Thursday, December 14, 2017

My Favorite Blu-rays of 2017


(Kino Classics)
If you told me that my two top choices this year would be devoted to silent films, I wouldn't have believed you - but this mammoth box set overwhelms everything else that came out this year, at least if one overlooks Criterion's 100 YEARS OF OLYMPIC FILMS 1912-2012 (which I do, because sports documentaries don't interest me). It's true that a certain amount of this set reissues earlier Kino Lorber releases of individual Lang classics (DESTINY - with a commentary by yours truly, DR MABUSE THE GAMBLER, METROPOLIS, SIEGFRIED, SPIES, THE WOMAN IN THE MOON), but it also introduces four other titles to high definition for the first time, including the rarely seen and truly baroque and majestic THE PLAGUE OF FLORENCE (1919), an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" with its own unique, haunting, violin-sawing personification of Death. Therefore, it's not only recommended but would constitute a cornerstone of any home video library; to watch the films in this set is receive a crash course in the formation of what we know today as popular cinema - science fiction, fantasy, crime, horror, it's all here - but also a compendium of visual style from one of the most sophisticated of all movie stylists. It's gripping as entertainment, illuminating as history, and indispensable as education. You cannot know cinema without knowing Lang. 

2. THE LOST WORLD (Flicker Alley)
The film restoration of the year: Flicker Alley's 2K restoration of this seminal dinosaur adventure from 1925 miraculously reinstates a further 11 minutes of footage, assembled from as many different sources - reportedly adding the earliest of Willis O'Brien's stop-motion animation effects work filmed for the production - so that a film that ran only about an hour within living memory has now almost doubled its length to something near its original running time. Bright, vividly colored, and scored by Robert Israel in ways that offer occasional tips of the hat to Tarzan and King Kong, it's a delightful trip back in time - and, for the first time, the film feels almost completely whole and therefore more accessible to criticism. Seeing it again, I was impressed to note how many scenes influenced scenes in later features - most obviously the work of Ray Harryhausen, but also something as unexpectedly related as Hammer's THE SCARS OF DRACULA, which includes a suspenseful rope escape scene indebted to one here. An accompanying booklet encapsulates the story of the film's restoration history by Serge Bromberg, and the extras include such highlights as an excellent commentary by Nicolas Ciccone, outtakes from a theatrical trailer, and three of O'Brien's most important short films.

See full review here.

4. BARRY LYNDON (Criterion)
As the years go by, this dark horse continues to cement itself as my favorite Kubrick film. Granted, it has been included in two or three different Blu-ray packages prior to this, so I can understand those who feel it's been too many trips to the well - or the wallet, as the case may be. That said, this is much more than a supplementary upgrade. This is the film's first 4K presentation, it's first-ever home video release in its true 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and it also unveils a brand new 5.1 mix (in addition to the theatrical mono version); taken together, these technological boons make an already extraordinary film even more beautiful, powerfully musical, and deeply moving, building to a finale of almost godlike irony and stoicism. Accompanied by excellent documentary shorts and interviews about the film, about Kubrick, and about the new 5.1 mix, with a stellar booklet containing new writing on the film by Geoffrey O'Brien. Other fine Criterion titles this year include GHOST WORLD, TWIN PEAKS FIRE WALK WITH ME, Orson Welles' OTHELLO, and Hitchcock's THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG and REBECCA.  

5. THE OLD DARK HOUSE (Cohen Media)
If you were born in the 1980s or later, you may wonder what all the excitement is about because so much of Hollywood history has been presented to you on a gleaming digital platter. But this is a classic Universal horror film, directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff and Ernest Thesiger (not to mention Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, and Charles Laughton, the actual husband to the Bride of Frankenstein) that was not part of the famous "Shock Theater" TV package of the 1950s and '60s, so the Baby Boomers responsible for that Monster Kid demographic spike grew up longing for it over surviving still photos in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. It's a kind of Rosetta Stone of black comedy, a remote ancestor of THE ADDAMS FAMILY. Curtis Harrington saved the film from extinction while working at Universal making GAMES in 1967 but it took a long time for the film to be reintroduced into circulation, which it had to do through secondary print sources. After decades of grubby bootleg tapes, an okay LaserDisc release, and a moderately better DVD, this 4K restoration - which I've also seen shown theatrically - is a true revelation, unearthing details of art direction and nuances of performance, not to mention Gloria Stuart's svelte physicality, and upping the ante of this movie from wild and woolly curiosity to a genuine masterpiece. Two audio commentaries, interviews with Sara Karloff and Curtis Harrington, and other extras complete the package.   

