Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Goodbye 2014

2014: a year of extremes.

Death loomed large and came as near as it dared, at least this time around, taking admired colleagues like Something Weird's Mike Vraney, my uncle Jimmy, our little girl Snooper, and two particularly wonderful friends I already dearly miss, Michael Lennick and Mark Miller. For all that, it still could have been worse: another of my friends made a fortunately unsuccessful suicide attempt this year. This is a different sort of death, but I unfriended someone on Facebook just the other day, someone I've cared about, someone whose life I once helped to save, because he crossed a line in his self-destructive behavior that I could no longer endorse with my continued attention and implicit support. Life is just too precious now to see it wasted and ridiculed. Additionally, several friends of mine lost their parents this year, my close friend Steve Bissette losing both his mother and father within a one-month period. And then there were all the deaths of people who have been inspirational to me and you and others like us, in some cases for the whole of our lives; I remember at some point feeling that we were losing more than I thought were left after all the losses we suffered last year. The wisdom that comes down to us from all this loss should be clear: life is precious and we must make the most of it.

Donna and I published only two issues of VIDEO WATCHDOG this year, making this a bad year for personal income. Some outlets that owe us money started spreading the rumor among our readers that we'd closed up shop, perhaps so they wouldn't feel badly about not paying their bills when we might need the money most. There was also the agony of creating the VIDEO WATCHDOG Digital Archive - a task in which I and others participated, but in a small way compared with Donna, whose masterpiece it is - and this is where we begin to see and appreciate the other side of 2014. The VW Digital Archive is our second Everest, after the Bava book. It is an immense achievement that, we well know, not everybody is going to be able to appreciate right away because it's too ahead of the curve. That said, we've received some marvelous emails and accolades that Donna will be posting as part of her Digital Dog blog.

Though I was deprived for much of this year of my primary platform as a VW critic, this year was not without its professional accomplishments. The major one was the ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET box set from the BFI, to which I contributed five audio commentaries. I also contributed an essay to Arrow Films' THE HOUSE OF USHER and a commentary to their PIT AND THE PENDULUM, marking my advent into representing the work of two of my principal heroes: Roger Corman and Vincent Price. I also paid homage to Vincent with a commentary for Arrow's DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN and recorded an audio commentary for one of my favorite films, Georges Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE, which will be released in March 2015 by the BFI. In addition to some reissued Mario Bava commentaries I did - THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, RABID DOGS - I recorded my first Bava commentary re-recording/update for THE WHIP AND THE BODY (forthcoming from Odeon Entertainment in the UK) and a brand-new commentary for the Kino/Scorpion Blu-ray of PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES. Furthermore, I got to co-produce a video interview with actress Edith Scob for the EYES WITHOUT A FACE set, and I'm credited as an Associate Producer of Elijah Drenner's documentary THAT GUY DICK MILLER. I might even be forgetting a thing or two.

Indeed I did: 56 Video WatchBlog postings! Not quite as many as in 2013 (62 postings), but it makes this blog anything but moribund.

All in all, not bad for a guy in Ohio who barely left his house.

Other highlights of the year: Finally finishing my long in-the-works novel THE ONLY CRIMINAL. Receiving a handwritten letter from Steve Ditko. Spending my birthday weekend with friends at Wonderfest, where my beautiful friend Danya made me all emotional by reading aloud to our group of friends a poem she'd written about me and our friendship. My mother-in-law's miraculous recovery from a briefly fatal heart attack. Getting Larry Blamire to become a guest columnist for VIDEO WATCHDOG. Donna's and my 40th wedding anniversary on December 23.

Next year promises still more good things.

To anyone and everyone who continues to keep tabs on this old blog and its new tricks - you have my abiding appreciation and thanks. Here's to a happy, healthy and productive 2015 for us all!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Response to the VW Digital Archive

Merry Christmas!

For those of you who don't know, the VIDEO WATCHDOG Digital Archive - all 176 issues - was published the other day. Subscribers via our Indiegogo campaign should have received emails informing them of how to access and download their issues. If you haven't, please write to Donna at and she will put things right. We hope to have it available for everyone by the beginning of next week; we're having some shopping cart issues that need to be resolved before then. In the meantime, anyone can visit our Digital Library (see the left hand side of our website page) and preview the first five pages of all those issues for free, to assist you with deciding which back issues you might want to acquire if you can't go for the whole enchilada.

Last year, we told you the story of the Christmas miracle that enabled all of this to happen. This Christmas Day, let me share with you a wonderful email that Donna and I received only yesterday from a long-time reader in Switzerland, just in time to sweeten our holiday and make all of our efforts of this past year seem all the more worthwhile. It is reprinted with the sender's kind permission:

Hi Donna and Tim,

First off, let me wish you both the very best of Holidays. I hope you’re taking some time off, you deserve it after the wonderful job you’ve accomplished with the Digital Edition of VW.

Ever since issue # 175 came out in the format, I’ve wanted to let you know how much I love love LOVE these digital versions, how insanely pleasurable they are to read all over again and how generous to your readers you’ve been with them.

And I happen to think their importance goes a lot deeper than what all the superlatives could hope to express. I think that, with them, you’re teaching us all a lesson about the permanence of cinema, of the love of it and of the pleasures found in writing and reading about it

I’ve been returning to a lot of the first issues (I of course own the printed editions but I hardly go back to them, they’ve been sort of locked in their own time, thought of almost as obsolete as the formats described and critiqued therein) and what you’ve done with the Digital is to make them all relevant all over again. In other words, you’ve managed to overcome the curse of obsolescence. Otherwise why would it be so much fun to read, in late 2014, a twenty + year old piece about “The Exorcist” or “Twin Peaks. Fire Walk With me”… Because it’s never been about the formats - formats come and go -, neither is it about the painstaking listings of deleted scenes - we’ve seen them all by now – nor has it ever been only about the quality of a given transfer.

All of these, much as the world they exist in are always changing, adapting to the evolving requirements of the marketplace, but the absolute love of movies, the passion - yours… ours… mine… - for the art itself, which runs throughout all of these pages, has remained a constant. They’ve run in parallel for close to twenty-five years and my personal relationship to the medium, my own passion for the form I’ve now made my profession to convey to the next generation, has been influenced by VW in so many ways that they’ve become impossible to dissociate.

But it is naturally not (only) about me and my relationship to VW. What you’ve done for the home video market during these 25 years is simply astounding. I don’t think we’d be in this place today at all had VW had not been around, guiding the producers, setting the standards. Just thinking of some of the household names: Kim Newman, David Kalat, Mark Kermode, the fondly remembered Michael Lennick and Tim himself have all become ubiquitous in the industry and all of them for the very best of reasons.

This may sound silly, but thank you for reminding us, through these digital pages and the hours of fascinated and educated fun they will bring us all, of the importance of Video Watchdog in our lives.

A Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year to the two of you…

Didier Gertsch
Les Ateliers du Cinéma
Aubonne, Switzerland

Friday, December 19, 2014

Giorgio Ardisson (1931 - 2014)

It saddens me to report, so soon after the passing of Mary Dawne Arden, the death of another prominent player in the films of Mario Bava. The Facebook fan page Peplum Eternity is reporting that Italian actor Giorgio Ardisson - the handsome young actor best remembered for his roles in Bava's HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (Ercole al centro della terra, 1961) and ERIK THE CONQUEROR (Gli invasori, 1961) - died on December 11, at the age of 82. Before either of these films, he had been featured in two other films in which Mario Bava played a behind-the-scenes part: Andre de Toth's MORGAN THE PIRATE (Morgan il pirato, 1960) and Giacomo Gentilomo's LAST OF THE VIKINGS (L'ultimo dei vichinghi, 1961).

