Wednesday, September 30, 2015

THE SAINT AND THE FICTION MAKERS by Leslie Charteris, adapted by Fleming Lee (1968, Doubleday)

Reviewed by Nathaniel Poggiali

The crime-fighting gentleman thief Simon Templar, alias The Saint, was the creation of Chinese-English author Leslie Charteris and first appeared in the novel Meet the Tiger! (1928). Templar’s adventures would extend to nearly 40 books, as well as a series of feature films (with George Sanders and Louis Hayward assuming the role), a popular radio show (starring Vincent Price), and two ITC programs, the first of which made a star out of Roger Moore. The literary Saint was a vigilante who fought for justice, but his casual arrogance and impulsive violence gave the character an edge that his fictional contemporaries lacked.

As the series progressed the author softened his protagonist, so that by the time of The Saint’s television debut, Templar had become comfortably predictable. Charteris maintained strict control over the brand, however, and as part of the television contract he was sent each script for review, though his ideas were rarely incorporated. During the fifth season the creative team moved away from adapting his stories, and Charteris was none-too-pleased with the results. He sent a series of acerbic, often hilarious letters to producer Robert S. Baker, excerpted in Burl Barer’s terrific The Saint: A Complete History in Print, Radio, Television, and Film…. “The kind of farrago of lurid nonsense and hackneyed maneuvers that any writer … could slapdash out in half and hour with the aid of a couple of highballs,” Charteris wrote of one episode (qtd. in Barer 145). As much as he panned the scripts, however, the author was enthusiastic about John Kruse’s work: Of Kruse’s “The Fiction Makers,” he wrote that the dialogue had a “crisp sparkle which has all too often been lacking in other scripts … simply a splendid job” (136).

In 1967 Charteris needed new material for the struggling Saint Magazine. He enlisted former university instructor Fleming Lee, who he met during a Mensa gathering near his home in Florida, to adapt Kruse’s teleplays of “The Gadget Lovers,” “The Death Game,” and “The Power Artist,” and revised them for publication (the stories were later included in The Saint on TV and The Saint Returns, both 1968). Charteris and Lee continued their collaboration with a novelization of “The Fiction Makers,” a two-part episode directed by genre vet Roy Ward Baker and given a theatrical release outside the U.S. (where it premiered on THE CBS LATE MOVIE on January 23, 1976).

Kruse’s teleplay spoofs James Bond using the adventures of fictional superspy Charles Lake: the villains are a team of crooks that have patterned themselves on Lake’s nemesis Warlock and his terrorist organization S.W.O.R.D. (think Blofeld and SPECTRE). The hugely successful Lake novels are penned by Amos Klein, the nom de plume of perky young Amity Little. Amity has been sent a letter offering £50,000 for an undisclosed assignment by “Warlock,” and Templar assumes the identity of Klein to investigate. Both he and Amity become prisoners of S.W.O.R.D., with Templar/Klein forced into planning the robbery of a heavily-guarded underground depository.

Considering the cleverness of its set-up, much of “The Fiction Makers” misses the mark. The script’s parody of James Bond (the plan to loot an isolated depository and the “multi-laser destructor” are straight out of GOLDFINGER) seem tired, even for 1968. The concept of an antagonist assembling his “business” of criminals based on a work of fiction has fascinating possibilities that are never explored. Instead, once Kruse has revealed the intentions of Warlock and S.W.O.R.D., the script becomes a routine, even dull, heist thriller, with only Moore’s charisma and some funny lines (“You have forty-eight hours in which to solve the problem, or else we shall invoke Chapter 12 of Volcano Seven!”) to keep the material afloat. Though the story depicts the insane plot of a man enamored of the international spy genre, it is confined mostly to an English country mansion – a fact that probably has more to do with the show’s limited budget than deliberate irony.

The novelization is a pleasant surprise then, a mostly excellent work that remains faithful to the source but adds texture and detail, maintaining the high quality of Charteris’ previous fiction. The novel fills plot holes and drops material that didn’t work. In the television version the viewer was left wondering why a group of criminals would be loyal to Warlock and his loony plan; in the novelization, Templar speculates that Warlock’s men were sprung from prisons and blackmailed into following orders. The authors eliminate a weak twist that has Templar and Amity seeking help from Warlock’s neighbors (only to discover, quite predictably, that the neighbors have notified S.W.O.R.D. of their whereabouts). The climax -- which has Templar racing back to the mansion to prevent Amity’s demise by laser destructor – generated little suspense onscreen thanks to flat direction and editing, but Lee and Charteris make the scene tense and exciting.

