Saturday 31 August 2013

Maison Close Series 2 (2012)

A French erotic costume drama set at the end of the nineteenth century, the first series of this Canal Plus co-produced drama concentrated mainly on the lives and adventures of three women - 35 year old Vera (Anne Charrier), brothel madame Hortense (Valerie Karsenti) and young Rose (Jemima West) working in Paradis, a luxury Parisian brothel. I haven’t had the opportunity to watch that yet but that one-line synopsis was enough to get me up and running with Arrow’s new Blu-ray and DVD release of the second series, which recently premiered on the Sky Arts channel here in the UK.
Paradis is now being run by Vera, Hortense and the other girls as a kind of collective. But things don’t stay that way for long. Pressure from the Paris Vice Squad led by Commisaire Torcy (Sebastien Libessart) means that the girls are soon looking for a new ‘protector’ and investor. This arrives in the form of young, flamboyant, cocaine-addicted gangster Louis Mosca (Michael Cohen) who, in return for his money and strong-arm services, is allowed to establish his headquarters inside the brothel. The subsequent troubles that ensue as a result of this forms the basis of the plotlines for the eight episodes of this second series.
I had no expectations whatsoever of MAISON CLOSE and I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised by it. For a costume drama this is every bit as gorgeous as anything produced by the BBC (and often quite a bit more so). The photography is lush, and some of the visual compositions (especially the location work) are so outstanding they could be hanging in the Louvre. Production and costume design is of a similarly high standard and acting is fine all round, with the strong female roles outweighing the men, but only just.
What really made MAISON CLOSE work for me, and thus its justification for it being covered here, is that it’s a terrific combination of gangster thriller, Western, and it just happens to have a load of deliriously weird sexy stuff thrown in as well. One of the girls isn’t a prostitute at all, but the wife of a local businessman who likes to watch her with ‘clients’, but only if she’s wearing the weird steel mask that she never takes off. In episode five there’s a terrific Western-style gun battle in the brothel between rivals gangs, but only after one of the girls has appeared dressed up as a nun on wheels (for some reason). By the end of the series we’ve been witness to more violence than you can shake a bloodstained crystal ashtray at, as well as the usual soap opera standbys of unwanted pregnancies, drug addiction and syphilis thrown in for good measure, all played out against a backdrop of brewing political and social upheaval. 
      There’s a bizarre and anachronistic touch with the music score, which ranges from classical influences through 1920s dance music, to modern drum and bass, all used in a similar way to that employed by movies like Brian Helgeland’s A KNIGHT’S TALE. While I thought it worked well in Helgeland’s film, I found it distracting in MAISON CLOSE, but that’s the only complaint I really have about this. Violent, sexy and beautifully shot, MAISON CLOSE feels a bit like SCARFACE in 19th century France and is definitely worth a look if you don’t mind subtitles. (And if you do you probably stopped coming here ages ago.) Apart from the eight episodes and a subtitles on/off options Arrow's discs are strictly bare bones, but considering how much nudity there is on display in the programme itself, that's feels weirdly appropriate.

Arrow Films released MAISON CLOSE SERIES 2 on Blu-ray and DVD on 26th August 2013

