Friday, 20 October 2017

George Romero: Between Night and Dawn (1971 - 1973)

In Memoriam: George A Romero 1940 - 2017

On July 16th 2017 we lost George Romero, one of the most influential film-makers of the last fifty years. Best known for his DEAD trilogy, horror fans also loved him for MARTIN (1976), CREEPSHOW (1982), and THE DARK HALF (1993) amongst others. Planned before his death, but only just now coming out, is this new box set dual format release of three Romero projects from the early 1970s, two of which have always been hard to locate in any format, and all three of which will hopefully help cement his reputation as an important film-maker in the eyes of the mainstream. So let's tale a look at what we've got here:

There's Always Vanilla (1971)

The set kicks off with the most obscure of the bunch. Romero's first film post NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1969) was this romantic comedy drama. Chris (Raymond Laine) returns from Vietnam and bums around, refusing his father's offer of a 'vanilla' job in a factory because it doesn't suit his free and easy lifestyle. He moves in with an older woman on whom he starts to become dependent. 

Horror fans might find THERE'S ALWAYS VANILLA a bit hard going, but anyone with a penchant for movies from the 'happy hippy' / dropout subgenre that existed mainly in the US for a couple of years might enjoy this colourful movie, and Laine makes for an engaging lead.
Extras include a commentary track from Travis Crawford, a brand new making of featuring key personnel (some of whom worked on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD), a location gallery, an archive interview with Romero about this and SEASON OF THE WITCH and a trailer.

Season of the Witch (1972)

Otherwise known as HUNGRY WIVES (the onscreen title) when it was repackaged for the soft porn market (!), Romero's follow-on from THERE'S ALWAYS VANILLA opens with a fantastic dream sequence in which a woman is led through a misty forest to a set of buildings. She has a leash fitted to the collar she is wearing and is then placed in a cage. Nothing else in the movie comes close to this dreamy, lurid opening sequence that's reminiscent of the works of Jess Franco. The rest of the movie is not without interest, though. It's essentially a character study of bored housewife Jan White, who finds herself dabbling in witchcraft. Her exploits lead to an extra-marital affair, tragedy and death. 

Arrow have given us a 4k restoration of the original 90 minute print, and the 104 minute version is included as an extra. You also get a Travis Crawford audio commentary, an archive interview with Jan White, a location gallery, and a conversation between Romero and Guillermo del Toro.

The Crazies (1973)

What for many is going to be the highlight of this set, what's perhaps most disturbing about THE CRAZIES is how it feels like a more realistic, angry, and relevant picture than its rather glossier 2010 Breck Eisner remake. A plane carrying a bacteriological weapon crashes and releases the infection into the local water supply, either killing the nearby town's inhabitants, or driving them insane. The military is disorganised and unprepared, and because of its own blunders it looks like there's no hope for humanity (there isn't). 

Arrow's 4k restoration looks great, especially if you only remember this from its BBC2 late night double bill showings. There's a location featurette, an audio interview with producer Lee Hessel, behind the scenes footage, and two interviews with Lynn Lowry, one of which was conducted at last year's Abertoir. That's me asking her about Paul Schrader, by the way. You also get a commentary by Travis Crawford, trailers & alternate opening titles.

Each of the discs come with reversible sleeves and you also get a 60 page booklet featuring new writing on all three films by Kat Ellinger, Kier-La Janisse and Heather Drain. A valuable and vital piece of restoration and preservation work from Arrow here, which will be treasured by film scholars and Romero fans alike. 

GEORGE ROMERO: BETWEEN NIGHT AND DAWN is out on dual format from Arrow Films on Monday 23rd October 2017

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The Mummy (2017)

"See Tom Cruise try to be Paul Naschy!"
"See Russell Crowe try to be Oliver Reed!"
"See Sofia Boutella win the award for 'Actress Bound in Strappado for the Longest Time in a Major Hollywood Movie!'"

Oh yes, the time has come to talk of Tom Cruise's THE MUMMY, a film released to universally (sorry - well, not really) bad reviews and less than stellar box office. A film poorly received and intended as just the first of Universal's utterly misguided attempt to rip off the comic book concept of a 'Universe' by uniting characters from gothic fiction so disparate in origin, background and incompatibility that only a fool or a genius could give the idea less than a moment's thought. The writers of HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945) must be chuckling in the graves in between their lipless mouths uttering 'We told you guys this sort of thing isn't easy.'

