Friday 27 January 2017

The Wailing aka Goksung (2016)

“Great K-Horror with No Easy Answers”

I’m stating that up front because, while THE WAILING is a great film with lots of atmosphere, some excellent performances and a lot of very interesting ideas, if you like a film that ties everything up neatly at the end with an explanation be warned - THE WAILING doesn’t do that. At all.

THE WAILING opens with a passage from the Bible that becomes relevant close to the end (I’ll leave you to discover exactly how). Then we find ourselves in a dreary, rainy village in South Korea (the film’s original title refers to the mountainous region where the village is located). Strange things are occurring, including a series of murders where the killers have gone mad and in some cases been affected by a skin condition akin to boils. 

Local police sergeant Jong-Goo (Do-won Kwak) learns that the deaths only started following the arrival of a mysterious Japanese man (Jun Kunimura with his leg all better after Takashi Miike’s AUDITION) who lives in an EVIL DEAD-like cabin in the woods. When Jong-Goo’s young daughter starts to behave bizarrely, it’s time to call in a shaman, who claims that a demon has arrived in the village and if it isn’t driven out everyone in the village will die. He seems to know what he’s doing, but does he actually end up making things better or worse? 

That’s just one of the questions you’ll be asking yourself long after THE WAILING is over. Before that you will have been treated to a plot that keeps you guessing as to just who can and can’t be trusted as Jong-Goo deals with horrible murders, demonic possession, at least one zombie (I think) and a sense of almost Old Testament-style Smiting. 

As I’ve said above, the ending leaves you with plenty of questions unanswered, & if you’ve a mind to there are plenty of message boards on the internet trying to come to grips with what THE WAILING is all about. It has been compared to David Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE in its complex plot, but whereas the Lynch film makes perfect sense once you find the right way into it, I have a feeling THE WAILING isn’t the kind of film that’s designed to have a definitive explanation. 
As long as you don’t mind that, I’d very much recommend THE WAILING. The running time clocks in at over two and a half hours but the film doesn’t feel that at all. In fact, it’s a rare film that gets to ninety minutes only for me to be relieved that there’s at least another hour to go - that’s how well made and engrossing this one is.

THE WAILING is only getting a DVD release in the UK. If the transfer that hits the shelves is anything like the review disc I was sent I’m afraid to report it’s pretty grotty, with blurring of the lush countryside every time the camera moves. As far as I can tell the release will have no extras. 

THE WAILING is out on UK DVD from Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment on 30th January 2017

Wednesday 25 January 2017

Raising Cain (1992)

Brian de Palma’s ‘Greatest Hits’ package of him, Hitchcock and others gets a valuable three-disc dual format DVD and Blu-ray release courtesy of Arrow Films.

Carter Nix (John Lithgow) is happily married to Jenny (Lolita Davidovich) and has a baby daughter, Amy. He also happens to be chloroforming and killing young mothers and abducting their children to deliver to his Norwegian mad scientist father (Lithgow again) who wants to use them in personality-splitting experiments. Dr Nix has already been at it for years, though, and Carter himself is a mixture of the violent Cain, young Josh, and psychopathic Margo (all Lithgow, who is kept extremely busy in this film). 

We learn all this through a monologue from dying psychologist Dr Waldheim (the marvellous Frances Sternhagen from THE MIST & MISERY who makes the most of her awful wig) during one of de Palma’s trademark clever camera sequences (it’s very good - you’ll want to watch this bit at least twice).

Meanwhile Jenny is having an affair, the genesis of which is detailed in an awkward and clunky flashback that culminates in a ‘shock shot’ that made me wonder if de Palma wanted to homage sub-par Ulli Lommel as well as all the other directors who are referenced in this. Carter / Cain tries to kill her and abducts Amy for more mad personality splitting. Will Jenny save her daughter? Will the police get there in time? Will the film end on one of de Palma’s trademark ‘jump’ moments, albeit one possibly pinched this time from a better movie by Dario Argento?

