Thursday 29 May 2014

Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

        Arrow Films continues its series of lovely Blu-ray and steelbook releases of classic Vincent Price films with arguably the most famous of them all (even my parents can remember watching this one on its initial release). Made in the wake of the success of FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, Roger Corman’s second adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story is a triumph of inspired matte paintings, clever writing on Richard Matheson’s part, a spooky and creative Les Baxter score, but above and beyond all that a terrific central performance by Vincent Price. 

In the kind of fifteenth century Spanish castle that could only exist painted on glass and projected above a California beach, Vincent Price is slowly going mad. Bad enough that as a child he witnessed his mother and her lover killed by his insane Inquisitor father, now his wife (Barbara Steele) has died, but he can hear her playing the harpsichord late at night. Discovering that Barbara was entombed alive doesn’t help his fragile mental state, which takes a turn for the worse as the film reaches its climax. Insane aristocratic Vincent Price and a handy torture dungeon equipped with fully functioning swinging pendulum that he’s been keeping oiled even when he was presumably a little bit more sane is going to spell trouble for anyone, not least those who have been plotting against him.

While it’s not as good as some of the later Poe pictures (especially MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH which remains my favourite) the last twenty minutes of PIT AND THE PENDULUM  is a gothic triumph, managing to combine Price at his most lip-smackingly evil, a massive torture device, and Barbara Steele, barefoot, beautiful and distressed, being locked up in an iron maiden. Forever. It was rare for a film of this period to end on quite such a shocking note, but Roger Corman knew that if you’ve got the imploring eyes of a poor imprisoned Barbara Steele to make use of, you really can’t fade out on anything else. 

The first hour or so of the film does suffer a bit in being simply preparation for the big reveal at the climax, but on the whole it’s not bad, with the usual sumptuous sets and photography. But it’s the pendulum that made such an impression on sixties audiences, and with good reason - despite numerous attempts, the final twenty minutes of this film has yet to be matched in its use of this macabre mechanical murder device.
Arrow’s Blu-ray transfer is pretty good, but there is some print damage and quite a few scratches, most noticeably in the scene where Price looks on in horror as a bloody hand emerges from a coffin. Extras include two commentary tracks - one by producer-director Roger Corman that’s been ported over from the previous DVD release, and a new fact-filled track by Tim Lucas. There’s a new 45-minute making of documentary that includes interviews with Corman, Victoria Price, Brian Yuzna and Barbara Steele, who also touches on her experiences with directors Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava. 

Also included, and previously unavailable in the UK, is the Vincent Price TV special AN EVENING OF EDGAR ALLAN POE. This consists of Price in costume and amid appropriate sets telling four Poe tales - The Tell-Tale Heart, The Sphinx, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Pit and the Pendulum. There’s also an isolated music and effects track, a trailer, and a collector’s booklet written by Jonathan Rigby. Depending on which you prefer there’s either the lovely steelbook or the standard edition to choose from, both of which have splendid cover art. 

Arrow Films released Roger Corman's PIT AND THE PENDULUM on Blu-ray in steelbook and standard editions on the 19th May 2014

Monday 26 May 2014

Lurking Fear (1994)