6. STORY OF SIN (Arrow Video)
I've been an admirer of the works of Walerian Borowczyk for some time, and my appreciation was certainly broadened by Arrow's BORO box set of a few years ago, which collected a brace of his earliest features and shorts, along with a delicious collection of his short fiction. But my admiration too a quantum leap a few years ago with my discovery of this film, which seems to me the most perfect and thrilling distillation of his style and thematic obsessions. Based on a Stefan Zeromski novel from 1908, it's a period piece about a young woman named Ewa (Grazyna Dlugolecka) whose obsession with a man she barely knows drives her to leave her repressive home and embark on a life of amorality and crime, where each of her decisions seems to expose her to greater humiliation, exploitation and horror. This is the kind of film, so delicate yet exact in its attention to detail, that Blu-ray presentation (2K in this case) benefits it in unexpected ways; its understated beauty, which extends to the delicacy and occasional fury of Dlugolecka's performance, only becomes fully accessible once the image acquires this level of presence. Filling out an already magnanimous package is an exceptionally fine commentary by Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger; two previously unavailable Borowczyk shorts with optional commentary; superb video essays by Borowczyk authority Daniel Bird; an illuminating David Thompson short on Borowczyk's use of classical music; and interviews with Dlugolecka and others associated with the film and its publicity.

This is another of the most important restorations of the year. In some ways, it's even more vital than THE OLD DARK HOUSE which was at least watchable before; this BD imbues CALTIKI with a high gloss that was never part of its image on this side of the ocean, due to Allied Artists' cheap duplication work and overly dark TV syndication prints. Now we can see that this 1950s Italian blob movie - co-directed by Riccardo Freda and its cameraman/special effects man Mario Bava - is more triumph over budget and practical restrictions than we ever dreamed it was. The ace in the deck is a bonus unmatted viewing option that presents virtually all of Bava's special effects shots with roughly twice as much additional frame content as was ever seen in TV prints. With two audio commentaries, one by myself and another by Troy Howarth.
8. THE THING (Arrow Video)
The 4K restoration is stupendous and perfectly captures the filmic textures and sonic shocks I remember from my first theatrical viewing of the picture. This alone would be significant, and a great advance over any other available release, but Arrow once again refuses to be outdone, adding in a new commentary, a feature-length making-of documentary from Ballyhood Productions presented in segments, a half-hour documentary (also from Ballyhoo) about 1982's big summer of horror releases, and more. Scream Factory's deluxe two-disc set from 2012 remains necessary for its unique extras, which extend to an extra commentary and numerous interviews with cast and crew.   

The centerpiece of this collection of films by Japanese maverick filmmaker Toshio Matsumoto is an electrifying, B&W docudrama from 1969 telling the story of a torturous love triangle set against the backdrop of the Bar Genet, a Tokyo nightclub with drag queen hostesses catering to gay members. The film stars, of all people, Yoshio Tsuchiya (who died earlier this year, familiar from countless Kurosawa and Toho kaiju eiga) but the film is stolen by the haunting transgender actor Peter (pictured on the cover), whose new breed youth and beauty pose a personal and professional threat to the club's reigning and more traditional Madam, Leda (Osamu Ogasawara). A deep plunge into a fascinating alien counter-culture, this movie is said to have influenced Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (it's certainly where the high-speed sex scene came from) and it reminds us of the value to by found by occasionally venturing outside one's habit trails and comfort zone. There's a helpful, informative commentary by Chris D. as well. Also included is a separate disc of eight Matsumoto short films which focus on such disparate subjects as the Mona Lisa and a toilet seat, and surprisingly often attain a state of trancendental trippiness. 

10. I'LL BE SEEING YOU (Kino Lorber)
I like to end with a dark horse, and this 1944 William Dieterle film from the Selznick company was new to me and a very pleasant surprise: an unseemly wartime story about two broken people (Joseph Cotten and Ginger Rogers) fulfilling their obligations to society - an Army sergeant and a woman jailed for manslaughter - who meet on a train at Christmas time at the outset of different kinds of furlough. He's been injured in the line of duty (we never learn exactly how) and is dealing with PTSD, and she (an innocent woman convicted of her role in causing an accident that killed a man attempting to rape her) has been given an eight-day release for good behavior. Neither of them is entirely forthcoming about who they are, or what has made them who they presently are, but they fall in love in the shadows of an America already showing widespread signs of post-war anxieties and distortion. Finely crafted, well-acted across the board (Shirley Temple, Spring Byington, even bit parts by Chill Wills and John Derek), the film is also provided with a fine commentary by Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan (them again!), working a little off their usual beat but nevertheless supplying a perceptive reading of the film as well as providing some helpful historical context.
(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Tim Lucas Audio Commentaries Released in 2017

To better guide you in your holiday shopping, here - by popular demand (people ask, if not demand) - is a list of all my audio commentary work released this past year. I have included links (just click on the titles) that will be both useful to you and helpful to me, as is in keeping with the holiday spirit.

