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Sunday, August 30, 2009

The late, lamented weird movie magazines

One of the many negative effects of the downsizing of the print publishing industry, besides giving my career a one-two punch, is the disappearance of the smaller, niche publications. I'm speaking in particular of horror movie magazines, some of which were around in the sixties (Famous Monsters, House of Frankenstein, etc.) and really hit their peak of popularity in the 1990s. It's these later mags that this post is about.

Filled with stories on any number of strange movie-related topics, they fulfilled my lust for the useless information I couldn't find anywhere else—or live without. These magazines were written with a streak of perverted humor in a voice that spoke directly to me as an "insider," a fellow weird movie freak. In addition, advertisers in these publications allowed me to locate and—gasp!—actually order videos of the strange movies I'd been pining to see for years.

Psychotronic Video was the granddaddy of these specialty pubs, starting out in 1980 as a xeroxed guide to weird movies airing on television. I discovered its existence when I bought the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film in 1984. Although my interest in strange movies was already burning bright, publisher Michael Weldon not only put a name to my mania (psychotronic), he also helped me to understand why such a bizarre combination of film genres—horror, sleaze, Italian gore, juvenile delinquency, Mexican wrestling, nudie cuties, roughies, drive-in trash—sent me into paroxysms of joy. PV also showed me that there were other weirdos out there like me.

I still have the complete library of issues, except for No. 1 (always a challenge among collectors of any kind of magazines), and I probably re-read each one every couple of years. Packed with movie reviews, rare photos and interviews with cult celebrities, they never lose their interest.

It was in the pages of PV that I first discovered the bizarre world of Coffin Joe (the alter ego of Brazilian filmmaker José Mojica Marins), whose films are now frequently shown on IFC! Boy, are they strange. Steeped in religion, sex and hallucinogenic drugs, they're in turns shocking, hilarious and delightfully mind-boggling. Most surprising is their consistently anti-religious themes, made in such a thoroughly Catholic place. Marins, whose most prominent features are fingernails that are several inches long, is well-known and even celebrated in his home country. And he's still making Coffin Joe movies more than forty years after his debut.

Scarlet Street was another favorite. Slicker and glossier than PV, it concentrated on more mainstream fare, such as the Universal horrors of the 1930s and '40s, but still managed to provide remarkable insight as well as landing rare interviews with the surviving performers and people behind the production of these timeless classics.

Scarlet Street was often accused of having a "gay agenda," and it's true that articles frequently touched on the subject's sexuality, but it was always presented in context and never done with malice or an attempt to "out" that person. And we're talking about the performing arts industry, for God's sake! More fondly remembered for me was its unique sense of humor. See the cover on the left? "Creature from the Black Lagoon" and "special swimsuit issue"? Hilarious.

When Bill Condon's wonderful "Gods and Monsters"—about the last days of director James Whale—was released, Scarlet Street devoted an issue to "Bride of Frankenstein" and the talents behind it. Even Ernest Thesiger, the bizarre, birdlike actor who played Dr. Pretorius in the film, was profiled. An extremely eccentric character who enjoyed a long life on the stage (and needlepoint!), he was reported to have asked Somerset Maugham why he never wrote any roles expressly for him. Maugham replied that he did indeed, but they kept being played by "somebody called Gladys Cooper"!

The magazine ceased publication upon the death of its publisher, Richard Valley, in 2007. His friends and co-writers have attempted to pick up the mantle and continue it as simply Scarlet magazine, but only two issues have been printed so far. It's a tough business—I wish them well. I have every original issue of Scarlet Street except No. 1 and that's a reprint.

Cult Movies was my hometown publication. Written and published in Los Angeles, it was often affiliated with Hollywood Book and Poster, a great film collectibles store on Hollywood Boulevard. Its subjects were far-ranging: Hollywood classics (not necessarily horror); fifties shlock; rock and roll; spaceman and gladiator films; even classic porn. Since I could easily visualize the places the magazine's subjects lived and worked in, it brought their stories closer to home. Cult Movies writers and celebrities were fixtures at local conventions and collector's shows, so I had the opportunity to meet and converse with them quite frequently.

And when Cult Movies wrote about Ed Wood (which it did frequently), its descriptions of the bad movie auteur's milieu was always colorful, gritty and—surprise—told me something new. Bela Lugosi's story, especially as it intersected with Wood's, was always heartrending and the people the magazine uncovered to interview on these two subjects never failed to astonish me. Best of all, after reading one of these pieces, I could jump in the car and head for Hollywood to steep myself in the sleaze and feel how Wood must've felt after a three-day bender on $1.95 bottles of vodka.

The horror fanzine market has been reduced to a determined few. Filmfax and its sister publication, Outré, are still cranking along. Steven Puchalski's marvelous Shock Cinema, with its 42nd Street grindhouse vibe, keeps hopping. And the Canadian Rue Morgue is as slick as the long-lived Fangoria but far more substantial. They're available at Borders and via mail order, but I miss walking down to Tower Video in Sherman Oaks (also late and lamented) and picking up the latest issues of those old favorites.

