Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Genius of Mario Bava, Revisited

Yesterday I found this gif over at Giphy and it helped me to focus on the makings of a shot I've long known but always looked past, seeing it as a bridge to action rather than as action itself.

It's a shot from Mario Bava's HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON (Il rosso segno della follia, 1969) and features Stephen Forsyth as the murderous John Harrington and Femi Benussi as his ill-fated wedding gown model. If you haven't seen the film, shame on you, but it's about the owner of a wedding gown salon who leads a double life as a serial killer - but he's a serial killer with a quest. He doesn't kill out of anger, nor even for destructive reasons. Each time this closet narcissist kills, he finds that he is able to recall more of the traumatic childhood incident that caused him to embark on this twisted lifestyle in the first place.

Here is the full scene as it appears in context. Note that the shots in question all take place in the first five seconds of this montage.

Look closely at the mechanics of this shock effect. Viewed in a loop via the gif (I wish Blogger would allow me to present it as a looping accompaniment to my notes), one can only gasp at how simply and effectively Bava was able to illustrate the inner workings of his anti-hero's psychosis. As the cleaver slams down, we see no blood, no cleaving. Instead, it blacks out the violence in metaphor. Bava cuts to a split red-saturated (make that a double metaphor) graphic of Benussi's eyes, which is then pulled apart to uncover more of the trauma buried in John's unconscious - an image from the incident that started it all. So original, so dynamic, so uniquely cinematic!

While it shows the influence of 1960s graphic art storytelling (ie., comics), it's hard to imagine narrative cinema getting at this information any other way. It's just as hard to imagine such a narrative conveying such a moment as effectively in a static art setting. In its own way, it's as revolutionary as it was for Quentin Tarantino to relate backstory in KILL BILL, VOLUME 1 in an anime format. More than 40 years further on, this moment still looks fresh - and because it was never the point of the scene it helps to play out, it hasn't been remade to death.

The idea of going from a hot red image to a cool grey-blue one alone - without cuts - shows such a profound understanding of color and cinema. Today's films are wall-to-wall with rich color so that it rarely has a chance to have meaning or effect.

Every time I look at this gif (which - as you see in the clip - happens so quickly in the film, it doesn't give us the opportunity to deconstruct it), I see something different. At the moment, I find myself deeply impressed by how Bava's zoom lens appears to be zooming in and back in a single reflexive movement, though it unfolds on three separate layers and had to be edited together from at least two separate zooms - one for live action, one for the graphics.

And I keep wondering about that second layer - it doesn't appear to be an optical, so was it printed out on saturated red photo paper and pulled apart by hand? Or was it pre-scored and affixed to some weighted mechanical contraption that, with the pulling of a lever, dropped the two vertical halves to horizontal rest? Notice how the abrupt change in color is produced on the level of the printing of the image and not by lighting. So impressive!

How many people working in film today would even think to involve printed static images to produce a shock effect? The more we agree to continue moving toward a "post-print" society, the fewer the opportunities there will be for movies to become anything other than what we have seen before.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Story Behind FLIES - My "Lost" FLY Sequel

Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum in THE FLY (1986).
In response to this article on Geoff Todd's One Perfect Shot blog, I wrote the following reminiscence  for my Facebook page, where it attracted some interest. The article ponders a once-announced, no-show sequel to David Cronenberg's THE FLY, entitled FLIES, that Geena Davis was said to be producing at some point in the 1990s - and what I wrote relates to my own involvement with a proposed sequel that I originated, in late 1986, which was also called FLIES. Knowing that my reminiscence would only scroll away quickly on FB, I thought I should post it here, on the record. Not that it scores me any points in particular, but it does render more accurate a certain chain of events, if anyone cares.

When THE FLY came out to great success in 1986, I approached David Cronenberg to ask if I might submit a storyline for a possible sequel. (I had been writing on-set reports about the making of his films since 1981 and had just spent two weeks on the set of THE FLY for CINEFEX and AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHER, so I figured I knew the characters as well as anybody.) David said sure, but that to bear in mind that the inside word was that the studio was looking for a vehicle for Geena Davis - for Jeff Goldblum not so much, though he might consent to a guest appearance to help Geena's career.

