Saturday, 18 August 2018

The Bloodstained Bulletin No.1

Many years ago I used to write a column entitled The Bloodstained Balcony, so named because I always used to buy a ticket to sit up on the balcony at the old Coliseum Cinema in Abergavenny when I was little. There's so much happening in the world of weird cinema at the moment I thought the best way to cover some of it would be in the form of a regular online summary / column / magazine type thing instead of just formal reviews. So here's the first, with the title adjusted accordingly. Will there be a second? That'll be up to me (and the world of horror and the weird and etc etc etc). But never mind that - here's what I've been watching over the last week or so:

On the Big Screen

The Meg

        Oh dear oh dear. I so wanted this to be good, and it wasn't. Then I so wanted this to be bad, and it wasn't that either. Because, I am sorry to report, THE MEG is just bland. As in Stephen Sommers directing an episode of NCIS bland. In some films I can see the acting, in some I can see the directing. In THE MEG all I could see were the committee meetings between the film's Chinese and American co-financiers and the screenwriters. One of them probably went a bit like this:

Money People: There must be no inter-racial kissing. No gory violence. No swearing. 

Writers: (Crossing out a lot of Jason Statham's dialogue) Er...ok.

Money People. Right, now, we've got a fat guy - can we make him quirky yet capable? And that girl with the tattoos, we need to make her quirky but capable too. And make sure the cast is multi ethnic to cover all the demographics, but they all need to be quirky and capable. Oh, and witty as well, especially in the face of seeing their friends all dead. They absolutely should not be mortified at seeing someone they've worked with for some time dead and chewed up by the monster shark. Including the little girl. She should act more maturely than any of them. Because kids like that are fun and appealing. We think.

Writers: Er, actually we're not up to writing different kinds of quirky dialogue for that many different characters.
Money People: So make them all the same! No-one will notice. Oh, and by the way, have you found out what side the liver is on in a human yet?

Writers: But we promise we will.

Well it turns out they didn't, and the poor old glamorous submarine pilot gets a screwdriver in her left loin that according to the script, narrowly misses an organ that normally resides on the other side of the body.

What else? Well there's Jason Statham, of course, who is set up at the beginning of the picture to be some kind of Captain Ahab character. You hope instead of a Great White Whale he's going to keep ranting about 'That Fuckin' Massive Fuck Off Shark' but it quickly turns out that THE MEG is all far too family friendly for that. And that's the biggest problem with it. It should be PIRANHA 3D with a shark but instead it...isn't.
But what do I know? THE MEG did terrific business on its opening weekend. However, if you're looking for something that isn't the cinematic equivalent of a bowl of rice with nothing else added then beware. 

So what else is on at UK cinemas at the moment? Oh, there's this of course:

Unfriended: Dark Web

        Did we need another of these? Well, UNFRIENDED and FRIEND REQUEST were actually both pretty good supernatural revenge horrors that made good use of modern social media. DARK WEB uses the same setup as the original UNFRIENDED (the cinema screen is a computer screen) but turns out ultimately to be far less ambitious and far less believable. 
        Going the old torture porn route but without the gore, which would at least have given this one a bit of a punch, you don't need to worry too much about catching up with this one unless you're a completist. Too much of the ending can be guessed by the end of the first act. Also, our cinema did us the extra dirty of screening this 1.85:1 aspect ratio movie in 2.35:1 (thanks Showcase!). Reimbursements occurred at the end.

Okay, onto the first of the regular features. The title may not be permanent but right now it's time for:

Compost Corner

        In which I revisit (or recycle for the purposes of a truly terrible joke that's a tip of the hat to TISWAS) some old classic movies. Sometimes I'm going to need quotation marks around the word classic but this time I don't. Because today I'm asking:

THE HOWLING - Which steelbook to buy?

        I love steelbooks & I've been steadily collecting them for movies I have particular affection for. So when I learned that Shout Factory was bringing out a steelbook of their Region A Blu-ray of Joe Dante's THE HOWLING I was sorely tempted. Here's what it looks like:

        But I already had the standard issue Scream Factory disc. What I didn't own, though, was the Region B Studio Canal release, apparently taken from a different scan. I thought it unlikely there was a steelbook of the UK version but goodness me I was wrong! Here it is:

        So which is the one to own if you're thinking of forking out? Well, the UK Blu-Ray actually looks a little better in terms of transfer than than the US. Colours are fuller, more vivid and the film looks more vibrant on the whole. As for the extras, here's what you get with each disc:

