Friday 26 December 2014

Top Ten Films of 2014

It’s that time of year when blogs, forums (?fora), newspapers and every other kind of media are clogged with people’s Best Of lists, and I don’t see why House of Mortal Cinema should be any different. So, for the third year running (I know, I’m as shocked as you are that this site has been going for that long) below are listed what I consider to be my top ten films of the year. It’s an entirely personal list, so as always please feel free to nod in agreement or become so apoplectic that your fury could power the national grid. As always, the rule is that any film is up for consideration as long as it was either released this year in the UK (in the cinema or on DVD) or was shown at a festival and I got to see it. That gets me out of having failed to include IT FOLLOWS as I understand it’s very good but I just haven’t caught up with it yet. I have, however, reviewed a record-breaking number of films on the site this year, and watched twice at least as many that I haven’t written up, so here’s my pick of many pleasurable hours spent in the company of movies great and small.

The Worst of 2014

Of course, before we go on to my favourites, it’s traditional (three years in I’m allowed to call it that) that I now pause to consider some of the films that came out this year that weren’t very good. Some were deliberately bad, like SHARKNADO 2 - THE SECOND ONE in which twin sharknados threatened New York and the acting challenged everyone in it. SHARNADO 3 has been announced, and I may just have to watch it.
As always, there was an awful lot of straight to DVD stuff that didn’t bear mentioning. Found footage is alive and well and being used as an excuse to call that scrappy camcorder footage you made of you and your friends on holiday a film as long as you stick a bit of horror in the form of some killings into the last five minutes. At least that’s what THE PIGMAN MURDERS and its ilk felt like. As well as a writing a record number of reviews this year, I also made record use of the fast forward button for movies like this. Because that’s what it’s there for.
Festivals also offered some right old rubbish. FrightFest Glasgow gave us a number of films with interchangeable one word titles, the worst of which was probably SAVAGED. This native American revenge pic promised THE CROW meets I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE but was more like a limp robin being incontinent in the gutter. THE SCRIBBLER was a dull, appallingly over-stylised graphic novel adaptation, and VHS 3 proved that there are still plenty of film makers out there who haven’t a clue how to make a short horror piece or a framework story that either makes sense or can hold your attention. 

       Worst film of the year, however, goes to Jessica Cameron’s TRUTH OR DARE, which I still hate five months after having seen it - a nasty, mean-spirited film with no redeeming features that reminded me of the very worst work of Herschell Gordon Lewis. Apparently there have been censor problems with this one, and while I don’t endorse censorship in any shape or form, I have to agree with Milton Subotsky when he once said he couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t hurt if some films were never seen,
Right that’s enough of the rant section (which seems to get longer every year). It’s time to celebrate what was good about cult cinema in 2014. 


There I go saying found footage is a bit rubbish and the first film in the top ten is from that subgenre. This one’s a bit different though, and actually does something creative with the medium. Two best friends take the world trip of a lifetime when one of them is diagnosed with cancer. When he seems to develop superhuman powers after a night of passion their holiday takes a turn for the horrific. Good use of special effects within the found footage format lead to some surprising moments and overall this was well worth staying around for its midnight showing at Glasgow FrightFest.


I get sent a lot of straight to DVD stuff to review and the reason I sit through all of it is that occasionally you get a film like this. A complete unknown that kicks off with a man waking up in a mass open grave with no memory of how he got there. He gets out but the people he meets have lost their memory too. Slowly it all comes back and the films turns into a refreshing spin on a tired subgenre.


Did I say occasionally? 2014 was a better than usual year for straight to DVD fare with THE PIT / JUG FACE. This was an offering from the Larry Fessenden / Lucky McKee / Andrew van der Houyten school and was a fine backwoods USA horror about a community in thrall to a Machenesque monster lurking in their midst. Highly recommended.


Those who yearn for the action-and-synth direct to video days of the 1980s will be well served by this, the best film so far from director Adam Wingard. Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens turns up in small American town and causes havoc when people look at him in a funny way. It’s all part of a military experiment that’s turned him into the ultimate killing machine. Inspired in equal parts by John Carpenter films and THE TERMINATOR this one had plenty of in-jokes for fans as well as excellent set pieces and acting across the board.


