Friday, July 22, 2016

The South Is Gonna Rise Again in October


 
Limited to 2500 units each in the US and UK.




Making huge internet waves today was Arrow Video's surprise unveiling of their October titles, which include two deluxe box sets devoted to the 1960s shock titles of Herschell Gordon Lewis. The more basic of the two items is the aptly titled THE HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS FEAST, which will collect 14 titles on 17 discs in Blu-ray and DVD, all newly restored in 1080p. The titles included are: BLOOD FEAST, SCUM OF THE EARTH, TWO THOUSAND MANIACS!, MOONSHINE MOUNTAIN, COLOR ME BLOOD RED, SOMETHING WEIRD, THE GRUESOME TWOSOME, A TASTE OF BLOOD, SHE-DEVILS ON WHEELS, JUST FOR THE HELL OF IT, HOW TO MAKE A DOLL, THE WIZARD OF GORE, THE GORE GORE GIRLS, and THIS STUFF'LL KILL YA! Two bonus Blu-ray discs will also thoughtfully provide the option of viewing BLOOD FEAST, SCUM OF THE EARTH, COLOR ME BLOOD RED, A TASTE OF BLOOD and THE WIZARD OF GORE in 1.33:1, while another will provide the documentary HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS: THE GODFATHER OF GORE. The set will be strictly limited to 2500 units each in the US and UK.

Limited to 500 units each in the US and UK.


Then there is the heavy artillery, THE SHOCK AND GORE BOX, which will be strictly limited to only 500 units each in the US and UK. It will contain the following exclusive bonus items:

28-page H.G. Lewis “annual” stuffed full with Lewis-themed activities plus archive promotional material
Fully-illustrated 92-page art book featuring the definitive overview of the entire career of H.G. Lewis written by Stephen Thrower, with a brand new foreword by Lewis [Shock and Gore edition exclusive]
160-page paperback of the original Blood Feast novelization, written by Lewis [Shock and Gore edition exclusive]
7” vinyl single featuring select tracks from the Blood Feast score [Shock and Gore edition exclusive]
14 postcards featuring original artwork for all the films included [Shock and Gore edition exclusive]
Individually handmade “super gory” eyeball [Shock and Gore edition exclusive]
Shock and Gore commemorative barf bag [Shock and Gore edition exclusive]
Newly illustrated packaging and books by The Twins of Evil [Shock and Gore edition exclusive]

 

That Stephen Thrower book is something of a knife-twister, isn't it? Well, you know you want it - and I hope you can afford it. Visit this page to pre-order yours or to check the remaining supply. They are disappearing fast!

Familiar THINGS

Enthusiastic notes on my Facebook news feed led me to check out the Duffer Brothers' new Netflix series STRANGER THINGS within a day or two of its July 15 premiere. Most uncommonly, my friends were pretty much unanimous in raving about it, at least one in caps, and another boasted that he had blasted his way through the entire eight-hour, first season run overnight, so tightly was he held in its grip. I have done similarly crazy things, watching "just one more" at 4:00 in the morning, which turns out to be two or three more, but I was surprised to find that STRANGER THINGS didn't even tempt me. It was good, passable entertainment, but not much more. In fact, two episodes (or "chapters," as they called it, evidently seeking a literary analogy) per night was as much interest as I could sustain for it. Now that I've finished all eight chapters, I'm trying to make sense of everyone else's unusually high enthusiasm for it.

I keep thinking there must be some underlying sociological reason I'm missing - possibly its ties to Stephen King, whose novels are certainly referenced here (even the title seems to pinion off of King's NEEDFUL THINGS), and whose body of work never held the fascination for me that it has for the rest of the world. It can't just be 1980s nostalgia because STRANGER THINGS borrows ideas and images from films as recent as UNDER THE SKIN and going as far back into the 1960s and '70s as THESE ARE THE DAMNED (with its government-sanctioned experiments on children) and SHIVERS (with its slug-like parasites vomited down bathroom drains). I could point to nearly every scene in the series and find not just a precedent for it but visual quotations in many. (My favorite was in the last episode, a wink at Joe Dante's THE HOWLING.) As I say, I thought it was alright but people had me all but running to my TV set to catch this before the spoilers caught up with me. That's what I don't understand. I can see people getting a kick out of a greatest hits album but not a greatest hits album of cover versions.

The E.T. shot.
The Drew Barrymore shot.
The GOONIES shot.
The POLTERGEIST shot.
The SHINING shot.
The WITCHBOARD shot.
The SCANNERS shot.
The ABYSS shot.
The ALTERED STATES shot.
To which you can also mentally add the ones I couldn't Google: the ALIEN shot, the THING shot, the UNDER THE SKIN shot, the X-FILES shot, the CARRIE shot, ad infinitum if not nauseum. That's STRANGER THINGS, ladies and gentlemen - "A Netflix Original Series."

Possibly, the way this series has been so warmly embraced may have something to do with its familiar, comfort food values. Set in 1983 and allowed to roll out in a manner consistent with that era (which is to say, without the usual attention-deficit editing that has become the norm for Millennials), it's not really a product of its time, but a straightforward, unpretentious Young Adult novel for television that tells us what we all want to know: that government is not just bad but evil, that family (however screwed-up it may be) is good and always there for us, and that the victors in any situation will hail from the Island of Misfit Toys - like the pre-adolescent Dungeons and Dragons players who are the chief protagonists of this show.  

Speaking of this group, I've seen the kids on this show (Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Materazzo and Caleb McLaughlin) compared to the kids in Joe Dante's movies, which begs a few responses. First of all, it's important to remember that Joe Dante invented 1980s Young Adult fantasy in cinema. If you want to see where smart kid protagonists began, the way they still are today (in movies like TOMORROWLAND and GOOSEBUMPS, for example), you have to go back to GREMLINS and EXPLORERS and EERIE, INDIANA. Secondly, people are saying this because... they have one token movie poster on their bedroom wall? And it's JAWS? C'mon. It takes a lot more layering than that to create a Dante picture. And one more thing: kids in a Dante film would never speak to each other, much less their parents and local police, the way these kids do. To yell "bullshit" at your parents, in most families circa 1983, would have invited serious consequences. In a lot of little ways, this film fails the 1983 test for me.

Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven.
Much of what carries the show is the central performance of young Millie Bobby Brown as "Eleven," the telekinetic child who escapes the clutches of Dr Martin Brenner's (Matthew Modine, now at the mad scientist stage of his career) MKULTRA-spawned, CIA-sanctioned, brain-tampering program and taken into our young heroes' protection. Looking remarkably like a pre-adolescent Mary Louise Parker with a buzzcut, Brown has both a calm and a feral intensity that commands even the slipperiest attention. David Harbour's Sheriff Jim Hopper, struggling with his own memories of loss while striving to help Winona Ryder's Joyce Byers find her missing son Will (Noah Schnapp), finds solid dramatic footing in a role whose kind we have seen many times, whose familiarity might have taken a less respectful actor down. Though I know it's a decent part in a series with broad visibility, but I can't help feeling that Cara Buono deserves much better than a bland, carrot-cutting mom role like this after playing Dr Faye Miller, one of the most memorable supporting roles on MAD MEN. My guess is that she could have played the hell out of the Joyce Byers role, but Netflix needed a bigger name. As for that bigger name, the aforementioned Winona Ryder, the script requires her to give what is essentially a wound-up, one-note performance, trying not too well to look like a practiced smoker while saying each of her lines five different ways. As in (paraphrasing) "I'm upset? You're telling me I'm upset? Well, hell yeah, I'm upset! You wanna hear how upset I am? My kid's missing and presumed dead, we just had a funeral for him, and he's communicating with me through the goddam Christmas lights - that's how upset I am!" As portrayed, Joyce is introduced on edge and she stays that way, which means that, in lieu of an actual arc in her energies, we get a flat line - no matter how ramped-up it may be.

We also get - not really because it's needed, but because it's de rigeur in such stories - a teenage sex angle. Mike's supposedly sensible older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is hung up on high school bad boy Steve Harrington (Joe Keery - imagine a teenage William Campbell), as high school outsider Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) - the older brother of the missing boy - suffers from a crush on her. This storyline has received some praise because it doesn't go quite the way these things usually do, but that's exactly why it doesn't work. Nancy is, in many ways, the de facto heroine of this piece, because the two mothers are kept to the sidelines and Eleven is naturally desexualized. For all that, she is portrayed throughout as selfish, lying, destructive, unrepentant and, generally speaking, someone we would not want for a friend much less a lover. At an early point in the story, she asks her best friend, a typical Beta female named Barbara (Shannon Purser), to accompany her to a party at Steve's, where he does everything he possibly can to look like a jackass, including knocking the girl who has sneaked out to be with him into a swimming pool fully clothed. Barbara urges Nancy to leave, but she's ready to have sex, so... later, babe. Thus sending her out into the dark where a Monster (Mark Steger) awaits. There is a reversal here of the traditional "If you have sex, you will die" law of 1970s and '80s horror pictures, but it's not replaced by anything more meaningful because Barbara's death is ultimately one too many to mourn in an eight-hour program. Not only is it all but swept under the rug, but Nancy willfully refuses to learn from her mistake, ultimately choosing the minimally redeemed asshole over the quiet guy who actually rallied to her defense when she needed to be pulled back to the rightside-up world from the gaping maw of Hell itself. So, even when the program attempts to do something new, its decisions are meaningless. Characters who do not grow, who do not change, are antithetical to drama. But giving us a scary world in which no one ever really changes, where we can feel secure in our knowledge of exactly who everyone is, may well be one of the aspects that has made this program so popular. 

It's my understanding that STRANGER THINGS was written as a self-contained mini-series, then retro-fitted with a modest cliffhanger or two when Netflix gave the show's creators an order for a second season. I guess we'll see what happens next, but on some level, we probably already have.




Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Where Are Those China Blues?


Annie Potts and John Laughlin share their sorrows in CRIMES OF PASSION.
Arrow Video recently issued, on both sides of the Atlantic, the best-looking and most revealing version of Ken Russell's CRIMES OF PASSION (1984) we've ever had - but while watching it, I had the persistent feeling that something was amiss. By the time the movie reached one of its most impressive scenes - a 5m 45s tour de force scene of Bobby Grady (John Laughlin) and his wife Amy (Annie Potts) confessing their marital frustrations and dissatisfaction to one another in bed - I thought I understood what was wrong: that the technicians in charge of the film's 2K restoration had somehow neglected to include the film's night filters, which had once suffused this and other night scenes in blue. As I watched the scene pictured above, my sense of the missing blue became acute; without it, the scene was suffused in an admittedly more naturalistic color bias of a weak sea green - and the light outside that imaginary window felt like afternoon light rather than the light of a full moon.

The more I thought about it, I began to remember how the color blue had clung to the film throughout, a chromatic illustration of how Joanna Crane's (Kathleen Turner) fantasy character of China Blue - indeed, how sexual fantasy itself - had permeated so many other lives and relationships. My feelings were further encouraged when, while revisiting the disc's audio commentary by Ken Russell and screenwriter Barry Sandler (originally recorded for the film's laserdisc release), I heard Russell himself pause for a moment to express admiration for cinematographer Dick Bush's work on the film, savoring his use of blue in this shot in particular! 

http://amzn.to/29LaMo5I took my question to James White, who supervised the restoration for Arrow. He wrote back: "What we sourced for this restoration was the original 35mm Interpos struck from the negative, which came with its basic grade already timed/baked-into the material, so I don’t believe there were any circumstances where we wrestled with the material to achieve a certain look, against what the material was naturally giving us once basic settings were applied to the scans. It’s odd as well as we were using reference sources throughout to match/improve upon previous grades from earlier DVD releases and I don’t recall a single situation where we veered away from the basic template provided by these reference sources." 
Determined to get to the root of this, I turned to reference material in my attic: Lumivision/Anchor Bay's DVD from 1998. I was surprised to discover that, apart from being non-anamorphic and far less detailed, the color bias and contrast were otherwise perfectly in tune with the decisions made at Arrow. James was right. Was it possible I had imagined this? But Ken Russell had seen it too!

