Saturday, 6 February 2016

Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970)

“The best thing about it is the title”

         Not one of director Mario Bava’s best (although it is better than DR GOLDFOOT & THE GIRL BOMBS which I had the misfortune of reviewing on here last week) FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON has been given the lovely Blu-ray treatment by Arrow. If you’ve never seen a Mario Bava film before don’t start with this. I made that mistake many years ago and wondered why on earth people thought his work was so impressive. Watch BLACK SABBATH (1963) instead (probably my favourite) or maybe LISA AND THE DEVIL (1972). But not this. If you’re undecided about watching this specific Bava picture then hopefully the following will help.

Nice framing
         A group of unpleasant Italians with appalling fashion sense and a taste for J&B (there are often two bottles of it on display) congregate at a “modern” (for 1970s loonies with no taste and no sense of practicalities) villa on an isolated island. Cut off from the mainland they soon start to be bumped off. Everyone’s there to try and bid for the formula to a revolutionary resin. But Professor Farell (William Berger) is sticking to his chunky sweater and sandal-wearing roots and says he wants to ‘do science for the good of mankind’. Or something like that. Which begs the question why is he there in the first place. 

More nice framing
         As we near the end virtually everyone is dead. We eventually discover who the killer was in one of the stupidest endings for one of these things ever filmed. Seriously - I’ve watched FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON three times now (because I’m possibly as mad as whoever came up with some of the dreadful costumes in this) and the final revelatory speech still makes my jaw drop. It’s a very poor ending indeed, and smacks of someone who has got so bored with the project they’re decided to do a Jess Franco and leave the audience with any old nonsense.

Horrible rotating bed in case you like nausea with your sex.
Ah yes, Jess Franco. If you had shown me the opening thirty minutes of this with no prior knowledge and asked me to guess a director it would have been His Jessness. The camera zooms in and out and in and out, there are a few wobbly shots of the setting sun, and an interest in weird architecture, all of which would suggest the slide-trombone-wielding hand of Mr Franco here. 

One reason to watch FIVE DOLLS
         But it’s not. It’s Mario Bava, who really should have known better. As should whoever approved the music score, which is another truly awful aspect to this film that cannot be forgiven. It’s as if someone lost the tapes for the orchestral Bruno Nicolai score that was intended to accompany this one and instead some bloke knocked it up on his Bontempi in 24 hours. Possibly one of the worst, most intrusive and most inappropriate scores to grace an Italian horror film, Piero Umiliani’s jazzy rubbish will be stuck in your head for hours afterwards, even though you won’t want it there.

Two reasons to watch FIVE DOLLS
         Are there any good points? Well, it IS Bava and so there are a few nicely framed shots, as well as at least one clever discovery of a murder. But the rest of the film is so boring that these are little recompense. At about forty minutes in one character says “Everyone seems to be waiting for something that’s not happening” and we know exactly what she means.

Bloody murder! At least you can't hear the music
Arrow’s Blu-ray comes with Italian and English dialogue tracks, and an option where you can just play the music if you’re completely insane. Tim Lucas provides us with his usual, thoroughly scholarly, work in a commentary track and there’s an hour long Bava documentary from 2000. 
         Oh, and I should probably mention FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON has got the supremely lovely Edwige Fenech in it. So there you go - one good reason for watching it after all. And I bet I end up watching it again someday for her if nothing else. If I ever get that theme tune out of my head. 

Arrow Films released Mario Bava's FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON on dual format UK Blu-ray and DVD on 
1st February 2016

Friday, 5 February 2016

Sheba, Baby (1975)

Pam Grier’s great, isn’t she? A bit like being the Peter Cushing of blaxploitation, she constantly rose above the 1970s AIP material she was cast in, delivering sometimes dodgy dialogue with an integrity and feeling that added to her already considerable star quality.
         SHEBA, BABY, soon to be released on Blu-ray in the UK by Arrow Films desperately needs her talents.

