Thursday, September 27, 2007

“Do you prefer Nymphs to Satyrs?”

Featuring scenes of mind-numbing cruelty and sexual debauchery existing in equal measure with interminable scenes of inert dramatics, Caligula finds its way to DVD this October 2nd, replacing Image’s long out of print edition with not one, not two, but three different editions. The most comprehensive - a 3-disc set titled The Imperial Edition – features 2 slightly different cuts of the film, 3 commentary tracks, hours upon hours of “deleted scenes”, the full length version of a vintage documentary, and even PDF files of photo layouts as they originally appeared in Penthouse. Did I forget to mention that the film was financed by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione?

Maybe I should back up a bit…

Using a script by Gore Vidal (who had every intention of supervising the production) and his magazine’s millions, the Guccione managed to secure the services of several top tier British actors, including Malcolm McDowell as Caligula, Helen Mirren as his wife, Caesonia, with Peter O’Toole and John Gielgud top-lining in smaller roles. After seeing Salon Kitty, Guccione immediately hired director Tinto Brass to helm Caligula, but Brass didn’t get on with Vidal at all, and as shooting commenced in 1976, the author found himself on the outside looking in and not liking what he saw one bit.

It would actually be nearly three years before an unfinished print was shown at the ’79 Cannes festival, and almost another full year before its infamous New York premier, where the film was shown only at the Penthouse East Cinemas (yes, you read that right) and charged $7.50 for tickets - nearly doubling the average admission price. But the rumors of astounding violence and scenes of hardcore sex had been running wild, and people had to see for themselves. Were these elder statesmen (and women) of British stage & screen really participating in a $17 million (that’s approximately $60 million inflation-adjusted dollars) porno epic? Well, they were!

…and they weren’t.

Maybe I should back up a bit…

When principal photography was completed, Guccione took over editing and locked Brass out. Brass joined the fray of lawsuits that plagued the film for the next few years, and Guccione, not satisfied with the simulated softcore sex shot by Brass, brought in some Penthouse Pets and a couple dozen broad-minded Italian extras for another round of filming. Only this time, it was explicit hardcore footage. When the actors who had appeared in the film got wind of what Guccione was up to, they took him and the film apart in the press. McDowell famously blasted the film on a French chat show and implored the viewing audience to avoid it, but the damage to the reputation of the actors was done. While they knowingly signed up for a film that would be sexually explicit, there was never a question of actual sex being involved. But when the background is filled with nymphs and satyrs rutting each other with jewel encrusted cod pieces, it is difficult to claim that you had no idea what sort of film you were making. O’Toole and Gielgud escaped largely unharmed, due mostly to their limited screentime. McDowell and Mirren weren’t as lucky, and after “that porno” arrived in theaters in 1980, McDowell found himself in less and less prestigious projects. He’s always worked, but that’s mostly because he says ‘yes’ to everything. And without a strong director to guide him, McDowell reverts to the kind of eye-bulging, mustache twirling business that only a RADA-trained actor is capable of. Stardom would elude Helen Mirren for several decades more, but a late career run of higher profile projects culminated in an Academy Award earlier this year for The Queen. Caligula ended Tinto Brass’ flirtation with the European art house market, but continues to make superior erotic films in his native Italy to this very day. Guccione took the considerable profits from Caligula and sunk them into a Penthouse Casino. Neither the casino nor the money was ever seen again.

And the film itself? It’s rather incredible for Guccione to have spent all these millions only to wind up with such an ugly, unpleasant film to look at. It’s difficult to say how differently the film would have looked if Brass were allowed to supervise the editing – the final product is so amateurish – but in its finished form it appears as if the action was never blocked for the camera beforehand. Every scene is simply hosed down with zoom lenses that frantically dart around the sets attempting to capture the actors. The stunning (and massive) sets by the great Danilo Donati are simply lost to the chaos. Guccione certainly got his money’s worth with McDowell; he throws himself into the role with complete abandon, and no small amount of courage. He prances around like a mad peacock, obviously aware that subtlety has no reservation at this hotel. The other actors don’t fare as well; no performance in the film seems remotely seems remotely connected to another. This is a common problem with any large multinational production where the actors and crew speak different languages, but it is much more acutely felt here.

