Saturday 29 May 2021

Duel (1971)

"Man is Chased by Truck"

That's pretty much the plot of DUEL, Stephen Spielberg's feature debut which is getting a deserved 50th anniversary release on DVD & Blu-ray from Fabulous Films. If you've never seen it the only other thing you really need to know is that it's brilliant - a true horror road movie where the only thing that matters is whether or not the central character - David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is going to survive being chased by the massive smoke-belching oil-dribbling articulated lorry whose driver takes a dislike to him when he overtakes it on a desert highway in California.

If you are a DUEL fan you'll already know it was made to be shown on US television and as such had to run 74 minutes to fit into a 90 minute time slot with commercials. However it very quickly achieved such a fine reputation that it was released theatrically in Europe where it had to run 90 minutes. Spielberg was allowed to go and shoot some extra footage (which doesn't feel extraneous at all and if it were not for the 35 minute interview with him included on the disc you'd never guess which bit it is). But that leads to the question - which version of DUEL is on this disc? The 74 minute TV version in 1.33:1 aspect ratio or the 90 minute cinema version in 1.85:1.

It's the cinema version, and no we don't get the TV version as an extra (and to be honest you don't really need it). Other extras include 9 minutes of Richard Mathesoin talking about his story and screenplay, and another 9 minute piece about Spielberg's work for American TV, some of which helped him secure the DUEL directing gig. 

An acknowledged classic that did wonders for its director's career and no doubt influenced artists like Stephen King (Trucks!) and George Miller (when MAD MAX came out it was lauded for its placement of the camera on or so close to the vehicles but Spielberg uses many of those tricks here) Fabulous Films' transfer is sparkling and you even get some Graham Humphries artwork on the sleeve, reproduced on the free fold-out poster that comes with the disc. Very nice indeed.

Stephen Spielberg's DUEL is out on DVD & Blu-ray from Fabulous Films on Monday 31st May 2021

Thursday 20 May 2021

Weird Wisconsin: The Bill Rebane Collection (1965 - 1988)

First it was Herschell Gordon Lewis, then William Grefe, and now Wisconsin-based Bill Rebane finds himself the latest low-budget independent director of exploitation films to be the subject of an Arrow blu-ray box set. Who amongst us who caught Mr Rebane's exceedingly memorable THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION (1975) when it was shown in UK cinemas would ever have thought we would one day be holding in our hands such an item? SPIDER INVASION is probably still the film he's best known for, but sadly it's not included here, which is a bit of shame, but let's take a look at what we do get, spread over four discs:

Disc One

Monster A Go Go (1965)

Not strictly a Rebane film as he only shot some of it, then Herschell Gordon Lewis bought the footage, added a bit & then released the result as the support feature to one of his own films. Consequently it's not surprising that this ultra low-budget version of Hammer's THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (or even Richard Gordon's FIRST MAN INTO SPACE) is a bit of a ragged affair in which an astronaut returns to earth abnormally tall (and played by the improbably named Henry Hite) and proceeds to go on a tiny rampage before the film pretty much just stops. As entertainment it barely meets the trades descriptions act but as a footnote in the history of H G Lewis and exploitation cinema of the period it's certainly worth watching once.

Invasion From Inner Earth (1974)

Bill Rebane's 'official' first feature has three characters living in a cabin in the woods trying to survive the aftermath of an alien invasion. There's very much a 'make it up as you go along' feel to it and even Kim Newman admits on this disc that he's never been able to get all the way through it without falling asleep. Fans of wacky endings would be well advised to keep those eyelids propped open, however, because this one will cause much head scratching and late night debate if you've got friends round & you've all had enough to drink (coffee rather than alcohol).

Extras on disc one include two ten minute interviews with Rebane (one on each film), three Bill Rebane short films and a fifteen minute piece by Kim Newman which, if you're not familiar with Bill Rebane's filmography (and I'll admit I wasn't, apart from THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION) I would suggest watching before you embark on any of the films.

