January 1, 2008
DVD TOP-TEN LIST: BEST OF 2007
It’s the end of one year and the beginning of the next. And this year has been a particularly strong year for DVD releases. I still haven’t made the leap to Blu-ray or HD-DVD, although I am quite impressed by the quality that I observe in my friend Charlie’s home theater (who has HD-DVD). And seeing old classics such as VERTIGO in HD on the HDNet Movie channel is simply a mind-blowing experience. The stronger Technicolor hues are restored and the density and sharpness is akin to the original theatrical experience. But standard definition releases are still mind-blowing themselves, and here are a few of the best. My top-10 list is in no particular order, but here are the ones that thrilled me the most in 2007.
FOX HORROR CLASSICS COLLECTION: THE UNDYING MONSTER, THE LODGER, HANGOVER SQUARE
Besides the outstanding cover art and case design, these three under-appreciated movies make their DVD release with outstanding digital prints. The lesser film of the three, THE UNDYING MONSTER, has the sharpest and cleanest look, but the other two movies are not far behind. Laird Cregar, in THE LODGER and HANGOVER SQUARE, along with the already released film noir I WAKE UP SCREAMING, demonstrates his considerable talents and his death at a young age becomes even more tragic. The two Cregar movies (HANGOVER SQUARE, THE LODGER) are wonderful. Cregar’s performance as Slade (aka Jack the Ripper) in THE LODGER becomes a template for Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates in PSYCHO, with his psychologically damaged back-story, his shy and awkward interactions with other people and his isolation living alone in an attic apartment. But Cregar’s almost animalistic performance when he is discovered and chased up and down the catwalks at the theater makes his character multi-dimensional and one of the best of 1940s cinema. And the documentaries and extras included are first rate.
ICONS OF HORROR: THE SAM KATZMAN COLLECTION: CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN, THE WEREWOLF, ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU, THE GIANT CLAW
Poverty Row producer “Jungle” Sam Katzman was always trashed by critics for his low-rent productions. Oddly, Ed Wood and others were hoisted to stardom because of their films’ cheapness, but Katzman’s films were too professional to earn many “Golden Turkey” awards but too cheap to be taken seriously by fans.
Time for re-evaluation!
The films in this set demonstrate that Katzman produced a series of films for which he could be proud, especially THE WEREWOLF, whose local color mountain setting and bravura performance by Steven Ritch as the werewolf elevates the film to being one of the best B horror productions of the 1950s. And let’s face it, once we giggle once or twice at the marionette monster of THE GIANT CLAW, the film’s cast (the superb Jeff Morrow) and plotting make the film seem far better today than it did in the past. ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU is slight, admittedly (with a few delightful underwater sequences), but the cross-genre thriller CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN is wonderfully quirky. With impressive digital prints, these films demonstrate that Katzman sometimes got a raw deal with fans and that his best films stand right up there with the finest of the Bs of the 1950s.
I’ve even grown an affinity for the puppet bird of THE GIANT CLAW!
FILM NOIR CLASSIC COLLECTION, VOLUME 4: ACT OF VIOLENCE, MYSTERY STREET, CRIME WAVE, DECOY, THE BIG STEAL, ILLEGAL, WHERE DANGER LIVES, TENSION, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, SIDE STREET
Even though Warner Bros. first brought film noir back to prominence with its initial box set released a few years ago, it seems that the less flashy noir releases from Fox bettered the more audacious releases from Warner Home Video. After releasing a classic initial box set, Warner, with volumes 2 and 3, released borderline noir releases with only a few gems, such as NARROW MARGIN. But with this gigantic box set featuring 10 film noir releases, Warner Bros. once again re-establishes its position as being number one distributor of vintage-era DVD releases.
Most titles here are not classics, but they are rare, seldom seen film noir movies that are more than entertaining. The most well-known mainstream titles are ACT OF VIOLENCE, with Robert Ryan pitted against Van Heflin, THE BIG STEAL, with Robert Mitchum trying to repeat his film success achieved with OUT OF THE PAST, but coming up a little short, and THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, the story of young love between an innocent country girl and a murderous young criminal on the run from the law. However, seldom-seen gems appear in this set including CRIME WAVE, DECOY (with the American debut of Jean Gillie as one of the cruelest femme fatales in noir history) and ILLEGAL, with a great Edward G. Robinson performance. In fact every film here in the set (even the over-wrought WHERE DANGER LIVES with Robert Mitchum, who plays a less than convincing surgeon) is well worth seeing. And for a street price of less than $50, these 10 films are a bargain.
RETURN OF DRACULA
With the triumphant return of the Midnite Movies series, now featuring both MGM productions and United Artists ones, this past fall saw the release of hordes of titles, most released in double-feature sets for bargain prices.
Most fans gushed over the release of the uncut THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL, but I’ve never been much a fan of the movie and felt it featured a rather over-the-top Vincent Price performance in a rather ugly movie. Sorry folks.
For me the Midnite Movies release of these two excellent B productions from the 1950s, both scripted by Pat Fielder and directed by Paul Landres, was a dream come true. Both movies feature a small-town 1950s setting and capture perfectly the culture of the times. Both films feature outstanding performances. Francis Lederer shines as Count Dracula in RETURN OF DRACULA, while John Beal is outstanding as kindly Dr. Beecher in THE VAMPIRE, with Kenneth Tobey submitting one of his best heroic performances.
True, I saw both productions in the theaters as an impressionable child, but both films hold up as being two examples of the best B productions of the 1950s, featuring very literate scripts, well produced set design and art direction, wonderful performances and plenty of chills and atmospheric horror. With these pristine digital prints, both films are just as effective today as they were 50 years ago.
UNIVERSAL HORROR CLASSIC MOVIE ARCHIVES: THE BLACK CAT, MAN MADE MONSTER, HORROR ISLAND, NIGHT MONSTER, CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN
True, we are down to the dribs and drabs of unreleased Universal horror movies, but the movies on this marvelous box set are fan favorites, especially Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Universal debut as “Dynamo Dan the Electric Man” from MAN MADE MONSTER and the odd “Old Dark House” horror mystery, NIGHT MONSTER, with Bela Lugosi in a supporting role. Even the first “Ape Woman” entry, CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, features John Carradine in one of his best mad scientist performances. But perhaps the gem of the collection is the seldom-seen HORROR ISLAND that takes the standard “Old Dark House” scenario and beefs it up and makes it fresh. THE BLACK CAT (1941) is too generic a mystery and features Bela Lugosi in little more than a cameo role. But once again these films have been lovingly restored and look brand new. For a street price of $20, this collection is a bargain.
One of John Wayne’s finest Westerns, bolstered by Howard Hawks’ direction, becomes one of the two finest Western entries from the 1950s (along with John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS). The film has been restored, and while the Technicolor hues do not appear as vibrant as they should be, the film has never looked better on home video. The performances make this one a classic, with Dean Martin creating perhaps his finest onscreen performance ever, as the town drunk and former deputy who slowly regains his dignity, with the help of his friend and town sheriff, John T. Chance (Wayne). And Walter Brennan appears in perhaps his finest comical supporting role ever, as Stumpy. RIO BRAVO is simply a fun romp with suspense and action delivered in grand Hawks’ style.
MR. MOTO COLLECTION, VOLUME 2: MR. MOTO’S GAMBLE, MR. MOTO IN DANGER ISLAND, MR. MOTO TAKES A VACATION, MR. MOTO’S LAST WARNING
The second and final box set of Mr. Moto films becomes a revelation. Compared to the similar Charlie Chan boxed sets with Warner Oland, I find myself preferring the Moto films. Even though both series are detective/mystery thrillers with comic overtones, the Moto films seem to have the more intense direction (Moto can be a mean mother!) and better-crafted plots. Both Moto volumes taken together, constituting the entire Moto series, is dynamite entertainment with a consistency in the series that surpasses the Chan series of Oland’s. To me the Chan movies are leisurely paced and the tension never becomes overwhelming. The Moto movies are more hardcore and feature more threatening violence and mayhem. Even though the audience knows that Moto will survive, the Moto films make audiences sweat a little more. Somehow we fear more for our hero. Don’t get me wrong, the Charlie Chans with Warner Oland are great, it’s just that I prefer the Moto films for their fired up intensity.
THE THIRD MAN (2-DISC CRITERION EDITION)
Even though Criterion already released a definitive version of THE THIRD MAN several years ago, they re-mastered and improved upon their already pristine print and delivered a second disc of supplemental extras for their re-release. THE THIRD MAN, directed by Carol Reed, features perhaps Orson Welles’ finest supporting performance (he is anticipated, known by everyone in post WW2 Vienna and is apparently dead when the movie begins), his Harry Lime not making an appearance until the final third of the movie, and then only sporadically. This post-war spy thriller is a gem, boasting an intelligent, suspenseful script that keeps us guessing until the final end credits appear.
THE MARIO BAVA COLLECTION, VOLUME 1: BLACK SUNDAY, BLACK SABBATH, THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, KILL BABY KILL, KNIVES OF THE AVENGER
Mario Bava is the director who bridged classic horror cinema with modern horror cinema. While the director made many mediocre movies (many of which are still eccentric and superlative in parts—but flawed), this first boxed set collection features his finest work, best represented by BLACK SUNDAY (his all-time classic) and THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, a film that is just as iconic for helping to initiate the giallo subgenre. To me this is Bava’s finest work. BLACK SABBATH bears all the flaws of the anthology structure—inconsistent quality stories, plots that would be better if they were fleshed out to feature length and problematic pacing and rhythm. The two stories, “A Drop of Water” and “The Wurdalak,” are dreamily rendered with outstanding Technicolor cinematography. Having Boris Karloff as our “host” and star of “The Wurdalak” is only a boon. However BLACK SABBATH lacks the consistency of BLACK SUNDAY. KILL BABY KILL is excellent, but its diminishing production values and lethargic pacing (although moodily rendered) takes this potentially classic supernatural yarn down a peg or two. Simply presenting BLACK SUNDAY and THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH with superb prints is all that is needed to make this box set one of the best of the year.
PERRY MASON SEASON 2, VOLUME 1 AND 2
When I was seven years old, my mother watched PERRY MASON every week on television, and so did I. Being a child I did not quite appreciate all the complexities of the law and human relationships presented, but somehow that show and its dramatic theme music stuck with me. When the TV series first came to DVD last year, I scooped it up and have continued to do so, now finishing off the second and superior season. For an hour the formula continues to work. We have a human drama leading to a murder, and somehow Perry Mason gets involved. By the second half or even as late as the final third of the hour, audiences witness the trial, usually featuring Mason pitting his skill against lawyer Hamilton Burger and Lt. Tragg. Mason never lost a case, yet the suspense of the courtroom drama never subsides. Viewing the series today we have the added advantage of seeing veteran stars make co-starring appearances (even Fay Wray). For my money, PERRY MASON was the definitive drama of the 1950s. And the restored digital prints look fabulous.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MIRROR: BOB DYLAN LIVE AT THE NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL (1963-1965)
After 40 years of rumors and myths involving Bob Dylan’s appearance at three years’ worth of Newport Folk Festivals, including the final electric appearance (with Al Kooper and members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band backing him up) as the audience both boos and politely applauds the iconic artist as he reinvents himself, only momentarily, as a rock’n’roll icon. Such movie footage is priceless. Conflicting stories of Dylan returning to the stage, abandoning his electric band for an acoustic guitar encore set, with tears in his eyes, can finally be settled as the footage has been shot tight on Dylan’s face. The performances themselves are exemplary, showcasing a fairly well scrubbed Dylan morphing into the frizzy and less clean-cut performer as 1963 melds into 1965. Not just for Dylan fans, but also for followers of popular culture, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MIRROR is a treasure too long kept under wraps.
January 13, 2008
HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL And Its Classic Cheap Thrills
Today I showed William Castle’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL to one of my classes, and darn it, that film never fails to entertain.
Few films carry such nostalgia for me as that film. I’ll explain why a little later.
While writer Robb White was attempting to blend the pithy dialogue of film noir with the horror (haunted house) genre, the film fails miserably as high art. White’s script lacks the subtlety and emotional despair of film noir and the subtlety of the best ghost cinema. The dialogue seems stilted and Vincent Price’s delivery of the dialogue is heavy-handed. As film noir it seems almost like parody with the initial exchange between Price and his onscreen wife Carol Ohmart oozing with bile and overblown nuance. The delightful sequence includes a playful episode where Price holds a still-corked yet unwired, shaken none the less, campaign bottle which he aims threateningly at his wife. Somehow, even if the noir-ish aspirations come up short, the film never lets its audience down.
The horror sequences are also over-the-top, but magnificently so. We have the creepy, almost nightmarish, sequence where forever-screaming heroine Carolyn Craig stands totally frozen as a snake-like rope curls around her ankles as the corpse of Ohmart floats effortlessly, just outside the barred window. Overdone creepy music accents the shenanigans. In another sequence Ohmart goes down to the cellar to meet her lover, the conniving physician who supposedly just deposited Price’s corpse in the convenient acid bath. However, down in the dungeon, a puppet-like skeleton that speaks with Price’s voice confronts Ohmart, backing her into a grisly death as she plunges into the same acid bath from which the bag of bones emerges. But the one sequence that belongs in the horror film hall of fame occurs as Carolyn Craig, bent over and banging on the walls of a secret room, confronts the witchy caretaker Leona Anderson, whose frozen grimace and roller-skate exit never fails to bring an audience to at least a few full throttle screams.
About that emotional nostalgia I referred to earlier … I still have a color photo of me wearing my Sunday best and cute little spring hat the day I journeyed to the Vilma Theater in Baltimore to see HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL in 1958. My special guest, a one-time delight, was when my next-door neighbor Elaine Penn (an “older” woman at least 12 or 13 at the time) condescended to take me to the movies to see the horror classic. We never went to another movie ever together, but for me this was something special. Also, this was the day I experienced Castle’s gimmicky “Emergo” stunt where the playful skeleton at the Vilma would be flung over the heads of the audience, on a wire, during the climatic sequence, also featuring an onscreen skeleton. Take it from me, as an 8-year-old horror movie fanatic, seeing such a stunt at this impressionable age has never left me. Granted, the overall experience was most likely pretty chessy when re-evaluated in adult hindsight, but for me that Sunday it was an iconic, cinematic experience, one that will be with me forever.
Interestingly, Robb White’s script creates simplistic characters the way children envision them. The cold, bitchy (and over-sexed) wife hates her smarmy-yet-wealthy husband, whose fortune is his main (only) attraction. The supporting cast contains the well-chiseled and handsome hero (Richard Long) and the sympathetic young secretary (Craig), who desperately needs money, since she is supporting her entire family. The virtuous appear more so, and the evil become dastardly without redeeming merit. In the world of black and white cinema, even the characters represent all the shades of gray.
HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is not a bad movie (in the Ed Wood sense), nor is it a classic film experience. Instead, it is a rare treat … a juvenile horror film (the horror film equivalent of the B Western matinee feature) that became classic by virtue of its excesses that simply entertain. Featuring a dripping with malice Vincent Price performance in a world populated with over-saturated snippets of film noir dialogue, boasting a workmanlike cast in a haunted mansion, one filled with skeletons, decapitated bloody heads, a ghastly woman caretaker, dank rooms with secret exits, falling chandeliers and fresh blood dripping from a dried ceiling stain from an earlier killing, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL was a classic for children in 1958. No other film quite filled that niche (except for perhaps Castle’s next film THE TINGLER, which populates the same universe). Unlike other juvenile horror B romps such as DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL or THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL tried to stand a little higher, tried to present a slightly more adult vision (for a film intended to appeal to youngsters) and tried to maintain its darker, domestic bile a little more intensely, compared to its peers.
Few films are such a product of their times as HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, a film that for me still holds up under repeated viewings. And besides, the movie features one of the more remarkable movie posters of the 1950s era.