The previous DVD from Penthouse and Image has been fetching high prices on EBay, in spite of a non-anamorphic, seriously unattractive image. The “high definition transfer” image on the new Imperial Edition is likely to raise expectations far beyond what the transfer can offer. The garish lighting and poor print quality will always play hell with any home video presentation of the film - short of a major restoration of the original, this is probably the best that the film will look. Disc 1 contains the unrated theatrical edition and disc 2 contains an odd hybrid that is being called a “pre release version”. It’s not the 210min whopper from Cannes, it’s basically the same version as o n disc 1, with most (though not quite all) the hardcore sex removed. Sadly, instead of just allowing the film to run shorter, it replaces all the X footage with long takes of incidental, background action. The considerable violence also survives intact. The eagerly awaited commentary tracks are on the pre release version, and they are by far the most enjoyable extras. McDowell’s track is lively and fun; since he’s is on screen for at least 95% of the film, and was privy to much of the back-stage machinations. And though obviously aware of the absurdity of the film, he does mention how proud of his own work and that of the many other actors and craftsmen who really did set out to do something special. His deadpan reaction upon spotting a farm animal during an orgy sequence is also priceless. Mirren was on set much less than McDowell, but like her co-star she is generous with praise and a bit sad at how it all turned out. The third track is with Ernest Volkman, an journalist who was covering the film for Penthouse. His track is also quite interesting, though he literally phones in his commentary – the first time I’ve ever heard of this happening on a commentary track for the entire duration of the film.

Disc 2 also features “hours of deleted and extended scenes”. While technically true, it is a bit misleading as most of these are just rushes (all silent) or occasions where the cameras were rolling while the actors were finding their marks and preparing for a take. There are definitely a few interesting odds and ends, including a very different, and much improved, ending to the famous “head chopper” execution scene. Disc 3 contains the hour long version of the Making of Caligula, made so early during production, that it features Gore Vidal telling us all what a treat we’re in for when filming is completed, along with a contemporary interview with Brass, and assorted ephemera.

Is Caligula a good film? No – not even close. But it is an incredibly interesting one; a film that could only have been made in the late 70s when it seemed that the adult film industry and Hollywood were headed for a collision. Porn starlet Andrea True had a disco smash with “More, More, More”, Harry Reems was being feted by Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson to raise money for his defense fund, and Jackie O was photographed leaving a showing of Deep Throat. Would films like Caligula and the explicit Last Tango in Paris be the bridge between the two worlds? That particular dream was over when video tape ghettoized porn by putting the entire industry on the cheap, but thanks to Image Entertainment, yet another generation will witness what happened when the West End met the ‘Duce.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Most Sincere Pumpkin Patch of All

Let’s celebrate a 29th Anniversary this year. Next year we’ll be awash in 30yr celebratory DVD editions OF John Carpenter’s Halloween; everyone will be talking about it, so let’s beat those fair weather fans to the punch. Oh yeah, there’s also this other film out now calling itself Halloween. They bought the title, plot, and music.

But they didn’t buy us.

Seriously, after giving a right pasting to Rob Zombie’s remake a few days ago, I thought I might help to set the Karma right by talking some about the original. Made in 1978 by a cast and crew with little experience and even less money, using perhaps the most worn genre cliché (masked killer stalks young girls), and broke all box office records for an independent film. The plot is so well known, and so frequently ripped off, that it hardly bears repeating. Young Michael Myers, for no discernable reason, dons a clown mask and brutally stabs his older sister to death on Halloween night. Years later, just before being transported for a hearing by his psychiatrist Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), Myers escapes, steals a car and heads back to his home town of Haddonfield. Meanwhile, three High School students, Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), Linda (P.J. Soles), and Annie (Nancy Loomis) prepare for their various Halloween evening activities. For Linda and Annie it means going out with their boyfriends (or at least trying to), and for Laurie it means yet another night of babysitting. But Michael Myers had different plans for everyone.