This may well be many people’s number one frightening film of the year. I have to hold my hands up and admit it didn’t scare me at all, but that’s the way these things go sometimes. Very well made and acted, and operating on a number of psychological and emotional levels, THE BABADOOK dealt with a single mum and her autistic child battling fear, guilt, horror and regret taking the form of the titular creature. 


On the other hand, here’s one that really did scare me, and left me feeling very moved by the end as well. Director Oliver Frampton and writer James Hall wanted to do Henry James on a council estate and they achieved far more than that. Unnerving, scary, emotionally wrenching, and with a sound design that reminded me of Delia Derbyshire’s work on LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, this is another top notch horror piece from producer Jen Handorf. Definitely one to chase up when it gets a DVD release.


Those who have read my review of the BFI’s OUT OF THE UNKNOWN set will know I love weird art house British science fiction, which is exactly what UNDER THE SKIN was. Mesmerising, engrossing, at times beautiful and others extremely gloomy and grim, Jonathan Glazer’s latest picture is one I can’t get out of my head despite only having seen it once at its Glasgow premiere back in February.

My personal scariest film of the year, I have to say THE CANAL terrified me. Ivan Kavanagh’s film tells the story of a film archivist who moves into a house where there was a horrific murder in the early 1900s. He discovers newsreel footage of the killing and shortly after his life starts to fall apart, but is he going insane or are supernatural forces at work? Supremely scary imagery and a downbeat ending all go to make this a film I crawled out of feeling I'd been hit over the head with a very large scary stick


From the scary to the silly. All hail Astron 6, who have followed up the superbly daft MANBORG with this hugely entertaining riff on the Italian giallo and poliziotteschi subgenres, or rather the 1970s films that belong to them. Murders are occurring at the kind of film studio where all the product has to be dubbed. Is Rey Cisco, the wooden-handed editor of movies like The Cat With The Velvet Blade and The Mirror And The Guillotine to blame? Or is it any one of a multitude of stereotypical genre standbys? Hilarious dubbing, spot on costume design, and references to everything from Sergio Martino’s STRANGE VICE OF MRS WARDH to Argento’s INFERNO make this one an absolute winner that’s going to reward repeat viewings. 


 Getting a UK cinema and DVD release a year after its US premiere, GRAND PIANO is a stylish Euro-thriller of the highest order. Elijah Wood is the concert pianist who will be shot dead by John Cusack if he gets a note wrong during his return to performing after five years away from the limelight. Anyone who had ever had to perform in public will feel his pain. Nods to Hitchcock and de Palma abound, including one fantastic use of split screen. Most of the action takes place within a concert hall during Wood’s classical music recital. The concerto in question was written especially by composer Victor Reyes and it’s marvellous. Thrilling, suspenseful and so well directed (by Eugenio Mira) that some of his transitions had me applauding, the icing on the cake is that the composer of the famed ‘unplayable piece’ (La Cinquette) which Wood has to perform at the end is played by Euro-acting legend Jack Taylor. Pretty much everything I could love about a thriller all in one film makes it my number one picture of the year. 

And that's about it for 2014. It was a year in which I watched around 350 films, and ended up writing about quite a few of them on here. As always I'd like to thank everyone who has taken the time to pop along and read my reviews. The site's been more popular than ever this year, and while I doubt you've agreed with everything (or even anything) I've said, I hope you've found something here to make your visit worthwhile. As I'm always happy to admit, writing this stuff isn't exactly hard work, but watching some of the films certainly is, but knowing there'll be an audience for what I end up writing about them helps my finger from hitting the fast forward button too often. 

So take care, keep being nice to each other, and I'll see you all in 2015. When I'm not watching what's on the screen. 

House of Mortal Cinema will be back in 2015

Tuesday 23 December 2014

The Haunting of Crestview High (2012)

Another lovely cardboard sleeve is our introduction to HAUNTING OF CRESTVIEW HIGH, even though the impressive and imposing gothic building pictured on the front has nothing to do with the film. (For those who are interested it’s actually Chateau de Noisy aka Miranda Castle in Belgium).

