Saturday, 25 April 2015

Black Sabbath (1963)


One of the most praised and appreciated of all anthology horror films, Mario Bava’s BLACK SABBATH (I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA in its native Italy) came about partly because of the huge success of AIP’s Tales of Terror (1960), which presented three short stories by Edgar Allan Poe directed by Roger Corman. Sidney Salkow’s TWICE TOLD TALES (1963) attempted to repeat that movie’s success by casting its star, Vincent Price, in three tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It was AIP again, however who, in the middle of their Poe cycle and with Boris Karloff under contract, saw the lucrative potential in the casting of the then-host of the successful US anthology TV series THRILLER in an anthology picture and have him star in one of the episodes as well.    


        Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY had been a big success all around the world and hence the film was retitled BLACK SABBATH everywhere except Italy. That, however, was not the only change. Apparently the content of the version Bava turned in was deemed too controversial by its US distributors who recut, reordered and rescored the film such that the two different titles ended up referring to quite different movies. These two versions are included in Arrow’s splendid three disc release of the movie so now fans can make up their own minds which they think is the better.


I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA (The Three Faces of Fear) presents three short horror tales allegedly written by authors as diverse as Gogol and Tolstoy but actually all made up by the screenwriters for the purpose of the movie. First off is The Telephone, in which pretty Michele Mercier comes home one evening to her Paris flat to be terrorised by a mysterious caller who claims to be her ex-lover. The only problem is he’s in prison - or is he? It’s the right story to begin the film with, easing the viewer into a scenario that gradually becomes more and more disturbing until the payoff.


The Wurdalak stars Boris Karloff and, for that reason alone, is probably the most famous segment. In the wilds of 19th century Russia Mark Damon comes across a headless corpse with a knife in its heart. Later on he stops at a cottage to ask for shelter for the night. The family within are awaiting the return of their patriarch (Karloff) who has been missing for several days. Apparently he went to do battle with a wurdalak - their term for vampire. At midnight Karloff returns, but it transpires that he is now a wurdalak himself as he proceeds to infect and destroy the entire family.
The Wurdalak is a step up in horror after The Telephone, and a step up in lush visuals as well. In fact this remains one of the most gorgeous and atmospherically shot segments of any horror film. The fact that it’s the middle segment makes one wonder how it can be topped, but Bava does so - superbly.


The Drop of Water is set in Victorian London. Jacqueline Pierreux plays a nurse who is the kind of heartless self-centred schemer that you know is going to meet a sticky end. She is called to a house where its owner, a medium, has just died. She steals the ring on the corpse’s finger, setting in motion a chain of events that allows Bava to bring the film to an end with an horrific tour de force of worrying sounds and creepy visuals. It’s a testament to the episode’s effectiveness that it’s better than The Wurdalak.


I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA ends on a somewhat curious note and those who would rather leave the film with a sense of delicious horror rather than stunned confusion may prefer to switch it off at this point. Apparently there was a demand for Karloff to appear at the end against Bava’s wishes and so he does, riding a prop horse as the camera pulls back to reveal the action is taking place in a studio. It’s the only misplaced note in one of the classic horror films of all time. It was Bava’s own favourite of the many horror pictures he made and it’s not difficult to see why.


The AIP US cut of BLACK SABBATH is also present in Arrow’s set and it’s probably best viewed only after watching the definitive Italian version described above. It would be unfair to those who haven’t seen Bava’s original to describe some of the changes as they involved excising some of the more controversial plot elements. First off the order is changed so that The Drop of Water is first and The Wurdalak comes at the end. The Telephone, now in the middle, was drastically recut to change the plot entirely. Karloff’s opening narration has been shot differently as well, and now he pops up between stories to introduce them whereas in the original there are no linking sequences. The restored BluRay of BLACK SABBATH played at Glasgow FrightFest a couple of years ago and critic Alan Jones commented that there were more people present at that screening than at the UK premiere of the movie back in 1963.


