Monday 29 July 2013

The Evil Clergyman (1988)

It’s rare that I review a DVD / Blu-ray extra as a separate piece, but I think this is a special case. Besides, while it’s available in this country as a special bonus feature on 88 Films’ CASTLE FREAK disc, horror fans stateside have to fork out separately if they want to see it (and that's the US DVD cover opposite).
For those who don’t know, THE EVIL CLERGYMAN is one of three half-hour pieces prepared for an aborted Charles Band project called PULSE POUNDERS. The other two segments were intended as sequels to two of his successful productions of the time, namely TRANCERS and THE DUNGEONMASTER, with EVIL CLERGYMAN capitalising on the success of REANIMATOR by casting that movie’s two leads in another H P Lovecraft adaptation. Although the source material is ostensibly HPL’s, THE EVIL CLERGYMAN actually comes across a bit like Charles Band trying to imitate one of the BBC’s MR James GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS adaptations, albeit with Barbara Crampton’s bottom and a talking rat (this is Charles Band, after all).
A young woman (Barbara Crampton) arrives at the house of her dead lover (Jeffrey Combs), wanting to spend one more night in the place where they met so many times when he was alive. The interior set looks like something out of a Roger Corman Poe picture and there’s a wizened old housekeeper to match. She berates Crampton with some choice Dennis Paoli dialogue before leaving her to a night in which she will discover that her lover died under rather strange circumstances. Before he did, however, he caused the death of others, including a Bishop played by David Warner (“from Canterbury”) who was sent to perform the C of E version of excommunication on naughty Jeffrey. 
It all appears to be the fault of a pesky talking rat-familiar-thing, who appears to Barbara and tries to talk her into killing herself. The rat is played by David Gale, and anyone remembering his towering presence from Stuart Gordon’s REANIMATOR will appreciate the amount of work that’s gone into building outsize sets for David-Gale-in-a-massive-rat-costume to act against, including a large mockup of Ms Crampton’s naked bottom.
Because all the footage of PULSE POUNDERS was “lost” THE EVIL CLERGYMAN only exists as a VHS master, which is painfully evident here. However, anyone who yearns for a bit of 1980s video-style nostalgia will get a kick out of this, as well as the chance to see some choice horror actors of the era (Combs, Crampton, Warner and Gale) doing their best with a decent Dennis Paoli script. Richard Band has composed a new music score for the film and it’s spot on, evoking a sense of 1980s horror while at the same time giving this short a timeless, melancholic feeling. Even director Charles Band manages a few stylistic flourishes that add to the enjoyment of this little piece.
So many ‘lost’ films turn out to be disappointing, but THE EVIL CLERGYMAN is actually rather good. It’s as faithful to Lovecraft as you would expect from people who have given us movies like FROM BEYOND, so don’t expect a literal adaptation. In fact I’m tempted to consider CASTLE FREAK as the extra on my 88 Films Blu-ray as I enjoyed THE EVIL CLERGYMAN a lot more, and its definitely the one I’ll be watching a few more times in the future.

Thursday 25 July 2013

A Field in England (2013)

