Thursday, 26 November 2015

Ghost Story (1981)

John Irvin’s bit-of-a-misfire-really-all-things-considered film version of Peter Straub’s bestselling horror novel finally comes to Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of Second Sight, with a host of extras that are going to make this disc well worth buying if you’re a fan of the film.

In the sleepy, snowy town of Milburn the elderly, and outwardly respectable, members of The Chowder Society are dying, and whatever may be causing their ‘accidents’ may have it in for their family members as well. David Wanderly (Craig Wasson with moustache), son of Edward (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) falls to his death from his apartment and his willy waves farewell to our expectations of this going to be any good. Anyone familiar with this film will have been wondering if and when I was going to mention this so now I have. Of course, it may pop up again later so don’t relax just yet. 

Not so nice
David’s brother Don (Wasson sans moustache) arrives in town to discover he is already involved in the Chowder Society’s Dark Secret as he recounts to the remaining members his relationship with the mysterious Alma Mobley (Alice Krige) who may be the reincarnation of the vengeful spirit that is determined to do them all in.

Trapped in a film that's just not that great
Peter Straub’s 1979 novel on which GHOST STORY was based is just marvellous - a true classic of modern American horror. John Irvin’s film is not. There are lots of things wrong with it, and it was an ambitious task to film such a mammoth, complex and pretty unfilmable novel anyway, and despite a talented cast (who mostly seem rather at sea in this) and some superb Dick Smith makeup effects the whole thing falls flat. Sorry GHOST STORY but I’ve watched you at least three times since 1981, and despite trying hard to like you I find you lacklustre, insipid and uninspired. 

These could have been Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and John Carradine.
Part of the problem is that there are too many distractions that remind us of better films - John Houseman kicks the film off by telling a story as if he’s still in the (far superior) THE FOG, the haunted house on the hill looks like the shrunken, listless brother of the one from PSYCHO, the bits that should be scary, shocking and atmospheric have you talking about films where such moments actually were. Phillipe Sarde’s music score is great, but it’s for a completely different film, one with a lot more gothic get up and go than this one. Sometimes it doesn’t even fit the scenes it’s accompanying. 

Think about it
Don’t get me wrong - GHOST STORY is well made and looks lovely, but it plays out more like a horror film for people who don’t actually like horror films - the kind of thing you’re pretty much safe showing to your granny or your maiden aunt on a Sunday evening (just distract her during the willy dance of death bit. I know I know, I just couldn’t resist mentioning it again.)
Second Sight’s Blu-ray and DVD releases come with plenty of extras. There’s a feature length commentary with director John Irvin, and lengthy interviews (around a half an hour apiece) with author Straub (which is great, by the way), star Alice Krige (also excellent), screenwriter Laurence D Cohen and producer Burt Weissbourd, and a piece on Albert Whitlock’s visual effects. You also get a trailer, TV and radio spots and an image gallery.

Second Sight are releasing GHOST STORY on Region B Blu-ray and Region 2 DVD (as separate discs) on 7th December 2015

Friday, 20 November 2015

Nosferatu (1922)

Everyone's favourite 1922 unofficial silent movie version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula gets a wash and brush up courtesy of the BFI in this sparkling (but not in a TWILIGHT way, oh no) new Blu-ray release.

Spidery Count Orlok (Max Schreck) travels from his crumbly old castle in Transylvania to Wisbourg in Germany after putting the willies up estate agent Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), zeroing in on a picture of his girlfriend Ellen (Great Schroder) while Hutter is still a guest in his lovely home, and generally causing mayhem on the boat on the trip across. When he gets to Wisbourg our bat-eared vampire with spiky fingers anticipates drinking Ellen's blood, but instead she tricks him into staying with her until dawn and he vanishes in a puff of 1920s frame dissolves.

NOSFERATU is a classic and anyone who hasn't seen it should, even though they'll probably discover they've already seen much of it in music videos, comedy shows, and anything else that has plundered its public domain print over the years. In fact, clips and images from NOSFERATU are so prevalent in our society that it's hard to believe now that at the time of its release all prints were ordered to be destroyed. A triumph of artistic integrity over the legal system, or the original rip-off of an originally uncredited and unpaid author’s work? That’s up to you to decide. 

The BFI's Blu-ray gets NOSFERATU looking as good as it is probably ever going to. The film exists on DVD with a number of different accompanying musical soundtracks. Here we have the score James Bernard was commissioned to write and very good it is too. We also get some fascinating extras in the form of a couple of short films (Percy Stow's THE MISTLETOE BOUGH - an 8 minute ghost story from 1904, and Jean Painleve's LE VAMPIRE - a 1945 short Nazism allegory) as well as Christopher Frayling's 24 minute video essay on the film. You also get an image gallery that includes original production drawings, stills and design for publicity materials, and a booklet with new writing on the film and its 'occultist origins'.

