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.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1970)

It’s giallo time! Let’s make sure we’ve got the right ingredients. Gorgeous Edwige Fenech wearing very little and frequently nothing at all? Check. Mad Ivan Rassimov? Check. Hunky George Hilton? Bottle of J&B placed with the label prominently visible no matter where the two actresses in the scene concerned are standing or sitting? Screenplay most likely written by Ernesto Gastaldi? Check check check. With all these elements at director Sergio Martino’s fingertips the plot seems less than important, especially as we know in a couple of years he’s going to make TORSO, which is one third brilliance to two thirds random nudity and silliness. In fact that’s pretty much what we get here, but unfortunately with a little less brilliance than we might ideally like. A serial killer is terrorising Vienna (which is presumably where the Italian crew felt like taking their holidays that year), murdering young women in states of undress. While this is going on Edwige is living with her diplomat husband Alberto de Mendoza (who would be unrecognisable as Pujardov the mad monk in HORROR EXPRESS in a couple of years’ time) in a flat the interior d├ęcor of which can only have been thought up by someone who usually comes up with the design for types of toothpaste. Edwige’s unhappy, probably because she’s no longer with lover Ivan Rassimov, who used to cater to her ‘strange vice’, but perhaps because the matching horizontally striped curtains and wallpaper of her living room are enough to drive anyone to have a plethora of Martini bottles lying around. The bedroom’s not much better, where the stripes are vertical and brown, there’s a big red telephone and a large carton of cigarettes is always prominently on display. When Edwige’s friends start dying she suspects Ivan, who keeps sending her roses with cryptic messages attached, but then she discovers him dead so it can’t be him, can it? New lover George Hilton has some of the weirdest shirts ever seen in a 1970 film and a jacket that probably allowed him access to some of the less heterosexual nightclubs of the day but not much else. He doesn’t seem to cater to her ‘strange vice’ but then seeing as not much is made of it we’re not terribly sure of what it is until much later in the film. Does she like having her woolly jumper torn off her in the rain? Of having brandy poured over her naked body? No – it seems she has a ‘blood fetish’, which is explained late in the day by a trendy doctor in a sports car (there really shouldn’t be any other type in these films). We get to see very little of it indeed but to be honest that’s probably just as well.
            Halfway through the killer gets bumped off by one of his potential victims, so what exactly is going on? Whatever it is, it involves Edwige decamping to Spain with George where she ends up being gassed in the kitchen which, in the best sequence in the film, is made to look like a suicide attempt. By the end it’s clear Martino has seen STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and has decided to put together his own daft nudity-filled version of it. The ending requires the usual mammoth set of coincidences that no giallo fan would be satisfied without, and as the car with our heroine and the trendy well-dressed doctor drives away through the picturesque countryside we are once again treated to the film’s main theme. For once this isn’t composed by either Ennio Morricone or Bruno Nicolai but instead by Nora Orlandi and it’s not at all bad, with a couple of haunting melodies that do get a bit overused. THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS WARDH isn’t actually that memorable but there are moments that make it worth an evening’s viewing when your Argentos have been watched to death.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Terror (1978)


The most important thing you need to know about Terror is that it’s not supposed to make sense, and why should it? After all, it's a late-1970s British horror film inspired by Dario stream-of-scary-visual-consciousness-sometimes-when-he-was-good Argento. Once you understand that you realise that it doesn’t matter that the opening is meant to be a film within a film but then the witch that reappears at the end looks exactly like the presumed actress playing her in the prologue sequence. It doesn’t matter that pretty Glynis Barber gets chased through the woods and stabbed to death even though she has nothing to do with the family curse that’s just been explained to us. It doesn’t matter that Michael Craze discovers her pinned to a tree with a knife through the throat and then he disappears from the picture never to be seen again. It doesn’t matter that most of the victims have absolutely nothing to do with the aforementioned curse and don’t deserve to die, or that there’s a prolonged suspenseful sequence set during a rainstorm that climaxes with the appearance of Peter Mayhew and his big moustache. What matters is that the opening witch burning sequence is splendidly put together and stands up