Thursday, December 29, 2016

Some Outstanding Film Books of 2016

2016 is just about over (did I hear a "Thank Ghod!" out there?), so the time is right to compile a list of some of the best new film books on the market, so that you can follow my pretty blue links and lavish some of your hard-earned holiday gift money on them. Support your favorite writers, critics and historians! They are all that stand between you and a blank slate.

DOC ARMSTRONG: SUBURB AT THE EDGE OF NEVER by Larry Blamire (Bookaroonie Press)
Though a film book only by association, Larry Blamire's mind-boggling first novel is a direct sequel to his beloved cult comedies THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA, THE LOST SKELETON RETURNS AGAIN, and the as-yet-unproduced script THE LOST SKELETON WALKS AMONG US. Set in 1963, it pits Dr. Paul Armstrong ("the pre-eminent scientist who came before all the eminent ones"), his chipper snack-serving wife Betty, Kro-Bar and Lattis (their alien next-door neighbors from the planet Marva), City Brad and Paul's ancient mentor Dr. Atroppasmirki, against an evil genius with a very large (but actually normal-sized) head, his army of toupeed zombies, and gobbling creatures from another dimension - all of them heck-bent on claiming the peaceful suburbia of Blendview for their own nefarious purposes. Accurately described on its back cover as an "absurdist mash-up of pulp adventure, B-movies, and surrealism," it's like nothing else I've read: it's like the slap-happy love child of Lester Dent (DOC SAVAGE), Raymond Queneau (ZAZIE DANS LE METRO) and Nigel Kneale (QUATERMASS AND THE PIT), packed with action and the kind of skillful silliness that, after prolonged exposure, begins to tweak away at the way you think. There are also some special winks included for the cine-literate, like a passage where the novel turns to black-and-white for a stock footage battle of the cheap dinosaurs as Doc looks on through the fissure of a cave shelter. A book of this level of imagination and literary quality actually gives me hope for the future of self-publishing.  

FILMS OF THE NEW FRENCH EXTREMITY: VISCERAL HORROR AND NATIONAL IDENTITY by Alexandra West (McFarland) One of the most exciting things for me, as a reader of books pertaining to horror cinema, is when a fresh name appears on the scene with a new handle on things. This book by Canadian author-critic Alexandra West does precisely that, gathering an assortment of similarly violent yet otherwise seemingly unconnected films - HIGH TENSION, MARTYRS and IRREVERSIBLE, to name a few - and presenting them as a plausible subgenre of socio-political substance. West's persuasive text makes you want to go back and revisit this body of work from her perspective.

A splendid word-and-image companion to the dazzling Guillermo del Toro Collection exhibit launched earlier this year at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and now on tour. At less than 160 pages, one wishes the book was a bit more lavishly illustrated but it contains some choice material, including an interview with del Toro that explores in detail his creative imagination, his sources of inspiration, and his curator's eye as a collector of macabre and fantastic memorabilia for his pied-a-terreur, Bleak House.

On the occasion of its 10th anniversary, Guillermo del Toro has lent his sponsorship and authority (and foreword) to this marvelous, full-access production history of his finest film to date. With its rich assortment of illustrations, including reproductions of del Toro's fascinating production designs and a wealth of production photography, this is very much a hardcover version of the CINEFANTASTIQUE double issue that might have been, were CFQ still publishing. One might wish that a book like this had been released when the film was still new, but it coincides well with Criterion's TRILOGIA DI GUILLERMO DEL TORO Blu-ray box set (including CRONOS, THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE and PAN'S LABYRINTH), stakes a valid claim on the film's enduring classic status, and proves del Toro as vital a curator of his own creations as well as those creators whose works have inspired him.

For those readers who still crave a more in-depth appreciation of del Toro's work, Jerad Walters' "Studies in the Horror Film" series has served up just the book for you with this compendium of 10 critical essays and 21 cast-and-crew interviews. It's twice the length of the aforementioned, authorized book on PAN'S LABYRINTH and also more academic, but indispensible reference for anyone delving into the deep end of del Toro's political fantasy fables.

MARTIN by Jez Winship / THEATRE OF BLOOD by John Llewellyn Probert (PS Publishing)
These first two releases in Neil Snowdon's "Midnight Movie Monographs" series - issued in limited hardcover jacketed editions of only 500 copies - throw down a pretty impressive gauntlet. Monograph series propose a challenge as significant to most writers and critics as the form's temptation is irresistible: it's generally not part of one's education to sustain discussion of a single film for a hundred pages or more. The authors of these two attractively-designed books meet the challenge head-on and in highly individual form, giving us as sense of the spread likely to be encompassed by later entries in the series. In writing about the Vincent Price dark revenge comedy, John Probert takes a more personal, subjective approach that allows for a measure of nostalgia and personal reminiscence in his overview, whereas Jez Winship takes a more impersonal, objective route to an appreciation of George A. Romero's highly original vampire story and why it was so groundbreaking for vampire cinema in particular and the horror genre in general. Despite their differences in approach, passion is evident in both books, which I found more substantial than books I've read in other monograph series. A promising start.

