of what he believed in), for the way he used his clout to get TOUCH OF EVIL made and MAJOR DUNDEE finished; he was also a very good writer. I also liked him for the way he handled my mother.
Thirteen years after that meeting, the second volume of AN ACTOR'S LIFE still hasn't appeared, but perhaps it will now.
Postscript: For some of the best eulogistic writing about Charlton Heston that I've found online, see Sam Umland's essay on his 60x50 blog. He makes a strong case for Heston as the actor who not only best exemplified the Epic but also the Apocalypse.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

2001: It Is What It Is

Last night, I observed the 40th anniversary of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY's original release by watching it for the first time (in its entirety) in Blu-ray. I intend to write a fuller review of the disc for VW, but seeing the movie in this ideal home format brought back vivid memories of its 70mm majesty, which I first experienced in the mid-1970s.
Warner's Blu-ray disc is magnificent, the first video medium to properly deliver the antiseptic essence of Kubrick, but even with a 60" Pioneer Elite monitor, a new amplifier and five Bose speakers, there remain areas where the translation of the 70mm experience to disc falls conspicuously short. I miss the gigantic curved screen, but I particularly found myself noticing that the both the DD and LPCM 5.1 audio failed to replicate the discrete audio separations of the 70mm six-track sound. It's most noticeable aboard the space station, where the sounds of paging announcements are pushed to the front of the 5.1 surround image, rather than sounding truly ambient and separated from the spoken dialogue. As wonderful as this disc may be, Kubrick's mastery of cinema, at least in the case of this film, remains ultimately exclusive to theatrical experience -- which is, I suppose, how it should be.
I include 2001 on my list of Top Ten favorites. My primary reason for this is its ultimate unknowability and openness to interpretation, which I feel separates it from the majority of films and places it among our greatest objects of art. Watching it again, perhaps because of the anniversary circumstances, my attention was particularly riveted to the black monolith, which not only heralds three stages of man's advancement -- from animal to thinking creature, from earthbound man to space explorer, from man to Starchild -- but may also be the catalyst behind these metamorphoses. Kubrick and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth take great care to have these graduational moments coincide, compositionally, with an exact alignment of the monolith with our moon, the sun, and other planets -- a harmonic convergence, to use a phrase that came well after the film's release. I've known people who hate the film because they claim it makes no sense, or because they find it godless, but I've always questioned why art should have to make complete sense in a world that none of us fully understands, and I have always recognized a form of godliness in the film's moments of celestial alignment; a kind of mathematic intelligence whose benign quality is expressed through a pleasing symmetry.
This symmetry doesn't begin and end with the three appearances of the monolith. The film itself is presented as three chapters or segments. The story also encompasses three birthdays, beginning with that of Heywood Floyd's daughter (sorry, Squirt, Daddy's travelling), repeating with the birthday greeting sent by Frank Poole's parents (alienation), and finally with Dave Bowman rebirth as the Starchild (the final shedding of human skin). There's a similar recurrence of references to liquid refreshment: the two warring ape tribes in "The Dawn of Man" are fighting over a watering hole, control of which leads one ape to commit the first murder; then, in the Howard Johnson Earthlight Room aboard the space station, a group of Russian scientists engage Dr. Floyd in polite but pointed conversation about the US government's secrecy concerning a rumored epidemic outbreak on Clavius, a tense dialogue between divided nations once again unfolding over Floyd's refusal to share drinks; and late in the film, Bowman, while dining alone in some kind of alien zoo recreation of 19th century earthly environment, accidentally knocks over a crystal water glass, breaking it. The monolith's appearances also find counterpart in the final scenes of Bowman, who, after travelling through a black hole (or "stargate") above Jupiter, arrives in captivity and spies a future tense of himself, who then replaces his younger self in the present moment... until he catches another glimpse of a future self that, once again, assumes his place to carry the narrative one more leap into the future. He sees as many stages of himself as we see appearances of the monolith, the threads ultimately coming together (aligning) in the moment when the monolith appears at the foot of Bowman's bed like a doorway to the mysteries awaiting us all.
These are just my thoughts of the moment, and I may have different ones the next time I see 2001. There have been times when I've watched it and found it very funny, which wasn't the case last night. (Has anyone else ever watched 2001 and wondered how differently it might have played had HAL 9000 been voiced by Woody Allen?) There have also been times when I've paid very close attention to the elliptic storyline and other times when I've let the experience wash over me like music. It's one of those rare films that grows and changes apace with us as we move through life.
If there is anything about 2001 that I feel should not be open to interpretation, that should be evident to everyone regardless of how well they understand the picture, it's that it was the creation not only of a genius but of something rarer still: a truly colossal artist. I don't think it is an exaggeration to place Kubrick on equal footing with Michelangelo, and the ways in which 2001 has enabled later generations to better interpret the universe and design the ships we sail into it may place him on a par with the likes of Galileo and da Vinci.
And herein lies my big thought about 2001, based on last night's viewing, which is that the film, in its own oblique way, is the black monolith. (On disc, what we see for the first several minutes of overture music is a black screen of comparable proportions.) 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is something that suddenly appeared in theaters back in April 1968, that wasn't immediately a hit (certainly not with critics) but which happened to coincide with searching trends in art and music, science and cinema -- another harmonic convergence -- and gradually attracted a cult of viewers determined to have the experience and have it again from the very first row. (And this first generation of fans was, as it happens, quite hairy.) It inspired many people to become filmmakers, many more to become special effects technicians and model builders, and no doubt many more still to become scientists, physicists, astronauts.
Time has revealed Kubrick's masterpiece to be a kind of celluloid enzyme, a herald of our graduation as a species, the epicenter of a cultural force that changed the very face of our planet. It lives on as a kind of moveable milestone, a touchstone that we can revisit throughout our lives to keep track of how much we have grown or remained the same. If the black monolith represents an inscrutable source prompting quantum leaps in human growth and discovery, I ask you, what film better fills that definition than 2001?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Michael Reeves' First Film

