Sunday 29 May 2016

Blood Bath (1966)

“A box set of four films...sort of”

Sort of indeed. Fans of the wild and crazy world of 1960s exploitation cinema are likely to be the main / only audience for this latest smartly-presented Arrow double-disc Blu-ray release, which gives you four black and white films (OPERATION TITIAN, PORTRAIT IN TERROR, BLOOD BATH and TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE) spread over two discs. The peculiar ‘gimmick’ if you like, is that each of these films has footage common to all of them, as well as footage specific to each individual one, resulting in four movies different enough to warrant separate presentations, while not being sufficiently different to warrant individual releases.

Does that make sense? If not there’s one of Arrow’s splendid ‘visual essays’ to explain it all, narrated by the extremely knowledgeable Tim Lucas and based on a series of articles from his excellent Video Watchdog magazine. Most of these essays on Arrow releases last about twenty minutes. Lucas’ piece runs for over eighty, which give you an idea of how much explaining needs to be done.

So I’m not going to even try. What I am going to suggest is that if you’re a horror fan you tuck into this set by starting off with the title film BLOOD BATH (on Disc 2), directed by Jack Hill and Stephanie Rothman (and some other people who don’t get credited). BLOOD BATH stars William Campbell as an artist who also happens to be a vampire haunted by the spirit of a girl his ancestor had burned. I think. The film doesn’t make a lot of (if any) sense but it does feature some stunningly atmospheric shots - including at least one splendidly weird bit on a beach that’s reminiscent of a similar shot in Rothman’s subsequent THE VELVET VAMPIRE (1971) - some scenes with ‘beat artists’ (including Sid Haig) that are immensely entertaining, and a weird climax of crumbly wax-covered corpses that’s worth the price of admission. Fans of Ronald Stein’s horror film scores (like me) will have fun spotting cuts from THE HAUNTED PALACE, PREMATURE BURIAL and others on the ‘library’ soundtrack. BLOOD BATH only runs for 61 minutes but if you like this sort of thing it’s well worth your time.

The other film on Disc 2 is TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE, which is kind of the TV version of BLOOD BATH. Some of the teasy nudity and bits of bloodiness have been cut but a lot of extra footage has been added which makes it the longer of the two films here, even if it’s not the more interesting. Disc two also has the extras, including talking head pieces with director Jack Hill and actor Sid Haig (is he wearing a hospital bracelet?) and the previously mentioned piece by Tim Lucas.

Disc 1 has OPERATION TITIAN, which is the film that started it all off. I mention it down here because it’s not terribly interesting, except to show you where a lot of BLOOD BATH’s footage originated. It’s a fairly anaemic crime thriller about picture smuggling with William Campbell and Patrick Magee (criminally not in BLOOD BATH except for a blink-and-you’ll-miss him bit right at the end). OPERATION TITIAN was recut and rescored to create PORTRAIT IN TERROR, which actually does move better and has an ending that’s hysterical enough to make it worth a watch. 

You also get a stills gallery, a fold-out poster, a reversible sleeve and a booklet with new writing on the film. I said above that Arrow’s BLOOD BATH package is really only for people who are going to be fascinated (as I was and still am) by how these four films came to be. That’s not to do it down, however. This is a fine and carefully put together package that archives for posterity a remarkable, and remarkably complex, slice of exploitation obscurity. Arrow absolutely deserve some sort of award for this one. 

BLOOD BATH and its three friends are out on Blu-ray in an Arrow box set on Monday 30th May 2016

Thursday 26 May 2016

Ghoulies II (1987)

The second GHOULIES film (there are four in case you’re interested) gets a UK Blu-ray release courtesy of 101 Films. It has practically no connection with the first film other than it features the same little rubber glove-puppet monsters and a knockabout sense of humour that will have those of you nostalgic for the days of Saturday morning children’s television in raptures.

