Sunday, 20 August 2017

Tower of London (1939)

Historical Epic - Universal Horror Style!

Rowland V Lee’s epic retelling of the end of Plantagenet rule in England (with added Boris Karloff) gets a DVD re-release in the UK courtesy of Fabulous Films.

England in the late 1400s. Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Basil Rathbone) is determined to become king despite being seventh in line. He has a plan that involves his loyal club footed executioner, Mord (Boris Karloff), a dungeon filled with torture devices, and a little tableaux of dolls of the royal family Richard keeps hidden in his cupboard so he can keep track of who needs to be bumped off next. 

Vincent Price gets drowned in a vat of wine, the Prince of Wales dies on the field of battle by Richard’s sword, King Henry VI gets a knife in the back and the little princes die a horrible death in the tower, after which King (at last!) Richard meets his end at the battle of Bosworth Field before the kind of pack your bags and run ending Hammer would be making all their own twenty years later. 

Whether it ended up as something of a horror piece by accident or by design, it’s likely that most of the interest for Universal’s TOWER OF LONDON is going to come from those who love the studio’s monster movie output of the era.

The addition of Boris Karloff to the cast and a score pinched from the same year’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (when studio executives demanded the period music be replaced) both give TOWER OF LONDON a deliciously disrespectable edge, one that meant the film received a few unkind comments from the critics back in the day. 

It’s a bit creaky now but TOWER OF LONDON does still move well. The turns from the main cast are all tremendous fun, and the sets and battle sequences are bigger and better than much of what made its way into the studio’s horror films. Rathbone is very good as Richard, making him less of a caricature than Olivier perhaps later did, and Karloff’s introductory scene in the torture chamber is wonderful. In fact the entire endeavour makes you wonder what Universal might have done with other historical subjects that could have leant themselves to the lurid.

As is usually the case with Fabulous releases, the DVD contains no extras. 

Universal's TOWER OF LONDON is out on DVD from Fabulous Films on Monday 21st August 2017

Saturday, 19 August 2017

The Mourning Forest (2017)

“Gentle, Artistic Mood Piece About Grief”

Over the last couple of years Eureka have been bringing out some fascinating examples of modern international cinema. Naomi Kawase’s THE MOURNING FOREST is their latest modern release and for anyone whose tastes lean towards the languid, the gentle, and the charming yet profoundly moving, this is well worth tracking down.

Machiko (Machiko Ono) works in an elderly care home where the residents spend their days painting, napping, watching television and above all, waiting to die. One of the residents is Shigeki (Shigeki Uda) who is still mourning the death of his wife 33 years previously. The number is significant according to the director of the care home as apparently she has now reached the stage where ‘she can no longer return to earth’.

Machiko is mourning the death of her dead son. Or rather, she has yet to begin, as she is still stuck in an emotionally numb state that prevents her from even communicating with her husband, himself in the throes of his own grief.

After celebrating Shigeki’s birthday, Machiko (who has formed a charming bond with him) takes the older man out for a drive in the country, but their car breaks down. Machiko goes for help and Shigeki runs off into the nearby forest. When she finds him, he insists on going deeper in and she has no alternative but to follow him. On their journey together they find a resolution for their grief.

By no means a film for everyone - the narrative is slight and there are lengthy sequences where little is happening other than the cultivation of mood - THE MOURNING FOREST is very much a gentle art house piece. The opening shots reminded me of Ingmar Bergman (in colour), the filmic style reminded Mrs Probert of von Trier’s Dogme 95 movement, and the press release quite reasonably compares the movie to the work of Terence Malick. All are entirely valid and will hopefully give you some idea of both the style and the intentions of the film.

Eureka’s Blu-ray has a trailer and still gallery as extras, and two sound options: uncompressed PCM audio (on the Blu-ray) and 5.1 surround. I would suggest the surround as some of the wind effects in the landscape shots sound quite wonderful. 

