Friday, April 29, 2016

Mise en Abyme: Ben Wheatley's HIGH-RISE

Tom Hiddleston in HIGH-RISE.
I re-read J.G. Ballard's HIGH-RISE for the first time since the Seventies some months ago and felt somewhat disappointed by it. He's one of my favorite novelists and I prefer his most challenging material, so it's not that I was put off by its subject matter or its most lurid highlights; I was frankly exhausted by the book because it contained almost no dialogue, which made Ballard's austere, clinical writing all the more concentrated and wearing. Also, when all was said and done, I felt its ideas had been more definitively handled by William Golding's LORD OF THE FLIES and Luis Buñuel's 1962 film THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, and I'm not accustomed to Ballard being bested by anyone at his own game.
I was very much looking forward to Ben Wheatley's film - it premiered yesterday on iTunes, Amazon Video and other streaming outlets before its US theatrical premiere in mid May - which I found disappointing for an entirely different set of reasons. Unlike the novel, it contains a lot of dialogue (some of it funny, as when one character rules "This is my party, these are my guests, and I will decide who is to be lobotomized!" - but mostly not) and introduced a plethora of characters, vignettes and situations not in the novel besides. While superbly well cast (Tom Hiddleston as Laing, Jeremy Irons as the architect Anthony Royal, Luke Evans as Wilder, also Elisabeth Moss and Sienna Miller), it's too freely adapted by Amy Jump, whose interpretation is immersive and Dionysian rather than remote and obsessed as Ballard is in his storytelling, not sharing his interest in the slow and systematic breakdown of human psychologies divorced from nature and imprisoned in the most abstract extremes of luxury.

Luke Evans.
I sensed it was on the wrong track from the opening shot, which jumps ahead to where the tenants' reversion to savagery is headed, making that our baseline before cutting to a more civilized time "three months earlier." This gave me the uneasy feeling that Wheatley and Jump would not be approaching the story as Ballard did, as a satirical work of surrealism, because surrealism - like any form of fantasy - needs a certain grounding in realism before it can take flight. Here the high-rise itself is a psychotic derangement, a towering beard trimmer that its designer likens to an open hand. The film concludes with a tape recording of Margaret Thatcher defining the differences between state and private capitalism, summarizing all that has come before as possibly the most remote thing from surrealism: social allegory.

At no time does the material remind us, as Ballard does, how our interactions with the rest of the world decide how presentably we live from day to day, how easily our standards of living can deteriorate if we have only to please ourselves - into not making the bed, not changing our clothes for days or weeks at a time, and the psychological cost that comes with such self-neglect. (Writers and other business people working from home, as Ballard did, will hear me.) Even the needle drops of the music score, pulling "Spoon" from CAN's EGE BAMYASI and commissioning a post-traumatic re-recording of ABBA's "S.O.S." by Portishead, evoke a scramble for hipster cred rather than a serious attempt to venture where Ballard had gone, which would have called for something closer far less counter-cultural and much more akin to 1970s supermarket Muzak.

THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL is in many ways the better and more faithful adaptation, though it was conceived at least a dozen years before the novel was written. The Ballard film to beat remains Jonathan Weiss's uncompromising THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION (2000).

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Forbidden Fruits of the Fine Arts Plaza

While exploring the archives of Cincinnati's daily newspaper, THE CINCINNATI ENQUIRER, a few days ago, I made an autobiographic discovery that put a chapter of my life - or, more specifically, the life of the world around me - into sharper focus.

When I was a child, my neighborhood movie theater was called The Plaza - some of you may remember that I dedicated the first issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG to that theater, with an inside back cover photo and a brief memoir. As I knew it, the Plaza differed from the photo above with the addition of an overhanging V-shaped marquee underpinned with orange-yellow light bulbs that reminded me of the bubbles in ginger ale. This was where I saw my first movie (THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, at the age of three or four), where I attended my first movie unescorted (FRANKENSTEIN 1970, when I was probably six - as unimaginable as this might seem to parents today), and where I would experience a number of my biggest movie-going eurekas (most Hammer and Toho films, THE TRIP, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, SPIRITS OF THE DEAD). I can still remember the gut punch of walking past the theater one day and seeing the words THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED on the marquee, not realizing this was the name of the new attraction and fearing that this temple of dreams was about to meet the wrecker's ball.

