Thursday 31 March 2016

Doomwatch (1970 - 1972)

Coming across like a more adult, more eco-angry version of Jon Pertwee-era DR WHO, all the remaining episode of this early 1970s BBC TV series are coming to DVD courtesy of Simply Media.
I say all the remaining episodes because out of the original 38 that were made, 14 got deleted. But the remaining 24 are here, spread out over seven discs. For those of you who need to know which, we get eight episodes from Series 1, 13 from Series 2, and only 3 from the final third series. Apparently this is where the series went downhill anyway, so perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise.

Don't worry - this is in colour on the DVD
To those unfamiliar with the programme, DOOMWATCH details the activities of a government department set up to deal with potential ecological disasters around the globe. As is typical for a British conception of such an idea, the department is understaffed, underfunded, and subject to constant attempts to shut it down from a government that might actually be responsible for many of the things the Doomwatch team are investigating. 

Episode one sees new recruit Toby Wren (Robert Powell) joining the already established team of serious Nobel Prize-winning  scientist Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul), lothario lounge lizard scientist John Ridge (Simon Oates), and bloke in a lab coat scientist who plays second fiddle to the main team Colin Bradley (Joby Blanshard).

The first episode is called The Plastic Eaters, which introduces the novel concept of a virus that can eat plastic by showing us its effects on an aeroplane which crashes. It’s all a dastardly hush-hush government project (of course). The effects are of the cheap-but-oddly-disturbing variety as the plane literally melts around its passengers’ ears in a grim and sludgy way rather than the CGI that would be used now and which I would argue would still remain less effective.

Then it’s straight onto episode four and one of the best remembered episodes - ‘Tomorrow, the Rat’. Sexy scientist (it’s the 1970s, remember?) Mary Bryant (Penelope Lee) has been breeding intelligent flesh-eating rats (did James Herbert see this?) which escape from her laboratory (of course) and get to threaten a baby in a pushchair before the credits have even rolled. Sadly, the best known clip is the one that has been played on moronic television comedy shows where obviously fake rats have been glued onto Robert Powell’s trousers, but stay tuned for the ending of this one, which is utterly grim.
        Extras are limited to a recent half-hour BBC documentary The Cult of Doomwatch. I’m not going to reveal the plots of any more episodes as hopefully that should have given you an idea if DOOMWATCH is for you. As I’ve said above, if you like Jon Pertwee DR WHO, THE STONE TAPE, or any other of the BBC’s early 1970s SF and Horror shows this is going to be the release of the year for you. It’s everything that was good about early 1970s British SF TV - entertaining, creative, and designed to rattle a few cages. Excellent stuff. 

The BBC's DOOMWATCH is out on a seven disc DVD set from Simply Media on 4th April 2016

Tuesday 29 March 2016

Culloden / The War Game (1964 & 1965)

Two of Peter Watkins’ blisteringly brutal black and white anti-war films get a new release on this dual format Blu-ray and DVD set courtesy of the BFI.

    CULLODEN (1964) reconstructs the last battle to take place on British soil (between the Jacobite forces of Charles Edward Stuart and the loyalist forces commanded by the Duke of Cumberland) on 16th April 1746. The opening narration prepares us for what is to come, as the narrator introduces us to the Jacobite military command: “Sir Thomas Sheridan, Jacobite military secretary. Suffering advanced debility and loss of memory. Former military engagement, 56 years ago. Sir John MacDonald, Jacobite captain of cavalry. Aged, frequently intoxicated, described as 'a man of the most limited capacities.' John William O'Sullivan, Jacobite quartermaster general. Described as 'an Irishman whose vanity is superseded only by his lack of wisdom.' Prince Charles Edward Stuart, Jacobite commander in chief. Former military experience: 10 days at a siege at the age of 13."

    After that it comes as little surprise that the opening titles inform us that, as well as being the last, this was one of the most ineptly executed battles in British history. The film could stop there, its message told, but instead, for the next hour or so, we see in grim detail just how ghastly the battle of Culloden was. At the time the idea of treating it as an ‘on the spot’ TV docudrama was revolutionary, and even though the format has been used since, nobody does it quite like Watkins. CULLODEN is a brutal and exhausting piece of television, and you may well need to watch something cheery after it.

