Savant UK Region B Blu-ray + PALDVD Limited Edition Review
Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD
Arrow Video (UK)
1983 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 89 min. / Street Date August 17, 2015 / £28.17
Starring James Woods, Sonja Smits, Deborah Harry, Peter Dvorsky,
Leslie Carlson, Jack Creley, Lynne Gorman, Julie Khaner, Reiner Schwartz, David Bolt.
Cinematography Mark Irwin
Art Direction Carol Spier
Film Editor Ronald Sanders
Original Music Howard Shore
Written by David Cronenberg
Produced by Pierre David, Claude Héroux, Victor Solnicki
Directed by David Cronenberg
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Long live the New Flesh!
When certain movies get re-issued with perhaps one extra feature added to the mix, web reviewers will start complaining about ‘double dipping.’ But the custom selection of extras offered by a number of disc companies are sometimes so good that a reissue becomes irresistible. Many Criterion releases qualify for this, of course. Over in England, Arrow Video has been putting out Region B discs of American movies that frequently better the available domestic versions. This David Cronenberg shocker was thoroughly covered in an expansive Criterion disc from 2010, yet Arrow has put together a highly desirable collection of new extras.
Movies have gotten far rougher and tougher in the last 32 years, yet 1983′s Videodrome still has what it takes to creep people out: genuine dangerous ideas. Its McLuhanesque, Ballardesque merging of man and media still provides real food for thought — it remains dangerously radical on the intellectual plane. Videodrome is also core science fiction. Writer-director David Cronenberg pioneered queasy body-horror Sci-fi, and with this effort he scores even higher as a purveyor of bizarre intellectual concepts. He introduces the first fully realized virtual reality world in a movie (forget Tron). Cronenberg ladles out more disturbing ideas than had ever seen the light of a movie granted major distribution: insidious technology, underground video, porn, violence, sado-masochism and snuff movies.
They’re all in the service of a concept that in maturity was light-years ahead of the competition. Readers of fare like Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch possibly felt right at home, but much of the mainstream 1983 audience was lost, lost, lost.
Cronenberg’s script begins with a man looking for new experiences, new sensations. Soft-core cable entrepreneur Max Renn (James Woods) is hot for edgy material. His tech assistant Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) succeeds in tapping into an illegal satellite transmission of an all-torture, all-murder TV signal called Videodrome. Max dispatches porn agent Masha (Lynne Gorman) to find it for his cable channel, and personally follows the trail to Bianca O’Blivion (Sonja Smits), the daughter of video cult visionary Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley). Techno-guru Brian seemingly exists only on videotape. Through the medium of TV he dispenses weird wisdom about a new age in which people will physically merge with the virtual video world. Max also becomes attracted to radio psychologist Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), a masochistic sensationalist who introduces him to mild S&M. When Nicki discovers Videodrome, her response is to immediately seek out the video horror show — because she wants to become a ‘contestant.’
David Cronenberg’s erratic string of exploitative shockers before Videodrome always had strong core ideas. Shivers and Rabid’s grandiose concepts overshadow their grindhouse content, going far beyond mere nudity and gore. Shivers is a gloss on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Scanners hit the commercial jackpot with a hybrid of Philip K. Dick’s expanded-consciousness worldview. Super-powered minds can invade other minds to control and destroy, but finer implications give way to chase scenes and exploding heads, surefire audience-pleasing material. 1
Videodrome recycles a sampling of Cronenberg-favored motifs: strange new body orifices, exploding bodies, technological conspiracies to transform mankind. This time around he adds the Dickian idea of altered reality. The Videodrome video signal is like Palmer Eldritch’s drug “Chew-Z”: we experience Max Renn’s disconcerting hallucinations as his mind is altered. Exploring new conceptual territory with his eyes wide open, Max becomes a classic surreal hero, much like Buñuel’s Archibaldo de La Cruz or Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. Cronenberg’s later revisionist re-think of the 1958 classic The Fly has the same transgressive hero. A transformation into a monster becomes a voyage of grotesque but miraculous possibilities. As he outgrows his human form Seth Brundle is forced to confront both mortality and the alien-ness of his own body. In Videodrome, a similar Quatermass-like process is changing Max Renn from the inside out. He too must learn to embrace an unknown future, that he calls ‘the New Flesh.’ Scientific progress blends with spirituality when the ultimate escape from ‘the old flesh’ becomes all too literal.
After a slow start in his earlier thrillers, Cronenberg hits his directing stride with Videodrome. For the first time his actors are all top-rank and optimally cast. The effects don’t overpower the story, which doesn’t rely on a chase to sustain a commercial thriller framework. The revelations are well paced, helping us to absorb some truly weird happenings. A television is transformed into a veined and pulsing sexual organ; Max Renn pulls an organic pistol from a vagina-like slit in his stomach. 2 In essence, Cronenberg shows man using medical and media technology to explore a new world. But in every case taking the voyage means being transformed, mentally, physically and spiritually. Only the initial steps are voluntary. Max Renn is on a slippery slope from the moment he takes those first few steps — there’s no going back. He’s an explorer in an unknown world, like the Shrinking Man.
James Woods proves perfectly suited to playing a sympathetic character who nevertheless is a voyeur and smut peddler. Ordinary soft-core attractions don’t do anything for him. The little touches he gives the role become funnier on repeated viewings. Deborah Harry’s Nicki Brand makes a convincing masochist and generates the erotic connection Cronenberg needs. A surreal heroine, Nicki goes straight to the center of her obsession and never looks back. Her early exit to become a virtual presence probably sparked resentment among the fan-base that wanted a flesh & blood Blondie to stick around longer, and indeed, a perfect Videodrome would want to chart her ‘explorations,’ too.
Among the excellent supporting players is Lynne Gorman, who Cronenberg manages to make intriguing just by allowing a woman older than fifty to have a sexual appetite without being humiliated for it. Cronenberg plays with light comic irony as well. At one point Max Renn tries on a pair of dark-framed glasses and for a second ‘transforms’ into a substitute David Cronenberg. During an escape through an alley, Renn passes workers moving a series of doors. Are they a visual pun for the ‘doors’ of consciousness?
But what we most remember are the bizarre instances where erotic and technological taboos merge. Max Renn is able to have physical sex with a pair of lips on a television screen. His ‘stomach vagina’ can hide a weapon. Cronenberg’s illusions go a step beyond classical film surrealism, as we share the subjective sensations of the surrealist adventurer. Some concepts aren’t as well established. In one scene Renn’s obscene gun-arm (shades of The Quatermass Xperiment) is meant to shoot not bullets but instant-growing cancerous tumors.
There’s also the gross ending where a virtual Deborah Harry shows Max Renn the next step in his personal evolution. Nikki might as well be speaking to Max from within The Matrix. His crossover is accomplished by imitating something he sees on television. Cronenberg’s ideas in these early films were ‘way, way out there’ in the best possible meaning of the term. They’re always driven by a coherent interior logic.
Arrow Video’s Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD of Videodrome has a clean transfer of a truly brilliant movie — and brilliant not merely because intelligent and challenging sci-fi has become so rare. Cronenberg makes the horror exploitation genre communicate ideas difficult to get across in doctoral papers about the media-scape. The movie is billed as a ‘restored HD unrated version,’ which as far as I can tell is identical to earlier video versions. Bits were added back in almost as soon as the movie hit home video, long ago.
A comparison with the earlier Criterion disc sees several of its extras ported over. Director and actor commentaries have not been retained; they’re probably Criterion-specific. Arrow did find an interesting 20-minute piece on Cronenberrg for Brit TV called David Cronenberg & the Cinema of the Extreme. Cronenberg gives concise descriptions of his theories, while directors George Romero and (a very animated) Alex Cox actually talk about the need for some form of rating system. The always refreshing Cox energetically slams the movie Se7en as reprehensible trash, a surprise that had me jumping up in approval. I’m probably a prude, but there’s a difference between compellingly disturbing ideas, and empty exploitation.
Most of the other extras are familiar — a Cronenberg short subject from 2000, Michael Lennick’s clever and impressive features about the special effects. Videodrome seems to have had an unlimited number of un-filmed but fully-worked out visual effect hallucinations, some of which we see in BTS footage, as temp video displays or make-ups under construction. Alternate scenes for TV are here, along with Samurai Dreams, etc.. I still like the 1981 roundtable interview with Cronenberg and fellow directors John Carpenter and John Landis. At the time all were making fantastic films. The least demonstrative of the three, Cronenberg seems the only one with “something to say.” The host is a young, bright Mick Garris of the Masters of Horror cable series.
I was especially curious to listen to Arrow’s featured exclusive extra, the promised Tim Lucas commentary. It doesn’t disappoint. Cronenberg synthesized a lot of radical thought into a consistently coherent series of film fantasies; that he tapped Lucas to report from the set convinces me that he deemed the young fan writer capable of grasping what was going on. There are a lot of edgy abstract ideas to consider, many of them unsuited for discussion in People magazine. The show is an invitation to ponder the convergence of humans and technology, and how we use ‘media gratification delivery systems’ to gratify our sex fantasies.
I usually listen to the first twenty minutes of a commentary, skip around a bit and then listen to the end. Just as with the recent Blood and Black Lace, this commentary was too illuminating to set aside. Lucas spends only a little time on his on-set experience and instead gives us even more detailed analysis and insight of every thing and everybody we see on screen. His thoughts are well organized and the connections he makes to possible influences deepen our interest rather than dissipate it. His personal extrapolations are also engaging. I think Videodrome will persist as a great work of futurism. I know for certain that I haven’t grasped its full importance. Lucas’s comments ring true, especially his observation that contemporary culture is in a Cronenberg-predicted transformation: we are indeed being absorbed by our technology. Heck, all the evidence suggests that Mr. Lucas is a real person, but his many social media communications he has also become an eerie disembodied virtual person. All hail the new Facebook Flesh.
A second pair of Blu-ray and DVD discs contains four early Cronenberg films, all beautifully restored. The medical student-turned filmmaker has an awkward beginning distinguished from ‘normal’ film students only in that the philosophical speeches indicate he has ‘something to say,’ even if he hasn’t found the ways to express himself in film. Considering the depth of his later feature work, this should be an encouragement to all aspiring filmmakers that haven’t yet reached a command of camera grammar. The third and fourth pictures are more professional efforts that make use of a few actors, and modernistic buildings to impart a futuristic look. Stereo is the one really accomplished work here; I gave my thoughts on it in a review for Criterion’s 2014 release of Scanners. The color Crimes of the Future is more of the same but less compelling overall. Ronald Mlodzik (Adrian Tripod) returns as the main character, who still dresses like Peter Cook’s devil from Bedazzled. A final scene becomes really queasy, with just a suggestion that Cronenberg is adding child molestation to his themes of sex and death.
The second disc’s added films are accompanied by a welcome essay-featurette with Kim Newman, who has plenty of bright comments to offer about the direction of horror in the ’70s and Cronenberg’s individualized approach. In these early films he was an eccentric ‘with something to say.’ When his thoughts found full expression in films like Videodrome, it turned out to be well worth the wait.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Videodrome Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD rates:
Supplements: Audio commentary by Tim Lucas, David Cronenberg & the Cinema of the Extreme with Cronenberg, George A. Romero and Alex Cox; Forging the New Flesh — Michael Lennick effects docu; featurette Videoblivion, new piece with Mark Irwin; new interview with producer Pierre David; featurette AKA Jack Martin with author of novelizations; complete uncensored Samurai Dreams with commentary by Michael Lennick; Helmet Test and Betamax effects featurettes; short film Camera by Cronenberg; Fear on Film 1982 round table discussion with Cronenberg, John Carpenter, John Landis and Mick Garris; TV version deleted scenes; promotional featuretes, trailer. DISC 2: David Cronenberg’s earlier works. Shorts Transfer and From the Drain; features Stereo and Crimes of the Future; Kim Newman featurette interpreting earlier films. 100-page illustrated collector booklet (not submitted for review) with essays by Justin Humphreys, Brad Stevens, Caelum Vatnsdal’ plus extracts from Cronenberg on Cronenberg.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Two Blu-ray and two DVD discs with book in (box?)
Reviewed: August 19, 2015
1. Reading Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch was for Savant a necessary prerequisite to fully understanding this film. Videodrome throws so many verbal and visual concepts at us that without some sort of preconditioning, it’s too easy to reject them. I saw the film three times when new, and this was the first time that I was receptive to its central fact: Spectacular Optics plans to use Videodrome’s signal to destroy “bad” citizens who want to see taboo visual content. Don’t they realize that that really means all of us?
2. In Alien it was difficult to accept a creature that appeared to be simultaneously made of organic materials and chrome steel. In Videodrome Renn’s organic melding with a steel gun is a kind of practical evolution, and the changing of a man’s hand into a hand grenade is like a gag from a Looney Tunes cartoon. In The Fly, Seth Brundle becomes partially fused with his own invention. He drags the steel door of his teleportation pod behind him, like an albatross. Cronenberg sees man fusing with his inventions, as do the morbid car wreck fetishists in Crash.