However, in the midst of the years when it was my great privilege to gain my cinematic education at the Plaza, I can also recall a mysterious period when it became closed to me - a period that, it now seems, I didn't fully comprehend at the time. It's important to remember that my first independent movie-going years were in the early- to mid-1960s, so there was a lot of important stuff in the zeitgeist competing for my attention - not only weekend matinee tickets at the Plaza, but also the Silver Age of Marvel comics, MAD magazine, miscellaneous paperback books, and all the great music that were being played on WSAI Top 40 radio. Nevertheless, I have a clear memory of walking past the Plaza one day and discovering that it had changed. In memory, it seemed to me that it had been closed for awhile, but the newspaper ads do not support this. But something about the theater's exterior had changed, and as I peered through the windows on the familiar swinging doors, I saw that the lobby - formerly decked out with framed posters for the coming attractions - was now displaying framed works of art, and the concession stand area had been simplified to promote one thing: coffee. The admission prices listed above the cashier's box no longer included "35 cents - Children") because children plainly were no longer being admitted. The feature being shown that particular week, I remember, starred Brigitte Bardot.

So I had a recollection that, at some unidentified point in my childhood, the Plaza had become a smut palace. It certainly would have been in keeping with my neighborhood of Norwood, Ohio, at that time, where I obtained my reading material at the Ault Book Store, just up the street from the Plaza on Montgomery Road ("the pike," we called it), near the Elm Avenue intersection. "Ault" was just one letter shy of "adult" with good reason; it seemed to specialize in nudie and fetish publications and was always being raided and closed down for selling pornographic material. Whenever I went in, the lady behind the counter, who resembled (and may well be) this lady...

... told me where the comics spinner racks were and to keep my eyes "straight ahead" until I reached them. You've got to wonder why they didn't keep the comics nearer the front door, but it wasn't my shop to design and this way of doing things worked wonders for my peripheral vision. What I am saying is that my childhood felt somehow surrounded by intimations of the forbidden, so I accepted matters a little too quickly when these fingered fogs of contamination and defilement seemed to seize hold of the Plaza. I remember getting to a point where I walked past the Plaza with my eyes "straight ahead," but with my young imagination riotous with daydreams of the kind of films that might be playing there.

But, as I say, the newspapers contest my memory - besides, I was only seven years old at this time, so what did I know?

Well, I apparently knew enough to know that the Plaza was bringing me ever closer to the Tim Lucas I would grow up to be when it played host to a couple of unforgettable matinee shows just before it metamorphosed into something else. On the weekend of November 29-December 1, as the rest of the world seemed to stand still in the wake of President Kennedy's assassination, I saw two pivotal films at the Plaza: Roger Corman's X - THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES and Georges Franju's THE HORROR CHAMBER OF DR FAUSTUS, aka EYES WITHOUT A FACE. Last year, I recorded Blu-ray audio commentaries for both of them.

One week later, I saw the Fleischer cartoon feature GULLIVER'S TRAVELS there - my first exposure to rotoscoped animation. But on the following weekend of December 14-15, the Plaza hosted a "Big Triple Feature Horror Show" consisting of Paolo Heusch's WEREWOLF IN A GIRL'S DORMITORY (my first exposure to Italian horror), Robert Day's CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (my introduction, believe it or not, to Christopher Lee), and Ronnie Ashcroft's unforgettable THE ASTOUNDING SHE MONSTER. I have written at length about the latter picture's effect on me for VIDEO WATCHDOG, and the feeling I had as I gazed with prepubescent lust and shame at the film's one-sheet poster when it was briefly displayed in the theater lobby - probably during that GULLIVER'S TRAVELS engagement. I remember that day vividly, but what I did not remember was that this afternoon had marked the end of the road for the Plaza Theater, as I had known it since the first day I was exposed by projected film.

On December 18, THE ENQUIRER ran a small display ad in their movie section advising people to "WATCH FOR The Distinctively Different Fine Arts Plaza." The theater's logo was accompanied by a cartoon image of a beatnik, replete with beret and goatee - the sort of personage one never saw walking the sidewalks of Norwood, Ohio. This was followed on December 22 with a more informative vertical display ad announcing that the Fine Arts Plaza would open on Christmas Day with a 6:00 showing of THE COUNTERFEITERS OF PARIS (Le cave se rebiffe, 1961) starring Jean Gabin. In addition to the feature, live jazz would be presented on the theater stage and watercolors from a local artist would be exhibited in the lobby.

