Friday, June 26, 2020

50 Years Ago: Now Playing in Cincinnati

For a couple of years now, I've been faithfully posting on my Facebook page each week's new openings in Cincinnati theaters as they took place... 50 years ago. This is what was on offer to local movie goers half a century ago tonight.

1968 to 1975 was a very important period in my own development as a movie-goer, the years that led up to JAWS really (which changed the industry completely and the way it made films), and it's often astonishing to be reminded how fertile and open to experimentation this period really was, before it all became about spending and making enormous sums of money. At the time, Friday was just beginning to become the day when new movies hit our local screens, but some were still opening on Wednesday. We had only two Adults Only screens - the Royal and the Imperial Follies - and, as you will see in weeks to come - the rules of our local paper THE CINCINNATI ENQUIRER often censored their titles for print.  

I'm going to start sharing these posts here at Video WatchBlog (as I really always should have done), because it's instructive not only to see which films are hitting the half-century mark but also the films with which these movies competed for the biggest share of the weekend box office.

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.  

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

FIVE BLOODY GRAVES - A Desecrated Western Masterpiece?

Shreveport, LA ad 14 August 1970.
What I was hoping might happen at some point during my journey through Severin Films' AL ADAMSON - THE MASTERPIECE COLLECTION box set (32 films across 14 different Blu-ray discs) happened with Disc Three, where HALFWAY TO HELL (a 1958 Western directed by Adamson's father, Denver Dixon, and starring Adamson as "Rick Adams") shares the bill with Adamson's Western FIVE BLOODY GRAVES. Filmed in 1966 as THE LONELY MAN and subsequently retitled 5 BLOODY DAYS TO TOMBSTONE, there is no real exposition about how Adamson's original film went on to become FIVE BLOODY GRAVES but, by this point in the ongoing story, it's easy to surmise the probable truth. 

As with ECHO OF TERROR, a competent heist thriller that went on to become a mostly incompetent sci-fi zombie mess called BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR, the elements of THE LONELY MAN likely shaped up into a beautifully photographed, albeit unavoidably minor, Western. For a director like Adamson, this was no mean accomplishment though his considerable accomplishment certainly turned meaner at it was subsequently finessed into something releasable. The film was made in partnership with its screenwriter Robert Dix (the son of actor Richard Dix), who likely insisted on playing the historically authentic lead role of Ben Thompson himself; this was the first of the production's missteps as Dix was not quite a name actor and doesn't really have the screen presence to stand out amidst the other players. The money set aside for music and had to be assembled from library tracks, some of which are identifiable from cartoons and most of which simply detracts from what's onscreen.

Put together before Independent-International Pictures properly existed, the film nevertheless had the benefit of Samuel M. Sherman's casting input, which brought Adamson together for the first time with numerous members of his subsequent repertory company - John Carradine, Paula Raymond, jack-of-all-trades John "Bud" Cardos, and Vicki Volante (all of whom would appear, along with Dix, in the subsequently filmed BLOOD OF DRACULA'S CASTLE, 1967) as well as established character actor Jim Davis (who would subsequently co-star in DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN, 1971). The real ace in the deck, however, is returning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who - I never would have believed it - makes nearly the entire film a captivating treat for the eye in its judicious use of Utah locations spread across a wide Techniscope screen in Technicolor. Furthermore, the stunts supervised by production manager Cardos are excellent.

The story is fairly basic: Ben Thompson, a man who considers himself half-dead since the love of his life was felled by a bullet intended for him, is awakened to his sense of responsibility and also romance when he is placed to become the only possible rescue of a coach load of working girls and other travelers attacked by a bloodthirsty Yaqui tribe. (You remember that story about how Roger Corman cast Dick Miller, in APACHE WOMAN back in 1955, as both an Indian and a cowboy and gave him the privilege of shooting himself? John "Bud" Cardos is given the very same opportunity here.) Carradine is a dissolute Bible thumper in Gothic threads, Raymond is the Madam of the brothel-in-transit, and Brady is the entrepreneur anticipating wealth from this new enterprise. An interesting, if overdone, unifying touch is the narration by Death itself, as personified by the voice of Gene Raymond, which articulates his particular bond with Thompson in a way that looks forward to the notion of spectral gunfighters that came along later.

Al Adamson steps in to play a bloodthirsty Yaqui warrior who gets his mitts on Vicki Volante.
Available here for the first time in its original 2.35:1 Techniscope ratio and its full-strength Technicolor intensity, the movie is a modest but still impressive revelation. It might have found a market in 1964 or 1965, but it was instantly out-of-date once the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone Westerns hit American screens. Nothing Sam Sherman could have suggested as commercial augmentations would have helped. Right off the bat, the version known as FIVE BLOODY GRAVES stumbles with a lengthy pre-credits sequence (apparently shot circa early to mid 1969 by someone other than Vilmos Zsigmond) showing Dix and starlet Jill Woelfel naked in bed, making love as a grinding acid rock guitar freaks out in such a way as to anchor the scene in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Especially with the music shoved down our ears this way, their post-coital dialogue about Thompson's return from "the war" we assume to mean Vietnam; there is literally nothing about this opening scene to establish anything except a contemporary time frame. Then, after the main titles (which retain the 5 BLOODY DAYS TO TOMBSTONE title), the film and its lead character seem to fall back in time by about a century, with references to "the war" now meaning the Civil one. I listened to Samuel M. Sherman's "partial" audio commentary, which is partly shared with telephone input from Dix and runs about an hour, and it's dead quiet during the entire intro and no explanation is ever given. It should be noted that no previous US video release of this title has ever included this introductory footage.