Wednesday 28 August 2013

FrightFest 2013 Top Ten

      This year’s London FrightFest turned out to be one of the best for years - not least, I suspect, because initially the programme looked rather uninspiring. I usually try and post my five favourites somewhere but because there were so many good films this year I thought I’d do a top ten on here instead. Before we start the countdown, however, it’s only fair that I mention some of the films that didn’t make it. There were very few terrible films this year, and certainly nothing as hateful as 2012’s HIDDEN IN THE WOODS. There were a few films, however, that deserved the description ‘a bit crap, really’ and these included the ‘driving around and around with not much really happening’ tediousness of IN FEAR, the quite horrible (except for one laugh out loud moment that almost makes the film worth watching) I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 2, and SADIK 2 - a gallic horror ‘satire’ that was basically the modern day equivalent of gendarmes hitting each other over the head with baguettes passing as French comedy, before the torture porn of MARTYRS was played inexpertly for laughs. I didn’t hate it, in fact I didn’t hate anything this year, but SADIK 2, like the others above, is quite missable.
This year’s Total Film magazine choice was Adam Wingard’s YOU’RE NEXT. It’s a pretty good thriller but Adam still can’t hold a camera even halfway steady during dramatic dialogue exchanges, and his editing of suspense is non-existent, preferring the ‘swing the camera at great speed from one individual to another’ approach that can often leave one feeling confused, nauseous and wanting to give up. DEMENTAMANIA was a micro-budget British horror with some interesting literary references to Lovecraft, Clive Barker and even Fritz Leiber and Ramsey Campbell, although I’m not sure how intentional those were. The film was very rough around the edges, and the few moments of interest were completely eclipsed by the male star’s onstage appearance after the screening wearing the most singular outfit of the festival. Dressed as someone auditioning for the gayest all-singing and dancing version of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS that could ever exist, I had almost entirely forgotten the movie after his exceedingly memorable display of spandex and cowboy hat. 
NINJA ELIMINATOR III was a glorious, delirious tribute to crappy dubbed 1980s ninja movies from the makers of the equally splendid DEMONITRON: THE 6TH DIMENSION of a couple of years ago. It was only a short & these chaps deserve the money to make something more substantial.
It was lovely to meet up with old chum Norman J Warren who, in the company of David McGillivray in the most glorious pink suit I think I have ever seen, was there to witness their first big screen collaboration in over thirty years. It was a forty five second short for the ‘Turn Your Bloody Phone Off’ strand, took three hours to shoot, and featured David getting attacked by a vengeful RINGU lady after he declined to politely turn his phone off at Norman’s request. Aside from the historic nature of these two lovely chaps having stuff up on screen again, it was great to hear the cheer that went up when they appeared, and they both admitted to being very touched by the response when I got to speak to them in the bar afterwards.
Others in brief: HATCHET III was much better than the previous two entries (or possibly I’d just had a very good lunch), Vincenzo Natali’s HAUNTER was really rather good - an atmospheric ghost story that felt like a modern-day version of the Sunday teatime BBC1 ‘grown up children’s drama’. THE HYPNOTIST was a new Nordic noir directed by Lasse Hallstrom featuring some superb acting and direction and a plot that rapidly went from a bit farfetched to outright daft, making me wonder if Nordic Noir is actually just giallo in cold weather.
Ok that’s enough rambling. Here are what I thought were the top ten films of this year’s FrightFest, or GruffVicarFest, or CrushedHeadFest (there was a lot of both of the latter this year) or even SpotLarryFessendenFest (did you catch him in YOU’RE NEXT and WE ARE WHAT WE ARE?). Ok, away we go!:


      FATAL ATTRACTION with Mormons, MISSIONARY actually draws some interesting parallels between stalking and religious recruitment by combining them in a storyline in which unhinged Mormon missionary Elder Brock (Mitch Ryan) begins to take rather too great an interest in recently separated mum Katherine Kingsman. After initially accepting his advances his subsequent rejection seemingly tips him over the edge as he pursues her relentlessly. Then it turns out it’s all happened before. A nice gentle start to this one allows the tension to build and the added subtext of the religious angle means this one’s more than just a standard psycho stalker pic.


      The one film in the festival that could conceivably be walking away with Oscars, DARK TOURIST is the story of security guard Jim Tahna (Michael Cudlitz) who, once a year, takes a vacation to a important locations in the life of whichever serial killer he’s picked this time. But Tahna has his own problems and a secret we don’t get to learn of until close to the end of the picture. Cudlitz is superb in the violent, messed up, and ultimately tragic lead role, and Melanie Griffith is also excellent as the waitress who befriends him. A very good film, beautifully shot by director Suri Krishnamma, but it’s not one I’d want to watch twice.


      Pretty much the only ‘old school’ movie in the festival, and extremely welcome after the less-than-inspiring THE DEAD 2: INDIA, which was shown before it, Don Mancini’s Chucky film dispenses with the outright silliness of BRIDE and SEED and delivers a good old fashioned horror film set in a creepy old house and with plenty of good murders. Brad Dourif is back, both in voice and on screen in flashbacks, and his daughter Fiona is excellent as the put upon heroine. Loads of fun, with more endings than LORD OF THE RINGS and a post-credits coda you have to hang around to see.