That's right - the smut house of my childhood memories has turned out to be an art house! I spent most of that day of discovery prowling through the ENQUIRER archives, discovering that the forbidden pleasures being offered by the only theater in my world (at that time) included such films as Fellini's LA DOLCE VITA and THE SWINDLE, Buñuel's VIRIDIANA (which was held over for a second week! in Norwood!), Antonioni's THE NIGHT (La notte), Dino Risi's LOVE AND LARCENY, Mario Camerini's RUN WITH THE DEVIL, Visconti's ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS, the documentary MARILYN, Irving Rapper & Luciano Ricci's THE STORY OF JOSEPH AND HIS BRETHREN, Peter Brook's LORD OF THE FLIES, Elia Kazan's AMERICA AMERICA - and yes, Brigitte Bardot in Roger Vadim's PLEASE, NOT NOW!, which the theater hosted in mid-January 1964. On April 22, they were showing something identified in the ENQUIRER's theater showtimes listings as "THE LOVE MAKERS"; there was no accompanying ad, which leads me to suspect that it was Koreyoshi Kurahara's THE WARPED ONES (1960) playing under its Audubon Releasing title THE WEIRD LOVE MAKERS - a title the ENQUIRER would never have allowed. I was also fascinated to see that, in early June, the Fine Arts Plaza presented Marcel Camus' BLACK ORPHEUS - a highly rhythmic, percussive trailer for which I vividly remember seeing at the Plaza, which suggests to me that (at some point into the theater's reinvention of itself) the Fine Arts Plaza brought back weekend matinees geared to appease the neighborhood kids. Alas, these don't seem to have been advertised in the local papers. All these years, I've wondered why the Plaza had shown BLACK ORPHEUS without ever showing the picture; it somehow bypassed me completely that it played. I wonder if I could have talked my way in?

What I find so fascinating about this uncovered information is that I could not have been born farther outside the reach of Italian cinema, yet my neighborhood theater - a place that better gauged the local tastes with showings of THUNDER ROAD, HOOTENANNY HOOT and KISSIN' COUSINS - took a brief page in time to present to the natives the works of Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Risi, Camerini... during which time I absorbed it passively, as a child with acute intuitions will do with forbidden fruit. Each time I walked past my former home away from home, feeling shunned by its Adults Only policy, did I determine in the depths of my DNA to grow into the kind of adult who would be accepted there, belong there?

As best I can determine from the ads I found, the kindred spirits who ran the Fine Arts Plaza came to the inevitable conclusion that they had erected their beatnik arts mecca in the wrong spot by mid-summer. When August 12 rolled around, the Plaza reverted to its original name and family-friendly policy to present a first-run showing of Richard Lester's A HARD DAY'S NIGHT. I was there, with my pregnant mother and a bunch of teenage girls, for the first screening and the place went crazy each and every time a Beatle spoke - or, indeed, any time Paul McCartney appeared onscreen.

Sometime in 1964, we moved from one Norwood school district that was quite near the Plaza to West Norwood, which was more of a walk. That said, it was a walk I took frequently, and had to take frequently because the Plaza became less diligent about its newspaper advertising, forcing me to walk to the theater, admission money tight in fist, at least until its marquee came into readable view. If it wasn't horror, science fiction, rock 'n' roll or Jerry Lewis, I would sometimes turn around and head back to the Puls Pharmacy, where I could put that money toward a malted milk or a few comic books. There was a year to come when we lived outside Norwood for a year, and I remember saying goodbye to the Plaza was the hardest thing about that separation - my mother could never settle anywhere for long, so I knew better than to make friends from whom I'd sooner or later have to part. There were also periods, following our return, when the Plaza closed and reopened for mysterious reasons. By 1968, my allowance had risen to the point where I worked up the courage to ask the managers if I might buy the poster for a certain film once it had finished its engagement. I didn't get an immediate yes, but I persisted until I bought the poster for Hammer's THE LOST CONTINENT for all of 75 cents. I'm glad to say I still have it, and a couple of others, which I held onto as an enduring, tangible connection between myself and this long-gone place that somehow presented me with the landscape, if not the meaning, of my life.




Sunday, April 24, 2016


Needing to inject a little Late Late Show nostalgia into my Saturday night, I watched Erle C. Kenton's THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942) for the first time in perhaps 10 years. It might have been even longer than that, as I hadn't remembered that the names Kettering and Hussman - familiar to me from their uses in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943) and Kenton's HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) - figured first in this storyline.

