Friday, December 3, 2010


Fritz Leiber surely wasn't the first man to suggest that all women are witches, but, to the best of my knowledge, he was the first fellow to write a novel about it. Leiber's 1943 classic Conjure Wife has been filmed three times, first as Reginald Le Borg's Inner Sanctum entry Weird Woman (1944), then--borrowing its handle from an A. Merritt thriller--as Burn, Witch, Burn (1962; U.K. title, Night of the Eagle), and finally lampooned in Richard Shorr and Herbert L. Strock's sporadically amusing Witches' Brew (1980). Sidney Hayers' early Sixties adaptation remains the best of this bunch, coming far closer to its source material than the earlier, bare-bones version, and offering chthonian theatrics aplenty.

Sociology professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) doesn't realize that his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) has been waging an occult battle on his behalf at Hempnell Medical College. Taylor's students, you see, have a higher scholastic average than other instructors' pupils, and this accomplishment has, not surprisingly, bred resentment at the school, particularly among the faculty's overbearing wives. Taylor, of course, is oblivious to all this, involved as he is in his daily struggle against "the morbid desire to escape reality" of the superstitious masses. One evening, after the Hempnell gang's weekly bridge game, the professor discovers a dead spider in a jar in a dresser drawer, where he's searching for a clean pair of pajamas. Tansy explains that the object is simply a farewell gift from a witch doctor named Curubius, whom the couple had encountered on a Jamaican field trip, where Taylor nearly perished in an accident. The professor is mollified, but soon another charm turns up in his jacket collar, and he finds to his chagrin that his wife has hoarded a veritable treasure trove of the talismans. He convinces her to burn the items--among them, a locket with his photograph inside--and his comfortable life commences to disintegrate.

The first crack in the microcosmic egg is a telephone call from Taylor's pupil Margaret Abbott (Judith Stott), a moony blonde who urges him, "after you've undressed me with your eyes," to "take me in your arms." The student--who is crippled Dean of Women Flora Carr's (Margaret Johnston) ward--later turns up in Flora's office, accusing Taylor (who has moments earlier barely missed being run down by a delivery van) of violating her. She subsequently confesses that "something came over me," but there's more mischief in the form of Margaret's jealous boyfriend Fred Jennings (Bill Mitchell), a complete imbecile who accuses Taylor of "deliberately bas[ing] your tests on lectures I've missed." Jennings even pulls a gun on the professor, but Taylor slaps him and gets the weapon away from the hysterical lad.

That night, Taylor receives in the post a recording of a Manchester lecture he recently presented. Believing it was sent to him by his dean--the accompanying letter, however, contains no signature--he plays the tape for Tansy's instructional benefit. The reel emits a psychedelic hum (no Dolby digital noise reduction here, alas), and the increasingly anxious Tansy (who shrilly demands of her husband if he's "going to give me the benefit of your brilliant logic?") turns it off. The telephone rings immediately, but the only sound is the mysterious hum. The power fails as Tansy covers her ears, she snatches the phone from Taylor's hand, and suddenly there's a bloodcurdling cry and the ominous flapping of wings at the front door. She yanks the phone out of the wall, and, as her husband approaches the door, a tremendous wind forces it open, knocking the professor against the wall. An eagle's shadow appears subliminally, vanishing in darkness as lightning illuminates one of Hampnell's several eagle statues scattered across the school grounds.

Once things temporarily settle down, Tansy drugs Taylor's drink ("Now we're joined in spirit"), and late the next morning he awakens to discover that she's decamped, having left a message on their reel machine that "I've gone away so that this terrible curse can no longer touch you." After learning from a colleague, Hilda Gunnison (Jessica Dunning), that her husband earlier spotted Tansy taking a coach--presumably to the couple's seaside cottage--Taylor crashes his car trying to stop her transit. Dazed but adamantly refusing to see a doctor, he borrows another vehicle and heads for their retreat, where his wife plans to drown herself at the stroke of midnight. Discovering a helpful note on curse destruction inside Tansy's copy of Rites and Practice in Black Magic, Taylor grabs some candles--naturally, his flashlight batteries are dead--and hoofs it first to the shore and then a nearby cemetery, unknowingly rushing past his wife, who leans trancelike in the shadows against a rock. Unable to locate Tansy, he breaks into a mausoleum and, in utter philosophical desperation, Crosses Over to the Other Side by sprinkling graveyard dirt over a picture of his beloved that he removes from his wallet. The spell works, and Taylor's waterlogged wife appears, clutching the accursed tape reel, in the crypt entrance.

Tansy eventually emerges from her trance, but back home she abruptly wakens, sits straight up in bed (never a good sign in horror films), and attempts to stab her husband with a butcher knife as the camera cuts to a female hand pressing a blade into a voodoo figurine. The telepathically-controlled Tansy also prominently limps, which reminds Taylor of the orthopedically-impaired Flora. They struggle, Tansy faints, and the professor heads with the distorted tape to Flora's office. "Why did you try to drive her out of her mind?" he asks, to which she mockingly responds, "I knew you were naive, but I didn't know you were as naive as all that. After all that's happened, do you mean to tell me that you still put it down to natural causes?" Taylor believes Flora's hypnotized Tansy in order to jeopardize his position at Hempnell--he and her husband Lindsay (Colin Gordon) are candidates for the college's Sociology chair--but Flora sets him straight by erecting, then setting fire to, a house of Tarot cards on her desk. In the meanwhile, the Taylors' black cat leaps upon a window ledge (or, more accurately, is tossed by someone standing offscreen), knocking a flowerpot onto an oil stove and causing the couple's nice home to erupt in flames. "Burn, witch, burn!" Flora commands her disintegrating cards as Taylor hurries outside.

Now unspools the most spectacular part of the picture. Flora cues Taylor's lecture tape, which thunders over the school's public address system. As the professor runs across campus, there's a flapping sound and the camera zooms in on the stone eagle guarding the entrance to his classroom building. The statue comes alive, and a real, enormous eagle launches itself at him. Taylor stumbles into the building and locks the door behind him, but the creature bursts through in pursuit. As the monstrous bird advances upon Taylor in his lecture hall, Flora's husband fortuitously enters her office and switches the sound button from the p.a. system to the tape speaker. The creature vanishes (as does the damage it's caused), leaving behind a completely discombobulated Taylor, while Flora, looking exceedingly stricken herself, stops the tape. Taylor returns to his engulfed home to find that Tansy's made it out safely, and, as the Carrs depart from the campus, Lindsay informs his wife that Hempnell's awarding the Sociology chair to Taylor. She's sarcastically skeptical, but the stone eagle tumbles from its perch and crushes her to death, so there. As the closing shot lingers on the partially-unreeled tape, the film asks, "Do You Believe?"

After all that excitement, it's difficult not to. Burn, Witch, Burn mischievously turns the conflict between science and magic inside out. Taylor, whose given name denotes the norm, represents the masculine laws of Nature, while Tansy (a flower, from the Greek athanasia [immortality]) and Flora (derived from the Roman flower goddess) symbolize female Supernature. Science is Appollonian; magic, Dionysian. To Taylor, superstitions spring from "primitive beliefs" and constitute "a science devoid of all empirical values," one that is "completely based on a priori observation." Yet, to the professor's credit, he is keenly aware that, even though genuine science contains "feats which put our old-fashioned magicians to shame," it also encompasses a daemonic capacity for destruction: "Today we can press a button and the whole of mankind is obliterated." Taylor's pessimism reflects the thematic concerns of technology and chaos so prevalent in post-Hiroshima/-Nagasaki filmmaking. In the final analysis, however, reason remains for our sociologist the only game in town, but the diabolic drubbing he's just endured ought to make for a rather interesting lecture. Whether he'll deliver it is, of course, another matter entirely.

Tansy adores her husband, but complains that his "stuffy old books"--all written by narrow-minded men, I'll wager--"invade every corner of our lives," and she teasingly threatens to burn the volumes. Taylor, for his part, avers that "if we were to investigate all the strange rituals performed by women based on their so-called intuition, half the female population would be in asylums." Yet Tansy is willing to sacrifice herself for Taylor's career ("You have so much to offer this world"); indeed, her character is one of the most devoted wives in the entire history of cinema. Her selfless attempt to drown herself is a return to liquid nature. Fortunately for her, once Taylor surrenders to unreason, Tansy is reborn from, rather than obliterated in, the oceanic womb. Flora, at the opposite extreme, is the Divine Mother in her aspect of violence and death. As she grins, skull-like, above an office lamp at Taylor, her ghastly underlit mouth constitutes a vagina dentata. It's appropriate that her drab husband's androgynous name is Lindsay, for Flora, despite her schoolmarmish dress, demonstrably wears the pants in their relationship; indeed, it's obvious there's more than a little repressed desire for the virile Taylor partially motivating her spiteful spellwork. Flora's left side limp symbolizes left-hand path magic, sometimes referred to as Vama Marg, the Way of Woman. Ironically, as is true in Tansy's case, her witchery is all on behalf of her spouse; these women live through their husbands' accomplishments, or perish through the lack of them. However, in Hayers' adaptation of Leiber's tale, only Tansy and Carr seem to possess actual secret powers. Significantly, Tansy's development of her abilities is the result of her encounter with the Third World warlock Curubius, which spiritually reverses the evangelical imperialism of the colonial powers.

