Monday, August 31, 2015

RIP Wes Craven (1939-2015)

Wes Craven with a recreation of a certain celebrated Edvard Munch painting.

Early this morning, when the unexpected news of Wes Craven's death at age 76 from brain cancer began to circulate, Kim Newman made this perspicacious observation on Facebook: "Wes Craven reinvented horror at least four times - most directors don't even manage it once."

THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) was superficially a trespass of true crime on horror movie turf, but in retrospect it can more easily be seen as the introduction of urban myth into horror, a genre up to then predominated by legends, superstitions and campfire stories. While nightmares have always been depicted in horror cinema, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) was the first film since CALIGARI to extend a story's landscape into the slippery terrain of the unconscious. When success turned Craven's creepy creation into New Line Cinema's flagship title, and revised the nightmare figure of Freddy Kruger into a comic monster of ceremonies for the FANGORIA generation, he explored other variations of horror franchise misfires (CHILLER, SHOCKER) until returning to the franchise with the brilliantly recursive WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994), which provided not only a metaphor for how the series' success had affected its various participants, but seemed to add a new wing onto the genre that might be termed an alternate reality. Then, with SCREAM (1996), he applied the principles of deconstruction to the genre and found that something still new could be created in the act of taking the traditional constructs of genre apart.

As is true of most artists whose work in the genre achieves such levels of potency, Craven was playing the hand that life had dealt him. He had been born to a reportedly dysfunctional family consisting of a fanatically religious mother (so strong a personality that she left him fearful of women till he moved away to go to college) and an abusive, violent father who died when Wes was only four. He also drew knowledgeably on earlier work in the genre; for example, I noticed him drawing from Mario Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964) in a pivotal scene in NEW NIGHTMARE (when a prop disappears from a film set) and in the revelation that the white-masked SCREAM killer was not one perpetrator, but two individuals working in concert. But most importantly, he made films that reflected the world as he perceived it, and he worked hard at extending that perception for the sake not only of his art, but for himself. Important works like his 1985 TWILIGHT ZONE episodes "Shatterday" and "Her Pilgrim Soul", and more significantly his 1988 voodoo opus THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, reflect his private side as a voracious reader of texts pertaining to psychology, perception and mysticism, not to mention the literature of the fantastic. 

After a very strong beginning with LAST HOUSE and THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977, arguably the best of his horror films - which, like all of his best movies, seemed to contrast the reality and myth of the American family), Craven's career seemed to follow a patchwork pattern alternating strong work with weaker material. So far, I've mentioned only the home runs, but his filmography also carries the weight of THE HILLS HAVE EYES PART II (1984), A VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN (1995) and DEADLY FRIEND (1986), a film whose level of disaster actually spills over into hilarity - a hilarity that one suspects its creator shared - as the end credits roll. Craven also directed a few of the better made-for-television horror offerings (1978's STRANGER IN THE HOUSE, 1984's INVITATION TO HELL) and some features that fell between his usual extremes without succumbing to mediocrity, like DEADLY BLESSING (1981), SWAMP THING (1982), THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991) and three SCREAM sequels, almost always spinning out at least one sequence that wouldn't look at all out of place in a Best-Of reel.

One of the few horror directors of his generation to earn name-above-the-title status and to stand out from the pack as a genuine creator and innovator, Wes Craven's volatile spark will be much missed.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Steele Crazy After All These Years

Barbara Steele and Rik Battaglia in Mario Caiano's NIGHTMARE CASTLE.
A Barbara Steele bonanza, Severin's triple-feature NIGHTMARE CASTLE Blu-ray ($29.98) is a splendid-looking, must-have disc. In the audio commentary he shares with the film's star, David Del Valle opines that the main feature is somewhat burdened by a tedious plot and could have used a few more delirium sequences - but if you're fishing for delirium, look no further than the extras allotted to this disc. Beginning with said commentary, which repeatedly describes the film as a valentine to its star Barbara Steele - whose name is actually misspelled onscreen. The track ends with an aghast Steele asking if something can't be done to change this. (You mean, like actually monkey with Severin's beautiful 2K restoration?)

