Saturday 31 December 2011

Sssssss (1973)

Possibly the only film whose title is the same consonant repeated seven times, Bernard L Kowalski’s SSSSSSS comes across as a 1970s version of THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE, substituting snake venom for alligator serum, Strother Martin for George MacCready, and Heather Menzies for Beverly Garland. Good old Strother plays Dr Stoner, who is trying to create snake people for…well, no good reason really. There’s some mad scientist babbling about the next stage of evolution right at the end of the film but until then he’s just your average snake handler come loony boffin doing something daft because he’s obviously got nothing better to occupy his time. His first experiment, Tim, is a bit of a failure and gets carted off to the local freak show. At least, we assume it’s his first experiment, although for much of the movie Strother does spend rather too much time chatting to, and drinking scotch with, a python named Harry, who actually overdoes it at one point and has to be given Alka Seltzer to help his presumably upset snakey tummy. Harry doesn’t expand in the way one might expect a reptile with a simple digestive tract given large quantities of carbon-dioxide containing fizzy water to do but that’s because he has to be killed by evil soccer jock Reb Brown a little bit later on. Not unduly perturbed by this, Dr Stoner decides that the most appropriate method of revenge is to have Reb bitten by a Black Mamba. After all seeing as he’s the only one in the district, and quite possibly the state, to own such a creature suspicion could hardly fall on him, could it? But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because Tim is now a resident at the kind of carnival sideshow that also includes an almost-naked lady cavorting on stage for the benefit of the movie’s trailer (and quite possibly poster art), Dr Stoner has to settle for Dirk Benedict as his new assistant, where he quickly settles into the routine of milking mambas, seducing Stoner’s daughter Heather Menzies, and receiving inoculations to ‘build up his immunity to cobra venom’. Cue lots of shots of shirtless Dirk for those members of the audience for whom the aforementioned dancing girl, and a curiously optically obscured naked Heather, (at least on my print) just will not do.
            Dirk starts to turn green and develop scales while Heather discovers the secret behind the carnival sideshow’s latest attraction. It all ends very bizarrely indeed, with Dirk turning into a King Cobra, begging the question: Why turn people into these things as the next stage in evolution if they already exist…oh, never mind. Dr Stoner goes and has a chat with the King Cobra he already has which promptly bites him, presumably out of jealously. Dirk Cobra gets attacked by a mongoose that has remained in its cage throughout the entire film but finally at the 95 minute mark has worked out how to pick the lock. Heather turns up with the comedy police (at least I hope they were meant to be comedy police) so everything can be shot and Heather can scream and scream.
            As a monster movie SSSSSSS isn’t bad at all. The plot is barmy, but no less so than its 1950s counterparts, and the makeup by John Chambers is pretty good. The snake handling sequences are also very well put together. Bernard Kowalski was also responsible for sweaty deep South low budget AIP pic ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES, but that’s a different kettle of wriggly things altogether.File this one under 'S' for Something Snakey & Silly.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

The Reincarnation of Isabel (1974)

Sometimes you wonder about the intentions of filmmakers. Usually it’s easy, and you don’t have to be many minutes into a film to realise that the object is for it to entertain, to move, to uplift, to educate or occasionally (God forbid) to preach.
            But then there are other films, films whose reason for existing we can only guess at. Films probably produced to cater to only the most desperate, rather than the most discerning, of exploitation audiences. But these films, whilst delivering the goods in terms of sex, violence, blood and deviant behaviour, provide them in such an obverse manner that you do wonder what on earth was going on in the minds of those responsible, before realising that you probably wouldn’t like to meet them.
           THE REINCARNATION OF ISABEL (which goes by the title BLACK MAGIC RITES on Redemption’s Region 2 DVD) was made in Italy in 1973 and is meant to be a horror film. I say meant to be because having sat through it this bizarre effort here in the Eurotrash Screening Room at the House of Mortal Cinema, and having given the entire endeavour some serious thought, I still can’t work out what it’s meant to be about, despite the fact that one of the characters spends a good ten minutes totally unsuccessfully explaining the plot at the end. What I can say is that it’s set in a castle, that there’s an awful lot of female nudity, some very poor satanic rituals executed by men in red baby romper suits, and that some of the fashions were probably designed by blind people who had been cruelly lied to about the materials with which they had been provided. Other than that nothing’s very clear I’m afraid. I think the back story is about a witch named Isabel who is put to death for vampirism in the fourteenth century. Her husband thus becomes Dracula, the ‘first vampire ever’ (see – two sentences in and this doesn’t make sense). Despite being staked graphically between the breasts and burned alive Isabel takes ages to die in an interminable sequence that in any other film would generate suspense / allow the witch to curse everyone / show her horrible death, but because this film is this film nothing of interest happens at all.
            At a Big Old Castle there’s an engagement party going on for the girl who is the image of our witch. We’re told that this is ‘500 years later’ so we should be in the nineteenth century but it looks suspiciously like 1972. We are also told several times that Isabel will be reincarnated on the coming of the 25th moon, although from when is anyone’s guess, and seeing as it seems to only take two and a bit years for her to come back why they’ve waited until 1972 is also a mystery. Girls (and there are lots in this castle) start to disappear and end up naked and dead. This goes on for a bit to justify the movie and then suddenly, at about the hour mark, everything suddenly becomes another film, with the male members of the cast attacking women we’ve never seen before in what look like a succession of hotel rooms. Just when we think the budget for filming at the castle must have run out two naked girls run back to the castle pursued by villagers in a sequence in which day becomes night and then turns back to day again every time the camera cuts from them to the castle. Anyone still with the film at this point then gets treated to the ‘virgin sacrifices’ which are so trippy anyone watching them on a big screen would have needed years of therapy and lot of antipsychotic medication to enable them to cope with reality again. A man with an enormous moustache and sideboards who has been lurking throughout the film with his Donald Pleasance look-alike hunchbacked friend does the aforementioned completely unintelligible explanation and our heroine is saved when she stabs the villain. Having read other reviews of this I think that more than does justice to the plot and I really do wonder what Mr Renato Polselli was on when he made this, even though it couldn’t have been half as mind-bendingly disorientating as the people who gave him the money to make it.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Tears of Kali (2004)

There aren't enough German horror films around these days, or anthology horror films, or horror films that use the theme of deeply worrying New Ageist cults as a springboard for bloodstained full-on movie terror. So it's a delight to report that here we have a film that's all three, as well as being absolutely cracking piece of nastiness into the bargain. A tiny budgeted modern EuroHorror thoroughly deserving of the attention of fans of extreme cinema everywhere, TEARS OF KALI starts off with a prologue sequence set in a grim room in Poona, India in 1983. Various cult members are lying on filthy mattresses and are busy throwing up, having fits or just screaming. The scene culminates in a naked girl cutting her own eyelids off in a scene Lucio Fulci would have been proud of and, dare I say it, probably wouldn't have done anywhere near as well or as unpleasantly as we get to experience here. It's a grim shocking moment and more than sets the scene for what is about to follow.
            The cult is called the Taylor-Eriksson group and the film flashes forward to modern day to show us what has happened to three of its members in three respective stories. The first concerns a girl incarcerated in an asylum after being accused of murdering one of the cult's members who has set up his own group in Berlin and has been trying to practice the cult's methods. We hear a lot about 'deep meditation' and 'journeying into the darkest regions of the soul' before the story jumps down our throats with some superbly atmospheric out of body horror. The second story finds a young offender undergoing rehabilitation therapy by a former cult member whose treatment involves forcing the young man to cut off his own skin. A genuine two-hander this one, with a gruesome and intense finale that is wholly horrible without the excessive grue ever becoming too silly or over the top. The final story is about a faith healer who manages to exorcise the evil within one of the cult members. Unfortunately it's still lurking around the building when he's due to leave and after it’s killed his wife he and his patient end up trapped in the cellar as the thing tries to get in. A tiny coda ends the movie on a downbeat note.
            I really liked TEARS OF KALI, but it's a film that isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea. The violence is often excessive but never cartoonish, and the tone is deadly serious but without the misanthropic nihilism that we have seen in French EuroHorrors like MARTYRS and THE HORDE. I think it's always a mark of great achievement for a film like this if you end up totally ignoring the tiny budget and glarey shot-on-video feel because you're so absorbed by what's actually going on, and that was definitely the case here. One of the commonest complaints levelled against anthology pictures is their uneven feel, but by having a very strong linking theme and consistently graphic disturbing and upsetting storylines the movie avoids this pitfall as well. It treats its subject of what might happen to the members of a properly sinister cult in a fascinating and original way, and makes that premise the star of the movie, such that when it finished I found myself very keen to know what other members of the cult might be up to now. TEARS OF KALI 2? I'll be first in line.