The employment of witchcraft as a metaphor for academic politics is charmingly cheeky and scarcely imperceptive. The Hempnell coterie, composed as it is of what Tansy derides as "petty scholars," is a poisonously envious bunch; in fact, one of Taylor's colleagues jokingly inquires if the professor's "sold [his] soul to the Devil," which supposedly accounts for his success. Sorcery here is the radical upstart in Academe, as the old scientific paradigm reverts to "new" magic, whose classical elements (earth, air, fire, and water) are all put to artful use in the scenario. Hayers' film arguably fires an early shot in the West's ongoing culture war(s), indulging postmodernism's disdain of rationalism while celebrating the survival of a pagan metaphysics that monotheisms have never been entirely able to extinguish.

On a more intimate level, Burn, Witch, Burn facilitates Taylor's headlong confrontation with his irrational feminine side. When the professor moves towards the door after the mysterious phone call, Tansy orders him not to open what is plainly the door of his unconscious, because she knows that her husband cannot face what lies beyond. At the beginning of the film, Taylor writes the words "I do not believe" in all capitals on his classroom blackboard, but when the giant eagle corners him against the board, he accidentally erases part of the sentence with his back, altering the declaration to "I do believe." His desire to hang onto his empiricism at all costs reflects, as Flora points out, Taylor's fear "of being wrong." Her homicidal utilization of his lecture is an almost-successful attempt to turn the professor's words against him and destroy his "Aristotelian mind," as well as his sculptured body.

Reginald Wyer's black-and-white cinematography is striking, from the shot of Tansy spinning the fringe of a lampshade in search of a charm Flora has left behind to the superimposition of flames over Tansy's face, foreshadowing the climactic house fire (which is also adumbrated in the bridge evening when Taylor's house of cards collapses). As Taylor desperately searches for his wife, he's literally framed in darkness. Tansy's descent into the sea recalls a similar moment in Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie (1943), and, though it's clearly a day-for-night shot, the shore sequence shimmers with oneiric ambience. The entire cast is excellent, with Wyngarde (who later, hippie-haired and mustachioed, rocketed to U.K. fame as ITC's Jason King [1971-72]) radiating a particularly rugged intelligence; American torch singer Blair and London stage actress Johnston are equally splendid. My only disappointment is that the great Kathleen Byron (best remembered for her role as the sexually-crazed Sister Ruth in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus [1947]) as "middle-aged Medusa" Evelyn Sawtelle has so little to do in the film, though her brief appearances are memorably malicious, deploring as she does Taylor's "manag[ing] to charm better grades out of his idiot students" than the rest of the Hempnell nonentities. Muir Matheson contributes a sonically disorienting score, and Hayers, who previously helmed the engagingly lurid Circus of Horrors (1960), directs with vigor, especially in his staging of the eagle sequences. "I felt sorry for the poor thing," he later recalled of his beleaguered avian actor "...but I was very pleased with the result. I remember going to see the film with an audience at the Odeon in Leicester Square, and afterwards in the toilets I eavesdropped on these two guys saying how scared they'd been."

An amusing, William-Castle-inspired prologue was added to the film for its U.S. release. "Ladies and gentlemen," the legendary four-octave voice artist Paul Frees gravely intones over a blank screen, "the motion picture you are about to see contains an evil spell." Frees hammily proceeds to "dispel all evil spirits that may radiate from the screen during this performance" by invoking various dark deities to "cast a protecting shield above those gathered here present." It's flamboyant stuff, and certainly puts the viewer in the mood for some supernatural thrills.

The picture's authorship has been a subject of considerable dispute. The screenplay is credited to Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont; Matheson even provided an audio commentary for Orion/Image Entertainment's long-out-of-print 1995 laserdisc. However, novelist George Baxt's name appears as a co-scenarist in Europe and Asia. Asked about this discrepancy in Filmfax, Baxt contended that "Beaumont asked [producer] Sam Arkoff, 'Please don't put anybody's name on our credits, we've written everything alone.' And Sam said, 'I've got to give Baxt credit--he wrote the whole script. It has no resemblance to what you wrote.'" Baxt claimed to have composed "at least ninety percent" of the film, and--furthermore--he "did it in four days." ("The script was an embarrassment," he alleged. "Sidney Hayers was near tears when he got it.") Those remarks did not at all sit well with historian Christopher Koetting, who wrote to Filmfax that he has access to the original script. "I have checked the claims Mr. Baxt makes regarding the scenes he supposedly added," Koetting stated for the record, and "I have found him to be wrong on every count." Rebutting Baxt's protestation that he "'hated that goddamn eagle they had," the historian asked, "Then whose idea was it? The statue monster was originally a gargoyle--not a bird."

Orion/Image's disc presented a near-mint print of Burn, Witch, Burn in its original aspect ratio of 1.75:1, while MGM's now-deleted videocassette counterpart was released in fullscreen only. The disc also contained a letterboxed version of Night of the Eagle's title sequence, in which Baxt is listed as co-writer, Wyngarde is billed before Blair, and Ms. Blair's eye is presented in closeup, as opposed to the painting of the organ used in American International's release. The ninety-minute film was issued in the UK under its original title on a 2007 Optimum DVD, but I've not seen this edition. United Artists announced a remake of Conjure Wife, under Billy Ray's direction, in 2008, but thus far nothing has materialized, ectoplasmic or otherwise. It's high time for Image to reissue this spellbinder stateside.


Bradley, Matthew R. "Baxt Stabs Back: Real Horror Hotel(er) Tells How to Write Horror Right." Filmfax, Number 50 (May/June 1995).

Koetting, Christopher. "Re:EDITS," letter. Filmfax, Number 54 (January/February 1996).

Rigby, Jonathan. English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema. London: Reynolds & Hearn Ltd., 2000.

Schreck, Nikolas. The Satanic Screen: An Illustrated Guide to the Devil in Cinema. London: Creation Books, 2001.

Winters, Joseph. "Witchcraft Through the Cinema." Scary Monsters Magazine, Number 74 (April 2010).

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) was the greatest writer to emerge from the American horror pulps, but faithful adaptations of his dark fantasies have, alas, been few and far between. Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace (1963) masqueraded as another of the director's Edgar Allan Poe thrillers, but was actually an estimable reworking of Lovecraft's novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Other efforts have been considerably less inspired (David Greene's The Shuttered Room [1967], from an August Derleth "collaboration," in especial), while one of the better Lovecraft-derived pictures, Stuart Gordon's delightfully outrageous Re-Animator (1985), feels less like the Weird Tales wizard and more like Frank Henenlotter. The Call of Cthulhu is, along with At the Mountains of Madness, one of the Gentleman from Providence's two most canonical works, and the H.P. Lovecraft Society's 2005 production of this classic chiller truly serves the author well. It's by far the best filmed treatment of his work, and--in a shrewd stylistic move--appears to arrive from the year (1926) in which the antiquarian composed his story for J.C. Henneberger's legendary magazine.

According to the insert sheet accompanying the Society's Microcinema DVD, the association arose in 1987 as a circle of live-action Lovecraftian role-playing gamers. The Society has progressed from publishing a newsletter to operating a website and producing radio and motion picture adaptations. Here the filmmakers employ the miracle of "Mythoscope" to recreate the look and the texture of silent movies, utilizing speckles and the occasional writhing projector gate hair to suggest ancient silver nitrate, not terribly dissimilar to Woody Allen's tactics on behalf of his magnificent mockumentary, Zelig (1983). The trick photography, forced perspective, and stop-motion animation of bygone times combine with modern digital compositing in a startlingly vivid feature that runs rings around much of today's depressingly reflexive "imaginative" cinema.

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think," Lovecraft's Francis Wayland Thurston begins his bleak narrative, "is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far." Lovecraft created a baneful macrocosmos which is largely and happily hidden from our sight, but remains ready to burst through at any moment. His abominable alien zones are populated by unspeakable interstellar entities--the Great Old Ones--whom human beings, in all our intellectual limitations, mistake for deities and demons. In his wildly entertaining The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture, Jason Colavito credits the fantasist with inadvertently inspiring the notorious "ancient astronaut" subgenre of pseudoscience by synthesizing the "Golden Age" esotericism-slash-humbug of Madame Helena Blavatsky, Ignatius Donnelly, and Charles Fort with Arthur Machen's yarns of "primal mysteries." Lovecraft's literary mixture remains an intoxicating brew which has, ironically but predictably, clouded the minds of many occultists and conspiracy theorists, who insist, for example, that his entirely fictitious grimoire, the Necronomicon, is the Real Deal. Ergo, the contrivances of such confidence men as Erich von Daniken dishearteningly reflect humanity's desperation to remain the spiritual center of the universe in the depths of our materialistic malaise, but Lovecraft will have none of that wishful thinking; if anything, Colovito argues, he "preached a cosmic indifference, where the aliens were utterly unconcerned with mankind, where humanity was simply a cog in the great machine that was the mindless cosmos." The Call of Cthulhu, well-adapted by Sean Branney under Andrew Leman's accomplished direction, definitively dramatizes the author's keen sense of existential dread.