And that’s the main problem with RAISING CAIN - everything here has pretty much been done before, either by de Palma himself (there’s a lot of his superior DRESSED TO KILL in here) or by directors he admires. The Michael Powell PEEPING TOM vibe is a new element, but it’s such an over the top plot for a director who has never been the most restrained when it comes to these kinds of thrillers, that it’s difficult to stay with it. 

John Lithgow is excellent in all his roles. The same cannot be same of Lolita Davidovich in her one role, who just cannot evoke the levels of sympathy we felt for Angie Dickinson who sort of played the same character in DRESSED TO KILL. RAISING CAIN isn’t a bad film, but it is all rather daft, and while de Palma fans would have welcomed it back in the day it’s not difficult to see why general audiences didn’t go for it.

Arrow’s presentation of RAISING CAIN is excellent. Discs 1 & 2 are the film on Blu-ray and DVD, plus extras. There are a lot of extras, including a new fifteen minute interview with John Lithgow as well as interviews with actors Steven Bauer, Gregg Henry, Tom Bower and Mel Harris, editor Paul Hirsch, and an extensive one with composer Pino Donaggio. There’s also a video essay about the different versions of the film and a trailer.
             Disc 3 is only available as part of a limited edition, and I’d suggest snapping this one up if you can, as it’s the de Palma-endorsed re-edit of the film by Peet Belder Gelderblom, re-ordered according to de Palma’s original script. If you’ve not seen RAISING CAIN before I’d suggest you watch this first, as it does give you a very different viewing experience for the first half of the film. Well done Arrow for including this and all the other extras, which together make up an excellent package. 

Brian de Palma's RAISING CAIN is out from Arrow in a limited edition 3 disc dual-format package on Monday 30th January 2017

Friday 20 January 2017

Varieté (1925)

“Big Top Melodrama”

German film-maker E A Dupont’s smash hit 1925 silent melodrama gets a dual format release courtesy of Eureka.
Boss Huller (Emil Jannings) runs a carnival with his wife (Maly Delschaft). They have a baby. One night, a crusty old seadog comes to Boss with a mysterious girl called Berta-Marie (Lya De Putti) who has been named after the ship that brought her to port. Boss takes her in and, after witnessing several of her exotic dance routines, decides to dump his wife and child and relaunch his career as a trapeze artist with Berta.

Don't even think of stealing this man's wife
They head to the big city, where they join up with the 1920s trapeze-artist equivalent of Dave Vanian, who soon has his own designs on Berta-Marie, which she’s happy to encourage. Can any of this end well? It’s highly unlikely, especially as the movie is bookended by scenes in prison, although we don’t get to see who the prisoner is who’s telling his story until the end.

…who happens to look like this
The melodramatic tale of love and lust under the big top was a popular mainstay for all kinds of pulp entertainment, from penny dreadful short stories through to EC comic strips and beyond. It’s not surprising that Dupont’s film was such a success when it was released, and the film still stands up pretty well today. It's of interest for a number of reasons, not least that the characters that take up most of the running time are all amoral, and it's difficult to know where our sympathies (if any) are supposed to lie. The 95 minute running time hardly flags, Jannings (the Laurence Olivier of his day) gives a riveting performance and goes full Bela Lugosi for the end as he metes out his revenge. Until now I had only known him as the actor playing the lead in OTHELLO (1922) in the clip that features in the opening credits of Douglas Hickox’s THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973) but it turns out he was the winner of the very first Academy Award for best actor (he’s still the only German to have done so, apparently).

…not even if you're a trapeze artist, or the lead singer of The Damned
DP on VARIETE was Karl Freund who would go on to shoot Universal’s DRACULA (1931) and MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932) before directing their version of THE MUMMY (1932) and MGM's brilliant MAD LOVE (1935). His style is evident here, with some interesting camera tricks and uses of multiple, kaleidoscopic imagery.

