Monday, March 29, 2010

New interview about the expanded edition of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds is online...

I was recently interviewed by Film Threat about the new edition of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento and the director's films.
You can read the interview here.

The book will be available in April... just a few days from now, which means I can officially start fretting about reviews. Oh, and if you're on Facebook, please become a fan of my straightforwardly named group Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Strange Case of the Argento Movie Tie-in Novel...

This is the paperback tie-in paperback published in 1971 to accompany the US release of The Cat O’Nine Tails. I never knew it existed until I was walking down Broadway one day and stopped to look at some tatty used books being sold from a blanket spread out on the sidewalk. And there it was. To the best of my knowledge, The Cat O’Nine Tails is the only English-language Argento-movie tie-in novel.

The author was Paul J. Gillette and the publisher was Award Books, a small, New York-based house that was eventually bought out by and absorbed into Berkeley Books, an imprint of Penguin. I don’t know much about Award Books, but they seem to have been in business from the early 1960s through the mid-’70s. Their early titles included books about the drug culture and other “daring” topics, but starting in the late ‘60s they specialized in movie and TV tie-ins. They published original novels inspired by popular shows like Gunsmoke, Adam-12, Medical Center and Then Came Bronson, as well as novelizations of movies ranging from Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets to Radley Metzger’s Carmen, Baby. Award also published a number of science fiction books in the mid ‘70s.

It looks to me as though many — maybe most — of Award’s tie-in books were published under pseudonyms, but a handful bore names like David Gerrold (Battle for the Planet of the Apes, 1973) and poet/artist/writer/Paul Buck (The Honeymoon Killers, 1970). Literary agent Agnes Birnbaum of Bleecker Street Associates worked for Award, as did Tor/Forge Books editor James Frenkel, but the company itself is a will o’ the wisp.

Gillette was a cat of a different color: He translated Petronius and the Marquis de Sade, and was nominated for two Pulitzer prizes. He worked for mass-market magazines ranging from Esquire to Playboy, hosted the TV shows Camera Three and Enjoying Wine With Paul Gillette; and edited the trade magazine Wine Investor. Gillette’s nonfiction books included Inside the Ku Klux Klan and The Lopinson Case, about a notorious 1964 double murder in Philadelphia.

In addition to The Cat O’Nine Tails, he wrote the tie-ins for Play Misty for Me (1971) and How Did a Nice Girl Like You Get Into This Business? (1968), adapted from a briefly notorious, German-made sexploitation movie whose claim to fame was a brief appearance by the 18-year-old Barbi Benton. She parlayed her seven-year stint as Hugh Hefner’s girlfriend into a fairly successful career as a singer and actress, to which I can only say, “Run, Barbi, run!”

Gillette died in 1996 at the age of 57 and curiously, all the obituaries I tracked down describe Play Misty for Me and The Cat O’Nine Tails as original novels that were turned into movies.

That pretty much sums up what I know, but I’m dying to find out more about Award Books… partly because I’m fascinated by vintage pulp magazine/paperback publishers in general and partly because NYC-based houses exercise a particular hold over my imagination.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Profane movie titles and the women who say them...

I was recently invited to become a fan of the Facebook page "Intelligent, Classy, Well-Educated Women Who Say "F*ck" a Lot." I'm not a big fan of becoming a fan, but that made me laugh and got me thinking about movies with, shall we say, problematic titles... the kind the authors of Hollywood's 1927 production code must have had in mind when they specifically warned frisky filmmakers against using profanity in movie titles.

Not adult movies. And not movies like Damn Yankees! (1958) or That Darn Cat! (1965), because even back then those were words you could say under most circumstances and in most company without being branded a potty-mouthed pariah (except maybe in church with your great-grandma and some elderly nuns, and why would you want offend some nice old ladies anyway). Only real movies that got reviewed in mainstream publications counted.

Anyway, this is what I came up with:

Young People F*cking (2007), a Canadian comedy about looking for love in all the wrong places. It went straight to DVD in the US as YPF, thereby bypassing all potential editorial issues.

Baise Moi! (2000), which was one of a mini-wave of sexually explicit films designed to epater le bourgeois by forcing them to ponder the line between art and pornography. Ooh la la! The title literally means “F*ck Me,” but it was released in the US under the less offensive title Rape Me. Yes, someone thought “Rape Me” was the less offensive title. In New York it opened as Baise Moi! because, you know, anybody who speaks French no doubt has an enlightened attitude about that kind of thing.