Only the other day I was thinking that there aren’t that many weird films any more. I don’t mean films about weird things, I mean films that are properly weird, that mess with your head, that take place inside their own little universes where rules apply that they never explain to you because, well, that’s part of the fun of the viewing experience. 
And so now, along comes A FIELD IN ENGLAND, Ben Wheatley’s latest movie after SIGHTSEERS (also reviewed on this site) and KILL LIST. It’s certainly a very weird film indeed, although how ultimately successful it is in its intentions is always going to be a matter for debate, as I very much suspect those responsible for making it didn’t really know what it was they actually wanted to achieve.
It’s a very curious mixture of “period” CARRY ON, VALHALLA RISING, Jean Rollin film and, oddly enough, gave me the same sense of detached otherworldliness as Roddy McDowall’s weird and obscure 1970 BritHorror THE BALLAD OF TAM LIN (aka THE DEVIL’S WIDOW). I’ll warn you now - if you didn’t get on with any of the above then you’re really going to hate this one. 
A FIELD IN ENGLAND is supposedly set during the English Civil War. Escaping from a skirmish, alchemist’s assistant Reece Shearsmith finds himself as one of four escapees who, while trudging across a field in search of the nearest pub, come across a rope tied around an ornately carved wooden stake. The urge to pull on this somehow reveals a fifth man, O’Neill (Michael Smiley) who, it turns out, has stolen some artefacts from Shearsmith’s master, including a scrying glass and various occult tomes. O’Neill believes a great treasure is buried in the field and he then goes about getting the others to dig it up for him by means of coercion and the mind-altering mushrooms (I think) that are growing in the field.
From then on things get seriously weird, culminating in a trippy sequence that smacks of a desperate need to fill up the running time and having no other idea how to  do it other than use bits of film that have already been shot and then subject them to various schoolboy editing techniques. The ending, unsurprisingly, is extremely oblique, leaving one to ponder whether there is some deep meaning to it all, or whether Wheatley and his screenwriter Amy Jump really just don’t have a clue how to finish a story.
Opinion on A FIELD IN ENGLAND seems to have divided audiences very much into ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ camps. The art-house audience we saw it with in a packed cinema loved it and there was an almost palpable air of excitement in the bar afterwards, which is always a good thing to see. I didn’t love it quite as much as that, but I certainly didn’t hate it. I do, however, remain unconvinced that there was any great plan during its making to produce something of enigmatic profundity. 
Of course at the end of the day, does that matter? This is still a film I’m thinking about two days after I saw it and that has to count for something. That said, there’s much in the film that didn’t work for me. Shearsmith is very good indeed, but Smiley lacks the gravitas to be the Utterly Soulless Villain his role seems to call for. Dialogue and music are both spot on occasionally, but too often they serve to undermine any atmosphere the moody black and white photography has managed to build. 
I said the film is supposedly set during the English Civil War because there’s a curious lack of authenticity to the proceedings that meant that during the entire running time I had the strangest feeling it was going to be revealed that we were actually witnessing a Sealed Knot reconstruction, or that at the end we would find out that these people were actually psychiatric patients wandering the grounds of their long-term institution in an echo of the cricket match in Skolimowski’s THE SHOUT. By the very end I was at least hoping for some kind of E R Eddison-like circular conclusion, suggesting that these men had been cursed by Shearsmith’s offscreen master to endlessly wander around a field, pointlessly digging holes in their own personal purgatory forever. Instead everything just peters out in an almost raspberry-in-the-face way that makes the film feel less substantial than it probably deserves to.
The saving grace of A FIELD IN ENGLAND is Ben Wheatley’s direction. There are some shots in this picture that are stylish, some that are gorgeous, and a few that are really quite breath-taking. The movie has already succeeded in creating strong opinions, and I do believe that Ben Wheatley is a very good film-maker. He could be a great film-maker. In fact he could be the next Michael Reeves. If he wants to remain the darling of the art house crowd he doesn’t really need to do anything else, at least for now, as they all seem to love him. But if he wants to be more successful than that, he’s only going to achieve it if he finds a good writer, and gets a strong producer like Tony Tenser behind him to give Mr Wheatley a good kick up his arse whenever he threatens to disappear up inside it.

Monday 22 July 2013

Dressed to Kill (1980)