The BFI is releasing F W Murnau's NOSFERATU on Blu-ray on the 23rd November 2015

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

Byron Haskin's colourful 1964 SF adventure gets a dual format UK release from Eureka this month. It's a film that the BBC used to show fairly regularly in its SF movie seasons (in pan and scan of course), so it's a pleasure to be able to watch it in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

Commander Christopher 'Kit' Draper (Paul Mantee) ends up marooned on Mars when his exploratory rocket ship develops a fault. Co-pilot Adam West isn't so lucky as his BatPowers desert him and he ends up squashed. Bizarrely, the monkey they have brought along with them survives, and becomes Draper's sole companion as he explores his strange new world. 

Draper discovers water, food, and solves his oxygen problem, going slightly mad in the process as he imagines he will be on Mars forever. Eventually he gains a humanoid companion (Victor Lundin) whom he names Friday. Friday is an escapee from a chain gang, and his masters must be jolly annoyed he's gone because they frequently return in their zippy little spaceships to blast to bits the region in which they think he is hiding. Eventually the pair make it to the south pole of the planet, where their adventure comes to an end.

The poster for ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS claims it is 'scientifically authentic' but the Mars of Haskin's film is a far more pleasant place than the real thing. Draper can wander around with his mask off, take baths, and gets to go on long walks against some trippy and beautifully painted backdrops, all of which look stunning on Eureka's Blu-ray transfer. 

It's very much a film of its time, sandwiched between the colourful wonder of George Pal's THE TIME MACHINE (1960) and the harsher, more abrasive SF that was soon to come, like Franklin Schaffner's PLANET OF THE APES (1967). I wouldn't be at all surprised if both Andy Weir (who wrote the source novel) and Ridley Scott (who directed the film) had ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS at the back of their minds during the creation of THE MARTIAN.

Eureka's region 2 / B release has presumably been timed to coincide with THE MARTIAN's release, and why not? The transfer is gorgeous and the story quaint and charming. New viewers will watch it with a wry grin that anyone could ever have found any of this believable and fans will be delighted with the quality of the print. Extras are limited to a commentary track by film historian Robert Skotak, but it's an excellent extra that's packed with information and compliments Eureka's fine presentation very nicely indeed.

Eureka are releasing Byron Haskin's ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS ON Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray as a dual format edition on 23rd November 2015

Monday, 9 November 2015

ITV 60 (1955 - 2015)

ITV is 60 years old this year, and to help commemorate that fact, Network have released this 12 disc pick ‘n’ mix sampler of some of the best of the television station’s output over that period. It’s impossible to include everyone’s favourites, but what Network has managed to do is provide a fascinating time capsule of changing attitude to television drama, comedy, and even documentaries over the years. Each disc has been designed to provide an evening’s entertainment, with a mixture of programming on each one. I can’t possibly hope to cover everything on all twelve discs here, so instead, here are some of the things that caught my eye as I sifted through this massive treasure trove.

ITV provided role models for children...
Disc One kicks off with ITV’s opening night broadcast from 1955 and then we’re into an episode of THUNDERBIRDS followed by comedy from THE ARMY GAME and MAN ABOUT THE HOUSE. The disc is rounded off by an episode of Richard Carpenter’s ROBIN OF SHERWOOD and the excellent Checkmate episode of THE PRISONER.

…and adults
Disc Two starts with episode one of  PATHFINDERS IN SPACE from DR WHO & CROSSROADS writer Malcolm Hulke, then period comedy with THE LARKINS, SUNDAY NIGHT AT THRE LONDON PALLADIUM with guests Sid James, Cleo Lane, and a topliner I’d never heard of. An episode of THE WORLD AT WAR is followed by CALLAN”s Let’s Kill Everybody.

Gratuitous owl stroking in ACE OF WANDS
Disc Three gives us the first episode of CATWEAZLE with weird medieval wizard Geoffrey Bayldon being catapulted forward in time by jumping in a pond. THE AVENGERS is represented by The Winged Avenger, and doesn't the restoration look gorgeous? AN AUDIENCE WITH DAME EDNA features such ‘celebrity guests’ as Lord Longford and Rula Lenska.
Disc Four kicks off with the immortal CROSSROADS. Benny’s present but there’s no Miss Diane and somehow we get to go to Venice! ON THE BUSES and THE TOMMY COOPER HOUR show prove (along with STANLEY BAXTER on a later disc) that TV wasn’t always better ‘back then’, but at least we get a b&w episode of THE SAINT, plus AUF WIEDERSHEN, PET.

