Talking to Stan Lee

Barry Forshaw writes:

R. I. P., Stan. As the first mega-budget new Spider-Man movie created a white-hot fever of anticipation in cinema audiences, I spoke to Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee (who has died at 95), the creator of such enduring heroes as Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk and (of course) a certain web-slinging New Yorker. He had finally decided to reveal all in a very frank autobiography, Excelsior!

Barry Forshaw: With the new Spider-Man movie imminent, you must be undertaking a mass of appearances to promote this much-anticipated film of your creation. Are you starting to suffer from interview fatigue yet?

Stan Lee: I’m certainly in danger of that. Never in my life have I been called upon to talk to so many newspapers, magazines and TV shows about both my career and, of course, Spider-Man. At the moment it’s a dozen a day!

Barry Forshaw: And the real avalanche no doubt starts when the movie actually opens.

Stan Lee: Oh, I’m not even allowing myself to think about that – that’s too daunting.

Barry Forshaw: Excelsior!, your autobiography, is an absolutely wonderful read. It’s fascinating to learn how both you and your stellar artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko created all these pop culture icons, most of which have either been the subject of recent highly successful movies (such as X-Men) or forthcoming films (such as Ang Lee’s version of the Hulk).

Stan Lee: I’m glad you enjoyed the book. Actually, it’s not really an autobiography. It is, in fact, the world’s first bio-autography: George Mair supplied a lot of the information about my career, and I pick up from his introductions. But it’s 99% me. They wanted me to do an autobiography, but I said I’d never have the time.

Barry Forshaw: The book has a nicely self-deprecating tone; it’s not just a succession of self-aggrandising “and then I created…”

Stan Lee: It was important to me that I did that. For a start, I was keen to acknowledge all the incredible talents I’d worked with over the years. Marvel Comics was not a one-man show.

Barry Forshaw: Another refreshing thing about the book is its frankness: although you can never be accused of score-settling in the book, you pull no punches. Was there ever any pressure on you (even self-applied) to write a more anodyne book?

Stan Lee: There was no pressure in one direction or another. They just said, “Write the thing”. I tried to be frank, without really insulting too many people.

Barry Forshaw: You put the record straight on many issues that have exercised people over the years. The famous conflicts with Steve Ditko (who drew Spider-Man) and Jack Kirby (who drew the Fantastic Four, Thor, and so many other Marvel characters) are handled with disarming honesty. Both men expressed resentment at the media perception of you as the sole creator, but you were always ready to acknowledge their considerable achievements.

Barry Forshaw: I’m so glad that comes across in the book. At first I wasn’t sure whether I should mention this at all, but, as you say, it’s been an issue for many people over the years, and I really did feel it was time to set the record straight.

Barry Forshaw: Both Kirby and Ditko complained that it was always you talking to the media when Marvel Comics became such an astonishing cultural phenomenon. But, as you say, the personalities of both men did not lend themselves to public appearances, and Ditko in particular rarely gave interviews. But you were doing your best to promote the company and the characters.

Stan Lee: Absolutely. In fact, I did a radio show with Jack Kirby years ago when our characters appeared to be achieving an amazing popularity. Jack began to say that we were bigger than DC Comics (who owned Superman and Batman) and that we were going to obliterate them – something along those lines. And I was kicking Jack under the table, trying to signal to him, “Jack, nobody likes to hear people talk that way!”. I said to the interviewer, “We’re like a little puppy dog yapping at the heels of the big guy” – I suppose this ties in with what you said earlier about self-deprecation. But Jack never really understood that there are certain ways you conduct yourself in an interview so that you don’t sound like a conceited braggart. And it’s true that I did get many invitations to do such things. But when I suggested that Jack or Steve come along, most of the time they — Kirby and Ditlko — weren’t interested.

Barry Forshaw: You go on record in the book as unequivocally acknowledging them as the co-creators of these great characters.

Stan Lee: Of course! And so they were. These were tremendously talented men with whom I worked for many years – long before the superhero era in fact.

Barry Forshaw: Of course, your career, as you mention, extends way back beyond super-powered characters in colourful costumes. You created some of the most ingenious comics in all genres in the 1950s: horror, science fiction, war books.

Stan Lee: That was in an era when you really didn’t admit that you wrote for comic books. The respectability and acclaim came much later. But all of us would soft-peddle what we did if we were asked at parties. There was, of course, the hysteria about the horror comics, but the Atlas line – Marvel’s predecessor – was relatively mild compared to the gruesomeness of, say, EC Comics. Certainly when the superhero era really took off, our readers became older, we became phenomenally popular on campuses and we were being profiled in everything from <I>Rolling Stone</I> to <I>Time</I> magazine had many invitations to speak at colleges. We began to be written about overseas: in England, Italy and Japan. Nobody was reading my horror comics around the world.

Barry Forshaw: Actually, you’re wrong about that. English port cities such as Liverpool had masses of American comics such as your work from that period brought over as ballast; many a schoolboy in England read your pre-superhero stories.

Stan Lee: Really? I had no idea. That was before letter columns, so we never heard from any English readers.

Barry Forshaw: Does it not seem strange to you that these characters you created 40 years ago have now taken on a life of their own? Somebody else other than you writes the Spider-Man movie, or the new Daredevil film with Ben Affleck. Do you still regard them as your “babies”?

Barry Forshaw: You know, it’s a funny thing. I never regarded them as my “babies”. When you don’t own something – when somebody else makes the decisions as to what to do with the properties – you lose the feeling that they are your creations. I was just the guy who wrote the stories; they caught on – and I’m glad they did – but I never felt all that possessive about them, because I never really possessed them.