Fortunately I still own a working high-end laserdisc player and had held onto Lumivision's CRIMES OF PASSION laserdisc, though I hadn't consulted it in more than 20 years. I loaded the disc up and shot ahead to the chapter where the scene resided. You can imagine my bafflement when I saw that here, too, the scene appeared brighter than I remembered it. Contrary to my beliefs, there was no night filter or blue gel lighting in evidence. However, to keep a record I snapped a series of photos off my TV screen, the only handy and expedient means I had of grabbing an image from a laserdisc. It wasn't until I compared the photo side-by-side with my image grab from the Arrow disc that I could actually see how striking the differences were.

Same image as above, from Lumivision laserdisc.

I should preface my comments by pointing out that the light levels seen here are misleading; the scene is somewhat darker when viewed on my TV screen than it appears here, where we are also seeing a certain amount of light pouring out of my plasma screen. Otherwise the image is accurately calibrated. As you can see, the flesh tones are much warmer on the laserdisc, and the shadows are indeed suffused with subtle blues. So: not exactly as I remembered it, but the cause of what I remembered is evident. Though I didn't document the laserdisc images overall, I noticed - as I spot-checked the disc, chapter by chapter - that the transfer was a step darker throughout, which had the effect of making the neon-and-foil colors in China Blue's hotel room pop like hothouse flowers and bringing a more noir look to the interior lighting and pale colors of the climactic scene in Joanna's apartment. The colors are very pretty on the Arrow disc, but the laserdisc coloration and brightness levels feel truer to the story being told. For instance, here is a comparison of grabs from the film's first bedroom scene, as it was respectively presented on an earlier Optimum DVD release of the film in the UK, and the Arrow BD. Notice how the blue drains away from Amy's nightgown.



Though the Arrow's 2K transfer and Anchor Bay laserdisc (and, I assume, the Optimum DVD) were both sourced from the 35mm interpositive struck from the film's original camera negative, their respective results are quite different. Materials age and aesthetic decisions are made, either by technicians or by the pre-settings on their equipment. Arrow's transfer - admittedly beautiful in many respects, and certainly no obstacle to appreciating one of the great American films of the 1980s - seems calibrated to favor on-set realism whereas the original laserdisc transfer ("digitally transferred from Orion Pictures' master interpositive print in consultation with Cinematographer Dick Bush") retains his brushstrokes, as it were, depicting lives more drenched in, and torn by, fantasy. And the record shows which version the director and cinematographer approved. Unfortunately, Ken Russell and Dick Bush are no longer with us, and records of transfers they once endorsed have receded from easy retrieval as we have advanced further into the digital age. So it is important to speak up for their intentions when we become aware of them.

Below is an assortment of grabs from the Arrow disc, which - despite what I believe to be some fundamental inaccuracies - is nonetheless by far the sharpest and best-sounding presentation the film has had to date. One of the many surprising revelations I had from this viewing was the important role played in the film by perspiration: we see it oozing from the pores of the drug-addled Reverend Peter Shayne (Anthony Perkins, in the role of a lifetime), we see it on the otherwise immaculate face of China Blue in the aftermath of her first tryst with Bobby Grady (as proof that he's touched something in her that no other man has ever reached), and we see it on the brows of both Gradys as they struggle to hold their failing marriage together. Its shifting of the film's color bias and the brightening of its night scenes also have the overall effect of making Barry Sandler's memorable, sharp-tongued characters feel that much more exposed and the world they inhabit feel more like a stage play.








CRIMES OF PASSION was previously released on home video in its R-rated theatrical and Unrated video versions, but Arrow ups the ante by pairing the Unrated version (106m 46s) with a Director's Cut (112m 35s) that noticeably extends a hostile conversation between Bobby and Amy when she visits him unexpectedly at work. Arrow also complements the film with a fine assortment of extras, including new video interviews with Barry Sandler (22m 7s), composer Rick Wakeman (28m 54s - a really heart-warming memoir of his collaborations with Ken Russell), and the "It's A Lovely Life" music video with vocals by Maggie Bell. The laserdisc release included two deleted scenes, but the Arrow disc bumps the number up to seven (19m 55s) - including one in which we finally see (a pre-blonde) Pamela Anderson, who has always been credited in the end titles as "Hooker" but never actually seen until now. The extra scenes are all welcome satellites to the film, deepening our appreciation of the key characters - particularly Annie Potts' Amy, much of whose fine work had to be cut because (as Sandler admits) the film really isn't her story.

I'll be writing more about the film itself in an upcoming VIDEO WATCHDOG but wanted to make this subtle color issue better known - not to discourage anyone from buying this disc or discovering this wonderful film, but in the hope that something better approximating the film's intended look might happen in the event of a future release. 

