Saturday, August 27, 2016

The above illustration is a clipping from an article in the film industry trade magazine BOXOFFICE,   circa 1963, picturing the marquee of the Twin Drive-In Theater when it hosted the local premiere of KING KONG VS GODZILLA. It opened with its co-feature THE TROJAN HORSE (starring Steve Reeves) on Wednesday, July 17 1963. And this was the marquee I passed under when I saw this Toho classic for the first time - I was there.

Cincinnati Enquirer, July 14 1963.
It was only a few years before this that producer Joseph E. Levine had innovated what became known as a television saturation campaign, where programming geared to kids became dumping grounds for TV spot trailers, exciting the small fry about what would be opening at hard tops and drive-in theaters that coming weekend. It actually began with a Steve Reeves picture: HERCULES UNCHAINED in 1958. I was witness to many such campaigns in my early years, and I remember having a good sense of what KING KONG VS GODZILLA would be well before it opened, though I had never seen a King Kong movie before and had never before heard of Godzilla. (Hard to imagine, but if I had seen a Godzilla movie before, it was called GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER back then.) But I enjoyed the film enormously and it certainly fueled my young imagination. I remember drawing both King Kong and Godzilla a lot over the course of the following week.

I certainly knew of KING KONG at the time, thanks to articles and photos in FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, so I'm not sure why I wasn't able to catch up with it till October 1970. Looking back through the CINCINNATI ENQUIRER archives, I see it played often enough on local commercial television stations - and I was particularly fascinated to discover that the 1933 KING KONG even played at some local indoor theaters in 1960 and was revived once again in October 1962 for some drive-in triple bills pairing it with GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS! (1954) and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1948)! That's right, King Kong and Godzilla first "met" in this country in their original versions, long before anyone in America saw the Toho wrestling match. Of course, the Toho film had already been produced by this time and it's possible that the pairing of "the screen's mightiest monsters" was being road-tested to gauge audience interest before Universal Pictures acquired the new film for US distribution.

Original opening weekend ad.
A decade later - still playing.
Needless to say, KING KONG VS GODZILLA proved to be an enormous hit in North America, spurring the immediate distribution of its sequel, GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA - retitled GODZILLA VS. THE THING by American International Pictures, perhaps to avoid a copyright conflict with MOTHRA's domestic distributor Columbia Pictures. One of the most uncanny facts about KING KONG VS. GODZILLA is that it was literally never out of theatrical circulation for the next ten years. There are indoor matinee playdates on record in 1967 and 1969, and then - on August 8, 1973, more than a full decade after its premiere at the Twin Drive-In - it burst back upon the same outdoor screen as part of "Battle of the Monsters," an AIP package of their past Toho acquisitions.

It's now 2016 and, back in its homeland, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA - known in Japan as Kingo Kongu tai Gojira - has recently been completely restored (complete with original stereophonic soundtrack, never heard in the US) and treated to a 4K restoration with new theatrical screenings and deluxe home video releases planned. There is a new Japanese Godzilla film, Shin Gojira (GODZILLA RESURGENCE), that has opened so well that there is already talk of a sequel: GODZILLA VS. KONG, set for release in 2020.

Some battles never get tired, and it would appear that Kong and Godzilla - Monsterdom's great avatars of hot- and cold-blooded strength - will continue to argue their superiority in the popular consciousness for a long time to come.

PS In case you're wondering about that "Facts of Life" banner in the topmost photo, it was a herald promoting the next feature at the Twin Drive-In, THE WRONG RUT (pictured at left). I didn't get to see that one... but the good news is, it's available on DVD from Something Weird Video!


Friday, August 26, 2016

Revisiting LAST SUMMER

Richard Thomas as Peter in LAST SUMMER.

I revisited the Frank and Eleanor Perry film LAST SUMMER (1969) tonight for the first time in probably 20 years. Unfortunately it hasn't had an official home video release in this country since the VHS days, though it did play in its "cut" R-rated version once on Turner Classic Movies. Watching it again, I was struck by hitherto unnoticed and completely unexpected similarities between Richard Thomas' performance and the performance given by Malcolm McDowell in Lindsay Anderson's IF... the same year.

