31 March 2007

WHC 2007: It's The Nice Ones You Gotta Watch

I was unable to attend this year's World Horror Convention, which was held in Toronto for the first time, but thankfully, some of the event's more distinguished guests (some of the literary genre's true giants) spared an hour to meet local fans at the World's Biggest Bookstore**, not far from the host venue Toronto Marriot Eaton Centre. In person: Brian Lumley, F. Paul Wilson, Ramsey Campbell, David Morrell, this year's Grand Master winner Joe R. Lansdale, and legendary cartoonist/writer Gahan Wilson. There was a time when I read nothing but horror fiction, but that was more than a decade-and-a-half ago (my tastes broadened, if not necessarily matured) and truth is, I approached the signing feeling more than a little out-of-touch with the scene.

I've been a long-time fan of Gahan Wilson (right photo) ever since I first discovered his delightfully grotesque and surreal cartoons in the late, much-missed National Lampoon magazine, gags that regularly broke the taboo of child endangerment. Of course, in time I saw his work in "Playboy" (articles only) and "The New Yorker" (believe it or not, some of their cartoons are legitimately funny), and discovered that he was as accomplished a prose writer as he was an artist (he had a story published in Harlan Ellison's "Dangerous Visions", the most essential s.f. reading of the last century). As he scribbled his distinctive signature in the cartoon collections I had fortunately purchased while they were in print, as well as some jaundiced back issues of Nat Lamp, Gahan lamented on the passing of the publication as a comedic institution, and on how fellow cartoonist Sam Gross currently keeps tabs on unauthorized reprints for which contributors, like himself, have not been paid.

These days, National Lampoon endures--barely--as a crappy website and a meaningless above-the-title label ala "Van Wilder", "Senior Trip", "Dorm Daze", and other titles too depressing to contemplate, but its anarchic spirit lives on in "The Daily Show", "South Park", and Adult Swim fare from which a huge debt is owed to founding fathers Miller, Hughes, O'Rourke, O'Donaghue, Kelly, Hendra, Hughes, and of course, Wilson.

F. Paul Wilson--no, they're not related--might best be known as the author of "The Keep", which served as the basis for Michael Mann's much-maligned second feature film in 1983. But he's written several sequels to that excellent WW2-based supernatural thriller, dozens of short stories, and non-fiction on politics and economic theory--when not practicing as a doctor. He's been winning kudos for the "Repairman Jack" saga, which I've not read. He signed my copy of the series' first entry, "The Tomb", and suggested I turn to eBay to obtain a bootleg copy of "The Keep", since Mann is embarrassed by the film (which I think is flawed but visually striking--the period equivalent of a Fulci thriller) and is the chief hurdle in its long-overdue release on DVD.

Brian Lumley has been writing horror and science fiction since the early 70s, when he published a series of tales inspired by H.P. Lovecraft's "Cthulu" mythos. After retiring from the British military in 1980, he conceived the "Necroscope" saga--to which there are nearly a dozen entries--which chronicles the adventures of "necroscope" (a type of psychic) Harry Keogh and his battle with interdimensional vampires. Again, I was somewhat embarrassed in that I've not read a "Necroscope" tale nor anything of Lumley's beyond the odd story in a horror anthology (for the event, I bought a collection of his tales), but he was gracious all the same and is definitely an author whose works I want to explore more thoroughly as--if--time permits.

David Morrell will likely be forever known as the creator of "Rambo"--he wrote the 1972 novel "First Blood" on which the famed Sylvester Stallone/Ted Kotcheff film was freely adapted, and gets a credit in the sequels (for which he also wrote the novelizations). As with Lumley, I knew of Morrell's stories from collections, but have never actually read one of his books. His newest is "Scavenger", which I plan to read if I can ever clear my shelves of the dozen-plus other half-finished novels I've got on-the-go. Morrell lamented the loss of horror fiction mags like Midnight Marquee and T.E.D. Klein's "Twilight Zone", which in its day was the source for new horror fiction (I think I bought every issue from 1982 until its demise in 1988).

If you haven't read any Joe R. Lansdale (left photo) you're denying yourself the pleasure of one of the genre's most inventive and witty iconoclasts. Chances are you've heard of the cult film "Bubba Ho Tep", which he adapted from his short story with "Phantasm" creator Don Coscarelli, and you might have caught the debut episode of "Masters Of Horror" season one: "Incident On And Off A Mountain Road", a superbly shot and paced nailbiter with a devastating twist. Joe mentioned that he was very happy with his Coscarelli collaborations, and that "Bubba Nosferatu" is still in the planning stages. I asked him about his screenplay based upon his own "Dead In The West", to which he laughed and said has been sold "about 11 times", has made him "a ton of money", and is currently owned by a production company in France.

