Thursday 26 December 2013

The Top Ten Horror Films of 2013

Yes it's that time again. For the second year running (one more and it'll be a tradition) House of Mortal Cinema is proud to present a rundown of what I think were the top ten horror movies of this year. The list which follows has been compiled with the intention of causing people to either nod sagely in agreement or alternatively tear their hair out in exasperation at the choices I've made. As before, the rule is that any film up for consideration has to have been released this year in the UK, or at least shown on the big screen in the UK as a premiere. That's because some of these movies were seen at festivals and won't be out until 2014.
      As usual it's now customary for me to pause a moment to consider the truly dreadful moments in horror cinema this year. I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 2 was awful, of course, and the embarrassment of attending a midnight showing with the director and lead actors present probably made for my personal most uncomfortable horror viewing experience. IN FEAR deserves a mention, both for being stultifyingly dull and for getting a multiplex cinema release when there were other far more worthy films that deserved it. Then there was the usual crop of terrible remakes, including EVIL DEAD (or Don't Do Drugs, Airbrushed Teens. This was so dull I was actually nodding off by the end) and CARRIE (or Let Us Show You Why Brian de Palma Is Such A Great Director). James Wan made two incredibly successful horror movies I really didn't like at all - the rambling, rushed-feeling INSIDIOUS 2, and the holier-than-thou histrionics of THE CONJURING
      Movies that didn't make my list below, but deserve special mention anyway, included the surprisingly good WORLD WAR Z with Brad Pitt (how could I not love a major movie in which an aeroplane gets diverted to Cardiff?), and the terrifically entertaining CURSE OF CHUCKY. The first VHS wasn't very good, but VHS 2 deserves a mention, not just for a general better quality of story all round (except for the framework which was still very tatty), but specifically for Gareth Huw Evans and Timo Tjahjanto's segment 'Safe Haven' which is just as terrifying on DVD as it was on the big screen. Evans is busy on THE RAID 2 but I hope he finds the time to do some more horror.

Anyway, that's enough of everything that didn't make the list - here's my cream of the crop for 2013:

10      Silent Night

I don't think this one got a UK cinema release but it came out on DVD last month so it counts. Stephen C Miller's remake of the 1974 SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT turned out to be a hugely enjoyable old school slasher movie with some properly horrific murders, some stylish direction, and best of all a sense of outrageous glee as we got to take a look at the sleazier side of small-town yuletide celebrations. Best watched over the festive period, SILENT NIGHT surprised me as being one of the best Christmas-themed horror films in years.

Once again Ben Wheatley makes the top ten. This one divided people immensely and I was more surprised than anyone when I found myself intrigued, engrossed, and I actually ended up liking it a lot. Having had a chance to chat to actor Reece Shearsmith in depth about the film, I was delighted to discover that my interpretation was pretty much correct so if you want to read my review of it again it's here.


Beautifully directed folk horror meditations on the meaning of existence are never going to win over bizarre mechanical monsters created by a World War II descendant of Baron Frankenstein in any top ten I put together, and I'm sure regular readers won't be in the least bit surprised. I really liked this one and I'm pleased to report that this crazy mixture of SAW, HOSTEL and just a sprinkling of video gamery works as well on DVD as it did on the big screen. Loads of fun.

7      PATRICK

An absolutely cracking remake of the 1978 Richard Franklin original, Mark Hartley's remake is also head and shoulders above the pointless new version of CARRIE that came out last month. Eschewing the Franklin film's urban setting for a massive creepy asylum out in the country, some terrifically stylish direction, and Pino Donaggio supplying his best film score in years (why isn't this available to buy yet?) all make PATRICK superb operatic over the top entertainment. It's out in the UK next year & it's well worth catching.


One of my favourites from this year's FrightFest. I've since had the opportunity to see the same team's previous RABIES aka KALEVET (2010). If you haven't seen that it's worth catching up with while we wait for this to get a release. A thriller that keeps you guessing and with a final shot I can still see vividly now five months after watching it means BIG BAD WOLVES gets a deserved place in the top ten.

It's next to near impossible to get an anthology film with 26 stories to work, but ABCS OF DEATH had so many good segments that it gets the number five spot. Definitely worth watching at least twice to get all the horror goodness it has to offer, there's another one in the offing and hopefully it will be as good a showcase of modern horror talent from around the world as this one was.

Yes it's a horror film - a beautiful, stylish, mesmerising horror film that deals with the nature of masculinity and human strength and weakness. If you didn't get to see it at the cinema get a big telly and the Blu-ray to get the most out of director Nicolas Winding-Refn's gorgeous compositions. VALHALLA RISING and DRIVE made me a fan - this is the one that means I'll now watch anything he does.

Because if anyone is going to be the new Ken Russell it might just be Rob Zombie, a director who hopefully has grown up enough now that the petty cruelties of HOUSE OF A THOUSAND CORPSES and THE DEVIL'S REJECTS have been purged from his system. LORDS OF SALEM was a delicious, crazy, flamboyant horror film that certainly overstepped the mark in places, but I'd rather have too much excess in a film like this than restraint. Another director who I'll now watch whatever he does next.


I'm a huge fan of homegrown British horror and I think it's a shame there isn't more of the good stuff out there. THE BORDERLANDS was very, very good and it's another one I'll be watching again when it finally gets a release. A STONE TAPE-influenced tale of priests investigating demonic goings-on at a church in the West Country, I loved the ending of this one so much it's all I can do not to type it here now. But I'm not going to because you deserve to discover it for yourselves. Great stuff and on the basis of this and  THE DEVIL'S BUSINESS, in this case I'll be watching out for whatever producer Jen Handorf comes up with next.