Fucking Amal (1998), which is not about f*cking someone named Amal and thank God for that, because if there’s anything I hate it’s a gerund title. It’s about restless teens stuck in a boring Swedish town called Amal, as in, “I hate f*cking Amal.” Apparently Amal wasn’t boring enough, so most of the film was shot in nearby Trollhattan. I'd see "F*cking Trollhattan" before I'd see something with a wussy name like Show Me Love, which was F*cking Amal's US release title.

And I guess you have to include the coy, self-censoring titles.

Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock? (2006) is a documentary about a thrift store painting that may or may not be by Pollock – the good ol’ gal who paid $5.00 for the canvas at a thrift shop and asks the title question says f*ck a lot, especially when speculating about why snooty art-world types don’t take her or her f*cking painting seriously.

What the Bleep do We Know? (2004), a documentary about the mind-blowing intersection of quantum physics and faith, which I might have found more thought provoking if it hadn’t been underwritten by the nutty Ramtha cult.

And that's it for now...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wes Craven on Scream 4, then and now...

What a difference a year makes. When I asked Wes Craven last February whether there was any truth to the rumors that a fourth Scream movie was in the works, this is what he said: “Yeah, it's a possibility. And that's pretty much where it is with me right now. I should probably pick up the phone and call Bob and Harvey [Weinstein] to see what's up. I've heard that [Kevin Williamson] has an idea, and what I've said to my agents is that I'm interested if it's terrific — I'm interested in any project that's terrific — and I'm not interested if it's not.”

That’s what I call noncommittal. Flashforward to the Dimension Films email announcing that Scream 4 is going into production this spring for an April 15, 2011, release. Craven is on board, and is quoted saying, "I am delighted to accept Bob Weinstein's offer to take the reins on a whole new chapter in Scream history. Working with Courteney [Cox], David [Arquette] and Neve [Campbell] was a blast ten years ago and I'm sure it will be again. And I can't wait to find the talent that will bring new blood to the screen as well. Kevin is right on his game with the new script — the characters and story crackle with energy and originality — to say nothing of some of the most hair-raising scares I've seen in a script since... well, since the original Scream series. Let me at it."

Now that's one upbeat quote, and in all honesty, I'm glad to hear it. Yes, it's part of a PR machine whose gears won't stop grinding until the last Scream 4 market has been exploited. But the Weinsteins made the effort to get Craven onboard — whatever bad things have been said about them (and there have been plenty), they respect creativity.

The upcoming Nightmare on Elm Street, by contrast, was made without Craven's input, let alone participation, and no, nobody had to include him. Craven signed away future rights as part of his financing deal with New Line — as he's said many times, he was not only broke but deeply in debt and in no position to make a good deal. But Freddy Krueger and the world of Nightmare were stunningly original creations. Not making so much as a token overture to the creator — remember, Craven both wrote and directed — is indicative of the default attitude in Hollywood: Artists, even artists who understand that making movies is a business, are a pain in the ass, all hung up on the idea that they know better than focus groups and data crunchers and marketing departments. Remember that the next time you wonder why so many American movies are so painfully mediocre.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Ten Things I Hate About Casablanca...

D'oh... why didn't I write this contrarian take on the the best move ever made... ever? I mean, I like Casablanca as much as the next person, but Casablanca fans can really work my last nerve, especially the ones who've been polishing their Bogart impressions since high school.

Anyway, Ten Things I Hate About Casablanca isn't as snarky as the headline makes it sound, and he has to reach a little to fill out the list... actually, a lot. Even he admits it — by the time he gets to eight, we're into serious nitpick country. Number six is a product of its time, but it's still a sour note: There's a similar moment in Rear Window involving Lieutenant Doyle's maid, and it makes me clench my teeth every time. But his pick for the number one most annoying thing about the movie is right on the money — in a screenplay as good as this one, it really sticks out as a piece of sheer, "oh, nobody cares about that anyway" laziness.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Die! Die! My Darling! on Broadway

What, you may ask, was I doing at Looped, a Broadway play starring Valerie Harper (Mary Tyler Moore’s brash pal Rhoda and star of my favorite underrated TV horror movie) as pioneering celebutante Tallulah Bankhead?

Well, I love a vintage Hollywood scandal and Bankhead could shock ‘em in Sheboygan like nobody’s business. A daughter of Southern privilege and influence, if not wealth, she was raised to be a proper lady and willfully fashioned herself into an unrepentant tramp — a beautiful, talented, scathingly witty tramp whose brazen bon mots weren’t just outrageous for the time... they were just plain outrageous."My father warned me about men and booze,” Bankhead once drawled in her honey-and-bourbon drawl, “but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine." Oh no she didn't! Yeah, she did. Bankhead eschewed undies more than four decades before Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton were a glimmer on the tabloid horizon, and she didn’t just flash paparazzi: Her southern exposure was the talk of the set during the filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944). Hitchcock, the story has it, drolly wondered which department was best equipped to handle the problem — make-up or hair.