Honestly, no quickie paragraph can even begin to express the importance of this film. No one - and I mean no one - shoots like Carpenter. Using the 2.35 Panavision frame (for only the second time) he expertly uses compositions to generate suspense, focusing your attention on the someone in foreground, only to slowly reveal the featureless, silver mask worn by Myers almost as if hovering in mid-air somewhere amid the background detail. The effect, particularly in a scene that finds Annie locked in a tiny laundry room, is breathtaking. Feeling that a more experienced actor would be needed to counter the young cast, Carpenter and producer Debra Hill offered the role of Dr. Loomis first to Christopher Lee, and after he turned it down, to Pleasance. A veteran character actor, memorable in films both big budget (The Great Escape) and small (Deathline) he was also a notorious scene stealer, adept at every method at an actor's disposal to focus attention to himself. These slightly hammy tendencies were well harnessed by Carpenter, converting this to a form of eccentric gravitas that was just right for the role. The casting of the teenage girls was also spot on, with all three leads coming off like real people instead of the screeching stereotypes that most male screenwriters came up with. As the daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, you would have thought that Jamie Lee Curtis would have turned in the most affected performance of the bunch; feeling like her lineage ought to be enough to carry her through the part. But her ultra-naturalistic performance as Laurie is a near miracle. Instead of a stereotype, Curtis gives us a real person – one whom we believe had a life before we meet her in the film – and invests us so completely in Laurie’s survival that we are breathless watching her run from Myers.

The decline of the modern American slasher film began when audiences started to root and applaud for the killers. After the first Nightmare on Elm Street film back in 1984 we were awash in wisecracking killers that invited audience identification. The killers were also invariably better written than the victims (try to find even a hint of warmth in even the best Nightmare on Elm St, Friday the 13th, or even Halloween sequel). Horror cinema got another kick in the gut from a good movie in 1991 when Silence of the Lambs made everyone into an amateur profiler. All of a sudden, we had to know all about the ruined childhoods and the mental deformities that turned men into killers. Halloween works because we know nothing about Myers; until Carpenter had to pad the film for television and give himself a clothesline to hang a plot on in part 2, there was no relationship between Michael and Laurie or her friends. The idea that he was just walking down the street, saw them coming the other way and said to himself “Look at those three – I think I’ll follow them around all night. Probably kill ’em too” is a terrifying concept, and that’s all you need. When Loomis runs around telling people that Michael is “Purely and simply evil”, he isn’t kidding. Look at the credits for Halloween; there’s an actor playing “Young Michael” for the first scene, another plays “Michael Myers Age 23” for the split second that his mask is off, and yet another playing “The Shape”. For the vast majority of the film, the adult Michael Myers is played by Nick Castle, a musician and friend of Carpenter who utilizes robotic yet somehow graceful body movements to suggest the killing vessel that Myers has become. After Castle left the mask behind (to a directing career that includes the Damon Wayans horror fest Major Payne) the role has been filed with a parade of stuntmen who were obviously given no more complicated direction than “Walk over there – now grab her - now break for lunch”

And though certainly not for children, there is almost no blood on-screen. At some point (I’d say right around his Village of the Damned remake in 1995) Carpenter just seemed to give up. I saw him speak at a Lincoln Center event several years ago, and while it was fun to actually get to see him in person, he seemed like a man who had lost any fire he once had for filmmaking. While I hope this isn’t the case, his output, including two Masters of Horror episodes that were dismal even by that series’ standard, and his newly acquired habit of poring buckets of blood on the screen to conceal his own lack of enthusiasm doesn’t bode well for a late career comeback. Rob Zombie’s miserable, life-hating remake did little but draw attention to what Carpenter did right 30 years ago and that’s what we should be celebrating. Some may complain of a slow pace - I’d hate to hear what they’d make of Psycho – but the film moves like Myers himself; quick when he needs to be and deliberate because he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

No, Laurie, it's not the Boogeyman

Sometimes you don’t even want to give something the satisfaction of hating it.

