Thursday 29 April 2021

Karloff At Columbia (1935 - 1942)

"An Essential Set"

Eureka are releasing a Blu-ray set of six splendid films that Boris Karloff made for Columbia Pictures in the 1930s and 1940s, consisting of THE BLACK ROOM and five mad doctor pictures. Previously this set has only been available on a Region 1 DVD set. You can now safely replace that with this, which also comes with excellent commentary tracks on every film. Here's what's on them in more detail:

Disc One

The Black Room (1935)

The earliest film in the set is a full-blooded period gothic set mainly in the early nineteenth century. Twins are born to the de Berghmann family and they both grow up to be Boris Karloff in dual roles as Gregor (the evil one) and Anton (the good one). In order to maintain control of the estate Gregor kills Anton and impersonates him, paralysed right arm and all. But the prophecy that Anton will kill Gregor in the black room of the title is yet to be fulfilled.

Terrific production design and skilful direction from Roy William Neill (Universal's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN amongst others) combined with two fine performances from Karloff mean THE BLACK ROOM is at least the equal of some of Universal's gothics of the period, even if it's not as well known. Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons provide an engaging fact-packed commentary track covering the careers of many of the actors featured, the subject of twins in cinema, Roy William Neill's fascination with ravens and much more.

The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)

Karloff is Dr Henryk Savaard, creator of an artificial heart. His first experiment on a human subject results in death not because of the device but because his nurse calls the police before the experiment is over. Sentenced to death he swears revenge on those who sent him to hang and when he's up and about again, thanks to his assistant, that's exactly what he does.

The commentary track on this one is from Stephen Jones & Kim Newman who, as is usual for them, exhibit such knowledge and enthusiasm that there's barely space on the soundtrack for both of them to get all their facts and opinions out. I especially liked that if the film had been set in California it would have had to be called THE MAN THEY COULD NOT GAS and I agree with Kim Newman that the final act deserved another fifteen minutes to fit in three more killings.

The Man With Nine Lives (1940)

After twenty minutes of set up we finally get to see Karloff - encased in ice! This time he's Dr Leon Kravaal, experimenter with cryogenics, who has frozen himself and those who doubted him in the caves beneath his creepy old isolated island home. He's defrosted but has forgotten the formula for his revolutionary treatment, which is the cue for further underground experiments. Compared to THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG what this one lacks in vitality it makes up for with the claustrophobia of most of the film being set in a couple of small rooms.

It had never occurred to me before, but the Newman and Jones commentary track quite rightly alludes to MAN WITH NINE LIVES feeling in the tradition of stories from the US magazine Weird Tales, with both this and its predecessor firmly in the 'shudder pulp' tradition. Their commentary this time makes for a good 'follow on' from MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG and is therefore worth listening to after that one.

Karloff on Radio

Two stories from the Inner Sanctum radio series - The Corridor of Doom and The Wailing Wall. Both are great fun to listen to, and the references to Liptons Tea (the show's sponsor) beforehand actually serve to help turn the clock back and weirdly improve the listening experience.

Disc Two

Before I Hang (1940)

Karloff is Dr John Garth (and not Gaarth despite recurring writer Karl Brown's name being once again in the credits). Sentenced to death for euthanasia he spends his remaining days  perfecting an anti-aging serum that has the side effect of turning him into strangler, and when he's unexpectedly pardoned that's exactly what he keeps on doing. Better paced that MAN WITH NINE LIVES this keeps you so enthralled you don't even realise you've been listening to five minutes of Chopin's Etude No.12 in C Minor near the end. Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons provide the commentary duties on this one with plenty of detail on cast and crew, & Mr Rigby even mentions the Lindbergh cardiac pump that possibly formed the inspiration for one of the devices seen in this one.

The Devil Commands (1941)

Taking its inspiration from William Sloane's excellent Nigel Kneale-esque novel of cosmic horror The Edge of Running Water this sees Karloff's Dr Julian Blair attempting to 'pierce the veil' to see what lies beyond death after his wife is killed and he believes she is trying to contact him through his new brainwave machine. Some bland voice overs from Amanda Duff and some fumbled direction from Edward Dmytryk who gave us CAPTIVE. WILD WOMAN makes THE DEVIL COMMANDS less effective than it could have been but there's still some marvellous mad doctor stuff in this one. Stephen Jones & Kim Newman return for commentary duties, talking about the William Sloane novel on which the film is based, the career of Edward Dmytryk and lots more.

