Sunday 27 September 2015

Space:1999 Season 2 (1976)

Ah, SPACE:1999 SEASON 2 - the sometimes embarrassing younger brother to the occasionally elegant season one. In fact, if it were not for a few of the same actors, one could easily be forgiven for thinking this second series was actually an Italian rip-off of the original, with different sets, some outrageous fashions, and an anything-goes approach to storytelling that frequently involved men in monster costumes banging each other over the heads with sticks. It’s hard to imagine a mid-1970s TV series of BARBERELLA looking much different to what we have on display here. Even Derek Wadsworth’s revamped music is reminiscent at points of Walter Rizzati’s music for Fulci’s HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY. Of course that doesn’t mean SPACE 1999: Season 2 isn’t fun. Quite the opposite, in fact - it feels like a more pumped up, racier, sexier version of the show that some may well prefer. And now here you get all twenty four episodes plus extras spread over six Blu-rays or DVDs. 

        The Metamorph is the first of five episodes on disc one and sets the tone for the rest of the series, There’s no explanation for why Moonbase Alpha looks entirely different, where Professor Bergman has gone or indeed any of the other Series One regulars who are noticeable by their absence. The subtlety of the foes to be encountered from hereon in is epitomised by the mighty BRIAN BLESSED who plans (very loudly and with unbelievable hairstyling) to use zombie Alphans to rebuild his dying planet. At least he has a sexy shapeshifter daughter they can rescue to become a regular character and extremely handy plot device. 
The Exiles features a dubbed Peter Duncan and a very short-skirt-wearing Stacy Dorning as 300 year-old villains determined to get their revenge on the people who banished them and their kind into space to wear dayglo red and yellow spandex uniforms forever. It’s a bit silly, but only just misses out on BritPulp perfection by not having Sheila Keith play the old lady who rules the planet.

In One Moment of Humanity a pre-OMEN Billie Whitelaw gets to call Barbara Bain a decrepit old hag as she and her android colleagues (created by Geoffrey Bayldon!) attempt to learn the emotion of hate so they can kill everyone. Or something. Maya turns into a parrot and there’s a dance routine choreographed by Lionel Blair. The plot is stupid, the dresses are ridiculously glamorous and everyone takes it very seriously. Was SPACE:1999 ever more Italian than this? 
All That Glisters features a trippy planet set and a daft tale of sentient rocks with guest star Patrick Mower boasting a terrible Irish accent and a silly hat. In Journey to Where, a transmat beam created by Texan scientists Freddie Jones and Isla Blair gets buggered by an earthquake, causing Commander Koenig, Dr Russell and Alan the Pilot to get transferred to the Planet of the Scotsmen instead of back to earth as planned. Both this and The Exiles are by Donald Jackson rewriting Season One scripter Johnny Byrne’s stories, and they do have a gloomier, more serious feel than some of the more cartoony stuff. 

Disc two offers the next five episodes. The Taybor features Willoughby Goddard, who looks like a vastly over-inflated George Woodbridge (from PIPKINS and Hammer Horrors) with pink hair. In The Rules of Luton, three members of Metallica chase Koenig and Maya around the BOY FROM SPACE quarry. Directed by Val Guest, this one’s probably most famous for getting its title from producer Fred Freiburger, who saw a road sign on his way to the studio & thought Luton sounded sufficiently otherworldly that he wrote this story under the name Charles Woodgrove. Maya is a stock footage lion in this one which is not so much intercut as quite obviously Somewhere Else. It’s still fun, though - a little like SPACE:1999’s equivalent of Fredric Brown’s Arena episode from the first season of STAR TREK. 
The Mark of Arkanon has the bodies of aliens John Standing and Michael Gallagher being discovered beneath the moon’s surface, with Standing suffering from a disease that turns him homicidal whenever the plot needs a bit of a boost. Brian the Brain is directed by Kevin FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE Connor and features Bernard Cribbins as a mad computer. New Adam New Eve guest stars Guy SARDONICUS Rolfe playing God by way of Jason King in a Terence Feely script directed by series one regular Charles Crichton. 

