Wednesday, February 26, 2014

You'd Drink Too: Here's To June Squibb

June Squibb in Alexander Payne's NEBRASKA.

I love Bruce Dern. I have always loved Bruce Dern, and I took notice of him early, when he was terrorizing Teresa Wright on THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR. He's always real, always wonderful. He's wonderful in NEBRASKA too, but - I feel - not exceptionally so, at least not in comparison to everything else he's done. Not in comparison to the work he did in, say, Joe Dante's THE HOLE or in Coppola's TWIXT. Of course, if he wins the Oscar, I'll be a happy man - just to see his customary brilliance formally recognized and carved into stone along with the other greats. It's a respectable performance and a very decent deadpan film about the importance of human dignity, even illusory human dignity. But, to me, the one thing that really surprised and delighted me about NEBRASKA was June Squibb as Dern's wife.

Oh. My. Lord.

"If you were married to your mother, you'd drink too."

June Squibb is nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and I hope the voters will remember her and pay their respects.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

GODZILLA: The Bigger, Better "We're Screwed" Machine

Today the official GODZILLA trailer was unveiled and it looks very impressive. But, as I watched it, I found myself reflecting on how, each year, billions are spent to bolster our military while other billions are simultaneously spent to produce epic apocalypse entertainments that engage us by showing us that, when push comes to shove, we don't stand a chance in hell. I wish I could see this trailer and simply welcome the coming of a new monster movie, as I once did, but as I watched this unquestionably exciting promo, I also found myself wincing a bit at our collective need to see this particular fantasy made so punishingly realistic.

Of course I look forward to seeing it, but sometimes I also sing along with Morrissey when he sings "Come, come, come - nuclear bomb."

Saturday, February 08, 2014

BLOOD AND ROSES German Import: Some Frame Grabs

Annette Stroyberg Vadim as Carmilla Karnstein in BLOOD AND ROSES.

Roger Vadim's BLOOD AND ROSES (... Et mourir de plaisir, 1961) was one of the most widely-seen European horror imports of its period, its much ballyhooed lesbian elements (which are very slight) and Vadim's reputation for introducing Brigitte Bardot to the Western world helping it to achieve the unthinkable: major studio distribution (Paramount) as well as mainstream crossover. (Mel Ferrer appeared on THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JOHNNY CARSON to promote it!) However, since then, it has become one of the most difficult Euro horror titles to find, particularly in its original Technirama 2.35:1 screen ratio. To date, the only US release of the film in the entire home video era has been its brief VHS distribution on Paramount's budget label, cropped and available only at the four-hour LP speed.

However, the film was recently issued on DVD for the first time anywhere in Germany under the title ... Und vor Lust zu Sterben by the German label Big Ben Movies. Here is a representative sampling of screen grabs to tide you over till VIDEO WATCHDOG tackles its in-depth review of the title. 


As you can see, the color is too hot, the color correction is variable (showing some green-yellow bias) and there is some vertical banding noise, and certain shots are much too dark - for instance, this subjective shot of the chateau's kitchen server Lisa, which I offer here first as it appears in the feature presentation and second as it appears in the German trailer also included:

So the presentation is far from ideal - yet it's the closest the film has come to a properly framed official release in more than 50 years. The disc offers a choice of French or German audio - both crackly - with optional English or German subtitles.

We obtained our copy from Diabolik DVD, who sold out their initial shipment of this 1200-copy limited edition the day they received it.

Eric Rohmer's Horror Movie

Though I have not often written about him or his particular importance to me, Eric Rohmer has always been one of my favorite filmmakers. His literary, beatific films about love and communication, infatuation and miscommunication, human nature and Mother Nature have always exercised an almost unique capacity to soothe me, while at the same time sharpening me to higher wavelengths of reception. He clears away the cobwebs for me - put it that way.