The reality that Ramsey Campbell (middle photo) isn't as famous as Stephen King, Anne Rice, or Clive Barker is a depressing thing indeed. Not that he seems to mind--he was one of the happiest authors I've ever met. A master of psychological terror and quiet dread, Campbell, like Lumley, began his career with U.K.-set Lovecraft homages, even striking up a correspondence with Lovecraft's collaborator August Derleth. Eventually, he found his own voice, and has enjoyed a prolific career as novelist and critic. Ramsey confirmed he will be contributing another column to his "Ramsey's Ramblings" in next month's Video Watchdog, this time, he'll explore Gaspar Noe's punishing revenge drama "Irreversible". And some good news for me: apparently, no one has the option on his "Ancient Images", one of the only novels I've read that made me immediately want to purchase film rights (I wonder if Ramsey would consider "Pound Sprogs", the equivalent of King's "Dollar Babies"?). Wish me luck: Neil Labute's "Wicker Man" remake has done much to damage mainstream audiences' opinion of pagans. And you can read Ramsey's weekly film and DVD recommendations here at the BBC's homepage.

A few minutes before the authors arrived, an irate and quite vocal fan demanded to see a manager and scolded him as to why no Gahan Wilson books were available--to which the hapless employee calmy replied: "There aren't any left in print".

While Angry Dude's manners (and fact-checking) left something to be desired, he had a bit of a point: it's hard to find this stuff on mainstream bookstore shelves at any time of the year. "Horror" is generally awarded a single-half wall somewhere near the sci-fi or mystery (or worse, "anonymous erotica") sections, if there's one at all. Door stoppers by King, Rice, and Koontz are usually in steady supply, but even Clive Barker's works are scarce these days. Campbell, Morrell, Lumley, Wilson(s), Lansdale, Bentley Little, Poppy Z. Brite, Michael McDowell, Jack Ketchum, David J. Schow--you're better off with Amazon or second-hand shops. I nabbed the only copy of a Campbell anthology I could find at the Eaton Centre's Indigo Books--just to make sure I had something for him to sign--and the clerk told me the store had ordered a "whole bunch" of horror titles for the event but none of them arrived from England in time. Well, at least fans know that, soon, this particular location will have a surplus of the stuff.

**(Note to non-Torontonians. The World's Biggest Bookstore, a former bowling alley, has declared itself to be such since it opened in 1980. I have no idea if it is, in fact, the largest brick-and-mortar bookstore in the world, but it contains 27 km of bookshelves under blinding flourescents, presumably measured end-to-end. There's reportedly a Barnes & Noble location in the U.S. that has more floor space, but TWBB boasts more titles. And not many of them "horror", apparently...for that, you'd best move to the UK...).

29 March 2007

Still "The Champions", Apparently...

I generally avoid live theatre, only because I find too often twee, pretentious, and worse, overpriced. But tonight, I had a chance to check out We Will Rock You, the musical tribute to the British rock quartet Queen, and not only did I find it surprisingly entertaining--considering I was never really a fan of the band (not even in their heyday when I was just the right age to be doing the "Bohemian Rhapsody" head bounce in my parents' car)--it was also free. But that's not really important...

The fact that it was written and directed by Ben Elton helped immensely. I was already a fan of Elton's from his work with Rowan Atkinson on all four seasons of the "Blackadder" series (on which he was cowriter), "Bean", and "The Thin Blue Line", the odd episode of "The Young Ones" I've happened upon here and there. A friend of mine has also urged me for years to read Elton's satiric Hollywood novel "Popcorn", which I've never gotten around to, but given his reliable tastes and Elton's pedigree, I'm sure it's a pointed and hilarious yarn.

Unlike the ABBA musical "Mamma Mia", which reportedly used a lame wedding plot on which to hinge several dozen familiar hits (suffice to say, I haven't seen it), Elton and co. (ie: the surviving band members, chief among them guitar Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, with bassist John Deacon MIA and only casually mentioned in the program notes) have concocted a goofy futuristic fable that fuses Orwellian dystopia with "The Matrix"ian prophecy and a healthy dollop of "Footloose"s "the kids are all right" plea for generational tolerance. It goes something like this: in the year 2307, our Earth has been renamed "Planet Mall" and is run by the Globalsoft Corp., under the glammed-up fist of the selfish hedonist Killer Queen and her peroxided flunky Mr. Khashoggi. Culture has been completely commercialized and homogenized into bland, computer-generated pablum, blah blah blah (obviously, this doesn't aspire to be "Children Of Men").