Jill Woelfel and Robert Dix in FIVE BLOODY GRAVES' opening sequence - clearly not Zsigmond's work.
It's my suspicion that it was decided the film needed some nudity and anything else it might incorporate to appeal to more contemporary viewers. It would have been least challenging to add a sequence like this to the opening - and there are also signs that gore and minimal nudity were added to subsequent scenes; a fairly coy rape scene involving an Indian woman (Maria Polo) spread-eagled on the ground shows a glimpse of nipple in the medium close-up while her torso remains covered in the long shots.  There is also a section of the film that doesn't quite feel organic to the rest, in which Thompson returns from the "war" to reunite with a former love, Nora (Volante), who married the cruel Dave Miller (Ken Osborne) in his absence. Is this sequence intended to illustrate Thompson's lost love? If so, two problems: It is already discussed as something that's happened in the past in the pre-credits sequence, and there is nothing about this sequence to suggest that we have transitioned to telling a story from Thompson's past. Consequently, he's given two lost loves and the second one (if indeed it is a second one) he never finds out about! In her brief appearance, Vicki Volante gives a spirited performance reminiscent of Julie Adams' work in Anthony Mann's BEND OF THE RIVER (1952), and when Thompson finds another short-lived love in Althea, brunette Darlene Lucht (former blonde AIP starlet and future Mrs. Robert Dix) also does a fine job.

I wish the box set contained more rigorous contextualizing for this picture; once again, a recreated version of THE LONELY MAN would have been useful, or even a proper history of how and when the initially old-fashioned Western was tampered with. The IMDb mentions an initial November 1969 playdate in New Orleans, while shows that it had its earliest theatrical playdates come May 1970, at which time it mostly played as a second- or even third-run feature to other movies, such as HELL ON WHEELS (1967), SATAN'S CYCLES (an early release title for Adamson's SATAN'S SADISTS), and HELL'S BLOODY DEVILS (originally THE FAKERS, made by Adamson in 1967 and subsequently retrofitted with material advised by Sam Sherman). FIVE BLOODY GRAVES played some theaters as a lead title during "Free In-Car Heater" season - late January 1971 - with Antonio Margheriti's CASTLE OF BLOOD (1964) and William Grefé's STING OF DEATH (1966) playing in cheap support. When it reappeared around the country as early as March through September '71, it was once again the support feature, playing under Independent-Internation releases HELL'S BLOODY DEVILS and FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR. Therefore, despite its inherent and unusual production quality, possibly the finest technical work Adamson ever achieved, it missed its window of opportunity and was never exhibited with any commercial confidence. That said, it was exhibited and exploited over the years in drive-in theme packages that earned back millions of dollars, which leaves little room to accommodate a valid Art vs. Commerce debate.

Am I saying FIVE BLOODY GRAVES is a desecrated Western masterpiece? Not quite; what was desecrated was a B- or C-grade Western that transcended its modest origins. It's heavily anchored in the familiar but raised above its station by a few engaging performances and, especially, remarkable location photography that sometimes rivals the cinematography of such established Western classics of its time period as Monte Hellmann's THE SHOOTING or RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND. As restored here by Severin Films, it's a must for large screen viewing and - in the context in which it's presented - a most pleasant surprise.

Feedback from reader Chris Koenig: "In regards to the 5-minute opening that was not present in previous home video releases of FIVE BLOODY GRAVES, I'm willing to bet the reason for that is the early home video releases utilized an edited TV print panned-scanned and that scene was edited out (that would also explain why Sam Sherman's audio commentary starts exactly during the title sequence; his commentary was from an old Brentwood DVD release. Considering that actress Jill Woelfel is credited in the animated title sequence by Bob LeBar, it confirms that opening scene was present in its original 1969-1970 theatrical release. Also, what's interesting about the 5 BLOODY DAYS TO TOMBSTONE credit sequence (presented as an extra and carrying a 1968 copyright date) is that some of the credits are slightly bogus: Vilmos Zsigmond is credited as 'Magic Photography' (WHAT?!?!), Robert W. Brimmer is credited as writing the screenplay and not Robert Dix, Alfred J. Ferrara and Ernest J. Caringi are credited as 'producers,' and Jill Woelfel's name is not present indicating this was the original title sequence before Sherman and Adamson added that 5-minute opening and the 'new' Bob LeBar animated credits. I believe when FIVE BLOODY GRAVES was re-released on DVD from Subversive Cinema, that 5-minute sequence was presented as a 'deleted scene'."

Much appreciated insights, Chris! I can add this much, that Robert W. Brimmer was in fact the birth name of writer-actor Robert Dix.

Feedback from reader Mark Young: "You might be interested to know that the pre credit sequence was included in the 2008 German Eyecatcher widescreen DVD but with German audio only (English subtitles provided), before leading into a German title sequence that then cuts abruptly to the US print at the DOP credit. The end credit sequence is not the animated one but a lengthy printed crawl which cuts out during the cast list. Lewis Guinn is credited with Additional Photography here. There are various cuts to the film included as cropped extended/deleted scenes. It also includes an alternate title sequence (GUN RIDERS) which I believe was the TV title..?"

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.


