Thursday, September 22, 2016

Dark Radiance: TENEBRAE Restored

For a film that passed its 30th anniversary a few years ago, Dario Argento's TENEBRAE (1982) continues to exert remarkable freshness. Despite its title (Latin for "shadows"), the film is characterized by perversely bright imagery, smiling faces and a persistent sense of quirky humor, and an insistently toe-tapping score by three former members of Goblin: keyboardist Claudio Simonetti, guitarist Massimo Morante and bassist Fabio Pignatelli. Considering how fun, playful, even danceable it is, it comes as something of a revelation when Argento admits in one of the extras on Synapse Films' new Blu-ray restoration that TENEBRAE was not a film he wanted to make. As Dario was preparing to follow SUSPIRIA (1977) and INFERNO (1980) with the third entry in his proposed Three Mothers Trilogy, provisionally titled TENEBRAE, his father - producer Salvatore Argento - summoned him to his office and told him in no uncertain terms that, in the wake of INFERNO's box office disappointment, his Black Magic films were out and he must return at once to the formula on which he'd built his success: the giallo.

And so TENEBRAE commences with an image of an open fire as the new novel by the film's protagonist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) - also titled TENEBRAE - is tossed into the flames as in a ritual sacrifice destroying an old idea so that a new one can take its place. Everything a giallo normally was, Argento would rebel against - it would be bright, it would be playful, and it would also be self-conscious. The film chronicles Neal's trip to Rome to promote his new book, a visit which finds him basking in all the comforts of celebrity, giving interviews at the airport and being attended by more assistants than any writer would need. With such attention and privilege also comes resentment and aggression: an old family friend-turned-reporter, Tilda (Mirella d'Angelo), questions him with a hard feminist edge, accusing him of writing his "hairy macho bullshit" thrillers to formula in order "to sell copies" - and he is informed by the police that a series of murders are being committed by a fan as quotations, of a sort, from the new novel.

The first victim is a shoplifter, played by Ania Pieroni, who had played the Mother of Tears in a cameo scene in INFERNO. Her throat is slashed as pages torn from a copy of TENEBRAE are forced into her mouth. Given Argento's revelation about the film's origin, it is hard not to see this victim as Argento's projection of his desire to continue the Three Mothers Trilogy, being slain by his financial obligation to his father, embodied by the black-gloved killer always played in his thrillers by Argento himself. There is a sense about TENEBRAE of an artist going out (and up) in a blaze of glory - never again would Argento's films feel so bracing or inspired. One or two (OPERA, the anime-like PHENOMENA) might come close, there were still great individual scenes to come (the opening of SLEEPLESS), but TENEBRAE is Argento's career's great act of defiance: it gives his audience what they demand but wholly on his own terms as he turns all the basic tenets of gialli inside out. While not exactly written against formula, it's full of surprises. There are no dark and musty rooms to provide atmosphere (Neal is "allergic to dust"), and the detective assigned to the case (Giuliano Gemma) says he only drinks on duty, turning the usual cliché on its head. It is also a veritable necklace of what may be, taken as a whole, the most inspired murder set-pieces of Argento's career. The cinematography of SUSPIRIA's Luciano Tovoli is let off the leash, resulting not only in style but genuinely sublime visual excess - the famous Louma crane shot that prowls the outside of Tilda's building before the killer pays her and her gay lover Marion (Mirella Banti) a visit, and my own favorite moment in the film, when Neal and his entourage exit his hotel room and the camera pans back through the empty quarters to a gleam of light perfectly timed to flash off the edge of a metallic sculpture as the Goblinesque soundtrack seethes.

 
 
 
As time soon proved, the failure of INFERNO at the box office had nothing to do with INFERNO itself, really; it had more to do with the rise of Hollywood blockbusters and their growing monopoly of cinema screens worldwide, which resulted in a crisis in Italian film production that has continued to this day. INFERNO was denied US theatrical release, withheld until a complete VHS release finally surfaced in 1986. (Such slow years!) As it happens, TENEBRAE's commercial fortunes proved even worse; it was held back almost as long, not surfacing in the US till 1987 and then only in a mutilated cut retitled UNSANE. It was not until 1999, after uncut copies had found their way into fans' hands via the grey market (sourced from a Japanese laserdisc titled SHADOW), that the film first became available in this country on VHS and DVD in supposedly unexpurgated form. But even those official complete release were found to be missing snippets of film included in the Japanese source, and the film has struggled ever since toward the ideal copy its admirers have sought for so long. Even when all the footage was present, previous DVD (even BD) releases from around the world have been found guilty of weak color, soft resolution, or excessive digital noise reduction.

