Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Terminator Dark Fate



The Fate And The Furious

Terminator Dark Fate
(aka Terminator 6)

2019 USA Directed by Tim Miller
UK cinema release print.


Warning: This one has some spoilers because I don’t have a great deal to say about it but I can, at least, talk about specific plot points.

Terminator Dark Fate is the latest in a long line of Terminator films, starting off with James Cameron’s break out picture The Terminator back in 1984. I saw that first one a year or two after that via a big box video rental from the Off Licence about five minutes walk away (it’s still an off licence but, alas, doesn’t rent videos anymore). Out of all the Terminator movies, that first one was by far and away the best of the series and it’s the only one so far I’ve watched multiple times. All the others I’ve only seen once on their cinema releases. Out of the rest... 2 and 5 were pretty unwatchable, 3 and 4 were a little more entertaining.

This new sixth one is... somewhere in the middle of that lot in watchability, I reckon.

Now, I’ve got no idea just what is going on with the story anymore. They’re a little more contradictory as they go on and all have tried to reboot the franchise in some way. Frankly, the continuity on these things is just as bad as the 1940s Universal Mummy sequels or the various X-Men movies from 20th Century Fox... pretty non existent and disrespectful to the audiences who have plonked down money to see a sequel which fitted in with the prior films in the series.

Alas, Terminator Dark Fate is absolutely guilty of the same derogatory attitude towards its paying audience and within the first five or so minutes of the movie, it completely disregards the 3rd, 4th and 5th films by wiping out the possibilities of those futures, having a ‘younged up’ John Connor shot dead by a Terminator soon after the events of the second film. We then jump to present day when another Terminator, played by Gabriel Luna (who you may remember played Ghost Rider in Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D) is sent back to our time to kill a young woman called Danni Ramos, played by Natalia Reyes. However, an ‘augmented human’... basically a synthesis of future tech crossed with a human being, so a super powered cyborg, in other words... is sent back to protect her in the form of Grace, played by Mackenzie Davis.

And, to be fair, things get off to a great start with some strong and unrelenting action sequences which really had me believing that this may be one of the better terminator sequels. I was enjoying what I was seeing a lot and that didn’t let up when, in an early ‘deus ex machina’ moment seen in the trailer, Sarah Connor (with Linda Hamilton returning to play the somewhat iconic role) comes to everyone’s rescue and stalls the pursuit of the new Terminator for a little while. She has been getting anonymous messages from someone ‘off the grid’ for years now telling her when and where a Terminator will appear... “For John...” and is the poster girl for America’s Most Wanted as she has been dealing with various Terminators over the years. When Grace hacks her phone they match some coordinates she was sent back with and they go on a road trip to find themselves at the home of... the Terminator who killed John Connor at the start of the film. He has matured into Arnold Schwarzenneger as he looks now and, since he has new orders and is more or less the cybernetic equivalent of a Ronin (a masterless samurai), he has ‘grown a conscience’ and wants to make amends. And the rest of the film is, of course, more action as this group tries to destroy the Terminator, suffering a few losses along the way.

And... it doesn’t quite do what it needed to do for me to really get on its side. Which is a shame because, for the first hour, I was really into it hook, line and sinker. When Schwarzenegger turns up, though, things kind of go downhill a little and it’s not specifically because of him. As usual, Arnold is really cool in this and he does have some good moments in the film... as do all the cast, who make up a great ensemble. And it’s not even that the script is that bad either, despite its disrespect to the three films that preceded it. I just think that, by this point, there’s been a lot of truly spectacular action sequences and, frankly, the action in the second half of the movie, relentless though it is, just doesn’t really top anything you’ve already seen before and the pauses between set pieces aren’t really enough to keep you invested in them for the whole movie. I kinda had action fatigue by around the midway mark, I think. That was my biggest problem with it.

The ending and the not completely surprising revelation about the importance of the girl everyone is protecting is not that satisfying either, it has to be said. And it’s a shame because, like I said, the movie has got a great opening for the first hour. Then it just gets... well kinda dull actually. I no longer needed to see any action by this point and I was just waiting for all the pyrotechnics to finish. Pacing is everything and the second half of the film didn’t really have much contrast in it, truth be told.

Tom Holkenborg’s score to this however, is pretty cool. It’s quite respectful of Brad Fiedel’s original and it works and lifts the action in the occasional scenes when you can actually hear it without getting caught in the crossfire, so to speak. I believe La La Land are planning on issuing a CD of this one towards the end of the month and I may well pick this one up at some point.

Other than that... not much else to say. Good chemistry between the actors, some nice action scenes at the start and, thankfully, some good editing in those action scenes too... you’d probably not get too confused by what’s going on in this one, so that’s good news. Other than that though... not much else to weigh in with Terminator Dark Fate I think. Fans of the franchise will probably be happy enough with it (although I hear that the box office take on this is not what the studios would have wanted). Newcomers to the franchise could also probably pick up what’s going on fairly early in the film too so if you want to see a lot of explosions and bullets and flying bodies, then this is probably the film for you. I’m not sure however, at least in terms of the Terminator movies, that Arnold Schwarzenneger will ‘be back’ for another.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Countdown



Appy Death Day

Countdown
2019 USA Directed by Justin Dec
UK cinema release print.


Warning: Slight spoilers as to the set up of the movie.

Well this is a fun little movie. It’s not out and out brilliant but it is entertaining and it has a nice premise which the writer/director Justin Dec uses to riff on a mish mash of old genre tropes.

The plot is simple. A bunch of friends at a party download an app called Countdown which predicts and counts down to the end of your life in Years, Weeks, Days, Hours, Minutes and Seconds. Since nobody believes in such things being possible with an app (obviously), they are not worried about that proposition and the reason they download it in the first place is to use it as a drinking game... the one who has the nearest death prediction has to drink everybody’s shots. Well, of course, one of them gets a time which is only a couple of hours away and both she and, a few days later, her boyfriend, die from being killed by some kind of demon at their predicted second.

This is when the main protagonist of our story, Quinn (played by Elizabeth Lail), a recently graduated nurse, comes in. She witnesses the emotional impact on the boyfriend and figures he’ll soon be fine once he realises he’s not going to die so, of course, when he does die at the alloted time, in the hospital she works in, she starts getting very worried. Especially since her and another load of hospital staff also downloaded the app the previous day and, you guessed it, Quinn has little more than two days left to live. So yeah, before you know it she is trying to outwit the demon who is obviously taking up all her waking thoughts, especially since her new ally (played by Jordan Calloway) and her own sister have even less time to live than her.

Simple set up and the director is basically just riffing with it. As you can see, it’s pretty much a common or garden ‘demon curse that follows you around until your untimely death’ movie, following in the footsteps of such treasures as Drag Me To Hell, It Follows (reviewed here), Ringu (review coming sooner or later), Truth or Dare (reviewed here) and, of course, the grand daddy template and chief influencer of all supernatural curse stories Night Of The Demon (aka Curse Of The Demon, reviewed here), which was of course an adaptation of M. R. James’ short story Casting The Runes (you can find my review of the TV adaptation of this one here). That being said, in this one you can’t actually rid yourself of the curse or stall it by passing it on like those just mentioned... just get more people hurt, so it’s also probably very much like the Final Destination movies but, as I’ve never seen any of those, that’s only my best guess.

Now I never really get tired of these viral curse movies anyway but the pacing and writing on this is all pretty good. The director has thrown in lots of little strands of things he can pull on at the appropriate time such as the turbulent but healing relationship between Quinn and her younger sister (played here by Talitha Bateman from Annabelle Creation - reviewed by me here), Quinn’s guilt over the death of her mother and a male villain who is definitely put in to highlight the current ‘me too’ movement... although, to be fair, the director uses this character as a clever way of short cutting to a possible solution to Quinn and her friends’ problem, using this to deliberately crush her hopes at the eleventh hour.

Also, though, as I said in my first paragraph, the director happily cross pollinates varying horror sub-genres here by, for example, going the ‘full Dennis Wheatley’ at one point with salted circles harbouring protection symbols, used to shield the main characters from a visit by the demon (which you just know is going to go wrong). There’s even a moment in this which is a dead steal from what is probably the most memorable scare moment in The Haunting (reviewed by me here). All I shall say about this is that there’s a definitive ‘the horror thing already happened but you didn’t notice’ realisation where the writer/director parodies the “Oh my gawd. Whose hand was I holding?” moment done in, really much the same way.

There are also some great comical characters in the movie too. For example, the IT expert who manages the local phone store, played by Tom Segura, who is quite hilariously rude (and therefore true to life when it comes to people working in IT?) to almost everyone he spends time with, representing one of the ‘solutions’ of the movie when he tries to hacks Countdown App and reset all the clocks (if you want to find out the final fate of his character, stay behind for a bit after the credits have started rolling). Or the brilliant ‘rock and roll exorcism priest’ played by P.J. Byrne, who unfortunately drops clean out of the movie after his failed attempt at saving the life of one of the main protagonists. I don’t know why he’s just not referred to again, at least, later on in the picture.

