Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Last Horror Film (1982)

Caroline Munro was in some odd pictures in the 1980s, kicking off with MANIAC (1980) in which she came across as the proverbial gorgeous EuroHorror actress who had somehow been dropped into the bucket of sleaze that was the rest of the film. She also made FACELESS for Jess Franco, SLAUGHTER HIGH - a US-set slasher movie made in the UK, and a crazy version of THE BLACK CAT for Luigi Cozzi. However none of these projects even comes close in terms of a sense of ‘absolutely anything goes’ to the ramshackle endeavour that is THE LAST HORROR FILM. Thrown together with the chief aim of giving its married leads a bit of a jolly for free at the Cannes Film Festival, while simultaneously pandering to the whims of co-star Joe Spinell, it’s unsurprising that what resulted sat on the shelf for a couple of years before hobbling out on home video. Of course, that’s not to say there isn’t a lot to enjoy here, but just perhaps not in the way the film makers intended.
New York taxi driver and frustrated wannabe film maker Vinny Durand (Spinell) travels to Cannes with the intention of making a film with glamorous horror star Jana Bates (Munro) who is there with her director Alan Cunningham (Munro’s husband and co-writer and co-producer of this Judd Hamilton) in anticipation of her winning the best actress award. As soon as Vinny arrives, people associated with Jana start dying, but even though Vinny is subject to weird hallucinations, is he actually the killer? 
Utterly jaw-dropping for so many reasons, including more gratuitous breast shots in its first ten minutes than any other film I think I have ever seen; quite horrendous fashions (even for 1981); dream sequences that even Ken Russell would think were too silly; terrible songs that go on forever; and the sight of Joe Spinell dancing around in ladies’ underwear and sharing a joint with his mother Mary, whose other movie appearances include Old Lady Sitting Next to Eddie Outside Courtroom (uncredited) in William Lustig’s VIGILANTE, THE LAST HORROR FILM leaves the viewer scratching their heads with too many questions that need answering. Is Caroline dubbed? What the hell has Judd Hamilton done to his hair to make it that colour? How many times is Joe going to burst into tears in front of women of various ages? Why has John Scott’s score for INSEMINOID been plundered for bits of this and does he know? Did they really spend time setting up a shot where a large cream cake gets dropped accurately between a pair of absurdly surgically-enhanced breasts?
88 Films have done a top-notch job giving us the best print available of THE LAST HORROR FILM. When a disc begins with an apology you know there may be trouble ahead, but full marks to them for being upfront about the state of the transfer and explaining the reasons why. To be honest it looks great on the whole, with only a couple of instances where it’s obvious that something terrible has happened to the vault elements.
There are a number of extras, some of which are in keeping with the quality of the film they accompany. There’s an introduction by Lloyd Kaufman ported over from the region 1 DVD release in which he demonstrates that he has no idea when the film was made or who directed it. There’s an on stage Q&A at the Glasgow Film Theatre with Caroline Munro where she talks about SLAUGHTER HIGH and other things but not THE LAST HORROR FILM at all, and Luke Walker reminisces about his friend Joe Spinell while driving a car. Absolutely the best extra is a short talking head piece by William Lustig (director of MANIAC) who actually provides some information on how THE LAST HORROR FILM came about, and how he was asked to help finish the movie when it got into trouble. He gracefully declined and confirms the suspicions of all who have watched the film when he says “There was no adult running that show.” Finally, as well as the 88 trailer reel, there’s the short promo film that Spinell made for MANIAC II: MR ROBBIE which never happened because of his premature death. It’s been available stateside as an extra on versions of MANIAC for many years but it’s good to see it available in the UK.

88 Films are releasing the remarkable piece of work that is THE LAST HORROR FILM on Region B Blu-ray on 21st July 2014

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Orloff & the Invisible Man (1970)

It’s been too long since we’ve had a Jess Franco review on here. I’d been missing the world of crash zooms, jarring editing and naked young ladies boasting what one kindly presumes are merkins made from badgers, and I’m pleased to say I was amply rewarded with all three in the shape of ORLOFF & THE INVISIBLE MAN. What completely surprised me was that this movie wasn't directed by Mr Franco at all, but by Pierre Chevalier. I have to say, though, that M. Chevalier has managed a splendid job of making something that could be considered worthy of being considered a Franco film. 
We are somewhere in eighteenth century Europe (I’m guessing). The weather is grim and wet, usually due to actual rain but sometimes, in a rare and impressive attempt to provide some continuity, due to a watering can just out of shot being poured from above the camera. This dreary gothic milieu is further augmented by a hero with a red satin-lined cloak, a serving girl with no bra on, and a rickety old coach that gets stuck in the mud. Putting an interesting spin on the proceedings (and goodness me they do rather need it) is a somewhat peculiar jazz score that seems to consist of various instrumentalists plucking and blowing notes at random with little thought for what their colleagues are up to. Sometimes everyone just gives up and snaps their fingers, presumably to gain the attention of whoever was providing them with the hallucinogenic drugs that made them think what they were producing was actually music. 

