Tuesday 26 December 2017

Top Ten Films of 2017

Once again it's time for House of Mortal Cinema's traditional Boxing Day round up of my favourite (and least favourite, oh yes indeed) movies of 2017. As is traditional (I think I can say that now I'm six years in) the list is entirely personal and the only rule is that the film had to be shown in the UK for the first time during the year, either at the cinema or on disc, or at a festival screening. As is also traditional, I've not included the bigger budget multiplex successes that don't need any kind of further boost, so KONG SKULL ISLAND, WONDER WOMAN, THOR RAGNAROK, BLADE RUNNER 2049 and a host of others aren't here despite the fact I enjoyed them very much.

What are here, though, are the films I paid to sit through and found myself wishing I hadn't. In fact I would have been happy to pay not to see them. Here, then, is my list of the five films that had me tearing clods of velveteen from the arms of my cinema seat.

The Five Worst Films of 2017

5 47 Metres Down

That still wasn't deep enough to bury this silly tepid shark 'thriller' that possessed some of the worst dialogue in years. What could have been 127 HOURS UNDER THE SEA instead felt like it lasted that. as the most tedious film to be shot in a tank in Basingstoke ran its course, complete with totally guessable 'twist' ending. 

4 The Beaster Bunny

Look at that picture. Look at it. How could a low budget film with effects that terrible not be entertaining? But it isn't. As I mentioned in my review here, this one makes that episode of The Goodies versus the giant kitten look like KONG SKULL ISLAND. A UK DVD premiere, it should have been a UK dustbin premiere.

3 Personal Shopper

If the previous two films were the results of incompetence, the next three really have no excuse and therefore get the dishonour of being top of the list. In PERSONAL SHOPPER director Olivier Assayas manages the remarkable feat of combining a ghost story and a grisly murder mystery with the added novelty of having its famous leading lady wearing very little in several scenes and still manages to make one of the most boring films I have seen in years. So dull it doesn't even deserve the insult 'pretentious', PERSONAL SHOPPER has all the atmosphere of a two week old flannel left to dry and curl up in the sun. Dreary, insipid, uninspired and all horribly one-note, this is everything that's awful about French art house cinema. Kristen Stewart wanders around for a bit. Sometimes she's on her scooter. Every now and then fascinating plot ideas pop up and go absolutely nowhere because her self-obsessed journey into the world of ennui appears to be what the director finds fascinating, even if nobody else does. 

2 Ghost in the Shell

Big budget plus bankable star plus iconic cult source material equals big pile of rubbish. What happened here, guys? I mean, I can't claim to understand the original anime myself but where it is bursting with colour and ideas this was absolutely terrible. Flat, dull, lifeless and boring, it manages to get everything wrong, from the casting (all the actors apart from Ms Johansson have zero charisma) to the ineptly edited action scenes, to the plot which is basically ROBOCOP with a girl, to the music which is that generic soundscapey stuff when it should be helping the (non) action along. I yawned more times than I cared to count and even that would have been more interesting than what was happening on screen. Where is Paul Verhoeven and an 18 certificate when you really, desperately, need them? Awful awful awful. Avoid.

1 Rings

Because there's nothing worse or more depressing than seeing a viable horror idea not just run into the ground but repeatedly run over like some dying dog its owners have no idea what to do with and their answer is possibly the worst thing they could come up with. If nothing else, it proves that screenwriter Akiva Goldsman is still capable of ruining a franchise all these years after his crap-stained fingertips starting hitting the keyboard to give us the bag of noisy confusion that was BATMAN FOREVER (1995). In my review here I called it one of those horrible, generic, cliched, and worst of all extremely dull ‘laying a ghost to rest’ plots that kills any interest or enthusiasm you might have been harbouring for this one stone dead. I stand by that, and you should run, not walk, away from this terrible, terrible film.

Right! Having cleared the bile from my system let's take a look at my favourites of the year. My apologies if yours aren't on there but hopefully that will just give you more movies to seek out. Here we go!