A barrel full of ghoulies!
We start with a priest escaping from some kind of KKK reunion with a sack of ghoulies slung over his shoulder. Let’s pause now to give the man playing the priest some recognition, as this is none other than Anthony Dawson of Hammer’s CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF and DR NO fame. Far more famous than anyone else in this film, Anthony gets offed pretty quickly and the ghoulies are once more free to move about in their jerky, hand-assisted little way.

Ghoulies everywhere!
They hope a ride on a lorry that turns out to be part of a travelling circus. Soon the ghoulies themselves are part of the attraction as they take over the Satan’s Den haunted house, killing pissed up Uncle Ned (Royal Dano in awful jacket) and torturing various caricatures of late 1980s teendom. Soon it’s up to Larry (Damon Martin), his sidekick Sir Nigel Penneyweight (Phil Fondacaro who gave an equally winning performance as Dracula in Charles Band’s THE CREEPS) and Larry’s girlfriend Nicole (Kerry Remsen) to conjure up an enormous ghoulie to catch the little ones. We all know an enormous pair of ghoulies would have led to a much hairier situation but sadly that doesn't happen here.

Naughty ghoulies!
GHOULIES II is actually better than GHOULIES I. For a start there’s far more ghoulie action. The acting’s a bit better and the pacing is far less draggy. The only downside is we don’t get a reprise of Richard Band’s bouncy, mischievous music score but otherwise GHOULIES II provides 90 odd minutes of silly fun for the undemanding Charles Band fan. 101 Films’ disc contains no extras. 

GHOULIES II is out on UK Blu-ray and DVD from 101 Films now. 

Monday 23 May 2016

Three Amigos! (1986)

John Landis’ 1986 comedy comes to UK Blu-ray courtesy of 101 Films.
While Hollywood’s silent movie era reaches the peak of its popularity, the tiny Mexican town of Santa Poco is being terrorised by the evil El Guapo (Alfonso Arau) and his gang. Sneaking into a church, Carmen (Patrice Martinez) happens upon a screening of the latest movie to feature Lucky Day (Steve Martin), Dusty Bottoms (Chevy Chase) and Ned Nederlander (Martin Short). Together they are the THREE AMIGOS, fighting injustice and righting wrongs. 

Unfortunately, Carmen thinks they’re for real, and a cheap telegram later had called on them for help. Meanwhile in Hollywood the actors playing the amigos have fallen on hard times and eagerly accept the invitation to come and ‘perform’ in Mexico. When they get there, it tales a while for them to realise that they are the only ones not taking the threat to the village seriously.

One of numerous projects originally written for Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi (which included GHOSTBUSTERS and SPIES LIKE US), THREE AMIGOS still manages to be pretty funny despite studio interference excising 18 minutes of footage and a trio of leads who never really exhibit any ensemble chemistry. 

         The script, by Steve Martin, producer Lorne Michaels and composer Randy Newman (who supplies the songs) keeps act one and most of act two on the straight and narrow, and then veers off with the singing bush and invisible swordsman bit (did someone else write this?) before getting back to ‘normal’ again. 

Nobody here is at their career best, but no-one is at their worst either. Unfortunately 101’s disc has no extras, in particular the cut 18 minutes of footage that eliminated a couple of subplots (and kept the amigos in Hollywood rather longer) is not here. You can find it on the US Blu-ray which is Region A locked. 

That said, 101 Films’ Blu-ray looks great, and the exterior location work (of which there is lots) benefits nicely from the transfer. If you’re looking for something from the heyday of 1980s Hollywood comedy this is going to pass the time nicely for you.

THREE AMIGOS! is out on Blu-ray from 101 Films on Monday 23rd May 2016

Sunday 22 May 2016

Journey to the Shore (2016)

"Gentle Japanese magic realism"

A gentle, thoughtful ghost story with undoubted literary influences, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s new film gets a release on UK DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of Eureka.
Piano teacher Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) has been living without her husband Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano) for three years. When he reappears one evening in her kitchen he explains to her that he is in fact dead, that he drowned himself, and that his body has been ‘eaten by the crabs’. It has taken him the three years since she last saw him for him to make his way back to her. "Many don’t,” he says, "and simply disappear".

