Friday, December 28, 2007

It’s National Film Registry List Day!!!

In 1992, Congress passed the National Film Preservation Act, which essentially produces a list at the end of each year of 25 films to be preserved at the Library of Congress. Full details on who does the choosing and how can be found in the press release announcing the latest group here. There are currently 475 films designated thusly, meaning they either started out with 100, or my math is worse than I thought.

Films Selected for the 2007 National Film Registry

Back to the Future (1985)
Looks like someone felt nostalgic for a time when Bob Zemeckis spent fortunes making movies with real people, rather than one fortune filming people wearing motion capture nodes, and then a second fortune animating over the actor’s movement. The odd tech turn his career has recently taken casts the decidedly Sci-Fi Future movies in a surprisingly quaint light. We saw each once – enjoyed them – and have never felt the desire to revisit.

Bullitt (1968)
It’s easy to forget that forty years ago, it was considered a risk for a movie star to play a cop. In the late 60s, the news was filled with stories of entrenched police corruption, and images of violent clashes with college students were all over television. Bullitt changed all that. McQueen ended a box office dry spell with his portrayal of icy cool SFPD Lieutenant Frank Bullitt; not a hot dog or a head case, just an honest cop trying to keep his head above water in corrupt system (personified by Robert Vaughn – so good here that he was relegated to villains from then on). Bullitt quickly became McQueen’s signature role, oozing laconic machismo from frame one. Brit Peter Yates directs the San Francisco locals like a native, instead of a star struck tourist always making sure the Golden Gate is framed in the background of every shot.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
It should never have taken this long to make the list. There is no other film involving aliens or spaceships that has the humanity of Close Encounters. To be able to pitch a story at an adult level and still tell it with the wide-eyed innocence of a child is a gift that Spielberg has never employed as effortlessly as he did here.

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)
Save your hate mail – this is on the list because it was directed by a woman, period. Nothing against Dorothy Arzner, but she approved the casting of the always unfunny Lucille Ball. At lease Ida Lupino is already on list.

Dances With Wolves (1990)
Coming at the viewer like a reformed alcoholic bleeding regret and earnestness out of every pour, it’s been quite fashionable to dislike Dances in the last few years. I’d rather see Open Range on the list than this, but give Kevin his due for putting his then blazing career at risk for a worthy cause.

Days of Heaven (1978)
Made back when Terrence Malick was still concerned with pacing, Days is certainly one of the most visually sumptuous films ever made. The Depression-era plot is utterly disposable – this is painting with light.

Glimpse of the Garden (1957)
A short film by Marie Menken. We once again quote the press release: “The beautifully lyrical “Glimpse of the Garden” is a serendipitous visual tour of a flower garden set to a soundtrack of bird calls.” With all apologies, this sounds like something Homer overhears Ned watching on television.

Grand Hotel (1932)
A big budget soap opera done in grand MGM style. Garbo, Crawford, and Lionel and John Barrymore contribute major star wattage; this is one genre that America does better than anyone else. Eat it, Finland!

The House I Live In (1945)
Now this I have to see! From the press release: “This short film directed by Mervyn LeRoy pleads for religious tolerance and won an honorary Academy Award in 1946. Singer Frank Sinatra takes a break from a recording session to tell kids that in America, there are a hundred different ways of talking and going to church—but they are all American ways. The film ends with Sinatra performing the title tune, an inspiring paean to America’s diverse cultural mosaic.”

In a Lonely Place (1950)
Never having been able to get past the ticks and mannerisms of Bogart, I don’t feel qualified to judge its merit, but Nicholas Ray’s direction provides for an enticingly melancholy look at L.A. at the mid-century mark.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
John Ford’s last great western, featuring the best film work of John Wayne’s career (and damn near that of James Stewart, too). The finest western ever made dealing with the passing of the land from the six-gun and the cowboy into a more "civilized" era.

Mighty Like a Moose (1926)
In order to assure a concerned public that there is more to American silent comedy than Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton, the NFR has pulled Charley Chase out of mothballs. I haven’t seen this one, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

The Naked City (1948)
Equal parts Noir, police procedural, and documentary. Next time you enjoy an episode of Law & Order, thank producer Mark Hellinger and director Jules Dassin. One of the too few films on this list that is both a vital work of art and an important cultural landmark.