A direct sequel to 1939's SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, an A-picture in every way, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN is very much a B-picture, running only 67 minutes. While it has some dark content, such as the Monster (Lon Chaney, Jr) abducting an adorable little girl named Cloestine (Janet Ann Gallow) in the hope that she might become the donor in his impending brain transplant, there is an unusual brightness about the film. It takes the series out of the shadows of German Expressionism for the most part, making its Germany (Visaria) look as American... well, as American Oktoberfest as possible. Though it's about a walking corpse that kills and surreptitious transplants, there is a wholesome quality at work that extends to Hans J. Salter's music score, which sparkles even as it broods. I also noticed what appeared to be a lengthened reaction shot of Lionel Atwill's Dr Bohmer, seeming to replace onscreen what would have been a more graphic shot of Dr Ludwig Frankenstein (Cedric Hardwicke) subduing the Monster with a hypodermic. Also conspicuous in its absence is any sort of love story between the movie's anticipated romantic leads, Ralph Bellamy and Evelyn Ankers, leading one to suspect that some material foreshadowing its eventual development may have died in an earlier draft.

It must be remembered that the film was made during wartime, and the closing shot of Bellamy and Ankers walking toward a bright new day bursting through a wall of dark clouds seems to speak to this - as does the film's general attitude that mob violence is a constructive thing, and Ygor's (Bela Lugosi) pronouncedly political scheming to donate his own brain to the Monster, replete with plans for taking over local government - and soon after, the whole country - in his newly immortal, gigantic form. More evident to me now than in my formative viewings are some vaguely homosexual shadings in Lugosi's portrayal, most clearly delineated when he tells the Monster, like an impassioned lover, "Tonight, Ygor dies for you."

The DVD image was sharp enough for me to notice some slight differences in Chaney's makeup as he appeared in different scenes (not to mention his disappearing/reappearing neck fat whenever stand-in Eddie Parker stepped into his costume), and also that the ghost of Dr Henry Frankenstein that appears to his son Ludwig was not only voiced but plainly portrayed onscreen by Hardwicke as well. (When this film used to run on television when I was a child, the state of broadcast standards was such that this ghost was not much more than a luminous smear; we couldn't tell WHO that performer was.) 

Not great, but still a tight little movie with some strong characterizations and surely iconic moments between Chaney and Lugosi and Ms Gallow. Though the script by W. Scott Darling (he of WEIRD WOMAN, Boris Karloff's Mr Wong series and various Charlie Chan titles starring Roland Winters) isn't terribly distinctive, it has the unusual distinction of predicting the titles of no fewer than three later titles in cinema's Frankenstein saga: THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969) and FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER (1958).

Saturday, April 16, 2016

2015 Rondo Report

The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards were very good to VIDEO WATCHDOG, and to me, this year. I'm pleased to report that I won for the first time in the Best Commentary category; my work on Kino's BLACK SABBATH and Arrow's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE were flagged as examples of my work, but I like to think people voted for me on the strength of all the work I turned out in 2015, which included BFI's EYES WITHOUT A FACE, Kino's TALES OF TERROR and X - THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES and, certainly not least, Arrow's VIDEODROME. Just as amazing to me as winning the award were the runner-up and honorable mentions in this category, which included Francis Ford Coppola, the late Wes Craven, and the unimpeachable Tom Weaver.

VIDEO WATCHDOG itself was a runner-up for Best Magazine, following the more widely circulated RUE MORGUE but alongside other newsstand heavyweights FANGORIA and HORRORHOUND - a better showing, I think, than we've had in a few years. My feature for VIDEO WATCHDOG  179 - "Vincent Price - I Like What I See" - was the runner-up choice for Best Article.

Making me at least as happy is the fact that Larry Blamire won the Rondo for Best Column, namely his "Star Turn" for VIDEO WATCHDOG. Larry is doing very important work with this column, which explores the significant but overlooked work done by actors on classic television. He doesn't always address what we would call "fantastic television," but the actors to whom he pays tribute often have a legacy of work in fantastic television or cinema. It's illuminating to have someone who acts as well as directs explain why certain performances work, who can also get under the hood (as it were) and talk about the technique that goes into crafting such work. Larry's next column is going to profile two outstanding and curiously allied performances done for THRILLER and THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR. I would encourage you to check out the digital versions of Larry's early columns for us, which included his own riotous, homemade video introductions. He promises these will return soon.

I was also very happy to see that Mark Maddox was recognized as Best Artist in the year that he provided us with one of our best-ever covers, the RAVEN cover for VW 179. The cover itself was not nominated because the Rondos seek to provide a balanced ballot and Mark had received two other nominations in the Best Cover category for work done for MAD SCIENTIST and HORRORHOUND, for both of which he received Honorable Mentions. Mark is a master of film illustration and we're delighted to be featuring his work on our next cover.