Disc three kicks off with Catacombs of the Moon. This feels more like a Series One episode with James Laurenson slowly being driven mad by visions of his sick wife (Pamela Stephenson) being burned alive as a heatwave threatens Alpha. Not a monster costume in sight and it’s actually a refreshing change. The AB Chrysalis features a naked Sarah Douglas wreathed in mist while Maya turns into a chlorine breathing monster. Seed of Destruction is another Kevin Connor-directed episode and features a naughty Koenig mirror image. The Beta Cloud is a daft but fun episode by “Charles Woodgrove” that has Dave Prowse in a monster suit crashing his way around Alpha in search of the base’s life support system. In Space Warp Koenig & Tony are trapped light years away from Alpha, where Maya has been put into restraints as she keeps turning into this week’s monsters. 

Disc four begins with A Matter of Balance, a fun episode about a planet of anti-matter beings trying to use pretty (and for some reason intermittently dubbed) Lynne Frederick to bring them back to reality. Then we get the two part Bringers of Wonder, which I reviewed here. After that it’s The Lambda Factor, with Deborah Fallender (from JABBERWOCKY) using her psychic powers to get her own way on Alpha. The disc concludes with The Seance Spectre with special guests Ken Hutchison and Carolyn Seymour.
On disc five we get Dorzak, guest starring Lee Montague as the evil Psychon of the title. Devil’s Planet features ladies in skin tight red uniforms wielding whips in an episode that could only have existed in the world of mid-1970s television. The Immunity Syndrome is a Johnny Byrne-written episode where the ghost of Nadim Sawalha recounts how his crew were killed by an unintentionally lethal creature. Finally there’s The Dorcons, with Patrick Troughton needing Maya's brainstem to keep him going.

Disc five also contains the first extra, which is a fascinating experiment where the season two episode Seed of Destruction has been recut to make it seem like a season one episode - complete with a Barry Gray score! The different music lends a majesty to the proceedings that they probably don’t deserve, and it certainly makes for an interesting viewing experience. 
Disc six has the rest of the extras, including a behind the scenes piece where Gerry Anderson seems tired, Barbara Bain comes across as more human and animated than she ever does in the series, and it seems to be a requisite to be smoking a fag while being interviewed. Cosmos:1999 is a charming animated short using Action Men to tell a Moonbase Alpha story about a roving monster. There’s a fun archive of stock footage of model shots, and Brian Johnson deservedly gets his own archive short detailing the model shop. There are also archive interviews with cast and crew, production audio for four episodes, a tiny outtake, and image galleries.

Most important of all in this set, though, is the quality of the transfers. All the episodes here look as pristine and beautifully restored as Season One, with the model work looking absolutely stunning in high definition. If you’re a fan of the show, or harbour nostalgic memories of it, this really is the best these episodes could possibly look. It’s difficult to believe they were shot in the mid 1970s as they look better than some modern-day television. Network have done another superb job with this. It’s been a long wait, but SPACE:1999 SEASON TWO is finally here and image quality-wise it’s definitely been worth the wait. 

Network are releasing SPACE:1999 SEASON TWO on Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray on 28th September 2015. If you order the Blu-ray set direct from Network here you have the chance to get some exclusive packaging. 

Sunday 20 September 2015

Rashomon (1950)

Akira Kurosawa’s revolutionary masterpiece gets a UK Blu-ray release in a restored version courtesy of the BFI. So influential was it that if you’ve never seen it before (and I’ll admit I hadn’t) there’s no way you can be as bowled over by it as 1950 audiences undoubtedly were, but it’s also still possible to appreciate the tremendous influence it had on the cinema that followed.

A woodcutter, a priest and a commoner meet during a downpour beneath the city gate that gives the film its title. The woodcutter and the priest tell the commoner of a murder trial they have had to testify in, in which a bandit encountered a samurai and his wife on a deserted stretch of road. The episode left the samurai dead and the wife in extreme distress. 

Both the bandit (who has subsequently been captured) and the wife testify in court and give very different accounts of what happened. We also hear from the dead samurai through the mouth of a medium and his story is different as well. Eventually it falls to the woodcutter to explain what really happened, which is nothing like what any of the three key participants in the story have claimed.