Barry Forshaw: So you were happy to regard yourself as a “pen for hire”? Your book implies that you’ve been treated pretty shabbily at times by the people you’ve worked for.

Stan Lee: Well, I never became wealthy. I was always treated well, and rather respectfully, and I earned a respectable salary. If I made a trip abroad, I could go first class and charge it to the company, and my time was pretty much my own. And I didn’t have to answer too much to any one person, except in a general way. If I decided I wanted to spend time lecturing about Marvel at colleges, I could. I was like the boss, without being the boss. Creatively, I was in charge of everything while I was there, but I wasn’t in charge of the big things, like what we should do with the characters.

Barry Forshaw: After the success of the DC-related Superman and Batman movies, people would often say, “Why did Stan Lee allow that indifferent Captain America movie to be made?”… And why was the first Fantastic Four movie an unreleasable item that nobody’s ever seen?

Stan Lee: Those weren’t my decisions. But I suppose it’s inevitable that people would assume I had something to do with the mishandling of the Marvel legacy in the movies in the past. But, by the same token, it’ll be nice if I get a bit of credit now that the Spider-Man and X-Men movies have comprehensively reversed that trend!

New Blu-Rays from Powerhouse Indicator, Eureka & Arrow

WILLIAM CASTLE AT COLUMBIA, VOLUME ONE THE TINGLER (1959) 13 GHOSTS (1960) HOMICIDAL (1961) MR SARDONICUS (1961)/William Castle, director/Powerhouse Indicator  The British label Powerhouse Indicator continues its very welcome series of excavations of the byways of popular cinema– and in the process, is producing absolutely definitive packages which have everything (and more) that the collector could wish. Nothing could encapsulate the company’s range of ambition more than this delightful set. William Castle is most celebrated (and most notorious) for his outrageous showmanship and publicity gimmicks which – let’s be frank – are probably better remembered than the films themselves. But that is a real shame, as Castle’s funhouse horror movies are almost invariably lively and entertaining, delivered with an irresistible mix of straightfaced seriousness and tongue-in-cheek hucksterism – qualities perfectly encapsulated in the performances of the matchless Vincent Price, star of two of the best films in this collection, The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill, both of which look better in these new transfers than they ever have before. But perhaps the real revelation in this handsome set is Castle’s Homicidal, which is without doubt the most accomplished of all the homages-cum-ripoffs of Psycho to appear in Hitchcock’s wake. And even something as slight as the kiddie-friendly 13 Ghosts has things to applaud, particularly in a transfer as impressive as this – and the one period-set piece here, Mr Sardonicus, does full justice to Ray Russell’s novel, one of the best modern Gothic exercises in Edgar Allan Poe-style macabre. Of course, with this Blu-ray company, it is the extras that provide unique selling points – and they are very plentiful here. Castle’s famous publicity gimmicks (‘Illusion-O’, ‘Percepto’, the ‘Punishment Poll’, ‘Fright Breaks’, etc.) are celebrated, along with a slew of of new and archival extras: Jeffrey Schwarz’s feature-length documentary Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, newly filmed introductions and appreciations, exclusive new audio commentaries, interviews with actor Pamela Lincoln and publicists Barry Lorie and Richard Kahn, archival featurettes, and much else.

CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, Lucio Fulci, director/Arrow Blu-ray  No genre director divides opinions as much as the Italian shockmeister Lucio Fulci – but for those who can find much to admire in his films (with some reservations!), a case can be made for his best work. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Una Lucertola nella Pelle di una Donna), while by no means a total success, is a fascinating pointer to later ideas in Fulci’s more blood-splattered epics. Basically a Hitchcock-style crime thriller set in a jaded ‘Swinging London’ milieu, it has several virtuoso set-pieces, Zombie Flesh Eaters (Zombi 2, 1979), Fulci’s calling-card movie, is a grisly Romero-inspired corpse epic in which state-of-the-art special effects of dismemberment and carnage offer a challenge to all but the most stout-hearted. It’s in this film that Fulci’s flat, comic-strip narrative grip flourishes – the plot (Ian McCulloch and Tisa Farrow stumbling through implacable, worm-infested zombie hordes) offers nothing of Romero’s claustrophobic image-making, but is powerful enough in its own way. And then we come to the film under discussion, now in a strikingly detailed Arrow Blu-ray. Despite his statements that he wished to concentrate on generating suspense in City of the Living Dead (Paura nella Città dei Morti Viventi, 1980) while playing down the horror aspects, Fulci provides more than enough graphic gore in his follow-up to Zombie Flesh Eaters. Certainly there is considerably less full-scale mayhem as the revived dead of Dunwich stalk their hapless victims, but the famous sequence of a girl being ‘willed’ to evacuate her entire inner organs through her mouth scores high in what Stephen King describes as the ‘gross-out factor’, and the zombies’ favourite method of dispatching the town’s inhabitants – clutching a handful of hair, scalp and brains from the back of peoples’ heads – was (surprisingly) left untouched by the British censor (while performing excisions elsewhere, restored in this uncut edition). There is an undoubted grand guignol energy tapped at times, with the usual satisfying atmospheric tracking shots down misty, threatening streets. Plentiful extras from Arrow, as ever.

HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD, Rüdiger Suchsland, director/Eureka Blu-ray  If you think that the Nazi period of filmmaking is of limited historical interest, think again — this utterly mesmerising documentary samples and examines one of the most striking and controversial eras in the history of German cinema (and also includes the celebrated documentary From Caligari to Hitler). Nazi cinema was of course state-controlled and the strictest censorship along ideological lines was exercised – but within the confines of these strictures, some remarkably accomplished work was done, as Rüdiger Suchsland’s film amply demonstrates. Along with the original German language version, there is an English language narration by the cult actor Udo Kier. As an examination of Weimar Republic cinema, this will — quite simply — never be bettered.

LONG WEEKEND, Colin Eggleston director/Second Sight Blu-ray  In an age when suspense/horror films are obliged to deliver the goods every 10 minutes or so, it’s really refreshing to see a film that trusts its audience’s patience and delivers its effects steadily but inexorably. On its first appearance, Long Weekend drew many plaudits for the director’s command of the medium, and the steady accretion of eerie elements is adroitly handled as the macabre climax approaches. The Australian-made film is possibly the best example of the revenge-of-nature theme which followed in the wake of Hitchcock’s The Birds (and, as a nod to The Master, there is an avian attack in this film). But director Colin Eggleston has different fish to fry with the troubled relationship between his hapless protagonists at the centre of the narrative here, and the excellent performances by his actors – unfamiliar then and now to British audiences — really pay off. The Guardian got it right: ‘Colin Eggleston’s hybrid horror and relationship drama sets man against nature in a kind of David Attenborough special gone heinously wrong.’ Peter (John Hargreaves) and Marcia’s (Briony Behets) relationship is on the rocks, so they head to the wilderness for an away from it all, make or break long weekend. But in their wake, they leave a trail of destruction – animals run over and tormented, their dog uncared for at home and fires started by their carelessness. They destroy both the countryside around them and any animal or creature that crosses their path…

THE MIRACULOUS VIRGIN, Štefan Uher, director/Second Run Blu-ray  Something of a find: Štefan Uher’s striking and elusive 1966 classic The Miraculous Virgin (Panna zázracnica) is a prime example of Czech avant garde/New Wave inventiveness.  This new issue also includes the director’s 1959 short Marked by Darkness (Poznačení tmou). For those with a taste for more adventurous film fare, this is a journey to take you into unusual realms.

CANDYMAN, Bernard Rose, director/Arrow Blu-ray  The reputation of Candyman has grown steadily over the years, as has that of its director Bernard Rose. And although the latter perhaps did not quite live up to the expectations of his early work, this new issue is a reminder of just how good he was — with a particular skill at finessing the visual aspect of his films. Starring Tony Todd and Virginia Madsen, this brand new 2K restoration (from a 4K scan of the original negative) is eye-popping fare.

THE MUSIC OF SILENCE, Michael Radford, director/4 Digital Media  Whether or not you are an admirer of the internationally acclaimed tenor Andrea Bocelli, this documentary about the blind singer’s life makes for a compelling experience – and that’s even without the copious examples of the singer’s art, recorded in impressively detailed sound.

TWELVE MONKEYS, Terry Gilliam/Arrow Blu-ray  Acquiring cult status almost immediately on its first release, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. Is a film that has grown in appeal over the years. Those familiar with Terry Gilliam’s initial impact (even pre-Monty Python) as a protégé of Mad magazine creator Harvey Kurtzman will know that Gilliam’s quirky visual skills were in evidence from the very start of his career. By the time of this SF classic, we knew exactly what to expect him, and this is one of the director’s most fully achieved films.

 

Brian Michael Bendis’ new take on The Man of Steel

The Man of Steel by Brian Michael Bendis et al   In a poll of the best-known fictional characters some years ago, Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan inevitably figured — but it was no surprise that DC Comics’ two heavy hitters, Superman and Batman, were in the upper echelons. The durability of these late Forties creations is attested by the fact that both superheroes are capable of almost endless re-invention, as long as certain basic tenets are maintained. And, in fact, the reappearance of those crucial elements — both Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent are orphans, for instance – is one of the incidental pleasures afforded by the new iterations. When Sigel and Shuster created their ‘strange visitor from another planet’ decades ago, they can have had no idea that it would still be being finessed by other talents in the 21st-century. The latest is in fact the current ruling comics superstar writer, Brian Michael Bendis, whose six-issue run, The Man of Steel, is collected in this handsome volume. Bendis’s approach to the character is not a radical one, but subtly (and cleverly) ringing the changes on certain aspects while touching all the familiar bases. Some may find the world-killing villain Rogol Zaar not notably different from his many predecessors, but the real pleasure here is in the exuberant treatment of Superman himself (and his cousin Supergirl) fighting against the complete annihilation of the Kryptonian race. With several of the current top illustrators (such as Jim Lee and Steve Rude) illuminating the text, this is a truly diverting volume – even for those who feel that this particular Kryptonian well has been sampled too many times. It seems that new versions of the Man of Steel will be possible for decades to come.

The Man of Steel is published by DC comics

Superman: The Movie: The 40th Anniversary Interviews by Gary Bettinson

Review: Barry Forshaw

The Intellect imprint has proved itself to be nonpareil when dealing with issues involving popular culture (I don’t say that just because they published my own Detective: Crime Uncovered), and this collection of essays concerning Superman: The Movie, the massively successful film that launched the current superhero trend is a usefyl addition to the list. The film (just Superman, to give it its onscreen title) is still routinely remade as an origin story for other superpowered characters, e.g. Spider-Man), and this is an illuminating and incisive examination of a cinematic phenomenon that wears well in the 21st century, despite its caricatured ‘humorous‘ villains. Many of the key personnel behind the film (with its exhilarating John Williams score) are in the mix here, including, of course, director Richard Donner and actors such as the late Margot Kidder who played Lois Lane. The final effect of the collection is to send the reader to look at the film again – but an enthusiast may wish to wait, given that there is a much-expanded version due on Blu-ray shortly. Perhaps after watching that spruced-up version may be the time to read this collection, but I’d advise buying this lively collection now.

