Monday, 15 September 2014

The Shout (1978)

THE SHOUT isn't exactly a horror film, even though House of Hammer magazine covered it as such back at the time of its original release, and it merited inclusion in Harvey Fenton's seminal Ten Years of Terror - his marvellous book about British horror of the 1970s. Rather, as Kim Newman says in the opening to his and Stephen Jones' commentary track on this, it belongs to the rather more non-specific genre of 'Being A Bit Weird'. But then you shouldn't really be expecting a chiller thriller from the director of the classic DEEP END and the Oscar-winning producer of movies like THE LAST EMPEROR, as well as a couple of adaptations of controversial literary works (NAKED LUNCH & CRASH - both directed by David Cronenberg).

THE SHOUT is a screen version of the Robert Graves story of the same name. Employing a wraparound narrative that's been used by everything from Robert Wiene's DAS CABINET DES DR CALIGARI (1919) to Freddie Francis' THE CREEPING FLESH (1972), the main story unfolds during a cricket match at what is quickly revealed to be an asylum. Alan Bates is Charles Crossley. Bewhiskered, well read, and manipulative, he has a strange story to tell fellow score keeper Tim Curry. "I change the order of events each time" he says, "in order to keep it interesting". The story he relates features people we have already seen glimpses of at the asylum during the opening titles. John Hurt plays Anthony, a musician who plays the organ at the village church when he's not creating experimental new sounds in his cottage. He's married to Sarah (Susannah York) and there is the suggestion that all is not harmonious between them. 

This is made worse by the arrival of Crossley (Bates), who insinuates himself into their household with a bizarre story of having spent eighteen years in the aboriginal outback. While there he murdered the children he had with his aboriginal wife, and learned how to perform a killing shout. He eventually demonstrates this to Anthony (who has plugged his ears with wax at Crossley's advice) during a morning walk across the isolated Devon countryside, producing a sound similar to an aeroplane passing overhead while sheep and seagulls drop down dead in response. Crossley usurps Anthony, taking over his home and his wife, until Anthony is able to find the stone Crossley's soul resides in and smashes it.

THE SHOUT is a peculiar little film that's certainly worth a watch, even if it isn't entirely successful. There are enough pointers here that what we are watching is intended to be ambiguous that anyone wanting an explanation of what is actually going on is going to be disappointed. Mirrors are used are lot, and there is the frequent reminder that we are being told a story by someone in a long-term mental institution. It's not a horror film, but I can't help thinking it would actually work better if it had a few more shocking moments. Instead the whole thing is a little bit too limp and weak, as if every effort has been made to make sure no-one is going to confuse this as something from a genre I suspect they considered disreputable. As a result it goes the other way and ends up a bit dull and unfulfilling, as if it's been made by people for whom any association of their project with the genre would be the most distasteful thing they could envisage. The acting is all very fine (as you would expect) and there's an interesting electronic score from Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford of Genesis.

Network's Blu-ray is gorgeous. I have never thought of THE SHOUT as a beautiful film before but the shots of the Devonshire landscape are just glorious. Extras include the aforementioned commentary by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, an interview with producer Jeremy Thomas about his life and career, and there’s a trailer, an image gallery, a booklet by Kim Newman, and a pdf of the original press materials to round off the package.

Network are releasing Jerzy Skolimowski's THE SHOUT on Region B Blu-ray on 15th September 2014

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Medusa Touch (1978)

I make no apologies for stating at the beginning of this review that I love THE MEDUSA TOUCH. Partly filmed in Bristol, with one of the best and most violent orchestral movie scores ever written (courtesy of Aberystwyth’s own Michael J Lewis) how could I not love a British disaster movie in which Richard Burton pulls a cathedral to pieces with his brain?

Not that it’s a perfect film – in fact, far from it. The main problem is with the screenplay, which requires the movie to open with the savage beating of John Morlar (Burton), thus relegating his brain-damaged character to a hospital bed for the rest of the film, and his acting to flashbacks (and flashbacks within flashbacks). Through these we learn, with the aid of John Briley’s often superbly acidic dialogue, how Burton’s character grew up believing himself to be an individual capable of causing disaster. As a child he kills his parents and causes his school to burn down. As an adult he marries but it doesn't work out – his wife ends up hating him and the child she eventually has is a monster. 

        Exasperated with the decadent endeavours of man, Morlar decides to turn his talents to creating disasters, constantly pushing himself to new heights of carnage. An aeroplane crashes, and a link-up in space fails. Once he is hospitalized, the policeman investigating the case (Lino Ventura) realizes Morlar is still gearing up for his piece-de-resistance to ‘bring the whole shameful edifice’ of ‘Minster Cathedral’ crashing down around the heads of dignitaries due to assemble there.

