Thursday 31 October 2013

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Remakes of classic horror and science fiction films tend on the whole to be pretty poor. There are, of course, some notable exceptions. Hammer revitalised the horror genre in the late 1950s with its new take on the gothic, and the 1980s gave us John Carpenter’s THE THING and David Cronenberg’s THE FLY, both of which did their own thing with the original source material, and did it superbly.
Another SF remake that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Cronenberg’s and Carpenter’s very fine films is Phil Kaufman’s 1978 remake / updating / reimagining of Don Siegel's 1957 INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Kaufman’s movie is just about to be re-released on Blu-ray by Arrow Films in a handsome steelbook edition with a wealth of extras, both old and new, and most, if not all of these, have not been seen in previous UK editions of the film.
On a distant, dying planet (which has never looked better on the Blu-ray) alien spores collect and drift into space on ‘solar winds’. Landing in San Francisco they attach themselves to the local flora and merge with it to produce cute little pink flowers with pods. However, the intentions of these organisms is anything but friendly. Leave one on your lover’s bedside table overnight and the chances are he’ll be a changed man come the morning. When public health scientist Brooke Adams’ husband Art Hindle starts behaving oddly, she confides in colleague Donald Sutherland, who has also started to notice cases of strange behaviour as well. It turns out to be the fault of those pesky pods, that have a habit of turning huge and replicating whichever sleeping human they happen to have been placed next to in their bid to take over the planet.
Don Siegel’s 1957 original kept everything small town and features a prologue and epilogue designed to make audiences feel more comfortable when they left the cinema. Kaufman’s remake transplants the story to the big city and offers no such get out clause. It’s a sober, thoughtful, well-acted and extremely well written movie. Jack Finney’s source novel is excellent, and the original film managed to stick fairly closely to Finney's plot. For the remake, screenwriter W D Richter essentially took the core idea of the book and fashioned an entirely different storyline, reacting to social attitudes of the time. Phil Kaufman’s direction is frequently clever without being flashy - there are lots of dialogue scenes where we only see characters as silhouettes or reflections, and as the future of mankind looks increasingly bleak the movie itself gets literally darker and darker. The music and sound design is something special as well, and it’s hard not to imagine Howard Shore listening to what Denny Zeitlin was doing here and gaining inspiration for his subsequent work with David Cronenberg. In fact there’s quite a Cronenberg feel to the film overall - buildings and concourses are 1970s-sterile, and the people contained within act as if they’ve been infected with a numbing virus. Kaufman’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is a classic, just as worthy of the name as the movie that preceded it, and deserving of a place in any fan’s collection of all-time great science fiction films.
Arrow’s Blu-ray offers a nice transfer of the film. Because of its late 1970s origins there’s a fair amount of grain, which does become a little excessive during some of the night shots, mainly because the image is (intentionally) so dark. 
Extras are plentiful. First of all, everything from the MGM 2007 Region 1 Collector’s Edition of the movie have been ported over, including Phil Kaufman’s commentary and four featurettes featuring interviews with Kaufman, writer WD Richter, star Donald Sutherland and others. Arrow’s Blu-ray also has three new featurettes. Discussing the Pod features critic Kim Newman in conversation with directors Ben Wheatley and Norman J Warren talking about various aspects of the film. Dissecting the Pod is a talking head piece from Phil Kaufman expert and lecturer  Annette Insdorf, and Writing the Pod is another similar featurette in which Jack Seabrook discusses the life and career of Jack Finney.
Once again Arrow Films are to be congratulated. This is the best and most extra-packed version of Phil Kaufman’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS to have ever been released. Grab it while you can.

Arrow Films will be releasing Phil Kaufman’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS in both steelbook and standard issue Blu-ray formats on 18th November 2013.

