Thursday 27 March 2014

Blind Woman's Curse (1970)

Anyone who got a kick out of Arrow’s release of LADY SNOWBLOOD (and its star, Meiko Kaji) will probably want to watch this one, made a couple of years prior to that film and due to be released soon in another of Arrow’s excellent transfers. It’s by director Teruo Kitagawa, who also gave us 1969’s weird Edogawa Rampo mashup HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN and, although you might not expect it from the plot synopsis, if you liked that barrel of weirdness then there’s plenty for you here as well.
We’re in Japan in the late 1930s. Meiko Kaji plays Akemi Tachibana, the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In fact all her gang have it, and it’s an impressive and creative piece of makeup. During a battle with another Yakuza gang Akemi blinds the sister of the gang leader by slashing her across the face with her sword. A black cat appears and drinks the blood streaming from the woman’s eyes. Then it stares meaningfully at Akemi, who believes herself to have been cursed.
Three years later and Akemi is out of prison. The women she was in prison with have sworn allegiance to her and have all had themselves tattooed in a similar fashion. In Akemi’s hometown various criminal elements are attempting to rest control, including a gang led by a very odd chap wearing a bowler hat, waistcoat, shirt and tie and virtually nothing below the waist. References are also frequently made to how offensive he smells.

Someone is murdering members of Akemi’s gang, and the deaths seems to coincide with the arrival in the town of the Weird And Screwed Up Japanese Circus that features Tatsumi Hijikata as a scary hunchbacked dancer. Hijikata is best known to me as the weird Jesus-freak mad scientist of HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN and he’s equally disturbing here.
The circus also features a blind woman who, despite bearing no facial scars, turns out to be the person Akemi injured at the beginning. And so the scene is set for yet another climax that Quentin Tarantino was no doubt influenced by for KILL BILL.
As with quite a few of these film, a plot summary doesn’t really do it justice, but it’s helpful to have an aid to understanding what’s going on (I had trouble following what was happening for quite a bit of this). The film has a very weird feel to it, and the climax is beautiful, with two women sword-fighting against the kind of painted sky found in movies like KWAIDAN. BLIND WOMAN’S CURSE (aka THE TATTOOED SWORDSWOMAN) is a must for anyone who enjoyed the other movies mentioned here.
Arrow’s new HD digital transfer is very nice indeed, in 2.35:1 aspect ratio and with vivid colours (especially all the blood in the massacre that takes place near the end). The print is clean and there’s very little damage. Extras include a commentary track by Jasper Sharp that helps to explain what’s going on, a trailer for the movie and four other trailers for the ‘Meiko Kaji Stray Cat Rock’ series. Finally, there’s a collector’s booklet and some very nice new cover art which is shown above.

Arrow Films are releasing BLIND WOMAN'S CURSE on dual format DVD & Blu-ray on 31st March 2014

Monday 24 March 2014

White of the Eye (1987)

Donald Cammell’s intriguing art house take on the slasher genre gets a smart Blu-ray release from Arrow Films that includes a wealth of extras that should please any fan of this fascinating picture.
Someone with a touch of the Argentos is murdering wealthy housewives in Tucson, Arizona. While we don’t get to see who the killer is until the final act, the police aren’t exactly baffled and there are few possibilities as to who it might actually be. The main suspect is Paul White (David Keith), who spends his days installing high-priced bespoke audio equipment for rich clients. 
      Paul’s jeep has the same tyres as the tread marks found at the first murder, and he may or may not be boffing local sexy bored housewife Ann Mason (Alberta Watson) when a second victim is trussed up and drowned in her bathtub. Paul’s wife Joan (Cathy Moriarty) isn’t happy, and has recently encountered old lover Mike Desantos (Alan Rosenberg), now out of prison and working at a local gas station. Through flashbacks we learn of how Paul stole Joan away from Mike, and then, in true giallo style, through further flashbacks closer to the end we learn what actually happened between the two men. 
WHITE OF THE EYE runs for 110 minutes, and for the first hour or so, bar a couple of very stylish murders that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Dario Argento’s TENEBRAE, it’s more of a study of its three leads and their life in the often alien-feeling landscape of the bleak Arizona desert. It’s in the last half an hour that the film really kicks into gear and everything goes crazy. It’s possible that everyone knows who the killer is by now but if you’ve not seen the film before (and I’ll confess I hadn’t before watching Arrow’s Blu-ray) then I’m not going to spoil if for you.

