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Running with the night


FILM NOIR FEST The Columbia trademark: a literal goddess swathed in virginal white robes, she serenely holds aloft a torch à la the Statue of Liberty. What say we gussy her up in black satin and replace that blazing torch with a hot little .45? It seems apropos, considering the Roxie Theater is hosting a "Best of Columbia Noir" retrospective. But does the program manage to eclipse all that angelic light? Yes and no. While there is plenty of nefarious activity on display, a weirdly frequent moralizing often fails to capture the noir spirit.

Take Knock on Any Door (1949). A social justice–courtroom drama steeped in moral outrage, it has the gall to cast Humphrey Bogart not as rogue private dick but as upstanding defense attorney. As directed by Nicholas Ray, Door is a prestige picture flirting with humanity’s underbelly, eventually offering a mea culpa to wash itself clean.

Even "B" movie bona fides like The Whistler (1944) can’t help suffer a little moral affront. Its titular character operates in Rod Serling mode: part superego, part harbinger of doom. Robert Rossen’s Johnny O’Clock (1947) offers all the traditional noir elements, but dang if its criminal antihero (Dick Powell) doesn’t get redeemed by true love. When the SF-set The Lineup (1958) focuses on a pair of drug henchmen, it’s a fascinating character study; when it follows forthright SFPD detectives, it’s Dragnet.

Speaking of lineups, there’s a curious dearth of femmes fatales in this one. Even Sam Fuller, the king of exploitation with a social conscience, fails to deliver one in his otherwise crackerjack Crimson Kimono (1959), a gritty exploration of race relations in midcentury Los Angeles. Anita Ekberg camps it up in the uproarious, Freudian cheesecake-fest Screaming Mimi (1958), but her femme fatale status is seriously undermined by a lack of personal responsibility — she’s like a buxom Barbara Stanwyck with a frontal lobotomy.

Thank the dark lord for the grotesquely atmospheric and oddball Soul of a Monster (1944). It won’t be giving much away to reveal that the movie takes the femme fatale concept to its logical end. Never mind the film’s coda about faith and redemption, the sight of the devil marching resolutely through dark streets, downing power lines in her wake, obliterates all that corn. We can finally chalk one up for the bad girls.


Sept. 17–30, $5–$9.75

Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., SF

(415) 863-1087, www.roxie.com

A blip in Northern Sky


DVD REVIEW If a Viking takes a shit in the woods, will anyone care? I asked myself this after watching Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America, an admirable if somewhat aimless and altogether odd duck of an independent film. Believe me, I wanted to love this movie more. The press release couldn’t have made it sound any cooler: Vikings lost in the New World in 1007! A black metal soundtrack! They terrorize Irish monks! It’s in Old Norse! Duuuuuude!

All those elements do come into play in this shoestring historic epic, but Severed Ways ultimately becomes as directionless as its stranded protagonists. At the very least, director Tony Stone, who also wrote, edited, and stars in the production, deserves credit for his dogged persistence of vision, even if the final product feels like sitting through the collected outtakes of reenactments from a History Channel documentary.

Based on the real expedition by Thorfinn Karlsefni, an Icelander who planned to settle in the New World, Severed Ways follows errant warriors Orn (Stone) and Volnard (Fiore Tedesco) as they set out into the wilds of North America in hopes of finding others of their kind, having narrowly survived a raid by indigenous peoples (whom they call "skraelings"). Most of the film consists of Orn and Volnard wandering, and then wandering some more. In lieu of a narrative, Stone instead focuses — almost obsessively — on the crude, dull, details of day-to-day survival: we see the Vikings fell trees and build lean-tos; Orn sloppily beheads and butchers an actual chicken; and, in what has to be the film’s biggest WTF moment, we also see him take a gargantuan dump, using nearby foliage as TP.

In its strongest moments, Stone’s warts-and-all aesthetic and borderline-vérité commitment to realism evokes Herzog circa Fitzcarraldo (1982) or Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972). Stone’s two cinematographers — shooting in digital — capture some lovely shots of the wild beauty of the Viking’s alien surroundings. And the film’s unhurried editing and tableau-like shots convey both the uncertainty and monotony of the Vikings’ experience as lone strangers in a strange land.

However, these moments are few and far between. And if Stone harbored any loftier intentions of conveying the emotional and spiritual depths of roughing it, they are hamstrung by the film’s heavy metal frippery, most notably a hilarious but totally random shot of Orn headbanging and some awkward translations of the Old Norse dialogue ("We’re toast if we stay here"). And it is here that Stone’s taste in black metal should be questioned. The much-hyped soundtrack is a disappointment, with the majority of the synth-strings heavy ambient metal tracks simply not suiting the film’s po-faced tone. Some harder, more buzz-filled and, well, genuinely darker, selections would’ve been appreciated. A map wouldn’t have hurt either.

American hardcore


X-RATED CLASSICS A sexploitation lifer who reportedly has directed so many features even he doesn’t know how many, Joe Sarno is nonetheless also enough of an idiosyncratic talent to have won a cult following and some high-culture-institution retrospectives. No education in psychotronic cinema is complete without the likes of 1962’s Sin in the Suburbs, a B&W exposé of swinger "bottle parties" that defines just how lurid movies could seem before they were actually allowed to show anything, and 1972’s Young Playthings, the rare erotic film one might — even must — call "Pirandello-esque."

Though he confessed to being shocked at first, Sarno didn’t blink in making the transition from softcore to hardcore, though his output finally slowed in the ’80s. Alternative Cinema has taken on the task of releasing as much of this voluminous oeuvre as possible to DVD, including some films long thought lost. (They also induced his filmmaking return — at age 83! — via 2004’s Suburban Secrets.)

The latest releases represent both his 1960s monochrome melodrama period and a mid-1970s sojourn into goofy sex comedies, the latter often available in "hard" and "soft" versions. Shoestring 1968 production All the Sins of Sodom was shot when "adults only" films could expose breasts, but nothing more beyond a lot of sexy (albeit nonprofane) situations and talk — which fortunately Sarno was most excellent at writing.

Nudes photographer Henning gets involved with several models while obsessively searching for a particular "look." He urges them on, shouting things like "More feeling! More EVIL!" à la Austin Powers. Purportedly shot over a long weekend, its cast names never even recorded, it’s a claustrophobic weirdie recalling such exploitation zeniths as Roger Corman’s Teenage Doll (1957) and Andy Milligan’s Fleshpot on 42nd St (1973).

Its gorgeous widescreen B&W restoration stands opposed to three-color features on the Deep Throat Sex Comedy Collection. Their visual quality (and variably complete edits) underline the ephemeral nature of movies often sporadically released at best originally, and that no one thought to "preserve." The headline attraction, Deep Throat II, was a spectacular 1974 flop inaccessible even to bootleggers until now. It reunited the original "porn chic" smash’s stars Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems — albeit in an aggressively dumb, atypically amateur (for Sarno) espionage spoof nobody liked. Dubious authority Al Goldstein called it "the worst movie ever made" because it committed the ultimate sin of omitting all graphic sex, even Linda’s signature oral party trick. (Rumors persisted for years that hardcore scenes were shot, then lost, in a lab fire.)

