Thursday, 21 August 2014

Bound (1996)

The Wachowski brothers (as they were when they directed this latest Arrow release) will probably always be best known amongst fan circles for THE MATRIX series of films. However, the project that got them that gig with Warner Bros wasn't a science fiction film at all, but BOUND, their first directorial effort and as stylish and engaging a debut as one could wish for. BOUND is a modern-day noir, but with several variations on the tried-and-true themes of the genre, mixed in with a big dollop of style that makes it never less than riveting viewing.

Gina Gershon plays Corky, an ex-con who is employed doing various plumbing and decorating jobs in a fashionable Chicago apartment building. Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly) live in the apartment next to the one in which Corky is working. Violet contrives to get Corky over to her place and it's not long before the two are embarking on an affair (tastefully and sensually done, in case you're wondering). It turns out that Caesar launders money for the mafia and he just happens to be taking care of close to two million dollars for them at the moment. Needless to say, once the two girls put their plan into action to steal the money, things quickly get bloody and complicated.

  With career best performances from its three leads, creative, careful and frequently fascinating set-ups from its directors, and a score from Don Davis (THE MATRIX, William Malone’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL) that echoes Bernard Herrmann and any number of 1940s melodramas while still very much having its own distinct identity, BOUND is a perfect example of how much can be achieved on a very low budget. The film is essentially a three hander, but there’s able support from, amongst others, John P Ryan (IT’S ALIVE, RUNAWAY TRAIN) in his last role, and Richard C Sarafian, the director of the classic VANISHING POINT (1971) as crime boss Gino Marzzone. The photography and production design combine to give you 1990s chic filmed in noir style, and the whole endeavour is just a delight.

Arrow’s new release gives you BOUND in a dual format DVD and Blu-ray edition. The Blu-ray looks fantastic - the sharply angular mise-en-scene benefits immensely from the crispness the format allows. There are a host of extras, including Modern Noir: The Sights and Sounds of Bound, a new set of interviews with composer Davis, DP Bill Pope and editor Zach Staenberg. There’s a commentary track by the directors, the three stars, and consultant Susie Bright who also appears in a scene in the film. There are also separate interview featurettes with actors Gershon, Tilly, Pantoliano, and Christopher Meloni, trailers, TV spots, a stills gallery and the usual new sleeve artwork and a booklet by James Oliver.
Original, slick, and stylish, with believable characters - BOUND is the kind of crime film Quentin Tarantino probably wishes he could make but never will. If you’ve not seen it before, or even if you have, Arrow’s new release is the one to keep. 

Arrow Films released BOUND on dual format Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray on 18th August 2014

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Branded to Kill (1967)

         THE PRISONER meets the Yakuza movie in this crazy stream of consciousness black and white Japanese crime picture from 1967. Any attempt at describing the plot of this one is going to fail to convey the sheer random anything-goes feeling of the 'narrative' (if it can be called that) but I'm going to have a go anyway.

      Jo Shishido stars as Goro Hanada, the No.3 killer in the weird world he inhabits. His aim is to become No.1. He knows who No.2 is, but the top assassin remains a mystery. We never actually find out who goes round creating these top ten lists of Japanese hit men but they all take it very seriously, and therefore so must we.
      It's quite difficult to take Goro seriously though, with his cheek implants that make him look like a hamster in dark glasses and his bizarre fetish for getting turned on by sniffing boiling rice.

The first half an hour of BRANDED TO KILL makes some sense, with Goro starting off having to act as an escort for a client. Then a hit goes spectacularly wrong when what looks like a large cardboard butterfly distracts his aim, and he meets a mysterious woman with a moth fetish and a desire to be a corpse. After that it's weirdness all the way, with a disjointed timeline with flashbacks and flashforwards (I think), quite a bit of sex and nudity, lots of moths and butterflies, and above all some breathtaking and quite brilliant bits of direction that mean even if you have no idea what's happening you'll find it difficult to stop watching this one. When Goro finally comes face to face with No.1 they have a stand-off of literally wetting themselves proportions. The whole thing ends in a boxing ring but I'm by no means spoiling this film for you by telling you that.

