Tuesday, April 30, 2013

andrew j. offutt (1934-2013)

Today's news of the death of fantasy author andrew j. offutt comes to me as half of a very strange coincidence.

Last week on eBay, I scored a small stack of Tom Reamy's deluxe 1960s-'70s fanzine TRUMPET, which I'd always wanted to know more about; they arrived yesterday and I was surprised to discover that my old friend andy had written a column for them. When I say TRUMPET was deluxe, I mean photo-offset and art and writing by the best in the business at that time. Even their letters column was illustrious. And I have to say, I hadn't really thought of andy in years. I read andy's columns and enjoyed them; one of them was illustrated with three pictures of the young fellow he must have been at that time, and they brought back memories of his direct and wily gaze and that impressive Kentucky colonel voice he had etched into ordinary sinew with decades of intensive and unusual reading. ("I've read all of Havelock Ellis," he boasts in one of these columns.) It had the ring of Civil War-era courtliness and Jack Daniels, though I'm told by mutual friend Joel Zakem that his prefered brand was Maker's Mark.

I knew of him because he contributed to other fanzines produced by friends of mine; I sent him my first fanzine, THE HYDRAULIC PEANUT BUTTER SANDWICH #1, which looked like absolute crap, yet despite my flat-out lack of credentials, he agreed to write something for my second (which I called APPLES WOOFER #2) -- a very amusing, character-driven overview of the then-current (1972) horror movie scene. This makes him not only the first professional writer I ever met or knew, but the first one I ever presented in print. Either one of those distinctions would make this blog entry kind of a heavy one to write, and I can assure you, especially given yesterday's coincidence of discovering those early columns and those pictures of him in his youth, this is a heavy piece to write.

We met at the 1972 Midwestcon -- he, his wife Jodie and the kids known as the "offuttspring." I was 15 or 16 and, when I expressed an interest in his work, he took me to his hotel room and showed me a book full of the paperback porn he wrote under other names. I wish I could have bought them all, but I could only afford HOLLY WOULD by John Cleve, which he said was the best of them. The only other title I remember from the box was BLACK BUCK, WHITE BITCH -- a title he hated, imposed on another of his aliases by his publisher (my first-ever awareness that writers weren't always on ideal footing with their publishers, or vice versa). His first hardcover was about to be published at that time, and I remember Jodie excitedly sharing with me her handsome husband's first-ever dust jacket and author's photo. andy's forte was sword-and-sorcery, which was never mine, so I never did read much of his work, but I remember him as a strong and razor-sharp personality, a devil and a hedonist and an eccentric in the best of all those terms, and someone who had the stuff of genius in him. He was a verbal gymnast and he communicated to me the joy of writing for a living.

Did he make full use of his genius? I leave that for his steadfast readers to decide. But I can tell you this: When I started watching TRUE BLOOD in its first season, his son Chris was the show's story editor, and I could see a LOT of the andy I remembered in Stephen Moyer's original performance as Bill Compton. I wrote about that here, at the time. Chris didn't stay with the show and Moyer's performance changed -- and not for the better, if you ask me.

During the year or two when I regarded andy as a mentor, he used to sign his letters to me "peace/out, ajo." Peace/out to you, andrew. Thank you for your kindness to the younger me, and for showing me this path.

Update 5/3/13: I'm appending this obit from Andy's hometown newspaper.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

LISA AND THE UNNATURALS: A Buzzati Connection?

In my review of SCHREIE IN DER NACHT -- the German DVD release of Antonio Margheriti's CONTRONATURA/THE UNNATURALS, 1969) -- in the current VIDEO WATCHDOG, I mention that it bears a surprising narrative similarity to Mario Bava's heretofore unique LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973).

I just learned from the organizers of the "Contronatura" section of the Operazione Paura Festival that Margheriti's film was loosely based on a story by Dino Buzzati entitled "And Yet They Keep Knocking At Your Door." (This is not mentioned in the film's credits.) Further research revealed that this story was translated into English for a hardcover collection entitled CATASTROPHE: THE STRANGE SHORT FICTION OF DINO BUZZATI, published here in 1965. When I first started looking into this, I thought, on the basis of the film's resemblance to Margheriti's earlier CASTLE OF BLOOD (DANSE MACABRE, 1964), that it might have some basis in the writings of Algernon Blackwood. In looking over some customer comments about Buzzati at Amazon.com, I noticed that one of them described him as a kind of  "Italian Algernon Blackwood."