Disc Two

The Alpha Incident (1978)

Bill Rebane's take on THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN sees a space probe bringing an infectious organism to earth from Mars. Due to a fair bit of incompetence the organism escapes at a railway station, resulting in those who are there having to isolate themselves indoors. Slow to the point of being ponderous, this nevertheless does offer a horrible mode of death by which the organism kills its victims when they fall asleep, and a genuinely bleak, grim tone that makes one wonder what people thought who saw this when it was released as the B feature to STAR WARS. 

The Demons of Ludlow (1983)

The tiny town of Ludlow (population 47) is celebrating its bicentennial when a piano is delivered from England. Apparently it belonged to the town's founder and just happens to harbour his ghost. I think. Because this one is a bit muddled and despite playing the scene where 'all is explained' twice I'm still not quite sure what was going on or why a 200 year old piano should sound like a synthesiser when it's played. But never mind that -  it's not the plot (which is basically John Carpenter's THE FOG with a piano. Yes that's right) that's the reason to watch this, but some peculiar and occasionally downright unsettling scenes involving the ghosts the piano somehow seems to harbour / conjure up when it's played. One suspects the gruesome effectiveness of these bits is by accident rather than design but if the films of Andy Milligan appeal to you (and they do to me) then you'll want to see this one. 

Extras include two more Bill Rebane 'Sharp Shooter' interviews about each film, trailers, and a video essay by Richard Harland Smith about THE ALPHA INCIDENT who makes some interesting connections to the COVID pandemic as well as revealing the film played as the B feature to not just STAR WARS but a number of other films as well. 

Disc Three

The Game (1984)

Three very rich people invite a disparate group of individuals to their isolated island mansion in order to take part in a game. The only rule is that if for any reason you leave the property your right to the prize money that's at stake is forfeit. Of course plenty of reasons for leaving the place have been planned by those in charge.

THE GAME boasts a reasonable idea and a very peculiar ending but as with the other films in this set, how well you'll get on with it will depend on your tolerance for the quality of the film-making (not that great) balanced against the concepts and ideas the film presents us with. Sadly there's not enough of the latter to make THE GAME worth sticking with unless you're forgiving, or planning to steal the idea to mount your own, better version of it.

Twister's Revenge! (1988)

Here we go with Bill Rebane's version of Knight Rider but with a talking monster truck and a bunch of hillbillies. Three incompetents decide to steal it, fail and so instead they kidnap the wife of the man who owns the truck and hold her to ransom. If you're a monster truck fan this will still only be the film for you if you like lengthy scenes of one driving all over the countryside and occasionally squashing something. TWISTER'S REVENGE is the kind of film that makes The Dukes of Hazzard TV series look like something by Christopher Nolan. Possibly useful as something to make children sit and watch if they've seriously misbehaved.

Extras on disc three include more of Mr Rebane's reminiscences on the above two films and one of the best extras on the set in which Stephen R Bissette gives us a video essay and talks about what it was like to discover Rebane's films as each one of them came out. 

Disc Four

It's all non-fiction on this disc, starting with Who Is Bill Rebane?  - a new feature length documentary on the film-maker, followed by King of the Wild Frontier in which Stephen R Bissette spends close to two hours talking about the director's films. You also get out-takes from THE ALPHA INCIDENT, THE DEMONS OF LUDLOW, and a trailer for THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION, plus stills from the films that aren't included on the other discs.

Weird Wisconsin: The Bill Rebane Collection is a four disc Blu-ray set that's coming out from Arrow Video on Monday 24th May 2021

Friday 14 May 2021

Radio On (1979)

"A Very Different, Very British Art House Road Movie"

Nowadays director Christopher Petit is best known as a documentary film-maker but back in 1979 he was a film critic about to make the move into feature films. This would lead to his 1982 adaption of P D James' AN UNSUITABLE JOB FOR A WOMAN and 1984's FLIGHT TO BERLIN, which was one of the early 'Film on Four' productions that premiered on the then-new Channel 4. First off, though, he made the fascinating RADIO ON in black and white, which is now getting a Blu-ray release through the BFI, who also originally made it in a co-production deal with a West German film company.