   You certainly won’t want to go straight on to THE WAR GAME (1965) unless you really want to give your nerves a battering. This infamous docudrama was intended for broadcast on the BBC but banned for being too shocking. It deals, like the later THREADS (1984) which followed it, with the concept of what a nuclear strike on Britain might look like, the damage that would be caused, and how those who survived might (fail to) cope. Still tremendously effective, television doesn’t get much grimmer or bleaker than this, although if you still aren’t sufficiently depressed and / or terrified then by all means pop THREADS in the player to make a triple bill of ‘War Is Hell’. 

    The BFI’s new release comes with a number of extras. Both films have commentaries - CULLODEN by John Cook and WAR GAME by Patrick Murphy. There’s also a short interview with editor Michael Bradsell (who also worked on the Ken Russell documentaries just released by the BFI), as well as eight minutes of colour footage of CULLODEN’s location shooting, and a nineteen minute film about the controversy that surrounded THE WAR GAME. The 1967 Sphere paperback that was published to accompany THE WAR GAME is also included and is a very valuable record indeed of a now difficult to find publication. Finally, there’s the usual excellent booklet with new writing on both films. 

The BFI are releasing Peter Watkins' CULLODEN and THE WAR GAME on a single dual format DVD & Blu-ray set on 28th March 2016

Sunday 27 March 2016

Cape Fear (1962)

Bristol-born J Lee Thompson’s original adaptation of John D MacDonald’s novel The Executioners (the name was changed because producer and star Gregory Peck thought movies with geographical titles did better at the box office) gets a DVD re-release courtesy of Fabulous Films.

Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) is a successful small-town lawyer who, eight years ago, acted as a witness in a case that resulted in the incarceration of violent criminal Max Cady (Robert Mitchum). When Cady is released from prison, he tracks Sam down, promising to destroy his life bit by bit while ensuring that there’s nothing Sam can do about it. With the family dog dead and both his wife and young teenaged daighter under threat, eventually Sam has to take the law into his own hands, culminating in a showdown at Cape Fear.

For an early 1960s picture CAPE FEAR still feels really quite edgy. Mitchum’s portrayal of Cady is genuinely unnerving and the scenes of violence, while never exactly explicit, can still make you feel uncomfortable. Director Thompson imbues the film with a fine noir style, where you’re never quite sure which shadow the danger might be lurking in. It’s probably his finest moment in a lengthy career that included cracking pictures like THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961), the final two original sequels to PLANET OF THE APES, and some grim Charles Bronson stuff including TEN TO MIDNIGHT (1983) and THE EVIL THAT MEN DO (1984). I'd also go so far as to say that this CAPE FEAR is better than the later 1992 remake by Martin Scorsese, which kept Bernard Herrmann's original music score but certainly lost muchof the noir feel so superbly evinced here. 

In the book, Max Cady is a courtmartialed soldier, but US censors demanded this be changed as it ‘reflected badly on US military personnel’. Here in Britain, the print was extensively edited and several scenes deleted. Fabulous Films’ print is, of course, uncut and with everything in the right order.

Extras include a 28 minute making of featurette, production photographs, a trailer, production notes, and cast and crew bios and filmographies - basically everything ported over from the previous Universal Pictures release.

J Lee Thompson's CAPE FEAR is out on DVD from Fabulous Films on 28th March 2016

Friday 25 March 2016

Ken Russell - The Great Composers (1962, 1965, 1968)

Released in tandem with the BFI’s THE GREAT PASSIONS, here is another three-film set of Ken Russell’s early documentary works, this one focusing on composers and made for the BBC arts series OMNIBUS and MONITOR.

In order of production ELGAR (1962) is first. A 56 minute film that chronicles the life of the composer, with images accompanied by a Huw Wheldon voiceover. Russell manages to make the Malvern Hills of Elgar’s birthplace look stunning in black and white, and there's plenty of music as well. Compared with some of Russell’s later efforts, ELGAR is a more subdued and straightforward piece, but it's also extremely informative and well put together.

