Saturday, 16 September 2017

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

"Beautiful Transfer of an SF Classic"

The 1959 James Mason-starring version of Jules Verne's novel gets a spectacular 4k restoration and transfer to Blu-ray from Eureka.

Edinburgh in the late nineteenth century. 1950s teen heartthrob, pop singer and geology student Alec McEwan (Pat Boone) brings a lump of volcanic rock to Professor Lindenbrook (James Mason). Lindenbrook finds a plum-bob buried in the middle of it, and the writing on its metal surface suggests its owner undertook an expedition to the centre of the earth.

Lindenbrook plans a similar journey through an extinct Icelandic volcano, with widowed Carla (Arlene Dahl), beefcake local Hans (Peter Ronson), Pat Boone and his squeezebox in case a song is needed (it apparently might be) and a duck called Gertrude. But they reckon without Count Saknussemm (Thayer David) who is there to provide a bit of antagonism in a story that is otherwise essentially 'There And Back Again' but to Centre Earth rather than Middle Earth (sorry).

Coming in at over two hours, Henry Levin's film is epic late 1950s cinema of the very best kind, shot in Cinemascope and with plenty of wide open vistas, endearing acting, a fabulous Bernard Herrmann score (which sounds great here) and some trippy sets and effects that still hold up pretty well. Verne's ideas like an ocean beneath the earth and the buried city of Atlantis would influence fantasy writers from H P Lovecraft to Michael Moorcock and beyond, and they're rendered beautifully (and quite otherworldly) here. While the dimetrodons are just lizards with fins stuck on them, they're photographed as effectively as possible for the era.

Eureka's 4k restoration looks fabulous. Turn off the lights, put this on, and revel in the warm colours of an age of cinema long past while Bernard's bass clarinets vibrate your sound system in either 5.1 or stereo PCM (I preferred the 5.1). There's also an isolated music and effects track and so there should be. 

You also get a commentary track with Diane Baker who plays James Mason's daughter in the film (I'll always remember her best as playing opposite Joan Crawford in William Castle's 1964 STRAIT JACKET). Baker is accompanied by film historians Steven C Smith and Nick Redman. There's a talking head piece from Kim Newman that lasts just over 20 minutes and covers plenty of aspects of the film, a restoration featurette and trailer. Finally, the disc comes with a booklet featuring archive images, a poster gallery and a review of the film from the time. 

Blu-ray from Eureka on Monday 18th September 2017

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Don’t Torture A Duckling (1972)

"An Absolute Classic"

Lucio Fulci's superior, downbeat giallo gets a dual format release courtesy of Arrow Films.
Someone is murdering little boys in a remote Italian town. Is it naked Barbara Bouchet with her wave tank and drug problem? Or mad Florinda Bolkan who likes to stick pins in wax effigies and bury them next to the skeleton of her aborted child? Yes we're firmly in Italian horror film territory from the get go with this, which is actually rather better than Fulci's previous giallo effort, LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN. In fact I've probably done it an injustice by so far making it sound a bit sillier than it actually is. 

Typical gialli of the early 1970s tended to emphasise 'with it' characters living in fashionable apartments and enjoying glossy lifestyles. DUCKLING's setting is an Italian peasant town, with sometimes dressed (and whenever she is it's always fashionably) Barbara Bouchet looking as anachronistic as the concrete highway that towers over the landscape and olde worlde town where all the action takes place. DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING's story unfolds  not in the world of high rise penthouses and devious scheming murderers, but in a far more old-fashioned milieu of superstitious peasant folk and the all-pervading presence of religion. 

Fulci's directorial style is thoroughly dispassionate throughout - we are shown the events but are only rarely encouraged to relate to the characters on screen. It's interesting to note that the one time we are it's when Fulci involves us in the horrific torture and murder of Bolkan's character by a quartet of local men seeking revenge. Fulci's bleak bitter view of humanity comes to the fore here, where not only is Bolkan portrayed more sympathetically than at any other time in the film, but extra emphasis is placed on the unwillingness of those driving past the cemetery in which the attack takes place to stop and help. And as if he's worried the audience hasn't been manipulated enough Fulci rams his point home by having Riz Ortolani's music play a sweet and soulful song as Florinda gets beaten to death with chains. 

