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!