Sunday 26 December 2021

Top Ten Films of 2021

Time for the traditional HMC Boxing Day round up of new films that have found their way into the screening room this year and made sufficient impression on me that I feel they deserve another mention. In terms of movies released and festivals held, 2021 was a vast improvement over 2020, with things feeling as if they were getting back to (almost) normal. Many festivals provided digital alternatives for those still not prepared to venture back into the auditorium, and often the digital lineups were different from physical ones.
And so we come to the films I found the most things to like about this year. The rules stay the same - each film had to have been shown in the UK for the first time, either cinema, festival, disc release or streaming service. And big budget major studio successes don't get a look in because everyone will already know if they want to see NO TIME TO DIE, DUNE, or SPIDERMAN NO WAY HOME.
But wait! I hear you cry. What of the worst of the year? The bit that seems to be the favourite according to many readers. Well, I didn't watch anything too deserving of being dragged over the coals, which probably reflects my viewing habits more than the fact that there was definitely a lot of rubbish out there. However there were a couple of films worthy of mention, both because their directors fall into the could do / have done better category. So let's have a couple of awards:

Best Bad Film of 2021

Yes James Wan, I like a lot of the films you've made but not MALIGNANT, and not even rabid fans claiming 'it's deliberately supposed to be this bad' had me buying that this one was any good. Mind you, there's so much awfulness to delight in with this one that not for one moment might it be considered dull. Awful, yes, all the way through in fact, but never dull. And so many questions! Which director does James Wan really want to be? Stuart Gordon? (The beginning of this) ELM ST era Wes Craven? (Lots of this) Or Dario Argento at his convoluted worst? (You'll know. Believe me you'll know). So many lines of dialogue clamouring for the coveted 'Worst Of 2021' award! So many actors determined to deliver those lines as appallingly as possible! No spoilers in this review because for the true Bad Film Fan this one is a feast indeed waiting to be discovered. Take heart that the appallingly misjudged opening 10-15 minutes is merely a hint of the dreadful delights to come, because believe me it gets even better / worse. 

The 'What Were They Thinking?' Award of 2021

Previously won by Neil Marshall (for THE RECKONING), Bruce McDonald (for HELLIONS) and Brad Anderson (VANISHING ON SEVENTH STREET) this year the award for a film-maker who is known to be more than competent but has somehow delivered something that has all us scratching our heads and wondering if perhaps it's someone else with exactly the same name goes to Neill Blomkamp for DEMONIC. This was a film that felt more like a first effort from someone with a couple of interesting ideas but lacking the talent or expertise to carry them through, and the only tradition it did live up to was being a Frightfest opening film that really wasn't very good. 

Okay that's quite enough of the bad, onwards with the good and the ugly (but still good!):

10 Greywoods Plot

Premiering at Frightfest, what a surprise GREYWOOD'S PLOT was. For about the first 45 minutes this is the not-especially enthralling tale of two likeable, bumbling losers on the hunt to film the chupacabra for their youtube channel. Then it suddenly goes completely mental and becomes a modern-day version of early 1930s mad scientist movies. Shot in black and white this becomes sufficiently disturbing towards the end that I was glad it wasn't a midnight movie. Director Josh Stifter knows his stuff and even cited TERROR IS A MAN as an influence in the post film interview. Let's hope he gets to make more messed up movies like this one.

9 When the Screaming Starts

A very specific kind of Great British Horror film that I love is in safe hands if WHEN THE SCREAMING STARTS is anything to go by. A horror comedy with the accent very much on the horror, this takes the form of a mockumentary following the attempts of a wannabe serial killer who wants to form his own Charles Manson-style family. The balance between comedy and horror is perfect, with some quite horrible murders in between bits of properly dark humour.

8 Spencer

A film where image, music and especially Kristen Stewart's performance combine to provide moments of near cinematic genius, and possibly the only movie with aspirations for Oscar time to ever grace this site. Pablo Larrain's SPENCER plunges us into Great British Horror country from the off - that soggy, gloomy, stately setting of country houses that were home to so many mad scientists, sadists and satanists back in the 1970s. In fact the film SPENCER reminded me of a lot was dear old Norman J Warren's SATAN'S SLAVE, with our innocent and unsuspecting victim being prepared for sacrifice by a bunch of eccentrics, right down to her being weighed near the start ("for fun") by Timothy Spall in the Michael Gough (or possibly even Sheila Keith) role. "I'm lost," says Kristen Stewart's Diana at the very beginning as she's trying to find her way, alone and unaided, to her destination, giving the increasingly strange goings-on she finds herself involved in something of a CARNIVAL OF SOULS vibe. 