Arrow’s Blu-ray transfer retains a good amount of grain in the image, especially in the flashback sequences, and I’m sure this is deliberate. As mentioned above, the disk boasts a wealth of extras. There’s a commentary track from Cammell biographer Sam Umland, a feature length documentary - The Ultimate Performance - that details Cammell’s life and work and features interviews with the director as well as Nic Roeg, Mick Jagger and James Fox. The Argument is a short film set in the Utah desert made by Cammell in 1972 and photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond. There are also deleted scenes (with commentary), the flashback scenes as shot before they underwent processing, a trailer, an alternate credits sequence and new artwork, some of which is illustrated here. Finally, a collector’s booklet provides new writing on the film by Brad Stevens and Sam Umland, as well as a previously unpublished piece from the memoirs of producer Elliott Kastner (and how I would love to read all of those).
           Once again Arrow have come up trumps with a superb presentation of an underrated and often ignored thriller from one of Britain’s most interesting directors. Very well done, chaps.

Arrow Films are releasing Donald Cammell's WHITE OF THE EYE on dual format Blu-ray & DVD, and special edition dual format Blu-ray & DVD Steelbook on 31st March 2014

Thursday 20 March 2014

Dolls (1987)

Just released on DVD and Blu-ray by 101 Films is this Stuart Gordon-directed curio from 1987. 
      Little Judy Bower (Carrie Lorraine) and her awful parents (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon and Ian Patrick Williams) break down in the middle of nowhere, only to spot the kind of house you should never go near in these films through the trees. Pausing only to throw away Judy’s favourite teddy bear (which then comes back giant-sized to tear off Purdy-Gordon’s arm in a weird fantasy bit) the three of them break into the house, only to be confronted by its owners, Gabriel and Hilary Hartwicke (Guy Rolfe and Hilary Mason, effortlessly showing up all the other ‘actors’ in this film). 
      Gabriel is a toymaker whose dolls exhibit very special properties indeed, including giving Charles Band the idea for at least another twenty or so movies based on the concept. Before you can say ‘we need more Doll fodder’ traveling salesman Ralph Morris (Stephen Lee) has turned up with two of the absolute worst actresses in living memory, whose English accents have one yearning for the far more accurate tones of Dick van Dyke. Soon the dolls are chasing people around the house, popping out eyeballs and causing general mischief, before Stephen and Judy have a final confrontation with the dolls, and the more unpleasant members of the cast end up as part of the doll collection, possibly as a punishment for not being able to act terribly well.
Filmed before Stuart Gordon’s FROM BEYOND but released after because of the amount of post-production animation that was required, DOLLS was a curious follow-up to the director’s previous REANIMATOR. Produced by exploitation legend  (and tiny people movie enthusiast) Charles Band at a time when the long-running PUPPET MASTER series and its multitude of spin-offs were still a twinkle in his eye, DOLLS does at least have one thing in common with all the future Full Moon product that was to follow, in that it’s only 77 minutes long. Even at that length it still drags a bit, although once the animated dolls start doing their stuff it actually becomes quite disturbing for a couple of minutes. Sadly we get little explanation for why Rolfe and Mason would want to trap people and turn them into dolls, which is a shame as it’s not as if this film is overlong and some fleshing out of their characters (and some more screen time) would have been most welcome.

101 Films’ presentation of DOLLS on Blu-ray looks very nice. There are some scratches on the print at the start but other than that it’s nice and clean. The only extra is a director’s commentary.