The other two Sex Comedy inclusions are equally rare but more rewarding. Likewise featuring a range of famous vintage porn stars, The Switch, Or How To Alter Your Ego and A Touch of Genie (both from 1974) each have their own inimitable softcore charms. Female Jekyll/Hyde spin Switch debuts long-term Sarno fave Mary Mendum as a scientific researcher whose formula turns her from unconvincing Plain Jane into a raving beauty who perpetually arouses others, male and female. Starting out in a burlesque-humor mode, it gets surprisingly darker as it goes along.

Genie is about Melvin Finklefarb, a Woody Allen-like nebbish granted five wishes by a junkshop’s bottled Barbara Eden aspirant. In one "wish," he’s Harry Reems. Evidently video-transferred Switch comes with mysterious (Danish?) subtitles; Genie‘s 35mm source is streaked and spotted. Apparently no better prints exist. Particularly ingratiating are Sarno’s invariably kind recollections in the extras — either he never met a performer he didn’t like, or they all liked him enough to be on their best behavior.


Hittin’ the tube


THE DRUG ISSUE After watching hours of Intervention — A&E’s reality show that profiles addicts, their families, and their painful first steps toward recovery — I concluded that junkies don’t watch Intervention. But if the average non-junkie watches too much Intervention, he or she will without a doubt become addicted to Intervention. So proceed cautiously.

With the exception of special "follow-up" entries, the structure of every episode (seven seasons’ worth) is similar. First you meet the addict (alcoholic, crack smoker, heroin injector, bulimic, huffer, pill-popper, meth-taker, overshopper, excessive video gamer, etc.) and take stock of his or her increasingly fucked-up life (job and/or marriage lost, homeless, secret stripping gig, custody of children taken away, threat of jail, etc.) Then you meet the loved ones (weepy grandma, terminally ill father, adorably articulate pre-teen, resentful husband, etc.) who’ve been enabling the addict for years, but are now pushed to the edge. The more compelling stories hog an entire show, but most of the time Intervention‘s intrepid editors split the hour between two unrelated yet carefully calibrated cases (for example, the plight of an anorexic single mom is cross-cut with that of a hulking rageaholic).

Rock bottom looms. But what’s that knock at the door? Why, it’s one of three Intervention-ists — mustachioed Jeff VanVonderen, redhead Candy Finnigan, or raspy-voiced Ken Seeley — here to oversee what’s inevitably an extremely emotional sit-down with the addict, who is thereafter spirited away to a recovery center. A quick post-rehab update, in the form of a sober and smiling subject (or on-screen text, in case things don’t go so well), ends each ep.

The reason I say junkies don’t watch Intervention is that they never suspect what’s in store. They all "agree to be in a documentary about addiction," which explains why they allow a camera crew to peep in as they steal medication, forge checks, fall down drunk, and so forth. But the intervention itself is always a complete surprise, suggesting that crack addicts have better things to do than watch A&E all day, or scour A&E’s Web site for newly posted tidbits. Intervention‘s popularity can be pinpointed thusly: it’s got the dramatic lure of a sensational trainwreck, but with the immense appeal of seeing a person who’s hit rock bottom turn his or her life around. Does this show inspire people to get help? Maybe. Is it exploitative? Perhaps. But one thing’s for sure: after your first Intervention viewing, you’ll be jonesin’ for more.


Mad women


TV DAMES I’m sure you’ve heard: the critically lauded Mad Men‘s characterizations are subtle and layered. Its insights into contemporary society, as viewed through the prism of 1960s-era domestic and professional life, are at once nuanced and precisely rendered. Its dialogue is rich in subtext and dramatic allusion. In short, it’s, you know, deep.

But, also, the outfits really rock. And so do the fabulously messed-up women who wear them. Take vixen head-secretary Joan Holloway, as portrayed by flame-haired siren Christina Hendricks. While Joan — a sex kitten who’s all business — bumps her sculptural up-do on the proverbial glass ceiling, the men in the Manhattan offices of the Sterling Cooper advertising agency ogle her "valentine’s heart" rear end. Joanie lives for the attention. Brimming with confidence, smarts, and curvaceous sass, this formidable gal wields her sexuality like a fleshy weapon; 40 years in the future, she could have toppled corrupt government administrations without smearing her lipstick. Instead, she makes the coffee, taunts Serious Career Girl Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) about her weight, and brushes off getting raped by her fiancé in the boss’s office with a terse, ladylike smile. Let’s hope in 1963 her color-coordinated pumps trip over a copy of The Feminine Mystique.

If working city-girl Joan is the show’s sugar-voiced femme fatale, then Betty Draper (lead ad exec Don Draper’s icy, model-perfect wife) is its luridly soapy secret weapon. A young Grace Kelly type trapped in the suburban wastelands of upstate New York, Betty (January Jones) is equally as confused — and formidable — as her urban sex goddess counterpart. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that the Princess of Monaco would slap a neighbor in a grocery store after being accused of an inappropriate relationship with a 12-year-old boy. Or reprimand her cheating husband for his choice of mistress ("How could you, Don? She’s so old.")

Betty’s uptight, provincial-princess façade is also the source for some martini-dry comedy. When a foppish younger man tries to seduce her, she sets him straight. "You’re so deeply sad," he coos. "No, I’m happy," she replies. "It’s just my people are Nordic." Joan stretched out luxuriously on a streamlined chartreuse sofa in a purple shift dress might represent the apex of the show’s downtown aesthetic, but Betty’s delicate upstate hausfrau is its hypocritical, bourgeois soul. When the new season premieres Aug. 16, I’ll be glued to the flat-screen with highball glass in hand, enjoying all the scandals ’60s-era Manhattan and Westchester County have to offer. Like Don Draper, I feel no need to have to choose just one woman, especially when they all offer such distinct, guilty-pleasure charms.


Hex appeal


CULT MOVIES ONLINE I remember sitting on the floor of a scrappy Las Vegas hotel room, my five-year-old eyes glued to the television. A fuzzy film played from a far-gone era, filled with uncensored violence, sex, and drugged out debauchery. I was horrified, but possessed euphorically by that horror, unable to turn away from the moving screen. To this day I am still looking for that movie’s title. And nearly every film freak who shares a similar story of initiation still seeks out some unknown title. But lucky for us weirdos, the San Francisco collective Cosmic Hex is committed to finding, archiving, and digitally preserving just those forgotten treasures of underground exploitation film.

"We just have fun with the whole underground, sort of lost exploitation movie scene," says Dan Simpson, head organizer of the Cosmic Hex Internet archive. Together with fellow aficionados Scott Moffett and Serge Vladimiroff, Simpson started the digital archive six years ago initially as a way to show the collective’s giant stockpile of 16mm and 35mm films. But the costs of such a feat grew exponentially, and so the project veered instead to the whimsical. "We got to the point where we pay the bills and we do whatever we want. I get to explore my id and go down whatever avenues open up to me that week," Simpson explains. His id currently spirals him into ’70s made-for-television bizarrities like the Western/satanic cult mashup, Black Noon (1971). But Simpson also enjoys fulfilling requests, no matter their obscurity. A film with a single VHS release that died with the mom and pop stores? Only eight copies in the world? The Citizen Kane of "asteroid possessed bulldozer films," Killdozer (1974)? Simpson is game for the challenge.

