Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Innocents: All of Modern Horror's Promise, Held in its Grasp

For decades, I've known the hallowed reputation held by The Innocents, Jack Clayton's magnificent 1961 cinematic adaptation of Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw. But I only caught up with it last week, and I could kick myself--repeatedly--for having let the movie elude my grasp for so long (Fox issued it on DVD late last year). As a horror tale, as a psychological study, and as a work of art, it rivals anything produced by any major studio at the time. Only Robert Wise's nigh-peerless The Haunting comes close.

The basic storyline details the travails of Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), a quintessential proper Englishwoman who's accepted a job as governess to two precocious youngsters, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin). Giddens takes to her two bright and initially pleasant charges, until their behavior begins subtly--and scarily--changing with time.

Those changes force the governess to dig further into the history of the house and its residents, in particular the kids' recently-deceased previous nanny and the house's late gardener, Quint. Soon it's apparent that dark forces from beyond the realm of the normal are taking root in the children.

Or are they? The Innocents offers no easy answers, and therein lies much of its brilliance. We see and hear all of the strange things that lead Miss Giddens to her horrifying conclusions, but none of the other characters do. This woman could be going crazy herself, or she could be on the cusp of a monumental battle with Quint's malignant spirit.

The movie stands on the cusp of some serious changes within the film industry (and within public mores and tastes). In hindsight it straddled them with astonishing grace, hinting at--but never explicitly stating--pronounced criticisms of the British Class system, the dysfunctionality gnawing at the interior of 'old-fashioned' upbringing, and other, more unsavory elements like incest and reverse pedophilia. In this context, the treatment of the kids shows amazing--and realistic--restraint. Turning children into potential threats was still novel and controversial at the time (though The Bad Seed, released five years previous, had already broke that particular taboo), but The Innocents portrays Flora and Miles neither as demons, nor adorable moppets: most radically, it portrays them as smart regular kids under the corrosive influence of someone...or something (if a major studio remade The Innocents today, we'd get Cameron Bright as Miles, glowering cartoonishly up at the camera for the entire running time).

That element of subtly but decisively steering horror film conventions into previously-uncharted realms of the cerebral as well as the visceral tinctures every aspect of The Innocents. You can almost feel the wonderful Deborah Kerr shaking loose relievedly from the shackles of her saintly onscreen persona as she explores Miss Giddens' insides, subverting the character's earnestness by letting the viewer see the tint of steely fanaticism underneath her ostensibly noble facade. Clayton likewise sets horror tradition on its ear with direction that never settles down to manipulate the viewer into belief--or disbelief (his work is immeasurably aided by some of the most brilliant black-and-white cinematography ever committed to film, courtesy of the wonderful Freddie Francis). And the heart-wrenching conclusion, so brilliantly acted by Kerr and the amazing young Stephens, opened floodgates of ambiguity that have continued to admit the finest horror movies for the last forty-plus years.

Seek it out, by any means necessary--you won't regret it. And have a terrific Halloween, all.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Give Give Give me More More More Horror on DVD

We horror fans are an insatiable lot, and video companies know it. Thus, DVD manufacturers have put out an astonishing amount of horror product over the years, so much so that you'd think a big nerd like me would have no need to create a wish list of horror flicks that have yet to make their digital bow here in the United States. You'd be thinking wrong.

Enclosed please find a short list of genre movies that, as of yet, have not made their way onto domestic DVD. Some are sublime, some are ridiculous. Some have made the digital translation in foreign countries, only narrowly missing these shores; some are so embedded in legal quagmire that the only way to find 'em is on a crappy sixth-generation VHS dupe with Greek subtitles (I speak from experience, God help me). Most of these can be located on out-of-print VHS if you look hard enough, But all of the included films could really benefit from the DVD format's improved picture quality, capacity for extras, and penchant for letterboxing as God intended (from this cramped and biased perspective, at least).

So, without further ado, My Wish List of Horror Movies that Need to Be on DVD, in chronological order...

The Uninvited (1944): Most of the great cinematic ghost stories--from Dead of Night to Robert Wise's original The Haunting to Kwaidan--have shown up on DVD by now, with the glaring exception of this one. Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey play siblings facing a haunting in their newly-purchased English seaside house, and the resulting picture remains one of the most elegantly stylish spookshows ever committed to celluloid.

Blood and Roses (1960): Roger Vadim's distinctively gallic vampire tale (still my favorite adaptation of Le Fanu's classic short story Carmilla) forges an important link between the bloody comic book stateliness of the Hammer horror films and more sexually adventurous genre efforts like Daughters of Darkness and director Jean Rollin's gothic oeuvre. Of all of the films included here, this is the one whose absence on DVD probably hurts the most: its ravishing color palate and elegantly composed images just scream for proper letterboxing.

The Mask (1961): Julian Roffman's excellent psychological horror movie, canonized in these very electronic pages last Horrorpalooza, has STILL not shown up on DVD. A triumph of ingenuity over a shoestring budget to rival the much-praised Carnival of Souls, The Mask is ripe for rediscovery...and it'll scare you silly.

Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965): Hammer Studios was the king of British horror in the fifties and sixties, but Amicus Films gave the Big Dog on the UK Horror Block a big run for its money for quite a few years. Amicus's forte was anthology horror films, with multiple scary stories tied together by one creepy opening setup. This one was the upstart studio's first anthology and arguably their best, with a divinely creepy Peter Cushing playing the title character, strongly written stories that still work today, and a super supporting cast (Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Roy Castle, Jeremy Kemp, and a young Donald Sutherland all do good work). Many of the Amicus anthologies have made the digital transition, but this godfather of them all is long overdue for a US DVD issue.

Witchfinder General (1968): Blunt, raw, and incredibly compelling, Witchfinder General enjoys a lofty cult rep in England (and has in fact been put out on DVD in the UK and Australia), but a stateside release has yet to come to fruition. Retitled The Conqueror Worm on this side of the pond (to cash in on the popularity of the Roger Corman/Edgar Allen Poe flicks in the sixties), Witchfinder General is a propulsively harrowing period drama about Matthew Hopkins, the real-life monster behind scores of witch hunts, interrogations, and executions in 1600's England. This corrosive treatise on the abuse of power features Vincent Price in one of his most subtle and utterly malevolent turns as the intelligent and bitter Hopkins. Even edited for TV in the seventies, it smacked me like a gauntlet-draped fist when I saw it on Nightmare Theatre as a kid: Credit the excellent direction of the too-soon-departed-from-this-earth Michael Reeves for its continued impact. With so many of the Corman Poe epics on DVD, someone really needs to share this gem with US audiences again.

The Bat People (1974): This earnest update to the Jekyll-and-Hyde story is no masterpiece, but it's better than its title implies, as a doctor (Stewart Moss) gets bitten by a bat while on a cave exploration, transforming into a bat creature with a thirst for hemoglobin. Definitely the best movie directed by veteran TV helmsman Jerry Jameson, The Bat People also features a surprisingly spiffy featured creature (created by future make-up guru Stan Winston).

The Incredible Melting Man (1977): It's out on DVD in England, but Americans need to see this deliciously nasty little Polyester-Era update on the old 'Astronaut-Comes-Back-to-Earth-in-Creepy-Ass-Shape' horror/sci-fi subgenre for themselves. The goopily-effective makeup by Rick Baker still rates a .9 on the Ick-ter Scale, and there's enough warped sci-fi dialogue to make any fan of, well, warped sci-fi dialogue deliriously happy (Scientist Burr de Benning upon discovering a piece of viscous goop snagged on a tree branch: "Oh, my God... It's his ear!").

The Manitou (1978): Rumor had it that this wild and wooly shocker was due for a deluxe DVD treatment by Anchor Bay in the very near future, but such glory still eludes US fans. Tony Curtis plays a psychic whose girlfriend (Susan Strasburg) develops a tumor on her neck. The tumor turns out to be a fetus, and the fetus may or may not be the reincarnation of a long-haired, pissed-off Native American Demon/God. The Manitou was the final film of beloved low-budget auteur William Girdler before Girdler's untimely passing in 1978, and it's a blast, packed with crazy special effects, pseudo-profound mysticism, and the requisite cluster of fab character actors (Michael Ansara, Burgess Meredith, Stella Stevens, and Ann Sothern, among others). Few things in life rival the simple joy of seeing a Native American Demon Dwarf go all Rambo on the asses of several hospital orderlies. If you're intrigued (and why wouldn't you be?) get thee post-haste to Patty Breen's excellent William Girdler tribute website for more details on this, as well as Girdler's other films.

Without Warning (AKA It Came Without Warning, 1981): This cross between The Most Dangerous Game, Alien, and Three on a Meathook was directed by Greydon Clark, who studied at the feet of the late great schlockmeister Al Adamson. A bulbous-headed alien (sporting a very smart macrame vest) lands in some rural American woodlands and begins taking down campers, boy scouts, and clueless teens by hurling what look like flying cheese omelettes at 'em. Then the otherworldly poacher hangs the corpses in a woodshed to cure like so much beef jerky. Pure drive-in good times, spiked with a liberal dose of gooey special effects and one oddball melange of a cast: Jack Palance, Martin Landau, Cameron Mitchell, Ralph Meeker, Larry Storch, and a pre-TV-fame David Caruso. WW has the most chequered and spotty history of any of the movies I've included on this list; I don't think it ever came out on domestic VHS, and the only way to get it on DVD is via specious-quality DVD-R. Clark hinted in a recent Shock Cinema magazine interview that legal issues could keep it off US shelves indefinitely, which means I might have to hold onto my sixth-generation VHS dub with the Greek subtitles for awhile. Damn.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Zoltan, Hound of Dracula: One Very Bad Doggie

Zoltan, Hound of Dracula: The title packs a fair amount of menace, but don't let it freak you out too much; this 1978 B flick, out on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment, also played theaters under a more straightforward name--Dracula's Dog. And the latter moniker feels a lot more apropos.
If anything, Zoltan earns bonus points for originality. The movie opens in The Old Country (probably Romania, despite the US Navy jeep driven by the soldiers of the region), where an earthquake opens up two coffins in the crypt of the Dracula family. One casket holds Veidt (Reggie Nalder), immortal servant of the bloodsucking clan, and the other houses plasma-lapping undead pooch Zoltan. Soon this duo finds their way to sunny California, where the final living member of the Dracula line, Michael Drake (hard-working character actor Michael Pataki, a frequent Klingon on the original Star Trek), is heading into the woods for a camping trip with his family and dogs. Veidt and Zoltan, it seems, want to become Drake's undead servants, whether the Californian likes it or not.