Director Seijun Suzuki was famously sacked by Nikkatsu for making this film when what the company wanted was another straightforward crime drama. To be honest, I can see their point, as there's no way BRANDED TO KILL could be sold as anything other than completely bonkers arthouse. It's certainly a unique project, and one which Suzuki apparently made up as he went along. I suspect the entire thing probably does make sense, in a kind of MULHOLLAND DRIVE MEETS HAMSTER-SAN kind of way, and it probably needs several viewings before you can even begin to work out what's going on.

Full marks to Arrow then for the lovely, crisp widescreen transfer we get on this double disc Blu-ray and DVD set. There isn't a commentary (more's the pity - I'd love to listen to someone having a go at this one) but we do get interviews with director Suzuki and star Shishido (minus his cheek implants but with two hefty-looking scars by which they were presumably removed). A major bonus is TRAPPED IN LUST (1973), an extra full-length feature that's actually a softcore ('roman') porn version of the title feature. This one's in colour, makes a bit more sense, and has a lot more naked ladies in it. As extras go it's the perfect complement to the main attraction, and should rightfully set a trend for all movies released on Blu-ray to have their porn rip-off versions included as extras, although somehow I doubt it will. Otherwise you get trailers for both movies, a reversible sleeve boasting new artwork and a booklet by Jasper Sharp.
BRANDED TO KILL is a very weird film, but it also feels like a very influential one, with scenes reminiscent of Kubrick, Polanski, Lynch and others that make me wonder if this is where they got them from. Worth watching if you fancy something different and brilliant that might just fry your brain.

Seijun Suzuki's BRANDED TO KILL is out now on a double disc DVD and Blu-ray set from Arrow Films

Monday, 18 August 2014

The Boy From Space (1971 / 1980)

Daytime TV in the UK used to mean something very different from what it does now. Rather than interminable Jerry Springer ripoffs and numerous How To Make Money From Your Old Tat programmes, the schedules prior to evening television used to be employed to run educational programmes for broadcast in schools and colleges. Both BBC and ITV did this for many years, with a lot of the programmes shown being so successful they were sold abroad.
One such example was LOOK & READ. Designed as teaching aid to help develop simple reading skills, the format consisted of what was known as a ‘teaching middle’ topped and tailed by a drama serial. I watched lots of these when I was very young - JOE & THE SHEEP RUSTLERS (1973) was a favourite, but none of them ever came close to the quality of THE BOY FROM SPACE.

Of course, I have to admit that I first watched this, now released on DVD by the BFI, in 1971. I was four years old, so I can perhaps be forgiven for thinking John Woodnutt’s Thin Space Man to be the scariest thing I had ever seen. The programme was shown in black and white but filmed in colour, as the BBC intended to sell it as a movie abroad. While that never happened, financial cuts later in the decade meant the film footage was reused. The original tapes had been wiped so new ‘teaching middle’ material was recorded, a new, more upbeat, score was recorded, and the new version of BOY FROM SPACE went out in 1980.

That’s the version of LOOK AND READ that’s on the first of this two disc set - ten twenty minutes episodes complete with songs, teaching bits and other stuff suitable for early learners. If nothing else, it’s a fascinating and valuable record of how kids were taught to read back in the day.
If you just want to watch the filmed drama, then that’s present on disc two. The plot involves two pre-teens, Helen and Dan (Sylvestra Le Touzel and Stephen Garlick) who have to help the alien boy Peep Peep (Colin Mayes) escape from the alien Thin Man (John Woodnutt) and get home after he’s stranded on earth. 

Written by the hugely talented Richard Carpenter, who was only allowed to use a very limited vocabulary, THE BOY FROM SPACE is going to be a tremendously nostalgic viewing experience for those of a certain age (of which I’ll admit I’m one). It’s reminiscent of productions from the Children’s Film Foundation, as well as other early 1970s British SF shows like DR WHO. 
Disc two of this new BFI releases also includes the soundtrack of the BBC Records LPs released to tie-in with the original broadcast, as well as downloadable pdfs of the students’ pamphlets that accompanied the series. There’s also a booklet with a fascinating article about the production of the series, as well as composer Paddy Kingsland’s memories of writing music for the show. 
Oh, and I still think the Thin Man is still scary. Well done, John Woodnutt.