I was also struck last night, while revisiting Jess Franco's A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD (1971), by the similarities of this dream-like film to Margheriti's and Bava's, in that it's about a living woman who spends time in a house full of people, one of them blind, who are eventually revealed to be dead, the ghostly figments of a damned existence. In LISA AND THE DEVIL, Elke Sommer plays Lisa Reiner; in A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD, Christina von Blanc plays Christine Reiner. Coincidence?
Unfortunately Buzzati's CATASTROPHE is now a very rare book; I could only find a used copy going for more than $300 -- a bit too steeply priced to read just one story. However, Bava supposedly read everything in the genre he could get his hands on and I suspect there is a connection here to be explored.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hammer DRACULA Restoration... Incomplete!

Hammer fans have been torn on their response to Lionsgate/Icon's new Region 2 Blu-ray/DVD set of Terence Fisher's DRACULA (1958). Everyone is overjoyed to finally see the long-censored decomposition scene as it was intended to be seen, while others have complained that the film now looks too blue or too dark. As it happens, I can't agree with either side of that criticism. The film looks just fine on my 60" Kuro Pro monitor, but after carefully examining the three surviving Japanese reels included as a bonus supplement in the set, I can't agree that we're seeing the decomposition scene as it was intended by director Terence Fisher to be seen either.
Let us begin with a series of frame grabs from the 2012 restoration, beginning with the skeleton of Dracula's hand emerging from the ashes of its disintegrated flesh. This material runs from 79:43-44.

The film then cuts to a baleful close shot of Dracula's face, Christopher Lee investing the moment with pathos and defeat.


The film then cuts back to Dracula's arm as the last of the ashen flesh crumbles and the sleeve of Dracula's coat shrinks back to expose the crumbling bones of his forearm.

 Now the same moment as it appears in the Japanese print, Reel 9. The first shot appears to hold slightly longer as the skeleton of the hand disengages from the papery flesh. The restoration holds true to the original release version by retaining only the last frames of the shot. It's much more apparent here that the bones are coming free of what was once flesh.
 And now comes the important stuff -- 33:22-23 in the Japanese reel supplement. Here we find a completely unique reaction shot of Christopher Lee as Count Dracula, no longer passively withering into defeat but nearly in tears against his ruthless opponent as the rays of sunlight converge to slay him. I've stepped through the footage and snapped a progress frame with every five beats.
 It's a wonderful discovery and a tragic omission. In these 30 or so frames, we see the fight bleed out of Dracula; it's his moment of recognition that he's losing everything. The scene then continues with the shrinking of the coat sleeve from Dracula's arm.
I don't think this could be a matter of the restoration team choosing to keep the footage we've always known for two reasons: 1) in every other instance, they went with the alternate footage found in the Japanese print, and 2) they have made no mention anywhere of this alternative reaction shot of Dracula. I sincerely believe they overlooked it, so intent were they on the scene's special effects gore that they failed to see a blatant variation of performance.

More about this and my evaluation of the remainder of the restoration in the next issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG -- #174. 

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Recipients of the 2012 Rondo Awards






-- COMMENTARY: David Kalat on Criterion GOJIRA/GODZILLA

-- DVD EXTRA: Universal Monsters ORIGINAL HOUSE OF HORRORS booklet







-- BEST ARTICLE: Christopher Lee: A Career retrospective, by Aaron Christensen, HORROR HOUND #34

-- BEST INTERVIEW: Michael Culhane talks with original DARK SHADOWS cast, including Jonathan Frid's last interview, FAMOUS MONSTERS #261

-- BEST COLUMN: It Came from Bowen's Basement (John Bowen), RUE MORGUE

-- BEST THEME ISSUE: Tie, MONSTERS FROM THE VAULT #30 (Vincent Price); VIDEO WATCHDOG #169 (Dark Shadows)

-- COVER: Jeff Preston's Phibes cover for LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS #29




-- FAN EVENT: Rick Baker gets star on hollywood Walk of Fame

-- HORROR HOST: Svengoolie





-- WRITER OF YEAR: Tim Lucas

-- REVIEWER OF YEAR: David-Elijah Nahmod




-- INTERNATIONAL MONSTER FAN: Rhonda Steerer (operates Boris Karloff 'More Than a Monster' site from Germany)

-- MONSTER KID OF THE YEAR: SIMON ROWSON (for work in Japan unearthing lost footage in HORROR OF DRACULA)


   -- J.D. LEES -- Editor/publisher who helped popularize kaiju scholarship with G-FAN, now a giant-sized 100 issues old.