Naomi Kawase's THE MOURNING FOREST is getting a dual format DFVD & Blu-ray release from Eureka on 21st August 2017

Friday, 18 August 2017

The Slayer (1982)

J S Cardone’s weird, ambitious, rubber reality murder mystery (he doesn’t consider it a slasher film) gets a splendid 4k upgrade whistles and bells release from Arrow.

Kay (Sarah Kendall) and her husband David (Alan McRae) travel to a secluded windswept island for a holiday with Kay’s brother Eric (Frederick Flynn) and his wife Brooke (Carol Kottenbrook). The Crazy Ralph wannabe aeroplane pilot who brings them warns them off staying but they don’t listen. 

The only buildings on the island appear to be the house they are staying in and a run-down theatre (obviously a genuine location and superbly creepy). As the weather worsens, someone (or something) starts bumping people off (including a fisherman who, in the grand tradition of these things, turns up just to get bonked on the head by an oar). 

But that’s not all. Kay is convinced she has dreamed what is going on, and Eric confides that as a child, Kay did something very unpleasant with the family pet. Is Kay responsible for the killings? Is someone else? Or is it a great big monster with spikey teeth?

THE SLAYER plays fast and loose with what should be a straightforward plot line but isn’t. That, plus the considerable skill behind the camera, means THE SLAYER isn’t a standard early 1980s US horror film, but more something that harkens back to the ambitious, weird and often outright loony backwoods USA pictures of the 1970s. I’m not going to reveal the ending because it wouldn’t be fair (of course) but also because I’m still not sure what was going on, and that ambiguity is just one of the reasons this one is worth watching.

Arrow’s 4k transfer looks amazing - who would have thought movies like this would ever be getting such treatment? Extras include two commentary tracks - one with Cardone, Kottenbrook and executive producer Eric Weston, and another with The Hysteria continues. A third ‘commentary’ track is actually a 50 minute audio interview with composer Robert Folk (of POLICE ACADEMY fame), followed by good quality recordings of the (very good) music cues from the film.

There’s also a making of that runs for nearly an hour, as well as a look at the locations. You also get ‘The Tybee Experience’ which gives you a feature-length audience reaction track and a post-movie Q&A.

A VHS staple for many years, with its restored print and excellent supplementary features, Arrow Films have come up with the definitive presentation of THE SLAYER. If you buy the first pressing you’ll also get a booklet with new writing on the film from Lee Gambin. 

J S Cardone's THE SLAYER is out on dual format from Arrow Films on Monday 21st August 2017

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The Saga of Anatahan (1953 / 1958)

Josef von Sternberg’s final movie (unless you count the 1957 John Wayne starrer JET PILOT but let’s not) gets a full and restored dual format release in the UK courtesy of Eureka.

Close to the end of World War II, a Japanese military vessel gets sunk and its twelve man crew end up on the island of Anatahan, part of an archipelago miles away from civilisation and nowhere near any flight paths. Once there, they discover an abandoned village in the jungle, the only occupants of which are a former plantation overseer and his young attractive wife (or so they believe at first) Keiko (Akemi Negishi).

As time progresses and they realise the situation they are in, discipline and rationality break down. The discovery of a crashed aeroplane also leads to the discovery of a couple of guns, and soon there are power struggles over Keiko’s affections, leading to more than just a couple of deaths.

It’s likely you’ll never see another film quite like THE SAGA OF ANATAHAN. Photographed entirely on studio sets in black and white by Sternberg himself, all the dialogue is in Japanese with no subtitles. Instead, Sternberg himself tells the story, occasionally translating the dialogue, sometimes leaving us to listen in on the islanders’ native language with no assistance. What this results in is an interesting, almost TWILIGHT ZONE take on Lord of the Flies - the stranded seamen could almost be aliens on another planet. 

This, plus the black and white photography, means our attention is almost entirely concentrated on the emotional reactions of the players. It all becomes quite riveting stuff, and I won’t spoil it for you by telling you the ending. Mention should also be made of Akira GODZILLA Ifukube’s music score, which employs shuddery woodwind and strings in the same unsettling way James Bernard would a couple of years later in Hammer’s THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (1955).