88 Films presents the UK DVD release of yet another back catalogue B-movie bad boy from Charles Band’s Full Moon Productions. As far as Lovecraft adaptations go (yes, it’s another one of those) it’s actually not too bad, but please bear in mind that when I say that I’m placing it on a scale that ranges from REANIMATOR and DAGON at the good end to CHILL and THE UNNAMABLE at the bad.
LURKING FEAR has a great cast (Jon Finch, Jeffrey Combs, Ashley Laurence - billed as Ashley Lauren presumably as the result of some bizarre credit cost cutting exercise - and Vincent Schiavelli to name but most of them), some nicely atmospheric shots courtesy of director C Courtney Joyner and, on occasion, an almost John Carpenter / RIO BRAVO feel to the scenes in which the motley assortment of characters are holed up in a church awaiting the attack of Something Horrible From Out There. That’s the good news. Sadly, my friends, there is a downside to LURKING FEAR, and I have to say that if incoherent plotting and editing, and a music score performed on a Bontempi home organ, are the kinds of things that mar your enjoyment of such fare, you might want to think twice before giving this one a go.
John Martense (Blake Adams) is released from prison and immediately goes to visit old crime buddy Skelton Knaggs (Vincent Schiavelli) at his funeral parlour. While those of us who obsess about this kind of thing wonder how many members of this movie’s intended 1994 home video audience would have actually got that gag (Knaggs was a character actor of the 1930s-1950s who specialised in playing sinister and weird bit parts) Schiavelli explains that he wants Martense to go to the creepy old rotting town of Leffert’s Corners (actually a creepy old town in Romania and a splendid location) and dig up a body he stuffed with money before burying it.
Off goes Martense and in comes Jon Finch with his gang and his partial dubbing that usually tends to occur when he’s offscreen. The money actually belongs to Finch and he wants it back so, after disposing of Schiavelli, they all troop off to Leffert’s Corners as well.
So far so good. The problem with LURKING FEAR is that something is going on in Leffert’s Corners. Something that has already involved Ashley Lauren(ce) in a prologue that feels more like the end of a movie, and is currently involving her, chain-smoking and chain-drinking doctor Jeffrey Combs, a preacher (Paul Mantee), a pregnant lady, a church, something very badly boarded up that lives under the church floorboards, and the necessity for a large quantity of gelignite to be used to blow up the cemetery. This is where the film really falls down, as that’s about as much as is explained. Everyone converges on the church. The monsters try to kill them. In some cases they succeed. LURKING FEAR is all over in just over 70 minutes and to be honest it really needs another 20 minutes of explanation as to just what is meant to have been going on. And that’s a real shame because with a bit of care and attention LURKING FEAR could actually have been very good indeed. The cast are excellent, the locations are creepy, and the production design boasts a style that’s reminiscent in parts of good Hammer.

88 Films’ DVD is in 4:3 aspect which looks like the frame ratio it was filmed in. Quite a few scenes would actually benefit from being in 2.35:1 so if you do decide to take the plunge with this one, even more fun can probably be had from viewing it through a letterbox-shaped piece of cardboard. There’s a making of that’s very superficial and doesn't deal with any of the obvious problems this production must have encountered. Oh, and the transfer isn't terribly good - at least, the disc I previewed wasn’t. In fact the clips they show in the making of look a lot better. Add in the usual 88 Trashy Trailer Park reel & I’d certainly think I’d have got value for money forking out for this. As always, readers are encouraged to make of that what they will.

88 Films released LURKING FEAR on Region 2 DVD on 19th May 2014

Wednesday 14 May 2014

The Forgotten (2011)

Made a couple of years ago and, having been subject to a couple of retitlings since (never a good sign), what was originally known as FALLS THE SHADOW, and was released for the American market as ZOMBIE WARZ (oh dear) now rears its head on UK DVD as THE FORGOTTEN. The ad campaign has changed radically over that time as well. The US release does its best to capitalise on the then-success of the Brad Pitt-starring WORLD WAR Z. Anyone picking up THE FORGOTTEN could be forgiven for thinking, on the basis of the cover art, that it’s a riff on MAD MAX, which it really isn’t.
THE FORGOTTEN is a micro-budgeted, amateurish horror film that's been shot using one of those blue-grey filters that makes everything appear in a kind of gloomy, cold semi-darkness they really should start calling ‘Miserivision’.

There’s been an apocalypse, presumably of the zombie variety as there are still a few flesh-eating mumblies wandering the bleak landscape. A mad Reverend (Phil Perry) has painted a swastika on the confederate flag and considers it his God-given duty to create a new America, one that will be so right wing it’s going to meet itself coming round the back if it’s not careful. Michael the soldier returns to find his wife murdered and his daughter kidnapped by the Reverend’s redneck rabble. Will he and his father be able to save her? Will they be able to rebuild society? Will you care by the end?

