Thursday, April 24, 2008

This Weekend Only: Nikkatsu Action Invades Los Angeles!

Hey you, citizens of Los Angeles! Yeah, I'm talking to you!

This weekend only, the American Cinematheque will be showing six rarely screened Nikkatsu action films of the late 60s that have been making the rounds of the festivals (like Fantastic Fest) and screening societies over the last few months and are all very much worth seeing: GANGSTER V.I.P.; THE VELVET HUSTLER; MY COLT IS MY PASSPORT; GLASS JOHNNY LOOKS LIKE A BEAST; THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS; and ROUGHNECK. None of these movies ever screened in the U.S. until last year and none of them are available on DVD even in their home country, making these screenings all the more special. What's especially unique about these screenings is that the prints of all of these films come straight from Japan but without any subtitles, so subs are being provided via computer, specifically the laptop of my pal Marc Walkow of Outcast Cinema, who will no doubt have very tired fingers once the weekend is over. If you go, feel free to kick him in the ass and say it's from me. Seriously, he'll have no problem with that.

Now, in truth, I've only seen some of the films showing (GANGSTER V.I.P.; VELVET HUSTLER; MY COLT IS MY PASSPORT and THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS), but I liked them all and wouldn't be recommending the series to you if I didn't. These flicks are all dripping in coolness, and it's a real, fresh coolness from another time, era, and place that no amount of fanboy fakeness could ever duplicate. The first three are gangster films (pretty obvious from those titles) and what's interesting about them to me is how they're from an era in Japanese cinema when the walls of self-censorship was just starting to break down and the influence of western culture (rock, jazz, French, British and American film noir and crime cinema) but what we get is so distinctly Japanese that is really does feel like something new and exciting. Even if you know other gangster pictures of the era (the Suzuki and Fukasaku films) the style behind these films still makes them stand out from many other films of the same type. Even better is THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS (also known as THE WARPED ONES), a crime film in only the loosest sense of the term, much more influenced by Godard, BREATHLESS and THE WILD ONE than anything else. But it also stands out to me as one of the few films directly influenced by one classic that becomes a classic on its own. I like BREATHLESS well enough, but I found THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS to be even more exciting a film, one with a tremendous life to it that moves out into the audience and leaves you with a great buzz. It feels like it captures not just the excitement of the era, that idea that things were indeed about to change, but it shows you how Japan took to it in a manner that we could never really appreciate until we see it through their eyes. This one truly is a must-see and if enough people catch on it could become a classic in its own right.

Anyway, if you're in Los Angeles and want to know what to with yourself this weekend, I just told you. Seriously, make sure you catch a few of these while you can. It's not like there's some big music festival in town or anything.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

It's Official...

A word of warning: Get ready for a lot of posts about Weird Wednesdays and Terror Thursdays screenings, Rolling Roadshows, special screenings and all kinds of Austin, TX weirdness. More than usual, I mean.

That's right, I'm moving to Austin and I'm working for Fantastic Fest. Full time.

Starting next Monday, I'll driving halfway across country from the soon-to-be-former N.J. home base to Austin and my new position of Sponsorship Coordinator for Fantastic Fest. It's basically a sales job, which I've done before, but the difference here is that I happen to love what it is I'm selling, and I honestly believe in my heart of hearts that Fantastic Fest is the best film festival in the world (or at least the best I've ever been to - sorry, Fantasia). I'm looking forward to it like a kid looks forward to Christmas, as I am also looking forward to living in Austin, spending time with my many good friends down there and those many long nights I will no doubt spend at the Alamo Drafthouse. There's gonna be a lot of those.

I'm telling you this in part because, as much as I like to spread good news, it's bound to have an impact on the frequency of HQ 10 postings. Unlike the last job, where free time flowed like wine at a wino convention, this is a real job with a lot of responsibility behind it, and although that aspect doesn't bother me any, it's going to take a lot of time off my hands, along with the whole finding a place to live and unpacking my life routine. But make no mistake, I am looking forward to it.

One thing I can tell you for sure is not to look to HQ 10 for all the inside poop on Fantastic Fest. Just as I did not dish any on the soon-to-be-previous job any (although I will at some point), Fantastic Fest stuff will be verboten until things are officially announced by the grand Pooh-Bah of FF, Mr. Tim League. And that's my law, not his. But yeah, expect to get real sick of hearing about the awesomeness of Austin and the occasional whining of missing this or that event back in NYC. But life's going to get interesting, that's for sure

So now you know.

Friday, April 18, 2008

"I don't need cards to figure out who I am, I already know." - A Tribute to Kirk Douglas

Fuck this. I'm not waiting for him to die, I'm paying tribute to Kirk Douglas NOW!

2008 has seen an unusually significant amount of passings from great actors and actresses, and it gets one to thinking about those actors of a certain age who, like Heston and Widmark, might not be around much longer. Whenever these passings occur, it always reminds me that it's better to send out appreciations of people when they're still around to hear them, and with Kirk Douglas there is a lot to appreciate. A hell of a lot to appreciate.

