By • Feb 1st, 2007 •

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We have much to celebrate this season of ’07. I’m not really a pessimist, but there are intimations of Armageddon drawing closer and closer, so let’s enjoy life – and to me that means enjoyable gatherings in front of a widescreen monitor luxuriating in the glow of DVDs – tothe fullest. There’ve also been some events in NYC that have drawn me outside the comfort of my living room…

On Saturday, February 3rd, Ennio Morricone came to Radio City Music Hall. Amazingly, the maestro has never played NYC before, nor has he performed live anywhere in the United States since his debut in 1961 – although The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures presented him with a Career Achievement award several years ago. With over 400 films scores under his belt, the tireless composer took the stage to thunderous applause, and after a concert that included ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, THE GOOD, THE BAD AND UGLY theme (with Soprano Susanna Rigacci providing the mythic wail), ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE (aka DUCK YOU SUCKER), TG, TB&TU’s ‘THE ECSTASY OF THE GOLD’, QUEMADA, IL CLAN DEI SICILIANI, and THE MISSION, he came back out for three encores. It was fascinating to finally see how he achieved the striking effects his scores are known for.

Back in ’81, I was working on my film BURT’S BIKERS, which has a twelve-minute third act entirely dependent on music. My producer, Sukey Raphael, contacted Morricone in Italy to see if he would consider scoring the film. We hit an immediate snag because though he answered the phone and listened patiently to her plea, he didn’t speak English, so the following week we called again, this time with an Italian translator. We had wanted excerpts from his pre-existing scores, but he explained that he didn’t own the rights to those. However, given our film’s theme, about handicapped children, he offered to write an original score for free. It was an amazing offer, but the specter of
communication problems, and his being a continent away, finally persuaded us to look elsewhere.

(left to right)  Kenneth Anger, Rocco Simonelli, FIR's editor, Kenneth's (now-deceased) friend Ray Schnitzer. 1997

The DVD release to beat this year is Fantoma’s two-volume collected works of KENNETH ANGER, our country’s foremost experimental filmmaker, though he adamantly told me he didn’t care for that appellation. The first volume is out, and long-time acquaintance of Anger’s, Camp David’s David Del Valle, reviews it elsewhere on this site.

In 1968 I worked on my first feature film as Co-Producer (un-credited) and Assistant Director (the first time, I’m told, an AD credit ever graced a one-sheet) – THE PROJECTIONIST (Image Entertainment). Two films influenced the style of TP as far as director Harry Hurwitz and I were concerned: D.W. Griffith’s 1916 INTOLERANCE, and Kenneth Anger’s SCORPIO RISING. I was glad to see Martin Scorsese’s glowing tribute in the DVD booklet. For an ‘experimental’, limited release work (I caught it at midnight at the Bleeker Street Cinema in Manhattan), it has had major reverberations throughout the industry. It was also heralded as the first incidence of frontal male nudity in theatrical release in the US, though you’ll probably need your stop-frame button to make the most of that element.

And anyway, SCORPIO RISING’s going to be in Volume Two. As to Volume One, when I was the head of the Tulane University Film Society back in the mid-60s, I scheduled a program of experimental films, of which FIREWORKS (in Volume One) was on the list. The day of the show, I was informed by a staff committee which had viewed the films, that Anger’s film could not be shown due to its sexually graphic subject matter. A group of perhaps two hundred people showed up for the event, including children (since one of our ‘experimental’ choices was the ‘Rites of Spring’ sequence from FANTASIA) and I couldn’t bear to face them, so I sent a friend – Terence Adams – up on stage to announce the bad news, which he did by standing quietly until he had their attention, then announcing: “Scratch number 7…” and quietly leaving the stage. Then, in the spirit that has pervaded some of my films over the years since, I locked myself in the projection booth and showed it anyway, getting in some hot water as a result.

Several years ago I had the great pleasure of inviting Kenneth Anger to present the ‘Alternative Film Award’ to the winning student at the School of Visual Arts annual “Dusty’s” ceremony, celebrating the best films from the graduating class. Anger stayed in my apartment while he was in town, which was quite an honor. That evening he wore an off-white suit, looked spectacular, and when he arrived at the theater, it was the faculty that lined up to meet him. He gave a spirited speech, extolling the students to ‘Go for it!