Accepting that he is a ghost, Mizuki agrees to go on a journey with him back to the place of his death, stopping off at the places where he stayed on his way back to her. The couple embark on an odyssey through a Japan populated by both the living, the dead, and those who don’t realises they’re actually ghosts. All have had their lives touched by Yusuke, and by the time the two of them reach the shore of the title they have learned more about each other and the world around them.

Advertised as a ‘delicate supernatural love story’ Kurosawa’s film is probably the closest I’ve seen on screen to the elegant magical realism tales of Jonathan Carroll (it’s actually based on a novel by Japanese writer Kazumi Yumoto who for all I know is the Carroll of his country). Consequently, don’t expect any Hollywood spook stuff here - just some gentle weirdness that’s part of the everyday, some emotional interludes as both Yusuke and Mizuki help to put restless spirits at ease, and an ending that’s as inevitable as it will be heartbreaking to many.

Eureka’s Blu-ray looks great and offers you a couple of sound options (including 5.1) as well as optional subtitles. You also get a trailer but that’s it in terms of extras. 

JOURNEY TO THE SHORE is out in a dual-disc DVD & Blu-rar set on Monday 23rd May 2016

Saturday 21 May 2016

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972)

“From giallo’s decadent period” Kim Newman states on his and Alan Jones’ commentary to this, Emilio P Miraglia’s other giallo, now released along with its companion piece THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE in Arrow’s Killer Dames box set.

RED QUEEN is certainly from the period when Italy’s murder-mystery cinema went into some kind of drug-fuelled nudity-filled ludicrous fashion-overloaded overdrive, with a killer in every shadow, a bottle of J&B on every bedside table, and several crazy twists before we finally got to the end. If this sounds great then you'll be pleased to learn this one is no different. 

In 1958 (we eventually work out) an elderly man tells his two granddaughters of the legend of the huge painting depicting a brutal murder that’s hanging on his living room wall. “I had hoped I wouldn’t have to tell you about this,” he says, which makes you wonder why he hadn’t had the picture taken down years ago and replaced it with some puppies.

There’s some kind of curse involving a red queen and a black queen that’s tied to the house and the two sisters who live in it that’s doomed to be repeated every one hundred years. Flash forward to 1972 (after a title sequence featuring one of my favourite Bruno Nicolai scores) and blonde granddaughter Kitty has grown into even blonder Barbara Bouchet. Kitty’s sister is ‘in America’ which is giallo speak for ‘at the bottom of the lake’. That’s not a spoiler, by the way - we see a cat fight ending in tragedy just after the opening titles. OR DO WE?

Kitty works at a fashion house. Someone dressed in a red cape is bumping off managers and models alike. Is it Kitty’s sister come back from the dead? Is it the wife of Kitty’s lover who’s currently banged up in the local lunatic asylum (every giallo town had one, you know)? Is it actually something far more convoluted and ludicrous that will have you gaping at the screen during the denouement? Of course it is and giallo fans wouldn’t want it any other way.

Unlike Kim Newman, who says at the end of the commentary track that he could happily watch THE RED QUEEN KILLS SEVEN TIMES at least once a year every year, I have to say I don’t share the same enthusiasm for this one. If you’re not familiar with this particular subgenre of Italian horror this isn’t the place to start. Not as stylish as Argento, nor as intricately perverse as Sergio Martino’s Ernesto Gastaldi-scripted efforts, this is giallo for fans on a rainy day.
Arrow’s transfer of RED QUEEN looks fine and there are plenty of extras, including the aforementioned new commentary track, an interview with Sybil Danning, a talking head piece from Stephen Thrower and all the archival stuff from the earlier NoShame DVD release including the alternate title sequence and an interview with Lorenzo Baraldi who was responsible for the remarkable costume and production design of both of Miraglia’s horrors. Oh, and you get the option of either Italian or English dialogue tracks.