I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA in both its forms finally made its debut on UK DVD and BluRay a little later than originally planned but it was all the more welcome for the top-notch job Arrow Video managed. As well as BluRay transfers of both films, the three disc set includes both movies on DVD as well, and you’ll need to watch all three discs to see the fabulous bounty of extras Arrow has seen fit to provide. First off is a commentary track by Bava expert Tim Lucas for the original Italian print. As one has come to expect from Mr Lucas, it's packed with facts and interesting bits of information and is well worth a listen if you’re interested in aspects of the movie’s production.
Possibly the best extra, and one that will prove fascinating to those interested in the American repackaging of European product, is the thirty minute featurette Twice the Fear. This allows direct comparison between the two versions, and shows that not just picture editing, but music and sound effects were radically changed to create the two versions. This is definitely worth watching, if only to see how Bava creates more tension with dripping water than AIP does with Les Baxter’s blaring horn section and a lot of other noise as well.
With the two versions of the film, the commentary, and Twice the Fear the Blu Ray comes to an end and so one has to turn to the DVDs to see the introduction from Alan Jones, the trailers, the picture gallery, and another goodie - a twenty minute interview with star and future film producer Mark Damon, who talks about his entire career from being discovered by Groucho Marx up to and including producing the Academy Award-winning MONSTER starring Charlize Theron. 
All this, plus the usual excellent Graham Humphreys artwork, a booklet with an essay on the film and an interview with Samuel Z Arkoff, rounds off a package that is one of Arrow’s best contributions to the preservation of cult horror cinema yet. An essential purchase and well worth the wait.

Arrow Films released Mario Bava's BLACK SABBATH on 13th May 2013 in a triple disc dual format edition (Blu-ray and DVD) which is still available



Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Blood and Black Lace (1964)


A gloriously stylish, colourful and original movie that virtually invented the Italian giallo subgenre and blazed a trail so bright that horror cinema was never quite the same again, Mario Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE gets an all-singing all-dancing Blu-ray & DVD release from Arrow that's already had more favourable reviews than you can shake a stick at. In your black leather gloves. Before picking up a razor and brandishing it at a pretty girl who will react by saying lines like 'Oh it's you' and 'Why are you waving that razor at me?' while you say nothing at all.
Oh yes it's giallo time, big time. 


After Hammer changed the face of horror cinema forever with their Eastmancolor marvels in the late 1950s, exploitation movie companies all over the world sought to emulate the success of the new British gothic. In the US, AIP went for adapting Poe, while Italy jumped on the bandwagon as well. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, though, is anything but a ripoff of another country's cinema, even though it owes its existence to Hammer's gothic renaissance. In fact Bava's film might well be the perfect example of a genre Italian cinema made its own. When BLOOD AND BLACK LACE came out the horror murder mystery genre was still doing its best to copy Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960), and Hammer's imitations were just as bland as the rest of them.


Warming up with his own THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, Bava went on to revolutionise the Ten Little Indians / Body Count murder mystery genre with this, a movie that features many of what would soon be considered giallo tropes (or even cliches) for the very first time. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE features beautiful girls, stylish murders, gorgeously lit scenes that would be at home hanging in the Louvre, a collection of colourful red herrings, and a story that is less a masterpiece of intricate twists and plotting and more like one of the movie's fashion model victims - something on which all the above elements can be draped and shown off to their best advantage.


Models at a top fashion house are being stalked by a faceless killer who is bumping them off in a variety of stylish (and actually rather cruel) ways. Who will be next? Who is the murderer? Is that diary important? Does it actually matter when this film is such a sumptous feast for the eyes? You might not be entirely convinced by the denouement, but if that worries you then you've missed the point, because who actually did the murders is usually one of the least important elements of this kind of cinema, where style is far more important than logic.



Arrow's Blu-ray and DVD set comes packed with extras. The transfer itself is absolutely beautiful. I saw this version on the big screen at Glasgow Frightfest and the quality is so fine the film almost looks as if it was made yesterday rather than 50 years ago. There are both English and Italian dialogue tracks  - I'd go with the Italian if I were you, along with the newly translated subtitles. Tim Lucas gives us the commentary he was born to do, packed with so many facts and anecdotes it deserves several listens.       
        Psychoanalysis is a documentary that traces the origins of giallo and features, amongst others, Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava and one of my personal idols, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi. Argento & Lamberto also feature on a panel discussion about Mario Bava, and there's an episode of David del Valle's TV series The Sinister Image all about BLOOD & BLACK LACE star Cameron Mitchell. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the short 'neo-giallo' Yellow, but both formats have everything else, including alternate opening titles, a trailer, a short appreciation by Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani (who made STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS), and Gender & Giallo - a visual essay that sets the subgenre in context with the times in which these films were most popular. There's also the usual booket and a reversible sleeve unless you've bought the steelbook, which is just gorgeous. One of the Blu-ray releases of this year and thoroughly deserving of all the good reviews and everyone's support.



