Wednesday 25 February 2015

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

John Frankenheimer’s adaptation of Richard Condon’s novel of cold war paranoia and brainwashing gets an new UK DVD & Blu-ray release courtesy of Arrow Films via their Arrow Academy line.
When US soldiers Laurence Harvey and Frank Sinatra return from the Korean War, Harvey is awarded Congressional Medal of Honour for allegedly saving the lives of his platoon in combat, while Sinatra is plagued by nightmares that suggest fighting for their country wasn’t the only thing their platoon did out in Korea. According to his dreams, they also attended lectures on hydrangea rearing during while, at the behest of the lecturer, Harvey killed the two members of the platoon allegedly lost in action.

It soon becomes apparent that Harvey has been brainwashed by dastardly communists to become an assassin programmed to act in response to verbal and visual cues. Now back in the USA, Harvey’s skills are tried out in a couple of test runs before he is given the go ahead to fulfil the task he has been sent back for.

The above is a very simplistic summary of a far more complex, but never confusing, plot line that’s very much worth discovering for yourself if you’ve never seen THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. Following straight on from BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, this more than any other movie sealed John Frankenheimer’s reputation as a director of gritty, almost documentary-style thrillers. Despite that, there’s a heavy science-fiction element to the idea of brainwashing, and the film was so influential that it’s difficult to think of a 1960s TV series from either side of the Atlantic that didn’t use the idea for at least one episode. Visual influences on those later shows abound as well - the 360 degree tracking shot in the brainwashing chamber foreshadows similar scenes in THE PRISONER, and the use of giant playing cards popped up in everything from THE AVENGERS onwards. 

The performances are all excellent, with the two leads being exceptional in remarkably different ways. Laurence Harvey gets to do all the acting as the brainwashed innocent who doesn’t even know he’s committing murder, but even better is Frank Sinatra, who has the difficult job of doing all the reacting and anchoring what could be a ludicrous comic-book story in some kind of reality. 
Despite these stellar performances, it’s also interesting to note that it’s the female characters in MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE who are actually the movers and shakers (Angela Lansbury as Harvey’s mother is the main influence on both him and his weedy senator stepfather, and Janet Leigh ‘saves’ Sinatra’s sanity) while the male roles are essentially passive, the playthings of governments, agents, and everyone around them.

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE looks nice and crisp in this new Blu-ray transfer from Arrow. Extras include a old commentary from John Frankenheimer (he died in 2002), and interviews with Frankenheimer, Sinatra, screenwriter George Axelrod (all from 1988) and a separate interview with Angela Lansbury. There’s also the John Frankenheimer episode of The Directors, and William Friedkin waxes lyrical on the picture in his own little piece. Of course there’s also the by now de rigeur reversible cover and a booklet with new writing on the film. 

Arrow Films released John Frankenheimer's THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE on Dual Format Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray on 23rd February 2015

Tuesday 24 February 2015

88 Films Round Up

This time last year I posted a round up of all the films I had been sent by 88 Films for review but hadn't had the chance to do a full write-up of. In what threatens to become a yearly occurrence, here I am doing the very same thing once again (although obviously with different films). While Arrow seem to be a making a valiant bid to become the UK's answer to top notch US Blu-ray and DVD company Criterion, 88 Films are doing their best to be the most prolific distributor in town of low budget cheap and cheerful exploitation pictures, and there's nothing wrong with that. Much of what they release can hardly be called quality cinema, but they've certainly endeared themselves with their enthusiasm for movies that would most likely otherwise end up without UK releases at all. So here are my reviews of some of what 88 Films have released in the last couple of months, cut down to capsule size so I can fit them all in:


In which NASA astronaut Walter Koenig and his sidekick Bruce Campbell discover something very odd in the remains of a giant spacecraft. They bring it back to earth where it activates and shows a remarkable ability to build itself into a giant robot using anything to hand. It all turns out to be something to do with the moon and so off they go where they discover the remains of an ancient civilisation, more robots, and an (eventually) naked lady alien. Essentially the kind of movie Charles Band and Roger Corman became famous for in the 1980s, this was produced by neither of them but obviously has the same kind of low budget. It's a bit slow at times but you do get Chekov and Ash in space, which for many is going to be worth the price of admission.