Monday 28 October 2013

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Made in 1955, and his only directorial credit, Charles Laughton’s strange and heady mix of noir, horror and Christmas fable is finally getting a UK Region B Blu-ray release courtesy of Arrow Films. I had never seen NIGHT OF THE HUNTER before now, and when a film is considered an all-time classic I always find myself approaching such things with trepidation, just in case the film doesn’t live up to the expectations created by the reams of written material that have already been afforded it. I needn’t have worried. NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is definitely a unique film, but in all the right ways.
Psychotic preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) marries widows for their money and then murders them, in the warped belief that he is helping God rid the world of women who turn men away from His path. He’s arrested for stealing a car, and ends up in the same prison cell as convicted murderer Ben Harper (Peter Graves). Harper has stolen $10000. Powell knows this but is unaware that only Harper’s two small children know where it’s hidden. Harper goes to the gallows and Powell leaves prison to pursue Harper’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters). The two of them marry but when Willa doesn’t live up to Powell’s expectations he kills her and dumps her body in a nearby lake. The children escape, closely pursued by Powell in search of the stolen money.
A critical and financial disaster on its original release (the accompanying documentary claims poor publicity and they may be right - certainly the movie poster made it look as if audiences should expect Laughton’s version of GONE WITH  THE WIND) NIGHT OF THE HUNTER has gone on to achieve classic status. A quick trawl of the myriad other reviews on the internet suggests it’s quite a Marmite film - people either love it or hate it. It’s certainly quite quirky - the film veers from arthouse German expressionism to scenes of almost knockabout comedy - but even if the plot doesn’t grab you (and there’s something wrong with you if it doesn’t), there are so many shots of sheer brilliance that you’ll be wanting to replay scenes just to revel in them again and again. The scene of the underwater corpse is breathtaking - similarly dreamlike, poetic, and yet filled with horror. Laughton’s use of light and shadow is extremely clever and is obviously the product of much careful thought. The performances are excellent - Mitchum not just trying out for his forthcoming role in J Lee Thompson’s CAPE FEAR here but actually bettering it. Winters is good as the lonely widow who undergoes Powell’s religious conversion, as is Lillian Gish as the flip-side of the psychotic religious fanaticism exhibited by Mitchum. As the Christian saviour of the piece, it’s only right that in the world of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER she should get  the last line.
Arrow’s new Blu-ray is a welcome release for a movie only otherwise available in this format from Criterion. It uses the same UCLA digital transfer as the Criterion Region A disc, and it also includes the two and a half hour plus documentary about the film entitled Charles Laughton Directs. Also carried over is an archival interview with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, and a trailer. There’s new writing on the film and a Graham Humphreys sleeve. The Criterion has more extras, but the Arrow disc is a lot cheaper. If you have a multi-region player the choice is up to you.

Arrow Films are releasing Charles Laughton's NIGHT OF THE HUNTER on Blu-ray on 28th October 2013

Saturday 26 October 2013

Classic Ghost Stories (1986)

