Thursday, 18 January 2018

Phenomena (1985)

"Great Transfer of an Argento Classic With New Extras"

Arrow Films strike again with a 4k transfer of Dario Argento's 1985 thriller that mixes schoolgirls, a crazed killer, a chimp called Inga and a Great Sarcophagus fly who is never named.

Jennifer Connolly is Jennifer Corvino, who has the curious ability to be able to communicate with insects. She's sent by her film star father to one of those private girls' school we only ever see in Italian films, so we shouldn't really be surprised when it turns out there's a killer who is bumping off the pupils. Jennifer uses her ludicrous skill to find the ludicrous killer leading to a finale so utterly ludicrous one can only conclude that PHENOMENA is a film that is nothing short of genius.

Poorly received on its initial release, PHENOMENA was cut to bits in the UK and retitled CREEPERS. Shown (in London cinemas only) only the bottom half of a double bill with Tom Holland's FRIGHTNIGHT, it was reviewed on the BBC's Film programme with the comment that 'Donald Pleaeance should use his salary from this movie to buy up every copy and burn it'. When it hit VHS on the Palace label it did very well, of course, but it was many years before UK audiences got to see it as nature (and Argento) intended.

And pretty much all those opportunities have been courtesy of Arrow Films, who now present PHENOMENA in a brand new 4k restoration of the original 116 minute Italian cut of the film (CREEPERS came in at under 90). So does it look better than Arrow's previous Blu-ray release, also issued in a very nice limited steelbook which is the edition we have here at HMC? All I'll say is that if you're a PHENOMENA nut you will want the upgrade, but otherwise Arrow's previous Blu is perfectly adequate.

Extras are different. Here we get a feature-length making of, plus the Jennifer music video. There's still no sign in the UK of the Argento / Stivaletti / Simonetti commentary track recorded for the US Anchor Bay release. At least we do get a commentary track this time (previous releases have had none), with Troy Howarth doing the honours and telling us all about the movie.

Soundwise there's a new 5.1 DTS-HD surround mix for the Italian version, plus a new English / Italian hybrid soundtrack in lossless 5.1 and 2.0 stereo. This is a very nice package from Arrow & if you've never seen PHENOMENA on Blu-ray then this is the one to get. Those who have the previous release will hopefully now have a better idea of if they want to get this version or not.

Dario Argento's PHENOMENA is out on dual format from Arrow in a new release version from Monday 15th January 2018

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Kills On Wheels (2016)

Thoroughly Entertaining Hungarian Wheelchair-Based Action Thriller

Here's something different, and if you fancy a change from the usual Hollywood multiplex fare this is well worth checking out. Attila Till's gritty, brutal and yet ultimately uplifting thriller is getting a dual format release from Eureka.

Best friends Zoli (Zoltan Fenyvesi) and Barba (Adam Fekete) both suffer from congenital physical developmental abnormalities that mean they spend their dull days in a long-term rehabilitation facility. Zoli needs life saving surgery because his spine is starting to curve to such an extent that his internal organs are beginning to crush one another. 

Zoli's long-absent father is willing to pay for the operation but Zoli doesn't want him to. Enter wheelchair-bound hit man Rupasov (Szabolcs Thiroczy, looking like an older Jeremy Renner) who has just been released from prison and who still has connections to various crime syndicates. He has a scheme to help make Zoli the money he needs - by the two friends helping him bump off the hits he gets assigned. 

Gritty and grim, and pulling no punches as regards the abilities (and disabilities) of its three leads, KILLS ON WHEELS does a marvellous job of giving centre stage to the kind of characters that are too often only on the sidelines in movies, if present at all.  

A lot of the PR for KILLS ON WHEELS calls it a comedy. I didn't find much of it very funny, which is not to do the film down at all - it's really very good indeed - but don't go in expecting barrels of wheelchair-based laughs or you're going to be disappointed. 

Refreshingly uncategorisable, the film swings from downbeat to funny to blood-soaked to incredibly emotionally warm and moving by turns with never a mis-step. Eureka's disc only has the trailer as an extra but don't let that put you off getting this - I wouldn't be at all surprised if this turns up on best of lists in years to come, although best what I'll leave to the list compilers to decide.

Attila Till's KILLS ON WHEELS is out on dual format DVD & Blu-ray from Eureka on Monday 15th January 2017

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Wind River (2017)

"Excellent, Gripping and Surprisingly Moving Crime Thriller"

That warm feeling that we're only a couple of days into the year but already I can start my 'Best Of Year' nominees list has been triggered this year by WIND RIVER, a crime thriller set in snowy Wyoming and getting a digital download, DVD & Blu-ray release from STX / Sony this month.