Among his many other screen credits were roles in KATARSIS with Christopher Lee, Antonio Margheriti's THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH with Barbara Steele (recently released on Blu-ray by Raro Video), Albert Band's HERCULES AND THE PRINCESS OF TROY and Federico Fellini's JULIET OF THE SPIRITS. He also played Sartana in Pasquale Squitieri's DJANGO DEFIES SARTANA, opposite THE WHIP AND THE BODY'S Tony Kendall.

Owing to some unfortunate misinformation passed on to me, MARIO BAVA - ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK mistakenly reported an earlier death date for Ardissson, a detail I have always regretted.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


There they are, the twenty-four issues that redefined what genre film journalism and criticism could and should be. The first eleven issues were digest-sized, printed on pulp paper, and as thick as paperback books; the remaining numbers were full-sized magazines printed on firm, non-glossy stock. It lasted only nine years, but MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE existed to celebrate the dark beauty of the horror and fantasy genres, to draw attention to experimental and independent cinema, the literature that provoked such images, their fetishism, their eroticism. It was not a monster magazine rife with jokes and clubhouse fun; it was a magazine for adults, for connoisseurs. It celebrated mystery, surrealism, the bizarre, the brazen beauty of the strange. Their eighth issue, in fact, became a cause de scandale - a celebration of "Eroticism and Fear in the British Cinema" that featured a portfolio of never-before-published nude images from the so-called "continental versions" of various British horror films, which led to the issue being banned by many newsstands. They presented the first in-depth print interviews with the likes of Terence Fisher, Jacques Tourneur, Roger Corman and Barbara Steele, enabling their readership to cross the proscenium of the entertained to see the film business as a reality that they too might enter and change - as one of their readers, Jean Rollin, did, in time to see his work on the cover of their penultimate issue.

MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE - named for the Midi-Minuit cinema in Paris where films of this sort habitually played - inspired many people outside of France, including people who couldn't speak a word of French, because the magazine was, above all, beautiful. Its carefully selected images were enough to propose a different understanding of its subject. I know for a fact that M-MF (along with Tom Reamy's TRUMPET) inspired Frederick S. Clarke to create CINEFANTASTIQUE, and it certainly inspired me to create VIDEO WATCHDOG. The VCR was my Midi-Minuit cinema.

Early this morning, reports began appearing on my Facebook news feed announcing the passing on Monday evening (December 15) of Michel Caen, the creator and editor-in-chief of this life-changing publication. I don't know his age and know nothing of the cause. He and I never met, we never exchanged words, but I hope my work shows his influence. Earlier this year, Rouge Profonde published the first of four projected hardcover volumes that will collect, reprint, update and append the contents of all 24 issues: MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE: L'INTEGRALE.

My sincere sympathies to M. Caen's wife Geneviève, his family, his friends and collaborators like his M-MF co-editor Jean-Claude Romer, and those who - like me - have shared in his stardust.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Mary Dawne Arden (1933 - 2014)

Best remembered as Peggy, one of the loveliest of the "sei donne" in Mario Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE [Sei donne per l'assassino, 1964], actress, model and entrepreneur Mary Dawne Arden passed away Saturday, December 13, in a Brooklyn, New York hospital at the age of 79. She was one of the many people I interviewed for MARIO BAVA - ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, and one of those with whom I became and remained friends.  

Mary Dawne (she insisted on never being addressed as simply Mary) was the daughter of a single mother, born in St. Louis during the the years of the Great Depression, and had to face adult responsibility early on in life. This forged her character as a hard worker, entrepreneur and self promoter. Though I liked - and, more to the point, respected - her immensely, she was one of those people who didn't seem able to ever fully relax or have a good laugh, though she was always friendly and good natured. She told me that she had never acted for money ( a good thing too, she philosophized, because she sometimes got stiffed on those Italian films come pay day), but to promote herself - quite an unusual and avant garde attitude for an actress, but Mary Dawne was, above all, a businesswoman. 

She likewise saw her successful career as a fashion model as a means of "branding herself," to use today's parlance - and she did seem proud of her accomplishments in that realm, which were indeed stunning, as she was of the fact that Federico Fellini had cast her in a role as a television hostess meant to be recurring in his JULIET OF THE SPIRITS, but which was cut from the final assembly. She asked me to keep on the lookout for other films in which she appeared and, over the years, I was able to get copies of the B&W giallo A... come Assassino (1966) and the fumetti adaptation KRIMINAL (1966) into her hands. When I asked what she thought of the films, she would dodge that uncomfortable issue by saying "Kind of a cute kid, wasn't I?" Indeed she was, a classic Grace Kelly type, and her modelling portfolio was truly stunning. But looking at those photos, at those VOGUE covers, I can always see the practical side of Mary Dawne, the good soldier and the good egg. I imagine that, as a young woman in the full bloom of her beauty, she must have been very like Peggy, who, finding herself the object of a co-worker's infatuation with her, sits him down, assures him of her friendship, and patiently copes with the problem till she can make the nutter see plain sense. 

It was during the period when we were most closely in touch that VCI announced their plan to release BLOOD AND BLACK LACE on DVD. I was hired to record an audio commentary and arranged for Mary Dawne to film a video introduction for the movie, which she was very happy to do. When I later told her that I had enjoyed the zany energy of her introduction, it seemed to confuse her, to make her worry and feel self-conscious, which was not at all my intention. She exuded such confidence that I was surprised to find a sensitivity there, not often tapped but still very present; it was one of the things about her that I found touching, which got to me. In short, I liked her tremendously - she was strong and loyal and, above all, dependable - which I remember telling her were characteristics I prized especially, since I see and value them in my wife.

When the Bava book finally came out, Mary Dawne was quite effusive about it and the lovely pictures I found of her, some of which she had never seen. As a thank-you, Donna and I presented her with a print of the color shot that opens the BLOOD AND BLACK LACE chapter, which she told me she planned to frame and hang near the entryway of her apartment. As this news reached me via a Facebook friend sharing her NEW YORK TIMES obituary this morning, Mary Dawne and I fallen out of touch for some time. I'm both sorry to know that she's gone and grateful to know that this dear and driven woman is finally at rest.

Here is a link to her NEW YORK TIMES obituary.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

DR. KILDARE, Season One - My Diagnosis

I recently finished watching the first season of DR. KILDARE (1961-62) on Warner Archive Instant, the first time I'd been able to view the show since my vague memories from childhood - therefore, for the first time with real adult understanding. This show is very much the medical counterpart to its fellow NBC series MR. NOVAK, which was about teaching; both shows are supremely humanistic and address themselves, in a similarly down-to-earth but aspiring way, to the nobility of their respective professions - something sorely lacking from programming today.