Emilio P Miraglia's THE RED QUEEN KILLS SEVEN TIMES is being released by Arrow as part of their Killer Dames box set on Monday 23rd May 2016

Friday 20 May 2016

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971)

One of my all-time favourite daft giallos gets a splendid Blu-ray release courtesy of Arrow Films as part of its Emilio P Miraglia Killer Dames box set, which also features THE RED QUEEN KILLS SEVEN TIMES. I reviewed EVELYN on here a while ago, and what I had to say then is reproduced below. I’ll be back at the end, though, to talk about the extras on the new disc.

Note the presumably small budget afforded the costume design here
A masterclass in how to make a sleazy crazy giallo out of a straightforward old chestnut of an idea (in this case driving someone who’s rich insane so you can get their money), THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE starts as it means to incoherently go on with its central character, Lord Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen) escaping from a psychiatric clinic. This opening isn’t too bad – he’s pursued by white coated orderlies across an overgrown coliseum that just happens to be in the grounds before being dragged back once he gets to the perimeter fence and despite a bit too much gurning from our hero it’s intriguing enough to engage our interest. The problem is I still have no idea where this bit of the film, played out before the main titles begin, is meant to fit into the plot. 

Walking corpse with red hair plus thunderstorm = 1970s Italian horror!
Once the credits are out of the way we’re in Lord Alan’s car, where he’s in the company of an attractive young redhead he’s picked up in a bar, He stops for no other reason than to pull at her hair (“To see if it’s a wig”) and so he can get out and take off the car’s false number plates. He gets back into his Italian car before they set off for his isolated Italian villa set in the depths of the English (according to the film) countryside, where he makes her wear nothing but a pair of black knee length boots before chasing her around his very own torture dungeon with a whip. 

Just another quiet night at home in 1970s giallo-land
Only the most tenuous of reasons is ever given for Alan’s preponderance for doing this (he does it to Erika Blanc in a bit as well), other than of course we’re in Italian film land. Evelyn is Lord Alan’s late wife whom he caught having a naked assignation with a lover in a field (there’s an awful lot of female nudity in this, even for an early seventies EuroHorror, in fact one might go so far as to call it excessive and gratuitous). She died in childbirth and now he keeps a painting of her in his bedroom, which if nothing else should be a big warning beacon to all the girls he brings back. 

Every element of this still is what today's cinema needs more of
As well as a torture dungeon, a predilection for whipping redheads and presumably a psychiatric history, Alan also has one of the most outrageous wardrobes to grace an Italian horror film, which is saying something. A maroon suede suit the jacket of which laces up the back, a crimson double breasted jacket with lapels so big they have their own brass buttons to hold them in place, and an assortment of trousers of such outrageous hues it’s a wonder everyone around him doesn’t keep their sunglasses on. With those kinds of clothes it’s a wonder anyone thinks he isn’t already insane. 

The legs are nice but just look at that staircase.
Alan gets a new wife who doesn’t have red hair but does wear outfits with such outrageously plunging necklines it looks as if her breasts aren’t so much falling out as actively trying to throw themselves into plain sight. She also possesses quite possibly the skimpiest night attire ever seen in a movie as well as an Alice in Wonderland outfit that she puts on to go and investigate the crypt. 
And does Evelyn actually get to come out of the grave? Well, kind of, but like I said, it’s all part of the most ridiculously convoluted plot to drive Lord Alan mad when he already seems to be well on the way without any aid at all. The denouement piles twist upon twist but best of all is the climactic fight by the swimming pool next to which has been precariously placed a big sack of Sulphuric Acid which doubtless carries the warning in Italian ‘Do Not Throw In Swimming Pool’. The final fade out of the villain being carried towards the camera with his legs wide apart is merely the daft icing on a very silly cake indeed, making THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE a movie best suited for hardened addicts of this kind of thing.
          Arrow’s transfer is excellent. Extras comes in the form of a new feature length fact-packed chatty commentary by Troy Howarth that makes for pleasant listening. We also get twelve minutes of Stephen Thrower talking about the picture (double-billed with Ferdinando di Leo\s equally barmy ASYLUM EROTICA in the UK!). There’s a new introduction to the movie by Erika Blanc, and her old intro from the NoShame release had been ported over, as well as the extras from that disc. A very nice package indeed for EVELYN fans everywhere. 