The BBC has a long tradition of bringing the tales of M R James to the screen. Most famous, of course, are the dramatic adaptations in the GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS series, which is also available from the BFI. After that came to an end, and prior to its modern-day revival with A VIEW FROM A HILL and NUMBER 13, enthusiasts for television presentations of Mr James’ work had to make do with the somewhat simpler (and infinitely cheaper) approach of employing an actor to read stories straight to camera. Christopher Lee did the honours in 2000, while Robert Lloyd-Parry has scored considerable success in the last couple of years with his live recitations of famous James tales via his Nunkie theatre company. The disc under review here, however, collects five short story readings recorded by Robert Powell in 1986.
Seeing as James’ stories were written with the intention of being read aloud to an audience at Christmas time, this format actually works very well indeed. Powell’s style is midway between Lloyd-Parry’s rumpled academic and Christopher Lee’s Etonian authoritarian, and means that even if you've experienced the other two, you're depriving yourself of some prime ghost story telling if you miss these.
We’re in a cosy Victorian study. Powell alternates between wearing a schoolmaster’s gown and a velvet smoking jacket between the stories, and his splendid delivery and the surroundings make for a lovely way to spend a winter’s evening, either in 13 minute bites, or the whole 71 minutes in one go.
Five stories are presented. Some have a little bit of dramatic re-enactment to embellish Powell’s storytelling, but thankfully they aren’t too intrusive. In THE MEZZOTINT we get to see the picture change (always an audience pleaser) and in THE ASH TREE we get to see the spiders. Unfortunately they look like rather charming cuddly glove puppets compared with the weird screeching things of David Rudkin’s 1975 adaptation, but the bit where one "plops on the floor" is bizarrely unnerving. The other well known story is OH WHISTLE & I’LL COME TO YOU MY LAD, but it’s the other two stories in the series - WAILING WELL and THE ROSE GARDEN - that may prove of greater interest, simply because they haven’t received as much attention from stage and screen as the others. 
For extras we have three M R James readings by Michael Bryant from the SPINE CHILLERS TV series. SPINE CHILLERS was a conscious attempt to introduce children to quality horror stories back in 1980. It was produced by the same unit that made JACKANORY, the long running early afternoon television programme that consisted simply of a famous actor reading stories to screen for children. It was hugely popular, ran for years, and if you weren’t a child of the 1970s you won’t be able to appreciate just how marvellous it was. SPINE CHILLERS deserved huge kudos for trying to introduce kids to M R James and The Pan Book of Horror Stories (Michael Joseph’s THE YELLOW CAT from Pan No.3 was among the stories presented). On this disc we get THE MEZZOTINT, A SCHOOL STORY, and THE DIARY OF MR POINTER, adapted to make them a bit more child-friendly, but not patronisingly so. Needless to say, SPINE CHILLERS was axed after numerous complaints from parents, while it is hoped that their kids all went out and increased horror books sales - I know I certainly did. 
      A fine and worthwhile addition to the collection of any enthusiast for James adaptations, the disc will also be of interest to fans of Amicus anthology horror films, who get the opportunity to see stories read both by Robert ASYLUM Powell and Michael TORTURE GARDEN Bryant. Delicious, simple storytelling of the highest calibre.

CLASSIC GHOST STORIES is being released on Region 2 DVD on 28th October 2013. It’s also being made available as part of the BFI’s expanded GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS BOX SET, to be released on the same date. The set will contain all 12 episodes of GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS, three instalments of the Christopher Lee series, and all the above. Lovely

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Dead of Night (1972)

