Monday 25 November 2013

Streets of Fire (1984)

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

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

Friday 22 November 2013

The People Under the Stairs (1991)

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

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

Saturday 16 November 2013

Pin (1988)

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

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

PIN is an Arrowdrome release on DVD and is out now

Thursday 14 November 2013

Gaslight (1940)

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

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

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Supernatural (1977)

Broadcast once in 1977, and then relegated to the BBC vaults to surface only in bootleg editions from time to time, the BFI has finally granted one of the most obscure of British horror anthology shows a DVD release.       SUPERNATURAL was conceived and written (except for one episode) by Robert Muller and ran for eight episodes. All of them are presented here over two DVDs. Each tale is set in the Victorian era, and centres around a gentlemen’s establishment called the Club of the Damned. The running theme of the series is that whenever a new individual wishes to gain membership of the club they have to tell a tale so terrifying that it will impress those present into letting them join. If they fail, the penalty is death. With the stakes set so high, it’s a wonder some of our storytellers even bother turning up considering the slightness of the tales they have to tell.
We begin with Ghost in Venice. Robert Hardy is actor Adrian Gall. An incident which took place in Venice on a previous visit still haunts him, and he is determined to get to the bottom of it. Resolution comes, but not quite how he expects. Ghost in Venice has some nice sets but the story’s a bit dull, takes ages to go nowhere, and the acting is of the ‘BBC pantomime for adults’ variety.
Things perk up a bit in all kinds of ways for the next story, a two-parter that goes by the respective episode titles of Countess Ilona and The Werewolf Reunion. In a remote province of Transylvania, the Countess Ilona (Billie Whitelaw) mourns the recent death of her husband by inviting four of her ex-lovers (Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Edward Hardwicke and Charles Kay) for an intimate party at the family castle. It turns out there may be some uncertainty as to who fathered her young son, who has a weird old lady who looks after him when she's not cackling and glancing meaningfully at the machetes that hang on his bedroom wall. 
It turns out that each of the Countess’ lovers has wronged her in the past, and that her husband is now her undead werewolf servant. He might just as well be invisible as well for all we get to see of him. By the end of the story nearly everyone's dead and the identity of the individual relating this tale to the Club of the Damned is thoroughly unsurprising.
Countess Ilona and its sequel make for a peculiar bit of British TV drama. The sets are lovely and some of the exterior shots are atmospheric, but at the same time there’s a ramshackle, and occasionally downright odd, feel to the film-making that will make this one either hard going or compulsive viewing, depending on your tastes. Actors fluff their lines but press on regardless. Ian Hendry doesn’t fare too badly despite obviously having had a fair number of breakfast beers before making his way onto the set. Edward Hardwicke bumps into a table during a soliloquy and obviously isn’t meant to, and the boom mike swings in and out of the frame enough times that it could form the basis of a drinking game. The shots of Billie Whitelaw walking her dog in the mist-wreathed forest are atmospheric but get repeated frequently and for no good reason and, in one especially bizarre transition device, one girl’s nipples fade to another’s eyes. All of this had me expecting to see Jess Franco’s name as director on this one, and if you’re a fan of his incoherent but occasionally fascinating style of film-making you may wish to give these episodes a look. 
Next up is Mr Nightingale. Jeremy Brett stars in a completely bonkers story as a young man who, while staying with a family in Hamburg, encounters his doppleganger in his bedroom one night. He also sees black seagulls, buildings going all wobbly, and has a tendency to pull funny faces at breakfast. Even coquettish Lesley-Anne Down can’t help him, but then she’s a bit mental too, getting very excited at the idea of asking Brett to burn down a ship moored in the harbour. There’s a lengthy discussion about omelettes close to the end that borders on farce, and the tale ends on a downbeat note that’s less effective for some of the oddness that has preceded it.
Things get a bit better on Disc 2. In Lady Sybil, Denholm Elliott and John Osbourne play the sons of Catherine Nesbitt, who is convinced a shadowy figure that might be her dead husband is trying to kill her. Viktoria is the only episode not to be written by Robert Muller (it’s by Sue Lake instead) and features Lewis Fiander as a closeted gay man whose wheelchair-bound wife dies. When he marries again it’s to Space 1999‘s Catherine Schell, but even she can’t prise him away from the attentions of strapping Norman Eshley. Meanwhile Fiander’s daughter has been given a doll so big she can hardly lift it and the scene is set for his first wife to get her revenge. Night of the Marionettes is a weird take on the genesis of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Writer Gordon Jackson, his unhappy wife Kathleen Byron, and their ethereal daughter Pauline Moran find themselves in an isolated Swiss inn where Sidney Bromley cackles at them and Vladyk Sheybal denies there’s anything strange going on despite the weird noises at night and the appearance of a man Sheybal claims does not exist. Halfway through the episode there’s a truly bizarre marionette show, and it soon turns out that Sheybal et al are manufacturing their ‘puppets’ using materials from the local graveyard. 
Last is Dorabella, a vampire tale with some of the best and most arresting imagery in the series. Jeremy Clyde and David Robb are two young chaps in search of adventure on the continent. What they find instead is a beautiful vampire lady (Ania Marson) and her father, both of whom are keen to continue their bloodline. Clyde falls under Dorabella’s spell and they all end up back at the family castle (actually a bit of scratchy stock footage from Hammer’s SCARS OF DRACULA). Robb tries to convince Clyde that Dorabella’s no good for him until it turns out that Clyde actually isn’t that suitable for her anyway, although there’s someone else close by who might be.
        When compared to the great British horror television programmes of the era SUPERNATURAL can’t measure up to quality stuff like GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS, BEASTS,  or DEAD OF NIGHT. The stories are slight and most of the time there’s very little atmosphere despite the sometimes lavish sets and costumes. I shouted ‘Get on with it’ far too many times at the TV for me to be able to recommend this series without reservations. If you remember it fondly from its initial run then by all means check it out. If you’ve never seen it before you’ll probably find yourself having to be quite forgiving. The BFI's transfer is as good as late 1970s British television can look, and the only extra is a booklet containing essays and a credit listing.