Superman: The Movie: The 40th Anniversary Interviews by Gary Bettinson is published by Intellect

 

New Discs from Arrow, Eureka & Powerhouse Indicator

INCIDENT IN A GHOSTLAND, Pascal Laugier, director/Arrow Video Blu-ray Aficionados of more extreme horror films realised that they might truly test their mettle with the rigorous endurance test that was Pascal Laugier’s remarkable Martyrs, a film made with devastating command of the medium which many more squeamish viewers admitted they couldn’t get through. This latest effort is less gruelling, but shows that the director has not lost an iota of his authority when it comes to stretching the nerves of the viewer. Yet another variation on the home invasion scenario, Laugier demonstrates that in the right hands of the right director, familiar material can be made to come up fresh as paint. And what particularly sells the scenario here is the committed playing of the actresses Crystal Reed and Mylene Farmer in the increasingly tense narrative. After a harrowing home invasion endured with her mother and sister several years ago, horror novelist Beth escapes into her writing – setting down the experience in her latest book, “Incident in a Ghostland”. But a return to the isolated family home reveals horrifying things about the ordeal.

RESCUE UNDER FIRE, Alfredo Martinez, director/Eureka  The descriptively-titled Rescue Under Fire is something of a find: an urgent, pulse-racing thriller made with real cinematic authority by debut director of Alfredo Martinez. A medical helicopter crashes in Afghanistan while trying to rescue ambushed party of America and Spanish troops. The Spanish army has a single directive: to rescue the crew of the helicopter and the injured, but massive danger threatens when an army of insurgents begins to surround them. While the scenario has echoes of Blackhawk Down, it plays as an original concept, brought off with real skill. Edgy performances by Ariadna Gil and Roberto Alamo lend veracity; this one deserves a wide audience – it’s to be hoped that it receives it.

ABSOLUTION, Anthony Page, director, Powerhouse Indicator Limited Blu-ray Edition  Those who (like this reviewer) watch a great many Blu-rays may have noted a certain phenomenon that work: a reappraisal of films in the new medium which may have been underregarded on their first appearance. Absolution is a classic case of this syndrome. Director Anthony Page’s compelling drama did not create much of a stir on its first appearance (apart from complimentary remarks about this sterling performances), that now looks like a very considerable piece of work – not least for Richard Burton’s remarkable performance as the authoritarian Father Goddard, further proof that the image of him as an actor who largely squandered his talent in films is misplaced. At a Catholic boys’ school, Father Goddard is a strict disciplinarian. When a pupil confesses to murder, the troubled Goddard finds his faith under siege

THE KRAYS: DEAD MAN WALKING Jonathan Sothcott, director/4 Digital Media  There have been several films detailing the bloody rule of Britain’s most famous gangsters, the Kray twins – and even films which conflated the brothers into one character (Richard Burton’s gay criminal in Villain) so something unusual has to be added to the mix and distinguish any new film from its predecessors. In this unusual British movie, director Jonathan Sothcott adds an element which he presents as being central to the ultimate destruction of the duo (played here by Marc Pickering and Nathan John Carter): their bizarre and ill-advised support for the psychopathic criminal Frank ‘The Mad Axeman’ Mitchell (terrifyingly played by Josh Myers). After springing Mitchell from a high security Dartmoor prison, the twins secrete Mitchell in a house where his instructions are not to show his face. He is supplied with prostitutes, one of whom is Lisa Prescott (played by Rita Symons), who turns out to be the only woman who — for a time at least — is able to deal with the dangerously deranged Mitchell. Another new element added here is the presence of Guy Henry as the gay politician Lord Boothby who was part of the Krays circle. Another way in which the film is unusual is its relatively discreet use of violence– not a given in any film detailing the story of the twins. That said, the atmosphere of menace is ever present.

THE BABY, Ted Post, director/Arrow Video Blu-ray  There are certain films which absolutely divide audiences, and Ted Post’s The Baby is firmly in that number. If you are an open-minded viewer prepared to take on board the unorthodox, this is certainly a viewing experience unlike any other – whether you like it or not. Social worker Ann Gentry (memorably played by Anjanette Comer) is the given an assignment, tending to a 21-year-old man with the mind of a child who is not yet out of nappies. But the really disturbing thing here is the man’s bizarre family led by his formidable mother played by Ruth Roman (best remembered for Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train) and her equally odd daughters. You’ll know within a very short time whether this one is for you or not, but more adventurous viewers should certainly take note. Ted Post would direct the Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force the same year, 1973.

