Thursday, January 01, 2015

Hello 2015 - A Step Forward In Time

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Goodbye 2014

2014: a year of extremes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next year promises still more good things.

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

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Response to the VW Digital Archive

Merry Christmas!

For those of you who don't know, the VIDEO WATCHDOG Digital Archive - all 176 issues - was published the other day. Subscribers via our Indiegogo campaign should have received emails informing them of how to access and download their issues. If you haven't, please write to Donna at kickstarter@videowatchdog.com and she will put things right. We hope to have it available for everyone by the beginning of next week; we're having some shopping cart issues that need to be resolved before then. In the meantime, anyone can visit our Digital Library (see the left hand side of our website page) and preview the first five pages of all those issues for free, to assist you with deciding which back issues you might want to acquire if you can't go for the whole enchilada.

Last year, we told you the story of the Christmas miracle that enabled all of this to happen. This Christmas Day, let me share with you a wonderful email that Donna and I received only yesterday from a long-time reader in Switzerland, just in time to sweeten our holiday and make all of our efforts of this past year seem all the more worthwhile. It is reprinted with the sender's kind permission:

Hi Donna and Tim,

First off, let me wish you both the very best of Holidays. I hope you’re taking some time off, you deserve it after the wonderful job you’ve accomplished with the Digital Edition of VW.

Ever since issue # 175 came out in the format, I’ve wanted to let you know how much I love love LOVE these digital versions, how insanely pleasurable they are to read all over again and how generous to your readers you’ve been with them.

And I happen to think their importance goes a lot deeper than what all the superlatives could hope to express. I think that, with them, you’re teaching us all a lesson about the permanence of cinema, of the love of it and of the pleasures found in writing and reading about it

I’ve been returning to a lot of the first issues (I of course own the printed editions but I hardly go back to them, they’ve been sort of locked in their own time, thought of almost as obsolete as the formats described and critiqued therein) and what you’ve done with the Digital is to make them all relevant all over again. In other words, you’ve managed to overcome the curse of obsolescence. Otherwise why would it be so much fun to read, in late 2014, a twenty + year old piece about “The Exorcist” or “Twin Peaks. Fire Walk With me”… Because it’s never been about the formats - formats come and go -, neither is it about the painstaking listings of deleted scenes - we’ve seen them all by now – nor has it ever been only about the quality of a given transfer.

All of these, much as the world they exist in are always changing, adapting to the evolving requirements of the marketplace, but the absolute love of movies, the passion - yours… ours… mine… - for the art itself, which runs throughout all of these pages, has remained a constant. They’ve run in parallel for close to twenty-five years and my personal relationship to the medium, my own passion for the form I’ve now made my profession to convey to the next generation, has been influenced by VW in so many ways that they’ve become impossible to dissociate.

But it is naturally not (only) about me and my relationship to VW. What you’ve done for the home video market during these 25 years is simply astounding. I don’t think we’d be in this place today at all had VW had not been around, guiding the producers, setting the standards. Just thinking of some of the household names: Kim Newman, David Kalat, Mark Kermode, the fondly remembered Michael Lennick and Tim himself have all become ubiquitous in the industry and all of them for the very best of reasons.

This may sound silly, but thank you for reminding us, through these digital pages and the hours of fascinated and educated fun they will bring us all, of the importance of Video Watchdog in our lives.

A Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year to the two of you…

Didier Gertsch
Les Ateliers du Cinéma
Aubonne, Switzerland

Friday, December 19, 2014

Giorgio Ardisson (1931 - 2014)


It saddens me to report, so soon after the passing of Mary Dawne Arden, the death of another prominent player in the films of Mario Bava. The Facebook fan page Peplum Eternity is reporting that Italian actor Giorgio Ardisson - the handsome young actor best remembered for his roles in Bava's HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (Ercole al centro della terra, 1961) and ERIK THE CONQUEROR (Gli invasori, 1961) - died on December 11, at the age of 82. Before either of these films, he had been featured in two other films in which Mario Bava played a behind-the-scenes part: Andre de Toth's MORGAN THE PIRATE (Morgan il pirato, 1960) and Giacomo Gentilomo's LAST OF THE VIKINGS (L'ultimo dei vichinghi, 1961).

Among his many other screen credits were roles in KATARSIS with Christopher Lee, Antonio Margheriti's THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH with Barbara Steele (recently released on Blu-ray by Raro Video), Albert Band's HERCULES AND THE PRINCESS OF TROY and Federico Fellini's JULIET OF THE SPIRITS. He also played Sartana in Pasquale Squitieri's DJANGO DEFIES SARTANA, opposite THE WHIP AND THE BODY'S Tony Kendall.