Now, Voyager (1942)
Of the 3 major “woman’s pictures” on this year’s list, this is our least favorite. Nothing against Bette, but I see clich├ęs where others see the moon and the stars.

Oklahoma! (1955)
A musical that’s much more fun than any description makes it sound. The only thing wrong with this production is the lack of Hugh Jackman.

Our Day (1938)
A 12 minute long amateur effort by one Walter Kelly of Lebanon, KT. It sounds like an interesting window onto a world now gone forever – and perhaps a Google search might just turn this one up.

Peege (1972)
A student film from Randal Kleiser. Randal would go on to direct Grease. Randal would also make The Blue Lagoon, Grandview, USA, and Honey, I Blew Up the Kid. I’m sure Randal is as surprised as anyone to see his name on the list.

The Sex Life of the Polyp (1928)
Admitting that you find any “member” of the Algonquin Round Table tiresome is usually a one way ticket to pariahville. Robert Benchley could be brilliantly witty, and this short has a good rep.

The Strong Man (1926)
Another silent comedy from another well regarded entertainer with a plummeting profile. This one is the work of one Harry Langdon, a former vaudevillian whose previous features feature titles like Long Pants and Tramp, Tramp, Tramp – and if that represented a Jeopardy question, the answer would be “Why isn’t the Scribe fond of silent comedies?”

Three Little Pigs (1933)
An early animated effort from Disney. I could barely tolerate Disney animation as a child, and as an adult I must admit to finding them nigh unwatchable. Aimed squarely at and below the level of small children, they never come near the high watermark of the Warner ‘tunes of the 40s.

Tol’able David (1921)
I’m aware of the film’s historical importance, but I doubt I’ll be searching through the debris of a post-apocalypse D.C. looking for it.

Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (1969-71)
The NFR’s description uses phrases like “avant-garde” and “structuralist film” way too freely for our taste.

12 Angry Men (1957)
5 decades later and still sharp as a tack. When the Martians wipe us out and start looking for good movies to watch, this might just make them wish that they had saved Lumet.

The Women (1939)
Remember when you had to go to Reno to get a divorce? Of course not – nobody does, but that’s what George Cukor’s all-girl epic is all about. See Grand Hotel above.

Wuthering Heights (1939)
1939 is often cited as cinema’s greatest year and the NFR seems to agree, putting two pictures on this list (not counting Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, etc.). William Wyler certainly had his work cut out for him in cracking Bronte’s tough egg of a book, but his haunted romance is of a type that truly isn’t made anymore

While they could dial down the over-reaching (lets get to the student films and art installations after we’ve got a few thousand on the list instead of 475) it’s not a bad bunch at all. Welcome to the vault!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Come Out To The Coast, We'll Have A Few Laughs...

...and a Merry Christmas!

From Hans, Karl, Theo, Franco, Huey Lewis-Looking Dude, Long Haired Asian Stunt Man Guy, & the rest of the gang!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

It Was A Very Good Year...

If you think that going over a years worth of theatrical releases is tough, try slogging your way through 52 week's worth of DVD releases – seriously! I found one site that had every DVD release from 2007 organized by week – great, except each page had several dozen titles and there were 255 pages - Hell with that! Here are, to the best of my memory, my favorites of 2007:

Volume I – Theatricals

The Witchfinder General (MGM-1968)
The General has certainly been making the “10 Best” rounds lately, and with good reason. The sad, short career of British director Michael Reeves left one flawed, but interesting film (The Sorcerers) and one masterpiece. Released stateside under the less elegant title, The Conqueror Worm, in order to capitalize on star Vincent Price’s association with previous Poe adaptations, Witchfinder is a deadly sober film – perhaps containing the best screen work from Price. Based on the life of Matthew Hopkins, who rode the civil war-ravaged British countryside on a very literal Witch hunt in the mid 17th Century (supposedly with Parliament approval) using various means of “persuasion” to extract his confessions. It’s a rough, occasionally unpleasant film that takes its real life horror seriously; presented without sensationalism by Reeves and without a trace of ham by Price. MGM has restored the film to its original length (inserting some more violent bits and excising a few topless scenes as per Reeves' intent) and reinserted the original Paul Ferris score, which had been dropped from the film when the rights shifted to Orion Home Video back in the 80s.

