Saturday 28 July 2012

Grave Encounters (2011)

In the subgenre of the found footage horror film there is the great (CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST), the good (BLAIR WITCH PROJECT), and the not so good (virtually everything else). As always, it’s that last category that far outweighs the other two to the point where the hardened veteran fan of this sort of thing is probably going to roll  their eyes at the prospect of yet another one.
But if you like found footage horror then don’t give up just yet. Here’s a really rather good little low budget picture that does enough things right to warrant the discerning horror fan’s attention and appreciation.
GRAVE ENCOUNTERS is the title of one of those ghost hunter-type programmes that seem to make up about a third of the network programming of some of the smaller satellite channels. In the opening prologue the commissioning network’s producer explains that what we are about to see is edited down footage from the sixth episode in the series, all ‘exactly as it happened’ etc etc. So far so we’ve seen all of this sort of thing before. We then cut to the filming of the programme itself in an opening twenty minutes that quickly begins to deliciously reveal overly charismatic and falsely sincere star Lance Preston and his gang of ‘psychic investigators’ to be a bunch of cynics, has-been actors and ratings chasers.
Lance and his team are investigating one of those big old deserted mental hospitals where Terrible Things Were Done To The Patients by the head psychiatrist, Arthur Friedkin (yes I was groaning at that too, but only because we were only ten minutes or so in) back in the 1930s. Various colourful local characters are interviewed before the team is locked in for the night and strange things start to happen. 
Thus far the film looks like it’s going to be HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (the remake) set in the Danvers State Asylum. What’s rather good about GRAVE ENCOUNTERS is that it does a very good job of preparing its characters, location and backstory so that while the scares are very subtle at the beginning, gradually increasing in their intensity and outrageousness, you’re with the (not especially likeable) cast all the way. Rather than going for intensely visceral shocks and scares from the outset the film concentrates on weird occurrences. Corridors end in blank concrete where there should be doors, something is wrong with the clocks, and when the sun doesn’t rise when it should the team break through the locked exit doors to find the world beyond isn’t what they were expecting at all. The ghosts and monsters do come eventually but it’s hefty doses of weirdness beforehand that makes their appearance all the more disturbing. The acting is splendid, with the main players getting their characterisations just the right side of insincere. The direction is understated until things need to get going and everything ends in an appropriately macabre way. GRAVE ENCOUNTERS definitely fits into the ‘good’ category of found footage horror movie and is yet another movie that deserves to be better known that it is.

Sunday 22 July 2012

Dorothy (2010)

Made in 2008 but not getting a UK release until two years later, here’s a modern EuroHorror that’s definitely deserving of wider exposure and more love than it seems to have got so far. Also going by the alternate title of DOROTHY MILLS in other territories (I've put up the Spanish  poster as it's a bit more interesting that the UK one), DOROTHY is a French-Irish coproduction. It’s also a lovely slow burner of a horror picture that boasts a complex plot very well told, some splendid performances, and a delicious atmosphere of rain-drenched gloom in an authentic-feeling isolated country community.
Dublin psychiatrist Jane van Dopp (Carice van Houten) travels to a remote island to make a clinical assessment of Dorothy Mills (Jenn Murray), a teenager who, while babysitting, allegedly ended up trying to strangle her tiny charge. From the outset strange things happen. Jane is run off the road by a car chase and ends up in the river, her car a right off and the viewer wondering if we’re perhaps going to be treated to a modern version of CARNIVAL OF SOULS. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that’s not exactly how things pan out but once Jane meets Dorothy, who seems to suffer from a really quite scary variant of Multiple Personality Disorder, the plot thickens and with the island community hostile and obviously involved in some weird cult that involves using Dorothy as a conduit to talk to the dead it’s pretty clear that things are going to end badly. I haven’t even mentioned that Jane is in mourning following the accidental death by drowning of her young son, or that someone (or something) on the island is vandalising property and murdering livestock with a very specific purpose in mind.
I won’t reveal much more because this really is one of those films that’s a delight to discover without knowing too much about it. What I will say is that as the film went on I became more and more intrigued, with the result that I really didn’t know what was going to happen from one minute to the next, and I certainly didn’t see any of the extremely satisfying ending coming. Reviews on the internet have compared this to THE EXORCIST (it isn’t) and THE WICKER MAN (there’s the isolated community with a secret but there all similarities end). With a superb sense of rural grimness DOROTHY does a fine job of telling an involved story without ever becoming confusing, and hats off to director Agnes Merlet for keeping everything on track. I must confess I hadn’t previously heard of any of the personnel involved with this film except for Gary Lewis who plays the priest-cum-doctor in charge of the community (he was in VALHALLA RISING), van Houten (who was in INTRUDERS, also reviewed on this site) and Rynagh O’Grady who played the wife who was always trying to kill her husband in FATHER TED. Merlet’s follow up picture was called HIDEAWAYS and has yet to have a UK release but I may well catch it when it does.

