Monday, January 30, 2017

Corman's TOWER OF LONDON Coming to Region B

1962, Arrow Video (UK only), 79m 49s, BD-A/DVD-2 (2 discs)

At one of the busiest junctures of his career - right after making TALES OF TERROR (1962) for AIP, and just before embarking on the European shoot that led to his directing THE YOUNG RACERS (1963), producing DEMENTIA 13, setting up OPERATION TITIAN in Yugoslavia (which led to the making of three or four other pictures), and making his first-ever trip to the Soviet Union - Roger Corman found time to direct this historical thriller about a murderous, ghost-haunted Richard III. It's a remake of sorts of the Universal film of the same title, starring Basil Rathbone (as Richard), Boris Karloff, and a young Vincent Price, made in 1939. This time, Vincent Price has ascended to the misshapen lead.
Vincent Price as Richard III.
As you can tell by his schedule of this period, Corman was entering an experimental phase and open to trying different things, owing to a lingering dissatisfaction over American International Pictures' reported profits on his enormously successful PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961). TOWER OF LONDON (no definitive article) was made for executive producer Edward Small (JACK THE GIANT KILLER), who had a distribution deal with United Artists, and was set up by Roger's own brother, Gene Corman, who had solicited the script from actor-screenwriter Leo Gordon (ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES, THE WASP WOMAN) and would act as line producer. Roger approached the job as a work-for-hire but intended to bring to it the high level of independent quality he had established with his Edgar Allan Poe series for AIP. He assembled his usual crew, headed by cameraman Floyd Crosby and art director Daniel Haller, and was able to obtain Price because the film was ostensibly an historial costume melodrama - not a horror picture, which AIP's contract with the actor forbade him to make with other companies.

Here actor Charles McCauley plays opposite Price in the role Price played in 1939.
Things were looking promising until a few short days before filming was to commence. It was then that Edward Small summoned the brothers Corman to his office to let them know he'd had second thoughts about their original plan; to save money, the film was now going to be shot in black-and-white. It is impossible to watch TOWER OF LONDON now without regretting this decision, which may have seemed logical at a time when so many movies at this time played for two weeks then went to their eternal reward on black-and-white television, but it shows Small's ignorance of how important color was to Roger Corman. When a film is going to be shot in black-and-white, it requires a different kind of planning; it needs something extra built into its visuals, a more stylized interplay between light and shadow - and this one simply doesn't have it. It tends to look like a black-and-white print of a color film. It has some elegant touches - even places where we can see some anticipatory sparks of THE RAVEN and THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH coming into play - but despite a prevalence of deep focus photography and Daniel Haller's beautifully detailed sets, there is the unfortunate feel of a feature-length pulled punch. Price presides over a familiar cast of B-movie talents (Morris Ankrum as... the Archbishop???) in a film that never gets scarier than a few transparent, double-exposed ghosts, and which never quite overcomes the feel of a college play rather lavishly produced for classic television.

A raven-toting sorcerer (Richard Hale) and various ghosts lead the murderous monach to court the Supernatural.
Streeting on February 13, Arrow's Blu-ray presentation was "transferred from original film elements by MGM" and has noticeably more lustre, depth and detail than previous standard definition DVD releases. While most of the film looks comparable to camera negative quality, there are brief individual shots that appear to have been culled from a modestly lesser source. The audio is the original 1.0 mono (uncompressed on the BD) and there are optional English subtitles. A new interview with Roger Corman gives the film valuable context and it's paired with an interview with Gene Corman from a previous release that complements it very nicely.

