Sunday 23 April 2017

Broadchurch Series 3 (2017)

        Chris Chibnall’s West Country-set coastal crime drama returns for a final series, now getting a Blu-ray and DVD release from Acorn Entertainment.

         This time, DI Alex Hardy (David Tennant) and DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) are called in to investigate the brutal sexual assault on a local woman, Trish Winterman (Julie Hesmondhalgh). 

         From the off things are not quite as they seem, as it turns out Trish is reporting the crime several days after it occured. The fact that it took place at a party where seemingly most of the town were in attendance means that soon the suspect list is looking longer that the credit roll at the end of the programme.

         Meanwhile, the shadow of previous events still hangs over the town, as Mark Latimer (Andrew Buchan), father of murdered son Danny, is still determined to achieve justice for his son. 

         I reviewed the first two series of BROADCHURCH two years ago here. Anyone worried that the show has continued the decline in quality that was series 2 can rest assured - this is top notch melodrama that has the distinct feel of a British countryside giallo to it, albeit without the murders but definitely with a collection of suspicious characters, any one of whom could be responsible for the crime.

         As before the acting is great, with Tennant and Colman continuing to be an appealing team. There are a number of new cast members, many of whom seem to have been culled from the ranks of the British TV comedy hall of fame. These include Roy Hudd (who was also in Tigon’s THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR), THE FAST SHOW’s Charlie Higson, and Lenny Henry (who would have thought TISWAS would eventually lead to this?).

        The whole show is engrossing and, despite some over the top moments, all played admirably straight, although anyone who has seen Charlie Brooker’s wonderful TOUCH OF CLOTH spoofs may have trouble keeping a straight face on occasion. 

         Acorn Media’s disc release comes with ten minutes of deleted scenes, a making of and a piece on Broadchurch Style. Anyone familiar with the part of the country in which it was filmed will have loads of fun spotting Books on the Hill, Murrays, The Salthouse and other Clevedon landmarks.
         All very fine stuff indeed, BROADCHURCH Series 3 puts this show back on top where UK crime drama is concerned. And yes, let’s end it now and go out on top, shall we?

BROADCHURCH Series 3 is out on Blu-ray and DVD from Acorn Media on Monday 24th April 2017. There's also a box set of all three series out that looks like this:

Friday 21 April 2017

Hard Times (1975)

          Originally released in the UK under the title THE STREETFIGHTER, presumably because Charles Dickens fans who were disappointed at not seeing Charles Bronson star in a Walter Hill-directed adaptation of that author’s satire on utilitarianism would have smashed up the cinema, HARD TIMES makes its UK Blu-ray debut as part of a dual format release courtesy of Eureka.

         America during the Great Depression. Drifter Chaney (Bronson) jumps off a freight train in New Orleans with the intention of making some money with his (extremely impressive) bare-knuckle fist fighting skills. 

         He hooks up with local hustler Speed (James Coburn) and his morphine-addicted medic friend (Strother Martin) and together they enter the world of Louisiana prize fighting. Unfortunately Speed owes money to the kind of people who like to collect with a sledgehammer, and while Chaney is trying to romance Lucy (Jill Ireland) there are others who would like to hire his skills.

         Walter Hill’s first film as director is rich in period atmosphere but stripped down in terms of plot and dialogue. In fact if you replaced bare fists with Colt 45s then HARD TIMES could easily have been a Western of the Man With No Name variety. We learn very little indeed about Chaney, who essentially arrives, fights, and then leaves at the end, having demonstrated noble intent - perhaps Hill’s stripped down idea of what masculinity should be? 

         Eureka’s disc provides us with some good extras including a talking head piece with Hill about the genesis of his first directorial project. There are also new interviews with producer Lawrence Gordon and composer Barry DeVorzon. There’s also an audio interview with Hill recorded at the NFT. The movie itself has had a 4k restoration and absolutely sparkles on Blu-ray. Finally, there’s an accompanying booklet with new and archival writing on the film and archival imagery. 

