Friday 30 January 2015

Toy Soldiers (1991)

"In which Sam and Wesley defeat The Wishmaster"

A perhaps unjustly neglected action movie from the early 1990s, Daniel Petrie's TOY SOLDIERS is about to get a UK DVD and Blu-ray release courtesy of 101 Films. It's not quite the sort of thing you might expect from the chap who wrote all the BEVERLY HILLS COP movies, but it is an enjoyable romp that’s worth checking out if you’re an action fan.

All is not well in the state of Probablymadeup in Columbia, where a drug baron is about to be deported to the US and his unhappy son is holding a courtroom full of locals to ransom. The son is played by Andrew WISHMASTER Divoff, but the only wish he’s granting here appears to be terminating casting contracts as he pushes people out of windows and out of helicopters. Fortunately the telly is on in the courtroom and Andrew learns that Dad has actually already been taken away to the land of Uncle Sam, with his efforts all being for nothing.

Meanwhile, at the Regis School for Kids Too Badass For Anywhere Else, Sam the Hobbit and Wesley Crusher, along with their chums, hold midnight feasts of peppermint schnapps and vodka cocktails masquerading as mouthwash, deface notices, and reconstruct headmaster Denholm Elliot's study in the quad. When one of their number turns out to have a dad involved with the imprisonment of Mr Drug Baron, that’s the cue for the Wishmaster and his Columbian drug gang to disguise themselves as a dry cleaning service and sneak a stash of machine guns and remote controlled explosives into the school before locking it down and demanding that Andrew’s dad be released.
Will Sam and / or Wesley save the day? Will it be fortuitous that kindly teacher Louis Gossett Jr was busy taking all that confiscated mouthwash back to the off licence when the baddies arrived? Will any wishes get granted?

TOY SOLDIERS is actually a lot of fun. It seems to have had a decent budget, and while it's not comparable with the Bruce Willis-style spectaculars of the period, it's way ahead of Cannon Films that starred Chuck Norris. The performances are all fine and actually rather endearing, and there's an excellent wannabe Jerry Goldsmith score from Robert POLICE ACADEMY Folk. It takes a tiny bit of time to get going, but once it does it’s well-paced and the action scenes are well handled. 
101's Disc offers no extras apart from a menu and chapter selections which is a shame as this is quite possibly their best release yet. TOY SOLDIERS is actually thoroughly enjoyable, and an unexpected delight.

TOY SOLDIERS is being released on Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray by 101 Films on 2nd February 2015

Thursday 29 January 2015

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

"THE LORD OF THE RINGS…1940s style"

Britain's answer to THE WIZARD OF OZ was this lavish, opulent and, for its time, quite remarkable adaptation of one of the tales from the Thousand and One Nights.  

The evil Jafar (Conrad Veidt - often imitated but never matched in a performance that became the template for villains on stage and screen for years to come) tricks wise and good King Ahmad (the very British John Justin) and usurps the throne of Bagdad. Ahmad, now blinded by Jafar's magic and reduced to beggarhood now his people believe him dead, makes friends with a young thief, Abu (Sabu). Jafar realises he needs Ahmed back so he can rouse the Princess (June Duprez) from her coma and have his Extremely Wicked way with her. Ahmad gets cast into a dungeon, but with the help of Abu he escapes and together the two embark on a series of fantastic adventures, with special effects to match.

It's difficult to appreciate now how bar-setting this film must have been when it came out, but to call it the LORD OF THE RINGS of its day might actually be an understatement. Legendary producer Alexander Korda assembled a top notch team of experts, including three directors, to film this hugely ambitious work, and it shows. For a film that's nearly 75 years old, the effects are beginning to look a little creaky but the film itself still retains its magic, going all the way up to eleven for the third act which features a tour-de-force of a giant djinn, an enormous spiderweb, some amazing set design for the quest for the all-seeing eye, and bringing it all home by featuring a return appearance by a magical clockwork flying horse. 

        Everyone outdoes themselves on this and it's a joy to behold. The wall-to-wall score (nearly two hours) by Miklos Rosza is justifiably famous, and even if Ahmed and the Princess make rather drippy love interests, it doesn't really matter because that isn't what THE THIEF OF BAGDAD is really about anyway. Miles Malleson's screenplay does a fine job of cramming in as many traditional elements of Arabian Nights fantasy as possible, and the production design is just delicious - all pastel shades and candy-coloured castles. 
Network's Blu-ray offers a fine transfer. Extras are limited to a cinema trailer and an image gallery but I wasn’t too concerned. I haven’t seen Korda’s THIEF OF BAGDAD since I was a boy and I was as glued to the screen this time as I was way back then. You will be too. 

