Thursday, 28 April 2016

Respectable - The Mary Millington Story (2016)

"Absorbing, fascinating and ultimately touching tribute to a unique British star"

Okay, I’m going to confess something up front here: I have never seen a Mary Millington film. Well, not unless you count ESKIMO NELL which I reviewed on here a while ago. I haven’t seen THE PLAYBIRDS (1978), CONFESSIONS FROM THE DAVID GALAXY AFFAIR (1979), or even what is probably her most famous film, Harrison Marks’ knockabout nudie comedy romp COME PLAY WITH ME (1977). That last film holds the record for the longest continuous cinema run of a British movie, by the way, which says far more about the British cinema going public in 1977-1981 than it does about the quality of the film. 

But even though I’ve never seen Mary in her full glory, as it were, I know who she is. If you grew up in the 1970s as I did she was impossible to ignore, even if you were way under the age to be able to buy magazines like Whitehouse and Knave. For a star of both hardcore (initially at least) and softcore pornography to become such a household name was something we shall probably never see the likes of again. But Mary Millington was a unique individual, and Simon Sheridan’s excellent new documentary detailing the ups and downs and ins and outs (sorry couldn’t resist - Harrison Marks would have been proud - ooer - actually I’ll stop now) of Mary’s career is as much a fine tribute as it is a valuable document of a fascinating period in British cultural history.

         All the usual details we might expect from such a documentary biopic are present and correct - Mary’s birth and childhood in Dorking, her early marriage, her lively outgoing and exhibitionistic character, her need to obtain money to support her ailing mother, necessitating her (entirely voluntary) move into the world of modelling for ‘mucky books’ as one interviewee puts it. And then her rise to fame and fortune under the auspices of porn impresario David Sullivan, culminating in her appearances in the movies listed above, followed by a brief and tragic spiral into cocaine abuse and her death at the ridiculously young age of 33.

         Where Mr Sheridan scores huge points is in the number of interviewees he has managed to assemble for this journey through Mary’s life. Family members, celebrities (Dudley Sutton is always hilariously good value), other glamour models (Linzi Drew and Pat Ashley among them), producers and directors (including Stanley Long and Arnold Louis Miller) and David Sullivan himself. The interviews have obviously been conducted with sensitivity and they are linked by a narration from Dexter Fletcher, whose tone and delivery are perfect for the subject matter. There are also clips from some of Mary’s films, including the earlier more explicit stuff that I can’t imagine anyone is going to find sexy these days.

         Extras include a feature-length commentary track with Simon Sheridan and the BFI’s Sam Dunn, ten more minutes of Dave Sullivan, interviews with Sue Longhurst and Ed Tudor-Pole, the short silent film PARTY PIECES, and a couple of trailers.

         RESPECTABLE - THE MARY MILLINGTON STORY is how you do a documentary. As I said above, I have never seen a Mary Millington picture, and I can’t say I want to now, but Simon Sheridan’s absorbing film provides us with a fascinating look at an interesting time for British exploitation. Most of all, it’s probably the best tribute its star or anyone who knew and loved her could wish for. And yes, as so many people are keen to point out, she really did seem like genuinely nice girl. Highly recommended and a contender for documentary of the year. 

Simon Sheridan's RESPECTABLE - THE MARY MILLINGTON STORY is out on DVD from Simply Media on 2nd May 2016

Sunday, 24 April 2016

The Sign of Four (1983)

Sy Weintraub’s other Sherlock Holmes production isn’t quite as good as his version of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, but it’s certainly worth watching if you’re a Holmes fan, and now it’s available in a new Blu-ray and DVD release courtesy of Second Sight.

Rich Thorley Walters gets delivered a map. The shock of it makes him immediately take to his bed, where he informs his two sons firstly that he has a fabulous treasure hidden in his attic, and secondly that it doesn’t all belong to him. That’s about all he tells them because he’s scared to death by a one-legged Joe Melia who appears at the window.