Walter Hill's HARD TIMES is out from Eureka as a dual format release on Monday 24th April 2017

Thursday 20 April 2017

Drunken Master (1978)

“Lots of Fighting & Lots of Silly”

         Yes indeed, if complex and intricate martial arts mixed with the pratfalls, gurning and silly voices of a typical British sitcom are what you want then DRUNKEN MASTER, Jackie Chan’s second breakthrough picture (following on from the same year’s SNAKE IN EAGLE’S SHADOW) is going to be just the thing for you. Eureka are bringing it out in a dual format Blu-ray and DVD release.

         Chan plays Wong Fei-Hung, (or ‘Freddie’ in the English dub), who keeps getting himself into all kinds of trouble. As punishment, his father sends him to train for a year under the auspices of martial arts master (and wine enthusiast) Su Hua Chi (Yuen Siu-tien). 

         Soon Fei-Hung is being put through the kind of training montage that would become de rigeur for these sorts of pictures but which was still pretty original back in 1978. Eventually Su teaches him the Way of the Eight Drunken Gods, and like the Oliver Reed of martial arts that he (sort of) is, he shows Fei-Hung that you have to be a bit pissed to be able to do it properly.

         Meanwhile, just as we’re beginning to wonder what all that stuff at the beginning has to do with this film, in which villainous assassin-for-hire Thunderleg (Jang Lee Hwang) has a dual to the death with his latest target, up he pops to give Fei-Hung a good slapping, before being given his latest commission - to bump off our hero’s father! Cue more training followed by intricately choreographed, well-shot, brightly lit smackdown in an attractive rural area. The End.

         If you can put up with the silly bits (and be warned there are a lot of them) DRUNKEN MASTER deserves its reputation as a great martial arts film and a fabulous showcase for the unique talents of its rising star. Chan is never less than likeable, and Yuen Siu-Tien is enjoyably crazy as his mentor.
         Eureka’s disc comes with some decent extras, including Cantonese, Mandarin and English dialogue tracks. The Cantonese is probably the best, while the English certainly adds to the feeling that this was made on a planet where they only have an approximate idea of how people speak and act. There’s also a 2002 commentary track with Ric Meyers and Jeff Yang. Check out the subtitle options, because while one is exactly what you might expect, the other gives you the kind of poorly translated (and utterly hilarious) experience you might have enjoyed on DRUNKEN MASTER's original release in the Westerm world.

    There are some good video interviews with Jackie Chan and director Yuen Woo-Ping, and good video appreciations by Gareth THE RAID Evans and Tony Rayns. Finally, if you’re like me and don’t know an awful lot about this subgenre of cinema, Michael Brooke supplies an excellent essay in the accompanying booklet that helps contextualise DRUNKEN MASTER in the history of Hong Kong cinema. A great package.

DRUNKEN MASTER is out from Eureka in a dual format edition on Monday 24th April 2017

Monday 17 April 2017

Phantasm I - V: Limited Edition Collection (1979 - 2016)



Arrow scores a hit with this ultimate collection for PHANTASM fans, with all five films on Blu-ray and DVD and a bonus disc of extras. Let’s go through all the shiny silver things one by one, shall we?

Disc 1: PHANTASM (1979)

         PHANTASM is a one of a kind. 38 years later it still remains perhaps the ultimate film of Small Town Weird, and the fact that the narrative might simply be the fevered imaginings of a bereaved young boy in his early teens means that Don Coscarelli’s stream-of-consciousness collection of oddness makes more sense rather than less. It has all the ingredients for a cult film, including an iconic, scary villain in Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man, and that elusive but essential element that makes you feel that if you just watch the film  once more you might possibly understand what it’s all about. 