I wrote a storyline in which (I'm working from a distant memory here) Geena's character Veronica Quaife, while recovering from the traumatic loss of her lover Seth Brundle, resumed her journalism career and began researching for Stathis Borans a profile of the Bartok Company, who had acquired Brundle's orphaned research and equipment in the wake of his death. She meets with Anton Brink, the head of Bartok (a kind of proto-Apple) and he presents her with items from the company's "new spring line" (VIDEODROME reference) to test drive, including a fancy new computer. Her research continues and, one night, as she hits a wall, lacking certain information, she stares in amazement as the Bartok computer automatically fills in the information she doesn't know. Long story short, the ghost in her machine opens a real-time, intimate dialogue with her and turns out to be Brundle - his "ghost in the machine," as it were. He explains that, when he teleported himself, the telepod received an analog, not his original self, which was destroyed in the first telepod and translated into information stored within the computer - which is what is communicating with her now. Veronica realizes that the system, then, is not just a teleportation unit but a true, instantaneous cloning device and that her beloved COULD live again. Brundle explains that this is true; however, the Bartok Company is holding him hostage in the machine, using his intelligence to direct their future product developments. "Help me, Ronnie..."

That is basically the pitch I made to producer Stuart Cornfeld on a trip to LA. I went in without representation, feeling myself to be among friends. In all fairness, he DID caution me about this - but I didn't know anything about finding an agent. Stuart told me to write up a treatment with my idea and to get it to him ASAP, which I did. The title I gave to my treatment was FLIES, playing off the cloning angle, but also the recent Fox success of ALIENS. I also sent a copy to David, who made me very happy when he told me that he liked my idea better than other proposals run past him, and that he was submitting it, with his personal recommendation, to Fox.

The next thing I heard, from David, was that Stuart didn't consider my treatment "cinematic," but David had argued the point, reminding him that such things were ultimately decided in the filming and editing anyway. He thought I had written the basis of a really SMART movie. (Maybe THAT'S what killed it.) Anyway, the next thing I heard, or read, was that Mick Garris, who had been doing a lot of work with Spielberg, was writing it - and that HIS script had David's approval. Well, that's that, I figured.

I've managed to avoid seeing THE FLY II all these years, but I am aware that the Bartok Company setting and a form of my name for said company's director, Anton Brink (conflating Anton Leader, the director of CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED, with Joseph Losey's original title for THESE ARE THE DAMNED, "The Brink"), somehow ended up in the picture's plasma pool - Anton Brink becoming Anton Bartok - and I am OK with that. Those were just ideas; nobody nicked my story - which I imagine Geena Davis might also have liked. It would have given her a real dramatic performance vehicle, much like the one Jeff Goldblum had, and actresses are always saying that they aren't offered enough of those.

I don't know anyone who was involved in the "gorefest" they made who looks back on it with pleasure. My proposed third act would have also made some commercial concessions to gore. It would have found Brundle infiltrating Bartok's security system to allow Ronnie to get inside the facility to follow his directions and reintegrate him. As she tried to reach the well-protected core of the facility, Brundle literally turned the building's security resources against Bartok's security goons.

Some years later, I read in FANGORIA that Fox (who also produced a movie during this period called GHOST IN THE MACHINE - maybe it was just something in the ether back then) had announced a possible third FLY film, a vehicle just for Geena called FLIES... but since my name has never been mentioned in relation to it, it must have nothing to do with me.

But the above will tell you a bit more about another FLIES that might have been.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The BLOOD AND ROSES Mystery Explained

Last week, I was surprised to discover that - in addition to such horror hits of the early 1960s as KONGA, REPTILICUS and BRIDES OF DRACULA - Roger Vadim's BLOOD AND ROSES had been the subject of a movie tie-in novelization.

Such a venture seems a bit redundant, as BLOOD AND ROSES was at least theoretically based on J. Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 novella CARMILLA, which might just as easily have been printed between these soft covers. Instead, the job of translating Vadim and Roger Vailland's screenplay* into prose fell to someone credited as Robin Carlisle. The name might well be a pseudonym, as no other publishing credits could be located for this writer. Their work, certainly for hire, was copyrighted in 1960 by Paramount Pictures Corporation and published by Hillman Books, a subsidiary of Hillman Periodicals Inc. that same year, several months to a full year before the release of the film in North America. The only personal note left by the author is his/her dedication "To R.M., who knows why." (*Newspaper reports from January 1960 credit Peter Viertel as a contributor to the screenplay.)

