Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Robert Forster: From ALLIGATOR to JACKIE BROWN

In November, the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles will be hosting a month-long tribute to actor Robert Forster, who we lost last month. From November 4-7, the New Beverly will present a perhaps unlikely double bill of Lewis Teague's ALLIGATOR (1980, scripted by John Sayles) and Quentin Tarantino's JACKIE BROWN (1997), which scored Forster his only Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. At Quentin's request, I've written a lengthy new article explaining how Forster's casting in ALLIGATOR unwittingly laid the groundwork for his casting in the role that would later revitalize his screen career. Enjoy!

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Dipping Into ULTRA Q

This past week, Mill Creek Entertainment issued the opening salvo of a long-overdue, serial bombardment of English-friendly Blu-ray box sets of all the various series produced by Japan's Tsubaraya Productions. The first two releases consist of ULTRA Q (a black-and-white series from 1966) and the legendary ULTRAMAN (a color series from 1967). Both series were previously released here on DVD but these sets are in a different league, sourced from the original camera negatives. While ULTRAMAN was shot in 16mm, as was standard for Japanese television at the time, ULTRA Q was filmed in 35mm with similar standards to those of THE OUTER LIMITS, whose two seasons were beautifully issued by Kino Lorber last year.

To finally see ULTRA Q with a depth and clarity it has never known in any television venue, anywhere in the world, is a revelation. I've had a long but very incomplete history with this series; my first exposure was via bootleg tapes without subtitles, which gave the false impression that ULTRA Q was a cheap knock-off of the Toho features where Tsubaraya had made his mark. I then discovered that the series had been released on Japanese laserdisc, which again were without subtitles. They not only looked markedly better but each volume contained an excerpt of a never-before-released English-dubbed version of the third episode, "A Gift from Space." I bought the subtitled DVD set when it came out, but - as sometimes happens when a lot of interesting things came out at once - it got filed away in my attic as other interests took precedence. It's still in the shrink-wrap. So the Blu-ray set, which presents all 28 episodes with gorgeous clarity of image and sound, asserts a new imperative to investigate and come to terms with this pioneering series, which launched the greatest number of spin-offs in television history - 35 different series, to date. Our technology has finally caught up with them, and we can now see with accuracy what was always built into them.

So far, I've watched only the first disc in the set, consisting of the first seven episodes. There is no superhero in ULTRA Q; the series stars Toho regular Kenji Sahara as aviator Jun Manjomi, Hiroku Sakarai (ULTRAMAN's Fuji) as news photographer Yuriko Edogawa, and Yasohiku Saiju as Jun's comic relief aviation partner, all of whom have an uncanny knack for being around when gigantic monsters suddenly appear. A number of these monsters recycle costuming with Toho's kaiju celebrities: the pilot episode's Gomess is Godzilla with extra hair and horns; Goro is essentially King Kong with a different face; Manda is retrofitted to become a fire-breathing dragon; and so on. The show also launched a few monsters that became beloved in their own right, like Garamon (who later became better known as Pigmon on ULTRAMAN, ULTRAMAN MAX and ULTRAMAN X). Did I say a few? In fact, this series probably launched more original monsters than any other program or film series of its time, besting even THE OUTER LIMITS for quantity if not quality. In its 30-minute presentations, it also showed a gift of prophecy; in its sixth episode, an oddball but endearing children's entry without the usual cast and monster threat, it delved into the imaginations of child characters as Toho would later do in 1969's GODZILLA'S REVENGE/ALL MONSTERS ATTACK. Another reason to like the show is that it resisted its own formula and was never afraid to include stories that stepped outside the book to push in different directions.      




My only complaint thus far about the set is that the erratic English subtitling contains a surprising amount of profanity for a 1966 family show. I suspect this has less to do with accuracy of translation than with a young translator's misunderstanding of 1966 discourse that causes Japanese characters - at this time, the most reserved of people - to jump past exclamations of "Heck!" or "Darn!" and go directly to "Dammit!" or even "Shit!" when something out of the ordinary happens. Such words were not socially acceptable at this time even in America; we had milder alternative expressions that allowed people to maintain civil discourse and to keep social intercourse more temperate and easy-going, and this should not be forgotten.

In the best news of all, Mill Creek's ULTRA Q sets are selling for less than half the cost of Shout Factory's DVD box set of the same episodes, even in its Steelbook variant (which sells for a couple dollars more than the regular edition).

Speaking of ULTRA series... Since the Mill Creek ULTRA series Blu-rays are not including the English dubs, some of you may want to grab these important variants while they remain available from YouTube - in addition to the official releases, of course. The majority of ULTRASEVEN (due for release next month) is there with the jokey Cinar English dubs produced in Canada, which ran on WTBS and featured monsters with ridiculous double-entendre names like Merkin. They also have four different ULTRASEVEN episodes with the original dubs shown only in Hawaii.