Emilio P Miraglia's charmingly incoherent / barking mad THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE is being released on Blu-ray and DVD by Arrow Films as part of their Killer Dames box set on Monday 23rd of May

Wednesday 18 May 2016

Penda's Fen (1974)

It’s a little bit difficult to know where to start in reviewing something like PENDA’S FEN. Not that I’m alone. Its own director, Alan Clarke, was quoted as not being entirely sure what David Rudkin’s script was about. That’s not to say PENDA’S FEN is bad - in fact, far from it, and it definitely deserves its inclusion in Time Out’s 100 Best British Films list that it published back in 2011.

Britishness - that’s a good place to begin. PENDA’S FEN is as much (if not more) about the changing of British attitudes as it is about the attempts of the government to change the country’s landscape, their insidious method of doing it from beneath the ground perhaps more of an allegory than we first realise.

The narrative of PENDA’S FEN follows a young man, Stephen Franklin (Spencer Banks). Stephen is the son of a parson, lives in the tiny country village of Pinvin, and attends the kind of all-boys public school that provides several of the attitudes both Rudkin and Clarke were probably keen to hold up a mirror to. Stephen is a staunch Christian, loves the music of Elgar, and is starting to have strange dreams involving angels and demons (beautifully and disturbingly realised even with the limits of 1970s BBC technology, by the way). 

But there are other weird things going on in the outside world. A local church hall meeting is concerned with a nearby secret underground government development. A local man ends up horrible burned and scarred as a result of an interaction with...something...on the fen that the government are keen to keep quiet. All through this, Stephen is coming to question every value he has ever believed in or felt confident about, including his own sexuality. 

It’s no accident that Pinvin is an actual village in the Malvern Hills, or that Stephen gains comfort from listening to The Dream of Gerontius. Elgar, often considered the most English of composers, derived much inspiration and comfort himself from the area around Malvern, and it’s the perfect place for David Rudkin to set his story. Like Alan Clarke, I can’t claim to understand all of what’s going on in PENDA’S FEN, but it remains a vital, and still very relevant, piece of British television.

How excellent, then, to have this Blu-ray release from the BFI. Most British TV of this period was shot on 16mm film, but the Blu-ray transfer makes this look the best it must have ever done, with the English summer landscape looking absolutely glorious. The only extra is a short sixteen minute new making of, featuring interviews with David Rudkin and producer David Rose. You do get the usual excellent BFI booklet essays as well, though. 

David Rudkin's PENDA'S FEN is getting a DVD and limited edition Blu-ray release on Monday 23rd May 2016. It will also be part of the massive 13 disc Blu ray Alan Clarke box set DISSENT & DISRUPTION which comes out on 6th June 2016

Sunday 15 May 2016

Ghoulies (1984)

Another Charles Band direct-to-VHS staple from the halcyon days of the Entertainment In Video label now comes to Blu-ray courtesy of 101 Films. There now follows a review refreshingly free of all the cheap jokes you might have been expecting at the expense of a title that is just begging for all kinds of phrases that include the words ‘grab’ or ‘grabbing’. But not here, oh no, I’m above that sort of thing.

"You muppet!"
GHOULIES was Charles Band’s rip-off of Joe Dante’s GREMLINS but bears very little similarity to it, other than featuring tiny creatures that cause mayhem. Otherwise the storyline is very different (and somewhat less coherent). 

Melty ghoulie
At some kind of satanic ceremony, Malcolm Graves (a deliciously over the top Michael des Barres who’s almost the only one here who pitches his acting at the level of quality of the material) tries to sacrifice his baby son Jonathan while little rubber puppets and assembled coven members look on. He’s thwarted by Jack Nance (!) who then provides us with intermittent voice-overs throughout the film to assist coherence (not sure it works, though). He also turns up as some kind of wizard at the end.