One for the post zombie-apocalypse completist only, if you feel like watching a very cheap, cobbled together, not-terribly-well-acted cross between THE ROAD and STAKELAND then by all means give THE FORGOTTEN a go. Everyone else I hope has been duly warned.
       101 Films’ DVD of THE FORGOTTEN includes a making of featurette and a trailer. And I will admit the box art isn’t bad at all. 

101 Films released THE FORGOTTEN / FALLS THE SHADOW / ZOMBIE WARZ (oh dear) on DVD on 28th April 2014

Monday 12 May 2014

The Beast Within (1982)

      Here’s one from the heady, rubbery, air-bladder-and-latex days of the early 1980s,  the time when everyone and his brother (and sister) was using the appliances pioneered by master makeup artist Dick Smith to sometimes quite amazing effect (Rob Bottin’s work on THE HOWLING) and other times not (AMITYVILLE II:THE POSSESSION). Tom Burman’s effects for THE BEAST WITHIN tend to edge towards the latter, but that’s not entirely his fault. Despite a script that sounds as if it started off trying to do a werewolf film but with cicadas instead (and what a great idea that is), THE BEAST WITHIN isn’t actually terribly good. However, for the seasoned horror fan, and aficionado of this sort of thing, there are just enough nuggets to be found here to make at least one viewing worthwhile.

Caroline MacCleary (Bibi Besch), wife of Eli MacCleary (Ronny Cox) is raped on her wedding night by some ghastly creature that’s escaped from the cellar of a very dodgy-looking house in a very dodgy-looking backwoods Mississippi town. Seventeen years later their son (aha!) Michael (Paul Clemens) is displaying symptoms that has doctors confounded. A trip back to the place of Michael’s conception reveals a gloomy town full of famous character actors playing roles with names straight out of H P Lovecraft (all nice touches) and they all have a Terrible Secret they are keeping.
Michael follows them and, plagued by visions of the dodgy-looking house, loses control every now and then and bumps off another old television or Western standby. The reason for all this isn’t explained terribly well, but has something to do with mystic Native American powers that can turn a man into a cicada. The raison d’etre of the picture is a transformation scene that occurs near the end and it’s followed by a monster rampage that ends on a suitably 1950s-style note.

Director Philippe Mora is still reviled to this day by many horror fans for spectacularly ruining the HOWLING franchise with two of the worst horror movie sequels ever made. THE BEAST WITHIN isn’t anywhere near as bad as HOWLING II or III, but that’s because the film is aided immensely by some creepy locations, some great acting by a host of familiar faces (Cox and Besch, good old R G Armstrong, Luke Askew, L Q Jones, and Logan Ramsey), and a very good music score by Corman-Poe standby Les Baxter that mixes an orchestra with atonal electronic noises and sounds absolutely fantastic in the uncompressed PCM sound mix on this disc. 
Arrow’s new Blu-ray release is their usual top-notch transfer, with this early 1980s picture looking the best it is ever has done. Extras include a detailed making of that runs to nearly an hour and features interviews with Clemens and Holland amongst others. There’s a new commentary track from director Phillippe Mora moderated by Calum Waddell, an image gallery, trailer, and a featurette on the storyboards. There’s also the usual collector’s booklet and reversible sleeve art.

Arrow Films are releasing THE BEAST WITHIN on a double disc DVD & Blu-ray set on 12th May 2014

Friday 9 May 2014

The Delta Force (1986)

      Who are you going to call when a planeload of American tourists is hijacked by Arabian terrorist Robert Forster (?) and his hirsute sidekick? Why, Chuck Norris’ DELTA FORCE of course! Not that Chuck’s in charge - that honour belongs to Lee Marvin in his final film role. In fact at the beginning, after a sequence presumably filmed to reassure us that the film is going to have some action in it (it takes a while to get going after that) Chuck resigns from his post. But it only takes the power of network television and ten minutes of missing his old buddies for him to come back. I suspect the lure of his motorcycle with rockets on that he gets to use in the climax has something to do with it as well.