Because it was great, because it was beautifully made, because it was Steve Woolley and Neil Jordan together again and doing horror, but most of all because when I saw the previews of this at FrightFest 2012 I actually thought it wasn't going to be very good at all and I spent six months with no intention of really wanting to watch it. My favourite horror film of the year because it's terrifically written, beautifully acted, at times astonishingly directed and if a single one of these things had not been absolutely top notch the vast sprawling house of cards that was this movie's plot would have come crashing down. Well done to all concerned. We need more like this. Lots more.

So there you go - you may well not have agreed with everything (or anything) I've said there, but I think there's no argument that the horror genre seems to be in quite a rude state of health at the moment. I'm already getting organised to attend all next year's FrightFests, kicking off with Glasgow at the end of February and hopefully I'll get to meet up with some of you at one of these events. Other than that, there's currently a stack of review discs on my desk, so in 2014 you can expect my thoughts on Charles Band's PUPPET MASTER and SUBSPECIES series of films, as well as quality-sounding fare like AMAZONIA, REEL EVIL and ZOMBIES VS STRIPPERS. There's a whole load of great-sounding classic and cult material due out from a range of labels (including THEATRE OF BLOOD - my favourite film of all time - due out from Arrow), so I may even be spared reviewing those last three, but we shall see.

Very finally, huge, huge thanks to everyone who has visited this site in the last twelve months. It's been far and away House of Mortal Cinema's most successful year in terms of interest from both readers and film folk, and all of these reviews are here because of all of you. I won't pretend that writing this stuff is hard work, but there's a very special kind of pleasure to be taken in knowing that lots of people get entertained by it. And it really helps when I get faced with films that end up in my Trapped In the Room With It section. Thank you all - you help me make it through the rubbish, and find even more ways to love it.

With best wishes for 2014 - take care & keep being nice to each other,


Saturday 21 December 2013

Dollman (1991)

What’s that coming over the hill? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Actually I can’t see  anyone coming over the hill, so it’s probably DOLLMAN.
With his predilection for tiny things and an imagination that far outstrips the money he puts into his films (not something that’s very difficult) Charles Band decided to take the future-cop-in-present-day-US idea of his terrifically enjoyable  TRANCERS (1985), employ the same lead actor (Tim Thomerson) and then do something very odd indeed by shrinking said cop character down to thirteen inches high.
Thomerson’s Brick Bardo isn't actually from the future. In fact he’s from the planet Arturus “10 000 light years from earth” where everyone is the same size as him. His adventures on Arturus make up the first twenty minutes of the film, where he saves a laundry room full of very fat ladies and obese children who are being threatened by an ultra-low budget version of Brad Dourif. 
      Sacked from his policing job for causing two of the women to have heart attacks, Brick finds himself kidnapped and dragged to a grim BRONX WARRIORS-style wasteland, where a floating head orders his death. Brick kills all the head’s henchmen and a chase using really cheap models of spaceships ensues. They both end up going through “some sort of space warp” to end up in the kind of New York even MAD MAX might think looked a bit scruffy. Brick gets involved with the local anti-drug and gang crusader Kamala Lopez, while the floaty head offers gang leader Jackie Earle Haley (and my God he looks young in this) a trans-dimensional bomb in return for his assistance. What he gets is Jackie’s thumb squishing him before making off with the bomb anyway. Kamala gets kidnapped and there’s a lot of running around and explosions on the stretch of wasteland they were presumably allowed to film on before the tran-dimensional bomb goes off. The End.
DOLLMAN is very brief at about 73 minutes minus the credits but it still feels as if it drags. As I’ve mentioned above, the first twenty minutes are just fine, and if the entire film had been set on Brick’s home planet and the miniature idea had never been entertained, this would probably have been a much more enjoyable film. I really quite liked director Albert Pyun’s debut effort THE SWORD AND THE SORCEROR, but one gets the feeling his heart wasn’t into the tiny stuff. Once on earth, Brick’s small size is never used to his advantage. In fact very little is made of the fact that he’s the size of an Action Man, although it does lead to some chucklesome shots of his holding on to a car or flying through the air.

88 Films’ HD transfer looks very fine on Blu-ray. There are some trailers, a featurette, and a 2013 Vidcast from Charles Band and Tim Thomerson in which Band mentions his quite jaw-dropping movie project OOGA BOOGA as well as showing us the promotional line of dolls that goes along with it. I have no idea if OOGA BOOGA will ever be seen in this country with that title, but it would seem Mr Band still isn’t finished with the world of tiny things. DOLLMAN isn’t the best of his projects but if you’re a completist you’ll definitely get a kick out of the beginning. And I still can’t wait to see DOLLMAN VS DEMONIC TOYS.