One thing known to collectors of movie novelizations is that - because they require a certain amount of lead time to write, and are generally undertaken before the film in question has arrived at a final cut - such books habitually contain scenes, dialogue, even entire characters nowhere to be found in the movies they are associated with. 

When I first learned of this book's existence, my first reaction was to bring it to the attention of John-Paul Checkett, whose two-part coverage of Le Fanu's CARMILLA and its many film adaptations (including BLOOD AND ROSES) appears in VIDEO WATCHDOG 183 and the forthcoming 184. I thought he would find its redundancy amusing. Then it struck me that there was something potentially far more attractive about the book than mere irony. For the past 56 years, there has been a mystery associated with this film that its novelization - I realized - stood a good chance of clearing up.  

Said mystery concerns the above photograph, which was part of Paramount's original promotional stills set for the picture. It pictures some kind of amorphous blob with eyes creeping up the night dress of a brunette, who could only be Georgia, the secondary female lead played in the picture by Elsa Martinelli. However, no such scene appears in the film.

I've long felt that such a bizarre image could only belong in the film's delirious dream sequence, which occurs quite late in the film. The sequence plays a bit choppily in the both the European cut (available on German DVD as ... Und vor Lust zu Sterben, which I covered at some length in VIDEO WATCHDOG # 177) and the substantially different US cut - which, surprisingly for an American studio release of 1960 forbidden to no particular age group, contains some female nudity. 

I promptly ordered one of the few affordable copies of the paperback left at (I'm afraid the only copy remaining there now is going - or staying - for $75!) My purchase arrived today - and I'm delighted to report that the mystery of this image is indeed solved in Chapter Nineteen, on pages 137 and 138.

As John-Paul Checkett describes in his detailed description of Le Fanu's original tale, CARMILLA reaches a climax of illumination in a scene where the General Spielsdorf secrets himself inside the bedroom of his niece Bertha to determine the secret cause of the lethargy that has beset her since the arrival of their house guest, Millarca. There he witnesses Millarca (who is, in fact, the vampiric Carmilla Karnstein) steal inside his niece's bed chamber, where to his astonishment she metamorphoses into a cat, creeping up Bertha's nightclothes to feed upon her life's blood. The monster we see in this production photograph - which looks to me like an early work of Carlo Rambaldi, quite possible as Vadim's film was produced in Italy - serves as a Lovecraftian metaphor of this cat and, indeed, the evil essence of the vampiric ancestor Mircalla Karnstein that is possessing Carmilla.

In Vadim's film as it presentlystands, Georgia rouses from her lethargy to discover Carmilla (Annette Stroyberg Vadim) standing at the foot of her bed as the film itself drains of all color. Color, in the form of red blood, then begins to seep from Carmilla's monochromatic form, from both her throat and her heart. The blood assumes an unseen living form that Georgia touches, transporting her into the surreal dream that embodies the film's climax. The dream itself is in black-and-white with only red objects represented in color - like the surgical gloves in the operating theater scene where a topless female patient is spread-eagled on a table, her identity obscured by a towel. The novelization makes sense of this mystery, as well.

In the book, Carmilla waits for the men in the villa to slumber until she goes to Georgia's room. When Georgia rouses from her languors, it is not the image of Carmilla that she sees at the foot of her bed.
Here is the relevant text from the novelization by Robin Carlisle:

Georgia wakened with a violent start. The daze that had engulfed her all that day in bed was completely gone, and her mind felt crystal-clear and alert. Pervading her, however, was a sharp sensation of fear. She could not imagine what caused it, but she had the impression it was the fear that had wakened her so suddenly. Perhaps, also, it was the fear that had cleared her head. She lay there staring at the foot of her bed, wondering how she would sleep away the rest of the night in this funny mood.

A wide, flat, wet-skinned creature, very black in color, appeared over the bottom edge of the bed and began slowly to creep up over her feet. It watched her with two elongated eyes. Moving in waves like a snail it came on so gradually that for a long minute she took it rather calmly. Then she became aware that she could not move her feet. The monster had crawled over them – they seemed paralyzed. The odd fear she had been feeling suddenly focused on this apparition. It was as though her fear had been waiting for its arrival. She wanted desperately to cry out but the cry choked in her throat. She could not make a sound.

