Thursday 29 October 2015

Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box Set

Warning: Before reading what follows, it is only fair that I point out that the subject of this review, Arrow's HELLRAISER Scarlet Box set, is already sold out. It is of course quite conceivable that each film will be released separately at a future date, and so I've decided to press ahead and review the set anyway. 
The 1980s was the time of the horror franchise: from the lunatic incoherence of the FRIDAY THE 13ths to the originality and creativity of some of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series; from the never-ending PUPPET MASTER series to the we-quickly-wished-they-would-end HALLOWEEN movies. I think it's something to be proud of that Britain was the country to come up with the only successful horror franchise to be inspired by sado-masochism, body modification, and sexual perversion. Oh yes, HELLRAISER, despite being funded with American money (and having some dodgy dubbing of bit parts to aid in the midlantic feel), was British through and through. And weren't we all proud when it and our very own Clive Barker took the festival circuit by storm? 

Time has weathered HELLRAISER a little. The cracks show a little more now. It's still a great, timeless, story, and the opening half an hour is beautifully put together. It becomes in danger of losing its focus towards the end, but it still deserves its reputation as a classic, with iconic monsters, a superb central performance from Clare Higgins, and one of the best horror movie scores of all time. I still love HELLRAISER, and in 1988 I couldn't wait to see the sequel.

"So awful you'll have to watch it twice just to check you haven't made a mistake" said Shock Express of HELLRAISER II, just after I had gone to see it at the cinema for the second time to make sure I hadn’t made a mistake in thinking how awful it was.. There are many who like this sequel & I'm probably in the minority but the other comment I remember from Shock Express 'Like a really bad Italian rip-off of the original HELLRAISER' still rings true to me. The script makes little sense (actor Kenneth Cranham admitted he didn't have any idea what was going on) there's some duff acting in amidst Higgins and Cranham, and a curiously empty version of hell. Even Christopher Young’s score sounds like someone ripping off Christopher Young with an orchestra much larger than they should have been allowed to play with.

"Far better than it had any right to be" is my period quote for HELLRAISER III, a film I still have a lot of time for. Cheerfully 'franchise part 3 material' in nature, cleverly including backstory with the Kirsty Cotton tape, and literally raising hell on the streets of LA, Anthony Hickox's sequel is just ambitious enough to stay interesting without lurching into the wild incoherence of part II. And that final shot is still an absolute cracker.
Arrow's four disc set is packed with extras. Disc 1 (HELLRAISER) gives us two audio commentaries from Clive Barker, and then Barker with Ashley Laurence. You get ex-Coil member Stephen Thrower telling us about the band's discarded score, including some snippets and some pleasant reminscencing about his association with Clive Barker. Leviathan is an enormous, lengthy, detailed documentary about the making of the films that has been edited down into more easily digestible 90 minute chunks over the first two discs. Sean Chapman talks about his role in both movies, here and on disc 2, as does Doug Bradley. There's also a wealth of archive featurettes, trailers, the screenplay and an image gallery

Disc 2 (HELLRAISER II) gives us two commentaries (Tony Randel & Peter Atkins, then both with Ashley Laurence), more Leviathan, more Sean Chapman and Doug Bradley, more archive featurettes and interviews, plus the script, trailers and an image gallery. You also get (in 4:3 and taken from VHS one presumes) the missing 'surgeon scene' which is very much in the same tone as the rest of the film, so completists will no doubt be delighted at its inclusion. 
Disc 3 gives you two versions of HELLRAISER III, just like the previous Anchor Bay DVD set did - the 'original theatrical' and an unrated version with all the cut material restored from a lesser quality pan and scanned master. There's a brand new commentary from writer Peter Atkins as well as a ported over commentary from Anthony Hickox & Doug Bradley. We also get ported over interviews, featurettes, more Doug Bradley, a new interview with Paula Marshall, and a thirty minute making of amongst others.

Disc 4 was not provided for review, but apparently offers Clive Barker's shorts SALOME & THE FORBIDDEN, which everyone has probably seen by now. There’s a documentary on Barker’s literary work, and most interestingly, a brand new documentary looking at some of the other films in the series, including director interviews. 
The entire set also comes with a 200-page hardback book with new writing on HELLRAISER, lots of stills and more. Very finally, a word on the transfers. Both HELLRAISER and HELLRAISER II have quite a lot of grain in the prints, especially in some of the darker scenes. In fact when compared with previous releases Anchor Bay’s DVDs actually look better. Turning down the resolution on HD TVs will help immensely with the ‘problem’. HELLRAISER III, on the other hand, just looks great. 