Another in 88 Films' "Slasher Classics" collection, this 1980 movie from Charles (not Charlie, that's someone else altogether) Kaufman starts off laugh out loud but quickly becomes really quite unpleasant. This is a cult favourite in some circles (Eli Roth likes it a lot and you can make of that what you will) but I'll admit that I had trouble getting through it. 88 Films' Region B Blu-ray offers you more extras than the Region A Troma release so this is the one to get if you're not sure. Not to be confused with the Darren Lynn Bousman remake of a couple of years ago, and definitely not to be confused with the forthcoming 2015 movie of the same name starring Christina Ricci and Laura Dern about 'interwoven stories of what it's like to be a mom'. Kaufman's film is probably more watchable than that at least.


Obese unkempt pig farmer's son threatens clean-cut American teens with an axe. There, that's the plot of this one so we can move on. Oh, except I should warn anyone who might be disturbed by violence towards animals that the film opens with a prolonged (and obviously realistic) track through a pig slaughterhouse, complete with details of the slaughtering process, to the most inappropriate Carry On oompah music they could find in the music library. Lots of extras with this one including interviews, a commentary and…er…raw on-set footage.


Ted V Mikels strikes again in a movie that has been compared to SHOWGIRLS in that both movies feature young ladies dancing, and both will make your jaw drop at the sheer incredulity of what's going on. Fans of BLOOD ORGY OF THE SHE-DEVILS and THE CORPSE GRINDERS will know what to expect, but if you've never seen a Ted film before you're better off starting with one of the others. Featuring a wannabe dancer as the star of our show who is meant to be 'the best' but actually can't dance at all, inadvertent teleportation that could just be appalling editing, and all the other usual TVM misdemeanours and…oh you probably already know if you want this one or not.

All the above are currently available from 88 Films

Monday 23 February 2015

Don't Go In The Woods…Alone! (1981)

"The PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE of slasher films"

Connoisseurs of backwoods American grot will find much to chuckle at in this enthusiastically amateur effort that has just been given a UK Blu-ray release from 88 Films. 

Four campers set off into the Utah woods. But what’s that hairy thing lurking in the trees and bumping off everyone who dares to trespass in his woods? Why does he kill everyone he comes across? Why is the area not known for a history of brutal murders? Or has he only just decided to do this as an alternative to filling his cabin with old mattresses and Coke signs? Is that the fattest Sheriff in exploitation cinema ever? This answers to these and many other questions that arise during its running time do not lie in this film, which is going to be best enjoyed if you try and imagine what Ed Wood might have achieved if he had still been around at the turn of the 1980s and made a slasher movie. 

Hairy Man Waving A Big Hairy Thing = Run Away Very Fast

Previously banned, DON’T GO IN THE WOODS...ALONE! is actually a non-stop riot of hilarious ineptitude, making it less a disturbing exercise in extreme cinema, and more the PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE of slasher movies. The acting is terrible, the pacing is all off (at the climax the film slows right down when it should be getting going) and the effects are of the squirty tomato ketchup variety. But there’s lots of it, and lots of murders. In fact the one proper accolade DON’T GO IN THE WOODS...ALONE deserves is that it’s never boring. Characters are introduced and have about 0.0001seconds of screen time before they get killed. 

Death as Art or Art imitating Death? One of the many questions not pondered in this film

        No-one in the woods is safe - not the eighteenth century Swiss ornithologist (judging by his outfit) or the most unattractive hippy newlyweds ever. And just to ensure the film stays firmly outside the boundaries of good taste we even get a comedy wheelchair death scene, complete with music. Ah yes, the music. H Kingsley Thurber’s wheezy burpy farty score remains unparalleled in motion picture history, both in terms of its length (the entire film) and its minimalism (three notes and some buzzing and banging noises). There's also the best and most inappropriate final line in a horror film ever.