Malcolm McDowell as Mick in IF...
It would be hard to imagine two actors more dissimilar in terms of their public images, which naturally was formed by the work they've respectively done over the course of their careers (ie., THE WALTONS, CALIGULA), yet in these early films, they could nearly be mistaken for one another in some shots, so alike are they in their abilities to contrast wide-eyed innocence and feral, amoral intensity. It could probably be said that typecasting has affected them both adversely, albeit in quite different ways.

I've never read the Evan Hunter novel that was the basis for LAST SUMMER (he also wrote a sequel, COME WINTER) but I wonder if the story's resemblance to William Golding's LORD OF THE FLIES is more or less pronounced in print than on film. It's something I've always noticed about the film, brought to the fore by the beachside setting and the teens' almost tribally induced reversion to savagery, with Cathy Burns' preternaturally wise, victimized Rhoda being the analogy to Piggy.

On another subject concerning the same film: LAST SUMMER was originally advertised as carrying an X rating, but Wikipedia tells us that it never played in theaters in that cut, which was altered by opening day to win the film a more commercial R rating. Everything I've ever read about the film claims that cuts were made to the climactic rape scene, but knowing how tame X films could be in 1969 (even in 1971 when a matter of seconds were cut from a rape film shown as part of the Ludovico Treatment in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE), I'm skeptical that it was ever more graphic than what we see now. However, the dialogue in the film has a lot of relooped dialogue along the lines of "frickin'" and "frackin'" and I suspect that the real bartering in the film was done with language. In those days, the F word could get you an X.

Another oddity concerning the soundtrack is that the dialogue includes not one, but two spoken lead-ins to music cues that never happen - once when a record gets changed and Barbara Hershey suggests "How about something by the Airplane?" (which is followed by music featuring brass) and again at the bar when she notices "a new song by The Band" on the jukebox and they pop in a quarter to play it. That said, one or two members of The Band apparently did contribute to tracks recorded for the movie as part of the congregation identified as Aunt Mary's Transcendental Slip & Lurch Band.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Three Thursday Passings

RIP to the wonderful comic actor and voice artist Marvin Kaplan, who has reportedly passed at the age of 89. Fans of my generation remember him as the voice of "Choo-Choo" on the Hanna-Barbera animated series TOP CAT, but he also made early impressions in a several TV appearances from that era - as a regular on MEET MILLIE and as a guest on THE RED SKELTON SHOW, MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY, and even serious dramas like M SQUAD and THE DETECTIVES. His feature film work included FRANCIS, ANGELS IN THE OUTFIELD, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD, THE GREAT RACE, THE SEVERED ARM (!), FREAKY FRIDAY (Jodie Foster version), David Lynch's WILD AT HEART and Larry Blamire's DARK AND STORMY NIGHT. Later television work included steady roles on ALICE, BECKER and David Lynch's ON THE AIR. He and I had friends in common, and my condolences go out to all who are saddened by his loss.

Today we also lost Rudy Van Gelder, a career optometrist who retired from his day job in the late 1950s to become the most creative and celebrated recording engineer in the history of jazz. His work for Alfred Lion's Blue Note label touched the careers of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey and dozens of others. He was such a uniquely talented technician that the label eventually honored with an album - featuring all these artists and more - entitled THE BEST OF RUDY VAN GELDER. He was 91.

