Sunday 28 July 2019

Asylum (1972)

"Standout 1970s British Horror"

It's time for that overly bombastic (and to my mind best ever) arrangement of Mussorgsky's Night on the Bare Mountain courtesy of arranger-composer Douglas Gamley to start hammering through the speakers as one of the best anthology films ever made gets a whistles and bells limited edition Blu-ray release from Second Sight.

When Dr Martin (Robert Powell) attends Dunsmoor Asylum to interview for the vacant SHO (that's senior house officer) post, he finds himself set an odd task by acting head Dr Rutherford (more wheelchair acting from Patrick CLOCKWORK ORANGE Magee). He has to interview four patients and decide which of them is Dr Starr, the former head of the asylum who has undergone a state of 'hysterical fugue', allowing 'a new personality to take over', and also allowing us to enjoy a smashing British horror film.

Yes the four patients lead us into four Robert Bloch short stories, except, that unbeknownst to Dr Martin he's already in one of them. Oh yes, the quality of an anthology picture can often be measured by the strength of its framework story and ASYLUM has the best of the lot, one in which Bloch reworked one of his stories ('Mannikins of Horror') to link the action.

ASYLUM is an example of where everything comes together to create something very special indeed. The first story, 'Frozen Fear' (which traumatised your reviewer on its first BBC showing back in the 1970s to such an extent I swore off watching any horror films ever again) works because of stellar, soapy, sleazy performances from Richard Todd, Barbara Parkins and Sylvia Syms, deliciously horrid production design, and Roy Ward Baker's sensible decision to let everything build with sound before we actually see anything. It was meant to be the third story but I've always agreed with producer Max Rosenberg to put it first because it gives you enough of a jolt you wonder what on earth the rest of the film is going to be like.

Because of that the second story 'The Weird Taylor' is a quieter affair but works better because your anxiety levels have been pumped up by the first story. Consequently you feel much more weirded out by Peter Cushing and his empty house except for that coffin than you might otherwise be.

'Lucy Comes to Stay' is a bit of 1970s posh suburban horror with casting that helps the story immensely. Britt Ekland has one of her best roles as she gets to bounce off Charlotte Rampling's drug-addicted Barbara while James Villiers and Megs Jenkins add character colour.

And then the finale. Is Herbert Lom and his army of killer mannikins actually Dr Starr? If you haven't seen the film I won't tell but I will say I think ASYLUM has possibly the best ending of any Amicus anthology.
If you have Severin's US region-free Blu-ray of ASYLUM then you don't need to double dip as this is essentially the same, including the same grainy transfer (although who knows if it's possible to make ASYLUM look any better?). Extras are also the same, including the ported over Roy Ward Baker / Neil Binney commentary track from the Anchor Bay DVD. You also get David J Schow on Robert Bloch, Fiona Subotsky talking about her producer husband, the 'Two's Company' set report from 1972 and the Inside the Fear Factory Featurette.

Exclusive to the Second Sight Limited Edition is the rigid slipcase featuring excellent Graham Humphreys artwork, which is reproduced on one side of the fold out poster (the other side is the UK quad design but portrait-orientated). You also get a perfect bound book with essays by Allan Bryce (more history of Amicus that's different to the essay for HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD), Jon Towison (concentrating on the Bloch stories used here) and Kat Ellinger (a considerably more general piece this time around that doesn't really address the film at all).

ASYLUM is a great British horror film. In fact it may well be one of the greatest. If you're a fan then this is definitely the set to get.

ASYLUM is out on Blu-ray in a Limited Edition from Second Sight on Monday 29th July 2019

Saturday 27 July 2019

A Young Man With High Potential (2018)

"Portrait of a Serial Killer - in the Making"

Originally shown in the Discovery Screen strand at last year's London Frightfest, the latest release in the Frightfest Presents series from Signature Entertainment is this grim, dispassionate, never less than fascinating piece from German director Linus de Paoli. 

Piet Carnell (Adam Ild Rohweder) is a brilliant computer sciences university student. He's also painfully shy, agoraphobic, completely socially inadequate and has no experience whatsoever of the opposite sex.

So it's a recipe for disaster when Piet's professor suggests to fellow classmate Klara (Pauline Galazaka) that she becomes his partner for a forthcoming project. Because besides being a girl, she's also attractive, vivacious, and has already been "admired from afar" by Piet.

All goes well at the beginning and the two start to get on. Just when you think our story might be veering towards something other than utter horror Klara spurns Piet's advances and by means of an accident she ends up unconscious at his place. 

       Things go from bad to worse to truly, nerve-tinglingly awful as first Piet undresses her, then gives in to his desires, with terrible consequences. But working out how to deal with what he has done is just the beginning of a long night of self-discovery for our young anti-hero.

A film that refuses to take sides but rather lets you ruminate on the outcome, A YOUNG MAN WITH HIGH POTENTIAL certainly suggests that as a result of the atrocity he commits, which then require him to face and overcome his many neuroses, Piet actually becomes better able to cope with the world at large. That message alone, along with the cold, clinical eye with which the movie observes certain proceedings, means it may be too much for some viewers, but if you're able to stay with it until the end you'll find yourself thinking about this one for long after it's over. I found it fascinating. Whether or not you now want A YOUNG MAN WITH HIGH POTENTIAL in your own head is up to you.