Horror can sometimes be a confusing business, so before this review gets started, I’m just going to clarify that the DEAD OF NIGHT I am talking about here is not the 1945 Ealing anthology film, nor is it the 1972 Bob Clark picture that also went out under the title DEATHDREAM, about the chap who comes back from Vietnam. It’s also not the 1977 Dan Curtis anthology TV movie featuring Bobby the dwarf in its memorable final story. What’s interesting is that the title DEAD OF NIGHT seems to be something of a mark of quality, or at least a good luck charm. All of the above titles are well worth checking out, and so is the subject of this review.
DEAD OF NIGHT was also an anthology TV series made by the BBC in 1972. It ran for seven episodes, and offered ‘a series of highly personal takes on psychological disturbances, often related to contemporary social anxieties’, at least according to the press release. Actually what viewers got was a cross between PLAY FOR TODAY and a low key HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR. Four of the stories have been lost forever, but the remaining three are presented here on the BFI’s new DVD release.
First up is probably the most memorable, and certainly the most effective. The Exorcism alerted many viewers to this obscure TV series when it received an airing on BBC4 at Christmas a few years ago. It’s written and directed by Don Taylor (not the director of DAMIEN - OMEN II or THE FINAL COUNTDOWN and not the one married to actress Hazel Court - see? I said horror could be confusing) and concerns that mainstay of the 1970s BritDrama, the dinner party. Dan and Margaret (Clive Swift and Sylvia Kay) visit their posh friends Edmund and Rachel (Edward Petherbridge and Anna Cropper) in their out of the way country farmhouse. Anyone with any experience of these things will know that at the first suggestion of such a setting everyone involved should beat a hasty retreat to the nearest nice safe city. Instead, as they settle down to eat, the power goes, the food tastes strange, and what’s that weird harpsichord music that’s playing in the background? 
The Exorcism has plenty of political subtext, but the message never gets in the way of the atmosphere, which is present to an almost deliciously unbearable degree as the four discover who is trying to communicate with them and why. And as if the story isn’t grim enough, there’s a bleak coda from newscaster Kenneth Kendall that provides the icing on this especially scary cake.
The other two stories on the disc aren’t quite as effective. Return Flight stars Peter Barkworth as Captain Hamish Rolph, an airline pilot who loses his skills as a pilot when he encounters the ghostly apparition of a World War II Lancaster bomber. Writer Robert Holmes keeps things ambiguous in the story of a man’s long-suppressed feelings of inadequacy, both personal and professional. John Bowen’s A Woman Sobbing stars Anna Massey in yet another isolated country house (when will these people learn?). She’s haunted by the sound of a woman crying at night time. It’s another worthy John Bowen piece to accompany his previous ROBIN REDBREAST. Anna Massey’s Jane is much more psychologically unstable than Anna Cropper’s Norah from ROBIN, and the story is much more akin to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper than ROBIN REDBREAST’s folk horror feel.
Extras on the disc include a booklet containing essays on each episode, and a couple of stills from some of the missing stories. The real gems here, though, are downloadable pdf files of the scripts from the missing episodes, Bedtime (about a woman who begins to spend entire days in her bed), Death Cancels All Debts (a famous novelist has sunk into alcoholism over regret regarding a relationship he is still literally haunted by), Smith (set in a waxworks and a reworking of the Bluebeard story - it sounds marvellous) and Two in the Morning, which has a theme strongly reminiscent of Basil Dearden’s THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF.
The BFI’s presentation of the surviving material is as good as you might expect for a 1970s show that was more than half trashed. Enthusiasts of early 1970s BritTV horror will find much to keep them both fascinated and entertained. I certainly did.

The BFI will be releasing DEAD OF NIGHT on DVD on 28th October 2013

Friday 18 October 2013

The Fury (1978)

