Saturday, December 31, 2005

Danger: Diabolik: Honor, Romance, and Sensory Overload Among Thieves

Sometimes calling a movie 'stylish' seems like damning with faint praise. But Danger: Diabolik earns bragging rights as one seriously, sublimely stylish pop art explosion. It plays at Seattle's Northwest Film Forum until January 5, and its marriage of comic book zing and paisley-hued trippiness couldn't be more irresistible.

Based on a popular Italian fumetti (comic book), this 1968 opus details the adventures of Diabolik (John Phillip Law), a world-class thief who defies authorities with increasingly courageous (and outrageous) jobs. There really isn't a plot to speak of; just a succession of heist sequences and eye-popping hues and imagery as Diabolik slinks his way into and out of scrapes.

Danger: Diabolik was directed by Mario Bava, a humble but extremely talented Italian with an uncanny knack for sculpting ostensibly formulaic films (horror movies, crime flicks, action programmers) into distinctive works of visual art. He found an ideal avenue for his palate in the vividly inked panels of the Diabolik fumetti, and--true to its era and Bava's style--this movie sports a kalaiedoscope of psychedelic colors.

The sixties brimmed with scores of movies cut from a similar pop culture cloth, but Danger: Diabolik possesses an eccentric charm all its own. It's broad and colorful, yet it never topples into the outright campiness of the Batman series. It possesses several thrilling chase and heist scenes, but occasionally slows to an alluringly languid pace that's downright immersive. Bava utilizes the pretty colors of a good comic book here, but more importantly he captures the pulsing life upon those inked pages better than any other director of the era. And it's no storytelling tour de force, but Danger: Diabolik possesses that unique alchemy of effortless cool that other directors of the era fought strenuously (and often vainly) to attain. It's telling that much of Danger: Diabolik plays without dialogue; Bava conveys volumes visually. Compare Roger Vadim's better-known (but wheezingly dated and static) Barbarella to Bava's cinematic comic book, and it's no contest: Diabolik leaps from the screen.

Bava's good work receives major elevation from his two leads, both of whom play things with just the right balance of earnestness and over-the-top melodrama. Law doesn't just rest on his chiseled good looks and piercing blue eyes--his gaze and body language course with spidery energy. And as Diabolik's lover Eva, pillow-lipped Marissa Mell makes for a hypnotic and exotic foil. The chemistry between these two infuses this exercise in playful stylishness with some genuine romantic heat.

Add to this already fab mix an unimpeachably fabulous score from the unimpeachably cool Ennio Morricone, and you have a heady and bold mod-era brew that possesses that rarest of paradoxes: substantial style.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Passings: Herbert L. Strock, Director

The high-fallutin' fools who write cinema history for the ages probably won't give much cop to the passing of film and TV director Herbert L. Strock. But Strock, who passed away on November 30 at the ripe old age of 87, slugged it out in the business for six decades, kept working it right to the end, and birthed some of the most entertaining horror and sci-fi efforts during the heyday of '50's drive-in cinema. He was also a genuinely nice, sweet guy.

Strock began his career as a newsreel cameraman for Fox Movietone News before being drafted into the military in World War II. After completing service, the budding filmmaker found work as an editor on several films (including assistant-editing the 1944 classic Gaslight). Strock logged time in the director's chair on various early television programs before helming Gog, his first solo directorial project, in 1954. The next three decades saw Strock direct all manner of film and television projects, impressing producers with his ability to crank out work under extremely tight budgetary and time constraints. Even after his directorial career cooled, the showbiz pro continued running his own post-production business well into his eighties.

Despite his lengthy resume, Herbert L. Strock's horror movies comprise the most remembered part of his legacy. None of them revolutionized the genre, but they moved with crime-novel speed (most of them clock in at 75 minutes or less), sported well-crafted black-and-white cinematography, and wrapped teen angst in canny horror-movie drag. They were, in short, serious fun.

Those horror movies were largely what prompted me to send a fan letter to Herb Strock five years ago, along with an 8x10 from Teenage Frankenstein and an autograph request.