The new Synapse release - available in regular and limited steelbook editions - represents a reported 30+ hours of color correction and more than seven months of frame-by-frame restoration to remove hundreds of digital artifacts, incurred by the master licensed from the French company Wild Side as a result of a previous licensor's overzealous DNR/scratch-removal pass. It is a thing of magnificence. I've seen the film numerous times over the decades, but the Synapse disc made me aware of many details for the very first time. I discovered that Peter Neal is also the other of two other books (IL SERPIENTE/THE SNAKE and OLTRE L'ALDA/ANOTHER DAWN), seen displayed in a store and on the table at his press conference. When the hotel manager's "jailbait" daughter (Lara Wendel) visits Neal's room to check his water heater, I was surprised by the stubble on his face - appropriate for a man who can't get the hot water necessary for a shave. It's also much more apparent now that a number of the actresses (Pieroni, D'Angelo, Wendel), though clothed, aren't wearing bras, adding not only to the film's sensuality but its summery ambiance. By freezing the frames as the killer tore pages from the TENEBRAE novel, I was able to clearly see that it features characters with the names Brook, Levashev, Krylov, Stark and Jasmine ("Jazz" for short), and that it somehow involves the KGB. (Not much of a giallo, is it?) Those viewers who can read Italian stand to learn even more about Neal's style of writing. But my discoveries were not limited to, shall we say, sensual details like the fingerprints all over the red airport telephone; I also noticed a key moment in the killer's flashback featuring transsexual Eva Robins (who has freckles! who knew?) where he is joined by a second person as he admires her walking toward the beach - hinting at the later revelation that there are two killers; and there is also a hilarious "subjective oops" near the end when an elegant camera pan past a blood-spattered wall suddenly doubles back to allow the killer to turn off a light switch - the better to dim the signs of violence and tempt new visitors in. A compelling account of the feature's 1080p restoration, written by restoration producers Don May Jr. and Vincent Pereira, is included only with the steelbook edition - which also includes a bonus CD of the original soundtrack's 19-track 2015 remaster.

Chief among the bonus content on the disc are a new audio commentary by Argento scholar Maitland McDonagh and a new documentary by Calum Waddell, YELLOW FEVER: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE GIALLO. To start with the commentary, McDonagh (the author of BROKEN MIRRORS, BROKEN MINDS: THE DARK DREAMS OF DARIO ARGENTO) is - of course - knowledgeable, witty, and highly listenable. It's not the academic listen some might expect from the book - she's saucy, down-to-earth company with a sharp eye for clothes and accessories. Her talk is at its best when she breaks away from the scene-specific to talk at length about different topics: the film's characters, what makes the film unusual in the Argento canon, her history with tracking down Argento's work on bootleg tapes back in the 1980s, and the director's difficulties with US distribution. I disagree with her on the point she makes about the murders of Tilda and Marion ("they're not really killed because they're gay") because the killer's subsequent message ("So passes the glory of Lesbos") would seem to dispute this, as does Cristiano Berti's (John Steiner) pre-interview of Neal at the television station, where he notes that two characters in the novel were killed because they were gay. I'm also perplexed by her view that TENEBRAE is "really not a funny film," because so much of what she says about the film in admiration does seem to be, above all, amused by its craziness and some of its absurd twists and turns. So add "provocative" to the above adjectives.

Despite the documentary's all-encompassing title, YELLOW FEVER frames Argento as the genre's Alpha and Omega, saying comparatively little about Mario Bava (and nothing about the important debt of his 1962 film THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH to George Pollack's 1961 film of Agatha Christie's MURDER, SHE SAID) or the German Wallace-krimis, which were the first to mine the giallo's visual territory and to use Hitchcock's shower murder in PSYCHO as a template for their screen murders. There's almost nothing about Sergio Martino (whose 1970s thrillers were more widely seen than Argento's here in the States), and it significantly fails to mention even once the name of Ernesto Gastaldi - only the genre's most prolific screenwriter. It has some very good people aboard: Argento himself, his mentor Umberto Lenzi, directors Ruggero Deodato, Bruno Forzani and Richard Stanley (who comes up with some of the most insightful commentary found here), screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti, Argento experts Maitland McDonagh and Alan Jones, LA DOLCE MORTE author Mikel Kovan and others. Unfortunately, the playing field seems a bit overcrowded at the ultimate expense of the most qualified and insightful commentators, and some frankly OCD non-topics - like how the animals mentioned in so many giallo titles never actually figure in their stories - are allowed to vamp on for several minutes. Also surprising is how everyone argues against the charges of misogyny in Argento's work, stressing his appreciation of women, without ever noting that the protagonists of all his films up to SUSPIRIA are male, and that his films have taken an extended dive in quality and character since casting Asia Argento in their leads became the key to getting his work funded. It's feature-length (89 minutes), which has its points of attraction, but had it stayed on track and cut out the waffling and Argento gushing, it would have yielded a much stronger 45-minute featurette.