Thursday 19 July 2012

The Girl in Room 2A (1973)

It's time for yet another dip into the ocean (or quite possibly cesspool) of Eurosleaze with this Italian picture featuring nudity, floggings, beautiful women, some kind of weird torture cult, a villain in a red mask and cape, and an ending that makes no sense at all but features the sight of three very large men crammed into a Volkswagen beetle careering across the countryside. With all of this going on this film should be an undiscovered gem, right?
Er...not exactly.
THE GIRL IN ROOM 2A starts off sleazily promisingly, with a girl being abducted under the opening titles. She’s sedated, stripped, strung up and then run through with skewers before being thrown off a cliff, all to some appropriately cheesy music. Next we see Daniela Giordano (ex Miss Italy and I certainly could believe she won it) being released from a women’s prison (aha!) and getting in touch with her social worker Rosalba Neri. Regular readers will have noticed that within the first five minutes we are already way, way into the realms of Eurosleaze fantasy land (no disrespect to social workers but I’ve never seen one who looks like Rosalba Neri, and Daniela seems to have made it out of the prison remarkably unscathed). Rosalba gives Daniela a ‘fresh start’ by getting her a room at Mrs Grant’s guesthouse. Mrs Grant is a demented middle-aged woman who tells a made up story about how her husband died, has a weird son and keeps trying to give Daniela sedatives (aha again!). Meanwhile in her room Daniela keeps having flashbacks to her prison cell (no, not those kinds of flashbacks WiP fans - sorry!) and sees blood pumping out from between the floorboards. 
To cut a long (and my it does seem rather too long) story short she’s being lined up as the next victim of the kind of torture cult who regularly inhabit country houses in films like this. They believe in purification through pain and flog a few naked girls, stab some more and hack the face off Karin Schubert to show they mean business. Presiding over this is our villain in a red cape and red face mask. The brother of the murdered girl from the credits recruits improbably American and quite possibly steroid enhanced Charlie (Brad Harris) and Willy (no idea as his name’s not in the credits) and together the three of them head for the house in the tiniest car they can possibly find to save her.
There’s a fantastic chase sequence at the end with staggeringly inappropriate music that feels like something out of Benny Hill, and somehow the lead villain turns out to be Rosalba Neri even though our masked fiend is quite obviously a man with short hair in earlier scenes.
With all these elements THE GIRL IN ROOM 2A should at least be mildly entertaining and there are certainly a few laugh out loud moments (and quite a few head scratching ones as well - I still have no idea why any of this was going on, or why there was a machine in Mrs Grant’s house designed to pump blood through the floor). The main problem is actually American writer and director William Rose, who proves that really effective, atmospheric, suspenseful, head-scratchingly crazy Italian horror films probably need to be made by, well, Italians. It’s not so much the content that’s the problem with THE GIRL IN 2A but its execution, which veers from a lot of boring chat to poor direction of what could be some quite interesting sequences. It’s not a dead loss and anyone craving a fix of Euro-daftness would find this a semi-pleasurable time waster. Everyone else should steer clear, but they probably knew to do that anyway.

