Saturday, March 31, 2007

Finalmente!

Important news today on the Bava book blog.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Pan's Antecedent?


In the course of his marvelous audio commentary on Optimum Home Entertainment's two-disc import of PAN'S LABYRINTH, writer-director-producer Guillermo del Toro mentions during the harrowing Pale Man scene that its concept -- of an ogre who inserts a pair of disembodied eyes into the socket-like stigmata in the palms of his hands -- had its roots in a poster he once saw.
He doesn't name the poster, but when he said this, something immediately clicked with me. William Castle's film THE NIGHT WALKER opens with a creepy, Paul Frees-narrated prologue on the subject of nightmares. A key image from this sequence, used in some of its print advertising, depicted a fist balled around a staring eyeball. Eureka!
In fact, double eureka: The original poster art for THE NIGHT WALKER, I remembered, was a recreation of sorts of Henry Fuseli's famous 19th century painting "The Nightmare," which showed a puckish imp squatting atop a dreaming figure as a spectral mare glowered from the shadows of the sleep chamber. The poster for THE NIGHT WALKER, however, replaced the imp with... a faun.
In looking around the Internet, I found this fabulous Italian poster art for THE NIGHT WALKER, for which the artist combined both images on a single poster. I didn't bother to Photoshop-out the www.moviegoods.com watermark, so Movie Goods can consider this a free commercial -- and an endorsement too, because I was so enamored of this design, especially given its new currency, I ended up buying the poster. (Don't worry: it's still available, so you can buy one too, if it galvanizes you as it galvanized me.)
THE NIGHT WALKER was released in 1964, the year Guillermo del Toro was born. It's not a great movie, or even one of William Castle's better features, but it now becomes more important by virtue of carrying in its ad campaign the seed of a truly great film made in the following century. The faun and the seeing hand have nothing to do with THE NIGHT WALKER, and it took del Toro to make the masterpiece of fantasy that this memorable poster disingenuously promised.

FANGORIA Radio, Here I Come

I'm going to be one of the featured guests on tomorrow night's installment of FANGORIA Radio, hosted by Dee Snider and Debbie Rochon. Nobody's told me who the other guests are, and their website doesn't have any information about this week's show either, but I at least know that I've been scheduled.

For those of you who haven't heard FANGORIA Radio, it airs every Friday night from 10:00pm to 1:00am on Sirius Satellite Radio Channel 102. If you're not already a Sirius subscriber, I believe you can get a free three-day trial run online. Sign up now and get it just in time to hear Dee and Debbie interview me about Anchor Bay's new Mario Bava box set! I'll probably be asked about the Bava book too, and if so, I just may have an historic announcement to make. (How's that for a teaser?) Anyway, I'm scheduled to be interviewed between 11:00 and 11:20pm, so do pop in and lend an ear.

Need more incentive? I'm told that a copy of the Bava Box set and the KIDNAPPED/RABID DOGS disc will be awarded to a lucky listener!

By the way, it's worth visiting FANGORIA Radio's website, where various excerpts from past interviews are interred. I spent some time last night listening to Dee and Debbie's past talks with Roger Corman, John Waters, and Tom Weaver -- fun stuff.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Word to Reviewers of KIDNAPPED aka RABID DOGS

I received my advance copy of Anchor Bay Entertainment's KIDNAPPED aka RABID DOGS today, which features both versions of the Mario Bava thriller, a nice 16m "making of" featurette featuring Lamberto Bava, Lea Lander, and Alfredo Leone, and an audio commentary by your friendly blogger.

There was something about this release that was never quite confirmed for me while it was in production, and I was nervous about it. After checking the disc, I have my answer and feel it's important to say something about this, otherwise it's bound to lead to confusion in reviews of the disc and my commentary. This matter has nothing to do with the film's transfer, which is unbelievably improved over what it's had in the past -- visually, the film has been completely revitalized.

When RABID DOGS was first released on DVD back in 1997, I was invited by Lucertola Media to write the English subtitles. I gladly accepted this opportunity to collaborate with Mario Bava, and approached the job as a novelist -- holding true to the Italian dialogue, but taking care to reflect the nuances and intonations of each performance and also bringing the film verbally up to date, because even though it was made in 1975, it was being released in the era of Tarantino.

When I began working with Anchor Bay on this new release, I made my subtitles available to them, and I also made some minor revisions/improvements to the text, which I had been wanting to make over the years. Assuming that my subtitles would be used, I made more than one reference to them in my audio commentary and explained some of the translation choices I made.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, my subtitles were not used, so these parts of my commentary -- which were left in the track -- are now irrelevant at best, and completely confusing at worst.