Jeremy Renner is Cory Lambert, a tracker whose main job is to keep local predators under control. While hunting a family of mountain lions who are killing cattle, Cory happens upon the frozen body of Native American Natalie (Kelsey Asbille). Rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is called in. She soon finds investigating a murder on an Indian reservation with few law enforcement officers and resistance from the local white workforce to be a challenge she will need all of Cody's tracking skills to help with.

Very much a character piece (althought there's action when the plot demands it), WIND RIVER offers us measured performances, careful direction, and some stunning location photography. The film is not so much a whodunit as an observation piece on how and why such crimes happen, and the reaction of the society in which they do. The leads are excellent and writer-director Taylor Sheridan offers a fine comparison between the stark landscape and the stark brutalities those who live there are capable of.

The one mis-step in WIND RIVER, if only from my point of view, is that quite a bit of the dialogue is mumbled to the point of being unintelligible, especially early on. Sony's Blu-ray does have subtitles, but of the kind that lets you know there is 'ominous music' on the soundtrack, or that the 'ominous voices continue' which does detract a bit from the atmosphere. 

The movie looks stunning on Blu-ray, and extras include a couple of deleted scenes and three short behind the scenes featurettes with Renner, Olson and Sheridan. 

Very good indeed and surprisingly moving, WIND RIVER is an excellent gloomy crime piece that's deserving of a look when it's out later this month. 

Taylor Sheridan's WIND RIVER is out from STX & Sony on digital download on 8th January 2018, and on DVD & Blu-ray on Monday 22nd January 2018

Monday, 1 January 2018

Felicity (1978)

“Bumper Package of John D Lamond Ozsploitation Classics”

       If the term Australian Erotica sounds like a bit of an oxymoron then it’s unlikely your opinion is going to be changed by this package of three (!) movies from the late 1970s, all produced by John D Lamond and now getting a UK release on Blu-ray for the first time courtesy of Severin Films.

The ‘A’ feature here is FELICITY. Shot in the same bright travelogue style as Just Jaeckin’s EMMANUELLE, it details the adventures of its title character (played by Glory PREY Annen), starting off in a girls' boarding school run by at least one nun who can’t mime playing the piano. Felicity spends her time reading The Story of O and getting up to beneath the sheets fumbling with her classmates in the grimmest-looking girls’ dormitory ever committed to film.

A birthday gift from her father sees Felicity travelling to possibly the wettest, most miserable version of Hong Kong ever depicted in a film of this type. She stays with an older couple who take her to a pool party where it’s so cold you can see everyone’s breath. Felicity gets seduced on the bonnet of his car by a gentleman with an enormous moustache (it's not the moustache that does the seducing before you get excited). Then she gets taken on tour of what look like the backstreets and ghettos of Hong Kong by a Chinese girl she befriends, culminating in one of those bathhouse-type scenes where you feel relieved for her to finally be inside somewhere warm.

       Numerous sexual encounters later, Felicity falls for a nice Australian bloke (Aha!) and the final act of the movie is about them breaking up and getting back together again. If you’re a fan of 1970s sexploitation you’ll probably want to see FELICITY as it seems to be considered by some as one of the classic softcore films of the period.  

The same might not be said of the two other films on here. ABCS OF LOVE & SEX: AUSTRALIA STYLE starts off very strangely with some animation before launching into a terrible song and dance number for its opening titles. After that the film plummets downhill as it shambles through the alphabet. AUSTRALIA AFTER DARK is a pretend-documentary that tries to suggest the country has a dark side full of oddball / sexy / sleazy goings on but is best viewed with your best comedy hat on and plenty of coffee to keep you awake.

       You have to hand it to Severin, though. As well as all the above you get commentary tracks on all three films, plus interviews with Glory Annen, John D Lamond and cinematographer Gary Wapshott. A terrific value bundle if this is your sort of thing.

FELICITY is out on Blu-ray now from Severin Films

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Top Ten Films of 2017

Once again it's time for House of Mortal Cinema's traditional Boxing Day round up of my favourite (and least favourite, oh yes indeed) movies of 2017. As is traditional (I think I can say that now I'm six years in) the list is entirely personal and the only rule is that the film had to be shown in the UK for the first time during the year, either at the cinema or on disc, or at a festival screening. As is also traditional, I've not included the bigger budget multiplex successes that don't need any kind of further boost, so KONG SKULL ISLAND, WONDER WOMAN, THOR RAGNAROK, BLADE RUNNER 2049 and a host of others aren't here despite the fact I enjoyed them very much.