Though Lee read several Saint books and made an effort to imitate Charteris’ literary style, he said the “humor and characteristically amusing turns of phrase were not things [he and Charteris] could plan or even discuss … they could only happen because of our psychic affinity, which manifested itself also in a lot of common interests and attitudes” (qtd. in Barer 166). With adjustments from Templar’s creator -- “sentences, paragraphs … occasionally whole pages,” (167), Lee said – the writing was made consistent with previous Saint adventures. The following is a good example of Charteris’ typically off-center approach:

        The Saint had never been fond of things on grounds of rarity
        alone. He had never been excited by eclipses of the moon nor
        had his pulse quickened at the sight of a six-legged calf. But of
        all the things which the Saint did not like because of their
        rarity, he liked least the rare experience of being bashed with
        some firm artifact on the back of his skull.
(Charteris 28)

If Templar himself remains the witty but uncomplicated hero of later works in the series, the novel deepens and expands Warlock’s presence. First described as having a countenance that produces thoughts of both Father Christmas and “certain Roman emperors who were given to killing their friends and relatives in moments of pique” (59), Warlock is an intense and unsettling villain in the novelization, and his fanatical devotion to Amos Klein/Amity Little’s writing makes more sense. Charteris and Lee include a scene where Warlock relates his childhood experience of arranging two armies of lead soldiers for battle, only to burst into tears when reminded that the figures could not move. The love of escapism stems from Warlock’s belief that it will help the S.W.O.R.D. leader realize his potential, however corrupt: “… It is very difficult for heroism and grand action these days … in books like yours … [there is] a glimpse of a way of life in which men use themselves to the full” (85). Though Lee and Charteris have Templar deflate this reasoning with a sarcastic quip, they see Warlock as something more than a plot contrivance.

Also intriguing are possible references to the authors’ unhappy experience dealing with the show’s creative team. In several letters to Baker, Charteris wrote about his disappointment with story editor Harry W. Junkin (who receives credit for “additional scenes” in “The Fiction Makers”), and Lee blasted Junkin for his tendency to “eliminate the brightest and most original bits and install Hollywood clichés in their place” (qtd. in Barer 167). In dialogue original to the novelization, Warlock identifies himself as an admirer rather than a practitioner of “creative imagination.” Is Warlock meant to be Lee and Charteris’ depiction of Junkin?

        Everything is exactly as you described it in your books. Not one
        detail is missing … though I must flatter myself in telling you
        that in transforming an author’s fantasies into reality, however
        thorough and brilliant the author may be … one nevertheless
        discovers that some details have been overlooked in the books
        and must be supplied by the practical man.
(Charteris 60)

The Saint and the Fiction Makers had its first publication in the U.S. for The Crime Club, an imprint of Doubleday. The U.K. edition from Hodder & Stoughton appeared in 1969.

Works Cited

Barer, Burl. The Saint: A Complete History in Print, Radio, Film and
        Television of Leslie Charteris’ Robin Hood of Modern Crime,
        Simon Templar, 1928-1992
. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.,
        1993. Print.

Charteris, Leslie. The Saint and the Fiction Makers. Teleplay by John
        Kruse and Harry W. Junkin. Adapt. Fleming Lee. Garden City,
        N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1968. Print.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A STUDY IN TERROR by Ellery Queen

Reviewed by Nathaniel Poggiali

Ellery Queen, the erudite master detective who first appeared in The Roman Hat Mystery (1929) and documented his cases as a series of mystery stories, was both the character and pseudonym created by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. The Brooklyn-born cousins had a system that produced highly successful mysteries for decades: Dannay outlined the stories and Lee would develop them as novels. At some point in the late 1950s Lee suffered writer’s block and was unable to keep up his part of the collaboration. Beginning with Theodore Sturgeon on The Player on the Other Side (1963), other authors were hired to expand Dannay’s outlines, and the cousins paid a flat fee to crime fiction specialists -- including Stephen Marlowe, Talmage Powell, and Richard Deming -- for a series of paperback originals under the Queen sobriquet that were edited by Lee (Nevins 4). Lee eventually returned to work with Dannay on the main series of novels until his death in 1971. Edward D. Hoch, who ghosted The Blue Movie Murders, said that one of the late-period Dannay/Lee collaborations was the framing material for the novelization of A Study in Terror (
. This is not surprising when one considers the framing story has Queen experiencing writer’s block as he tries to make a book deadline.

        Ellery brooded.
        For a reasonable time.
        After which he got up from his typewriter, seized ten pages of doomed copy, and tore them into four ragged sections.
        He scowled at the silent typewriter. The machine leered back.

The film A STUDY IN TERROR (1965) puts Sherlock Holmes (John Neville) and Dr. John Watson (Donald Houston) on the trail of Jack the Ripper in 1888 London. The Whitechapel district has been shaken by a series of murders targeting prostitutes. At 221B Baker Street, Holmes receives a case of surgeon’s tools minus the post-mortem scalpel and suspects the kit was sent as a clue to the Ripper case. Holmes and Watson set out to contact the kit’s owner based on a coat of arms imprinted in the fabric. Their search leads them to an aristocratic family entangled in a web of blackmail and murder.

