Tuesday 30 June 2020

Son Of Frankenstein

Heir Gloom

Son Of Frankenstein
USA 1939 Directed by Rowland V. Lee
Universal Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Some spoilerage here.

So this next review of my rewatch of the classic Universal Monsters movies is another of my favourites... and it’s probably not hard for most people to see why. This is easily the best looking black and white movie of the 1930s that I’ve seen and the latest Blu Ray set from Universal certainly shows off the crisp monotone photography to its advantage. I’ll get back to the look of the film in a minute.

Son Of Frankenstein starts off a little differently to how I remembered it, with an opening sequence that highlights Bela Lugosi in the role of the convicted and hung murderer Ygor... who returned to life after being pronounced dead by the coroner some years before. This is followed by a town meeting scene which, if it does anything other than look nice, is all about reminding the audience just who Frankenstein and his creation were. We then cut to Basil Rathbone as the titular character, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, his wife Elsa (played by Josephine Hutchinson) and his young son Peter (Donnie Dunagan), on a sleeping car train bound for the town where Wolf’s father did his infamous work. For some reason, the village is now called Frankenstein itself which, as we are aware from the mood of the villagers in the earlier part of the film, does nothing good for the tourist trade. This sequence, as they rumble into ‘Banhof Frankenstein’ shows off just how good the dialogue writing is here. Wolf is talking to Elsa about his father’s accursed legacy and he just gets up to the bit where he is about to say the family name...

“... nine out of ten people call that misshapen creature of my father’s experiments...”

when the railway porter shouts out “Frankenstein! Frankenstein!” to announce the stop. It’s a wonderful piece of early dialogue juxtaposition, taking two pieces of dialogue of differing intent and then rubbing them together to push the meaning of the first. It also nicely underlines the mistake of the commonly held assumption that the monster itself is called Frankenstein when, clearly, it is not.

Now lets talk about Rathbone here for a minute because he was at a turning point in his career. He did, however, detest appearing in horror movies although he would appear opposite Boris Karloff again in Jacques Tourneur’s 1963 AIP Edgar Allan Poe cycle entry, The Comedy Of Terrors, of course. His lack of respect of the horror genre might explain why this one is a little bit ‘all over the place’ in certain scenes he performs here but it’s easy to watch and a lot of fun too. I’ve always had a soft spot for Rathbone and you have to remember that this was only a year after he had played the villanous Sir Guy of Gisbourne opposite Errol Flynn in the definitive Robin Hood  movie, The Adventures Of Robin Hood. His very next film after Son Of Frankenstein and released in the same year would be the one which was the first time he played the role which he is probably best well known for to this day... playing Sherlock Holmes opposite Nigel Bruce (as Doctor Watson) in the first of a long series of films and, also, a large number of radio shows starring the pair too.

He is, of course, ably supported in this by some great Universal regulars such as Boris Karloff, reprising his role as the Frankenstein monster. Now, despite the monster being able to speak in the last installment, The Bride Of Frankenstein (reviewed here), here he is once more rendered mute with no real explanation as to why. I love what he’s wearing in this too... instead of the dark jacket he’s wearing what can only be described as a furry tank top and it looks great. This is my favourite fashion look for the Frankenstein monster, for sure. This was the third and final time Karloff would play the role of Frankenstein’s creation but not his final role in a classic Universal Frankenstein movie, as you will see in an upcoming review. His scene with Rathbone as he discovers himself reflected in a mirror is quite long but expertly done as we see the monster pantomime various emotional states while he tries to come to terms with his hideous looks. This is pure cinema although, it has to be said, that when we have assassinations performed by the creature who then stages things to look like an accident with some considered thought, he does at times become the very thing that Karloff was afraid he would become with more exposure in a series of films... a professional killing machine.

Then we have Lionel Atwill, who appears in a number of these Universal monster movies but whose career was ruined just a few years later due to a scandalous sex orgy and rape party which took place at his home. Although he’s going to appear in a few of the films I will be reviewing after this, he died of lung cancer only seven years after Son Of Frankenstein was released. Of course, in this he plays the wonderfully Germanic Inspector Kogh, the one armed police inspector who is trying to find out who is doing all the killings in the village (funny how all the people who died are the same people who condemned Ygor to death). Even without the one armed police inspector in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein being based on him, his handicapped shenanigans in this do often border on the comical... especially when he plays Wolf at darts and sticks them all into his arm to store them as he is taking his turn.

By the way, when did it become normal to have only three darts to throw per player? Not before 1939 I guess because here they are playing with five a piece. The reason for Kogh's handicap however, is far from comical. His history goes that, when he was a young toddler, the Frankenstein monster was busy terrifying the villagers and he ‘tore his arm out by the root.’ Of course, once this information and disability is introduced, you just know it’s going to come back and be revisited on him again and, sure enough, in his final confrontation with the Frankenstein monster in the film, his artificial limb is torn from him by the monster, who tries to use it as a club to keep everybody back.

The basic plot of this is of Wolf trying to restore the long surviving monster in his father’s laboratory while trying to ignore the obvious that Ygor is using him as a killing machine while warding off the questions of the inspector... until he is finally threatened himself and after shooting Ygor dead with three bullets to the chest (although this is not enough of a mortal injury to prevent Lugosi reprising his role through the course of the next Frankenstein movie). He then finds himself trying to rescue his son who the monster has stolen from him in revenge for the killing, ready to throw him into the pit of sulphur which the laboratory was somehow built over. And, again, once you know there’s a pit of sulphur under the lab, it’s no prizes for guessing just how the creature will meet its supposed end in this film, after a bit of swashbuckling action from Rathbone saves the day when he swings from a winch and knocks Karloff into the pit. Then we watch a not so great dummy of the monster sink below the bubbling surface.

But enough of the story... it’s the look of the film which is where the strength of the picture lays. This is the Frankenstein film where the set design and lighting go ‘the full Caligari’ with amazing twisted geometry and dark, distorted blacks which reflect straight back to the German Expressionist form of cinema from which they derive, as fleeing film crews deserted Nazi Germany and pitched up into Hollywoodland. Just amazing angles and things that sit strangely within the beautiful, slanted compositions such as, for example, chairs with amazingly tall backs that only a giant would truly be able to appreciate. These are further highlighted by some beautiful shadow work. You know that scene at the start of the bar fight in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, where Spielberg emphasises people by having their shadows arrive first... well that style was always straight out of the 1920s/30s where that kind of emphasis on the look was common.

For example, there’s a wonderful moment where Rathbone follows Lugosi into a kind of tomb-like approach to the laboratory. Rathbone’s silhouette, completely black, is framed perfectly in the doorway at the centre of the shot with his shadow cast down below him and into the laps of the audience at the foreground of the shot... then Lugosi lights a torch on the wall which instantly allows Rathbone’s full figure to materialise out of the silhouette, while still maintaining the shadow... expert stuff. Another shot where Rathbone’s shadow precedes him up a ladder, through a hatch in the floor before Rathbone follows it up into the shot, is also mesmerising. And even the shadow of a ladder that Rathbone descends from in one scene, has a twisted rung accenting the strange and angular set design. Like I said, it’s one of the best looking and best lit movies of the 1930s you are ever likely to see.

There’s also an interesting addition to the Frankenstein legend in this one. Wolf’s research reveals that, unknown to his father, it wasn’t just the lightning he summoned into the creature which gave life to the creation that Karloff so brilliantly plays on screen. It was, in fact, according to this iteration of Shelley’s creation... cosmic rays. These had already been known about when Victor Hess discovered them in 1912 and my guess is they were still fresh in people’s minds since Hess had won a Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery only three years before this picture was released. So that’s kind of interesting I think (and yes, I had to look that up when the words were uttered on screen... I had no idea as my first exposure to the term myself was as a kid in a reprint of the first issue of Fantastic Four from 1961).

I’d better mention the music too, while I’m here. This was the first of the classic Universal horrors to feature the music of Frank Skinner (who was often paired with Hans Salter in later movies in the various monster series). It’s a classic score and the one which, despite the strength and influence of Franz Waxman’s score for the previous Frankenstein film, ended up becoming the classic, ‘brand sound’ for the Universal monster movies that followed it. Lots of this was recycled into other horror films by the company over the years and it became quite evocative of a certain kind of genre package, especially after the various films aired on television in the late 1950s when it gathered a lot of recognition and a large following with film music fans. The montage sequence where Wolf cures the ailing monster is almost as splendid as Waxman’s creation music from The Bride Of Frankenstein and the score is even used, in this film, in a metatextual manner in two scenes. In those scenes, Ygor is seen playing a bizarre looking kind of flute/horn and the tune he plays is... Skinner’s main monster theme to the movie. So, again, a nice touch and, perhaps, somewhat ahead of its time.

And there you have it. Not much more to say about Son Of Frankenstein other than... it’s an absolutely brilliant film and worth the time of any true lover of cinema to sit down and study. I can’t over emphasise the sheer spectacle of the mise en scène in this movie... it’s absolutely gorgeous and there’s absolutely no way you can go wrong with a film of this calibre. The last great Frankenstein movie... not the last fun or watchable one, for sure but, in terms of greatness, this one was the absolute peak of perfection for the Universal Horror series and the success of it convinced the company to resurrect its now, almost retired, monsters for a huge amount of sequels throughout the 1940s... all of which I hope to review for you on here some time soon. If you are any fan of not just horror movies but the art of cinema in general then, this one is simply not something you’d want to miss out on. So good.