101 Films released Stuart Gordon's DOLLS on Blu-ray and DVD on 17th February 2014

Monday 17 March 2014

The Doll Squad (1973)

Before CHARLIE’S ANGELS there was... THE DOLL SQUAD. Or at least producing-directing-castle owning-accordion playing Ted V Mikels would like you to think that was the case. To be honest, anyone expecting even a barely competent forerunner of Spelling-Goldberg’s 1970s ‘look but don’t touch jiggle show’ (as it was referred to by the industry at the time) is probably going to be disappointed.
A stock footage rocket takes off and explodes in a flash of scratched negative. It’s all the fault of crime boss and James Bond villain wannabe (and want is all he’s going to be able to do here) Eamon O’Reilly (the not at all Irish sounding / looking Michael Ansara - what is he doing in this anyway?). Eamon wants to hold the US government to ransom by infecting the world with a deadly plague carried by three white mice he has in a cage that make noises that sound suspiciously like guinea pigs. 
      Perhaps they’re the real secret agents, because big-haired awful outfit-wearing Sabrina Kincaid (Francine York) and her gang of grabbed-off-the-streets-and-paid-a-dollar-to-be-in-this followers certainly aren’t. They wince when they fire a gun and get themselves captured far too easily by Eamon’s gang, but they do have nice matching jumpsuits and they never seem to run out of hairspray. This is just as well, because otherwise they would never be able to see where they were going through their vast disarranged locks. In fact, now I come to think of it, perhaps that’s where they conceal the weapons they seem to keep producing from nowhere.
The deadly plague has been created by twin mad German scientists, one of whom is incapable of removing his hands from his hips, which makes one wonder how his monocle got where it is. Eamon has his vast secret base (ie small ranch) on an island that looks more like a fairly unpleasant stretch of Californian beach where I dread to think what other low budget film-makers might have got up to before Ted and the gang got there. Sabrina and the rest of the Doll Squad shoot the same five stuntmen, playing about fifty guards, over and over, and then blow everything up. Cue glitzy luxurious ending (well, they’re on a boat wearing bikinis) and roll the credits.
If all the above makes you think I didn’t enjoy THE DOLL SQUAD, nothing could be further from the truth, but it’s only fair I warn you that this really is a load of old rubbish, and only the most hardened fan of crappy secret agent movies will get a kick out of it. The music score will either have you tapping your toes (me) or will drive you mad (most other reviews I’ve come across).
88 Films’ presentation of THE DOLL SQUAD is a very fine looking print indeed, and far better than this film deserves. There’s also a commentary track and a making of, as well as the usual trailers. CHARLIE’S ANGELS it most certainly isn’t, but for that alone we should be grateful. THE DOLL SQUAD exudes a certain tatty, thrown-together charm that makes it deserving of trash fans’ attention.

88 Films are releasing Ted V Mikels' THE DOLL SQUAD on DVD on 17th March 2014

Friday 14 March 2014

Lord of Illusions (1995)

Clive Barker’s final movie as a director to date was this ambitious adaptation of his story The Last Illusion from the Books of Blood. The production history was troubled, with financing initially coming from Polygram Pictures. Unfortunately the company collapsed and the film was sold off to MGM / UA where it was recut and suffered patchy and disinterested distribution. This is a great shame as it’s actually a very good film indeed, and one whose reputation can only grow as time goes by.
While on an unrelated case, private detective Harry d’Amour (Scott Bakula - an excellent choice for the character, by the way) stumbles across a fortune teller with scalpels sticking out of his face. He lives just long enough to whisper a few tantalising facts about a fanatic cult whose powerful leader, Nix (Daniel von Bargen), was eventually despatched using a special ritual by Phillip Swann (Kevin J O’Connor) and  some other rebellious cult members. Of course we already know all of this because it memorably takes up the first part of the film.
       Thirteen years later, Swann is now a famous illusionist and D’Amour is hired by his wife Dorothea (Famke Janssen) to protect him against members of the cult who want to bring Nix back. Swann apparently dies during one of his stage performances and other members of his group are dying too. Meanwhile Nix’s cult is regrouping at their old stomping ground in the desert and the hunt is on for their master’s buried body. Will Harry be able to solve what’s happened to Swann, save the girl, and stop the evil sorcerer from destroying the world?
LORD OF ILLUSIONS has a lot going for it, not least in terms of its lead performances. The casting is excellent and there’s a pleasant noirish feel to the picture that never gets too heavy but instead lends a feeling of adventure to the sometime horrific proceedings. The ending is a 1995 special effects tour-de-force but because what we’ve seen beforehand is so good it feels weirdly excessive. That’s a minor quibble, though, as is the fact that filming went on so long that original composer Christopher Young had to leave to be replaced by Simon Boswell who manages a perfectly excellent  job on this.