Of course, every quest must have its Arthur (or Neo, or Master Luke...), and here he comes in the form of the impassioned and leather-jacket'd teenager Galileo Figgaro, who hears music lyrics in his head (most of them, not coincidentally, from the Queen's Greatest Hits album) and feels compelled to put them down, which lands him in prison. He's joined in his calling by another rebel: Scaramouche, whose eccentric fashions and attitude make her a misfit to the cliquey "Ga Ga Girls" in her high school. Together, they escape from Killer Queen's fortress and flee to the ravaged wasteland.

Eventually, they hook up with "The Bohemians", who have formed an underground sanctuary ("The Heartbreak Hotel") in a submerged Las Vegas and who have adopted names acknowledging the musical legacies of the past (everyone from Kurt Cobain to Burton Cummings to Britney Spears). "Pop", an aging hippie fossil, has unearthed a ancient videotape recording pointing them to the "Excalibur" of the piece, which here turns out to be Brian May's electric guitar, buried within the now-derelict Wembley Stadium (the rock group Queen, it seems, saw the downfall coming and prepared for a future revolution) and once brandished by Scaramouche (it turns out Figgy can't play, but he can strike all the right poses) brings about Killer Queen's downfall (and an encore presentation of "Bohemian Rhapsody").

Of course, this all sounds pretty friggin' stupid, and well...is it ever. But this isn't something to be taken seriously--clearly, no one on stage is, and besides, musical theatre has a long, heralded tradition of hinging song and dance numbers on many-a far-fetched scenario--no one scoffs at paying big bucks for a performance of "Tales Of Hoffman", which features, among a mad scientist (named Spalanzani), a mechanical woman, and magic glasses.

Elton and Queen 2.0 have updated some of the songs to be "timely", with mixed results: "Radio Ga Ga", originally Mercury's screed bemoaning the death of FM radio and the insidious invasion of disposable pop into the airwaves (in the video, the band hovercrafts through footage from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis", for reasons I've never understood, other than Mercury had a song in Giorgio Moroder's rock-scored version of the silent classic, released about the same time), has been retooled to incorporate "Internet Goo Goo", so now it's a screed against downloading disposable pop ala "American Idol" (although Elton should remember that all this "Idol"atry is, in fact, a British invention). The title theme from 1980's "Flash Gordon" gets a too-brief reference, during a cyber-torture sequence (with its thematically-relevant references to "the pure of heart" and "the Golden Grail", I'd have thought more of the tune would've been used). Not surprisingly, the anthems work best, as do those numbers based upon Mercury's more operatic and melodramatic turns: "Somebody To Love", "Crazy Little Thing Called Love", and "Seven Seas Of Rhye".

All in all, a fun show that pushes all the right buttons in its targeted demographic: aging boomers, who in a perverse contradiction of the show's philosophy, have taken rebellion and subversion and have repackaged it as accessible, family-friendly spectacle. But that'd be reading too much into it--Pope John Paul II would reportedly sing along to Beatles' lyrics, and that doesn't render "Revolution" and "Let It Be" meaningless.

I'll be damned, though, if Elton's gonna get me to pony up for his "Rod Stewart" show...even if it's free. Some things are just wrong, and neither Freddie nor Flash are here to save us...

27 March 2007

Happy 44th, Mr. Brown

Today is Quentin Tarantino's 44th birthday--and no doubt he'll be celebrating it in style with a round or two of the "Welcome Back Kotter" boardgame and a marathon of Jack Hill flicks in his private screening room (and if his Jay Leno appearance circa "Kill Bill 2" is any indication, more than a few drops of fire water...).

It's hard to believe that it's been 15 years since "Reservoir Dogs" erupted from the Sundance circuit scene and changed independent and mainstream filmmaking--for the better, IMHO. If Tarantino has achieved anything--beyond making consistently damn fine movies--it's that he's eroded the line between "indie" and "mainstream" and "low" and "high" culture like no one else before him, or since. These days, smart actors no longer hold out only for leads in A-ticket releases and take a walk on the wild side in supporting roles and in off-the-beaten path fare that once upon a time would be considered career-killers, and journeymen performers once permanently sentenced to the grindhouse/DTV circuit can get a chance to perform for a new generation on a couple of thousand screens and show the Rodeo Drive set how it's done when a second take is not an option. Even television has lost its stigma--these days it seems that as long as it's recorded on film or on video and aspires to spin a tale whatever the structure, budget, or transmission medium, it's all good. I firmly believe we have QT to thank for that.