Monday, June 22, 2020

Dipping Into Al Adamson's Masterpiece Collection

Truth be told, I've never been a particular fan of Al Adamson's movies; however, from the moment Severin Films announced their MASTERPIECE COLLECTION box set - encompassing 32 films over 14 discs, along with extras and a detailed 126-page paperback guide by Bill Ackerman and Amanda Reyes - I knew I had to have it. Such a thing is more object than product and mysteriously more than the considerable sum of its parts; it is a cart before the horse, a fetish that embodies one's love of all that is scraggly and strange about our favorite genre. For those of us who carry that additional OC gene (which, let's face it, is much too fanatical about order to be called a "disorder"), such an object becomes at least twice as attractive. It embodies a curative interest given full reign, tied up in a neat little bow. What's not to love? 

I can hear the wittier among you grumbling "the movies themselves," and on some days I might be inclined to agree with you. However, one thing I am learning from the MASTERPIECE COLLECTION already is that a love for Al Adamson's films doesn't have a whole lot to do with the movies themselves. In some ways, Adamson was the last real drive-in movie director; I've checked some old newspaper archives and was surprised to discover that Independent-International's double feature of HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS and BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR was booked into drive-ins in the early months of 1974 - when THE EXORCIST had already redefined the horror film for audiences world-wide. On the second of our two visits to Chicago, in the late 1970s, Donna and I decided to spend an afternoon at the movies and happened to catch a double bill of a very faded print of Argento's SUSPIRIA (1977) and Adamson's DEATH DIMENSION (1978) - and with the former disavailed of its original Technicolor palette, the Adamson picture was plainly the one that won over our inner city audience, especially when the lady tied to her chair was threatened by the OMFG production of a gigantic snapping turtle held suspended over her by its tail. The place went crazy, and it's shared memories like this that bind certain movies to us forever. 

The cold-blooded jewel thieves of PSYCHO A GO GO, with Al Adamson in the middle and lead psycho Ray Morton at right.
Before proceeding any further, I must mention that this limited edition box set is already officially out-of-print, so your best bet to find it is probably on eBay, where I have already seen Buy It Now prices topping $300. That's the going price for the unlimited edition that CBS Video just released of GUNSMOKE: THE COMPLETE SERIES, which is 143 DVDs... not 14 Blu-rays.

As Adamson's frequent producer and collaborator Samuel M. Sherman remembers it, Al Adamson came into his life one day after driving the first 35mm print of his directorial debut, a heist thriller called ECHO OF TERROR, cross-country to screen for him in New York. Why Adamson went straight to Sherman, in the unfamiliar east coast side of the film business, rather than drive his movie across town to show to Roger Corman or Sam Arkoff, I don't know - but it changed his career in incalculable ways. In Sherman's hands, or at least under his direction, ECHO OF TERROR - a surprisingly competent B-picture (thanks in no small part to being photographed by the great Vilmos Zsigmond prior to his proper discovery in Hollywood), though it had no stars and no specific genre alliance to make it easily exploitable - underwent a series of fine (de)tunings that lasted from 1965 through 1971 as it was serially tweaked and retweaked into PSYCHO A GO GO, THE FIEND WITH THE ELECTRONIC BRAIN, MAN WITH THE SYNTHETIC BRAIN, and BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR. Sherman's slowly dawning eureka about the picture was to make it more commercial by bringing it down to the lowest common denominator of taste; he advised Adamson to turn it into a psycho thriller, then a mad science thriller "featuring" John Carradine, and finally a kind of "Mad Doctor of Long Island" picture adding Kent Taylor and Tommy Kirk (both sweating like mad on cardboard sets that make PRC labs from the 1940s look like rooms in Jay Gatsby's summer house), a zombie that set the style for those we see in ZOMBIE LAKE, and Adamson's poor wife Regina Carrol turned into what the trailer called a "1,000 year-old mummy." I can't help but think that either Corman or Arkoff would have agreed to hiring Carradine or Taylor for reshoots, but toward the end of making it a better, more playable picture. This was not the advice Adamson received and I don't think he should be blamed for wanting to do whatever was being offered him to help repay his original investors. And speaking of Regina Carrol, though I have no idea what Adamson saw in her, she gives the only halfway decent performance in this mish-mosh of a picture.

Green-faced zombie Richard Smedley probes helpless Regina Carrol in BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR. 

For all the troubles taken, ECHO, PSYCHO A GO GO, and FIEND WITH THE ELECTRONIC BRAIN never did see the light of day, and the TV version of BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR (entitled MAN WITH THE SYNTHETIC BRAIN) got shown before GHASTLY HORROR ever turned up in theaters, which as I've said didn't happen till years after its completion. It was never the A-picture on a double bill (at least not until random dusk-till-dawn packages in 1978!) and, in looking through the newspaper archives, I can't find a single ad for it that shows more than a printed title for it, though a Gray Morrow-illustrated campaign was designed for its press book. In his rambling audio commentary for the film's final and messiest draft, Sherman goes into some detail about the costly punishment that he and Adamson ended up taking over Al's early decision to shoot in Technicolor and two-perf Techniscope, which was a retired format by the time the zombies came into their rewrite. Even with three version of the film included in this set, it's a shame that the cut Sherman originally saw as ECHO OF TERROR was not reconstructed, as changes based on his advice were made even well before the decision to turn it into PSYCHO A GO GO.  The commentary was originally recorded for an early Troma DVD release of BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR and much of what Sherman envisions as a future possibility for releasing the picture in a fully restored and properly contextualized format comes true, thanks to Severin's dedication to the cause.