The monster was now up to her knees. It felt like a very warm, very heavy blanket. With an enormous effort she pulled her legs up to her chest and pressed herself up against the backboard of the bed. She felt curiously helpless and lethargic. As it came closer, she saw that it was really a dark green, not black at all.

There was a tapping at the window the distracted her for a moment. In the water outside the window she caught sight of Lisa swimming, her hair trailing about her head like seaweed. Lisa tapped at the window to get Georgia's attention. She pointed to the monster and urgently beckoned her to get out of bed.

The dark green horror was now only inches away from her.

It was almost touching her.

It touched her. 

With the jolting start Georgia wrenched yourself free of its spell and fled to the window and opened it. Lisa reached her hand out of the water that flowed by across the face of the window and took Georgia by the wrist. She pulled her out through the window into the water with her. It was cool and pleasant, the water, and easy to move about in.

That is all we get of the monster. Lisa, the young girl killed earlier in the film by Carmilla, guides Georgia to the operating theater, where Carmilla appears dressed as the chief surgeon. The topless patient is meant to be Georgia, who greets Carmilla warmly. However, Carmilla denies her identity and removes her surgical mask to prove the point, revealing a face that has begun to yellow and shrivel with age. 

"I killed Carmilla," she explains. "I am Millarca. You are in love with me, Georgia. I have made you in love with me, and now I will have what is mine."

The crone that was Carmilla then poises her scalpel over Georgia's neck and plunges it in, sawing away at her tender flesh as the operating theater begins to spin vertiginously in a flourish of horror. Georgia screams at the horrid yellow face, the violence of the surgery against her, and the spinning room, crying out "Darling! Darling! Darling!" - until she recovers to find herself in the arms of her fiancé, Carmilla's beloved Leopoldo.

Thus the sequence is not really a nightmare at all, as it seems in the two extant versions of the film, but rather a visual metaphor for the metaphysical transposition of souls that takes place as the Mircalla possessing Carmilla trades souls with Georgia. The lingering questions are 1) was this just a dream? and 2) is this transposition successful? If so, it would mean that when Carmilla dies in the subsequent scene by falling onto the spike of a fence in the fields, she is not Carmilla at all, but rather Georgia. It is worth mentioning that the novelization contains no final scene aboard the jet, as we get in the US release, in which a voice-over by a triumphant Mircalla informs us that she has quietly taken possession of Georgia's body.

What all this conflicting information suggests is this: at some point during the editing of BLOOD AND ROSES, Vadim must come to the conclusion that including graphic horror imagery in his film would make it more difficult to rationalize on the adult art-house circuit. I doubt this would have been Paramount's concern, though they may well have had problems with the otherwise oblique lesbian aspects of the Carmilla/Georgia relationship becoming more obvious with a declaration of love, not to mention the breast nudity of Elsa Martinelli. It is also possible that the most horrific material was only shot to appease Vadim's producers, who may have had to real intention of using it - but it cuts a bit too deeply into the meaning of the scenes in which these things appear, so it's my feeling that, when Vadim saw the material cut together, he decided that his picture would be better served by leaving certain questions unanswered, to err on the side of ambiguity.

The film premiered in Paris in September 1960 and finally opened in America one year later, in the first week of September 1961. For further reading on the subject, I direct you to my detailed review of the German import DVD in VIDEO WATCHDOG # 177. 


Friday, April 29, 2016

Mise en Abyme: Ben Wheatley's HIGH-RISE

Tom Hiddleston in HIGH-RISE.
I re-read J.G. Ballard's HIGH-RISE for the first time since the Seventies some months ago and felt somewhat disappointed by it. He's one of my favorite novelists and I prefer his most challenging material, so it's not that I was put off by its subject matter or its most lurid highlights; I was frankly exhausted by the book because it contained almost no dialogue, which made Ballard's austere, clinical writing all the more concentrated and wearing. Also, when all was said and done, I felt its ideas had been more definitively handled by William Golding's LORD OF THE FLIES and Luis Buñuel's 1962 film THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, and I'm not accustomed to Ballard being bested by anyone at his own game.
I was very much looking forward to Ben Wheatley's film - it premiered yesterday on iTunes, Amazon Video and other streaming outlets before its US theatrical premiere in mid May - which I found disappointing for an entirely different set of reasons. Unlike the novel, it contains a lot of dialogue (some of it funny, as when one character rules "This is my party, these are my guests, and I will decide who is to be lobotomized!" - but mostly not) and introduced a plethora of characters, vignettes and situations not in the novel besides. While superbly well cast (Tom Hiddleston as Laing, Jeremy Irons as the architect Anthony Royal, Luke Evans as Wilder, also Elisabeth Moss and Sienna Miller), it's too freely adapted by Amy Jump, whose interpretation is immersive and Dionysian rather than remote and obsessed as Ballard is in his storytelling, not sharing his interest in the slow and systematic breakdown of human psychologies divorced from nature and imprisoned in the most abstract extremes of luxury.