88 Films brought out DOLLMAN on Blu-ray on 
25th November 2013

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Demonic Toys (1993)

Producer Charles Band has quite a predilection for little things. The PUPPET MASTER series has reached ten films in all, and DOLLMAN (1991) was an attempt to have a Tiny Tim Thomerson as its central character. DEMONIC TOYS has just been released by 88 Films on Blu-ray. Like PUPPET MASTER, it’s another of Band’s (and his company Full Moon’s) forays into the killer doll subgenre. It’s directed by Peter Manoogian, who also made the 1980s fan favourite ELIMINATORS (when are you bringing that one out, 88 Films?) and it’s actually not at all bad.
We open with one of the most stylish sequences ever to be included in a Full Moon film. Viewers unfamiliar with anything outside of mainstream cinema should not get their hopes up but those who know Mr Band’s work will be pleasantly surprised. Star Tracy Scoggins sits amidst grandfather clocks whose pendula swing (almost in rhythm) while two small boys play a bizarre card game. It quickly transpires that this is a dream she is relating to her police officer colleague who also happens to be her lover who also happens to be assisting her in a sting operation to catch a couple of gun runners (full marks for economic exposition there, chaps). The sting goes wrong, Tracy’s man is killed, and she and the two baddies end up in a warehouse. One of the baddies is bleeding from a bullet wound. His blood seeps through a crack in the floor and does...something. It turns out the warehouse is used to store all kinds of toys that were presumably far too scary to ever be allowed on shop shelves. As he bleeds they come to life. Well, a couple do, including a frankly terrifying jack-in-the-box, a teddy bear with teeth, and a baby doll that can run, stab, and cheerfully announce that 'I can shit myself' before doing people in.
The reasons these toys have come to life is too complex and daft to go into here, suffice to say that we get the craziest flashback sequence I have seen in a while that involves the gift of a stillborn demon baby to three trick-or-treating children on Halloween in 1929. Meanwhile in the present, the closest thing DEMONIC TOYS has to a hero has arrived in his chickenmobile (see illustration). Once he’s inside and met up with a security guard and the goth girl who lives in the air conditioning system, it’s time for a daft (but thoroughly enjoyable) game of cat and mouse before the climax. This is so bonkers that I almost want to see the film again right now, involving as it does a toy soldier, a human-sized demon, Tracy tied to the floor and a man in a giant teddy bear suit. As is, I hope, the case with many of the reviews on this site, if you’re still reading this you know you need to see this film. 
88 Films’ Blu-ray transfer is smashing and I’m sure there can be no argument that a Charles Band film has probably never looked this good. Extras include a couple of trailers and a featurette, and there’s a booklet with notes by Calum Waddell. Charles Band’s films vary massively in quality, but DEMONIC TOYS is a whole load of fun that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to like-minded enthusiasts of low budget silliness.

88 Films released DEMONIC TOYS on Blu-ray on 9th December 2013 as an Amazon exclusive. Everyone else will have to wait until 27th January 2014

Monday 16 December 2013

Beach Babes 2: Cave Girl Island (1996)

Those kind chaps at 88 Films have sent me a batch of movies to review, and this one happened to be on the top of the pile. Rather than go with my instincts and immediately move it to the bottom in the hope it might have crumbled to dust by the time I finally got round to watching it, I decided to grasp the nettle of rubbish cinema with both hands and subject myself to something I suspected even I would be unable to find any real worth in.
Having missed the no doubt complex storyline of BEACH BABES PART 1 that hopefully sets up the situation we find ourselves thrust into in this sequel, I must admit to having found myself a little lost at the beginning of the film. It would seem that three young ladies hailing from a very warm planet where any kind of practical clothing must be illegal have jammed themselves into the tiniest spaceship imaginable and are now zooming across space in a riot of awful special effects of the flying biscuit tin and black backcloth variety.
      They crash land on a beach and one of their number ends up in a jungle with all her clothes having fallen off. She encounters a helpful native gentleman whose race has developed no further than the loincloth, the straw hut, and the side buckled beach sandal. It takes him a long while to find her something to wear, and even longer if you don’t fast forward through the interminable softcore scene that ensues. This is presuming, of course, that as a sophisticated viewer of such material you have chosen the ‘unrated’ option from the menu. I suspect the ‘R-rated’ version of this little opus is even shorter than the uncut version’s 76 minutes but I must confess I have little desire to watch this a second time in any version at all.
The two girls still at the biscuit tin spaceship rescue their ghetto blaster from it and enjoy an impromptu and appallingly choreographed dance on the beach. Then it's off to discover a village of catatonic cave girls whom they cure with the medicine of awful 1990s disco. 
Meanwhile a man sitting in a cave and wearing a black beret is busy trying to find a ways to capture our heroines. He’s already subjected them to a minute or so of footage of stop motion dinosaurs from another film that for some mysterious reason was considered sufficiently representative of BEACH BABES 2 to be included almost in its entirety as the film's trailer. 
Beret man soon has the girls in his big cage. Then he has some rather muscular gentlemen in his cage as well. But they all manage to escape and dance and then fly away in their biscuit tin spaceship. When it lands again you can see the Hollywood sign in the background, as well as a number of people’s houses. I have no idea if this was intentional or not.
           BEACH BABES 2: CAVE GIRL ISLAND really doesn’t deserve a review as long as this. Despite its very short running time it’s padded out with a number of softcore sex scenes that will either have you reaching for the fast forward button if you’re older, the pause and rewind button if you’re younger, or the slow frame advance button if you really, really don’t get out at all ever. The stop motion dinosaurs are very sweet but, like I said, you can see them in the trailer. 88 Films’ DVD has the film in 1.33:1. I have no idea if any other ratio exists and I suspect no-one else is that bothered. The disc also has a whole batch of trailers for films of equal or even greater trashiness which is actually more worth the price of admission than the film. If there are many more like these in the stack of discs sitting on my desk I suspect my ‘Trapped in the Room With It’ Section is just about to get a whole lot larger. Oh, and illustrations to accompany this review have been limited to the DVD box cover art as anything else would be inappropriate on the grounds of taste, decency, and the fact that they are unlikely to make you want to watch this film any more than what I've already said.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