Michael Pate (CURSE OF THE UNDEAD) and Sandra Knight (THE TERROR) co-star.
The audio commentary is by Price authority David Del Valle and Tara Gordon, the daughter of screenwriter Leo Gordon. Del Valle focuses on Price and his performance's banquet of ham and relish to the exclusion of much else, but his commentary scores on some worthwhile points. First of all, he mentions having had access to Price's own hand-annotated copy of the script and mentions scenes in which he had hoped to do more than he was finally able to do; secondly, he helpfully points out lines of dialogue and soliloquy where Leo Gordon was basing these on lines from Shakespeare's plays (not only RICHARD III but also HAMLET and MACBETH); and thirdly, he makes the marvelously meta observation that having TOWER OF LONDON is like having a vintage performance by Edward Lionheart (Price's character in THEATRE OF BLOOD) preserved on film - which just might be the "way into" the film that it has always lacked. I was hoping to hear more from Tara Gordon, who after all has actual childhood memories of the principal players in this story, as well as a lifetime of stories about her father, but Del Valle does most of the talking. (Tara has told me since I first posted this review that she was nervous about doing the recording and encouraged David to take charge, which has caused me to reconsider my original response to the track.) Ms. Gordon's warm-voiced input encompasses Leo's working relationship with Gene Corman, his sense of humor, the terrible and mysterious fate of credited co-writer Amos Powell, and also includes the charming story of how her parents met - and why her father sometimes reflected on the possibility that, had things gone a different way, he might have ended up as the Prince of Monaco.

The discs are packaged in a reversible sleeve with original, newly commissioned artwork by Dan Mumford, which cleverly makes Richard III look like a distant, demented relative of the Usher family. Exclusive to the first pressing (but not provided to this reviewer) is a fully illustrated collector's booklet containing new writing on the film by Julian Upton.

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


Friday, January 27, 2017

Be Gentle, 2017: Some Recent Passings

Sir John Hurt, CBE, aged 77. Long familiar as one of Great Britain's finest stage and screen actors: A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, 10 RILLINGTON PLACE, a terrifying Caligula in I CLAUDIUS, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, ALIEN, THE ELEPHANT MAN (wish I could BOLD that), 1984, TV's THE STORYTELLER, Roger Corman's FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND, HEAVEN'S GATE, the quietly uproarious LOVE AND DEATH ON LONG ISLAND, the HELLBOY films, three Harry Potter pictures, one Indiana Jones, V FOR VENDETTA, and most recently, he reteamed with V's Natalie Portman in JACKIE. When I saw him recently in JACKIE, I silently marveled to myself that this venerable player - who looked a pack of cigarettes and half a bottle of gin away from death when he was in his thirties - was still around, showing the youngsters how it is done at age 77. I didn't know he was fighting cancer. One of the greats.

Emmy Award-winning actress Barbara Hale - PERRY MASON's Della Street in more than 270 (!) episodes and 30 (!!) made-for-TV movies, and also featured in such films as THE FALCON OUT WEST, THE WINDOW, THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR, A LION IN THE STREETS, THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION (!!!) and BIG WEDNESDAY - has passed away at age 94. As a lifelong PERRY MASON addict, I've long considered her the most compelling "listening" actress around; she had the uncanny ability to insinuate her Della Street character into scenes where she had no dialogue, allowing the viewer to read her thoughts as she silently reacted to the information being discussed. She was the widow of actor Bill Williams (d. 1992) and the mother of actor William Katt. As Paul Drake might say, "Sweet dreams, Beautiful."

Mary Tyler Moore, 80, made the earliest of her many marks on television as commercial spokesperson "Happy Hotpoint" in ads shown on THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE & HARRIET. She could be glimpsed on album covers, as a dance hall girl in the first Rowan & Martin comedy ONCE UPON A HORSE, and she - or, rather, her shapely legs - were all that were seen of her secretary Sam on David Janssen's early series RICHARD DIAMOND, PRIVATE DETECTIVE - a definite forerunner of Diane, FBI special agent Dale Cooper's unseen Girl Friday on TWIN PEAKS. Appearances on many other crime series followed - 77 SUNSET STRIP, BOURBON STREET BEAT, HAWAIIAN EYE and JOHNNY STACCATO, to name several, but she also had two guest appearances on Boris Karloff's THRILLER ("The Fatal Impulse" and "Man of Mystery") before making her debut as Laura Petrie on TV's perennial hit THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.  Her seven-year run on MARY TYLER MOORE was a comedic milestone, as were the spin-off series she produced, but dramatic performances in ORDINARY PEOPLE (Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe-winning), FIRST YOU CRY and the TV miniseries LINCOLN proved that she had a great deal more to offer than being one of the best second bananas in TV comedy. 