The idea of having Sherlock Holmes take on the Ripper case was intended to be used for a sequel to SHERLOCK HOLMES UND DAS HALSBAND DES TODES a.k.a. SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DEADLY NECKLACE (1962), a West German/Italian/French co-production loosely based on Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear and starring Christopher Lee and Thorley Walters. Producer Artur Brauner of CCC Film -- the company behind a series of Edgar Wallace krimis -- had a falling-out with associate producer Heinrich von Leipziger a.k.a. Henry E. Lester, legal copyright representative for the Conan Doyle estate. The film concludes with a set-up for a Ripper story, and the sequel was announced in a German newspaper (Barnes 208). Presumably because of his rift with Brauner, von Leipziger went to England and set up a Holmes/Ripper project with Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser of Compton Films, in collaboration with American producer Herman Cohen (best known for KONGA and HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM). Donald & Derek Ford are credited for the screenplay of A STUDY IN TERROR, though Cohen claims to have done rewrites with director James Hill and H.A.L. Craig (ANZIO, WATERLOO) ( The story would inspire John Hopkins’ screenplay for the 1979 British/Canadian co-production MURDER BY DECREE (also featuring Frank Finlay in the role of Inspector Lestrade).

For the U.S. release Columbia Pictures commissioned a novelization (Lancer, 1966). Though Ellery Queen is the only author credited, Francis M. Nevins (Royal Bloodline: Ellery Queen, Author and Detective) told me the Holmes section was penned by sci-fi writer Paul W. Fairman. In the style of Arthur Conan Doyle, Fairman developed the novelization as a first-person account by Watson. He does commendable work approximating Conan Doyle’s literary voice and departs from the film in several interesting ways. In one sequence Holmes chases the wrong suspect and fails to stop another of the Ripper’s gruesome murders. The detective’s resulting guilt and self-doubt add a vulnerability missing from the film’s portrayal.

        Holmes was on his knees, back bowed, head lowered, a picture of despair.
        “I have failed, Watson. I should be brought to the dock for criminal stupidity.”

Holmes’ equally brilliant brother Mycroft is also fully realized, less obnoxious and adversarial, and has a wonderful scene where he and Sherlock identify the occupations of two men they observe in the street. Also, since the story is told entirely from Watson’s perspective, it is missing the film’s awkwardly staged murders.

Dannay and Lee wrote a contemporary framing story not included in the film. In an upper East Side Manhattan apartment, Ellery Queen tries to complete his latest novel. Playboy Grant Ames arrives holding a manuscript found in his car after a drunken soiree, a manuscript purported to be a heretofore lost adventure of Sherlock Holmes by John Watson. True to Conan Doyle’s conceit, Grant and Ellery accept the existence of Holmes and Watson as “real” detectives; Ellery, however, tries to determine the authenticity of the manuscript while Grant tracks down its owner. The contemporary scenes alternate with the Watson testimony in a rather contrived way, as Ellery is repeatedly tempted away from his work to read another chapter of the manuscript. Ellery soon realizes there may be a different killer based on his interpretation of events and the appearance of an elderly woman with ties to the aristocratic family.

Fairman’s text alters the film’s positioning of revelations (e.g., a final clue that Holmes uses to reveal the killer is presented at the halfway point) to let Dannay and Lee work in a clever twist. It’s too bad Lee’s writing is sloppy and seemingly dashed off in haste, as if he lost interest or had another bout of writer’s block. Queen novels are known for their wit, but the verbal sparring of Ellery and Grant never seems fully developed. This is an amusing way to open a chapter, though:

        The apartment bell was a carved rosebud set in ivory leaves. Grant Ames jabbed it, and the       result was a girl wearing poisonous-green lounging pajamas.

The first edition of the Lancer paperback promised “Ellery Queen and Sherlock Holmes,” and later editions “Ellery Queen vs. Jack the Ripper” (with Sherlock Holmes relegated to the back cover). A Study in Terror was published in hardcover in the U.K. as Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper (Gollancz, 1967).

Works Cited

Barnes, Alan. Sherlock Holmes on Screen: The Complete Film and TV History. 2nd ed. London: Reynolds & Hearn, 2004. Print.

Cohen, Herman. Interview with Tom Weaver. Attack of the Monster Movie Makers: Interviews with 20 Genre Giants. By Tom Weaver. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1994. Gerry Carpenter, 2012. Web. 10 May 2012.

Hoch, Edward D. Interview with Kurt Sercu. Ellery Queen: A Website on Deduction. Kurt Sercu, 25 Apr. 2002. Web. 10 May 2012.