Besides building their growing digital archive of nearly 300 films, Cosmic Hex also screens some select 16mm choices in its clubhouse speakeasy, the Vortex Room (1082 Howard, SF; www.myspace.com/thevortexroom). The terrestrial SoMa location transports visitors into a whole ‘nother world of the weird, showcasing some of the finest trash and psychedelic madness ever captured on reel. August’s calendar totes the classic psycho-thriller Race With The Devil (1975) and the enigmatic Divine Emanuelle Love Cult (1983) among many other juicy titles. "Somebody has to take charge and make this stuff available, or it never will," Simpson says. "And it will end up burning in some vault at some point and never be seen again." But these films do not engage strictly on an ironic or nostalgic level. Many of them genuinely hold up as quality pieces of work. "I end up finding more genius in some of these films that people would write off without even watching the first 10 minutes," Simpson insists. "The trashier, the weirder, the better it is." (Michael Krimper)

Art or ARG


ALTERNATE REALITY GAMES It starts, as most quests do, with a question. "What the hell?" A flyer advertising the Aquatic Thought Foundation, a division of the Jejune Institute devoted to Human-Dolphin interaction. And even though you’re probably the type to resist even the perverse pleasure of sitting through a bullshit Scientologist e-meter reading, something about the prospect of communing with dolphins is absurdly compelling. You call the number. A recondite family awaits.

So begins stage one of an ongoing self-paced scavenger hunt/walking tour/alternate reality game devised by a pseudonymous cabal of Bay Area artists and pranksters. As anyone with even a passing familiarity with the clumsy graphics and overblown hyperbole of cultist media will recognize, the shadowy overlords behind the Jejune Institute have done their homework well. Their office digs on California Street are pure cult cliché — from the op art adorning the walls to the shelves of new age esoterica and obsolete radio equipment to the videotaped welcome message from Institute founder Octavio Coleman, Esq. Upon completion of the "induction," the inductee embarks on a clue-finding expedition through Chinatown, armed with a treasure map and an official Jejune Institute pencil. The mysterious trail wends lo and hi, from the St. Mary’s parking garage to the back balcony of a shabby-retro edifice on Grant Street, places not exactly on even the most well-honed urban explorer’s radar.

Level two, hosted by rival branch the Elsewhere Public Works Agency, takes place in the Mission District, hitting a series of beloved independent institutions — Faye’s, Force of Habit, Adobe, Paxton Gate — as well as the site of a former Native American cemetery, a spate of interdimensional hopscotch, and a visit to what might be the district’s smallest micro-neighborhood. If the Jejune Institute is a picture-perfect façade of cult imagery, the EPWA is an even more fully realized vision on both the physical plane and that bastion of obfuscation, the interwebs. Clues as well as false leads can be gathered online from phony Wikipedia pages, faked Chronicle archives, and bogus blogs as well as out in the real world via micro-transmission radio broadcast, CDs, custom-printed books, teeny-tiny letters and a charmingly illustrated map. Piecing together the puzzle is the least part of the game’s ultimate value — the stealthy introduction to an underlying artist’s philosophy, to resist "false nonchalance" yet cultivate a sense of wonder and discovery in even the most familiar places is compelling and apt — and the revelation of secret locations hidden in plain view a welcome prize.

Fierce! Forbes!


TV EYED Did I ever tell you you’re my hero, Michelle Forbes? Like, you’re the wind beneath my wings, standing out from the sidelines of TV series like Lost, Prison Break, and 24, pulling off the most ingenious little saves by just popping up, feline eyes a-glow, in the strangest, smallest cameo. Her latest appearance: Maryann — the power-hungry priestess/consort/groupie of Dionysus in True Blood, which just started its second shadowy season.

Sure, the pulpy, soapy, Southern goth series overflows — like so much hallucinatory V (a.k.a., the better-than-ecstasy vampire blood) — with acting talent. Start with Anna Paquin as nubile hot-pants psychic Sookie Stackhouse, and Ryan Kwanten as her perpetually puzzled-looking bad-boy bro, Jason, and continue to Stephen Moyer as Sookie’s increasingly cadaverous-looking vampire beau, Bill, and Rutina Wesley as the hardcore baby beeyatch with a heart of gold, Tara, and end with the stellar Nelsan Ellis as the trash-talkin’ queer V dealer, Lafayette. This season has almost everyone in good-times Bon Temps brooding in their whiskey glasses — prisoners in the literal or metaphorical darkness — and pondering who might have ripped the heart of the town’s voodoo exorcist.

But while the other True Blood-ies break down and climb in their bottles in confusion, Forbes shivers me timbers with her vibratory vixenish certainty. She’s the natural center of the storm that’s brewing in Bon Temps — convincing because the actress specializes in scarily strong women, bordering on the carnivorous and castrating. I was never a huge fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, so I never fell for her Ensign Ro Laren. But we’ve all noticed that even the briefest appearance by the actress gives the most implausible plot turn a heft and force only the formidable Forbes can deliver. So why hasn’t the lady made the break to the big screen? She made a memorable mark on Brad Pitt’s serial killer in Kalifornia (1993). Maybe it’s because she gets so much work on TV as a kind of Lucy Lawless, sans the throaty Down Under accent. My fave Forbes moments so far:


When will her maenad begin to tear apart the Bon Temps citizenry out of sheer bacchanalian exuberance? Her Pan groupie, with mysterious designs on Tara and doggy shape shifter Sam, threatens to steal the sinister thunder from the vampire population.


As the straying ex-spouse of Gabriel Bryne’s psychotherapist Paul, Forbes applied naturalistic shading and warmth to her character. She understandably got her rage on as Paul swooned for his patient Laura, but you can also understand why the beleaguered shrink later yearned for his ex to take him back.


She was the hawk to the more dove-ish Admiral Adama. Too bad the humans didn’t have to deal with her ferocious warlady from the planet Sappho beyond season two.


If you’re nasty


U.K. HORROR Once outrage settles over the current Parliamentary expense-account scandals, our former colonialist landlords will no doubt return to their concerns about "broken Britain," as the perceived general decline of moral rectitude in the United Kingdom is termed these days. Call ’em hoodies, chavs, yobs, or Neds, U.K. youth are seen as waaay out of control — albeit in ways that would seldom elicit more than a perfunctory shrug of disgust here — and their loutish, negligent, unemployed, or dole-collecting parents merit equal time in the sense-slappin’ machine.

Real or exaggerated, this trend of antisocial behaviors has inevitably crept into the entertainment realm, horror movies included. While the two Brit features (Blood River and 2008’s The Dead Outside) in this year’s Another Hole in the Head Festival only marginally deal with the phenomenon, three recent stateside DVD releases by first-time feature writer-directors find "Whatever happened to family values?!" terror placed front and center.

Not long ago especially gory or sadistic genre flicks were branded "video nasties," heavily cut or banned outright from distribution in Britain. That those days are gone, however, is made vividly clear by Steven Sheil’s Mum and Dad (2008). When Polish immigrant Lena (Olga Fedori) misses the last bus to central London, aggressively friendly fellow Heathrow cleaning staffer Birdie (Ainsley Howard) and her shy brother Elbie (Toby Alexander) invite her to spend the night at their nearby home.