Quick! Before It Melts The Warner Archive Collection
Quick! Before It Melts DVD-R The Warner Archive Collection
1964 / Color / 2:40 enhanced widescreen / 98 min. / Quick, Before It Melts / Street Date June 5, 2015 / available through the WBshop / 18.49
Starring George Maharis, Robert Morse, Anjanette Comer, Yvonne Craig, James Gregory, Michael Constantine, Howard St. John, Norman Fell, Janine Gray, Bernard Fox, Richard LePore, Hal Baylor, Doodles Weaver, Pat Priest.
Cinematography Russell Harlan
Film Editor Fredric Steincamp
Original Music David Rose
Written by Philip Benjamin, Dale Wasserman
Produced by Douglas Laurence, Delbert Mann
Directed by Delbert Mann
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
MGM’s Quick! Before It Melts falls into a category of studio films that were reportedly striking out left and right in 1965, even though I remember seeing them advertised in the papers and playing at packed drive-ins. All tease and no gravy, these sex comedies betrayed not a hint of relevance to people living or dead. The popular Doris Day movies were waning at this time, but Metro pushed forward with the formula. They did a string of Paula Prentiss – Jim Hutton movies, which had little to recommend them beyond the bright presences of the leading players. Hoping to combine two name actors without a filmic track record, producer-director Delbert Mann (Dear Heart) enlisted George Maharis of TV’s Route 66 and Robert Morse of Broadway fame, and came up with…. something of a mess.
Filmed entirely on MGM sound stages and using a script that could have been written in 1948, Quick! Before It Melts tries to make a wild sex comedy out of the idea of a journalist being stranded at the South Pole with dozens of other female-hungry males… it’s sort of a scientific Operation Mad Ball meets Encounters at the End of the World. Usually, bright personalities saved MGM’s youth sex comedies, like Shirley MacLaine in Ask Any Girl (where is that movie?) or Steve McQueen in The Honeymoon Machine. Even the poster for Quick! Before It Melts promises make-out action that largely doesn’t come about.
Reporter Oliver Cromwell Cannon (Robert Morse) is in hot water with his editor-publisher, Harvey Sweigert (Howard St. John). He’s engaged to Harvey’s daughter Sharon Sweigert (Yvonne Craig), and trying to be both worthy and more secure. Rescue of a sorts comes with a crazy assignment to go to the South Pole, to get the scoop’ on communist subversion that might be afoot in the internationally cooperative research station down there. In his jumping-off stay in New Zealand, Oliver meets photographer Peter Santelli (George Maharis), who is likewise not happy about the idea of sexual isolation in a polar deep freeze. They hit it off with a couple of Anzac ladies, especially half-Maori Tiara Marshall (Anjanette Comer). In the Antarctic the boys try to get accustomed to the weird living quarters — huts buried in snow – and befriend the eccentric researchers and bureaucrats living the bachelor life sans female companionship. Oliver and Peter seek out Russian scientist Mikhail Drozhensky (Michael Constantine) to find that he’s a lovable fuddy-duddy, not a spy. They have to deal with creep George Snell (Norman Fell) and the hardliner Vice Admiral (James Gregory). They’re made the object of hazing pranks and treated as outsiders, until Oliver comes up with a clever ruse to induce Drozhensky to defect — and simultaneously import some attractive women to the base!
Quick! Before It Melts has an interesting trio of actors. We just got over being sentimental about Robert Morse great exit from TV’s Mad Men. I recently had to dig into George Maharis for a commentary on an upcoming Blu-ray for The Satan Bug. Maharis is an extreme case of a TV leading man who one would think would be a shoo-in for feature stardom. He instead laid five or six eggs one after another and pretty much exited the stage. And just this weekend we bade farewell to ingenue sweetheart Yvonne Craig, who turned up numerous times in ’60s movies favored by teenage boys..
Although given 12th billing in this show, Craig does pretty well, certainly holding her own against the other women in the picture, who are on hand mostly to be make-out bait. Craig’s pushy fianceé isn’t all that pleasant of a character, but she’s a bright and lively presence. During most of the picture she’s seen only during phone calls back to civilization, usually lounging alone on a bed, in fetching nightgowns.
Robert Morse is a special case — everybody loves him, but with the exception of a couple of key movies, appropriate roles never surfaced for him. He was particularly awkward when he tried to be a pushy guy with sex on his mind, as in A Guide for the Married Man and in one of Doris Day’s last gasps of quasi-virginity, Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? Yet, for a certain level of impish deviltry Morse cannot be bettered, as in Tony Richardson’s The Loved One. Here Mope morses about Morse mopes about and chases women he shouldn’t. He of course turns out to be accidentally chaste, in a way that only sexless MGM sex comedies can arrange.
And what’s wrong with George Maharis — it’s like he’s not in the movie. A great looking guy with a rep as a babe magnet (in the fan magazines anyway), Marharis seems made of unbendable plastic. It may not be his fault in the case of this movie. The terribly unfunny show begins with a comedy brawl in a New Zealand pub that may be the worst choreographed scene of its type ever put together. The picture is almost 100 minutes long; in the final analysis I fault MGM’s editorial supervisor Margaret Booth for not tightening it up, dropping some of the embarrassments and giving it some pace.
As programming filler, TCM has often cablecast MGM’s exhibitor sales reels for the 1960s. The one for ’64 has a fairly cute scene of Morse and Comer preparing to get it on while hiding in a cold room (or a snowplow? I forget) while a little penguin interrupts them and otherwise ambles about in a cute way. Setting a cute penguin to a piece of music ought to result in a can’t-lose audience-pleasing scene, like the ‘Baby Elephant Walk’ in Hatari. This movie works its trick penguins, but not enough.
In the final analysis, even though people are running around icy corridors, ducking into storerooms the way people pop into bedrooms in normal sex farces, Quick! Before It Melts doesn’t get much of a sex charge going. The script takes a wide detour around anything racy, the characters all turn out to be only pretending to be naughty and the clownish supporting faces get old in the set-bound confines. We’re released into the bright snow every once in a while, but not much happens there. It’s just a, ‘Whoo-hoo, who’s getting in trouble with the Admiral now?’ kind of story.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Quick! Before It Melts is an okay transfer of this color and Panavision comedy; director Delbert Mann uses the wide screen mainly to spread out his actors in neat lines. The cameraman of note is veteran Russell Harlan. I guess the great comedy epic about sex in the Antarctic has yet to be made… as real science and military posts on the seventh continent are now thoroughly co-ed, I should think that the place would be torture for some and a fantastic love nest for others. Just imagine bad jokes about frigidity and ‘taking core samples.’ The only present-day irony to Quick! Before It Melts is that, for all we know, the real location at the South Pole may indeed all be melting soon.
Images were difficult to locate for Quick! Before It Melts. I stole obtained some of mine from a good page called The Classic Movie. I like it — it has breezy coverage of many Warner Archive Collection titles not reviewed elsewhere.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Quick! Before It MeltsDVD-R rates:
Movie: Good -
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 21, 2015
Street Smart Blu-ray Olive Films
1987 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 97 min. / Street Date July 7, 2015 / available at the Olive Films website / 29.98
Starring Christopher Reeve, Kathy Baker, Mimi Rogers, Jay Patterson, Andre Gregory, Morgan Freeman.
Cinematography Adam Holender
Production Designer Dan Leigh
Art Direction Serge Jacques
Film Editor Priscilla Nedd
Original Music Robert Irving III featuring Miles Davis
Written by David Freeman
Produced by Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Who says The Cannon Group turned out only bad movies? Early in 1987 I became a promo, TV spot and trailer editor in that department, nested just two floors down from the executive suites at Cannon central near Wilshire and La Cienega Blvds.. In those few years when Golan and Globus grazed the higher strata of filmmaking, some good shows came through our department, such as Andrei Konchalovsky’s unheralded Shy People. Another was Street Smart, a snappy New York- based thriller. Clever of script and uneven in direction, the show got plenty of attention and an Oscar nomination for powerhouse actor Morgan Freeman. Also scoring solidly is Kathy Baker, who whips the thankless role of a generic Times Square hooker into a soufflé part.
It’s a hot summer in the city. To save his job, maladroit magazine journalist Jonathan Fisher (Christopher Reeve) pulls a Stephen Glass and fabricates a story about a fictional Times Square pimp he calls Tyrone. Actual pimp Leo Smalls, known on the street as ‘Fast Black’ (Morgan Freeman), happens to be on trial on a murder charge. The D.A. assumes that Smalls is the basis for Fisher’s story, and seeks to subpoena the writer’s notes. Smalls knows that Fisher’s story is baloney, and with his attorney plans to blackmail the writer into providing an alibi for the killing. Fisher is soon up to his neck in trouble. A judge threatens prison on a contempt of court charge, while the streetwise Fast Black knows how to take advantage of his position. Neither is afraid to use threats to get his way. Jonathan is also caught between his upscale girlfriend Alison (Mimi Rogers) and Fast Black’s main streetwalker Punchy (Kathy Baker), with whom he forms an unstable friendship.
If Jerry Schatzberg’s direction had a little more finesse, Street Smart might have been more than a modest hit. In 1987 Cannon was still fronting good distribution for its higher-tier product, and this sleeper had critics praising Morgan Freeman and Kathy Baker to the skies. Their scenes have an immediacy and power that eluded many another ’80s tale from the sidewalks of New York. Morgan Freeman had avoided ’70s blaxploitation productions, and played a regular role on the educational program The Electric Company. Freeman dives into the role of a domineering pimp, and makes of it a breakthrough opportunity.
The toughest thing to do in a modern crime film is to put teeth into scenes of menace and jeopardy. Any crimer can invent various kinds of grisly murders, etc., to little dramatic effect. Freeman grabs every situation he’s in, fiercely intimidating his girls, his chauffeur Reggie (Erik King) and the foolish reporter Jonathan Fisher. Fast Black is in a bind for a murder he didn’t commit. He’s accustomed to getting his way through bald intimidation, and when pushed he’s capable of anything.
Street Smart is supposed to center on the Christopher Reeve character, but that’s not how it works out. Although Jonathan Fisher claims the most screen time his part is perfunctorily handled. Christopher Reeve isn’t bad but he doesn’t command the screen or make us believe Fisher in any great depth. Here’s a bigtime scribe who cheats on both his profession and his girlfriend, and his only reaction is to ruthlessly retaliate. His newfound job as a television man on the streets makes a nice point about unearned rewards for dishonesty. Fisher traps NYC scammers with his sting cameras are sub- 60 Minutes hijinks, reality programming as opportunistic and predatory as Fast Black’s prostitution setup.
Morgan Freeman’s half of the story is full of surprises. The smartest man in the film, Fast Black plays his side of the game perfectly, even when he’s dishing out the violent threats. And Kathy Baker’s Punchy is practically an ad for the Times Square hooker as official NYC greeter. Her convincing seduction of Fisher comes off as shooting fish in a barrel. Seen only intermittently in films, Baker’s first screen role was as Louise Shepard in The Right Stuff. Mimi Rogers is reasonable in a lesser role. The other various magazine execs and legal troublemakers are sketched on the broader side. Reporter Fisher’s boss Ted Avery (Andre Gregory of My Dinner with Andre) is a real 5th Avenue bozo, used for comedy relief. Fast Black complains of being patronized at Avery’s uptown party, but so is everybody else.
The movie has a slightly rushed pace and a few unfortunate editorial choices. Odd dissolves intrude in the party scene, and the song ‘Natural Woman’ is unnecessarily superimposed over the seduction scene. Some of the clever plotting makes things happen far too conveniently. Fisher is twice imprisoned for contempt, once for not giving up his article notes and once for saying they never existed. When he later fabricates some notes, giving Fast Black the alibi he wants, Fisher’s ethical stature really takes a dive. Not only is there no ‘investigation’ of what this dishonesty means to Fisher the hasty detail-skipping begs some important questions. Why would the judge let Fisher go after finding out he’d withheld the information that Black had an alibi? After two flagrant lies, why would the Judge believe anything Fisher said? A little honest conversation between Fisher and the prosecutor Leonard Pike (a very good Jay Patterson) might have straightened the whole thing out.
(spoilers) The end of Street Smart allows the fairly unsympathetic Fisher to resolve his problem as if it were one of his obnoxious TV sting operations. Fast Black is not a good guy, but for this particular crime he is being railroaded by the D.A.. The way things work out, he becomes an unredeemable villain. Fisher gets off scot-free, retaining his career and getting his girlfriend back, albeit with some stitches on her stomach. In reality, Fisher’s lies and prevarications are what caused all the grief. The scummy street life that the film seems so afraid of is once again made a separate, evil world. It needs to be suppressed so that yuppies like Jonathan and Alison can feel secure. This was before NYC’s ’90s clean-up campaigns, I think.