Reading THE LOST WORLD

Meta fiction, anyone? Photo insert from the first edition of THE LOST WORLD, playfully picturing Professor Challenger (portrayed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself) and other members of his fabled expedition.
I'm presently in the midst of reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's THE LOST WORLD (1912) for the first time - very slowly, perhaps a chapter each night before bed, or perhaps two if I've skipped a night. The way the book is written, as a series of time-released missives, actually lends itself to such an approach surprisingly well. What has thus far most surprised me about the book is that, 1) despite however many adaptations and rip-offs there have been, its story has yet to be faithfully filmed, and 2) the still-startling imagination that went into its descriptions of live dinosaurs, written before the movies and stop-motion animation began lending themselves to the task, conveys some startling imagery we've never seen onscreen, perhaps because it is somewhat at odds with what we think we know of dinosaurs now. In short, if you love dinosaurs and have never read this book because you've seen the films and assume you know it, you're missing an important experience. That is, eavesdropping on a time when all that existed of dinosaurs was some bones, some Charles R. Knight paintings, and the eureka of a writer's raw imagination.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Aboard the Love Boat with VOODOO BLACK EXORCIST


Manuel Caño's VOODOO BLACK EXORCIST (Vudú Sangrienta, 1974) was not blessed in many ways, but it was blessed with an aggressively exploitative poster for its US release. It's the kind of poster that excites me on sight: no color, incoherent graphics (Bats? Why bats?), non sequitur promises in place of actual information ("Twice the TERROR! Twice the SHOCK!" - but compared to what?), a title patched together from buzz words ripped from the box office zeitgeist; it appears to have been designed on a one-hour deadline dare by someone close to suffering a nervous breakdown. Somehow the poster has always proposed to me a film better left to the imagination than to actually see, and I missed seeing it, or even finding out much about it, till this past weekend - when I was astounded to discover that the mummy pictured on the poster, evidently seized by a migraine, is none other than Italian Western legend Aldo Sambrell. As one watches the film, one must fight the supposition that the only reason the producers went with big, strapping, stocky Aldo is that Paul Naschy was for some reason unavailable.

In all fairness, Sambrell gives his all, even shaving his head for the role of Gatenabo, a black Caribbean voodoo priest who - with his forbidden love Kenya (Tanyeka Stadler, also white and playing black - in fact, they both look covered in mud) - was killed in a voodoo ceremony 3000 years ago, mummified and placed in a sarcophagus. (The ceremony is all percussion, with Hendrix-like electric guitar squalling added to the music in post-production. To keep things more within the 1000 B.C. time frame, we suppose.) When the sarcophagus is unearthed and shipped back to civilization aboard a luxury ocean liner, Gatenabo reanimates - now looking distinctly Caucasian - and discovers Kenya to be reborn as another passenger aboard ship, Sylvia (Eva León - who also gives her all; it's not every actress who would consent to bare all for a bubble bath scene in VOODOO BLACK EXORCIST). Among the highlights: Gatenabo presenting to a sleeping Sylvia the decapitated head of a past-life assailant; someone defending himself against the muddy-looking mummy by turning a fire hose on him, revealing bare legs under his priestly robes that don't look mummified in the least; and the murder of a character in front of a mirror, which unashamedly captures the hand-held camera's operator in full view of the action. The film's action nevert quite lives up to the poster's promise of "terrifying," but the English dubbing, if anything, surpasses the poster's promise of "stupefying."

Eva León and Aldo Sambrell, two lovers from beyond time.
Like this:
Sylvia: "According to the voodoo religion, when a man dies, he turns into eternal particles."

Or this:
Inspector Dominguez (Fernando Sancho): "You see, I have a system. When I don't have a lead, I drink gin - and wait."

Or this:
Dr. Kessling (Alfredo Mayo): "Just think of it! That same rhythm was sounding thousands of years ago in the jungles of Nigeria! And the movements of that dancer are an actual copy of ancient ancestral dances!"

Busybody dowager (Maria Antonia del Rio): "What do they signify?"

Dr. Kessling: "Your head will burn and your body will dissolve into nothingness." 

Or this:
Insp. Dominguez: "Do you know how to use this?"

Black deputy, holding a flame thrower: "Yes."

Insp. Dominguez: "Do you know what a mummy is, my son?"

Black deputy: "No, sir."

Insp. Dominguez: "At first, you will think it's a human being like you or me. But later, you will realize it's not, and that's when you will tremble."

Black deputy: "Yes, sir."

Insp. Dominguez: "And that is the time you will have to pull the trigger. Hurry, hurry!"



Aldo Sambrell (possibly) in his muddy Gatenabo mask.
With its embarrassing dearth of genuine black protagonists and absence of any exorcist or exorcisms, VOODOO BLACK EXORCIST is at least good for a few laughs, even if they are partly at our own expense as its trusting viewers. Unfortunately it presently circulates only as a scratchy 4:3 reduction of its original 2.35:1 screen ratio, but what survives of it visually is at least colorful and crudely interesting. The score by Fernando Garcia Portillo (whose other credits include the remarkably scored WITCHES MOUNTAIN and a couple of Jess Franco films, including DR ORLOFF'S MONSTER) is quite good, in a Euro garage band sort of way. A few years prior to this enjoyable misadventure, Manuel Caño and screenwriter Santiago Moncada served as prime movers on the project that became Mario Bava's HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON (1970). If nothing else, VOODOO BLACK EXORCIST shows exactly how much any film project stood to gain by having Bava at its helm.

If I have succeeded in intriguing you, you too can see VOODOO BLACK EXORCIST as a free Amazon Prime viewing option, or as a public domain DVD release from this company, this company or this company (a purported "digital remaster"), to name a few. 


Friday, July 15, 2016

Universal Monster Sequels Coming to Blu-ray

Well, gang, it appears the long wait is finally coming to an end. On September 13, Universal begin rolling out a blood-red carpet to welcome their classic monsters to the Blu-ray, beginning with "Legacy" box sets devoted to the entire sagas of the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf Man. Presumably, Dracula, the Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon will follow at a later date. These appear to be identical to the Legacy sets released two years ago by Universal, at least in terms of supplementary contents; however, MONSTERS FROM THE VAULT's Jim Clatterbaugh tells me "the Frankenstein sequels, starting with SON, are all newly restored and mastered in 4K (completed in December 2015), they're not the same HD transfers used in the most recent Legacy sets." These alone will be worth the cost of the upgrades.