Arrow Films released Mario Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE in steelbook Blu-ray and standard DVD and Blu-ray dual editions on 13th April 2015

Monday, 20 April 2015

The Sleeping Room (2014)



"Half-cocked attempt at British horror"

Following its premiere at Frightfest last year, John Shackleton’s low budget Brighton-set horror THE SLEEPING ROOM makes its UK DVD debut courtesy of Second Sight.
Brighton prostitute Blue (Leila Mimmack) is sent by her pimps-cum-surrogate parents (well at least that’s how they behave) Freddie and Cynthia (David Sibley and Julie Graham) to a client called Bill Hepworth (Joseph Beattie). Bill’s busy doing up an old Victorian brothel, as you do, and he’s sufficiently distracted that he doesn’t quite manage to...er...get what he paid for. It probably doesn’t help that Blue isn’t exactly the most interested or enthusiastic purveyor of such entertainments (certainly not in movie terms anyway) but for some reason he asks her to stay and chat. 


Together they discover a secret room hidden behind a two-way mirror - the ‘sleeping room’ of the title. That, combined with a Victorian mutoscope that Bill has already found, leads Blue to investigate the murky and murderous history of the house and her own murky family past.
THE SLEEPING ROOM isn’t an especially good film. In fact it was one of the least of the twenty eight movies I saw at last year’s London Frightfest, and time and a second viewing haven’t made it seem any better. The film opens well, and Shackleton definitely has some talent, but after about twenty minutes of some interestingly shot stuff the film starts to go downhill, with far too many scenes consisting of stilted dialogue to get the backstory across. The silent movie the mutoscope reveals should be a terrifying, scratchy black and white centrepiece to the picture. Instead it feels anything but authentic, and more like a comedy routine than the scene of two murders. 


The best of THE SLEEPING ROOM reminded me of 1970s Italian horror - it looks great and the camera just glides over some fascinating production design. Sadly the script and the acting just aren’t up to maintaining interest, with Leila Mimmack’s central performance sadly one note and lacking any kind of characterisation that would make us care about what happens to her.
Second Sight’s DVD comes with a Q&A with the director recorded at Frightfest, the original short film that inspired the feature, and two behind the scenes featurettes.



I hate to do a British horror film down, and there is much worse than this out there. I’ll also be interested to see what John Shackleton does next. For now, though, running at only seventy five minutes and missing a whole bunch of opportunities to scare the audience silly, THE SLEEPING ROOM feels more like a half-cocked attempt at a horror film rather than an actual one. 

Second Sight are releasing John Shackleton's THE SLEEPING ROOM via on demand and download platforms on 27th April 2015, and on Region 2 DVD on 11th May 2015

Thursday, 16 April 2015

The Ghoul (1933)


The earliest British horror movie to be made with sound gets a new Blu-ray release courtesy of Network. It’s a film I remember reading about a lot when I was young, mainly in Denis Gifford’s books A Pictorial History of Horror Movies and Monster From the Movies. Oddly enough, despite being aware of the film from the mid-1970s, I had never had the chance to actually see it until now. Of course for a long time it wasn’t available, often being considered a ‘lost’ film. Thankfully it isn’t, and this glorious Blu-ray edition is the best way to appreciate the splendid Dickensian gothic style of its photography and production design.


Professor Henry Morlant (Boris Karloff) is dying. Of exactly what is never explained, but presumably it’s one of those horror movie diseases that causes your face to go all wrinkled and lumpy and your eyebrows to become exaggerated to devilish proportions. The professor is obsessed with the ancient Egyptian concept of immortality. He has even seen fit to kit out his bedroom with a statue of Anubis and build an Egyptian tomb for himself close to his country house located somewhere in the north of England. 


He’s also purchased, at a cost of £75 000 (1933 prices) a fabulous jewel that he believes will ensure his safe passage into the afterlife. He instructs his club-footed butler (a barely restrained Ernest Thesiger, whom we would want no other way) to bandage the jewel to his palm so that he will be buried with it when he dies, warning that if it is stolen, he will rise to kill. 


Morlant dies, the jewel is stolen, and pretty soon he’s up and about. Actually no, it feels like quite a long time before he eventually climbs out of his sarcophagus and makes his way back home. Therein lies THE GHOUL’s main failing - there’s a big slump in the middle to allow for all the necessary characters to assemble for what essentially amounts to an old dark house mystery romp, and not enough of the kind of monster on the loose action anyone more familiar with Universal pictures of the era might be expecting.


