Oct 24, 2011

Canzine 2011

I had begun the usual Canzine weekend ritual the night before: watching Harry Thomason's regional horror film Encounter With the Unknown (I've watched this thing about three or four times in the past on the night before Canzine-- why break a tradition?), and again in the lineup at 10:30 AM worrying: a) whether or not my name was on the list this year; and b) where I was going to be sitting. The latter fear was especially prescient as this year's fair was at a new and different venue, 918 Bathurst Centre. However, once inside, my concerns were quickly forgotten, as the day was spent in this marvellous arts facility (formerly a Buddhist temple). Not only was I able to actually move around, but I managed to move and groove with fellow zinesters and independent publishers, and most importantly, re-connected with some old friends after having spent most of the year on my side. In short, my eleventh Canzine appearance was the first one in a long time that actually felt like fun instead of business as usual.

In addition to the three or four big rooms for people to table their wares - on the main floor and in the basement, there were also separate smaller ones downstairs in which people could also do installations. My (former?) colleagues at Trash Palace had rented the room which resembled a small class room where they spent the day showing (guess) educational films. Also, adjacent to the big room downstairs, they had an antechamber where vendors sold food and snacks- all organic, including the beer (whose brand name I've already forgotten, but do recommend). I was in the main room, with the beautiful hardwood floors and arched roof (formerly where they congregated for worship), and still had plenty of wiggle room to check things out.

The sales were okay, but I'm not hear to carp about dollars and cents. (If you ignore the number one koan in the independent world- "How much can you afford to lose?", then you're in the wrong business.) There's a greater, more volatile thing than that here-- simply, it's a livelihood. A time-worn adage in this field is "for the love and not for the money", yet this term is blind to the unconverted, who simply cannot understand why people would spend untold hours on often ephemeral, deeply personal pieces of creativity that offer little to no financial returns. Also, the unconverted often dismissively refers to all of this as "hobbyism" (a term that has always irked me). It is more than that- a state of mind, a way of life. And although I count myself among those who seeks something outside of the mainstream conventions, by the same token, I don't assume that what we do is superior to those accepted conventions. Those who seek something outside the parameters of the mainstream are simply looking for a different set of values: neither is right or wrong.

At shows like this, another adage comes forth: "Give back to the mountain what you take from it." In other words, it's up to all of us to continue to support this independent community, lest it fall apart. Whatever you can afford to give from your pocketbook to buy some books or zines to keep the machine running, all the better. Money may not be the primary reason why people contribute to the underground, but it keeps the machine running nonetheless.

Yes, I have preached similar aphorisms for most of the time in which I've had this blog, and these words may be nothing new, but since I've been away from this community for some time, they serve as a valuable reminder to myself. Despite the fun I have re-uniting with old friends and hopefully making some new allies at shows like this, actually my favourite time of all of Canzine is the "contemplative coffee" had the next morning. As I reflect upon the previous day, I am empowered by the buzz of independence and creativity, touched to be a small part of it, and realize that the values we uphold at events like this, we must continue to carry with us, and make them part of our lives the other 364 days of the year.

Love and light.

Oct 16, 2011

Tales of an Analog Enthusiast Book 5: Independent Video Store Day

ABOVE: That's Rentertainment; Champaign, IL
(Photo courtesy of Jason Pankoke)
It had long been my intention to reboot the dormant "Analog Video Enthusiast" series of posts (or hell, just reboot this blog in general), and saw no more appropriate time to do it than on October 15, the first annual Independent Video Store Day. Inspired by the annual tradition of Record Store Day (born in 2008), Video Store Day likewise honours a form of retail which is in fear of becoming extinct thanks to the Internet. Today, independent video rental stores enticed consumers to come out for some great deals on video rentals and purchases, and simultaneously reminded them how much fun it is to go the neighbourhood retailer instead of downloading movies from iTunes and Netflix.

What did I do to celebrate Independent Video Store Day? Nothing. I had an excuse-- I was out of town for my father's birthday. But since I spend most of the year's other 364 days browsing video stores and looking for tapes or DVDs in some of my favourite haunts, I bear no remorse for missing it. Instead, hopefully this day enticed those who weren't already converted how much of a valuable commodity is the video rental shop around the corner, and they will continue to support it. In other words, it's great that you cook a Christmas dinner for the homeless, but they still have to eat every remaining day of the year.