In all honesty, the film isn’t really all that scary but it does have the occasional effective jump moments along the way. One of the smart things the writer/director does to ratchet up the tension in certain scenes is to have the Countdown App giving notifications every minute for the last five minutes or so of the victim’s life, which come in the form of irritating screams... which the director uses to full advantage. So perhaps it isn’t the scariest movie out there but, frankly, the same can be said for a lot of modern horror movies and this one, at least, is nicely put together and short enough so it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

All in all, then, what we have here is a genre piece where the emphasis is on fun rather than scares but, honestly, it works fine on that level for me. Well, I say it’s not scary but, I noticed the app is now available on the app store and I’m certainly not brave enough to download that one just yet. If you are into horror films and want to watch something which is done competently and possibly using some of the most clichéd styles of the genre in the most entertaining way possible then Countdown is probably something you’ll want to take a look at. The only real downside is the somewhat rather blatant set up for Countdown 2... it’s not subtle and grates a bit... although I suspect, judging from the amount of people in the cinema when I saw it, the box office on this one may not be enough to green light a sequel on, unless it does well on DVD and Blu Ray rentals.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Doctor Sleep



Look Before You Sleep

Doctor Sleep
2019 USA Directed by Mike Flanagan
UK cinema release print.


Warning: Contains spoilers for the original novel of Doctor Sleep.

Doctor Sleep is a pretty good film but I’m really surprised that Stephen King himself, the author of this sequel to his earlier book The Shining, has endorsed it. It’s not a secret that King hated Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation of The Shining (reviewed by me here) because of the way it differed from the novel and there are two reasons why I would have thought that King would have been equally damning of this new movie adaptation of Doctor Sleep. One is that the last third of the movie is nothing like the last third of the original book (which I reviewed here). It takes so many more liberties with the text than Kubrick did on his adaptation of The Shining and the ending is completely changed. That in itself would have been something he would be quite critical of, I’d have thought but you also have to factor in that director Mike Flanagan (who directed the wonderful Absentia, which I reviewed here) has deliberately synched it in visually, in a lot of it, to Kubrick’s version of The Shining... which King hated. So, yeah, puzzled but happy, at least, that the famous horror novelist is finally recognising a good movie, albeit a slightly flawed version of his original novel here.

So lets get to it then.

The film will give fans of Kubrick’s original chills right from the opening Warner Brothers logo, as the Newton Brothers recreate the first few bars of Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s opening title variation of the Deus Irae from The Shining before they go into their own thing. The film starts off not long after the original and we get some scenes showing Danny and his mother after the events of that film. These two don’t look as much like the original actors as you might like but they’ve done their best to make them look like variations of what they might look like at that point in time. Then the movie picks up speed and jumps to Ewan McGregor playing a grown up version of the first film’s/novel’s central child protagonist Danny Torrance, first in the scene where he wakes up in a woman’s bed in full ‘morning after’ mode and, then, as he ends up in New Hampshire and is helped back into both employment and into the local alcoholics anonymous group by his new friend Billy (played here by Cliff Curtis). We also get background on the group of antagonists called The Knott, headed up by Rebecca Ferguson as Rose The Hat.

The film then jumps forward another eight years and carries on with the story of the novel for a good way, building up the tension in The Knott but precluding them systematically dying from measles due to contaminated steam (steam is basically their name for the essence found inside people who ‘shine’). So we get them noticing the young girl protagonist Abra (who has a powerful version of ‘the shining’ in her and who is played by Kyliegh Curran here) and we get Abra’s psychic relationship with Danny reaching the point that, after she psychically witnesses the slow murder and absorption of a kid at the hands of The Knott, she seeks Danny out in real life and the two ultimately hatch a plan to put a stop to The Knott before The Knott can find and kill them too.

Then, around about the point where The Knott spring a trap set by Danny, Abra and Billy, the film deviates massively from the original novel in a lot of ways. Although the last battle takes place in the grounds of the Overlook Hotel it’s only Rose in that final battle and not a big battle royale with a large portion of The Knott. Also, in the book the Overlook is no longer there and The Knott have their campsite in the ruins. In the movie, Danny and Abra lure Rose to the still standing Overlook Hotel for their final showdown. There are other characters that make more appearances than they did in the novel too and, frankly, the number of survivors of ‘the good guys’ and the specific people still left standing at the end is completely different. It is like watching a new story from this point on.

It all looks and sounds fabulous though. The performances by McGregor, Ferguson and Curran are brilliant and Curtis give solid support as Billy. In fact, there really isn’t a bad performance in this movie. Even Alex Essoe, who takes over from Shelley Duvall as Danny’s mum Wendy, does a good job here... especially since she doesn’t look all that like the original actress (the same could perhaps be said of whoever they’ve got playing Jack Torrance in lieu of Jack Nicholson here... I can’t find out who plays him in this as the Internet seems somehow shrouded in mystery about him right now).

The last third features a lot more Stanley Kubrick references (pitching in with the references at the opening of the film) and it’s a fun time if you’re an admirer of the Kubrick picture. Some of the sets and shot set ups have been recreated (and that’s down to the sound design too) but, nice as they are to look at, it’s all a bit of a strange mix up. For instance, in the novel, Jack Torrance makes an appearance right at the end in a rescue/redemption moment. Here that’s gone and the scene and necessity for his appearance is also not here... instead, Flanagan tries to shoehorn the character into a much bigger role and... honestly, it doesn’t work that well here, I think. Also, the character’s effect on Danny and the subsequent chase scene is... well it’s a bit laboured, it seems to me.

However, the party guests, the brief reappearance of the twins and other things are done pretty well.  One cameo and set up for the new denouement which people who haven’t read King’s The Shining may find puzzling is also strangely mixed in here and, like I said, if you have only seen Stanley’s take on the story, then it might seem like a really clumsy 'deus ex machina' moment. I’m talking about the boiler in the Overlook Hotel... I’m not going to say much about it here other than to remind readers that, in the original novel The Shining, it played a huge role... and I’m saying that bearing in mind that I haven’t read the novel since the late 1970s/early 1980s but, yeah, even I can remember the boiler room being a big thing in the book. So, yeah, Flanagan and co bring that back in to the mix but, like I said, it’s going to seem like a really sloppy addition if you haven't read The Shining.

The cinematography is all good though and the music from the Newton Brothers gets back nearer to the soundscape of The Shining soundtrack once you get into the last third. Honestly, there’s a series of shots which come just after the film really starts deviating from the book and I was kinda expecting them to happen and I was thinking, I hope they remember to properly use Carlos and Elkind’s Deus Irae here again... yeah, they do and although the sequence of shots is much, much shorter than the original ones the director is parodying (and shot at night in this instance), it does feel good when this little moment comes.

And that’s me done on this one I think. I hate the new ending as I thought the one in the book was perfect and, frankly, if King ever gets it into his head to write a third novel in that sequence, the movie studios are going to surely find it hard to adapt it after the big U-Turn ending this film takes. That being said, in spite of all these terrible changes plus the overuse of a character who would have been much better left as the brief but weighty appearance he has in the novel, I still thoroughly enjoyed the ride on this one and will certainly be grabbing the Blu Ray when this one gets released. UK fans of the score may want to know that there’s a CDR release of it on US Amazon which they’ll ship to the UK, if you want to hear the music properly rather than attempt to listen to a disappointing and compressed electronic download. Looking forward to giving that one a spin when it finally arrives in the mail. Anyway, Doctor Sleep is definitely something you should see if you liked the Kubrick version of The Shining but please don’t expect something close to the book... there are some wild deviations here.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Arrow FrightFest Halloween Edition 2019



BooManji!

Arrow FrightFest
Halloween Edition 2019

Horror Marathon
Saturday 2nd/Sunday 3rd November 2019
Mini reviews for the movies Candy Corn,
The Haunted Swordsman, We Summon The Darkness,
Uncanny Annie, Swallow, Trick, Scare Package


After having to come to terms with maybe not being able to go to this year’s Halloween FrightFest Marathon, due to the illness of someone very close to me, I was delighted to find I was able to attend after all. I enjoyed it so much last year (read my review here) and, if anything, this year rammed it home to me that even though the movies might not always be all that great (I didn’t like too many of them except one stand out one which I’ve named this article after), it’s worth being there to pick up that vibration of a community spirit to the FrightFest events and, even though I’m mostly too shy to talk to people, it’s just an atmosphere of togetherness that I like to sit in my seat and bask in.

As to the movies themselves... well looking at a load of new horror films in one sitting is always going to be hit and miss (and personally, I think they only showed three horror films this year with one of those being very much a comedy-horror... the other four consisted of a fantasy puppet movie, two slashers and a film about the perils of marrying rich). This year’s selection was, perhaps, less interesting than last year’s but none of the films were in any way made in an amateurish way (a complaint that maybe could be levelled at one or two of the previous Halloween FrightFest screenings), so it was a solidly programmed affair, at the very least...




Candy Corn
USA 2019
Written and directed by Josh Hasty.