Of course, neither show would work if the lessons learned by their protagonists were limited to their respective professions, and so serve as Trojan horses to learned instruction about how people might better interact with others in a variety of emotionally fraught, everyday circumstances. This being very much what German novelists liked to call a bildrungsroman - a story of education, a character's journey from callow youth to experienced adulthood - the central character of Dr. James Kildare (Richard Chamberlain) learns a bit more in each episode of what he needs to know to become not only a complete doctor (as exemplified by Blair Hospital's chief of staff Dr. Leonard Gillespie, played with eloquence and authority by Raymond Massey) but a more fully rounded human being. I remember a time when Chamberlain was taken less than seriously by the critical establishment owing to his good looks and his side career as a teen idol crooner; he spent years distancing himself from the memory of this show, doing fine work in Ken Russell's THE MUSIC LOVERS and Richard Lester's MUSKETEERS films, among many other productions, but DR. KILDARE is really nothing to be ashamed of. It would not work so well as it does unless he was on his toes as an actor every step of the way. This is his journey and Chamberlain's evolving, deepening character makes us want to accompany him on it.

What stands out to me from this first season are two episodes directed by the season's MVP, Boris Sagal (THE OMEGA MAN): "Immunity", in which a female doctor (Gail Kobe) who fled to her profession to escape her impoverished Polish roots is forced back to them to prevent an epidemic threatening her old neighborhood (this epic colorfully inserts a Polish wedding into the midst of an emergency immunization procedure), and "My Brother, the Doctor" in which far-down-the-totem-pole supporting player Eddie Ryder (as Dr. Simon Agurski) gives an outstanding performance in a story examining his strained relationship with an older brother who is supporting his residency at the cost of his own dreams. (Like "Immunity" with its Polish community background, "My Brother, the Doctor" uses its story to familiarize a broader viewing audience with Jewish holiday traditions.) But the season's highlight is a performance by Dean Jagger in the Paul Wendkos-directed "A Distant Thunder" as a retired Lt. General suffering a nervous breakdown caused by unresolved guilt over leading hundreds of thousands of young men to their doom. I think it might very well be the finest work I've ever seen from this brittle, eccentric but sometimes moving actor.

My earlier awareness of this show was frankly occluded by all the noise made back in the day about Chamberlain wanting in the end to distance himself from the Kildare image, and the fact that the series was spun off into a lot of tacky merchandise, ranging from comic books for girls to toy stethoscopes. Fortunately I was drawn back to DR. KILDARE by its availability through Warner Archive, and also by the rich range of talent who made guest appearances. The first season alone encompasses the likes of William Shatner, Anne Francis, Charles Bickford, Suzanne Pleshette, Dan O'Herlihy (in two episodes!), Edward Andrews, Beverly Garland, Cathleen Nesbitt, Charles Bickford, Dina Merrill, Dick Foran, Edward Platt, Gloria Talbott, Hershel Bernardi, future BEWITCHED husbands Dick York and Dick Sargent, and the ubiquitous Billy Mumy.

In short, classic television well worth revisiting.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

With The Lub: Michael Lennick (1952-2014)

One of my dearest friends, Michael Lennick - writer, director, producer, cameraman, editor, visual effects designer and mensch (a word he taught me) - has sadly left us away at the age of 61.

Donna and I first met him on the set of VIDEODROME (for which he was the video effects supervisor) in December 1981. Of all the people I met there, Mikey was the one I bonded with most closely and lastingly. When I returned to Toronto the following March, we celebrated the end of the shoot with an all-night summit in his living room, at which time he introduced me to the pleasures of home video, obviously a major eureka in my life. 

He also presided over others. It was Michael who introduced me to sushi, which has been my favorite thing to eat since that fateful day in 1983. In the first year of the new century, he produced my first two DVD audio commentaries - and he was astounded when I told him that I'd now done more than thirty. He was also a favorite VIDEO WATCHDOG contributor, whose ten pieces for us include feature articles on STAR WARS, STARSHIP TROOPERS and his hero Stanley Kubrick, as well as a recent review of John C. Fredericksen's 1950s series MEN INTO SPACE that presently awaits publication. He gave me a place to crash whenever I was in town, and took me to shop at Sam the Record Man's and Memory Lane Books, both of which are now history. We read and critiqued each others' unpublished and unproduced work. I introduced Michael, a milk drinker, to the pleasures of Chivas Regal scotch and cigars, and we braved one early morning set call on THE DEAD ZONE after only three hours' sleep; it was the day they filmed Christopher Walken in the burning room - it's a miracle that we, in our dark glasses, didn't spontaneously combust. He would show me scenes of films we both loved - including Mario Bava films - and help me to deconstruct the special effects shots, some of the most important lessons in filmmaking I ever had. During my last visit north of the border, we shared the experience of synching up the Stargate sequence of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY to Pink Floyd's "Echoes." It worked remarkably well. Michael also filmed a wonderful testimonial for our Indiegogo campaign for VIDEO WATCHDOG's Digital Archive; he was delighted by the demonstration he saw and was looking forward to seeing the technology applied to his own articles.

Michael as I first knew him, with his VIDEODROME team, Lee Wilson and Rob Meckler.

As you can imagine, I loved Mikey as much as I've ever loved any man. He called me Timmy, and I let him. He signed most of his letters to me with the warm salutation "with the lub," so I know it was mutual. Thus the news came hard when we found out, a few weeks ago, that he had suffered a collapse and been hospitalized, where he was being kept comatose as tests were being made. Over the weekend, the news finally came that he had succumbed to a virulent form of brain cancer last Friday, November 7th. Michael, my brother from another mother, whom I met on the set of a now-classic movie about a video signal that causes brain tumors.

I know what he accomplished, and though he would argue it was not enough, his career was a triumph that he largely managed on his own terms. He produced work that was loved: his early cult hit THE ALL-NIGHT SHOW; his special effects work for the teleseries WAR OF THE WORLDS (where he got to recreate the Martian war cruisers of George Pal's classic film); the documentary DR. TELLER'S VERY LARGE BOMB, which featured the last interview granted by Edward Teller; the acclaimed documentary series ROCKET SCIENCE and THE SCIENCE IN FICTION, with their access to pretty much anybody who was anybody in the space program; the top-shelf film documentaries THE NEW MAGICIANS and 2001 AND BEYOND; and so many other projects that enabled Michael to meet and befriend his heroes in the space program and the annals of classic science fiction. Children of the 1980s also loved him as the voice of Boneapart, the skeletal sage of OWL TV.

Michael's classic character performance: OWL TV's Boneapart.
Michael spent much of this past year reconnecting with and interviewing people he had known from the Cronenberg days (including the recently departed Gary Zeller) for "The SCANNERS Way,"  the documentary he contributed to Criterion's recent SCANNERS Blu-Ray release, and conducting preparatory interviews and research for a projected documentary called THE CHILDREN OF PEARL HARBOR, which brought him back into the orbit of his old friend, artist Shary Flenniken - so his last year was ultimately one of closure. In our last telephone conversation, a couple of months ago, he told me that things were looking good for a projected series based on the short stories of Harlan Ellison, another of his idols who became a good personal friend.

My heart goes out to Michael's siblings David and Julie and to everyone who loved him - especially his beloved partner Shirley, the love of his life. I was staying with him when they had their first date and I remember how excited he was as he was getting dressed to go out. Our last communications were on Facebook and about grief, concerning the untimely passings of Michael's friends and colleagues Reiner Schwarz and Linda Griffiths. Linda also died at 61 years of age. Too young, we agreed.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

This Week's Film Notes - From My Facebook Page

Wow. DARK SHADOWS episode 1198. The last episode for so many characters, including - or so the DS Wiki tells me - Barnabas, Julia, Angelique, Elizabeth and so many others, though the repertory players will remain to carry on into a new, dissociated storyline. But, unexpectedly, this is really where the show ends as we always knew it. A somewhat sloppy execution, as always, a bit too hurried, but it works - except I wasn't expecting to say goodbye to so many old friends today. Excuse me, I seem to have something in my eye.