John Carpenter’s big budget knockabout chop-socky fantasy is about to get the  extra posh treatment from Arrow in the form of a steelbook Blu-ray release, as well as a standard package for those less keen to fork out extra for the metal. It’s a film that didn’t do very well on its initial release, which is a shame as it’s a lot of fun and it's certainly deserving of some love and attention.
Truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) delivers a shipment to the Chinatown district of San Francisco, beats his friend Wang (Dennis Dun) at cards and agrees to give him a lift to the airport to pick up his green-eyed fiancĂ©e. What Jack doesn’t know is that the girl is wanted by evil 2000-year-old wizard David Lo Pan (James Hong on deliciously daft evil form) to free him from a curse he was placed under all those years ago. The girl gets kidnapped and Jack and Wang, together with reporter Gracie (Kim Cattrall channelling goodness knows how many spunky 1940s heroines) have to break into Lo-Pan’s domain to get her back. Of course they don’t count on the whole host of supernatural oriental entities that are going to try to stop them.
Coming at the end of a run of higher budgeted studio pictures (he made 1984s STARMAN prior to this) BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA proved to be such an unpleasant experience that John Carpenter went back to his low budget roots after this with the gets-better-every-time-you-watch-it PRINCE OF DARKNESS. Thankfully all the problems came after the production rather than during it, and the film itself is a piece of riotous entertainment. Kurt Russell’s Jack is not so much an everyman character as a uselessman character, completely unlike the usual Hollywood hero. Apparently that didn’t sit well with Hollywood executives and was one of the many reasons the picture was buried. That’s a huge shame because Russell’s performance is spot on as he gives us the incompetently funny side of macho. All the actors get into the spirit of the piece, with special mention going to Dennis Dun who has the job of holding everything together and keeping the plot going.
Carpenter's direction is bright and colourful and stylish as befits the material, and as ever he makes excellent use of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. W D Richter’s script ‘adaptation’ effortlessly revises the original screenplay’s Western setting to somewhere altogether different, and the dayglo colours and well edited action sequences make BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA feel much like a bigger, crazier version of Walter Hill’s STREETS OF FIRE, but with Carpenter synthesisers rather than Jim Steinman songs.
Arrow’s Blu-ray is a lovely transfer and is packed with extras, including a commentary track from John Carpenter & Kurt Russell ported over from the previous DVD release, and a brand new set of interviews with Carpenter, Russell, cinematographer Dean Cundey, producer Larry Franco and stuntman Jeff Imada. There’s also a vintage making-of featurette, extended ending, deleted scenes, a music video featuring Carpenter's band the Coup de Villes, trailers, TV spots, new poster artwork and a booklet. All round this is an absolutely excellent presentation of a neglected gem, and well worth picking up in Arrow's new Blu-ray version.

Arrow are releasing John Carpenter's BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA on Blu-ray in steelbook and standard editions on 16th December 2013

Monday 9 December 2013

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation (from a screenplay by Leigh Brackett) of the Raymond Chandler novel gets the Blu-ray treatment courtesy of the Arrow Academy label. And what a lovely package it is.
Elliott Gould plays chain-smoking private investigator Phillip Marlowe, living in a tiny turret flat in Los Angeles accessed by a private elevator and next door to a house filled with topless young lady hippies, His only friends are his cat who only likes one specific type of tinned food (some of the best cat acting I’ve seen in a long time, by the way) and Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton). When Lennox asks Marlowe for a one-way lift to Tijuana it’s the start of a complex story that kicks off with the police pulling the detective for questioning after Lennox’s wife is found with her skull beaten in. Lennox is subsequently found to have committed suicide and the case is apparently closed. However, a request from pretty Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt who went on to do not much else of significance but did appear in Albert Pyun’s THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER) for Marlowe to locate her missing husband Roger (the ever-bonkers Sterling Hayden from DR STRANGELOVE, THE FINAL PROGRAMME and DEADLY STRANGERS) proves to be more complicated than he expects, especially when gang boss Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell who directed ON GOLDEN POND) turns up demanding the $350 000 Marlowe owes him.
Probably the most noir a 1970s thriller set in Los Angeles could be, Robert Altman’s film gives us a cynical view of both the city in which it is set, and the people who live there. This is a crumbling, tarnished depiction of LA, where hedonism feels tired and few question the casual violence of organised crime. Holding everything together is a bravura performance by Gould, who manages to tiptoe just the right side of rumpled seediness to be likeable. Altman’s direction gives rise to a whole host of interesting camera setups, many of which show a considerable wit at work. Many of the dialogue scenes, especially near the beginning, feel improvised, and John Williams supplies a curiously experimental music score which consists solely of the title theme but interpreted in many different ways (some cleverly segueing into one another during scene changes).
Arrow's widescreen 2.35:1 presentation is very nice, with the only blemish being some kind of hole in the top right of the print that occurs at 1:14 and is present as a distracting white dot for about a minute. Otherwise it looks great. 

There are loads of extras, including material ported over from the 2002 DVD release. These include interviews with Robert Altman, Elliott Gould, and director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond. There’s also ‘Giggle and Give In’ - Paul Joyce’s documentary on Altman, Elliott Gould discussing the film on stage, Maxim Jakubowski on Hard Boiled fiction, David Thompson on Robert Altman, Tom Williams on Raymond Chandler, a trailer, radio spots, a reversible sleeve and a booklet. All in all it’s a very fine presentation of a very fine film.

