Friday 30 November 2012

Exorcism (1975)

I don’t know what it is about me and the films of Jess Franco. A bit like a woman you know is bad for you but whom you can’t resist, they draw me back time and time again, even though while I’m watching I have a sort of guilty feeling that I should be spending my time doing something far more worthwhile. EXORCISM is a 1975 effort of his that was also know as DEMONIAC in its more horror-orientated ‘unerotic’ form (although I’m not sure you can call the more complete version I have just seen erotic), and came out in Europe under the wonderfully sleazy title THE SADIST OF NOTRE DAME. In fact, like many of Franco’s films, it’s quite possibly had more titles than people who have actually seen it, or at least people who stayed until the end.
A character knocks on a door wearing one kind of coat and then enters the room dressed entirely differently. A girl gets out of bed in closeup only for the long shot to show her getting out of bed again. The camera wobbles, goes out of focus, into focus and then out again. That is, of course, if it’s being touched by a living person at all and not just left in a corner to seemingly randomly record whatever might pass for acting in whichever hotel room has been rented for the purpose. Scenes either begin or finish on close-ups of ladies’ pubes, and when  they don’t there’s a fair bit of crash-zooming in on them in the middle. 
To his critics (of which there are many, including me on the days when I’ve got a bit exasperated with his work) the above is probably a reasonable summary of Franco’s oeuvre, never mind this film in particular. What’s a shame here is that the plot of the film is actually quite interesting, and in the hands of someone capable of taking a bit of time and care could have been a superbly subversive commentary on censorship and freedom of expression.
Franco himself plays Paul Vogel, a demented defrocked priest who writes saucy stories for ‘Venus’ publications. He overhears a conversation between Lina Romay (of course) and her editor about attending a black mass. Actually it’s a saucy show Lina and her lady friends put on for debauched millionaires, and we’ve already seen one over the opening titles (which, by the way, give up and go away before a directorial credit ever appears).  Vogel spies on the show, goes even more mental than he was before, and starts to kill everyone involved, believing he’s doing the Lord’s work because he can absolve his victims of their sins as they die, thus ensuring their passage into heaven. 
I may be damning Franco with faint praise here, but his ability to make attractive naked ladies not at all erotic in scene after scene of  soft core gropiness must require some kind of special ability. What it also does is keep your mind on the plot (and the technical gaffs and mistakes of which there are a few), make you feel just as disturbing a voyeur as some of the audience members in the movie, and also remind you that no matter how bad Franco gets, for some reason he always has the most amazing eye for locations - some of the buildings he picks out for this film are fabulous examples of architectural flamboyance. 
I spend too much time watching Jess Franco films. I probably spend too much time writing about them, too, and this won’t be the last time. But those are my sins and I feel I shall have to live with them. Just as long as some demented priest doesn’t come along to show me the error of my ways.

Sunday 11 November 2012

The Queen of Spades (1949)

It’s time for a bit of class at House of Mortal Cinema. Thorold Dickinson’s film of Alexander Pushkin’s short story is something that had entirely passed me by until it was flagged up on Facebook recently as being a ghost story worth seeking out. It certainly is that, but it’s also an extremely well made, cleverly shot film that’s well worth 91 minutes of any film aficionado’s time, with a couple of turns by future stars of BritHorror to make things even more fun.
Anton Walbrook is Herman Suvorin, a lowly Captain in the engineers of the St Petersburg Russian army of 1806. Obsessed with the card game of Faro (the rules are explained in the film and it’s very easy) he refuses to play unless he can be guaranteed to win. Seeing as Faro is purely a game of chance this seems impossible, until he wanders into what looks like a 1920s German expressionist movie version of an Amicus anthology movie bookshop, complete with devilish-looking proprietor and books to match. He picks up the one about selling one’s soul for gain and reads the tale of how, many years ago, the Countess Ranevskaya (the mighty Edith Evans in 1806 time) sold her soul to win at that very same card game so that the money stolen by one of her many lovers could be returned before her husband found out. The Countess just happens to be very much alive and living in St Petersburg. Suvorin hatches a scheme to make contact with the old woman, but it all goes wrong and she dies as a result. Later he’s visited by her ghost who reveals how to win at the card game but only at a price.
There’s a lot to love about THE QUEEN OF SPADES. The first half an hour is pure gothic horror, the second act may have you wondering if it’s going to get scary again but then it does, in spades (sorry), and by the time the film is over I was wondering why on earth I had never heard of it before. The production design is stunning and, as mentioned above the photography makes many of the scenes feel as if they are from a film shot thirty years earlier. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Walbrook and Evans playing their very best unrestrained gothic. The rest of the cast includes a wealth of faces who would become familiar to Brit Horror fans including Ronald Howard (CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB), Yvonne Mitchell (DEMONS OF THE MIND), Anthony Dawson (CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF), Miles Malleson (DEAD OF NIGHT & many others), Michael Medwin (NIGHT MUST FALL and lots of British TV) and if you look closely you’ll spot Hammer’s favourite landlord, George Woodbridge (Mr PIPKINS himself) as a footman.
The real star of QUEEN OF SPADES, though, is director Thorold Dickinson, Bristol born and a director of apparently international standing. Some of his framing, camera setups and overlays are just marvellous, to the extent that if they were seen in a film today they might be considered impressive: a shadow ‘ghost writes’ a letter; a spider’s web is superimposed on the face of a female victim about to be ensnared in a trap, and the way in which the ghost’s visit is enacted are all wonderful moments in a movie that rewards repeat viewings. An unexpected treat. 