      Again contrary to many of the gialli of the time, the reason for the murders is anything but ludicrous and despite its catchpenny title DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING has one of the better (and less ridiculous) giallo denouements, with a typically horrific end for the killer. 

The use of a headless toy duck as the key to the mystery is really rather silly, but it's interesting to note that fourteen years later Fulci returned to the giallo form with his controversial and bleak slasher film THE NEW YORK RIPPER, which also featured a toy duck as a vital clue in identifying that movie's quacking-voiced killer. Perhaps Fulci had a thing about them, in which case we should be glad he never ended up making MR POPPER"S PENGUINS. But then again, that might have been interesting...

Arrow's new transfer looks substantially better than Blue Underground's Region One DVD. For extras you get an excellent commentary track from Troy Howarth that even gives us a potted history of J&B at the 90 minute mark! There's also Hell Is Already With Us - a video essay by Kat Ellinger, archive interviews with Fulci, Bolkan and assorted technical personnel, The Blood of the Innocents - a video discussion by Mikel J Koven, a reversible sleeve and a booklet with notes by Barry Forshaw. Another must-buy. 

Lucio Fulci's masterly DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING is out on dual format from Arrow Films on Monday 11th September 2017

Friday, 8 September 2017

The Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975)

"Warning: May Dispel any Lurking Nostalgia for the 1970s"

Sergio Martino's 1975 Italian crime thriller ( = poliziotteschi) gets a 2k restoration dual format release from Arrow Films. 

Rollercoaster Of Crime!
At a wedding that looks as if it was gatecrashed by the film-makers, a girl is pursued and eventually killed by a man in sunglasses so shiny we can see the camera crew. Undercover, no-nonsense, SWEENEY-like (ie extremely violent) cop Paolo Germi is already on the case as it turns out the girl was a member of an underage prostitution ring.

His investigation leads him from sleazy dives to a corrupt group of rich businessmen, while a killer is busy bumping off anyone who might be a threat to them. 

Featuring some of the most horrible fashions / locations / wallpaper / spectacles / prostitutes ever seen in 1970s exploitation cinema (and that really was the decade of tat), Sergio Martino's picture is far more a brutal, amoral crime thriller along the lines of movies like Fernando di Leo's MILANO CALIBRO 9 (1972) or British equivalents like Douglas Hickox's excellent SITTING TARGET (also 1972) than any of Martino's slicker, more stylish gialli.

J&B in a box at the back!
So if you're looking for beautiful women, black-gloved killers, lashings of J&B, a daft psychological back story and perhaps the odd puppet you'll have to look elsewhere. However, if your tastes run to amoral brutal cops, ladies with ridiculous hair and awful underwear, and chase sequences that look very unsafe indeed (especially the one on the rollercoaster) then you'll love this. And I'll admit a big cardboard box of J&B does make an appearance in one scene. 

More fashion!
Arrow's dual disc set comes with new interviews with director Martino and DP Giancarlo Ferrando, and a new audio commentary track from Troy Howarth. You also get a booklet featuring new writing on the film by Barry Forshaw and a reversible sleeve. 

Sergio Martino's SUSPICIOUS DEATH OF A MINOR is out on dual format from Arrow on Monday 11th September 2017

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Kill, Baby...Kill! (1966)

"(Don't) Follow the Bouncing Ball"

With its slightly silly, albeit very 'swinging' 1960s title (and the alternative - OPERAZIONE PAURA - makes it sound like a spy film) what some claim to be Italian genre stylist Mario Bava’s greatest film gets a 2k restoration dual format release from Arrow Films.

Carpathia 1907. Dr Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) is called to a remote village to perform an autopsy on a girl who has thrown herself from a great height onto something spikey before the credits have rolled. 

It turns out she is not the first to have died under mysterious circumstances. The locals believe their village to be cursed. Is there a serial killer bumping people off? Or is that creepy little girl we keep seeing anything to do with it?

The path of investigation eventually leads to a crumbling villa that looks suspiciously like the house from Riccardo Freda's TERROR OF DR HICHCOCK (1962), and the old lady who lives within & harbours a terrible secret.

Whereas Vincent Price was the star of Roger Corman's gothics, and Cushing and Lee were the stars of Hammer, the star of a Mario Bava film was always the director himself, and this one is no exception. Like so much Italian horror cinema of the period, KILL BABY KILL is not so much about plot as it as about ravishing visuals, disorientating nightmare sequences and genuine scary bits. 