Jesus, where do you begin with this guy? Do you start with OUT OF THE PAST, one of his first films and yet one of his greatest? It's not his movie (it's Mitchum's), but what a fantastic villain he made (good thing he never got typecast), a brilliant sleaze and perfect foil for Mitchum. He was on a pretty quick roll after that, and he churned out numerous classics for at least another twenty years, appearing in some of the best movies of the period and some of the greatest films of all time: CHAMPION; DETECTIVE STORY; ACE IN THE HOLE; THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL; 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA; THE INDIAN FIGHTER; LUST FOR LIFE; GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL; PATHS OF GLORY; THE VIKINGS; SPARTACUS and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, in addition to his acclaimed Broadway run in One Flew Over the Cukcoo's Nest, a piece of material he championed when others wouldn't. And some of his later films aren't that bad, either: THE ARRANGEMENT; THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN...; POSSE; THE FURY; THE FINAL COUNTDOWN; THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER and TOUGH GUYS, his last film with the equally great Burt Lancaster. I'm sure that most of you were aware of some of Mr. Douglas' credits, but I feel the need to mention so many of them because in the law of batting averages of performers to great movies, Kirk Douglas is like the Ted Williams of the silver screen. I listed 20 titles there and so many of them are true classics of the medium (and many of them made because Douglas was instrumental in doing so) that Douglas is certainly assured a major place in film history. But the best thing about so many of these films is how great Douglas is in so many of them; a powder keg in ACE IN THE HOLE (and one of cinema's greatest cynics), a smooth Doc Holiday in GUNFIGHT (OK, Val Kilmer trumps him, but that doesn't make Douglas any less good), the soulful conscience of PATHS OF GLORY and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (his final line to Lancaster is one of my favorites), the definitive anti-hero of THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL and the definitive hero of SPARTACUS, all of them distinct because of Douglas. Beyond just his almost Michelangelo-chiseled physique and good looks, Kirk Douglas had a rare combination of movie star looks and method actor's devotion to craft (along with a great taste in material), an action hero who could also think and feel, a rare thing in most movies.

Something about Douglas that I find fascinating has been his ability to adapt throughout his career, not only to the numerous changes that happened in movies when he started, but to numerous different genres and styles of filmmaking. Unlike, say, John Wayne or Charlton Heston, there's no such thing as a "Kirk Douglas movie". He wasn't defined by a specific genre, so he worked in all of them (OK, except for musicals). Yes, he did a lot of westerns, but he wasn't specifically a cowboy actor; nor was he exclusively an action star, though he did a lot of those, too. He established himself as a great dramatic actor early on with the likes of CHAMPION and THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL and was then able to move on to bigger, spectacle-type films like 20,000 LEAGUES and SPARTACUS, all the while maneuvering back and forth between the likes of PATHS OF GLORY and LUST FOR LIFE. It didn't bother him to play villains such as in THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER or morally dubious characters like in ACE IN THE HOLE or THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, because he was more interested in challenging material more than his movie star image. As the years went by Douglas had no problem venturing into more contemporary genres (horror for THE FURY and HOLOCAUST 2000, which is terrible; sci-fi for THE FINAL COUNTDOWN and SATURN 3, which is also terrible) and he embraced working with great directors like Minnelli, Huston, Wilder, Mankewitz, Sturges, Kazan, Frankenheimer, De Toth, Fleischer, Robson and, of course, Kubrick. He was a true collaborator instead of "the star", and the film's reflect that. And you can't discuss Kirk Douglas without crediting him with helping to break the Blacklist by not only hiring Dalton Trumbo to write SPARTACUS but also by making sure he got proper credit for it. I can't say for sure if Douglas was an actor without ego (after all, he fired the great Anthony Mann off SPARTACUS), but you can't have accomplished all that he did and made so many great films if you're always thinking about yourself, now can you?

Interestingly though, the Douglas film that I would say is my favorite (and Kirk agrees with me) is one that's all about an individualist going his own way through the world: LONELY ARE THE BRAVE. This is a wonderful film, one that not only defined Douglas the man, but the era in which it was made - the early sixties - one where everything was about to change and an entire way of life was going with it. Douglas is a modern-day cowboy who likes living life by his own code - sleeping under the stars, riding his horse everywhere, having no use for contemporary society - and when he finds himself in trouble with the law due to a bar fight, he decides he'd rather take his chances in the wild than stay cooped up in jail. This is the just basics of it, but LONELY ARE THE BRAVE is more a rich character study (written by Trumbo once again) that's clearly on the side of those who willing go against the grain. While Douglas' character isn't over romanticized (it's shown that he's hurting the people who love him by living this way), it's also clear that Douglas' live and let live code is also one of honor that the modern world no longer has a need for. Little did the filmmakers know that their timing on LONELY ARE THE BRAVE was spot-on, as only a few years after its 1962 release the world changed even more radically than they ever could have expected, so the film is seen now as the death of more than one kind of American innocence gives it even more dramatic heft than expected. But what truly makes LONELY ARE THE BRAVE so great is Douglas himself; this is a performance where you can feel the actor is so good because he's speaking his beliefs, living a character who he feels is the closest to himself and while watching it you sense that, yeah, this is Kirk Douglas in a way. I don't know how much of a cowboy he was, but there's no doubt this is a guy who did things his own way and that's what's made him special. LONELY ARE THE BRAVE still isn't on DVD (I would think that Universal has got to get to it sooner or later) and the VHS and laserdisc (which I still have) are long out of print, but if you can catch this at a screening or on TCM (it's airing on May 15 at 8pm and June 21 at 6pm), please do so without haste and thank me later. (For a series of interviews with Douglas about the film, clicketh here.)