Network released Alexander Korda's 1940 version of THE THIEF OF BAGDAD on Region B Blu-ray on 26th January 2015

Monday 26 January 2015

Deliver Us From Evil (2014)

"Deliver Us From This. Please."

One of the latest of Hollywood’s New Wave of rip-offs of William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1974) comes to disc as Scott Derrickson’s DELIVER FROM EVIL gets a Blu-ray and DVD release. With THE HAUNTING OF EMILY ROSE and SINISTER under his belt, it seemed until last year as if Mr Derrickson was just going to get better and better, which just proves you can’t anticipate anything in this business.

We kick off in Iraq. Actually, no we don’t, we kick off with one of those ‘Based on True Events’ cards that are now so common I’m actually surprised when I don’t see one. The only time that was used to any effect was on Dan O’Bannon’s THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. Nowadays it feels more like a justification or an excuse, rather than the promise that we are going to see something special.
But then oh my does DELIVER US FROM EVIL need excuses. Three US soldiers on a mission in Iraq in 2010 open an ancient underground chamber, complete with incantation on the wall, and then their video cameras cut to black. 

The Bronx in the present (well, 2013). Cop Eric Bana encounters a number of odd cases that lead him to suspect that Something Strange is going on in New York. A woman goes insane at the zoo and throws her baby into the lion enclosure. Those Words from the beginning are painted on the wall and the outline of someone talking to one of the beasts is caught on security camera. A man is found dead in a basement, his body bursting with flies, and another beats his wife to the point of death. Curly haired, hard-drinking chick magnet Catholic Priest (now there’s something original) Edgar Ramirez tries to convince Bana it’s the work of a demon. At least I think he does as it’s rather difficult to understand what he’s saying at times. After ninety minutes of wandering around New York while the film tries to find a focus and work out what it wants to be about we get an EXORCIST-style climax in a prison cell. 

DELIVER US FROM EVIL really is a bit of a meandering, plodding mess that’s too darkly photographed and too muddily written. If I hadn’t known it was from the director of SINISTER my jaw would have dropped at the end credits reveal. Scott Derrickson showed an admirable love of classic Italian horror cinema in EMILY ROSE, with two fine sequences, one that was almost Bava-esque and the other suggesting Fulci at his most atmospheric. Here, however, we’re in crappy Italian possession movie territory, and DELIVER US FROM EVIL is more Assonitis than Argento. Every now and then we see a flash of an attempt at atmosphere - a roundabout where the rides are huge insects, the fly-bloated corpse in the basement - but they feel like the fumblings of an amateur rather than someone who knows what he’s doing. The fine shocks and scares of SINISTER are replaced by mechanical jumps, aided by the kind of loud stingers used by people who know they’re desperate. 

So I’m sorry to have to report I didn’t much like DELIVER US FROM EVIL. In fact the quote from FHM on the box cover is entirely appropriate, but not in the way that was intended. Even James Wan’s THE CONJURING is better. Sorry Scott Derrickson. I will still come and watch your next film. My expectations just won’t be as high.
Sony’s Blu-ray and DVD release comes with a short (14 minute) featurette on the making of the film, as well as a commentary from its director. There are also some previews for upcoming movies. 

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released Scott Derrickson's DELIVER US FROM EVIL on Region 2 DVD & Region B Blu-ray on 5th January 2015

Friday 23 January 2015

Grace: The Possession (2014)

"SEE an exorcism - from the possessed's point of view!"

After a prolonged sabbatical, The Devil And All His Little Goblins have been making something of a cinematic comeback over the last few years. These movies have ranged from the accomplished (THE LAST EXORCISM) to the awful (THE RITE), from the stylish (THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE) to the stupid (THE RITE again). As the tag-line for MARK OF THE DEVIL II once put it - Exorcism Be Damned: The Devil Won’t Let Go! At least not while the box office takings are as good as they presumably must be.

One of the most recent offerings in the demonic possession movie subgenre is GRACE: THE POSSESSION, which offers a new (and actually rather original) spin by being shot almost entirely from first person point of view. There aren’t that many POV movies out there. In fact the only one I can think of is Franck Khalfoun’s excellent remake of MANIAC (2012). GRACE isn’t as good as that film, but it’s actually not bad at all, and certainly worth a look if devil movies are your thing.

