Sunday, July 16, 2017

RIP George A. Romero (1940-2017)

Romero on the set of DAY OF THE DEAD, 1985.
Today, the life of writer-director George A. (for Andrew) Romero was claimed by his own most abiding subject - death - at the age of 77. The cause was lung cancer, reminding me that, even on the set of TWO EVIL EYES, almost 30 years ago, he could be seen playing with a yo-yo in an effort to wean himself away from cigarettes, that tempting companion of so many artists who sit alone in rooms, turning their insides out for our entertainment - and if they just work a little harder, perhaps our illumination.

Filming Judith O'Dea in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
Romero changed everything in the horror genre. He first arrived on the scene in 1968, arguably the most revolutionary year in living memory, with what could be considered the first horror film worthy of the adjective "confrontational." Like all the best horror films, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD started small and spread across the country, and then around the world, like an urban legend; and unlike most films of its kind at that time, it appeared to have been deliberately constructed to mean what it was saying (which was about zombies, then a very underused form of monster) and what it was not saying (about our country, about race, about Vietnam, about the gulf between the media and the man on the street). But it was more than the beginning of a politicized horror cinema; its success became the starting pistol for the independent film movement in general. It was not an overnight thing, and it certainly didn't benefit Romero himself in any ready or significant way. I remember that NIGHT was still gaining speed within the horror community even as he was making other kinds of horror film like THE CRAZIES and MARTIN. Thanks to some enthusiastic reviews and its happy coincidence with the rise of the Midnight Movie phenomenon, MARTIN (1978; one of the few films to treat vampirism as a psychosexual kink, as in Simon Raven's novel DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET and Theodore Sturgeon's SOME OF YOUR BLOOD) received the widest release Romero had enjoyed since NIGHT, and it was around the time that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD started showing up on television that DAWN OF THE DEAD was announced. DAWN (1978) changed everything too - paving the way for blockbuster horror sequels and the unrated horror years. Without DAWN OF THE DEAD and Tom Savini's colorful splatter effects, Italian horror got a new lease on life extending it by more than a further decade. Unfortunately, Mario Bava died before he could benefit but - thanks to Romero and DAWN - Lucio Fulci continued working for the rest of his life.

John Amplas in MARTIN.
For a golden few years, there in the first half of the decade when home video boosted his celebrity, Romero seemed to be having his cake and eating it too. KNIGHTRIDERS (1981) in particular, made well in advance of "Ren-fests" becoming a thing, showed that Romero could deliver a disarming, moving, multi-tiered story outside the horror genre; it's a film that speaks beautifully to its disenfranchised, post-Woodstock generation while also celebrating the creative, mobile lifestyle that Romero worked to pursue. It's a film that he looked back on, with MARTIN, as his best. He might have made more films in its vein, but the success of DAWN - unprecedented for an unrated film, and thus embodying a defiance of one of the most fundamental rules of commercial filmmaking - required that he specialize in horror, and preferably zombies. He contained multitudes, but he wanted to work, so - after joining forces with Stephen King for the hoot that is CREEPSHOW (1982) - he set about giving the fans what they wanted with DAY OF THE DEAD. He wrote it under the influence of Stephen King's THE STAND, as a vast apocalyptic saga that he intended to be his untoppable, final word on the subject. The anticipation for the project in the fan press was well into the red, but - for reasons that defy common sense - he couldn't find the funding to realize his vision, partly because his vision included working in the filmmaking community he was developing in Pittsburgh and having total creative control. After a lengthy stand-off, he finally bowed to trimming some of its muscle and pulling some of its teeth to get DAY made in 1985. It's a fine film, but at the time of its release, it disappointed expectations - not least of all because, by this point in time, you could not cast a glance anywhere in horror without seeing work that Romero had inspired, that was somehow more Romero than actual work coming from the mercurial Romero himself.