 
First up was Candy Corn. This film was obviously cheaply made but didn’t, as I said above, look unprofessional. This is an old school ‘revenge from beyond the grave’ story where the local town idiot, who gets picked on every year on Halloween by the former bullies of his old school, is accidentally beaten to death by them. However, he has recently got a job helping out a travelling sideshow carnival (yeah... you just know there’s going to be a ‘one of us!’ reference in this to Todd Browning’s original Freaks... not the only film in this year’s selection which does this) and when he is found by the head of the show, Dr. Death (played brilliantly by Pancho Moler), he is revived as a vengeance filled zombie creature to take out the people who were involved in his death.

While the film has a nice 1950s EC comics feel to it, it’s never really that great and the deaths are not nearly as imaginative as perhaps they ought to be for a film which relies on a traditional ‘body count’ mentality injected into the proceedings. It did, however, have a pretty great and memorable score, co-composed by Michael Broker and director Josh Hasty. People were even still whistling it in the queues for the toilets in the small break between films.



The Haunted Swordsman
USA 2019
Directed by Kevin McTurk

 
Next up was special effects guy extraordinaire, Kevin McTurk’s new short film (about 16 mins long), The Haunted Swordsmen. Like his previous two shorts, he and his crew have worked long hours on this puppet movie, building the characters and sets with exquisite detail and over many years. This tells the short story of a ronin who is trying to hunt down the demon who slew his shogun. For a puppet show, so to speak, it felt more epic and looked more breathtaking than the majority of the other films on the programme. It’s interesting because the main character’s face has no movement built into it (indeed, the mouth on that one character is done with CGI on the rare occasions he speaks because he was originally written without any lines) but due to the lighting and context of the shots of his face, you kind of project the expressions onto him yourself as you are watching. Ultimately though, the film was a bit of a teaser because it’s the part of a story where the defeated hero is given a new challenge or quest to find a magical weapon in order to defeat his enemies... so it does kinda feel like there’s a lot more of the story to tell. Still, it’s a really nice piece and I was really happy to be able to see this one on a big screen. 



We Summon The Darkness
USA 2019
Directed by Marc Meyers

 
Next up was We Summon The Darkness, a movie which, like the great giallo All The Colours Of The Dark, is a straight thriller masquerading under the guise of a horror movie. Alas, it’s revealed as the movie plays out, that the supernatural trappings are all just hot air and, really, this amounts to not much more than a serial killer movie. After a strong start with a group of three women who really have some interesting chemistry, it kinda falls apart. Again, this is partially because there is a so called ‘twist’ half way through the movie but, honestly, anyone who’s been paying attention to the shenanigans of the girls in the first five minutes will know exactly what that twist is right from the word go. So it does get kinda irritating watching through this and waiting for the other characters to catch on. I was impressed with some of the performances but not the clichéd storytelling so this one was another ‘miss’ for me.



Uncanny Annie
USA 2019
Directed by Paul Davis

 
Ironically, it was the next movie, Uncanny Annie, which easily won the Halloween Edition FrightFest ‘best movie’ best screening for me this year. Ironic because, out of all of them, this one is actually a TV movie, made for a horror anthology series in the US called Into The Dark. So yeah, I was really glad this was here because there’s probably no other way I would have gotten to see it. The premise, too, is really simple but quite effective as a narrative hook. It’s simply a horror movie remake of the original Jumanji. A group of students play a board game one Halloween in memory of their dead friend who died the year before but, pretty soon, the evil spirit haunting the game has trapped their reality in the box and they are trying to play through the game while it starts killing off the players one by one. It looks fantastic, has a kind of gothic air about it (especially with the graphics on the board game... I’d love to own this set) and is, for me, the only movie in this years Halloween FrightFest which even approached being a little scary or having any tension about it. I also loved the way that, by the end of the movie, the game has become a kind of punishment for some of the players who are hiding some guilty, if kinda obvious, secrets. Plus it had a great one liner earlier on which was the funniest moment of this year’s programme... not to mention a ‘blood tearing out of the eyes’ moment which was obviously lifted from the Christopher Lee death scene from one of the Hammer Dracula movies (Tarantino put the same homage in Kill Bill Volume 1).  Had a really good time with this one.



Swallow
USA/France 2019
Directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis

 
Next up was Swallow, the ‘best looking’ movie of this Halloween’s edition of Frightfest. Although, despite one of the programmer’s ‘allergic’ reaction/tirade to people wondering why it was showing here, I’d have to say I also would question its place here. It’s not a horror movie and as to the line of defence that says Frightfest represents The Dark Heart Of Cinema...? Well I didn’t think it was all that dark either, to tell the truth. It was kinda nice and gentle to watch though and mainly focused on the brilliant lead actress Haley Bennett, playing housewife Hunter, as the director filmed her and some other outstanding actors in beautifully uncluttered shots, more often than not using upright vertical slices along the frame to position various players and objects in.

Hunter has married a wealthy man and it shows the way she reacts to the everyday loneliness of being a housewife with not much to do, alone in a huge house with no company. It kinda follows in the footsteps, to a certain extent, of Marina de Van’s In My Skin (Dans Ma Peau) but, instead of developing an obsession with cutting and eating portions of her own body, Hunter develops an obsession with swallowing objects which... well.. aren’t mean to be swallowed. It’s kinda cool but low key and, I think, a little over hyped in terms of the effect it might have on people... it’s really not a disturbing film. It is a feminist movie, to an extent and I did like the tangents it went off on towards the end of the film but, ultimately, I’ve seen this kinda thing done before. That’s not to diminish this one though.... but I did and still do question why it was bundled into the FrightFest package (as I did with the film The Unthinkable, which was easily one of the best movies of the year last year but, again, don’t know why it was playing at FrightFest).

Ultimately though, Swallow is a stand out film and in terms of the impeccable cinematography, I did think as I was watching it that, the shot design coupled with the look of the lead actress made me feel like it was watching an early Cindy Sherman photograph coming to life. Also, the musical score was quite interesting and reminded me a lot of composer Bernard Herrmann. Not in the way that it was orchestrated as such but, more in the way that it seems to be accompanying the psychological environment of the movie and using short, repeat, motifs to slowly transform and surround the lead actress. This one is also definitely worth at least one watch if you happen to come across it.



Trick
USA 2019
Directed by Patrick Lussier

 
Trick was another of those ‘serial killers with supernatural trappings’ kinds of movies but, by the time you got to the end and the final twist (which, again, if you half squint at certain points in the movie, you can kinda see coming a mile off), it revealed itself to be just another slasher movie and, frankly, the Italians are much better at those kinds of things. It was a speedy ride and the performances were good  (heck, it even had genre actor Tom Atkins in it) but, ultimately, it didn’t have a whole lot of substance to it and the cinematography and the way it was edited were not enough to hold the picture up by themselves on this one. The one good thing it did have was that a couple of the deaths which, again, this genre thrives on, were at least a little more imaginative than those on show in some of the other films here.



Scare Package
USA 2019

Directed by Mali Elfman, Courtney Andujar,
Hillary Andujar, Anthony Cousins,
Emily Hagins, Aaron B. Koontz, Chris McInroy,
Noah Segan and Baron Vaughn

 
Last up for the day was Scare Package, a comedy horror anthology which has seven segments and which boasts, on the poster, seven different directors. As to that last thing... count the names above and you do the maths.

This film, which is held together by a linking story set in a video store, has a kind of mission statement to it to basically ‘send up’ one or more famous horror tropes in each segment. Like FrightFest itself, it’s a bit of a hit and miss affair with the stories told within but the film started off really strongly with the first three segments being very funny (and also very gory, in places). I was completely on the film’s side before I even got out of the first segment so, frankly, found myself quite puzzled when the film rapidly went down hill after about a third of the way through. Some of the later scripts are just not funny and the postmodernistic references start to get on the nerves after a while. By about halfway through the film I was just waiting for it to finish and it was a really dull, slow crawl to the finish line Which is a bit of a shame but I think some of the writing was frankly not good in certain sequences. 

And that was the end of my Halloween FrightFest marathon, which started at 11am and finished around 12.30am the next morning. As expected, some films stood out while others quietly shuffled into the background but, I’ll say it again, the sense of community spirit that you get with horror folk attending these things it pretty cool and the ticket prices for the day passes are still good value for money. If I had one complaint about the format it’s that the intervals between the films are way too short. People need to go to the loo and eat or grab a drink. I think the festival could definitely do with starting an hour or more earlier and just having slightly longer gaps... especially when, due to Q&A sessions with people behind the films, things start to run a little late towards the end of the day and those gaps get even shorter. Other than that though, I had a great time, am looking forward to next year’s event and, as an added bonus, got to see one of the directors do a live pumpkin carving demonstration where he did a full Halloween pumpkin in exactly one minute (it was great hearing the audience counting him down too). As always, FrightFest is definitely worth a visit and if you’ve not been to one you might want to consider going next year.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

The Shining



Axe-simile

The Shining - Extended Edition
(aka, The Full Cut and not the
stupidly short European version)

UK/US 1980 Directed by Stanley Kubrick
HMV Exclusive Dual Edition
Blu Ray Zone B DVD Region 2


There’s surely no doubt in the minds of many, I’m sure (asides from Stephen King’s once much publicised disappointment with this movie version), that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is easily one of the most interesting horror movies ever made. The first few times you watch it, too, it’s kinda quite creepy... that perhaps diminishes somewhat over time and subsequent rewatches but what you are left with, even if it does have less impact through familiarity, is an amazingly beautiful looking movie which never really ages all that much.