Grace is born under difficult circumstances (which we get to see) and has a presumably closeted upbringing (which we don’t) by her mad Catholic grandmother Lin Shaye. She goes off to university where she meets boys, gets drunk, and sees herself turning into something scary when she looks in the mirror. After she hallucinates throwing her room-mate off a balcony, Grace ends up in hospital where a doctor specialising in Made Up Horror Medicine tells her she may have inherited psychotic tendencies from her mother. There’s only one cure, of course, which is to go back home to Grandma and get involved in local church activities.

The demon growing inside Grace (and leaving her with an ugly mess of a mark on her tummy) is quite happy with that, however, and once Grace is back home it’s the cue for it to run rampant as she finds out more about the identity of her mysterious father.
For most of its running time GRACE: THE POSSESSION isn’t bad. It’s not exactly special but it’s very competently made and keeps you watching. Where it gains major points, however, is the final twenty minutes, where we end up witness to a first person exorcism from Grace’s point of view. I won’t reveal how it turns out, but this is where the film becomes very special indeed. Even Joseph (INSIDIOUS) Bishara’s music, which up till this point has been fairly unremarkable ambient stuff, suddenly goes into Stanley Myers HOUSE OF MORTAL SIN overdrive and the denouement provides a very satisfying horror ending indeed. All this plus Joel David Moore and Jim from Neighbours as Catholic priests - what more could you want?
Sony’s DVD sadly comes with no extras apart from a ‘Languages’ option.  I was disappointed that there wasn’t a ‘Speaking in Tongues’ option, but maybe we could have that for the sequel. 

GRACE: THE POSSESSION is out now on Region 2 DVD from Sony Pictures

Thursday 22 January 2015

Baby Love (1968)

"Pete Walker meets Vladimir Nabokov - but who wins?"

Michael Klinger, who with Tony Tenser produced such movies as THE BLACK TORMENT (1964) and Roman Polanski’s REPULSION (1965) split from his colleague, citing the desire to make more respectable product as the reason. While Tenser went on to produce such classics as WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1967) and BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW (1970), Klinger eventually found the respectability he desired with movies like GET CARTER (1971). Before that classic, however, he produced BABY LOVE, which is something quite different.

Fifteen year old Luci (Linda Hayden) is orphaned when single mum Diana Dors slashes her wrists in the bathroom of their squalid terraced house Up North. Because Dors used to ‘know’ rich respectable doctor Keith Barron, Luci ends up moving to London and into Barron’s fashionable townhouse, where she proceeds to destroy his family from within, seducing his wife (Ann Lynn) and killing his son (Derek Lamden).

It’s impossible to imagine a movie like BABY LOVE getting made today, and if it was it certainly wouldn’t be given the  exploitation treatment it gets here. Director Alastair Reid (ARTEMIS 81 and others) is too good a director to make BABY LOVE an unpleasant viewing experience. In fact he’s skilled enough to make this grim and lurid tale of an underage nymphet embracing her seductive powers at every given opportunity almost respectable. Almost, but not quite. In fact the best way to describe BABY LOVE is if Pete Walker tried to film Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and almost completely missed the point, but made sure there was plenty of emphasis on class differences and a fair bit of nudity as well. Comedian Dick Emery even pops up at points as a kind of Clare Quilty character, mirroring Barron’s own suppressed desires for the teenager who may or may not actually be his own illegitimate daughter. In fact the film this most reminded me of was Pete Walker’s SCHIZO, where Lynne Frederick’s working class past comes back to haunt her. Here it’s Barron’s past that comes back, but in the form of an attractive underage girl who seems hell bent on destroying the new life he’s made for himself.

Despite (or perhaps because) of what I’ve said, BABY LOVE is curiously watchable. It’s certainly of its time and it’s never boring. What lets it down is the ending, which is almost of the ‘we’ve run out of money - stop filming’ variety. And who knows? Klinger tore pages of script from both REPULSION and CUL-DE-SAC when they went over schedule so maybe the same thing happened here. The acting is fine with Barron, a familiar face in situation comedies for decades, managing well as the doctor with a past who never cracks a smile. But the film belongs to Linda Hayden in the pivotal role as Luci. It’s a remarkably self-assured performance, and it’s not surprising she went straight on to work for Hammer, Tigon and Amicus. 
       Network’s DVD is the first time BABY LOVE has been released on the format. There’s a still and poster gallery but no other extras. It’s a lurid film, and not entirely successful by any means, but any student of 1960s British cinema, and any fan of Pete Walker-style BritHorror will definitely want to give it a watch. 