Arrow will be releasing Robert Altman's THE LONG GOODBYE on Blu-ray on the Arrow Academy label on the 16th of December 2013

Saturday 7 December 2013

Lust in the Dust (1985)

Before I begin this review proper I’d like to state that I’m a huge fan of the films of Paul Bartel. DEATH RACE 2000 (1975) was a superb comedy that was remade recently with every scrap of satire that had been the original film’s intention removed. EATING RAOUL (1982) was a charmingly odd comedy that featured Bartel himself along with Mary Woronov as a couple killing people to finance the purchase of their dream restaurant. His LUST IN THE DUST, however, is a comedy of a rather different sort. A quick check of the relevant sources reveals to me that this film has quite a cult following and no doubt all three or so members of that cult will be delighted to hear that it’s just about to be re-released in the UK on the Arrowdrome label.
We’re in the Wild West. Into the town of Chilli Verde ride Rosie Velez (Divine) and Man With No Name wannabe Able Wood (Tab Hunter). Rosie’s looking for work at the bar of Marguerite Ventura (Lainie Kazan) and proves her "talent" by singing an absolutely dreadful song. The town is home to a number of famous faces, including Henry Silva and Cesar Romero, all of whom are hunting for a hidden stash of gold. The only clues to its whereabouts are a limerick and a map which, unknown to most at the start of the film, is tattooed in two parts - one half on each leading lady’s bottom. Everyone’s favourite Western loony Geoffrey Lewis rides into town with his gang, which includes Woody SPARTACUS Strode. Soon they’re looking for the gold as well. After an interminable combination of bottom of the barrel innuendo and more gurning than one might see in an Italian 1970s demonic possession movie, the gold is found, nearly everyone is killed, and Divine is left sitting on a rock to ponder the meaning of it all.
A downright weird attempt at a BLAZING SADDLES-style Western spoof, only with a fraction of the budget and a cast composed of underground film stars and cult character actors, LUST IN THE DUST aims as low as possible in the comedy stakes and, to that end at least, it succeeds. Apparently the script was originally offered to John Waters and he turned it down. I have to admit I’m quite a fan of the films of Mr Waters as well as Paul Bartel, but the script here isn’t really deserving of either of their talents. The actors all behave as if they’ve been shown CARRY ON COWBOY and told that that level of restrain was not appropriate for this particular comedy Western. I’ve always quite liked Divine, even though I found him quite terrifying in his John Waters roles, and his aggressive mugging certainly helps to enhance the pantomime theatrics here. As I’ve said above, LUST IN THE DUST has developed quite a cult following over the years, but, like some of the actors in it, the comedy is a bit too broad for my tastes.

Arrow have provided a very nice 2.35:1 widescreen transfer of the film with minimal print damage. Extras are minimal too, in keeping with other Arrowdrome releases - you get a trailer, a collector’s booklet and reversible cover art, and that’s it.

Arrow Films are releasing LUST IN THE DUST on the Arrowdrome DVD label on 9th December 2013

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Only God Forgives - Blu-ray & DVD Release (2013)

I reviewed ONLY GOD FORGIVES when it came out at the cinema, but Lionsgate Home Entertainment has just brought Nicolas Winding-Refn's latest out on Blu-ray, DVD and steelbook editions (that's what the steelbook looks like up there) so I thought I'd reproduce my review here to save people searching for it, as well as adding a few comments about the extras on the disc.
      I’ve been a fan of Nicolas Winding Refn’s since even before he admitted his love for the films of Pete Walker (“British cinema at its best - I love this movie!” he said of Walker’s 1969 crime picture MAN OF VIOLENCE). His recent movies have felt like art-house treatments of well-worn exploitation tropes. VALHALLA RISING had a CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST feel to its dread inevitability, and DRIVE is very much FAST & THE FURIOUS for grown-ups. Both those movies depict loners who say little (if anything) and find themselves having to resort to the extreme violence of which they are all-too-capable in order for them to stay on the path of their own noble world view. If you like, both films are about the power of (literally) man. Rest assured I don’t expect to disappear up my own behind with all of this, but it’s interesting that Refn’s latest movie, ONLY GOD FORGIVES, is about the very opposite. In fact it’s a slow, and very deliberate, characterisation of one man’s weakness. The fact that the man is played by the ‘hero’ of Refn’s previous picture makes that comparison all the more resonant, and is infinitely fascinating for it.
ONLY GOD FORGIVES is set in Bangkok. Not the smokey, sweaty place that Bangkok really is, but rather a neon-lit wonderland of darkness from the mind of an Argento acolyte. Ryan Gosling plays Julian, a respected figure in the criminal underworld who runs a Thai boxing club as a front for a drug smuggling ring. His brother Billy is psychotic and likes to slash up young girls. When a vengeful father kills Billy, their mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives seeking revenge. How Julian deals with this, and with the police and the bizarre sexual hold his mother has over him, forms the rest of the film.
ONLY GOD FORGIVES is not about plot. It’s about emotion, and about how we react to, and deal with, its extremes. Like VALHALLA RISING, there are lots of scenes that feel as if they should be going on too long but somehow they’re not. Nothing seems to be happening and yet you can’t take your eyes off the screen. Partly this is due to the fact that the film looks absolutely gorgeous - a mixture of Kubrickian camerawork, Argentoesque lighting, and a Lynchian conceit that makes every shot something you find yourself wanting to stare at for hours.