MONKEY SHINES, George Romero, director/Eureka Blu-ray  if your memory of this later George Romero film is of the video issue, it’s time to reacquaint yourself with the murderous monkey shenanigans on offer here again. This was one of the films that proved there was more to Romero than marauding zombies. As usual with the late director, there is more on offer than just the tropes of the horror film, although they are delivered with customer authority. Romero’s earlier built-in comments on such things as the consumer society and conformity are here replaced by undercurrents concerning humanity’s relation to the natural world, but the main attraction here is the generation of suspense, something Romero was always had firmly under his belt. On Blu-ray in the UK as part of the Eureka Classics range, Monkey Shines is available in in a Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) edition. The film stars the little-known Jason Beghe and Janine Turner and the tense plot focuses the trained monkey Ella who transforms into a notable horror film monster. Copious special features

MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN, John Carpenter, director/Fabulous Films  For many viewers, their first acquaintance with John Carpenter’s modern-day comic spin on HG Wells’ The Invisible Man would have been via panned-and -scanned VHS issues, so it’s infinitely preferable to see it in a handsome widescreen transfer. Of course Wells’ novel had already been treated to a matchless film adaptation with the director James Whale enjoying himself hugely – and even the most fervent defender of John Carpenter’s film would admit that if this new version is not in that class, but it has much to offer – not least special effects, which still mostly look impressive even in this digital era. Chevy Chase stars alongside Darryl Hannah and a villainous Sam Neil. Carpenter said due to the effects work “we essentially had to shoot the same movie twice”, as after normal takes the effects team would set up their bulky VistaVision motion control cameras to film the same elements again while gathering digital data for the computer-generated imagery. Chase would wear a blue bodysuit below his clothing, so that computer artists would erase his body through chroma key and match the clothes with computer-generated replicas so that even the inside of the clothing could be seen, along with other touches such as erasing the shadow made by Chase’s body. Along with blue eyeball sized contact lenses, Chase had to have his teeth and tongue stained with blue food colouring to make him disappear on the blue screen during filming.

SCHLOCK, John Landis, director/Arrow Video Blu-ray  If you’re an admirer of one of the best comic horror movies ever made, An American Werewolf in London, you may wish to sample a rough-and-ready earlier film by the director John Landis which is both a homage to and parody of ‘prehistoric apes on the loose’ movies. Making a virtue of his non-existent budget, Landis set out his stall early on in this often very funny if ramshackle parody – an extra interest is added by apprentice efforts from make-up man Rick Baker Rick Baker whose affection for filmic apes is well known.

CITY HUNTER, Jing Wong, director/ Eureka Entertainment  The all-too-brief film careers (before their early deaths) of such actors as James Dean and – in the martial arts field – Bruce Lee quickly lent a posthumous cult value to the stars’ reputations; one that has been denied such living actors as Jackie Chan, with his lengthy career (and equally lengthy filmography). But there is another factor in this situation — Chan’s appeal is not based on a measure of cool mystique as with the actors mentioned above, but through a combination of his audience-pleasing amiable personality and (most importantly) the astonishing athletic stunts that frequently put him in the hospital (often accompanied by his injured fellow actors – hence the end-credit sequences in his films showing the stunts that went wrong). City Hunter is one of his most winning efforts, here presented in a new Blu-ray transfer. Chan plays amorous private detective Ryo Saeba in an adaptation of the popular Japanese manga series, hired to find Shizuko Imamura, the runaway daughter of a publishing tycoon. When terrorists hijack the ship she is on, the stage is set for jaw-dropping action sequences by Chan; fans need not hesitate.

THE COLLECTOR, William Wyler, director/Powerhouse/Indicator Limited Blu-ray Edition  Few would argue that the director William Wyler did full justice to John Fowles novel in this otherwise strong adaptation of his novel, but that is only to judge it by the standards of one of the finest of modern novels. Look at The Collector as a film in its own right, and you will find that not only is Wyler’s command as surefooted as ever but the performances by Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar are beautifully judged pieces of film acting. John Fowles’ novel focuses on a disturbed young, unbalanced young butterfly collector (Stamp) who stalks and abducts a young art student (Eggar). Stamp and Eggar bagged Best Actor prizes for their roles at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, and the film still works remarkably well.

THE ROCKFORD FILES: Season One, Various directors/Fabulous Films  The writer Roy Huggins had been creating detective series as far back as the 1960s with such shows as 77 Sunset strip, but he will best be remembered for this amiable television spin on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe with the always reliable James Garner (who had played Marlowe on film) as the tenacious gumshoe Jim Rockford. The Rockford Files ran for 6 seasons and was one of the highest rated cop shows of the 70’s. Now fully restored and in high definition, the show has aged very well. Season One contains all 22 episodes from the classic TV series starring James Garner and Noah Beery Jr which was produced by TV legend Stephen J. Cannell (The A Team). James Garner was nominated for 15 Emmy Awards during his television career. His depiction of Jim Rockford won him the award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series in 1977. In the early 1980s Universal sued Garner for walking out of The Rockford Files during the sixth season. Garner countersued, claiming the studio had cheated him out of his share of profits from the series. The lawsuit lasted nearly eight years eventually being settled out of court. Garner won, having asked for $22.5 million, although the actual figure was never allowed to be disclosed. Charging $200 per day plus expenses, he’s not the cheapest detective available, but he’s the best. Jim relies on his brain not brawn to solve a case, and frequently his charm. An ex-convict, once imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, Jim has a penchant for taking cases that are closed by the LAPD – those the police were sure had been resolved.

DEADBEAT AT DAWN, Jim VanBebber, director Arrow Video Blu-ray   Chaotic, kinetic and raw, this is a gruesome diversion that will push all the requisite buttons for those who like their entertainment sanguinary in the extreme. The central characters Goose (played by the director, Jim VanBebber) is a gang leader whose attempt to leave his criminal life behind is upended when his girlfriend is savagely killed. What follows is a revenge fantasy with all the stops yanked out. This disc is accorded a brand new 2K restoration, supervised and approved by writer, director and star VanBebber.

