Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Phantom of the Opera (1989)

I well remember going to see this at the Nottingham Odeon when it came out. My surprise at it being on the cinema’s main screen (number one out of five) was matched only by the curious face-to-face warning every customer got to receive at the box office, which went something along the lines of “You do realise this is NOT a film version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, don’t you?” Whether this was a legal stipulation forced on the film-makers by Lloyd-Webber’s Really Useful Company, or whether it was just legendary producer Harry Alan Towers (he of everything from THE FACE OF FU MANCHU to numerous Jess Franco pictures fame) having a bit of fun I still don’t know, but I was reminded of it while watching 101 Films’ new Blu-ray release of the picture because a disclaimer to the same effect pops up during the end credits as well.
So was the movie as good as I remembered it? This Menahem Golan production (not often a good sign) certainly isn't bad, and toplines Robert Englund, then at the height of his career as the star of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films.
       The movie kicks off with singer Christine Day (Jill Schoelen from Joseph Rubin’s THE STEPFATHER) looking for a new piece with which to audition for a modern-day New York show. She finds it in a dusty manuscript copy of ‘Don Juan Triumphant’ by composer Erik Destler. Before she can get more than a couple of notes out on stage she’s hit on the head by a sandbag and transported back to Victorian England, where Destler’s new work is about to be premiered at an opera house owned by Bill Nighy (yes him, looking remarkably young). 
        Destler is something of a shadowy figure, but that's because he's sold his soul to the devil disguised as a dwarf in return for a mutilated face and public appreciation of his music. As the Phantom, Destler coaches Christine for the lead role, and ensures that on opening night diva La Carlotta (Stephanie Lawrence) finds the stagehand he's flayed alive and stuffed into her wardrobe. The shock causes her to lose her voice and Christine to get the lead role. 
Of course there are various factions who don’t want Christine to succeed, including Mr Nighy, and the stage is set for some Phantom-style revenge, a fiery climax, and a neat little epilogue set back in the present day that gives us a new spin on the classic unmasking scene in a suitably gory 1980s way. Don’t expect a chandelier to fall into the audience, though, because apparently they didn’t have enough money for that.

Prior to PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, director Dwight H Little had just come off HALLOWEEN 4, and he does a pretty good job with this remake. In fact, if Hammer Films had kept going into the 1990s one imagines this is exactly the kind of thing they would have produced. Much is made of Englund’s destroyed face and his need for frequent skin grafts, and there are a couple of one-liners for fans expecting Freddy Krueger in a cloak which, to some extent is what you get. It’s all a lot of gory, gothic fun and I'll admit I enjoyed it at least as much as I did on its initial release all those years ago.
101 Films’ Blu-ray preserves PHANTOM OF THE OPERA’s original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, despite the back of the box telling you otherwise, so don’t worry. The transfer is a bit grainy but overall looks fine. There aren’t any extras but this is a perfectly acceptable presentation of a film from the tail end of one of the classic eras of horror cinema.

The Robert Englund version of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is out from 101 Films on Blu-ray from 17th April 2014. A DVD version is also available.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Tourist Trap (1979) 88 Films Release