Monsters and Madmen (Criterion-various)
Boy, someone at Criterion must have a big crush on producers Richard and Alex Gordon! First came the lovingly prepared Fiend Without a Face, and now a four disc extravaganza of much loved 50s frighteners, featuring commentaries from the brothers Gordon, interviews with surviving cast members, and various bits of advertising ballyhoo. Boris Karloff stars in the two classier productions, Corridors of Blood and The Haunted Strangler, with two far lower budgeted Sci-Fi productions, The Atomic Submarine and First Men into Space providing bottom bill support. Definitely my favorite cover artwork of 2007.
Really - look at these!

The Day of the Triffids (BBC/Warner-1981)
Produced in 6 half hour installments by the BBC in 1981, this well written but budget-challenged series had been MIA on video in the states until this welcome edition appeared a few months back. John Wyndham’s book saw the end of humanity at the hand (petal?) of giant plant-monsters called Triffids, whose tongue-like appendages carry a deadly poison, but the author was chiefly concerned with how humanity begins to pick up the pieces after an apocalyptic event. First adapted in 1962 by producer Philip Yordan, the film excavated much of Wyndham’s social commentary in the process of fashioning a straight-ahead monster movie, though the film is well remembered by most children (who were closer to the level at which the story was pitched) who caught the film on television. Wyndham’s themes fared far better in the ’81 BBC production, though the budget constraints (like all their productions from that era, the interiors are shot on video and much that could have been filmed wound up being merely discussed) limit the scope of the effort. With expectations adjusted accordingly, it’s a swell show – though there’s still a definitive movie to be made from Wyndham’s classic. It’s worth mentioning that Wyndham’s themes fared better still in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, which borrowed much of its post-apocalyptic England from Triffids and its various film incarnations.

Twisted Terror Collection (Warner-various)
It’s certainly an indicator of the level of commitment that Warner Bros has to its library when something like this comes along. Bestowing quality video presentations on questionable titles is a trend we really, really like. The six films included are:

1. From Beyond the Grave – a late-cycle omnibus from Amicus features a fun setup (Peter Cushing runs an antique shop selling cursed items to deserving customers) but is hit and miss when it comes to the stories.

2. Someone’s Watching Me – the jewel of the box, this is a polished made for TV thriller effort from John Carpenter was made the same year as Halloween. The always breathy Lauren Hutton is a new resident of a luxury building in downtown L.A., and finds herself the target of a stalker. A very atmospheric film with plenty of good scares easily overcomes its TV trappings.

3. Deadly Friend – made during Wes Craven’s lean-between years (after the super-effective Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes and before Scream), this crazily-lame picture about a computer nerd who implants a robotic brain in the comatose body of a neighborhood girl is famous for a few effective gore moments, rendered uncut on this DVD for the first time ever.

4. Eyes of a Stranger – an oddball hybrid of a made-for-Lifetime feature mixed with a Slasher is notable for the casting of both Love Boat cruise director Lauren Tewes as a news anchor menaced my a killer and Jennifer Jason Leigh as her deaf mute sister. The rather brutal moments of violence that always seemed out of place are made even more so thanks to Warner restoring a few blood-soaked moments to this DVD (and, as with Deadly Friend, not mentioning it on the packaging)

5. The Hand – traditionally a means of winning a bet with someone who claims to be able to name all of Oliver Stones’ films, The Hand featured Michael Caine - here in prime late 70s-early 80s maniac mode - as a cartoonist who looses his drawing hand in a spectacularly filmed accident. As frustrations with his career and family mount, people around him begin to die mysteriously. Solid early work from Stone, although the occasionally too-literal approach drags the film down. Stone contributes another of his informative, listener friendly commentaries as well.

6. Dr. Giggles – the weakest film on the set, a huge statement when Deadly Friend is involved, stars Larry Drake as the titular doctor in this below par Slasher that has little to recommend other than the brief running time.