Also included on the disc: alternate UNSANE footage that allows onscreen English text to flow into the playback via seamless branching; the the alternate UNSANE end credits with Kim Wilde's uncredited "Take Me Tonight" heard instead of the main theme reprise (for some reason, they're in Italian); the Italian and Japanese trailers. As you can see from the grabs illustrating this piece, the film is presented in its original 185:1 screen ratio and in optional DTS-HD 2.0 audio in English and Italian, with optional English subtitles. I have a small ongoing quibble with the use of the film's Italian titles because the Italian title onscreen, TENEBRE, is one letter shy of corresponding to the title of the book in the film - which, I feel, prevent the title of book and film from resonating and only serves to foment confusion - at least for English-speaking viewers. I admit it's a subtle point, but I strongly feel that if we adhere to the Italian title, the film loses an important element of its genius. This probably unavoidable element forgiven, Synapse Films has done everything in their power to deliver the ultimate TENEBRAE.

(c) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved by the author.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Red, White and BLUE SUNSHINE

Zalman King, keeping tabs on things in BLUE SUNSHINE.
In the hairy heyday of 1970s horror, Jeff Lieberman was on the short list of North American names to watch, along with George A. Romero, David Cronenberg, Wes Craven and John Carpenter, among others. These were young, inventive guys, all looking for ways to bend and advance horror in ways comparable to EASY RIDER's embodiment of a quantum leap for the Western. Much as the Western had needed to gain distance from the Old West to become relevant, horror needed to break away from its gothic roots and find a foothold in present day. In many cases, what the new generation of horror directors embraced as a focal point was the distance between what average people were being told by the government and the hard, unvarnished truth.

Of all these creators, Jeff Lieberman is a fascinating case because, while he didn't ultimately have the opportunities nor the cultural impact of those other filmmakers I mentioned, his half-dozen features have held up well. His characters have a human dimension that just seems real, never editorializing as Romero's sometimes do, or mixing up the larger and lesser than life types as Carpenter does; his protagonists are typically mensches who become more than they were as a result of conquering whatever deranged, scary adversity is thrust upon them. Lieberman first gained attention with his debut feature SQUIRM (1976), an independently-made AIP acquisition that lured viewers in with a low-ball concept (killer worms) which it proceeded to trump with some truly unforgettable special makeup effects gags, courtesy of Rick Baker. In retrospect, SQUIRM's burrowing, subcutaneous worm effects looked forward to the metallic tendril attachments of the Flesh Gun in Cronenberg's VIDEODROME (1983).

Though he's made other interesting pictures (for example, 1981's JUST BEFORE DAWN may be the best of all the 1980s horror films about campers roughing it in nature), Lieberman's reputation seems to rest on his sophomore effort, BLUE SUNSHINE (1978), which has now been definitively resurrected in a deluxe Blu-ray/DVD/CD three-disc set from FilmCentrix.

BLUE SUNSHINE immediately asserts its invention with a dazzling credits sequence that shuffles a few tense, seemingly unrelated scenes with shots of an enlarging, blue-tinged full moon and a haunting, Stomu Yamashta-like score by Charles Gross, against which the main titles take their time to unfold. The story that follows ties the initial loose threads together. Zalman King plays Jerry Zipkin, already involved in an obviously passionate relationship with Alicia Sweeney (Deborah Winters) - which, in itself, already subverts the cliché of two characters falling in love as they struggle to survive a nightmare together. While attending a party (where the guests include DARK SHADOWS' James Storm and future BLADE RUNNER star Brion James), Zipkin's best friend Franny (Richard Crystal, the brother of Billy Crystal) suddenly loses all his hair and flees the premises, sending others out in search of him. With only a few young women left behind, Franny returns, eyes fully dilated, to embark on a rampage of murder that ends in his own death.
The dilated eyes of suddenly hairless Frannie Scott (Richard Crystal).
When Zipkin returns to the scene, closely followed by cop Lt. Jennings (Stefan Gierasch), everything he does only serves to make him look more guilty of the three women's murders. Following a remarkable pan shot that dials away from Zipkin's escape by car to the exterior aftermath at the party house, we follow our protagonist on a frankly incredible search for the truth behind what happened to his friend, which eclipses even his more pressing need to clear his name - and only serves to get him into worse and worse trouble.