      Found footage meets Algernon Blackwood - or does it? Here’s a BLAIR WITCH type movie that kept me guessing right up until the final scene, and re-establishes director Renny Harlin (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4, PRISON) as a director capable of delivering some decent horror. 21 year old Holly Goss gets grant money to investigate a famous historical case in which nine explorers died in the Urals. Off she goes with her team of movie university explorers, including busty sound recorder Denise and three blokes with the requisite characteristics of hunkiness, woolly hats, and bristly facial hair. When they get to the pass, days before they should, phones don’t work and the compass spins. There are naked footprints in the snow and a severed tongue at the local weather station. When Holly discovers something odd buried in the snow the film takes a very interesting right turn indeed but to say any more would be to spoil it. I understand the American release has been retitled DEVIL'S PASS - make of that what you will.


      Jim Mickle made the cracking STAKELAND and here he manages that most difficult of feats - the remake that’s a lot better than the original. Set in a flooded, rustic, rotting town, the Parker family are struck by tragedy when mum dies, with the task of performing their yearly ritual falling to teenager Iris. A very slow burner that’s probably not best watched on the last day of a festival when you’ve had little sleep, WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is Mickle’s best film yet and there are great performances all round.

5 V/H/S/ 2

      The original V/H/S holds the unenviable position of being the only film I’ve almost walked out of. This is a lot better, although the wraparound segment here makes no sense either (these things aren’t that difficult to do, you know, chaps). Adam Wingard kicks things off with a corneal implant that allows him to see the dead, followed by a zombie story that manages to be both hilarious and touching. But it’s the third segment that puts this high on the list. Co-directed by Gareth Huw Evans (THE RAID) and Timo Tjahjanto, it documents the final days of an Indonesian cult before the coming of its heralded master. This involves them all killing themselves, and the appearance of a huge scary demon thing. Believe me, this all looks even better than it sounds, and even Jason Eisener’s rather damp squib of an alien invasion segment at the end couldn’t stop this V/H/S 2 from being one of the best films at the festival.


      Now this was what I really needed to start the final day of movies - an operatic, Italian style, Irish devil child movie. I’m not sure if that’s what “multi award-winning visionary” Marina de Van intended, but that’s what she’s made. 11 year old Niamh kills her parents in an orgy of destruction that destroys the family home. She’s sent to live with her aunt, but the social workers, teachers, and the adoptive parents themselves all become possible targets for her wrath. One of the best endings in ages that is simultaneously haunting, operatic, and daft as a brush made this one a complete winner for me.


      How do I describe this one? If there was one film in the festival made for me this would have to be it, and I spent most of the running time on tentertooks, unable to believe it could get any crazier or more outrageous. It’s a Russian found footage movie set in World War II in which a squad of soldiers come across an enormous laboratory in which the descendant of Dr Victor Frankenstein has been creating war machines out of metal and human body parts. Somewhat video gamey but in all the right ways for a change, FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY really kicks into high gear when we’re given a tour of the mad doctor’s laboratory. The monsters are superb, the direction is frenetic without being nauseating (are you listening Adam Wingard?) and the torture scenes are just the right side of SAW and HOSTEL. The one film I absolutely cannot wait to see again.


      The closing film of the festival, and another one I can’t say too much about without spoiling it. A little girl goes missing. The police think they have the culprit - a schoolteacher - and try to beat a confession out of him. The beating goes up on Youtube and the man is released. The girl turns up headless and strapped to a chair with barbed wire (a very nasty bit). Her father swears revenge and the cop responsible for the beating is sacked. They both think the teacher is guilty and the second half of the film becomes a prolonged torture sequence to discover where the little girl’s head is buried. Subverting your expectations at every turn (unbelievably a lot of what happens is very funny) and with the best and bleakest final image of the entire festival, BIG BAD WOLVES was an unexpected, and quite superb, delight.


      Now we come to the most unexpected surprise of the entire festival. You only have to say ‘priest fighting the devil in the West Country’ for me to be there, but THE BORDERLANDS is so much more than that. It’s found footage again, but don’t let that put you off. By the end of the film I had coined the description ‘Lucio Fulci directs THE STONE TAPE’ and if the director didn’t look as if he was quite sure what I was talking about, producer Jen Handorf certainly did. There are weird events at a church in the West Country and Vatican representative Gordon Kennedy (yes that Gordon Kennedy, and bloody good he is in this too) is sent to investigate along with irritating obnoxious unbeliever Rob Hill. The story unwraps slowly but atmospherically as it becomes apparent that there may be more going on than simple demonic possession.
Absolutely my favourite film of FrightFest, I can’t praise THE BORDERLANDS highly enough. I understand from various sources that it required a bit of work from various parties under the guiding hand of Jen Handorf to get it into the state it is now, and if that’s the case then bloody well done to her for pulling everything together and delivering such a (finally) polished piece. THE BORDERLANDS is low budget British horror at its absolute best and if you see one film from this year’s FrightFest this should be it.