Maybe I'll have to start one of my own.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What do you think of 3D?

August 28th marks not only the release of Zombie's highly anticipated (for some) release of "Halloween II," but the one I'll be queuing up for is "The Final Destination" in 3D. I like the series and its preposterously, elaborately staged disaster scenes, and I'm sure it will be even more intense in three dimensions.

What do you think of 3D? Last year I organized an event for television professionals about the future of television at which News Corp's then-president Peter Chernin predicted that 3D was the way motion pictures would go. Other executives and studio heads have agreed.

It's certainly not a new process. 3D films have been in existence since the silent days. Even Alfred Hitchcock made a 3D film, "Dial M for Murder," but it was usually seen flat.In its first heyday in the 1950s, 3D was part of the studios' arsenal (along with various widescreen processes) to compete against the new threat of television, but the anaglyph (red and green) glasses required to view the effects resulted in headaches and crossed eyes.

I saw a re-release of 1953's "House of Wax" in the early 1980s, and it was projected in the stereoscopic process, meaning slightly tinted polarized glasses were used, resulting in a clearer, more spatial picture. But then came all the anaglyph releases: "Metalstorm: the Destruction of Jared-Syn," "Comin' At Ya!", "Friday the 13th 3D," "Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare." Once again cross-eyed audiences went away, turned off not only by the process but by some truly terrible movies. "Friday" was fun in 3D, but have you ever seen it flat on television? Ridiculous.

Today, digital 3D (like Real D) has replaced the anaglyph method. Based on the stereoscopic technique and bolstered by computer technology, it provides a sharp, clear, colorful picture with amazing depth. I saw "My Bloody Valentine 3D" in Real D, and I was blown away.

"The Final Destination" will also be presented in Real D, so I know the effects will be great. But 3D alone does not make a great movie. As much as I enjoyed "My Bloody Valentine," I think if I had seen it in 2D, I'd have found it to be a serviceable but not exceptional thriller. I confess I haven't seen any others yet, but if it's good when it's flat, it'll be even more exciting in three dimensions. And unfortunately the 3D process hasn't made a satisfactory transition to the home theater yet, although I'm sure that's just around the corner.

And getting back to "Final Destination," imagine how awesome it would have been to see that insane freeway pile-up from Part 2 in 3D. Since the technology allows producers to go back and recreate 3D versions of old movies, we'll probably be seeing a lot more of that in the future.

What old films would you like to see remastered in 3D? Comment here and I'll share your opinions in a future post.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Here We Go Again

Well, August 28th is swiftly approaching, and that means Rob Zombie is about to unleash yet another remake of the "Last House on the Left"/"Texas Chainsaw Massacre" mashup that's been running on an endless loop in his brain since "House of 1000 Corpses." I'm referring, of course, to "Halloween II."

At first, I couldn't wait to see "Corpses." When Zombie battled with Universal over the rating, I thought it was really going to be outrageous. And when I attended a panel discussion at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors in Pasadena with Zombie, Sid Haig and Karen Black, my anticipation went off the charts.

Maybe I got too excited, because when Lion's Gate finally released it (with an R rating after all), I was profoundly disappointed by the incomprehensible plot, the "arty," grainy camerawork, and the nonstop Tarantino-esque blathering of the characters. What the film did capture well was the grittiness of the low-budget 1970s drive-in sleaze, but it was in the service of a really boring story—and a waste of Karen Black! For shame!

2005's "The Devil's Rejects" fared better. Graced with a solid soundtrack of vintage tunes and populated with welcome cameos from such cult favorites as P.J. Soles ("Halloween"), Tom Towles ("Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer") and Mary Woronov ("Rock 'n' Roll High School"), it also has some semblance of a plot. It's also extremely brutal and sadistic, plunging the viewer into a world of filth and blood that's not for everyone's tastes. But at least it had a structure!

2007 brought Zombie's "revisualization" of John Carpenter's 1978 lesson in shock-machine efficiency, "Halloween." Adding backstory baggage to the bare-bones plot, Zombie gives us a glimpse of young Michael's (Daeg Faerch) awful family: sleazy stripper Mom (the ubiquitous Shari Moon Zombie), her abusive boyfriend, Ronnie (William Forsythe), whorey older sister—and second victim—Judith (Hanna Hall) and baby sister Laurie. And unlike the clean, bright suburbia of Carpenter's Haddonfield, which made for such a nice juxtaposition to the darkness in Michael's soul, Zombie posits the scenario back into the familiar, filthy trailer parks and strip clubs he seems to love so much. How can you separate the murderous psychos from the regular psychos? Here, everyone is dangerous; everyone is threatening. Hell, Michael would have to wait in line!

One of the few interesting scenes shows the boy disinterestedly stuffing his face with Halloween candy before going out to the living room and cutting Ronnie's throat without a trace of emotion. But when Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowall in full-out hambone mode) arrives and Michael grows up into The Shape, it becomes a real snoozefest as the film shuffles toward its familiar stalk 'n' slash conclusion.