The reason I’m revisiting this classic after more than a decade now, of course, is that the first screen adaptation of Stephen King’s fairly recent follow up novel, Doctor Sleep (I reviewed that here) is literally days from release (in fact, I think it comes out in the UK on the night I am intending to post this review). So I figured it was time for another look because, from the looks of the trailer (and I’m puzzled by this a little since King apparently loves this new movie), the director of Doctor Sleep has used a lot of the imagery from Kubrick’s version of The Shining in the new film.

As for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining itself though... even from the opening camera work which follows a long journey of the vehicle driven by the as yet unseen central character Jack Torrance (played here quite maniacally throughout by Jack Nicholson), you are pulled into the story. One of the strengths of this opening, I suspect, is the way the speed of the photography of these sequences (the out-takes of which were famously plundered for the final scene in the original first release of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, reviewed here) is slowed down in terms of the soundtrack, which highlights Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s absolutely phenomenal variation on the Deus Irae... a truly eerie and unsettling take on the much used musical theme.

The film is a definite slow build for the most part... with little points being made slowly but methodically to lead up to the scenes where the Overlook Hotel and its ghostly inhabitants, overwhelm Jack Torrance and compel him to try and murder his wife and child... Wendy and Danny, played here by Shelley Duvall and young Danny Lloyd (who is being played as an adult by Ewan McGregor in the upcoming movie version of Doctor Sleep). I think I’d possibly agree with Stephen King’s assessment that Jack Nicholson seems a little too manic right off the bat (no pun intended) but that does nothing to diminish the fact that he’s extremely watchable in this. As is Shelley Duvall, who does an amazing job here along with newcomer Danny Lloyd in a role which could have gone way wrong for the film if the performance had been anything less than what it turned out to be. They are joined by the likes of Barry Nelson (the first screen James Bond), the always watchable Scatman Crothers and Dr. Eldon Tyrell himself, Joe Turkel, in the role of Lloyd the bartender... who plays the character absolutely deadpan and in an effectively chilling, minimalistic way.

The film features many Kubrick signatures and watching this one always reminds me of one of his other masterpieces, 2001 - A Space Odyssey, which I reviewed here. So the shots of Danny tri-cycling his way around the hotel in fluid camera movement cross cut against other things going on in the building, for example, always puts me in mind of those long interior shots of Frank Pool keeping in shape in the former movie. Similarly, the little... almost subliminal... cuts to various shots such as the twin sisters, the mutilated corpses of the sisters and the reaction shots of characters such as Danny (when he’s flipping out in full ‘shine’ mode) which are always silent whenever Kubrick does this (in that they have no diegetic sound and are merely using the sonic backdrop of the shots into which they are spliced) reminds me of both the reaction shots of David Bowman in the high speed journey via the monolith at the end of 2001 and the reaction shots of Patrick Magee in A Clockwork Orange. And, of course, you have those long held shots focusing on the face of a staring character from time to time, most notably in The Shining when Jack Torrance really starts to wig out and you just realise the dark, rotting heart of the Overlook Hotel has finally seeped inside of him and become the dominating force in any already lost spiritual battle in his soul.

Another thing which ties it to 2001 is the chaptering. This film also consists of, quite a few, chapter stops and in this film they are, in order of their appearance... The Interview, Closing Day, A Month Later, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Monday, Wednesday, 8am and 4pm. Like in 2001 they can be used to make a dramatic ending to a sequence, such as the unwavering stare of Jack Nicholson brought to you on a very slow zoom suddenly abruptly cutting to a title card... but they also function in this film, or at least I believe this is the case, to speed the rhythm of the story by giving us period markers going from an interview held a while before Torrance actually gets his job as caretaker of the out of season Overlook, to the closing day when he takes over and it’s abandoned to him and his family for the winter season... and then whittling down the times until you eventually get chapters talking about specific parts of just one day. It’s a kind of subconscious, accelerating spiral, I think, in terms of both the pacing of the action and also, of course, the internal state of Jack’s mind as he approaches full on serial killer mode in the film’s final sequences. It’s an interesting device and, for all I know, it’s just been employed to smooth over some awkward transition scenes that didn’t cut together properly but, whatever the reason for them, they function very well in this capacity.

Of course, one of the main ingredients in just how sinister this film feels is due to the music. I’ve already mentioned Carlos and Elkind but there’s also the use of Béla Bartók, Krzysztof Penderecki and, like 2001 before it, one of my favourite composers, György Ligeti. If you want a film to sound unbearably disturbing then many tracks by these composers are good for just that and, frankly, they often have the same effect on the human psyche when you’re not juxtaposing them with any imagery.

As usual with Kubrick, there are constant, beautifully designed frames throughout. Some may find the artifice involved in getting some of these, in some cases, almost symmetrical designs with very contrasting, almost primary colours a little off putting or overwhelming but, frankly, the gorgeous and constant eye candy of a Kubrick film is something I always find a sheer delight. So, yeah, he’ll have Wendy and Danny dressed in warm browns and reds for their walk through the green hedge maze to make them pop and, yes, he’ll have the majority of Jack Torrance’s encounter with the naked lady in Room 237 framed in it’s own little arched rectangle in the centre of the screen... but it all looks great as far as I’m concerned. And it’s a film, like many Kubrick films, full of iconic imagery. You all know the famous carpet pattern, for example and, of course, the wonderful shots of the elevators gushing blood and filling up the corridor. 

The Shining is always going to be a hard recommend from me and will probably always be somewhere in my top ten horror films of all time. The HMV Exclusive (to the UK) dual edition of the so called ‘extended cut’ (aka, the version they’ve always shown on TV in this country, just not at the cinema) looks absolutely gorgeous. I honestly didn’t know films could look this good on my Blu Ray player, it’s phenomenal. That being said, the film is presented in its original theatrical widescreen aspect ratio as opposed to the 1.37:1 aspect ratio that it was shot in (and which Kubrick himself insisted the film should be shown in) but I’m more than happy to see it as it was when screened at the cinemas on its first run... although a 4:3 presentation with more image information at the top and bottom (open matte) might have been preferable. Still a great one to look at though... especially if you want to see what your Blu Ray can really show you in terms of quality. It’s never looked so good.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Legend Of The Witches/Secret Rites



Coven In Body

Legend Of The Witches
UK 1970
Directed by Malcolm Leigh

Secret Rites
UK 1971
Directed by Derek Ford

BFI Flipside Dual Edition Blu Ray Zone B DVD Region 2


I wanted to take a look at this new release from BFI Flipside before the end of the Halloween season this year because the subject matter, 'lifting the lid' on witches and pagan rites seemed to be somewhat aligned to what has become, over just the last decade or so, a more celebratory date in the UK calendar (for better or worse). Both the main features on these discs are claiming to be documentaries, showing what the real modern day practice of witchcraft was like at the time and, indeed, both documentaries centre around the personality of Alex Sanders, who was publicly known as the King Of The Witches, along with his wife Maxine, also a practicing witch.

In truth... and this is much more blatant in Secret Rites, the films are more or less excuses to show naked men and women dancing around in covens and using the quite legitimate (depending on your personal beliefs) rituals involved with modern witchcraft to allow a film full of eye candy with a serious tone the chance to be lucrative at the box office. The fact that both these ‘mockumentaries’ sometimes played on double bills with other more overtly, sexually titled productions is perhaps a testament to how they were seen at the time, although I’m sure that Mr. Sanders was probably quite genuine in what he wanted to get across to the paying audience, albeit cloaked... or should that be uncloaked... in a thin, exploitative veil.

Of the two, the first film on these discs, Legend Of The Witches is, for me at least, the most interesting, featuring sharply contrasted, crisp, black and white photography. It’s a bit of a slow burner and takes its time to get going with lots of static shots of landscapes and nature filling the 4:3 screen. The music is nice and low key but I don’t think you’d get away with opening sequences as slowly paced as these today... at least not shot and presented like this. It does start to feel a bit interminably dull fairly quickly but soon moves onto witchcraft initiation rites and naked bodies... curvy young women and men with their cocks impressively, given the amount of female flesh on display, hanging at half mast.

Various historical and modern witchcraft practices are recounted and demonstrated but, it has to be said, the documentary tends to wander around and lose focus between some of the set pieces quite a bit. A witchcraft museum in Cornwall is certainly ‘on point’ but we also have a team of investigators staying the night in a haunted house, demonstrations of things like Zenner cards and also sequences depicting trance states which can be manifested in subjects with the likes of a fast rotating spiral or the use of a stroboscope. It does tend to wander off topic quite a bit but does, a some points at least, try and tie up some of its more thematically challenged sections with contemporaneous practices of witchcraft.