The track still has value, I think, but it concerns me that some reviewers might take my comments at their word and credit me with the translation of these English subtitles. If you compare my subtitles on the Lucertola disc to those on the new Anchor Bay release, I think you will find the new ones drier, more formalized (speaking in English, would a couple of toughs like Bisturi and Trentedue really call their boss "Doctor"?), even somewhat restrained. My subtitles -- juicier, more freewheeling, and frankly dirtier -- I think allowed the film to be more deeply felt in English while also bolstering its contemporary feel. That was my intention, anyway.

Reviewers can draw their own conclusions, but I ask them to not credit me with the subtitles used here, regardless of what I say elsewhere on the disc.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Return of Mary Weiss

"Seems like the other day / My baby went away / He went away, 'cross the sea..."

In the early to mid 1960s, there was a group called The Shangri-Las. They took their name from the fabled Tibetan paradise of James Hilton's novel LOST HORIZON, memorably filmed by Frank Capra in 1939. Just as the Shangri-La of that novel was an Edenic realm where people never grew old, the Shangri-Las sang songs preoccupied with and possessed by a never-ending youth. Their music, overseen by the legendary producer George "Shadow" Morton, has been characterized as wall-of-sound melodrama, teen tragedy and pimple pop; some of their classics, like "Leader of the Pack" and "Give Us Your Blessings", certainly qualify for such epithets, but then there are their other principal recordings, like "Out in the Streets", the devastating "I Can Never Go Home Anymore", and especially the haunting "Remember (Walking in the Sand)" that continue to sound almost preternaturally adult and forever emotionally relevant -- despite the fact that they were recorded by three girls in their mid-teens.

"Tell me more / Tell me more..."

Marge and Mary Ann Ganser braided their voices in the background with Betty Weiss, while the solo vocals were taken by Betty's sister Mary. While record company publicity and sheet music typically pictured the group as a foursome, the Shangri-Las frequently performed as a vocal trio; Betty Weiss disappeared for most of 1964 and thereafter swapped places onstage with one of the Ganser twins, darkening her hair to keep the background visually consistent. Mary Weiss was always the focal point of the group, her long blonde hair standing out in stark contrast to the brunette perms of the background singers. Mary's voice was immediately distinctive: when she sang her heart out, she could sound lippy and petulant, but never in such a way that lost the listener's sympathy -- and I don't mean the sympathy we feel for someone who has experienced tragedy, but simpatico, the sympathy we feel for one of our own. Joey Ramone, a Queens native like Mary, had the same thing in his voice.

"Close. Very, very close."

Listening to the Shangri-Las again recently, I was struck by the thought that Mary Weiss may have been the first rock vocalist to break out of the traditional format of a pop record to speak directly and candidly, intimately and sometimes brutally, to the listener. This was not escapist pop but something altogether more confrontational; it was Cuban Missile Crisis era rock with consciousness of life's hard knocks, its unfair breaks, its randomness, the thin veil between life and death. As Shadow Morton has said, when Mary sang these songs, she not only had to be taught how to sing them, but how to act them with a maturity that may have still been beyond her, though Mary herself has countered that she had already known her share of personal pain when she made these recordings. Both perspectives can be true, and I believe them both.

"You can never / Go home / Anymore..."

The Shangri-Las disbanded in 1969, embroiled in the usual problems with management and label that bring musicians grief. In the 1980s, Mary and her fellow Las brought suit against a concert entrepreneur who had found the Shangri-Las' name unprotected by copyright, acquired it, and sent three impersonators in their 20s out on the road to profit from the Weiss and Ganser sisters' legacy. (Googling turns up more than one group of Shangri-Las, suggesting that they failed to win back the right to their name.) The four of them couldn't get far enough away from music after ridiculous tangles like that; the Ganser twins have since passed away, while Mary reportedly married and entered the furniture business. But, as the imitators proved, their original recordings lived on, somehow of their time but nevertheless enduring.

"Everytime I see you / It drives me crazy..."

I'm far from alone in admitting to a longtime crush on Mary Weiss. Some years ago, David Sanjek -- a colleague and acquaintence of mine -- happened to appear as a talking head in a documentary about pop songwriting, which also featured Mary's first public appearance in many years in a similar capacity. I hadn't communicated with David in some time, but his artificial proximity to Mary inspired me to shoot him an e-mail of unembarrassed envy. I once appeared in an episode of A&E's BIOGRAPHY, intercut with interview footage of Diana Rigg, so I'm well aware that interviewees in a documentary don't necessarily interact personally, but I was so pleased to see Mary Weiss again, and looking so well, that I didn't care. In the best Shangri-Las tradition, I didn't care!