Good old-fashioned splat we weren't allowed to see in the 1980s

Oh, and let me be clear - if you think this means I didn’t enjoy DON’T GO IN THE WOODS...ALONE, nothing could be further from the truth. Every scene has something to engage the enthusiast of this sort of stuff, whether it’s how much the killer looks like he’s been to the Grizzly Adams Hill Murderer Styling Boutique, or how exploitation cinema’s fattest Sheriff is going to fit into the tiny aeroplane they’re going to use to search for the missing persons, this is a movie whose entertainment value never flags for a moment of its running time.

Why is the man on the right not the star of this, or any other, film?

88 Films have put this film out on Blu-ray. Bizarrely enough it benefits immensely from the format. The Utah locations look lovely and many of the actors’ outfits look even more outrageous. We get two commentary tracks, one from director Bryan and another from the director and others. Neither track treats the film as the comedy gold it actually is. What IS comedy gold on the extras are some Utah talk show segments from the era that are as unmissable as the movie itself. You also get a poster and stills gallery, plus a making of that’s nearly an hour long and is an obvious VHS transfer.
I was expecting very little from this movie but I found it an unexpected (and likely unintentional) delight. They really don’t make them like this any more, and DON’T GO IN THE WOODS...ALONE is a reason for us all to be sorry that they don’t. 

James Bryan's DON'T GO IN THE WOODSALONE is being released on Region B Blu-ray as part of the 88 Films 'Slashers Classics' collection on 2nd March 2015. Never has a title been more deserving of that accolade. 

Friday 20 February 2015

Eskimo Nell (1975)

"A crackingly good look at the rear end of early 1970s British cinema"

The British sex comedy: a unique genre of film that simply could not have been created anywhere else in the world, combining our excruciating embarrassment at all things body functional with the desire to show on the big screen scenes considered by its makers as not so much ‘erotic, taboo-breaking and forbidden’ as ‘naughty and rude tits and bum stuff’. If I was forced to watch too many British sex comedies in a row I would end up wanting to jump off a tall building, and yet at the same time these films remain fascinating, a snapshot of life and cultural attitudes in Britain that we shall probably never see again - thank goodness. If you do feel the need to sample one of these movies, however, ESKIMO NELL is definitely the one to watch.

Add your own "boing" sound effect to make this scene come alive

Young film-maker Dennis Morrison (Michael Armstrong, who also wrote the script and was responsible for parts of MARK OF THE DEVIL, HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR, and LIFEFORCE), desperate to find work, ends up at the dreary, sleazy office of BUM productions. Producer Benny U Murdoch (Roy Kinnear) - apparently a thinly veiled portrayal of real-life Tigon producer Tony Tenser - says he has a film ready to go, based on the famous bawdy poem ESKIMO NELL. All that’s needed is funding, a star and a script. Penguin enthusiast and virgin Harris Tweedle (Christopher Timothy) wrestles with his typewriter in a way many starving screenwriters must have back in the day as the money is obtained from different sources, all of whom want an entirely different film. 

The influence of Ken Russell?

        American producer Big Dick (Gordon Tanner) - apparently another thinly veiled portrayal, this time of Louis Heyward who was in charge of AIP’s London office - wants a hardcore porno, buxom Prudence Drage’s sugar daddy wants her to star in a kung fu musical, and a rich enthusiast for spanking cowboys in tight white jeans wants a Western filled with...well, that. When Benny buggers off with the money Dennis turns to girlfriend Hermione’s mother Lady Longhorn (= Mary Whitehouse) for the money, and a fourth, family-friendly project is proposed. All four films get shot but guess what happens at the Royal premiere?