Two bonus Steele films are also included - and frankly, they're the better ones. TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE's direction is credited to Ralph Zucker, someone who was real but who didn't direct it. The real director (Massimo Pupillo), or so claims one of the film's stars (Riccardo Garrone), was known among the cast and crew as "The Wanker." Garrone can't stop laughing at the fact that someone has taken this film seriously enough to want to interview him - about Pupillo, of all people! - and his sides really split when the suggestion is made that the film possibly had some additional US financing. When we hear an excerpt from an audio interview with Pupillo, he comes across as the first completely informed person on topic - and to make the circumstances more surreal, we are told that the interview was conducted at a time he was widely presumed to be dead! 

Then there is CASTLE OF BLOOD, the real gem of this set, whose featurette informs us that director Antonio Margheriti's original screen name Anthony Daisies was changed because someone told him that "Anthony is picking daisies" was a popular American expression to point out someone who is gay. Over the course of its 16 minutes, the CASTLE OF BLOOD featurette somehow fails to mention the vital presence in the film of Steele's BLACK SUNDAY co-star Arturo Dominici, or that Silvano Tranquilli (who plays Edgar Allan Poe) was also her romantic lead in THE HORRIBLE DR HICHCOCK, or that it was the first Italian Gothic to imitate Italian horror rather than the popular English and American varieties of that period. Perhaps Dominici's alias prevented his identifcation. Nearly all of the credits on all three films are aliases, except for that of Barbara Steele - who alone stands exposed, with or without the final E. Defiant. Unquestionably iconic. The Queen of all this auteur-directed misdirection.

People have asked me how the two bonus features look. Well, they look gorgeous too - but in that splicey way that a friend's 35mm print might look gorgeous if you were treated to a private screening. They are presented in high definition, but they have not been restored. Somehow, their flaws are forgivable. Interestingly, at the same time, in its 2K restoration, NIGHTMARE CASTLE somehow becomes a little less forgivable. Which is interesting because NIGHTMARE CASTLE (presented here in its significantly longer, original English export version titled THE NIGHT OF THE DOOMED) may now look a little too real, a little too perfect. The more filmic, dupey element sampled in the accompanying featurette somehow looks more like the film's intended ambiance. Granted, any opposing arguments - for example, that it deserves restoration because it is an early film scored by Ennio Morricone (make that "Ennio Morigone") and shot by Enzo Barboni (who, as "E.B. Clucher," later directed the Trinity westerns) - would be at least as valid. 

But I feel that something important about these films could be lost if we were to do away with all the scratches and splices that heralded our first acquaintance with them - some evidence of prior use and wear which connects us to the place of otherness and mystery where these imitation Gothics have always worked their strongest magic - inferring, at 3:00am on a distant broadcast signal, that they have come to us from a great distance and that we are not alone in our love for them.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

RIP Yvonne Craig (1937-2015)

As a young BATMAN fan, I didn't know what to expect when Season 3 commenced (after a second season whose wobbliness even my 11-year-old self noticed) with the promise of introducing Batgirl. But long before puberty struck, I had learned who Yvonne Craig was, from a series of feature film roles I had seen: GIDGET, the Elvis vehicles IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD'S FAIR and KISSIN' COUSINS, SKI PARTY (AIP's indoor beach picture, also well remembered for featuring James Brown and His Famous Flames), and the MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. movie ONE SPY TOO MANY (in which she is unforgettable as the sunbathing U.N.C.L.E. receptionist), as well as a lot of television. I must have seen some of her many appearances on THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS and 77 SUNSET STRIP, or on PERRY MASON, WAGON TRAIN or I'M DICKENS, HE'S FENSTER (all of which I watched regularly in those pre-teen days). I can't remember a time when I didn't know who she was.

