Tuesday, February 24, 2015

THE AVENGERS THE COMPLETE SERIES 4 Blu-ray reviewed

A strong case could be made that everything for which ABC Television's THE AVENGERS is best remembered can be found in its fourth season, filmed in 1965 and aired in 1965-66. This was the first season to be shot on film (35mm black-and-white), the first season that Patrick Macnee's John Steed shared with co-star Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel, and the first season to be creatively supervised by chief writer Brian Clemens - who, when he passed away last month, was incorrectly and yet very correctly identified in many obituaries as the "creator" of THE AVENGERS.

Season 4 is a remarkably consistent collection of first-rate episodes. When watched sequentially after the earlier videotaped episodes featuring Honor Blackman as (Mrs.) Cathy Gale, they constitute a quantum leap in production quality as well a modest, perfectly measured leap into fantasy and surrealism. Though these espionage stories never quite step outside reality, they delve joyfully into the myriad byways of British eccentricity and modish design that places them firmly in a tradition that includes Lewis Carroll and J.M. Barrie as well as Ian Fleming. This particular season can be seen, in retrospect, as the most perfectly balanced of them all, 26 precious episodes made before "the formula" set in.

Here in America, the bulk of THE AVENGERS is unfortunately available only as part of the original Arts & Entertainment box set releases, literally dating from the last century (1999). Meanwhile in Britain, the show's 50th Anniversary was observed in 2011 with the release of a lavish, 39-disc box set, THE AVENGERS 50th ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION, which digitally remastered every episode, introduced episode reconstructions of lost adventures from the first season with Macnee and Ian Hendry, and added a wealth of interviews, related materials and alternate footage, as well as pdf files containing the original scripts for each episode. This remains the ideal one-stop-shop for Steedians and Peelites, but other temptations have followed in the years since. Last November came Lionsgate's surprising Blu-ray release of THE AVENGERS SEASON 5 here in the States - Season 5 being the show's first color season and Diana Rigg's last. Season 5 was an odd place to start, but it was even more peculiar as an American exclusive.

Just yesterday, on February 23, the UK finally took this most venerable and popular of British television series into the realm of High Definition with the release of StudioCanal's THE AVENGERS THE COMPLETE SERIES 4 (7 discs, £57.50 at Amazon.co.uk), which is the ideal place to start - or continue - if you are set up to play Region 2/B discs.

Color is always the selling point for televisions in department store showrooms, but High Definition is about detail - and black-and-white delivers more detail with less chromatic distraction. This is my roundabout way of saying that this set is altogether ravishing. Certain aspects of certain episodes are so clearly delineated as to remind us that these shows were originally seen on modest-sized, low-resolution screens at best, as when Macnee or Rigg are suddenly doubled in their action scenes - Ms. Rigg by a somewhat less curvaceous man in a shoulder-length wig. That said, as Brian Clemens and other series veterans note in their audio commentaries, while the series was intended at the time for smaller screens, it was photographed as if each episode was a feature film - by the likes of Gerry Turpin (SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON), Ernest Steward (A TALE OF TWO CITIES) and Alan Hume (KISS OF THE VAMPIRE) with people like Godfrey Godar (TARZAN GOES TO INDIA) and Ronnie Taylor (THE INNOCENTS) operating the camera. The lighting and composition here are basically incomparable to anything else being done for series television at this time. The clarity will have you delighting in the individual hairs on the actors' heads, as well as the sumptuous textures of set dressing and wardrobe that consistently reflect the level of taste shown by the protagonists.

Detail also extends to performance, and the performances collected here are all of a very high caliber. As further enticement to newcomers, it must be mentioned that THE AVENGERS was more than a weekly showcase for the most debonair and lethally minxish of all spy teams. The guest stars are a veritable Who's Who of the British acting elite of this period, including Michael Gough, Andre Morell, John Cater, Patrick Newell, Paul Massie, Robert Urquhart, Roy Kinnear, John Carson, Clifford Evans, Gerald Sim, Julian Glover, Mervyn Johns, Isobel Black, Philip Latham, James Villiers, Patrick Allen, Victor Maddern, Francis Matthews, Eunice Gayson, Nigel Davenport, Peter Wyngarde, Carol Cleveland, Thorley Walters, Howard Marion Davies, Nigel Stock, Jacqueline Pearce, Patrick Mower, Sarah Lawson, Ron Moody and George Pastell. Furthermore, THE AVENGERS hired film directors to helm the show, so its episodes augment the filmographies of Charles Crichton, Roy Ward Baker, Sidney Hayers, James Hill, Peter Graham Scott, Quentin Lawrence and others.