For the record, here are the contents:


FRANKENSTEIN COMPLETE LEGACY COLLECTION
Disc 1 - FRANKENSTEIN (1931)
with supplements
The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster
Karloff: The Gentle Monster
Monster Tracks
Universal Horror
Frankenstein Archives
Boo!  A Short Film
Feature Commentary with Film Historian Rudy Behlmer
Feature Commentary with Historian Sir Christopher Frayling
Trailer Gallery
100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics
My Scenes

Disc 2 - THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
with supplements
She's Alive!  Creating The Bride of Frankenstein
The Bride of Frankenstein Archive
Feature Commentary with Scott MacQueen
Trailer Gallery
100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics
My Scenes

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939)
Theatrical Trailer


Disc 3 - THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942)
Theatrical Trailer
FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943)
Theatrical Trailer

Disc 4 - HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)
Theatrical Trailer
HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945)
Theatrical Trailer

Disc 5 - ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)
with supplements
Abbott and Costello Meet the Monsters
Theatrical Trailer
Feature Commentary with Film Historian Gregory W. Mank
100 Years of Universal: The Lot
100 Years at Universal: Unforgettable Characters


THE WOLF MAN COMPLETE LEGACY COLLECTION

Disc 1 - THE WOLF MAN (1940)
with supplements
Monster by Moonlight
The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth
Pure in Heart: The Life and Legacy of Lon Chaney, Jr.
He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce
The Wolf Man Archives
Feature Commentary with Film Historian Tom Weaver
Trailer Gallery
100 Years of Universal: The Lot
My Scenes

Disc 2 - FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943)
Theatrical Trailer
HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)
Theatrical Trailer
HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945)
Theatrical Trailer

Disc 3 - ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)
with supplements
Abbott and Costello Meet the Monsters
Theatrical Trailer
Feature Commentary with Film Historian Gregory W. Mank
100 Years of Universal: The Lot
100 Years at Universal: Unforgettable Characters

Disc 4 - THE WERE-WOLF OF LONDON (1935)
Theatrical Trailer
SHE-WOLF OF LONDON (1945)
Theatrical Trailer

4K restorations aside, we can spot things from afar that are bound to annoy every single buyer of these sets. Most obviously, anyone picking up the Frankenstein set is bound to pick up the Wolf Man set - by including FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN only on the Wolf Man set guarantees this - so why are consumers being forced to buy almost half their content a second time? Couldn't Universal have slipped some of their 1940s B-horrors, those one-shot items without a legacy, into those slots? How many copies of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN are we going to have to buy in our lives?

Nevertheless, it is exciting to know that these beloved films and sequels are finally on their way to Blu-ray. I first saw the Universal classics in HD on the late, lamented Monsters HD channel slightly more than 10 years ago and wrote about my response to seeing THE WOLF MAN in 1080p for the first time here in an essay entitled "Revel in Evelyn." It might make for some nice reading as you wait. 


Needed On Blu-ray: THE SEX OF ANGELS (1968)

It's directed by the author of MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN (Ugo Liberatore), co-scripted by the screenwriter of THE TIN DRUM (Franz Seitz), and scored by the composer for L'AVVENTURA and L'ECLISSE (Giovanni Fusco) - it's THE SEX OF ANGELS (Il sesso degli angeli, 1968), a forgotten Italian thriller filmed smack-dab on the cusp of the cinema's late Sixties advent into maturity. 

As you can see from the half-sheet poster above, it had a US release through Lopert Pictures; it was distributed through United Artists. Note how the ad campaign makes similar use of the sort of crazy, sing-songy, psychopathic blather than made TWISTED NERVE so endearing around the same time ("Cleaver, cleaver. Chop, chop. First the Mom and then the Pop. And then we'll get the little Girl. We'll get her right between the curl." - That'll pack 'em in!). Also adding to the intrigue of this discovery is that THE SEX OF ANGELS was one of the earliest US releases to receive an X rating. The film itself doesn't contain any imagery that would be considered graphic today - just a flash or two of breast nudity by a couple of sunbathers, no more. However, the story itself maintains a teasingly adult tone, an edge that has somehow remained sharp over the decades. 
Rosemarie Dexter, Bernard de Vries, Doris Kunstmann topless at the wheel.
It's the story of three beautiful, young and indolently wealthy young women (Doris Kunstmann as Nora, Rosemarie Dexter as Nancy, and Laura Troschel as Carla) who decide, for initially unclear reasons, to kidnap a young man to accompany them as they abscond with Nora's father's yacht for a weekend off the coast of Yugoslavia. Nancy - the really bad news of the bunch - chooses a medical student named Marco (Bernard de Vries - imagine William Berger and John Phillip Law put in a blender) to accompany them, teasing him sexually and promising him the full pay-off if he tags along. He does, only to discover that Nancy - whom he catches sleeping with the virginal Carla - is either gay, bi or frigid... either way, a disappointment once she finally makes good on their deal. Rosemarie Dexter, a discovery of Riccardo Freda (who cast her as his Juliet in 1962's Giulietta e Romeo) whom Jess Franco had originally sought to play the lead in his 1968 film MARQUIS DE SADE'S JUSTINE (and ended up playing a minor supporting role), provides the dramatic core of the film, lending deadly colorations to a character who, sadly and despite an obviously padded length, is never fully explored.

Rosemarie Dexter as Nancy.
After the disappointment of Nancy, and toying with the more clearly gay Nora, Marco focuses his attentions on Carla, who disappoints him again by announcing that she is saving her virtue for a "Negro," for the simple reason that she wants to shock people with the story of her deflowering for years to come! As night falls on the Adriatic, the secret purpose of the ladies' illicit voyage is finally revealed: they intend to experiment with LSD! Before the sugar cubes are ingested, the party lock themselves inside - they've heard stories about people jumping out of windows - and, because they've also heard that trippers often suffer amnesia about their experiences, they decide to record the proceedings on Daddy's reel-to-reel machine.