Shall we talk about the film? Is it really as crappy, as nonsensical, as stupid, as hateful, as tear-sheddingly-downright-sad-for-what-might-have-been awful as every single other review has suggested?
I approached the film with an open mind. After all, that attitude is what has led me to enjoying, amongst others, the films of Jess Franco and Paul Naschy - more about Mr Naschy in a bit, by the way. Might THE MUMMY be an unappreciated trash classic? 
The first half an hour isn't terrible. 

For a start we have Sofia Boutella, the only actor in this who emerges with any kind of credibility intact and I really hope this doesn't harm her career. With any luck her recent turn in ATOMIC BLONDE will help people forget about this. Anyway, Sofia is an evil Egyptian princess, and very good she is in the role, quickly becoming the only character for which we develop any real sympathy. I don't think that's the intention of the film, mind. Sofia gets buried in an unmarked tomb for killing her entire family in style probably deemed unreasonably sexy for the period. 

Flash forward to modern day, and Tom Cruise and his friend are Bob Hope / Bing Crosby style soldiers / looters who I think we are supposed to like but we just don't. Some big explosions open up a pit in the town they are planning to exploit and the tomb of Sofia is revealed! Up pops archaeologist Annabelle Wallis and after some horribly awkward, and presumably contractual, dialogue "banter" to establish that Tom is Not Gay we enter the tomb. Cue terrible dialogue from Annabelle, the kind of awful, non-researched dialogue that a five year old writing a story about archaeologists might use before being sent back to their desk by their teacher with lots of red pen all over the story. 

Tom releases the mummy, because, in a sense, that's all Tom is there for - to perform this one action and then spend the rest of the movie talking about himself a lot. In fact as the film goes on you get the distinct impression that Tom has either been told (or has decided) to Act Tom Cruise without any consideration for or interaction with the film he's actually in. It's a bizarre, self-contained, goldfish bowl of a performance and is probably the one thing more than any other that sinks this. Except for his co-star who we'll come to in a minute.
The mummy is put on a plane. Tom's friend dies. Tom's friend comes back to life. Tom shoots his friend. There's a fantastic bit where crows bring down the plane and it crashes near Oxford. 
Then the movie goes horribly wrong. 

While Sofia does the LIFEFORCE thing to give herself form, Tom enjoys a bit of Austin Powers-style nudity that I'm sure isn't meant to be funny before being taken to something called the 'Prodigium'. The 'Prodigium' is possibly the most contrived, godawful, poorly thought out idea in modern big budget cinema to date. 
Russell Crowe is in charge of it. 
He play Dr Henry Jekyll for no other reason than at one point he changes into Mr Hyde because our five year old has got stuck at that point in the script and has decided to chuck in another monster. The teacher has suggested he go back and make the man Dr Jekyll so the story isn't entirely complete and utter bollocks. It says that on our five year old's script, by the way. In red capitals. When Jekyll becomes Hyde it's like watching Oliver Reed being told that's his last drink of the day, but with nowhere near the sincerity. 

Does THE MUMMY have any good features apart from Ms Boutella? Well, the special effects are excellent. If you've ever wanted to see Sainsbury's destroyed by a massive sandstorm this is the film for you. All the opening stuff looks lovely, and some of the production design will have you shedding a tear that so much gothic beauty has gone to such senseless waste. Brian Tyler's music score is fantastic and deserves a far, far better movie to go along with it. Get the CD and listen to it by itself.

Universal's Blu-ray comes with a commentary track from director Alex Kurtzman, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis & Jake Johnson. If you can bring yourself to watch the film again it does contain some interesting insights into what it was like to work with Tom Cruise. Mr Cruise is also all over the making of featurettes, and, like the film, these leave you with a sense of sadness, this time at all these people talking so seriously and earnestly about making the biggest load of old rubbish since Stephen Sommers' VAN HELSING (2004). I liked THE MUMMY more than VAN HELSING, by the way.

Ultimately, THE MUMMY reminded me of a terrible attempt to emulate the films of horror icon Paul Naschy - colourful 1970s Spanish monster movies which chucked in everything including the kitchen sink and usually featured its star as a monster, who pretty much had it in his contract that he got to go to bed onscreen with his gorgeous co-star. At its best THE MUMMY is not as good as Naschy's worst. There is no heart, no soul, no love, no sense, only a sense of desperation on the part of a studio trying to ride the crest of someone else's wave, and star who really shouldn't have been allowed anywhere near this. 