Sunday 4 November 2012

Bait 3D (2012)

This Australian rip off of SNAKES ON A PLANE should really be called SHARKS IN A SUPERMARKET and who knows, in some territories that demand more accurate titlings perhaps that’s what it’s called. Sadly the line ‘I’ve had enough of these motherfucking sharks in this motherfucking supermarket’ isn’t in evidence, which is a shame, as otherwise it would easily win best trashy movie dialogue of the year. Many of the other elements of David R Ellis’ Corman homage are all present and correct, though, and if you had a thoroughly chucklesome time with Samuel L Jackson and the gang in that, the chances are you’ll have a ball with this too - I know I did.
Xavier Samuel (from THE LOVED ONES, a properly good Australian horror picture) plays Josh, a former lifeguard who, because of some pre-credits shark based trauma now earns a living stacking shelves in the local Oceania supermarket. Life in this supermarket appears to be rarely dull, as all the cliched characters you seem to get in monster movies like this shop there. It’s an especially bad day for Josh because his girlfriend Tina (Sharni Vinson) who left him for foreign shores after he decided to live in a filthy flat and lost his ability to spoon coffee into a mug properly has returned from the Exotic Foreign Land of Singapore (which happens to be a coproducer of BAIT 3D) with her hunky Singaporean boyfriend in tow. Scarcely do they have the chance to exchange smouldering glances across a crowded baking products aisle (Josh and Tina I mean, although the alternative might have been even more fun) than vicious hardened B-movie criminal Julian McMahon is carrying out a one-man holdup, cunningly disguising himself as a customer by wheeling a trolley for all of two seconds before abandoning the subtlety route and pulling his weapon out (I know I know but a film like this positively begs you to have whatever fun with it you can).
Josh’s day couldn’t possibly get any worse, could it? Well before you can say ‘What’s that coming over the hill?’ a MASSIVE tidal wave has swept through the town and the supermarket, submerging most of its quality goods and letting in a couple of sharks for good measure. Most of the cast (I won’t say stars as that would be a bit too charitable) get trapped on the upper floor of the supermarket and have to spend their time jumping from frozen meat counter to frozen meat counter while they try to think up ways to avoid / trap / get eaten by the shark. And oh my do they come up with some incredibly silly ones that I shall leave you to find out for yourself.
Just in case this film isn’t a whole load of enough stupid already there are also a group of secondary characters trapped in the downstairs car park, including the horror standbys Bickering Couple and Annoying Small Dog. Some of the dialogue here is priceless, and I actually mean that in a good way. When a joke about fake Gucci shoes has you smiling while an improbably enormous killer fish ambles past the characters delivering the dialogue you know you’re having a good time with a very silly film.
BAIT 3D is very silly indeed. It is also much, much better than what I was expecting to see. Fans of sub-par rubbish like the recent spate of Roger Corman SyFy movies like DINOCROC vs SUPERGATOR and of course the now immortal drive-in cheesiness of SNAKES ON A PLANE will have a great time with it. I also have it on good authority that a sequel script is currently being ironed out - I kid you not. Apparently BAIT 2 will be set in a school that suffers the same treatment as the supermarket here. On the basis of how much fun I had with original, the makers of BAIT 2: SCHOOL OF SHARKS can have my price of admission right now. But only if they use that title.

Friday 2 November 2012

The Clinic (2010)

     The opening caption ‘Based on true events’ seems to be de rigeur for many a horror film these days, and it’s all present and correct at the beginning of THE CLINIC, but don’t let that put you off what is actually another pretty decent little Australian horror picture. 
      It’s another film that, like LITTLE DEATHS, I picked up on a whim (this time for £3 at HMV), and was subsequently delighted to discover that it’s actually rather good.
In 1979, (a time before DNA testing, we are rather ominously told at the beginning) a young couple, Cameron and heavily pregnant Beth, are travelling across Australia to visit Beth’s parents for Christmas. They stop for the night at the kind of motel one should never stop at in this kind of film, and Cameron does the stupid movie thing of popping out for some food in the middle of the night, only for his car to run out of petrol. By the time he gets back Beth is gone and no-one admits to her ever having existed.
Meanwhile Beth has woken up naked in a bath full of ice. Her baby is gone and all she has to show for it is a lower midline incision in her abdomen. She pulls on some clothes and goes wandering around what looks like the abandoned meat processing plant she has been brought to and is now a prisoner in. She eventually discovers four other women, all with identical scars, all of whom have just been deprived of their babies under mysterious circumstances. 
Where things take a turn for the fun and horrible is when the women discover the babies alive and well but locked in cages. There is nothing to identify them save a coloured marker. It transpires that the mother of each child has a corresponding marker inside them that was put there at the time the baby was removed. It then becomes a question of how far is each mother prepared to go to discover which baby is her child, and the film quickly becomes a trial of survival of the fittest as the women begin to stalk each other.
What’s extra good about THE CLINIC is that it doesn’t stop there. Once we discover the reason for all this there’s a great twist and an appropriately blood-drenched climax that makes what has gone before all the more worthwhile for sticking with. Nicely directed with some good performances and makeup effects, THE CLINIC is the kind of understated-but-gory and well thought through low budget horror film that we could do with a lot more of. Kudos to all involved here, but especially first time writer-director James Rabbitts who, like John V Soto who did NEEDLE (also reviewed on here) is another Australian horror director who will hopefully go on to even greater things. Another little gem that’s out there at the moment for minimal cash outlay.