Friday 29 May 2015

Zombieworld (2015)

A ragtag mishmash of short films from around the world all rolled into one and given a rudimentary linking sequence forms the essence of ZOMBIEWORLD. To be honest, it’s not such a bad idea. With the success of anthology movies like ABCS OF DEATH and VHS, why not do an entire 96 minutes devoted to one of the most popular horror subgenres? ABCS and VHS were planned in advance, however, whereas ZOMBIEWORLD is distinctly retrograde. Rather than an organised attempt to make a zombie anthology film, this is more a case of ‘is there any way we can package all these already-existing short films to make something feature length’? As a consequence the results are even more wildly uneven than you might expect.

The news is not good

We kick off with the zombie apocalypse getting started, and a POV shot of Santa Claus eating someone, before we’re off to the KPRS newsroom where anchorman Marvin Gloatt (Bill Oberst Jr) kills an intruder, gets bitten himself in the process, but promises he’s going to carry on broadcasting as long as possible. These interjections from Marvin provide our loose framework as he promises to show us evidence of the zombie holocaust all over the world. 

I want to watch FIST OF JESUS again right now!

Somehow, this tour begins with him taking us back in time to the ‘very first zombie attack’. But cast logic aside and enjoy the sixteen minutes of Spanish comedy splatter insanity that is FIST OF JESUS, in which Jesus Christ brings Lazarus back from the dead with appalling consequences. After a slightly dodgy start, FIST OF JESUS makes you think ZOMBIEWORLD isn’t such a bad idea after all. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much downhill from there, but at least the producers have wisely put Jesus first so our senses haven’t been dulled by the rest of the movie before he comes along. Other segments include a chap talking to his dead flatmate in Ireland, a lone female survivor in Australia, a little girl who likes to tell stories about her zombie father and zombie brother, and a continuing series of sketches entitled SURVIVING THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE. One gets the sense these snippets are supposed to be funny but they aren’t really, despite everyone involved trying really hard.

More Spanish splatter fun in BRUTAL RELAX

The movie ends with another segment by the FIST OF JESUS directorial team of Adrian Cardona and David Munoz (they’re the only ones deserving of special mention in this). As BRUTAL RELAX started I realised I had already seen it as one of the London FrightFest short film finalists a few years ago. It’s not as good as FIST OF JESUS (I’m beginning to wonder what short film about zombies possibly could be) but it’s a lot of gory fun, even if the monsters are fangy fish men creatures rather than actual human undead.
RLJ’s DVD comes with a ‘bonus feature’ which is actually just a couple of minutes of someone running away from zombies that must have been cut from the main film. Otherwise you get stereo and 5.1 sound options and that’s your lot. 

RLJ Entertainment are bringing out ZOMBIEWORLD on Region 2 DVD on 8th June 2015

Monday 25 May 2015

Safe House (2015)

Every now and then I like to see what television is getting up to in the way of crime dramas. Sometimes I get rewarded with modern-day classics (the first series of ITV’s BROADCHURCH, both series of the Scandinavian THE BRIDGE), and sometimes I end up having to plough my interminable way through something that isn’t quite so good (the second series of BROADCHURCH, HINTERLAND). Sadly, ITV’s new serial SAFE HOUSE falls into the latter category, but there are still some touches that might make it worthwhile for connoisseurs of both BritCrime, BritHorror and Stuff That Just Goes A Bit Loony At The End.

Robert (Christopher Eccleston) used to be a policeman. Then the woman he was meant to be looking after ended up shot dead while he escaped with a bullet through the shoulder. Now he lives with his wife Katy (Marsha Thomason) in a gloomy old farmhouse in the middle of the Lake District. Robert’s old boss Mark (the always watchable Paterson Joseph from PEEPSHOW) suggests Robert’s place would make a good safe house, and also gently ease Robert back into a job he is obviously missing. Robert agrees and soon the house is home to the Blackwell family, who are on the run after an attempted abduction of their young son and an assault on David, the father. Needless to say neither of these acts were random, and now the assailant is looking for them.

Marc Evans, the director of SAFE HOUSE, was responsible for the one decent episode of HINTERLAND. He works hard here to once again give us a bleak tale of British Winter gothic. The house itself resembles a cross between the farm from FRIGHTMARE and the hotel from DAGON, with environs to match, and at one point we pay a visit to TEXAS CHAINSAW island, or at least it feels as if we’re going to. Overall we get plenty of nicely grim and atmospheric touches that suggest we really need an all-out balls-to-the-wall modern horror picture from this man. Acting is pretty good as well, with both Eccleston and Joseph being the main reasons to keep watching.