One classy symbolic image involving a white dove appears late in the show. It communicates its point beautifully to most audiences. Schatzberg has not set us up for expressionist asides. It’s unexpected, and eerily effective.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Street Smart is a slick encoding of this fairly good-looking New York-set production. It’s not a showcase of the city, as the average images concentrate directly on the characters. Yet it doesn’t look like a TV movie of the day either. We get deep into the difficulties between Fisher, Punchy and Fast Black, and our attention never wanders.
No trailer is included, which is too bad. The older DVD from 2003 does have the trailer, an excellent example of the work of the Cannon advertising department at this time. It expresses the excitement and some of the content of the film in a freewheeling montage format, but without telling the whole plot or boring us with runs of moronic narration.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Street SmartBlu-ray rates:
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? No; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 20, 2015
Nightmare Castle (L’Amante d’oltretomba) + Castle of Blood & Terror Creatures from the Grave Savant Blu-ray Review
Nightmare Castle Blu-ray
1965 / B&W / 1:78 widescreen / 104 min. / L’Amanti d’oltretomba, The Faceless Monster, Lovers from Beyond the Tomb, Night of the Doomed, Orgasmo / Street Date August 18, 2015 / 29.98
Starring Barbara Steele, Paul Müller, Helga Liné, Rik Battaglia, Laurence Clift, Giuseppe Addobbati.
Cinematography Enzo Barboni
Production Designer Massimo Tavazzi
Film Editor Renato Cinquini
Original Music Ennio Morricone
Written by Mario Caiano and Fabio De Agostini
Produced by Carlo Caiano
Directed by Allan Grünewald (Mario Caiano)
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I’ve reviewed this Barbara Steele horror thriller twice before, once in 2003 as a rough DVD presentation with the title The Faceless Monster, and again in 2009 as a quality DVD with extras from Severin Films. It was promoted as Nightmare Castle but actually bore the original Italian title L’Amante d’oltretomba. For the jump to Blu-ray, Severin has gone to the original negative of Nightmare Castle — which bears yet another variant title, Night of the Doomed. We long ago concluded that an Italo horror ain’t a genuine Italo horror without six alternate titles hovering around it. If Jésus Franco made 250 movies, and each of them had eight variant titles, does that mean he’s the auteur of 2,000 separate releases?
Accessing decent copies of Euro genre films is always a problem. As was shown with earlier releases of The Long Hair of Death and An Angel for Satan, vintage Euro-horror is in a peculiar bind, distribution-wise. Instead of paying proper licensing fees to get access to original film materials, smaller disc companies often just recycle whatever copies can be found. With an inferior version already on the market, a quality release can become financially unrealistic. This new Blu-ray is a collector-worthy disc of one of Barbara Steele’s more obsessive horror mini-epics. The good extras include two more Barbara Steele pictures, in HD, Antonio Margheriti’s Castle of Blood and Massimo Pupillo’s Terror Creatures from Beyond the Grave.
Nightmare Castle’s original title is the more accurate L’Amanti d’oltretomba, which translates as Lovers from Beyond the Grave. The greedy Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith (Paul Miller, aka Paul Müller) surprises his unfaithful wife Muriel (Barbara Steele) in the greenhouse and finds her ardently pursuing her illicit affair with the gardener David (Rik Battaglia). Eager to inherit Muriel’s property, Stephen
tortures both of them to death, removes their hearts and cremates what’s left. But his plan stumbles when Muriel’s will leaves her estate to her identical half-sister Jenny (Steele again). Stephen must start from scratch, wooing and marrying a blonde, virtuous version of his first wife. Jenny has already been diagnosed with mental illness, so with the help of some drugs, it should be no problem for Arrowsmith and his housemaid Solange (Helga Liné) to send her over the edge. During a weird nightmare, Jenny dreams of the previous murder in the greenhouse. The plan works fine until the schemers discover that Jenny hasn’t been taking her hallucinogens. She isn’t tripping out, she’s haunted.
Classic corridor-wandering Italo horrors were never as popular as sword ‘n’ sandal epics, or the new Italo westerns. By 1965 they were nearing their end. Barbara Steele had been a solid genre icon for four years, with top English critics adding their praise to that of the continental worshippers in the French magazine Midi-Minuit Fantastique. But although Steele’s horror films for Mario Bava, Antonio Margheriti and Riccardo Freda made her famous, they failed to develop her career. It’s no wonder that she dismissed these movies, and sought to define herself by clinging to her one Federico Fellini outing. Amanti d’oltretomba’s script proves Steele to be a horror sub-genre unto herself, being a bald borrowing of ideas from Black Sunday (the good and evil Barbaras), Castle of Blood (a haunted house that replays murders from the past), and especially The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (a new bride tormented by her husband and housemaid). The Arrowsmith estate is the same Roman villa seen in Dr. Hichcock, albeit much less effectively filmed.
Nightmare Castle has been singled out as the Barbara Steele movie almost completely focused on its leading lady’s star appeal. The story is weighed down with dialogue and the visuals don’t begin to approach the crepuscular delirium of Hichcock or Black Sunday, yet the show is a key film for Steele fanatics. Director Caiano keeps Steele on camera for almost every scene. Everything is staged for the privilege of filming Steele’s face in various states
of distress. Muriel’s torture in the castle’s dungeon is as close as 1965 Euro-horror could get to bondage fantasy, and Jenny’s hallucinations provide ample opportunities to film Steele in erotic-murderous situations. Steele fans that never saw Nightmare Castle know it well from a selection of salacious stills given full-page spreads in old issues of Midi-Minuit.
Barbara Steele is really less of an actress in this film than she is a fetish object. 1 It is said that she uses her own voice in the dubbed track. Co-star Helga Liné begins the show in old-age makeup and is then rejuvenated by Stephen’s experimental serums. Frequent Euro-horror star Paul Müller does reasonably well with an evil husband character who can’t decide if his motivation is jealousy or ordinary greed. If Stephen is so brilliant that he can restore his housemaid’s youthful appearance, what need has he for his wife’s money? I doubt that any of the film’s creators worried about such things. Nightmare Castle exists only to satisfy rapt Barbara Steele gazers.
Severin’s Blu-ray of Nightmare Castle is a picture-perfect encoding of what appears to be the version prepared for English-language export, Night of the Doomed. Every scene is as clear as a bell, which shows us that most of the film was flat-lit. The ‘keeper’ images are all in the dream sequences and horror finale, with Steele’s ghoulish face makeup. Hidden behind a Veronica Lake comb-down, the right side of ‘ghost Muriel’s’ kisser is a horrid mess. The dubbed English track is an appropriate choice, as the actors are definitely speaking English on the set. The moody music score, played on piano and a massive church organ, is an early effort by Ennio Morricone, yet is not all that memorable.
Severin’s extras are always interesting, and thorough. Repeated from the 2009 DVD is producer David Gregory’s excellent interview with the film’s star, Barbara Steele in Conversation. The actress tells the entire story of her career from her school days
onward, explaining her brief unhappy period as a Rank / Fox starlet and her abrupt abandonment of Hollywood, smack in the middle of an Elvis Presley movie, Flaming Star. The interview is illustrated with dozens of unfamiliar photographs.
Ms. Steele is relaxed and engaged as she explains that she was too much of a young hedonist to really apply herself to the full demands of a career aimed at stardom. She never auditioned for parts and simply took offers as they came. In that regard she has a lot in common with the legendary Louise Brooks, the silent star who turned her back on the Hollywood studios. Barbara states that she wishes she’d never left her beloved Italy … even though she might weigh 3,000 pounds by now, from eating all the rich food.
Director Mario Caiano appears in an Italian interview, talking about his films while various household pets wander in and out of the frame. He emphasizes that Amanti d’oltretomba was filmed very quickly and that he didn’t get to know his star very well. Other extras include a feature commentary with Steele interviewed by David Del Valle, who elicits plenty of conversation about other movies and facets of the actress’s career.
An English trailer is included. In perfect shape, it bears the title Night of the Doomed, the title probably chosen for export. A video remnant of the American Nightmare Castle trailer uses the same footage, adding text and a different voiceover.
The clincher for purchasers of this disc is bound to be the two extra features, encoded in HD. 1964′s Castle of Blood has a reputation as the best of Antonio Margheriti’s few forays into horror. Let me refer readers to an earlier (2002) DVD from Synapse for more detail. Severin’s transfer comes from a good-quality Woolner Bros. print, into which some truly awful English-language title cards have been inserted. Being an American release copy, a brief nude scene with actress Sylvia Sorrente is not present. But for us glamour hounds, Steele’s low-cut gown in a ballroom scene remains, and it’s plenty daring on its own.
1965′s Terror Creatures from the Grave by Massimo Pupillo is for most of its length a talky and somewhat trying murder mystery. A lawyer arrives at a mansion to straighten out some paperwork, only to find the usual assortment of odd and uncooperative relatives. The expected sequence of murders begins, until it’s revealed that the deceased owner was a medium able to bring forth the dead. There’s a lot of talk about plague victims, while the pot bogs downs in comings
and goings, ineffective investigations, and finally a ‘showdown of the living dead.’ If Mario Caiano’s direction seems perfunctory, Pupillo’s is almost nonexistent — he seems intent on showing off his handsome locations while we watch slow coverage of entrances and exits for almost every scene. All Steele pictures are worth seeing but this is one of the most haphazard. Walter Brandi (L’amante del vampiro, L’ultima preda del vampiro) is a professional presence, and Luciano Pigozzi, the ‘Euro-horror Peter Lorre,’ makes a positive impression.
All three films are English language versions, which for me deadens their exoticism. The fairly good dubbing is still klunky, whereas performances have more flavor in the original Italian. I realize that some of the pictures were performed in English, but Barbara Steele rarely dubbed her Italo pictures into English. David Del Valle tells us that when he first heard Ms. Steele on the telephone, he couldn’t relate her voice to the movies he’d seen.
Severin has provided new featurettes for each of the extra features, Vengeance from Beyond and A Dance of Ghosts. An audio interview with Barbara is used for one of them. Trailers appear for each of the extra features as well. For fans of the English language version of these films, this a great buy — the extra transfers are very good, and the one for Nightmare Castle is prime quality
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Nightmare CastleBlu-ray rates:
Sound: Excellent (English language version)
Supplements: New HD transfers of rare U.S. prints: Terror Creatures From The Grave and Castle of Blood; audio commentary with Barbara Steele and David Del Valle; interview featurettes Barbara Steele In Conversation and Black, White And Red (Mario Caiano); extra featurettes Vengeance From Beyond and A A Dance of Ghosts; deleted scenes from Terror Creatures From The Grave, plus trailers for Nightmare Castle (2), Terror Creatures From The Grave and Castle Of Blood.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 15, 2015
1. English critic Raymond Durgnat frequently mentioned fellow film critics who “worshipped” at the altars of stars like Kim Novak, as if drinking in a glamorous star’s performances was the same as sleeping with them. Now that’s being rather optimistic, but I guess critics need whatever happiness they can find. Several reserved special praise for the dangerous, hungry-eyed Barbara Steele, fixating on her as a perverse sex object: “She’s a corpse — but is she any less desirable?”
That Guy Dick Miller DVD
2014 / Color & B&W / 1:78 widescreen / 92 min. / Street Date May 19, 2015 / 16.99
Starring Dick Miller, Lainie Miller Allan Arkush, Belinda Balaski, Kent Beyda, Steve Carver, Julie Corman, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Jon Davison, Fred Dekker, David Del Valle, Ernest R. Dickerson, Frances Doel, Corey Feldman, Robert Forster, Zach Galligan, Mark Goldblatt, Marshall Harvey, Jonathan Haze, Jack Hill, Tina Hirsch, John Hora, Jackie Joseph, Jonathan Kaplan, Larry Karaszewski, Leonard Maltin, Paul Petersen, Robert Picardo, Fred Olen Ray, John Regis, Adam Rifkin, William Sadler, John Sayles, Michael Schlesinger, Chris Walas, Mary Woronov.
Cinematography Elle Schneider
Original Music Jason Brandt
Produced by Elija Drenner, Lainie Miller
Edited and Directed by Elijah Drenner
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
“After this movie, you’ll know Dick.”
The person who came up with the blurb copy line for That Guy Dick Miller deserves an award, because he captures just the right tone for a terrific movie personality who’s largely unknown, yet beloved by veteran movie fans everywhere. Documentaries about film personalities are ubiquitous, but the subject of this show will win over viewers in a matter of minutes. He’s a genuine underdog with no industry honors, yet he has a screen presence that makes every scene he’s ever played, a keeper. We know him, we like him and we can’t keep our eyes from him; he steals a scene just by being present. Dick Miller is real and authentic, an unpretentious personality that never leaves a blank hole on the screen. That Guy Dick Miller is ninety minutes focused on an actor who perhaps best represents the historical mass of character players that we recognize and love… but often can’t remember their names. Jobbing journeymen, they wait for the phone to ring and hope that they’re remembered by agents, casting directors and filmmakers. In Dick Miller’s case, he’s been a credit to every show he’s been in for the past sixty years. He’s also at the center of vintage fringe Hollywood cult moviemaking. Roger Corman brought him back time and again, sometimes just as a good luck charm. Julie Corman remarks on camera, “I read a script and thought, where’s the Dick Miller part?” Some personalities just need to be in the movies.