10 Canaries

Peter Stray's £29000 low budget Welsh horror comedy went down well at London Frightfest and was even more enjoyable on a second screening at Abertoir. The sheer charm and rewatch value of Stray's story of aliens invading the tiny Welsh village of Lower Cwmtwrch just as everyone's getting trolleyed on Near Year's Eve earns it a place on the list. Look out for it when it gets its forthcoming DVD release.

9 A Cure for Wellness

There's so much hatred around for this one, and I loved it so much, so it gets on here. Hammer Horror lives again in director Gore Verbinski's delicious mad scientist Euro-Gothic. If, like me, you had trouble staying awake through CRIMSON PEAK then rest assured, this is much more like what a modern day Hammer Films should be making - the stuff of MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, THE REPTILE, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE and even REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN. I did get the feeling Mr Verbinkski was told to go and shoot an extra 20 minutes of an ending to explain it all, but fortunately instead he decided to go full over the top Euro-sleaze (yes the works of Jess Franco did occur to me at least twice during the climax - hurrah!) and bring the house down as well. It cost a lot and made little. We must treasure such things on the occasions they come along.

8 Housewife

Time for the stuff of nightmares. Can Evrenol was responsible for nightmarish horror (short and feature) BASKIN (2015) and HOUSEWIFE is better. If you loved the delirious weirdness of Argento's SUSPIRIA & INFERNO and Fulci's THE BEYOND then you'll get a kick out of this as well. The deliberately 'rubber reality' plot line is graced by some terrific visual compositions and a healthy dose of disturbing imagery, culminating in a final scene that's pleasingly Lovecraftian. But is any of it real, or is it all in the central character's head as she tries to justify and explain to herself the appalling act we see before the opening titles? As with all the best art house horrors, it's entirely up to you. I saw this at Abertoir and can't wait to watch it again. 

Low budget and amateurish in places, but displaying a twisted imagination worthy of David Lynch, Andrew Getty's sole contribution to cinema gets in at number seven. Even without that horrible spider thing at the climax, THE EVIL WITHIN is insane, disturbing, brilliantly realised and will have you wishing there were more films like this being made these days.

6 The Ritual

Adam Nevill's novel THE RITUAL is a modern masterpiece of grim, wet, miserable, claustrophobic horror, so much so that he's one of only two authors whose work has given me the shivers here in the cosy confines of Probert Towers. It's scarcely surprising, then, that David Bruckner's movie version doesn't quite manage to achieve the almost unbearable tension of the book's opening two thirds. It still manages to do a pretty decent job, mind, and the final act is really rather good, especially the ending. Fascinatingly (for me if no-one else), the novel feels very Algernon Blackwood-inspired (the forest IS the monster, and an absolutely terrifying one) whereas the movie feels much more Arthur Machen - the forest is more a home to an ancient people who leave mystic symbols carved into the bark as part of the obeisance to their own Great (Scandinavian) God Pan. Look at that - a Machen, Blackwood and Nevill-inspired horror film  - how marvellous is that?

5 Top Knot Detective

TOP KNOT DETECTIVE is a SPINAL TAP-type mockumentary documenting the 'classic' (ie raving mad) TV show of the title, aka DEDUCTIVE REASONING RONIN (translated from the Japanese), the film charted the success and downfall of the show and its lunatic creator / writer / director and star Takashi Takamoto who was utterly terrible at all those tasks and became a huge star. Talking head pieces, 'news footage' and of course lots and lots of clips of the brilliantly awful show made this the funniest film I've seen in years. Full marks to directors Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce and I want a disc release of this one now. 