The BFI are releasing the BBC's SUPERNATURAL in a double disc DVD set on 18th November 2013

Friday 8 November 2013

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (1986)

Most people would agree that THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is an all-time gruelling cult horror classic. Some would argue (quite reasonably) that its director Tobe Hooper hasn’t made anything comparable since. In the mid-1980s Hooper was offered a three picture deal by Cannon. Instead of running as fast as possible in the opposite direction (this is the company which, we must remember, made RUNAWAY TRAIN as well as BREAKDANCE 2 ELECTRIC BOOGALOO) he embraced his new financiers with gusto and set about creating three crazy movies, at least two of which turned out to be quite unique examples of the film-maker’s art (I’ve yet to watch INVADERS FROM MARS, but LIFEFORCE certainly qualifies as both unique and crazy).
But the question on everyone’s lips, and probably Hooper’s himself was, if he was to honour his contract and make a sequel to TEXAS CHAINSAW, how was he going to go about it? The resultant movie is probably the best anyone could have hoped for. Instead of grim and gruelling (although there’s certainly some of that in evidence) Hooper opted for hysterically over the top craziness, piling on the gags, encouraging his performers to overact, and setting half the film in an abandoned amusement park that wouldn’t be out of place in a gore-drenched episode of SCOOBY DOO.
The film didn’t sit well with everyone, unfortunately, and not least many fans of the original. Even they, however, couldn't have complained too much at the movie’s opening. A couple of unlikeable yuppies find more than they bargained for as their car crosses a bridge on which a pickup truck is lurking. The image of Leatherface, holding the mummified body of Edwin Neal’s hitchhiker character from part one, and not just standing but dancing, is a fantastic start to the film and a fine way to reintroduce such an iconic character. The two victims are taking part in a radio phone-in show at the time the mayhem begins and so DJ Stretch (Caroline Williams) ends up witnessing their murder over the airwaves. Along with Lefty Enright (Dennis Hopper) a man on a mission of vengeance for the murder of two of his relatives from the first film, Stretch gets drawn into the hideous and completely crackers world of the Sawyer family, who are now winning prizes for their chilli. “It’s the meat!” cackles Jim Siedow in one of the least understated performances in horror cinema. 
TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 is a crazy film, but it’s good crazy, and even though some of the acting is a bit too much over the top, their are fine turns from both Caroline Williams and the remarkable Bill Moseley as Chop Top, who delivers a truly disturbing performance that effectively steals the film. TCM 2 is one to be approached with caution, both by fans of the original and those new to the franchise. You may well love it, but the mixture of outrageous gore and even more outrageous silliness might not sit well with those expecting something far darker.