I’ve always thought that the worst thing you can say about a movie is that it was instantly forgettable - that you didn’t care enough about it to even have an opinion. If I had made a movie and the studio came to me with a pile of comment cards that were split 50/50 with people who either loved or hated it, I would go home and sleep quite well that night. Provided the same holds true for Rob Zombie, I’d wager that he’s been sleeping extraordinarily well for the past few years. As a musician, Zombie flew either above, under, or around my radar; I have always regarded ‘metal’ music in much the same way I do the homeless, I certainly don’t hate them but I do my best to ignore them. When he decided to become a film director, well, now you’re eating in my kitchen, Rob. I was expecting some vile, artless straight to video piece of garbage that would cater to his perceived fanbase of God-knows-what. Imagine my surprise to find that I actually enjoyed House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and The Devil’s Rejects (2005) – and imagine my even greater surprise to learn that the Zombie & I share similar cinema sensibilities! Both films deal with the exploits of the murderous Firefly family, with House being more of a straight ahead horror picture with the ubiquitous group o’ teens happening upon the family, who has apparently turned the torture and killing of passers by into a vocation, and Rejects, which follows the same family in their flight from the law. Both pictures are set in the 70s and are steeped in the indi-horror aesthetic of the period, and are literally overflowing with visual references from films like Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972). It really appears that Zombie is having a ball, and that fun is infectious. It also helps that the casts of both are filled with terrific genre character actors who traditionally have trouble working outside the Chiller Convention. Both are also graphically violent. Now a bit of blood (or even a bucket) is not going to shock this reviewer, but there’s a geek show quality to the ghastliness on display that can easily overwhelm the films other pleasures, and helped birth the largely meaningless term “torture porn”. Rejects was a better film than House; and with the welcome retirement of the Firefly family, I was looking forward to where he’d go next.

Unfortunately, he went to Haddonfield. October 31st. Halloween.

Sitting through Rob Zombie’s Halloween is like watching a favorite movie on television, only to have an annoying big brother change the channel to PPV wrestling. It shows, not only a complete failure to understand what made the original special, but also an estrangement from the way human beings communicate and relate to each other. Zombie’s universe is made up almost exclusively with despicable white trash stereotypes, livened up with the occasional serial killer in waiting. Our mercifully brief time spent with the Myers family introduces us to the pole dancing mom, wheelchair-ridden dad (who also dabbles in pedophilic incest based on his breakfast table chat), older sister (who’s Halloween night boyfriend is the closest approximation to a Wookie found outside of a Star Wars film). There’s also a new baby - who’s conception is the one horror spared us - and, of course, young Michael. Victimized by all save Mom, Michael moves in quick succession from killing animals (Pictures!) to school bullies, to Dad and Sis. While institutionalized, he comes under the care of Dr. Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell, probably thinking how much better the food was on Caligula), but Michael seals himself off from the world, sitting in his room making Mardi Gras masks and taking massive amounts of steroids until he turns into a creature more befitting a tale from Homer. During a transfer (one wonders if the asylum will close after he leaves, since he is apparently the only patient) he escapes and heads to his hometown of Haddonfield to find his little sister.

Up until this point, Zombie’s film has at least been somewhat original. Although every bit of new backstory adds nothing but pop-psychoanalytical hooey (abusive parents – check, kills animals – check) and takes away the character’s mystery and power, he at least fulfills his promise to bring something new to the story. But just before the halfway mark in the 2hr feature, it turns into a hurried retread of the original film’s plotline, replacing suspense with bloodshed, and characterization with lowest-denominator pandering. Even Loomis, Carpenter’s Van Helsing stand-in, is made to look like a posturing opportunist, having just written a tell-all paperback about the Myers case.

As much as Zombie attempts to urinate on the memory, it exists too many heads and shoulders above it to get a clear shot. Many right-minded internet critics have been trying to help, writing numerous articles in the “Rob Zombie raped my childhood” vein. But trying to sell the original to the MTV demographic (you know, the only one) is an exercise in futility, and tearing into the remake only serves to make it more “controversial”. One thing you can do is give your money to a little film called Hatchet, currently in limited theatrical release. It’s a refreshingly non-ironic, non post-modernistic slasher, one written by people with measurable wit who understand that genre conventions don’t have to always be laughed at or turned upside down. Support horror-comedies that actually work, folks; they’re as rare and lovely as a Faberge Egg and not nearly as expensive.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

“I’m Not Even Going to Swat that Fly…”

September and October traditionally bring a welcome batch of horror themed releases to DVD, and this year finds 20th Century Fox (with it’s newly acquired MGM library) bringing out plenty of long awaited titles; some in superior re-issues, and many that have never been available on home video before in the US. With The Fly Collection, Fox groups the original and its two direct sequels with a fourth disc of extras, giving the first two films improved transfers over previous additions, and bringing the seldom seen third film its domestic home video debut.