He's helped make life just a bit easier for fans of so-called "junk culture" like myself who have spent so much of their lives "defending" their non-PBS approved tastes to film snobs and armchair Jane Austen scholars that Roger Corman and the publishers of Fangoria should include some of us on their boards of directors. But it irks me that people--including many self-avowed fans who profess to "get" his work--have misinterpreted Tarantino's infectious celebration of "B" cinema as an irony, and frequent Shaw Bros. revivals and midnight Fulci screenings as a post-modern, "Rocky Horror"ish pose. He takes this stuff very seriously, and views melodrama and over-the-top violence as powerful dramatic devices, every bit as legitimate as kitchen-sink realism or earnest docudrama.

I was first made aware of Tarantino's existence (and exuberance, with which I instantly clicked) via an interview with him in the summer 1992 issue of "Film Threat", back when it was one helluva fine print publication. "Reservoir Dogs" had made its splash (splatter?) at Sundance in the interum and I was jazzed when I learned that it would be playing at the Toronto International Film Festival. Lidia and I were there at the Uptown 1 for its screening, with stars Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, and Steve Buscemi in attendance. Suffice to say, the film did not disappoint--we caught it two more times that week (once upon a time, the TIFF would rescreen the fest's most popular titles on the final Sunday). Of course, like so many of your reading this, I've since bought it in every home video format known to man--three times alone on DVD.

Surprisingly, "Reservoir Dogs" was not a box-office hit when released a few months later. Despite critical raves, numerous awards, and my own unsolicited shilling for its considerable virtues to friends and coworkers, it was met largely with indifference within my own social sphere and didn't catch on en masse until it debuted on home video and cable.

I missed a rare chance to meet Tarantino, pre-"Reservoir Dogs", due to my sister's wedding, ill-timed (for me, anyway) during the first weekend of the 1992 fest. But my roommate recognized him from the "Film Threat" article (just this once, I wasn't angry that he read all my stuff for free and never once picked up the occassional magazine) and saw the future Mr. Brown lurking, more or less anonymously, in the lobby of the Bloor Cinema following the midnight screening of Bernard Rose's "Candyman" adaptation. He asked Tarantino for his autograph on the back of my "Candyman" screenplay (which I'd given him in the hopes that he'd get Rose and Virginia Madsen to sign it--and he did), to which Tarantino graciously consented, seemingly surprised that he'd been noticed at all. Boy, would that change just a few days later.

I eventually did get to meet Tarantino at the movie poster shop "Hollywood Rennaissance" in downtown Toronto (before it moved from its Yonge Street location), where he was hanging out often while visiting then-girlfriend Mira Sorvino on the set of "Mimic" (on which I worked briefly as a storyboard artist, but never on-set). Despite tabloid and message board dirt that he was rude to fans and arrogant, he was very nice to a pair of girl friends who rushed out to by a disposable camera to take pics with him, to the store's manager Shane, and to me, as I asked him about his plans to adapt "Rum Punch" (which would become "Jackie Brown") and we discussed how great "Escape From New York " was as we flipped through posters in the "Sci-Fi/Horror" section (btw, he bought the German one-sheet out from under me).

Despite that fact that he was quickly dismissed as just another "flavour of the month" by the time he co-starred in "Destiny Turns On The Radio" and has been blamed (as John Carpenter had been with "Halloween") for the slew of disposable rip-offs of his debut and lauded follow-up "Pulp Fiction" inspired, Tarantino's shown commendable "screw you" resilience to his knee-jerk naysayers and has been choosey about his followups, to say the least. Unlike his buddy Robert Rodriguez, who never seems to take a rest (and finds the time to teach himself music composition and 3D animation between writing, directing, shooting, and editing his features), Tarantino is that rare artist who waits for inspiration, but then attacks it with an Italian zombie's insatiable hunger.

Of course, I need not mention that his next collaboration with Rodriguez (after "guest-directing" a segment of "Sin City") is the ultra-cool-looking "Grindhouse", for which he contributes one of two 90-minute short features, set to open next Friday.

Hopefully, once the guests have gone home, he'll get back to that "Inglorious Bastards" screenplay? After all, Stallone's combat-ready...

25 March 2007

World Horror Convention Possesses GTA This Week

The World Horror Convention launches its first-ever Toronto incarnation this coming Thursday at downtown's Marriot Hotel, which is attached to the Eaton Centre. But for those of you (like me harumph!) who won't be able to attend the event, there's still a chance to meet and chat with some of the masters of grisly prose and rightful heirs to the legacy of Poe, Lovecraft, Jackson, and the like.