Strock responded by autographing the photo, and sending it back along with an additional (autographed) picture of himself, and--best of all--a one-page personal reply letter. Written in the direct yet sincere prose of a guy who never wasted a minute, the letter addressed every detail I touched on in my fan mail; the late, great Whit Bissell's work in Teenage Frankenstein, how hard Strock worked on achieving the appropriate neo-noir lighting effects in his horror pictures, and his amusement at the enduring adoration those chillers inspired. Strock also seemed genuinely moved by the heartfelt written praise, though not without a fair share of self-deprecation ("It is not often that a fan writes such a glowing tribute to a director of, in my opinion, mediocre horror pictures," he wrote).

Color me really, immensely saddened at this very dear man's passing.

Strock essentials:

Teenage Frankenstein (1957) updates the man-made monster scenario into the James Dean Dragstrip era. Character vet Whit Bissell (usually cast as the bland scholar in scores of B flicks)delivers a terrific against-type performance as the dryly nasty mad doctor, and the deliciously vindictive script pits Bissell against sexy Phyllis Coates in some juicy verbal tete-a-tetes.

Blood of Dracula hit theaters the same year, with Strock riffing off of the symbolic hormonal rage first visited in I Was a Teenage Werewolf. The director injects subtle hints of lesbianism into the mix, with yet another untrustworthy adult (this time, evil chemistry professor Louise Lewis) turning an innocent teen (here, sweet-faced college co-ed Sandra Harrison) into a literal (vampiric) monster.

How to Make a Monster (1958) adds The Phantom of the Opera--and a bit of self-aware humor--to the references. Robert H. Harris plays a monster make-up artist fired by American International Pictures. The studio drops the poor guy, because AIP plans on ditching horror flicks for rock musicals (now THERE'S a truly terrifying scenario). Harris goes crackers, hypnotizes two young actors (Land of the Giants' Gary Conway and Gary Clarke), slaps Frankenstein and werewolf makeup on 'em, and turns them loose on the studio fat cats who wronged him. Fun, fun stuff.

Most critics cite 1962's The Crawling Hand as Strock's worst movie, but I adore it. An astonaut fatally crash-lands on Earth, and his disembodied hand takes over the will of a med student (Rod Lauren). The hand then strangles half of the cast before getting dispatched in one of the most absurdly surreal finales ever committed to celluloid. It's an utterly silly but absolutely fascinating little shocker. The combination of black-and-white atmospherics, patent absurdity, and oddball familiar faces (Allan Hale Jr., the Skipper himself) suggests a cross between Tim Burton and Ed Wood.

Of the above, The Crawling Hand can be had on a cheap bare-bones Rhino DVD stateside. How to Make a Monster and Blood of Dracula have been digitally-released in Europe, but licensing issues continue to tie up any eminent domestic DVD issue of them (the same legal quagmire envelops a DVD release of Teenage Frankenstein as well). VHS versions of all can still be found via alternate avenues like eBay, however, so get thee hunting, post-haste.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Someday, I'll update this damned thing, I swear...

Some Bloggers have the super-strength to be able to compose great Blog entries on a daily basis. Or even a weekly basis. Not me, obviously.

My apologies for disappointing the four of you who regularly read the Petri Dish. Lame as it sounds, I've been really, really busy of late. And being the earnest basher that I am, I can't just bang out a few sentences and go on my Bloggy way. I've gotta do a decent-length piece.

I promise that, within the next week or so I'll post something up to my usual windy-but-thoughtful standards. In the meantime, I'll just make a random plug for one of the places I've been hanging out in of late, namely a fine Podcast called The Pop State Show. Pop State's hosts, Bob Bohan and Bob Suh, are funny guys who really know their stuff, pop-culture-wise, and they occasionally invite this fellow dork to partake in the fun.

All of the episodes are great listening, but in the newest, Episode 1540: A Wrinkle in Time, we divulge scoop on the remake of Lawrence of Arabia written, produced, and directed by Carrot Top. Remember where you heard it first.