Eureka’s disc comes with the fully uncensored 1958 version as well as the 1953 release which lost all the nudity and a few other bits as well. If you don’t feel like going through both versions there’s also a comparison, plus some outtake footage of actress Akemi Negeshi being required to run naked into the sea several times plus several other unclothed close-ups.

There’s a fifteen minute making of with von Sternberg’s son Nicolas, a visual essay about the film by Tag Gallagher, archival US Navy footage and a trailer. Best amongst the extras is a lengthy 45 minute interview with Tony Rayns who covers plenty of ground regarding the making of the movie.

An unforgettable experience from an important film-maker, THE SAGA OF ANATAHAN should be on everyone’s list of films to see at least once. Full marks to Eureka for putting this package together.

Josef von Sternberg's THE SAGA OF ANATAHAN is out on dual format from Eureka from Monday 14th August 2017 

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Electric Dreams (1984)

“Pure Electro Nostalgia”

Steve Barron’s charming mid-1980s computer-themed romance gets a new restoration release for the first time on Blu-ray courtesy of Second Sight.

Architect Miles (Lenny von Dohlen) is constantly late for meetings and is having trouble designing a new kind of earthquake-resistant brick. He decides to solve all his time-keeping and design problems by buying a top of the range (for 1984 - the monitor is still the size of an economy size cereal box) computer. 

Already more advanced than any computers of the era, Miles gives his new machine an extra boost by spilling champagne all over it, allowing it to acquire a personality. When pretty cellist Madeline (Virginia CANDYMAN Madsen) moves in upstairs, Miles' computer devises musical accompaniments to her solos and eventually ends up writing a song for her which Miles claims as his own.

Soon the computer is learning about jealousy and begins to wreck Miles’ life - his credit rating, his home and possibly his romance. Will Miles admit to Madeline that he lied? Will true love win through? What do you think?

Definitely the lightest, fluffiest version of numerous late 1970s 2000AD comic strips where the protagonist ended up dead  / a gibbering wreck / a shiny skeleton as a result of installing computer AI to run their home / car / office, ELECTRIC DREAMS is going to appeal most to those who grew up in the 1980s and will experience a serious nostalgia rush at the technology  - to kids today it will probably look like something from the Victorian era.

The leads are likeable, especially Madsen (with this and Sigourney Weaver in GHOSTBUSTERS, being a cellist was obviously Hollywood shorthand for ‘unattainable intellectual’ in 1984) and Steve Barron’s background in pop videos means the soundtrack - including a couple of very amusing muzak Culture Club covers as well as tracks by Jeff Lynne, Heaven 17 and of course the title song by Giorgio Moroder & Phil (billed here as Philip) Oakey - gets shown off to best effect.

Extras include new interviews with Barron, writer-producer Rusty Lemorande and stars Madsen and van Dohlen. You also get a slipcase. What you don’t get is a 5.1 surround sound mix which fans would probably have loved. Even so, ELECTRIC DREAMS really is an utterly charming slice of 1980s nostalgia. 

Steve Barron’s ELECTRIC DREAMS is out on Blu-ray from Second Sight from Monday 7th August 2017

Friday, 11 August 2017

The Transfiguration (2017)

“21st Century MARTIN”

A film that is as much social commentary as it is a movie about vampires (and vampire movies), Michael O’Shea’s THE TRANSFIGURATION is getting a Blu-ray and DVD release in the UK courtesy of Thunderbird Pictures.

In a rough area of New York, fourteen year old Milo (Eric Ruffin) is an outsider, small for his age and bullied by the gang members who patrol the estate where he lives. His mother has committed suicide and he lives with his older brother. Coping with his situation by sinking himself deep into vampire lore, his shelves are filled with VHS cassettes of everything from Murnau’s NOSFERATU to THE LOST BOYS, with his favourites are the one he considers ‘real’ - George A Romero’s MARTIN, Elias Merhige’s SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE and Tomas Alfredson’s LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.