Unfortunately Lena soon discovers she’s a permanent guest, kept on a very tight leash by "Mum" (Dido Miles) and "Dad" (Perry Benson). Covering familiar terrain, with particular debt to 1991’s The People Under the Stairs, Mum sports its own distinctive musk of grotesquerie, with an all-time-sickest Yuletide celebration providing craftsy homemakers with one hell of a Christmas wall-ornament idea.

Meanwhile, in rural Ireland, the least united part of the "kingdom," Plague Town (2008) again proves you really don’t want to miss that last transit run. Here, a dysfunctional American tourist family discovers one extra-large brood of horribly functional kiddies during an overnight stranding they’re unlikely to survive. Director David Gregory cut his teeth making DVD-extra tributes to Tobe Hooper, Jess Franco, Jim Van Bebber, and the "video nasty" era itself. His mentors would be proud.

More realistic, upsetting, and directly addressing "broken Britain" fears is James Watkins’ Eden Lake (2008). Another vacation-gone-horribly-wrong tale, it played one unnoticed week at the Lumiere last year. Yuppie couple Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender’s weekend Buckinghamshire idyll runs afoul of some ill-mannered local tweens, who unfortunately are led by a full-blown junior psychopath. After its routine setup this develops into a genuinely grueling spin on Deliverance (1972), Lord of the Flies (1954), and whatnot, with an ending that can be nitpicked for plausibility but that nonetheless leaves a real chill.

And justice for all


TRUMPETING TRUMBO I read Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 masterpiece of antiwar literature Johnny Got His Gun in high school. I went for anything which said that patriotic duty to die for one’s country is bullshit — hence I loved it. Rereading it last year the book hit me harder. The writing is amazing, shot through with brilliance from start to finish — scathing, bitter, funny, righteous. Now lucky Trumbo fans can watch the former blacklistee’s 1971 film adaptation of his novel, just released on DVD.

Actor Timothy Bottoms was 18 when he played (via voiceover and flashbacks) Joe Bonham, who lies in an Army hospital bed pondering his fate. Hit by a mortar shell on the last day of World War I, Bonham is left a blind, deaf, and mute quadruple amputee, with only memories, fantasies, and, for a time, a sympathetic nurse. On a commentary track, Bottoms points to the film’s contemporary relevance given the staggering number of soldiers maimed in the Iraq war but kept alive by sophisticated medical technology.

Trumbo worked with Luis Buñuel on an adaptation of Johnny. Ultimately that project fell through, but by the time Trumbo directed his own script in 1971, the Spanish surrealist’s influence was palpable. At the time, Buñuel responded, "For me, the film has the same power as the novel. It has the same disturbing quality and moments of extremely powerful emotion. The film left an impression on me that is among the strongest I ever experienced."

Marsha Hunt, whose successful film career was cut short by the blacklist, played Bonham’s mother. In a phone interview, the now-91-year-old said, "I liked [Trumbo] enormously. I was so delighted that he wanted me in his film." Hunt emphasized Trumbo’s incredible discipline, which led him, during lean times of underpaid black market work, to write 12 screenplays in 16 months (a helpful doctor who prescribed amphetamines contributed to that productivity).

"It’s hard to believe that the same talent who gave us Spartacus also gave us Roman Holiday," she said. "Just as far from each other as possible in terms of style and period and everything else. He was an impressively versatile man, as well as brilliant."

The 2007 film Trumbo, featuring documentary footage and actors reading from the great man’s letters, should also be released on DVD. And some astute publisher should bring Additional Dialogue, Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942-1962 back into print. Among my favorite passages from that volume is in a 1951 letter to novelist Nelson Algren, who was prepared act as a "front" for Trumbo. Trumbo advised, "If you have any moral compunctions about such a procedure in relation to motion pictures, please forget them. Hollywood is a vast whorehouse, and any scheme by which tolerably honest men can abstract money from it for their own purposes is more than praiseworthy."

Totally tubular


TV OR NOT TO BE "All around is magic, just open your eyes and see it," declares either Siegfried or Roy at the beginning of A Rich Tradition of Magic, a previously VHS-only compendium of visual abuse compiled by the inimitable Pinky of TV Carnage. The man isn’t kidding. The menu of Rich Tradition is formatted to look like a remote control — with the push of a button, your screen melts like the hallucinogenic kick-off of a bad acid trip, bringing visions of spray-on hair, senior citizen aerobics, white teens moonwalking to Kenny Loggins’ "Footloose," and grunge figure skating set to "Smells Like Teen Spirit." (Is this what drove Kurt Cobain to suicide?)

Not yet prone to gutwrenchingly funny juxtapositions (Say Anything boombox scene meets child with extreme vibrato singing "Lady in Red"; John Ritter meets Rosie O’Donnell’s horrible idea of someone with Down syndrome), this early installment in the TV Carnage library veers toward the straightforwardly unsettling and outright disturbing. We get aerial performers accidentally slicing each other in half in mid-air, an elephant stomping on people in a circus tent and then rampaging through the streets, and a split-second skull-glimpse of Heaven’s Gate suicide guru Marshall Applewhite. We get Real TV footage of a methed-out man holding his baby as hostage, dangling the boy Blanket-style from a second-story window and demanding that police deliver him some beer.

Kids are people, too. A Rich Tradition of Magic‘s hapless master of ceremonies Gary Coleman ricochets between performative childhood and sad adulthood. A public service safety announcement by a Diff’rent Strokes-era Coleman is cross-cut with an Entertainment Tonight report about him assaulting an annoying fan. Later, Coleman warns us all of the dangers of "Showoff-itis."

John Travolta lipsync footage is perhaps the chief disturbing link between A Rich Tradition of Magic and The Dinah Shore Portal to Hell, another DVD whose beyond-Dante depths I’m just beginning to plumb. The opening installment is a series of lipysnc and live musical performances on Shore’s television show. A strange assortment of performers including Jeff Bridges and NFL star Terry Bradshaw try to be musical with varying degrees of success. William Shatner repeatedly attempts to be dramatic and poetic. All the while, unexpected lesbian golf icon Shore looks on admiringly, our friendly guide to the diabolical stretches of celebrity narcissism, her reliable appearance taking on an increasingly absurdist quality. Later, we are treated to Roger Ebert repeatedly tongue-lashing Gene Siskel between takes while recording promo spots. Rumor has it that it’s the later chapters devoted to alcohol, cocaine, and LSD that truly deliver the TV horror. I’ll report on those another time, if I survive them. (Johnny Ray Huston)


The life aquatic


SEAWORTHY DVDS If France’s Georges Méliès is known as the first astronomer of cinema, then overlooked director Jean Painlevé might be considered its first aquanaut. The son of French prime minister and mathematician Paul Painlevé, Jean grew up amid the progressive decadence of the Parisian Belle Époque and sowed his anarchist seeds in the bloody aftermath of the Great War of 1914. Studying mathematics and biology at the Sorbonne, Painlevé made a vertiginous departure toward cinema after meeting surrealist artists Antonin Artaud, Jean Vigo, and Luis Buñuel.

Calling his work "neo-zoological drama", Painlevé began assembling hundreds of bizarre and unprecedented nature films, many of which were photographed entirely underwater, beginning in the late 1920s. Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé, a three-DVD collection released this month by Criterion, presents an invaluable survey of the director’s most extraordinary aquacades. Carving a unique niche in cinema as a scientific fabulist, Painlevé’s creations explored the liminal boundaries of technology and fantasy through the evolving apparatus of the camera.

