Monday, February 19, 2018

Roll Out the Nominees for the 16th Annual Rondo Awards!

A big CONGRATULATIONS to all my friends and colleagues whose good works have been nominated for the next round of Rondo Awards! Though she’s not named as such on the ballot, I was particularly pleased to see Donna Lucas’ cover for the Farewell Issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG on the ballot - her only solo cover creation since the Rondos began! (Of course, she’s up against THREE Mark Maddox covers, two of them wraparounds!) Also very pleased to see that producing VW’s final issue allowed for the nominations of Larry Blamire (Best Columnist) and John-Paul Checkett (Best Article) and, of course, our final shot at Best Magazine!

I wasn’t anticipating much in the way of nominations for myself this year, other than maybe one for Best Commentary, and I was very happy to be acknowledged for my work on Arrow’s CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER - but I was also very pleased and surprised to be reminded of other work I’d done (Best Article for my CALTIKI piece for SCREEM and Best Columnist for my “Shot in the Dark” piece for DIABOLIQUE)! I’m also thrilled for Neil Snowdon’s Best Book nomination for his WE ARE THE MARTIANS: THE LEGACY OF NIGEL KNEALE, to which I contributed - and finally, a nomination for the work I do here at Video WatchBlog, now in its 12th big year - and rapidly approaching its 2,000,000th page view!

It's both wonderful and heartening to see how many projects of real passion and value are represented on the ballot this year. Competition will be stiff!

Please celebrate the very best work being done in horror and fantasy journalism and criticism by perusing the ballot, finding your favorites, and casting your votes! And a Big Thanks to Mr. David Colton and his wife Eileen Colton for all the work that goes into organizing and hosting this occasion each year - from all concerned!

You can find a ballot listing all this year's nominees at the Rondo Awards website.

A postscript which I feel compelled to add, given some Facebook reaction to the ballot about how few female creators and contributors made the the final selection. I agree it's an unfortunate oversight but, I hasten to add, not a biased or malicious one; it's just an indication of some of the important work going on that missed the radar of the Classic Horror Film Board's nominations forum. I was very pleased to see Laura Wagner's work finally acknowledged in the Best Columnist category, as well as the Soska Sisters' Blood Drive PSA's for Women In Horror Month, but there are some blind spots. Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger did a slew of superb audio commentaries this past year - admittedly some for the UK market only, and they also figure notably in the podcast realm with Daughters of Darkness and Kat's Hell's Belles podcast with Heather Drain. (Speaking of podcasts, I miss seeing Bill Ackerman's Supporting Characters on the ballot, too!) Heather Buckley's production work on the DVD supplements for RAWHEAD REX were also worthy; she's such a force of nature and so prolific and passionate about horror, her name should be all over this ballot.

If you agree, one thing you can certainly do to advance awareness is to take into consideration the fine work being done in the service of the genre by all these ladies as you cast your votes in the Write-In categories - as well as Kimberly Lindbergs, Kier-La Janisse, Anne Billson, Emma Westwood, Alexandra West, Maura McHugh, Thana Niveau, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Marcelline Block, Stacie Ponder, and many more. (My apologies to anyone I have inevitably left out in my haste to add these words.) These women are bringing so much of importance to the table and their works will thoroughly reward your attention!


(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Cutting Remarks: A Look at Arrow's SCALPEL

In the Image Gallery of Arrow Video's new Blu-ray of John Grissmer's SCALPEL (1977), there is photographic evidence that the film's original distributor, unable to put the PG film across as a horror picture, tried to pass it off (under its original title FALSE FACE) as a comedy. To add water to the bonfire, they listed its top-billed stars thusly: "Robert Lansing (TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH), Judith Chapman (AS THE WORLD TURNS)." Never mind that, by 1977, TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH had been off the air for a full 10 years and that Lansing himself had not been associated with it since 1965. The best thing any movie of this period could have done to hurt their business would have been to proclaim, "Hold the presses, folks - we've got TV actors!"