The BFI is releasing Richard Carpenter's THE BOY FROM SPACE on a double-disc DVD set on 25th August 2014

Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Cabin (2013)

Here’s yet another very nice DVD box with a card slipcase and some fine artwork (well done whoever’s responsible - it’s really nice work). You’ll notice the blurb at the top says that THE CABIN is "CABIN IN THE WOODS meets INSIDIOUS". That’s a bold claim for any film to make and so I hope it won’t surprise too many reading this review that THE CABIN (aka BLOODLINE in other territories) isn’t quite the action-packed top quality scarefest that less experienced horror film viewers might take it to be.

It is, however, quite professionally made, which is always something of a relief to discover with these low-budget unknowns. It even has a rather ambitious prologue. In 1779 a group of American settlers end up cursed by the local native Americans’ shaman for killing one of their kind. There’s even authentic-sounding local language with subtitles, some good special effects, and a promise that this is going to turn into a cracking EVIL DEAD-style possession romp in the woods.
Then the film proper starts.

Brett Ethos (Matt Thompson, who also writes and directs and therefore has to shoulder the blame for this one) is about to be ordained into the Catholic Church but decides to have one last trip of mayhem and debauchery at his isolated cabin in the woods - the one his friends have just helped him discover the location of by breaking a picture frame and finding a map and the keys hidden in the back of it.
A couple of girls added to the car later (including Brett’s ex-girlfriend) and we’re off into the woods. So far so good. It’s when they get to the cabin that everything slows right down and nothing really happens for far too long. Exploitation staples like shock, gore, nudity and suspense are sacrificed to allow earnest conversations about relationships and lots of shots of Thompson looking moody. The first couple of deaths occur offscreen, but rather than engendering what one presumes the film-makers hoped would be an atmosphere of subtle suspense, the viewer is left wondering why we couldn’t get to see them. 

      Things do pick up, with members of Brett’s party being picked off by the thing that’s after him because of his settler heritage. There are some nice optical effects, and there’s an attempt at a stinger of an ending, but overall it never feels as if anyone’s heart is really in any of this. It’s a shame because, as I said, the film is very competently made, but it lacks the sense of urgency, the sense of menace and, dare I say it, the style to make it an enjoyable piece of backwoods menace. There are a couple of nice ideas here, but if you’re familiar with CABIN IN THE WOODS and INSIDIOUS you’ll still be better off watching either of those again instead of this. 101 Films presents THE CABIN in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. It’s a nice transfer and there are no extras. 

101 Films released THE CABIN on Region 2 DVD on 11th August 2014

Friday, 15 August 2014

Blood Orgy of the She Devils (1973)

It’s time once again to ride the Ted V Mikels roller coaster of rubbish, as 88 Films allows UK trash film enthusiasts to get our brains fried with this little number from 1973. Your tolerance of this one will depend very much on how you got on with previous 88 Films Ted releases THE CORPSE GRINDERS and THE DOLL SQUAD. If you haven’t seen those, you may need your loins girding further before you leap in.

Cue animated swirls, a girl’s eyes and some weird moaning noises as the credits play out. Then we’re witness to what was probably advertised as ‘an exotic satanic ritual’ but isn’t. A man in a nappy is speared by several lovely young things presided over by Mara (Lila Zaborin and pretty terrifying in her own right) and a bloke who looks a bit like Patrick Troughton in a Viking costume. There are some more women with insanely big 1970s hair, a boom mike shadow, and then we’re privy to a plot to assassinate the Rhodesian ambassador to the UN by means of black magic. For some reason these plot machinations cut abruptly to a man strangling a girl to the sound of a cuckoo clock going off. No, I don’t know why, either.