Sunday 28 June 2020

Lake Of Dracula

The Stake’s Progress

Lake Of Dracula
aka Noroi no yakata: Chi o suu me

Japan 1971 Directed by Michio Yamamoto
TohoArrow Films Blu Ray Zone B

So here we have Lake Of Dracula, which is the second, tentative, entry into what is nowadays being called The Bloodthirsty Trilogy on the recent Arrow films release. Again, a bit of a misnomer because the films really don’t have a lot of blood in them, at least the first two films don’t (I’ve yet to see the third one but plan on getting to it before this review is published). So, barring the occasional blob of blood on the mouth of an undead creature of the night or dog, don’t expect too much in the way of goriness from this one until you get to the final sequence here which, even compared to the previous movie The Vampire Doll (reviewed here), is not really in any way gruesome, it has to be said.

This film stars Midori Fujita as Akiko, the films main female protagonist. We see her character first as a little girl in a pre-credits sequence which is referred to for most of the rest of the film as the recurring dream this character has in real life. After her dog Leo escapes her, she finds him in a ‘vampire house’ but we don’t find out what happened to her when she goes in here until the finale of the film, more or less. However, after the credits finish we find her some... I dunno... maybe twenty years later, living with her sister Natsuko, played by Sanae Emi. They live right by Lake Fujimi which, I’d like to say is the Lake Of Dracula but... there are some things which stop me from making that connection, it has to be said. For a start, it turns out that the lead vampire harkens from Akiko’s home town which is a coastal town and not by a lake. And though he has his coffin delivered to Akiko’s new locality decades later, the lake has no real tie in to the story in any way, it has to be said.

Another reason why I’m hesitant to call this place the Lake Of Dracula is because, like the previous movie, Dracula isn’t actually in it. He gets a mention at least once in the English subtitles but he’s nowhere to be seen. At least, though, the unnamed vampire character is actually a true vampire this time, unlike the character in The Vampire Doll, around which there seemed to be a fair bit of doubt. There’s also a bit of back story to his character which does, at least, suggest that he is the great grandson of Dracula so, you know, that’s something. Perhaps ‘Dracula’s Heir’ may have been a better title.

Anyway, after his coffin arrives and the locality suffers some sinister, vampiric goings on, it’s up to Akiko and her doctor fiance Takashi, played by Chôei Takahashi, to investigate the unexplained shenanigans and get to the truth of her connection to the vampire. And also find out why her sister is suddenly acting so strangely, too. Actually, the fact that she begins wearing a scarf half way through the movie after she starts acting as sinisterly as she was sisterly should be a dead giveaway, I’d have thought, that she is hiding fang marks. As would be the fact that her face seems to be several shades paler than usual after a certain point in the movie but, hey, what do I know about siblings?

The vampire himself looks very good and he is played here by Shin Kishida, who was apparently quite often cast for his sinister looks. Readers may recognise him for his excursions in other famous Japanese movies including roles in entries in the Zatoichi, Lone Wolf and Cub, Hanzo The Razor and Godzilla movies... not to mention the Zatoichi TV show. He doesn’t have a lot to do in this film, to be sure but he does look good and wears a long white scarf to offset his dark clothing, making him look the very height of vampire fashion in most of his scenes. Neil Tennant wears a very similar costume in the Pet Shop Boys movie It Couldn’t Happen Here (reviewed here) and I wonder if he caught this film back in the days when he used to go to Scala screenings.

The film looks as good as the last one, with the director slicing the screen up a lot into slats and placing his characters into situations where natural or often unnatural (this is a movie after all... everything is as controlled as you can get it) verticals and horizontals box them into their own area of the screen. He also does something a few times which gives me pause to think in that, sometimes, when all the characters have exited the screen, he will choose to hold the shot for a couple of seconds with nothing else going on. Not sure why he does that but it isn’t jarring in any way and doesn’t detract from the pacing too much.

Okay, so lets talk about the dog. I’m firmly convinced that the film-makers threw the ‘dream’ angle in there for a bit... before it’s confirmed as a true memory and not a dream... to stop the audience realising something is very wrong with Leo the dog. When he runs away at the start of the film he definitely seems to be a different breed of dog to what he eventually grows up to be. Which is pretty strange casting if you ask me. Also, the fact that this dog must be over 20 makes no sense as it’s still running about everywhere and getting into trouble... I would say the ‘grown up’ version of Leo is no older than 10 so... yeah, it’s a pretty tenuous version of doggy reality/continuity if you ask me. Maybe Leo always wanted to be some kind of Alsatian when he grew up. Who knows?

This does seem to be one of those films where, as brilliant as the technical stuff is, there’s always something really silly going on in the main narrative content to counter the remarkable achievements of the crew. For example, there’s a fight sequence in the car where Takashi has a fist fight with this film’s version of a kind of Renfield character... as in a character who has been vamped up to serve his new master. It goes on for a while and takes place completely in the car with a lot of juddery, handheld camera work... and it must have been a really tough thing to shoot. I have no idea how the cameraman was able to get in there with them and keep himself out of the way of the action... but it’s pretty good stuff.

However, as I said... lots of silly stuff too. For instance, when Akiko and Takashi are reading the notebooks of the completely non-vampiric but dead father of the film’s lead vampire... they get to a point where his narrative voice stops because our two heroes are discovered and cornered in the room they are reading this from by the vampire himself. However, the vampire carries on the narrative on the back story for them at the exact moment that they left off reading. Seriously, how does that happen? How would he know which part of the story the inner voice of these two characters had gotten too? Makes absolutely no sense.

So there you have it. All said and done though, I really enjoyed this one almost as much as the previous as it gives off that kind of Hammer meets Amicus meets AIP kind of vibe which the first one had in spades. As does the musical score. Lake Of Dracula is a minor vampire film but fans of the conventions of the genre should be happy enough with this, is my guess. Grab it while you can and fangs me later.

Thursday 25 June 2020

Wild Cards - Three Kings

Joker Lives Matter

Wild Cards - Three Kings
Edited by George R. R. Martin & Melinda M. Snodgrass
Harper Voyager ISBN: 9780008283599

Three Kings is the 28th in the Wild Cards series of mosaic novels which have been going since the 1980s. This one is the second of the British interlocking viewpoints into the Wild Cards saga, following on directly from the various stories in the previous volume, Knaves Over Queens (which I reviewed here). Pop into my book index and you’ll see all the more recent novels, from the last ten years, have been reviewed here so if you want to get a flavour of what the Wild Card universe consists of, then you should maybe have a look at one of those earlier reviews before diving in here.

So, I said in my last review that I thought the new UK series, while excellent, had rather shot its bolt by having so many decades rushed through in one volume. So yeah, this one is set square bang in a few weeks ranging from February to March 2020... finishing literally before a real life virus shut down the nation. Coronavirus is, unsurprisingly, not mentioned here in any form and, since this is an alternate reality anyway, it doesn’t need to be. Something tells me though that, had the writers known just what would be going on in the world right now, they would have slipped some sly references in.

That being said, there are parallels to things happening right now as this particular story deals with rioting on the streets as the Twisted Fists (still headed by The Green Man from the previous story), Britain First and other factions fight in the streets as rioting breaks out at some point over the monarchy and who will be on the throne at the end of the story.

This one starts off with the dying Queen Margaret (Elisabeth drew the Black Queen and died from the Wild Cards virus before ever taking the throne, back in the 1940s) who entrusts Alan Turing, the Ace known as Enigma, to search back through the records to find her Joker offspring, abandoned at birth, as she fears both her sons, Richard and Henry The Ninth (as he becomes for a while) are incapable of taking over from her competently. And so is set in motion a chain of events involving Turing, Richard, The Green Man, Noel/Lilith, Constance the Ace fashion designer (still making protective clothing for the new monarchy, much to her anger) and one or two other players including, of course, the evil Irish crow Goddess Badb who is pretty successfully manipulating everything, unknown to all the others, in the hopes that she can turn Great Britain into a bloodbath of heroic proportions.

And like pretty much any of the Wild Card books you’d care to grab over the years, this one is a great, fast paced yarn full of pathos, drama, action and, as it happens, the death of at least one regular character (or more, I’m not going to tell you). This one is also one of the less fragmented of the mosaic novels. Unlike the last volume, which fit together various stand alone stories, this one is taken bit by bit from multiple viewpoints of specific characters and locks together as a quite seamless story. What this means is that you have specific goals and character motivations which you can focus on and watch (or read, I guess) play out as an arc over the whole story, rather than having lots of mini climaxes throughout.

It goes without saying, at least in the Wild Cards novels, that you care for each and all of the characters... except for the villains of the piece, obviously. Even though the pacing on this is terrific and the stakes are high (at least on a national level, it’s nothing compared to some of the threats faced in the Wild Cards universe which, quite recently, nearly saw the destruction of the world), it still manages to explore the subtleties and worries of the main characters in a way that will have you investing in their well-being from the start and, of course, that means the narrative can really punch you in the gut when each and every twist or death is just around the next corner.