Greene For Danger (Criterion-1946)
Criterion strikes again. A close second for artwork of the year, Sidney Gilliat’s wartime mystery is set at a hospital in the British countryside during the Blitz, where German bombs provide the perfect cover for a murderer. Filled with top-drawer Brit thesps of the day (including an impossibly young Trevor Howard) but the show is stolen by Alastair Sim, hysterically funny as Inspector Cockrill without ever lapsing into parody. Criterion’s typically excellent supplementals round out the handsome package – a must see film that never got much play stateside.

Play Dirty (MGM-1968)
Forget The Dirty Dozen; Andre De Toth’s ultra cynical take on the standard WWII adventure film is one nasty piece of work. Michael Caine stars as a British soldier pressed into service to head a rag-tag bunch of losers in a mission behind enemy lines in the North African desert. Anyone expecting to see these guys learn to work together for the greater good are in for a very unpleasant surprise, as desertion, robbery, rape and murder are on the menu – and those are the heroes! Caine gets great support from Harry Andrews and Nigels Davenport and Green. Informed as much by Vietnam as World War II, it’s one of the few anti-war films that doesn’t fall into the trap of making combat exciting.

Looker (Warner-1981)
Michael Crichton’s thriller about a plastic surgeon to the stars hat gets caught up in a conspiracy involving the manipulation of digitally realized “people” just hit theaters about 20 years too soon. Most people only remember what is possibly the greatest, trashiest 80s theme song ever (“She’s got it all, yeah, she’s got it made – she’s a Looker!”) and the Tom Selleck-esque bad guy (we miss you, Tim Rossovich!) shooting the cool time-slip ray gun. Okay, name one other movie that ends with Albert Finney and James Coburn having a shoot out on a series of rotating commercial sets and I’ll take it off the list. No, I didn’t think you would.

Caligula (Image-1979)
British thespians, porn mogul hubris, and Italian zoom lenses combine for a truly rare specimen, an opulent film that reeks of cheapness. Image’s 3-disc set featuring an alternate “soft” version, hours of deleted and extended scenes, and two commentary tracks featuring stars Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren! Our favorite extra may be the Penthouse-made publicity documentary “hosted” by Bob Guccione himself; watch carefully, kids, for we may never see his like again.

Mr. Moto collection Volume 2 / Charlie Chan Collection Volume 3 (Fox-various)
Two new volumes of the Moto and Chan series from Fox debuted this past year, with the former completing the entire Peter Lorre/Moto cycle, and the latter capping off the 8 (surviving) Chan films of Warner Oland. The Moto films were tremendously popular in the 30s, at least until the dawn of WWII made the prospect of a Japanese hero in an American film a highly unprofitable proposition. Chan’s Chinese heritage made him a safer bet, and after the tragic death of Warner Oland in 1938, the role went to Sidney Toler, who would continue to play the role through the 1940s and emigrated with the series over to Monogram. For most Chan fans, however, Oland simply is Chan - all the personality quirks that would be stolen and lampooned for decades to come originated with him. Lorre’s Mr. Moto had the same quiet reserve as Chan, but was more than capable of violence when provoked. Unfortunately, these films have been the ill-advised targets of much derision over the years, for racial insensitivity both real and imagined. If the idea of a non-Asian playing an Asian is something you just can’t get past, I can’t help you. What anyone with half a brain will find in these films are lead characters that are invariably the smartest people in the room, no matter where they are. Both characters have excellent reputations, and are respectfully deferred to by colleagues all around the world. Each possesses a fierce intelligence and a humble nature, and always has the last laugh. But the occasional, achingly unfunny appearance of Stepin Fetchit (whose name would become synonymous with racial stereotyping) will remind viewers exactly when these films were made. Fox spent millions cleaning and restoring these films, in what must have been a tougher than typical corporate decision, and the resulting DVDs are fantastic. Each set contains 4 films (and in some cases more), plus very informative docus that put the films in the context of the time, and highlight the lives of the actors, key production personnel, and the authors who originated the characters.