The next day. “Young” couple Mark and Lorraine (Tom Pace and Leslie McRae) discuss “all that occult stuff” while completely ignoring what looks like a dead koala bear that’s presumably fallen out of an aeroplane on its way from Australia and landed on their picnic rug (see above). Mara plunges a doll into the biggest brandy glass ever shown on film and the ambassador chokes to death. The baddies don’t want to leave any loose ends and so everyone at Mara’s castle is shot dead. Mara turns into a cat, brings her servant back to life, and wreaks revenge. The gunman suffers a voodoo death of what looks like a terminal rectal injection of chilli powder followed by an unconvincing fall through a window while his boss gets pins stuck in him.

There are some long conversations about witchcraft and a flashback to “the seventeenth century” where men with 1970s sideburns torture a witch and another is stoned with foam rubber rocks. There’s another ritual, Ted’s LA castle (doubling as Mara’s lair) glows greeny-blue, and some experts are called in to solve the problem. Everyone dies which leads to a fairly grim ending where the experts wander about among the bodies. The End.

BLOOD ORGY OF THE SHE DEVILS lasts just under 80 minutes but feels longer. However, there are enough moments of jaw-dropping unintentional mirth that if you’re an enthusiast for the so-bad-it’s-good it’s definitely worth a look. 88 Films’ DVD preserves the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and there’s a commentary by Ted as an extra. Otherwise you get a Ted V Mikels special 88 trailer park reel and a very good essay on the movie by Calum Waddell that’s actually worth spending more time on than the film itself. As good a version of one of Ted’s films as you could hope for, trash fans will love it. Just watch out for the falling koala.

88 Films are releasing Ted V Mikels' BLOOD ORGY OF THE SHE DEVILS on Region 2 DVD on 18th August 2014.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

You Are Not Alone (2011)

Here’s another film with lovely box art and a nice cardboard sleeve, something which is becoming a bit of a warning sign for quality in films I’ve never heard of before. The cover of YOU ARE NOT ALONE is intriguing for two reasons, however. There’s a picture of Glastonbury Tor on the front (the film is indeed set in and around Glastonbury), and the credits boast Mark SLAUGHTER HIGH Ezra as the writer and director. Seeing as I’m a sucker for British horror films, especially ones set locally and from a director with a pedigree in trash cinema, I couldn’t resist this one. 
Also known as HOUSE TRAP and HOUSE SWAP in different territories, Ezra’s movie is a found footage home invasion horror. Personable American couple Matt Powsey (Nathan Nolan) and Ginny Baker (Evie Brodie) move to Glastonbury for creative reasons - he’s writing a screenplay about King Arthur, and she is a composer. They’ve arranged their move by swapping their Californian residence with the Somerset couple who own the house. As soon as they get there strange things start happening. There are weird noises in the night, objects go missing, and for some reason the previous residents have installed security cameras for what they subsequently reveal was a problem with a stalker. 

I won’t say any more in case you fancy watching this yourself. YOU ARE NOT ALONE starts off very well indeed, with an act of casual local violence that will have you wondering if this is going to turn into a Somerset version of STRAW DOGS. It doesn’t but it certainly helps to rack up the suspense straight away. The house in which all the mayhem occurs is a deliciously authentic Tudor mansion, and a dream of a creepy location that Ezra makes the most of. In fact, the first ten minutes of this are a neat summary of why American tourists might be petrified of ever venturing into rural England. The acting is decent and Ezra makes good use of the found footage style to spring a few genuinely suspenseful shocks during the running time. Don’t be expecting a classic, however. The pace is sluggish at times, which is a shame because, with a little more incident, YOU ARE NOT ALONE could have been a halfway decent little thriller. As it is it’s not at all bad. Sadly, the film can’t quite overcome that old bugbear of this genre - the need to carry a camera everywhere to document what’s happening - and it’s begging for more of a punchy ending. As it is, the killer’s lair is pleasingly twisted and there’s obviously a bit of inspiration here from FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2.
         There are no extras, which is a shame as I wouldn’t have minded a featurette on the making of it, but otherwise YOU ARE NOT ALONE is actually a reasonably well made micro budget effort with some decent scares and a genuine sense of uneasiness. 