Well, first proper film or first surviving film, take your pick. It's a 16mm thriller short entitled INTRUSION. Made in 1961, when Reeves was only 17 or 18, it's a remake of an earlier (lost) 8mm project called CARRION and features Ian Ogilvy, Reeves himself (acting as "Martin Reade"), Sara Dunlop and some of their friends. Photographed by WITCHFINDER GENERAL cameraman Tom Baker, it runs just under 10 minutes and, until now, it has been just about impossible for Reeves' fans to see. But now, thanks to the generosity of Reeves' biographer Benjamin Halligan (whose excellent book can be found here), you can see INTRUSION here on David Cairns' blog Shadowplay.

Thanks to David for alerting me and for sharing with the rest of us.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


L.A. residents rejoice, everyone else check your frequent flyer miles.

This just in from Joe Dante, who is finally claiming the above title (impressed upon him by movie reviewers for so many years) for an upcoming series of retrospective screenings.** Prepare yourself for at least one "Holy $%#@!" booking:

I'm hosting a series of screenings at the recently renovated NEW BEVERLY CINEMA in Hollywood from April 9 thru 22. (I'm not there every night tho.) Come down and wallow if you're in the neighborhood. Here's the final rundown:

April 9 + 10 MONDO CANE and ZULU

It's hard to imagine today the impact this tawdry but fascinating Italian "shockumentary" had on the world in 1962, when the bizarre customs of people in other lands seemed both exotic and horrifying to Western eyes. Its smash success spawned a whole genre of mostly phony Mondo movies, each outdoing the other for pure sleaze, which lasted into the 80s and paved the way for something much more upsetting: Reality TV.

Cy Enfield's ZULU is simply one of the great historical epics ever--100 stuff-upper-lip British soldiers battle 4000 Zulu warriors in a beautifully staged reenactment of the 1879 Battle of Roarke's Drift. John Barry should have won (but didn't) an Oscar for his brilliant score. The cast, led by producer Stanley Baker, is terrific, but the great Nigel Green steals the show as the consummate side-whiskered, mustached Victorian Sergeant-Major. With Jack Hawkins, James Booth, Patrick Magee and a very young Michael Caine, whose work here got him THE IPCRESS FILE.


We called it "Day For Nothing" when we made it (shot in ten days around footage from 12 other movies on a bet with Roger Corman). One of the last of New World Pictures' popular "three girl" drive-in movies where pretty girls doff their duds and chase around non-permitted LA locations. The late great Candice Rialson plays a version of herself as a naive Indiana girl trying to make it in scuzzy 70s Hollywood. Pulled from 42nd Street after two days, it seems to have survived as a cult movie. It's certainly an accurate record of what it was like to make a New World Picture. Producer Jon Davison, co-director Allan Arkush and co-star Dick Miller are scheduled to appear.

TRUCK TURNER, which came out late in the blaxploitation game, got lost in the Hollywood shuffle but it's as dazzling a piece of action filmmaking as the 70s had to offer. Isaac Hayes is a bounty hunter on the trail of a big-time pimp whose vengeful, bitch-slapping squeeze is played by Star Trek's Nichelle Nichols! Along for the violent ride are Yaphet Kotto, Alan Weeks, Scatman Crothers, Sam Laws and Dick Miller. One of the overlooked gems of the decade.

Director Jonathan Kaplan (HEART LIKE A WHEEL) will introduce the film.


Fairway-International was a tiny company specializing in grade-C drive-in movies like WILD GUITAR and EEGAH! But from such unlikely soil springs a chilling surprise! James Landis' intense 1963 drive-in classic is based on the same true crime story as BADLANDS-- the serial killing exploits of Charles Starkweather and his underage girlfriend. Brutally unfolding in Real Time over 94 taut minutes, mad killer Arch Hall Jr. terrorizes our small cast in a junkyard -- maybe the best-photographed junkyard ever, courtesy of the great Vilmos Zsigmond, who will appear in person on the 15th.