In an effort to feel more Halloweenish, I decided to watch THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1971) after dinner. I think I've only seen it once or twice since its theatrical release, once on television and again as a bootleg VHS. It's odd how time can change some things; I don't remember so much of the film being lamely funny - on the contrary, I remember it being fairly tense and scary, on the first pass anyway. Now I can see that the film was heavily influenced by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, DARK SHADOWS (it's an early case of the vampire in love, not at all credible here) and, strangely enough, KILL, BABY... KILL! with a ball-carrying, homicidal little boy in the thrall of the undead and a few shock zooms into the faces of antique dolls. A few effective, suspenseful scenes, with an especially well-handled first act with lore concerning the Santa Ana winds, and a bevy of rotten-faced, lumbering vampire brides who are much closer to the zombies of DAWN OF THE DEAD than anything traditionally blood-sucking, but then it begins to shoot itself repeatedly in the foot with too much self-conscious, jokey dialogue. So I'm afraid it hasn't aged for me as well as I'd hoped. One strange thing, though, concerning a tongue-in-cheek moment that shows Yorga (Robert Quarry) absorbed in a late night TV showing of THE VAMPIRE LOVERS. I remember the televised clip being shown in B&W (I even seem to remember one critic pointing out this anachronism), but it's in color in the HD version being shown on Netflix - and looking far sharper than it should on Yorga's dinky portable 1970s set.

Watched Herzog's NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (1979), which I appreciated more in this viewing than ever before, though I still find the ending the work of a genre amateur. Kinski and particularly Adjani are magnificent. Then I finished off the evening by enjoying my PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES commentary - the first time I've actually seen the film in 1080p. I can endorse this disc whole-heartedly.

Enjoyed BEWARE OF MR. BAKER (2013) and think it's probably as fine a documentary on the subject as it could possibly be, so I'm a trifle infuriated that the filmmaker Jay Bulger opens by laying his ignorance of Ginger Baker on the table and 'fessing up to the fact that he misrepresented himself to his subject initially as a writer for ROLLING STONE - and then did sell his interview to ROLLING STONE. I'm a man of peace but I want to punch the little $#@!#% too.

Today I felt it was time to revisit Vincent Price's swan song at AIP, MADHOUSE (1974), which is on Netflix. With Jim Nicholson gone, Sam Arkoff returned to partnership with Amicus to complete Vincent's contract. I suspect that the recently late Michel Parry, who was then working for AIP's London office, must have had something to do with nominating Angus Hall's novel DEVILDAY for filming; Hall was one of Mike's Hammer novelizing colleagues, having written the paperback SCARS OF DRACULA. The movie has a stale look about it and it would have benefited from a tighter edit (get rid of the blackmailing parents of the first victim), but it is well-written with some believably catty movie biz dialogue and the film as a whole does serve as a gracious thank-you to Vincent for his rewarding years of service to AIP. The performances have their ups and downs, but on the whole, I'm starting to like it. If this film were better-known, I think Adrienne Corri's Faye, the spider-loving madwoman, might be a popular Halloween dress-up option today. All this, plus Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry (who attends a costume party as Count Yorga!), and Vincent sings! It was obvious that some gore opportunities were trimmed to appease the MPAA - the sword-stabbing of the blackmailers, for example. Also, I suspect the discovery of the blonde assistant's body was refilmed, because there's very little blood on her when she's found, then her blouse is drenched in it as Price is carrying her downstairs! But what I can't understand for the life of me is why - after actress gave a remarkably steady performance as her own corpse - director Jim Clark would insert shots of a blatantly waxen stand-in literally melting during the ensuing inferno! It completely destroys the verisimilitude of the climax!

Saturday, November 01, 2014

RIP Michel Parry (1947-2014)

A sad and much too early farewell to Michel Parry, the devoted Belgian celebrant of le fantastique who has now succumbed to cancer at the age of 67.

Mike was an irreplaceable source of knowledge and talent, perhaps undervalued because he was such a brilliant jack of all trades. I first knew of him as a journalist for CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN magazine; when he first wrote to me about a VIDEO WATCHDOG matter, I seized the opportunity to thank him for his short article about Fantômas and Judex in CoF #9, which introduced me to what has become one of my life's great obsessions. He also conducted CoF's multi-issue interview with Christopher Lee, the first in-depth interview I can recall a horror star every granting. Over the course of the following decade, Mike helped Christopher to collect stories befitting a trio of wonderful anthologies, CHRISTOPHER LEE'S "X" CERTIFICATE and two volumes of CHRISTOPHER LEE'S ARCHIVES OF EVIL. 

Although he wrote and published at least a couple of novels (one a novelization of Hammer's COUNTESS DRACULA), it was as one of the genre's leading story anthologists that Mike ultimately found his career niche. Among his collections: five volumes of REIGN OF TERROR (Corgi's Victorian horror story anthologies), THE DEVIL'S CHILDREN, BEWARE OF THE CAT, STRANGE ECSTASIES, SPACED OUT, WAVES OF TERROR: WEIRD STORIES ABOUT THE SEA, THE SUPERNATURAL SOLUTION, THE RIVALS OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE RIVALS OF DRACULA: A CENTURY OF VAMPIRE FICTION, THE RIVALS OF KING KONG, JACK THE KNIFE: TALES OF JACK THE RIPPER and, last but not least, six volumes in the MAYFLOWER BOOK OF BLACK MAGIC STORIES series. 

He also took an occasional active part in horror cinema, writing and directing his only short film "Hex" in 1969 and writing the screenplay for THE UNCANNY (1977) starring Peter Cushing, Ray Milland and Donald Pleasence (an anthology of scary cat stories that likely drew upon his 1972 anthology BEWARE OF THE CAT), the original treatment for the sf-horror film XTRO (1983) and a teleplay for MONSTERS called "Rouse Him Not," based on a story by Manly Wade Wellman, starring Alex Cord and Laraine Newman.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Translating Arsene Lupin: An Interview with Josephine Gill

As a collector of French pulp fiction of the early 20th century - by which I mean the novels of Gaston Leroux, the adventures of Fantomas by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, the exploits of Judex and Belphagor and Chantecoq by Arthur Bernede and more - I am proud to have amassed most of Maurice Leblanc's novels and stories about the gentleman thief Arsene Lupin that were translated for the English market. Of all the novels in this sphere that I have read, Leblanc's are generally the wittiest - but collecting his work in English is not without challenges.