Death Walks On High Heels, Arrow Video

Death Walks At Midnight, Arrow Video

Dr. Orloff's MonsterRedemption/Kino Lorber

The SkullKino Lorber

One Million Years B.C., Kino Lorber

Lifeboat, Kino Lorber

Caltiki the Immortal Monster, Arrow Video

Der Mude Tod / Destiny (re-recording of Destiny commentary), Eureka!/Masters of Cinema UK

Compulsion, Kino Lorber

Die Toten Augen des Dr. Dracula, Koch Media (Kill, Baby... Kill! - Germany)

Kill, Baby... Kill!, Kino Lorber US (new commentary, minor differences to Koch Media version)

Kill, Baby... Kill!, Arrow Video UK (new commentary, minor differences to Koch Media version)

Erik the Conqueror, Arrow Video (new commentary)

Vibrations (included in All the Sins of Sodom/Vibrations; Film Movement)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)

Roy Colt and Winchester Jack (Kino Lorber)

The Incredible Shrinking Man (Arrow Video)

Destiny, released as part of Fritz Lang: The Silent Films, Kino Lorber

In addition to these (some of which were recorded in late 2016), I have already recorded another eight commentaries still awaiting release, and assignments to deliver several more! Those will be released sometime next year.

Coming Soon: My picks for my favorite Blu-rays of 2017.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Filmstruck Over Mario Bava

Taking to the air.
A little over a month ago, I was invited down to Atlanta to visit the Turner Studios and participate in a promotional film about Mario Bava for the streaming site Filmstruck. They're the home of the Criterion Channel and its staggering catalogue of international cinema, as well as many other monthly film exclusives, online essays, and even a new podcast. I've never been overly fond of travel but they caught me between jobs and did everything but carry me there in my pajamas. They sent a car for me, picked me up at my front door, flew me down, provided first-rate lodgings, fed me, and generally treated me like a king. They have a terrific, creative team down there.

Yours truly in the Makeup room.
I was also happy to be able to take advantage of the trip to spend some quality time with long-distance amigo Bret Wood, an occasional VIDEO WATCHDOG contributor (starting his BLUE VELVET coverage in our 4th issue, way back in 1990) and currently the producer of all my Kino Lorber audio commentary assignments as well as a talented indie filmmaker in his own right. (His most recent film THE UNWANTED is given a glowing report by John-Paul Checkett in our Farewell issue.) I told the producers at Filmstruck that Bret knew a great deal about Bava himself, having played a role in the restoration of most of his work for home video, so he was also recruited for the shoot and shares the final 14-minute result with me, so capably assembled by producer Tim Reilly and his editor.

Reunited with Bret Wood in the Filmstruck studios.

Filmstruck has something like 11 different Mario Bava films in their library, all in High Definition, so it's a great way to get your feet wet if you're a newcomer to Bava or have had to be selective with your Blu-ray purchases. There is also a lot to be said for paying a low monthly rate for having near-total access to all that is Criterion (how about all the Zatoichi and Baby Cart films for starters?), not to mention some mind-boggling titles they own but have not as yet released, including the original version of BLACK LIZARD (a gender-bending crime musical!), numerous Bulldog Drummond programmers, and my favorite movie of the moment, Vadim-Malle-Fellini's Edgar Allan Poe omnibus SPIRITS OF THE DEAD. Follow the link above and find out more about it.

And here's a link to the promotional Mario Bava piece that Bret and I did. Enjoy! And if you do, let them know about it - maybe they'll have me back to talk about some other things.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Thanksgiving Special: BAT PUSSY reviewed

Almost 25 years ago, I opened my novel THROAT SPROCKETS with a detailed, comic description of a porn flick based on BATMAN. When I did this, I was consciously spoofing one of the trappings of vampire films - the bat - rather than the comic book character or the television series. Knowing that a lot of hardcore films are designed as adult spoofs of other movies, I assumed at the time that there was such a film out there, but I certainly didn't know of one. And so I invented Twatgirl, Commissioner Hardon, the Diddler and other gut-busters - a far cry from what has now exploded back into cult movie consciousness in the form of a rediscovered (if it was ever discovered in the first place) Triple X wedge of mystification entitled, pardon the expression, BAT PUSSY. 