Thursday 22 August 2013

Manborg (2011)

Those belonging to what one day may be known as the VHS generation (Betamax and V2000 never really got a look in) will hopefully remember with tremendous fondness coming home from the video shop back in those heady BE KIND REWIND days of the mid 1980s with the latest Charles Band Empire production. In the UK, these micro-budget science fiction pictures were released by the mighty Entertainment in Video company in oversized colourful boxes that probably cost more to make than the films they contained. 
      Movies like Band’s own TRANCERS (I really should review that one), and Peter Manoogian’s ELIMINATORS (and someone really should release that) kept a generation of 1980s teenagers entertained with their colourful comic-book style plots, witty dialogue (often courtesy of Empire in-house screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo) and the use of a whole cadre of unemployed character actors and stars-in-the-making like Tim Thomerson, Andrew Prine, Helen Hunt, Denise Crosby, Roy Dotrice and Jennifer Aniston. Empire Pictures wasn’t around for long (Charles Band resurfaced with Full Moon Pictures a little later) and their greatest financial and critical success, Stuart Gordon’s REANIMATOR, wasn’t even made in-house. but if nothing else, in its short life Empire achieved two things, one being that all those British kids renting the movies helped make Entertainment in Video into the massively successful independent British company that eventually released Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS pictures in this country twenty years later. It also gave those of us of a certain age an unashamed love for a certain type of low-budget entertaining futuristic SF adventure picture that sadly no longer gets made.
But wait! What’s this coming over the hill on a wing and a prayer and not much else to hold its shot-on-video microbudgeted frames together? Yes it’s MANBORG!!! And yes, if ever a film deserved three exclamation marks - this is it. Producer-Director-Cowriter Steve Kostanski was obviously one of those 80s kids, and his love for Empire Pictures is evident throughout the sadly brief running time of this hugely enjoyable, frequently hilarious hymn to Charles Band’s often tatty SF endeavours. It’s probably best not to go into the plot too much as hopefully the above will have already sold you on this or made you turn and run back to the comfort of your TWILIGHT box sets while the rest of us get little chills at the prospect of an apocalyptic future where Nazi-type creatures under the control of the evil Count Draculon rise from the ‘bowels of hell’ to take over the planet. Matthew Kennedy is Manborg, a soldier ‘blasted into oblivion’ only to be rebuilt as the android of the title. He quickly (this is only a seventy minute film after all) recruits a ragbag of misfits to aid him fight evil, including Billy Idol lookalike Conor Sweeney and Ludwig Lee as Number One man, a martial arts expert so hilariously redubbed by Kyle Herbert that every line of dialogue becomes comedy gold. Will Manborg defeat Draculon? Will he discover his origins? Will there be a sequel to this? The future may well be in your hands.
      Certainly if you get a blast out of this this, make sure you hang around after the credits for the trailer for BIOCOP (a one man bioweapon ready to lay down the law!), which if anything is as much a tribute to 1980s video trailers as MANBORG itself is a tribute to 1980s video features. If you still haven’t had enough then keep watching and eventually the copyright notices will appear, which are a little bit of entertainment all to themselves. Only a certain kind of movie fan will love MANBORG, but let’s hope there are enough out there to ensure Mr Kostanski and his friends are encouraged to do another one of these. Packed with more fun than any DVD package of daftness should legally be allowed, MANBORG is worth watching again and again. In between TRANCERS & ELIMINATORS, of course.

Monday 19 August 2013

Only God Forgives (2013)

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 surprise 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.