The David Lynch influence doesn’t end there. Investigating the crimes is a policeman known as the Angel of Vengeance (Vithaya Pansringarm - an actor apparently plucked off the street by Refn, whose understated performance works in the film's favour far better than any eye-rolling Hollywood villain). The sword he keeps concealed on his back is his instrument of execution. When he’s not torturing members of Julian’s gang (and there’s one extreme scene in here that will have all but the most stoic of viewers cringing) he’s singing songs in a Karaoke bar while his uniformed staff look on. 
It all ends in a predictably grim way, but leaves the viewer wanting to watch it again. Despite the languid pacing there’s the feeling that things have been missed, and I don’t doubt that, like VALHALLA RISING, this is one that’s going to reward repeat viewings.
Performances are all excellent. Ryan Gosling, who was very much in the driving seat in DRIVE (sorry) is here much more the plaything / punchbag of his director. Kristin Scott Thomas does an amazing job of coming across as an overly masculine female impersonator's impression of her. The music by Cliff Martinez deserves a mention as well - all rumbling bass rhythms with flashes of keyboard and electronica that strengthen the Argento vibe of certain scenes.
The star of the film, of course, is Nicolas Winding Refn himself. After watching this film I’m not surprised he is an admirer of the films of Pete Walker, whose movies always featured strong female characters and weak male ones who found themselves buffeted by events and unable to do much about them when they were given the chance. That’s what ONLY GOD FORGIVES feels like, and in the Thai criminal underworld, that can only end in horror.
       Extras on the disc include a feature-length commentary by Refn that's well worth a listen, as Refn points out things that are easily missed the first time around, as well as offering some intriguing insights into this, VALHALLA RISING, and DRIVE. There are also eight 'Behind the Scenes' clips, two trailers, and a collection of poster concepts, as well as details of the artwork competition that resulted in the lucky winner having their design on the steelbook.

Lionsgate Entertainment and Icon Films released Nicolas Winding-Refn's ONLY GOD FORGIVES on Blu-ray, DVD and Steelbook editions on Monday 2nd December 2013

Sunday 1 December 2013

Tenebrae (1981)

One of the best gialli ever made, (and therefore one of the best Italian horror films ever made), Dario Argento’s TENEBRAE was met with a little bit of  disappointment on its initial release by those expecting the conclusion to his ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy of supernatural horror started by SUSPIRIA (1977) and INFERNO (1980). Instead, Argento returned to the giallo, a subgenre he had made so popular in the early 1970s with his animal trilogy (starting with THE BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE) and which he himself came back to in order to provide a consummate full stop to the plethora of rip-offs and imitations that followed in its wake in the form of PROFONDO ROSSO (1975). After the neon-lit colour-drenched histrionic excesses of  SUSPIRIA and INFERNO (and the latter movie’s mis-handling by Twentieth Century Fox and its subsequent financial failure) it’s perhaps not surprising that Argento returned to the genre that had made him famous as a sort of palate cleanser. 
Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) is a novelist famous for writing exactly the kind of thrillers Argento had been famous for filming. He travels to Rome for the launch of his latest book, 'Tenebrae', only to discover that a spate of recent brutal murders seems to be linked to both him and the book. Neal determines to solve the mystery himself, but in the best Italian giallo style things don’t go the way we’re expecting.
I will freely admit that I love TENEBRAE. The script is cracking, the murders are stylish, the music is great and the twist is so good I can still remember how blown away I was by it the first time I watched the film. I would be happy to while away the hours arguing that it could be Argento’s best giallo (yes, even better than PROFONDO ROSSO). More than his other gialli it feels like the true 1980s horror equivalent to the Agatha Christie crime thriller, in which an intrepid amateur tries to beat the police at their own game. The film wears its influences on its sleeve, even quoting Conan-Doyle twice, most significantly at the end. 
Watching the film for the umpteenth time, I was struck by how much care has been taken with everything. Argento always claimed that the film is set slightly in the future - one where everyone wears pastel colours that coordinate not just with everyone else, but with the production design as well, it would seem. Even the dubbing, often the downfall of many a decent Italian horror, is a lot better than usual. Apparently it was supervised by Robert Rietti rather than Nick Alexander and the voice cast includes accomplished performers like Theresa Russell and Adrienne Posta.
Most of all the central casting is perfect. Anthony Franciosa brings a warmth and believability to his role that makes it hard to think of anyone doing quite such a good job in the part, and that just makes the (completely insane) climax all the more affecting.

Arrow brought out TENEBRAE on Blu-ray earlier this year but a lovely steelbook edition is about to hit the streets. The Blu-ray transfer is gorgeous and is the best looking version of the movie you can currently get hold of. Extras are the same as the previous Blu-ray and 2011 DVD release (and still completely different from the Anchor Bay Region 1 release that had a Dario Argento commentary, behind the scenes sequences, and alternate end titles where some strange 1980s disco song plays - worth hanging onto). These include a commentary track from Kim Newman and Alan Jones, another from Thomas Rostock, a tiny introduction from Daria Nicolodi who is also interviewed, interviews with Argento and composer Claudio Simonetti, and two live New Goblin performances. The steelbook cover is reproduced above.

Arrow Films are bringing out Dario Argento's TENEBRAE on 16th December 2013 as a limited edition Zavvi Steelbook Exclusive. So get your order in now

Monday 25 November 2013

Streets of Fire (1984)

