Monday, April 23, 2018

RIP Pamela Gidley (1965 - 2018)

I'm particularly saddened to see this one go.

A former Wilhelmina fashion model, she won the crown in the second annual Most Beautiful Girl in the World competition in Sydney, Australia, in 1985 at the age of 19, making her an instant draw for the movies. She was unforgettably sexy in Steve De Jarnatt's CHERRY 2000 (1987) and Mike Figgis' LIEBESTRAUM (1991 - a masterpiece, I thought) and unforgettably tragic as Teresa Banks in David Lynch's TWIN PEAKS FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992). Has anyone ever played a more believable corpse? Outwardly cool and mysterious, with a kittenish demeanor, she had an intimate voice, an aura of danger, and a taunting look that suggested she was amused to find out whether you would succeed or fail with her - she’d get her kicks either way.

As feature options dwindled, she gravitated to series television with continuous roles in STRANGE LUCK, THE PRETENDER, CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION (covering the first three seasons) and SKIN, and she also directed a short film of her own (I JUST FORGOT) in 2004. Unfortunately, her screen credits end about 12 years ago, though she was included in the recovered deleted scenes of FIRE WALK WITH ME.

She had a rare magnetism - strong, even street-tough, yet somehow otherworldly and ethereal too - and I often wondered what had become of her. Looking over her filmography, I see that I have some catching up to do. It has been reported on her Wikipedia page that she died in her New Hampshire home on April 16, at the age of only 52. No cause mentioned.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Third Crepax Volume Now Available

A few days ago, I became aware that the EVIL SPELLS, the third volume of Fantagraphics’ complete works of Guido Crepax, has been out since January. I was able to find a copy at a welcome reduced price and just finished perusing it. I thought some of my readers might like to know that, in addition to Crepax’s adaptations of JEKYLL AND HYDE, THE TURN OF THE SCREW, and three Poe stories (entitled “Three Gialli”), this volume contains his legendary masterpieces about Valentina and Baba Yaga; I’m not sure if these have ever been published before in English. 

Adding further contextual interest is a four-page interview with director Corrado Farina, conducted the year of his death (2016), about the film he based on these stories (BABA YAGA aka KISS ME, KILL ME, 1971). There is also a  marvelous introduction by Barbara Uhlig that discusses the whole Italian movement of comics films and the rise of the giallo, and extensive notes on each story. 

There is also a tidbit in Ms. Uhlig's essay that I wish I had unearthed while preparing my commentary for THE WITCHES... that Italian feminists of this era called themselves “Le streghe” because they were fed up with being considered “good girls.” Considering the general lack of supernatural elements in the Dino De Laurentiis production, this eureka sheds intriguing new light on the proceedings that might have been fruitful to explore.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Recent Viewings: THE ORGY AT LIL'S PLACE (1963)

Ann, a young woman from a small town, travels to the Big Apple in the 1960s in hopes of becoming an actress. In doing so, she finds it sometimes necessary to take some odd jobs to make ends meet, but she has the constant support of a boyfriend who believes in her.

No, I haven't decided to review Season One of THAT GIRL! I'm talking about the legendary "lost" Adults Only film, THE ORGY AT LIL'S PLACE (1963)! 

In one of the biggest buried headlines in home video history, this tantalizing title - long assumed to be, along with numerous early Andy Milligan titles, a fatality of the bonfires to which distributor William Mishkin assigned prints of his properties that stopped paying their keep in rental fees - has turned up as a bonus co-feature on Vinegar Syndrome's Blu-ray disc of PICK-UP, a mystical 1973 skin-flick directed and photographed by Bernard Hirschenson, the award-winning cameraman who also shot DAVID AND LISA, SATAN IN HIGH HEELS, the "Keep America Beautiful" ad with Iron Eyes Cody, and... THE ORGY AT LIL'S PLACE.

Directed by Jerald Intrator under the name J. Nehemiah, THE ORGY AT LIL'S PLACE was shot in and around New York City in 1962. In the biggest of the film's surprises, future director Del Tenney (THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE) is credited as assistant director, and furthermore plays what is ultimately the film's male lead, the heroine/narrator's boyfriend Charlie, working under the name "Bob Curtis." At the eponymous orgy (where a group of NY socialites play Strip Dice, a game that quickly turns into Just Roll the Dice and Laugh), he even performs a couple of stanzas of a folk song. In his capacity as assistant director, it seems likely that Tenney may have handled all the second unit NYC travelogue material, which is actually the film's most impressive content. 