While his early films like Oeufs d’épinoche (The Stickleback Eggs, 1928) — a vivisection of fish eggs being fertilized — are essentially technical investigations into slow-motion and microscopy, his mid-1930s and postwar work finds the director at his most extravagant. Throughout films like Le Vampire (The Vampire, 1945) and Assassins d’eau douce (Freshwater Assassins, 1947), bats transform into Nazis, starfish become ballerinas, and crustaceans conduct sweeping symphonies. Painlevé’s use of "exotic" soundtracking, pseudoscientific narration and sudden, bewildering close-ups creates a singular, anthropomorphic vision of the animal world rather than a mere biological document of it.

Painlevé released one of his most popular films, L’hippocampe (The Sea Horse, 1934) shortly before the beginning of World War II. Though produced under extreme circumstances — the director claims he rigged an electric shocking device to his body to stay awake for days on end so he could film the creature giving birth — The Sea Horse was an overnight success with the French public. During this time, Painlevé also cofounded the world’s first diver’s club with SCUBA inventor Yves le Prieur. Reportedly convening meetings at a private swimming pool in Paris, the Club Des Sous-L’Eau (literally "underwater" but also a pun that, in French, means "drunk") staged aquatic spectacles like underwater ballets and bicycle races on the pool floor.

He continued making short films until the late 1970s and died in 1989. The Criterion DVD also features an eight-part television documentary, Jean Painlevé Through His Films, as well as a 90-minute musical tribute composed by rock band Yo La Tengo.

Got to be ‘Real’


TV ADDICTION If you can ignore the resulting three-ring circus of gossip — Countess LuAnn de Lesseps breaks up with her no-account cheating Count! Kelly Bensimon arrested for boyfriend beating! Alex McCord nude! — swirling off this Real Housewives of Orange County spinoff, The Real Housewives of New York City gets my vote as the most consistently toothsome entry into the Real Housewives franchise. Now approaching its May 5 season finale, the reality TV series reads as an uptown-downmarket update of Edith Wharton, albeit brand-crazed (designers, of course, get considerable love, but these enterprising housewives are also busy building their own brands) and considerably less tragic (unless you count the McCord couple’s over-the-top ensembles).

And thanks to some brilliant editing, Jane Austen would have had a hearty, tea-steeped chortle over the Brooklyn Bridge-wide disjunctions between these housewives’ socialite pretensions and more rough-and-tumble actions. It’s tough to beat last season’s climactic clash between crazy-eyed Ramona Singer and the comically striving McCords when Alex violated a girls-party theme dinner by bringing her attached-at-the-hip spouse Simon, coupled with a conversation lightly spinning around the idea, "What is class?"

Yet, in line with Austen, class — both in terms of proper behavior and the various social gradations on view — continues to be in session as this season’s recurring leitmotif. Attempts at behavioral instruction often wonderfully backfire: from the instance when the Countess told guests at a tribute-benefit for her and her husband to essentially shut up, to the episode in which ex-Elle Accessories editor Bensimon ditzily dresses down Bethenny Frankel, a meet-up that succeeds in making Bensimon look not only insanely stupid but horrendously snobby. Hypocrisy among the cognoscenti, who seem generally non-cognizant, persistently rears its dual heads.

Ready to call it all out is Frankel, the outsider chef busily establishing her "Skinny Girl’s Martini" and other business ventures, and the odd woman out since she isn’t and has never been an actual wife, let alone kept up a sprawling house. She functions as the closest thing to an Austenian heroine here. Salty, highly entertaining wisecracks roll off her hardened single-girl shell in rapid succession ("Think of my vagina as a vase — and if you’ve had sex with me it’s time to send flowers.") As much as I appreciate the yenta feistiness of Jill Zarin or the American-Indian-girl-strikes-it-rich forthrightness of de Lesseps, I identify most with the non-wife who’s attempting to keep it really real — especially during a season centered on charity events in the context of a slimly acknowledged recession, amid deeds that seem to have as much to do with building social capital as raising vanishing funds.


Metal militia


Guitar Hero: Metallica

(Neversoft, Xbox 360, PS3; Budcat Creations, Wii, PS2)

GAMER Metallica were recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which they surely had in mind while writing their 1983 debut album Kill ‘Em All (Megaforce). Back in the spotlight and riding high on the release of 2008’s Death Magnetic (Warner Bros), which many have optimistically heralded as a return to form, the Bay Area’s most famous thrash band returned to store shelves this spring with Guitar Hero: Metallica. The latest in a burgeoning string of rock ‘n’ roll rhythm titles, the game is the second to focus on an individual artist, following on the heels of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith but predating the upcoming Beatles collaboration with Guitar Hero competitors Rock Band.

The game’s catalog spans 49 songs, incorporating 28 Metallica master recordings from all phases of their career, in addition to 21 hand-picked songs by band-approved rockers like King Diamond and Kyuss. Its now-familiar format enables four people to get together on drums, bass, guitar, and vocals, following candy-colored prompts onscreen to crank out high-voltage facsimiles of classics like "Hit the Lights" and "Master of Puppets."

The band appears in the game as motion-captured metal titans, and Neversoft’s animators render them right down to the mole on Kirk Hammett’s face. Songs are performed in the venues of Metallica lore, including their legendary 1991 concert at Moscow’s Tushino Airfield, where a free show drew a million-odd frenzied Muscovite headbangers. A profusion of pyro onscreen does make you worry a little bit for the health of pixelated James Hetfield.

The intricate, speedy compositions are not for the faint of heart. And while beginners are afforded introductory difficulties to hone their skills, Guitar Hero vets will be surprised by the challenges they face, including double kick pedal support for the drumset. Stumbling blocks aside, Metallica’s music is rife with satisfying riffs, and recreating Lars Ulrich’s heavy-handed drum fills or the bands rapid-fire thrash is laden with lots of ineffable plastic-instrument delight.

If you like metal, and Guitar Hero, the game is a must buy. If you’re into the former, but not the latter, you might be surprised at the way the deceptively simple transcription enables a deeper enjoyment of the music. Conversely, if your fingers are already toughened by those five magical buttons but you don’t care for Metallica, you might just change your tune once you’ve nailed the guitar solo in "Orion." If you don’t like either, why didn’t you just skip to the next page?

Trip at the ‘Brain’


CULT HORROR "I am a genre terrorist," legendary Italian "B" filmmaker Lucio Fulci professes in an interview on the freshly released two-disc edition of his 1990 film Cat in the Brain (Grindhouse). "I perform my commercial deflagration, then I get bored and move on." Likely aware of his more successful compatriot Dario Argento’s moniker, the "Italian Hitchcock," perhaps the late Fulci fancied himself as a sort of Italian Howard Hawks with mild frontal lobe damage: whimsically genre-tripping (comedies in the ’50s, westerns in the ’60s, thrillers in the ’70s) while mastering and exploding conventions. But this would be something of a fanciful delusion. Fulci’s mid-career adoption of giallo, the "spaghetti horror" he helped pioneer and perfect, trapped him in an almost literal genre hell of his own making. With the success of the breakout Zombie (1979), blood-and-gore-thirsty fanboys cried out for more, and Fulci, eager for the commercial success that mostly had eluded him to that point, demurred.