Director Elijah Drenner is the latest in a group of directors that came from the ranks of disc-supplement producers. Laurent Bouzereau, Jeffrey Schwarz, Bret Wood and David Gregory have all made feature documentaries, long-form cable shows, or even dramatic features. Drenner does what film-related producers do best: find the right talking heads and get them to focus on the subject at hand. In this case it looks like everybody who has worked with Dick Miller leaped to participate. It’s like “This Is Your Life” with a long list of notables — directors, fellow actors, family members — eager to tell us what Dick’s really like.
We all know Dick Miller as the nervy ‘little guy.’ He usually plays a tough character that dishes out dialogue or story exposition with verve and style, like one of those street-wise Warner Bros. actors from the early ’30s. He’s best known as Roger Corman’s jack-of-all-trades, both in bit parts and starring roles. He’s most famous for the terrific beatnik horror comedy A Bucket of Blood. Dick plays the nebbish coffee shack bus boy Walter Paisley. An aspiring artist without an art, he finds fulfillment with an unwanted side effect, murder. The various spokespeople assure us that this was not Miller’s real personality. After playing Indians and cowboys for Corman, Miller half-improvised a perfect vacuum-cleaner salesman for Not of this Earth, making film history in the most obscure way imaginable.
The film charts Miller’s family beginnings, his on-off side career as a film writer and his splendid marriage to actress and kindred soul Lainie Miller. In photos, old home movies and her own career appearances, she also comes off as a frisky live wire. Lanie acts like a nut with Dick but is also a pro with unexpected talents — she played the tassel-tossing stripper in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate.
Although recognized and beloved, and frequently tapped by productions needing a strong actor in a key part, Dick Miller never achieved name status. There was even a lull in his career when Corman turned to hipster youth stories, leaving Miller behind to play squares and lame authority figures. That’s where the new generation comes into play, guys who got their start with Roger C. and probably loved his stock company more than he did: John Davison, Joe Dante, Allan Arkush. Miller became a fixture in their movies as well, finally coming to represent the ultimate tongue-in-cheek personality casting placement — who can play the ultimate actors’ agent in Hollywood Blvd.? Who is perfect as the local promoter whose summer camp is decimated by marauding killer Piranha? Who is guaranteed to spruce up any connecting scene, rattling off story points while keeping the audience amused?
The participants are clearly happy to be there — starting with adorable Jackie Joseph, who we once thought must have been married to Miller. Frances Doel, Belinda Belaski, Jonathan Haze, John Sayles, Paul Petersen and Robert Picardo all have Madman Miller tales to tell. Actor friends say he wouldn’t leave home, just in case the phone rang while he was gone. Former teen actor Corey Feldman admits to behaving like a jerk on the set of The ‘Burbs. Director Drenner gives us a choice outtake of Miller telling Feldman to keep his mouth shut during other actors’ dialogue.
The show often cuts back to Dick and Lainie ribbing each other at home, showing off wardrobe choices (a pink sports coat?) that Dick often wore. Dick is a true card. He impishly claims to never have blown a line, which is of course followed by a blatant blooper where he goes up on his dialogue.
We see clips from a broad assortment of Millier film and TV appearances. Some clips are montaged but we also get a clear look at a number of the actor’s scenes, often with pointed analysis. An admirer points out the way Miller played a straight leading man as a scientist-hipster in the ultra-modest space epic War of the Satellites. Director Drenner relies on clever animation to carry a few sections of the picture, enough to give the show variety without overloading the cuteness factor. At 92 minutes That Guy Dick Miller might be a little on the long side, but I only saw a couple of moments that seemed redundant. The intervewees are too animated to be called talking heads – all begin to grin as they speak and several crack up at memories of their run-ins with Miller. Producer Jon Davison is filled with glee, while producer Michael Schlesinger’s description of a manic Miller scene is such a broad performance that Drenner is able to inter-cut it with the original Miller clip. The show finds a way to effect a sentimental finish — ah, we’re gonna miss this guy — with a major Dick Miller wink ending. Perhaps That Guy Dick Miller is not for everybody — what really good movie docu is? — but film fans and the curious will love it.
Indiecan Entertainment’s DVD of That Guy Dick Miller is a fine encoding of this lively, highly polished movie docu. The show carries a great many film clips, most of which are in excellent shape; just a few have slight flaws. This is the first I’ve seen of clips from Roger Corman’s interesting early westerns, and I fear that quality copies may no longer exist. The new footage is all of excellent quality.
I’ve mentioned the superior graphics and animation — never overused – and also need to compliment the soundtrack music credited to Jason Brandt. Without resorting to kooky-ness, it nevertheless communicates the essential eccentricity of the wild life of a movie actor on the maverick fringe. That Guy Dick Miller is highly recommended. It lays out a slab of fun Hollywood history without dumbing-down anything, and we like the people we meet in it. It’s a difficult job done extremely well.
Indiecan fills the extras menu with some nice material — outtakes, a Q&A session at the L.A. premiere with the principals, Dick Miller’s home movies, a photo gallery, some Miller trailers and an interview with makeup man Rick Baker.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, That Guy Dick Miller DVD rates:
Movie: Very Good ++
Supplements: Los Angeles premiere Q&A; Dick Miller’s home movies, interview with Rick Baker, outtakes, photo gallery, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 15, 2015
The Warner Archive Collection
Savant Blu-ray Review
The Hunger Blu-ray Warner Archive Collection
1983 / Color / 2:40 enhanced widescreen / 96 min. / Street Date August 18, 2015 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, Susan Sarandon, Cliff De Young, Beth Ehlers, Dan Hedaya, Rufus Collins, Ann Magnuson, Shane Rimmer, Bessie Love, John Pankow, Willem Dafoe.
Cinematography Stephen Goldblatt
Production Design Brian Morris
Special Makeup Effects Dick Smith
Art Director Clinton Cavers
Set Decorator Ann Mollo
Costume Design Milena Canonero
Film Editor Pamela Power
Original Music Denny Jaeger, Michel Rubini
Written by Ivan Davis, Michael Thomas from the novel by Whitley Streiber
Produced by Richard Shepherd
Directed byTony Scott
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Tony Scott’s The Hunger has gotten a bad rap since day one, for all the wrong reasons. Not only was Scott making the jump from directing slick TV commercials (by way of slick music videos), he was said to be riding on the coattails of his successful brother Ridley Scott. The Hunger sounds like a movie marketers’ dream. It’s a modern dress revisionist vampire movie filmed just before fashion-conscious bloodsuckers hijacked the genre, and a full generation before undead horror became grist for the teen romance mill. It’s unashamedly arty. It has the swankiest French actress around, at least in terms of American sensibilities. It’s got David Bowie in the mix to promise more kinks — Bowie’s singing career was built around flexible sexual identities. And finally there’s the promise of nude scenes with Susan Sarandon, prime heterosexual bait and an excellent actress to boot. An ice queen, a sex chameleon and the woman who titillated both sexes by massaging her breasts with lemon juice in a Louis Malle movie. Who cares that the nudity was off-screen? It was the hottest scene of the decade.
Whitley Streiber’s novel took the timely approach of de-mytholoigizing vampires, making them semi-human, functionally immortal but with limitations. Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) is the only vampire with a potentially supernatural origin, as she’s been around since Egyptian days. Obviously, being an undying, non-aging vampire queen gives one time to learn to play the piano, but it also might make one very lonely. Miriam can pass on both her sanguine addiction and enhanced longevity to any mortal she chooses. She does this to one person at a time, to serve as a trophy companion vampire through the long years. Since they both need fresh victims at the rate of one a week, Miriam resides in New York City, a place sufficiently crowded that disappearances won’t be quickly traced. Her present companion John (David Bowie) has only been ‘undead’ for 200 years, yet he suddenly begins to rapidly age, indicating that his time is up. He tries to see Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a specialist in the aging process. Miriam has seen Sarah promoting a new book. She and Roberts soon get together. The prospect couldn’t be clearer: they’re mutually attracted, and Miriam will be needing a new companion. The problem is that she can’t afford to give Sarah a choice in the matter.
Streiber’s Wolfen had recently been made into an interesting, somewhat awkward horror thriller that was mostly ignored. The Hunger became an easy critical target for cinema pundits with an axe to grind. It’s all style. It looks like a perfume ad. Scenes not taking place on ordinary streets (about two minutes of footage) have all been worked through five levels of visual and contextual stylization, from settings to costumes to makeup to the elegant cinematography of Stephen Goldblatt. Commercial directors are intent on nailing every visual with absolute precision, and Goldblatt comes across with the kind of accuracy that visually unites movies by directors as diverse as Francis Coppola and John Patrick Shanley. Tony Scott begins with a literal Bauhaus music video, intercutting the disco-punk song ‘Bela Lugosi is Dead’ with relevant image snippets of the imperious Miriam Blaylock. Lugosi, vampires, music videos … it’s all rather pat. Scott then proceeds to soak the screen in atmospheric effects, shooting through screens, nets, gratings, and especially flowing diaphanous curtains. Every composition is studied. Characters are seen in silhouette, long-shot and extreme close-up.
Miriam’s life is one long fashion shoot, all effortless grace and polished surfaces. There’s not much mystery to her — the mask-face Deneuve shows in many of her movies is so perfect that we wouldn’t know if her character was plotting bloody murder or merely pouting. Ms. Sarandon’s doctor is given a reel’s worth of perfunctory scenes in the lab, worrying about her experiments with early aging in monkeys. This material is just there to put the focus on mortality vs. immortality. We barely pay attention, even with the disturbing video footage of an afflicted monkey, and another stop-motion animation scene (Dave Allen?) of a monkey decaying in time-lapse video, like a Morlock of olde.
Susan Sarandon forms an attractive complement to Deneuve, with her healthy, frankly sexual appeal. Everybody would want to kiss her neck, not just her boyfriend Cliff De Young. The short hairstyle is terrific, too. We look guiltily forward to promised Miriam-Sarah sex scenes.
Everything we see is exquisitely designed and styled to heighten the neo-Goth glamour, and evade dull details. There’s never a problem of disposing of bodies even though enough blood is spilled to leak out onto the sidewalk. Miriam’s townhouse is immaculate, as are her clothes and a succession of spectacular hairstyles that would make Grace Kelly turn purple with envy. Yet the, Blaylocks have no servants, no support help. It’s like Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, who lives in a filthy crypt yet manages to show up at the opera dressed to the nines and apparently not smelling like the corpse that he is.
Scott’s glamorous imagery works in that we don’t worry about these things, but it doesn’t connect with much of anything deeper. We get the mechanics of what’s going on, but that’s because somebody speaks up every six minutes or so and explains it to us. Or there’s a flashback to the Georgian stable where Lady Chatterly Miriam first met John. An Egyptian boudoir is the movie’s only unconvincing set. The Hunger lacks depth. We see swirling gauze curtains or another precise atmospheric effect, and it’s just a pretty picture. Paul Leni’s silent haunted house murder mystery The Cat and the Canary has similar ‘atmosphere’ shots in a hallway of slowly billowing curtains. They pull us into a ‘spooky place,’ almost subliminally. Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr is almost all ‘atmosphere.’ Shots hang around too long, making us nervous because we’re not quite sure we’re understanding. We barely have a handle on the relationships, and even then people act in weirdly contradictory ways. Vampyr conveys and uncanny sense of the unknowable. Narrative concerns are barely considered.
The Hunger has some genuinely macabre things going on, such as Miriam stashing her undead, apparently conscious lovers in boxes in the attic. We ought to think of those game dames Queen Antinea and Ayesha, She Who Must Be Obeyed, both of whom displayed their ex-consorts in a hall of mummified exhibits. Poor Miriam only has a stack of boxes gathering cobwebs in the attic; there’s no glamour to be had up there at all. Instead of pondering the horror of eternal conscious entombment, we’re wondering how Miriam has managed to cart her filing system around through the ages. The same issues bog down the later glam-gothic horror reveries of Anne Rice, where vampirism is just another form of jet-set living, suitable for ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Undead.’
Where The Hunger really succeeds is with the David Bowie character. John is a robust lover and co-predator with his wife of 200 years, but in a matter of a couple of days he degenerates from full health to a shriveled bald guy. The transformation’s early stages are sensationally good, both with Bowie’s performance and the special makeup by Carl Fullerton and Dick Smith. 1 Bowie’s neck thins out, develops a wattle and his skin changes texture. His face droops and hollows in a way that does not suggest rubber appliances glued into place. Tony Scott must have listened to his experts, for the camera angles handle the decomposition perfectly. One day later Bowie’s John is deep into Dick Smith sculpted makeup territory, and it’s all still working well. Smith’s famous old-age work for Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man had big problems despite succeeding on surprise value alone. Twelve years later, Dick Smith’s skin textures on Bowie are amazingly real looking. John mentions liver spots, setting us up for the real evidence of aging. That the ‘old’ John’s skin is so pasty-pulpy isn’t a mistake, because although he’s aged 80 (or 150?) years, his body has been exposed to just a few days of ‘weathering.’