Lovely Pam
         Admittedly, it probably needs Jack Hill as well. The man who guided her through hits like THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, COFFY and FOXY BROWN would probably have given SHEBA, BABY a bit more verve, a bit more energy, and perhaps most important of all, a bit more of an edge.
Instead, SHEBA, BABY is directed by William Girdler. Mr Girdler is best known in horror circles for such movies as ABBY (the blaxploitation version of THE EXORCIST), GRIZZLY (JAWS with a bear) and THE MANITOU (Tony Curtis on full throttle). At the time of his premature death in a helicopter accident obituaries stated that as a director he was ‘just hitting his stride’. SHEBA, BABY is one of his earlier efforts and does suffer from a lack of pacing, editing, and a few problems with image framing in some scenes.

This outfit both came in and went out of fashion during this scene
The plot? Pam’s father runs a loan company that the mob are putting the squeeze on, and she has to take a break from her job as a Private Investigator to come and sort them out. When Dad gets killed in a shoot out it’s time for Pam to get mean (although never as mean as in her Jack Hill pictures) with a final showdown with Mr Big on a lake and a pursuit that involves a speedboat and jet-ski.

Catfight Pam!
Fans of blaxploitation will have seen this one already. If you haven’t checked this one out yet, and are a fan of COFFY and FOXY BROWN be warned - this isn’t as good as either of them. Grier is excellent and once again shows us how rotten it was that she never became a mainstream movie star, as she has all the credentials. No-one else in the cast can hold a candle to her acting-wise, and some of them are so wooden it’s surprising to see them bleed when Pam shoots them. 
         As always, Arrow have gone the extra mile with a movie that probably doesn’t really deserve the special edition treatment. The Blu-ray transfer is fine, but you get the feeling SHEBA, BABY might be better experienced in a grindhouse cinema showing a tatty old print, or on muddy VHS with sound quality of the ‘being recorded through nine mattresses’ variety.

Bad guys. With guns.
There are a couple of nice extras that are actually more interesting than the film. We spend ten minutes with screenwriter and producer David Sheldon who talks about his time at AIP and his work with William Girdler. It’s always amazing (and actually rather pleasing) to discover people like Mr Sheldon can remember events of forty or so years ago with such detail, and the featurette makes for good viewing.
          Equally informative and entertaining is Chris Poggiali’s piece on the career of Pam Grier. Mr Poggiali obviously knows his stuff and delivers it in a relaxed and convivial tone that makes this another worthwhile extra. You also get two commentary tracks - one by Sheldon and another by William Girdler webmaster Patty Breen. There’s also a trailer, an image gallery and a booklet with new writing on the film by Patty Breen.

Arrow Films are releasing William Girdler's SHEBA, BABY on dual disc Region A&B Blu-ray and Region 1/2 DVD on 8th February 2016

Monday, 1 February 2016

Vampyros Lesbos (1971)

“A bizarre and bewitching combination of art house, eroticism and horror”

So let’s get one thing straight from the off. If your taste in erotic cinema is of the more prosaic LESBIAN SPANK INFERNO variety, this one probably isn’t for you, despite that marvellous, exploitative title. If you’re a fan of the more mainstream kind of vampire movie, this isn’t going to be for you either. If you love art house, but demand that there be a focus puller for every scene, you’re going to get annoyed.
However, if you’re a Jess Franco fan, you are absolutely going to bloody love this one.

VAMPYROS LESBOS is, without a doubt, one of Jess Franco’s best films, and the folks at Severin have done a fantastic job of giving it a stunning Blu-ray transfer that’s now available in the UK as well as overseas.
Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Stromberg) is plagued by erotic dreams, which she confesses to psychiatrist Dr Steiner (Paul Muller). She’s a lawyer, and her latest assignment is to travel to an island near Istanbul to discuss the details of an inheritance with the Countess Carody (Soledad Miranda). Even before she goes she is warned not to go by the creepy Memmet (Jess Franco) and when she gets there she is quickly seduced by the Countess. 

Things become a blur as Linda then wakes up in the ‘clinic’ of Dr Seward (Dennis Price) who only seems to have one other patient, Agra (Heidrun Kussin) who resembles a sexy version of Renfield. Dr Seward is obsessed with the legend of vampires. The Countess has inherited property from Count Dracula, whom she met over a hundred years ago. This being a Jess Franco film, it all ends dreamily, unpredictably, and on a freeze frame that suggests he had once again got bored.