Nevins, Francis M. “Death and Ghosts: The Ellery Queen Paperback Originals.” Dime Novel Round-Up Feb 1998: 3-17. Print.

Queen, Ellery. A Study in Terror. New York: Lancer, 1966. Print.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

BRUTES AND SAVAGES by Arthur Davis and Ben Parker

Reviewed by Chris Poggiali

Arthur Davis, known as “Mr. International Showman” in the film distribution world, was a familiar face to people who read Variety during the 1960s and ‘70s. The son of a Florida movie theater owner, Davis followed in his father’s footsteps as an exhibitor before landing a job as a publicist for the film import company Mayer-Burstyn. He ran his own film import business in the States for several years before relocating to Tokyo in the early 1960s and establishing The Arthur Davis Company, a distribution outfit that provided Japanese TV stations and movie theaters with Italian and French movies. After more than a decade in Japan, Davis expanded his operation to Hong Kong and formed The Arthur Davis Organization -- “The leading independent showmanship group in Japan, Hong Kong and all the Far East,” according to the ads that frequently appeared in Variety (accompanied by a photo of Davis, always smiling). He also widened his scope to include the handling of German, British, and some American films, and by the mid-1970s his company was distributing over 22 titles a year throughout Asia. Logically, the next step for Davis would be the production of his own films.

It took an action-packed vacation in South America to convince Davis that truth was indeed stranger than fiction, at least in certain corners of the globe, and that a sensationalistic travelogue in the tradition of the enormously successful Italian “shockumentary” MONDO CANE (1962) -- and all its “Mondo” imitators -- would be a good way to ease into film production. The lifestyles and rituals of so-called primitive cultures in South America and Africa, committed to film, would hopefully provide enough shock value to get the movie sold in every conceivable film market in the world. Davis formed a new company called Factual Reports, opened a production office in London, and immediately put up $750,000 of his own money to start the motion picture that would become BRUTES AND SAVAGES. "Such films are relatively easy to make,” he boasted to Variety. “They have no cast and don’t need a name director to sell them” (Variety, May 11th, 1977, p. 6). Meanwhile, a second “factual report” -- a documentary about Japanese martial arts called THE ART OF KILLING -- would be shooting at the same time in Japan, with producer Hisao Masuda and director Masayoshi Nemoto in charge.

“All scenes whether actual or simulated represent actual truth.”

If we are to believe what is written in the Valkyrie Press paperback of BRUTES AND SAVAGES -- published in 1978 and credited to Davis and author Ben Parker -- Mr. International Showman and his crack team of documentary filmmakers (cameraman Jaime Questa, a soundman named Cedric, and their assistants, Hernando and Oliver) landed in Khartoum on July 4th, 1976 and journeyed to the southernmost part of the Sudan to film the “manhood ritual” of the Juba tribe. In other words, they were supposedly just three miles from the Ugandan border a day or two after Israeli commandos rescued 100 hostages from pro-Palestinian hijackers at Entebbe Airport. Never mind that the crocodiles devouring that Juba tribesman during the manhood ritual appear to be made of rubber in every third shot, or that the river they’re flailing around in looks like a swimming pool in every fourth shot, or that the Sudan itself bears a striking resemblance to Florida. Despite claims that BRUTES AND SAVAGES will show “1,001 forbidden scenes never before filmed,” viewers are still denied the sight of Arthur Davis’ head in Idi Amin’s refrigerator.

Next, our intrepid travelers hauled their equipment to South America -- Bolivia and Peru, to be exact -- where they captured on celluloid everything from fornicating llamas to x-rated Inca pottery. During the opening credits, we see footage of Uru tribesmen killing monkeys with blow darts and cooking them over an open fire. What we don’t see is footage of Davis and his crew vomiting into the river after learning that the meat they’ve just consumed is barbecued monkey, or shots of the Uru watching all of this from a distance, pointing and laughing hysterically.

All this and much more can be learned from the handsomely produced and entertainingly written mass market paperback from Valkyrie, which is approximately 225 pages in length and contains over 50 b&w photos interspersed throughout the text. (The copy in the Temple of Schlock library is signed by Davis with the inscription "To Cathy and Brad, two wonderful 'kids' that I wish were mine.") Other memorable passages that appear in the paperback but not the various versions of the film include:

– Davis grabbing a camera and scrambling out of his Land Rover to film snakes copulating by the side of the road

– Jaime hanging out of a tree with a “hidden camera,” filming the sacred Turtle Wedding ceremony of the Uru tribe. Please note that there’s nary a leaf in sight, let alone a whole tree, during the entire sequence (which was seemingly shot from about 10 different angles, all medium shots or close-ups, none above shoulder height)