Meanwhile, at good old 221b, Cherie Lunghi has turned up to show her enormous diamond to Holmes (Ian Richardson again, and very marvellous he is too) and Watson (David Healy who, like Donald Churchill in HOUND seems to be suffering from a bit too much of the Nigel Bruces). She also needs them to accompany to a rendezvous that has been organised via mysterious message. Will one-legged Joe and his mad carnivorous dwarf Tonga (seriously) get the treasure, or will Holmes save the day? 

Like I said above, THE SIGN OF FOUR isn’t as good as HOUND, and actually feels a fair bit cheaper (I have no idea if it is or not). Desmond Davis doesn't give the proceedings quite the same vigour Douglas Hickox did, and while Harry Rabinowitz gives us some quite serviceable music, he’s no Michael J Lewis. The same stock footage from Billy Wilder’s PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES turns up again (!) and the film relies more heavily on Ian Richardson’s Holmes to carry it all through (which he does admirably, by the way).

Second Sight’s disc comes with a commentary track by David Stuart Davies. He’s very interesting to listen to, and has a measured delivery that means it’s no effort to have his company for 90 minutes as he tells you plenty of tidbits of information about the film. The transfer is a little bit lower quality than HOUND. Oh, and the aspect ratio for both these films on disc is 1.85:1. They were originally shot for television and imdb cites their aspect as 1.33:1. The change in ratio isn’t noticeable on HOUND but on SIGN OF FOUR the tops of people’s heads are cut off just enough to make it bothersome for the aspect ratio purists out there. 

That said, if you're a Holmes fan don’t let that put you off. Both SIGN OF FOUR and HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES are well worth getting, and as I said in my review of HOUND, it’s a shame there weren’t any more of these. 

Second Sight are releasing Desmond Davis' version of THE SIGN OF FOUR on Blu-ray and DVD on 25th April 2016

Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Zero Boys (1986)

"It's not their IQprobably"

From the man who gave us one of the most staggeringly tasteless exploitation films of the 1970s comes a film that encapsulates so many daft things about the exploitation cinema of the 1980s, all polished up for Blu-ray release by Arrow Films.

The zero boys of the title are a group of paintballers. Scarcely has a picture of Sylvester Stallone in RAMBO been pinned to a wall in some kind of bizarre homage (?) than we’re plunged into the gang’s latest game against a group of similarly eccentrically dressed, bandana-sporting, gurning / glowering ‘teenagers’. The prize appears to be Kelli Maroney (don’t they even get a certificate or some kind of trophy?). Off they drive into the countryside with her and some other girls. Happening across an empty but furnished house in the country, they decide to move in (?). As the sun sets it becomes apparent that the owners are around and intent on hunting the zeroes for sport.

THE ZERO BOYS isn’t terribly good, and that’s a shame because the paintball antics that open the film actually show promise, and suggest we’re going to be in for an action-packed extravaganza. It all fizzles out horribly quickly though, and by halfway through you’ll be wondering when anything is actually going to happen. If you stick it till the final credits be prepared to be flabbergasted by an ending that smacks strongly of ‘we ran out of money at exactly this point and had to switch off the camera’. Those familiar with the director’s earlier goat-molesting cavalcade of sleaze and deviant behaviour ISLAND OF DEATH (1976) will be relieved / disappointed to learn that there’s absolutely nothing here you couldn’t show to an elderly relative with a very low threshold for boring nonsense. Oh, and how on earth did this one end up with a music score by Stanley HOUSE OF WHIPCORD & THE DEER HUNTER Myers and Hans Zimmer? Fans of either composer take note: it sounds very much like Hans did most of it but there's some very Pete Walker-sounding stuff towards the end. 

Arrow’s dual format DVD and Blu-ray set contains a load of extras, including a Kelli Maroney commentary track, new interviews with both Maroney and co-star Nicole Rio, stills, a trailer, and a barking mad bit in which Nico Mastorakis interviews himself. I have to hand it to him - he really goes the extra mile to make this bizarre little featurette as eccentric as his movies.