The sexiest that this, or any other British sex comedy, ever gets

To paraphrase writer and critic David McGillivray in his masterly History of British Sex Movies, British sex comedies were “films that were neither sexy nor funny. Consequently the British public went to see them in droves”. Martin Campbell’s ESKIMO NELL was released in the UK six months after the overwhelming (and nowadays inexplicable) success of Val Guest’s CONFESSIONS OF A WINDOW CLEANER. While that movie had continued the fine (?) British sex comedy tradition of concentrating on a youthful hero’s amusing and amorous adventures, ESKIMO NELL tried to do something different.


        Indeed, it remains unrivalled in British sex comedy cinema in being that rare, and probably unique, item: the British sex comedy with ambition. And what an ambition it is, namely to provide an accurate, knowing, and at times properly funny satire of low budget British film-making in the early 1970s. It’s not in the slightest bit sexy, not even for a moment, but aficionados of the genre would probably be disappointed if it was. I have to admit I laughed out loud a lot, but your enjoyment of ESKIMO NELL is very much going to depend on how much you know about this era of film-making, and to what extent you are an aficionado of the ‘Tit and Bum Humour’ subgenre of British cinema. If you are then this is well worth your money. If not, then you should already know to stay away.

Probably too close to the actual London AIP office for comfort

88 Films have done a fine job of giving us ESKIMO NELL on Blu-ray. The print looks a bit washed out and faded but it’s uncut and for a film from the UK’s era of Cinema Du Grotty it really looks pretty good. There’s also a commentary track from Simon Sheridan and Michael Armstrong. Mr Sheridan is an excellent and knowledgeable moderator and handles the conversation well. Other extras include a trailer, a reversible sleeve, a booklet with notes and an interesting bonus for anyone who wants a real taste of sleazy British porn shorts of the period. WILD LOVERS is a scratchy old piece of filth shot in black and white with no sound, features Mary Millington (who has a tiny part as a stripping traffic warden in ESKIMO NELL) and is guaranteed to put you off your dinner. Don't let it put you off this package though, which is a crackingly good look at the rear end of early 1970s British cinema. Ooer. 

88 Films released their special 40th Anniversary Edition of Martin Campbell's ESKIMO NELL on DVD and Blu-ray on 16th February 2015.

Wednesday 11 February 2015

Rabid (1977)

David Cronenberg's second feature-length body horror picture makes it onto Blu-ray for the first time courtesy of Arrow Films, in a highly presentable package that's also available in a steelbook edition should you be a collector of such lovely shiny items.
        When Rose (Marilyn Chambers) is injured in a motorcycle accident her only chance for survival lies with the nearby hospital. Unfortunately it's the David Cronenberg Keloid Plastic Surgery Clinic for Wildly New and Untested Techniques That Could Prove Disastrous. Rose's intestines have been mangled by the motorbike and skin grafts are taken from her thighs, denatured and implanted within her in an attempt to encourage them to grow as new bowel tissue. None of this is very obvious, by the way, and even on the commentary it's not clear, but in previous interviews with Cronenberg he has stated this was the intention.      

         Unfortunately the denatured tissue decides to do its own thing and causes a blood sucking proboscis (the original title was MOSQUITO) to develop in Rose's armpit. Rose becomes a science-fiction vampire. All she can eat is blood, and her activities cause the unwanted side effect of the spreading of a virulent form of rabies. She escapes the clinic, hitchhikes to Montreal, and the scene is set for a plague scenario that expands upon Cronenberg's previous SHIVERS.

        Maybe I'm getting old, but RABID really doesn't feel that dated. Of course the clothes and hairstyles are period mid 1970s, but Cronenberg's approach to the science gives it a timelessness that means RABID is still a very worthwhile viewing experience. It's also a grim and humourless one, and it's a testament to Cronenberg's skills that a scene in which Dr Keloid looks at porn star Marilyn Chambers' breasts and says 'The grafts appear to have healed well' isn't in the slightest bit funny. Even now, after VIDEODROME, CRASH and other assaults on the senses, RABID still boasts arguably the most depressing and heart-breaking ending of any Cronenberg film. If you've seen it you know what I mean, and if you haven't why are you reading this when you could be watching this unique classic of science fiction-horror?