It’s fitting then, that the hallucinatory Cat in the Brain would star Fulci as himself, a director tortured to the point of madness by brutal, graphic visions of his past and current productions: limbs hacked off with chainsaws, numerous decapitations, heads cooking in microwave ovens, and generally just a lot of gorings, stabbings, slicings, slittings, flayings, and disembowelings. When a psychiatrist suggests he is suffering from an identity crisis due to work stress, Fulci objects, "If I made films about love no one would buy a ticket."

But don’t assume Cat in the Brain is Fulci’s attempt to drive the final nail in giallo‘s coffin, much as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (2007) tried (and failed) to do to its 21st-century offspring, torture porn. It’s certainly bad enough to do so: Fulci’s acting is painfully garish, the edit (featuring footage cobbled from his past films) is out to lunch, and the atypically pedestrian score is worthy of the worst MacGyver episode. But much of Cat‘s perverse charm, like much of giallo, comes from its chainsaw-rough edges. Fulci’s meta conceit may be more Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (a 1994 release he derided as a rip-off) than 8 1/2 (1963), but it’s still satisfying. In the end he has perpetrated a cinematic rope-a-dope, a "statement of innocence in the form of a joke," as his journalist daughter writes in the DVD’s liner notes. The maestro of splatter held an abiding affection for the genre after all, despite his alter ego’s haunted visions. Fulci’s messy violence and gore might not have always been in the best of taste, but for the man himself, they set the stage for an awful lot of good, clean fun.

Lunch-drunk love


AVANT TO BE PUNK If any artist ever self-classified as trash, it was (is?) Lydia Lunch, original ’70s New York City No Wave princess (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks), ’80s underground film star (for Richard Kern, Scott and Beth B., Nick Zedd, etc.), and subsequent spoken-word performer and print autobiographer. In each medium her voice bottled the societally incriminating sarcasm of self-defined detritus, costume-partied as yesteryear’s bullet-bra’d sex object. By 1990, who beyond first-generation punk nostalgists gave a fuck? Europeans, that’s who.

That same year Lunch wrote and codirected (with Babeth Mondini) Kiss Napoleon Goodbye. The featurette — photographed by Mike Kuchar, no less — screened only in Dutch avant-garde and Berlin Film Festival–related events shortly after completion, then perhaps nowhere else until its recent release on the aptly named U.S. DVD label, Cult Epics.

It stars Lunch as Hedda, slinky spouse to Neal (Don Bajema). They’ve retreated to a lovely country château to reboot their relationship. This goes OK before Hedda hears from pal Jackson (Henry Rollins), who’s passing through on an author’s tour and wants to visit for the weekend. His arrival triggers an explosion of both Neal’s paranoiac imaginings and the filmmakers’ poetic ones.

Poet-novelist-playwright Bajema, at the time based in San Francisco and so sinewy he makes pumped costar Rollins look like an empty fitness showboat, was no trained actor. But his conviction as a man tortured by jealousy (and possibly madness) largely puts Napoleon across.

The film is a very odd duck, with aristocratic European locations juxtaposed against a primitive triangle drama, stilted lesbian scenes, bewildering historic flashbacks, Neal’s rather abstract meltdown, and the spectacle of macho lit-punk heroes muscle-tussling on a château lawn. There’s also experimental artist Z’ev as a guy aiming a trepanning drill into his own skull. Posting this under the Guardian‘s Trash umbrella is honest only in vague, associative terms: Napoleon‘s makers were clearly aiming for art beneath the coatings of irony, pop, and punk sarcasm.

An oppressive bounty of DVD extras reveal Lunch’s latter-day sub–Karen Finley spoken-word rants as heckle-worthy, and much-heckled. (Still, her core messages about institutionalized misogyny are hard to argue against.) It all makes one nostalgic for the ironic hatefuck retro sex-kittenry of 1980’s Queen of Siam, the best album Lunch ever made, with or without a band. "Pleasure is always made sweeter at the expense of others," her character says in a Napoleon voiceover. That’s not necessarily the voice of wisdom. Just the voice of Lunch.


Golden eye


AWARDS SHOW I’m actually pretty jazzed for the 2009 Oscars: there are some exciting nominees, and the broadcast is guaranteed to be less dull with Hugh Jackman (the first-ever adamantium-enhanced host!) guiding the proceedings. But before Feb. 22’s awkward montage of dead Academy members (farewell, Paul Newman!), stiffly scripted banter ‘twixt presenters, and inevitable fashion faux pas, it’s important to pick your favorite and least favorite nominees. You gotta know whom to cheer (and jeer) once you have a bottle (or two) of champagne in your system. My opinions on the big races below.

Best Picture I hated The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Mediocre The Reader is taking up what should have been The Dark Knight‘s nomination. Frost/Nixon was great, but mostly for Frank Langella’s performance. To the likely winner: Slumdog Millionaire, I’m just not that into you. If there is any justice, it’ll be a Milk victory — or a write-in campaign will give The Wrestler its due.

Best Director All who helmed Best Pic nominees are represented here (sorry, Darren Aronofsky). Normally I love David Fincher, but Benjamin Button has soured my good thoughts of 1995’s Seven, 1999’s Fight Club, and 2007’s Zodiac (which was an awesome, unfairly overlooked movie). Danny Boyle will probably take it for the crowd-pleasing Slumdog, but I gotta go with Milk‘s Gus Van Sant. You’re the man now, Gus!

Best Actor Richard Jenkins had quite a 2008. I know he’s tipped here for The Visitor, but he was also aces in Burn After Reading and, uh, Step Brothers. He won’t win, though, and neither will Langella for his trickiest of Dick Nixons. For me, it’s a two-man race: Sean Penn for Milk and Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler. Very different performances, but both worthy of Oscars. I have no idea what Brad Pitt is doing here, but the teaser trailer for Inglourious Basterds has made me almost forgive him for aging in reverse.

Best Actress I didn’t really dig The Reader, but goddamn it! They gotta give this to Kate Winslet (who should’ve been nominated for Revolutionary Road instead). Meryl Streep and Angelina Jolie already have Oscars, and Anne Hathaway just starred in Bride Wars. The fantastic Melissa Leo wins just by being nominated — unless she pulls off one of those crazy, Adrien Brody-style upsets that Oscar kicks down once in awhile.

Splitting heirs


SILENT FILMS Horror movies have never been more plentiful or popular than they are now — which says more about the times we live in than there’s room to discuss here — yet in film’s first decades they barely made an appearance. The early 20th-century rush to modernity, particularly in the U.S., made anything that smacked of superstition seem childish, silly, even distasteful; the simple life of yore, with all its greater hardships, was still too fresh to invite nostalgia. Not until the one-two punch of Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931) did the genre flourish, and for years afterward many quasi-horror films ended with protracted, often ludicrous explanations as to how their supernatural events were faked by ingenious criminals or undercover detectives.

The template for all subsequent "old dark house" chillers — including James Whale’s 1932 The Old Dark House — was provided by Paul Leni’s 1927 hit, The Cat and the Canary, which the Silent Film Festival screens this Saturday at the Castro. Based on a popular stage play by San Francisco–born John Willard, this was the first of at least six versions to date. All were horror comedies, both exploiting and sending up the hoary conceit of greedy heirs gathered in a creepy mansion for the reading of a vengeful late relative’s will.