In many ways, THE DELTA FORCE reminds me of Euan Lloyd’s production of WHO DARES WINS - the British movie about the SAS that starred Lewis Collins. Both are based on real-life events, both give the terrorists a fair old bit of screen time, and both take a little bit too long to get going. While it’s commendable to spend a while on the plane establishing the hostages as real people (and getting your money’s worth out of Martin Balsam, George Kennedy, Susan Strasberg, Shelley Winters and the like) there’s a lack of balance here that made me feel I knew and understood the terrorists better than I did the good guys, who have absolutely no character development at all. 

THE DELTA FORCE is a Cannon production, and is actually directed by co-producer Menahem Golan - he of THE APPLE infamy. Apart from the pacing issues he actually manages a pretty good job, with some well-staged action sequences, getting the most out of his stellar cast (most of whom I imagine were available for a day) and making very good use of the aeroplane he must have borrowed. Sadly, once the action kicks in, the movie is rather hampered by one of the most repetitive and inappropriate music scores I have ever heard in an action film. While many scenes in THE DELTA FORCE are crying out for the suspenseful strings of a Jerry Goldsmith, or even a James Horner, what we get is Alan Silvestri’s electro-disco pop tune that sounds like the theme to some awful cartoon super-hero TV series. Sorry Alan, but at the end of the day, you are the reason THE DELTA FORCE isn’t quite as good as it could be.

Arrow Films presents THE DELTA FORCE on Blu-ray in a transfer that has a few speckles here and there but looks very fine overall. Extras include Mark Hartley talking about Cannon Films and their lasting influence on popular cinema (I’m not sure if we should be thanking Cannon for movies like THE EXPENDABLES, though). There’s an interview with screenwriter James Bruner, and in May the Delta Force Be With You! Commandant Christian Prouteau talks about the formation of the first Delta Force.
There’s also a trailer, a reversible sleeve, and cover artwork by Graham Humphreys. 

Arrow Films brought out THE DELTA FORCE on Blu-ray on 5th May 2014

Wednesday 7 May 2014

The Attic (2013)

Sensibly undergoing a title change from CRAWLSPACE (there are at least five films out there called that, including one that came out last year, one that’s actually Neil Marshall’s THE DESCENT under another title, and one that stars Klaus Kinski as a loony Nazi) here’s another low-budget shot on hand-held digital video American horror film that kicks off with the yawn-inducing claim that it was ‘Inspired by true events.’
Ho hum.
But wait! This one seems to have been professionally shot! And it employs real actors rather than anyone who could be found playing in the street at the time of filming! And it has a grim and quite touching social subtext underlying its plot that comes across very well. Plus the entire thing has NOT been shot using one of those bloody awful blue filters that make you wonder if the colour detectors in your retina have somehow got buggered as you squint at the screen trying to work out what characters are actually doing.
THE ATTIC, in case you haven’t already guessed, actually isn’t bad at all.
The plot feels familiar, of course, even if we haven’t seen it done quite like this. An all-American family moves into their dream home, only to be plagued by a series of odd occurrences, mishaps and malfunctions that culminates in the realisation that the chap who owned the house before them is actually still living there. Where THE ATTIC scores points, however, is in having the head of the family work at the bank where the previous owner had his mortgage, that he couldn’t pay, with the result that the house was repossessed and sold for a song to the family that have, essentially, exploited another man’s misfortunes. And now it’s payback time.

THE ATTIC has some excellent acting from its leads, and provides us with one of the most endearing, and pleasantly real families I’ve seen in a low budget horror for some time. Steven Weber (the TV mini-series of THE SHINING) does a good turn as the baddie, driven insane by the deaths of his two children by drowning in the now-drained pool of the house. The narrative is punctuated at regular intervals by some effective, brutal murders whose bland domestic settings reminded me of the best of 1970s grim BritHorror. Director Josh Stolberg has made a number of other movies, none of them horror, but his use of the camera here, and especially his skill at picking out the spookier aspects of suburbia, means I hope he does more work within the genre - I’ll certainly be watching out for it.
It’s not a perfect film, however. Quite how Weber gets in and out of the house so effortlessly without being spotted is never adequately explained. There’s also a sequel hook of an ending that feels studio imposed.
        101 Films presents THE ATTIC in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The print looks bright and clean. There are no extras, but it's still worth a look.