Secret Rites, on the other hand, appears far more overt in its exploitative nature. Shot in full colour, it starts off with an echoey and deliberately sinister voice over narration as we see a witch orgy where a lady is stripped naked in a non-consensual, kidnapping kind of way and sexually groped by a coven, before upright Van Helsing-like hero ‘John Goodfellow’, warding off the witches with a cross (as though they were somehow vampires), comes to save the day. The narrative then flips all that you’ve just been shown and says something along the lines of... “that’s the popular conception of witches and it’s absolute rubbish... let’s show you how it really is.” We then catch up with Alex Sanders and his wife again (the High Priestess - “the personification of the matriarchal nature of the Wicca”) as they agree to initiate two ‘would be’ witches into their coven... except, if anything, the rest of the ‘documentary’ is at least ‘as’ exploitative as the opening section they are trying to repudiate. So.... less modernistic interruptions and just a few, elongated rituals shot, it seems, on actual sets rather than where things actually ‘go down’, so to speak... the whole thing looks like it was all exported from a Roger Corman AIP movie, to be honest. So the idea that this is presenting factual stuff rather than something which has been half created for the camera, is a bit comical. The film ends with the ‘secret rite’ of the title which is, pretty much, more of the same thing but everyone gets to wear some Egyptian costumes to augment their nakedness.

This new set also has a large selection of extras and, I have to say, even if you’re not a fan of the main content of these discs or the extras, hats off to the BFI for putting these out here in a nice edition because, frankly, this stuff isn’t going to be seen unless it has a platform like this to get bundled together with.

First up is a 1924 silent short film called The Witch’s Fiddle, put together by The Cambridge Cinema Club. It’s got a certain charm but it’s not too riveting, it has to be said. Then there’s a brief episode of a documentary style television show from the 1950s called Out Of Step. This episode is, naturally, entitled Witchcraft and consists of three interviews with people such as Aleister Crowley’s best friend and... it’s kinda interesting actually. The main witch they have on here, an elderly man who could almost pass for Gabby Hayes in looks, proves to be a highly intelligent sounding individual. He comes across pretty well anyway, as he looks on the practice of witchcraft in a philosophical manner.

These two are followed by a short film called The Judgement Of Albion - The Prophesies of William Blake... which is the kind of interminable supporting feature they used to show in the 1970s on cinema bills all the time. This one includes the voices of Anthony Quayle and Donald Sinden but that did nothing to temper the relief I found when the thing was finally over. The next thing on here is a short called Getting It Straight In Notting Hill Gate... a documentary about the area in London showing the poverty and counter-culture of the area. This was, it has to be said, a step up from the William Blake short but, alas, I also couldn’t wait for this to end, either. A gallery of archival material for the two main features on the disc rounds out the release and, I have to say, although this is not an absolutely essential purchase, by any means, it is of interest and the films have a certain charm. If this is your kind of thing then this has good transfers and is loaded with extras so, if nothing else, it's certainly value for money. Legend Of The Witches/Secret Rites is one to consider then, perhaps.

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Devilina



Devil-in-a Detail

Devilina
Atlas Comics (as Seaboard Periodicals Magazine)
Issues 1 - 2 USA 1975


Devilina... Illustrated Stories of Female-Filled Fantasy!... was one of Atlas Comics attempts to do a black and white comic book magazine in the style of Marvel’s Savage Sword Of Conan or, more than likely in terms of this particular title, something along the lines of Warren’s Vampirella comic magazine. The result is kinda curious and an interesting read but, alas, it obviously didn’t prove as interesting a read with the general public because the title was very short lived, folding after just two issues.

The first issue hit the ground running with an editorial called The Devil’s Dungeon, which talk ed about how the publishers want to adhere to the legacy of ‘fright fraught’ literature (their term, not mine) as popularised by such writers as Poe, Lovecraft and Hawthrone.. so, setting their sights high. However, this seems to be a general editorial column applicable to a range of their mature titles and, somehow, Devilina is conspicuously absent. So that’s all a bit strange. No version of this editorial column appeared in the second issue.

The magazine itself comprised of several short horror stories with the usual shock endings to them plus, first and foremost, a story involving the title character. The first Devilina story, Satan’s Domain, written and drawn by Ric Estrada, tackles her origin as the daughter of Satan’s mother, making them siblings. Satan’s mother is exiled from Hell and raises Devilina as some kind of ‘good witch’ until she reaches her 18th birthday, when she finds some horns on her head... some people might think that, given that she’s explained as having a superior IQ to most people her age, the fact that her mother named her Devilina might have been a bit of a tip off but, what do I know? One of the girls at her college asks if her name is Polish so... yeah. It’s not explained within these two issues if she can retract these horns at will but, since she decides to spend her time graduating from college and majoring in ‘occult journalism’, instead of taking Satan’s offer of ruling in Hell with him, I can only assume that these horns aren’t a permanent fixture. It’s sometimes hard to tell with her hair style. However, Satan is not happy with this arrangement and, after burning her boyfriend to death, sets out to scupper her attempts to live a ‘normal’ life at every turn. He even employs some kind of black arts super sorceress named Corrupta in the Devilina story in the second issue’s lead story, The Curse Of Corrupta. This, not too exciting, chapter of what was never, unfortunately, destined to be referred to as The Devilina Saga, even leaves things on a kind of soft cliff-hanger ending, with Devilina’s best friend and room mate’s body suddenly playing host to Corrupta’s soul. However, like I said... only two issues ever hit newsagents.

Actually, it’s some of the back up stories which are quite a bit more interesting than the title character’s adventures. Especially in the first issue which has, admittedly, a dully plotted story called The Lost Tomb of Nefertiri, dealing with the resurrection of a bandaged up female mummy who seems a not very distant cousin of the one who is so obsessed with Tom Cruise in the 2017 iteration of The Mummy (reviewed here).  The story is uninspired but the artwork by Pablo Marcos is brilliant, utilising some amazingly dynamic page layouts with elements of the panels (many of them open ended panels) over-lapping into other panels and leading the eye through the path of the story. Despite the lack of story pacing, however, the strip does have a nice twist ending.

Of course, twist endings is what both horror and science fiction anthologies are all about and the various stories scattered through the two issues of Devilina are no different. They’re not all exactly unexpected reveals, such as the first issue’s Lay Of The Sea, which features a topless, serial killing mermaid who is captured and raped by the crew of a ship before being left for dead and eventually returning riding a sea monster to deal with the enemies of the one man who stood up for her during her ordeal. I loved the idea that her ‘all male’ victims were found dead with seaweed pulled tight around their necks but there’s a strange jump in the story, although not in the page count, which makes me wonder if this particular tale was either censored or possibly self-censored before publication.

One low point, for me, was a comic strip adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest... which also had some nice art but which, frankly, just reminded me that I really don’t like ‘the bard’s’ writing and I was glad to see the end of it.

The second issue is... well, the Devilina story is a little better than the first (with it’s cliffhanger ending, as detailed earlier) but the supporting stories didn’t really have anything notable about them... which is a hard blow to take when you realise that one of them is a werewolf tale. The theme which I’d barely registered in the first issue but which is much more obvious with the drop in the quality of the stories in the second issue is the reliance on barely consensual sex, rape and brutality to women. Which kinda doesn’t really do much to enhance a positive version of that ‘female-filled fantasy’ the magazine covers proudly proclaim as their mission statement.

Each issue contains one magazine article also, accompanied by a set of illustrations. In the first issue, the subject is modern vampire movies but, it really seems to be an excuse just so the editors can publish some stills from the Hammer Horror films The Vampire Lovers and Twins Of Evil. The slightly longer article in the second issue, presumably to show just how ‘adult’ or ‘mature’ this magazine is when compared to the competitors’ comics, is a fully illustrated review of Flesh Gordon, the soft porn spoof of... well, you know. And talking of their competitors, since Marvel comics were often known as The House Of Ideas, it’s kind of interesting to find adverts for the regular line of Atlas comics in these two issues where they brazenly proclaim themselves to be The New House Of Ideas. One wonders how Marvel took that one.

And, yeah, there’s not much more to tell about these two issues of Devilina. One of many, I am sure, curios of comicdom but they are kinda intriguing and I had a good time with some of the content, despite the misogynistic overtones throughout. Worth picking up, should the opportunity arise, if you are interested in exploring some of the less remembered avenues that comics publishers took in their long history but, perhaps, left alone if the horror anthology format is not your cup of tea.

Monday, 28 October 2019

The Lair Of The White Worm



The Great British Snake Off

The Lair Of The White Worm
UK 1988 Directed by Ken Russell
Vestron Video  Blu Ray Zone B


Warning: Spoilers... because the silliness
is too good leave without commenting on it.


Well this is absolutely bonkers.

I somehow never got around to seeing much loved director Ken Russell’s The Lair Of The White Worm on its original cinema release but I’ve kept it in mind to catch up to over the years and I thought October, the month culminating in Halloween, might be a good excuse to watch the newish Vestron Blu Ray release of the film. So there I was expecting a spine tingling horror romp.

Well I certainly got a romp.

It’s gone on record that Ken Russell regards this and certain other films he’s made as comedies... well that’s something which the audience could be forgiven for misinterpreting here I suspect. Sure, there are loads of laughs to be had in this fun packed film but I was certainly not aware, as I was chewing over this entertaining morsel, that the laughs here were anything but unintentional.