Finally, the movie establishes Vincent Price as one of the screen’s most intelligent and malevolent villains. Skeletons never appeared more frightening, ever!
January 22, 2008
MICKEY SPILLANE, FILM NOIR AND HARD-BOILED FICTION
When I became an avid fan of film noir decades ago, I gravitated to the private detective avenue of noir cinema (actually, a very small sub-genre of what is labeled film noir): THE MALTESE FALCON; MURDER, MY SWEET; THE BIG SLEEP; LADY IN THE LAKE; KISS ME DEADLY, etc. Perhaps this hard-boiled variety of noir—with its sleazy underbelly, unique characterizations and dank shadow-world—most approximated the cinematic world of horror that’s always been my favorite.
After becoming a fan of the movies, I decided to go back and check out the literature, mainly the classic stuff by the masters: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolridge, James Cain, etc. But for some reason I always avoided Mickey Spillane and considered his work to be third-rate pulp and on the level of the penny-a-word hacks.
I finally got involved with Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer detective series last summer. Finding two wonderful paperback collections on Amazon.com (The Mike Hammer Collection Volume 1 and 2), I was introduced to the first six Mike Hammer novels in quality trade paperbacks for under $25: I, THE JURY; MY GUN IS QUICK; VENGEANCE IS MINE; ONE LONELY NIGHT, THE BIG KILL and KISS ME, DEADLY.
Wow, was I wrong in my blind assumption about the quality of the Mike Hammer series!
In spite of the fact that the Spillane’s Mike Hammer was intended as an on-going series of popular paperback novels (which Spillane adapted originally from a comic book he was trying to sell after the war), being little more than page-turners, grisly thrillers with no aspirations of achieving higher literary status, Spillane crafted a master detective inhabiting a violent world told in a unique prose style consisting of about 19 novels that grip the reader from the first to the last page. Seldom have I been so entertained … and riveted. And surprisingly, Mike Hammer becomes a complex character, psychologically driven, haunted, a loner, but a misanthrope with a keen sense of caring and morality.
Always told in the first person, the reader comes to inhabit the psyche of this archetype 1940s/1950s detective, warts and all. Strains of Ian Fleming’s James Bond series can be seen in the Hammer series, as the private detective (who thinks of himself as a private cop) is not above taking the law into his own hands and dispersing justice with his .45 and a bullet to the gut, his idea that slow, painful death is the only form of justice worth serving. Hammer believes criminals should not get off easy, but should suffer for all the Hell they created. Hammer is always driven by his personal moral code and revenge motivates everything he does. A friend is murdered (sometimes a shady friend) and Hammer seeks the most vicious form of revenge. In one novel Hammer, alone and despondent, nurses a drink in a low-rent saloon and watches as a down-on-his-luck safe robber, kissing and abandoning his infant baby, prepares to go out outside into the mean streets to meet his death, leaving his baby an orphan. Hammer decides to tail the man who walks on down the street. Suddenly, a car pulls alongside and shots ring out as the man falls to the street. One occupant of the attacking car jumps out and searches the man, looking for something, but the other occupant in the car mows down the other killer by brutally running him over in the gutter. The baby’s care is now in the hands of Hammer and he vows vengeance.
Interestingly, the infant itself delivers justice, Hammer-style, in the novel’s final page.
The prose that Spillane creates is both clipped and expansive, simple in the Hemingway style yet descriptive and stark. Spillane begins THE BIG KILL with the following prose:
It was one of those nights when the sky came down and wrapped itself around the world. The rain clawed at the windows of the bar like an angry cat and tried to sneak in every time some drunk lurched in the door. The place reeked of stale beer and soggy men with enough cheap perfume thrown in to make you sick.
And he ends I, THE JURY with the following, after he gut-shoots the woman he thought he loved who turns out to be the unknown person he had been seeking since the first page:
I stood up in front of her and shoved the gun into my pocket. I turned and looked at the rubber plant behind me. There on the table was the gun, with the safety catch off and the silencer still attached. Those loving arms would have reached it nicely. A face that was waiting to be kissed was really waiting to be splattered with blood when she blew my head off. My blood. When I heard her fall I turned around. Her eyes had pain in them now, the pain preceding death. Pain and unbelief.
“How c-could you?” She gasped.
I only had a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in.
“It was easy,” I said.
Hammer’s best friend—and he’s just as much a business associate as a true friend—is Pat Chambers, head of homicide, a truly dedicated and honest cop. Hammer, being a private policeman, does not have to follow the same rules that Pat does, so in many ways Chambers admires Hammer for being able to disperse justice without all the red tape and restrictions placed upon the department by the D.A.’s office. However, Chambers becomes frustrated by Hammer when Hammer’s methods undermine police procedure and intrude upon elaborate undercover work that the police department initiates. It is also apparent the cops have to protect the political aspirations of the town’s most powerful and wealthiest citizens, and Hammer is often at odds with such people. So Hammer and Chambers are involved in a love/hate relationship. Frequently Chambers pulls his buddy’s ass out of the fire, but at other times he is moments away from arresting Hammer, complaining time and time again that he warned his friend to avoid involvement in areas he was told to avoid. But as Hammer barks, he only wants the small-time creeps, the ones he has to kill to avenge his own misanthropic system of morality. He tells Pat he will leave the big boys for him to arrest and gain the glory. But at the same time he makes clear he will not follow the letter of the law and that he will kill the party he is after (often times he does not know the identity of that party until the final page!) with his .45. No trial, no jail, no processing by the system. For Hammer he is the self-appointed jury and executioner and his private detective license allows him this latitude. The police and D.A.’s office look upon him as a necessary evil and frequently look the other way.
And the women in every Spillane novel are goddesses, placed upon pedestals, worshiped and adored. Spillane frequently differentiates between women who are pretty and those who are “beautiful all over.” He prefers the beauty of a mature woman and he often rejects the advances of such women who mean him no good. He is dedicated and perhaps even in love with his gorgeous secretary Velda, more a best bud than marriage material. He secretly knows she is his soul mate but his inability to remain monogamous reflects his serious commitment issues. Their on-going relationship is one that ripens throughout the continuing saga of the novels. Sex is not explicit in Spillane’s novels, but a woman’s nude body is described explicitly. Mechanics are never important to Spillane when describing passionate lovemaking, yet the sizzle and the heat of implication matter most.
Those archetype sequences where Hammer is beat up, tortured and left for dead are always told vividly, in the first person, with descriptions of Hammer’s teeth being pushed through his lip or the mentioning of a pool of blood where a nose used to be. His description of blacking out due to pain and suddenly ripping back to consciousness are always gripping and worded carefully. Somehow, as he wonders wounded back to his car to drive either to his apartment or to police headquarters, such moments are always punctuated by the reactions of those he knows reacting to seeing the result of the beating received with revulsion, tears, or warm hugs and clean bandages. Somehow he heals, both physically and psychically, and does it all over again.
While the fiction of Chandler and Hammett is more literary stylish and varied, the fiction of Mickey Spillane is more visceral, moralistic and emotional—and raw! To end with an analogy, perhaps Spillane is the great “B” movie of hard-boiled literature. But for my money, a great B picture is worth its weight in gold, and these first six novels in the Mike Hammer series, created by the highly underrated Mickey Spillane, are in fact pure gold.
February 3, 2008
WILLIAM CASTLE and THE WHISTLER, Columbia’s Noir Movie Series
TCM is an American movie treasure trove of entertainment. Within the past half year, Turner Classic Movies has begun screening many B movie series that are not yet available on DVD. For those fans that feel Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto were the only worthwhile B series made during the 1930s and 1940s, think again. Low-rent major studio Columbia produced many wonderful series, mostly mystery and crime oriented. We have The Lone Wolf, Perry Mason, Boston Blackie, and one of the oddest, The Whistler! All of these B series and others should be released to home video without delay, as these seldom-seen programmers provide hours of exciting edge-of-your-set thrills, each running a little over an hour.
The Whistler series, based upon the popular radio series of the time, featured a young William Castle as the director of the earlier entries of the series (and sometimes serving as co-screenwriter). Not that his directorial touches were anything more than pedestrian (although he populates his Whistler movies with dark shadows and dank lighting as much as possible), but this series approximated the tone and look of film noir whenever possible. The series reminds me of Universal’s Inner Sanctum series. Featuring an off screen narrator and moralistic tales of revenge, The Inner Sanctum series bolstered the career of Lon Chaney, Jr. as a non-monstrous, leading man entity. While he wasn’t particularly effective, Chaney, Jr.’s presence was felt indeed. In each of the Universal series, Chaney starred but played different roles. Likewise, The Whistler series usually starred Richard Dix playing a different role in each movie, usually someone sympathetic yet criminally inclined. The screenplays featured fractured people maneuvered into making bad choices, choices that typically ended their lives or at least ruined them. The Whistler movies open and close with the on screen silhouetted figure of the mysterious Whistler, an avenging angel who teaches the audience a moral lesson or two (although the shadowy narrator never appears in the stories themselves, except as window dressing).
Two of the better entries, both directed by William Castle, are VOICE OF THE WHISTLER (1945) and MYSTERIOUS INTRUDER (1946). While these and other entries suffer from substandard acting (Richard Dix is dynamic yet awkward and sometimes over-the-top) and heavily moralistic scripting, the cinematography and mood of each movie makes these flaws easy to forget. For instance, in VOICE OF THE WHISTLER, a wealthy but lonely man, who thinks he has months to live, goes off to a poor part of the city to live and to rest, helped by his friend Sparrow (Rhys Williams), a former boxer who now drives a taxi and is loving life, even though his glory days of prize fighting prominence have long faded. Sinclair (Richard Dix) meets a nurse who is engaged to Fred (James Cardwell), a young doctor, but Sinclair enters a business deal promising to leave this nurse all his wealth, for a few months of wedded joy. The nurse Joan (Lynn Merrick) tells her fiancé that she is doing it for them, but when Sinclair miraculously improves, moving with Joan into a mysterious and desolate lighthouse, it is only a short while before Fred decides to come visiting. Sinclair plants the seeds of the perfect murder into Fred, and when the doctor attempts to kill Sinclair in his bed at night, Sinclair is ready and waiting and instead kills Fred. But his clever scheme is foiled when Sparrow, fearing for his friend, believing the lie that Sinclair gives about sleepwalking at night, nails the windows shut to protect his friend. Instead of being able to throw Fred’s body out on the rocks, pretending he fell trying to save Sinclair from sleepwalking, Sinclair is revealed to be the murderer and pays the ultimate price when Joan, demonstrating that her veins are filled with ice and not blood, plots to send Sinclair up the river so she can inherit his wealth, even if she is doomed to live a solitary existence in the lighthouse. But this is a typical Whistler entry, filled with murder, moral choices and greed. People we first admire (both Joan and Sinclair are very sympathetic and likable) reveal their darker leanings once lust and greed acts upon their easily manipulated personalities. But the final cat-and-mouse tug of war over Joan in the lighthouse plays out wonderfully with taut suspense and twists and turns. For a little B production, VOICE OF THE WHISTLER delivers the goods.
Equally impressive was the following year’s MYSTERIOUS INTRUDER. Once again the moral ambivalence created from living in a dark universe emerges front and center. The story involves an old neighborhood music storeowner Stillwell (Paul E. Burns), who is trying to locate a young woman, who as a little girl used to live in the neighborhood. Her immigrant mother, in other to raise needed cash, would give family heirlooms to the kindly shopkeeper for cash, but Stillwell, with a heart of gold, kept the heirlooms. Among these heirlooms were two cylinder disk recordings of Jenny Lind singing live, both worth a fortune, and Stillwell wants the young woman to have the recordings. But he hasn’t seen her in seven years, when she was still a child. Stillwell hires shady private detective Don Gale (Richard Dix once again) to find the woman, but the detective is not able to get the old man to explain why he wants to find her. Gale hires a beautiful blonde, Freda (Helen Mowery), to pose as Elora Lund, the missing girl, to try to pry information from the shopkeeper. Once Stillwell, in the cellar of his shop, tells Freda something very expensive is stored on the premises, the lumbering Mike Mazurki (in his most frightening Rondo Hatton mode), actually hired by Freda to double-cross Gale, emerges from the shadows to kill Stillwell. Before long both Freda and the Mazurki character are dead, and the actual Elora Lund (Pamela Blake) appears mysteriously, having been in a sanitarium recovering from a car crash. Lund, very poor and innocent, works with Gale to find out the truth of the treasure buried in the cellar. Gale, planning to find the heirloom treasure for himself, sneaks up upon the criminals searching for the “what’s it” in the shop’s cellar. Not aware that the police have arrived by another entrance, Gale goes down the cellar steps blasting away, only to kill a policeman. As the Whistler’s voice-over informs us that Gale will go to the chair for his crime, even more depressing is the fact that during all the mayhem a bullet pierced the case housing the two Jenny Lind cylinder recordings, shattering both. So the kindly Stillwell and equally warm Elora both end up dead or penniless. Stillwell died for nothing and Elora will only inherit the kind wishes of an old man. In this world of rare kindness comes a stronger air of decay, greed and deception. People lustful for easy money lie, cheat, double-cross and kill to accomplish their goal, but they always come up short. Too bad the kind people suffer by getting caught in this crossfire of deception.
The Whistler movie series contain stories cut from the same creative well, a morally corrupt universe that mimics the world of film noir, a world where the good are corrupted and the virtuous are crushed underfoot. And sometimes such moral lessons can be entertaining and surprising as well. But never has a B movie series been darker or more depressing.
February 12, 2008
The Colorization of Ray Harryhausen Classics
Ray Harryhausen movies have populated the world of DVD since the format first become popular. Pristine DVD versions of 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH and EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS came to the home video market a few years ago. So why are brand new versions of these classics being released anew to DVD (and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH is even being released in a Blu-ray HD version, as well as the stand DVD version)?
First and foremost, the new versions are two disc affairs containing lots of supplemental extras, and the front covers boldly proclaim “Ray Harryhausen Presents.” But the marketing proclaims that these black and white classics are now available in color versions (along with the original black and white versions). On one hand Harryhausen is trying to interest an entire new generation of moviegoers in his bargain basement monster epics of the past, and these colorized versions do indeed open doors.
As a high school English teacher, I am constantly bombarded when showing movie clips to my classes… “It’s not in black and white, is it???!!!” Many of today’s youth abhor a movie presented in glorious black and white. Somehow all the shades of black translate as outdated and worthless. When movies are colorized, many youthful viewers will consider watching what beforehand they would never consider watching. Of course this does not mean they will enjoy the movies, but at least one door has been opened.
As the documentary on colorization demonstrates, Harryhausen was involved in every artistic decision concerning the colorization process, sitting at the computer and making suggestions about shades of colors. As others have stated before him, he wished all his black and white movies could have been filmed in color, but the production budgets simply never allowed this. So this process of colorization is one that Harryhausen wished for and approved (even though his beloved KING KONG was photographed in black and white). And the colorization process today, as rendered by Legend Films, is miles above the earliest versions of the colorization process. Simply stated, converting black and white movies to color has reached its artistic zenith.
Of course I tend to prefer the original black and white versions of movies, featuring the inspired cinematography of artists who painted with the monochrome pallet. But part of me is curious in seeing how FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN might look in color, or perhaps even THE INVISIBLE RAY and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. The best of both worlds would be to have one release that contains both a restored, pristine black and white version and a colorized one, alongside. Thankfully, this is the pattern that Harryhausen and Sony have followed. And I don’t mean a black and white version which is basically the colorized version with all the tinting removed, but an actual restored black and white re-mastering where proper contrast and inky blacks have been preserved.
For me, the idea of colorization works best in B productions where the cinematography was journeyman quality and not rendered artistically. On the other hand, horror classics in color interest me; however, film noir in color would be sinful and utterly worthless. So the idea of Ray Harryhausen monster movies in color appeals to me!