7 The Forever Purge

Who would have thought the fifth entry in THE PURGE franchise would turn out to be the best? (Although THE PURGE 3: ELECTION YEAR might still be my favourite). The political subtext isn't really sub at all in this splendidly angry film that's a bang up to date commentary on some of the major socio-cultural problems affecting the US at the moment. But - and it's a big one so BUT - unlike certain films I've watched recently where you feel the makers are hitting you over the head with a hammer marked 'Issues' to the point where you just wish they'd shut up & go away this never loses sight of being (or at least pretending to be) a bloody good exploitation movie in the MAD MAX  / BRONX WARRIORS mode. But there are moments in THE FOREVER PURGE of sheer, perfect, spot-on social commentary genius that will make you shiver as you nod and which I'm not going to spoil because I want everyone to go and watch  it so they makeTHE PURGE 6 (they certainly could & it could be amazing). After the slight drop in quality of THE FIRST PURGE this franchise is wonderfully back on track, James DeMonaco is an exploitation auteur par excellence, and I love that the US has its own horror franchise that gets new entries planned for release on Independence Day instead of Halloween. Is THE PURGE the MAD MAX franchise for the 2020 generation? I actually think it's better. Fight me. But only on Purge night.

6 Lamb

To suggest that director and co-writer (with Sjón) Valdimar Jóhannson's LAMB possesses elements of the fiction of Arthur Machen would be to give nothing away, but might help to prepare you for some of the delicious strangeness we get in this one. Two people encounter a Very Weird Happening on their remote Icelandic farm and just...go with it. Also features stunning landscapes and, amongst some fantastic animal 'acting', some of the scariest sheep you'll ever see.

5 Censor

In CENSOR director Prano Bailey-Bond conjures a superb atmosphere of incipient dread against the seediest of 1980s backdrop settings. Niamh Algar's Enid works for the BBFC (probably, perhaps, maybe) and is still mourning the loss of her sister many years ago. But did that sister even exist? Watch again if you doubt me. As the film goes on the fracturing of her sanity is depicted with all the skill and discomforting style of a Ramsey Campbell short story and the final act brings in aspect ratio manipulation in a way I thought was terrific to reflect how her world was falling apart and if anything it didn't go far enough. Criticised by some as failing as an accurate depiction of the state of the early 1980s UK film industry and to a major extent the video nasty phenomenon, but I don't think that's the point of this one at all. I do think, however, that as a depiction of someone living in the early 1980s slowly spiralling into madness it's quite excellent.

4 Candyman

Nia DaCosta's CANDYMAN remake is very good, and far better than certainly I was expecting it to be, because remakes tend to be a bit crap on the whole, don't they? But this is clever, subtle, extremely well-directed (I very much hope DaCosta gets to make another horror film as she really knows what she's doing) and also manages to not just namecheck the events of the original but cleverly weave them into this film, a movie that is very much its own thing while also being the best 'CANDYMAN 2' anyone could have wished for. The ending is perhaps a bit too abrupt after the delicious long slow build and character and story development of the first 85% of the film, but maybe that's a testament to how engrossing the rest of the film is. Now the Blu-ray is out we can all watch this on a double bill with Bernard Rose's original.

3 Annette

Powerful, moving, strange, unique and filled with songs only Sparks could come up with, thanks to director Leos Carax ANNETTE also managed to be one of the greatest visual feasts to enjoy on the big screen this year. Every note of music, every line of dialogue, every directorial flourish and all three lead performances - Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and Simon Helberg - are just fantastic. "If you liked it tell a friend and if you have no friends then tell a stranger" they sing at the end, so here I am telling everyone. Out on Blu-ray in early January 2021 and truly magnificent.

2 The Green Knight

A very decent attempt indeed to do for the medieval epic poem Gawain and the Green Knight what Roman Polanski managed for MACBETH, making its source material accessible through powerful visuals and fine performances. The photography is sumptuous and the pacing is leisurely and, in the era of the multiplex action picture, really quite welcome. In fact in some ways THE GREEN KNIGHT feels like the antithesis of a Marvel film (I am *not* saying Marvel movies are bad, btw, in fact I love - most of - them) where here we have the tale of a hero and his quest that's all about atmosphere rather than jump cuts, silences rather than noise, and words rather than actions. Put all that together & I'd go so far as to say it's something of an intellectual chill out film. David Lowery also directed A GHOST STORY, another film I quite unexpectedly found that I loved. Looking forward to more from him.