So, Kirk, I don't know if you'll ever read this, but I want you to know that we're all still thinking about you, loving and appreciating your great work in so many outstanding films and hoping that you'll outlive us all. His spirit certainly will.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen... Scooter McCrae

I've mentioned the man enough times, I might as well show him in action. In truth, this isn't the kind of action that he's best at, but it gives you a taste of what makes the man who he is. Scratch that - this is just him twisting some knobs and buttons around. Hey, at least one of us is having fun.

Love ya, Scoots!

Friday, April 11, 2008

The SCTV Movie Parodies - THE GRAPES OF MUD

So the concept of a monthly SCTV movie parody tribute is not exactly going the way I planned it, but it's not my fault, I swear. OK, if I knew how to download and embed video onto YouTube or any other download site then it would be my fault, but I can't, so it isn't. I'm completely blameless here, thank you very much. Honestly.

Anyway, I'm find that there's plenty of good stuff up there (and lots of SCTV in general) on the YouTubes, but for some reason the most adamant of SCTV downloaders are also not allowing embedding on the many clips they're posting. I can't understand the reasons why (is there some sort of embedding etiquette I should be aware of?), but I think that by doing so a great many folk are being denied a lot of great comedy: PolanyseanTown, the classic GODFATHER spoof, many of the Count Floyd routines and on and on and on. Maudlin's Eleven and Francis Ford Coppola's A Stake in the Heart are nowhere to be found (though you can see them on the Shout Factory DVDs), so if someone wants to put them up there and allow embedding, I sure would appreciate it.

Anyways, this month's SCTV Movie Parody, The Grapes of Mud, comes from the early years of SCTV, back when it was a 30 minute show with a laugh track and Harold Ramis was a cast member. What's interesting about this sketch is that in it you can see how the production of the show worked hard to emulate what it was they were spoofing (production design, camerawork) and how they do so respectfully, too. Honestly, what the hell is so funny about THE GRAPES OF WRATH? It's one of the few films you couldn't possibly spoof successfully, but SCTV was up the challenge and they got it right; ambition was one thing SCTV never had a problem with. I'll admit that the sketch isn't up to the near-perfect standards of some of their later efforts, but you can't deny that it's not funny or ballsy, so enjoy The Grapes of Mud:

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Philadelphia Filmdom - Three from the 2008 Philadelphia Film Festival

Some people I know don't like film festivals, and that's fine. They can be annoying, troublesome events, with lots of long lines, delayed shows, theater-to-theater hustling, obnoxious attendees and sometimes even more obnoxious festival programmers (no one I know is in that group, I assure you). But if you don't take them too seriously and just flow with them then they're a good time, an opportunity to play up your film going experience with a little travel, some good food, good company and some good cinema (hopefully). As long as it doesn't cost you too much dough it's a fine way to pass the time, in my humble opinion, and I enjoy the experience more often than not. This was the case once again this past weekend when I jaunted down to Philly to sample some of the goodies of this year's Philadelphia Film Festival, which is always a quality fest and an opportunity to take in the city of brotherly love as it goes through its annual spring awakening with cherry blossoms in full bloom and agreeable weather finally making it nice enough to walk around. Aside from the flicks, I enjoyed cheese steaks at Jim's on South Street, sampled some damn good sushi with pal/non-obnoxious programmer Michael Lerman and DiG! director (and all-around fabulous babe) Ondi Timoner (whose outstanding new film, the religious cult doc JOIN US, was screening as we sampled the sush), and just walked around, hit some shops, met some folks and had a pretty pleasant day all around. And the movies were good - what's there to hate? No hatin', please.