The episodes are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ration with English subtitles option only. The set includes more than six hours of extras, carried over from the 50th ANNIVERSARY set. There are several audio commentaries: director Roy Ward Baker and scriptwriter/producer Brian Clemens on 'The Town of No Return" (very informative, with Clemens showing great presence of mind and memory); scriptwriter Robert Banks Stewart on "The Master Minds" (likewise excellent); scriptwriter Roger Marshall on "Dial A Deadly Number" (he's a bit stuffy and badmouths the more fantasy-driven episodes); director Gerry O’Hara on "The Hour That Never Was" and director Don Leaver on the psychologically intense and handsomely designed episode "The House That Jack Built."

"The Series of No Return" is an illustrated audio interview with actress Elizabeth Shepherd (THE TOMB OF LIGEIA) who filmed one and a half episodes as Emma Peel before the production recast the role. It's evident from her comments, from the photos included, and also from Brian Clemens' comments on his audio commentary that Shepherd might have come across as too much in the mold of Honor Blackman and that her enthusiasm and apparent encouragement to add her own two cents to building the character led her to rewrite more of her dialogue than Clemens was willing to concede. Two hour-long television plays starring Diana Rigg are included in full, to show how she came to the producers' attention as a viable alternative.

Also included are "The Strange Case of the Missing Corpse" (a self-contained color promo for Season 5); extensive stills galleries for each episode and some extras; B&W and color footage from "The Golden Key," an 8mm short made for the German market featuring Diana Rigg as an Emma Peel-like spy getting into trouble (less color footage here than can be found on YouTube); variant opening sequences; different main and end titles from different countries; a pittance of newsreel footage documenting Rigg's arrival onset and Magee's wedding; colorized test footage from two episodes;  photo/audio reconstructions of two lost episodes from Season 1; and more.

It is doubtful, considering their rough videotaped origins, that the earlier episodes with Ian Hendry and Honor Blackman would much reward an upgrade to Blu-ray, but - delightful as this package is - it brings with it a lingering regret that a Blu-ray edition of the 50th ANNIVERSARY box set wasn't undertaken as a whole. One feels that one must materialize eventually (especially given that promissory word "COMPLETE" in the package's title branding), and that all this will someday need to be bought again in more definitive plenty. But it's not my job to evaluate this release in accordance with my suspicions or my dreams, only in accordance with what is served up here - and what's served up here gleams like polished platinum.

If you love THE AVENGERS, it's needed. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Daniela, questa sei tu?


Might I have discovered an overlooked final screen appearance of Italian actress Daniela Rocca (DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE, CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER, ESTHER AND THE KING, THE GIANT OF MARATHON)?



This woman initially caught my attention in the very last scene of Anthony Ascott/Giuliano Carnimeo's THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS (1971) because I thought she might be someone else. It's a nothing part - she simply crosses the street, places a call, and that's that - but she's not photographed like a nothing actress.


On closer scrutiny of the scene, I realized this woman wasn't the actress I initially suspected, but she continued to look very familiar - and then it clicked.