But how do these movies look colorized? Interestingly, all the Harryhausen releases allow the viewer to toggle between the original black and white versions and the colorized one, with the push of a remote control button. And let me say, the verdict is still out about colorization. For instance, when it comes to 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH, a strong case can be made for the colorized version. I hate to admit it, when I toggled back and forth, I wound up watching the colorized version all the way through. For instance, in the sequence where the Ymir battles the elephant, in the original black and white version, the texture of the skin seems too similar between both creatures. Both large animals fail to stand out as being unique. However, in the colorized version the color tones of the Ymir stand apart from the elephant and, during the battle, each creature exerts more of an air of individuality and the battle seems more thrilling. When the Ymir hatches from its egg, the mystification of birth seems more fantastic when viewed in color. The Ymir in color seems to have more nuance to its skin texture and seems more lifelike. Those early boat and water sequences in Italy seem richer. And those shadowy sequences of the Ymir hiding in the barn take on a spookier resonance, when rendered in color tones. For me the colorization process makes an already fine movie even better.
But wait a minute! What worked so beautifully in one movie does not work as well in another. Take EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS. For me the colorization process renders the film almost black and white in too many sequences, where only a hint of color splash exists. Too many of the daytime sequences seem rather bland when rendered in color. Granted, the flying saucers crashing into national monuments during the film’s climax are nice, but the colorization does not add significantly to the film’s effects or sense of drama. Some explosions and fires in color become slightly more dramatic, but most of the color sequences seem washed out and have weak contrast. For me it is difficult to believe that the same people were involved in the colorization process of both movies. I have yet to view IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, a film mediocre whether viewed in black and white or color, and one I do not intend to purchase twice.
So, the colorization process becomes little more than a gimmick to lure fans that already own a DVD copy of these Harryhausen movies into buying another version. While the colorization process is a curiosity and an itch that needs scratching, the verdict is still out on whether the colorized versions of B productions are superior to the black and white versions. I have to admit that I love the colorized version of 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH and feel it enhances the viewing experience. However, the same cannot be said for the colorized version of EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS. So at this point it remains a hit and miss affair. Some movies simply translate better into color from black and white, and the artistic decisions how to colorize a film and the time involved in getting it right can be the difference between success and failure. More so than the quality of the colorization alone is maintaining distinct contrast in digital prints that actually makes the color pop.
Whether Ray Harryhausen is concocting a new method to make more money or is legitimately concerned with preserving his movies for the next generation, the simple fact remains that, low budget or not, film is an artistic medium that was created in a specific subtext. If a low budget limited the production to a black and white version, then that version is the one that counts. Artistic hindsight gets most filmmakers into hot water (think of Steven Spielberg and his definitive versions of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS or George Lucas with his redone special effects for the STAR WARS original trilogy), and tampering with one’s legacy tends to lessen the overall impact of that art. Colorization becomes, as I said, a novelty when it exits alongside the original black and white version. But the thought of losing the original black and white version of a movie in a world where only the colorized one remains (thank heavens Harryhausen is only tempering with digital versions of his movies and not actual negatives or prints) is frightening. Warts, flaws and all, the original movie is simply what it is, and what it is translates into the reason for its longevity and the emotional impact it holds. In this Botox, stomach stapling and liposuction world, sometimes flaws and imperfections form the foundation of why art is profound and ultimately beautiful.
February 25, 2008
PERRY MASON, Classic Television and the Formula That Works!
The PERRY MASON CBS television series, the one that debuted in 1957, still holds up as classic 1950s adult drama. Based upon the series of novels written by Erle Stanley Gardner, the TV series featured riveting drama in a world populated by both upcoming Hollywood stars and former Hollywood greats. The stories were thoughtfully composed, overfilled with mystery and suspense. However, for such a cutting-edge drama, PERRY MASON followed a tried and true formula, but instead of being saddled creatively by such a formula, the show prospered because of it.
Just think. Did D.A. Hamilton Burger (William Talman) ever win a case he tried against Perry Mason? Did Perry Mason (Raymond Burr) ever lose a case (well, I believe he did lose one case, but that was a very special aberration)? Well, if the villainous D.A. never wins and Perry Mason never looses, why should anyone care to catch a series that survived from 1957 to 1966, if the outcome of every week’s trial was a forgone conclusion??? Basically, the question was never about Mason winning the case but how he was going to clear his client when the case, as presented by police detective Sgt. Tragg (Ray Collins) and Burger, seemed to be so air tight. Every episode also presented the possibility that the defendant might not be innocent and may be guilty of holding back evidence or even lying. Mason was a lawyer quick to believe his clients, and even when he asked them point blank if they killed the person they were charged with killing, often those innocent eyes and the answer “no” just were not believable, but Perry Mason never doubted a client once he agreed to take on their case.
And what about dapper private investigator Paul Drake (William Hopper), the convertible-driving investigator who always seemed to be more interested in pursuing the ladies than staying focused on the job. In one episode he gets to show his true colors. While on a date, he is asked to phone Mason after dark. Pulling over to use a pay phone, Drake phones Mason, receives instructions to meet him within the half hour, and reluctantly tells his gorgeous date he has to drive her home, duty calls. Drake, whether it pertains to rushing into the courtroom at the final hour to hand Mason a slip of paper or jotting down a note, often times his investigative prowess saves the case for Perry. When he is not rushing around, Drake’s chief purpose is to order and deliver lunch, usually a brown bag of sandwiches that he never has enough time to consume.
And what about Mason’s relationship with his personal and private secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale), the woman who always flashes a sexy and all knowing smile his way? During off duty hours, it is Mason who takes Street to a nice restaurant for an expensive dinner, even if work is involved peripherally. Mason is never shown with any other woman, and theirs is a relationship that seems just as personal as professional. But in the office, Street is ready to transcribe every conversation at every meeting, ready to whip out a receipt for every retainer paid Mason and ready to work alone with Mason after-hours long into the night. It seems neither has any social life outside of work. Part of the charm of the series is trying to figure out what exactly is their relationship.
And what about the team of Tragg and Burger? This inseparable cop (with or without D.A. Burger) arrives on the scene of the crime exactly when Mason arrives. Tragg always wears a sheepish grin to signify that the police are always one step ahead of him, but every week Mason demonstrates that they are actually two steps behind. And poor Hamilton Burger, the Richard Nixon-faced D.A., always feels he has the case under control until Mason pulls the rug out from under him during the show’s climax. Sometimes Burger is snug and arrogant, but other times his banter and body language in court demonstrates that he in fact respects Mason and that their rivalry is based more on respect than competition. In one superb verbal volley, Hamilton Burger throws out a line from Macbeth calling Mason an idiot, but Mason, without losing a beat, fires an equally insightful Shakespearean quote back his way. Burger is first and foremost interested in getting the truth revealed, and if he happens to be wrong and Mason happens to be right, in the nature of justice, then so be it.
And even the plot is based upon the same formula. Each week the episode begins at the home or office of mostly affluent families and introduces us to characters interacting in the vilest manner, thus revealing both the story’s conflict and who the victim will be (in most episodes we know who will die within the first five minutes). Of course about three different people are revealed to have motives for the death of the despicable victim-to-be, and when the corpse is ultimately found, some innocent party is caught with a weapon standing over the corpse, or someone is found in some compromising situation. Of course Perry Mason is contacted, if not by the accused, then by a friend or family member. And somehow Mason instinctively knows that his client is innocent (when Tragg and Burger think just the opposite) and Street and Drake are on the case to clear the client. The final third of the episode occurs in court and focuses upon the trial (mostly involving Mason vs. Burger, but some of the stories involve Mason at trial in a smaller community court with the local attorneys gunning to defeat the big city lawyer). But by the final minutes, the murderer is revealed and Mason’s client is shown to be innocent. Even Hamilton Burger frequently smiles, even though he lost another case to his worthy adversary.
The formula is repeated and repeated, but somehow it entertains and proves effective. In these television scripts, characters are drawn with subtlety (even the bad folks often win our sympathies) and the plots are tricky enough to keep us guessing until the final minutes. Perry Mason, always professional, has a warmth and caring attitude that makes audiences like him (even though Raymond Burr worked most of his Hollywood career playing villains and criminal types).
When it comes to adult drama that stands the test of time, TV’s PERRY MASON is a landmark series whose recent release on DVD only attests to the quality and legendary status of this early courtroom drama. Many other shows produced during the 1950s seem creaky, silly and unbelievable, when viewed today. Even working with the same old formula week in and week out, PERRY MASON becomes a program that transcends that formula and becomes one of the finest dramas that TV ever presented. PERRY MASON is simply riveting television! And the show contains one of the most dramatic and identifiable musical themes in TV history! On DVD season one and two are released (with a 50th anniversary special edition forthcoming), and we hope to see many more seasons of PERRY MASON to come!
March 4, 2008
Hollywood and the birth of the Gangster Genre—LITTLE CAESAR, SCARFACE
Over the weekend a bunch of friends spent a Saturday afternoon watching two pivotal Hollywood gangster movies, beginning with Warner Bros.’ creaky 1931 LITTLE CAESAR, the film that made a star out of Edward G. Robinson. The movie, overly dramatic and definitely larger than life, attempted to deal with current (at the time) social problems. We then watched Universal’s SCARFACE, a film released one year after LITTLE CAESAR in 1932, but a film superior in so many ways. But as we re-watch both films today, each tells us a lot about Hollywood moviemaking and a lot about American history.
LITTLE CAESAR starts off as Caesar (known as Rico) sits with a friend and imagines what it would be like to be a citizen of importance and earn respect from everyone he meets. The answer for this second generation American is to move to the big city, join the mob and make his mark as a badass mobster. Having connections with gangster Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields), he promises to follow orders, keep his nose clean and to accept any monetary cut offered him. Of course, once his foot is in the foot, working with naïve and conscience-driven friend Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), Rico has greedier ambitions. Massara, late for his initial appointment because of ambivalent feelings about the outlaw life, learns too rapidly that once you are part of the mob, there’s no turning back. Soon Rico, the more ambitious and conniving of the duo, convinces the “boys” to back him, so Vettori is moved to the back burner and now works for Rico. Rico guns for the city’s chief gangster Pete Montana (Ralph Ince) but stupidly ends up killing the crime commissioner, bringing on the full heat of the city police. By the movie’s end, when Rico, in total disbelief, is gunned down, he utters, “Mother of mercy, can this be the end of Rico?!!!!” His own disbelief in his own mortality cannot save him from a violent death.
LITTLE CAESAR and its portrayal of Rico illustrate the American dream where guts, determination and aligning yourself politically with the right people lead to fast success. Rico’s tragic flaw is his unbridled lust for power and his fatal error is bumping off the crime commissioner. When Rico needed to lie low, he comes out with guns blazing. Instead of being satisfied for the wealth and power earned, Rico has to be top dog and takes power in the most dramatic way possible, drawing too much attention from the police and city politicos. And he can’t even keep his paws off his best friend’s girl, Olga (Glenda Farrell). Too much too soon explains the rise and fall of Rico, and while he does achieve his American dream for a short moment, at what cost? Dying violently in a fury of bullets is not the most practical means of maintaining one’s power and prominence.
More sophisticated is Howard Hawks SCARFACE, surprisingly, a gangster film not made by Warner Bros. but one produced by Universal. Director Mervyn LeRoy’s minimal sets, pedestrian shot setups and stiff acting (Robinson is indeed wonderful though) doom LITTLE CAESAR to mediocrity, other than the fact it debuted the American sound gangster genre. Howard Hawks’ direction is faster-paced and features ambitious camera setups. Playfully, every criminal who dies has his cinematic demise punctuated with some type of onscreen “X.” For instance, when criminal Gaffney (a gaunt Boris Karloff months before he filmed FRANKENSTEIN) is gunned down at the bowling alley, an “X” appears on his scorecard before his execution. In other sequences sunlight forms shadowy “X’s” in the background of sequences, signaling that another gangster is about to die. In one technically gonzo scene, a gangster is gunned down by a passing car and the criminal lies face down beneath a “Undertaker” street sign, his body forming the “X” from the shadow of the street light. The high angle shot is framed and lit to absolute perfection. Gimmicky, yes, but cinematically such audacity draws us in as well. Hawks is able to propel his movie with an energy and charisma missing from LITTLE CAESAR, and for me SCARFACE becomes the defining gangster movie of the era.
Paul Muni, sporting a disfiguring scar on his face, becomes more crazed and less predictable than Robinson’s Little Caesar. Both are intelligent and ambitious criminals, but while Little Caesar was ruthless, Scarface Tony Camonte is a loose canon, and a twisted one at that. He is obsessed with protecting his 18-year-old sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), who appears to have been around the block once or twice, to the chagrin of her brother. Any boyfriend is never good enough, for it appears that Tony’s interest in sis is almost incestuous and his total control of her life becomes emotionally paralyzing for both. When Cesca, almost as wild-eyed as Tony, stands with Tony at the film’s end and takes a bullet in the side and dies, Tony loses his desire to survive and goes on a virtual suicide rampage, defying the policeman to gun him down.
While Edward G. Robinson’s Rico is often quoted (“You can dish it out…”), his performance today is remembered more for his acting tics and vocal mannerisms. His performance is one-note and fueled by his over-reaching ambition. His is a performance that will be long memorable, but it is one able to be teased and satirized. Muni, on the other hand, creates the more robust performance, one beaming with intense gazes and broad smiles. Muni’s performance is never subtle, but it is one less easy to pigeonhole than Robinson’s broader and traditional one. Perhaps the advances of cinema in one year make the acting in SCARFACE more believable and less dated by time and the restrictions of early sound movies. Howard Hawks brings a visual power to SCARFACE that is missing from LITTLE CAESAR. For instance, his brief reenactment of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre starts with an overhead shot of wooden “X” lattice frames. The camera lowers and we watch as the gangsters are lined up, all in silhouette, as they are gunned down. In another ambitious montage sequence, in quick succession we watch as Tony’s criminal network moves in and takes over the booze business as trucks crash into curbs and store fronts are shot or blown up. But then again Hawks is the more innovative director and we expect such virtuosity from a master.
Interestingly enough, SCARFACE (subtitled “The shame of a nation”) opens with a prologue criticizing the federal government for ignoring the gangland problems confronting the U.S. The text reminds viewers that we are the government and that we have to rise up and demand our government take action. And then what follows is a virtual roller coaster ride of corruption and warring gangs (viewers get the feeling if they do nothing, the gangs themselves, from greed, will eliminate one another if given enough time). However, this all out political attack on the ineffectiveness of the government is gutsy, especially when we remember that Prohibition was still in effect at the time of this movie’s release.
America, especially when considering Prohibition, has not changed radically since the early 1930s, and the question of immigration, assimilation, economic empowerment and the criminal control of vice only reminds us that which failed 75 years ago still is failing today. Research came out in the press this past week that one in every 100 U.S. citizens is in jail and that most incarcerations are because of our drug laws. Doesn’t this attest to the fact that just as Prohibition failed 75 years ago, that our current war against drugs is failing today? Outlawing vice only allows the criminal elements to become more powerful in its control. Perhaps the not-so-subtle truth of the message of SCARFACE needs to be heeded once again today. Sometimes crusty old movies are worth revisiting.
March 31, 2008
THE THREE STOOGES And the Continuing Slapstick Legacy
Last year the first volume of a chronologically released series of Three Stooges two-reelers came to DVD. THE THREE STOOGES COLLECTION VOLUME ONE: 1934-1936, released by Sony, contained 19 digitally re-mastered shorts that sold for only $20. Even more impressive was the gorgeous looking and sounding restoration that made every sound effect snap and every eye poke become painfully real.