– All references to Jimatl, the Inca Empire’s version of Hugh Hefner

– The legend of Ixlanta and Omonga, which explains the origin of cocaine

– A masturbating monkey in a tree strafing Cedric’s head with semen

– Said monkey getting blasted out of the tree five seconds later

– Davis being accosted by cocaine distributors interested in hiring him to smuggle a package back to Miami for $15,000

– Almost all references to Viracocha, the lord of all things, father of men, creator of lightning, rain, and the sun, and the reason the people living around Lake Titicaca chop a llama to pieces every once in a while

– All references to Llampa, which happens to be llama lubricant (I swear I’m not making this up)

– All references to chica, a highly potent whiskey distilled from berries and the leaves of coca plants

– All references to Manuel, one of Davis’ tour guides, who drank too much chica on the night of the llama mating ritual, insulted Viracocha, and promptly perished with a knife in his chest

– Davis stalking the elderly night watchman from the Museo Rafael Larco Herrera (“The Erotic Inca Museum”) and bribing him with 1 thousand pesos in order to obtain footage of the erotically illustrated soup bowls and drinking glasses in the museum’s collection

“Anyone who visits these places with a movie camera is automatically under suspicion,” Davis explained to Variety. “They figure an American has to be with the CIA and suddenly everything becomes difficult to organize” (Variety, May 11th, 1977, p. 6). In fact, Davis shot so much of his footage without legal consent that when it came time for him to leave South America, it was impossible for him to get all of the film stock past customs at once. He had to make several return trips to Bolivia and Peru and smuggle the footage out while posing as a tourist.

Back in London, Richard Johnson -- a British stage and screen actor blessed with a strong, distinctive voice -- was brought in to read the narration and possibly lend a touch of class to the sensationalistic proceedings. Distinguished enough to be considered for the role of James Bond when DR. NO (1962) was being cast, Johnson had portrayed British secret agent Bulldog Drummond in two very Bond-like espionage adventures, DEADLIER THAN THE MALE (1966) and SOME GIRLS DO (1969), and was a powerful presence in films such as NEVER SO FEW (1959), THE HAUNTING (1963), KHARTOUM (1966), and THE AMOROUS ADVENTURES OF MOLL FLANDERS (1966), in which he co-starred with Kim Novak, his wife for a short time. Although he had just handled narration duty on Moustapha Akkad’s critically acclaimed THE MESSAGE, a.k.a. MOHAMMED, MESSENGER OF GOD (1976), Johnson was in the middle of a career slump that usually landed him in Italian horror movies like BEYOND THE DOOR (1974), THE NIGHT CHILD (1975), ZOMBIE (1979), ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN (1979), and THE GREAT ALLIGATOR (1979). Although he's credited on the back cover of the novelization, his name appears nowhere in the credits of BRUTES AND SAVAGES.

For an original soundtrack score, Davis turned to Riz Ortolani, the Italian composer who not only scored the granddaddy of all shockumentaries, MONDO CANE, but also earned an Oscar nomination for that film’s theme song, “More.” With titles like ECCO (1963), WOMEN OF THE WORLD (1963), AFRICA ADDIO (1966), and FAREWELL UNCLE TOM (1971) on his résumé, Ortolani is the composer most closely identified with the Mondo genre. Most viewers will agree that he gave BRUTES AND SAVAGES the soundtrack it deserved -- a schlocky stew of world-jazz-funk-rock that’s as hopelessly dated as the film itself.

Fans of gimmicky technological advances in B-movies will be happy to know that BRUTES AND SAVAGES is recorded “In fantastic Brute Sound!!” A short article published in Variety during the film’s post-production (“Devise Brutesound for Arthur Davis’ ‘Savages’”) explains that the system, developed by a British engineer, “works on a single track and can be played through existing playback systems. Effect of Brutesound is to vary the intensity of a soundtrack. Seemingly, it can jack up the decibels by some 400% if necessary, or cut back the sound to a whisper” (Variety, August 17th, 1977 p. 31). Ironically, another article on the same page of the very same issue (“Hostile Climate in Britain for Filming, Prod. Davis Claims”) reveals that British lab technicians refused to work on the movie because they felt the soundtrack exploited cruelty to animals, and that Davis had to threaten to close the London office of Factual Reports and move his operation elsewhere in order to get a finished sound mix!

An additional headache for Davis was WITCHCRAFT, his third Factual Report, which was set to roll in September of 1977. Based on the files of UCLA professor Michael Donaldson and focusing on Japanese ghosts, Malaysian voodoo and other psychic phenomena, Davis had pre-sold the documentary to a dozen distributors on the strength of his claims that it would contain footage of an actual exorcism. That summer, after seeing Exorcist II: The Heretic bomb with both critics and ticket buyers, the distributors got nervous and asked to be released from the deal. WITCHCRAFT was scrapped, at a cost of nearly $100,000 of Davis’ own money.