Arrow Films released HELLRAISER: THE SCARLET BOX on 26th October 2015 in such a limited edition is has already sold out. Let's hope the individual films get releases soon. 

Wednesday 21 October 2015

The Black Cat (1981)

Here we go with the second in Arrow’s Black Cat Box Set of Italian films inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tale of horror. This time it’s the turn of Lucio Fulci to show us what he can do with the story, dragging regular director of photography Sergio Salvati and actors Al ‘I’m in everything’ Cliver and Daniela ‘I bet I die horribly in this’ Doria along with the rest of his gang to a sleepy English village to make his own version of THE BLACK CAT. 

Up to no good with a cat in a bag

So what’s it all about? Ah, well as with so much Italian horror of the period THE BLACK CAT isn’t terribly easy to summarise, but basically bonkers Patrick Magee uses his powerful mind to take over a cat who does some murders for him for the most ridiculous of reasons (‘Don’t try to understand,’ says Magee at one point, and we should respect that) and then rebels against its master, particularly after he tries to hang it. It’s actually not a bad film at all with that curious Euro-horror view of England as a place of open tombs in the middle of fields and fog-strewn graveyards (beautifully lit by the way). 

Mimsy & Patrick face off

There’s some marvellous dialogue (“Could be worse,” says Detective David Warbeck to Sergeant Al at one point, “It could be chicken rustling”), and Daniela Doria does indeed once again end up naked and horribly dead, this time by suffocation and then being eaten by rats.  Most amazing of all is Fulci’s direction of the cat which is quite incredibly good for a low budget film, especially if anyone remembers what a balls-up Denis Heroux did with multiple moggies in THE UNCANNY. You will believe a cat can unlock a door! Pino Donaggio’s music score is great, and reminiscent of the other impressive work he was doing at the time with conductor Natale Massara for THE HOWLING & DRESSED TO KILL.

Daniela dies again!

Arrow’s Blu-ray presentation is glorious - a huge improvement on the previous Shameless DVD release which was itself a revelation to those of us who had only previously seen THE BLACK CAT in its pan-and-scan VTC VHS tape incarnation which was all close-ups of people’s noses and scenes where you had absolutely no idea what was going on. The image here is just perfect, and you get both Italian and English language soundtrack options. 

"This film is all about me!"

Stephen Thrower leads off with the extras, giving us an informative talking head piece on the making of the movie, how it fits into Fulci’s filmography, and some useful information on the personnel involved. We stick with Mr Thrower for ‘In the Paw Prints of the Black Cat’ where he visits some of the locations used in the film as they are today. There’s also a new interview with cast member Dagmar Lassandar and an archive interview with the late David Warbeck. You also get an audio commentary from Chris Alexander, a trailer and a reversible sleeve. A lovely presentation of this unjustly neglected Fulci movie from Arrow. 

Arrow Films released Lucio Fulci's THE BLACK CAT on dual format Region 2 DVD & Region B Blu-ray as part of their BLACK CAT box set on 19th October 2015

Sunday 18 October 2015

Your Vice Is A Locked Room & Only I Have the Key (1972)

Arrow's box set of two very different (but equally bonkers) Italian movie adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe's story The Black Cat kicks off with this giallo from Sergio Martino. I reviewed the film itself a couple of years ago on House of Mortal Cinema, so for starters here’s a reprise of that write-up. I’ll be back after to tell you about the new edition.

Typical goings-on at any writer's house

The title is a line from a previous Ernesto Gastaldi - Sergio Martino collaboration, THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS WARDH and then we’re off into a story that is, according to the credits, based loosely on The Black Cat. If Edgar Allan Poe had a penchant for crates of J&B, attractive ladies wearing very little, and motorcycle racing this could have been the most faithful adaptation of the story yet. Somehow, though, I suspect that he didn’t, although he might have enjoyed the decadent party held by decadent writer Oliviero Rouvigny (Luigi Pistilli) that opens the movie. 