Jerry Zipkin is innocent, I tell ya!

Remember those scenes in ALIEN with Jones the cat, where the cast would strain credibility by looking for the cat in all the darkest, most forbidding rooms and passages of the spaceship? It's a bit like that with Zipkin. His character arc seems predicated on always doing not just the wrong thing, but the freaking unbelievable thing, to the point where the film could almost pass as a surreal parody of prevailing cinematic clichés. Zipkin returns to the party house and sees the fireplace ablaze with the stacked dead bodies of three women... and he tries to put out the fire by by beating it with a rug. He gets shot and goes to Dr. David Blume (Robert Walden, a particularly fine performance), an old estranged college chum, who treats his wound with a shot and a bandage. In a confrontation with yet another person who suddenly loses all their hair and goes berserk, threatening two small children with a carving knife, Zipkin intervenes and somehow manages to throw her off a balcony to her death. After reading a newspaper story about a similar hairless murder spree of an entire family, Zipkin ventures to the murder house and - offering no better reason than human curiosity - pumps the gabby next-door neighbor (Alice Ghostley) for unreported details - and then proceeds to break into the murder house and suffer a gibbering meltdown over the taped body positions and bloodstains still besmirching the walls and floors. After Zipkin's exploits finally make the front page of the paper, pegging him as a fugitive murder suspect, he returns to his doctor friend and asks for enough powerful sedative to put someone down hard - and gets it delivered to him under a bridge at MacArthur Park! And the reason he gives for being on the run? "I can't go to jail, not even for one day. I'll go bananas!"

Ann Cooper as Wendy Flemming. Is it just me, or is this last shot Hari Krishna zombie imagery?
So it's not particularly logical, but it is a lot of fun - which is apparently what Lieberman intended first and foremost, as he speaks more than once in the disc's extras about the relationship he perceives between horror and comedy. That point aside, the more we find out about what's causing these people to change, the more cause we have to suspect that Zipkin's irrational actions may be indicative of his own pending hair-loss. What he discovers - the truth that he alone is able to extract, using nothing more than his wide-eyed, strangely puppy-dog-like entreaties for answers - is that, ten years earlier, when he and these other people were all students at Stanford University, a strain of LSD called Blue Sunshine was making the rounds - apparently manufactured by a political science major, Ed Flemming (LOST IN SPACE's Mark Goddard), who is presently running for Congress. Zipkin doesn't exactly have a plan about what he intends to do once he obtains this information; I suppose you could say "At least he's not just standing around, he's out there doing something" - but one of the most haunting qualities about BLUE SUNSHINE (and the SPOILER-sensitive may want to look away for the remainder of this paragraph) is that Zipkin's campaign ultimately doesn't make any difference. The closest thing the film has to a genuine hero, Lt. Jennings, is left unconscious in a men's room and dragged to a chair by Alicia. That's the last time we see Alicia, too. Flemming is never exposed or held accountable for producing and distributing this drug that, as he had no way of knowing, would turn people into murderous time bombs with a ten-year delay. The people who used the drug in college gradually lose their hair and pay the piper. As for Zipkin, we last see him on his knees, beside Blue Sunshine's latest victim. A couple of captioned screens detail the fates of a secondary character or two, but in the end, we are never told if  "Zippy" was ever able to clear his good, if silly, name.

If this sounds like the film fumbled its game, not so - because when BLUE SUNSHINE ends, we are left feeling as though a much bigger, more involuted story is just beginning, and that is a wonderful and rare jolt to the imagination. And for a film longer than 90 minutes to leave the viewer feeling like the whole crazy ride has passed in half that time, like a preamble to much bigger game? Well, that's a remarkable achievement in itself.