I was also very sorry to hear of the passing of French writer Michel Butor. Butor was unusual in that he was generally revered as a novelist but actually wrote very few novels (even fewer translated into English) and, so far as I'm aware, the only writer associated with the exciting nouvelle roman (or "new novel") literary movement of the late 1950's and early '60s - along with Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Marguerite Duras, Claude Simon, etc - who rejected that classification of his work. The bulk of his work, I understand, was poetry and essays and academic writings. I've long known his name but I've never read his novels in translation and should. He was best known for his novel SECOND THOUGHTS, written in the uncommonly used "second person" - as was Jay McInerney's later breakthrough novel BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

In Search of Lost Chords

This picture shows the kind of transistor radio I owned between 1963 and 1965, when popular music (IMO) was at its zenith. It was a gift from my mother and it became my Siamese twin; I carried it with me everywhere in a cheap black leatherette carrying case, and I often fell asleep listening to it - in the dark of my room, where music seemed to gather extra dimensions it never had in broad daylight.

Sometimes I was able to put it down for awhile, to go to the movies or whatever, but when I first heard (for example) The Zombies' "She's Not There" or "Tell Her No," or "You Really Got Me" by The Kinks, I was so thunderstruck by a new musical world suddenly defined but as yet unmemorized, that I would stay tuned not only to listen but to stand guard till the next time those songs cycled around. One day, when I was walking around my West Norwood neighborhood with my radio at my side, I was momentarily careless and dropped it - and that was all she sang.

I can't remember what I did for music from 1966 through maybe 1968, other than overhear it on other people's radios or to play something on the occasional juke box. I've sometimes thought of trying to find one of these, to fill a certain nostalgic void, but I couldn't bear to hear today's music coming out of it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Every Car Needs A Jack

Here's a thing or two you may not know about Richard Harbinger's hot rod quickie T-BIRD GANG, starring Ed Nelson, Pat George and a young Vic Tayback, which was released by The Filmgroup back in 1959. You can probably guess the first bit of trivia from its means of distribution, or perhaps from the presence of Nelson and Beach Dickerson in the cast: the film was secretly produced by an uncredited Roger Corman. But even more interesting than the film itself, in retrospect, are its promotional materials.

Evidently the film was so quickly and cheaply made (or poorly photographed) that very few promotional shots were taken during the filming. What Corman did to jazz-up the film's public appearance was to have some friends he'd met at Jeff Corey's acting class to participate in an afternoon of modelling shots that would show what the public generally demanded from such a picture - some cars, some babes, and some guys with haircuts. None of them was in the actual movie. A close look at these materials shows none other than a young Jack Nicholson among the participants, posing around a brand new white Thunderbird on a Hollywood Ford car lot! (That's him in all these shots, second from the left.) At this time, Jack had already starred in another Corman-produced JD picture, 1958's THE CRY BABY KILLER (written by Leo Gordon, no less), but his acting career was still a decade away from its ultimate take-off with 1969's EASY RIDER. 

One of the few ways you can actually see T-BIRD GANG these days is in a box set of public domain hot rod titles called BORN TO BE WILD - 4 HIGH-OCTANE MOVIES, which happens to also include THE WILD RIDE (1960), another early Nicholson starring role, and prominently pictures him on the packaging!

Monday, August 08, 2016

The Sale You've Been Waiting For

Mark Maddox's original "Carmilla" cover art for VIDEO WATCHDOG 183 - available now!
We're already a week into the month, so it's high time that I mentioned here - as has already been done on our website - that another of our delightful "'DoG Days of August" sales in presently in effect! We haven't had one of these since our 100th issue was published, but it's a great way to help you acquire more of our coveted back issues, to better familiarize yourself with our digital issues, and support your favorite film magazine.

Here's the deal: For the remainder of this month, each back issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG can be yours for only $5 USA — hey, that's $7 off the usual going price — and we'll up the ante by adding the digital counterpart of that issue ABSOLUTELY FREE! When you compare the print edition to all the bells and whistles added to the digital experience, we're betting that you'll want to experience our entire back catalogue that way! (It is a glorious thing, if we do say so ourselves.)

Just head over here, select the issues you want, check out (no coupon code needed!) and we'll deliver links to your free digital editions via email the minute we process your order (usually within minutes, but no later than 24 hours), and of course, we'll mail your print issues out the very next day.

While you're at it, be sure to snag the free digital version of VW 183 before it disappears!