Owing to some unfortunate misinformation passed on to me, MARIO BAVA - ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK mistakenly reported an earlier death date for Ardissson, a detail I have always regretted.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

RIP Michel Caen of MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE


There they are, the twenty-four issues that redefined what genre film journalism and criticism could and should be. The first eleven issues were digest-sized, printed on pulp paper, and as thick as paperback books; the remaining numbers were full-sized magazines printed on firm, non-glossy stock. It lasted only nine years, but MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE existed to celebrate the dark beauty of the horror and fantasy genres, to draw attention to experimental and independent cinema, the literature that provoked such images, their fetishism, their eroticism. It was not a monster magazine rife with jokes and clubhouse fun; it was a magazine for adults, for connoisseurs. It celebrated mystery, surrealism, the bizarre, the brazen beauty of the strange. Their eighth issue, in fact, became a cause de scandale - a celebration of "Eroticism and Fear in the British Cinema" that featured a portfolio of never-before-published nude images from the so-called "continental versions" of various British horror films, which led to the issue being banned by many newsstands. They presented the first in-depth print interviews with the likes of Terence Fisher, Jacques Tourneur, Roger Corman and Barbara Steele, enabling their readership to cross the proscenium of the entertained to see the film business as a reality that they too might enter and change - as one of their readers, Jean Rollin, did, in time to see his work on the cover of their penultimate issue.

MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE - named for the Midi-Minuit cinema in Paris where films of this sort habitually played - inspired many people outside of France, including people who couldn't speak a word of French, because the magazine was, above all, beautiful. Its carefully selected images were enough to propose a different understanding of its subject. I know for a fact that M-MF (along with Tom Reamy's TRUMPET) inspired Frederick S. Clarke to create CINEFANTASTIQUE, and it certainly inspired me to create VIDEO WATCHDOG. The VCR was my Midi-Minuit cinema.


Early this morning, reports began appearing on my Facebook news feed announcing the passing on Monday evening (December 15) of Michel Caen, the creator and editor-in-chief of this life-changing publication. I don't know his age and know nothing of the cause. He and I never met, we never exchanged words, but I hope my work shows his influence. Earlier this year, Rouge Profonde published the first of four projected hardcover volumes that will collect, reprint, update and append the contents of all 24 issues: MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE: L'INTEGRALE.

My sincere sympathies to M. Caen's wife Geneviève, his family, his friends and collaborators like his M-MF co-editor Jean-Claude Romer, and those who - like me - have shared in his stardust.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Mary Dawne Arden (1933 - 2014)

Best remembered as Peggy, one of the loveliest of the "sei donne" in Mario Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE [Sei donne per l'assassino, 1964], actress, model and entrepreneur Mary Dawne Arden passed away Saturday, December 13, in a Brooklyn, New York hospital at the age of 79. She was one of the many people I interviewed for MARIO BAVA - ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, and one of those with whom I became and remained friends.  

Mary Dawne (she insisted on never being addressed as simply Mary) was the daughter of a single mother, born in St. Louis during the the years of the Great Depression, and had to face adult responsibility early on in life. This forged her character as a hard worker, entrepreneur and self promoter. Though I liked - and, more to the point, respected - her immensely, she was one of those people who didn't seem able to ever fully relax or have a good laugh, though she was always friendly and good natured. She told me that she had never acted for money ( a good thing too, she philosophized, because she sometimes got stiffed on those Italian films come pay day), but to promote herself - quite an unusual and avant garde attitude for an actress, but Mary Dawne was, above all, a businesswoman. 

She likewise saw her successful career as a fashion model as a means of "branding herself," to use today's parlance - and she did seem proud of her accomplishments in that realm, which were indeed stunning, as she was of the fact that Federico Fellini had cast her in a role as a television hostess meant to be recurring in his JULIET OF THE SPIRITS, but which was cut from the final assembly. She asked me to keep on the lookout for other films in which she appeared and, over the years, I was able to get copies of the B&W giallo A... come Assassino (1966) and the fumetti adaptation KRIMINAL (1966) into her hands. When I asked what she thought of the films, she would dodge that uncomfortable issue by saying "Kind of a cute kid, wasn't I?" Indeed she was, a classic Grace Kelly type, and her modelling portfolio was truly stunning. But looking at those photos, at those VOGUE covers, I can always see the practical side of Mary Dawne, the good soldier and the good egg. I imagine that, as a young woman in the full bloom of her beauty, she must have been very like Peggy, who, finding herself the object of a co-worker's infatuation with her, sits him down, assures him of her friendship, and patiently copes with the problem till she can make the nutter see plain sense. 