DESIGNATED SURVIVOR: The Complete Second Season, various directors/eOne  Kiefer Sutherland makes a welcome second appearance as the accidental Commander-in-Chief Tom Kirkman in this accomplished and ambitious US TV series. Despite the plethora of similar shows, this one has a particular character of its own, and a considerable asset is the presence of Natascha McElhone as the resilient First lady. The terrorists who took down the capital are still at large, and a variety of entertaining crises follow.

MYSTERY ROAD, Rachel Perkins director/Acorn  This piece has been touted as Australia’s answer to True Detective, but while that description verges on hyperbole, there is no denying the level of craftmanship from director Rachel Perkins with which this crime drama set against the backdrop of Australia’s outback is delivered. Aaron Pederson is quietly convincing as the hard-boiled indigenous detective Jay Swann, brought in to investigate the disappearance of two young men in a remote town. The fact that his partner Emma James is played by the always reliable Judy Davis is another considerable plus.

COLUMBO, Season One, Various directors/Fabulous Films  Dostoevsky may have done it first with his detective Porfiry slowly wearing down a murder suspect in Crime and Punishment, but this classic American series (the creators have acknowledged the literary source) ) is how most people will be familiar with the situation. The fact that it is established (and set in stone) in the very first episode here is remarkable, given how flexible this seemingly rigid format proved over many seasons – not least as a showcase of such considerable actors as Patrick McGoohan, cast several times in the seri.es as he and Peter Falk clearly liked working together It’s the landmark series that inspired an entire genre. Now Columbo television’s greatest detective comes to Blu-ray for the first time, fully restored and in hi-definition. Starring Peter Falk in his 4-time Emmy-winning role as the cigar-chomping, trench coat-wearing police lieutenant. This 3-disc collection includes every episode from the series’ first season, as well as the two original Columbo TV Pilot movies: Prescription: Murder and Ransom for A Dead Man. Columbo’s first season features solid guest stars such as Leslie Nielsen, Robert Culp, Ray Milland, Eddie Albert, Suzanne Pleshette, Don Ameche and Roddy McDowall. Columbo ran for 13 seasons and was one of the highest rated shows of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Season one, episode one, “Murder by the Book”, was directed by Steven Spielberg aged 25 years old. Spielberg used the rough cut of the series premier to land the director’s job on cult classic Duel.

 

 

Richard Holliss on Harryhausen: The Movie Posters

While paying tribute to special effects ace Ray Harryhausen, on his acceptance of the Gordon E. Sawyer Technical Achievement Award at the 1992 Oscar Ceremony, actor Tom Hanks summed up the sentiments of hundreds of movie fans and industry insiders worldwide when he opined ‘Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane. I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made.’

Hank’s comments couldn’t have been more timely, for while Harryhausen’s films had been ignored for years by the Academy, his proprietary brand of stop motion techniques, Dynamation (in which miniature figures are moved a frame at a time to create the illusion of movement), have proved an inarguable influence on generations of filmmakers from Paul Verhoeven to Steven Spielberg.

It all started in 1933, when the teenage Harryhausen’s imagination was fired by the amazing special effects in the original King Kong. Experimenting with his own amateur stop-motion films led to a meeting with Kong’s creator Willis O’Brien. Becoming close friends, the pair worked together on the Academy Award-winning fantasy film Mighty Joe Young in 1949.

A movie version of science fiction writer Ray Bradbury’s short story The Foghorn launched Harryhausen’s solo career with the iconic The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in 1953. Made on a miniscule budget, Harryhausen’s meticulous visual effects ensured the movie was a box-office hit for Warner Brothers.

Teaming up with producer Charles H. Schneer, Harryhausen went on to enthral fifties cinemagoers with an impressive range of fantasy films, featuring giant sea creatures, flying saucers and invaders from space.

After the release of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in 1958(Harryhausen’s first feature film in colour), the special effects maestro continued to hone his craft throughout the 1960s with such classic movies as Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonauts and One Million Years BC.

Even the era of science fiction movies like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, failed to eclipse Harryhausen’s popularity in the fantasy film stakes. His magical special effects still had the power to win over audiences in two further Sinbad adventures and his blockbuster swansong, Clash of the Titans.

Thanks to his amazing imagination and his skill as a special effects technician, Ray Harryhausen’s work is legendary and his films are a timeless tribute to his mastery of the cinematic art.

 

Harrryhausen:The Movie Posters is published by Titan

 

 

 

Harryhausen: The Movie Posters from Titan

Harryhausen: The Movie Posters    Richard Hollis; foreword by John Landis

There is no better writer to collate this handsome volume of posters for the memorable films of Ray Harryhausen than Richard Hollis, long one of the most astute commentators on the fantasy and science fiction genre. Harryhausen’s astonishing stop-motion effects created an army of fantastic creatures over the years and enhanced many films both good (such as Jason and the Argonauts) and others worthwhile only for his special effects. It’s something of a cliché to note that although CGI has replaced stop-motion animation with more seamless, realistic effects, the new creations in that medium lack the very individual character that Harryhausen created with his very hands-on (literally so) approach. And with the oversized format of Harryhausen: The Movie Posters, as we are able to appreciate the striking posters that drew so many of us into cinemas in the 1960s. What’s more, Richard Hollis has assembled several foreign posters which are often different from the more familiar US/UK posters. Ray Harryhausen has been much written about over the year, but this is something that will be new for most collectors, and it is very cherishable.

