Thursday 31 January 2019

Crucible of the Vampire (2019)

Restrained, Surprisingly Coy British Vampire Movie

Oh yes, for a movie that belongs very much to the ‘sexy lady vampires running around an old British country house' subgenre, Iain Ross-McNamee’s new horror film may be a bit of a disappointment to those of us raised on the likes of Jose Larraz’s VAMPYRES (1974) or good old Hammer Films’ Karnstein trilogy. Not that it’s without items of interest, but for the connoisseur of this particular kind of film it’s probably worth stating that up front.

        The film starts with a black & white 17th century prologue. Ezekiel (Brian Croucher aka the second Travis) is sitting beside a cauldron and tootling on his flute when he is beset by Matthew Hopkins associate John Sterne and some of his men. Ezekiel's accused of being a witch and is hanged, and the cauldron is split in half with the stroke of a big sword.

The present day. Half the cauldron is now in a museum and the other half has just been discovered in the basement of a Shropshire country house. Assistant curator Isabelle (Katie Goldfinch) is sent to assess the find and dig it out, which must be a bit of a first for her as her hands look as if they’re far more used to seeing a manicurist than scrabbling around in an archaeological dig.

The inhabitants of the mansion are eccentric to say the least. Before long Isabelle is experiencing weird hallucinations. The gardener (Neil Morrissey) has a story to tell her and there's the increasing sense that Isabelle is being prepared for...something.

CRUCIBLE OF THE VAMPIRE boasts a fantastic atmospheric location, some good, scary makeup (that perhaps could have done with being lit a little more subtly for maximum effect) and an admirable attempt at the kind of dream sequences we used to see in the old EuroGothics of the 1970s.

Where the film falls down is partly due to a fault of pacing - it's okay for your film to be slow but there are lengthy segments of CRUCIBLE OF THE VAMPIRE that feel both stilted and redundant. Some (but by no means all) of the acting adds to the slightly amateur feel as well. 

All of this could be forgiven (at least by me) if the film had decided to go for some full tilt lurid melodrama Norman J Warren style, or perhaps try for the lyrical eroticism of Jean Rollin. Unfortunately we get neither of these and as a result CRUCIBLE OF THE VAMPIRE ends up feeling less the art house euro gothic it could possibly have been and more something undemanding audiences can watch without fear of anything disturbing or offensive popping up.

CRUCIBLE OF THE VAMPIRE is out from Screenbound in cinemas from Friday 1st February, and on dual format DVD & Blu-ray and on digital platforms (Amazon, Sky, iTunes, Microsoft, Hoopla, Vubiquity and Indemand) on Monday 4th February 2019. 

Saturday 26 January 2019

Snake Outta Compton (2018)

"Massively Silly"

And I mean that in a good way, as Hank Braxton's charmingly daft hip-hop giant monster crossover comedy gets a DVD release courtesy of Altitude Film Entertainment.
A snake gets thrown out of a plane, and gets run over in the Compton district of Los Angeles. Teenaged nerd wannabe mad scientist Vurkel (Donte Essien) picks through the remains and finds an intact snake's egg. When it hatches he subjects it to a growth ray in his bedroom-cum-laboratory. 

Our hero
The now giant snake escapes to terrorise the neighbourhood, eating a well-spoken hobo ("I'm just going to defecate in public because restrooms are for customers only") and pursued by insane police officer Denz (Joston Theney) and his rookie sidekick Ethan (Jon Kondelik). But the only hope for the city lies with a hip-hop band on the verge of signing their first record deal in between finding the money they owe to white gangster Alley Jaws (Eric Paul Erikson) and attending a rap battle (featuring some of the worst I have ever heard) in a strip club.

A villain (note our hero on the ground)
SNAKE OUTTA COMPTON is very, very silly indeed. Its depiction of Compton and the characters who inhabit it feels like a TV show for the under fives. The CGI snake is ropey and the makeup effects for Vurkel as he slowly turns into a reptile himself are of Eddie Romero quality. In fact, so tatty and silly is the whole endeavour it feels like MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND meets an episode of RENTAGHOST. 
But if you think that means I didn't enjoy SNAKE OUTTA COMPTON that's not the case at all. In fact I found the whole thing quite charming and found myself laughing myself silly on a couple of occasions. 

If John Waters made a rap movie
If you do brave it, and have as good a time as I did, stay tuned during the closing credits for a couple of really silly superheroes, followed by a lunatic reappearance by Denz that rounds the whole thing off. And I haven't even mentioned that the script appears to be crammed with gags related to song lyrics as well as touching on popular cultural icons (the dream sequence featuring dead rappers is as bold as it is ridiculous). 

Snake's eye view (the PR pack contained no shots of the snake itself, which should be all you need to know)
Altitude's DVD doesn't have any extras, which is a shame as I would have liked to have at least had some outtakes. Even so, if you like silly films, SNAKE OUTTA COMPTON is much better than anything from the SHARKNADO series. The characters are engaging, the script has plenty of jokes and if there was a sequel to this I wouldn't think of missing it. 