If I had seen her in THE GENE KRUPA STORY as a kid, she might have started me shaving sooner; in her brief time onscreen, she turns up the heat on the 1950s standards of sexy. In her autobiography FROM BALLET TO THE BATCAVE AND BEYOND, she mentions that she and co-star Sal Mineo also played a make-out scene that turned out to be too hot for the studio to release; it was cut from the film - but what a nice Blu-ray supplement if would be, if the footage could be found.

I've never been a STAR TREK fan, but even I can't overlook the iconic value of the green girl she played.

Yvonne Craig was almost an anomaly in her time: a pert brunette. Her hair was one of the most interesting things about her, because it rarely fell to her shoulders; she wore it up, sprayed into a configuration that was complementary to her sculpted cheekbones and bright eyes. She could be sexually obvious, in that busty, lip-chewing Anne Helm way, but there was something conservative about her too - in several of her early cheesecake shots, she affects a surprised expression as if your gaze has somehow made her shockingly aware of how gorgeous she is.

But suddenly, she was being introduced to my favorite show as Batgirl. I wasn't too pleased, but I was pleased even less that the show was being diluted with this new character at the time it was being cut back from two weekly episodes to one.

The first Batgirl episode is magical, if you can overlook the theme song that Yvonne described as "the most awful thing I'd ever heard!" She was perfectly cast as Barbara Gordon, the librarian daughter of Commissioner Gordon, who lived with her pet bird Charlie in a ritzy Gotham City apartment - which she had somehow managed to modify with a secret passage into a garage that allowed her to change and pilot her ruffled Batgirl Cycle right into the streets, off a ramp disguised as a brick-framed advert. It was my first stab of Feuillade. Other stabs followed as Batgirl engaged in action not with her fists, but with a pair of shapely killer legs swathed in starry purple fabric and trained from top to bottom with the Ballets Russe. Those stabs were more in the neighborhood of Georges Franju. Perhaps more surprising than her nimble, dancerly showing as Batgirl, Yvonne Craig was a plausible librarian.

Another impressive thing about Batgirl? She had the smarts to incorporate the fall of a red wig into her disguise. It was the first - and it remains one of the only - gestures toward the keeping of a secret identity that struck me as a ruse that might possibly work. Though they were never put in the situation of having to outsmart each other, I never felt that Batman's encyclopedic intelligence (encompassing a thorough knowledge of fishing lures, foreign languages, and the ability to quote English poet John Donne) was really the equal of Batgirl's smarts. Yvonne Craig is far and away the best thing about an otherwise dismal season that introduced adversaries like Louie the Lilac and Lola Lasagna while putting the favorites like the Joker in surfer's baggies.

In the late 1980s, when I was writing my novel THROAT SPROCKETS, I conceived a movie theater called The House of Usherettes where the cashier, ticket-tearer, concession hostess and the usherettes were all young women hired for their resemblances to Sixties actresses. I mention four by name, singling out the four who made the most indelible impressions on me as a kid: Pamela Franklin, Stella Stevens, Barbara Steele and Yvonne Craig. I got to tell Yvonne about this one day at Wonderfest in Louisville, Kentucky back in 2006 - and, to add a meaningless detail that seems significant, it happened to be my 50th Birthday. Yvonne was charmed by the tribute and when I offered her an affectionately inscribed copy of my novel, she asked me, "Do you have my book?"

"Actually, I was going to buy a copy from you," I said.

But she wouldn't hear of it. "We'll trade books!" she said brightly, already signing a copy to me. As she finished, she looked at her charming sister Meridel, who was conducting the business at her table - all the proceeds of which went to Yvonne's favorite charities - and said, "Look, we're two authors swapping our books!"

Her book turned out to be a good read, in the way it feels good to get to know someone you've always admired. Dipping into it again might be a good way to bid her farewell.


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The VW Digital Edition: Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks

I want to announce here, for those of you who don't follow us on Facebook or Twitter, that we have recently posted the digital edition of our 25th Anniversary issue, VIDEO WATCHDOG #179, for free downloading on our website. Just go to and you should easily find it, in whatever format you need.