Mark Goddard as Ed Flemming - America's Past, Present and Future.
In the audio commentary and other extras included in this set, Lieberman recalls that his inspiration for this film came from seeking a tongue-in-cheek analogy that he could apply to government-issued anti-drug warnings, much in the way that three-eyed monsters were proposed in 1950s films like Roger Corman's DAY THE WORLD ENDED (1956) as a likely result of atomic radiation. It seems to me that he would have reached the same creative conclusion had he started out, more seriously, to write a horror film analogy of the "acid flashback" - or even the film noir concept that our past has a way of catching up with all of us. All of these apply to the film, with Lieberman's tongue-in-cheek analogy offering the best explanation of various narrative decisions it makes. But I feel it would be a mistake to overlook what the film seems to present to us in all seriousness, namely its Bicentennial America setting (one shot dotes on a sign congratulating America on its 200th birthday) and the backstory of Ed Flemming's running for Congress, which strongly recalls Charles Palantine's race for the US Senate as a background to Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER (1976). What BLUE SUNSHINE specifically addresses in this area is how the quintessentially American mythology of the self-made man, so central to American political mythologies since the days of Lincoln, is a self-serving lie - that political success is dependent on the containment and rewarding of lies and kept secrets. Just as Flemming's political career is rooted in outlaw activities and even human casualties, all sacrificed to his personal enrichment and a bullshit idea of personal freedom, so were the political careers of our nation's forefathers fundamentally rooted in crimes against others, ie., genocide committed in the name of their freedom from tyranny. It doesn't matter how conscious these ideas may have been to Lieberman; what matters is that they were so inherent in the political and yuppie milieux he chose for his story, there was no way they could be avoided. (The first monster in the film is named Frannie Scott - shades of Francis Scott Key!) BLUE SUNSHINE didn't surface till a couple of years after the American Bicentennial but, to the best of my recollection, it's the only horror film of that festive occasion to go beyond, say, Altman's NASHVILLE and summon the darker resonance of US history and politics and their obscene commercialization. In other words, it couldn't have resurfaced at a better time. (Flemming's campaign slogan is, appropriately, "Here Is The Future.")

Though the subtext is there, BLUE SUNSHINE is first and foremost a fun ride. At one point, Zipkin notices a bald man reading a newspaper and does a double take - allowing the eagle-eyed among us to notice that the page is open to a double-bill advertisement for SQUIRM and TENDER FLESH. And if the commercialization of politics and the consequences of our actions are the main meat of the story, an accident of scheduling caused the story to culminate in a department store during the Christmas season, which not only drives home another message about commercialization, but genuinely anticipates the milieu of Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979) - a film that actually cops a scare from BLUE SUNSHINE involving the sudden appearance of a bald mannequin. 

Earlier I mentioned the human dimension of Lieberman's films, and you won't find better examples of this than in BLUE SUNSHINE. In scenes of kitchen talk involving two neighboring women (Ann Cooper and Barbara Quinn), Lieberman's writing shows a real knack for knowing how women really talk and look out for one another, taking on a share of each others' responsibilties. Likewise, though we never see Zipkin and Alicia in a romantic situation, Zalman King and Deborah Winters use their few scenes together to convey what the story doesn't share of their relationship through a palpable hunger for each others' physicality. It's this that also helps to sell the extremes that Alicia must endure to try to establish "Zippy's" innocence.

Deborah Winters and Ray Young in BLUE SUNSHINE's famous "Disco Sucks!" sequence.

The FilmCentrix DVD-9 Region A disc presents a 4K transfer of the film's original camera negative, which was recovered only a few years ago after decades mislaid. It's very pretty, and the audio is offered in a choice of DTS-HD 2.0 or 5.1 (tastefully done with select surround sound effects). There is an audio commentary by Lieberman - unfortunately, it's 15 seconds out of sync, so that the frequently referenced shots are never onscreen as they are being pointed out or discussed. It's moderated by someone I presume to be Elijah Drenner, though his name is clipped off the beginning of the track.  Some of the same ground is covered in video interview material also included (mostly contemporary, though there is also a 12-minute Mick Garris interview of Lieberman dating from just after BLUE SUNSHINE), but Lieberman is a very entertaining, down-to-earth and candid subject. Other extras include an 8-minute select scene commentary by Mark Goddard, a visit (or attempted visit) to original locations, trailers, on-camera interviews with script supervisor Sandy King and actors Robert Walden and Richard Crystal, an image gallery, and a spate of vintage LSD scare films.

Tucked inside the snapcase is a bevy of other bonuses, including a 28-page booklet of liner notes by Steven Morowitz, Nicholas McCarthy and Mark J. Banville, an Ed Flemming for Congress bookmark, a small replica of David Blume's BS Diploma from Stanford - backed with a repro of Movielab's original color analysis of the film, a reduced reproduction of a TV syndication brochure, and - for the daring among us - a blotter consisting of eight tabs of Blue Sunshine - presumably from the 255 doses reportedly "still unaccounted for."

Don't say you weren't warned.   

(c) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved by the author.