Thursday 15 August 2013

Deranged (1974)

A bit of backwoods American horror (actually a Canadian-American co-production) Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby’s version of the Ed Gein story is probably the most understated, but is no less disturbing for it. Soon to be released for the first time anywhere in the world on Blu-ray and completely uncut (so horror fans will finally be able to bear witness to the movie’s infamous ‘brain-scooping scene’ in all its glory - according to the press release) Arrow Films’ presentation of DERANGED is certainly the best way to watch this curious, cold and downbeat little low budget movie. Despite using the same inspiration as Hitchcock’s (or rather Robert Bloch’s) PSYCHO and Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, DERANGED is an altogether more sober affair, although it still manages some standout scenes of outrageous excess to rival either of those two pictures.
When the quadriplegic domineering mother of Ezra Cobb (Roberts Blossom) dies in a welter of bloody vomit as he attempts to feed her the greenest pea soup ever committed to celluloid, poor old Ezra can’t quite cope with the fact that she’s not coming back. A year after her death, Ezra pops over to the local cemetery, digs her up, and brings her mummified, crumbling, slightly melty corpse (a very effective Tom Savini construct) home with him. When a local woman dies, Ezra wastes no time in getting hold of her corpse to use as spare parts in patching up mum’s tatty bits, this leading to the aforementioned cranial evacuation with a large dessert spoon and yes, that scene is indeed intact and as disturbing today as it probably would have been back in 1974 had anyone been allowed to see it.
“The wages of sin is (sic) gonorrhoea, syphilis and death!” were Mrs Cobb’s final words, and so it's probably unsurprising that Ezra’s view of women is a little on the loony side. After waxing lyrical on the virtues of the outsized Maureen Selby (Marion Waldman) to his dead mother while eating a chicken leg dipped in peanut butter (you won’t forget this either if you watch the film and I don’t see why I should be the only one stuck with the image), Ezra shoots Maureen after she pretends to channel the spirit of her dead husband and demand Ezra have sex with her. Far slimmer and more normal is waitress Mary (“who, truth be told, was somewhat over the hill,” the bespectacled onscreen narrator helpfully informs us) who ends up back at Ezra’s place, bound and stripped to her underwear to witness one of the best and most unnerving tea parties in the whole of exploitation cinema (and that includes TEXAS CHAIN SAW). Soon she’s dead too, and Ezra is helpfully being handed a gun with telescopic sights by a chum of his in the local shop. Unfortunately young Sally (Pat Orr) is soon within his sights and, after a chase through the woods, she enters exploitation history as the girl who gets strung up naked in Ezra’s barn. As a result she also ended up on all the posters. 
DERANGED is a pretty grim film, and doesn’t exactly qualify as entertainment. Occasionally it gets things horribly wrong - Les Carlson (Barry Convex from Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME) is okay as the narrator in the opening scene, but his constant intrusions into the narrative effectively dispel any atmosphere that’s been built up by what’s gone before. The swings from humour to horror are amongst the broadest ever put on screen, but whether or not you’ll find any of it funny will very much depend on how Grand Guignol your sense of humour is. The direction ranges from flat static shots to moments of brilliance (the hanging body seen in the barn from a distance, Mary discovering her gruesome teatime friends) and the effects by a young Tom Savini still hold up pretty well today. Anchoring the film in believability is Roberts Blossom as Ezra. Rather than play Cobb as an eyeball-rolling loony, Blossom’s performance is so straight and yet so subtle that he makes Cobb a frighteningly bland and believable character. Ultimately it's due to him that DERANGED owes its success, and he deserves whatever accolades he may have received for it.
Arrow’s Blu-ray is crisp, clean and - yes - uncut. Extras include possibly the briefest introduction to a movie ever by Tom Savini, and a couple of slightly pointless and rambling featurettes - one with Scott Speigel about Roberts Blossom, and another in which HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2 actor Laurence R Harvey talks about Ed Gein in the movies. Much better is THE WAGES OF SIN - a making-of featurette that includes a lot of behind the scenes footage as well as archive interview footage with co-director Jeff Gillen. This was Gillen’s only film as director. He died in 1995 and apparently his last job was playing ‘Man in Restroom’ in the BBC’s ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES. There’s a commentary track with Tom Savini, and a Trailers From Hell snippet in which Adam Rifkin talks about the film. Finally there’s the usual reversible artwork and booklet, which includes an article by Stephen Thrower.
Definitely the best presentation of the strange little classic around, Arrow’s release of DERANGED is well worth picking up. In fact, you’d be mad not to.