Luke Evans.
I sensed it was on the wrong track from the opening shot, which jumps ahead to where the tenants' reversion to savagery is headed, making that our baseline before cutting to a more civilized time "three months earlier." This gave me the uneasy feeling that Wheatley and Jump would not be approaching the story as Ballard did, as a satirical work of surrealism, because surrealism - like any form of fantasy - needs a certain grounding in realism before it can take flight. Here the high-rise itself is a psychotic derangement, a towering beard trimmer that its designer likens to an open hand. The film concludes with a tape recording of Margaret Thatcher defining the differences between state and private capitalism, summarizing all that has come before as possibly the most remote thing from surrealism: social allegory.

At no time does the material remind us, as Ballard does, how our interactions with the rest of the world decide how presentably we live from day to day, how easily our standards of living can deteriorate if we have only to please ourselves - into not making the bed, not changing our clothes for days or weeks at a time, and the psychological cost that comes with such self-neglect. (Writers and other business people working from home, as Ballard did, will hear me.) Even the needle drops of the music score, pulling "Spoon" from CAN's EGE BAMYASI and commissioning a post-traumatic re-recording of ABBA's "S.O.S." by Portishead, evoke a scramble for hipster cred rather than a serious attempt to venture where Ballard had gone, which would have called for something closer far less counter-cultural and much more akin to 1970s supermarket Muzak.

THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL is in many ways the better and more faithful adaptation, though it was conceived at least a dozen years before the novel was written. The Ballard film to beat remains Jonathan Weiss's uncompromising THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION (2000).

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Forbidden Fruits of the Fine Arts Plaza

While exploring the archives of Cincinnati's daily newspaper, THE CINCINNATI ENQUIRER, a few days ago, I made an autobiographic discovery that put a chapter of my life - or, more specifically, the life of the world around me - into sharper focus.

When I was a child, my neighborhood movie theater was called The Plaza - some of you may remember that I dedicated the first issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG to that theater, with an inside back cover photo and a brief memoir. As I knew it, the Plaza differed from the photo above with the addition of an overhanging V-shaped marquee underpinned with orange-yellow light bulbs that reminded me of the bubbles in ginger ale. This was where I saw my first movie (THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, at the age of three or four), where I attended my first movie unescorted (FRANKENSTEIN 1970, when I was probably six - as unimaginable as this might seem to parents today), and where I would experience a number of my biggest movie-going eurekas (most Hammer and Toho films, THE TRIP, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, SPIRITS OF THE DEAD). I can still remember the gut punch of walking past the theater one day and seeing the words THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED on the marquee, not realizing this was the name of the new attraction and fearing that this temple of dreams was about to meet the wrecker's ball.

However, in the midst of the years when it was my great privilege to gain my cinematic education at the Plaza, I can also recall a mysterious period when it became closed to me - a period that, it now seems, I didn't fully comprehend at the time. It's important to remember that my first independent movie-going years were in the early- to mid-1960s, so there was a lot of important stuff in the zeitgeist competing for my attention - not only weekend matinee tickets at the Plaza, but also the Silver Age of Marvel comics, MAD magazine, miscellaneous paperback books, and all the great music that were being played on WSAI Top 40 radio. Nevertheless, I have a clear memory of walking past the Plaza one day and discovering that it had changed. In memory, it seemed to me that it had been closed for awhile, but the newspaper ads do not support this. But something about the theater's exterior had changed, and as I peered through the windows on the familiar swinging doors, I saw that the lobby - formerly decked out with framed posters for the coming attractions - was now displaying framed works of art, and the concession stand area had been simplified to promote one thing: coffee. The admission prices listed above the cashier's box no longer included "35 cents - Children") because children plainly were no longer being admitted. The feature being shown that particular week, I remember, starred Brigitte Bardot.