Despite these setbacks, BRUTES AND SAVAGES was completed by autumn of 1977 and unveiled at MIFED that October, where Davis offered 104-minute and 94-minute versions for worldwide distribution. A year later, the 94-minute cut had its U.S. premiere at the Miami International Film Festival, where a Variety critic who attended the screening had generally positive things to say about it. “There will be censor opposition here and there, but for its designated types of audiences this one should do well. Photography is generally good, the scenery beautiful, the jungle scenes reek of the hazards of survival” (Variety, November 22nd, 1978). That same year, Davis sold the Arthur Davis Organization to his Japanese employees, who split up into 3 separate companies (Medallion Enterprises, Nan Enterprises, The Dela Corporation) in 1980. Davis returned to Florida and began a new career in real estate.

BRUTES AND SAVAGES remained unreleased in the United States until 1982, when Manhattan-based distributor Terry Levene acquired the film and gave it limited exposure through his company, Aquarius Releasing. A one-time sub-distributor of DEEP THROAT (1972), Levene -- like Davis -- specialized in the buying and selling of foreign films. Levene’s product was from Europe and Asia, and consisted mainly of kung fu, action and exploitation movies he would dub into English, re-edit, and then distribute to drive-ins and inner-city theaters in the U.S. with new titles and sleazy ad campaigns. From his office in the Selwyn Theater Building, in the heart of 42nd Street, Levene unleashed such tasty grindhouse treats as WOMEN IN CELL BLOCK 7 (1974), MEAN FRANK AND CRAZY TONY (1975), THE BLACK DRAGON VS. THE YELLOW TIGER (1975), KUNG FU MASSACRE (1975), and BRUCE LEE FIGHTS BACK FROM THE GRAVE (1978). In 1981, Aquarius ventured into more shocking territory when they handled two ultra-violent mondo documentaries, the American production FACES OF DEATH and the Italian-lensed SAVAGE MAN, SAVAGE BEAST.

The next year, Aquarius opened BRUTES AND SAVAGES at the 42nd Street Liberty Theater on Christmas Eve (!) for a one-week run, on a triple bill with their two previous mondo hits. With no advertising in any of the New York area newspapers, the film slipped in and out of town virtually unnoticed. The only critic who bothered to review it was Bill Landis, editor of the trend-setting fanzine Sleazoid Express, who wrote: “It’s a mostly dull Mondo movie containing often faked footage and an effeminate British explorer with a Prince Valiant haircut, whose travels through remote parts of South America provide the focal point. There’s too few laughs, but one neat scene of actual brain surgery, accompanied by Muzak on the soundtrack” (Sleazoid Express, vol. 3, no. 1, February 1983).

[The second Factual Reports production, THE ART OF KILLING, also made its belated theatrical debut in 1982. Under the title BUDO, it was released briefly through Crown International Pictures.]

The home video boom was soon in full swing, and product was needed to fill rental store shelves. MPI Home Video released a 92-minute cut of BRUTES AND SAVAGES -- presumably from the Aquarius theatrical print, since FACES OF DEATH was also a popular MPI title -- and it’s this version that circulated in the U.S. for nearly 20 years. In the second issue of his great, long-running fanzine Ecco, Charles Kilgore erroneously described Davis the Floridian as “an Italianate Emo Phillips lookalike” and the film itself as “a 1983 Italian pseudo-documentary,” but the crux of his review was right on the money: “From its opening credits set to a fourth-rate imitation Philly disco track to its final segment on a llama mating ritual, BRUTES AND SAVAGES squeezes all of the worst mondo elements together into one stinking cinematic turd. A segment on human cranial surgery provides the only evidence that a brain was involved in this entire sorry enterprise” (Ecco, vol. 1, no. 2, March/April 1988).

The differences between this truncated version of Davis’ “factual report” and the fully restored 107-minute “uncivilized” version released on DVD by Synapse Films in 2003 are evident from the first frame. The longer cut begins with Johnson reading the narration over 46 seconds of black screen (“We invite you to join the Arthur Davis Expedition to some of the untamed corners of the world…”), while the 92-minute version fills this darkness with a montage of animal footage and maps of South America. After the opening credits, the “uncivilized” version rolls out 28 minutes of footage supposedly shot in Africa. This entire sequence is cut from the beginning of the 92-minute version, which starts instead with Davis & company landing in South America. The llama sacrifice that originally followed the Turtle Wedding is moved forward so it comes before the visit to Death Village. Also, during the Turtle Wedding sequence, when the young couple consummates their marriage in a hammock, Johnson comments, “Love in a hammock is, well, something of a feat!” -- a quip that is in the 92-minute version but not the 107-minute version.