All of this is included on the second disc in the set. The first disc pairs David Gregory's Adamson documentary BLOOD AND FLESH (which I reviewed for THE CHISLER over here) with another Adamson feature, THE FEMALE BUNCH (1971). Shot under the title TWO TICKETS TO TERROR, the latter film shoehorns Russ Tamblyn and Lon Chaney into a story about a group of Las Vegas showgirls who form a guerrilla girl gang to run roughshod over men from a headquarters out in the desert. Made in a modern Western format, with lots of sloppy, fumbly sex scenes and "cantina" fights and frightening scenes of empowered women "taking control," the movie is pretty much a working class male's fantasy of this time period, as well as a catalogue of his worst fears about women - all of them comfortably overcome by the finale. The movie has an almost feature-length, odd (and oddly unnecessary) flashback structure that encompasses story elements not involving the character telling the story, and in a bonus visit with surviving BUNCH members, Jenifer Bishop recalls her surprise when, attending a New Beverly screening with her son, she suddenly saw a body double adding nudity to her love scenes - so it would appear Mr. Sherman had some notes for Al on this one, as well.

I was surprised by the sex scenes as well, because their content somewhat surpasses what the MPAA would reward with an R rating in those days, venturing into territory shared with soft-X movies like THE SCAVENGERS, FANDANGO or HOT SPUR. It's possible that, in their reconstruction of a most complete copy from a number of choppy surviving 35mm prints, that Severin ended up putting back some material that was cut from the print screened for the MPAA. As a frequent drive-in attendee of this period, I can attest that even the newest R-rated movies being shown in those days would be fraught with once-spicy, now-splicy passages, either because projectionists kept collections of such stuff or because the law was cracking down on drive-in screens that faced the open road. While I can't say THE FEMALE BUNCH is a good film, watching it definitely gave me the feeling of sitting out under the stars with a concession stand nearby - and what it inadvertently tells us about the secret hopes and fears of the average 1971 man gives us something to chew on for days thereafter.

With two discs down and a dozen left to go, I can already feel my feelings and assumptions about this filmmaker changing - not really becoming more enthusiastic, but certainly more appreciative and sympathetic. As I continue to make my way through Severin's AL ADAMSON - THE MASTERPIECE COLLECTION, I'll be sharing notes here with you. Stay tuned.

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Friday, June 19, 2020

GUNSMOKE: An Overdue Reckoning

In the early part of my life, I had very little time for Westerns - and even less for television Westerns. When I saw Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST about 50 years ago, in 1970 second run, I was enormously impressed; it was a turning point for me, but it did not make other Westerns more available to me. I actually made a point of not seeking out Leone's other work until another ten years had passed, just using that time to absorb OUATITW again and again, whenever an opportunity arose - sadly, mostly on television until the 1990s, with that climactic zoom into Charles Bronson's eyes had to make a pan & scan choice between one eye or the other. That said, once I got into my 30s and 40s, Westerns began making more sense to me as a genre, and directors like John Ford, Budd Boetticher, Sam Fuller, Sam Peckinpah, Joseph H. Lewis, Monte Hellmann, and particularly Anthony Mann began showing me the way to classic Westerns and also those special examples that Kevin Grant and Clay Hodgkiss call the "renegade" Westerns.

My interest in television Westerns has deepened from the time I realized they were a place to find some great performances by actors and character actors  hiding in plain sight. THE RIFLEMAN had always been something of an exception to my general lack of interest because it had a young character I could identify with, but as the years passed I developed additional interest in WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE, THE REBEL, LAWMAN, HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL and that wonderfully baroque example, YANCY DERRINGER. 

In the back of my mind, as this education proceeded, were the imposing figures of the two biggest TV Westerns, BONANZA and GUNSMOKE, for which I had never felt any particular interest. I've seen my share of BONANZA episodes and, while I'm sure there must be fine performances along the very long way, the formula of that show just doesn't work for me - it may have something to do with the lead characters' casting and it may also have something to do with it all being in color. Black-and-white seems so essential to my appreciation of this world in which so much is said about a character by whether they wear a white hat or a black hat.

John Dehner in "Ash."
Then, not too long ago, over on Facebook, my friend (and VW "Star Turn" columnist) Larry Blamire caught my attention with a posting about his acquisition of CBS Video's massive new GUNSMOKE - THE COMPLETE SERIES box set. He wrote a memorable posting about his initial plunge into this accumulation of riches by revisiting an episode entitled "Ash," from GUNSMOKE's first hour-long season. Here's what Larry posted, reproduced with his permission: 

Decided to jump into the complete GUNSMOKE set with an 8th season episode called "Ash" that I'd seen on the Westerns Channel several years back. John Dehner is one of my favorite actors and I had been blown away by his performance.
I was this time too. For all the times I've seen him--heroic, villainous, comedic--I don't recall ever seeing him quite like this.
Dehner plays a rowdy rough-edged buffalo hunter with a lot of heart who decides to open a freight business with an equally rough and tumble trapper (Anthony Caruso). A blow on the head for Dehner's character puts the skids on things and when he wakes he's a different person--surly, cold, grim. Thanks to Dehner and director Harry Harris it's a fascinating study of a Jekyll-Hyde sort where something buried within the man's psyche has come to the surface.
If I were still writing my "Star Turn" column for Video Watchdog I may well have covered this performance. Dehner is very much in control of the subtle shades on display and there's an unpredictability to his work that keeps us on edge. He makes some unusual choices and by doing so commands our attention. Dehner manages such amazing subtlety it's like a camera-acting master class.

I was captivated by what Larry had written and happened to mention to him in my reply that I had always sort of missed the boat with GUNSMOKE. Learning this, Larry made me a spontaneous gift of an introductory assortment of no-longer-needed DVD-Rs he had recorded from Encore's Western Channel, along with a now-spare set of Volumes 1 and 2 of Season 11. I promptly dipped in and recognized that these were indeed a profound gift.