VAMPYROS LESBOS is a fascinating art-house interpretation of Dracula, with a heavy Carmilla influence as well. Linda is obviously meant to be Harker, and Franco cleverly inverts other tropes of Stoker’s classic novel as well. Instead of a crumbling gothic castle, Countess Carmody lives in a bright, clean, modern island retreat. Instead of spiderwebs, fishing nets hang everywhere.

And in amongst all this are some breathtaking shots. Despite the abundant nudity, Soledad Miranda is probably never more supremely sexy than when fully clothed with just a trace of blood on her lips. A white butterfly represents Linda, a scorpion in the swimming pool, tail poised, the Countess. Linda’s discovery of the Countess floating naked in her swimming pool, a red scarf draped around her neck and half submerged to resemble the most flamboyant, painterly flourish of blood you’ve ever seen in a vampire film is the kind of thing that makes you a Franco fan for life. 

Severin’s Blu-ray also has a twenty minute chat with the director about the making of the film, where you wonder quite how many cigarettes Franco managed to actually get through during the course of the interview. There’s a twenty minute piece on Soledad Miranda from Amy Brown, and the always excellent Stephen Thrower gives us his thoughts on the movie. Finally, a tiny piece entitled ‘Jess Is Yoda’ is something I’ll leave you to find out for yourself.

The older I get, the more I find myself loving the movies of Jess Franco. I first watched VAMPYROS LESBOS on VHS fifteen years ago and didn’t think as much of it then as I did watching it this time around. Of course since that time I’ve watched a lot more Franco. Someone once said that to understand one Jess Franco film you have to watch them all. Even if that’s the case, Severin’s Blu-ray of VAMPYROS LESBOS is as good a place as any to start the Franco journey.

Jess Franco's VAMPYROS LESBOS is available from Severin Films on both sides of the Atlantic on DVD & Blu-ray now. 

Sunday, 31 January 2016

She Killed in Ecstasy (1971)

"Gateway Franco"

          Those of us who appreciate the works of Jess Franco know that it is a love not easily earned. You have to work at it. While there is genius and creativity and bewitching obsession in his movies, there can also be incompetence, incoherence, and mind-numbing tedium. Sometimes you even think he’s trying his best to put you off watching the film in question. 

There are, however, a few Franco films that can ease you into an appreciation of this quirky, eclectic, and sometimes fascinating  film-maker. Gateway drugs, if you will, that will allow you to move on to the harder stuff with at least some understanding of what he might be trying to say. Movies like THE AWFUL DR ORLOFF (1962), EUGENIE (1970), or THE FEMALE VAMPIRE (1973) give you an insight into his obsessions without too much in the way of somnolence, incoherence, or outright offence.

SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY is a gateway Franco film, now finally given an absolutely gorgeous Blu-ray release in the UK courtesy of Severin Films. Don’t get me wrong - if you’re new to Franco it’s still not going to be quite like any other film you’ve seen. But then those of us who love his work find that part of his appeal.
The film kicks off with jazz music over images of foetuses in jars. They belong to Dr Johnson (Fred Williams) who is looking forward to the medical council approving the research he’s been doing. Unfortunately the four members of the group don’t approve of what he’s been doing at all, labelling it inhuman and striking him off the medical register. Distraught and depressed, Johnson kills himself, leaving his wife (Soledad Miranda) swearing revenge on the individuals responsible for her husband’s death.

The rest of SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY consists of her seducing and bumping off the members of the medical council, played by Franco regulars Howard Vernon, Paul Muller, Ewa Stromberg and Franco himself, before the movie ends in an appropriately downbeat manner.
SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY can safely be shown to someone who has never seen a Franco film before. It has a straightforward plot, and while the film-making is a little bit rough around the edges, there is much here to bewitch and entice the casual viewer. Franco’s eye for curious architecture means the Johnson’s island retreat is a curious construct, and the Alicante locations look beautiful, especially on Blu-ray. Most bewitching of all, of course, is the film’s star. Soledad Miranda. Described by another reviewer as ‘someone who could eat you with her eyes’ she is the perfect actress for this and other Franco works. Beautiful, but with a perpetually haunted look that suggests there’s so much going on behind those eyes, she is, besides Franco’s direction, the main reason why the non-Francophile won’t be hitting you over the head with the Blu-ray box if you show them this one.