Alas, Guest Of Honour Thomas Harris won't be present, but today I've received news that heavy-hitters Ramsey Campbell, (Guest Of Honor) Gahan Wilson, and Joe R. Lansdale will partake in a group autograph session next Saturday, March 31st, at the World's Biggest Bookstore on Edward Street (Yonge/Dundas intersection). Bring your old National Lampoons, this month's "Video Watchdog" featuring "Ramsey's Ramblings", your DVDs of "Bubba Ho Tep" and "Incident On And Off A Mountain Road", but above all, bring some books. These fine fellows are responsible for some of the most subversive fiction being published today, at a time when the genre rarely warrants its own section in most bookstore chains.

I'll post more details in case additional authors are announced. In the meantime, check out the WHC's official page here.

21 March 2007

Remembering Larry "Bud" Melman...

Damn, another one gone: Calvert DeForest, aka Larry "Bud" Melman, has passed away in Long Island at the age of 85 after a long, undisclosed, illness. For long-time fans of David Letterman, "Larry" is as essential to his legacy as Paul Shaffer and the shattering glass sound effect. Before Dave became today's gruff but big-hearted elder statesman of anything-goes comic experimentation and intelligent discourse (sorry, Jon Stewart, but you come second in my books), he was television's supreme M.C. of playful post-modernism and abrasive observation, which struck many--to my constant surprise--as "rude" (there are two groups of people in this world: those who "get" Letterman, and those who think he's "mean"...).

During Dave's NBC "Late Night" years (an hour later at 12:30 PM), DeForest alternately functioned as Dave's foil and whipping post, and I could never tell whether he was fearlessly uninhibited, mentally deluded (and thus exploited), or a somewhat sad and shameless sucker for attention (and with it, frequent punishment). He dressed up as Elvis, Roy Orbison, Neil Diamond, Meat Loaf, Barbra Streisand, Batman, sang with Sonny Bono, and took audience questions on "Ask Mr. Melman", proving time and again that the cue card was his Achilles' heel). Not much was known about DeForest in real life, other than he worked as a clerk at a rehab centre before being "discovered" by someone on Letterman's NBC staff and acted semi-professionally in a handful of NY-based feature films (I saw one of them, the Lloyd Kaufman-produced comedy "Waitress!"--note the exclamation mark--for which he provided the sole highlight in a seconds-long cameo). He enjoyed some brief mainstream success as a pitchman for AT&T and Dominos Pizza and published the novelty tome "Cheap Advice".

When Dave left NBC, "Larry Bud Melman" remained--incredibly--the "intellectual property" of the network (the name was coined by Merrill Markoe, Dave's ex), but DeForest did appear periodically on the CBS "The Late Show" incarnation under his real name. His last appearance was in 2002 to celebrate his 81st birthday.

"Everyone always wondered if Calvert was an actor playing a character, but in reality he was just himself — a genuine, modest and nice man," Letterman has said in a statement. "To our staff and to our viewers, he was a beloved and valued part of our show, and we will miss him."

Too bad Dave won't be able to treate us to a comprehensive clip reel to remember this bizarre, but ultimately sweet and endearing, pop culture oddity. "Intellectual property", remember...?

Here's a clip of "Larry" in a bear suit on the old Letterman show...

Remembering Freddie Francis

Some sad news courtesy of Tim Lucas’ daily Video WatchBlog (for those of us who can’t stand the interminable weeks between issues of his always-essential Video Watchdog magazine) and David Hudson's GreenCine Daily: Freddie Francis, the great director-of-photography (or, as they say in the UK film industry: “lighting cameramen”) on many beloved classics—mainstream and cult—and a fine director as well, has passed away on March 17 at the age of 89. It’s hard for me to single out a “best” anything—movie, novel, album, actor, etc.—but if I had to pick a “Best DOP Of All Time”, Francis would probably be at the top of the list based on his work for David Lynch alone.

Francis was born in Islington in 1917, and began his career as a still photographer on shoots before apprenticing as a cinematographer. His first solo credit as DOP was 1956’s “A Hill In Korea”. He’d go on to lens many of the more celebrated on British dramas of the 50s and 60s, including “Room At The Top” and “Sons And Lovers” (for which he won his first Academy Award). He also shot John Huston’s adaptation of “Moby Dick”, but his most celebrated effort—deservedly—remains Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents”, adapted by Truman Capote from Henry James’ “Turn Of The Screw”, which is not only one of the most gorgeously-photographed films ever made (right up there with “Citizen Kane” IMHO), but that rare film that can terrify with scenes set and shot in broad daylight.