I've been watching at least an episode each evening since that time. I haven't written about everything I've watched, and nothing really at the depth these programs deserve, but I thought my readers here might like to have a peek at my process of discovery. Here are some of my early notes on GUNSMOKE, which I may have treated here and there to some additional polish. Perhaps they will stoke your interest in exploring this filmed legacy as well:    

* * *
Virginia Gregg and James Arness in "Phoebe Strunk."

Since learning that my knowledge of GUNSMOKE was nearly nil, Larry Blamire has been providing me with some essential episodes - and I must say I'm impressed. My problem with GUNSMOKE was always a persistent conviction that James Arness, Amanda Blake, and Dennis Weaver were just not very interesting in their roles. Someone like John Russell in LAWMAN or Chuck Connors in THE RIFLEMAN - now those were and are top drawer Western heroes! Arness's Marshall Dillon never did it for me... but thanks to Larry's gift, I am learning that Arness, Blake, and Weaver were the binding, the framing device for episodes that told stories often involving the people who live or ride through Dodge City. I've watched a few of these, with great appreciation for guest performers like John Dehner and Strother Martin and their respective episodes, but last night's viewing - "Phoebe Strunk" (Season 8, Episode 9) - was especially powerful stuff. Virginia Gregg starred as a completely deglamorized, pipe-smoking, face-slapping, mother of a murderous brood of overgrown boys (including Don McGowan and COMBAT!'s Dick Peabody) who rob a farmhouse, leaving a couple murdered and their only daughter (Joan Freeman) orphaned. She is taken in by a kindly couple (IN COLD BLOOD's John McLiam and a very welcome Phyllis Coates) who want to adopt her, but history repeats itself when the Strunk boys can't get that pretty little girl out of their heads and they abduct her. Director Andrew V. McLaglan keeps a violent story presentable without pulling any punches, and Marshall Dillon has some welcome help in pursuing justice with half-Indian companion Quint (Burt Reynolds). Full marks to writer John Meston (the show's creator) for a taut script and the cast are uniformly at their best. You can find it streaming.

* * *
John Drew Barrymore (right) and gang in "Seven Hours To Dawn."

The best of last night’s GUNSMOKE viewing was the 11th season opener, “Seven Hours To Dawn.” A nattily-dressed, still-contemporary-looking John Drew Barrymore heads a professional army bandits who effectively isolate and take over Dodge City, milking it of all its citizens’ cash and valuables. In an attempt to ride out to get help, Matt Dillon is shot four times and presumed dead. It’s up to Festus and Doc to turn around a grim and seemingly hopeless situation. I’ve never seen Barrymore give a better performance than here, and the baleful situation ratchets its intensity steadily right up to the finish, giving all the principals a chance to shine more than usual dramatically. In the background there’s an early screen credit for Al Lettieri (THE GODFATHER), credited as “Al Lettier.”

* * *

Argumentative aces in the deck: Ken Curtis as Festus Haggen, Milburn Stone as Doc Adams.
Didn’t want to go to bed sad last night, so I stayed up to watch an extra GUNSMOKE episode. So yesterday I saw two episodes focusing on Ken Curtis as Festus. The first, “Killer At Large” (Season 11, Episode 20), was a remarkable drama in which Festus is goaded into shooting a man dead and flees the consequences, finding his way to a widow’s homestead where he is pushed once again to the point of finding his bravery. There is a scene of Festus getting covered in flour and mollasses by a group of sadistic gunmen that is an extraordinary piece of acting by Curtis.

Slim Pickens and Brooke Bundy in "Sweet Billy."
The other, “Sweet Billy, Singer of Songs” (Season 11, Episode 17), was more of a comic piece about Festus’ relatives urging him to help his nephew Billy to find a girl from Dodge to marry up with. The relatives include Royal Dano, Shug Fisher (from Curtis’ THE GIANT GILA MONSTER), and Robert Random (THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND) as Sweet Billy, who - after being turned down by Diane Ladd - has the unbelievable luck to find a much more willing Brooke Bundy, who is just unbelievably gorgeous. Add Slim Pickens as Brooke’s scheming widdered pa and you’ve got yourself purdy darn near perfick slice o’ silliness.

* * *
Anne Helm and John Drew Barrymore.

When I saw that “One Killer On Ice” (Season 10, Episode 18) was directed by Joseph H. Lewis (GUN CRAZY), I had an inkling this would be something special. This was another guest star spot for John Drew Barrymore, who seems to be still wearing his WAR OF THE ZOMBIES beard while playing a charming Southern gentleman who has retired his sheriff’s badget to set out on the more lucrative life of a bounty hunter. He rides into Dodge, charms everyone but Matt (who has learned not to accept people on first impressions), and engages the Marshal to accompany him to where he’s secured a wanted desperado as his first bounty. (It would be too dangerous to bring him into Dodge and risk attack by the outlaw’s still-marauding kid brother and other gang members.) The brother is played by Dennis Hopper, already near the height of his powers, and it’s truly a shame that he and Barrymore have no proper scenes together. Hopper’s farmgirl flame is played by Anne Helm (THE MAGIC SWORD, THE COUCH), a complex sullen girl made amoral by a restrictive upbringing whose isolation and fantasies of escape are sorely disappointed. I still prefer Barrymore’s more overtly villainous, yet still charismatic, clean-shaven performance in “Seven Hours To Dawn” but this one may well be the richer and more dimensional; he turns out to be a villain here too, but due to a very delicate shading of immorality rather than something more operatically egregious. He doesn’t become fully-fledged as such till his last moments in the episode. It’s kind of a remarkable dramatic achievement for a show juggling so many interesting characters in less than an hour.