Cormorant's nest plus knife = bad news

Luigi lives in a lovely old mansion in the country where he hosts bizarre soirees that allows Sergio Martino to cram in both nude dancing (a tiny part for FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN and PHENOMENA’s Dalila de Lazzarro) and a horrible hippy song into the first ten minutes. Luigi is married to Irene (Anita Strindberg). His heavy drinking and womanising ways have caused her hairstyle to take on the appearance of a cormorant’s nest, and not a very house proud cormorant at that. Luigi’s having an affair with one of his ex-students from his teaching past who now works in a local bookshop. Romantic old devil that he is, he arranges to meet her in the local quarry after dark. 


Those of us who have seen this sort of thing before know that the chap in the far distance wearing black gloves and wielding a machete isn’t there for a bit of chiselling and pretty soon we’re witness to the first of several gory murders, including  Luigi’s maid and a local prostitute. During all this Luigi drinks J&B, strokes his black cat ‘Satan’, drinks more J&B, beats Irene, and drinks yet more J&B. In fact the stuff is delivered to his house by the crate load by motorcycle scrambling enthusiast Dario (Riccardo Salvino). 

More Lovely

Half an hour in and disgruntled Edwige Fenech fans may be wondering where the top billed actress has got to. She finally appears and sets about getting into bed with almost everyone in the cast, including Dario, who manages to charm her into his sleeping bag in a dusty old attic after one especially muddy escapade while Luigi watches from the shadows. Ivan Rassimov, in black leather coat and grey wig, has been watching from the shadows occasionally throughout the picture as well, but it won't be until just before the end that we get to find out why he’s there. By then naughty old Satan the cat has eaten Irene’s doves and had his eye cut out in homage to Poe, and we’ve had the typical final giallo fifteen minutes of everything going completely crazy before almost everyone ends up dead. Of course I’m not going to tell you who the killer is because that would spoil half the fun, suffice to say that the climax is every bit as wonderfully mad as giallo fans the world over have come to love.

J&B Plus Black Cat and Still Not Happy

YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM isn’t the best of Martino’s gialli - that’s always going to be TORSO, with STRANGE VICE close behind, but it is worth watching for the ever lovely Edwige Fenech and one of Bruno Nicolai’s best scores. In an interview Martino has said that this is a movie about provincial Italy and the film certainly has a different, gloomier, less glamorous feel than more cosmopolitan fare such as ALL THE COLOURS OF THE DARK. The title doesn’t have any relevance to the story, the murders are horrible, the women are beautiful, the music is great and there are more shots of J&B in the first twenty minutes than in the whole running time of any other giallo (probably). What’s not to like? In fact, what’s not to love?

Too Much J&B Plus Cormorant's Nest Plus Knife = Giallo!

Arrow’s Region B Blu-ray offers us a lovely transfer of YOUR VICE, with both Italian and English language tracks. There are also some decent extras, including a half-hour interview with the director where he talks about the making of the film, and what it was like to work with various members of the cast and crew, including stars Fenech and Pistilli and composer Bruno Nicolai. There’s a half-hour talking head piece on the career of Edwige Fenech by a very enthusiastic chap accompanied by appropriate clips and photographs. A making of featurette has been ported over from the Region 1 NoShame release. Add in a piece on the gialli of Sergio Martino and a chance to hear what Eli Roth thinks of the film and this is a winning package from Arrow. 

Arrow Films are releasing Sergio Martino's YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM & ONLY I HAVE THE KEY on Dual Format Region B Blu-ray and Region 2 DVD as part of their BLACK CAT Box Set on the 19th of October 2015

Friday 16 October 2015

The Skull (1965)

We finally get a bit of classic Amicus on Blu-ray in the UK as THE SKULL comes out in a dual-format presentation from Eureka. It’s well known that Amicus’ forte was the telling of short horror stories on the big screen, usually in the anthology format that became their trademark. When they tried to expand a short story to a ninety minute length the results weren’t as successful - AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS is a ponderous version of David Case’s novella Fengriffen, and THE SKULL is a (very) padded out version of a Robert Bloch short story.