This may well be the book on "classic horror" to beat this year. Jon Towlson's thesis is that, despite the common perception that Hollywood's Golden Age horror classics offer a milder, safer brand of terror than contemporary slasher fare, the pre-code years were, if anything, just as grisly and deranged - at least in their raw conception. Naturally, this book details the nastier minutia of such films as MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932, pictured on its cover), THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, MURDERS IN THE ZOO, THE BLACK CAT, MAD LOVE and THE RAVEN (1935, whose cold British reception in particular led to the curtailing of this unwholesome trend), but it also delves into how some original screenplays had to be toned-down to pass the censors, and why some particularly decadent scripts (such as James Whale's proposed DRACULA'S DAUGHTER) never reached a soundstage. Not all of the information is new, of course, but it's good to have it all in one place, fortified by additional readings of unproduced scripts, especially as bolstered here by Towlson's fine writing.

UNSUNG HORRORS Edited by Eric McNaughton and Darrell Buxton (Buzzy Krotik Productions,
I believe that what separates the real horror fan from the weekend hipsters is a passion that extends to the genre's most deeply buried treasure. Anyone can talk up a love for ALIEN, but when you find someone who swoons at the mention of LIPS OF BLOOD or THE HOUSE WITH THE LAUGHING WINDOWS, you know you've found a friend for life. This lavish new oversized softcover from the publishers of the British magazine WE BELONG DEAD (who brought you last year's '70s MONSTER MEMORIES) embodies this idea - and like their previous, it's all-color, packed with love letters to obscure monster minutiae, and it's surprisingly hefty. There is no Table of Contents or Index; the idea is to dip in wherever you like and continue till you're worn out or just can't wait to watch one of these championed underdogs. It starts with SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT'S EYE and goes from there. Foreword by Joe Dante, no less, and the delightful cover art by Paul Garner makes the package literally irresistible. 

Also Worth Mentioning (But I Haven't Personally Seen a Copy Yet): DARIO ARGENTO: THE MAN, THE MYTH & THE MAGIC by Alan Jones (FAB Press); EURO GOTHIC: CLASSICS OF CONTINENTAL HORROR CINEMA by Jonathan Rigby (Signum), INTERVIEWS TOO SHOCKING TO PRINT: CONVERSATIONS WITH HORROR FILMMAKERS AND THEIR ACCOMPLICES by Justin Humphreys (Bear Manor), ITALIAN HORROR CINEMA Edited by Stefano Baschiera and Russ Hunter (Edinburgh University Press), RICHARD MATHESON'S MONSTERS: GENDER IN THE STORIES, SCRIPTS, NOVELS AND TWILIGHT ZONE EPISODES by June M. Pulliam and Anthony J. Fonseca (Rowman & Littlefield), the biography SOMETHING IN THE BLOOD: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BRAM STOKER, THE MAN WHO WROTE DRACULA by David J. Skal (Liveright), and SUSPIRIA by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (Devil's Advocate) and A THOUSAND CUTS: THE BIZARRE UNDERGROUND WORLD OF COLLECTORS AND DEALERS WHO SAVED THE MOVIES by Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph (University Press of Mississippi).

(c) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved by the author.

Friday, December 16, 2016


With the holidays rapidly approaching, it's time again for another annual round-up of the year's best releases, but I find myself not particularly interested in playing that game. For one thing, it's what everyone else is doing; and secondly, given VIDEO WATCHDOG's declining publication schedule this past year and the general economic state of the industry, screeners weren't coming into us as plentifully as they once did, so there are frankly a number of the year's best titles we didn't get to see. That said, I think it may be more in the real spirit of VIDEO WATCHDOG to dig a bit deeper than the obvious choices and offer up pointers to some real buried treasure. 2016 was a terrible year in many ways, but it can't be faulted in terms of the overwhelming options it offered to us on Blu-ray. The market was literally overwhelmed with releases of exemplary quality, so many that dozens of worthy titles could be easily overlooked, even instantly forgotten as the next week of the deluge covered them up. Beyond this, I certainly want to direct you back to other individual titles I covered here in this blog over the past year, including Synapse Films' TENEBRAE and Olive Films' THE HORRIBLE DR HICHCOCK. Please remember that titles highlighted in blue denote links to pages where these products can be easily obtained, and I'll thank you to use them.  