A logo that made many of us excited as kids. No, really. 
Disc Five took me back to my childhood with episodes of RAINBOW & PIPKINS. Children’s TV really has changed over the years. These programmes are so quiet, and so charmingly cosy, telling you how to have fun with a cardboard box or make a terrible hat out of an old newspaper. I actually found both of these rather pleasant and actually felt a streak of melancholy for a simpler time. That also had Hartley Hare in it. DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE shows us just how sexist the TV of 1969 was, and then we get Patrick Wymark in THE POWER GAME.
Disc Six gives us MAGPIE. Wasn’t Jenny Hanley pretty? Here she’s playing Cinderella & is most becoming in her rags before playing the cello while wearing red leather boots. SHUT THAT DOOR gives us 24 minutes of Larry Grayson, then it’s the Breakaway episode of SPACE:1999 before the disc is rounded off with THE SWEENEY, a programme I haven't watched since its original broadcast - now it feels like a poshed up version of an Italian Poliziotteschi movie. 

Probably not allowed today
Disc Seven and TISWAS from 1975, when it was still just at ATV. I was lucky enough to get it in Wales and it was something of a Saturday morning Holy Grail for me. All the cartoons and film clips have been cut but it’s still a serious blast of kids’ TV nostalgia. FOUR FEATHER FALLS is a Gerry Anderson Western puppet show with voices by Nicholas Parsons and Kenneth Connor. Plus a talking horse! We also get one of the best TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED’s with Royal Jelly.

Dr Starr auditions for a BT advert
Disc Eight and while I can easily believe everyone loved RISING DAMP did anyone find NEAREST AND DEAREST funny? There’s also an episode of THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD and UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS.
Disc Nine and episode one of Peacock Pie from ACE OF WANDS with pretty Petra Markham and Roy PSYCHOMANIA Holder with guest star Brian NIGHT OF THE DEMON Wilde. Then a creaky episode of CORONATION STREET followed by classic RANDALL AND HOPKIRK. Patrick Allen is tough adventurer CRANE and the disc is rounded off by SOLDIER SOLDIER.

The best. 
What else? There’s more crime with THE PROFESSIONALS, JASON KING, INSPECTOR MORSE and THE BILL, comedy with GEORGE AND MILDRED and A FINE ROMANCE, and even Alan Whicker gets a look in on Disc 12 with WHICKER ABOARD THE ORIENT EXPRESS. 
So like I said, a real assortment of ITV’s rich heritage. I would have liked to see something from HTV’s golden era - an episode of SKY or KING OF THE CASTLE perhaps, and some more highbrow comedy like END OF PART ONE or some of Andrew Marshall and David Renwick’s earlier efforts, but there are so many obscure rarities on these discs as well as obvious choices that it feels unfair to complain. Instead, dig in and enjoy.

Network have released the massive 12-DVD set that is ITV-60 and as far as I can tell it's available to buy from their site now. If you want to get it from somewhere Amazon it looks like you'll have to wait until the 23rd of November

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Under Milk Wood (2015)

Dylan Thomas’ 1954 ‘play for voices’ gets a spirited, over the top, and above all very Welsh treatment in this new film version from Swansea-born director Kevin Allen (TWIN TOWN) soon to be released on DVD & Blu-ray by Metrodome.
A day in the life of the fictional Welsh town of Llareggub (spell it backwards) is conveyed through narration, with regular contributions and interruptions from the colourful characters who make the place their home, both living and dead, real and imaginary. 

Rosie Probert gets her man
         These include blind Captain Cat (Rhys Ifans) tormented by dreams of his drowned shipmates (who look like they belong in a Fulci movie), Mr Pugh (Boyd Clack ) who is constantly planning the murder of his scolding wife, amorous Polly Garter (Charlotte Church) who has had more lovers than she can count but pines most for the one she knows to be dead, Organ Morgan (Aneirin Hughes) who loves Bach more than his wife, Sinbad Sailors (Bradley Freeguard) who dreams of bedding local teacher Gossamer Beynon (Sara Lloyd Gregory) and Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard (Buddug Verona James) who regularly engages in BDSM sessions with the ghosts of her two dead husbands.

Warning: not all Welsh schoolteachers may look like this
As an acknowledged literary classic, UNDER MILK WOOD has been given a cheerfully irreverent and bawdy makeover here, with some likening it to a fever dream. It’s certainly a vision of Wales we’re not used to - the sun shines, the colours are vivid and vibrant, and there isn’t a drop of rain in sight. There is however a cascade of crazy imagery that at times threatens to become too much. One doesn’t have to look too hard to detect the influence of Ken Russell, Lars von Trier, THE WICKER MAN and the Carry On films here, all lumped together in one glorious melange that probably needs a couple of viewings to fully appreciate.