If you pride yourself on being an habitué of any still-relevant social media or blogging outlets, you have no doubt heard some passing reference to this phenomenon BAT PUSSY is a new Blu-ray release from AGFA (American Genre Film Archive) and Something Weird Video, previously released by Something Weird on VHS and DVD-R as part of their Bucky's Dragon Art Theatre Triple XXX Double Feature series. In a fascinating story delineated in the disc's accompanying booklet in an essay called "I Saved BAT PUSSY," Mike McCarthy recalls how a former band mate of his, Bill Eaker, became an employee of a Memphis, TN fleapit called the Paris Adult Theater which eventually closed with a ton of obscure 16mm prints locked inside. McCarthy (who had been given a tour of the premises by Bill and saw a 600' reel identified as BAT PUSSY on the leader) called west coast film savior Mike Vraney of Something Weird, who shot out of his seat at the news. Consequently, McCarthy brokered a deal between Vraney and the Paris Adult Theater owners to take all that pesky forgotten celluloid off their hands for a princely thousand dollars. It was the single biggest acquisition of film prints in the history of the company.

As Vraney was screening the fruits of his long distance sexcavation back in the Pacific northwest, he eventually threaded up BAT PUSSY and couldn't believe what he saw. He insisted that everyone on the SWV payroll take a gawk at it. And now you, too, can share that experience.

If you read the fine print on the back of the BAT PUSSY packaging, you will see at a glance that no one knows who directed it, or in what year it was filmed. All that really seems to be known about the film is that is stars someone going by the name "Dora Dildo" in the title role. (It isn't explained where this information came from.) If you listen to the audio commentary, which is more of a free-for-all including Something Weird's Lisa Petrucci and Tim Lewis as special guests, someone points out that the issue of SCREW magazine early in the film dates from 1970, and then - if I am remembering correctly - goes on to deduce from this information that the film must therefore date from 1968 or 1969. I am assuming, at the very least, that adult beverages were involved, as they probably should be when confronting BAT PUSSY. To the contrary, it looks very 1970-71 to me - like Herschell Gordon Lewis' THE PSYCHIC, without the glitz - which would mean that this really wasn't intended as a timely send-up of the 1966 TV series, as described. If anything, it was intended as an untimely send-up of something that was well into local TV reruns by that time.

Buddy and Sam.
The featurette (technically, as it runs only 55 minutes) opens with Buddy, a loud, tattooed, appreciative reader of SCREW magazine, showing an image inside the paper to his extremely freckly, plump, bouffanted wife Sam, who is having trouble enticing him into bed with her. When she promises Buddy that she could do the same to him, he strips down and heads over there with all the enthusiasm of a kid in line for a ride at an amusement park. They proceed to work at it until an alarm goes off at Bat Pussy Headquarters, alerting Bat Pussy that someone is having sex without her - apparently a no-no in Gothum City (DC Comics - pay close attention to the spelling here!). So she breaks in, breaks up what really isn't happening much anyway, doffs the costume we barely get to see, and it becomes a slightly more enthusiastic but still more chaotic than vigorous threesome. As summarized by Lisa Petrucci in her booklet contribution, it's "just three homely people with thick southern drawls hurling insults at each other and bumping uglies in a makeshift room with an unkempt bed with pink satin sheets."

If you are wondering whether or not BAT PUSSY is hardcore, I must report that Buddy's performance rather mitigates that definition; however, Sam gives the viewer more freckle-framed core than the eye can stand. Fortunately for those ticket buyers who demand some form of penetration, the budget extended to having a double for Buddy standing by, in the form of a 5 & 10 Cent Store strap-on. The art direction extended to said copy of SCREW and cans of Pledge and beer that come and go, which is more than we can say for Buddy. The camera stays planted in a single position for most of the picture, the cast frequently makes eye contact and even speaks to the director, but the sound drops out when he replies. He wasn't taking ANY changes with having his voice recognized.

AGFA and Something Weird have treated this posterity-defying freak show to a 2K restoration, proving that irony is not dead. I have not seen the original VHS presentation, but it's said that once-indistinct, colorless blobs can now be savored as the distinct, colorful blob that is Bat Pussy's Hippity Hop, her preferred mode of transportation. Everything her is first take, so we even get to see her fall off of it once or twice. There is a moment when she pauses to shut down (I think) a purse snatching, with everyone viewed from a preposterous distance. The commentators chalk this up to technical ineptitude, but I suspect the folks who agreed to play these non-sexual roles didn't want to be recognized as part of the production by their neighbors.