The first filmic record of unicycle hockey!
Eureka’s disc comes with three score options - one by Stephen Horne, another by Johannes Contag, and the third by a group called The Tiger Lillies which is quite different and is probably worth listening to after you’ve seen the film at least once as it's a bit distracting. You also get the American version of the film which is shorter and scratchier but has a great organ score that’s also worth a listen. You also get an image archive and new writing on the film in an accompanying booklet. 

E A Dupont's VARIETE is out on dual format DVD & Blu-ray 
from Eureka on Monday 23rd January 2017

Sunday 15 January 2017

Black Society Trilogy (1995 - 1999)

Three grim and unrelenting crime thrillers that make up what is known as director Takashi Miike’s Black Society Trilogy get a Blu-ray release courtesy of Arrow Films.
The films don’t have any continuation of plot or characters, by the way. The reason they get grouped together is because they were his first films for a major studio and the first to be made specifically for cinema release (his previous movies had been in the direct-to-video world of Japanese ‘V’ cinema).

The movies do boast a consistent set of themes, though, ones that recur throughout the director’s work, so if you want to get a real feel for what Takashi Miike is all about, this is the place to start.
Arrow gives you the three films spread over two discs. Disc one kicks off with SHINJUKU TRIAD SOCIETY (1995), in which a mixed-race cop (Japanese father and Chinese mother) becomes involved in illegal child organ trafficking. Both the triad and the yakuza are involved, with the matter more complicated because the cop’s brother is the lawyer for the triad group. 

RAINY DOG (1997) flips things around by having its main character a Yakuza member who gets fired and finds a new occupation working as a hired assassin in Taiwan. Once again things get complicated when family issues get mixed up with business.
LEY LINES (1999) is probably the best and most accomplished of the three. Once again we have the mixed race theme as we follow three Japanese lads of Chinese descent who leave their semi-rural surroundings to seek their fortune in Tokyo, only to end up in trouble with a local crime syndicate.

Violence and urban squalor in LEY LINES
Each of these films offer little comfort, instead suggesting that society is corrupt and that everyone is corruptible. Scenes of sudden and over-the-top violence alternate with in-your-face sexual unpleasantness. The cold grainy photography makes these movies look as if they were shot twenty years earlier than they actually were, and even the most hardened of film fans might find it a struggle to watch all three through in one go. 
           Arrow’s new set offers new audio commentaries on all three films, as well as trailers, optional subtitles, and new interviews with director Takashi Miike and Show Aikawa who stars in RAINY DOG and LEY LINES. If, like me, you’re mainly familiar with Takashi Miike’s work from AUDITION and *that* episode of MASTERS OF HORROR, the Black Society Trilogy offers you a crash course in what’s going on inside his head. 

Takashi Miike's Black Society Trilogy is out from Arrow on Blu-ray on Monday 16th January 2017

Saturday 14 January 2017

Metropolis (2001)

“Spectacular Anime”

With only the loosest connection to the Fritz Lang 1927 original, this rather spectacular-looking anime based on Osamu Tezuka’s 1949 manga comes to Blu-ray in steelbook format (the dual format release is coming a bit later on) courtesy of Eureka.

We’re in one of those massive futuristic cities that you cannot help feel Godzilla would love to smash to bits with some of his friends if he had the chance. Duke Red has just unveiled his new building, a ziggurat that has great big lasers in the top floor, and a throne for whoever is presumably meant to control them, but who is it to be?

The answer lies in the bowels of Metropolis, where mad scientist Dr Laughton has been put to work by Duke Red creating a robot daughter for him called Tima. Duke Red has special plans for Tima, but he reckons without a private investigator and his son who have been employed to find Laughton, and Red’s own adopted son Rock, who hates robots with a vengeance and shoots any that he can. The lab gets destroyed and Tima ends up on the run, with everyone in hot pursuit. But what will happen if / when she gets to sit on that throne?

The background art in METROPOLIS is stunning. You could quite easily sit through the entire film ignoring the plot and characters and treat it as a glorious picture book of high definition art. For no other reason than this I found myself glued to the screen.