It was not until I did some exploring through Potemkine's new mammoth import box set of ERIC ROHMER L'INTEGRALE ("The Complete Eric Rohmer") that I became aware that this most urbane and least haunted of directors had also made a horror film. Quite early in his career, in 1954, he did what Curtis Harrington did almost a decade before him and made a rather ambitious short film based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe; Harrington chose "The Fall of the House of Usher," but Rohmer curiously chose Poe's story of amour fou, "Berenice." It is included among the (un-subtitled) supplements of the second disc in the Blu-ray/DVD combo set, which is devoted to his early short "La Boulangère de Monceau." Like that film, "Bérénice" runs slightly more than 22 minutes. It might be a contemporary telling, but something about it is not quite contemporary, suggesting more of a temporal halfway point between Poe and Rohmer. Let me walk you through it.

The film opens with a pitch black screen, a spoken title, and a scream - years before THE TINGLER pitched a scream in the dark.

Then the story begins with a telling exterior shot of the house where our narrator lives with his cousins. It's a day shot, but strikingly in tone with what Roger Corman later did with his Poe features. "The house is the monster..."  

Rohmer himself stars as Aegeus, and also narrates the film. He lives with his two cousins, Berenice (Teresa Gratia) and a younger female, who are introduced playing outside the house, chasing each other around a table arranged for an outdoor meal with a phonograph positioned nearby.

Aegeus' inner ramblings are interrupted by the girls, rapping at the window for his attention.

After examining them first in their mirrored reflection, he turns to face them - resulting in this striking composition. (The film was photographed by Jacques Rivette, himself destined for great things as a filmmaker.) Now only he and Berenice share the frame, albeit with his own divided image.

Aegeus joins his cousins outside for a snack and, as Berenice's lips part to expose her overbite, his more-than-passing interest is confessed with a jolting close-up.

When we next see Aegeus, the narration has taken him into his study, which Rivette photographs in bold darkness; he is pressed up against a bookshelf as if both transfixed and repelled by the light emanating from a single candle.

The sequence in the study continues, beautifully photographed in light only a step or two above total darkness. We see Aegeus slumped over in a chair, smoking and filling an ashtray with butts. At one point, the camera dips down to study the detail of a Persian carpet below - and Aegeus' hand drops suddenly into the dark composition in a contortion of anguish, then rises with the camera to show him still seated at the table, lost in a dolorous haze.

Hereafter, Aegeus looks almost petrified in his poses of abstracted romantic obsession. At another picnic outside, Berenice falls to the ground in an epileptic fit. Again, her front teeth show through her parted lips as she convulses. The camera studies her body.

The child cousin races over to Aegeus and shakes him out of his deep reverie to come help. He does, but when he reaches the side of Berenice, he does something quite unexpected.

Ignorning the convulsing Berenice completely, he raises the needle of the phonograph and lowers it onto a recording.

In a manic fit, he conducts the music with macabre joy. In time, Berenice recovers from her seizure and sits up.

He recalls another encounter with Berenice, seen here sitting in a solarium, when their relationship suddenly took a bold turn.

While checking herself in the indoor mirror before going for a walk, Berenice checks her teeth in her reflection. Suddenly, her cousin can no longer contain himself and he accosts her.

She laughs, taunting him, goading him on until he lowers his mouth...

 ... to kiss her teeth.

That night in his study, Aegeus is beset with fantasy images of Berenice that come to haunt him. In a remarkable trick shot, Rivette's camera pans left to drink in the full circumference of the room with a different Berenice laughing in every corner.

But then comes the inevitable day of her premature death, and Aegeus was led to her body as it lay in state in his study. Knowing that he will never see her misshapen smile again, he takes steps to preserve it.

Tragically, this entire final sequence is too dark to be properly appreciated. As Aegeus turns away from Berenice, he virtually vanishes from view, though a flash of something silver is briefly seen in the blackness.

A male relative finds Aegeus in the study, seated and looking fixed and catatonic. When he touches him, he finds his upraised hand stained with blood.

He sees various tools, including pliers, on the table. Aegeus reaches for a small silver box on the table, turns it upside down and spills its contents like so many dice. The pulled teeth of his beloved Berenice.