If you love this sort of thing then you'll easily forgive some of the stilted acting (especially between leads Stuart and Erika Blanc) and a music score from Carlo Rustichelli that plays as if it's trying to wake the dead all by itself. 

Arrow's disc comes with a brief introduction by Erika Blanc, Italian and English dialogue tracks, the usual fact-packed and erudite commentary by Tim Lucas that's an education in Bava's cinema in itself, but don't miss Kat Ellinger's excellent video essay on Bava as well. There's also an interview with the director's son Lamberto Bava and YELLOW, a short film homage to the director.

Mario Bava's KILL, BABY... KILL! is out on dual format from Arrow on Monday 11th September 2017

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Temple (2017)

“Like a 1950s B Movie”

And I don’t mean one of the good ones. The latest movie from writer Simon Barrett (THE GUEST, BLAIR WITCH, some of the worst bits of the VHS movies) gets a UK DVD release from Thunderbird.

Kate (Natalia Warner) is writing her thesis on ancient Japanese temples even though she looks as if she’s constantly auditioning to host MTV (is that even a thing any more?). She speaks no Japanese and has one of those fixed smiles with too many teeth that very quickly start to look creepy in a risus sardonicus tetanus kind of way. She comes to Japan to meet up with her boyfriend James (Brandon Skienar) who boasts hipster hair, torn jeans that are too tight, and absolutely no ability at speaking Japanese either. That’s why Kate has brought along life long platonic heterosexual male friend (pardon?) Christopher (Logan Huffman) to do all the work while she and James wrap themselves around each other in front of him.

They discover a handwritten manuscript in a shop. It depicts a temple. The store owner tells them the temple is evil. Kate thinks it would be the ideal place to use as the starting point for her thesis. Let’s hope her work isn’t funded with public money because this really isn’t the best use of it. The shopkeeper refuses to sell them the book. Christopher comes back later. The shopkeeper has gone to be replaced by creepy ghostly GRUDGE boy who lets Christopher have the book. Christopher suspects nothing. The audience is already way ahead of everybody (including the film-makers).
They travel to the remote village where the temple is. Villagers behave like extras in a Hammer film, ie their acting is stratospherically better than either Kate or James (Christopher’s not too bad). They stay at the inn where considerate Kate has sex with James in front of platonic lifelong best friend Christopher. 

Next day GRUDGE boy appears and leads them to the temple. There’s a creepy statue outside it. Will they end up staying till after dark for no good reason? Will GRUDGE boy turn out to be GRUDGE boy? Will there be some running around handheld camera antics before the inevitable ‘is that it?’ conclusion that these 75 minute movies seem to mistakenly think is okay for a modern audience to spend its hard earned cash on? 
TEMPLE is especially disappointing because there are the bare bones of a good scary story here that deserve better scripting. The setting is great and the bit parts are effective and well acted, but this is another of those films where 80% of the running time details cardboard cut out characters doing boring things and mouthing sub soap opera dialogue, all of which could be dealt with in the opening five minutes to allow more of the film to be devoted to the meat of the scary stuff that the film-makers obviously don’t know how to handle or develop. 
           Thunderbird’s disc has no extras to speak of. Not one of this year's best. 

TEMPLE is out on DVD from Thunderbird Releasing on 4th September 2017

Friday, 1 September 2017

The Evil Within (2017)

“Weird, Disturbing, Fascinating, A Must See”

...and I don’t say that very often. One of the rarest and most delightful pleasures of running House of Mortal Cinema is popping a review disc I know very little about into the player and it turns out to be a likely candidate for one of my films of the year. Andrew Getty’s THE EVIL WITHIN is one of those films. It’s getting a UK DVD & Blu-ray release from Screenbound, and it disturbed and scared me more than anything I saw at Frightfest last week.

Dennis (Frederick Koehler) has special needs and lives in a big house with his older brother John (Sean Patrick Flannery from SAW VII) who is going out with Lydia (Dina Meyer from SAW I, II, III & IV). John buys an antique mirror to go in Dennis’ room and in quiet moments, Dennis’ reflection starts to speak to him.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reflection tells him to kill, and that in so doing Dennis’ mental problems will improve. Dennis starts off with animals, then progresses to children and eventually adults. 