I wrote about what is to my mind director David Schmoeller's best film on here a couple of years ago. However, seeing as 88 Films is just about to release TOURIST TRAP on Blu-ray I thought it would be worth revisiting this cult gem and taking a look at what the new release has to offer.
Eileen and Woody are driving through the kind of deserted American countryside where it would probably be an awful idea to get a flat tyre, when naturally that’s what happens. Eileen waits with the car while their friends Becky, Jerry and Molly catch up in another vehicle. Woody goes in search of a gas station, only to find himself set upon by a roomful of mannequins that have come to life, as well as an assault of random flying objects, one of which eventually skewers him. The others find a tourist trap waxworks run by dungaree-wearing Mr Slausen (Chuck Connors). As the friends are bumped off by either a masked killer or more animatronic dummies it becomes obvious that far from being not all there, there may be more than one person living in Mr Slausen’s head.
TOURIST TRAP has few of the elements that would soon become de rigeur for a slasher picture. It does have a bunch of teenage victims and an older tormentor in the shape of crazy Chuck Connors and his collection of scary masks and animatronic mannequins. It’s never a good idea to trust a man who keeps the body of his dead wife upright in a glass case surrounded by flashing lights and a melancholy musical accompaniment, and in that much our teen heroes deserves their fate. 
But what exactly is their fate? The final scene makes little sense, with final girl Molly (Jocelyn Jones) driving down the highway, presumably having escaped, but in the company of mannikin versions of her friends. It’s strange little touches like this, as well as the whole opening murder of Woody, that makes TOURIST TRAP worth a look. Also of note is the music score by Pino Donaggio, who was kept very busy by low budget US filmmakers in this period. Apparently working on the score to Joe Dante’s PIRANHA at the time of TOURIST TRAP’S shooting, Donaggio was approached by Schmoeller who convinced him to provide a typically lush score with a somewhat peculiar clockwork-sounding main title theme that is evocative of the animatronic devices we are about to see. It’s an eccentric score for an eccentric film and while David Schmoeller worked in the horror genre several more times he never made anything quite as weird or special as this.
        88 Films' Blu-ray presentation has tidied up the image a lot compared to the previous Danish Region 2 release we also have here at the House of Mortal Cinema. Gone are all the white scratches and blemishes, while the grain in the image is retained. Extras include a commentary track by director Schmoeller, and a making of featurette that lasts for just over 20 minutes. Schmoeller is the only participant in this as well, and goes over much of the ground covered by the commentary, but it's still worth a watch. 
         TOURIST TRAP is a splendid little movie that deserves to be better known, and 88 Films' Blu-ray is the definitive version, so get it while you can.

88 Films are releasing David Schmoeller's TOURIST TRAP on Blu-ray on 21st April 2014. 

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Pit Stop (1967)

Arrow Films continues in its valuable work of resurrecting, dusting down and sprucing up neglected cult movies that are well worth the effort of watching with PIT STOP. Originally called THE WINNER (and that’s what we have on the title card here) the movie was renamed for the usual reasons - to avoid confusion with another, entirely different, bigger budget but similarly titled picture, and to ensure maximum exploitation value of the finished product.
I had never heard of PIT STOP before receiving this release. Its director, Jack Hill, is one of the great unsung heroes of American exploitation cinema, being responsible for quirky hits like the marvellous SPIDER BABY, and THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, which remains for some the ultimate Women In Prison film. He also ensured exploitation immortality for Pam Grier by knowing exactly what to do with her in her starring vehicles COFFY and FOXY BROWN.
PIT STOP is a movie about stock-car racing. As far as financier Roger Corman was concerned, that was all it really needed to be about - that, and the hero winning. What makes Hill such a treasure is that he agreed to that but decided that in his film the hero would win but lose his soul.
Which is exactly what happens. Rick Bowman (Richard Davalos, looking a bit like a mid-career Val Kilmer trying to impersonate James Dean) gets rescued from jail by sleazy racing car promoter Grant Willard (Brian Donlevy, not looking quite so the worse for martinis as he did in Don Sharp’s CURSE OF THE FLY two years earlier). Willard wants Bowman to drive in something called the Figure 8 - a lunatic, and obviously very real, race that involves the lanes crossing over one another at a crucial point. Oh, and Bowman’s main rival is going to be Sid Haig (playing Hawk Sidney). We all know anyone sane would run for the hills but Bowman has something to prove, even if it means he’s going to lose his friends, his girl (Beverly Washburn from SPIDER BABY) and his self respect doing it.
Arrow Films presents PIT STOP in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. This new transfer was approved and supervised by the director and the image is bright and clean with minimal print damage. Extras include a brand new commentary track from Jack Hill moderated by Calum Waddell. Both acquit themselves admirably here - Waddell’s questioning style is pleasantly convivial and Hill responds accordingly, talking not just about PIT STOP but giving us an overview of his career at the time.
We also get three short featurettes, all talking head pieces featuring Jack Hill, Sid Haig and Roger Corman respectively talking about the making of the film. There’s a restoration demonstration so you can see what a great job Arrow has done with this, and the usual trailer, booklet and newly commissioned artwork.