The big deal for me at this year's fest was the world premiere of BAD BIOLOGY, the first new film from BASKET CASE/BRAIN DAMAGE/FRANKENHOOKER auteur Frank Hennenlotter in 17 years. I happen to know Frank a little, thanks to my pal Scooter McCrae (who edited BAD BIOLOGY), and I know how he's been struggling to get another picture off the ground for so many years, so to hear BAD BIOLOGY was actually happening was exciting in a lot of ways. Frank seems to be the last of the real 42nd Street grindhouse directors still kicking, and from the very start of BAD BIOLOGY it become very, very, very obvious that Frank is making movies like it's still 1982 and that Giuliani never happened. It opens with the line, "I was born with eight clitorises" and keeps going and god damn is it real fucking good to have Frank Hennenlotter back on the big screen again. I can't really call the film a "return to form" if only because Frank doesn't really have any clunkers, so I'll just say that it's a most welcome return to NYC big screen sleaze done right. The story (woman with eight clits meets a man with a monstrous schlong) is prime Hennenlotter, "just wrong", as the man himself uttered before the screening (which, I must say, went over quite well). I'm going to dance around the particulars about the film because, like all good films, I think it's best experienced knowing less about it, but I will say that Frank (and co-writer R.A. "The Rugged Man" Thornburn) is really committed to doing his own thing here, with very little care about what civilized society will say, and my admiration for that is immense. He's also helped out by two fearless performances from Charlee Danielson and Anthony Sneed, both making their film debuts. Now, I feel the need to say two things about their work here: First, it's obvious that both are new to screen acting and there's a certain inexperience to them that hampers things. Line readings could be better, screen presence needs to be worked on, that sort of thing. That said, the rawness also works in the film's favor, because these two certainly give their all for the film, both truly holding nothing back (especially Danielson) and while I found myself admiring their work in the end, it is with reservations. Other than that, BAD BIOLOGY is the fun piece of sleaze I hoped it would be and I know that it will be festival bound throughout most of 2008, so I hope you all get a chance to see it, cause it sure is fun.

Likewise fun (and likewise very un-PC) is Stuart Gordon's STUCK, which premiered back at Toronto and was picked up by Think Film, who have it scheduled for a small release in late May (at least it was the last I heard) before Image puts out on this newfangled DVD format in the summer. Gordon has been on a major roll lately, with such dark, yet really powerful, films as KING OF THE ANTS and EDMOND (from a Mamet screenplay), all of which seem to be saying the same thing: People are no damn good. STUCK continues in that glorious tradition, taking a true story of a nurse (here played by Mena Suvari) who hits a homeless man (Stephen Rae) with her car while drunk and stoned and leaves him to die in her garage. This is ace material for black comedy, and since Gordon is a master of the genre he comes up with yet another winner and his third home run in a row, at least by my estimates. It's a bit slow to start - the opening scenes don't give you a sense of where it's really going - but once Rae becomes stuck it really does pick up and the second half is full of one great sick joke after another. Part of you wonders just how far they could go with this concept, but Gordon and his crew wisely keep it small and intimate (just a few characters and settings) and nasty. STUCK is unpleasant, no doubt, but Gordon isn't out to be mean, because he sympathizes very much with Rae's character, a decent man who's stuck not only in this car but in a society that not only doesn't care for its downtrodden but whose downtrodden don't care for one another, either. Both Rae and Suvari do their best work in a while, especially considering that they're given good material and an actor's director to work with, while Russell Horsby is very funny as Suvari's drug dealer boyfriend who isn't quite as gangsta as he claims to be. Once again, Gordon is proving himself to be one of the most fearless social commentators we have and after 20+ years of movies he keeps getting better and better. Can't wait to see what he does next.

In between these two (but just after cheese steaks) came I JUST DIDN'T DO IT, Masayuki Suo's follow-up to his extremely successful SHALL WE DANCE? from over a decade ago. That one would probably lead you to believe that he's either going to follow it up with another schmaltzy movie, or he's going to try and make a "serious" movie to prove he isn't a scmaltzmeister and he'll fall flat on his face doing so. With I JUST DIDN'T DO IT, he does the latter, but not only doesn't screw it up, he comes up with one of the best Japanese films I've seen in years, so huzahs to him! The "it" of I JUST DIDN'T DO IT, is an accusation of groping a young schoolgirl on a crowded train, something that usually results in a fine and a misdemeanor charge to those accused. This is a big problem in Japan (they even have "women only" trains to help combat it), so if you're accused of groping but happen to be innocent the law is not usually on your side, no matter if your innocence can be proven or not. I JUST DIDN'T DO IT makes the point that the film's lead character (well played by Ryo Kase) did not grope the schoolgirl (while not revealing who did, it also makes a point that a groping did take place), so that we understand that when he goes through the long, nearly impossible process of trying to clear his name, he does so for a reason. What's fascinating about the film (especially for an American audience) is how it details the Japanese judicial system, which is seemingly designed to end up with a guilty verdict, and how the idea of innocent until proven guilty doesn't seem to apply. Kase spends months in jail awaiting trial, treated like a common criminal, browbeaten by police and prosecutors, all in an attempt to get him to "confess". It's a pretty tough thing to sit through (I always hate seeing miscarriages of justice like this), especially when it dawns on both the characters and the audience just what an uphill battle they're facing. This makes I JUST DIDN'T DO IT sound like the downer of the year, but it's such an absorbing piece (and an effective piece of tragedy) that you're riveted (a cliché, I know, but that's the right word) by the proceedings. It's not merely that you're seeing another country's judicial system at work, but one that's infamous for its conviction rate (it's argued that's why crime in Japan is so low) for a supposedly free society. Though the film is pretty long (143 minutes), it's a fascinating piece when you consider how just a few minutes of your life will choose the course the rest of it takes, becoming exhaustively examined by you and by others almost forever. I don't think anyone has picked up I JUST DIDN'T DO IT yet, but I hope someone does, because it offers the viewer a lot of think about and discuss and if I ever visit Japan I sure as hell plan on keeping my hands in my pockets.