We’re told that the ending was altered to make room for a possible sequel. The predictable twist is fine by me, but I’m not sure what exactly happened to spoil Miriam’s setup at the end. Having a room full of moldy ex-husbands come to life is admittedly not an everyday scene. And the effects-meisters do great work having them crumble on camera, their bones snapping under the weight of their bodies. It’s a technical triumph… but in service of a standard horror movie cliché. What exactly triggered this orgy of decomposition? Miriam must have broken some rule laid down back in Cairo 2,000 years ago … don’t get the vampires wet or feed them after midnight, or something. 2
With all its fancy imagery The Hunger is still a pedestrian piece of commercial storytelling. If I recall correctly, we were there for thrills, mainly the promised sex scenes. It’s still movie stars getting it on with each other, with the occasional cutaways to a body double for Ms. Deneuve. A woman is with a woman which technically makes it a Lesbian encounter, until the focus turns to sampling blood from the inside of each other’s elbows. The most erotic shot is a close-up of Sarandon sucking blood, but Scott makes sure it’s also placed at an artistic remove. It’s a soft-focus Clairol love scene, without long dissolves but with everybody’s hair in perfect place. Still, this is one department where The Hunger makes good on its promises. Our stars deliver like classic-era movie legends, each contributing the fantasy we want to see. Tony Scott’s arty approach may be artless, but he’s doing his best to make an upscale erotic horror picture, and who wants to complain about that? His career problem was going from this promising picture to an immensely popular Reagan-era atrocity, one that would negatively influence action filmmaking for decades.
Ann Magnuson gets mauled by Bowie in one scene, while Dan Hedaya is an investigating cop and Beth Ehlers a violin prodigy who drops in on the Blaylock’s once too often. Willem Dafoe and John Pankow have a good bit in a street scene, seemingly padded to give them more than 2.5 seconds of screen time. 3
The Warner Archive CollectionBlu-ray of The Hunger is the first really watchable encoding of this picture that I’ve seen. It looks and sounds really good, erasing the vague memories of pan-scan “Z-Channel” cable showings, where the mannered Panavision images were reduced to unreadable wide shots and too-tight close-ups. It is a very attractive movie, packed with trendy images.
The movie’s trailer sells the sex and the sizzle, hoping to ignite curiosity about the Deneuve-Sarandon scenes. It’s sort of upscale-trashy, actually. The director commentary, apparently from 2003 or so, is a very nice listen. Tony Scott is candid and self-aware; he’s clearly proud of his movie and spends a lot of time praising the work of his technical and artistic contributors. I found him not at all pompous but a practical filmmaker who wanted to apply his commercial skills to the big screen, an approach that worked well for several directors in the 1980s. He also tells us that almost all of the New York-set film was shot in London, a trick very neatly pulled off. Susan Sarandon appears on the commentary as well (apparently not with Scott) to offer candid remarks about how she took on the movie and why. Her comments on the sex scenes are great, as are her memories of her first scene kissing a woman, the nudity (by day two everybody on the crew was bored) and how she explained these racy roles to her growing children. She’s always been a classy actress and personality.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The HungerBlu-ray rates:
Supplements: Commentary with Tony Scott and Susan Sarandon
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 16, 2015
1. The artists Fullerton and Smith are given the credit, ‘Makeup Illusions,’ which may have had something to do with filming in England … ? Effects makeup wizards were already being feted and billed like stars, but not the legend Smith.
2. I immediately thought of the most successful shot of this kind I can remember, from Terence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula: the vampire’s hand crumbles in the act of flexing fingers, as if his flesh had suddenly turned to vacuum cleaner dust. The crumbling corpses in The Hunger seem to be changing from preserved flesh, to chalk, to flaky mulch. Those poor effects people have to study morgue shots and grisly file images to get these ‘Guanajuato Mummy’ effects. It’s superb.
3. A vaguely related movie would seem to be Roddy McDowall’s unfortunate The Ballad of Tam Lin with Ava Gardner. She’s not a vampire, but she’s definitely a supernatural being who seduces male consorts into a living death, a sort of ‘social limbo.’
2014 / Color / 2:39 widescreen / 113 min. / Street Date August 25, 2015 /
Starring Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Julian Assange, Laura Potras, Marcel Rosenbach, Julian Borger.
Cinematography Kirsten Johnson, Trevor Paglen, Laura Poitras, Katy Scoggin
Film Editor Mathilde Bonnefoy
Produced by Mathilde Bonnefoy, Laura Poitras, Dirk Wilutzky
Directed by Laura Poitras
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
What do you say when a movie plays like a big wake-up call? Last year’s Oscar winner for documentaries Citizenfour is a movie operating way out on a limb, in terms of legalities. We keep saying that the free speech liberties of individuals and the press are sacred in our society, yet modern technology has blurred all the lines. That, and the growing secret security departments of our government have grown so much, and been given so many go-aheads to do things normally forbidden by law, that the definition of civil liberties is in question.
Although I feel competent in describing Citizenfour and explaining why it comes off as sincere and credible, its subject is overwhelming. When is a whistleblower a traitor, and when is he a patriot? The press in general and certainly the present administration have skipped no opportunity to paint NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden as a traitor crippling America’s ability to defend itself. I’ve seen the Vice President on the news, furious that Snowden’s leaked information could put our entire intelligence gathering network — agents, military men, foreign informants — at risk.
Snowden sees it differently, and so does producer Laura Poitras, who had already made critical documentaries about Guantanamo and the Iraq War. When Snowden decided to go public with his information he contacted Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Because of their ‘activities’ informing the public of how the intelligence community now works, Poitras and Greenwald were already under heavy scrutiny, detained in airports when they entering and leaving the country, etc. Another ‘technical’ whistleblower named William Binney had worked for the NSA for decades, devising software to collect and analyze data on foreigners. He came out of retirement to tell the world that the NSA is now aiming the systems he built to the job of collecting data on every U.S. citizen. That’s every phone call, every Email, every monetary transaction. The government justifications, we’re told, are lies. We’re all ‘persons of interest’; there is no such thing as privacy. As Binney says, the East German Stasi, the KGB or the Gestapo would have loved to possess such a system.
Edward Snowden decided to release classified information diverted from secret files to prove that he was serious and that Americans were unaware of the extent of the snooping. Citizenfour shows him holed up in a Hong Kong hotel, holding careful meetings with Glenn Greenwald and another reporter, Ewan MacAskill ,while Poitras’ camera records the decision to go public. Snowden knew that he’d immediately become a wanted man. He chose Hong Kong because it’s not under official or complicit U.S. control – he can travel to other countries from there. What we see is a guy, 30 years old, sitting unshaven on a hotel bed, with his laptop as his only prop. We hear talk about the precautions he’s used to communicate with Poitras and Greenwald, and also the legal steps they’ve taken to avoid being subject to arrest as co-conspirators.
We see a lot of news reaction, with Greenglass going on camera to explain what’s going on. The government is slow to react. Snowden isn’t called a fraud or a liar. He comes off as sincere and determined, and thoroughly convinced that he’s doing the right thing. Mostly, he seems very smart – he’s doing this totally on his own, one man against a huge security monolith. In effect, he’s making himself a complete ‘man without a country.’ The American intelligence agency would surely prefer him locked up and unable to communicate with anybody. We also wonder if they would kill him if they could; our chief executives now reserve the right to order targeted individual killings. When first we heard about Snowden, I imagined him as some kind of nerd megalomaniac, an opportunist of some stripe. That doesn’t seem to be the case. Snowden gave up a pretty good life in Hawaii, with a salary from an NSA contractor. He repeatedly explains that he organized the document leaks in a way to make the story not about him, but to reveal what our government is up to.
At one point an alarm bell in the Hong Kong hotel rings, and the little group is concerned that an arrest may be imminent. There was always the fear that the local police would cooperate with the U.S. officials. Snowden does not seem to be paranoid. Most of us would be expecting a black ops team to drop on the roof, burst in and throw a black bag over our head. We’d be spirited off to some secret prison, never to be seen again.
Snowden and his leaks hit the press with the impact he wanted, but the story does not become, ‘what are we going to do about the secret spying,’ but instead, ‘where will Snowden end up?’ Greenwald is shown traveling to Brazil, to address a large audience (in excellent Portuguese) about what the NSA disclosures mean. Sure, the disclosures hurt our ‘prestige’ around the world. But what they prove is that our government spy agencies are using the information they gather to help American corporations prevail the business playing field overseas. It isn’t about war and treaties and armies, but the economic domination of the globe.
We see a bit of news showing the reaction in Germany, where it comes out that the NSA has been systematically tapping the phone calls and Emails of Chancellor Angela Merkel. That certainly became a problem. Snowden’s disclosures put out the message that the U.S. was not to be trusted, even when dealing with its closest allies.
The docu can’t tie things together because what will happen to Edward Snowden is yet to be determined. Near the end Snowden seems happy to hear that someone else has come out with disclosures, that he may have started a larger movement. I don’t think that has happened in any big way. We always knew that every country had spies, but we didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, that we were already neck deep in a surveillance state much more pernicious than anything in paranoid literature. Our news media prefers to give us alarmist, outraged reports of Chinese ‘cyber attacks’ on the U.S.. The importance of Citizenfour is that we now must understand that the U.S. is waging a constant cyber war against everyone, including its own citizens.
Citizenfour is HD cam footage of a high quality, without narration, tricks or embellishments. It covers a finite time period around when the story breaks, providing a record of what happened. The entire show is riveting, from beginning to end. Seeing that Edward Snowden is no Christopher Boyce or Julius Rosenberg makes a big difference. He’s not exercising a grudge or a vendetta. Ideology and monetary gain seem to have nothing to do with his decision, and he’s neither a glory hog nor a nut case. He may become one of the nation’s first great heroes of the millennial century… depending how the political pendulum swings, of course. 1
Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray of Citizenfour is a fine-looking encoding with excellent image and color. No problems there, whatsoever. We do cut away frequently from Snowden’s hotel room, to the testimony of other whistleblowers, and that of NSA officials that deny doing everything they’re accused of, usually by redefining the questions. I now see why some critics call the present administration the least transparent of any in history.
The extras appear to be produced by The New York Times. An illuminating TV discussion is held between Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, with David Carr moderating and Edward Snowden present by web video. It’s an hour in duration; Snowden is allowed to make a few position speeches to the audience. A film society Q&A with Poitras and Dennis Lim follows. Then comes a short film by Laura Poitras, The Program, which shows the construction in Utah of an enormous NSA data collection facility, which William Binney says will be used to store every bit of web communication, allowing our secret security government to study us in nearly unimaginable detail. For his efforts, Binney has been under constant government scrutiny, to the extent of having his home raided, and guns pushed in his face. Is this what the radical conservatives are so paranoid about? 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, CitizenfourBlu-ray rates:
Supplements: deleted scenes, NYT talk with Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden, David Carr; Dennis Lim and Laura Poitras Q&A; short opinion docu The Program by Laura Poitras
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 14, 2015
1. Could Snowden still be a fraud? I don’t think so. He personally has very little to gain by doing all this, and indeed has already forfeited much. Snowden’s sincerity is similar to that of one of those Vietnamese monks that, to make a political or religious statement, burned himself alive: the monk’s ideas may be wrong, but you can bet your soul that whatever reason he gave for burning himself, he’s not lying.
2. What did you say on Facebook, or Email or message to your friends last week? Any potentially ‘unpopular’ opinions? Anything that could be used against you? Anything else you might not want made public, just for privacy’s sake? I’d like to think that, should some general or politician or corporate CEO say, ‘get me everything we know on Glenn Erickson,’ that the results would just bore them. At least I hope so. Citizenfour makes us think about these issues.
House of Bamboo Twilight Time Savant Blu-ray Review
House of Bamboo Blu-ray
Twilight Time Limited Edition
1955 / Color / 2:55 widescreen / 102 min. / Ship Date August 11, 2015 / available through Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring Robert Ryan, Robert Stack, Shirley Yamaguchi, Cameron Mitchell,
Brad Dexter, Sessue Hayakawa, DeForest Kelley, Robert Quarry, Biff Elliot
Cinematography Joe MacDonald
Art Direction Addison Hehr, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor James B. Clark
Original Music Leigh Harline
Written by Harry Kleiner, Samuel Fuller
Produced by Buddy Adler
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I realize that this great picture is supposed to be a straight crime story, but we best appreciate it as a storytelling concoction that could only come from the fertile imagination of Samuel Fuller. The uniquely weird House of Bamboo represents the high point of the director’s relationship with Darryl F. Zanuck. Fuller first proposed a movie set in Russia. Zanuck countered with a dream assignment, to shoot 20th-Fox’s first picture in Japan, only ten years after the end of the war. Fuller came up with an adaptation of the earlier noir crimer The Street with No Name, combining it with an idea he had for a gang of crooks that strategize their capers along military lines. Beautiful CinemaScope photography in the streets of Tokyo lends the completed film a needed air of authenticity, because in almost every other respect the story premise is wildly unlikely.