But on to the plot. Handsome young Dr Garondet (F Valladares) is asked to come to the castle of Professor Orloff (Howard Vernon). Leaving the dreary rain-drenched village where he lives proves to be difficult, however, as none of the locals are willing to take him near the place. He eventually gets there under his own steam, only to find himself in a Monty Pythonesque exchange with a manservant before encountering a maid who appears to be busy doing some colouring in on the kitchen table. There then follows the kind of stilted dialogue exchange that will have many an amateur dramatics enthusiast weeping, and if you want more of this we only have to wait until the doctor meets Cecile (Brigitte Carval). She’s Orloff’s daughter and is in the habit of staring off into space a lot while she describes things that have happened to her that are way outside the special effects budget of this.

Garondet finally meets Orloff, and before you can say ‘I hope we get a crash zoom on that stuffed owl on his desk’ we have because it’s flashback time! Apparently Cecile died and was put in the family crypt, where two of Orloff’s servants broke in to steal her jewellery. She came back to life, got stabbed, but made it back to the house, whereupon the bloke thief was imprisoned while his partner, pausing only in her desperate, frenetic escape from Orloff’s hounds to try on all the jewellery she’d stolen while sitting by the river, got beaten for her efforts.

Then it’s back to the owl. Orloff has created an invisible man who can serve drinks and bump into furniture. He’s also capable of chasing serving girls around and (because this is a Franco film after all) tearing all their clothes off and ravishing them in a scene which goes on and on and on and on.
The doctor gets locked in the dungeon but he escapes. Cecile gets undressed and reveals that her merkin is made from two badgers. The invisible man becomes visible, leading to the revelation that when Orloff rendered him invisible he forgot to make him take his fancy dress gorilla costume off first. Well, science is difficult sometimes and a mad scientist can’t be expected to remember everything. The doctor bonks semi-visible-gorilla-man on the head and he and Cecile escape. The castle burns. Something else happens that doesn’t make much sense. The end.
The print of ORLOFF & THE INVISIBLE MAN that I saw lasted 76 minutes and even that seemed a long time. Oddly enough, while it drags and the acting is on the whole dreadful, it’s nowhere near as bad as the worst Jess Franco film I have ever seen. There are a couple of instances here where the director is trying to set up an interesting shot, and perhaps if he had had another half an hour allocated to his shooting schedule he might have actually achieved it. The camera isn’t always static (it is quite a bit, though) and the locations are interesting, but that’s about it. In case the casual visitor to this site is wondering - ORLOFF & THE INVISIBLE MAN is one for hardened fanatics of this sort of thing only. You have been warned. 

The print of ORLOFF & THE INVISIBLE MAN used for this review was part of Image Entertainment’s 4 DVD Orloff box set that’s currently on sale in US discount stores for around $9. It’s up to you to decide if that’s a bargain or not.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Remo Williams - The Adventure Begins (1985)

Does anyone remember the 'Destroyer' series of paperbacks originally written by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir? I certainly do. Back in the late 1970s you couldn't move for them in newsagents, railway station bookracks, and department stores like Woolworths. The original series ran for an amazing 145 paperbacks so it's not surprising that when, in the mid-1980s, Orion Pictures was looking for a subject for a potential new franchise, they figured a movie about the adventures of Remo Williams and his Korean mentor, Chiun, could possibly kick start a series of James Bond proportions.

 With that in mind they hired Christopher Wood, writer of one of the best Bonds (THE SPY WHO LOVED ME), one of the worst Bonds (MOONRAKER) and creator of the tatty British sex comedy series that began with CONFESSIONS OF A WINDOW CLEANER  to come up with a script. They also got Guy Hamilton, a Bond director (GOLDFINGER, LIVE AND LET DIE) to film it. Sadly, REMO - UNARMED AND DANGEROUS, or REMO WILLIAMS - THE ADVENTURE BEGINS didn't do anywhere near as well as anyone was expecting, which is a shame as it's actually a charming piece of mid-1980s action-adventure.