With its multiple viewpoint unreliable narrator narrative, RASHOMON’s influence has ranged from the Iain Pears novel An Instance of the Fingerpost to Bryan Singer’s film THE USUAL SUSPECTS and there’s even an episode of HAPPY DAYS that uses the device. In 1950, however, it was revolutionary, both as narrative form and in questioning the reliability of what a film-maker chooses to show us when telling a story. 

RASHOMON was remade as THE OUTRAGE with Paul Newman in the US, but the original has such a timelessness and peculiar sense of otherworldliness that it really is the version to see. One can even question if anything you have seen actually took place or whether the three men are simply passing the time telling each other variations of the same story until the rain stops.

The BFI restoration looks excellent, and comes with a new full length audio commentary by Stuart Galbraith IV. Galbraith also narrates a 34 minute documentary looking at the film’s key locations today. John Boorman looks a bit ill at ease in a six minute talking head piece where he describes the dinner he, David Lean and other directors of the period held in Kurosawa’s honour, and there’s the usual BFI booklet filled with excellent essays to top the package off. 

The BFI are releasing Akira Kurosawa's RASHOMON on 
Region B Blu-ray on 21st September 2015

Thursday 17 September 2015

The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959)

One of the more minor and neglected Hammer Horrors gets a UK Blu-ray and DVD combo release courtesy of Eureka.

What doctors get up to in their spare time. And why not?

We’re in Paris in the year 1890. Physician Dr Georges Bonnet spends his spare time sculpting busts of his lovers when he isn’t intermittently rotting, necessitating repeated covert trips to his safe to guzzle a green smoking fluid that seems to be in worryingly short supply. Georges is currently awaiting the arrival of his colleague Dr Ludwig Weiss (Arnold Marle) and with good reason: although he looks 35, Bonnet is actually 104 years old and has been kept young by an operation the now 89 year old Weiss has been performing at ten year intervals. The surgery involves the replacement of a made up gland which Bonnet obtains from a living victim before fleeing whichever country he happens to be living in at the time.

Of course, too much sculpting can lead to trouble

But this time there’s a problem: Weiss has had a stroke and can’t perform the procedure. Can Dr Pierre Gerrard (Christopher Lee) be persuaded to pop another gland into Georges? Or will he raise a disdainful eyebrow before telling the police everything he knows, leading to an inevitable fiery climax where Georges ages rapidly before an imprisoned Hazel Court’s very eyes?

If you do the operation I'll let you sing...

Reteaming many of the cast and crew responsible for Hammer’s worldwide megahits of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, if nothing else THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH emphasises just how vital Peter Cushing was to the magic Hammer formula. Crying off this one with the entirely reasonable excuse of exhaustion, the leading role instead fell to Anton Diffring, who in this has a habit of delivering his most impassioned speeches to the stalls rather than to the actor standing next to him. 

The Man Who Cheated the Green Death?

         The film’s biggest problems, however, are the script and the source material. A remake of Paramount’s THE MAN IN HALF MOON STREET, which in itself started life as a play, the film suffers from being very stagey and far too talky, with little opportunity for the kind of lurid and gory action Hammer was already becoming famous for. It’s not a terrible film by any means, but if you’re anything other than a Hammer completist you may find yourself looking at your watch from time to time.

…and the end titles will be along any second now.

Eureka’s Blu-ray transfer doesn’t give us quite as good-looking an image as the recent releases of THE MUMMY or any of Hammer’s other late 1950s classics, but Jack Asher’s vivid colour photography does shine nicely here. Extras consist of interviews with Kim Newman and Jonathan Rigby who both provide some nice background to the production as well as providing their own opinions as to how successful the Hammer version is. There’s also a nice booklet. 

Eureka Films are releasing Hammer's THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH on dual format Region B Blu-ray and Region 2 DVD on 21st September 2015

Monday 14 September 2015

The Tribe (2014)

The cover of this one (which you can see up there) includes a quote that suggests this one is ‘an experience everyone should have’. Having just watched THE TRIBE, a film in Ukranian sign language with no subtitles or voice over, with a grim premise and scenes of casual violence that will undoubtedly be upsetting to many, even I have to say that this particular comment is a bit misjudged. Don’t get me wrong - THE TRIBE is very good, highly original, and, by the time you get to the end of its 132 minutes, really quite devastating. But for everyone it most certainly is not.