Boing, boing, boing...
I must admit, as a conscientious reviewer, that I watched BAT PUSSY in absolutely the wrong way. First of all, I watched it alone - and to be honest, I switched from the actual soundtrack to the audio commentary early on, so I didn't get to hear some of the apparently hilarious and unscripted barbs being tossed back and forth by Buddy and Sam, whom ring finger evidence suggests may have been an actual couple. They reminded me a lot of some of the grown-ups I actually knew in childhood, which raised the creepiness bar terrifically. Lisa and Tim are joined on the commentary track by several folks from AGFA. As I said earlier, no one really knows anything about the film itself, but there is one edge-of-your-seat eureka when someone identifies the tattoo on Buddy's ass as biker ink that narrows his unimaginable story down to the vicinity of Arkansas. But the commentary serves as an illustration of how the film is best viewed - in slap-happy, condescending, un-offendable mixed company, because this is not something to be taken seriously as cinema, much less - infinitely much less - as eroticism. Viewed on its own terms, BAT PUSSY is far more likely to give people the idea that sex is fantastically overrated, if not just plain wrong.

Also included on the disc is a bonus feature from the same theater raid, ROBOT LOVE SLAVES (53:59, originally titled TOO MUCH LOVING and retitled by Mike Vraney); the HD debut of the standard '50s educational amusement DATING DO'S AND DON'TS (12:28, reputed to be written and possibly also directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr.); almost a half-hour's worth of "Crime Smut Trailers"; and other surprises.      

The disc is region-free and the films are presented in their original filming ratio of 1.33:1, which means you WILL see the boom mic dipping into frame now and then. Believe me, your sense of verisimilitude is safe. As for your other senses... you tell me!

BAT PUSSY is obtainable through most usual channels (not Amazon, apparently), but I recommend you order directly from Something Weird Video, where you can also view a NSFW trailer. Their price also compares favorably with others I've seen.

BAT PUSSY. Grab yours today!

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.


Sunday, November 12, 2017


I know, I know. I was doing extremely well there for awhile, with new postings every day or practically every day, and I have dropped off again lately.

Not that I am being unproductive - anything but. I'm still turning out new audio commentaries like clockwork, including three for Kino Lorber's forthcoming Season One box set of THE OUTER LIMITS and another for Arrow Academy's upcoming THE WITCHES (the 1967 portmanteau film starring Silvana Mangano); I have already recorded 18 this year alone, and I've agreed to do more before the year is out.

Additionally, I'm working on two books simultaneously. I've already told you about my Joe Sarno project (for which I recently received an enthusiastic note of interest from a publisher I approached) but I have also agreed to write a couple of monographs for Electric Dreamhouse Press in the UK. One of these will be devoted to Georges Franju's JUDEX (1963), but for a variety of reasons, I've been finding it difficult to start that one.

It is now exactly one week ago that I started work in earnest on the other monograph, devoted to the Edgar Allan Poe anthology film SPIRITS OF THE DEAD (HISTOIRES EXTRAORDINAIRES, 1968), with its stories directed by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini. Sometimes it's impossible to get the merry-go-round turning, and sometimes you have to grab on and hold firm, it starts spinning so fast. I had an astounding first week. I became so completely absorbed in my work that the rest of the world seemed to disappear - and considering the way the world is going, this is not such a bad thing anymore. But since last Sunday, I've compiled close to 42,000 words - and the length requirement advised by Electric Dreamhouse is only 30,000. No worries: my editor Neil Snowdon has advised me to follow my Muse and see where it takes me, which is what all writers yearn to hear, so I am sticking to it.

I am not spending too much time on making everything perfect; I'm producing a rough draft to see what information I have before organizing it all into a working system. I am approaching each of the three episodes as I do when writing audio commentaries, while also working in quotations and data from other sources. Right now, I have most of what I need for the first two stories, but I still need to synthesize my data and write a definitive critical assessment of each. I am just beginning my work on the Fellini segment, which - the more I contemplate it - is probably my single favorite piece of cinema. Every frame of that film is a staggering work of art, and that's how I intend to analyze it. It turned my head upside down when I first saw the movie at the age of 14 and I've never been the same since.