Sam Fuller’s dynamic direction made him the darling of the French Cahiers du Cinema critics. This odd gangster epic forms a far-East duo with Fuller’s Hell and High Water, a much crazier comic book movie about Cold War nuclear insanity.
Tokyo, 1954. A gang of thieves hijacks a joint U.S.-Japanese army train under Mt. Fuji, bringing Army cop Capt. Hanson (Brad Dexter) into the jurisdiction of local inspector Kito (Sessue Hayakawa). The perpetrators are Americans, ex-G.I.s led by Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan) and his “Ichiban” Griff (Cameron Mitchell). Dawson plans his raids like military actions; he never leaves a wounded man behind. When one thief is killed, he’s soon replaced with Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack), a hothead loner from the States who tries to muscle in on Sandy’s Pachinko gambling parlors. Spanier becomes Dawson’s new favorite, much to the displeasure of Griff. There’s only one problem: the new man is really Eddie Kenner, a military policeman working as a mole inside Dawson’s unit.
House of Bamboo is one exciting picture, long a favorite of film students. It’s a crazy cross-cultural fantasy. In the middle fifties Americans were assured that Japan was a completely pacified nation with almost no crime and few weapons in civilian hands. American visitors felt safer on the streets of Tokyo than they might in their own hometowns. By and large that picture was true, but according to other sources Japan was giving birth to a thriving new organized crime syndicates, a Yakuza underworld that controlled gambling and vice.
House of Bamboo puts forward the amazing conceit that a gang of American criminals, most of whom do not speak the language, could operate Pachinko parlors while carrying out wild-west style armed robberies, holdups and murders right in the middle of Tokyo. Anyone familiar with a later films like Battles Without Honor and Humanity will immediately realize that Robert Ryan’s Sandy and his pushy crew would be turned into sushi the first time they tried any muscle business on Yakuza turf. Surely there were plenty of black market crimes involving servicemen and perhaps a few ex-servicemen, but the idea of Gangland USA operating on the Tokyo streets is comic-book stuff. We can imagine the Japanese authorities approving of the script, as it glosses over real post-occupation problems, denying the existence of homegrown Japanese crime.
Sam Fuller’s script is an ex-soldier’s escapist fantasy, an occupation daydream. Sandy and his men all have mistresses they call “kimonahs” (sic). When not serving formal tea, these pliant Japanese beauties do the Lindy Hop. This would seem to be the reward for victory — breakfast in bed with a smiling Japanese “kimonah.” No wonder Fuller alluded to protests following his film crews on the streets of Tokyo. He mentions the protesters scattering when he turned his cameras on them — the occupation was officially over but the fear of arrest must have been real.
Of course Sam Fuller had no intention of insulting the Japanese, quite the opposite. In its own way his film shows respect for the nation. It acknowledges that Japan’s separate culture is worth appreciating, an idea not often encountered in Hollywood pictures. Any other director would be intimidated by ridiculousness of the premise, but Sam saw a great story in an exotic locale and proceeded to make one of his most exciting and interesting pictures. If you want a little more verisimilitude, try Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza, which is exaggerated in other ways.
Robert Stack’s Spanier character stomps through Tokyo like a thorough Ugly American, yelling at people for not speaking English and roughing up Pachinko operators employed by American gangster bosses. He finally connects with cool operator Sandy, who is impressed by his tough-guy manner. Fuller’s style might be called comic book/travelogue/graphic. At one point Spanier walks a complicated path of gangplanks between some boats on a canal, ostensibly to ask some questions but really to show off the undeniably authentic location. In search of Mariko, the widow of an American gangster (Shirley Yamaguchi), he comes upon a kabuki troupe rehearsing on the roof of their theater. Fuller obviously doesn’t have any lights to shoot in the theater below; he has them up there in the cold to get the color and costumes for a dynamic trucking shot. Most of the interiors seem to have been filmed back on the Fox lot in Los Angeles. Spanier meets Sandy in a nifty reveal when Cameron Mitchell knocks him through a CinemaScope-shaped paper screen. The entire gang is waiting on the other side.
With the trip to Japan being the film’s one fiscal extravagance, Fuller cut corners where possible. Most of the actors playing Sandy’s gang probably never left Hollywood, although Cameron Mitchell is seen outside a castle moat and Robert Ryan definitely shows up for the finale. A second look at the picture is required to catch all of the Japanese locations matched (presumably) with California stage settings.
It appears that ten years later, critic-turned-director Jean-Luc Godard used Eddie Spanier as a behavior model for his take on the Lemmy Caution character in his Alphaville. Both secret agents are strangers stalking through an alien culture. They show contempt for most everything they see, at least until an attractive skirt catches their eye.
House of Bamboo traces themes through decades of crime films. Sandy hands over a wad of bills for Spanier to use to buy a new suit. “I like my boys to look sharp,” says Sandy, a line that echoes Little Caesar while also adding a homoerotic streak to Sandy’s obvious psychosis. Other scenes like the execution of a wounded comrade during a getaway, and the way a train robbery is blocked with the thieves attacking from beneath a railroad overpass, point forward to The Wild Bunch, a movie that blends western and gangster mythologies.
The movie pays off with two kinds of spectacle. Fuller stages a (for 1955) wild shootout at a fascinating kiddie playground atop a multi-story department store. According to Fuller’s autobiography the store was owned by Nikkatsu of movie studio fame. A giant ride at the very top suspends the little kids eight or ten floors above the street, which to this parent seems like insanity. But it makes a unique location for a final duel. Besides Fuller’s realistic use of bullet impacts and stereophonic sound effects, the globe-shaped ride harkens back to the “Top of the World” theme from White Heat or the various mentions of “Cook’s Tours” and “See the World” in the earliest of gangster films.
An even more sensational pre-climax is the culmination of Sandy Dawson’s mania. It may have been invisible to all the actors save Robert Ryan, as Fuller claims, but Sandy’s preferential attraction to Robert Stack couldn’t be more obvious. Sandy asks the whole gang why he broke his own rule and saved Spanier, while Griff looks hurt and jealous in the background. Sandy’s military obsession is shown to be just one facet of his psychosis, as he takes personal charge of Spanier. Sandy makes it his business to supervise Spanier’s kimono Mariko, as if she were his proxy. With Robert Stack playing most of his scenes with the same blank stare, this is Robert Ryan’s film all the way.
Finally, Sandy’s mistaken revenge against a squealer results in the kinkiest violent act ever in a film noir: he bursts into a Japanese bath and without pause empties six shots through a wooden bathtub. Then he gently lifts the head of the man he’s just killed and explains why it was necessary. Even today, the scene is so jolting it often gets an unintentional laugh, an audience defense mechanism against the outlandishness of it all. Fuller’s staging and Ryan’s performance in the one-shot scene are remarkable.
Shirley Yamaguchi is said to have been a Boston resident and accomplished actress; 3House of Bamboo teems with other notables in roles large and small. Cameron Mitchell (Blood and Black Lace) is excellent considering that Fuller never really gives him a close-up. The same goes for DeForest Kelley’s unbilled henchman Charlie, he of the wicked grin and smart remark. Brad Dexter (The Magnificent Seven) is colorless as the military policeman and Sessue Hayakawa (Bridge on the River Kwai) has almost nothing to do as his opposite number in the Tokyo police. Members of Sandy’s gang without dialogue include Robert Quarry (Count Yorga, Vampire), Biff Elliott (I, The Jury), John Doucette and Harry Carey Jr.. Mariko’s uncle is played by Teru Shimada, the industrialist Osato in the much later You Only Live Twice. 1
Darryl Zanuck became an independent producer at this point, which ended his interesting collaboration with Sam Fuller. Their abortive Tigrero! project fell through and for the next several years Fuller proceeded to make remarkable but only moderately successful pictures. 2 It was at this time that he says he conceived his epic war film The Big Red One, which was eventually shot on a dime-store budget 25 years later. Only with Warners’ Merrill’s Marauders would Fuller again be able to film one of his personal combat films on an appropriately grand scale.
House of Bamboo is a truly eccentric fantasy of American crooks in a Japanese milieu. For credibility it’s several few notches above the bizarre Cold War pulp of Hell and High Water but it’s a much more accomplished picture overall. And watch out for that bathtub!
The Twilight TimeBlu-ray of House of Bamboo is another winner, a vintage film with a transfer to rival new releases. The DVD was okay but the colors and sharpness really ‘pop’ here, making cameraman Joe MacDonald look like a top stylist. The film was reportedly shot during a cold Tokyo winter. Fuller’s travelogue-like Tokyo scenes look great, but so do the interiors done back in West Los Angeles. The sets are especially attractive, even with Fox’s strange house style that favors blue tones. Does anybody else sensitive to that trend? The old prints we saw at UCLA were slightly faded, and the blues were the first to go.
The disc features the expected Isolated Score Track plus two commentaries. Alain Silver and Jim Ursini’s track from 2005 is a good academic piece, and Twilight Time decided to add a new one with their Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo. A couple of Fox newsreel shoots are included, vault items that look as if they were never edited into a release. Julie Kirgo’s liner notes praise the picture’s visuals, calling House of Bamboo one of the most beautifully composed pictures ever. I don’t know about that, as we still get dialogue scenes with people arrayed across the frame in a flat manner. But the film’s overall dynamism keeps our interest very high. I still associate Fuller with the visuals of comic strips.
The 5.1 mix utilizes the film’s original 4-channel stereo. Fox’s audio department did good work beefing up Fuller’s brief action scenes — he was one director who knew from experience what the middle of a gunfight sounded like!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, House of BambooBlu-ray rates:
Sound: Excellent English 5.1 DTS-HD MA
Supplements: Isolated Score Track, commentary with Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, commentary with Alain Silver and James Ursini, Fox Movietone newsreels, trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 13, 2015
1. Great Info From Dick Dinman, 5.27.05:
Hey Glenn, Loved your review of Bamboo which I agree with 100% but wanted to point out that one of my closest friends Biff Elliot did indeed have lines —- he was the dying gangster at the start. He was originally set to play the Brad Dexter role but, thanks to Dexter’s “aggressiveness” was given the other role instead. Also, did you notice anything strange about Sessue Hayakawa’s voice? He was dubbed by Richard Loo and as a result of this film nabbed Bridge on the River Kwai on which David Lean went ballistic upon finding out that he couldn’t speak English and would have to learn his lines phonetically. — Dick Dinman
Dear Glenn: Fuller was nonexclusive to Fox even while he was making films at the studio, then went basically independent as well — while Fox financed and distributed his 1957 Forty Guns and China Gate, both were actually produced by Fuller’s Globe Enterprises. Run of the Arrow and Verboten! were produced by Globe Enterprises for RKO; The Crimson Kimono and Underworld U.S.A. were Globe Enterprises productions for Columbia. While Fox controls the rights to Forty Guns, Republic seems to currently possess the rights to China Gate.
It’s a shame that the Fuller/Zanuck relationship was relatively brief; the two men evidently worked so well together. When DFZ returned to run Fox in 1962, of course, he became corporate head and was largely based in NY; his son Richard was in charge of production. It’s too bad DFZ couldn’t have done a little moonlighting back then and shepherd a few Fuller vehicles through the system; it might have stemmed the director’s long, fairly difficult spell after 1964. Best, Always. — B.
Burn, Witch, Burn Kino Lorber
Savant Blu-ray Review
Burn, Witch, Burn Blu-ray Kino Lorber
1962 / B&W / 1:78 widescreen / 90 min. / Night of the Eagle / Street Date August 18, 2015 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Peter Wyngarde, Janet Blair, Margaret Johnston, Anthony Nicholls, Colin Gordon, Kathleen Byron, Reginald Beckwith, Jessica Dunning, Norman Bird, Judith Stott, Bill Mitchell.
Cinematography Reginald Wyer
Original Music William Alwyn
Written by Charles Beaumont & Richard Matheson and George Baxt from the novel Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber Jr.
Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff, Albert Fennell
Directed by Sidney Hayers
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sometimes any horror picture will do. But there are horror fans that take special notice when somebody puts together a show that might attract non-horror fans, a film that makes us think about how superstition works and why it has power over people.
A superior horror film in all respects, Burn, Witch, Burn sees American-International doing a great job, providing a good English filmmaking team with American distribution as well as the talents of the studio’s frequent screenwriters, celebrated horror and sci-fi greats Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson. The intelligent and exciting Burn, Witch, Burn gets high marks in every department. When originally released it worked audiences into a genuine creepy panic, and a 1974 museum screening I saw elicited applause from a packed audience. It’s perhaps the most respected film directed by the prolific Sidney Hayers, a director who eventually segue’d into a long TV career. Hayers’ other transcendent scare classic is a whole different kettle of shocks: 1960′s highly successful mix of sex and gore Circus of Horrors.