Monday 16 July 2012

Murder Obsession (1981)

Featuring the fattest stupidest plastic monster spider since NUDE FOR SATAN, Riccardo Freda’s final film could be kindly described as ‘for completists only’. By that I mean for completists of Freda’s work or anyone who has to watch every giallo ever made, especially the ones that really make no sense, have ludicrous dream sequences shoehorned in to fill up (and spice up) the running time, and have denouements that include ridiculously garbled and convoluted explanations that are a desperate last attempt to justify all that satanism, nudity and giant spider fun.
      As I hope is often the case with these reviews, I hope by now you’ll know if you want to see this one or not, but if you’re still undecided, here’s what the film’s about. Not especially charismatic, good-looking or talented movie star Michael (Stefano Patrizi) travels back to his isolated crumbling family home with his girlfriend Deborah (Silvia Dionisio). His mother Shirley (Martine Brochard) is obviously a couple of cans short of a six pack as he tells her that Deborah is actually his secretary so she doesn’t get jealous before - hooray! - we get a sub Profondo Rosso-style flashback in which an effeminate little boy with blonde curls appears to have stabbed Michael’s father to death. After this incident little Michael spent quite a while in the local Instition for Giallo Flashback Affected Children, and he still suffers from blackouts (aha!). 
      Michael’s film-making friends turn up with “I am a Victim Stab Me” written all over them. One of these is Laura Gemser of the BLACK EMANUELLE series and others so before she gets stabbed she of course has to surrender to the requirements of early 1980s exploitation cinema and take her clothes off a few times.
      There’s more than an hour of the running time to get through before anyone gets murdered, hence the previously mentioned daft dream sequence. Silvia substitutes the smart black and red suit she’s wearing when she arrives for a variety of wispy and increasingly see-through dresses that eventually become so insubstantial that you can’t see them at all. During the dream she gets chased, bled on, has her dress ripped off, gets threatened by the Italian equivalent of a giant ‘Stop Boris’ (UK kids of the 1980s are probably the only ones who’ll get that one), gets threatened even more by drooling rotting-faced nuns and gets her dress ripped off again. 
      The murders mount up and the suspect list dwindles. Is it John Richardson, the weird butler a million miles away from Hammer epics like SHE and ONE MILLION YEARS BC? Is it Michael’s demented mother? Or is Michael really the killer after all? 
      As is often the case with the films of Riccardo Freda MURDER OBSESSION doesn’t make an awful lot of sense, but there are some great visuals (several reminiscent of TRAGIC CEREMONY, also reviewed on here), a lot of daftness and Boris The Massive Robot Spider in one of his few film roles, which in itself will be worth the price of admission to some.

Friday 13 July 2012

Countess Perverse (1973)

Movie directors are a strange breed. At one end of the spectrum we have auteurs like Stanley Kubrick, who made one film about every five years, or Terrence Malick, whose output consists of one movie every eleven years or so.
In 1973 Jess Franco made eleven films, not counting the three that he didn’t finish.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that quite a bit of his oeuvre from this period comes across as a bit rushed, a bit improvised, and a bit all over the place. COUNTESS PERVERSE is a brisk (78 minutes) sexy version of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. Howard Vernon and Alice Arno play Count and Countess Zaroff who own an island where they hunt naked girls and eat them. The girls are procured for them by another couple and their latest victim is Lina Romay. And that’s about it for plot. Most of the running time is taken up with a lot of nudity. In fact if you’re not into attractive ladies with no clothes on (and not always by themselves) you may find there’s a quite a lot of fast forwarding to be done here. The climactic hunt doesn’t actually get going until about twenty minutes from the end but when it does you have to admire Franco for having such an audaciously crazy, sexy idea. Basically, naked Alice Arno chases naked Lina Romay around the island. The Countess is armed only with a bow and arrow and Lina has nothing but the platform heels she’s been allowed to keep on after yet another session in the bedroom. This sounds ridiculous but is actually more effective than it sounds, and I certainly haven't seen anything like this done anywhere else (not even in a Franco film but then there are quite a few I haven’t seen).
So is the film worth watching? Well, the world is divided into those who are Franco fans and those that aren’t, and this is a twain that is unlikely to meet. Those of us who see some value in his films will stroke our chins and nod as we see another fantastic piece of architecture filmed in an unsettling way, and the long slow boat trip where the camera wobbles all over the place will be viewed as Franco’s attempt to capture something weird and moody about the landscape rather than the actions of a desperate man trying to fill up the running time of his five-page-script film. I actually quite liked COUNTESS PERVERSE but then I’ve seen quite a few of Franco’s films now, and apparently the more you watch the more you have a chance of understanding even one of them. I only have about a hundred to go now, and on the basis of this I’ll probably keep at it for the moment.