This is not over my top overlooked title of 2016, it's my top title, period. Less than $30 scores you 32 hour episodes of the highest caliber classic television - a courtroom drama starring E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed (pictured above) that functions as a show about the nuances of law, and the needs for it to occasionally be fine-tuned and rewritten, rather than a standard whodunit. Numerous timely and still-sensitive issues are touched upon in this heroic series. Here you'll see all the top young talent of the early 1960s learning their chops - Gene Hackman, Jack Klugman, William Shatner, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Joan Hackett, Gene Wilder, Joanne Linville, Clu Gulager, Fritz Weaver, Arthur Hill, Richard Thomas (as a child actor!), Frank Gorshin, Frank Overton... and that's just the first few episodes! Writers include Reginald Rose, Max Ehrlich and Robert Thom, and the directors include Buzz Kulik, Jack Smight, John Brahm and (turning in some particularly fine episodes) Franklin Schaffner. A top-shelf release, and a must for any video library devoted to drama as an eloquent, socially responsible art form. Note to Shout! Factory: Please release the remaining three seasons.

THE 39 STEPS (1935)
It's been my own subjective experience that the works of Alfred Hitchcock - the very definition of film as a luxury item, as "slices of cake" - have a perverse way of becoming almost invisible in their upgrading to Blu-ray, as if something in me refuses to believe they can be improved upon as raw experience. They are too easily taken for granted. But each of these Criterion discs, in its own way, is a startling revelation of textures and refinements inherent in materials known to us as scratchy and aged; in restoring these films cosmetically, they are inadvertently restored on the levels of their spontaneous creativity, their daring, their modernism. We feel ourselves more in the presence of the sly devil on their cutting edge. And once we have that pleasure of refreshed acquaintance, there are the depths of pleasure afforded by the context Criterion amasses for each title: the scholarly audio commentaries, the documentaries, the rare on-camera interviews from foreign television sources, the radio adaptations, dissections of special effects sequences. THE LADY VANISHES includes a bonus feature, CROOK'S TOUR (1941), featuring Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as their characters in the Hitchcock film. 

Released last December, this 10-disc box set encompasses all five films in one of cinema's most absorbingly layered, flamboyant, exhilarating gangster sagas, outfitted with entire discs of bonus materials. Also available as a 13-disc limited edition with a bonus book of essays pertaining to the yakuza genre, including Paul Schrader's classic 1974 FILM COMMENT text "Yakuza-Eiga."  

THE KNACK AND HOW TO GET IT (all Kino Classics)
Throughout this past year, and slightly before, Kino has been separately releasing a wealth of Richard Lester features in gorgeous new high-definition transfers. While these free-floating titles beg to be collected as a set with the proper commentary and supplemental annotations, they nevertheless amount to the most important excavation of Lester's subterranean career - below the surface of his Beatles and Musketeer work - to date.

THE TRIP and PSYCH-OUT (Olive Films)
These two releases were also easy to overlook given their lack of attention-grabbing extras, but these two bare-bones releases stand out as two of the most important home video restorations of 2016. Though these restorations were performed some years ago for HD television, Roger Corman's THE TRIP is finally available in its restored director's cut (minus the disclaimer, nudity edits, and lens-smashing finale imposed on the film by American International) and Richard Rush's PSYCH-OUT is shown for the first time in its director's cut, running almost 20 minutes longer than any previous release. It should be noted that the UK release of THE TRIP from Signal One Entertainment ports over the Roger Corman commentary and various supplementary items from the earlier MGM DVD.

We're pleased to see Flicker Alley continuing with its slate of Cinerama restoration releases. While the films can seem a trifle overlong, corny, and overbearingly patriotic at times, they are invaluable time capsules of the world as it once was (and no longer is), and of the enterprising American spirit as it raced to catch up with the potentials of this cinematic technology. THE BEST OF CINERAMA (1962) is ideal one-stop-shopping for the curious, and RUSSIAN ADVENTURE (1966, hosted by Bing Crosby and incorporating footage from six different Kinopanorama productions from the Soviet Union) is a wintery spectacle ideal for holiday viewing. The extras on these two DVD/BD combo sets include a number of shorts filmed in the Cinerama process.

EUREKA (Twilight Time)
Beginning with PERFORMANCE in 1970, Nicolas Roeg presided over one of cinema's great run of 1970s classics. That sequence of masterpieces - WALKABOUT, DON'T LOOK NOW, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, BAD TIMING - concluded with this, one of his most visually ravishing achievements - and a must in 1080p. Twilight Time's limited edition disc presents the film with an isolated music and effects track (with partial isolated score by jazz great Stanley Myers), a 104-minute Q&A with Roeg from the world premiere screening, separate interviews with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, producer Jeremy Thomas and editor Tony Lawson, and more. 

This BD release launches The Joseph W. Sarno Restoration Series with his earliest extant film (SIN, YOU SINNERS! from 1962) and a later, color film that shares and intensifies some of its thematic concerns with the occult. VAMPIRE ECSTASY (formerly VEIL OF BLOOD) is particularly rejuvenated here, with Steven Silverman's cinematography rising to comparisons with the look of Jean Rollin's most elegant vampire poems. I'm writing the liner notes for this series, drawing on new interviews with Sarno's widow Peggy Steffans Sarno, which offer not only my own critical readings of the films themselves but explore newly unearthed biographic details that make the films themselves a more candidly meaningful expression of their author. 