Amazingly, when I was a child growing up in the 1950s, The Three Stooges were considered low-rent, derivative and overly violent when their shorts first became available to television. The comedy team of Laurel and Hardy were the classic slapstick torchbearers of physical comedy. Even though many claim the Laurel and Hardy team reached its artistic zenith with the best of their silent shorts, their sound feature films such as WAY OUT WEST, SONS OF THE DESERT and others became a staple of early television viewing and every baby boomer was weaned on such entertainment.
Unfortunately, the Stooges were always compared unfavorably with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The Laurel and Hardy team was comprised of two individuals who each created distinct personalities and whose physical humor arose from such characterizations. Even though Ollie was the bully and Stan the innocent child-man, their humorous pranks were rarely sadistic or based upon pain of the eye-gorging variety. Granted, Laurel and Hardy tried to be imaginative and even artistic in their movie comedy, and the duo appeared to be the icons of slapstick for generations to come. Or so we thought back in the 1950s and 1960s.
But let’s reexamine that prediction ago. Very few Laurel and Hardy movies are available on American DVD. In England box sets containing all the two-reelers and feature films have been available in the PAL format for several years, and such collections have been every Laurel and Hardy fan’s dream. But here in the States, Laurel and Hardy releases are generally minimal, barely re-mastered with subpart image and sound quality. Ask anyone younger than 40 today who are Laurel and Hardy, and most people will shake their heads they don’t know. But ask the same crowd about The Three Stooges, and immediately everyone will recognize them or mimic their sound effects or head-slapping technique. On home video, most of the feature films and now all of the shorts have been released to the American market. Spike TV network and IFC on cable/satellite still run the Stooges filled with trivia and insider jokes. But where on TV can one watch Laurel and Hardy?
One of the stunning surprises of my life has been the trivialization and downgraded status of the iconic Laurel and Hardy comedy team. What was considered classic comedy 50 years ago is almost a lost blip on the cinematic radar screen today. And those loathed Three Stooges (loathed that is by the critics and our parents) have only risen in the pantheon of comic genius with their features and shorts re-mastered and re-released on DVD. For the first time in ages, the lowbrow, less-subtle Columbia-released Three Stooges have trumped the high art produced by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Even as a teenager I always felt that Laurel and Hardy were superior and The Stooges were unsubtle yet funny in a crude way. Back then we always had to qualify or make excuses for our appreciation for the Stooges.
However, over the decades, Laurel and Hardy’s status never dropped in my estimation; however, the Stooges rose. The characters created by Moe (the bullying boss brother that we soon pity), Larry (the so-called Porcupine and his persona of the quietly daffy underachiever), Curly (the ace in the hole frenzied loon) and Shemp (the rubbery-faced contortionist who almost rivaled Curly) have only become more classic as time wears on. What was once perceived as manic violence can today be viewed as well-crafted character interplay. While our parents only saw the slaps, the pokes and the violence, we, the children, saw people so stupid that our hearts opened up to the point that we wanted to give each Stooge a psychic hug. And most surprisingly, as we grew into adults, the laughter (which our parents felt was only due to our youth) only increased as the subtlety of their craft appealed to adult sensibilities as well. Today, when the guys get together in the home theater for an afternoon of movies, we still laugh just as hard at a classic Stooges short. And to be honest, some of the Laurel and Hardy sound shorts, though still classic, are looking a little creaky today.
Please be forewarned, to enjoy The Three Stooges it helps to be a male and to have that male Stooges gene that allows us to appreciate their variety of humor. In almost every case, our wives and female friends universally do not get the Stooges. Their comic appeal is lost on the fairer sex. Recently, at one such showing a young lady, Leslie, watching the short with an audience of baby boomer males, was the only person not roaring out loud. At the end of the show she added shyly that when she was a child she thought the Stooges were hurting one another so such antics only frightened her. She just did not find their pranks funny. So that’s the long and short of it. Some people get it, while others simply do not. It’s all in the genes!
But since 1934 the artistic appeal of Moe Howard, Larry Fine, Curly Howard and Shemp Howard has held steady and their comedic shenanigans are entertaining an entirely new generation of cinematic slapstick lovers. Looking at the classic Stooges two-reelers contained within the first DVD collection, I chuckle to myself at the antics in shorts such as Woman Haters (the Stooges are required to sing and rhyme all their dialogue); Three Little Pigskins (football was never this much fun and they even rival the Marx Brothers in the zaniness department); Pop Goes the Easel (culture and the arts cannot civilize our rough-around-the-edges boys); Hoi Polloi (in this inspiration for the feature film Trading Places, the Stooges are the subject of a bet concerning their assimilation into the world of culture); Movie Maniacs (in this seldom seen short, the Stooges invade Hollywood and the studio back lot); A Pain in the Pullman (who thought an overnight train ride could produce this much fun, especially when the Stooges all try to fit into the same top berth in a sleeping car), just to name a handful.
And guess what, in May Volume Two of THE THREE STOOGES COLLECTION will be released, detailing the next round of comedy shorts. For a Stooges fan, life just doesn’t get any better!
April 8, 2008
THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM And The New Film Grammar
Cinema speaks in a language all its own.
When we think of film editing, technique becomes the substance of film, even though the most artistic technique does not draw too much attention to itself. When we think of film grammar, we think of the dissolve, the jump cut, the montage, the low-angle shot, the high angle shot, the fade to black, the superimposition, etc.
Such cinematic language served cinema well for over a century.
But THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM demonstrates the evolution of film grammar to satisfy a techno-savvy viewing public in the Millennial years. It is not as if the film created this new film grammar spontaneously, but THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM just seems fully-formed as a example of story-telling that employs a new film grammar to tell its story.
What I am talking about is something usually credited to Alfred Hitchcock originally … totally visual storytelling that involves editing without dialogue, or with minimal dialogue. But Hitchcock’s style is decidedly old school compared to the sensory overkill hyper-kinetic style created by director Paul Greengrass, cinematographer Oliver Wood and editor Christopher Rouse.
Just study the early sequence in THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM where Jason Bourne instructs the British reporter to go to the Waterloo train station and await further instructions. In a tremendous sequence that goes on for roughly 15 minutes, Bourne slips a freshly purchased cell phone into the man’s pocket and then rings him, after observing every agent posted in or around the station whose mission it is to take out Bourne and the reporter, who now knows too much to live. Bourne becomes the reporter’s GPI instructing the dazed reporter in what lane to walk, when to bend down to tie a shoe to allow agents to walk past him and what shop and bathroom in which to disappear. Constantly passing each other and saying only a few words in short spurts, Bourne intercepts the reporter on a stairwell as agents are twisting around the corner to kill him. In a frenzied fight to the death, Bourne takes on three agents (or is it four?) in hand-to-hand combat, taking them all out of commission. I don’t know if the action has been sped up or if the micro-quick cuts are shortened for graphic intensity, but no onscreen fighting sequence ever packed this much of a visceral punch. As the sequence is ending, Bourne tries to get the reporter out of harm’s way, instructing him not to venture into the open station area until given the word. But the reporter is panicking and feels someone is sneaking up behind him, so he ignores Bourne’s orders and runs out into station, catching a bullet in the head only a few steps past the doorway. In another cat-and-mouse pursuit, Bourne tries to catch the assassin, but the man is literally one step ahead of Bourne and escapes on a train car whose door closes as Bourne and the assassin lock stares. With hardly any dialogue, suspense cinema evolves into something decidedly new and ferocious with sequences such as this one.
In another climactic sequence, Bourne is racing across and through small apartments and rooftops in Tangiers, as hired CIA hit man Desh is pursuing Nicky (Bourne’s female friend) to kill her. As Nicky remains 40 paces ahead of the professional, she ducks into alleyways and unoccupied apartments. Soon Nicky is trapped in one of the apartments, only a few steps away from slithering Desh, who is snaking around the interior of the apartment where Nicky is hiding. Bourne, pursued by the local police, is jumping rooftops looking in vain for Nicky, who is always visible but out of his protective reach. Soon in a dynamic shot, Bourne runs faster and faster and dives down through a glass window, the glass shattering as Bourne’s body acts as a cannonball and falls a few feet from both Nicky and Desh. Then, in another fistfight to the death, Desh and Bourne go at it in the most dramatic visual style, featuring jump cut editing that moves faster than the human eye can decode. Perhaps this editing style is created to hide a lack of proficiency in the actors’ ability to fight as viciously as they appear to be doing, but the intensity is ultra-extreme and the sequence works its magic only too well. Finally, Desh is pounded to death near a toilet by Bourne, who leaves the cold corpse as he and Nicky escape.
These two sequences become touchstones for this new and emerging film style. Hitchcock may have used 40 cuts to create a 30-second sequence. Here, the filmmakers use 100 shots for the same amount of time. Shorter, quicker shots are used to create a vertigo affect, too much information bombarding our senses at once. However, bottom line, these visual sequences work only too effectively. This is not your father’s action-adventure movie, and even if each individual shot does not hold up under individual scrutiny, the bottom line is how the entire sequence plays. And such sequences, such as the two above, play extremely well. They are dizzying, off-putting, ugly, aggressive and headache inducing, but they convey frenzy and rage only too well.
Me, I prefer the Hitchcock old-school methods, but I can also appreciate the new hyper-frenetic editing style that movies such as THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM bring to the screen. Metaphorically, these butting styles become the difference between a hiccup and a seizure … both are out of our control but one is subtle and the other is abrupt.
I guess this change in film grammar is akin to film fans that grew up with action adventures produced during the 1940s and 1950s, when suddenly James Bond hit the cinema circuits in the early 1960s and the action movie moved one quantum leap ahead. Perhaps John Woo and his Hong Kung pistol operas such as THE KILLER and HARDBOILED took films to the next level. Now we have THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM and others that transcend to the extreme level. Each movie generation either keeps up with the new film grammar or retreats to the classics of old.
How much action can one man take before he screams, “Uncle!”
April 27, 2008
Forward Thinking HD Becomes A Classic Horror Fan’s Delight!
Ever since I abandoned the then HD heavy Dish Network (and their Monsters HD channel) a year ago for DirecTV, I bemoaned the fact that I would no longer be able to see movies such as BLOOD OF DRACULA, ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS and MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD in HD. Even though DirecTV now has about 90 HD channels, it does not carry Monsters HD (which, unfortunately, shows modern B garbage 90% of the time). [The station was soon to disappear entirely from the airwaves!]
However DirecTV does carry MGM HD (which Dish does not carry), and while most of the movies shown since its inception several months ago have been epics, current mainstream movies, all that started to change a few weeks ago. I could not believe my eyes when I saw in my program guide that REVENGE OF THE ZOMBIES, starring John Carradine, Robert Lowery and Mantan Moreland, would be shown in HD at some ungodly hour in the morning (thank heavens for HD DVRs). When I watched the movie (hey, it’s fairly dull and interior to KING OF THE ZOMBIES) the next evening, I was amazed at the absolutely pristine video print. Contrast was superb with inky blacks and delectable nuance in all shades of gray. The sharpness that one expects to find in HD broadcasts was present with foreground, middle ground and background sharp as the proverbial tack. Never has such an old chestnut B programmer ever appeared this clear. After years of watching watched out, scratched video tapes or PD DVD releases, it was a revelation to see the movie looking this good. Put it right up with the restored DVDs coming out from Warner and Fox, but this was an HD broadcast, not just a well executed restoration.
Humm, I thought, in another six months they might show another old B or classic vintage horror movie. Then April 19, 2008 arrived, and for any fan of classic science fiction and horror, Christmas arrived early. For one full day and night, MGM HD showed the following horror movies plus others: CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN, TOMB OF LIGEIA, THE HAUNTED PALACE, MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE. For me the two classic Vincent Price Poes (THE TOMB OF LIGEIA and MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH) were essential titles to see in HD. Presented in their original aspect ratios with pristine video prints featuring deeply saturated color, the prints were very sharp yet very film-like. Seeing these movies presented in HD was going one rung higher than watching the standard definition Midnite Movies versions. The additional shades of color that HD provides, the dense contrast and the sharpness of the image was like sitting in the 10th row at the Vilma Theatre back in 1964.
But one of my all-time favorite B movies is IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, a classic B production that always jolts me in a new way every time I see it. Yes, the movie reeks of 1950s sci-fi cinema (always a good thing to me!) with its stereotypes, chiseled heroes and men-in-monster-suits threatening to destroy our world. And while the MGM Midnite Movie release is dynamite, here, the HD presentation is noticeably superior. Once again we have the original widescreen aspect ratio restored and the inky blacks and dense contrast only add to the horrific mood aboard that claustrophobic rocket ship. Even though Ray Corrigan plays the space-invading monster wearing a Paul Blaisdell rubber suit, the invading predator has always been a fan favorite and becomes one of the outstanding examples of just how good men in rubber suits can be. The fact that director Edward Cahn shows the creature in silhouette and in very quick cuts at first only enhances the suspense. But even when the monster is shown for extended periods of screen time, it delivers the necessary chills. The only criticism of this HD broadcast is that a few of the monster’s rubber-suited flaws are more noticeable in HD, but for me this only makes that classic period of monster cinema more endearing. The sharpness of the print and the deep contrast make the movie appear virtually brand new. And I am wagering the film never looked this good since its original theatrical release. How could it possibly!!!
I keep hearing people say I will invest in HD for cable or satellite TV to watch sporting events or modern movies where the HD would truly benefit the presentation. These same fans, some of them classic monster lovers, ask time and time again just how much better films such as REVENGE OF THE ZOMBIES, IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE or Roger Corman’s THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH can look in HD!!!!! Well, for one glorious day (and yes, less stellar movies such as ALIENATOR and TROLLS 2 were also shown … they all can’t be classics!) in the spring of 2008 we got our answer. HD presentations are vastly superior to former/current SD DVD releases of the same movies. A few days later the just-released RETURN OF DRACULA with Francis Lederer was broadcast in HD, and I guarantee those special color sequences will rock in HD.
The only frustration is that our Dish HD DVR can only hold 20 hours of HD broadcasts and currently no way exists to burn these babies to HD Blu-ray quality discs. Oh, the time will arrive shortly when this can happen, but technology has yet to catch up.
Myself I am awaiting the latest generation of Blu-ray players to be released this spring/summer and I plan to jump on the bandwagon now that Blu-ray has won the format wars. I already own 20 Blu-ray movies (which I currently cannot play) and I am constantly buying sale-priced titles when they are available.
I am sure the day is not too far off when titles such as IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE and all the others mentioned here will be sold as home video Blu-ray releases. Will I purchase all my titles over again? Of course not! But will I buy my favorites from the past in Blu-ray … you betcha! When Blu-ray discs sell for as little as $15 and are always 30 percent off (or more) at Amazon.com, switching to Blu-ray is an easy decision for many classic movie fans.
Thanks MGM HD for proving my point!
May 11, 2008
WEBZINES vs. PRINT MEDIA
To my dismay, many of my favorite magazines are going belly-up or undergoing drastic transformations. Most of them are rock/pop music magazines, but music is a primary interest and passion of mine. It all started about one year or so ago when ICE, a color, slick newsletter, ceased publication. ICE was primarily a week-by-week popular music release calendar and was the most accurate and up-to-date one in the industry. But as the newsletter grew into a slick magazine, ICE increased its coverage to include articles and columns, including ones on digital and gray market (the polite term for bootlegs) releases and was for me an essential magazine to look forward to receiving every month. However, on-line sites such as PAUSE & PLAY provided the same information (that is, the week-by-week release calendar) for free. But ICE featured wonderful articles and information, and its loss was heavily felt here. No other source has yet been able to replicate what ICE did so well.
More recently, two of my favorite music magazines folded and/or transformed themselves. First of all, the slick alternative music HARP folded just four months after I finally decided to subscribe. As the staff revealed, with the imminent death of the CD and the reshuffling of music labels (one buying out the others), advertising revenue was way down so the magazine was simply discontinued. While their informative website is still up, it is no longer updated and seems a click away from oblivion. Subscribers have been notified that the magazine is trying to get another music magazine to honor remaining subscriptions. But I am not worried, I am simply sad.