It’s the script that lets SAFE HOUSE down. After a reasonable first episode set up, the further three episodes the series consists of become increasingly meandering and unfocused. From episode two people begin to behave so stupidly that they quickly lose sympathy. I’m sure there must be a scriptwriting rule for the number of silly things you are allowed to have characters do before an audience will throw its hands up in frustration. The problem is that happens so early on in SAFE HOUSE and so frequently that the series quickly reaches the point of no return. At the end everything becomes ludicrous, which might just work if a more over the top approach had been used throughout. Instead you're left scratching your head and wondering if that was how the story was meant to end, or if they needed to fill twenty minutes. 
RLJ’s DVD transfer is passable. One suspects the muddy, drab settings that we get throughout this probably wouldn’t look that great on even the finest of HD Blu-rays, so one can hardly blame them for not using a better format. The two disc set also includes interviews, a making of, and a meet the writer. 

RLJ Entertainment are releasing SAFE HOUSE in a two-disc Region 2 DVD set on 25th May 2015

Friday 22 May 2015

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Miss Osbourne (1981)

Walerian Borowczyk and Arrow Films strike again with a beautifully restored version of one of the director's more difficult to see works. THE STRANGE CASE OF DR JEKYLL & MISS OSBORNE has been known under a number of titles over the years. I originally saw it under its on-screen title here of DR JEKYLL ET LES FEMMES. In fact the title was pretty much all I saw, as the print was so poor it was difficult to make out much else, particularly during the darker sequences.

We're in the realms of art house-horror, with the emphasis distinctly on the former. Anyone coming to this film expecting any kind of straightforward Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation is going to be disappointed, possibly shocked, and quite likely not a little bored. Mr Stevenson gets a name check, but this is essentially Borowczyk all the way, and if you're not a fan of this auteur this one's unlikely to convert you.

In Victorian London guests converge at the house of Dr Henry Jekyll (a thinner than thin Udo Kier) to celebrate his engagement to Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro, who looks as if she could quite comfortably put her screen fiance under her arm and carry him off to her cave). The guests consist of, amongst others, a doctor (Jess Franco standby Howard Vernon), a military man (beautifully bonkers Patrick Magee, all in scarlet to match his face) and a priest. There are also various ladies who are due to end up in assorted states of undress and bloodedness. As the night goes on the house is invaded by the evil Mr Hyde who proceeds to wreak havoc with his huge (prosthetic) willy. 

Of course, we all know who this fellow actually is, so Borowoczyk quite sensibly doesn't waste much time (or any special effects) detailing Udo's transformation into an entirely different actor. As Dr Jekyll's house guests end up the subject of a catalogue of rape, flogging and murder, the viewer is left to appreciate Mr Borowczyk's rather singular take on the Dr Jekyll tale, using it to not just trash Victorian society, but suggest that Mr Hyde might actually be the hero of the tale (or at least the natural result of such repression), rather than the villain.

Despite the abundance of blood, nudity, deviant behaviour and scenes that remain shocking to this day, Borowczyk's DR JEKYLL won't be for everyone, and it certainly won't be for every horror fan. Made the same year as FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, this is definitely one for the art-house rather the popcorn crowd. Conversations about transcendence ramble on over dinner, the few action scenes feel deliberately static, and the gory bits are presented with a minimum of sensationalism. Think of one of Jean Rollin's slower films set indoors and that might give you an idea of what this is like.

Arrow's presentation of DR JEKYLL on Blu-ray is, as every other review has already stated, a revelation to those of us who first discovered the film in one of its previous awful incarnations. Night scenes are clear (the opening pursuit of the little girl looks marvellous) and the action in some of the almost pitch black scenes inside the house can now be made out. There are two language options. I would suggest the French dialogue track with subtitles if you are in an art-house mood, or the English language option if you fancy revisiting the days of dodgy dubbed Euro-filth (with added genuine Patrick Magee!). Extras include a commentary that incorporates archival interviews, a couple of short films, interviews with Marina Pierro and a number of other Borowczyk collaborators, as well as a piece on composer Bernard Parmegiani. There's also an introduction by Michael Brooke, a trailer, a booklet, and a video essay.