Monday 9 July 2012

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

Here’s a film that isn’t just deserving of some love but a decent DVD release as well. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack album in the car for the last couple of weeks, and despite having not seen the film in a long while (and never on DVD) I watched it so many times when I was a youngster I can probably recite all the dialogue and do a pretty reasonable one-man performance of this one if given half an opportunity. 
      It’s 1973 and strange things are happening at Pelham House, where a group of wealthy industrialists and politicians have been gathered together by magnate D D Denham to participate in black magic rituals with the promise of even greater power. One of their number, Professor Julian Keeley (Freddie Jones), is working on a new, even more lethal version of bubonic plague so the group can hold governments to ransom. MI5 infiltrate the organisation but their undercover operation is a disaster, with their agent barely escaping with his life and dying soon afterwards. Before he does, however, he gives details of the rituals, resulting in Colonel Matthews (Richard Vernon), Torrence (William Franklyn) and Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) calling in Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing - hooray!) for advice. He discovers that D D Denham is in fact Dracula (Christopher Lee - who else?) who has been resurrected from his burial place at St Botolph’s church in DRACULA AD 1972. In fact a tower block belonging to the Denham group of companies has been built on the site of the now demolished church. The plague is, in fact, not a ransom device but Dracula’s means of destroying the entire world so that he can finally die and be at peace, but not before he's had his final revenge on the family of van Helsing by vampirising his daughter Jessica (Joanna Lumley).
      It’s only recently that I’ve come to realise that THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA is quite possibly one of my favourite vampire films ever. Despite the action scenes and the attempts to perhaps make this more like a James Bond film, there’s actually a bleak, gloomy despondency to the entire proceedings and you really do get the feeling that this is the end of the Hammer series and possibly the end of the world as well. Having Dracula as the leader of a corrupt band of British politicians and businessmen is a masterstroke and could successfully be redone today, with only the afghan coats and a few other fashions needing to be updated to make this frighteningly relevant. I’ve never found vampires romantic or mysteriously appealing - to me they should be hideous bloodsucking monsters that wish to do nothing more than take advantage of the innocent and bleed them dry. The allegories here are a bit obvious but it’s a shame this film wasn’t allowed the chance to prove itself (distribution was apparently appalling and if you look at the UK poster the Hammer name wasn’t even played upon). Available in a variety of grotty transfers this is one film that deserves a proper transfer and a commentary from surviving cast and crew. And an understated contemporary version of this really could be a classic.

Friday 6 July 2012

Blind Corner (1963)