Francis directed his first feature, “Two And Two Make Six” in 1961, and codirected the loose adaptation of “Day Of The Triffids” in 1963 and soon began helming thrillers for Hammer Studios and Milton Subotsky’s Amicus Productions, the superb “Paranoiac” (1963), with Oliver Reed, and “The Psychopath” (1966), written by Robert Bloch, to name but two (there’s also “The Ghoul”, “Legend OF The Werwwolf”, “The Creeping Flesh”, all worth checking out).

Francis’ horror features would never be held in the same regard as those of Terence Fisher, John Gilling, or Roy Ward Baker, but the best of them were stylish and unique, often fearlessly eschewing the formulas of the respective “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” series that by the time Francis directed his installments were showing signs of fatigue (and on both productions, Francis was hired to step in for Fisher at the last minute). “The Evil Of Frankenstein” (1964) and “Dracula Has Risen From The Grave” (1968) have continued to polarize enthusiasts since their releases but endure as stylish exercises enriched by Francis’ eye and unique, if not particularly passionate, voice (to the surprise of most of his fans, he wasn’t much of a horror buff). I first saw “DHRFTG” on a double bill when I was about 9 years old—yes, Hammer Films served as “kiddie matinee” programmers in my hometown—and have never forgotten the great poster art featuring a buxom gal sporting two band-aids on her neck.

Francis' name became emblazoned on my movie-mad cranium with an early-80s re-release of the 1972 Amicus anthology “Tales From The Crypt”, in which a cast and crew of Brits tackled William Gaines’ oh-so-American grue-filled morality tales that caused Frederick Wertham to go ballistic (it’s the one everyone remembers for the opening tale in which Joan Collins is stalked by the killer Santa, but the best story is really “Poetic Justice”, starring Kubrick-vet Patrick Magee). Before that, Francis directed Amicus’ omnibus “Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors” (1965), hosted by Hammer vet Peter Cushing in the title role. He’d helm two more anthologies: “Torture Garden” (1967) and “Tales That Witness Madness” (1973). He paired up an aging Joan Crawford with an unconvincing caveman in the silly “Trog” (1970), and Ringo Starr with Harry Nilsson in 1974’s “Son Of Dracula”. He’d just direct one more feature film, 1985’s “The Doctor And The Devils”, the story of Burke and Hare, starring Jonathon Pryce and Timothy Dalton, adapted from an unfilmed screenplay by Dylan Thomas.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, Francis devoted himself to cinematography and proved his versatility on everything from “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981) to the Tom Selleck comedy “Her Alibi” (1989) to Scorcese's "Cape Fear" remake to Ed Zwick’s Civil War drama “Glory” (1989) for which he was awarded his second Oscar.

But it was his work for David Lynch that, for me, defines his contribution to the art: think of the period authenticity of “The Elephant Man” (1980), the collision of futuristic and retro styles in the unfairly-maligned “Dune” (1985), and of course, the celebration of the sprawling American landscape and the small dramas that play out within it in “The Straight Story” (1999).

Francis returned to the director's chair just once more time, in 1996, for “Last Respects”, an episode of the HBO revival of “Tales From The Crypt”, which he’d already adapted in the Amicus feature version (which I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve somehow missed).

To anyone in the creative fields, Francis’ legacy and longevity are enviable and inspiring. Read The Telegraph's comprehensive obit here.

(I must acknowledge my huge debt to John McCarty’s “The Fearmakers”, Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes’ “The Hammer Story”, and Tim Lucas’ “VideoWatchblog”)

-Robert L

13 March 2007

"I Heard You Were Dead"...and Scottish?

Sheesh--yet another remake of a John Carpenter classic is on the way--this time, it's his 1981 s.f. actioner "Escape From New York" (which was actually shot in St. Louis and in Carpenter's garage at his home in L.A.), which is a great film I can pretty much watch again and again, any time, any place, dubbed into any language (and will no doubt continue to purchase in every home video format known and as-yet-unpredicted...).

It's currently only in the first-draft stage, but already the casting rumour mill has current "300" star Gerard Butler pegged to take over to fill Kurt Russell's combat pants and pleather as anti-hero Snake Plissken.

Butler, as you may already know, also strapped on the chainmail to play "Beowulf" in Sturla Gunnersson's largely-ignored "Beowulf And Grendel", for which yours truly created storyboards, and thus will never stop plugging. So I can't say I think he's a bad choice for the role--he's got charm and can deliver a witty line and can kick major-league ass--real, CG, or otherwise--with the aplomb of Willis, Damon, and Bale, etc. While I regard the entries into Carpenter's filmography as sacred text, a re-imagining of the iconoclastic auteur's now-dated, but still impressive, nihilistic vision could make for an exciting and satiric futuristic fantasy in the right hands, esp. post-Gulliani and post-9/11. Too bad the "I Am Legend" adaptation currently shooting with Will Smith has already envisioned Manhattan island as an urban wasteland.