It was also good to see the decades of work from our veteran contributor David Del Valle acknowledged with his induction into the Monster Kid Hall of Fame.

Here is the complete list of the Rondo Award results. Thank you all for participating!

Ancient Artifact

Thanks to Joe Dante.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Vote for the Rondo Awards! Before Midnight!

I was so focused on other social media that I completely neglected to mention here that VIDEO WATCHDOG has received five nominations for the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award this year!

Best Magazine!

Best Article: Two nominations - one for Eric Somer's excellent essay on THE SHINING and ROOM 237 in VW 178...
and one for "Vincent Price: I Like What I See" by Yours Truly in VW 179!

Best Columnist - Larry Blamire's delightful Star Turn!

 And Charlie Largent's Kubrick cover for VW 178 has received a Best Cover nomination!

Additionally, I have been nominated for Best Commentary for my work on Kino's BLACK SABBATH and Arrow's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE! That's one vote for both, not a divided vote. (Hey, if you liked one of the six other commentaries I released last year better - like VIDEODROME, EYES WITHOUT A FACE, TALES OF TERROR, X - THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES or THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN - or even the totality of my work in this area for 2015, just go ahead and vote for me - I won't tell!) 

Mind you, VIDEO WATCHDOG contributors are also eligible for such write-in categories as Best Writer, Best Artist, Best International Fan, Monster Kid of the Year and Monster Kid Hall of Fame!

If you've not done so already, please pop over to and show your support for all the people who give of their time and passion to write and illustrate the history of fantastic cinema!

The voting ends at 12:00am eastern time tonight! Thank you for your time and consideration!

Our thanks, as always, to David Colton and his advisors for recognizing our work in these categories!

Friday, April 08, 2016

First Look: VIDEO WATCHDOG 183

Ships to discerning subscribers April 18. In select stores May 6.

Please note that our cover price will increased with this new issue - an adjustment long overdue - but there is still time to order this issue at the current rate. From now until May 1, simply use the coupon code PREORDER at checkout for a savings of $3.00. Or better yet, subscribe!

For an advance inside peek, follow this friendly link.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Sarno Retrospective Series Coming to Blu-ray!

Joe Sarno's erotic masterpieces are being restored and coming to Blu-ray! Here's a press release issued today by Film Media, announcing an exciting new series of Sarno double-feature discs featuring my involvement. Click on the orange titles below to access trailers for the first two restorations in the series!

For Immediate Release



Double Feature Kicks Off Joseph W. Sarno High Definition Release Schedule

April 5, 2016 Fair Lawn, NJ – Motion picture film preservation and restoration company Film Media announced the October 4, 2016 release of Vampire Ecstasy and Sin You Sinners, two seminal films from director Joseph W. Sarno, to Blu-Ray and HD Digital.  This day-and-date Blu-ray and HD digital release is the first in a planned series that will comprise the largest collection of Joseph W. Sarno films under one label.  Also contributing to the series are Tim Lucas, noted film critic and editor of Video Watchdog, who will provide liner notes; and Joe’s widow Peggy Steffans Sarno, who will provide context and invaluable insight into Joe’s process. 

About the Vampire Ecstasy / Sin You Sinners Double Feature Blu-Ray
Magic amulets, occult rituals and an undying curse drive tales of sexual jealousy and forbidden desire in Joseph W. Sarno’s Sin You Sinners and Vampire Ecstasy, presented together for the first time in High Definition.
Sin You Sinners (1963) – An aging exotic dancer uses occult forces in the shape of a magic amulet to maintain her youth and beauty.  Discovering her secret, her jealous daughter and employer hatch plots to steal the amulet for themselves.  When the amulet goes missing, it sets off a chain of events ending in murder.
Vampire Ecstasy (1973) – Three beautiful young women arrive at a grim and secluded castle, eager to claim their inheritance.  In the castle basement, a coven of witches dance in a wild  ritual, invoking the spirit of their deceased vampire leader.  That same night, a brother and sister arrive, warning of the castle’s evil curse.  But too soon they also fall under the witches’ spell, and the stage is set for the return of the Baroness Varga, for the vessel has been chosen! 
Double Feature includes new liner notes by Tim Lucas, film critic and editor of Video Watchdog, director and producer interviews, commentaries and a trailer vault.

The Film Media Project is dedicated to preserving, restoring and raising awareness of obscure and outstanding examples of independent cinema shot on motion picture film.  The Film Media Project archive includes the largest collection of film by erotic auteur Joseph W. Sarno. 
Additional information can be found at