While on holiday in the middle east, Peter Sandza (Kirk Douglas) is witness to the kidnapping of his son Robin (Andrew Stevens) while his friend Ben Childress (John Cassavetes) looks on. It soon becomes apparent that Robin, who has psychic powers, has been abducted by a US government department run by Childress who are trying to turn young people with telekinetic powers into deadly weapons. While Sandza searches for his son, another young woman, Gillian (Amy Irving) realises she can causes her classmates noses to bleed with just a thought, and soon she becomes the target of the shady government agency as well. As Robin becomes more destructive and more insane as a result of incessant testing, the film reaches a climax at the isolated country house where he is being held prisoner.
Sandwiched between CARRIE (1976) and DRESSED TO KILL (1980), THE FURY cannot help but come off as the least of de Palma’s three horror projects. There are moments of genius (Amy Irving’s flashback to Andrew Stevens’ pursuit), spectacle (the fairground scene), and gloriously operatic violence (Fiona Lewis’ demise is especially cruel and memorable). Somehow, however, these moments don’t make for an overly satisfying whole. The film begins with an action packed scene in an exotic locale, and whereas in a James Bond picture this sort of thing works, in a film like THE FURY it just feels as if we’ve walked in halfway through the story, and the lack of character development or identification prior to the mayhem makes what happens far less effective. There are far too many lengthy dialogue scenes featuring people sitting around tables, and no matter how de Palma moves his camera he can’t make any of them terribly interesting. The climactic killing of the evil villain by Amy Irving is quite spectacular, but it feels tacked on, as if the studio had told de Palma to ‘go back and film an ending to top CARRIE’.
THE FURY isn’t a dead loss by any means, but it does have quite a few problems, Coming in the wake of THE OMEN and a host of other movies about evil children with remarkable powers, THE FURY keeps its scary (and increasingly insane) teenager out of the picture for most of the running time to concentrate on Kirk Douglas’ quest. While it’s always a pleasure to watch Mr Douglas work, the film really suffers from this being his story, and not that of Andrew Stevens’ character. 
Arrow’s Blu-ray presentation of Brian de Palma’s THE FURY is second to none, offering a package that’s far superior to the Twilight Time Region A release that’s currently available stateside. As well as offering a gorgeous remastered print, the disc has a wealth of extras unavailable on other editions. First up is ‘Blood On The Lens’ - an interview with cinematographer Richard H Kline, in which he discusses what it was like to work with the director, and how he convinced de Palma to rely less on storyboards and try rehearsals instead. ‘Spinning Tales’ offers an interview with Fiona Lewis, star of quirky cult classics such as Ken Russell’s LISZTOMANIA, Andrew Sinclair’s BLUE BLOOD and , of course, Robert Fuest’s DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN. She talks about the filming of THE FURY, and in particular of one scene that was cut by the film-makers for being too extreme after she had filmed in 24 times and ended up black and blue as a result. Sam Irvin was an intern on THE FURY, and he’s interviewed about the film’s locations. Irvin’s short film DOUBLE NEGATIVE is also included on the disc. Described as ‘a valentine to de Palma’ it’s actually a lot of fun and well worth watching. I’d love to know if film producers Max and Milt (played by William Finley and Wayne Knight) were named after Amicus main men Max J Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky. Rounding out Arrow’s package are some original archive interviews from the time with de Palma, producer Frank Yablans, Amy Irving and Carrie Snodgress. There’s also a booklet with new writing on the film, and an interview with John Farris about his and de Palma’s unrealised film version of Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man