4 The Lodgers

      Director Brian O'Malley's follow up to 2014's LET US PREY is a superb gothic ghost story set in the rural Ireland of 1920. Twins Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner) live in an isolated, crumbing gothic mansion and are safe as long as they follow the rules set down in a bizarre nursery rhyme by the 'other' occupants of the house. 
        Exactly what these are, and what is going on, is revealed in a climax that is a creative as it is nightmarish, and I would be spoiling it for you if I said any more, suffice to say if you like subtle, original, beautifully directed (some of the 2.35:1 widescreen compositions are breathtaking) ghost stories this is your movie of 2017 to watch. Netflix are apparently bidding on this now so watch out for it.

3 Shin Godzilla

My Dad saw the 1933 KING KONG on its original release, and when I was a kid I remember him telling me how people were scared to walk home from the cinema afterwards. With SHIN GODZILLA I finally got to experience how audiences might have reacted to giant monster movies back in the day. The movie has great effects, brilliant use of great music, and a gritty almost documentary feel to its proceedings (the disaster is dealt with realistically and with plenty of satire - this is a profound movie where the dialogue scenes often carry the same weight as the effects). But most important of all, SHIN GODZILLA has a monster I found (for the first time ever in my history of watching these things) quite terrifying, so much so that driving home I was looking across the city skyline just to check something hadn’t come out of the Bristol Channel. I loved it - much more than the Gareth Edwards’ remake, and much more than KONG SKULL ISLAND (which I did like, but nowhere near as much as this). The Blu-ray is out now.

2 The Handmaiden

After premiering at last year's London Film Festival this finally hit the art house circuit early in 2017, and this one really is superb. The story is compelling, the acting is just the right side of melodrama, there's some breathtaking camerawork that reminded me of Argento, and the production design is pure South Korean gothic cinema. The music feels as if every 1970s BritHorror composer got to write a bit of it (Douglas Gamley's rolling tympani, Harry Robinson's lush romantic pastoral, even the opening sounds like Michael Dress' score to HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD with its clicks and burrs as we are led around the house). What I absolutely loved the most, however, is that smack bang in the middle of this there's a lengthy sequence that involves the reading of Sadean literature, followed by a floor show that is a combination of the obscene and the artistic, which has me begging the question: is Park Chan-Wook a fan of Jess Franco? If I ever get to meet him I expect that very question will probably be met by an expression of baffled indifference, but I intend to live in hope.

1 Get Out

Probably the only time both this list and Sight and Sound's are going to have the same number one film, but I couldn't help it. If you're as old as me GET OUT will remind you of the feel of an episode of Brian Clemens' THRILLER, by way of John Blackburn's NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT. If you're not then it'll be all the more fun as it's unlikely you'll guess where it's going. Director Jordan Peele does a fine job of ramping up the oddness as our hero gets to visit his girlfriend's weird family & friends for the weekend, and I loved the reveal of what's actually going on, even if the climax could have perhaps been paced a tiny bit better. But hey, it's Mr Peele's first film & holds plenty of promise for whatever he does next.

And that's it! Bubbling under (and I actually feel bad for not being able to include some of these on the top ten) were Darren Aronofsky's MOTHER! (what the hell was it about? I don't know but I loved it), MINDHORN (brilliant British comedy), SPLIT (Shyamalan does great 1970s retro style horror shocker!), THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (brutally cynical and at the same time extremely fun office splatter pic), VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (because it really didn't deserve all that hate, especially with all that glorious colour, creativity and Rihanna as well), HAPPY DEATH DAY (surprisingly good birthday horror), BETTER WATCH OUT (surprisingly good Christmas horror) and last (but by no means least) Alex de la Iglesia's THE BAR, which was the best film of Frightfest 2017. 

So many great films! As always I want to thank everyone who's visited the site during the year - if it's as much fun to read as it is to write then my job is done. Thanks also to the PR companies who have kept me in review discs, and of course, thanks to everyone behind the scenes at the festivals I went to this year - Frightfest, Manchester Festival of Fantastic Films and Abertoir. Next up should be Glasgow Frightfest in February. Expect my write up of that, plus another ton of reviews in the forthcoming months. Here's to 2018!