What are here, though, are the films I paid to sit through and found myself wishing I hadn't. In fact I would have been happy to pay not to see them. Here, then, is my list of the five films that had me tearing clods of velveteen from the arms of my cinema seat.

The Five Worst Films of 2017

5 47 Metres Down

That still wasn't deep enough to bury this silly tepid shark 'thriller' that possessed some of the worst dialogue in years. What could have been 127 HOURS UNDER THE SEA instead felt like it lasted that. as the most tedious film to be shot in a tank in Basingstoke ran its course, complete with totally guessable 'twist' ending. 

4 The Beaster Bunny

Look at that picture. Look at it. How could a low budget film with effects that terrible not be entertaining? But it isn't. As I mentioned in my review here, this one makes that episode of The Goodies versus the giant kitten look like KONG SKULL ISLAND. A UK DVD premiere, it should have been a UK dustbin premiere.

3 Personal Shopper

If the previous two films were the results of incompetence, the next three really have no excuse and therefore get the dishonour of being top of the list. In PERSONAL SHOPPER director Olivier Assayas manages the remarkable feat of combining a ghost story and a grisly murder mystery with the added novelty of having its famous leading lady wearing very little in several scenes and still manages to make one of the most boring films I have seen in years. So dull it doesn't even deserve the insult 'pretentious', PERSONAL SHOPPER has all the atmosphere of a two week old flannel left to dry and curl up in the sun. Dreary, insipid, uninspired and all horribly one-note, this is everything that's awful about French art house cinema. Kristen Stewart wanders around for a bit. Sometimes she's on her scooter. Every now and then fascinating plot ideas pop up and go absolutely nowhere because her self-obsessed journey into the world of ennui appears to be what the director finds fascinating, even if nobody else does. 

2 Ghost in the Shell

Big budget plus bankable star plus iconic cult source material equals big pile of rubbish. What happened here, guys? I mean, I can't claim to understand the original anime myself but where it is bursting with colour and ideas this was absolutely terrible. Flat, dull, lifeless and boring, it manages to get everything wrong, from the casting (all the actors apart from Ms Johansson have zero charisma) to the ineptly edited action scenes, to the plot which is basically ROBOCOP with a girl, to the music which is that generic soundscapey stuff when it should be helping the (non) action along. I yawned more times than I cared to count and even that would have been more interesting than what was happening on screen. Where is Paul Verhoeven and an 18 certificate when you really, desperately, need them? Awful awful awful. Avoid.

1 Rings

Because there's nothing worse or more depressing than seeing a viable horror idea not just run into the ground but repeatedly run over like some dying dog its owners have no idea what to do with and their answer is possibly the worst thing they could come up with. If nothing else, it proves that screenwriter Akiva Goldsman is still capable of ruining a franchise all these years after his crap-stained fingertips starting hitting the keyboard to give us the bag of noisy confusion that was BATMAN FOREVER (1995). In my review here I called it one of those horrible, generic, cliched, and worst of all extremely dull ‘laying a ghost to rest’ plots that kills any interest or enthusiasm you might have been harbouring for this one stone dead. I stand by that, and you should run, not walk, away from this terrible, terrible film.

Right! Having cleared the bile from my system let's take a look at my favourites of the year. My apologies if yours aren't on there but hopefully that will just give you more movies to seek out. Here we go!

10 Canaries

Peter Stray's £29000 low budget Welsh horror comedy went down well at London Frightfest and was even more enjoyable on a second screening at Abertoir. The sheer charm and rewatch value of Stray's story of aliens invading the tiny Welsh village of Lower Cwmtwrch just as everyone's getting trolleyed on Near Year's Eve earns it a place on the list. Look out for it when it gets its forthcoming DVD release.

9 A Cure for Wellness

There's so much hatred around for this one, and I loved it so much, so it gets on here. Hammer Horror lives again in director Gore Verbinski's delicious mad scientist Euro-Gothic. If, like me, you had trouble staying awake through CRIMSON PEAK then rest assured, this is much more like what a modern day Hammer Films should be making - the stuff of MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, THE REPTILE, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE and even REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN. I did get the feeling Mr Verbinkski was told to go and shoot an extra 20 minutes of an ending to explain it all, but fortunately instead he decided to go full over the top Euro-sleaze (yes the works of Jess Franco did occur to me at least twice during the climax - hurrah!) and bring the house down as well. It cost a lot and made little. We must treasure such things on the occasions they come along.