The Draculinian Duo follows the Drake Family into the woods. Zoltan turns one hapless camper into Kibbles and Bits, then enslaves the Drakes's two German shepherds and a hunting dog to form a pack of Barking Undead. Ultimately, it's up to Michael Drake and avuncular Romanian Inspector Branco (Jose Ferrer) to get this vampiric threat to roll over and play dead for real, which means in pop-culture-nerdspeak: The Klingon who was flipping Scotty an attitude in 'The Trouble with Tribbles' and Cyrano de Bergerac are fighting a doberman with dentures.

Unbelieveably, it's even better than it sounds. That's because, like that classic misbegotten chiller, Night of the Lepus, Zoltan plays its goofy premise really straight. Moreover, Dracula's Dog is shot with a cheap brightness that makes the whole thing look like one of those treacly seventies family films with freckled kids and ragamuffin mutts--Benji with plastic fangs. And you'd have to be Sylvia Plath not to bust a gut when director Albert Band and company slap glowing eyeballs, fake fangs, and a gutteral growl on the cutest little puppy you ever done saw in an attempt to create a terrifying 'The-Horror's-Not-Really-Over' closing frame.

Band was an old hand at low-rent horror in the seventies, so he keeps things moving, bless him. The actors really try, Reggie Nalder gets serious mileage out of just being one ugly/scary dude, and I suppose Zoltan (a doberman pincher strategically dyed black) might be menacing to somebody. But when the big pup goes all vampire, he looks astonishingly like my dog about to make short work of a particularly deserving toy, which utterly undercuts the suspense. Really. Don't believe me?



Case closed.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Petri Dish 101: Dario Argento, Horror Cinema's Most Gifted Savant

Some of the most flawless, seamless so-called cinema masterpieces evaporate from the mind the instant you finish watching 'em. But there are certain filmmakers who can nail you to the edge of your seat during even their lesser efforts. Dario Argento, for me at least, is one of those directors.

I've always thought of Argento as a bit of an artistic savant--goofy script tangents and cardboard characterizations pepper nearly all of his films. If you don't take a glass-half-full stance with a lot of his work, you could get irritated. If you don't have a tolerance for extremely strong onscreen violence, you could get nauseated. So why bother watching any of his movies?

Because--warts and all--he's one of modern horror cinema's greatest visual stylists. No, scratch that: He's one of modern cinemas greatest visual stylists, period. Warts, absurdities, and all.

At their best, the Italian director's movies bypass rational explanation and imbed themselves directly into the viewer's cerebellum, capturing the syntax and structure (or lack thereof) inherent in the most disturbing and compelling nightmares. He's one of the few filmmakers who can make a virtue out of barely-controlled anarchy: Argento's movies don't always make literal sense, but like all good horror films (and all good nightmares), they make total sense to your subconscious. Subtlety knows no place in Dario Argento's universe: his films, saturated with blood and violence (only Sam Peckinpah rivals the Italian maestro in his ability to turn graphic death into a sickening-yet-beautiful cinematic ballet), bathed in color, abuzz with fluid Steadicam work, and rife with noise, are all about sensory overload of the most magnificent order.

Argento took the torch held by other seminal figures of Italian horror cinema like Mario Bava and Antonio Margheriti, then ran with it, influencing thrillers well into the twenty-first century. If you've seen Seven, or The Silence of the Lambs, or any one of a hundred gruesome serial killer thrillers, you've seen a more literal version of what Dario Argento has been doing for thirty-plus years.

This progeny of a prominent film producer father and a fashion-model mother began showing interest in film from an early age, writing for a major Italian film journal while he was still in high school. By age twenty he was cutting his teeth as a screenwriter in Italy, penning scripts for several action flicks and westerns; most significantly, he received a story credit fo Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West.

His directorial debut, 1969's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, was a huge international hit, and a new horror subgenre was born. The movie drew inspiration from the pulp mystery novels that crowded European bookstores for decades, and these books sported yellow pages, so the term 'giallo' (the Italian word for yellow) stuck.

On its surface, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage's plot couldn't be more routine. It details a classic cliche storyline of a man who witnesses a woman being assaulted in an art gallery in Rome, only to be stalked by the assailant (and, soon, murderer) himself. But Argento's prowling camera and incredible, balletically-staged suspense set pieces signaled the arrival of a promising cinema stylist. Scores of other Italian directors followed suit, regurgitating the formula with mixed results. Most of the films made in this sub-genre proved to be indifferent to insufferable, but Dario Argento's efforts proved that if they're well-done (wait for it, folks...), there's always room for Giallo.