Friday, August 05, 2016

Welcome To The Architecture of Ruins

Imagine a derelict movie theater - not just one, but dozens of them, all eroding from a virus no more virulent than a village of eyes pointed some other way, arranged in a deluxe catalogue of cultural and architectural decadence. Some of these places are still active but struggling; others groan under a weight of accumulating neglect; most seem to belong to a bizarre ghost town of the imagination. What were once, not so long ago, dream palaces have become bare-boned barns, the harsh juxtapositions of reality and its escape harmonizing in a lament that no one, that no thing, lasts forever.

Seats where audiences once gathered to thrill to colorful adventures now huddle in orgiastic collapse, their bare wooden backs scarred with the fan-traceries of furtive spiders. Rusting projectors stand sentry above over a fading fantasy of better days. In a more fortunate example, an auditorium of still erect seats are cloaked in individual white coverings, summoning what appears to be an audience of ghosts. Elsewhere, a marquee extends the full length of a city block but only five or six letters remain to identify the last film ever to play there, in Cinerama no less, and the lettering is Thai. 

"Welcome to the Architecture of Ruins," reads the back cover of ONCE UPON A CELLULOID PLANET: WHERE CINEMA RULES HEARTS AND HOUSES OF FILMS IN THAILAND (FilmVirus, 1500 THB), a 516-page volume by Sonthaya Subyen and Morimart Raden-Ahmad, to heroic historians who decided to photograph the modern-day remnants of Thailand's dying movie palace culture while its peeling but still-evocative fa├žades were yet standing. In addition to the impressive photo-documentation, the book includes a number of guest essays by such international luminaries as Apichatpong Weerasethakul (UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES), Fred Kelemen (THE MAN FROM LONDON, THE TURIN HORSE) and Prabda Yoon (MOTEL MIST), and the award-winning writers Daenaran-Saengthong (SEA Write Award, Officiers de l’ordre des arts et des lettres in 2008), Suchart Sawasdsria (Thai National Artist of Literature, 2011), and Uthis Haemamool (SEA Write Writer Award 2009), all reminiscing about their formative experiences as young movie-goers. ONCE UPON A CELLULOID PLANET also includes sidebars documenting Thailand's approaches to advertising film, via billboards, advertisements on wheels and bus ads.

While nostalgia obviously had a great deal to do with what motivated Subyen, Raden-Ahmad and their guest authors, it plays a more abstract role in how the book is absorbed by someone outside Thai culture. The accompanying texts are rich with descriptions of what it was like to inhabit these derelict structures when they were still vital, including reminiscences of the films that played there. However, one's first impulse upon opening this book is to page through it, cover to cover, an experience which for me conveyed an eerily Ballardian charge with its peeling parade of long-vacated sensoriums. The text, which carefully and affectionately places the images in context, is all that prevents ONCE UPON A CELLULOID PLANET from seeming like an advanced, poetical work of post-apocalyptic science fiction. And its images carry a bitter punchline, appropriate to such science fiction, in that many of the abandoned structures profiled herein were built in the 1980s.

I was grateful to receive a gift copy of this remarkable book some months ago from Sonthaya Subyen, and I would have reviewed it promptly had there been any point to doing so. He informed me in separate correspondence that it had been published in a limited edition of fewer than 1,000 copies, of which only a few copies then remained. But I'm happy to report that this bilingual book - ONCE UPON A CELLULOID PLANET - a bilingual book, in Thai and English - is now available in a new slipcased "Black Box" edition. (I should mention that the images accompanying this report were photographed from the book on my iPad and imported to the blog; the originals are much brighter, sharper and more colorful in the book.)

This is a unique book and one you will be proud to own. The retail price of the Black Box edition is at 95 $US, and some copies yet remain of the standard white cover edition (without any box) at 85 $US (included shipping and handling anywhere in the world). For further information, send email inquiries to, or message them on their Facebook page ONCE UPON A CELLULOID PLANET.