So, if you don't see any activity here on the blog, I apologize - but bear in mind that it's almost certainly because there is a great deal of activity being focused elsewhere that is bound to find its way to you, some happy day.

In the meantime, stay warm, stay well... and stay interested!

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Kino Lorber's Restored SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944)

Last night I decided to watch my advance copy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics' Blu-ray of David O. Selznick's SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944), starring Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, Shirley Temple, Joseph Cotten, Hattie McDaniel, Agnes Moorehead and Monty Woolley - not to mention Soda the Bulldog. I put it on without much familiarity; not only did I not realize that I was committing to a restored "roadshow" version nearly three hours in length, but I was also laboring under the confused impression that this was one of a couple of mainstream pictures from Kino Lorber for which my friend Kat Ellinger had recorded an audio commentary for it - which would have been a taxing job, given its 177-minute length, complete with Overture, Intermission, and Ent'racte!*

I watched the first 20 minutes or so, wondering what Kat would have to say about this and that... and then, slowly but surely, I found myself drawn into the wartime melodrama of its lonely yet optimistic Americana - hook, line and sinker. For a film so deeply rooted in dark fears, and guilty of the occasional racist wartime remark or caricature, it's as inviting and heartwarming as a Christmas movie. It also reminded me strongly of times in living memory when Uncle Sam was still a beloved relative, when America was far less psychotic and manipulated to madness by our politicians and media. It's manipulative in its own way, mind you, but I can think of few nicer ways to start leaning toward the holidays.

Superbly restored over its re-release length by an additional 45 minutes, it's also beautifully photographed in B&W, with lots of long shadows and inventive shadowplay. Additional kudos for its inventive use of future BATMAN Commissioner Gordon, Neil Hamilton.

It streets November 21. Put it on your shopping list. 

* I'm told that Kat and Samm Deighan actually share commentary duties on another David O. Selznick film, I'LL BE SEEING YOU, and LOVE WITH A PROPER STRANGER - both from KL Studio Classics. I am familiar with neither film but I will watch both if only to enjoy their commentary work, which is always top-notch.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Sunday, October 29, 2017


Bert Williams (1922-2001) was a Florida-based actor whose career reached back to episodes of SEA HUNT and THE WILD WOMEN OF WONGO. In 1965, he rolled the dice to become a multi-hyphenate by writing, producing, directing, starring in and even editing and partly photographing an obscure and much sought-after project called THE NEST OF THE CUCKOO BIRDS. The film got next to no exposure but it became the stuff of legend when a quirky, artistic-looking ad for the film ran in one of those old Film Market issues of VARIETY, promising a film that delivered "Sadism," "Horror," "Stark Naked Drama" and (most appetizing of all) "Quack Love." Besides all this, there was a notation stating that the picture had been named "Primitive Art Film of the Year," though without mention of by whom. It was one of those things: anyone who had seen the ad and heard it mentioned by someone else who had seen it bonded to them like a brother. The film was assumed to be lost, and some even assumed it might never have been completed - though it now appears that it did receive at least one playdate because the only known print was located in an abandoned movie theater. In the last couple of years, other surviving materials on the film turned up in a much-ballyhooed eBay auction, which I assume is where Nicolas Winding Refn comes in.

Refn - reknowned Danish director of such films as THE NEON DEMON and DRIVE and the winner of a similar eBay auction that left him the owner of Andy Milligan's celluloid rarities and scraps - has now unveiled THE NEST OF THE CUCKOO BIRDS absolutely free - as the opening salvo of his forthcoming streaming site, which premiered last night in piggy-back fashion on the art film streaming site MUBI. Dale Berry's HOT THRILLS AND WARM CHILLS (1967), restored with materials from the Something Weird Video collection, will be premiering in a few days. Refn's channel will be premiering independently next February.

Any connoisseur of the exploitation cinema's strangest arcana will want to investigate THE NEST OF THE CUCKOO BIRDS - a title whose plurality, its poster suggests, was a last-minute idea that sort of spoils what should have been its biggest surprise. According to the IMDb, the title of its original script was THE VIOLENT SICK. Williams (who bears a distracting resemblance to Donald Trump, as he would look without the elaborate comb-over) plays Johnson, an undercover cop who fails in his attempt to bust some moonshiners in the Everglades but manages to escape brutalized captivity by swimming to safety through gator-infested waters. Before he passes out from exhaustion, he witnesses one of his pursuers being knifed to death by a horrific, chimerical murderess - blonde, beautiful and naked, save for a plastic mask. He awakens in the Cuckoo Bird Inn, a concealed bed-and-breakfast run by Mr. and Mrs. Pratt, who have the funniest, most hostile hospitality seen onscreen since THE OLD DARK HOUSE. Before Johnson can ask a single question, he is warned by Mrs. Pratt - a former actress, she boasts - to mind his own business and respect their covert way of doing things. Being a cop, Johnson can't quite manage this and discovers that his cantankerous, volatile hosts keep their beautiful, blonde, teenage daughter Lisa (Jackie Scelza) chained in a room at the top of the house like some kind of hotcha Saul Femm, because she's supposed to be "mad." Though she's half his age or more, Johnson warms up to Lisa, hovering over her, touching her, giving her little kisses "for luck" after he makes plans to help her escape.