Argento has put out films steadily since, but his most fertile creative period stretched for about ten years, from 1975 to 1985. During this time his directorial eye was at its most feverishly imaginative. He subverted and transcended the Giallo genre he helped create, and injected heavy doses of lysergic fantasy and crackpot eccentricity into his finest works. The films that Dario Argento directed during his creative peak changed horror cinema, and they still pulse with dark magic. You'll note that I don't do a lot of blathering about each of these films; simply put, verbal descriptions can never come near doing Argento's film's justice.

Essential Argento:

Deep Red (1975): During an exhibition of her powers, a psychic accidentally reads the thoughts of a killer in a crowded lecture hall. She's murdered soon after in a bloody pas-des-deux that's witnessed by a jazz pianist (David Hemmings). Argento's gracefully gliding camera and artfully staged scenes of carnage receive immeasureable aid from one of his tightest scripts (co-written by Fellini co-scripter Bernardino Zapponi); there's a definite pattern and method to all of the subtle visual clues and swatches of audio-visual symbolism that the director lays out, making Deep Red a satisfying repeat view.

Suspiria (1977): Widely regarded as Argento's masterpiece, and I'm inclined to agree. As per usual, the plot--young woman (Jessica Harper) attends a ballet academy that may or may not be run by a coven of witches--could fit on the head of a pin, but Suspiria's dazzling color scheme, layers of atmosphere, and nerve-jangling Goblin score combine to create a fairy tale of ravishing dark richness. Love it or hate it, you will never forget it.

Inferno (1980): Even more disjointed (and a bit less satisfying) than Suspiria, this informal sequel nonetheless includes some of Argento's most arrestingly bizarre setpieces, including an underwater sequence stolen by Neil Jordan for his unsuccessful Argento knock-off, In Dreams.

Tenebrae (1982): Silly but undeniably effective, Tenebrae covers the misadventures of a famous horror author (Tony Franciosa) as horrific killings from his books start happening in real life. The script here, again, is cobblers, but some of Argento's most ferociously imaginative mayhem lies within (there's a lengthy and continuous Steadicam shot about twenty minutes in that'll flat-out take your breath away). The solid-but-usually underused Franciosa gets to flex some acting muscle here in the movie's climactic moments, and Argento rates beaucoup bonus points just for hiring John Saxon to play Franciosa's agent.

Phenomena (1985): Suspiria may be widely touted as Dario Argento's finest directorial hour, but this chiller comes incredibly close to these eyes. Jennifer Connelly plays a withdrawn young woman attending a private girls' school in Switzerland. She's an abject outcast to her fellow students, but her telepathic kinship with insects makes her a valuable--and endangered--tool in solving a series of gruesome murders. Argento's at his wildest--the hero is a straight-razor-wielding chimpanzee, folks--but his knack for suspense is in full flower. He somehow makes the placid and gorgeous Swiss countryside into an intensely forboding backdrop during the bravura opening scene. And the surrogate daughter-father relationship between Connelly and kindly investigative scientist McGregor (a customarily terrific Donald Pleasance) gives Phenomena something really shocking; namely, a heart.

Opera (1987): A young soprano with an Italian opera company is stalked and terrorized by a psychopath during an avant-garde production of Verdi's Macbeth. Opera marks the beginning of Argento's creative atrophy: where his films up to this point boasted characters who navigated on nightmare logic, in Opera they're just irritating and ill-motivated most of the time. That said, there's style to burn here, with a phenomenal opening scene that conveys the bustle and grandeur of a grand opera rehearsal nicely, several phenomenal bouts of amped-up suspense, and one of the maestro's most influential death setpieces (this time involving a gun, not a knife or sharp object, surprisingly enough).

Random Fragments o' Fright and F@#kery

Damn Blogger. A server issue kept me from posting this last night, so my Blog-a-day deal with the devil has been effectively scuttled by the deficiencies of modern technology. Oh, well, I wasn't using my soul this week anyway.

Random bits of goodness:

My friend (and fellow Blogger) Sarah stumbled upon a fun little Zombie Quiz in her 'net explorations--go here for a look-see. Sarah knows well the value of a good sopping-gooey gory zombie flick, having braved a late-night showing of Lucio Fulci's Zombie with me a few years back (and take a look in the archives of her Zeitgeist blog while you're at it--her wry wit merits repeat viewings).

The Fuse music cable channel aired the Fangoria Chainsaw Awards recently, and I caught about 30 minutes of the telecast this morning. It was an interesting, sometimes disheartening view at what's currently in vogue with horror culture (when Hollywood pretty guy Jared Leto wins the 'Prince of Darkness' award for fronting his run-of-the-mill emo band 30 Seconds to Mars, something's rotten--or not rotten enough--in the state of Denmark). The host, Jamie Kennedy, displayed the same unfunniness that makes most of his cinematic ouevre tops in the must-avoid category in this quarter. Sadly, I missed the flashback footage of Clint Howard using Kennedy's toilet, but at least Showtime's Masters of Horror series (showcasing short films directed by old pros like Joe Dante, John Carpenter, and Dario Argento among others) won a Chainsaw.