The animated characters are a bit different, and how you react to the way they are designed will probably influence how much you like this. Rock is presumably intended to be a cool villain but he looks about six years old. Most character designs seem to expand as you go south, with recurrent ‘Popeye’ syndrome in people’s legs and calves that are wholly out of proportion to the rest of their bodies. It’s not enough to spoil the film but if you’re not that familiar with this kind of thing (the last time I saw this sort of animation was probably Battle of the Planets back in 1978) then it’s a bit distracting.

Eureka’s Blu-ray comes with both Japanese and English dialogue options, both in either stereo or 5.1. The 5.1 mix is excellent, with explosions and gunfire echoing all around. There are three (!) English subtitle track options - US original, original Japanese translation, and newly commissioned subtitles. You also get a making of, interviews with the film’s creators, multi-angle animation comparisons, and a trailer. 
         When it was released, Roger Ebert apparently called METROPOLIS the best animated film he had ever seen. I can easily see where he was coming from. It has dated a tiny bit, but there’s still nothing quite like this out there. If you’re new to anime, this is a good place to start. Fans will be getting this anyway. 

METROPOLIS is out as a Blu-ray steelbook from Eureka on Monday 16th January 2017. The dual format DVD & Blu-ray release is out on 13th March 2017

Friday 13 January 2017

Blair Witch (2016)

“Lives Up to the Comparison to Friday the 13th Part V on the Box”

Of course it had to happen. After the somewhat scrappy and uninspired remakes of HALLOWEEN (2007), FRIDAY THE 13TH (2009) and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (2010) it was only fair that young moviegoers of the twenty-first century also got to have their own remake of the most successful horror film of 1999. Directed by horror’s own ‘King of Swingers’ (of the camera that is), Adam Wingard’s BLAIR WITCH is getting a digital, DVD and Blu-ray release from Lionsgate.

It’s kind of a sequel as well as a remake, in the way that films that are anxious to cover all the bases in a desperate attempt to appeal to as many people as possible are. James Allen McCune plays James, whose sister Heather (nudge nudge) disappeared in the woods around Burkittsville when he was four years old. Convinced by some dodgy video footage that she’s still there, he sets off with some friends on his own ill-advised and ill-equipped journey into the Heart of Found Footage territory.  

BLAIR WITCH received decidedly mixed reviews on its cinema release last year and it's not difficult to see why. If you're a fan of the found footage subgenre this hits all the bases (not much happening for the first thirty minutes, followed by lots of frantic running around and wobblycam, brief glimpses of things towards the end). If you're not then you probably aren't going to watch this anyway, as, sadly there's nothing in BLAIR WITCH to distinguish it from the plethora of BLAIR WITCH wannabes from five years ago you can probably still find down the pound shop.

And that’s a great shame, because there are a couple of supremely scary and unnerving ideas here in desperate need of a proper film to be made about them. The group seem to get trapped in a time vortex, where a night can last five days. The drone they bring with them, in a nice touch, reveals from the air that the forest has changed and all paths leading out have vanished. 

None of this is used to any effect, however. Instead we have Mr Wingard using his ‘swing the camera around as much as possible' style that has marred pretty much everything he’s made except THE GUEST (I’m beginning to think that’s his LORDS OF SALEM as it’s the only thing by him I really like). The sound design is horrible, veering between people whispering and then SHOUTING VERY LOUDLY or people mumbling and then ROCK MUSIC PLAYED AT AN ABOMINABLE VOLUME. It’s all profoundly irritating, uninspired, and very annoying. It also made me feel old - make of that what you will.
            Lionsgate’s DVD and Blu-ray release comes with a Wingard commentary, plus a number of making of featurettes and a special ‘low sound option for late night viewing’. 

Adam Wingard's BLAIR WITCH is out from Lionsgate on digital platforms from 16th January 2017 and it gets a DVD and Blu-ray release a week later on the 23rd. 

Thursday 5 January 2017

Satanic (2016)

“Decent retro-styled drive-in fare deserves better title”

It does, because Jeffrey Hunt’s SATANIC, getting a UK DVD release courtesy of Soda Pictures, isn’t bad at all, especially if you fancy a modern version of an early 1970s exploitation picture about devil worship and teenagers bound for misadventure.