Sunday 18 December 2011

I Don't Want To Be Born (1975)

My God what am I doing reviewing this one? It’s awful, a true car crash of a movie that one finds it difficult to believe anyone would sit through once, and I’ve seen it at least three times, including once as part of a Joan Collins double bill with Gerry O’Hara’s THE BITCH (and that’s the only time you’ll see mention of that on here, especially as I couldn’t make it to the end of that particular low-rent disco-filled load of soap-opera silliness without nodding off and I’m definitely not going to watch it again). But I digress…
            I DON’T WANT TO BE BORN was known as THE DEVIL WITHIN HER in the US and as the UK poster really wasn’t very good I thought I’d put up its stateside equivalent. The UK video release goes under the title of THE MONSTER, but whatever it would prefer to be called it really is a special film, and probably the only chance you’ll get to see what might happen if a bunch of 1970s BritHorror actors were to be cast in an Italian demonic possession movie that tried to rip off THE OMEN before it had even been released (which is probably partly why it doesn’t bear much resemblance to it.). Part of the reason is that this was a British-Italian coproduction, with Rank really not knowing what it was getting itself into doing a deal with Italian producer Nato de Angeles who also came up with the original story, which is presumably why some of the characters are Italian.
            And ‘original’ is certainly being kind to the string of events we get to see. Attempting some sort of chronological order (there are quite a few flashbacks) Joan Collins is a stripper who gets cursed by a dwarf whose advances she spurns. Before you can say ‘that’s a bit tasteless even for 1975’ she’s giving birth unconvincingly in the presence of children’s TV star Floella Benjamin and Donald Pleasance, looking as if he wishes he could be anywhere else but in this film with every single line of dialogue he utters. “This one doesn’t want to be born” says Donald as Ron Grainer’s hideously sleazy but catchy 1970s theme music kicks in to herald the main titles. Mr Grainer came up with some fine TV themes including Dr Who, The Prisoner, and Tales Of The Unexpected, but he never really achieved success in the movies which on the basis of this isn’t surprising (his score to THE OMEGA MAN is quite a bit better but still nothing too special). Where were we? Oh yes – Joan is married to Gino Carlesi played by Ralph Bates sporting an unconvincing Italian accent. Gino’s sister is a nun who seems to spend most of her time at a convent where she has a laboratory where she carries out animal experimentation. This has absolutely nothing to do with the film and one can only presume there was some animal research facility going free that day in which to film a few scenes. Eileen Atkins plays the role as…well…someone in an Italian horror film, which is the note everyone seems to take. Perhaps director Peter Sasdy (that’s Peter Sasdy – HANDS OF THE RIPPER and THE STONE TAPE Peter Sasdy) got them all to watch a badly dubbed Sergio Martino picture and said “You see? THAT’S what I want.”
            Joan’s baby possesses such superhuman strength that when it isn’t happy gurgling in its pram it’s whacking babysitter Janet Key over the head, cutting off Donald Pleasance’s head with a shovel (you can almost feel the relief ebbing through the screen as he realises he’s finally off the picture) and murdering his way through most of the cast. It all ends very very stupidly indeed with an exorcism scene intercut with a slow motion dwarf death at the strip club. Say what you like but I don’t think there has been an ending like this before or since in cinema history. Before that we are treated to the Italian horror standbys of obvious dubbing (Caroline Munro and John Steiner), gratuitous and unnecessary nudity and a totally bizarre and out of left field dream sequence featuring Joan being threatened by a bloodstained John Steiner and Ralph Bates dressed up as a dead nun. Be assured - I DON’T WANT TO BE BORN is a truly awful film, and it probably goes without saying that I enjoyed it more on my third viewing than on the previous two.
            Go on…you know you want to, and here's the grim gloomy UK poster, mad dwarf and all, to round off the experience.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971)

A masterclass in how to make a sleazy and crazy giallo out of a straightforward old chestnut of an idea (in this case driving someone who’s rich insane so you can get their money), THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE starts as it means to incoherently go on with its central character, Lord Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen) escaping from a psychiatric clinic. This opening isn’t too bad – he’s pursued by white coated orderlies across an overgrown coliseum that just happens to be in the grounds before being dragged back once he gets to the perimeter fence and despite a bit too much gurning from our hero it’s intriguing enough to engage our interest. The problem is I still have no idea where this bit of the film, played out before the main titles begin, is meant to fit into the plot. Once the credits are out of the way we’re in Lord Alan’s car, where he’s in the company of an attractive young redhead he’s picked up in a bar, He stops for no other reason than to pull at her hair (“To see if it’s a wig”) and so he can get out and take off the car’s false number plates. He gets back into his Italian car before they set off for his isolated Italian villa set in the depths of the English (according to the film) countryside, where he makes her wear nothing but a pair of black knee length boots before chasing her around his very own torture dungeon with a whip. Only the most tenuous of reasons is ever given for Alan’s preponderance for doing this, and a bit later on he does it to Erika Blanc as well. Evelyn, by the way, is Lord Alan’s late wife whom he caught having a naked assignation with a lover in a field. There’s an awful lot of female nudity in this film, even for an early seventies EuroHorror, in fact one might go so far as to call it excessive and gratuitous. Anyway, Evelyn died in childbirth and now Alan keeps a painting of her in his bedroom, which if nothing else should be a big warning beacon to all the girls he brings back. As well as a torture dungeon, a predilection for whipping redheads and presumably a psychiatric history, Alan also has one of the most outrageous wardrobes ever to grace an Italian horror film. A maroon suede suit the jacket of which laces up the back, a crimson double breasted jacket with lapels so big they have their own brass buttons to hold them in place, and an assortment of trousers of such outrageous hues it’s a wonder everyone around him doesn’t keep their sunglasses on. In fact with those kinds of clothes it’s a wonder anyone thinks he isn’t already insane.
            Alan gets a new wife who doesn’t have red hair but does wear outfits with such outrageously plunging necklines it looks as if her breasts aren’t so much falling out as actively trying to throw themselves into plain sight. She also possesses quite possibly the skimpiest night attire ever seen in a movie as well as an Alice in Wonderland outfit that she puts on to go and investigate the crypt.
            And does Evelyn actually get to come out of the grave? Well, kind of, but like I said, it’s all part of the most ridiculously convoluted plot to drive Lord Alan mad when he already seems to be well on the way without any aid at all. The denouement piles twist upon twist but best of all is the climactic fight by the swimming pool next to which has been precariously placed a big sack of Sulphuric Acid which doubtless carries the warning in Italian ‘Do Not Throw In Swimming Pool’. The final fade out of the villain being carried towards the camera with his legs wide apart is merely the daft icing on a very silly cake indeed, making THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE a movie best suited for those who like their thrillers outrageous in every meaning of the word.

Friday 9 December 2011

Rare Exports (2010)

Probably the most widely distributed subtitled Finnish film in UK cinemas last year, RARE EXPORTS has finally had a Region 2 DVD release for all those who didn’t catch it on the big screen. Although it’s not obvious from the title, it's a Christmas film for all those of us who can’t stand the thought of the usual modern sugary sentimental claptrap that passes for yuletide cinema these days, daring to ask the question: Is Santa Claus a cuddly old man on a Coke advert or is he in fact a 60 foot tall Lovecraftian demon who delights in tearing naughty children to pieces leaving shrunken wicker effigies in their place, has been buried in ice for centuries, and God Help Us All if he thaws out?
           We’re in Lapland. At the top of a mountain a mining company has discovered that there is a block of ice 60 feet square buried deep in its depths, and they’re being paid to dig it out. Meanwhile our 9 year old hero is convinced this is the burial place of the original Santa Claus, a mythical creature far removed from the kindly fat bearded bloke we’re more familiar with. Via a delicious title sequence we get to see old woodcuts demonstrating just how much more interested this Santa is / was in punishing naughty children than rewarding the good. “He tore the naughty children apart,” says one character “until even their skeletons weren’t left”.
            I won’t say much more except that Santa’s elves are some of the scariest things I saw on screen last year, and the scene of them besieging a warehouse where ‘Santa’ (who is a bit of a cross between Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS and Tim Curry’s devil from LEGEND but bloody huge) is being defrosted is one of the most Lovecraftian film moments I’ve seen in a while. Add to that the fact that our heroes are good old-fashioned reindeer hunters who look like rejects from a Metallica tribute band and a nine year old boy with cardboard taped across his bottom so he doesn’t get spanked and this is one very strange Christmas movie. The freezing locations and sense of dread (a scene of a field of reindeer slaughtered by…something at one point is just plain unnerving) reminded me of Carpenter’s THE THING, but most of all I loved the twisted sentiment – peace on earth and goodwill to all, or Santa will tear your face off. Highly, highly recommended.