These are just two of several DePatie-Freleng animation discs released by Kino this past year, but they are beautiful to behold on disc and insanely funny, if you're in the right mood. THE ANT AND THE AARDVARK (17 cartoons), which finds impressionist John Byner providing the two voices (modeled after Dean Martin and Jackie Mason, respectively) is basically Friz Freleng's stab at a Road Runner franchise of his own, while THE INSPECTOR (34 cartoons in a two-disc set) goes beyond its Clouseau roots to tap into occasional Fantomas-like abstractions of Gallic crime and surrealism. Also available are the complete TIJUANA TOADS, ROLAND AND RATTFINK and CRAZYLEGS CRANE, which I haven't yet delved into.

This is not my favorite 1950s monster movie, but as I look back over the discs I saw and enjoyed this past year, I must say that no high-definition restoration impressed me quite as much as this one. Yes, it's just a cheap, black-and-white, man-in-a-suit programmer, arguably better than many despite its silly, pseudo-science dialogue, but Olive Films had the luck of the draw where its source materials were concerned. Watching this disc goes beyond the entertainment at hand to provide what feels like a real looking glass window into a world of more than half-a-century ago. Genuinely eye-popping.

(c) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 12, 2016

My Recent Activities

As 2016 begins its annual hastening to a close, I thought I should grab a moment to mention some of the once-extracurricular work I've been doing more curricularly of late. A couple of my recent liner notes assignments are now on the market: VAMPIRE ECSTASY/SIN, YOU SINNERS! (the first volume of  Film Movement's Joseph W. Sarno Retrospect Series on Blu-ray) is available domestically, and Second Run's DVD release of THREE WISHES FOR CINDERELLA is now out in the UK. Both of these were 1500-word assignments and I think they are both fairly meaty.

The Sarno notes incorporate quotes from an exclusive interview I conducted with Peggy Steffans Sarno last fall, as well as never-before-revealed biographical content that sheds new light on how Sarno expressed himself through his compelling filmography. I've already written notes for the next two sets of Sarno series releases, and I'm finding this work to be as absorbing as the writing I did about Jean Rollin a few years ago.

Second Run asked me to do the notes for THREE WISHES FOR CINDERELLA on the basis of a VIDEO WATCHDOG review I wrote of the domestic Facets release, long enough ago that I needed to re-establish acquaintance. It's a charming fairy tale film - subtly feminist, and with a wintry setting that makes it a natural for holiday viewing. Indeed, since the time of its original theatrical release in Germany, it has become a holiday favorite in several European countries, including its native Czechoslovakia, Germany and Norway. If you follow my postings, you can't be put off by English subtitles, so pick it up - it just might brighten your holiday.

I turned in my audio commentary for Hammer's ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (due to street next February 14, St. Valentine's Day) a couple of weeks ago, just before I was blind-sided by seasonal illness. It subsided just in time for me to complete the scripting of a new commentary for Arrow Video that I haven't mentioned before now. I'll be recording it in the next few days, as I await permission to spill the beans to you.

Next up, a new set of liner notes for another as-yet-unannounced UK release, this time for the Indicator label, then onto two big commentaries for Kino, Alfred Hitchcock's LIFEBOAT and Richard Fleischer's COMPULSION. Buried somewhere in the weeks ahead, one hopes, will be the holidays.

There is also already some work lined up for next year. Without going into any discouraged detail, I can at least promise some more Mario Bava on the horizon - and not just from those companies mentioned here.

In case you're keeping track, or need to be reminded as you set about preparing your Christmas list, here are the audio commentaries that were either released or recorded this past year:

VALENTINO, Kino Lorber (US), BFI (UK)
DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS, Arrow Video (in the Death Walks Twice box set)
DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT, Arrow Video (in the Death Walks Twice box set)
BLOOD BATH audio essay, Arrow Video
DESTINY, Kino Classics
DR. ORLOFF'S MONSTER, Redemption (forthcoming)
THE SKULL, Kino Lorber (forthcoming)
ONE MILLION YEARS B.C.Kino Lorber (forthcoming)

 The words in blue are links, in case you didn't know, put here for your convenience.

(c) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

RIP Valerie Gaunt (1932-2016)

It was announced yesterday that former British actress Valerie Gaunt had died in her home on the Isle of Man, at the age of 84. She had not made a film since 1958, when she left acting to marry Gerald Reddington, who has now survived her. To the best of my knowledge, she never agreed to be interviewed about the only two feature films in which she ever appeared: Hammer's THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and DRACULA (US: HORROR OF DRACULA, 1958), both directed by Terence Fisher; however, thanks to them, despite her early retirement, she was never completely out of the public eye.

In THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Gaunt played Justine, the comely housekeeper for Peter Cushing's Baron Frankenstein, who freely gives to this servant what he withholds from the lady of the chateau, Elizabeth (Hazel Court), his cousin and fiancée. Justine is barely in the picture yet her few brief scenes - a clandestine kissing scene with the Baron, a fit of jealous rage that escalates to threats when she discovers his plans for marriage do not include her, and her final entrapment in the lair of the Creature - not only convey all the sides of a well-rounded character but provide the deliberately restrained film with almost all of the emotional dimension it contains.

But it was Gaunt's final performance in DRACULA that was truly revolutionary. Here she was cast as another servant of sorts, a vampire bride of Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) who is introduced as an innocent appealing to Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen), a visiting librarian, to rescue her from a life of imprisonment. Appearing before him as someone isolated, vulnerable, needful, full-bosomed and available, she deftly navigates a path through Harker's defenses to his bare throat.

When Dracula - previously seen as the most urbane of noblemen - bursts into the library with all his undead, animal hatred and bloodlust exposed, he knocks the female predator aside. There are brief shots following such as the one at the top of this tribute, showing the Bride as she really is - and in these short seconds, an entirely new screen archetype was minted: The Technicolor vampiress, unabashedly sexual, fangs protruding over lips of blood - a virus that would subsequently infect the vampire cinema of every other country in the world. It should also be mentioned that, only fifteen days prior to Gaunt's death, we also lost actress Lupita Tovar - the sexy vampire ingenue of Universal's Spanish DRACULA (1931) - whose performance in that film embodies the first step in the direction of what Gaunt achieved.

I've never seen anyone discuss this, but there is a moment in this classic scene when - shortly after Harker is hurled aside by the Count - the camera cuts to Harker as we hear an anguished scream from the Bride, off-camera. The moment reeks of a cut made to appease the film censors of the day, but no photographic evidence of that moment has yet surfaced. The scene ends with Harker seeing Dracula carrying the Bride out of the library seconds before losing consciousness.


The Bride seems to fail in her attack on Harker but is actually twice victorious. She succeeds in biting him, as Harker discovers in his shaving mirror the morning after, and the following morning - when he trails his host and his attacker to the crypt they share - she succeeds once again, on the cusp of nightfall, when he makes the mistake of dispatching her before dealing directly with the Count.

Before Harker must deal with his mortal error in strategy, the aftermath of his first staking presents him with an appalling insight into the existence of this woman, as her voluptuous form corrupts into the remains of an elderly crone. Implicit in this simple shock effect are years of enslavement. As in all the film's best moments, a flurry of conflicting emotions is conjured, including an ironic empathy for the hunger that strove for all those years to keep this bitter reality at bay. As Dracula awakens behind his back, Jonathan Harker is shown that what has passed for life has been only illusion.

Valerie Gaunt's entire screen career might amount to less than ten minutes onscreen, but her iconic value cannot be overestimated. Appearing only in the right roles at the right time, she left us with a handful of scenes that advanced the working vocabulary of an entire sub-genre of horror cinema.

(C) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Review: BEAT GIRL (1960)

Gillian Hills means business, buster.
The following review was originally written for the unpublished VIDEO WATCHDOG #185.

1959, BFI Flipside, £19.99, PAL BD-B + DVD-1

BEAT GIRL (1960; US title: WILD FOR KICKS) is probably the quintessential British teensploitation picture - but also a good deal more. Directed by a middle-aged man who reportedly didn't understand the material or his young cast, the film clearly took its spin from James Dean and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, but it moves beyond that film's ken to become something moderately ahead of its time: a very early example of the baleful, insolent, aggressively confrontational films of generational divide that would surface near the end of the decade in films like RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP (1966), PSYCH-OUT (1967) and WILD IN THE STREETS (1968). It's a bit overdone in places, now and then even laughable, but its camp value is proud cover for an historically revealing depiction of post-war British youth - a product of traumatic times, reviling anything and everything proposed by their parents, absolutely hedonistic yet fearful of real human contact because, the way things are going, no one can really be trusted and it could all be over tomorrow. And make no mistake, one of the reasons the film plays so well today is because we can recognize ourselves in it.

BEAT GIRL has been released by BFI Flipside in the UK in a remarkably thorough set that includes no less than three versions of the film, identified as Theatrical, Alternative and Extended , as well as some rather significant extras. The Theatrical version represents the original UK release version, the Extended adds an introductory scene of the film's two mature newlyweds, Paul (David Farrar of BLACK NARCISSUS) and Nichole (Noelle Adam), and the Alternative adds this scene as well as spicier versions of certain scenes intended for continental release.