         The basic plot is this. An alien disguised as a Very Tall Man Indeed is in charge of the local mortuary in a small American town. He is taking the bodies of the dead, shrinking them down into dwarves and shipping them off to his planet to be used as slave labour. Teenager Mike (Michael Baldwin), his brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) and guitar-playing ice cream man Reggie (Reggie Bannister) try to stop him. But as with so many films that achieve cult status, it’s not so much the story, but how it is told that’s important. 

         Don Coscarelli’s original looks quite spectacular in this new 4k transfer supervised by J J Abrams. For those of us who have grown up watching it via VHS and even DVD, this will still be a revelation. There’s been a tiny bit of spit and polish with CGI but it’s not intrusive and I have to say I think it makes the film look even better. Picture resolution is stunning and I don’t think anyone could imagine PHANTASM could look this good.
         The disc comes with 4 sound options: original mono, 5.1 surround, commentary track with Coscarelli, Baldwin, Thornbury and Scrimm, and ‘The Los Angeles Premiere Experience’ which is a 5.1 surround track recorded at that event. All I can say for that last one is that the audience is extremely well behaved - you get occasional applause but that’s it. However you can add to the experience from the special features to see the audience queueing up, followed by an entertaining 30 minute Q&A afterwards. You also get 30 minutes of Q&A from the Austin, Texas screening.
         Part 1 of ‘Reflections of Fear’ is a new 30 minute featurette with cast and crew reminiscing. The series carries on throughout the other discs. Ported over stuff includes an Angus Scrimm intro, a 1979 30 minute TV interview with Scrimm and Coscarelli, deleted scenes, trailer, TV and radio spots.

Disc 2: PHANTASM II (1988)

         It took nearly ten years for a PHANTASM sequel to appear, with a bigger budget and a ‘more commercial’ James Le Gros replacing Michael Baldwin as Mike. The story is basically still the same, but this time Reggie and Mike are on the hunt for the Tall Man through small town America, making PHANTASM II perhaps the ultimate gothic road movie. The effects are greatly improved from the first, and the film still boasts a terrific atmosphere as well as that feeling of ‘watch one more time & it just might make sense’. The music score has been bumped up as well. While Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave’s work on Part 1 is iconic, I actually prefer Christopher Stone’s arrangements of the music in this one, especially that end theme.
    Extras on the PHANTASM II disc include a commentary with Coscarelli, Bannister and Scrimm, Part 2 of Reflections of Fear, an archive making of, Greg Nicotero looking back on his work on the film, deleted and behind the scenes footage, Angus Scrimm’s marvellous appearance at the Fangoria convention where he runs through all his dialogue as the Tall Man in about a minute, a trailer and TV spots.


         Things start to get a bit ropey with part III. A. Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury are both back, and the film starts off well, but soon things starts to feel a bit laboured, and third time around for many of the same ideas and setups is perhaps one too many.
    Extras include a commentary with Baldwin & Scrimm, part 3 of Reflections of Fear, behind the scenes footage, deleted scene, trailer and still gallery.


        A weird film indeed is PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION, cobbled together from excess footage shot for part 1 and inserted alongside new material. While the budget for the new stuff was obviously very low, it’s still creative and on occasion extremely stylish. Like much of the series, PHANTASM IV is at its best when it’s not trying to tell any kind of cohesive story at all and is just allowed to go off into a world of weird imagery and strange contraptions. The ending of this one is exceptionally dreamlike, and the film as a whole is a definite step up from Part III.
    Extras include commentary with Coscarelli, Scrimm and Bannister, part 4 of Reflections of Fear, behind the scenes, trailer and stills gallery.