I'm hitting Philly again this weekend, checking out Schwarz's SPINE TINGLER! THE WILLIAM CASTLE STORY and a few others. More movies, more cheese steaks, more fun. I like this Philadelphia.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Goodbye, Chuck

I'm of two minds about Charlton Heston, whose passing Saturday has brought about many a respectful tribute from some of the best film writers out there, bloggers and press folk both. The first is that here was as one of the first big movie stars of my life, a guy who I grew up watching in many big films of the era: as Taylor in PLANET OF THE APES, Moses in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, THE OMEGA MAN, EARTHQUAKE and that 70s TV staple, AIRPORT '75, among many others. Heston was a blockbuster actor, one whose very presence denoted a certain bigness and spectacle to the films he was in, and I feel it has to be argued that's how he played it more often than not. The joke that Charlton Heston was someone who was always over the top, whose dialog was to be shouted from the mountaintops for all to hear, isn't an unwarranted one because, if you look, it was quite often there. Heston himself was in on the joke, parodying it on several occasions - on Saturday Night Live and in a series of Bud Light radio ads as two examples - occasionally using it to his advantage, like in his effective cameo as the Player King in Kenneth Branagh's HAMLET back in '96. He became one of those actors who were becoming remembered as much for the impressionist's version of them than for whatever the work itself was (Phil Hartman's was always my fave). There's larger than life and there's over the top and Heston, it has to be said, was both.

But there is something to be said for this. It's always a matter of the material, so Heston could either play it low or play it loud, and usually loud wasn't that wrong a choice. The bombastic approach was spot-on for the likes of PLANET OF THE APES (I honestly can't imagine anyone else tackling that final scene like he did) and he made for a terrific Long John Silver in a TV adaptation of TREASURE ISLAND in 1990. His films weren't always that subtle, so he proved to be the right guy for the likes of THE OMEGA MAN and SOYLENT GREEN, and its more than likely that he's the reason those films have endured over the years. But if he needed to downplay it, bring it down a couple of notches, he could and that's usually when he was at his most effective. He may seem out of place as a Mexican in TOUCH OF EVIL, but you get over it very easily, and he's a solid part of this classic film's success. He's more than just the "good guy", he's the moral compass of the story, never too stoic or self-righteous, and he plays extremely well off of Wells (in one of his best performances). There was also the likes of WILL PENNY (Heston's own personal favorite), Cardinal Richelieu in Richard Lester's MUSKETEERS films, Peckinpah's flawed-but-interesting MAJOR DUNDEE and Andrew McLaglen's THE LAST HARD MEN (opposite James Coburn), all of which showed him off to excellent advantage if you're looking to convince folks that Heston was more than just the guy who always shouted his dialog.

Unfortunately, that's how most people will know and remember Heston the actor, even if he was a legendary performer who worked with the likes of Wells, Cecil B. DeMille, Anthony Mann, Richard Lester, Sam Peckinpah, William Wyler, Nicholas Ray, George Stevens, and even Oliver Stone. It's a hell of a legacy, more than a little tainted, but when it's rich it's very rich indeed.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

He Has Moments - Darwin Joston in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13

Talent - you've either got it or you don't and Darwin Joston had it. Not that many noticed.

Joston was an actor who started in the late 60s with roles on numerous TV shows like RAT PATROL and bounced around the industry like a lot of other actors, sometimes popping up in small roles in low budget movies but mostly sticking to the TV scene until he retired from acting to work behind the scenes (in film transportation) until his death from leukemia in 1998. Joston probably would have gone on to be another one of many forgotten actors if fate hadn't placed him into the starring role in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, the first real feature from writer/director John Carpenter (DARK STAR was a student film stretched to feature length). Joston happened to have been Carpenter's neighbor in the same apartment complex, where the two became friends, and Carpenter wrote the role of Napoleon Wilson specifically for Joston, who Carpenter claims had inspired the character. You hear a lot of times about certain roles being written for certain actors, but that doesn't mean they're always perfect fits; however, Napoleon Wilson turned out to be the role that Joston was born to play, and even though the film lead to big things for Carpenter, whose next film ended up being HALLOWEEN, Joston went back to being another actor waiting for his big break. Although Carpenter gave Joston a small role in THE FOG and planned to cast him as John Rainbird in his proposed film version of Stephen King's FIRESTARTER (which obviously never happened), Joston never had a role that good again. But god damn if he didn't make something out of it when he did.