But the whopper comes 43 minutes into the shorter version: In between the montage of animals devouring each other and the trip to the coca groves, a 10-minute chunk of African footage (including the Juba tribesman being eaten by the crocodile) suddenly rears its head, with Davis’ nasally voice rudely cutting in on Johnson’s narration to explain, “In the interior of Brazil live a tribe originally survivors of a shipwrecked slave ship. These isolated people are dangerous!”

Obnoxious? Of course! Offensive? No doubt! Exploitative? You bet! Irresponsible? Welllll, let’s not go that far. After all, the promo art shows a man being eaten by a crocodile, so the Juba footage had to make the final cut somehow.

Besides, I’m still not entirely convinced that Davis ever set foot in Africa to begin with. Call me a skeptic, but I keep getting this mental image of him in front of a horse-drawn wagon with a bottle in his hand, trying to sell some amaaaaazing hair growth tonic or bunion oil to the same townspeople he fleeced one year earlier.

The Valkyrie paperback is probably the easiest and most entertaining way of digesting Davis’ nonsense, but those of you looking for the ultimate BRUTES AND SAVAGES cinematic experience are encouraged to seek out the “Uncivilized Version” on DVD from Synapse Films. It still doesn’t follow through on the promise of “1,001 forbidden scenes never before filmed,” but at least it replaces 18 minutes of rare Juba tribal footage -- and returns the Juba themselves to their rightful continent in the process. Oh, and just like the book, it is endorsed by the Institute of Primitive Arts and Cultures!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Japanese Tie-in #1: AQUARIUS (a.k.a. STAGE FRIGHT)

by Michael Gingold

What’s a movie tie-in paperback collector to do when he’s acquired almost all the English-language books he’s been looking for, and the few that are left are proving maddeningly elusive? Start seeking out titles in other languages. Japan is an especially fertile source, and if you happen to have a Japanese bookstore in your city -- especially one with used stock -- you can unearth all kinds of unexpected oddities. The U.S. never saw a novelization of Spike Lee’s GIRL 6, but guess what I found on the shelves of Manhattan’s Book Off…

One of the very first I acquired, though, was via an on-line dealer. My collector’s focus is on horror titles, and when I saw that this particular seller had a Japanese tie-in for AQUARIUS, the Michele Soavi slasher film better known as STAGE FRIGHT, I did a bit of a double take, as tie-ins for Italian horror movies from any country outside of Italy itself are few and far between. I hadn’t really considered going after Japanese tie-ins before, in part because I simply can’t read the language; in certain cases, though, you can look at the pictures, and that proved to be the case with AQUARIUS.

Published in 1987 and credited to “Lew Cooper” (the pseudonym Luigi Montefiore, a.k.a. George Eastman, used as his screenwriting nom de plume on this movie), the 215-page book opens with eight pages of color photos from the film, including a few gory images I’ve never seen anywhere else. Interspersed throughout the text are many more black-and-white stills, a number of them also rarities. A number of the Japanese tie-ins for locally produced features that I’ve picked up since are similarly illustrated, but very few that adapt movies from other countries, making AQUARIUS a rare bird for Italian-horror enthusiasts. I have no idea how faithful the adaptation is, nor can I judge the quality of the writing, but the copious images make this one a highlight of any collection.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Sheckley, from 7 to 10

by Nathaniel Poggiali

Robert Sheckley’s short story “Seventh Victim” first appeared in an April 1953 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, and imagined a future society where military wars were nonexistent because of a government-sponsored game that legalized murder. Players alternated the role of Hunter and Victim according to random assignment, with only Hunters knowing the identity of an opponent. Any player that survived five rounds as Hunter and five rounds as Victim was awarded membership to the Tens Club, a position of significant power and wealth. The central figure is Stanton Frelaine, a Manhattan manufacturer of the Hunt-employed body defense Protec-Suit (“Why not drop into the Protec-Store nearest you? Why not be safe?”). When Frelaine falls in love with his seventh assigned Victim, he mistakenly assumes the young woman shares his feelings and decides not to kill her. Bang.

In 1965 director/co-writer Elio Petri made LA DECIMA VITTIMA (THE 10TH VICTIM) as an adaptation -- Sheckley’s name appears under the film’s onscreen title -- but altered the original story, jettisoning characters and switching genders of Hunter and Victim. Superstars Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress were cast, leading roles written to accommodate their distinctive screen personas. Handsome, brooding Marcello Polletti finds himself targeted by an American, Caroline Meredith (Andress), the celebrity assassin on her tenth and final hunt. Harassed by a paranoid mistress and money-hungry wife, in the grips of ennui, Marcello considers a quick death... and falls in love with his Hunter.