Originally titled BAD KIDS GO TO HELL and marketed as a horror version of THE BREAKFAST CLUB, CRESTVIEW HIGH is all about six ghastly teenagers who are pupils at the eponymous institution and have to attend detention one Saturday afternoon. As they start to die in a variety of horrible ways it turns out that they may be victims of revenge from beyond the grave.

HAUNTING OF CRESTVIEW HIGH is a difficult one to review. The script isn't bad - it's nothing original but it tries to be clever and employ the SAW technique of dropping minor clues throughout that lead to a big reveal at the end. The main problem is the direction, which feels like another semi-amateur effort. The film also suffers from the characters themselves, who are all so awful you can't bring yourself to care about any of them. Judd Nelson turns up at a couple of points, but it’s such a long time since his John Hughes heydays that he’s not that easy to spot. 
With a bit of better direction and some sense of irony this could have been cheesy but a lot of fun. As it stands, HAUNTING OF CRESTVIEW HIGH is a bit of a misfire, although if you are in detention on a rainy afternoon and are desperate for something to help pass the time you could always stare at the box art, which is very nice indeed. It does, however, appear that this has been successful enough to spawn an awkwardly-titled sequel, BAD KIDS GO 2 HELL, starring Sean Astin as the headmaster and Gina Gershon as a senator, so what do I know? 
       There are no extras.

HAUNTING OF CRESTVIEW HIGH is out now on Region 2 DVD from 101 Films

Friday 19 December 2014

Nekromantik (1988)

Where do I start with this one?
Probably in 1988, which is when I saw it for the first (and only time until now) at the Shock Around the Clock Film festival at the legendary Scala cinema in Kings Cross. In those days, festivals were all nighters, and it was probably appropriate that NEKROMANTIK was the final film, as nothing could have competed with it for shock value. So it was that I and several hundred other people were witness to Jorg Buttgereit's tale of filth and woe (and yes, necrophilia) at about six o'clock on a Sunday morning. It certainly woke us all up.

Rob (Daktari Lorenz) works for 'Joe’s Street Cleaning Agency' which specialises in tidying up the dead bodies after road traffic accidents. But Rob doesn't adhere strictly to health and safety directives, instead bringing various bits and pieces back to his squalid flat for him and his girlfriend Betty (Beatrice M) to enjoy. When a young man dies in a bizarre gardening accident (I don't think they're referencing Spinal Tap but this is such an odd film who knows) Rob brings the entire corpse home and various necrophiliac antics ensue. When Betty gets fed up with Rob and leaves, taking her dead lover with her, it's the cue for Rob to embark on an existential journey that is a mixture of arthouse and extremely uncomfortable obscene cinema as we only really get to see from European film-makers.

NEKROMANTIK is not for everyone. In fact I'd go so far as to say it's hardly for anyone. However, if such classic Euro-endurance tests as CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, A SERBIAN FILM and THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE PARTS 1 & 2 are your cup of tea then you'll probably get something out of this one as well. Just like those movies, time has not diminished its effect - NEKROMANTIK is still as weird, disgusting and shocking as I remember it. The only difference on watching it this time was I got the sense that some of it was intended to be funny but in a way that just makes it all the more disturbing. As well as all the (faked) horrors, a rabbit gets slaughtered and skinned close to the beginning so animal lovers should beware.
Arrow's presentation of NEKROMANTIK is remarkable. In fact, I was almost as shocked by the number of extras on here as I was by the film. The three disc set includes the film on both Blu-ray and DVD. Blu-ray isn't really the medium for a grungefest shot on super 8mm, but it does look a lot better than the 'Grindhouse Presentation' that's also included here.