Arrow Films are releasing Brian de Palma's THE FURY on Region B Blu-ray on 28th October 2013

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Robin Redbreast (1970)

The 1970s were responsible for a number of memorably scary British television programmes.Some of these, including Nigel Kneale’s THE STONE TAPE (1972) and the GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS series, are well known and currently available on DVD. However, there are still many obscure and little heard of titles that have yet to secure any kind of DVD or Blu-ray release. The BFI is doing a fine job of rectifying the situation, and ROBIN REDBREAST, a folk horror tale from BBC1’s PLAY FOR TODAY series, is just such an example.
Posh television script editor Norah Palmer (Anna Cropper) suffers a bad relationship break-up and decides to move away from her city life and city friends, relocating to a refurbished farm house in the country. She find the locals eccentric but welcoming. These include Mr Fisher (Bernard Hepton) a keen amateur archaeologist in tweeds, and Mrs Vigo (Freda Bamford, who could have given Sheila Keith a run for her money in any Pete Walker picture but especially HOUSE OF WHIPCORD) who becomes Norah’s rather stern and scary housekeeper. During a walk in the woods one day she comes across young, toned and attractive Rob (Andrew Bradford) wearing little but a skimpy thong and practising karate with a handy tree stump. There are mice in the attic and it turns out Rob is the local pest controller. Once he's sorted out Norah’s mouse problem she invites him round for dinner and, after a series of peculiar coincidences including Rob receiving a blow to the head and Norah’s contraceptive device disappearing, they end up in bed together and Norah ends up pregnant. With her car failing to start and her phone out of order, it soon becomes apparent that the the locals aren’t willing to let Norah leave. Exactly why provides the satisfying and disturbing denouement and of course I’m not going to reveal it here.
ROBIN REDBREAST is an interesting and disquieting folk horror piece from a time when television production was very different from the way it is now. BBC1s PLAY FOR TODAY provided a platform for writers to have original one-off projects filmed. It ran from 1970 to 1984, producing over 300 pieces of original drama, and was eventually axed so the money could be spent on EASTENDERS instead. With that number of original plays to its name, it’s no surprise that every now and then PLAY FOR TODAY was going to touch on horror, and ROBIN REDBREAST was one of its earliest attempts. There are lots of things to commend it - a sharp script by John Bowen, and some excellent character performances, especially by Bernard Hepton and Freda Bamford. It’s bound to be a matter of opinion, but unfortunately I found Anna Cropper to be the least appealing and most annoying lead character in a period horror piece I think I have ever seen. Her performance as a shrill upper class TV script editor almost threatens to disrupt the mood of the piece, but luckily ROBIN REDBREAST is just a bit too good and a bit too weird for her to overbalance it entirely.
The play was originally broadcast in colour but, like so many productions from the time the original was wiped, leaving nothing but an archival 16mm black and white telerecording, which is what we are presented with here. As one might expect, the image is grainy and quite a bit fuzzy at times. It doesn’t spoil the story but now you know. Extras include a twelve minute interview with writer John Bowen, a 1937 short film, AROUND THE VILLAGE GREEN, illustrating the changing economic and social history of village life, and a booklet with essays on the programme, writer John Bowen, and director James MacTaggart. 
Fans of early 1970s British horror will get the most out of ROBIN REDBREAST. It’s reminiscent of films like THE WICKER MAN and Nigel Kneale’s BEASTS TV episode BABY in its depiction of a chill, uncaring countryside where greater forces are at work than we dare to think about. It’s languished in the archives for far too long, and let’s hope there’s more of this sort of thing due for release soon.