Before I begin this review proper I’ll make an admission: DRESSED TO KILL is my favourite Brian de Palma film. Some prefer SCARFACE, others think CARRIE is his horror highpoint, and THE UNTOUCHABLES the absolute pinnacle of his career. But for me it’s DRESSED TO KILL that I can watch over and over, and for a multitude of reasons. Bearing this in mind I was already excited when I received the news that Arrow Films were bringing this little masterpiece out on Blu-ray, and with a horde of extras as well. And this package doesn’t disappoint.
Nice, likeable, middle-aged housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) lives a dull, unfulfilled, middle-class New York life. She is married to Mike (Fred Weber in what must be one of the most thankless roles in cinema), who provides her with a boring sex life. She also has a teenaged son, Peter (Keith Gordon), who is something of an electronics whizz. One morning, after an appointment with her psychiatrist Dr Robert Elliott (Michael Caine) Kate pays a visit to a museum (it’s actually the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the inside). There she meets a man who takes her back to his place for a bit of afternoon bedroom shenanigans. Getting ready to leave, she finds a letter notifying the chap of having a venereal disease (were New York clinics always this sensitive about breaking bad news? In capitals, no less!). Leaving the building she’s attacked in the elevator by a woman wielding a razor and her bleeding, dying body is discovered by call girl Liz (Nancy Allen) who becomes the killer’s next intended victim.
Most people know how DRESSED TO KILL pans out, but in case you don’t I’m not going to reveal any more, suffice to say that this is Hollywood cinema at its most stylish, operatic, and (dare I say it but I’m going to anyway) giallo. When it was originally released DRESSED TO KILL came in for a lot of criticism for being overly misogynistic. Even when I first saw it, at the tender age of 14, I wondered how critics could view a film so superficially. Angie Dickinson’s murder in the lift is supremely horrible - in fact it’s one of the great operatic moments of horror cinema - but one of the reasons for this is because we’ve come to like and sympathise with her beforehand. In fact, if anything it’s men who get a rough portrayal in this movie. The male characters in the world of DRESSED TO KILL are either beer-swilling useless insensitives (poor old Ted), geeks (Peter), STD-infected lotharios (the chap from the museum) or nutters (guess who). Women come out of this better than men, but at the end of the day, and in the world of the giallo (because it is, come on, of course it is) the individual characters don’t matter as much as the overall style of the piece. And what style! It’s a testament to de Palma’s skill as a film-maker that DRESSED TO A KILL is a film that doesn’t stand up to repeat viewing from a logical viewpoint (the film cheats all over the place, often so blatantly you can’t help but see de Palma evincing a cheeky grin while doing do) but nevertheless it’s a film you have to see several times to appreciate the sheer technical accomplishment of the piece, as well as the many subtleties that you may miss the first time around.
      Like I said above, despite all its problems of narrative logic, and the way it does several naughty things that can’t even be described as sleight of camera to distract, deceive and manipulate the viewer, DRESSED TO KILL remains one of my favourite films, mainly because de Palma’s style is so arresting and so mesmerising. There are other factors too, however. The acting from Dickinson, Allen, and Keith Gordon is very good indeed, and pretty much lets us forgive Michael Caine who does feel a bit out of place in this (although I can’t think who would have been better in the role - another curious DRESSED TO KILL dichotomy!). As mentioned above, the elevator murder remains an operatic triumph of direction, editing and music. Pino Donaggio’s work deserves special mention because it really is one of the best dramatic scores composed for a film of this type. Criticised by those with nothing better to do at the time as being a pale imitation of Bernard Herrman’s score for PSYCHO, Donaggio’s music actually goes well beyond that. While the scraping strings of PSYCHO’s shower murder are imitated in the elevator scene, Donaggio underpins them with woodwind to create an effect that, if anything, feels even more violent and over the top, in keeping with the operatic nature of de Palma’s film.
Arrow Films’ Blu-ray of DRESSED TO KILL has been remastered by MGM studios, but anyone expecting revelatory new image quality might be a bit disappointed. The museum scenes (and the art in them) now look crystal clear but I suspect the original photography of many of the darker sequences is always going to look a bit grainy. The good news is that the uncut version of de Palma’s movie is now available for the first time in the UK. 
Extras are many and bountiful. Ported over from the old MGM release are the documentary ‘The Making of DRESSED TO KILL’, a featurette on how the film had to be changed to avoid an American X rating, and a comparison of the unrated, R (ie 18) rated and television versions of the film. Anyone who caught DRESSED TO KILL on its premiere screening on ITV in the 1980s will no doubt cringe at the memory of the awful TV version and it’s all here for you to feel horrified by all over again.
A short appreciation by Keith Gordon on the old disc has been left off to make way for a swathe of new material, including lengthy interviews with stars Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen, and Keith Gordon. There’s also a new interview with producer George Litto. A piece from Pino Donaggio would have been nice but I could probably never have too many extras for this film. As usual we get trailers, a picture gallery, a reversible sleeve with new artwork and the original poster art, and a booklet with a new essay by Maitland McDonagh.
Arrow’s DRESSED TO KILL package is just splendid, and an essential purchase for fans of this gorgeously shot, melodramatic suspense thriller. 

DRESSED TO KILL will be released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video on Monday 29th July 2013

Thursday 18 July 2013

Castle Freak (1995)