Romero with Stephen King - top o' the world, Ma!
In horror movie terms, that's two careers right there, and Romero would resurface in time with a third. In between, he spent years trying to write THE MUMMY for Universal (it never happened, but he would die with ads for THE MUMMY with Tom Cruise mocking his efforts), only to give up and make other significant films - MONKEY SHINES (1988, another Romero "best") and THE DARK HALF (1993, an underrated King adaptation) that were derided by critics and fans alike for not adding to his lore about the living dead. Seven years between THE DARK HALF and BRUISER (2000); five years between BRUISER and the commencement of Romero's second Dead trilogy, LAND OF THE DEAD (2005, featuring Dennis Hopper, no less); eight years between his last film, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (2009), and his dying day. Eight years when AMC's THE WALKING DEAD was the biggest thing on television and drawing huge queues of fans to autograph shows.

To hell with the yo-yo.
On a personal note, I knew George only very slightly. We never met. I interviewed him for HEAVY METAL magazine in 1980 as part of an essay I was writing about a core group of filmmakers - including Cronenberg, Carpenter and Dante - whom I was putting forth as the fathers of a "New Mythology." I came to George armed with questions about why he included the shot of Vladimir Nabokov in DAWN OF THE DEAD, and he disarmed me by saying, "I'm just a fan. It seemed like a good idea to just have it in there." It was my first encounter with a director whose textures were not entirely conscious. He actually apologized to me, explaining "I'm not so much of a film fan as someone who just digs movies." And I thought our talk would really start getting somewhere when I asked him if he had named his vampire hero Martin because, in the bird world, a martin is a swallow. He just laughed. (In my defense, that approach somehow worked with Cronenberg.) In a post-script to the above, when I was learning how to write screenplays and had no idea what in hell to do with them once they were done, I took heed of something I'd heard Francis Coppola saying on television and made use of any acquaintance I had to get my work read. I tracked George Romero down to a phone number in Florida. I could tell from the tension in his voice that it was the last thing he needed - he worked from his own scripts, after all - but he invited me to send it along. I did so, but I never followed up. I understood that his welcoming something from me was already more than I had any right to expect. He was a good man. 



When someone of Romero's stature leaves us, there is a strong desire on the part of the eulogist to be reverent and appreciative and encompassing, but Romero's down-to-earth eloquence as a creator in this field - the field of our nightmares - is virtually irreplaceable. Not because comparable voices aren't out there, but because those voices are not being courted by Hollywood or even regional filmmakers, who tend to produce anything exploitative that their friends can churn out for the DTV market. So for anyone who actually gives a damn and isn't just collecting a buck, George Romero's death feels a lot like our own, and a little righteous anger - a little railing against the dimming of the fucking day - seems in order. We don't have him now, and we didn't have him for a lot of the time he was here among us - with unfilmed scripts in his outstretched hands. Face it, friends: we didn't deserve him. We deserve what we've got, and if you don't know what I mean by that, well, look around. You can't say he didn't warn us.

But then again, what is immortality? Everywhere we look in horror today, there's Romero. His name may not be on it, but it is what it is - and it's what he was.

"Stay scared."
         
(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Review: THE HAPPY ENDING (1969)

John Forsythe and Jean Simmons in Richard Brooks' THE HAPPY ENDING.

I'd never heard of the film before, but I was sufficiently intrigued by the pedigree of THE HAPPY ENDING (1969) to watch: Jean Simmons, written and directed by Richard Brooks (her second husband, made directly after his astonishing IN COLD BLOOD), photographed by Conrad Hall (following his work on IN COLD BLOOD and COOL HAND LUKE), music by Michel Legrand (which at times apes Quincy Jones' jazz cues for ICB though it also yielded the MOR hit "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?"), Shirley Jones (amazing and sexy - she had won an Oscar for her work in Brooks' ELMER GANTRY), John Forsythe (again ICB), Teresa Wright, Robert (Bobby) Darin, Dick Shawn, Lloyd Bridges, Tina Louise. 