The early 1980s produced a number of movies with musical themes. Alan Parker’s FAME (1980) did its best to be a sweary, gritty look at young hopefuls taking their first faltering steps at performance school and it was successful it  resulted in a far more sanitised long running television series. Herbert Ross’ FOOTLOOSE (1984) made a star out of Kevin Bacon and featured a tractor battle to Jim Steinman’s Holding Out for a Hero sung by Bonnie Tyler. 
Mr Steinman was much better served by Walter Hill’s quite deliriously wonderful STREETS OF FIRE, a self-styled ‘rock and roll fable’ that Mr Hill decided upon as his next project after the phenomenal success of 48 HOURS. If you haven't seen it, it might be quite difficult to envision exactly what a rock and roll fantasy movie from the director of action hits like THE WARRIORS and THE LONG RIDERS might actually be like. But then you actually watch it, and you realise it’s just as Walter Hill as all his other movies - just with over the top 1980s rock music added in (Hill originally wanted classic 1950s tracks but he was over-ruled by the studio).
Basically a Western set in the rain-drenched neon-lit streets of a nameless city, with motorbikes instead of horses, STREETS OF FIRE tells the story of rock singer Ellen Aim (Diane Lane, who was only eighteen when she made this). Ellen’s playing a gig in her hometown when she’s kidnapped by the villainous Raven (an almost impossibly young Willem Dafoe) and his bike gang The Bombers. Her manager Rick Moranis doesn’t know what to do until, riding into town with his trenchcoat and his sleeveless shirt, comes Tom Cody (Michael Pare). Tom is Ellen’s old boyfriend and an ex-soldier, and soon, with his sidekick McCoy (Amy Madigan)  he’s taking on the entire gang in an attempt to get his girl back.
If you loved the early 1980s you’re going to love STREETS OF FIRE. Occasionally it feels like a big budget Empire picture but most of the time you know you’re watching a movie by Walter Hill. There are lots of terrifically choreographed action scenes (I love that Hill worked them all out using Matchbox toys) and the editing is superb. There’s no doubt at any point that Hill knows what he’s doing and he’s the undisputed star of the film. Mind you, the actors are just a 1980s neon-drenched dream as well. See Bill Paxton with his gelled hair ten feet high! Watch Ed Begley doing his best Worzel Gummidge impersonation! What about Diane Lane and her Joan Jett hairstyle? Or Willem Dafoe and his weird black latex dungarees? Leading man Michael Pare sounds as if he could use a good nasal decongestant most of the time but who cares when you’ve got a man-slamming smackdown face-off between him and Dafoe where the underlying homo-eroticism threatens to melt the screen? 
And songs! Lots of them! There’s a lot of very fine doo-wop in the middle but the movie is topped and tailed by the kind of Jim Steinman explosion-filled epics that must have caused many a record producer to hide their chequebooks from him. And they’re great. You’ll be humming this stuff well after you’ve ejected the disk.
Oh yes, the disk. Second Sight have brought out STREETS OF FIRE on Blu-ray and it looks excellent, with a splendid image transfer that’s as good as it could be. Extras include a feature-length documentary on the making of the film that’s well worth watching. There are also music videos and the original electronic press kit.
STREETS OF FIRE is a cracking, fast-paced, stylish action movie that’s so 1980s you’ll wonder why you aren’t ejecting a VHS cassette to put back in its clamshell box by the time it’s finished. Great fun,- it's a film I wouldn’t normally have even looked at and I ended up enjoying it immensely. Highly and heartily recommended.

Walter Hill's STREETS OF FIRE was released on Blu-ray by Second Sight on 18th November 2013

Friday 22 November 2013

The People Under the Stairs (1991)

Out of all his contemporaries (Cronenberg, Carpenter, Romero, et al) Wes Craven is the director with by far the most chequered career. For every HILLS HAVE EYES, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET or SCREAM there’s been some right ropey old rubbish like CHILLER, DEADLY FRIEND and most recently the frighteningly dreadful MY SOUL TO TAKE (2010). THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991) isn’t terrible Craven, but it’s nowhere near as good as the high points in his career either. Arrow Films have just released it on a lovely Blu-ray edition with plenty of extras, so if you’re a fan of this, now’s the time to pick it up.
Poindexter “Fool” Williams (Brandon Adams) is a young lad who lives with his family in a ghetto from which they are soon to be evicted by evil landlords the Robesons (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie). Encouraged by the rumour that the Robesons have a large cache of gold hidden somewhere about their crumbling, rambling property Leroy (Ving Rhames) convinces Fool to aid him and his equally dodgy chum Spenser (Jeremy Roberts) in breaking into the place and searching for the loot. Once inside Leroy and Spencer meet grisly ends and Fool discovers that the Robesons have a cellarful of ‘adopted’ children, the latest of which, Alice (A J Langer), has yet to be relegated to the place under the stairs for misbehaving.
A curious mixture of Craven’s recurrent theme of horror being just round the corner in your own neighbourhood and some over the top knockabout comedy, PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS feels less like a horror film and more like a kids’ adventure movie into which some gore scenes have been added. I first saw it on its original cinema release and it didn’t work for me then. Twenty two years hasn’t changed my opinion, but I do know there are a lot of people out there who love this film so I shall leave it to them to extol its virtues. 
Arrow have done their usual tip top job with the Blu-ray transfer and there is a decent collection of extras as well. First up is an audio commentary track from star Brandon Adams moderated by Calum Waddell. Adams is chatty and the track is worth a listen. Wes Craven talks for about twenty five minutes on the making of the movie in Fear, Freud and Class Warfare. In Behind Closed Doors actress A J Langer reflects on the making of the film and in Silent But Deadly actor Sean Whalen does the same. The final featurette on the disc is Under the Floorboards, in which screenwriter Jeffrey Reddick (creator of the FINAL DESTINATION series of films) talks about his changing attitudes to THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS as he has grown up, and the movie’s influence on horror cinema. There’s also a trailer and some original cover art to complete the package.