THE MUMMY is out from Universal on Blu-ray & DVD and probably all the other platforms as well from Monday 23rd October 2017

Friday, 13 October 2017

The Thing (1982)

"Excellent Presentation of Carpenter's Classic"

John Carpenter's brilliant interpretation of John W Campbell Jr's classic story Who Goes There gets a director (and DP Dean Cundey) supervised 4k restoration from Arrow Films.

An Antarctic research team have their routine disrupted when a Norwegian in a helicopter arrives doing his best to kill the dog he's been pursuing. The dog survives, unfortunately for everyone, because in fact it's a shapeshifting, tissue-absorbing, perfect-replica-making alien life form. Soon members of the team are starting to be killed off and / or replaced, leaving us with the age-old horror film question - who will survive and what will be left of them? 

One of the best horror films ever made, one of the best science fiction films ever made, and one of the best 1980s films ever made, all of that probably means I can venture to suggest John Carpenter's THE THING is one of the best films ever made full stop. It's certainly a superb exercise in the horror of paranoia, complemented by a splendid script (everything we see and hear is relevant); a fine ensemble of character actors; understated, claustrophobic music (Morricone was definitely the right choice) and of course Rob Bottin's amazing special effects. A financial disaster at the time for Universal (it was the summer of ET: The Extraterrestrial, and the company probably wasn't too bothered because they made ET as well), time has shown the film's enduring quality, and if any movie of the early 1980s deserves the 4k restoration treatment, this is it.

So how does the transfer compare with the old Universal Blu-ray most of us will have in our collections? Well, the Arrow 4k gives you a crisper image with more detail but the picture has been brightened considerably - here at HMC we had to turn the contrast way down on our monitor to finally get rid of all the picture noise, so be aware. On the other hand if you're happy with your Universal disc I wouldn't be in too much of a hurry to upgrade.

Unless you want the extras, of course. The Universal disc extras have all been ported over, including the Carpenter / Russell commentary, the feature-length making of, featurettes, out-takes, behind the scenes stuff, trailers and more.

New to the Arrow disc is a new feature-length documentary 'Who Goes There?' which looks at the history of THE THING and includes new cast and crew interviews. '1982 - One Amazing Summer' is a new documentary about the movies released during the summer of 1982 (obviously) and you also get a new commentary track for THE THING from Mike White, Patrick Bromley and 'El Goro' who are all podcasters.

You also get Sean Hogan's short Frightfest tribute THE THING: 27000 HOURS (with an optional Hogan commentary as well), No Thing Left Unsaid - a video record of a panel at the 2017 Texas Frightmare weekend, and three short featurettes about fans of the movie who have gone the extra distance in their love for the film.
Arrow Films have done that as well, by the way. A 4k transfer and lots and lots and lots of extras. You also get a poster, lobby cards, and a book. If you haven't got THE THING on Blu-ray, get this. If you already have, chances are you're going to want this version as well. An excellent package. 

The 4k restoration of John Carpenter's THE THING is out on Blu-ray from Arrow Films on Monday 23rd October 2017

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

The Vikings (1958)

"Gorgeous 1080p Presentation of an All-Time Classic"

Richard Fleischer's epic, colourful, action-packed version of life among the Vikings (well, as he and especially Kirk Douglas decided to present it) gets a UK Blu-ray release courtesy of Eureka.

Medieval England. During a raid to Northumbria, Viking chieftain Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) rapes Queen Enid (Maxine Audley), who ends up giving birth in secret (I think) to Eric. She has no other children and as her husband is already dead, sneering villain Aella (Frank Thring) takes the throne.

Time passes, enough for Eric to grow into Tony Curtis who is now a slave to Ragnar's family, which includes Ragnar's other son, Einar (Kirk Douglas). Naughty Egbert (James Donald) is willing to sell out the English and draw maps so the Vikings can kidnap Aella's intended, Morgana (Janet Leigh), and ransom her for lots of money. Needless to say, both sons (who don't know that they are brothers) fancy Morgana and the initially successful kidnap attempt goes a bit wrong, leading to a great big fight that's just great.

THE VIKINGS is a classic. Cleverly and imaginatively directed by Fleischer, with beautiful photography from Jack Cardiff, dramatic European locations and some fine production design, it's a film that, despite its epic status, moves a lot faster than some of the more sluggish school history book-style epics of the period. Highly popular father and son viewing, this was certainly where I learned that a Viking can only get into Valhalla if he dies with a sword in his hand. 