There are now consumers who don't know about a life without having a VCR in the home. Soon, if not already, there will be consumers who won't remember what one was. I am old enough to know a life before the days when the VCR became a household item, and can comment on how radical a change that became for anyone interested in cinema. Suddenly, the consumer no longer had to be a slave to the TV schedule- they had the power to choose instant programming for themselves. Further, because consumers were so excited about this newly acquired power, they would also virtually rent anything to play on these newfangled devices- many would sample previously unheard of titles that suddenly became available to them. Thus, in the 1980s, well into the 1990s, video stores of all sizes appeared to capitalize on the new craze. Colloquially, when we refer to the golden days of video stores, we often think of the "mom and pop" outlets. Many of these perished under the juggernauts of the franchise stores. How could one compete against a store that had 20 copies of everything? Yet, over the years, we've also seen the chain stores fade away: The Video Station, Jumbo Video, Major Video, and of course, Blockbuster, this year's huge fatality.

The decline of video stores over the years has been blamed upon downloads (legal or otherwise) and streaming. That's the argument, right? Why would some kid want to trot down to the video store to pick up Scott Pilgrim, when they can just go "click" on the mouse in their bedroom? Instant gratification, and no-one had to put on any galoshes. But this decline is also symptomatic of a greater issue: the continuing social displacement of our society, because of its false dependence upon gadgets. Everywhere you look, it's people fiddling with their new Crackberrys, iPads, iPods and iPhones-- each new model more enticing than the last with new features and more capabilities, offering the consumer a Swiss army knife of diversions from having to communicate with another human being. And I guarantee you that, when iBlowJob appears, no-one will ever have to go outside again.

Hey, I'm no old fart. My day job is spent in front of a computer screen, working online, and learning new technology. But let's be fair- I surely don't want to come home and spend the rest of my waking hours in front of another computer screen. Contrary to what that smartass reviewer at Broken Pencil will have you believe, I'm no luddite, BUT these gadgets should only be tools-- they are not your life. It's great that we have all of these devices, but our reliance upon them goes to ridiculous extremes. I really don't need to hear yet another person on the streetcar during the morning commute call someone to say they'll be there in two minutes. Who gives a fuck? Just show up in two minutes.

My home computer is an old operating system on which it gets increasingly harder to watch video, especially in streaming- I can't run Netflix because I have the wrong processor. But even if I did get a new computer, I'd still much prefer to rent a video or DVD. (Not only that, but the selections of titles for Canada's Netflix plain sucks.) Why would I want to watch a measly Quicktime (or worse, Flash) file when I can see something of greater resolution on a disk-- and on a bigger screen, no less?

Since the giants have fallen, how do the independent hangers-on still persist? Selection and expertise. The whole joy of going to a video store is "Hey, look what I found". How many times have we had the thrill of discovery in going to the neighbourhood retailer for one thing, only to come across another title that one didn't know about, or at least didn't know was available? But still, for the most part, the independent video store is a chapel for the already-converted. The majority of moviegoers is of adolescent males, who often will only care about what's new, and even then, if they can get their fixes without having to leave their bedrooms, all the better. As such, many wouldn't care about the back catalogue or the history of the medium. ("Huh? Fright Night is a remake?") If we don't support these stores, we lose this access to that heritage. Not only that, but.... well, I don't know about you, but I kind of like chatting in person with a fellow human being. Sure, it's great to have access to a lot of bells and whistles at one's fingertips, but nothing beats the over-the-counter expertise.

And in honour of Video Store Day, I'd like to give due props to one store that I've frequented over the years. For the past fifteen years I've been a customer of 2 For 1 Video. When I first encountered them in 1996, their three aisles were crammed with VHS tapes; even today in the age of DVD and BluRay, the shelves are equal parts tape and disk.

In the beginning of my visits, 2 For 1 was also in competition with two other shops in the same block: another independent shop across the street, and a Blockbuster next door- both of those are now long gone, but still 2 For 1 hangs on. I'd like to think that their reason for continuing to stay around is due not only to the fact that now they're the only store in that little neighbourhood nook, but also to their expertise. For example, Shane, the enthusiastic employee who has been working there for 20 years, claims to have seen every movie in the store. That's a broad admission, but the more you hear him talk, the more you believe him. Think about it- even if you see a couple of films in the store every day, over time, it adds up. And he's honest enough to tell you whether he thinks a movie is good or bad- not necessarily to discourage or entice you, but at least to give the customer an informed opinion on whether the film in question is what they're seeking.