In Leni’s take, they’re estranged relatives drawn to the "grotesque mansion of an eccentric millionaire" 20 years after his demise. In life, he’d imagined them as giant black cats clawing at him; in death, he designates the youngest and most distant niece (Laura La Plante) as sole recipient of his fortune. There’s a catch, of course: the dough goes elsewhere if she’s proven — or driven — mad during a long night bedeviled by escaped lunatics, fanged fiends, secret passageways, and so forth.

A German art director who’d directed the Expressionist horror classic Waxworks (1924), Leni arrived in Hollywood with a Universal contract and a wealth of visual imagination. Cat remains goofy gothic fun, from ill-named housekeeper Mammy Pleasant to animated intertitles that "shudder" with fright. Beyond Murnau’s own rapturous Sunrise (1927), the day’s other features are slapstick gems: vintage Buster Keaton outing Our Hospitality (1923) and A Kiss from Mary Pickford (1927), a vehicle for equally beloved Russian comic Igor Ilyinsky utilizing footage of the Soviet Union visit that "America’s Sweetheart" and Douglas Fairbanks made in 1926. (Dennis Harvey)


Sat/14, noon, $14–$17 (four-movie pass, $52)

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF


‘Dance party


PARK CITY REPORT A degree of relative tranquility settled on Sundance this year, as budget cutbacks among media outlets and distributors meant the customary frenzy was dialed down a notch or three. Of course most screenings were packed, but fewer people than usual got turned away; lodgings remained available during the festival, whereas normally they’d be booked months in advance. Still, what was onscreen remained as usual — a more or less even mix of good, bad, and indifferent. (Most likely in 2010 we’ll start to see a shrunken economy affect indie film production.)

The Bay Area was strangely underrepresented this year, particularly in the documentary realm where it often has a major presence. Instead, there were two dramatic features, each highly specific in local setting. Bratt Pack family project La Mission, directed by Peter Bratt, stars Benjamin Bratt as Che, an ex-con Muni driver and middle-aged lowrider whose macho veneer doesn’t get in the way of his love for a college-bound son (Jeremy Ray Valdez). When he discovers junior is gay, dad freaks out; the Castro District may be just a few blocks from their Mission District walkup, but it’s a world away from Che’s comprehension. This cable-ready exercise’s plot turns and social-issue pleadings can be predicted after 10 minutes. Yet it’s also got genuine warmth, easygoing humor, Benjamin B.’s charisma, and a fond grasp of the ‘hood.

Frazer Bradshaw’s starker Everything Strange and New focuses on young North Oakland couple Wayne (Jerry McDaniel) and Renee (sometime Guardian contributor Beth Lisick), neither of whom quite understand how they got to be saddled with a mortgage, two kids, her frazzled nerves, and his deadened ones. Meanwhile, Wayne’s work and drinking buddies (Luis Saguar, Rico Chacon Jr.) have domestic problems of their own. This is the kind of movie people walk out on at Sundance — too slow, uncommercial, etc. — but it’s a quietly original vision with nary a false emotional note.

Elsewhere, local luminary Robin Williams finally found an indie that suited his more restrained seriocomic abilities in The World’s Greatest Dad, an imperfect but clever black comedy about literary fraud and morbid personality cults from (no kidding) Bobcat Goldthwait.

I also particularly liked doc Prom Night in Mississippi, about a burg that finally held its first integrated high school prom last year; Israeli dysfunctional-slum-family drama Zion and His Brothers; amazingly detail-perfect recreation/spoof of 1970s blaxploitation flicks Black Lightning; and (at nearby Slamdance) Smile ‘Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story, about the Me Decade’s most alarmingly perky touring act. Imagine those song numbers in the satirical Brady Bunch movies performed by a couple hundred squeaky-clean young adults, sans irony. It’s enough to make a smiley face go postal.

Twice as nice?


RANT As 2008 wound down, and filmgoers everywhere began to gag on For Your Consideration flicks, one exciting piece of news gurgled out for genre fans: a planned remake of 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby had been cancelled. According to a post on Collider.com, producer Andrew Form was stumped by trying to adapt Ira Levin’s 1967 novel for a contemporary audience. "We couldn’t come up with something where it felt like it was relevant and we could add something to it other than what it was," he told the site.

These pearls of wisdom from the guy who produced 2003’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2005’s Amityville Horror, 2007’s The Hitcher, this February’s Friday the 13th, and the slated-for-2010 A Nightmare on Elm Street. Roman Polanski’s paranoia-will-destroy-ya tale of New York City witches is spooky enough on its own, thanks to suspenseful pacing, an overwhelming sense of dread, and its performances, particularly by a bug-eyed Mia Farrow and a grasping, Oscar-winning Ruth Gordon. For current viewers, subtext from the director (the movie predated Charles Manson’s murder party at Sharon Tate’s mansion by a year) and the setting (the Dakota, John Lennon’s last address) further ups the creep factor. The movie itself seems haunted. You think producers who favored lingering shots of Ryan Reynolds’s Amityville abs over any actual scares could replicate that?

But I’m rambling on a moot point. Most horror remakes do get made, and rake in the bucks. Many tend to be hampered by the worst invention in the past 25 years of cinema, the PG-13 rating. (The recent wave of PG-13 horror films really need their own genre distinction that doesn’t have "horror" in it, because there’s no horror in them.) For the most part, post-millennial horror remakes are either J-horror (2002’s The Ring remains the most lucrative) or slashers, like 2007’s Halloween. The selection process for what gets remade seems as arbitrary as the eventual results: Jamie Lee Curtis’s 1980 disco-dance nightmare Prom Night, a cult favorite, became a shitty 2008 release (PG-13!) seen by maybe 15 people. But some seemingly sacrilegious efforts, like the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, were well liked. Even by me.

Up next: 1981’s My Bloody Valentine, a somewhat obscure early-period slasher comin’ at us in 3-D this Friday. (Yes, it’s rated R.) What good is gimmick du jour 3-D if not to enhance flailing limbs and splattering blood? Cynical though I am, I can’t resist. Besides, one of my favorite movies of all time is a horror remake: John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing. (Cheryl Eddy)

MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D opens Fri/16 in Bay Area theaters

Scary kids scaring kids


PG TERROR The real magic kingdom is Disney Inc., which has managed to completely dominate family entertainment for at least 70 years, from Snow White (1938) to High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2007). Yet there was a period in the 1980s when the post-Walt studio appeared to have lost its way. The old formulas seemed tapped out, and attempts to find new directions floundered, at least commercially.

Thus there was a rush of incongruously un-Disneyesque titles venturing boldly into PG terrain: 1979 sci-fi thriller The Black Hole (featuring Anthony Perkins’ drilling death); 1980 musical flop Popeye from least-apt-Disney-director-ever Robert Altman; 1981 medieval horror Dragonslayer (which had a priest flambéed in closeup); 1982’s psychedelic Tron; 1985’s seriously depressed fantasy Return to Oz, and so forth. Many of these have since developed cult followings, but they were pretty unloved back then.

One such notable failure — though somehow every kid of the era seems to have experienced nightmares from seeing it — was 1980’s The Watcher in the Woods.