It was during the period when we were most closely in touch that VCI announced their plan to release BLOOD AND BLACK LACE on DVD. I was hired to record an audio commentary and arranged for Mary Dawne to film a video introduction for the movie, which she was very happy to do. When I later told her that I had enjoyed the zany energy of her introduction, it seemed to confuse her, to make her worry and feel self-conscious, which was not at all my intention. She exuded such confidence that I was surprised to find a sensitivity there, not often tapped but still very present; it was one of the things about her that I found touching, which got to me. In short, I liked her tremendously - she was strong and loyal and, above all, dependable - which I remember telling her were characteristics I prized especially, since I see and value them in my wife.

When the Bava book finally came out, Mary Dawne was quite effusive about it and the lovely pictures I found of her, some of which she had never seen. As a thank-you, Donna and I presented her with a print of the color shot that opens the BLOOD AND BLACK LACE chapter, which she told me she planned to frame and hang near the entryway of her apartment. As this news reached me via a Facebook friend sharing her NEW YORK TIMES obituary this morning, Mary Dawne and I fallen out of touch for some time. I'm both sorry to know that she's gone and grateful to know that this dear and driven woman is finally at rest.

Here is a link to her NEW YORK TIMES obituary.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

DR. KILDARE, Season One - My Diagnosis

I recently finished watching the first season of DR. KILDARE (1961-62) on Warner Archive Instant, the first time I'd been able to view the show since my vague memories from childhood - therefore, for the first time with real adult understanding. This show is very much the medical counterpart to its fellow NBC series MR. NOVAK, which was about teaching; both shows are supremely humanistic and address themselves, in a similarly down-to-earth but aspiring way, to the nobility of their respective professions - something sorely lacking from programming today.

Of course, neither show would work if the lessons learned by their protagonists were limited to their respective professions, and so serve as Trojan horses to learned instruction about how people might better interact with others in a variety of emotionally fraught, everyday circumstances. This being very much what German novelists liked to call a bildrungsroman - a story of education, a character's journey from callow youth to experienced adulthood - the central character of Dr. James Kildare (Richard Chamberlain) learns a bit more in each episode of what he needs to know to become not only a complete doctor (as exemplified by Blair Hospital's chief of staff Dr. Leonard Gillespie, played with eloquence and authority by Raymond Massey) but a more fully rounded human being. I remember a time when Chamberlain was taken less than seriously by the critical establishment owing to his good looks and his side career as a teen idol crooner; he spent years distancing himself from the memory of this show, doing fine work in Ken Russell's THE MUSIC LOVERS and Richard Lester's MUSKETEERS films, among many other productions, but DR. KILDARE is really nothing to be ashamed of. It would not work so well as it does unless he was on his toes as an actor every step of the way. This is his journey and Chamberlain's evolving, deepening character makes us want to accompany him on it.

What stands out to me from this first season are two episodes directed by the season's MVP, Boris Sagal (THE OMEGA MAN): "Immunity", in which a female doctor (Gail Kobe) who fled to her profession to escape her impoverished Polish roots is forced back to them to prevent an epidemic threatening her old neighborhood (this epic colorfully inserts a Polish wedding into the midst of an emergency immunization procedure), and "My Brother, the Doctor" in which far-down-the-totem-pole supporting player Eddie Ryder (as Dr. Simon Agurski) gives an outstanding performance in a story examining his strained relationship with an older brother who is supporting his residency at the cost of his own dreams. (Like "Immunity" with its Polish community background, "My Brother, the Doctor" uses its story to familiarize a broader viewing audience with Jewish holiday traditions.) But the season's highlight is a performance by Dean Jagger in the Paul Wendkos-directed "A Distant Thunder" as a retired Lt. General suffering a nervous breakdown caused by unresolved guilt over leading hundreds of thousands of young men to their doom. I think it might very well be the finest work I've ever seen from this brittle, eccentric but sometimes moving actor.

My earlier awareness of this show was frankly occluded by all the noise made back in the day about Chamberlain wanting in the end to distance himself from the Kildare image, and the fact that the series was spun off into a lot of tacky merchandise, ranging from comic books for girls to toy stethoscopes. Fortunately I was drawn back to DR. KILDARE by its availability through Warner Archive, and also by the rich range of talent who made guest appearances. The first season alone encompasses the likes of William Shatner, Anne Francis, Charles Bickford, Suzanne Pleshette, Dan O'Herlihy (in two episodes!), Edward Andrews, Beverly Garland, Cathleen Nesbitt, Charles Bickford, Dina Merrill, Dick Foran, Edward Platt, Gloria Talbott, Hershel Bernardi, future BEWITCHED husbands Dick York and Dick Sargent, and the ubiquitous Billy Mumy.

In short, classic television well worth revisiting.