It's packaged as the story of a violent divorce (anniversary cake in the trash), but it's more the story of a happily married woman's crises of identity and middle age - how she needs to break out of her routine to look forward to new beginnings rather than continue drinking away the years separating her from old age and death. While there is some cheesiness about its greeting card depictions of middle-class contentment and the need to escape it, the film's audacious, time-shifting construction shows that PERFORMANCE was hardly an isolated case even in 1969; even by today's standards, this stands out as an admirable piece of writing and construction, well worth seeing by those who don't mind movies that end not with answers but (rather like Ken Russell's WOMEN IN LOVE, made the same year) with a pointed question. It also opens with some of the most ravishing color photography of New York City that you'll ever see, and is generally a demonstration reel for Conrad Hall's evolving genius.

There is a handsome Blu-ray disc available from Twilight Time, with excellent liner notes by Julie Kirgo that offer helpful background information and perspective on this unfairly overlooked production.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

RIP Elsa Martinelli, Queen of Continental Op


If you don't know what I mean by "Continental Op," it's time to learn - which you can do by reading my article on this genre of films in VIDEO WATCHDOG 168, which is still available in print from our back issue department, as well as digitally.  

To see and hear Elsa performing her song "Bandit," click here.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Fresh As Ever: MARRIED TO THE MOB


Not sure how or why I missed it all these years, but finally caught up with Jonathan Demme's MARRIED TO THE MOB (1988) last night and loved it. I tend to think of the 1980s as a period of uncomfortable transitions, for both the cinema and fashion in general, but everything about this film remains light, tight and refreshing. It has a comic/romantic verve to it that reminded me a lot of Preston Sturges, but it was less to do with the writing than the cast - all bright, all attractive, all inspired,and touched by an ethnic diversity that feels happy and genuine rather than forced as it so often does today. It also does something with its end titles I've never seen done elsewhere; it tells the film's story a second time, chronologically, using only outtakes - glimpses of a dozen or more scenes we didn't see, yet we instinctively know where they would have fit; it seems to fill in the lives of all the characters, lending further color and dimension to everyone and thus making the whole confection seem doubly real.

Seeing the film now is also a sobering reminder of how much can change in 30 short years. All the principals (including Alec Baldwin and Oliver Platt) look like kids; Michelle Pfeiffer and a remarkably athletic Matthew Modine (neither of them seen much anymore) were never better; Dean Stockwell (now 80-something) is 50-something and still looking flashy and virile; Mercedes Ruehl (who won the New York Film Critics Award for her performance as the insanely jealous wife, but would now rate a "Who?" from one or two generations further on) burns up the screen; and Demme (now dead) comes across as the most alive young director on the block.

A movie that is not only good to see, but which seems genuinely happy to see you in return. Warmly recommended - on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

RIP: Carolyn Zeifman Cronenberg (1950-2017)


David Cronenberg's wife Carolyn Zeifman has died at the age of 66, due to an undisclosed illness. She was a production assistant on RABID and contributed to the editing of both RABID and FAST COMPANY before giving birth to their son Brandon, who has since become a filmmaker. In 2006, she returned to filmmaking with two documentaries pertaining to the production and promotion of her husband's film A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE: ACTS OF VIOLENCE and TOO COMMERCIAL FOR CANNES.

This sad news brings back a rush of personal memories. Back in the day, when I was covering the production of David Cronenberg's 1980s films, he invited me into his home on a few occasions - for interviews, for lunch, for dinner. Carolyn was always a warm, attentive and gracious hostess; attractive, easy-going, very much a homemaker. She told me she had "always known David," even before his first marriage (if I remember correctly, he and her brother had been friends at school). I remember once showing up to do an interview there, and without me saying a word, she intuited that I wasn't feeling well, got something for my stomach, invited me to stretch out on the couch and told David to wait till I felt better. She also liked to poke fun at how he and I found conversation difficult outside an interview context. David once told me that Carolyn was "a natural editor," that he could show her a scene and she would know instinctively when to cut and where to cut to. Of course, the grounding that she, their family and home provided made his finest work possible. What I knew of her was only good, but having known him somewhat better, I suspect she was a more extraordinary woman than most people knew.