The world will hear from House of Mortal Cinema again

Saturday 16 December 2017

The Apartment (1960)

"Classic Billy Wilder Gets the 4K Treatment"

Billy Wilder's Oscar-winning (Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Art Direction, Editing) and Oscar-nominated (Leading Actor, Leading Actress, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Sound) 1960 'comedy drama' gets a sparkling 4k transfer from Arrow Academy packed with extras.

New York 1959. CC 'Bud' Baxter (Jack Lemmon) works at an insurance company. His plan to get promoted is unusual, novel, and immoral: he loans out his apartment to four of his bosses to use on a rotating basis for their extramarital affairs. Sweet on elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), Bud's life starts to fall apart when the firm's personnel director, J D Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray, who surprisingly didn't get an Oscar nod amongst all the others), reveals he wants to use Bud's apartment to rekindle his affair with her.

They really don't make them like THE APARTMENT any more. Perhaps they never did. What starts off as a comedy with an apparently morally dubious tone quickly becomes a measured study of human beings and the mistakes that they make. The cast weave their way through the screenplay's light and dark, the humorous and the deadly serious. Wilder's expert direction manages just the right balance between playfulness and melodrama that's all the more remarkable considering the subject matter.

Arrow's 4k transfer of THE APARTMENT is a crisp delight. Aside from what looks like a hair in the gate at around the 100 minute mark the image is as perfect as can be. Film producer and historian Bruce Block offers a commentary track, and there's a new video essay by David Cairns on the collaborations between Wilder and Lemmon. Cairns also provides an overview of Billy Wilder's career.

You also get a 30 minute making of featurette from 2007, and an archive profile of Jack Lemmon from the same year. Film historian Philip Kemp provides a new select scene commentary and appreciation of the film, and there's a trailer and newly commissioned artwork. 

Finally (and very impressively) you get a 150 page as part of the package featuring new writing on the film by Neil Sinyard, Travis Crawford, Kat Ellinger and Heather Hyche. 

Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT is out on Blu-ray from Arrow Academy on Monday 18th December 2017

Friday 15 December 2017

Pulp (1972)

"What the Michaels Did Next"

Star Caine, writer-director Hodges and producer Klinger, that is. Coming off their ultra grim and gritty classic GET CARTER (1971) it made sense that they should instead try something completely different (well it was the era of Monty Python) rather than try and repeat what they had already done. So here is PULP, now getting a Blu-ray and DVD release from Arrow.

Mickey King (Michael Caine) is an ex-funeral director who has forsaken that life (and his wife and three kids) for the glamorous world (it possibly was back then) of writing pulp paperback novels under a variety of pseudonyms including Susan Eager, Paul S Coming, Gary Rough, Les B Han and the African writer Mr S Odomy ("accent on the ''Od' "). 

Picking up his latest manuscript from the stenographers (his ambition is to dictate 10 000 words a day just like his hero Erle Stanley Gardner) he is offered a job by Lionel Stander (Polanski's CUL-DE-SAC, Di Leo's MILANO CALIBRO 9 and..er...TV series HART TO HART). 
Stander's boss, Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney), wants King to ghost write Gilbert's autobiography. Gilbert is an ex-Hollywood star, and it turns out there are people out to kill him, as King soon discovers when he also becomes a target. 

Filmed against the backdrop of some lovely (if rather chilly-looking) Maltese locations, PULP never really gets up enough steam to become both the pulp adventure story and the knowing satire of the genre that it very cleverly (and admirably ambitiously) wants to be. That doesn't mean it's without merit though, and the opening act is a joy that any fan of the pulp literature of that period will find delightfully funny. 

Once we get to Rooney's isolated retreat, however, things slow right down, and the story meanders. There are some terrific shots, but they feel wasted on the material. PULP is a brave failure that's definitely worth a look - just don't expect either the grimness of GET CARTER or the bouncy knowing joviality of THE ITALIAN JOB - instead PULP is a somewhat tepid mix of both.