The acid party.
The preliminaries prepare us for highlights and plot twists that never really happen. The locked room aspect doesn't play into the mystery element that follows, surprisingly enough. Also, we don't get the expected LSD sequence - there are no distorted lens revels or light show effects whatsoever. Instead, in a twist that anticipates Mario Bava's 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON by a couple of years, we immediately cut to the next woozy morning when everyone awakens, suffering from amnesia, to the sound of the tape reel flapping. We expect Marco to discover one of the young women dead - but it is in fact Marco who has been shot in the abdomen with a pellet gun. The injury isn't bad enough to have killed him, but the consequences will be serious if he isn't taken to hospital immediately. Only the tape can reveal who shot Marco.

How to deal with a wounded medical student?
 I'll leave the details of the story there, but as you can see, THE SEX OF ANGELS is both an unusual Italian thriller for this period, and of particular interest for the elements it shares in common with other Italian thrillers that followed, notably the Bava film and also Ottavio Alessi's TOP SENSATION (1969). It's also a worthy addition to that select group of psychological thrillers set on the open sea.

An early example of the "He's not dead yet" surprise grabs.

Add to all of this an outstanding score by Giovanni Fusco that (rather like Bernard Herrmann's score for TWISTED NERVE) runs a shared theme through an impressive series of generic interpretations - from classical and folk, to pop, rock and jazz - and you get a lovely-to-watch, borderline kinky ride that, yes, teases a good deal more than it delivers, but is no less entertaining for that. Considering that I'd never heard of this film before, I was surprised by its level of quality, which is enhanced by the excellent Technicolor/Techniscope cinematography of Leonida Barboni (THE WITCH IN LOVE), the natural scenic beauty of the locations and cast, and an excellent post-sync track that confirms that all the actors spoke English on-set, some phonetically.

Definitely worthy of resurrection on Blu-ray. Until then, check your favorite streaming and torrent providers.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Back Into the BLOOD BATH

Arrow Video cover art by Dan Mumford.
I was taken aback the other day, while updating my Audio Commentaries list on my Facebook page, to discover that I have already - by mid-year - recorded as many commentaries for new Blu-ray and DVD releases as I did in the entirety of last year. Perhaps the most ambitious of my spoken work this year has been my "audio essay" for Arrow Video's BLOOD BATH - a box set of four related feature films that was somewhat inspired by a three-part article that I wrote in the early days of VIDEO WATCHDOG, in Issues 4, 5 and 7. (All three are available digitally.)

That extended feature, which in some ways was the article that defined what VIDEO WATCHDOG was going to be, though my research and final work wasn't completed until nearly a year into publication, was entitled "The Trouble With Titian" and it told, for the first time, the story of how a couple of Late Late Show curiosities, PORTRAIT IN TERROR and TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE, had in fact been spun off of two other features, a Yugoslavian thriller called OPERATION TITIAN and a Jack Hill B-picture called BLOOD BATH (which incorporated footage from TITIAN) - all of them executive produced by a fellow whose name didn't appear on a single one of them: Roger Corman.

Little blind girl meets ominous shadow in OPERATION TITIAN.
Prior to this release, OPERATION TITIAN (which was supervised by a young Francis Ford Coppola) was available only as an imported Serbian DVD, while PORTRAIT IN TERROR and TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE could be found badly cropped on a couple of public domain labels, sourced from 16mm TV prints. BLOOD BATH was finally made available as a DVD-R a couple of years ago. But now all of these inferior copies can be tossed away. The Arrow set, which has been released on both sides of the Atlantic on region-free discs, assembles the best-possible presentations of each title. Taken individually, the four films are okay at best, nothing to write home about (says the man who found a three-part article in them), but taken as a whole, they become a remarkable illustration of feature film economics and how to rework a commercial negative into a positive. This is where my "audio essay" comes into play, explaining what the films themselves cannot.

Patrick Magee, dipped in wax in PORTRAIT IN TERROR.
I've been putting "audio essay" in quotation marks (inverted commas for my UK readers) because, much like my original article, my project got a bit out-of-hand. Other audio essays appearing on Arrow releases, such as Michael Mackenzie's for BLOOD AND BLACK LACE or the Adrian Martin/Cristina Alvarez Lopez piece for THE STRANGE CASE OF DR JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE, have been illuminating and nothing short of superb, yet they have averaged about 15 minutes. Thanks to the indulgent support to disc producer Anthony Nield and the assistance of my editor Ian Froggatt, my history of the four Titian films evolved to feature length; in fact, I'm proud to say it's the second longest feature in the set. As such, I think it would be fair to term it - as some reviewers kindly have - a documentary.

Sid Haig, Jonathan Haze and other beatniks in BLOOD BATH.
To break the four films down to basics: OPERATION TITIAN is a serviceable European thriller with creepy atmosphere and the jarring presence of two familiar English-speaking actors, William Campbell and Patrick Magee (both fresh from DEMENTIA 13, itself the subject of an excellent new Blu-ray restoration by The Film Detective). PORTRAIT IN TERROR is a re-edited version of TITIAN, sold directly to television, with some conspicuous padding in all likelihood supervised by Stephanie Rothman. BLOOD BATH is a 62-minute B-picture, concocted by writer-director Jack Hill to go out on double bills with Curtis Harrington's Soviet mash-up QUEEN OF BLOOD (released last year on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber) - a tongue-in-cheek amalgam of A BUCKET OF BLOOD and TOUCH OF EVIL, you might say, incorporating about three minutes of OPERATION TITIAN. Hill got the assignment to make SPIDER BABY and didn't get to finish BLOOD BATH, which Stephanie Rothman finished for him. And TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE is the extended TV version of BLOOD BATH - and boy, is it ever extended.

The eponymous villain of TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE.
But the story behind the making of these films is an important one, that has always tended to fall between the cracks of Roger Corman's other major successes of the time. (While various of his employees were making these four pictures, Corman himself managed to produce an additional 15 or so pictures, directed 7 or 8, and traveled and worked extensively in England, Ireland, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, as well as in Hollywood.) It is with these four films that Corman's background in engineering seems to come into inspirational play: it was his logical sensibility that understood that OPERATION TITIAN, while not commercially viable on its own terms, could serve as grist for his exploitation mill, facilitating a series of other pictures made with minimal funds that could turn a profit.