So I had a recollection that, at some unidentified point in my childhood, the Plaza had become a smut palace. It certainly would have been in keeping with my neighborhood of Norwood, Ohio, at that time, where I obtained my reading material at the Ault Book Store, just up the street from the Plaza on Montgomery Road ("the pike," we called it), near the Elm Avenue intersection. "Ault" was just one letter shy of "adult" with good reason; it seemed to specialize in nudie and fetish publications and was always being raided and closed down for selling pornographic material. Whenever I went in, the lady behind the counter, who resembled (and may well be) this lady...

... told me where the comics spinner racks were and to keep my eyes "straight ahead" until I reached them. You've got to wonder why they didn't keep the comics nearer the front door, but it wasn't my shop to design and this way of doing things worked wonders for my peripheral vision. What I am saying is that my childhood felt somehow surrounded by intimations of the forbidden, so I accepted matters a little too quickly when these fingered fogs of contamination and defilement seemed to seize hold of the Plaza. I remember getting to a point where I walked past the Plaza with my eyes "straight ahead," but with my young imagination riotous with daydreams of the kind of films that might be playing there.

But, as I say, the newspapers contest my memory - besides, I was only seven years old at this time, so what did I know?

Well, I apparently knew enough to know that the Plaza was bringing me ever closer to the Tim Lucas I would grow up to be when it played host to a couple of unforgettable matinee shows just before it metamorphosed into something else. On the weekend of November 29-December 1, as the rest of the world seemed to stand still in the wake of President Kennedy's assassination, I saw two pivotal films at the Plaza: Roger Corman's X - THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES and Georges Franju's THE HORROR CHAMBER OF DR FAUSTUS, aka EYES WITHOUT A FACE. Last year, I recorded Blu-ray audio commentaries for both of them.

One week later, I saw the Fleischer cartoon feature GULLIVER'S TRAVELS there - my first exposure to rotoscoped animation. But on the following weekend of December 14-15, the Plaza hosted a "Big Triple Feature Horror Show" consisting of Paolo Heusch's WEREWOLF IN A GIRL'S DORMITORY (my first exposure to Italian horror), Robert Day's CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (my introduction, believe it or not, to Christopher Lee), and Ronnie Ashcroft's unforgettable THE ASTOUNDING SHE MONSTER. I have written at length about the latter picture's effect on me for VIDEO WATCHDOG, and the feeling I had as I gazed with prepubescent lust and shame at the film's one-sheet poster when it was briefly displayed in the theater lobby - probably during that GULLIVER'S TRAVELS engagement. I remember that day vividly, but what I did not remember was that this afternoon had marked the end of the road for the Plaza Theater, as I had known it since the first day I was exposed by projected film.

On December 18, THE ENQUIRER ran a small display ad in their movie section advising people to "WATCH FOR The Distinctively Different Fine Arts Plaza." The theater's logo was accompanied by a cartoon image of a beatnik, replete with beret and goatee - the sort of personage one never saw walking the sidewalks of Norwood, Ohio. This was followed on December 22 with a more informative vertical display ad announcing that the Fine Arts Plaza would open on Christmas Day with a 6:00 showing of THE COUNTERFEITERS OF PARIS (Le cave se rebiffe, 1961) starring Jean Gabin. In addition to the feature, live jazz would be presented on the theater stage and watercolors from a local artist would be exhibited in the lobby.

That's right - the smut house of my childhood memories has turned out to be an art house! I spent most of that day of discovery prowling through the ENQUIRER archives, discovering that the forbidden pleasures being offered by the only theater in my world (at that time) included such films as Fellini's LA DOLCE VITA and THE SWINDLE, Buñuel's VIRIDIANA (which was held over for a second week! in Norwood!), Antonioni's THE NIGHT (La notte), Dino Risi's LOVE AND LARCENY, Mario Camerini's RUN WITH THE DEVIL, Visconti's ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS, the documentary MARILYN, Irving Rapper & Luciano Ricci's THE STORY OF JOSEPH AND HIS BRETHREN, Peter Brook's LORD OF THE FLIES, Elia Kazan's AMERICA AMERICA - and yes, Brigitte Bardot in Roger Vadim's PLEASE, NOT NOW!, which the theater hosted in mid-January 1964. On April 22, they were showing something identified in the ENQUIRER's theater showtimes listings as "THE LOVE MAKERS"; there was no accompanying ad, which leads me to suspect that it was Koreyoshi Kurahara's THE WARPED ONES (1960) playing under its Audubon Releasing title THE WEIRD LOVE MAKERS - a title the ENQUIRER would never have allowed. I was also fascinated to see that, in early June, the Fine Arts Plaza presented Marcel Camus' BLACK ORPHEUS - a highly rhythmic, percussive trailer for which I vividly remember seeing at the Plaza, which suggests to me that (at some point into the theater's reinvention of itself) the Fine Arts Plaza brought back weekend matinees geared to appease the neighborhood kids. Alas, these don't seem to have been advertised in the local papers. All these years, I've wondered why the Plaza had shown BLACK ORPHEUS without ever showing the picture; it somehow bypassed me completely that it played. I wonder if I could have talked my way in?