Fred Ward is a New York cop who has his death faked and his face altered. After the back of a hospital bedpan provides inspiration for his new name (a nice touch), newly christened Remo Williams discovers that he's been recruited by a secret organisation known as CURE. It's run by Wilford Brimley who never gets out of his chair, and Remo's mentor in all things unarmed and dangerous turns out to be an elderly Korean called Chiun (Joel Grey in Oscar-nominated makeup by FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2's Carl Fullerton). Soon Remo is on his first mission, fighting baddies on the Statue of Liberty, and  taking on evil weapons dealer George Grove (Charles Cioffi from KLUTE and THE X FILES).   

Slower paced than movies of today (and some of its 1980s contemporaries it must be said), REMO WILLIAMS - THE ADVENTURE BEGINS shares a number of interesting similarities with Paul Verhoeven's later ROBOCOP. In both an average policeman is 'recreated' as someone / something else, and both boast a witty script that's bursting with quotable lines. Performances are all absolutely fine, with Grey a winner in the most endearing role, and Ward making a likeable hero who grows on you as the picture progresses. There are some fine action set-pieces, most notably one that wasn't in the script at all, but which was inspired by Guy Hamilton noticing the scaffolding around the Statue of Liberty in preparation for its centenary celebrations. 

The only real problem with REMO is its pacing. The film takes a bit too long to get going, and if anything the set-pieces are in the wrong order, with the final showdown with the villain a bit of a damp squib compared with what's gone before. That shouldn't put you off watching it, though, especially if you're of the generation that loved Saturday afternoon American television adventure fare like THE A TEAM or THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, because REMO feels just like an extended episode of one of those shows. 
Arrow Films is releasing REMO WILLIAMS - THE ADVENTURE BEGINS on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The print is clean and bright and the original uncompressed Stereo 2.0 PCM soundtrack presents Craig Safan's unexpectedly subtle and meticulous score in all its glory on an isolated channel. Extras include an interview with Safan who talks about the difficult of melding a Korean ensemble with a 65 piece studio orchestra. There's also a brief history of eighties action heroes, an audio commentary with producers Larry Speigel and Judy Goldstein, interviews with Joel Gray and Carl Fullerton, a trailer, a booklet by Barry Forshaw, and a reversible cover.
  REMO WILLIAMS - THE ADVENTURE BEGINS is a lot of fun. Much lighter than its contemporaries (FIRST BLOOD, COMMANDO, etc), which of course may have been the reason for its financial failure, it remains a well-made, well-acted and thoroughly enjoyable piece of Saturday afternoon adventure hokum. In another age it would have run to a series and deservedly so.

REMO WILLIAMS - THE ADVENTURE BEGINS is out on Blu-ray from Arrow Films on 7th July 2014

Friday, 4 July 2014

Hinterland / Y Gwyll (2013)

Arrow continues in its efforts to bring us grim crime TV shows from all corners of the globe. This time they’re aiming a little closer to home with HINTERLAND, filmed in and around Aberystwyth in Wales, which also provides the main setting for the four stories we get on this two disc set. Don’t think you’re getting away without subtitles this time, however. HINTERLAND was filmed twice back to back - one version in English and one in Welsh. HINTERLAND on DVD doesn’t give you the option of which you would like to watch - instead what we get is a version that’s a mixture of both, with about eighty per cent of the dialogue in English and the rest in Welsh.
But what about the dramatic content? Well, HINTERLAND starts off well, with newly arrived DCI Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington) investigating the brutal murder of an old lady who used to run an orphanage over in Devil’s Bridge. Marc Evans (MY LITTLE EYE, TRAUMA) directs this one, and makes it a thoroughly decent and engrossing piece that feels more Welsh Gothic than Welsh Noir. The location work is excellent, we are made aware that Mathias has a Deep Dark Secret, and his team members have the potential to develop into interesting characters.     

         Unfortunately, that’s where the characterisation stays. Over the course of the next three episodes we sadly learn very little more about any of them, and the scripts just aren’t up to the job of helping to flesh them out. Performances are okay, although Harrington acts as if he’s more sidekick than leading man material, and his actual sidekick, DI Mared Rhys (played by Mali Harries), might as well not be there at all. Her main expression, which suggests someone constantly sucking an especially bitter lemon drop, does her no favours either. The other members of Harrington’s team, DS Sian Owens (Hannah Daniel) and DC Lloyd Ellis (Alex Harries) are more personable but aren’t given much breathing space at all. Possibly the worst example of cliche here is poor old Aneirin Hughes who, as the team’s Chief Superintendent, has been told to do nothing other than frown a lot, shake his head, and inhale through pursed lips, all the while never wearing anything other than his police uniform and blue windcheater. At least that must have helped save on the clothing budget a bit.