Harryhausen: The Movie Posters by Richard Hollis is published by Titan

 

New from Powerhouse, Eureka and Arrow

 

MINISTRY OF FEAR, Fritz Lang, director/Powerhouse Blu-ray  With Ray Milland, released after a mercy killing into a dark wartime London, the stage is set for an atmospheric and menacing thriller of the kind that became Fritz Lang’s métier when he escaped from Nazi Germany. And unpleasant Nazis are in the mix here, with Lang’s customary attention to detail making for a quixotic, highly diverting mix. It’s not vintage Lang, but anything by the director requires close attention, and aficionados will find plenty worthy of their time. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the source novel is by Graham Greene. Writers high up the ladder of literary acceptability proved ingredients for the criminal mix that fuelled the British crime film – such as Graham Greene (1904-1991). Had Greene not been the author of the ‘serious’ novels (such as A Burnt Case and The Heart of the Matter) which marked him out as one of the greatest of all English writers, his ‘entertainments’ (as the author rather dismissively described them) would constitute a body of crime and thriller fiction almost without equal in the field. Early in his career, Greene introduced an element of the spy story into The Confidential Agent (1939), in which D, the agent of a Latin government (Republican Spain in all but name), figures in a narrative that was clearly influential on such later writers as John le Carré. The latter has long acknowledged Greene’s considerable influence on his work. Brighton Rock, with its brilliantly realised picture of a violent seaside underworld, is as strong a starting point for those new to Greene as anything he wrote, but such superbly honed thrillers as the basis of this Powerhouse issue, Ministry of Fear (1943), demonstrate an authority and mastery of the narrative form that makes most practitioners look mere journeymen. Despite the writer’s long association with the cinema, the number of first-rate films associated with his work is relatively few (Carol Reed’s The Third Man, of course, and Lang’s creditable stab at Ministry of Fear). A razor-sharp transfer.

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, Billy Wilder, director/Eureka Blu-ray  The recent Sally Phelps adaptation for television of this Agatha Christie classic was far darker than Billy Wilder’s film (very much in the manner of the earlier Phelps updates such as And Then There Were None), but Wilder’s adaptation is unalloyed joy from beginning to end — not least for the bantering relationship between husband-and-wife actors Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester as the acerbic, ailing judge and his fussy nurse. Their scenes are actually the best thing in the film, which is not to say that Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich do not acquit themselves well in the main plot, and courtroom dramas don’t come any better than this. Of course, most of us know the plot twists now (and if you don’t, they will not be revealed in this review), but they are still delicious. And those familiar with the film only from its television showings will be astonished at how much care Eureka have taken over this very crisp Blu-ray transfer. However much you may have enjoyed Sally Phelps’ television adaptation, this remains the definitive take on Christie’s ingenious piece.

HEATHERS, Michael Lehmann, director /Arrow  The first question to be asked, of course, is how does Heathers look in the early years of the 21st-century? The fact that it’s a time capsule from the 80s is part of its charm (look at the big hair on the women), but it’s not hard to see why the film has such a devoted following. As the obsidian-dark high school comedy Heathers celebrates its 30th anniversary, Arrow Video marks the occasion with this impressive restoration of the outrageous satire starring Christian Slater (True Romance) and Winona Ryder (Stranger Things). Modern audiences may wonder (as they possibly did when the film first appeared): can the Winona Ryder character be quite as naive as she seems in not seeing just what bad news Christian Slater’s rebel is, however appealing she finds his unorthodox (and increasingly murderous) behaviour? But her slow awakening to the fact that she is having a sexual relationship with a psychopath is still one of the pleasures of the film.

THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE, Flavio Mogherini, director/Arrow Blu-ray  The giallo field is full of curiosities, but this little-known film is a real curio. Arrow, who have done sterling service in issuing a host of these glossy Italian murder thrillers, have arranged the UK Blu-ray debut of a giallo set not in London (a favourite giallo destination) but down under, The Pyjama Girl Case is a complex murder mystery inspired by a real-life case. A tetchy retired cop played by Ray Milland (sans toupee and somewhat older than in the film that opened this column) persuades his reluctant associates that he can help in solving a case involving the mutilated corpse of a girl. In fact, in a genre noted for its gruesomeness, the only macabre element here is the hideously burned face of the murder victim seen at some length throughout the film (even, bizarrely when her naked corpse is displayed for gawping onlookers). Perhaps this is one for aficionados only, but there is no denying the beautiful quality of the transfer — a sine qua non for the company. Copious extras including a fascinating piece on internationalism in the giallo from Michael McKenzie.

VON RYAN’S EXPRESS, Mark Robson, director/ Twentieth Century Fox Blu-ray  Frank Sinatra was well-known for his impatience on the film set and his insistence on using the first take on almost every occasion led to some notably lazy work in his career. Not so here – this, like The Manchurian Candidate, is one of his very best films, and looks particularly striking in this new transfer. Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard star in this classic war drama directed by Mark Robson. When US pilot Colonel Joseph Ryan (Sinatra) is shot down and placed in a German prisoner of war camp, he is more concerned with his own survival than escape. The top-ranking officer in the camp, he is initially reviled by his fellow British and American prisoners, who nickname him Von Ryan. However, Ryan eventually comes to lead them in a daring escape attempt, taking over from the commanding British officer (Howard), and the escapees face many hazards as they commandeer a train to make their way across Italy, closely followed by the Nazis.