Mike Connors, aged 91. He was known the world over as the star of TV's MANNIX, but some of us remember him as Touch Connors, an early discovery of Roger Corman, who starred him in FIVE GUNS WEST, DAY THE WORLD ENDED, SWAMP WOMEN and OKLAHOMA WOMAN. Under that name he also starred in Edward L. Cahn's THE FLESH AND THE SPUR and VOODOO WOMAN and (as Michael Connors) Paul Henried's LIVE FAST, DIE YOUNG, also for AIP. , 

Actress Mary Webster, 81. She was the ingenue in such films as THE DELICATE DELINQUENT, THE TIN STAR and EIGHTEEN AND ANXIOUS, but she is best remembered as the female lead of the AIP Jules Verne adventure MASTER OF THE WORLD and two classic TWILIGHT ZONE episodes, "A Passage For Trumpet" and "Death Ship," both of which also featured Jack Klugman.

CAN drummer Jaki Liebezeit, 78. Jaki was arguably the greatest drummer in the world - he was such a complete player that the bass guitar almost seemed unnecessary on his watch; it needed to find some other way to contribute to the overall sound. He was sometimes called the "mensch-machine," his neat, precise rhythms and polyrhythmic playing were essential to the "motorik" sound that distinguished so much of the new German rock movement of the 1970s. He also played in later years with The Phantom Band, Jah Wobble, David Sylvian, and made essential 12" EPs with Wobble, U2 guitarist The Edge and CAN's Holger Czukay. He's the kind of musician you can only deeply thank, like a soldier, for his lifetime of service.

Mott the Hoople bassist Peter "Overend" Watts, age 69. His muscular, driving bass lines locked into Verden Allen's growling organ parts to produce a formidable rock motor on the classic albums BRAIN CAPERS and ALL THE YOUNG DUDES. His thigh-high platform boots and long prematurely grey locks also made him a key focus of the band's live presentation. I got to meet the band on their Mott tour, but interacted least with Overend and drummer Buffin, both of whom were quiet and retiring; even so, everyone who caught that show remembers how a certain young lady in the front row reached up to Overend's looming swagger and, shall we say, managed to get "past security." It seems in later years he became a dedicated hiker and published a book of his adventures, THE MAN WHO HATED WALKING, a few years ago.

And last, but not least, musician and personal friend Gil Ray, age 60. We never met, we never spoke, but it seems to me that we spent almost every day together on Facebook since that friendship began in August 2009 - and he was a longtime Classic Horror Film Boards contact and a VIDEO WATCHDOG subscriber since our early days. In fact, in VW 33 we reproduced a picture that Gil sent us of his new tattoo - based on a sketch that Federico Fellini had done of the ball-bouncing Devil in his SPIRITS OF THE DEAD short, "Toby Dammit." It was only after knowing him on Facebook for a few years that I learned Gil was a cult celebrity in his own right; he had been a critically acclaimed drummer with the bands Game Theory and The Loud Family. But we never really talked about that, only about the many enthusiasms we shared. I would like his posts, sometimes send him words of support when he was having a bad day (he shared his ongoing struggle with cancer on his page), or words of approval when he shared music we both loved. He was a frequent respondent on my wall, always so enthusiastic, generous and supportive. He liked the pictures I posted of my cats, and sent his sympathies when we lost them. He could see that I can be moody and cynical, but he was always effusive about my work, what I brought to Facebook, and he was particularly very encouraging about my writing there about music. He commiserated with me when I twice failed to pass the test to get book proposals accepted for the 33 1/3 series. In my inbox I found words of encouragement that he sent, urging me to write that Francoise Hardy book I've been flirting with, on and off, for a few years. One day, out of the blue, he sent me a couple of brand new albums from the record store where he'd been working - MC5's BACK IN THE USA and FLOATING IN THE NIGHT by Julie Cruise - "because you've given me so much," he said. That was Gil. I'm going to miss his online presence and the spirited warmth I always felt coming from his corner. Just two weeks ago, he posted a picture of his cat resting on his ankle, preventing him from getting out of bed and offered words of support to everyone who was going to participate in the marches. His last words on FB: "Fight the power." My deepest sympathies to his wife Stacy and family, and to the many, many people who surely loved him. Here's to his well-earned rest and flight from pain. RIP, my friend.