Anyway, back to Looped. Playwright Matthew Lombardo was inspired by one of those show-business anecdotes that would sound too good to be true were it about anyone but Bankhead. In 1964, Bankhead was called to a UK sound studio to loop several lines of dialogue from the Hammer thriller Fanatic/Die! Die! My Darling!, which wound up being her last film. The session, which should have taken no more than an hour, became an all-day endurance test; a 45-minute piece of audiotape survived and bears witness to the antics of an aging star who was unfocused, drunk, very possibly high and thoroughly impossible.

Lombardo used the legendary incident as a jumping off point for his three-person psychodrama: Relocated to Los Angeles, it traps Bankhead and her reluctant director — actually a hapless editor pressed into service because he's there and the real director has decamped in disgust. He tries to coax Bankhead into looping a single line — “As I was telling you, Patricia, that deluded rector has in literal effect closed the church to me" — while an unflappable sound technician observes from his second-story booth. Souls are bared, secret traumas revealed and the relationship between image and reality parsed. The play itself is formulaic, but Harper is terrific; if God had granted her Kathleen Turner’s voice her performance would be pitch perfect.

That said, the horror geek in me came away wishing that Fanatic hadn’t been reduced to dramatic shorthand for “crass, humiliating exploitation of aging movie goddesses cruelly discarded by Hollywood," the epitome of hag horror. Whatever the movie’s flaws, I can't help but admire the malicious wit inherent in casting a godless reprobate like Bankhead as a puritanical religious zealot, let alone one unhinged by the strenuously repressed knowledge that the beloved son she lost to a single-car “accident” was gay and killed himself rather than deal with her deluded expectations. After all, Bankhead — the uber-idol of acid-tongued drag queens — loved her gays long before Kathy Griffin. The screenplay was adapted by Richard Matheson from Elizabeth Linington’s Edgar Award-nominated novel Nightmare, and it was was directed by Silvio Narizzano, who made the swinging sixties classic Georgy Girl... my point being that Fanatic was at least as respectable as the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford shocker What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), which got five Oscar nominations.

Now remind me again why celebrities like Simon LeBon, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Bruce Willis/Demi Moore, named their daughters Tallulah? Yes, Bankhead was fabulous... fabulously tormented, self-destructive and ultimately miserable. You might as well curse your little girl with Tamar and be done with it.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

110,000 page views: A MissFlickChick High!

Followers and readers, this post is all about you. Last month, broke the 100,000 views-per-month mark, and that's all your doing. So thank you!

I don't presume to think you're all rabid fans of Dario Argento and/or my book Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds, but if you are, please accept this as a small token of my appreciation: A 30% discount if you order the new, expanded edition directly from my publisher, University of Minnesota Press. The discount code is MN70310, and you can also order by phone: (800) 621-2736.

Monday, March 15, 2010

RIP Peter Graves, Exploitation Star!

Peter Graves, the soberly handsome star of TV's iconic Mission: Impossible (1967-1973), died of a heart attack yesterday (March 14th). He was just a few days short of his 84th birthday. Born Peter Aurness in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Graves was the younger brother of Gunsmoke star James Arness, and followed his brother to Hollywood after studying drama on the G.I. Bill — he served in the Air Force from 1944 to 1945.

Since I'm far from the only person fondly eulogizing Graves, I'm going to skip over Mission: Impossible and Airplane! (1980), which hauled his flagging later career out of the doldrums. Instead, let me sing the praises of his work on the exploitation fringes, which — to his eternal credit — he approached with the same manful gravity he brought to his more mainstream parts.

Like Red Planet Mars (1952), a Cold War thriller in which he plays a scientist who uncovers a dastardly Soviet plot to foment worldwide chaos with fake transmissions from an advanced Martians race. Thank goodness the real Martians turn out to be a pious lot who have no truck with godless communists! A lesser actor might have phoned it in, but not Graves, who — after ten years in the business — was about to get his first break, a small but striking part in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953).