PIT STOP belongs in that interesting sub-genre of race car pictures that try to do something a little more with the subject matter than just show vehicles banging into one another (although there’s plenty of that as well). It doesn’t blur the line between exploitation and art as effectively as movies like Monte Hellman’s TWO LANE BLACKTOP, but if you’re a fan of the slightly off-kilter, and especially if you're a fan of the work of Jack Hill, Arrow’s new Blu-ray transfer of PIT STOP is an essential purchase.

Arrow Films released Jack Hill's PIT STOP on double disc Blu-ray and DVD on 7th April 2014

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Seven Samurai (1954)

It’s the sixtieth anniversary of Akira Kurosawa’s classic action drama that’s inspired everything from Westerns (four MAGNIFICENT SEVEN films) to science fiction (Jimmy T Murakami’s BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS) to comedy (The ‘Black Seal’ episode of the first series of THE BLACK ADDER). To celebrate this fact, (and the fact it’s their all-time No.1 bestselling title) the BFI are bringing out a remastered version of the film in High Definition on DVD, as well as a limited edition Blu-ray steelbook.
So much has been written about this film over the years that it would be redundant of me to add to what has already been said, but in case you’ve never heard of any of the above movies the basic plot is this: in the rural Japan of the late 1600s a poverty-stricken village is regularly beset by bandits who plunder the meagre harvest the villagers manage to till from the soil of the surrounding area.

        In an attempt to prevent this from happening for the umpteenth time they recruit seven masterless samurai to defend them (the history of how samurai became wanderers in this period is all explained in more detail in the booklet you get with the film). Over the course of the film’s 198 minute running time (yes, you’ll need a cushion) we see how the samurai draw up a plan to defend the village and how the villagers themselves become involved in the ensuing battle.

It’s a testament to the genius of Kurosawa’s film that you come away from watching it feeling its imitators have only skimmed the surface of an immensely profound and ambitious piece of work. The final battle is a grim, mud-splattered and rain-soaked affair, and there’s no sense of respite or resolution for the survivors at the end.

The BFI’s remastering of SEVEN SAMURAI provides us with the opportunity to play the film with or without the original intermission (which occurs at about 1hour 42 minutes in). Oddly, this point isn’t marked as a chapter break. The image is fine, and the subtitles are clear, readable, and well translated. Extras include the aforementioned very useful booklet, a 47 minutes featurette in which Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns discusses The Art of Akira Kurosawa, and there’s a trailer as well. The Blu-ray wasn’t available for review but the DVD looks really pretty good for a film from 1954.

The BFI are releasing Akira Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI on DVD and Limited Edition Blu-ray Steelbook on 21st April 2014

Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Invoking (2013)