But there are other aspects to Milo’s life that he doesn’t talk about, certainly not to his neighbour and prospective girlfriend Sophie (Chloe Levine). He attends sessions with the school psychiatrist who repeatedly questions him about potential psychopathic behaviour, and when he’s out on the streets alone the people Milo meets don’t always survive the encounter.

Michael O’Shea’s film does a fine job of being a gritty realist drama first, and homage to movies like Romero’s MARTIN second. Milo’s existence (and that of those around him) is pretty grim, and THE TRANSFIGURATION might be a bit too gloomy and oppressive for vampire movie fans while at the same time being a bit too gruesome for art-house audiences. 

Full marks to O’Shea, though, for achieving a thoughtful balance absolutely worth of comparison with Romero. The director is happy to wear his exploitation influences on his sleeve with guest victim appearances from both Lloyd Kaufman (in another surprise cameo after James Gunn’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) and Larry Fessenden. The acting from the young leads is measured, considered and appropriately affecting, and if you’re a fan of quiet, grim, tower block horror then this will do very nicely indeed.

Thunderbird’s Blu-ray comes with director’s commentary, making of, deleted and extended scenes and a trailer. THE TRANSFIGURATION received praise at Cannes and I’m not at all surprised. It will be interesting to see what Michael O’Shea comes up with next. 

Michael O'Shea's THE TRANSFIGURATION is out on 
Blu-ray and DVD from Thunderbird Releasing on Monday 14th August 2017

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Vampira (1974)

The ON THE BUSES of vampire movies

From the co-writer of ARE YOU BEING SERVED and ‘ALLO ‘ALLO (I know, it’s not looking good, is it?) comes this British vampire comedy movie (oh dear) from 1974. We all know what that means - it’s going to be dated, silly, and above and beyond all, somewhat Politically Incorrect.
Just warning you.

Dracula (David Niven, who apparently had a lifelong ambition to play the role) needs blood to bring his beloved wife, Vampira, back to life. Rather than embark on the kind of delicious, delirious and sexy bloodletting exploits we might see in a Jean Rollin or Jess Franco picture from the period, instead this Dracula invites Bernard Bresslaw to his castle.

Oh, and some models for a Playboy shoot.
Vampira gets transfused but something goes wrong and she turns into the (extremely presentable) Teresa Graves, who also happens to be of (ahem) African descent. Not happy with this state of affairs, Dracula travels to London with his faithful assistant (Peter Bayliss) in tow. Cue a series of ‘amusing’ encounters as they try to find the right blood type to change Vampira back to her normal caucasian self. Audiences of today will wonder why on earth they are bothering. 

There now follows the HMC list of ‘highlights’ in VAMPIRA so those of you still undecided about this one can hopefully make up your minds:
Dialogue! e.g. Playboy Model: “It’s so cold in here I’ve got goose bumps”      
       Mr Bresslaw: “Yes. I can see two of them from here.”

Acting! e.g.  Nicky Henson gurning. Peter Bayliss gurning. Jennie Linden in glasses. Freddie Jones on an aeroplane. Linda Hayden who is just lovely both before & after being vampirised but is totally wasted. Niven himself looking vaguely uncomfortable all the way through this.  Teresa Graves who is the only one who gets through this with any dignity. And Kenneth Cranham as a mugger! (See below)

The climax! An extended disco dance bit that goes on forever before the final, terrible punchline to the whole film that has to be seen to be disbelieved. 

Fabulous Films’ Blu-ray looks pretty rough, as if a projector-worn print has been slapped onto the high definition format and held there by banging a few nails through it. That’s probably being a bit unkind but I wouldn’t want to raise your expectations after all the build up I’ve given to this film already. There are no extras.

Clive Donner’s VAMPIRA is out on DVD and Blu-ray from Fabulous Films from Monday 14th August 2017