Monday, September 12, 2016

On Reading THE CHILDREN OF LIGHT

Ever since I first discovered it on late night commercial television at the end of the 1960s, Joseph Losey's THESE ARE THE DAMNED (aka THE DAMNED, 1962) has been one of my favorite science fiction films, and a very high-ranking title on my list of favorite Hammer films. Despite its title, there is no official connection to VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) or its sequel CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (1963), both adapted from John Wyndham's novel THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS; the Losey film was based on an elusive 1960 novel by one H.L. Lawrence entitled THE CHILDREN OF LIGHT.

In 2016, if you want to read THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS, you can find it anywhere - as a first edition hardcover, as a Penguin or movie tie-in paperback, even as a digital download. But if you want to read THE CHILDREN OF LIGHT, and want to pay your gas and electric bill as well, you are just about out of luck. When I decided that it was high time I read it, I was frustrated to discover that - even with the global assistance of abebooks.com in locating a copy - used copies were not only scarce but priced extraordinarily high. $175 for a used hardcover was not an unusual going rate, and it seemed that most available copies would have to be sent from Australia, adding heavy postal rates to the cost as well as a weeks-long wait. But I can be persistent in my searches, and in this case, my persistence was rewarded when I found a Canadian seller offering the book for a reasonable price - reasonable, that is, in contrast to other prices I was seeing on parade.

I've now read the book, which is 191 pages, and thought that other admirers of the Losey film might like to know how the two works compare. The answer is that, while there is no mistaking THE CHILDREN OF LIGHT as the basis of THESE ARE THE DAMNED, they don't really compare. There is no way that the creative choices made by Evan Jones' screenplay adaptation don't improve upon the original, which is a masterful manipulation of human brutality and refinement, yet the original has a quality of its own that is hard to shake off.

Shirley Anne Field surrounded by all of King's men.
The story of the novel is quite different to that of the film. Here, Simon (played in the film by Macdonald Carey) is a cuckold on the lam after accidentally murdering his floozy wife, and his picture is on the front page of all the papers. King (Oliver Reed) is here called Caesar, and he's the crafty head of a strangely Elizabethan street gang that call themselves the Poisoners, formerly the Borgias, whose second in command is dubbed Brutus. (Yes, there is an "Et tu, Brute?" moment to anticipate.) The Poisoners jump Simon as they would any prosperous looking bloke, not knowing of his notoreity; they kidnap Simon, empty his pockets, and threaten him with a hanging - just out of morbid curiosity. Joan (Shirley Anne Field) is still Joan, but here Caesar's half-sister; they are the products of a broken home, raised by two different parents who gave them different gifts for survival. There's no suggestion of Caesar having a thing for her. Joan falls for Simon, no reason why, and helps him to escape the gang. They find an empty farmhouse and she watches over him as he recovers from a bad cold. There's no boat, though there is talk of eluding the authorities on a boat owned by Joan's uncle. This whole first third of the novel is surprisingly trashy, and a bit of a page-turner. None of the characters have the density of their film counterparts, and none of the dialogue is particularly resonant or quotable.

Macdonald Carey meets the radioactive children raised by the government to inherit the earth.
This changes once the radioactive children are introduced. The novel's debt to John Wyndham and THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS (published in 1957) is more evident here than in the film - instead of having remarkable eyes, these kids (one of whom is actually named George Orwell) have sparkling, platinum-colored hair. Their backstory, told in brief in a dead-center chapter, is very Wyndham-like, incorporating information not disclosed by the film, including a gradual sterilization of the human race from atomic fall-out that is on the verge of becoming known, as people living in higher elevations are already taking note of a suspended birth rate. In the novel, it's not the gang leader who pursues Simon and Joan into the secret school but a nosy reporter named Johnny Parks, who correctly believes they are alive, that the government has deliberately misrepresented their deaths in a mine field explosion. Whenever someone lights up a cigarette, the author goes into raptures describing how delicious they are.

The novel's concluding chapters have surprising impact for the very reason that it otherwise occupies a lower strata than that to which the film aspired. Lawrence's novel, though a bit cheesy at times, remarkably sketches the darkest portrait of any present-day government I've read in any novel from its time period - cold, calculating, secretive, downright wicked, capable of committing any crime against its own people to protect and promote its own sick, hidden agendas. Of course, many books fail in their hopes to become perennials, but Lawrence's characterizations of the secret power figures behind the British government and military are so convincing and effective, unusually so for a 1960s novel, that I couldn't help wondering if this facet might have something to do with why the novel seems to have disappeared and is now so hard to find, even though the film based on it continues to win new audiences. Also, there is a brief throwaway line somewhere in the middle of the book that violently shifts gears on our perception of the story, when someone mentions that the first atomic bomb detonations took place generations ago - setting the story somewhat closer to the new millennium though everything about its descriptions of its world and its characters screams "present day" (1960)! Might this reflect an editorial change imposed on the manuscript by a publisher not wishing to ally itself with such political candor? In a strange way, Lawrence's THE CHILDREN OF LIGHT ultimately - if inadvertently - offers a chillingly accurate forecast of 21st century "secret government" paranoia.