Monday 5 December 2011

The Thing (2011)

It is a truth universally acknowledged in Hollywood that a successful film must be in want of a remake, sequel or prequel and no movie company is more familiar with this than Universal Pictures, having originally built its fortunes on its hugely successful Frankenstein, Dracula and Mummy series of pictures of the 1930s and 1940s. When John Carpenter’s big budget remake of THE THING was released in the early eighties, however, it was a financial disaster, as would any film about a hideous shape-shifting paranoia-inducing creature in an isolated Antarctic setting have been in the Summer of Steven Spielberg’s feel-good ET THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL. Time and critical attention have, however, been immensely kind to Mr Carpenter’s film and it is now rightly recognised as a classic, considered by many (including myself) to be better than the original 1951 version, which in the world of horror films is a nigh on impossible feat to pull off. When word went out that it was itself to be the subject of a remake the first word that sprang to my mind was ‘pointless’, especially when it turned out that the new film was to be a prequel to Carpenter’s picture, with the ending therefore being necessarily pre-determined. So it was with my expectations at rock bottom that I went to see the new version of THE THING, presuming that I may well end up bored, annoyed, frustrated and to come out of the cinema having wasted time and money. So it pleases me greatly to say that I really rather liked it.
           Perhaps the most surprising thing about THE THING the prequel is not that it’s actually okay, but that it’s a movie that has been made with fans of the previous film in mind. In fact someone who loves Carpenter’s THE THING is going to get a lot more out of this than someone unfamiliar with it, and with any luck it will send those latter audience members scurrying to pick up the quite stunning BluRay edition of the 1982 film that’s now available. There’s nothing at all original here and the plot is entirely predictable, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the Kurt Russell role surrounded by hairy Norwegians with an increasing  propensity to turn into huge Lovecraftian monsters at the drop of a dental filling. In fact the first scene in which we discover the creature’s inability to regenerate inorganic material (in this case an internal fracture fixation device) provides a nice lead-in to the discovery of what the creature that has just been dug out of the ice, been defrosted and gone on a killing spree before being gunned down, is actually capable of. Making the original form of the thing insectoid doesn’t go any way to explaining how on earth it piloted the ship we get to see, and there’s still no explanation for why a monster presumably capable of operating such hi-tech equipment is happy to want to splodge around and randomly kill people when it could just as easily slope off back to its flying saucer and fly away. But the number of touches that are there to ensure consistency with Carpenter’s film, plus some impressive special effects mean that you would have to be an extremely unforgiving and demanding horror fan not to have a good time with this. I was expecting ropey CGI but instead I had difficulty distinguishing the prosthetics (there’s a long credit roll at the end for the prosthetics teams which had me feeling quite nostalgic in itself) from the digital work. The music by Marco Beltrami opts for mainly orchestral work this time out, only segueing into synthesisers at the end for a final sequence that’s the best writer Eric Heisserer and director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr could possibly have done with the brief they were presumably given. There are quite a few reviews out there at the moment trashing this film which is partly why I felt like writing this one up as it really isn’t bad at all and, in a rare thing for sequels and remakes these days, seems to be acutely aware of its appropriate place in the movie scheme of Things.

Thursday 1 December 2011

Outcast (2010)

One of the most interesting themes that seems to be coming to the fore in modern British horror films is that despite their contemporary urban settings, at their heart is very much a sense of the mythic, a hearkening back to the kind of folk tales that went to form much of what we now know as Celtic and other mythologies. Philip Ridley's HEARTLESS dealt with the age old tale of the Bargain With Powers With Whom One Should Never Deal, while OUTCAST goes one better, giving us a timeless story of magical powers in conflict and a beast conceived by misguided intentions that is aroused to transformation by Sex and Blood. The movie takes place on an Edinburgh council housing estate but it could just as easily be set anywhere and at any time during Britain's history. In fact as I watched it I wondered just how outright terrifying the film might have been if it had been set during the Middle Ages, with no electricity, grim weather, and an overwhelming all-pervading sense of the superstitious adding to the all too real terrors. The urban setting works well though, and serves as a reminder that tower blocks are really no different from a little huddle of medieval huts around a campfire. In fact perhaps to drive the point home we even get an ‘urban campfire’ scene early on in the proceedings that serves as a centre point for a teenagers’ get together.
            Mary (Kate Dickie) arrives with teenaged son Fergal (Niall Bruton) in Edinburgh, moves into the scabbiest, grimmest looking flat on an estate where the sun never shines, and immediately starts painting mystic symbols on the walls in her own blood. Pretty soon we find out why as we're introduced to Cathal (James Nesbitt in a fine angry scary form) who has been selected to pursue her and her son from Ireland. He's been given special powers to enable him to detect and destroy them but needs the assistance of Liam (Ciaran McMenamin) and permission from the Laird (James Cosmo - a nice touch) to enable him to carry out his task. Fergal meets nice girl Petronella (Hannah Stanbridge) and they embark on the kind of ultimately doomed romance dark myth has thrived on since forever. There’s also a monster on the prowl and as the bodies begin to pile up and Nesbitt gets ever closer the stage is set for the final showdown.
I enjoyed OUTCAST far more than I was expecting to. Dickie and Nesbitt are fine and well matched as the magicians from the old country, and Bruton and Stanbridge are engaging and likeable enough to engage audience sympathy. The council estate backdrop works well at being just that and director Colm McCarthy is wise not to rub his squalid urban setting in our faces too much, instead concentrating on the timelessness of his story and taking the time to include elements that continually catch the attention (the use of birds as sacrifices, the cockroach candle, the use of a blooded knife) all of which add up to a fine little modern British horror picture that, along with certain other recent efforts like PANIC BUTTON and KILL LIST has actually made me quite optimistic for the state of the BritHorror of today. Hurrah!

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Frankenstein 1970 (1958)

Imagine how glorious and exotic the year 1970 must have seemed to some of the studio craftspeople of 1958 - a vibrant world filled with hope, technological advancement, and endless possibilities. None of them seem to have been involved in the making of this film, however, which does its best to liven up the same old monster making story with an atomic reactor, a contemporary setting and a monster that looks like the end result of a comedy road accident, but more about him later.
FRANKENSTEIN 1970, despite its 'futuristic' title, begins with a distinctly retro feel (even for 1958) as a girl is chased through swampland by a faceless, hook-clawed monster. This sequence only lasts a minute or two and isn't at all bad. It's edited and paced well and unfortunately, although we don't know it yet, has just set a standard the rest of the picture is going to have a lot of trouble meeting.
The opening is a gag, a staged sequence filmed by a television crew which has travelled to Germany to film a documentary about the history of the Frankenstein family. There's talk of an anniversary but absolutely none of the mathematics add up so it's probably best to ignore that the same way the actual film-makers have. The only Frankenstein still living is concentration camp survivor Boris Karloff. Fortunately his castle has fared rather better than he has and betrays none of the damage the fiery climax of numerous Universal and other pictures should have caused it by now. Either they have very good (and very busy) stonemasons over in the part of Germany where he lives, or is it just possible that the exterior shot we keep seeing is stock footage of a model?
Karloff probably wonders what he's doing reciting distinctly dubious dialogue next to a tomb that allegedly contains 'Richard, Freiherr von Frankenstein I' and whose stonemason couldn't even get the last word of his epitaph centred properly, but then he was probably too busy rebuilding the castle yet again. The TV crew betrays not the slightest hint of futuristic fashions and while we're not expecting to see a flared trouser or a feather boa it does make one wonder quite why they chose FRANKENSTEIN 1970 as a title at all unless by some weird use of a time machine that isn't mentioned Karloff is actually the 1970th Frankenstein to hold the name. But that would be silly.
            Boris has agreed to the TV crew coming because the money they're paying him is going towards the atomic reactor he has in the basement. His gurning manservant discovers the Baron at work in his secret laboratory and pays the price for his Charlie Ruggles impersonation (if you don't know who he is then look him up, or on second thoughts don't) by having Boris hypnotise him with a pair of scissors and then take his heart out. Boris is carrying on the family tradition by making one of the cheapest, tattiest-looking monsters in Frankenstein history, who you can't help but feel sorry for as he wanders around the castle looking like a half-hearted Michelin man in his head-to-toe bandages with two eye holes in the head bit for eyes he doesn't even have until close to the end of the film. The ending is underwhelming to say the least and seems to involve a cloud of radioactive steam killing both monster and creator that then miraculously disappears in time for the wind up.
            If the above leads you to think I don't like FRANKENSTEIN 1970, nothing could be further from the truth. It's not a terribly good film but Karloff really is quite delicious in his role, the Cinemascope framing is often well used and there's the kernel of a good idea here. The concept of treating the old horror classics as if they really happened and then bringing a reality TV / documentary crew in to meet their ends at the hands of the legend they've come to exploit is a subject ripe for satirical fun on a number of levels. FRANKENSTEIN 1970 doesn't develop the idea at all but with the right handling a remake could be very interesting indeed. FRANKENSTEIN 2020 anyone?