Image Entertainment, the UK distributors of THE INVOKING, were responsible for bringing us BLOODY HOMECOMING, which I reviewed a few months ago. While that film was cheerfully amateur in its approach, but with a fair amount of action and an entertaining climax, THE INVOKING is almost the opposite - an attempt by a competent film-maker with a fine eye for scary landscapes that unfortunately has some serious problems with pacing and, well, with anything very much actually happening.
The film starts promisingly enough, offering us echoes of both EVIL DEAD (the original, naturally) and COLD PREY as we are introduced to four young friends in a car. They’re travelling to the house that Sam (Trin Miller) has inherited from the parents who gave her up for adoption when she was five. There are some fine attempts at characterisation here, and the roles are served well by actors whose abilities are thankfully better than some low-budget fare. 
The house is located in the kind of bleak, bare, wintry landscape that again evokes EVIL DEAD, and writer-producer-director Jeremy Berg captures it beautifully with a series of compositions that suggest he could make a really good folk horror picture if he had a bit of guidance.
He needs that guidance because the one thing a horror film really needs is for something scary to happen in the first half an hour, one of the many things THE INVOKING is sadly missing. There’s a lot of lovely bleak scenery, so much so that I was almost seduced by it into thinking that THE INVOKING might turn out to be really good, but by the thirty minute mark I was wondering if there was going to be any plot at all.
There is a plot, one that’s delivered in whispers and hints and very low-budget versions of flashbacks that still doesn’t actually make a lot of sense by the end. However, as I hope I’ve intimated above, Jeremy Berg most certainly isn’t a hack, and as I write this I find myself wishing I could say nicer things about his film. It is terribly slow and uneventful, and there’s too much talking about not very much, but at the same time there’s the feeling that if only Berg had the right producer he could make something very interesting indeed.
       Image presents THE INVOKING on DVD with both 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound mixes. There are two commentaries - one by Berg and one by the actors. There’s also a short making of. One for fans of very very quiet horror indeed, who might find the occasional atmospherics of this piece enough to make a viewing worthwhile.

Image Entertainment are releasing THE INVOKING on Region 2 DVD on 12th May 2014

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Bloodsucking Freaks (1976)

Oh Lordy where do I start with this one?
Humbly submitted for my approval by 88 Films, and on Blu-ray no less, Joel M Reed’s cult disgustathon from the nether regions of some demented corner of the Night Gallery that is exploitation horror is a film I had never had the chance to catch up with until now. Of course that’s partly because THE INCREDIBLE TORTURE SHOW (to give it another of its alternate titles) has never been granted a UK certificate until now. In fact it still surprises me that anyone has had the temerity to submit it to the BBFC. But they have. And here it is. 
So what’s it all about? At some off-off-off-off-off-Broadway theatre that resembles a church hall decorated by Freddy Krueger on a budget of £1.52, women are tortured on stage by the evil Sardu (the soon to be stabbed to death in real life Seamus O’Brien) and his demented dwarf associate (and future Ewok) Ralphus (Luis de Jesus). Unhappy that top New York critic Creasy Silo (Allan Delay) refuses to review his show, Sardu has Silo kidnapped so he can chain him up, force feed him nan breads through a funnel, and make him sit through what Sardu believes will be the shining jewel in his crown of staged torture entertainment - topless prima ballerina Natasha De Natalie (Viju Krem) pirouetting drunkenly around a badly lit stage while engaging in acts of mayhem. Of course first he has to get hold of Natasha and show her what he’s capable of.
Veering wildly between Garth Marenghi-style lunacy (one method of torture involves suspending said ballerina from the ceiling while Ralphus dances around her clashing cymbals) and Herschell Gordon Lewis-style ‘gornography' (plenty of the torture bits, which even now are in what I can best describe as poor taste) I can honestly say that in all my years of watching stuff that might be described as Not Suitable for Children I really have never seen anything like this. BLOODSUCKING FREAKS is definitely one for connoisseurs of extreme cinema. Everyone else should leave it well, well alone.
88 Films’ Blu-ray presentation treats the movie about as well as it deserves. There are a fair few scratches on the print at the beginning, but these settle down and overall it’s a pretty good transfer with plenty of grain and shimmer that never lets you forget the movie’s grindhouse origins. There’s a whole collection of extras, many of them ported over from a previous US DVD release of the movie. These include a commentary track by Eli Roth, interviews with a few of the cast and crew who are still alive / sane / not in prison, and an introduction to the ‘DVD’ by a very young-looking Lloyd Kaufman, president of Troma films, which released the film in the US. There are other Troma related ‘goodies’ on the disc as well, including a couple of ‘public service announcements’ and the ‘Aroma du Troma’ - a reel of clips from other Troma movies that do an excellent job of helping those previously unfamiliar with the company’s work to know whether they would like to pursue these films further or never touch them with the longest barge pole in existence.