Disc 5: PHANTASM V: RAVAGER (2016)

        Carrying straight on from part IV, Reggie is still looking for Mike and the Tall Man. Or is he? Might he, in fact, be a resident in a care home for patients with dementia and PHANTASM is all in his imagination? This plot thread allows PHANTASM V to end up as perhaps the most affecting of the series, as it deals with growing old, losing our faculties, and the friendships that persist and grow and change through our lives. Oh yes, and there are giant silver spheres demolishing tower blocks, scenes of apocalyptic devastation, and a infinitely large room filled with infinite Tall Men. Angus Scrimm looks very frail in this (he passed on soon afterwards) but actually has more dialogue than in many of the other PHANTASMs. After so much time had elapsed there was much talk of if there would ever be another PHANTASM. Bearing in mind budgetary constraints and the fact that movies often felt like stream of consciousness (or even jumbled consciousness) pictures, PHANTASM RAVAGER actually provides a fine and touching end to the series. Personally I loved it. 

         Perhaps best amongst the extras is the three and a half minute introductory public information film Phantasm and You in which director David Hartman explains the PHANTASM movies for those who ‘didn’t realise the V in the title meant this is the fifth film in a series’. It’s delightfully quirky, right down to using a small child’s drawings to illustrate what happens in PHANTASM II (“due to rights issues”).  Definitely play this before the movie starts - it may even endear that friend of yours who has never seen a PHANTASM film. 

         Other extras include a commentary with Hartman & Coscarelli, Reflections of Fear Part V, the Los Angeles Premiere Experience (another 5.1 surround track with clapping), the Q&A panel from the Austin Texas premiere, deleted scenes, blooper reel, a behind the scenes bit, and a trailer. 

Disc 6: Bonus Disc

         A collection of bits and pieces old and new, including Phantasmagoria, the feature-length documentary on the making of the first four films, Reggie Bannister’s tour of PHANTASM locations, a tribute to Angus Scrimm from Kristen Deem, newly edited footage from Phantasmagoria with more Angus, a piece on the stunt sequences, and another looking at the enduring nature of PHANTASM ‘fandom’.

In summary, Arrow’s PHANTASM collection is marvellous and represents a fitting testament to perhaps the most original, offbeat and creative horror franchise ever. It’s a must buy, and the set even comes with a replica sphere and a 152 page book with new writing from Kim Newman and Bill Ackerman, plus an archive of posters and stills. Absolutely phantastic. 

PHANTASM 1-5: Limited Edition Collection is out as a dual-format release from Arrow Films on 24th April 2017

Friday 14 April 2017

Elsa Fraulein SS (1977)

SS Express!

         Welcome to another instalment of ‘Trapped in the Room With It.’ As you can guess from the film’s title, this week we find ourselves once again in the world of the Eurocine Nazisploitation picture. A place of inappropriate use of stock footage, wobbly helmets, officers’ caps worn at jaunty angles, half-hearted Nazi salutes, and abundant nudity. 


         A German major has a “brilliant” idea for rooting out spies against the fatherland. For this he is promptly rewarded by being shot so he doesn’t have to be in this film anymore. Replacing him in charge of the project is expert prostitute and reasonably good blonde Elsa Ackermann (Malisa Longo). Elsa looks as if she’d be more at home as a hostess on an ITV game show like 3-2-1. Despite her new position of authority she’s not very good at saluting either, which means she fits right in. 


         They’re all going on a train! You see the cunning / ridiculous plot is to fill the carriages with sexy ladies, the idea being that officers they pick up on their way to the front line may be tempted to tell the girls all while their guard (and trousers) are down, and thus any anti-Nazi sympathies will be revealed (along with their underpants).

Neither music nor trains. Can't think why they included it

         ELSA FRAULEIN SS aka FRAULEIN KITTY (there are no cats in uniform in this which is presumably why they changed the title) aka CAPTIVE WOMEN 4 (absolutely no idea) is from the gang who gave us HELGA, SHE-WOLF OF STILBERG. ELSA is actually quite a bit better than HELGA, mainly because ELSA has a train in it, but also because it’s more competently made and actually manages to avoid being quite so dull. 

Nice locations!

         Composer Daniel White pops up in one scene to accompany sleaze queen Pamela Stanford (memorably disturbing in Jess Franco’s LORNA THE EXORCIST) doing her Marlene Dietrich impersonation, before going on to provide  the film with soundtrack music akin to what they used to play to accompany the conveyor belt on Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game. 