THE DEBUSSY FILM (1965) is entirely different. A hugely ambitious, ethereal, reality-bending attempt at presenting the composer and his music, the film stars Oliver Reed as an actor playing Debussy in a film about his life, and Vladek Sheybal as the director of the biopic. THE DEBUSSY FILM veers between the ‘reality’ of the behind-the-scenes activity during the shooting of the film, and scenes from the film itself. It’s easier to watch than describe (often the way with Ken Russell!) and it does make one sad that television seems to have lost this degree of ambitious creativity.

Best of the lot, though, is SONG OF SUMMER (1968). This evoked a keen sense of nostalgia in me, if only for a time when one could happen upon something like this showing on British television in the 1960s and 1970s, with subject matter one might initially feel quite indifferent to, but by the end you'd feel as if you’d just watched the best thing on television that year. 

SONG OF SUMMER is remarkable. It's the story of the last five years in the life of the composer Frederick Delius, blind and paralysed and desperate to write more music. Salvation comes in the form of Eric Fenby (who co-wrote the script with Russell) who travels from his native home of Scarborough to spend his days getting Delius’ music down on paper. Russell is appropriately restrained here, letting the acting shine through. Max Adrian as Delius is terrific (it’s his best ever performance) and SONG OF SUMMER is a tribute to the triumph of genius, persistence and human love and cooperation overcoming the insidious and inevitable processes of disease and decay. I found it extremely affecting, and of all the material presented here, SONG OF SUMMER alone is worth the price of the disc.
            Extras include three minutes of actual Elgar footage from 1931 with him conducting the LSO at the opening of the Abbey Road studios, as well as nine minutes of him at home & at the Three Choirs Festival. There are also Ken Russell commentaries for ELGAR and SONG OF SUMMER, and a new commentary by Kevin Flanagan for THE DEBUSSY FILM. There’s also a ten minute interview with Russell editor Michael Bradsell and a 30 page booklet with new writing on the films, all making this another must-have set from the BFI. Well done, chaps. 

Ken Russell's THE GREAT COMPOSERS is out on a dual format DVD & Blu-ray set from the BFI from 28th March 2016

Sunday 20 March 2016

Ken Russell - The Great Passions (1965 - 1967)

More invaluable stuff from the BFI as they release three examples of Ken Russell’s unique style of documentary film-making from the 1960s in a dual format DVD & Blu-ray set.

The ‘A’ feature here is probably DANTE’S INFERNO (1967), which has nothing to do with Dante Alighieri and everything to do with the life of the pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Oliver Reed takes the title role in this 88 minute black and white stylised romp through the important parts of Rossetti’s life. The other pre-Raphaelites get a look in as well, and there are numerous references to their works, as well as plenty of Ken’s creative (and occasionally outrageous) imagery to keep the viewer interested. Like that picture up there. Great, isn't it?

There are two shorter accompanying pieces. ISADORA (1966) runs for 64 minutes and features Vivian Pickles as turn-of-the-century Isadora Duncan, who famously pioneered her own style of dance, her own dance school, and met her untimely death in part due to her love of scarves. As with DANTE there’s plenty to keep the Ken Russell fan interested, with some fabulous locations, decadent imagery (I liked the harpists concealed in a massive box) and a sense of barely-controlled madness to quite a bit of it. 

More frenetic than even the above two is ALWAYS ON SUNDAY (1965), a 45 minute piece on the life of French painter Henri Rousseau. Rousseau didn’t start to paint seriously until he had retired, and his work was initially met with general derision. One imagines Ken must have known how he felt. 
There are a number of extras, including commentary tracks for all three pieces, a 31 minute period documentary of Russell making ISADORA, a new interview with editor Michael Bradsell about working with Russell, and an extra audio track for ISADORA that’s packed with cast and crew interviews. You also get a 30 page booklet with new essays on each of the works presented within. 
              I would say this release might be considered only for Ken Russell completists, but to be honest I learned so much about the subjects of each of the three films that I’d highly recommend it to anyone wanting to learn about the lives of Rosetti, Duncan and Rousseau. Excellent stuff as always from the BFI. 