The Vikings as a whole are portrayed as a jolly bunch who spend most of their time laughing uproariously at pretty much anything, especially if it involves violence. Plus you get the delights of Janet Leigh playing a Welsh princess, Kirk, Tony and Ernest as Vikings, and plenty of well-staged battle sequences that are still immensely entertaining.
          Eureka's Blu-ray includes A Tale of Norway, which is a 28 minute archival making of presented by the director. You also get a new talking head piece from Sheldon Hall where he talks about the production, how and where it was made, and amongst other things takes apart that lovely three-minute single take at the start of the film just in case you haven't realised how brilliant it is. Trailer, reversible sleeve, booklet with posters and more, make this worth getting, but most of all get it because it's THE VIKINGS on Blu-ray! How can anyone say no to this, and risk not getting into Blu-ray Valhalla?

Richard Fleischer's THE VIKINGS is out on UK Blu-ray on Monday 16th October 2017

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Resurrection of Evil (2017)

"Best Left to Rest In Peace"

Here we go with another film that's had a mysterious retitling. One presumes HAVENHURST was ok for this film's intended US, French and Peruvian markets (amongst others) while those of us in Argentina, Mexico, Chile and the good old United Kingdom need something a little more obvious, so RESURRECTION OF EVIL it is, and now it's getting a UK DVD release from Thunderbird.

The Havenhurst of the US (et al) title is a very posh New York gothic apartment building which seems to be filled with people who enjoy the most by-the-numbers vices. It also seems to be owned and run by someone (or something) who probably reads the Daily Mail and watches Fox News. As long as you can stay away from the naughty habits that would make the average Sun reader's blood boil with jealousy that they're not getting to do it themselves, then you're fine. However, slip back into your old 'evil' ways of prostitution or drug abuse and something horrible happens to you.

Julie Benz plays Jackie Sullivan, a recovering alcoholic (Aha!) who moves into Havenhurst after being released from rehab. She ends up in the same apartment as was occupied by her friend Danielle Harris (seen in the prologue playing a character called Danielle and giving you an indication of how imaginative the script is going to be) who has disappeared. 

Jackie meets Fionnula Flanagan (trying hard to do posh Sheila Keith) who owns the building and is obviously a bit odd from the outset. Jackie's life gets stressful. The local off-licence makes a few sales. Of course, it's only when Jackie unscrews the cap of that whiskey bottle that Bad Things Happen. We know they're going to happen because some poor girl playing a prostitute has earlier been subjected not just to the indignity of being the gratuitous nude sex scene but also the gratuitous torture porn scene that follows. How gratuitous are the scenes? Well, I thought they were, so that means very gratuitous indeed.

What annoyed me most about RESURRECTION OF EVIL, though, was that it runs a rushed, scant, cynical 76 minutes, so there's really no excuse not to allow a bit more time to expand on the bits of this that don't make much sense at all. Naughty film-makers - I doubt they would have lasted long in a real Havenhurst as a truncated running time and garbled plot are certainly 'vices' much more worthy of torture here at the House of Mortal Cinema. Extras are minimal. 

RESURRECTION OF EVIL is out on DVD in the UK from Thunderbird Releasing on Monday 9th October 2017

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

"Beautiful Transfer of an SF Classic"

The 1959 James Mason-starring version of Jules Verne's novel gets a spectacular 4k restoration and transfer to Blu-ray from Eureka.

Edinburgh in the late nineteenth century. 1950s teen heartthrob, pop singer and geology student Alec McEwan (Pat Boone) brings a lump of volcanic rock to Professor Lindenbrook (James Mason). Lindenbrook finds a plum-bob buried in the middle of it, and the writing on its metal surface suggests its owner undertook an expedition to the centre of the earth.

Lindenbrook plans a similar journey through an extinct Icelandic volcano, with widowed Carla (Arlene Dahl), beefcake local Hans (Peter Ronson), Pat Boone and his squeezebox in case a song is needed (it apparently might be) and a duck called Gertrude. But they reckon without Count Saknussemm (Thayer David) who is there to provide a bit of antagonism in a story that is otherwise essentially 'There And Back Again' but to Centre Earth rather than Middle Earth (sorry).