More trains! 

         Eurocine don’t let us down, though. Just as you’re beginning to think ELSA isn’t too bad along comes an ending that’s as abrupt and inept as anyone who has seen HELGA might be expecting. Anyone hoping for some extras is going to be disappointed, too, as all you get are a couple of trailers for upcoming releases. If you’re a Nazisploitation completist you’ll want to see this. If you’re not you’ve probably already stopped reading. 

ELSA FRAULEIN SS is out from Screenbound on Monday 17th April 2017

Friday 7 April 2017

The Frighteners - The Complete Series (1972)

“Grim. Grotty. Great.”
         Please bear in mind when reading the above that there’s not much I love more than British TV horror shows from the 1970s. BEASTS, GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS, and others than have yet to see the light of day (TALES OF UNEASE, LEAP IN THE DARK, etc). Well now we can add another to the list of series that have finally made it to disc. Or rather, two discs, as THE FRIGHTENERS’ thirteen 30-minute tales of ‘malice and manipulation, vengeance and mounting terror’ (from the press release) gets a release courtesy of Network.
          So what do we get? Well, examples include ‘The Minder’, a brisk tale of double-crossing Northern gangsters set in a grim tower block. The script isn’t terribly clever, but the acting (from Tom Bell, Brian Glover, Warren Clarke and Kenneth J Warren) and locations will please anyone who fancies a story set in GET CARTER! land.
          Andrea Newman contributes ‘Night of the Stag’, in which mad Jennie Linden is determined to ruin the forthcoming wedding of her former lover by stalking her ex, following him back home and eyeing the knife drawer in a worrying way.
          In ‘Old Comrades’ former court-martialled soldiers John Thaw and George Innes catch up with the old army colonel (Robert Urquart) who was responsible for them being unfairly convicted and decide to do a little target practice with him.
          In ‘Miss Mouse’ an unhappy husband gets more than he bargained for from his babysitter and her mother when he inadvertently kills his wife.
          The picture used for the box art is from the final episode “Have a Nice Day at the Zoo, Darling” which rounds the series off on a suitably grim, dreary and depressing note.
          As you can probably tell by now, THE FRIGHTENERS is less HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR and a lot more like a reputable version of some of the non-supernatural stories from Herbert van Thal’s Pan Book of Horror Stories. That’s probably unsurprising seeing as the script editor is John Burke, whose own Tales of Unease collections for Pan contained stories of a similar style.
          The quality of the production is pretty standard for 1972 UK TV - shot on 16mm with one or two sets or locations, and some great British actors to carry it all through. The prints themselves are all a bit scratchy, to the point where sometimes you expect a gentleman with a large moustache to turn up and offer to ‘fix the plumbing’. Some of the episodes are in black and white. I loved it but then I would, and if the above sounds appealing, you will too. An important release from Network of a series that has been neglected for far too long. Now can we please have TALES OF UNEASE?

The Frighteners - The Complete Series is out on DVD from Network on Monday 10th April 2017

Thursday 6 April 2017

Shut In (2017)

        It’s early days but SHUT IN might just win the House of Mortal Cinema 2017 'THE BOY award for Film Most Like One Of Those Old Hammer Psycho Thrillers'. It’s also quite possible that star Naomi Watts will win the 'Sexiest Actress to Perform a Vomiting Into a Toilet Scene While Naked' award, but like I said, it’s only April and there’s plenty of time for others to try for this coveted accolade that I have just made up. Are you listening Scarlett Johansson? After GHOST IN THE SHELL this could be just the thing to get your career back on track. 

         But back to SHUT IN, which is getting a UK DVD and Blu-ray release from Arrow. It’s a French-Canadian co-production in which Naomi plays child psychologist Mary who loses her husband Richard (Peter SAW VI Outerbridge, although he probably prefers not to be called that) in a car accident that paralyses her teenaged stepson Stephen (Charlie Heaton).