For one thing, the later translations can be devlishly hard to find and tend to be costly; for another, the early books exist in a number of different translations - the first Lupin book, Arsene Lupin - Gentleman Cambrioleur (1907), appeared under different imprints - and in different translations! - as ARSENE LUPIN - THE GENTLEMAN THIEF, THE BLONDE LADY, THE CASE OF THE GOLDEN BLONDE and THE ARREST OF ARSENE LUPIN. Although Leblanc concluded his book with the first of several meetings between the wily Lupin and Arthur Conan Doyle's detective Sherlock Holmes, some English publishers were wary of trading on that character's name, so he was introduced as Hemlock Shears. Then, when the second book Arsene Lupin contre Sherlock Holmes was translated, the book's title was twisted yet again in English to become ARSENE LUPIN VS. HERLOCK SHOLMES. Further down the line of Leblanc's 21 volumes of Lupin adventures, two very different novels appeared in English under the same title, THE RETURN OF ARSENE LUPIN! 

For these and other reasons, English-speaking connoisseurs of these adventures have long pined for some reliable consistency to be applied to these translations. Jean-Marc Lofficier of Black Coat Press has done some work in this area, recently publishing a volume entitled COUNTESS CAGLIOSTRO, which includes THE COUNTESS CAGLIOSTRO (previously translated as THE MEMOIRS OF ARSENE LUPIN in 1924) and the never-before-translated sequel COUNTESS CAGLIOSTRO'S REVENGE of 1935, but his approach has been highly selective and non-chronological. So you can imagine my joy when I recently discovered that someone by the name of Josephine Gill had apparently undertaken to translate the entire Lupin series in chronological order, as Kindle books, which are being sold through Amazon for the wonderfully reasonable price of only $3.00 apiece!

To date, there are a dozen of Ms. Gill's translations available, from the first through the first volume of a two-parter, THE TEETH OF THE TIGER (1921). Aside from the natural continuity that comes from sharing a constant translator, the best news about the series is that it has already yielded one entire novel not previously translated into English - 1931's La Barre-y-va (translated as ARSENE LUPIN AND THE LA BARRE-Y-VA MYSTERY). Thus, even the most seasoned and thorough collectors of Lupin in translation will find something unique and special at this bargain price.

I bought and downloaded all of the Gill translations that were available and was very pleased with how their texts compared to the sometimes century-old translations of the novels I already had. Ms. Gill translates the books into more contemporary language, which takes away some of the antique charm of these novels and stories - but not their charm, an important distinction. Furthermore, Ms. Gill's enhancement of their readability extends to filling in passages and sometimes presenting for the first time entire chapters that the earlier translations by Alexander Teixeira do Mattos omitted for the sake of expediency.

The more I looked into the Josephine Gill translations, the more impressed and curious I became about the industrious woman behind them. With the help of my friend David White, I was able to locate her website and invite her to be interviewed here for my blog. She graciously consented to reply to a set of questions, and the results appear below.

Translator Josephine Gill, photographed at the Saint Valery sur Somme in 2007.
First of all, please tell us a bit about yourself and your background. 

I first saw the light of day just before the onset of WW2, in an industrial town near Birmingham where my formative years were spent. I then moved away to Leicester University to study for a degree in modern languages. The course involved teaching English conversation in a French lycée for a year and it was during this time in Blois, Loir-et-Cher that I met my future husband, who was involved in a similar activity. We married and embarked on teaching careers, but unfortunately mine was curtailed when rheumatoid arthritis was diagnosed after the birth of my first child. However, two more babies came along later and now there are six grandchildren to add to the family tree! For almost 50 years, we have been living in a small Essex village about 60 miles NNE of London.

Your translations are very well written. Had you done any writing of your own prior to this?

You say my translations are well written. That could be because I follow really closely what the author Maurice Leblanc has written. He deserves all the praise, not me! I have not done any writing myself to speak of – a letter to the press now and then!

What led you to the Lupin books in the first place? Did you begin at the beginning?

Arsène Lupin was just a name to me until... one Tuesday afternoon in July 2000. We were on holiday in Fécamp, a port on the Normandy coast with an important history of cod fishing in the Northern Atlantic. We were hoping to join a guided tour of the former cod salting factory but, as wheelchair access was impossible, I waited in the car on the quayside reading a book I had just bought - Arsène Lupin Gentleman Cambrioleur! I couldn’t put the book down. I was hooked there and then and my fascination increased as I read more adventures.

At what point did you commit yourself to translating the series?

I wondered why Arsène Lupin was not so popular in Britain as he once was, especially as the British are such great fans of other crime fiction characters like Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and Poirot etc. Having seen one of Alexander Teixeira de Mattos’ translations - in which the English is somewhat old fashioned - it occurred to me that more up-to-date versions were needed which might renew some interest.

I assume, before you did commit to translating the series, that you looked into the state of the existing translations of these works. How much did you investigate the original translations and in what way did you find them lacking?

Not only are some of de Mattos’ expressions outmoded, but I have discovered that he occasionally takes liberties with the text. Books by Maurice Leblanc are few and far between on the shelves of bookshops in the UK.  I found eBay to be my best source of finding them.

Ha! Then you and I may have been bidding on some of the same titles at some point! What was it about Maurice Leblanc's writing that spoke to you? If someone were to ask you why they should care about these books - some of which were written more than a century ago - what would you say?

Maurice Leblanc is a brilliant story teller. I enjoy the coups de théâtre, the humour, the suspense, the mystery, the variety of characters and situations, the romances, the ingenuity of the plots, the games with the police, the occasional horror, and even the ventures into fantasy! The passage of time does not alter the appeal of his books.

Some of the Lupin novels - such as THE HOLLOW NEEDLE - involve actual geographic locations. Does this complicate your task as a translator, or do you stick strictly to the original text?

The fact that so many locations are actual places is a great attraction to readers who enjoy literary trails. THE HOLLOW NEEDLE has made Etretat a huge tourist centre. French author Patrick Gueulle has written a book, Carnet de Route d’Arsène Lupin - available on Kindle - which covers all sites of interest and includes directions on how to find them, opening times and other bits of information.

At the moment you are translating the second volume of THE TEETH OF THE TIGER. Are there any Lupin books you have still not read?

I believe I have read all of the Lupin novels.

Do you have a personal favorite?

My personal favorite is ARSENE LUPIN ENCOUNTERS SHERLOCK HOLMES. It is perhaps the most amusing because of the interaction between Holmes and his hapless assistant Watson, quite apart from the constant games the two protagonists play as they attempt to outwit one another.

When did you first set out on this project?
Circa 2000. I bought a laptop computer specifically for the purpose.

What is your process as a translator? Which editions are you translating from? Once you have a first draft, how extensively do you polish? How long does it generally take for you to complete a translation?

I translate from the ‘Livres de Poche’ editions. After my first draft, I go through the whole thing carefully and then again using the Word Review programme. A translation can take up to a year to finish depending on the length of the book and on my state of health.

Are there any particular challenges in adapting Maurice Leblanc's work to the English language?

I find translating the expletives the most difficult part - 'saperlipopette’ ["Goodness gracious!" or "Gadzooks!"], for example - not being used to using them myself! They need alternatives, but I don’t feel I can use the F-word! 

Do you in fact intend to translate all of the Lupin books?

I will continue translating as long as I am able. I hope I can do more.

Did you make any attempt to find a publisher that might be interested in issuing your translations in print form?
It takes energy and stamina, which I lack, to find an agent or a publisher - sending off chapters and receiving rejection slips. After ages, becoming increasingly dispirited in the UK, I thought I would try Wildside. Imagine my delight when John Betancourt offered me a contract after reading the first  three chapters of my translation of Arsene Lupin contre Herlock Sholmes! However, little happened after that. In the meantime, Mme Florence B. Leblanc [the granddaughter of Maurice Leblanc] had put me on to an Italian agency who were also doing their best unsuccessfully for me. I kept asking John Betancourt what was going on and he would reply that the contract would be ready soon but he had been very busy, overworked, taking on new staff, etc. Once I even got the promise that he would complete things "tomorrow." Then... silence. Maybe it was all too complicated with four nationalities being involved. I'll never know. This took place in Autumn 2006.