Obviously, no one cares what Carpenter's fans think, but will Butler's mob of militant and obsessive lonely hearts stand for one of his baby blues covered by an eyepatch? Read Variety's report here, which unfortunately doesn't answer the latter question...

05 March 2007

"Premiere"'s Surprise Curtain Call

Some surprising--and depressing--news: "Premiere", the monthly film magazine, will fold after its April 2007 issue. I've been reading it since its debut (I think Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd in "Dragnet" were on the cover) back in 1987, and while I felt it too often focused on drab middlebrow fare ala 'The Doctor", "Regarding Henry", and "Steel Magnolias", it was always a worthy read--to movies what "Rolling Stone" was to music. I'll never forget their wonderful article on storyboard artists back in July of 1989 (Michael Keaton, debuting as "Batman", made the cover)--I was just starting my own topsy-turvy career as a freelance storyboard illustrator/graphic artist and it was a huge inspiration for me (I still have two copies, in plastic).

Although "Premiere" originated as a French glossy in the 1970s (still publishing), the NA version fixed its focus unapologetically on Hollywood and the more accessible avenues of the "indie" circuit and found the right balance, I thought.

Published by New York-based Hachette Filipacchi Media, "Premiere" offered the standard publicist-approved interviews,, gossip, and filmmaker profiles, and reviews, some serious, some not so much (the observations of Libby Gelman-Waxner, in actually screenwriter Paul Rudnick, were a highlight). It rarely courted controversy, save for a 2001 piece that suggested incidents of sexual harrassment on the part of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who at the time was preparing his campaign to oust Gray Davis.

I suppose Premiere's demise is indicative of how entertainment reportage has changed since the heyday of Army Archard and Rona Barrett. These days, we can readily access film news and reviews on any number of fan-generated message boards, chart the course of a film's production on the director's own myspace page (Eli Roth, Rob Zombie), and glimpse onset photos taken by camera-phone wielding onlookers at Flicker. So it's not such a scoop when a magazine like Premiere offers an "exclusive first look" at the latest live-action superhero incarnation when the web's had it up for weeks.

"Movieline" folded (oh, how I miss you, Joe Queenan), "Film Threat" went online, and Cinefantastique became "CFQ" and a Starlog retread after its founder Frederick S. Clark passed awy. These days, only the UK's "Sight And Sound" and Tim Lucas' "Video Watchdog" are keeping quality print film journalism alive--sorry devotees of "Cahier Du Cinema" and "CineAction", but I'm not interested in another Marxist Godard appreciation or a semiotic analysis of the ouevre of Theo Angelopoulos.

UPDATE: Good news! I just read on GreenCine Daily that Premiere will continue as an online publication.

Too Bad "H2O" Was Already Taken...

Rob Zombie is remaking "Halloween". It's likely shooting as I write this. There, I've said it.

Not 100% sure how I feel about this--I've stated often that John Carpenter is probably my all-time favorite director, and "Halloween" is definitely among his best films, if not the best (and a universally hailed horror classic), but then "The Thing" is pretty hard to beat and feels the most personal. Of course, this undeserved 1982 box-office flop--now finally recognized as a masterpiece--is a remake of a 1950s classic, and upon its original release, many were outraged that the founding father of the then-reviled "slasher" genre would dare to mine the terrain of the great Howard Hawks (they probably forgot that Carpenter's second feature, "Assault On Precinct 13", was a thinly-veiled remake of "Rio Bravo", but oh well...).

So to bemoan Zombie's upcoming "re-imagining", especially without having seen it, seems more than a tad hypocritical, especially when I've also enjoyed such remakes as "Cat People", "The Fly", "The Blob", "Dawn Of The Dead", and last year's "The Hills Have Eyes". I'm not completely sold on Zombie as a genre auteur just yet, but I will say that he has an eye for macabre imagery and a fanboy's passion for the subject that's perhaps greater than his storytelling skills at this point (I'm one of the few who thought his debut "House Of 1000 Corpses" was a better film than the followup "The Devil's Rejects"--too many southern rock setpieces and protracted torture that became dull after the first hour).