Arrow Video will be releasing the Blu-ray of DERANGED on Monday, August 19th 2013

Monday 12 August 2013

Black Sunday (1960)

When Hammer Films revitalised and revolutionised cinematic gothic horror in the late 1950s, showing the rest of the world how to do it with its mix of bright red blood, beautiful women, and vibrant colour, it wasn’t long before the rest of the world caught on. In the US, American International Pictures, with quite a bit of help from Roger Corman, created the celebrated cycle of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Vincent Price. In Italy, stylists like Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda created visually arresting and atmospheric colour gothics like Bava’s BLACK SABBATH (1963) and Freda’s THE HORRIBLE SECRET OF DR HICHCOCK (1963 - the letter ‘t’ was missed out apparently to avoid any possible reference to Alfred). Freda and Bava worked together on one of the very first of the ‘new wave’ of Italian horror pictures, the black and white I VAMPIRI (1956) which an uncredited Bava finished when Freda allegedly walked off the set. After performing similar duties on a number of other pictures, Mario Bava was finally rewarded with a movie of his own to direct.
The result was LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO (THE MASK OF SATAN -1960), which became a huge success pretty much everywhere under its more familiar title of BLACK SUNDAY. Earlier this year, Arrow Films released a delicious three disc set of Mario Bava’s first film under the latter title but whatever you call it, it’s a slice of black and white European gothic that should be in every horror fan’s collection. 
The beautiful Princess Asa (Barbara Steele - at the time not yet iconic, but soon to be almost unwillingly so) is convicted of being a witch. The punishment for this is for her to have the nastiest, spikiest mask seen in cinema at the time hammered onto her face by mallet that looks as if it’s been made out of a small tree. Her paramour and fellow worshipper of Satan, Arturo Dominic, has already been despatched and so it’s up to Asa to vow revenge and curse the descendants of her tormentors before she’s silenced for good.
We flash forward two hundred years to the kind of European gothic landscape that only existed for a few glorious years in 1960s filmland. Doctors Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and Andre Gorobec (John Richardson, who later appeared in TORSO for Sergio Martino and EYEBALL for Umberto Lenzi) happen upon a crypt and find Asa’s tomb. There’s a bit of trouble with a bat, blood is spilled, and Asa is up and about again, but not before we’ve seen that nasty mask prised off her face in a shot that’s unusually gruesome for 1960 (the UK censor banned the movie for many years for this, and many other, ‘objectionable’ shots). 
Leaving the crypt, the two doctors are confronted by Katia (Barbara Steele again) in a shot that has graced the insides of numerous film books and magazines ever since. It’s not long before Asa has taken possession of Katia and is exacting her long-planned revenge.
Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY is a classic, beautifully filmed and gorgeously atmospheric throughout. The lack of colour means the film doesn’t look quite as lush as 1963’s BLACK SABBATH, but the film still holds up well after all these years.
Arrow’s three disc set gives you no less three films, both on BluRay and DVD. First there is THE MASK OF SATAN, which is the original European version dubbed into English and with its original music score by Roberto Nicolosi. Don’t expect a perfect print because this isn’t - there’s quite a bit of fading and screen fuzziness in places, all of which will have come from the master used and to be honest they are minor quibbles. The second is BLACK SUNDAY, which is the film re-edited and re-dubbed by AIP for US release and with a new music score by Les Baxter. Opinions on which is better will differ. The Nicolosi score is better, but the dubbing in the US version is a little smoother. There’s also an Italian audio track with optional subtitles for anyone so inclined. The third film is one of the special features and is a widescreen transfer of Freda and Bava’s I VAMPIRI. It’s definitely a film of minority interest and including it as a special feature on here is the best thing Arrow could have done with it.
Other extras include an Alan Jones introduction, a Tim Lucas commentary, and an eight minute interview (in Italian with subtitles!) with Barbara Steele. Also included when you select the menu options for I VAMPIRI is a trailer reel of Bava pictures that lasts nearly an hour and is a whole world of Italian movie entertainment in itself. Add in a deleted scene, trailers and the usual lovely Graham Humphreys artwork and this is a winning package for any fan of vintage gothic horror cinema.