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

14 Years A Blogger

Tuesday, October 8th, I was in Orlando, Florida, flattened by a debilitating head cold when I should have been taking full advantage of a long-anticipated, first-ever visit to Disney World. I was rooming in the spectacular Wilderness Lodge, but the two days I was rooming there I had neither the energy nor the stamina to venture far from my room, so my holiday photos pretty much consist of shots of the beaver and bird carved into the rustic headposts of my bed, and the Bambi and Chip and Dale tiles mounted on the wall of my shower. On my last day, I mustered what strength I had, showered, dressed, and went out to the dock where you can grab a boat ride that will take you to the heart of the Magic Kingdom in less than 10 minutes. I made the effort but that's as far as I got before the sky began to spin and I asked myself, "Who are you kidding?" Fortunately, this trip was really Donna's dream and she was away for the better part of those two days, being given a VIP personal tour that enabled her to sample well more than 25 rides - and I got to hear her recounting of the days when she came back.

Donna and I flew down to Florida (a first for me) because, these days, she is working as the advertising coordinator and office manager for GENII, The Conjurer's Magazine, a long-running publication written by magicians for magicians. When VIDEO WATCHDOG was still publishing, Donna cherished her telephone and email contact with our subscribers, and the artistic expression she derived from producing our layouts, even though she personally had very little interest in the movies we wrote about. She's more "at home," if you will, at GENII because she's always been fascinated by magic. Our first stop in Orlando was the Florida Hotel, which played host to this year's GENII Convention, where Donna manned the magazine's business table. In the evenings, we got to see live performances by many brilliant magicians from all over the world, including Penn and Teller (Teller by Skype), Piff the Magic Dragon, Raymond Crowe, Lucy Darling, Gaëtan Bloom, Eric Jones, and Read Chang.

Donna had the additional pleasure of being invited onstage as an audience participant no less than four times over that weekend - every time, it seems, I returned to our room for some rest from the activity and the hotel's aggressive air conditioning. She was a big hit, having absolutely pure and gullible reactions of astonishment to every trick she was shown - the audience there was predominantly magicians, so somewhat familiar with how many tricks were done and most interested in the style and finesse of their execution. We were told that some photos were taken of the various shows, and that Donna is agape with astonishment in almost every shot she figures in. We had a lot of fun there, and I was particularly impressed not just by their prestidigitations, their grace and finesse, but by the variety of personas which the magicians had assembled to put their craft across. The crud settled in as we prepared to change hotels on Sunday, the 6th. Everyone prepared us for Florida's heat and humidity so earnestly that I didn't bring any warm clothing and the air conditioning, and the hand-shaking with so many strangers, not to mention the flight down filled with innumerable children bound for Disney World, just got through my beach-ready wardrobe and my defenses.   

Somewhere in the midst of my subsequent mucous-laden melodrama, this blog passed its 14th Anniversary. By my count, I've added 53 posts since last October - an average of four posts per month, one a week - but if I've been lax about quantity, the quality has remained high. I'm especially proud of my A. Louise Downe piece and who else gives you a free LOST HIGHWAY audio commentary? My Facebook activities continues to drain the time I could be putting to use here, and I am trying to be more diligent about reposting here the most interesting work that gets summoned up over there. Let's see if I can do better in the year ahead.

My current outside projects: my audio commentaries for MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES (Arrow) and HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (Kino Lorber) have just streeted, and THE MAGIC SWORD (also Kino) was just announced; I have about a half-dozen further commentary titles already assigned to me by various companies; my novel based on the MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES screenplay has been delivered to my agent Judy Coppage of the Coppage Company, and hopefully is now making the rounds in search of a publisher; my book manuscript about the 1960s films of Joe Sarno is gaining mass at about 425 pages; and next year, PS Publishing will issue my magic realist novella UNDER THE NINE (subtitled Of the Secret Life of Love Songs), inspired by the work of Nick Cave - as well as a set of wonderful songs that I've been blessed to write in collaboration with Dorothy Moskowitz Falarski, formerly the lead vocalist for the pioneering '60s art-techno group The United States of America. 

Stay tuned!   

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.