Friday 25 November 2011

The Redeemer - Not Quite a Class Act

Here’s a 1977 horror movie produced by the kind of backwoods American independent moviemakers who only over turned out one film and then went back to their ordinary everyday lives (or possibly got their day release from the local long stay mental institution revoked so they just couldn’t make any more – who knows?). Some of these films are scary, many are dull, and some are just plain stupid. The Redeemer is a film that manages to be all three and at the same time pull off the feat of being genuinely disturbing, not least because I have no idea what was going on in the minds of those responsible for it. The intention may have been to illustrate the hypocrisy and intolerance of religious extremism using dream imagery and surrealism. On the other hand this film could well be a pre-Halloween slasher from people with extremist principals themselves that runs out of plot after an hour and has a very random ten minutes of footage stapled to either end so that it could be sold as an Omen rip off. I suspect I will never know – which in itself is part of its appeal.
The movie opens on a long shot of a valley. The credits come to an end and the camera doesn’t move as we are treated to a wait of several long seconds before a pseudo-biblical quote appears and we move in for a close up on the surface of the river. A hand appears from the water that turns out to belong to a very late 70s fully dressed ten year old boy with a pudding bowel haircut and corduroy trousers. Sopping wet he walks up the bank and catches a bus into town, where he enters the local church and gets changed into cassock and surplice with some other choirboys, who seem entirely nonplussed at this newcomer in their midst. The church service is led by a blood and thunder preacher who goes on and on about sin while elsewhere someone is busy murdering the caretaker of a local (we presume) school, making a latex of mask of his face and cutting out pictures from a school yearbook of the ‘six most likely to succeed’. We are presumably meant to think of these individuals as sinners as each is introduced by a rant from the priest’s sermon. The ‘sins’ they are guilty of seem to consist of: being a criminal defence lawyer, marrying for money and shooting pigeons, being divorced, having an affair or possibly just eating lots of cheeseburgers but not being at all fat, being vain, and being a lesbian. These six attend their school reunion to find they are the only ones who have turned up. They are let in by the caretaker (our mystery killer in disguise) and rather than run a mile at the sight of the apparently deserted school that has now acquired bars on all its windows they sit down to eat lunch in a scene bizarrely reminiscent of the last supper. It’s not long before they start to get bumped off by a killer who seems omnipresent, wears a series of frankly disturbing masks while killing, and who eventually turns out to be the priest, who gets to finish his sermon at the end of the film.
Whether this has all been a dream on the priest’s part is never explained, and neither is why he should want to kill these people, or how these really quite minor ‘sins’ can justify them being burned alive, drowned, shot, speared through the head and so on, never mind the murder of the caretaker. Some of these sequences are genuinely unnerving, not least because of their viciousness. At the end of the film the boy leaves the church, gets back on the bus and walks back into the river, but not before slashing the throat of a choirboy who threatened him with a knife at the start for not laughing at a joke.
I have yet to mention the recurring motif of having two thumbs on one hand. Where it fits in I have no idea, but the killer has this deformity, then at the end we see the priest with it, then his extra thumb disappears and the boy acquires one instead.
I still have no idea what this film is really meant to be about but some standout imagery in amongst all the silliness (there’s a scene on a stage with a giant puppet and The Redeemer in weird black and white makeup that could be a source of plentiful nightmares) and a really horrible synthesiser soundtrack where the only noises the keyboard could be programmed to make were presumably ‘wheeze’, ‘fart’ and ‘burp’ that just adds to the weirdness means this one’s staying in the House of Mortal Cinema DVD Collection.

Monday 21 November 2011

Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)

What would the world of early seventies giallo cinema be without Dario Argento? For one thing there would probably be a lot less of it – a lot less fashions and production design that are almost as unbelievable as the plots, a lot less groovy soundtrack music, a lot less Edwige Fenech and probably a lot less J&B consumed (unless each movie that featured it just kept refilling the bottle with cold tea, but somehow I don’t think that’s the Italian way). Unlike his contemporaries, Argento never favoured placing that particular tipple in a prominent location in his movies (although it is here if you look hard enough), and he never cast Edwige Fenech either, which is a shame. All the other above elements however, are present in force in FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, a film that is a bit slow and confusing in places but makes up for it by being deliriously mental in others – again, a bit like most movies in the giallo subgenre.
            We begin with one of the most manic undisciplined pieces of music composer Ennio Morricone must have ever committed to paper, if indeed he ever wrote it down and didn’t just tell his assembled musicians to ‘pretend they were in a room filled with wasps’. Or who knows? Perhaps that’s what actually happened. Intercut with the titles is a little beating heart that we never see again once they’re over. There’s no real reason for this other than possibly to indulge Dario’s predilection for including random cameos from internal organs in his films (after all there’s a pulsating brain in OPERA). We then get to meet groovy drummer Michael Brandon who is being followed by a chap in dark glasses and a big hat. He pursues him to an abandoned theatre where red curtains open like they will in PROFONDO ROSSO before he seemingly kills the chap as a masked onlooker takes photographs, one of which is then surreptitiously placed in Brandon’s record collection at a party. Brandon’s married to mad Mimsy Farmer (although we don’t find out about the mental bit until the end, unlike the entire film which we already know by now is bonkers) who’s rich so they have a maid. She  knows who the killer is, but this being a giallo the only person she tells is the murderer themselves before agreeing to meet them in a deserted park after dark. Argento’s murder scenes are always one of the highlights of his pictures and this time he cleverly coveys her death mostly off screen by having her cries heard by bystanders the other side of a twenty foot wall. The fingernails scraping down the brick are a nice added touch. Mimsy disappears off with the police for reasons I couldn’t fathom and Brandon, who should be being accused of murder by now, is left free to employ a private detective who has a failure rate of 100%. Argento may have once been a superlative maker of horror thrillers but his comedy skills aren’t up to much. Perhaps a bit gets lost in translation but the comedy postman and the comedy camp characters we get in this film have either dated horribly or more likely never worked in the first place. It’s a tribute to actor Jean-Pierre Marielle that his detective character is still so likeable despite the stereotypical overplaying and his death because he has finally solved a case is doubly poignant. Fans of Italian cinema will raise a smile at Bud Spencer’s cameo as ‘God’, and his Professor sidekick is quite fun as well but otherwise it was probably wise for Dario to stick to the nastiness. Because Mimsy’s gone Brandon takes this as his cue to fall into the bath with pretty Francine Racette. Needless to say Francine’s soon at the end of the killer’s big knife, but not before being thrown down the stairs in a way that probably had Lucio Fulci thinking ‘I can do better than that’.
            There also seems to be some unwritten rule with these movies that the meaning of the title has to be explained as late as possible in the proceedings. In fact I wonder if at the time there may even have been  something of a competition between film makers about this sort of thing. Here we’re 84 minutes into the running time before we get the spiel about Francine’s retina retaining the last image she ever saw, but not before the remaining cast have viewed her body in the kind of morgue that can only exist in Italy – one with black and white marble columns that looks more like the foyer of a 1970s hotel than a functioning pathology lab.
            The Four Flies idea is a good one if intrinsically daft. No-one explains why Mimsy’s wearing a fly around her neck, but then she is a mad giallo killer so she probably doesn’t need a reason. “I was raised as a boy!” she screams at the denouement in a typical Argento murderer’s lament, “My father beat me! I was locked in an asylum for three years!” We still don’t know why she’s wearing a fly and we don’t have time to find out because off she goes in her car and her head’s come off and it’s The End. Would you really marry Michael Brandon just because he bore a resemblance to your mad father who you wanted to torture by a ridiculously elaborate scheme that involved paying someone to pretend to be killed by him before you threatened him in your own home but with a mask on so there was no way he could recognise you despite being married to you before admitting you were in a asylum where the rehabilitation programme presumably didn’t involve driving lessons?
            Oh how I love these films. God bless Dario Argento and all who copied him.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