My deepest sympathies to David, their family, and loved ones.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Surprise! One Last VIDEO WATCHDOG

Are you ready for another anniversary?

It was twenty-seven (27) years ago today that Donna and I shipped out the first issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG to subscribers all over the globe. It's not every magazine that gets launched with a subscriber base already in place, but between my "Video Watchdog" column for GOREZONE and ads placed in FANGORIA, we were fortunate to be one of that elite number. 350 subscribers before our first issue was printed, Donna tells me.

As symmetry would have it, today we find ourselves mirroring that occasion by making public our Farewell Issue - VIDEO WATCHDOG #184! You may have seen it discussed by some lucky early recipients on message boards and social media, but now it's available to everyone - both in its printed form, and as a free digital edition. This final issue does not play by the usual rules; it was produced in strictly limited quantity, and it is not being sold on newsstands. You can only secure your copy from us directly at www.videowatchdog.com.

This issue was made possible when the rights to VIDEO WATCHDOG (concept and business) was returned to us last May, along with the balance of my intellectual property, by the trustee of our bankruptcy case. But it would not have happened without the particular kindness of our subscriber Richard Kaufman, the editor of GENII, the Conjuror's Magazine. Richard told us that, as a fellow print man, he was aware of how much of our soul and guts we had invested in each and every issue of VW, and that it rubbed him the wrong way to see it denied its proper closure - especially when he learned that we had been obliged to shut down with our next issue roughly 90% ready to go to press. He asked if we had any objection to him seeking the production costs we needed, on our behalf. We told him that our hands were tied, but when we were granted the legal freedom to move ahead, we gave him the green light. Within a single week, he found a couple of illustrious patrons (noted on our inside front cover) who helped prestidigitate it into being.

We're very proud of this issue. First and foremost, it contains the second half of John-Paul Checkett's engrossing and rewarding overview of Carmilla on the screen, this portion encompassing such titles as LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, THE BLOOD-SPATTERED BRIDE, ALUCARDA, THE MOTH DIARIES and THE UNWANTED. We also have Ramsey Campbell's thoughts on David Robert Mitchell's IT FOLLOWS, Larry Blamire's appreciation of the classic TWILIGHT ZONE episode "And When the Sky Was Opened," Douglas E. Winter's Audio Watchdog column (covering THE REVENANT, EX MACHINA and more), as well as (by my count) 40 reviews in all - written by such illustrious contributors as Kim Newman, Budd Wilkins, John Charles, Bill Cooke, Shane M. Dallmann, Michael Barrett, Chris Herzog, Eric Somer, Lloyd Haynes and yours truly. I'm glad that I was able to get one last Jess Franco review in there.  In our final Letterbox department, we present five (5) pages of comments and reminiscences from readers about what VIDEO WATCHDOG has meant to them over the years.

The front cover depicts Lily Cole in Mary Harron's film of THE MOTH DIARIES (Mr. Checkett's account of Rachel Klein's 2002 novel and its 2012 film adaptation are an issue highlight), and in hindsight, I see it as something of a symbolic gesture on our part. For the first time ever, our cover image is no longer framed by a video screen proscenium; we've finally come out the other end of the baptism of blood this past year has been, and broken through our formatting to freedom - the freedom to get this last issue to you. And, as someone pointed out to us, our back cover image of Maika Monroe looking over her shoulder in IT FOLLOWS seems to embody a backward glance at the 27 years of achievement trailing behind us. Cool.


In closing, Donna has asked me to inform everyone that this Farewell Issue includes a very special sale offer on page 17. All the more reason to reserve your hard copy while they still last.


(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.