Saturday, July 31, 2010

AFTER ALMOST 30 YEARS, A DREAM COME TRUE: THE MOTHERS-IN-LAW FINALLY COMES TO HOME VIDEO. Basically, for my entire conscious life, the goofy 60's sitcom THE MOTHERS-IN-LAW played every single weekday on Channel 29 after school. The show only lasted 2 seasons from 1967 to 1969 so watching endlessly repeated reruns meant that I probably knew every episode by heart. UNTIL. One dark day about one year before I got my first VCR (in 1982 -- top loader, anyone?) THE MOTHERS-IN-LAW stopped airing on Channel 29 -- and has never been seen on my television screen since! One of my most fondly remembered TV favourites and I haven't seen it for almost 29 years! Until now, that is, when last week the complete show was released on DVD. As is the case with many fondly remembered childhood favourites, I was a little concerned that the show would not be nearly as funny or enjoyable as it was when I was a kid. These things sometimes are a disappointment after a lot of time has passed. I was afraid the show now, to my adult eyes, would be merely dumb. But I had to get the DVD to find out. After all, it was one of my constant childhood companions back on my clapped-out B&W TV set in my bedroom each day after school (along with The Three Stooges, natch). That's right, even though the show was shot in vibrant (more like 60's garish) colour, I had basically only known the show in black and white. Well, I've only dipped into about 5 episodes on the DVD so far and I am happy (and somewhat surprised and relieved) to report that the show is just as much fun as I remembered it.
THE MOTHERS-IN-LAW aired on NBC starting September 10, 1967 and ending on April 13, 1969. The truly wonderful stars of the show were Eve Arden (everyone's favourite wise-cracking best friend of every leading lady in the 40's and 50's who then went on to star in TV's OUR MISS BROOKS) and Kaye Ballard (Broadway stage star who also made an LP which I'm quite fond of: BOO-HOO HA-HA -- or is it HA-HA BOO-HOO??? It's hard to tell from the album cover) consisting of half sad songs and half funny songs). The two leading ladies were aided by their TV husbands Herbert Rudley and Roger C. Carmel (famed for playing Mudd on TV's STAR TREK). Carmel didn't choose to return for the second season so THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW's Richard Deacon replaced him. Arden and Rudley are the Hubbards who live next door to Ballard and Carmel as the Buells. They've lived next to each other for 15 years and, while they're cordial, really can't stand each other (even though they're loathe to admit it they're actually best friends). As things would have it, the Hubbard's daughter Suzie (Deborah Walley: later to menace BENJI) falls in love with the Buell's son Jerry (Jerry Fogel) and they elope. The Hubbards and the Buells, oil and water, are now related. The entire premise of the series to the very end is the many ways Eve and Kaye can meddle in their married children's lives. The emphasis, of course, is on outrageous situations and slapstick; this shouldn't come as a surprise since the shows are mostly written by I LOVE LUCY scripters Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Davis and the show itself is a Desilu Production produced and often directed by Desi Arnaz himself. If you've ever seen Lucille Ball's 60's sitcoms THE LUCY SHOW and HERE'S LUCY you know what to expect.
Desi himself guest-starred 4 times during the two seasons as bullfighter Raphael Del Gado. Arnaz's character was introduced early in the first season in a typically zany fashion: Eve and Kaye (it's always been very strange to me how all the main characters' first names are exactly the same as the actors playing them -- EXCEPT Deborah Walley's Suzie!!!), in the midst of some typical meddling, attempt to return a duplicate silver punch bowl the kids received as a wedding present while they're away on their honeymoon. Herb and Roger have forbidden the mothers-in-law from pestering the kids by constantly calling them on their home phones. Of course, Eve and Kaye decide they didn't promise not to use the payphones in the department store. Eve calls the kids and spends their last coins on a long conversation and, when they hang up, they realize everyone's gone home and they've been locked inside the store. Kaye finds one last dime tied into the corner of her hankie (Eve makes fun of this fact) and they attempt to call their husbands for help. Unfortunately, while Eve is dialing Kaye is jabbering away and Eve ends up calling the wrong number: that of matador Raphael Del Gado in Barcelona, Spain. Since it's their last dime, they implore Del Gado (whom they've woken from a sound sleep) to call their husbands in Los Angeles and tell them their wives are locked inside Young & Robbins department store. Much patented silliness derived from Arnaz's thick accent and the language barrier ensue; again, if you've ever seen I LOVE LUCY you know the kind of thing I mean. Of course, this is only one comedy incident among several which are crammed into the 22-24 minute programme. In fact, it's mind-boggling just how MUCH they manage to cram into each episode; one never feels cheated of crazy antics.