1 Last Night in Soho

How could it be anything else? Edgar Wright's LAST NIGHT IN SOHO is so Great British Horror it hurts, and in all the best ways. I could list all the references and influences I spotted but I'm sure my Golden Age of BritHorror friends will delight in discovering them for themselves, suffice to say the film is evocative of the feel of contemporary 1960s classics like THE SORCERERS or THE SKULL - it's all very Amicus / Tigon bedsit sleaze with a few surprises thrown in. And the soundtrack is packed with 1960s classics (including John Barry's BEAT GIRL - nice touch, Edgar!). So yes I loved this, a film that I think can reasonably be described as Edgar Wright's NEON DEMON (another House of Mortal Cinema number one film of the year). The credits even include a dedication to Diana Rigg at the beginning and Margaret Nolan at the end. Sheer class from start to finish.

As usual there was plenty of stuff bubbling under, especially festival movies like DAWN BREAKS BEHIND THE EYES (a tribute to the halcyon days of 1970s EuroHorror), BRING OUT THE FEAR, Richard Bates, Jr's KING KNIGHT, the Carry On Deliverance-style fun of SWEETIE YOU WON'T BELIEVE IT, the Fawlty Towers-style insanity of HOTEL POSEIDON and the twisty-turny timey-wimey genius of BEYOND THE INFINITE TWO MINUTES. The best from streaming service Shudder was probably QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC, a cracking remake of the 1970s original, while Netflix's outstanding contribution was the terrific Norwegian comedy horror THE TRIP. 

And that's it for 2021, a year in which House of Mortal Cinema celebrated its tenth birthday and (nearly) 1000 reviews. As always my thanks to the PR companies who keep me supplied with review materials and all the local cinemas who know me and Mrs Probert almost as well as the local restaurants we go to afterwards do. As the spectre of COVID looms once more it's impossible to say how movie watching in 2022 will be affected but for now at least House of Mortal Cinema will be there to point out some of the more esoteric good (and occasionally terrible) movies that are out there to enjoy. Have a good New Year's and HMC will be back in 2022!

Saturday 18 December 2021

Session 9 (2001)

"Superlative Second Sight Release of a Modern Classic"

Second Sight Films give their special edition treatment to one of the best horror films of the twenty first century, with Brad Anderson's remarkable debut as director getting a terrific two disc Blu-ray release with a gorgeous-looking transfer and plenty of extras.

Long closed down, the Danvers State Mental Hospital is due to be refurbished but first all the asbestos needs clearing out. Several companies bid for the contract and the winner is Gordon (Peter Mullan), who claims he and his small team can clear the building in a week. 

However, working long hours in a big creepy building turns out to be the least of what the team has to worry about as one of them discovers a series of tapes relating to a grim case history. Then one of their number disappears, but the biggest horror lies far closer to home than any of them realise.

If you've not seen SESSION 9 then hopefully the above has kept things vague enough that when you do (and this one really is a must see) it will deliver the gut punch topper to the slowly mounting sense of unease that the combined skills of director and co-writer Anderson, co-writer and costar Stephen Gevedon, and the rest of the cast and crew achieve so brilliantly. The location is an immense help of course, but SESSION 9 is one of those 'lightning in a bottle' movies where everything and everyone works in perfect synergy to create a modern horror classic. 

Second Sight's limited edition set comes with two Blu-rays. Disc one gives us a gorgeous transfer of the film. There are also two commentary tracks - one with Anderson and Gevedon ported over from the original DVD release, and a new one from Mike White and Jed Ayers. Return to Danvers is a 45 minute making of from 2016 and is ported over from Shout Factory's Blu-ray. Horrors Hallowed Grounds gives us twenty minutes of then and now (it's surprising what's left as well as what isn't). The Haunted Palace is a short archival piece about the ghost stories that surround Danvers. Story to screen is ten minutes comparing storyboards with shots, and there's also 9 minutes of deleted scenes and an alternate ending. The film-makers were right to cut this stuff although it's worth a look for a couple of stunning images that had to go.

Disc Two gives us all of Second Sight's new specially filmed material, which kicks off with a new 37 minute interview with Brad Anderson. Back to the Bat is an hour long interview with producer David Collins and DP Uta Briesewitz. Invisible Design is 23 minutes with production designer Sophie Carldon. Stephen Gevedon also has a new 23 minute interview and the film's composers, Robert Millis and Jeffrey Taylor, talk for 26 minutes on their contribution to the film. Finally, Alexandra Heller-Nicolas provides a 20 minute analysis on the movie.