Arrow's 2K transfer is exclusive for this release, and looks as grainy as one suspects the film did when shown in cinemas. Extras include four new interviews with director Mike Hodges, DP Ousama Rawi, editor John Glen and Tony Klinger, son of producer father Michael.  You also get a trailer and a reversible sleeve.

Mike Hodges' PULP is out on Blu-ray and DVD from Arrow on Monday 18th December 2017

Thursday 7 December 2017

Carrie (1976)

"The Best Available Version of Brian de Palma's Masterpiece"

Oh yes. Aren't we horror fans grateful for the 1970s, when so many directors decided to grace us with their best work? And mustn't Stephen King have been grateful (and probably a bit surprised) when his first published horror novel was turned into what has long been acknowledged as one of director Brian de Palma's best films? What if you'd gone to see CARRIE only knowing about, say, 1974's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE? "Maybe it'll be a laugh, with a few songs and some funny performances mixed in there." Then again, maybe not.

Forget the remakes (yes there have been two so far - in 2002 with Angela Bettis and then in 2013 with Chloe Grave Moretz). I can remember nothing about either, mainly I suspect because de Palma's original is so good that it needs someone of extraordinary skill and vision to make anything comparable, combined with the supremely talented cast and crew he had at his disposal, & it hasn't happened yet. 

CARRIE has been released in the UK and the US on Blu-ray befpre in markedly different packages. To anyone / everyone who may wonder why anyone would release the film again, here's what you need to know:
It's a 4k transfer that looks better than any other Blu-ray incarnation.
All the extras from the previous UK MGM Blu-ray release have been ported over (two 40-minute documentaries, 6 minute piece on the musical and a trailer)
All the extras from the US Scream Factory Region A release have been ported over as well (except for a still gallery and text gallery). This includes all the interviews with screenwriter Laurence D Cohen, DP Mario Tosi, composer Pino Donaggio, editor Paul Hirsch and casting director Harriet Helberg. 

There are new extras in the form of a commentary track from Lee Gambin and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and a 21 minute visual essay comparing the various adaptations of the novel over the years. Arrow's package also comes with a 60 page book with new writing on the film by Neil Mitchell, a reprint of a 40th anniversary fanzine and an archive interview with Brian de Palma. 
CARRIE is a classic worthy of a place in the library of any film fan (and not just horror aficionados). Arrow's set is absolutely gorgeous and impressively exhaustive. Another must-buy from the company. 

Arrow Films are bringing out Brian de Palma's CARRIE on Blu-ray on Monday 11th December 2017

Saturday 25 November 2017

Bag Boy Lover Boy (2014)

"If MANIAC had been made as a comedy..."

...it might have looked something like this. Andres Torres' bizarre, sleazy and frequently hilarious grindhouse gem comes to disc courtesy of Severin Films.

Slow-witted Albert (Jon Wachter) works at a New York hot dog stand where he can't even keep the sausages off the floor. Spotted by Ivan (Theodore Bouloukos) - possibly the fattest photographer on the trendy Manhattan art house scene - Albert gets invited back to Ivan's studio to take part in bizarre fetish poses.

Driven (?even more) insane by the experience, all Albert now wants is to take art-house horror-based fetish photographs of his own. Armed only with a child's Polaroid camera and an inability to hold it still, he sets off to find any girl he can to pose for him, and if she won't keep that plastic bag over her head - well, he's happy to help.

One of those underground pictures that's definitely not for everyone, BAG BOY LOVER BOY, however, definitely IS for anyone who has raised a smile at the underground projects of directors such as George Kuchar, John Waters or Frank Henenlotter. In fact, perhaps the most disquieting thing about the film is the HD quality of the image - this film looks far too good for something that should have been shot in 16mm and run over several times with a tractor before being threaded through a projector. 