I’ve not read the Peter van Greenaway novel on which the film is based, and so I can’t testify to how faithful the narrative structure is. I suspect, however, that the script had to pander to both budgetary restraints and the need for highlights to rival the popular disaster movies popular at the time. Consequently, it’s easy to see that all the money went on the aeroplane crash and the destruction of the cathedral at the end, meaning that the rest of the running time is taken up with a disjointed police procedural with star turns from whichever British character actors happened to be around at the time. 

But it’s partly these star turns that keep it interesting, that and the music and the sense of creeping dread it conveys that the entire film is building towards something spectacularly horrible. And when it comes it doesn’t disappoint. THE MEDUSA TOUCH may have a clunky screenplay and underuse Richard Burton (in fact every time I watch this I forget how little he’s in it), but the dialogue is terrific and so is he when he’s allowed to unrestrainedly chew the scenery. The climactic destruction of the cathedral is a triumph of excellent model work, razor-sharp editing, and that fantastic music. In fact it’s so good it makes you immediately forgive and forget any shortcomings the movie may have.
THE MEDUSA TOUCH is presented on Network’s Blu-ray release with an transfer that is, on the whole, sparkling - replace your old DVD release of this now. There’s a commentary track by director Jack Gold with Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, and some behind the scenes footage of the ‘Destruction of the Cathedral’ sequence. This goes on a bit but fast forward to the end to see them filming the mayhem. There’s also a trailer and an image gallery.

Network are releasing cathedral-crumbling epic that is THE MEDUSA TOUCH on Blu-ray on 15th September 2014

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974)

      The late 1960s and early 1970s produced a number of classic car chase movies, including Richard C Sarafian’s brilliant VANISHING POINT (1971), Jack Starrett’s RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975) and Peter Yates’ BULLITT (1968). Aside from Yates, the other British film-maker to make a significant contribution to the genre was John Hough, who learned the ropes on THE AVENGERS TV series before directing Hammer’s TWINS OF EVIL and the classic LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE for James H Nicholson. After these, DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY was something of a departure for the director, but he acquitted himself admirably in making a quirky, action-packed, nihilistic feature in keeping with the cinematic trends of the time.

Larry (Peter Fonda) and Deke (Adam FROGS Roarke) dream of winning NASCAR, but need money to build a car to do it. They rob a local supermarket by threatening the manager (an uncredited Roddy McDowall) with harm to his family if he doesn’t open the safe. They make their getaway but pick up an unwanted passenger in the form of Mary (Susan George), Larry’s one-night stand from a few hours previously. Soon the police are in pursuit, led by Vic BRONX WARRIORS Morrow in a helicopter. The rest of the movie is an event-filled chase across the state, with Larry and Deke trying to unsuccessfully rid themselves of Mary along the way.

A car chase movie from an era long before CGI, it’s curiously refreshing (and far more thrilling) to see real cars missing trucks, bulldozers and each other by a hair’s breadth, plummeting through billboards, and careering into freight trains, rather than today’s CGI equivalent, which has rendered the genre sterile and far less involving. Then again, it may just be me getting old, but it’s also good to see characters who are not intended to be cool or slick but instead are at best misguided and at worst completely insane. I’m not suggesting DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY is meant to be in any way realistic (I can’t believe the script was looked over more than once by the writers as there's way too much daft dialogue here to suggest much care was taken with it) but there’s a rawness and a believability here that’s very hard to come by in modern Hollywood action pictures. 

       The acting is fine for this sort of thing, with George coming over as especially and deliberately annoying - a twelve year old girl in a denim-clad twenty-something’s body. The stunts and car chase sequences are splendid and there are enough of them that one can excuse any lapses in believability. So different is it from his horror films that it’s actually difficult to believe this was directed by the same man who made LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, although it would appear the cat from that movie has followed him and appears under his directorial credit. DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY features some great car chases, some even greater car crashes, and, with a sure eye behind the camera for the US landscape, has the feel of an American road movie on fast forward. All this and a gratuitous shot of J&B - what more could you ask for?
Mind you, some extras would be nice. Odyssey’s new Region 2 DVD release of DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The copy supplied for review was the film alone.