The film concerns the antics of a Scottish, student archaeologist called Angus, played by a young Peter Capaldi... and his brand new about to be’ girlfriend called Mary, who runs the lodgings he’s staying at, played by Sammi Davis. After digging up a huge and puzzling skull in Mary’a garden as part of a Roman excavation, he goes with her when the local police constable, played by prolific British character actor Paul Brooke, brings a pocket watch to Mary which belonged to her father. Her father and mother disappeared a number of years ago and so Angus and Mary join in the search for the missing couple near the caves in which said pocket watch was found.

We also have Mary’s sister Eve, played by a real life daughter of a princess, Catherine Oxenberg and her boyfriend, Lord James D'Ampton played by a young Hugh Grant.

Meanwhile, Amanda Donohoe, playing the decidedly dodgy and saucily aristocratic Lady Sylvia Marsh, returns to the other bit of land near D’Ampton’s manor and, after getting wind of Angus’ find, steals said skull while they are absent and, when she sees a crucifixion cross on the wall, spits venom at it from her suddenly, hugely fanged mouth. That’s because she is a cross between some kind of vampiric snake demon and a vampire who keeps a big worm beast in a pit in her cellar and who wants to sacrifice Eve to the skull of the Snake God to... I dunno, I kinda missed the part where they explained why she is doing this. Either the explanation was left a bit vague or I was so distracted by the content of the movie that I kind of lost the plot a bit.

What I can tell you is that absolutely bizarre shenanigans ensue as the four young protagonists do battle with Lady Marsh.

The film itself is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel of the same name but, having read a summary of that novel and with the main action of the film taking place in Derbyshire, I’d have to say it’s more inspired by the novel rather than sticking to anything verbatim. Surely it’s equally inspired by the English mythical beast The Lampton Worm (as was Stoker’s novel) as anything else. Here though, the titular beast is actually the D’Ampton Worm, named after the trouble it caused in days gone by on the grounds of Lord D’Ampton’s domain.

The film starts off really well, it has to be said, with a long slow zoom of a piece of mountainous scenery and the cave which is made much of in the main story. Wind blows on the soundtrack as the credits roll over this image. Then, any pretence that this is going to be a proper ‘horror movie’ in anything but the presence of genre elements, flies out the window as we meet Angus and Mary and the ears are assaulted by a cacophony of fast talking characters dealing in dodgy accents and delivering a not so great script in a truly enthusiastic, if not particularly well acted, manner. To be fair, the acting may, after reading something Donohoe said of the film, have been a specific direction from the director so his approach to the material is possibly more to blame if you feel the film is tonally at fault in terms of the performances.

When we first meet Lady Marsh she is wearing, more or less, a white highwayman’s outfit but this is just a number of outrageous and over the top costumes she bravely wears (and strips out of) throughout the movie. She has some truly silly scenes in this such as when she picks up an 18 year old (at least, I hope he was 18) boy scout and takes him to her home as it’s raining. After slipping him out of his wet clothes and playing Snakes And Ladders with him, he whips out a mouth organ and starts playing Rimsy-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, which of course causes her to dance like a snake. She then starts washing him down in her bath and goes to give him some oral sex. However, she instead brings her fangs into play and, uses them to inject snake venom into his cock, which paralyses him and, when she is interrupted by Hugh Grant’s character knocking on her door, she just pushes him under the water to drown. She reminded me, just a a little, of Jacqueline Pearce's turn in Hammer's The Reptile here.

And if you think that’s smiler-rific, then the next two hander with Hugh Grant, where they trade quips, is even sillier. At one point in this, after pretending a fear of snakes, she throws the Snakes And Ladders board into the fire. Watching it burn she utters ‘Rosebud’, bringing us the complete non-sequitur of a Citizen Kane reference into all this madness. I was reminded a little of Michael Moorcock’s Miss Brunner character from the Jerry Cornelius novels in the way Donohoe plays the role. Scenes where she is strangling an air hostess in a scissor hold between her suspender adorned legs or rising snake-like out of an urn really give the film a kind of ludicrous, fun element which wouldn’t be out of place in one of those Cornelius chronicles.

As in other Ken Russel movies, he shows an interest in dream sequences such as the aforementioned ‘flight’ scene or a sequence where sexy nuns are pillaged by Romans as Christ is crushed on the cross by a big snake monster at ‘snake-Donohoe’s’ instruction. This also includes a blink and you’ll miss it, possibly less than two seconds, cameo by British glamour actress and author Linzi Drew as one of the nuns (I reviewed one of her latest novels here).

More shenanigans follow as Hugh Grant fights a vampiric underling of Lady Marsh, who he has lured to his mansion by playing a 78rpm recording of a snake charmer. Actually, this scene has what was, for me, the only genuine jump scare in the movie where, a little while after Hugh has cut his foe in two with his big sword (almost as big as the pointy, antique dildo Lady Marsh threatens Eve with later), the top half of the lady in question’s divided body makes a grab for Hugh’s ankle.

Later on, Angus gets his ‘kilt on’ and his bag pipes out in an attempt to lure the lady out of the house in which she has imprisoned Mary and Eve. Alas, he mostly just gets the attention of the police officer from earlier, who has been vampired up by Lady Marsh. Luckily, Angus is able to direct his bag pipes into an aggressive cacophony and forces Paul Brooke backwards as he trips and impales his head on a sundial... his left eyeball popping out the front in a none too convincing but deliriously funny moment of gore. That leaves Angus free to try and tackle the main snake lady and her ravenous pet himself, as he tries to rescue the fair maidens while Lord D’Ampton is trying to flush said snake monster out of the pit by piping gas through there. And... it all ends in a terrible set of loose ends involving mixed up antidotes which kind of don’t add up and with the character of Angus secretly a vampire, awaiting his turn to gobble down on his next victim.

And it’s brilliant. Terrible, clichéd, with silly acting, some nice cinematography and just a sense, aesthetically, of being written and performed while everyone was stoned out of their head. I loved it, just in case you were wondering and I’m sure that won’t be my last viewing. Would I recommend The Lair Of The White Worm to others? Yeah, I’d be happy to inflict this madness on various friends if I could find anyone but me who’s not actually seen this masterpiece of lunacy before. Very happy I’m finally catching up to this and I think I need to check out a couple of others of Russell’s oeuvre that I’ve not seen before. Really pleased I’ve finally discovered this one.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

The Occult Files Of Doctor Spektor



Feel Spektor

The Occult Files Of Doctor Spektor
(The Gold Key Years)

Gold Key Issues 1 - 24 USA 1973 - 1977
plus assorted issues of
Gold Key’s Mystery Comics Digest


Written by Donald F. Glut and drawn by artists such as Dan Spiegle and Jesse Santos, The Occult Files Of Doctor Spektor was a comic which, it seems to me, could never quite make its mind up what it wanted to be in terms of which of the obvious competitors - Marvel and DC - it was trying to emulate. Not to mention a healthy dose of EC comics in there too, in many respects. Doctor Spektor first appeared in the odd issue of the giant sized Gold Key publication Mystery Digest Comics and, in the early days, he was just one of the many ‘narrators’ such as in the the other Gold Key titles presented in the odd issue of this compilation comic. So you had a fair few Boris Karloff Presents... and Twilight Zone stories (presented by Rod Serling) in the pages here and, like the famous horror hosts such as EC's The Crypt Keeper, Spektor’s narration was just a way in to a very short, twisty horror yarn of 5 or 6 pages.

Even some of these early stories are ingenuous though and I especially liked one where a man who is in love with his separated siamese twin brother’s fiance kills himself but, through this sin, returns as a vampire (which is a new one on me). However, he tries to take his brother’s bride for himself and turn her into a vampire. To stop this from happening and knowing that he and his vampire brother still share a bond, the other brother throws himself out the window and kills himself by impaling himself on the railings below before his evil brother can take a bite out of his fiance. This, of course, causes the vampire to feel as if a stake has been driven through his heart and he also dies. And there’s a few of these little stories and this format carries on, for a while, in the pages of The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor, with a definite difference...

The majority of the early issues contain two stories. One stars supernatural investigator Doctor Adam Spektor himself and the other is an unrelated horror tale just hosted by him. Every now and again you will get the occasional issue which is just one long Doctor Spektor story and... after a while, the comic switched fully to this format of just having the one story starring Doctor Spektor plus one or two of a building, regular cast within these tales. And what a cast they are...

The first issue of the regular comic introduces us to Doctor Spektor’s new secretary Lakota Rainflower, who is a mix of Sioux and Apache Indian and who, very quickly, also become’s Spektor’s regular girlfriend. After a while we also meet characters like medium Elliot Kane and his girlfriend, not to mention Adam’s cousin Anne Sara. There’s also a regular cast of villains including the Frankenstein monster, the mummy Ra-Ka-Tep and Dracula.

There's also some interesting plotting decisions, changes and progressions to the various support cast too. I was pretty impressed with the first issue because it involves a vampire, Baron Tibor, who has returned from the dead, only for Spektor to discover that he has long atoned for his sins and just wants a peaceful life. Spektor invents a serum which takes away the majority of Tibor’s powers and allows him to lead a relatively normal life. The Baron continues to make the odd guest appearances as an ally of Doctor Spektor until, in one of the later issues, he wants to steal Adam’s secretary/girlfriend and turns into an evil vampire again... forcing Doctor Spektor to deal with him.