Perhaps the magazine whose demise matters most to me is NO DEPRESSION, a magazine representing to the alternative music genre what MIDNIGHT MARQUEE remains to the classic horror movie genre. The two minds behind the magazine, the leading Alternative Country magazine that most recently transformed into what is now called Americana, just could not raise the advertising revenue dollars, since the music industry has been in a state of depression for the last few years. But instead of folding the magazine that editors Peter Blackstock and Grant Alden called a hobby that grew into something more, they plan to refurbish their web site (a dandy one worth book marking www.nodepression.com) and add new text content on a regular basis. Plus, joining with the University of Texas Press, they play to publish two “bookazines” a year that will allow them to include many longer articles.
NO DEPRESSION has the right idea. Instead of bemoaning high printing costs (mainly based upon the increasing cost of paper) and the loss of ad revenue, one of the most individualistic and stylish niche magazines simply has decided to accept the technological fate it faces and move on with the times. A bookazine, which the editors say will appear in book stores and not on magazine stands, is a novel idea and one closest in spirit to the original magazine. But the expansion of the website to include current reviews, news, and short articles is also exciting.
Those of us who read MIDNIGHT MARQUEE or MAD ABOUT MOVIES like the smell of the paper, especially that fresh-from-the-printer smell. We like the feel of the laminated cover stock. We like the tactile feel of flipping through the pages and holding something tangible in our hands. As fans of a niche market, we love to possess and hold and store and reread such magazines that have formed an important part of our lives. However, the writing is on the walls. Print magazines of all types seem to be a dying breed. Unless we are a mainstream publication where over half of the pages are advertisements, the cost of publishing hard copy print magazines is becoming prohibitive. Magazines, especially the niche ones, are a dying breed.
Far too many fanboys publish webzines and they are all over the internet. For film fans, most webzines are published so the writer/editor can receive review copies of new DVDs and books, and the quality varies considerably. But as more and more print magazines transition to the Internet, the quality of the best web-oriented zines will blow the fanboy enterprises out of the water. And while it costs relatively little to publish a webzine, just like with the fanzines out of the 1960s and 1970s, only the best will survive.
The most difficult thing for such a transition from print to cyberspace is the attitude of the subscriber, the reader, whose bias towards collecting such magazines may be stronger than his/her love of the content contained within. Right now I know many magazine collectors do not even READ the magazine, but simply buy the periodical to bag and tag, to collect. That mentality will not extend to webzines.
Perhaps cyberspace publishing might be a good thing for those people who crave the content, the news and information, over the pleasure of holding and sniffing a magazine they can physically manipulate and store.
One thing is certain, the times, they are a changin’, and like the people at NO DEPRESSION, I view such change with excitement and high hopes as Blackstock and Alden venture as pioneers into the new journalistic terrain. I for one wish them all the luck in the world, and I plan to remain a faithful supporter of all their efforts. But more importantly, the world of magazine publishing is changing radically and more and more print magazines will be following the lead of others into the world of webzine publishing. And this might not be a bad thing.
June 15, 2008
Dario Argento’s MOTHER OF TEARS
Dario Argento is the finest horror film director working in movies today, and even at 70, the Italian director still has plenty of blood to spill, plenty of nerves to fray. Most recently, Argento directed two successful gialli, THE CARD PLAYER and DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK? And anticipation was running feverish when it was announced that Argento was ready to tackle the third installment of his Three Mothers trilogy (begun with SUSPIRIA and continuing with INFERNO), his loosely connected world view of three witches, sisters, inflicting ruin on an unwary world. Of course SUSPIRIA was Argento’s most successful movie (coming early in his career), and artistically, along with DEEP RED, remains his best. INFERNO, wildly visual and violent, falls one rung lower artistically. But audiences had to wait 30 years for the trilogy to conclude, and as Argento’s career enters its twilight, MOTHER OF TEARS: THE THIRD SISTER might well be his swan song. So he needed to make this film worthy to serve as a fitting bookend to an astounding cinematic career.
To help insure the film’s success he re-teamed with his family, casting both his life partner Daria Nicolodi and daughter Asia Argento (Nicolodi is Asia’s mother) in key roles. Scoring the movie is former Goblin member Claudio Simonetti, who composed most of Argento’s recent movies. Frederic Fasano is the cinematographer, while Walter Fasano the editor. Both Fasanos worked with Argento on the wildly imaginative DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK? So Dario Argento’s comfort zone, working with actors and technicians with whom he worked before, had to be conducive to making MOTHER OF TEARS: THE THIRD MOTHER successful.
Unfortunately MOTHER OF TEARS is ultimately a failure, but it is a film that has a great deal going for it anyway. It is not the classic the horror film community craved, and making fans wait 30 years only makes this disappointment more profound. At this point in his career perhaps Argento is better at creating the giallo film and not supernatural horror movies. As he proved so distinctly in DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK?, Argento used music, cinematography, acting and editing to weave a suspense thriller filled with tension and surprises, his pacing evolving into a crescendo of terror by the final minutes. In other words, Dario Argento was still operating near the peak of his artistic talents.
However, with MOTHER OF TEARS, using most of the same crew, the film feels half-baked and flat. The film’s scope depicts the “second falling of Rome” with armies of citizens infected by Argento’s version of “The Rage,” culminating in bloodshed and anarchy. The film cries out for a larger budget that can better visualize this sudden moral decay after the Third Mother returns. Such similar sequences were captured beautifully in lower-budgeted films such as Hammer’s QUARTERMASS AND THE PIT, but here Argento’s visual apocalypse seems woefully lacking. And when his chic coven of witches appears at the airport, the sequence, while brash, appears more like a walk on the wild side of the fashion runway than the occult loosed upon humanity. And when an Asian witch upstages the reigning Third Mother, we know the film is in trouble. In several delicious sequences the witchy Asian, a gold tooth front and center, becomes the most terrifying vision of witchcraft in the entire film. Her death on a train at the hands of Asia Argento comes too fast and too soon. Moran Atias, who plays the Third Mother mostly in the nude, becomes the Matilda May of her generation (remember the naked alien from LIFEFORCE?). Atias, a scrawny young woman with bouncy breasts, seems oddly devoid of power. To make her seem more demonic, witchy cronies, male slaves and kinky human followers always appear in her presence. The Third Mother hardly has a word of dialogue, meaning the role lacks characterization that could make her appear to be the deliverer of world’s end. Her major actions require draping herself in a talisman, a burlap sack dress, or stripping it off. Sometimes stripping and sometimes redressing in the same sequence. Atias wears demonic makeup and uses intense glares, but ultimately she becomes another naked model actress poseur. She pouts when she needs to command.
Argento’s use of gore is both overdone yet never gonzo enough. In Argento’s classics the gore always pushes the envelop of taste, but it is executed in the most visually arresting manner. Take the beginning sequence from SUSPIRIA where the female victim is cut by shards of glass and left hanging by the neck only inches from the ground. Argento manifests an opera of visual horror that is both excessive and artistic, the imagery lingering long in the viewer’s imagination. Here, the gore seems gratuitous and uninspired. We have similar sequences with throats being sliced and axes bashing in a human’s skull. We have one woman who has a metal spear rammed up the entire length of her torso, finally penetrating from her bloodied mouth. We have servants of the Third Mother use an ancient tool to disfigure the face and mouth of a female victim, as a blade is used to slice open her guts, her intestines flopping to the floor. The woman, still conscious, is strangled when her own intestines are wrapped around her throat. Totally ridiculous. Argento was the modern master for orchestrating gore for horrifyingly effective results, but the splatter in MOTHER OF TEARS always looks like a visual effect and fails to involve us emotionally. It may be blasphemy to admit, but maestro Argento has lost the ability, at least in this one movie, to terrify us.
Argento must be given props for his inspired use of CGI, the bane of most filmmakers. He creates a ghostly world when magic dust is thrown into the wind. Images of ghostly, former occupants of the Italian household create a true sense of the supernatural and remain one of the film’s most effective sequences. In several scenes the ghostly presence of Asia’s dead mother tries to help her child from the great beyond. In another sequence, Asia Argento’s apartment door comes to demonic life as those denizens of the other world bend the wooden door into the shape of demons. A similar sequence was attempted in Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING with similar effect, but with the magic of CGI, the effect is terrifying and mesmerizing.
The movie’s worst flaw is the lack of a fully fleshed out script, based upon Argento’s original story idea (both he and four other credited writers are given screenplay credit). The movie becomes little more than a sketchy premise. By the movie’s end, all it takes for Asia to defeat the Third Mother is to use a metal rod to rip the burlap dress off her quivering body and burn the talisman in an urn. At this point the entire house collapses and a huge phallic wooden stake crashes through the wall pinning the naked witch beneath it. Classic Argento this is not!
But what does work in MOTHER OF TEARS? The now mature Asia Argento (still featuring the prettiest bags under her eyes), now oddly beautiful, becomes the perfect heroine to both flee the horrors and finally confront them … and finally to defeat them. Also, Argento’s effective imagery of having a demonic monkey announce the appearance of the world of the occult is wonderfully executed. Sequences where the monkey sniffs out the hidden Asia are tense and frightening, becoming the scariest sequences in the entire movie. Even the catacomb tunnel sequence at the end featuring Asia searching for the Third Mother and her nasty entourage even lacks the mood of HORROR HOTEL.
But enough already!
Dario Argento can still deliver the goods, but MOTHER OF TEARS is a failure because the movie appears to have been executed without a fully realized script or the budget to deliver the visuals as Argento would wish them to appear. Think of SUPSIRIA or DEEP RED and their success is based upon imaginatively conceived visuals edited and scored to perfection. These productions become visual dreams that lure the viewer into their off-putting vision. Here, with THREE MOTHERS: THE THIRD MOTHER, Argento’s visuals are literal, seldom poetic, and the result sputters when it needs to soar. Perhaps Argento was working too fast with too little money, but the entire production has that unfinished feel. Even cult star Udo Kier appears far too briefly and dies in much too silly a manner.
After waiting 30 years to finish this trilogy, the disappointment is that much more heartbreaking. I expect much better with Argento’s next movie GIALLO. I truly believe the best lies ahead for Dario Argento.
June 12, 2008
AMERICAN MYTHOLOGY And the 1950s HORROR FILM
In 1957’s I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, teen predator Tony Rivers (Michael Landon) gets an instant migraine when standing too near the school bell that signals the change of class. He has been eying up a sexy young gymnast who is working out on the parallel bars, and Tony soon morphs into a foaming-at-the-mouth werewolf, becoming a visual metaphor for every adolescent male’s sexual yearnings. He does not rape her; his passions, instead, tear her apart. While Eisenhower’s bland, straight-laced 1950s is generally pictured as American apple pie, horror cinema casts this innocent era in an entirely different light. As seen in the drive-in movies crafted by American International, the J.D. emerges, the rebel without a clue, the leather-garbed punk who is motivated by breaking rules, rock’n’roll and the fairer sex.
While on the other hand, Don Siegel’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS takes an idyllic American town, Santa Mira, and recasts it as ground zero for alien invasion, as mysterious seed pods replicate human beings and eliminate the original. The newly born pod person is like the original human being in every way … except his or her humanity has been replaced by a hive mentality, where emotions are eliminated and one consciousness emerges replacing individual thought. Even ordinary people walking down the town main street stare stiffly ahead, never showing emotion, not even when a car strikes a pet dog. Director David Lynch would redefine this idea decades later with BLUE VELVET, showing a dark underbelly exists beneath the veneer of warmth and quaintness in small town America.
In movies such as Paul Landre’s THE VAMPIRE we have a single parent struggling to raise a perhaps too precious daughter and maintain his small town medical practice, even going so far as to allow the child to practice her ballet right outside the doctor’s office. The pressures of modern life have caused the doctor to experience migraines, but when he substitutes his headache medicine for pills that make human beings revert to their primordial state, all hell breaks loose as even little old ladies no longer are safe walking down suburban streets after twilight. The post-WWII American dream has quickly transformed into a nightmare.
In Paul Landre’s equally important RETURN OF DRACULA, the European Count Dracula journeys to America in search of fresh blood, assuming the identity of an artist who escapes repressive Communist Eastern Europe for the freedoms of small town America. Once again we encounter a fragmented family, a mother raising a family alone, who welcomes the fatherly Bellac to live in their American cottage and become the new father figure. But unfortunately, Bellac spends his days either sleeping or hidden away, while at night he always gives his regrets and explains his plans prevent him from assuming his intended family responsibilities. However sexy daughter Rachel Mayberry (Norma Eberhardt) takes a more than fatherly attraction to Bellac and wishes him to share all his worldly experiences with her, to help her embark upon an artistic career designing clothes. However, not even the pathetic and blind young woman who lives in the church home is safe from the curse of the undead as Cousin Bellac/Dracula makes her his initial victim, inviting her to step from the darkness into the light.
In Universal International’s TARANTULA medical experiments intended to feed an ever-increasing starving world are subverted and mutate ordinary lab animals, even the fuzzy tarantula, into gigantic size. Soon the tarantula threatens the desert community in which it was created. It takes all the efforts of local doctor Matt Hastings (John Agar) and fighter pilot Clint Eastwood to subdue the monstrous threat. Leo G. Carroll as Professor Deemer, whose benevolent plans are perverted into human disfigurement as both he and his assistant, through scientific technology, are reduced to ugly, distorted and soon enough dead humans, proving that science, if not properly harnessed, can unloose an army of terror on small town America.
Even the iconic Gillman from CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, a modern throwback to prehistoric times, demonstrates the majesty of nature unbound by civilized humanity. Of course when David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Mark Willaims’ (Richard Denning) intruding scientific investigation arrives to uncover nature’s hidden secrets, all they manage to do is destroy this proud creature because of a romantic triangle involving the Gillman’s passions for the luscious Julia Adams, whose beauty while swimming, wearing a shimmering white bathing suit, excites the Creature’s passions. Even in an ideal world, the sinister urges of a prehistoric world remind us that beneath our human exterior we are savage creatures very similar to the Gillman.
Even Jimmy Hunt as the archetype 1950s male child David MacLean becomes exposed to the horrors of Martian invasion of his homeland American town. A head with tentacles in a bottle controls the invading army, whose zombified mutants carry out the tunneling and dirty work, submitting to the dismembered head. Humans are captured when they step out into the sand dune that surrounds the back of their neighborhood houses. Once lured there, they disappear beneath the sand where they are surgically implanted with mind-controlling devices attached to the back of their heads. Once programmed, these humans do the bidding of the invading aliens, and once their job is finished, they too are finished when the devices explode causing cerebral hemorrhages and instant death. Even young David finds that not even one’s parents or the local police can be trusted, for they too have been subverted by the alien invasion plan. A way of life that seemed so perfect and safe is infested by evil. Who can we trust?
Eisenhower’s America with its housing boom (thanks to the ending of World War II) and exodus to suburbia seems so peaceful and safe. Yet the horror and science fiction movies made during this era always go out of their way to illustrate the illusion that such a worldview creates. Even during the 1950s science was growing too powerful and was destroying the natural environment. Scientific mutations created for good causes (such as world hunger) suddenly run amok and work against the very reasons for which they were created. Invasions from space occur, but usually not with the invading war machines introduced in George Pal’s THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, but more insidiously, with invasion coming from beneath the quaint societal surfaces (metaphorically, we all have sand dunes and worm holes in back of our seemingly safe homes). In such a world view even our most beloved relatives (mother and father in INVADERS FROM MARS; friends and lovers in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) can no longer be trusted, for the monstrous threat to our quiet community lies in the perversion of everything that makes us feel safe. Even our visiting cousin from far away Europe might be a blood-sucking serial killer. Even the town’s loved doctor, self-sacrificing and caring beyond a fault, might himself be twisted and perverted to commit harm against the very people he protects and serves. And even sophisticated and intelligent human beings might be the beasts in teen’s clothing, ready to revert to an animalistic state in the mere split second it takes to sound the bell for the change of classes at the local high school.
