Friday 24 July 2020

Echoes of Fear (2020)

"Don't Look in the Basement!"

An ultra low-budget film with a decidedly retro "Backwoods USA Independent" feel (and believe me that's a compliment), ECHOES OF FEAR (even that title feels 1970s) is getting a Digital and DVD release courtesy of Second Sight after receiving its UK premiere earlier this year at Southend's annual Horror On Sea festival.

Alisa (Trista Robinson) inherits the house of her grandfather (Norman Zeller) after he dies in the shower. She moves in with boyfriend Brandon (Paul Chirico) with plans for selling it. But all is not well in the house. Alisa hears strange sounds in the night including the meowing of a cat, and pretty soon she's seeing things too. As the ghostly apparitions worsen, the discovery of a dead cat buried in the basement is just the beginning of a series of shocking revelations about the history of the house she is living in.

ECHOES OF FEAR is obviously very low budget, and for the first half an hour it feels like an attempt to do a haunted house movie with almost zero resources. That said, as we approach the end of the first act there are some decent scares that suggest directors Brian and Laurence Avenet-Bradley know their Japanese horror cinema and their Mario Bava as well - there's a splendid shock moment that emulates a scene in one of the Italian master's later films.

Where the film really earns its points, though, is in the final act, when the film becomes the kind of grim, grainy, sweaty gothic of the kind Texan director S F Brownrigg used to make, like 1977's KEEP MY GRAVE OPEN or (as I've alluded to up there) his classic 1973 DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT. In fact if ECHOES OF FEAR had been made in the early 1970s and shot on 16mm I don't doubt that now it would be lauded as a lost minor classic. It's unlikely to receive such accolades today, but ECHOES OF FEAR is certainly going to warm the heart of any fan of the golden era of low budget US exploitation to know that movies like this, made with no money but plenty of ambition and an obvious knowledge of the genre, are still out there to be discovered.

ECHOES OF FEAR is out from Second Sight on digital download on Monday 20th July 2020 and DVD on 
Monday 3rd August 2020

Friday 17 July 2020

Bela Lugosi in Three Universal Pictures (1932 - 1935)

"Excellent Set of Three Universal Masterworks"

Bravo to Eureka! After Scream / Shout Factory has treated US fans to six admirable Blu-ray sets of the Universal's classic horror movies not to feature Frankenstein's monster, Dracula or the Wolf Man, all with excellent transfers and extras, so far the UK has been lagging behind. This two disc three film set may not exactly redress the balance, but Universal's three Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Bela Lugosi is a splendid place to start. 
So let's take a look at Eureka's treatment of these movies, and for good measure let's see how they compare to the Scream Factory US Blu-ray releases.

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

Star Bela Lugosi and director Robert Florey, both originally intended by Universal to fulfil those roles on 1931's FRANKENSTEIN instead found themselves working on this loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's story, released the following year. Lugosi's Dr Mirakle has trained his ape Erik to kidnap girls so he can inject them with ape blood to give Erik a mate. Poe's story isn't quite as daft.

Extras on Eureka's disc include a commentary by Gregory William Mank, an alternate soundtrack that includes music cues, a 30 minute interview with Kim Newman who discusses all three films in the set, an audio recording of Lugosi reading Poe's The Tell Tale Heart, trailer and a still gallery.

This is substantially more than the Scream Factory release, which does have the Mank commentary plus an additional commentary from Gary Don Rhodes that's not on the Eureka edition, but that's it.

The Black Cat (1934)

Of all the films based on the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name, this is arguably both the least faithful and the best. Bela Lugosi is Dr Vitus Verdegast, out for revenge against Boris Karloff's Satan-worshipping Hjalmar Poelzig for stealing Verdegast's wife, and then marrying his daughter. It's an amazing work and by the time Karloff is strung up and about to be flayed alive by the now-insane Lugosi you'll probably have forgotten there was even a cat in it.

Eureka's extras give us a commentary by Greg Mank, a 13 minute video essay on Cats in Horror by Lee Gambin which is brief but covers a lot of ground including everyone's favourite crap cat anthology picture THE UNCANNY from 1977. There's also a half hour radio adaptation of the Black Cat with Peter Lorre stills, and a bit called 'Vintage Footage' which is actually of the auditions Universal held as a publicity stunt for the cat of the title, featuring Karloff and Lugosi gamely taking part as everyone brings their kitty up for inspection. 

Scream Factory's disc has the Mank commentary plus another by Steve Haberman that's not on the Eureka disc. The Scream disc also has the cat competition footage, plus an Edgar Allan Poe cinema documentary and part one of Karloff and Lugosi at Universal. The Gambin Cats in Horror and the radio play are unique to the Eureka disc.

The Raven (1935)

This bears little relation to Edgar Allan Poe's poem but it does star Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in a mashup of the conte cruele and an old dark house mystery. The climax involves a swinging pendulum blade, crushing walls, impossibly moving rooms and Lugosi getting to say 'Poe you are avenged!' before laughing maniacally and being dragged into a crusher by Karloff. The Raven's running time is only an hour but it's glorious and incident-packed with two riveting central performances and brisk (because it had to be) direction from Louis Friedlander (later Lew Landers). 

Eureka's Blu-ray (from a 2K scan) comes with an isolated music and effects track, a commentary track from Gary D Rhodes, another from Samm Deighan, Boris Karloff reading The Tell Tale Heart this time, a still gallery, and American Gothic, a fifteen minute video essay from Kat Ellinger that charts the evolution of the gothic as a genre and how both THE RAVEN and THE BLACK CAT exemplify some of Poe's themes despite not being especially (or at all) faithful to their source material.

Scream Factory's Blu-ray is also a 2K transfer and has the Rhodes commentary, plus one from Steve Haberman that the Eureka disc doesn't have. It also has part 2 of Karloff & Lugosi at Universal. The Deighan commentary, Ellinger essay and isolated effects track are unique to the Eureka disc.

Final thoughts: this is an excellent set with gorgeous transfers that far supersede any previous DVD releases. The extras are also excellent, with enough unique to the Eureka set that even if you already have the Scream Factory discs you may want to double dip for this. 

Bela Lugosi in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, THE BLACK CAT, & THE RAVEN is out on Blu-ray from Eureka on Monday 20th July 2020

Thursday 16 July 2020

Open 24 Hours (2018)

        A director with a few Frightfest premieres under his belt (WORRY DOLLS, DARK LIGHT) including this one, Padraig Reynolds' gas station slasher OPEN 24 HOURS is getting a digital release from Signature on the Frightfest Presents label.

Recently released from prison for trying to burn her serial killer boyfriend to death, Mary (Vanessa Grasse) gets a job working the night shift at a remote gas station. As well as having something of a past, Mary also suffers from paranoid delusions with added hallucinations, so when the phone starts ringing and strange things occur is she imagining it? Or has her scarred ex-boyfriend broken out of prison? And is he the one doing the I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER impersonation and killing people with a claw hammer, or is it someone else?

OPEN 24 HOURS benefits from an opening hour that plays with so many genre tropes fans will be ticking them of with glee and everyone will be left guessing. Mary's boyfriend was known for only murdering people when it was raining and he had a habit of playing an old song to her over the phone before a kill. The flashback to the cellar filled with bodies also adds to the Italian feel. 

        There's plenty of gore both real and imagined as well. Sadly as the film reaches its climax it becomes all rather predictable which is a shame as with a couple of twists OPEN 24 HOURS could have been classy crazy stuff. As it stands it's no classic but if you're a horror fan it's a decent enough time waster for a couple of hours.

Padraig Reynolds' OPEN 24 HOURS is out from Signature on the Frightfest Presents label on Digital HD from Monday 20th July 2020

Sunday 12 July 2020

Mr Vampire (1985)

"Or - Pardon Me But Your Buddhist Scrolls Appear To Have Fallen Down"

Eureka are releasing Ricky Lau's highly successful Hong Kong horror comedy, which spawned several sequels, in a brand new 2K restoration on Blu-ray.

Master Kau (Lam Ching-ying), master of all things supernatural, is called onto exhume a corpse at the behest of a rich family man who has been told his late father's body needs to be moved after twenty years. Unfortunately it turns out the man died in a state of stress and unable to expel his last breath, which means he is now a hopping vampire.

Along with his two bumbling assistants, Master Kau has to use all his knowledge of Buddhist scripture and sticky rice to defeat the evil spreading through the town, as well as deal with an apparently sexy ghost who has set her malformed eye on one of his sidekicks.

Playing like a Golden Harvest version of Roman Polanski's THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (and hence the subtitle up there for those who aren't aware), MR VAMPIRE is a surprisingly effective mix of physical comedy and supernatural horror. Much of its success is down to director Ricky Lau, who is as adept at managing the scary bits as he is all the pratting about. The cast is good too, with the leads likeable and helping to carry off a lot of the unsubtle humour. Yes there are trousers being pulled down and pratfalls aplenty but even if that's not necessarily your sort of thing there's no doubting MR VAMPIRE works extremely well in balancing its humour and horror elements.

Eureka's disc comes with three soundtrack options: Cantonese (with English subtitles), a European English dub and an American English dub. There's also a commentary track from Asian film expert Frank Djeng. There are also archival interviews with stars Chin Siu-hou, Moon Lee and director Lau, as well as textless end credits, a trailer, a collectors' booklet and a limited edition O card slipcase for this release of 2000.

Ricky Lau's MR VAMPIRE is out on Blu-ray from Eureka on Monday 20th July 2020

Friday 10 July 2020

Fantasy Island (2020)

"Fantastic Horror Fun"

Bearing the full title of BLUMHOUSE'S FANTASY ISLAND if you prefer, this being that studio's interesting horror take on a TV series from the 1970s that many people (and very likely this film's target audience) will either have forgotten or never heard of in the first place. Not that any of that matters because FANTASY ISLAND is rollicking good horror fun in its own right, and it's now getting a Download, Blu-ray & DVD release from Sony.

Five people win a competition and find themselves on 'Fantasy Island', a place where your dreams come true. Each of them has a fantasy they would like fulfilled and the idea is that the island will allow this to happen. So far so much like the TV series, where every week Ricardo Montalban's Mr Roarke would fulfil the fantasies of guests only for said guests to realise they should have been careful what they wished for. 

In this version Michael Pena is Roarke, playing him as a cross between a linen-suited Amicus-style anthology horror host in the vein of Dr Terror / Dr Diablo / The Crypt Keeper, etc, and the tropical island mad doctor portrayals of Charles Laughton and Lionel Atwill, all courtesy and decorum while harbouring horrible secrets just beneath the surface. 

  And yes, the fantasies he helps realise all turn pretty horrible pretty quickly but rather than just going the anthology route all the stories criss cross one another and develop into a different story again. The climax piles incident on incident to the point where the plot becomes quite ludicrous and anyone still watching wouldn't want it any other way, except perhaps even crazier. It's tremendous fun and hopefully there'll be a sequel. 

Sony's disc contains nine minutes of deleted scenes. You also get the option to play the theatrical version or the unrated cut, which is a full 18 seconds longer. The unrated version also comes with a commentary track from director Jeff Wadlow and most of the cast including Pena, Portia Doubleday, Lucy Hale, Jimmy O. Yang, Maggie Q (on the phone) and Ryan Hansen. 

BLUMHOUSE'S FANTASY ISLAND is out on Blu-ray and DVD from Sony on Monday 13th July 2020 preceded by its Download release on Monday 29th June 2020

Saturday 4 July 2020

Inferno of Torture (1969)

"Will Keep You Tied Up for 94 Minutes (If That's Your Sort of Thing)"

Goodness me! Following on from their Blu-ray releases of director Teruo Ishii's HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN and ORGIES of EDO, now Arrow are bringing out INFERNO OF TORTURE (possible aka THE TORTURES OF HELL, because that's what one of the tattoos in this is called). 

Following opening scenes of torture and mutilation worthy of Michael Armstrong's MARK OF THE DEVIL (made the same year) the story focuses on Yumi (Yumika Katayama), who has to join a geisha house to repay a debt. The house specialises in floggings, suspensions, bondage, Shibari (which is all three at the same time, I understand) and specialises in its inmates being spectacularly tattooed. Two artists are vying for the title of the best at a forthcoming competition and Yumi ends up in the middle of it.
There's not a lot of plot in INFERNO OF TORTURE and what little there is is told via differing timelines so it's not always easy to work out what's going on. It's not an easy watch, either, for the faint of heart or for animal lovers (close your eyes during the market chase scene). There's little evidence of the playfulness that was on display in MALFORMED MEN and on the whole this is rather grim and dispassionate despite the abundance of female flesh on display.

Arrow's disc has a commentary track by Tom Mes and there's an excellent 30 minute condensation of Jasper Sharp's Miskatonic Institute lecture 'Erotic Grotesque Nonsense & the Foundations of Japan's Cult Counterculture'. You also get a trailer and reversible sleeve. The first pressing comes with a booklet with writing by Chris D.

Teruo Ishii's INFERNO OF TORTURE is out on Blu-ray from Arrow Films on Monday 6th July 2020