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

Thursday, January 26, 2017

ONE NAKED NIGHT, or They're Tearing Down Al Viola's Bar

The other night, not being quite ready to go to bed and undecided about what to watch, I drew Albert T. Viola's ONE NAKED NIGHT (1965) at random to see what it was about. As the title sort of foretells, it's a mid-Sixties nudie, but what does that really tell you? You never quite know what you might be getting into with those, which is part of their appeal - it could turn out to be a wayward avant-garde film like Michael Findlay's TAKE ME NAKED, a psychological drama like Joe Sarno's RED ROSES OF PASSION, an appalling roughie like Curt Ledger's SHE CAME ON THE BUS, or an out-and-out piece of trash. Eighty minutes later, I was glad I watched it because ONE NAKED NIGHT - above and beyond what it set out to be - belongs to a special category of film whose character only becomes pronounced with time. It tells a fictional story but its real value is that story's documentary context. Like old episodes of NAKED CITY, it inadvertently preserves a New York City of sparkle and swagger and, above all, character that no longer exists.

We should set-up a sub-genre for films with this unique form of appeal. It's not a conscious thing with ONE NAKED NIGHT, obviously, but this preservation of a time and place destined to disappear was something that Jean Rollin deliberately set out to capture with his movies. He was drawn to buildings, castles, even towns that were edging into decay and demolition. He delighted in photographing places that, despite being built to endure centuries, somehow had death somehow built into them nevertheless. As an American alternative, I could cite Willard Huyck's MESSIAH OF EVIL (1975), with its haunting scenes set in Edward Hopper-like streetscapes riddled with the names of antiquated, possibly extinct businesses like W.T. Grant and Florsheim Shoes. What ONE NAKED NIGHT inadvertently captures is what used to be New York City's Fifth Avenue, before there was a Prada or Barnes and Noble in sight. 

Slow news day in New York.
ONE NAKED NIGHT is the story of a young woman, Candy Stevens (Barbara Morris), who leaves her small and small-minded hometown after the suicide of her mother, a woman who was driven to prostitution to ensure that her daughter attend only the best schools. Wanting to put all that behind her, Candy goes to New York City (like David Bowie moving to Berlin to kick his drug habit), where she has been invited to share an apartment with her old friend Laura (Sally Lane). Laura has been making a good living as a fashion model and knows a lot of "exciting people," which turns out to mean that she poses naked for photographers and has a lot of "dates." She brings Candy along to meet her photographer friend Bill (Allen Merson), who agrees to spare a few minutes to take some sample modelling shots of Candy - clothed, of course! In time, they start going out together and hitting all the great night spots, and she gradually relaxes in terms of what she's willing to do in front of the camera and behind closed doors. Bill inevitably breaks her heart, which opens the door for a predatory lesbian neighbor, Barbara (OLGA series star Audrey Campbell), to position herself as her new best friend. She tells Candy stories of how all men are rotten, relating the story of how she lost her own virginity, and beckons her to follow her to a window where she watches Laura engaging in a three-way with two beaux. Barbara never quite gets her wish, as Candy ends up hooking-up with a sculptor named Joe (Joseph Suthrin), which looks like a good thing until her clinging nature gets in the way of his attention to his work. Finally kicked out of his studio apartment, Candy returns to Laura's place and ends up "entertaining" with her until SPOILER she ends up - as one might expect - going the way of her own mother.

Candy and Bill enjoy a night on the town.

Candy's defenses begin to soften under the influence of strong drink.
The simple storyline is meager and dates back to silent movie morality plays, but when Bill introduces Candy to NYC night life, ONE NAKED NIGHT suddenly explodes with vitality and fascination. After a montage of Fifth Avenue storefronts and fa├žades, there is an extended sequence of people dancing in a Harlem jazz club that is truly remarkable. It's not just the places or even the faces, though both have surprising depths of character; the sequence presents us with a way of life that doesn't seem to exist anymore - not because the places are gone, but because people now interact very differently, even in crowded clubs. In this footage, everyone seems to be outwardly sharing and expressing more of themselves. Even moreso than in the film's would-be erotic scenes, here Viola captures a feeling of real human intercourse, real joyous abandon. And then Viola's camera (which he self-operated) returns back outside to linger on the flashing signs, the faces of different businesses receding into the distance on city blocks, the beckoning neon heralding refreshment and adventure - it almost seems to know that none of it but the sidewalks would survive. Editor Fred von Bernewitz infuses it with adroit rhythms, juggling this dreaminess with a sense of a real bustling city, overpowering in its sheer size and character, turned languid and furtive after dark, and the movie finds its real importance here, in these unintended evocations of long walks home after nights in packed clubs. He seems to invite the viewer to wander through it all, like Little Nemo in an unimaginably vast metropolitan dreamscape. This is what Petula Clark was singing about.