101 Films offers us LORD OF ILLUSIONS on a double disc set. One is the ‘theatrical cut’ on Blu-ray and the other is the ‘Director’s Cut’ with commentary on DVD. The Blu-ray has a running time of 108 minutes and 50 seconds whereas the DVD runs for nearly 117 minutes. Neither versions have the 87 minute running time listed on the back of the box. On the DVD commentary track director Clive Barker confirms that we are watching his director’s cut and he also helpfully points out which scenes were removed for cinema release. There are no other extras. 
      Finally, apparently 101 Films' first pressing of this disc had a problem where the DVD wasn't actually included in the set. According to the company this problem has now been rectified.

101 Films should have corrected sets of Clive Barker's LORD OF ILLUSIONS on double disc Blu-ray and DVD on 17th March 2014

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Bad Channels (1992)

One of the more ludicrous items from Charles Band’s output from the early 1990s, BAD CHANNELS tells the story of a black leather-suited alien with a head like a giant squashed blackberry (or a gangrenous scrotum, depending on the way you view things) that comes to earth with Mr Spoons from BUTTON MOON, or at least a robot that looks very much like him. However, while he waves his arms about in as poorly animated a manner as his children’s TV counterpart, the Mr Spoons of BAD CHANNELS has a voice that sounds like a balloon being slowly deflated through a cat’s rear end. 
The two of them have come to earth to kidnap women, shrink them down, and place them in glass bottles for No Discernible Reason. This is achieved by taking over a radio station and broadcasting something that causes the young ladies in question to imagine they are in the crappiest early 1990s rock videos imaginable. And yes, we get to witness a different, bizarre, music performance from some of contemporary music’s least promising young hopefuls each time. The girls dance along to the dreadful music, and are then whisked away in a sparkle of poor special effects to take their place inside what look like empty shampoo bottles and probably are.
Will the alien and Mr Spoons be defeated in less than eighty minutes? This is a Full Moon Production so of course they will. To find out how it’s done you’ll have to watch the film. Mind you, if I tell you it involves spray-on oven cleaner, that will either cement the desire I’ve already kindled for you to watch this, or confirm forever that this is one you should stay well away from. 
88 Films’ presentation of BAD CHANNELS isn’t bad at all, with a clean-looking print in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Extras include a Videozone making-of featurette and the usual entertaining 88 trailer park. If you can’t resist this one then you’ll no doubt be delighted to learn that if you hang around after the end credits you get an extra bonus in the form of Tim Thomerson as DOLLMAN, who appears to have been shoved onto the end of this for no other reason than to plug the next DOLLMAN movie. And why not?

Cheerfully stupid, with some terrible acting, ludicrous makeup (by the appropriately named Criswell Productions) and a music score credited to Blue Oyster Cult, BAD CHANNELS is a likeable, daft, ridiculous romp of the ‘What were they thinking?’ school of low budget film-making. You have been warned.

88 Films are releasing BAD CHANNELS on DVD on 17th March 2014

Monday 10 March 2014

The Corpse Grinders (1971)