Ken Russell's THE GREAT PASSIONS is being released on dual format DVD & Blu-ray by the BFI on Monday 28th March.

Thursday 17 March 2016

Eureka (1983)

The phrase ‘Based on true events’ at the start of a film is so commonplace these days that it’s a shock when you don’t see it. Nicolas Roeg’s 1983 film EUREKA, due out soon from - appropriately enough - Eureka Films, doesn’t begin with this particular caption, but you can find out all about the real-life story that inspired it in the extras.

The Klondike in the early part of the twentieth century. Prospector Jack McCann (Gene Hackman) refuses to stop searching for gold while everyone else in town is busy blowing their own heads off or just clearing out before they freeze to death. His persistence pays off and he discovers enough gold to buy him an entire island in the Caribbean.

Twenty years later: Jack is rich, married (to Jane Lapotaire) and has a slightly uncontrollable daughter (Theresa Russell in slightly uncontrollable mode) who is married to Roy Batty from BLADE RUNNER (yes it’s Rutger Hauer playing another memorably odd character). When Joe Pesci and his gang (including Mickey Rourke and Joe Spinell) decide they want to buy part of the island so they can build a casino, it signals the culmination of the problems Jack has been experiencing, both in his personal and spiritual life. 

Beginning as a ‘man against the elements’ tale before neatly segueing into what feels like the film version of one of the bonkbuster paperback sagas of Harold Robbins et al, what elevates EUREKA above melodrama into something else entirely is a fascinating, well put together cast and above all director Nicolas Roeg, who provides so many stunning visual compositions in this that you’ll want to watch it several times (and employ the freeze frame) to appreciate them. It also makes you sorry he didn’t make more horror films than DON’T LOOK NOW. On the basis of what we see here, Roeg could easily have been the Argento of British cinema. Perhaps he already is anyway. 

Extras are limited to an audio interview with Roeg and talking head featurettes with producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Paul Mayersberg and editor Tony Lawson. You also get an isolated effects and music track (the score is by frequent Pete Walker collaborator Stanley Myers, and there’s a very SCHIZO-sounding bit for fans to spot early on). Eureka also gives us a booklet with new writing on the film by Daniel Bird, a reprinted interview with Roeg, an excerpt from Roeg’s autobiography and Robert Service’s poem The Spell of the Yukon that gets quoted at the end of the film. 

Nicolas Roeg's EUREKA is coming out on dual format DVD & Blu-ray from Eureka Films on 28th March 2016

Friday 11 March 2016

Dragon Blade (2015)

“Epic Jackie Chan Chinese Period Action Picture”

Toplining Jackie Chan and with substantial roles for both John Cusack and Adrian Brody, big budget Chinese action epic DRAGON BLADE gets a UK DVD & Blu-ray release courtesy of Signature.
         It’s around 50BC, and Jackie Chan’s Silk Road Protection Squad gets framed for smuggling gold and sent to work in a labour camp. John Cusack’s Roman legion turns up having been framed for treason and together they form an allegiance that allows them to rebuild a city (Jackie’s gang’s punishment) and go after evil Roman Adrian Brody (who framed Cusack). Eventually all the allies of China have to gather together to defeat the evil Romans leading to an epic climax. 

         DRAGON BLADE is a big budget Chinese historical action picture that was a big hit in its country of origin. If you’re planning on watching it it’s probably worth bearing all that in mind, because I suspect the film-makers concentrated more on making the battle sequences epic (they are excellent), getting the fight sequences right (they’re pretty good as well) while ensuring any relevant bits of Chinese history were correct (I can’t vouch for that but one hopes so). 

         The reason I’m saying this is because to Western eyes there’s actually quite a bit wrong with DRAGON BLADE, but in a world where we have movies like Paul W S Anderson’s preposterous but utterly entertaining POMPEII I’m not sure how valid such criticisms are. Certainly the opening of the movie is pretty incoherent, and throughout there are jumps in the narrative that don’t seem to get explained at all. In fact, it feels more like a severely edited and compressed version of a five hour epic than a film that was intended to last under two hours.