Thurston (nameless in this version and well-played by Matt Foyer) is shaken by the disclosures in his late great-uncle George Gammell Angell's (Ralph Lucas) papers, which reveal an alternative reality beyond any anyone's most demented imaginings. Angell's first manuscript, "The Horror in the City," documents the Semitic Languages professor's encounters with a disturbed artist named Henry Anthony Wilcox (Chad Fifer, who also contributed to the film's vigorous symphonic score), who has fashioned a bas-relief of a mysterious creature called Cthulhu, which has come to him in a successive series of nightmares. Not coincidentally, the planet is plagued during the course of the artist's dreams by everything from earthquakes to riots. ("VOODOO ORGIES MULTIPLY IN HAYTI" and "HYSTERICAL LEVANTINES IN MIDNIGHT MOB," shriek headlines in a good old-fashioned newspaper montage.)

The second document records the exploits nearly two decades earlier of wax-mustachioed Inspector John Raymond Legrasse (David Mersault) as he trails a murderous doomsday cult through the Louisiana swamps and recovers a sculpture of a weird being with a tentacled face--which an anxious Professor William Channing Webb (Barry Lynch) recognizes when Legrasse reveals the icon to several scholars, Angell among them, at a 1908 gathering of the American Archaeological Society in an effort to learn more about the statue. Webb had in his young manhood lost an eye to an Esquimaux shaman (Dan Novy) for daring to touch a similar statue, and the Inspector recounts his brutal-but-futile interrogation of Castro (Clarence Henry Hunt), a grotesque mestizo, who warns the authorities that "Great Cthulhu waits dreaming in the sunken city of R'lyeh. The stars will again be right, and He shall return."

These sequences are quite impressive, laying a firm foundation for the third manuscript, which Angell's grandnephew himself tracks down after reading by chance of a bizarre incident in the Sydney Bulletin. The pages relate the story of First Mate Gustaf Johansen (Patrick O'Day) of the Emma, whose tempest-tossed New Zealand schooner encounters a derelict fishing trawler, the Alert, in the South Pacific. The crew members, whose own vessel is flooded, commandeer the trawler and learn from the ship's log that its missing sailors had set course for an unknown island in nearby uncharted waters. They also discover a box containing a Cthulhu icon and a severed finger. The ship steers to the island, which is dominated by a seemingly abandoned and--to borrow a favorite Lovecraft adjective, Cyclopean--city whose geometric structures are insanely non-Euclidean. Cthulhu waits below, of course, and when he emerges from his portal the colossal, squid-faced, clawed extraterrestrial makes short work of the men. Johansen escapes with sailor Briden (Matthew Q. Fahey) to the Emma, but that scarcely prevents Cthulhu from pursuing them. The gargantuan charges into the ocean as the desperate Johansen rams the creature, which howls with rage and retreats underwater. When the First Mate turns around, his completely unhinged shipmate has expired, extravagantly bleeding from his eyelids. Soon he himself will be dead, along with Angell, Legrasse, and even poor Thurston. In the denouement, the grandnephew (who's been recounting these incidents from an asylum--Thurston, however, is not institutionalized in Lovecraft's novella) urges his doctor (John Bolen) to destroy the papers. He has, like his predecessors, voyaged too far in those black seas, but there's the implication that another excursion into the unknown, on the part of his auditor, will soon begin. As Thurston so memorably puts it at the conclusion of his narrative, "Some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open such terrifying vistas of reality, and our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee to the peace and safety of a new dark age."

Cthulhu's brief appearance is striking; although he exhibits the herki-jerkiness of such stop-motion creatures as those of The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933), he also inspires the shivering awe that audiences must have felt upon seeing those celluloid wonders so many decades ago. The Caligari-esque design of R'lyeh (Lovecraft's Atlantis), which Expressionistically renders the abode of a being outside our own space-time continuum, is especially admirable, constructed as it is of scaffolding, solid cardboard, and used canvas. (Black-and-white perfectly serves this film, as color would only emphasize its low-budget sets.) Another noteworthy sequence is Professor Angell's visit to the Fleur-de-Lis building in Providence in search of Wilcox: the structure is specifically cited in Lovecraft's story, and displays the same exteriors it did when he wrote it; through digital magic and the use of models, the filmmakers seamlessly suggest that actor Lucas has somehow traveled back in time. Leman's outstanding cast sport the androgynous pancake of their silent pioneers, while adeptly communicating the theatrics of those period players.

Microcinema's fullscreen DVD (which sternly warns that "violators of HPLS copyrights may have their eyes plucked out by byakhee as they sleep," so beware, ye pirates) contains several interesting supplements. "Hearing 'The Call'" (25 minutes) offers behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with cast and crew members. Cinematographer/editor David Robertson admits that he possessed only "a very peripheral knowledge of Lovecraft" before tackling the project (he "knew the name from high school and some of the geekier kids"), and confesses he's never read the author. Deleted material includes green- and blue-screen footage of the Cthulhu model, and improvisations from the various actors, most notably Fifer, who memorably channels Dwight Frye's Renfield. The disc also offers black-and-white production stills, color set photos, a trailer, and a prop PDF of the April 18, 1925 Sydney Bulletin. Amusingly, the article describes the Emma sailors as being attacked by "a queer and evil-looking crew of Kanakas and half-castes" when they encounter the Alert, which, although taken verbatim from Lovecraft's tale, directly contradicts events in the picture's abandoned ship sequence. The file additionally reproduces an assessment of explorer and geologist John Walter Gregory's largely-forgotten eugenics treatise, The Menace of Color, whose anonymous reviewer remarks that "...assimilation is the only alternative to an upheaval which many observers consider immanent; but in the process North America will be turned, like South America, into a half-caste continent, with what effect nobody can foresee." Those words will undoubtedly distress delicate sensibilities, but the two pieces certainly complement one another in light of Lovecraft's apprehensions about Anglo-Saxon endurance in the face of Western degeneration.

Intertitle options are available in an extravagant twenty-six languages, from Catalan and English to Turkish and Welsh. The score of this forty-seven minute feature, which contains five chapter stops, is available in both tinny "Mythoscope" and Hi-Fidelity. The intrepid filmmakers are currently in post-production on a sound adaptation of Lovecraft's 1931 yarn, The Whisperer in Darkness (a trailer is available online), and I eagerly await the Society's latest rendition of this seminal writer's fantastic fiction. In the meantime, Cthulhu fhtagn!


Colavito, Jason. The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture. New York: Prometheus Books, 2005

Lovecraft, H.P. More Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. Annotated by S.T. Joshi and Peter Cannon. New York: Dell, 1999.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


The career of Joseph Losey (1909-1984) is traditionally divided into two discrete halves: his early years as a Hollywood director, and his more celebrated resurgence in Europe as a blacklisted expatriate and arthouse auteur. The latter period produced some astonishing work, particularly with Losey's greatest leading man, Dirk Bogarde (The Servant [1963], Accident [1967]; both films were also collaborations with playwright Harold Pinter), as well as an amazing Hammer science fiction drama (These Are the Damned [1961]), and several intriguing misfires (Modesty Blaise [1966, again with Sir Dirk], Figures in a Landscape [1972]). Losey's earlier period is, however, if not equally accomplished, at least extremely impressive--and, for my money, too often overlooked--from his allegorical fantasy The Boy With Green Hair (1947) to his 1951 noir The Prowler.

A sultry blonde, naked except for a towel, gasps and pulls the shade when she spots a peeping tom--whom, significantly, the viewer never sees--in her yard. Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) phones the LAPD, and Officers Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) and Bud Crocker (John Maxwell) investigate. The tom is never caught, but bachelor Garwood is immediately drawn to the woman, so much so that he later pays a call, still in uniform, after his shift to see how she's doing. It transpires that the two hail from Terre Haute, where Garwood was his high school's star basketball center. He claims to have endured "lousy breaks" ever since those glorious hoop days (a public quarrel with his college coach cost him his athletic scholarship), but, despite his bitterness, the officer dreams of achieving middle-class respectability by owning a Las Vegas motor court. Susan, herself once an aspiring starlet, is unhappily married to John Gilvray (Sherry Hall), a radio disc jockey (blacklisted scenarist Dalton Trumbo provides the character's on-air voice) who signs off his evening broadcasts with "I'll be seeing you, Susan"--and before you can say James Cain, Garwood's moving in on the wife, despite her initial, thoroughly unconvincing protestations. Gilvray, whose sterility has frustrated Susan's desire for a child, quits his job when he suspects that his wife's two-timing him (she discloses to her lover that he's threatened to kill her), and Garwood breaks up with the woman, purely in an attempt to further wrap her around his trigger finger. The officer has secretly examined her husband's will; now he plots the man's murder by pretending to be a prowler, luring Gilvray outside to check for the intruder, then gunning him down.