One of the greatest exploitation movie titles ever, and a film that over the years has frequently found its way onto Top Ten Worst Lists, Ted V Mikels’ iconic grindhouse picture has finally found its way onto UK DVD courtesy of 88 Films.
For those of you who think you may have seen it but aren’t quite sure, here’s a reminder. THE CORPSE GRINDERS is the one about the Lotus Cat Food Company (“For cats that love people”) that’s putting ground up human meat into its tins and thus turning house cats into man eaters. It’s the one where there’s a gravedigger with a pink coat and a wife who wears a ginger fright wig and mumbles to a toy doll she clutches with all the anxiety of a neurotic five year old. It’s the one where the secretary of the cat food company has one leg and can’t hear or speak. It’s the one where cat attacks are created by the director throwing moggies at the actors who then hold on to them for dear life to simulate feline aggression. It’s the one where the grinding machine itself is basically a large cardboard box with an old fashioned lawnmower blade fitted at the front and a couple of papier-mache levers at the back. 
Have I convinced you to watch this yet? I hope so, because while THE CORPSE GRINDERS is bad, it is never dull, and any connoisseur of terrible cinema who hasn’t watched this has a treat in store. Watch hero Dr Howard Glass' gaily coloured acrylic sweater change from scene to scene! Sometimes it’s a white fluffy angora one in a no doubt completely coincidental but nevertheless poignant tribute to Ed Wood! Watch the camera wobble around until it finds what it’s supposed to be pointing at! Gasp as important dialogue happens offscreen while the screen itself is occupied with watching a nurse getting undressed and then dressed again! 
It’s just possible that THE CORPSE GRINDERS is the most honest grindhouse movie ever made. The title alone would have been enough to have anyone but the hardiest (and indeed the foolhardiest) cinema-goer leaving well alone, and then it goes on to deliver on its promise of dead bodies being ground up and turned into cat food. It’s incompetent at times, and daft all the time, but it’s never, ever boring. There’s even one shot towards the end that actually looks quite professional (and somewhat reminiscent of an EC comics panel) and the scenes with the grinder are lit in Bava-style pinks and greens, probably because that was the colour of the lampshade in the cellar at the time.
88 Films’ presentation of THE CORPSE GRINDERS is a bit of a scratchy old transfer but it’s eminently watchable. In fact the only reason I think this could look better is because I’ve seen such pristine versions of similar tatty old gory entertainments like BLOOD FEAST. There’s a commentary track by Ted V Mikels himself, a making of, and the usual trashy trailer park reel. I’ll admit I was dreading reviewing this one as I didn’t think it could possibly hold up to its reputation, but it does. THE CORPSE GRINDERS is terrifically entertaining rubbish. Now I can’t wait to watch THE DOLL SQUAD.

88 Films are releasing Ted V Mikels' THE CORPSE GRINDERS on DVD on 17th March 2014

Wednesday 5 March 2014

The Stuff (1985)

Writer-producer-director Larry Cohen’s 1985 satirical horror picture about a killer dessert is about to get a sparking Blu-ray release courtesy of Arrow Films. I’ve seen most of Cohen’s output of quirky, never-less-than-interesting movies over the years, but somehow this one had passed me by & I’m delighted to report that it was a pleasure to sample THE STUFF for the very first time.
Gooey white stuff comes bubbling out of the ground. It tastes delicious! Before you know it the shops are full of brightly coloured tubs of the stuff, the airwaves are saturated with gloriously 1980s-style adverts (leg warmers and lycra included), media personalties are queueing up to promote it, and in one small town a boy witnesses it crawling across the fridge on its own.

Ex FBI agent David 'Mo' Rutherford  (Michael Moriarty) is hired by a rival dessert company to discover what The Stuff is made of. His subsequent investigations allow Cohen to deliver a number of delicious satirical barbs about consumerism, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and our own attitudes to what occupies our supermarket shelves. The script is deliciously crazy, veering from social commentary to outrageous Stuff effects and back again, in a way that makes you have no idea where the film is going next. Everyone seems to be happy to be along for the ride, though, and Cohen gets a fine consistence of tone from an acting ensemble that includes, as well as Moriarty, Andrea Marcovicci, Garret Morris (as Chocolate Chip Charlie) and Paul Sorvino as memorably mad Colonel Malcolm Grommet Spears
Apparently inspired, at least in part, by Tofu (“What the hell is it anyway”? I remember Cohen saying in a Fangoria interview at the time of the film's original release), the years have been very kind indeed to THE STUFF. Whereas a lot of 1980s horror product feels rather dated now, if anything Cohen’s diatribe against consumer mentality feels more relevant than ever. The special effects are of the rubber and miniatures variety, with fine use being made of Jim Doyle’s revolving room from Wes Craven’s A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. 
Arrow’s presentation of Larry Cohen’s THE STUFF on Blu-ray is their usual excellent job. There’s a good amount of grain in the image but nothing more than you would expect from a film of this age. Extras include Darren Lynn Bousman’s Trailers From Hell piece about the film, including his commentary over the trailer itself, which is also available to watch without the commentary track. Best of all is an excellent documentary, 'Can't Get Enough of The Stuff', featuring Cohen, Andrea Marcovicci, FX expert Steve Neill and others talking about their experiences putting THE STUFF together. It runs for nearly an hour and is never less than engaging. Another excellent choice by Arrow Films to add to their ever-expanding top quality range of cult movie releases.