* * *
Festus susses out what Warren Oates, Zalman King and Bruce Dern might be up to.

Another great Season 11 GUNSMOKE: “Ten Little Indians” (Episode 10). Outside of town, Matt is forced ot a threatening young gunman (Manuel Padilla, Jr.) and returns to Dodge to find the Long Branch Saloon playing host to three other notorious gunmen (get this: Bruce Dern, Warren Oates, and... Zalman King???), just biding their time and getting on each other’s nerves. The episode has already delivered everything it needs to, but the plot thickens. It seems they have all been lured to Dodge by a $25,000 price on the Marshal’s head. Unfortunately, these big names were all young ‘uns at the time, already brilliant and the sparks between Dern and Oates are incredible... but they are not the stars of the episode, which boils down to a bigger conflict between Nehemiah Persoff and John Marley. In looking at the packaging, guest stars were listed for the other shows on this disc: John Drew Barrymore, Forrest Tucker... but this one mentioned NO special points of interest, not even for the previous okay episode “Clayton Thaddeus Greenwood,” which featured Jack Elam as the spearhead of a cattle rustling gang and Paul Fix. Go figure.

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

YouTube Eurekas: Robert Siodmak, Richard Oswald and more

Hans Stühe in the title role of Richard Oswald's CAGLIOSTRO (1929).
This continues to be a tremendously healthy period for new and remastered films on Blu-ray and DVD, however there comes a time in almost every budget when our appetite for new discovery is held in check by fiscal limitations. With such cold reality in mind, it's heartening to realize there are means out there of placing some rare, arcane treasures within our reach, not so well known because it has no proper publicist - one of which is YouTube, no longer the comfortable dumpster of public domain eyesores. I've been noticing that YouTube has been undergoing a rather quiet redefinition of itself, especially if your voracious appetite for film exceeds the mainstream into more international waters.

The problem with YouTube, of course, is that your discoveries there are often limited to what you type into its Search engine, or what is recommended to you on the basis of your most recent search and past algorithms. With this in mind, I thought I would point out some of the treasures I've discovered over there, hiding as it were in plain sight, which can now even be transferred from your computer or iPad to your largest television screen given technologies like Apple TV's mirroring option. Be that as it may, some of the copies they've made available are less than ideal so a certain amount of visual compression might not be a bad thing. Beggars can't be choosers, you know. 

Fernand Grave and Louis Jouvet in Robert Siodmak's MISTER FLOW (1936).
You must know about the films of noir specialist Robert Siodmak, whether you do or don't. A number of his better-known films are readily available on Blu-ray and DVD here in the US, such as PHANTOM LADY, THE SUSPECT, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, THE DARK MIRROR, THE KILLERS, THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY, THE CRIMSON PIRATE, as well as very early work such as PEOPLE ON SUNDAY and his latter day Cinerama epic CUSTER OF THE WEST. I recommend them all - but, happily, YouTube is a valuable source for some of his harder-to-see titles, including LOOKING FOR HIS MURDERER (Der Mann, der seine Mörder sucht, 1931), a contemporary retelling of Jules Verne's THE TRIBULATIONS OF A CHINESE GENTLEMAN written by Billy Wilder and Curt Siodmak, in German with French subtitles); his first French film Tumultes ("Tumult," 1932) with Charles Boyer and Florelle, in French with English subtitles (yes!); Le sexe faible ("The Weaker Sex," 1933) with Pierre Brasseur, in French with Spanish subtitles; MISTER FLOW (1936) with Louis Jouvet, Fernand Gravey and Edwige Feuillière, in French without subtitles - a light suspense thriller based on Gaston Leroux's two-part novel THE MAN OF A HUNDRED FACES and LADY HELENA, OR THE MYSTERIOUS LADY - which was in fact Leroux's thinly disguised sequel to the long-running series of FANTÔMAS novels abandoned by Marcel Allain after the death of his collaborator Pierre Souvestre. 

Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly in Siodmak's startlingly subversive CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944).
I understand that the lack of "English friendly" options can seem an insurmountable hostility to some people, but the films made in the 1930s were not so distant from the silent era and every film I've listed here is a master class in visual technique, even if you can't follow the narrative as closely as you'd like. However, if you're looking for an obscure Siodmak title that's as English friendly as you could hope, find the right night for CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944) starring a pre-MGM musicals Gene Kelly, Deanna Durbin and Gale Sondergaard. Ignore the highly subversive title of this W. Somerset Maugham adaptation and be astonished by this story of a young wife who discovers that her devil-may-care husband may be a serial killer. This deeply troubling masterpiece, made at a time when women were welcoming their homecoming husbands and boyfriends at the end of the war, not knowing how many lives they might have taken, deserves to be much better-known than it is.