When it comes to 1950s horror cinema, the world of the 1950s, seemingly so safe, secure and insulated, is turned on its ear and revealed to be the hidden hotbed of twisted science gone wild and the breeding ground for serial killers and monsters created either through superstition or science. When held up to close inspection, the sanitized America of the 1950s is revealed to be a world where even our own relative can be working to do us in. And those bastions of society security, the police and the military, can be subverted and quickly become the enemy.
Recast in horror cinema, America of the 1950s does not appear to be such a Utopia. It instead becomes a world where everyone puts his or her guard down and becomes too trusting of the inherent good of the government, the military and the world of science. Instead of keeping one’s guard up, in these and other movies, 1950s America becomes the Disneyland (that amusement park first appeared during that decade) that desensitizes its citizens and forces us to feel safe in a feel-good community that apparently represents quiet and calm. Just when we sigh collectively and think all the horrors of World War II are behind us, well, just at this time the new enemy (from outer space, from the military or from science) sneaks in the back door and gets us when we are not even looking, while we sit with a smile on our faces, our feet propped up on the sofa, eating an easy-to-heat TV dinner, oblivious to any of these dangers, hypnotized by the magic oval television screen. The children, in the other room, are preoccupied listening to their 45s or transistor radio.
What a wonderful life????!!!!!!
The cinema of the 1950s teaches us a totally different mythology.
July 14, 2008
ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO Shines Real As An Animal
For those of us boomers who grew up on rock’n’roll, it becomes difficult to find something emotional and musical today that compares and resonates with the best of the past. On June 24 one of my favorite artists, Alejandro Escovedo, released perhaps the finest album of his career, to little fanfare (but more than he usually gets).
Escovedo is a left-of-center artist, a man who spent the last 30 years being true to his musical muse instead of being concerned with stardom and fame. All his albums are good, some are great, and his latest, Real Animal, is transcendent.
In the mid- to late-1970s, Escovedo played guitar and wrote music for a punk band, The Nuns, one of the bands that opened for the Sex Pistols on their last ever concert. Other bands followed such as Rank and File, True Believers and Buick MacKane. Then his solo career ignited, prompting No Depression magazine to label Escovedo the artist of the decade (the 1990s). But probably most people never heard of him.
Do yourself a favor and buy the CD or download Real Animal to be reminded of the emotion, music and cutting lyrics that rock music is capable of producing in the hands of a master. Remember the days where downloading a song wasn’t an option because albums were like novels, they told a story chapter by chapter. And in those Golden Days albums managed to engage the listener from beginning to end, with hardly a clunker in the lot. Of course albums lasted 30 to 40 minutes (not the 50-70 minutes that most albums clock in today) and were lean and mean.
I bought my first Alejandro Escovedo album in 1998 … how could I ignore a so-called artist of the decade? That album was the aptly titled More Miles Than Money: Live 1996-1998. Recorded in small venues and made to sound like an intimate studio album (downplaying the audience noise and reaction), the album featured both original and classic rock cover songs (The Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog, Lou Reed’s Street Hassle and The Rolling Stones’ Sway, never done better) reduced to a common sound by Escovedo’s coveted churning cello and violin rock orchestral sound … playing rock riffs along with the typical guitar, bass and drums set up. In fact, the constant with Escovedo’s sound (whether he plays mid-tempo twangy pop, high energy rock or emotionally-felt ballads) is his use of these spooky strings to augment a natural rock’n’roll sound. I was mesmerized by the music and glued to Escovedo’s strong voice, so I became a fan. Everyone who follows “Al” knows he will never become a star, instead, he’s an artist more concerned with craft, his vocation, and his music touches the heart deeply.
Now his 10th solo album, Real Animal, produced by Tony Visconti (who produced David Bowie, T-Rex and Thin Lizzy), shows Escovedo as survivor, now working with co-writer Chuck Prophet (a survivor himself of bands such as Green On Red, the heralded Paisley Underground band, and a solo artist himself), the songs have never been sharper. Let’s discuss a few of them.
Chelsea Hotel ’78, the NYC punk rock Mecca where Sid and Nancy lived, is recounted with Escovedo putting himself on the sidewalk when the police were called after Nancy was found dead in a hotel room. In the course of this song Escovedo describes, as a documenting and detached short story writer, the odd sorts who lived at the hotel, with each chorus screaming: “It makes no sense; it makes perfect sense,” such a contradiction being crystal clear in this instant. “The Max’s Kansas City lifestyle made everyone a star.” By the song’s end Escovedo moans “We all moved out; we all moved on” over and over, until the final fade. Kind of like a punk rock graduation, with all the graduates moving on but never forgetting the experiences gained at the Chelsea.
When the next song Sister Lost Soul begins, Escovedo reminds us that “nobody left unbroken, nobody left unscarred” and then delves into a song that reflects upon all his brothers (and sisters) in arms who passed on as he continues his journey. “Nobody here is talking … that’s just the way things are.” Soon the lyrics state how the singer is reminded, “you’re not here anymore … I need you!” As the song develops, the singer wishes to lay down besides this woman, her breath in his ear, but he admits to be lying to himself, that this can never be. Only an artist who brags about “more miles than money” can make this emotional connection click.
Smoke is a happier song, detailing the 1970s rock club scene and the fun of making a fool of oneself on the dance floor. With roaring guitars riffing in the background, Escovedo speaks of a friend being “all dolled up” while the guitars mimic the high-octane riffs of another neglected musical legend, The New York Dolls. But the message of this song is to lose yourself in the music. The song references lots of close friends by first names (almost a tribute to Lou Reed who made such referencing his trademark) that confess they since settled down and are raising kids. The song ends with the chanting of “Smoke, baby, smoke, you’re gonna smoke baby smoke, all night long.”
People (We’re Only Gonna Live So Long) is a blues/rock chant that deals with Escovedo’s urge to connect with other people, but in the chorus always reminding himself, “We still got time, but never as much as we think/as we need.” The singer tries to strike a balance understanding basic human flaws stating “Some take a shower, some take a bath, some don’t ever get clean” and “some live as criminals, some live as boy scouts, most of us live in between.” The ying-yang lyrics are never meant to be profound, but they are matter-of-fact slices of life, descriptions of the way people live. The song crescendos into a confession that he tries to love people, warts and all, although he confesses, some are easier to love than others.
Such an album could only come from a long-term rock veteran, a man who is now 57 years old but rocks like he’s 30 years longer. Years of experience and learning about life have produced an album heavy in retrospection. Escovedo, who was diagnosed with Hepatitis D over a decade ago, almost died in 2004, but today his disease is in remission. In the song Golden Bear he speaks of “there’s a creature in my body, there’s a creature in my blood” which deals with his close encounter with death. “Why me?” he questions near the end.
The title song, Real As An Animal, is his tribute to his mentor and hero Iggy Pop, and the song almost sounds as though the guitars are about to incinerate. “I wanna hear ya, la-la-la-la-yeaaaahhhh, animal… real as an animal” And Escovedo reminds us of the Ig singing “Louis Louis from the jungle gym.” Complimenting this rocking fury is perhaps the best ballad of the set, Sensitive Boys, describing the heart and soul of any kid who tries to make the rock’n’roll lifestyle his own. “Big dreamy eyes … shivering in the cold light of New York City.” Escovedo knows the clothes, the sneer and the attitude become the protective cover for the vulnerable artist. “Nothing’s ever what it seems, too much just ain’t enough … like an open wound, you always felt too much … sensitive boys want all your love and they want no love at all.” Escovedo is no longer a sensitive boy, but he remembers well when he was the young misunderstood punk. This song, featuring a backup chorus, is a slow burn containing a disciplined yet powerful guitar solo. “Sensitive boys, turn your amps up loud,” and from one channel a buzzing guitar drone quietly comes to the surface, one of the terrific subtleties that producer Tony Visconti brings to the record. “I’m still out here somewhere and no one can take your place. The world needs you now.” The old rock’n’roll veteran acknowledging the importance of younger kids keeping his tradition alive. And the song ends with a noir-ish saxophone solo that slowly fades, so perfectly.
The album, which attempts to connect the present with the past, summing up Escovedo’s current life by tracing his roots back to the humble beginning, ends with a song, another ballad, that sums up this duality, Slow Down. As he plays back his favorite music in his mind (he states he hears it in the wind), Escovedo humbly states, “I don’t know what this means to you, but it was everything to me.” And the song ends with Escovedo simply stating the common theme of every song contained within: “The past is gone, but it still lives inside of me, hold on tight as we slip into this revelry … slow down, slow down, it’s moving much too fast, I try to live in this moment, but I’m tangled in the past.”
When was the last time you heard an album where each song was organic and breathed life upon itself, as a total entity, existing as a whole? Yet, by the end of the album, you can see how each song becomes a separate chapter of one musical novel, depicting one life told in music, where the past shapes us and affects the way we live and feel in the present. And I haven’t detailed all 13 songs contained in this set, all of which are worthy, a few even great. As Escovedo wails, “All I ever wanted was a four piece band!”
This is the album for adults who ask constantly, why isn’t rock music as profound, as pounding, and as resonating as it was during the 1960s and 1970s? Real Animal, by Alejandro Escovedo, most certainly is.
August 2, 2008
REAL D Cinema 3-D: Everything Old is New Again!
I recently saw JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH 3-D, the latest movie to demonstrate the “Real D” digital 3-D photography process. And I must say, I was very impressed by the depth of field and wild visual effects, both floating in front of and seemingly drifting behind the movie screen. 3-D has come a long way since HOUSE OF WAX back in 1953.
However, the media has been bombarding movie-goers with all sorts of ballyhoo claiming that the older 3-D was intended to throw things at the audience, to play up the gimmickry of the process. However, the Read D Cinema spokespeople claim their this refined 3-D photography is intended to “involve” audiences in the movie experience, that the gimmicks of shocking the theater audience are not what this new 3-D process is all about. 3-D has, in other words, matured. This is not your parents’ 3-D.
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH would most likely be a TV movie if it were not for the delightful 3-D splash and dash. For instance, we have a wonderful sequence where a T-Rex is hovering above our boy hero and saliva drips from its mouth and splashes downward, right on the audiences’ collective heads. In another sequence, in a mineshaft, our cast takes a roller-coaster ride in two mining carts that travel on railroad tracks. What we have is the equivalent of THIS IS CINERAMA’S equally mind-blowing roller roaster ride, but now as we dip and roll up the underground hills, we experience the thrill ride in 3-D. Yes, the depth perception involves us in the movie experience, but the photography is also gimmicky as well. In another dazzling sequence, our boy hero has to walk from one underground cliff to another, by jumping and balancing himself on floating boulders that are propelled to and fro by human weight (they even flip upside down and keep twirling). Such sequences become the equivalent of a 3-D big screen video game.
The original 1959 JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, a favorite with baby boomers, still thrills audiences today. Even though the film is not as classic as one might remember, the gripping special effects (yes, even using lizards works just fine in this film), the acting of James Mason and others and the booming musical score by Bernard Herrmann ace anything in this modern remake. But the 3-D effects are the best I ever experienced and the fun I had cannot be ignored.
But look at 1953 and the birth of original 3-D movies (that petered out by 1954). Movies were losing business to television and people were staying home in droves to watch the magic little box. So what did Hollywood do in response? They invented CinemaScope wide screen movies, they filmed movies in Technicolor (remember color did not come to TV until the late 1950s) with stereophonic sound for the major “Roadshow” productions. And they created 3-D photography that required goofy glasses in order to perceive the aura of depth. Any old trick to get the masses to return to the theaters.
Let’s look at Hollywood today and the reasons for the rebirth of 3-D movies. Home theaters are growing and becoming the norm, allowing people to control their movie-watching environment (no cell phones, no texting and bright phone or PDA screens, no talking, no fights, no weapons). While home theaters have Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound and larger screens, they do not have the ability to reproduce 3-D effectively yet. So just like in 1953, in 2008 Hollywood is trying to justify $10 ticket prices and snack bar concessions that cost upwards to $50, per family, per visit. The goal is to get people out of their home theaters and back into the regular theaters to experience movies publicly, collectively, in the big theater with 50-foot screens and now Real D Cinema 3-D. Supposedly all of the CGI animated features released in the future will be released in 3-D versions as well, and 3-D is supposed to become more of a regular addition to major Hollywood movies.
Well, the gimmickry did not work in 1953 and I don’t think it will work today in 2008. Granted, the improved glasses and 3-D photography are dazzling and do not seem to cause headaches as the older format did. But the “take-the-audience-out-of-the-movie-experience” requirement of having to wear tight-fitting glasses is something that people will never truly enjoy or allow themselves to forget. It’s a burden, in other words, whenever audiences have to don such glasses. And while the 3-D experience might work for animated features and action-adventure films, it will not enhance all movies. Real D 3-D is a gimmick, so let’s be honest and label it as such.
Amazingly, home theaters will continue to proliferate and movie theaters, with their inflated ticket costs and expensive food, will price themselves out of the market, especially after the downloading of HD movies becomes commonplace. Not even Real D Cinema 3-D will be able to change that fact.
August 2, 2008 PART TWO
Please forgive me for posting fewer Blog entries during the past four weeks. I am in the midst of preparing our first digital issue of MIDNIGHT MARQUEE, #76, and most of my Blog time has been devoted to prepping the new issue. By the way, the issue should be posted within the next 7-10 days. Keep a watch for the date on our web site. And we will be completely redesigning our web site to make it more user friendly and more of a presence. This web site update will appear the same time the new issue is posted. And once the issue is posted, more Blog entries should be appearing regularly.
August 4, 2008
One-Eyed Horse: A Myopic Review
Filming a Western in Maryland? Somehow Maryland makes a wonderful post-Civil War Missouri, circa the 1880s. And former English teacher Wayne Shipley fulfills his dream of paying homage to the two great inspirations of his life, John Ford and “Wild Bill” (as in William) Shakespeare. Yes, Shipley who wrote and directed One-Eyed Horse did not intend his independent feature film to be a shoot-’em-up B Western of the Hopalong Cassidy variety. No, we are talking five-act Shakespearean tragedy dripping with characters with haunted pasts, consumed by guilt and hatred, with personal redemption always two steps out of reach. These are tragically flawed men who are unable to leave the past behind and whose lives are destroyed because of being stuck there.
Shipley, like Shakespeare and Ford before him, knows the importance of pacing, comic relief and splash and dash action. In between tight shoots on the human face (the ultimate special effect) One-Eyed Horse includes a wild and wooly horseback chase sequence in the woods (in which Shipley, playing a supporting role, dies a glorious death that he most likely envisioned while a kid playing “cowboys” out back on the family farm), a no holds barred boxing match with the entire town in attendance, and a final confrontation and three man shoot out that moves so swiftly that the audience is challenged to figure out the progression of who shot who and why! Shipley is not above inserting a rootin’ tootin’ barroom fight and some boy/girl romance (vying for man/horse bonding that becomes the chief metaphor of the movie … a dignified saddle-bum who lovingly cares for his one-eyed, half blind horse, this theme of each father’s blinding single-vision dominating the script).
The cinematography and editing by Jeff Herberger, following Shipley’s tightly composed script, makes the 138 minutes stampede by. Herberger lights most of the interiors with natural light … a lantern here, a candle there and the warm tones shot in HD video seem more like film. Herberger’s artistic composition captures period detail yet never forgets that faces and words emanating from faces are his chief focus. The camera moves when it should and stays sedimentary where it needs to be still. And such subtlety might make audiences forget such craft and the soulful eye that lenses this production. Next to Shipley, One-Eyed Horse belongs to Herberger artistically.