VOOM’s Monster’s HD channel is doing a month long Monster Marathon, and as part of the line-up, on February 15th, they’re broadcasting High Definition versions of the three CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON films. You should all tune in. It won’t be in 3-D, but High Def is probably a better way to see them, since those early experiments with the red-green glasses were unevenly successful at best.

The Gill-Man was the best monster outfit of all time. Better than The Mummy, better than the aliens from INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN, better than THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS (where’s that DVD, by the way!?!), or THE ASTOUNDING SHE MONSTER, both inspired by it. I don’t include Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster, or Lugosi’s Dracula, or Chaney Jr.’s The Wolfman, since those weren’t body suits. Okay, maybe the sexy female robot from METROPOLIS tied it for first place, but in the sound
era, the Creature takes the prize.

Ricou Browning (left) and Makeup Artist Bud Westmore.

The Creature came alive via three (I guess you would call them) stunt men: Swimmer Ricou Browning, who did the difficult underwater sequences, and land-based Ben Chapman and Tom Hennesy, whose heights (approximately 6 ft 4 in) were required, topside, to make the creature look particularly menacing.

This is probably not Ricou Browning, but it's a great still of the Creature outfit.

I had the extreme pleasure of chatting with Ricou Browning this week – and I mean extreme, since the second installment in the series – REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955, 82 mins, Universal-International) was the favorite film of my youth, so much so that I was determined, when I got old enough to start making films myself, to make them all 82 minutes in length in homage to my beloved REVENGE (I had a 16 mm print
which I ran repeatedly to the utter distraction of family and friends).

I came close to duplicating the running length, but never quite pulled it off: THE PROJECTIONIST (which I didn’t direct) ran 85 minutes, DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD came closest at 84 minutes, BURT’S BIKERS’ first final cut was 78 mins, but when we decided to release it direct to TV, we trimmed it to 55. STREET TRASH was 101 mins, THE SWEET LIFE was 85 mins, and THE MELTDOWN MEMOIRS was 2 hrs. 4 mins. There were two versions of THE COMEBACK TRAIL, and I don’t know what they were, but they weren’t 82 mins. But there’s still time…

I didn’t gush about my fixation on REVENGE to Mr. Browning – other than to say I loved it during a pivotal time in my childhood – as he seemed a serious person who had moved on as quickly as he could to producing directing, and running the Ivan Tors Studio in Florida. But he responded to my questions at times with an enthusiasm suggesting vivid
emotional memories of those early days in Florida, LA, the Bahamas and elsewhere, working with dolphins, sea lions, a killer whale, and directors more difficult than all of those sea creatures combined (Mike Nichols on DAY OF THE DOLPHIN for example) and friendly guys as well (Jack Arnold – helmer of two of the CREATURE features, and Terence Young, director of THUNDERBALL).

What was it like, I wondered, wearing, and swimming in, that studio-manufactured full-body creature outfit? “It was kind of like swimming in your overcoat, but the more I did it, the more I got used to it. It was like wearing a football uniform for the first time; once
you start playing the game you don’t know you have it on. It didn’t keep you warm, like a wet suit; I got colder than hell. We shot in the wintertime on the first movie. The weather was in the 30s, the water was 71 degrees, and we shot all day long, in and out of the water. Jim Havens, the second unit director on the first one, directed my scenes, and he couldn’t swim. He had an inner-tube, and he’d get in it with a face mask and look down in the water. The cameraman, Scotty Welbourne, also did some directing under the water. He built the housings for the two 3-D cameras, which were placed beside each other, and they flooded twice, and had to be overhauled overnight to have them ready to go the next day.”

A detail which fascinated me was the way the creature breathed. “You mean the gills moving? They had a little bulb you held in your hand, and it would go up the suit into the gills, and you would squeeze it, and it would make the gills move.” Commenting further on the realism of the suit, he added, “There were no promotional appearances when the
films came out, because they didn’t want people to know the creature was a human being.”

Browning later doubled Frank Sinatra in LADY IN CEMENT, and directed the sequences involving the shark, and he found the actor very professional. “When they called him, he wanted to work, and if they weren’t ready, he just turned around and walked away. Very
professional…and very nice.”