In an essay written for Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies (Doubleday, 1984), Sheckley was far from thrilled about the story’s transition to the screen. “‘A small ironic bourgeois comedy,” he writes, “was striving to become The 10th Victim, a fast-paced futuristic sex farce, and not quite succeeding” (125). He mentions several writers “labored mightily” on a script where character motivations are, at best, hazy: “Marcello convinces Caroline not to kill him, but instead to ... Actually we’re not sure what Marcello has in mind because he never tells us …” (126).

Oddly enough, in the essay Sheckley never tells us that he wrote a novel based on the film: The 10th Victim (Ballantine, 1965), the work of an author adapting someone else’s adaptation of his story.

Where the film’s satire focused primarily on commercialism and the media -- a sequence in which Marcello visits the Temple of Venus and Rome is Fellini-esque in its depiction of television advertisements, and characters are frequently using cameras and other surveillance equipment as if privacy carried little weight -- Sheckley’s irony finds much of its interest in the confusion caused by technology (Caroline’s colleagues and makeshift TV crew are bungling amateurs, unlike their counterparts in Petri’s film), but shares the film’s celebration of violence, e.g., a sequence where an enthusiastic crowd of New Yorkers observe the public execution of a man arrested for littering.

Sheckley’s approach to the comic possibilities of the screenplay (by Petri, Tonino Guerra, Giorgio Salvioni and Ennio Flaiano) is, at times, dead-on; at times, wrongheaded. The author totally gets Marcello’s character and is able to convey the man’s boredom and indifference in humorous detail. But in shaping other players, Sheckley is less inspired, as with a Chinese bird’s nest salesman and would-be assassin who speaks in pidgin English.

Caroline is another problem. If Sheckley retains Marcello’s (somehow) charming self-pity, he makes Caroline unsympathetic and shifts focus from her during key scenes. In the Omni essay Sheckley writes that Caroline singlemindedly wants marriage from Marcello, and the female Hunter’s words and actions in the novel comically indicate as much. But Ursula Andress, however miscast, brings warmth to the role, and has an appropriate world-weariness that matches Marcello’s disillusionment. In the novel Caroline seems petty and narcissistic to the end, and since we’re never allowed to read her thoughts we don’t see much of a personality. Rather than depicting the scene in which Caroline tells Marcello that she loves him and proposes marriage, Sheckley has Caroline describe the encounter to her colleagues, further distancing us.

Elsewhere Sheckley simply ignores his heroine, as in a comical series of misunderstandings when Caroline and her crew attempt to monitor Marcello in the streets of Rome via radio. This chapter is presumably a creation of Sheckley’s, its comedy of manners similar to passages in the author’s other sci-fi works. In the film, through close-ups and dialogue, we get a sense that Caroline is intrigued observing Marcello; in Sheckley’s version she says little, leaving Martin, a power-obsessed TV executive, to hog the spotlight. Tellingly, Sheckley moves Caroline’s assassination of the Chinese salesman from a nightclub -- where the heroine performs an exotic dance to fool the Hunter -- to a pop art exhibition, where she pretends to be a wax dummy.

Sheckley often undermines the material, not only with Caroline, but with the way minor characters (many unseen in the film) provide commentary. These passages are almost self-referential. After Caroline kills the salesman using twin firearms concealed in her bra, Sheckley has one onlooker telling another that the assassination was “campy” (16). And when Sheckley first describes Marcello (following the protagonist’s dispatch of a Victim at an equestrian competition), he seems to suggest that Mastroianni’s star persona is the character, and essentially all that the filmgoing audience wants to see:

He had high, prominent cheekbones suggesting deep reserves of passion, the restrained smile of the natural skeptic, and the tawny, heavy-lidded eyes which spoke strongly of a streak of indolence in the man. These qualities were immediately apparent to several thousand people in the reviewing stands, and they commented on them with pungent wisdom. (24)

Following his Omni essay on THE 10TH VICTIM, Sheckley penned two more novels about the Hunt: Victim Prime (Signet, 1987) and Hunter/Victim (Signet, 1987), both paperback originals. In Victim Prime one of the characters references THE 10TH VICTIM specifically as “that old movie they made before the Hunt became legal” (71). The introduction shared by the sequels (“The Hunt: 1990-2150”) was added to The 10th Victim when Signet reissued the novelization.

Works Cited

Sheckley, Robert. “Seventh Victim.” Galaxy Science Fiction. Apr. 1953: 38-51. Print.

---. “’The Seventh Victim’ and The 10th Victim.” Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies: The Future According to Science Fiction. Ed. Danny Peary. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984. 124-126. Print.

---. The 10th Victim. New York: Signet, 1987. Print.

---. Victim Prime. New York: Signet, 1987. Print.