Long one of Fox’s most profitable genre properties, The Fly (1958) features some of the most instantly recognizable horror images of all time, so potent that even 5 decades later they still have the power to chill. Produced inexpensively, The Fly nonetheless benefited from the considerable resources of a major Hollywood studio. Luscious Cinemascope color photography (make that “Terror-Color” as noted on the theatrical posters) combined with superior sets, costumes, and makeup made the film look far more expensive than it actually was and helped set the film apart from most horror efforts of the day. The efficient screenplay by future mega-author James Clavell, adapted from the Playboy-published short story by George Langelaan, gave producer-director Kurt Neumann (a German émigré whose suicide just after attending the film’s premiere briefly cast a shadow over the picture) a solid foundation on which to work from. The opening set up is a stunner – why did Helene Delambre crush her beloved husband Andre’s head and hand in an industrial press? And why exactly is she so intent on finding a very specific fly seen around the grounds of the Delambre home? She tells her incredible story to her husband’s brother François and to police inspector Charas, detailing Andre’s breakthrough experiments in teleportation, and of the little hiccup that took place when an uninvited guest joined him in one of the chambers…

Top lined by Al Hedison (the film came before his studio imposed name change to ‘David’, doubtlessly giving the actor many frustrating years of “I loved your brother in The Fly”) and Patricia Owens as the doomed Delambres, and much rests on their shoulders. Vincent Price, whose image would be most closely associated with the film in decades to come, and Herbert Marshall (as François and Charas, respectively) were far better known to audiences and gave the film a dose of gravitas; but it’s Hedison and Owens who have to carry the film. The role of Andre was turned down by many better known actors (including The Day the Earth Stood Still’s Michael Rennie) who balked at spending a large part of post botched-experiment screen time with their head first under a shroud, and then covered in ace makeup man Ben Nye’s stunning fly mask, but then-newcomer Hedison wisely jumped at the opportunity. Hedison cemented his genre credentials with the TV adaptation of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea 6 years later, and has enjoyed a very active career ever since. Co-star Owens’ career never took off, despite her ear-piercing reaction to her husband’s mutation quickly becoming one of the most iconic horror images of all time.

Growing up with this film makes this viewer impervious to some of its flaws. After the admittedly grisly (and gripping) opening, it does sag a bit – with pacing and tone more at home in a Douglas Sirk melodrama than the scream-fest promised by the subject matter. But one lab mishap later and we’re back on track – right up to a finale that I’d give my right arm to have seen in a packed house back in’58. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, there will be no spoilers here, but what Price and Marshall see in the garden during that penultimate scene taps directly into the nightmare vein like few other pictures have ever done.

Fox must have given itself whiplash producing a sequel, a serviceable effort that thankfully didn’t have to carry “Son of Fly” as a moniker. Return of the Fly (1959) opens with the dashing Philippe Delambre (Brett Halsey), having aged at least 15 years since the original (which would set the film in the mid ‘70s) and itching to get on with his fathers experiments in teleportation. Needing financial support, he turns to kindly uncle François (Vincent Price, the only cast member returning from the original) who first refuses and tries to dissuade Philippe away, but soon realizes that Philippe is as headstrong as his brother was and reluctantly agrees to back him, provided that he remain involved so that he can keep a watchful eye on the proceedings. Unfortunately, François isn’t watching Philippe’s assistant, Ronald, who has plans of his own to smuggle the plans for the teleporter out of the lab and sell them on the dreaded “open market”.