Arrow Films are releasing Larry Cohen's THE STUFF on dual format DVD & Blu-ray on 10th March 2014

Monday 3 March 2014

Under the Skin (2014)

The latest film from Jonathan Glazer, director of SEXY BEAST and BIRTH, is one of those movies that’s difficult to review, much less summarise, without giving too much away about what happens. Those who prefer to watch their films completely spoiler free would therefore be advised to steer clear of this piece until they’ve seen the film for themselves. Mind you, Michel Faber’s source novel has been out for years, so any attempts at keeping any surprises quiet are probably redundant anyway. 
       Glazer’s film strips Faber’s book right down and relocates much of its action from the Scottish Highlands to the city of Glasgow. Scarlett Johansson plays a girl on the hunt for men. She has no name, but then neither does anyone else in this, at least according to the end credit crawl. By the time we get there, of course, we know it’s because in the world we are being given a glimpse of names are not important. Johansson's character patrols the city streets in her van, looking for the dysfunctional, and the lonely, those who will not be missed by the society they should be a part of but, for various reasons, are not. Exactly who, or what, Johansson is meant to be is open to interpretation, and by the end of the film everyone will have formed their own view. What she does with her victims is a bit of a mystery as well, even though we’re shown it in some detail. Eventually, she makes her way out into the grim, chill, forbidding countryside, where the film reaches its downbeat ending. 

UNDER THE SKIN is full on art house science fiction. In fact I’m not sure mainstream audiences are going to get on with it at all. If I had to describe it (and it’s more difficult than you might think), try imagining what you might get if Jean-Luc Godard directed SPECIES and set it in Glasgow. Some of the imagery is reminiscent of BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW and much if it is just as impenetrable. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy this. In fact it’s a sheer delight to see such a weird, thought-provoking, original piece of movie science fiction on the big screen. As I’ve mentioned above, there’s very little going on in terms of plot but, like the movies of Nicolas Winding-Refn (especially VALHALLA RISING and ONLY GOD FORGIVES) this is a movie that is never less than engrossing. 
Pivotal to the film’s success is its central performance. As the unnamed creature, Scarlett Johansson does a very fine job indeed of portraying an individual unfamiliar with our world, while at the same time radiating an aura of seductive (and appealingly mysterious) sexuality that makes her conquests not just believable but understandable. At the same time it’s an immensely sympathetic and understated performance, and by the end you really feel for this creature about whom you still know very little at all.
Jonathan Glazer keeps the direction low-key, with a cinema-verite approach to the location work. The science fiction sequences where Johansson disposes of her victims are appropriately other-worldly and unnerving, not least because we’re never quite sure what’s going on. With slick black backgrounds, shrivelling bodies, and pools of glossy oil, these scenes are as integral to the film as the grim cityscapes, and the addition of Johansson in her black underwear, or naked, only serves to augment the strangeness rather than take the edge off it.

UNDER THE SKIN is one of those movies that needs to be mulled over after watching it. I can honestly say that when the credits rolled I wasn't sure whether I liked it or not, but I still thought it was a great film. Now, the next morning, I can say with all confidence that I loved it.
It’s not a film for everyone, however. I saw it as the closing film at the Glasgow Film Festival and at the Q&A afterwards it quickly became apparent that there were quite a few members of the audience who didn’t get on with the film at all and seemed to have missed the point entirely. I was therefore doubly glad to be able to get director Jonathan Glazer on his own afterwards so I could tell him how very fine I thought the picture was. He’s a lovely, quiet, thoughtful chap who is already one of our most interesting film-makers. I hope we don’t have to wait quite so long for his next project.

Jonathan Glazer's UNDER THE SKIN will be on general release in UK cinemas from 14th March 2014