How disappointing!

After the Wildside flop, I gave up translating for a couple of years, thinking I had failed. Only the coming of Kindle and the end of the copyright made me think again. I think my Kindle contract forbids me from publishing my work elsewhere. 

I wanted to ask you too about the distinctive logo art that adorns your Kindle editions. Where did it originate?

I found it right at the end of a long list of Arsene Lupin images on Google! It was in the public domain. 
Have you read any of Maurice Leblanc's non-Lupin novels? If so, I was wondering if you had any favorites among those.

Translating Lupin takes all my time but I have read a few of Leblanc’s other novels, some of which can be quite erotic, and others supernatural. Voici des Ailes (We’ve Got Wings!, 1898) was written to celebrate the innovation of the bicycle at about the same time as H. G. Wells wrote THE WHEELS OF CHANCE.

Of the books you have translated thus far, which one has given you the greatest personal satisfaction?

Pass! I have greatly enjoyed translating all of them.

Josephine Gill's Arsene Lupin Kindle books can be found and purchased here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Reviewed: SEE NO EVIL 2

Sylvia and Jen Soska, promoting their new film before they could say what it was.

I'll say it straight up: I think the Soska sisters - Jen and Sylvia, the Twisted Twins - are the most positive and energizing creative force the horror and exploitation genres have seen in some time. Their two previous features, DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK (2009) and AMERICAN MARY (2012), respectively represent a victory over budget and a triumph over expectation that left any number of possible roads open to them. The latter - a black comic, feminist fable that, among other things, uses the genre to describe how contemporary society has made criminality too profitable to deny - warrants recognition as one of the best horror films of the last decade. In addition to being talented filmmakers who have already forged a voice of their own within the genre, they have also proven themselves to be self-promoters with few peers. With their matching hairstyles, distinct personalities and personal charisma, they are the Beatles of Blood.

The Soskas have been keeping busy since completing AMERICAN MARY - making two features almost back-to-back for WWE Studios, as well as a segment for THE ABC'S OF DEATH 2 - but only now is this fund of finished work beginning to surface with the imminent release of SEE NO EVIL 2, a direct sequel to a 2006 film that introduced wrestling star Glenn "Kane" Jacobs as Jacob Goodnight, a seven-foot-tall, 400-pound mountain of muscle dedicated to collecting the eyeballs of all those who have sinned in his eyes.

The original SEE NO EVIL was nothing to write home about. Directed by Gregory Dark - a.k.a. Gregory Brown, Gregory Hippolyte, Alexander Gregory Hippolyte, and Jon Valentine, depending on whether the format was music video, softcore or hardcore porn - from a script by Dan Madigan, it followed the misfortunes of a group of arrogant teenage coed delinquents bussed to the burned-out Blackwell Hotel, where they have been promised that some months will be knocked off their sentences if they help to fix the place up. Unknown to them and their prison supervisors, the hotel is being used as an elaborate spider web of sorts for the lumbering Jacob and his diminutive, nattering, Bible-crazed mother (Nancy Bell). The only remarkable thing about SEE NO EVIL - a film covered in grime and slime and generally awash in misery - is not its evident misogyny but rather its misanthropy; it shows an absolute non-partisan loathing for all humanity. The most likeable characters suffer the most and the worst, while the most loathsome character ultimately leads the final exodus to safety. When you watch the film, you can see the germ of an idea that might have worked - wherein the derelict hotel becomes an onscreen variety of Halloween haunted house - but the camera is on permanent throttle and it is not an enjoyable ride.

It's no surprise that this oppressive, unpleasant franchise bid didn't spawn any immediate return trips - eight years passed between its two chapters, which is virtually the distance between HALLOWEEN and HALLOWEEN IV (which, by coincidence, introduced Danielle Harris, the star of the film I'm on the point of getting to). What is surprising is that the WWE approached the Soska Sisters to helm a sequel, and that they accepted - it seems they are wrestling fans and, making no secret of their disappointment with the earlier picture, were eager to demonstrate what they could achieve with a fixer-upper. It seems they could do quite a bit.

Glenn "Kane" Jacobs as Jacob Goodnight.

In its skill and cleverness, in its playfulness and bawdiness, SEE NO EVIL 2 reminds me very much of John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN, though it is set in an environment closer to that of the hospital in HALLOWEEN 2 - a perpetuation, perhaps, of the Soskas' evident misgivings about the medical establishment. Unlike its oppressively heavy predecessor, it is something of a rare bird among today's horror fare in that it is a horror film that intends its audience to enjoy it. Though Lionsgate has sadly made the decision to deny it this, SEE NO EVIL 2 was clearly built to be enjoyed on the big screen, in the dark (into which it plunges us occasionally with great glee), in the company of a lot of other like-minded people who want to have fun with it. It sets its tone of tongue-in-cheek irony right away with loving details of numerous tools of death which are gradually revealed to be the forensic instruments in a mortuary, not the savage tools of Jacob's workshop, which are then followed by what may be the most delightful director's screen credit in movie history.

Danielle Harris and Kaj-Erik Eriksen.

Working from a script by first-timers Nathan Brooks and Bobby Lee Darby, the Soskas immediately set about fixing the original's most faulty carpentry by establishing a core group of characters that we come to quickly care about. Our heroine is Amy (Danielle Harris), a pretty morgue attendant who, we learn, surrendered her dream of becoming a doctor because "we all end up here eventually" - meaning the morgue. There are hints that life has disappointed her, and it is also passing her by - it's her birthday, which she planned to spend partying with a group of friends, until she, her infatuated pathologist co-worker Seth (Kaj-Erik Eriksen) and paraplegic boss Holden (BATES MOTEL's Michael Eklund) are suddenly inundated with the incoming from the previous film's slaughterfest. But some friends don't take "no" for an answer and the birthday party finds its way to Amy at the morgue, led by her best friend Tamara (AMERICAN MARY lead Katharine Isabelle). Dragged along in Tamara's undeniable wake are her boyfriend Carter (Lee Majdoub), another girlfriend named Kayla (Chelon Simmons), and Amy's brother Will (Greyston Holt), who intuits Seth's interest in Amy and advises him that his sister deserves better. There is a lot of sublimated, frustrated attraction going on - between Amy and Seth, also between Will and Kayla (who manages to overturn Will's tendency to see her "as a sister" with a hot kiss), and Tamara sits on Holden's numb lap to coerce some grisly details out of him. Anxious, fascinated by weird crime details, and feeling up for some dangerous drama, Tamara feigns a need to pee to seek out the remains of Jacob Goodnight, which she ends up straddling and teasing with an apparently effective kiss of life - it's the only explanation we get of his imminent resurrection, but better a sexy kiss than a lame deus ex machina.

Raising Kane: Katharine Isabelle and Glenn Jacobs.