Now here comes "Halloween 2." Granted, the 1981 version was no classic by any stretch of the imagination.

How it came about what that the original, independently released "Halloween" made so much money that it drew the attention of Universal Pictures, who snatched up the franchise, hoping to start up a "Friday the 13th" cash cow of its own. Bland and undistinguished, "H2" was filmed in the studio's "house style" of the 1970s/early '80s, meaning it looked slightly more expensive than a TV movie. And by the time the Michael-less "Season of the Witch" bombed at the box office, Universal dumped the series.

Still, there's an unpleasant scene in "H2" that sticks in my memory: a mother is bringing her kid to the hospital where Laurie is recuperating. The boy had bitten into an apple with a razor blade in it, and the blade is still jammed vertically in his mouth. A nasty bit of business in an otherwise by-the-numbers sequel involving various medical personnel running up and down darkened hallways with Michael chasing them.

And so what is Zombie going to do? Have Michael chase Laurie through a sleazy inner-city hospital where junkies are mainlining in the hallways? He told ShockTillYouDrop.com: "'Halloween II' is to 'Halloween' as 'Rejects' is to 'House of 1000 Corpses.' We shot the last film on 35mm, it was cleaner. This one, we went back to shoot a dirty, nasty movie on 16mm."

Maybe he's trying to say that this one will be an improvement on the original. Maybe I don't care.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

"Orphan" update and "Nevermore"

A few posts ago, I complained about how the advertising campaign for "Orphan" was annoying me wherever I went. I even suggested that the film may be...well, stoopid. I caught it at a screening last weekend and I really must revise my opinion.

Although I didn't necessarily slam the film, since I hadn't seen it yet, I may have been prematurely unkind about its plot and the fashion sense of its titular character. Turns out it's a damn effective thriller with some fine performances.

Vera Farmiga ("The Departed") is all raw nerves as Kate, an unhappy wife and mother whose husband, John (the reliable Peter Saarsgard), seems to be out of touch with her suffering. She is heartbroken over the loss of her third baby, who died in the womb, rendering her unable to bear another. Anxious to transfer her pent-up affection to an adopted child, she sets her sights on an orphanage for older chiildren, even though they already have two of their own at home: hearing-impaired daughter Max (Aryana Engineer) and preteen son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett). This is already one messed-up family unit, and it's about to get a whole lot worse.

Enter Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a seemingly ideal nine-year-old Russian orphan, whose friendliness and talent with a paintbrush wins the hearts of everyone except Daniel, who can sense there's something nasty about her.

This is a cult star-making turn for Fuhrman. Only 12 years old when the film was shot, she delivers an assured, precocious and downright brutal performance as the kid whose outward sweetness and talents conceal a truly black heart and brutal agenda. Engineer, who is hearing-impaired in real life, is also sensational as she transitions from a happy little sister to an unwilling co-conspirator in Esther's horrible deeds. Many of the plot twists involve sign language and lip reading, and they are clever.

I'm still not going to give away any spoilers, but I have to admit, for the record: her bizarre clothing is sufficiently explained; the twist ending, even though I knew it was coming, is still suitably mind-blowing; and she could probably kick the shit out of Rhoda Penmark.

Last night I was honored to attend a performance of "Nevermore" at the Steve Allen Theatre here in Los Angeles. Subtitled "an evening with Edgar Allan Poe," this one-man show stars the sublime Jeffrey Combs as the tortured author, giving a reading of some of his latest work—and laying his agonized soul bare in the process.

The play's director, Stuart Gordon, who helped propel Combs to fame with "Re-Animator," was actually there working the boards, which certainly gave new meaning to a "hands-on" approach. Gordon's background is in Chicago theater, so he must be really enjoying this success, particularly since all indicators, like last week's love letter in the L.A. Times, point to a continued run, including a visit to Manhattan.

Certainly his film work has been much celebrated by those of us who reside in Weird Movie Village: the aforementioned "Re-Animator," "From Beyond" and "Dolls"; and the recent "King of the Ants" and "Stuck" display his evolving talent and capacity for more contemporary subjects.

Combs previously portrayed Poe in the Gordon-directed "Masters of Horror" segment "The Black Cat," and he has surely found his special live theater niche as much as Hal Holbrook did with "Mark Twain Tonight" in the 1970s.

The play, by "Re-Animator" co-scribe Dennis Paoli, finds Poe on a cross-country speaking tour as his fame and health are dissipating, accelerated by the death of his beloved Virginia as well as his various addictions. Surreptitiously sneaking a couple of sips as he begins, he eventually belts down a pint of whiskey in full view of the audience while begging their indulgence, wavering between sharp coherence and flights of deluded fancy.

My fellow viewers unfortunately decided that "drunk means funny" and carried on their laughter for far too long, but Combs stayed determinedly in character, depicting the frenzy of a man who is simultaneously suffering the loss of his great love and the derision of his literary peers. And he performs two pieces, "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Raven," in their entirety.

"Nevermore"
has been extended through August, so if you're in the Los Angeles area—or anticipate being there—get your tickets right away!

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