         As well as a fair bit of bafflement, people who get upset by this sort of thing will probably get their knickers in a twist that it seems to take evil Adrian Brody about a day to march his army the 8000 miles from Rome to the site of the action. But then they’ll also be the ones to point out that Adrian’s scheme wouldn’t have worked because Romans didn’t inherit titles the way this film thinks they did. If that, or the idea of a flock of eagles turning up at a crucial point to save the day is all a bit too daft for you, you’d probably better stay away.

The rest of us, however, can have a ball with this as long as we leave our brains at the door, not question anything too much (or at all, actually) and simply revel in the fights, which are great, the battles, which are great, and some of the locations and production design, which yet again are all great. DRAGON BLADE is incoherent, inaccurate and a bit inane. It’s also majestic, sweeping and epic. 

DRAGON BLADE is out on DVD & Blu-ray from Signature Entertainment on 14th March 2016

Thursday 10 March 2016

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)

Back in the 1980s, while Canada had David Cronenberg and the US had David Lynch, here in the UK we had Welsh-born Peter Greenaway to give us some home-grown art-house horror. Movies like A ZED & TWO NOUGHTS and DROWNING BY NUMBERS revealed a singular view of the world that was simultaneously as beautiful in its design and as it was disturbing in its implication. And Greenaway’s unique vision is at its most deliciously decadent and outrageously horrific in THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER, soon to be re-released on DVD by Fabulous Films.

Gang boss Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) likes nothing more than dining at his favourite restaurant, which he also happens to own. Other favourite past-times include beating up his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren), beating up guests and, with the aid of subordinates that include Tim Roth and Ciaran Hinds, generally beating up anyone who crosses him. 

When Georgina begins an affair with restaurant customer Michael (Alan Howard), meeting him in between courses or during trips to the lavatory, it is only a matter of time before Albert finds out and wreaks bloody revenge. But Georgina, head chef Richard (Richard Bohringer) and the others whom Albert has abused have a final trick up their sleeves that leads to one of the all-time classic scenes in the art-house horror subgenre.

Put together with all the care and attention of the Renaissance paintings it seems to be doing its best to emulate, THE COOK THE THIEF exhibits thoughtful production and costume design (the latter courtesy of Jean-Paul Gaultier and some fabulously flamboyant creations), photography and lighting that makes some scenes look like Rembrandt by way of Mario Bava, and perhaps most of all, casting. The leads are all excellent, with Gambon’s brutal villain a superb portrayal of boorish cruelty. The smaller roles are a delight also, however. Look out for Ian Dury, Gary Olsen, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Liz Smith, Alex Kingston, Diane Langton and Bob Goody amongst others.

Fabulous Films’ transfer is in the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio (some previous DVD releases haven’t been). Unfortunately the print hasn’t been restored, so expect some black marks and scratches every now and then. On the whole, though, the transfer looks fine and in the absence of any forthcoming Blu-ray release, pop this into your player and rack up the HD settings on your TV and it’s certainly better than nothing. Which, by the way, is what you get in the form of extras. 

Fabulous Films are releasing Peter Greenaway's THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER on Region 2 DVD on 
14th March 2016

Friday 4 March 2016

The Pack (2016)

“The first true contender for worst film of the year”

Oh dear.
Oh dear oh dear.
         Where do I start?
How about with what THE PACK is not. This release from Arrow Films should not be confused with THE PACK (1977) which features Joe Don Baker versus an island full of crazed dogs. That one’s quite good in a sub-SAVAGE BEES kind of way. Neither should it be confused with THE PACK (2010), a Franco-Belgian effort about cannibals. No. In the future, to distinguish it from those other films this THE PACK will most likely be described as ‘that badly written, badly directed piece of crap with completely unsympathetic characters and virtually no dog action despite the lengths the film-makers apparently went to as described in the ‘Making Of’ in the special features'.
Yes, THE PACK is rubbish - a cheap and completely unrewarding waste of time. You might think Australia is the country of PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK and MAD MAX FURY ROAD but it's just as capable of producing appallingly low-rent stuff like this as anywhere else.