Going out with an 18 certificate (although it could easily be a 15 or even a 12A), THE ZERO BOYS is one for 1980s completists. Anyone else should approach with caution and with one finger on the fast forward button. 

Nico Mastorakis' THE ZERO BOYS is coming out from Arrow Films in a dual format Blu-ray and DVD set on 25th April 2016

Friday, 22 April 2016

Symptoms (1974)

“Spruced up, slow-moving obscure British horror from the 1970s”

I don’t mean any of that in an especially derogatory way, by the way, but in an era where old films like this can get called ‘a long-lost classic’, it’s only fair to warn the casual viewer (if there are any of you out there who visit this site) who might not be that familiar with the independent UK horror scene of the early 1970s that you’re not actually going to be slipping an undiscovered masterpiece into your Blu-ray or DVD player. Director Jose Larraz is undoubtedly most famous for his Oakley Court-filmed sexy lesbian vampire picture VAMPYRES (1974), but anyone familiar with that film and expecting another outrageously blood-soaked nudity fest from the heyday of British horror’s best decade is also going to end up a bit disappointed. 

Pretty Ann (Lorna Heilbron) comes to stay with superficially weird but actually deeply raving mad Helen (Angela Pleasance) in her 1970s BritHorror country house and ends up wishing she hadn’t. She gets to meet creepy Mr Brady (Peter Vaughn) and encounters something nasty in the attic. As Helen’s madness worsens the house becomes littered with corpses and throughout the film we are given clues as the reason why, before the final scene explains it all. 
SYMPTOMS isn’t a bad film at all - in fact by the end you realise you’ve been watching Larraz’s very own version of Polanski’s REPULSION (1966). Be warned, though, that it’s very slow, and while there’s a pleasantly dreary atmosphere about the proceedings, that’s the film’s main attraction - this is a film that’s much stronger on mood than on plot. 

The BFI’s transfer of SYMPTOMS is absolutely excellent - throw away those crappy VHS to DVD transfers now. Oh, and yes the aspect ratio is meant to be 1.33:1, so don't look shocked. The extras on the BFI disc are also very good indeed. These include brand new interviews with stars Angela Pleasance and Lorna Heilbron (who talks about her involvement in THE CREEPING FLESH as well!), and editor (and producer of VAMPYRES) Brian Smedley-Aston. There’s also the 1999 Channel 4 Eurotika documentary on Jose Larraz (with different title music because the original theme is now used for the showreel at the start of the DVDs of producer Pete Tombs’ Mondo Macabro company). ON VAMPYRES AND OTHER SYMPTOMS is a splendid and touching 70 minute documentary that stylishly stars the director in the story of his career culminating with the award he was presented with at Sitges in 2009. 
              Fans of obscure 1970s British horror will love this, as will anyone interested in the state of the independent British movie scene of the same period. The transfer is great and the extras represent fabulous value for money. Now how about a double feature release of DEVIATION (1971) and WHIRLPOOL (1970)?

The BFI are releasing Jose Larraz's SYMPTOMS on a dual format DVD and Blu-ray set on 25th April 2016

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1983)

Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s oft-filmed novel gets the Douglas (THEATRE OF BLOOD, SITTING TARGET) Hickox treatment in this colourful and entertaining Sy Weintraub production from 1983, being given a new DVD and Blu-ray release courtesy of Second Sight.

I’m assuming we all know the plot of this one by now, so here’s how this version pans out. Sherlock Holmes (a warm and winning performance from Ian Richardson) and Dr Watson (a not so good, rather clumpy and pseudo Nigel Bruce portrayal from Donald Churchill) are asked by Dr Mortimer (twitchy Denholm Elliott, who’s great as usual) to help protect Sir Henry Baskerville (Martin Shaw with varying American accent) from the curse set in motion by naughty Sir Hugo Baskerville (Nicholas Clay) many years ago when he chased pretty Francesca Gonshaw (from ‘ALLO ‘ALLO) into the nearby mire.