A pettier performer might have been too pissed off to bother trying when, a year later, he was busted back to Killers from Space (1954), a micro-budget UFO/commie scare picture directed by Billy’s less talented brother, W. Lee Wilder. But no: Graves squared up his jaw and played it straight. I suspect, though, that he’d have gotten a kick out of Don't Ask Don't Tell (2002), which added new footage and redubbed dialogue to Killers from Space, turning it into a comedy about aliens trying to take over the world by turning everyone gay, starting with — yes — the stalwart military scientist played by Graves. After all, he was game to twit his own rock-ribbed persona by playing Airplane! and Airplane II’s pervy Captain Oveur ("Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?" "Have you ever been in a Turkish prison?").

After nabbing another minor but good part in Charles Laughton's extraordinary The Night of the Hunter (1955), we find Peter Graves, science guy, helping to defeat a bad Martian that looked kind of like a mutant carrot (one of veteran effects artist Paul Blaisdell's most fondly remembered creations) in Roger Corman's It Conquered the World (1956); and carelessly creating giant, irradiated grasshoppers in Bert I. Gordon’s The Beginning of the End (1957), a blatant ripoff of 1954's Them!, which just happened to have starred his big brother. And let's not forget his turn as a na├»ve, big-city architect among the low-life Cajuns in the swamp melodrama Bayou (1957); with a new, more lurid title, it was re-released as the exploitation hit Poor White Trash.

After Mission: Impossible ended, Graves made numerous TV-movies, including Scream of the Wolf, a Richard Matheson-penned werewolf story with a nifty twist, and John Llewellyn Moxey's desolate "end of the world as we know it" sci-fi picture Where Have All the People Gone; both first aired in (1974).

And finally, Graves was unforgettable as a rich bastard in the still-underrated Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979). Yes, it suffered the constraints of a lower-than-low budget, but its cynical story was a killer — the fact that its writer won a lawsuit claiming that 2005's big budget The Island was pure plagiary tells you something.

So thank you, Peter Graves, for some wonderful movie memories!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

R.I.P.: Charles B. "The Legend of Boggy Creek" Pierce

… not to be confused with noted female impersonator Charles Pierce, who died in 1999.

Regional filmmaker Charles B. Pierce made a series of low-budget movies in the 1970s and '80s, of which the most famous was the first: The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), a faux-documentary about a Sasquatch-like creature that scared the bejabbers out of the good people of Fouke, Arkansas. It cost some $160,000 dollars and made a reported $25 million, and helped launch a wave of exploitation-oriented mock-docs.

Director Daniel Myrick has regularly cited Boggy Creek as one of the films that inspired The Blair Witch Project. Pierce went on to direct a total of 11 genre features between 1972 and 1987; he made Westerns with a Native-American slant — Winterhawk, 1975; The Winds of Autumn (1976); Greyeagle (1977); Sacred Ground (1983) and Hawkin's Breed (1987) — a Viking picture (The Norsemen, 1978) and a southern-fried action comedy (Bootleggers, 1974. But he's best remembered for Boggy Creek and its sequel, Boggy Creek II: The Legend Continues (1985), along with the deeply disturbing The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1977), inspired by an unsolved series of murders committed in post-WWII Texarcana.

Pierce was born in Hammond, Indiana, and raised in Hampton, Arkansas, where he grew up with future producer Harry Thomason (Designing Women). He sold advertising in Texarkana, spent 30 years working as a Hollywood set decorator for both film and TV; and died in Dover, Tennessee at the age of 71. In addition to directing his films, he wrote or co-wrote them, often with Earl E. Smith.

Pierce is also widely credited with coining the Clint Eastwood catchphrase, "Go ahead — Make my day," first heard in Sudden Impact (1983), the fourth Dirty Harry picture. While that sounds like so much Hollywood malarkey, it may well be true: Sudden Impact lists only one screenwriter, Joseph Stinson, but Pierce and longtime collaborator Earl Smith share story credit.

Pierce wasn't a genre-expanding talent on a par with George Romero, David Cronenberg or John Carpenter, but his movies, especially Boggy Creek and The Town That Dreaded Sundown, were an integral part of my exploitation-movie education. And let me tell you, when I saw David Fincher's Zodiac (2007), it brought back a flood of Town That Dreaded Sundown memories; they're very different movies made in very different times, but the hooded sociopaths who haunt both are the pure, unadulterated stuff of nightmares — just say "trombone bayonet" to any one who's seen it and watch them go pale.

So a moment of silence, please, for an unpretentious, largely unlauded filmmaker who nonetheless left his mark.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Time Travel Terror!