8 Housewife

Time for the stuff of nightmares. Can Evrenol was responsible for nightmarish horror (short and feature) BASKIN (2015) and HOUSEWIFE is better. If you loved the delirious weirdness of Argento's SUSPIRIA & INFERNO and Fulci's THE BEYOND then you'll get a kick out of this as well. The deliberately 'rubber reality' plot line is graced by some terrific visual compositions and a healthy dose of disturbing imagery, culminating in a final scene that's pleasingly Lovecraftian. But is any of it real, or is it all in the central character's head as she tries to justify and explain to herself the appalling act we see before the opening titles? As with all the best art house horrors, it's entirely up to you. I saw this at Abertoir and can't wait to watch it again. 

Low budget and amateurish in places, but displaying a twisted imagination worthy of David Lynch, Andrew Getty's sole contribution to cinema gets in at number seven. Even without that horrible spider thing at the climax, THE EVIL WITHIN is insane, disturbing, brilliantly realised and will have you wishing there were more films like this being made these days.

6 The Ritual

Adam Nevill's novel THE RITUAL is a modern masterpiece of grim, wet, miserable, claustrophobic horror, so much so that he's one of only two authors whose work has given me the shivers here in the cosy confines of Probert Towers. It's scarcely surprising, then, that David Bruckner's movie version doesn't quite manage to achieve the almost unbearable tension of the book's opening two thirds. It still manages to do a pretty decent job, mind, and the final act is really rather good, especially the ending. Fascinatingly (for me if no-one else), the novel feels very Algernon Blackwood-inspired (the forest IS the monster, and an absolutely terrifying one) whereas the movie feels much more Arthur Machen - the forest is more a home to an ancient people who leave mystic symbols carved into the bark as part of the obeisance to their own Great (Scandinavian) God Pan. Look at that - a Machen, Blackwood and Nevill-inspired horror film  - how marvellous is that?

5 Top Knot Detective

TOP KNOT DETECTIVE is a SPINAL TAP-type mockumentary documenting the 'classic' (ie raving mad) TV show of the title, aka DEDUCTIVE REASONING RONIN (translated from the Japanese), the film charted the success and downfall of the show and its lunatic creator / writer / director and star Takashi Takamoto who was utterly terrible at all those tasks and became a huge star. Talking head pieces, 'news footage' and of course lots and lots of clips of the brilliantly awful show made this the funniest film I've seen in years. Full marks to directors Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce and I want a disc release of this one now. 

4 The Lodgers

      Director Brian O'Malley's follow up to 2014's LET US PREY is a superb gothic ghost story set in the rural Ireland of 1920. Twins Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner) live in an isolated, crumbing gothic mansion and are safe as long as they follow the rules set down in a bizarre nursery rhyme by the 'other' occupants of the house. 
        Exactly what these are, and what is going on, is revealed in a climax that is a creative as it is nightmarish, and I would be spoiling it for you if I said any more, suffice to say if you like subtle, original, beautifully directed (some of the 2.35:1 widescreen compositions are breathtaking) ghost stories this is your movie of 2017 to watch. Netflix are apparently bidding on this now so watch out for it.

3 Shin Godzilla

My Dad saw the 1933 KING KONG on its original release, and when I was a kid I remember him telling me how people were scared to walk home from the cinema afterwards. With SHIN GODZILLA I finally got to experience how audiences might have reacted to giant monster movies back in the day. The movie has great effects, brilliant use of great music, and a gritty almost documentary feel to its proceedings (the disaster is dealt with realistically and with plenty of satire - this is a profound movie where the dialogue scenes often carry the same weight as the effects). But most important of all, SHIN GODZILLA has a monster I found (for the first time ever in my history of watching these things) quite terrifying, so much so that driving home I was looking across the city skyline just to check something hadn’t come out of the Bristol Channel. I loved it - much more than the Gareth Edwards’ remake, and much more than KONG SKULL ISLAND (which I did like, but nowhere near as much as this). The Blu-ray is out now.