Because the script is character dominated, the acting becomes of greatest importance. In most independently produced movies with over 100 speaking parts (practically unheard of), maintaining a consistency of acting is next to impossible. However, the talented ensemble cast never lets Shipley down. Stars Mark Redfield, Mike Hogan, Jennifer Rouse and Kelly Potchak create masterful interpretations of parallel father-daughter relationships, both fathers tormented by the past horrors of the Civil War … and their momentary chance meeting. And both daughters, young and innocent, try to protect their fathers, at all cost. But what makes the acting in One-Eyed Horse so special is the fact that the smaller character performances are just as strong as the dominant ones. For instance, George Stover plays Cy, the man who tends horses at the livery stable, and in his brief two-minute sequence he creates a masterful, low-key performance that is memorable and touches the heart. Likewise, co-producer Bill Blewett plays Babcock, a fight promoter, and in his short scenes he creates a wonderful image of the boxing manager who is more con artist than business adviser. Barry Murphy plays another boxing manager whose bluster and screaming rants create comic relief delivered exactly at the point in the film where comedy is needed. Murphy’s hilarious cameo ends much too soon. And the movie throws such brief yet well-written supporting performances at the audience constantly, demonstrating the principal that the acting chain is only as strong as its weakest links. Yes, one or two performances feature actors whose Baltimore accents seep through, but such incidences are the exception. The acting across the board is superior and becomes the reason why One-Eyed Horse is such an overwhelming success.
Five-act Shakespearean tragedy meets the epic visuals of John Ford; One-Eyed Horse becomes the ultimate, hybrid homage that melds two unlikely worlds of literature (print and visual) to stunning effect. Shipley would have had an easier time producing a blood and thunder “B” horse opera with a smaller cast and a simplistic plot, but Shipley’s vision was more complex than that. This movie becomes the work of a lifetime, a one-shot artistic barrage that bleeds more from the heart than it does the pocketbook. And happily, One-Eyed Horse defies the odds and becomes a profound triumph of a filmmaker who delivered his vision, uncompromised.
August 24, 2008
HOW DO WE DEFINE WHAT IS A HORROR MOVIE?
In the soon-to-be-released MIDNIGHT MARQUEE #76, a group of writers, including myself, debate whether or not Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO should be considered one of the 13 most influential horror movies of all time. Everyone on the panel agreed that PSYCHO was indeed a horror movie, but many writers referenced the fact that many people do not consider it so.
The first line of demarcation, in defining a movie as a horror movie, would be whether or not the movie contains a supernatural subtext or not. Thematically dealing with the supernatural almost always qualifies a movie as horror. SUSPIRIA deals with a coven of witches that operate out of a private girls’ school, but supernatural occurrences color the gruesome splatter. Everyone agrees SUSPIRIA is a horror movie.
The old chestnut Universal horror classics are supernaturally derived and qualify, without question, as horror movies. We have the undead Count Dracula surviving on human blood for hundreds of years; we have the patchwork corpse Frankenstein Monster risen from the gallows and graveyards by scientific technology and the power of electricity; we have the bestial curse of the full moon transforming an innocent human being into a werewolf in THE WOLF MAN, and the list goes on and on.
But when it comes to non-supernatural horror in cinema, what qualifies as a true horror movie? For instance, war films such as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, APOCALYPSE NOW and PLATOON deal with the horrors of war, but no one would ever consider them horror movies. But war films, perhaps more than any other genre, deal with the horrors of human cruelty and sudden, unexplained death. And such deaths are horrific and come without warning.
Author Mark Clark likes to think that the serial killer has replaced Count Dracula as the icon of Gothic horror in today’s cinema. The seeds of that statement go back to the 1940s with films such as THE LEOPARD MAN, where the fiend guts a runaway leopard and uses its teeth and claws as his device of torture and murder, and THE SEVENTH VICTIM, where a devil cult hires a knife-bearing assassin to do away with a renegade cult member (Jean Brooks). The knife wielding serial killer can be traced through many classics of film noir where deviants use knives to slice and dice innocent victims, mainly women. This knife imagery and unbalanced mental states peaked in 1960 with PSYCHO and PEEPING TOM and returned, in a greatly altered form, in the late 1970s with classic splatter films such as HALLOWEEN, BLACK CHRISTMAS, FRIDAY THE 13TH and a slew of others. However, the fiends of modern horror—Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers—are all supernaturally based. Freddy invades innocents in their dreams and slaughters them in his dream reality. Jason is superhuman and returns even after he has been killed. The Shape, Michael Myers, seems to be the most human of all serial killers, until the end of HALLOWEEN when the obviously should-be-dead fiend disappears, only to return time and time again. But PSYCHO is the exception. Norman Bates is deranged and a cross-dressing, fragmented-personality lunatic, but he is very human and there’s nothing supernatural about him or his world.
The same is true with Hannibal Lecter, who first rose to classic cinematic status with Anthony Hopkins’ performance in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Yes, the fiend was ruthless, heartless (most of the time that is, but of course not so around Clarice) and a killing machine lacking morals or conscience. However, most people consider SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, like PSYCHO, a classic horror film, while many say these two films are classic suspense dramas and are not horror movies.
If the emphasis is on the serial killer, is that the only criteria needed for labeling such films as horror movies? Does that make every serial killer movie a horror movie? How do we delineate between the thriller, whose major villain is a serial killer, and movies such as PSYCHO and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS? A film such as SEVEN is most likely grouped into that dubious category of thrillers that are also considered horror movies. Why are these thrillers considered horror movies and films such as KISS THE GIRLS, TIGHTROPE (with Clint Eastwood) and COPY CAT considered thrillers? What’s the difference between them?
Again, does it have to do with the psychopath becoming a dominant, featured character (but wasn’t Norman Bates a supporting character?), with the film’s focus primarily on the serial killer? Does defining such serial killer movies as horror have to do with the quotient of bloodletting that occurs in the movie? For instance the HOSTEL and SAW franchise movies are considered horror movies mainly because of their grisly torture sequences and over-abundance of over-the-top gore makeup effects. In these films the bloodletting is intense, but is this the qualifying factor that makes thrillers horror?
An excellent teen-oriented thriller DISTURBIA became a fairly successful release about one year, and again the film was a rethinking of Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW, featuring a psycho who moves into a laid back suburban neighborhood but who is watched methodically and slowly figured out by the teenage rebel (the hugely popular Shia LaBeouf), who was on home detention, with plenty of free time on his hands. Most critics and moviegoers called this a horror movie, but the similarly themed REAR WINDOW is always considered a thriller. Does it have to do with A productions vs. Bs? Just because James Stewart and Grace Kelley (and psycho Raymond Burr) are the stars, does that mean REAR WINDOW is a thriller? Such a label must be stronger than star quality alone.
Again, what labels one as a thriller and the other as horror? In fact, are SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, SEVEN and even PSYCHO horror movies? What makes them rate high on the horror film genre litmus test while a slew of thriller movies, with equally bloodthirsty serial killers, are considered thrillers? How do we differentiate? How do we split the hairs, literally and figuratively?
In PSYCHO Anthony Perkins plays demented Norman Bates who stabs criminal Janet Leigh to death in the shower, about one-third through the movie (shockingly killing off a major Hollywood star this early in the movie). Shocking enough to label PSYCHO as a horror film classic?!!!! However, a generation earlier Laird Cregar played a demented police detective who kills sexy model Carole Landis about one quarter through I WAKE UP SCREAMING, also equally shocking, and the film is considered a classic of film noir (a suspense thriller too!). Theme and tone are almost identical, but one becomes horror and the other a thriller. Why?
To me it just does not make sense. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if any readers of this blog can better differentiate or define the subtle difference that qualifies PSYCHO as a horror movie and similarly movies as thrillers.
September 22, 2008
FRINGE Plots Steal From Classic Horror
J.J. Abrams, the producer/writer behind ALIAS and LOST, is now back with a new weird science fiction series on Fox, FRINGE. While the first two episodes were involving, mysterious and creepy, the plots drew my attention immediately.
The second episode was called “The Same Old Story,” and man, they could not have used a better title. Even though the series has the edgy conspiracy feel of vintage X-FILES with the strangely twisted plots of LOST, the stories so far have reminded me of other movies.
For instance, in the premiere pilot episode sexy Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) has to remember a face that she never actually saw, so the only way for her to save her agent friend (who, as it turns out, isn’t actually a friend at all) is for the new-age Dr. Frankenstein, the institutionized Dr. Bishop (John Noble), to fill her full of life-threatening drugs and place her almost naked in a sensory deprivation tub of water, allowing her to experience explosive events that happened in her immediate past. I turned to Sue and stated, hey, this reminds me of ALTERED STATES, and before I could say Ken Russell, who appears but Blair Brown, one of the lead stars from ALTERED STATES! Was she there to drive this plot point home?
Things got even weirder in the second episode, the one titled “The Same Old Story.” The original story inspiration was a period piece, so this ultra modern variation cleverly disguised its inspiration, but the second episode was a clever re-thinking of THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH. We could probably even attribute that film’s forerunner and give credit to THE MAN IN HALF MOON STREET. Or better yet, we could also credit THE NIGHT STRANGLER, the second TV movie to feature Carl Kolchak. But here’s the connection. In this FRINGE episode, we have an ancient fiend who keeps himself alive by using the pituitary gland of murder victims to prevent him from aging. Working together with another Dr. Frankenstein-style scientist, the fiend pretends to be another demented serial killer, who uses a muscle relaxing injection to paralyze his young, female victims so he can slice their face and skin backwards to expose the brain, but the method to his madness is his taking the gland while the victims are still alive. Finally he gives the women an overdose of the drug to allow them to die painlessly. Of course, by the episode’s end, the formerly youthful man is transformed to old and ugly when our heroes rescue the latest victim and prevent our killer from stealing his latest pituitary gland.
The bottom line is that FRINGE has been recycling its main plot ideas from other better-known horror films of the past. It is true that J.J. Abrams is a fan of science fiction and horror cinema, but it seems a wasted opportunity to premiere a show as quirky and off-putting (I mean this in the most positive sense) as FRINGE and then dress it with recognizable horror film plots. Have Abrams and his crew run out of fresh ideas, or does he think it an homage to try to sneak these plots through to see if any genre fans will recognize the remake/remodeling occurring here? I cannot wait for the third episode to see if more of these shenanigans are afoot.
September 22, 2008
TRUE BLOOD Reinvents Vampire Cinema
No cinematic genre has remained more metaphoric than the horror genre, specifically, the vampire genre. And HBO’s exciting new series created by Alan Ball, TRUE BLOOD, creates a new vampiric metaphor for today’s world.
During he classic Universal days, Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula was the Valentino of the Undead, the romantic bloodsucker who seduced females. He was the forbidden lover that every father warned his daughter against. He was the exotic/strange European that American women found mysterious, off limits but totally sexual. We never see Lugosi sink his teeth into human flesh, and we never see any droplets of blood (except when Dwight Frye cuts his finger). But we see the mating rituals and the intense gaze that the Count uses to mesmerize his intended victims.
After the status quo was maintained during the 1930s and 1940s, the 1950s presented scientifically created vampires with films such as ATOM AGE VAMPIRE and THE VAMPIRE, where blood-sucking fiends were created in the atomic laboratories or via chemical compounds formulated to help mankind. But the 1950s vampire image was about to be further re-invented by Hammer Film Productions, one generation after the Universal classics.
When Hammer arrived with its arsenal of blood, graphic violence and lush Technicolor, the vampire too had evolved. Now he was the victim of evil personified, seduced to the dark side by giving in to an insidious cult of the Undead in BRIDES OF DRACULA and KISS OF THE VAMPIRE. In Hammer’s classic HORROR OF DRACULA, Dracula became not merely the romantic seducer but the erotic predator whose nocturnal visits to his victim’s boudoir resembled physical rape as much as romantic seduction. When one of his own “brides” attempts to seduce his house visitor Jonathan Harker and sink her teeth into his neck, the Count returns abruptly to his library, his face smeared with blood of his latest victim, his eyes bloodshot and wild, as he attacks the woman and reminds her that humans are his victims—his alone! In these and other Hammer films, young girls and women wait for Count Dracula wearing scanty negligees, nestled in their beds, the French windows or arched doors open wide, their necks naked and exposed, their breathing labored and heavy in orgasmic pants, obviously establishing a metaphor for sexual intercourse. As Dracula’s phallic teeth penetrate vulnerable necks, the girls are photographed as their fingers and fist flex and relax, an obvious sexual release.
During the decade of the late 1970s through the 1980s, in films such as Tony Scott’s THE HUNGER and Kathryn Bigelow’s NEAR DARK, the vampire cult became even more obviously sexual and morphed into a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic, which was spreading widely out of control across America and the world. The only solution was a transfusion of bad blood for good, as NEAR DARK emphasized, and the main idea was that the dreaded disease of vampirism was caused by the blood and could be cured by replacing the diseased blood. Blood borne pathogens replace superstitious and cultist evil. “The blood is the life, Mr. Renfield.”
So where is the vampire cinema headed today? As Alan Ball’s TRUE BLOOD shows us, vampirism is now a metaphor for alternative lifestyles, with the vampires in this film version of the Southern Vampire book series by Charlaine Harris “coming out of the coffin,” so to speak. This is because a Japanese scientist has created synthetic blood that allows vampires to live among ordinary humans, even though biases and apprehensions still exist. The southern religious right, of course, does not accept a world of vampires among us. However, in the small southern burg of Bon Temps, cute little waitress Sookie (a now fully-grown Anna Paquin) is attracted to the new vampire in town, 173-year-old Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer). Sookie is cursed with the ability to read people’s thoughts, and her existence is a noisy one of little peace and quiet. She seldom dates because the sexual urges and games that men play are too-soon telegraphed by their thoughts (romance without mystery seems pointless to her). However, Bill Compton is the only person whose thoughts she cannot read, so this of course makes the vampire desirable. When Sookie saves Compton from a pair of human leeches who are only interested in Compton to drain him dry and sell his blood, he returns the favor when the psycho-duo surprise Sookie at night and beat her to a pulp. The only “cure” is for her to drink some of Compton’s tainted blood. No, she doesn’t become a vampire but she does take on some of their attributes, including a wildly increased libido and enhanced sensitivity.
TRUE BLOOD is getting better week by week, and after all these decades of cinematic vampires, coming up with something invigorating in the world of vampire cinema is quite refreshing. The show is made for HBO cable and the series does not shy away from sex (one wild sequence in the premiere episode shows a glowing-eyed, full fanged naked vampire mounting an attractive young female from the rear) and gore (the unsettling beating Sookie receives, culminating with her spitting blood). But basically, the story is a romance of budding interests between affected Sookie and lonesome Bill Compton and the bond forming between them. But the show’s metaphor for vampires as gays/lesbians coming out of the closet and attempting to be accepted in mainstream society is one of extreme interest and timeliness. Humans fear people who are different, and the vampires, able to suppress their urge for human blood by drinking the synthetic stuff (which is sold in “good ol’ boy” vampire bars), are trying to fit in. Bill Compton even tells Sookie he is trying to remain as low-key as possible because he wants to make Bon Temps his home, against all odds.
We hope that TRUE BLOOD has a long life on HBO and continues to develop both character and theme. And once again, finding new relevance in the modern age, the vampire cinema continues to demonstrate its shape-shifting ability to adapt to any historic time period or social situation in which vampires may exist.
September 22, 2008
Where Have I Been???
Sometimes life gets in the way.
Between (also before, during and after) the time I cyber-published MIDNIGHT MARQUEE #76 and now, my Blog ceased publishing new features. Let me explain. During the past four weeks our efforts (begun last May) of moving my father Richard Svehla from assisted living to a nursing home worthy of him came to fruition last weekend. Richard is now safe and happy at Riverview Rehabilitation and Nursing in Essex, Maryland. The people there are wonderful and my father is doing well. He seems happy.