Arrow Films released Walerian Borowczyk's THE STRANGE CASE OF DR JEKYLL & MISS OSBOURNE on dual format Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray on 11th May 2015

Thursday 21 May 2015

Dream Home (2010)

Splatter meets subtext in this fairly ambitious Hong Kong offering from director Ho Cheung-Pang and producer-star Josie Ho.
What would you be willing to do to secure your perfect dream home? Sheung (Josie Ho) is prepared to kill, repeatedly and graphically, as she slaughters her way through the inhabitants of the Hong Kong apartment block in which her ideal residence is located. DREAM HOME isn't 96 minutes of ultra-violence, however. In between the deaths we get to see flashbacks explaining how Sheung ended up in this situation. Working for a bank in the daytime, she also works an evening job at a shop to help repay her debts and save for the flat of her dreams. The flat just happens to be located in a plush apartment block opposite the rundown tenement where she currently shares a room with her brother. With their parents they grew up in slums which were demolished to make way for the kind of over-priced housing she now wants to live in.

        There's a heavy political and socio-cultural edge to DREAM HOME, but it never gets in the way of the story. The opening caption puts into context the vast gulf between housing prices in Hong Kong and the average working wage, and numerous references are made to the banking and credit card systems that are designed to keep people in debt. Nobody is happy, everyone seems to be having joyless affairs, or is on drugs. Teenagers indulge in empty, meaningless, drug-fuelled group sex, and everybody seems to be using somebody else for their own selfish reasons. No more is this lifestyle typified than by its cental character, who is willing to let others die (including her own family) to fulfil her materialistic dream. The film ends with hints of financial crashes to come, and the suggestion that despite all her extreme efforts, Sheun may still not be able to have what she wants.

       Of course, you don't have to watch DREAM HOME for its barely-concealed subtext. It's also a rollickingly entertaining splatter movie, with a number of creative deaths, some seriously cringe-inducing moments, and a healthy sense of knockabout humour to some of the gore sequences. In fact, if there's any criticism to be levelled at DREAM HOME it's that Sheung's final bloody rampage is almost too popcorn-movie-entertaining when compared to the lengthy and serious backstory we finally become party to. It's a minor quibble, though. DREAM HOME is a pretty decent stab (sorry) at a splatter movie with subtext, which isn't something we get to see a lot of.

        Network's new Blu-ray release makes all the gloss of yuppified Hong Kong look extra shiny. You also get an interview with star and producer Josie Ho and a trailer.

Network are releasing Ho-Cheung Pang's DREAM HOME on Region B Blu-ray on 25th May 2015

Monday 11 May 2015

The Relic (1997)

"Murder in the dark. By a great big monster"

What’s this? A great big monster on the loose movie from the director of CAPRICORN ONE and part-funded by our very own BBC? Yes indeedy, Peter Hyams’ THE RELIC is making its way onto Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of Fabulous Films. Whether you’ll want to watch it or not will depend very much on how you like your monster pictures.

The Dark Museum

After some anthropological shenanigans that look as if they were filmed in someone’s garage, Dr John Whitney (Lewis Van Bergen) gets upset when he realises the freighter he’s jumped onto bound out of Brazil is carrying his collection of tribal carpets, but not the mysterious something that is still standing on the dock (of the bay, watching the tides...sorry).
Several weeks later and the boat arrives in Chicago, minus its entire crew. Dogged Lieutenant D’Agosta (Tom Sizemore), recently deprived of his own canine pet in a divorce settlement gets called in to investigate and quickly discovers a collection of bodies with their heads torn off stored in the bilge.

Can't quite see what's going on here

Meanwhile, at the nearby (aha!) Chicago Museum of Natural History, unlikely evolutionary biologist Margo Green (Penelope Ann Miller) is getting ready for the institution’s annual posh knees-up where desperate researchers try to convince the city’s Rich and Richer to give them money for their various projects. A crateful of leaves arrives for Dr Whitney and turns a beetle massive. A security guard gets his head ripped off in the toilet. The similarity of the crime is presumably the reason why Sizemore gets called in for this as well, although it’s never made clear and might just be one of those convenient monster movie coincidences.

Monster monster monster!

A great big monster is stalking the very very very very dark corridors of the museum, which is probably why no-one sees it. It’s getting bigger all the time and the explanation for its existence is such a combination of actual scientific words and complete and utter daftness that the idea that giant ants can be created from atom bomb testing starts to look believable. Needless to say, the creature decides to kick off during the gala dinner, the museum gets locked down, and the minimal lighting fails. Will Margo and the Lieutenant defeat the monster? Will we actually get to see it? Will they? Is the film anything like the book it’s allegedly based on? No it's not, apparently. I could answer the other questions but I won’t, just in case you want to see the film for yourself.