In terms of its space within the engulfing Wild Cards shared universe, there really aren't that many links to the more US or global based novels in the series and there’s not even a Croyd Crenson sighting or much of anything about what’s been going on in the world since it almost ended in High Stakes (which I reviewed here). You won’t miss that though because there’s so much going on while the Knights Of The Silver Helix (as the Ace division of the British Secret Service are known) are trying to find any information at all which has been buried in the past about a possible heir to the throne before the Joker-hating Henry the Ninth gets properly bedded into the throne and his supporters take to the streets to attack the least fortunate heirs of the Wild Card virus.

There are shifts in allegiance for some of the characters here, as Aces switch sides or are asked to do things which go against their role in the grand scheme of things. And, of course, there are many sacrifices along the way, not just the loss of life but various acts of betrayal and redemption as the clash of the cold war meeting terrorist organisations like the Twisted Fists (technically) forces people into situations and actions which might seem unthinkable to them in lighter times.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about Three Kings... I’m not going to go into too many details here but I will say that, while there is a sense of resolution to things as they are, there are also some characters that I really hope they don’t leave behind. What I’m saying is... I hope this is another of the mini trilogys that pop up from time to time in the Wild Cards universe. I need to know what becomes of the relationship between Constance and Bobbin, for starters. And Alan Turing’s arc seems a little unresolved too, I would say. So I hope the next volume in the series is published sooner rather than later. These characters come alive so well on the page it would be a shame to lose them just yet, even though most of the main players in this one are in their seventies or over. As usual I will end this by saying that, if you’re a loyal reader of the Wild Cards books, Three Kings is an absolute winner. If you’re not that familiar with them though, this is really not a good jumping on point and you should maybe consider reading them in publication order. 

Tuesday 23 June 2020

The Haunting Of Hill House

Eleanour Handbasket

The Haunting Of Hill House -
Extended Director’s Cut

10 episodes. 2018
Directed by Mike Flanagan
Paramount Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: This one has spoilers for pretty much all iterations of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House.

Well this is going to be a hard one to write about because, in some ways, it feels almost like a personal attack on one of my favourite movie adaptations, the great 1963 version of The Haunting (which I reviewed here), based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting Of Hill House. Easily the best horror movie ever made and I suspect that’s why horror director Mike Flanagan, who I actually find fairly hit and miss, was so drawn to it. Everybody loves this novel/movie and, if you can get it right, it’s one of the scariest things you could do.

Alas, I’ll be up front here and say the reason why I’m torn on this new TV series ‘adaptation’, for want of a better word, is that it happens to be a quite well made TV show while, at the same time, having almost nothing in common with the original text.

That’s not to say the original text doesn’t make it into this iteration. It’s peppered all over the place throughout the series, just in completely different context. Richard Johnson’s opening delivery of Shirley Jacksons words, for example, open the series but this time spoken by the character Steven Crain and it is he who speaks dead Eleanour’s (Nell’s) lines at the end of this version.

Other examples would be the repeat dialogue from caretaker Mrs. Dudley’s line reading... “In the night... in the dark.” At least it’s, most of the time, Mrs. Dudley’s character who is saying it throughout the series here but there are a lot of lines of dialogue which are taken out of the mouths of others and given to different characters with a completely different context to the words... kinda like a fanboy homage to the original. Which in some way, I can’t really blame the writers for.

And as for the “Oh God, who’s hand was I holding!” moment, which was so terrifying in the 1963 adaptation (even though it was used as a highlight of the trailer), it’s referenced here at least twice by different characters. It’s like they wanted to have two different ways of giving us the same kind of scare (which is truly terrifying in the novel and original film version) but failing in the scare department and indulging themselves twice.

Not to mention a load of name drop references to people and things associated with the legacy... such as the funeral home being called Harris, in reference to Julie Harris who played Eleanour/Nell in the original movie. Heck, they even bring back Russ Tamblyn, who played Luke in the original, as Nell’s psychiatrist. Not to mention Nell’s ‘paranormal’ hail stone attack back story incident actually being present in the narrative, albeit given to the mother figure here, Olivia.

So, okay... I’ll start off with listing all the really bad points before finding my way to the positives because, it is a gripping TV show, even if it has nothing to do with the original...

Rather than three strangers brought together by the parapsychologist in the original... Nell, Theo and Luke are all siblings, along with their other brother and sister Steven and Shirley (obviously named after writer Shirley Jackson). They, along with their mother and father, played here by Carla Gugino of Sin City and Henry Thomas, who played the little boy in E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial, all live for a few months in Hill House. So when they eventually return (in the final episode), the events which are manifest are things which have been with them all their lives.

And the film takes a time jump kind of approach... which wouldn’t really be even doable if the director was making a straight adaptation. That is to say, the narrative keeps cross cutting from when the central characters were kids in Hill House to their various lives in the present (like in the original Stephen King novel IT)... where we have Timothy Hutton playing the older version of Henry Thomas’ Hugh Crain... another name which will mean something to fans of the original work but, again, taken totally out of context here. It’s actually not that confusing but the very nature of the structure is enough to tip you off to certain things as, of course, ghost stories have always been trafficking in states of temporal manipulation... ghosts by their very nature are ‘of a time’ different to that when they manifest.

For example, the death of Eleanour at the end of the novel/film is done and dusted in the very first of these ten episodes (half of the content of which doesn’t even take place in the titular residence). It’s not even the same death, instead it harkens back to the character who hung herself from the top of the spiral staircase at the start of the 1963 version. However, once Eleanour dies it’s more than enough to tip off the audience that the ‘bent-neck lady’ as seen by young Eleanour throughout the series, is obviously her older self revisiting backwards in time. I actually got there way before the character died right back near the start of the first episode actually but, yeah, by the end of the episode I think most people would have twigged it and it becomes something of a spoiler. Unless, maybe, Flanagan intended it to be just that, in order to give more meaning to the structure of the show itself... I dunno, could be, I suppose.

Another big element for me which kinda failed is that, unlike the 1963 movie, the show is not actually scary. And when it does go for some fright scenes it uses that technique of making the ambient sound in a room sound more ‘fizzy’ (a technical term, obviously) and it telegraphs (subconsciously for some, perhaps) that something unusual is about to happen. The 1963 one had outstanding sound design and that added much to the scary atmosphere... here it’s just like every other horror movie you see these days and... sometimes that works and sometimes that doesn’t but if you’re going to do a film following in the steps of the classic movie, then maybe you want to do something more jarring or special with the sound?

Also, the big, clever trick of the 1963 version is that you really see very little and your head puts the frights together for you... for this one, the big ‘scare’ moments are anything but subtle and often come across as cheap tricks.

Okay, I’m coming off as a little negative here but only because I love the original versions in their respective media so much. This TV show is actually quite well put together, in spite of some of my earlier criticisms...

For instance, the way the director inserts ghostly figures appearing and disappearing from certain scenes, such as a 360 degree pan which both includes and excludes ghosts depending on which revolution it is on. Or some nice transitions such as... one of those when they definitely got the sound right... a man nailing a frame to a wall in one shot cutting to a guy in Hill House knocking in a chimney as the bangs, slightly exaggerated, spill over between both shots and time zones.

There are also some nice moments scattered throughout where the director uses a very slow, almost imperceptible zoom on a static shot and, clichéd as this has perhaps become in modern horror, he makes this work fairly well and, while the show isn’t actually nearly as scary as it seems to want to be, it’s certainly handled competently as a technique and adds to a voyeuristic, creepy atmosphere which is held throughout the show’s ten episodes.

So yeah... some nice stuff and, because of the decade in which Flanagan is directing this from, Theo’s lesbianism is much more overt than what the Robert Wise directed version got away with when the character was played by Claire Bloom, where it was definitely there in a kind of capitalised highlight of the subtext but, by nature of its time (I suspect), much more suppressed.

Another interesting thing... and I didn’t even realise this until I was about four episodes in... is that the majority of episodes, bar a few of them, are all told through the eyes of one of the main characters. So Luke, Steve, Shirley, Eleanour, Theo, the mother and father are all given their own episode and, of course, this helps with certain ‘reveals’ when an event already witnessed by one character catches up with another character and we can see the whole picture. Such as when Carla Gugino smashes the mirror of a dresser in one scene. I mean, yeah, it’s pretty obvious what caused her character to do this but it’s nice seeing it revisited from her eyes when the time comes. So, while the structure of the way the story is presented may seem ponderous or padded out some of the time, it actually really isn’t... it’s just a complex puzzle the director is presenting to us in an interesting way and, I have to say, it must have been really hard to keep it all in your head in the right order at the writing stage when certain things need to be injected into a specific person’s episode and still be a ‘reveal’ when scenes are revisited. I wonder how much of that stuff was created serendipitously in the editing room.

So yeah, that’s me about done with this particular project. The Haunting Of Hill House TV show is an entertaining enough horror series with much more to be admired than scared of but, absolutely not anything like the original source material and fans of previous versions of this might find this a huge barrier to getting any enjoyment of the show. So if you’ve not read the original novel or seen the 1963 classic, then you will probably get a heck of a lot more out of this than others might. I’ll just leave you with this one thought though... in the 1963 movie, Eleanour, once she has ‘passed on’ and become a ghost, gives us the closing narration... “Hill House has stood for ninety years and will probably stand for ninety more. And we who walk at Hill House, walk alone.” In this version, it’s a very much alive Steven Crain who narrates the famous line reading but, this time around, it’s changed to... “And those who walk there, walk together.” Which is a very different look at the equation and says something, perhaps everything, about this new manifestation of what is, to many, a classic piece of literary and cinematic horror. Still, after all these years, it’s nice to see that walls continue upright, bricks meet neatly and the floors are still, to this day, firm.