   -- COUNT GORE DE VOL: Still going strong in multimedia, 40 years later.

   -- TED NEWSOM: Opinionated but with good reason -- he was there researching and interviewing long before most others.

   -- STEVE BISSETTE -- Writer's love of the genre has spread across all genres, from comic books to deep research.

   -- JESSIE LILLEY: From Scarlet Street to Famous Monsters and Mondo Cult, she has expanded the outlook of fandom.

   -- And the late GARY DORST: One of fandom's founding forces, gone far too soon.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Aloha, Annette (1942-2013)

Today we've lost Annette Funicello at age 70, after a long and largely private struggle with multiple sclerosis. Wikipedia reports she was unable to walk since 2004 and unable to speak since 2009, enforcing her early retreat from public view. This news is hard to believe for those of us who remember Annette as a 12-year old Mouseketeer (I can, thanks to 1960s reruns of THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB) and her later appearances in a half-dozen BEACH PARTY movies for AIP which, to me as a pre-teen, played like freewheeling, madcap previews of what teenage life might be like.
Walt Disney had seemingly plucked her out of nowhere after spotting her in a juvenile performance of "Swan Lake" at Burbank's Starlight Bowl, in which she played the Swan Queen; she was the last Mouseketeer to be cast and the most popular, even before her puberty hit in a manner television had never documented before. Though noticeably more voluptuous, she wasn't a conspicuously different Annette in the Beach Party films than in the MICKEY MOUSE CLUB serials "Annette" (which launched her hit song "How Will I Know My Love?"), "The Further Adventures of Spin and Marty", or the Disney series ZORRO; there was still something of "Swan Lake's" Swan Queen about her, a warmth and sweetness but also a tacit distance; a hermetic sense of young, grassroots American royalty. With her earnest voice double-tracked, she recorded a number of hit songs ("Tall Paul", "Pineapple Princess"), some of them written by her first serious boyfriend, Paul Anka, who famously spun one of them ("It's Really Love") into the theme music for THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON.
One of the great images of Annette Funicello that I carry with me is one I never saw, but was once described on an episode of THE MATCH GAME by actor Bart Braverman. He remembered seeing her once drive into a studio parking lot in a peach-colored sportscar convertible and stepping out in peach-colored clothes and boots. He said it was the one thing he'd seen in his life that spoke of genuine stardom to him and that he would never forget. I also remember hearing somewhere that Annette and Shelley Fabares were best friends who met once a week to have lunch together, and thinking how many men must see them talking at a nearby table and fight the urge to pick up their check out of simple gratitude.
My own favorite memory of Annette is the opening credits for a certain movie from 1965. I saw this on the big screen as a kid and it may still be the only time a credit sequence has outdone the rest of the picture, even though I like the rest of the picture. Written by the Sherman brothers, it's still the happiest song in the world for me, and I thank her for it -- and for a lifetime of companionship, though she never knew me and I'm sure I knew the real Annette less well than I'd like to believe. To borrow the title of another Beach Boys song, Annette embodied the romance of The Nearest Faraway Place, always close but too far to reach. 

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Thoughts About Jess

I want to express my thanks to everyone who has called or written me personally to express their shared sorrow. Naturally I share your regret that Jess is no longer among us, making new movies, but there is still quite a wealth of material out there for us to see, to see again, or to see differently. Will any of us ever truly get to the bottom of all he left us?

Of course I regret that we never met in person, but I think there is no doubt that we experienced a perfect meeting on some special metaphysical level. The one time we spoke on the phone, we both laughed for nearly a full minute before we could begin a proper conversation, so amused were we both to be finally talking together. It was very much like catching up with a friend from some other lifetime. Would shaking his hand have made any difference? We seemed to cross-pollenate one another, odd as that seems; we had a genuine and complete correspondence. I am pleased that I had some hand in reversing what was once the common wisdom about him and his work, and that he acknowledged my efforts on his behalf in a warm and appreciative manner. A shared love of his work also became a password into many important friendships in my life... and there is much more work for us still to do.