I remember when all of this was ants

I saw THE RELIC on its original cinema release and was convinced that either the projector’s bulb had broken or that it was being shown in some mysterious and incorrect aspect ratio that was cutting off all the relevant action on screen. It seems I was wrong on both counts. This has to be one of the darkest films I have ever seen. Initially this approach provides some atmosphere, but once you get to the point where you’re starting to get a headache trying to figure out what you’re supposed to be looking at it becomes distracting. My own theory for the minimal lighting is that, seeing as they were filming in the actual museum in which the movie is set, normal movie lights would damage the exhibits. On the other hand perhaps all the money went on the monster.
It’s a really good monster, by the way, when we eventually get to see it. Stan Winston has done himself proud. Everything else is strictly B-movie. The script is by the numbers, with some attempted characterisation of Sizemore, but it feels horribly laboured. You really need a John Sayles to write stuff like this. And a Robert Forster to make the lines believable. Acting honours go to James Whitmore (from THEM! I knew there was a reason I had giant ants on the brain) and Linda Hunt as the museum boss, who both help add a little colour to the proceedings.
Fabulous Films’ offers us THE RELIC in a decent transfer in the correct aspect ratio. I still can't see what’s going on half the time, but it’s not their fault. You get a trailer as an extra and that’s it. 

Fabulous Films are releasing Peter Hyams' THE RELIC on Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray on 27th April 2015 and 25th May 2015, respectively.

Thursday 7 May 2015

The Long Good Friday (1980)

One of the best gangster movies ever made gets a sparkling overhaul and upgrade (oh yes, it even looks better than the previous Studio Canal Blu-ray) courtesy of Arrow Films, and with more extras than one of Harold Shand's gang members could shake a machete at.
        For anyone unfamiliar with the plot, here it is in a nutshell: throughout the 1970s, Harold Shand, through his 'Corporation' has ruled London's ganglands. King to their robber barons, his crime syndicate has kept gang squabbles to a minimum whilst raking in a fortune. But Harold has bigger plans, that involve going 'legit' by investing in the development of London's docklands. But he needs Mafia money to bring things to fruition. Unfortunately, on the day the mafia visit, his empire is systematically destroyed by bombings and assassinations. The reason for the attacks becomes apparent as the day goes on, and they're coming from somewhere entirely unexpected.

The term 'instant classic' gets bandied about a lot these days, but that's pretty much what THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY was, gaining plaudits on its original release and securing the reputation of Handmade Films as a company to watch. If anything time has made this film even better. It's a fascinating (and accurate-feeling) snapshot of England at the end of the cold grim 1970s, and of the kind of self-serving individuals who were about to take it into the next decade. Harold desperately wants to be a respected businessman, when in fact he's no better than the little kid (a tiny Dexter Fletcher) who threatens to slash his tyres if he doesn't hand over a few quid. "That's how I started," he says, the irony that he hasn't really changed completely lost on him. 

        The film cleverly depicts the destruction of Harold's empire by the defilement of icons of British tradition (the local church, the favourite pub). Even Tower Bridge is used in a beautifully framed and utterly ironic shot where Harold gives the kind of speech that one is more used to hearing from politicians nowadays.
        Everyone involved with this is on top form. Barrie Keeffe's screenplay is well constructed and the dialogue just crackles. John MacKenzie's direction is thoughtful, with an emphasis on the kind of unglamorous ruthlessness and melancholy irony that British crime cinema so excels at.

The cast gives us a fascinating mix of stars past (Dave King made his mark as a comedian in the 1960s in movies like 1961's GO TO BLAZES, ALPHAVILLE's Eddie Constantine) present (Helen Mirren was already well established and would go on to even greater things) and future (Derek CASUALTY Thompson, Paul Freeman in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Kevin McNally in PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, Pierce Brosnan in James Bond, Alan Ford in everything) as well as a few well-known BritHorror faces (Patti Love was the witch in Norman J Warren's TERROR, Karl Howman from EXPOSE). Towering over all of these, in presence if not stature, is a career-making performance from Bob Hoskins. Already famous for starring in the BBC's PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (and ON THE MOVE!) this was his breakthrough role, giving him worldwide fame and deservedly so.