well even today, that most of the murders are very well staged, and that most of the actors and actresses concerned acquit themselves sufficiently during their screen time that you’re sorry to see them get horribly killed. What matters is that there are some great set-pieces, including an Argento-worthy scene set in a film studio where James Aubrey gets attacked by film canisters (SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, apparently, and that’s probably the only time that film’s going to get mentioned on here) and flung down a flight of stairs where he meets a fate similar to that suffered by Irene Miracle’s Rose in Argento’s INFERNO which that director made two years after this. What matters is the ‘How the hell did they manage that?’ bit where a car floats thirty feet above the ground. What matters is the completely crazy climax, shot for pennies but which still looks fantastic, where a bloody great sword shoots through the air to staple final surviving cast member Carolyn Courage to the fireplace with an emphatic ‘No-one, but no-one, gets out of this film alive’ before Ivor Slaney’s weird, spooky, deliciously unsettling synthesiser music kicks in again, the music that at the start of this delirious movie has accompanied what must have been one of the most unsettling title sequences cinema audiences of the time had seen, in which several of the horrifying set-piece murders are played out in slow motion, blood splatters and all. Director Norman J Warren has freely admitted that TERROR was put together by writing down scary ideas and sequences and then handing the finished shopping list to screenwriter David McGillivray who quite sensibly must have realised that to try and work everything into a story that made sense probably wasn’t the way to deal with the material, and he was right. TERROR should be approached with a big bag of popcorn and a love for this scary, surreal, crazy and sometimes outright daft genre of ours, because it deserves no less.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Insidious (2011)

Good movies about ghosts tend to be subtle. The most memorable ghostly movies of the last fifteen years (Shyamalan’s SIXTH SENSE, Amenabar’s THE OTHERS and Juan Antonio Bayona’s THE ORPHANAGE) displayed tremendous skill in conjuring up the kind of delicate dread atmosphere needed to make the kind of stories they were telling succeed superbly. Going further back, movies generally regarded as classics (THE INNOCENTS, THE HAUNTING) employ similar carefully structured storytelling to draw the viewer in. We’re shortly promised THE WOMAN IN BLACK from Hammer, and THE AWAKENING from writer Stephen Volk, and very good the trailers for both of those look, too.
INSIDIOUS is also a movie about ghosts, and it’s a rattling good one, but rather than a gentle journey into the cobweb-enshrouded depths of the supernatural, it’s more a ghost train ride into hell, complete with things designed to make you jump at every opportunity. So, enthusiasts of supernatural subtlety be warned – this probably won’t be your cup of tea.
            Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) move into their lovely new dark gloomy house with their three children. It’s not long before weird things start happening that culminate in their son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falling from a ladder and ending up in a coma. Renai sees several spooky apparitions and the family move again, only for the manifestations to follow them. Cue the intervention of parapsychologist Lin Shaye and her comedy sidekicks Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson who determine that it’s not the house that’s haunted so much as the boy himself. Barbara Hershey, playing Josh’s mother and looking a good deal saner than in BLACK SWAN (thank heavens) has some secrets to reveal about her son’s past as well, and the stage is set for Josh to enter the astral plane to get his son back.
            Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell’s love for the genre is obvious in interviews and thankfully it translates well to the screen. Images and sounds redolent of early twenties horrors like NOSFERATU and the films of Dario Argento mean they run the risk of criticism for being derivative but, in the same way that a good comedy just keeps at you with plenty of properly funny gags, they provide the viewer with so many well-executed scares that INSIDIOUS is very difficult not to like. Add in some very clever framing and all kinds of things happening that you really have to be paying attention to notice and it’s difficult to catch everything that’s going on in a single viewing. The music’s good too – a mixture of electronic sound effects reminiscent of those pioneered by Delia Derbyshire and her team for LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE and very scratchy violins. It’s not often the composer gets screen time in a movie (I can remember Jerry Goldsmith getting a cameo next to an ice cream machine in GREMLINS 2 but that’s about it) but here Joseph Bishara gets to play the ultimate nasty demon as well, and a fine job he does of it.
