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.