Extras include a commentary track with the director, actor Bouloukos and editor Charlie Williams. Absolutely essential viewing are two (very) short 'Student Films of Actor Jon Wachter' which will have you wondering how much of his performance in BAG BOY LOVER BOY is acting and how much is just him (including his rather distinctive voice). GOT LIGHT sees him being kicked in the balls by a jealous girlfriend who tries to set him on fire, while THE NEVER-STARTING STORY is a work of such monumental incompetence (complete with commentary track from the 'director') that it surely cannot be meant to be taken seriously. 

Either way, both the shorts and BAG BOY LOVER BOY raised more than a few smiles and chuckles here. If you like your comedies sleazy, blood-soaked and raving mad then this might be the film you've been waiting for all year. 

The strange experience that is BAG BOY LOVER BOY is out now on Blu-ray and DVD from Severin Films

Thursday 23 November 2017

Abertoir 2017: Final Despatches

Yes, it's all over for another year, and Mrs Probert & I are still recovering from six fabulous days of giallo in both literature & film (yes those are genuine gialli paperbacks behind us):

...cocktails (this one is The Killer Must Drink Again, a mix of grenadine, orange juice and OF COURSE, J&B)...:

...giallo cake...(yes CAKE): 

...piss poor attempts at David Hemmings impersonations in front of paintings from classic Italian movies...:

 ...scary fridges...

...at the Metropol to watch Lamberto Bava's DEMONS (1985)...

 ...at the 'Opera' to watch Dario Argento's OPERA (1987):

...trying out for the sequel to THE WITCH (2015 which we saw at Abertoir before all the hype, thank goodness):

...and of course having a splendid time in the Abertoir screening room (Helena Markos kindly gave Mrs Probert the week off from the academy provided she made it clear she was studying there):

The final two films of the festival were two of the best films I have seen all year, & I don't doubt I'll be writing about them again at my traditional Top Ten round up on Boxing Day. First up was:


        Director Brian O'Malley's follow up to 2014's LET US PREY is a superb gothic ghost story set in the rural Ireland of 1920. Twins Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner) live in an isolated, crumbing gothic mansion and are safe as long as they follow the rules set down in a bizarre nursery rhyme by the 'other' occupants of the house. 
        Exactly what these are, and what is going on, is revealed in a climax that is a creative as it is nightmarish, and I would be spoiling it for you if I said any more, suffice to say if you like subtle, original, beautifully directed (some of the 2.35:1 widescreen compositions are breathtaking) ghost stories this is your movie of 2017 to watch. 

        The director was in attendance, & we got to chat with him afterwards. Mr O'Malley cited influences such as Jack Clayton's THE INNOCENTS (1961), Alejandro Amenabar's THE OTHERS (2001) and J A Bayona's THE ORPHANAGE (2007). I am sure that in the future THE LODGERS will be grouped with those classics. Seriously excellent stuff.


        The only way you can successfully follow one of the best horror films of the year is with the best comedy of the year. TOP KNOT DETECTIVE was a wonderful way to end Abertoir. 
        A SPINAL TAP-type mockumentary documenting the 'classic' ie raving mad TV show of the title, aka DEDUCTIVE REASONING RONIN (translated from the Japanese), the film charted the success and downfall of the show and it's lunatic creator / writer / director and star Takashi Takamoto who was utterly terrible at all those tasks and became a huge star. 
        Talking head pieces, 'news' footage, and of course, lots and lots of clips of the brilliantly awful 'show' made this the funniest film I have seen in years. Full marks to writer-directors Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce for creating something that's going to be getting several rewatches here as soon as it comes out on disc.

        And that's it for another year! My sincere thanks to Gaz Bailey, Nia Edwards-Behi and Rhys Thomas Fowler for organisation that was second to none and which exhibited a degree of creativity likely to remain unsurpassed until next time; plus all the new friends we made and the old friends we got to meet again, including 'Gialli' the wonder dog. We had the best time. Normal service will recommence with my next review but right now we're still buzzing.

The Fabulous Festival that is Abertoir takes place every November in windswept Aberystwyth. I'll be publicising next year's closer to the time. But only after Mrs Probert & I have secured our passes.