Yes, I shed some tears this morning, but listening to Clifford Brown's "I'll Remember April" -- a song I posted on Facebook in tribute to Jess -- reminded me that grief is selfishness. To really be in the presence of Jess Franco, all you need do is listen to great jazz, the most alive music there is. Wherever Jess is, the mystery is taking him into his confidence as a final reward. His best movies addressed the balance of those two great mysteries, sex and death, and he now knows more about the poem he spent his life writing than he ever did while alive.

So I am moved by his death, but not sad; I am actually happy for Jess. No one achieved more; he is the unchallenged King of the Mountain. He went out with a new movie awaiting release. His work just hit Blu-ray this past year and he's got numerous films now being restored and awaiting release on this state-of-the-art medium. He can put his infirmities behind and rejoin the love of his life and the loves of his life. Now that his filmography is complete, its full arc and all its oceanic confluences can be measured and charted; maybe it's the kick in the ass I need to come to complete grips with this book I've been compiling on the back burner and get it done. In the meantime, there are more Blu-rays coming up and I'm hopeful of recording audio commentaries for at least a couple of them.

Jess Franco is finished with life, but life is far from finished with him.

(Photo above, courtesy of Alain Petit's collection.)

Jesús "Jess" Franco (May 12, 1930 - April 2, 2013)

Jesús Franco Manera passed away sometime after 11:00am this morning, from complications of a stroke, at a clinic in Malaga, Spain. He was 82 years old.

Word came at roughly 5:30am (US Eastern time) this morning, on Facebook's El Franconomicon fan page, when Frank Munoz -- stationed at the hospital where "Tio Jess" had been under observation since suffering a serious stroke last Wednesday -- posted this brief message:

"Estoy en el hospital. Acaba de fallecer. Se lo han llevado ahora mismo. Lo siento."

Translation: "I'm at the hospital. He has just passed away. They are taking him right now. I am sorry."

And so ends -- or begins -- the most epic story in the history of fantastic cinema. The IMDb credits Franco with directing 199 features and the list is surely incomplete, lacking some titles altogether, not to mention variant editions and unreleased titles. Very often, he was also their writer and very often their cameraman, editor, dubber and a member of the cast. No one demonstrably loved making movies more than he.

Of course, Jess has always been the Patron Saint of VIDEO WATCHDOG, the subject of our very first feature article; the way his films invited me in, the way each of his films seemed to open up worlds within worlds, made our obsessive style of coverage possible. I watched two of his films tonight, wanting to be "with" him. I had a feeling this might happen.

Jess was only one month shy of his 83rd birthday, and his final feature -- AL PEREIRA VS. THE ALLIGATOR LADIES, in which his longtime friend and associate Antonio Mayans reprised a role he had played several times -- recently had its first public screening. Of course, Jess's wife and muse Lina Romay (Rosa Maria Almirall Martinez), who became the very essence of his cinema from the time they met in 1973, passed away just over one year ago, on February 15, 2012. 

Go with our blessings, Maestro. And take with you our grateful thanks for all the complex riches you have left behind, which will keep us occupied for so many years to come.

Needless to say, more to follow once I've had a chance to absorb this news.

Monday, April 01, 2013


On this April Fool's Day, instead of pulling cheap jokes to fool our friends, why not remember the role played by the Fool in the Tarot deck? 

There -- as in this example from the famous Rider-Waite deck -- the Fool is depicted as a vagabond, a fanciful adventurer, less brave than innocently unaware; he seems to know nothing of the world, yet he's out there meeting it head-first, taking risks, ready to step off a precipice as if onto an invisible stairway to Heaven, as the little dog of rational thought yaps and nips at his ankles.

I'd like to reclaim this day for the heroic principle of the Fool, so that it's less an opportunity to mock others than to throw off our shackles of routine and do something foolish ourselves; something that might take us a bit outside our usual comfort zone toward something, anything, that we might look back on in days and years to come as something so unlike us and so worth our time.