Stuart Gordon does Jess Franco in this exploitative, curiously tasteless item from 1995, now given a new lease of life on Blu-ray in the UK courtesy of 88 Films. 
Apparently inspired by the pairing of a Charles Band brainwave (basically the title and a poster of a hunchback flogging a chained up girl) and Gordon’s desire to film H P Lovecraft’s classic short story The Outsider, CASTLE FREAK will certainly satisfy those audience members watching it in the hope of seeing some of the former. Those shelling out their money to watch it on the basis of the Blu-ray poster art (a blind girl in her bra being threatened by an unseen monster, reproduced here so you don’t have to go searching for it) will likewise find that the movie delivers on that score, too. So what’s it all about?
Ex-alcoholic and accidental five-year-old-son murderer and teenaged daughter-blinder John Reilly (Jeffrey Combs) inherits an Italian castle after it turns out he’s apparently a distant relative of the reclusive duchess who lived there. He moves there with the aforementioned still-living daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide), and wife Susan (Barbara Crampton) who still hates him for his pissed-up child-killing / mutilating activities while out driving one night. John finds a flogger under the duchess’ bed while Rebecca goes off for a wander, only to be led by a ginger cat to a cell where a mutilated monster of a human being has been kept prisoner by the duchess. The cat gets eaten and Becky’s claims that there is someone else in the castle with them fall on deaf ears.
Susan still insists on she and John having separate bedrooms so John finally finds himself yielding to the bottle once more. There’s J&B on the shelf at the local tavern but they serve him Jack Daniels, despite the fact that CASTLE FREAK is almost a 1990s version of the 1970s EuroHorrors where the J&B ran in rivers and semi-naked girls ran away from deformed monsters just they will in this film in a bit.
Once he’s drunk the entire bottle it’s the traditional EuroHorror Take An Italian Prostitute Back To Your Castle Moment, which he duly does. After a bit of drunken fumbling and the consumption of more wine he’s had enough and said lady of the night is left to make her own way home. She doesn’t get very far, however, as the titular beastie is lurking nearby to pounce on her, chain her up, and indulge in a bit of tasteless cannibalism of frankly Jess Franco proportions, although admittedly better filmed.
This, of course, means trouble for John as when she fails to turn up for work the next morning (or whatever it is small Italian village prostitutes get up to in the daytime in these films) the police think he’s killed her. It also doesn’t help that the chief of police has had a baby with her (this must be a very small village indeed). John gets arrested just as he’s in the process of proving that the duchess’ son didn’t die when he was five, that he isn’t buried in the family crypt and that he is - horrors! - still skulking around the castle after years of being beaten by his mother (you’ll find out why when you watch the film). There’s only just time for John to escape from police custody and save his wife and daughter from the creature in a death plunge that kills him as well. The End.
Like I said above, CASTLE FREAK is a curious film. It lacks the verve and style of Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptations like REANIMATOR and DAGON, despite having a script by his regular collaborator Dennis Paoli. Instead the whole thing feels a bit rushed and a bit insubstantial, with some unpleasant murders thrown in to give us a reason to be repelled by the monster (a great performance by Jonathan Fuller, by the way). It’s mainly a film for aficionados of Stuart Gordon and his stars, but anyone who loves the sleazy EuroHorrors of the 1970s will definitely get a kick out of it as well.
88 Films have put together a lovely package here. The Blu-ray transfer has some dirt on the source print and the image is quite grainy, but I suspect this film is never going to look beautiful. There’s a short interview with Gordon on the extras, along with trailers and a featurette on the making of the film. The real coup here, however is the inclusion of Charles Band’s short film THE EVIL CLERGYMAN as an extra. Made in 1987 and intended as part of an anthology film, it hasn’t been seen in over 20 years. It’s almost worth the price of the disc in itself (and US fans have had to fork out for this short on its own so we should count ourselves lucky), which is why I’m going to give it its own write-up. With this, the extras, and CASTLE FREAK itself, the whole thing makes for an excellent evening’s exploitation entertainment.

88 Films released CASTLE FREAK on Blu-ray on 15th July 2013

Monday 15 July 2013

Devil Hunter (1980)

It’s time to settle down for yet another slice of not-exactly-quality exploitation courtesy of Mr Jess Franco. This marks the fourth of his movies I’ve written about, which only leaves me about 195 to go, or as many as I can manage before, a bit like my old DVD player, my brain finally gives up and refuses to cope with the strain. Until then, however, I intend to keep going as for some reason I actually find something worthwhile in a Franco picture and DEVIL HUNTER is no exception.
For those of you unfamiliar with the man’s work: be warned - DEVIL HUNTER is not an ordinary film. Rather it’s a bit like what you might get if a group of long-term institutionalised psychiatric patients were told to make an Indiana Jones film as some kind of weird therapy. We kick off with film star Laura Crawford (Ursula Buchfellner) arriving in a sunny coastal town where locations are apparently being scouted for her new film. Laura never gets to see them, however because scarcely has she had the chance to take a soapy bath in water that only comes up to her ankles than she’s being kidnapped! Intercut with this is a second ‘plotline’ featuring a jungle tribe of such incredible cryptoanthropological obscurity that its members look as if they are all actually members of different races entirely. They’ve chased and captured a naked lady and have tied her up as an offering to their god. This turns out to be a large googly-eyed nude man who eats her in the most unconvincing way imaginable. 
Laura’s kidnappers take her to the same bit of jungle (we have to work out for ourselves) and the ransom is set. Al Cliver plays hero Peter Weston who, with his Vietnam flashback-suffering phobic helicopter pilot sidekick travels to the island where the jungle is with a bag of money and instructions to come back ‘with the girl and the money’. Everything goes a bit wrong at the exchange - our heroes have to bail out of their helicopter, which isn't too difficult as it’s quite obviously still on the ground. Various cast members get shot, leaving Laura to wander through the jungle in her strategically torn dress that we’ve already seen her rather fetchingly chained up in (Franco strikes again, but not as much as he will in a bit). The googly-eyed nude monster is still wandering the island, presumably in search of a decent pair of trousers or at least a loincloth. Al and his chum happen across a yacht which, naturally, has yet another naked girl aboard. Swiftly disarming her Al then hangs around drinking beer and setting a very bad role model for the two or three people who might have watched this on its initial release by throwing the bottle into the sea. 
He decides to try and rescue Laura. She’s been captured by the tribe of multi-ethnicity and is currently being undressed very slowly by very scantily clad village girls. It’s not long before Mr Franco cannot restrain himself and his camera falls to focus on various ladies’ ‘personal areas’. The only thing that can possibly distract him is a gratuitous googly eyed nude monster attack.
On the yacht, Vietnam Vet and Nude Yacht Girl are indulging in some Sophisticated Audience Entertainment. But whose bloodshot bulging eyes are those staring down from the deck? Yes it’s time to cut to a shot of animal’s intestines being pulled out before we’re back with naked Laura, tied up and ready to be sacrificed. In amongst all of this we’ve had possibly the worst and most unconvincing decapitated head to ever be committed to celluloid (it’s the actor lying down with some leaves around his neck) and a fight between Al and the ridiculously accented lead kidnapper that takes place in the sea and sounds as if the foley artist didn’t have much more to work with than a small bucket of water to provide the sound effects.
The mind-bending climax (and believe me your mind will have been bent by the time you get to it - this is a Franco film that’s over 100 minutes long) has Al in a showdown with the big naked beastie, whom he eventually skewers with a stick he produces from the magical nowhere that is bad editing before chucking Mr Googly off a cliff. Al carries nude Laura down a hill and looks as if he had quite a difficult job doing it. The End.
Once again I find myself watching a Franco film, once again it’s really not very good, and yet once again I could not take my eyes off this. It’s meant to be a cannibal film, presumably filmed in the weekend after Jess (or rather his producer) saw Ruggero Deodato’s CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, but it plays more like a 1930s jungle adventure movie but with the usual Franco obsessions and a monster with a waggly willy. And on that alliteration, which I hope I never have to repeat on this site, I leave you with the totally predictable opinion that DEVIL HUNTER is the usual mesmerising experience for fans of Jess Franco, and it absolutely shouldn’t be watched by anyone else. 