ROBIN REDBREAST is due out from the BFI on DVD on 
the 28th October, 2013

Friday 11 October 2013

Sleepwalker (1984)

Fans of ultra-obscure BritHorror will have reason to rejoice at this latest release in the BFI Flipside series. SLEEPWALKER is a mid-length feature, with a running time of fifty minutes. It’s written and directed by Saxon Logan, who is not a name anyone but the most obsessive of British cinephiles might be familiar with. There’s a good reason for this, and it has nothing to do with the quality of the main feature here, which is as fascinating as it is well made.
Wealthy couple Richard and Angela Paradise (Nickolas Grace and Joanna David) visit Marion and Alex Britain in their decaying family home of Albion. The planned dinner has to be cancelled after a tree falls through a window and destroys Marion’s preparations, and so the four of them head out to a restaurant. There they are served by waiters Fulton Mackay and Michael Medwin (filling in for movie director Lindsay Anderson at the last moment, apparently). The only other customer is elderly Raymond Huntley. There’s a long dinner conversation about the current (for 1984) state of the nation before the four of them return to Albion for the night. Once they are all in bed they are murdered one by one in a series of stylish and gory setups reminiscent of the work of Dario Argento, with lighting and an accompanying synthesiser score to match.
Since it’s recent resurgence on the movie scene, much has been written about SLEEPWALKER’s political subtext. It is indeed a biting satire about the state of Britain at the time, and there’s an excellent essay by Julian Grainger that accompanies this release to help you get the most out of that aspect of it. The film can, however also be enjoyed on a number of other levels. It’s extremely well made and acted, and, while comparisons can be made to the work of other directors, most notably Argento and Lindsay Anderson, SLEEPWALKER reminded me most of all of the weird and strange stories of Robert Aickman. There’s a similar feel to SLEEPWALKER as there is to the filmed version (by Dominique Othenin-Girard) of Aickman’s THE HOSPICE. Nothing we are being shown is quite right, the characters aren’t quite real, and the viewer gets the feeling they’re escaped from an especially bitter Alan Ayckbourn play and are now living in the limbo where such characters go when their creators have no further need of them. SLEEPWALKER is a deliciously weird and strange little picture, and if your tastes tend towards this direction, I can highly recommend it.
Because of the film’s short length, the BFI have seen fit to complement its double disc Blu-ray and DVD release with a suitable number of extras. First up is another mini-feature. THE INSOMNIAC is a 1971 piece from writer-producer-director Rodney Giesler and also runs for around fifty minutes. It’s an ideal co-feature for SLEEPWALKER because it again has a strong Aickmanesque feel to it. Morris Perry drives home from work to his tower block apartment, his dowdy wife and three children, only to find he can’t sleep. He gets up to find the sun is still shining, and so he goes for a drive. He ends up in a village where everything is closed and, after a run in with a couple of policemen wearing dark glasses, he gives a lift to a man in a dinner suit who is also wearing dark glasses and who offers to take him to a party. It’s at a country house where, despite the sunny weather, everyone is inside. They are also all well dressed, and when Morris tries to open the curtains everyone recoils and puts on dark glasses as well. He escapes, taking a beautiful girl (Valerie Van Ost from SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA and CORRUPTION) with him. Eventually escaping their pursuers, they go for a nude swim and fall asleep. When Morris wakes up he is naked, alone, and back in the industrial wasteland he has tried to escape. Once again there’s a strong sense of strangeness here that makes THE INSOMNIAC well worth watching. It’s a decent little feature and again, highly recommended if you’re a fan of weird British cinema.
The true tragedy here is that both Saxon Logan and Rodney Giesler may well have gone on to make fine full length British horror projects but for the true horrors of the British film industry. Logan’s story in particular is a very sad case and is told in detail in the 75 minute interview that is another extra on here. Basically, SLEEPWALKER did extremely well at the Berlin film festival, but the mid-1980s was the direst time ever for British film production in general and British exploitation cinema in particular. Despite being well received, Logan couldn’t get his film shown in the UK, and the experience caused him to turn to documentary film-making. Giesler’s THE INSOMNIAC did well enough that he put together a full-length horror feature idea call ISOBEL, to be filmed in Scottish castles and with a strong folk-horror feel to it. Financing fell through and Giesler went back to documentary film-making.
The disc is rounded out with a couple of Saxon Logan’s short films - STEPPING OUT is a very short piece that originally accompanied Polanski’s THE TENANT in UK cinemas, and WORKING SURFACE is a strange little slice of the screenwriter’s life, featuring actors from SLEEPWALKER.
Presentation-wise SLEEPWALKER is rather grainy, even on the Blu-ray transfer, but the film is so rare that apparently only one print of it survives and so we should be grateful we have it at all. THE INSOMNIAC looks rather better, and the Blu-ray benefits from much of the film having been shot in bright sunshine.
Overall, the BFI Flipside’s SLEEPWALKER package is an excellent presentation of two very obscure and strange films, both of which deserve to be better known. Reminiscent of the works of both Aickman and Ayckbourn and filmed with flare and panache, this set is well worth tracking down for fans of weird and stylish British cinema.

Sunday 6 October 2013

Tentacles (1977)