Network are releasing Alasteir Reid's BABY LOVE on Region 2 DVD on 26th January 2015

Monday 19 January 2015

Bad Timing (1980)

Along with dear old Ken Russell, director Nicolas Roeg helped change the face of British cinema in the 1970s, showing the world that we could make flamboyant, weird, passionate movies just as stylishly as anyone (and often more so). Blu-ray boxsets of the complete uncut works of both of these directors (with loads of extras) should be widely available, and the fact that they aren’t is a huge shame. We can be grateful for the films that are available, though, and one that’s due out very shortly is Network’s new Blu-ray release of Roeg’s BAD TIMING.

Essentially a document of a doomed relationship between two people who should never have met, should never have got together, and should never have allowed themselves to become so obsessed with one another, BAD TIMING tells the story of uptight lecturer Art Garfunkel who meets wild child Teresa Russell. She leaves her Czech Republic husband (Denholm Elliott looking suitably world weary) and the two embark on a passionate rollercoaster of a relationship where he wants to be controlling and she doesn’t want to be tied down, where he wants marriage and she wants lovers, and where he doesn’t trust her and she doesn’t really want him to.

I’m not going to tell you how it ends but the film does that for you pretty much at the beginning, with Russell being rushed to hospital, apparently the victim of a suicide attempt. In fact, in the first few minutes we get to see both the beginning and the end of the story and scenes in between as well. The rest of the film’s fractured narrative fills in the gaps. Harvey Keitel, in a deceptively minor role as the detective investigating Russell’s apparent suicide attempt at the beginning, gets possibly the most important dialogue in the film when, at the climax, he tries to explain to Garfunkel why Russell was attracted to him in the first place.

BAD TIMING was produced by the Rank Organisation and pretty much dumped when the company realised what it had on its hands. “A sick film made by sick minds for sick people,” was one of the reviews at the time. How can one possibly resist a film with such subject matter? It certainly is a grim tale, and at many points I actually found it odd to be watching a movie with this kind of plot that didn’t need subtitles, as such miserablist contemplative art house fare might be more the province of Robbe-Grillet in a very bad mood, or Herzog in a relatively sane one. Its atmosphere of screwed-up obsessive relationships also reminded me of Paul Schrader’s version of Ian McEwan’s THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS. 
Network’s Blu-ray offers us BAD TIMING in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Extras include a ten minute interview with producer Jeremy Thomas, deleted scenes, trailers and an image gallery. There’s also a pdf of promotional material on the disc.
BAD TIMING is a remarkable film that stays with you after viewing, and it deserves to be up there with DON’T LOOK NOW and THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH as one of the best examples of the work of a remarkable British director.

Nicolas Roeg's BAD TIMING is being released on Region B Blu-ray by Network on 26th January 2015

Friday 16 January 2015

Ejecta (2015)

Found footage meets threadbare sets in this modern version of the kind of thing Charles Band used to produce on a wing and a prayer (and a budget of about $1.99) back in the 1980s. In common with many of Band’s films from that era, EJECTA veers from the passable to the tatty, with flashes of something better in between.

The better bit of EJECTA is cult movie legend Julian Ritchings (URBAN LEGEND, SAW IV, DEAD SILENCE, CUBE and many others) who takes the lead role as William Cassidy. Cassidy is abducted by a bunch of military types and taken to a secret bunker (i.e. someone’s garage with floodlights in the background to disguise the lack of a set) after he’s witness to Something Strange falling onto his land from the sky one night. He’s interrogated by the overacting Dr Tobin (Lisa Houle) in an attempt to find out what he knows, despite the fact he has repeatedly explained that he has an alien implant. This narrative is broken up when a video tape arrives showing events leading up to Cassidy’s abduction, including the discovery of an alien that threatens Cassidy’s home. 

EJECTA starts off intriguingly enough and ends quite well with a bloodbath of low-budget but satisfactory proportions. What weighs it down is the saggy found footage middle section that employs every cliche that limited subgenre has already offered us time and again. The excessive wobblycam is intended to build suspense but is actually just infuriating as you wonder why the chap holding the camera doesn’t just point it at the alien that’s lying on a bench. There’s also plenty of nausea-inducing ‘running while holding the camera’  and ‘closeup on terrified faces at length while random noises happen offscreen’ bits if you happen to like that sort of thing. I’m being a bit hard on EJECTA because, with a running time of 75 minutes minus credits, the good bits are pretty thin on the ground when you realise they’ve had to be padded out with all the found footage to even bring it up to this length, and there IS something good in here. The problem is it’s so slight that only the most forgiving genre fan is going to get anything out of this.
Signature Films’s DVD and Blu-ray gives audio options of 5.1 surround sound and 2.0 stereo. There are no extras.