Arrow's Blu-ray transfer looks so good anyone familiar with this film will uttering gasps of delight at pretty much every scene. It's become a bit of a cliche in the age of Blu-ray but this film really has never looked this good. Extras on the single disc (Blu-ray and DVD) edition include a John MacKenzie commentary, a making of, a US and UK soundtrack comparison, separate interviews with producer Barry Hanson, Barrie Keeffe and DP Phil Meheux, as well as a collector's booklet with new writing on the film.

There's also a massive 6 disc (!) limited edition box set which will be coming out a little later. Disc 1 is the same as the above. Disc 2 includes the best horror film ever made for children. John MacKenzie directed APACHES, the 1970s public information film about how easy it was to die on the farm, and it scarred a generation of schoolchildren, myself included, when it was shown to ten years olds in rural areas of the UK. I can't think of a better extra on a set like this and full marks to whoever it was at Arrow who thought of it. You also get a lot more interview footage and a Q&A with Bob Hoskins and John MacKenzie. The rest of the set will comprise Neil Jordan's MONA LISA (which will also receive a separate release and will be reviewed later). This set will also come with a 100 page hardback book that includes a touching introduction from Michael Brooke about its star.
            I've always loved British crime films, from Val Guest's HELL IS A CITY to GET CARTER and beyond. THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY is one of the very best of a tradition that strove to portray the criminal existence as bleak, grim, unforgiving and utterly unglamorous. Whereas the Hollywood mainstream strove to suggest there might be some honour amongst thieves, the UK concentrated on rubbing audiences' nose in the harsh realities of a life of mistrust, violence, thuggery and betrayal. I cannot think of a better film to be deserving of the care and attention Arrow have lavished on this. One of the releases of this or any year.

Arrow Films are putting out THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY in a dual format region B Blu-ray and region 2 DVD edition steelbook (see the top of the page) which came out on Monday 4th May. The six disc set (see the bottom picture) comes out on Monday 18th May

Tuesday 5 May 2015

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

After achieving huge international success with A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984), Wes Craven did his best to push the self-destruct button on an already chequered career by directing the pretty poor made for TV movie CHILLER (1985) and the dreadful made for nothing better than the celluloid recycling bin DEADLY FRIEND (1986). Those of us who had lost faith (and indeed several friends to whom we had recommended these post ELM STREET disasters without checking out their awfulness first) were consequently somewhat relieved when THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW didn’t turn out to be as awful as THE HILLS HAVE EYES II (1984) or  SWAMP THING (1982) or MY SOUL TO TAKE (2010) or

I’m probably being a bit unfair, but suffice to say with a Wes Craven film, you never know if you’re going to get cinematic gold like THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) or SCREAM (1996) or, well, most of his other films. Anyway, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW has just had a new DVD and Blu-ray release courtesy of Fabulous Films and it’s one of the movies on Craven’s filmography that’s definitely worth a look.

Anthropologist Bill Pullman gets sent to Haiti by horror legend Michael Gough to seek out the drug used for zombification, the quite reasonable rationale being that it could be used in anaesthesia, saving millions of lives and making millions of dollars for company boss Paul Guilfoyle. In his attempts to find the secret, Pullman ends up having a serious run in with local police chief and all-round voodoo villain Zakes Mokae, who hammers a nail through Pullman's scrotum to prove he means business and, when that doesn’t prove a sufficient deterrent, he gives Pullman a dose of the drug and arranges for him to be buried alive. Bill gets out, though, and ends up battling Mokae in a dreamworld face off.

THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, while worth a look, is not an entirely satisfactory film. Based on a non-fiction account by anthropologist Wade Davis of his actual attempts to secure the 'zombie drug', the film feels as if it wants to be a docudrama but someone keeps poking at it with an exploitation stick. As a result we get some excellent nightmarish sequences, a sex scene, and climax that feels very ELM STREET indeed, but all these bits sit uneasily with the rest of the film. The opening suggests a troubled production, with voiceovers to cover the cracks in the editing, but fans of Craven’s (good) work should stick with it and they’ll be rewarded.

Fabulous Films offers THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but the print looks like it hasn’t been subject to any tidying up since the 1980s. I cannot believe there aren’t some amazing stories to tell about the location shooting and why the film came out feeling rather jumbled, but sadly there’s no commentary track or making of here, just a trailer. 

Fabulous Films released Wes Craven's 
and Region B Blu-ray on 20th April 2015