There’s also a lot of name dropping of famous literary or real life characters in the comic, like in the issue which sees Varney The Vampire, Countess Karnstein and Lord Ruthven teaming up with Dracula to try to take out Spektor. It even mentions the famous Borgo Pass for all the Dracula afficionados out there. One of Van Helsing’s heirs is also present as a modern day supernatural bounty hunter but he becomes as much of a villain as the others in the tale and he returns in a later issue to give Spektor more trouble.

One of the great things about the majority of these stories is that, although they are all stand alone tales, they tend to refer back and link up quite thoroughly with previous issues and so an almost constant story arc seems to be in play. It’s a story arc which sees quite a lot of changes in Spektor’s character and, as he gets more involved in the plot of the ancient evil that attacks him from beyond our realm, there’s a real sense in later stories that Glut or the publishers wanted to give him a kind of Doctor Strange vibe, by allowing him to battle with various demons using the odd archaeological relic.

And this all seems to shift a lot in intent throughout the course of the stories.

For instance, there’s a three or four issue set of tales where Doctor Spektor is suffering from the ill effects of a lycanthropic bite and he seems to be suddenly transformed into something from out of the pages of one of his nearest, popular Marvel comics rivals for a bit... Werewolf By Night. There’s even a Swamp Thing/Man-Thing (take your pick from DC or Marvel) kind of character introduced to the pages towards the end of the run.

However, all these ups and downs in terms of the status of the lead character do keep things interesting, although there are also a few things which are a bit more irritating. Such as...

Doctor Spektor seems to have an almost supernatural talent for being knocked unconscious by the villain of the month in order to allow either his own capture or for the abduction of Lakota Rainflower. I mean, this guy must have brain damage or something by now because I’m talking about him getting knocked unconscious nearly every issue.

Also... and this is really annoying... since Doctor Spektor is narrating his own tale, he also seems to have knowledge to relate to his personal adventures which he can never actually know about at times. For example, stuff will happen when Spektor is not present and all parties involved may die or disappear into the ether but, somehow, Spektor knows all about it to be able to relate it to the reader, first person. It’s a bit much and a bit of a schoolboy error.

Another obviously bad lack of attention to detail comes in the form of the artwork. In the issues where Doctor Spektor transforms into a werewolf, he more than likely rips his clothing and his top may be beyond repair very quickly. So the question I was dying to find out was... why is it that when he comes back to his normal, human form, he comes back fully clothed again? I mean... seriously.

Plus, I think I would have liked a little more of a back story to the Bruce Wayne-like, wealthily independent Adam Spektor, owner of Spektor Manor. Where does he get all his money from... not to mention his lust for seeking out the supernatural? Questions like these are never answered.

However, there are more than enough good things on hand to make this comic a nice read and there are even some unexpected crossovers which turn up in the stories unannounced. For example, The Owl, who first appeared in a 1940s issue of Crackerjack Funnies, makes an appearance in one issue as he tries to clear his name when a real life demon owl-man is causing havoc. Similarly, Doctor Solar makes an appearance which is presumably set between the initial Gold Key run of Doctor Solar - Man Of The Atom (which I reviewed here) and the later, short lived Whitman branded series of four issues. The look of Solar when he’s not in uniform in this, though, not to mention some slight tweaks to his demeanour, make him seem like more of an old hippy than the character as written in those original Gold Key comics, it seemed to me.

All in all, though, the artwork is good although somewhat sporadic when it comes to the look of the characters. In some of them Spektor seems a little haggard and just what you’d expect from a male horror host whereas, for the majority of the issues, he’s more the kind of Errol Flynn style heartthrob who you could actually believe a few of the female characters lurking within the pages are so mesmerised by, which is the case of some of the lead villainesses. Ditto for some of the supporting characters like Elliot Kane... who is sometimes a fairly thin individual and at other times, somewhat pudgy I would say. The layouts are a far cry from the days of Doctor Solar though, it has to be said, with some much more dynamic designs  making up the majority of the stories.

A couple of issues towards the end, Spektor’s girlfriend Lakota leaves him for reasons which aren’t quite made clear. As he tries to dull the pain of her departing over subsequent issues, one gets the feeling that, despite a few encounters with other women to tide him over, this is supposed to be a set up for a dramatic return of the character. Instead, the comic was cancelled, presumably before any such arc had time to play out. There was, after the final issue of the series, one last appearance of the character in a comic called Gold Key Spotlight, Issue 8. Alas, I haven’t been able to, as yet, track that one down but my understanding is that Lakota is a ‘no show’ in this tale too.

This wasn’t quite the last of Spektor, however. My understanding is that there was/is a more modern reboot of the character... although I think it was quite short lived. I’ll try and track that one down again for this blog at some point but for now, that’s me done with The Occult Files Of Doctor Spektor, I think. I have to say though that, like Doctor Solar, I thoroughly enjoyed these comics, despite (and in some ways because) of their faults and would recommend these to anyone with an eye for four colour horror. Give these ones a go... they are quite entertaining and Donald F. Glut, who I mostly remember for writing the novelisation of The Empire Strikes Back, has an eye for the dramatic, for sure.

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Xtro



Xtro Curricular

Xtro
UK 1982
Directed by Harry Bromley Davenport
Second Sight Blu Ray Zone 2


Warning: Some spoilers on this one, if you’re that bothered about such things.

Well, you’ve got to give a big round of applause to Second Sight for resurrecting such a memorable and somewhat trashy but not uncharming ‘classic’... in a brand new Blu Ray transfer with a fair few versions of the movie you can watch (in different cuts), a whole slew of good extras (which I haven’t had the time to look at fully yet, although the long featurette that starts it off is certainly worth the watch and that particular documentary is directed by Jake West who helmed one of my favourite vampire films, Razor Blade Smile), an accompanying booklet, slipcase and, the one thing which completely sold it for me, a CD of the soundtrack that the director composed for the movie.

Now, Xtro is a movie I saw only once before in the mid-1980s, in that I rented it out from my local off licence over the road. The off licence is still there but, alas, they no longer rent out large box VHS tapes these days. Thinking about it now and how it was caught up in the whole, shameful, Video Nasty affair (I reviewed two DVDs dealing with this awful part of recent British history here and here), albeit as a discretional Category 3 video, I’m amazed I was even allowed to rent this one when I was about 15... I think it was an X rated movie and some of the shops carrying it might have known it was a risk having it around, even though this title never actually got prosecuted (it was liable for seizure, though).

Anyway, this was around 36 years ago and, to be honest, as excited as I was by the exploitative tag line “Not all Extra Terrestrials are friendly!” (I’d not liked E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial all that much), I forgot the film soon after I saw it. There were, however, always two bits that stuck out in my mind and my 50 year old brain was hoping I was even remembering the right film when I pre-ordered this thing. So one of these was because of a specific actress. The film has a pretty good cast for the low budget style horror movie it is but all the actors take this thing seriously and there’s no sense of them ever dumbing down on some of the more ridiculous dialogue or unusual concepts which somehow worked their way into the film. These actors include Philip Sayer and Bernice Stegers playing Sam and Rachel, father to the little boy who is a central protagonist/antagonist (depending on your point of view) and Tony, played by Simon Nash. Rachel also has a new lover in the absence of the father, played by Danny Brainin but the person who really stuck in my mind is Maryam d'Abo.

This was Maryam d'Abo’s first movie but, just five years later, she found herself catapulted to fame as the main Bond girl in the excellent Timothy Dalton Bond film The Living Daylights. However, the memory of her wandering around naked and having sex in this film is one of those two main memories I have of Xtro and it’s always something I wanted to come back to one day.

The other thing was one of the two roles played by Tik and Tok in the film... who oldies might remember as the fresh, leading British proponents of ‘robotic dancing’ in the early 1980s. The role in question being a scene where Tony’s Palitoy Action Man (the British equivalent toy to the US template GI Joe) grows to full scale, comes alive and proceeds to terrorise a downstairs neighbour in the Victorian building that the main family call their home here... eventually bayoneting her to death. It’s quite a surreal sequence and one wonders why the heck Palitoy even allowed it (or have continued to allow it on various releases over the years). I did note at the time that this was not the ‘eagle eye’ variant of the Action Man that was the dominant version from 1976 onwards but, thinking about it now and noting on the documentary when the guy inside the suit said there were holes in the eyes for him to see out of, that does kind of make sense.

So what else has this on offer? Well the soundtrack is a little bit anemic in places... it’s all done by the director on some synthesizer kit he had at the time and, while quite effective in some places (in a late 70s to mid 80s Doctor Who kind of way), at other times it leaves a lot to be desired and could do with a little more impact, I felt. That being said, it’s not the composer/director’s fault... although the budget was quite large compared to what he was used to playing with, I suspect any musical augmentation was not going to be the order of the day when the money ran out.

After a terribly long set of opening credits, we have a scene with Tony and his dad Sam playing with their dog at a country cottage. Sam throws a stick up in the air and it turns into a shaft of light as the whole area is engulfed by blackness and Sam is abducted by something which may or not be a spacecraft. We then join Tony who wakes up from dreaming about this three years later but he is the only one who correctly remembers what happened... everyone else thinks his dad just went missing. Then, as if by magic, the Xtro lands on Earth and starts killing a few people.