What sounds like a fairly straightforward crime picture equally indebted to Tennessee and Charles Williams takes some abrupt, trap-door detours into bizarre, expressionistic, Southern Gothic horror (and even a graphic gore sequence or two) as the Pratts' peculiar lifestyle is cracked open to show just how sick a family living this remotely from society can be. What we ultimately learn is not all that unexpected, but there is value in the telling and a measure of delight even in the film's sometimes incoherent construction. The appearances of the aforementioned murderess are accompanied by some inspired, screeching sound effects and sudden flurries of artful editing, which suggest an attempt on Williams' part to cop something of PSYCHO's shower murder's technique; however, he throws in the curve of holding the action in frame perfectly still, so that time is literally suspended as the viewer is bombarded with fabricated, dynamic "still" images. There is a good deal of the film that is artless, lame, at times verging on agony, but it's all unpredictably organized with shufflings of original material and ancient stock footage that are unaccountably striking, dream-like, and like little else the movies have shown us. This isn't one of those square peg movies that refuse to fit into the round holes of conventional cinema; it's a shape that doesn't quite have a name. As I watched, I was occasionally reminded of some other movies - POOR WHITE TRASH, NIGHT TIDE, THE INTRUDER (for its coarse look and technique more than anything else), ALICE SWEET ALICE, EATEN ALIVE, the aforementioned THE OLD DARK HOUSE (the 1932 version, which I had just seen earlier the same day, which made it easier to identify the shared story points), Ivan Varnett's THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1950) and THE DUNGEONS OF HARROW - but only in flashes. It's ultimately its own curious, lopsided, intermittently wondrous thing.
One of the film's most indelible touches is the original music score by Williams' wife Peggy, which consists of only two songs, "In The Nest of the Cuckoo Bird Inn" and "Lisa" - both accompanied by a reverberating, pre-Lynchian electric guitar and avant-garde percussive, plucking effects. In an online thread responding to last night's premiere, I read a posting by a guitarist who said he couldn't resist picking up his own guitar and playing along with it. I can fully understand this; the film's music, though probably its most purely enjoyable, competently developed layer, has so much open space that it feels still under construction and invites an extra hand.

Refn has chosen his moment well, on the cusp of Halloween, and he has called attention to it with the equivalent of a Dead Sea Scroll of exploitation cinema. It's an audacious introduction for, to say the least, and bodes well for curiosities yet to come. Of course, one can't help wishing for download and hard copy availability of material this unusual and coveted, and perhaps these will eventually be among the surprises in store.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Bringing Back the Bippy

Dan Rowan and the lovely Dick Martin.
Maybe it's the state of our world, but humor has become a good deal more important to me lately. When I was in junior high (secondary school) and planning a way I might emulate my older fanzine-publishing friends, I spent some serious time daydreaming about launching a humor fanzine; I was going to call it LOONY and I had even designed a mascot for its cover: Irving Lathbeap, a shameless hayseed variation on Alfred E. Neuman. (His surname came from a list of anagrams found in one of my textbooks.) I ended up doing a couple of horror film fanzines instead. While my nostalgia for classic horror films ultimately won out and put me on a scenic route to my eventual career, I must admit to an almost-as-strong nostalgic pull for the comedy I absorbed in my pre- and early-teens: MAD and CRACKED magazine, W.C. Fields, George Carlin, The Firesign Theatre. And recently, I've been inclining back to all that: I've been doting on my MAD Magazine collection and filling in some gaps; perusing some cheaply acquired early issues of CRACKED and SICK (I was amazed to discover that SICK actually once carried reviews of off-the-wall movies like Marco Ferreri's THE APE WOMAN!); reading for the first time Harvey Kurtzman's work on HUMBUG and TRUMP, recently collected in beautiful hardcover editions; and delighting in Time-Life's recent release of  ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (4 DVDs, $14.99).