The real ace in the film's deck was its cinematographer Bernard "Bernie" Hirschenson, a former GI cameraman whose other achievements include DAVID AND LISA, the "Keep America Beautiful" ads with Iron Eyes Cody, and SATAN IN HIGH HEELS. The ads for the film looked sordid, but the cinematography is excellent throughout and effectively captures the greatest American city at its greatest. For most Adults Only films of this period, a big screen is hardly a requirement but if you have one, it's going to add a great deal to the film's scenic impact. 

The film was successful and attracted a good deal more than the usual mainstream attention; it's rumored to have found its way into at least one Johnny Carson monologue. But somehow it disappeared from any and all circulation until a near-pristine print was recently discovered on file at the Kinsey Institute, where a collection of erotic films had been maintained. I assume there might have been a problem with Kinsey letting the film out of their hands for commercial use, but Vinegar Syndrome was able to acquire it for use as a free bonus feature through the American Genre Film Archive. Otherwise, I suspect ORGY would be the A-title here.

And despite that harsh and somewhat sleazy title, THE ORGY AT LIL'S PLACE turns out to be a surprisingly wholesome movie about - as I mentioned - a small town girl ("Carrie Knudsen" = Kari Knudsen) who joins her sister ("June Ashlyn" = June Ashley) in NYC with naïve dreams of becoming an actress and gets work as a model on some torrid projects. There are nightgown and bubble bath assignments, even a couple of Bondage spreads. She takes on the work in good humor; it’s a living. It's remarkable in light of where the movies generally took such stories in subsequent years, but nobody gets hurt, nobody gets mugged, nobody rubs up against the Mob, nobody gets raped, nobody even gets their career ruined or heart broken for not coming across sexually. Call it naïve, but ORGY seems to have been made with unusual care to appeal to female viewers, unusual for adult films at this time - and the silvery black-and-white photography actually explodes into full color when all our heroine’s dreams come true. 

Among the cast members is '70s soap star Robert Milli (billed as "R.M. Miller"), who had also appeared in Graeme Ferguson's THE SEDUCERS (1962 - written by Wilson Ashley - any relation to June?) and played a key role in Tenney's THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE (1971).

Oh, and this guy strikes me as familiar, maybe with slightly more gray in his har. Does anyone recognize him? If so, drop me an email or message me on Facebook.


(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Claudia Cardinale at 80

I’ve told the story here, at least a couple of times, about how I first saw ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST by accident as the unexpected half of a double feature, and how it so unexpectedly and completely moved me in ways to which my 12 year old self was accustomed that I left afterwards without seeing the Elvis Western I’d come to see. I knew Elvis couldn’t possibly compete with what I’d just experienced, so I picked up my coat and I left. I look back on this moment as the first adult decision of my life.

I was moved by a lot of different things about the film, but I now realize that its female lead Claudia Cardinale - who turned 80 yesterday - gave what was probably the first truly dimensional, empathetic portrayal of a woman I had ever seen in a film. Jill McBain is introduced as a New Orleans hooker who had the good fortune to catch the eye of a rich, romantic widowed landowner. She moves to join him and steps off the train to find him and his three children massacred for standing between some dangerous men and a goal they cravenly coveted - the raw lumber and iron necessary to build a town called Sweetwater, which Jill had somehow inspired in a heart no longer beating.

Jill is not your usual heroine; she is more of a look behind the scenes of a traditional western heroine’s life as she fights to survive and claim what she has earned. Throughout the film she is attended by three different men, each of them vultures of a kind and, in addition to whatever else the story eventually settles, the film is about how these three men interact with her and how her heart finally settles on one of them, who isn’t the worst one but really isn’t the right one either. When we meet her, she is one kind of illusion, the kind of woman whose promenading glance and well-turned ankle that might inspire a man to look at a handful of dust and dirt and believe in a place called Sweetwater. Then her life is blindsided by tragedy and the need to understand what has happened to her dreams and why. To learn the answers, she must navigate her way through the mysterious intersecting motives of these three men. By the end of this journey, she has gone from being confused by the name Sweetwater to becoming a literal waterbearer for the town springing up around her and the first train rails to connect the two halves of America from east to west.

Jill wasn’t the first woman of her kind in a western, but she was the first one I ever encountered. What she taught me that day at the movies, some men never learn.

Auguri e grazie, Claudia Cardinale.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Recent Viewings: THE PSYCHOPATH (1966)

Margaret Johnson in her doll palace.
There is an Amicus production I’ve known for about 15-20 years and have never really liked at all: Freddie Francis' THE PSYCHOPATH. 