The Hospice (1987)

I keep intending to review some more mainstream (or at least accessible) fare on this site but then delicious obscurities like this keep coming my way. THE HOSPICE was made in 1987 by HTV West as part of a co-production deal with a European company to make a series called 'Night Voices', and is an adaptation of the Robert Aickman story of the same name. Despite some of them being included in the Fontana Books of Great Ghost Stories that he edited, Aickman's stories are difficult to classify and certainly deserve the label 'strange'. THE HOSPICE is no exception. Jack Shepherd gets lost in the countryside and eventually, after passing a statue that resembles Christ which turns its head in the direction he takes, he runs out of petrol and ends up at a country house. He's invited in and finds himself part of a large dinner party whose members resemble OAP versions of the cast of the movies of David Lynch, John Waters and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Full of soup and spaghetti he declines the huge roast dinner and brimming flagon of gravy that's placed before him, only to incur such displeasure in his waitress that she throws the whole lot on the floor. Alan Dobie plays the deliciously sinister supervisor of the proceedings who tells Shepherd not to worry and offers him a room for the night once he has explained that they have no petrol (an ancient-looking minibus runs on 'Diesel Only', or at least that's what the handwriting over the petrol cap says). And so Shepherd has to spend the night in a Robert Aickman House, which means he ends up having to share an overheated bedroom with nervous pathetic Jonathan Cecil who has a large model bird above his bed that he can operate the wings of to help him sleep, and who doesn't want the light switched off. Earlier in the evening Shepherd has met sexy Marthe Keller who has dropped an earring she presumably wants returned and so off he goes on a nightmare journey to find her, only to come across a photograph depicting her in period dress and dated 1938. We finally make it to morning, only for Shepherd to be informed that 'someone' has died during the night. They are rather efficiently already in their coffin, and as he is told that the only way he can leave is to accompany it we are treated to a final shot of Shepherd crammed into the back of a hearse as it leaves the mansion.
           Atmospheric, enigmatic and nightmarishly disorientating. THE HOSPICE works very well as a 50 minute adaptation of an Aickman story. Performances, location and music are all excellent, but perhaps the biggest surprise for me was that it was directed by Domenique Othenin-Girard who was responsible for the forgettable HALLOWEEN 5 and the regrettable OMEN IV - THE AWAKENING. On the basis of those two movies I had been anticipating something far more workmanlike and uninspired and THE HOSPICE is neither. In fact I would highly recommend it. Now to track down the other episodes in this series.

Friday 11 November 2011

The Blood Spattered Bride (1972)

What would you do if you were walking along a deserted beach and came across a beautiful woman buried in the sand wearing nothing but a diving mask? If like me you’d be on the alert for the inevitable Spanish horror film crew that had to be lurking somewhere you’re reading the right column. There’s quite a bit of memorable imagery in Vicente Aranda’s 1972 Spanish lesbian vampire picture, but none that’s quite as bizarre or surreal as this. One presumes that the diving mask was probably requested, quite reasonably, by actress Alexandra Bastedo to stop all the sand from getting in her face, and to allow her to breath while the shot was set up. In fact director Aranda seems to have been most accommodating to both his lead actresses as one also presumes that he had no problems sorting out a nude double for Maribel Martin, even if it does look like they had to use more than one. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
            While US horror cinema has only used Sheridan LeFanu’s story Carmilla for the briefest of inspiration (eg in Stephanie Rothman’s 1971 THE VELVET VAMPIRE) Europe has done its best to do Mr LeFanu proud, with interpretations from France (Roger Vadim’s 1960 BLOOD & ROSES  / ET MOURIR DE PLAISIR), Italy (LA CRIPTO E L’INCUBO from 1964), and of course the UK (Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, which surprisingly enough is the most faithful of all, even if the two sequels, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE and TWINS OF EVIL aren’t). Spain’s version went under the original title of LA NOVIA ENSANGRENTADA but it’s best known by the title heading this article.
            Simon Andreu and Maribel Martin get married but all is not well. As soon as they get to their honeymoon hotel Maribel’s starting to suffer from hallucinations in which she is raped, causing her to want to leave. They travel back to Simon’s ancestral home, which has a tumbledown church next door (the kind of beautiful location movies like this seem to be able to come up with effortlessly) and paintings of all his female ancestors in the cellar, one of which is holding a bloody dagger, has had the face cut out of it and bears the name ‘Mircalla Karstein’. In this film the legend goes that she killed her husband because he wanted her to perform ‘unspeakable acts’ on their wedding night. What these acts were we never get to find out but they were certainly bad enough for Mircalla to become cursed as a vampire (probably) and to get sealed up in the crypt next door. While we’re finding all this out Maribel’s suffering from more hallucinations, but now she’s where Mircalla presumably wants her they’re taking the far more pleasant form of a ghostly Alexandra Bastedo, draped in lilac and wandering the ruins during the hours of darkness. It’s not long before Simon has discovered Ms Bastedo naked on, or rather in, the beach (see above) and has brought her back home for tea, as one does in EuroHorror films based on Carmilla. Of course it’s not a good idea, not least because one of Maribel’s night-time hallucinations has already involved both her and Mircalla stabbing Simon to death in a particularly unpleasant scene that has graced video box covers up and down the land. Calling herself Carmilla her seduction of Maribel continues, leading to the death of the local doctor and a huntsman, who gets more than just his face blown off after releasing Carmilla from an animal trap in a yet another arresting (sorry) image. The finale involves possibly the one direct visual reference to LeFanu’s story, when Simon riddles Mircalla’s coffin with bullets, causing it to fill with blood. But Simon has a further fate in store for the two bloodied female corpses within, summed up rather more subtly than one might expect by this point by a newspaper headline that leads to the fadeout.
            Like many European horror films of the time, THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE is a mixture of atmospheric longeurs, fine visual imagery, and the necessary exploitation elements that enabled this to be booked at many a drive-in cinema (with a movie called I DISMEMBER MAMA, which I have yet to see but I can’t say I’m in any hurry). Fans of films of this period, and of this style, will find a lot to reward their viewing patience in a film where probably the least subtle thing about it is the title. Oh, and all the blood that gets spattered over…well, perhaps it is a good title after all.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

The Exquisite Cadaver (1969)

A fantastic title for an obscure late 1960s movie, matched only by its original language title of LAS CRUELES which is perhaps even better, EXQUISITE CADAVER is a weird, Spanish art-house Euro-Horror that might also be considered a giallo by some, simply because of its ingredients. The movie has a complex and quite ludicrous plotline, there's the presence of beautiful fashionably dressed ladies, and the drink of giallo kings and queens - J&B - is in evidence, although only the most eagle-eyed will spot it.
The movie opens with a girl laying her head on a railway line. For those in the know she's played by Judy Matheson, who in a couple of years will become a minor BritHorror babe by featuring in TWINS OF EVIL, Pete Walker's THE FLESH & BLOOD SHOW, and CRUCIBLE OF TERROR. A train rushes past and then we cut to an editor (Carlos Estrada) at a publishing house being sent a severed hand in a box. He tells his secretary it's wax to which the girl replies 'It doesn't smell like wax', prompting him to disappear off into a forest so he can bury it. At home, where his two strange little boys enact weird burial rites over their recently deceased tortoise while wearing spectacles with red and blue lenses, he's confronted by his wife who wants to know what the letter means that has come for him that says he's soon going to be receiving a forearm. Carlos makes up some ludicrous (but perhaps not for this film) excuse before engaging on a quest to find who has been sending him bits of a girl through the post. It turns out to be PINK PANTHER star Capucine, who may or may not have a false right hand (it's that kind of film) and who leaves him alone in her big old house after giving him drugs so he can go for a wander and find Judy's naked body squashed into the fridge. There's a lot of did-it-happen-or-didn't-it before we get some backstory, revealing that Carlos had an affair with Judy several years ago and then dumped her (I think). Capucine is now her lesbian lover who was distraught enough when all Judy would do is go on about Carlos but now Judy has died of leukaemia and Capucine is out to make Carlos pay. I think. Judy's death may actually be thanks to the ministrations of a quack doctor who ends up with his head in a bidet - the film isn't quite clear, but then it's a bit blurry on lots of things and believe me it's a far more dreamy and bizarre experience than I'm doing my best to rationally recount here.   It all ends a bit quickly and rather weirdly with a head in a box but I have to say I was spellbound by the entire picture. Director Vicente Aranda was responsible for THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE a couple of years later and this movie is possibly even more interesting. The dialogue is often stilted and the actors are wooden, but it feels more as if this is part of the deliberately strange style of the piece rather than due to incompetence on anyone's part. Those who make a start with this may be put off by what feels like a very slow, stilted beginning, but even then there are enough weird goings-on to reward the viewer's persistence. Another one that deserves a decent DVD release.