A serious contender for Greatest Crap Monster Movie Of All Time, TENTACLES may, at first glance, appear to be an American movie. It’s set on a Californian beach resort and the stars include John Huston (yes, him), Shelley Winters (yes, her), Henry Fonda (surely not?), Claude Akins (more believable, this one) and Bo Hopkins (well, we all kind of expected him to show up). But scratch ever so slightly beneath the main credits and you’ll find an altogether more Italian flavour to these salty proceedings.             TENTACLES is directed (and I use this term very loosely indeed) by Ovidio Assonitis (stop laughing at the back or you’ll be forced to watch this one again). For those of you who may be unaware, he’s the man who took Juliet Mills, fresh from her success co-starring with Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s AVANTI! and got her to dribble green vomit and swear a lot in the beyond daft nudie satanic sleaze epic BEYOND THE DOOR, effectively ending her film career. Here Mr Assonitis is hiding behind the name Oliver Hellman, as well he might, considering the delights that are about to be revealed to us.
See actress Delia Boccardo hoisted up by a huge fake rubber tentacle! See real tentacles wrapped around a model boat that’s probably in Ovidio’s bathtub! See Shelley Winters say wee wee to two twelve year olds, while wearing a hat so voluminous she’s probably got a bottle of gin hidden inside it! Experience edge of the seat suspense as you wonder if Bo Hopkins will actually finish the line of dialogue he’s started!
Something is killing the residents of a small resort seaside town. A baby gets plucked from the roadside, and a man with one leg gets all his bone marrow sucked out, at least according to the least charismatic doctor ever to grace a rubbish Italian horror film.   Reporter John Huston is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, while we ponder why he dresses in a floor length stripey robe that makes him look like Gandalf on stilts. At least he appears to be acting without the aid of the ingestion of a considerable quantity of alcohol, something which, alas, cannot be aid of his onscreen sister Shelley Winters. He recruits oceanographer and ponderous speech expert Bo Hopkins to his cause and together they investigate. It turns out the Trojan Tunnelling Company (I believe some smutty humour may be enjoyed at the expense of this name by US movie enthusiasts) has been using some kind of radiofrequency thing they shouldn’t have been using (and believe me I’m providing more detail here than the script does) which has woken up a giant octopus. Henry Fonda is the boss of Trojan, apparently acting all his lines in his back garden because he refused to walk any further than that for a film of this calibre. I don’t blame him one bit.
There are some more killings, including pretty Sherry Buchanan (who went on to get her vocal cords cut in Marino Girolami’s bonkers ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST) and the not pretty and very obese indeed Franco Diogene, the man responsible for  displaying quite possibly the largest underpants onscreen in the world ever in Andrea Bianchi’s STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER. Bo’s wife Vicky (Delia Boccardo) gets eaten by an enormous back-projected octopus, and then it’s time for the highlight of the film - the annual yacht race.
Despite all the efforts of Bo and the local police constabulary (which consists of men in helicopters holding up handwritten signs saying ‘Go Back’) our boating contestants seem oblivious to the large polystyrene octopus head that is being propelled at speed  through the water by several Italian special effects men. I don’t actually think these creatures pop their heads up like this before they close in for the kill, but I suppose if a dorsal fin is good enough for JAWS, then a big plastic octopus head is probably seen as going one better in someone’s warped universe.
The octopus head rushes forward. People cower and fall off their yachts. Not a drop of blood is spilled. The entire thing is appallingly shot and edited. To cap it all, Stelvio Cipriani’s music is great but completely inappropriate for a scene that should have at least some degree of suspense. Just typing all this makes me want to watch it again.
Bo sets off after the beastie, taking his favourite killer whales with him in a big tank. The film can’t hope to plunge the giddy depths of crapness of the boat race attack, though, and the film rather fizzles out as a couple of glove puppet killer whales tear apart a real dead octopus from the fishmonger’s. Despite his wife and most of the rest of the cast being dead, Bo shares a few jokes with his Italian boatmate chum before sailing off into the sunset followed by his whales.
TENTACLES really is one of the worst directed films I have seen in ages (and that includes all the Jess Franco movies I’ve reviewed on here). Characters are often  introduced from behind and sometimes with the backs of their talking heads obscured by shrubbery. At the beginning there are long takes of nothing but people’s legs and feet as the looped in dialogue helps TENTACLES to compete with anything by Ed Wood. Even when we do have to see some faces, the camera angles are so low you wonder if the chap shooting them either had very little legs or was so fed up with being on set he spent the entire time sitting down. As mentioned above, Stelvio Cipriani’s music is great, but it's completely inappropriate much of the time, and feels as if it was composed for several other different films entirely. 
Is there a worse Italian giant killer octopus film out there? I don’t know. But as far as I’m concerned there definitely isn’t a better one. As winter draws in TENTACLES is just the thing to make you smile on a cold night, and for that it deserves a special place in monster movie history.