101 Films released THE ATTIC on DVD on 5th May 2014

Monday 5 May 2014

Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)

Werner Herzog’s classic up-the-creek-without-a-paddle tale of 16th century Spaniards and their doomed search along the Amazon for the mythical city of Eldorado is more than deserving of a first class upgrade to Blu-ray. Now, courtesy of the BFI, it finally has one - and with plenty of short subjects (and one almost feature length one) as extras.
A group of Spanish conquistadores cross the mountains of Peru and descend with the intention of travelling along the Amazon on rafts, along with cannons, horses and everything else the Spanish nobility travelling with them might need. We the viewers know they’re on to a loser right from the start but it’s only a couple of minutes in, when the camera catches sight of star, frequent Herzog collaborator, and all round uncontrollable loony Klaus Kinski, that we know they’re utterly doomed. 

         What follows is seriously great (and often seriously hard to believe they actually did it) film-making, as the intrepid group pushes ever onwards, losing men, women and sanity along the way. Except for Klaus of course, who’s already several sandwiches short of the picnic he’s forgotten to bring, and doing his best to scare the hell out of anyone within a hundred mile radius with his contagious madness. By the end he’s chasing monkeys, planning to marry his daughter, and still insisting the few remaining members of his band pilot their hopeless little raft on to inevitable destruction and death. 

From its breathtaking opening shot, AGUIRRE is never anything less than mesmerising. We’re with this doomed band of explorers all the way, through death and disease, hallucinations and madness towards the inevitable conclusion, and the film is a fascinating, and almost hypnotic, experience that rewards repeat viewings.
The BFI’s new Blu-ray is just the disc to experience those repeat viewings with. The transfer is brighter and cleaner than the previous Anchor Bay DVD release. Mono audio tracks are available in both German and English, with a 5.1 surround sound option mix in German as well. 

Extras include a trailer. and a host of short subjects: The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz (1967), Last Words (1968), and Precautions Against Fanatics (1969). Also included is the weird and hallucinatory feature-length FATA MORGANA (1971). Consisting mainly of wide sweeping vistas of the Sahara, Algiers and Lanzarote before it became a tourist destination, FATA MORGANA looks fantastic on this Blu-ray disc. The commentary track with Herzog and Crispin Glover has been retained from the previous Anchor Bay DVD release of this title, and the AGUIRRE commentary is present and correct as well.

There’s also a stills gallery and an illustrated booklet, all wrapped up in the posh packaging of the steelbook illustrated up at the top. Herzog enthusiasts be warned, however: before you fork out for this you’ll probably want to know that the BFI is bringing out massive Blu-ray (8 discs) and DVD (seven discs) box sets later this year that are intended to feature seventeen Herzog pieces, including both features and short works.

The BFI are releasing Werner Herzog's AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD as a limited edition steelbook Blu-ray only on 19th May 2014 

Thursday 1 May 2014

Theatre of Blood (1973)