Robert (David Beames) lives above an art house cinema (showing Oshima's EMPIRE OF PASSION) in London and works as a DJ. When he learns of his brother's death he travels to Bristol to find out what happened, meeting a variety of characters both on the way and at his destination. These include Sting as an Eddie Cochran-obsessed garage attendant and Sandy Ratcliffe (best known for appearing in Eastenders and for playing the piano naked in Robert Fuest's THE FINAL PROGRAMME) as his brother's girlfriend. 

RADIO ON is very much a meditative odyssey through late 1970s Britain, its emphasis on both image and sound design not unlike that employed by David Lynch. The sound is frequently supplied by the songs of innovative musicians of the period including David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Wreckless Eric and Lene Lovich. Don't expect any big revelations or anything much resembling a plot because that's not the point. Instead it's more about what Britain was like then, both in terms of landscape and attitudes, both of which feel an age away now for those of us who were around at the time. The Bristol Robert ends up in little resembles the Bristol of today. 

The BFI's Blu-ray also includes, as extras, a new, nearly hour-long interview with the director by Vic Pratt, a detailed 54 minute analysis of the film by Jason Wood, a 2008 interview with Chris Petit by Keith Griffiths, a RADIO ON August 1998 'remix' of the soundtrack by Wire's Bruce Gilbert, Viv Albertine's short film COPING WITH CUPID, two public information films, L FOR LOGIC and THE MOTORWAY FILE, plus a trailer and image gallery.

Christopher Petit's RADIO ON is out on Blu-ray from the BFI on Monday 17th May 2021

Thursday 13 May 2021

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965)

In 1965 Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli's series of James Bond films was riding the crest of its quite phenomenal success. Sean Connery was still firmly ensconced in the role and the series showed no signs of slowing down. In January 1966, three weeks after the release of  THUNDERBALL, the fourth film in the Bond franchise, a very different kind of spy thriller opened in British cinemas, one that turned out to be the very antithesis of the colourful spy movies audiences had so far been flocking to.

Adapted from John Le CarrĂ©'s 1963 novel of the same name, Martin Ritt's film  of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FORM THE COLD tells the story of Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) who works in Berlin for British Intelligence. When the return of an undercover operative goes wrong Leamas returns to London. Instead of taking up a desk job he becomes embroiled in a complex plot that involves him 'defecting' to the other side with the intention of causing the death of one of the opposition's key figures. But all is not quite as it seems.

Along with Sidney J Furie's THE IPCRESS FILE (released just two months after Ritt's film), THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD showed cinema audiences a grimmer, seedier, more realistic flip-side to Ian Fleming's glamorous superspy adventures. Richard Burton is perfectly cast as Leamas, delivering a climactic speech filled with invective to Claire Bloom's hapless communist librarian. Don't expect a happy ending for either of them. 

        Shot in harsh black and white and featuring turns by a number of British acting favourites including Michael Hordern, Cyril Cusack, Robert Hardy, Rupert Davies as George Smiley and a blink or you'll miss him Michael Ripper, with key roles for Peter Van Eyck (THE SNORKEL) and Oskar Werner (Truffaut's FAHRENHEIT 451), it's a film that builds slowly, demanding you pay attention in order to follow its complex plotting, but the result is very much worth it.

Eureka's disc comes with a new commentary track from Adrian Martin and a video essay from David Cairns that lasts just over 20 minutes. You also get a 48 page booklet with new writing on the film from Richard Combs as well as archival pieces.

Martin Ritt's film of John Le CarrĂ©'s THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD is out on Blu-ray from Eureka on Monday 17th May 2021 

Saturday 8 May 2021

A Glitch in the Matrix (2021)

        ROOM 237 director Rodney Ascher's latest documentary gets a Blu-ray and DVD release from Dogwoof after previously coming out on digital.