Coming in at over two hours, Henry Levin's film is epic late 1950s cinema of the very best kind, shot in Cinemascope and with plenty of wide open vistas, endearing acting, a fabulous Bernard Herrmann score (which sounds great here) and some trippy sets and effects that still hold up pretty well. Verne's ideas like an ocean beneath the earth and the buried city of Atlantis would influence fantasy writers from H P Lovecraft to Michael Moorcock and beyond, and they're rendered beautifully (and quite otherworldly) here. While the dimetrodons are just lizards with fins stuck on them, they're photographed as effectively as possible for the era.

Eureka's 4k restoration looks fabulous. Turn off the lights, put this on, and revel in the warm colours of an age of cinema long past while Bernard's bass clarinets vibrate your sound system in either 5.1 or stereo PCM (I preferred the 5.1). There's also an isolated music and effects track and so there should be. 

You also get a commentary track with Diane Baker who plays James Mason's daughter in the film (I'll always remember her best as playing opposite Joan Crawford in William Castle's 1964 STRAIT JACKET). Baker is accompanied by film historians Steven C Smith and Nick Redman. There's a talking head piece from Kim Newman that lasts just over 20 minutes and covers plenty of aspects of the film, a restoration featurette and trailer. Finally, the disc comes with a booklet featuring archive images, a poster gallery and a review of the film from the time. 

Blu-ray from Eureka on Monday 18th September 2017

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Don’t Torture A Duckling (1972)

"An Absolute Classic"

Lucio Fulci's superior, downbeat giallo gets a dual format release courtesy of Arrow Films.
Someone is murdering little boys in a remote Italian town. Is it naked Barbara Bouchet with her wave tank and drug problem? Or mad Florinda Bolkan who likes to stick pins in wax effigies and bury them next to the skeleton of her aborted child? Yes we're firmly in Italian horror film territory from the get go with this, which is actually rather better than Fulci's previous giallo effort, LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN. In fact I've probably done it an injustice by so far making it sound a bit sillier than it actually is. 

Typical gialli of the early 1970s tended to emphasise 'with it' characters living in fashionable apartments and enjoying glossy lifestyles. DUCKLING's setting is an Italian peasant town, with sometimes dressed (and whenever she is it's always fashionably) Barbara Bouchet looking as anachronistic as the concrete highway that towers over the landscape and olde worlde town where all the action takes place. DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING's story unfolds  not in the world of high rise penthouses and devious scheming murderers, but in a far more old-fashioned milieu of superstitious peasant folk and the all-pervading presence of religion. 

Fulci's directorial style is thoroughly dispassionate throughout - we are shown the events but are only rarely encouraged to relate to the characters on screen. It's interesting to note that the one time we are it's when Fulci involves us in the horrific torture and murder of Bolkan's character by a quartet of local men seeking revenge. Fulci's bleak bitter view of humanity comes to the fore here, where not only is Bolkan portrayed more sympathetically than at any other time in the film, but extra emphasis is placed on the unwillingness of those driving past the cemetery in which the attack takes place to stop and help. And as if he's worried the audience hasn't been manipulated enough Fulci rams his point home by having Riz Ortolani's music play a sweet and soulful song as Florinda gets beaten to death with chains. 

      Again contrary to many of the gialli of the time, the reason for the murders is anything but ludicrous and despite its catchpenny title DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING has one of the better (and less ridiculous) giallo denouements, with a typically horrific end for the killer. 

The use of a headless toy duck as the key to the mystery is really rather silly, but it's interesting to note that fourteen years later Fulci returned to the giallo form with his controversial and bleak slasher film THE NEW YORK RIPPER, which also featured a toy duck as a vital clue in identifying that movie's quacking-voiced killer. Perhaps Fulci had a thing about them, in which case we should be glad he never ended up making MR POPPER"S PENGUINS. But then again, that might have been interesting...

Arrow's new transfer looks substantially better than Blue Underground's Region One DVD. For extras you get an excellent commentary track from Troy Howarth that even gives us a potted history of J&B at the 90 minute mark! There's also Hell Is Already With Us - a video essay by Kat Ellinger, archive interviews with Fulci, Bolkan and assorted technical personnel, The Blood of the Innocents - a video discussion by Mikel J Koven, a reversible sleeve and a booklet with notes by Barry Forshaw. Another must-buy. 

Lucio Fulci's masterly DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING is out on dual format from Arrow Films on Monday 11th September 2017