Friday 12 July 2013

Runaway Train (1985)

In the mid-1980s, the Cannon Group seemed to have their name (or rather the names of producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus) on every other film being released to video. Unfortunately at that time every other film being released to video tended to have titles like BREAKDANCE 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO or NINJA III: THE DOMINATION. Cannon was responsible for both those and a whole slew of what was (often kindly it has to be said) described as schlock films. Even when they made a bid for the big time with a budget to match they were more likely to end up with something like Tobe Hooper’s LIFEFORCE, which, while tremendous and delirious fun, was still very much a movie in the exploitation mould of their much lower-budget affairs.
Very, very occasionally, however, Cannon got it right. Fresh from the success of a string of European art house movies like SIBIRIADA and MARIA’S LOVERS (with Nastassja Kinski), Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky was given carte blanche (he admits it in the extras on this disk) by the Go-Go boys (as they were known at the time. The Globs was another less-than-complimentary nickname bestowed upon them by their Hollywood contemporaries) to make the kind of film he wanted. The result was RUNAWAY TRAIN, a movie that succeeds marvellously in the exceedingly difficult task of being both an action movie exploitation picture and an art house epic, all at the same time. That’s not at all an easy thing to do, and I can probably count the number of movies that achieve this balancing act so well on the fingers of one hand. I had never seen RUNAWAY TRAIN until now, and if this review has one take home message it’s this: if you only ever see one Cannon Film, this is the one. 
Jon Voight, in a role he was initially reluctant to play (we get to hear all about that on the extras as well) is Oscar ‘Manny’ Manheim, a criminal so vicious he has spent the last three years welded into a cell at a remote penitentiary in the wilds of Alaska. Manny hasn’t been resting on his laurels, or even his bunk, however, and, in a plot development that curiously enough echoes recent news events in Strasbourg, he has his appeal to the court of human rights accepted and is allowed to be freed from his solitary confinement so that he can mix with the other prisoners. 
      Prison Warden Ranken (John P Ryan) isn’t at all happy about this, and attempts to engineer a situation whereby Manny can be legally shot by one of the guards. It all goes wrong, however, and the prison embarks on the latest of what seems to be The Regular Daily Riot, where things get smashed, books get set on fire, and Danny Trejo (billed here in a very early role as Daniel Trejo), in a literally blink and you’ll miss him appearance, gets to shout and scream and fight with all the others. 
      Things calm down but it’s all too much for Manny, who plans an escape. He manages to do so with
the aid of Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) who ends up accompanying him on a death-defying plunge out of the prison sewers fifty feet straight down into a freezing river. Then it’s a quick hike in temperatures of 30 degrees below freezing, during which Roberts loses his shoe but magically not his foot, before they come to a railway station. There Manny sees his chariot to freedom in the shape of not just one but four massive clanking locomotives that have all been coupled together. However, just as Manny and Buck leap aboard, the driver decides to have a massive heart attack, jam the brake lever so the brakes burn out, drop dead, and fall off the train, thus creating the uncontrollable machine of the title.
From then on the film switches from an extremely effective prison break drama to a runaway action picture, but Konchalovsky, with the aid of his actors (including an almost unrecognisable Rebecca de Mornay as the only railway worker left on the train), never loses sight of the human side of things. There’s philosophy, clever dialogue interplay, and some tremendous acting in between some spectacular photography, model and back screen projection work. So effective is most of this that even watching this nearly thirty years after it was made, I still thought much of what was happening on screen had to be for real.
The ending of RUNAWAY TRAIN is just perfect. It will stay with you long after the movie is over, and of course I’m not going to tell you what it is because if you haven’t seen this movie you need to get hold of Arrow’s new double disc DVD and Blu-ray set when it comes out. In fact, RUNAWAY TRAIN is a success all round. Both Voight and Roberts are especially memorable and deserved their Oscar nominations for this picture, but de Mornay helps to anchor their performances in the real world. John P Ryan played the distressed father to a psychopathic homicidal mutant baby in IT’S ALIVE, reprising his role in IT LIVES AGAIN. Here he plays a very different character in Warden Ranken who is pretty much a psychopath himself, relentless in his pursuit of the two escaped convicts, and he puts in as believable a performance as the two leads.. 
Technical credits are all top notch. Fans of British horror will recognise the name of DP Alan Hume who, as well as working on a number of Bond films shot the Amicus film FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE and John Hough’s THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE. Editor Henry Richardson (who was also nominated for an Oscar for this) cut Tyburn’s THE GHOUL and LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF, and a trawl of the end credits reveals other names famous for their work on Hammer and Amicus pictures including Howard Brandy who produced BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB and Peter Weatherley who edited it. Most of the kudos, though, has to go to director Andrei Konchalovsky, whose unobtrusive style, and sensitivity with the subject matter elevates what could so easily have been a third rate Cannon picture starring Sylvester Stallone into poetry starring Jon Voight, and bloody well done to him for doing so.
      As always, Arrow have packed their disc with extras, including an extensive interview with star Jon Voight which last about forty minutes. Voight shows a quite phenomenal memory of the making of what was obviously a significant experience for him as he talks about his casting, his preparation, and his work on the picture. A slightly shorter interview with Andrei Konchalovsky is no less interesting, at least in part because of what he has to say about working for Cannon. There are also interviews with Eric Roberts who has nothing but good things to say about the movie, and Kyle T Heffner who reminisces about having his head shoved down a toilet filled with apple juice. Finally, to round off the package there’s the RUNAWAY TRAIN trailer commentary from Trailers From Hell, in which director Rod Lurie (the remake of STRAW DOGS, apparently) gives his own opinion on the film.
RUNAWAY TRAIN is a classic. It’s due to be released on Blu-ray by Arrow later this month, and both film and presentation are absolutely marvellous. Do yourself and favour and pick up the best version available of a film that shows all all its key players at the top of their game. Seriously good stuff.