Since its original release in 1966, the Paramount release has been all but impossible to see - except in a pan-and-scanned copy that first ran on TNT with commercial interruption way back when I first taped it, eager to see one of the more important titles that eluded me back in the day. It more recently ran on TCM in the same ugly copy. But this past week it was released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber in an actual Techniscope presentation. Imagine how these frames would have looked cut in half to fit your TV screen...

Patrick Wymark interrogates the principal cast.


I am surprised to report that I have done A COMPLETE TURNAROUND! With the full frame revealed, with the contrast corrected, the film has a marvelous look, with a strong cast and an Elisabeth Lutyens score with a eerie lullaby motif. I believe there may also have been a scene or two cut from the version I had previously seen, as some girly photos are taped to a man’s wall, a bit stronger than Paramount would have allowed for an all ages matinee movie in 1966. Not to mention half the screen was missing in every shot of that TV print! Admittedly, the Robert Bloch script is a little obvious, but the actors are top notch and the team responsible for THE SKULL are turning the screws as ably as ever, with some masterful compositions and set pieces.

Judy Huxtable and Alexander Knox.

Seeing it this way, it is also much easier to appreciate that director Freddie Francis must have seen a Bava film or two by this time, because we get some of his giallo atmospherics - the scattered dolls, the strobing lights, the victim trying to elude her killer while wearing a candy apple red mackintosh out of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. Indeed, this film can now be taken into account as a likely inspiration for some of Argento’s later imagery, and his uses of murder fetishes, particularly in DEEP RED (1975). As the title suggests, Bloch’s script is a quirky elaboration on his PSYCHO - it’s a more baroque study of a somewhat similar, somewhat dissimilar situation and - what a nice surprise! - grandly effective at times. The climax of the film achieves a level of simultaneous high camp and grand tragedy - actually operatic - and (this is no spoiler) Margaret Johnson's final flourish must have had matinee kids squirming in their seats back in the day. 

This is now going to be my chief reference when I tell people that presentation has everything to do with how we respond to a film. Mind you, the opening reel of the film has some unavoidable scratches, but they are much easier to ignore when the frame brightens to a day scene - and thereafter it is smooth, enjoyable sailing. On Facebook, Kino Lorber's Frank Tarzi has credited disc producer Bret Wood with being wholly responsible for the reconstruction of the film's Techniscope elements and color correction, making it releasable in the first place as a more elaborate restoration would have been outside the company's budget. The color palette is essential to the film's enjoyment, featuring extraordinary uses of lavender and royal blue that I'd never noticed in my old faded copy. There's also an audio commentary by Troy Howarth and a grab bag of trailers for similar recent Kino Lorber product.

Very happy to scratch this important restoration off my list of disappointments after all these years... but don't get me started on THE DEADLY BEES (also 1966), pretty much an abject failure from the same filmmakers! 

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Recent Viewings: THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU (1967)

Christopher Lee, actually playing Sax Rohmer's Emperor of Crime in Hong Kong.
You've got to hand it to producer Harry Alan Towers: as busy as he was, as productive as he was, he always had his finger on the pulse of what was happening in popular media - not just in English-speaking countries, but around the world. When director Don Sharp moved on to bigger, more mainstream pictures after directing the first two Fu Manchu films, Towers had already groomed Jeremy Summers to take over the pilot seat, having chosen him on the basis of his solid background in British crime programmers (CROOKS IN CLOISTERS, DATELINE DIAMONDS), pop culture (the Gerry and the Pacemakers film FERRY CROSS THE MERSEY), and episodes of DANGER MAN and THE SAINT. Towers would ultimately make four films with Summers, of which this was the second, following FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS (1967), derived from the Sanders novels of Edgar Wallace.