The alignment of talent and opportunity that allowed the creation of Burn, Witch, Burn was indeed providential. Matheson and Beaumont wrote the script on spec and then sold it to the studio; Richard Matheson’s good relationship with A.I.P. president Jim Nicholson was probably a big help. A.I.P. in turn subcontracted the actual production of the film to the Brits. The original English title Night of the Eagle sounds suspiciously like Jacques Tourneur’s superb Night of the Demon, known to U.S. viewers as Curse of the Demon. Superficially the stories are similar, as an eagle does serve as a substitute demon from Hell. But Burn is sourced in an old novel by Fritz Leiber, often promoted by Forrest J. Ackerman. Back in 1944 it was adapted as a Universal “Inner Sanctum” B-picture, Weird Woman.
Tourneur’s peerless Curse of the Demon distinguished itself by taking a step back from its story about summoning horrors from Hell, to examine the nature of superstition and the modern effort to oppose it. The hero is a rational skeptic. Burn, Witch, Burn offers the same idea in an even more personal context. Another protagonist dedicated to the suppression of superstition clashes with his own wife, who is deeply involvedd with voodoo-like black magic picked up on a sojourn in Jamaica. With so many irrational (let’s be honest: flat-out stupid) “belief systems” given credence in today’s culture, the hero’s domestic problem isn’t at all that unusual.
The setting is a provincial English college, complete with ivy on the walls. Professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) teaches his medical school class about the sociological effects of belief in primitive superstitions, and is dismayed when he discovers that his lovely wife Tansy (Janet Blair) is practicing black magic right in their college lodgings. Norman bullies Tansy with his anti-superstitious fervor and discounts her claim that her charms counter ‘evil forces’ and are responsible for his good fortune at the college. Refusing to believe that other faculty members harbor hostility toward him, Norman burns Tansy’s talismans, sachets, totems and other grotesque items. His luck does an immediate flip-flop. A female student accuses him of having an affair with her, and a male student threatens him with a gun. A truck almost runs him down. His faith in rationality shaken, his job and livelihood in jeopardy, Norman comes home to discover Tansy missing. She has left a note saying she plans to offer her own life to save his, in a rite she once saw demonstrated in Jamaica.
Burn, Witch, Burn brings the diabolical even closer to reality than did Tourneur’s film, with the brilliant choice of its setting: academia. A microcosm of a cynic’s view of the world, the average college faculty is already a simmering cauldron of envy, bitterness and passive-aggressive rivalries. Just like every small-pond competitive situation, it makes sense that an academic might kill to stay on top. Norman and Tansy host a card game with an openly hostile professor’s wife (Kathleen Byron of Black Narcissus, under-used) and the catty, insinuating lady professor Flora (Margaret Johnston, terrific). Everybody remarks on Norman’s status as the golden boy of the faculty, the new man who will more likely than not leapfrog the seniority line and win the department chair.
The show works because the characters are so well drawn and believable. Tansy goes to market like a normal housewife but also leaves her little charms stashed everywhere. She is terrified to discover that one of their bridge night guests has hidden a counter-charm in their salon. What previously was petty paranoia (the faculty are against us!) suddenly shapes up as a real battle of sorcery. When Tansy’s defenses go up in smoke, Norman is hit by a tidal wave of ill fortune — accusations, freak chance accidents. 1 Not until Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby would we be invited so compellingly to consider random bad events as part of a concerted conspiracy of black magic.
Reginald Wyer’s sharp camera movements and tight, tense angles show he and director Hayers working at their best. The lighting changes suggest Tansy’s inner panic and the malicious enthusiasm. By the third act it appears that all the forces of darkness have been aligned against Norman. We can guess what’s coming by the repetition of shots of the stone eagle on the college ramparts. The film also doesn’t quite explain all of its magic, at least not to this thickheaded viewer. Norman appears to break one spell by making a gesture of faith in a lonely crypt, but I’m not at all sure why a recording of his voice does what it does in the final act. It’s no matter, for the tightly organized visuals cue us to exactly the next level of menace at just the right time. The movie’s grip is so complete that the viewers jump at the sight of a single telling shot of Tansy walking strangely.
Both theater audiences I saw the movie with applauded at the conclusion. The hoodoo-voodoo thrills cover up the fact that the film faults “emotional” females twice over: first for foolishly believing in black magic, and then for using it when it proves to be a functional reality. Burn, Witch, Burn is a great show for those of us that watch Bell, Book and Candle and wonder why some Manhattan Van Helsing isn’t taking charge and staking the horrid devil-worshippers Kim Novak, Elsa Lanchester and Jack Lemmon through their pagan hearts. Well, maybe not Kim Novak.
Janet Blair would probably have been amused to know that she’s better known in Burn, Witch, Burn than her near-classic comedy My Sister Eileen. Twenty years later she’s still as beautiful and charming as all get-out. Peter Wyngarde is the most body-proud sociology professor I ever saw — the actor’s contract must have stipulated that he gets to play a percentage of his scenes with his shirt off. The movie successfully aligns Norman’s skeptical arrogance with his general vanity. Margaret Johnson is perfectly marvelous as the eccentric Flora Carr — any self-respecting University department has at least one “interesting” personality like her. If actor Reginald Beckwith seems familiar, it’s because he also plays the kooky Mr. Meek in Curse of the Demon. Neither he nor the talented Kathleen Byron is given the screen time they deserve, unfortunately. Lovely Judith Stott made few movies but leaves a strong impression as the student infatuated with Norman, who seems compelled to denounce him. Does the movie inadvertently suggest that female accusers of molestation are acting under mind control?
The Kino LorberBlu-ray of Burn Witch Burn is a fine HD encoding of this still too obscure horror gem, previously released as a so-so MOD DVD-R. The added detail and texture gives us the expected ‘English B&W’ look, with soft grays and few hard shadows in exteriors. Various night scenes show off some excellent lighting schemes; the midnight doings on a remote beach includes some excellent day-for-night footage.
The film is the American release version, which is almost identical to the English original. Some credits vary in the title sequences, and the American final card “Do you believe?” is a simple “The End” in Night of the Eagle. This copy has the vocal introduction added by American-International, spoken over black by Paul Frees. It was routinely dropped from TV broadcasts but was included again starting with a laserdisc release from around 1996-97. I imagine that the speech was a perfect mood-setter for kids primed for a take-no-prisoners spook show. It seems superfluous now, and in a different spirit altogether from the fairly sophisticated thrills that follow. Frees’ voice has since become strongly identified with Disney’s Haunted Mansion theme park ride. 2
Although the problem has been lessened, the audio track in the first reel or so has some distortion, obviously built in from the available element. Frees’ narration is sibilant and the track ‘crunchy’ overall. This problem was much more pronounced on earlier discs, but I still hear it.
A Scorpion logo appears at the head of the disc, but not on the packaging. That company may be behind the new interview with actor Peter Wyngarde, a nice extra that shows him to be no more self-interested than any other actor. Wyngarde shares good memories of the shoot.
An original A.I.P. trailer sells the movie a bit too hard but doesn’t misrepresent it or give away the exciting conclusion. Also present is a commentary with author Richard Matheson, missing from the DVD-R but I believe included on the old laser. Matheson’s comments seem spotty at first, and he sometimes simply relates what he’s seeing on the screen. But he eventually tells the entire story of the show. Matheson has almost entirely positive memories of the film, its cast and especially Beaumont. He talks about the deal making behind some of
his A.I.P. work — he earned only $5,000 for a couple of his Poe pictures, amounts adjusted with bonuses from James Nicholson. He also goes over specifics about some of his other films, like the adaptation of his I Am Legend,The Last Man on Earth. He seemingly forgets that it was not filmed in America.
Taking a cue from Arrow Video, Kino offers a reversible package art, with an alternate advertising image derived from a print ad. I like it. If you’re the kind of horror fan that responds positively to sensitive, smart films like Curse of the Demon, Kino Lorber’s Burn Witch Burn will be just the ticket.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Burn, Witch, BurnBlu-ray rates:
Video: Very Good +
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Interview with Peter Wyngarde, commentary with Richard Matheson, Trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 13, 2015
1. The perfect short subject for Burn, Witch, Burn: Tex Avery’s demented cartoon Bad Luck Blackie.
2. The voice script is serious about invoking evil spirits, and I imagine that it might offend Christian fundamentalists of the sort that don’t abide celebrations of Halloween, etc.. But what kind of Bible audience is going to buy a disc called Burn, Witch, Burn?
First things first — this is an autobiographical article about the ‘different’ way I grew up watching movies, different because I was an Air Force dependent, the son of a Chief Master Sergeant E-9. When my father retired in 1967 he was the ranking non-commissioned officer in the Air Force. I know there are many ex-service dependents out there that might like to read this, because some of them must have been introduced to movies the same way I was. The military movie ‘system’ I’ll be talking about functioned all over the world, and hasn’t been written up anywhere that I can see. People from more mainstream backgrounds might be interested too. The article is also a little bit about how we lived.
As a dependent of a non-commissioned officer (effectively an enlisted man with privileges) my upbringing was not a fancy one. I don’t think my parents got really decent housing until Dad’s rank and service record — like being a main facilitator of the Texas end of the Berlin Airlift — won him some plum assignments. For us it meant that between the ages of three and nine I lived on-Base, in fairly nice quarters. By 1955 my father was in demand to run Flight Lines for C.O.s that wanted impeccable efficiency records. But duty at any one Base often lasted only three years.
A high, dry desert.
Edwards, California was the center of flight-testing, as is shown with some degree of accuracy in the movie The Right Stuff. Note that the hotshot fliers in that movie didn’t live in particularly attractive houses. The enlisted men below them had quarters on a par with low-grade public housing blocks, two bedrooms for a wife and three kids, no yard, that sort of thing. Part of my father’s ‘deal’ with his C.O.s was that his family could live in quarters the equivalent of what would be given to a Major. What this got us was a decent house in an incredibly secure on-Base neighborhood. The speed limit was five or ten miles per hour on residential streets and the MPs (or was it APs for Air Police?) were relentless. My mother parked slightly off the tarmac once and her driving privileges were suspended for a month. She couldn’t drive my father to work, which meant that he took the car and we had to walk a mile to the shopping area, partly across the desert. I loved it. In Kindergarten I was a typical ’50s dinosaur addict and considered myself smart because my (beloved) older sister had already taught me to read. I must have been a shameless teacher’s pet.
Edwards is where I saw my first movies, probably at age four. I was later informed that the first film shown at the brand new Edwards Base Movie Theater in 1956 was a quasi-premiere of Toward the Unknown, which had been filmed at Edwards. When I finally caught up with the movie I didn’t recognize the military testing area, as kids weren’t allowed there. But William Holden and Virginia Leith did take a stroll up a neighborhood identical to ours — modest houses, no curbs.
My dear mother took me to my first movie, which I think was Oklahoma! We saw Hollywood films anywhere from three months to a year after their civilian debuts, depending on how popular they had been. My recollection at age 5 isn’t perfect, but I remember the theater being fairly large, with a wide screen positioned on a stage so that the auditorium could also be used for other presentations, ceremonies, and meetings. The building was built from cinder blocks and glass bricks (I think) and may have been part of a new shopping area. I imagine it was an immediate hit, for the nearest town with theaters was Lancaster, almost forty miles away. Oh yes, one more detail about Base Theaters — they played a two-minute film with pictures of the flag and the Star Spangled Banner on the soundtrack. Everyone stood at attention for this, even kids.
I remember seeing Sayonara and reissues of Perri, the Flying Squirrel and my first Disney animated movie, Peter Pan. I remember just one scene from Friendly Persuasion. A little later I got to see a real episode of a Republic serial. All I can recall is a shot of one of their tin-can robot monsters walking down a hospital corridor and threatening a nurse. Scary stuff, and I’d never even heard of a robot before.
In reviews I often refer to myself as a sheltered ’50s kid, and it’s the truth. Locked away on such ironically peaceful military bases and never seeing the real world, I was completely ignorant about common conflicts. I don’t remember seeing any black airmen, but they must have been there. We were not a religious family, and I received few if any lectures about life beyond “what I wanted to be”. The books I read were about Natural History. Death, crime, real war,
insecurity, anxiety — they didn’t exist because nobody talked about them. Sex? The issue never came up. My parents never swore, and if their friends did, I was somehow programmed to not hear. This of course made movie content very exciting. One didn’t know what would pop up on that screen.
At the theater I was blown away by trailers for the monster grasshopper epic Beginning of the End and the plaster-monster-man movie Curse of the Faceless Man. I also remember seeing TV commercials (on our fuzzy reception from Los Angeles) for the monster movies Rodan and The Blob, but nothing else. I knew I couldn’t go see them. I must have felt guilty, for I felt sure that my TV privileges would vanish if I were to ask. Where did this guilt come from? My first ‘most terrifying thing I ever saw’ was a shot of a jeep blown off a highway by Rodan’s supersonic shock wave. Sonic booms could be heard over Edwards perhaps ten times a day — were the two things connected?