Probably the single most incredible thing about THE MOTHERS-IN-LAW, after all these years, is the fact that I had mostly forgotten almost every single plot -- UNTIL I see the episode again. Not only do I find myself recalling the plot and most of the lines of dialogue but also find myself remembered the exact tone of voice of the line readings by the actors; much in the same way one remembers song lyrics along with the specific melody. Now and then I stumble across a particular line and line reading which I've internalized and used in my daily conversations never realizing that they originated back in these MOTHERS-IN-LAW episodes. I am still awaiting a pair of episodes which I have remembered through the years: one features a rather famous guest appearance by the one-hit-wonder 60's rock group The Seeds who perform their hit "Pushin' Too Hard" (and if you don't remember it you WILL the moment you hear it) and another Desi Arnaz guest-starring episode in which he comes to visit the girls and requests they make his favourite meal: suckling pig. Unfortunately, the pig that is delivered to their house is still alive and, owing to the fact that Eve or Kaye name the animal "Bright Eyes", they cannot bring themselves to kill it. Can't wait to see these (and ALL the episodes, for that matter).
I must say it's quite a nice thing to have something from one's childhood re-emerge after nearly 3 decades that is just as worthwhile as one remembers it. THE MOTHERS-IN-LAW is one of those happy occurrences. If you've never seen the show, and you are apt to enjoy these types of wacky, silly 60's sitcoms, you're in for a treat. And if you only dimly remember it from your own mispent youth, I can't urge you strongly enough to run right out and find yourself a copy. Dry, sarcastic Eve Arden paired with bombastic Italianate Kaye Ballard are a comedy duo to be cherished.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

ALUCARDA (1975) SEEKS TO MESS WITH YOUR MIND. Director Juan Lopez Moctezuma was part of the "new wave" of Mexican directors following in the wake of Alejandro Jodorowski et. al. who specialized in what they liked to call "Panic" cinema; that is, putting enough raw, confrontational emotion up on the screen as to break down the audience's staid reactions. ALUCARDA goes a fair distance towards this goal. However, the well-known quote about the film from Psychotronic's Michael Weldon that the film has "more blood, loud screaming and nudity than any horror film I can think of" is actually quite misleading since it makes one think the film is a trashy exploitation sleazefest when actually it's a quite artfully made trashy exploitation sleazefest. The blood, while there is a lot of it, never became gory and the screaming, while there is also a lot of it, somehow wasn't as annoying as it usually is to me. Perhaps it has something to do with the images on the screen (which were almost lovingly shot by cinematographer Xavier Cruz) or the gothic, very organic sets (nightmarishly realized by Kleomenes Stamatiades). At times, ALUCARDA plays like the bastard child of Jesus Franco and Luis Bunuel. And as for the nudity? Well . . . yeah, there's plenty of that.
ALUCARDA surprised me first of all by not being a vampire film. Despite the "Dracula-spelled-backwards" title and the "story" credit from J. Sheridan LeFanu's "Carmilla", I'd be hard-pressed to point to more than a moment or two in the film where anything "vampiric" seems to be happening. Once or twice, maybe, but most of the film is a "Satanic possession"-type movie; evidence of this being that ALUCARDA is most often compared with Ken Russell's "THE DEVILS" and William Friedkin's "THE EXORCIST". While there are strong parallels with both films, there is also more than a passing resemblance to Brian DePalma's "CARRIE". Lead actress Tina Romero (who plays Alucarda) looks very much like the bastard child of Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. (There's a lot of bastards running around this review, isn't there?). Of course, this similarity is quite interesting since ALUCARDA was made a year before DePalma's film; and knowing DePalma's propensity for . . . I believe the word he uses is "homage" . . . I'd be quite interested to know whether the American director saw this Mexican film before making CARRIE. Be that as it may, ALUCARDA concerns a young lady named Justine (Susana Kamini) who comes to a crumbling gothic convent upon the death of her parents. The nuns who run this convent are dressed in no habits you've ever seen; they resemble nothing less than ecclesiastical mummies whose wrapping have strange pinkish "tie-dye" effects which darken progessively throughout the film until they look quite like blood-splashes. The overly-helpful Sister Angelica (played with subliminal lesbian coding by Tina French) escorts the girl to her room/cell and leaves her with the promise that she can come to her with any of her needs. No sooner does Sister Angelica depart than Alucarda appears in the room. The word "appears" is deliberate because, in the first stunning shot of the film, Alucarda seems to coalesce behind Justine as if a shadow has suddenly taken concrete form. This immediately leads us to suspect that Alucarda is no ordinary girl. In a pre-credit sequence, Alucarda's mother (also played by Tina Romero) gives birth in a barn midwifed by a goatish shepherd. Is the baby's father Satan himself? We are never clued in to her father's identity but the hint is there. Before any time at all, Justine and Alucarda are as close as sisters . . . on the way to becoming even closer. An encounter with the self-same goatish shepherd/magic charm vendor leads the girls into devotion to the devil before one can say "teen spirit". The goaty-guy presides over a nude lesbian scene in which he pierces each girl's breast and feeds the blood to the other. Things quickly spiral towards an all-out satanic orgy (in which the horned one makes his customary appearance). Before long, the two girls are shouting "Praise Satan" in religious classes and tempting a monk with some rumpy-pumpy.