Down in Devon, Watson meets entomologist Stapleton (Nicholas Clay again, which kind of gives the game away to the two or three people unfamiliar with this) along with Stapleton’s sister (Glynis Barber). He also gets to meet rampantly loud and hugely bearded artist Geoffrey Lyons (Brian Blessed - did I need to tell you that) and his wife Laura (Connie Booth) who might have been having it off with the now dead Sir Charles Baskerville (David Langton, who gets done in in the conservatory at the beginning).

         All the usual plot points are present and correct, Ronald Lacey pops up as Inspector Lestrade, and there’s a bit more blood and guts on display than usual as is only fair seeing as this is a Douglas Hickox film. There’s also a splendid sense of landscape, with the film being shot on location and offering some excellent views of a forbidding but beautiful Dartmoor. 

         As adaptations of this go, the 1983 HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES is really pretty good. Second Sight’s Blu-ray looks excellent, with rich deep blacks and only a bit of speckling in a few of the later frames. There’s one bit of stock footage (from Billy Wilder’s PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES) and that looks nowhere near as glorious as the Shepperton sets which immediately follow.

         What else is good? Well Michael J Lewis provides the score, which is just lovely, filled with mournful menace as well as providing a memorable main theme. It was intended as part of a series but because Granada was doing their own with Jeremy Brett only this and THE SIGN OF FOUR were made, which is a bit of a shame as I would have liked to have seen more of Richardson’s Holmes.
         Extras are limited to a commentary track by David Stuart Davies. I certainly remember there being an on-set report in an ITV programme of the time that featured an interview with Douglas Hickox. It’s a shame they couldn’t have found it but if you’re a Holmes fan that shouldn’t stop you getting what is an entirely respectable, and actually rather entertaining and well made version of this classic tale. 

Second Sight are releasing Douglas Hickox's version of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES on Blu-ray and DVD on 25th April 2016

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Expresso Bongo (1959)

"Expresso Bonkers"

One of the daftest titles in British movie history (although personally I think Robert Hartford-Davis’ GONKS GO BEAT gets the No.1 spot - come on BFI, let’s see a Blu-ray of that one!) gets a cracking new whistles-and-bells Blu-ray and DVD release courtesy of the BFI.

  Sleazy, opportunistic Johnny Jackson (Laurence Harvey) is an agent without a client, despite his pretty stripper girlfriend Maisie (Sylvia Syms) wishing he would launch her on a more respectable singing career. Jackson discovers teenager Bert Rudge (Cliff! Richard) singing in a bar. Bert is only really interested in playing the bongos, but rechristened Bongo Herbert (let’s face it - you can’t complain about a movie with a title like that that features both bongo playing and a character with the name Bongo) Jackson soon has Bert singing his way up the hit parade. Of course, it all ends in tears with Bert ruthlessly exploited by Jackson, who dumps his client at the end of the film in favour of more profitable pastures.

A biting satire of the music industry, EXPRESSO BONGO was originally a stage show written by Wolf Mankowitz and Julian More (who wrote the screenplay for INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED), with Mankowitz writing the screen version. Certainly the dialogue crackles and it’s pretty quick fire, too, expertly delivered by Laurence Harvey and the supporting cast.

EXPRESSO BONGO is also rather a strange film. In fact I’d go so far as to say I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It veers between being very serious and being just plain bizarre. People break into song (there are quite a few musical numbers) but in terms of being an actual musical it’s more reminiscent of the weirdness of something like Menahem Golan’s THE APPLE. But as Cliff Richard movies go it’s nowhere near the light and jolly fluffiness of Peter Yates’ SUMMER HOLIDAY (1961) or Sidney J Furie’s THE YOUNG ONES (1961) and feels like a much more serious endeavour. 