Since the independent video store is becoming a niche market, there also seems to be a sense of elitism about it now-- an indie snobbism of the "holier than thou" variety that one associates with the record store clerks of High Fidelity. I'll grant that I've experienced that sometimes (yet, not always) in the stores I've frequented. Personally, I just fluff them off like any other poser I encounter. If you ignore the assholes long enough, they go away. (In fact, that deserves a post of its own some day.) Well, there's none of that posturing at 2 For 1. In fact, they offer the best of both worlds in video rentals. The staff is courteous, honest and helpful, free of the indie snob pretension, and yet refreshingly offer their own opinions on their inventory to help the consumers to make their own choices, which is something that chain store employees are forbidden to do.

To be sure, 2 For 1 has had its ups and downs over the years. This modest little outfit used to be open from noon to midnight, seven days a week- now they're open about eight hours a day. A few years ago, they were looking into moving to a smaller retail space, which also didn't have as prominent a store front, as their rent was being increased. As such, they began whittling down their inventory by selling off hundreds of VHS tapes, which of course delighted collectors like me, but not without a touch of melancholy. (This feeling too, is worthy of a post all its own.) Many of the sale titles were from boxes of inventory they had in the basement. Over the years, they had been removing slow renters from the shelves to make space for new inventory, and finally saw fit to let them go. Ironically, some of the titles they were selling off were of films I had been seeking for years, and would have rented had I seen them earlier. Once again, that is the necessity of a video store, to find and leave with something else than what you came for. But still, they're hanging on, still in the same space, God bless them, and I know it will be a sad day for the community if they ever do pack it in.

Wait, what? Community? Yes! To Netflix or iTunes, you're only just a customer. Will Netflix ever ask you how your wife and kids are doing? While it's a great thing to support our video stores today, remember that they need our attention the other 364 days of the year, too. Independent video stores exist not just to fill a niche market- they are a necessary life blood. They give a vivacity and social circle to the neighbourhoods in which they still struggle to survive. If we lose this, we're one step closer to becoming as faceless as the gadgets we reply upon.

And yes, I'm well aware of the irony that this piece is being read online.

Oct 10, 2011

Keep My Grave Open (1976)

Director: S.F. Brownrigg
Writer: F. Amos Powell
Wells Company; 79 min; color

Camilla Carr (Lesley Fontaine), Gene Ross (Dr. Emerson), Stephen Tobolowsky (Robert), Ann Stafford (Suzie), Sharon Bunn (Twinkle), Chelcie Ross (Kevin), Annabelle Weenick (Clara), Bill Thurman (Hitchhiker)

Of the four horror/exploitation pictures made by Texan S.F. Brownrigg, he considers Keep My Grave Open to be his favourite, and I share his opinion, perhaps because this was the first of his work I had seen (and therefore this was the film where his distinct style impressed upon me), but it is also his most satisfying. His quartet of films is remarkable for the “you are there” atmosphere, unusual camerawork and melodramatic acting, in addition to the helpings of gore and violence to sell tickets. Although these pictures had different screenwriters, similar themes of madness, dysfunctional familes and sexual tension play into all of these scenarios, best described as macabre mélanges of Tennessee Williams and Erskine Caldwell.

Oct 6, 2011

Screams of a Winter Night (1979)

Director: James L. Wilson
Writer: Richard H. Wadsack
Producers: James L. Wilson, Richard H. Wadsack
Music: Don Zimmers
Cinematography: Robert E. Rogers
Full Moon Pictures; 91 min; color

Matt Borel (John / Ron), Gil Glasgow (Steve / Parker), Patrick Byers (Cal), Mary Agen Cox (Elaine), Robin Bradley (Sally / Annie's Roommate), Ray Gaspard (Harper / Billy), Beverly Allen (Jookie / Crazy Annie), Brandy Barrett (Liz), Charles Rucker (Alan), Jan Norton (Lauri), Bill Ragsdale (Service Station Attendant)

"Listen to the wind...."

Five college-aged couples go to a cabin for a weekend getaway, and in the dead of the wintry night, they tell each other tales of horror: a couple whose car runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere are stalked by a furry creature; people meet their doom in a fraternity initiation to spend a night in an abandoned hotel; a young woman goes on a killing spree after a lovers lane rendezvous goes bad. These "urban legend" stories that the kids tell, however, become superficial once they physically experience a legendary horror that the local yokels at the gas station warned them about....