Signature Films are releasing EJECTA on DVD and Blu-ray on19th January 2015

Thursday 15 January 2015

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Alfred Hitchcock’s original British version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (he later remade it in Hollywood in 1956 with James Stewart and Doris Day) finally gets a Blu-ray release in its native land courtesy of Network. 

On holiday in Switzerland Bob Lawrence (Leslie HOUNDS OF ZAROFF Banks) and his wife Jill (Edna Best) end up in a world of intrigue when their friend Louis (Pierre Fresnay) is shot dead during a dinner dance. Louis is a secret agent, and he just has time to tell them about the secret compartment in his shaving brush and the message contained within, before he collapses elegantly to the floor in his white tie and tails. Lawrence finds the message but before he can contact the British consul as instructed his daughter is kidnapped, with a further message informing him that he will never see her again if he or his wife reveal what they know.

Back in London, it’s revealed that Louis’s message concerned a possible assassination plot. Unable to reveal what he knows to the British government, Lawrence decided to investigate himself.
THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH isn’t as slick or accomplished as slightly later Hitchcock pieces like THE LADY VANISHES, but for a film made in 1934 it’s still very good and extremely watchable. The MacGuffin allows for some fine set pieces, including a scary dentist who ends up a victim of his own gas, a fight in a church hall muffled by the sound of an organ playing, the (almost) climax in the Albert Hall and the actual climax of the gun battle that must have been the equivalent of a Tarentino bloodbath for audiences of the day. Peter Lorre, in his first English speaking role (he would make the classic MAD LOVE the following year for director Karl Freund) is excellent and stands out as being by far the best actor here. In fact if MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH has any shortcomings its in the blandness of its leads, who have a nice bit of chemistry at the start but can’t quite manage to do the gear shift needed when the suspense gets upped.

Network’s transfer of MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH is excellent, in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1, and with a running time of 75 minutes. Because of rights issues there have apparently been a lot of bootleg copies of this one floating around but if you’re a fan then this is the version to get. Extras include a short introduction by Charles Barr, and a London Weekend documentary from 1972 in the ‘Aquarius’ TV series. It’s a 35 minute profile of Hitchcock with lots of behind-the-scenes filming of him making FRENZY, as well as an interview. 

Network are releasing Alfred Hitchcock's 1934 version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH on Region B Blu-ray on 19th January 2015

Monday 12 January 2015

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Forget the remake that sank Hammer Films (almost) for good in the 1970s, and the even more recent television adaptation - here’s the first and best version of Ethel Lina White’s novel The Wheel Spins, directed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock and featuring a plethora of stars, some of whom would pop up later to memorable effect in Ealing’s classic anthology DEAD OF NIGHT (1945).

It’s 1938, a time when the appropriate response of all good Englishmen to having been shot through the hand was “Oh my goodness I appear to have been shot through the hand.” Posh, privileged, but ultimately likeable Margaret Lockwood bids farewell to the chums with whom she’s spent her last holiday as a free woman and boards the trans-continental express bound for London and her imminent marriage.

        She befriends elderly Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty - slightly and pleasantly eccentric rather than going Full Margaret Rutherford) but when she wakes up from a deep sleep Miss Froy has disappeared. More worryingly, no-one on the train claims any knowledge of her ever having been there. Is Margaret going mad? Did that blow on the head before she got on the train have anything to do with it? Why did an Argentoesque-to-be killer strangle a rustic fellow playing the guitar in an earlier scene? Will chirpy Michael Redgrave continue to be a raving nuisance to Margaret, or will he turn out to be resourceful, daring and brave?

Made nearly 80 (!) years ago, THE LADY VANISHES still holds up remarkably well for the entirety of its 95 minute running time. The model work is charming and the back projection work is obvious (especially in this Blu-ray presentation) but the entire endeavour is such slickly made fun you just don’t care. The leads are engaging and don’t even appear for the first twenty minutes, allowing Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne’s endearing Chalmers and Caldicott centre stage for a bit of prologue-style shenanigans that has dated far better than a lot of the nauseating music hall posturing that used to pass as comic relief in those days. All this, and Redgrave even gives us his impersonation of Will Hay. Utterly marvellous and deserving of a place in the collection of any fan of British cinema.
         Network’s Blu-ray looks excellent. There are a few scratches on the print and one or two scenes where it looks a bit creaky, but overall the print looks remarkably fine for something this old. Extras are limited to a trailer and a four minute introduction by Charles Barr (complete with MCC tie). THE LADY VANISHES is being released as part of Network’s ‘The British Film’ collection and will probably be one of the best of them.

Network are releasing Hitchcock's THE LADY VANISHES on Region B Blu-ray on 19th January 2015