The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942)

The final film in Columbia's mad doctor series is strictly played for laughs as Karloff's mad doctor sells his house to pay off the mortgage imposed on him by the town doctor / sheriff / notary / moneylender, played by Peter Lorre. Karloff stays in the house to continue his experiments on travelling salesmen as he tries to perfect a race of supermen to help the war effort and convinces Lorre to help him. The interplay between the two stars is a delight, making up for some somewhat tired slapstick old dark house shenanigans. Your tolerance for screwball comedies of then 1940s will dictate how well you'll get on with this one. Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons return to provide the final commentary track of the set.

Karloff on the Radio

Two more tales from the Inner Sanctum radio series - Birdsong for a Murderer and Death For Sale round out the second disc.

With the transfers, commentaries and assorted extras (including stills and poster galleries for each film) this is an essential set. It would be wonderful if Eureka could do the same with the Region 1 six film MGM set of years past that also included Newman and Jones commentaries on movies like Tod Browning's MARK OF THE VAMPIRE. Failing that, how about giving us a three disc set of BELA LUGOSI AT MONOGRAM?

KARLOFF AT COLUMBIA is out in a two disc Blu-ray set from Eureka on Monday 3rd May 2021

Saturday 17 April 2021

I Blame Society (2020)

One of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's bleakest works is the 1978 IN A YEAR OF 13 MOONS in which a man undergoes a sex-change operation simply because someone he admires tells him he'd be okay if he was a woman. Whether or not Fassbinder's film was an influence on director and star Gillian Wallace Horvat's I BLAME SOCIETY, out in a bit from Blue Finch releasing, there's certainly the suggestion that its lead character, also called Gillian and also a film director, has embarked on her latest project because someone has told her she would make a good murderer.

I BLAME SOCIETY isn't exactly found footage but it is a compilation of material Gillian shoots on a GoPro and iPhone to tell her story, that of identifying a suitable victim (her friend Chase's 'emotionally abusive' girlfriend whom she nicknames Stalin) and easing herself into murdering the girl, first by practising breaking and entering an empty house, then with someone inside it, and leading up to an actual killing as a 'rehearsal'.

But one is not enough and so Gillian the film-maker becomes Gillian the serial killer, keeping a video record of her exploits and taking I BLAME SOCIETY into the territory of Belvaux, Bonzel and Poelvoorde's 1992 C'EST ARRIVE PRES DU CHEZ VOUS (MAN BITES DOG) and Michael Haneke's 2007 FUNNY GAMES. 

Mercifully, while I BLAME SOCIETY doesn't skimp on the horrible murders, it is laced with a considerable degree of humour and told with enough skill that it sometimes feels like a cross between Franck Khalfoun's 2012 MANIAC remake and Mary Harron's AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000). As well as having a whale of a time with its murderous lead character, the film also manages some sly satirical pokes at the current state of trends in film and television and the result is one of the best movies of its type to have come along in several years. 

I BLAME SOCIETY is thoroughly entertaining and does an excellent job of giving us a believable and (almost) sympathetic psychopathic killer while at the same time causing the viewer to wince at what she actually gets up to. It's all great stuff and one hopes Gillian Wallace Horvat will get the opportunity to make more features. If, that is, anyone has the guts to be alone in a room with her for a production meeting after watching this. 

Gillian Wallace Horvat's I BLAME SOCIETY is out from Blue Finch releasing on Digital Download on 

Monday 19th April 2021

Here's the trailer:

Friday 16 April 2021

For the Sake of Vicious (2020)

"Blood-Drenched. Exhausting. Terrific."

Readers of a certain age will remember REVENGE, a Sidney Hayers film from 1971 in which James Booth and Joan Collins play a pub landlord and his wife who trap the suspected murderer (Kenneth Griffith) of their daughter in their cellar and they proceed to beat him senseless while debating killing him. The answer to whether he's actually guilty or not of his crime is something you don't learn until the end.

The opening of FOR THE SAKE OF VICIOUS echoes Hayers' film, only this time with a nurse (Lora Burke) coming home to find a man she vaguely knows (Nick Smyth) torturing her landlord (Colin Paradine) who has walked free from being accused of the rape of the man's daughter. She cuts the landlord free and he phones someone who he claims will "sort everything out".

Then the film goes really mental.

And that's honestly the best way to describe the rest of FOR THE SAKE OF VICIOUS, which becomes an all-out blood-drenched assault as numerous masked men descend on the house with the seeming intention of killing all three of them.

It's terrific, riveting, gruelling, action-packed stuff that's all the more impressive for taking place in the cramped surroundings of an ordinary suburban house. For those familiar with festival favourites of the last couple of years it's a bit like if Joe Begos directed WHY DON'T YOU JUST DIE? and once the action starts it never lets up. Almost Italian in the way it thrills to its increasingly frenetic pacing at the expense of backstory (there's very little and I'm still not quite sure if everything was adequately explained) FOR THE SAKE OF VICIOUS shows it's still possible to make kinetic, rollercoaster crime movies with the kind of energy that leaves you feeling exhausted and wrung out by the end by using only limited resources. If there's a better movie of this type released this year I'll be surprised. Directors Gabriel Carrer and Reese Eveneshen are obviously talents to be watched. Another winner from Signature. 

Gabriel Carrer and Reese Eveneshen's FOR THE SAKE OF VICIOUS is getting a DVD and Digital release from Signature Entertainment on Monday 19th April 2021.

Here's the trailer:


Thursday 15 April 2021

Portal (2021)


"Ambitious, Pleasingly Weird Low Budget SF"

"From the team that brought you V/H/S" says the press release for PORTAL (aka DOORS in the US) but don't let that necessarily put you off. For a start PORTAL is a different genre (SF) and it has different writers and directors but you will have guessed from those plurals that, like V/H/S, PORTAL does follow the anthology route. At least, sort of.

Bizarre, huge alien 'doors' begin to appear all over the earth. Many of them resemble huge collections of iron filings pulled into patterns by magnets, some of them pulsate and a few of them talk. Through three stories linked by the narration of a radio talk show host who features along with another character to round everything off we learn a little bit about why the doors are here and what they want. 

The first story is about the appearance of a door in a school. The second is set sometime later and details the attempts of explorers to pass through a door and explore the strange universe found on the other side. The third is about a man who discovers a door in a forest and finds he can communicate with it. The stories become more interesting as they go along, with the second boasting at least one image of 'beautiful horror' (a man suffocates as his breather mask fills with rose petals) and a strong sense that the director (Saman Kesh) wanted to do something similar to Alex Garland and Jeff Vandermeer's ANNIHILATION (2018), while the third is simultaneously touching and tinged with ominous portent.

Ultimately only a little of why what has been happening is explained and at points the film skates dangerously close to the edge of 'this is just short films glued together to make a fix-up movie'. However if you're inclined for a bit of slow burn weird SF that feels dreamlike in parts and nightmarish in others PORTAL is certainly worth a look.

PORTAL is out Digital and DVD from Signature Entertainment on Monday 19th April 2021

Saturday 10 April 2021

Willy's Wonderland (2021)


So Much Fun

In which Nicolas Cage has to fight giant puppet animals.

A must see.


It's surprising how many entries there have been in the 'Horror Amusement Park' subgenre in the past few years. These have ranged from 2018's BLOOD FEST (quite entertaining) to 2019's THE BANANA SPLITS MOVIE (could have been better) to 2018's FRIGHT FEST (terrible). 

However, it could be hypothesised that if enough people make enough movies with the central theme of a kids' entertainment attraction gone horribly wrong then at some point someone should get it right.

WILLY'S WONDERLAND is the one that gets it right.

This is due partly, and in no uncertain terms, to the presence of Nicolas Cage, who plays a man tricked into spending the night cleaning the amusement park of the title but actually intended as a sacrifice to the spirits inhabiting the giant animatronic animals that dwell within. Cage's character is a man who can down six cans of fizzy pop and never burp once, even when he's playing pinball and dancing, so we know he's not to be messed with, not even by nightmarish creations ten feet high that want to pull his head off.

That's almost it for the plot, which is exactly the right thing for this sort of film to do. Who wants lots of backstory and character development when instead you can see Mr Cage beating to death some kind of weird giant alligator wearing a beret? Or Tito the Turtle, a giant turtle that only speaks Spanish and is therefore subtitled? ("Oh my balls!")

There's a subplot about teenagers breaking in so they can get done in by the puppets but again the film treats their characters and what happens to them in just the right way for this kind of film so that they're never too annoying. WILLY'S WONDERLAND skilfully balances horror with humour, never outstays its welcome and is so much fun it's almost over before you realise. 

        Extras on Signature's Blu-ray include a seven minute behind the scenes featurette (including Cage interview), two minutes on the animatronics and another couple of minutes of a set tour.

Director Kevin Lewis has made movies in other genres but he might just have found his niche with horror comedy and I hope he gets to make another one. And the soundtrack (by 'Emoi') also deserves a shout out for combining a decent rock / synthesiser score with some great songs. A soundtrack album would be welcome.

WILLY'S WONDERLAND is out from Signature Entertainment on digital on Monday 12th April 2021 and DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 19th April 2021. Here's the trailer:

Friday 9 April 2021

Final Days (2021)

Aidan (Tyler Posey) wakes one morning to find the world in the grip of a zombie apocalypse. Trapped in his flat he eventually befriends Eva (Summer Spiro) who lives in the building opposite. They communicate by handwritten signs because the zombies respond to sound, and because Eva lives on a lower floor Aidan can send over bottles of water via a rope system. He also searches other apartments for food and one day meets an old man (Donald Sutherland) who harbours a deadly secret.

And that secret is easily guessable if you've seen the South Korean movie #ALIVE (2020) because FINAL DAYS is essentially a carbon copy of that film, with one of #ALIVE's co-writers (Matt Naylor) taking sole screenplay credit for this one. No mention of #ALIVE is made anywhere on the credits so one assumes he managed to sell the same idea twice, possibly after having been influenced by the 2018 French film THE NIGHT EATS THE WORLD which also shares the same basic scenario.

So if you've seen its Korean and French counterparts you can probably give FINAL DAYS a miss. However, if you haven't, or you're one of those people with an aversion to subtitles, it's actually not that bad, with reasonable performances and a brisk enough pace. 

Originally filmed as ALONE one presumes the title change was to avoid it being confused with quite a few other films that have used title in the last couple of years, although those responsible may be unaware that there are several FINAL DAYS movies out there as well. If you want to watch this you want the one directed by former stuntman Johnny Martin.

FINAL DAYS is out on DVD & Digital Platforms from Signature Entertainment on Monday 12th April 2021

Thursday 8 April 2021

Clapboard Jungle (2020)


Following its UK premiere at Frightfest last year (and a recent screening at Grimmfest's Easter festival), Justin McConnell's documentary about his efforts to get his independent film projects off the ground gets a Blu-ray release from Arrow Films.

McConnell made LIFECHANGER, which I called a 'strange, original and thoughtful drama' when I reviewed it on here back in 2018. It's certainly worth a watch and here we get the story of the years in McConnell's career leading up to its writing, financing and shooting.

We learn about his decision early in life to want to be a film-maker, his move into short films and then trying to get features made. It's a brutally honest depiction of an individual with a bunch of great ideas (and completed screenplays) under his arm trying and almost always failing to secure any finance for his projects as he travels to Cannes and Berlin and film festivals elsewhere trying to make deals.

This difficulty in getting projects off the ground is echoed by the interviews he conducts with numerous film-makers who have been through the same thing, including Larry Fessenden, Jenn Wexler, Lloyd Kaufman, George Romero and Guillermo del Toro. LIFECHANGER's success provides the documentary with a happy ending but it's still a sobering watch and recommended viewing for anyone who is thinking of a career in the industry.

Arrow's Blu-ray is absolutely packed with extras. All the short films McConnell talks about in the feature are on here (thirteen in total) with commentaries and director introduction. The main feature has two commentary tracks to itself, one with just the director and another with additional crew members.

There's also a whopping five hours of extra interview material with, amongst many others, a hugely impressive list of Barbara Crampton, Charles Band, Brian Trenchard-Smith, Brian Yuzna, Dean Cundey, Dick Miller, Don Mancini, Frank Henenlotter, Gary Sherman, George Mihalka, John McNaughton, Larry Cohen, Paul Schrader, Richard Stanley, Tom Holland, Tom Savini, Sam Firstenberg and Michael Biehn.

You also get McConnell's two documentaries that he talks about, WORKING CLASS ROCK STAR (2008) and SKULL WORLD (2013) both with commentaries, deleted scenes, trailers, stills, easter eggs and a reversible sleeve.

Justin McConnell's CLAPBOARD JUNGLE is out on Blu-ray from Arrow Films on Monday 12th April 2021

Monday 5 April 2021

Silent Action (1975) aka La Polizia Accusa: Il Servizio Segreto Uccide


"A Cracking Example of Mid-1970s EuroCrime Cinema"

One of the 'have a go at anything' heroes of Italian exploitation cinema, Sergio Martino is best known to cult film fans these days for his giallos, the most famous of which is probably 1973's TORSO. But he also worked in many other popular genres including poliziotteschis (or Italian crime thriller). SILENT ACTION, one of the best of Martino's poliziotteschis, is about to get a Blu-ray release from Fractured Visions.

Luc Merenda is Giorgio Solmi, a police inspector called in to investigate the brutal clubbing to death of an electrical engineer and part-time blackmailer. His investigations lead him discover a link with the several faked 'suicides' that we've seen open the film and a plot to bring down the government.

SILENT ACTION is a brisk, well-paced, highly entertaining thriller that boasts several highlights, including a splendidly edited and choreographed car chase in the middle of the film and an explosion and gun-battle-filled climax that looks like it cost a lot more than it likely did. Being a mid-1970s film there's a heavy dose of cyncism, plenty of double-crossing, and you're never quite sure who's on whose side right up until the final frame. That Italian title translates as THE POLICE ACCUSE: THE SECRET SERVICE KILL, by the way. 

Fractured Visions' transfer of SILENT ACTION looks excellent with a 2K restoration of nice clean print that includes both Italian and English dialogue tracks. as well as a commentary track by Mike Malloy on the fandom surrounding EuroCrime cinema that's original, enlightening, and well worth a listen. Extras include a brief Martino interview as well as interviews with star Merenda and composer Luciano Michelini. There's also an archival featurette about co-star Tomas Milian ported over from a NoShame DVD and another archival interview with Luc Merenda.

The package also comes with a CD of Luciano Michelini's very pleasing mid 1970s lounge-style score over 25 tracks lasting a total of 58 minutes. For the soundtrack obsessives out there it's the same as last year's Digit movies release and if you don't have it this is an excellent bonus. I'll admit I'm not familiar with the composer's work but this is excellent and in places reminiscent of George Martin's style of scoring for the 1973 James Bond film LIVE & LET DIE. If you're in any doubt get someone to play you track 10 (which accompanies the car chase sequence) and then say you don't need this in your soundtrack library. It's altogether an excellent package from Fractured Visions and I hope we get to see more of this sort of thing from them. 

Sergio Martino's SILENT ACTION is out on Blu-ray in a Limited Edition (of 3000) two disc package on Monday 12th April 2021. Here's the trailer:

If you're planning on buying the disc then I'd recommend supporting Fractured Visions by ordering it direct from their site at the link below:

Order SILENT ACTION from Fracture Visions

Friday 2 April 2021

Synchronic (2020)

"Moorhead and Benson's Best Yet"

The team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who both direct from scripts by Benson with Moorhead acting as cinematographer, has been responsible for a string of low budget creative genre pieces including the fascinating warped space and time epics RESOLUTION (2012) and its direct sequel (kind of) THE ENDLESS (2017) and affecting EuroHorror-style tribute SPRING (2014).

SYNCHRONIC sees Benson and Moorhead getting their biggest budget to date, with star talents to match, all contributing towards the best and most successful exploration of their fascination of the nature of time yet. If you were fascinated by THE ENDLESS but didn't quite get it, or wondered what exactly what was going on in RESOLUTION, SYNCHRONIC is the film to watch, one which both consolidates their oeuvre so far and suggests they may intend to explore more complex extrapolations of these ideas in future movies.

Steve (Anthony Mackie, best known as Falcon from the Marvel films) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan who like his 50 SHADES OF GREY co-star Dakota Johnson is finding redemption through genre movies) are New Orleans paramedics who find themselves called to cases of drug overdoses associated with inexplicable events. One has been bitten by a venomous snake whose presence should be an impossibility, another has been stabbed in the chest by a cutlass hundreds of years old.

All the cases are linked by a drug called Synchronic which, it turns out, can cause time travel. When Dennis' daughter disappears it's up to Steve to experiment with the last remaining doses of Synchronic to try to find her.

The science is a little bit complex but it's well explained, the performances are excellent (especially Mackie who exhibits real star quality in this) and it's obvious that Benson and Moorhead have improved considerably as storytellers since RESOLUTION. SYNCHRONIC deserved a wide cinematic release as their entry into the big time but unfortunately COVID put paid to that. 

Signature Entertainment's Blu-ray release contains a directors' commentary, a spoof alternate ending (which should raise a smile) plus 15 minutes of behind the scenes and a fascinating 8 minutes of 'previsualisation' which shows how they work out what they want to do by creating a 'practice run through' on a mobile phone. There's also a one minute deleted scene and some trailers. The extra content is also on the iTunes download but not the DVD or other digital platforms.

Moorhead & Benson's SYNCHRONIC is out from Signature Entertainment on Digital Platforms now and on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 5th April 2021