Douglas Wilmer, Howard Marion-Crawford.
Maria Rohm, Horst Frank.
Peter Carsten, Tony Ferrer.
But the actual playing ground of the third Fu Manchu film showed even greater global awareness and ambition. Again working with a German co-production company (actually two, Constantin joining forces this time with Terra-Filmkunst), Towers further extended his partnership to the Shaw Brothers factory in Hong Kong, which availed the film of a scenic splendor that the previous two could only hint at. The principal players - Christopher Lee, Tsai Chin, Douglas Wilmer, Howard Marion-Crawford - happily returned, seizing paid vacations to the Far East with both hands. They were joined by Horst Frank, Suzanne Rocquet, Peter Carsten and Wolfgang Kieling from Germany, New Zealand actor Noel Trevarthan, and Filipino superstar Tony Ferrer, cannily cast as Nayland Smith's Eastern counterpart, Inspector Ramos. Ferrer, who since 1965 had been starring in crime and action pictures as the Philippines' answer to James Bond, Agent X-44 (a role he would continue to essay until 2007), is the most interesting element of the film. His participation includes actual martial arts choreography, then rarely seen onscreen, and his arrival on the international scene coincides remarkably closely with that of Bruce Lee. True, he's not as dynamic or charismatic a martial artist as Bruce Lee (who is?), but when he cuts loose, he spikes the film with an authenticity it doesn't often summon otherwise. Also making her debut in the series is actress Maria Rohm, Towers' Viennese wife, as Ingrid Swenson, a torch singer in a sailor bar. She pantomimes to two songs sung by Samantha Jones. Nayland Smith's demure Chinese maid, Lotus, is here replaced by a new one, Jasmin - played by Mona Chong, an actress fresh from ADAM ADAMANT LIVES! and DANGER MAN and bound for ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE.

Douglas Wilmer.

Maria Rohm.
Once again, Sax Rohmer's name appears above the title on a story he never wrote. And it's that same story he never wrote. Fu Manchu abducts the daughter of a leading scientist at work on a potentially devastating formula, and the story builds to the usual klutzy demise for Fu and Company...  However, in this case, the film foregrounds what should have been a more interesting and original storyline involving the abduction of Nayland Smith, who is replaced with one of Fu's murderous minions after some advanced plastic surgery. As things play out, it's an energy-sapping subplot as the replacement is played less as an impersonator than as a zombie, which effectively takes the film's putative hero out of circulation - we see him tediously tried for murder, shots of him looking dead-faced and uncommunicative in the dock with flip-optical cutaways to newspaper headlines (the cinematic equivalent of yawning through a series of "and this happened, then this"). On the plus side, Ferrer and Carsten are actually better equipped for the film's physical heroics, and the subplot gives Marion-Crawford opportunities to emote for a change; he contributes his own finest work in the series. Christopher Lee and Tsai Chin likewise are fully prepared to give their best - Lee has an excellent moment when he receives the news of Nayland Smith's capture - but their characters are surrounded by too much excelsior. At the same time, seemingly important supporting characters are simply present to go through the motions, which now verge on the risible (thanks mostly to Frank's fey, panatela-smoking bad guy with Texas cowboy affectations), or to stand around as the drably predictable happens. Summers' direction capably handles all the onscreen traffic, but never feels involved in it. It should be mentioned that Nayland Smith mentions at one point that he has retired from Scotland Yard and is joining a new organization to be known as Interpol. Interpol was founded in the 1950s, but this may not be an error in the film's period setting, as Wilmer's hair is shown to be fully gray here and there is not much on view to absolutely contradict an early 1950s time period - apart from the fact that our villains have not aged.

Christopher Lee.
Noel Trevarthan, Tony Ferrer and "motley crew" under cover.

Horst Frank and torture chamber props going to waste.
Most observers of this series blame Jesús Franco for bringing about the end of this series with the last two entries, THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU (aka KISS AND KILL, THE KISS OF FU MANCHU and AGAINST ALL ODDS) and THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU - and it should be mentioned that Towers himself agreed. But the real problem is fully apparent in the first three: Towers should have allowed someone else to write them - someone with the time to actually read Rohmer, perhaps. The first three films essentially present us with the same story three times, each time served up with a bit more sauce and seasoning. (The spice in this case is some mild profanity; there is almost none of the usual sado-masochism, with the exception of a branding sequence for which a prop of a woman's bare back was obviously built for a close-up that isn't kept in its entirety.)  In a sense, the most significant fault of THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU is that, in its reach for greater (dare I say Bondian?) glamor and spectacle, it loses sight of the character's origins in pulp fiction. The negligence of his alien invasive presence, lurking dangerously on the periphery of a known world, is sacrificed as the series extends beyond mystery into common adventure.

Once again, I have reviewed the film working from the imported Momentum DVD release of THE FU MANCHU TRILOGY of 2001, which includes a trailer. The image grabs used here are from that Kinowelt/Studio Canal-sourced release. The film has since been released domestically as a DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection. I have not seen that version and cannot verify whether or not the American cut differs from this one in any way.

 (c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.