Oct 4, 2011

Scared To Death (1981)

Director: William Malone
Screenplay: William Malone, from a story by Robert Short and William Malone
Producer: Rand Marlis
Music: Tom Chase, Ardell Hake
Cinematography: Patrick Prince
Special Effects: Tom Russo
Lone Star Pictures International; 93 min; color

John Stinson (Ted Lonergan), Diana Davidson (Jennifer Stanton), Jonathan David Moses (Detective Lou Capell), Toni Jannotta (Sherry Carpenter), Walker Edmiston (Police Chief Dennis Warren), Pamela Bowman (Janie Richter), Michael Muscat (Howard Tindall), Freddie Dawson (Virgil Watson)

Someone or something is going around killing the local hardhats, roller skaters, and party girls who won't go to see a Maria "Oos-pens-kya" movie, and Detective Lou Capell is clueless over the identity of the culprit. He recruits the help of his ex-partner, former detective-turned-hack-novelist Ted Lonergan to solve the crimes, but he steadfastly refuses.... until his new girlfriend Jennifer is jeopardized by this menace.

Oct 3, 2011

Fiend (1980)

Director, Writer: Don Dohler
Producers: Don Dohler, Ted A. Bohus
Cinematographers: Don Dohler, Richard Geiwitz
Music: Paul Woznicki
Special Effects: David W. Renwick
Cinema Enterprises; 90 min; color

Don Leifert (Eric Longfellow), Richard Nelson (Gary Kender), Elaine White (Marsha Kender), George Stover (Dennis Frye), Greg Dohler (Scotty), Del Winans (Jimmy Barnes), Kim Dohler (Kristy Michaels), Debbie Vogel (Helen Weiss), Richard Geiwitz (Fred)

Don Dohler's Amazing Cinema magazine,
which often plugged his own films.
Before Don Dohler had ever picked up a movie camera, he was already a "do-it-yourself" legend for having published underground comics in the 1960's, and with his influential "Cinemagic" magazine, which was a primer for aspiring filmmakers to create their own special effects.  His first feature, The Alien Factor (1978), shot for a paltry $6000, proved he was a trailblazer for another medium- once a film of such small budget succeeded in being sold to cable, many "DIY" filmmakers were alerted to the possibility that "Hey, I can do this too."

Don Dohler would produce or direct another ten features in his native Maryland during the next three decades, until his untimely death in 2006.  His first four early features (before his late 1980's hiatus) are gems- full of the same wide-eyed "golly gee" innocence as the 50's sci-fi/horror films that no doubt influenced him, and whose small budgets are contrary to the impressive special effects.  For my money, his second feature, Fiend (1980), remains his greatest achievement.

All of Don Dohler’s films are ensemble pieces, in which a mosaic of characters is thrown into a fantastic situation.  However, by comparison, Fiend only has a handful of key characters.  Don Leifert was always given colourful characters to play in Dohler’s work, but with his lead role, this picture rests comfortably on his shoulders. 

The charming opening features a red cartoonish, ectoplasmic demonic looking entity that travels through the night sky and then disappears into a gravesite.  Then the corpse digs its way out of the earth and strangles a girl in the cemetery.  The corpse touches its face, delighted at the notion of being alive again.  That shot is perhaps the crux of this brilliant satire from writer-director Don Dohler.  The monster simply wants to live a normal –human- existence in suburban Maryland.  And so several months later we see the fiend, under the name of Eric Longfellow, moving into the quaint neighbourhood of Kingsville, opening a lucrative music publishing business and even offering lessons from his bungalow.  However, there’s one problem.  The fiend needs to survive by killing others and absorbing their lifeforce (as seen with the red glow emanating from its body upon doing so), otherwise the host body it controls begins to decompose (as seen a couple of times with convincing makeup). 

Longfellow’s neighbour Gary Kender (Richard Nelson) has been reading about the mysterious strangulations in the county.  He’s already been irritated by music coming from next door, and has commented on Longfellow’s strange behaviour. Kender delves further into the truth about the killings (including a hilarious sequence with a graveyard custodian who so happens to carry around a newspaper clipping of the graveyard exhumation that began this movie), and begins to suspect Longfellow, especially after a girl in the neighbourhood is killed.

The idea of a monster trying to be human is as old as Frankenstein itself- the subhuman creature usually wants to feel love.  However, one cannot think of another movie monster that simply wishes to embrace the most everyday mundane things, like sipping wine or washing the car, however all while still dressed in the same black suit he was buried in. Dohler creates a picture postcard of the film’s suburban setting with candid shots of kids playing street hockey, a man mowing the lawn, and cut-ins of birds, skies and branches.  We are also witness to the daily ritual of the Kender couple.  Richard is the typical suburban husband who comes home from work and expects to unwind while his wife Marsha prepares dinner.  Also, Marsha is an obsequious surrogate mother to her cub scouts, and obsessive about helping them make a movie in the spring.  She even recruits her husband to make the trek to buy a book on special effects, Film Magic, at 704 Market St. (a clever way for Dohler to plug his own product).  Because Richard Nelson and Elaine White (who plays Kender’s wife Marsha) are obviously unschooled actors, their tendency to overact, intentionally or not, actually makes this setting larger than life. Dohler presents this landscape that is familiar to us, and slyly turns it into a satirical cartoon.

