Friday, September 02, 2005

Well, while I'm bumming you all out, here's a post I intended to post before the catastrophic events of this week -- somehow, still appropriate, though inconsequential by comparison...

One of the true Holy Grails of horror film buffs quietly surfaced about two years ago, and I personally recommend any of you even vaguely interested seek out that Grail immediately. Here's the scoop:

Alois Detlaff died last month -- what's one more death, you say, given the calamities of this week (Hurricane Katrina, the horrific Iraq panic and bridge collapse that killed one thousand, etc.)? Bear with me --

Tim Lucas, fearless Video Watchdog editor, sent this to me from an online source:

Police Find Cudahy Man Dead In His House
Alois Dettloff Owned Original 'Frankenstein'

POSTED: 11:48 am CDT July 28, 2005

CUDAHY, Wis. -- The badly decomposed body of a Cudahy man was found inside his home Tuesday morning. Police said he had been dead for about a month. Police found 84-year-old Alois Dettlaff lying in the living room of his home. The medical examiner said he died from natural causes.

Authorities said the man's daughter, who lives just down the street from him, called police concerned because she hadn't seen him in some time. Police said the man rarely went out and didn't like to deal with people so it wasn't unusual for him not to answer the phone or door. Neighbors said they're shocked about the news. "That's just such a terrible, lonely thing. I'm very sorry," neighbor Heather Dishinger said. Dettlaff owned the only known copy of Thomas Edison's 1910 version of the movie "Frankenstein." Experts consider this the first horror film ever made.


Sad story -- but before his lonely death, Alois Dettlaff had given his best shot to bringing his treasure, the only known surviving print of Edison's Frankenstein, to the public.

The DVD release of MOVIES FIRST MONSTERS: 1910 FRANKENSTEIN & 1922 NOSFERATU (A.D. Ventures) was sadly underreported by the genre press (only Scary Monsters, to my knowledge, played it up, giving it a cover and feature article, which alerted me to the release; I also found some online announcements and reviews, but it was still grossly underreported). It's an essential DVD purchase, and still highly affordable (online venues are still offering it for the $20 retail price Dettlaff established -- quick, snap it up!), though the film itself is a mere 12 minutes long.

I've written a full, in-depth review that will appear in the upcoming October issue of Video Watchdog, so I'm not going to say much here about the film itself. Suffice to say it's a gem that lives up to its historic stature as the first cinematic Frankenstein, and quite inventive for a 1910 production. There's an alchemical 'creation' sequence that uses a crude, organic form of articulated live-action puppet animation that will amuse the uninitiated (prior experience with silent cinema is recommended, and a passing acquiantence with the films of George Melies and other period fantasists will provide a richer context for viewing), but is quite enchanting and gruesome. It's sort of a reverse-motion precursor of the clay-animated demise of The Evil Dead and even some of Svankmajer's imagery, quite unlike any other movie Frankenstein ever made. True to its era and period, mirrors play a critical (and mystical) role, linking the film with early adaptations of Poe, key silent Russian horror film shorts (like the one on The Viy DVD, also highly recommended), the various silent Students of Prague, and its DVD co-feature Nosferatu.

Thanks to archivist and private collector Dettlaff and his family (together, A.D. Ventures), the 1910 FRANKENSTEIN was released on DVD in late 2002/early 2003 at a highly affordable $19.50 retail. The DVD did not score any mainstream distribution; LRS Marketing and various individual online and convention dealers offered the DVD for sale. After my acquisition of the DVD in March of 2004 (from a dealer at the Syracuse, NY CineFest), I found all postal queries to A.D. Ventures in Cudahy, Wisconsin remained unanswered (as did email and mail inquiries about Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr.’s companion book on the film, promoted in the DVD materials -- anyone know if it existed at all, or where I can get a copy?).

No doubt, Defflaff (who had reportedly refused all offers to purchase or license the print) hoped to earn some significent income from the DVD release, but alas, a self-manufactured, self-distributed DVD was less than a speck of plankton in the vast, Hollywood-studio dominated DVD ocean of 2003. Not one of the video industry trades mentioned it.

Whatever his original distribution deal, Defflaff aka AD Ventures severed relations with LRS Marketing by last spring. The site designated on the DVD's own sleeve and interior booklet has since read:

August 19, 2004 - We are no longer offering the 1910 Frankenstein Film. LRS Marketing is no longer working with A.D. Ventures on the distribution of this film. No additional information is available at this time. We thank you for your interest and patience. Sorry for any inconvenience.

Less than a year later, the insular man who saved Edison’s Frankenstein died alone, and the fate of the singular print itself that he had protected most of his life is unknown at the time.

You’d be wise to snap the DVD up while it remains available.

We thank you, Alois Dettlaff; you deserved better.

May you rest in peace.

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Anonymous Dick Nitelinger said...

I'm the author of the Scary monsters' piece on Edison's frankenstein. Thanks for the mention. I haven't found a copy of Video Watchdog, but have to find one.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr Detlaff's greedy hoarding of the film prevent untold numbers of film buffs and historians no longer with us from ever viewing it. Detlaff was convinced that this "treasure" would make him wealthy and did everything in his power to keep it to himself until an ill advised minor release failed to make him any significant money. He didn't "deserve better"! He got precisely what he deserved!


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