And the disc of the year…

Cruising (1980)
Disc of the year honors go to William Friedkin’s once vilified classic, a head-first rush into the heavy leather world of a still-grimy NYC. The Scribe was originally drawn to the film after seeing images of Pacino in the midst of a poppers-fueled, fist pumping dance routine - all in the line of duty while hunting a killer targeting gay men in leather bars. It felt cool to champion a film that everyone else seemed either to passionately hate or completely avoid, but soon my alt-ironic adoration turned genuine as the film's considerable (yet subtle) strengths began to show through. Cruising wears its “undercover cop out to catch a serial killer” genre trappings like a Halloween costume, but ambiguity is the order of the day. Friedkin’s best films never concerned themselves with easy answers; even The Exorcist, easily his biggest hit, asked far more of its audience than they were probably accustomed to. In Cruising, everyone’s identity is suspect; from the supposed killers (Friedkin had actors who played victims also play the killer in certain scenes – a trick pulled off far more elegantly than it sounds) to the police who hunt them, everyone is painted in shades of grey. Massive leather squeaking, chain clanking kudos to Warner Bros for giving Cruising an unthinkably lush disc presentation, featuring commentary by Friedkin, and a retrospective documentary featuring nearly all players save Pacino (no doubt holding his energy for the yet to be announced Bobby Deerfield special edition). Unfortunately, Friedkin felt the need to tweak the film in several places, lengthening a few club scenes (which is fine), adding a Rocky-style scrolling credit for the opening (bizarre and unnecessary), and digitally blurring footage during Pacino’s dance sequence to simulate the effects of the poppers (insultingly unnecessary). There is also a bluish tint to several sequences that may well have been in the original theatrical version, and fell victim to poorly color-timed VHS home video editions. Reservations aside – a really stellar job.

Coming Next - Television!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Happy Birthday, Roy Ward Baker!

Though history will probably note A Night to Remember (1958) as his greatest directorial achievement, it’s his terrific work for Hammer and Amicus that we salute him for on his b-day. Surprisingly, the success of Night didn’t lead to any other high profiles jobs, and Baker worked mostly in television until drafted by Hammer to helm the return of intellectual super-scientist Martin Quatermass in Quatermass and the Pit in 1967. Andrew Keir took over from American Brian Donlevy – a choice that had always irked Q’s creator Nigel Kneale, but forced by producers wanting an American lead to enhance sales across the pond – and brought a less abrasive, grandfatherly approach to the character. Kneale’s ripping story, about the discovery of the ruins of a Martian spacecraft in a London tube station, is a corker; brought to life in very vivid color, and marking a sharp upturn in production value from the smaller-black & white offerings produced by the studio in the mid 50s.

More Hammers followed, from the less than memorable The Anniversary and the downright gimpy Moon Zero Two (with a title theme that clings to your brain with razor wire) alongside higher quality television work for The Avengers and The Saint. But Baker’s late career best came in 1970 with The Vampire Lovers, possibly the best regarded late-cycle Hammer effort. It’s one of the few sexualized vampire tales that didn’t come off as pure exploitation, thanks to Baker’s tasteful handling of the strong, R-rated material. Baker’s last two films for the studio came within a year, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde and Scars of Dracula, the former falling victim to the trend of switching the racial or sexual identity of a classic horror character, and the latter a listless outing featuring a bored Lee as the Count.

Switching to Amicus brought several interesting shows, including a reunion with Cushing in …And Now the Screaming Starts and the omnibus pictures Asylum and Vault of Horror. The latter featuring a great payoff to a story involving vampires that is still censored on the recent MGM double feature DVD released earlier this year. The uncut import is available (though seriously lacking in the quality control department) if you have the ability to play PAL DVDs from Xploited Cinema here:

Returning to Hammer for one last film, Baker helmed the superb genre bender The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a co-production with the Hong Kong-based Shaw Bros. Peter Cushing returns (for the last time) as Prof Van Helsing, guest lecturing in China, who works with a large family of martial arts experts to rid a remote village of an ancient evil that is all too familiar to the professor. Produced at a time when Hammer was trying everything short of snuff films to get people into theaters, the film’s reputation suffered (and thumbnail plot descriptions don’t help) but recent years, and the growing critical appreciation for martial arts films, have seen the film rediscovered as a minor classic. And though I’m sure Baker had little to do with the martial arts scenes, a master’s hand was needed to bind the British gothic with Hong Kong chopic; it’s a recipe that shouldn’t work, but thanks to the chef, it does.

Master chef Roy Ward Baker turns 91 today.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Happy Birthday, Kristine DeBell!