If you watch THE PACK you will be able to act this scene better. 
The plot (should anyone still be reading) is as follows: the utterly crap Wilson family are up to their necks in debt and the bank is about to foreclose on their massive farm. Farmer Adam Wilson (Jack Campbell) refuses to leave, putting his huge losses down to all the sheep with their insides torn out that he has found dead in his fields for the past few weeks but appears to have done nothing about. His equally hopeless wife Carla (Anna Lise Phillips) has decided to set up shop as a vet in their isolated region that boasts as her patients one small puppy and a cat she’s keeping in an enormous cage. The rest of the family is made up of a little boy and the usual cliched, whiny “I’m nearly 18” daughter who is there just to get on everyone’s nerves, get into trouble, and have a shower involving no nudity at all. (That last bit for our more 'sophisticated' readers).
For some reason known to nobody, and especially not the writer of this lazy, audience-disdaining stuff, a small pack of not very threatening-looking black dogs with no sense of smell attack their farmhouse, leading to a ‘night of terror’ during which the Wilson family must fight for their lives and sadly win. Then there’s an ending that is so not an ending it’s probably possible to sue it under the Trades Descriptions Act.
THE PACK is truly terrible, an example of cynical modern-day low-budget moviemaking at its worst. The script is perfunctory, assuming audiences for horror will put up with any old shit and certainly the bare less-than-minimum we get here.  We don’t care about the characters because we are given no reason to. The direction consists of the ‘waving the camera around frenziedly during infrequent animal attacks’ school that makes for poor suspense but massive savings on a budget that was probably spent on the wrap party instead. I feel sorry for the actors, who seem competent but will probably never work again after this. Everything about this film is as stupid as the family we’re supposed to be rooting for and the piss-poor pack of “wild dogs” who can’t even smell when their prey is half a foot away.
I really hated THE PACK. Can you tell?

THE PACK is out from Arrow Films on DVD on 
Monday 7th March

Thursday 3 March 2016

Lost After Dark (2015)

“Surprisingly good slasher homage”

Coming hot on the heels of last year’s THE FINAL GIRLS, here’s another film inspired by the classic slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s. However, instead of taking the meta or post-modern route, LOST AFTER DARK gives us a more straightforward, blood-splattered homage to a genre that, like the lumbering maniacs that are often the killers in these films, refuses to lie down and die.

It’s 1984, and a group of teenagers decide to swear off the homecoming dance / prom / whatever other thing unrelated to work that American schools seemed to be holding every other week in these films, and instead travel to a remote cabin in a stolen school bus to enjoy a weekend of those old slasher standbys beer, drugs and pre-marital sex. 

Unfortunately the bus breaks down and they find themselves pursued by a cannibalistic maniac who lives in the crumbling old house they stumble upon in the middle of the night. Various well-known (and probably well-loved) death scenes occur until Sheriff Rick Rosenthal (yes, the director of the original HALLOWEEN II) turns up to explain what we have already guessed.

There’s a lot to like about LOST AFTER DARK. While there’s a slightly home-made feel to the proceedings, many of the actual 1980s slasher films felt even more amateur, so it really does feel as if you’re watching an undiscovered item from that decade. The cast are likeable and give good performances, with everyone carefully avoiding any hint of being irritatingly ironic. The direction also ensures that the kills are actually quite horrible, the music suits the period without being slavishly imitative and there is a wealth of in-jokes.

These include calling all the male victims after directors of slasher films (Tobe, John, Sean, Wes) and the female victims after final girls (Jamie, Adrienne, Heather, Marilyn). There are also numerous implied references to everything from LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT to A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Where LOST AFTER DARK succeeds where other films like this sometimes fail, however, is that you don’t need to be familiar with any of these films to enjoy the picture on its own merits. None of the in-jokes are presented with any kind of nudging, knowing ‘aren’t we clever’ attitude. If you know the movies you’ll get the joke. If you don’t, you won’t feel you’re missing out.
          Metrodome’s DVD gives you the film with a menu page that has some nice 1980s-style movie poster artwork. There are no extras at all, which is a bit of shame. LOST AFTER DARK really is pretty good. I liked it more than THE FINAL GIRLS and if you prefer your slasher homages a bit more down and dirty you will too. 

LOST AFTER DARK is out on DVD now from 
Metrodome Pictures