Four friends decide to spend their spring break visiting sites of ‘occult interest’ in Los Angeles. These include Anton Lavey’s Church of Satan, which looks more like Betty Crocker’s Eggshell Blue Bungalow of Lovely Cakes from the outside, and the site of the Manson Family murders. Heading downtown they pop into the local shop of Black Magic and Occult Paraphernalia and make an enemy of the bald-headed proprietor who has an inverted cross tattooed on the back of his scalp.

         Because they are American movie teenagers they exhibit the classic characteristics of not just being Annoying but being Unwise as well, they decide the best way to handle this fracas is to wait until the shop closes and follow the chap and his friend in their pickup truck to their Deserted Barn Location of Satanic Worship.

They peek through the window to witness a scene that I hope is a tribute to Jack Starrett’s 1975 RACE WITH THE DEVIL. They even interrupt it and end up the next day having fizzy drinks with the intended sexy naked teenaged sacrificial victim. She has clothes on by now, of course. Being true to their Unwiseness, the teenagers offer her a place to stay but unfortunately she turns out to be even more raving bonkers than the people back at the barn. 

         Horror ensues, and the teens find themselves on the run from something so terrifying we never really get to see it, but that’s okay, because the ending is sufficiently well shot and lit and with enough of a punch at the end that you don’t mind that too much.
         SATANIC really isn’t bad at all. Imagine the kids wearing flares and this could easily be the kind of thing Jack Hill was making in 1973. It's a sad thing to say, but these days it’s actually a  delight to see a competently made low budget film in this era of got-camera-make-DVD-budget-rubbish. The one quibble I would have is that something like this really shouldn’t be shot in 2.35:1 with crisp digital photography. SATANIC would be so much more effective (and far more terrifying) if we could have it in grungy grind house 35mm, preferably in 4:3 and transferred to VHS. There are no extras. SATANIC is by no means as good as Mike Flanagan’s OUIJA 2, but if you fancy some devil worship stuff with a similar retro feel, then it's pretty good fun for 80 minutes. 

Jeffrey Hunt's SATANIC is out on UK DVD from Soda Picture from 2nd January 2017

Monday 2 January 2017

Somnus (2016)

“Not as good as BLAKE’S 7”

Not by a long way. Chris Reading’s slick, posh-looking, low budget, high concept, UK-made SF movie that sadly gets too many vital things wrong gets a DVD release courtesy of Soda Pictures.
We kick off with a charming prologue set in 1952 that looks as if it was shot on the Severn Valley Railway. There’s a train and a scientist and a mysterious book that we assume will figure prominently later on.

Three hundred years later. The crew aboard a commercial spaceship are starting to have problems with their on-board computer, Meryl, who has developed a distinct case of the HALs. While she’s busy bumping them off the ship itself develops a few problems and has to land on a remote asteroid called Somnus that houses a former penal colony, the few remaining members of whom have gone a bit nuts. Somehow that book from 1952 figures in that. Don’t ask me how. It gets even more confusing before the film stops.

I can’t decide if SOMNUS is admirably ambitious, but saddled with a director who hasn’t a clue how to tell a story properly, or if it's actually a shamelessly derivative rip-off of someone’s favourite scenes from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, ALIEN, DARK STAR and (yes) BLAKE’S 7. All of those did a far better job of telling the story I think we have here than this. Mind you, even RED DWARF could have done a better job with the central idea in 25 minutes than the 83 minutes we have here (including the obligatory interminable end credit crawl to pad this thing out to something resembling feature length).

It’s a shame because I really wanted to like SOMNUS. The effects and model work are very good for such a low budget, and you could definitely have got away with the level of acting we see if the story had been better presented. All that means SOMNUS is House of Mortal Cinema’s first infuriating film of 2017. Extras include a trailer and a director’s commentary.

SOMNUS is out on DVD from Soda Pictures on 2nd January 2017