Time travel: Sounds like so much fun, always turns out to be a frakkin' nightmare. At least, that's the way it goes in movies, and until I meet someone who can share some real-life time travels experiences (and whom I don't think belongs in he loony bin), I'll have to go by what I see onscreen.

I've compiled some of my favorite cautionary time-travel film in Future Shock - The Horror of Time Travel. Check it out and let me know what you think...

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Things I learned from the Oscars...

American Family's Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson are funnier than Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin.

J.C. Penney is so not cool.

Deaf people are just like regular folks; they like fast food even though it's crap (thanks for clearing that up, Mickey D).

Faux-perfume ads that turn out to be about cervical cancer are scary

I don't want manta rays coming out of my TV... sorry, that's what I learned from Oscar commercials.

Jamal Sims is the worst choreographer ever: I won't go so far as to take back all the disparaging things I've said about Debbie Allen's awful Academy Awards numbers, but I will venture to say that insipidness is actually better than sheer, willful ridiculousness. What does some guy in white pants doing a retro robot dance have to do with Michael Giacchino's saccharine score for Up? What's the connection between a ripoff of Jerome Robbins' gym dance from West Side Story and Hans Zimmer's score for Sherlock Holmes? Seriously, I've seen better choreography for competitive cheerleading teams.

Someone at Dior Couture hates Charlize Theron — How else did she wind up at the Kodak Theater wearing a dress with icing-swirl bull's-eyes over her boobs?

Miley Cyrus and Amanda Seyfried should not be allowed to select their own formal wear: They presented the best song award dressed like music-box ballerinas, which is only okay if you're, like, five.

The cult of John Hughes has overstayed its welcome: I like Sixteen Candles as much as the next person who had a blast during the '80s and doesn't care who knows it (hell, I might even go see Hot Tub Time Machine) but The Breakfast Club is not The 400 Blows. Though I must concede that the footage of Hughes' young stars — Ally Sheedy, Anthony Michael Hall, James Spader, Emilio Estevez, Lea Thompson, Matthew Broderick, Jon Cryer, Judd Nelson and all the rest — looking as dewy and sweetly unformed as newly hatched chicks was heartbreaking. "Don't You (Forget About Me)" is still a great song. "When you grow up, your heart dies" is still a cringe-inducing line.

The pompous gasbaggery about James Cameron's visionary vision must stop: Avatar is a shiny, candy-colored cartoon, not a divine vision of the future of cinema.

Ben Stiller isn't as funny as he thinks he is: His Avatar-mocking introduction to the best make-up award was painful. And what's with pitting movies like The Young Victoria and Il Divo against Star Trek? Apples and oranges, anyone?

Sometimes there is such a thing as a sure thing: Like Mo'Nique for best supporting actress (Precious); Christoph Waltz for best supporting actor (Inglourious Basterds); Jeff Bridges for best actor (Crazy Heart); Sandra Bullock fr best actress (The Blind Side).

Costume designer Sandy Powell is a class act: She dedicated her Oscar for The Young Victoria to all the designers who dress "contemporary films and low-budget ones" and are consistently overshadowed and underappreciated.

No one outside the business has any idea what sound mixers and editors do, even after that stultifying educational video narrated by Morgan Freeman. And you know what? Nobody outside the business cares, either, which is fine. They don't vote for Oscars.

You can't top an acceptance speech that begins "Thirteen years ago, my doctors told me I [wouldn't] survive" (Kim Sinclair, winner for Set Decoration), so don't try.

Dario Argento Loves Red Velvet!

For some inexplicable reason (is there any other kind on the web?), the post I did a month ago about Dario Argento's praise for Red Velvet (2009), a smart, gory, stylish slasher movie produced by my friend Sean Fernald, has vanished.

So I'm reposting it, because hey — you can't just pick up an Argento endorsement at the corner drugstore. To this day I remember how thrilled I was when Argento praised the very first version of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds, the one I submitted as my Columbia University masters' thesis.

That encounter wss rivaled only by veteran English filmmaker Michael Powell's response to my first published film article, a very formal, academic analysis of his recently rereleased Peeping Tom. I was still an undergraduate, paying for my education by working in the New York City Ballet's press office, and a dance-world friend was involved with one of the earliest attempts to bring The Red Shoes to the New York stage (the end result was the disastrous 1993 production that opened and closed in four days); he slipped Powell a copy and then introduced us at a backers' audition.

I held my breath as Powell, then in his 80s, looked at me for a moment and then said, "You know, I never intended any of those things you wrote about when I made Peeping Tom." My heart sank. "But you saw them," he continued, "so they must be there."

If that's not graciousness incarnate, I don't know what is.