Saturday, October 12, 2019

SCARS OF DRACULA - You Need It For the Commentary

Christopher Lee brandishing red hot steel in SCARS OF DRACULA.
Constantine Nasr's audio commentary for Shout! Factory's SCARS OF DRACULA is Aces - informed, eloquent, and more incisively critical than I probably would have been under the same circumstances. That said, he’s articulating conclusions reached with the aid of personal scripts annotated by the director and actors, different script drafts (allowing him to deduce the different hands that worked on SCARS, attributed singly to "John Elder"/Anthony Hinds, who seems to have relinquished his right to a final say), internal company correspondence, and more. It’s an important addition to Hammer research as well as an elegy to Hammer’s Silver Age period horror gothics, and a particularly clear appreciation of Hinds.

The film also looks great (made available in standard 1.78:1 and fuller 1.66:1 presentations), includes the "Inside SCARS OF DRACULA" featurette from the UK Sky Canal BD release, and the original Anchor Bay DVD commentary by star Christopher Lee and director Roy Ward Baker (both no longer with us) with input from moderator Marcus Hearn. 

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Friday, October 11, 2019

In A Mirror, Darkly: The Soska Sisters' RABID (2019)

Laura Vandervoort as Rose in the Soska Sisters' RABID.
The Soska Sisters’ new version of RABID - which premiered in late August at the London FrightFest Film Festival and is presently available only on a Region B Blu-ray disc from 101 Films - is only a remake of David Cronenberg’s 1977 film in the general and tributary sense. Surprisingly, the screenplay card itself (which implies a Jen and Sylvia rewrite of a script by story generator John Serge) doesn’t mention the original creator; this information is kept separate, as an introductory credit shown just before the film presents its first (impressively recreated) image as a picture on a commercial billboard. From there, with the exception of some names (and a lot of name-dropping), it pretty much steers its own course.

Said course is often a very jagged line between satire and tragedy - or “schadenfreude,” to use the word it applies to the bizarre, flamboyant fashion designs of its heroine, assistant dressmaker Rose Miller (Laura Vandervoort). Instantly conveyed as a modern-day incel klutz - wearing battle scars, a broken nose and glasses even before she gets into the first of two motorcycle accidents we see - and vegan sensitive ("I just don't like to hurt anything"), Rose explains her professional passion by likening haute couture to armor, something it's necessary for people like her to wear before they step out into the dog-eat-dog world, if they want to feel safe, confident, and empowered.

"Why do we keep remaking old trends?" These disarming, introductory words, are addressed to us by Rose's boss, fashion maven Günter (Mackenzie Gray), at the outset in voice-over as we see Rose arriving typically late for work, stepping off an escalator and forcing her feet back into a pair of unbearably severe high-heeled shoes. "How are we breathing new life and soul?," he continues. "Are we adding something new? If there is no soul, there cannot be life. So, do we cater to the masses, or do we create art, only for the few who dare experience it?"

Well, those are the questions, aren't they?

Unlike Cronenberg's own film, and his work in general, which grapple with philosophical questions about the responsibility of art and science and whether it is possible to entwine the logic of science and the imagination of art, the Soska version is about appearances. Rose quickly loses what little outward appearance she has (or believes she has) in a motorcycle accident brought about by a fit of wounded vanity, which ruins the lower portion of her face. Her wired jaw forces her to take liquid nourishment from a large plastic syringe that looks more or less like Marilyn Chambers' underarm appendage in the original, until a surprise email qualifies her as a test subject for a stem cell regeneration procedure at the Burroughs Clinic, under the supervision of - you guessed it - Dr. William Burroughs (Ted Atherton), whose waiting room is adorned with Francis Bacon-like art that would send any reasonable patient running. Almost as quickly as her face was ruined - and revealed to her in a scene of appalling medical cruelty by the attending Dr. Keloid (Stephen McHattie, who seems to mispronounce his own name), before making the point "I strongly recommend staying away from mirrors right now" - she is almost as quickly reconstituted and rejuvenated into a Cinderella fantasy of herself. She's even able to throw away with her ugly-bug glasses. Suddenly beautiful and always hungry, she experiences a fit of breakthrough creativity and designs Günter's new spring line almost single-handedly... but with all this new beauty, talent and confidence comes a new daily regimen: a "super-protein" beverage called Red and other medication labelled "May Induce Paranoia - May Cause Vivid HALLUCINATIONS." (N
o pain, no gain - right?)

This is not quite the film most people might expect going in; it lacks the original’s essential humanity and has no particular underlying philosophy about the ideas (or at least the name checks) it engages. Though the film is titled RABID, it spends surprisingly little time on the city-wide rabies outbreak that results from Rose's "Patient Zero" interactions with the general public. Certainly this was likely imposed on the film by budgetary constraints, but Cronenberg had the same problem and somehow managed. It was a conscious decision on the Soskas' part to keep Rose in focus at all times, while Cronenberg aspired to give his tragic heroine a distance and anonymity from the horror she spawned, which eventually spread far enough to return to her.