For whatever reason, Fox decided to shoot this horse before it even got to the track by shooting in black & white. Losing the color photography robbed the sequel of what made the original so special. Fox was smart enough to keep the Cinemascope, but the damage was done – even Price was taken aback by the bizarre decision and commented on it publicly – and the look of the film was barely distinguishable from other low budget genre efforts of the day. The cast isn’t bad; Price could do this sort of stuff in his sleep (but unlike many of his peers, never did) and Halsey was always a capable actor who had the misfortune of coming along during the “everyone looks like Jeffrey Hunter” era in the late ‘50s and like dozens like him, had to hope that their name was at least third or fourth on a casting directors list. A glance at the credits of director Edward Bernds, replete with titles like Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters and Dig That Uranium, must have done little to inspire confidence in the cast, but does a better job here than his résumé would indicate. One nice twist is having the human/fly merging as the result of sabotage rather than the usual scientific hubris. When Philippe discovers Ronald’s betrayal, there is a scuffle resulting in the unconscious Philippe being stuffed in one of the telepods and Ronald ready to disintegrate his atoms into the ether. But when Ronald spies a fly crawling across a cube of sugar (a rather important shot that is unfortunately diffused by repeated use) he decides, not to kill Philippe, but to turn him in to another creature like his father. It really is a mean-spirited bit of villainy – especially considering that it’s done almost as an afterthought to the crime of industrial theft. It also bears noting that once joined with the fly, Philippe seems to have the presence of mind to go after the people responsible for the disfigurement - one guesses that the poor fly had no such agenda. According to DVD Savant, Glenn Erickson, Return was released on a double bill with the enjoyably preposterous The Alligator People, and the sight of Lon Chaney staggering through the frame shouting “I’ll kill you, alligator man!” probably seared itself into more peoples memory than anything in it’s co-feature.

In an effort to comply with the law of diminishing returns, Curse of the Fly (1965) staggered into theaters under the company banner of producer Robert L Lippert. Though the longtime low budget entrepreneur actually produced all three original Fly films, but it was only for the grim third installment that Lippert received screen credit – possibly because Fox realized that there was no sense expending energy trying to convince the audience that the film was anything other than an insanely cheap, quickly produced exploitation without any of the style of the previous entries. Lippert had been producing low and ultra low budget movies for some time, usually without credit, as the ‘Lippert’ name was too closely connected with grade Z fare like 1951’s Lost Continent, but his dollar squeezing reputation held him in good stead with studio bosses, who often brought him in to keep costs low in their ‘B’ picture units.

The show opens promisingly enough, with Patricia Stanley (the fabulous Carole Gray) running through the woods clad in only her underwear. She almost literally runs into Martin Delambre on the road, to whom she relays a somewhat suspicious story about being employed as a domestic in a large house where circumstances became so dire that she had no other choice but to flee in the middle of the night. In just the first of many credulity strains, Martin decides to take her with him to Montreal and put her up in a hotel room and buy her all new clothes. Of course they’re married within days, much to the chagrin of Martin’s father, Henri (the original cinematic Prof Quatermass, Brian Donlevy) who thinks that Martin ought to keep his mind on the family’s teleportation experiments. Younger brother Albert operates the other telepod in an identical lab in England (it’s not the same lab, of course. Not a bit. Totally different). As in the earlier films, the fact that the teleportation machines actually can transmit inanimate objects with success; one waits for someone to say “Let’s stop while we’re ahead and put every mail system and shipping agent out of business!”, but of course, it’s never good enough. It’s also interesting to see how cold the Delambre family has become in the ensuing years; this particular branch not only experiments on humans, but keeps the deformed results locked in a little prison on the estate grounds. It is also mentioned that Martin is the third generation of the Delambre family to be “cursed”, which would be fine if his father were Philippe from Return, but then who exactly is Henri? Pink Panther fans will enjoy seeing Burt “Cato” Kwouk as the Delambre’s butler/lab tech/mutant wrangler Tai

The direction by Don Sharp, coming off the terrific Hammer production Kiss of the Vampire, is disappointingly flat. Curse continued the Cinemascope tradition of the series, but compositions are non-existent. Its favored status among those who should know better can probably be attributed to its rarity – it’s much easier to champion a film that lives mostly in memory, especially if that memory is 40 years old and remembered through the eyes of an eager, Famous Monsters of Filmland reading youngster. It is also worth noting that there is no actual “fly” monster in the picture, although the police seem to have a nifty snapshot of Philippe emerging from the telepod with the fly head – perhaps his webcam was left on? It’s inclusion in this set is welcome for the sake of completion, but it will be few peoples favorite.