While the actual star of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 is Austin Stoker (who is also very good), Joston gets the best role, a villain with a set of principals who may not be the nicest guy in the world but is certainly the person you want on your side when your police station is under siege by street gangs (which happens to me more often than not). The entire film is Carpenter's homage to Howard Hawkes' RIO BRAVO, with Joston sort of in the Dean Martin role (he sure ain't Ricky Nelson), but the whole film is also Carpenter's tribute to the entire western genre and the Children of George and Steven should take ample note of it because this is what a fucking genre homage is supposed to be like. Carpenter is a big time Hawkes devotee (and why shouldn't he be?) but ASSAULT is unquestionably a John Carpenter film: the memorable score, the widescreen lensing, the sparse, economical scripting (a real benefit here), some great tongue-in-cheek humor, and the fine acting of the leads (Joston, Stoker and Laurie Zimmer) make this the first of several Carpenter classics. I saw the film again the other night at BAM as part of a J. Hoberman retrospective and found the sizeable audience (tempted by free beer) as into it as I was (unlike the disrespectful crowd at the DAWN OF THE DEAD screening last August) and all of them suitably impressed by Joston. This is one of those performances that, no matter how many times I see it, I cannot get over how cool this guy is. Carpenter has written some great tough guy dialog that could have sounded phony from those without any natural cool, but for Joston it's natural and wonderful. He's also a great badass, so therefore a convincing criminal, too; violent only when he feels its necessary (Joston would have made a great Parker), he's also pretty smart (though not smart enough to not get caught) and a man of surprising character, someone who probably would have been more at home in the old west than in 1976 L.A., which I guess was Carpenter's point. Joston's rapport with Stoker and Zimmer (and, let it be said, the great Tony Burton) is another great part of ASSAULT; it's not just that these characters go through this siege together, but that they all happen to be three people of equal character thrown together at just the right time. Joston and Zimmer have a wonderful moment that involves the lighting of a cigarette that is one of my favorite moments in any movie. It's Carpenter aping Hawkes' romantic comedy work, but god damn if it isn't wonderful.

With Tuesday night's screening it seems like many new Darwin Joston fans were born, but they're going to be awfully disappointed that this is all they're going to have to go on. It wouldn't be the first time that cults are born after actors who had only one significant role, but I always tend to get a little bit sad when thinking about Darwin Joston and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. The guy was obviously good, so why didn't he get more opportunities like this? ASSAULT wasn't a hit at the box office (though it did well in Europe), not gaining much recognition until after the success of HALLOWEEN, but even after it became a cult hit Joston was never able to take advantage of it. Did he ever get offers, though? Did Tarantino or someone like that seek him out at some point before he passed away? If Joston were alive today he'd probably be doing autograph shows and possibly bits in low budget movies, but the guy certainly had it in him to be another Harvey Keitel or Tommy Lee Jones. This kind of part is not easy by any means; it requires the actor to have that coolness in them and since Carpenter was inspired by Joston in writing the role, there's no doubt that he certainly did. Roles as good as this one don't come around too often, either, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised but I still can't help but feel that something good was wasted that shouldn't have been. I suppose like Napoleon Wilson himself Darwin Joston got a bum rap in life and as he's been gone for about ten years now there isn't much else that can be done. Wilson's a classic tragic hero in a way - his skills were never utilized properly and not enough people saw him for what he was - so for Joston to never get anything this good again is an excellent example of art imitating life. But for what it is, a definitive performance in an terrific movie, it's a hell of a thing. A hell of a thing.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Jeffrey Schwarz Resurrects William Castle with SPINE TINGLER!

As you guys probably know (and if you didn’t, I’m telling you now), I also write for AMC’s Monsterfest blog (where a condensed version of this piece can be found), which has been a good gig that’s getting a bit better by allowing me to expand into interviews for the site. This allowed me to chat with George Romero back in February and now it’s got me chatting with Jeffrey Schwarz, director of the new doco SPINE TINGLER! THE WILLIAM CASTLE STORY, which has been as long in the coming as it’s been in the making, which is to say too damn long. Castle was best known for his gimmicks, the crazy stunts like "Perceptio" (seats with buzzers) that got asses on seats, but the guy certainly led an interesting life and had a very rich career: Beyond the horror films, he worked with Orson Wells in his radio days, produced ROSEMARY’S BABY and made the fascinating but impossible-to-see SHANKS starring Marcel Marceu. As it turns out, Schwarz’s desire to make a Castle doco has also turned into a very, very nice career doing supplements for many big DVD titles throughout the years through his company, Automat Pictures, so the completion of SPINE TINGLER brings Schwarz and Automat full circle. The film is currently playing the festival circuit and will no doubt be available on DVD some time soon.

I spoke to Jeffrey as he was doing the long drive from San Francisco to L.A., where I’m sure he no doubt needed the distraction (it’s a nice drive – I’ve done it twice – but it’s a lot of long stretches of nothing at certain points). Thanks to Jeffrey and the AMC crew for allowing this to happen.

I was on the Automat site, looking up some of your past projects, and the one that got my attention was the documentary you guys did on Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING.

Yep, we did that a few years ago.

And you mention that it was DVD of the month in Fangoria

Yes, that’s right…

I was the one who anointed it DVD of the Month!