Severin’s Blu-ray provides an excellent transfer and comes with about an hour of extra features, including a cosy chat with Franco, Stephen Thrower talking about the making of the movie, Soledad Miranda historian Amy Brown giving a potted history of the actress’ life and career, and a short interview with Franco star Paul Muller. All excellent stuff and a very fine Franco package from Severin. Which you can also show to non-Franco-loving friends without losing them for life. 

Severin's UK Blu-ray and DVD of Jess Franco's 
SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY is available now.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Dr Goldfoot & the Girl Bombs (1966)

“Like the Chuckle Brothers tried to make a Bond film”

Another dose of kiddie-orientated comedy (at least I hope for all concerned that was the intention) arrives on UK DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of 101 Films in the form of this sequel to DR GOLDFOOT & THE BIKINI MACHINE. 

Vincent Price about to explain the plot of this one to the camera
         This time the dastardly super villain (Vincent Price once again, thank goodness) is blowing up NATO generals using girls in gold bikinis who explode when they’re kissed. Despatched to stop him is SIC agent Bill Dexter (1960s pop idol - it says here - Fabian - no, me neither). Helping, or rather ‘comedy hindering’ Bill are two Italian agents who respectively resemble Ron Perlman’s dad and Freddie ‘Parrot-Face’ Davies, whom nobody but the most obsessive of fans of 1970s British TV comedians will probably remember. Neither of them is as good an actor or as funny as Freddie, who was never that great in the first place, but he was much better than what we have to put up with here. 

Parrot face, Ron Perlman's dad, and two other people
         The exploding girl plotline is really the excuse on which to hang a series of increasingly poor comedy routines and chase sequences, culminating in a great long run around a park where Vincent Price gives up and disappears, only to pop up briefly again in the very end bit on a plane. It’s all supremely painful stuff, with the only reason to watch this being Price himself, who appears once again to be having a whale of a time. Although, when the highlight of a movie is seeing Vincent dress up as a nun, you know this is a film in trouble. 

Possibly the ONLY reason to watch this one
         Otherwise DR GOLDFOOT & THE GIRL BOMBS is unremittingly dire. Nobody else in the cast can act, there are lots of comedy effect boing noises, and the music by Les Baxter is reminiscent of the very worst of Max Harris or Ed Welch and wouldn't be out of place in ON THE BUSES or CONFESSIONS FROM A HOLIDAY CAMP.

More inspiration for Mike Myers
         DR GOLDFOOT & THE GIRL BOMBS was directed by Mario Bava when he was apparently having an off week. Certainly the only reasons to watch this are if you’re a Vincent Price completist (like me), a Mario Bava completist (like me) or if you’re a very undemanding seven year old (not me anymore). 101 Films offers a pretty good-looking transfer for the Blu-ray in 1:1.85 aspect. There are no extras and the film doesn’t really deserve any. Not the film to ever show to someone who wants to know what a Mario Bava film is like. 

DR GOLDFOOT & THE GIRL BOMBS is out now on DVD & Blu-ray from 101 Films

Friday, 29 January 2016

The House on Pine Street (2015)

"Unsettling, disturbing, scary and just plain weird - full marks"

Yes indeed! Ignore that crappy generic box art - this one’s actually worth watching!
Jennifer and her husband Luke move from Chicago back to Jennifer’s quiet hometown with the intention of it providing a calm environment for Jennifer’s pregnancy and the forthcoming baby. As soon as they get there, however, it quickly becomes obvious that all is not well. Aside from being hostile to her mother, it turns out Jennifer would rather be back in Chicago, and wants to get back there as soon as possible. It also transpires that Jennifer has a history of psychiatric illness and tried to perform an abortion on herself when she learned she was pregnant.

And then there’s the house - nice and big but a bit crumbly, with flaking paint and doors that open and close by themselves. Oh, and all the banging and knocking and hints of weird shadowy figures that only appear when Jennifer’s alone in the house. Why do the neighbours keep looking at her in a funny way? Why does psychic chiropractor Walter think the house has a strange ‘energy’? Is Jennifer going mad or is there really something weird going on in the house? Or possibly both?