Friday 4 November 2011

The Alligator People (1959)

The formula of Twentieth Century Fox, Cinemascope, the late 1950s and monsters should, when mixed in the right proportions, yield Kurt Neumann’s fabulously successful THE FLY. If you get the mixture a bit wrong, however, you might just end up with THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE, another movie from the same era and the same company but lacking so many of the factors that made THE FLY a success.
After an opening title sequence over suitably atmospheric swampland we cut to a doctor’s office where Dr Lorimer is hypnotising pretty nurse Beverly Garland with the aid of intravenous drugs, quite possibly fulfilling the dreams of many cinemagoing men of dubious moral virtue of the time. This medication seems to induce a state of wild hallucination where she envisages herself in a rather sub-par monster movie. But oh no – actually it’s a flashback! Beverly’s just got married to Paul Webster (Richard Crane) but no sooner have they got on the train to begin their honeymoon than he receives a telegram and sooner than you can say ‘it’s your ex-wife you’re actually still married to’ he’s jumped the train and disappeared. Beverly tracks him down in the heart of Louisiana swamp country where mad scientist George Macready has been injecting accident victims with a serum from alligators that allows them to grow new limbs. It also makes them go all scaly and turn green – probably, as this is in black and white. George has a cobalt bomb and the means to use it – a complex looking piece of equipment that must have cost a bit as it gets demonstrated frequently during the film’s brief running time of 74 minutes. Because Paul turning into an alligator and the constant threat of radiation poisoning isn’t enough Lon Chaney Junior is also stumbling around in a torn seersucker suit and boasting a hook instead of a right hand due to a previous alligator attack, allowing him to wax lyrical at length about how much he hates them ‘gators and would spend the rest of his life killing them if he could. In fact he’s actually on hand (sorry) to molest Beverly after she’s lost a fair amount of her skirt in the swamp, which is probably about all the titillation a film like this was allowed back then. Presumably that and the drugging was enough to satisfy a certain part of the audience demographic. The alligators for Macready’s work, and the mutilated results of his experiments, are all captured and / or restrained by men who look as if they should be extras in a particularly non-heterosexual remake of ‘On The Town’, the tightness of their white T-shirts only matched by the severity of their haircuts.
            It all ends badly of course. Despite still being able to play the piano and thus opening up a whole new possible market in Alligator Music Recitals, Paul gets an Extra Big dose of radiation and ends up with a properly snouty head filled with big teeth. Off he goes into the bayou pursued by Beverly, where before either of them can stop to wonder at this reversal of a classic horror film trope they both demonstrate a quite uncanny ability  to fall over a lot before Paul falls one time to many and ends up in the swamp. Where he sinks. The End. Oh, except we get to see nurse Beverly again just so we can be reassured that the two doctors who drugged her haven’t been using the film we’ve just seen as a distraction while they cart her off to be sold to white slave traders or anything like that.
            One for completists, as is director Roy del Ruth’s previous PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE, THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE does have a few nice moments, namely that of Garland’s arrival at the deserted Louisiana railway station and the piano-playing alligator man, even if overall it’s a bit slow considering its brief running time. The science is the usual utter rubbish with a few words thrown in from medical texts but for fans of a certain type of movie (you know you are, and I’m certainly one) the ending has to be watched at least once.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel was one of those rare pictures that until very recently had escaped me, not for any reason other than the opportunity to watch it properly hadn’t presented itself. Aside from the fact that it’s a very good film indeed there was a certain fascination for me in watching a film intended for an audience of more than 40 years ago for the very first time, particularly one that really hasn’t dated that much.
   We all know the story by now but here it is again anyway. Shy, fragile, nervous little Mia Farrow is married to boorish wisecracking actor John Cassavetes. They move into the building in New York where John Lennon was later assassinated to come under the influence of neighbours Minnie & Roman Castavet (Ruth Gordon, who won an Oscar for her immense skills at portraying an annoying old woman, and Sidney Blackmer). Mia does her best to make friends with young ex drug-addict Terry in the laundry room. Mims comments on Terry’s likeness to ‘the actress Victoria Vetri’ in a rather odd exchange because the girl actually is Playboy model and movie star Ms Vetri acting under her real name of Angela Dorian.
Angela’s in denial mode, however, presumably because she knows that this is a classic film and WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH, in which she will be appearing next year, is not.  Angela / Terry / Victoria plunges to her death, but did she jump in a drug-fuelled frenzy or was she just pushed by an evil elderly person? Either way Mia inherits Angela’s smelly fungus-filled neckwear (according to friend Maurice Evans who is on the side of Good and Reason and so isn’t going to last long in this film). After consuming just a spoonful of Mrs Castavet’s evil chocolate mousse Mia has a dream where a nude stand in of her is painted with satanic symbols and mauled by hairy hands, and wakes up to find she’s pregnant. Nice obstetrician Charles Grodin is dispensed with to make way for top-notch-but-nevertheless-suspicious obstetrician Ralph Bellamy while Mrs Castavet keeps popping in with a health drink that looks suspiciously like those natural yoghurts that are meant to help bowel function. Of course all these measures are actually designed to ensure the Second Coming of Satan’s child but the horrors here are not so much anticipated ones as those derived from everyday mundanity. It’s interesting that ROSEMARY’S BABY came out more or less at the same time as Hammer’s THE DEVIL RIDES OUT – another adaptation of a popular novel. I saw the Wheatley adaptation when I was twelve years old and Polanski’s film only recently and I think I’ve seen both at just the right times in my life. The Hammer film is a rip-roaring adventure story with spectacle, monsters, moustache-twirling villainy and noble heroics that you almost need to be a boy of a certain age to get the most from.
But you need to be an adult to appreciate what’s best about Polanksi’s film, because it isn’t the devil worship stuff, or the implications about the second coming of Satan being responsible for the cultural climate of the late 1960s, it’s Polanski’s ruminations on what evil actually is. Ultimate evil isn’t Dennis Wheatley’s Mocata in a cape, it’s the annoying old couple who live next door, the obstetrician who wants your baby for his own devices, the best friend who kills themselves and leaves you alone again just as you thought you were managing to settle into your strange new environment a tiny bit. It’s the empty corridors that always look as if they’re hiding someone or something threatening around the next corner. It’s those individuals in our society (spouse, neighbour, doctor) that you should be able to trust but you can’t.
Despite the exploitation pedigree of some of the participants the film was hardly likely to have been advertised as from the director of THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS and the producer of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, HOMICIDAL and THE TINGLER, but it should nevertheless be remembered that Polanski had already chalked up a track record of working with exploitation film producers with commendable results. Both REPULSION and CUL-DE-SAC were made for Tony Tenser (Tigon) and Michael Klinger (GET CARTER), and I suspect that William Castle had a hand in keeping Mr Polanski under control and on schedule to ensure that ROSEMARY’S BABY was the success it turned out to be. In fact there is very little to complain about here, although Ms Farrow’s drastic ‘save the day’ Sassoon haircut really does occur at a fairly unbelievable point in the proceedings, even if being able to wash it more quickly probably meant more minutes in the day for Rosemary to worry about everything else that was happening to her. And would even the mother of Satan have wanted quite such a preponderance of yellow in her furnishings?
Actually, thinking about it, the sofas of hell probably are upholstered in yellow nylon.