Once again, Arrow have pulled out all the stops in an attempt to produce the ultimate collector’s edition of a cult film. As well as a Tobe Hooper commentary from 2006 (moderated by David Gregory) there’s an ‘actor’s commentary’ as well. This one’s moderated by Michael Felsher and features Caroline Williams, Bill Moseley and Tom Savini having what sounds like a party in the recording studio. It Runs in the Family is a ninety minute documentary broken up into six parts and featuring interviews with the cast and crew. In Still Feeling The Buzz Stephen Thrower talks for a good half an hour about the making of the movie and its importance as a piece of popular culture. Cutting Moments gives us a short interview with Bob Elmore, who was the stuntman for Leatherface on the picture. There’s also an alternate opening title sequence, some deleted scenes and a trailer. A second disc is a treasure trove of Hooper bits and pieces. First off is THE HEISTERS, which is a whacky ten minute romp, followed by EGGSHELLS, Hooper’s early feature length movie about hippies. This one’s for the true Hooper obsessives only, but at least it’s there if you want it. Rounding out the second disc is an exhaustive trailer reel for Tobe Hooper’s film projects, some of which I had never heard of and will probably get round to seeing eventually, especially as one of them features what looks like a giant CGI crocodile.

Arrow Films will be releasing Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 on a three disc DVD and Blu-ray set on 11th November 2013

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Schalcken the Painter (1979)

Leslie Megahey’s 1979 adaptation of J Sheridan LeFanu’s tale of ghostly horror finally makes it onto Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of the BFI Flipside series. Originally airing as part of the BBC TV arts series OMNIBUS, SCHALCKEN comes across like one of the BBC’s GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS made by someone with a serious interest in renaissance art. Which is pretty much exactly what it is. 
In seventeenth century Holland art student Godfried Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde) is under the tutelage of Gerrit Dou (Maurice Denham). He also happens to be in love with Dou’s niece Rose (Cheryl Kennedy) but lacks the funds to be able to make an honest woman of her. One night a strange, grey man called Vanderhausen calls to say he will be back the next night to discuss something of great importance with Dou. This turns out to be his desire to wed Rose, and he has a box of gold coins to prove he can support her. Dou signs the papers and, after Rose has expressed her disgust for the man, duly hands her over into his care. Time passes and one night Rose returns, still wearing her wedding dress and begging not to be left alone. But she is, for a moment. There’s a blood curdling scream and the girl vanishes. 
Years pass. Schalcken marries and Dou dies. After the funeral Schalcken finds himself drawn to the crypt where Rose appears to him, drawing him toward a bed in which something horrible is lurking, something which causes Schalcken to create one of his most memorable paintings.
I’ve read the LeFanu story on which this is  based a couple of times and I’m still not exactly sure what happens at the end. This adaptation doesn’t make things much clearer, but that’s not really the point of the piece. Leslie Megahey’s SCHALCKEN is much more about the nature of art, love and commerce, and how one’s attitude to these three things change as one gets older. A far more complex piece that many of the BBC’s other supernatural television programmes of the era, SCHALCKEN is also much better directed. Many of the shots seem to have been set up to emulate the Renaissance paintings that are the subject matter of the story, and the lighting often renders scenes reminiscent of Rembrandt. With its frank and fascinating attitudes to sex and art, SCHALCKEN THE PAINTER is very posh horror indeed, even if it does include a shot of a cat being helped to perform a happy dance by a couple of art students.
The BFI’s Blu-ray ensures that this 1979 BBC TV production looks as good as it possibly can. The image is never going to look as  smooth as modern day productions, but the transfer is perfectly adequate. The extras are interesting and well worth a look. First up is the 1962 short film THE PIT, a black and white adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. It’s weird, atmospheric, and quite excellent, and it had me wondering how writer and director Edward Abraham went from this to writing the screenplay for Milton Subotsky’s THE MONSTER CLUB with his wife Valerie. The other short film on the disc is THE PLEDGE (1981). Digby Rumsey’s adaptation of a Lord Dunsany short is high on atmosphere with the best maggot-ridden corpse in a gibbet I’ve seen in a long time. Apparently it played as the support film to Bob Clark’s PORKY’S over here, which must have caused some head scratching for twenty minutes or so.
There’s also 39 minutes of interviews with SCHALCKEN director Leslie Megahey and DP John Hooper and a booklet with essays on all three films presented on the disc. If you like your horror high quality and highbrow this is the one to get.

The BFI is bringing out SCHALCKEN THE PAINTER on double disc Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 18th November 2013