What is interesting about all of this is that it points to what a unique film SCALPEL really is. There are considerable reasons to doubt that SCALPEL is a horror picture (as audio commentator Richard Harland Smith notes), and if you're going to call it a horror picture, you might just as well call it a comedy because some of it is darkly funny. The sad fact is, there is a commercial imperative to help a picture find its audience, and this one rolled the dice two different ways without packing them in. Horror movie or comedy, it's probably commercially preferable to telling people it's a Southern Gothic romantic thriller about a plastic surgeon (Lansing) who gives a disfigured stripper the face of his runaway daughter (Chapman) so that he can 1) collect a $5,000,000 inheritance and 2) sleep with her. All goes well with the incest fantasy until the real daughter returns home, suspicious about the present arrangement and much, much more attractive to Daddy. 

Though opportunity was ripe for visual quotations of Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE, Grissmer - whose background was in NY theater - was too grounded in drama and performance and supporting his narrative to get sidetracked in such cosmetic film school touches; it takes awhile before the viewer even cottons to the idea that there might be a VERTIGO hommage in here somewhere. What we get is a fairly compelling thriller, made on location in Atlanta by big city principals, which is made compelling by its even-handed direction, a surprisingly sumptuous if understated visual style (the cinematographic debut of Edward Lachman - LIGHT SLEEPER, THE LIMEY, I'M NOT THERE), and the utterly surprising performances of Lansing and Chapman, not to mention a bevy of local talent obviously having the time of their lives. Lansing seems to play his mad surgeon in an understated way, but he can also be quite bold; he comes across, most of all, as a real guy - warm, funny, dedicated, talented - whose selfishness is the key to his chilling sociopathology. (As he relates the story of his wife's tragic accidental death by drowning, we cutaway to a shot of a woman about to drown in a lake, as Lansing blithely circles her cries in a paddleboat.) It's not much of a surprise when we learn from the supplements that Lansing considered his work here as probably the best performance he ever gave. Chapman's two characters are essentially the same girl - as she would be had she been born without advantages, and with every possible social advantage. Though the film isn't a comedy, what bonds these two characters, these three performances, is a sly shared sense of humor - the kind sometimes observed between people who share deep personal secrets, as indeed they all do.

Arrow's generously packed Blu-ray disc offers two different 2K restorations of the 1.85:1 film from its best surviving source material, a 35mm color reversal internegative. There is the Arrow version, which gives us the film as it was preserved on the internegative, which the director has approved; and then there is the Lachman version, which was tweaked by the film's director of photography to reflect the color adjustments he made in the original release prints, which emphasize the citrus colors of the palette to evoke a more humid, Southern atmosphere. Taken together, the two versions provide the viewer with an unexpected lesson in how a film's mood and atmosphere can be adjusted in post-production, and Arrow is to be commended for welcoming such a discussion. Interview featurettes with Grissmer, Chapman (the younger sister of Spanish horror film starlet Patty Shepard!), and Lachman are also included, as well as the good companionship of a typically well-researched Richard Harland Smith commentary. His talk not only benefits from a further interview with Grissmer, but from his own past jobs as a theater actor and hospital attendant. When we are shown Jane Doe in her hospital bed, Smith tells us why its protective rails would never pass code today - and its such welcome jolts of the real world that lend resonance to his later stories about the real Robert Lansing, the one who was known to some of his old acting buddies. The first pressing is accompanied by an exclusive illustrated booklet featuring substantial writing about the film by Bill Ackerman and David Konow. 

In short, this disc does honor to a deserving, modest, well-crafted film that has certainly waited long enough for it.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved. 

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Early Seijun: THE BOY WHO CAME BACK (1958)

Streeting next Tuesday in the UK and the US is SEIJUN SUZUKI, THE EARLY YEARS VOL. 1 (SEIJUN RISING: THE YOUTH MOVIES) - a four-disc box set (two Blu-ray, two DVD) collecting five of the maverick Japanese filmmaker's earliest works for the Nikkatsu studio, ranging from 1958 to 1965. Seijun (1923-2017) is primarily known in the West for his flamboyant crime dramas TOKYO DRIFTER (1966) and BRANDED TO KILL (1967), whose often dazzling yet off-kilter verve is frequently compared to Sam Fuller in his prime, and which has influenced filmmakers from Oliver Stone to Quentin Tarantino to Sion Sono. His career led to some increasingly abstract action films like the shot-on-video PISTOL OPERA (2001), which could be said to have influenced more recent Japanese work like Sion's dazzling ANTIPORNO (2016). But the stylistic extremes of Seijun's later work do beg the question of where his journey began, which makes Arrow's issuing of this comprehensive package all the more welcome and exciting.