So that's the film looking pristine, all previous archival material collected, two commentary tracks and over three hours of new interview material. I haven't even mentioned the soft cover book and rigid slipcase for it all to go in. Excellent stuff.

Brad Anderson's SESSION 9 is out in a special limited edition two disc Blu-ray set from Second Sight on Monday 27th December 2021

Saturday 11 December 2021

Stagefright (1987)

"The Best Available Transfer of An Italian Classic"

Shameless Films are bringing out Michele Soavi's directorial debut STAGEFRIGHT on Blu-ray in a new 4K scan. It was previously released on UK Blu-ray by Exposure Cinema in 2014. We'll come to the comparisons in a bit but first let's talk about the film itself.

A surprisingly good entry in the 1980s slasher subgenre, STAGEFRIGHT defies expectations by being an Italian horror film produced by Joe D'Amato and written by his frequent collaborator Luigi Montefiore (aka George Eastman / Lew Cooper in the credits to this usually but given his real name here) that's actually well crafted, makes sense, isn't too tastelessly over the top in its portrayal of the murders and has dialogue which sounds as if it's being spoken by actors rather than the usual two or three people crammed into a Soho dubbing suite. One would be tempted to lay all the credit for this endeavour at the door of talented first time director Michele Soavi and certainly his subsequent movies makes you sorry he hasn't had a longer career in the horror genre.

Also known in different territories as DELIRIA, AQUARIUS and BLOODY BIRD (what would a EuroHorror picture be without several different titles?) the clever opening scene makes us think we're on the hideously cheap set of another Italian horror film. But no - we're actually on the hideously cheap set of an Italian stage play called 'The Night Owl'. After a couple of knowing comments about the Italian horror genre as a whole ("I know it doesn't make sense, but can you imagine the effect on the public?") Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) is off to the nearest hospital with Betty the wardrobe mistress to seek treatment for Alicia's sprained ankle. 

The nearest hospital is an Institution for the Criminally Insane which also just happens to be looking after psychopathic loony mass murderer plus actor Irving Wallace. Wallace escapes and hides in the back seat of the car (why does no-one ever check there after leaving these places?) before doing Betty in with a pickaxe. After the police have been and gone director Peter (David Brandon, who's not at all bad as the megalomaniacal director, although one wonders if having worked in Italy for some time he may have found quite a bit of inspiration to draw on) decides he's found the hook that will sell his play and locks his actors in for the night. 

Unfortunately Wallace is in there too and once he's found the owl mask and the keys to the tool and chainsaw cupboard the stage is set (sorry) for a series of well-orchestrated and quite ghastly murders, leading to the now famous scene of all the bits of the victims arranged as a tableaux tastefully augmented by swirling feathers amongst which is hidden the key Alicia has to retrieve so she can escape.

For a 1980s horror film STAGEFRIGHT hasn't dated too badly at all, possibly because the actors' hair and costumes could conceivably be part of the play they're meant to be appearing in. In the era of SAW and its ilk the murders are still quite horrible and Soavi demonstrates on this picture, as he did on subsequent projects THE CHURCH & DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE, that he's a born director with a natural eye for some impressive visual compositions. As I mentioned above the acting all round seems to be rather better than many EuroHorror efforts (and in particular many Joe D'Amato efforts) and Simon Boswell's electronic music augments the proceedings nicely. I believe there was talk of a STAGEFRIGHT 2 for a couple of years after this one but perhaps it's just as well it never materialised. As it is the movie stands as the best owl-headed theatre set slasher movie there is, and it’s unlikely to be bettered.

So how does Shameless' new disc measure up? I reviewed the 2014 Exposure Cinema Blu here and at the time it was a major upgrade from what had been available previously. I'm delighted to report that the new Shameless 4K scan looks even better and is now without a doubt the best that STAGEFRIGHT has ever looked. The disc comes with new extras as well - a 45 minute interview with Soavi (with his dog in the background!) details his career, we get 21 minutes with Giovanni Lombardo Radice and there's another 21 minute interview with David Brandon. The extras on Exposure's disc haven't been ported over so if you're at all a fan of STAGEFRIGHT I'd suggest you hang onto that one but at the same time you need the Shameless transfer (plus of course those new extras) to really see this one at its best.

Michele Soavi's STAGEFRIGHT is out on Blu-ray in a 4K-restored version from Shameless Films on Monday 27th December 2021

It's also available right now from the Shameless site: