Saturday 26 December 2020

Top Ten Films of 2020

It's time once again for the traditional HMC Boxing Day round up of new movies that have found their way into the screening room this year. Of course, 2020 has been the worst year in living memory for many and the world of film was no exception. Cinemas closed, festivals went online and streaming services suddenly saw an increase in viewing figures as everyone was forced into spending a lot more time at home.

The world of film fought back as best it could. After a terrific Glasgow Frightfest in February the festival went digital for the rest of the year, delivering loaded programmes in both August and October. Other festivals followed suit, with HMC enjoying the digital experiences offered by both Manchester's Grimmfest and Abertoir as well. 

There were plenty of great movies out there (and some awful ones as well, more about which in a moment) and certainly enough for me to put together a top ten. The rules stay the same as for previous years - each film had to be shown in the UK for the first time during the year, either at the cinema or on disc, or at a festival screening. Also, bigger budget major studio successes don't get a look in because you already know Leigh Whannell's THE INVISIBLE MAN is a cracker, don't you? Other greats like HELD, Oz Perkins' GRETEL & HANSEL, Remi Weekes' HIS HOUSE and Charlie Kaufman's I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS were just bubbling under the top ten, and Brandon Cronenberg's POSSESSOR will have to wait until next year (and for the 4K disc to turn up).

Before we get to the best, however, by popular demand here are a few words about the worst. There were plenty of terrible films but only three really warrant a mention, so here we go:

The Worst Films of 2020

3 The Reckoning

Neil Marshall, director of THE DESCENT and DOG SOLDIERS scores his first entry on HMC's worst list with this, a Hallmark TV Movie version of MARK OF THE DEVIL saddled with the thinnest of plotlines steamrollered out to 110 minutes, cardboard cutout characters, and a vapid, uninteresting and ridiculously over airbrushed lead. Poor old Sean Pertwee does his best Peter Wyngarde channelling as the witchfinder but this does little to raise the bar that is constantly being dragged down by the central performance. On the plus side the music score is great, but it's for another film. You know a film is in trouble when everyone is outacted by a hat. 

2 Verotika

Currently available to watch on Shudder and directed by Glenn Danzig, VEROTIKA is an anthology movie consisting of three stories. The first is about a woman with enormous breasts that have eyes for nipples. Why is never explained. The nipple eyes cry tears that transform a tiny spider into an enormous neck-breaking anal sex fiend. Told with all the sensitivity of a Richard Driscoll on steroids (yes this feels like THE COMIC) the story is also set in France for no good reason. Second up is Mr Danzig's tribute to the worst failings of Jess Franco with a face-snatching female serial killer who dances at a strip club. A lot. Admittedly this does allow the viewer an opportunity for fast forwarding / going to the toilet / vacuuming the lounge / all three but not all at once unless you want to end up in Mr Danzig's next masterpiece. We end with a Countess Bathory tale filmed with all the authenticity of Nigel Wingrove's massive-breast-implant nun fetish epic SACRED FLESH. Every young female victim seems to have the circulatory capacity of a woolly mammoth as their blood fills a bath with ease. It's all terrible and all utterly mesmerising. Doubtless some people's favourite bad film of the year. But not ours. Oh no.

1 Blind

In the opinion of House of Mortal Cinema, if you are going to watch one example of Truly Terrible Film from 2020 then you have to watch BLIND, a film so entertaining that the live chat running concurrently on the Frightfest Facebook Group during its digital screening was a testament to how much this one is a cult item in the making that has the potential to reach THE ROOM-sized proportions. A blind woman who lives in a house filled with sharp edges and easily breakable objects? Who doesn't know if the lights work but has filled her house with lit candles? Who is in a support group run by a cut-price Jason Momoa who can't speak and has a machine that makes him sound like Ned from South Park? I haven't even mentioned the panty-sniffing sushi delivery man, the speech by the threatened heroine at the end that feels as if it goes on for longer than the running time of the film, the numerous full glasses of wine she drinks during the climax from a thin-stemmed easily knocked over and broken glass, how her makeup is suddenly immaculately restored after her shower, or the ending where everyone just gives up and sticks the credits on. My initial comments were met with such good humour by the director, the screenwriter and the stars that I cannot help but feel a tiny bit of love for BLIND. It's currently on Amazon Prime at no extra charge. One of the standout movies of the year in all the wrong ways. "Treat" yourself. 

Ok that will do for the bad films. Here are the films that I thought were the best of 2020:

10 Alien On Stage

THE feelgood low budget horror documentary of the year. A group of bus drivers from Dorset decide to perform ALIEN as their end of year pantomime and we get to see the rehearsals, the performance, and the outcome of them getting to take it to the West End stage. Utterly charming. Premiered at Frightfest where someone called it this year's ONE CUT OF THE DEAD and they're right.

9 It Cuts Deep

If you're a fan of the exquisitely perverse horror comedies of Richard Bates Jr (EXCISION et al) or Rob Grant (HARPOON) then definitely catch this. It's not easy to do comedy horror but IT CUTS DEEP makes it look easy, being both charming and disturbing in equal measure. Well written, well acted and very well put together. There's also a great synth score that manages to homage both Philip Glass and Joseph LoDuca. Loved it. 

8 Concrete Plans

High in the remote Welsh mountains five builders are employed to renovate a farmhouse. It's all part of a plan by their employer to avoid paying inheritance tax. As their work progresses and their pay still fails to materialise, the shady pasts of the five men begin to surface as the situation quickly escalates into violence.  A clever script and a talented cast including Steve Speirs (Upstart Crow's Mr Burbage himself) and James Lance from JANUARY (aka ESTRANGED) both elevate CONCRETE PLANS to the level of a superior thriller that never goes quite where you expect it to thanks to Will Jewell's directorial sleight of hand, giving this one the feel of a Welsh Coen Brothers movie.

7 Alone

Billed as DUEL meets THE VANISHING there's also something of the feel of Ted Kotcheff's FIRST BLOOD to this cat and mouse pursuit of recently widowed Jessica by a smiling serial killer through the wet and mud of an Oregon forest. One to look out for although as is so often the case these days there seem to be quite a few films with this title. You want the one directed by John Hyams.

6 Rent-A-Pal

A lonely 40 yr old man who cares for his Alzheimer's-affected mother picks up a VHS tape that promises him a new friend in the shape of an onscreen Wil Wheaton. Despite that his attempts to find love and his social care pressures mean his world starts to cave in on him and is his video friend making things worse or is it just in his head? RENT-A-PAL is a genuine surprise - the kind of subject matter that doesn't necessarily always work for me because the handling can be too relentlessly grim, but this was just perfect - well scripted and well-acted while delivering a real punch of a message. 

5 Relic

In which three generations of women (grandmother, mother and daughter) encounter a creeping manifestation of the oldest woman's dementia that threatens to rot the whole house. This has been compared to HEREDITARY by publicity machines that don't know any better. For me RELIC is by far the better film, has a lot more to say, and is sufficiently creepy with enough nightmarish imagery to make it a splendid immersive experience.


Joe Begos, director of last year's BLISS knocks it out of the park with this, a fine mix of and tribute to John Carpenter's ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 and Enzo G Castellari's BRONX WARRIORS, one which is so hip to its 1970s and 1980s inspirations it even has a cast featuring Fred Williamson, Martin Kove, and Stephen Lang. A veteran soldiers' bar is threatened by an army of drug-crazed lunatics. Much violence and mayhem ensues, all to Steve Moore's pounding John Carpenter-style synths. Begos' best yet.

3 St Maud

It's good to see the BFI & Film 4 funding British horror, and very excellent horror at that. Evoking the seedy, sexy strangeness of the stories of Robert Aickman, ST MAUD is about an overly religious nurse sent to look after a terminally ill choreographer. It all goes horribly, terrifyingly wrong from there. At Glasgow Frightfest writer-director Rose Glass told me the main literary influence was Iain Banks, especially The Wasp Factory.

2 Benny Loves You

"If, like me, you're Northern then you'll want every penny of value out of this screening, so there's a Q&A afterwards" said director Karl Holt in his very funny intro to this very, very funny film. A discarded cuddly toy becomes a vengeful killer in this unexpectedly brilliant British comedy horror. The last time I remember a festival response like this to a film that was five years in the making and all done by a bloke making it in his shed at weekends was in 1989 at Shock Around the Clock. It was BAD TASTE by Peter Jackson. So no pressure for Mr Holt's follow up there, then.

1 A Ghost Waits

A real surprise from first time-film-maker Adam Stovall, A GHOST WAITS is quite likely the funniest, most romantic, touching supernatural horror we'll see for some time. A man has to renovate a house where a female ghost has been given the job of driving away the occupants. Gradually they fall in love. This one is superb, evoking the best of writers like R Chetwynd-Hayes while never losing its profound emotional core. Really, truly, madly, deeply wonderful. Loved it.

And that's it. It goes without saying (but let's say it anyway in case it helps) that hopefully 2021 will be a better year for everyone. There's certainly plenty of interesting stuff coming out on Blu-ray. The review pile is already growing. But for now, take care, be nice to each other & I'll see you all next year. 

Saturday 12 December 2020

Tremors (1990)

The spirit of 1950s giant monster movies is brilliantly realised in this, the first in the TREMORS franchise (there are now seven films and if you want the complete list click here) which is getting a special edition 4K UHD Blu-ray release from Arrow.