For those of you who do not know Richard from the pages of our magazine or from the FANEX conventions, he was the person responsibility for keeping the magazine going during the 1960s. When I wanted to do the first issue of GORE CREATURES back in 1963, he encouraged me, even to the point that he went out and bought me the hectographic printing system that we used for the first few years of publication. My mother thought that the only kind of writing that mattered was fiction; she told me she felt I was wasting my talents and encouraged me to stop publishing my little fanzine. However it was Richard who became the buffer and told me to keep on keeping on. Besides, my father loved doing all the conventions we did then, manning the table, meeting friends and fans, and selling, selling, selling. My late friend Rick Neff once confided, jokingly of course, that he remained my friend so he could spend time with my father, and many of my closest friends felt the same way. Richard was always there in the basement, cranking out the issues, collating, addressing envelops, adding names to our database (then a plastic box with index cards), taking phone orders, going to the post office, etc. Without him, I wouldn’t have gotten past issue #6, our first year of publication. He kept the enthusiasm going.
Richard was always listed as managing editor, even though for the past 35 years he was only involved with the shipping and sales (at shows) of the merchandise. However, his spirit permeates every page we ever published… either hard copy or digital. He deserves that by-line.
Richard, now enthusiastic and spirited at age 88, suffers from Alzheimer’s and has shown symptoms of dementia for over five years (living alone he was able to hide his symptoms from the family). He remains slim and trim and his physical health is superior for any man his age (he walks without the use of a cane or walker) … his mental health is, alas, not so hot. He is still happy to see me and asks about the family (names he does not remember) and how the car is running, but his personality is still the same and he seems content to be sitting outside on the Riverview patio overlooking the Back River, a mariner and boats in the distance. My father loved the water and owned two different boats in his prime; he loved to fish and crab. He still loves the women and always hangs out with an attractive one. He plays Bingo, enjoys his meals and is doing better than merely getting by.
But the politics and bureaucracy of Medicaid and red tape has occupied all our free time for the past month. With Richard now settled in and happy, life, hopefully, can return to normalcy and this Blog can once again prosper more regularly.
Thank you all for understanding!!!!
November 4, 2008
What Really Frightens Us?
I find it constantly provoking to think about what exactly frightens movie fans in the horror movies they watch, decade by decade. The obvious question remains, do the same things that frightened people in the 1930s and 1940s continue to frighten us today? How has the substance of horror changed in the cinema from the early talkie days through the Millennial films playing in movie theaters today?
We all understand that before DRACULA (and even in 1935’s MARK OF THE VAMPIRE that followed) the supernatural was usually explained away, often at the very end of the film. Classic Universal pushed the supernatural to the forefront with its vampires and werewolves and mummies (DRACULA; DRACULA’S DAUGHTER; WEREWOLF OF LONDON; THE WOLF MAN; THE MUMMY; THE MUMMY’S HAND). Whether the impetus of horror was the supernatural effects of the full moon, a plague perpetrated by blood borne vampire attack or the curse of the bloodline, mainstream horror no longer avoided the unexplainable.
By the 1940s, the horror moved from external to internal, chiefly realized by the cinema of Val Lewton. His delightful twist on THE WOLF MAN, CAT PEOPLE, involved the same sort of shape shifting that was predicated upon a village curse involving sexual arousal literally transforming the aroused into a predatory beast. However, the horror of CAT PEOPLE is purely psychological, Irena’s fear being one of the mind, marrying the man she loves, but denying him sex in fear that giving in to her sexual urges will transform her into a beast that will slaughter the man she loves. The same sort of merging of classic monsters and the diseased mind carries over into other Lewton films, such as I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and ISLE OF THE DEAD, where people fear they might become vampire-like creatures of the undead, resulting from a plague. The balance between psychological and supernatural tips completely toward the horrors of the mind with THE LEOPARD MAN. In this too long neglected classic, a child’s murder at the claws of an escaped leopard soon motivates the local museum curator to kill the beast and use its skin, carcass and claws to continue its killing streak. Shades of PSYCHO. Perhaps horror cinema of the 1960s was born here. Lewton’s THE SEVENTH VICTIM involves a modern-day satanic cult whose members punish a too-chatty young female member with death, using a knife-wielding assassin, a lurker in the city shadows, to track her down and do her in. Shades of ROSEMARY’S BABY? At first the cult tires to use peer pressure to have her drink poison, but her will to live is too strong. Finally, at her wit’s end, the poor, pathetic female takes her own life by hanging herself in her own apartment.
Horror travels in cycles, and the psychological cycle would return in force 20 years later with PSYCHO, ROSEMARY’S BABY, REPULSION and a rash of copycat psycho thrillers created by Hammer, Amicus and even mainstream American studios.
But the 1950s became schizophrenic. Half of the horrors involved evolving technology and science going mad, sometimes creating creepy terrors in the lab. From this premise came the invasion of the giant bugs and mutant humans including GODZILLA, THEM, THE DEADLY MANTIS, TARANTULA, THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, THE INCREDIBLY SHRINKING MAN, etc. Normal-sized science-gone-mad monsters included THE FLY, THE VAMPIRE, MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS, THE WASP WOMAN, etc.
Yet the other half of horror of the decade returned to the decidedly supernatural. Hammer revamped the world of supernatural horror by returning werewolves, vampires, zombies and Frankenstein’s monster to the forefront. Other supernatural classics of the era include Lewton alum Jacques Tourneur’s NIGHT OF THE DEMON.
The 1960s horror arena, as stated, returned to the world of psychological horror, making the psycho killer a horror film icon. However, the supernatural reigned supreme with the continuation of the reinvented classic Hammer horrors, as well as supernatural exercises including THE HAUNTING, CARNIVAL OF SOULS and Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY and follow-up BLACK SABBATH.
Things evolved, becoming much more complicated in the 1970s and 1980s. Science and supernatural horror merged with classics such as ALIEN and ALIENS. These films are not quite supernatural horror monster romps, nor are they pure science fiction. But many horror movies of this era involved the horrors of our bodies becoming something new and horrific. ALIEN focused on alien reproduction and how living human bodies could cocoon alien monsters during their gestation period. The cinema of David Cronenberg also dealt with the horrors of our bodies transforming into something monstrous and alien. His early films such as SHIVERS, RABID and SCANNERS involve such monstrous transformations. And during his mid-career Cronenberg remade THE FLY with better acting and special effects than the original. Also born during these decades were the ultra-splatter movies that relied too heavily on graphic mayhem, dismemberment and grisly murders. Supernatural serial fiends such as Freddie, Jason and Michael Myers ruled the horror film world, replacing refined actors of the genre such as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee with franchise fiends that came directly out of the headlines (escaped lunatics from mental institutions, unfortunate child murder victims, psychopathic children running amuck, etc.). But most essential during this period of time was the debut of the most masterful modern horror film director, Dario Argento, whose supernatural classics (SUSPIRIA, INFERNO, PHENOMENA) stand toe-to-toe with his giallo (DEEP RED, OPERA).
During the 1990s J-horror arrived with an explosion of Japanese and Korean horror movies that were quickly bastardized in American revisions/remakes, but at least these Asian horror movies returned to the quiet horrors of ghost cinema with strong psychological insight. Urban legends became the fodder of countless scripts and the serial killer psycho fiend continued to dominate horror cinema. The serial killer genre reached an artistic peak with SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, making Hannibal Lecter an almost sympathetic serial fiend. This decade marked the rediscovery of Italian and Euro-horror DVD (giallo standing side by side with supernatural visual representations of hell, as crafted by masters such as Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci), as America seemed eager to embrace foreign horror, as American horror was full of listless retreads that had historians declaring the death of the horror film genre.
Today horror is up and down; inspired and generic teen romps (DISTURBIA, ALIEN VS. PREDATOR) being released alongside more mature efforts such as THE MIST, remakes (good ones at that) of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and DAWN OF THE DEAD, wonderful satires that crack the whip such as SHAUN OF THE DEAD and nouveau zombie scarefests such as 28 DAYS AFTER and LAND OF THE DEAD. Even the vampire cinema, by way of graphic novels, underwent revitalization with 30 DAYS OF NIGHT. At least horror has once again gone mainstream and usually warrants a hefty budget, even though CGI and makeup effects too often go over the top and draw too much attention to the technique of horror, rather than focus on the substance. Once in a while a supernatural gem such as PAN’S LAYBRINTH comes along, merging the horror with fantasy, much as the fantasy genre has replaced the hard science genre of science fiction. Remember, in today’s cinema zombies are brain dead victims, former human beings, who still try to survive by mimicking their past lives and existence, sometimes with humorous but cutting effect in SHAUN OF THE DEAD.
Today, horror fails to get under our skin. Instead, thunderous musical “stingers” assault our ears, booming us out of our seat whenever directors intend to frighten us with sudden jump cuts of horror. If the visuals don’t knock us down, the thunderous soundtrack most likely will. CGI monsters and blood-curdling makeup technicians take the imagination out of grisly deaths by forcing us to see, in autopsy-like detail, the effects of horror mayhem that before we might only imagine. Or formerly if we saw gore, it was only momentary. Sexuality, nudity, perversity and special effects rule the horror cinema today. Audiences, mostly young ones, do not seem satisfied unless they are given the “full Monty” of extreme splatter. Once in a while movies such as HIGH TENSION or IN THE COMPANY OF WOLVES try to raise the bar, subjecting audiences to sensory assault, but assaulting them in artistic-rendering ways with higher artistic expectations. Too often horror movies such as UNDERWORLD and VAN HELSING seem more like video games than actual movies, and the director’s purpose is little more than to marry marvelous mind-boggling CGI animation to create a Gothic world that seems less real than those creaky Universal (yet powerful and well produced) set designs from the 1930s (where skies were sometimes painted canvases). Today’s films have computer-generated correctness with relentless pacing and action. Often plot and character have been sacrificed for the sake of producing a franchise roller-coaster ride from hell. When it’s over audiences want to see it all over again and hopefully be just as frightened the second time around.
Fifty years ago horror truly made us think, feel, see and dream nightmares of horror. Today horror cinema is more about screaming, catching ourselves scream, and then laughing out loud and feeling dumb for being “had.” Horror movies are more often products, usually franchise sequels, which seem closer to fast food restaurants than cinematic art. Somehow we keep consuming, but we continue to feel fat, bloated and unsatisfied. Rather, we feel as satisfied as a Big Mac and fries can momentarily make us feel.
November 29, 2008
SAMUEL Z. ARKOFF and FANEX FILES
Alpha New Video released SAMUEL Z. ARKOFF: THE FANEX FILES on October 28, 2008, the first in a series of documentaries called THE FANEX FILES. These documentaries are culled and focused around the hours and hours of video footage as we captured our guests who appeared at FANEX throughout the years. Our actual first completed documentary focused on director Robert Wise, but Alpha felt that Arkoff had the better chance of mass audience sales, so we went with that one first. Our second entry will cover our Hammer guests, and perhaps after that one the Robert Wise feature will be released. People can buy the Arkoff documentary, on line at http://www.oldies.com, at a bargain price.
Seeing the documentary, directed by wife Susan and long-time collaborator cinematographer Jeff Herberger, reminded me of how we first encountered the iconic Samuel Z. Arkoff. Of course, it was over the phone, and he maintained a young assistant who acted as the go-between early on, but soon Arkoff was talking directly to Sue and me. He was very concerned that no one would remember him or the old American International movies, and I assured him that was never a problem. I stressed to Sam that he was involved with the 1950s AIP drive-in teenage fare. He was involved with the 1960s Vincent Price Edgar Allen Poe movies. He was involved with 1960s exploitative counter-culture movie fare. This morphed into 1970s exploitation and blaxploitation movie fare. And the list went on and on and on. Arkoff, who was still quick-witted and very sharp, seemed to be interested in the value of posters from AIP movies, and he claimed to have a mountain of them. He wanted me to find out specific prices for specific pieces and hinted that he might bring posters to the convention to sell. Well, our conversations, very pleasant and very satisfying, continued off and on several months before the show. He shared old stories about the movies, how he was the producer who first saw Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY and quickly purchased the film for American release. He reminisced about those quick-buck publicity gimmicks waged to make the opening weekend successful so the double-bills would have legs and find success outside of the few mid-western theaters in which they opened, in the middle of winter.
When Sam Arkoff arrived at the show, he was wheelchair bound but still enthusiastic and energetic. His speech haltered and was a tad slow, as if he were trying to find the words to express exactly what he wanted to say. But his thoughts were clear and his sense of humor intact. It seemed Arkoff had not seen Roger Corman, another guest at that year’s show, for decades and he hinted he was looking forward to renewing acquaintances with his old cohort. The thought that our convention might bring these two giants back together, one more time, was very special to Susan and me and it made us proud to be part of such a reunion. When the meeting ultimately occurred, it seemed these two moviemakers had lots to talk about and lots of catching up to share. One thing Sam wanted to do was to stand tall, all on his own power, and walk to the podium to receive his Laemmle Life Achievement award. Sam was very involved at the show, pushing himself around, meeting with fans, holding court here and there, that by the Saturday night award show he was probably bone tired. But after the fine introductory speech honoring him, the smiling Arkoff rose from his wheel chair and walked gingerly to the podium where he received a standing ovation even before he spoke. And at the end of his passionate speech (not bad for the lawyer who ran the business side of the company, leaving the late James Nicholson to handle the artistic end) he received another standing ovation. Sue and I were so happy that Arkoff found an audience of fans who remembered him fondly, his movies and American International Pictures. For Arkoff, the weekend became one long party, one of deep felt remembrances and thank-yous from thousands of fans.
Unfortunately, Sam Arkoff passed away one year after the show, most likely never seeing Roger Corman or any of the other stars who appeared at the convention ever again. Hosting a giant such as Arkoff during their twilight years becomes so important because most of these business folks never realized the influence their products had on the generation of baby boomers who grew up with AIP. Many fans started out by screaming to THE SHE CREATURE, followed the trend with I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF or INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN, matured to the Gothic period horror movies such as HOUSE OF USHER and the more modern horrors of X, THE MAN WITH X RAY EYES. Their counter-culture spirited brothers and sisters were drawn to movies such as THE WILD ANGLES and BORN LOSERS, and drug experimentation movie fare continued with THE TRIP. Soon the horror genre was reborn in 1970s films such as FROGS, BLACULA and THE THING WITH TWO HEADS. American International Pictures was always there in our youth, our adolescence and our early adult years. Producer and AIP co-founder Samuel Z. Arkoff spearheaded all these and other productions. And it was very special for all of us involved with FANEX and CLASSIC FILMFEST to remember and say thanks to the only surviving member of the company, and to show him that his films left their mark for an entire generation of now aging B movie fans. I am positive that Sam Arkoff left the show that weekend feeling emotionally overcome and appreciated, if not loved.
I am proud to say that Sam Arkoff’s spirit and sense of humor comes through strong in the documentary, and we hope to keep the FANEX spirit thriving through this and other FANEX FILES.
On another side note, we never had Mr. Arkoff sign a release for the documentary, so we had to approach the surviving children, daughter Donna and son Louis. It literally took the very busy Donna (who is married to Hollywood producer Joe Roth) about six months to find time to view the documentary. She was in constant contact with Susan, apologizing and even inviting us to Hollywood to watch the documentary with her. But then she admitted one reason why she was so slow to watch our movie. She stated she never saw any movie footage of her father since his death, and the thought of seeing him magically reincarnated was quite emotional for her. But when she finally saw down and watched the footage, she immediately signed the release, gave us all her blessings and hope for continued success. We then had to pass this on to Louis, Arkoff’s son, and he signed the release immediately allowing the film’s release. It was very special for us to make the children of Samuel Arkoff so happy. These are the type of perks that Susan and I got from sponsoring these conventions. While the Arkoff convention lost tons of money, it was a success in ways in which Sue and I can never forget. Sometimes one cannot measure success by money alone.