Thursday 8 August 2013

Chill (2012)

HP Lovecraft meets Jess Franco in this ultra low-budget homemade effort that uses the classic short story ‘Cool Air’ for its inspiration but throws in some topless prostitutes with their faces peeled off for good measure. Now, just before you go rushing off to watch this on the basis of that here are a few other items you need to consider: CHILL received its first UK release last year but the production date at the end of the film is 2006. Also listed in those end credits is a Mr Tommy Wiseau who is something of a cult underground character, having directed one of the ‘worst films of all time’, THE ROOM (I shudder to think if I’ll ever get round to writing about that one). Mr Wiseau is not the director of CHILL, that honour falls to Serge Rodnunsky who is also responsible for the script, editing and photography using equipment loaned to him by Tommy. The result of this mostly one man effort is by no means terrible but it is rather amateurish and should only be watched by the very kind and forgiving.
Sam (Thomas Calabro) is an ex-doctor and writer who gets a job working in a supermarket owned by Dr Munoz (Shaun Kurtz). Munoz spends most of his time living in a freezer in the back when he’s not driving around in his filthy white van urging his lumbering peeling-faced assistant Tor to abduct prostitutes. Tor should really be called Morpho in honour of the Franco vibe he elicits, and one suspects any reference to the Tor Johnson of Ed Wood’s movies is sheer coincidence. The prostitutes are taken back to the supermarket and hung up in the freezer in faceless prostitute corner. They’re needed for skin grafts, you see, as Dr Munoz has a tendency to extreme exfoliation every couple of days, although why he needs several of these girls hanging up when he’s only taken very tiny areas of skin from each of them (and interestingly never from the breasts) is never explained. 
Sam gets friendly with Maria who works in the shop across the road. Maria is played by Ashley Laurence. Twenty years on from Clive Barker’s HELLRAISER and still looking absolutely lovely one wonders how she got mixed up in a project like this. Dr Munoz kidnaps Maria and wants Sam to become his assistant. Before he or anyone else can say ‘Not on your Necronomicon’ (the doctor has a copy, you see) the prostitutes’ pimp turns up with his gang for a bit of a shoot out and a twist ending that can at best be described as sub-par and at worst as incomprehensible.
CHILL is reminiscent of the worst 1970s EuroTrash, and fans of that sort of silly stuff are the only ones who are going to get much out of this. Dr Munoz even wears a cloak and wanders around as if he’s searching for the Spanish vampire picture in which he truly belongs. Mr Lovecraft's name is on the top of the box cover, but he doesn’t get a mention in either the movie’s credits or on the trailer, which is odd as one would assume that this would be the movie’s sole selling point. One for utter, utter, utter HPL completists only. You know who you are.

Monday 5 August 2013

Attack of the Werewolves (2012)

Coming out in the UK under a slightly better title than the US GAME OF WEREWOLVES, Juan Martinez Moreno’s LOBOS DE ARGA is a Spanish comedy horror film set in the remote village of - wait for it - Arga. As we discover in the opening credits the village is currently labouring under a terrible curse, which is the result of the attempts of the evil Marchioness of Marino to get herself pregnant despite the inadequacies of her husband. She kidnaps a local gypsy chap, ties him to her bed and gets on with it. The gypsy’s wife curses the Marchioness’s as-yet unborn child with lycanthropy that can only be cured by the sacrifice of a family member one hundred years hence. All of this is rendered in colourful and quite graphic comic strip as the titles unfold, and one suspects the only reason this bit isn’t live footage is because the already low budget didn’t run that far.
We flash forward to one hundred years later and unsuccessful novelist ex-alcoholic and one tenuously remaining member of the family line Thomas (Gorka Otxoa) comes home for a special celebration that’s apparently been organised in his honour. He finds the villagers pleasant and welcoming, right up to the point where they bop him on the head, tie him to a cross and carry him off to the local graveyard where they proceed to drop him into the catacombs that also happen to contain a werewolf. Helped only by his chubby childhood friend Calisto (Carlos Areces) and his scheming publisher Mario (Secun de la Rosa) Thomas manages to evade the prophecy, but unfortunately that causes a second curse to kick in that turns everyone in the village into werewolves and leads to a climax in the local church of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 proportions.
2012 was an indifferent year for horror comedy, but high points like COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES, GRABBERS, and indeed Spain’s own REC 3 (all reviewed on this site) have almost obliterated the memory of STRIPPERS VS WEREWOLVES, which is not a film reviewed on this site as it featured no actual stripping and very poor werewolves indeed. If Jess Franco had made that one at least it would have lived up to its title, albeit in a manner that probably wouldn’t have qualified as an actual film by most people’s standards. Nevertheless it would then have got coverage on here because, well, Franco deserves it, God rest his soul.
ATTACK OF THE WEREWOLVES doesn’t feature any stripping either (just in case anyone was wondering) but then it doesn’t actually feature any women at all, unless you count Thomas’ granny who turns up to rescue our heroes when they’re besieged by furry nasties. The werewolf makeups are, however, pretty good, and there’s very little CGI to be seen. One of the great things about EuroHorrors is that there’s often no need to build a set and the village that’s used for Arga is deliciously atmospheric.
The father of Spanish werewolf movies is, of course, the late Paul Naschy, and while there are a few tiny nods in the direction of his many movies, mainly in the production design, ATTACK OF THE WEREWOLVES is very much its own thing. Whether or not you’ll like it will depend on if you like comedy with your horror, as the bumbling antics of the three leads are very much the anchor of the movie. That said, there are several laugh out loud moments and some excellent editing that racks up the tension during the werewolf attacks. ATTACK OF THE WEREWOLVES is an atmospheric, affectionate take on the Spanish werewolf movie. It treats its monsters (if not its leads) with respect, and it will be interesting to see what director Moreno does next.