We follow the adventures of new arrival Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) at a boarding school for deaf teenagers. After the usual initiation procedures of being repeatedly beaten up and having his money taken off him, Sergey is introduced to the main extra-curricular activities of the student body, which include prostitution. He makes the mistake of falling in love with one of the girls and so begins a spiral of jealousy and violence that can only end in the bleakest kind of horror.

THE TRIBE is a remarkable achievement. There is no dialogue and no music. The soundtrack consists entirely of everyday sounds (traffic noise, car horns, etc) as well as sex and crushing violence. Despite the film’s length, there are apparently only just over thirty separate shots, with much use made of what I presume was Steadicam to follow characters up and down stairs and in and out of corridors. It’s easy to follow the plot as there isn’t really that much of it, but one suspects there’s a lot more going on in the dialogue than most of us will ever be able to appreciate. 

Apparently the director didn’t know sign language and needed a translator on the set (there’s a behind the scenes featurette on the extras, as well as a couple of deleted scenes). I can believe this, because despite its fine performances and the affecting subject matter, it’s hard to feel too involved with what is going on. The viewer feels impartial to events, watching them taking place inside a goldfish bowl, and an unrelentingly depressing one at that.

So be warned - THE TRIBE is very good. But it is also bleak, depressing, and may well leave you in need of a good cheering up afterwards. It’s had a limited cinema run in the UK and is now out from Metrodome on DVD. Approach with caution. 

THE TRIBE is out on Region 2 DVD from Metrodome from 14th September 2015

Saturday 12 September 2015

Hard to be a God (2013)

A few years ago I remember reading a newspaper article about a journalist who had infiltrated a film set. This was no ordinary set, however, and it was not for any ordinary film. An entire village had been constructed, if you were part of the cast you were expected to live there, and filming had already been going on for three years. I have the oddest feeling the film in question was Aleksei German’s HARD TO BE A GOD, which is just about to get a Blu-ray release from Arrow Films after a short cinema run.

Every now and then you find yourself watching a film that you know is something different, something special, something entirely original. I don’t mean that it has a novel plot idea or showcases the latest developments in special effects. I mean something entirely unique, something you know could not possibly exist without a degree of dedication to its creation bordering on the pathological. Werner Herzog’s AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD comes to mind, or perhaps Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW. 
HARD TO BE A GOD is one of those films.

I don’t really know how to describe it, but here we go: it’s three hours long, black and white, Russian, and is based on a book by those masters of the science fiction novel, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Probably the most famous adaptation of their work is STALKER by Andrei Tarkovsky, a version of their book Roadside Picnic that takes longer to watch than to read the book. Oddly enough the same is probably true of HARD TO BE A GOD.

On the planet Arkanar, which resembles the muddiest, filthiest, shittiest Middle Ages Terry Gilliam could ever come up with, the Renaissance has been repressed. Intellectuals are drowned in faeces and there is general resistance to any form of progress. A group of scientists travel to Arkanar with the intention of helping the locals out of their developmental rut. They are forbidden from participating in local politics and aren’t allowed to use force in any way. Met with resistance at every turn and caught in a battle between two opposing factions, it becomes apparent that ‘godlike’ intervention may in fact be impossible.

HARD TO BE A GOD is remarkable for many reasons, but it’s certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. The film is packed with detail (most of it covered in mud) and the sheer number of participating cast members is overwhelming at times. The use of a hand-held subjective camera means you’re often in the thick of the filth, with locals leering at you, waving chicken legs in your face and so on. Don’t expect rapid plot development - after an hour I was still wondering if anything was actually going to happen, or if we were just going to be subjected to another two hours of people up to their armpits in muck.