A YOUNG MAN WITH HIGH POTENTIAL is out now on VOD on the Frightfest Presents label from Signature Entertainment

Friday 26 July 2019

The House That Dripped Blood (1970)

"Beautiful Presentation of a Horror Classic"

One of the finest anthology movies to be made by England's Amicus Films gets a gorgeous limited edition release from Second Sight.

Horror film star Paul Henderson (Jon Pertwee) has disappeared. Inspector Holloway (John Bennett) discovers from a local police sergeant (John Malcolm) and an estate agent called Stoker (John Bryans, completing the framework story 'trilogy of Johns') that the house Henderson rented might have had something to do with it.

Using the title location as an excuse to package four Robert Bloch short stories, HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD achieves the admirable quality of swinging between psycho-crime thriller ('Method For Murder'), Peter Cushing & Joss Ackland being threatened by the really rather weird ('Waxworks'), Christopher Lee being upstaged by witchy four year old Chloe Franks ('Sweets to the Sweet') and comedy (the quite marvellous Pertwee facing off against an equally excellent Geoffrey Bayldon going full Ernest Thesiger in 'The Cloak'). 

There aren't many horror anthologies that can put their funny episode last and pull the entire thing off with such aplomb, but director Peter Duffell makes it all look easy.  Each episode very much has its own character (and facet of the house) but that doesn't detract from HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD working as a stylish, well made whole. It's one of the best of these kinds of movies Amicus made and while one can understand why Duffell didn't want to make any more one still wishes there could have been.

Second Sight's Blu-ray transfer looks absolutely wonderful if you've only seen the old Anchor Bay DVD, otherwise it sparkles in the same way the US Scream Factory Blu does. Extras are on the whole similar to that disc as well. The Troy Howarth commentary track which was new to that release has been carried over, as well as the Peter Duffell / Jonathan Rigby one from the DVD. There's an interview with second assistant director Mike Higgins and an archival featurette featuring interviews with Duffell, Franks and Bayldon. You also get radio spots, trailers and a still gallery.

Second Sight's Limited Edition also comes with a rigid slipcase showcasing some lovely Graham Humphreys artwork, a fold-out movie poster featuring the Humphreys artwork on one side and the US one-sheet poster art on the other, and finally a nice little book containing essays by Allan Bryce (an overview of Amicus and the film in question), Jon Towison (a nice piece on Robert Bloch, one of my all-time favourite writers) and a very decent essay by Kat Ellinger that gave this reviewer, who has watched THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD more times over the last forty years than I dare to count, a new angle from which to examine the film - great stuff. 

        THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD Limited Edition is a top quality package of a top quality 1970s British horror film. Well done to Second Sight for going the extra mile. Fans should snap this up, while those new to 1970s UK horror could do worse than start here.

THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD - Limited Edition is out on Blu-ray from Second Sight on Monday 29th July. 

Friday 12 July 2019

The Chill Factor (1993)

"Satanists on Snowmobiles"

I'm riffing on the (very) obscure 1971 grindhouse picture WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS with that headline, a film in which there are very few werewolves and only one manages to get on his motorbike right at the end of the picture. Okay, now I've hopefully lowered your expectations (after raising them - sorry) here's what this 1993 picture is all about.

A group of college friends go on holiday to snowbound Wisconsin, planning the usual collection of activities including drunkenly challenging each other to a snowmobile race in terrible weather.

Off they go! Off one of them comes! Into a tree he goes! With his head! Oh no! They are Miles From Anywhere. Hang on - what's that old abandoned shack up ahead? Ignoring the rather nice house we can see way off in the distance (maybe we're not supposed to spot it but that's Blu-ray for you) the gang holes up in the boarded up, dusty old building that's actually rather nicer than the one in Sam Raimi's EVIL DEAD (think Holiday Inn versus Travelodge). 

There's a lot of wandering around. Then some more wandering around. Then a bit more. Then someone finds an ouija board with an eyeball stuck on it. They decide to hold a seance. This may stretch the bounds of believability but this place has no heating, it's below zero, and the girls have already shown a blatant disregard for health and safety by wandering around in, removing and changing a variety of skimpy garments. Why they aren't all dead before the monsters have a chance I have no idea.

The ouija board thingie does something to our injured snowmobiler that leads to him having sex with some of the girls when the rest of the party aren't being bumped off. Finally he grows long fingernails and turns into a very low budget version of the alchemist from Dario Argento's INFERNO and - yes - the snowmobile race is on!

To be fair, in an otherwise utterly undistinguished film the snowmobile footage is pretty good, with the race at the end being especially well put together. How much you'll enjoy it will very much depend on your patience / tolerance / willpower to get through the first two acts.