Rohmer's "Bérénice" is perhaps only slightly more than juvenalia, but it confirms that this sunniest of filmmakers had a dark side that he might have explored in his films just as well. What raises it above its humble origins are Rohmer's performance, which is quite adept and stylized in the manner of a silent film performance; the daring cinematography of Rivette with its occasional stark expressionistic flourishes and its courageous attempts to engage with the story's darkness; and the sick extremity of its love story, which had precedents in the work of Evgenii Bauer and Luís Buñuel but still seems at least a decade in advance of what was then acceptable in the horror genre.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

RIP Our Friend, Ann Carter (1936-2014)

I was informed this afternoon by her daughter, Carol Newton Brown, that her mother, the former child actress Ann Carter passed away on January 27 after a long battle with cancer, at the age of 77. We all loved Ann particularly for her touching performance as little Amy Reed in the Val Lewton production THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944), co-directed by Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch, but she also appeared in smaller roles in other notable fantasy films, including Rene Clair's I MARRIED A WITCH (1942, recently issued on Blu-ray by Criterion - she plays the broom-riding daughter of Veronica Lake and Fredric March), Joseph Losey's THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR (1948) and Tay Garnett's A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT. She also appeared as an interviewee in the 2007 documentary VAL LEWTON - THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS.

Donna and I got to know Ann shortly after we accepted Tom Weaver's excellent interview with her, which appeared in VIDEO WATCHDOG 137 - which we published in two versions, the second being VIDEO WATCHDOG's second (and last to date) "Signature Edition." She had been diagnosed with cancer even then, in 2008 - she discussed it in the interview and insisted we publish a photo of her as she was, minus her hair, because she had won the upper hand through chemotherapy and it represented a victory for her. She was a spirited and dear lady, very appreciative of the essay I wrote about her performance for that issue, and we so enjoyed the contact we had with her.

When I made the announcement of her death this afternoon on my Facebook page, it prompted an sudden outpouring of respect and affection for Ann, some of whom exclaimed "My friend!" - quoting one of her indelible, heart-tugging lines from the Lewton film. And so she was - not only our friend but, for many of us, our representative as an imaginative child shown coming to grips for the first time with the vagaries of a strange and secretive adult world. It's a performance that, by its very nature and her (and her directors') extraordinary sensitivity, will never lose its relevance nor admirers.   

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Indiegogo Campaign Ends Tonight!

Back on November 27 of last year, I announced on this blog that Donna and I were undertaking a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money we needed to finance the digitization of VIDEO WATCHDOG's entire back catalog. We made the mistake of launching this campaign during the holidays, when people are hopelessly distracted and tapped-out financially, yet we managed to obtain commitments for more than half of our original goal figure. As the hours counted down to our Christmas Eve Eve deadline, we obtained a financial commitment from what can only be called a philanthropist, who believed in our project and wanted to see it happen. With that portion of our needs covered, Donna and I determined that we should refuse to lose... and cancelled the original campaign, then immediately relocating it to Indiegogo with a more reasonable, adjusted goal. After 40 days, that campaign is drawing to a close tonight at approximately 3:00 a.m. this morning, US east coast time.

I'm mentioning this here for the sake of closure, but also to report to those of you who only get your news of us here that we have met our goal. The VIDEO WATCHDOG Digital Archive is going to happen! It will be a reality before the end of this year. However, there is still time to contribute to the campaign, which you really should consider for various reasons. Check the Perks. This is your opportunity to obtain the complete, interactive Digital Archive for less than half its eventual price. Or if you're a small business owner or advertising rep looking to target our audience economically, look into the Media Ad or Print + Media Ad perks for ways to multiply your advertising dollars. Or perhaps you're an independent filmmaker who would like to make our knowledgeable and influential readership more aware of your work - if so, take a look at our Now Showing Showcase Perk. These offers end later tonight.

If you haven't been following the campaign's updates, you've probably missed some important information - for example, that we're also going to be making THE VIDEO WATCHDOG BOOK available as a digital eBook. Finally, be aware too that if you contribute only $5 or more, your name will be forever emblazoned on our Digital Wall of Fame AND you might receive an after-campaign bonus! (There's more than 40 available)!

You know you don't care about football - head on over while you still can and check this out!