Odyssey DVD are releasing John Hough's DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY on Region 2 DVD on 15th September 2014

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Beast (1975)

So here we finally are - the last of Arrow's current crop of dual DVD & Blu-ray releases of the work of Polish director Walerian Borowczyk, and the most recent chronologically. THE BEAST also happens to be the work of his that first brought him to my notice and, I suspect the notice of many others as well - for better or worse.
        THE BEAST is an attention grabbing, infamous film. Based around a segment originally filmed for IMMORAL TALES which was then saved to be part of a longer feature work, its original release was met with horror, outrage, censorship and outright banning. What's interesting is that, apart from some graphic scenes of horses having sex at the beginning, for the first hour or so the unsuspecting viewer may well wonder what all the fuss is about as THE BEAST bears all the characteristics of setting itself up as something approaching farce.

Lucy Broadhurst (Lisbeth Hummel) travels from England to marry Maturin L'Esperance (Pierre Benedetti). They stand to inherit a considerable fortune as a result, as long as the marriage is blessed by a specific Cardinal. Behind the scenes we learn the Cardinal is still in Rome & won't accept the L'Esperance family's calls because Maturin wasn't baptised until recently. As Lucy explores the house she finds a number of weird family heirlooms - paintings that conceal obscene images of bestiality, and a corset in a glass cabinet that allegedly belonged to Maturin's eighteenth-century ancestor Romilda. Lucy isn't entirely without secrets of her own, however. She's been busy taking Polaroid snaps of horses having sex and getting off to them in her bedroom. Maturin, on the other hand, seems to have no interest in her at all. In a dream sequence Romilda (Sirpa Lane) gets chased through a forest by a huge hairy thing with a huge hairy thing. After a prolonged sexual encounter with it, she eventually proves more than a match for its sexual potency and the beast dies. Meanwhile back in 1975 the plot is about to go completely bonkers with plenty of nudity and weird hairiness of its own.

In a decade where censorship had become significantly relaxed it’s still unsurprising that THE BEAST caused quite a lot of outrage when it was first shown. Nearly forty years later, and the sexual content still feels rather over the top, so goodness knows what viewers of the uncut version must have thought back in the day. THE BEAST is, of course, all about sex, whether it's the unfulfilled desires of Lucy, the perceived impotence (or bestial leanings) of Maturin, the predilection for teenaged boys exhibited by the priest staying at the house, the inter-racial couplings of the servants (probably a lot more shocking then than we can probably conceive) or the fact that the entire movie is taking place at what one presumes is a stud farm. In amongst all this bouncing around, Borowczyk also manages to create some beautiful images, and once again shows an exquisite sense in his choice of musical underscoring (in this case harpsichord music by Scarlatti).

Arrow's Blu-ray presentation of THE BEAST is uncut and second to none. It's rare to see a European film from this era looking this good (the most recent would have been the BFI's Blu-ray of Robbe-Grillet's SUCCESSIVE SLIDINGS OF PLEASURE). Extras include a brief introduction by film critic Peter Bradshaw and The Making of the Beast which combines behind the scenes footage of the making of the film with a commentary by camera operator Noel Very. Frenzy of Ecstasy is a featurette which displays Borowczyk's original sketches of the beast, and then provides a synopsis of the perceived BEAST sequel, MOTHERHOOD, which sounds so completely barking mad I wish he'd had the chance to make it. There's also the short VENUS ON THE HALF-SHELL which features some very strange art indeed, a trailer, booklet and reversible sleeve.

As a work of film restoration on Arrow's part, and an example of the censor's current day attitude towards a movie by a director of Borowczyk's reputation, I cannot recommend THE BEAST highly enough. As an actual film I'd have to recommend it be approached with caution. It's possibly the most provocative and certainly the most outrageous of Arrow's Borowczyk Blu-ray releases. Actually, it's one of the most outrageous in the entire Arrow catalogue. Nearly forty years old, it still has the power to make you wonder what on earth was going through his mind when he made it. Which in itself should be recommendation enough.

Arrow Films released Walerian Borowczyk's THE BEAST on dual format Blu-ray and DVD on 8th September 2014

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Goto, Isle of Love (1969)

        Walerian Borowczyk's second feature is a satire on totalitarianism, filmed in black and white (except for a few very brief colour inserts) and with an emphasis on weird props, grim dusty sets, and with something of an absurdist sense of humour. I know Terry Gilliam admits to Borowczyk as an influence, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if other absurd humorists of the time (including the rest of the Pythons, as well as Spike Milligan and Vivian Stanshall) were aware of and appreciated Borowczyk's work. Certainly of you're a fan of anything they did you'll find GOTO, ISLE OF LOVE fascinating.