As well as the aforementioned look at the various crackpot theories that surround Stanley Kubrick's 1980 THE SHINING, Mr Ascher has also given us feature-length non-fiction pieces on sleep paralysis (2015's THE NIGHTMARE), and the lead singer of The Mentors (2019's THE EL DUCE TAPES). This time round he's looking at simulation theory - the idea that the world in which we live isn't actually real and may instead by the creation of some other intelligence. 

Ascher begins the film with video footage of acclaimed SF writer Philip K Dick addressing an audience in 1977. We see Dick, the author of The Man in the High Castle, Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, and a host of other fine novels that frequently deal with the themes of alternate realities, talk about how he himself believes they exist and that his experiences following general anaesthesia, when he woke up with fragmented memories of living in a different world to our own, have informed his fiction.

The documentary also include an interview with philosopher Nick Bostrom, founding director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University and author of a number of academic articles, notably 2003's Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? 

Unfortunately, much of the rest of A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX consists of interviews with a number of digitally disguised individuals with no perceived qualifications at all whose theories seem to be based on them having spent rather too much time playing video games. A lengthy amount of time is given to a man who murdered his parents under the impression he was in an artificial reality having watched 1999's THE MATRIX to excess. It makes for quite grim listening and adds very little to the subject and this plus the video gamers does cause the documentary to stray into ROOM 237 crackpot territory. 

        Dogwoof's Blu-ray comes with a trailer and a 35 minute Q&A conducted over Zoom. You also get a very attractive set of collector's postcards.

        Simulation theory is a fascinating subject and if you don't know anything about it A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX provides a good introduction and it will get you thinking. But ultimately it could have been better.

Rodney Ascher's A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX is out from Dogwoof Films on Monday 10th May 2021 and is already out on Digital HD

Friday 7 May 2021

Johnny Mnemonic (1996)

"Ahead of its Time"

The science fiction  film nobody liked very much when it came out (the critics gave it a roasting and its director - Robert Longo - never made another feature) is getting a special 21st anniversary digital re-release from Vertigo. But is it as bad as all those 1990s critics claimed?

Actually, no it isn't. Not at all.

Had it been released five years later, post THE MATRIX (1999), it's likely audiences would have gone for this film in a big(ger) way than they did, having been familiarised with some of what we get here. William Gibson's ground-breaking cyber-punk novel Neuromancer was published in 1984 but the concepts it introduced were still foreign to most 1990s cinemagoers. Unfortunately Gibson's screenplay for JOHNNY MNEMONIC throws a lot of these concepts at the viewer right away and expects them to keep up. 

There's a lengthy 'explanatory' crawl at the beginning that makes you think the film is going to be more complex than it actually is. Essentially Keanu Reeves, in a role that now seems tailor made for Nicolas Cage, is Johnny, a data smuggler who has had a part of his brain replaced by a hard drive. Doing a job for his agent (the always watchable Udo Kier) Johnny gets too big an upload and has a limited time to deliver it before it destroys his brain. This MacGuffin of information drives the plot, causing him to be pursued by various factions, all of whom want it for their own purposes, as he meets a variety of colourful characters along the way.

And that's it. But add in Dolph Lundgren as an implant-enhanced preacher-cum-assassin and a climactic fight against the backdrop of a tank containing a dolphin that's been hardwired into the internet and you can understand why non-cyberpunk-savvy reviewers of the time threw their hands up and their pens down (after awarding the film a one star rating). Now, in the aftermath of the work of the Wachowskis, Michel Gondry, Christopher Nolan and most recently Brandon Cronenberg, JOHNNY MNEMONIC is a lot more approachable. 

It's by no means perfect, however. On the whole there's little attention paid to the acting (apart from Udo who is, as always, a treat) and the film might have worked a lot better with many of the roles being played by skilled B movie actors of the period like Mary Woronov, Jeffrey Combs and Tim Thomerson, who could have saved scenes when the plotting got rough. Overall, though, it's a film ripe for rediscovery and if, like me, you gave it a miss back in the day because of those awful reviews, you'll find yourself quite pleasantly surprised.