RUNAWAY TRAIN will be released on a Blu-ray and DVD Dual Format Edition on Monday July 22nd 2013

Monday 8 July 2013

All Ladies Do It (1992)

A rather different film from the other movies I have seen directed by Tinto Brass (namely SALON KITTY, CALIGULA and THE KEY), ALL LADIES DO IT sees the director in altogether a more playful mood, and the result is a more consistently enjoyable, entertaining, and occasionally delightful slice of EuroErotica than I have seen for some time. It also boasts a style all its own, as well as at least one scene of downright hilarity that doesn’t detract from the sexiness at all.
       Diana (Claudia Koll - that’s her and her bottom on the DVD cover) is married to Paolo (Paolo Lanza). They live in the kind of glossy apartment you only really see in European rip-offs of Adrian Lyne’s NINE AND A HALF WEEKS (and goodness me are there a lot of them). They have a reasonable marriage which is satisfying to Paolo but not so much so to Diana, who embarks on a series of sexual liaisons that she then tells Paolo about in detail. The thing is, Paolo thinks she is making the stories up to fuel their own bedroom fantasies, and when he finds out that’s not the case, he kicks her out. Will her written confession to a popular magazine in which she admits she loves Paolo above anyone else convince him to take her back? Or will she spend her days being passed from lover to lover?
It’s not all that important, actually, as from the tone of the opening scenes (and most definitely some of the later ones) this isn’t a film with any agenda other than to display its admittedly very attractive star naked as often as possible. True to the movie’s advertising, Ms Koll’s posterior is very much in evidence in many of the “more sophisticated” scenes, and Mr Brass is very obviously fascinated with that part of a woman’s anatomy. A simply priceless bit in the home of one of Diana’s conquests reveals that he is an artist who surrounds himself with paintings of ladies’ buttocks. He then goes on to deliver a lengthy diatribe on how a woman’s bottom is more honest than her face because it cannot lie. 
Unlike the other Tinto Brass movies I’ve listed above, the world of ALL LADIES DO IT is pure fantasy. The boutique where Diana works feels a little like something Federico Fellini might come up with if he was obsessed with fashionable ladies lingerie, whereas the few exterior shots of Venice that we get to see provide a striking contrast with the decidedly slinky but very period (ie 1980s-90s) fashions that  Diana gets to wear. Claudia Koll is very pretty indeed and carries her scenes well. I’ve not seen her in anything before and I understand she later dismissed her work in movies like this as being beneath her which is a shame as she’s really rather good in it.
I can’t honestly admit that the films of Tinto Brass are my kind of thing, but ALL LADIES DO IT certainly feels like an honest, sexy, playful movie from someone who just happens to enjoy the things he depicts in it. A lot.
Arrow’s Blu-ray is, like Claudia Koll, just beautiful, and like many of their other releases this really is the best way to watch this film. Both English and Italian dialogue tracks are available, with newly translated English subtitles if you fancy the Italian version. There’s also a trailer, a reversible sleeve, and an illustrated booklet featuring a well written and thoughtful essay on the movie by David Flint. 