Thursday 1 August 2013

The Initiation (1984)

It’s time once again to cast off the constricting garments of taste, style and quality and go skinny-dipping in the pool of guilty pleasure that is the 1980s slasher movie. As someone who grew up during that decade I’d never heard of THE INITIATION (always a worrying sign) but that didn’t stop me from diving with reckless abandon into this ultra-obscure US horror picture that’s about to get released on DVD on the Arrowdrome label.
The low monotonous buzzing of an analogue synthesiser with little talent behind it heralds the beginning of this low rent but never less than entertaining picture. Before you can say ‘childhood flashback’ we’re in a room full of headless dolls and a little girl is waking from her slumber to find her mother (Vera Miles) in bed with another man (Clu Gulager). In walks Dad who promptly gets set on fire...and we’re awake. Or rather Kelly (Daphne Zuniga) is, awoken by her rather creepy sorority room-mates preparing her for some sort of college initiation ritual. The phenomenon of US college fraternity and sorority houses is something of a mystery to those of us who went to university in the UK, but if movies about such institutions are to be believed, it’s where you spend most of your time drunk, shouting, running away naked from angry people, and doing awful pranks to others before getting murdered yourself. Quite why anyone would want to go through initiation ceremonies to do this is beyond me but there we go.
While Daphne’s being primed to break into her Dad’s shopping mall and steal the security guard’s uniform, all is not well at the unfortunately named Fireside Mental Hospital. The inmates are unhappy and the head nurse isn’t doing too much to keep them calm. Before you can say ‘those are very long and well-manicured fingernails for a psychiatric nurse’ she’s been stabbed and is busy spreading raspberry jam on the passenger window of her car. Six of the inmates escape (we are told later) and the murders begin.
Meanwhile Daphne is cultivating a relationship with one of the lecturers (James Read from lots and lots and lots of US TV, BEACHES, and the LEGALLY BLONDE movies, all of which will never be mentioned on here again). Like any lecturer on the make he straps her up to his EEG machine and pretty soon she’s suffering from Opening Slasher Movie Murder Sequence Revisitation Syndrome. Mum Vera Miles isn’t happy and goes back to her worrying habit of licking large brandy glasses while Dad Clu Gulager (aha!) amuses himself with an array of interesting neckwear and a bit on the side. But not for long - scarcely has he managed to leave the house on some paltry excuse to go and indulge in a bit of the old extra-marital than he’s having a fork stuck in his chest. The same fork we saw a burn-scarred patient-cum-gardener plunge repeatedly into the ground in the way red herrings tend to before the breakout at the institution (aha again!).
There’s a party. An 80s party. A come dressed as your repressed desires party. One boy comes dressed as a giant penis. I don’t know why either. Moving swiftly on (something this film doesn’t do), once the motley assortment of pranksters are finally inside the department store where the action is supposed to take place, and after various bits of fun with a speargun, a bow and arrow, and of course knives, Daphne’s the only one left. It’s then time for a twist of quite colossally ridiculous proportions that almost (but only almost) makes it worth recommending this film. That and the anal blackboard gag. And a gratuitous Tom Selleck moment. And the stilted dialogue and acting that makes you think this might be a Zucker Brothers-style comedy before you realise it’s all being done straight. And some fairly decent makeup effects. And the moment when someone might (but only might) be drinking J&B.
There, now I don’t have to recommend it at all. You know if you want to see THE INITIATION or not. And if you do I promise you’ll chuckle at least as much as  I did.

Arrow will release THE INITIATION on the Arrowdrome DVD label on 5th August 2013