Released previously on VHS as DEMON POSSESSED, somehow THE CHILL FACTOR has been deemed deserving of a 2K scan. There are new interviews with Jeffrey Lyle Segal (makeup), Alexandra Reed (production manager), and stunt coordinator Gary Paul. You also get a commentary track from Hank Carlson (special effects) and Josh Hadley ('a horror writer' but not of this). Then there's the usual still gallery, trailer & reversible sleeve, plus a booklet in the first pressing.

THE CHILL FACTOR is out on Blu-ray from Arrow on Monday 15th July 2019

Friday 5 July 2019

They Look Like People (2015)

"Excellent Horror Piece About What It Is To Be Human" 

One of House of Mortal Cinema's Top Ten Films of 2015 gets a VOD release from Signature as part of their Frightfest Presents label.

Christian (Evan Dumouchel) lives in New York and is working up the courage to ask out his boss Mara (Margaret Ying Drake). He bumps into his old friend Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) who's visiting the city, so Christian lets him stay at his place. 

There's a history of broken relationships and alcohol abuse is hinted at, but what Wyatt doesn't tell his friend is that he receives, or believes he receives, telephone calls in the middle of the night instructing him to prepare for a forthcoming war between humans and the creatures that are gradually replacing them.

Soon Wyatt is filling Christian's basement with weapons and barrels of acid (he's been told by the gravelly voice on the phone that acid is the only effective way to kill the enemy). He gets a phone call from Mara telling him three bursts of thunder in a clear sky will herald the start of the war, and later he thinks he sees Mara transform into one of the things in front of him.

Eventually Wyatt confesses everything to Christian. Where THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE goes from there leads to one of the most deliciously terrifying sequences I have seen in low budget horror cinema in a long time.

The first feature from writer-director Perry Blackshear, whose excellent THE SIREN is also on release in the UK from Signature, THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE boasts fine performances from its three leads and, climax aside, a fine sense of gloomy dread throughout. Is Wyatt mad or is there actually an alien takeover? 

What Blackshear does very cleverly is use that raison d'ĂȘtre to explore how people who are friends cope with both their own and each others' psychological frailties and mistakes, and while the film does everything one would wish a good horror picture to do, the sum of what it achieves is much more than that. I do not doubt that the character names (Christian, Mara) have been chosen with care, too. I'm also sure that it's a very deliberate move on Blackshear's part that a movie about creatures that might be pretending to be us is actually about some of the most laudable aspects of humanity itself. Highly recommended. 

Perry Blackshear's THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE is out from Signature as part of the Frightfest Presents label on VOD from Monday 8th July 2019

Wednesday 3 July 2019

When A Stranger Calls (1979)

"Have You Checked The Blu-Ray?"

One of the best opening acts in a low budget horror film gets a sparkling Blu-ray release (along with the rest of the film, naturally) and with its sequel WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK as a special feature as Fred Walton's WHEN A STRANGER CALLS gets its UK Blu-ray standard release (the special edition came out last October) from Second Sight.

Jill (Carol Kane) arrives at the Mandrakis house to babysit the couple's two small children, who are already in bed when she gets there. She's only been on her own a short while when the phone rings. At first it seems there's no-one on the end of the line but as the calls increase a voice starts to ask if she's checked the children. Most disturbing of all, when she reports the calls to the police and they trace them, it turns out the calls are coming from inside the house. 

While the above constituted pretty much the entirety of the 2006 remake, here it's just the opening twenty one minutes of the far superior original. After this suspense-filled opening the film calms down with a 'Seven Years Later' caption as we learn that the voice on the phone belonged to child murderer Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley). Found guilty but insane, Duncan has now escaped the institution where he was being held. Former cop John Clifford (Charles Durning), who was in charge of the case seven years ago, is determined to track him down.

With its tale of an insane murderer who has escaped an asylum being pursued by someone obsessed with his capture, one could be forgiven for thinking WHEN A STRANGER CALLS might resemble John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN, whereas it's almost the exact opposite. We see very little of Duncan's crime, and the film concerns itself far more with both the character of the killer, for whom we actually feel sympathy, and the effect his actions have had on those whose lives he has affected. If one was to remove the opening, the film wouldn't play as a piece of horror at all, but more as a downbeat, serious thriller about the effect mental illness has on both the individual and those around them as its central theme.

Second Sight's transfer looks the best this film probably ever will, and is an improvement over the previous Mill Creek Region A release (where it was double billed with J Lee Thompson's HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME). Extras include the made for TV sequel, which is nice to have as an added curio but certainly isn't essential viewing. 

Fred Walton is interviewed in a 16 minute featurette in which he talks about the development, filming, marketing and overall success of the movie. Carol Kane has an even longer piece in which she talks about working on it, and composer Dana Kaproff talks about filling his piano with nails and bells to produce some of the sound effects that help to make up his effective score. Finally, we get the original short film THE SITTER which got Walton and his team the financing for the feature. It's well worth a watch, if only to see how much it resembles the opening act of the film, albeit with a lower budget. An excellent presentation and package of a well-remembered and appreciated piece of late 1970s suspense.

Fred Walton's WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (and WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK) is out on Blu-ray from Second Sight now.