What I find so fascinating about this uncovered information is that I could not have been born farther outside the reach of Italian cinema, yet my neighborhood theater - a place that better gauged the local tastes with showings of THUNDER ROAD, HOOTENANNY HOOT and KISSIN' COUSINS - took a brief page in time to present to the natives the works of Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Risi, Camerini... during which time I absorbed it passively, as a child with acute intuitions will do with forbidden fruit. Each time I walked past my former home away from home, feeling shunned by its Adults Only policy, did I determine in the depths of my DNA to grow into the kind of adult who would be accepted there, belong there?

As best I can determine from the ads I found, the kindred spirits who ran the Fine Arts Plaza came to the inevitable conclusion that they had erected their beatnik arts mecca in the wrong spot by mid-summer. When August 12 rolled around, the Plaza reverted to its original name and family-friendly policy to present a first-run showing of Richard Lester's A HARD DAY'S NIGHT. I was there, with my pregnant mother and a bunch of teenage girls, for the first screening and the place went crazy each and every time a Beatle spoke - or, indeed, any time Paul McCartney appeared onscreen.

Sometime in 1964, we moved from one Norwood school district that was quite near the Plaza to West Norwood, which was more of a walk. That said, it was a walk I took frequently, and had to take frequently because the Plaza became less diligent about its newspaper advertising, forcing me to walk to the theater, admission money tight in fist, at least until its marquee came into readable view. If it wasn't horror, science fiction, rock 'n' roll or Jerry Lewis, I would sometimes turn around and head back to the Puls Pharmacy, where I could put that money toward a malted milk or a few comic books. There was a year to come when we lived outside Norwood for a year, and I remember saying goodbye to the Plaza was the hardest thing about that separation - my mother could never settle anywhere for long, so I knew better than to make friends from whom I'd sooner or later have to part. There were also periods, following our return, when the Plaza closed and reopened for mysterious reasons. By 1968, my allowance had risen to the point where I worked up the courage to ask the managers if I might buy the poster for a certain film once it had finished its engagement. I didn't get an immediate yes, but I persisted until I bought the poster for Hammer's THE LOST CONTINENT for all of 75 cents. I'm glad to say I still have it, and a couple of others, which I held onto as an enduring, tangible connection between myself and this long-gone place that somehow presented me with the landscape, if not the meaning, of my life.




Sunday, April 24, 2016


Needing to inject a little Late Late Show nostalgia into my Saturday night, I watched Erle C. Kenton's THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942) for the first time in perhaps 10 years. It might have been even longer than that, as I hadn't remembered that the names Kettering and Hussman - familiar to me from their uses in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943) and Kenton's HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) - figured first in this storyline.

A direct sequel to 1939's SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, an A-picture in every way, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN is very much a B-picture, running only 67 minutes. While it has some dark content, such as the Monster (Lon Chaney, Jr) abducting an adorable little girl named Cloestine (Janet Ann Gallow) in the hope that she might become the donor in his impending brain transplant, there is an unusual brightness about the film. It takes the series out of the shadows of German Expressionism for the most part, making its Germany (Visaria) look as American... well, as American Oktoberfest as possible. Though it's about a walking corpse that kills and surreptitious transplants, there is a wholesome quality at work that extends to Hans J. Salter's music score, which sparkles even as it broods. I also noticed what appeared to be a lengthened reaction shot of Lionel Atwill's Dr Bohmer, seeming to replace onscreen what would have been a more graphic shot of Dr Ludwig Frankenstein (Cedric Hardwicke) subduing the Monster with a hypodermic. Also conspicuous in its absence is any sort of love story between the movie's anticipated romantic leads, Ralph Bellamy and Evelyn Ankers, leading one to suspect that some material foreshadowing its eventual development may have died in an earlier draft.