Really? Why thank you!

And you know how you got that?

No, how?

The Dick Miller Easter egg.



Thank you so much, that was so much fun. That was one of those jobs that don’t come up very often, but I knew the fans would appreciate it, like yourself, they’d be the ones who would really cherish that DVD. We just made it into an extended Fangoria article, so I tried to get everyone who could talk about THE HOWLING – Dee Wallace, Belinda Belaski, Rob Bottin, Dick Miller – that was so much fun to do.

Also the fact that you had John Sayles in there…

Yeah, Sayles, too

Because, I think it’s more that people don’t ask him, but he doesn’t really comment a lot on those days at New World and Avco Embassy.

Yeah, I guess there’s not a lot of documentaries that discuss that part of his career, but it was great to get him and Joe, and that’s how I met Joe and got him to be part of the William Castle film.

I have most of the William Castle DVDs and it seems as though we saw the roots of this documentary on those old featurettes.

Actually, when I first started developing this project I put together a little pitch reel for it; this was before I started Automat or started developing DVD content. I put together a presentation reel with interviews of people, like the guy who runs my local video store and Fred Olen Ray – it was very low rent, shot it high 8 – and I brought it to Sony, a little bit naively, thinking, “Of course, they’ll want to make this, they own all the William Castle movies”. And that’s not really the way it works with independent documentaries, I found out later. I didn’t really have a track record at the time, but the guy who was in charge of added value for DVDs – this was just when the format was just beginning – I guess he liked me and the pitch reel and he hired me to produce the DVD for THE TINGLER, which they were going to release as a 40th anniversary edition, although they didn’t realize that until I told them. It was just a lucky thing that I was there at that time, so I did a little featurette on THE TINGLER and that was back in ’99 and that’s how this whole thing doing featurettes for DVDs really started, but really I kept trying to get the feature off the ground. And then once they had released 5 William Castle titles I had all these interviews and I continued shooting interviews even after that was all over and eventually I had enough interviews to put a feature together and Sony let me keep the interviews, which was really cool of them. They didn’t encourage me or discourage me, I just kept doing it all on the side. After about 8 or 9 years we completed the film.

This wasn’t for Sony, then?

Oh no, not at all. This was completely, 100% independent.

Although there’s a chance that Sony might distribute it or are you still looking for distribution?

We’re looking right now. They’re looking at it right now, everybody’s looking at it. We haven’t secured distribution yet. I look upon this as a feature film, it’s way beyond a bonus feature, it’s a feature in and of itself. Hopefully companies will see the value in it and put it out.

What about some of the other studios he worked for? He worked primarily at Columbia, but he did some stuff at Universal and he ended his run at Paramount. Any participation from them, did you have to get their OK on some of this stuff?

I licensed all the film clips from the various studios, so it’s all legit. You can license the clips, but it’s very expensive so you want to be careful about how much you use. You license it for a certain amount of time, or for festivals only, and then you can license the clips for home media, once you distribute the film. Anybody can make a movie like this as long as you pay the studios; they’re not interested in preserving their own history necessarily. These are revenue-generating things for them, so it’s very difficult to do a film like this independently. We didn’t go the “Fair Use” route; some filmmakers are going fair use and basically just using anything they want from any film ever made, like THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED and some others, like HOLLYWOOD CHINESE also went fair use.

What was the one thing about Castle that you were surprised to learn?

I knew all of the fact about his career, so that wasn’t a problem, and it wouldn’t be much of a film if it were just a catalog of achievements, so the challenge was really to find out what made him tick, and a lot of it was brought to the table by his family, particularly Terry Castle, his daughter, and close friends of his who worked with him, and I didn’t know that he was so insecure. You have this vision of William Castle as this very larger-than-life brash showman full of bravado, but he lived much of his life in fear: fear of failure that his films wouldn’t be successful, and he was full of insecurities and that’s something you wouldn’t guess upfront. He kind of created this William Castle persona a little bit to sort of push himself forward and masks those insecurities, so I learned that he lived his life as any minute the roof could cave in. Some of this came from his upbringing; when he was a little kid his parents both died when he was very young and he was left an orphan, so when something like that happens to it sort of blurs your point of view on life and how fragile everything is and how you have to protect what you have.

The whole reason he did the gimmicks was really because of that fear that the films would fail without them or they wouldn’t be embraced by audiences if he didn’t add that extra insurance for himself. So that’s really how the gimmicks started. When he did his first scary film he had already been a director for many years and had a lot of films under his belt. MACABRE was his first horror film. He made that independently and he mortgaged his house to finance it, so he had his career on the line, his financial security was on the line, and the movie didn’t have any stars, not a big budget film, no big marketing budget of any kind, so he came up with the life insurance gimmick as insurance also for his film, that hopefully would get people talking. It worked beyond his wildest dreams; it was a very low budget movie that made him a couple of million dollars, so once that was a success he didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth and he did the next gimmick, which was “Emergo” for HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, then “Perceptio” for THE TINGLER, one after the other, just to capitalize on the notoriety on them after each film.