        After the problems suffered by SHIVERS on Arrow's previous Blu-ray release of a Cronenberg film, it's a relief to report that RABID has suffered no such indignities. The print looks excellent and there are no obvious jumps or cuts. There are two commentary tracks. The first is from David Cronenberg who neither introduces himself nor gives us much idea when this is from, but I'm guessing it's the commentary from the previous US region 1 release. The track is what you might expect from Cronenberg, and it's actually rather pleasing to see how seriously he still considers the film. There's also a separate commentary from William Beard, author of The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg. We also get an archive interview with Cronenberg and new interviews with producer Ivan Reitman and co-producer Don Carmody. There are featurettes on Joe Blasco and the Legacy of Cinepix, and a 1999 episode of The Directors TV series detailing Cronenberg's career and featuring interviews with Holly Hunter, Marilyn Chambers and others. Add in a trailer, reversible sleeve and collectors' booklet and it all adds up to an excellent package.

Arrow Films are releasing David Cronenberg's RABID in a standard dual format Region B Blu-ray & Region 2 DVD edition, and as a Region B Blu-ray steelbook, on Monday 16th February 2015

Thursday 5 February 2015

Thief (1981)

Before he made THE KEEP (1983) and MANHUNTER (1986), Michael Mann made a splash with cinema audiences with this slick, stylishly filmed crime drama that's now available on a sparkling two disc Blu-ray set courtesy of Arrow Films.

James Caan plays Frank, a professional safecracker who yearns to settle down to a normal life with a house, wife and children. In an attempt to finance his dream, he accepts a job from Chicago mafia boss Leo (Robert Prosky), believing the payoff will provide him with sufficient funds to retire from crime for good. Leo's offer turns out to be too good to be true, and the movie ends in a bloodbath.

It would be difficult for anyone who didn't grow up watching movies in the 1980s to appreciate just how influential THIEF was, and it's fascinating to revisit it all these years later and see shots that quickly became cliched (night time Alleys From Hell cluttered with dripping fire escapes, soaking city streets reflecting neon lighting, advertising billboards where the slogans themselves embellish the scene). Movies like Alan Parker's ANGEL HEART and Walter Hill's STREETS OF FIRE all owe THIEF a debt, and Mann's style, when added to the otherworldly Tangerine Dream score that accompanies much of the action, creates a world that feels one step into the future. A 1980s future, admittedly, a not-quite BLADE RUNNER but getting there future, but nevertheless a place that's a shade slicker than the contemporary urban realistic settings of 1970s crime pictures like Friedkin's THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

The real star of THIEF of course, is James Caan, and Mann's film would have suffered immensely without his presence. THIEF is all about Frank, who provides not just an emotional core to the proceedings, but allows us, if not to sympathise, then at least to understand his motivations. Mann's script helps as well, of course, and ironically one of the most memorable scenes here is Frank recounting his past to Tuesday Weld in the decidedly unflashy setting of a diner. The rest of the cast are great too, even though Robert Prosky will always be Grandpa Frank from GREMLINS 2 to me.

Arrow's limited edition slipcased Blu-ray gives us two discs and two versions of the film. The first is a Michael Mann-approved director's cut, the second the original theatrical cut of the film. There is a host of extras including a commentary track from Mann and Caan, a profile of the director, a new interview with Caan, a period Caan documentary from French TV, and a piece on the movie by F X Feeney. There's also a reversible sleeve and a booklet with new writing on the film by Brad Stevens. Only the second Blu-ray (theatrical cut and no extras apart from a music and effects only track) was made available for review.

Michael Mann's THIEF was released on limited edition Region B Blu-ray (3000 units, with slipcase) on Monday 2nd February 2015