Saturday 6 July 2013

The Manson Family (2003)

Released on Blu-ray and DVD last month by Severin Films, here’s a film that’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. In fact it’s probably only really going to be appreciated by those who like their cinema extreme and very intense, and those people will be well rewarded. Everyone else will just get upset and leave a one-star review on Amazon (as I see some already have).
I remember Jim van Bebber trying to secure funding for a movie called CHARLIE’S FAMILY back in the late 1980s, after his grim and dirty DEADBEAT AT DAWN (1988) finally saw the light of day. Well it would appear Mr van Bebber finally got the project made, as CHARLIE’S FAMILY is the title on the front credits here. I’m guessing the movie got retitled in case unsuspecting enthusiasts of truly mind-rotting rubbish picked it up thinking it was the latest Adam Sandler comedy.
THE MANSON FAMILY aims to tell you, through a narrative that’s a bit convoluted and sometimes confusing if you’re not already familiar with what happened, how Charles Manson (Marcelo Games), cult leader and general loony, caused members of his ‘family’ (ie the ragtag collection of young losers, drop-outs and drug addicts that he gathered around him at an isolated ranch location) to perpetrate the Tate / LaBianca murders in 1969 in Los Angeles. The information is presented in the form of recreated scenes as well as a number of talking head interviews that are themselves part of a wraparound narrative taking place in 1995, where a television producer is watching a video cassette that has been sent to him.
I’m not much of an expert on the Manson story, but fortunately I happened to watch this in the company of Lady Probert aka Thana Niveau who, having read Helter Skelter and knowing a lot more about the Manson murders than I do, assured me that THE MANSON FAMILY depicts character and events with almost painstaking detail. The film draws you in to the Family’s world of madness and drug-fuelled orgies, and van Bebber’s style is so spot on that you begin to wonder if perhaps he’s a bit mad himself. Just as you think the film is getting carried away with naked orgies and demonic visions, everything slows down in the most awful way possible to depict the murders in graphic detail. This really is where THE MANSON FAMILY comes into its own, both as a piece of extreme cinema and as a piece of very effective and memorable film-making. The death scenes are cringe-inducing and horrible, but are never filmed or treated in an exploitative or sensationalist manner. In fact at no point in the film is it suggested that being part of Charlie’s rather twisted world would actually be an enjoyable experience. Rather one gets the impression that this is as accurate a reproduction of one of America’s most infamous crimes that we are probably ever going to see. It doesn’t make for pleasant viewing, and I’m only going to recommend this one to the sort of hardy individuals who coped with MARTYRS and A SERBIAN FILM. 
It’s pleasing to see that Severin’s UK Blu-ray and DVD release has been granted a certificate 18  with no cuts (to do otherwise would have been a bit of an insult to all concerned). Because there’s very much of an archival feel to a lot of the footage the Blu-ray transfer doesn’t make a lot of difference to the image. Extras include a commentary track from van Bebber, a 75 minute ‘Making Of’ documentary with cast and crew, deleted scenes, trailers, and an archival interview with Mr Manson himself. Best of all, and the bit you have to watch if you get this disk, is GATOR GREEN, a 16 minute short that Jim van Bebber hopes to expand into his next feature. It’s gleefully outrageous - a bit like if John Waters had been forced to fight in Vietnam and returned home to make movies influenced by his experiences. If nothing else, on the basis of both GATOR GREEN and THE MANSON FAMILY Jim van Bebber is possibly mad or a genius. I rather hope he’s both. Approach with caution, but if you are of a mind for this kind of thing, definitely approach.

