Nerd's Progress: The Life and Career of Tim Lucas

In any given issue of Video Watchdog14, (subhead: "The Perfectionist's Guide to Fantastic Video"), there are detailed reviews of new DVDs, movie soundtracks, books on fantasy films, and extensive essays on important films or issues of the day - often with interviews with venerable if not widely known figures from cinema's past. Recent issues have included interviews with Tony Russel, the American star of various Italian sci-fi films; a cover story on the DVD releases of stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen's cult films; a review of the High Definition DVD of Forbidden Planet, a review of the second season of The Wild, Wild West, and a meditation on The Descent.

In its debut issue in early 1990, Video Watchdog maintained continuity with the Video Movies magazine-column15 version of itself by announcing that VW is "specifically intended as a consumer's guide to horror, science fiction and fantasy films on video tapes and discs."16 Like Hugh Hefner in Playboy, Lucas used the pages of Video Watchdog to propound his philosophy, and in his lead editorial (a regular feature of the magazine since), Lucas established the mission and territory of Video Watchdog. Noting that the fantasy genre "gave birth to motion pictures," Lucas added sourly that "no other kind of motion picture is so consistently subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous editorial meddling; horror films in particular. Foreign horror films, even more particularly."

Lucas goes on to elucidate exactly what happens: "The process begins before the films hit the theatres, with distributors changing their titles to make the subject matter more emphatic (i.e., Dario Argento's Tenebrae becomes Unsane). Then the MPAA steps in; suddenly the film is ten minutes shorter - removing not only bloody violence, but directorial flourishes and plot. The video release is free to reincorporate the missing footage - does it? How can you possibly know, when most companies print a generic '90 minutes' running time on their box? In America, widescreen films are usually cropped to make use of the full TV screen - has any important visual information been cropped out? How can you tell? The same movie is released to video in other countries, yes - but which version is most complete?"

Video Watchdog

This first issue of Video Watchdog went on to cover a pair of Hercules films, the influential independent horror film Carnival of Souls, and a pair of books on Rod Serling, among other things. The bulk of the issue, however, was given over to a package of articles on Jesus ("Jesse") Franco, comprising a career survey, a videography, and an interview.

Covering Franco, it turns out, was the best way to establish VW's bona fides. Franco is the Spanish director of exploitation films such as The Awful Dr. Orloff, 99 Women, Grave of the Living Dead, and Succubus, and whose genre specialties include Dracula and Jack the Ripper films, women-in-prison films, and, later, mildly softcore S&M tales. Franco is a textbook example of Video Watchdog's consumer concerns. His films have been mangled, edited, re-titled, and re-shot. Working in an international arena, Franco often shot alternate versions of scenes for different markets, or shot whole movies with different cast members from different countries. Franco's career is a minefield of inconsistencies and unauthorized alternate versions, and Lucas's now-famous article, "How to Read a Franco Film," was a first attempt to offer a taxonomy of its labyrinthine complexities.

But a question of values remains. Why bother with Franco? If A) most of his films are altered without his consent, and B) most of them are cheap exploitation trash to begin with, why should anyone be concerned with his career? In the course of his essay on Franco, Lucas indirectly addresses these concerns. Franco, he writes, "considers himself a 'marginal' director and, I must admit, a great deal of his cumulative allure comes from my own realization that I am a 'marginal ' filmgoer. The most obvious and effective shoehorn to ease anyone into Franco's demented universe is therefore a dissatisfaction with mainstream cinema.... Speaking for myself, I haven't in the last several years had many happy experiences with American movies - I hate all the major releases from Terms of Endearment to Rain Man, which so often are recklessly rewritten by preview audience cards, their continuity left looking as moth-eaten as some power luncher's nasal septum." [VW, No. 1, page 25]

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