Based on Florence Engel Randall’s young-adult novel, it has the Curtis family — parents Carroll Baker and David McCallum, ex-pro ice skater Lynn-Holly Johnson’s oft-hysterical psychic teen Jan, and child horror-film regular (and eventual Paris Hilton auntie) Kyle Richards as demonically possessed tyke Ellie — renting the requisite spooky old English country mansion from spooky old Mrs. Aylwood (an imperiously restrained Bette Davis), whose own daughter mysteriously disappeared three decades earlier. Myriad inexplicable, near-fatal events targeting Jan point toward an explanation both supernatural and sci-fi.

Watcher‘s tortuous history exemplified a nervous studio’s conflicting impulses. Disney wanted to make something "darker" — or did it? Rewrites lightened up scary material. There were creative arguments and forced changes during filming. Yet the often beautifully atmospheric film’s woes had only begun.

The plug was pulled on completing elaborate F/X for a parallel-dimension climax, making for an abrupt, critically panned ending. This version was yanked from theaters after brief exposure in April 1980. A re-release in even softer form followed 18 months later. No less than three alternative endings were shot; Disney still refuses to release credited director John Hough’s preferred cut. Midnites for Maniacs programmer Jesse Hawthorne Ficks doesn’t even know which variant will open his "Broken Homes for the Holidays" triple bill. It’s followed by 1986 classic Stand by Me and 1973’s diabolically clever drive-in sleazefest The Candy Snatchers.


Fri/9, Watcher in the Woods (7:30 p.m.), Stand by Me (9:45 p.m.), The Candy Snatchers (11:45 p.m.), $10

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120, www.castrotheatre.com

Tiger tales


SRSLY, WTF? "Throughout history, the greatest saviors have come in the darkest hours." No, that’s not Oprah on Obama, but a subsidiary character in Masters of the Impossible appraising the ultimate cartoon superheroes: Siegfried and Roy.

Just reissued by children’s DVD label NCircle, Siegfried and Roy: Masters of the Impossible was produced in 1996 for precise reasons unknown. Perhaps it was a pilot for a Saturday morning series — the mix of tacky drawn and digital animation sure doesn’t look intended for theaters, though this neverending story does clock in at a feature-length 76 minutes. As entertainment for kids, it is just wrong, the sort of thing that might actually send them dazedly outside to play rather than keep watching. But as an inexplicable whatsit — one of those things that can’t exactly be recommended yet must be seen to be believed — it has some perverse appeal.

In the mystic world of Sarmoti … well, I’d attempt to describe the "plot," but that would take up more space than a New Yorker essay. Suffice it to say rakish, wisecracking Siegfried (voice of Andrew Hawkes) and noble, humorless Roy (Jeff Bennett) are itinerant magicians who meet in a Star Wars-esque freak bar. They become scrappin’ best bros on an incredibly convoluted quest involving King Midas and every other folkloric figure or tidbit that can be shoehorned into one senseless mess. There are Greek and Norse gods (see Zeus battle Loki!), unicorns, Beowulf, Medusa, an annoying comedy-relief Rumplestiltskin, gratuitous Shakespeare quotes, and of course a white tiger.

Siegfried, spouting Vegas-style ka-boom-cha! quips, sasses lines like "Great! Stuck at a dragon crossing?! What can your magic cat do for us now, Tiger Boy?" (He also keeps trumpeting "The magic is back!" — the worst movie catchphrase this side of "Welcome to the Xander zone.")

It’s hard to think the writers weren’t smirking when they included references to "the last seer of Gaylen" and "drained enchantments from around the world." Or maybe I’m just filthy-minded. But was it an audio hallucination, or did Sig really warn Roy that a fire-breathing dragon might reduce them to "barbecued bareback"?

This just might be the worst drinking-game DVD ever. Even if you limited yourself to imbibing only when there’s a.) demonic possession, b.) talking breastplates, c.) characters transforming into gold, d.) characters transforming into stone, or e.) Roy shouting to his tiger BFF "Manticore, no!" you’d be hammered within 10 minutes (creepily, the white tiger who near-fatally mauled the real Roy Horn onstage in 2003 was named Montecore) — through a drunken haze might well be the best lens through which to appreciate Masters of the Impossible.


Talking heads, part one


TV DRIVE-BY Are TV commentators covert celebrities? Showbiz Tonight fosters this impression. Instead of junket interviews with fame’s roadkill or TMZ-style rampage-cam footage of them at Starbucks, it devotes the majority of its daily, endlessly-rerun hour to carefully curated prefab arguments about the stars. The show’s reliable go-to panelist crew gets more regular airtime than any celeb-bot. It’s startling — shocking! Thus, in the first of what may be a series of infotainment drive-by portraits, Trash dares to take on the chattering skulls of CNN’s self-billed "most provocative entertainment news show." Please, AJ Hammer, don’t hurt ’em.

Lisa Bloom Based on her facial expressions, celebrity doings leave a slightly lemon-y aftertaste for this lawyer — the literal offspring of Gloria Allred — and host of the truTV series Open Court. According to Bloom’s official Web site, TV Guide deems her "Plucky!" In addition to legal expertise, she’s prone to the occasional psychiatric diagnosis, labeling Britney Spears (a fave topic) "bipolar."

Steve Santagati Need a misogynist bro-down dude with tousled yet dirty hair, tanned and muscular (yet not too muscular) physique, and permanent "Yeah, I’m an asshole" smirk? Santagati, the man who authored 2007’s The Manual, is your go-to guy.

Dr. Judy Kuriansky Let’s keep it simple: she’s the Dr. Joyce Brothers of the 21st century. Along with Bloom, she’s a reliable nemesis of Santagati’s.

Carlos Diaz Cherubic but sometimes party-worn, this ExtraTV correspondent is throwing a Vegas New Year’s bash where people can "party like its $19.99!"

Howard Bragman You have to love CNN for erasing journalistic ethics completely by bringing a PR agent into its editorial fold. Head of the firm 15 Minutes — the Web site of which greets visitors with quotes from Will Rogers, Chuang-tzu, and, of course, Andy Warhol — this out and proud master of the soft sell has never met a comeback kid who didn’t deserve some sympathy, or a train wreck that didn’t deserve rescue efforts. (Except maybe Paula Abdul.)

Ken Baker No stranger to controversy himself, this friend of Ryan Seacrest has blazed a trail from an especially litigious era of US Weekly to his current day gig as Entertainment News Editor of E!.

Janelle Snowden To quote a Bratmobile song," "Janelle! Janelle! She’s so swell! Oh, Janelle!"

Jane Velez-Mitchell Lady justice demands this roundup end with a bang, or in this case, the bewigged bangs of Velez-Mitchell, the campiest and wittiest of Showbiz Tonight‘s growing legion of talking heads. The most surprising thing about Velez-Mitchell’s 100-percent pulp book Secrets Can Be Murder (2007) is that her analysis of tabloid fodder is thoroughly feminist in a manner that contradicts the old canard about feminists having no sense of humor. She may be fond of adding -cide to every other word in the dictionary (e.g., "gendercide," "teenacide"), but she even quotes Shakespeare in the intro. Give this lady a CNN show already. Oh, wait, she just got one: Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell.