Sunday, 15 July 2018

The Case of the Scorpion's Tail (1971)

It's time for yet more early 1970s Italian shenanigans courtesy of director Sergio Martino, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, composer Bruno Nicolai and a host of other familiar names as Arrow brings us THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL on Blu-ray.

Another one of those films where presumably the cast and crew voted as to where they fancied a trip, this time we kick off in London. Lisa Baumer (Evelyn Stewart) receives the news that her husband has died in a plane crash. He has a massive life insurance policy which she has to go to Athens (more essential travel) to collect. 
Soon the bodies are piling up as various people try to get their hands on the insurance money. Private detective Peter Lynch (George Hilton) and reporter Cleo Dupont (Anita Strindberg) team up to find out who the killer might be while avoiding becoming victims themselves. 

With a bunch of guest turns from actors familiar to those of us who love Euro exploitation (Janine Raynaud, Luis Barboo, Alberto de Mendoza, Luigi Pistilli) THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL almost seems to be trying extra hard compared to Martino's other gialli like THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS WARDH (1971) or YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM & ONLY I HAVE THE KEY (1972). Maybe it's because those movies' leading lady lady, Edwige Fenech, is missing this time round (she was pregnant). 

For whatever reason SCORPION'S TAIL is less a random bonkers giallo and more a carefully constructed crime thriller that relies more on its complex plotting than just having naked ladies killed with a straight razor.

Arrow present the film in a new 2K restoration with lossless mono Italian and English soundtracks. Extras include new interviews with George Hilton and Sergio Martino, and Ernesto Gastaldi provides a commentary track in Italian with English subtitles. You also get an analysis of Martino's films by Mikel J Koven and a video essay from Troy Howarth. Finally a trailer and reversible sleeve art complete the package. Unless of course you get the first pressing in which case there's also a booklet featuring new writing on the film by Rachael Nisbet and Howard Hughes, plus an Anita Strindberg biography by Peter Jilmstad.

Sergio Martino's THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL is out on Blu-ray from Arrow Films on Monday 18th July 2018

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

The First Purge (2018)

        So there I was bemoaning the lack of political subtext in modern popular horror while simultaneously mourning the seemingly lost art of exploitation showmanship when what should come along but this, the fourth in James DeMonaco's series of films that started with THE PURGE back in 2013.

The previous movie, THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR (2016) offered, along with the expected catalogue of brutal slayings and biting satire, some elements of hope and optimism at its finale. Where else for its writer to go, then, (Gerard McMurray replaces Mr DeMonaco as director this time around) than back to the beginning to show us how the annual twelve hour period of legal murder in an America of the future came to be?

During a period of political and economic strife not dissimilar to that occurring currently, both Republican and Democrat parties are beaten in elections by the New Founding Fathers who propose a radical experiment to provide people with an outlet for their rage, whilst also facilitating the widespread killing of large numbers of poor people the financially strapped government is far too in debt to support.

Slightly mad behavioural scientist Marisa Tomei (exuding the brittle sexiness of a Bond villainess with her bleach-blonde hair and jet black trouser suit) comes up with the idea of using New York's Staten Island as a test site, offering anyone who wishes to 'participate' $5000 for their trouble. If they survive the night, of course. The fact that the area is mainly home to low income ethnic minority families is, of course, the whole point.

Whereas THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR bounced along with a kind of BRONX WARRIORS Enzo G Castellari-like sense of exploitation fun, THE FIRST PURGE feels like a more serious beast altogether. But then, we are living in different, and far more worrying, times than even two years ago. That's not to say THE FIRST PURGE isn't entertaining - the tower block climax feels like a cross between Gareth Evans' 2011 THE RAID and the bit at the start of George A Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD where the SWAT team start killing everyone in the tenement building. 

Gerard McMurray's style is more downbeat and action-orientated than James DeMonaco's and some of the scenes of empty streets just before the purge is due to start evoke a pleasing John Carpenter vibe (and composer Kevin Lax gives us some nice synth lines to go along with it).

How does THE FIRST PURGE compare with the others in the series? Well, the first three films felt more like a bit of nonsensical speculative, satirical fun. THE FIRST PURGE feels more political, and far more no-nonsense, in its attempt to get its message across. Is that because of the film itself or the times we're living in? Oh, and releasing it on the fourth of July is a masterstroke. Well done Universal. 

THE FIRST PURGE is out in cinemas (in both the UK & the USA in case you were wondering) from today, Wednesday 4th July 2018

Friday, 22 June 2018

The Lodgers (2017)

One of the best horror films from last year's festival circuit gets a UK DVD release courtesy of Thunderbird.

Rural Ireland in the 1920s. Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner) are fraternal twins who live in a remote, crumbling mansion. They share the house with things unseen, who have imposed three rules on them: that they must never open the doors to strangers, that they must never leave each other completely alone, and that they must be in their bedrooms by midnight. 

On their eighteenth birthday their world changes with the arrival in the nearby village of Sean (Eugene Simon) a war veteran, who sparks a sexual awakening in Rachel. What he doesn't realise is that Rachel and her brother are the latest to suffer a curse that is ultimately going to impact on him as well. 

A fine gothic ghost story with a terrific sense of atmosphere, THE LODGERS benefits from excellent performances, beautiful and often clever photography, an intelligent script (by David Turpin) and assured direction by Brian O'Malley, who admits in the extras his ambition had always been to film a gothic ghost story.

THE LODGERS received its UK premiere at Abertoir last November, & Mrs Probert & I were lucky enough to get the director on his own afterwards for a lengthy chat. Mr O'Malley proved to be an extremely affable and knowledgeable individual who cited Jack Clayton's THE INNOCENTS (1961), Alejandro Amenabar's THE OTHERS (2001) and J A Bayona's THE ORPHANAGE (2007) as influences on his own picture. 

The director meets House of Mortal Cinema & Mrs House of Mortal Cinema

He also explained that both he and screenwriter David Turpin had wanted to write a ghost story set in that period that boasted a female lead, as so many of the stories from that period by writers such as M R James always featured men. He also told me the prosthetic limb we see in the movie was authentic for the time and that yes, all of those marvellous widescreen compositions we see in the picture were deliberately constructed to look like classical paintings. It was a delight to talk to someone so enthusiastic for the ghost story genre and I'll be interested to see what Brian O'Malley does next. 

Thunderbird's disc also contains a 22 minute making of, deleted scenes and a trailer. THE LODGERS is well worth a watch if you're a fan of subtle, understated but deliciously creative ghost stories. 

Brian O'Malley's THE LODGERS is out on DVD from Thunderbird Releasing on Monday 25th June 2018

Thursday, 21 June 2018

The Complete Sartana (1968 - 1970)

"Or...If you Meet Sartana, the Angel of Death, Light the Fuse, Pray for Death, Trade Your Gun For A Coffin, and Have a Good Funeral...Sartana Will Pay!" 

Oh yes indeed - Spaghetti Western fans rejoice! For here we have, presented beautifully by Arrow Films for your entertainment, the five movies that make up the 'official' series of Sartana films made between 1968 and 1970. Let's dig in:

Disc One: If You Meet Sartana, Pray for Death (1968)

The first in the series, and the only one directed by Gianfranco Parolini ("Frank Kramer"), who after this went on to make the great SABATA trilogy with Lee Van Cleef and Yul Brynner. An enormous box of gold is stolen, but when it's opened there are rocks instead of the loot, which pretty much everyone in the cast wants, including William Berger, Klaus Kinski and a host of others. Gianni Garko plays Sartana, our Clint Eastwood wannabe title character who has a better costume (I think) but nowhere near the charisma. It's still fun watching him getting embroiled in a plot that becomes so complex by the end you'll wonder if it's possible for anyone left alive to double cross anyone else. For the second or third time. 

Extras include a commentary track by Mike Siegel, a new 22 minute interview with the director, and a useful and very well put together visual essay on the principle cast members of the series. 

Disc Two: I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death (1969)

Giuliano Carnimeo ("Anthomy Ascott") takes over directing chores for this and the other films in the series. The second Sartana film boasts such colourful character names as Slim Shotgun, Tracy Three Aces, Shadow, Buddy Bill, Butch Dynamite and Hot Dead (played by Klaus Kinski) and takes place in the towns of Hot Iron and Poker Falls. Everything is, of course, played completely straight, and this, combined with signs with mis-spellings and grammatical oddities lend a slightly Zucker brothers air to the proceedings.

Someone pretends to be Sartana and robs a bank. Every bounty hunter in Spaghetti Western land wants the $10 000 offered for Sartana's head. Will he prove his innocence? Will the denouement be more complicated than it really needs to be? Will Buddy Bill turn out to be the Artful Dodger 30 years on and badly in need of a shave? 
Extras include an interview with Italian screenwriting god Ernesto Gastaldi (who wrote this and one other in the series). There's also a commentary track by C Courtney Joiner and Henry Parke and a 24 minute interview with cast member and stuntman Sal Borghese. 

Disc Three: Sartana's Here - Trade Your Gun for a Coffin (1970)

George Hilton plays Sartana in this one & he's joined by fellow giallo standby Erika Blanc. It's all to do with stealing gold again, and this time Sartana, another bounty hunter called Sabata (!) in the Italian version (Charles Southwood), evil town boss Spencer (Piero Lulli) and the usual gang of Mexicans this timer led by Mantas (Nello Pazzafini) are after it. This film's gimmicks for Sartana are the number of places he finds to conceal his gun, and the fact that he has a penchant for boiled eggs. Neither as satisfying plotwise as the first nor as fun as the second, SARTANA'S HERE - TRADE YOUR GUN FOR A COFFIN is still a reasonable Sunday afternoon timewaster for spaghetti western aficionados. 

Extras include new interviews with actors George Hilton, Erika Blanc and actor and agent Tony Astin

Disc Four: Have A Good Funeral My Friend...Sartana Will Pay (1970)

Gianni Garko is back in the title role, and this time he's helping Daniela Giordano avenge the death of her uncle and preventing her from selling her 'worthless' land to the villains who know there's gold on it. Spanish horror star Helga Line is also in this one, and it has the best music score of the lot courtesy of Bruno Nicolai. In fact, everyone seems to have upped their game with this one, so that surprisingly the fourth Sartana film is easily the best of the lot. There's far less talk, a lot more action, plenty of creative fight choreography, and the plot just belts along. If you're planning to introduce someone to the Sartana series this might well be the one to start with.

Extras on this disc include a commentary track by C Courtney Joyner and Henry Peake, and an interview with screenwriter and stuntman Roberto Dell'Acqua

Disc Five: Light the Fuse...Sartana Is Coming (1970)

If you've been watching all the Sartana films so far or if you're just a fan of 1970s European exploitation films in general you'll spot a lot of familiar faces in the fifth Sartana film. Gianni Garko takes on the title role for the final time, getting himself locked up in prison so he can break out a chap called Grand Full who knows where half a million dollars in gold (aha!) has been stashed - in the very Spaghetti Western-sounding town of Mansfield.

With a weird clockwork robot called Alfie and possibly my favourite climax to a spaghetti western ever (it's so ludicrous it really is wonderful) LIGHT THE FUSE...SARTANA IS COMING is a fine way to end the series. It's not quite as good as the previous entry but both these final films are tremendously entertaining, and we get another Bruno Nicolai score to round things off nicely. 
Extras include more Ernesto Gastaldi, more Sal Borghese and archive interviews with Gianni Garko and Giuliano Carnimeo. 

So in summary. If you're a spaghetti western fan you're going to have a great time with this set, and if you're a spaghetti western obsessive you'll be in heaven with it. The transfers all look wonderful and you get the option of either Italian or English dialogue tracks with each film (and subtitles if necessary). 

The Complete Sartana is out from Arrow Films in a limited edition 5 disc Blu-ray set from Monday 25th June 2018

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

It Came From the Desert (2017)

"It's THEM! From THERE!"

After having its UK premiere at last October's Frightfest, Thunderbird Releasing are bringing out this cheery low budget monster movie on UK DVD.

It's based on a 1980s video game, apparently, but if you don't remember it don't worry - hang around for the end credits and you'll get an entertaining run through of what the game was like in all its pixellated, blipping and burping glory.

We're in a desert somewhere in America (but actually Spain which is somehow appropriate). Something has gone wrong with project T.H.E.M (aha!). "We combined alien DNA, ant DNA and tarantula DNA and blew them up to massive size for the good of mankind" says scientist Dr Renard (Mark Arnold). There we are, then. 

And of course the ants have escaped, killed everyone in the research complex, and are now looking for a source of ethanol so they can breed. Cue a party in the desert attended by the usual collection of teens. Biker boy Lukas (Alex Mills) and his mechanic brother Brian (Harry Lister Smith) wander off and find the complex. Video game style they also find weapons, armour and motorbikes to help them defeat the giant ant horde.

An affectionate and good-natured giant insects on the loose movie, IT CAME FROM THE DESERT proudly wears its influences on its sleeve. One of the first things we see is Doug McClure's name on a movie poster (for AT THE EARTH'S CORE) and there are plenty of references to films we all know and love without the practice ever becoming nudging and annoying.

The actors are likeable even though some of them are likely 'starting out' (to be charitable) and the special effects are of SyFy channel CGI quality, which means they're passable but in this case the film is fun enough that it doesn't matter. 