Speaking of chainsaws, one of the blessings that accompanies the release of a crummy horror sequel, remake, or prequel is that entertainment conglomerates/movie studios regurgitate older fright flicks in spiffy new-and-improved fashion like Brundlefly in a three-piece suit. Thus, in the wake of the reputedly lousy Texas Chainsaw Massacre prequel's theatrical bow, the rat-bastards at MGM have put out a deluxe Gruesome Edition DVD of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. If you're a fan of the movie (and regular Petri Dish visitors know that I am), this 'un sticks to the ribs better than a bowl of Pa Sawyer's famous Texas chili. Deleted scenes, multiple still galleries, two separate audio commentaries (one with director Tobe Hooper and documentarian David Gregory, the other with actors Bill Moseley and Caroline Williams alongside makeup god Tom Savini), and a 90-minute documentary make for some good eatin'. It's nice to be reminded (via the aforementioned doc) that TCM2's screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson also wrote the script adaptation for Wim Wenders' indie classic, Paris, Texas.

And in the realm of interesting ideas worth a look in the coming months:

Grindhouse is the talk of the fanboy crowd, an attempt to reproduce the golden age of seventies drive-in cinema by directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Each director filmed an hour-long horror flick of their own, then glued together their segments with made-up trailers for fictitious exploitation flicks, and the whole mess is due to hit theaters next year. A certain Hollywood insider/friend says that the script for Tarantino's movie, um, sucks, but the clips of the overall product that I've glimpsed (sadly, yanked from You Tube for copyright infringement) give me some hope. Wikipedia's description of the project, in the meantime, offers an intriguing sampler.

After Dark Films is releasing 8 horror films simultaneously in November as part of its first nationwide Horrorfest. I can't vouch for the quality of any of the actual product, but After Dark's promotional strategy rivals the old seventies exploitationeers with its forbidden-fruit chutzpah ('too shocking for general audiences,' growls the trailer) . If any of these flicks come close to measuring up to the marketing this could be a good white-knuckle theatrical ride.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Shock Waves: Nazi Typical Zombie Movie.

Sometimes modesty becomes a horror movie.

Not every fright flick needs to be the grandest, goriest, or most outrageous on the block. There's something to be said for a movie that economically, entertainingly gets the job (that's goosebump-raising here, folks) done.

Shock Waves hit theaters and drive-ins back in 1977, and it demonstrates this truism nicely. This humble little horror thriller shows its seams, but its resourcefulness and imagination make for an entertaining hour-and-a-half.

The movie opens like a sort of twisted Sunn Classics documentary, with an offscreen narrator spilling the setup (specifically, reputed attempts by the SS to create a squad of super-soldiers) as the camera pulls back on an archival photo of a Nazi squadron. It's a really effective intro (and it beat The Blair Witch Project to the mockumentary conceit by a couple of decades).

The story proper follows a small pleasure-boat as it collides with an imposing hulk of a shipwreck just off the coast of a remote island. The tourists and crew end up stranded on the island and stumble onto an abandoned hotel. The aged building's sole inhabitant--an aging SS Commandant (Peter Cushing)--created an elite corps of zombie soldiers thirty years previous: These merciless killing machines can travel underwater with alarming ease, and naturally, this long-dormant pack of the undead was roused by the seaside accident. The body count begins.

Don't expect a low-key masterpiece like Carnival of Souls here. The pacing lags in spots, and sometimes characters do Dumb Movie Character Things that totally yank the viewer out of the moment (do we really need to see another otherwise-rational character experience a spontaneous mental freakout and rush headlong into certain doom?). But there's much to love.

Director Ken Wiederhorn makes terrific use of the alternately exotic and forboding locations (Florida and Bimini, Wiederhorn reveals in the DVD commentary). The overgrown hotel that serves as the castaways' shelter, and the lush swampland surrounding it, makes for a truly alien atmosphere. A creepy and effective minimalist electronic score burbles in the background nicely, and best of all the monsters are pretty damn cool. Uniformed, goggled, and merciless, the zombies don't kill gruesomely (the R rating on the DVD cover obscures the fact that the movie was originally released with a PG), but their lethal efficiency rattles the nerves.

Wiederhorn also struck it lucky with some of his key cast members. It's always a treat to see John Carradine chew the scenery like he does as the Skipper here, and Luke Halpin (former teen buddy to Flipper) acquits himself ably as the ostensible hero despite his porn-star moustache and feathered hair. Brooke Adams' quirky appeal, meanwhile, goes a long way towards making her scream-queen character tolerable. Best of all is Cushing, adding an air of dignity and making the most of his limited screen time as the Nazi scientist.