Do you go into the gimmicks themselves and how he came up with each one and the work that went into them?

Sure, we talk about every gimmick he ever did. Like HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, with the skeleton, we talked about how it was built up in the media how it was going to be the scariest thing you could possibly experience. He didn’t let the audience in on the fact that it was a skeleton, they just knew something was going to happen when they went into the theater, so the audience was prepared to be terrified when a rubber skeleton flew out and caused near riots at the theaters, with a lot of people screaming and kids trying to throw stuff at it, trying to knock it down. We also go into areas of his career, such as how he started and some of his early versions of the gimmicks when he was doing theater, and then after the gimmicks petered out, our third act is all about what happened to his career after the gimmicks stopped wearing out their welcome with the public in the mid to late 60s and going into ROSEMARY’S BABY and dealing with the changes in Hollywood and his final attempts to make a poetic horror film, SHANKS with Marcel Marceau.

I wanted to ask to ask you about that. I noticed Marceau is in the documentary and I was curious to know how you were able to get him to talk, as it were, about SHANKS.

Even though he’s a mime, he loved to talk. We interviewed him 2003, I believe. He was passing through L.A., performing at the Geffen Theater, and he was still performing up until the very end. We did his interview while he was here in L.A. and he jumped at the chance to talk about SHANKS because it’s his only starring role and he loved working with William Castle. You’d think the two of them would be so radically different, and they are – Marcel Marceau, the great artist and William Castle the schlockmeister – and they came together at a time when Castle was looking for a project that he could prove he was an artist that he was an artist as well as a showman. He found the property and cast Marceau because he felt he’d be right for the part and also it was sort of a gimmick, too, casting Marceau, and he loved talking about it. The film never got a chance; it was trashed by the critics and nobody got to see the movie because it played only for about a week. It never really has been seen properly and don’t hold your breath waiting for a DVD.

It really is such a one-of-a-kind film, and there’s not a heck of a lot of information out there about it, so I’m glad to hear it discussed.

I feel this is one of the more poignant segments of the film. This is Castle after ROSEMARY’S BABY, which he produced and wanted to direct but Robert Evans at the studio wouldn’t let him. Even though it was a huge hit he didn’t get any of the credit for it, it was considered a Polanski film, and rightly so. He was looking for something that could prove he could create something that was an artistic statement and he made that film at a time when he knew his life was coming to an end; he was very ill at the time he made that film and he’d already had some brushes with death. If you watch the film knowing that this was a man who was ill with a very serious heart condition and any day could decline further, it makes it a very poignant viewing experience.

When did you become a Castle fan? Did you grow up seeing THE TINGLER in Percepto?

I was one of those monster kids, reading Famous Monsters and all that stuff. The Castle films, they were talked about in those magazines and the books that I read, but this was before cable TV and DVDs, so they were sort of mythical films and I didn’t get to see them. But when I was in high school John Waters wrote an article about William Castle in Film Comment called, “Whatever Happened to Showmanship?” and that’s when I was discovering John Waters, who became my favorite director. This was a whole new world that was opened up to me, this article by John, and so I went out and found his book [Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America] and, coincidentally, they revived his films and I was living in New York, so I would go down to Film Forum and I saw THE TINGLER in Percepto. Bruce Goldstein of Film Forum invented his own of Percepto and I experienced it firsthand; during that scene everybody was screaming their heads off and having such a good time and I was so amazed. This was about 30 years after the movie had been made and it still had the power to create pandemonium in the audience. So when I was going to film school I ran our film society and I showed all the Castle films at midnight and would try to get as many people into William Castle as I could. So when I came out to Los Angeles one of my goals was to try to figure out how to make this film. Inadvertently, it kind of helped to make a career doing these kinds of pop culture documentaries, so it’s sort of come full circle.

Do feel that people have forgotten about people have forgotten about Castle? You have your baby boomers that grew up with them, but are you find that you’re coming across a lot of young people who tell you they never knew about these movies?

It’s a combination; our audiences are varied. We have the baby boomers that are coming to relive their childhoods, people who experienced “Percepto” firsthand, then you have the horror nuts who definitely know William Castle and have all the DVD and people who drawn to William Castle because of John Waters or the camp value of some of the films, and then you have people who never heard of him but are drawn to him as a kind of character. They think they haven’t heard of him, but then they see the film and they put all the pieces together; “Oh, that’s the guy from ROSEMARY’S BABY in the phone booth, I wondered who that guy is” and they start to see what kind of influence the guy had in marketing. We’re also getting young kids. I was in Cleveland just last week, and a little 8 year-old kid with his mom that came and his favorite director is William Castle and his favorite movie is THE TINGLER. His mom came in and asked, “Where’s the coward’s corner?”, and she was probably in her early thirties, so I guess that with DVD and the internet these films can be discovered, so hopefully this film will help more people discover William Castle. His daughter didn’t seem to think he had any kind of legacy until she realized that there were entire generations that grew up watching the films.