Now, the interesting thing about this film is that we have been shown that Alucarda and now Justine are absolutely worshipping Satan here. However, the following sequence in which both girls are strapped to a cross and subjected to the "ordeal" of the church are so distasteful that we actually root for the Satan-worshipping teens. The anti-clericalism of Moctezuma's film is quite evident; however it's still not that simple because, however much we dislike the self-flagellating nuns and seemingly fanatical monk, the conclusion of the film shows us that they were, in fact, right all along. Claudio Brook's man of science Dr. Oszek bursts in and breaks up this distasteful "religious ritual" and berates them for their medieval torture methods; however after his blind daughter is threatened by Alucarda he quickly backs God's team. Incidentally, another interesting casting choice is that Claudio Brook's also plays the goatish shepherd role as well. Twinning is an ongoing theme in the film with these two double castings as well as the remarkable two red bugs examined by the girls as Alucarda remarks that she and Justine are "alike" as well. Justine, after having been strapped naked to a cross and punctured with knives to find the devil's mark, dies; however, she doesn't stay dead. This is the second instance of vampiric activity in the film (after the nude breast blood party). Towards the film's climax, another of the countless stunning visuals occurs when Sister Angelica opens a coffin to find Justine's animate corpse rising from a literal bath of blood. The film's climax offers plenty of action including Justine biting a chunk out of Sister Angelica's neck, Dr. Oszek splashing Justine with holy water and a very Carrie-esque Alucarda smiting the nuns with fire and brimstone as she mouths the various names of the Devil.
As I've said, ALUCARDA has a sumptuous look (helped indeed by Mondo Macabro's dvd struck from the original negative). The crumbling convent looks as though it literally grew out of the earth and another building is draped with red cloth from every window. The main prayer/teaching room in the convent features a back wall sunken in shadows with vague carved figures (including the crucified Christ -- actually it looks like a MULTITUDE of crucified Christs) hanging as if leviating behind a sea of lighted candles. Actually, this scene looks very much like Tintoretto's painting of the last supper (which had hosts of ghostly angels hovering above as if composed of smoke from the candles). Compare them, children, and you just see if they don't!