According to the IMDb, Daniela Rocca starred in a film opposite Pierre Brice (UN GIORNO, UNA VITA) just the year before, so how odd it would be to place her in a cameo here!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Diana's Diadem - In Color


Previously circulated in a somewhat longer black-and-white cut called THE DIADEM, DER GOLDENE SCHLUSSEN ("The Golden Key") is the shorter - and tighter - color version of a short film that Diana Rigg shot for the German 8mm market sometime in 1967 or thereabouts. She's not really Emma Peel here, but she does play some sort of karate-wise female spy beset by assailants in stocking masks. What I find fascinating about this somewhat rickety project is that it shows how important the whole AVENGERS production unit was to creating the pop phenomenon that was Mrs. Peel, above and beyond the contributions of Ms. Rigg herself. On THE AVENGERS, she is sheer magic; here, in a similar role, she shows her limitations. Without Steed, without sparkling dialogue, without perfectly controlled wardrobe, makeup, hairdressing and cinematography, and (to say the least) without expert direction, we are left with a very special, delicate and exposed dramatic instrument that, without the support to which she (and we) are accustomed, is not quite able to create a believable character or hold her usual share of our interest.

Next week, I'll be reviewing here StudioCanal's new Blu-ray of THE AVENGERS - THE COMPLETE SERIES 4, which streets in the UK next Monday, February 23.

Monday, February 16, 2015

RIP Lesley Gore (1946-2015)


It's ironic to think that Lesley Gore - an important pioneer in the maturation of the pop song, who died of cancer this morning at the age of 68 - was always most famous for a song that she recorded at the age of 16, but even "It's My Party" was unusual. It was an upbeat song about heartbreak whose lyrics included a deft sketch of teenage cliques and how they work - and, if you listen closely, there's an admission there of how manipulative and cruel to other girls some girls can be. It was a huge hit and was followed by what might be the first pop song sequel - "Judy's Turn To Cry" - which made pop songwriting suddenly available to narrative continuation (thus a stepping stone toward the so-called "rock opera") and returning characters. As I look back over my early life as a music listener, Lesley Gore's was the first voice I heard speak to my generation from a female perspective of anything more complex than loving that man or wishing she was married. She didn't write these songs - it was only later that she began to compose songs with her brother Michael - but as an artist, she somehow attracted songs that expressed her and her own outsiderly experience. This allowed the pop song to mature in subtle ways, allowing in deeper subjects like romantic rejection, living with hurt, living a lie, and a woman's right to personal autonomy. "You Don't Own Me" (written, incidentally, by two men) is a defining moment in the maturation of the teen anthem. (People don't remember that it was the #2 song in the country when The Beatles' "I Want To Hold Your Hand" - a far more elementary love song - ruled the charts.) Even when she sang songs about the traditional boy/girl dating experience, she introduced something that cut a bit deeper - "Maybe I Know," for example, describes the masochistic futility of remaining attached to a serially cheating man, and the philosophical shrug of "That's the Way Boys Are" says something more heartbreaking under its surface, underscored by a thrillingly bittersweet chord change, than it does on top. Allison Anders' often moving film GRACE OF MY HEART (1996), a feature-length fictionalized distillation of 1960's pop history, featured an original song by Gore and a poignant character inspired by the closeted gay songstress that she was. She finally came out in 2005, and she is survived by her partner of 33 years, Lois Sasson.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Appreciating THE SCREAMING SKULL (1958)

Prefatory note:
Be warned that SPOILERS are unavoidable in the following discussion and I have not avoided them.

Alex Nicol's THE SCREAMING SKULL, for which I could find very little love to reward my Googling, strikes me as a film ripe for renewed appreciation - not as a horror classic, by any means, but rather as an extremely modest film of skilled parentage that succeeds in creating something pleasurably eerie within its very limited means.

Actor Alex Nicol conceived the six-week independent production as a career boost. After working nearly a decade onscreen - starting out as a Universal contract player in George Sherman's THE SLEEPING CITY (1950), being loaned out for the Hammer noirs THE BLACK GLOVE and HEAT WAVE (both 1954), and several years after having given an outstanding performance as Donald Crisp's deranged son in Anthony Mann's THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955) - Nicol felt that he wasn't receiving offers that were equal to his abilities. So he had the idea to make a low-budget film, in a popular genre that was all but guaranteed to make money, which might encourage those in his business to regard him with renewed seriousness. It is clear from the end product that he had studied the way Roger Corman had gone about his own early successes. THE SCREAMING SKULL was released to theaters in January 1958 on an American International double bill with TERROR FROM YEAR 5000 - a film in which, incidentally, Corman himself had invested though not officially; it isn't known whether this was also true of Nicol's film. The double bill didn't win much in the way of critical favor, but it was considered a commercial success. Even so, it didn't result in the professional sea change Nicol had anticipated.

As it happens, THE SCREAMING SKULL became one of those movies that frequently appeared on local television in my pre-teen years, during the mid-1960s, when horror pickings were so scarce that anything even remotely related to the genre tended to get watched again and again, sometimes more out of devotion and gratitude than real enthusiasm. Nevertheless, it was a movie I always liked; the story was simple enough for me to follow from an early age, and its modest, offbeat scares were genuinely creepy. 

On television, of course, whatever suspense the film generated was periodically punctured by commercial interruptions. And then, after the introduction of home video, this ambitious little film fell into the public domain, surfacing in a succession of dupey releases that made it a literal eyesore. As time went on, the simple act of trying to watch THE SCREAMING SKULL became its own worst discouragement.

So I was intrigued to discover the film on Amazon Prime's horror roster, available free to all members. Wondering if their presentation might mark any improvement over what has been generally the standard for the last 35 years, I pressed "Watch Now"  - and was delighted to see an Orion logo preceding a perfectly crisp transfer - by far, the very best quality I had ever seen! The film ended 67m 28s later with the MGM lion, marking it as being of still more recent vintage than the Orion tag suggested. This same transfer, I'm told, sneaked out on DVD last spring through Shout! Factory's economy label Timeless Media as part of a "Movies 4 U" package along with THE VAMPIRE (1957), THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970) and THE BAT PEOPLE (1973), priced at only $5.99, but Stephen R. Bissette tells me that this good-looking presentation drifts out of sync with its soundtrack about 45 minutes in. Not so with Amazon Prime.

After absorbing the film as it was meant to be seen, probably for the first time, it became obvious to me that Nicol planned this project very well and assembled his crew with great care. THE SCREAMING SKULL was the first feature film to be written by CLIMAX! staff writer John Kneubuhl, whose extensive later television credits include THRILLER's most terrifying episode, based on Robert E. Howard's "Pigeons From Hell." Kneubuhl, a well-read writer judging from his many adaptation credits, took his title from an otherwise unrelated story written in 1911 by F. Marion Crawford. The film's director of photography was Oscar-winning Floyd Crosby, A.S.C., then Roger Corman's principal cameraman, who embraced the film as an opportunity to explore the then-largely-untapped potential for fright in double-exposed imagery. As far as I know, Ernest Gold's score - recorded shortly before his high profile winning streak with ON THE BEACH, INHERIT THE WIND and EXODUS - was the first in the horror genre to borrow from Hector Berlioz's "Dies Irae," as Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING would do almost two decades later. (It caught on fast, with Gerald Fried adapting it for his bombastic main theme to THE RETURN OF DRACULA, only three months later.) Already, we count three aces.

The film's pre-credits sequence alone proves Nicol a man of vision, if we look at it from the proper perspective. It opens on a lingering shot of a casket whose lid slowly opens to reveal a mood-setting message.

  
 
 
I know what you're thinking. Everything about this sequence suggests the influence of William Castle - the insurance against death by fright (explained to us in a voice-over), the surfacing of the eponymous skull from smoking, bubbling waters - I thought so, too. But if we check the release dates at the IMDb, Nicol's film premiered some ten months before the Halloween premiere of Castle's horror debut with MACABRE, which likewise insured its ticket-buyers against death by fright - and more than a year before Castle filmed a skeleton rising from a roiling acid bath in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959). To my mind, this detail alone requires a significant rewrite of 1950s horror film history.

As the narrative begins, Nicol immediately demonstrates his intention to invest the film with as much production value as he could afford, opening on an establishing shot of the splendid grounds of the Huntington Hartford Estate, located off Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, with its magnificent main mansion, San Patrizio, standing in for the Whitlock home. When the Whitlocks arrive, they do so in a new model Mercedes-Benz with gull-wing doors! Once we're inside the house, Nicol can't very cover the fact that the place is empty and unheated with chipped paint on the walls; it literally contains nothing but a downstairs rug, a particularly ragged-looking chair, a painting, a cabinet, two cots, a small wing table, and a candle! But a throwaway line of dialogue explains the spartan interior - the previous lady of the house, an eccentric, was very particular about adding only the pieces of furniture that really belonged there - and we're off and running.

The five-member cast boasts John Hudson (Nicol's co-star in Budd Boetticher's RED BALL EXPRESS, the twin brother of ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN's William Hudson) as the haunted widower Eric Whitlock; Peggy Webber (fresh from Alfred Hitchcock's THE WRONG MAN) as his new bride Jenni; Russ Conway (who had just appeared as the Hardy Boys' father in two MICKEY MOUSE CLUB serials) as the Reverend Edward Snow, a lifelong friend of Eric's; Tony Johnson as Mrs. Snow; and Nicol himself as Mickey, Eric's half-witted gardener, who clings to an irrational devotion to the late Mrs. Whitlock, Marian, who drowned on the property. Her spirit seems to inhabit a self-portrait that we're told by Eric was "poorly done" - and Floyd Crosby renders it suitably chilling with an unexpected superimposition.

Eric is seemingly devoted to his new wife, recently released from a sanitarium after suffering the shock of seeing both her parents drown in a boating accident. Jenni is one of the more sensitively written female characters to be found in this period of American horror cinema; she is not only grateful to have found love with Eric, but openly allows him any lingering feelings he may still have for Marian; she expresses her gratitude to her memory for teaching Eric what it means to love and value someone, as she needs to be loved and valued. The dialogue makes reference to Jenni being a "plain" woman, which becomes a telling plot point - but, as portrayed by Peggy Webber, Jenni is invested with all the personality, sensitivity and physical allure to make Eric's attraction to her plausible. (Without the personal charisma both Webber and Hudson bring to their characters, the film's first half would have been ruinously transparent.) This relationship stands in opposition to Mickey's more ethereal devotion to Marian, which is expressed through his keeping her former gardens in splendid condition, bringing flowers to her grave site, and paying poignant visits to the pond where she accidentally drowned, touching the face of the lilypad-mottled waters and raising his fingers to his lips. On first viewing, these scenes intentionally appear sick and neurotic but, in retrospect and on subsequent viewings, these scenes are revealed as the sanest and most tragic, as they humanize a character whom we never directly meet, whom Eric, unbeknownst to us and to Jenni, has deliberately distorted and demonized. (Nicol, wearing his hair much longer than was commonly acceptable in 1958 - prompting an early remark from the buzz-cutted Reverend Snow, about getting him to a barber soon - bears an unmistakable resemblance to Corman's screenwriter Charles B. Griffith which, considering their shared connections to Crosby and AIP, one suspects could be deliberate.)


Peggy Webber was pregnant with her first child at the time of filming, and Nicol - seizing upon another commercial element at hand - exploits her ripening figure with nightgown shots and one particularly gratuitous scene (missing from many PD tapes and discs) where she strips down to her bra (this is pre-PSYCHO, remember) to read Henry James' novella "The Beast in the Jungle." The James story is at least as foregrounded as Ms. Webber's bosom, encouraging one to seek out connections between the two works. They are there. A Wikipedia consultation reveals that the story is about a man and a woman who waste their lives by living under a sense of ominous foreboding about something that ultimately never happens - which finds resonance in the way Eric and the Reverend try to discourage Jenni's escalating feeling of being haunted, as she feels the mansion is haunted, by Marian's ghost - which becomes her idée fixe once the Reverend innocently confides to her something that Eric would not (knowing that the Reverend would) - namely, that Marian died the same way her parents did. But "The Beast in the Jungle" is also the story of an egotistical man's sense of expectation and entitlement, of feeling destined for great things that - in his mind - raise him above the commonplace rewards of the home and love that might have been his, which is ultimately revealed as the true nature of Eric.