As someone who has worked more with dolphins than probably anyone but Dr. Lilly , I was curious about what his feelings were about these unique creatures. “As far as their intelligence is concerned, I think we have yet to scratch the surface. When you’re training them, you see them thinking, which scares you. They’re a very strong animal, and you have to be careful handling them. When they don’t want to do something, they’re like a cat, very independent, and you let them do what they want. You film at their pace. They never really get to know you, like a dog does. The only association you have with a dolphin is when you’re in the water with it. The navy supposedly used dolphins as weapons, and after five years training Flipper, I can assure you that you could train a dolphin to kill somebody very easily. I’m sure you could make a good horror film with them.”

In all the films, there’s a scene where the creature swims below the leading lady, spinning around and around, almost in sexually ecstasy. This was Browning’s idea, as was the incredible sequence where the creature captures the Ibis in REVENGE OF THE CREATURE at Chapter 3 on the Universal Home Entertainment DVD. “The creature’s gotta eat; why not have him grab a bird. And so we got a tame bird, and I grabbed that sucker, pulled him under water, didn’t hurt him, and let him back up, and that was it.” The scene completely establishes the reality of the creature’s world. “There was an animal guy who had all kinds of birds, and that’s the one we used. The bird didn’t know I was coming. I took him out in the water, set him on the log, ducked under, popped up and dragged him down.”

“Evil Dead the Musical” is spewing blood into the air nightly at the New World Stages on 50th Street off 8th Avenue in Manhattan, and if you’re an EVIL DEAD lover, a Bruce Campbell lover, a musical-comedy lover, or just love a raucous stage experience, you must catch this show.

Based on Sam Raimi’s immortal film trilogy, the play slathers homage upon homage, evoking a spirit of great fun, using the alchemic possibilities of the stage every bit as well as PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, but retains the intimacy of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, and that play’s kinetic sense of audience participation. Ryan Ward is a fabulous ‘Ash’, conjuring Bruce Campbell’s legendary performance both in physical appearance, vocal deliverance, and physicality. He also, if one is willing to journey further back than Campbell’s ethos, evokes Ray Bolger‘s awkward, limbs-askew poetry. The supporting cast that swirls around him are all terrific, sexy, game to take physical
chances,.. An ensemble worthy of re-visitation. The second act climax – which is what the plastic bags that the first three rows are supplied with are for – sends the audience into a frenzy of screaming laughter.

The score is not memorable, but never boring, and works its wonders while you’re in the midst of it. However, special mention must be made to the use of that breakaway stage. I don’t know, really, who to single out, so: David Gallo (Scenic Design), Louis Zakarian (Special Effects & Makeup Design), B.H. Barry (Fight Choreographer), Michael Laird (Sound Effects Design), Hinton Battle (Co-directed & Choreographed by). You should follow these folks from play to play.

Photo by Nia Mora

And then there’s “Stairway to Hell,” a rock-shock show evolving in clubs around Manhattan, currently at Snitch Lounge in West Chelsea. The story concerns a rock band that dies and goes to heaven…much to their horror. They’d all been hoping for an eternity in hell, and use every decadent means at their disposal to convince the devil to take them back out through the pearly gates and deposit them where they belong.

It’s loud, rude, sexy, vile, has a few profane surprises I won’t reveal, but one of them outdoes “Evil Dead The Musical” for what stage denizens are willing to perpetrate on the audience… And the audience is a young, loud, sexy gang…not unlike their counterparts on stage. Since it’s changing venues week by week, you should check them out, I think,
at www.myspace.com/warthogsth, or call Associate Producer David Delzio at 917-279-7427.

Incidentally the rock group – WARTHOG – includes three members of NYFC cult favorite 80s metal band, ‘Cities’; it’s their first reunion in over two years, as guitarist Steve Mironovich was only recently released from jail, and ‘Twisted Sister’ drummer, AJ Pero, appears fresh off the ‘Twisted Christmas Tour.” So you’re not just dealing with any metal cover band here; these are the real dudes and dishes. Also slinking around the premises the night I was in attendance was the ever-sensual Nia Mora, ace photographer, one of whose shots accompanies this review with her kind permission. Myself, I might just have been out of my element. One of the female band members was stroking my alpaca sweater and I thought for a moment fate was drifting in my direction until she remarked – referencing said garment – that it gave her her fond memories of the Bill Cosby show… Yeah, I guess I was just a decade behind the times…

I was also concerned at not having brought along ear-plugs, but my fears were unwarranted; within two days my hearing had returned completely to normal.

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