By the far the best of these is a hugely nostalgic documentary for those of us who saw the movie at the Scala as Alan Jones and others reminisce about the difficulty of sneaking the film in under the radar and the producer having to sleep on top of the film cans in his camper van to prevent them from being confiscated. There's also a commentary from Buttgereit and co-writer Franz Rodenkirchen, a couple of short films (Hot Love and Horror Heaven), a new interview with the director who also provides a special introduction to the film, a vintage making of, a Glasgow Q&A and a whole host of other stuff as well. Perhaps the best extra (although this wasn't provided for review) is the third disc, which is a CD of the film's soundtrack. It's quite a bouncy, jolly synthesiser score that's very 1980s while at the same time avoiding the farty burpy monotone that many sleaze efforts of the period seemed to think was de rigeur. There's also an exclusive 100 page book featuring writing on the film and the whole thing is presented in a lovely packaging with five exclusive postcards.
So there you go. I hadn't seen NEKROMANTIK for sixteen years and it will probably be another sixteen before I feel I can steel myself to watch it again. But if you're a NEKROMANTIKophile, or even just casually interested in extreme European cinema, I cannot imagine there's going to be a better or more enthusiastic presentation of this film than this.

Arrow Films have released Jorg Buttgereit's NEKROMANTIK in a special limited 3-disc dual format edition (Blu-ray and DVD) on 15th December 2014 - just in time for Christmas!

Wednesday 17 December 2014

The Killers (1946)

German-born director Robert Siodmak moved to Hollywood in 1940 and had a bit of a rocky start (“This is not a Siodmak picture - this is Paramount shit!” he allegedly once said in an on-set interview). However, once he moved to Universal he quickly graduated from the routine but atmospheric SON OF DRACULA (1943) to the classic THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945). THE KILLERS (1946) was his next picture after that, and is as classy and accomplished an example of film noir as you can get.

THE KILLERS is adapted from a (very) short story by Ernest Hemingway in which a man sits in a room waiting for the two assassins who are going to do him in. Siodmak’s film starts with the two killers arriving at a diner where their intended hit (Burt Lancaster) eats, but when he doesn’t turn up they progress to his room where they kill him.
The rest of the movie is told in flashback as insurance investigator Edmund O’Brien tries to piece together why Lancaster’s character had a variety of aliases, what his relationship was to a famous robbery conducted six years previously, and what gorgeous femme fatale Ava Gardner has got to do with it all. I won’t say much else because this really is one of the greats and if you’ve not seen it you’ve a treat in store. Everything that makes noir great is here, from the fractured nature of the storytelling to the shady characters, none of whom are entirely trustworthy, to the wonderful atmospheric lighting that makes you want to freeze frame on every other scene. 

       The robbery is a masterpiece of single take cinema, even if you can see the camera crew in the windscreen of a lorry at one point. And of course Ava Gardner, who gets the kind of intro and lighting every Hollywood actress would have been willing to kill for. Siodmak was obviously on a roll as he went from this to THE DARK MIRROR (1947) with Olivia de Havilland which is a cracker as well.
Arrow have done their usual top notch job with THE KILLERS, with a sparkling black and white transfer that shows minimal evidence of print damage. Extras include an isolated music and effects track, which lovers of Miklos Rozsa’s work will adore as it give you even more chance to appreciate his work here and how it would influence later scores (there are traces of what would become music for THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES amongst others).

Frank Krutnik gives us a 58 minute walk through of the film, there’s another featurette on the different movie versions of THE KILLERS (including the Don Siegel version I’ve already reviewed on this site), trailers, three archive radio pieces, a stills and poster gallery with some fine shots of Ava, and a booklet and reversible sleeve.
        Robert Siodmak’s THE KILLERS is a classic movie given splendid treatment by Arrow. If they could get the rights to some of his other pictures and release a box set then surely it would assure them the place in Blu-ray heaven that they probably already deserve.