Goto is an island (in fact an archipelago) that has been separated from the mainland by an earthquake that occurred in 1887. Since then the society has been left on its own to develop in a number of strange ways. Currently ruled over by Goto III (Pierre Brasseur from Franju’s LES YEUX SANS VISAGE) and populated seemingly entirely by people whose names begin with the letter 'G', most of the people of Goto spend their time in abject poverty and slavery. The only entertainments are executions, and recitals of music played on instruments made out of old packing crates and anything else to hand. The ageing Goto's sexy wife Glossia (Ligia Branice from BLANCHE and married to Borowczyk at the time) is being pursued by a young handsome officer, and eventually ends up in the hay with him.  Meanwhile, the petty criminal Gozo (Guy Saint-Jean) is busy working his way up the hierarchy, getting himself employed by Goto III as fly killer, dog handler and boot polisher. 

Someone mentioned that the best way to watch GOTO is by thinking of it as a work by Mervyn Peake. Certainly there's a Gormenghast feel to the proceedings, albeit filtered through an Eastern European lens. Borowczyk's directing style is often similar to that in BLANCHE, and the music score (a Handel organ concerto) merely serves to emphasise the otherworldiness of the action. GOTO is a peculiar, slightly surreal and absurdist film & if you enjoyed BLANCHE and the SHORT FILMS you'll find a lot to interest you here as well.

Arrow's fine-looking release of GOTO is the result of what sounds like a Herculean restoration job, the outline of which is presented to us before the film proper starts, and justifiably so. It looks very good indeed, and there's been an excellent tidy up job on the soundtrack as well. Extras include an introduction by Craigie Horsfield, a documentary about Borowczyk's sound sculptures - The Profligate Door, and The Concentration Universe, which features interviews about the film. There's also the usual reversible sleeve and collector's booklet.
         A significant achievement in film restoration, GOTO, ISLE OF LOVE now looks and sounds as good as it must have done on its original release. Anyone with an interest in the director's works should snap up a copy while they can.

Arrow Films released Walerian Borowczyk's GOTO, ISLE OF LOVE on dual format Blu-ray and DVD on 8th Septembet 2014

Monday, 8 September 2014

Twins of Evil (1971)

It’s a common misconception (to my mind at least) that by 1970 Hammer Films had ‘reached their peak and were beginning to decline’, to paraphrase Alan Frank in his book Horror Films. I, for one, would disagree. 1971, apart from being Hammer’s most productive year, also resulted in some of their best films, among them Peter Sasdy’s HANDS OF THE RIPPER, Peter Sykes's DEMONS OF THE MIND (probably the Hammer horror to have dated the least) and TWINS OF EVIL.  

While some express a preference for Roy Ward Baker’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Le Fanu’s Carmilla) and there is perhaps the (very) odd and misguided individual who likes LUST FOR A VAMPIRE the most, it’s TWINS OF EVIL that’s my favourite of Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy. It’s a film that manages to be both original and stylish while remaining utterly true to the company’s exploitation roots by having, as its centerpiece attraction, Playboy’s first twin nude centerfolds. 

A mixture of sex and the gothic that could have been an embarrassing disaster, it’s to the credit of the specific creative team involved on this one that it turned out so well. That includes director John Hough, screenwriter Tudor Gates, composer Harry Robinson / Robertson, art director Roy Stannard and most of all a terrifying performance by Peter Cushing, ably aided by devilish Damien Thomas as the Count, dashing David Warbeck as Anton, and decidedly drunk and doddery Dennis Price (who was in both KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS and THEATRE OF BLOOD and therefore deserves nothing but our love and respect).

But that’s enough alliteration – what’s it all about? At his lovely crumbling Hammer castle, naughty Count Karnstein (Thomas) is bored with the ‘Satanic’ performance put on for him by Dietrich (Price). He dismisses all the actors except for the pretty one, stabs her, and her blood trickles down into the catacombs to revive Mircalla Karnstein (Katya Wyeth). Thomas gives in to her charms (and who can blame him) and he becomes a vampire himself, setting his sights on the sexy twins (Madeleine & Mary Collinson) who have just arrived in the village, and are already being beaten regularly by Cushing’s puritan Gustav Weil for only wearing funerary black for three months after the deaths of their parents. 

Weil and his puritan brotherhood aren’t that kindly disposed to pretty girls in general. In fact, it’s surprising there are any left in the area, since the moment there’s news of one, spotted gaily skipping along one of the roads in Black Park, off they all trot to burn her to death. I could think of much better things to do with Judy Matheson and Luan Peters, but then I suspect the puritans can as well, which is why they burn them.

Only one twin actually ends up evil & it’s up to Anton (Warbeck) to save the other. There’s the usual rather rushed Hammer ending. Closeup on the dusty old corpse of a vampire (despite the fact he was only turned into one a couple of days ago).  The End.