HINTERLAND is okay, but it could have been a lot better. The location work and photography are exemplary in each episode and Wales itself really is the star of this one. However, if you’ve exhausted the rest of Arrow’s Noir line and are still keen for more you’ll find this a decent enough timewaster. Just don’t expect the heights of excellence reached by THE BRIDGE or others in the series.

Arrow’s two-disc DVD set includes featurettes on the locations used, the challenges of filming the show in two languages, a short promo, and an interview with writer-director-executive producer Ed Thomas on disc one. Disc two offers short pieces on the characters and the design of the show, and finishes off with a showreel for the series. 

Arrow released HINTERLAND on a double disc DVD set on 28th May 2014 

Monday, 30 June 2014

Bloody Birthday (1981)

Some movies should be preserved because they are examples of great art, others because they are examples of great storytelling. Still more may showcase fine acting, production design, or music.  88 Films’ Blu-ray release of BLOODY BIRTHDAY should be preserved for no other reason than it provides a fascinating snapshot of the popular culture of the time. Of course it’s also a deliriously barking mad slasher movie, one that I’d not had the chance to catch up with until now.
Three children are born during a solar eclipse. Ten years later they suddenly develop homicidal tendencies - strangling teenagers, bashing the local sheriff’s brains in, and shooting Susan Strasberg (perhaps they think she still has THE MANITOU growing in her back). The explanation for all this is as barmy as the children themselves. It’s something to do with the planet Saturn governing emotion, and because it was obstructed during the eclipse these children are now sociopaths. Perhaps “popular UK astrologers” (that bit’s for US readers) Russell Grant or Mystic Meg could explain it to us, and then again probably not. 

Aside from the novel idea of ten year olds shooting people, locking them in refrigerators or poisoning them, BLOODY BIRTHDAY delivers in several areas many other slasher films shy away from. There’s no shortage at all of topless young ladies, at least one of whom (Julie Brown) dances around for an inordinate amount of time before reaching for the feather boa I’m sure every self-respecting teenaged girl owned back then. However, it probably won’t be Miss Brown’s charms that will have you frowning at the screen, but more the eventual realisation that yes, that really IS a poster of Erik “CHIPS” Estrada in the background. Cultural icon spotters will also be well served between the killings with the opportunity to look out for the images of Deborah Harry, Ted Nugent and others plastered on bedroom walls.

Director Ed Hunt tries to ape some of the setups from HALLOWEEN but sadly he’s no John Carpenter. He does manage to convince Jose Ferrer to pop in for a cup of tea and deliver a few babies though, so there is that to his credit. BLOODY BIRTHDAY is not going to top anybody's 'best of' list but it is an diverting ninety minutes, probably best enjoyed on a double bill with Carlton J Albright's THE CHILDREN, or Tom Shankland's THE CHILDREN, or anything else with killer kiddies in it. 

88 Films’ Blu-ray transfer has a few scratches on the frame at one point, but overall this is a very good looking print of a very low budget film. Extras include a commentary track by Julian Kerswell (author of Teenage Wasteland) and an audio interview with director Ed Hunt that lasts just over fifty minutes. There’s also a ten minute interview with star Lori Lethin and the featurette A Brief History of Slasher Movies which is just that. There’s also a reversible sleeve, a booklet and a trailer. Sadly not on this disc is the interview with (uncredited) executive producer Max J Rosenberg where he describes director Hunt as a f*cking nut, but you can’t have everything. 

88 Films released BLOODY BIRTHDAY on Region B Blu-ray on 23rd June 2014

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Eden and After (1970)

Here’s another essay in sexy weirdness from French art house director Alain Robbe-Grillet. I’m not even sure quite where to begin with this one, which is probably as it should be. After all, its auteur co-wrote LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD, one of the greatest enigmatic movies of all time. 

         EDEN AND AFTER (L’EDEN ET APRES) begins with a disorientating credits sequence in which title cards of actors' names are repeated while other technical credits are read out over them. Then we find ourselves in an art installation-cum-coffee shop called Eden, where a group of maths students meet to pontificate, in a way that only French art house actors really can, about how boring life is and the meaninglessness of everything. To assuage their ennui they construct macabre role-playing games that include (surprise surprise) bizarre sexual activities as well. 