Don’t try to guess because THE HOUSE ON PINE STREET is that gorgeous rarity - a film that keeps you guessing right till the end - and beyond. It’s also refreshingly free of cliche, by which I mean this is anything but a straightforward haunted house tale, or even a mentally unstable young mother tale. 

It’s directed by brothers Aaron and Austin Keeling, and their style and feel here is very reminiscent of Mike Flanagan’s pictures ABSENTIA and OCULUS. Nothing is quite what you presume it to be, and there are no easy answers. There is, however, a very pleasing sense of the weird that permeates the whole film, whether it’s the washed out look of the crumbling suburban area where Jennifer and her husband have come to live, deliciously odd touches like the mother next door who has two daughters who never speak, or the gradually building sense of oddness. Another directorial comparison might be the best of Lucio Fulci, but with all the gore and shock taken out leaving just the general sense of weirdness. 

Second Sight’s DVD contains no extras but don’t let that put you off. If you’re looking for something disturbing, unsettling, weird and scary, THE HOUSE ON PINE STREET is the first release this year to get it ever so right. 

Second Sight are releasing THE HOUSE ON PINE STREET on Region 2 DVD on 1st February 2016

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Dr Goldfoot & the Bikini Machine

"Exactly what you'd expect from a title like that"

Just after GOLDFINGER (1964) but way before AUSTIN POWERS: GOLDMEMBER there was this cheerful children’s adventure picture from the AIP stable, now given a new UK Blu-ray release courtesy of 101 Films.

Naughty Dr Goldfoot and his creations
The villainous Dr Goldfoot (Vincent Price - hooray!) plans to become incredibly rich through a fiendish plan only possible in 1960s spy spoofs. He has created an army of beautiful, golden bikini-clad robots whom he intends to marry off to the world’s richest men. On his case quite by accident are the men from SIC (the Security Intelligence Council). Or at least Craig Gamble (Frankie Avalon) is. His boss and father (Fred Clark) doesn’t believe him and is too busy banging his head on lampshades and falling out of the window because it’s that kind of film.

A face we all love
Robot Diane (Susan Hart) seduces millionaire Todd Armstrong (Dwayne Hickman) and together Craig and Todd track the shenanigans to Dr Goldfoot’s mansion. Imprisoned and taken to the dungeons, they encounter a number of ‘star’ cameos whom nobody these days is likely to recognise, before Todd ends up in the climax to AIP’s PIT & THE PENDULUM - complete with recycled stock footage! You’d expect it to end there but instead we get a jolly good natured car / trolleycar / motorcycle / etc etc chase through the streets of San Francisco, with Price dressed splendidly in a big floppy hat, before we get to the end, which was probably funny at the time but reminded me of Mario Bava’s LISA & THE DEVIL.

Widescreen distraction
DR GOLDFOOT & THE BIKINI MACHINE is very much of its time, and is mainly going to be of interest to Vincent Price fans (and he’s simply marvellous in it) and AIP scholars, who will relish the bits of stock footage that pop up, and the production design of Price’s castle (from Corman/Poe regular Daniel Haller). That said, it’s actually rather charming in a kids’ TV kind of way. The entire thing is daft and the comedy never gets above RENTAGHOST level, but the ninety minutes breeze past more quickly than you might expect.

If this still doesn't make you want to watch this film it's probably not for you
101’s transfer offers the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio despite what it says on the back. The image does look slightly stretched (as does the Kino Lorber Region A release of this) but it’s not really bad enough to impair your viewing pleasure. There are no extras, which is a shame because the Kino release has a David del Valle commentary track that presumably couldn’t be licensed.

Add music to make this scene come alive!
Undoubtedly a strong influence on the Mike Myers AUSTIN POWERS movies, if you’re a fan of 1960s US drive-in pictures, or just love Vincent Price (and who doesn’t?) DR GOLDFOOT & THE BIKINI MACHINE is worth a look to see a different side of the master of horror. 

AIP's DR GOLDFOOT & THE BIKINI MACHINE was released on UK Blu-ray and DVD by 101 Films on 25th January 2016