Garwood uses Gilvray's pistol to graze his own arm, making the crime appear to be self-defense. The inquest jury clears him with a verdict of accidental homicide, even though the devastated Susan accuses him at the hearing of deliberately killing her husband--she is, however, loath to admit her adulterous involvement with the officer. Deep down, she still wants Garwood, so much so that wedding bells ring when he gets back in touch and assures her that Gilvray's death was unintentional. Furthermore, the champion sharpshooting officer has resigned from the force, piously informing Susan that "I couldn't bring myself to touch a gun again as long as I live." Garwood uses the will money to purchase his dream property for the couple, but there's a problem: Susan reveals she's four months pregnant with the officer's baby, and the two have officially claimed not to have had any romantic contact with each other before Garwood plugged Gilvray--in fact, the dead man's brother William (Emerson Treacy) has previously assured Garwood of the radio host's sterility. Panic sets in, and Garwood holes up with Susan in the ghost town of Calico ("the tail-end of Creation"), enlisting a local doctor (Wheaton Chambers) to deliver the premature baby, as well as scheming to murder the physician so he won't talk. Susan, however, realizes Garwood's plan when she glimpses her new husband's pistol, and warns the doctor after she gives birth, prompting him to flee with the infant to alert the local police. Garwood races after him, but who should he run into--in a frenzied, near-slapstick sequence--but his former partner Crocker and Crocker's wife (Katherine Warren), who are returning from a geology holiday. The authorities arrive to arrest Garwood, who's fatally wounded fleeing from them to the top of a hill.

It's grim stuff (quite frankly, I half-expected the couple's child to be born dead), albeit amusingly so as Garwood embarks on his idiotic scheme. Heflin specialized in obsessive, deeply-flawed characters, as in his superb turn three years earlier as the dubious war hero of Fred Zinnemann's Act of Violence. His Garwood's a cunning sociopath contriving to Make Something Of Himself, but Heflin never overplays the officer, tempering his ruthlessness with an arachnid charm that, as his given name suggests, easily ensnares the impressionable, dimwitted Susan. Keyes' character is alternately vulnerable and self-centered (she pointedly feels more guilt over her adultery than pain over her husband's death); these two richly deserve each other, even if they never achieve the grand operatic excesses of John Garfield and Lana Turner, or, for that matter, Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. Trumbo's script (credited to "Hugo Butler," and drawn from a story by Robert Thoeren and Hans Wilhelm) darkly satirizes the relentless obsession with status that permeates American society, as Garwood will do anything to achieve his goal, and is painfully self-conscious that his life hasn't turned out the way he planned. (When Susan tells him that, as a teenager, she used to clip his photo out of the newspaper and wonders, "Who'd ever have thought--," the officer immediately interrupts, "That I'd turn out to be some dumb cop, huh?") Garwood's the type who can never stop wanting more; indeed, he blatantly ogles a comely female guest at the couple's motor court as her older husband spirits her from his sight.

The scenario is well-structured (aside, that is, from the implausibility of Garwood and Susan's unholy matrimony not raising the Gilvray family's eyebrows), allowing Trumbo and Losey to make great mischief with Gilvray's broadcasts, which offer an unconsciously ironic commentary on his wife's infidelity. "That was 'Stolen Fun,'" says the host of the disc he's just spun while Garwood and Susan lounge at the couple's hacienda, "and what could be sweeter'n that?" Gilvray's extensive album collection is actually the collected recordings of his programs, preserved "so he can improve his diction," Susan confides. When, tucked away at the ghost town, Garwood plays for Susan what he thinks is a regular album, it turns out to be yet another Gilvray broadcast, a beyond-the-grave signal ("I'll be seeing you, Susan") that the couple's future is running out like sand into the desert around them.

Two-time Oscar winner Arthur C. Miller's camerawork is splendidly claustrophobic, employing stygian lighting during Garwood and Susan's dance in the Gilvrays' living room, as if the couple are literally waltzing into darkness; the energy between the two leads sizzles with barely-suppressed sexual tension. Another magnificently-composed moment is the shot of Garwood shining his patrol car's headlamps into the couple's bedroom to summon Susan as she sits up in panic. (It's Old Hollywood, of course, so husbands and wives sleep chastely in separate beds.) By the time Garwood scrambles dustily up the hill, Miller's tight framing suggests he's scaling a smoldering volcano to some classical doom. Losey's direction is equally tight, and cultists will be interested to know that his assistant on this picture was Robert Aldrich, who four years later would helm one of the greatest of all noirs, Kiss Me Deadly.

Regrettably, The Prowler remains unavailable on home video, but Turner Classic Movies premiered a handsome fullscreen print of this ninety-two minute gem--lovingly restored by the heroic preservationists at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and funded by the Film Noir Foundation and the Stanford Theatre Foundation (with a "special thanks" to the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction himself, James Ellroy)--in September. Happily, TCM will air this classic Losey thriller again on Saturday, November 13 at 8:30am EST, so, as the picture's poster instructs, watch out for The Prowler.

Monday, September 27, 2010


Jack Garfein's 1961 Something Wild patiently awaits rediscovery. Adapted by the director and Alex Karmel from the latter's 1958 novel Mary Ann--and not to be confused in any way, shape, or form with Jonathan Demme's 1986 black comedy of the same name--the picture is an oddly impressionistic soap opera that vaguely prefigures John Fowles' The Collector (faithfully filmed by William Wyler in 1965), and even (in a non-supernatural sense) Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (1962). The film has never been released on home video, but--as with so many other obscure-but-fine productions--occasionally materializes, like a lonesome ghost, on Turner Classic Movies.

Garfein's then-wife Carroll Baker stars as Mary Ann Robinson, a Bronx teenager who is dragged into the bushes and raped on her way home from school. She doesn't report the crime, but returns late to the house she shares with her domineering mother (Mildred Dunnock) and stepfather (Charles Watts--not, I hasten to add, the Stones drummer), creeping upstairs to her bedroom and trying to make as little noise as possible. Mary Ann bathes her wounds and destroys the clothing she wore during the assault, but becomes increasingly withdrawn as the film progresses, declining to kiss her mother goodbye when she leaves the next morning and not wanting to be touched. She faints on the subway and is escorted home by a policeman, which scandalizes her mother. Mary Ann drops out of school, takes a tiny apartment in a tenement managed by psychotronic cinema favorite Martin Kosleck (House of Horrors [1946], The Flesh Eaters [1964]), and operates a cash register in Woolworth's while her mother searches for her. The five-and-ten's no picnic, however: after being surrounded and jeered at by her harpy co-workers (including a surprisingly slim Doris Roberts), Mary Ann attempts to commit suicide by jumping from Manhattan Bridge. She is thwarted by Mike (Ralph Meeker), a rough-around-the-edges garage mechanic who, concerned that she might try to kill herself again--indeed, he prevents the dazed woman from walking into traffic--convinces her to rest at his Lower East Side basement apartment while he returns to work.

He also locks her in the apartment and, when he staggers drunkenly back to the flat, attempts to paw Mary Ann, who shrieks and kicks him in the eye with her high heel. Mike eventually loses the eye, but the brute was so plastered during the assault that he assumes he received the injury in a barroom brawl. His increasingly desperate captive finally sets him straight after being imprisoned--although, significantly, not touched again--for several months. ("So we're even," he observes somberly.) Mike departs in shame, deliberately leaving the door open so that Mary Ann can escape, even though he's told her that she's his "last chance" and that he wants to marry her. Finally freed, our heroine wanders through Central Park, breathing fresh air, sleeping on the grass, and seeing the world in an Altogether More Positive Light. She returns to Mike and, in a climax situated somewhere between co-dependency and Stockholm Syndrome, agrees to marry him. In an epilogue, she reconciles with her mother, informing her that the couple are going to have a baby. Well, another baby, if you count Mike.

We never learn the reasons why Mary Ann constitutes her future husband's "last chance," but it's easy to see that the man has made a complete hash of his life. Meeker's performance is excellent, revealing the vulnerability behind his trademark tough-guy persona; the mechanic is what his more famous Mike character--the private eye Hammer (in Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly [1955])--might have become if he hadn't gone into the gumshoe trade. (His constant suggestion to her, "Why don't you stay here?", is alternately oppressive and poignant.) Baker communicates genuine alienation; as rendered by Eugen Schufftan's lens, she's a frozen beauty, light years away from her nymphette title turn as Elia Kazan's Baby Doll (1956). Jean Stapleton contributes a small-but-memorable role as Mary Ann's obnoxious neighbor Shirley Johnson, and Clifton James is amusing as the police detective (named Bogart, no less) who endures Mrs. Robinson's badgering on behalf of her missing daughter.