First crushes are indelible. They live on, perfectly preserved in a sealed Mylar memory bag, untouched by time. Kristine DeBell wasn’t actually my first crush – that lovely lady is now happily married with several children – but she was my first movie crush, and for me, that’s a pretty big deal. I first laid eyes on her while stealing a peek at the otherwise verboten Meatballs on cable at a friend’s house. Kristine played one of Bill Murray’s counselors-in-training and displayed some nice comic chops. I was hooked on her girl-next-door, super hot under frumpy clothes looks, and I wondered if this was her first film.

It wasn’t.

Alice in Wonderland, a porn-musical version of the Carroll classic, was produced in 1976 by porn mogul and drug store heir Bill Osco, and starred Kristine (her first role) as Alice. While the film did feature hardcore sex, most people saw the film in a slightly watered-down (though still R-rated) cut that was released to most theaters and later on home video. Kristine acquits herself well, but the picture itself is one of those “funny” porn films that are invariably written, directed, and performed by heroically unfunny people. The humor typically manifests itself with the sort of camera mugging most often found in Italian comedies of the 60s and 70s, and renders the film almost unwatchable. The full length version restores a few minutes of hardcore scenes, though it was Kristine’s that garnered the most interest. Twice appearing in Playboy, Kristine was no stranger to nudity, but it was still amazing to see someone with her pouty, tomboy aesthetic doing full-frontal nudity, much less actual penetration. There is a possibility that a body double was used for her final scene, featuring all the XXX bells & whistles, but there’s little doubt as to her participation in earlier solo and oral scenes (to use industry parlance).

Her big shot at movie stardom would come a year after Meatballs in Jackie Chan’s ill-advised 1980 American movie debut, The Big Brawl. The picture is a mess, with Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse brought in to turn Jackie into the next Bruce Lee, ignoring the fact that with one exception, Clouse is a pretty lousy director. Kristine, playing Jackie’s girlfriend, looks as pretty as ever, but doesn’t have much to do, and the film effectively grounded the American film careers of both (though only one would return to Hong Kong and resume their place as its preeminent martial arts star).

The 80s were rough on Kristine, with sporadic film projects such as Rooster: Spurs of Death! and soap work on The Young and the Restless filling out her resume. Her career in the movie biz seems to have ended in 1990; I’ve heard that she left the business and married and has children. Wherever she may be, I hope she’s happy and well.

Kristine DeBell celebrated her 53rd birthday this past Monday, December 10th.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Color Me Concerned

It’s strange to think back on a time when the mass-colorization of black & white films felt like a real threat. Back in the 80s, with studios sitting on hundreds (no, wait – thousands!) of black & white titles, and a new market for “sell through” VHS tapes rapidly opening up, colorization looked to be a viable means to market older films to a younger generation that had grown up in a world of color film and television only – provided, of course, that they weren’t watching music videos or commercials. .

The first to fall victim to the process had to be recognizable enough to get people interested, and preferably in the public domain to forestall interference from filmmakers. Wikipedia says that Cary Grant was pleased with the work done on Topper – a statement that the Scribe has grave reservations about. Topper looked, for lack of a better word, like poop. Each frame was air brushed with garish pastels that bore little resemblance to their real-world counterpart. The delicate interplay between light and shadow that could be found in even the lowliest poverty row programmer had been obliterated, as each scene took on the appearance of a page from a disturbed child’s coloring book. Most filmmakers were horrified at the notion even before seeing what the results may be, and the appearance of Topper confirmed everyone’s worst fears. Ted Turner, an early proponent of the process, mentioned how wonderful it would be to enjoy Citizen Kane in glorious color. Welles, now well into the wine peddling/celebrity panelist phase of his career, was properly and publicly outraged. Unlike Frank Capra, Welles still had the power to sign off on any alterations to his masterpiece and would be able to fight off any attempt at vandalism. Other filmmakers would work with studios on the process; usually for financial reasons. George A. Romero had never seen any real money from Night of the Living Dead thanks to some fast moves from the Walter Reade Organization, the films original distributor, that resulted in Image Ten (Romero’s company) having their copyright removed from the prints. Because of its PD status, anyone could release the film on home video – and as anyone who ever glanced into the movie bargain bin back in the 80s and 90s could tell you, almost everyone did. Working with Hal Roach to colorize the film allowed Romero to finally copyright the work and make some much deserved scratch from his grand labors. Eventually, the controversy seemed to die down; legal restrictions would keep most classics safe, and the results were still too ugly even for the average viewer to bear.