Check out my "The Trouble With Titian - Revisited" in the BLOOD BATH box set for the full story.  


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Three New Books from McFarland

 The academic framing of KLAUS KINSKI, BEAST OF CINEMA: CRITICAL ESSAYS AND FELLOW FILMMAKER INTERVIEWS prepares one for a heavier and less entertaining book than it actually is. In compiling this overview of Kinski's career, touching upon all its highs and lows, editor Matthew Edwards has assembled a book that manages to be immensely readable, densely informative and insightful, and at times riotously entertaining. There are essays on AGUIRRE, NOSFERATU and his work with Herzog in general; his physical approaches to performance in Italian westerns; even pieces on his contributions to La Chanson de Roland and DR ZHIVAGO (!), as well as 17 pages on his films for Jess Franco and Harry Alan Towers. There are also 50 pages of interviews with various collaborators, and more than 60 pages of well-written reviews by Mark Edwards, Matthew Edwards and Dan Taylor. Expect to come out the other end with a heightened appreciation for him as an artist and perhaps less respect for him as a human being.

It is interesting to me that the giallo has been coming into its own, in recent years, as fodder for academic studies. Michael Sevastakis' new book GIALLO CINEMA AND ITS FOLKTALE ROOTS: A CRITICAL STUDY OF 10 FILMS, 1962-1987 is one that, on the basis of its title and subject matter, might attract readers it's unlikely to satisfy, though its ambition and its actual twist on the subject matter are commendable. Put simply, neither the author (a professor at the College of Mt. St. Vincent in Riverdale, NY) nor his book have any grounding in the popular life of these films in the US, claiming they were "seldom released in American theaters" and "usually distributed as redacted bootlegs," and the bibliography includes names like Georges Bataille alongside Carol Clover and Linda Ruth Williams. Bava père et fils, Argento, Martino, Lenzi, Fulci, Carmineo, Pastore, Bianchi and Bido are all discussed in terms of individual films. All the films covered are addressed (and indexed!) by Italian title. Remarkably, there is only one reference to Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (under S, for Sei donne per l'assassino), the most seminal of all gialli, in the entire book. A serious treatise, somewhat illuminating in terms of the literary approach it takes to deconstructing such an aggressively visual genre (from Mario Bava's THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH to Dario Argento's OPERA and Lamberto Bava's PHOTOS OF GIOIA), but also pretentious and, on its most basic level, misinformed.

Apart from his own unexpectedly involving Introduction, written in the wake of last year's race killings in Charleston and which manages to connect the Outsider themes of the subject at hand with the tragic circumstances to be written through, editor Johnson Cheu's TIM BURTON: ESSAYS ON THE FILMS is only 2.5 essays shy of being able to boast an entirely female authorship. This, in itself, I find significant because Burton's films rarely manifest a masculine strain that doesn't feature some element of cosplay, transvestism or augmentation/disfigurement, and there is a full chapter here (by Deborah Mellamphy) on "Gender Transgression and Star Persona in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS." My own feeling about Burton's films is that they can be sweet and creatively designed but are rarely original and seldom manifest any real depth. That said, the 14 essays included here - while seemingly oblivious to, or unconcerned with, his heavy debt to artists like Edward Gorey and Ronald Searle - find plenty of food for thought. Topics include body image concerns in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, the adaptation of SWEENEY TODD from stage to screen, malleable identity in DARK SHADOWS, and his uses of German Expressionism. I'm not sure of the extent to which the contributors are genuinely engaging with the material or merely using it as a convenient handle to confront deeper issues, but there is material here that makes the films themselves more worth revisiting from new, more engaging perspectives. PS No chapters on BATMAN or BEETLEJUICE.

McFarland books can also be ordered directly from their website or their telephone order line at 800-253-2187.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Game's Afoot: Hammer's HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES


It's always a pleasure to see a Hammer film released with respect in this country. Too often (especially when the major companies are involved) they seem packed off to market with a sense of haste, and perhaps a little shame, in bundles - as though the studio wanted to be rid of all their holdings in one stroke. This is why it's so gratifying to see the affection invested in Twilight Time's release of Terence Fisher's THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959), which was recently issued with a wealth of extras in the company's usual strictly limited edition of 3000 units. I'm not sure how many copies of this MGM/UA acquisition currently remain, but suffice to say, grab it soon or forever hold your peace.

HOUND was arguably Fisher's most visually sumptuous collaboration with cinematographer Jack Asher, his chief collaborator on all his early Hammer horror titles, from THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) through THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH (1961). Not only does Twilight Time's disc present the film in all its vivid Technicolor beauty, but - as the company's brand dictates - it also includes an isolated music (James Bernard) and effects track. It is not the first time this has happened on disc with a Hammer film - Synapse Films did this with TWINS OF EVIL, which had also been so issued back in the 1990s on LaserDisc - but it is still uncommon indulgence for a Hammer title, and - shockingly at this late stage - a home video first for both Fisher and Bernard. One may wish that Twilight Time had been able to provide the actual session tracks, as they do with many other releases, but those original recordings presumably no longer survive.

This HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES was one of the most eye-popping matinee treats of my movie-going youth, and it was fascinating for me to revisit the film in such clarity, to compare its ripe present tense with the memories of my racing young imagination. For example, the main title cards unfold over a series of three paintings; I couldn't help but remember that, as a kid, I accepted these paintings without question as authentic scenic views. I wanted to believe in the story I was about to be told, and I did from the get-go. Seeing them again, they are actually a bit crude but their handmade quality still feels admirable.
 