Wes Craven's THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS was released by Arrow Films on Blu-ray on 4th November 2013

Saturday 16 November 2013

Pin (1988)

“Brother, sister, madness, sin. Now the terror can begin.” I still remember the tagline from Andrew Neiderman’s pulp horror novel of the early 1980s. That, and the fact that there was what looked like a half-dissected corpse on the cover. ‘I wonder if this latest Arrowdrome release is a film version of that book?’ I mused half-jokingly when I received word of this, and goodness me - it is! Made in 1988 and seemingly dropped immediately into depths so obscure even I had never heard of it, Sandor Stern’s PIN doesn’t exactly exhibit much directorial flair, but the whacky plot, played quite amazingly straight, more than makes up for it.
Leon and Ursula Linden are two weird siblings who live with their cleaning-obsessed mother and potty doctor father in a great big house. Dad (Terry O’Quinn) has a life-sized anatomical dummy in his doctor’s office that he uses ‘to explain things to patients with’. The dummy has been named Pin by the children, has no skin, a moveable head and, in one scene involving a nurse that wouldn’t be out of place in a Joe D’Amato or John Waters picture, we discover that he is anatomically correct, er, downstairs as well. I have no idea what you would use such a dummy for in a doctor’s office, and Dr Linden’s actual specialty is somewhat glossed over, although at one point in the film he does perform an abortion on his own daughter, so perhaps his area of expertise is lack of ethics. And where would we trash film aficionados be without that particular discipline?
When they’re approaching puberty, Doctor Linden uses Pin to explain the facts of life to them via a ventriloquist act so completely barmy this one scene alone makes PIN worth watching. Following this the two kids retire to their room where little Ursula reads girlie mags while little Leon contemplates a wind up musical ballerina. I didn’t say the facts of life bit was the only barmy scene, did I?
The children grow up, Ursula gets into trouble but Dad sorts it out. Leon becomes more and more attached to Pin. When Mum and Dad are killed in a car crash Leon rescues Pin from where he had been sitting in the back seat (don’t ask), takes him home and dresses him in his father’s clothes. Ursula tries to lead a sane life but when Auntie Dorothy comes and incurs Pin’s dislike (according to Leon) she becomes Pin’s latest victim.
Despite its flat and uninspired 1980s TV movie-like direction, PIN is so enjoyably crackers that anyone who likes outrageous nonsense will be more than willing to forgive the absence of style. The acting isn’t bad either, with a standout performance from David Hewlett as the increasingly potty Leon. It was produced by Pierre David and at one point Leon takes a girl to the cinema to watch that most romantic of movies, David Cronenberg’s SCANNERS (also produced by David). 

PIN is obscure, completely bonkers, and far better than you might expect it to be. Definitely in the tradition of weird dummy movies like Richard Attenborough’s MAGIC, Lindsay Shonteff’s DEVIL DOLL and, of course, Ealing’s DEAD OF NIGHT, if you liked any of those you’ll probably get a kick out of PIN as well.

PIN is an Arrowdrome release on DVD and is out now

Thursday 14 November 2013

Gaslight (1940)

I’ve been a fan of British film director Thorold Dickinson since watching his 1949 classic THE QUEEN OF SPADES (also reviewed on this site). I was therefore delighted to learn that the BFI were bringing out his British version of Patrick Hamilton’s play GASLIGHT. The better known American adaptation was directed by George Cukor, starred Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton, and came out in 1944. MGM were so worried that Dickinson’s earlier film would affect the success of their own picture that they tried to prevent its release in the US, with a clause in the remake rights ordering that all copies of the original's negative be destroyed. Thankfully Dickinson himself made a ‘secret’ print which was subsequently donated to the BFI to make the version presented here.
The film opens with little old Alice Barlow being strangled by a shadowy figure who then proceeds to ransack her house. It’s the kind of scene that’s been reproduced many times since, but in 1940 it was undoubtedly quite horrifying. The killer is never found and Alice’s house is put up for sale. Years later the Mallens move in. Paul Mallen (Anton Walbrook) is in the process of convincing his wife Bella (Diana Wynyard) that she is losing her sanity. He hides personal objects and keeps any mail that comes for her. The top two floors of the house are never used although sometimes Bella hears someone walking around up there and at the same time the gas lamps in the rest of the house go dim.
A retired policeman called Rough (Frank Pettingell) suspects Paul of being Alice Barlow’s killer, who went by the name of Louis Bauer. It turns out that, while going through Paul’s things, Bella found an envelope addressed to Bauer. In order to protect his new identity Paul / Louie is trying to drive Bella insane. He has returned to the Barlow house in the hope of finding the rubies he killed Alice for in the first place.
For a film made in 1940, Thorold Dickinson’s GASLIGHT still holds up today as a well-made precursor of what would become know as the giallo. The unseen killer in black at the start, the violence of the murder, and the wide-eyed heroine who fears she may be going insane became staples of everything from the Hammer psycho thrillers of the 1960s to the hedonistic Italian gialli of Sergio Martino and others in the 1970s (most of them starring Edwige Fenech in one compromising position after another). It helps immensely that the BFI’s Blu-ray transfer of Dickinson’s film is so pristine, giving it a look that makes it almost impossible to believe that this film was made over seventy (that's SEVENTY) years ago.
The BFI’s dual format edition presents the film on both Blu-ray and DVD formats. There’s a booklet with essays on the film, and, as extras on the disc, five short films either directed or written by Dickinson.
GASLIGHT is a cracking piece of early 1940s British cinema. George Cukor’s 1944 version is impressive, but Thorold Dickinson’s precursor really is something very special indeed. Highly recommended for fans of top quality psychological thrillers from a bygone age.

The BFI will be releasing Thorold Dickinson's GASLIGHT as a Dual Format Blu-ray and DVD edition on its BFI Flipside label on 18th November 2013