Shout Factory Region A

Audio Commentary With Director Joe Dante And Actors Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone and Robert Picardo
Audio Commentary with Author Gary Brandner 
Howlings Eternal with Producer Steven A. Lane
Cut to Shreds with Editor Mark Goldblatt
Interview with Co-writer Terence Winkless
Horror’s Hallowed Grounds: A Look at the Film’s Locations
Making Of A Monster Movie: Inside The Howling Documentary
Interview with Stop-Motion Animator David Allen
Unleashing the Beast: The Making Of The Howling Multi-part Documentary
Deleted Scenes 
Photo Gallery
Theatrical Trailers

Studio Canal Region B

Howlings Eternal with Producer Steven A. Lane
Cut to Shreds with Editor Mark Goldblatt
Interview with Co-writer Terence Winkless
Horror’s Hallowed Grounds: A Look at the Film’s Locations
Interview with Stop-Motion Animator David Allen
Audio Commentary with Author Gary Brandner

So there you go - far more extras on the US region A release (no surprise there) but a slightly better transfer and, I think, a nicer-looking steelbook for the UK release. 

Ok, that's enough of the good stuff. It's time to visit:

The Shit Shed

How could I possibly write a column / magazine type thing without profiling some complete rubbish? This time it's this, which is on sale in HMV at the moment and (probably) isn't worth your time. But then again, depending on your tastes, maybe it is... This week the film squatting in the Shit Shed is:

The Institute

"Franco, the second of his name"

After Jess, that is. Here's a load of pervy old nonsense co-directed by James Franco, he of last year's rather splendid THE DISASTER ARTIST. Here, though, he seems to be trying to make his own terrible film.
Or is he...?

It starts off like this...
THE INSTITUTE is purportedly 'based on real events'. Which it isn't. What it is is a film that exploits a situation that actually took place (a hospital for the treatment of women suffering from 'psychiatric conditions' actually being a front for human trafficking) and uses it as an excuse for a bit of good old fashioned murder and mayhem spiced up with nudity. 

..but then goes all like this! 
Not that you would expect it from the first thirty minutes or so. Perhaps Mr Franco (James) grew up in a household where his mum watched the opening half an hour of a film to 'make sure it was suitable' before going to bed. It certainly seems as if he has made a film for that particular situation  because after that we get topless ladies strung up, bare bottoms flogged, and all manner of perverse behaviour culminating in a climax of utter daftness 'inspired' by Edgar Allan Poe. Jess Franco would be proud, especially at how little sense any of this makes. Everyone else will be scratching their heads. Except Franco (Jess) fans, of course. I still can't quite decide if I liked it or not, but at least now I know that Victorian ladies were in the habit of shaving off their body hair. 

        Ok that's almost it for this time, except that Mrs Probert has concocted this little delicacy, borne of repeated exposure to a certain advert at the cinema plus a love of Amando De Ossorio's Blind Dead films. Would you trust these guys with your money? Or your horse? Until the next time...

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Picnic at Hanging Rock (2018)

"A Surprising & Satisfying New Take on Joan Lindsay's Book"

Mind you, when I say that please bear in mind that I love stuff that has lovely gothic production design, over the top gorgeous brightly coloured costumes, and a healthy sense that some of the people involved with this have seen Narciso Ibanez Serrador's 1969 girls' school horror LA RESIDENCIA (THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED. 

On Valentine's Day in 1900 a group of schoolgirls from the remote Appleyard College take a trip to local landmark Hanging Rock. Whilst there, three of the girls and one of their teachers disappear. As days turn into weeks, the town becomes rife with theories as to what might have happened to them. Central to some of these is the school's mysterious headmistress, Miss Appleyard herself (if that's even her real name).

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK is a superb Peter Weir film from 1975. It's dreamy, mystical, and wit a delightfully inconclusive storyline. The performances are all spot on and Gheorghe Zamfir's pan pipes may be the best use of that instrument in a film (Bruce Smeaton's piano in this is a personal favourite as well). 

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK 2018 sticks with the period and the Joan Lindsay source novel and downplays the dreamy weirdness in favour of examining the mystery. The series is six hour-long (ish) episodes and much of what was in the film is covered in the first two, allowing a lot more time to be spent going into various characters' backgrounds as well as including some that the movie omitted.

But is it any good? Well I have to say I quite enjoyed it, even if the running time did result in a couple of episodes where the plot isn't really being pushed forward. Natalie Dormer is an intriguing choice to play the headmistress and she acquits herself well in a seeming never-ending variety of almost steampunk-style costumes. There's a decent sense of the gothic and the ending'll have to discover that for yourself.

There's a fair bit of wobbly camerawork at the beginning, and every now and then one gets the impression the production is being filmed by someone of diminutive stature who has one leg shorter than the other, but that actually settles down during the important bits so don't switch off after episode one. 
Acorn Media's dual disc set comes with a 23 minute making of and lots of interviews with cast and crew. This version of PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK isn't going to replace the Weir version but it does actually provide a pleasant 6 hours of Australian gothic,.