         One of these make-believe tableaux is the springboard for the second half of the film, which takes its central character of Violette (Catherine Jourdan) and details her journey through a world of the strange and sexy, played out against a Tunisian backdrop. Along the way we get to see many familiar Robbe-Grillet tropes - attractive ladies put in cages, being chained up, being blindfolded, and some fun with broken glass. As with some of his other movies, such as TRANS-EUROP-EXPRESS, the line between reality and fantasy gets so blurred that it’s impossible to tell which is which, and I suspect that’s very much the point. Other reviews have likened EDEN AND AFTER to Alice in Wonderland written by the Marquis de Sade and that’s actually as good a description as any. What I would say is that, while I didn’t understand all of it, I still found it an immensely worthwhile and rewarding viewing experience. 

Like the other movies in the BFI’s box set, EDEN AND AFTER comes with an introduction from Catherine Robbe-Grillet, a trailer, an interview with Frederic Taddei, and a commentary by Tim Lucas, who once again proves that he’s absolutely the best man for a job like this. 

So yes, I liked EDEN AND AFTER. There just isn’t enough weird, enigmatic and perhaps occasionally impenetrable art house cinema around these days, certainly not featuring gorgeous girls, blood, and lots of running around with knives. If you’re getting the BFI box set I’d recommend you start with either SUCCESSIVE SLIDINGS OF PLEASURE or TRANS-EUROP-EXPRESS (both reviewed on this site) rather than this one. Anyone who is still undecided about whether or not to plunge into the world of Alain Robbe-Grillet well, that’s why I’ve put all these pictures up here.

The BFI is releasing the box set Alain Robbe-Grillet: 6 Films 1964 - 1974 on DVD and Blu-ray on 30th June 2014. The set will contain:


Friday, 20 June 2014

Trans-Europ-Express (1967)

      “This stuff never happens in Belgium!”
It’s time once again to enter the heady, sometimes inscrutable, often sexy, occasionally kinky world of French art house cinema with a look at one of the earlier works in the BFI’s forthcoming Alain Robbe-Grillet box set.

We’re in the Gare du Nord in Paris. Robbe-Grillet himself flicks through what might be termed at the time a publication for ‘sophisticated tastes’ at a newsagents before boarding the train of the title. But wait! It’s not him at all! Instead he’s playing a director called Jean who, together with his producer Marc (Paul Louyet) and his script girl Lucette (Catherine Robbe-Grillet) is trying to work out the plot for a new film. We see his initial crime movie plot pitch acted out with men in fake comedy beards and an Adam West-era BATMAN-style bomb which explodes and gets us into the main credits. 

Jean-Louis Trintignant is an actor who, for me as a boy, was always the Man Who Was In Every French Film Ever, beating even such ubiquitous late-night BBC2 favourites like Alain Delon and Gerard Depardieu. He gets on the train. “He could be your star” says Lucette and all of a sudden he is, playing drugs courier Elias and getting into all kinds of mishaps dealing with a gang who seem to be constantly testing his trustworthiness. It all reaches a climax when the police set a trap for Elias that involves a naked girl sitting on a rotating disc while chains are wound around her as part of a nightclub act and train noises and the sound of a woman moaning play on the soundtrack. 

For the most part, TRANS-EUROP-EXPRESS is a light-hearted play on the French Flic movie genre. All the traditional tropes are there, including Alan Partridge’s “men in long raincoats who meet in brasseries at dawn”, silly coded messages, fake policemen (including Daniel Emilfork who will be known to fans of Euro-horror for playing the devil in Jean Brismee’s THE DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE (1971), obviously pretend blind men, tiny guns, and a beautiful girl (Marie-France Pisier) who isn’t what she seems and also isn’t averse to a bit of bondage (this is a Robbe-Grillet film after all).

The film frequently cuts back to Robbe-Grillet and his collaborators working on the plot that is unfolding in front of us, effectively blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality (which in this film is also fantasy of course, but of a different kind) and placing it firmly in that special genre of movies that are about movie making, one that might include Preston Sturges’ SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (1941) and, perhaps even more similarly, Michael Winterbottom’s A COCK AND BULL STORY (2005).

The BFI’s Blu-ray transfer looks excellent and the print is clean and bright. Extras include another thirty minute interview with the director that’s actually quite a delight to watch, and a newly recorded commentary track from Tim Lucas that is likewise pleasantly informative and points out things that may well get missed on a first viewing. In fact it’s a bit like having a good (and chatty) friend who knows a lot about the movie in the room with you.
Another winner from the BFI, I have to say I found much to enjoy in TRANS-EUROP-EXPRESS. I may well be becoming a fan of M. Robbe Grillet.
The BFI is releasing their box set ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET: SIX FILMS 1963-1974 on Blu-ray and DVD formats on 30th June 2014.