Hank Braxton's SNAKE OUTTA COMPTON is out on UK DVD from Altitude Film Entertainment on Monday 28th January 2019

Saturday 19 January 2019

Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

"B Movie Psycho Thriller - Robert Aldrich-Style"

Eureka continue their praiseworthy work of bringing us more Robert Aldrich films on Blu-ray with the release of the 1964 Southern Gothic he made just before THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (also available on Blu-ray from the same label).

It's 1927 and plantation owner 'Big" Sam Hollis (Victor Buono) is giving John Mayhew (Bruce Dern) a telling off, and with good reason. The already married Mayhew has been planning to run off with Sam's daughter Charlotte. Now he has to break it off or Sam will break him. John gives the news to a Charlotte that looks as if she's played by Bette Davis but lit with considerable chiaroscuro. 

Understandably upset, Charlotte runs off. The party at which all this is happening carries on and John gets meat cleavered to death by an unseen assailant in a manner soon to become beloved of Italian film-makers. Many years later, Charlotte (Bette Davis now without the chiaroscuro), considered to be responsible for the murder but not in prison due to 'Family Influence' lives in the now crumbling mansion pretty much by herself. And the council want to build a bypass. Instead of lying down in front of the bulldozer Arthur Dent-style she shoots at the workmen. But they're only going to stay away for so long, and when cousin Miriam (Olivia De Havilland) comes to visit Charlotte thinks it's the end of her worries. But the real horrors might just be starting. 

Clocking in at 133 minutes, HUSH...HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE is actually rather overlong for the story it wants to tell. Often spoken of in the same breath as Aldrich's superior WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962), HUSH...HUSH is actually more the kind of over the top psycho thriller that by 1964 both Hammer Films and William Castle (with the help of Jimmy Sangster and Robert Bloch) had proven themselves to be rather more adept at making. That's not to say HUSH...HUSH isn't worth watching - the photography and production design are memorable, and Frank deVol's music score doubtless influenced 'horror' composers like Ronald Stein. It's also fun to see Hollywood heavyweights like Bette Davis, Olivia De Havilland and Joseph Cotton playing out this kind of lurid melodrama, just don't expect something with the depth of BABY JANE.

Eureka's Blu-ray comes with two commentary tracks, including a brand new one from Kat Ellinger and another from Glenn Erickson. I'm not going to steal their thunder but the shooting history of this one is almost as good a story as the one on screen, especially as the movie was intended to co-star Joan Crawford - and footage had been shot - before things began to go horribly wrong. There's also a 22 minute making of, a 13 minute talking head piece from Bruce Dern, and five minutes of behing the scenes archival footage narrated by Joseph Cotton. Finally, there's a trailer, TV spots and a booklet featuring a new essay by Lee Gambin. 

Robert Aldrich's HUSH...HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE is out on Blu-ray from Eureka on Monday 21st January 2019

Wednesday 16 January 2019

Opera (1987)

"It's Not Over Until the...What Have You Got That Big Shiny Knife For? "

Dario Argento's final great giallo (arguably but we'll leave that for another time) gets a new UK release from Cult Films in a 2K transfer on dual format DVD & Blu-ray, and Video on Demand. 

When the lead in a new version of Verdi's opera Macbeth breaks her leg after a temper tantrum, understudy Betty (Cristina Marsillach) finds herself the centre of attention, both as Lady Macbeth and as the obsession of a crazed killer who wants to tie Betty up and stick needles under her eyelids, forcing her to watch as they murder people stylishly before her very wide open eyes. 

Oh yes we're very much in Argento land with OPERA, from the impressive opening shot of the orchestra reflected in a raven's eye to the use of those very birds to unmask the killer to the utterly daft finale that doesn't stand up to any kind of logical analysis, so don't even try.

Instead, revel in Argento's gliding camera, play spot the 1980s Italian horror star (Barbara STAGEFRIGHT Cupisti, Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni from DEMONS 2 and others), delight in the considerable variety of musical styles on offer on the soundtrack, surely the most eclectic to any Argento movie, and once you've done all that, mourn that this is a kind of film and style of film-making we're unlikely to see much of (if any) in the future. 

Cult Films' Blu-ray transfer of OPERA is presented in the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio and the transfer is a vast improvement over the old Anchor Bay DVD. You get the option of either English or Italian dialogue tracks (both 2.0 stereo) and there are removable English subtitles. 

Extras start off with over 44 minutes of behind the scenes footage (with English subtitles). Aria of Fear is a new 40 minute interview with Argento in which he goes into detail about the making of the film. Finally, there's just over eight minutes of  comparing the 35mm 'open gate' version with the restored colour corrected 2.35:1 print.

Dario Argento's OPERA is getting a dual format release 
and a VOD release from Cult Films on 
Monday 21st January 2019

Friday 11 January 2019

The Little Stranger (2018)

"Beautifully Chilly Gothic Thriller"

I think thriller is the best non-specific way to describe this one. There are plenty of other terms I could use but whether or not they're appropriate will very much depend on your own interpretation of it. THE LITTLE STRANGER is an adaptation of a novel by Sarah Waters and the director, Lenny Abrahamson, is probably best known for his 2014 picture ROOM. It's getting a UK DVD release (but not Blu-ray for some reason) from Fox.