Arrow Academy released Robert Siodmak's THE KILLERS on Blu-ray on 8th December 2014

Monday 15 December 2014

Left Behind (2014)

Christian propaganda films tend to be traditionally both grotty and disturbing in terms of their subtext. Anyone who has been forced to sit through A DISTANT THUNDER (1978) in a revivalist tent in South America (I know I have) or indeed any of director Donald Thompson’s awful evangelical efforts will know what I’m talking about. 
Well, the spirit seems to be alive and well and responsible for what is officially (according to Rotten Tomatoes at least) the Number One worst film of 2014. LEFT BEHIND will shortly be getting a Blu-ray and DVD release in the UK courtesy of 101 Films so you can find out just how bad it is for yourself (if you dare), but in the meantime I have already been subjected to its 110 minute running time. I have suffered on the cinematic crucifix that is Bad Cinema so that you hopefully don’t have to, and here’s what I thought.

The first thirty minutes of LEFT BEHIND is nothing more (nor less) than a poorly put together soap opera. Nicolas Cage (why?) is an airline pilot who plans to have a bit of an assignation with stewardess Nicky Whelan, complete with Princess Diana hairdo and tightly buttoned blouse (her not him). How could he possibly cheat on Bible-bashing wife Lea Thompson, who seems to have forgotten everything she learned about time travel and now wears a lot of fish-related jewellery and gets into arguments with daughter Cassi Thomson about Belief? Nic takes off in his plane filled with sinners, or at least the script tries hard to make out that business class is certainly filled with them. So far so dull, and then Something Weird happens and people everywhere disappear, leaving only their clothes, their fish jewellery and their diaries with entries like ‘Attend Bible Class’ written in big letters. 
What’s going on? Could it be that the group of American Christians who bang on about something called The Rapture were right? If all the Christians were suddenly taken away would everyone left really not be able to cope? Would they just drive their cars into shops, shoot each other, and generally cause havoc because Christians weren’t around anymore? And why is it a good idea to have heaven filled with naked people anyway? 

It’s certainly a unique take on the apocalypse. Meanwhile the aeroplane is running out of fuel and Nic has to land somewhere. Surely it’s not going to be inches from that enormous tanker with ‘Flammable Liquid’ written on it, is it? And if everyone survives surely they’re going to get as far away from there as possible and not be stupid enough to spend ages standing around relieved they’re alive while fires ignite all around them?

LEFT BEHIND is packed chock full with stupid moments, stupid dialogue, and situations that will have you either picking your jaw up off the floor or chuckling along. I have to admit I didn’t touch the fast forward button once as I was so mesmerised by what was happening. Someone has likened this to THE ROOM and they might not be far wrong. 
101 Films offers us an entirely bare bones affair, presumably because all the out-takes made it into the actual finished film. I cannot recommend this one but if you want to see Nicolas Cage explain how a paper cup with holes in it is actually the aeroplane he's in then this is the film you’ve been waiting for. 

LEFT BEHIND is being released by 101 Films on Blu-ray and DVD on 5th January 2015

Tuesday 9 December 2014

Six Gothic Tales (1960 - 1964)

Christmas has come (slightly) early for fans of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations in the form of this gorgeous box set that contains six of the movies he made that starred Vincent Price. We’re missing MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (because Arrow don’t have the rights to that one) and THE PREMATURE BURIAL (presumably because it starred Ray Milland instead) but otherwise the gang’s all here - a splendid smorgasbord of crumbling castles, eerie matte paintings, Daniel Haller’s elegantly creepy production design, Floyd Crosby’s smooth, economical camera setups, music that varies from adequate to absolutely marvellous, and of course the unsurpassed and unsurpassable Vincent Price, without whose central performance to anchor these pictures they would be simply be elegant exercises in low budget gothic. With him, however, they are so much more.
As I’ve said above, Arrow’s box set gives us six films, all on Blu-ray. Two of these have been released previously in separate standard and steelbook editions. The transfers and extras here are all the same so if you want to read what I thought of THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER and PIT AND THE PENDULUM then click on the titles and you’ll be whisked away to my reviews. Remember to come back here when you’ve finished, however, so we can talk about the others. 
All done? Ok. Let’s start with


        Before Amicus resurrected the DEAD OF NIGHT-style anthology film (several short stories plus a framework), Roger Corman put together three Poe shorts without a linking sequence under the above title. We open with Morella, which is a bit like an entire Corman Poe film condensed into twenty minutes. Vincent Price is still mourning the passing of long-dead wife Morella in his crumbling castle when his daughter Lenora (Maggie Pearce) calls on him. Morella died in childbirth and, perhaps understandably, wants to be reborn in her daughter's body. It all ends predictably in flames, but this is one of the very best bits of Poe Corman ever made, and it’s a shame it’s not longer. Everyone seems to like the second story, The Black Cat, even though it’s actually The Cask of Amontillado with a cat in it and played for laughs. I have to say it’s the one I always skip over, but Peter Lorre and Vincent Price do have a whale of a time as rival drinkers. The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar finishes the film with Price, kept alive at the moment of death by hypnotist Basil Rathbone, liquifying all over him when Rathbone’s control fails. 
       Arrow’s transfer carries over a few scratches but otherwise is pristine and clean. Extras include a quite charming featurette by Anne Billson on cats in horror films, an hour long documentary on Roger Corman, Kim Newman talking about Poe, a short film of The Black Cat from 1993, a trailer and a reversible sleeve.

THE RAVEN (1963)

        Using Poe’s poem as a springboard, THE RAVEN immediately turns into a comedy in which magicians Vincent Price and Boris Karloff wage war while Peter Lorre watches from the wings (sorry). Hazel Court is there to egg them on. Arrow gives us another excellent transfer, and the extras here include a 1984 documentary on Peter Lorre (Harun Farocki’s The Double Face), a featurette on Richard Matheson, the short film The Trick (from the director of The Black Cat short), the promotional record that was released at the time (featuring voices of the actors, including Lorre reading the poem), a trailer, still and poster galleries, and another reversible sleeve.


       Quite often this is my favourite of the “Poe” pictures, even if it is adapted from an H P Lovecraft story. And what a fine adaptation it is. Corman’s Arkham is suitably decaying and filled with the mutated results of experiments from the palace on the hill, as well as plenty of suspicious locals with a terrible secret and monsters of their own in the attic. Possibly Vincent Price’s finest acting moment in the entire cycle occurs when he transforms from innocent Charles Dexter Ward into his evil ancestor Joseph Curwen. Sets and photography are as top notch as usual, but where THE HAUNTED PALACE goes one better is in having Ronald Stein do the music. Les Baxter is the composer most commonly associated with these films and I’ve always found his music passable, if not exactly inspiring. Stein’s score for HAUNTED PALACE, however, is a masterpiece, with the opening titles a waltz of sheer gothic perfection. 
Arrow’s transfer is, like the other films in this set, most likely the best this film is ever going to look. For extras we get a superbly chatty commentary track from David Del Valle and Derek Botelho. Kim Newman talks about H P Lovecraft in cinema, there’s an interview with Roger Corman, still and poster galleries, a trailer, and a reversible sleeve.


        The last of the Corman Poes and pretty much the least. Whether it’s the slight script, Elizabeth Shepherd’s aristocratic air of disbelief that she’s even in one of these, or the opportunity for location shooting that seems to have so overwhelmed Corman that many of the set-ups distract massively from what is actually going on, TOMB OF LIGEIA really isn’t the best by a long way. Still, it's fun to see British character actors like Frank Thornton, Richard Vernon and PSYCHOMANIA’s Denis Gilmore in one of these but otherwise it’s a pretty lame affair.
It looks lovely here, though, and the extras we get this time include two commentaries (by Corman and Elizabeth Shepherd), and a set of new interviews with composer Kenneth V Jones, co-writer Paul Mayersberg, 1st AD David Tringham and camera assistant Bob Jordan. Most of these run for around ten minutes each except for the Mayersberg which last for about half an hour. 

       As well as the six films (and the lovely box they come in) you also get a 200 page book with writing on the Poe cycle as well as three comic books published to tie in with TALES OF TERROR, THE RAVEN and TOMB OF LIGEIA. Arrow will be releasing the Blu-rays separately for those of us who already have USHER and PIT. If you haven’t, however, then grab this set now - it’s a beautifully presented example of 1960s gothic cinema at its best. 

Arrow Films released SIX GOTHIC TALES as a Region B Blu-ray set on 8th December 2014