Mark Ezra's YOU ARE NOT ALONE is out on Region 2 DVD from 101 Films. 

Monday, 11 August 2014

The Toxic Avenger (1984)

First up a confession: until previewing this sparkling new 88 Films Blu-ray, I had never seen a Troma film. Critically reviled during the 1980s and 90s, and usually released in the UK in severely truncated forms, it just didn’t seem sensible to watch terrible movies with all the best bits taken out. So Troma passed me by, the delights of SERGEANT KABUKIMAN NYPD and RABID GRANNIES (although they only released that one) consigned to the file marked ‘when I have the time’.
The time would appear to be now, helped immensely by the release of the first in Troma’s flagship TOXIC AVENGER franchise uncut and with a wealth of extras. Was it worth the wait? For me I have to answer with a resounding yes. How appealing you will find it will depend very much on your sense of humour.

At a health club in Tromaville, the ‘Toxic Chemical Capital of the World’, nerdy janitor Melvin (Mark Torgl) upsets the local beefcakes and their girlfriends and a prank is plotted. Seeing as their leader Bozo’s hobbies include running children over while he swigs from a Jack Daniels bottle filled with what suspiciously looks like orange squash it’s not going to end well. A lorry loaded with open canisters of toxic waste stops outside the gym so its driver and his pal can fill their noses with cocaine. Melvin, tricked into wearing a tutu and cuddling a sheep wearing a bra, ends up falling from the building and landing in the glowing green goop. A quick bath later and Melvin metamorphoses into the titular hero.

It’s not long before Toxie is cleaning up the streets, killing bearded drug-trafficking transvestites, armed robbers who look like Lionel Richie crossed with Adam Ant, and getting a blind girlfriend with whom he sets up home at the local toxic waste dump. The local mayor, a serious contender for fattest movie character ever, is in on all the local crime rackets and wants Toxie stopped. The National Guard is called in (where the hell did Troma get all those tanks from?) and the scene is set for a showdown outside Toxie’s tent.

Cheerfully tasteless and never, ever boring, THE TOXIC AVENGER feels like what would happen if John Waters was asked to direct a super-hero film. The entire movie has a consistent, weird, almost dayglo style, with bizarre acting to match. I’m sure Troma supremo Lloyd Kaufman would be delighted to hear that the opening scenes reminded me of Beckett or Pinter in the off-kilter weirdness of the performances. Like I said above, whether or not you’ll enjoy this will depend on whether or not you find all of this funny, and I hope the stills I’ve included here will help. I can honestly say I haven’t cried with laughter so much since previewing Bob Clark’s PORKY’S. Troma may have had a bad press, and they certainly don’t make movies that could be considered ‘good’, but the makers of a lot of the hand-held direct to DVD rubbish that some companies have the nerve to release could learn a lot from this bouncy little company.

There are a load of extras, most of which seem to have been ported over from previous US releases of the film. I’m not going to go through them all here, but I would suggest you watch at least the introduction to the slightly longer Japanese cut (also on the disc and not as good quality) where the dialogue has been translated into Japanese subtitles and then translated back into extra English subtitles that are also provided. Otherwise there’s lots of Lloyd Kaufman (commentary, introductions, him living in a cardboard box), a Troma studio tour and featurettes on Toxie as well as lots more.

I have to take my hat off to Troma - they may make rubbish but it’s hugely enthusiastic rubbish and Kaufman (whom I presume must be independently wealthy as I can’t imagine anyone giving him money for this stuff) enters into the spirit of things wholeheartedly. THE TOXIC AVENGER is stupid, silly and tasteless. It’s also hilarious and rattlingly entertaining. Congratulations to the always-reliable 88 Films for bring THE TOXIC AVENGER to our shores in a fantastic Blu-ray transfer that must be the best this film has ever looked, and with all the extras you could ever want. 

88 Films are releasing Troma's THE TOXIC AVENGER on standard Blu-ray (picture at the top) steelbook (picture near the bottom) and HMV exclusive (card sleeve with new artwork - picture at the bottom) on 18th August 2014. Grab whichever version you can.