Though it wouldn't quite be THESE ARE THE DAMNED, I'm going to surprise myself and say that I wouldn't mind seeing this novel republished and a more faithful film adaptation made. It is not a great novel, yet there is something about its cold slap that feels far-seeing, even seminal. H.L. Lawrence knew that our public servants were in charge and that there was no limit to the destruction they would cause to ensure the perpetuation of the human race - and the end of its troublesome diversity.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Revealing the Secrets of THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK

Robert Flemyng sets the mood in Riccardo Freda's THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK.
Before there was HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT, there was HICHCOCK/HAMPTON - better known under its theatrical release title:

http://amzn.to/2bRYGiU

THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK was the US release title only, given to a film released in the UK in its uncut English-dubbed export version, THE TERROR OF DR. HICHCOCK. The US version, which shared a set-in-cement double bill with Jess Franco's THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF, was cut down to 76m 48s from its original 88m length. I was only being slightly glib with my opening line because, years before François Truffaut's extraordinary interview book presented its ground-breaking analyses of Alfred Hitchcock's visual tropes and techniques, Italian director Riccardo Freda (under his Anglocentric pseudonym of "Robert Hampton") used this opportunity to gather some of his own favorites together and play with them toward new ends.

To illustrate a few examples... There is a funeral scene that pays homage to the assassination scene in Hitchcock's FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940):


There is a poisoned glass of milk that recalls one in SUSPICION (1941):

 

There is a scene in which a young woman discovers a skull secreted in her bed, à la UNDER CAPRICORN (1949):


And, most significantly, HICHCOCK also contains allusions to VERTIGO (1958):

But where THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK transcends its namesake, and VERTIGO, is in its remarkably frank incorporation of necrophilia as its protagonist's primary peccadillo.

In the film itself, the third of those preceding images is seen first. I have known and loved this crazy film for decades, but it wasn't until I saw the film in high definition for the first time this past weekend - thanks to Olive Films' new Blu-ray disc - that I noticed that the corpse about to be buried in the pre-credits sequence is the same young woman's corpse he is irresistibly drawn to at the hospital where Dr. Hichcock presides as a distinguished surgeon, about halfway through the picture. This revelation alone showed me that the story must have been reordered somewhat in the editing room. If the pre-credits sequence was meant to depict the fulfillment of Hichcock's thwarted hospital fondlings, this means that his succumbing to actual necrophilia wasn't written to be his "thing" all along, but rather came about years of whistling around his tendencies with his kinky sex games with willing wife Margareta (Maria Teresa Vianello aka "Teresa Fitzgerald") - whom we see allowing herself to be injected with her husband's experimental anesthetic to the point of complete physical passivity. It is only twelve years after her death following an apparent overdose that Hichcock's kink is fully formed, a circumstance wherein he can relive the memory of Margareta's complete physical passivity and come to deal with the cold fact of her death.

Robert Flemyng's performance in this scene - and in the film, generally - is nothing short of operatic and magnificent. Like many actors in his place, he accepted the film as an opportunity to spend time in Rome, and yet history has proven it the role for which he'll likely be remembered. Though fans tend to think of HICHCOCK as a Barbara Steele film, it doesn't offer one of her better performances. It doesn't help that the role itself is underwritten, but she upstages herself throughout with bizarre, compulsive flexings of her hands, distracting the eye from her face. She does figure in some memorable scenes, however, particularly the scene in which she finds herself drugged and occupying the altar-like bed in her husband's supposed "laboratory," where her predecessor formerly yielded her will to that of her husband. It's one of the great delirious scenes in Italian horror, and one that makes fairly early use of special makeup effects involving inflatable bladders.