As the director's credit fades, we are treated to our first and only unobstructed view of one of these paintings, depicting the exterior of Baskerville Hall in the 17th century, when it was presided over by the cruel Sir Hugo Baskerville. Fisher transitions to reality with a (rather bumpy) camera track toward a stained-glass window, which suddenly smashes as a man is hurled through it. This launches us into a ravishing early example of what would, only a few years later, become finessed into the "extended pre-credits sequence": a narrator takes us back to the evening of one of Sir Hugo's bacchanals for neighboring land barons (all adorned in complementary colors), when their violent revels built to a lustful head, which Sir Hugo (David Oxley) intended to reward by offering his "herd of rams" the services of the abducted daughter (Judi Moyens) of an impoverished man in his debt.

The sequence, still a bit shocking for its blunt inferences, is one of Fisher's (and therefore Hammer's) greatest, and it gets the film off to a start that's equal to anything in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN or HORROR OF DRACULA. Peter Bryan's dialogue is ripe with pop and crackle, and Jack Asher's cinematography is similarly fraught with bristling effects, adding to Oxley's fearsome performance with slightly unfocused close-ups and a surprisingly rugged focus rack as he crosses the room that make his off-the-rails energy seem truly uncontainable. 









That blue you see behind Sir Hugo, on the ceiling, is flickering with a coming storm but it's also luminous in ways that only the best Technicolor cinematography can be. What he is saying here is that "the bitch" (shocking for 1959) has escaped. She has made her way off into the Hall's surrounding, treacherous moors, where - against the advice of his saner fellows - Sir Hugo determines to retrieve her by turning loose his hunting dogs.


"LET LOOSE THE PACK!"

Here on the moors, Hammer's art department, led by the heroic production designer Bernard Robinson, turn an obviously interior "exterior" set into a splendidly dimensional outpost of the imagination, whorling with nearly three-dimensional fog as the aristocracy mercilessly descends upon the working class. The depth of field in these shots can never be as adequately conveyed on DVD as it is here.

 

Startlingly, considering the effort put forth to present the young woman as a real and vulnerable character in a remarkably brief amount of time, Sir Hugo is successful in finding her, whereupon he decides to take his satisfaction not by raping her, but by stabbing her to death. The contact of knife and torso occurs below the camera range, as it would in a rape sequence of this period, and the imagery of the blood-covered blade as it is raised into view is double-charged with significance.


But it is Sir Hugo's last night on earth as well, as his act of murder is answered by a hellish howling on the moors, followed by the arrival of its fabled inhabitant, who attacks him and sends the murder weapon bouncing overground, where it settles in a nicely decorative arrangement - rather like the shot of the mask that ends Fisher's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962).


From this shot, we dissolve to the present, where we are surprised to learn that our narrator is not one of those storytelling conventions of the cinema, but far more practical: the legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles is being read to Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) and his associate Dr. Watson (Andre Morell) as a prelude to enticing them to accept the challenge of unmasking its mystery. As storytelling devices go, this one still works like gangbusters.

As a whole, the sequence is comparable to much in Hammer - the introductory backstory of the beggar in the Marquis' palace in CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961), for instance - but here its colorful, compact execution is a veritable fireball, worthy of Powell and Pressburger at their most impassioned.

And yet, for all this, the moment in the picture that most stands out for me now is the quieter, painterly perfection of the meeting of Dr. Watson, who's out poking around the moors, and Cecile (Marla Landi), the sullen daughter of the Baskerville family's groundskeeper Stapleton (Ewen Solan). I seem to recall David Pirie, in his invaluable book A HERITAGE OF HORROR: THE BRITISH HORROR CINEMA 1945-1972, comparing the shot to the imagery of John Keats' 1884 poem "La Belle Dame sans Merci," which is not at all off-base. Pirie may have also invoked the painter Thomas Gainsborough; I can see his hand in the brushstrokes but Gainsborough didn't usually waste his time on likenesses of the peasantry. The same goes for John Singer Sargent, but if either of them had taken a brush to Keats' poem, the result could not have looked much different.



And the textures! Thankfully, Twilight Time's disc gives us all the textures and fine details that have stayed with me over a lifetime, from the rough tweed of Holmes' overcoat to the uncanny blue hues of Watson's pipe smoke.


  

  


And feast your eyes on this marvelous, wholly unnatural use of emerald green! Irrational color was one of Jack Asher's great signature traits, which can also be seen in his weaving of the color lavender throughout THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960), where is appears consistently in advance of every appearance or attack by a vampire.



Finally, though I don't recall this particular shot popping out at me in any previous viewing, I was struck anew by this shot of Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville, surprised in one of Baskerville Hall's closed-off rooms. The color here is less ostentatious than in the aforementioned green, but admire, if you will, the contrast of the rich blue limning Lee's shoulders and the quietly hellish reds burning up from the bottom right, just enough to delineate the equine profile of that rocking horse. Mario Bava could do no better.


In addition to this exquisite 1.66:1 presentation, the disc treats to two audio commentaries, one by film historian David Del Valle and filmmaker Steven Peros, and another by CINEMA RETRO's Paul Scrabo, Lee Pfeiffer and Hank Reineke; a pair of Christopher Lee featurettes (in one, he lends his resonant baritone to Conan Doyle's original text); an interview with Bernard Robinson's widow Margaret about the creation of the mask worn by the Hound in the film's climax; and an original theatrical trailer. An accompanying eight-page booklet includes appreciative liner notes by Julie Kirgo that touch on the original story, the film's original release, its grace notes and its place in the realm of what she calls "British Romanticism" and rightly allies with the best of Powell and Pressburger.

I should also mention that Hammer's HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES is also available as a handsome Region B disc from Arrow Video in the UK. The presentations are perfectly comparable but there is some variety in the extras. While the supplements are largely shared by both releases (with Arrow uniquely adding an Andre Morell profile), the music and effects track is exclusive to Twilight Time. The commentaries offered by the two companies are likewise exclusive, with Arrow offering an animated and informative discussion between the always-welcome Hammer authorities Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby. 

Twilight Time's disc is available directly from Screen Archives Entertainment, or use this handy link.