What I had aspirations to be as a boy
Metrodome’s release comes with two versions of the film - one in English and one in Welsh with English subtitles. The making of is also in Welsh. 
             For one of the many who had UNDER MILK WOOD drummed into them in school, was played LP versions of the play, and was shown Andrew Sinclair’s 1972 movie version starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Kevin Allen’s new film version is refreshingly Euro-Art House in its ambition, with a fine cast of Welsh actors, and a similarly inventive music score from Mark Thomas. It takes a bit of getting used to, but by the time the sun is setting on Llareggub you realise you’ve been watching something really rather special. 

A typical day in Pembrokeshire

Metrodome are releasing Kevin Allen's new version of Dylan Thomas' UNDER MILK WOOD on Region 2 DVD & Region B Blu-ray on 16th November 2015

Friday, 6 November 2015

The Messenger (2015)

Just out on DVD from Metrodome is this British supernatural thriller that has been called a grimmer, grittier version of THE SIXTH SENSE.
Jack (Robert Sheehan) suffered a trauma in his childhood that means he can now see ghosts of the recently deceased. They can also see him, and more importantly they can communicate. Perhaps needless to say, all they want is for him to convey a message to their recently-bereaved loved ones. Understandably, said loved ones tend to be unimpressed when someone they have never met turns up at the funeral to ‘pass on a message from a ghost’. Getting repeatedly beaten up and constantly harassed by the recently dead has not been good for Jack’s state of mind, and it’s just possible that everything he believes he is seeing is in his head anyway. When he’s contacted by Mark (Jack Fox) the dead lover of a television celebrity (Tamzin Merchant), Jack finds himself drawn into a case that looks initially like suicide but might turn out to be murder.

The best thing to call THE MESSENGER is a supernatural thriller. There are ghosts, but there are no shocks, very little blood, and nothing in the way of out and out horror. What we do get is a well-acted, thoughtful, sympathetic drama about not just the divisions between this world and the next, but the divisions that exist in society as well. Robert Sheehan is excellent as Jack, the tortured soul who can't keep the ghosts out of his head, and he’s ably supported by Lily Cole as his sister, and a reliably gruff performance by David O’Hara as the police inspector investigating Mark’s death. Joely Richardson pops in as well for a turn as Jack’s psychiatrist. It’s all top quality drama, filmed with a gritty, cold and at times highly imaginative feel by director David Blair. 
             Metrodome’s DVD comes with featurette interviews with eight of the cast members (including Sheehan, Cole and Richardson) as well as David Blair. 
        THE MESSENGER is a thoughtful, subtle, quite sublime ghost story, and is just the sort of thing to show to someone who ‘doesn’t like horror films’ so they can see the kind of maturity the genre is capable of. 

THE MESSENGER was released on Region 2 DVD by Metrodome on 2nd November 2015

Monday, 2 November 2015

Howl (2015)

The second horror film from Paul Hyett, director of THE SEASONING HOUSE, gets a UK DVD and Blu-ray release courtesy of Metrodome.
Last train. Full moon. All change. The poster's tag line and the movie's title should be all you need to let you know what this one's about. At 11.59pm a local train service sets off out of Waterloo, filled with a motley collection of passengers, very few of whom, if any, are going to reach their intended destination. Why? Because it turns out that living in one of those fabled British Horror Forests that Hammer and their ilk used to portray so well, is a colony of werewolves who prey on local wildlife and the occasional trainload of passengers. When the train grinds to a halt thanks to a well-placed deer under the bogies, it's the cue for an attack on the tiny commuter train and its occupants.

Nowhere near as grim as THE SEASONING HOUSE, HOWL has been compared to John Landis' AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and Neil Marshall's DOG SOLDIERS, but you're far better off ignoring those comparisons as HOWL is a different sort of beast (sorry) altogether. The emphasis here is on claustrophobic suspense, rather than elaborate transformation scenes, and rather than a special effect extravaganza, if you go in expecting something more akin to an late night BBC play with werewolves you won't be disappointed. 

The script fills the train with stock characters of the thinnest cardboard, but they are fleshed out nicely by seasoned actors like Shauna MacDonald and blink-and-you'll-miss-him Sean Pertwee. The werewolves themselves are a nice attempt to do something different - rather than a pack of sleek powerful killing machines there's enough variety in the designs that we get the impression of a community of differing ages and a fairly impoverished one at that. Broken Britain Werewolves? Now there's subtext for you - a horror film that features monsters echoing the British Age of Austerity. Very nice indeed.

Extras consist of a number of little featurettes detailing the making of the film and including interviews with director Hyett and the screenwriters. Each last about five minutes but there's a 'Play All' option. 
HOWL is a very decent, claustrophobic, low budget British werewolf picture. Towards the end of the film we get some shots of landscape that are as bleak and as washed out as in Hyett's previous film. At HOWL'S UK premiere I asked the director if that was how Paul Hyett sees the world. The answer was a resounding yes.

         Let's see some more horror films from this man.

Metrodome released Paul Hyett's HOWL on Region B Blu-ray and Region 2 DVD on 26th October 2015