The film rewards sticking with it, though, and by the time you get to the end you actually want to watch it again and again, if only to catch all the detail you will have missed the first time around. A bit like the grungiest, grimmest, and most mental fantasy film you will ever see (the SF is really nominal), there really is nothing else like HARD TO BE A GOD & I can’t imagine there being anything like it anytime soon.
Arrow’s Blu-ray comes with interviews with the director’s son and Svetlana Karmalita, the director’s widow and co-screenwriter (German himself is no longer with us). Aleksei German’s career is profiled in a valuable featurette by Michael Brooke, and Daniel Bird offers an appreciation of the film. You also get an image gallery, trailer and reversible sleeve. Oh, and of course the monochrome photography looks stunning on Blu-ray. 

HARD TO BE A GOD is out on Region 2 DVD and Region B 
Blu-ray on 14th September 2015

Thursday 10 September 2015

The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973)

If Terry Gilliam had been given free reign to direct an Amicus anthology film, or if he had made a version of his own TIME BANDITS but from a much more adult perspective, the result might have been much like Wojciech Has’ THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM, now given a top notch restoration and released on Blu-ray in the UK by Mr Bongo Films.

A rotting train filled with weird and possibly dying characters brings our hero to his destination - the ‘sanatorium’ of the title. The train is manned by a blind conductor who pops up in the narrative at various intervals, a little bit like this film’s equivalent of Dr Terror. 

Jozef, the central character, has come to the sanatorium to see his dead and dying father. It’s possible for the old man to exist in two states because, as the crumbling hospital’s only doctor sort-of explains, time runs differently inside the building, and while Jozef’s father may have died in the ‘real’ world, in here he is only sleeping.

As if to prove the point, Jozef looks out of the window of his father’s hospital room to see Jozef himself arriving. This time, however, instead of entering as he did before, he is guided by a young boy in a sailor suit to another part of the building, and there begin his adventures.

I can’t possibly explain what THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM is all about. We seem to start in Jozef’s childhood as the grown Jozef meets his mother again, enquires after his father and then ends up in what feels like the Jewish equivalent of Sunday School. After that it becomes increasingly disjointed but is no less fabulous for that. Indeed, while you may not understand what’s going on here, there’s no doubting the creativity on display as Josef encounters sexy women, broken automatons, a room full of stuffed birds, a paddle steamer lying rotting in the countryside and much, much more. 

Based on the works of Bruno Schulz, THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM is a weird and fabulous journey through a world of history and nightmare, with the constant theme of time being an abstract concept that can be altered to suit the needs of story.

Mr Bongo’s Blu-ray restoration of THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM looks absolutely wonderful, and is a huge improvement on the previous DVD release. There are no extras but it’s just a delight to have this remarkable film preserved in a high definition medium. 

Mr Bongo Films released Wojciech Has' THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM on Region B Blu-ray on 7th September 2015

Sunday 6 September 2015

Fellini's Casanova (1976)

Wild, weird, fabulously creative and never less than colourful, Federico Fellini’s film of the life of the infamous eighteenth century self-confessed alchemist, spy, philosopher, politician, economist, gambler and eroticist comes to Blu-ray courtesy of the curiously-named Mr Bongo Films.

Starting with Casanova being employed to satisfy a young lady in an isolated mausoleum while her husband spies them through the eye of a wall-mounted fish, our hero is subsequently arrested and thrown in jail. After learning of a few past (and on the whole rather weird) amorous adventures, from there we follow him as he travels the courts of eighteenth century Europe, finding them all to exist in varying degrees of Fellini-esque insanity until he reaches the end of his life in the employ of a nobleman who has Reggie Nalder for a butler.

FELLINI’S CASANOVA (the literal translation of the Italian onscreen title here) is over two and a half hours long, but the running time absolutely breezes by. There is so much to see and marvel at, and Donald Sutherland’s central performance in the title role is as endearing as it is astounding. The movie is considered by many to be one of the best of the 1970s and I cannot argue with that. The production design is amazing, as are the costumes, and fortunately there’s enough madness to stop CASANOVA from becoming an expensive-looking drag.

Oh yes, the madness. I’ll admit I’ve never warmed to Fellini - I even had trouble getting through his Toby Dammit segment of HISTOIRES EXTRAORDINAIRES. CASANOVA, however, might well be the most accessible of his work. Certainly I’d suggest it as a starting point for the beginner (which I consider myself to be, really). CASANOVA has been compared to the works of Ken Russell, but if so then it’s a more (gasp!) restrained Ken than the glamour-fuelled lunacy of something like LISZTOMANIA. 