Extras are just a VFX bit and a trailer, but who cares in a film that contains a scene where a giant ant bangs his head and then tells his colleague to stop laughing at him. Is this the first film ever to feature ant subtitles? Or indeed insect subtitles of any kind? Recommended for giant ant fans everywhere. 

IT CAME FROM THE DESERT is out on UK DVD from Thunderbird on Monday 25th June 2018

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Xtro (1982)

"Xtro With Xtras!"

       Second Sight performs an invaluable service for fans of this bizarre 1982 British SF horror everywhere by releasing it on Blu-ray with plenty of extras and including the soundtrack CD in the package!

So what's the movie all about? For those who have yet to sample its whacked out delights, there's this family on a farm. Dad throws a stick for the dog. The stick explodes and Dad disappears for three years. His son is caught in the blast which presumably explains why the child only seems to age by the amount of time it might take to shoot a low budget British exploitation film. 

       Anyway, three years later, an alien with his head on back to front lands near London, impregnates a young lady and in a splendid bit of creative lunacy, she gives birth to Dad, fully formed!
Dad wants his son back and is prepared to use any means to get him, including a clown, a human-sized Action Man, a live panther and turning pretty Maryam D'Abo into some kind of alien ovipositor thing in the bathroom. Eventually things make even less sense, culminating in a couple of different endings you can flip between to your heart's content on this new disc.

XTRO is crazy, but it wasn't until this viewing that I understood (from Mrs Probert's comments while viewing and on the extras as well) that the brief was to try and do something like 1979's PHANTASM. It certainly has that movie's feeling of distorted reality where anything can happen, leaving you both scratching your head and feeling quite weirded out.

Second Sight's Blu-ray offers us four versions of the film - the original cinematic ending, the VHS ending, the 'video version' and a new director's version. That last one is introduced by director Harry Bromley-Davenport himself. "Maybe I've made it worse," he says. He's certainly made it bluer and darker so I'd suggest watching one of the two pristine 'original' versions first.
Extras include a nearly hour-long documentary with Bromley-Davenport (who gets to play the piano!), producer Mark Forstater, stars Bernice Stegers, Susie Silvey and Tik aka Tim Dry (the alien) and Tok aka Sean Crawford (Action Man) and others. Even Alan Jones pops up.

'The World of XTRO' is a featurette with XTRO's 'number one fan' Dennis Atherton who proves the film does indeed have a cult following in the same manner as the PHANTASM pictures. 'Beyond XTRO' gives us footage from the planned XTRO 4 - THE BIG ONE, planned by the same director and producer. There's a Brian May music tribute to deceased star Philip Sayer and a book with new writing on the movie. You also get the soundtrack CD which means I can now say goodbye to my played-to-death-in-the-1980s XTRO vinyl on the TER label. Excellent package, guys. XTRO would be proud, just before he did something horrific and probably daft. 

XTRO is getting a UK Blu-ray release from Second Sight with a book and CD on 18th June 2018

Sunday, 17 June 2018

The Children's Hour (1961)

William Wyler's second film version (the first was THESE THREE in 1936) of Lillian Helman's controversial 1934 Broadway play gets a dual format UK disc release from the BFI.

Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) run an exclusive private school for young girls in a small American town. One of their pupils, the bored, spoilt, badly behaved Mary (Karen Balkin) tells her grandmother, the rich and influential Amelia (Fay Bainter) that she has overheard a conversation that strongly suggests the two teachers are lesbians.

Soon parents are taking their children away and the school is empty. Karen is due to marry a local doctor (James Garner) and their relationship comes under threat. The two women lose a libel case when the one person who could defend them, Martha's aunt Lily (played by Miriam Hopkins who was also in the 1936 version) doesn't turn up to the hearing. But the greatest tragedy is yet to come.

Wyler's earlier version of THE CHILDREN'S HOUR had to cut out all references that didn't adhere to the Hays Code, which makes you wonder why they bothered. It does mean that he directs this with real gusto, however, and while it is by its nature very dialogue heavy, Wyler opens the story up so its presentation never feels stagey.

The two leads are excellent and well cast. Up to this point both Hepburn and MacLaine were better known for playing comedy, and having them star in this ensured the audience would be on their side. Karen Balkin who plays the vindictive Mary may go a bit over the top with her facial expressions but she's still very much the forerunner of evil pre-teens that would become popular in 1970s horror films.

The BFI's Blu-ray is from an original 35mm fine grain element and looks crisp and clear. Extras include a commentary track from Neil Sinyard and a booklet with useful essays by Sarah Wood, So Mayer and Neil Sinyard.

William Wyler's THE CHILDREN'S HOUR is out on dual format from the BFI on Monday 18th June 2018