Just before leaving Edwards in 1958, I either saw a trailer for Anthony Mann’s Man of the West, or perhaps part of the feature. I wasn’t fully following what was going on but the scene where Julie London was forced to disrobe at knifepoint was really something… I think it activated some previously unused part of my brain. Yes, now there were more reasons to go to the movies, each more guilty than the last.
My father’s rank service stature had become even more enhanced by that time, partly because many non-coms at his rank and pay grade were leaving the service to establish more rewarding careers. Aerospace and civil aviation was booming as well as the arms race. As military dependents we were really living in a communal bubble — we had billeting and food allowances and maybe another perk or two, but one couldn’t save very much on the pay. As far as my father was concerned, the service was everything. He wasn’t working for money. He was never aware of what things in the real world cost.
Clearly with the aim of holding on to experienced airmen, Hollywood made another movie at Edwards at this time, Bombers B-52. I was later surprised to discover that it
had to do with the family and career problems of the ranking Sergeant on the Edwards Flight line. My father was the ranking Sergeant on the Edwards Flight Line, so technically the movie was about our family, us. By any measure Bombers B-52 was a ridiculous distortion. The young boy playing “me” didn’t have much of a role, but he had an older sister, just as I did, and she was the star of the picture. To this day I remind my sister that Natalie Wood played her in a Hollywood movie.
The Sergeant/Father in Bombers B-52 is Karl Malden. He has time to worry about his wife, micro-manage his daughter’s love life and even appear on a Los Angeles quiz show. He took his family on a real vacation. And he even showed himself to be a two-fisted guy, catching a government agent breaking onto the flight line to test Base security. Most hilariously, this Sergeant father relaxed at home wearing a dressing gown. The real McCoy I knew consistently came home after shifts lasting between 18 hours and two days, collapsed in bed in his underwear, and slept for 14 hours straight. I might see him looking great in his uniform once more before he went back on duty, gone. The only hobby he had time for was keeping up his old Ford pickup, as part of Edwards’ Model A Club. That was reality. As his #1 son, my job was to keep quiet and stay out of the way.
Onward to paradise.
My father’s next assignment, from 1958 to 1961 was the big lifestyle payoff for the family — he took charge of the Flight Line at Hickam AFB, which the flyers still called Hickam Field. We got to live on Base in Hawaii. I woke up after an 11-hour plane flight like Dorothy Gale opening the door to Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz — purple flowers poking in the window, strange tiny birds chirping and a smell like perfume in the air. It was amazing — since age four all I had seen was the brown glare of the desert. We lived on officers’ row on 9th Street, in front of acres of green parade ground. A tall water tower was at the end of the block, where our elementary school was. This same water tower can be seen in several shots in Tora, Tora, Tora, as it is right on the edge of Pearl Harbor. The water tower and our ‘front yard’ can be seen briefly in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, when some fighter planes zoom down the length of the parade ground. The administration building and hospital at the other end of the grass strip had dozens of big pockmarks where machine guns or bomb shrapnel scarred the granite exterior. It had all happened fewer than twenty years before. I felt like I was living on a real battleground. My family was defending the country.
The best part of the setup was that the main Hickam Base Theater was only about a block away, just beyond the clinic. With all cars limited to a strict 5 mph speed, I was allowed to ride my bicycle anywhere on Base, and to walk to the Theater by myself at age seven to see movies. Child’s admission was 15 cents. Three pennies in a vending machine bought a bag of salty, dry popcorn. The auditorium was big and the picture was bright. It was heaven. I think the first film we saw there was South Pacific.
I figured out the theater’s system fairly early, because I’d ride my bike there every day and stare at the posters. The movies changed four or five times a week, and by walking around the building one could see posters for the next seven ‘attractions’. There must have been a giant film circuit going at these Base theaters, for every couple of days a film print or two would be picked up and others dropped off. Posters and trailers circulated as well. There were at least two other theaters on base that we didn’t go to much. One was completely outdoors, to watch movies under the Hawaiian stars.
I was allowed to attend the movies on my own because I wanted to see things nobody in the family wanted to see. This was good, because my mother had a habit of covering my eyes if she thought something terrible was going to be shown on screen. She did this for a beheading in Inn of the Sixth Happiness. Instead of protecting me, she gave me nightmares. For years I tried to imagine what a man having his head chopped off looked like… only to find out later that the event wasn’t shown at all. I was allowed to attend matinees on my own and eventually evening shows as well, which is how I saw, by myself, The Mysterians,Caltiki the Immortal Monster,The Atomic Submarine and Battle in Outer Space. The two Japanese space movies had
stock shots of American planes unloading secret anti-alien weapons in Japan — and the planes bore the MATS (Military Air Transport Service) insignia of our fathers’ own squadrons. We Air Force dependent kids cheered any display of U.S. military hardware, but when our planes were suddenly on screen we jumped up like maniacs. At age ten we were all warhawks, by default … and our fathers were fighting the aliens too!
By 1960, many kids out in the civilian world were already hip to the world of film. But I still lived in a total information vacuum regarding movie history. I loved the lizards-only The Lost World and had no idea that it was a remake. I read the Conan Doyle book and also H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, without knowing that an exciting screen version already existed. The 3 Worlds of Gulliver made a big impression, but it would be several years before I found out about Ray Harryhausen. My only knowledge of King Kong was hearing some older kids talk about it. I gathered that a monster was involved but that was all. This was not a world I was sharing too much with my parents, for fear that they’d think I was becoming a delinquent and cut off my access. Meanwhile, I had a secret life as a ‘movie expert’. For a couple of years I kept a little file with titles and one-sentence opinions. I tried to sit through The Time Machine twice in one afternoon, and was yanked out of the theater by an usher and my mother, who had come looking for me. Big pictures for me in 1961 were Gorgo and Atlantis the Lost Continent. At the time I thought Atlantis was perfect in every way. You’re only young and impressionable once.
San Berdoo… Mormons and Hell’s Angels.
I really missed my little Base Theater when in late 1961 we moved to Norton AFB in San Bernardino, California. I’d stay in that town until leaving for college nine years later, and essentially never came home again. We had one year of beautiful desert climate in San Berdoo before the smog moved in to stay. Our yard was overrun with lizards and ‘horny toads’. My mother must have had some illusions about my independence because at age 11 I was permitted to take a bus downtown to see matinees, often alone when my friends were off on vacations. Thus I finally became aware of how real movie theaters operated, as opposed to the stern discipline at the military theater. At the shows downtown I waited in line, fought for a good seat, yelled during the show and fought again to buy candy at the intermission. Like every movie-mad kid I scanned the paper every Wednesday to decide what show would be the best bet for the Saturday noon slot. I usually chose science fiction monsters over horror pictures. Space films had unfortunately all but dried up, but there were several seasons of Japanese monsters and the much more in-your-face Cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, back on a double bill with Mysterious Island. At age eleven I also went alone to
see Hitchcock’s The Birds, and white-knuckled the whole experience. When I walked out of the theater I was transformed. The world was still the same, but I’d never again take it for granted. Chaos and catastrophe could strike at any time.
This is when I finally met friends with similar interests, on the school playground of Hunt Elementary. Instead of smoking or talking dirty, I’d listen while Arthur Gaitan and Bill Harris lectured me on the entire genealogy of classic Universal monsters: “so, Frankenstein falls in a well at the end of this movie, and is found frozen underground in the next one”. They also loaned me copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and showed me the grungy liquor stores where they could be bought. As the monster mags were always racked next to the sex-oriented magazines, one had to get in and out fast. San Berdoo was a mix of Mormon repression and sleazy license, and you never knew what blue-nosed adult might call the cops and denounce you as a delinquent. At least we heard stories to that effect. Through Famous Monsters we learned about Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Hammer films and A.I.P., Paul Blaisdell and Ray Harryhausen. We saw stills for rare movies we’d spend the next forty years waiting to see.
Unfortunately, the really weird stuff only seemed to play at drive-ins, which were out of my reach. My parents had stopped going to movies altogether, and if by chance they did they weren’t going to take me to see Gorath or Atragon. We didn’t live on-Base at Norton but bought a small house in Del Rosa, an Eastern extension of the city being carved out of orange groves. I saw ad flyers from Norton’s Base movie theater but couldn’t attend, because the only way to get on Base was in a vehicle with the proper pass decal. I wasn’t even driving yet. Thus I’d look at little ads for things like The Time Travelers and Planet of the Vampires and just shake my head. My idea of an impossible dream, something I knew would never happen, was a home movie machine that would allow me to see Our Man Flint projected on my own wall, in ‘Scope. I actually dreamed that the ‘film’ would be in some kind of cartridge roughly the shape of a VHS cassette.
On the drive home from the Base once, I remember reading a theater flyer while, outside the car window, one could see long lines of troops boarding cargo planes destined for Vietnam, just as in the movie Hair. I assumed they were all gung-ho soldiers eager to fight, and didn’t give a thought to the fact that in a couple of years I’d be eligible for the draft as well. I was still a military kid — that was just how the world operated. I considered myself intelligent but in no way was I thinking for myself, nor was I giving much thought to the real world I’d be living in. There was my schoolwork, my friends and these marvelous movies to occupy my mind. How to Become a Lifelong Dreamer, Chapter One.
I got my license in 1968 and was soon a regular customer at the Base Theater. As normal ticket prices downtown were at least two dollars, the 35-cent admission on the Base was great. The theater itself was little more than a converted barracks with a screen probably less than thirty feet wide. But the projection was good and the audience of young airmen was always enthusiastic. One of the first shows I saw there, in standard 35mm and mono sound, was 2001: A Space Odyssey. When I saw it again three years later at the Cinerama Dome, it was quite a different experience. The Base Theater screened many films not shown locally, and most everything released by a major studio. The politically challenging If…. and Medium Cool fascinated me. In my junior year some progressive schoolteachers took us students to a strange new ‘art theater’ in neighboring Riverside, to see Cassavetes’ Faces and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. The bookstores in the new mall downtown suddenly had a fat movie section. I bought Raymond Durgnat’s Films and Feelings and a thoughtful girlfriend gave me the Truffaut: Hitchcock book. It became my bible, even though I hadn’t even seen Psycho yet.
Meanwhile, the downtown theaters suddenly became oppressive to teenage moviegoers, presumably in reaction to the ‘permissive garbage’ Hollywood was putting out under the new ratings system. In 1969 I was turned away from The Wild Bunch because I wasn’t 18. I excitedly pointed out that I was 17, and that the manager’s own posted regulation for “R” movies said that children under 17 were the ones that needed to be accompanied by an adult. It was no go — the theater manager wouldn’t budge. I’d have to settle for going back to the Base Theater, where I could bring some friends to see the “R” rated Wild Bunch, as well as M*A*S*H and even the rare Age of Consent, with its eye-catching Helen Mirren nude scenes. Yes, the “repressive” U.S. military was the most liberal entity I encountered in my teenage years.
In my senior year I was told about a special film class being held on Base, at Norton’s gigantic, high-security Air Force film center. Some officer wanted his son to be indoctrinated in film and so pushed the weekly class through the bureaucracy. With the draft on, my parents liked the idea of my qualifying for a photo outfit, as they thought I was so un-aggressive that any other kind of military duty would be a disaster. Considering that they were such hawks, I’m grateful that my parents didn’t pressure me toward a military career.
The film club was fun and our teacher Ray Ussery was a great guy. We shot 16mm with a new Arriflex. We were impressed by the high-tech building, a giant concrete block. Its maze-like interior was suitable for the underground bunker of a James Bond villain… or Adolph Hitler. We got to view some pretty awful films that the Air Force propaganda people were making. One montage of jets taking off on a bombing mission was synchronized to a Moody Blues song (“Dawning is the Day”) about realizing one’s dreams. A terminally lame informational film imitated the style of the TV hit Laugh-In. Then we were told that the club would be giving out a pair of scholarships that included two semesters of college tuition. The anointed officer’s son didn’t bother to fulfill the requirements but won anyway. I got the second prize because I dazzled them with my enthusiasm and turned in a full script (for a terrible film idea). I must have looked like a big chipmunk that wanted to make movies. That good experience led to my giving an uncharacteristically upbeat performance at a general school scholarship interview, and suddenly I was on my way to UCLA. Add that to the list of personal contradictions — the Military Industrial Complex helped send me to a hotbed of radical political activity… which I quietly observed from the sidelines.
UCLA in 1970 was a fine place to be exposed to new ideas. I never was drafted. I reported to my induction center to get my card, and found that I was the only white kid in a room packed with Latins and blacks. My student deferment held out until the Big Draft Lottery. My lucky birth date came up 307 out of 365, so I was home free. I’d return to San Bernardino frequently from UCLA, until the gate pass on my Volkswagen expired. But by that time I was heavily into the Los Angeles vintage movie culture, what with Film School screenings, passes from professors, special series at the County Museum of Art, celebrity-hosted screenings at the Director’s Guild and of course FILMEX. I’m still that kid who got to walk to his own private movie theater at age seven.