For many years, it has been impossible to see LAUGH-IN in its original form. The official word was that the original broadcast versions of ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN no longer survived, that the tapes had been cut-down and reassembled into half-hour shows for syndication, without any thought to preserving them in their original form. Then, just last month, Time-Life began to unleash a veritable tsunami of LAUGH-IN viewing options. In addition to the First Season set, there is THE BEST OF ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN (12 DVDs each, $178.99) and ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN: THE COMPLETE SERIES (all six seasons on 38 discs, $254.95). Time-Life will be following through with the COMPLETE SECOND SEASON set in early 2018, and you can also find THE COMPLETE SERIES available directly from their website, payable on a convenient installment plan.

Tiny Tim's national debut stuns Dick Martin.
I saw the first season during its original run when I was eleven years old, and because so much of the material was either news-topical or risqué, a certain amount of it went over my head, but the sheer verve and invention of the delivery made it funny anyway. The impact of LAUGH-IN's premiere is something I can only compare to Beatlemania and Batmania; I had the tie-in paperback, the soundtrack album, even a run of LAUGH-IN magazines. In a sense, NBC and the show's producers manufactured this excitement (didn't they all, to some extent?) but its carousel-like format, its constant influx of new regulars and surprise guest stars (John Wayne! Tiny Tim! Hugh Downs! Richard Nixon!), its incessant dropping of new catch phrases into the zeitgeist (Sock it to me! Here come the Judge! You bet your sweet bippy! Look that up in your Funk and Wagnall's. Goodnight, Dick!) kept it exciting for a remarkably long time. Yes, you probably had to be there - and now you can.

Jo Anne Worley's MAD magazine ad.
Revisiting the first season now, I have found myself not only getting more out of the comedy and better appreciating the broad mix of its talent, but more conscious of its myriad influences - notably old time radio, MAD magazine (series regular Jo Anne Worley had been a cast member of the Broadway hit THE MAD SHOW and had even participated in at least one of MAD's own faux ads), PLAYBOY, THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JOHNNY CARSON, Richard Lester films, THE MONKEES (early episodes included primitive rock video segments), certain kaleidoscopic European films like Louis Malle's ZAZIE, and the vast pop cultural landscape that was the 1960s. It's also fascinating to observe how hugely influential the show and its veterans became. LAUGH-IN was certainly one of the models for MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, even PLAYBOY AFTER DARK, and Arte Johnson's timid Polish immigrant character who suddenly bursts into apoplectic Broadway show tunes shows a very direct line to Andy Kaufman's Foreign Man character. Well before SNL, several members of LAUGH-IN's uniquely wacky ensemble branched off into film careers (Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, Eileen Brennan, Henry Gibson) but most of them gravitated to drama rather than comedy. Even Rowan and Martin failed to spin-off into a feature film career, with 1969's THE MALTESE BIPPY faring no better commercially than their forgotten 1958 film debut ONCE UPON A HORSE.

The first issue of LAUGH-IN Magazine.
There might be some understandable trepidation about referring back to 50 year old topical humor, but - as with classic Warner Bros. cartoons, which pack their own supply of sometimes head-scratching WWII references and movie and radio star impressions - most of what's here is funny because it's wild and crazy. If you get the historical associations, it's remarkable how often the jokes strike one as still relevant or even prophetic. (I haven't seen it yet, but I seem to remember one of the show's "News of the Past, Present and Future" jokes referring to future President Ronald Reagan - and getting a big laugh.) The FIRST SEASON set also includes the trial balloon special from September 1967 (hilarious) and highlights from a 25th Anniversary reunion (where Dick Martin scores some bonus points with a sober and clear-eyed recollection of exactly what his late partner Dan Rowan brought to their partnership).   

The surviving complete material is sourced from analog tape masters, which isn't of good enough quality to warrant Blu-ray presentation, but is certainly good enough for the viewer to see the difference between what was shot on tape (the in-studio stuff) and what was shot on 16mm (the dancing body paint girls, the exterior vignettes, the guy in the rainwear falling over on the tricycle). I recommend you give the COMPLETE FIRST SEASON set a try (at $15, the price is right) - especially if you've seen the cannibalized half-hours and imagine that the hour shows are just more of the same. Those TV syndication compendiums were cut to please the short attention spans of the lowest common denominator and omitted some of the show's cleverest musical comedy extravaganzas. If you're at all like me, you'll probably find yourself pining for the COMPLETE SERIES box before you know it.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.