Blue Underground's DVD sports plenty of extras, including pre-production sketches, an interview with Halpin, behind-the-scenes stills, and a fun commentary track by Wiederhorn, makeup artist Alan Ormsby, and future schlock director Fred Olen Ray (who finagled his way into a PA job as an excuse to meet Cushing and Carradine). Wiederhorn comes off as an affable and down-to-earth guy, and it's a shame his career never really took off. Shock Waves proves that, budgetary limitations and all, he had the goods.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Horrorpalooza 2: Electric BOOgaloo!

Yeah, yeah, I've been really lax on updates to the Dish lo, these last two (yipes!) months. Only the recent demise of the spellbinding Tamara Dobson (and the recent visit of the spellbinding Ms. Tura Satana) shook me outta my torpor.

It's not like I've been slumped in the Barca-Lounger mainlining Cheetos and Old English for the last sixty days. Life's been pretty tumultuous at home and work, plus the missus and I just got back from an adventurous two weeks in England. Rest assured, I'll bore you faithful readers (all six of you!) stiff with the details on the latter in the coming days/weeks. But it's that time of year again, when even the most fair-weather film lovers glom onto all things frightful and when I get the hubris to attempt a sustained stretch of written productivity.

I signed a pact with the devil in 2005 to do a Blog daily, for an extended stretch of October until Halloween, each entry devoted to that most cherished of my cinema mistresses--the horror film. So it is with pleasure that I bring back, by popular (at least with the two of you who sent huzzahs last year) demand, Horrorpalooza! The Petri Dish will contain one horror-related entry a day between now and All Hallows' Eve if it kills me.

Fortunately, some DVD issues make for sweet death, like the spanking new Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection from MCA/Universal, which contains a quintet of 1950s classics never before released in the format. These technically qualify as science fiction flicks, but they possess more than enough horror movie qualities to merit Horrorpalooza inclusion (besides, it's my Blog, and I'll diverge if I wanna).

Like the label's Hammer Horror Collection Set from last year (which, ironically enough, kicked off Horrorpalooza '05), The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection offers crumbs for extras (again, just one trailer per movie). But just having pristine prints of these thrillers is enough, thanks.

The jewel of the set, 1957's The Incredible Shrinking Man, sets up a potentially laughable central plot conceit (no ambiguities concealed in that title) and then promptly transcends it. While boating off the California coast, regular guy Scott Carey (Grant Williams) is exposed to a radioactive cloud. Carey notices his waistline--and stature--diminishing soon after his return to the mainland; somehow, the gamma rays he's been inundated with cause him to shrink at the rate of an inch a day.

The genius here is in the details. Richard Matheson's literate and unsensationalized script focuses on the human toll of Carey's predicament throughout the first act: The fraying at the edges of his marriage; living in a proverbial fishbowl once the media discovers his affliction; his attempts at going on with life when an antidote temporarily stems his reduction; and profound self-reflection as he threatens to disappear from existance.

Don't assume, however, that The Incredible Shrinking Man is just a bunch of existential navel-gazing. Once Carey reaches doll-size and mundane realities like the family cat become literal monsters, director Jack Arnold plummets his hapless protagonist headlong into the realm of tense, survival-driven horror. Williams gives a great performance here: If science fiction wasn't so readily dismissed as kids' stuff by the mainstream of the era, the unheralded Universal contract player's natural and riveting work here might well have made him a star.

Williams resurfaces, albeit in a more stalwart and straightforward fashion, as the hero in The Monolith Monsters (also 1957). This time out, he's a geologist in a small southwest town dealing with meteorite fragments that grow limitlessly when exposed to water. Yep, the monsters here are basically extreme mutant forms of Magic Rocks, but again, the execution keeps things surprisingly tense and absorbing. And while The Monolith Monsters lacks Shrinking Man's thematic gravitas, I'm hard-pressed to think of a modern horror or sci-fi flick that manuevers around its budgetary limitations with such level-headed ingenuity. Good--and surprising--stuff.

Tarantula, meanwhile, serves up a much more outwardly scary antagonist in the form of a scientifically-goosed mutant arachnid. Leo G. Carroll classes up this 1955 joint as a classic well-intentioned scientist whose experiments, targeted at ending world hunger, just end up inflating the title creature to a hundred feet of creepy-crawly menace. Tarantula doesn't quite measure up to that Lawrence of Arabia of giant bug movies, THEM!, but director Jack Arnold knows how to stir together mutant monster antics with a dose of Frankenstein-ian spookiness. Keep an eye out for Clint Eastwood, uncredited and buried in an oxygen mask and uniform as a jet fighter pilot.

John Agar, Tarantula's strong-jawed hero, became cinematic comfort food throughout the 50's and 60's playing mostly, well, strong-jawed heroes, and he pulls in yet more hero duty in the loveably weird The Mole People. This 1956-vintage chiller finds Agar and fellow archaeologists Hugh Beaumont (yes, Ward Cleaver himself) and Nestor Paiva stumbling across a race of Sumerian albinos deep underneath the earth's surface. These pasty-faced ancients engage in ritual sacrifice and enslave of a race of scary, big-clawed mole men.