The films included in this first set are THE BOY WHO CAME BACK (Fumihazushita haru, 1958), the story of a wayward delinquent and his difficult relationship with the female mentor assigned to him; THE WIND-OF-YOUTH GROUP CROSSES THE MOUNTAIN PASS (Tôge o wataru wakai kaze, 1961), a colorful film about a student on holiday who joins a travelling circus; TEENAGE YAKUZA (Hai tiin yakuza, 1962), about a high school vigilante who becomes the protector of his village against incroaching threats from a neighboring mob; and THE INCORRIGIBLE (Akutarô, 1963) and BORN UNDER CROSSED STARS (Akutarô-den: Warui hoshi no shita demo, 1965), both based on novels by Toko Kon, set in the 1920s and dealing with young love. 

The title assigned to the set may lead to some confusion, because not all of the films in this first set pre-date some of Seijun's best-known and widely available titles, including YOUTH OF THE BEAST (Yajû no seishun, 1963), GATE OF FLESH (Nikutai no mon, 1964), and STORY OF A PROSTITUTE (Shunpu den, 1965). The set is intended to be considered en suite with VOL. 2 (subtitled BORDER CROSSINGS: THE CRIME AND ACTION MOVIES), which is scheduled for release on April 17 and will include five more films dating from 1957 (EIGHT HOURS OF TERROR, the oldest film in either set) through 1961.  



Not really knowing what to expect, I decided to watch THE BOY WHO CAME BACK last night and was immediately won over by its anamorphic 2.35:1 black-and-white cinematography. I also found it was also fascinating to see a Japanese film about juvenile delinquency, a film in Japan's history comparable to something like THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955) or BEAT GIRL (1959) in English-speaking cultures, or TEENAGE WOLFPACK (Die Halbstarken, 1956) in Germany. Watching it, I quickly became aware that the comportment of Japanese films I've seen has either been very orderly, extremely chaotic surrealistically chaotic, or a stylistic combination of the two; so I found it a bit startling to see a serious, socially constructive film in which most characters act with reserve that even a character shown chewing gum seems downright bizarre, and contrasted with an artistically accomplished but emotionally scarred teenager whose wild ways (and two past arrests) are unlikely to assure him anything but a future with the yakuza unless he can straighten up. To this end, the troubled Nobuo (Akira Kobayashi) is assigned a mentor from the BBS (Big Brothers and Sisters) to act as his counselor to keep him on the straight-and-narrow following his second release from juvenile detention. It is the first such assignment for Keiko (Sachiko Hidari), an idealistic and wholesome young woman whose assignment is basically to keep him out of trouble, hopefully to get him gainfully employed, and to guide him back into the arms of his former girlfriend Kazue (Ruriko Asaowa). In doing so, Keiko discovers she may be biting off a bit more than she can chew, insofar as she finds herself falling under the spell of her difficult, violent, whoring and self-loathing young charge - and there are also hints that she may be one of those "he hit me... and it felt like a kiss" types. 

Taken as an entire package, THE BOY WHO CAME BACK (according to its trailer, adapted from a controversial novel of the time with the "genius direction" of Seijun) is a captivating melodrama that functions at appreciably deeper, more sober levels than comparable JD films from America and the UK of the same period. According to the IMDb, it was Seijun's eighth film but made only two years into his frantically paced career - which would explain its technical competence and the sensitivity Seijun was able to draw at this stage from his actors. Though the film has a certain docudrama look and quality, it also explodes now and again into more stylized moments, especially during Nobuo's outbursts of derangement - in a couple of frenzied jazz club scenes, and during an extended sequence where he is beaten by a street gang and, while in custody, driven crazed with anger by a rumor that his girlfriend was gang-raped while he was left unconscious.          

I may post further responses as I continue to make my way through the box. If you're at all interested, I would hop on this soon as the set is strictly limited to 3000 copies. In addition to the films, a 60-page illustrated booklet is included featuring new writing on the films by BEHIND THE PINK CURTAIN author Jasper Sharp - an outstanding authority on cutting-edge Japanese cinema who delivers book-quality work, well above the liner notes standard. He's a most helpful guide to have around. I've not yet found Tony Rayns' contributions to the set, but he's said to be on hand with introductions.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.