JOHNNY MNEMONIC is getting an HD digital release on Monday 10th May 2021

Thursday 6 May 2021

The Darkness (2021)

Did you know that 80% of all the British horror films that exist were made after the year 2000? That's an awful lot of stuff that isn't Hammer, or Amicus, or the output from other studios during the 'Golden Age' of the 1950s-1970s . One of the most recent entries on this increasingly massive list of 21st century British horrors is writer-director Tharun Mohan's THE DARKNESS, now getting a UK digital release from Reel 2 Reel.

Lisa (Amelia Eve) and David (Cyril Blake) move into an isolated country cottage that David has inherited. Lisa's a writer with one book behind her and is searching for inspiration. She finds it when an old trunk yields an old journal telling the story of Niav and the life she experienced in Ireland over 100 years before at the hands of her not exactly period hipster husband Brian (Adam Bond complete with  2020-style coiffed beard and man bun - see below). But Niav's ghost has more to tell - or does it?

THE DARKNESS has decent direction and some nice locations. According to the press release it's set in Ireland which is a bit of a surprise seeing as there are very few Irish accents on display here and cars boast UK registration plates. The story takes a while to get going and when it does the various revelations the script has to offer are delivered in dumps of exposition that merely serve to confuse an already garbled storyline. By the end it's difficult to work out what exactly what was going on, and a desperate-feeling final attempt at a twist just makes things all the more confusing.

There are plenty of low budget British horror films that don't make sense, of course, but one gets the feeling THE DARKNESS is supposed to. Tharun Mohan can certainly set up a shot and the film is not the work of a hack, but at the same time it fails to deliver a decent story, instead giving us something that quickly becomes meandering and ponderous. Ultimately, THE DARKNESS has the feeling of a lesser Jose Larraz or Norman J Warren picture, but unfortunately without sufficient style or the lurid exploitation elements that have led to the longevity of those 1950s-1970s works and the affection still held for them. 

THE DARKNESS is out on digital from Reel 2 Reel on Monday 3rd May 2021

Saturday 1 May 2021

Wrong Turn (2021)

Not a Remake and Not a Sequel

Well it isn't. Despite being the seventh film to bear the title WRONG TURN since Rob Schmidt's 2003 original, and the same writer (Alan B McElroy) as that film, this is a WRONG TURN in name only. Well, and in terms of bright young things meeting horrible fates in an American forest (this is the first of the films to actually be made in the USA, by the way).

Jen (Charlotte Vega from Brian O'Malley's THE LODGERS) and her bunch of millennial friends leave the city & head off into the mountains to trek the Appalachian trail. They stray off the path like they're not supposed to, one of their number does something extremely inadvisable, and pretty soon they're prisoners of the Foundation - a community formed before the American civil war. Six weeks after they disappear Jen's father (Matthew Modine) comes looking for them.

This new WRONG TURN isn't bad at all. You get the sense the plan was to combine torture porn with folk horror and perhaps tip a bit of Amazon TV hit VIKINGS into the mix as well. What that means is that we get a film that's rather unevenly paced but good enough to maintain interest throughout. Director Mike P Nelson gives us some excellent imagery and there are a fair few decently creepy moments that don't make you feel as if you're watching the umpteenth film in a backwoods horror franchise - which is probably why it got a (deserved) retitling. The climax isn't as suspenseful as it could have been (and the music really needed to switch from the usual folk horror groans and bongs to something with a bit more drive) but nevertheless if you've seen a few of the previous entries in the franchise you may be pleasantly surprised by this.

Extras on Signature's Blu-ray include a half hour making of, seven minutes of deleted scenes, and a commentary track by the director. 

Mike P Nelson's new WRONG TURN is out on Blu-ray from Signature Entertainment on DVD & Blu-ray on 

Monday 3rd May 2021