         Flash forward the necessary amount of time for Stephen to be back at home and in a wheelchair, spending his days watching the same very fat weatherman on the television for what seems like days on end in his and Mary’s isolated New England home.

         There’s a storm coming that’s going to knock out the power! One of Mary’s patients is a little deaf boy who somehow comes knocking on her door one night, then disappears. Mary starts to hear weird noises. Is she hallucinating? Is there a ghost? Or is there an explanation the likes of which will have fans of Brian Clemens’ THRILLER and old William Castle psycho shockers chuckling with delight? 

         If you’re a fan of the latter then keep watching, because SHUT IN takes a bit of time to get going, but rest assured the climax is satisfyingly barmy. Watts is great, and Oliver Platt (last seen creating those weird bowel monsters in THE MASTER CLEANSE) pops in and out to help progress the plot.
         Arrow’s DVD is bare bones, with no extras. SHUT IN is definitely worth a look if you fancy a suspense thriller to while away a quiet evening. 

SHUT IN is out on PVOD from 24th February 2017 and Blu-ray and DVD from 10th April 2017

Sunday 2 April 2017

Caltiki The Immortal Monster (1959)

                                        “Tremendous Fun”

       If you like alien blob monsters crawling around the garden of a country house, that is, and who doesn’t? This cracking bit of late 1950s Italian SF directed by Riccardo Freda (credited as ‘Robert Hamton’) and Mario Bava (credited as no-one at all) gets a seriously decent dual disc Blu-ray and DVD release from Arrow.

Caltiki is not good for you, especially if you're an archaeologist

       A team of archaeologists is investigating the ruins of a Mayan temple where they find a a crack has opened up to reveal a set of descending steps. Before you can say The Rats in the Walls they’ve discovered an underground chamber with a massive (and it has to be said, very well-lit) subterranean lake. At the bottom of the lake are bones, jewels, and an enormous blob-like monster.

We love blobs!
       The blob monster presumably doesn't like being disturbed as it promptly eats one chap’s face off and latches onto the arm of another. The offending bit of the blob is hacked free but when they get the victim back to civilisation it turns out the blob has dissolved his arm and its poison has entered his bloodstream. Suffering a case of the Victor Carroons (Hammer’s THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT) our patient gets put into a bed where he begins to mutate.

Fun with a fridge!
       Meanwhile the square-jawed scientist ‘hero’ has taken some of the blob to his isolated country house where he discovers radiation makes it get bigger...and bigger...and bigger. Hooray! Then it starts to undergo binary fission and soon there are lots of blobs running, or rather squelching, about. Even more hooray! They have a great time pushing over a tiny model fridge, knocking over tiny shelves with tiny beakers on and generally crawling around a tiny model of the house, including climbing the tiny model stairs. It’s all fabulous late 1950s monster fun and you should know by now if CALTIKI is for you.

Totally justified in terms of the plot

       Arrow’s extras include two erudite and academic commentary tracks, one from Tim Lucas and the other from Troy Howarth. Mr Lucas’ is a little more fact-packed while Mr Howarth’s is a little chattier. Neither gentleman, however, points out that leading lady Didi Sullivan seems to be wearing the most see-through shirt in 1950s exploitation history during the jungle bits.

Stairway to Hell

       We also get a good 20 minute talking head piece from Kim Newman on the movie influences that led to CALTIKI’s production, plus some ported over archive stuff from a previous DVD release, including a profile of Riccardo Freda and a talking head piece from dear old Luigi Cozzi. Also included is an open aperture version of the film so you can see more of Mario Bava's effects work. Those who buy the first pressing will also get a booklet with new writing on the film by Kat Ellinger and Roberto Curti, which seems a bit unfair as everyone should be able to read what these guys have written.

The fabulous IMMORTAL MONSTER fun that is CALTIKI gets a dual format DVD and Blu-ray release from Arrow Films on Monday 10th April 2017