2 The Handmaiden

After premiering at last year's London Film Festival this finally hit the art house circuit early in 2017, and this one really is superb. The story is compelling, the acting is just the right side of melodrama, there's some breathtaking camerawork that reminded me of Argento, and the production design is pure South Korean gothic cinema. The music feels as if every 1970s BritHorror composer got to write a bit of it (Douglas Gamley's rolling tympani, Harry Robinson's lush romantic pastoral, even the opening sounds like Michael Dress' score to HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD with its clicks and burrs as we are led around the house). What I absolutely loved the most, however, is that smack bang in the middle of this there's a lengthy sequence that involves the reading of Sadean literature, followed by a floor show that is a combination of the obscene and the artistic, which has me begging the question: is Park Chan-Wook a fan of Jess Franco? If I ever get to meet him I expect that very question will probably be met by an expression of baffled indifference, but I intend to live in hope.

1 Get Out

Probably the only time both this list and Sight and Sound's are going to have the same number one film, but I couldn't help it. If you're as old as me GET OUT will remind you of the feel of an episode of Brian Clemens' THRILLER, by way of John Blackburn's NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT. If you're not then it'll be all the more fun as it's unlikely you'll guess where it's going. Director Jordan Peele does a fine job of ramping up the oddness as our hero gets to visit his girlfriend's weird family & friends for the weekend, and I loved the reveal of what's actually going on, even if the climax could have perhaps been paced a tiny bit better. But hey, it's Mr Peele's first film & holds plenty of promise for whatever he does next.

And that's it! Bubbling under (and I actually feel bad for not being able to include some of these on the top ten) were Darren Aronofsky's MOTHER! (what the hell was it about? I don't know but I loved it), MINDHORN (brilliant British comedy), SPLIT (Shyamalan does great 1970s retro style horror shocker!), THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (brutally cynical and at the same time extremely fun office splatter pic), VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (because it really didn't deserve all that hate, especially with all that glorious colour, creativity and Rihanna as well), HAPPY DEATH DAY (surprisingly good birthday horror), BETTER WATCH OUT (surprisingly good Christmas horror) and last (but by no means least) Alex de la Iglesia's THE BAR, which was the best film of Frightfest 2017. 

So many great films! As always I want to thank everyone who's visited the site during the year - if it's as much fun to read as it is to write then my job is done. Thanks also to the PR companies who have kept me in review discs, and of course, thanks to everyone behind the scenes at the festivals I went to this year - Frightfest, Manchester Festival of Fantastic Films and Abertoir. Next up should be Glasgow Frightfest in February. Expect my write up of that, plus another ton of reviews in the forthcoming months. Here's to 2018!

The world will hear from House of Mortal Cinema again

Saturday, 16 December 2017

The Apartment (1960)

"Classic Billy Wilder Gets the 4K Treatment"

Billy Wilder's Oscar-winning (Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Art Direction, Editing) and Oscar-nominated (Leading Actor, Leading Actress, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Sound) 1960 'comedy drama' gets a sparkling 4k transfer from Arrow Academy packed with extras.

New York 1959. CC 'Bud' Baxter (Jack Lemmon) works at an insurance company. His plan to get promoted is unusual, novel, and immoral: he loans out his apartment to four of his bosses to use on a rotating basis for their extramarital affairs. Sweet on elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), Bud's life starts to fall apart when the firm's personnel director, J D Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray, who surprisingly didn't get an Oscar nod amongst all the others), reveals he wants to use Bud's apartment to rekindle his affair with her.

They really don't make them like THE APARTMENT any more. Perhaps they never did. What starts off as a comedy with an apparently morally dubious tone quickly becomes a measured study of human beings and the mistakes that they make. The cast weave their way through the screenplay's light and dark, the humorous and the deadly serious. Wilder's expert direction manages just the right balance between playfulness and melodrama that's all the more remarkable considering the subject matter.

Arrow's 4k transfer of THE APARTMENT is a crisp delight. Aside from what looks like a hair in the gate at around the 100 minute mark the image is as perfect as can be. Film producer and historian Bruce Block offers a commentary track, and there's a new video essay by David Cairns on the collaborations between Wilder and Lemmon. Cairns also provides an overview of Billy Wilder's career.

You also get a 30 minute making of featurette from 2007, and an archive profile of Jack Lemmon from the same year. Film historian Philip Kemp provides a new select scene commentary and appreciation of the film, and there's a trailer and newly commissioned artwork. 

Finally (and very impressively) you get a 150 page as part of the package featuring new writing on the film by Neil Sinyard, Travis Crawford, Kat Ellinger and Heather Hyche. 

Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT is out on Blu-ray from Arrow Academy on Monday 18th December 2017