Audrey takes a shower.

The morning aftermath of Laura's hospitality.
The acting, I must say, is not bad for this sort of thing. Audrey Campbell actually gets a chance to act here and she's so good one wishes she had worked more often with Joe Sarno, who could have given her characters and situations worthy of her. She even has a brief nude scene, something she never did in the OLGA films. Surprisingly, there was even an official soundtrack release of the jazz soundtrack by Chet McIntyre, which suggests to me that this film was undertaken with somewhat more than the usual ambition - and it is an appealing score.

Whatever its intentions, ONE NAKED NIGHT is a bit more than the immoral morality tale it set out to be. It's a little time capsule of a thrilling place we never had the pleasure of being free and 21 in.

ONE NAKED NIGHT is available on DVD-R or as a download from Something Weird Video.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

EYES WITHOUT A FACE Lighting Stand-Ins

Unidentified doubles stand-in for Pierre Brasseur, Juliette Mayniel and Alida Valli as the next scene is lighted on the set of Georges Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Les yeux sans visage, 1960).

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Hello 2017! Here's Some Favorites of 2016

It's New Year's Day, which is traditionally not a day for work, but I feel I have let my blog followers down by having failed to post any kind of annual Best Of or Favorite list of films or home video releases before the end of 2016. So I'll grab the opportunity of the undemanding day to assemble some quick lists - without comment, because that takes a great deal of time and assessment, but the blue links I've provided will take you right to them. Titles in white are not generally available.

Mind you, I do not pretend these lists are definitive. They are personal, based on what I have seen with my own eyes. The MANOS - THE HANDS OF FATE Blu-ray from Synapse is something that probably belongs on my list of top restorations, but our review screener of that disc was requested by another writer for review before the axe fell, so I haven't had the opportunity to consider it. The frame grabs I've seen look outstanding, however. 

Naturally, the DVD and Blu-ray releases in which I participated are my very favorite releases of the year, for sentimental and often better reasons, but - aside from the list of outstanding restorations, I am leaving these titles out of the general running and listing them in a special category at the end.

A harrowing highlight of BONE TOMAHAWK.
FILM ADVENTURER KAREL ZEMAN (also available at iTunes)

Walter Pidgeon and Roddy McDowall in HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY.

Oliver Reed in Ken Russell's THE DEBUSSY FILM (included in THE GREAT PASSIONS).
DEKALOG (Criterion)
DIE MOERDERKLINIK (aka THE MURDER CLINIC; FilmArt - Germany, technically Nov 2015)
THE TRIP (Signal One Entertainment - UK)
FANTOMAS (Kino Classics)
DIE MUHLE DER VERSTEINERTEN FRAUEN (aka MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN; Subkultur - Germany; includes three different versions)

DEKALOG (Criterion)
DESTINY (Kino Classics)
THE TRIP (Olive Films - technically MGM, who restored this director's cut years ago)
PSYCH-OUT (Olive Films - ditto)
BURIAL GROUND (Severin Films)
TENEBRAE (Synapse Films)
OPERATION LEVRES ROUGES (Artus Films - included only with Alain Petit's book JESS FRANCO - LES PROSPERITES DU BIS)

Michelle Phillips in VALENTINO.
VALENTINO (Kino/BFI - audio commentary)
5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON (Arrow - audio commentary)
JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET (Kino Classics - audio commentary)
BLOOD BATH (Arrow - feature-length audio essay)
DAUGHTER OF DRACULA (Redemption - audio commentary)
DESTINY (Kino Lorber - audio commentary)
VAMPIRE ECSTASY/SIN YOU SINNERS (Film Movement - liner notes)
THREE WISHES FOR CINDERELLA (Second Run - UK - liner notes)

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