SPOILER AHEAD: Once Jacob's cold carcass vanishes from his slab, the movie is off and running and the next half hour or so is fresher than anything the American slasher genre has seen since the 1970s. The Soskas delight in their morgue's haunted house possibilities, turning out the lights, letting us see just a little, and startling us with sudden bursts of violence and volume. The film becomes a thrill-ride not solely through their expert modulation of their suspense pieces and shock effects, but thanks to the fine ensemble work of the cast, who invest the film with a lot of life before the machinations of death take over. Danielle Harris and Kaj-Erik Eriksen make a resourceful and touching screen duo, so much so that one is almost reluctant to praise them individually; together, they invest the film with that charge of pending life, pending disclosure, pending passion that is placed in perpetual peril. Katharine Isabelle steals the first third of the film as Tamara, one of those characters who get under our skin as an uncontrollable and not especially likeable force of nature, making her an unexpectedly dear price to pay. I don't think it will come as too much of a spoiler to mention there comes a time when we must kiss Tamara goodbye (there must have been jokes on the set), and when this happens, the whole tone of the picture shifts with startling gravity, the galloping good time settling down to keep its promised body count. If the film's first half is unexpectedly playful and buoyant, it is the second half that is most surprising and lingering in the mind, building to a spent and sobering conclusion that looks to me, unless I'm very much mistaken, like a conscious nod to Antonioni.

The problem with most slasher films is that they are designed without the necessary sense of mischief that characterized the capital works of Hitchcock, Mario Bava and John Carpenter in this area. By consigning their artistry to their makeup effects departments, these films often default to tedious exercises in nihilism. This was the fault with SEE NO EVIL, which indicated no value to the lives it was designed to mow down. What is exceptional about SEE NO EVIL 2 is that it uses the genre to celebrate life in all its variety, in laughter and shyness and moments of resolve, and the dance of love whether tentative or careless, until its story must finally keep its promises to the franchise and the genre - at which point we are made to feel something, repeatedly - in the final tally, perhaps something more than the genre has traditionally taught us to expect. Not everyone will approve of where this film ultimately goes, but its final port is, I think, a courageous one and wholly consistent with the Soskas' previous work. It is bound to provoke discussion.

SEE NO EVIL 2 comes to View On Demand outlets this Friday, October 17, and will then be released on BD/DVD by Lionsgate on October 21. It is a shame that a horror film so obviously designed to be enjoyed on the big screen is being denied a full theatrical release - that said, it is having its World Premiere theatrical screening tonight (October 15) at the Screamfest Horror Film Festival in Los Angeles.

I envy the experience that crowd will be having as they sit together in the dark, and the talk that will inevitably follow.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Book Report: THE WORM & THE RING by Anthony Burgess

Finished reading Anthony Burgess' 1970 revised version of his 1963 novel THE WORM AND THE RING last night. This is one of his most difficult novels to find; the original British edition was withdrawn by its publisher and pulped when threatened with libel litigation from persons who knew Burgess at one of his earlier teaching posts - including, the biographies say, a fellow woman teacher with whom Burgess had been smitten. There never was an American edition. Finding an unpulped original edition will run you into the high hundreds or low thousands; even this less elusive edition doesn't come cheap, but I take my Burgess seriously.

Though meticulously observed and typically well written, with the author's attention bobbing and dipping from the surface of life to its most profound interior monologue depths, this is a disappointingly slight novel about the awakening, indecisive and dying passions among the students and teachers at a British public school. It juggles and toggles between four major and a couple of minor characters, some of whom are pointedly Catholic and ponder the disadvantages of this when one is assailed by the temptations of life. The book hits its high points during a field trip to Paris, where two married (but not to each other) teachers, tempted by temporary liberty while being entrusted to supervise a mixed group of students, but there is no sense of momentum to carry us along, and the book's comic, serious and philosophic selves are not smoothly blended. The last few chapters - where the revising took place, is my guess - feel rushed and alternately blunt and jagged as glass. The title is drawn from a rhapsodic latter chapter paragraph that maps the highs and lows of existence, from the rings of church bells and holy matrimony to the lowliest worm subsisting on death, but it also carries an ornery allusion to male and female sexual apparatus. The book is full of such ornery wordplay, as when one student improbably calls out "Merde de chat!" after tossing a ball to a classmate. ("Catch it" - get it?)

This was one of the five novels Burgess wrote in the year after being given his imminent death notice by a doctor who allegedly found in him an inoperable brain tumor; A CLOCKWORK ORANGE was another. The tumor turned out to have been a false alarm and a Burgess went on to write dozens of more books. I'm glad I was finally able to find and read it, but THE WORM AND THE RING is among the least of them.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Reviewed: TOPKAPI (1964)

I have a potent childhood memory of seeing the trailer for Jules Dassin's TOPKAPI at my neighborhood theater, where I remember being similarly impressed by the otherworldly sights offered by the coming attractions for BLACK ORPHEUS and ATOMIC AGENT. With TOPKAPI, the trailer presented me with my first ever glimpses of Istanbul, that great Turkish city so memorably celebrated in Alain Robbe-Grillet's L'IMMORTELLE and various Jess Franco films - I was impressed by the dreamlike conflation of its crabbed wooden dwellings, its domed temples, its turbanned throngs and the deep blue of the Bosphorous, whose dense gelid complexion is like that of no other sea.

I didn't actually get around to seeing TOPKAPI until last night; it's newly available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber ($29.95) as part of their new Studio Classics line, licensed from MGM. It is a handsome presentation - 1.66:1, 1920x1080p - and the colors, which are important to the storytelling, are as rich as my childhood memory of its trailer, which is also included. Though it is mostly forgotten now, TOPKAPI was pretty big for an international production as the time of its first release in 1964; for some reason, it was not considered as a foreign film - the National Board of Review included it on their list of the year's top ten films; screenwriter Monja Danischewsky was nominated by the Writers Guild of America for their WGA Award for "Best Written American Comedy" (it seems anything but an American film!), and Peter Ustinov won his second Oscar (after SPARTACUS) for his supporting role as the timid "schmoe" Arthur Simpson, a performance he seems to have patterned in part on Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion in MGM's THE WIZARD OF OZ.

A brilliante heist thriller based on Eric Ambler's Edgar Award-winning 1962 novel THE LIGHT OF DAY, TOPKAPI turned out to be one of those films whose far-reaching influence was explained to me as I watched it, as were the reasons why time has not been particularly kind to it. The opening titles are kaleidoscopic, a procession of spinning colors that reminded me immediately of the main titles of Mario Bava's DANGER: DIABOLIK (1967), another heist picture that was - I suddenly understood - showing its respect for this one. But what a more interesting film TOPKAPI would have been with Marisa Mell in Melina Mercouri's role! (Interesting echo of her initials there.) I have to assume that Mercouri is an acquired taste that I have somehow never acquired; I find her thick accent, gravelly voice, and hard features pretty much the antithesis of sexy, though the same act somehow worked for Eartha Kitt. But Jules Dassin - who was enamored with her, had guided her to an Academy Award-nominated lead performance in 1962's NEVER ON SUNDAY, and would marry her in 1966 - saw something in her that I, at least, do not. I could almost say the same for everyone else in the picture, because I count Maximilian Schell and Peter Ustinov among those actors for whom I've always felt no more than a watered-down liking, based in part on their being continually attracted to films that held no more than watered-down appeal for me. They are both on their best behavior here, however; I found them both likeable if not particularly compelling.