Mind you, this new RABID is the product of very different Canadians and a very different Canada. Cronenberg made his film in a simpler and cozier world, at a time when many Canadians didn't even bother locking their doors at night. Here, the societal impact of Rose’s skyrocketing narcissism is given barely a glance in the scheme of things, because the focus is always on Rose, her troubled dating life, her groveling professional servitude, and her shallow, obnoxious model friend Chelsea (Hanneke Talbot), whose every line of dialogue describes someone playing to an imaginary laugh track. It’s telling that the epidemic is first spread to a daytime soap actor (Stephen Huszar) in a swimming pool labelled "Shallow Water - Do Not Dive" and when it finally explodes, it's on the set of the telenovela as the hunky star's coked-up director tries to get the entire murderous outburst on film as "a witness to [his] truth." 

Do we laugh? Do we scream? Do we change the channel?

The bloody bacchanal (which includes a non sequitur appearance of a department store Santa Claus, à la Cronenberg's original) builds to a climactic runway show that goes similarly haywire - so, in a sense, the impact we are made to feel from the rabies epidemic is likened to interruptions of programming, interspersed with supposedly real life scenes that feel awfully like scenes from a random cop or hospital show. As Rose's tragic transformation continues to evolve, Vandervoort's well-developed, empathic performance is countered as the horror aspect veer well outside of Cronenberg into John Carpenter territory and then further on toward Frank Henenlotter-ville. In all fairness, some of this special effects material appears to have been wisely cut back in the editing, but its final port is even crazier - showing the influence of Luca Guadagnino's SUSPIRIA (2018), which can also be seen in Rose's impressively hellish dress designs. Perhaps we might do well to remember those warning labels on Rose's medication, but the film does nothing to clarify how much, or indeed if any, of the film is subjective.

The Soskas' goal here appears to have been to touch on as much of Cronenberg's work as possible in the context of a single story, which does honor to the hero but amounts to a series of knowing distractions from the story at hand and the absence of a more substantial there there. The swimming pool seduction and photos of Dr. Burroughs' late wife (images of actress Lynn Loring) invoke SHIVERS; the pharmacological side-effects and a climactic suicide invoke VIDEODROME (as does Vandervoort's resemblance to Deborah Harry, and the fact that one fellow addresses her as "Blondie"); the Burroughs references invoke NAKED LUNCH; Rose appears to be "always crashing in the same car" (to borrow a line from David Bowie); Rose's fashion line might better be described as "the shape of rage" (an important phrase from THE BROOD) rather than as "schadenfreude"; and the crimson surgical mantles of DEAD RINGERS are standard dress code at the Burroughs Clinic (where original cast member Heidi Van Palleske makes a cameo). It's reasonably well integrated but the constant reminders of how clever the references are serve no constructive purpose and continually take us out of the film's presumed reality.

SPOILER (please skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the film): In the film's defense, it played more richly on my second viewing, when the meaning of its odd coda struck home for me. With VIDEODROME, we never really learn if Max Renn's final suicidal act frees him or ties him into the loop of the film itself (which is suggested by the way the film opens), but in this film, Rose - after going through similar motions - definitely does survive, apparently made immortal by her stem cell-engineered armoring. Even so, there is a scary implication that nothing of the original Rose survives, that what is left to live and breathe and roar with outrage is just the surface, just the armor, just her appearance. She's hammering with her fists against unbreakable glass so something of Rose may remain, or believe it remains, but like the reinvented tenants of the Skyliner high-rise apartments in SHIVERS, she's ready to meet the amok, hostile, incessantly bitchy world we've made for ourselves. There are also some visual evocations of the Soskas' prior success AMERICAN MARY peppered throughout.   

Despite its problems, the implications of this finale raise this tossed salad above the usual formulaic remake, as do a number of outstanding lead performances - Vandervoort, Atherton, and also Mackenzie Gray as Günter, the Keith Richards-wigged, reptilian-looking figurehead of the fashion salon, who looks less like a real person than some wizened kimonoed totem that Screamin’ Jay Hawkins might rattle in your face; these are all characters and performances I think Cronenberg himself would have been pleased to direct. Co-producers/directors/writers Jen and Sylvia Soska, the film's only twins, appear briefly as two snide and naughty disco flakes - named Bev and Elly in the end scroll, a wink at DEAD RINGERS. They seem to be having a good time in fantasy land, but if this story is any indication, internal pressure is building. Time will tell if they can move past their preoccupation with make-up, dress-up, and appearance and trust their audience by telling a story that really drops their armor.

It was announced yesterday that the Soska's RABID will make its US home video debut in December from Shout!/Scream Factory. It will also open in select theaters and on VOD platforms on December, Friday the 13th.

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.