Conrad Veidt and Reinhold Schünzel in Richard Oswald's EERIE TALES (1919). 
Another maestro from the cusp of sound whose work I've been exploring in recent weeks is Richard Oswald, the father of OUTER LIMITS director Gerd Oswald. Oswald père was responsible for making the first horror anthology film, EERIE TALES (Unheimliche geschicten, 1919), which is rarely seen in America but is available on YouTube with an engaging musical accompaniment English subtitles. It contains five stories, the sound version three, both incorporating Poe’s “The Black Cat” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Suicide Club.” For a film now more than a century old, it feels remarkably contemporary in its filmmaking techniques, production design, and the close attention it pays to facial acting. Three archetypal figures - The Flirt, The Devil, and Death (respectively Anita Berber, Reinhold Schünzel, and Conrad Veidt) - step out of their portraits, which adorn the walls of a used book store, scaring the owner and availing themselves of stories in the books on display. The three of them appear in each of the stories, playing different characters roughly within the same archetype, providing the actors with chances to flaunt their dramatic range. Veidt is predictably outstanding, but Schünzel is a revelation. His Devil is a clear antecedent of the Lugosi vampire image, with his black cape, pasty face, and widow’s peak; his crazy husband character in the first story is the prototype of Cousin Eerie (!); and Peter Lorre clearly had his performance in mind when he essayed the same role on Roger Corman’s TALES OF TERROR almost 50 years later. There are two different uploads of this film on YouTube, but only one has English subtitles; I have linked to the preferable one.

Maria Kopenhofer as "The Black Cat"'s murdered wife in the sound remake.
When the sound era commenced, Oswald remade his groundbreaking film (under the same title, Unheimliche geschichten) with the Paul Wegener (THE GOLEM) in the lead as a crazed character who connects the stories in his mad meanderings. The silent version is excellent, but this - the first sound horror anthology - may be even better; I think there’s a good case to be made that it’s also the first feature-length surrealist work. Its stroke of genius is that there is no framing device; the stories flow one into the next like twists in an already delirious tale. It opens Paul Wegener, truly a great and versatile horror star, starring in an adaptation of the subsequently oft-filmed “The Black Cat,” who makes his escape from the police and hides in a waxworks. Lots of creaky thrills in that before he wriggles his way out of an arrest by being committed to an asylum where the inmates have taken over in an adaptation of Poe’s “Dr. Tarr and Professor Feather,” which may be the film’s highlight - what we would now call Buñuelian. Wegener foils a dedicated newspaper reporter pursuant and disappears for six months, when he is discovered as the ringleader of an ultra-sophisticated suicide club, in an adaptation of RL Stevenson’s classic story whose look anticipates Edgar Ulmer’s feature of THE BLACK CAT in 1934. This segment also includes a very Lugosi-like performance by Wegener and an actual shot that would be repeated in 1935’s THE RAVEN. Also known as THE LIVING DEAD, the version on YouTube also carries English subtitles.

Conrad Veidt and Fritz Schultz in Oswald's groundbreaking DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS (1919).
Also by Oswald and available on YouTube are DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS (1919) with Conrad Veidt and Anita Berber, surviving now only as a 50 minute fragment but said to be the first film ever made about LGBT lives and adversities (it's with English inter titles though sometimes overprinted with unremovable Russian titles); LUCREZIA BORGIA (1922) with Liane Haid, Wegener, Veidt, THE GOLEM's Lothar Müthel, and future director William Dieterle (with English inter titles); and CAGLIOSTRO (1929), Oswald's last silent and an impressive achievement fusing German Expressionism and the 18th century costume romantic heroism mastered during this same period by Abel Gance. It's got French inter titles and Spanish subtitles, but an easy adjustment under Settings allows the user to "auto-translate" the subtitles into many other languages - including English. 

In closing, I'll add one more link to a film I only discovered while rooting around for links for this blog entry. Here's your ticket to the 1919 Thomas Ince silent FALSE FACES, starring Henry B. Walthall as Louis Joseph Vance's heroic spy/detective/master of disguise Michael Lanyard, aka The Lone Wolf! It's apparently a sequel to an earlier film, but this one has special historical interest in that the second male lead is the silent screen's master of false faces, none other than Lon Chaney!

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.  

Monday, June 15, 2020


It was on this date thirty years ago - June 15, 1990 - that the first issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG was delivered to our home to be shipped out to points all over the globe. It's a bit sobering to realize that our debut's anniversary is already half as distant from us today as tomorrow's 60th Anniversary of the World Premiere of Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960); I was around at that time, if not fully conscious, and wouldn't actually see PSYCHO till later in the 1960s when it first made its way to television.

My aptitude for missing dates by a day and years by a year, at least thinking off the top of my head, led me to announce this anniversary yesterday on Facebook, where it was met with a very warm reception from satisfied readers going all the way back to this humble but signal beginning:

"You helped create a whole culture and the canon of that culture. Bravo!" - critic Adrian Martin

"I bought this off the stands on my first date with my wife and told her how important this stuff was to me! Your mag was sharp and smart and she thought well of me because it elevated this type of stuff to literary consideration. Thanks, Tim - for this, the best of its kind mag in my life!" - comics legend Kelley Jones

"I started reading VW with the FIRE WALK WITH ME issue, and then quickly bought all the back issues, as this was the genre magazine I'd been waiting for my entire life. The moment I started writing for film magazines, I realized that I was unconsciously employing VW's house style. Getting invited to be a regular contributor was seriously one of the highlights of my life." - VW's own John-Paul Checkett, now writing regularly for SCREEM

"[I have] every single issue in binders... a magazine that completely changed how we view fantastic cinema." - Dave Kosanke

"It's the gold standard of magazine quality, the magazine all other magazines wish they could be. Still have all mine. Invaluable!" - Wayne Shellabarger Fox

"It would be impossible to overstate how much I've learned and how many films, directors, actors, genres, etc. I've discovered via this amazing magazine. Thanks for the long run, it was a pleasure with every new issue."- Tim Spears

There were dozens more along similar lines, but these are happily representative of the great feeling that still endures for VIDEO WATCHDOG out there, for which Donna and I remain eternally grateful and appreciative.