Friday 28 October 2011

Night of the Lepus (1972) - Watership Daft

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m very fond of illustrating the reviews I post on here with original posters from the movies in question. Apart from hopefully stirring feelings of nostalgia in those old enough to remember when such works of art graced cinema billboards (or the grubby bit of wall just outside the bus station if you lived in Abergavenny), I like to think that the way in which these films were sold is also a little bit of cinematic history itself, particularly in the realm of the genre picture, where breathless hyperbole and ludicrous artwork were often the norm. However, there is another reason for reproducing a couple of the posters for NIGHT OF THE LEPUS here, namely to evoke some sympathy for those who, in the days before imdb and other resources, went to see movies simply on the basis of their advertising. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be lured in to your local picture house on the basis of what you can see here, and then to realise what the film was actually about? What if you’d brought a date? Or friends who up until this point had respected your artistic judgement? Would such a picture have inspired camaraderie among an audience who must have quickly realised they had been suckered into one of the daftest ideas for a monster movie ever? Or would everyone have made their individual excuses for needing an ice cream or the lavatory and then slipped quietly out of the cinema, hoping no-one they knew had spotted them?
            The whole point of House of Mortal Cinema is to celebrate my enduring love for the horror movie genre, a love that has enabled me to find something good to say about almost every horror film I’ve ever seen. Certainly every film you read about on here will have its good points emphasised over the bad, whether they be of artistic merit, technical skill, or just sheer entertainment value. The only thing NIGHT OF THE LEPUS does exceedingly well is “Silly”. It is without a doubt one of the silliest films I have ever seen. Competently directed by William F Claxton, competently (if unexcitedly) acted by Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh and DeForrest Kelley, even the special effects aren’t too bad in quite a few shots. It’s what the special effects are of that’s the problem.
            I have read Russell F Braddon’s novel The Year of the Angry Rabbit. It’s actually not at all bad – a humorous satire on nationalism and capitalism which uses giant mutant rabbits as its MacGuffin to allow its lead characters to engage in all kinds of political scheming, backstabbing and blackmail. NIGHT OF THE LEPUS dispenses with everything in that book except the bit that’s really, really silly. It is possible to make rabbits scary – at least to other rabbits. WATERSHIP DOWN, both book and film, actually manages to give rabbits a whole range of believable personalities, from the terrifyingly violent General Woundwort to the sinisterly suicidal Cowslip. Unfortunately, NIGHT OF THE LEPUS takes the giant monster movie route, with the result that Stuart and Janet’s formula to treat the local rabbit problem misfires when their rather strange-looking daughter (blonde hair and very black eyebrows) allows one of their test subjects to escape down a hole and infect the population, creating a thousand bunnies the size of horses in the space of what seems like a couple of hours. It also makes them carnivores, too, as well as endowing them with an unnatural ability to not go to the toilet as much as rabbits are well known to do. In fact not a single dropping the size of a bowling ball is seen throughout the entire film, nor are any of their human victims seen drowning in the vast pools of rabbit urine one would also expect to have to deal with were such a problem to actually transpire. Quite where these monsters get all their energy from is a mystery as well as the only thing the rampaging horde eats in the entire film is a shop full of tomatoes and a couple of people. In fact they end up so full after the tomatoes they have a little rest leading to the delightfully endearing shot of a model shop packed with pet shop bunnies having a lovely sit down.
            As I have said, the model shots actually aren’t at all bad – but the rabbits just aren’t frightening in the slightest. For close up rabbit attacks they actually use a man in a suit which takes the film into another realm of silliness altogether. It all ends on an electrified railway line with a lot of loud squealing which in cinemas of the time probably still wouldn’t have been loud enough to drown out the laughter of those hardy shameless veterans who had stayed to enjoy a quite unique movie experience.

Thursday 27 October 2011

The Murder Clinic (1966)

Nothing brings quite the same kind of joy to Probert Towers as the chance to view some ultra-obscure Eurotrash. I had wanted to watch THE MURDER CLINIC (known as LA LAMA NEL CORPO in its native Italy) ever since, at the tender age of nine, seeing a still of the hideously disfigured woman who features prominently in the film’s plot in Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, a volume that also encouraged the young JLP to track down such genre gems as HORROR OF MALFORMED MEN, Richard Gordon’s THE PROJECTED MAN and that version of THE BLACK CAT by Harold Hoffman where the girl  gets an axe in her head.
     But back to THE MURDER CLINIC. After a title sequence which exhibits a considerable degree of creativity in terms of changing Italian names to presumably more exportable English ones, we get an opening caption which tells us it’s “About 1870” and that we’re in Norfolk. The mountainous forest-filled countryside and Italianate architecture on display are less suggestive of Norwich and its environs and more of a country considerably further south (and a bit east as well) and fans of this kind of thing wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s a hooded and cloaked figure stalking the corridors of an isolated asylum and bumping off attractive young ladies with a razor. Mary the pretty nurse starts working there, enabling her to meet some of the inmates that only exist in Italian horror films, including an old lady whose best friend is her stuffed cat and a young man called Fred who has violent tendencies and should have been played by Klaus Kinski but sadly isn’t. There’s someone clumping around on the third floor as well but we won’t get to see her scarred face for a little while yet. The place is run by Dr Robert Vance (William Berger) who spends a lot of time in his laboratory where we can be sure that his animal experiments on skin grafting aren’t just for the benefit of guinea pigs who may have been in nasty accidents involving scorchingly hot objects.
            Into all of this comes Giselle, who we already know is up to no good as we’ve seen her bop the chap whose job it is to ‘escort’ her out of the country over the head and take flight to a local cave, only to spy Dr Vance burying the pretty young thing our cowled figure slashed up just after the opening credits. Soon she’s attempting to blackmail Dr Vance, which as we all know is a Very Bad Thing to attempt in this sort of a movie and before you can say Blackmailing A Man Who Has Access to Anaesthetics, Scalpels and Electro-Shock Therapy is Probably A Bit Foolhardy the razor is being wielded again.
            It soon becomes apparent that while the trappings are gothic and the style is giallo, screenwriters Ernesto Gastaldi (who ended up writing more of these things than he could probably ever remember) and Luciano Martino (Sergio’s brother) have also decided to mix in a goodly dollop of Eyes Without a Face as well. The mysterious figure is Dr Vance’s sister-in-law Laura, whom he managed to have a naughty dalliance with before he caused her to fall into a lime pit (or so he believes) while ironically she was wearing a lemon-coloured dress. Now he spends his days grafting guinea pigs and keeping his fingers crossed that his housekeeper Harriet White Medin (Italy’s Sheila Keith) won’t tell people why he spends so much time shaving them. It all ends in the traditional Italian Eurotrash way, with a totally bonkers twist ending where it turns out quite a bit wasn’t what it seemed (including the flashback detailing the Laura-in-lime tragedy) and with nearly everyone dead by the time we get to the fadeout to Francesco de Masi’s main theme.
            As a mid-sixties Italian gothic THE MURDER CLINIC is not at all bad. There are some touches of style and the faceless killer feels quite Bava-inspired. Sadly, the print we saw was terribly washed out so it’s difficult to comment on how the film was intended to look. A decent DVD release would be very welcome indeed.

Monday 24 October 2011

Frightmare - Bleak, British & Brilliant

Good old Pete Walker. It’s nice to know that in 1974, when Hammer was cashing in on popular trends by indulging in the colourful theatrics of THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES and Amicus had just made one of the best examples of the British ghost story movie in FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE, someone was working hard at producing our own equivalent to Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.
            Like Hooper’s film, much of FRIGHTMARE’s action takes place in an isolated location in the country. Where it differs, however, is in its very British attitude towards all the madness and horror that occurs there. Dorothy Yates (Sheila Keith, whose performance I enjoy more and more every time I watch this film) is a cannibal with a predilection for brains. But when she isn’t gibbering with glee drilling open peoples’ skulls, or subjecting pretty Pamela Farbrother (who you would think would have had enough of being tortured on film after CRY OF THE BANSHEE) to a poker through the guts, she’s a kindly (and slightly pathetic) little old lady who does crochet by the fire. Her husband Edmund (Rupert Davies) knows exactly what’s going on but adheres to the time honoured British traditions of Not Wanting Any Trouble and Pretending It Doesn’t Exist. Because of Keith’s stellar performance Davies’ role often goes unnoticed but it’s also a masterly study – this time in male impotence, never willing to take responsibility and insidiously scheming so that the blame for any upset within the family can be attributed to his daughter Jackie (Deborah Fairfax). Jackie’s his daughter from his first marriage, which means she’s sane. Debra (Kim Butcher) is Dorothy’s daughter, which means she’s not. Graham (Paul Greenwood) is a psychiatrist which means he’s going to get everything wrong with self confident superciliousness before dying horribly - Walker and screenwriter David McGillivray do seem to have it in for the psychiatric profession in this one. Graham’s boss is called Dr Lytell and he has an X-Ray upside down on the screen in his office. He gets referred to the director of the mental institution from which Edmund and Dorothy have been released. “We didn’t kick them out for the fun of it you know,” he says. “They’re completely cured – as sane as you or I.” Cut to bloodied corpse being hidden beneath straw in the barn. And if we haven’t got the point by the end of the film, just as heroine Jackie is about to be meat-cleavered in the face by her stepmother we get a replay of the sentencing judge’s “And let the members of the public be assured that you will remain in that institution until there can be no doubt whatsoever that you are fit and able to enter society again” from the movie’s black and white prologue.
            It’s been said that the first three collaborations between Walker and McGillivray (HOUSE OF WHIPCORD, FRIGHTMARE, and HOUSE OF MORTAL SIN) form a trilogy in which the respective institutions of the law, the family and the Catholic church are attacked and to some extent satirised. I’ve found that much of the horror in Walker’s films tends to stem from their implication of a lack of trust. We cannot trust our elders and self-appointed ‘betters’, or our doctors, or our priests, or the girl we’re married to (SCHIZO) or even a kindly old couple of housekeepers (THE COMEBACK). Much of the power of the cunningly constructed endings to these films lies in how believably the innocent parties are drawn to their fates. In Walker’s world of horror, it’s always the scheming villains who will win, and you can’t get more bleak than that.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Cannibals, Coppola and Kinski - Oh My! The "Up The Creek Without A Paddle" Subgenre