Wan and Whannell’s previous horror efforts received mixed reviews, with both getting more than their fare share of negative notices. I’m not afraid to admit that I loved SAW, and DEAD SILENCE, while flawed, was a genuine attempt at the kind of old fashioned horror film that you just don’t see anymore. With INSIDIOUS they’ve proven that they’re getting very good indeed at being very very scary and I very much hope they’ll decide to stay within the genre for at least another couple of films.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

One can imagine at the beginning of the 1940s the executives at Universal counting the enormous mountain of money made by 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN and saying something along the lines of “We have GOT to make another one of these! But how can we make things a bit different? I know – how about we START this one with the locals blowing up Castle Frankenstein? We’ll end with a fire as well of course but no-one will expect it at the beginning!”
            And so that’s how the fourth movie in Universal’s Frankenstein saga opens. In complete contrast to those Universal executives, the inhabitants of the village of Frankenstein aren’t the slightest bit pleased with the outcome of the last film, especially as Bela Lugosi’s Ygor, presumably shot dead, is now alive and well again. “They tried to hang him and that didn’t work,” someone says in a desperate scriptwriter’s attempt to explain why he doesn’t look any the worse for wear for the bullets dealt him by Basil Rathbone at the end of SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Mind you, two burghers who appear in this opening scene (Michael Mark and Lionel Belmore) are the ones who were killed by the monster at Lugosi’s behest in the previous film and they don't seem any the worse for respectively having had a cart driven over them and having been bashed over the head only a short while ago. Continuity was never Universal’s strong point.
            Universal’s Castle Frankenstein was a little bit like Jason Voorhees of FRIDAY THE 13TH  fame, having a completely different look from film to film and surviving more or less intact despite having been burned / blown up / flooded etc at the end of the last one. This time it gets destroyed via some pretty impressive model work early on, allowing the release of the monster from the sulphur pit it was knocked into by Basil Rathbone. “The sulphur was good for you!” says Bela as the scriptwriter again manfully tries to explain why the monster hasn’t just suffocated beneath all that eggy smelling rock. It has however caused him to become rather less expressive, have a different body shape, and look altogether more like Lon Chaney Jr than Boris Karloff, but then that’s because he is. Helped out of the cave by Ygor and subjected to rejuvenating lightning in one of the film’s most impressive scenes, the two of them are soon off to find Frankenstein’s other son Ludwig, played by baggy of eye and limited of expression Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who doesn’t look happy to be in this film at all. He runs the Frankenstein Institute for Diseases of the Mind, which seems to require him to have an old dungeon under his house equipped with prison cells and ‘soporific gas’, presumably in case his patients get a bit overactive. Sir Cedric’s assistant is Lionel Atwill who unlike his co-star looks as if he’s having his usual whale of a time as one of the true villains of the piece, the other being (of course) Mr Lugosi. Ludwig gets visited by the ghost of his father (Hardwicke again) in one of the series’ few nods to the supernatural before everything went mental later on with the monster rallies. Father Frankenstein tells junior that all the monster needs is a new brain so why doesn’t he get on and sort it out? Planning to use the brain of a colleague killed by the monster everything goes predictably wrong when Atwill arranges for Ygor’s brain to be substituted instead. The monster awakens and goes blind. Ludwig says some rubbish about the incompatibility of blood types causing trouble getting oxygen to the neurones but we all know it’s that poor writer being flogged by the execs to get the script finished in under 24 hours again so we forgive him. The house goes on fire and Evelyn Ankers and Ralph Bellamy get to walk towards the sunrise as everyone interesting is now dead and besides they have to fulfil some sort of function as the nominal hero and heroine.
           THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN isn’t bad. It’s a big comedown after Rowland V Lee’s predecessor but it’s not a disaster. Lugosi and Atwill keep things interesting from the acting point of view and director Erle C Kenton manages a few nice shots (the lightning bolts hitting the monster, some nice framing of Lugosi in the propped open lid of a grand piano) in amongst what looks like a very rushed job. Clocking in at 68 minutes this breezy fourth entry was a sign of the way things were about to go very quickly indeed as more and more monsters were delivered by the studio at a vastly increased rate over the next couple of years.