Most importantly, Fiend works as a horror film as it sustains a creepy mood.  The old-fashioned special effects do not date the work, but rather compliment the low-key tone of the narrative.  Although it slowly builds to its climax, it is exciting to watch for its plethora of ideas, inventive visual touches, and another brooding electronic score, this time by Paul Woznicki.  Kudos to Don Leifert for his commanding performance as the fiend (his delivery reminds me a lot of Orson Welles’), and we would also be remiss to forget Dohler's regular actor George Stover’s appearance as Dennis Frye (likely named after the immortal horror movie lab assistant Dwight Frye), who plays Longfellow’s cloying employee (a modern variation on Renfield, perhaps?).   This film is also a family affair as Dohler’s son Greg has a supporting role as Scotty who confides in Kender about some strange encounter, and daughter Kim was hired to play the poor little girl whose death advances the plot!   It is too bad that Fiend only played for the small screen (in the golden days of VHS, it became a mini-favourite among genre fans).  Here was a film deserving to be seen in the drive-ins, thereby begetting revivals on the late late show. 

Oct 2, 2011

Bigfoot (1970)

Director: Robert F. Slatzer
Producer: Anthony Cardoza
Screenplay: Robert F. Slatzer, James Gordon White
Cinematographer: Wilson S. Hong
Music: Richard Polodor
Gemini-American Productions; 82 min; color

John Carradine (Jasper B.Hawks), Joi Lansing (Joi Landis), Judy Jordan (Chris), John Mitchum (Elmer Briggs), James Craig (Cyrus), Christopher Mitchum (Rick), Joy Wilkerson (Peggy), Lindsay Crosby (Wheels), Ken Maynard (Mr. Bennett), Dorothy Keller (Nellie Bennett), Doodles Weaver (Forest Ranger), Jennifer Bishop (Bobbi), William Bonner (Lucky), Anthony Cardoza (Fisherman), Haji

I am astonished at the hate given to this film, even from people who normally appreciate B-movie trash.  This is one of the most delightful pieces of rock-bottom drive-in junk I've ever seen- so much that it's become a perennial viewing favourite at Casa G-Man every fall: perhaps not up there with our custom of screening Empire of the Ants every Christmas Eve, but it's getting there.  It is difficult to imagine how anyone could take this lumbering, scattershot film so seriously, since it's inept on so many levels that it enters a new realm of cinematic language. It is also morbidly fascinating to see so many veteran actors in this little movie, but they appear to be enjoying themselves. Perhaps the greatest revelation is seeing former B-western star Ken Maynard as the store keeper, in his first screen appearance in more than a quarter century. Despite the oft-reported details of his poor health at the twilight of his life brought on by years of alcoholism and malnutrition, even he is given some dignity at least.

Oct 1, 2011

So Sad About Gloria (1973)

Director, Producer: Harry Thomason
Writer: Marshall Riggan
Cinematographer: James W. Roberson
Music: Jerald Reed, Terry Trent
Centronics International; 90 min; color

Lori Saunders (Gloria Wellman), Dean Jagger (Fredrick Wellman), Robert Ginnaven (Chris Kenner), Lou Hoffman (The Psychiatrist), Seymour Trietman (Mr. Bellinger), Linda Wyse (Janie)

One of most interesting "where are they now" stories of the days of regional horror films is of director-producer Harry Thomason, who went on to produce such successful TV series as "Designing Women" and "Evening Shade", after having paid his dues the previous decade with a quartet of drive-in genre pictures made in his native Arkansas. The horror anthology Encounter With The Unknown (1973); the rural comedy The Great Lester Boggs -AKA: Redneck Country (1975)- of which I may be its one admirer; and the delightful rock-bottom 1950s sci-fi homage The Day It Came To Earth (1979); proved that he was no Eisenstein, but at least managed to deliver medium-grade entertainment on low budgets. For years, I had sought his other film, So Sad About Gloria, after catching only a glimpse of it on Elvira's old TV show way back when (before switching channels to watch Any Which Way You Can instead), which was also released on video with the less-interesting title Visions of Evil. Of the four films, this one is perhaps the most competently acted, sentimental and character-driven.