What is surprising is that we already know, from a delicious and cleverly shot opening sequence, that Dennis is prone to nightmares, and that the most recent has involved a demonic entity (Michael Berryman) unzipping Dennis’ skin and possessing him. Even so, neither this, nor several bizarre sequences worthy of David Lynch, will prepare you for an ending that might well be my favourite movie climax of the year. It’s insane, disturbing, brilliantly realised and will have you wishing there were more films like this being made these days.

The making of THE EVIL WITHIN is a story in itself. There are no extras on the disc so here’s a bit about it. It’s writer-director Andrew Getty’s only film. Shooting started in 2002 and finished in 2008 after which Getty (billionaire heir to the Getty fortune) obsessed about the editing until he died from complications due to his long-term methamphetamine addiction in 2015. The version now available was finished after his death. 

Obviously any movie should be viewed and assessed on its own merits, but knowing this about THE EVIL WITHIN certainly made me more forgiving of the bits that don’t work while wondering if the scary stuff really was just a bit too close to Mr Getty's actual state of mind. Either way, if you're looking for something a bit different and altogether more disturbing than by the numbers multiplex horror fare, THE EVIL WITHIN is absolutely worth a look. 

Andrew Getty's THE EVIL WITHIN is out on DVD & Blu-ray in the UK on Monday 3rd September 2017

Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Ghoul (2017)

“Weird, Intriguing and Really Rather Good Low Budget BritHorror”

Writer-director Gareth Tunley’s low budget mind bending (or even looping - see below) horror gets a UK DVD & Blu-ray release from Arrow.

Homicide detective Chris (Tom Meeten) has just arrived in London from the North. He’s called in to investigate a strange double murder in a suburban home, one where despite being shot several times, it seems as if the victims kept walking towards their attacker before they finally succumbed. 

Suspicion falls on Michael Coulson (Rufus Jones from HUNDERBY) who is seeing a psychotherapist called Fisher (Niamh Cusack). Chris goes undercover as a patient with depression to get a look at Fisher’s files on Coulson.
Or is that really what is going on?

Is Chris actually a patient weaving an elaborate fantasy about being a police detective? Is Kathleen (Alice Lowe) actually a psychological profiler or a teacher at a local primary school? Is Jim (Dan Renton Skinner) his colleague or Kathleen’s husband? And most important of all (and this is where it gets really interesting) is Alexander Morland (good old Geoffrey McGivern), who Chris gets referred to for further therapy, possibly a black magician who needs to trap Chris in a time loop to ensure Morland’s own immortality?

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that there are no easy answers, but there are plenty of options for you to chew over after the film has finished. Even minor dialogue exchanges (“You should have stayed in the North” says Kathleen early on) take on greater importance. In fact the biggest surprise here is how very good THE GHOUL is on only the slimmest of budgets. 

Arrow’s disc comes with a commentary track by Tunley, star Meeten and producer Jack Healy Guttmann, as well as a making of with plenty of interviews, as well as Tunley’s short film THE BARON (2013) and a trailer.
         The press release compares THE GHOUL to Roeg and Cammell’s PERFORMANCE & Lynch’s LOST HIGHWAY and while those comparisons are valid, Gareth Tunley’s film really is its own, special, weird thing and as such is definitely worth checking out. 

Gareth Tunley's THE GHOUL is out on DVD & Blu-ray from Arrow Films on Monday 4th September 2017

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Voice From the Stone (2017)

“Reminiscent of CRIMSON PEAK”

Regular readers will be well aware of what I thought of CRIMSON PEAK, and here’s another ‘gothic mystery’ that looks lovely. VOICE FROM THE STONE is getting a DVD VOD & EST release from Precision Pictures just after its UK premiere at this year’s London Frightfest.

Tuscany 1950. Verena (Emilia Clarke) is a young (but very experienced according to the dialogue) governess whose latest post is to look after Jakob, a young boy who has not spoken since his mother died in the opening scene. 

Jakob has a habit of crouching next to a wall (made of stone) where Verena believes he can hear his mother talking. He also likes swimming in the local (stone) quarry and his 1950s-style uncommunicative father Klaus (Marton Csokas) who wants to get Verena into bed just happens to be a sculptor (in stone, and eventually of nude Emilia Clarke as it so happens, just in case anyone reading this was wondering).