The bizarre opening sequence, with English professor Dr. Frank C. Baxter giving a meandering intro of Criswellian daffiness, sets the warped tone, and things just escalate from there. The Sumerians' underground universe combines the oddball aesthetics of a grade Z Mummy movie and a vintage episode of Star Trek, director Virgil Vogel keeps the whole mess zipping along at lightning pace, and the imaginative, gruesomely rendered mole people rate as some of Universal makeup man Bud Westmore's wildest creations. Plus, it's biologically impossible not to love a movie in which John Agar takes down swarms of bad guys with...a flashlight.

It's no secret that Universal generated these cheap-but-profitable formula flicks in direct competition with similarly cheap-but-profitable independent horror and sci-fi B movies of the day. Despite this, the Universal-released science-fiction films on this three-disc set demonstrate a bit more polish than their indie-bred rivals, with one entertainingly glaring exception. 1958's Monster on the Campus sports sloppy scripting and Grand-Canyon-sized gaps in logic to rival the most cheap and cheesy small-studio product, which makes it more unhealthily, indescribably delicious than a sopping-hot plate of 7-Eleven nachos.

Arthur Franz plays Dr. Donald Blake, a classic pipe-puffing college anthropology professor who's just received a freshly-caught prehistoric fish (a coelacanth, in case you're keeping score) for study. What Blake doesn't know (and is far too thick-witted to discover until 3/4 of the way through the film) is that the fish's blood causes any organism that consumes it to regress to a prehistoric state.

A puddle of the fish-plasma-filled water ends up outside his classroom during transit, so one student's friendly German Shepherd takes a drink of the bloody fluid and becomes a savage Antideluvian Wolf (complete with extra-large plastic fangs). Later, a dragonfly lands on the coelocanth and grows to the size of an albatross.

If you're doing your B-movie algebra up to this point, then you've surely ascertained that it's only a matter of time before a human being gets exposed to the blood, leading to a specific equation: Prehistoric Mutant Fish Blood plus Human Being times Absurd Coincidence equals Monster. And if you're thinking that the human in said equation will unequivocally be the Doctor, give yourself a bright shiny quarter, li'l shaver.

Blake slices open his finger on the coelacanth's sharp teeth while carrying in the fish the first time, submerges his hand in fish-blood-saturated water, and then reflexively sucks his bleeding wound(??!?!). That night he turns into a troglydyte with shoulderpads, sporting what looks like a rubber ape mask topped by a Jim Morrison wig. Cave-Blake goes all homicidal on his flirtatious assistant (that's what she gets for putting the make on an engaged man), then wakes up oblivious to the previous evening's shenanigans.

Since the regression is only temporary, screenwriter David Duncan scrapes together a truly mind-boggling set of circumstances to repeatedly re-infect the doctor and prolong his primieval rampage (at one point--I swear to God--the doc accidentally smokes coelacanth blood in his trusty pipe). And this being a fifties sci-fi flick, this low-rent Dr. Jekyll's gotta pay the moral toll and take a fall.

More so than any of the movies on this set, Monster on the Campus provides grade Z fun of the most artless and goofy kind, so the fact that it's also directed by Incredible Shrinking Man helmsman Jack Arnold probably seems a bit ironic. Then again, Arnold led a journeyman career behind the camera, directing several episodes of Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch (among others) throughout the sixties and seventies. That's a revelation more surreal than all of Arnold's sci-fi thrillers put together.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Viva Tura Satana, Woman's Woman

With the passing of Arthur Lee and Tamara Dobson in the last few months, it's a joy and a relief to celebrate an awe-inspiring pop-culture figure who's still around. And what a figure.

Tura Satana's raven tresses, va-va-voom curves, and animal charisma graced a mere handful of movies in the 1960's and '70's, but she rightfully earned cinematic icon status as a result. Tomorrow night, Seattle's Egyptian Theater will serve as Tura's altar, with her signature movie, Russ Meyer's 1965 pulp-trash classic Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, screening and the lady herself in attendance.

In his excellent Russ Meyer biography, Big Bosoms and Square Jaws, author Jimmy McDonough describes her as "sexy, proud, and heartbreaking all at the same time." Survivor of a childhood stay in a California internment camp during World War II, juvenile delinquent, exotic dancer, black belt in karate, and reputed paramour to everyone from Billy Wilder to Elvis, Satana's led the kind of mythic life that seems to have leaped straight from the pages of a pistol-hot pulp novel. But it's her film appearances that have leveled a karate chop squarely at the collective consciousness of cult cinema. Her portrayal of the black-clad, thrillseeking badass Varla in Faster Pussycat won devoted worship from throngs of cult film fans, and sources as disparate as filmmaker John Waters and Angelina Jolie (whose icy goth-beautiful persona owes more than a little to Varla).