The tiny town of Perfection, Nevada (Population 14) is about to get a rude awakening as four giant earthworm-type burrowing monsters (eventually christened graboids by Victor Wong's Walter Chang character) converge on it, hunting by sound and eating anything that sets off vibrations. Can modern-day good old boy handymen Valentine (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward) save the day with the aid of seismology student Rhonda (Finn Carter)?

Skilfully and entertainingly pulling off the challenge of making a monster movie with virtually no night scenes and a limited location, director Ron Underwood, working from a screenplay by himself and producers Brent Maddock and SS Wilson, crafted a well-paced, action-packed, light-hearted monster movie that was a big hit. This is thanks to a combination of excellent creature effects and decent acting from an ensemble cast that includes country singer Reba McEntire and Michael Gross, who went on to star in all the sequels. It's all splendid fun & if you've never seen it you're in for a treat.

Arrow's disc is a 4K (2160p) UHD presentation that's also going to be available in a Blu-ray release. That said, having compared both versions the UHD image looks fantastic in the outdoors shots but interiors had high levels of picture noise and colours were too bright, even on the lowest resolution HDR setting on our TV. On the other hand Universal's previous Blu-ray transfer, while not having quite the same amount of detail, did provide a warmer image that ultimately was more comfortable to watch. Maybe we're just either too used to Blu-ray technology or we're just getting old.

Where Arrow's release really does win out, of course, is in the extras. The old making of from Universal's disc has been ported over but there's loads of new stuff, including (deep breath):

Two new commentary tracks, one from Underwood, Maddock & Wilson and the other from Jonathan Melville, author of The Unofficial Guide to TREMORS; a new making of; new interviews with co-producer Nancy Roberts, DP Alexander Gruszynski, associate producer Ellen Collett and composers Ernest Troost and Robert Folk. You also get 16 minutes of TV overdubs, on-set camcorder footage of the graboids being animated, deleted scenes, trailers, TV and radio spots. 

There's also a second disc which includes more interviews and three short films which are all apparently Blu-ray rather than UHD but these were not provided for review. The set also comes with a 60-page book, two double-sided posters (one large and one small), six Front Of House still reproductions and limited edition packaging.

TREMORS is out on 4KUHD and Blu-ray in a two disc set from Arrow Films on Monday 14th December 2020

Saturday 5 December 2020

Versus (2000)

"Tremendous, Ridiculous, Low Budget Entertainment"

Ryuhei Kitamura's cult classic is getting the 2K Blu-ray treatment from Arrow in a two disc edition that includes both the 2000 original and the expanded 2004 version ULTIMATE VERSUS, along with a host of special features.

Two men escape from police custody into a bleak and forbidding forest. A yakuza gang turns up, ostensibly to rescue the escapees but under instructions to wait for their boss to arrive. One of the gang members is killed and almost immediately rises from the dead, eventually to be killed once more.

Unfortunately for all concerned it turns out that the forest is the mythic Forest of Resurrection, one of the 666 gates to the other side (this one is number 444) and it's also the site of an eternal battle between a man who turns out to be the yakuza boss, and one of the escaped prisoners. We've seen one of the battles from 500 years ago before the opening credits.

The above storyline is the film's excuse for nearly two hours of gun battles, martial arts and gallons and gallons of blood to be spilled as our hero fights it out with the yakuza and armies of the dead who have been buried in the forest over the years, all while trying to protect a girl whose blood contains the 'power of resurrection'.

VERSUS isn't high art, or what you might term 'quality' cinema, in fact it's resolutely low budget and down and dirty. It's also immensely resourceful, keeping almost all its action to the same location. There's a home-made feel to it that's reminiscent of Peter Jackson's 1989 BAD TASTE and by the time you get to the end you'll be suspecting Steve MANBORG Kostanski was influenced by this one as well.

Arrow's discs come with new 2K scans of both VERSUS and ULTIMATE VERSUS, which is ten minutes longer, has some CGI to smooth things out and some new music. Extras include three commentary tracks (two on the original VERSUS), a documentary on the making of the film, Jasper Sharp's essay on director Kitamura's career, footage of the film being screened at festivals, deleted scenes, two short films (Nervous & Nervous 2) featuring characters from VERSUS and more. And if VERSUS itself feels a bit long at two hours there's a 20 minute condensed version for those with really short attention spans.

The kind of film that film festivals were made for, VERSUS is probably best watched in that kind of environment, but it's also good for a night in watching with friends who are also fans of the kind of utterly mad stuff that this very much is.

Ryuhei Kitamura's VERSUS is out on Blu-ray in a two disc set from Arrow on Monday 7th December 2020