Moctezuma does not go overboard towards surrealism but uses it sparingly in service to the film. The same cannot be said for his first film THE MANSION OF MADNESS (based on the Edgar Allan Poe story "The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether") which is something of an incoherent mess with flashes. The director's anticlericalism is pronounced but, as I've said, is undermined by the director's making the point that the church, however distasteful, was actually right all along. Also in contrast to THE MANSION OF MADNESS, ALUCARDA moves along at a fairly nice clip with very few draggy stretches; the earlier film was almost nothing BUT draggy stretches. The final image in the film -- the life-sized Christ on the cross enveloped in flames -- is a suitably enigmatic visual which can be read several different ways. All in all, ALUCARDA was something of a pleasant surprise: offering much more than I expected. A little too arty to be exploitation and a little too exploitative to be a critic's darling, ALUCARDA made little money or impact upon it's initial release and critics virtually ignored it. In recent years, however, it's becoming something of a cult film. Whatever ALUCARDA is, though, it's certainly an interesting and thought-provoking experience.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

THE PREVAILING MOOD IS BOOKISH. For those not bitten by the bibliophile bug it's a little hard to explain. That current abomination known as the "kindle" is something no true book lover would associate with and I wish it a quick and deserved death as "kindling". No, there's that certain something about a book - the physical presence of it in your hand, on your shelf - that goes beyond a mere string of words. Books . . . the best books . . . are by definition travelers from the past into our present. Either the book is something you bought originally at some point in your past which brings to mind a certain time and place or else the book is far older and once had a place in someone else's library. As Helene Hanff once noted, there is nothing quite so wonderful as an old book falling open to a favourite page oft-revisited by some long ago reader or some marginalia drawing your attention to some well-loved passage across the gulf of time. Two book lovers: one from the past calling your attention to something meaningful across the years. No, the feel of a book in your hands, the tactile act of turning-over of the pages is not something that can be duplicated on a computer screen. The line upon line of books standing shoulder to shoulder on endless bookshelves can be a comforting oasis of quiet; it's easy to see why Lord Sepulchrave was so attached to his beloved personal library. There is (or should be) something of the lost, the out-of-the-way and the forgotten in the atmosphere of a good library. Finding a book on a shelf is absolutely a form of discovery. How delectable the feeling of walking into an old used book store where the light is always dim, the shelves tower overhead (preferably shelves of wood like the ones at 84 Charing Cross Road which had so absorbed age and dust that they no longer were their normal colour) and the aisles are narrow and claustrophobic. Walls and walls of books enveloping you; wrapping you in their book jackets as if to shield you from the buffeting of the world outside. The perfect old book shop should have more than a little of a sense of some dark corner of the library at Miskatonic University wherein Wilbur Whateley would feel at home stalking the stacks.
I am a confirmed lover of the neglected places of life: the off-the-beaten-path, the road less taken, the forgotten and overlooked, the mercifully free of crowds. I prefer the secluded corner to the wide-open spaces. My first home as a child had a large basement of exposed cinder-block walls. This subterranean dungeon contained the abandoned detritus left by a departed father: old-fashioned furniture, a desk, a work bench with tools hanging on the peg board above it - the outlines of hammers and saws exactly drawn around them in black magic marker. Sometimes the basement would flood after a heavy rain. Shades of Gormenghast! I discovered a few old paperbacks down there (2 of which appear above) as well as some old textbooks containing various short stories for somebody's long-ago English class. These books may have belonged to anyone; I still don't know. However, I have them all still. A much similar event to this happened in the young life of Stephen King (as relating in his excellent but dated study of horror "DANSE MACABRE"). The ten-year-old future horror author discovered a box of old Avon horror paperbacks that had belonged to his own absentee dad while prowling around his aunt's attic loft. It was, King said, something of a turning point for him, as it was the first time he would read "real" horror fiction. You see, these are magical things: books. One only has to ask H. P. Lovecraft how important his grandfather's attic library had been to him and how devastating it was when that fine old Providence house and the contents of said library had to be sold for bad business debts. Lovecraft never recovered. There was a Lovecraft paperback in that box of books Stephen King found: his first encounter with the writings of Lovecraft. A couple weeks after this momentous discovery the books disappeared no doubt due to the machinations of King's disapproving auntie. King shrugs off the loss as he writes of it but the sting was sharp enough to include the incident in his book decades later. Then, of course, the aforementioned forlorn Lord Sepulchrave so loved his books that he would lose his sanity after his library burned. This is indeed the extraordinary power and allure of books to those of us who hear their siren call.