It’s no secret to those who know me that THEATRE OF BLOOD is my favourite film of all time, and now here it is, lovingly presented on Blu-ray by Arrow Films, and with a host of extras as well. 
Someone is murdering theatre critics in London. Michael Hordern gets slashed to death by an assortment of vagrants and ne'er-do-wells in a grim and grotty warehouse; Dennis Price gets stabbed through the guts and dragged along a gravel path tied to the tail of a horse. The Gods of the Movies are rarely kind, but this was pretty much Dennis Price's final role, and after all the rubbish he'd been in over the previous couple of years it's nice that he was able to appear in something really good to go out on. 
        Then Arthur Lowe gets his head cut off in a scene that, for me, is where THEATRE OF BLOOD begins to show its true colours. Up until then it's all been a bit grim, but the surgery scene is played for pure comedy, and Michael J Lewis' music compliments it perfectly. In fact it all works so beautifully (including Brigid Erin-Bates' collapsing maid as a coda) that it pretty much resets the feel of the film. After that Harry Andrews' lecherous Trevor Dickman (ouch!) getting his come-uppance (sorry) at the hands of a bulbous-nosed Shylock and a sexy Portia is almost as funny despite the smoking heart gouged from his chest that Price ends up holding. Likewise Robert Coote's drowning in wine (“I wonder if he'll travel well?”) is a perfect balance of humour and horror, and it's only when we get to Coral Browne's electrocution that we're back in the realm of the properly nasty, even though she's been despatched by Price in an Afro. Robert Morley's death by being force-fed his own poodles was the only death colleagues of mine at work could remember when they had their memories jogged about the film, and the film just has to end in flames because absolutely nothing else will do. 
I still haven't mentioned the best ever fencing duel in cinema that involves trampolines, vaulting horses and ropes; BARBARELLA’S Milo O'Shea and the mighty Eric Sykes as the law; Diana Dors (“Don't keep me waiting you naughty man!”) as Jack Hawkins’ naughty wife; Ian Hendry doing his best to provide a link between the set pieces and getting the last line; some excellent London locations apparently used by necessity because the budget didn't reach to any studio work; Diana Rigg giving her all and having the time of her life as Lionheart's daughter; and last but absolutely, totally and utterly not least at all, Vincent Price. No-one else could have played Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart, the great actor-producer modelled on Sir Donald Wolfit and others of his ilk, with quite the same gusto, wit, skill, melancholy and style as this marvellous actor who, despite the terrible punishments (Lionheart's own word) he metes out to the people who humiliated him, is smiling all the time at the audience who loved him so much. 

Put together by a bunch of people who usually had very little to do with horror films usually (composer Michael J Lewis had to be convinced because he didn't want to do a horror film at all) THEATRE OF BLOOD actually benefits from this, especially in having, in director Douglas Hickox, someone who was much more at home shooting brutal crime dramas than witty Shakespearean revelry. As a result, Hickox let the actors get on with the acting and concentrated on making sure the murders were as gory and as horrible as possible. An article in the UK adults-only fold-out horror magazine Monster Mag at the time of its release stated that THEATRE OF BLOOD had more violence in its hundred plus minutes than the entirety of World War II, and while that's going a bit too far, the 1973 production was extremely violent for its time, particularly when compared to the kind of movies still being made by Hammer (FRANKENSTEIN & THE MONSTER FROM HELL) and Amicus (FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE).
Arrow’s Blu-ray presentation is, on the whole, excellent. For a film I’ve seen innumerable times this is the best it has ever looked, with only a few scratches here and there and some rather dull sound on occasion to mar the proceedings. Extras include a commentary track by all four League of Gentleman (Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Jeremy Dyson). Like their previous BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW track, this really is like watching the film with friends who love it too, and there are enough laugh out loud moments to make this extra alone worth the price of the disc.

Michael J Lewis has always been one of my favourite movie composers - for THEATRE OF BLOOD, THE MEDUSA TOUCH and JULIUS CAESAR as well as many others. So I have to give full marks to Calum Waddell for tracking him down, interviewing him, and getting him to play key themes from the movie on the piano for a featurette on the disc. He's always been a bit of a musical hero of mine, and I was delighted to discover he still retains his Aberystwyth accent. I must admit the black and pink cowboy hat, however, did come as a bit of shock.
David del Valle delivers a touching appraisal of Price’s life and career in A Fearful Thespian and actress Madeleine Smith gives her reminiscences in Staged Reaction. There’s also an interview with Price’s daughter Victoria.
The steelbook is gorgeous and reproduces the UK quad poster that I had on my bedroom wall for many years as a boy, but there’s also some lovely new reversible cover art for the standard package. Some of the front of house stills (I still have the entire set in my files) are reproduced in the accompanying booklet as well. 
Arrow's THEATRE OF BLOOD package is just lovely - go and buy it already as a big thank you to the company for bringing us one of the Blu-ray releases of the year.

Arrow Films were due to release THEATRE OF BLOOD on 5th May 2014 but because of a glitch on the disc the new release date is 19th May 2014