Finding this random still in a film book would have made me want to see this film 

Now grown up, Jonathan (Peter Liapis, whose acting would only match the quality of the script if said script had been carved onto a rather dull oak tree) and his girlfriend Rebecca (Lisa Pelikan - the same) move into Jonathan’s old house. A 1980s party with 1980s friends and appalling 1980s breakdancing ensues, followed a bit later on by a 1980s satanic ritual that eventually causes the ghoulies of the title to appear. 

Graves back from the grave
I don’t think they’re ever referred to by name, by the way. In appearance they resemble a muppet collection that some child’s evil older brother has taken a blowtorch to but got stopped before they could melt the things completely. Their glove puppetness is amusing and actually a little bit appealing, but unfortunately (and typically for a Charles Band production) they’re not on screen for anywhere near long enough. 

Oh yes I'd want to watch a film with this in it too.
Instead the plot busies itself with Malcolm coming back to life and overacting even more than before. I do hope Michael des Barres managed to perform in the version of THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW in which he truly belonged. Otherwise all this stuff is a bit plodding, and despite a playful Richard Band score (with extra bits by Shirley Walker) the film feels longer than its 82 minutes.

Th-th-th-th-that's all folks!
An understandably bewildered-looking Luca Bercovici provides us with a special director’s introduction in which he refers to GHOULIES as a ‘silly horror film’ and says he’s amazed it’s still around thirty years later. He’s right on both counts. He also provides us with a feature-length audio commentary that completes the extras for this UK disc. 101’s Blu-ray transfer looks very nice, though. 

GHOULIES is out on UK Blu-ray and DVD from 101 Films now

Saturday 14 May 2016

Hired to Kill (1990)

Nico Mastorakis’ ‘action thriller’, and a film most will probably have never heard of, gets a dual format Blu-ray and DVD release courtesy of Arrow Films. THE ZERO BOYS it isn’t, nor is it ISLAND OF DEATH (both already on the Arrow label) and we should be grateful for that.

Or should we? Whereas ISLAND turned the sleaze factor up to eleven, and ZERO turned the suspense and action factors down to about that level by the end, HIRED TO KILL is a different world of silly altogether.
Brian Thompson (a recognisable heavy from numerous television shows like BUFFY and X FILES) is our mercenary hero, employed by orange juice-sipping George Kennedy to rescue The Brother, (Jose Ferrer, who’s in this for about 30 seconds and therefore presumably doesn’t deserve an actual name), deposed leader of a tiny made-up country from the prison where he has been incarcerated by evil, despotic, drunk and heavily moustached Oliver Reed.

To achieve this not inconsiderable task, George assures Brian that the only way it can be done is for big muscly Brian to pose as a fashion designer and take six models along with him who are actually deadly assassins. Oh, and he’s going to have to train them himself. Cue a round-the-world recruitment montage followed by the only training montage ever to consist of military tactics, makeup application, assault courses, catwalk posing, all topped off by the girls machine-gunning giant cardboard cut-outs of Oliver Reed in full military regalia. I don’t think we ever actually leave Nico Mastorakis’ house for any of this, by the way.

With this sort of setup, HIRED TO KILL is actually disappointingly low on action, or decent action at least. But is IS immensely entertaining. As well as everything above we witness the sight of Brian seducing Oliver Reed with a great big onscreen kiss, some impressive (and beautiful) Greek locations, and a storyline that will have you scratching your head a bit as the story nears its end.

More romance!
Arrow’s transfer looks far too good for a load of (entertaining) old rubbish like this, but if you’re a fan of HIRED TO KILL you’re going to love it. Extras include two twenty minute interviews - one with star Brian Thompson and another with Nico Mastorakis where he talks about the cast and the difficulties he had working with poor old Oliver Reed (it was one of the last films the mighty British actor made and he does look terribly rough). There’s also a commentary track with editor Barry Zetlin, which is more of a career overview than specific to the film. 

HIRED TO KILL -Nico Mastorakis' attempt at the action genre - is out on DVD and Blu-ray in a dual format edition from Arrow on Monday 16th May