But like Rasputin, colorization is a beast that just will not go down. Recently, companies like Legend Films have greatly improved the technical aspects of the process (and actually do quality color-timing work on films like Scorsese’s The Aviator, so they’re not total black-hatters), and while there’s money to be made, it’s hard to blame a corporation for doing what comes naturally. What is a crushing disappointment, however, is the participation of Ray Harryhausen (a noble and true idol of the Scribe) with Legend in the colorization of many of his 1950s classics – all beautifully filmed in black & white. Sony/Columbia released a 50th Anniversary disc of 20 Million Miles to Earth earlier in the year, and that same edition has just become the first Harryhausen film to be released on a high definition format (Blu-ray, for those playing the home game). But what should be a cause for celebration is nearly spoiled by the Legend Films colorization job that has become the disc’s main selling point. I didn’t quite believe the ballyhoo on Legend’s website - – trumpeting the enthusiastic involvement of Harryhausen with the process, and was deeply saddened to read the lineup of his classics that are in the coloring on-deck circle (read it yourself, I can’t bear to list them). But on the commentary track for the new disc is the master himself, waxing rhapsodic at the beautiful job done by Legend, and thankful that people can now see the film in glorious color. Now I’ll take Ray at his word that he would have originally made the film in color had they been given the money, but I’d also be tempted to look on the back of his neck for a tell tale band-aid, or check the trunk of his car for a giant seed pod. While the color job is far better than the travesties of 20 years ago – shadows now have a fighting chance and colors no longer bleed into each other like facial make-up applied with a Mauser – it does not, in any conceivable way, look anything close to right. The Ymir (so named in subsequent promotional materials but not in the film proper) itself is now rendered in a bright green, and seems about as magical as a certain ubiquitous insurance company mascot, and skin tones are just as pasty as ever. The original black & white version was included as well, and luckily it’s the same luminous transfer previously issued by Sony. The image features much less grain than the older edition, and is easily the best that the title ever has on home video. The new Blu-ray disc is the same as the previously released 50th Anniversary standard definition package, with the exception that the feature now features a full 1080p transfer. The increased resolution frequently reveals flaws in the source material, luckily Sony’s master seems up to the job – it’s a gorgeous transfer. Though the Scribe is eager, his HD screen-cap resources are meager, so I’ll point you to the good folks over at the invaluable DVD Beaver ( for a detailed comparison of color and black & white screen grabs that give an excellent impression of the differences, so go and judge for yourself. As for this viewer; these films live and breathe in beautiful black & white and anything else is defacement, period.

Ray Harryhausen is hero to many of us who grew up on a steady diet of his wondrous stop-motion effects work from Sinbad, Jason, and Nemo straight through to Harry Hamlin in Clash of the Titans. Short of gluing all manner of Dino-festoonery on some poor lizard.(I’m looking at you, Bert I. Gordon), stop-motion photography was the only practical means of achieving creature effects on film. Instead of being overwhelmed by the painstakingly exacting work, Harryhausen managed to give all his creations a distinct personality, and make them come to life in a way that a sweat-soaked man in a monster suit could never approach. 20 Million’s Ymir is no exception, with Harryhausen managing to coax emotion out of both a small clay statue (one frame at a time!) and out of an audience in equal measure. The film does occasionally falter; leading man William Hopper is a poor man’s Kenneth Tobey (and I’m talking third world poverty, here), and the Italian locale provides for lots-a waving of-a da hands and-a talkin like-a dis. The picture as a whole isn’t up to It Came From Beneath the Sea, produced by Columbia 2 years earlier, but the Ymir was arguably Harryhausen’s finest creature work to date.
Latter day effects masters Dennis Muren and Phil Tippet join Ray on the commentary track, though the bad taste left by their snarky, insulting track for Warner’s The Giant Behemoth still remains. The presence of Harryhausen seems to keep them in check, and the track is interesting until someone mentions how great is to finally see the film in color (they’re watching the colorized version while recording the track). It’s on the point of recommending that we run aground. It’s a wonderful picture, and a necessary addition to any nerdly grotto; but to patronize this edition is to support a ghastly practice, and who knows if we’ll ever get the chance to own this film – particularly in high def – sans color additives? Thanks to Netflix (and the lack of a logjam of requests for 50 year old Sci-Fi titles) I was able to get a copy right away, and I recommend you do likewise.
Say it ain't so, Ray!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