If you can forgive the movie that, however, there’s a lot to like here. The sets veer from pleasingly gothic to a German expressionist’s version of a Victorian solicitor’s office. There’s plenty of dark and moody photography, and you get the likes of Karloff, Cedric Hardwicke (GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN), Ralph Richardson (TALES FROM THE CRYPT) and of course Ernest Thesiger all in a gloomy old mansion together. If like me you’ve seen all the other horror pictures of this era then do yourself a favour and rectify this glaring omission.
Network’s Blu-ray comes with a Stephen Jones / Kim Newman commentary track ported over from a 2009 DVD release. It’s enthusiastically chatty and provides plenty of interesting tidbits about the movie and British film production of the era in general. There’s also an image gallery, as well as a booklet by Stephen Jones with more information on the film. 
        Over the years THE GHOUL has been available in a number of dodgy transfers, as well as a few decent ones. Network’s new Blu-ray, however, has to be the best version of this out there now. 

Network are bringing out THE GHOUL (1933) on Region B Blu-ray on 20th April 2015

Monday, 13 April 2015

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

It’s always said that horror comedies are notoriously difficult to do. Despite that, there are quite a few out there that I personally consider to be marvellous, including AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, RE-ANIMATOR, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, BAD TASTE, BRAIN DEAD, GREMLINS I & II (especially II) and more recently TUCKER & DALE VS EVIL, COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES and DETENTION.
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS is a great horror comedy. More importantly it might just be the funniest comedy about vampires ever made, and I’m speaking as a lifelong fan of both Tom Holland’s original FRIGHTNIGHT and Roman Polanski’s superlative THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS.


In Wellington in New Zealand, a documentary film crew is following the exploits of four vampires who share a house together. The vampires are of widely differing ages (the oldest is 8000 years old and looks like Max Schreck’s NOSFERATU) and backgrounds, but have ended up living together in the kind of ‘odd quartet’ relationship that worked so well in British sitcoms like THE YOUNG ONES. The film follows our heroes as they enjoy New Zealand nightlife, bring victims back to their lair, prepare for the annual ‘Unholy Masquerade’, and have run-ins with the local werewolf pack. 


One of the most impressive achievements of WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS is how well it endears its motley leads to us despite what they get up to. In fact I don’t think I have ever seen such a charming film that has such vast quantities of blood in it. Performances are all spot-on and the production design is a pleasing melding of ADDAMS FAMILY gothic and YOUNG ONES tattiness. Writer and directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi previously worked together on the TV series FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS, and another Conchords collaborator, Rhys Darby, turns up as the leader of the werewolf gang.


The film abounds with comic touches. The Unholy Masquerade takes place somewhere you wouldn't expect given its build up, and the masquerade itself feels like THE MONSTER CLUB done right. In fact more than anything else, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS reminded me of the works of R Chetwynd-Hayes, a fine British author who revelled in the inherent silliness of many popular horror tropes, especially vampires. If someone told me this movie was intended as a tribute to his work I would not have been at all surprised.


Metrodome’s Blu-ray comes packed with extras. Sadly there’s no commentary track, but there’s a short Behind the Scenes piece (17 minutes) and a whole load of deleted scenes, interviews and video extras than give you a good hour’s worth of extra footage that never made it into the finished film. 
           Without a doubt one of the best horror comedies to come along in years, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS deserves all the success it’s had so far, and if you’ve yet to see it, deny yourself the pleasure of this funny, gory but above all utterly charming film no longer. 

Metrodome are releasing WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS on Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray on 13th April 2015

Friday, 10 April 2015

Hooked Up (2013)


I will freely admit that I am not the greatest fan of found footage cinema. Every now and then something comes along that uses this minimalist technique well, and occasionally a classic of the genre can result. Movies like Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza's [REC] or Patrick Brice's CREEP have shown there's plenty of possibility for creativity in what often feels a limiting medium. All that's needed is a bit of style and originality. 
Then there are all the others, the ones that seem to think that frantically wobbling a camera so you cannot see what is going on creates suspense, those that think you won't question someone who keeps filming despite being subjected to all kinds of atrocities, and those that appear to be someone's holiday camcorder footage repackaged with a few murders and sold to a DVD label with a low quality bar.
HOOKED UP is in that second category.