THE ODESSA FILE, Ronald Neame, director/Powerhouse Blu-ray  When an author creates a groundbreaking first novel, it is a considerable challenge to follow it up. But Frederick Forsyth’s long and successful career since The Day of the Jackal has shown that it is a challenge he could pull off at intervals. Jackal sported one of the most unusual innovations in all fiction – the ultimate ‘high concept’ thriller, with an English hitman hired to assassinate President de Gaulle. The methodical detail of the book has been copied many times since, and Forsyth achieved later success with The Odessa File in 1974. The year is 1963, sometime after the Kennedy assassination. German crime reporter Peter Miller has access to the diary of a holocaust survivor who has committed suicide. Miller learns that the dead man, Tauber, had been incarcerated in Riga Ghetto, under the brutal command of Eduard Roschmann, ‘The Butcher of Riga’, and Miller’s search for Roschmann (who Tauber had seen just before his death) is to lead the reporter into mortal danger.

BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, John Frankenheimer, director/Eureka Blu-ray  Any praise for this classic of the cinema is relatively superfluous, given the ironclad reputation it has acquired over the years. Difficult to know what to praise first: Burt Lanchester’s superb performance as the longtime prisoner and ornithologist Robert Stroud, John Frankenheimer’s typically assured direction or Elmer Bernstein supple and evocative score. If the film omits the real-life Stroud’s homosexuality, that is a forgivable omission, given that it is not Frankenheimer’s focus. Birdman is the kind of sophisticated and intelligent filmmaking that is becoming more rare in the cinema, and looks particularly good in this transfer.

211, York Alec Shackleton, director/Lionsgate  ‘211’ is the police code for robbery in progress, and the robbery in this crisply handled thriller is particularly memorable. The film was inspired by real-life events, and stars the always reliable Nicolas Cage as a veteran cop anticipating his retirement. But with his partner and son-in-law Steve in tow, a routine patrol is to end in an explosive situation. The film did not make a great impression in the cinema, but looks particularly good on the home screen and will certainly lead to a few fingernails being chewed.

 

We are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale

We are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale Neil Snowdon, editor & The Big, Big Giggle by Nigel Kneale 

Leaving aside writers from another century such as HG Wells, there is little doubt that the most significant of modern British science-fiction writers was the late Nigel Kneale, whose superlative writing and concepts – both on television then courtesy of Hammer Films brought a level of sophistication and intelligence to the genre which had become much rarer, banishing cliché. And many of Kneale’s innovations are still being sampled today (that’s a polite way of saying ‘being ripped off’), notably in the long-running TV series Doctor Who — which has cheerfully plundered the Kneale back catalogue for years. Electric Greenhouse and PS Publishing have made available two books which will tempt admirers – one much more than the other. The Big, Big Giggle is perhaps one for collectors only, as it is a television screenplay – and, accordingly laid out in that format. Much more essential for Kneale admirers. We are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale in which Neil Snowdon curates an absolutely definitive guide to the writer’s entire career with contributions from such admirers as Mark Gatiss. It’s a book that will not only give pleasure for its own range of ambition but will send the reader back to the classic Nigel Kneale originals. (It should be noted that The Big Big Giggle is available as an ‘extra’ as part of the Deluxe Edition of ‘We Are The Martians’ which is signed by the contributors, and presented in a slipcase as a separate volume rather than as an appendix.)

Barry Forshaw

We are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale Neil Snowdon, editor & The Big, Big Giggle by Nigel Kneale are published by Electric Dreamhouse and PS Publishing

 

 

Cult Film Books from Arrow

Arrow Cult Film Books; various authors

 

There is nothing that the true cinéaste enjoys more (other than the actual experience of watching a film itself) than reading about a film or director they have been excited by — particularly in books or articles that are informed by both scholarship and enthusiasm. Those qualities are copiously in evidence in the series of compact and colourful volumes issued by Arrow films to cover a wide range of cult items (the publishing imprint has avoided mainstream arthouse cinema and concentrated on the fascinating byways of genre films.). A good example is Kat Ellinger’s All the Colours of Sergio Martino. The writing is unpolished, but Ellinger’s love for – and knowledge of — this material leaps off the page, and makes for a fascinating (if all too brief) read. Sergio Martino is best known as a director of grisly gialli thrillers, but there are no genres that hold terrors for him, with Westerns, crime thrillers such as Suspicious Death of a Minor (Morte Sospetta di una Minorenne, 1975) and even ribald comedies on his curriculum vitae. In one area, Martino is very much like his compatriots Mario Bava and Dario Argento: while never being as consistently inspired in his work as them, he is capable of truly vivid and engaged filmmaking, alongside some by-the-numbers work.

Similarly engaging is Gregg Rickman’s Philip K Dick on Film, which combines a thoroughgoing knowledge of the subject with a clear-sighted analysis of the various attempts – both successful and misfiring – to transfer this most influential of science fiction writers to film. As one of the more substantial volumes in the series, Rickman’s entry is particularly cherishable. There are also generally well written and intelligent studies devoted to The Hitcher, The Blair Witch Project and The Man Who Fell to Earth – not to mention a substantial study of the films of Meiko Kaji. The fact that the books are very attractive little volumes (illustrated with colour stills) is less important than the fascination they will hold for the true film buff. They may, of course, cost you money, sending you out to search out some of the films discussed. If that’s the case, I can recommend a label for cult films: Arrow Video…

Arrow Cult Film Books; various authors – published by Arrow