That doesn’t mean THE SKULL is a bad film, though. In fact, far from it. Saddled with a script that lasted 50 minutes at best, director Freddie Francis proves to be one of the real stars of this one by giving us plenty of atmosphere and interestingly lit scenes that don’t feel like padding unless it’s pointed out. I haven’t mentioned what plot there is because to be honest there isn’t much, but here we go:
Anthropologist Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing) acquires the skull of the Marquis de Sade from sleazy dealer Anthony Marco (Patrick Wymark). Maitland’s friend and rival in All Things Expensive & Satanic Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) warns him that evil invisible forces seek to worship the skull and will cause him no end of trouble. Maitland goes mad and eventually ends up as the skull’s latest victim.

The joy of the first half of THE SKULL lies in the deliciousness that British horror cinema of the period was capable of. The design and dressing of Cushing’s study is a Jamesian delight, filled with books, dried specimens and weird paraphernalia, and Freddie Francis makes the most of what he’s given. It’s also a sheer pleasure to enjoy the interplay of the talents of Cushing, Lee and Wymark, with added Michael Gough, Nigel Green and Patrick Magee for good measure. The flashback scenes have a decent cemetery set and good old George Coulouris as well.  

It’s the second half of the film where THE SKULL runs out of dialogue (and script, one suspects) that it actually moves from a delight to something weirder and more interesting. Cushing’s descent into madness and horror relies not just on his acting, but excellent use of lighting, sound effects, and a great discordant Schoenberg-like music score from Elizabeth Lutyens. People who don’t get these sorts of films may laugh at the floaty skull, but those of us who first watched THE SKULL at midnight on a BBC double bill will probably remember how unnerving all of this can feel under the right conditions. Hammer were the best at gory period horror, but Amicus often gave us stuff that was more interesting, even if it was more by accident than design, and THE SKULL is very interesting indeed.
Eureka’s Blu-ray & DVD set comes with just over forty minutes of extras in the form of interviews with Jonathan Rigby and Kim Newman, both of whom take sufficiently different angles in their approach to talking about the film that they’re both well worth watching. An excellent package  - now can we have Blu-rays of THE BIRTHDAY PARTY and THE PSYCHOPATH? 

Amicus' THE SKULL is being released on dual format Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray on 26th October 2015 by Eureka

Saturday 10 October 2015

The Naked Prey (1965)

An acknowledged classic of Extreme Cinema that was itself influenced by horror (1932‘s THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME) and undoubtedly went on to influence the cannibal movie subgenre of the 1970s and early 1980s, Cornel Wilde’s remarkable man vs nature picture comes to UK Blu-ray courtesy of Eureka.

Africa in the mid 1800s. Two men (called only ‘Man’ and ‘Man 2’) set out on a hunting expedition for ivory, armed with rifles and accompanied by bearers. When they encounter a tribe on their travels, Man 2 (Gert Van Der Berg) refuses to part with the trinkets that would maintain good relations. Insulted, the tribe capture the party and subject them to barbaric tortures. The last of these is reserved for Man 1 (Wilde) who is released into the jungle wearing only the briefest of loincloths to be hunted by a group of tribal warriors.

The by-then well-worn tale of hunter becomes the hunted is given a surprisingly brutal and gritty spin by Cornel Wilde, who also produces and directs as well as stars in this. Animal lovers should beware as the film includes footage of animals being killed by man (specifically elephants being shot in stock culling footage) as well as animals killing other animals (including some bizarre toad cannibalism). In fact, Wilde uses every possible opportunity to emphasise the dispassionate cruelty of the environment in which his character finds himself. At the same time, the hunters who pursue him are actually treated with respect, being given individual personalities and a sense of honour that’s quite exceptional for a ‘jungle potboiler’ of the period.

There’s very little dialogue in the film, and the music is entirely traditional African drums. If you have a surround sound system the constant chittering of insects and sounds of animals will make you admire sound design that was created before that term even existed. Possibly the only bit that in retrospect isn't quite right  is all the torture scenes, which feel much more Pan Book of Horror than genuine African practice. Mind you, they are extremely effective, which is undoubtedly what Wilde was striving for above all else. 

Eureka’s Blu-ray looks exceptional, with the widescreen landscape shots looking absolutely gorgeous. It does mean there’s a more obvious grating transition to the stock footage bits, but that’s not even a quibble, really. You also get a good half an hour talking head piece from Sheldon Hall where he discusses Wilde’s career up to THE NAKED PREY. 

A ruthless masterwork that still makes for affecting viewing over fifty years after it was made, THE NAKED PREY has finally been given the treatment it deserves in this excellent dual format uncut edition. Seriously excellent stuff. 

Cornel Wilde's THE NAKED PREY is being released on Dual Format Region 2 DVD & Region B Blu-ray on 19th October 2015

Sunday 4 October 2015

The Passage (2014)

Going under the much-more-easily-searchable title of LEMON TREE PASSAGE in other territories, and also screening under that title at Frightfest a couple of years ago, David Campbell’s Australian ghost story hits UK DVD courtesy of Metrodrome.

A quartet of American teenagers travelling through Australia meet up with a couple of local kids on a beach. One of them, Oscar, tells them the campfire story of Lemon Tree Passage, which is allegedly haunted by the ghost of a careful motorcyclist knocked off his bike by a car full of teenagers and which now appears under similar circumstances. Oscar convinces the teens to drive fast down the road and sure enough a strange light appears. That’s not enough for them, though, and Oscar decides to stand in the road to confront the apparition when they once again speed down the road.

Oscar disappears, later turning up dead in the boot of the car, which stops working. The kids find themselves trapped in the forest and at the mercy of something which has nothing to do with the story they have been told, even though it seems to be of similar supernatural origin.
THE PASSAGE is a bit of a mess. It wants to be a ghost movie that second-guesses you but what should actually be a straightforward piece of storytelling ends up muddled and confused such that it becomes rather difficult to follow. I don’t want to give too much away in case you want to see it for yourselves, but by the end I could appreciate that this was some sort of rape revenge movie, but I still had no idea if one or either of two important characters had anything to do with it or not. 
        Apart from that THE PASSAGE is reasonably well made and the performances aren’t bad. The disc provided was a screener so I can’t comment on if there were any extras. 

THE PASSAGE is out on Region 2 DVD from Metrodome on 
5th October 2015

Friday 2 October 2015

The Green Man (1990)

The BBC’s three-part version of Kingsley Amis’ 1969 experimental genre-mixing novel gets a DVD release courtesy of Simply Media. Anyone coming to it blind, solely on the basis of the title, and expecting a serial filled with Pagan and Machenesque influences are going to be disappointed. If, however, you’re familiar with the novel you’ll know to expect a not-entirely-straightforward ghost story.

Heavy drinker Maurice Allington owns and manages The Green Man, a posh country hotel outside Cambridge. He lives there with his second wife Joyce, teenaged daughter Amy, and his elderly father. Maurice’s life revolves around how many of the middle-aged female clientele he can get in to bed (or at least, how many he wants to). His plan to involve Joyce in a threesome with local doctor’s wife Diana (who he meets up with for illicit rendezvous in what must be an unseasonably warm forest) gets interrupted by what seem to be supernatural goings-on at the inn.

The hotel dates back to the fourteenth century, but it’s the seventeenth century owner, Thomas Underhill, who seems to want to get in touch with Maurice. Underhill was a Cambridge scholar who dabbled in the occult and was rumoured to have killed his wife. As Maurice’s life becomes an increasingly alcohol-fuelled haze he finds himself digging up Underhill’s grave at midnight, in bed with two women, and in danger of losing everything he holds dear.

An interesting mix of Jamesian ghost story and bedroom-hopping comedy romp, with a hint of a more disturbing sexual subtext beneath, the BBC’s version of THE GREEN MAN does a fine job of melding the different storylines and switching tones without any of them disrupting the other. This is of course, in part, due to a fine cast, many of whom have an excellent exploitation pedigree. Albert Finney (WOLFEN - I bet that never normally gets cited as one of his credits in reviews) has all the gravitas to lead us through Maurice’s story, and he’s ably supported by Linda Marlowe (BIG ZAPPER and ZAPPER’S BLADE OF VENGEANCE), Nicky Henson (PSYCHOMANIA!) and Sarah Berger (the BBC’s THE CRUCIBLE from 1980). 

The direction is admirably restrained for the most part, resisting the urge to make the sex comedy bits too Benny Hill but giving us some very pleasing scary trees and all the stuff in the graveyard is just fine, as is Michael Culver’s portrayal of the cadaverous Dr Underhill, who looks as if he could have just stepped out of an unfilmed Amicus follow-up to FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE. 
         Simply Media’s DVD is bare bones, with no extras at all other than subtitles. 

Simply Media are releasing the BBC's version of 
THE GREEN MAN on Region 2 DVD on the 5th October 2015