Sunday 21 June 2020

It Couldn't Happen Here

Happiness Is
A Warm Nun

It Couldn't Happen Here
UK 1987 Directed by Jack Bond
BFI LTD Edition Book Version 
Dual Blu Ray Zone B/DVD Region 2

Earlier this week the British Film Institute released this limited edition of the Pet Shop Boys’ feature film, It Couldn't Happen Here... and I bet they wish they’d manufactured more because the thing sold out in less than a week, by the looks of it. I’m glad I pre-ordered mine though and if you want to see the film but were too slow to hit the order button, they have announced they will be releasing a standard edition later in the year. I grabbed this one because I remember I really liked it at the time and it stirs up a few memories.

I was into the music of the Pet Shop Boys back then and, in particular, their second album Actually, which was released in 1987 (the same year that this film previewed at the London Film Festival). A lot of the songs in this movie come from that album and I was interested in seeing just how you put visuals to these works. My memory is a little hazy on these things (being as it was so long ago) but I think I first saw it at my local ABC/Canon/whatever cinema it was, just around the corner from me in Enfield, when it was released theatrically in 1988. I can’t remember if my best friend Kerry was with me at that screening or if I showed him the VHS tape a year or two later but, I remember he must have liked it a little because he kept reciting one of the lines used by Gareth Hunt in the movie to repeatedly irritate those around him... “Ha, ha, ha! Only a laugh, no harm done.” Kerry also used it like this and I enjoyed him slipping it into conversation with people who had no idea what he was quoting.

Anyway, the film was... and still is for that matter... at least in some ways, a typical ‘pop star movie’. Only a tenuous story at best (or not really at all in this case) as the stars are put in situations where they get caught up in little episodes with people and get to sing their songs. You know the score... films like A Hard Day’s Night (The Beatles), Head (The Monkees) and Spice World (the Spice Girls)... all of which I admire for different reasons but, yeah, you can certainly tell a pop promo style musical.

Here we also have the usual load of star actors supporting our heroes... Tennant and Lowe... as they wander aimlessly through a series of pop video styled visuals and keep us, hopefully, entertained for the length of the feature. In this one we have people like the aforementioned Gareth Hunt (who was famous in the UK for playing Gambit in The New Avengers), Neil Dickson (playing a World War I fighter pilot, similar to his turn a few years earlier in Biggles), Joss Ackland (well he gets in everything) and the one and only Barbara Windsor. What a Carry On.

There’s also a big side helping of quite deliberate surrealism underlying the film, in a way which only Head (out of those examples above) shares with it in intent. It’s distinctly British and it belongs to what I would call a certain kind of ‘almost golden’ era of British cinema which I sometimes refer to as... the Palace Pictures era. If anything, the film kind of has the atmosphere and visual density in some parts, of the kind of films directed by Peter Greenaway around the same time. In fact, if somebody asked Greenaway to make a movie to a bunch of pop songs, I can’t help thinking that he might have come up with something similar to this - the two zebra men leading the zebra around, the free moving ventriloquist’s dummy waxing lyrical about the nature of time and the not entirely inevitable creation of tea cups, the nuns with their suspenders and garters who strip off and do a lovely dance to the hit song It’s A Sin (one of a few in the film choreographed by Strictly Come Dancing star and Hot Gossip choreographer Arlene Philips), a man going about his day but on fire and, of course, Joss Ackland as a blind priest/serial killer getting away with, as only he could by this point, telling the old nymphomaniac who only gets turned on by Jewish cowboys joke.

And it’s of its time. There’s lots to look at if you don’t mind the sometimes pretentious use of Tennant’s lyrics recited by him straight on the voice over narrative but delivering it in his distinctive style. For instance, in the performance of the hit song by the Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield, What Have I Done To Deserve This?, we have Neil Tennant on the phone with Barbara Windsor miming to Dusty’s singing and, at one point, she’s spinning around in front of the camera on a swivel chair. This is cross cut with the telephone box that Neil Tennant is making the call from also spinning around in front of the camera and it’s the kind of shot where you might not at first click what’s going on until you realise it’s not the camera moving... it’s the people and their props. Effective and interesting stuff like this certainly helps you forget the lack of substance to the content of the film and both the Pet Shop Boys hold up pretty well in this movie... especially when you consider the wealth of acting talent they’ve surrounded themselves with in this film. It’s also very colourful and I can’t help think but the film must have played really well when it was screened at the old Scala Cinema at Kings Cross at the time. I think Tennant, at least, was a semi-regular attendee at some of those outrageously off kilter Scala double bills (which I talk about a little in my review of Jane Giles book on the Scala here) and one wonders if some of that atmosphere and sensibility was injected both into his music and, certainly, into this movie.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about this one except the limited edition packaging of the film by the BFI is pretty nicely done, with both the Blu Ray and DVD discs housed in a hardback book which comes out from the bounding slipcase and which features a fair amount of essays on the film and the people behind it. There’s also a round of extras (as yet unwatched by me) which include the pop video, partially culled from this movie, for the hit Pet Shop Boys song cover version of Always On My Mind and an interview with dance choreographer Arlene Phillips. My one regret is that there’s no extra feature on the music of Ennio Morricone, who collaborated with Tennant and Lowe on the song which gives this movie it’s title. Nobody ever seems to mention this and I remember accidentally discovering his name included in very small print on the Actually CD when it came out but... with absolutely no fanfare. Strange that. Anyhow, It Couldn’t Happen Here maybe looks a little dated in places but it’s a great film for capturing a certain time and feel of British cinema. If you’re old enough to remember that time... or if you’re a Pet Shop Boys fan obviously... then you should have a good time with this movie, actually.

Thursday 18 June 2020

Mothra VS Godzilla

Raiders Of The Lost Bukkake

Mothra VS Godzilla
aka Godzilla VS The Thing
aka Mosura tai Gojira

Japan 1964 Directed by Ishirô Honda
Toho/Criterion Collection
Godzilla - The Showa Era Box Set  Blu Ray Zone B

Mothra VS Godzilla is a sequel to both Mothra (which I reviewed here) and King Kong VS Godzilla (which I reviewed here). Directed by original Gojira and Mothra director Ishirô Honda, this is pretty much the last time in the Showa Wave of Godzilla films that he is portrayed totally as a menacing figure. Barring, of course, him being controlled by evil aliens but, yeah, I’ll get to that in a future review.

Another thing it shares with both the original Gojira and Mothra movies, courtesy of this particular director, is the slow and ponderous nature of the plot which once again concentrates on various human characters such as those portrayed by Akira Takarada, Yuriko Hoshi and Hiroshi Koizumi. This way of gradually building to the inclusion of the main monster characters can often work well but, as far as I’m concerned, this really doesn’t help the pacing at all on this one and the characters themselves, even the token human villains out to exploit Mothra’s egg, are all pretty dull and forgetful. The only bright spot is, of course, the pop duo The Peanuts, reprising their miniature roles from the first Mothra movie. Alas, their single costume in this is pretty hideous and it’s hard to take them seriously when they are wearing such silly, furry hats.

So the basic plot set up is this. After a mudslide caused by a typhoon carries Mothra’s egg onto the ocean and out to a beach in Japan, it is ‘bought’ by a philanthropist and his naive but still evil co-investor to design a theme park around it. The Peanuts try to retrieve the egg but are left empty handed. Then Godzilla rises from a beach in much the same way that a future George A. Romero zombie would and starts causing havoc. In fact, for a while there he just seems to be stumbling around and tripping over things, accidentally destroying them, until his aimless path of destruction becomes more focused and intentional.

The humans from Japan manage to enlist the aid of the original Mothra, who is near the end of her life cycle, to try to repel Godzilla. Alas, halfway through the first battle, Mothra finally expires but then the egg hatches and it seems she has given birth to twins. Two twin larvae finally take Godzilla down and then return with The Peanuts to Infant Island where they originated.

This one was very popular in Japan but, I have to say, the pacing really drags it down and the special effects don’t really hold up as well as even some of the earlier movies in the series. Shots of the giant Mothra egg on the beach while people stand around it and watch look terrible and it’s obvious from the inclusion of these shots that the close up scenes of the egg on the beach show the only small portion of the shell that the effects department built to full scale. The cracks on the egg as it hatches look a bit better than last time this happened though, it has to be said.

Some of the battles look okay and although her spawn only ever remain in their larvae state, the original Mothra looks pretty good. There’s also some interesting shot choices in the movie too. For instance, one of the shots of a cityscape has the camera panning along, stopping and then going back to a building it just passed before zooming in on one of the windows to give us the establishing shot of the next interior scene. This is quite bizarre and is almost a foreshadowing of the way modern TV shows use the camera in a kind of reactive mode to ‘find their shot’ as a play for authenticity.

Other things of interest in the movie include a scene where one villain punches the other and his face gets really bloody, before he shoots the other guy. And they don’t skimp on the blood there either... which is strange for a film which many might perceive to be a ‘family, kid-friendly movie’ but this ‘adult’ tone is not the last time this will occur in a Godzilla movie, if memory serves.

That being said, nobody even thinks to ask who or what it was that’s got Mothra in her pregnant state in the first place. Seriously, who has a penis big enough to fertilise Mothra? I didn’t notice Chuck Norris anywhere in the movie so this is a real plot hole.

And talking of penises... that’s exactly what the two Mothra larvae look like in the last ten minutes, when they take on Godzilla. Basically bobbing up and down and spraying Tokyo’s nemesis with white webby stuff which looks pretty much like they are... um.. cumming all over Godzilla’s head and shoulders repeatedly. Yep, I wouldn’t mind betting this is where the Japanese porn staple of bukkake really started, foreshadowing it by around 20 years. Never mind The Big G... this is pretty much The Big GGG (and if you understand that joke then you have no right to come complaining to me about the observation and, if you don’t understand it, don’t Google it around kids or at work and don’t say I didn’t warn you).

Ultimately, this film hasn’t aged well but it does have a nice score by Akira Ifukube, although the main march is absent. It also references certain orchestrations and melodies from Yûji Koseki’s score from Mothra, including The Peanuts doing a new rendition of the famous song. So there’s that. Certainly, Godzilla watchers will need to see this one in order to get all the links between previous and future films but it’s nowhere near the best in the series, for sure. That being said, the rushed production and release of the next one in the series, Ghidorah - The Three Headed Monster, brought out the same year as this one, is a fair bit better, if my memory of it is anything to go by. I guess I’ll be finding out for sure soon enough.

Tuesday 16 June 2020

Doctor Who - The Ark In Space

The Way We Wirrn

Doctor Who - The Ark In Space
UK Air date: January - February 1975 Four Episodes.
BBC Blu Ray Zone 0

The Ark In Space was the second of Tom Baker’s Doctor Who stories to be broadcast, following on from his debut as the character in Robot (reviewed here). Already he seems very comfortable in the role and you can kind of tell from the on-screen chemistry that he really got on well with his two co-stars at the time, the companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen, continuing on, in Robot, from her first series in the role opposite Jon Pertwee) and Harry Sullivan (who joined the two for the previous story, played with great fun by Ian Marter). In fact, Ian Marter also wrote the Target novelisation of the story which was so popular at the time.

The plot is about the TARDIS landing on Space Station Nerva, many centuries ahead of our present time, where the last traces of mankind are in suspended animation and waiting for the Earth to become inhabitable again before recolonising it.

You may perhaps suspect, as do I, that Douglas Adams kind of half cribbed this idea for the ‘Golgafrinchans’ in the sixth episode of the first series of his famous radio show, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy... being as he was somewhat associated with writing for Doctor Who himself on occasion. That and The Bible, of course. However, where the crew of Mr. Adam’s ark were all the incompetents who then accidentally end up populating the planet Earth gazillions of years in our past, the few specimens of humanity already awake in The Ark in Space are reasonably intelligent but, alas, they are stuck in a craft which has been invaded by a race of space bugs called the Wirrn. The arachnid-like creatures have laid eggs which will soon be hatching to eat and absorb the knowledge of the last humans alive, before recolonising Earth with their own kind.

Which, obviously, is a problem for everybody. Well, everybody human, I guess.

The sets are cheap, being as it’s all set in the one Space Station and, as you’ll find out in another of my reviews (later this year) the set will be reused again in this same series, with a story twist which makes excellent use of the budgetary limitations.

The special effects are also cheap, it has to be said, with a still photograph of some stars and a plastic spaceship dangled in front of it to set the scene. Start as you mean to go on, I guess... this is not unusual for this show. The Wirrn creatures are quite a nice design but somewhat too childish and lifeless to produce the desired horror effect (even when I was a seven year old, watching this when it first aired). When the ‘operators’ try to make them walk it’s not far removed from somebody bouncing them up and down on a bit of string, to be honest.

Ditto for the laughable special effects in terms of the part of the story which is somewhat ‘inspired’, I would have to say, from the original serial The Quatermass Experiment (I review the movie remake of that one here). When the captain of the ship is stung by a Wirrn larvae, he starts transforming into one himself. Did I mention the Wirrn larvae is some guy or gal wrapped in a blanket, crawling along and further bundled up in bubble wrap? So I guess, in a way, it makes sense that when the Captain reveals his hand just like Victor Caroon did, more effectively all those years ago, it should also be wrapped in green coloured bubble wrap. And not a snap, crackle or pop to be heard.

And it’s a story which is, perhaps, a little too long at four episodes for the idea (it would have made a nice extended episode for one of the more modern Doctor Who actors, I think) but, the writers do find things for the main protagonists and the small crew of Nerva to do, involving dodging and deactivating the station’s own defence mechanisms, teleport machines, shenanigans with electrical cables and an ‘oxygen crisis’. So it does move along a bit and doesn’t really have time to get dull at all. And it also has the famous scene where Sarah Jane is stuck in a ventilation shaft and the Doctor hurls male chauvinist insults at her to play on her feminist nature, ensuring she’s angry enough at him to squeeze herself through the narrow tunnel to have a go at him. It’s classic Who and one can’t help but smile as the story unfolds.

And, of course, after the Doctor saves the day, we have an unusual ending with the show going right back to the Troughton days as it leaves it on something of a... well not a cliff hanger but a lead in to the next story. Instead of departing via the TARDIS, something is needed from Earth to ensure that Nerva is able to fulfil its purpose... so The Doctor, Sarah and Harry all exit the ship by dematerialising in a teleportation chamber, leaving the TARDIS on ‘the Ark’, to fetch the required implement from Earth. And I remember this first season has some very unusual ways of getting the characters into the settings of each story so... I just need to revisit them again soon as part of this Series 12 Blu Ray box set and give my memory a joggle. If unjoggled memory serves, the next three stories in the series, which take us through to the end of the season, all have returning villains from Doctor Who history. One set of monsters who had only made their debut in the previous series (and who are still going very strong today) would be followed by two very classic monsters in the next couple of stories after that... although one of them would meet Tom Baker’s Doctor only once, not returning again before the character’s next incarnation.

So, there you are... The Ark In Space is a classic story from Tom Baker’s first season and there’s much to be recommended in it. Next stop, the two parter The Sontaran Experiment... which I don’t have many memories of at all, for some reason.

Sunday 14 June 2020

Blood Feast

The Tongue Ones

Blood Feast
USA 1963
Directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis
Arrow Films Blu Ray Zone A/B/C
As part of the Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast Blu Ray/DVD boxed edition.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is very well known to different groups of people for two very different, on the surface, specialties. His later, post-film career saw him as one of the most successful marketers in America. He was the 'go to guy' for consultation about direct-marketing and also wrote some books on the subject. He was as successful in this venture as he was in the latter part of his early film career, which is obviously what readers of this blog are going to be more interested in.

After a varied assortment of jobs and then following a stint in directing advertising films, he turned his hand to directing movies, specifically nudie cuties and films dealing with exploitational aspects of sexuality (I think I have a few of these to watch on an early Vinegar Syndrome release at some point). And then, for the drive-in market in America in the early to late 1960s (and just into the early 1970s), he came up with a then unique angle for his films which nobody had really done before.... ultra violence with the camera lingering on the goriness of the on screen deaths. Films like this one along with Two Thousand Maniacs, Colour Me Blood Red, The Gruesome Twosome, The Gore Gore Girls and a whole host of others were what earned him the name and reputation of being, The Godfather Of Gore. I doubt if they even showed in Great Britain at the time or, if they were, they would have surely have been heavily cut.

And it all started with this one, the now classic Blood Feast, in 1963. In the 1980s, when Britain had the huge 'video nasties' scare aka ‘low life government propaganda outrage’, this was the oldest of the films to be put on the list and banned in this country (for a while anyway). Even when the DVDs were issued at a certain stage in the UK, the films were censored... which is why, although I’ve been hearing about them for years from film fans over the world (Jonathan Ross even devoted an episode of his TV show documentary series The Incredibly Strange Film Show to these movies), I’d never actually seen any of them myself. I try to stay clear of censored art. Also, while I enjoy a bit of violence and gore thrown into my movies from time to time (there are very few movies made which don’t deal with aspects of violence and confrontation in some ways... even romantic comedies), I’m not particularly impressed with goriness just for the sake of it so, I wasn’t sure if he was my cup of tea.

On the other hand, fifty million French men can’t be wrong, as the saying goes so, when Arrow issued a restored and , more importantly, uncut box set collecting many of Mr. Lewis’ films in one place as a dual Blu Ray/DVD edition (and a truly handsome package it is too), I decided enough was enough and, after a year or two of humming and hawing at the price, I finally tracked down what, in the end, I’m convinced was the last copy in London for the normal retail price (thanks, ironically, to the British Film Institute shop)... and have now watched my first film by this director, the one that started it all in terms of any movie having any gory content in its DNA at all. Never mind all those arguments in the late 1960s about the 'shocking' display of violence in movies like Bonnie And Clyde in 1967 and whether they should be allowed in the public view... those detractors would have been aghast if they’d so much as glanced at the kind of product that Herschell Gordon Lewis (HGL) was churning out just four years before, which makes pale by comparison most depictions of on screen violence for a good while.

All that being said, I really wasn’t expecting to be that ‘bowled over’ by my first HGL movie, Blood Feast but, here I am, impressed and, yeah, consider me ‘bowled over’ by the film. It’s bad but it’s definitely in the ‘so bad its good’ camp and it has it’s own unique quality which, when you see just how gory it was on such a cheap budget (and, from what I can tell, it got millions back... a very successful movie, perhaps helped on by HGL’s marketing ploy of giving out Barf Bags to paying customers), makes for a really interesting juxtaposition of flavours.

The film starts off with an opening scene of a girl who goes home, listens to a radio broadcast warning her and the general public about the strange, mutilating killer being on the loose still (the camera stays fixed on the static shot of the radio for quite a while, for some reason), takes off her clothes and has a nice bath. Her bath is disturbed by actor Mal Arnold playing the film's notorious and, surprisingly, solo villain, the Egyptian Goddess worshipping Fuad Ramses. We knew something bad was going to happen because of the slow beating and truly sinister and creepy, drums on the soundtrack. A soundtrack composed, it would seem, by Herschell Gordon Lewis himself (who also gives himself a production and direction title on the credits too). The maniac stabs up the young lady good and, for what would be the first time in commercial cinema history, I believe, the camera lingers on the mutilated corpse of the girl... the empty eye socket juxtaposed with her naked breast rising from the bubble bath as our crazed antagonist plays with her internal organs and then cuts her leg off (we see him cooking this leg in his oven in a much later part of the film.

And it’s a really interesting film because, the acting from everybody, including the lead police inspector protagonist played by William Kerwin, is truly dire. The strange marks and stuff he writes in his police notebook half the time looks crazy and completely fake... a witness will say something and he’ll tick things off randomly on different part of the notebook. The make-up on certain characters, such as Ramses, is hilarious too. Over the top as his eyebrows are enhanced by thick greasepaint (presumably) and everyone looks like they stepped out of the 1950s. When I say the acting is bad, perhaps I mean just too stagy.

Stage and film acting are two very different beasts. I once saw Daryl Hannah play in The Seven Year Itch on stage and she was the least interesting one in it because she was acting for camera, expecting every little gesture to be picked up by the audience when, really, what you need to do is exaggerate things just a little for theatre. Similarly, the acting in Blood Feast looks like its being handled by people who were, at that point in their career, more used to acting for the stage, perhaps... every performance just seems a little bit ‘more’ of what you need rather than seeming in any way natural. Some of the line readings are, frankly, downright hilarious.

Rather than detract from the film, however, this gives it an element of 1950s/60s wholesomeness to it which, may have been lacking to contemporary audiences but, looking back through rose tinted glasses today, injects the film with just the right thing because, when you see some really gory scenes and it’s supported by this kind of ‘Golly, gee’ acting, not to mention some lovely bright coloured sets and costumes, it really makes those cheaply and obviously produced but still very strong graphic sequences (even by today’s standards... I don’t think many film makers would try to get away with this stuff today, even), then it really makes them stand out. And, as the years have gone by it’s quite obvious that these films have had a lasting effect on cinema.

There’s also a smidgeon of me that thinks, looking at the way it was written and performed, that the material really wasn’t being taken that seriously by the actors or the writer/director and... I don’t think Lewis would have minded that. It is funny too and, every now and again, you’ll find the odd joke slipped in. For example, the main headline to a newspaper which says something along the lines of GIRL’S LEGS CUT OFF are joined on the page by a number of smaller articles including such gems as the column title, BEER SIPPING HORSE.

All of these factors... the humour, the comical wringing of Ramses hands, the wholesomeness of the cops, the traumatised male partner of a girl who just had her head caved in and her brains stolen... together with the vivid colours and the stylised, clean looking, budget conscious sets give the hole thing the feel of having jumped right out of a 1950s EC horror comic. Similarly, if you take away the gore, the whole atmosphere is very similar, in my opinion, to what you get in Herk Hervey’s monochrome masterpiece, Carnival Of Souls, made just one year before on a similarly cheap budget. Especially when the beating of those drums on the soundtrack is replaced by a church organ (the whole score of Carnival Of Souls is done on this instrument).

This is the film which features, of course, the infamous ‘tongue ripping’ scene... in which a young lady is, somehow, overpowered by Ramses who then proceeds to rip her tongue from her mouth. Oddly, I found this the least interesting piece of goriness in the movie but the aftermath shot, where something like red jelly is dribbling out of the still living woman’s mouth, is oddly much more disconcerting... or at least a little more effective. It’s like the scene in Tenebrae which, up until not so long ago, was sliced out by the censors in this country. The scene involved a woman’s arm being cut off but it was not so much that as the bloody aftermath of her painting her clinically white walls with the arterial spray which was the interesting part of the shot. In typical, bungling BBFC fashion, they cut the arm chop but left in the much more ostentatious and disturbing aftermath. The tongue ripping scene reminded me of this more than anything else in that it’s the post violent act which is the more unsettling aspect of this kind of physical horror.

Another thing I love about this movie is the cobbled together, simplicity of the plot. The police can’t find a motive for the killer but Mr. Ramses, the owner and sole proprietor of a local delicatessen, has promised one of his ladies a special recreation of an Egyptian feast. Unknown to her is that this feast is made of different  body parts collected  from various female victims (most of whom are on his address list for ordering a copy of his book, Ancient Weird Religious Rites) and also the head of, in this case, the daughter of the lady who has asked for something unusual for her daughter’s party. However, coincidentally, the young lady in question goes to a lecture on Ancient Egyptian Cults which pretty much spells out what Mr. Ramses is doing in this film. Also in attendance is the main police inspector character from earlier, who also has an interest in Egyptology and, by a further strange coincidence, is invited to the party because he also happens to be dating the young lady in question.

There’s are some good and inventive things in the movie. Such as a close up of the gore soaked head of the girl on the beach transitioning into a shot of a red police siren/light on top of a cop car. Mostly though, it’s the charming nature of the sheer and overt cheapness of the production which I’m sure lots of people find appealing in this movie. For instance, look the wrong way and you might see the shadows of the film crew lurking in the corners of a frame. Or lets talk about the climactic foot chase where Ramses ends up accidentally being crushed to death in a trash compactor in a lorry... a police car, which presumably Lewis only had for a day maybe, pulls in and soon the two police inspectors plus two uniformed cops start chasing Ramses. That’s the last we see of the police car and, halfway through the chase, the cops in uniform completely disappear too. It’s no good the other actors pretending they’re there and talking to them off of shot because, you know, they were completely absent in the finale of the chase.

However, even moments like this cannot detract from the awesome potpourri of ingredients which come together to make what was to me, a unique viewing experience. I’m really looking forward to seeing some of the other notorious classics in this set at some point. Arrow have done their usual amazing job with the transfers and the packaging... boxed in a giant slipcase as two books filled with the discs and a silly but much appreciated Herschell Gordon Lewis annual, just like the ones kids would get of their favourite TV shows at Christmas and with similarly silly games and activities based on these gory, sleazy movies within the set. There’s even, if you really want to indulge in your own act of stupid vandalism (which seems to be all the rage in the streets of Britain and America at the moment), a cut-out cardboard mask of the director on the back of the gorgeous looking slipcase.

As for Blood Feast, what can I say? I didn’t expect to be taking this stance but it’s highly recommended by me if you like the idea of a film with the same kind of atmosphere as Carnival Of Souls or Night Of The Living Dead but with the goriness levels ratcheted up to 11. Definitely a slice of cinematic cake that I’ve been missing out on over the years, partly due to the formerly tyrannical censorship imposed on this man’s movies in my home country. Thankfully this Arrow set is uncut and, well, it really is quite special. Grab a copy if you can.

Thursday 11 June 2020

The Vampire Doll

Thirst Blood

The Vampire Doll
aka Yûrei yashiki no kyôfu
aka Legacy Of Dracula

Japan 1970 Directed by Michio Yamamoto
TohoArrow Films Blu Ray Zone B

The Vampire Doll (aka Legacy Of Dracula) is the first of a loose trilogy of films in the same spirit, perhaps, that the Clint Eastwood Dollars trilogy actually share no common characters but go for a common atmosphere and deal with similar subjects. At least that’s my understanding of things as I’ve never, until this moment, seen any of these particular vampire movies before... Arrow’s Blu Ray set from a couple of years ago is definitely the way to go with these, though, if you want to see uncut versions with a decent transfer... unless you happen to live in Japan, of course. I would guess.

The other two films following on from this, in quick succession by the same director, which form what is now being marketed as The Bloodthirsty Trilogy, are called Lake Of Dracula and Evil Of Dracula but it’s quite apparent from watching this one and hearing Kim Newman describing the other two in a nice interview on the first disc of this trilogy set by Arrow, is that none of these films have anything to do with Dracula. I was surely being naive thinking I was buying Japanese Dracula movies but at least they are, kinda, Japanese vampire movies so I’ll settle for that. Even though the vampiric properties of the titular ‘vampire doll’ in this first film are only tentative in that respect.

Despite the collective name for the trilogy, it has to be said that this film barely scrapes by in the ‘bloodthirsty’ department apart from one scene of typically Japanese over-the-top arterial spray in the film’s final scene, as one of the characters gets their jugular sliced with a sharp knife. Instead, the film goes for a shot of good old, quite western style gothic atmosphere, the likes of which wouldn’t have looked out of place in an old Roger Corman AIP movie or, indeed, a Hammer Horror film of the time. It certainly seems to share a more sedate pacing and softly, softly approach to the horror of the subject matter in its genetic make-up.

The film opens with a particularly atmospheric scene as the person who seems to be set up to be the main hero of the piece is driven in a taxi through a heavy thunderstorm at night, talking to the driver as it’s established he’s been away and is coming to visit his lover Yûko (played by Yukiko Kobayashi from Destroy All Monsters) at what is, it turns out, a sinister mansion she shares with her parents. Alas, after he arrives there and is attacked by the man-servant Genzô, the girl’s mother breaks it to him that Yûko died a couple of weeks earlier in a car crash. He stays the night but, during his nocturnal investigations around the grounds of the house, he meets the reanimated corpse of Yûko who pounces on him.

Cut to his sister, Keiko, waking from a nightmare of, presumably, something similar to what we have just seen play out. She is played here by Kayo Matsuo who was in a fair few of Seijun Suzuki’s movies, not to mention entries in the Sleepy Eyes Of Death and Lone Wolf And Cub films... and TV versions of Zatoichi and The Water Margin. She and her ‘suitor’ Hiroshi are set up as the main protagonists who are investigating the disappearance of Keiko’s brother and, by default, Yûko’s death. Akira Nakao plays Hiroshi who was, himself, in one of the Zatoichi TV episodes, not to mention numerous of the ‘post Showa era’ Godzilla films.

When they arrive at the same sinister building that we saw Keiko’s brother go to at the start of the picture, they also arrange, by a deceit, to stay the night... where various spooky things happen. The next day they investigate further in a local town before both returning independently to the house and getting themselves into more trouble. The vampire line which the film has been taking kind of strays back into Japanese ghost story territory at this point and, though the term vampire is used, it’s clear that the undead and vicious body of Yûko has merely been hypnotised to rise after her death and just wants to kill people, for the most part. Oh ,well, that’s alright then? The film’s links to the vampirism suggested by the title is very tenuous if you ask me.

However, what the film has going for it far outweighs the silliness of the plot line and so this one is well worth a watch for horror lovers...

For a start, it looks incredibly good. Not just in terms of the transfer by Arrow but in terms of the wonderful shot compositions by the director. He does tend to split shots up into sections and use his actors by having them placed inside those lines and plains. In the interior shots, this is fairly easy and the compositions are, for the most part, fairly centred and, quite often, split into thirds. However, he also has some great splits and patterns on exterior shots too.

For instance, there’s a shot of the head and shoulders of Keiko and Hiroshi facing camera and we see, in the distance, a small figure walking behind them. When he reaches the middle point of the screen in the area made by the split where their upper bodies create a natural gap, he stops and we see it is Genzô, perfectly framed in his own section between the two of them. Or sometimes, the director will split the exterior screen into a one third and two thirds shot... as he does with the vertical line of Yûko’s grave marker going from the bottom to top of the screen with Keiko framed in the left third and Hiroshi in the larger area to the right of shot. As I said... it’s a good looking film.

Another thing he does is occasionally use what I will describe as slightly angled, almost but not quite birds eye views of the characters in certain moments... to give you a full overview of the placement of a person within the environment.

There’s also an amazing visual moment in the early stages of the picture where a flashback occurs and it is seen with what I can only say film stock which has either been filtered or treated so it looks like a blue/grey graduated effect. Eerily done and I don’t remember quite seeing this particular treatment done on film before. It’s quite astonishing and I’ll have to see if he does it in either of the next two movies in this ‘trilogy’, over the next week or two.

Overall, then, the atmosphere of ‘something not quite right’ in the film is palpable and interesting and it’s re-enforced by a quite baroque, minimally spotted harpsichord style score by composer Riichirô Manabe, who composed the music for one of my favourite kaiju eigas, Godzilla VS Hedorah. The score for The Bloodthirsty Trilogy is (or at least was) available on a CD from Japan and I can thoroughly recommend this one.

So yeah, not much more I want to say about The Vampire Doll... nice acting, some gorgeous mise en scène, fantastic music, beautifully chill atmosphere to counter the ridiculous story development and a gory demise for one of the film’s human villains in the final scene. A scene which, incidentally, carries on in silence as the credits roll on a bleak shot of the film’s survivors in much the way a late 1960s/early 1970s Hammer movie would linger on a real downer of an ending. Not quite what I was expecting from the film but I’m certainly looking forward to watching the other two in this ‘unofficial sequence’ very soon.

Tuesday 9 June 2020

Scala Cinema 1978-1993

Scala’d Lady

Scala Cinema 1978-1993
Slipcase Edition
Written by Jane Giles
FAB Press ISBN: 978-1903254981

I have a confession to make. Although I remember going into the lobby/box office area at least once to check it out back in the day, I don’t think (I may be wrong) that I ever saw an actual film at the famous Scala Cinema near King’s Cross (now, sadly, deceased). That being said, I jumped at the chance to back this Scala Cinema 1978-1993 book on Kickstarter, reprinting all of those distinctive, rough and ready movie timetable posters because of what the Scala meant to me at the time and for the atmosphere it was bound to capture.

You see, I was a college student in London from around the mid 1980s to very early 1990s, first on a general Art and Design Diploma in the Clerkenwell area and then onto my Graphic Design Degree at the London College Of Printing, Elephant And Castle. So I used to pick up those ‘what’s on’ posters all the time and marvel at the world of films which I loved, often showing on these things. I was big on what has come to be known as ‘world cinema’ at the time and the programmers at the Scala would often schedule these in, alongside movies I’d often never heard of at that tender age. I’m sure I wasn’t the only student who used to grab these and then use them to decorate my cubicle at college, both signalling my interest in film to other kids while putting up free advertising for the cinema. These colourful and chaotically designed posters were beautiful things in their own way and, I wish I’d kept more of them. I may have one or two in the loft somewhere but... that’s about it.

Jane Giles, who put this book together and wrote the accompanying text for each and every month of the Scala’s total schedule, was one of the programmers there for a while. She was also, near the end, the one prosecuted when the council finally cottoned on to one of the ‘illegal’ screenings of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. I guess the younger generation of film enthusiasts don’t realise how good they have it these days. A Clockwork Orange was banned for public consumption until after Kubrick’s death and the only way you could really see it back in the day, asides from the odd cheeky screening at the Scala, was to hop on a train to Camden Town and, more often than not, you would find a guy selling bootleg VHS copies of the film for a tenner a shot (that’s how I first saw it).

But getting back to Jane Giles and her beautiful book...

If it was just the wonderful, full colour reproductions of the fronts and smaller reprints of the backs of the Scala programmes, then the book would be cheap at half price. It’s an attractive tome with a slip case showing a lovely black and white shot of the cinema on one side and a new Graham Humphries poster style artwork commemorating the cinema on the back. The book itself is a monster and has attractive black covers with a gold foil blocked Scala logo on the front and, on the back, a gold blocked portrait of one of the Scala cats (I don’t know which one).  However, it’s not just about the posters and packing, as I soon found out when starting to read it.

It turns out that, not only is Jane Giles a thorough researcher, she’s also a highly entertaining and informative writer and what I thought was going to be the lesser part of the book, her quite voluminous text is actually, on reflection, at least as valuable (possibly more so) than the souvenir and nostalgia rush of the programmes themselves.

The book starts off with a big introduction section where she talks about a lot of things which will spark memories for Londoners. So, for instance, the importance of Time Out magazine to people in the days long before the internet. She also goes through the whole history of the area since the 18th Century and talks about the various buildings and performances in those venues. Additionally, due to its importance to this kind of cinema programming, she talks a bit about The Other Cinema, which I used to go to when it was renamed as the Metro on Rupert Street before... in its final years... it reverted back to being called The Other Cinema again. Saw a lot of good movies there.

And, of course, she goes heavily into the conditions that the cats/staff laboured under and, once the intro is finished, we are into squidzillions of pages of posters set out in double page spreads. On the right hand page is a full colour reproduction of the original poster for a specific month... not quite as large as the originals if memory serves but nevertheless a treat. The left hand page will have a smaller reproduction of the back of the poster, a few stills from films showing that month (or various other ‘items of interest’) and... some accompanying text from Jane.

Which is half of what this book is all about, as far as I’m concerned. She starts off each page with an account... or flavour... of just what was showing that month and this is sometimes accompanied by an explanation of why film x or y might have been included in the programme. She also tells you just what else politically or financially was happening at the cinema that month, makes notes on famous guests and live performances etc and also, and this really brought back the time period for me, tells you what other important events were going on in the UK or the rest of the world in that month. So yeah, Hillsborough disaster, Lockerbie bombing, Hungerford massacre, Steel worker strikes, UFOs in Rendelsham Forest, Thatcherism... it’s all here along with the terrible fire which claimed so many lives at King’s Cross station. It seems one of the late shift cashiers had a lucky escape and I remember a lot of my ‘class mates’ did as well that night. I recall we’d all been staying late to do some life drawing and so we were all travelling home when the fire broke out. I was alright because I was travelling from Farringdon back into Liverpool Street but many of my friends went the other way and I remember stories of lucky escapes the next day. It was a close one but... not for a lot of people that night.

It’s all good stuff and, despite the depressing ponderings of some of those world changing events mentioned above, the book is also full of fun and really captures both the atmosphere of the time (living in London in that period) and, presumably, the heady atmosphere of attending a screening there (not that I’d know that bit, more’s the pity). And some of these double bills, triple bills and all nighters were unbelievably quirky and often didn’t follow any logic... at least that’s the way it seemed to me back then. This was all a part of the cinema’s charm of course. It was certainly postmodern if nothing else... but it was also everything else too.

For instance, you could see a Pigs And Robots Revolt double bill of Blade Runner and Razorback. Or a double bill which somehow connected the 1966 Batman movie with Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. And where else could you watch an all nighter on 22nd March 1980 which would include movies like She Demons and Attack Of The Crab Monsters (one of my favourites, reviewed here) and then follow it up the next day with a screening of Kurosawa’s masterful Dersu Uzala before returning on the Monday for a triple bill of three of The Marx Brother’s early Paramount treasures? Nowhere is where, except maybe for the Everyman at Hampstead but, that’s a different story and quite a different atmosphere, to be sure.

It’s all good stuff and the, actually massive, textual contribution which is the real meat of the book elevates this tome far above and beyond being just another ‘movie book’ for sure. For me, this one is ‘right up there’ with my other favourite and most precious book about an aspect of the cinema, the equally cumbersome to hold and read hardback edition of Tim Lucas’ Mario Bava study, All The Colours Of The Dark. Scala Cinema 1978 - 1993 is that good, a true treasure of a book on movies (and it has my name listed in the back as a financial contributor, to boot... yay, me!). If you’ve been sitting on the fence about purchasing the now dying breed that is the first (and probably only) print run of this book then you really should get on it. It perfectly captures a time and place that many will remember and I certainly wouldn’t want to forget in a hurry. A rich, visual fusion of celluloid themed imagery and some very informative and sometimes even quite moving text. Snap this beauty up while the snapping’s good... I doubt you’ll ever regret it.

You can buy the book from the Fab Press website here www.fabpress.com and from all good book retailers.

Sunday 7 June 2020

Dracula’s Daughter

Gorier Holden’s
Girl On Girl Suction

Dracula’s Daughter
USA 1936 Directed by Lambert Hillyer
Universal  Blu Ray Zone B

Directed by the man who would go on to direct the first theatrical Batman serial seven years later, Dracula’s Daughter is one of those charming oddities which almost but, doesn’t quite, make sense when you inject it into the overall franchise. The next of Universal’s big ‘monster movies’ after Werewolf Of London (reviewed here), the film takes place literally seconds/minutes after the events of Dracula, with the one recurring character from that film returning... kind of. Once again, Edward Van Sloan does a wonderful job as Professor Van Helsing but, for some strange reason, his name has been changed slightly to Von Helsing for this one.

The film was originally supposed to have been based on the, then unpublished, Dracula short story (aka missing chapter) Dracula’s Guest by Stoker but I think legal issues surrounded it although, conveniently, Dracula had been accidentally left in the public domain and it was back to John L Balderston (among others) to pen a totally new, 'Dracula inspired' adventure... despite the screen credit that it’s based on a work by Bram Stoker.

So we start off quite bravely and unusually, I think, with Van Helsing (wearing a hat I’m sure he isn’t wearing in the prior film) being arrested by two policemen for the ‘murder’ he happily admits to, as they find him standing over Dracula’s corpse. They promptly take the corpse, which really is a poor waxwork’s dummy of Bela Lugosi in the few shots where you can catch a glimpse of the features, to the local lock up and there then ensues a truly unfunny and protracted scene of ‘comedy policemen’ shenanigans before Dracula’s corpse is stolen by none other than the title character, played by a young Gloria Holden.

Meanwhile, Van... sorry... Von Helsing enlists the aid of his former student, the main heroic lead psychiatrist, played by Otto Kruger, to help keep him from the gallows. Kruger looks quite a bit old for the part, honestly... but he’s pretty good in the role and the script between him and his secretary, played by Marguerite Churchill, is excellent. It’s as though the two stepped right out of a 1930s screwball comedy and the chemistry and dialogue is wonderful in the scenes they share together.

Actually there are quite a few good lines in this film, such as Gloria Holden’s lovely parody of Shakespeare... “There are more things in heaven and earth then ever dreamed of in your... psychiatry”. It’s an interesting story too as it follows Gloria Holden’s Countess Marya Zaleska... a reluctant vampire who seeks, coincidentally from the same psychiatrist, a cure for her vampirism. She doesn’t tell him why she keeps seeking him out but she wants to stop having to bite up some young man or woman each night to keep herself alive. She seems to be a strangely reluctant vampire and even goes to the trouble of burning her father’s staked body so he can never rise again (well, I guess that put a stop on anymore films being made about Dracula then, right?). She also seems to have a strange relationship with her truly sinister and, perhaps, somewhat out of place assistant Sandor, played by Irving Pichel.

The film soon becomes a straight ‘solve the murders and then chase the vampire back to Transylvania’ kind of movie by the last reel but there are things touched on such as the suggestion of an idea, at least at the start of the film, that the term ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ could metaphorically mean any young lady who Dracula has bitten and turned into a vampire. Alas, by the last act she has definitely confirmed she is the true heir to Dracula’s castle which is, perhaps, a little less interesting.

The film also features one of the earlier lesbian/bisexual seductions on screen as the countess, an artist, asks a ‘model’ played by Nan Grey to pose for her but can't help but give in to the blood lust which takes her and ends up vamping her up and, ultimately, providing the good guys with a clue as to her whereabouts. The scene doesn’t really pull any punches because the subtext of the thing is pretty overt even now and would have been a lot more stronger on its release in 1936... indeed, while some reviewers either missed it completely or turned a blind eye, others were more condemning in their reading of the scene as it plays out (it was very tightly controlled/censored before it was even shot, too).

The writers have gone out of their way to put in a lot of references to the 1931 Dracula, in ways you wouldn’t expect... especially as a lot of the references come quite late in the picture when the Countess is back at Dracula’s castle. For instance, the set at the start where Edward Van Sloane is recreating his final scenes from Dracula is reminiscent of the original (indeed, lovers of Dracula and Frankenstein will also recognise the hospital set in the film). There are also references to Borgo Pass in Transylvania and some ‘bit part’ actors you may remember from the first film... not to mention that same damned spider web across the entrance to the stairway when Otto Kruger finally arrives at Castle Dracula. One of my favourite references is when, in a party scene in the earlier part of the movie, Holden slips into conversation, in a completely different way to how Lugosi said it, the line... “I never drink... wine.” In that party scene, by the way, you may spot a young Hedda Hopper, who would start up her famous ‘Hollywood star career-killing’ gossip column in the same year.

Also, remember that time when I discovered (young thing that I am), on reading and reviewing the single issue Gold Key Doc Savage comic (review here), that Croydon used to have an airport back then? Well the same airport is referenced here, when the main protagonist takes a plane from Croydon to Transylvania.

And then we have the score... composed, uncredited, by Heinz Roemheld, who did such a good job on Werewolf Of London. Alas, he doesn’t do that great a job here during the comedy sections of the film... the way too ‘on the nose’ and ‘funny music hitting all the action and comments’ moments really don’t work that well here. That being said there’s a nice moment where Gloria Holden is playing the piano, heavily augmented by the orchestra somehow and, as she finds the music she is playing is getting more dark and sinister while Sandor fills her head with malevolent thoughts, she jumps up and shouts “Stop! Stop! Stop!” Well, not only the piano but all the orchestral augmentation stops too, like a bizarre, metatextual musical joke... so that was nice and, perhaps, a little unexpected.

That being said, I loved Roemheld’s score for the montage scene following the chief of police ordering a dragnet be thrown around London... because it’s the same music used for many of the fighting and similar montage scenes in the first of the three Flash Gordon serials (and possibly the two sequels too) released the month before. I’m not sure which of these two Roemheld actually wrote it for though... one was needle dropped (or possibly re-recorded in those days) into the other.

Looking at the film again now, I would say that Gloria Holden’s performance seems, at times, just a little over the top to me and perhaps a bit wooden but it depends what she... and her director... were going for. I could easily say it’s a highly stylised performance done to deliberately invoke a kind of off-kilter strangeness in the character but, either way, it’s certainly one people remember her by, I suspect.

Not much else to say here other than, with the exception of the first Mummy movie, out of all the Universal monster films it’s the Dracula franchise which is the most troubled. It doesn’t, past this one sequel, really hold up as a continuing franchise at all and has new starts and jumps in logic when Dracula reappears (and arguably doesn’t in one case, depending on your view of Son Of Dracula) over the following films... as you’ll see when I continue to review them as I slowly work my way through the Universal Horror franchises over the coming year. Dracula’s Daughter, though, is certainly a fun film and one I’m sure I’ll watch a fair few times more over the coming years.