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK is out from Acorn Media on DVD on Monday 20th August 2018

Sunday, 12 August 2018

The Changeling (1980)

"A Good Reason to be sleepless in Seattle"

Peter Medak's 1980 haunted house thriller gets a whistles and bells release on Blu-ray courtesy of Second Sight.
After his wife (Jean Marsh) and daughter are killed in a car accident, composer John Russell (George C Scott) takes a job lecturing in music at a Seattle university. The rest of his time he spends at the isolated, gloomy house in the middle of nowhere that he's decided to rent to get some composition work done. 

Unfortunately, composer's block is the least of his problems as he finds himself dealing with loud banging noises at 6am. He finds a walled up staircase behind some shelves. The staircase leads to a room containing a lot of dust (some nice production design here), and a music box (a nice theme by Howard 'Walking in the Air' Blake). Oh, and an old rusty wheelchair obviously intended for someone small...

As much a mystery movie as a supernatural thriller, THE CHANGELING doesn't belong with top tier haunted house pictures like THE HAUNTING (1963), LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973) or THE OTHERS (2001) but it's still worth watching if you're a ghost story aficionado. Some scenes were also undoubtedly an influence on movies that followed including Fulci's HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY(1981), James Wan's INSIDIOUS (2010) and RINGU (book and film and US remake). 

        The location is superb and DP John Coquillon (WITCHFINDER GENERAL) ensures everything feels drenched in foreboding and gloom. Scott is perhaps too sturdy a leading man to really evoke the vulnerability and instability of someone like Russell, but director Medak uses a variety of interesting camera angles to build and maintain a sense of unease.

Second Sight's Blu-ray is a new 4K scan and restoration and comes packed with extras, including a commentary track with director Medak, producer Joel Michaels and Severin Films' David Gregory moderating. The House on Cheesman Park is a featurette about the true story that inspired the film, and music arranger Ken Wannberg gives us his memories of working on Rick Wilkins' score for the picture and about his long-time collaboration with composer John Williams.

There's also an interview with art director Reuben Freed and an appreciation by Mick Garris, as well as trailers and TV spots. You also get a poster and a 40 page booklet and last, but by no means least, the original soundtrack CD. Sadly a copy was not provided for review so I can't tell you how it compares to the old Percepto release from 2001 but it's a score definitely worth having in your soundtrack library.

Peter Medak's THE CHANGELING is out in a limited edition 
Blu-ray package from Second Sight on Monday 20th August 2018

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Proud Mary (2018)

A twenty first century action thriller that borrows liberally from movies of previous decades (including the 1970s - a bit), PROUD MARY comes to UK DVD courtesy of Sony.

Mary (Taraji P Henson) is a hit woman working for an organised crime syndicate in Boston. When her latest hit leaves a young boy without a father, she finds herself keeping an eye on the lad and, when he collapses in an alley after being badly beaten, she takes him in. Little does Mary realise that this is only the beginning of how her world is about to radically change. 

The problem with PROUD MARY is that it isn't terrible, but it isn't terribly good, either. Everything about it feels slightly off. The opening music and title sequence suggests we're in for an updated Pam Grier - Jack Hill exploitation picture but sadly no-one involved with this is able to give the movie quite the sass and self-confidence it needs to pull that off. Editing varies between lacklustre (the opening post-credit sequence suffers because of this) and then sudden rapid fire in some dialogue scenes, where it quickly becomes wearing. 

Prominently billed cast members Neal McDonough and Xander Berkeley are hardly in it, and poor old Danny Glover looks as if he's having quite a painful time in any scene where he's not sitting down. 

Better direction would have been an immense help, as PROUD MARY never seems to settle and decide what it wants to be. A big part of the problem is that for much of the running time star Taraji P Henson plays the lead role less as a ruthless and hardened assassin and more like a tired, hungover office employee who has been landed with looking after her younger sister's little boy for the weekend. In fact the movie might actually have worked better if that had actually been the plot. As it is we are left wondering how someone like this has managed to be quite so successful in her chosen profession when even a small child can get into her massive gun cupboard.

The movie also echoes Luc Besson's LEON with an intriguing gender switch, but there's far too much talk and too little in the way of action. Things do get eventually going with a final guns 'n' cars sequence that's quite fun but by then it really is a case of a bit too little a lot too late.

Sony's DVD release comes with three behind the scenes featurettes. 'Mary's World' has interviews with cast and crew, 'The Beginning of the End' details the shooting of the climactic action sequence, and 'If Looks Could Kill' is all about the design of Mary's 'look'.