It has a gimmick though, I'll give it that, and exploitation cinema has thrived on gimmicks throughout the decades. Life insurance if you die of fright, electric shocks delivered to your cinema seat, supposedly never-before-discovered cannibal tribes living in the depths of South America.
HOOKED UP’s gimmick is that it was filmed on a iPhone.
I know, it's not a terribly good gimmick, is it? Not the sort of thing that has you thinking 'Wow - I bet that'll be good, then.' More a case of 'I wonder if this is going to look anything but awful'.
Well full marks, at least, then, to HOOKED UP for not looking any worse than the plethora of found footage rubbish that can be found out there. To be honest if they hadn't told me it was filmed on an iPhone I would have assumed a conventional camera was used. Perhaps that's the movie's raison d'etre - an advert for a device rather than anything else. I haven't said anything about the actual film yet, but that's because there's not that much to say. Let's have a go anyway.


Any film that opens with five minutes of what looks like actual vomiting followed by a scene in which one unpleasant character urinates on another unpleasant character in the bath is either the province of people with highly specialised tastes or doing its best to alienate its audience from the word go. Anyway that's what we get here. Our two unsympathetic champions of nausea are Tonio (Jonah Ehrenreich) and Peter (Stephen Ohl), two young Americans who decide to take a trip to Barcelona to help Peter forget about his recent breakup with his girlfriend. As with most of the films of this type that only last about 78 minutes the first third of the movie is taken up with them getting there, followed by interminable night club scenes that one presumes, or rather hopes, were a lot of fun for those involved while we the viewer search for the fast forward button.


The two lads hook up with two girls and end up going home with them. After the kind of repellant and ill-advised sex scenes found footage often excels at, they find themselves locked in the house and being pursued by a masked woman with an axe. I would never presume to reveal the ending of a film, no matter how bad, and I'm not going to here - if you want to find out what happens you're going to have to brave it for yourself.


HOOKED UP is a classic example of all the shortcomings of the found footage genre. One presumes that as well as being filmed on an iPhone that the characters themselves are in possession of said phone in the film (it is certainly referred to), yet when it is dropped it somehow lands conveniently on its edge to keep filming the action. They also seem to be so busy filming themselves being chased and hacked about that no-one thinks of trying to call the police using the...you know...that thing you're holding in your hand? Jaume Collet-Serra (HOUSE OF WAX, ORPHAN) has his name linked to this but one has to wonder how and why.  Signature's DVD has no extras but the box art is very nice.
HOOKED UP isn't 100% dreadful but unless you are really, really into these things, or fancy watching excessive vomiting and magical phone balancing you’ll be  much better off watching something else.


HOOKED UP is being released on Region 2 DVD by Signature Entertainment on 27th April 2015. 

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Rigor Mortis aka Geung Si (2013)


A crazy, scare-packed, visually stylish tribute to the MR VAMPIRE 1980s series of Chinese horror films (amongst others), director Juno Mak’s GEUNG SI / RIGOR MORTIS comes to UK DVD courtesy of Metrodome. 


It’s not that easy to describe the plot (I've put up plenty of pictures in the hope that helps) but I’ll have a go. A former movie star falls on hard times and moves into the kind of grim grey tower block even Candyman would think twice about living in. 


He’s haunted by visions of sitting at the dinner table with his wife and child while they stare at him with white pupil-less eyes. Driven to despair, he tries to hang himself but is saved by a man who turns out to run a local restaurant, when he’s not carrying on the family tradition of being a vampire hunter. 


Meanwhile another of the rooms in the block is haunted by the ghosts of raped and murdered twins, while yet another apartment is home to an old woman who is desperate to bring the corpse of her dead husband (who is still there) back to life. Needless to say all these different plot strands overlap, collide and weave in and out of one another in a movie that’s not terribly easy to follow but actually does make sense by the time you get to the end.


It’s also immensely stylish, with a tone that’s best described as halfway between David Lynch and Ken Russell but obviously very much in the style of good old fashioned Chinese horror fare (although perhaps with rather less comedy). Sadly I’m not sufficiently familiar with the MR VAMPIRE series to be able to appreciate the film’s many nods to it. Many of the cast members from those movies turn up here, and I have no doubt RIGOR MORTIS is best going to be appreciated by those with a working knowledge of Chinese horror cinema and, indeed Chinese culture.



Metrodome’s DVD transfer looks fine. There are two audio options and you ought to go with the 5.1 surround if you want to appreciate all the drips, screams and scratches that pepper the soundtrack. Otherwise there aren't any extras. 

Juno Mak's RIGOR MORTIS is being released in cinemas on 24th April 2015 and on Region 2 DVD on 27th April by Metrodome