So anyone watching VOICE OF THE STONE hoping for lots of references to stone will not be disappointed. Anyone expecting a ghost story akin to Jack Clayton’s THE INNOCENTS or Alejandro Amenabar’s THE OTHERS will be, however, as the film offers us plenty of lovely atmospheric visuals but precious little in the way of anything else. Which is why I’ve suggested fans of CRIMSON PEAK might like it. 

The finale suggests that something supernatural has occurred, but to be honest it’s a good finale in desperate need of a good film directed by someone with the competence, integrity and confidence to carry it through. Sadly VOICE FROM THE STONE is not that film. 

Clarke, well known for her standout role as Daenerys in GAME OF THRONES lacks the maternal eroticism (and authoritativeness) of a Deborah Kerr or the nervy sexuality of Nicole Kidman, with the result that one finds oneself constantly questioning whether she is actually up to looking after children in scary gothic Tuscan mansions at all. Marton Csokas gives us a perfectly serviceable troubled widower and father of troubled son, but the most interesting casting here for films fans will be Lisa Gastoni (Antonio Margheriti’s 1966 WAR OF THE PLANETS  and BLUE MURDER AT ST TRINIANS) in a twist so throwaway it’s almost an insult.

Precision’s DVD comes with cast interviews. Amy Lee (yes that Amy Lee of regularly changing line-up band Evanescence due to allegedly being ‘a bit difficult to work with’) sings the theme tune, and you get a five minute video of her performing it that is actually a far more satisfying experience than the film itself. 

Looking lovely, but with ultimately little of substance, VOICE FROM THE STONE is the kind of film you can safely recommend to elderly relatives who enjoy non-threatening gothic dramas where you don’t have to be awake throughout the entire thing to understand it. 

VOICE FROM THE STONE has its UK premiere at London Frightfest on the Splice Media Discovery Screen One on Friday morning, 25th August. It's out on DVD, VOD and EST from Precision on Monday 28th August 2017

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Frightfest 2017 Day Five

Better Watch Out

It's Christmas, and parents Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen go out for the evening leaving 12 year old Luke (Levi Miller) in the care of 17 year old babysitter Ashley (Olivia deJonge). And that's all you need to know because anything else will spoil this, and that would be a shame because it's absolutely cracking. Another Best of Frightfest candidate.

The Terror of All Hallows Eve

Set in 1981 and feeling as if it was actually made back then (bar some dialogue slip ups), this one had its heart in the right place (teenager gets revenge on bullies, a new movie monster played by Doug Jones) but brought nothing new to the table. OK if you remember the era and fancy something very retro.

Tragedy Girls

If you loved the TV show SCREAM QUEENS or stuff like THE FINAL GIRLS you will wet yourself with glee over this one - a non-stop barrage of camp, bitchy dialogue, graphic murders, 1980s horror movie references and the best Dario Argento joke I have ever heard (in fact possibly the only one). Not a bad film to finish the festival with and it went down very well with the audience. Hopefully that's enough to help you decide if you want to watch this one. 

And that's it for another year! Let's have some lists:

The Top 5

THE BAR (probably my outright favourite of the festival)
DEATH NOTE (dir: Adam Wingard. I know! ADAM WINGARD!)
(and CANARIES, because it was great)

Floundering on the Bottom

EAT LOCALS - Not funny, not helped by incredibly annoying cast /crew members laughing at nothing and shouting in-jokes at the screen. A real case for not letting people in to their own awful film.

MAYHEM - One of my film reviewer colleagues put it better than I can "Like a 13 year old's idea of what adults actually do". Possibly the most immature, inordinately simplistic approach to any subject I have seen in some time. The only film at the festival to get me annoyed.

WHERE THE SKIN LIES - aka Where the Film Needs a Reshoot. 

           The festival was back at the Empire in Leicester Square - not one of my favourite cinemas, not least because it lacks the meeting areas that allow you to chat to others. Allocated seating in the Discovery Screens meant you couldn't bump into old friends and chat there either while waiting for the film to start. The Imax screen was massive to the point of almost being too big. Needless to say, normal service on the normal HMC home cinema system will be resumed - probably later on today. My neck and back will no doubt be giving creaks of thanks.

           ...and that's enough of the negativity. It was wonderful to meet up with old friends, make some new ones, dress up in (even more outlandish than usual) outfits and generally have a great time watching new movies. My thanks to all involved.