PROUD MARY is out on UK DVD from 
Sony from 30th July 2018

Saturday, 4 August 2018

La Belle et La BĂȘte (1946)

The BFI are bringing out Jean Cocteau's 1946 version of the classic fairy tale on Blu-ray, with a transfer taken from the French 4k (the press release) or possibly even 5k (it says on the screen) restoration from 2013.

I can't imagine there's any need to recap the story of this one - beautiful girl, hairy beast in a castle, she comes to love him but without anyone singing any songs & they live happily ever after. Yet despite the fairy tale nature of the endeavour stills from this film found their way into every book on horror films being published during the 1970s and beyond.

Even watching it now it's hardly surprising. Jean Marais' beast makeup would have been revolutionary for its time (and this with Lon Chaney Jr's THE WOLF MAN only five years old) and one can see how it influenced Roy Ashton to create a similar 'full torso' look for Oliver Reed in Hammer's 1961 CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF. I also wonder how much a certain Paul Naschy took away from it as well.

In fact, coming between arguably the two 'golden ages' of cinematic horror Cocteau's film feels far more 'pre-Hammer' than 'post-Universal' (the monsters had breathed their pre Abbott & Costello last just the year before). The sets were perhaps an influence on what we would later see from Bray studios, and Belle's father's arrival at the castle has a distinct stranger-at-castle-Hammer feel to it as well.

Then of course there are the delicious surrealistic touches. The arms emerging from walls to hold candelabra, an influence on 1960s projects like Nathan Jueran's JACK THE GIANT KILLER and Polanski's REPULSION, or the faces that are literally part of the furniture. 

So if, like me, you're a first time viewer of Cocteau's LA BELLE ET LA BETE, forgive the slight (and understandable) creakiness of a film that's over 70 years old and immerse yourself in some superbly creative storytelling for its time.

Extras on the BFI disc include a commentary track from Sir Christopher Frayling, a 51 minute making of from 2013, six minutes of deleted scenes and audio clips, a 13 minute animated version of Bluebeard from 1938, a trailer, stills and a booklet featuring writing on the film. 

Jean Cocteau's LA BELLE ET LA BETE is out on Blu-ray from the BFI on Monday 6th August 2018

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Flesh & Blood (1985)

"Sword 'N' Sleazery"

Paul Verhoeven's first English language film gets an uncut dual format release courtesy of Eureka. So here's a chance for you to see the film Michael Parkinson hated almost as much as Dario Argento's PHENOMENA when he reviewed it on BBC1's Film 85 programme (praise indeed) in all its unedited Blu-ray glory.

No-one expects the...oh hang on.
A medieval epic made with the kind of laissez-faire approach beloved of Italian horror cinema of the period, the opening caption of FLESH & BLOOD tells us we're in 'Western Europe' in 1501. Rich Arnolfini (Fernando Hilbeck) employs a band of mercenaries to get his captured castle back for him, then refuses to pay up when they do, throwing them out. 

NOT the current meaning of 'Swingers'
A bit miffed by this, their leader Martin (Rutger Hauer) swears revenge and, by sheer coincidence, they end up kidnapping Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the fiancee of Arnolfini's son Steven (Tom Burlinson). Agnes is raped by Martin and forms a bond with him (it's that kind of film). But she's actually in love with Steven and his blow-dried hair. We know this because of their previous scene of romantic banter beneath two hanging rotting corpses (because it's that kind of film).

Monty Python in pursuit
In a bit worthy of Ken Russell, the team end up being 'led' by a statue of St Martin they've found buried in the ground at the instigation of their priest (the very Ken Russell-esque Ronald Lacey). They capture a castle and set up within, but Steven with his improvised Leonardo Da Vinci-style devices has other ideas.

'They dressed me up like this"
A rather odd film, FLESH & BLOOD boasts some gorgeous visuals (Jan De Bont was director of photography) and rousing music from Basil Poledouris. Desperate to present its period setting as vicious and amoral, it suffers from not having a point of view character whose eyes we can witness this through. Rutger Hauer's Martin never comes across as anything other than a bit of an arse. Leigh's character may well be doing what she has to in order to survive, but a lack of depth of characterisation means her reaction to abuse becomes open to interpretation. Perhaps most damaging of all, quite a few scenes are reminiscent of MONTY PYTHON & THE HOLY GRAIL (1975), a film that managed to evoke the filth and desperation of the period better than FLESH & BLOOD does. 

"We shall take the castle armed only with this drum. And a flag."
Eureka's disc comes with a ported over Basil Poledouris interview, a commentary by Paul Verhoeven, a documentary on the director, an interview with screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, a somewhat rambling audio interview with Rutger Hauer and a trailer. The first pressing comes with a booklet and a limited edition slipcase. 

Paul Verhoeven's FLESH & BLOOD is out on dual format from Eureka on Monday 6th August 2018