Of course, we're no longer publishing but most of our back issues remain available. If you are missing back issues, if you've lost some to flood or fire or covetous "borrowing" friends, or if you happen to be one of those unfortunate millennials who came along too late and missed the boat, Donna and I would like to make it easier for you to experience our legacy of publishing the best available writing and thought about international genre cinema. In commemoration of this 30th Anniversary, we're making all extant print back issues - and all digital back issues, with their additional bells and whistles - available at half the usual cost. 

That's right, 50% Off!

Just check the Back Issue details on our webpage and use the special coupon code 50MINT at checkout. It's easy as that.

I have made this claim before, but I was so energized and inspired by yesterday's outpouring of affection and respect that I want to devote more time to keeping this blog more active. I do a lot of writing on my Facebook wall that never gets shared here, which is frankly bass-ackward. It should appear here first and linked over there. And I should be more attentive to sharing notes here on the new and old discoveries I'm making - not just in video but in the ancillary areas of books and music. I am also going to invite some former VW contributors to make guest appearances here in the near future. So bookmark this page, subscribe, or just check back with some frequency. 

As ever, we aim to engage your interests and to please.

Leonard Maltin as "The Movie Police" in GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH.
PS: Happy 30th Anniversary to Joe Dante's GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH, also born on this day back in 1990 - as apt a spiritual "twin brother" as I can think of!

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.



Sunday, June 14, 2020


I was there!

It was fifty years ago this week that Bob Kelljan's game-changing  COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE first went into theatrical release. I was there, half a century ago, in a car with my mother and sister at Cincinnati's Twin Drive-In and wasn't really aware of how totally invested the three of us were in the movie until Robert Quarry's elegant, eponymous bloodsucker got staked in the climax, which caused every car horn assembled there to honk on earnest approval. It remains the only "standing ovation" I ever witnessed in a drive-in - a sudden, joyous realization that everybody out there under the stars had been caught up in its spell as much as we had - and we enthusiastically joined in.

I tend to remember it as a bigger, more mainstream film than it actually was - probably because it carried the AIP imprimatur; on renewed acquaintance, I see it's really a very early example of the kind of 1970s film Stephen Thrower herds together in his magisterial volume NIGHTMARE U.S.A.; that is, a DIY independent horror picture with rough edges and moments of dated silliness, but also some startling moments of grace, that uses the known clichés of the horror genre against its knowing audience, resulting in new kinds of tensions and shocks. When Yorga responds to a handmade crucifix being wielded in his direction with mocking laughter, I remember the bottom of my 15 year old stomach dropping out and a new feeling of terrible exposure to monstrous evil. It was what the atheism subplot of DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE hinted at, but didn't have the courage to enact.

"May I?" asks Robert Quarry.
Robert Quarry justifiably gets most of the attention the film does, but I think it’s Roger Perry as the doctor who carries the picture. Particularly impressive is the moment when Yorga disarms him by casually asking “May I?,” thereby taking physical possession of the busted chair leg he’s brought to stake him; it's a remarkable show of Evil effortlessly trumping Good by abusing Good’s tendency to civility, especially when he then returns the weapon to him in an elegant gesture perfectly timed to his remark that the intelligence of vampires is such that they can make the most intelligent mortal look a fool.

Producer Michael Macready’s humorless, hunch-over-and-stare acting remains one of the film's few demerits; it’s a shame when he outlives the more capable actors, presumably for financial reasons - another reason why Perry’s contribution is so important. What surprised me most unfavorably on renewed acquaintance is how shaky (and frankly, overlit) so much of Arch Archambault's hand-held photography is, but there are just as many impressively observed shots - like the one of Yorga's hand softly lifting the edge of a drawn window shade to see what's happening on his grounds. (Archambault subsequently shot ANGELS DIE HARD and THE JEKYLL AND HYDE PORTFOLIO.)

I felt certain that Bob Kelljan would go on to become a major new horror director, but despite fairly strong follow-up efforts THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1972) and SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM (1973), this didn't happen. He subsequently moved into series television, racking up eight episodes of STARSKY AND HUTCH, five CHARLIE'S ANGELS, and numerous one-shots before his premature death at age 52 in 1982. I'd like to see FLESH OF MY FLESH, the erotic film made by Kelljan and Macready prior to YORGA in 1969, to see if it holds any indications of the promise found here. Of course, as the story goes, YORGA (or IORGA, as Michael Murphy can sometimes be heard pronouncing it) was initially undertaken as an adult film until Robert Quarry persuaded the filmmakers that horror films could be commercial as well. 

Roger Perry, Michael Murphy and Donna Anders.
As I recall, COUNT YORGA VAMPIRE was restored to its original title (THE LOVES OF COUNT IORGA... VAMPIRE) and length sometime around the turn of the new century. The AIP cut was a few minutes shorter, reducing its raw sensuality and violence to a GP level - which certainly worked to the film's commercial benefit. It was the #1 box office champion of its opening week and, according to Quarry, the film went on to become the third highest grossing film in AIP's history. To watch THE LOVES OF... shows us that restoration can sometimes be a mixed blessing; it’s great to have the more graphic horror material intact (the discovery of Erica feeding on a kitten remains a shocker - and further empowers the transfusion scene, which nicely mirrors and updates Mina's "Unclean! Unclean!" scene in Stoker's novel), however the inclusion of some lame content that I remember as absent from the theatrical cut - like the stupid redhead in Perry’s bed, and the stupid but “efficient” blonde working as his receptionist - make me wonder if the AIP cut didn’t do the film some favors that should be preserved as a variant for historical reference. I believe the now-uncirculated AIP cut last appeared on home video on laserdisc.

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.