A few stills and a poster comp have been released, and they're intriguing: Malcolm McDowell in the Donald Pleasance role, even sporting a goatee! The Shape's mask--reportedly---is closely based on the Shatner-inspired original. And there'll be lots of cameos for horror geeks from such vets as Dee Wallace Stone, Ken Foree, Brad Dourif, and Adrienne Barbeau. Like Carpenter's original, it's being shot in California (but I'm not sure if Pasadena is standing in for Haddonfield, Illinois. Hopefully, they can get pumpkins readily this time around--if not, there's always CG).

The film's due at the end of August this year (why not October, geniuses?). You can follow the production at Zombie's own myspace page here.

02 March 2007

John Belushi

It's amazing to realize that John Belushi died 25 years ago tomorrow--I remember it like it was yesterday. His was the first "celebrity" death that felt like I'd lost a family member or close friend. Although at the time I wasn't able to articulate it as such, I think I revered him so much because in many ways he was the embodiment of my "id", if I can go all pop-psychology (by way of "Forbidden Planet") on you. I was a reserved, typically insecure teen --neither particularly popular but far from unpopular either--who tended to watch from the back and express himself through drawings and short films and the odd corny joke, all the while harbouring a flair for hambone theatrics that were shared periodically, and oh-so-carefully, with my drama class and select friends.

Belushi, by contrast, erupted from the Krell Labs of "National Lampoon" and "NBC's Saturday Night" as a full force gale who invited scorn and ridicule whereas I would go out of my way to avoid it--I couldn't help but marvel at this fearless conduit of unbridled energy and merry prankster who delighted in cartwheeling the face of our notions of "good taste" and "proper" values--and when that didn't work, attacking them outright with a combination of schooled intellect, counterculture outrage, and fleshy hedonism that before this irony-smothered age was a very rare thing. This was not a calculated stage and screen persona--what we got was him in all of his glory and contradictions, until drugs and poor health choices ultimately led to the end of his too-short life at 33, almost a decade younger than I am now.

But how many of us can say that on our 30th birthday, we headlined the number one film in the country ("National Lampoon's Animal House"), the number one album (The Blues Brothers' "A Briefcase Full Of Blues"), and the number one television show ("Saturday Night Live")?

March 1982: I was in high school--a friend and I had just come from an evening screening of "The Border" with Jack Nicholson, a rare "R" rated film we were somehow permitted to see despite the fact that both downtown theatres were quite strict in their enforcement of the Ontario Film Review Boards' then-Draconian policies (some other time, I'll tell you tales of the Mary Brown Years). We stopped at our neighborhood's convenience store and the gal working the counter casually mentioned to us: "That guy you two like died. That comedian". Immediately, and in unison, we responded: "Belushi?". There could be no other...

It's now the stuff of latter-day Hollywood Babylon lore, grave-robbing exposes, Nancy Reagan propaganda, and bad Bob Woodward books: On March 5, 1982, Belushi's body was discovered at The Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard, where he'd been living temporarily. Cathy Smith would later be charged with involuntary manslaughter for administering the fatal drug cocktail of heroin and cocaine. I was that rare Ottawa Valley teen who didn't obsess over booze and dope and refused it when offered, and I was super p*ssed that such a gifted artist threw it all away for something so stupid, but most of all I was sad that I was robbed of whatever future brilliance he no doubt would have given us. I think Belushi would've matured into a powerful dramatic actor, as did his fellow SNLer, Bill Murray (and even Aykroyd).

I suppose to a youngster today, Belushi might seem like a warm-up act for Chris Farley (assuming that even his time here doesn't require us to remember too far back) or more likely Jack Black--the pace of his classic sketches probably lags, his war cries and once-vulgar slapstick now coy and mannered compared to your average Comedy Central offering. His breakthrough film, "Animal House", once regarded as an insidious social menace and the epitome of "low brow", can now air on prime-time television with minimal edits. But I can remember being underwhelmed as a teen when encountering my first Lenny Bruce recording--hardly shocking compared to my Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy LPs-- so I don't blame anyone for responding to Samurai Hotel or the Godfather therapy session or his bang-on Truman Capote impression with anything more than a polite grimace and chuckle.
Of course, "The Blues Brothers" is arguably more popular today than it was when released to negative reviews in 1980, someone (me) is buying the action figures of his characters that are released from time to time, and "To-ga!!!!" is as recognizable a comedic movie moment as Chaplin eating his shoe, perhaps moreso. But I won't hold my breath for a "Neighbours: Come On Down, Earl Keese" Special Edition DVD or a talking "1941"/Wild Bill Kelso from Mezco--not that merchandising is necessary to validate my own personal responses and inextinguishable memories of each and every film in his very special body of work....
Here's a short doc on Belushi courtesy of YouTube...