Note also in that sequence the presence of incandescent red lighting, which at this time was the signature expression of Freda's former cinematographer Mario Bava. When I interviewed Freda many years ago for my Bava book, he confirmed for me that his collaborations with Bava continued past the point when published filmographies claimed they stopped. There was a reason for the secrecy surrounding such involvements, namely that Bava was, by this point, a director in his own right and it would have proven detrimental to that career to be seen accepting side-jobs on the projects of other directors. A director didn't "shine other people's shoes." Actor Brett Halsey also confirmed for me that he first met Bava on the set of another 1962 Freda film, THE SEVENTH SWORD (La sette spade del vendicatore), where he was shooting an atmospheric scene in a torture chamber with lots of incandescent red lighting - which is what caused me to ask Brett about the scene in the first place. Mind you, if Bava did have a hand in filming this sequence, it doesn't mean that he worked with Barbara Steele a second time; Flemyng's half of the scene, the half affected, was obviously shot separately. I didn't specifically ask Freda about Bava's possible involvement on THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK because the state of available video copies at that time gave no hint that such was likely. However, seeing this scene with its scarlet hues now red to bursting, I am tempted to revise my thinking... but not only for this. There is also the matter of a certain transitional shot that, now that I've finally seen it in high definition, made my suspicions that much more certain.

The first shot you see in the following sequence is the actual exterior of the villa where the film was shot. The following grabs are exteriors of the villa shown with an illuminated upstairs window, and also during storms - which, while utterly convincing on an old VHS tape, are exposed in high definition as trick shots involving a painting of the exterior with foregrounded foliage (including a potted plant!), tree trunks seemingly fashioned from black rubber tubing, and foregrounded rain from a watering can with a flickering light for lightning! Everything that went into this trick shot was consistent with techniques Bava brought to his own films, making HICHCOCK now highly suspect as a film that employed Bava as an independent unit. This trick shot is the kind of thing he could have created at home or on a weekend. 

     
Something else about THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK that I never quite realized until this latest viewing: When Ernesto Gastaldi was hired by this film's producer Luciano Martino to write his script, it was always part of his mandate to emulate the latest British and American models of gothic horror. Certainly there is something in this film, which tells the story of Hichcock's return - with a new wife in tow - to his brooding villa a dozen years after his first wife's death, only to find it haunted by her spectre, which alludes to the Poe films of Roger Corman as well as the works of Alfred Hitchcock. But what I have never really noticed before about HICHCOCK is that it contains all the pieces that Robert Towne needed to write Roger Corman's THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1965).

To wit: Both films are about necrophilia and second marriages, with an older man haunted by his first dead wife marrying a much younger woman and subjecting her to her predecessor's memory - as in Hitchcock's REBECCA (1940).

Both films find the master of the house enabled in his strange fetishes by the compliance of an aging domestic, who has a dark devotion of their own to the past lady of the house - and the young wife witness to strange things that persuade her that her predecessor may not be dead after all.
Hichcock's late wife also has a familiar, a black cat named Jezebel, who - as in LIGEIA - puts in an appearance atop her mistress's coffin.

Near the climax of both films, a character is depicted with a bloody shoulder. 

And both films end in hellish conflagrations, with the young wife freed from the past and delivered into the arms of a man who truly appreciates her for who she is.
THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK has had only one prior domestic release on home video: a VHS release on the Republic Video label. Olive Film's Blu-ray is its first domestic release on disc and it's first high-definition release anywhere. It's region-free with English dubbed dialogue and optional English subtitles. The image quality, as you can see, is absolutely ravishing throughout, and sometimes sharp enough to expose technical faults in the cinematography, including instances where the image is not quite in focus. That said, it looks and feels like the Technicolor it says it is. However, there appears to be good reason to quibble about the 1.78:1 framing as the original aspect ratio preserved by the French and Italian DVD releases of the uncut version have been 1.66:1. Here is a contrast of how one shot appears in the Italian (L'ORRIBILE SEGRETO DAL DR. HICHCOCK) and US releases, respectively:
Clearly, the Italian transfer is brighter (as it is throughout) and its framing offers more screen information on both sides and and bottom - otherwise, the two grabs look so completely different, suggesting different times of day at the very least, it's tempting to regard them as alternate lighting experiments using the same set-up. The Italian frame, with the purple clinging so uncannily to that tiled column, also brings to mind the possibility of Bava's extracurricular hand. It stark qualities remind me of the ambulance shot in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964). The US framing is a bit tighter but ultimately non-disruptive, and I also feel it's generally more successful than the Italian disc (which, incidentally, has no English option) at delivering the brightness levels and color intensities the film was intended to convey.

Naturally, it's disappointing that the film can only be shown in this country in the truncated form of a 50+ year-old theatrical release, and that it has been released in a no-frills package without commentary or context. But this is one you'll want to have anyway; it's one of the most important Italian gothics of the 1960s, and it's exciting to finally have this important variant (now the property of Paramount Pictures!) available in such a lovely presentation.

It streets next week, on September 13.


(c) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved by the author.