The fourth disc holds a few interesting extras – probably not enough to need a separate disc, but welcome nonetheless. A 1997 Biography episode showcasing Price is the best extra here, as it focuses on his entire career, rather than just The Fly or his horror work in general. Also included is a very brief featurette that breathlessly runs through each film in under 12min and a better than usual selection of publicity materials from the Fox vault.

Friday, September 14, 2007

When the '68 Merc was King

In my younger years, the Hawaii Five-O theme song used to get me pumped-up beyond all measure. The rapid fire cutting (to the music, no less), those great touristy shots of Hawaii (so exotic, yet so familiar!), and that great intro shot of Jack Lord that seemingly tracks across the entire island chain to that famous credit shot on the balcony. The problem was, after that initial rush I would quickly lose interest. In order to keep my pre-teen mind tamed, a detective/cop show needed that certain something in its lead character; Columbo’s comic needling, Banacek’s ‘drop dead, world’ attitude, or Rockford’s pragmatic snarkiness. I sensed none of that in Five-O’s Lord, so after the credits I would, forgive the pun, keep right on surfin’. But two important things have happened in the ensuing decades – my tastes matured, and networks completely forgot what it really meant to be cool.

Following the exploits of the fictitious “Five-O” squad led by Steve McGarett (answerable only to the Governor, thank you very much) with support provided by detectives Danny “Dan-O” Williams (James MacArthur), Chin Ho Kelly (Kam Fong), and Kono Kalakawa (the one and only Zulu). Debuting in 1968 and lasting an astonishing 12 seasons (it’s hard to imagine that a show so firmly rooted in the 1960s was actually on the air in 1980) Hawaii Five-O very deliberately ran against the grain of many network shows of the time by not condescending to the perceived youth market. Instead of inserting an awkward “hippie” character, it could simply let the location address the hip quotient and leave the crime fighting to the squares. It was a sly move on CBS’s part; instead of pandering, Hawaii Five-O played as a weekly love letter to the establishment set in a trendy, tropical paradise. It was never the most original show on the tube, but like a solid .275 hitter, it was almost always dependable.

Most of the crime on the show was of the decidedly white collar variety; a deadly game of cat & mouse between international agents was certainly preferable to the kind of violent street crime that might scare away potential tourists. Plots would typically cover the same bases as any cop show of the era. Season - Vietnam (King of the Hill, A Thousand Pardons…), hippies (Not That Much Different, Up Tight, King Kamehameha Blues), smugglers (The 24 Karat Kill), and of course, the numerous appearances of Wo Fat, played by the wonder Khigh Dhiegh, a John Frankenheimer regular (most memorably from The Manchurian Candidate) who made such a strong impression as the head of Pacific Intelligence for the Red Chinese government that he was brought back as a guest villain numerous times throughout the series run. But you won’t have to watch too many episodes to groove to the incongruous thrill of Steve McGarett, but he does take a bit of warming up to. At first glance, Lord resembles nothing less than the opposite of cool; stiff-backed, utterly immobile hair quaffed in that “just divorced” way that only men of the 50s and 60s were capable of, and, for network television, an uncommonly unfriendly countenance. In fact, the character of McGarett is so far removed from the popular notion of cool, that he actually laps the archetype and becomes extraordinarily cool. Deprived of irritatingly common TV cop accessories of the day – cool car, funny sidekick, animal confidant – McGarett rushes headlong into the Hawaiian underworld armed with little more than his gun, badge, and laconic professionalism. Audiences loved it; and while no mere mortal could outshine Lord, it was Hawaii itself that provided the crucial element

Hawaii Five-O was the first television show to be filmed entirely on any location other than a Burbank soundstage. Everything from beachfront interrogations to an ill deserved chewing-out in the Governor’s office was filmed in Hawaii. In 1968, even high profile (and big budget) dramas like Mission: Impossible were forced to make due with the increasingly familiar looking Desilu studios. Even today, there are precious few network television shows that ever transplanted an entire cast, crew, and production equipment to a location other than New York or Los Angeles. If you’re thinking “Hey, what about Magnum P.I.?”, you’d be right, but only because it launched almost immediately after Hawaii Five-O ended its run and was able to utilize nearly all the production personnel and facilities – and lo, Five-O begat Magnum…

Hawaii Five-O didn’t provide the kind of paradigm shift that shows like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, or Law & Order would in the 1980s. But as modern shows like CSI and its myriad permutations completely lose touch with humanity in favor of shoving the viewers face into the kind of detailed forensics that can make even the heartiest man wince like a southern belle with an attack of the vapors, Hawaii Five-O is a vital reminder of just how uncommon efficient storytelling has become.