Since we debuted our digital editions and archive last year, we have been able to digitally publish only two further issues before this, VW 175 and 176; Donna is presently working toward having the two interim issues - 177 and 178 - posted in the very near future. During our Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns, we stated that only the current issue would be available free for the period it was being sold on newsstands, but we realize our schedule with these has been amiss (obviously!), so we will be offering more than one free digital issue at a time, at least until we get onto our intended track.

In talking and exchanging notes with some of you, we're aware of a couple of prevalent attitudes about digital issues in general. One is that our readers love the print edition and are wary of looking into anything that might endanger it. Another is that people find a lot of digital advertising annoying.

To take the second matter first... so do we! I personally hate reading trying to read articles online and finding myself triggering one pop-up ad after another. So our approach to incorporating digital ads is willfully different - we will never disrupt or intrude upon your reading with a digital ad. Our digital ads will simply appear on digital pages not found in our print edition.

Which brings me to the other point. The VW digital edition is not intended as a replacement for, or a threat to, our print edition. Indeed, the additional revenue we can gather from the digital edition and sales of the digital back issues and archive are our best bet to keep the print edition going. It is, also importantly, a way of extending our reach because there are readers (or want-to-be readers) all over the world who have complained to us regularly that they simply can't find us - the distribution business being what it is, today. In fact, since launching the digital edition, we have noticed a bump in new subscribers for the print edition - and we were especially pleased to receive an order from the library at Yale University for our entire run of back issues! As a couple of autodidacts, Donna and I were honored that VW was considered a necessary addition by the librarians at one of the most widely recognized institutes of learning anywhere in the world. It's even sweeter, realizing that Yale was Vincent Price's alma mater too!

Furthermore, our digital edition serves as a wonderful supplement to each print edition, including trailers and other bonus content pertaining to our coverage. In the digital edition of VW 179, for instance, we have a five-page addendum to my Vincent Price Blu-ray coverage that extends an already lengthy article with additional reviews of Shock Factory's VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION II offerings HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, THE RETURN OF THE FLY and THE LAST MAN ON EARTH. The DVD review section also includes a bonus review of the UK release SLEEPWALKER, reviewed by Lloyd Haynes.    

Number 179 was a particularly rigorous project for Donna. A good deal of her time and attention was applied to creating a new, exclusive digital feature she has dubbed the "Now Playing Showcase." It's an ingenious device for inviting those of our readers who may be filmmakers, authors, publishers, painters, cartoonists, even musicians to bring their creations directly to our select target demographic - namely, the real connoisseurs of fantastic culture, a good number of whom work professionally within these fields. Check it out and I think you'll see its great potential. Creating its template took months of concentrated work, and we believe it's just what we needed to make VIDEO WATCHDOG more of a thriving communications hub for all of the talent out there among our readership. In this issue, special messages from Sara Karloff, Victoria Price and the Soska Sisters are just the beginning of the fun.

In short, if you haven't checked out our digital edition yet, we urge you to download it to your iPad, Kindle, Android or computer and give its unique special features a spin! 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


Though it has been fashioned with an eye toward scaring us and upsetting our sleep, it is fair to say that the horror film has inspired more loving devotion than any other genre. Much of this devotion has been manifested in the form of representational art. There is no doubt that a lot of artists - and not just those who continued to pay homage to the genre - got their start by drawing monsters, by using pencil and paper to gird themselves against what frightened them and to better understand what it was about monsters that attracted them. The specifically great thing about such art, in its highest expression, is what another pair of eyes can tell us about different faces and moments on film that we - though decades, even lifetimes, of exposure - have convinced ourselves we have completely seen. The marvelously craggy, garishly colored paintings of Basil Gogos, the almost clinically precise portraiture of Daniel Horne and, more recently, the boldly realistic lifesize sculptures of Mike Hill form a testimony to how much more there is to experience from any single horror film image passed down to us.