The real star of the film, of course, is New York City itself, majestically rendered in black-and-white by Schufftan (who won an Oscar for Robert Rossen's same-year The Hustler and also shot George Franju's hypnotic Les Yeux Sans Visage ["Eyes Without a Face," 1959]) and jazzily, jauntily scored by none other than Aaron Copland. Copland's composition (which the maestro partially recycled for 1964's Music for a Great City) combines with Schufftan's sharply-edited shots of traffic, pedestrians, pigeons, and architecture--pure visual geometry comparable to Karl Freund and Gunther Ritten's Metropolis (1925) cityscapes (to which Schufftan also contributed special visual effects)--for another memorable Saul Bass title sequence. Garfein doesn't shy from displaying the darker aspects of the city, from Mary Ann's graphic-for-its-time rape to vagrants slumped in doorways. The Bronx is captured at a time of increasingly diverse population density, and the borough's concomitant decline. ("Honestly, I don't know what's going to happen to this neighborhood!" Mrs. Robinson complains to her daughter.) The picture's many silent passages possess an otherworldly ambiance, as if the viewer is suspended with its anomic protagonist somewhere between dream and nightmare. It's a shame that Garfein, who earlier directed an adaptation of Calder Willingham's End As a Man (the edgily homoerotic The Strange One [1957]) and himself survived imprisonment at Auschwitz, never released another feature, returning instead to the theatre and teaching. Northwestern University Press published the octogenarian's Life and Acting: Techniques for the Actor in June 2010.

Something Wild was briefly and heroically revived at New York's IFC Center in early 2007, but once again the picture seems to have quietly slipped back into celluloid limbo. It's scarcely a total success--the long captivity stretch is sometimes sluggish--but the film is well worth a look. Garfein's second and final feature may not be precisely "wild," but it's certainly unusual, and TCM offers a striking fullscreen print of this 112-minute psychodrama. Watch for it Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 11:30 p.m. EST.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


The moon, as Robert A. Heinlein so poetically put it, is a harsh mistress, but the crashed crew of his Project Moon Base (1953) doesn't seem to have it that bad. They're marooned until help arrives, certainly, but the two surviving astronauts are, despite their earlier, thoroughly contrived differences, deeply in love, and their Communist antagonist is better dead than red, so we know that everything will turn out all right in the end. Besides, one of them (Donna Martell) is even called Bright Eyes. (That's Colonel Briteis to you, soldier.) It may be one small step, but it's a step nonetheless.

Project originated as an unsold television series called Ring Around the Moon, but was reworked by producer Jack Seaman for theatrical distribution instead, making it Heinlein's second cinematic effort after Irving Pichel's superior Destination Moon (1950). This time, alas, there's no color, and Destination's outlandish carnival-balloon costumes have been replaced by Jack Miller's tee-shirt-and-gym-shorts outfits, complete with skullcaps; these decidedly Devo-esque uniforms cry out for, at the very least, Cinecolor. The actors look absurd, of course, but Ms. Martell is rather charming in her spacegirl getup, plus the film is a merciful sixty-three minutes. It's a politically-incorrect time capsule, but one definitely worth opening.

Project is set in the then-far-off year of 1970, when the United States Space Force's General "Pappy" Greene (Hayden Rorke, the long-suffering Dr. Bellows on I Dream of Jeanie) assigns the Colonel (promoted from Captain after making the first orbital flight) and Major Bill Moore (Ross Ford) to survey the appropriate site for a lunar landing. The government already maintains a space station, which the third member of the team, Doctor Wernher (Larry Johns) schemes to sabotage. Wernher, you see, is actually an impostor; the true Doctor is being held by the Enemies of Freedom. Major Moore realizes his fellow astronaut's a fake when the double doesn't get a reference to the Brooklyn Dodgers (a downright un-American gaffe); the two men duke it out in slow motion and, in the ensuing mini-chaos, their orbit's destabilized and their Magellan craft is forced to make an emergency landing on the dark side of the moon. The anti-Wernher subsequently switches sides (a distinctly atypical action, as his suicidal mission was to crash the Magellan into the station) and ventures with Moore to set up a radio relay on a mountain ridge several miles away. This allows the astronauts to reestablish contact with Earth, but the impostor conveniently falls to his death and Moore barely manages to make it back to the ship before exhausting his air supply. Spacecom's a little late with the news that Wernher's a saboteur, and, as it will be months before a rescue craft can reach them, General Greene proposes that the couple marry immediately for publicity purposes; after all, the Brave New World of 1970 can't take a chance on the impropriety of sin-living astronauts, now can it? People might talk.

The picture is packed to the oxygen tanks with militaristic propaganda, courtesy of novelist Heinlein, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former Democratic entrant in the 1938 race for the California State Assembly. Heinlein, not completely surprisingly, had a socialist skeleton in his closet: he once edited Upton Sinclair's EPIC News, but turned right during the Cold War; in fact, Thomas M. Disch observes of this amazing American Original in his superb survey, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, that "no hawk could boast sharper talons." (Heinlein championed nuclear deterrence in several newspaper advertisements in the late Fifties, advocating "Patrick Henry Leagues" to this end and even proposing a tax increase to support them.) General Greene, who's never without his sidearm, frankly admits that "if we hadn't played the science angle" of the circumlunar mission (the excuse for the civilian Wernher's participation), "we wouldn't have gotten the authorization--nor the money." He furthermore boasts to reporter Polly Prattles (Barbara Morrison) that "the most important thing in the world to me is the security of the United States, and I'm not in the least bit apologetic for my attitude." Like his predecessors in Destination, Greene understands that the first country to reach the moon can control the Earth with missiles. The General's a bombastic wheeler-dealer, and Rorke plays him with gusto.

Project's treatment of women, on the other hand, is as comically dated as it was in Kurt Neumann's Rocketship X-M three years earlier. General Greene informs Briteis that it was only her small frame that facilitated her orbital accomplishment, pointing out that "if [Moore] weighed ninety pounds instead of a hundred and eighty, he'd be a Colonel and a public hero--and you'd still be a Captain." When she balks at going on a mission with the "jealous" Moore ("The big lug hates me"), Greene actually threatens to spank her (and he looks as if he'd do it, too, the bounder). Meanwhile, the flirtatious, horizontally-challenged Prattles is fascinated to learn from Greene that the space station is currently in freefall: "It would be so lovely to weigh nothing at all," she exclaims wistfully. Briteis' gender is awkwardly withheld from viewers until her first appearance, and, in the picture's biggest "surprise," the President, who congratulates the newlyweds via monitor, turns out to be a woman (Ernestine Barrier) as well. Significantly, Briteis agrees to the marriage only after Greene promotes Major Moore to Brigadier General of Moon Base Number One, because being married to an inferior officer just won't cut it. (She earlier apologizes to Moore, after panicking upon realizing the extent of their predicament, for "going female on you"; it's a safe bet this film's not one of Ursula K. LeGuin's favorites, and even Heinlein disowned the picture.) Perhaps the author's most endearing quality is his ability to be all over the map sociopolitically: while his authoritarian space operas were incensing leftist critics, his libertarian consciousness fueled large segments of the neopagan counterculture, most notably Oberon Zell-Ravenheart's Church of All Worlds (but not, contrary to popular mythology, Charles Manson).

Director Richard Talmadge, a former actor and stuntman, does what he can with this material, but the real amusements are to be found in Jack R. Glass' low-budget special effects and William C. Thompson's (Ed Wood's cinematographer, no less) compositions of space station staff walking in magnetic shoes on ceilings and walls; these latter trick shots predate a similar sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The station's interiors are usually photographed at a forty-five-degree angle, as if the cameraman had one too many before reporting to the set. There's also a hilarious gaffe--one worthy of the infamous Wood--when Major Moore communicates via the Magellan's giant television monitor with General Greene at the space station: when Moore stands, he inadvertently casts his shadow on Greene because the monitor is simply a large hole in the wall. Take-offs, too, are a regular riot, with the men sweating profusely, their distorted faces ululating like the souls of the damned. (Briteis, on the contrary, seems positively orgasmic as g-forces accentuate her bullet-bra torso.) Herschel Burke Gilbert's delightful score is heavy on the theremin, and the Magellan's interiors were economically reused by Arthur Hilton for his same-year 3-D camp classic Cat Women of the Moon. It's also worth noting that the Eagle landed a mere year before the events in this film; Heinlein was impressively prescient.

Image's 2000 fullscreen DVD is another entry in the label's outstanding Wade Williams Collection. The print is in excellent shape, minus a brief line or two, and the disc offers a dozen chapter stops, as well as the film's original trailer. Project Moon Base (there is no compound word in the onscreen title) is also available as part of Image's four-disc "Weird Worlds" set, which additionally contains Destination Moon, William Marshall's The Phantom Planet (1961), and the abbreviated U.S. cut of Kurt Maetzig's First Spaceship on Venus (1959).


Disch, Thomas M. The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World. New York: Touchstone, 2000.

Doherty, Brian. "Robert Heinlein at 100." Reason (August/September 2007).