When Eric spends a night away from the mansion, leaving Jenni alone with Mickey and the mansion and her story, the haunting takes more aggressive steps - in the form of a grinning skull that continually crosses her path. (Peggy Webber proves herself an able screamer with a terrific scream face in these scenes.) When Eric returns, he confronts Mickey with accusations of trying to torment Jenni, whom he allegedly hates for trying to take Marian's place as lady of the house. In a scene I found particularly disturbing as a child, Eric slaps Mickey repeatedly before threatening the innocent with even greater violence. We soon learn that Eric is in fact engineering the haunting himself, that he married Jenni - whose parents were wealthy - only to terrorize her back into a sanitarium so that he could take charge of her fortune. Because the script has openly referenced Jenni as a plain and troubled woman, the film allies her with Mickey as someone who is somewhat less than whole, whose perceived deficiencies makes her easy prey for the delusionally entitled Eric. In the final analysis, these deficiencies are revealed as qualities that make both Jenni and Mickey more authentic and caring as people.

Once Eric's true nature is revealed, the "Beast in the Jungle" begins to materialize to manifest his "spectacular fate." This begins when Jenni has a surprise encounter with what appears to be Marian's ghost in the greenhouse. 

 
 

In the film's most chilling shot, the transparent ghost of Marian follows Jenni down the stairs of the greenhouse into close-up - an effect that Floyd Crosby could only have achieved with a meticulously planned double exposure, matching the actual exterior of the greenhouse to an exact studio recreation of the exterior covered in black fabric, with the white-clad ghost filmed descending a cloaked set of stairs - the same principle used by John Fulton in creating his special effects for James Whale's THE INVISIBLE MAN in 1933.


From this point on, the film plays out in the style of a classic EC horror comic, with the scheming Eric attempting to strangle Jenni and being chased down by the very horror he dared to impersonate and manipulate to his own selfish ends. The Beast of his Jungle pounces and sinks its teeth into him.


In Tom Weaver's 2010 book A SCI-FI SWARM AND HORROR HOARDE: INTERVIEWS WITH 62 FILMMAKERS, Peggy Webber recalled that she felt like throwing up after seeing the finished picture. (Morning sickness, perhaps?) In its public domain status, the film went on to become the butt of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000's jokes. I don't get it. Knowing what I know about low-budget filmmaking of this period, I can find nothing in THE SCREAMING SKULL that speaks of creative negligence, crudity, or condescension toward its genre. On the contrary, for a directorial debut, it demonstrates remarkable credibility and resourcefulness, and for a horror film of its station and era, it earns a well-deserved niche in the curator's mind. It's a nice example of what people used to call a "sleeper." Alex Nicol himself recalled the film fondly, telling Wheeler Dixon in his book COLLECTED INTERVIEWS: VOICES FROM TWENTIETH CENTURY CINEMA, "I liked it. It had some nice dolly shots, a good atmosphere. So I was happy with that; it was a nice change from what I'd been doing."

If we discount the two Tarzan features adapted from episodes of the NBC-TV series, Nicol went on to direct two other features before his death at age 85 in 2001: the 1961 Italian-made war drama THREE CAME BACK and the 1973 Crown International release POINT OF TERROR with Peter Carpenter and Dyanne Thorne. In both cases, he demonstrated discernible care while working within challenging borders, creating modest works of quality out of almost nothing. Not bad for someone who directed only three features, each in a different decade.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Hello 2015 - A Step Forward In Time

Donna and I saw in the New Year as we saw in the New Century: by watching George Pal's 1960 classic THE TIME MACHINE, which made its Blu-ray debut in 2014. I'd heard some quibbles about the Turner Entertainment presentation, but it was far closer to the experience I remember feeling theatrically (I saw a matinee revival in the late 1960s or early '70s) and - despite rather dullish-looking titles, some individually grainy shots and some special effects shots that make an honest show of their rough edges - everything we hoped it would be. The Morlock sequences, especially, have wonderful depth and color, and Wells' prediction of the shoegazing Eloi has come to pass sooner than he could have imagined. It remains one of the cornerstone works of filmed science fiction, from one of its warmest and wisest voices.

We also enjoyed seeing our beloved friend Bob Burns show up in Clyde Lucas' (no relation) accompanying featurette THE TIME MACHINE - THE JOURNEY BACK, a 1993 documentary about the eponymous prop which includes a little pocket drama written by original screenwriter David Duncan, in which George (Rod Taylor) and Filby (Alan Young) are finally reunited. The odds were incalculably against it, but somehow the gentle hand of George Pal seems to have touched it - and it works.