"You know, I used to sing..."
These alternately sober and silly ruminations are prologue to the fact that tomorrow will see the release of one of the most unexpected musical surprises of our jaded era: DANGEROUS GAME, the first solo album by Mary Weiss and her first musical venture in close to 40 years. On the basis of the four songs available for listening on Mary's MySpace page, Mary's voice has deepened slightly, but the maturity and mileage it conveys is an edge that pleases; it's also poignant that, just as I could once hear her voice in Joey Ramone's, I can now hear his voice carrying on through hers, along with some grace notes of Patti Smith. But just as importantly, DANGEROUS GAME sounds like it may be a much-needed wake-up call to the craft of pop songwriting. Any one of these four songs could have been a Shangri-Las song, and one of them -- "Stop and Think It Over" -- could easily have been one of their greatest. When Mary bleats out "You'd bett-uh!", I want to put my fist in the air to champion her, which is a shade of enthusiasm I haven't felt for a pop song in dogs' years.

A musical event like the return of Mary Weiss to rock 'n' roll is the keeping of a promise so rare and so precious that it occurs maybe twice in a decent lifetime -- Brian Wilson actually finishing SMILE is another that's happened in mine. I don't know if there's a radio station that plays new music like this, because there isn't much new music like this ("and that's called... sad"), so I urge you to check it out, along with the cool YouTube videos on Mary's site, and give her your blessing!

Leigh Harline: When You Wish Upon a Score

It's been awhile since I've taken note of a centenary, and today brings one I can't resist. Composer Leigh Harline was born 100 years ago today in Salt Lake City. His is not one of the top five or ten names that get fired around when soundtrack buffs start talking shop, but it should be.

He began to score films in 1933 for the Walt Disney studios, and within his first first four years on the job, he had at least two incontestable short masterpieces to his credit: "The Band Concert" (1935) and "The Old Mill" (1937). This last was followed by the quantum leap -- for all concerned -- of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937), on which Harline collaborated with Frank Churchill and Paul J. Smith. It's easy to tell what Harline personally contributed to the score: if your heart soars or melts when you hear it, it's Harline.

SNOW WHITE's score was nominated for an Academy Award but did not win. In 1941, he and Smith and lyricist Ned Washington were jointly nominated for their musical score for Disney's immortal PINOCCHIO, and Harline and Washington alone were nominated for Best Song: "When You Wish Upon a Star." More than 35 years later, Harline's unforgettable melody was woven like a golden thread through one of John Williams' cues for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND as a personal tribute. (It was not one that Harline lived to hear, as he died in 1969 at age 62.) Harline and Washington also wrote "Hi Diddle Dee Dee (An Actor's Life for Me)" and "Give a Little Whistle" for PINOCCHIO, and he appears onscreen conducting a cartoon scoring session in Disney's THE RELUCTANT DRAGON (1941).

He left Disney after PINOCCHIO and wrote library music that turned up uncredited in numerous interesting programmers of the era, including the "Blondie" and "Falcon" series for Columbia. He also did interesting credited jobs, such as the Joe E. Brown comedy BEWARE SPOOKS! (1939), THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES (1942), THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942), THE BRIGHTON STRANGLER (1945), the Val Lewton classic ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945, in which Boris Karloff says "They call me... the Watchdog!"), THE ROAD TO UTOPIA (1946), Joseph Losey's THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR (1948), and Sam Fuller's PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953), and Anthony Mann's MAN OF THE WEST (1958) to pick out only the most conspicuous titles.

Long before I realized that Leigh Harline had scored PINOCCHIO, and that it had been his music which had such a vertiginous effect in me when I first saw it as a very young child, I heard another score that first brought his name to my attention: George Pal's THE 7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964). I saw that film for the first time when I was eight years old, and I saw it the second time when I was one day older -- and made a special point of seeking out the composer's name. I've remembered it ever since.

This wonderful score, the equal of anything he wrote for Disney but full of exoticism and strangeness as well as warmth and festivity, was released on CD for the first time last year by the good folks at Film Score Monthly. Sourced from the original stereo masters and a particular thrill to listen to through headphones, I can't recommend it highly enough. I doubt that anyone who's ever seen the film would have trouble calling immediately to mind its bittersweet main theme, the fluttering melody and dizzying culmination of "Pan's Dance", the come-hither rattling of "Medusa", or the bellowing bagpipes that accompany the arrival of the Loch Ness Monster. You can hear them all on this disc, which also contains 11 bonus tracks, including a wonderful piano demo of "Pan's Dance." You should move to obtain it before its limited edition of 3000 copies sells out.

Remembering Leigh Harline definitely has its advantages.