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Zombie completists with an hour to kill, or at least batter, will want to examine John Hayes' agreeably awful Garden of the Dead (1972), which secured a general release two years after the fact when it served as supporting feature to the director's far superior Grave of the Vampire (1974). That fanged fantasia boasted strong performances by Michael Pataki and William Smith; unfortunately, performers of such cultish caliber are conspicuously absent in Hayes' earlier thriller. Garden was occasionally unloaded on unsuspecting audiences over the next several years; in fact, I first heard of the film in the early Eighties, when Sneak Previews' Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert selected the picture as one of their "Dogs of the Week" (a badge of honor if there ever was one), and I remember being mildly disappointed that the movie did not make it to my neck of the woods way back when. Thankfully, Retromedia's now-out-of-print 2002 "Drive-In Theater" DVD briefly revived this shoestring shocker, which clocks in at a tolerable fifty-eight minutes.

Garden, one of countless ersatz Night of the Living Dead (1968) entries, is set at a flimsy-looking prison camp (lensed in Topanga Canyon and consisting of little more than barbed wire) ruled by a ruthless warden (Philip Kenneally, resembling a mafia mortician). For some damnfool reason, the inmates are manufacturing formaldehyde, which the incarcerated morons constantly sniff for cheap highs. The way they huddle around each other, ecstatically inhaling fumes from a hose, one half-expects the gathering to degenerate into an orgy. The camp, whose guards are oblivious to all this hysterical huffing, is scheduled for closure in three months (a letter from the Department of Corrections informs the no-nonsense warden that he "is not oriented enough in their new system"); meanwhile, several inmates decide to check out ahead of time by escaping, but are gunned down by pursuing officers. The formaldehyde fiends are buried in unmarked, shallow graves by other prisoners, but--reanimated by the chemical compound--return to the prison with garden hoe and weed whacker for revenge.

Quite honestly, it's difficult to dislike such a preposterous picture. While the red stuff is in regrettably short supply (no flesh-eating here, I fear), the undead inmates look appropriately creepy in their ghoulish raccoon eyes and grotesque green facepaint. The film lacks the nihilistic intensity of George Romero's work, but its use of an industrial agent to revive the dead anticipates the ultra-sonic-sound-reawakened zombies of Jorge Grau's superb Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974; aka Don't Open the Window, Breakfast at the Manchester Morgue, and innumerable other retitlings). Hayes stages his action sequences for the most part indifferently, though the scene of one of the (living) inmates' waitress girlfriend (Susan Charney) shrieking as the undead prisoners surround her motorhome after butchering her neighbors is certainly memorable, and would have given my prepubescent self bad dreams for a week--nay, a fortnight. The zombies moan and groan, occasionally leaping through the air and swinging axes as if they were Indian braves on the warpath, but are easily terminated by shotgun blasts and even the prison searchlight, which causes them to drool rabidly and their flesh to decompose rapidly. Jack Matcha's anti-drug script is heavy-handed, but reflects the mind-blown, instant gratification madness of the times; even in their living death, the creatures cannot get enough formaldehyde, wallowing in the stuff and actually transporting a barrel of it to the climactic showdown. I especially enjoyed the totally unsuitable jazz soundtrack, which consists of library cues that would be more appropriate for a Mike Hammer yarn.

Retromedia is notorious for its cheap prints, and once again the label delivers the bads. The minimally letterboxed, non-anamorphic transfer of this 1.85:1 trasher appears to have been culled from an old videocassette, though I can't imagine that Garden ever looked even halfway decent; indeed, the picture's poster boasts, or at any rate confesses, that it was "filmed in dead color" (by one H.A. Milton). Titles and credits unreel over freeze-frames, and the camera constantly cuts away from the carnage, presumably to secure the picture's PG rating. (Does a longer version exist in some cinematic cemetery? The film was also released as Tomb of the Undead.) Garden is introduced by Akron's WAOH horror host Son of Ghoul (Kevin Scarpino), who advises the viewer that he may want to smash his television set after watching the feature; to this end, he induces filmmaker/professional wrestler/Retromedia mogul Fred Olen Ray to toss a bowling ball into a tv screen. The back of the keepcase--which, although promising "sex-crazed zombies," offers "no naked girls"--claims to include Garden's original trailer, which on closer inspection turns out to be a most-welcome coming attractions reel for Grave. Retromedia's disc contains six chapter stops, as well as a link to the label's website, which sports a provocatively-posed still of cheesecake model Miss Kim.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


This summer marks the hard-to-believe twentieth anniversary of the inaugural issue of Tim and Donna Lucas' Video Watchdog. "The Perfectionist's Guide to Fantastic Video" began in 1985 as Mr. Lucas' column for Video Times, then migrated to Gorezone, and finally the Cincinnati couple set out on their own in 1990 as publisher-editors. "Why devote a consumer-oriented guide to fantastic video?" Lucas asked in the first installment of his "The Watchdog Barks" column. "The answer is simple. This genre gave birth to motion pictures, yet no other kind of motion picture is so consistently subjected to the slings and arrows of outrageous editorial meddling; horror films in particular. Foreign horror films, even more particularly." In addition to identifying so much monstrous meddling on the Scissors Circuit, Lucas has in the intervening decades answered, many times over, his own call for "the writing devoted to the genre to become more enlightened. Enlightening." He has, quite frankly, set new standards for genre scholarship.

That first issue featured Lucas' survey of the prolific and bizarre oeuvre of Jess Franco, "How to Read a Franco Film," which he had already begun to examine in issues 78-79 of Fangoria and issue 5 of Gorezone. "You can't see one Franco film until you've seen them all," Lucas aphoristically observed, plunging himself and his readers into the wild world of this heretofore neglected Spanish auteur. The issue also included amusing excerpts from journalist Lucas Balbo's interview with Franco, who opined that "we make a film first and, afterwards, it becomes a masterpiece but, in Spain, most directors think they are making a masterpiece. Every shot for them must be perfect and, in the end, this only results in unbearable films and terrible headaches." Lucas prominently raised the profile of Senor Franco, significantly expanding the critical perspective on this Eurocult maverick, who recently won his nation's Goya de Honor Lifetime Achievement Award.

"Franco considers himself a 'marginal' director," Lucas pointed out in that article, "and, I must admit, a great deal of his cumulative allure comes from my own realization that I am a 'marginal' filmgoer." Video Watchdog is in many ways a diary of Lucas' esoteric obsessions, and there's undoubtedly a lot of himself in the nameless protagonist of his superb 1994 debut novel Throat Sprockets, who visits a decaying movie palace--now reduced to screening pornography--during his lunch hour for flashes of artistry that elude him in what passes for mainstream cinema. ("Adult films," the narrator asserts, "...had a peculiar knack for capturing the listlessness I found at the core of real life, better than so-called 'legitimate' films.") The true cultist is always on the fringes, and Lucas' dispatches from these shadowy zones reverberate with intelligence and style.

Subsequent issues examined the butchering and restoration of Bill Gunn's Ganja & Hess (1973); the plundering of Rados Novakovic's 1963 Operacija Ticijan ("Operation Titian") for no less than five Roger Corman productions; and Soviet film historian Alan Upchurch's full-length study of Russian director Aleksandr Ptushko's work--incredibly, the first of its kind to appear anywhere. (Lucas later, in issue 22, movingly eulogized Upchurch, who died far too young at 37.) Especially memorable recent articles include David Kalat's "Stranger Than Truth: The Rise of 'Fictuality'" (issue 149) and Michael Barrett's analysis of "Millennial Unreality" (152). These are powerful, thought-provoking pieces.

Lucas encouraged his readers to become watchdogs themselves, and they helpfully obliged by pointing out film retitlings and particularly egregious examples of censorship. Issue 27's newsdesk recounted the persecution of Winnipeg, Manitoba's James Butters--a VW subscriber, no less--who was arrested by that city's Sex Police and "charged with the possession and distribution of 15 titles found to be obscene under Canadian law." (Among the forbidden films were Radley Metzger's sadomasochistic classic The Punishment of Anne [1975; aka The Image] and Jorg Buttgereit's Nekromantik shockers [1987-91].) Mr. Butters was, VW reported, "fined $4,600 in addition to his legal fees." An editorial in the previous issue addressed the outrageous attempt of the Cincinnati prosecutor's office to charge the Pink Pyramid, a local bookshop, with pandering obscenity. The store's crime? Offering a videocassette of Pier Paolo Pasolini's notorious swan song, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), for rental. (The film was "about one thing and one thing only: the sexual torture of teenagers," complained the city's numbskull safety director, completely ignoring Pasolini's scathing critique of Benito Mussolini's murderous republic.) Happily, Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge William Mallory, Jr. threw the case out of court.

Lucas' editorials are my--and probably many readers'--favorite part of the magazine. In issue 9, he recalled attending a revival of Walt Disney's Pinocchio (1940), whose sequence of Lampwick's donkey transformation disturbed a child in the audience. "Instead of quietly assuring her that everything would be all right," Lucas wrote, her father immediately removed the girl and her sister from the theatre, where they went "screaming up the aisle." He astutely observed that "parents, instinctively shielding their children from apparent dangers, sometimes forget that all great children's films have a dark side...and that this darkness serves a moral purpose." In an age of overly protective parenting, adults would do well to remember the author's wisdom.