The stars of TWINS OF EVIL are Cushing – all cold menace in a remarkable performance influenced by his tragic personal circumstances – and Hough, fresh off THE AVENGERS and keen to make the most of the opportunity Hammer had given him. His enthusiasm shows, and undoubtedly rubbed off on the rest of his team. TWINS OF EVIL remains one of the most sumptuously gothic of the 1970s Hammers, with a richer colour palette, and more expensive feel than VAMPIRE LOVERS. The score is Harry Robinson’s best of the three as well.
Network’s Region B Blu-ray actually looks a bit better than the Region A release from Synapse Films. The extras are different, however. Here we get trailers, a deleted scene featuring a hippy song that it was entirely appropriate to leave out, an image gallery, and a commemorative booklet.

Network are releasing Hammer's TWINS OF EVIL on Region B Blu-ray on 8th September 2014

Saturday, 6 September 2014

The Monster Club (1980)

       There's not a lot of love around for THE MONSTER CLUB.
There are a number of very good reasons for this. Limping along in 1980 as the death rattle of a very specific subgenre (the Amicus-style British anthology horror film), it's a sad example of one man not knowing when to stop and perhaps, with his final contribution, showing he didn't really understand why the kind of film he'd popularised had worked in the first place. Milton Subotsky, Amicus producer who ended up going it alone with his self-named Sword & Sorcery Productions, should really have left the anthology format alone with FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE, one of the very best Amicus anthologies and a fine British ghost story movie in its own right. But he didn't, instead giving us the fairly hopeless cat anthology THE UNCANNY (1977) before killing the subgenre stone dead with THE MONSTER CLUB, a horror movie aimed at kids (what?) with intermittent rock music numbers from performers who had mostly crawled out from under stones for their three minutes and thirty seconds of fame when what they really should have done is remained in the damp and the dark.

On paper THE MONSTER CLUB looks great, but that's because on paper THE MONSTER CLUB was a book by R Chetwynd-Hayes, author of the collections THE UNBIDDEN, COLD TERROR & THE ELEMENTAL, from which the stories for FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE were taken. So pleased was RCH with the result of that film that he consciously wrote THE MONSTER CLUB as an Amicus movie, with a framework story tying five short stories together. It's a great book - witty in some places, disturbing and scary in others. Every now and then the silly sense of humour that marred some of his later work creeps in, but on the whole it's kept in check.
For some reason, Subotsky seems to have started with 'silly sense of humour' as his baseline. He then jettisoned all but one of the stories (The Humgoo), used the title and concept of another to come up with a completely different story (The Shadmock) and then to finish off, picked a story from COLD TERROR (My Mother Married A Vampire) and had that completely rewritten as well to come up with one of the most embarrassing segments in any British film ever. Why any of this was thought to be a good idea is anyone's guess. Suffice to say, it's the script and Subotsky's attitude to the material that kills what could have been a great movie before it even has a chance.

Against my better judgement, there's a tiny, masochistic part of me that can watch the film without cringing, simply because it IS the final bow of a subgenre I love. It's the last time we get to hear Douglas Gamley writing music for a British horror film (he does the titles and The Shadmock sequence and he does it well -this film does not deserve him). It's the last time we get a story with an Amicus-style punchy ending (The Shadmock story again and come on - it almost works). It's the last time we get to see Geoffrey ASYLUM Bayldon doing his psychiatrist routine (no producer used him better than Subotsky did). It's the last time, and by the end titles, when Vincent Price and John Carradine are dancing to that awful song amongst all those people in those shitty masks, we are glad of it. It's a movie that achieves that rarest thing of making me feel terribly sad, as well as rather stupid for having watched it.

       THE MONSTER CLUB is a film I could write about for much longer, and I have probably watched it more times than I should, mostly because every time I want it to be so much better. The opening has a bookshop window filled with actual books by R Chetwynd-Hayes who, more than anyone, embraced the Amicus style. It should have been a great start to a great film. But sadly it's all downhill from about a minute in.
        Network's Blu-ray of THE MONSTER CLUB might just look ever so slightly better than its Scorpion Releasing Region A counterpart. Extras include the option to play the film with an isolated music score, a trailer, a promo, textless title sequences and an image gallery. Someday someone is going to find that edition of ITV children’s movie show CLAPPERBOARD where Subotsky was interviewed. He had the skeleton used for the stripper animation on his desk and demonstrated at least one of the awful masks, telling the presenter about the milkman he had discovered who made them as his hobby. Or perhaps they have, but, like so much else, Milton Subotsky’s version of THE MONSTER CLUB doesn’t really deserve it.

Network released Milton Subotsky's version of THE MONSTER CLUB on Region B Blu-ray on 18th August 2014