Then, in what is a very memorable scene (so how come I didn’t remember it after all these years?), it impregnates a young woman in a farmhouse played by Susie Silvey, who also appeared in such movies as Come Play With Me (reviewed here) and The Playbirds (reviewed here). When she wakes up after the shock, the quite effective looking alien creature is now just a shedded mess of skin and internal organs but suddenly the poor woman finds her belly is growing at a massive rate. She rolls around on her back on the floor as it grows to maybe ten times larger than any other pregnancy would be and then she, somehow, gives birth to Tony’s long missing father.

And if you think that sounds strange you’d be spot on but it’s just one thing in a movie which gets stranger and stranger, featuring toy tanks shooting at Rachel’s lover, a clown toy come to life and doing nasty things to people (including collecting eggs from an ‘alien cocooned’ Maryam d'Abo) and an out of the blue appearance by a Black Panther in the flats. Not to mention a scene that I will simply describe as... burning, liquorice telephone.

The film is awkward, off kilter and looks quite cheap and tacky in some places but, like
I said, it’s not without its charm and it does have some good things in it too, not to mention some striking moments which I’ve already described for you above. The acting is, as I said, pretty good (by many of the cast, but not all) and covers up for some of the dialogue. The director also tries to do some interesting things with the camera on occasion such as shooting parallel set ups through some iron railings or shooting people through sections of foreground shapes made by architecture or foliage, at certain points.

Ultimately, though, if you are looking for a horror film which has a lot of polish and flair, you may be less enamoured with Xtro than you might suspect, given its ‘much loved’ status grown over the years. I was personally very glad I saw it again and I think it has a certain something special about it which makes it worth looking at. I would also suggest, if you’ve never seen it before, to go with he menu option of ‘alternative ending’ to see the ending which most people will remember this film having (it’s also the better, if somewhat less low concept and bleaker ending of the options available on this disc). If you are a die hard horror fan, though, then this is a movie you should probably have an opinion on and if you’re ever going to pick it up, this new Blu Ray edition is definitely the version to have. Give it a look sometime, maybe.

Friday, 25 October 2019

Vampirella - Lost Hammer Performance

Fang About The House

Vampirella -
The Lost Hammer Script Performance

UK 2019 Directed by Jonathan Rigby
Performed at the Regent Street Cinema
Thursday 17th October 2019


Vampirella is a pretty iconic character these days. I think my father refused to get me a comic when I pointed to one when I was about 4, wanting to read it, because he said I was too young. She was created, along with artist Trina Robbins, by the driving force behind the much loved Famous Monsters Of Filmland magazine, Forrest J Ackerman... and she was originally, for a few issues at least, just another one in a long line of comic book horror hostesses there to introduce the stories. However, she was also given her own short strip as part of the comic and things soon began to look up for the young, vampiric alien from the planet Drakulon. After the Warren Publications Magazine finished in the 1980s, she found herself on hold for a bit but never absent for too long, finding a new lease of life in full colour comic adventures from the likes of, first Harris Publications and then Dynamite, who are still putting out a lot of stories with the character to this day. And I’ve never gotten around to reading any, alas... although earlier in the year I acquired a complete run of the Warren Magazines and I’m hoping to get through them sometime in the next year or two, so I can put a review up here.

Now, back in the early to mid 1970s, Hammer Films needed to rejuvenate their flagging company in an age where films like The Exorcist and other sophisticated horror movies were making their once very successful films seem very old fashioned and not that sustainable at the box office. So one of the directions they were going to go down was an movie based on the Vampirella comic strip which would hopefully take their stock-in-trade of Hammer vampire films and blend it with the science fiction genre (which was only a couple of years away before it exploded like never before at the box office) to see if this would get them out of a hole, so to speak. I’ve heard various names come up who were considered for the title role over the years, who either refused or didn’t get the job, including the wonderful Caroline Munro, the fantastic Valerie Leon and Barbara Leigh. Alas, the movie was never made and Hammer failed as a company soon after... there were several  ‘lost’ intriguing projects in their portfolio ready to roll and people still lament the fact that these didn’t get made.

However, like any good vampire and much like her comic book incarnation, who tended to hop from company to company, Vampirella refused to stay down for long... although as far as the Hammer version goes, it’s been a bit of a wait to even see what they had in store for her on-screen equivalent (there was a movie made by another company from another script in the 1990s which I still haven’t got around to watching... need to dig that old DVD out from under the pile.. but my understanding was that it was far from successful). Luckily, the original Christopher Wicking script surfaced back in 2017, according to Kieran Foster who, along with Hammer expert, actor and writer Jonathan Rigby, is one of the driving forces behind this particular project in its most recent form. So Jonathan Rigby adapted the script and got people like Caroline Munro involved to give what they modestly describe as ‘a live script reading’ of the unfilmed screenplay... although in the hands of this wonderful cast and crew, it seemed like so much more than just ‘a reading’ when I saw it performed.

The production opened with an animation set to music where a brief intro was given about the Vampirella character. The artwork on this ‘cartoon’ was extremely stylised and perhaps a little jarringly angular for a character who is, frankly, as much about curves as anything else on a visual level but it was really nicely done and somehow fitted the subject like a glove. Next, Kieran Foster came out to introduce the production before handing over to a cast of ten, very talented actors. Then came a lovely opening credits sequence involving a ‘montage in motion’ of panels from the old Warren Comics version of the character (which would have been the only version of the character when Hammer were trying to produce the movie) where various cast and crew’s names were placed into the descriptor boxes of some of the panels (this was very nicely done). This was followed by approximately two hours of the ‘dramatised’ reading. Jonathan Rigby started off with the narrative of the script but also played Pendragon, a down on his luck magician until he met Vampirella. The great lady herself, Caroline Munro, also had a couple of roles and many of the actors here had several. The nice thing about it was that Rigby had divided up the narrative sections between various performers to keep things varied and interesting and this worked a treat.

It was a great performance of the thing with the occasional visual flourish by way of an accompanying graphic and a nice musical score by Luke Jackson. Alas, Georgina Dugdale, who I believe is one of Caroline Munro’s daughters, didn’t wear the iconic red outfit sported by Vampirella in the comics and on the beautifully rendered poster by Graham Humphries (designed and illustrated for the event) but she was wearing a lovely red dress to keep in spirit with the character. Either way though, she was absolutely brilliant in the title role and it was a really strong and friendly performance. And pretty much the same can be said of all the people up on stage. Special mentions to Claire Louise Amias and Francesca Anderson for their wonderfully hilarious turns in this and a big shout out to lady whose face I couldn’t quite place... Peyvand Sadeghian... but then discovered she was the person I had singled out in my review of The Numbers (you can read that here) which I’d watched a couple of weeks before. Also, Jason Morell, son of the famous Hammer stalwart Andre Morell (who was once a Quatermass), did some marvellous voice work but nothing... nothing... could compare to his scream as one of his characters was ‘rolled’ to his death.

I had a really good time with this production and I really got a picture in my minds eye about how this could have played out as a film, thanks to the wonderful vocal characterisations on display. I tend to gravitate sometimes to films which were... let’s say were not always hugely loved in their time... as well as some of the more camp or interesting films of the 1960s and early 1970s. I can imagine, from the way the script came across, that this would have stood head and shoulders with such fun classics as Modesty Blaise, Barbarella, The Final Programme and even, perhaps, Casino Royale (yeah... you know the version I mean). In other words... something which might not have caught the imagination of its time but something we would all be happily devouring on Blu Ray releases to this day.

And, because of this, it just makes me really sad that this didn’t happen as a movie, although I’m pretty sure that some of the quirks of the script were, possibly, just a little bit too quirky to have stayed in the final filmed version. And by that I mean there’s a fair degree of post-modernistic reference to other works outside of the Vampirella canon itself... such as a boat named Dirty Harry. Or, at one point, I’m pretty sure I caught a reference specifically name checking Commander Straker from Gerry Anderson’s UFO. So, in a way, as I put the picture together in my head, I couldn’t help but think we were maybe ‘seeing’ how an uncut version of the movie might have played out.

The script did some nice stuff, too, with unpacking the information at an energetic and interesting pace. For example, it kind of reminded me of a 1960s Marvel comic as Vampirella’s back story was told through ‘hypnotic flashbacks’ at dramatic points rather than going at it in a more linear format and it really did bring home how well crafted these scripts were and whether that kind of structure would have been employed if it were filmed today (possibly making for a duller movie). The minimalistic stage direction, so to speak, that Mr. Rigby so empowered the production with, where little special vocal effects like the ‘hubbub of the crowd’ or Morell’s fatalistic scream, punctuating the text with little moments, seemed to really go down well with the audience too and I did find myself totally immersed in the thing... which is rarely the case these days.

And that’s me done with the unfilmed Vampirella. I would love to see this again so it’s a shame it’s only a one off performance but I was very pleased to take home a limited edition poster marking the event, along with a small programme, so I’m very pleased I came. An absolutely brilliant production and Mr. Rigby and his cast and crew did a really exceptional job. This will be one of my more treasured memories, for sure.