Despite the film's title and coffee bar milieu, BEAT GIRL is not really about beatniks, nor even mods and rockers; its young characters are becoming something that (as Jefferson Airplane once sang) hasn't got a name yet. Whatever they may be, it is unmistakably rooted in British post-war experience and the knowledge that anything that has happened before can happen again. Take, for example, this exchange, between Paul (a culturally clueless architect who is ironically designing a city of the future for Third World Countries) and his daughter, the film's pouty heroine Jennifer Linden (Gillian Hills, fresh from Roger Vadim's Les Liaisons Dangereuses):

PAUL: Where do you get your kicks from? Sitting around in cafés, listening to gramophone records? Jiving in underground cellars and caves?
JENNIFER: You are a real square, aren't you?
P: This language! These words! What does it mean?
J: It means us! Something that's ours! We didn't get it from our parents. We can express ourselves and they don't know what we're talking about. It makes us different!
P: Why do you need to feel so different?
J: It's all we've got! Next week - voom! Up goes the world in smoke! And what's the score? Zero! So now, while it's now, we'll live it up! Do everything. Feel everything. Strictly for kicks!

Shirley Ann Field, Gillian Hills and Adam Faith huddle in the underground.
Jennifer and her friends are contemptuous of their elders and express themselves in impressionistic slang - showing its origins in comics ("Voom!"), radio ("Over and out!") and television ("Fade out!") - that feels vaguely science-fictional, post-war yet pre-apocalyptic - or is it more accurately post-apocalyptic with its young survivors embodying, John Wyndham-like, England's inheritance by a new mutant strain? To quote the fractured English of Dave (Adam Faith), a musician resting between songs at the Chiselhurst Caves:

DAVE: Some dump, this is. It's like the war, coming down in the underground. There she was, my old lady, snug as a bedbug in the dark on the floor. That's where she had me. She was bombed-out, so that's where we lived. Just scared rats, underground. That was the first home I ever had. When it was over, I played on the bomb sites, amongst the rats. I'm tellin' you, man, this is a home from home for me. We're like rats, we are - the Rat Race Rock!

Such questions are only amplified by the presence in the supporting cast of Oliver Reed (cast in the film as a favor to his uncle, director Carol Reed) and Shirley-Ann Field, whose respectively unnamed/nicknamed characters - Plaid Shirt and Dodo - avoid one another in their shared scenes much as siblings would normally do, which allows BEAT GIRL to play as an accidental yet perfectly plausible prequel to Joseph Losey's THESE ARE THE DAMNED (1961). Indeed, BEAT GIRL concludes as  THESE ARE THE DAMNED begins, with the introduction of Teddy Boys.

Much as the young characters are depicted as works-in-progress, mutations in flux, dangerously in-between, the music to which they are shown abandoning themselves is not yet rock 'n' roll. John Barry's breakthrough film score (performed by his band The John Barry Seven) is a kind of hellbound jazz with wicked rockabilly accents - not too far afield from the gnarling guitar landscapes of Howard Shore's music for David Cronenberg's CRASH.

From the outset, Dail Ambler's script trivializes the real causes for pain and displacement among its young, citing parental neglect rather than existential uncertainty. Both the Alternative and Extended cuts open with a scene not found in the Theatrical version, which introduces middle-aged Paul and his new bride Nichole (THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN's Noëlle Adam) - in a shared British Railways compartment, their post-marital flirting observed with conservative disdain by fellow travellers and ticket punchers - implying that youth lives wherever it is felt, and is always resented by someone. Without this scene, the Theatrical cut plays more bluntly, and Nichole - who, like Jennifer (raised by a French nanny), is young, blonde and speaks with a Gallic accent - is felt much more as a sudden affront to our protagonist. Jennifer's petulant resentment of her new stepmother leads her to snoop into her past and unveil an embarrassing history of exotic dancing and prostitution. In the course of these investigations, Jennifer ventures into dangerous territory, namely a strip club operated by the tall, spidery-fingered Kenny King (Christopher Lee), who takes a covetous interest in Little Miss Dynamite that is timed to explode in his own face.

Christopher Lee proposes some intimate travel to the Beat Girl.
The above description may make BEAT GIRL sound like grim viewing, but it's actually hot fun from the very first "What ya got?" close-up of our simmering, sullen-faced heroine, after which it explodes into a main titles dance sequence that's equal parts divine and ridiculous, like the best of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, with Oliver Reed embarrassing himself on a dancefloor. Like the notorious Russ Meyer film, part of the balance is over-the-top melodrama but the only sense of humor here is whatever the viewer brings to it. It is fundamentally a serious film, a product of concern over what was happening to British youth and what might become of all that Britain had fought for, yet at the same time an exaggerated commercial exploitation of these fears that its target audience could dance to, laugh at, and flip off.

Director Edmond T. Gréville - a former journalist and critic who had served as an assistant to both Abel Gance and René Clair - would continue to work with Christopher Lee over the next few years on a couple of surprising continental productions, a 1960 remake of THE HANDS OF ORLAC starring Mel Ferrar (himself hot off another Vadim picture, BLOOD AND ROSES) and Antonio Margheriti's THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG aka HORROR CASTLE (1963), which he had a hand in writing. What all of these ventures share in common is a sensationalist edge, expressed in this film by a series of surprisingly torrid striptease acts, evidently impressed upon it by producer George Willoughby (who subsequently went on to co-produce THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and WAR-GODS OF THE DEEP for American International).