The story concerns the wish of criminal diva and self-described "nymphomaniac" Elizabeth Lipp (Mercouri) to own the jewel-encrusted dagger displayed as part of a stuffed sultan's wardrobe on display inside Istanbul's Topkapi Museum. She is particularly adoring of its handle, which sports four of the largest and most perfect emeralds in existence. (In a key scene, Mercouri becomes the centerpiece of a brain trust meeting by wearing an eye-commanding emerald green dress, replete with emerald-lacquered finger- and toenails.) After introductory scenes in which she breaks the fourth wall in the most annoying way ("Hey, Melina!" calls out an offscreen voice, "What are you doing?"), Mercouri's character uses her personal appeal to attract and hold a group of diverse men to steal the dagger for her, though she has already used her craft skills to execute a perfect replica of the piece. She recruits a former lover, Walter Harper (Schell). to mastermind the theft, which he conceives to do using only the help of a crew of amateurs, because using professional thieves would attract too much attention. Since the floor of the museum is tricked out to signal an alarm with the slightest amount of weight applied to it, the theft must somehow be conducted weightlessly, which is eventually done with the help of a circus acrobat and trapeze artist, Giulio the Human Fly (Gilles Segal). In short, using wires, he lowers himself into the room and intends to swap Elizabeth's replica with the actual treasure.

To render my most important criticism of the film, it is necessary to spoil the end result of its masterfully executed heist sequence - so stop reading this paragraph now, if you haven't yet seen the picture. There comes a point during the robbery, just as he lifts the precious dagger, that Giulio loses his balance, just before placing the false dagger inside the display case. Most viewers will be holding their breath by this point, and thus highly attentive to every small detail, so as he clutches both daggers to his chest, it's natural for the viewer to think "Oh no! He's going to mix up the fake dagger with the real one and all this will be for naught!" This would have led to a well-telegraphed but appropriately ironic ending for the film - our thieving heroes could have been let off the hook when their dagger was found to be inauthentic (think THE GREAT ESCAPE's tunnel diggers emerging on the very cusp of German soil) - but that is not how it plays out. Instead, as Giulio makes his escape through a high window, a bird flies unseen into the display room. In time, it eventually settles down on the floor, tripping the museum's alarm. The only problem is that the bird doesn't trigger the alarm until the thieves have voluntarily gone to police headquarters about another matter, which posits them in the best possible place to be at the moment the alarm goes off! They have an alibi. Nevertheless, the film then cuts immediately away to the entire group in prison, doing time. It is one of the most senseless and appalling cheats I have ever seen in a lifetime of watching movies.

The only explanation I can think of is that Dassin must have shot the film the way the footage suggests - that the thief accidentally absconded with the false dagger, a fact then slowly discovered by the would-be thieves in the aftermath of their efforts - but that the resulting film didn't test well, either with studio executives or test audiences, perhaps because they felt cheated or because they were concerned that letting the criminal gang elude punishment even for a foiled heist would seem highly immoral. It would be interesting to know how Eric Ambler navigated the story's final third.

If TOPKAPI ultimately breaks its trust with the viewer, its rollicking trek to that point of betrayal is diverting enough to make the film commendable. Every heist picture to follow was influenced to some degree by its example, and that influence is particularly obvious in the classic television series MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and its later feature film franchise. Along for the ride are Robert Morley, Jess Hahn and Akim Tamiroff (as an openly homosexual lush), and the exotic location photography is the work of Henri Alekan, beloved for his exquisite work on Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and Clouzot's THE WAGES OF FEAR.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Nine Years A Blogger

My calendar tells me that it was nine years ago today when I had the sudden and suddenly acted-upon brainstorm to launch Video WatchBlog. According to Blogger's archive (which I fear may have lost track of some entries along the way), I have authored 1117 postings under this banner since that fateful day - 1,117 entries over the roughly 3,285 days (not counting leap years) that constitute nine years, which works out to something like one new entry every three days.

Wait, can that be true?
Is that really possible?
If that's so, why do I feel like such a slacker in regard to this blog? I suppose it's because I'm a busy guy - focusing mostly, these days, on extracurricular projects and Facebook - and, the faster one moves, the slower one's surroundings tend to appear.

It's been awhile since I've offered any kind of update, so here's what's going on. VIDEO WATCHDOG still exists (!) but, much as it did when Donna and I were working like crazy to produce the Bava book, it has gone off-schedule due to the work that we are obliged to do to produce our VW Digital Archive in time for its promised December launch date. We're two issues behind schedule at the moment (not good for us, since the print magazine remains our bread and butter), but we are confident there will be at least one more issue, possibly two, before the end of the year. One of these issues is fully edited and ready to go into layout; the other is a stack of solicited and selected material waiting to be edited and shaped into an issue. This has been such an incredible year for new releases that it pains me not to be keeping up with it, and I need to be more diligent about picking up some of that slack here during the time when our voice isn't being represented on newsstands. I intend to do this, so stay tuned.

I have been a busy boy during this (ha) off-time. I recently finished an elusive third novel I have mentioned here in the past, THE ONLY CRIMINAL, which you'll be hearing more about in the coming year. I've recorded some more audio commentaries - PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES for Kino/Scorpion (US) and EYES WITHOUT A FACE for the BFI (UK) - and there are tentative plans to do more for some exciting 2015 releases. I've actually had to turn down some tempting invitations of late, because these tracks take time to research and script and there simply hasn't been enough time. Most recently, I've been selecting and plotting a good deal of the supplementary materials for the Digital Archive, and this work is going to become particularly intensive now as I presently still have another hundred or so issues to fill before my deadline.

Completing THE ONLY CRIMINAL and feeling like a novelist again has prompted a renaissance in my reading. This year I reread, with great satisfaction and richer appreciation, Thomas Mann's THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, which I first read in my twenties. Other titles I've read and enjoyed recently: Arthur Bernede's JUDEX (now available in an English translation), Peter O'Donnell's MODESTY BLAISE, Gaston Leroux's DOROTHY THE ROPE DANCER, Patricia Highsmith's THE ANIMAL LOVER'S BOOK OF BEASTLY MURDER, Joan Schenkar's deep dish biography THE TALENTED MISS HIGHSMITH, the first two Perry Mason novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, and VW contributor Brad Stevens' debut novel THE HUNT. I'm presently reading my mentor Anthony Burgess again for the first time in decades, having tracked down an affordable copy of his elusive THE WORM AND THE RING, and it's a particular pleasure to hear his voice ambling around inside me again. When I finish this, I'm looking forward to reading the recently translated final Robbe-Grillet novel, revisiting Henry Green, discovering Maurice Blanchot, pushing on to the second Modesty Blaise, and delving more deeply into Maurice Leblanc and Gaston Leroux.

I find that the two most important reasons to read fiction are that 1) it enriches the person you are with the wisdom and perspective of others, and the more personal 2) it makes me want to write more fiction myself. Accordingly, I'm presently about 60 pages into a new novel that I don't want to jinx by saying more about it.

In the midst of all this, I'm changing from PC to Mac with some difficulty - and, as if learning one new language wasn't enough, I recently acquired Rosetta Stone for French in the hope of gaining some access to the many cool French-language books lying around my house.

So, as you can see, there is much to do - but that's no reason not to expect further activity here as Video WatchBlog heads into its 10th year. As the old saying goes, "If you need to get something done, ask a busy person."