EXPRESSO BONGO was obviously a big influence on Julian Temple’s (vastly inferior) ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS (1985) but don’t let that put you off. It’s really rather special, and truly deserves the appellation ‘cult film’ (and not many do). As well as the above to enjoy / marvel at, there are guest turns by popular British character actors Burt Kwouk, Patrick Cargill (as ‘A Psychiatrist’), Kenneth Griffith (as the chap who pushes the strippers on stage in this one), Susan Hampshire (doing a fantastic upper class twit of the year before the term was invented), Esma Cannon as a cleaning lady and screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz himself as a sandwich man displaying his own name.

The BFI’s DVD and Blu-ray gives us the uncut 111 minute version, and on the Blu-ray you also get an edited 1962 reissue version (106 minutes) with a Val Guest and Yolanda Donlan commentary track. On the DVD you just get the alternate scenes that were included in the 1962 version. There’s also a couple of short films - YOUTH CLUB from 1954 and THE SQUARE by Michael Winner from 1957, as well as trailers and a booklet containing essays on the film.

Apparently EXPRESSO BONGO has acquired something of a bad reputation over the years. I have to say I thought it was creative, original, well made, superbly written and acted, and an unexpected treat. It also made me sad that we don’t see such a degree of creativity in British movies nowadays. Now I’m off to buy some bongos so I can play along the next time I watch this. 

The BFI are releasing Val Guest's EXPRESSO BONGO (oh I do love typing that title) on dual format Blu-ray and DVD on 25th April 2016. Extremely groovy. 

Friday, 15 April 2016

The Ninth Configuration (1980)

Now here’s a very strange film indeed, one that’s getting a Blu-ray and DVD re-release courtesy of Second Sight. 
At an isolated gothic castle somewhere in the Pacific North West of America (although it looks more as if we’re in Germany), American soldiers who have developed a very specific type of psychosis are kept as inmates / patients. One of their number, Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) went mad just as he was about to man a mission to the moon. To the asylum comes Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach), a ‘top psychiatrist’ according to Major Marvin Groper (Neville Brand from Tobe Hooper’s DEATH TRAP but without the crocodile this time), who is going to attempt to rehabilitate them by allowing them to live out their fantasies. As the environment within the castle becomes increasingly eccentric, it turns out Colonel Kane may have some suppressed madness of his own that he needs to deal with.

Yes this actually happens in this film
THE NINTH CONFIGURATION is written, directed and produced by William Peter Blatty from his source novel. Interestingly, even his book is somewhat schizophrenic, split into two different versions, one going by the movie title, the other being known as Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane. By handling three of the major jobs in moviemaking himself, this truly is a case of Blatty being the movie’s auteur, and what an odd picture it is.

…as does this
The first hour or so feels like an attempt to create a modern American version of Hogarth’s paintings for Bedlam in his Rake’s Progress. There’s plenty of sheer lunacy on display here, much of it as comic as it is disorientating, and hopefully some of the stills reproduced here will give you a sense of the film’s madness.

Castle in the air?
In the second half the film switches gears, becoming darker and much more violent, finally culminating in a climax that feels a little bit of a mis-step and an epilogue that’s not entirely satisfying. THE NINTH CONFIGURATION still makes for fascinating viewing, however. There’s nothing out there quite like it and if you fancy watching something a bit different this might well be for you.

This still alone would have made me want to see the film
Second Sight’s disc comes packed with extras, including a Blatty commentary, interviews with Blatty, Keach, composer Barry DeVorzon, and actors Jason Miller, Tom Atkins, Richard Lynch and Stephen Powers. There’s also an archival introduction from Mark Kermode, and a number of deleted scenes and outtakes. These are especially worth watching as they’re all bits Blatty was loathe to excise and would have added even more to the weird, creakingly insane ambience he was trying to achieve. 

The insanity of violence erupts in the second half
Ambitious, disorientating, violent and different, THE NINTH CONFIGURATION is by no means 100 percent successful, but it is the kind of thing you won’t have seen before, at least not quite like this.

William Peter Blatty's THE NINTH CONFIGURATION is out from Second Sight on Blu-ray and DVD on 25th April 2016