Gillian again, dancing to the end of the world with Oliver Reed.
BFI Flipside's two-disc BEAT GIRL set offers three distinct cuts of the film: the UK theatrical release (84m 11s PAL DVD/87m 46s BD), an alternate version with two bonus scenes and softer versions of certain scenes (complete on BD, represented on DVD with 3m of alternate scenes), and an extended version previously issued on DVD including the two bonus scenes and the full-strength versions of the softened sequences (88m 55s PAL DVD/92m 42s BD). The three versions of the film are presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, in English with hard-of-hearing English subtitles, with a PCM mono track on BD and a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track on the DVD9 disc. An accompanying booklet collects a brief reminiscence by Gillian Hills, essays by Vic Pratt (on the film, with quotes from co-star Adam Faith), Johnny Trunk (on Barry's score) and Jo Botting (on Gréville) and notes on the various extras, which offer rewarding context for the main feature.

Aside from the bonus cuts, the most exciting of the supplements is "An Interview with Gillian Hills" (24m 25s PAL DVD/25m 27s BD), in which the still-attractive star proves herself articulate and clear in her recollections of the production, its particulars, and her co-stars, most of whom she sketches with remarkable insight and sensitivity. One only wishes that she had remained available to hold court on the rest of her fascinating career, from her bit parts in BLOW-UP and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE to her fuller roles in THE OWL SERVICE mini-series, Hammer's DEMONS OF THE MIND and Georges Franju's La faute de l'abbé Mouret. Some of our readers might be still more impressed by the film short CROSS-ROADS (1955, 18m 31s PAL DVD/19m 18s BD), which relates to BEAT GIRL on two counts: it's about the salacious, exploitative side of show business and features a pre-Hammer top-billed performance by Christopher Lee. Written and directed by John Fitcher, the second half of the film is an extended meeting between Lee and fellow future vampire Ferdy Mayne, which suddenly takes a surprising supernatural twist and delivers the cinema's earliest close-up of Lee's piercing gaze. Also included are a pair of 3m titillation shorts, BEAUTY IN BRIEF (1955) and GOODNIGHT WITH SABRINA ("c.1958" though it looks a bit later to us), in which a couple of busty ladies from our mother or grandmother's generation change clothes and bubble-bathe.

One of the best Blu-ray releases of 2016, BEAT GIRL can be acquired at the other end of this link.

(c) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved by the author.

Friday, November 18, 2016


Edmund Lowe as Chandu the Magician.
Robert Regent (Henry B. Walthall) is like many other middle-aged men: he's happily married to a beautiful wife, Dorothy (Virginia Hammond); he has a comely teenage daughter, Betty Lou (June Lang), and a go-getting pre-teen son, Bobby (Nestor Aber); and he applies himself daily to his great purpose in life - the building of an all-powerful death ray device! Said invention is naturally coveted by the villainous (black turbanned) Roxor, who commandeers the abduction of Robert and his pet project. Fortunately, Robert is the brother-in-law of Frank Chandler, better known as Chandu the Magician, crime-solving (white turbanned) yogi and sworn enemy of evil!

Henry B. Walthall with his death ray machine.
This concise outline of the Fox Film Corporation's CHANDU THE MAGICIAN (1932), based on a popular radio drama then in its second year, suggests a thick slice of rather dated pulp melodrama. However, the vast resources available to Fox, creative and monetary, invested it with the goods to become one of the enduringly impressive works of 1930s horror and fantasy. Matinee idol Edmund Lowe, whom Fox had most recently cast as the heroic Chatrand the Magician in THE SPIDER (1931), was something of a no-brainer choice to portray Chandu, but the production leaped leagues ahead of its bland predecessor by casting Bela Lugosi as Roxor. One year after his triumph in Universal's DRACULA, Lugosi was primed to give some of his most incandescent performances - in Universal's MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, Paramount's ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, United Artists' WHITE ZOMBIE, and in Fox's Charlie Chan opus THE BLACK CAMEL - and here he portrays Roxor's destructive megalomania with a wattage he didn't dare duplicate until 1935's THE RAVEN. His lissome co-star in that later horror fest, Irene Ware, is also on hand, quite wonderful as Chandu's beloved, the "so very, very young" Princess Nadji. But the aces in this already attractive spread are two of Lowe's compatriots from THE SPIDER: the young but already gifted director of photography James Wong Howe, and master art director/special effects designer William Cameron Menzies, a specialist in Eastern exotica since 1924's THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD at least, who had previously co-directed THE SPIDER and co-directed this film with Marcel Varnel. Leaving the mostly feeble dramatic scenes to Varnel, Menzies applied his genius to a parade of trick shots that even now look vastly ahead of their time, as awesome to behold as they are a pleasure to pause and deconstruct. Among the film's many visual pleasures:
Establishing shots with two- and three-dimensional components,
astral projections,
walks across blazing coals,
exotic artificial exteriors,
perilous visits to ancient temples,
(a dizzying shot worthy of BLACK NARCISSUS!),
rifles that are turned into snakes,
alcoholic hallucinations,
deathly chasms below dungeon floors,
a spectacular underwater scene filmed without water,
and Bela Lugosi wielding a death ray
that destroys great cities
and dismantles dams.