Then there is the field of what is called "fan art" - art that is produced without a professional goal, though very often with professional chops. It sometimes appears in fan magazines and is sold from tables at conventions. The dean of such work, certainly where the world of monsters is concerned, is Frank Dietz, whose restless and varied professional career has included stints as a film director, actor, Disney animator and award-winning documentarian. Frank is accomplished at any number of things, but he is beloved for his Rondo Award-winning fan art - pencil drawings, charcoals and acrylic paintings that are now proudly collected in an irresistible softcover compendium entitled SKETCHY THINGS: THE ART OF FRANK DIETZ (, $50.00).

Dietz's art is remarkable for its own innate restlessness, encompassing and lampoons, as well as some portraits of stunning sobriety and profundity. And then there are the occasional pieces, the real pinnacles of this book, in which all of his available styles come home to roost. His Edgar Allan Poe is done in his cartoon style, ever so slightly heightened with limnings of realism, and he stares back at you, somewhat lopsidedly as was his want, with such clarity you can almost read the insolent thought at the back of his mind and the fears foregrounding it. Equally impressive is his rendering of Roddy McDowall as Caesar in CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, where his love for the film, for the actor, for the performance, for animals and matinees invite the eye to linger over its layers and layers of textured devotion.

Elsewhere, he delights in showing us the lunacy of the genre, from Lon Chaney as Quasimodo ringing the bells at Notre Dame to the the dolefully-eyed Brain balloon from Planet Arous. To see his drawings of the various heroes of these horrors - from Lon Chaney Jr to Kevin McCarthy, from a shrieking Elsa Lanchester to a post-BATMAN Adam West, from a Tingler-examining Vincent Price to a poodle-haired Boris Karloff surrendering to a pool of quicksand - is to have a lifetime of cinema flash before our eyes, and to laugh at revelations buried in the tenor of his draughtsmanship about the actor's individual pride or shame. The caricatures on display are sometimes mercillessly (but always lovingly) observed, telling us how much the actor was likely paid for their performance, how many drinks they had for lunch, and who was directing them.  The more you know about such films, the more richly Dietz's work repays your attention.

It's not all horror and sf-related art. The most ambitious piece in the book is a mind-boggling panorama entitled "The Last Call," which depicts several dozen memorable Western stars from film and television, in costume, scattered around the tavern from the John Wayne feature THE SHOOTIST. Set aside a good half hour to fully appreciate everything buried in it, and then begin to ponder the months of work that must have gone into its creation.
Opening with a Foreword by Greg Nicotero and an Introduction by comedian Dana Gould, SKETCHY THINGS presents its portfolio in themed chapters, ranging from silents to early talkies, "The Big Guys", the Fifties, the Black Lagoon, Hammer horror, Harryhausen, Apes, jungle girls, Vincent Price and so forth. Going through it all is an almost overwhelming experience because it's not just a book about a man and his art; it's about the emotions aroused by this supposedly repellant genre of horror, the splendid creativity that so many other artists have brought to it, and so many little twinkles we were so sure that only we saw when they passed by on the silver screen.

There are any number of books about the genre that have more to say, but few books about the cinema of imagination are as articulate, affectionate and altogether stimulating as SKETCHY THINGS.

Monday, August 03, 2015

RIP Coleen Gray (1922-2015)

The beautiful, talented and ever stimulating Coleen Gray - one of my favorite actresses of the 1940's and '50s - has died at the age of 92, according to her good friend David Schecter. Best remembered for her roles in such films as NIGHTMARE ALLEY, RED RIVER, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (pictured) and Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING, she was also treasured by horror fans for her lead role in Universal's THE LEECH WOMAN, in which she played a middle aged woman who discovers an unpleasant means of retaining her youth and beauty. One might have suspected Ms. Gray herself of such untoward behavior, as she continued to look remarkably youthful and attractive well into her advanced years.

RIP, dear lady.