Fans of 1970s cult film and TV will have fun spotting numerous familiar faces. As well as Reggie Nalder, a key role is played by Tina Aumont (from Sergio Martino’s TORSO), John Karlsen (ASYLUM EROTICA) plays a rich nobleman, as does Daniel Emilfork (the devil from Jean Brismee's 1971 THE DEVILS NIGHTMARE) and even Nicholas Smith - Mr Rumbold from ARE YOU BEING SERVED - turns up playing Casanova’s brother. Add in such visually arresting wonders such as a sea made from bin liners and a deliriously insane organ-playing scene near the end, Fellini’s usual collection of dwarfs and giants (yes there’s a circus interlude), and a wine-carrying contest that seems to have been inspired by popular TV series IT’S A KNOCKOUT and you have the recipe for a fine evening of delirious entertainment.

Note that so far I have not mentioned how erotic the film is. That’s because, despite the title and subject matter, it isn’t. Not one jot. Anything to do with sex in this film is approached with a Gilliamesque accent on the grotesque, combined with a comedy approach that makes something like  CARRY ON BEHIND look like a masterwork of erotic subtlety. The ever-present twirly clockwork bird, the silly music and the endless bouncing around will do little to satisfy anyone buying this film in the hope of titillation. Did I mention Chesty Morgan is in this?

Mr Bongo’s Blu-ray looks lovely, and does superb justice to Danilo Donati’s jaw-dropping costume and production design. The running time of the version here is 154 minutes. There don’t appear to be any extras, but just having this lengthy and superbly decadent Fellini film on Blu-ray is joy enough. And I never thought I’d ever find myself saying that. 

Mr Bongo is releasing Federico Fellini's CASANOVA on Blu-ray on 7th September 2015

Friday 4 September 2015

Nightmare City (1980)

Now here’s a blast from the past, and a film that I never thought I would see on Blu-ray. Yet here it is, shamelessly restored and given the best makeover possible (with plenty of extras) by Arrow. If you’re a fan you’ve probably already got this. If not

NIGHTMARE CITY is utter bloody silliness from ‘Mr Entertainment’ himself, Umberto Lenzi, and is one of the many Italian films that were made as a result of the success of George Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD in Italy. In this case the zombies aren’t actually dead, just ‘contaminated with radiation’. Apparently this means they have to keep drinking fresh blood, although usually all they seem to do is practice that recurring peculiar Italian zombie habit of taking one big bite out of someone before moving on to the next victim. 

Lenzi tries to make things a bit different by making his zombies fast moving and adept at using machine guns and other weapons. The film actually starts quite well, with the arrival of an aeroplane full of radiation victims at an airport and the ensuing mayhem is lots of fun. Unfortunately a flagging pace, too many heavy handed philosophical interludes, the presence of charisma bypass victim Hugo Stiglitz as the hairy hero, and an ending that is bleak, silly, contrived and poorly executed - all at the same time - ultimately drag this little potboiler into the bulging file marked ‘daft’.

That hasn’t stopped Arrow pulling out all the stops on this one, though. For a start you get two versions of the film - one with higher resolution but a few yellow blotches and stains now and then, and one that has a softer picture but looks cleaner overall. The reasons for these two versions are explained in detail in a brief featurette that should hopefully satisfy anyone finding Arrow’s exhaustive attempts at restoring this to be wanting.

Audio-wise there are Italian and English dub tracks, and a brand new, almost pathologically enthusiastic commentary track from Fangoria editor Chris Alexander. You also get a new interview with Umberto Lenzi, one with star Maria Rosario Omaggio, a trailer, and Eli Roth talking Lenzi in general and NIGHTMARE CITY in particular. Both he and Chris Alexander exhibit a love for this film that I’ll admit I find a little mystifying, but if you love this film as much as they do, you’re going to be delighted with Arrow’s presentation of it. 

Arrow Films released Umberto Lenzi's NIGHTMARE CITY on dual format Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray on 24th August 2015