Tuesday 30 November 2010

Ornella Day's Work

Oasis of Fear aka Dirty Pictures aka An Ideal Place To Kill
1971 Italy/France Directed by Umberto Lenzi
Shameless Screen Entertainment Region 0

Please note: An oasis of spoilers await you in this review.

Umberto Lenzi’s a bit of a legend as Italian directors go. Perhaps more notoriously remembered for a couple of his ventures into the puzzling (to this reviewer) genre of cannibal movies with such dubious classics as Eaten Alive and Cannibal Ferox, he’s actually a bit of an all rounder. Whether you take that to mean he’s a skilled director at whatever he’s turned his hand to or whether you take that to mean he’d try his hand at anything is up for you to decide. All I know is in that some of the movies I’ve personally seen of his (such as Violent Naples, Seven Blood Stained Orchids or Spasmo) have all got that certain high quality look to the shot composition which I’ve come to associate with Lenzi and shout them out as movies to take a look at... if just on a purely visual level.

Oasis of Fear is a quite entertaining entry into what I call the “almost-a-giallo” genre of film making. Here, you won’t see corpses piled high or violent and gory deaths (that makes a change then), but there is a murder at this film's manipulative core and, if you’ve never seen the film before, you might even find yourself surprised at the direction this one takes.

This one has Ray Lovelock (The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, Murder Rock) and Ornella Muti (Princess Aura herself from the 80s version of Flash Gordon, Chronicle of a Death Foretold) as young teen lovers, Dick and Ingrid, who seem to be stripping off and single-handedly shoving their newly found, sign of the times sexual freedom into the faces of their fellow men at every chance they get. After making loads of money for their holiday by reselling pornographic magazines and then spending it all again, they go into the home-made market and start selling nude photos of Ingrid herself to keep them going on their road trip across countries and out of the path of “the law”. They come across an “oasis” (actually just a big house with some grounds) when they run out of petrol and the woman who lives their is at first hostile to their absconding with some of her petrol but things take a curious turn when she invites them to stay on with her for the night.

The movie continues with scenes of debauched revelry, nakedness (Ornella Muti guys!) and quite harshly comical 70s dancing (mind you, I tend to find most dancing highly comical, I’ll confess). If you’re an astute viewer then alarm bells will probably be going off in your head around about now as the proud home-owner Barbara (played by Zorba The Greek’s Irene Papas) attempts to divide our young lovers by sleeping with Ray Lovelock but also doing some dodgy things like making sure his fingerprints are all over the revolver in her husbands car... a man who she says she has been expecting to return home all evening.

After all these shenanigans, our two heroes of the sexual revolution finally twig that the husband isn’t just late in the time keeping sense, this little lightbulb popping up after they find his dead body in the boot of his car. They realise that Barbara has been setting the two of them up to take the fall for the murder of her husband and after some elaborate cat and mouse with her, they eventually get away with their car repainted and as much of the evidence destroyed as they can. Ultimately, though, this doesn’t stop Barbara from using these “undesirables” to take the blame for her and, in the last ten minutes of the film, the police are once again hot on the trail of our two young love birds in flight.

Surprisingly for a movie of this era, the murderess actually does get away with her crime... no last minute mistake or clever flash of inspiration from the police to moralistically pin the blame on the real culprit (I wonder if this film ever got a cinema release in the UK back in the 70s... my guess is probably no).

What is, perhaps, a little more typical of the time is the final minute or so of the film where Dick and Ingrid, being chased by the cops, see a stray dog in the road and swerve to avoid it. Being as this is a 1970s film that road happens, obviously, to be at the top of a cliff and our two protagonists lose control of the car and end up dead in the wreck of their MG! Just to milk the poignancy of the conclusion, the final shots of their corpses and lead out is punctuated by the same cheesy pop song which has been following our heroes around all over the film... but, you know, it kinda gets its message across.

So is this movie worth a watch? Well, as long as you don’t expect any deep messages to be imparted from its quirky moral centre, this film is definitely a fun ride from the start right through to the end credits. It’s got funky, 70s Italian music, Ray Lovelock in a Union Jack shirt (or should that be Union Flag considering he’s not on a boat), Ornella Muti in a distinct lack of shirt and some wildly entertaining (for all the wrong reasons) dancing. Add to this some mostly likable characters and some pretty amazing cinematography (as I’d suspect from an Umberto Lenzi movie) and I’d have to say that there are a lot worse ways of spending your money than on this peculiar thriller.

Just don’t go into it expecting high art.

As usual, Shameless have rebuilt this print from various elements to give you the longest possible, uncut version of the film (I’d previously seen a bootleg of this in its “Dirty Pictures” print and even that version was not quite as complete as this). There’s also an irreverent trivia subtitle track to watch with it if you like that kinda thing (which is something I’ll definitely be turning on next time I take this movie out for a spin). Once again, Shameless prove themselves to be a label to watch out for in this particular niche of the market. So definitely worth an upgrade if you’ve already got a version of this and you’re a fan of this particular movie.

Check out their website at www.shameless-films.com

Images used with permission of Shameless Screen Entertainment.

Monday 29 November 2010

Acid Stomach

The Sarah Jane Adventures Season 4
Episodes 11 & 12: Good Bye, Sarah Jane
Airdate: November 15th and 16th 2010. UK. BBC1

Please note... danger of spoiler ingestion beyond this point.

Another year nearly over, another series of The Sarah Jane Adventures ends. Although not as good as the last few stories I didn’t mind this one so much, especially since those last few have been quite exceptional. This one did have some problems with it though.... not least of which are some loose ends in terms of character exploration which it would have been nice to have had tidied up. I suspect the shows creators might well have ended up with more footage than their alloted time on this one... either that or perhaps they’ve just elected to tug at those particular ends a little more in the next series.

So this one starts off with Sarah Jane starting to “lose it” with symptons which look mightily like accelerated alzheimers while, simultaneously a new “Defender of the Earth” is in town known as Ruby White (played by that brilliant TV actress Julie Graham who seems to be turning up in everything these days... you may remember her from the failed TV show Bonekickers, the remake series of Survivors and, on closer inspection of the IMDB, from one of my favourite TV shows of years gone by, Brond).

The set up fo this episode, backed up by a pretty blatant title, is that the BBC obviously want you to think that Elisabeth Sladen is going to be leaving the show sometime very soon and that this is some kind of handover story. This might well have worked and provided the necessary tension except that the writers kind of overplayed their hand just a little bit on this one. For example Sarah Jane’s mental deterioration was way too quick for the audience to really assume that anything other than some kind of alien, “mental facuties sucking device” was being used. I think the producers may have agreed because instead of using Sarah Jane’s tearful farewell and handing over of all her alien-busting gadgetry to Ruby White as a real cliffhanger to the end of the episode, they kept going and revealed Ruby to be a “soul sucking” evil alien who traps the heavily weakened Sarah Jane in her cellar with only her soul-eating, alien, giant sized acidic-gurgling stomach (it looks ust like The Blob) for company, while she monologues on her plans to... well, you know, destroy the world again.

The second part picks up straight after with Clyde getting marooned in an orbiting prison ship with hardly any air left in it and it’s up to Rani to save the day... which she does by calling in Luke and K-9 to help change the course of events, reverse the polarity of the neutron flow (figure of speech) and all go out for a night on the town at the end of the day... but not before setting up Ruby White as a probable returning super-villain for a future series (I’m guessing we’ll be seeing her next year).

All in all, not the best of stories but, like I said, certainly by no means the worst one to round the series off with. This fourth series has mostly been a real blast and there’s a reason why it’s now the highest rated children’s TV show not just currently... but ever (I’m guessing the Doctor Who ratings must be classed as “family” rather than “children’s” viewing to magic up those figures for this show).

Looking forward to series five next year and, hopefully, by then we will have seen the new series of the other two shows in this particular family, Doctor Who and the US continuation of Torchwood.

Saturday 27 November 2010

Salander and Libel

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest
2009 (UK release 2010)
Directed by Daniel Alfredson
Screening at UK cinemas now

Just like my review of the last movie in the this series, this ones going to have loads of spoilers including stuff that’s in the books but not in the movies. Worse than that, I can tell you right off the bat that it’s probably going to come off as really angry and ranty. You have been warned!

On my review of the last movie right here I mentioned all the reasons why The Girl Who Played With Fire failed as an adaptation of its original source material... but also cut it some slack because I do, contrary to popular belief, realise the difference between a film and a novel and although the movie versions of the first two parts of Larrson’s Millenium Trilogy removed a lot of what was in there, I think the director’s of these two still managed to make coherent films which could be read as stand alone, de-boned cousins of their literary counterparts.

A lot of the good will I was extending in this though hinged on the director of the second movie at least continuing that trend in the third movie... and he’s lost me. No more Mr. Passively-watching-three-of-my-favourite-novels-of-recent-years-being-chewed-up-and-spat-out-in-a-shapeless-mess guy for me. This is where I draw that line in the sand and... oh screw that... this is where I pull down my pants, grope around the angry genitals inside and p*ss a line in the sand just to belabour the point.

So let's nail those heavy duty staples into this rickety coffin of a movie like Salander nails her half-brothers feet to the floor with an industrial stapler - there you go! That’s your first spoiler... YOU WERE WARNED!

1. Erica Berger is completely sidelined again. She doesn’t leave Millennium at the start and go to run a rival newspaper. She doesn’t land a fantastic and scandalous story while she’s there and have to return to Millennium to publish that story. She is not played as the cool and woman-with-a-kinky-past-in-control as she is in the books... she’s more of a weepy mother in this.

She does still get the threatening emails in the movie but... what the f@*%! Because she’s still working for Millennium in the movie... they’re not from an angry employee at the rival newspaper... they’re from the "secret cell" in the government who are trying to cover their tracks and bury the Salander story and all who are connected with it! Now tell me people... what secret organisation who send out silent killers and have been really good at staying under everyone’s radar for the last 40 years send one of their targets threatening emails? Duh!

2. Wow. Salander recovers from her head wound pretty quick! Since she’s in hospital for months and many months more in prison and then on trial... you’d think that pregnant belly on her lawyer (at least she’s still Blomkvist’s sister, thank goodness) would have expanded and released small child into the world by the end of the movie wouldn’t you? Like the second movie, the first three quarters of the novel (what, 300 - 400 pages) flash by in the first 20 minutes or so. Honestly... Noomi Rapace is an almost perfect Lisbeth Salander... but the way the material has been exploited doesn’t do this actress or her character any justice.

3. They keep on mentioning the step-brother. He’s hardly around for the first 98% of the book because the writer presumably wants you to forget about him until he pulls him out as a surprise at the end... here they keep constantly reminding you of him and show him terrorising and killing people.

4. The group of Salander Knights... Blomkvist, Palmierri and a few others who are looking out for her interests, even though she would never ask them to, are not even mentioned as a functioning unit. Bye-bye, heart of the male characters in the novel.

5. Blomkvist’s new girlfriend, the government agent who is an athletic woman with the build of a weight trainer is a slimmed down, barely present character in this movie! What the f%&*!

6. Blomkvist and Erika Berger’s relationship and the consequences thereof: Blomkvist and Berger sleep together a lot in the novels, even though Berger is married (again in the novels only it seems). Almost everyone is in an open relationship in the novels and everyone is cool and above board about it. Except Salander who catches her new, one and only love Blomkvist, arm in arm with Berger in the last pages of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. From that point on she hates him and wants nothing to do with him. Similarly, Blomkvist decides to stop leading that lifestyle in the third book when he hooks up with Figuerola, his muscle bound fitness babe!

Now bearing in mind that all these sexual politics were left out of the previous movie... In this third movie the relationship between Blomkvist and Berger is finally referenced... but because the audience don’t know about it unless they’ve read the books, it looks like they’re about to get together for the first time as a blossoming couple! Worse yet is the end scene from the novel where Blomkvist, after everything he’s done for Salander (which you don’t really get from the movie), finally knocks on her door and they say a few words together and become friends again, it reads as a positive resolution for the future of these two characters becoming allies again. But because you don’t know any of that past tension in the movies... the final scene in The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, although it plays out pretty straight to the book, looks like Salander’s rejection of Blomkvist. By this point I’m pretty sure the movie audience has no idea what the heck is going on. It ends on a down-played fizzle as opposed to a sense of hope and closure. Great. Works lovely at the end of The Third Man but it screws up the way the movie works here!

So there you have it... one of the shoddier adaptations I’ve seen and not a patch on the original novel. I was so dissapointed in this one. I’m now half looking forward to seeing what the US remake does with this one just in case they decide they’re going to do them properly!

Until then... don’t bother seeing this movie. Go read the three books instead... at the very least they’ll arm you with the knowledge to at least be able to figure out what’s going on in most of the movies!

Thursday 25 November 2010

Claw Abiding Citizens!

The Giant Claw 1957 US
Directed by Fred F. Sears
Sony DVD Region 1

Warning! Giant sized spoilers... if you’re reallly going to worry about stuff like that in a movie like this!

The Sam Katzman produced The Giant Claw is exactly the kind of movie I like to put on to relax to when I don’t want to have to overcomplicate my life with any unnecessary thinking or, as in the case when I watched this one... I’m too ill to concentrate too much on the intricacies of the plot.

There are B-movies and there are B-movies but this one definitely fits snugly into the blissful category of a B-movie’s B-movie!

The film stars Jeff Morrow (you may remember him from such seriously cool B-movie classics like This Island Earth and The Creature Walks Among Us) as electronics engineer Mitchell “Mitch” MacAfee who spots an unidentified flying object while out in his plane. He’s just the kind of hard, granite-jawed statue of a man to quickly thaw the frozen charms of hardcore mathematician Sally Caldwell played frigidly, then playfully, by Mara Corday (from Tarantula). As their romance develops, so too does their investigation into the deaths and disaster’s caused by Mitch’s UFO, which turns out to be a big, silly looking, Pelham puppet style giant bird... and believe me, the entertaining footage of this squawking, feathered harbinger of death is more than worth the price of admission alone. In fact, all the terrible model shots used in this movie are so bad they’re great.

The script is quite bad too. There is a genuine, quick-fire chemistry between most of the leads in this one and they seem to make the most stupidest of B-movie dialogue work in their favour. Real pros these... I would love to see this movie with a modern day audience and see what reactions you get to big, camply quotable lines of dialogue like “I want you two to hold yourselves in readiness...” today!

And then there’s some of those great bits of B-movie fluff moments you just know aren’t going to hold up under anything like close scrutiny... but these are the films that the term “suspension of disbelief” were made to extoll. Like the wonderful moment where Jeff Morrow draws some seemingly randomly placed dots on a map and then says there’s a flight “pattern” to this giant bird... and then shows this by joining up the dots with an Archimedean spiral. Now I’m no maths expert like the character Mara Corday plays in this mini monster masterpiece but I’m pretty sure that any position of a few randomly placed dots could be made to fit an Archimedian spiral of some size or proportion!

You might also find yourself having to bite your tongue a little (and then hold in your sides) when the professor/scientific adviser character explains that the bird is of extraterrestrisal origin and it shields itself with an anti-matter forcefield! Great stuff for morbid, late 50s scientific obsession.

Right from the start the film shows that it’s just not in the same league as some of those more eminently watchable B-movies we all know and love today. It opens with some voice over narrative on a shot of the earth “from space”... just like the opening of Creature From The Black Lagoon. Now we all know that it never occurred to people in those days of pre-space age shots of planets to figure that you would see all the cloud cover on the earth... fair enough... but this world looks like a badly crafted rubber ball - which is all I can assume it is. A film then, that wears the cheapness (and in the case of the monster... cuteness) of its special effects on its cheesy 1950s sci-fi sleeve.

The style of the narrative continues into great chunks of the movie too, Dragnet-style, and one wonders if this was added over certain sequences, where the dialogue is quite heavy (but unheard on the soundtrack), in order to cover up some of the more dubiously written and performed parts of the script... if such a thing is posible. It’s a crazy authoritative style of narration which tries to be both dead accurate with the time (to the nearest minute... 11.37am, that kind of thing) while being quite hazy with the bigger picture... “It was on the eleventh of the month...”. What month? This is one crazy, mixed up script!

At the movies end, it’s up to our science heroes to create a big electronic thingamujig (you know it’s highly futuristic because it has valves) which will knock out the antagonistic avian’s anti-matter force field. Once this is achieved, the airforce’s big guns bring it down and it splash-crashes into the sea... the last shot of the movie is the giant claw sinking slowly beneath the surface... waving goodbye to a thoroughly entertained audience.

I don’t know about you but I really like B-movies and this one is going to get frequent flyer miles in my DVD playlist from now on. A bird-brained, avian abomination like no other you’ve seen before!

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Let Me Out

Let Me In 2010 UK/USA
Directed by Matt Reeves
Playing at cinemas now!

Warning: Ok... this one doesn’t just have spoilers for the movie, it also has spoilers for the source novel which is a very different beast to this... if you’re thinking of reading the novel anytime soon you may want to give this a miss.

I don’t dislike remakes as a rule... although I do tend to steer clear from quite a lot of them, usually out of both a respect for the original material being made and also because I deem the remake unnecessary. That being said however, I quite like films that are well and truly reimagined and do something different with the source material... if there’s an element of “play” displayed in the intent of the film-makers involved.

But there’s even some straight(ish) remakes that I really like, especially when they’re not remakes as such but second or third cracks at the source material.I love the Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon, for example but that was like the third time within a very few years that it was put on the screen and, to be fair, I do have a certain amount of affection for its predecessors too (technical considerations aside). As much as I love Elisha Cook Jr... I’ll always have time to watch Dwight Frye playing the same role in an earlier version... frankly I could probably watch Frye in anything.

I think the worst kinds of remakes inflicted upon us these days by an uncaring Hollywood is the spate of remakes of foreign movies (Ring, Dark Water, Nikita etc) which seem to be getting remade purely so the box office can benefit from running these movies in an English language rather than let xenophobic young audiences appreciate the beauty and vigor of the original works. I will usually, more often than not, try to avoid seeing these kinds of remakes at all costs.

Sometimes though I get conflicted. I loved the original movie adaptation of the novel which Let Me In takes as it’s source, Let The Right One In (I reviewed it here some months ago) which had a screenplay written by the writer of the original novel... even preferred it to the novel because, although it leaves a lot of the novel out (possibly for the wrong reasons) it was one of those cinematically beautiful movies that pulls you deep inside and doesn’t let you go until the last visually enticing image has flickered past your retina in a 24th of a second.

There was always the chance, in the back of my mind, that the newly owned Hammer Films may actually have a more authentic crack at the novel than the Swedish version... but after reading the credit “based on the screenplay and novel by” my heart fell a little.

Okay... lets get to it then. I don’t know if I’ve ever explained the difference between the 60s and 70s editions of Marvel and DC comics I used to read as a kid but, if I have outlined that on a previous review that I’ve forgotten about, please indulge me because I think the way this film has been handled in both versions is very reminiscent of the basic narrative differences between those two comics companies in that particular time period...

When I was a child I had a much more linear brain than I do now. I could read DC comics really easily (indeed, I learnt to read and got way ahead of all the other kids at school very quickly because my dad was smart enough to give me Superman and Batman comics to read and get interested in) but I had a bit of difficulty reading the Marvel ones at the time... the Marvel ones always seemed to start in the middle of the story and I’d always assume that I’d missed a load of stuff from the issue before and so I’d give up on it more often than not and go back to reading about Superman VS The Electric Monster. What I didn’t realise at the time was that this was because the Marvel comics were, more often than not, written to start off in the middle of an action sequence to give it a more dynamic hook for the reader and would then flash back to the backstory behind that action sequence to fill the reader in after that initial burst of excitement. Whereas the DC ones would usually present everything in a more linear fashion and let the story develop at its own pace.

Now I’m not saying either approach is better than the other, they’re both valid ways of looking at the material on offer, but I still think the reasons for telling your specific story in the Mighty Marvel Manner smacks of a kind of commercialism behind the artistry which doesn’t invalidate it but brings its motivation into question. Let Me In has a very clear approach to the way it tells the same story as Let The Right One, which, right from the outset, blatantly says Make Mine Marvel!

The movie opens approximately three quarters of the way through the novel and the first movie where an ambulance is noisily rushing Abby’s “guardian” to hospital after he has poured concentrated acid over his head. We then get a scene at the hospital from a policeman’s point of view (played by the normally wonderful Elias Koteas, who doesn’t have much to do here) as the nameless guardian plunges to his death. That’s the Marvelistic spark of excitement out of the way (for now) and the film then goes back to the start of the original and retells the story from there.

Now you have to understand here that I don’t by any means think that Let Me In is a terrible or badly made movie... it’s actually quite talentedly directed with some fairly nice shot set ups and some dynamic edits which give it a certain amount of edge. Unfortunately, because it is a remake of something else (despite allusions to being adapted from the novel) it does kind of invite comparison with its source material and, in the case of this particular movie, the source material does tend to walk all over the new version on all levels and considerations as far as I can see.

Like the first movie, it leaves out a load of characters which were in the original novel (although kudos to Reeves and co for at least referencing a couple of them - the father of the main protagonist Owen, for instance, at least exists in a phone call). However a lot of the other characters which were included in the original adaptation have been pruned too... the community of late middle-aged friends have all been taken out apart from the couple who get more involved after Abby bites the woman and leaves her as a vampire. These two are presumably only left in so we can have the scene when she bursts into fire in the hospital when the curtains are pulled. But even these two get a lot less screen time... and the tracking down of Abby to her apartment lair is not handled as a revenge investigation by the dead woman’s long term boyfriend... instead, Elias Koteas’ policeman becomes the spearhead of the investigation and it is he who goes to his death in his confrontation with Abby on his/her home turf.

And you see what I just did there right? His/her. In the original novel, not long before the end, Abby reveals him/herself to actually be a screwed up little boy who was castrated before being made into a vampire and who dresses up in girls clothing. This was a revelation that the original movie version shied away from, only referencing it obliquely for people who read the novel... the Hammer version does the same thing, choosing to leave this information unsaid but leaving in some references to Abby referring to “her”self as not being a girl... of course, if you’ve not read the book your thoughts instantly turn to the logical conclusion that, yeah she’s not a girl - she’s a vampire! Nope. Wrong! S/he’s actually a little boy... but that would not have been a commercially smart revelation, right?

The handling of Abby’s “guardian” however is quite different. In the original movie you just assume that they are lovers and as the years have gone by he has grown old and elderly while s/he has, of course, remained perpetually twelve years old... and that’s a nice theory and one that the first movie does nothing to confirm nor dispel. The actual character in the book, though, is a lot more troublesome. Abby and his/her guardian have not known each other for that long. Maybe a few years. The guy is basically a paedophile and Abby uses the insidious weakness of his attraction to him/her in order to get him to get the blood s/he needs to live. Horrible but that’s the way it is in the book. Completely uncommercial (not to mention pretty unpalatable in my opinion). Hammer draws a clear line here and deliberately re-enforces in the minds of the audience the “fact” that they’ve been together as lovers for decades by having Owen find some photographs of the two of them together when they were about the same age. Actually, since I’m assuming that vampires in a film which keeps in the ritual about not being able to enter where your not invited actually also do not get captured on film, this makes Abby only about 50 or 60 years old... whereas in the novel she’s centuries old!

There are lots of things in this movie, actually, which look like they’ve been done for purely commercial reasons... alas, the sad fact is that 99.9% of movies that get made are made for commercial reasons. Instead of having Abby’s guardian go out and walk around looking for “fresh meat” the Let Me In version of the character has him getting in the back of their cars and slicing them up in their transport. Not very practical but it does make for an exciting “car chase” kinda scene with a car crash and general mayhem which more than anything states the differences between the two versions loud and clear... the original movie is an artistic and beautiful movie which examines the relationship between a young boy and an ages old vampire... Let Me In is trying to be a high octane fright fest for teenagers who want to see action and horror (and succeeding quite skillfully as it happens). And it really does play up the horror element in this one. The swimming pool sequence had a certain amount of gore but was a lot more subtle and actually a lot more effective than the version of it as rendered in Let Me In. The original movie had Abby’s vampire state being treated almost as an afterthought to the poetic soul of the story... whereas the new version has some sequences where the scares are really being played up. Let Me In is definitely a “horror movie” as opposed to a “vampire movie”.

The music by Giachino is interesting too. The original movie had a beautiful and poignant score written for it but this one is definitely more in conventional, atonal horror movie mode... both the movies happen to have brilliant scores as it happens... just very different ones. How different? Well there’s a sequence near the end of the movie where Elias Koteas drives up to track down Abby (played by Chloe Moretz who achieved a certain high profile sense of notoriety playing Hit Girl in Kick Ass) and the whole, protracted sequence from when his car drives up to where he is “gored up” by Abby is scored in that Big-John-Barry-Bond-Sound! I kid you not... it’s like the countdown style of Bond-writing that you’ll recognise as being trademark Barry from movies like You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever. It’s like the brilliant Michael Giachinno (a composer I really like) has not forgotten the lessons of his temp-track troubled score to The Incredibles (I don’t care what anyone says, you listen to The Incredibles and you can not only work out what movies were used in the temp track, you can also easily identify the specific John Barry cues that were imitated to piece together the score, I’m amazed Barry never sued... good score though). Seriously good Bond-ridden music for this sequence which, quite surprizingly, works quite well in the context of the actual scene.

Right, this article has turned into a much longer haul than I thought it would so I’ll just leave you with this... if you’re a fan of the original movie, Let The Right One In, or are a fan of the original novel... don’t expect this movie to be able to live up to your expectations of it. If however, you are just looking for a fun night at the cinema with vampires, car crashes and lots o’ blood without worrying about the previous works of art that “inspired” it... then it’s worth giving Let Me In a little look. Do please though, at least, give the original movie a watch at some point... because that one was really good!

Friday 19 November 2010

The Cannibal Run

We Are What We Are 2010 Mexico
Directed by Jorge Michel Grau
Playing at all good cinemas now!

Warning: Beware you don’t accidentally choke on some of the less appetising spoilers found in this blog post!

It’s rare that my local cinema has anything playing than movies made in the USA so I was very happy when I learned that the new Mexican cannibal movie We Are What We Are was showing there this week.

I rushed (well yeah, okay, kinda meandered) to a screening not quite knowing what to expect. I’ve not seen that many cannibal movies... at least none of the dubiously termed “classics” from the early 80s so I wasn’t sure what to expect. In fact, now I come to think of it, I think the nearest thing I’ve got to a cannibal movie was Jeunet’s masterpiece Delicatessen... but I don’t think that one counts somehow. What I do know is this... whatever it was I was thinking I was going to see - this wasn’t it!

We Are What We Are is a really well made, gripping and thoroughly compelling watch.

The action takes place over the course of about 24 hours and the set up to the story is simple... a man dies. His family are cannibals who have to eat somebody very soon in order to fulfil a specific ritual which they believe will stop them from death or a fate worse than death - the exact consequences are not made very clear but that doesn’t matter because their belief on the need for urgency is more than clearly transmitted to the viewer in no uncertain terms. The cupboard/refrigerator is completely bare and the remaining family members (a mother, two sons and a daughter) will have to bring home the bacon (if you will) before their deadline is up the next day.

And that’s the whole set up.

The rest of the picture takes its time but leaves you with the creeping realisation that this family, while coping with grief, are just not very smart. There is so much scope contained in the characters for them to go wrong... and they really do. We have a controlling sister who talks the more sensitive son into being the new leader, we have his brother who is pretty much going to get into any fight at any time and just resort to violence at the drop of a hat (which introduces a useful element of hard instability into the narrative) and you have the mother who is expecting things to get done right and who is emotionally out of control - she hates prostitutes and after the family collectively kill one to eat, she rejects this offering and then takes the battered carcass openly to the local streetwalkers as a warning to them to stay away... obviously not a smart thing to do as the cops soon get in on the act.

Basically, you suspect that things are probably going to turn out badly for the family and, pretty much they do... but I don’t want to give too much away about the ending and it’s little epilogue scene.

I’ve really not seen much Mexican cinema but, like most foreign films I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, the dialogue is not the most important thing here. This movie doesn’t shy away from dialogue, far from it, but it doesn’t rely on it to tell its story. There are great chunks of this movie which have no dialogue at all... a purer form of cinema perhaps in that it is not afraid to use dialogue but as an equal element to both support and be supported by the film as a visual medium. The speaking will stop or pause for a while, drop in or out at it’s own pace and it seems to work really well here. A lot of modern directors tend to overuse dialogue and make it the cause and effect of the narrative flow. Here it’s as much about what’s left unsaid and, in many cases, unrevealed to the audience, that helps propel the movie along at it’s own rate.

And the visual style of this movie is also very interesting. It’s got a very European kind of camerawork (sorry if you don’t understand what I mean here, I’m not a techie so am possibly expressing myself badly) in that the camera will wander around a location at it’s own pace and not be afraid of letting the protagonists wander in and out of frame... it just kinda explores the surroundings almost lazily without getting hung up on people and letting the collective eye of the audience explore the milieu through the details of the environment that these characters inhabit (usually a quite darkly lit environment). And this is very much at odds with the fact that the camera is wandering through sets and environments which are absolutely jam packed and filled to the brim with an abundance of paraphernalia. An interesting juxtaposition of sensibilities.

Asides from giving this movie a very voyeuristic feel to the proceedings (which of course gives it a sense of reality and powerful credibility to the way it’s experienced) this kind of camera-style also helps with the way a lot of the violence is portrayed. Most of the violent acts committed in this film seem to happen just off screen... this isn’t really a blatantly gory or exploitational film. What it does though is play up the sound effects in all their, literally, bone crunching glory which, coupled with what the viewer doesn’t see, makes the imagination and impact of what’s going on much more palpable.

This is echoed in the way it sometimes shows the approach to an incident, misses the incident itself out and then returns to the aftermath/consequences of an incident... which in some instances make this much more jolting. Like the scene near the end where the mother is resting in a playground, not seeing a group of vengeance-hearted prostitutes walking up to her... when you later see her bloody body on the ground and nobody else in shot, your imagination is left to fill in the blanks once more.

The minimalistic musical score by Enrico Chapela helps too. It’s pretty much a string based score... and in a couple of moments when it’s being a bit more coherent and sustained, it sounds very much like Herrmanns more sedate moments from Psycho. A lot of it is very atonal string plucking which also, like the tone of the film not relying too much on dialogue, just kind of wanders in and out of a scene at random... although not necessarily at consciously perceived natural breaks as the dialogue needs to in order to remain coherent. But it certainly does do musically Pinteresque things like play a few jarring notes... pause for a while... play another few notes... pause for a while etc. Very interesting use of music throughout.

All in all I’d say We Are What We Are is a perfect starter for anybody’s cinematic meal for the next week or so while it’s still playing... but be careful because... after all... you are what you eat!

Thursday 18 November 2010

Ich bin ein "Merliner"

Excalibur 1981 UK
Directed by John Boorman
Warner Brothers DVD Region 2

“But ere he dipt the surface, rose an arm
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
And caught him by the hilt, and brandish'd him
Three times, and drew him under in the mere.”
Morte d'Arthur, Alfred Lord Tennyson

Excalibur was a big deal to a frustrated teenager. We were two films into that 9 part series of Star Wars movies everyone kept talking up (myself, no exception) but after some of the terrible band wagon films that had followed in the wake of the first part, we were all desperate for fantasy films which would have a certain adult sensibility and lend a certain amount of gravitas to a genre of cinema that was not being treated in the way it deserved - with a modicum of respect and creativity. That is to say... we just wanted some fantasy movies which were actually well made for a change.

And then a magazine called Starburst, which I had been buying on and off in the rare moments I could afford to purchase such four colour luxuries, had a big article about John Boorman’s upcoming Excalibur movie (everything seemed to be promo’d months before it’s release back in those days) which looked like it might deliver on all those things that teenagers usually associated with “grown-up” movies in those days - blood and sex.

Then the magazine which you could only get in the local ABC Cinema, Film Review, featured the movie and there was nothing else the kids in the playground could talk about in the months leading up to the release of the movie. I even remember braving the streets to the “posher” newsagent at the end of town to buy the Excalibur Poster Magazine to fan the flames of my desire to see this tale of Arthurian legend - a treasured item which I still, of course, posess to this day (one doesn’t casually purge such cherished and prized items out of one’s pile of promotional magazines). I knew a teeny, tiny bit about Arthurian legend because my dad had always liked it and I had seen a few movies such as The Sword In The Stone in the past. Would it be as great a film as The Spaceman and King Arthur? Only time would tell but after glancing at the classy yet lurid pictures of men in blood spattered, shiny armour the chances were good.

Plus I knew the name of the director. He’d done that brilliant Zardoz movie I’d seen on TV a year or two before... so chances are it would have some naughty bits in it too! So when the film finally came out (and I think it was a Double A rating so I was just at the age where I didn’t need to lie about my age to gain admission) I sat there in the cinema and waited for a quality movie to unfold before me... and I have to say that the film delivered in spades. A thoroughly good time was had by all and my head was well filled with enough nudity and bloodletting to keep my thoughts focussed for a number of days.

Fast forward 29 years and I thought I would watch it again and write a review of it to see if it would still hold up after all these years. Partially this was motivated by the fact that a tweet I saw the other night reminded me that I had not seen the movie in a while but this was in itself re-enforced by the knowledge that I had recently picked up a copy of the film in a 3 for a tenner sale in HMV.

I’ve seen five John Boorman films in my life so far... four of them - Point Blank, Hell In The Pacific, Zardoz and Excalibur - are all great movies... the other, really terrible one, is a sequel to The Exorcist.

Excalibur, then, opens with some shots of trees with golden light behind them. Bloody battles rage and Uther Pendragon (young Gabriel Byrne) confers with Merlin (a hammy but brilliant Nicol Williamson) to win peace but spoils it by having sex with his enemies wife and spawning Arthur (in a quite starkly beautiful visual metaphor that has him penetrating the young lady in question disguised as her man via Merlin’s necromancy whilst her real husband is penetrated by spears and his flesh bloodily torn). The film then carries on highlighting key incidents in the life of Arthur, drawing episodically from Thomas Malory’s accidentally and unfortunately titled (due it is believed, to a printers error) "Le Morte d'Arthur", which Tennyson’s famous poem also takes as its source.

I won’t go into details... you all know the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table... and if you don’t the story is detailed in a zillion different places. Or go and see a movie version.

To be honest the story doesn’t matter in this... it’s a Boorman movie (and fortunately it’s not Exorcist 2) so the visual design of the film is all absolutely splendid (with green forests greener than green... Bava green) and always makes the film feel like the absolute epic it is. And although the dialogue could possibly be considered quite corny by today’s standards, the actors and actresses deliver it all with a sense of seriousness and sensitivity which allows you to take it for what it is and not break out into a grin every five minutes. And what great actors... aside from those already mentioned you have future giants of the profession in young, unknown versions of themselves such as Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson and Helen Mirren. Not to mention such notable but less legendary performers as Cheri Lunghi and Nicholas Clay, who do a fine job rendering Guinevere and Lancelot in the flesh. The real acting triumph, however, is Nigel Terry’s absolutely brilliant portrayal of Arthur in a journey that takes him from a coarse young teenager to a wise and surprisingly fair and likeable king... a really great job.

The music is a worry... Trevor Jones sandwiched between stirring classical anthems by the likes of Orff and Wagner was heady stuff when I was a kid (and still is as it happens) but I’m not sure this needle drop tone best serves the mood of the film. I suspect it’s a case of Boorman falling in love with his temp track (in much the same way that Kubrik kept his temp track in 2001: A Space Odyssey and threw out Alex North’s more than competent score) but I’m just guessing here so don’t quote me on this. Still, the music is quite powerful in it’s own right and although it sometimes feels a bit inappropriately segued in some sequences, they could have certainly done a lot worse than what we have here.

All in all though, although an episodic rendition of the Arthur story (well it has to be really doesn’t it, trying to sandwich it all into 2 and a quarter hours), I found that this skip and match kind of pacing very well suited to the material... in as much as to say that there really isn’t a dull scene in the movie and the span of time depicted across it’s real running time does help contribute to the feeling that you are watching an epic piece of storytelling from an expert celluloid author.

If you like the stuff of legends and myths then Excalibur never once tries to duck its responsibility of taking the stories at anything less than their noble and grand intent. A stirring film that was possibly the last great take on the Arthurian legend.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

A Niche In Time Saves Nine (& 10)

The Sarah Jane Adventures Season 4
Episodes 9 & 10: Lost in Time
Airdate: November 8th and 9th 2010. UK. BBC1

Right... probably a short review this one with plenty of those pesky spoilers I reckon, so if you’re a regular watcher of this show... go look at one of my more questionable articles instead.

This weeks two episodes had a very early to mid-seventies spooky kids show feel... you'll know what I’m talking about if you lived through the seventies as a kid in the UK and were fortunate to have access to a television set. You’d come home from school and by about 4.30pm they’d be showing a kids programme about ghosts and things getting unstuck in time and generally scaring the pants off of the young ‘uns. You don’t really expect to see that on today's sanitised children’s TV... heck you don’t even get to see some of that scary stuff on so called adult TV unless you’re really lucky... so I was kinda pleased about the course of the episode. There were some silly mistakes in it too though... just to counterbalance the rightnes of the atmosphere.

It starts off well enough with Sarah Jane, Rani and Clyde investigating the owner of a curio shop. He gives them no time to procrastinate as he sends them through a time portal to three separate time zones to bring back three fragments of an artefact which is changing earths future and which will cause the earth to be sucked into a time vortex unless the three intrepid heroes can return with the said artefacts before a certain, specific time (when the sands run out). He doesn’t know what the artefacts look like (actually, that bit’s a little important when it comes to story continuity, as you’ll see further down) but the three characters willl be pulled to the right time zones near their three respective objects... Rani ends up with the ten day queen, sweet Lady Jane, on her tenth day before Mary comes and ends her reign and locks her away to await eventual execution. Clyde lands in a British coastal village in 1941 to fight off a group of nazis bent on unleashing a hellish invasion in England. Sarah Jane winds up in a “haunted house” in the 19th century with a would-be ghost hunter. Things go from there...

The episodic nature of the three time-zones stories means you don’t hover for long in any one of them before joining another, so you’re hardly likely to get bored in this one. Rani as a Lady in Waiting with Queen Jane is great and the story of internal treachery and the friendship which develops between the two of them is quite touching. Turns out the knife which was used in an attempted murder on the Queen is the object. Similarly, Sarah Jane’s adventure is quite touching. You won’t be fooled for a minute, however, with the ghost story trappings. This house has echoes of future events and the unique psychic abilities of her companion in this adventure come in handy when she reaches into the future to retrieve the key which is one of the fragments, only to accidentally hold on to it when Sarah Jane is transported back to the future. Clyde’s adventure is a chasing-around-and-not-letting-the-nazis-get-the-upper-hand-for-long kind of skirmish and it turns out that the nazis radar jamming equipment houses the third fragment.

Rani, Clyde and Sarah Jane are all transported back to the shop with moments to spare but Sarah Jane doesn’t have the key... the earth is about to be sucked into a time vortex and do strange things when, in a neat but not unforseen twist, the great grandchild of Sarah’s haunted house companion brings the key on her behalf and world destruction of an unclarified level is averted and the shop keeper myseriously goes off... presumably so he can come back again in a future episode. Which is when the real problem of this particular story raises it’s slovenly head above the eyeline of sloppy narrative continuity...

If the shopkeeper has no idea what the artefacts will look like, how come he has got a case ready made to store them with little indentations of the exact shapes of the artefacts in it... that’s a pretty neat trick isn’t it? Thanks Mr. BBC props department but it looks like they’re expecting what the objects will be... oh it is rather nice though isn’t it... oh, all right then, go on. Nobody’s going to notice... it’s a children’s programme after all, right?

So there you have it. Not a bad little story with a touch of sloppy continuity and a trailer at the end for the series finale episodes which look like they have a good chance of pressing all the right buttons on my personal sonic lipstick... another great triumph of television on our screens. So rare these days.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Murder En "Sweet"

So Sweet So Dead 1972 Italy
Directed by
Roberto Bianchi Montero
Camera Obscura
DVD Region 2

Warning! Parting the words has such sweet, sweet spoilers.

The sounds of passion as a camera pans slowly around a well lit room, drinking in every detail of the set as an actor and actress make spectacular love off shot. You know pretty soon they’ll be on shot and in your face and a big bosomed young lady will surely be screaming her wild surrender enthusiastically into the camera as she is expertly handled by some curly haired Italian... but for a few seconds you are invited to take in the small details of the room which will lend you insight into the lives of the characters... and then the camera lingers lovingly on a bottle of J & B whisky and you realise... you must be watching a giallo!

It was with great pleasure but great tiredness that I sat down to watch Austrian DVD Company Camera Obscura’s release of “Rivelazioni di un maniaco sessuale al capo della squadra mobile” aka So Sweet, So Dead. It’s a fairly rare release (until the next label along gets the bright idea to release it) in that it’s a limited edition of only 2000 copies and is quite pricey - £28 at Camden Film Fair, which is about £20 more than I like to pay for new DVDs but the particular stall holder I got it from is something of a knowledgable chap when it comes to Italian Giallo (and Italian Crime movies and Mexican, Spanish and Brazilian exploitation) so for once I let myself be persuaded by his eloquent sales pitch and was so glad I did now.

The film stars Farley Granger (Rope, Strangers On A Train) as a policeman assigned to the case of tracking down a serial killer... and it really is the epitome of the standard giallo serial killer - trench coat, mask, trilby, black gloves and a sharp, pointy knife... who describes himself as a “moral avenger” and is gorily killing women who are “cheating” on their husbands. For me, though, the more interesting cast presence (and part of the factor that cemented my decision to make the purchase) is that of the two remarkable ladies Sylvia Koscina (Hercules, Lisa and the Devil/House of Exorcism) and Susan Scott (aka Nieves Navarro - The Big Gundown, Death Walks In High Heels, Death Walks At Midnight, Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion etc) who are thrown into the mix.

Asides from some nice cardboardy packaging, the first thing that strikes you about the DVD is the slowly shifting psychedelic menus which are great shots of various naked women (depending on which menu you are looking at) in highly posterised colours which slowly melt and shift in the colour range and which I would be quite happy watching all night, much as I would if I could keep my tranquil meditation in a room with a large lava lamp. Seriously, these menus look like they’re straight out of The Porpoise Song from The Monkee’s Head and so I was already happy with this product before I’d even started the film.

And then, when I did finally get to the film after fixing it to watch it in Italian with English subtitles, I could tell right away I was in typical giallo territory as the camera lingers over the corpse of a naked woman who has been bloodily sliced in an aesthetically conscious manner. We then get on to the title sequence with a typical giallo score composed by someone who might make Argento fans’ ears prick up in listening appreciation... Giorgio Gaslini. Shrewd eared listeners may also realise that large chunks of the score feature Morricone’s favoured singer Edda Del ‘ Orso doing her usual, very beautiful wordless vocals in seductive accompaniment to Gaslini’s light, euro-jazz explorations.

And of course, being as we’re stuck in a giallo, every shot and camera movement and edit is carefully planned and conceived to give the audience the absolutely most astonishing and poetic visuals that they are able to give. One murder, for instance, takes place on a train and it’s entirely lit in blue. Another has a room lit with one colour with the couches jumping out in a bright red contrast as the female victim temporarily escapes the killer. As she is initially stabbed once she tries to get away from the killer by running away along a moonlit beach in a gorgeous slow motion shot which calls to mind the similarly engaging shot of Zhora being shot and breaking through the windows in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Seriously people, if you’ve never watched gialli before and you’re into aesthetically pleasing camera set ups, you should really think about checking some of these movies out (just don’t expect great performances from the actors).

The transfer by Camera Obscure, aside from two restored sequences which weren’t available on the negative and so are in a very slight state of deterioration, is absolutely clear and crisp and sharp and vibrant and everything you’d want your giallo experience to be like. Actually, in some ways, perhaps it’s a little too crisp and sharp because, frankly, the detail revealed gives the game away a bit. It’s rare that a giallo doesn’t take me by surprise because they always have so many red herring characters who could easily turn out to be the murderer. I had two suspects with one guy being the favourite, until I realised that although the murder scenes were deliberately darkly lit, the brilliance of the transfer meant that you could actually work out from the face under the stocking mask who the killer actually is from about a third of the way in... he was my second choice so I was kinda pleased in some ways. I did have a third suspect for a few seconds before realising in these things that if a dead corpse blinks it's probably not an indication of murderous guilt... just unfortunate circumstance from a young woman who didn't know she was still in the shot.

Of course you know in a giallo that, if the main protagonist trying to solve the crimes either has a girlfriend or is married (as he is in this case) then she is going to be in danger from the killer at some point in the film. Since the killer here is only murdering wives who are having affairs, it therefore stands to reason that the good Inspector Capuana’ wife is cheating on him. This he finds out near the end and after he rushes to save her you realise he is generally hurt by her betrayal of him... and this is where the film get really interesting in its final few minutes. Instead of rescuing his wife from the killer, the detective watches from outside while the killer “stabs-up-his-wife-good”... then the Inspector shoots the killer dead... end of story.

All I can say about this one is “Wow! Great giallo! Definitely in my top 25 giallo list” somewhere. If you’re a fan of gialli and you can find any copies left of this one, you would be well advised to pick this one up. A beautiful film for beautifully deranged people. Miss it at your peril.

Saturday 13 November 2010

Blood Bathory

Countess Dracula 1971 UK
Directed by Peter Sasdy
Hammer/MGM Midnight Movies DVD Region 1

Feel free but forewarned to bathe in the bloody spoilers that bubble to the surface of this article!

Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed lived, in real life, in the late 16th and early 17th century where she and her four “accessories” tortured and murdered literally hundreds of young women and girls after the death of her husband. Just how many hundreds is up to speculation although the actual solid number her accomplices were tried and convicted for is 80. Báthory herself was neither officially tried nor convicted but was bricked into a set of rooms until her death four years later.

It’s no surprise then that the obvious hard-edged personality of this female serial-killer would be appropriated and used by so many artists in so many media over the years as a character in books, poetry, comics, films, animations and modern day BDSM scene videos. It’s also no surprise that out of all the many movies to feature a variation of her character, one of the first two movies (both made in 1970) to feature her was made by classic British horror studio Hammer.

One of the myths of Báthory’s crimes which grew over the years was that she would bathe in the blood of virgins to prolongs her life and preserve or regain her youth was an obvious connection to the myth of the vampire and one which Hammer would exploit in the title of a movie “inspired” by Báthory’s final years called Countess Dracula - although it’s pretty clear that Ingrid Pitt, the star of the show, is playing a pretty much soft filtered version of Báthory.

My guess is that in their wisdom to not fall foul of the censor in such a way that would be a detriment to them releasing their finished product after so many battles with the British censors over the years, Hammer took away the torture aspect of her character and just ran with the premise of a woman who murders female virgins to bathe in their blood which has the effect of rejuvenating her body to that of a younger version of herself for a limited number of days. No attempt is made to explain why they have to be virgins however.

And that’s one of the problems with the film as a whole actually... not that it’s not a good film, there’s much to like in it. It’s just that in the scene where Báthory accidentally finds that smearing the blood of one of her hand servants across her face means that she can “wipe out wrinkles like the stars” and then, after experimenting with killing and bathing which gives new credence to the term “blood bath”, there is no actual explanation as to why this process of a young wenches blood over your naked and obviously attractive body (it is Ingrid Pitt we are talking about here after all, so attractive is right) would cause your hormones to wake up and dance in the air and treat your skin in such a friendly manner. There is talk of the condition later in an “ancient tome” where it is found that is has to be the blood of virgins, but no elaboration is offered. A bit strange and I don’t think that’s necessarily something modern day audiences of this kind of movie would sit still for today. For some reason modern cinema audiences like to have all manner of ridiculous explanation thrown into the mix so they can somehow half rationalise the ridiculous nature of the scenes they have inflicted upon them in the myriad of multiplexes dotted about our proud nation.

In the case of this movie, of course, it doesn’t matter in the least. Peter Sasdy’s direction is quite sure footed and the cinematography is actually quite creative with many of the shots existing with more than one plain of reference to refer to (main characters doing things and then walking off shot on a balcony on an upper level at the top of a set-up while the main action if focussed on an incident happening in the foreground for example) and in some cases objects and people follow the patterns of the interiors and shift with those interiors as the camera follows with them... smooth stuff.

Wonderful actors too with the likes of Nigel Green (The IPCRESS File, Jason and the Argonauts), Sandor Elès and the very young but very lovely Lesley-Anne Down joining the “titular” character Ingrid Pitt (who does wonders playing an older version of herself in what must have been very hampering make-up). Funnily enough there’s a lot of female nudity on show in this one (oh well, one has to make these sacrifices watching these movies :-) but I never once (thankfully) saw Nigel Green or Sandor Elès get their kit off! And this is the movie which features, you must have seen it, that wonderful iconic shot of Ingrid Pitt as Sandor Elès catches her standing in the bath sponging her naked body with Kensington gore which is perhaps a little short in terms of being barely glimpsed on screen (bet that was a battle with the censors to even get it on screen judging from some of the transcripts of the letters I’ve seen for some of Hammer’s earlier productions) but which has always been around as an iconic, although often censored, still photograph used to promote the movie (pardon me while I stop to wipe copious amounts of drool from my keyboard here).

Also on hand is a really excellent and lush score by Harry Robinson which is punctuated by rich orchestration and uses instruments like the cimbalom, presumably to highlight the Hungarian origins of Báthory’s surroundings (which I’m thankful for otherwise I would have had no idea it was supposed to be set anywhere near Hungary - it looks like the same forest they always use to me - wink). It’s truly a delightful score and one that I wish had been given a CD soundtrack release already.

I think my only other problem with this movie, apart from the lack of any explanation as to the logic behind the science/alchemy of blood to youth hygiene practices, would be the rushed nature of the ending which sees the quick and unexpected death of the young, romantic leading man and the imprisonment of Báthory, her other lover and her lady in waiting while the local villagers chant out “Countess Dracula” before we go to a horrendous 70s style freeze frame (well it is a 70s movie I suppose) which kinda jars a little with the rest of the pacing.

However, when all is said and done a quite nice accoutrement to the Hammer legacy and, although not in my top ten Hammers, certainly a worthy addition which would be mostly enjoyed by fans of British horror movies of this period.

Thursday 11 November 2010

High Phibes Diet

Dr. Phibes Rises Again 1972 UK/US
Directed by Robert Fuest
MGM Midnight Movies DVD Region 1

Abominable spoilers rise again.

Well, if you read my recent review of the first of these movies you’ll know the primary reason for me shelling out the achingly hard earned cash to purchase these was because the lovely Caroline Munro appears in them. You’ll also know of my crushing disappointment on discovery that her appearance in the films is uncredited as she plays the brief footage of The Abominable Dr. Phibes dead wife.

Caroline continues that role in the second of the Phibes movies and, to be fair, there’s a fair bit more footage of her in the second movie as she is pushed from pillar to post (or in this case, perhaps pillar to pyramid may be a more appropriate expression) as Phibes rises from his sleep/death which he commenced at the end of the last movie. Apparently this was the plan all along as he waited for the moon to come into some kind of alignment so he can cart his beloved Victoria (Caroline) away to Egypt and take her on a journey on the river of life once he has got to the critical time when he can unlock the gates and let some chambers flood and the course of the river resume (I think I’ve got that right... it’s all kinda vague and illogical to be honest... not that this matters of course). And of course, in order to do this, he also has to stand in the way of an interested party named Beiderbeck who has been living hundreds of years by extending his lifespan unnaturally but who wants to take that River of Life journey himself... so Phibes pretty much kills all of the Beiderbeck friends and colleagues one by one, naturally... much to the consternation of the English policeman and his boss, making a return from the last movie.

And it’s not just these two making a return here. Various character actors from the last movie (some killed in the last movie in fact) are back as different characters in this one (people like Terry Thomas) as is his mute assistant, the always good looking Vulnavia... although, to be fair, in this one she’s played by a different actress. There’s absolutely no explanation as to how she’s back after she was accidentally killed by a hideous acid Dr. Phibes death-trap which backfired in the last film... but she does turn up from some kind of heavenly lit tunnel and campily returns there at the end of the movie when her job is done. Bizarre!

Also on hand are a host of other character actors making quickie appearances, such as Beryl Reid and Peter Cushing. In addition there is also a young and, then relatively unknown actor, by the name of John Thaw who gets unconvincingly pecked to death by Dr. Phibes raven. The deaths in this movie aren’t exactly as sparklingly innovative as those in the first movie but the surprise tease of the first death is quite shiny and unexpected. A couple of snakes are left in the Billiard Room and the victim crushes them before they can do any harm. He realises they are just mechanical snakes and so ignores the third which turns out to be real and bites him. He cuts his wound open and sucks the poison out and gets on the phone to alert the police... however the phone has been rigged with a special receiver which sends a sharp spike through the man’s head... in one ear and out the other. Almost but not quite as haunting as being impaled by a catapulted statue of a unicorn which was one of the deaths in the first movie.

It’s not really much surprise that Dr. Phibes has an almost carbon copy of his London catacombs already pre-built in the egyptian tomb in question but it was unexpected to see the clockwork jazz band from the first movie back with him. All the elements are in place for a fun movie and although it’s in some ways a tribute to the old Universal Mummy series of movies from the 30s and 40s, it’s still not quite as entertaining as the first movie. All the stylistic trappings of the director are back in place but I suspect he’s better off with more episodic and less story driven fair... this movie does tend to pause more than the first to give more explanation as to what’s going on. I still think his absolute masterpiece was his third film, The Final Programme... but not that many people would agree with me on that one... especially not the writer of the original source novel on which it was based.

Still, Dr. Phibes Rises Again is certainly not a terrible movie and a fun enough time than a lot of other movies... even if it doesn’t have so much of the aforementioned Miss Munro in it! I’d have to say if you liked the first movie then you certainly should take a look at the second one. I’m surprised they haven’t tried to remake these for a modern cinema-going audience yet!

Wednesday 10 November 2010

The Earth Dies Softly Murmuring

The Sarah Jane Adventures Season 4
Episodes 7 & 8: The Empty Planet
Airdate: November 1st and 2nd 2010. UK. BBC1

Ok. That was pretty good. Just seen what was the best Series 4 story so far... which is kind of odd considering that the actress/character who is the main reason I watch the show, Elisabeth Sladen’s timeless portrayal of Sarah Jane Smith, was hardly in either episode with just a few minutes of screen time in each.

The first episode starts off less strongly than it could have with a very linear set up to arm the viewer with enough information to help get them through the story proper (I would have been tempted to start the show off with Rani waking up and running through empty streets and then going into flashback, but what do I know) but then the episode gets all The Earth Dies Screaming and we are given an almost identical premise as that wonderful 60s British sci-fi/horror b-movie in that the population of the entire world has been eradicated (killed in the 60s movie but only “snatched” here) with only a few people left to wander the deserted streets and wonder what the heck is going on.

In the case of this particular variation on a theme, the sole survivors are the two characters Clyde and Rani who are, to be fair, very strong characters in the show. On their travels trying to come to terms with their new status as the last two humans on earth they come across a third survivor, Gavin and by this point it’s pretty obvious that Gavin must be the key to the whole thing... it’s just that he doesn’t know it yet. At the end of the first episode we are left with a great cliffhanger as two large robots chase after our two heroes and strike threatening poses with hand-gun thingies which you just know are going to turn out to be scanners but, hey, they needed some way to leave the episode on a cliffhanger (of sorts).

And yes, you guessed it, the robots in question are very much reminiscent in general tone to the ones in The Earth Dies Screaming. Which is a good thing because that particular Terence Fisher movie is very atmospheric and this story does capture this to some extent, bearing in mind that this is a children’s programme.

It’s also a neat reveal that the reason that Rani and Clyde have not been removed from the earth along with the rest of our species harkens back to a previous episode of the show concerning an alien species which have been an established part of recent Doctor Who continuity. By which I mean that in a previous Sarah Jane story, the inter-galactic police race known as the Judoon (remember them from the first Martha Jones story in Doctor Who?) had grounded Rani and Clyde on planet earth under penalty of... well death I imagine. Of course, if they’d been kidnapped from earth and moved elsewhere the alien race pulling the strings in this story would have been in trouble with the Judoon and so I’m pleased that the writers have managed to tap into old plot points and make use of them in fresh stories. Very impressive.

What’s less impressive is the fact that it is revealed that the only species absent from our planet is the human race and that all other animal life is left to run amok. Alas, only a token dog and a pigeon are our witness to said signs of amokness but I would also be interested in knowing why, if when the rest of the species of the planet earth are all fine and dandy, is there no birdsong as Clyde and Rani search the streets for clues and people? Probably because it wouldn’t have sounded half as eerie enough is my best guess on that one.

And of course, unlike the Fisher film, you can’t leave the majority of the human race dead at the end of the story... so humanity is restored thanks to Rani and Clyde’s new friend Gavin.

Still, all in all a real good story that proves that the show can operate at a fair crack on it’s own terms even when the main protagonist (and principal reason for watching it in my case) are absent for the majority of proceedings. And not only that but, for the first time ever in an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, I found myself really drawn to the musical score of this show on it’s own terms. Usually this only happens when it’s a reference to a Doctor Who score (such as last weeks riffs on Murray Gold’s U.N.I.T music) but in this case Sam Watts has done a really terrific and hauntingly appropriate score for the show and I hope that this sees some kind of CD release some day.

A real corker of a story if this show is your kind of thing. Miss this one at your peril.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

There Are Such Things

A History
of Horror
with Mark Gatiss Episode 3
Airdate: October 25th 2010.

Well, Gatiss’ personal journey through the history of horror continues and although entertaining as a series and really worth a watch, for me personally, this third episode didn’t quite press my buttons and, once again - and please remember that this is a very personal response due to familiarity with most of the material - my basic lack of oomph with this episode comes more from what has been left out than what has been chosen to showcase the genre.

Having said that though, Gatiss is an entertaining and assured personality to watch in this kind of documentary milieu and he instills confidence that he does know what he is talking about and isn’t, in any way, faking it. His love of horror shines through down to his little parodies of shots from movies like Psycho, The Omen and Halloween.

The episode starts well on a classic of the zombie genre, Night of the Living Dead. I won’t call it the first of the genre because it isn’t by a long shot (not even the first of the shambling wave of undead movies which it brought into popularity) but it’s certainly the most influential of its sphere. More importantly it’s one of the most successful low budget independent movies ever made, which had quite an impact on the explosion of the horror genre when it was realised that a cheap investment in this flavour of movie had a good chance of reaping a swift profit at the box office. It would have been nice, however, if Gatiss might have mentioned Herk Hervey’s phenomenal surreal ghost movie Carnival of Souls as a probable influence on Romero’s masterwork... at least in terms of what could be done with a budget made out of smoke and mirrors.

After this, the intrepid Mr. Gatiss rounded up Mr. Tobe Hooper and talked about one of only two films featured in this episode that I’ve never bothered to watch, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre... partially because I get squeamish about chainsaws but mostly because I’ve never really seen the point in watching this particular variant on what I am presuming is just another “body count” movie. Perhaps I am wrong though because both Mr. Hooper and Mr. Gatiss had some interesting things to say about it... except, like Psycho... as far as I am concerned, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not a horror movie... it’s merely a thriller (and I’ll leave that argument there for now).

Next up was a tour into three of the more famous demon-child movies... those which involve either the devils spawn or a form of demonic possession. It goes without saying that these kinds of movies are shot through with strong religious overtones which can make them fairly unpalatable to people with either a strong religious persuasion or, equally, a strong anti-religious persuasion.

The first movie covered was Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby... which in my book is just an okay film. Mr. G then moved on to The Exorcist, which is a pretty good horror movie as it goes and is pretty much a masterpiece in sound design as it happens... probably its major feature actually as it would probably fall flat on it’s face without the contribution of the sound department. He then moved onto the first (and best) of The Omen movies, punctuated by some new interview footage with the writer, Mr. David Seltzer himself, which was nice to see. It’s here that I learned the one new thing in this episode that I hadn’t already known... that Charles Bronson was originally in the running to play the role made famous by Gregory Peck in The Omen.

A sidestep back to Romero and a small piece on his pseudo-vampire film Martin was up next. This is the other movie I’ve never bothered to watch... although people have been telling me to watch it for years. Mind you, they were saying that about Romero’s The Crazies for years and that one turned out badly for me. I think I need walking dead people to truly appreciate Romero. I suspect I’d actually prefer the remake of The Crazies to my experience with the original. I feel similarly about Romero’s segment in Argento’s Two Evil Eyes as being a “not great” piece of movie making. Anyway, that was a long way of saying that I shy away from Romero films that don’t feature shambling zombies and a small bunch of people in peril. So I’m not rushing out to see Martin anytime soon.

The next stop for this episode took us into David Cronenberg territory and took a long look at one of his early and best movies, Shivers. A film which was an early entry into a genre of horror which was, at one point in time, almost exclusively the province of horror that is what one still thinks of today when one describes a film as being Cronenbergian... the body/horror movie. Gatiss continued his interview with Barbara Steele, who I’d forgotten had a part in this movie, and her overly dramatic way of recounting events was, as usual, perhaps a little inappropriate but entirely entertaining (hmmm... I wish someone would interview Barbara Steele and Franco Nero in the same room at the same time... that would be hilarious).

Then a quick nod to consumer society and its much talked about metaphorical appearance in Romero’s Dawn of The Dead (a great, horror comfort movie to relax and unwind with on a Sunday afternoon) before arriving at Carpenter and his breakthrough movie Halloween. Now it has to be said that I’m a big admirer of Carpenter but I am not in any way an admirer of Halloween. I think it helped popularise American cinemas decline into the slasher movie but no mention was made as to where the true roots of the grubby US slasher film really lie... the Italian giallo. Argento’s huge influence on Carpenter (even to the music, listen to Halloween and then listen to Goblin and Gaslini’s score to Deep Red which came before it) was not once mentioned and nor was the real template to these kinds of movies... Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (aka Twitch of the Death Nerve) which is a dead ringer for the carbon copy US movies which came after it.

More disturbing for me was that he had Carpenter there but no mention was made of what is, for me, Carpenter’s greatest horror movie, The Fog. Which is a shame but what can one do? As I said before, for a series which has been as remarkable for what it hasn’t included as much as for what is has, I still think that with this short series, Mark Gatiss knocks it out of the park and gives people less familiar with these movies a very interesting taste as to what is out there for them to explore.

And, fittingly, the episode ends with another Universal horror introduction parody to bring us full circle to the one which opened the show with because... after all... there are such things!

Saturday 6 November 2010

The Naked and the Dead

A Virgin Among the Living Dead
1973 Belgium/France/Italy/Liechtenstein
Directed by Jess Franco
Image Entertainment DVD Region 1

And so on to the second part of my Halloween Horror double bill.

I always approach the films of Jess Franco with a certain amount of caution. He mostly, it has to be said, churns out a load of old codswallop for the most part. But it also has to be said that, as far as codswallop goes, he certainly covers the shiny, sparkly, upper echelons of celluloid codswallop because his product usually does at least have: vibrant, naked ladies... gory bloodletting... and a sometimes sublime gothic atmosphere rendered in such a way that some director’s just can’t do.

Now Franco is usually giving himself a lot of hats in his movies. He often writes, directs and gives himself a substantial on-screen role. He has also been known to operate the camera, do the music and perform many of a hundred other tasks but on this one he seems to have settled on just writing, directing and starring in. I remember an interview with an actor years ago where he mentioned that Jess had been directing himself in a scene starring himself and also operating the camera at the same time... reaching around his own headshot with his hand to shift focus and pan the camera!

All this may give you the impression that his movies can sometimes look and feel a bit lacking in their production values... and you’d be right. But lets not forget, also, that Orson Welles called Jess Franco the best assistant director he’d had at one stage... they’d worked together on Welle’s Chimes At Midnight and tried to make Don Quixote together (Franco did his own Welles version of Don Quixote in the 90s).

He also made the finest "lesbian adaptation" of the Dracula story that I’ve seen, Vampyros Lesbos. So it’s really hard to pin down just who Jess Franco is at any one time.

A Virgin Among The Living Dead is a vampire movie about a young girl, Christina, who comes into an inheritance of some property and goes to “meet the family” who she has never met before. The castle they live in strikes terror into the hearts of local neighbouring villagers and it’s clear, to the audience at least, that most of the inhabitants are blood sucking vampires who want to make Christina their next meal after the reading of the will. After a while, Christina pretty much figures things out for herself when she comes across opportunities such as an invite to lesbian vampire bloodsucking games in one of the bedrooms. Franco plays a mute servant to the vampires who is quite startlingly and unintentionally funny to watch. There is a lot of entertainment value to be had from his wild gesticulating and throaty grunts in his attempts to communicate with Christina during the movie and I can only assume that his “bedside manner” when it came to directing the actors in this little opus was not in a similar vein of grunting and pointing!

Neither of Franco’s regular muses, Soledad Miranda or Lina Romay, star in this film. I think Soledad was dead by this time and this might have been shot at a time when Lina wasn’t quite yet a regular fixture in his movies (to this day she still is, is my understanding). Instead, the clothes shedding duties are given to actress Christina von Blanc... I use the term actress in the loosest sense of the word I’m afraid. She does do, however, a very good job at removing her clothing at the drop of a hat... shedding her flimsy coverings at least five times throughout the course of the movie. And, to be fair, she's really no worse as an actress than anyone else in this movie... which I think speaks volumes about how I felt about this one.

If I had to describe this movie I’d have to say that it’s a poor man’s version of something which Franco’s “spiritual cousin” Jean Rollin might have knocked out. Both directors share diabolical performances and very bad scripts (when there has been a script prepared for the shoot) but Rollin saves himself by having absolutely stunning and surrealistic and usually quite beautiful visual vignettes scatter shot at regular intervals throughout his movies which lift them onto a much greater plain of art than many directors working in cinema to this day. Franco could probably have been this kind of director but you always get the feeling (or at least I do) that his movies are rushed out in a matter of days to hit budget and get into the next one. Which is a shame because he has done the odd stunning film or two.

Apparently, in the 80s when the original zombie boom was happening, this movie had some newly shot zombie scenes hastily added by director Jean Rollin (I didn’t know this until after I’d watched this movie and made the comparison). I haven’t seen this version of it but it’s apparently even more of an abomination than this restored director’s cut on the Image Entertainment label.

All in all a lacklustre effort saved only by some nudity and gothic atmosphere... and some really laughable acting by Franco. If you want to get into watching Franco then this is most definitely not a good place to start. Try his Vampyros Lesbos, Female Vampire or She Kills In Ecstasy instead of this mess of a movie. You’ll be much less disappointed.