Lucas has never been afraid to call attention to the singular lack of imagination that far too many filmmakers exhibit, pointedly remarking in issue 20 that "science fiction films should be experimental and adventurous, but they are more often timid and nostalgic....And when the odd, progressive movie does come along, it's typically remade to death, until the original becomes stale by association." In issue 21, Lucas remembered greeting the revelation of Darth Vader's siring of Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) with a yawn: "the idea of crossing swords with an adversary who turns out to be your father dates back to Sophocles," which eventually led him to "accept that very little about the cinema is ever genuinely new, and that our society's myths must change their clothes from time to time, in order to bridge the centuries and hold our attention."

One amusing column that stands out in my mind is issue 33's editorial addressing a kerfuffle with actress/producer Barbara Steele, who, in an "open letter" in the January/February 1996 number of Films in Review, expressed her "fury" at the Lucases for allegedly "mass-mailing" a 1995 Christmas card sporting her on its cover with the couple. (In FIR's accompanying picture, Ms. Steele looks as mad as a wet hen and, verily, ready to hurl maledictions.) The Lucases had published a calendar for that year devoted to Steele's legendary Mario Bava thriller, Black Sunday (1960), the cover of which bore the actress' autograph, and the seasonal card in question was taken from a Polaroid of Steele with the Lucases at an October 1994 Chiller Theatre convention, and was mailed only to several of the couple's friends. By venting her spleen in Films in Review, the actress inadvertently publicized the card, prompting some of Video Watchdog's readers to contact the Lucases for copies (which, naturally, weren't available). I felt the Lucases' pain, because I revere Ms. Steele, and would certainly hate to have her angry at me.

Other memorable "Watchdog Barks" pieces include the magazine's first post-9/11 column in issue 77, in which Lucas considered the "bitter irony" that that dreadful day's atrocities--and, let us not forget, its astonishing heroism--"had their only parallel in the annals of our popular entertainment. Events such as these were so inconceivable to us that they belonged exclusively to the realm of fantasy...but no more." An amusing-in-hindsight column in issue 38, several years earlier, offered Lucas' less-than-enthusiastic first response to the DVD revolution that would overwhelm laserdisc and videocassette: "...everything that we've heard and read about DVD has fallen far short of the expectations excited in the public by the hucksters [italics mine] of the 5" format." But my all-time favorite piece is Lucas' tribute in issue 153 to his late mother, who suffered from schizophrenia. It's a heartbreakingly beautiful column, and I greatly admire Mr. Lucas' courage in writing it.

The magazine has come a long way since that first issue, which was indifferently cut by its original printer, whose "paper stock [was] just a step up from shirt cardboard." (The Lucases switched to Crest Graphics for the second, and all other, issues.) Douglas E. Winter's always-essential "Audio Watchdog" column commenced in number 22, VW switched from a bimonthly to monthly format in 2000, and made the leap from black-and-white to full color for its 100th number. (Mrs. Lucas' art direction, of course, makes each edition a joy to behold.) In issue 155, Lucas, who is also devoting much of his time to a screenwriting career, disclosed that "my passion for horror and fantasy cinema has diminished over the past couple of years," and the magazine has returned to its bimonthly format, allowing him to catch his breath and, as he put it in the following issue's column, "follow my Muse into new avenues of thought."

Number 157 features Lucas' epic revisitation of Franco's early work ("In many ways, Franco's sprawling filmography exists outside the realm of film proper. It is film improper"), as well as David J. Schow's fascinating "review and case study" of Danny DeAngelo's now-withdrawn Features from the Black Lagoon, a work of, apparently, breathtaking plagiarism. (Author Schow was one of several sources pilfered by DeAngelo; why publisher McFarland and Company didn't scrutinize this book is incomprehensible.) Lucas and his merry band of contributors (Charlie Largent, Kim Newman, Rebecca and Sam Umland, et al) have made this digest a distinct pleasure for many years now, and I confess that his, and their, work has had a substantial impact on my own meager scribblings. Special thanks to my friend Nathaniel Thompson--another terrific VW contributor--at Mondo Digital for introducing me to this wonderful magazine so long ago. Here's to the new avenues of thought in the next twenty years!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Half a century after Alfred Hitchcock inspired audiences to reassess the wisdom of shower-taking, we're still reeling from Psycho. Norman Bates remains the schizoid stuff of American folklore, as does his grotesque inspiration, homicidal transvestite Ed Gein. The Master of Suspense's 1960 thriller continues to reverberate throughout cinema, as well as other media--perhaps most notably, stretched frame-by-atomistic-frame, two a second, the length of an entire day as the subject of Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho videowork (first unveiled in 1993), an installation which itself chillingly bookends Don DeLillo's latest novel, the moodily minimalistic Point Omega. Hitchcock's film plunged a blade into our collective psyche, where it has lodged ever since, but getting the project greenlighted took some considerable maneuvering.

The Nineteen Fifties witnessed a staggering growth in television ownership, from four million sets at the beginning of the decade to nearly forty-eight million at its end. Not coincidentally, average weekly film attendance fell precipitously, from eighty-two million in 1946 to thirty-five million in 1958; by that time, annual box office receipts were less than a billion dollars. People were glued to their small screens, and increasingly reluctant to venture into the Bijou. Hollywood countered with Cinemascope and 3-D, but even the Master saw the writing on the wall; the result was his weekly teleseries, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-65), which made him a sardonic fixture of the American living room. One studio, however, was making money with its shoestring emphasis on hot rods and horror: American International. Hitchcock wanted a piece of the action.

In his book-length essay, The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder (Basic Books, 2009; 183 pages), film historian David Thomson explores the making and the meaning of this seminal picture. The studio heads at Paramount, firmly entrenched as they were in their "middle-aged decorum," weren't at all keen on an adaptation of Robert Bloch's then-recent fiction. Hitchcock's original followup to North by Northwest (1959) was to have been another innocent-man-hounded-by-the-law story (No Bail for the Judge, based on Henry Cecil's novel), but star Audrey Hepburn was concerned about an attempted rape of her character in one scene, plus she was pregnant, so the project was scuttled. Hitchcock was particularly taken with Bloch's book, the film rights to which had been secured for nine grand when MCA acquired Universal. The director's agent, Lew Wasserman, assuaged Paramount's financial jitters over this culturally disreputable endeavor by arranging for Hitchcock to direct Psycho on a low budget (not to exceed eight hundred thousand dollars) and to forgo his salary in return for sixty percent ownership of the picture. (Wasserman also suggested that the movie be shot not at Paramount, but at Universal, just as North by Northwest had been lensed at MGM.) This strategy made Hitchcock enough of a mint for him to bid goodbye to prissy Paramount, his home for many years. It was definitely their loss, which they would feel keenly.

James Cavanaugh, who had written for Hitchcock's show, began work on the screenplay, but Joseph Stefano--who subsequently produced The Outer Limits (1963-64)--replaced him; indeed, he would revisit, with diminishing returns, the character of Norman Bates for 1990's Psycho IV: The Beginning. Stefano later confessed his "disappointment" when he read Bloch's novel, as he disliked Bates and felt the book "certainly wasn't a Hitchcock picture." Bloch's conception of his deranged motel owner was, in the novelist's words, "the equivalent of a Rod Steiger type"--a fat, fortyish man who read Aleister Crowley and P.D. Ouspensky; one unlikely, at any rate, to suggest the popular Anthony Perkins. Stefano revamped the character, allowing Perkins to lend his edgily delicate otherness to the project; indeed, it's difficult, if not impossible, to imagine anyone else playing the killer, as Vince Vaughan definitively demonstrated in Gus Van Sant's disastrous 1998 remake. Perkins had, in fact, arguably laid the foundation for Norman Bates with his bizarre-but-fascinating miscasting as the father-dominated, bipolar Red Sox center fielder Jimmy Piersall in Robert Mulligan's Fear Strikes Out (1957).

Stefano also significantly expanded the character of Marion Crane. Janet Leigh was cast as the absconding secretary after the director had rejected Hope Lange and Eva Marie Saint, who had just appeared with Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Lana Turner, battling back from scandal, was also considered. Hitchcock originally wanted Stuart Whitman for the role of Sam Loomis, but Wasserman proposed future U.S. Ambassador to Mexico John Gavin, Ms. Turner's boyfriend in Douglas Sirk's lavish Imitation of Life revision (1959). Vera Miles, who co-starred in Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956), and whose pregnancy cost her the role of Judy Barton in Vertigo (1958), was Crane's sister Lila, while Martin Balsam was ill-fated private investigator Milton Arbogast. Hitchcock even perpetrated a rumor that he was casting the role of Norma Bates, in order to keep everyone in the dark regarding the movie's climactic revelations. Perkins' pal Paul Jasmin supplied "Mother"'s voice, as did Virginia Gregg and Jeanette Nolan, while Margo Epper actually wielded the knife in the shower sequence; all four are uncredited in the film.

Psycho's celebrated, James Allardice-scripted trailer, in which Hitchcock conducts a tour of the Bates Motel (and which featured Miles, not the unavailable Leigh, shrieking in the shower), reflexively lampooned "story, advertising, and the whole apparatus of coming attractions," building momentum for the picture's immanent release. Wasserman, attempting to preclude any negative press, made the then-unprecedented move of opening in Los Angeles and New York, then circulating the film in as wide, and swift, a national release as possible. Taking a cue from William Castle's gimmicky Columbia promotions, no one was admitted to the movie after it began (Pinkerton guards enforced this policy at early engagements)--and who could ever forget the image of Hitchcock on some of Psycho's posters, imploring viewers, "Don't give away the ending--it's the only one we have"?

The film shattered so many taboos that Thomson somewhat melodramatically proclaims it a work of "insurrectionary defiance." Leigh appeared prominently in slip and bra ("a good 36 D-cup," he estimates), as well as in a flesh-colored suit for the shower scene (model Marli Renfro, also uncredited, served as her stand-in for several shots), and a toilet was photographed in all its scandalously flushing glory. Thomson, then but nineteen, first saw the picture with a sparsely-populated audience at London's Plaza; he recalls that "somehow the solitude added to the intensity." The author had recently entered film school, where he soon found himself at odds with the faculty's "social realist tendencies." Thomson "was certain that Psycho was the film of the year," but his sycophantic instructors were all gooey over Guy Green's The Angry Silence, which (yawn) examined British union issues and was (surprise) produced by the head of the school. This lack of vision accurately reflects the American and English criticism of the times, whose reviewers and scholars lagged significantly behind the French; their writers had lionized Hitchcock for years, and had even devoted the entire October 1954 number of Cahiers du Cinema to him. Back home, alas, the director was regarded as a mere "entertainer," one "excluded from gravity by such things as nuns in high-heeled shoes, the wicked use of national monuments, and"--most damnably--by "that old sneaking habit of dainty murder." Hitchcock's malicious "meringue of style" was an obstacle to any deep English-language appreciation of his work, but, beginning in L'Hexagone, the critical tide was turning.

And what, finally, of the film itself? While it's ridiculously hyperbolic to assert that Hitchcock taught us to love murder, Psycho is most significant to the more mature Thomson for opening, in its first forty minutes, a window onto "a grasping, devious, and ordinarily nasty nation." The author maintains that Marion Crane's murder "grows out of the grim unkindness of the world we have seen, not from the lurid casebook of the Bates family." He treasures the doomed affair of Crane and Loomis, an unhappy pair trapped "between romance and money"--to him, the couple "[act] like a man and a whore, or like two lovers who must not be seen." As Thomson construes him, the alimony-plagued Loomis "is not that desirable a husband;" moreover, his "emotional reluctance" to marry Crane causes the desperate woman to take Tom Cassidy's (Frank Albertson) money and run to him. "Most films of the '50s are secret ads for the American way of life," Thomson contends, but this movie "is a warning about its lies and limits." The couple are lost in the limbo of "lunchtime hotel rooms": Loomis lives in back of his hardware store, while Crane, the author suggests, could easily have been a prostitute in her previous life. Her realty employer, George Lowery (Vaughn Taylor), "is a rat," and Lowery's sleazeball "bullfrog" client Cassidy blatantly propositions the woman. Only the fragile, bird-stuffing Bates truly connects with Crane.

Camille Paglia, in her monumental survey Sexual Personae, cleverly links Psycho to Honore de Balzac's novella The Girl With the Golden Eyes, identifying Marion as "an art object vandalized and abandoned" by a "megalomaniacal but phallically impotent cultist," but Thomson, I daresay, would have none of this: it is our "noir society," and not sex-crossing, son-devouring mother psychosis, that is the real culprit. Indeed, he several times describes the film's employment of Bates' schizophrenia as--an interesting choice of words--"cockamamie." Thomson doubts that Hitchcock "ever believed in this idea of a character taking over another--only in the ways it would be filmed." (Why, then, does Mother rush out of Cabin 1 after killing Crane, if she doesn't want her son to see her? Scenarist Stefano was certainly a believer.) For Thomson, the remaining sixty minutes of the picture fail to fulfill the promise of those first forty, degenerating into Freudian shock (schlock?) effects and constituting "an hour that is as fabricated and spurious as the first hour is solid and resonant." After Crane's slaughter, in other words, there's nowhere for the film to go but downwards. Thomson even proposes an alternative shower sequence, one in which the killer's secret identity is immediately revealed ("her" face is shown in Saul Bass' original storyboards), and Crane is stabbed only once--which, he believes, would be more realistic, and would make "Mother" less preposterous. (Crane is actually decapitated in the novel.) Frankly, I find this proposal dubious. We are in the lethal realm of sexual violence, whose manifestations of personality malfunction are seldom if ever dainty. The Domineering Mother is one of Hitchcock's recurring themes, and here the director takes it to darkly comic extremes. Carping about realism seems curiously irrelevant.

Stefano, who was then in analysis regarding his own mother, introduced the character of Dr. Fred Richmond to explain Bates' madness; he also recommended Simon Oakland for the part. (It is Loomis who, after meeting with a police psychiatrist, performs this task in Bloch's book, sharing with Lila what the authorities have been able to piece together.) Hitchcock reportedly "thanked [Oakland] for saving the picture," though Thomson argues that "what needed to be 'saved' was the film's and Hitchcock's indifference to the stated content." I have seen Psycho many times, and, for the life of me, I cannot discern this mysterious "indifference"--it's not, after all, as if the picture has been deformed beyond recognition. One may as well, and just as unfairly, blame Bloch for the construction of his story.

Of course, Psycho would not have achieved its artistic heights without Bernard Herrmann's score, whose archetypal shrieking strings "[reach] out for the fusion of film and opera," thus catapulting the thriller "past realism and into mythology." Hermann's contrapuntal main title and tense ostinato passages are perhaps the most famous notes in film history, but--incredibly--the composer was not even nominated for an Oscar, although others were: television cinematographer John L. Russell (whose black-and-white lens revealed "a new acid-rural poetry"); Joseph Hurley, Robert Clatworthy, and George Milo (Art Direction); and Hitchcock received his fifth Best Director nod. Perkins was ludicrously passed over for Best Actor, although Leigh was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. The film itself was not even recommended for Best Picture; that year's Academy Award, in case you're wondering, went to Billy Wilder's The Apartment.

Thomson pads his book with a chapter on films he believes felt the ripple effect of Hitchcock's masterpiece, from James Bond adaptations to Brian De Palma and Jonathan Demme shockers. "The extended significance of 'the moment of Psycho' is not just the impact of an isolated sensation," he explains, "but the spreading influence it exerted on other films, especially in the treatment of sex and violence, and the room it opened up for the ironic (or mocking treatment) of both." Thomson admits that his list "is not exhaustive," and I was frankly disappointed to see that there's no mention of Castle (whose genderbending Homicidal [1961] pays direct hommage to the Master), nor, for that matter, of any Hammer film or Mario Bava, the godfather of Italian fantastic cinema, who in many ways initiated the "body count" genre with such chillers as Sei Donne per l'Assassino ("Six Women for the Murderer," 1963; U.S. release, Blood and Black Lace) and Ecologia del Delitto ("Ecology of Crime," 1971; U.S. release, Twitch of the Death Nerve)--and, mamma mia, where is Hitchcock's most obsessive disciple, Dario Argento? Their omission is not completely unexpected, however, as Thomson predictably disparages Tobe Hooper's Gein-inspired The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) for "requir[ing] that we regard such dangerous nonsense as 'good, clean fun'" and "leav[ing] us filled with rueful nostalgia for the days when Norman Bates could put an elegant sentence together." (This completely misses the mark of Hooper's frightful deconstruction of the American frontier.) He even derides Hitchcock's pride in the shower scene's relative "restraint"--a "piety less than warming or admirable"--and, in an absurd fit of association fallacy, complains that the director's said piety is "too close to the technical pride taken by gas-chamber engineers and too removed from the plain and undeniable impact of that work." The author's senior decorum, I submit, is plainly showing.

Nevertheless, Thomson is a compelling, challenging critic, and it's obvious that Hitchcock's classic has haunted him for decades. Not unlike artist Gordon's epic video piece, he rigorously breaks down Psycho to examine its inner workings from opening to closing shot, encouraging us to revisit the film and see it through his reality tunnel. As Gordon illustrated, even a solitary frame of celluloid contains myriad worlds. The nameless gallerygoer of Point Omega appears day after day to experience the picture. "What he was watching seemed pure time," DeLillo writes of his mysterious, obscurely menacing character. "The broad horror of the old gothic movie was subsumed in time. How long would he have to stand here, how many weeks or months, before the film's time scheme absorbed his own, or had this already begun to happen?" It began to happen, for all intents and purposes, fifty years ago, but the moment of Hitchcock's masterpiece is eternal. Whenever we watch it, we are never wholly ourselves, and our time is never entirely our own.


Bloch, Robert. Psycho. New York: Overlook Press, 2010.

Caminer, Sylvia and John Andrew Gallagher. "An Interview with Joseph Stefano." Films in Review Volume XLVII, Number 1/2, (January/February 1996).

DeLillo, Don. Point Omega. New York: Scribner, 2010.

Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New York: Vintage, 1991.