BLOODSUCKING FREAKS is being released on Blu-ray uncut for its UK debut. It’s a film that is utterly insane, utterly unique, and without doubt it will stir strong emotions in whoever watches it. Prepare to be offended, shocked, confounded and even made to laugh at loud at the sheer outrageousness of this movie’s conceit. I certainly went through all of those feelings during the running time and I have no idea if I ever want to watch it again. Existing in its own little subgenre of bizarro cinema, think carefully before you pop this one into your player.

88 Films are releasing BLOODSUCKING FREAKS uncut on DVD and Blu-ray on 21st April 2014. 

True to this movie's exploitation origins, House of Mortal Cinema would like to admit that we had difficulty finding images from the film to illustrate this article that weren't of a rather unwholesome nature in terms of their content. You'll have to watch the film if that sort of thing interests you. Oh yes indeedy.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Blind Woman's Curse (1970)

Anyone who got a kick out of Arrow’s release of LADY SNOWBLOOD (and its star, Meiko Kaji) will probably want to watch this one, made a couple of years prior to that film and due to be released soon in another of Arrow’s excellent transfers. It’s by director Teruo Kitagawa, who also gave us 1969’s weird Edogawa Rampo mashup HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN and, although you might not expect it from the plot synopsis, if you liked that barrel of weirdness then there’s plenty for you here as well.
We’re in Japan in the late 1930s. Meiko Kaji plays Akemi Tachibana, the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In fact all her gang have it, and it’s an impressive and creative piece of makeup. During a battle with another Yakuza gang Akemi blinds the sister of the gang leader by slashing her across the face with her sword. A black cat appears and drinks the blood streaming from the woman’s eyes. Then it stares meaningfully at Akemi, who believes herself to have been cursed.
Three years later and Akemi is out of prison. The women she was in prison with have sworn allegiance to her and have all had themselves tattooed in a similar fashion. In Akemi’s hometown various criminal elements are attempting to rest control, including a gang led by a very odd chap wearing a bowler hat, waistcoat, shirt and tie and virtually nothing below the waist. References are also frequently made to how offensive he smells.

Someone is murdering members of Akemi’s gang, and the deaths seems to coincide with the arrival in the town of the Weird And Screwed Up Japanese Circus that features Tatsumi Hijikata as a scary hunchbacked dancer. Hijikata is best known to me as the weird Jesus-freak mad scientist of HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN and he’s equally disturbing here.
The circus also features a blind woman who, despite bearing no facial scars, turns out to be the person Akemi injured at the beginning. And so the scene is set for yet another climax that Quentin Tarantino was no doubt influenced by for KILL BILL.
As with quite a few of these film, a plot summary doesn’t really do it justice, but it’s helpful to have an aid to understanding what’s going on (I had trouble following what was happening for quite a bit of this). The film has a very weird feel to it, and the climax is beautiful, with two women sword-fighting against the kind of painted sky found in movies like KWAIDAN. BLIND WOMAN’S CURSE (aka THE TATTOOED SWORDSWOMAN) is a must for anyone who enjoyed the other movies mentioned here.
Arrow’s new HD digital transfer is very nice indeed, in 2.35:1 aspect ratio and with vivid colours (especially all the blood in the massacre that takes place near the end). The print is clean and there’s very little damage. Extras include a commentary track by Jasper Sharp that helps to explain what’s going on, a trailer for the movie and four other trailers for the ‘Meiko Kaji Stray Cat Rock’ series. Finally, there’s a collector’s booklet and some very nice new cover art which is shown above.

Arrow Films are releasing BLIND WOMAN'S CURSE on dual format DVD & Blu-ray on 31st March 2014