It must be remembered that the film was made during wartime, and the closing shot of Bellamy and Ankers walking toward a bright new day bursting through a wall of dark clouds seems to speak to this - as does the film's general attitude that mob violence is a constructive thing, and Ygor's (Bela Lugosi) pronouncedly political scheming to donate his own brain to the Monster, replete with plans for taking over local government - and soon after, the whole country - in his newly immortal, gigantic form. More evident to me now than in my formative viewings are some vaguely homosexual shadings in Lugosi's portrayal, most clearly delineated when he tells the Monster, like an impassioned lover, "Tonight, Ygor dies for you."

The DVD image was sharp enough for me to notice some slight differences in Chaney's makeup as he appeared in different scenes (not to mention his disappearing/reappearing neck fat whenever stand-in Eddie Parker stepped into his costume), and also that the ghost of Dr Henry Frankenstein that appears to his son Ludwig was not only voiced but plainly portrayed onscreen by Hardwicke as well. (When this film used to run on television when I was a child, the state of broadcast standards was such that this ghost was not much more than a luminous smear; we couldn't tell WHO that performer was.) 

Not great, but still a tight little movie with some strong characterizations and surely iconic moments between Chaney and Lugosi and Ms Gallow. Though the script by W. Scott Darling (he of WEIRD WOMAN, Boris Karloff's Mr Wong series and various Charlie Chan titles starring Roland Winters) isn't terribly distinctive, it has the unusual distinction of predicting the titles of no fewer than three later titles in cinema's Frankenstein saga: THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969) and FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER (1958).

Saturday, April 16, 2016

2015 Rondo Report

The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards were very good to VIDEO WATCHDOG, and to me, this year. I'm pleased to report that I won for the first time in the Best Commentary category; my work on Kino's BLACK SABBATH and Arrow's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE were flagged as examples of my work, but I like to think people voted for me on the strength of all the work I turned out in 2015, which included BFI's EYES WITHOUT A FACE, Kino's TALES OF TERROR and X - THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES and, certainly not least, Arrow's VIDEODROME. Just as amazing to me as winning the award were the runner-up and honorable mentions in this category, which included Francis Ford Coppola, the late Wes Craven, and the unimpeachable Tom Weaver.

VIDEO WATCHDOG itself was a runner-up for Best Magazine, following the more widely circulated RUE MORGUE but alongside other newsstand heavyweights FANGORIA and HORRORHOUND - a better showing, I think, than we've had in a few years. My feature for VIDEO WATCHDOG  179 - "Vincent Price - I Like What I See" - was the runner-up choice for Best Article.

Making me at least as happy is the fact that Larry Blamire won the Rondo for Best Column, namely his "Star Turn" for VIDEO WATCHDOG. Larry is doing very important work with this column, which explores the significant but overlooked work done by actors on classic television. He doesn't always address what we would call "fantastic television," but the actors to whom he pays tribute often have a legacy of work in fantastic television or cinema. It's illuminating to have someone who acts as well as directs explain why certain performances work, who can also get under the hood (as it were) and talk about the technique that goes into crafting such work. Larry's next column is going to profile two outstanding and curiously allied performances done for THRILLER and THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR. I would encourage you to check out the digital versions of Larry's early columns for us, which included his own riotous, homemade video introductions. He promises these will return soon.

I was also very happy to see that Mark Maddox was recognized as Best Artist in the year that he provided us with one of our best-ever covers, the RAVEN cover for VW 179. The cover itself was not nominated because the Rondos seek to provide a balanced ballot and Mark had received two other nominations in the Best Cover category for work done for MAD SCIENTIST and HORRORHOUND, for both of which he received Honorable Mentions. Mark is a master of film illustration and we're delighted to be featuring his work on our next cover.

It was also good to see the decades of work from our veteran contributor David Del Valle acknowledged with his induction into the Monster Kid Hall of Fame.

Here is the complete list of the Rondo Award results. Thank you all for participating!

Ancient Artifact

Thanks to Joe Dante.