Recently, being in the mood for something that would leave us wrung out, we 'treated' ourselves to a rewatch of Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST at Probert Towers. It's no surprise that this film often tends to be discussed and compared with cannibal movies produced around the same time, such as Umberto Lenzi's MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY and DEEP RIVER SAVAGES, and Sergio Martino's SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD. But whereas Lenzi and Martino’s intentions were to make purely exploitative gory jungle adventures there’s a lot more going on in Deodato's picture. Indeed, despite the parts of it that no-one can condone, I think the rest of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST displays a level of integrity that allows it to be discussed in the same breath as a different group of films altogether. 'Up the Creek Without a Paddle' may sound a flippant phrase to describe these movies and for anyone who might prefer something more serious sounding then 'Journeys into the Heart of Darkness' would be equally apt. Because that is what these films are – worst case scenarios of what happens when often foolhardy individuals with unrealistic expectations set off into some unknown wilderness. As the story unfolds it becomes obvious to the viewer, but often not to the characters themselves, that they stand little chance of surviving as they venture further into hostile territory. We know that all that actually awaits them is madness and death, that their fated journey is merely a disaster waiting to happen, and all we can do is watch fascinated as it all happens before out very eyes, sometimes in an almost unbearably protracted form.
            CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is a grim, unpleasant, unrelenting film. It has deservedly courted controversy and ironically has nearly destroyed the career of its director while at the time being the best thing he has ever done. It's an easy target for those who wish to criticise it, and the use of animal footage has been deemed misjudged by pretty much everyone, including its director. Apart from the obvious reasons, it's a great shame that footage was included at all as it has served to detract from what is a biting, beautifully constructed, utterly harrowing satire on the lengths unscrupulous documentary film-makers could be prepared to go to in order to get results. Of all the graphic and unpleasant horror films made during the late seventies and early eighties, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is probably the only one that has even more relevance today than it did when it was made. The film is now old enough that those who want to see it probably have, and those who know it would be too much for them have sensibly steered clear. But if you like your cinema tense, cruel and edge-of-the-seat-exhausting, if your experience of films from the period has been coloured by the efforts of Lenzi et al, and you haven’t seen CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, I’d recommend you check out the Grindhouse double disc Region 1 DVD release from a couple of years ago that has the ‘animal cruelty free’ option.
            For further examples of the sub-genre we need look no further than some of its most respected practitioners. Werner Herzog's AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD is the spellbinding story of a group of Spanish conquistadores who decided to journey up the Amazon in search of the fabled city of Eldorado. We know they're onto a loser from the start but it's only a couple of minutes in, when the camera catches sight of a certain Klaus Kinski, that we know they're utterly doomed. What follows is seriously great film-making, as the intrepid group pushes ever onwards losing men and women along the way, with Klaus eventually doing what Klaus always did best - scaring the hell out of anyone within a 100 mile radius with his contagious madness, chasing monkeys and insisting the few remaining members of his band pilot their hopeless little raft on into inevitable death and destruction. We're with them all the way, through death and disease, hallucinations and madness towards the inevitable conclusion, and the film is a fascinating experience that rewards repeat viewings.
            A few years later, and on a much bigger budget, Francis Ford Coppola would embark on a similar journey, taking cast, crew, financiers and eventually, once it was finished, the audience with him as well when he made APOCALYPSE NOW. We're with Martin Sheen all the way as he descends into both literal and metaphorical hells, and by the time his band of weary 'explorers' find Dennis Hopper it's clear they've all arrived at a level of hell only Mr Hopper has probably seen previously. All that's left is for Marlon Brando to tell us, not entirely intelligibly, about “the horror, the horror” and Coppola's operatic journey into his very personal heart of darkness is complete.      
Perhaps the most recent contribution to the subgenre has to be Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Viking epic VALHALLA RISING, a film where almost nothing happens and yet the grim atmosphere and unrelenting sense of dread means you can’t take your eyes off the screen. Slow moving but always fascinating, the movie doesn’t really need its on-screen chapter headings for you to know that this is a story about a group of men who have no idea where they’re going or that they’ve completely lost their way. It’s a testament to the skill of the film-maker than so many of the ‘twist’ endings that have been suggested as add-ons to the way the film actually ends are so apt. Everything from the final shot being of an apocalyptic cityscape to Winding-Refn’s own suggestion that a spaceship arrives to carry away the character of One-Eye merely proves that that the “haunted hopeless journey into madness” tale is one that suits any time period.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Guilty of Romance (2011)

Oh my goodness where do I start with this one? Probably with the honest admission that the only reason we went to see GUILTY OF ROMANCE, a title more suggestive of a romcom than the sleazefest it actually is, was because we had read a description of the opening scene, where the apparent remains of two bodies are discovered in a Tokyo love hotel. The parts that have been removed have been replaced by parts of shop window dummies, a lot of pink paint has been splashed about and the word ‘Castle’ has been daubed on the wall. ‘What follows’ said the pre-screening blurb, ‘is a descent into a sexual hell’. So even though its director might be horrified that this could be considered a genre piece there were certainly enough elements to suggest a possible evening of delirious whacked-out cinema. Which is exactly what we got.
            After the opening scene we are introduced to Izumi, a meticulously behaved housewife who is married to a bestselling novelist. Every day he leaves the house to go out and write at some undisclosed location, coming back late to compliment her on the precise alignment of his slippers and the correct temperature of his tea as she sits at his feet. The long days of nothing mean, however, that boredom soon sets in, and she gets his permission to get a job selling sausages at a local supermarket. It’s there that she’s approached by a personable young woman who says she can get Izumi work modelling, and before you can say ‘It’s probably not for Vogue’ she’s working in pornography and indulging in multiple random affairs, while feeling intensely liberated from her ‘normal’ life in the process. She meets Mitsuko, a prostitute who in the daytime is a lecturer at a highly respected university and who is obsessed with the works of Kafka, in particular The Castle. Mitsuko’s elderly mother knows all about her double life and during a bizarre tea party tells how her deceased husband also exhibited an unnatural interest in their daughter. Needless to say everything is headed into horribly wrong territory here and after the film spends rather too long procrastinating and over-emphasising the life of a Tokyo prostitute we get a completely insane ending that is going to be appreciated far more by trash film enthusiasts than the art house crowd I suspect this film was made for.
            The Guardian has called GUILTY OF ROMANCE an eccentrically confused mess as if that is a bad thing, but we art-house-trash-and-everything-else horror aficionados are well acquainted with movies that don’t make sense, have been thrown together with everyone’s fingers kept crossed behind their backs and of course out and out rubbish. GUILTY OF ROMANCE isn’t any of these but I can’t quite agree with the opinion held by some that director Sion Sono is a genius either. The film veers from the almost Bava-esque opening (mannequins, corpses, bright colours) to a much quieter but engrossing forty-five minutes, after which there is far too much meandering before everything goes completely mental. It’s apparently meant to be part of his ‘hate’ trilogy, but while almost every character in the film is up to things they really shouldn’t be, at no point did I feel myself really disliking any of them. Instead the film conveys a far more ambivalent attitude to the lives these characters have created for themselves. It’s a bit of a misfire and will probably leave some viewers open-mouthed while still being a far more viable option for a night’s viewing than the romantic comedy it most definitely isn’t.