From producer Tom Blakely (ISLAND OF TERROR, NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT) and director Lance Comfort (DEVILS OF DARKNESS) comes this brief but very effective noirish 1960s British B movie featuring a number of faces familiar to fans of BritHorror of the 1960s and 1970s.
William Sylvester plays Paul Gregory, a composer of novelty pop records. He has a luxury penthouse apartment, a beautiful wife, and a fabulously successful career. He is also blind. His wife Anne (Barbara Shelley) begins an affair with artist Ricky (Alexander Davion, later to appear in Robert Hartford-Davis’ INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED), using his painting of a portrait of her as an excuse for their trysting. Things swiftly take a darker turn as Anne suggests to Ricky that the only way they can both be together and enjoy Paul’s fortune is if somehow her blind husband takes a plunge off the balcony of their top floor apartment.
The story doesn’t turn out the way anyone expects, and there’s a twist about ten minutes from the end that I absolutely didn’t see coming. What really makes BLIND CORNER a success, though, is its combination of some good performances (Barbara Shelley makes a superb cold-hearted, manipulative bitch of the first order), decent direction, and most of all a very good script, loaded with cruel dialogue and some unnerving scenes, most notably one where Shelley and Davion are openly and overtly affectionate right in front of the blind Sylvester who can’t see what they’re up to. 
The cast also includes Elizabeth Shepherd (TOMB OF LIGEIA, DAMIEN - OMEN II) as Paul’s secretary, and Mark Eden (CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR)  as the head of Paul’s recording studio. There are a couple of musical numbers courtesy of ‘special guest star’ Ronnie Carroll to pad out the running time, the second accompanied by the kind of dance routine you just don’t see anymore. The print that’s available on Odeon Entertainment’s Region 0 DVD is a bit scratchy and jumpy at times but is otherwise reasonably clean for a pretty obscure item.
BLIND CORNER was a complete surprise, recommended to me after I revealed that I hadn’t seen any of the films of its director Lance Comfort, despite his final picture, DEVILS OF DARKNESS having been a television regular when I was a lad. I recently caught up with it and while it's competent it's nowhere near as good as BLIND CORNER, which may well turn out to be this particular director's finest 74 minutes.

Sunday 1 July 2012

The Aggression Scale (2012)

I don’t usually post reviews of films that aren’t out yet (this doesn’t get a UK DVD release until September) but I saw this at the Prince Charles Cinema in London yesterday as part of the FrightFest ‘sleepy queue’ fun and it was such an unexpected surprise that I felt it deserved highlighting. It’s a brutal home invasion crime thriller, with the twist in this case being that it’s the kids who take revenge. While it’s extremely violent, and takes itself seriously, it’s also very entertaining, in an ‘adult version of HOME ALONE’ kind of way.
Ray Wise is vicious gang boss Reg Bellavance, who is about to do a runner to evade the authorities. He’s stashed away a large amount of money for the occasion but it’s gone missing. There are a number of suspects, and rather than waste time he orders Lloyd (Dana Ashbrook) and his gang of thugs to kill everyone on Bellavance’s suspect list until they find the money.
Boring Dad Bill (Boyd Kestner) has the missing cash and has used it to move his boring wife Maggie (Lisa Rotondi) out to the country with Maggie’s sexy petulant self-harming whingebag of a teenage daughter Lauren (Fabienne Therese) and Bill’s extra special twelve year old son Owen (Ryan Hartwig). What isn’t revealed until a bit later on in the film is that Owen has until recently been confined to a maximum security adult lockdown facility because he scores 99.5% on something called the Aggression Scale and is dangerously homicidal. In fact the only reason he’s been let out is because Dad has paid off the guards. When Lloyd and his gang come calling Owen suddenly turns into a one-boy death machine and each of the gang members ends up getting a lot more than they bargained for.
There’s a lot to like about AGGRESSION SCALE. The direction (by Stephen C Miller) is efficient without being flashy, and has exactly the style needed to tell this kind of story. The performances are all spot on, with kudos to Ashbrook and Wise for their distinctly villainous turns, and Therese and Hartwig as the kids who turn the tables. Kevin Riepl’s music score is one of the best I’ve heard in a low budget movie in a long time as well, ranging from pounding electric guitars to more subtle understated work  but always with a strong sense of it being music rather than just sound effects.
I had absolutely no expectations about THE AGGRESSION SCALE and had assumed it was going to be another grimmer than grim thriller. It’s actually much better than that and is deserving of 85 minutes of anyone’s time. Stephen Miller’s new film UNDER THE BED is going to be at Frightfest this year and after this I’m really looking forward to seeing it.