THE PRIVATE FILES OF J EDGAR HOOVER - Tabloid genius Larry Cohen brings his guerilla style Sam Fuller-lite approach to this 1977 ripped-from-the-headlines pop-culture AIP comic book about the near fifty-year reign of America's "top cop", who dug up the dirt on famous personalities through six turbulent administrations. It's gutsy and disreputable and Broderick Crawford 's finest hour. Eat your heart out, Oliver Stone!

Larry Cohen will be on hand to introduce.


This scenic WWII epic, shot in Yugoslavia in 1964, is one of Roger Corman's least-seen yet most accomplished films, with essentially the same plot as THE DIRTY DOZEN -- which wasn't made until three years later! Stewart Granger, Mickey Rooney, Edd Byrnes, Henry Silva and Raf Vallone are felons recruited for a mission to rescue an Italian general from behind enemy lines. Roger used this story idea in his first movie, FIVE GUNS WEST. I haven't seen this since it came out!

TOMB OF LIGEIA was the last of Corman's popular series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, but unlike the others it has many beautiful English countryside exteriors and mostly departs from the stylized stage-bound unreality of its forebears. Robert Towne (CHINATOWN) wrote the script in a more romantic vein, thinking Richard Chamberlain would play the lead--but AIP intervened and sure enough, Vincent Price took over.

Roger Corman will elucidate further in person, schedule permitting.

April 18 + 19 WRONG IS RIGHT and Mystery Movie

When Richard Brooks' star-studded adaptation of Charles McCarry's spy novel The Better Angels came out in 1982 it was roundly dismissed as a confused jumble. From the hindsight of 2008, it looks like the STRANGELOVE of its era. So many aspects of this film have come true, it's up there with NETWORK as a predictor of the future, our sorry present. Sean Connery stars as a globe-trotting tv reporter who's tracking a terrorist dealing nuclear weapons in the mideast. Along the way we meet a President who goes to war to boost his ratings, a (Condi-like) Vice President, CIA and FBI figures who are so broadly caricatured they seemed divorced from reality in 1982-- but who closely resemble figures we now see on the news every day! Suffice it to say the climax involves the World Trade Center. One of the all-star ensemble will join us--John Saxon!

Plus another movie in the same vein TBA with guest.


Piers Haggard's atmospheric and beautifully photographed (Dick Bush) entry in the burn-the-witches genre benefits from a prolonged sense of dread, literate dialog and an unusually convincing period flavor -- sort of a Masterpiece Theater horror film. When hairy patches of "satan's skin" start cropping up on the bodies of nubile 17th century teenagers, local judge Patrick Wymark gets to the bottom of things, starting with voluptuous teen temptress Linda Hayden's. Less well known than the same studio's earlier WITCHFINDER GENERAL, but equally effective, with more emphasis on the supernatural. Great score by Marc Wilkinson.

I love train movies. HORROR EXPRESS was made because the producers had access to the train models from NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA. One of my very favorite vehicles (get it?) for Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, this Spanish-made extravaganza (also known as Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express) has it all -- good characters, lots of wry humor, a mad monk, a mysterious countess, a prehistoric fossilized monster alien, eyeballs in a jar, Telly Savalas as a bellicose Cossack (it's 1906) and a surprisingly complex science fiction plot. And I left out the zombies! Seriously, this one of my top favorites of all time.


This the first, one nite only public showing in many years of my first project. In 1968 when "camp" was king, Jon Davison and I put together a counterculture compendium of 16mm bits and pieces (tv show openings, commercials, parts of features, old serials etc.), physically spliced them in ironic juxtapositions and ran the result at the Philadelphia College of Art interspersed with parts of a Bela Lugosi serial. The reaction was phenomenal. This led to THE MOVIE ORGY, a 7-hour marathon of old movie clips and stuff with a crowd-pleasing anti-war, anti-military, anti-establishment slant that played the Fillmore East and on college campuses all over the country for years -- always the one print, viewed through a haze of beer and controlled substances. We called it a 2001-splice odyssey. We kept adding and subtracting material over time so this, alas, is not the original version-- it's the later cutdown, running a mere 4 hours and 19 minutes! But it's still a pop time capsule that will bring many a nostalgic chuckle from baby boomers and dazed expressions of WTF?! from anyone else.

Admission to THE MOVIE ORGY is FREE, so buy plenty of concession stand items!

** Actually, "Dante's Inferno" was the title of Joe's first published article, which appeared in FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND #18. But he's never used it on a movie. Not that this is a movie, of course, it's a film festival, but... oh, never mind.


A reader wrote to me this afternoon with some concern about the state of my forthcoming VIDEODROME book from Millipede Press. He was notified today by Amazon.com that his advance order of the book was being cancelled because they "found that it is not available from any of our sources at this time." He added, "I hope everything's OK with its publication and that it's delayed rather than cancelled."

That's exactly the case. The preparation of the book has proven more time-intensive than expected, which has caused it to miss one or two seasonal deadlines. At present, the text has been proofread, the footnotes have been placed, and we are now waiting for the last of the photos to be scanned and dropped into the layout for captioning. I'm personally very excited about the way it's taking shape.
Publisher Jerad Walters expects the VIDEODROME book to be available in June, and both he and I apologize for its unavoidable postponement.