This was the first time we'd watched the film since actually visiting with the Time Machine itself in Bob's legendary basement, and it was nice to discover that, as a result, the film now feels even more infused with love, warmth and nostalgia.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Goodbye 2014

2014: a year of extremes.

Death loomed large and came as near as it dared, at least this time around, taking admired colleagues like Something Weird's Mike Vraney, my uncle Jimmy, our little girl Snooper, and two particularly wonderful friends I already dearly miss, Michael Lennick and Mark Miller. For all that, it still could have been worse: another of my friends made a fortunately unsuccessful suicide attempt this year. This is a different sort of death, but I unfriended someone on Facebook just the other day, someone I've cared about, someone whose life I once helped to save, because he crossed a line in his self-destructive behavior that I could no longer endorse with my continued attention and implicit support. Life is just too precious now to see it wasted and ridiculed. Additionally, several friends of mine lost their parents this year, my close friend Steve Bissette losing both his mother and father within a one-month period. And then there were all the deaths of people who have been inspirational to me and you and others like us, in some cases for the whole of our lives; I remember at some point feeling that we were losing more than I thought were left after all the losses we suffered last year. The wisdom that comes down to us from all this loss should be clear: life is precious and we must make the most of it.

Donna and I published only two issues of VIDEO WATCHDOG this year, making this a bad year for personal income. Some outlets that owe us money started spreading the rumor among our readers that we'd closed up shop, perhaps so they wouldn't feel badly about not paying their bills when we might need the money most. There was also the agony of creating the VIDEO WATCHDOG Digital Archive - a task in which I and others participated, but in a small way compared with Donna, whose masterpiece it is - and this is where we begin to see and appreciate the other side of 2014. The VW Digital Archive is our second Everest, after the Bava book. It is an immense achievement that, we well know, not everybody is going to be able to appreciate right away because it's too ahead of the curve. That said, we've received some marvelous emails and accolades that Donna will be posting as part of her Digital Dog blog.

Though I was deprived for much of this year of my primary platform as a VW critic, this year was not without its professional accomplishments. The major one was the ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET box set from the BFI, to which I contributed five audio commentaries. I also contributed an essay to Arrow Films' THE HOUSE OF USHER and a commentary to their PIT AND THE PENDULUM, marking my advent into representing the work of two of my principal heroes: Roger Corman and Vincent Price. I also paid homage to Vincent with a commentary for Arrow's DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN and recorded an audio commentary for one of my favorite films, Georges Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE, which will be released in March 2015 by the BFI. In addition to some reissued Mario Bava commentaries I did - THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, RABID DOGS - I recorded my first Bava commentary re-recording/update for THE WHIP AND THE BODY (forthcoming from Odeon Entertainment in the UK) and a brand-new commentary for the Kino/Scorpion Blu-ray of PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES. Furthermore, I got to co-produce a video interview with actress Edith Scob for the EYES WITHOUT A FACE set, and I'm credited as an Associate Producer of Elijah Drenner's documentary THAT GUY DICK MILLER. I might even be forgetting a thing or two.

Indeed I did: 56 Video WatchBlog postings! Not quite as many as in 2013 (62 postings), but it makes this blog anything but moribund.

All in all, not bad for a guy in Ohio who barely left his house.

Other highlights of the year: Finally finishing my long in-the-works novel THE ONLY CRIMINAL. Receiving a handwritten letter from Steve Ditko. Spending my birthday weekend with friends at Wonderfest, where my beautiful friend Danya made me all emotional by reading aloud to our group of friends a poem she'd written about me and our friendship. My mother-in-law's miraculous recovery from a briefly fatal heart attack. Getting Larry Blamire to become a guest columnist for VIDEO WATCHDOG. Donna's and my 40th wedding anniversary on December 23.

Next year promises still more good things.

To anyone and everyone who continues to keep tabs on this old blog and its new tricks - you have my abiding appreciation and thanks. Here's to a happy, healthy and productive 2015 for us all!