At The Risk Of Being Called Out As A Warner Bros Plant…


It looks like Nolan has been reading "The Killing Joke"...

Monday, December 3, 2007

Getting Some Exorcise

This past weekend, the Scribe jumped at the opportunity to see Washington D.C.’s greatest tourist attraction. Prior to 1973 they were called the “Hitchcock Steps” but don’t go combing through your collection of Hitch DVDs, because the master never filmed there. It’s easy to see why the name stuck, though; located in the southeast corner of the Georgetown University campus, in the affluent Washington neighborhood from which the school took its name, the steps can be found at Prospect and 36th Streets, and provide an unforgettably steep access to M Street below. Perhaps the name came from the Vertigo than one might feel looking down from the top of the stairs, or maybe someone came at them from M St and thought that only a Psycho would make that climb, but that would all be forgotten after the release of The Exorcist in 1973.

The Exorcist gets the Scribe’s vote for best horror film ever made. Perhaps not the scariest (a set of giant tongs were needed to pry yours truly off the theater ceiling after a certain moment in Exorcist III), but William Friedkin’s film version of William Peter Blatty’s novel is quite simply the deepest, most heartfelt and truthful meditation on the nature of goodness and faith coming into conflict with an intangible, yet absolute, Evil that has ever been made. The film struck a raw nerve with audiences 35 years ago, making nearly $200 million in 1973 dollars, and over the ensuing years, would be ripped off more times and in more countries than is countable – with each one getting further and further away from what made the original so special.

Fear is a personal thing; what scares you may be laughable to me, and so on. What Friedkin’s film did so successfully was to exploit the fears that weren’t typical for a horror film. The loss of Faith, losing touch with your growing children (“That thing upstairs is not my little girl!”), and having an orderly, secular, “modern” world shattered by an Evil so powerful that the accepted truths of medicine and science are rendered impotent. Combining these with Friedkin’s documentary approach and Blatty’s literate and witty script made for a stunning picture, and it was not until The Silence of the Lambs nearly two decades later that a genre film was taken seriously enough to both garner Academy Award consideration and support extensive critical discussion (stay tuned to this blog for a larger-scale appreciation in the near future)

But for now, back to the steps…

After Nazi hunter/film director Burke Dennings dies in a fatal fall from Regan’s window to the bottom step on M Street early in the film, they hang over the remainder of the film like the Sword of Damocles. We know we haven’t seen the last of them – it’s just a matter of when. The time comes at the film’s conclusion, when Father Karras draws the evil out of Regan and into himself, and, in what Mark Kermode correctly calls the greatest act of heroism ever committed to film, leaps from her bedroom window and down all 97 steps to his death. In the film’s haunting final shot (unless you’re watching Blatty’s utterly unnecessary 2000 re-cut), Karras’ friend and final confessor, Father Dyer, stands at the top of the steps and looks out over the Potomac. Has the evil been vanquished? The chiming of Mike Oldfield’s "Tubular Bells" says ‘maybe’…

The stairs look mostly the same today; the upper landing has been spiffed up as part of the Car Barn next door, and the MacNeil house is still there at 3600 Prospect – albeit with a privacy wall built just high enough to discourage the curious, and without the wing closest to the stairs - a temporary addition provided by Warner during shooting. It’s a bit disheartening to see person after person walk by this most notable of landmarks, without so much as a glance; the Scribe was last here visiting friends in the fall of ’88 and remembers many photographs being taken while students and local residents proudly acknowledged their very own D.C. monument. On this chilly December night, the only sounds were the better angels of my nature telling me not to write “Karras Lives!” on the stone wall by the first step. So I took only photographs, and left only hushed echoes of admiration.