The film also contains one particularly baffling effects shot executed by Menzies and Howe, a startling subjective camera move through the labyrinthine interior of an ancient temple. The cobwebby corridors we see are clearly those of a scale model or miniature, but the various camera devices that made such shots like this possible in the 1980s (like the snorkel) didn't exist in 1932. It boggles the mind how these movie magicians could have conceived such imagery, much less got it in the can, so many decades before the technology should have existed to film it. It's hard to convey the sequence without movement, but it begins with a slow approach toward this maquette:

Once inside, we go to the end of this corridor and turn left,
revealing this corridor, and we advance, turning again at the sarcophagus,
which takes us here
and so forth.
In the midst of the sequence, we turn one corner that leads to a patch of darkness, which would have provided opportunity for a cut. Once we reach the two sarcophaghi, the camera tips down to provide us with an optically inserted high angle view into Roxar's headquarters. This brief transitional shot is worth the price of admission in itself.

CHANDU was previously released on DVD by 20th Century Fox Entertainment back in 2008. Kino Lorber's new Blu-ray upgrade ports over the supplementary materials from that release - an audio commentary by biographer Gregory William Mank, a brief but all-star documentary featurette about the Chandu character, and a now-pointless "2008 restoration demonstration" - but in every other way bests it. Granted, there is only so much that can be done with the visual restoration of a film this old, but there must be significant enhancement over the best that was available eight years ago. To wit: when Mank's commentary describes the subject of one establishing shot as a miniature, it's now more obviously a miniature only up to a point, completed with large, two-dimensional piece of artwork done in what appears to be ink-wash. Also, whenever Mank pauses in his talk to let us listen to something being said, the 2008 soundtrack is, more often than not, abuzz with distortion and brittleness, which makes the listener all the more appreciative of the great strides apparent in the silent running of Kino's latest restoration. I'm not sure how much of this is attributable to the restoration, to the makeup department, or to Howe's cinematography but the film's two ingenues, Irene Ware and June Lang (as Betty Lou), are strikingly contemporary in their allure - not at all like the mannered wraiths seen in so many Hollywood features of the early 1930s. (Mank notes that Lang's frankly pre-code apparel in the scene where the abducted Betty Lou is placed on the auction block at a slave market - more transparent than ever in 1080p! - was a target for censorship in Ontario, Canada.) You will see the occasional banjo string scratches but, otherwise, this is a notable HD preservation of some consummate filmmaking.

A selection of shots of June Lang and Irene Ware.

Mank's commentary is brisk, lively and mostly favors the cast members with its attention, appreciating their work onscreen while tracing the fuller details of their overall careers as well as the occasionally tragic details of their private lives. As the author of a book diagramming the careers of Lugosi and Karloff in parallel, he can't resist bringing in some not-entirely-relevant details concerning MGM's THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, because it was Boris Karloff's "death ray" picture of the same year. Actually, there is an even greater relationship between the two pictures: CHANDU was very much inspired by the occult fictions of British author Sax Rohmer, the creator of Fu Manchu. Mank cites another, later source (which I did not jot down) in tracing the origin of Chandu's name, but it goes back still further to Rohmer's popular 1919 novel DOPE - in which the word chandu figures as a synonym for opiates. Meanwhile, an important antecedent of Chandu himself (not to mention King Features' Mandrake the Magician, who debuted in 1934, and Marvel's Doctor Strange, who debuted in 1963) is Moris Klaw, the astral investigator and crime solver of the occult short stories collected in Rohmer's 1920 book THE DREAM DETECTIVE.

Bela Lugosi at his best as Roxor.

Especially given the recent release of DOCTOR STRANGE, the featurette "Masters of Magic: The World of Chandu" now feels dated as its impressive roster of commentators (Ray Harryhausen, Bob Burns, Greg Mank, Paul M. Jensen, Steve Haberman, Stephen Jones, Christopher Wicking, Mark Viera) reach to Indiana Jones and Harry Potter as high profile points of reference.

If you're at all interested in the origins of DOCTOR STRANGE, or mysticism in cinema, or the history of special effects, or the scenery chewing of Bela Lugosi, consider CHANDU THE MAGICIAN an essential chapter in your education. You can find Kino Lorber's region-free Blu-ray here.

(c) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.