A couple of years after the end of World War II, Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleason) arrives to take up a partnership post in a quiet general country practice. Before long he is called to Hundreds Hall, where his mother used to work as a maid for the Ayres family. He finds the house close to ruin and the family in decline, scarred by both the war and bad fortune. But is there something else in the house that may turn out to be even more threatening to the Ayres than either? 

It's difficult to discuss much about THE LITTLE STRANGER without spoiling it, but I will say that you're very much left to make up your own mind with this one. There's the suggestion a ghost might be haunting the house. About halfway through I came up with my own explanation for everything that had been happening, one that didn't involve any ghosts at all, at least not in the traditional sense.

What I can say is that THE LITTLE STRANGER is very much about the British class system. We learn that Faraday visited the house as a boy, and there's a poignant moment where he points out the slightest hint of his arm on a photograph, the rest of him obscured by one of his 'betters'. There are plenty of subtle allusions to what Faraday's 'place' in society is considered to be, but the ending was sufficiently ambiguous as to what has actually happened it made me want to watch it again to see if my own theories held water. 

       Fox's disc comes with a commentary track by Lenny Abrahamson, who has his own ideas on what he was trying to convey. You also get a behind the scenes featurette and a trailer.

THE LITTLE STRANGER is a beautiful film, beautiful in terms of its measured study of the decay of the aristocracy after the war, the elegantly drab locations, and some strong performances from its leads (including Ruth Wilson as the daughter of the Ayres family and Will Poulter as her battle-scarred brother). Just don't expect it to all be resolved at the end. 

Lenny Abrahamson's film of Sarah Waters' THE LITTLE STRANGER is out on UK DVD on 
Monday 14th January 2019

Sunday 6 January 2019

Under the Tree (2018)

"An Icelandic Gem"

Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurjónsson's dark suburban satire gets a dual format and on demand release from Eureka.
When Atli's wife catches him watching a video of Atli having sex with someone else, she throws him out of the house, instigates custodial proceedings regarding their daughter Asa, and refuses to speak to him.

He moves in with his parents at just the same time as they embark on a bitter dispute with their neighbours. Atli's parents have a large tree, which is casting a large shadow on next door's property. The neighbours have complained repeatedly but nothing has been done. 

After a few episodes of petty vandalism, the family cat goes missing. Will the neighbours' dog be next? And why have they just bought a chainsaw?

A funny, dark, and bloody satire on the perils of living in suburbia, UNDER THE TREE pulls off the tricky balance between the horrors of what is happening to its main characters while at the same time allowing us to appreciate just how ludicrous everything increasingly becomes. 

The Independent has called it 'FARGO done Reykjavik-style' and there's certainly a touch of Coen brothers-style madness to the proceedings, and a similarly skilful handling of actors as they get more and more mired in the Alan Ayckbourn-style story.

Eureka's disc comes with an entertaining 23 minute Making Of, and the English subtitles on the movie are optional. 

UNDER THE TREE is out on Blu-ray, DVD & VOD from
Eureka from Monday 14th January 2019

Thursday 3 January 2019

Searching (2018)

"Excellent Timur Bekmambetov Production"

In case you don't know, he's the man behind the recent wave of movies that use modern social media techniques as cinematic narrative devices, turning the movie screen into a computer screen (or is it vice versa). So far his projects have included UNFRIENDED (2014), HARDCORE HENRY (2015) and UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB (2018). SEARCHING is the best use of this kind of storytelling so far and it's getting a digital release on Christmas Eve followed by a DVD release on 7th of January, with a Blu-ray release exclusive to HMV.

John Cho stars as David Kim who, after the death of his wife from lymphoma, has had to raise his daughter Margot (Michelle La) on his own. When she fails to return from a study date, he calls the police. Thirty seven hours later they still have no leads, and so he decides to start his own investigation, beginning with Margot's laptop. He soon discovers his daughter has been living a whole other existence he never knew about, and from there he enters a race against time, following Margot's digital footprint before any trace of her disappears forever.

That's just the start of the film and all you need to know, except to say that SEARCHING is an excellent, suspenseful thriller that utilises its novel method of storytelling very well indeed. Apparently Mr Bekmambetov has just completed a horror picture called UNFOLLOWED and is on post-production with a romantic comedy called LIKED and if they're as good as SEARCHING they'll be must-sees when they come out next year.

Sony's Blu-ray of SEARCHING comes with a commentary track from Aneesh Chaganty (co-writer and director) and Sev Ohanian (co-writer and producer) and both come across as (understandably) enthusiastic about their debut feature. You also get two featurettes: Changing the Language of Film and Update Username: Cast & Characters. Both are enlightening and worth a watch but leave them until after you've seen the film or you run the risk of spoilers.

SEARCHING is out on Digital on Christmas Eve 2018 followed by a DVD release on 7th January 2019, 
along with a Blu-ray that's exclusive to HMV