The first two seasons of Hawaii Five-O are now on DVD courtesy of Paramount/CBS video. Like their recently released sets of The Wild Wild West and Mission: Impossible, the picture and sound have gone through an extensive digital scrubbing, making for an exceptionally vibrant color palate. The Hawaii Five-O syndication package had undergone a clean & rinse about 10 years ago for airing on the Family Channel, but as with most other basic cable reruns of older shows, each episode was cut by at least 7-8 minutes. That might not sound like a big deal, but consider that without commercials, each episode runs approximately 50min – that means roughly 15% of each episode had been MIA since their initial airings. They are, thankfully, presented here in their original length as originally aired. There’s only one real extra on season one, but it’s a charmer. Emme’s Island Moments: Memories of “Hawaii Five-O” was produced for Hawaiian television in 1996 and features wonderful interviews with as many surviving cast and crew members as possible (James MacArthur is the only surviving member of the main cast). Though essentially a Hawaiian version of a cable access show, it’s actually quite nicely produced, featuring interviews with locals whose lives were changed as a result of the show. It’s an appropriately Hawaiian take on a show that was an incalculable boost to the island’s worldwide profile. Season two sadly looks like the beginning of a ‘zero supplementals’ trend for the series, featuring no extras save the bumper on the end of each episode that promoted nest weeks show. This would be great, but they have been incorrectly matched with the very show that they’re supposed to be promoting, instead of at the end of the previous show. Oh, well…

Neophytes might be wary of jumping into a full season investment for a show they’ve never seen. But unlike today’s hour dramas that run so thick with multiple episode story arcs as to be nearly impenetrable to the casual viewer, there’s no mythology you have to learn in order to appreciate Hawaii Five-O. It’s like a ’68 Merc with the keys in the visor waiting for you at the Honolulu airport – all you have to do is jump in. Aloha!

Cruising, and the Freezing Over of Hell

After many false starts and high promises, this blog will finally go from a pipe dream to an actual carcinogen floating in the blogisphere. Instead of harping on the wisdom of leaping into an already criminally overexposed marketplace, I thought we'd just make with the posts.

Three things have happened in the past week that I never thought that I'd see in my lifetime:

1. William Friedkin's Cruising is slated for a Sept 18th release.

2. William Friedkin's Cruising is currently enjoying a theatrical re-release in several major cities.

3. People are actually talking about William Friedkin's Cruising.

Being a champion of this film is roughly the equivalent to being the defense attorney for a serial murderer - "they were born crazy, what's your excuse?" For the years since it's 1980 release, it has been discussed in the framework of "the most homophobic movie ever made" or as the beginning of the decline of one of America's most original filmmakers. For it's star, Al Pacino, it wasn't a matter to be discussed at all.

Of course, I was instantly drawn to the film.

It also helped to find that a good friend was like-minded in this magnificent obsession. Visiting his site at will give you access to his snappy prose style, but going directly to will send you tumbling headfirst into a world of heavy leather, underground S&M clubs, grisly sex killings - and plastic Ken dolls. Until very recently, it seemed we were the only two people who even remembered that Cruising even existed - but thankfully, all that has changed now. A few years back, I wrote a windy, exhaustive (and exhausting) article on the film for a friends website that can be viewed here Needless to say, at the time it was written the notion of a proper DVD release was highly unlikely at best, and when Warner Bros sent out the press release announcing said release, it was quite gratifying to read the following:

Notes Drew Fitzpatrick of
, "Maybe now, with gay-themed movies and television shows permeating pop culture with a more or less even balance of characterizations, the time might finally be right for Cruising to wipe away 25 years of bad cultural karma and take its proper place in the oeuvre of one of America's most consistently challenging filmmakers."

It gives me great pleasure (and a yellow hankie-size chunk of pride) to tell you that the DVD of Cruising can be purchased by following the link below.