Severin Films released The Manson Family on Blu-ray & DVD on 10th June 2013

Wednesday 3 July 2013

The Car (1977)

After Warner Bros. scored a huge success with THE EXORCIST (1974) and Twentieth Century Fox packed them in at the cinemas with THE OMEN (1976) Universal decided to ride the crest of the success of these devilish movies by making one of their own, CAR. THE CAR isn’t quite as well thought of as the latter two pictures, which arises partly from it being a conscious attempt to remake JAWS in the desert, but also because by 1977 the devil movie subgenre was reaching saturation point, and because Jack Starrett’s superior RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975) had already done driving cars fast around the desert in the name of Satan so much better.
       When watching THE CAR this time round (because of course I’ve seen it before, as many of you probably will have, on late night pan-and-scan screenings on ITV) I was reminded, of all things, of the words of Roy Ward Baker when he was asked about directing Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS. His reply went something like, “Well they’d done everything they could think of with vampires, so this time they thought ‘By God we’ll have them as lesbians.’” There’s a similar feeling as THE CAR’s rather threadbare plot begins to unfold. You get the idea the three (!) screenwriters sat in a room and said “Ok, we’ve had people worshipping the devil, the devil as a baby, the devil as a little boy, so why don't we have the devil DRIVING A CAR!!!!”
      Needless to say, it’s about as daft as it sounds.
      Like a lot of good horror films (and even more terrible ones) THE CAR takes an absolutely ludicrous idea and runs with it, or at least drives with it. A black car appears in the Utah desert and goes on the rampage, killing a couple of teenage cyclists and crushing a young French horn playing hitch-hiker after he’s the victim of a fart gag by consummate character actor R G Armstrong. Armstrong is his usual marvellous self in this, by the way, and in fact he’s one of the best things in the movie.  I strongly suspect he was encouraged to improvise his own dialogue as it’s a lot better than the rest of what's on offer here. 
      James Brolin is the policeman hero, seen here sporting a moustache that would soon accompany him into the depths of madness in Stuart Rosenberg’s THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979). He’s divorced and having it off with teacher Kathleen Lloyd while still caring for his two tweenage daughters. Lloyd is busy rehearsing the children for some appalling-looking town parade, but what’s that black shape lurking behind all the dust, horses and brass musical instruments?
      THE CAR is not a good film. In fact John Landis cheerfully describes it as ‘dumb’ in the extras. It’s by no means a terrible one, though, and if anything it reminded me of the old Universal monster pictures of the 1950s, ones like TARANTULA, where some enormous beastie spawned by science (the demon of its day) would terrorise the decent little all-American town before the all-American military was called in to bomb the shit out of it. At one point we even get the classic old monster movie shot of the heroine on the phone while the monster car lurks outside the window.
      The car itself is quite an impressive creation. Big, black, and with a design that’s just wrong enough to give it an edge. It snorts and parps continously as if it’s just had an infusion of curried eggs into its petrol tank that’s made it very angry indeed. It refuses to drive into a graveyard, eventually (ie about an hour later) leading to the realisation that there might be something demonic behind the wheel. 
      The pacing is THE CAR’s biggest problem. There’s nothing wrong with a daft monster movie, but if you’re going to make one you need lots of the monster and not so much of your multitude of characters’ soap opera problems. The script either needed a few more drafts or someone needed to be a bit more ruthless in the cutting room.
      On the plus side the Utah locations look fabulous, and composer Leonard Rosenman makes similar use of the Dies Irae as he did when he scored RACE WITH THE DEVIL to emphasise the evil lurking in the wide open desert spaces. Performances are all fine, with special mention to Mr Armstrong for being memorably violent and seedy.
      The film ends with the predictable big explosion, and thanks to the commentary track by director Elliot Silverstein (moderated by Calum Waddell) I now know what that shape in the flames is actually meant to be. I’ll leave you to find what he says for yourselves.
      As mentioned above, I’ve only ever seen THE CAR panned and scanned on TV, so Arrow’s Blu-ray 2.35:1 widescreen transfer is the revelation it could not help but be. Best served are the daylight shots of Utah, which look just fabulous. There’s quite a bit of grain in some of the night shots but overall this is a handsome transfer, and undoubtedly the best this film will have ever looked on home video. Extras include the aforementioned commentary and turn from John Landis, guesting in a segment from ‘Trailers From Hell’. There’s also a featurette in which special effects artist William Alridge remembers working on the design of the car, and another where actor John Rubinstein reminisces about playing the French horn and getting squashed. There’s also the usual reversible sleeve and a collector’s booklet with an essay and an interview with co-writer Michael Butler. An Easter Egg reveals a short video interview with director Elliot Silverstein. I’d tell you how to find it but it’s so obvious you won’t miss it.
      THE CAR is no classic, but it is a piece of late 1970s movie fun, and the kind of ridiculous idea that might have looked good on paper (or perhaps not). Nevertheless, it’s now available in the most pristine version ever for all those who wish to take a ride.

THE CAR will be released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video on 15th July 2013