I must confess a bit of cult-movie blasphemy: Despite owning a Faster, Pussycat! Kill, Kill! import DVD and a cooler-than-cool FPKK lunchbox, I've haven't actually gotten around to watching Russ Meyer's (and Tura Satana's) magnum opus yet. My love for Tura actually took root in her work with director Ted V. Mikels.

Mikels' 1968 epic The Astro Zombies plays like an extra-lurid comic book, crudely sketched with the loudest crayons in the box. A mad scientist (John Carradine, natch) constructs solar-powered zombies that have a tendency to violently murder young girls. A gaggle of CIA operatives, as well as evil superspies, are in pursuit, and Satana plays the most evil superspy of the bunch. She almost looks China-Doll-sweet in her first scene, until those dark eyes stare up maliciously at the camera: then you know this woman is ten miles of very bad road in a slinky Asian gown. Later in the film she fills one guy full of lead without blinking, then puts out a cigarette on another poor schmuck's face with a look approaching childlike enthusiasm. The whole time she's on the screen, you can't take your eyes off of her.

Tura nets even less screen time in 1974's The Doll Squad, but she's likewise electric as Lavelle, an exotic dancer who joins the titular all-chick crimefighting force to foil the plans of a megalomaniac (Michael Ansara). B-movie sirens Francine York and Sherri Vernon make ace showings in this fizzy precursor to Charlie's Angels (York's team leader is even named Sabrina!), but Tura packs heat with a confidence that's downright scary--and she's one of the good guys.

The woman's calling card to the ages, though, is Varla, and I'm looking forward to seeing Tura's indelible character up on a bigger-than-life screen as God intended. If you're in town, you best be in attendance, and show some respect. I, for one, would never want to be on Tura Satana's bad side.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Passings: Tamara Dobson, Ass-Kicking Goddess

Blaxploitation Fans, fly your flags at half-mast.

With her amazonian six-foot-two frame, gravity-defying afro, and striking good looks, Tamara Dobson was a natural for a modeling career in the seventies, and her face and figure adorned major magazines throughout the first third of the Me Decade. But that's not what made Dobson--who died October 4, 2006 at age 59--an honest-to-God pop icon.

Movie studios invariably beckoned, and in 1972 Dobson appeared in the Burt Reynolds action programmer Fuzz as Yul Brynner's squeeze. Her big breakthrough--and her legacy to the ages--came one year later, however, when she assumed the title role in one of the hallmarks of the blaxploitation genre, Cleopatra Jones. In Dobson's hands, Cleo--a high-kicking, fashion-forward, sportscar-driving federal agent--offered audiences a distinctive feminine alternative to James Bond.

Cleopatra Jones has inspired awe and worship in this neck of the woods for years: Hell, the one-sheet poster (pictured here) and two CJ lobby cards stare down from the wall at me as I write this. It's one of the great pulp action flicks of the era, packing ninety-odd minutes of run time with 007-style stunts and skullduggery, eye-popping seventies wardrobes, Joe Simon's surging theme song, a homicidal lesbian drug czarina named Mommy (a sublimely over-the-top Shelley Winters), and more great oddball fringe characters than you can level a karate-chop at. It's also veritable one-stop-shopping for character-actor worshippers, with wonderful turns by everyone from Bill "Squeal like a pig!" McKinney (playing--big surprise--a rat-bastard) to Bernie Casey to Paul Koslo to Antonio Fargas, whose masterful bluster and snivel as cocky pimp Doodlebug shoulda made him the Peter Lorre of the seventies. Action vet Jack Starrett directs with just the right balance of bad-assed attitude and lightness of touch.

At the center of it all is Tamara Dobson, larger than life in both a literal and figurative sense. She lends balletic grace and conviction to her action scenes, and owns the role with an unlikely combination of sophistication and street wisdom. Subtle tinges of self-aware humor run through (but never subsume) her intensity: Damned if she doesn't possess enough of an 'it' factor to make you want to follow the character over a whole series of movies. Sadly, a franchise failed to flower. Cleopatra Jones brought in a mint, but 1975's Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold hit theaters just as the massive tide of black action cinema receded, dropping from sight with a thud.

Dobson's work paved the way for the earthier Pam Grier to become an action icon in her own right, but Cleopatra Jones would be the statuesque ex-model's only big role. No filmmaker, black or white, seemed to have a clue as to what to do with Tamara Dobson, and her career gradually faded out over the next ten years.

The huge resurgence of interest in black action cinema in the 1990's led to the resurrection of a lot of careers, and the spotlight was thrown back on many of the genre's key figures. Tamara Dobson remained one of the few genuine recluses amongst those key players, gaining a reputation as sort of a blaxploitation Garbo. The real story was reputedly a bit more down-to-earth. Somewhere around the mid-eighties she gave up show biz for good and lived a perfectly content life by all accounts, dealing in New York property and real estate until she developed multiple sclerosis six years ago. Complications with the disease, and a lethal bout of pneumonia, finally claimed her life.

In the end, The Woman Who Was Cleopatra Jones lived her life the way she damn well pleased, which made her a lot more like the iconic character she created than she probably ever realized. You go, Ms. Dobson.