There is just such a haven of books calling to me now; a place where the bookshelves do indeed go on and on across two storeys. A place that sits quietly in the small town of Mullica Hill on the banks of the Mullica River. Couched among the antique shops awaits Murphy's Loft. Back in the mid-1980's my cousin Loran and I both attended Glassboro State College (now Rowan University). During a blazing hot summer day in May, we both decided to ditch classes and make the not-inconsiderable drive to Mullica Hill. Along the way, the sky darkened to an angry purple and the roiling, lowering clouds assured us that we were in for a violent summer storm. Would we even make Mullica Hill before the downpour? Well, just as we pulled into the gravel drive which led us behind the house where Murphy's Loft lies, the skies opened up in a torrential rain. We ran for the door and stumbled into the bookstore. It was silent as a tomb; that particular complete silence which is amplified by the contrasting white noise of the rain outside. It was also very dark inside the book shop. No lights except for one tiny bulb burning over a desk - dimly picking out the faint edges of countless spines of books everywhere. Hello? Was anybody there? It didn't look like it. Perhaps the proprietor had been dragged into the walls by a huge, slug-like creature like one pictured on the cover of some old issue of WEIRD TALES. Presently, someone from the house did come down and turn on the lights; a buzzer on the door connected up to the house and alerted them when customers arrived. As the lights sprang into life, they revealed endless books books books. Where to start? The rest of the afternoon was spent in that magical place of old books. What could possibly be nicer than perusing through shelves of old books while a summer storm brewed outside? Nothing much can compare to it. I've never forgotten that afternoon and every few years I get the urge to go back to Murphy's Loft. It always happens in the summer. And it's happening again right now.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

WHEN THE LEGENDARY CANADIAN ROCK BAND "RUSH" APPEARED ON THE COLBERT REPORT, Stephen Colbert mentioned the fact that the band had not yet been inducted into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame and asked if the title of their next album was going to be called "That's Bullshit!". A healthy belly laugh from the band did not cover up the fact that that was, in fact, major bullshit! One item that goes a long way toward rectifying this gross injustice is the recently released to DVD award-winning documentary "RUSH: BEYOND THE LIGHTED STAGE" directed by Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen (helmers of "Metal: A Headbanger's Journey"). While I don't consider Rush a "metal" band (similarly I don't consider Led Zeppelin a "metal" band either -- they're both hard rock), the gentlemen seem ably qualified to make this rather superb documentary (which won the coveted Heineken Audience Prize at the Tribeca Film Festival). The members of the band (school chums Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson and "new guy" Neil Peart) have been notoriously close-mouthed about their personal lives and have never courted the tabloid press. Therefore, the in depth biographical information provided in this movie-length documentary is particularly interesting and enlightening. It is also very much appreciated by this particular fan that the film spends a great deal of time on the trio's early life and career from their formation in 1971 up to the classic bombshell of the "Moving Pictures" album. Rest assured, the time period of "Moving Pictures" and everything up to the present day are not neglected either but given the same treatment. It's just really nice that the movie didn't start with the commercial success of "Moving Pictures" but gave equal time to all the excellent albums leading up to their blockbuster. Besides the biographical track followed by the film, a great deal of effort is spent focusing on most of the band's albums; from the eponymous first album to the seeming "career suicide" of "Caress of Steel" to the experimental mental albums "2112" (which actually proved to be commercially successful as well) and "Hemispheres" and on and on. My one complaint about the film is that Geddy Lee's iconic vocal on Bob and Doug McKenzie's "Take Off" is never mentioned! How could they neglect such an epochal moment in western music?!?! But laying aside this small caveat, the documentary is a Rush fan's dream; in fact, it's even extremely enjoyable to someone who isn't particularly a Rush fan. It's simply a magnificently-done film. There are also a great deal of laughs throughout (showing the band has never really taken itself too seriously) including the lambasting Rush has gotten from the critics over the years, the various humourous descriptions of Geddy Lee's voice ("a squirrel in a blender") and the fashion-shattering kimono period. A passle of celebrities also chime in on their love and respect for the band as well as musical influences Rush has had on their careers: Jack Black, Kirk Hammett, Billy Corgan, Trent Reznor, Sebastian Bach (who I SWEAR looks exactly like Suzanne Somers in the film), Gene Simmons and South Park's Matt Stone are just a few. The exemplary musicianship of the gentlemen in Rush is talked about and demonstrated via performance clips. Geddy IS a fabulous bassist and Lifeson IS a superb guitarist -- there's simply no denying that -- but, while I have never been one to really get wet over drummers -- I must join the happy crowd in admiration of the nearly super-human chops belonging to "new guy" Neil Peart who is simply one of the best drummers on the planet. And his heady lyrics ain't so bad neither. RUSH: BEYOND THE LIGHTED STAGE is really one of the best music documentaries I've seen in quite some time; since Scorsese's Dylan doc surely. It really gives one the feeling of achieving a "closeness" with the band which has never quite happened before. Like the aforementioned Bob Dylan (who famously kept biographical questions at arms length and answered personal questions with hilarious fibs), Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart seem to have allowed the filmmakers unprecedented access to their psyches and their minds. All of which makes for a cracking documentary experience. Perhaps the greatest tribute to the film is that it'll send you leaping for your old Rush albums. I know I did. So race off to your dusty cd collection and grab "2112" or any other cd that takes your fancy. "Suddenly ahead of me across the mountainside a gleaming alloy air car shoots towards me two lanes wide. . ."